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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 Dec. 10:

Take advantage of these dry but crisp conditions. It’s time to get out the rake!

* Rake leaves away from storm drains and keep gutters clear.

* Fallen leaves can be used for mulch and compost. Chop up large leaves with a couple of passes with a lawn mower.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they’re dormant. Without their foliage, trees are easier to prune.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Make sure to take frost precautions with new transplants and sensitive plants. Mulch, water and cover tender plants in the late afternoon to retain warmth.

* Succulent plants are at particular risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Don’t water succulents before frost; cover instead. Use cloth sheets, not plastic. Make sure to remove coverings during the day.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eaves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Plant garlic (December's the last chance -- the ground is getting cold!) and onions for harvest in summer.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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