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UC master gardeners’ Harvest Day shows garden realities

Video: Preview this year's Harvest Day at Fair Oaks Horticultural Center

University of California master gardeners invite the public to explore their Fair Oaks Horticulture Center gardens during Harvest Day on Aug. 1. Successes and failures will be on display for gardeners to learn from. Video by Debbie Arrington, Sacr
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University of California master gardeners invite the public to explore their Fair Oaks Horticulture Center gardens during Harvest Day on Aug. 1. Successes and failures will be on display for gardeners to learn from. Video by Debbie Arrington, Sacr

Harvest Day means many things to many gardeners, particularly those who have worked long hours to prepare for this annual event. To its organizers, it’s a community celebration wrapped around a reality check.

During demonstrations, tastings and hands-on presentations Aug. 1 at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, one theme remains constant: We’re in a drought, but that won’t stop us from gardening.

Less water can still yield beautiful, bountiful results as witnessed by the center’s water-wise landscapes and prolific orchard. The vegetable garden overflows with tomatoes, squash and peppers. Grape arbors hang heavy with fruit – except where wild turkeys can reach.

“They can jump over the fence, but can’t seem to get back out,” said Gail Pothour, one of the longtime Sacramento County master gardeners who coordinates the center’s volunteer efforts. “We’ll find them in the garden in the morning. They must be stuffed from eating too many grapes.”

Low-hanging clusters have been wrapped in bird netting to help stifle hungry visitors, she noted. “Interestingly, they only seem to like the black grapes; they leave the green ones alone.”

“Just as long as they don’t eat the Diamond Muscats!” added Barbara Poff, another master gardener. “They can come back after Harvest Day.”

Diamond Muscats, unusual seedless green grapes, are one of the draws at Harvest Day. The master gardeners annually propagate new vines for sale from this vineyard rarity as well as several other hard-to-find varieties. Visitors get a chance to taste the grapes as well as take home vines to grow themselves.

“Diamond Muscat is my favorite,” Poff said. “It has such an unusual flavor, totally different from other grapes. It tastes like muscat wine.”

“People absolutely love it,” Pothour added, “and they can’t get it anywhere else.”

Pleasing, inspiring and informing Sacramento area gardeners have always been cornerstones of Harvest Day. Begun informally in the 1980s as an outreach of Sacramento County’s University of California Cooperative Extension program, the community’s premier garden event started its current format at Fair Oaks Park in 1998.

“Thirty people attended that year,” recalled Poff. “In 2013, we hosted more than 3,000.”

We don’t mind if people see our bumps and bruises. This is a real-world garden.

Gail Pothour, Sacramento County master gardener, at Fair Oaks Horticulture Center

As summer temperatures spiked, the crowd size slipped back to about 2,000 last year, Pothour noted. “It was 105 degrees, and we could be that hot again this year. We sure hope not, but we’ll be ready. We do have shade.”

Dealing with whatever Mother Nature throws at them is part of the challenge for these hardy and experienced gardeners. That’s how they become “master gardeners” – lots of study and plenty of practice.

“We don’t mind if people see our bumps and bruises,” said Pothour, who oversees the center’s many vegetable beds. “This is a real-world garden.”

Added Poff, “If everything looks perfect, it makes people crazy. Instead, (visitors) can see how we did things and think, ‘I could do that!’”

Poff is co-chairing this year’s Harvest Day along with Julie Oliver. With their many helpers, they created a program that addresses many local concerns as well as shows off new techniques and unusual varieties of vegetables and fruit.

Drought has every Sacramento-area gardener worried, Poff said. At Harvest Day, patrons can tour the center’s water-efficient landscape, which is now in full bloom. Black-eyed Susans and asters greet visitors along with cascades of coral yucca and dark purple ruellia.

“That ruellia is just gorgeous,” Pothour said. “The color is amazing and it does surprisingly well without water. This garden makes you realize that we tend to overwater at home. This garden only gets water once a week or less.”

Radio host and lifetime master gardener Farmer Fred Hoffman will be Harvest Day’s keynote speaker. He’ll tackle two drought-related subjects: vegetables that thrive with less water, and ornamental plants that love dry shade.

Bagrada bugs have shown up at the Horticulture Center garden.

Ongoing demonstrations will show how to grow more food in less space, an always popular subject for urban gardeners. Espaliered trees – pruned and trained to grow along walls or trellises – show how to produce pears, peaches, cherries, pomegranates, apples and other fruit in a fraction of the space needed by conventional orchards. Berries and grapes also are trained to grow vertically in compact spaces.

Straw-bale garden beds, another space-saver, produce mini Honey Nut butternut squash and red-striped Kajari heirloom melons, grown vertically on trellises.

“We’ve found that the straw really helps during drought, too,” Pothour said. “It holds in the moisture. The key is to keep the bale compact. We’ve tried just about everything to keep those bales together.”

Discovering new vegetables (as well as methods) and varieties are part of the fun at Harvest Day. Throughout the event, patrons line up to sample new fruit varieties from Dave Wilson Nursery (the pluot people) and rare melons such as the Kajari from the garden.

New this year is a demonstration herb garden in raised beds, built by local Eagle Scouts. The vegetable garden includes beds themed by cuisine – Italian, Asian, French and Mexican. Several beds also feature low-water vegetables such as cowpeas and Asian long beans.

“Cowpeas and long beans are actually the same species and very drought-tolerant,” Pothour said. “They have the same beautiful purple flowers. That’s one of those fascinating facts you learn at Harvest Day.”

Like many local gardeners, the master gardeners have been battling bad bugs. Brown marmorated stink bugs attacked the center’s Asian pears and one large peach tree. Bagrada bugs – tiny spotted black critters not much bigger than a pin head – have shown up, too.

“This is a serious year for many true bugs, including some that we don’t usually see so much,” said Chuck Ingels, the Cooperative Extension’s farm adviser and a regular presence at the horticulture center.

To fight these invasions, Ingels and the master gardeners experiment with traps and natural deterrents as part of the center’s integrated pest management program. The research is then shared with the public.

Espaliered trees, Ingels noted, “can be easily protected by netting to keep bugs out.”

Pothour showed off an inventive and effective trap for Bagrada bugs nestled in a bed of sweet alyssum, one of their favorite flowers. Made of black-painted cardboard, the trap sits above a pail of soapy water.

“The bugs are attracted to the flowers and the black surfaces,” she explained. “They hit the black cardboard and slide into the water.”

Sunflowers, which grow prolifically in this garden, act as bug traps, too. “The stink bugs seem attracted to the tallest sunflowers,” Ingels said. “They totally ignore the dwarf sunflowers.”

Appropriately, sunflowers have symbolized Harvest Day from its beginnings more than 30 years ago. Gardening’s version of a familiar happy face, ever-smiling sunflowers decorate event T-shirts and posters.

Even with ongoing challenges such as drought and bugs, there will be plenty to smile about at this year’s Harvest Day.

“It’s such a beautiful place here,” Poff said. “It’s my favorite Eden, and we like to share.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Harvest Day

UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County hold the annual gardening event.

Highlights: Lifetime master gardener and radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman will present two drought-related topics, “Vegetables With Less Water and Beautiful Plants for Dry Shade,” at 8:30 a.m. Chef Aimal Formoli (Formoli’s Kitchen) will demonstrate “Bringing the Garden Into the Kitchen” at 10:30 a.m. Sacramento Bee garden columnist Debbie Arrington will be at The Bee’s booth from 8 to 10 a.m.

Where: Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, Fair Oaks Park, 11549 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks

When: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 1

Cost: Free; for vendor items, cash or check only

Information: ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/Harvest_Day