You Say Tomato, I say Lycopersicon esculentum

There is no other plant (in my opinion) that brings gardeners and non-gardeners together like…   No not that plant! I’m speaking of tomatoes.  I still get excited when my tomatoes produce and at the end of the season when bombarded with fruit, I still tell myself I will NOT plant as many next year.  But it never fails that I get lured into the names, descriptions, and pictures of the interesting, new, or rare heirloom varieties.  Hopefully your tomatoes are growing like weeds and maybe you have even harvested some already. But before possible problems arise I’m going to address some common issues and what to do about them. I’m going to be serious about it because, hey!, growing tomatoes is serious.  If our crops fail what are we going to snack on, make salsa with, slice into our salads, can ( if you are that domesticated) for sauce??


Blossom End Rot:


This is pretty easy to distinguish because it shows up as a pale white area turning into black mush on the end of the tomato  ( the side furthest away from attachment). This is caused by lack of calcium. DO NOT fall for the sprays being sold to solve this problem. They do not work.  Calcium is in the soil but for some reason it is not readily available to be utilized by the plant. The main cause is usually fluctuations in soil moisture during fruit set. Make sure plants are not wilting into the night due to dry soil. Tomatoes are set at night and if stressed all sorts of problems can arise. Make sure too that they do not go from bone dry to saturated wet soils. Another problem could be too high of pH. Like iron, calcium can be unavailable to the plant if pH is high. Soil pH tends to be high in the Central Valley and I have never had a problem with blossom end rot so this is more on the rare side. If everything else isn’t working try adding soil sulfur to the soil. This won’t help this years crop too much but the following year there should be an improvement. Some people swear by adding Epsom Salts ( magnesium sulfate) when symptoms show up. Make sure you use this in small qualities – it is a fertilizer. You can also try a diluted spray on the plant but do some research on that.

Splitting of Fruit:


Splitting occurs when, once again, water levels fluctuate too much. Definitely make sure during heavy fruit set that plants are not wilting into the night. The fruit can taste fine with splitting but it’s unsightly and can be a nice home for earwigs and other nasty pests. “Zippering” is different.  This looks more like a scar or an actual zipper.  This occurs during fruit set when parts of the plant get stuck together. Some varieties are more susceptible and this is nothing to worry about unless you are entering your tomatoes into a beauty contest.


Seems easy enough right – not enough water. Not necessarily.  Instead of reaching for the hose, dig into the soil. Watering when a plant doesn’t need it can lead to  other problems. Tomatoes will close their leaves at night if temperatures are high. Don’t panic, in the morning the leaves will open. This is a way for them to conserve water.  Overwatering will also cause wilting. When a plant has been “drowned” the vascular system of the plant is clogged and is basically suffering drought conditions despite being in wet soils.  Once a plant has reached this stage it is tough to reverse.  Allow it to dry out and see what happens.

Black Spots on Leaves:

Exactly like it sounds this is black spot. This is a fungal disease that usually shows up early in the season. Like other fungi it is spread by spores so avoid overhead watering and pick off heavily infested leaves. Sulfur spray or dust works but be careful using sulfur when temperatures get above 85, it could burn. Some leaf spot is fine and a plant can usually outgrow the disease.

Verticillium Wilt or Fusarium Wilt:

The “F” and the “V” on tomato labels will tell you if a tomato is resistant to these devastating diseases.  These fungi are soil borne and once they get into the plant nothing much can be done. Large sections of the plant will brown, wilt, and eventually the whole plant will die. A brown pith in the center of a stem may be another sign. Remove sections that have died to try to control the spread.  If this has been a problem, rotate your tomatos to another location next season, remove and replace a good portion of the soil, and buy resistant varieties. Remember though, lower leaves and even stems will naturally die as the plant grows.  This is normal.  It is even normal to have a pretty unhealthy looking plant if there is heavy fruit set.  Do not worry if some death of leaves occurs here and there.

Lack of Fruit:

There are many possible reasons for lack of fruit.  Lack of pollination being one. If pollinators are not around shake the tomato plant (nicely :-)). Tomatoes self-pollinate and this will move the pollen to the right place.  Think electric toothbrush equals a buzzing bee. If you have lush beautiful dark green plants and no fruit-STOP fertilizing with Nitrogen. All the energy is going into foliage growth while the goal is to get fruit! Heirlooms are great but sometimes they suck (sorry) at the amount of fruit they produce. We are spoiled with hybrids that are bred for the amount they put out. If you are growing an heirloom, especially known for the individual size of the fruit, don’t be surprised if you get less fruit. Soooo much energy is going into one of those enormous fruits there is not much more the poor plant can do. If fruit is forming and then it drops off, this is usually caused by stress.  The plant goes into survival mode and is going to lose anything that is taking its resources .  Most likely water stress is to blame.  Once again it could be too much or too little during fruit production.  Night-time temperatures can be to blame as well.  Remember to plant tomatoes when the temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees at night. Sometimes they won’t “snap” back from the stress and be bad producers all season.  Also, fluctuations in temperatures can cause flowers and fruit drop.  Going from 85 to 105 is stressful to a plant (not to mention people).

Spindly Growth:


Not enough sun! Tomatoes need at least 6 hours of full sun during the day. Morning or afternoon does not matter but the more in the morning the better. They can still produce fruit but most likely shaded plants will produce less and the plant itself may not be able to stay upright as much and break.

There are many other problems that can occur on your tomato plants but generally tomatoes can be the most carefree and rewarding plant any gardener grows.  The following are some great websites to check out:

Fabulous Foliage

As someone obsessed with flowers, a plant must have spectacular foliage to “wow” me.  When plants with amazing foliage are then grouped together it’s even more of a “Wow”!  I hate to admit it but flowers are then just an added bonus. Fabulous foliage can consist of amazing color, variegation, interesting texture and/or shape. Below are some combinations I put together to show how easy and fun it can be to create a ‘ plant arrangement’.  Use a pot color that is going to cordinate with the foliage. I find ( as shown below) it’s hard to beat chartreuse with cobalt blue. Try incorporating different textures such as ferns with a bigger variegated leaf like a Brunnera.  It’s also a must that the growing conditions of the plants are similar – sun with sun plants, high water requirements with high water requirements and so forth.  It’s fine to combine annuals with perennials just be aware that the annuals will have to be replaced seasonally and the perennials will have to be replaced if and when they get too big. Planting display pots is a little different than planting normally. Plants require space for their roots to grow so I normally give them plenty of space to start out with but squeezing plants in a little closer for effect is allowed here!!

Some of my favorite foliage plants are listed below: 



Stachys-lambs ear


Heuchera varieties






Dusty miller

Ferns- especially Adiantum 

Polemonium caeruleum

Canna lily, Coleus Kong Red, Coleus Kong Rose, Coleus ‘Electric Lime’, and Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline Light Green’ in bright cobalt blue pot for the shade.

Origanum ‘Norton Gold’ in center, Deschampsia ‘Northern Lights’, Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline Sweetheart Red’, and Parrot’s Beak Lotus in green ceramic pot for the sun.

To Plant or Not to Plant?

Man, my garden is so needy!! I haven’t had time to write. How things change!  It was just a few weeks ago when I was itching to work in my garden and start planting and now WOW! I don’t have enough hours in the day to do all the gardening work I need to do. However, to answer the most asked question of the last week – It is ALMOST time to plant tomatoes and most vegetables. Go ahead and buy them if you can’t resist when passing them in the nursery, just don’t plant them yet.  Temperatures need to be consistently 50 degrees at night for them to be happy. We are almost there. I would feel comfortable planting late next week.  A few things may happen if they are planted too soon.  One – they may be fine and you can tell me “See I told you so”. Two – they may suffer damage from the cold such as curled leaves or dropped leaves or Three – they may just never reach their potential.  Eggplants are a good example of this.  Planted too soon, eggplants will sit there …….forever and do nothing.  Even when temperatures warm up and you think  “Hey now they will grow”, nope they don’t.

Some vegetables can be planted now.  Strawberries, chard, potatoes and onions can be planted if they haven’t already been .  Also, think about starting seeds inside.  I planted my tomatoes, eggplants and peppers a few weeks ago and they have already sprouted.  By the time they are big and robust the outside temperatures will be perfect for them.  I used my windowsill heat mats, 6-pack containers and seed starting mix and kept them moist and POOF I have tomato plants.  I bought quite a few interesting varieties at the Seed Bank in Petaluma.  They specialize in rare and heirloom seeds.  It’s a little over-whelming for the plant nerd but in a good way.  Also, the store is in an old historic bank thus the Seed Bank – too cute!!



My vegetable garden is mainly in-ground beds.  The soil is clay but I don’t mind.  I don’t rototill instead all I do is  1) Dig the hole my plant is to go in then  2) backfill with half the soil I took out and half nutrient rich compost. 3) I then put on a thick (3-5″) layer of compost on top and water in.  I make sure that the rest of the bed has a good thick layer of compost as well to ensure great water retention.  Seriously, one year I flooded my garden on drip overnight and I only had to water 3 times the whole summer. Seriously!!  Mulch is your best friend when it comes to vegetable and flower gardening.  I have some raised beds but because the soil are less clay and more organic and loose, I find I do have to water these plants more.

Rules get to be broken when planting tomatoes.  When one is planting it is never allowed to plant the stem deep into the soil. This is a sure way to kill your plant but with tomatoes this is your one chance to rebel and break some gardening rules.  Plants have the awesome ability at their leaf junctions to either produce leaves, stems, flowers or roots.  The hormones at these junctions (nodes) will ‘decide’ based on environmental cues.  When tomatoes are planted deep into the soil, the hormones will cause the plant to produce roots at the nodes.  The result is a bigger rootball faster.

So until night temperatures warm up a bit more focus on your flower garden, soil and of course controlling those obnoxious weeds that have gone crazy!!

Mediterranean Garden Talk!!!

Mediterranean Gardening

Tuesdsay March 4 5:30 pm

Cameron park Library

2500 Country Club Dr. Cameron Park

Plants for sale!!!!!

An hour long colorful PowerPoint talk focusing on soil amending and a slideshow of Mediterranean plants that will grow in the Sacramento region. Questions highly encouraged!!

It’s Spring…..Well According to Me!

I think it is very fitting that I was born on the first day of spring – March 20th.  With that said, I actually think spring starts a lot earlier!  Looking around I’m sure many of you would agree with me.  Spring to me means fruit trees blooming – check. Daffodils blooming – check. Roses breaking dormancy – check.  My camera has never been so busy.  Every where I turn I marvel in the new blooms.  It doesn’t matter that it happens every year, I am still in awe of new blooms of any kind. The following are some I managed to catch while out and about.  I am no photographer – I don’t have the patience to even read the manual that comes with my camera, let alone change settings from one picture to the next.

Magnolia x soulangeana Saucer Magnolia

Magnolia x soulangeana
Saucer Magnolia


The saucer Magnolias are easy to grow small trees.  They are grown for their beautiful showy flowers that scream “hey it’s the start of spring”. The rest of the year they are “eh” looking.  Give them morning sun, afternoon shade and a dose of soil sulfur if leaves are burnt and yellow. Too beautiful not to plant! Many different varieties.


Oxalis purpurea

Poor Oxalis, they get such a bad rap due to their horrific weedy cousin.  But there are so many other species including California natives and this South African native.  These do not spread like the weedy Oxalis, but really would you mind if this made its way through your garden?  I wouldn’t.  This one likes sun and goes dormant in the summer.


Camellia japonica (lost label so not sure which!)

Hello gorgeous!  Some flowers I love because of their gaudiness.  They are like the peacocks or showgirls of the flower world.  Other flowers are just elegant.  If they were people they would be Audrey Hepburn and this Camellia is just such one.  Understated beauty.  Camellias need acid conditions so keep soil pH below 7.  In less acidic soil areas, growing in a pot is a good idea.  Add soil sulfur twice a year to keep them happy.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

Why isn’t there a perfume called ‘Daphne’?  Because really, this one is one of the most wonderful scents there is.  Yes, the plant is a bit finicky.  Yep, it’s another acid lover but the pay off for a little bit more pampering is well worth it.  Love Love Love the scent! Morning sun or all day dappled shade in moist well draining soil will make this one happy.

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'  Honeywort

Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’

Honeywort is a little known annual but worth planting.  This cutie keeps re-seeding its self in my garden but in a really well behaved way.  It never grows past 2 square feet.  One of the late winter/early spring bloomers I just love. The only downfall is the small flowers dangle delicately down so I need to do some acrobatics and yoga moves to see the flowers head on.

Ribes sanguineum Pink flowering current

Ribes sanguineum ‘Claremont’
Pink flowering current

Ribes aureum Golden current

Ribes aureum
Golden current

Ridiculously beautiful! Should be outlawed to be so pretty and dainty! Reminds me of a whole bunch of little ballerinas. This Ribes is an easy to grow California native with short-lived flowers but nice foliage that makes it well worth growing.  The yellow Ribes aerum is just as showy without the dainty – just in case you don’t do dainty and need manly! Grow both in morning sun and afternoon shade.

Helleborus x hybridus Lenten rose

Helleborus x hybridus
Lenten rose

Someone I know can’t resist calling the Helleborus ‘hella-boring’.  Yeah sure it’s not the showiest flower or best foliage but there is just something about it. With so many new varieties that have interesting foliage and flowers other than their typical green, I’m a fan.  They look their best when planted in masses in a shady dry area.  Dry shade??  That alone is a plus!

Salvia spathacea Hummingbird sage

Salvia spathacea
Hummingbird sage

One of the easiest and most rewarding of the the California natives.  This hummingbird sage seems to bloom year-round.  This is a good thing because it has a rambling, messy growth habit but the blooms make you forget about its negatives.  Haven’t little kids mastered this? Don’t they  smile really cute after they have just caused destruction!  Grow this native in well-draining to moist soil in partial shade to full sun.

Aloes- including Aloe ferox (top)

Aloes – including Aloe marlothii (top left) and ferox (right)

The Aloes have been putting on quite the show for the last several weeks.  This is pretty phenomenal considering  the Botanical Conservatory specimens pretty much rely only on winter rains and as we know up until recently that has been a big fat ZERO. With beautiful interesting foliage, hummingbird attractants, bright showy flower, AND incredibly drought tolerant, why wouldn’t you plant a few species? They do prefer well-draining soil so amend with lava rock or plant on a mound.

These of course are not all the blooming plants right now – just a sampling of what is out there.  I hope I can actually get some work done at the conservatory instead of taking pictures!

Propagation 101

First of all – Thank Goodness For Rain. Hopefully this is just a start of some severe drenching. In the meantime I will continue doing what plant people do this time of year and propagate some plants.

For me there are two main forms of plant propagation – seeds and soft-wood cuttings.  There are many other types including air-layering, trenching and hard-wood cuttings but we will keep it easy. Right now I’m starting seeds inside on my new favorite find, windowsill heat mats. They really are too cute!  Only 3″ wide and 18″ long you can actually start a good amount of seeds in your own windowsill. If you have a cat it’s best to save a spot for them on the windowsill or else you will find your plants on the floor!

I’m starting peas in them, not because peas are hard to germinate in the ground, but because something ( I’m thinking grubs) is getting to them before I notice they have sprouted. This way I can plant and cover at the same time. Take that pea-seedling-eaters! Another reason to start seeds inside – flowers and vegetables faster! By the time night temperatures have stabilized, plants will be ready to go outside. Some plants do not transplant well – such as poppies – so sow those directly in the ground. Peat pots are good to use on plants that don’t like their roots disturbed. It’s good to cut a good amount of slats in them before they go in the ground however.


My second favorite way of propagating plants is via cuttings. Once spring growth starts, watch out!! Cuttings basically means you are cloning a desired plant. Many nurseries propagate this way because people tend to  want what their neighbors want. Speaking of neighbors, I’m not encouraging this or even saying I have done this… but if you absolutely have to have a plant your neighbor has, take a cutting! I mean you can tell your neighbors you are helping them by pruning their plants – but it is best to ask. Am I required by law to tell you to not clone plants with patents? Well I just did. Many plants take from soft-wood cuttings. Some do not. I will now tell you my sad, heartbreaking plant cutting story now:  For our biology classes we make sure students are able to see the different classification of plants. One such group of plants contains a plant called Gnetum. Our collection of these plants are getting old so to ensure we have them for the future, we needed to propagate. These plants form cones (not flowers) and sadly we have not been able to get ours to cone. I decided to try cuttings. After using many different size cuttings, different levels of rooting compound I ended up with one survivor but it didn’t have roots!! It just had leaves and continued to put on new leaves. Two years later – that’s right 2 years – it finally grew one pathetic root. I decided to risk it and pot it up. I babied this thing. I literally counted the drops of water that went into the pot. It put on new leaves and then…TRAGEDY!!  For those that heard the screams, they will live on in infamy.  I went to lift the pot but what I didn’t realize is some one placed something nearby which caught the corner of a leaf. When I went to lift the pot the whole plant ripped off the root system!! So sad. Well time to start again.

It’s very easy easy to take cuttings. Fill a pot with either a seedling starter mix, or a 50/50 blend of vermiculite and perlite. The 50/50 blend is medium of choice at the conservatory but sand, pumice or pure perlite can work too. Wet the medium in the pot first. Take your cuttings from the newest growth on the plant.  Generally spring is going to be the best time. Your cuttings need to have a  minimum of 2 nodes ( where the leaves grow from).  At least one node needs to be above the soil media and at least one below. Using a general rule of thumb, a 6″ cutting works to ensure several nodes.  Some plants do not need hormone to stimulate roots but for others it’s a must. Hormones can be found at almost all nurseries. Dab the cutting in the hormone and put in the pot. Multiple cuttings can go into a single pot since there is no root competition. For home growing – put pot in ziplock bag and control moisture by opening and venting it. Some plants such as Begonias and plants in the African violet family root from leaf cuttings too.  The new baby plants will start to grow from the base of the leaf.

Leaf cuttings from an African violet

Leaf cuttings from an African violet

African violet leaf cutting with roots

At the Botanical Conservatory we have also discovered a really awesome gadget that has made propagating some of our harder to clone plants much easier. The EZ-Clone system has micro-sprayers which provide the plants with the perfect mixture of moisture and aeration they need. We have had some incredible success. I’m now propagating at home with their home model. I can propagate 16 plants in this smaller unit.

Roots forming on a Begonia in my EZ-CLone unit. Took only one week!

Roots forming on a Begonia in my EZ-Clone unit. Took only one week!

EZ-Clone sitting by a sunny window

EZ-Clone sitting by a sunny window