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Check in with your garden early in the day

A morning inspection can catch growing problems

Blueberry plant with straw mulch
This Misty blueberry got some more straw mulch. The ring is from an old
tomato cage that supports a piece of shade cloth over the potted plant. (Photos:
Kathy Morrison)

Early morning in May, time for Garden Patrol. Accompanied by four-legged Garden Supervisor Elsie T. Katt, I do a quick walk through my front and back gardens, making mental notes on what's happened to plants overnight.  Already checked the weather report — it's going to be 91 today, down a bit from yesterday's 97, but still plenty warm.

Here's my morning checklist, generally by priority:

Wilting. In the morning, this is not a good sign. Many plants will temporarily wilt in the afternoon during high heat -- tomatoes and squash among them -- but recover overnight. Does the plant need water? If it was just watered yesterday, maybe it needs to be moved, or it's rootbound and needs a larger pot. Could this plant use (more) mulch? Maybe some shade cloth?

Drooping. Different from wilting, to me this means a heavy branch or a spindly seedling that needs thinning or some support now before it breaks.

Distorted or chewed leaves. Hmm, could be aphids or caterpillars. If the leaves didn't look like this yesterday, I can act fast and might be able to prevent a full-on pest attack. Water-spray prescribed for aphid removal, but check first for evidence of lady beetles or other aphid-eaters at work. If close inspection turns up evidence of "caterpillar poop," a light dusting of Bt ( bacillus thuringiensis ) might be in order.

Seedlings. Check to see if any sprouts are up where I've put in seeds -- basil, zinnias and sunflowers this week -- and also whether they're too close together, need a light spritz or maybe a few more seeds should be added. Are the sprouts noticed yesterday still doing OK? Have the birds discovered them? If so, time for some berry basket covers.

Yellow leaves. There are so many reasons for yellowing leaves: underwatering, overwatering, lack of nitrogen, insect attacks, various wilts, sunburn, and on and on.  If there are one or two yellow leaves on an otherwise healthy, established plant, I put it on my mental "watch" list. But if it's a recently planted specimen, or the color change is dramatic, the plant goes straight to triage. By the way, this Plant Problem Diagnostic Tool from UC Integrated Pest Management is a terrific help in figuring out what's wrong.

Rose that needs deadheading
The Crazy Dottie rose could use some clean-up.
Deadheading needed. It's not urgent, but a pleasant chore for the morning. The roses are at that phase now. Time to clean them up and apply a bit of natural fertilizer. Lavender or rosemary might need some tidying up, too.

OK,  crucial things dealt with, it's time for a coffee break. Ms. Katt and I will be back outside again later.

May is such an important time in the garden. Here's a post I wrote last May that is relevant still: "Mistakes Gardeners are Making Now They'll Pay for Later This Summer."


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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