Treats & Tips for the September Garden


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salvia_m_Hot-LipsYou can feel the weather changing as summer winds down. It’s more than just the passing of the Labor Day holiday and the school year starting. The nights are longer and cooler. The days are not quite so hot and the flowers in the garden seem brighter and more colorful. I look past the soft blue and lavender blossoms and am drawn to the warm shades of gold, rust, orange, hot pink and red. They shout autumn is on the way.

There’s nothing quite like adding a few new perennials to brighten up the garden. There are many that don’t require a lot of water after they become established. I recently visited a garden where the irrigation was reduced to the point that that most of the plants were barely hanging on. But there among the crispy plants were two Hot Lips salvia blooming as big as you please. This plant is popular for a reason. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it and it blooms for a long time. It stays compact and is a great carefree shrub for water wise gardens.

Daisy flowers always bring a smile to my face. As members of the composite family they have echinacea_Wild_Berrya flat landing surface for butterflies to land on. Coneflowers are one of my favorites. When they start blooming in the early summer I enjoy them both in the garden and as cut flowers inside. Some have a slight fragrance. Hybridizers have introduced beautiful shades of gold, yellow, orange, burgundy and coral in addition to the traditional purple and pure white. Because they are dormant in the winter they are good candidates for the garden that has summer sun but winter shade. They are not attractive to deer and are good additions to the low water garden.

gaillardiaAnother perennial that blooms throughout summer and fall is gaillardia also known as blanket flower. I’ve seen this tough plant grow in neglected gardens that the owner swears does nothing to keep it going. They are covered with dozens of large reddish-orange flowers with yellow edging and bloom over a long period. This plant also attracts butterflies. You can start perennials from seed at this time of year for next year’s bloom.

Don’t overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope’, New Zealand flax, red fountain grass and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylily and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.

Another thing to do while out in the garden this month is to cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

Soon it will be time to start cool season veggies or plant cover crops in the garden. It’s never too soon to start planning for erosion control in those areas that caused you problems during last spring’s storms. But for now add some early fall color and have fun in the garden.



Creating Atmosphere in the Garden


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Pride_of_MadeiraSummer may be winding down but we still have lots of great outdoor weather to enjoy for several more months. This means more time to spend outdoors in the garden relaxing, entertaining and cooking on the grill. I like the relaxing part most of all so it’s important to me that what I see and feel when I’m out in the garden have an atmosphere that appeals to me. Here are a few ideas that I’ve used in my own and other people’s gardens I’ve helped to create.

Outdoor spaces are just more inviting if they feel like a real room with a ceiling, walls and attractive flooring. An arbor or pergola is a good way to provide a lid on your outdoor space. If you have natural trees in your garden they can shield you from the sky in some areas and open up other areas to passing clouds and sun. You can achieve a similar effect with groups of potted trees that shade your sitting area. Japanese maples, ornamental plums,cherries or crabapple are just a few of the trees that do well in pots. If you like to grow edibles plant a fig in a pot to provide some shade.

The sounds you hear while in the garden are part of the experience, too. The atmosphere just wouldn’t be the same without the sound of rustling grasses, wind chimes or birds splashing about in the bird bath or fountain. Auditory elements can come from the sound of gravel crunching underfoot as you walk or the wind in the trees.

Create the atmosphere you like by using the colors and textFlowering_Mapleures you most admire in your garden. I use to live in a lot of shade so white, silver and gold foliage and flowers were really important to bring life to the garden. I still love these shades but cool blue, baby pink and soft yellow also appeal to me.

Texture in the garden refers to the overall visual texture of the plants. Large and bold foliage like Flowering Maple, Pride of Madeira, rhododendron, viburnum, oakleaf hydrangea or hosta make a large garden appear smaller. Soft, fine foliage will make the garden appear larger by giving it the allusion of more space. Examples of finely textured plants include ornamental grasses, Breath of Heaven, ferns and asters. You might use different textured plants in different parts of your garden to get the affect you like.

Blur the garden’s boundaries to make it more interesting. You won’t be able to see the whole Breath_of_Heavengarden at one glance if you curve the path behind some shrubs, tall plants or sheer, see-through perennials. Leave some wild areas for the birds and bees to join you. Garden organically and mix in native plants wherever you can to keep the garden healthy.

Creating atmosphere in the garden is the art of combining space and time, light and weather to make a garden that we feel reflects who we are. It’s different for every gardener. One person might like straight rows of vegetables while another scatters poppies and nasturtiums randomly. Whatever appeals to you it should be close to your heart and that’s the atmosphere in your garden that’s right for you.



Traveling with the Mountain Gardener


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Truckee_RiverSo far this year my travels have taken me up the coast of California and parts north. Then I headed a bit east to explore the Sierra Nevada. Statistics show that the drought is affecting all parts of the state. I’d heard that the Tahoe Queen had to modify it’s path around the rim of Lake Tahoe to avoid rocks. I had to check it out for myself. Just how low could that big blue body of water be? And what affect is the water situation having on the gardeners up there?

From the first glimpse of the Truckee river that is the sole outlet for Lake Tahoe I could see that the water was lower than usual. Still looked like enough water to negotiate a tube or small raft but the rafting companies have already closed for the season with the flow from the lake at only half of what it is normally in August. Hiking on the Tahoe Rim Trail next to the river was beautiful. The native plants and trees can exist even without the normal snowfall. They might not put on a lot of growth during dry years but they still looked healthy.

There is a chart at the dam where the Truckee river originates on the north side of Lake Tahoe. The graph shows that this is not the only drought event to have hit the Tahoe Basin. I was told the lake has been lower than this many times. Back in the 1930’s, 1962, 1976 and especially during the early 90’s the lake level dipped even lower. 2004 and 2010 were also low years. The lake level is just above the natural rim right now. The average daily evaporation rate of the lake is 397 million gallons.

In Tahoe City there is a destination nursery that I always visit when I’m in the area. In addition perennial_borderto several acres of trees and plants, the Tahoe Tree Company’s grounds are beautifully landscaped. A small lawn in surrounded by perennial beds loaded with flowers and a gazebo bordered with Autumn Joy sedum was just starting to bloom. Stands of quaking aspen towered over the shade beds of hosta, begonia, astilbe and New Guinea impatiens.

I asked one of the employees about how the drought has affected their customers. I noticed that many of the local residents had bright green lawns surrounded by dahlias, rudbeckia and ornamental grasses. She told me that many water companies serve the communities around the lake. They get some water from the lake itself but the rest is from springs which are drying up. The Tahoe City Public Utility District recommendation is to reduce water consumption by 20% with watering on even or odd days depending on your address.

Changes this season at the nursery range from reduced sale of seeds because seeds need regular watering to get started. Also customers are requesting more native plants but I was told that some of those requested are high water usage plants like dogwoods and willows. Customers are mulching more and learning which plants are drought tolerant. Popular natives include Sierra currant, Bitter and West Sand cherry, Mountain spiraea and elderberry.

Sun_King_AraliaStrolling the grounds of the nursery a brilliant gold plant caught my eye. Morning sun shone on a group of Sun King aralia and I had to find out more about this beautiful plant. In mid-spring this fast growing, 6 foot plant emerges with bright gold leaves. In sun the foliage remains gold through out the summer. In full shade, the foliage will be chartreuse to lime green in color. Spikes of tiny white flowers emerge in summer followed by ornamental black fruit. This plant is deer resistant. It’s needs some moisture so combine it with other average water users in the same bed.

We are all hoping this winter will bring us some relief from the drought, even those who live next to that big blue lake.



Living Fences make Good Neighbors


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loropetalum_chinense.1600To quote Robert Frost from his 1914 poem ‘Mending Walls’ , “Good fences make good neighbors”. When I visited eastern Poland a couple of years ago each house and garden was enclosed with a fence of some sort. Some fences were wood, some stone, some ornamental iron and some were plant hedges that divided properties. I thought the living hedges were the most beautiful and neighborly. Whether you need to screen a water tank or noisy road or the neighbor’s second story window there are lots of choices. Plan now to be ready for fall planting season.

There are many kinds of plants that make good living fences. Recently I designed a screen for a narrow yard along a busy street. We didn’t want to enclose the area with dense plants that would take up too much space and not allow her to enjoy a view of the beautiful neighborhood but still she didn’t want every person walking their dog to look into her kitchen window. Some of the plants we chose will display a graceful, weeping habit. Others are wispy and columnar. Still others are compact.

Many people only think of plants that remain evergreen when they need screening. However, if you use one-third deciduous plants to two-thirds broadleaf evergreens they will weave together and you won’t be able to tell where one leaves off and another begins. This makes mature hedges secure borders, especially if you throw a few barberries or other prickly plant into the mix.  You’ll also get seasonal interest with fall color and berries for wildlife.

Pittosporum Silver Sheen, westringia ‘Wynabbie Gem’, leptospermum, nandina, Lily-of-the-Valley shrub and English laurel also make great screens and hedges. What other plants can you use that would be beautiful, productive and practical in all seasons?

Many times a screen may start in the sun but end up in mostly shade. For your sunnier spots why not mix in a few dwarf fruit trees for you to enjoy, ceanothus and Pacific wax myrtle for the birds, barberry for beautiful foliage and fall color, spirea, rockrose, escallonia and quince for their bright flowers and fragrant lilacs for cutting in the spring?  The shadier side can include Oregon grape for fragrant, yellow winter flowers, snowberry for those striking white berries in the fall, oak-leaf hydrangea, viburnum and native mock orange for blossoms in the spring.

Loropetalum chinense or Fringe Flower is a handsome evergreen shrub that comes in two versions: green foliage with white flowers or burgundy foliage with raspberry flower clusters. Flowering is heaviest in the spring but some bloom is likely throughout the year. They thrive in sun with occasional water or part shade  The burgundy form would add color to a woodland garden and they even do well in a container on the patio.   You can prune it to any size but please don’t turn it into a tight ball and ruin it’s shape. Another plus is that it is not attractive to deer.

Variegated Mint Bush is another shrub to consider for a living hedge. Creating pleasing prostanthera_ovalifolia_Variegataplant combinations is a big part of gardening and this one would look great alongside a Fringe Flower of either color. Allow each plant to interweave and grow together. The Mint Bush will grow 4-6 feet tall and 3-5 feet high. The foliage smells very strongly like mint so deer avoid this shrub, too.

To keep down maintenance, mulch around your plants and install drip irrigation. There won’t be any pruning to do if you choose plants that grow to the height you want. Mixed hedges appeal to bees, butterflies and songbirds while also providing flowers, berries and color throughout the year for you to enjoy.

How close should you plant a mixed hedge?  Depending on the mature size of the plant spacing could be from 3-5 feet part If you want a quick, thick screen.This gives them room to breathe and develop their own shapes. Fast growing plants can be space 5-6 feet apart or more and will usually full in within 5 years.

Provide the best growing environment for the fastest results. By this I mean amending the soil at planting time if your soil is not very fertile. Cover the soil with mulch and fertilize with compost or organic fertilizer. Watering deeply when needed especially during the first three years after planting when young plants put on a lot of growth. Formal hedges are fine for some gardens but think of all the added benefits you’ll get planting a mixed hedge.

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