So You Want to Be a Gardener . . .

Sunset Western Garden Book

Sunset Western Garden Book

Q: Can you direct me to sources for learning about what to plant and when to plant it? Also, what type of fertilizer should be applied and when? Walking into a nursery and seeing the plethora of products, each with its own data and recommendations, is an exercise in frustration. We probably buy products and quantities we don’t need and use them inefficiently. Can you help?
– Oded Degani
A: Now is a good time to be asking basic questions about gardening, as it would be best to put off major gardening decisions for another two months at least. In the meantime, you can be preparing soil for planting and contemplating what you would like to plant when the weather warms.
Your best planting guides are your neighbors. Ask those living around you about their horticultural successes and failures – your soil and climate are probably the same as theirs. I say “probably,” because soil conditions can change from one yard to the next, especially if your property grade is higher or lower than your neighbors’; the lower your grade in relation to surrounding properties, the wetter and more compacted your soil will be.
Also, microclimate can change from one house to the next, affecting plant selection. If you have a big tree in the parkway strip next to the street, and your neighbor has a small tree, your front yard exposure will be shadier and you will have to select your plants accordingly.
All things being equal, make a note of the plants that please you most among those you see in your neighbors’ gardens. If you do not know these plants’ names, your neighbors probably will not object if you detach leaf or flower samples and take them to a local nursery for identification.
It is highly advisable to establish a relationship with a nearby nursery or garden center with a knowledgeable staff. The discount home centers, although their prices may be low, often lack personnel with the expertise that is typically found in regular nurseries.
Calabasas is famous for intractable clay soil, and unless you have moved onto a property previously inhabited by a serious gardener, you should embark on a soil-softening program at once. In your words, there is “a plethora of products” available to improve and fertilize your garden, so which do you choose?
Kellogg’s Amend is a packaged compost you might consider for soil improvement since it contains rice hulls. Rice hulls persist for many years in the soil, providing long-term soil aeration and relief from compaction. With all the fallen leaves currently available, you should also consider making your own compost. To quickly compost a pile of leaves, sprinkle blood meal or chicken manure throughout the pile or mix in bags of steer manure.
Gro-Power and Grow More are two local fertilizer manufacturers with excellent reputations. All Gro-Power products contain humic acid, which means that they encourage the growth of beneficial soil organisms along with their fertilizing action. The labels on the bags will tell you at what rate these products should be applied.
I suggest you pick up a copy of the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” since it is the best horticultural guidebook available. In the opening pages, you will find the climate zone of your area (Calabasas is Zone 18) and then, when you look in the plant encyclopedia, you will see which plants, based on the zones listed for them, are suitable to your climate.
TIP OF THE WEEK: As a general rule, February is an excellent month to fertilize trees and shrubs, since that is when most of the rain falls in our area. One other fertilization in the fall will benefit the root systems of these large woody plants. Lawns are fertilized every six to eight weeks. Before annual flowers and vegetables are planted, if the right amount and type of fertilizer is dug into the soil, little if any supplemental fertilization will be needed. Tropical fruit trees require fertilization every two to three months. Flowering herbaceous and woody perennials, ground covers and most flowering vines will benefit from two to three fertilizations per year. One final word: Except for lawns, do not fertilize in late fall and winter since forced new growth would be killed in a frost.

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