Gardening 101

Taking care of decorative pottery in the wintertime

Dear Garden Guru,

I bought decorative pots from you with great plants for my patio. What is the best way to take care of them during winter. Should I move them undercover? 1 is Ladena,1 is flax and rosemary

- Linda in Castro Valley


Dear Linda,

Your potted plants should be fine exposed through the winter. When we move plants undercover, we often forget to water them. I am not quite sure what plant you mean by Ladena, if you mean Lantana or Verbena, this would need protection if we are due for a hard frost/freeze. Putting this plant undercover then would be advised (after watering it of course). If you mean Lavender, it should be fine like the rosemary and flax.

Planting a flower garden in the Inner Sunset

Dear Garden Guru,

I want to plant a flower garden (mostly in containers) for the Inner Sunset climate. What can you recommend?

- Susan in San Francisco


Dear Susan,

Fall and winter offer up many choices for the Sunset gardener. If you have a sunny location (when the sun is out), choose from pansies, violas, Iceland poppies, stock, snapdragons and primrose, just to name a few. Shady locations are more limited but the most popular and long-blooming are Cyclamen. They come in reds, whites, purples and pinks in both standard and dwarf varieties. You might also try Primula obconica (coming in December) for a shadier spot.

How do you fertilize a garden?

Dear Garden Guru,

How do you fertilize your garden? Do you have to turn over the soil and sprinkle the fertilizer? What happens to the bark that you put down as a cover? Does it get mixed in with the soil, or do you carefully try to remove the bark? What's the easier way?

- Mitzi in Sausalito


Dear Mitzi,

The first thing to do is water the garden. You should not apply fertilizers to dry soil as this causes leaf burn and root stress. If we all removed our mulches to apply fertilizers, most of us would not feed our gardens. It would be too time consuming. You can apply granular fertilizers directly over the bark. After application, water well to wash the food down below the mulch. Our EB Stone Organics line has several different types to choose from . I recommend that you visit one of our stores and let one of the nursery people know what types of plants you have in the garden. They will be happy to make a recommendation.

Lilac won't bloom

Dear Garden Guru,

We have a lilac tree that hasn't bloomed for 4 years and hydrangea that don't produce either. What can I do?

- JT in Fairfield


Dear JT,

Lack of flowering could result from pruning at the wrong time of year. Your lilac will start to set flower buds for the following spring in midsummer. Pruning in the fall or winter would remove these buds. The best time to prune would be right after flowering in late spring. The hydrangea sets next years flower buds in October so prune right after bloom in September. Prune branches down to the first or second pair of fat buds. For bigger flowers, thin out stems thinner than a pencil.

How to prune citrus trees/what vegetables to plant in the fall?

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We just recently moved to sunny San Rafael from SF and are trying to figure out all the things we need to do to keep our lawn and gardens beautiful. One of our questions is how to prune our citrus trees, one naval orange, lemon and some other unknown variety of orange (I think). Any suggestions? Also what herbs and veggies can we plant in fall?
Thanks for your help

- Suzanne in San Rafael

A: Dear Suzanne,

Citrus only require pruning to maintain an agreeable shape or confine them to their space. Pruning is best done in late spring. This will sacrifice some fruit and flowers.

Herbs for fall planting are parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, winter savory, coriander/cilantro, marjoram, oregano, and mint. Vegetables to get in the ground are spinach, beets, broccoli, radishes, peas, onions (by seed or transplant), cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, lettuces, and celery.

Can I grow different types of moss as a desktop plant?

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I want to grow something small on top of my desk. While I was studying biology, I had a chance to visit a garden(UCB) and they had these different species of moss which looked like a mini forest!

Can I grow diff. species of moss in a pot? I have three big windows and one of them has my desk right in front of it. "the desk window" faces east and as you can imagine it's foggy most of the time. So not too much sun :(

If not moss, what would you recommend?

- Jihyun in San Francisco

A: Dear Jihyun,

You can grow moss!  They work really well in a sealed terrarium or in a glass jar with a lid, such as a jam jar or one of those glass crocks for storing dry foods with the clasp seal.  At the bottom, put 1/2" to 1" planting charcoal followed by the same amount of sand then 1" to 1 1/2" of potting soil.  Dampen slightly with a spray bottle.  You can use a small patch of moss you can lift off a wall or walkway either dry or still green.  Our store by the zoo also sells moss spores.  Place the moss on the potting soil and press to get a good contact with the soil.  Water by spraying until water penetrates all layers.  Seal the jar.  I have had moss jars such as these growing since March with only 1 or 2  additional waterings.  The sealed system works just like a rain cloud.  Humidity builds, fogs the glass, then "rains" and clears. Other plant options are Selaginella moss, small ferns, baby tears and dwarf mondo grass.

What do I grow in my container garden during the winter months?

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I'm from the midwest, where the winter snow prevents people from growing year round. Now that I'm in San Francisco, I have no idea what to grow in my container garden in the winter months. Any suggestions for what do on my patio from October-March would be most helpful to this midwest gardener!

- Courtney in San Francisco

A: Dear Courtney,

You are in for a treat because the fall/early spring gardens are fun.  Annuals that are available in September are stock, pansy and viola, snapdragons, paludosum daisy, and Iceland poppy.  The snapdragons and poppy will look there best in early spring  but are best established in the fall.  The others will give you color even in the winter months.  Arriving in October are primrose, ornamental cabbage and kale, and Cyclamen. 

If you want to grow some edibles,  lettuces, peas, broccoli, kale, Brussels's sprouts and chard are available as starts, or you can start from seed.  Best from seed are onions, carrots, beets and other root vegetables.  Herbs such as parsley, thyme, sage and rosemary can be planted.  Of course, our full selection of spring flowering bulbs are available in September.  Bulbs over planted with violas work very nicely in pots.  October is also the best time to plant sweet peas, foxglove, and California poppy.  There are also fall garden mums!   There's a reason this is such a popular state.

Another beginning gardener has questions...and the answer is always starting with healthy soil!!

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I am a beginner when it comes to gardening. I live off of sloat blvd and my garden hasn’t been tended too in years. I need a couple recommendations. My grandparents used to live in this house and when they were alive and kept up the garden, they grew all kinds of vegetables and fruit. I would like to revive these. I'm pretty sure they grew zucchini, beans, and tomatoes. Do you think I would be able to plant these again and if so, which soil do i need to use? Also i have some hydrangeas that are currently potted but i would like to plant them in my front and back yards. What soil for these and any special food that will help them stay healthy? One last thing, when reviving a lawn...any recommendations?

- Michelle in San Francisco

A: Dear Michelle,

Soil certainly is the first step for all gardening.

Let's start with the vegetables. You will want to select an area that gets full, all day sun. You can either plant in the ground or construct a raised bed. If you plant in the ground, amend your soil with Loam Builder or Organic Compost. Use 2 Bags for every 25 square feet. It is easiest to just dump them on top of the soil and mix them in as you dig. A digging fork or small spade are the best tools to use. You will want to turn your soil to at least a foot depth. If you choose to construct a raised bed, we have 2 easy ways to do it, the M Brace system or the Mini Farmbox. You can read about these in our latest newsletter at www.sloatgardens.com. The raised bed can be filled with a mixture of Organic Potting Soil and Planting Compost. We are getting a tad late to plant tomatoes; a cherry type or larger plant (1 gallon size) is recommended). Plenty of time yet for beans and squash. July is also the month to start cabbages, broccoli, and Brussels's sprouts.

Hydrangeas want a loamy soil. Use Sloat Planting Mix 50/50 with the native soil. If you want your hydrangeas to be blue, create an acid soil by applying FST or Hydrangea Blue (aluminum sulphate). If you want pink hydrangeas, add Agricultural lime. Hydrangeas prefer a partial sun location and protected from the wind. Feed regularly with Max Sea 16-16-16 if you want pink or Maxsea Acid to maintain blue.

If you are reviving an existing lawn, the best place to start is with thatching and aerating. You can purchase or rent a thatching rake and an aerator. Thatching removes dead compressed grass and aerating removes 3" cores that are then filled in with fresh compost (Forest Mulch Plus or Planting Compost) An easy way to "soften up" dead grass build up is to dilute 1 quart of beer in 2 gallons of water and spray the grass. Wait 48 hours before raking. The next step is aeration. After coring, cover with enough Forest Mulch Plus or Planting Compost to fill the holes and cover the lawn 1/3". If you wish to overseed, plan this project for the fall when it is cooler. A good summer fertilizer to help strengthen the lawn is Ringer Lawn Restore.

Appropriate bark for high fire danger area

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

My home is in an area of Marin that faces high fire danger. I am stumped as to what mulch I can safely use. In the past I've used redwood bark but have been informed that is not a good choice for fire-resistant ground cover. I am thinking of river rock or similar, but would rather avoid rock ground cover if I can.

- Patricia in San Rafael

A: Dear Patricia,

It is the shredded bark mulches that are causing concern. The recycled rubber mulches are even worse. The least combustible natural mulches are first cocoa hulls followed by medium bark nuggets, then fine bark nuggets. It is always a good idea to check with your local fire department to ensure that you are in compliance with any new local laws.

Gardening in serpentine soil

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I live on Potrero hill with serpentine rock. How does this affect my plants? What can/can't I grow?

-Camilla in San Francisco

A: Dear Camilla,

Serpentine soils tend to be more alkaline and contain higher levels of heavy metals such as nickel and are very high in magnesium but poor in calcium. It is not that serpentine soils are toxic, but that an acidifier such as FST be added if acid loving plants are wanted and that calcium, in the form of gypsum is used to provide that needed element. Many of our serpentine soils have become more acidic in the top layers due to the constant leaf fall from pine, redwood, bay and oak. What you can grow will depend on exposure more than anything else. Look at the areas you want to plant and measure the amount of direct sun they get (if any). Look around your neighborhood and identify those plants that you like that thrive. Take that information, as well as names of some other plants that you like and visit the store on Sloat. One of our qualified team members would be happy to make and show you suggestions.

What to plant in deep shade

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We have window boxes that get almost no direct sunlight. Can you recommend what might work in shade - it would be nice to have some foliage plants and some repeat blooming plants - or at least seasonal blooming plants. Thank you!   

- Linda in Santa Rosa

A: Dear Linda,

It is difficult to find plants that bloom well in deep shade. Fibrous begonias will probably be the most successful. Impatiens may work as well though will not bloom as heavily. There is lots of foliage that would be happy: Lysimachia (creeping jenny), Lamium (dead nettle), fern, Hosta, variegated small leaf ivy, colorful Coleus and Liriope. Cyclamen will be happy in the fall and winter months. You might get some summer bloom out of perennial Campanula and Tradescantia too.

A beginner gardener with questions

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I live in the inner sunset area in San Francisco. I have two small areas in the front of my house that I cleaned up. I'm ready to plant pretty flowers and bushes but not sure what to plant. My garden faces north, so we get very limited sun exposure (if the sun decides to ever come out in the sunset!) I would love to have a vine of Bougainvillea, some hydrangeas and a rose bush. How well will those survive in the Sunset, and can you recommend other pretty plants/ flowers that would be good for my area? How about dirt, will I need to buy new dirt?

- Eileen in San Francisco

A: Dear Eileen,

Since you get limited sun, you should consider plants best in the shade. This, unfortunately would exclude Bougainvillea and roses. You can have Hydrangea, Azaleas or Rhododendrons, star jasmine and fuchsia. There are many other wonderful blooming perennials such as Abutilon, begonia, Impatiens, and Helleborus. I suggest contacting our Design Department at 388-3754 for some on site advice.

As for dirt, all good gardens start with the soil. I recommend that you work in Planting mix at a 50/50 ratio with the native soil. After planting, topdress/mulch with Forest Mulch Plus to reduce moisture loss and keep down weeds.

Mulching Tips

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I have spread some redwood mulch over my rose beds. Should I mulch my potted roses and plants as well? What are the "rules" for mulching pots?

- Judy in San Bruno

A: Dear Judy,

Mulch away! The benefits will be fewer weeds and less water consumption. The only down side is that if there is not enough room to hold water, the mulch may run out of the pot. If that is a problem, you can use green moss (sold in bags) like you would use for a hanging basket or indoor plant.

Amending soil

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We have your basic clay earth in our backyard. I want to amend the soil. What would you recommend I amend it with? Just regular planting mix that you sell? Or should I add lime or some other soil additives like chicken manure.....what is your secret recipe? And is it better than the Colonel's?

- Bruce in Glen Park

A: Dear Bruce,

Forest Mulch Plus, Forest Mulch Plus, Forest Mulch Plus! This is a longer lasting blend of organic materials that also contains some chicken manure (not finger likkin' good). This mixed with Gypsum will help break down and loosen the clay. Keep in mind that one application of any product will not change the soil indefinitely. You should get in the habit of applying the Forest Mulch Plus as a top-dressing twice a year to continue to work into the soil and help keep it from reverting to it's natural (and heavy) state.

Good predatory insects

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

What are some good predatory insects to have in the garden and how do I get them to stay there?

- Dave in Oakland

A: Dear Dave,

Probably the best commercially available beneficial insect is the lady bug. If your garden is plagued with a good infestation of aphids and whitefly, the beetles will stay and lay eggs. The real eaters of the pests are baby beetles which resemble little black alligators. The adult beetles feed mostly on pollen and nectars so it is important to have a reliable food source to keep them around. Choose plants such as Achillea, flowering dill and fennel, most of the daisy type plants.

Good bugs to encourage are lacewings, soldier beetles, small parasitic wasps, and hover flies. Planting plenty of white alyssum along with daisy type plants such as feverfew, marguerite daisy, and zinnia will attract the adults. Wasps are attracted to hormones released by the pest attacked plants. These hormones can be mimicked with catnip and Nepeta mint. I suggest you invest in one of the handy, inexpensive ($5.99) Mac's Field Guides for Beneficial and Bad bugs. It is a good starting place to begin learning about bugs.

How to amend soil?

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We have your basic clay earth in our backyard. I want to amend the soil. What would you recommend I amend it with? Just regular planting mix that you sell? Or should I add lime or some other soil additives like chicken manure.....what is your secret recipe? And is it better than the Colonel's?

- Bruce in Glen Park

A: Dear Bruce,

Forest Mulch Plus, Forest Mulch Plus, Forest Mulch Plus! This is a longer lasting blend of organic materials that also contains some chicken manure (not finger likkin' good). This mixed with Gypsum will help break down and loosen the clay. Keep in mind that one application of any product will not change the soil indefinitely. You should get in the habit of applying the Forest Mulch Plus as a top-dressing twice a year to continue to work into the soil and help keep it from reverting to it's natural (and heavy) state.

Adding mesquite charcoal to garden soil

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

Can mesquite charcoal be added to garden soil. We have several buckets full. Our soil is clay under oak trees. The charcoal is tiny pieces. Thank you for your help.

- Mary in Diablo

A: Dear Mary,

You can add the charcoal to garden soil but disperse it sparingly, and if possible, try to crush it into more of a dust like formulation. Too much charcoal inhibits nutrient availability.

Composting citrus rinds

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We have a number of citrus trees; lemon, lime and orange. I liked to compost as much as possible, but I've read that citrus rinds shouldn't be added to worm boxes or standard compost bins. Is there another way to compost that works for citrus rinds? Also, which plants would benefits from citrus compost?

- Anne in Greenbrae

A: Dear Anne,

It is true that Citrus should not be added to worm bins regularly because they create too acidic an environment for the worms. Even then, an occasional peel would not break the farm. There is nothing wrong with adding Citrus to regular compost as long as you provide enough carbon (brown) to balance the nitrogen (green) of the oranges. The resulting compost will be on the acid side so would be ideal for alkaline soils, and for use around acid plants such as Azalea, Rhododendron, fern, Hydrangea, Gardenia and Camellias. You might consider starting a separate pile so that you are "manufacturing" 2 separate mixes.

Why is soil at the bottom of my pot lighter?

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I have been planting a lot in pots. Twice recently when I transplanted to bigger pots because plants weren't doing well, I discovered that the soil in the bottom half of the pot was a shade lighter than the top. Why? I always reuse soil. Can I replant in this lighter soil, put it into my own garden composted (not very hot) or into the city compost?

- Luby in San Francisco
A: Dear Luby,

The lighter soil at the bottom of the pot is due to a decrease in organic matter, soluble salt buildup (fertilizers), calcium carbonate (hard water and reduced drainage). There is nothing unsafe about it so it can be added to compost piles both at home and in the city yard. If you want to reuse the soil, I recommend mixing it first with fresh soil to disperse the minerals and improve the nutritional content.

Turning a concrete backyard into a garden full of vegetables and plants

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I have a long east-west lot 1 block from the beach in the Sunset. I would love a big garden of veggies and drought-tolerant natives, but unfortunately most of my lot is concrete! I think I can break most of it up by sledgehammer, but I have no idea what to do after that. Suggestions?

- Laura in San Francisco
A: Dear Laura,

If you are willing to remove the concrete, it may be best to create your garden in raised beds that are protected on the bottom with hardware cloth/chicken wire. The gophers in the Sunset are out of control and would no doubt wreak havoc on a fresh new garden. I would have you contact our Design Department at 415-388-3754. They can assist you with site design and native plant choices.

What is the best fall fertilizer to use for everything from fruit trees, roses and flowers??

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

What is the best fall fertilizer to use for everything from fruit trees, roses, to flowers? How often should I fertilize over the winter?

- Gary in San Anselmo
A: Dear Gary,

Fall fertilizers are not high in nitrogen. Historically, the use of 0-10-10 or Alfalfa meal has been recommended to provide a boost to plant's immune system to combat the ravages of coming cold weather and subsequent fungal diseases. The best practice after this is mulching or top dressing with a manure or Forest Mulch Plus (the Plus is chicken doo). Do not apply a mulch to fruit trees as this will hold excess moisture in the ground around the tree which is harmful. You do not want to feed during winter as this encourages new growth that can be killed by frosts. The only exception would be annual flowers such as primrose, pansies and cyclamen which are actively growing in winter.

We help a first time gardener!

Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I am a first time gardener and live about 1 block away from the beach in the outer Richmond. I am going to start a few plants in 6 wine barrels and am wondering what the best plants are for a first timer, near the beach using barrels. I would love to do some greens (swiss chard, kale, lettuce), herbs and squash. Any suggestions?

- Lauren in San Francisco
A: Dear Lauren,

You can be quite successful growing vegetables and flowers in barrels, even so close to the beach. The greens you mention will be fine as they can be grown nearly year round. You should also consider starting your cole vegetables, broccoli, Brussels's sprouts and cabbage. Peas and green onions will also like your weather and are easily started from seed. It is too late to plant squash now. For herbs, plant parsley, oregano, catnip, and rosemary. Sage, thyme and basil want it warmer and can be finicky.

Annual flowers that can be planted with your vegetables are Alyssum, Lobelia, Cosmos, marigolds and summer snapdragons. You want to keep the finished flowers picked off to keep the plants happily blooming. This is what we call "deadheading".

Lantana, succulents, Armeria (Thrift), Euphorbia, Coreopsis, Erigeron, Agapanthus, Dianthus and Argyranthemum (Marguerite daisy) are easy, colorful perennials for the coast.
Worm compost
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I have had a compost bin for years and regularly put kitchen scraps, yard waste, etc. into it. However, it seems this bin has turned into a worm farm. The whole bin is full of worms! I know their castings are great fertilizer, but when I put any of this on my plants, they die. I think it's too strong. Can you suggest how I might be able to use the contents of my bin on my plants without killing them? Thanks!

- B.E. in San Francisco
A: Dear B.E.,
I would use the compost that is below the working worms. The compost here is less hot and has also had the benefit of further decomposition by soil fungi and microbes. You may want to add more "brown"/carbon to the bin. Excessive green/nitrogen tends to be hotter. It may help to water the plants you apply the compost to first and then water again after application. You can also make compost tea. Fill a 5g bucket 1/2 full of the worm compost. Add water and stir. Strain the mixture in an old pillow case or decant. Use immediately. A better tea can be created if you can aerate it. This can easily be done with an aquarium pump and some plastic tubing. Allow the concoction to Bubble for 2 or 3 days and stir morning and night. Some people add 1/4 cup of molasses to feed the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the solution. After straining or decanting, use immediately.
Mulch alternatives to Gorilla hair
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I am looking for a ground cover/mulch alternative to gorilla hair. Part of my yard is on a hill which I understand will limit my options.

- Margaret in Walnut Creek
A: Dear Margaret,
The best alternative to the shredded bark or gorilla hair would be what we call Microbark. It is a fine enough grade that it will stay in place and not roll down the slope. That said, if it is a steep slope or there are heavy rains, the Microbark may not be the best choice. If you are using the mulch as a weed suppressant, I recommend that you use a weed block cloth under your mulch, especially on the slope. Other mulches that may work for you are Forest Mulch Plus or Redwood Compost. These are more like fine soils and designed to breakdown to improve the soil. They will suppress weeds for the season but will need to be reapplied annually. The shredding bark is the most commonly used for steep slopes for a reason. It tends to grab hold better than any other mulch.
Should I rip out the lawn???
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

My front lawn is about dead. It happens every summer, unless I water it a lot (and I don't want to for obvious reasons). It is a small plot, maybe 20 feet by 5 feet and has redwood trees that provide limited shade. In addition, it is a "mound" of sorts causing the water to run-off.

My question is, what sort of grass can I put there that won't die every year? I am very willing to get away from traditional grasses and would like to explore more native, wild grasses that would look good without much mowing. I like the look of the blue fescue, but live in a fairly manicured home and neighborhood so have that issue to deal with as well. This area is southeast facing with intense sun all day. You can tell me to take it all out and put in rocks and succulents!! Help...

- Margy in Alamo
A: Dear Margy,

I vote for removing the lawn, especially since you have a mound to contend with. The Blue Fescue or any other evergreen, clumping grass would not look messy if enough were planted. Other grass candidates would be Carex glauca, Carex Frosted Curls, Carex testacea and Festuca idahoensis. There are plenty of groundcovers that will tolerate that exposure and are drought tolerant too. Gazania, creeping thyme, trailing lantana, Myoporum parvifolium Putah Creek, Oregano, Duchesnia (Mock Strawberry) and Iceplants. And, it may look quite nice (and take up some space) if some large rocks were incorporated. Our store in Danville has a good stock of groundcovers and a very knowledgeable consultant, Dustin Stroebel.
Ground cover options
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

Hi I'm looking for a ground cover that will withstand a few hours of afternoon sun which matches the baby's tears which grow in the shady areas of the garden: low to the ground, non-flowering if possible, fast growing. I found dwarf thyme on line as a possibility. Do you have anything I could use? Thank you.

- Beth in San Francisco
A: Dear Beth,

Your thought of dwarf thyme is a good one. Lime thyme, creeping thyme and elfin thyme will grow the lowest but they are somewhat slow to spread and they do flower for a short time in summer. Hernaria glabra (also known as green carpet) does not have a noticeable flower but is sometimes hard to obtain. Isotoma, the fastest grower, does have that blue-white flower in the summer. You might even consider planting baby tears in the sun. In your cool climate, with regular water, the baby tears should do just fine.
Plants for deep shade
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We have a north facing window box that is 6 feet wide, 2.5 feet deep and 6 feet high. It is sheltered from the rain, but is irrigated. The soil is 2 feet deep and has been amended. Nothing survives in the box except for star jasmine which must be cut back frequently. We just killed 2 rhododendrons! Help!!

- Martin in Kentfield
A: Dear Martin,

Deep Shade is a hard spot. Rhododendron and Azalea require more light than we sometimes give them. Here is a list of plants that will perform (hopefully) better:

Aspidistra, Hosta, Sarcococca, Podocarpus, Aucuba, Camellia, Nandina, Acanthus, Ferns, Clivia, Helleborus, Lamium and Liriope
Gardening near the beach
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

My garden is near Golden Gate Park in the Sunset... about 12 blocks from the beach. The area I need to plant is the shady south fence area. I have vegetables trying to grow in the sunny parts. I have sandy soil, possibly somewhat acidic since I also have a pine tree out there. I do have a couple of azaleas already that I have managed not to kill - despite neglect. What do you think? I'd like to find stuff that will not need a lot of attention or water.

- Stephanie in San Francisco
A: Dear Stephanie,

Artemesia Silver Mound, Artemesia Powis Castle, Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), Armeria maritima, Ceanothus (many varieties), Sedums, succulents, Aeoniums and Echeverias, Fremontodendron, Erigeron glaucus, Erigeron karvinskianus, Festuca californica, Muhlenbergia (Deer Grass), Sisyrinchium (Blue-Eyed Grass), Zauschneria, Rhus integrifolia, Salvia leucophylla, Salvia clevelandii, Eriogonum (Buckwheat), Lavatera assurgentiflora, Mahonia, Myrica, Echium (not native but does very well)..

Keep in mind that not all plant material is available simultaneously. You may need to special order and stagger your planting depending on availability.
Shredded newspaper in compost?
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

Recently I notice my neighbor throwing shredded newpapers into their compost. How safe is it to do this? I was under the impression that the ink used in printing wasn't safe if you grow vegetables. Thank you.

- Bob in San Francisco
A: Dear Bob,

In most circles, It has been determined that using shredded newspaper in compost is not a problem. Use of toxic inks in newsprint has basically ceased not just for environmental reasons but for worker safety in printing plants. All lead, chromium and cadmium inks are no longer used for newsprint. The colored pages of newspapers can also be used as the copper in the inks used are not in levels high enough to pose a threat. Vegetables grown with compost containing newspaper are considered safe to eat . That said, there really is no way to know exactly where each piece is printed and to what it may have been exposed. My rule of thumb is...If there is concern, why bother if it is not essential. You can replace the use of newsprint with unprinted paper bags, hard brown leaves or other brown garden debris.
Using kitchen composters
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I do not have a compost in my yard due to limited space but I would like to turn kitchen scraps (veggies, potato peels, orange & apple, banana peels, used tea bags, coffee, egg shells, rotted fruits, etc. into compost. Can I just cut them into small pieces and bury them in the soil for a few weeks, then use them to enrich the soil? Good idea? Or bad?

- Theresa in San Mateo
A: Dear Theresa,

The method you propose does work and it is a fine idea. It is also possible to compost your kitchen scraps in a small (with lid), metal waste can either kept in the garage or outside your back door. It works best if you can poke a few holes on the bottom. Adding some garden earth to the bottom will help stimulate microbial activity. You can also add leaves and small clippings once in a while. Sloat also carries an electronic kitchen composter that can be kept inside the home with no smells.
Growing flowers from seed
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I am planning to start some of my favorite flowers from seed for Spring/Summer season. I have built a small greenhouse in my garage where I get lots of afternoon sunlight. I have three questions: 1. When is a good time to lay the seeds for April transfer? 2. Do I have to use any special soil? 3. What temperature do I need to keep? Regards,

- Zubair
A: Dear Zubair,

To give you the best idea of when to plant your seeds, you want to know the approximate last frost date for your area and then count back based on the information provided on the seed packet. Your location in Danville has frost as late as 3/27. Most of your seed starting should occur from mid February on, depending on the varieties you choose.

You will want to use a light soil mixture that is moisture retentive yet airy. The EB Stone Seed Starting Mix is ideal or you can mix 50/50 vermiculite and Sloat Organic Potting Soil.

The best results will occur if you can keep daytime temperatures at about 72 degrees with nighttime temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees. Even though you have good afternoon light, I advise you to supplement the lighting with grow lamps. The seedlings require between 12 and 16 hours of light a day to grow strong.
Help with composting
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I am a new gardener and started a compost pile. If I recall right, I believe it should contain 1/3 green stuff, 1/3 brown stuff, and 1/3 other stuff (not sure)..... But my question is this, is it still ok to compost only kitchen scraps if there is no brown stuff going in? It does seem to still break down into wet stuff not quite dirt...... let me know.

- Bruce, your faithful gardening dunce in San Francisco
A: Dear Bruce,

Many people do as you do and only compost their kitchen scraps. The result does tend to be moist but is still quite beneficial to houseplants and gardens. Should you want it more crumbly you will need to add some "brown". This "brown" or high carbon element can be shredded paper, napkins, coffee filters with grounds. If your compost seems too wet, try adding some shredded pages of an old phone book. It does not have to be leaves, sawdust or wood chips.
Let's talk Loam
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

Is it possible to order loam from you and if not where could I find it? My soil is very sandy and I remember my mother always used to purchase bags of very rich loam and almost anything would grow after mixing it in with fertilizer.

- Victoria in San Francisco
A: Dear Victoria,

We sell a wonderful product called Loam Builder. A 2 cubic foot bag sells for $5.99. It is especially nutritious and is designed to be mixed into your native sandy soil. Not only is it rich, it will improve the soil's ability to hold moisture.
Getting ladybugs to stick around
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I released ladybugs in the garden Friday evening. I saw them about on Saturday; however they were nowhere to be seen on Sunday. Do they normally leave after a day? I assume they laid eggs. How long will it be until I see more?

- Susan in Mill Valley
A: Dear Susan,

Yes, some of the ladybugs fly off but the majority will stay. They are not so noticeable once they disperse, but they are there. The first thing they do is lay eggs where the pests are a problem. You will begin to see baby ladybugs in about 10 to 12 days. They resemble small black alligators and are the real devourers of aphids. The adult beetles eat some pests but also rely on pollens for food. You should see at least 2 generations over the spring and summer. Pupa will hang from the undersides of leaves (usually at higher levels) before hatching out as adults.
Lawn Fertilizer
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

What type of lawn fertilizer do you recommend for spreading now
for winterizing? I am looking for a more or less "Weed and Feed" but I have
a dog so I am wary of fertilizers with harsh chemicals.

My lawn is a dwarf fescue

- Devi in San Francisco
A: Dear Devi,

Thank you for your question. At the moment the best option for you in terms of a "Weed and Feed" is to actually use two products that our stores currently carry. The first is an all-natural corn gluten based product called Weed Prevention Plus. This is a pre-emergent weed killer that is not loaded with harsh chemicals. It targets the seeds that eventually become weeds in your yard.

Additionally, to feed the lawn, I recommend Nature's Green Lawn Food, which is another all-natural product that provides vital nutrients for you lawn.

These two products should take care of all of your winter lawn needs. Be sure to follow the instructions on the packaging which will help you decide how long to wait between applications of these products, as I do not recommend using them at the same time.

I hope this helps get you started. As always our experienced staff at the stores can answer more specific questions for you too.
Overly Damp Areas
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

We have an area in our yard that is quite wet--especially during the rainy season. It is in partial sun, but mostly on the shady side. Do you have any suggestions for plants/trees/shrubs that would like these very wet conditions? Any plants that would help soak up some of the water? Thanks very much!

- Amelia in San Francisco
A: Dear Amelia,

Here are some suggestions for overly damp boggy areas. Please keep in mind that any soil you plant in should be heavily amended with a soil additive such as Sloat Planting Mix to keep as much air around the roots as possible. Also keep in mind that boggy areas are some of the least forgiving in the garden and the suggested plants may not work in your particular area. Severe yellowing, stunted growth and/or drooping will be early indicators of suffering plants.

Perennials/Bulbs: Calla Lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), Elephant Ears (Alocasia and Calocasia), Lobelia cardinalis, Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis), Spiderwort (Tradescantia), Hostas, Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia), Horsetail (Equisetum)

Ferns: Matteuccia, Athyrium, Woodwardia fimbriata
Grasses: Scirpus, Chondropetalum, Cyperus
Shrubs: Birch (Betula), Willow ( Salix)), Gaultheria, Huckleberry (Vaccinum
ovatum), Blueberry, California wax Myrtle (Myrica californica)

I hope this proves helpful and thanks for gardening with us.
Starting out as a new Bay Area gardener
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

I recently moved to San Francisco and into a place with a garden. I have never thought of myself as a gardener, but really want to start. I was wonder what plants you would suggest for a garden newbie like myself. I would prefer flowering plants so I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, as well as plants that are fairly hardy and easy to care for! Thanks!!!

- Katie in San Francisco
A: Dear Katie,

Welcome to the neighborhood! First, San Francisco has very sandy soil so anything you plant will benefit from adding amendment to help the soil retain water. We recommend Forest Mulch Plus or Planting Mix. If you enjoy flowers, look to perennials such as Salvia greggii, Penstemon, Abutilon and Euphorbia. Larger plants like Echium, Marguerite Daisy and Rosemary will add stature to your planting. Annuals live only 1 season but pack a powerful punch of color and often reseed. Try Nasturtium, Alyssum, Lobelia and Nicotiana. There is a good article on gardening in the city in our July/August 2006 Notebook that you can view on our website. It might be fun to rototill or dig a small space in the garden and sow a Bay Area wildflower mix. I also encourage you to visit any of the city stores and ask our staff what their favorite picks are!
Gardening with children
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

At our preschool we do all of our gardening in large planter boxes. We like to do our gardening projects from September to June so the children can see the full cycle of the plants. Can you suggest plants that would be good for this type of garden activity and age group?

- Bobbi in Larkspur
A: Dear Bobbi,

For the Fall consider peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and any lettuces and leaf crops.  Pansies and violas will add great color and the flowers are edible.  Iceland poppies, stock and primrose will flower through the winter.

For the spring consider California poppies, bulbs such as daffodils, freesia and tulips (to be planted in the fall) as well as beans, more peas and all leaf crops.
Buying a Meyer lemon tree
Q: Dear Garden Guru,

My co-worker suggested that I apply some mulch to my yard. What are the benefits of mulching? Also, when is the best time to apply the mulch?

- Daniel in San Francisco
A: Dear Daniel,

Your co-worker knows what he/she is talking about. Mulching has many benefits in our Mediterranean climate. First and foremost, mulching decreases moisture loss from evaporation, thus allowing for less frequent watering, conserving our most precious resource. Secondly, mulching will inhibited most weed growth (barring very aggressive weeds like ivy, Bermuda grass and other nuisances) limiting the need for herbicides and saving your time and labor (our second and third most precious resources).  As a long-term benefit, as mulch decomposes, it adds organic matter to the soil helping to loosen heavy soils and keep the soil healthy.

The most popular mulches we sell are Forest Mulch Plus (containing 15% chicken manure to add nitrogen to the soil) and Micro Bark (a true top-dressing that can last for several years with minimum replenishing). Other choices are Shredded Redwood and Cedar barks (for slopes or if you prefer a "fluffier" look) and Patio Bark (sometimes referred to as "Tanbark" which comes in fine, medium and coarse grades).  Hope this helps.
Plants for shady gardens
Q: Dear Garden Guru,


- Carol in San Francisco

A: Dear Carol,

Very few plants grow in full (never see the light of day) shade but the following list will grow in part to heavy shade depending on where you live.
  • Abutilon
  • Alchemilla mollis
  • Astilbe
  • Aucuba japonica
  • Ajuga reptans
  • Campanula portenschlagiana
  • Coleus
  • Heuchera
  • Hydrangeas
  • Hypericum
  • Japanese Maple
  • Japanese Painted Fern


  • Lamium
  • Lysimachia
  • Mimulus
  • Rehmannia elata
  • Sollya heterophylla
I would recommend that you not plant directly under a lemon tree unless the tree is quite large.  A young or middle-aged citrus can suffer from to frequent watering.  If you are planting around the perimeter or the edge of a pot if that is how the lemon is planted, I might suggest:
  • Thyme
  • Rudbeckia
  • short sunflowers
  • coreopsis
  • Scented geraniums
  • Edible salvia
  • Lavender
Plants for sandy soil
Q: Dear Guru,

What plants would you suggest for sandy soil in the inner sunset?

- Pat in San Francisco
A: Dear Pat,

Sandy soil and a tad of salt wind, nothing like it!

Perennials that work are: Lantana, Euphorbia, Centranthus, Erigeron, Santolina, Phormium, Pelargonium (Martha Washington and Zonal Geranium), Limonium perezii (Sea Lavender), Armeria, Artemesia, Agapanthus, Echium, Lavender and Argyranthemum (Marguerite Daisy)

Suitable shrubs are: Rosemary, Westringia, Pittosporum tobira and Pittosporum tobira Wheelers Dwarf, Coprosma, Cistus, Hebe, Escallonia, Rhus integrifolia (Lemonade Berry), Melaleuca, Leptospermum, Correa and Dodonaea.

Trees are: Metrosideros, Arbutus, Myoporum laetum standard. Eucalyptus will also work but you don't need the mess.
Amending your soil
Q: Dear Guru,

What are the first steps in trying to assess the amendments that need to be added to make soil healthy?

- Alyssa in Pacifica
A: Dear Alyssa,

The first thing you will want to do is obtain a soil test kit. We carry single test to multiple test kits. They are very easy to use. Basically you put a sample of your soil in vial, add water and one of the test reagents. It changes color and you then look at a chart to read your result. The test assays for pH, Nitrogen content, Phosphorous and Potassium. Plants grow best in a pH of 5 to 6. If your soil is say a pH of 8 you will want to add Aluminum Sulfate or Soil Sulpher plus an organic amendment such as Planting Mix or Forest Mulch Plus. If your pH is 3, you would add Agricultural Lime. If you are lacking any of the nutrients, the test has recommendations for you to follow. If your soil tends to be clay-like, we recommend Gypsum and the addition of Organic matter. If your soil is sandy, we recommend the addition of Planting Mix.
Treating "doggie" areas in the yard
Q: Dear Guru,

My son, who temporarily lives with us, owns a female dog who urinates and defecates on every living thing in the back yard. Now I have completely dead areas, probably due to the excess nitrogen. What can I use to 1) keep her out of the areas; 2) what products, if, any, would treat the clay soil and bring it back to "normal"...

- Cheryl in San Francisco
A: Dear Cheryl,

Thanks for your question. You are certainly not the only one to have to deal with these issues. There are a couple of ways to approach "protecting" your back yard. One is with physical measures like 1 to 3 ft high border fencing, which would keep the dog out of any areas that you choose to enclose. Stakes and netting can also accomplish this (although that doesn't look quite as nice and is a bit more temporary).

We carry a great product called Dog & Cat Repellent made by Liquid Fence. It can be sprayed around areas that you would like to protect, and can even be sprayed directly on to plants. This is an excellent solution for protecting SOME areas. It will not provide complete coverage because if the entire yard smells bad to the dog and she really has to "go" then she'll still do her business somewhere in the yard. However, if you have one area in the yard that you want to steer the dog into (perhaps one sacrificial area) then you can spray all other areas, hoping to direct the dog into that one zone you are aiming for where you have not used the spray.

As for helping the soil, if it's really only been a short amount of time that the dog has been around, I think you'll be fine without doing too much to "repair" the soil. As long as you are still watering regularly, it would take a while for any real damage to occur. I would, however, replenish your soil with Planting Mix once the dog moves out, or perhaps once a month while the dog is living with you. Just this little added "fresh" soil will help keep plenty of nutrients alive and keep your plants happy.

I hope this helps. And, as always, feel free to ask more questions at any of our locations, particularly if you see problems developing.
Plant suggestions for an outdoor terrace
Q: Dear Guru,

I'm moving to an apartment with a huge terrace and excellent light: morning noon and early afternoon. I don't want to get one plant at a time and assort a junk yard collection of plants. My question is, what kind of large containers could I get that look modern and what kind of plants should I buy? This is by Mission Creek in Mission Bay, not far from the ball park. I'm leaning toward natives because while I might water them diligently, I can't have an automatic system and want to ensure they outlive occasional neglect. Lavender? What kind of soil?

- Bill in San Francisco

A: Dear Bill,

In terms of modern containers we do carry a lovely line of Fiberstone pots that are lightweight and modern looking. And, of course, we have tons of styles of pottery and redwood containers to choose from as well.

I think going Native is a great idea. There are plenty of low-water options that will do well in containers. Some examples are: Aquilegia (columbine), Artemisia, Ceanothus (wild lilac), Erigeron, Heuchera and Penstemon. This is but a short list. We can personally show you a larger variety at any of our San Francisco locations.

Lavender is not a native, but does quite well in containers and does not need a lot of water either. You may also want to consider a cactus/succulent garden. You can get many different colors and textures from succulents, and they certainly have low water requirements.

Euphorbias and Phormiums are two more excellent choices you may want to check out.

With any and all of these you will want to use a Potting Soil. At Sloat stores we differentiate between Potting Soil and Planting Mix by whether or not the soil is going into a container (potting soil) or if it is going into the ground (planting mix). In your case the drainage needed in container planting is made possible by using potting soil. Although you can also consider a cactus/succulent specific soil too if you go that route.

I hope this helps get you started. And again, please do visit any of our locations to see some of these plants in person and get additional direction from our educated staff.
Do bulbs need to be refrigerated?
Q: Dear Guru,

I have dozens of bulbs for fall planting. I've learned I have to refrigerate the crocus, hyacinth and tulip bulbs, but I'm getting mixed messages on refrigerating daffodils in Northern California. Do daffodil bulbs need to be refrigerated in this area? Anything else I should or shouldn't refrigerate? (I know about not keeping fruits in the fridge with the bulbs.) Thanks!

- Susannah in Kentfield


Dear Susannah,

You do not need to refrigerate Daffodils or Narcissus. Some people keep Paperwhite Narcissus in the refrigerator to "stall" their sprouting so they can force the bulbs over a longer period of time. This is probably where you are getting the mixed message. While not necessary, some people like to chill their Freesias - it seems to make the stems sturdier.

Lawn Care – Native sedge lawns
Q: Dear Guru,

We would like to grow a lawn of native sedge grass that won't need much watering. What is the best type of sedge for the kind of lawn that kids can play on? How do we approach the planting process? Is it better to use seed or plugs? Obviously a sod would be a quick planting process, but I don't think that is an option. Or is it? Cheers,

- Jennie in San Francisco
A: Dear Jennie,

Native sedge lawns really are a great solution to the common lawn but you are right, they can't be planted by seed or sod. They are planted by plugs on 10"-12" centers on the diagonal. Sloat does not have a vendor that supplies native grass plugs but there are 2 local reforestation nurseries that sell to the public. They are Bay natives in San Francisco (www.baynatives.com) and Elkhorn nursery (www.elkhornnursery.com). John Greenlee , the grass guru, also sells plugs on on his website www.greenleenursery.com. They are not inexpensive (about $2.00 a piece). John Greenlee also has a new book out about how to plant a native meadow lawn.

The variety best suited for our area is California meadow sedge, Carex pansa. In general preparation for planting plugs is similar to that for seed or sod. Remove weeds and old lawn completely, add organic amendment such as Forest Mulch Plus (found at your local Sloat store) and roto-till, install irrigation (now is the time to do it right), apply a pre-plant fertilizer such as Sure Start, rake smooth. I hope this helps you in your quest. Good Luck!
Plant, Water, GrowPlant, Water, Grow