Southern California has a climate that just begs a gardener to pick up a spade and plant something. But even with a friendly and relatively stable environment, there are always new pests, new plants and new fertilizers to consider.
Where can a tiller of the backyard soil go to find the information needed to keep his or her gardening skills sharp?
Most gardeners -- serious or not -- know about the master gardener hotlines available in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Those programs were initiated in the early 1980s to take the load off county agriculture officials who found themselves inundated with phone calls from the public.
Pam Geisel founded the Fresno County master gardener program in 1981 and last year became statewide master gardener coordinator for the University of California. She says public demand for the program remains strong.
"A lot of people tend to go to (the master gardeners) for how to solve their gardening problems," Geisel says. "Many of the programs don't get so many phone calls any more but they do get e-mails."
Most such hotlines operate for a limited number of hours. So, what's a gardener to do for immediate answers outside of those prescribed times?
Master gardener Nan Simonsen says she uses her laptop and the Internet regularly to find answers to questions in her own garden.
Experts recommend a number of gardening books and other resources. But more and more, they say, the Internet is becoming the dominant resource. Some of the most popular Web sites are connected with UC Davis, where Geisel is based.
"We have a couple of great sites that are programmatically based," she says. "One is the Integrated Pest Management Web site. The other one is called the Backyard Orchard site."
Gardeners can find advice by clicking on a particular insect they're having a problem with. The Web site also offers the option of searching for information by an individual plant and listing the potential pests that might attack that plant.
The Davis site also has links to departments at other UC schools, including UC Riverside. Don Cooksey, a plant pathologist at UCR, says many of the school's botany, entomology and cooperative extension departments post their newsletters on the Web sites. Most of the research done at the campus, he says, relates to plants and pests in Southern California.
Cooksey says the campus' botanic gardens provide another resource for gardeners. J. Giles Waines, the director of the gardens, works on breeding ornamental plants that tolerate the Southern California heat. Some of these are available at the annual spring sale at the gardens.
Master gardener Nan Simonsen, of Riverside, says local gardens offer a great resource for those deciding what to plant in their own backyards.
"I recommend that people go through the UCR Botanic Gardens and look at plants at different times of the year so they can see the size of the plants," Simonsen says. "Often, people don't match the size of a plant to its locale. When I first created a garden and needed to know (about layout) I walked through the botanic gardens and the Metropolitan Water District garden out on Alessandro (Boulevard)."
There is also a series of classes offered one Saturday each month through the botanic gardens, she says. Each class is taught by a local gardener and is held at that instructor's garden.
She also recommends the annual Riverside Flower Show, April 14 and 15.
"The value of the flower show is that amateurs can bring in specimens in 10-12 different categories," she says. "People can come and look at beautiful specimens of these flowers."
There is also a garden tour.
"This year we have six gardens," she says, "and people learn a lot that way."
Simonsen says her laptop is never far away and she uses the Internet regularly to search out answers on her own questions.
So does Redlands master gardener Diane Shimota.
"I pretty much just Google whatever is my issue," Shimota says. "I end up often on one of the research sites."
She also has some primary reference books.
"The 'Sunset Western Garden Book' is really good for areas around here," she says. "Pat Welsh's 'Southern California Gardening' goes month by month and tells you want to do. I also like 'The Joy of Gardening,' by Dick Raymond."
Shimota thinks local clubs, such as the Redlands Horticulture and Improvement Society, can be a great gardening tool, as well as meetings of the county master gardeners groups.
And speaking of master gardeners, UC Davis' Geisel says even if you don't want to go through the formality of becoming a master gardener yourself, you can still tap into the knowledge base.
Gardeners, Geisel says, "could go to UCTV (Web site) and search master gardener. There's a whole bunch of programs by titles."
The entire lecture series is available to watch on your home computer. Tapes of the programs are even available.
"You wouldn't be a certified master gardener," she says. "But some people just want the information."
Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or mmuckenfuss@PE.com
Master gardener hotlines
Riverside County: 951-683-6491, 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Wednesday
San Bernardino County: 909-387-2182, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 1-3 p.m.