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Author Archives: Maureen Gilmer

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer has been a noted figure in horticultural journalism for over 30 years. She is author of 18 gardening books and writer of Yardsmart, a national column syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service. She is also garden columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in the international resort town of Palm Springs. Maureen is a public speaker and former host of Weekend Gardening on the DIY Channel. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.
  1. The Well-Prepared Parterre Potager

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    villandry 1

    The grand French Chateau de Villandry Ornamental Parterre Garden is in the foreground with the Ornamental Kitchen Garden in the background.

    As with most things French, even vegetable gardens can be decidedly beautiful.  What makes them so special are parterre potagers, a practice of creating symmetrical, geometric patterns with beds of vegetables of different colors and textures. Within the geometric beds, which are often lined with trimmed boxwood, rosemary, or santolina hedges, are planted many different food crops over the season, sometimes formal, sometimes country casual.  What they all share, however, is the highly geometric layouts and the diversity of plants grown there.

    Grand Parterres


    The vegetable beds at Villandry are edged in boxwood and filled with colorful edibles. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Parterres were originally created using clipped hedges and colorful ornamentals placed in grand designs for the French Aristocracy. They were to be appreciated from the high windows of a palace or chateau, such as the famous Chateau de Villandry built in the Loire Valley during the Renaissance. Patterns can be as simple as repeating squares and rectangles or consist of intricate designs, such as repeating Fleur de Lis, knot work, and starbursts. The designs were created on a large scale, but their clean geometry also made them adaptable on a smaller scale with more functional plants.

    Potager Parterres

    The potager parterre doubles as both a kitchen garden and appealing ornamental garden and fits nicely into small spaces. Raised edging can create the same impact as low hedges without additional maintenance.  This makes it easier to create a unique look with symmetrically designed beds delineated by edging and gravel walkways.


    Simple, contemporary edging and gravel combine to create a French-inspired herb and vegetable parterre. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    What makes the French garden so fun is that it’s rich in herbs as well as vegetables and other plants that contribute to the famous cuisine.  Some may be perennial, such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme, while most others are annual vegetables of all kinds.  Often the annuals are cycled in and out of the same ground, as the cool and warm seasons pass.  In the South of France, where conditions are warmer, these hard-working gardens are packed with heavy feeding veggies most of the year.  Unfortunately, many of these gardens experience nutrient decline over time unless the soils are routinely fed with quality soil amendments and added fertilizer.

    Amending Parterre Soil

    When native soil is worn out and the microbial content depleted, it’s best to err on the side of overdoing it.  It is rare to experience ill effects caused by too much compost, because it’s quickly consumed by soil microbes, in a healthy organic environment.  The more the microbes feed, the more amendments you need to keep their numbers high for consistent soil fertility year in and year out.


    Black Gold Garden Compost Blend is superb food for microbes.

    The best choice for in-ground parterres is OMRI Listed® Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, which is superb food for microbes.  Compost can be added to natural soil in spring and fall.  Turn your earth gently with a fork and blend in the compost at least 6-inches deep before planting.  This ensures there will be plentiful organic matter for crops to do their best.

    For additional grow power and added nitrogen, amend with OMRI Listed® Black Gold Earthworm Castings Blend.  At planting time, work a handful of castings into each planting hole to ensure the roots will encounter a boost of natural nitrogen and micro-nutrients derived from the earthworm’s diet.

    For parterres with hedge edges, mulch them with the leftover compost and worm castings to keep them healthy, green, and beautiful.  Just leave a 3″ ring of open ground around the base of the hedges to let their trunks breathe.

    Petite parterres are a great way to create a formal look or one that’s rooted in history.  They can be planted with vegetables, or flowers, or both.  That’s what makes this garden style so inspiring. One can grow good food while never sacrificing great design.


    This mid-sized parterre is a good solution for a functional backyard landscape. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)


  2. Blueberries for Western and Southern Gardens

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    New, heat-tolerant blueberries should be enjoyed in more gardens south of the Mason Dixon Line and in the Southwest

    Forget that blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are just a crop for the far north, because that’s changed.  Modern selection and breeding has resulted in a range of hybrids and varieties that extend blueberries into almost every growing zone.  What makes this such a great opportunity is that blueberries are produced on shrubs.  That means they will fit right into any existing ornamental landscape while producing annual crops of berries.

    Best Warm-Climate Blueberries


    A blueberry is no different from any other acid-loving shrub in your landscape.

    Choose from two blueberry types for warmer climates: drought-tolerant rabbiteye hybrids (Vaccinium ashei hybrids, Zones 7-9, 10-12′), and southern highbush hybrids (Vaccinium corymbosum x V. darrowii x V. ashei  hybrids, Zones 7-10, 6′).  In the Southwest and California, try rabbiteyes such as ‘Bluebelle’, ‘Southland’, and ‘Tifblue’.  In Northwest California and the American South, where there’s higher rainfall, try the southern highbush varieties ‘Jubilee’, ‘Misty’, ‘O’Neal’, and ‘Southmoon’.

    While many cultivated blueberries are self fertile, pollination and yields are increased by growing different varieties with the same bloom times. Blueberries are pollinated by native bees and honeybees, so it also pays to plant extra spring-blooming bee plants to increase pollinator density at blueberry flowering time.

    Siting Blueberries

    Like rhododendrons and azaleas, blueberries are ericaceous plants that originate from woodland environments with well-drained, acid (pH 4.0 to 5.0), sandy loam with a shallow layer of organic matter, called the “duff layer”, which lies just below the tree litter.  This is why they grow best with some shade and have wide, shallow root systems that favor low pH soils.  Even if you get a blueberry stipulated for warmer climates, they still require this universal soil condition.

    BGPeatMoss2.2cu Front-WEBThis makes blueberries the perfect edible plant for those properties with good soil drainage and high tree canopies. While most other edibles need direct sun, blueberries do exceptionally well under tall shade trees that provide substantial filtered light and morning sun exposure.

    Choose an upland site with low soil moisture and good drainage—sandy to average loam soils are best. If the soil quality is not suitable, be it too alkaline or too rich in clay, be prepared to amend your soil.

    Cultivating Blueberries

    Peat moss is the best source of organic matter for acid-loving plants like blueberries. Dig a hole three times as wide as it is deep and mix the native soil with 50% Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss. Then add a high-acid fertilizer contain ammonium sulfate or sulfur-coated urea (apply using package recommendations) and back fill. Finish by adding a  3″ mulching layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to help keep root zones cool and moist. Providing an organic-rich, fertile layer of acid soil around the new plant stimulates rapid lateral root growth and helps protect against periodic heat and drought.

    Blueberries also grow well in large patio containers filled with OMRI Listed® Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which is approved for organic gardening and ideal for keeping roots from drying out in the summer months without using excess water.


    In warmer winter climates, southern blueberries ripen earlier than late-blooming northern varieties.

    Because blueberries fruit on newer stems, refrain from pruning them in the first couple of years to help them become better established.  [Click here to learn how to prune established blueberry bushes.] In fact, it is best to strip off the first-year flowers and blueberries to help plants invest all their early growth towards sturdy roots and stems.

    Blueberries are long-lived shrubs that will bring yields to your landscape for years to come.  They will also allow you and your family to enjoy the bounty of home-grown organic fruit in just about any landscape or garden.

  3. Heirloom Vegetable Power: Why Old Seed is New Again

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    A diverse collection of dried heirloom beans.


    Every seed has a story.  When it comes to heirloom vegetable seeds, those with great stories have been nurtured for hundreds and thousands of years by diverse peoples worldwide. Many heirlooms have been lost in time, but some have been preserved, bringing with them wonderful traits that tell us something about the people who grew them and the environments where they were grown.

    For millennia, farmers across the globe developed their own local crop varieties—selecting for flavor, production, and resilience. These became the foundation of modern breeding, but many old varieties were lost when modern breeding took hold. Thankfully, some old crops cultivated in harsh climates using ancient agricultural methods have remained in continuous cultivation. These are being collected and assessed for their adaptability to a changing climate. The potential for increased genetic adaptability of these ancient crops may help future farmers (and gardeners).

    Native American Heirlooms

    In the Southwest, for example, the selection of agricultural varieties was done by many Pueblo tribes who farmed the desert in innovative ways.  Waffle gardens and the Three Sisters methods of Layout 1planting were both used.  Corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers were the favored crops, but others were also grown. The seed strains chosen were selected over thousands of years to become the original diet of the tribes.

    After losing many indigenous heirloom seeds over the 20th century, Native Seed/Search, was formed. This nonprofit organization in Tucson, Arizona is dedicated to preserving desert vegetable varieties.  Not only do they sell the seeds abroad, they make them available to local tribes for their farms and gardens. This keeps crops in perpetual cultivation and helps local tribes people maintain healthy diets and combat diabetes. Groups like Native Seed/Search protect heirloom strains and their ancient genetics for the future.  By purchasing and saving these, gardeners also help maintain them for future generations.

    Heirloom Seed Sources

    Other heirloom seed sources offer crops from across the globe, but gardeners in the arid or hot regions should opt for those collected from places with significant heat and drought. Israeli growers have many named varieties developed for their dry climate.  Similarly, many heirloom tomatoes made it out of Iraq early on and are offered by seed catalogs.  Italian varieties and Greek heirlooms are also heat loving and easy to find.  With a little geography, you can match origins to your local conditions to create the perfect marriage of adaptability to flavor and yield. Just be sure to check when choosing an heirloom variety from your favorite seed catalog.

    Seed Saving Workshops 1

    Native Seed/SEARCH works with local tribes to rekindle their heritage strains and agriculture.

    The slow perusal of seed catalogs as the snow flies is a time-honored gardener’s ritual of winter. Though you must await delivery, studying heavily illustrated seed catalogs in January and February allows you to make your list leisurely, then order online. Keep in mind that not all seed is heirloom, so check before ordering. In addition to Native Seed/Search, we recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Heirloom Seeds, Seeds of Italy, Seed Savers Exchange, and Victory Seeds as reliable heirloom seed sources. Those needing seed in a pinch might also find racks of heirlooms and boutique seed at garden centers.

    Heirlooms are open pollinated and true to parent. This means the seed is non-hybridized, field-collected, and will yield plants that are genetically similar to the parent plants. It also means that you can save your own heirloom seed. Think of each packet you buy as the start of a long, and hopefully fruitful relationship.  After you grow it the first year, save the seed to plant next year. Over time, a gardener can grow lots of different heirlooms and accumulate a nice seed collection of old standbys and new discoveries with each spring garden.  (Check out our heirloom tomato seed-saving video to learn an easy technique to harvest your own seed for the future. There are also seed-saving workshops and other resources at Seed Savers Exchange.)


    Be sure to wash and sterilize last year’s pots before reusing, or just buy peat pots.

    Potting Heirloom Seeds

    Once you place your seed order, the next step is to start saving salad boxes for sprouting seeds.  They hold in moisture helping your heirlooms to sprout safe and sound in protected conditions. You’ll need a bag of Black Gold Seedling Mix to fill the boxes! (Click here for my full step-by-step guide to seed starting.)

    Next, organize your small pots from last year to hold the little sprouts after they transplant from the seed box. Wash the pots well, then dip them in a 10% bleach solution and air dry.  If you don’t save pots, newly purchased seedling flats do nicely as do small peat pots.  (Just remember to peel the peat off when planting peat pots because it can impede the speed of root growth into natural soil.)  When transplanting in the ground, supplement the planting area with OMRI Listed Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix to help your seedlings develop large root systems fast.

    BG-WATERHOLD_1cu-FRONTWhether a great heirloom vegetable was cultivated a state away or on the other side of the world, growing and saving heirloom vegetables brings all of humanity together. By growing and saving your own heirloom seeds, you carry on a time-honored tradition and become a link in the chain of sustainability.

  4. Growing California Christmasberry

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    fruit foliage

    Large sprays of bright red berry-like fruits mature in time for holiday decorating.

    In my old High Sierra home, I decorated with my own native Christmasberry (Heteromeles arbutifolia, USDA Zone 8) fruit every winter for nearly 20 years. Also called California toyon, this shrub produces large sprays of bright red fruits that are so seasonally welcome, I wondered why it was not more popular in landscaping.

    Christmasberry makes a fine alternative to Asian Frasier’s photinia (Photinia fraseri), non-native hollies (Ilex spp.), and other exotic evergreens.  Deep, emerald-green foliage makes the red fruits really stand out in the winter garden while providing bird habitat all year long. In the High Sierras, the wild evergreens remained unchanged from the end of late-spring rains to December, when the rains returned.  That’s a minimum of seven months with no supplemental water!

    Potted Christmasberry

    Like so many California native shrubs, Christmasberry  is difficult to grow commercially in pots because of its deep, wide-spreading root system — the key to its amazing drought resistance.  Natives with large root systems rapidly outgrow nursery pots by the end of the first year, when grown from seed.  If not transplanted into a deeper pot, the roots will hit the pot bottom and grow sideways.

    A young Christmasberry shrub.

    A young Christmasberry shrub.

    Distorted tap and feeder roots will keep a growing shrub from achieving proper root depth once planted in the ground.  This is why Christmasberry, and comparable native trees and shrubs, are uncommon in garden centers.  So many have disproportionate top-to-root growth. A tiny seedling may have a three-foot-deep root system that refuses to adapt to container culture.  This was such a problem with California native oaks, that growers finally gave up on trying to pot them and planted acorns instead.

    Purchase the smallest, youngest potted plants, if you can find Heteromeles arbutifolia for sale locally.  A big plant in a small pot won’t adapt well to drought.

    Growing Christmasberry from Seed

    Sowing Christmasberry plants from gathered seed is an even better option. Home-grown shrubs can quickly be planted outdoors, allowing the tiny seedlings to freely root into the soil and adapt to local rainfall limitations.

    First gather mature, red fruits and clean each one to release the two seeds inside.  In my High Sierra home, robins came each year to feed on the fruits, excreting clean, ready-to-germinate seed on my land.  To simulate this same scenario at home, separate the seed cleanly from the fruit and allow the seed to dry.  This seed will remain viable for only about 8 months.

    BG_NATORGPTTINGMIX_1cu-FRONTSow the dry seed in winter to get them started, just like wild seed with the spring rains. Choose a light, natural garden soil, such as Black Gold Seedling Mix. Start by filling a plastic lidded salad or fruit box with fresh mix, and set the seed into the moist media, but don’t cover it.  Keep the seeds lightly moist and at room temperature, and they should sprout in about a week.  Transplant newly sprouted seedlings into deep pots of Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. Place them under bright light until they reach 1-inch in height, usually within six weeks.  Transplant into the landscape once the soil can be worked to ensure a healthy root growth and easy planting. Spring planted seedlings should be deeply watered once or twice, then let them grow on rainfall, unless conditions are unseasonably arid.

    Planting Christmasberry

    In the wild, Christmasberry typically grows on rocky slopes with dry, well-drained soils that are sometimes a bit saline. Keep this in mind when selecting a location to plant or sow your shrubs. As long as the roots are free to grow deeply, they will out-perform thirsty hollies and other exotic holiday berries without asking for much, if any, supplemental water.

    Mature shrubs are bushy, somewhat shade tolerant, and typically reach 6-10 feet or more. In early summer clusters of white flowers are produced. These are transform into red, berry-like fruits that persist into winter. Established plants can live up to 200 years.


    This relatively young hedge shows how fast Christmasberry produces a drought-resistant screen with high wildlife value.

    Other natural, shrubby companions found with Christmasberry are California lilac (Ceanothus spp.), manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), and fremontia (Fremontodendron spp.), all of which grew on or near my old property.  This is the essential palette of native California shrubs or small trees that promise beauty in drought.

    There is no better recommendation for a species to withstand the perpetual “shake, bake, and irrigate” of the West Coast. Christmasberry survives fire and holds slopes against mudslides, according to Lester Rowntree in her classic 1947 book, Flowering Shrubs of California.  Lester wrote: “I have seen acres of toyon [Christmasberry], in solid formation, come back after fire from the roots of old bushes, ringing the bases of burned 18-foot stems, standing black and dead, with the bright rich green of new growth.”

  5. Planting a Barrel Cactus Safely

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    The ferocious spines of the golden barrel cactus make them very difficult to pot. (Image by Jessie Keith)


    The golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) is America’s favorite cactus. All over the Southwest it has become a coveted living ornament in landscapes. When back lit by the sun, the bright canary-yellow spines literally glow, creating high drama against blue agaves and succulents. A big yellow cactus potted on porch or patio becomes the quintessential year-round focal point that never loses its warm color.

    Large golden barrel specimens, and other large barrel cacti, thrive in big, strong pots, if they are planted properly. What folks don’t know is that they are darned difficult to handle, and painful, too. The challenge is transplanting the stemless ball of wickedly sharp spines. The combined soil and plant weight makes golden barrel unwieldy to carry, which complicates matters further.  Here’s how to do it safely without damage to you or the plant.

    Protect Yourself


    This basketball-sized golden barrel is planted in a perfect-sized salvaged container to allow for future growth and easy watering.

    To start, you’ll need long, thick, solid-leather gloves, because picking up pots of golden barrels is a wrist and knuckle nightmare for bare skin. Loosely wrap the cactus in a piece of carpeting, or find a cardboard box that fits over the spines tight enough to “catch”. The box is a bit better because it lets you turn the cactus upside down to stand while you carefully remove the pot. This exposes the root ball and facilitates preparation for transplanting.

    When inspecting the root ball, look to see if your large cactus has been field grown and recently potted up. Field-grown cacti are cultivated on slopes that provide rapid drainage. They are dug and potted up in nursery soils that typically drain more slowly and are less suited to cacti longevity because they’re viewed as temporary. To protect your investment, inspect the bottom of the plant and remove any organic matter that may provide excess moisture. Then you will want to prepare your container for planting.

    Planting Barrel Cacti

    bare root

    Newly dug from the grower’s field, the shallow, wide roots of golden barrel are exposed temporarily until transplanted.

    Your decorative pot must be wide enough to contain the cactus and have at least 1 inch or more free space on all sides to allow for new growth, watering space, and surface evaporation. Use a concave pottery shard to dome over the drain hole to prevent erosion. Then open a fresh bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix, a fast-draining medium containing a blend of perlite/pumice or cinders, earthworm castings and compost. It encourages vigorous growth while ensuring ample aeration and drainage.

    Use dry potting soil right out of the bag when potting up your golden barrel cactus. Place a layer of soil at the base of the pot, then set the top of the cactus root ball about 1-2 inches below the pot’s edge, and hold it there while you pour in mix around the sides. Allow the mix to filter down and lightly pack it to create a porous yet solid base.

    BG_CACTUSMIX_1CF-FRONTDo not water the cactus directly after planting, and put it in a partially shaded location. Wait a couple of days before watering, so any injuries to roots during the planting process have had time to heal themselves. Then water in thoroughly. Add more potting soil where settling or pockets occur.

    For more visual interest, try adding a surface layer of gravel, glazed tile shards, or tumbled glass. Place in full sun.

    Finally, try raising the bottom of the pot up with broken tile shards to create a gap between the drain hole and saucer. This facilitates rapid drainage to create the perfect conditions for cacti and succulents. It also protects decks and paving from what can become a very heavy, beautiful and ferocious plant in your garden.

  6. Rehab Raised Beds Inside and Out

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    Raised-bed hoops and row covers can help you protect crops from harsh growing conditions and winter cold.

    Second gardens are always better than first gardens.  When those first gardens were your raised beds, then maybe it’s time to raise the bar.  Bigger, better, and more prolific are garden characteristics that all gardeners want, so perhaps it’s time to rehab and expand in preparation for next year’s summer garden.


    It pays to add a quality soilless growing mix to your raised bed soil.

    So many raised beds were at first experimental or created with the kids as a family project without long-term planning and smart design.  That’s why they often don’t last as long as they should.  Earth-to-wood contact (something forbidden in house building) introduces wood rot and invites pests, such as termites. You need to know what you are doing to get more life from your raised bed.

    Choosing the Best Raised Bed Building Materials

    Early on, wooden railroad tie beds [read more about railroad tie beds] became popular and kept the rot problem at bay, but ties are made from heavily treated wood. They contain dangerous heavy metals and creosote, which can leach into the soil and be taken up by edible plants. Pressure treated wood has the same problem. It is treated with fungicides and other compounds to reduce rot that can leach into the soil.


    Redwood ties are naturally rot resistant and great for raised bed building.

    Untreated woods are not all the same. Many break down fast, resulting in short-lived raised beds. If you want long-lasting beds, avoid soft or rustic reclaimed woods certain to rot quickly. Instead, choose long-lasting red cedar or redwood. Both decompose slowly and are the most recommended for beautiful frames that resist rot. Trex, and other polymer/wood alternatives, also last forever and look great. All of rot-resistant options are initially more expensive but worth it, if you plan to garden for years.

    Rehabbing Your Raised Bed

    If you already have raised beds made with fast-to-decompose wood, you may already be experiencing the unfortunate and very common results. They are rotting, bowing, or breaking open at the seams due to decomposing edges weakened by the weight of soil, plants and mulch.  This means it is either time to rebuild or refurbish the frames.


    Just Coir creates a good organic base layer for raised bed gardens.

    Moreover, if you have had your beds for a while, the soil will be low and in need of replacement. Like all garden beds, soil volume falls as microbes consume the fine humus, and nutrients are depleted by garden plants. Poor garden soil will produce poor garden plants.

    Fall is the best time to replenish raised bed soil and fix repairs. Take advantage of the fabulous fall weather to replace all rotting or bowing boards or edges, and revive sad, tired soil.  Here’s the five-step process in a nutshell:

    1. Remove existing soil, if it’s degraded to mostly woody matter and perlite.  Stockpile the old soil material for future use as summer mulch, or layer it into the compost heap.
    2. Inspect the newly exposed sidewalls by stabbing questionable spots with a screwdriver.  If the metal penetrates the wood,  then there’s rot, and they need to be replaced.  Also, check and reinforce loose corners.
    3. Make repairs to sidewalls using Trex or long-lasting, untreated wood boards. Consider adding more height if you would like to grow plants with deeper root systems. Not only should you use strong, quality wood, but investing in heavy hardware will add to the longevity of your beds. Choose heavy wood screws tightened with an electric screwdriver to keep beds from loosening with the seasonal shrink and swell of the wood.
    4. Replace the soil in stages.  Black Gold Just Coir creates an 100% organic matter barrier that holds water and repels root knot nematodes.  The heart of the raised bed should contain a rich mix of local topsoil amended with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and a soilless potting mix, such as Black Gold Natural and Organic Potting Soil. The combination depends on the quality of your local soil; great topsoil requires fewer amendments. In general, an even mix of 2 parts topsoil to 1 part compost and 1 part soilless potting mix will yield great results. If drought is a problem in your area, adding a mulching layer of Black Gold Just Coir or Garden Compost Blend will reduce surface water loss.
    5. Add an all-purpose fertilizer, at the manufacturer’s prescribed application, to help drive explosive growth.

    Irrigate and Sow


    Inline drip tubing that invisibly waters your garden without ugly surface tubes and emitters.

    Gently water your raised beds to allow them to settle and marry over the winter months.  If you don’t already have it, drip irrigation is highly recommended for effortless raised bed gardening.  Try soaker hoses or buried underground inline drip tubing that invisibly waters your garden without ugly surface tubes and emitters.  If you want to expand next year, put in a new bed close to the old one and share the irrigation.

    While watering your rehabbed raised beds, throw in some seeds for beets, radishes, turnips, and other root crops that germinate at temps down to 40 degrees F.  The addition of row covers will protect cool-season crops well into winter.  Harvest the leaves, eat the sweet roots, and enjoy long winter yields as your refreshed raised beds do all of the work for you.

  7. Late-Summer Seed Sowing

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    Lacinato kale and Swiss chard are two great crops for fall growing.

    It’s absolutely counterintuitive to plant anything in August or September, but intuition is not always right.  Go against your instincts, and sow cool-season seeds right now.  Do it soon, and you’ll get your fall and winter garden started just in time.

    Starting Fall Vegetables

    If you’re a beginner and have never grown food outside the strict summer garden, now is your chance to give it a try.  Sowing now takes advantage of the natural transition toward ever shortening day length and cooler temperatures.  In the hot Southwest, frost holds off until later in the season, so a fall garden can often feed a family deep into the winter.

    Drip irrigation is a great way to keep seedlings well watered.

    Drip irrigation is a great way to keep seedlings well watered.

    Though the summer food plants are in decline, many are still producing. Once a plant stops or dies, take it out promptly, and start sowing leaf and root crops like kale, carrots, beets, and chard. All of them can be sown directly into garden soil in late summer when it is warm enough to stimulate germination. The transition will be more gradual than spring planting because soil is prepared incrementally as space is freed up by plant removal.  For example, after an aged squash dies back or mildews, simply take it out and sow cool-season seeds in its place.


    Earthworm Castings are high in nitrogen and great for feeding fall greens.

    Sowing Fall Seeds

    Every time you take out a dying summer plant, prep the soil before sowing because that soil has consumed much of its spring fertilizer and amendments.  Lots of rich humus is needed to drive leaf- and stem-producing edibles.  This requires amending the area to about six inches deep with a claw or fork to open the ground, then generously working in Black Gold Garden Compost.  Don’t compact the soil, leave it fluffy so the seeds settle down into the moisture-retentive humus.  Lightly cover seed with compost or sprinkle Black Gold Earthworm Castings on top of freshly sown seeds to introduce fresh microbes and micronutrients.  (Fall seedlings can also be started indoors. Click here to learn how.)

    The biggest challenge in getting the fall garden started is keeping the seedbeds adequately moist.  An old method uses burlap laid right over the sown seedbed and pegged down on the corners.  Water is applied right through the burlap which prevents dislodging the soil particles and acts like a mulch to keep the seed bed from drying out in the sun.  Burlap is moved only after the little green shoots appear.  A heat wave at this stage may require little burlap shade structures to shelter the seedlings until they harden off to direct sun. Drip irrigation is a great way to keep plants well irrigated once seedlings have popped up from the ground and the burlap is removed.

    Choose Leafy Greens

    Don’t overlook the ability to sow cool-season leafy vegetable seeds everywhere you can.  Sow beets in the window boxes, colorful Bright Lights chard on the patio, but make sure you leave plenty of room for Dinosaur, or ‘Lacinato’, kale.  This big burly kale from Italy takes more heat

    and cold than any other.  Though rather bold looking, it’s great eating because the best-tasting leaves are the old ones!

    Cut-and-come-again lettuce is the perfect cool-season crop for fall and winter gardens.

    Cut-and-come-again lettuce is the perfect cool-season crop for fall and winter gardens.

    Keep in mind that nitrogen is important to any plant that produces an edible stem or leaf.  Puny growth is often due to nitrogen depletion.  Slow growth may not happen all at once, but you may see a reduction in plant size by late fall or early winter.  Concentrated liquid fish fertilizer is the best organic nitrogen source for the long fall and winter growing season in the West.

  8. When in Drought, Choose Succulents

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    Barrel cacti, agave, and echevarias are all bold succulents for droughty landscapes.

    With statewide water cutbacks in California, everyone will have to rethink some of the plants in their home landscapes.    Rather than viewing this as a tragedy, make it an opportunity to dive into some of trendiest plants filling gardens of the rich and famous.  If you’ve always wanted that great, clean succulent garden look, there is no better time to make the change.

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    Jewel-box succulent container garden

    In the past, most gardeners planted annual flowers for pockets of color.  Instead, plant these same spaces with exciting and colorful succulents.  This is a great idea for high-profile areas around outdoor living spaces, pools and spas, or courtyards where you can enjoy their diverse beauty up close and personal.  Be prepared to treat them as annuals, if you live in a frosty climate. You can also over winter them indoors. Just dig and pot them up at summer’s end to green up indoor rooms all winter long.

    The single biggest problem with succulents in traditional gardens is too much water caused by over irrigation in slow-draining clay ground.  Too much water rots succulent roots and stems—killing plants quickly.  Solve the soil dilemma by creating pockets of Black Gold Cactus Mix potting soil to improve rooting conditions. Do this with larger succulents by replacing the soil one hole at the time.  You can provide even sharper drainage by amending mixes with additional Black Gold Perlite.

    Sometimes succulent pots need extra water-holding amendments, especially when irrigation cut backs start drying out your planters. Black Gold Cactus Mix has just enough water-holding capacity to keep roots growing well.

    BG_CACTUSMIX_1CF-FRONTOnce your soil and pots are prepared, its time to bring the vibrant echeverias, festive flapjacks, and ever-popular black aeoniums into your yard.  If you’re planting a six-inch potted specimen, dig your hole twice as wide and half again as deep as the nursery root ball.  Puncture the natural soil at bottom of the hole numerous times with a piece of pipe or rebar.  Go as deeply as you can to provide miniature sumps that encourage filtration and keep water from accumulating at the bottom of the hole.  Then fill with potting soil, and plant away.

    If you have a built-in masonry planter, create a close-range jewel-box garden.  This term is used for the vivid succulent gardens that are as colorful as the contents of grandmother’s costume jewelry box.  Here you can plant a lovely rainbow of kalanchoes, flowering aloes, and geometric crassulas.  When you add hardy sedums and sempervivums, they’ll survive through the coldest winter to anchor next year’s display.

    diversity-300x225Remove the top foot of soil in the planter and replace it with cactus potting soil, then arrange your colors in drifts or swaths of small bright plants.  Accent them with sparkling slag glass, driftwood or special rock minerals and crystals for an exciting jewel-box look.

    Although this California drought is a disaster for many, it may be the catalyst you need to replace water-intensive plants with exciting new succulents.  In the beginning, you may not know their names or their ultimate forms, but over the coming months you’ll learn to recognize them and get a feel for how each grows. Though we are often averse to change in life, it’s often the doorway to our greatest accomplishments.

  9. Succulents: Beware Over Packed Pots!

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    This composition of mixed succulents may look pretty, but the gang-potted group will not survive unless transplanted into their own Terracotta pots.


    Those big, popular succulent collections sold in pots and troughs (otherwise known as “gang pots”) are dying out all over. Each container may be packed with a dozen or more species of succulent plants that often originate from vastly different locations and have different cultural needs.  Many are native to South Africa while others originate from Mexico on the other side of the world. Dry climates are not all the same. There is more variation in the growing preferences of different succulents than you might think.

    balcony outside

    This wrought-iron slatted window balcony shelf offers great drainage for succulents.

    That’s why these ganged creations just don’t last that long.  Those succulents that need drier conditions are in conflict with those that need more moisture.  In the end, the one-size-fits-all gang pot results in gang watering, which will cause mixed-succulent-pot decline due to too much or too little moisture.

    Secondly there’s no way to adjust the lighting given to different succulents in gang pots.  Different succulents often have different light requirements, but when they are set in one position in gang pots, you can’t give different plants the sunlight they need.  This is why you never see serious succulent aficionados growing this way.  When you are unable to control light or moisture well, these plantings die out in spots and look generally ratty most of the time.

    Choose Individual Pots

    It’s far better to grow window box and balcony succulents in individual pots.  That way you get to rearrange them any time you want.  Watering is simple because you must look at each pot to determine how dry it is.  Just like kids, succulents can be very different, even when closely related, and unless you treat them accordingly, they’ll show it in the form of decline.


    Planting one specimen, such as this star cactus, in an artful Terracotta pot is best.

    Growing individuals in Terracotta pots is the best way to create a beautiful composition that blends easily, offers plants what they need, and allows you to bring them all indoors at season’s end to brighten your winter home.  Don’t fall for big, overflowing gang pots this year. Shop for the succulents you love, then bring them home to be planted in their new pots, and placed out in the sun where they thrive.

    Potting Mix and Drainage

    Key to your potted succulent’s success is Black Gold Cactus Mix, which ensures each new succulent is planted in very fast-draining soil.   Choose pots in scale with the size of the plant with very large or numerous drain holes.  Once planted, top the soil with a thin layer of Black Gold Washed Gravel or White Rock to hold in moisture and discourage perlite floaters that otherwise accumulate there.


    A specimen jade plant in a red clay pot. (photo by Mike Darcy)

    Consider setting your pots on an open, free-draining, slatted shelf on the patio or balcony that encourages drainage.  This ensures there’s plenty of free drainage plus pot walls are in the open air where oxygen and moisture readily exchange through Terracotta.  Open air also encourages evaporative cooling to keep containers adequately cool in the high heat of late summer.  If left in plastic containers, direct sun can cause such high interior soil temperatures that roots can literally cook.

    Over time you can add and subtract from your collection as your succulents grow large and take on their best looks.  They can be fed individually, evaluated for health often, and best of all, a diseased or pest-ridden plant can be moved elsewhere.  That’s why succulent lovers keep their specimen plants in individual pots rather than gang pots that spoil the overall success of the team.

  10. DIY: Make This Trickle-Down Succulent Tower

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    donkey tails

    Donkey Tails (Senecio morganianum) in a vertical can cascade.

    This idea came from deep within Mexico where plastic nursery containers are rare and coveted.  Tin cans are used, whenever possible, instead of pots to save money.  When I found the tower at Xochemilco, I realized this is trickle-down-watering at its finest.  It’s also the most innovative idea I’d seen for recycling and saving money.  It also offered a great way to grow more plants with less water and space.  Anyone with a fence post, porch post or just a single 4′ x 4′ in a post hole can create this vertical green tower.


    String of Bananas (Senecio radicans)

    Cascading Succulents

    The good news is that it’s used for the most beautiful of all succulents: string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), donkey tails (Senecio morganianum),  string of bananas (Senecio radicans), and rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii).  All produce long, dangling tresses that soon cloak the post in pendulous foliage.  Though frost tender, they benefit from your cover, or simply remove cans before first frost and decorate your sunny windows for the winter.

    For most who live where there is summer rain, this vertical system solves the problem of keeping succulents dry enough, so they don’t rot in the heat.  It was invented in Mexico City by a cottage-level succulent grower to protect cacti and succulents with overhead tarps where it rains in the afternoons.  It will work with your climate, too.   When you grow plants under patio covers on posts, they’re covered from rain but still exposed to plenty of sun.  This keeps them dry until you decide they need water.

    Rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii)

    Rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii)

    Watering and Drainage

    Watering is the most fun since each can drains into the one below it and so on.  That means every drop of water you apply is utilized.   This system will work for virtually any kind of plant and offers a great way to grow herbs, greens, and flowers, too.

    If you use succulents to create your version, you must ensure the cans drain quickly by using a nail to punch numerous holes in the bottom, not just one.  Use only Black Gold Cactus Mix when planting each can.  Tin cans are ideally sized for cell-pack succulent starts or small 2″ potted seedlings, the largest root ball that fits.

    Potting Mix

    Due to the small root zone, keeping water in the cans is vital for less drought resistant plants, such as cilantro.   Take advantage of Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil to help each plant maintain moisture over a much longer period as well as benefiting from higher fertility levels and RESiLIENCE®, which may reduce wilting. Pine needles are used in Mexico for mulch which is stuffed into the tops of the cans to hold on to moisture and extend time spans between trickle-down watering.

    Waterhold Coco BlendThere are a dozen variations possible on this basic idea, from fancy wire bales on the cans to upsizing everything to much larger containers for the same trickle-down on a larger scale.  It’s endless how Black Gold potting soils can turn discarded cans into the biggest problem solver of the season.  Start collecting them today.  Then plant your succulents any time of year and sow winter greens late summer for easy picking on the porch.