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Posts Tagged: Master Gardeners

Drought-tolerant plants can save water, but beware of those that are toxic

UC Master Gardener Francie Murphy in her succulent garden.

UC Master Gardener Francie Murphy was pruning the succulents in her San Diego front yard when an unfortunate accident catalyzed her commitment to communicating the dangers of toxic plants. She trimmed a stem on her drought-tolerant pencil milk bush and milky sap spurted into one eye, causing stinging pain.

“I tried to wipe it out, and in doing so got in both eyes. I was blinded. The pain was unbelievable,” she said.

A nearby friend rushed her to the emergency room where the doctor diagnosed chemical burns to her corneas and washed her eyes with two liters of saline water each. Murphy removed the plant from her garden, but saw it growing throughout her community.

“I knew we had to do something,” she said.

Drought-tolerant plants like cacti, yucca, agaves and aloes have adaptations to protect themselves from wildlife in search of the moisture within their leaves and stems. They have spikes or spines to ward off people and animals. Other plants don't have outward signs of danger. Fire sticks, also known as sticks on fire and pencil cactus and by its scientific name Euphorbia tirucalli, is a very popular succulent in frost-free areas. Its vertical growth habit and showy soft green to reddish-gold stems make it a striking landscape specimen. A native of southern Africa, the smooth, coral-like stems look deceptively harmless. The sap is toxic.

“Fire sticks should be planted far from walkways, in the back of the landscape, where you can see them, but not touch them,” said UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor Chris McDonald. “When trimming the plant, wear long pants, long sleeves and eye protection. If the plant is tall, consider protecting your face.”

After Murphy shared her story about these plants with other Master Gardeners, UCCE San Diego gathered a team and worked with colleagues to secure funding from the County of San Diego to develop a website and handouts to inform the community about readily available yet toxic drought-tolerant plants being planted into California landscapes.

The handout can be downloaded from the Plant Safely website ( The materials were quickly distributed to nurseries, garden events and Master Gardener help booths, such as at farmers markets, home shows and fairs, and other educational events. A key feature of the website is a database of nearly 100 plants (which can be found here) with photos and descriptions that explain how they are unsafe and how they can be used safely in the landscape. (

 Some common yet toxic landscape plants included in the database are:

  • Fire sticks (Euphorbia tirucalli) – Sap in any form, including dried sap, is irritating and can be toxic if it gets on skin or in eyes.
  • Oleander (Nerium oleander) – The entire plant is toxic if ingested. The wood can be severely irritating if burned in a fire or BBQ.
  • California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) – The entire plant is toxic if ingested
  • Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) – The entire plant of many species is toxic if ingested. Milkweeds, like the California native narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), are the only food source for monarch butterflies and can help restore monarch populations.
  • Sago Palm (Cycas regoluta) – All parts of the plant are toxic to humans and pets, and the tips of leaves are surprisingly sharp.
  • Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia spp.) – Plants, seedpods, seeds and leaves contain toxins, which can cause gastrointestinal irrigation, nausea and vomiting

“These potentially harmful plants are grown widely in many parts of California,” McDonald said. “It's important to promote drought-tolerant landscapes, and we must also do it in a way that preserves public health.”

View the UC Master Gardener video about safely planting fire sticks (Euphorbia tirucoli):


Posted on Monday, February 8, 2021 at 9:15 AM
Focus Area Tags: Yard & Garden

UC Master Gardener helps make San Diego gardens friendly and inclusive

Stephen Cantu, a UC Master Gardener in San Diego County UC Cooperative Extension, is well aware of ways to improve accessibility and inclusiveness in gardening for people with mobility issues, reported Lisa Deaderick in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Cantu, who has used a wheelchair for 37 years due to a job site accident, identifies obstacles and solutions that help people of all abilities benefit from the joys of tending a home garden. He is active in the UCCE Master Gardener Association program that assists community members in designing garden spaces for maximum accessibility called Friendly Inclusive Gardening (FIG). 

UC Master Gardener Steven Cantu, center, teaches San Diego County residents about Friendly Inclusive Gardening (FIG). (Photo: San Diego UCCE)

FIG teaches people how to implement the principles of universal design to make home, school and community gardens safer and more accessible to people with physical disabilities, seniors with mobility issues and young children. A workshop scheduled for March 21 had to be postponed in order to comply with efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, so Deaderick published a Q&A with Cantu to share how people can start a small garden at home while waiting out the coronavirus.

He said FIG is not just for wheelchair users. "In other words, a garden designed for the whole family to use, from young children to grandma and grandpa," Cantu said.

He recommends new gardeners start simple and build on success.

"Start out with a small kitchen garden of mostly herbs, something that is in small containers that you can grow next to your kitchen. . .  Don't buy anything until you have an understanding of your needs. For a small garden, all you really need are your hands, a pair of gloves, some soil, and a few herbs," Cantu said.

Read the whole interview on the San Diego Union-Tribune website and find much more gardening information for many California locations on the UC Master Gardener website.



Posted on Monday, March 23, 2020 at 10:46 AM
Focus Area Tags: Yard & Garden

Gardening provides stress relief in trying times

With many schools are closed due to the coronavirus crisis, families are educating and entertaining children at home. Susan Schena of The Patch provided nine enriching activities for housebound kids; for the third one she turned to UC Master Gardner Louisa R. Cardenas from the Los Angeles County University of California Cooperative Extension for advice.

"There are numerous free sites with kids' gardening and environmental activities," said Cardenas, who chairs the Los Angeles County Master Gardener Program School Garden Network. "While most resources focus on school-yard gardening, many activities may easily be applicable to home gardens or apartment living."

According to a Los Angeles Times article, gardening does more than keep the kids busy and enriched. It can relieve stress associated with trying times. The article cited research in the Netherlands in which a test group performed a stressful activity for 30 minutes, and then were randomly assigned them to garden outside or read a book indoors. The study found that both activities reduced the cortisol levels that trigger stress, but the people who gardened saw much lower cortisol levels and their positive mood restored, as opposed to the readers, whose moods got worse.

For gardening advice, Times reporter Jeanette Marantos spoke to Yvonne Savio, the now-retired long-time UC Master Gardener coordinator for UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County. Savio writes the blog

You can plant your tomatoes in late March, Savio said, but wait until April to plant summer crops like eggplant, peppers and cucumber. 

Soil prep is a gardening activity that can be accomplished before it is warm enough to add seeds and transplants.

If the soil hasn't warmed up to at least 60 degrees, warm-season seedlings “just sit and pout at you,” Savio said. Worse, she said, the cool temperatures can stunt their future growth, destroying your efforts to get an early harvest.

There are plenty of garden tasks that can be accomplished while waiting for warmer soil. The Times article suggests:

  • Feed your soil with good organic amendments such as compost and steer manure or organic potting soil for pots.

  • Water it well and wait a week or two before planting, because the organisms create a lot heat as they break down, and can burn your tender seedlings. You'll know the soil is safe for planting when the temperature feels comfortable to your bare hand, said Savio.
  • Try Savio's technique of burying 5-gallon nursery buckets among your plants (the kind with holes already in the bottom). Make sure the rim of the buckets are about 4 inches above ground, so you have room for mulch, and then fill those buckets with water once or twice a week to force moisture — and roots — deeper into the ground. 

For more at-home gardening information, find your local UC Master Gardener program website here:

Yvonne Savio now volunteers as a UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener.
Yvonne Savio now volunteers as a UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener.

Posted on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 at 11:20 AM
Focus Area Tags: Family, Yard & Garden

Art Shapiro: 'The Controversy Over the Western Monarch Butterfly'

A male monarch nectars on a butterfly bush in Vacaville, Calif. on Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Back in February, butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, told a monarch butterfly summit on the UC...

A male monarch nectars on a butterfly bush in Vacaville, Calif. on Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A male monarch nectars on a butterfly bush in Vacaville, Calif. on Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male monarch nectars on a butterfly bush in Vacaville, Calif. on Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Showing his colors, the male monarch adjusts his position on a butterfly bush on Oct. 12 in Vacaville, Calif. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Showing his colors, the male monarch adjusts his position on a butterfly bush on Oct. 12 in Vacaville, Calif. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Showing his colors, the male monarch adjusts his position on a butterfly bush on Oct. 12 in Vacaville, Calif. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The male monarch takes flight. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The male monarch takes flight. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The male monarch takes flight. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Friday, October 18, 2019 at 4:02 PM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Economic Development, Environment, Innovation, Natural Resources, Yard & Garden

Riverside supervisors vote to restore UCCE funding

After more than 100 4-H members, UC Master Gardeners and others attended a Riverside Board of Supervisors' meeting in support of UC Cooperative Extension June 10, the panel voted 5-0 to restore UCCE's funding, reported Jeff Horseman and Matt Kristoffersen in the Riverside Press Enterprise.

The vote reversed an earlier decision to cut UCCE funding as part of a larger plan to deal with reduced county tax receipts. If the funding had not been restored, services including 4-H, nutrition education and agricultural programs would have been effected, said Eta Takele, UCCE director in Riverside County.

UC Cooperative Extension, a key part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, serves all California counties. Academic advisors work with farmers to implement more-efficient growing methods, solve pest management problems and develop smart water-use strategies. Natural resources advisors conduct wildfire education and research natural resources conservation. Nutrition educators promote nutritious eating habits and exercise for better health. California 4-H Youth Development Program engages youth to become leaders. Thousands of volunteers extend UCCE's through the Master Gardener, Master Food Preserver, California Naturalist, and the California 4-H Youth Development Programs.

During the June 10 meeting, the supervisors heard from Riverside 4-H members who have been aided by their involvement in the program.

4-H member Bethany Campbell told the supervisors 4-H helped her overcome shyness and gain confidence. 

“4-H helped me rise above fear and insecurity to become a leader," Campbell said.

A Blythe 4-H member, Samantha Teater, 17, said, 4-H "definitely saved me from getting into trouble."

UC ANR associate vice president Wendy Powers attended the supervisors' meeting. 

"Those who offered public comment provided heartfelt testimony about the impact of our programs and how they, personally, have benefited and how the county has benefited," Powers wrote in her blog. "The work's not over. We need to continue to engage those who don't know us but make decisions that impact us. We need to continue to engage those who do know us, and brainstorm how to do better – reach more people, have a greater impact."

The article said Riverside County officials would work with UC Cooperative Extension to save money by moving its offices from leased office space to county-owned space.

4-H members made a strong showing at the Riverside Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo: Jose Aguiar)


Posted on Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 11:01 AM
Focus Area Tags: 4-H, Economic Development

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