Since I was a kid, my extended family has gathered for a week every summer to camp at the beach in Carpinteria. Just below Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is on the north end of Southern California, at least the way I draw the lines. I think of Southern California as being everything below Point Conception (that’s the elbow one-third of the way up the state’s coastline).

I currently live near the south end of Southern California in San Diego County. But more to the point, I’m inland: twenty miles away from the ocean, and in the foothills at an elevation of about 1,500 feet in an area called Ramona.

In essence, the climates in Carpinteria and my place are about as different as you’ll find within the region of Southern California.

So I look forward to my summer week in Carp because I get a break from the heat, but also because I get to browse the neighborhoods and observe gardens, and over the past handful of years I’ve been paying a visit to the new Carpinteria Community Garden. I always learn things on my visits.

Powdery mildew

The community garden is located only a couple blocks from the water. When my vegetables in Ramona are getting full sun from 6 AM, the vegetables in Carp are still under the marine layer of fog, often until lunchtime, sometimes all day long. Summer fog makes powdery mildew happy. This year the PM is especially prevalent in the garden. It’s all over beans, kale, zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkins, and tomatoes.

Powdery mildew on tomato in Carp Community Garden.

While I was visiting last week I asked Wendy, the garden coordinator, what she advises for powdery mildew. She gave a dry laugh. “Nothing,” she said. “You can’t really beat it in this kind of location with the clouds and the high humidity. You’ve just got to live with it.”

Then we talked about all of the oft-repeated cures for powdery mildew: spraying leaves with milk solutions, spacing plants out for better airflow, removing infected leaves. They can all appear to help, but none eliminate the PM.

Some of the best-looking tomatoes in the garden, with infected lower leaves removed.

“I’ve been trying to identify a pattern as I walk around, trying to connect plants with the least infection to other things I see in the plots,” I said.

“I’m always looking for patterns too,” she said.

Community gardens are unique opportunities for this. You have dozens of discrete plots of similar vegetables grown by different people in different ways, all in the same location. It’s fertile ground for making comparisons.

Wendy said, “I have noticed some differences in varieties. And I’ve also noticed that people who rush to plant early, like tomatoes in January or February, tend to have it worse. By now their plants look like this.” She picked up a dead tomato vine in a nearby plot.

Some other tomatoes in the garden with lots of PM, also nearly dead.

Wendy also said that she works in multiple school gardens farther and farther inland so she gets to see the reduction of powdery mildew away from the ocean.

“I live far enough inland that I have almost zero powdery mildew,” I told her. “But I have other problems, like sunburn on tomatoes and peppers. I guess it’s a trade off.”

So you can fight powdery mildew but you can’t beat it if the weather conditions are conducive to it. (See this page from the University of California about dealing with PM.)

Pollinators everywhere

Then I switched to a positive topic. “I love how many bees and butterflies you have here in the garden,” I said.

“The coordinator before me, for this first four years of the garden, did a great job designing it and planting all the natives and flowers.”

Almost the entire perimeter of the garden is planted with natives and other flowering plants that feed bees and butterflies. The place feels lively with the various flying insects. I took many photos of them.

I see three honey bees on these basil flowers. Do you?

Plant their food and they will come. Before the community garden occupied this parcel of land there were next to no pollinators buzzing around. The community garden brought them. You can do the same in your yard.

(See my post, “Growing a bee garden.”)

Natives and fruit trees don’t mix

“But it does take a lot of work to maintain all of them,” said Wendy of the abundant natives and flowering plants. “And the fruit trees don’t like it.”

“I noticed that. Poor fruit trees.”

Fruit trees are mixed with the natives along the garden’s perimeter. The natives have grown fast and are now very big whereas many of the fruit trees are stunted.

A newly planted avocado tree in the garden two years ago, August 2020.
Same tree now, August 2022. Maybe it’s grown three inches? While the surrounding plants have exploded.

I said, “It looks like the natives are getting more water than they need and are growing really fast, and then they’re stealing even more water from the fruit trees.”

Wendy held up a watering can. “That’s what this is for. I go around giving the fruit trees extra water.”

I’ve seen this relationship in my own yard and in other yards. Native plants and fruit trees don’t mix well. Even though native plants don’t need irrigation, they will take it, voraciously. If you’ve got a native near a fruit tree, you have to give the fruit tree more water than it would need if the native weren’t there because the native will be taking some. This is especially true for wimpy trees like avocados.

Avocados and grapes

But where young avocado trees get a start to life without too much competition in Carpinteria, they grow nearly as well as weeds.

Typical loaded branch of a Hass tree in Carpinteria.
And many such trees in Carpinteria barely get watered while still pumping out avocados.

This has everything to do with climate. Avocados love moderate temperatures and high humidity. Carp has both.

On the flip side, grapes don’t grow so well in Carpinteria. There are a handful of grapevines growing over arbors at the community garden. They look just okay and make some fruit.

Bunch of grapes on a vine in the garden.

This has everything to do with climate. Grapes love heat and low humidity. Carp has neither.

I have both in my yard. Grapes grow too easily for me.

For snacks on our trip to Carp, my son and I filled this basket full of grapes from half of one of our vines.

I wish I loved grapes more and avocados less, considering where I live. I’m sure there is someone who lives in Carpinteria who wishes he loved avocados more and grapes less.

We should all just keep in mind that even within the relatively uniform climate of Southern California, there remains enough variability that certain plants grow like weeds in one corner while in others they need lots of help. This doesn’t even take into account other important factors such as soil differences. Temper your inclination to feel defeated or boast about the performances of plants in your yard; it might not be much of your fault or to your credit.

Summer lettuce

An extraordinary plot of the most beautiful lettuce in the garden reminded me again of this lesson.

Look at that lettuce! In August!

I challenge you to find such a plot in a community garden in one of the Southern California valleys. It’s the beach climate that allows such a perfect plot of lettuce in mid summer.

Yet, the planting calendar . . .

Nevertheless, all locations in Southern California between the ocean and the mountains should plant on nearly the same calendar. There isn’t that much variability.

For example, both at my inland place and at Carp, bulb onions should not be planted in spring or summer. They should be planted in fall or early winter everywhere in Southern California, otherwise they won’t make much of a bulb.

I saw two plots that illustrated this:

Onions planted too recently (spring or early summer). Plants declining yet still no bulb formation.
Another plot: onion planted long ago (probably in winter); plant now declining and with a huge bulb ready to be harvested.

I left Carpinteria on Monday and I’m back inland in the heat now. I have a better appreciation for my grapes and my pluots and my tomatoes that have no powdery mildew. But I’m also missing those relaxing, foggy mornings.

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