Sow There!: Planting put on hold by the big, bad freeze 3-2-18

Squirrels did not grab them all. Acorns abound at my mother's squirrel-less yard, and will soon become teaching tools for kindergartners.
Squirrels did not grab them all. Acorns abound at my mother’s squirrel-less yard, and will soon become teaching tools for kindergartners. Photo by Heather Hacking

The daily plant protection patrol continues. I’m lucky because I have a window of daylight between student-teaching and my night classes. I can uncover my outdoor tender plants in the morning when I leave for school, then cover them again before darkness creeps in.

Plants may still die, but at least I will know I tried.

This has been a wacky year. Late last spring I planted Vinca rosea — a stalwart summer bloomer. In a normal year, the first frost would have arrived in the late fall and the Vinca would have looked like boiled spinach. The plant survives and I’m trying to see if it will bloom again this spring. Every morning I uncover the plants. Every evening I cover it again. It’s interesting when we watch ourselves fighting probably lost causes, like hoping to lose that last five pounds or finding a long lost cat. Yet, gardeners like a challenge.

Thankfully, the cool-season spinach and kale, planted last fall and again this month, should fare well through the shivers. Good thing, because I saw a lot of people at the Saturday farmers market buying lettuce and spinach sprouts from Sherri Scott. Sherri has the beautiful multi-tiered cart filled with six packs of new plants for just a few dollars. If you’re uncertain about planting by seed, buying lettuce and other winter/early-spring greens is a safer bet. You can spend $1.75 or more on a packet of seeds, then totally botch the timing and end up with bare spots in your garden. When you buy a six pack of plants you save yourself from feeling inadequate.

I’m not much of a salad-fixer. I grow spinach, lettuce and kale, but it seldom makes it to the colander. I’m much more likely to fill up on fiber by using one hand to shove spinach into my mouth, and the other hand to hold the hose. This keeps me away from the calories of salad dressing.


During this recent frost, I have not bothered to cover the spinach and kale. I did some research in 2016 and learned that kale can survive to temperatures as low as 10 degrees (Fahrenheit). Spinach will bounce back after 20 degree temps, and lettuce can stand it cool to 25. If the temperatures dip to less than 20 degrees, I know where to find Sherri Scott at the farmers market.


A few of you may remember my seed-planting lesson I tried with third graders last semester. The students planted sugar snap seeds, with joy, but about half of the seeds did not sprout. I’ll blame the heat wave last fall, but there was also some “operator error” involved on my part.

Amazingly, some of the seeds thrived.

My thoughtful (amazing, gifted, gracious) former mentor teacher (Diane Clark) sent me a video clip.

“Miss Hacking,” the third grader reported in the video, “I just wanted to tell you that my snow peas fully grew. There’s beans on them and everything. Thank you for giving me them.”

That pretty much made up for every mistake I could have made.


In a few weeks, I’ll teach my very important lesson, which helps decide whether I get to really become a teacher. My new (amazing, gifted, gracious) mentor teacher has allowed me to choose a reading comprehension lesson about the life cycle of oak trees. I am not making this stuff up. It’s right there in the lesson sequence.

When I saw the lesson I immediately got cracking. Where could I get acorns in February? I don’t know about you, but the squirrels bury or gobble any nuts within a four-block radius of my house.

Luckily, someone must have poisoned the squirrels in my mother’s neighborhood in Redding. She was able to walk out her back door and gather a big bag of acorns.

“I hope you aren’t disappointed,” my mother apologized. “But some of the acorns have already started to sprout.”

I was thrilled. Page 7 of our big book has pictures of sprouted acorns. My kindergarten students will be able to hold them in their hands!

Hoping to have more fun, I placed some of those sugar snap pea seeds in a little bowl with a paper towel and a few drops of water. You guessed it. They sprouted. My plan is to place them in plastic bags filled with soil and tape them to a sunny windowsill, if this cold snap goes away. Who knows. Maybe we’ll even send those acorns home with children and hope for a video report when my current kindergartners start first grade.

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Sow There! — Hiding it quick, a game plan for house cleaning 2-16-18

The junk drawer: a place where you can't find anything quickly.
The junk drawer: a place where you can’t find anything quickly. Photo by Heather Hacking

A house guest was due to arrive recently, and my grand plan was to clean the house all day Saturday. If I worked all day, and into the night, I could certainly sort through the chaos of the previous three months.

But first, I had to mow the lawn. The bold spring weather and that trickle of rain had caused a grass growth spurt. If I waited another week to mow, the grass might clog my electric lawn mower.

Certainly, mowing the lawn wouldn’t take too long, then I’d find the Ajax under the sink and get to work indoors. The sunshine felt good.

Yet, you can’t mow the lawn without noticing hundreds of other things that need immediate attention. The lettuce and kale needed watering. Then I saw weeds. The weeds needed to be pulled right then and there, don’t you know?


Some people talk to their plants, or even sing. The idea is that the plants will “hear” the gentle encouragement and become stronger, faster, better. I believe that plants must also talk to each other, especially weeds.

One day I’ll yank a basketful of common groundsel. The weeds that remain start screaming, heard only by other weeds nearby.

“Hurry up. Grow faster,” the weeds bellow in chorus. “If you don’t hurry up and make flowers today, you’ll never reproduce.”

By the time I return to the yard, those weeds have made enough flowers to decorate a float at the Tournament of Roses Parade.


Mowing the lawn took less than half an hour. However, I yanked weeds until high noon.

When you have a cleaning deadline, the moment arrives when you want to shove a bunch of stuff into a closet or under the bed. My house is small and I ran out of hiding places long ago. The logical remedy was to start making piles of things to donate to a local thrift store. Soon, my entire bed was covered in clothes and I was trying things on faster than a Fashion Week runway model.

After a trip to drop off my donations, and a stop for a mid-cleaning reward of frozen yogurt, it was time to get serious about cleaning the house. I reasoned that if I ran out of time, I could at least sweep the floor and run a rag over everything made of porcelain or stainless steel. But first I needed to run a load of laundry. I’m a good host. My guest deserved clean, clean sheets and a clean towel.

Thank goodness my house guest has known me for 20 years. If the house had actually been clean, he might have wondered if he arrived at the right house.


After the lawn, laundry, charity dash and yogurt, it was time to start putting things in the most logical placed I could find — quickly.

Most houses have a junk drawer — that place where you’ll find a hammer, thumb tacks, fuses, a flashlight and everything else you shoved in the drawer the last time you cleaned for a house guest.

My junk drawer would barely close or open when I tried to shove a few more treasures inside. Glow sticks, fly paper, a cheap pumpkin carving kit, googly eye, exacto knife refills, Gorrilla glue, wood glue, Gorilla tape, multi-colored balloons … I found that lost bag of Chuck E. Cheese’s game tokens, clearly marked as having no monetary value. Bottles of bubbles given as party favors, cords to unknown electronic devices, a pedometer. I could have spent all day finding alternative homes for those seldom-needed items. Yet, by this time it was time to take the clean sheets out of the dryer.

I’m now convinced that the only logical contents for the junk drawer are vital tools and a $20 bill. If you need anything else, take the money and drive to the hardware store.


On Super Bowl Sunday I popped by a party at Cheree and Dan’s house. I wanted to do an act of kindness and be the first guest to cut into the six-inch high chocolate cake everyone was too shy to slice. While rummaging for a cake knife, I found the household’s junk drawer.

What the heck? Cheree’s junk drawer opened easily. Several plastic tubs contained rubber bands, pens, plumbers tape, and spare keys, among other logically arranged items. There was even room for a binder filled with important emergency contact information. I quietly shut the drawer and decided I had no business knowing that other people have organized lives.


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3-13-14 Drought, freeze and neglect can’t make this garden stop

Work, and a lot of it, has really cut into my gardening life.

A reporting assignments took me to within a few blocks of my house Wednesday, and I was tempted to play hookey and pull a few weeds.

Those few days after a rain are great for grabbing those greedy takeover artists.

Instead, I found myself back at the office, daydreaming about leaving work early. Maybe I could sneak out and no one would notice.

Of course, some frustrating and important new task arrived, and it was nearly dark by the time I reached my front door. Perhaps the garden is so inviting because I’m doubting this beauty can last. We’ve been talking about drought and destruction for so many months, perhaps gardening will become a luxury.

Will I be wistfully looking online at photos from Washington state, “remembering” when real flowers bloomed outside my window? Will gardeners in the Sacramento Valley stick plastic tulips into sandy garden beds filled with cacti?

Yet, growing has always been temporary.

We work, things grow, they die, we work some more.

This winter things wilted and frost bit.

I guess I temporarily gave up the urge to grow.

When I did drag the hose around the yard, it was one of those place-saver tasks.

Then one day, the yard, and I, woke up.

When I wasn’t looking, daffodils sprung from the recently-parched soil.

The buds of drought-tolerant lavender have formed, waiting for bees.

When I looked again, three waxy, red poppies had spread wide, exposing their inner-workings to the sun. I looked again and the petals had retracted as the sun dipped over the fence line.

It didn’t take much to hack back the edges of the lantana and star jasmine that had turned brown during the deepest cold.

If the plants are going to look beautiful, I might as well help a little so I can take credit.

Heck. If I sprinkled some seeds, maybe next time I look, something new will have grown.

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3-10-2016 Blooms are fleeting but cheeseweed is poised to be a problem

Cheeseweed, aka “little mallow.” Photo By University of California

Behold! Spring!

(Imagine your arms wide open, head tilted toward the sky like the children from the Peanuts cartoon.)

If you linger for a moment, you’ll notice the trees are awake. These first leaves of the new season are a pale green, and will soon darken as the foliage matures.

Why do we love things that come and go so quickly — sunsets, rainbows, shooting stars … ? Maybe because we look intently when we know they will soon be gone.

If you take a drive into the foothills right now, you’ll note the “young” growth at the tips of the evergreen branches, creating a bi-color effect. This is especially true of cypress trees.

Just like puppies and the terms of our credit cards, plants change before we know it. One day we’ll gawk at almond blooms. After one solid storm, those almond petals cover the orchard floor.

Pink star magnolia flowers ( will wow you today and look like sidewalk mush tomorrow.

Take pictures. They really do last longer.

In my neighborhood the lilac is on the scene and forsythia is heralding the season. Yellow petals of Virginia creeper are scattered across the yard, looking like confetti after Mardi Gras.

Its easy to get wrapped up in the rapture of new beginnings. Yet, there is work to be done.


This week I had two vacation days. I’d love to say I worked for hours in the yard. However, my chiropractor has warned me to take it easy. A recent vow is to yank at least one weed while walking to the car, and at least one weed when walking from the car to the house.

With the soil wet after recent rain, weed-yanking is an easy task.

In my yard, I have a new offender called little mallow ( also known as “cheeseweed.”

This garden bully has a sturdy taproot that is nearly impossible to yank once the soil hardens.

I tried last year and gained new respect for this plant as a garden foe.

Last year I spent a good deal of time yanking mature cheeseweed plants. This year hundreds of tiny cheeseweed sprouts occupy this same terrain.

Young seedlings, by the way, are a great job for the garden hoe.


March and April are tricky months for the home gardener. We start seeing plants for sale in front of the grocery stores. Naturally, this makes us think its time to buy plants.

However, I warn you to be a bit more cautious.

Head for your favorite local nursery and talk with the knowledgable staff. Rather than planting warm-weather plants, what about lettuce and peas? The nursery crew may also talk to you about other plants that will fit the season and the current drought conditions.

You can also chat with Sherri Scott, who has a beautiful plant cart at the Saturday farmers market in Chico. She’ll set you up with vegetables and herbs suitable for planting now.


This reminds me, you can buy one-gallon containers bursting with tulips at the market right now, while supplies last. Charlie (and his son) were there last week, and I’m guessing they will still have tulips this Saturday.

I recently asked Charlie his opinion about my hyacinth bulbs.

Hyacinth bulbs can be grown indoors by placing the bulb in a specialty vase. The key is to have the base of the bulb just barely touching the water.

Most garden books suggest simply tossing the tired bulb into the compost pile. The reason is that the bulb has used most of its stored energy to produce the bloom.

Charlie agreed it can’t hurt to put those hyacinth bulbs in a the ground right now. The worst thing that can happen is the bulbs will rot in the ground. Best case scenario, I’ll forget about them and they’ll bloom next spring.

As with any spent bulb, remove the flower stalk. Keep the leaves. This is very important. The leaves contain stored energy that will be reabsorbed by the bulb.

This year my experiment is to place the bulbs, roots and all into a big pot filled with soil. The green stems are still poking above the soil. This way, the leaves will die back on their own. Later I’ll tuck the pot near the side of the house and let them go dormant over the next several months. Later this summer I’ll decide whether to dig them up for storage or let them remain in the pot.

My decision will be based on whether I need that particular pot to grow something else.

. Other contacts @HeatherHacking on Twitter and Facebook.

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3-17-2016 How to make a backyard compost sifter

For best results, a compost pile needs to be at least three feet high and three feet wide. Mark Stemen looks into his pile of rotting stuff Tuesday.
For best results, a compost pile needs to be at least three feet high and three feet wide. Mark Stemen looks into his pile of rotting stuff Tuesday.Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record

Life doesn’t need to be complicated.

For the past 20 years my method for compost has been to toss fruit and vegetable scraps into a hole in the ground. When the hole became a mound, I covered the entire mess with garden soil. There were a few years when I was ambitious and actually turned the pile, but usually not.

A while ago we moved into a new house. We chose to start a designated compost pile in the corner of the yard farthest from the house, in the elbow of the split-rail fence.

This provides plenty of aeration and gives a certain “ghetto chic” look to the back 40.

About two years have passed and I’m certain there’s some really good, enchanted soil under the more recent apple cores and coffee grounds.

But how, exactly, should I harvest that super-soil?

I decided to visit Mark Stemen, who said he would be at his garden plot at Oak Way Park one morning this week.

I’ve known Dr. Mark a long time. When I think back to the 1990s, I recall Dr. Mark was on the compost fast-track.

He was learning about nitrogen-to-carbon ratios and cooking compost tea. He was amped up and rattled off natural additives that would make his pile cook hotter and transform faster.

It’s still a bit dizzying when I think back.

In this article from 2010,, Dr. Mark had invited me to his back yard when he was brewing black molasses and Norwegian sea kelp. Full of glee, the Chico State University professor raved about million of microbes and fungi.

Luckily, this is exactly the type of thing that makes me giddy.

When I caught up with the esteemed soil-feeder this week, he said he’s taking things more slowly these days.

“I’ve gone from Guy Fieri to Ellie Krieger,” he said, using a reference so obscure I had to go online and learn about famous chefs.

Stemen said he still aerates microbes to make compost tea, but he lets nature do the bulk of the work.

Several large circular wire containers are located on his garden plot at Oak Way Park community garden. They’re formed by pieces of loose chicken wire. The minimum size for good compost is 3-by-3-feet, he explained.

He doesn’t add weeds to the compost, because most of the material will not be reaching the high temperatures that will kill weed seeds.

Stemen started these particular piles in late September, and added more material as the year went along. The leaves from Oak Way Park are great for adding to the piles, he said.

This week he was ready for compost harvest.

The outside of the bins still contains dry, flaky material, which has not yet broken down. In the center of the pile is the good stuff.

What I wanted to learn was how to sift through the compost.

Stemen had a large wheelbarrow placed near one of the compost bins.

Next, he showed me his hand-crafted sifter. Basically, this is a big screen, with 1/2-inch square metal mesh stretched across a frame.

He bought two 8-foot-long 2-by-3-inch boards. He cut off two feet off the end of each board, and used these to connect the two boards for the frame. Excess wood extends on either side, creating handles. He also added a piece of wood across the center, so the screen would not sag.

Next, he sifts the nearly finished compost through the screen, with the wooden device resting on top of the wheelbarrow. Leaves that are only partially decomposed remain on top of the mesh. With grubby fingers he demonstrated how these unfinished bits make great mulch.

The soil was moving with worms, big and small, which is a great sign of great soil. There were other bugs, including sow bugs, aka pill bugs or rolypolys. Stemen said most insects you find in your compost prefer decaying matter. When you add the compost to the soil, these bugs will mostly leave your plants alone. If they do go after plants, it will be the new sprouts.

Earwigs are an exception, and may nibble at your vegetable plants.

If you’re worried, you can pick these out as the compost plops into the wheelbarrow.

 Other contacts @HeatherHacking on Twitter and Facebook.

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3-3-2016 Weeds can see you when you’re sleeping

Here's the weed some folks call Velcro weed. It sticks to your shoe and the hind legs of the cat.
Here’s the weed some folks call Velcro weed. It sticks to your shoe and the hind legs of the cat.Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record

I don’t know about you, but I think I really need to get my hands dirty this weekend.

One day I’m amazed by how well the lettuce is growing, the next day I’m picking Velcro weeds off the cat.

Weeds have some built-in mechanism that lets them know humans will leave them alone in early spring.

Predictably, we head to Horseshoe Lake when the weather first turns beautiful. We never think about staying home to pull common groundsel from the ground.

Weeds know when our cars pull away from the driveway. This triggers them to grow two inches, produce flowers and cast seeds into the afternoon breeze.

We arrive home after dark because we languished at Shuberts Ice Cream after a hike up and down monkey face.

Last week I asked my boyfriend to buy more string for the weed whacker. I think the tall grass actually heard our conversation. We still have no string for the whacker and the tall grass has gone to seed.


When in doubt, we can blame the drought for more weeds in the yard.

Once upon a time I would walk the perimeter of the yard each morning and most nights. I was curious to see if the dianthus had bloomed or whether the buds had opened on the grape vine.

Each time I made a circle in the yard I yanked at weeds in my path.

Now I have potted plants at the front door and lettuce growing in a black plastic truck-bed liner.

If I walk a circle around the yard it’s because I want privacy while talking on the phone.

Weeds are also going crazy in our yards because we aren’t filling up space with new plants from the nursery.


From what I’ve heard, we’re due for another blast of wet weather. This means pulling weeds is easy, and we won’t be in the park working on a pre-tan.


I called my buddy Bob Scoville over at the Glenn County Master Gardener program. He is one of the nice volunteers who take classes to help answer our garden questions for free.

You can call them in Glenn County 2-4 p.m. Wednesdays at 865-1107.

In Butte County, reach a knowledgeable plant person 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays or 1-4 p.m. Thursdays by calling 538-7201.

Bob said he attended a recent workshop where one of the big discussions was choosing the right hoe.

I own a hoe, but frankly I forget how much damage I could do with a tool on a stick. Usually I want to yank those plants from the roots with my bare hands.

Hoes are perfect when the plants are mere seedlings. They’re also great for back-breaking jobs.

If you think about Velcro weeds, they naturally stick together. Using a hoe to pull Velcro weeds would be like spinning cotton candy.

Here’s a cool link to a longer discussion about different types of hoes:


I also checked in with Jerry Mendon at Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise, and asked specifically about apply pre-emergent chemicals to the yard.

He said March is the month if you are going to try a pre-emergent, particularly for crabgrass. The tricky part is the timing, Jerry noted. You want to catch it just before the seeds from last year have a chance to sprout.

If you get on it too soon, the rain”washes the material away, he said.

One product people seem to like is called Amaze, the long-time gardener said.

“Here at the nursery we put down gravel” to control the weeds, he said.

. Other contacts @HeatherHacking on Twitter and Facebook.

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Sow There!: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago 2-2-18

Sow There!: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago

There's no better view on the way home from work than a color-filled sky.
There’s no better view on the way home from work than a color-filled sky. Photo by Heather Hacking

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”

This was a quote my friend Martha posted on Facebook a few days ago. Since then, I’ve been noticing trees and have been thankful someone planted them.

This semester I’m a student teacher in a kindergarten class near Orland. I like to take the back roads. My route runs parallel to the river, then takes a jog through the orchards. Last Friday I passed a group of men, dressed in white and unloading boxes of bees. There was a light rain and I followed a rainbow almost all the way back to Chico — colors dipping down into the lines of bare branches.

Whenever I see a rainbow, I feel reassured that I am on the right path.

Trees are important — they provide a large percentage of our local economy. For “city folk,” trees provide a barrier between the roofs of our homes and the brutal summer sun.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has had a love affair with a tree or two. I knew a sycamore at One Mile. The circle of shade became “my place,” where I studied during college. My tree was hit by lightning and the place has never seemed the same. My friend Samantha has a Deodora cedar, planted in the 1920s by her great-grandfather. I can see it from a distance and it serves as a landmark so that I can find her house. The tree grew so large she had to move her driveway in 2008.

Another friend, Sylvia, planted a tree in honor of her brother, who had died. I think she’s still angry at the people who bought the house and cut down the tree.

Trees don’t need to be huge and old to have sentimental value. Last spring I felt honored to be invited to Sherwood Montessori school, where a group of children planted a Fay Alberta peach tree, donated by the lovely Luisa Garza. The kids who threw handfuls of dirt into a hole that day may not yet know the significance of their effort. Decades from now they can pass by their old school in the Chapman neighborhood and see peach blossoms or fruit.

When is the time to plant a tree? Yes, the time is right now.

If you have any doubt, you can head to a nursery where you’ll see row-after-row of bare-root trees waiting for a new home. Bare-root trees are sold in small sacs filled with light soil or sawdust, which makes them easy to haul from the trunk of your car.

If you’ve notice the cycles of orchards in this area, new orchards are planted in the winter months. In the fall, the nuts are harvested. If the trees are ready to be replaced, growers yank them out and make big piles for mulch or firewood. Next, the ground is worked and mounds of earth appear, again in orderly rows. In winter, the new trees are planted. It’ll be several years after that before the trees are large enough for harvest, and many more before peak production.

Our backyard fruit trees are similar. Peaches, for example, produce fruit on one year old-branches, which means you won’t see a harvest until at least the second year. Even then, expect slim pickings. That’s why Martha’s quote about the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.

I’ll also add that it’s a bad idea to buy a fruit tree and keep it in a pot. I’ve had a citrus tree in a 25-gallon pot for at least three years. The first few years I thought it was a lemon tree. When I finally harvested five fruits this year, I realized it is a blood orange. I can only imagine how happy that tree would have been if it had room for its roots to roam.

If you’re inspired to plant a bare-root tree this winter, the National Arbor Foundation has some helpful how-to information: The directions include soaking the roots 3-6 hours, and never allowing the roots to dry. Dig a very, very big hole to allow the roots to grow easily. Turn the soil as much as 3-feet in diameter. After watering, add about 2 inches of mulch but make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the trunk of the tree.


If you need help choosing a good fruit tree for this area, check out one of the well-established nurseries in town. Mendon’s in Paradise has a nice selection each year. Hodge’s Nursery along the Midway also holds winter workshops on pruning. Their Facebook page said to expect another session in February.

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Reaching a state of bulb saturation 2-19-16

It's daffodil time.
It’s daffodil time. Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record

I recently realized I have been planting daffodils like Mark Watney planted potatoes — as if my life depended on it.

Daffodils have been my no-guilt go-to plant when I need to get some dirt under my fingernails.

With the drought, I did not water the bulbs. If it rained, the bulbs were lucky. If the bulbs died in the ground, I would never know.

This week I realized I have reached the spring-bulb saturation point.

Big-box stores hire people with master’s degrees in product placement. In this case, I bumped into a 7-foot-high metal rack filled with spring-blooming bulbs. The rack was erected in such a way that bags of bulbs fell into my cart with almost no effort on my part.


My plan was to fill two big pots with bulbs each weekend. In the spring, my plan was to have two pots of daffodils in bloom each week.

Great plan. Life changed.

The holidays came quickly. There was a weekend at the coast. We both came down with a cold.

I never planted all of those bulbs. However, the bulbs that remain can be forced indoors, including paperwhites and hyacinth.

Meanwhile, the pots filled with daffodils are blooming big-time. Just as planned, each week a new pot is ready to move near the front porch for maximum enjoyment.

Now, here’s the funny part: When I filled the pots I placed them just inside the fence on the side yard.

When I went to move them, I realized there were anemic-looking bulbs under the pots.

Poor daffodils. I completely forgot where I planted them. Now I know how squirrels feel.

Looking back, I also bought too many bulbs last year. When I ran out of pots I started tucking bulbs into every corner of the yard, and apparently along the fence in the side yard.

It’s like an Easter egg hunt to track them down — behind the fence, at the edge of the house, in the path of the weedwacker.


If you missed it, Brett McGhie, Butte County Master Gardener, wrote a good article recently about bulbs we can plant right now, If you peruse his articles, you can keep scrolling and find other useful articles from people who have attended many classes to learn about gardening.

Valentine’s Day

For Valentine’s Day, my beau took me to the movies, but we opted out of the whole dress-up and dine-out routine.

If you think about it, Valentine’s Day is the last night I would want to spend a lot of money on a good meal. I don’t want to squeeze in a reservation, feel hurried by the wait staff and suffer through glares from people who want me to eat faster.

We’ll go out one night this week when we can chow down in a leisurely way.

A few weeks ago my guy announced it was time to take down the Christmas tree. The needles were starting to fall onto the carpet, which he claimed is a sign the tree has outlived its usefulness.

However, the tree was a Christmas gift and I did not put up the ornaments until the day after Christmas.

“Nope,” I told him after verifying the pine needle problem.

“I’ll take it down at Valentine’s Day.”

I think I’ll stick with this tradition. Christmas trees are fairly cheap when you buy them on Christmas eve. As far as frivolous, decorative items, I think there is a need for more of these in January and February.


Super-smart university prof. Lee Altier will host a workshop next Wednesday, 5-6:30 on how to build a bee hotel for native bees. Meet at the University Farm greenhouse classroom, at the University Farm off Hegan Lane, 311 Nicholas C. Schouten Lane. Suggested donation is $10 if you want to make a bee hotel. Otherwise the talk is free.

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Sow There!: When is the time to prune grapevines? Now 1-26-18

Sow There!: When is the time to prune grapevines? Now

This year I was able to write Christmas cards for the joy of writing Christmas cards.
This year I was able to write Christmas cards for the joy of writing Christmas cards. Photo by Heather Hacking

Winter pruning can be a multi-step process. Sometimes the second step is fixing your mistakes.

This year I almost made the big misstep with my grapevines.

Months ago, I chatted with Mark Carlson, the man behind the pruning shears in a series of how-to-prune videos. I took notes that afternoon and specifically wrote to lop off 5 feet on each end of the vine.

I trimmed off 5 feet, but the vine still stretched halfway across my cyclone fence.

Recently I traveled through the wine country with a friend who was visiting from South Korea.

Uh oh.


Of course, Mark had meant to trim the plant and to leave only 5 feet of growth on either side of the main cane.

Grapes with untamed tendrils are only meant to create ambiance in the courtyards of Italian restaurants.

It’s hard to cut back a plant so harshly. It feels cruel. However, we’re really giving the plants the equivalent of a new, teenage body. The new growth hasn’t had a chance to get haggard through sun and rain and the passing of stray dogs.

In Mark’s how-to-prune roses video, he suggests pruning the plants to about knee high.

His technique is especially brutal. He wears gloves and uses long loppers, cutting off more than half the plant without a glance. Later, he pushes aside the thorns and goes in for a more precise trim.

That’s the equivalent of putting your long hair in a ponytail and making one big chop before a pixie haircut.


Marks also noted that grapes need more than a pile of fresh compost to make them grow anew. He suggested a good tree and vine fertilizer application this month. You could do the same for any other fruit tree.


Saturday is the Handsome Woodsman’s birthday. I’m glad he was born.

It’s been more than a year since he died in an automobile accident, but I say hello to him several times a day. The oversized photograph from his memorial service is on the bookshelf. I see his face as I turn the corner into the kitchen.

He never liked to have his photograph taken, mostly because he thought he would look goofy.

“It’s just me,” I would say from the other side of the camera lens. “Just look at me like you love me.”

Those are the moments I have captured in photographs.

Usually I walk through the kitchen and say hello. Other times, usually when my mind is quiet, I’m surprised by how much it still hurts.

This December I had a “movie moment.” We all have them — color-filled times that we know are important to our personal storyline.

In my case I was writing Christmas cards. I sat on the living room floor with red envelopes displayed in an arc.

I was humming.

Things had changed. Life was good again. I was writing dozens of Christmas cards to people I loved.

A year earlier, the death of Dave had surrounded me like a cave. Back then I had also sat on the living room floor writing letters. They were thank-you notes, written to people who had sent me sympathy cards. Letter after letter after letter … Even at the time I realized writing those letters could keep me sane.

This year I was able to write Christmas cards for the joy of writing Christmas cards.

Saturday will be the Handsome Woodsman’s birthday. I’ll share more moments with him on that day. I also know I’ll be OK.

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Sow There!: Weeds won’t wait, and neither should you 1-18-2018

Sow There!: Weeds won’t wait, and neither should you

Even in winter yard work must be done when weeds start popping up.
Even in winter yard work must be done when weeds start popping up. Photo by Heather Hacking

Some might consider mid-January as the “dead of winter.” Yet, if you take a quick look outside you’ll see that idea would be dead wrong. Each day the garden is waking up, stretching slowly with a chilled yawn.

In early fall, I plant poppy seeds in the cracks in the pavement in my alley. The cars roll over many, but enough survive and bloom that I continue the ritual. The seeds are dirt cheap when bought in bulk at Northern Star Mills on The Esplanade. When I get the itch to hope something will grow, I’ll scatter the poppies like bird seed or toss them into the unattended yard next door.

The seeds in my alley sprouted, but remained about an inch long for weeks and weeks, like stubble on a shaggy Santa Cruz surfer’s chin. One day I noticed the overcrowded plants had taken a growth spurt.

Was it the equinox? Did my seedlings have a mysterious inner alarm that buzzed on Dec. 21?

“Get up. Wake up. Get moving.”

Maybe poppies are like migratory birds, triggered by a certain turn of the earth and mysterious magnetic fields. All I know is that one day the poppies were an inch long, and then they seemed to grow an inch each day.

Poppies are wildflowers. Wildflower is another word for weed, depending on whether the plant grows in your yard vs. Table Mountain.


The thing is, when the plants begin to wake up, gardeners need to stop binge-watching the Cable Girls and get busy.

Many garden magazines print garden-to-do lists with tasks listed month-by-month. I’m here to share the gardener’s “hurry-up-and-do list.” December, for example, is just about the latest you should plant spring-blooming. I scrambled to get those bulbs into pots on New Year’s Eve. They were sprouting in the bag. If I had waited any longer they might have sent roots into the floorboards near my TV.

The end of January is also just about the latest you should prune roses, and I’ll get to that after I put away my Christmas decorations.

Snipping grape vines is another job before the end of this month. I’m proud to say I clipped the climbers earlier this year. However, I’m certain I did not know what I was doing.


Meanwhile, I’m busy picking weeds.

Thanks to the poppies, I’m looking more closely at all things green and bountiful. The wheat at the Patrick Ranch along the Midway has punched through the tough brown clods of earth. Almond buds are swelling. The bulbs I planted “last year” are starting to grow in pots outdoors.

If poppies are awake, that means other weeds are also hidden in plain view.

I see common groundsel starting to bud near line of the fence. Groundsel is one of my least favorite weeds, and blooms faster than I am able to locate my hoe under a pile of winter leaves. If you wait until spring to yank groundsel, the plants will have scattered enough seeds to cover all the terrain in the Avenues.

I don’t know about you, but I’m stepping up my weed-yanking game.

Yard work also burns calories. I ate so much chocolate this winter, I should volunteer to yank weeds for all of my neighbors. In fact, I ate so much chocolate “last year,” I should volunteer to clean out all the rain gutters for every house along The Esplanade.

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