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PostHeaderIcon Gardening

PostHeaderIcon Gardening is fun for kids

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This story was originally published in Spring 2011, but we are posting again due to popular demand. Enjoy!

The California Master Gardener’s Annual Conference was held in Santa Rosa this year.  One of our fellow Master Gardeners gave an extremely informational and interesting presentation documenting the benefits children and adults receive by just being in a garden setting.  Did you know that students who participated in school gardens scored higher on math and science achievement tests than students who did not garden?  Other benefits of gardening include improved concentration, enhanced cognitive functioning, reduced stress and anxiety, increased feelings of calm and relaxation, improved mood,  personal satisfaction and sense of pride.

Interest in backyard, community, and school gardens have heightened in the past five years as people have become more aware of sustainability and the importance of eating organic pesticide- free fruits and vegetables.  The Smithsonian has recreated a Victory Garden based on a 1940 pamphlet on vegetable gardening and the White House has created the “Let’s Move” theme incorporating education for eating healthy.

It’s time for all us to consider the importance of teaching our children about our food chain and how they can participate in a home, school or community garden.  It is important for young children to know that food does not originate in the grocery store.  It’s amazing to note that after World War II, victory gardens accounted for 40 percent of total US produce while larger farms provided produce to the troops.

Gardening is also fun!  The first thing my grandson, Tyler, (above) does when he comes to my house is run out to the strawberry patch.  He derives a great deal of pleasure from picking and eating the berries right from the vine.  He was a little upset, however when he ran out in December and to his surprise, there were no berries.  This turned into a learning experience and I was able to teach him about growing seasons, frost, etc.  He is also intrigued with my project of growing potatoes in a garbage can.  He is looking forward to the harvest when we will dump the entire can onto a tarp and harvest organic Russet potatoes that can be stored an eaten during the winter months.

Tyler enjoys investigating everything in the yard.  In addition to the vegetable garden, he likes to water the herb garden (it’s more his size).   We were watering the herb garden last week when he squealed with delight as he discovered a blue damselfly near the fountain.

By the time I set my camera up, the damselfly had hidden himself underneath the oregano, his little head was peeking out, looking like some type of alien.  His blue color was beautiful and vibrant.  This was an opportunity for me to talk to Tyler about beneficial insects and how they help our echo system.

Tyler also loves to help me in the flower cutting garden. He always asks me to tell him the name of each and every flower. He enjoys searching for little critters in this area too.  In addition to our blue damselfly, we discovered a beautiful dragonfly perched on a stake supporting dinner plate dahlias.

The dragonfly stayed perched on the stake for quite some time. Tyler was glued to the cutting garden watching the dragonfly until I was able to coax him over to the birdhouse box where a family of wrens had made a nest and the baby birds were preparing to fledge.  Mom and Dad were busy feeding their babies, so there was much activity and yet another opportunity to talk to Tyler about birds and how they nest, find food, bathe and fit into our echo system.

If you would enjoy more information on gardening with children, a free booklet is available to help you get started.  Visit this website and click on “Gardens for Learning.”  www.csgn.org

The National Gardening Association collects data to track the benefits of school gardens and this website may be of interest as well www.kidsgardening.org. There is also a junior Master Gardener Program website at www.jmkids.us
As always, UC Davis website has an abundance of information on Home Gardening.  www.ipm.ucdavis.edu Click on Home Gardening.--JM

Jody McPheeters is a retired executive who lives in San Ramon. She is a published author, freelance writer, and Certified Master Gardener. To learn more about her landscapes and garden designs, please visit her website at www.yourgardeningcoach.com.


Last Updated (Wednesday, 17 April 2013 18:10)


PostHeaderIcon One Ton Pumpkin Growing Contest is On

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Organizers of Half Moon Bay’s Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off have announced they are offering $25,000 in total prize money for the first 1-ton pumpkin, which would be a world record.  

There’s a realistic chance it could happen this year according to Tim Beeman, CEO of Miramar Events.  However, Thomas Andres, a squash expert at the New York Botanical Garden, has predicted that the first 2,000-pound pumpkin won't be grown until 2014.  Still, the prize money is believed to be the greatest of any weigh-off in the world, organizers said.

The $25,000 breaks down as follows:  The winner receives $6 per pound plus a $10,000 bonus mega prize for a new world record, plus the difference to get to $25,000.  A 2,000-pound pumpkin would net $12,000 (2,000 pounds x $6 per pound), plus $10,000 for a new world record, plus an additional $3,000 difference to get to the $25,000 threshold.

To receive the $25,000 mega-prize, the grower must break and hold the world record and 1-ton record at the conclusion of the Half Moon Bay weigh-off.  If two or more growers happen to break the world record and 1-ton barrier at Half Moon Bay, the prize money would go to the grower of the heaviest pumpkin.  The current world record is 1,818.5 pounds, grown by Jim and Kelsey Bryson.  The Bryson’s new record was set at the Prince Edward County Pumpkin fest in Wellington, Ontario Canada in October 2011.

Defending champion of the Half Moon Bay Weigh-off is Leonardo Urena of Napa.  His pumpkin last year weighed in at 1,704 pounds and set a new California state record.  The Half Moon Bay win also secured Urena “Grower of the Year” honors from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.

The Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival began in 1971 with an all volunteer non profit group determined to raise funds to improve Main Street in downtown Half Moon Bay.   In the forty-one years since it’s its inception, it has grown into a tremendous event featuring rustic pumpkin patches, arts and crafts, home-style food, entertainment, a haunted house, pumpkin carvers, pumpkin parade and more.  There is no charge for entry to the event.  For more information on the history and current activities, you can visit www.miramarevents.com.

If you are interested in growing a pumpkin for entry next year (the seeds are already in the ground for this year), you may be interested in learning the basics of growing a large pumpkin, and the dedication and care the growers give their prized possession during the growing season.

Giant pumpkin growers, such as the unidentified man above left, consider their hobby a true sport.  They devote a tremendous amount of time and money to grow their pumpkins.  Some growers cover their pumpkins with tents or sheets to prevent them from splitting in the hot sun.  They may spend as much as $50 on a single pumpkin seed.  A giant pumpkin can demand 27,000 gallons of water per month.  Some growers experiment with natural growth hormones that contain super nutrients.  There is even a store that sells everything you need to grow a giant pumpkin. 

Visit their website at www.extremepumpkinstore.com  The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth has an interesting website with pictures of some of the past pumpkin winners.  Go to www.greatpumpkincommonwealth.com

As a gardener myself, I was interested in the steps for growing pumpkins, big and small.  Some of the giant growers feed pumpkins a compost of water mixed with worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp.  A basic pumpkin growing guideline from Don Langevin, author of the book “How to Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins” is summarized below.

1. Choose a sunny location for your pumpkins
2. Buy quality seeds
3. Prepare your soil – Do a PH test.  It should be between 5.5 and 7.5
4. Use antibiotic-free manure and compost to amend your soil
5. Plant a cover crop in the fall and turn over in Spring
6. You can start your seeds inside and transfer to the garden in spring.
7. Pollinate the flowers.  The female flowers are easy to identify.  They have a small pumpkin at the base.  You can hand pollinate by finding the opened male flower, remove the petals and expose the stamen and pollen.  Locate the newly opened female flower and swab the internal parts of the female flower with the stamen.
8. Prune each main vine. Train shoots so they are perpendicular to the main vine to accommodate access to the pumpkins.
9. Fertilize.
10. Measure the pumpkins weekly.  Gains in circumference can average four to six inches in a 24-hour period.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin festival in the past, consider it in your October agenda.  The weigh-off will take place on October 8th from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on the I.D.E.S. Grounds, 735 Main Street, Half Moon Bay, Ca.  The champion pumpkin, along with the top five pumpkins overall, will be on display at the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival on October 13-14 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m..

For more information on the weigh-off and festival, call 650-726-9652.

Jody McPheeters is a published author, freelance writer, and a gardening coach with a passion for sustainability and a love for nature and animals. Reach her through her website at www.yourgardeningcoach.com.

Last Updated (Tuesday, 03 July 2012 02:13)


PostHeaderIcon Keep Your Eye Out for the Red-tailed Hawk

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As I was sitting at my patio table enjoying our warm spring weather, I heard a “whoosh” right over the top of my head, and then a clattering noise in the ash tree next to me.  At first I thought it was my Great Horned Owl coming home to rest after a long night of hunting.  I remained still for a few moments to regain my composure and then looked up into the tree and discovered a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk perched in the tree eating its prey.

I remained very quiet and unobtrusive for several minutes until I felt confident about moving and not causing it to leave its perch.  I got up very slowly and tip-toed over to the patio door and quietly opened the slider.  The minute I stepped inside, I dashed to grab the binoculars and my trusty Canon Power Shot camera. 

The hawk was indeed eating its prey – a huge roof rat!  I observed the rat’s tail hanging over the limb of the tree where the hawk was perched.  It was ravenous about ripping the rat apart and getting to the meat of the operation.  It was interesting that it would eat for a time and then rest, eat for a time and then rest again. 

My family arrived in the afternoon for Sunday dinner and the grandchildren had an opportunity to observe the hawk.  My 6-year-old grandson was the most enthusiastic.  In fact, the letter for the week in his kindergarten class the following week was “H” and he wanted a picture of the hawk to take to school and present to his fellow students.  We blew one up poster size.

As we were busy watching and learning, we were confident the hawk would not leave his perch as long as it was eating.   It appeared as though the hawk had completed its meal when we discovered its last morsel of food had been dropped into the shrub below the tree.  The hawk remained on the limb of the tree and stared down at the bush for the longest time.  To our amazement, the hawk dove from the tree into the dense shrub to retrieve its last bit of meat.  At this point we were frightened that it may have been injured because it was struggling to get out of the shrub.  Luckily it emerged with the morsel of meat and finished its meal on the top ledge of my fence in full view of the family gathering.

The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most common Hawks in North America.  They live in a wide and diverse range of habitats, including urban areas.  The Red-tailed hawk is an opportunistic predator and uses a variety of hunting skills depending on the type of prey it is attacking.

The Red-tailed hawk feeds on rodents, snakes, shrews, ducks, and lizards.  In the air, it may strike at bats and small birds.  It may perch on trees or poles, hover, and then drop down vertically on the prey (which is what it did when it dove into the shrub).

This particular hawk is a monogamous bird that mates with a partner for many years and will stay with the same bird unless one of them dies.  Courtship displays include a “sky dance” where the mates plunge and swoop together.  After the courtship, they build their nest of twigs lined with bark and other vegetation.  They nest in large trees, but may also nest on cliff ledges.  They use the same nesting sight over and over.  Their clutch is between one and five eggs and incubated by both the male and female.  Eggs hatch in 28-35 days.  The chicks are dependent on their parents for a long time.  The male provides food for the female and chicks and the female feeds the chicks by tearing the meat into small pieces.  They generally leave the nest within 42-46 days.  Hopefully this particular Red-tailed hawk will nest in another area because the Great Horned Owl is a predator and will attempt to seize the nesting sight.Native Americans believed the distinctive tail feathers of this bird were sacred and they used them for religious ceremonies.--- JM


 Jody McPheeters is a published author, freelance writer, and a gardening coach with a passion for sustainability and a love for nature and animals. Reach her through her website at www.yourgardeningcoach.com.

Last Updated (Sunday, 22 April 2012 21:05)


PostHeaderIcon Fall Finds In A Gardener's Backyard

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I am amazed by the wildlife I have observed in my backyard, particularly because I live in a typical hustle and bustle neighborhood in San Ramon.  Prior to being accepted into the UC Davis Master Gardener Program, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about habitat and wildlife.  But after being in the program for a short time, I discovered how much I didn’t know about creating an ecosystem that would attract and preserve wildlife, beneficial insects, such as the dragonfly on the left, backyard birds, pollinators and butterflies, all without pesticides and water guzzling plants!

Linda Gordon, president of the Contra Costa Master Gardeners Association, had queried me in an email recently about what I thought of the Master Gardener Program (since graduating in February).  She asked if I had and suggestions for improvements.  Attempting to articulate how much the program has enriched my life, I never really came up with specifics.  After pondering her question, it became evident that I have truly enjoyed collaborating with fellow Master Gardeners in both learning and social situations.  I don’t think I would have ever slowed down enough to take notice of all that I have in my backyard had I not been influenced through this program  It’s a gift you cannot put a price tag on.  My goal is to pass on some of the information I have learned since becoming a Master Gardener.

This past year has been delightfully generous with wildlife experiences in the backyard.  It is so exciting to discover a new critter, butterfly, bird or insect.  It’s always fun to have my young grandchildren wander around in the yard while I putter.  More often than not, they are the first ones to spot many of the insects, birds and other critters.

The special surprise this year was a Great Horned Owl (renowned for its ferocity and penetrating stare), which has taken up residence in one of my conifer trees, as you can see on the right. He roosts in his tree during the day and leaves at dusk to hunt.  There are plenty of ground squirrels, mice, rats and moles to keep him well fed.

I can hear hooting during the night in a neighbor’s tree.  The Great Horned Owl has binocular vision and extremely sensitive hearing which is how he seeks his prey.  Although this species is not threatened globally, persecution, habitat loss and pesticides pose a threat to owls in general and some species in particular.  This magnificent rafter is shrouded in myth, especially among some American Indian tribes who say that its presence is a sign of good luck to come.  I could sure use some good luck about now!  Perhaps I should purchase a lottery ticket pronto.

I am eager to see if my owl will find a mate.  Mates are usually chosen by December.  I am in the process of building a nesting structure in the shape of a cone that can be wired to a crotch in my ash tree and hopefully an owl pair will find it attractive for nesting.   They stay with their mate for the entire nesting season. Clutch size is 2-4 eggs which the female incubates for approximately 30-37 days.  The owl pair nests either in tree cavities or the nests of other large birds such as the Red-Tailed Hawk.  Wouldn’t it be exciting to have little owlets in my tree?

My grandson, Tyler, (below right) was enthralled when he found a dragonfly in the cutting garden.  He now thinks he is an entomologist.  As we work together in the garden, we talk about how birds, butterflies and pollinators are declining in our environment; mostly because we tend to destroy their habitat. 

 An interesting book, "Noah’s Garden" by Sara Stein, is an informative and interesting book about how everything in our ecosystem is connected.   I recommend this book for those interested in improving their backyard habitat.  It has also helped me teach my grandchildren, Tyler and Caden about the importance respecting nature and preservation of our existing habitat.

Jody McPheeters is a published author, freelance writer, and a gardening coach with a passion for sustainability and a love for nature and animals. Reach her through her website at www.yourgardeningcoach.com.

Last Updated (Tuesday, 22 November 2011 02:25)


PostHeaderIcon Garden Ideas for Fall

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Editor's note: This story was originally published last fall, but is being republished by popular demand.


Although I love the change of seasons, I am always a little sad as the signs of fall creep into my garden signaling the end of summer.  My first inkling of change is the dwindling blooms in my cutting garden and the darkness shadowing early morning.  Shorter days also remind me of everything I have to do for a bountiful and colorful garden in spring.

The basics for a successful garden, (no matter what the season), includes rich soil, adequate fertilizer, and proper watering.   Good drainage is essential.  You can test your soil by performing a percolation test.  Instructions on how perform this is outlined at www.ehow.com

Fertile soil is what controls plant growth.  Adding organic material to your soil, such as mushroom compost, is a must in order to maintain your garden. The dark color of your soil confirms it contains adequate organic matter.

I enjoy layering my cutting flower garden with plants that provide color all season long. This technique is demonstrated in my photograph entitled “Cutting Garden End of Summer.:  The bare areas in the garden will be replaced with bulbs and perennials that bloom in spring.

My dahlias and zinnias are producing fewer blooms and smaller flowers as fall approaches, so I will replace their color with mums, phlox, and asters to emphasize the yellow, orange and red colors of fall. 

The bulbs I plant this fall will provide a kaleidoscope of color and freshness in the spring. I also enjoy planting groupings of bulbs in pots to bring color to areas that may be difficult to plant, such as areas where tree roots are invasive. Container planting gives me flexibility if I decide to create different color venues throughout my landscape. 

Include spring bulbs in your garden such as daffodils, tulips, crocus, snowdrops, and hyacinth.  Plant your bulbs in groupings so they look like they popped up naturally in your landscape or garden.  There are also several specialty bulbs.  Basic bulbs are now available at Costco (cost is around $15.00 per bag).   Local nurseries have all of the basic bulbs, plus a variety of specialty bulbs.  Planting should take place in late October or early November, before the rains start and the weather turns cold.  I have planted as late as the middle of November with success.

Here are some tips to prepare your garden for spring:

*If you have an existing lawn, fertilize it before the end of September.  Late September and early October is a good time to sow a lawn from seed or install sod.  Adding 1-inch of organic material on top of your lawn once a year will keep it green and healthy.

* Plant new perennials such as foxglove, salvia, phlox, astible, Japanese anemone, sedum, and coral bells to establish their root system before spring.   Divide established perennials such as agapanthus, daylilies and peonies in the fall, or after they have finished blooming.  Dividing established perennials will increase the number and quality of blooms for the following year.

*Amend the soil in your flower beds, vegetable and herb gardens with organic compost available through your local nursery.   October and November is the time to harvest your herb garden for freezing or drying.   I harvest fresh rosemary, oregano and thyme throughout the year.  This is picture of my small herb garden demonstrating a mix of flowers and herbs.

*Fertilize trees (including fruit trees), shrubs, camellias, rhodendrons and azaleas.  Check with your local nursery for the proper fertilizing product.

*Remove falling leaves from trees, and discard affected leaves that harbor black spot, fungus or mildew. You can fertilize your roses in September, but don’t prune yet.

*Plant cool weather vegetables in your garden, including swiss chard, fava beans, carrots, onions and radishes. --JM

Jody McPheeters is a retired executive residing in San Ramon, California. She is a published author, free-lance writer, and a gardening coach with a passion for sustainability and a love for nature and animals. Reach her through her website at www.yourgardeningcoach.com.


Last Updated (Tuesday, 18 October 2011 23:21)

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