24 November, 2019

Living With Pollinators

Many insects help pollinate our food crops and almost all of them have suffered setbacks in recent years from human interference in their habitat and lives. It's time to take notice of what humans have done and learn to live with our insect neighbors and how to foster relationships with them. With so many people on the planet, there is less space for the other species but we cannot survive without other species – including insects, or especially insects.

Bees and other insects are not the only critters that help pollinate our crops, although this handout might make it seem that way. We depend on birds, bats and other living beings to help with the pollination chores – however, insects are the one single most important pollinators to be found – and they are overwhelmingly under threat.

As the world's climate changes, many things will be impacted in ways we have failed to appreciate. One of these, most certainly, will be the complex interplay between pollinators and the plants they service. In the last few years of the last century, beekeepers in America became alarmed at the decline in honey bee populations – in fact, by some accounts, the feral bee population in the United States plummeted by 90% while domesticated bees were wrecked by mites and mysterious maladies – including 'colony collapse disorder (CCD)' wherein entire colonies of bees would suddenly self-destruct leaving an empty hive and maybe a few dead bees in its wake, but no clue as to what had happened. Beekeepers panicked as CCD wiped out all of their hives, some of their hives or only their neighbor's hives. Coupled with the corresponding decline in feral populations, the scientific community took sudden notice.

It's not just about the honey. Honey bees are our number one pollinators, keeping our food crops coming to the table as the hives are trucked from field to field. A lack of pollinators, especially the domesticated honey bee, foretells a lack of food production in many plants. The exact reason that bee populations have declined still has the jury sequestered, but we can look at the way bees have come to be kept and consider from that point what we might do to intercede on the behalf of the bee.

First of all, most honey bee colonies in the last part of the twentieth century have been in the hands of commercial beekeepers. Not only were they producing honey, but part of their income came from renting their bees pollinating services to citrus and almond growers, to name but a few. The bees return to their hive in the evening where they are shut in and driven to a new field in the morning where they work that field until deemed sufficiently pollinated and the process repeated, often covering thousands of miles per season as crops ripen from the south to the north. Bees were fed doses of miticides and antibiotics to keep them healthy through the stresses of their lives on the road. The plants they were pollinating were also fed chemicals – fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and were themselves stressed in vast fields of monocultures. Somewhere along the line, modern man has gotten the idea that industrialization of food production was a good thing. I would argue that the industrialization of anything is a bad thing: Its only appeal is about producing profit only, a narrow way to define all lives. There are millions of things to do that don't involve profit that are more satisfying and less harmful to the environment.

In our modern world, many people have become so divorced from nature, the mere sight of a bee or a wasp (and the two are often confused) is cause for alarm. With this aura of fear, anything that flies and has a stinger is cause to haul out poison sprays or call in the exterminators. This fear of other life forms is mostly irrational and is one of the saddest phenomena of this era. We see it in 'anti-bacterial' soaps that proliferate in the marketplace and the fear of eating something directly from the garden.

(Note: Some folks truly are allergic to bees and this is not something to take lightly. In fact, every gardener should consult with his or her physician about the possibility of being allergic and if you find out you are, even if you only want to garden, there are anti-dotes that will allow you live until you can find medical attention and you should have that medication handy. Bees congregate in gardens and we want them to congregate in gardens! You can't garden without bees, so please, take good care of yourself and know that getting stung in a garden is as natural as getting dirt under your nails – if not as common.)

Honey bees are not the only pollinators, even if they are on the tip of everyone's tongue because of their precipitous decline. There are a host of solitary bees that help keep our crops pollinated and thriving. By not using fertilizers and pesticides, we go a long way towards making our garden much more a part of nature and less a part of the industrial world.

One of America's native bees is the Orchard Mason Bee. The name 'mason' is theirs because they lay their eggs in a hole and build a mud wall to protect the egg. When the egg hatches, the young bee must burrow through that mud wall to enter the world. But wait! There's more! The hole may be deep enough for the laying of five or six eggs. In that case, the last egg laid is the first egg out until the last egg out was the first egg laid! They hatch out in inverse order of being laid. It's something that boggles the mind, although there are many things in nature that boggle the mind.

Orchard Mason Bees and other North American species of insects pollinate a wide variety of plants and for them, we should avoid the use of poison in our gardens. They don't get the same amount of press as the non-native honey bee even though they deserve it. The honey bee makes honey and all in all is the most efficient pollinator we know of. But if we lose many more honey bees, we will have to rely more and more on the native American species of insects for the pollination of the food we eat. I'll bet we learn a lot more about the Orchard Mason Bee very soon.

In conclusion, plant flowers to feed the pollinators, allow at least a portion of your crop to flower for the pollinators and never spray insecticides except as a last resort after all else has failed. Insure these helpful life forms get the water they need (year round) to survive.

A fountain outside my office window where birds and insects come at different times to refresh themselves - some of the rocks are above the water level and are placed to be water free most of the time.

honey bees
Still on decline (although it is not as drastic) Honey bees are THE most important pollinators.
solitary species (i.e. bumblebees)
Declining Solitary bees, including a lot of Native North American bees have been as declining as honey bees.
pollen wasps
In decline
Declining Hoverflies are considered the 2nd most important food crop pollinator.
Butterflies and moths
In decline. All members of the genus Lepodopera are facing difficulty in survival. They are in precipitous decline.
Flower beetles

Vertebrates, mainly bats and birds, but also some non-bat mammals monkeys, like lemurs, possums, rodents) and some lizards pollinate certain plants. Among the pollinating birds are hummingbirds, honey eaters and birds with long beaks which pollinate a number of deep-throated flowers.


10 November, 2019

Some Suggested Reading for Seed Saving People

Against The Grain, James Scott, © 2017 Yale University Press, Tossing most of our understanding of man's initial impulse to move from hunter/gathererSome Su to living in communities that farmed, Scott takes the whole explanation for why humans made the shift and calls our current hypotheses mostly fictional! Not a seed book or seed guide, but a discussion about the beginning of civilization.

A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers © 2010 Organic Seed Alliance Publication, available at seedaliance.org/ publications/guide/seed-saving-guide-gardeners-farmers This is a free guide of about 35 pages. For free, it is the best deal on this page. It covers everything you need for saving seeds and it does so without fuss or mess. This is excellent for any seed saver; I have a copy at hand on my desk that has seen its fair share of use. (I downloaded it, put it on a memory stick, took it to my copy center, they printed the whole thing out for a few bucks and I bought a cover for it. The cover has pockets and I've added single pages to that I have found over the years. It, and Deppe's book, make up the most used portion of my library.)

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving, 2nd Edition, Carol Deppe, © 2000 Chelsea Green Publishing This is my go to resource when I have questions about seed saving. Deppe's first half is all about plant breeding and a lot of it is over my head, but the second half of the book is simple, direct and precious. This is my favorite resource about seed saving. And there's all that breeding information in the front if you ever get the call to start breeding your own varieties!

The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Janisse Ray, © 2012, Chelsea Green Publishing Janisse Ray is a writer with enough awards you'd think she'd give other, less-talented, writers a chance to win a prize or two, but in this offering, she presents a number of essays aimed at seeds and our understanding of them and how they affect our lives, our culture and our future on the planet. Of all the books here, this is the most charming and therefore easy to read, but she really does give instruction on saving seeds as well as everything else! If you can't imagine yourself reading anything about seeds, start here.

The Story of Corn, Betsy Fussell, © 2014, University of New Mexico Press This is a magnificent collection of our understanding of corn, from many different angles. Fussell has a masterpiece of a book, I have read it cover to cover twice and I'm planning to reread it again this year. This is a powerful piece of reading (as are most on this page), but I have special place in my heart for this book.

Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan, © 2009, Shearwater Books, Gary Paul Nabhan has written a wonderful book describing the work of one of the world's most visionay seed scientist, Nicolay Vavilov and his efforts to end famine in our world. This book, while not about the act of seed saving, introduces the necessity of saving seeds cut against the background of the nascent Soviet Union's violent lurching towards a sustainable country. Surely as exciting as any who-done-it you've ever read and it really happened!

There are more... 


08 November, 2019

A List of Useful URL's

A List of Useful URL's

For your ease, you can go to my blog (http://www.lagardenblog.com/ ), find this article there and use the hyper-links to find each one.

UCANR – UC in our town means University of California and ANR means agriculture and natural resources – the UCANR is the “Extension” part of our university system. You'll find such wonderful websites as https://www2.ipm.ucanr.edu/What-is-IPM/ - which introduces you to the idea behind “Integrated Pest Management” - which helps you – foremost, in identifying your insects and links will take you to pages that tell you a.) if it is beneficial or not; what insect species feed on that insect or need that insect to survive and b.) proper ways to control without using harmful pesticides.

One of the UC sites I visit frequently is http://homeorchard.ucanr.edu/ . It basically follow the out line of the ANR Orchard book – except the book is called The Home Orchard. Why they couldn't have the same name, I don't know, but I use both a lot – if you want to have fruit trees, use this site and book to get smart before – not after – you buy!

If you need more info on your Sunset Zone, http://cagardenweb.ucanr.edu/Your_Climate_Zone/ will put you in tune with where you are and what you need to do. I was amazed to see this is a UCANR website now!

And to see what publications you can get from ANR, go to https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/ and be amazed that they have articles on gardening and so much more! I consider “Pests of the Garden and Small Farm” as one of my most revisited book!

For seeds, for tools for cover crops and all, https://www.groworganic.com/ is a California concern out of Grass Valley, CA. They have six catalogs a year and I like getting these catalogs because they just don't try to sell you stuff, they spend a good deal of ink, explaining how to use the tools, or which cover crop seed you need to fulfill your needs. I have used these catalogs in classes as required reading material. They also sell the Broadfork that I brag about.

Gardener's Supply Company, https://www.gardeners.com/ is a commercial site, but they often have things I've found no where else. I've ordered tomato towers from them and the quality is very good.


03 November, 2019

Urban Food Production, Fall 2019; Remaining Schedule for Our Class This Term

Remaining Schedule for Our Class This Term

03 November
Planting/Composting/ Planting Timing and Design/SLOLA/Seeds I/Light/Water
Sources/Annuals/Seeds II/More tools
Planting/Companions/Crop Rotation in a Small Garden/
08 December
Chickens in the Urban Foodscape (Field Trip?) /Beekeeping
Planning for Continuous Harvests/Potluck/Submit your journal etc for a grade. Sustainability and Food Issues in Modern America

01 November, 2019

Introduction To Pruning a Fruit Tree

One of the concepts I use in my pruning is to acknowledge each tree has its own way of looking and I try very hard to shape the tree without fighting with it. In no case of pruning should you take more than 1/3 of the tree. That excessive pruning will damage the tree more than needs be and will cut out some of your production from the tree in the following summer. Be conscious at all times that you are dealing with a living plant, some of which will live longer than you if well cared for.

Do not move rapidly. This is not a race. I am often meditating a bit while I am cutting. I'd like to entertain the idea that the tree will cooperate with me if I take what I need to take from a consciousness of helping the tree rather than using a chain saw and whacking off major branches.

I did an orchard rehab job in Highland Park area of LA several decades ago. These trees were planted by an old man and when he died were cared for by several unconscious people without an ounce of horticultural knowledge and they were a mess. It took four years for the orchard to look like it should have looked and was finally producing tons of fruit. I saved all but three trees and the first two years, I hauled a truckload of branches out. The third year, we did very little to the trees. I wish that orchard still existed, but it was torn out to build more housing. In the end, it was a magical place to visit.

I approach the tree, reading the branches, looking for what I must remove first; I am not in a hurry.

Look at the tree as it is now .
Pause to deliberate (what does the tree want?).
Make note of the branches you believe need to come out (from the reasons below).
Remove Dead, Dying, Diseased or Crossing branches.
Pause again to deliberate.
Shape the tree to the shape that benefits the tree paying attention to its fruiting habits.

First off, Dead and dying branches – these are entrance points for insects and diseases.
Secondly, Crossing branches, which will hit against one another, abrading their bark and exposing the cambium and the wood, again an entrance point for insects and diseases.
Third, any sprouts coming from the rootstock, these compete with the tree for nutrients and might eventually actually overtake and kill the tree you were caring for.
Finally, there might need to be some further pruning to shape

You will find that heavy pruning encourages the formation of vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting wood, which of course, you do not want. Light pruning, on the other hand, encourages heavy fruit set which results in smaller fruit of poorer quality and possible broken branches. Since home growers must also keep trees to manageable sizes, strive for a balance between heavy pruning and renewing fruiting wood. In order to achieve this, you should know where your tree bears its fruit. See hand out below.

Almost all instructions, including organic instructions, on winter pruning would have you spray horticultural oil on the tree to eliminate any harmful insects on the tree. Horticultural oil is one of the most prized organic materials for combating harmful insects. The last time I used it, I had pruned a lemon tree – as with all citrus, there isn't much of a “spray window” when the tree is "dormant." So I pruned it, sprayed it and was packing up my kit, when a swarm of bees took to the tree. Now, like most organic materials, this oil kills every insect and here I was, watching these wonderful pollinators flying right into my freshly sprayed tree. I tried to spray the tree with water, but it's OIL, right? A lot of good that did. I have never sprayed horticultural oil since. In fact, I've not sprayed a thing in my garden or on my trees since.

A Few Resources

If you can deal with a local nursery, that's best – you want to pick your stock from looking at it with your own eyes. However, a lot of the cool stuff, you have to get from nurseries beyond Southern California. Here are some I like for for different reasons:

Trees of Antiquity, www.treesofantiquity.com – I am listing them first because I owe it to them. When The Learning Garden was first getting under way, one of their staff spent a long time with me on the phone and helped me choose the trees. I had never heard of Dorsett Golden and we got five of them on his recommendation. It was worth it. I have found them beyond knowledgeable and helpful.

Raintree Nursery, raintreenursery.com – a company too far North to have much in our range, but they are the ones that I have found reliable to ship my rootstocks here in time to have them just after the California Rare Fruit Tree Growers annual grafting and budding class. Their catalog is a dream to read, but we can't grow nearly half of it.

Dave Wilson Nursery, www.davewilson.com – a local company with a hitch – they are not a retail company, dealing only in wholesale. Their catalog is probably the best one for Los Angeles. Find what you want there and go to your local retail nursery – many of them will order it for you and you can pick it up near home. They promoted a plan in the early 2000's of putting four different fruit trees in the same hole. I don't know how they fared outside of my Venice area, but I never saw one of these experimental plantings near here that was worth the effort.

UC Backyard Orchard, homeorchard.ucanr.edu – Is an excellent site to check into every so often. They publish the Home Orchard book that figured heavily in putting together my presentations. I am ecstatic that they did such a good job with that book!

CA Rare Fruit Growers crfg.org – A group of amateurs that know their stuff! They can answer almost any question about fruit trees and, because they are local, they know the weather. Their website is loaded with wonderful data and is authoritative. I encourage you to look into this organization for like-minded people!

Essentials for Fruit Tree Pruning

Fruiting Characteristics of Common Fruit Trees

Type of Tree
Location of Fruiting Buds

Age of bearing

Amount of Pruning
Long Branches Spurs or Short Branches
Laterally Terminally Laterally Terminally


Major 8- 10 yrs. Moderate
Apricot Minor


3 years Heavy
Fig Major


1 yr & new shoots Various
Peach/Nectarine Major


1-2 yrs Heavy
Pear, Asian Minor Very minor

Major 6-8 yrs Moderate to heavy
Pear, European Minor Minor

Major 8-10 yrs Moderate
Persimmon Major Major Minor Minor New shoots at the tip of 1 yr branches Light (thinning)
Plum, European Minor


6-8 yrs Moderate
Plum, Japanese Minor


6-8 yrs Heavy
Pomegranate Minor


Short new shoots Moderate
Quince Major Minor

New shoots Light (thinning)

Tools For Pruning

hand held pruners pole saw
loppers sharpener
saw(s) pruning knife 
Pruning and Pruning Cuts

First, prune off any damaged or broken branches. Take them back as far as you can.

Secondly, prune off what we call 'crossing branches.' These are branches that come through the center of the tree, crossing from one side to the opposite, or are branches that are parallel and close enough to be touching other branches. They can abrade the branches they touch when moved by wind and that wound can be an entrance point for insects or other pests. These must come out; take them back as far as you can.

Thirdly, do some pruning to shape the tree. Part of 'shaping' for fruit trees is to limit their height. I know it will somewhat lessen your fruit crop, but any apple tree humming along at full production, will inundate you with way too many apples. A little off the top so you can easily harvest from the tree without fancy footwork or ludicrous convolutions will not be missed – the ease with which it can be picked will gladden your heart. And save your back.

Always use clean pruners – if you have pruned a tree that even might have a disease, or if you have pruned a tree from a different location, clean your pruners with Listerine, which research indicates is the only science approved disinfectant. I was taught to use a bleach solution, but unless you are a masochist, I'd suggest avoiding that. It ruins your skin, your clothes and your tools – although it does disinfect. There are kinder ways to do this.

Always try to cut back to an area that will heal. This isn't always possible, but to the degree you can, cut back to an area called the bark branch ridge. In this graphic, on the left side, the red line shows where the pruner will make it's cut – just below the red pruner handle, you can see a branch cut correctly. The bark branch ridge contains cells that will enable the plant to heal the wound. On the right of the graphic, you can see the three cuts needed to remove a large branch without tearing into the tree causing unnecessary harm.