From Tomatoes to Butterfly Bushes to Carmel Creepers

In response to a reader’s inquiry about growing tomatoes in the Antelope Valley, I received the following response from Palmdale resident Don Sumnicht:
“I’ve been growing tomatoes in the Antelope Valley for about 12 years. I’ve had successes and failures and I’ve learned a few things from those experiences.
“The summers in the Antelope Valley can get pretty hot, so it’s important to give the plants plenty of water. In the beginning, I lost all my plants and later realized that I probably didn’t give them enough water. The next year, I gave them much more water and they did quite well. I use a drip system that delivers the water directly to each plant. I use 2-gallon- per-hour drippers, one dripper per plant, and in the heat of the summer I water three times per day for about an hour each time. So I am applying about 6 gallons per day per plant, and that seems to be very good.
“Something else to consider is the soil nutrients. The soil in which I’ve grown my tomatoes has been quite poor and sandy. So I add compost or store-bought organic soil amendment along with some powdered organic fertilizer. I also add some liquid organic fertilizer (Protogrow) to my water system so the plants get a little of that fertilizer each time they’re watered. This definitely improves tomato production.
“Lastly, it seems that the smaller tomatoes do better that the bigger varieties. My cherry tomatoes have been better producers than my larger heirloom Brandywines.”
Many gardeners would concur that cherry tomatoes grow far more easily than the larger tomato types.
Cherry tomatoes are seldom harmed by diseases or insect pests. The plants grow rapidly and provide fruit for many months. The only caveat is to provide a strong frame or trellis to direct and support their growth, otherwise, the fruit will trail along the ground and rot.
In our area, cherry tomato plants may produce into late fall and early winter. Cherry tomatoes also will grow well in containers placed on sunny patios, decks or balconies. Basil, incidentally, grows well when planted side by side with tomatoes.
Plum troubles
“I have a big problem with my plum trees. I have had them for at least 20 years and I always had the most wonderful plums I ever tasted. But now the trees are becoming old and they have dry rot and holes in the branches. I already had to take one out. Is there anything I can do to cure them?”
>Marco Cadena, North Hollywood
Twenty years of productivity from a plum tree is above average. Plum trees have weak immune systems and decline rapidly even before they reach the age of your trees.
The holes you see in the wood could be caused by either borers or termites. I would advise you to remove them and plant again.
Plum trees, by the way, are in the same botanical group as peach, apricot, almond, and cherry trees, none of which are famous for their longevity.
Butterfly beauties
A few years ago, at the end of my street, an enterprising gardener planted a butterfly bush to hide the metal buttressing of a utility pole that occupies a corner of his front yard. His idea was brilliant and today the butterfly bush, at a height of 15 feet, has completely covered the metal.
Everyone should grow a butterfly bush or summer lilac (Buddleia Davidii). Seeing it in bloom is an unparalleled horticultural experience.
Imagine thick inflorescences up to a foot long, each consisting of several hundred tiny trumpet flowers. Put your nose up close and the fragrance is that of lightly scented soap, similar to that found in the flowers of California lilac, another butterfly-attracting plant.
The growth habit of the butterfly bush is as uncanny as its flowers. It can grow more than 10 feet in a single season and should be cut back hard just prior to spring to make room for its phenomenal annual growth. Left unpruned, the butterfly bush will soon become top-heavy with floppy shoots and few flowers.
One notable quality of the butterfly bush is its resilience to cold. Grow it in the Antelope Valley or the Tehachapis. A bonus in cold climates is not having to worry about pruning the butterfly bush — nature will do this job for you. During a cold snap, the butterfly bush will die back nearly to its roots but regrow with great vigor when spring arrives.
Tip of the week
If you’re looking for an alternative to your water-guzzling front lawn, consider replacing it with California lilac (Ceanothus).
Michael Kappel, who lives in Westwood, recently decided to replace his front lawn with Ceanothus “Carmel Creeper,” a lush, spreading, evergreen ground cover that is covered with blue flowers in winter and spring. Kappel has done this to conserve water since the Ceanothus, once it has established itself, will not require irrigation.
To make sure his Ceanothus will have perfect drainage, the original soil was removed, to a 12-inch depth, and replaced with a mix consisting of 50 percent topsoil and 50 percent compost. Plants were spaced three feet apart.
Although “Carmel Creeper” may grow 2 or 3 feet tall, Kappel will snip off all vertical growth to encourage mat-like growth.

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