Al Kyte’s Moraga Yard – A Series of Videos for the 2022 Bringing Back the Natives Tour

Each Friday for the past 18 or so months, I’ve met with Al Kyte and we’ve worked together on his native garden in Moraga. I look forward to every Friday afternoon. Al and Barbara’s garden is a joy to experience, and I learn things each time I visit.

Al’s yard has been featured on the annual Bringing Back the Natives tour for the past 14 years. This year’s in-person tour will feature Al’s garden on April 30/May 1. The virtual tour will take place the weekend before.

I’m hosting Al’s videos for this year’s event on my YouTube page. Here’s a full preview.

A week of cold overnight temperatures looms

[updated 12/29/21, 9am:] Saturday and Sunday morning (1/1 and 1/2/22) now looking like the coldest periods, with temps predicted below freezing from 4am to 8am on Sunday.

Between early Tuesday morning 12/28 and Monday 1/3/22, we’ll see an average 6am temperature of 34 degrees. It will be colder; it will be warmer, depending on your microclimate and changes in the forecast.

But it will be COLD in Orinda, Moraga, and Lafayette. 

This would be the longest stretch of frigid weather we’ve seen in Lamorinda in years. We’ve entered that time of year where it rains (thankfully), but immediately following the precipitation, it gets cold.

Many of our most popular landscape and container plants can survive temps below 34. Some can deal with cold and wet roots. However, some, especially succulents, can’t handle both. Especially 6 or 7 consecutive days of this kind of cold, when the ground is saturated.

Time to haul out the frost cloth, if we haven’t already.

I like to drive at least 3 stakes that are taller than the plants into the ground, and drape frostcloth over the stakes so the cloth isn’t touching the plants. Frostcloth still conducts cold, so it’s best to have an airgap between the plants and the cloth. And batten down the cloth at ground level with rocks or bricks to keep drafts at bay.

Good luck out there. And stay warm.

Moraga Garden Center – A Farewell

 

Moraga Garden Center closed on October 31, 2021.

I worked for Kenny Murakami at MGC from 2017 through 2020. I often find myself thinking about my time there.

I learned so much, and I rely upon what I learned each day — with my garden, and the gardens of my clients. I learned more about plants and gardening in those three years than I did the previous forty. 

I learned how to listen to customers. I learned botanical names of plants. I learned how to water, how and when to fertilize and prune. I learned about vegetables, and when to plant them, and how to tend them.

I learned about garden pests and weeds. I learned about least-toxic alternatives regarding herbicides and pesticides. 

I learned which bamboos were invasive, and which were better behaved. I learned how to deal with management and mitigation of invasive / running bamboo. 

I learned about dormant bare-root fruit trees.  I learned how to keep an decades-old, decaying greenhouse from falling down. 

I learned to admit when I didn’t know the answer to something. I learned where to go to learn the answers.

I learned confidence.  

I learned about the Lamorinda community. I learned about my neighbors.

And I learned about myself.

Kenny was usually a patient man, taking time to coach me, humoring my lack of experience, and tolerating my many questions. He could be a tough boss, however. If he had to tell you something twice (or three times, especially), he let you know about it.

During the summer and early fall of 2020, it was my job to water the entire nursery — something like 4000 plants — three times a week.

If I missed watering something (or overwatered it), I heard about it. It didn’t matter if it was 105 degrees. Missing a plant wasn’t an option. 

At the time, I was, sometimes, exasperated by the criticism.

Now, I realize, it made me a better gardener. 

When talking with clients and friends about gardening, I often hear myself using the same words Kenny used when he was educating me about plant selection and care, soil science, and botany.  

 I already miss going to Moraga Garden Center on Saturdays to soak up the park-like atmosphere, talking with my former colleagues, and seeing the cats, Salvia and Sprout. I miss geeking out over gardening with the regular customers.

I miss being able to drop by and pick up plants, soil, and supplies for my clients, and for my own garden. 

I find it difficult to envision our community without the resource of Moraga Garden Center.

Thank you, Kenny, for being such a wonderful teacher, and mentor, of sorts. Thank you for maintaining a botanical sanctuary, and being such a reliable fount of knowledge.

Your positive impact on local gardening and gardeners is as appreciated as it is immeasurable. 

100+ Temperatures by this Thursday?

Lamorinda:

Beginning Tuesday, and peaking on Thursday, we’re looking at some of the warmest temperatures thus far this year:

https://www.wunderground.com/forecast/us/ca/orinda/KCAORIND17

Considering our microclimates, and WeatherUnderground’s established track record of underestimating high temps, it’s realistic to expect we could see over 100 degrees by mid-afternoon this Thursday. Usually we ramp up to this kind of heat in July or August. However, since we’re faced with an extended “heat event” this early in the season:

*** Please consider deep-watering BEFORE the heat hits.***

There is a significant delay between watering and most plants’ ability to actually make full use the water, and spread it to the furthermost tips of the branches and leaves. Ideally, this would be done by Tuesday evening / Wednesday morning (Wednesday evening at the latest) in order to prepare for Thursday’s projected baking.

Those who only utilize drip irrigation should take this especially seriously; supplemental hand-watering will be necessary. Container plants (hello, terra-cotta pots!) will be particularly vulnerable to heat and the kind of late-afternoon winds we’re seeing increasingly often. But, as our water table is already dangerously low during this drought, watering plants that are in the ground — deeply and infrequently — is nearly always better than watering shallowly and frequently. This is why I like hand-watering and soaker hoses better than drip irrigation, or sprinklers.

For those who rely on sprinklers / overhead watering: please resist the temptation to turn such irrigation on during the warmest part of the day. It’s estimated that up to 40% of water is lost to evaporation when using sprinklers.

That said, on Thursday, when humidity drops and temps inch towards 100, it can be helpful to briefly “foliar water” our more sensitive flora — especially near the tips of the branches — during the warmest part of the day. This temporarily raises humidity and lessens the possibility of leaf scorch and wilt. I do this with my azaleas, camellias, bamboo and Japanese Maples, especially.

See you out there. Stay cool — and hydrate!

Cynthia Brian’s March 31 Column in Lamorinda Weekly


Other than the monolithic hedges on the left, this yard is about 90% natives.

I was just catching up on my Lamorinda Weeklies during morning coffee. This means I also had my weekly dose of Cynthia Brian’s gardening column.

In her March 31 installment, Cynthia covers critters, and methods by which we can attempt to derail their appetite for our plants. This gives me an opportunity to rant about one of my favorite subjects (no, not Brian’s column. . . although there’s a bit of that, too):

Native plants.

The majority of California’s native plants are much less tempting to deer and rabbits; many non-natives / exotics are like dessert to critters. When placed in an unprotected yard, the latter are the tempting sweets of the plant world, so far as animals are concerned.

Nowhere in Cynthia’s column is there direct mention of natives as the best deterrent. Yes, there’s a sidebar plant list in a green box on page 14 (common names are used, not Latin names; both should be referenced in such a list).

Sage (Salvia) is mentioned, however, Cynthia doesn’t distinguish between native Salvias and non-natives (both are unattractive to deer and bunnies). She also recommends Elderberries (Sambucus) and Honeysuckle (Lonicera), both edible. Both are also much more prevalent in non-native cultivars than native species, however. But if you search for the native varieties at local nurseries, you’ll usually find them.

Native species and cultivars are preferred for desirable wildlife such as birds (especially hummingbirds), bees, and other pollinators.

Brian recommends we “drive around [our] neighborhood to see what kinds of plants are thriving.” This approach runs the risk of creating an “echo chamber” of front yards. I encourage my landscaping clients to be different! Plant a front yard of nothing but natives. Create and maintain pollinator habitat. Our suburban streets will benefit from such non-conformity (and it’s probably best not to get me started on How To Kill Your Lawn).

Elsewhere in the piece, Cynthia invokes a preference for larger plants because animals are less likely to denude something so big. There’s a tradeoff, here, however.

Larger plants are more difficult to establish, especially in hot weather (the cliche “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is apt here, and, obviously, losing a $60 plant hurts more than the death of a $7 plant). If they’re kept in containers, they need more water, often daily in hotter weather. In pots, they’re also more vulnerable to blowing over in the wind.

As I have harped upon before, gardening and gardens benefit from a grasp (embrace, even) of nuance. Generalized plant info can be helpful, but, more often, a more detailed overview is best. I will always shoehorn natives into such overviews.

Vegetable Gardens

With the spring equinox looming this weekend, tomato, pepper and cucumber season seem near. However, it’s too early to plant any of these in Lamorinda and much of Northern California. We need a succession of warm nights before the soil reaches a temperature that can accommodate new plantings of summer vegetables.

But work can begin on the beds and pots. If you have raised beds or containers from last summer’s vegetable garden, turn over and fluff up the soil. Add organic compost, like Firmulch (no more than 1/3rd compost to 2/3rds soil), and it doesn’t hurt to renew (not necessarily replace) the old soil with new, high-quality potting soil. For tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce / kale beds / pots, add some powdered calcium. I will often mix in a bit of organic tomato/vegetable food when I fold over the soil, as well.

If you buy tomatoes now, keep them indoors in a warm, bright window and make sure the soil stays moist. If this year is like the past five or so years, it may be best to plant them after April 15. With cucumbers, zucchini, and the like, I usually wait until June.

Should I Fertilize Before Heavy Rain?

[addendum 10/23/21]:

A Facebook friend wrote:

Q: Interesting perspective, Paul – how does this differ for time release fertilizers?

A: Time-release pellets slowly dissolve over a period of weeks or months. In a 5-inch downpour (as is predicted for 10/24/21) the pellets will dissolve more slowly than granular fertilizer. I’d still hold off until the rain relents and the soil drains somewhat, however. Any phosphorus / nitrogen runoff into gutters and storm drains is undesirable.

Water-soluble/granular fertilizers — ones with roughly the consistency of dust — are the ones absolutely to be avoided until we see a 10-day forecast of clear weather.

=====================================

Lamorinda is forecast to receive close to four inches of rain between Tuesday afternoon (January 26th) and February 2nd. Heaviest rain will be Tuesday through Thursday morning, but it’ll probably rain every day for 7 days (we might get a brief break on Saturday). We haven’t had a storm like this since the winter of 2017/18. The ground will be saturated by Wednesday night, and water will begin pooling and running off. There may be flooding.

As Carrie Bradshaw used to sagely intone, I got to thinking.

Isn’t it a great idea to fertilize right before a heavy rain? Think of all that plant food soaking down into the root systems.

No. It’s probably not the best idea.

Lawns, especially, use up a lot of fertilizer, and a lot of it runs off into storm drains in heavy rains. Large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus aren’t good for bodies of water (where most storm drains empty). It causes algae blooms, dead zones, and other bad things.

Besides, you want the fertilizer to collect around the roots and stay there. You don’t want it diluted by nearly four inches of rain.

So hold off on the plant food until things dry out a bit. Container plants, especially, have all the nutrients flushed out by extended, heavy rains. So make sure your potted outdoor plants get some food. 0-10-10 fertilizer is good at this time of year.

Regarding Cynthia Brian’s August 19th Gardening Column in Lamorinda Weekly

I have a couple comments about this particular installment. I’m reluctant to even link to it, because some of it is just…wrong.

* Brian writes “If you planted a succulent garden earlier in the season, you don’t need to waste any water by running the irrigation system.”

This is a broad generalization that doesn’t hold true, in many instances. I’ve had clients tell me “I don’t know why that cactus died. I didn’t think they needed water.” Succulents are a deep and wide class of thousands of plants, with varying cultural needs. Most need supplemental water during the warmest months of the year, especially if they were recently planted, and/or are in containers. In mid-August we had several consecutive days of 100-plus-degree weather. Water your succulents, especially if they’re in containers. Water until it drains out the drain holes. And never plant a succulent in a pot that can’t drain.

* Later in the same piece, Cynthia states “orchids are trouble-free and undemanding. Just leave them alone, put an ice cube once a week in their container, and let them beautify your home.”

This kind of blanket statement drives me bonkers. The majority of indoor orchids like to be be very wet, then very dry, for the most part. The ice cube fallacy can kill orchids. Take your indoor orchids to the sink when they’re dry, and let the water run through them and drain out completely. Then let them dry out a bit, preferably outside, where there’s a breeze. If the nights are below 45 degrees, don’t leave indoor orchids outside. Never let an orchid sit in a saucer full of water, and no plant is going to benefit from having ice-cold water dribble across a small area of its rootball. Oh, and if your orchid was potted in soil when you bought it (as are most mass-market plants sold at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Home Depot, and the like), it will nearly certainly benefit from being repotted in bark, and fertilized regularly during the growing season.

As with any plant, think “nuance”. What’s best for one species (or family of plants) doesn’t necessarily work for others. Beware of general plant-care advice. If in doubt, research the particular plant online. Find out where it’s native, and what the conditions are like in its native habitat. If you have any questions, email me via the Contact link over there on the top right. I’m happy to help.

Cymbidium Repotting Season is Here

Are your cymbidium blooms fading? Or did they bloom at all this year? Were your cymbidiums potted in soil instead of bark? If not, has your orchid bark medium turned to mulch?

Regardless, now’s the time to consider dividing/repotting, and switching to a high-nitrogen, orchid-specific fertilizer through September. Need more details? Let’s talk. Contact me at paul at dobiemeadows dot com.

Have You Planted Your Tomatoes Yet?

Last summer, we picked many of our tomatoes early and ripened them on the windowsill because the squirrels in the backyard became adept at raiding them.

Here in the Lafayette / Moraga / Orinda area, it’s been an interesting early Spring.

Today the temperature was in the high 80s. Two days ago, it was 25 degrees cooler. Tonight the low will be 55.

However, the-ten day forecast shows a string of nights where temps might be down the the mid-40s beginning Monday morning, the 29th. This isn’t good.

I’ve bought tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers and basil. But I haven’t planted them yet, and I’m not going to until I see a string of nights over 50 degrees. I’m “hardening off” the vegetables in their original containers, meaning I move them out into the sun over the course of a few days, and I keep them hydrated and keep an eye out for burning or wilting. I move them close to the house at night, or, on colder nights, bring them inside.

These vegetables need consistently warm soil for the best start. You can help by fluffing up the soil in your beds or containers or planting area daily, and adding organic compost while you wait for warmer nights. This helps warm the soil, day-by-day.

If you’ve already planted your tomatoes, cover them with frost cloths on nights where the temp is forecast to drop below 50.