Signs of spring, including falling loquats 4-21-2016

Tired and ready to yank --- Say goodbye to the cool season garden.
Tired and ready to yank — Say goodbye to the cool season garden. Heather Hacking – Enterprise-Record
Heather Hacking - Enterprise-Record Super foods make super smoothies. You can drink this stuff if you add Stevia.Heather Hacking – Enterprise-Record Super foods make super smoothies. You can drink this stuff if you add Stevia.

Thursday I learned that the fruit on the loquat tree is nearly ripe. This information was clarified when a squirrel in the loquat tree pelted me with partially eaten fruit — not once, but twice — as I walked to my car.

The tree shades my bedroom window. During nearly-loquat season the squirrels are so rowdy it sounds like they are auditioning for a Tostito’s commercial.

If squirrels were smart, which they are not, they would wait until the fruit was ripe and actually eat the fruit. Instead, they nibble frantically, drop the fruit on the ground, then frantically repeat.

If you have no idea what a loquat looks like, I’m quite happy for you. The fruit is about the size of a pecan and the color of apricots. The seed inside the loquat is just slightly smaller than the fruit, which makes the fruit nearly useless, unless you are a squirrel in search of ammunition.

The only reason the squirrels no longer lob the fruit onto the hood of my car is because I no longer park the car near the loquat tree. The acid in the fruit eats paint. I learned this the hard way.

Meanwhile, it’s time to get going on the summer vegetables.


Because we are among those who are helping California meet its water conservation goal, our vegetable planting area is very small.

To make room for summer vegetables, we are harvesting kale and spinach by the fistful. The lettuce is already history. It has flowers and the leaves taste as bitter as the kale. It’s difficult to tell whether kale has passed its prime. Kale pretty much tastes funky all the time.

Why do we eat kale even though it’s bitter? Well, it’s a super food. Plus, you can choke down anything if its slathered in enough balsamic vinaigrette.

After we harvest all this kale, we’ll freeze the excess in plastic snack bags. I like to add frozen spinach or kale to my morning fruit smoothies. Adding Stevia to the smoothies helps mask the bitter kale taste.


My birthday is the last day of this month, which always reminds me that we are past the date of last frost.

Many people put summer vegetables in the ground in March or early April, However, there’s still about a 50/50 chance of cold temperatures during these precarious spring dates. Here’s a rather cool chart:


I had a rather long chat with Jerry Mendon ofMendon’s Nursery in Paradise this week.

I told him the whole story about our black plastic truck bed liner we have used for a raised bed. Last year will filled about half the plastic container with store-bought soil. To help drainage, one side is raised onto bricks.

Jerry said by now many of the nutrients from the soil may have been used by that bitter kale and other plants.

I have bags of steer manure waiting in the weeds. Jerry said its fine to mix in the manure, but he thinks it won’t be enough to amend my tired soil.

His suggestion was to buy Bumper Crop, which contains trace minerals and looks like bark.

Normally, bark can rob nitrogen from the soil as the big chunks break down. However, Jerry said Bumper Crop is treated with nitrogen to make up for the amount of nitrogen that would be subtracted from the soil.

Next, it’s time to add seeds or small plants to the summer garden area.

 Other contacts @HeatherHacking on Twitter and Facebook.

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Spring cleaning is for dummies, and other seasonal advice 4-7-2016

A few more weeks remain for glorious wildflower viewing on Table Mountain. The parking lots were packed Saturday. Fortunately, once you park there is plenty of room to roam.
A few more weeks remain for glorious wildflower viewing on Table Mountain. The parking lots were packed Saturday. Fortunately, once you park there is plenty of room to roam. Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record

Several weeks ago I was feeling very strange while driving the back roads in Glenn County. This was a particularly beautiful day in mid March. A recent storm had sprinkled snow on the Coast Range mountains and yellow wildflowers were standing tall. New leaves were on the almond trees and I was surprised by a crop duster zooming across a deep green alfalfa field.

My point of stopping the car was to take photos of agricultural wells for an article I was writing. Yet, most of the images I captured were of the land waking up.

Why did I feel strange? Why was it that every once in a while my vision turned to a blur? Tears seeped out as if my eyes were incontinent?

This trek across Glenn County was before my mom’s boyfriend had died, so there was no reason to get teary for no reason. Was this some seldom-mentioned symptom of middle age?

After a bit more contemplation, I realized I was experiencing joy.

Once I let this thought soak in, the rest of the drive was magical — just me and my camera, more tears, more wildflowers and that crazy cropduster.






All of this home-town tourism resulted in neglect of my plants at home.

Suddenly we had warm weather, and suddenly my plants looked like I cared very little.

Wednesday evening we had a big panic when we noticed some of the long-pampered potted plants were at a critical stage.

We rushed around with the hose, but the verdict is still out on the gardenia. The leaves are shriveled like a victim of peach leaf curl. My Handsome Woodsman sagely said we should wait for the plant to recover before trying to move it to a larger container.

Clearly, my drought-time experiments with container plants has reached a logical end. If plants are too large for the pots, they either need to go into the ground or into very large pots.

The butterfly bush, for example, wants to be a big bush. If I’m cruising around shedding tears of joy, I don’t have time to water a big pot twice a day.


I forgot that when plants are contained, they drain more and leach out nutrients.

Information found on the website of University of Georgia Cooperative Extension states that potted soil can lose its good stuff after 2-3 weeks. We can add rich compost to the pots, or slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote. The article also reminds folks that potting soil is made specifically so that it drains well. This is better for roots of contained plants, but also means the soil dries quickly.

The frequent watering causes the soil to lose nutrients, and the cycle continues.

The more I read about this, the more I realized those larger plants really will be better off in the ground. Then I can use those large containers to plant tomatoes.

Contact reporter Heather Hacking at 896-7758.

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3-28-14 Pruning back frost damage after waiting until spring

Remember months ago before we were worried about drought?

In September we were worried about an unseasonably warm autumn. Bulbs were popping up.

Then, in early December we were worried about frost damage. Hot lemonade was a nightly treat when several coworkers lugged in winter-damaged lemons.

I brought so many potted plants indoors my living room looked like a really run-down version of Rainforest Cafe.

The advice back then was to keep the pruning shears indoors and wait to see what looked alive in spring.

Now it’s spring and I think I learned a few things: I do not need to yell at the sky and scorn Mother Nature. Things that survive can be cause for celebration. Buying replacement plants counts as retail therapy.

The lemon verbena, for example, was four feet tall and looked like it had parked in a car wash before being baked in the wood-fire oven at Grana.

Before I jumped the gun, I called the Butte County Master Gardener Program at 538-7201.

They’ll answer your questions as well, 8:45-11:45 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 1:15-4:15 p.m. Thursdays.

“If a branch is visibly dead and the rest of the plant has bloomed out, you can cut it back,” the trained garden advice gal said.

Read the official UC Davis pamphlet at

Another frost victim was the star jasmine, which probably would be blooming about now. The tangled vines made a nest in what I called the Yucka tree, and now those vines are a mass of brown.

Yet, when I look closely, some of those brown tendrils have tiny green leaves about to emerge.

The Master Gardener said I can take my chances on the jasmine. It may very well bloom. Or, I could just cut it all back and pretend it’s a brand new purchase.


Talking about star jasmine brought up both painful and triumphant memories for my new Master Gardener friend.

At her previous home, she moved about 10 two-gallon pots of the flowering, fragrant vines.

When gophers began to attack, she was quick to action and made home-made gopher cages.

The cages are for thwarting gophers, not to catch them.

She bought steel mesh material with the smallest holes she could find. It comes in a 4-by-5-foot roll and is somewhat expensive.

I had a difficult time visualizing her instructions, so here is an example online: http:/

The key, the Master Gardener said, it to make sure you wire the mesh up tightly, so the gophers can’t shimmy through the seams.

“Cages definitely work,” she said like a woman who has known loss. Making them can be a bit of a hassle, and you can buy them already crafted, but this gets spendy, she noted.


If you’ve got some ground, you’re probably like most of us and eager to plant vegetables. It’s hard not to be restless with all those young plants on sale at the farmers market and big-box stores.

Plus, if you read the news, you know we’re likely to have a long, dry, miserable summer.

The Master Gardener source said go ahead. Yet, be prepared to cover these vulnerable young plants if we get another cold snap.

We would love to hear your garden updates, or you can follow my personal adventures: @HeatherHacking on Twitter and Facebook.

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Sow There!: Rosemary and memory, room for study 3-9-18

A pile of chocolate helps when studying as cocoa causes blood vessel dilation that increases brain function.
A pile of chocolate helps when studying as cocoa causes blood vessel dilation that increases brain function.Photo by Heather Hacking

Folks have shared a few amazing things about rosemary, so here’s my pitch for the almost overly odiferous plant.

It’s not my favorite. The scent reminds me of household cleaners. The leaves feel like a stubby pine tree. In fact, the rosemary plant growing by my cyclone fence began as a “Christmas tree.” I bought the tree on a whim for $9 at a grocery store, determined to bring a little cheer into my little house one lonely winter.

Sometime in February I moved the “tree” outside, where it suffered through a few more months of mostly neglect. Eventually it was planted in the yard, where it survived more torture.

A few years ago, the neighbor decided to decimate the weeds in his yard with herbicide. I was glad. I didn’t want those weed seeds blowing into my raised bed. Yet, it must have been a windy day because most things along our fence line were blasted and blackened.

I clipped back the rosemary to a stub and figured that was the end of my $9 investment.

The plant survived.

There’s not much I want to do with rosemary, besides admire its tenacity. I don’t cook with it. I’ll douse my potatoes in Tapatio sauce, but I don’t want to taste hunks of rosemary stuck in my teeth. The look of the plant doesn’t make me think “wow.” However, the papery purple flowers are nice for a few weeks in the spring.

Recently, I took a walk with my friend Michael, who is also studying to become a teacher.

“Grab that plant there,” he said, “and rub it under your nose.”

For some reason, I followed his directions immediately. He must have used “his teacher’s voice.”

“Rosemary is known to help with memory,” he continued with an official tone. I should sniff it when I’m studying, he stated explicitly.

The website for the Mayo Clinic concurs, The herb can help by increasing the blood flow to the brain. The writers at the Mayo did not specify whether thin mint Girl Scout cookies can do the same trick.

Rosemary, my teacher friend explained, grows in the landscaping near the Meriam Library at Chico State University, where I have been spending most of my weekend hours. He suggested I ransack the bushes before heading to the “silent floor,” to hit the books.


About this same time, a kind reader named Susan sent me an email. She said she had suffered from unwanted visitations by neighborhood cats. The felines like her yard, and specifically like using her raised bed as a cat box. One day, she needed to trim the rosemary bush and placed the fragrant clippings on top of the soil in the “cat box.” To her delight, the cats stayed away.

Other info. I found while digging online claims rosemary can be used to keep bugs out of your home and to help with dandruff (tips here: Please send me an email if you want to share a testimonial.

Spring is a good time to plant small rosemary plants. (See more growing info from Bonnie Plants: The plants won’t have a good growth spurt until a year from now, but by then you might have forgotten how much time went by. I suggest waiting until the holidays when you can add a string of LED lights to the plant and really get your money’s worth.


Other foods recommended by the Mayo Clinic for brain function include blood-flow foods like beets and avocados. I was pleased to see that cocoa was on the list. Something in cocoa called “arginine” helps with blood vessel dilation. A study had been conducted with people who drank cocoa several times a day.

I can only give you anecdotal evidence that when I have an open book, a quiet library, and a pile of Ghirardelli chocolates, I’m much more likely to stay put for a while. This, no doubt, increases memory.

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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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