Califonia Bountiful

Gardening Q&A

Mar./Apr. 2014 California Bountiful magazine

Dear Pat,

I have a pine tree up on a very steep hill in my backyard. It is very hard to reach and to work up on the hill. I have gotten up there and planted some plants, but it seems like the plants die off.  What can I plant under the pine tree that will survive? I have rosemary under it right now, but several of the plants have died already. I was thinking of maybe doing something with hydroseeding due to the difficultly of planting. Any ideas would be helpful. Thanks.


Hi Jan,


Hillsides are always tough places to garden. I speak from experience! Whenever I plant something on a slope, I try to make the planting hole as level as possible, and then dig a small trench above the plant that I believe will capture the water and direct it down toward the plant instead of letting it roll down the hillside.

You mentioned rosemary and said it was working out for you. Try similar plants: I'd start with ceanothus or cotoneaster. Ceanothus makes gorgeous blue flowers this time of year, and the leaves are beautiful year-round. Cotoneaster has beautiful fall color—orange or red berries beloved by birds, and shiny, brighter green leaves. Very nice. Choose ones that spread outwards rather than grow upwards. The ceanothus with the small, dark green sort of crinkled leaves are more drought tolerant that those with bigger leaves.

Lastly, add lots of mulch. It will protect the soil, keep it soft and friable, conserve moisture, deter weeds—in a nutshell, mulch is perfect for just about anything that ails a garden! It also gives the beds a clean, manicured look.

Let me know if this helps.


Dear Pat,

I'm looking for Belgian tomatoes in Sacramento. Any leads on where I could purchase a few plants for my garden? I grew a few years ago and had so much fun with them. Thanks.


I don't know of any local nursery that sells Belgian tomatoes, but did find some online seed sources, including Burpee. If you do a search for Belgian tomatoes, you'll get plenty of hits on growing them and on places to buy seed.

Most gardeners start tomato seeds in February so they get a quick, big start on the season. But it isn't too late to order seeds and get them going. We have such a long growing season in the Sacramento area that you won't be too far behind.

The only other suggestion is to call some of the local nurseries and see whether they sell that variety. It is similar to Brandywine, so if you can't find the Belgian, try Brandywine.


I just moved to the country where the deer come into the garden. What can I plant besides rosemary and lavender that they won't eat? Help!

When I first moved into an area with lots of deer, I, too, thought I'd have a garden of nothing but rosemary and lavender, but I've discovered many, many plants they don't ever eat. My tried-and-true list includes magnolias, osmanthus, New Zealand flax, hellebores, hardy geraniums, red-hot pokers, daffodils, culinary sage, Santolina, manzanita, miscanthus (and most ornamental grasses) and irises. They also avoid the bamboo. I plant the clumping bamboo in the ground, but keep the varieties that spread in a large pot.

Last year my fruit trees produced a lot of fruit, but the fruits were very small. Do the trees need more water to make larger fruits?
Fruit trees produce plenty of blooms and fruit in the hope some of it will mature and produce seed. That isn't our goal for the tree. We want plump apples, pears and peaches. You need to thin the fruit several times during the early spring. Snip away the smallest fruits in each clump until you've thinned the fruit to one every 4 to 6 inches.

I planted marigolds and the next morning there was nothing left. The leaves looked like they'd been stripped. What happened?
My money is on earwigs. They love newly planted marigolds. In fact, I think it is one of their favorites. Go out in the garden about 10 p.m. and take a look around. Chances are you'll also find them under the lettuce leaves. You can handpick them or use bait specially formulated for killing them. There are pet- and child-safe baits you can use. Check your local nursery. 

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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