Mrs P’s: Q & A

How? When? Why? It’s time for your annual Question and Answer session with everyone’s favorite garden queen.

It’s that time of year again—late summer—when Mrs. P succumbs to the lyrics of a Kenny Chesney song, “Living in fast forward, need to rewind real slow.” There’s no getting around it, it’s hot and it’s easier to lounge in the shade and let the garden chores wait. This is when Mrs. P takes the time to answer Bakersfield gardeners’ questions.

Question: Can you recommend plants that won’t aggravate my allergies?

Answer: I hear all of you allergy sufferers loud and clear! Your garden should be a place of solace and relaxation, not a trigger to sneeze or worse. Broadly speaking, the flowers that are less likely to cause an attack are those that are sterile (hydrangeas, for instance) or those that are pollinated by insects. Wind-pollinated flowers (including all grasses) produce far more heavy/sticky pollen than insect-pollinated flowers. The low-allergen plants I’d recommend growing are: bergenia, azaleas, hibiscus, hydrangeas, nandina, passionflowers, plums, rose, smoke bush, viburnums, and sedums. Try to avoid grasses, including ornamental ones, lilies, chrysanthemums, and plants with daisy-like flowers. While pollen gets the bad rap, did you know dust is equally to blame for adverse allergic reactions? Because of our low rainfall, trees and shrubs act as dust bunny traps. Then the wind blows. Then the allergies kick up. This is another reason (the first is purely cosmetic) why Mrs. P hoses everything down in her garden weekly.

Question: Have you heard of the “no-dig” method of gardening? Can it be true?

Answer: Called “absurdly easy,” followers swear it has saved their achy-breaky backs. A fellow I know was able to create a 300-square foot vegetable garden on top of an old cement (yes, cement!) driveway in only two hours. First, you’ll need to gather your materials which are: newspaper, alfalfa, straw, compost, blood meal, and bone meal. Lay 10 to 20 sheets of newspaper on the ground—soil, grass, or even concrete. This prevents weeds from growing up and attracts worms. Wet thoroughly with water and dust with blood meal and bone meal. Add a pad of alfalfa and dust again with blood and bone meal. Bales of alfalfa and straw come apart in two to three-inch thick pads. Next come eight inches of straw, again dusted with blood and bone meal. Don’t skimp on the alfalfa and straw because it will greatly compress in the first few weeks. Wet all this down. Finally, top off with four inches of compost, which will also compress. Now it’s ready to plant our seeds or seedlings. My friend used five bales of alfalfa and seven bales of straw for roughly $200. After this initial set up, he used much less material after each crop, about three bales a season for maybe $60. This would be a nice project to start in late fall for a winter veggie garden. Alfalfa and straw can be found at grain and hay suppliers. Look under “Feed Dealers” in the yellow pages. Some will even deliver…which would be helpful.

There are two books on this “no-dig” method of gardening which you might find interesting: Esther Deans’ No Dig Gardening and Leaves of Life, by Esther Deans and How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening by Ruth Stout.

Question: I try to grow something new or different each year, preferably something good to eat. What do you suggest?

Answer: You are a gardener after my own heart! I, too, experiment with unusual, out-of-the-ordinary plants. Have you ever tasted guava jelly? It’s nectar of the gods, in my opinion. Guavas can be grown in Bakersfield. They’re native to South America, yet the hardiest of the subtropical and can take temps down to 15 degrees. With silvery green leaves and unusual red and white flowers, which remind me of fuchsia flowers on steroids, guavas are an evergreen shrub. They can be shaped as an espalier, screen, hedge, or lollypop. My first perfumed memory of guavas was as a child in Honolulu. My family spent Christmases at the Halekalani Hotel on Waikiki Beach and breakfast was served outdoors, beach-side. Now breakfast was not my favorite meal; it was something to speed through, get over with and onto the day. It’s different in Hawaii. You’re basically in paradise and your sense of smell and taste are heightened with everything seemingly in MGM color. What I remember is spooning some pinkish coral-colored jelly onto my toast. This was new; this was different. This was guava jelly! My mother said I wouldn’t like it because it was an “acquired taste.” Was she nuts? I loved it! To this day, if ever I spread guava jelly on toast I am transported back to the Islands. But I digress. There are different varieties of guava, the common and strawberry varieties are mostly found in Hawaii. The feijoa or pineapple guava is what I recommend to grow in Bakersfield. The flowers are lovely and attract bees and birds. Actually, the flowers are edible and can be tossed onto fruit salads, but I’d wait for the small, oval, grayish green fruit to develop (about five months after flowering). If you make jelly from pineapple guavas, you’ll need to cheat a little and add a few drops of red food coloring to achieve the pink-coral color of the strawberry guava. The taste will be the same, no worries.

Question: I’ve fallen in love with the Madrona trees I saw on a trip to Northern California and really like their look; colorful bark, flowers, and fruit on an evergreen tree. Can they be grown in Bakersfield?

Answer: No, next question. OK, I’m joking. But seriously, Madrona trees only grow in what’s known as Madrone Country. This area starts in British Columbia continues down the Coast Ranges and to the mid-elevations of the Sierras. Madronas prefer non-alkaline soil that is very fast draining. We tend toward the opposite in Bakersfield, but all is not lost. There is a super substitute for Madronas and it’s called Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). A wonderful broad-leaved evergreen that looks almost exactly like a Madrona, Strawberry trees can take sun or partial shade and are drought tolerant. They have the rich, red-brown shredding bark of the Madrona and decorative fruit that resembles clusters of round strawberries. All in all, the Strawberry tree is a good choice.

And now it’s time for Mrs. P to set the dial on her hose to jet spray and let those dusty shrubs have it! See you when it cools off!

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