Better late than never for planting daffodils Dec. 4, 2014

By Heather Hacking, Chico Enterprise-Record
My life is so full that sometimes I get behind schedule.

“Busy” sounds so much better than “procrastinator,” or worse yet, “lazy.” Sometimes being late means being wrongly accused of not caring.

I do care. I just sometimes care at the wrong time.AR-141209881

I’m that friend on Facebook who notices it is someone’s birthday when they are posting a thank-you note to all the friends who wished them a happy birthday.

My electronic note says: “When can I take you to a belated birthday lunch?”

I can’t be unique. Otherwise, marketers would have no need for a “belated” section for greeting cards.

My father knows me pretty well by now. If he ever received a Dad’s Day card on time, it was a mistake.

In fact, this week I was rummaging through last year’s left-over Christmas cards and found several Father’s Day cards. I mailed off his card with a Christmas stamp.

He’ll understand.

A perpetual state of belated can also lead to what appears to be sloth.

For example, my Christmas cards are now in the middle of the living room where they will be more difficult to forget.


All this being said (and a bit that went unsaid), I was pretty darn proud of myself for getting bulbs in to the ground before Christmas.

A good time to plant bulbs is at Thanksgiving. In August, you put new bulbs in the crisper drawer of the fridge to chill.

The bulbs are planted because after the Thanksgiving meal you need every inch of the refrigerator to store leftovers.

Factual note: chilling bulbs in this climate is not necessary.

A fact sheet from the Napa County Master Gardeners states that chilling bulbs only provides a slight difference in bloom height, and bulbs will bloom two weeks earlier.

I’m sticking with the chill. How else would I remember to plant them if they weren’t right there in my refrigerator?

If the bulbs go in late, chilling will bring me blooms right on time.

Read full master gardener tips here:


A few weeks ago I put dozens of daffodil bulbs in pots.

However, I bought two jumbo bags of daffodils for dirt cheap at Costco.

Seventy-five bulbs remained.

Did I mention that my new yard is fairly small? I don’t know what I was thinking.

As the neighborhood cat circled around my feet, I scoped out the scant terrain.

Directly outside the front door is a five-by-three-foot planting bed recently populated with wild (weed) viola and a few leftover poppies. These are the drought survivors.

Daffodils do extremely well in Chico, returning year-after-year.

Also, squirrels do not technically eat daffodil bulbs. Squirrels will still dig them up, because that’s what squirrels do.

With 75 bulbs, a cat demanding attention, and the sun drifting down below the mulberry tree, I had to hurry.

The daffodils are not spaced evenly, nor 5 inches apart, nor 6 inches deep.

I was on a mission to simply empty the bags.

The good news is by planting the bulbs, I also destroyed the wild viola and spared the poppies.

Bulbs were also planted in the crevice behind the gate, under the loquat tree and near the compost pile.

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Sow There!: Pumpkin time at Patrick Ranch, and other reasons to visit 10/12/2017

Patrick Ranch in October hosts its annual Autumn Fest where you can tour the grounds, pick a pumpkin and pretend you are back in the 1870s.
Patrick Ranch in October hosts its annual Autumn Fest where you can tour the grounds, pick a pumpkin and pretend you are back in the 1870s. Photo by Heather Hacking
The lights in the farm house give life to the Italianate architecture of the Patrick Ranch in the evening.
The lights in the farm house give life to the Italianate architecture of the Patrick Ranch in the evening.Photo by Heather Hacking

I have the best part-time job. If you happen to be invited to a wedding at the Patrick Ranch along the Midway, I’ll be there, wearing a badge and making sure the outdoor lights are turned on at dusk. You might see me in the shadows of the redwood trees, or sitting on a wooden bench along the back porch.

If your kids run around without shoes, I’ll politely ask your kiddos to find their sandals.

There’s more to the job than that, but mostly I’m there to make sure that the amazing property is treated with care.


With my schedule as a student-teacher, working the occasional Saturday is the perfect gig. In the past, I had pitched in as a volunteer during special events. I’d love to brag about my community-minded nature, but frankly being there brings me peace.

I was fortunate to be invited to the property in the early 2000s, soon after the death of the home’s owner, Hester Patrick. She was a collector of family treasures and donated the house and its contents to the community,

On my first visit, people were busy making an inventory of all that the marvel-filled home contained. My host, John Chambers, talked about how the property could be used to teach agricultural history, as well as preserve a slice of local farm heritage.

Time passed and others poured their energy and love into the land.

Today you can tour the meticulously restored Glenwood farmhouse. For garden geeks, the grounds are a showcase. Butte County’s Master Gardeners have carved out a place to teach about local plants and a vintage tractor restoration group leads the tractor parade each year. Blacksmiths and a host of other heritage-loving folks have continued to build upon what was just a to-do list years before. Future plans include an elaborate bee museum.

Like many in the community, I feel like I’ve witnessed the property “grow-new.”


Ranch manager Karen Lobach helped me appreciate the place even more during my training for the job. We rode out toward those oak trees, where she let the electric golf cart turn silent. In the still of the evening, she pointed my ear toward a great horned owl. If you know where to look, you can spot owl pellets and dove feathers. As we continued along the pumpkin patch, ground squirrels shimmied across the trail, their rumps swaying back and forth like hula dancers on all fours.


During my evenings on the job, I look forward to the wedding toasts. A father will gush, often tearfully, that his child found someone the entire family can embrace. Sometimes sweet sentiments about first encounters are shared, and invariably the best man or maid of honor teases with stories that will not be told in their entirety.

Musicians play stringed instruments on the front porch. Groups of starlings fly en masse from one oak tree to another, like a winged ballet in the sky. Often, in the hush of the nuptials, you’ll hear the coo of a dove. Doves mate for life.

Usually I cry.

Remember that golf cart I mentioned? It’s also my job to cruise the perimeter of the property.

From a distance, the lights in the farm house give life to the Italianate architecture. I can hear muffled laughter, and the clink of dishes under the white dining tent.

Later at night, when the caterers are mopping, a light haze hovers in the northern sky over Chico. Yet, a patch of clear darkness rests over the Patrick Ranch. The stars shine, perhaps the way Hester saw them decades ago.

Garden enthusiast Heather Hacking can followed on Twitter and Facebook. Send snail mail to P.O. Box 5166, Chico CA, 95927.

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Sow There!: Tips for ripening green tomatoes, 10-6-17

Poppies grew in our school's raised bed garden last May.
Poppies grew in our school’s raised bed garden last May. Photo by Heather Hacking

I love to note the first day of “sweater weather.” The kids in my elementary school class arrived one morning wrapped in outer clothes. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those jackets and pullovers would be at the lost-and-found after the first noontime recess.

Layered clothing also means upheaval in my bedroom. At about this time, I haul the dusty bins filled with warm clothes from the back of the closet. Next, I sort through my summer and spring clothes to decide what to toss and what to save.

Typically, I dump everything on the bed and decide if skimpy summer clothes are no longer “age appropriate.” Usually I remind myself that I am “young at heart,” and hope I look younger next year.

Right now, I’m thankful I have clothing in three separate sizes. When I worked in an office I sat at my desk all day. When days were stressful, I ate mindlessly and filled out in the middle. As a student teacher, I rarely sit down. If I snack during recess, it is in between one of the millions of things a teacher does when the kids are racing around outdoors, losing their sweaters.

I’m also mindful that children notice what I eat. I want to model healthful eating, and place my green beans and sliced apples prominently on the edge of my desk.

(Never mind that when I get home I eat three bowls of ice cream).

The result has been that I’ve lost weight, and might even fit into some of those clothes I’ve unpacked, saved and repacked for the past 10 years.


For gardeners, the upheaval in autumn includes calling it quits on the summer vegetables. Last weekend there was a garden clean-up at the school. I was specifically invited to the event by the transitional-Kindergarten teacher. “I thought you would want to come,” she said correctly, assuming that my idea of fun is making dust and pulling weeds in a group setting.

She also knew that when seven adults and four children work for two hours, the job gets done quickly.

As is often the case when you hang around teachers, I learned something that day.

Before clean-up morning, our school garden included weeds growing between the bricks, a smattering of water-deprived green onions, dead sunflowers and a thriving cherry tomato plant.

With the help of several children, we picked a mound of ripe yellow, bell-shaped tomatoes. However, the sprawling tomato plant was still covered with green tomatoes.

I have the same problem with the tomatoes in my yard. Through the heat of that long, wretched summer I waited for tomatoes to arrive. Now it is cooler and I have more green tomatoes than I harvested from June through August.

Ever the optimist, I tend to wait and wait for those green orbs to ripen. As history notes, I leave the plant in the ground through November, then clean up tomato mush the day after the first frost.

This day at the school garden I was happily working to eradicate weeds, particularly the spotted spurge wedged between faded red bricks. When I turned around I noticed the transitional-Kindergarten teacher had lopped off about half the tomato plant and plunked the extra vines on a bench.

That’s the way to do it. If anyone wanted green tomatoes, they were there for the taking. There were plenty of green tomatoes remaining on the plant, likely destined for a fate similar to the green tomatoes in my back yard.

One of the parents explained that if the green tomatoes are taken indoors, they will continue to ripen (and won’t turn to mush one cold night).


Rodale’s Organic Life has some painstakingly thorough information for those who want to capture every last tomato,

Even though green tomatoes seem as tough as softballs, they should be handled gently. Even the slightest bruise can turn to ooze when ripened indoors. Another idea is to simply lop off the tomato vine, (as our T-K teacher demonstrated) and hang the vine in the garage. You can harvest the tomatoes over time, if they happen to ripen. You could also intersperse the tomato vine with holiday lights, for a festive look in the garage.

If you think about it, tomatoes that we buy at the grocery store are picked before they are ripe. The fruit partially ripens somewhere between the field, the store and our kitchen counter. You can also speed up the ripening process by placing the tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe apple or a banana, Rodale notes reasonably. The fruit releases ethylene gas which speeds the ripening process.

Of course, do not expect your cloistered tomatoes to be as sweet as the warm, red fruit you devour in mid-August.

Rodale also has some suggestions for a tomato tent, which they call a “floating row cover.” If the days are still as warm as 50 degrees, but the nights are chilly, a row cover might extend the harvest season until it’s time for trick-or-treating.

In the meantime, we had brisk winds this week. I’ve been worrying about a midterm project and completely forgot to water the tomatoes in my raised bed. Maybe I’ll ask those six adults and four children from the school to spend a few hours to help yank dead plants from my back yard.

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Sow There! Name eggplant whatever you want, it’s still mush, 9-28-17

Call it what you want, the eggplant is still just mush.
Call it what you want, the eggplant is still just mush. Photo by Heather Hacking

Fairly soon, I’ll be eating my words.

For years I’ve been making fun of eggplant — that mushy fruit that seems to have little value except that it happens to be purple. Purple is one of my favorite colors.

Eggplant is mushy and needs to be deep-fried. To make it more palatable, we smother eggplant in garlic, hide it in stews or batter and deep-fry.

I’ve written so much about my disdain for eggplant, I thought I might never write about it again.

Of course, my Handsome Woodsman loved eggplant, which kept the joke alive — even now after he died.

Last spring I was at the downtown farmers market looking at the lush plants grown by Sherri Scott. On impulse, I bought a tiny eggplant and put it in the place where the Handsome Woodsman grew eggplant last year. I remember laughing at myself as I carefully carried the plant through the sea of flirting teenagers and actual market shoppers.

The plant grew, it flowered, it produced a single, faded purple, globe-shaped eggplant. I’m so glad it was such a terrible summer for growing produce, because I only have one eggplant to consider eating.

Perhaps I’ll smother it with garlic this winter, and mix it with stewed tomatoes, and maybe even deep-fry a slice or two. I could carefully carve out the contents, fill the eggplant with holiday candy and use the fruit as a piñata.

They dry well, as I know, because I have some dried eggplant that I grew and did not eat last year. I like to make holiday gifts. I’ll let you know if I choose to cover last year’s eggplant with decoupage.

More than likely, I’ll fry up a slice or two of this year’s sole eggplant and remember why I do not like eggplant.

The things we do for love.


Another name for eggplant, as many of you likely know, is aubergine. Somehow thinking of this word makes the fruit more beautiful. I see a little girl named Aubergine, perhaps in the 1920s. She’s wearing a flowered dress, made by her mother, and riding a wagon filled with bushels of wheat. I smother my eggplant with garlic, I’ll think of Aubergine, and smile sweetly before remembering why I don’t care for eggplant.

If the word aubergine doesn’t make the purple mush sound more appealing, why not try on melanzana, which is how they say eggplant in Italian. In the West Indies, they call it “brown jolly,” and at times it’s known as “mad apple” in England. We could make up stories night and day about how those names came about. In Portuguese, it’s beringela, and in Perisan badenjan. If you use any of these names to hide the true identity of your eggplant casserole, you might be able to trick anti-eggplant folks into trying something new.


If you hiccupped when you read eggplant described as a fruit, that’s another fun thing to consider. Many of the foods we call vegetables are actually fruits. The technical definition of a fruit is the “edible reproductive body of a seed plant,” according to Merriam-Webster’s online info.

This category includes tomatoes, which are certainly sweet enough to make it onto a dessert plate. Pumpkins and squash count in the fruit category as well. While we’re talking fruit, I might as well mention avocado, squash, cucumber, peppers, okra and olives.

Maybe parents can use this information to improve the health of their young ones.

“Eat all the fruit on the plate, otherwise you can’t have dessert.”

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Sow There!: Jerry Mendon, passing along the know-how, 9-22-17

Experience horticulturist Jerry Mendon in the houseplant greenhouse at Mendon's Nursery in Paradise on March 13.
Experience horticulturist Jerry Mendon in the houseplant greenhouse at Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise on March 13. Emily Bertolino — Enterprise-Record file

The students in my classroom are getting a lesson in disappointment. The first day of class we planted 27 containers with snow pea seeds. Two weeks later and we had 12 sprouts. There I am, in the front of multiple sets of eager eyes, blathering about proper growing temperatures, an extended heat wave and the sorry fate for most of our seeds.

Those kids wanted a sprout in every pot.

I have vowed to make it up to them. Right now I am attempting to grow stalagmites on my kitchen counter.

The weekend of the Great Disappointment, I hauled the sproutless containers home to do some real scientific investigation. I began with one boy’s plant, within which he had theoretically planted one or more seeds. I dug down slowly, lifting spoonsful of soil like an archaeologist. No seeds were found.

Could the seed have fallen away? Did he decide to be a joker and toss the seed in the bushes? Did worms eat the seed? (This was one of my questions, because I did encounter some tiny worms in the soil).


I turned over a total of 15 four-inch pots and discovered much of the same, which means I discovered nothing. A few of the pots had remnants of roots, but the seeds had completely disappeared.


Weeks and weeks ago I had a long chat with Jerry Mendon, of Mendon’s Nursery. We talked about a lot of things that day, including drip irrigation, calla lilies and house plants. I saved the notes, knowing that all of that advice would be fodder for future columns. In early September, I typed up some words based on Jerry’s advice about checking and double checking your drip irrigation systems.

After the seed debacle, I needed Jerry’s big brain in a very big way. On a Saturday, I dialed up Mendon’s. His son John answered the phone. John is always helpful and knows his stuff, but Jerry had always been my go-to guy.

Yet, Jerry wasn’t there. His son John told me that Jerry had passed away Aug. 31 at the age of 87.

If you’re a gardener in this area, hopefully you’ve spent some time wandering around Mendon’s Nursery. You can spend all morning, or all morning and afternoon. I have often wondered why they don’t add a snack bar so people can linger and enjoy lunch.

If you arrive with a list of questions, there are people at work who know the answers. For decades, Jerry was the main guy.

He had a straight-forward approach to gardening that helped encourage novice gardeners not to throw in the trowel.

I recall one chat we had about feeding plants.

“Plants can’t read,” he said. When choosing plant food, look for the numbers on the side that clarify the amount of N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorous) and K (Potassium).

“About the mid ’50s, someone on Madison Avenue got the brainy idea that if we came up with foods for everything,” customers would buy more than one bag of plant food, Jerry said in the spring of 2016. Now we have bulb food and citrus food and snapdragon food …

Who has room for that in an overcrowded garden shed?

“When a person says what kind of food do I need, I ask them what do they already have,” Jerry said, possibly cutting into his business’ sales of specialty plant food.

When Jerry recently shared advice on drip irrigation, I realized that if he did not teach people to monitor their drip systems, more plants would die and he could sell more plants. Yet, that wasn’t his way. He wanted people to enjoy gardening, do it well, and buy more plants because they had become avid gardeners.

When I talked to Jerry’s son John on a Saturday, he stated the obvious, that his dad would be missed. Up until the end, Jerry had done all of the billing and payroll, working full time right up until the time he fell ill.

For John, and his son who also works at the nursery, and for all of us who love Mendon’s, it will be strange not to hear Jerry’s familiar voice or to see him cruising through the plants he knew so well.

Yet, just like his dad, John took the time to answer my questions.


When I explained that we had a heat wave soon after planting seeds for snow peas, John agreed this was unfortunate timing. The seed contains a storage unit, used by the plant for energy to begin the growth cycle. Often, when a seed sprouts, you’ll notice an empty shell of that seed pod at the top of the sprouted stem.

When my seeds used up that energy, and then withered in the heat, the rest of the seed had dissolved. Thanks, John. And thanks Jerry, for teaching John all that you knew.


Sometime in the next several months, I’ll be writing about calla lily bulbs and houseplants, and I’ll refer to the notes from my last conversation with Jerry Mendon. I think he would like the idea of his knowledge being shared after he is gone.

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Sow There!: Newfound joys of leaf blowers, 9-13-17

Toro, leaf blower, built to blast.
Toro, leaf blower, built to blast. Photo by Heather Hacking

Small accomplishments are easily overlooked, even when those small tasks have a way of adding up.

If you’ve ever caught your significant other doing an odd job around the house, give them some high praise. Chances are they’ve been busy when you weren’t looking.

I found the leaf blower in the shed this week. It’s a powerful tool that will blow a hole in gravel better than an overly-ripe salmon in Butte Creek.

Leaf blowers are bold and powerful. They’re also loud ­— 95-115 decibels for the operator, and 60-70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet. Our city prohibits their use from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

My guess is that these codified rules have more to do with preserving relationships among neighbors than protecting our sleep patterns.

When I fired up my leaf blaster, I not only made noise, I soon decimated the homes of multiple spiders. I zapped mimosa tree junk into towering drifts. I also learned that leaf blowing is a skill, a skill I lack.

I forgot to the close the bathroom window and later discovered soft dust all over the sink.

I can’t blame myself for amateur leaf-blower manipulation. Keeping the patio clear of tough loquat leaves and purple privet berries had been one of those tasks done behind my back. The patio was not “magically” kept clear of spider webs and piles of elderberry debris. The Handsome Woodsman fired up the rowdy machine when I was busy doing something else.

In fact, six years ago I would have vowed to never own one of those obnoxious machines.


It’s funny how romantic partners make lists in their heads about what chores one person should and could do around the house. When the Handsome Woodsman was alive, I wanted recognition when I did the dishes. I also made a mental note that next time it was his turn to do the dishes. Sometimes I’d leave the dishes in the sink for several days, in case he didn’t notice it was his time to do the dishes.

Of course, this is silly, childish and totally not the way to give 110 percent in a relationship.

It gets worse.

When he didn’t read my mind, I shared my ideas about division of labor via a black felt tip pen and posted a “honey-do list” on the fridge. Sometimes I plastered a note on the exit side of the front door. The exclamation points were always implied.

Undone chores, expected household tasks, the unfairness of it all, can lead to high pitched laments and the waving of arms for dramatic effect.

(Dave, if you somehow can hear me or read my thoughts, I’m truly sorry).

He always forgot to put his clothes from the washer to the dryer. The result was wrinkled clothes, which did not bother him in the slightest.

“I can’t have you running around in wrinkled clothes,” I said while transferring his clothes from the washer to the dryer. “Gals will assume you don’t have a girlfriend and will try to hit on you.”

As a trade-off for the clean laundry, of course he should do such-and-such around the house. This such-and-such would be dictated entirely by my whim.

What I didn’t know, and what I know now, was that he was probably busy doing a lot of other things around the house when I wasn’t looking, including operating a noisy piece of machinery. I’m guessing that if I had asked Dave to wear a “boyfriend cam,” I would have noted a number of laborious tasks. He might have even been working while I was making lists to post on the refrigerator.

I can’t say I’m entirely happy I found the leaf blower in the shed. It made me sad really. A lot of things in that shed make me sad. I open the shed door and smell grease, which reminds me of him, which makes me sad, so I close the door.

I’ll forgive myself for not organizing the shed this summer. Besides, organizing the shed had always been his job.

Yet, I must admit I feel powerful with the leaf blower in my hands.

Last week — as my arms zigged and zagged — I cursed the mimosa tree, the worst tree ever. With the leaf blower, I could have blown mimosa gunk into the middle of The Esplanade.

Bagging the lawn debris is an entirely different, and far less satisfying task.

When I think about it now, it was at about that time in the yard duties when my guy would ask me for some help.

If someone has a chain saw lying around, let me know. I might want to see how that feels in my hands.

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Sow There!: When drip irrigation dries up, 9-17-17

General neglect, and not faulty drip irrigation, is to blame for the death of this hanging plant.
General neglect, and not faulty drip irrigation, is to blame for the death of this hanging plant.Photo by Heather Hacking

Self-driving cars. Robot vacuums. Home air conditioning that switches gears with a zip of a phone app.

In so many ways, our lives are more hands-free and brain-free than prior generations could have ever imagined.

Yet, gardening is still hands-on.

Jerry Mendon, among the most esteemed nurserymen I’ve had the pleasure to meet, said he’s been fielding more than a few phone calls from folks wondering why their plants are doing poorly. Many times, and maybe even most times, the problem is that auto-pilot failed.

In particular, we’re talking about drip irrigation.

Folks with automated drip systems might go away on vacation and expect their yards to be just fine when they return.

Not so simple.

Even in the cooler seasons, these systems need to be checked, rechecked and calibrated again, the owner of Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise explained.


During the drought years, many people decided that keeping a lush lawn was a losing battle. Bark replaced greenery, and select showy flowers were hooked up to thin black pipes.

The change can be jarring, especially at first. When the plants are small, surrounded by bark or stones, the look is rather bleak. Yet, time passes and those specially-selected plants grow into their own.

I personally love the silvery leaves of lavender and the billowy leaves of native grasses. There’s also beauty in cactus.

However, “little maintenance,” does not mean zero maintenance.

Jerry said the people who call him are perplexed about why their plants are on their death beds.

His first question is usually “have you checked your drip irrigation system.”

How long is the water running? What is the rate of the water delivery?

Most people don’t know, he said.


If a plant was purchased in a one-gallon container three years ago, the magic of the life cycle predicts it will now be larger. That means it needs more water.

Emitters are the holes where water slowly drips from the black plastic pipes. Jerry calls them “spitters.”

As the plant grows, it probably needs a “spitter” on each side of the plant, he said, with a hint of exasperation. The water rate probably also needs some new math. The water rates were programmed by a contractor ­- a long time ago.

Jerry said some homeowners hire a “blow-and-go,” yard maintenance company. They’re working hard and are efficient at making the yard look tidy. Yet, the contract may or may not include a tune-up of the water delivery system. In most cases, this is the homeowner’s responsibility to reconfigure, or the responsibility of the homeowner to ask for extra service, Jerry noted.

“Unless the customer says something,” weekly yard guys will continue doing what they have previously been expected to do, the nurseryman continued.


This summer was a harsh season. One day I mowed my lawn late in the morning and started to get dizzy. My first thought was that I was eating too much ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds. (I was, indeed, eating too much ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds). Then I realized the heat had gone to my brain.

It’s a bummer that the exact time we want to avoid going outdoors, we need to monitor drip irrigation systems at least once a month, as Jerry advised.

It’s probably not the contractor’s fault, Jerry said. Most likely explanations were given at the time the irrigation system was installed. However, there was probably a lot going on right then, like the writing of a check.

Expect to upgrade

Cars need regular tune-ups, and we should expect to upgrade a drip irrigation system at least once a year, my garden buddy said. In addition to seasonal changes, those little pipes wear out. Rodents aren’t shy to chomp into a source of water to find a better slurping spot. Tree roots can move piping out of place. Plastic can deteriorate in the hot sun.


Other times, plants just die after a few years. That’s what’s known as the life cycle. Jerry and his knowledgeable staff have more plants ready to go into the ground. When you swap out a dead plant for some fresh foliage, be prepared to give it another “spitter” when the time comes.

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Sow There!: When weather makes your crops wither, 8-31-17

There are many things to admire about the humongous hungry hornworm, but not when it is devouring your tomato plants.
There are many things to admire about the humongous hungry hornworm, but not when it is devouring your tomato plants.Photo by Heather Hacking

This summer was not an especially delightful time for my squash plants. When I returned from Costa Rica I found two zucchinis the size of small ballistic weapons. Perhaps these big beauties robbed the soil of calcium. After the tremendous zucchini achievements, the plants became duds. Many fruits looked promising, but shriveled like carved apple dolls.

Last year the same thing happened and I learned that a lack of calcium could have been the culprit. Earlier in the year I added lime granules to the soil, lime being a source of calcium. Later I learned its best to add granules in the fall.

For another opinion, and because I like the vintage place, I stopped by Northern Star Mills and chatted with owner John Growdon. He returned with a bottle of calcium concentrate in liquid form. The little bottle promised everything I wanted to hear, including “correction of calcium deficiency on tomatoes, peppers, apples and other crops.”

John suggested a foliar feeding, which means I dumped a few ounces of the calcium liquid into a two-gallon watering can. Next, I doused the big squash leaves with the mixture.

The next week, I harvested two zucchinis and one crookneck squash.

Is that proof that the elixir cured all my problems?

No, because there many other variables.

When I saw my squash shrivel, I also started pollinating each new flower by hand. This was also the week when the weather was just a bit cooler. Bees like it better when it’s not blazing hot.

We could also do a cost/benefit analysis. The bottle of calcium was $10. I used about $2 worth of product. According to my value system, two zucchinis and one squash from my own garden is worth two bucks in the bottom of my purse.


In case anyone was wondering, my seed planting lesson with third-graders was a resounding success. As of last week, I am a student-teacher at a local elementary school. To introduce myself to the class, my magnanimous mentor teacher suggested I show the class how to plant seeds.

Students learn from their mistakes. In this case, I learned a lot.

I was too excited and “taught” too much. I should have never asked 8-year-olds to read the fine print on a seed packet.

Yet, wearing the white lab coat for the science lesson was a huge success. The science outfit was my teacher’s idea. However, the kids don’t know that. Instead, they can remember me as the super cool student teacher who pauses for a costume change.


We planted Oregon Sugar Pod II seeds, also known as snow peas. The plants go from seed to harvest in 68 days. Students had a huge decision to make. Would they plant one seed, and risk that their single seed did not grow? Or would they plant two or three seeds, knowing they would need to choose just one to grow to maturity.

I was proud of their thoughtfulness.

With the leftovers, I raced home and planted as many as I could along my cyclone fence. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a good harvest before Halloween.

August certainly is not the traditional season for planting summer vegetables by seed. However, some plants are so fast growing gardeners might squeeze out one more harvest before the days become extremely short and cold.

Read what the SF Gate has to say on this same topic:

If you like planting seeds, another option is to wait until mid-September or October to sow lettuce, spinach, kale or broccoli.


During the peak of summer, tomato production will slow because everything slows down when it is miserably hot. The same goes for squash, cucumbers and the sale of electric blankets.

Now that the days are shorter, it’s still miserably hot. However, the days are shorter so the plants are miserable for fewer hours each day.

In my yard, this means I have a big batch of tomatoes on the way.

If you find yourself with too many tomatoes, you can easily freeze them. You do not need to remove the outer skin. When you defrost the tomatoes for eggplant stew or tomato sauce this winter, the skin will easily pull away.


While you’re on the hunt for tomatoes, don’t overlook the hidden hornworms.

So far, I’ve had the pleasure of killing two hornworms with my pruning clippers. Tomato hornworms turn into sphinx moths, which are amazingly beautiful creatures, four inches across and furry like a small animal. Yet, those sphinx moths lay eggs, which could mean more hornworms next year.

There’s no need to douse your plants with chemicals for hornworm control. Simply locate the dark green globs of hornworm droppings on the leaves of tomatoes or other plants. Next, look in that general area for leaves that have been nibbled down to the stem. You’ll need to look very, very carefully because hornworms are the exact same color as the leaves of the plants.

Now that I am looking more closely at children’s books, I can’t help but consider the similarities between hornworms and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” The reason they do not have a children’s book titled “The Horrible, Humongous Hornworm,” is because that particular story would end badly, at least in my garden.

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Sow There!: More than nine lives for a grapevine, 8-24-17

The once fruitless grapevine has produced itty-bitty grapes.
The once fruitless grapevine has produced itty-bitty grapes. Photo by Heather Hacking
The first bunch of the grape harvest this month.The first bunch of the grape harvest this month.Photo by Heather Hacking

Despite my worst efforts, there are tiny green grapes growing along the cyclone fence. My respect for grapes grew tenfold with this near-miss experiment.

The Thompson grapevine was a gift from my Auntie Pat years ago. When I say years, I mean years. I don’t even remember how many. The plant looked vibrant and about to bolt when I took it home in one of those tiny, almost triangular pots used to mass produce things like pine forest seedlings.

Any plant-respecting gardener would have transplanted this soon-to-be grape vine into a one-gallon pot. However, this was back in the days when my romance with the Handsome Woodsman was new. After work, I would drive up to his house in Paradise, where he had more than an acre of land with a creek running east to west.

Somehow, I kept the grape-vine alive through summers and winters, making sure there was just enough water in the tiny plastic torture chamber to keep the grape from drying into a stick.

Did I mention this went on for years?

Looking back, I wasn’t planting anything in the ground. I was looking for a house to buy and wondering where the future would lead with Dave. I kept the grapevine alive in case I found another sunny location where it could live and thrive.

When I moved into a new rental, I figured it was now or never for that grapevine. Let’s say this was 2½ years ago, because frankly I don’t remember. Once that vine hit some real soil, it grew like it had been storing up the will to live since the ice age. Vines stretched wide across the cyclone fence, grasping for life like a shipwrecked sailor.

I don’t know what the rootstock was on this baby, but it was ready to grow.

I wasn’t disappointed that first year when it bore no fruit. I deserved to be punished with a fruitless grapevine after the little I had given the plant. That first year I just let it ramble, happy to have some life clinging to twisted wire.

Then a reader invited me to harvest some Concord grapes from his back yard. These were small, as backyard grapes often are, but so delicious I wanted to eat them until my teeth turned purple. If I wanted to have my own delicious grapes, I needed to become a better viticulturist.

Pruning. That’s what viticulturists do.

Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, but I vaguely followed some directions,, that clearly stated the biggest mistake of first-time grapes growers is not pruning enough of the plant sometime between January and March.

Pruning seems counterintuitive. We’re told that if we trim our hair on a regular basis it will actually grow more quickly. Huh? I pruned my vine just a little bit that first year, and I received no fruit, so there you go.

Earlier this year I cut off all the dead vines, closed my eyes, and snipped off about 12 feet of this plant. I also added compost at the base and let the winter rains water it deeply. I also put a note on the fence dividing my yard from the neighbors, asking him not to spray weed killer near the fence line.

This year the plant finally forgave me. I have itty-bitty grapes. A lot of itty-bitty grapes.

Here we are in August and I harvested my first grapes this week. This does not count the grapes I have been nibbling to test whether some of the clusters were ripe and ready.

I’ve read a lot along the way:

Another grape information source used words like “tensiometer” and “divinator.” I’m just trying to eat some grapes here, not earn my master’s degree at UC Davis’s school of viticulture.

From what I can gather, the grapes need to be watered, and watered deeply at least twice a month.

For a very technical explanation of grapevine anatomy, check out this link from the University of California. After I read it, I realized why I did not become a plant scientist:

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Iris division during a dry fall, October 2, 2014

Author: Heather Hacking @HeatherHacking on Twitter
This drought is making garden choices more confusing. From what I’ve read, we don’t know if we’ll get small, medium or no rain this fall and winter. Even if the sky suddenly gushes forth with boatloads of rain, it may be a long while before our overdrawn aquifers rebound.

Will I need to write about drought gardening for another 10 months? Will Sow There ! Need to shift to hydroponic gardening tips?

What about lichen? Would readers relish reading about foliose and fructicose (types of lichen) instead of water-grabbing hydrangea and impatiens?

I was in such a quandary I called my buddy Bob Scoville, at the Master Gardener program over in Glenn County.

Bob has also been dwelling on drought, so much so that we had a short, yet spirited conversation about his dead lawn.

New digs, old drought

This will be the first autumn in my new house, which is 15 feet from the house where I grew a garden for the previous 18 years.

With not much going on in my new yard, I’m getting a bit itchy.

My new yard, by the way, contains weed plants like privet, wild viola and a giant mimosa tree.

The previous tenant also had two pitbulls with mean voices. They ran the perimeter of the yard, barking at passing school children. The dogs also loved to dig holes.

If I was more optimistic, I could view the mostly barren yard as an “empty palette.”

A dozen years of irises

For example, if I look over at my old house, I see at least 100 irises.

I planted six deep-purple bearded irises about 15 years ago.

The thing about irises is that they are designed to be shared. In fact, if you don’t divide irises every 3-5 years, they won’t bloom.

When I look at those 100 iris plants, just over yonder, I see my years of dividing and dividing. Every few years I filled black plastic bags with irises and dumped them in the lunch room at work.

People who don’t have lunch rooms probably drive around town finding random, barren yards in which to dump bags filled with irises.

Clearly, it’s time to divide the irises in my old yard because I clearly need something to fill those dog-beaten spots in my new yard.

Drought questions

I asked Bob at Glenn County Master Gardeners if I have any business planting things in the middle of the drought.

Would I be a bad person for planting something new, something that would inevitably require water?

Bob didn’t have an answer to that.

However, UC Cooperative Extension literature clearly states that irises should be divided in the fall.

Decision on division

Even I am not intimidated by dividing iris plants.

If you look among the pointed leaves, you’ll see the rhizomes at the top of the soil. These look something like carrots.

Under the carrot-type things are roots extending 4-6 inches into the soil.

Sink the shovel into the mass of plants and dig down as deeply as you can.

If you chop off some of the rhizomes with the shovel, don’t fret. There are so many it won’t matter.

Lift gently with the shovel and get down on your hands and knees.

Now you should be able to gently separate the plants, being careful to keep as many of the roots a possible.

Leave enough plants in the ground so you don’t have a giant bald spot.

The recommendation is to space plants 12-24 inches apart, but I rarely follow directions.

Many people trim the leaves of the plant down to about four inches. Tammy Cripe, another helpful Master Gardener who gets to spend time with Bob, said she has personally never trimmed the tops. Yet, people who take the time report that the plants do well, she said.

The link below recommends watering so that three inches of soil is wet after planting, then as needed.

I can’t speak for all iris varieties, but mine are virtually indestructible. When they are watered, they bloom well. When they are neglected, they somehow survive.

For far more helpful cultivation tips, check out the American Iris Society info. here:

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