Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Updated guide elaborates on drought, fire factors

Master Gardeners such as Chuck Ingels, shown years ago trimming a tree, are likely to lean on the revised handbook.
Master Gardeners such as Chuck Ingels, shown years ago trimming a tree, are likely to lean on the revised handbook. Sacramento Bee file

Like the green world around us, gardening advice evolves.

We’ve found more earth-friendly ways of growing things. We favor different plants, especially ones that fit our climate. Our long love affair with turf is just about history. We use less (if any) pesticides and definitely less water.

We need a gardening guide that has evolved along with us California gardeners. And we’d like it to be digital, too.

Those are just a few of the challenges Dennis Pittenger faced when he started to update the beloved “California Master Gardener Handbook,” the backyard bible for the state’s legion of certified Master Gardeners.

“It’s kind of like giving birth, not that I’ve ever done it,” Pittenger said with a laugh. “I’m excited, but glad it’s over.”

At 756 pages, the second edition of the handbook weighs almost as much as a newborn. That’s one reason it also comes in e-book form; it’s much handier in the field – or anywhere outdoors.

“That was a major request,” Pittenger said of the digital version. “The graphics are much better. I certainly see potential demand for this e-book; it’s easier than carrying a huge book around.”

Judy McClure, Master Gardener coordinator for Sacramento and Yolo counties, highly recommends the new handbook.

“(It’s) an amazing comprehensive resource for both home gardeners and professional landscapers,” she said. “During the years since (the first) edition was published, Master Gardeners shared with the editors their areas of concern and confusion, resulting in many of the updated tables and text. From novice to professional gardeners, this book is a wonderful addition to the home library.”

Pittenger is very familiar with what Master Gardeners want; it’s his job. When he joined the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1981, there were only a couple of Master Gardener programs in the state. Sacramento and Riverside counties started pilot programs in 1979.

“One of my major responsibilities was to create teaching and training materials for the gardeners,” said Pittenger, who is based in Riverside. “They needed a training guide; one didn’t exist at that time.”

A nationally recognized expert on water management, Pittenger also leads the UC Cooperative Extension’s Web-based Center for Landscape and Urban Horticulture.

Now, about 6,000 volunteers are certified UC Master Gardeners in county programs throughout the state. They’re dedicated to helping the public and answering questions, a big part of their service. Since their debut in 1979, California master gardeners have contributed nearly 4.5 million volunteer hours.

That pioneering Sacramento County chapter is still growing. It currently boasts 176 master gardeners with another 36 expected to graduate in May.

“Why do people become master gardeners? No. 1, people want to know more,” said Pittenger, himself a master gardener for almost 30 years. “They want that information. No. 2, they want to help other people. They also like the camaraderie of other gardeners.”

Pittenger makes sure they have the best informational tools at their fingertips. He edited and co-authored the original handbook, released in 2002. For the second edition, he spearheaded a committee of 26 authors, co-writing several chapters as well as editing the final product. It’s not just for master gardeners, but any California gardener.

He sees the handbook as a companion to that other reference mainstay: The Sunset Western Garden Book.

“Our book doesn’t directly compete with the Sunset book; we’re not plant centric,” he explained. “We’re not a plant encyclopedia like the Garden Book. We’re more how-to and management. The two books work well together.”

Among the strengths of the master gardener handbook is its detailed approach to the state’s biggest gardening challenge: water.

“We’ve always had a drought focus,” Pittenger said. “Water management is covered in great detail. It’s timely and timeless as well.”

New in the second edition: firescaping. That’s fire-wise landscaping, a top concern for foothill and mountain gardeners.

“We added a few other things such as a chapter on palm trees and palm management,” he noted. “We have a lot more on blueberries; that reflects interest in edible landscaping. We’ve added invasive species. We updated all the pest information; we updated just about everything.”

A lot has happened since the original handbook debuted 13 years ago, but Pittenger expects the advice and observations in the new edition will stay current for quite a while.

“In the future, our expectations (from landscapes and gardening) are what will change,” Pittenger said. “What do we want from our landscape?”

Even when this epic drought ends, concerns over water won’t go away, he added.

“Thirty years ago, gardeners wanted to know, ‘How do you manicure a lawn?’ We know how to do that really well. But now, we just have a different perspective.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at

California Master Gardener Handbook

The second edition is available directly from the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources in print ($37), e-book ($30) or bundled as both print and e-book ($50) .

Meet the editor: Dennis Pittenger will give free public presentations in Northern California, focusing on the drought:

▪ 1 p.m. April 12 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera

▪ 7 p.m. April 30 at The Seed Bank (Baker Creek Seeds), 199 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma