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At the State Fair, a microcosm of growing issues

Heat and gardening questions and a sad orchard

Peaches on a tree
This may look like a great crop, but this miniature
peach tree at the State Fair Farm should have been
thinned before the fruit started to ripen. Branches
are in danger of breaking. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Been to the State Fair yet this year? It has returned, but in a limited form, shaped by the three tumultuous years since the previous one.  (What hasn't changed: Cal Expo is a scorching heat island in the late afternoon. More shade, please, everywhere.)

Back in the Farm area, where the UCCE Sacramento County master gardeners hang out in the open-air answer booth, we see the effects of the pandemic on gardening up close. Apparently because of staffing shortages, the vegetable areas were planted later than usual, so the plants aren't as big as they typically are at this time. No ripe tomatoes this week. The pepper plants aren't filled out. The herbs are not lush. The corn is not as high as an elephant's eye.

Oh, and the myriad weeds are tantalizing certain people (including me) who want to grab a trowel and start digging them out.

Damaged apple on tree
Looks like codling moth damage on this apple tree, which also
needs to be thinned.
But it's the Farm's orchard where the years of neglect really show. The fruit trees are in desperate need of pruning and thinning. Branches are so loaded with small nearly-ripe fruit that breakage seems inevitable. Some of the apples show evidence of
codling moth damage . A friend spotted fireblight in one of the pear trees -- and that was not long after she had commiserated with a fair visitor who was fighting fireblight in her own backyard trees.

Because, after all, the master gardeners are there to answer questions and even solve problems, if possible. And at the very least, lend a sympathetic ear.

Two shifts in the Farm booth revealed gardeners' concerns about:

-- Zucchini. It's typically so easy to grow, but it's a problem vegetable this year. Lack of pollination, attacks of whiteflies or squash bugs, and leaves turning yellow were among the question topics. (Probably too much water was the answer to that last one.) Here's a little more on growing squash .

-- Lack of production from vegetables. Beyond zucchini, this is a noticed problem with tomatoes, melons and cucumbers. Blame the heat wave (and lack of humidity) for this: The pollen dries out too fast for the flowers to be pollinated.

-- Vertebrate pests . Squirrels are the least of it, apparently. Rodents and birds are dining extensively on people's vegetables and fruit this summer. Blame the heat and lack of water sources for some of it, use barriers where possible, and try to distract them with bowls of water or seeds away from the growing food.

-- Insect pests. In addition to the whiteflies, the typical summer pests include spider mites, aphids and thrips -- sometimes all on the same plant. Quick hard sprays of water, delivered in the morning on the underside of the leaves, can help fight them. And the water will help also with humidity as it drips into the soil.

-- Planting schedules and plant choices. "Is it too late to plant ...?" got an immediate "yes" in many cases, followed by "it's too hot for baby plants!" Wait til fall, folks, when the heat should subside and planting will be easier on the plants and the gardeners.  One foothills couple who asked about growing avocados were told gently that it's not an ideal tree for their region, but hey, citrus does great there! Ever thought of growing mandarins?

Farm entrance
Still plenty to see at the Farm at the State Fair, which runs through July 31.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

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

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

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

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

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

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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