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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - February 15, 2013

Garden Tips

Learn through trial, error and continuing education

by Jack McKinnon

There's a rat in my garden at night and it is devastating some of my favorite plants. It completely defoliated three of my dwarf potted citrus. I do practice what I preach somewhat. I identified the rat (a "dusky-footed wood rat" Neotoma fuscipes) and made a trap to catch it without hurting it. I used peanut butter as bait. It worked perfectly. And after catching the little girl (about 6 inches long) I gave her some peanuts for the trip down the road for relocation. I took her about 2 miles and let her go in the woods.

The one that is defoliating my rare camellia now may actually be that same rat but I don't know.

In doing this whole process I learned a lot about this species of rat. It actually lines its nests with bay leaves, which have a chemical toxic to flea larvae. Pretty smart, huh? Now I have to get the trap out again and repeat the whole process all over again. This time I will take it 10 miles and put a red dot of fingernail polish on its tail (to identify it if it comes back again).

The example I am trying to show here is about learning gardening through trial, error and continuing education. I have certainly made my share of errors. This month I will list 10 ways we all can learn from our time in the garden. Here are the tips:

1. Try to identify what is causing a particular plant to decline. Don't give up until you have a pretty good idea. Look for symptoms like too much water or too little water, check for spots that could indicate fungus or yellowing that could mean a need for fertilizer.

2. Make sure of the identification of the plant (Latin name) and look it up online. See if the symptoms you have identified are listed in the characteristics of that plant, and if there are recommendations for correcting it.

3. Note what you find in your journal (for women) or log (for men). Then go on to the next problem you can identify. In this way you will learn your plants, their vulnerabilities and the solutions for those vulnerabilities. Don't just dig out a plant and throw it on the compost without learning something from it.

4. Catch a pest that is affecting the health of your garden. Before doing anything with it get a positive identification. If it is Billy Jones from next door give him back to his parents. If it is an insect or caterpillar, put it in a jar with some of what it was eating.

5. Get a big magnifying glass or some of those watchmaker loupe-type lenses you put on your head, and look at it long and closely. See if you can tell its gender. This may be difficult; some insects cannot tell themselves. And then look it up, learning its life cycle.

6. Learn what natural predators you have in your neighborhood and what they eat. This can be much more complex than it seems at first glance. Some insect predators eat only one target pest. Others are omnivores.

7. Learn what vertebrates and birds in your neighborhood eat. Identify them first and look up their diet. Except for mice, rats, raccoons and jays they usually stick to a limited diet. Of course a dog will eat just about anything.

8. Identify the pollinators. Again this is deceptively complex. There are wasps that are almost microscopic that do a huge amount of pollination as well as pest control. See how many species you can document.

9. How many species of plants do you have in your garden? How many are a complement to others? Look up pairings of plants as attractants for pollination, distractions for pests and complements in color, texture and fragrance for esthetics.

10. If this doesn't give you enough to do this spring, you can start identifying your weeds again using the Latin name. This can keep you busy through the summer.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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