Califonia Bountiful

Gardening Q&A

Jan./Feb. 2013 California Bountiful magazine

California Bountiful introduces something new for 2013: an opportunity to get your gardening questions answered by gardening expert Pat Rubin.

This is my first year as a gardening leader for our local 4-H group. I am looking for some fun ideas to help the kids learn about gardening. Any ideas you might have would be great.

Hi Heidi,
I'm happy to hear about your 4-H gardening project. It should be a lot of fun.

I'd start with raised beds for the garden. They're so much easier to deal with as far as planting and weeding and, for kids, a smaller plot just makes sense.

I'd plant seeds and starter plants from the nursery. In fact, it'd be a great field trip to visit the nursery and teach them how to pick starter plants. (Choose the smallest ones, not the overgrown ones; make sure they are sturdy and that there are six plants in the container; and so on.)

Radish seeds are easy to get started no matter what time of year, although in the middle of summer you're not likely to get much in the way of a crop. You can start beans, peas, sunflowers, cucumbers, squash and more in cups of small pots and transplant them or put them directly into the garden. But for warm weather crops, make sure you plant when the soil is warm. Otherwise, the seeds won't germinate.

It's also fun to put squash seeds between two wet paper towels (keep the towels moist) and let them sprout. You can see where the root grows and how the seed sprouts.

Be sure to let your 4-H'ers know that no matter how experienced the gardener, there will be failures due to weather, pests or any number of things. But it's still fun, and there's nothing like going out into the garden and picking a fresh pea pod and breaking it open to eat the peas inside, or picking a fresh tomato off the vine.

For more ideas, you might check with your local Master Gardener group. Another suggestion is to visit the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom's website: This educational organization has great garden resources you can download for free. You'll find lessons, activities, seasonality charts and more that will making teaching in the garden (or in the classroom or anywhere your 4-H'ers meet) memorable for all.

There are also scores of books about gardening with children. You'll be overwhelmed with information! Otherwise, just get gardening and you'll learn as you go.

Good luck, and please send us photos when you can.

I love succulents, but hard as I try to protect them, every winter many of them turn to a pile of slime after a hard freeze. What can I do?

Succulents love mild winters. The Bay Area is succulent heaven, so if you live almost anywhere else in California, you'll have some trouble with them. Of course, some are hardier than others, so when you buy them, check the tags for hardiness.

When frost is expected, the usual advice is to water your plants so they do not freeze. With succulents, however, just the opposite is true. Do not water them before a freeze. In fact, keep them on the very dry side all winter.

This isn't a scientific explanation, but in a nutshell, when it freezes, the water inside the plants at a cellular level freezes and turns to ice and the plant sort of explodes internally, leaving you with a pile of slimy mush. So choose the hardiest succulents you can find, water them sparingly all winter and buy some row cover to put over them for extra protection on cold nights.

My forsythia and lilac never bloom. They are well watered, grow vigorously and look great. I prune them every winter, feed them regularly, but get no flowers.

Aha! You gave me the answer to your question already. When you prune them in January or February, you're cutting off this year's blooms before they every have a chance to develop. Don't prune spring blooming shrubs until after they bloom.

There are little brown, bumpy-looking things on the bark of my fruit trees. I can scrape them off with my finger. What are they?

Sounds like scale. There are two types of scale that live on the bark of plants: hard scale and soft scale. When you pry off the shell, you can see the mother scale and often her eggs. They are not usually a problem, but can become pretty numerous if there are not any natural enemies around. A dormant oil spray in January and again in late winter will smother them.

About Pat Rubin, California Bountiful's gardening expert

Pat Rubin

For Pat Rubin, gardening is more than just dirt and plants. "It's about history, romance, adventure and people," she says. "And it should be fun."

California Bountiful's gardening columnist has lived and chronicled this fun, hands-in-the-dirt approach for years—and for additional publications including Fine Gardening, Pacific Horticulture, Christian Science Monitor, Family Circle and The Sacramento Bee. Pat has also volunteered as a Master Gardener, speaks to garden clubs and appears regularly on gardening radio shows.

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