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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Compost: Feed Your Veggies and They’ll Feed You

Spring 2013

Spring 2013

One of the best ways to bring edibles to life is to work nearly dead material into the soil.

Indeed, decomposing matter, in the form of compost, is truly a wonder product. It adds nutrients, activates beneficial soil microorganisms, improves tilth and drainage, and boosts the vitality of your crops.

What’s more, you can make your own.

Getting Started

A simple setup consists of one or two bins measuring 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 3 feet tall. Store-bought kits are typically brown or black recycled plastic. Or you can build your own from four posts, enough broad slats or chicken wire to enclose the sides and a tarp to cover the top. Slits between the slats should be wide enough for air flow, but narrow enough to keep out rodents and inquisitive pets.

Where to site your bins is open to debate. Our two “cook” faster in the sun, although shade doesn’t bring the process to a screeching halt. Convenience is probably more important, as is a nearby faucet. You’ll need to water your pile regularly to keep the decomposition going.


The beauty of home-made compost is that the ingredients should already be on hand.

Indoors, collect fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and leftover grains, including stale bread, rice and pasta. Do not use meat, fat or dairy products. Home compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill pathogens that can contaminate the batch.

Outdoors, gather leaves, lawn clippings, yard trimmings and leftover potting soil. Don’t compost weeds bearing seeds or any potentially diseased material, such as spent tomato plants. Toss those into your green waste: commercial composters generate enough heat to kill contaminants.

You can also collect kelp. Harvesting seaweed in the water requires a sport fishing license and is limited to 10 pounds per day. But any that’s washed up on the sand is fair game. Just don’t do so right after a storm, when upstream pollutants may have washed into the shore water.

Whatever the material, chop, cut or break it into pieces an inch thick or smaller, to hasten decomposition. Throw a three-inch limb onto the pile and it may take years to break down.

The Mix

An ideal mix is three parts brown (carbon) to two parts green (nitrogen).

Brown waste is literally brown or tan, such as dried leaves, twigs and stale bread. Green waste includes fresh leaves, lawn clippings and produce scraps.

You’ll make the quickest compost by filling the entire bin at once. Layer the materials: a few inches of green, followed by a few inches of brown, and so on. Wet each layer as you go. Moist — but not sopping wet — piles decompose faster than those that are bone dry.

Cover the pile. It should begin to kick off heat within a few days, indicating microbes at work. If not, mix in more green material. Or if the pile smells like ammonia or any grass clippings appear slimy, mix in some carbon instead.

Dampen and turn your pile once a week. The components should start to break down in several months, then turn rich brown. Once the mix smells fresh and crumbles through your fingers, it’s ready to go into the garden. Sift out any larger chunks that haven’t decomposed and save them for your next batch.

An Alternative

Adding all the ingredients at once doesn’t account for ongoing contributions.

That’s why a second bin is handy. I save food scraps in a tight-fitting container on my kitchen counter, then add them to my first bin once a week, along with yard trimmings. Every few weeks, I water the pile and turn it. There’s little heat, but the material does ever so slowly degrade.

When the contents finally reach the top, I dig out a few shovelfuls of the most decomposed material, spread it on the empty bottom of bin #2, then begin my bit-by-bit process again. In the meantime, I occasionally water and turn bin #1. The compost is usually ready in 6 months to a year, which conveniently is just about the time that bin #2 is full.

Worm Composting

This is for folks who generate some kitchen waste, but little yard waste. The worms thrive on table scraps and produce worm castings — worm poop — which are a surprisingly wonderful soil amendment.

You’ll need a worm bin, special red worms that thrive in close quarters and a spot where the temperature stays between 55 and 75 degrees. Provide nesting material, such as leaf mold, shredded newsprint and a few handfuls of soil. Add scraps slowly at the outset, to give the worms time to build up their numbers. As with outdoor bins, avoid meat, bones or dairy products.

This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Growing Grapes

Spring 2013

Spring 2013

Whether destined for wine or eaten straight off the vine, grapes are a natural for Santa Barbara County gardens.

There’s plenty of precedent.

Both wine grapes and table grapes have been cultivated for thousands of years in other Mediterranean climates. In California, Franciscans planted grapes at the missions that Father Serra established in the late 1700s.

Today, you might be inspired by the orderly rows of wine grapes marching across local hillsides. You may crave crisp, sweet grapes, plucked fresh from the garden, or a shade-covered arbor.

Whatever your desires, It’s important to match our coastal conditions with the dozens of grape varieties available.

By Way of Background

Simply put, grapes are berries produced on deciduous, woody vines. The two species common for consumption are European grapes (Vitis vinifera) and American grapes (Vitis labrusca). A third group, American hybrids, are crosses between the two.

European varieties are the most widespread wine, table and raisin grapes grown in California. But they require hot summer nights and a long growing season, and are prone to powdery mildew, a fungal disease that can distort and damage the fruit. Afflicted vines are to be dusted with sulfur every two weeks from spring until harvest.

American varieties are favored for table grapes, raisins, jelly and jam. They are better suited to our coastal climate as they bear well during shorter seasons and cooler temperatures, and are not as susceptible to mildew.

It’s important to note that while daytime highs in our inland valleys and canyons may match temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley — where Thompson Seedless grapes reign supreme — our nights are considerably cooler. Those night-time temperatures are why cool-blooded Americans are a good match.

American hybrids can be more easy-going than the Europeans, too. Some bear less disease-prone wine grapes; others produce flavorful table grapes.

In addition, our native California wild grape (Vitis californica) bears tiny fruit that’s edible, but more likely to provide sustenance to birds than humans. Roger’s Red is an especially beautiful selection that creates summertime shade and reliably turns bright red in fall.

What to Grow

Wine grapes are generally small and bear seeds, while their thick skins contribute to the aroma of wine. Table grapes are larger, often seedless and have thin skins.

Unless you’re determined to replicate a vineyard planting and willing to tackle the difficulties of cultivating wine grapes, table grapes are an easier bet.

American and American hybrids for the Central Coast include dark purple Blueberry, Concord and Mars; red Canadice, Catawba, Suffolk and Vanessa; green Himrod, Interlaken and Niagara; and yellow Golden Muscat.

You may find success with a few European table grapes that prefer cooler temperatures, such as Black Monukka, a seedless purplish-black; and two greens, Muscat of Alexandria and Perlette. Avoid heat-loving Thompson seedless unless you value its super-sized leaves, which are ideal for Middle Eastern dishes that require stuffing grape leaves.

Planting Time

All grapes need fast drainage and some summer heat.

Choose a sunny spot with the most gritty, sandy, minerally soil possible. It doesn’t have to be particularly fertile: you can amend and mulch with compost to boost nutrients.

If yours is thick, adobe soil, plant your vines in a raised bed or on tall, broad mounds or a steep slope. Otherwise, your vines may thrive for the first few years, then slowly decline as the heavy soil inevitably swallows them up. Even in the best draining soil, plant your vines a few inches high to allow for settling.

Also provide support. Space your vines at least 8 feet apart, then train them on a few strands of galvanized wire strung between freestanding posts; on a broad, sturdy trellis; or up the posts of a pergola or arbor. Install the stakes at planting time. Although it will take several years for your vines to be completely up and growing, driving a stake into the ground later on could damage the roots.

Ongoing Care

It may take up to five years for your first harvest.

During the first summer, water your vines every week and loosely tie up any branches that flop on the ground.

Just before your vines break dormancy the following spring, start pruning to create the scaffolding branches that push out the smooth, year-old wood that bears clusters of fruit.

Correct pruning is key. In local vineyards, balancing foliage and fruit is an art, developed over years of practice by vintners to create world-class wines.

In the home garden, pruning presents a mind-blowing number of options. It’s a tedious, multi-year process and varies based on whether you’re using posts and wires, or covering a fence or arbor. Some vines require pruning canes; others require pruning spurs.

Detailing each specific technique would be mind-numbingly boring unless you’re out there wielding pruners at this particular moment. Instead, arm yourself with a good pruning book or directions from the internet. An excellent place to start is UC Cooperative Extension’s California Master Gardener Handbook or website,


Grapes turn color well before they’re ripe, and once picked, they don’t continue to ripen. So pick a few to check their flavor before harvesting full clusters.

Also don’t worry if your grapes aren’t as plump as those at the supermarket. Many commercial growers spray growth hormones to expand the fruits’ cells. That changes the appearance, but not the sugars. Your grapes may be smaller, but they’ll be just as delectable — if not more — because you’ll be able to harvest them at their absolute peak of freshness.

This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

National Public Gardens Day: Go Play!


Casa del Herrero

Got spring fever? Itchy feet? How about playing hooky and getting out to visit a community garden?

This Friday, May 11, is National Public Gardens Day.

The fourth annual event, each year set for the Friday before Mother’s Day, is a “national day of celebration that invites communities to explore the beauty of their local green spaces while raising awareness of the important role public gardens play in promoting conservation, education and environmental preservation,” according to organizers.

But cut to the chase. Locally, a host of public and nonprofit gardens that ordinarily charge admission are throwing open their doors to visitors or reducing their rates.

Where to Go

Dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) spills over a trail at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

In Santa Barbara, you can visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for free on Friday by clicking on this link and printing the coupon. The botanic garden is one of the nation’s oldest, and focuses exclusively on native plants.

Casa del Herrero is discounting its docent-led tours in May and June by 20%. Call 805/565-5653 for reservations. The 1925 Montecito estate, designed by George Washington Smith, is a National Historic Landmark. The garden is a rare, remaining example of the elaborate estate gardens that were designed during what historians call the Golden Age of American Gardens, 1895 – 1940.

Pacific Coast iris at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Lotusland is offering a 20% discount on tours on May 16 and 17. Call 805 969-9990 for reservations. The 37-acre botanical estate garden showcases Madam Ganna Walska’s extravagant ideas of outdoor beauty, lavishly illustrated by subtropical and tropical plants from around the world.

The Huerta Garden at the Old Mission Santa Barbara is cutting its admission price on May 12 and May 19. Call 805 682-4713, x 166 for reservations. As part of the California mission system, the garden has a strong historical bent. It features plants introduced to California during the Mission Era, 1769 – 1836, along with many California native plants.

Completely Free

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), sage (Salvia) and California lilac (Ceanothus) at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Master Gardeners of Santa Barbara County are leading free tours at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. at the following locations: Mission Historical Park and the A.C. Postel Rose Garden, Los Olivos and Laguna Streets; Alice Keck Memorial Gardens, 1500 Santa Barbara Street; and Chase Palm Park, 323 E. Cabrillo Street. You can also pick up tickets for free rides on the 1917 Allan Herschell Carousel at Chase Palm Park at the Carrillo Recreation Center, 100 E. Carrillo Street.

In addition, courthouse docents will lead tours of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens, Anapamu and Anacapa Streets. And the Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, will be offering a Horticultural Highlights Tour, free with paid zoo admission.

Further Afield

Another look at Casa del Herrero.

A dozen other public gardens in California, including the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, are participating in Friday’s events.

Across the nation, more than 150 botanical gardens, arboretums and preserves are offering freebies. Visit for more information.

So call in sick with a case of spring fever, and enjoy!

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Celebrate Earth Day Every Day


If you don't already, learn to appreciate gopher snakes.

Earth Day festivities are set for this week throughout the county and the country.

But you can celebrate the occasion year-round in the garden by following a few simple techniques.

The following ideas are easy on the natural world. Some require a little effort. Others might be considered downright lazy.

What they all share is the goal of conserving resources while creating a healthy environment for your plants and the creatures that inhabit your garden.

You can call it ecological, environmental, sustainable or green gardening. But by whatever measure, also please call it common sense.

Fix Those Drips

Stop that drip!

Sooner or later, it seems that most outdoor faucets leak. Aside from the wasted water, a mucky wet spot right up against your house is not good.

Depending on your skills, you can fix the leak yourself or call a plumber.

If the faucet handle spurts only when you turn on the water, the lazy way out is to place a bucket beneath and use the water to irrigate potted plants.

Sometimes it’s not the faucet, but the hose connector. Rather than tossing the hose, replace the connector.

If repairs aren’t in the offing, plant a bog plant under the faucet so that the leak isn’t a complete waste.

Depending on the size of the seep, pretty California native perennials to consider include western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea), scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis) and Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata).


Taller pop-up sprinklers water this swath of California meadow sedge (Carex praegracilis).

Watering by hand, hauling hoses and moving portable lawn sprinklers gets old quickly. It’s tedious, inefficient and has the potential to waste an incredible amount of water.

Instead, install drip irrigation in your flower beds and around shrubs and trees; and pop-up sprinklers for your ground covers and lawn.

Then install an irrigation controller to automate the system. If you have water-conserving plants that need water every two to three weeks, make sure your timer can accommodate that long of an interval. Some inexpensive controllers only allow intervals of up to a week.

Just because you have a controller doesn’t mean you can ignore it. For instance, if May and June are damp and foggy, your plants won’t need much water. But if clear, windy days persist, they’ll want more.

Regardless of whether you automate or stay manual, water early in the morning, before the wind kicks up. This minimizes evaporation, gives your plants a fresh start and helps reduce fungal diseases that can take hold if the foliage is wet at night.

Fight Bugs Naturally

They may foul your eaves, but cliff swallows eat mosquitoes, too.

Avoid using bug spray as your first line of defense.

If aphids are a problem, hose them off with a blast from your hose. Or release lady bugs or green lacewings to gobble them up. If aphids are infiltrating your late-season broccoli, plant green onions nearby.

Marigolds, calendulas and nasturtiums are also excellent companions. In the vegetable garden, they’ll help to deter bean beetles, cabbage pests, nematodes, tomato hornworms, asparagus beetles and squash bugs.

If giant white fly is a problem, try mulching with cocoa hulls and spraying the undersides of the affected plants with horticultural oil or a mild dilution of powdered dish soap.

Cliff swallows will make a mess as they build their mud nests in your eaves. But they eat mosquitoes by the thousands.

Gopher snakes may appear alarming. But leave them alone. They’ll help keep underground rodents from tearing up your garden. And unlike gopher gas and other poisons, they won’t hurt the environment.

Start a Compost Bin

Yum! Kitchen scraps and a few rose leaves destined for my compost pile.

Compost does wonderful things in the garden. It provides nutrients in an easily accessible form to plants and promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

You can buy bags of compost or create your own.

Three things go into my compost bins: kitchen scraps, yard waste and leftover potting soil.

Kitchen scraps are fruit and vegetable waste — apple cores, onion peels, celery stalks, leafy greens and the like. Don’t use meat and dairy scraps. They’ll go rancid. I collect the scraps in a stainless pot with a tight-fitting lid, then mix the contents into my outdoor compost bins once or twice a week.

Yard waste is a combination of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) material. The green is mostly grass clippings, while the brown is crumpled leaves, plus debris swept off the driveway and patio.

I occasionally add water, which seems to help speed the decomposition. Be sure your bins are in a sunny spot. The pile needs to build up heat to break down the various materials. Relegated to the shade, the process can literally take years.

Mulch Clippings

A light layer of both fresh and dried glass clippings is a healthy mulch for these variegated iris (Iris pallida 'Variegata'), bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) and soon-to-bloom yellow Coreopsis.

Don’t throw away your lawn clippings. They contain valuable nutrients. Instead, put them to work in your garden.

You can use a mulching mower, which chops the grass blades even finer than a regular mower, then deposits the cuttings back on the lawn.

If your lawn is purely for show, that’s great. But if you have kids or animals romping across with wet feet, they’ll track those little blades everywhere.

Instead, mulch your flower beds with a thin layer. if the clippings are too thick, the blades will mat together and begin to smell.

Or dump the clippings in your compost pile. Mix them well with the other contents, so that they don’t bind together and form an impenetrable block.

Freshen Mulch

A thick layer of gorilla hair mulch softens the angular effect of these foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata).

Two to 3 inches of grass clippings can make a slimy mess. But several inches thick of loose, organic material, such as walk-on bark, will conserve moisture, moderate the soil temperature and help reduce weeds.

Plus, it looks nice, smells good and provides a consistent look to the landscape.

I’ve had a few clients complain that mulch is a waste, because it disappears. But that’s actually a good thing. That “disappearance” means the mulch is breaking down, releasing nutrients to the plants and improving the texture of the soil.

Weed By Hand

A bulky layer of mulch will inhibit weed seeds that need light to germinate. But other opportunistic weeds will still come through.

Rather than killing the weeds with chemical sprays, set aside time to pull the weeds by hand. Try to get the weeds before they set seed. If I see flowers forming and am short on time, I’ll use kitchen scissors to snip off the heads, then go back later to dig out the leafy parts and their roots.

Use caution if you resort to using a “weed and feed” product on your lawn. The “weed” portion of the equation contains chemicals that may be harmful to kids or animals that play too soon in the area.

Fertilize Naturally

Bu's Blend Biodynamic Compost.

Whether it’s in liquid or granular form, or slowly released from fluffy compost or humus, use natural or organic fertilizer as much as possible.

It’s much kinder to the soil, as well as to earthworms, birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Look for products that contain beneficial soil bacteria such as mycorrhizae, compost, guano, humic acid or humus (compost that has broken down past the fibrous state).

With increasing interest in “green” products, mainstream lawn and garden chemical companies are now offering natural products, too.

Also look for organics that are OMRI listed. The Organic Materials Review Institute tests products intended for use in certified organic production, handling and processing. The OMRI seal means that what you’re buying complies with USDA organic standards.

Choose Your Battles

A striped monarch butterfly caterpillar begins to devour the tasty leaves of a butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica).

Sometimes a few defoliated plants are worth the effort to attract wildlife.

In my garden, I willingly sacrifice butterflyweed (Asclepias curassavica) in order to fortify the fat, yellow-striped monarch butterfly caterpillars that somehow know to appear just when the yellow, orange and red flowers are beginning to bloom.

A few years back, little cottontail bunnies nibbled away all my seedling melons. Rather than fighting the gray fluffballs, I planted another round in a raised bed that they couldn’t reach.

But even I have my limits. When slugs and snails begin to defoliate my roses, I draw my line in the sand with Sluggo, a natural granular product containing iron phosphate, which is safe to use around pets and wildlife. This year I’m also planning to try a new foliar spray from Gro-Power called Snail & Slug Away. It’s nontoxic, organic and lists cinnamon oil as its active ingredient. Maybe it even smells good.

Seeds of Wisdom

If you’re encouraging birds, butterflies and other wildlife to visit your garden, go pesticide free. Otherwise you risk administering a dose of toxic chemicals when the critters forage among your flowers.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Citrus Under Siege: The Relentless Advance of Huanglongbing (HLB)


An adult Asian citrus psyllid, bottom up.

After several years of wary anticipation, the dreaded citrus greening disease, huanglongbing (HLB), has been found in southern California. And that has put officials in Santa Barbara County — and throughout the state — on high alert.

The devastating disease was detected in Florida in 2005, and has wiped out $1.3 billion in citrus revenue there. Since then, HLB has marched across a number of southern states, leaving thousands of dead trees in its wake.

HLB is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid. Occasional psyllids have been found in back yard gardens and commercial groves in California over the past few years. I first wrote about the threat in September 2009 (see below). Since then, the closest to Santa Barbara County that psyllids have been found has been in La Conchita and Santa Paula.

The afflicted tree in Hacienda Heights.

Not all Asian citrus psyllids transmit the disease, and up to this point, none proved to be a carrier.

But the infected lemon/pummelo tree found in Hacienda Heights is a real game changer.

It’s the first citrus tree to test positive for HLB in California. Psyllids found in the same neighborhood tested positive for the disease as well.

The tree has since been dug out and moved to a state lab for further testing.

State agriculture officials say they plan to “conduct treatment of citrus trees within 800 meters of the find site,” although what that treatment will be has not yet been revealed.

What is known is that there’s still no cure for the deadly disease.

What’s Next?

Locally, Santa Barbara County agriculture officials hope to prevent HLB from infecting Central Coast citrus trees through a quarantine, inspections and help from the public.

For now, a quarantine put into place in December 2010 is still in effect for southern Santa Barbara County.

The area runs from the Ventura County line to Highway 154, and from the coastline high into the foothills. It includes Summerland, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, eastern Goleta and Painted Cave. No citrus of any type — no plants, clippings, leaves or fruit — is to be transported out of the quarantine area.

Strictly speaking, this means that if you live within the quarantine area and work in the western end of Goleta, you shouldn’t even pack a home-grown orange in your lunch.

The state has set up similar quarantines in Ventura, Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego Counties.

What to Look For

Asian citrus psyllids are tiny, winged insects that feed with their heads down and their bottoms angled up at about 45 degrees.

Asian citrus psyllids typically lay their eggs on the newest, most tender, unfolded leaves.

They produce tiny, bright, golden-yellow eggs, while the nymphs are dull orange and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.

The damage that they cause is far more evident: yellow blotches on the leaves and misshapen, not-too-tasty fruit. Indeed, the Hacienda Heights tree had those yellow mottled leaves.

The trouble is, other diseases can cause similar symptoms.

If you suspect something is wrong with any of your citrus trees, take a sample to the county agriculture commissioner’s office. Instructions are listed below.

Here’s what I wrote back in September 2009. Dramatic then, perhaps, but even more so today.

Imagine a day with no fresh-squeezed orange juice. No lemon zest. No slices of lime. No sweet Satsuma tangerines. No citrus of any kind.

That’s a doomsday that California agricultural officials are trying to prevent. And they’re looking for help from everyone who grows citrus trees — from a singe lemon planted in a pot on a patio, to the largest commercial groves in the state.

All citrus — oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, mandarins, tangerines, tangelos, kumquats, citrons, pomelos and the like — are at risk, as well as closely related ornamental plants, such as orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata), cape chestnut trees (Calodendrum capensis) and culinary curry leaves (Murraya koenigii), which may be shipped in from Hawaii or India.

The Threat

An adult Asian citrus psyllid. Even the adults are so tiny that they're nearly impossible to see without a magnifying glass.

The threat starts with the Asian citrus psyllid. On their own, the tiny insects don’t cause irreparable damage.

But they deal a lethal blow to citrus trees when they become infected with Huanglongbing (HLB), a devastating bacterial plant disease that’s also known as citrus greening disease.

Essentially, the disease deforms the fruit and makes it tastes bitter, then kills the tree.

There is no cure.

“The combination of the Asian citrus psyllid and the disease has the greatest potential to impact citrus growing in California of anything I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Gillette, Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner. “The reason for that is that the Mediterranean fruit flies, the other fruit flies, we can get rid of. This one, they haven’t been able to stop it anyplace yet, and it actually kills the trees.”

The deadly duo has ravaged groves around the world, including Asia, India, Egypt, Africa and Brazil. The disease was discovered in Florida in September 2005, and has since spread throughout the state, taking a serious bite out of Florida’s $9.3 billion juice industry. HLB has also been detected in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula.

An infestation of adult Asian citrus psyllids.

Meanwhile, the psyllids — not yet carrying HLB, as far as anyone knows — are moving into California. They were first reported in groves in San Diego and Imperial Counties in August 2008. Last week, they showed up in Santa Ana on a lemon tree, and in Echo Park on a calamondin tree, which bears small, tangy orange fruit. Quarantines are in effect everywhere the psyllids have been found, including all 800 square miles of Orange County.

A serendipitous finding of the dreaded Huanglongbing occurred in July — although not on a live tree. Instead, an agricultural inspection “sniff dog” at a FedEx facility in Fresno found a duffle bag shipped from India that carried curry leaves and infected psyllids.

Another sniff dog, this one last week at a FedEx depot in Sacramento, detected psyllids inside a package from Texas containing guavas and curry leaves. Fortunately, none of those psyllids tested positive.

“No one can say for sure if the disease will ever get here (to Santa Barbara County),” said Gillette. “One, you hope it doesn’t, but it’s likely it will. Then two, you hope it isn’t going to have the same effect on citrus in this area. But I think that’s pretty naive.”

The Symptoms

According to the California Citrus Research Board, the nymphs are dull orange, have red eyes and produce waxy tubules that direct honeydew away from their bodies.

At 3 to 4 millimeters in length at maturity, Asian citrus psyllids are so tiny, even the experts can have trouble detecting them.

“When I spoke with the entomologist in San Diego County, he said they were really hard to see,” said Brian Cabrera, Santa Barbara County Entomologist.

“Several people, all experts, were looking for the insects. They all looked but couldn’t find them. Then they vacuumed the leaves, and they actually found the psyllid that way.”

So rather than searching for psyllids, Cabrera said, homeowners should look for their damage. Asian citrus psyllids feed on new stems and leaves. That’s why agricultural officials are on high alert now, since citrus trees push out new growth between late summer and early winter.

Psyllids that aren’t infected with greening disease can still harm leaves, Cabrera said. “Their saliva actually has some toxicity to cause the leaves to curl. (And) they produce a tiny amount of wax.”

But the damage is far worse once the disease strikes.

Characteristic yellow mottling of the leaves.

“Homeowners should look for anything suspicious with their trees, any sudden decline in the trees, any abnormalities, or yellowing of the leaves,” Cabrera said. “The fruit is abnormal, lopsided and bitter. The leaves have a twisted, gnarled, deformed look.”

Also, according to the California Citrus Research Board, “As HLB progresses, leaves and whole branches fall off the tree and eventually the entire tree dies.”

Unfortunately, identification is tricky because plenty of other pests, diseases and mineral deficiencies create the same symptoms. For instance, chlorosis, a common iron deficiency in citrus, also causes yellowing leaves.

“The main problem is that the symptoms are not diagnostic,” said Heather Scheck, Santa Barbara County Plant Pathologist. She sends questionable leaves to a lab in Sacramento for molecular testing. “It could also be a nutritional problem. It could be another disease, viral, bacterial or fungal. That’s what happened in Florida. They probably had it in for a long time. It wasn’t until they did the actual testing that they discovered they had citrus greening disease.”

What to Do

HLB-infected trees produce lopsided, misshapen fruit.

County agricultural officials urge anyone who suspects that their plants are being harmed by any type of insects or disease, not just Asian citrus psyllids or citrus greening, to collect samples for testing. The service is free.

“One of our missions is to reduce pesticide use. We accomplish that by giving accurate diagnosis,” Scheck said. “You don’t want to hear that someone has sprayed and sprayed, only to discover that it’s a virus or nutritional thing.”

Insect samples should include both the insects and a few damaged leaves, while suspicious stems and leaves should be on branches at least 18 inches long.

Two of the agricultural commissioner’s offices accept walk-ins between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday: 624 W. Foster Rd., Santa Maria, 934-6200; and 263 Camino del Remedio, Santa Barbara, 681-5600. Or make an appointment to leave samples at 121 N. G St., Lompoc, 737-7733; or 1745 Mission Dr., Solvang, 686-5064.

In addition, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has added the Asian citrus psyllid to its residential trapping program, which is how the psyllids were discovered in Santa Ana and Echo Park. Here in Santa Barbara County, CDFA technicians based in Buellton set traps in neighborhoods, parks and business centers countywide.

“Non-indigenous fruit flies are our main deal. Mediterranean, Mexican, Oriental and melon flies. We also do the light brown apple moth, Asian citrus psyllid and false coddling moth. That’s what we’re trapping for now,” said Jay Burwell, a CDFA Agricultural Technician III. “Right now, we have 368 locations. But that fluctuates highly for seasonal host availability.”

Yellow sticky cards are the trap of choice for the Asian citrus psyllid, which Burwell’s office sends to Sacramento for testing and identification.

“The problem is, there are so many psyllids,” he said. “If there were only one type of psyllid, it would be easy to detect.”

Stop the Transport

Because there is no cure for Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease, the only way to prevent the deadly disease is to avoid transporting citrus trees, citrus fruit and closely related plants, such as orange jasmine, cape chestnut trees and curry leaves.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, “The safest approach is simply to not move citrus plants, ship citrus plants, or buy host citrus plants online unless you are absolutely sure the plant is not from an area that is quarantined for either citrus greening disease or Asian citrus psyllids.”

Santa Barbara County Agriculture Commissioner Bill Gillette echoes those thoughts.

“The message for everybody isn’t so much this particular insect as it is for all fruits and vegetables, whether you’re dealing with Oriental fruit flies or the light brown apple moth or Asian citrus psyllids. Those generally don’t get here by themselves,” he said.

“These types of things, certainly the disease, that’s how it’s going to get in here. Somebody’s going to either inadvertently or smuggle some infected plant material in here. Then we’ve got a problem.”

Useful Websites

To learn more about the Asian citrus psyllid and Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease, read prevention tips, and view photos of the psyllid and the damage it can cause, visit:

The Citrus Research Board

California Department of Food & Agriculture

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources

US Department of Agriculture

Seeds of Wisdom

If you suspect any problem with your citrus trees, especially on new growth, take a sample to an office of the county agricultural commissioner for a diagnosis or call the state pest hotline, (800) 491-1899.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

It’s Tomato Time


Carmelo heirloom tomato

The perfect tomato.

It may be round and red, with a thick slice providing a juicy, sun-ripened complement to a sandwich or burger.

It may be pear-shaped and yellow, and pack a crisp punch in a salad of fresh greens.

It may be oval, flushed with pink and just meaty enough to create a thick sauce.

Or it may be a sweet, marble-sized orb that’s so delicious that you lose count of how many you pop into your mouth, still out in the garden.

Really, there is no one perfect tomato. Instead, there are literally dozens, any of which may be perfect at a particular moment.

And fortunately, despite those many colors, shapes and sizes, all tomatoes thrive with the same care. Success starts with good soil, good roots and plenty of sunshine. Add proper watering, and you’re on your way to as many perfect tomatoes as you can squeeze into your space.

Getting Growing

Cherokee heirloom tomatoes

Start with rich, loose, well-draining soil in a spot that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight a day.

Raised beds or mounds at least 12 to 18 inches tall are ideal.

Dig down a foot, working in several inches of well-aged compost throughout the bed  to boost fertility and drainage.

Tomatoes are a rarity in that you can intentionally plant them deep to encourage more extensive rooting.

Strip the first few sets of leaves. Dig a hole deep enough to bury the exposed nodes, which will then sprout roots, rather than more leaves. Toss a low-nitrogen, slow-release granular fertilizer into each hole. Cover the fertilizer with a handful of soil to prevent direct contact with the roots.

Freshly planted tomato seedlings, awaiting their cages.

Then space your plants at least 2 1/2 feet apart.

Plums and cherries may go closer, while the largest plants should go 3 feet apart or more.

Tomato cages or stakes — adorned with reflective tape to thwart birds — are a must. I often start with tomato cages, then pound in taller redwood stakes mid-season.

Even the smallest plants need support when their limber branches begin to sag under the weight of developing fruit.

Consistency is Key

Better Boy modern hybrid tomatoes. Note the touch of blossom end rot on the bottom right. Despite our best efforts, the disease is not always inescapable.

Irrigation can be tricky. It should be consistent in order to prevent blossom end rot, an unsightly condition that damages the fruit, yet infrequent enough to tease out the most intense, fresh flavors by the time your tomatoes are ripe.

At the outset, water every day or two to keep the soil visibly damp. I shape basins around my plants, then fill the basins several times each time I water. I use a watering wand to avoid splashing the leaves, which can lead to disease. If your soil crusts or cracks, surround your seedlings with an inch-thick layer of loose mulch.

As new leaves flush out and shade the roots, stretch your watering intervals to every three or four days, then up to a week or even 10 days, still giving a good soak each time. Let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings. Irrigate early in the morning to help the plants stay hydrated in the summer heat.

If you see fantastic vegetative growth but few flowers and weak, watery-tasting fruit, you’re watering too frequently. But don’t stop abruptly. A sudden change in irrigation can disrupt your plants’ ability to pull calcium from the soil, which can result in that dreaded blossom end rot.

So Many Choices

Black Prince heirloom tomatoes

Local nurseries, seed catalogs, internet sites and even drugstores are brimming with tomatoes in springtime. Rather than grabbing the first six-pack you see, consider the size, shape and color, as well as whether you want to eat your tomatoes fresh, in sauces or canned for winter.

Most will be indeterminate types, which send out long vines that keep growing and bearing fruit until frost kills them off. Determinate types, or bush tomatoes, reach a certain size, bear most of their fruit within a couple of weeks, then collapse. They’re worth seeking out if you want to can or preserve your tomatoes all at once.

Lemon Boy tomatoes, VFN hybrids

Hybrid tomatoes are modern varieties bred for certain traits and disease resistance. “V,” “F,” “N” and “T” indicate resistance to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes and tobacco mosaic virus, all of which can slay your plants. Super Bush VFN tomatoes, for instance, resist verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes.

However, due to breeding, hybrids are not true to seed, and hybrid offspring are not likely to resemble their parents.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, have been passed down from one generation to the next and are true to seed. While heirlooms may not have as strong disease resistance as modern hybrids, they tend to have greater variety in shape and color, and softer skins.

This article was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

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