Making a Place for Bees

Making a Place for Bees

May 29, 2016 | Rebecca in the Mercury News

A female carpenter bee collects pollen from a flower.Courtesy of Kathy Keatley Garvey

As yet unconfirmed reports of Africanized bees in Contra Costa County has people thinking a lot about bees and their place in our gardens.

Bees are responsible for pollinating nearly 30 percent of all the food we eat. Their cross-pollination also is crucial for the survival of most of our native plants.
“The diversity and abundance of bees in your backyard varies greatly on the diversity of flowers available,” says Robbin Thorp, entomology professor emeritus at UC Davis. “Help encourage bees into your backyard and garden with a variety that blooms all year long.”
A female carpenter bee collects pollen from a flower. Courtesy of Kathy Keatley Garvey Thorp recommends growing lavenders, rosemary, salvias, ceanothus, ribes, lupines and California poppies. For pops of color add asters, sunflowers, cosmos, penstemon, cuphea and nepetas. Plant herbs that both you and your bees will enjoy such as parsley, chives, dill, basil, borage, mint and fennel.
Here are some of the more common bees you’ll likely find in your yard.
  • Honeybees, which are ¾-inch and can vary in color from blonde to black, represent only a small fraction of the total bee population but they play a critical role in pollinating more than 40 varieties of fruit, nut, vegetable and seed crops valued at more than $1.5 billion per year.
  • Bumblebees are up to 1-inch long. They are more round, and are black or yellow with white or orange bands. Bumblebees are social and, although similar to honeybees, generally have much smaller colonies. They produce only enough honey to provide for themselves and are not used for commercial production.
  • Carpenter bees are shiny, black and as large as a bumblebee. They drill into wood, a trait that gives them their name, to create tunnels where they breed and raise their young. Although you might see carpenter bees drilling into the side of your home or other wood structure, they will seldom do significant damage. Make sure all surfaces and your siding are painted as they prefer untreated wood. However, if you suspect they are doing significant damage, you can treat the holes with insecticidal spray or dust. Wait two to three days, make sure the holes are empty, and then plug them with steel wool and caulking.
  • Leafcutter bees are small, smoke-colored bees with pale abdominal bands. They are productive pollinators, often doing 20 times more pollinating than honeybees. They are passive, solitary bees that need bare ground in order to nest and lay their eggs. For this reason, don’t practice wall-to-wall mulching. Leave some bare spots for the bees.
While some may be upset by seeing a bee swarm, Elina Niño with the Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, urges people to remain calm.
“If you see a swarm or nest of bees, don’t panic,” she says. “Just move away as quickly as you can and call your local extension office or beekeeping association. Don’t swat or try to kill them; a dead bee can release an alarm pheromone that could mark you as a potential threat to other honey bees.”


Spring Garden Market is Finally Here!

Spring Garden Market is Finally Here!

Get ready for the 22nd Spring Garden Market, brought to you by the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners. The event is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 16 at History San Jose, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose.

Admission is free, parking is $6.

Again this year we will have a mind-boggling selection of 80 varieties tomatoes and more than 100 types of peppers, which is what we have become known for. There will also be hundreds of herbs, eggplants and ornamentals to choose from. New this year will be decorative succulent arrangements, all potted up and ready to go.

There will be more than 10,000 tomato plants this year, including the always popular Sun Sugar cherry, the classic Cherokee Purple. There also will be paste tomatoes, which are great for sauces and canning.

In order to extend your harvesting season as long as possible, opt for a few of the earliest fruiting — ripe in 50 to 60 days — and some of the tomatoes that take 90 to 100 days to ripen.

If you are growing in containers, look for determinate varieties that only grow to about 4 feet high.

If you love making salsa, try Jersey Devil or Opalka. Pair them with some new offerings from our “chili heads,” including Sweet Sunset, an early fruiting, very sweet, Italian variety that is great for frying. It is compact, and it’s good for containers, too.

Tunisian Baklouti is a hot pepper that is great for couscous and North African dishes. Etiuda is an orange bell from Baker Creek that produces a half-pound fruit.

Holy Moly is a mild pepper that turns chocolate brown when ripe. It is great for mole sauce.

If you love fire-breathing-hot, don’t miss out on Bhut Jolokia Ghost and Trinidad Scorpion. For great habanero flavor with a little less heat, try Aji Amarillo, Bulgarian or Martin’s Carrot.

Sweet pepper options include Corno di Toro, Romanian Gogosari and Cuollarici.

If you haven’t tried growing your own eggplant, give it a go. Not only are they easy to grow, they are beautiful plants as well. There will be nine varieties to choose from, including Little Prince, Nadia, Rosa Bianca and Long Purple. They are great in stir fry dishes, hummus and even on pizza.

We will have 17 varieties of basil, including the prized Tulsi (Holy Basil) from India. Other herbs include oregano, thyme, lemongrass and stevia.

Although we are known for our incredible edibles, we also offer more than 20 types of ornamental plants and flowers, including amaranth, cosmos, Rudbeckia and about 20 types of zinnia and 13 varieties of sunflowers.

In additional to the succulent pots, there will be dozens of succulents to choose from including aloe, aeonium, agave, echeveria and many more. Sampler packs will be available as well.

Although the plants are what might draw you to the sale, don’t miss out on the educational talks. You can learn about drought-tolerant plants, growing tomatoes, embracing your clay soil, composing and gardening with pests.

T20160328__mgcol-0403~1_300here will be information booths featuring Martial Cottle Park, UC Davis All-Stars plants, native plants and the master gardener help desk, and garden-based activities for the kids. More than 40 vendors will offer food, arts and crafts, tools, clothing, chicken coops and, of course, plants, plants, plants.

Rebecca Jepsen is a Santa Clara County Master Gardener.

Grow a Single Apple Tree or an Entire Row!

Grow a Single Apple Tree or an Entire Row!

Braeburn AppleWant to grow apples but have room for only a single tree? Many varieties of apples are self-fruiting and do just great solo.

Before making your choices, find out the number of chill hours (the number of hours when temperatures are less than 45 degrees) you receive. A number of resources can be found on the Internet for calculating yours. Most varieties will set fruit in low-chill and coastal areas. Fruit color may be affected.

Knowing the root stock also is important.
Phil Pursel, of Dave Wilson Nursery, says the root stock that a particular variety is grafted on should be a primary factor when selecting your tree. M-111 is highly recommended here in the Bay Area due to the heavy clay soil and continuing drought conditions. It is a semi-dwarfing rootstock that produces trees in the 15-foot range and is resistant to woolly aphids and collar rot.
Geneva 935, a true-dwarf rootstock, will keep trees in the 8- to 10-foot range. It resists crown rot and root rot. M-27, a newer option, is great for container planting as well as heavy clay soils, producing trees in the 4- to 6-foot range. And although slow growing, it tends to produce lots of fruit so will need to be staked and supported. It also requires more water.
 To keep trees at their optimum height, however, you will need to practice good pruning.
 The most important factor in selecting your apple tree will be your taste buds. Apples range from tart to sweet, soft to crisp, and tidy to extremely juicy. You also should consider harvest times. If you travel during the summer, a tree that produces in June and July probably isn’t your best bet.
Composting Made Easy!

Composting Made Easy!

During the winter months, your landscape and garden aren’t quite as demanding as they usually are. If you aren’t already composting, this is a great time to set up an area and system that will reap benefits for years to come.

Composting is the key to organic gardening. Whether you are gardening in the ground, in pots, in raised beds or a combination, there truly is nothing better you can give your plants than homemade compost. Not only does it add necessary nutrients, help retain moisture and loosen up our hard-packed clay soil, it also helps reduce air and water pollution, and saves you money.

Compost is created when organic materials — plants, leaves, twigs, food waste, coffee grounds — are broken down into nutrient-rich natural fertilizer. The plant material that gets sent to landfills and not composting area, is stacked into large, dense piles where they are not exposed to light, oxygen and decomposing organisms. Often the materials set untouched for many years, releasing methane gases into the air, adding to global warming.

Keeping green waste out of the landfill is a priority, and the more compost you make, the less commercial fertilizer you need to buy. The use of chemical fertilizers also contributes to the pollution of our watersheds when they run off through rain or sprinklers and into the storm drains.

Right now you should have an ample supply of falling leaves from your trees, the spent plants from your summer vegetable gardens and plants from the general cleanup of your yard.

To create a conventional compost bin, you need an area of about 3-feet squared. If you want to create compost as quickly as possible — approximately five to eight weeks — practice a method known as hot composting, which involves layering two parts brown materials (dried leaves, pine needles, chopped twigs, shredded paper) to one part green material (grass clippings, kitchen waste, fresh plant clippings). Keep your pile moist, but not wet, and turn it on a regular basis. The internal temperature should reach 120 to 140 degrees.

Cool composting requires less math. You basically add materials when you have them and don’t worry about it much. The materials eventually will decompose, although it usually takes about six months.

Vermicomposting — my personal favorite — is a very efficient form of composting kitchen scraps. A pound of special compost worms, called red wigglers, can eat about a half pound of food every day.

Red Wigglers

Worm composting requires a bin — you can make your own or buy one of the many multi-tiered stacking varieties — along with the worms, shredded paper and some kitchen waste. Avoid meats, citrus and oils. Protect the bin from extreme heat or cold. The garage is a perfect place to set up your bin; it doesn’t smell and is very convenient for taking out those kitchen scrapes on a regular basis.

Let your worms get acclimated to their new environment for a couple of days before you start feeding them. Put a layer of moist shredded paper in the bin, add the worms and cover them with more paper. The worms will eat the food and produce a rich fertilizer known as worm castings, which can be harvested in a few months.

No matter which way you decide to compost, it is a practice that will turn you into a better and more conscientious gardener.

Water Catchment is Easy & Affordable!

Water Catchment is Easy & Affordable!

The rain is back and our parched soil and thirsty plants are soaking up as much as they can!

However, even if we have the wildly-wet winter they are predicting – it won’t be enough.

After weathering four full years of historic drought, it will take much more than one rainy season to fill up our reservoirs and replenish our ground water. Therefore, we need to retain as much of these magical drops as we can!

Online calculators can estimate the amount that can be collected based on the size of your roof and the rain we receive. An average size roof (1,360 square feet) with 10 inches of rain will yield 8,160 gallons.

Setting up a water catchment system is easy and affordable. You can start with just a single storage tank (typically 40-100 gallon) under a downspout with a spigot and bucket/hose attached. Or, you can design an elaborate system of multiple, daisy-chained tanks powered by pumps that connect directly to your irrigation system. There are options for standalone systems that can be used regardless of their location. Per Tom Spargo, Bay Area inventor of the RainSaucer, “our products allow you to catch up to 27 gallons of water per inch of rain and can be used in areas where you don’t have a downspout or gutter. The water is much cleaner than that harvested from a roof, and is a great option for community gardens or remote areas of your landscape”.

Tanks come in a wide array of colors, shapes and sizes. You can find decorative ones that look like planters, wine barrels or fountains. There are also large, industrial strength versions made from fiberglass or concrete. Master Gardener, Milly Wright, just installed a 2,825 gallon tank, and with just the rain on November 2nd, it was over half full!

You need to do a little prep work before you decide on the size and number of tanks you want to install. A single 50 gallon tank is approximately 2’ wide by 3’ tall. A 2800 gallon tank is nearly 9’ wide by 7 ½’ tall. A gallon of water weighs 8.3 gallons, so that 50 gallon tank will be 415 pounds when filled. It is a really good idea to build a platform or stand in order to elevate your tank – especially if you are going to harvest the water using a bucket or hose. You either need to have the necessary carpentry skills or hire out the job to make sure your stand can support the weight of your system.

Install a spigot and an on/off valve near the bottom of the tank to access the water. Insert a screen under the downspout to filter out leaves, pine needles and other debris. Use a tight-fitting lid on the tank to make sure kids, pets and wildlife don’t fall in.

Whether you start out small or jump head-first into a mammoth tank (just kidding); preserving any amount of our precious and ever-waning water can make a big difference.

If you go into the next dry summer with a good reserve, it may be enough to keep you under your water allotment and help you avoid those costly assessments!

Here’s wishing you a very wet and wonderful Thanksgiving Season – bring on the rain!!!

Free Water Audit Will Conserve Water & Save you Money!!!

Free Water Audit Will Conserve Water & Save you Money!!!

We recently took advantage of Santa Clara Valley Water District’s free Water-Wise House Call. The trained water surveyor did a thorough checkup both inside and out in just more than an hour.

Other water districts offer a similar service, so check with your provider.

The surveyor started by measuring our back lawn and the volume of shrubs and plant material around the property.

He would have also measured the front lawn, but we took it out years ago. If you are thinking about removing your lawn and would like to take advantage of the available rebates — some have doubled in recent months — now is time. Fall is the best time to replant lawns, and water companies provide a list of approved plants.

In order to get the rebate, you need to have the audit before you remove your existing lawn.

The surveyor read the water meter and compared it to our last meter reading to see how many gallons of water we were averaging per day. He then did a 5-minute test at the main water line to measure all water coming onto the property. Luckily, there were no leaks. If there had been one, he would have done an additional test to see if the leak was from the main to the house or inside the home.

He checked the irrigation controller and was pleasantly surprised to see that we have a wireless, digital smart station — my husband is one of those techie guys.

Next he headed inside to take the pulse of all toilets, sinks and showers. He performed 5-second flow rate checks on each faucet and shower head. Ideally they are looking for 1½ to 2 gallons per minutes. If the flow rate is too high, they will install new low-flow shower heads or aerators, which they provide.

The audit also includes looking for diverted leaks, which again we luckily didn’t have, and a check of the toilet flappers.

Although our toilets are relatively new, two out of three use 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Newer models are now less than a gallon a flush. The water district offers rebates of $125 to replace them.

Little changes can make a big difference. Installing a single low-flow aerator can save up to a gallon a minute, netting a savings of up to 25 gallons a day. Fixing a leaky toilet flapper can save 25-50 gallons a day and a low-flow shower head will save a gallon per minute.

Due to major upgrades to our home and landscape over the past few years, and the invaluable training I have gained from the Master Gardener program, we were in good shape. However, I found the audit to be informative and helpful. Just the small changes he helped us make will make a major difference in our water usage.

A trained surveyor will not only perform a water audit, but also will discuss ways for you to be more efficient in your water usage, suggest water-wise plants and how to group and irrigate them, help you understand and set up your irrigation controllers, and provide all the details you need for the current rebates being offered. Rebates can include landscape, high-efficiency toilets, Energy Star washing machines and graywater systems.

We are very fortunate to have these free services available to us.