H Is for Horticulture

Jan Scheinle’s name may be familiar to those who remember the grueling, years-long battle to close the leaky toxic waste facility in Casmalia. Scheinle, then a PhD student at UCSB, was instrumental in closing the dump. Since then, she has taken an extended vacation from political activism and has fiercely devoted herself to teaching and studying horticulture, and acting as a docent at Lotus Land, where Independent gardening columnist Virginia Hayes is curator. When I reached Scheinle in her lab, she was celebrating the news that her hometown hero, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, is returning to the Packers for a 17th season. That put her in such a fabulous mood that she agreed answer a few questions about growing your own. Visit the Lifescape this year on Earth Day if you have more questions for Scheinle, her colleagues, and students in SBCC’s Environmental Horticulture Department.

I commonly see citrus, figs, avocados, and grapes in Santa Barbara’s back yards. What other edible fruits easily grow here?

Not to be too broad on this question, but almost anything grows well in this Mediterranean environment that we enjoy here in SB. So in addition to the fruit trees you already mentioned, pome fruits such as selected varieties of apple and pear do well, stone fruits such as peach and nectarine, nut trees such as macadamia, and tropical plants such as cherimoya, mango and banana to list a few.

Lots of shrubs and vines are great here, such as kiwi, and a wide variety of berries, such as the cane berries, for example blackberries and Olalla berries. Strawberries do well, and even blueberries if the pH of the soil is lowered to accommodate them. Some folks have pushed the margin a bit to grow cranberries here.

I’m not sure if you want to talk about annuals here, but there are the winter veggies, such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and peas and beans.

Summer crops include tomatoes, peppers, squashes, melons, onions.

And then there is the year-round herb garden.

Do all of these need significant soil amendments here in Santa Barbara?

Only the blueberries in a major way. The rest are fine if it’s not too heavy a clay soil. All of them need good drainage.

You’re kidding! By “in a major way” do you mean that for the others I don’t have to dig a huge pit and fill it with potting soil or mixed soil?

That is correct. In fact, typically you don’t want to make the potting hole a too enriched or different environment from the rest of the garden, because as the roots grow they may have a tendency to stay in the rich special soil environment and not into the surrounding area. Also the hole should not be much larger than the root ball of the plant itself. The outer part of the hole should be loosened up a bit to make it easier for roots to grow into. Of course throwing in a few handfuls of organic compost helps most plants except things like lavenders and sages that don’t like the organic soils.

How do you know if your soil is too clay-ey for this?

The soil can be checked in a field test where one would moisten the soil and roll it between two hands to form a tube. If the soil holds together tightly, forms a tube more than several inches that holds together, and feels somewhat slick also, it is high in clay, essentially a clay loam. If it holds together in a tube for several inches and breaks apart it is more likely a silty loam, which is the best condition. If it won’t pack into a tube and hold together it is a sandy loam and will drain too fast for most plants. “Ideal soil” is 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay with some organic material mixed in.

Are backyard gardens important as habitat? As I see infill going on throughout the city—and as important as that is in terms of landuse planning—I mourn about the loss of wildlife habitat that back yards represent. Worms, insects, birds.

Absolutely. It is very easy to integrate gardens that provide food for mankind while at the same time providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for the wildlife. It is also important to attract a wide variety of pollinators to assure successful plant reproduction and food production. In a small area you might use a roof, a ledge, a raised bed; if you have a very small space you can grow vines on trellises and arches. Citrus, bananas, and a variety of cocktail plants [grafts] and dwarf varieties can be grown in pots.

Here’s a sort of stinky question. Sewage sludge is composted and used as fertilizer in California. So, if you pee on your plants, is it good for them or not? And if you are a super heavy duty recycling freak, can you compost pet and human waste?

First, urinating on plants is not good in general. Many trees survive dogs lifting their legs on plants here and there if a fire hydrant is not available! But as a general rule, no, as urine is too concentrated.

Second, solid waste from animals or humans needs to go through the entire decomposition cycle, which will destroy pathogenic microbes that may be present and recycle nutrients into the forms needed by plants. It is in the finished compost product that it has been thoroughly recycled. Used in the “fresh” state, it is too concentrated, too high in nitrogen, and the potential for pathogens is a risk factor.

If you wanted to do that, what percentage of, say, dog poop would you recommend? Well, not that you would recommend it, but what would work?

Almost all green and brown [dried plant] waste with a minimal basis of animal manure. It will break all the way down, but it is definitely not a huge component. In a three by three by three foot compost pile, you might have no more than the equivalent of three or four pounds of animal manure.

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