“Step Away From the Plants!”

“Step away from the plants” is a quote I have uttered many times to people regarding their plants.  I first used this on a repeat customer, at a nursery I worked, who would bring in a leaf from his Pittosporum…….EVERY week.  I pictured him at home every morning fixating on every negative defect of this poor plant and freaking out about it.  I wonder if he was married and if his wife suffered the same critique. After several weeks of telling him that the brown leaves were perfectly normal,  I finally told him, “Step away from the plant.”  This means if you are doing everything right for your plant do not look at it everyday, do not scrutinize it, do not freak out, do not count the number of brown spots.

Ends of the Welwitschia leaves not meant to be cut off.

Ends of the Welwitschia leaves not meant to be cut off.

We rely on our student workers and interns at the botanical conservatory to keep our plants looking tidy and clean.  We train them for a full quarter but of course that is just a drop in the bucket to understanding plants.  When we send them into the greenhouse to tidy up we say “remove brown, yellow and dying leaves”  and we assume a lot of times they understand their task.  It is not until afterwards, when we are looking at our completely defoliated staghorn ferns or our Monstera is left with a few pathetic new leaves that they indeed DID NOT understand.  I encounter the same question a lot on “Good Day Sacramento” when people wonder why the leaves on their Alocasia or Peace Lily are turning brown.  A simple way of explaining this is some plants have fewer, larger leaves while other plants have large numbers of small leaves — plants with large leaves put their energy into making a few leaves versus some plants like Ficus benjamina which produces an abundance of small leaves that are more expendable. Salts and fertilizers build up in the leaves resulting in brown tips and margins. Plant with large leaves that are fewer in number will generally persist longer than a plant with small leaves it seems more noticeable. Plus plant leaves simply age and hey, none of us look any BETTER with age.

Welwitschia mirabalis with its perfectly normal brown leaf tips

Welwitschia mirabalis with its perfectly normal brown leaf tips


Alocasia with some older browning leaves

Anthurium with some older browning leaves

The extreme example of this is Welwitschia mirabilis — an African plant that only has two leaves its whole life and in Africa, some of these plants are thought to be over 1,000 years old! It is perfectly normal for the tips of these leaves to be brown and dry.  We have many in our collection and our oldest is from the late 1960’s.  Every once in a while during training, we will forget to tell students to not prune the Welwitschia. We will walk in and have a freak out moment when we realize they have done exactly what we tell them to do with most plants – cut the brown tips off. Luckily, we have not suffered the same fate as at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. Garden legend has it that a volunteer cut back the entire two leaves of the Welwitschia based on the general consensus that leaves with brown edges should be removed. Yes, this is every horticulturalist’s nightmare!!! A large OOPS we have experienced is a student cutting down our Amorphophallus leaf.  The corpse plant, for which we are most well known, produces one large leaf and like all bulb and bulb-like plants the foliage should be left to die down completely before being removed.  Our good students, pruned “vigorously.” Honest mistake and…lesson learned.

An Amorphophallus leaf beginnng its dieback.

An Amorphophallus leaf beginnng its dieback.

There are so many other battles in your garden and in life that one must not scrutinize the small details but look at the broader scope of it all and decide when action and energy needs to be allocated (do like a leaf).  And of course your biggest help in all of this is knowledge — how a plant grows, acts, and what its limits are. So when it comes to brown or dying leaves, remember these stories and “step away from the plant!”


If Only I Could Look This Good Stressed

As gardeners we are already aware of how amazing plants are.  I mean they give us life sustaining oxygen – nothing more even needs to be said.  Beyond this though their ability to survive in harsh conditions without the means to get up and move mean that they have developed mechanisms of survival through adaptation that could fill numerous numbers of pages.

A lot of these traits go unseen but I am asked a lot about one particular stress adaptation on a regular basis – plants, especially succulents, turning various shades of red.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why a plant is doing this? The science behind it is pretty amazing. (Calm down, I am not going to get too technical and wordy)

We all know plants photosynthesize using chlorophyll (green pigments).  In addition to chlorophyll, photosynthesis requires  light and water.  Water is a limited resource a lot of times for succulent plants and on the other hand light is too plentiful.  The solution – mask your chlorophyll or even break it down to prevent water loss from photosynthesis.  The pigment which becomes dominate is anthocyanin.  This is the red pigment in almost all the red fruits and vegetables you eat high in antioxidants.  So why the red pigment and not say carotene (orange pigment)?  Red is the hottest wave length in the light spectrum. When we see red we are in fact seeing the red light being reflected off of the plant and not absorbed, therefore the plant is staying even cooler.

Aloe  showing signs of heat stress

Aloe microstigma showing signs of heat stress

During the summer this is evident on a lot of our succulents.  Many cacti and succulent growers who enter plant contests encourage this because it is pretty darn beautiful having red hues as well as the green ones.

Aloe mitriformis stressed

Aloe mitriformis not stressed

Aloe mitriformis not stressed

Once temperatures cool and rain returns the plants will revert back slowly.  Red leaves however can happen during the winter months as well. Cold is also a stress and succulents do much better in the frost and cold with high moisture content in their leaves therefore preventing water loss is also important.  This is actually why the east coast has better fall color.  The sudden change from warm humid conditions to cold stresses the leaves resulting in quick breakdown of chlorophyll. This results in beautiful fall colors!!

An example I love to use in the greenhouse to show students heat adaptation is an epiphytic cactus from Brazil, Rhipsalis pachyptera.  When in its ideal habitat of a humid, shady forest the cactus has wide, dark green stems.  We have the  same species growing in our desert room in low humidity, high temperature, and light.  It is growing but not happily and the difference in appearance is phenomenal.  The desert growing one is turning dark red with twisted stems trying to self-shade.  The shaded parts of the stem are more green while the exposed parts are red. The shade growing one needs as much surface area and chlorophyll as it can get to capture light which is a limited resource in the tropics.

Rhipsalis pachyptera

Rhipsalis pachyptera thriving in a humid shady location


Young Rhipsalis pachyptera starting to turn red and twist to avoid too much sun and heat

Not all succulents will do this so before you withhold water trying to force your plants into a rainbow of red make sure you know its growth habit. Some succulents when stressed will brown and look more crispy. They can look like   they have literally curled up and died (but do not worry they most likely just look that way). Others will just endure summer with a bleached appearance.  Examples of some that will put on a show for you are:   Many Echeverias including Echeveria ‘Big Red’, E. runyonii, Aloe striata, Aloe microstigma, A. buhrii,  Graptopetalum paraguayense, Kalanchoes, Haworthia comptoniana (grown in sunny window), many Sedums, and some Euphorbias such as E. tirucalli ‘Rosea’.   So really why is it some plants look phenomenal and extra gorgeous when stressed but when I am stressed I have no such luck!!!

Fall Garden To Do List

Do you feel it?  That feeling of fall in the air?  I’m not quite sure what it really is but I can feel it!  I wonder if scientists have researched it and figured out what makes fall so, well, fall like.  I’m sure it is just the combination of softer cooler breezes, the sun at a slightly less intense angle, the sound of leaves rustling, and the need to almost wear a sweater in the morning but I like to think there is truly a “scent” of fall.  Like a pheromone, the scent draws me to my garden.  My garden at home is usually neglected during the heat of the summer and this year due to the drought and other distractions it has been exceptionally forgotten.  Now I’m scrambling to catch up and do everything that is on a ‘fall garden to do list’.

I cannot stress enough how this time of year is the perfect gardening time. Temperatures have cooled but the chance of frost is still far enough away.  Rain (fingers crossed) will be returning to water in new plants and you yourself will not wilt from extreme heat.

Plant Cool Season Vegetables

Cool season vegetables planted in mid to late September?! Yep!! The key is to keep them well watered in until they become established.  This can be in as little as a week.  Broccoli, brussell sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, beets, cauliflower are just the basics that should be planted now.  Thank goodness nurseries are finally supplying them at the right time.  I remember going into nurseries just a few years ago and not seeing starts until December.  And people wonder why they bolted or didn’t produce for them. Keep some Bt on hand though.  This is a naturally occurring  bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) which will kill the larvae of the cabbage loop worm.  These green caterpillars are capable of eating your plants down to stems overnight.  When they eat the leaves with the Bt they cannot digest it and they die.  It is certified organic and can be applied to plants up until the day they are harvested.

  Buy/Plant Bulbs

If you want Daffodils, Hyacinths, Tulips and other spring blooming bulbs, now is the time to plant or at least buy.   Thankfully the bins of bulbs hitting you smack in the face when you enter a hardware store or nursery help to remind you when your brain cannot comprehend two days from now let alone 6 months from now. Remember, bulbs like Hyacinths and Tulips need to be chilled before you plant.  Chilled NOT frozen.  I know a few people who thought if cold was good for bulbs well freezing temperatures would be even better. Not good! Most require 6 weeks of chill time.  Try different bulbs this year.  One of my favorites is Ixia.  This South African bulb will naturalize and give a burst of bright brilliant colors.  Giant Alliums are also pretty amazing in the garden.  Their form is beautiful and the large flower heads are very showy. For some off the wall, unusual bulbs go to Telos Bulbs.  Sooooo many bulbs, so little time.

 Plant California Natives

Yes many California native plants are drought tolerant but they will thank you in the spring when they have been well established before the heat of summer arrives by being planted this fall.   Remember, most drought tolerant natives prefer well draining soil.  In summer the soils dry out pretty fast but in the winter even slightly depressed areas will puddle leading to death of plants that do not “like their feet” wet. You can almost hear the poor plants screaming: “help me, I can’t breathe!”.  If in doubt of your drainage always plant on a mound.  Even 6″ of elevation will make a huge difference in the survivorship of a plant.

 Plant Most Perennials MINUS Frost Sensitive

Like natives, most perennials benefit from being planted in the fall. Being planted in the fall allows roots to become established way before the heat of summer arrives and the cooler temps means you have to water them in way less then you would planted in spring.  However, frost sentive plants should NOT be planted in fall.  These plants will not be established enough when the cold comes an most likely will not survive if a heavy frost hits.  Certain Salvias, Citrus, and Brugmansias are just some plants that should wait until spring to be planted.  Also, many times the tops will die back on herbaceous plants.  This does not mean your plant is dead.  Echinacea is a perfect example of this.  Planted in fall as a nice healthy plant the foliage may quickly die off.  Instead of fretting that you killed it, picture its roots growing and establishing for next year’s fabulous growth.


I do not mean fruit trees when I say pruning.  Fruit trees in fact can wait until later fall or winter.   I mean cutting back of perennials that have become gangly and have finished blooming and should be cut back to allow new growth to come through. Remember however, shrubs that bloom once in the spring should always be pruned directly after they bloom.  Do not prune these now.  If you do you are potentially pruning off next years flowers.  How Sad!! If you are concerned a plant is frost sensitive leave the old growth over the winter to act as a blanket and cut back in spring.


Mulching should be done twice a year.  I know it is difficult to even get to it once a year but mulching in the fall will help to prevent those pesky winter weeds (can we say storksbill) and if mulching with compost the theoretical winter rains will work the compost into your soil before spring. Make sure that what ever mulch you use (wood chips, compost or hay) you do not place it right up against woody stems (can you say fungal party?).

Transplanting and Dividing

Clumping grasses, ferns, Agapanthus, and the likes can be dug up, divided and replanted this time of year.  For fibrous root systems like grasses, a serrated knife works best.  For bulbous plants simply use your hands to split sections apart. If you need to relocate a shrub or tree fall is a good time once it has gone dormant.  Instead of just pruning back, digging up, and replanting- prune back first, wait until some new growth appears and then dig up.  The new growth is a sign that key hormones for root development are being produced.  Your plant will establish much faster than if roots and crown were disturbed at the same time.  Hormonal imbalance!!! We can all empathize with that!  I recently watched a UK gardening show from the 70’s ( ok maybe I do need a life) but I learned a fabulous tip.  When transplanting a large tree or shrub dig into half the root ball, come back 3 weeks later, dig into the other half, wait 3 more weeks and then lift it  and move it.  The theory behind this is new roots will have started when the root ball was cut into.  Transplanting will be much more successful.


Fall is a great time to add fertilizer to your garden.  The rains will work it into the soil and by spring plants will have been given an added boost.  Try not to fertilize citrus and frost sensitive plants however.  This will result in a flush of new growth which will be tender and susceptible to winter frosts.  For acid loving plants such as Camellias, Hydrangeas, and Citrus add soil sulfur in around the base.  The sulfur will reduce the pH of the soil and aid in iron absorption of the plants.  It also helps to make your pink Hydrangeas blue.

I hope this run down makes your fall gardening less confusing.  It really is a fabulous time to be out in the garden and the rewards for your hard work will be evident with your first spring bulbs.


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!!