Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rant - Too long winded?

Some of my friends say I’m too long winded, that some of—if not all—of my blogs are too long. Well they might be right.

However, I might just proceed with some long blogs.

So, this is a short rant blog.

Why my longer blogs? Because I’m tired of cute little garden blogs that tell you what coffee they’re drinking while they putz around in their garden. It may be satisfying to them to “document” every little detail of their day, but it sure doesn’t give me much useful information as to what I might use in my own ornamental deer-resistant garden and fruit tree orchard.

Short blogs are like sound bites. Enough to capture one’s attention, but no real depth to expand what I might already know. It’s like what I’ve always told my friends—USA Today broke through as a successful newspaper because each article is no longer than the time it takes to read on the john each morning.

I will blog at various lengths as I proceed. But I will continue to give short or long blogs depending upon what I think the subject deserves so some real content (or opinion) is offered. If you’re too busy to read one of the longer blogs, that’s OK by me. It’ll still be available when you have the time.

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

Note: I somehow lost the usual section "Post a comment". To leave a comment, simply click on the area/button that says "___ Comments". Clicking on the title of a Post under "Blog Archive" also gets you to a view that gives the option of leaving a comment. I hope to figure this out soon. Robert

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shaping, Not Just Pruning, Fruit Trees

I love Asian pears. They are flavorful yet crispy. And they ripen on the tree instead picking European pears early and letting them ripen in a dark, cool place.

I just got done pruning an Asian pear tree for a friend last week. It’s not easy pruning, or rather, shaping these trees.

Asian pear trees are inclined to sprout new growth that is even more vertical than European pear trees. This tendency to form vertical shoots with a narrow angle of attachment, which makes for a weaker crotch, must be dealt with in the first few months of each season's growth.

Shaping rather than pruning is the way to treat an Asian pear tree. I prefer to spread the young shoots in the early summer to a healthier, and more productive, 45- to 60-degree angle. I use toothpicks to spread the very young shoots once they are ten- to 16-inches long. When the shoots are this young, they are flexible enough to bend to any angle without snapping. I insert one point of a round, wooden toothpick into the new shoot a few inches above its point of origin. Next I bend the shoot out to the desired angle, and insert the other end into the bark of the tree's trunk. By the end of August, I can remove the toothpicks, and the new branch will stay mostly in the position it was trained to by the toothpick.

The tree I was working on last week hadn’t had its stems forced into a 45o angle when it was young. The owners had missed several seasons. However, there are several ways to spread the older, more-stubborn limbs.

Spreaders can be made out of various lengths of one-by stakes with a nail point at both ends. In the photos you'll see that I used some used 1" X 4" pieces of wood. (You can make these by nailing an eight- or ten-penny box nail halfway into the each end and clipping off the nail's head with a wire-clipper.) Insert one nail point into the newer shoot or limb, bend it down to the correct angle, or a bit further, and insert the other nail point into the trunk.(See the left photo.)

A non-intrusive option is to find a nice heavy rock. Tie a sturdy string to the rock, bend the limb down, and tie the string to the limb. You can adjust the angle of the limb by moving the rock toward or away from the tree. With both methods, you'll need to keep the limb bound into the new position for several or more years to allow the branch to stiffen-up enough to hold its own position.

A neighbor filled Styrofoam cups with cement an inserted a wire before the cement hardened. Then the weights were added to the new growth to weight down the limbs to a proper angle.

Once the limbs come into bearing, the weight of each year's fruit is usually heavy enough to spread the limbs without assistance. In fact, the trees are usually prolific enough that too much spreading should be the gardener's concern—the branches break off. Thin the young fruits to a single fruit every five- to eight-inches apart along the limb. Keep an eye on the fruit-laden limbs, as they still may require propping to prevent torn limbs.

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

To see more detail of the illustration(s) put you cursor over the image and double click.

Note: I somehow lost the usual section "Post a comment". To leave a comment, simply click on the area/button that says "___ Comments". Clicking on the title of a Post under "Blog Archive" also gets you to a view that gives the option of leaving a comment. I hope to figure this out soon. Robert

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2008

Visit my web site to learn about my gardening books.

Lost Comments Options

Hi Folks, I somehow lost the usual section "Post a comment". To leave a comment, simply click on the area/button that says "___ Comments". Clicking on the title of a Post under "Blog Archive" also gets you to a view that gives the option of leaving a comment. I hope to figure this out soon. Robert

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rant - Is it Compost or A Dump Heap?

Please visit my web site to learn about and purchase my books

Remember composting? Remember those innocent days when Arlo was trying to take some stuff to the dump, not the "sanitary landfill"—and before we found out the dump's seepage was poisoning the town's water supply? Remember thinking that compost would transform the world? Perhaps not. Compost didn't even rate a background mention in that "thirtysomethng" nostalgia flick "The Big Chill".

Seen many cookin' compost piles lately? While some plain-ole' heaps of garden refuse are hidden away in the dark corners of many gardens; well-formed, hot, or active, compost piles (the ones that achieved temperatures of 140o F, and decomposed even the starchiest corn stalk within four to six weeks) are an increasingly rare garden fixture. Active composting has slipped rapidly into obscurity. It has been replaced by dump heaps.

Some ardent proponents of composting have survived in the gardening backwaters of the times—but many former "Captains-of-Compost" have let their active piles go dry.

In the  ‘70s I was, alas, an outspoken proponent of the virtues of, the magic surrounding, the healing properties of, and the essential need for Compost—capital "C". I began my career as an organic gardener convinced that compost was the Queen-of-Panaceas for my garden—and all gardens. I loved to make compost. Watching the four foot high piles begin to steam in the brisk early-morning air was fascinating and very gratifying. Turning hot, steaming, "fragrant" compost piles (to the compost purist, the pungent odors of decomposition--tinted with ammonia, sulphur, musk, and wet dirt—is a sweet, delicious aroma) was a mystical, if not religious, experience. I made compost almost every month of the year during this reign-of-fiber period of my gardening history.

Not only did I make literally tons of compost for my garden, but I persuaded, through sheer enthusiasm, nearly every ornamental and edible landscape client I had in the ‘70s to have me build a neat, tidy set of compost bins for their own "cookin' compost

I had expected my clients to gather up their daily kitchen waste, layer it with sawdust in a 30 gallon garbage can, and construct a hot compost pile in one bin with alternate layers of garden clippings, manure, straw, and the stored kitchen scraps. Furthermore, in my heady idealism, I expected the client to turn the first bin's actively decomposing compost into the adjacent bin within a week or two and to continue to stir or turn the pile very week or two until the temperature of the pile began to drop—some four to six weeks later. I gave them copies of articles on the importance of compost and recipes for the well-layered pile. I even, in my deepest enthusiasm, expected them to enjoy, if not revel, in this onerous, odiferous task. Ha!

Alas, in a few short years, all but one of the four or five bin systems I made had been turned into short, little tool sheds. The only bin system still used for “composting” was merely a place to heap piles of landscape clippings and let nature take two to four years to slowly rot the refuse to a fibrous, yet nutritionally insipid, pile of mulch—a dump heap.

I had made two fundamental errors. First, I misjudged the entire sociology  of the "system". The biology of composting is relatively simple, elegant, and easily implemented by the right, enthusiastic person. But, what's important about hot composting is whether-or-not it fits into one's lifestyle. The most important elements in an ecosystem, from a practical, ethnocentric point of view, are the people, the homeowners, and gardeners.

Secondly, defining a "system"; no matter how clever, thoughtful, elegant, or practical, is to set one's self up for potential failure. So often, the circumstances of each household are different from the theoretical "norm". By having a predetermined "system", I ignored special situations that made composting impractical or ineffective. Thus, the ecology of composting must embrace and mesh with each gardener's unique social ecology—with respect for the practical reality of their personality, lifestyle, and the local resources.

There are three levels of compost thermodynamics: cryophlic (cold-tolerant bacteria), mesophilic (bacteria growing only at mild-temperatures) and thermophilic (bacteria for hot compost). Any pile of garden refuse will eventually rot, but I prefer to call these piles heaps—not true, thermophilic compost. With the passing of time, the busy gardener's heap will have a high-fiber material for use a mulch or soil amendment. But I don't treat such material as having any significant  nutrition for the soil since subsequent rainfall leaches valuable nutrients while the heap sits around. I think of a dump heap as merely a soil amendment to improve the texture. This is a form of decomposition that easily fits into the active lifestyle of many of todays gardeners. One significant drawback of heaps is their inclination to provide habitat for critters of the rodent persuasion—rats and mice. So, I usually place a cylinder of chicken-wire on stakes far away from the house, behind a screen of shrubbery, and cover the top of the cylinder with a wire "lid".

There are a number of products on the market that I consider either totally bogus are certainly not worth the money to an accomplished composter. If you are using any fresh material at all, especially fairly fresh manures, there are plenty of bacteria and many types of bacteria and fungi available for free. Buying supposedly complex blends of beneficial bacteria and fungi is like throwing fiber into the wind. My favorite book in the subject, Composting, A Study of the Process and its Principles by Clarence Golueke, puts it very clearly: "In University of California studies, [using horse manure, "rich" soils, composting material, and two commercial preperations] the composting process was neither accelerated nor the final product improved in those runs in which inoculums were tested, even though the inoculums were rich in bacteria."

In other words: The raw material comes with the seeds of its own destruction.

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

Hi Folks, I somehow lost the usual selection "Post a comment". To leave a comment simply click on the area/button that says "___ Comments". Or, click on the title of the post under Blog Archive. Robert

All rights reserved. Copyright 2008

Bracken Ferns

It's spring and I'm pulling out the dry, brown fronds of the bracken fern. 

I love the wide, majestic pattern of the bracken leaves in the spring and summer—like a green, arching umbrellas—which pop up in various areas around my garden. Its delicate and wide pattern is like a fern, but it grows in full sunlight as well as partial shade. I have a difficult time pulling out the few bracken ferns fronds that overgrow my planting of Mexican sage. They can coexist as for as I’m concerned, as long as they don’t snuggle too tightly.

It’s pleasing to know that there is a type of bracken fern on every continent except Antarctica. Having been around for 55 million years means it’s got some pretty hardy genes and few “predators”.

As with all of Nature, there’s a double-edged sword with respect to bracken ferns. The native species of bracken fern is invasive and tends to colonize drier areas of open grasslands, with its dense canopy shading out other plant species. At the same time as it is trying to become the predominate plant in an open meadow, it’s building up a lot of dead fronds which makes fuel for a fire. When a fire races through the grasslands of the meadow competing plants are burned to the ground. The bracken quickly sprouts from its extensive web of rhizomes (horizontal underground stems). This gives it a head start for revegetation over many other plants. And the bracken continues to spread. Such a beautiful foliage and such a persistent plant—maybe why it’s been around for 55 million years. It also walks in the footsteps of mankind, thriving on disturbed soil. 

There’s a reason why brackens tend to huddle together in little herds other than spreading rhizomes. They exude chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants nearby. This is called allelopathy. One plant having a competitive edge over others due to the leaching of unique chemicals into the soil. With bracken ferns, the allelopathic effect may last as long as one year after the plant is gone. An amazing legacy. 

The ash of the bracken is full of potassium (potash). The alkali nature of the ash was a source of potash in the soap industry, glass-making and for making bleach. Then came the cheap alternative sources of alkali in the 1830s. By the 1860 there was no use for bracken ash in commerce.

The use of brackens in a garden is very uncommon. (The young “fiddle heads” are eaten in the spring after being boiled. Yet there is a spooky side, when the foliage is damaged hydrogen cyanide is produced, especially in the younger fronds.I don’t have the nerve to try them given all the toxicity of the young leaves.

But the green, lacy fronds of the spring are good for vegetable gardens. As in Europe, I have gathered the fronds in the spring, when they’re full of vigor and potassium. I dug a wide and deep trench to open the earth. Then I used the gathered fronds to fill the trench nearly half full. Next rich, brown soil is mounded over the freshly-cut foliage. I placed sliced potatoes on top of the warming-spring soil, and a mulch of crisp straw like thin blanket. The searching roots of the potatoes wander through the rich soil and soon find the extra potassium and thrive. These potatoes are more likely to be free of disease. A time-honored style of gardening has slipped “over the pond” from what was the former ruler of our colonies. This easy act of gardening joins two countries by the simple act of gardening. 

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2008

Visit Robert Kourik's web site to learn about his great gardening books.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion

Roots ain't sexy. But plants need them to be healthy.

Thus I wrote a book about how roots really grow and ways a gardeners can have a better garden via healthy roots - Roots Demystified, Change Your Gardening Habits to Help Roots Thrive.

Check out my web site for more information (sample pages) and how to order:

The book has been listed in Publisher's Weekly. They receive 1500 books per month and only list 450.

The best news came from the Midwest Book Review (one of the top 4 book reviewers for librarians):
“Superbly written and thoroughly 'user friendly', ‘Roots Demystified’ is profusely enhanced with twenty-five illustrative graphics showcasing extraordinary illustrations of excavated root systems in their entirety. A compendium of practical, comprehensive, and exceptionally well organized information, advice, tips, and observations that will benefit novice gardeners and seasoned professionals alike, ‘Roots Demystified’ is an excellent and strongly recommended addition to personal, professional, academic, and community library Gardening/Agriculture/Horticulture reference collections and supplemental reading lists.”

Here's my speaking schedule for now. 

March 30th. - On the radio on Michelle Anna Jordan's show "Mouthful" along with the extraordinary gardener Kate Frey of Fetzer Garden fame (who has also won prizes at the Chelsea Garden Flower Show in the UK.) 7-8PM on KRCB 91.1, in Santa Rosa CA 90.9 both on the FM dial.

April 5th - Book signing at Copperfield's Books in downtown Sebastopol. 11AM to noon.

April 15th (after paying your taxes - it's free!) - Oakmont, the Berger Center. 10-11AM (email me for directions -

May 3rd - Lecture at Harmony Farm & Garden Supply, Graton, CA 10-noon.

May 18th - Book signing at Sonoma Mission Gardens 1851 Craig Ave., Sonoma, CA 4-6PM. 

I hope to meet you at one of these events.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Where I Live and Garden.

I thought you might like to know a bit about where I live and garden.

Towering 1500-year-old virgin redwood trees, wind battered 125-foot Douglas firs, and majestic tan oaks surround my home and neighborhood. The hill I live on is about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. The ridge I live on meanders east-to-west and at 1234’, on the vineyard next to me the elevation, at 1245’ is the highest point south of the Russian river that separates the ocean’s marine influence from the hotter interior flatlands of Santa Rosa. This ridge divides the inland plain from the aquamarine, rich-blue Pacific ocean just five miles to the west of my home as a crow flies. I’m pretty far back in the woods.

It’s one-half mile from my house down the meandering gravel driveway to the mailbox at the blacktopped lane. Walking to get the newspaper, I track the types of animals passing through by studying their scat on the gravel. I watch spring unfold with the appearance of the diminutive, but glorious, redwood orchid. Until gophers got it, I watch each year for six years as a single fritillary bloomed along the fence line. And I observe the passing seasons in a rare patch of native grasslands with pale, blue-green bunch grasses; purple flowered Brodiaea (The small onion-like bulbs of Brodiaea were eaten by Native Americans and called “grass nuts.”); the tall, limber white flower heads of the soap root, the flat flowering head of a yarrow and paper-thin pink clarkias (also called godetias) in the summer.

Here, there is a combination of moderate, foggy coastal breezes and sunny, warm days and cooler nights in the summer and moderate, sunny winter days—when it’s not raining! Winter temperatures seldom drop below 320 F—the 25-year low was 15F. It has snowed only two times since I’ve been here. Summer temperatures used to rarely reach above 90F, until the summer of 2006. During that summer the temperature was over 1000F for weeks at a time starting mid-summer instead of the brief fall Indian summer heat. Hot days can see the humidity drop to as low as four percent. The nights usually stay below 60F in the summer and near or below 40F in the winter. Coupled with low humidity, I can no longer see myself living far from he coastal influence of the Pacific ocean. I’m less than 10 mile as the crow flies from those magical waters and glorious waves. My mind starts to do a meltdown at 900 F and I shiver and huddle indoors when temperatures sink to a lowly 250 F. This location has made me soft, but relaxed.

Rain falls usually from about October through April. The 35-year average rainfall on top of this cloud-grabbing ridge is 58 inches. The wettest winter was in 1982-1983 with 120 inches of rain. That winter, 20 inches fell in one 24-hour period. During any given year, it sometimes rains four inches in one hour. A well-drained yard, garden and gravel driveway is one top priority.

Summers are dry. This is a Mediterranean climate much like Greece, Southern France, Sicily, the middle elevations of the Chilean mountains, portions of South Africa, parts of Australia and both sides of the Gibraltar straits. Drought protection in the garden is a top priority. The well here is 265’ deep and nearly peters out by late fall—pumping only one- to two-gallons per hour sporadically. The 8,000 gallon water tank begins to drop come October and isn’t replenished until the winter rains have begun. I’ve had to truck in drinking water twice over the past 27 years. So, water conservation throughout the summer is essential. Such constraints lead me to figure out how to grow and ornamental garden, herbs and fruit trees with no irrigation—more on this later.

All rights reserved Copyright 2008

Visit Robert Kourik's web site to learn about his great gardening books.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Oh Deer!

It's early in the morning and the first of the graceful deer walks its favorite path from the woods, past the clay shards garden, and into the garden proper.

Alien plants that once were left alone by the deer now become snacks. Thirty years ago, as a new landscape gardener, I planted red-hot poker plants for their dramatic vertical stems topped by the flush of hot orange and yellow clusters of flowers, flowers that readily attract hummingbirds. I relied on these glorious plants until four years ago when the deer started to eat the flower heads. 

Now they eat the flower heads and the foliage to the ground. Similar casualties have been: the Flanders’s field poppies (They lasted four years, I was convinced the deer ate them to get high on the mind-soothing alkaloids—but alas, no morphine.), after 20 years the foliage of the glorious ‘Sunset’ rockrose with it’s hot-pink crape-paper flowers are reduce to stubble, a curious top-set “walking” onion lasted until just two years ago and is now eaten to the ground each summer as the local forage dries up, Euryops shrubs aren’t eaten, just the hot-yellow flowers negating the reason for planting them, the native sea pinks lasted only three years before the deer found them near my house, the native ginger was eaten back every fall only to be a lush thicket in the winter-the list goes on. I planted two types of ceanothus shrubs (the native “Summer Lilac” or tick brush—Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Julia Phelps’). The deer don’t eat the foliage. They just use the shrub to rub the velvet from their antler and destroy entire limbs. After four or five years they need to be replaced—because I love the rich violet color of the flowers. (Eating is not the only hazard. Once a deer simply laid down for a rest on top of a plant it doesn’t eat, gray santolina, thus breaking the shrub to death.

In the forest, the deer graze some on: the tender new growth of the huckleberry shrubs and new shoots of the western ferns; the lower limbs of the thimbleberry and new shoots of the native honeysuckle. They even browse the new growth of poison oak—which suits me fine.

It hurts my intellect, rattles my heart to forgive the deer as they graze upon native plants and evolve to consume well-established alien foliage and flowers. It’s also difficult to appreciate the grace and beauty of the does and their precious fawns when they give birth to two fawns a year compared to the more common birth of just one fawn many years ago, knowing the population is doubling every year due to the lack of enough predators or rampant disease. 

Luckily the deer have yet found the lavenders I grow tasty (nor the gophers). But an ominous hint of the future might be playing out as I’ve seen the naked stem of French lavenders’ blossoms. Having written a the book on lavender, if I loose these plants to the deer I might just throw in the towel (or shrub).

It’s a very difficult horticultural dance to waltz with the changing habits of the deer and strike a balance between alien and native shrubbery. There’s nothing very spiritual about wanting to strangle to death a svelte deer as it grazes on a beloved plant or favored fruit tree. The fawns are a precious addition to each spring, but a danger as they graze in my garden each summer. Deer are one of the best ways to try and deal with attachment. I often loose the battle.

Eight-foot deer fences start popping up when city folk move to the country to protect prized roses and a myriad of other plants that are just entrĂ©es for foraging deer. This leads to a concentration-camp look with the strand of barb wire at the eight foot level. It need not be that way. 

I learned of a special fence that had a 20-year track record of keeping deer out. It was only 4 feet high. But there were two 4-foot high fences 5 feet apart. Since deer can’t talk, I’m left to guess why this seemingly uncomplicated design is so effective. The most common theory is that the deer can’t see enough room between the two fences to land and then rebound over the inner fence. For whatever reason, this configuration seems to work on both flat and sloped sites. (This double fence may not work in cold-weather areas where winters are snowy and harsh and deer become desperate. For one thing, snow drifts might make it easy for the deer to simply walk up to and over the four foot height. For much of the west, it’s a solution worth experimenting with.) 

I built such a fence 18 years ago for a friend and no deer have crossed it. Once a mighty buck got trapped between the two fences. Luckily, he jumped out the way he came, away from the prized roses, strawberry plants, fruit trees and countless other delectables. If you don’t move to fast you can slowly walk an animal back to where it breached the perimeter to see how it got in.

I rent my home and the layout of the house to the road and the garden would make it very difficult to construct. So I’ve settled upon planting exotics.

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

All rights reserved, Copyright 2008

Visit Robert Kourik's web site to learn about his great gardening books.

One of Luther Burbank's Legacies - the Plumcot

Luther Burbank developed more than the potato that feeds those who patronize MacDonalds. Burbank is probably best known to the home gardener for his selection called the "Shasta Daisy".

My plumcot trees are nearly done blooming. Only one light rain during its two weeks of bloom. Heavy crop last year. So, I not sure what amount of fruit I'll have this year.

This tree was developed by our local horticultural wizard Luther Burbank in the early 1900s. This is the first, true hybrid-that I know of-of an  apricot with a plum. He named it 'Apex'. He did countless crosses by hand pollination and grew thousands of seedlings before selecting this fruit. 

The first bite as the sweet, delicate aroma and taste of an apricot. This is quickly followed by the texture and flavor of a yellow Japanese plum. 

The fruit probably never became commercial as the tree blooms very early in the year and fruiting can be wiped by late winter rains, the fruit is a bit small, the flavor is subtle, they don't ship well, and they ripen over a period of weeks. This last one is the deal breaker for commercial success. Having to come back over-and-over to harvest a crop is too costly for "the trade". But this is exactly what makes it such a wonderful tree for my home orchard. I can gather the succulent fruit for weeks. There are countless fruits, nuts, and vegetables that only a gardener can grow and will never be found in a typical supermarket.

There must be be special trees developed near your garden. Let's find out how many selections came from old American orchardists as compared to heritage trees "imported" from Europe and elsewhere we can find. Write me about your favorite fruit or nut. I have plenty more examples of unsung breeders of fruit and nut trees in northern California. Ciao/Chow

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

All rights reserved, Copyright 2008