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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens


In the Garden with Joan

On her In the Garden blog, Joan provides practical advice about designing, planting and caring for gardens throughout Santa Barbara, the Central Coast and the state of California.

It’s Time to Plant Bare-Root Deciduous Fruit Trees

The first delicate blossoms of a Dorsett Golden apple tree appear in late winter.

The first delicate blossoms of a Dorsett Golden apple tree appear in late winter.

Garden miracle or lesson in patience?

Planting a bare-root, deciduous fruit tree is a little of both.

The garden miracle: that what looks like a stick with a few scraggly roots will ultimately yield a delicious bounty. The patience: you have to care for that stick for three to five years before it completes its transformation into a leafy tree that begins to bear fruit.

Now is the season for bare-root fruit trees. They’re dormant, so they don’t mind being stripped of soil, transported and planted before waking up, come spring. They include apple, apricot, cherry, fig, mulberry, nectarine, nectaplum, peach, pear, persimmon, plum, pluot and pomegranate.

The Big Chill

Deciduous fruit trees need winter cold to set fruit properly before breaking dormancy. That cold is measured in the number of hours that the temperature drops below 45 degrees between November 1 and February 28.

Hours can vary widely in different locations and from year to year. For instance, as of January 9, Santa Barbara had accumulated 177 chill hours. But by January 9, 2005, Santa Barbara had scored only 54 chill hours. However, in general, we can expect 50 to 200 chill hours a year on the coast, with inland areas receiving 400 to 1,000 or more. UC Davis tracks the data. Visit, then click on “Weather-Related Models” for your area.

Selecting Trees

Anna apples require 200 chill hours. They bear heavy crops, especially when cross-pollinated by Dorsett Golden or Einshemer apples.

Anna apples require 200 chill hours. They bear heavy crops, especially when cross-pollinated by Dorsett Golden or Einshemer apples.

Stick to your chill hours, no matter how tempting a certain tree might be. For example, Dorsett Golden apples, from Bermuda, require next to no chill hours, while Golden Russet require 800 to 1,000.

In addition, if you don’t have much room, consider trees with dwarf rootstock, or grafted trees that have branches bearing three or four types of fruit, such as early, mid and late-season peaches.

Regardless of the variety, inspect the roots. They should be gray and limber, not black, shriveled or brittle. Look for good “spokes” radiating from the trunk; a smooth, strong bud union where the root stock is grafted to the trunk; and a trunk about the diameter of your thumb.

Don’t worry about the branches, other than making sure that they flex. You’ll probably tip back most of them when you plant. Be sure to get instructions from the grower for your particular tree.

Planting Time

May Pride peaches require 150 to 200 chill hours. They are early bearing and produce sweet, smooth-textured, medium-size fruit that is easy to peel and has freestone pits inside.

May Pride peaches require 150 to 200 chill hours. They are early bearing and produce sweet, smooth-textured, medium-size fruit that is easy to peel and has freestone pits inside.

Deciduous fruit trees need at least six hours of direct sunlight during the growing season to develop fruiting buds and mature fruit. Provide good drainage. If your soil stays soggy, shape a mound or build a raised bed. Avoid wind, which can damage or destroy buds and fruit. If you’re pushing the envelope with winter chill hours, plant in a low spot where cold collects, rather than near your house, driveway, patio or other hardscape that captures, then radiates heat.

Space small trees 8 to 10 feet apart and 4 to 5 feet from fences and walls. If their canopies reach 6 to 8 feet, you’ll have a foot or two to maintain them and pick the fruit. Plant larger trees as much as 20 to 25 feet apart.

Dig a hole three times as wide as the roots and a foot or so deep. Line the hole with 1/2-inch chicken wire or galvanized mesh to thwart gophers. Lay a shovel across the hole to determine the planting depth. The faint soil line on the trunk should end up an inch or two above the existing grade to allow for settling. This should also put the bud union 3 to 5 inches above the soil.

Mound a cone of excavated soil in the center. Place the tree on top, splaying out the roots, then fill the hole. Or hold the tree over the hole with one hand, then use the other hand to dribble in soil around the roots. Gently shake the trunk now and then to prevent air pockets as you go.

Shape a basin around the tree. Fill with an inch or two of organic mulch, keeping it from piling against the trunk. Don’t apply fertilizer. The roots already have enough stored energy to break dormancy and any salt in the fertilizer may burn new roots.

A Quick Trim

What to expect from an Anna apple after about (gasp!) 5 to 6 years. A lesson in patience, indeed.

What to expect from an Anna apple after about (gasp!) 5 to 6 years. A lesson in patience, indeed.

Don’t be surprised if the nursery instructions call for cutting down your “tree” to a knee-high stick. While techniques vary from one variety to the next, in general, expect to snip off the top just above a bud that’s 30 to 36 inches off the ground, then trim the side branches to 3-inch stubs bearing two or three buds.

During the first growing season, new whips are likely to shoot out in every direction. In July or August, cut back the new growth by up to half, with an eye toward evenly spaced, strong, balanced branches that will allow plenty of air to flow through the tree.


At planting time, give your new tree a thorough watering. If the surrounding soil is dry, it’s likely to wick away moisture, so run the water for a while.

Over winter, deciduous fruit trees are dormant and don’t need much water. After that first watering, you may be able to get by on rain alone.

But as your tree stirs to life, start paying attention. UC Cooperative Extension notes that a healthy, first-year fruit tree that’s not been mulched requires 5 to 10 gallons of water a week. A mulched tree needs less. Let the top inch or two of soil dry out between waterings, then use drip irrigation or a trickling hose to give your tree a slow, deep soak.


Winter 2013

Winter 2013
This mail-order nursery, based in Atascadero, offers hundreds of different fruit trees, shrubs and vines. Each description includes the root stock and number of chill hours required.
While the nursery operations are wholesale only, the website provides bountiful information for home gardeners.
The site offers in-depth articles about all aspects of backyard orchard culture, ranging from propagation to pollination, pests, diseases and harvest.

This article was first published in the Winter 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.

Poinsettias Don’t Have to Get Tossed With the Gift Wrap

Poinsettias provide brilliant winter color outdoors in this Santa Barbara neighborhood.

Poinsettias provide brilliant winter color outdoors in this Santa Barbara neighborhood.

Face it. While your poinsettias may still be in picture-perfect condition, they’re likely to collapse after the first of the year.

Then the easiest course of action is to toss them into the green waste. But I often feel a twinge of guilt for discarding what might be a perfectly reasonable plant.

In most parts of the country, the climate takes care of the decision. It’s too darned cold in the winter or too blazing hot in the summer for poinsettias to survive.

But they will live happily in the garden here on the Central Coast, provided they receive plenty of sunlight and moist, fast-draining soil. They also need protection from wind and freezing temperatures.

By Way of Background

Poinsettias are native to tropical highlands in Mexico and Central America. Their common name honors Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who spotted the plants in southern Mexico and brought them to South Carolina in the early 1800s.

The basic species, Euphorbia pulcherimma, is a winter-blooming shrub that grows 6 to 10 feet tall in the wild. The 35 to 40 million potted plants sold during the holidays today share a common ancestry, but are bred and grown for smaller size, color, style and ease of shipping.

Wait Now, Plant Later

Poinsettias detest cold weather, so now is not the time to plant them. Instead, put your plants — still in their pots — in a cool, sheltered spot, such as a protected patio or garage. After the leaves drop, cut the stems down to a few inches tall. Water sparingly, keeping the soil barely damp.

Soaring twice as tall as the stucco wall, this poinsettia has taken on tree-like proportions alongside roses and cascading purple lantana.

Soaring twice as tall as the stucco wall, this poinsettia has taken on tree-like proportions alongside roses and cascading purple lantana.

When temperatures warm in spring, plant your poinsettias in full sun. Look for a spot that’s out of the wind, doesn’t get frosty and has excellent drainage.

Plenty of head room is important, too. In the garden, your formerly 1 to 2-foot-tall plants may stretch head-high or taller, unless you faithfully pinch back the stems every few weeks during the growing season.

If you forgo the pinching, consider planting something short in front of them, as poinsettias are often scraggly within the first few feet of ground.

After planting, spread an inch or two of mulch around each plant, then thoroughly water them in. Plan to water every week or two, or more frequently if their leaves go limp. If you opt to fertilize, apply a high-nitrogen product twice a month once the leaves begin to turn red.

As for when that happens — the “bloom” is a result of the colored bracts, or modified leaves, responding to longer nights. Poinsettias need about 12 hours of darkness to trigger the change, with the leaves then taking several months to mature, depending on the variety, temperature and intensity of light.

If you plant your poinsettias near an all-night patio light or street light, they might not bloom until well into January. Commercial growers manipulate the light to create plants that are prematurely colored up from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

The Forcing Route

If you absolutely must have a poinsettia that stays compact and reblooms at Christmas, don’t plant it in the ground.

Instead, commercial growers recommend the following.

Keep the poinsettia in its pot. When the leaves drop, cut back the stems to 6 inches tall, leaving two joints on each stem. Water when the top inch or so of soil dries out and pinch back new growth every few weeks to encourage a tighter, fuller shape.

In mid September to early October, start controlling the light.

Every night for eight to 10 weeks, move the pot into a dark closet for 14 hours. Then put it in the sun for 10 hours every day. Two months of the routine is said to produce a dense, compact plant with vivid holiday color.

As for whether the exacting regimen works, I’ve never had the staying power to try it, but would welcome hearing from anyone who has.

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

My Newest Venture: My In the Garden Column Will Begin Running in Noozhawk


I’m happy to announce that I’ll now be contributing my In the Garden articles to

Noozhawk, “the freshest news in Santa Barbara,” is an online-only news service that delivers essential local news and community information to readers in Santa Barbara, Goleta, Montecito, Carpinteria, Summerland and the rest of Santa Barbara County.

The beauty of an online “newspaper” is that it’s not limited to traditional deadlines, it’s always ready to post breaking news, you can easily retrieve any article day or night, and you never again have to struggle with rain-soaked pages or smudge your fingers!

Here’s my introductory article, which is running now. Or if you prefer, you can read it, along wtih my first column about planting California natives, at

Why, that's me! In the Garden!

Why, that’s me, in the garden. Imagine that!

Hi there. I’d like to introduce myself as Noozhawk’s newest features columnist.

I’ve been writing about gardening for more than 25 years, have been designing colorful, water-conserving gardens for nearly 20 years, and have had my hands in the dirt for more years than I can count.

While I can’t say I’ve never met a plant that I didn’t like, there are very few that I don’t appreciate in some capacity or another. Fortunately for me, as well as my readers and clients, we live in an amazingly benevolent climate that allows us to grow a phenomenal number of different, beautiful plants in any number of combinations and styles.

For my In the Garden features for Noozhawk, I plan to provide practical, hands-on advice about designing, planting and caring for gardens throughout Santa Barbara and the Central Coast. I’ll write about edibles, too, including seasonal crops, perennial vegetables and fruit trees.

I could throw around words like sustainable, green gardening and the like. But whatever you call it, I believe the most successful gardens are filled with a broad mix of California natives and other Mediterranean plants that are well adapted to our seasonal cycle of warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters.

That diversity is sure to attract and sustain smaller forms of wildlife, such as beneficial insects, bees, birds and butterflies, all of which help to create a good biological balance that in turn promotes healthier plants.

However, you’ll still find me muttering occasionally about larger foragers. Deer top my personal list of pesky mammals, but gophers, ground squirrels and rabbits are rather annoying, too.

My husband Tom and I garden on 4 acres of heavy clay soil in western Goleta. We’ve planted several thousand perennials, shrubs, ground covers and trees on what was once a raw, weedy plot when we moved here 21 years ago. We also grow about 30 avocado, citrus and fruit trees, along with vegetables and herbs year-round. Our previous home, in the heart of the Goleta Valley, had rich, loamy, beautifully fertile soil. Our new spot has taken some getting used to, but we’ve pretty well figured it out by now.

I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge, and appreciate your interest.

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

Cool-Season Root Crops

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

Sow. Grow. Dig. Eat.

That’s basically all it takes to grow cool-season root crops, like beets, carrots, radishes and turnips.

These earthy edibles are among the easiest winter vegetables to grow. They take up little space. They deliver rapid results, with the first ready to eat six to eight weeks after sprouting.

And the frilly shoots and sturdy roots are content to live out their lives in containers. Provided they get at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, you can grow them in pots outside your kitchen door, thereby avoiding muddy footprints in and out of the garden over winter.

Getting Started

Very light, loose soil with excellent drainage is a must. Otherwise, your roots may be stubby, malformed, difficult to harvest and susceptible to rot.

Break up the soil with a shovel or garden fork, then work in lots of fine-textured compost or other well-decomposed organic material to improve the fertility and tilth.

If you’re starting with sandier soil, you’re in luck. But if you have heavy clay, build broad mounds or switch to raised beds so that you can better control the texture. Or give up on the ground altogether and fill a container with a lightweight potting soil or a blend of a general potting soil and a cactus and succulent mix.

When you’re done prepping it, the soil should smell good, be crumbly, feel a little silty or gritty, and slip through your fingers like sand falling through an hourglass.

Wherever the location, make sure that the fresh, loose soil is 8 to 18 inches deep, depending on what you grow. In general, you’ll need to dig about twice the depth of the crop to account for the combined length of the root, its “tail” and another few inches.

For instance, petite Sparkler radishes are about the size of a golf ball. Add their 3 to 4-inch-long tails plus a little wiggle room, and you’re up to 8 inches deep. Slender Sugarsnax carrots grow 12 inches long, plus another few inches of tail. You’ll need a full 18 inches of loose, deep soil for them to grow properly.

Direct Sowing Your Seeds

Sow your root crops directly where they’ll grow. Do not start them in flats or containers, where they can quickly exceed the depth, become stunted and stop growing. Even if they don’t slam into the bottom of the container, they may still balk at transplanting.

• Shape shallow furrows In your beautifully prepped soil with your fingers, a trowel or a broad stick. Follow the depth and spacing instructions on the individual seed packets.

• Pour the tiny seeds from the packet into your hand, then pinch and dribble them into the furrows.

• Gently brush the soil from the sides of the furrows over the seeds to create a thin covering about a quarter-inch to a half-inch thick.

• Lightly sprinkle the soil with a water bucket or hose. Too much force can dislodge the seeds before they’ve had a chance to root into the ground.

• Protect your soon-to-emerge seedlings from marauding birds by netting the bed.

• Keep the soil moist. Within a week to 10 days, you should see the first sprouts.

• Once your seedlings have produced several sets of true leaves, begin thinning them to their recommended spacing. Toss the fresh thinnings into soups or salads.

• Once the frilly tops of the remaining seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, remove the bird netting.

Ongoing Care

Root crops need consistent irrigation for uniform growth and to prevent cracking. If winter rains don’t comply, water at least once a week. Apply an inch-thick layer of fine-textured mulch to maintain moisture on the soil surface.

When your roots approach their maturity dates, brush back the soil to check the width and color of their “shoulders.” Pull one if you’re not sure whether they’re ripe.

Depending on when you sow your first roots, you may be able to plant several more rounds before warm weather begins next spring. Be sure to rejuvenate the soil each time.

Or plan on succession planting. Instead of sowing an entire packet now, sow a new row every few weeks. Your roots will mature in waves, rather than all at once.

Or interplant your seeds with slower-growing, cool-season crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. You’ll have plenty of time to harvest the roots before the larger edibles fill in.

Patience may be required. If we have a string of cool, rainy days, the roots may stall out, taking longer to mature. Those 8-week carrots could end up taking 12 weeks. But when they’re ready, they’ll still taste just as crunchy and delicious.

This article was first published in the Winter 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.

Bagrada Bugs: How to Combat the Destructive Pests

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

Should home gardeners still plant broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other brassicas this winter?

The answer is “yes,” provided you’re willing to take on a series of steps to help prevent the destructive Bagrada bugs from showing up, or to beat them back if they do.

Surendra Dara, strawberry and vegetable crops advisor and affiliated IPM advisor for UC Cooperative Extension for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and entomologist Brian Cabrera, Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, offer the following advice.

Start by buying pest-free transplants or sowing seeds in flats or shallow containers. Until they’re at least 8 to 9 inches tall, grow the plants in a protected location, such as a sealed greenhouse or beneath row covers tucked into the soil, as Bagrada bugs are more likely to overwhelm younger plants bearing more tender leaves and stems.

Bagrada bugs drop into crevices in the soil when temperatures cool, and to lay their eggs. Before transplanting your edibles into the garden, till the heck out of the soil to wreak havoc on any bugs or eggs that may be lingering there.

Or solarize the soil by covering it with clear plastic for a week or more. Heat generated beneath the plastic should kill the bugs and eggs.

Beef up your soil’s fertility prior to planting, as healthier plants are better equipped to cope with damage.

If you’re satisfied that your soil is bug-free, grow your crops beneath row covers for the entire season. Use hoops to keep the covers a few inches above the plants to prevent the bugs from piercing the leaves through the fabric.

Absent row covers, if Bagrada bugs descend, hand-pick or vacuum them. They seem to have a built-in defense to slide off the plants when the leaves are jostled, so lay down newspapers first to catch them. Dump the bugs into a bucket of soapy water, then pour them down a drain or strain out their carcasses and toss them in the trash.

If the bugs already abound, grow a trapping crop of their favorite hosts, alyssum and wild mustard. While risky, the theory is that the bugs will feast on the traps, not your edibles.

Spray Bagradas in the nymph stage, when they look like ladybugs, with Azadirachtin. The organic, neem-based product is a growth regulator that disrupts their molting, so they don’t mature.

Or spray Mycotrol-O at any point in the bugs’ life. The organic bio-pesticide is a fungus that penetrates their bodies, multiplies, then emerges through the membranes, killing them in the process.

This article was first published in the Winter 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.

Windowsill Herbs: Bring the Garden Indoors for Winter

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

How to improve on the delicious aroma of a savory sauce or simmering soup wafting through the house on a cold, drizzly day?

With a pinch of fresh herbs and seasonings, of course. Your winter garden may be slumbering outdoors. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up growing. Tend a few herbs on a sunny windowsill and you’ll be able to infuse fresh flavors in your fixings throughout the shortest days of the year.

Getting Started

To successfully grow herbs indoors you must have light, and lots of it. Most herbs need at least six to eight hours of daily direct sunlight — or very bright indirect light — to thrive and produce oils. Your best bet is a south or southwest-facing window. Hold your hand above the sill. If your hand casts a distinct shadow, your herbs should be okay.

Otherwise, set up supplemental lighting. A dedicated grow light system consisting of a stand and one or more high-efficiency fluorescent bulbs starts at about $100. Or buy a couple of inexpensive, clamp-on aluminum reflectors from a hardware store, then fit them with compact fluorescent bulbs. Place the reflectors 4 to 6 inches from the plants. If the leaves begin to crisp up, move the lights a few inches away. If the plants stretch toward the lights, move them closer.

Also, artificial light is not as intense as natural sunlight. Put the lights on a timer and run them 12 to 16 hours a day.

Without a greenhouse, it’s difficult to start herb seed indoors, especially in winter. Instead, buy organically grown seedlings, then transplant them to containers at least 6 inches wide.

Good drainage is key. Use fresh potting soil — not dirt from the garden, which may be heavy and drain poorly. Herbs prefer soil that stays crumbly, even when you squeeze it when it’s wet. Consider adding perlite or vermiculite, or blend regular potting soil with a cactus and succulent mix.

Terra cotta pots breathe, which helps reduce the threat of fungal diseases. But with good air circulation, other decorative containers are fine, too. Just be sure to plant each type of herb in its own pot, as container-grown herbs typically don’t like to share precious soil with roots of other herbs. For instance, you can cluster several parsley plants. But don’t combine oregano with chives with mint.

Choose Wisely

Indoors or out, herbs grow at a leisurely pace during winter. It takes longer for them to build up their volatile oils and their yields are not likely to be as abundant. That said, the following eight should do well.

• Bay (Lauris nobilis) grows slowly. Fortunately, most recipes require only a few leaves. Fresh bay leaves are mild; their potency picks up a few weeks after harvest.

• Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) grow from tiny bulbs packed tightly together. They need less light than most herbs indoors, and prefer their soil a little moister.

• Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a giant among herbs, reaching up to 6 feet tall in the garden. Indoors, that height is not likely. However, still plant your lemongrass in a larger pot, up to 16 inches in diameter.

• Mint (Mentha) is invasive in the garden and should be kept solo indoors as well, to prevent it from overrunning unsuspecting companions. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) complements meat, vegetables, fruit and chocolate, while peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is more intensely flavored and is infused to make tea.

• Parsley (Petroselinum hortense) does not need as much light. But it grows slowly. Plant several to yield more than a few sprigs.

• Oregano (Origanum vulgare) craves as much light as you can provide. Another invasive, it’s best grown alone.

• Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) loves dry soil and sun. An upright-growing type — rather than a trailing variety — will conserve space. You can often find cute topiaries trained as Christmas trees over the holidays.

• Thyme (Thymus) also covets light. Fresh thyme is sweeter and less bitter than dried thyme, and comes in flavors ranging from hints of lemon to mint to caraway to oregano.

Note the conspicuous absence of basil on the list. A heat and sun-loving annual herb, it’s best in the summer garden. In addition, dill and cilantro send down deep tap roots that are difficult to keep going in all but the largest pots outdoors, much less inside. And while it’s just about unstoppable in the garden, culinary sage turns into a balky wimp indoors.

Ongoing Care

Exercise restraint when watering. Wait until the top half inch or more of soil is dry, then put the plants in a sink and run tepid water over the soil — not on the leaves — for a few minutes. Let the pots drain. Fifteen to 30 minutes later, water again, then let them drain again.

Don’t leave standing water in the saucers. Constant wet at your herbs’ roots can lead to rot. Also don’t instantly water if a few leaves turn yellow. Yellowing often indicates overwatering, so check the soil first.

Pinch the leaves regularly and snip any emerging flower buds. Harvesting the leaves will help keep your herbs bushy and promote new growth. But don’t trim more than a third at a time unless you’re willing to risk losing the entire plant.

After the first of the year, apply a liquid fertilizer. Diluted fish emulsion is often recommended, although its powerful odor can be overwhelming indoors. Alternatives include kelp and other products low in phosphorous, which will boost your herbs’ all-important foliage, rather than flowers.

This article was first published in the Winter 2012 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.

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