Author: ptillman

January 10, 2017 ptillman




With all the cold temperatures we have been having lately I have been covering my citrus with an old sheet but my neighbor says that will not protect it from the cold very well and I need something heavier.  Is this true?




With all the cold temperatures we have had of late it is important to protect citrus and other cold sensitive plants.  Your sheet will protect your citrus form damage if temperatures go down to 29 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they dip below 29 degrees your neighbor is correct in that the thin sheet will not help protect the tree.


If you want better cold protection for your plants and still want something light weight, try using row cover to wrap the tree. Row covers can protect sensitive plants, depending on the thickness and type of cloth used, down to 24 degrees Fahrenheit.  You can increase the effectiveness of lighter weight row cover by using old fashion Christmas lights in the tree in to add some heat in addition to covering the tree.


Row covers can also be used in your vegetable garden to extend your growing season. It keeps wind and pests out, allows moisture in and extends the growing season for your plants. Row covers are less expensive than constructing cold frames, can be stored away in the summer and reused the next season.  They are more easily moved around your garden as the seasons change and make an easy to construct shelter for tender plants and will help harden-off seedlings that are directly seeded.


 Winter crops like chard, kale, broccoli and carrots do well when they are direct seeded in early February.  After you have amended and prepared your planting bed, plant your seeds and then place row cover over the soil surface and secure it. Covers can be secured with landscape staples, rocks or bricks.  Or you can purchase a row cover kit.  Most kits include hoops, protective film (row cover), fabric clips and staples. Since the row cover fabric breathes, seedbeds can be watered through the fabric. After germination occurs, remove the row cover or leave it nearby, depending on the weather (or pest pressure), but check regularly to adjust the fabric as needed. Once the plants are growing you will want to use hoops to help raise the fabric over the protected bed so that it is not touching the plants.  Mulching with bark, straw or compost is also a good idea in the winter to conserve moisture and discourage weed growth. Thin your new seedling plants as recommended.


Row cover can also be used to protect plants from insects.  A successful example of using row covers for this purpose is at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center where the UC Master Gardeners of Sacramento wanted to protect a cherry tree from the Spotted Wing Drisophola (SWD) pest. They constructed a tent around the tree using Agribon Row Cover. They were able to demonstrate this as an effective cultural method to exclude the harmful SWD pest: no SWD was found on the crop. The cost was $200, it took a few people and ladders to construct the cover, and temperatures were monitored in the hotter months — but this shows one of many creative uses for row cover in the garden or farm.

January 3, 2017 ptillman




One of my New Year’s resolutions has been to stop burning my leaves and to start composting them but I am not sure how to get started as I have quite a few leaves.  Can you give me some advice on how to get started without spending a lot of money on fancy compost bins?




I commend you for making this resolution! Not only is the smoke from burning leaves terrible for the environment and those who breathe the smoke filled air, it also removes valuable nutrients from your soil.  By composting the leaves you will increases the water-holding capacity of your soil and provide a buffet of plant nutrients and beneficial microbes to your garden and landscape plants. The organic matter stimulates healthy root development and “de-compacts” heavy clay. With just a little help from us, nature recycles the earth’s material and decreases our volume of waste.


It is not too hard to start a compost pile. You may have heard the phrases “compost happens” or “let it rot.” It’s absolutely true! When you leave certain organic materials alone, they will eventually decompose into wonderful soil amendment. It’s just a matter of how long it takes. If you are lax (and busy) like me and can be patient, you can throw together a pile of green and brown material, toss it around once in a while, water it and wait for the magic to happen. It may take a year that way. But if you are one of those people who are willing to put in a little more work by turning the pile more frequently, the decomposing happens faster. Either way, the process and recipe to create compost is the same. For decomposition to happen there has to be a proper balance of food (greens and browns), air and water.


Here is an easy, fast and inexpensive composting method recommended by the University of California.  First, pick an out of the way, sunny location near a water source as you will need to add water to the pile.  Decide if the pile is going to be loose or held together with chicken or field fence wire.  Next, throw together a pile of “browns” (carbon-rich materials such as your leaves) and “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials, such as lawn clippings, food waste and manure) by alternating them in layers like a cake. Try to create a pile that is a minimum of 3 to 4 feet cubed in order to retain the heat needed to break down the ingredients. You want the brown layer to be a bit thicker than the green layer, too much green in relation to brown causes the pile to get too hot. Temperatures of 120 to 160 degrees are desired and will kill most weed seeds. Anything over 160 degrees can kill the microorganisms required to develop compost and cause your pile to stop composting.  As you create your pile, thoroughly hose down the layers with water. When correctly moistened, the materials should feel like a damp sponge.  Once you have the pile built, do not add anything more to the pile and turn the pile over occasionally to give it air (oxygen). The breakdown occurs by microorganisms (soil saprophytes – bacteria and fungi) feeding on decaying matter and decomposing it and they need moisture and oxygen to do this.  Move the bottom rotted material onto the outside and newer, drier ingredients to the inside of the pile. Air can’t circulate in a dense, wet, compacted pile.


Here are some examples of compostable materials you may already have:


Greens (nitrogen-containing) material: grass and shrub clippings (chopped small), wilted flowers, raw fruit and vegetable trimmings, hair, coffee grounds, tea bags.


Browns (carbon-containing) materials: pine needles, dry leaves, straw, sawdust, crushed egg shells, shredded paper, coffee filters.


Do not compost: dairy or greasy foods, dirt, ashes, fish, animal products and diseased plants.


Some common things that new composters do wrong that cause the pile to not “heat up” properly (it still breaks down, but slowly). First they don’t always bother to reduce the size of what they throw into the pile. The bigger the pieces (especially browns), the longer it takes to decompose. Shred your ingredients or run the mower over the leaves to reduce the size. The second common mistake is that they do don’t make a big enough pile. It shrinks as it decomposes and smaller piles don’t generate enough heat. Other mistakes are that they do not water the pile often enough, during the summer piles may need water added daily.  A dry compost pile decomposes very slowly.  On the other hand to wet of a pile will also compost slowly and may start to stink. The pile will also slow down if it is not turned often.

November 23, 2016 ptillman

logomakr_2uwedbQ:  My garden needs a makeover.  When we had our house built we had it professionally landscaped but that was 15 years ago, and you couldn’t tell that now. I am the kind of gardener that gets a new plant and then walks around the yard until I find a bare spot, and that’s its new home.  After four years of drought my yard is looking sad.  How do I decide what plants to keep and which to remove or do I just take everything out and start over?



A:  I don’t think you have to start over as you most likely have good structure to your garden if you had a professional landscape plan done.  Knowing that we may have another year of drought next year, it should be easy to tell which plants are the keepers and which ones are struggling and need to go.  This is not our first drought in California and it won’t be our last, so why not have a garden that will look good in the bad years and great in the rainy years.

How do you start? Decide what plants give you the most joy in your garden with the least amount of work and water and keep them.  Remove the plants that are poor performers.  Keep in mind that just because you are removing a plant, it doesn’t mean another one needs to go in its place! A little space around your plants can be a good thing.

If you do want to replace plants look for plants that do well in our climate.  The Shasta College and California Native Plant Society Plant sale or the McConnell Arboretum Nursery are good places to find a large selection of drought tolerant plants.  Another great place look for ideas on good preforming plants is the “All-Stars” list.  What is an “All-Star”? According to the UC Davis arboretum site  “The horticultural staff of the UC Davis Arboretum have identified 100 tough, reliable plants that have been tested in the Arboretum , are easy to grow, don’t need a lot of water, have few problems with pests or diseases, and have outstanding qualities in the garden. Many of them are California native plants and support native birds and insects. Most All-Star plants can be successfully planted and grown throughout California.” The All-Stars website is –

and has a database to help you find the right plants for your garden. The All-Stars site also gives you a list of nurseries that sell them and the dates of the plant sales at UC Davis. Other sources for great water-wise plants are local nurseries and your gardening friends

November 23, 2016 ptillman

logomakr_2uwedbQUESTION:   Caller would like help determining what is wrong with her lawn.  The lawn doesn’t seem to be growing much and isn’t very green.  It has brown patches.  She hasn’t mowed in two months.  She waters it every day for 10 minutes.  


Your lawn may be affected by one or more problems, including: water, fertilizer, thatching/aerating, insects, and or diseases.


The main cause of dead areas in lawns is usually due to lack of water or overwatering.  It is best to water lawns deeply and less frequently (maybe 3 times per week).  Water when the top 2 inches are dry.  Use a screwdriver or other tool to dig into the lawn to examine the moisture in the soil.  The best time to water is between 2 and 8 in the morning, to reduce water loss from evaporation.  (The light application of water on a daily basis can make your lawn less vigorous.)


Based on your photo that you submitted, it appears that your lawn is a tall fescue, which is a cool season turfgrass.  Cool season grasses grow the most vigorously in the spring and fall.  Those seasons are the best time to apply fertilizer to cool season grasses.  Most years you only need to apply nitrogen, since there will probably be sufficient phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients in the soil.  If it has been awhile since you have fertilized your lawn, you may want to apply a complete lawn fertilizer with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  Fertilize each month during the fall and spring (September, October, November, March, April, May) with 0.5 to 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn, this works out to about 5 pounds of actual fertilizer per 1000 square feet depending on how much nitrogen it contains.  Water deeply a few days before, and fertilize when the grass is dry. If you grasscycle (leave the grass clippings on the lawn when you mow) you’ll take care of 20% of your fertilizer needs.

Dethatch and Aerate:

Thatch is a buildup of organic matter (old grass) that hasn’t decomposed. It can be removed with a dethatcher or verticutter (a mower with vertical blades). If the soil is compacted, aerate the lawn after dethatching. An aerator removes plugs of lawn and dirt, which loosens the soil and allows water to percolate deeper into the soil.

Disease and Insects:

A stressed lawn from drought, soil compaction, and/or heavy thatch is more susceptible to disease and insect damage.  If you believe that insects are the problem, you should conduct a “drench test” Direction for this test can be found at:


The drench test should force underlying insects to the surface of your lawn so that you can identify them and manage them appropriately


A lawn that isn’t too far gone can be helped by overseeding in the fall. First get rid of weeds. If you use herbicides, use them at least 30 days before seeding. Closely mow the lawn and remove clippings. Thoroughly rake to loosen the surface.

Broadcast seed throughout the lawn, applying more in bare areas. Apply starter fertilizer at the same time. Schedule sprinklers to provide light irrigation that keeps the soil moist until the new grass is established.

November 23, 2016 ptillman

logomakr_2uwedbQ: My yard backs up to US Forest Service land and consequently I have all kinds of critters trying to get my fruit and vegetables. I have installed a 7 foot plastic mesh deer fence which works well. I also put 3 ft. chicken wire fencing around many of my plots to keep rabbits out. Mice, squirrels, voles and the occasional raccoon either go through the fences, or climb over or go under. I’ve started using snap type rat traps for the mice, which also handles the squirrels, ground squirrels, and seems to deter the raccoons after a snap or two. I occasionally get small rabbits, Scrub Jays and Juncos in the trap, even when the traps are partially covered. My neighbor said she’d lend me two of her live traps and offered to relocate the critters out of the neighborhood.  But another friend told me that relocating animals is not allowed, and I may need a permit to use the traps in my yard. I’m confused but do not want to give up my garden. What are the rules?


A: The snap style rat trap is essentially designed for use in an interior situation, in a house, attic, basement, crawl space, barn, or shed to lethally trap mice, woodrats and Norway rats. It is baited and set when used. There are no known regulations, requirements or reporting needed when used in this manner. While also effective in lethally trapping small rodents in the garden, once placed outdoors the traps fall under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If at all possible, use fences and methods of excluding animals from gaining access to the garden this  requires no Department of Fish and Wildlife oversight, is nonlethal, and is not too difficult to maintain once installed.

If you do use the snap type rattrap they do not require a permit or license for the rat trap placed in the garden, however we do not recommend them as there is no way to control what you catch in them. If they were to catch a protected species (or game species like rabbits) by law you are required to report it to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for proper disposal.   And if you decide to use your neighbors live traps, you may need to apply for a trapping license through the Calif. Department of Fish and Wildlife.  And once the animal is caught, depending on what it is, it must be euthanized and cannot be relocated. All the unprotected mammals such as the raccoons, ground squirrels and mice will need to be euthanized and disposed of, but the birds such as the Scrub Jay or Junco are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and must be released in the same spot, it cannot be relocated.  

Another option is to hire a pest control company to remove the animals for you but this also may require a trapping license depending on the type of animal and you will need to pay the pest control company.

Details on trapping regulations are found on-line at:


November 23, 2016 ptillman

logomakr_2uwedbI introduced Lady Bugs to my garden this summer but I am not sure if they are reproducing and will overwinter. How can I tell?

Convergent lady beetles’ (Hippodamia convergens) larvae grow to about ¼” long. They’re segmented, blackish with orange spots. The eggs, laid in clusters on leaves, are yellow and oblong. Ladybugs produce one or two generations a year. Wild populations overwinter in large aggregations in the mountain areas, then in spring fly down to valleys and the coast. If they do overwinter in your yard you should start to see the larva in late March or April crawling around on the soil and plants in your garden.

Studies have shown that one large rose needed two applications of 1500 beetles, spaced a week apart, for control of aphids. Most commercial packages contain enough to control only one shrub or a few small plants. 95% of these will fly away within 48 hours, even if prey is abundant. When applying lady bugs or other beneficial insects it is best to place them at the base of plants at dawn or dusk, never in hot sun, and mist them gently with water. Never put them on plants that have been treated with insecticide – it will kill them.

November 20, 2016 ptillman

logomakr_2uwedbQ: Caller lives in Redding and has 3 pecan trees, approximately14 years old. Only 1 of the 3 trees produces any nuts, but even it isn’t very productive. The trees were grazed by deer when they were younger.

What is wrong with the trees and how can she get them to produce?

A: Pecan trees grow best in areas with summer heat and a long growing season for good nut development. Pecan trees are grown in areas of the Sacramento Valley where soil and water conditions are appropriate.
There are several possibilities for the lack of nut production from your pecan trees, as outlined below.

1. Pecan trees are monoecious. This means that they produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Male flowers are located on 4-5 inch long catkins, while female flowers are small, yellowish-green, and grow on spikes at the tips of shoots. Fruit (nuts) don’t form until the pollen from the male flower is transferred to the female flower. Without pollination, you may have a lot of flowers but not much fruit.

Oftentimes, a single tree won’t produce very many nuts, since the female and male flowers don’t bloom at the same time. Pecans that shed pollen (from the male catkin) before the female flower is mature are “Type I” pollinators. When the female flower matures before the pollen from the male flower is mature the trees are described as “Type II” pollinators. Typically, you want to plant both Type 1 and Type II pollinator trees for adequate cross pollination. Therefore, you many need to add another healthy tree to assist in pollination and hence nut production. (See the UC Davis link below for a list of pecan varieties, with early and late pollen shed.)

Pecans are wind pollinated, so trees should be planted in relatively close proximity to ensure adequate pollination. Pecan trees will often vary between a heavy one year and a light crop the next year.

2. You may have a poor producing variety of pecan tree. Do you know if they are all the same variety of tree? Consider adding another tree that is a good producer. See the UC Davis link below for a list of pecan varieties.

3. Water is probably the most important environmental factor in the growing of pecans. Lack of water will reduce the production of nuts, the size of nuts, as well as leaf and shoot growth. Adequate soil moisture is important from bloom through late summer and fall. For mature pecan trees, the Arizona Cooperative Extension recommends that you “soak the soil four feet deep in an area that is at least three feet wider than the drip line”.

4. Pecan trees grow best in well-drained, sandy loam soil, so if you have heavy soils it maybe limiting growth and production of the trees.

5. Pecan trees that are grown from seedlings typically don’t produce nuts for 10 years. However, pecan trees grown from grafted rootstock will typically produce in about 4-8 years. Your trees are old enough to produce nuts, but they may be stunted from poor growing conditions, deer grazing, etc.

6. Proper fertilization of the trees is important, especially for nitrogen and zinc.


October 15, 2016 ptillman





  • Fall-planted trees, shrubs, and perennials should not be fertilized at planting time as this promotes fresh new growth that will freeze.


  • Blackberry and raspberry canes that bore fruits this year can be cut to the ground.


  • Get out and enjoy the beautiful display of tree foliage in cooler mountain areas!


  • Roses – Continue to enjoy the ebbing and flowing of your rose blooms all through September! To stimulate new growth, you may prune new blooms to fragrance your home or spent buds to tidy up your garden.  To prune your roses, make your cuts above a growth node at a five-leaflet leaf pointing outward at a mid-way point on the cane.  Clean up all dropped petals and leaves from the ground as a good practice of promoting optimal rose hygiene.  Feed  lightly with an organic or all purpose fertilizer and water deeply.  Repeat after each bloom cycle to keep roses flowering for months to come.


  • Persimmons – Soon these beautiful orange fruits will start ripening. In addition to providing fruit, the persimmon tree is a nicely sized landscape tree that grows to 25 feet tall and wide.   The tree drops its leaves quickly in the fall for easy cleanup, allowing the sun to warm the garden and nearby wall during the winter months.  Persimmons come in two types-astringent until soft (Hachiya type) or non=astringent when still crisp (Fuyu type).  Both have their uses and provide great fall color with the fruit on bare trees as they ripen.  The fruit must be cut off the trees as you will damage them if you pull them off.  To learn more about the varieties, take a look at some excellent information at the California Rare Fruit Growers website as suggested by our Statewide Master Gardener Website.

October 15, 2016 ptillman





  • Sow seeds for fall and winter harvest indoors or in shade. Plant beets, carrots, turnips, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuce, or green onions.


  • Plant a fast-maturing potato such as ‘French Fingerling’ or ‘ Russian Banana’ for a crop by Christmas.


  • For late-season color in lower elevations include aster,mums, coreopsis, daylily, gaillardia, gaura, lavatera, Nemesia fruiticans, rudbeckia, Russian sage, summer phlox, and verbena.


  • Keep warm-season annuals blooming through the end of summer and into fall by watering regularly and fertilize them regularly with fish emulsion or other fertilizer.


  • Before fall planting, amend soil with worm castings, compost and soil conditioner. Now is also a good time to start a worm bin, which will provide castings for spring soil amending.


  • Watering is still the most critical job of all this month, Mulch beds to conserve water in the landscape.


  • Apricots and olives should be pruned after fruiting to reduce future disease problems. Summer pruning of peaches, plums, and nectarines is also recommended for backyard orchards, where you are trying to keep the trees short that fruit is within easy reach.


October 15, 2016 ptillman




  • Set out bearded irises. Plant in full sun (or light afternoon shade in hottest climates) and fast-draining soil.  Set 1 or 2 feet apart, and plant so the tops will be barely covered with soil.


  • Plant a pot or two of red, white, and blue annuals and perennials for 4th of July.


  • There’s still time to get beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, and tomatoes in the ground.


  • Deadhead faded blooms, including the part where the seed forms. For plants such as marguerite and santolina that produce masses of flowers, save time by pruning with hedge or grass clippers.


  • Mow wild grasses and weeds, leaving a wide swath around your property. Remember fire safety.


  • Trim dead growth from shrubs and trees, and prune any branches that overhang the eaves.


  • If your geraniums, nicotiana, penstemons and petunias appear healthy but have not flowers, budworms are probably the culprits. Spray plants every 7 to 10 days with Bacillus thuringiensis  (Bt).


  • If your lawn or flowerbeds are plagued with nutsedge or crabgrass then chances are you are watering too often. Get rid of these weeds by pulling or using an herbicide (last resort), but change your watering regime too.