I am fortunate as a garden columnist and landscape designer to be invited to see, stroll and learn about beautiful gardens. Sometimes it’s a particularly successful method of irrigation, plant selection, placement or care that someone wants to share. Other times it’s the story of how their garden evolved. All gardens are interesting in their own way.
Recently I received an email from a reader in Scotts Valley who wanted to share what Montevalle Park has been doing to save water. Well I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about water.conservation. Here is how this unique mobile home park has changed their landscaping to save water.
Vickie Birdsall, my host and President of the HOA, welcomed me to her little corner of the world. Officially Montevalle is a mobile home park but is unique in that each lot under the oaks, pines and redwoods is a different size. Vickie told me that back in the early 70’s when Ray Retzlaff developed the park it was the first in California where people could purchase the lot they lived on and collectively own all the amenities. The lots were divided with the trees in mind so that a pre-made home could be installed without disturbing the trees.
As you drive through the park on winding roads each homeowner has made their property unique. Many have views of the woods, some with mountain vistas. All have established landscaping and enjoy the common areas including 2 lakes connected by a waterfall.
Vickie is now the President of the Association but for many years was in charge of the landscaping. She knows about the sandy soil of the park and the well water with its high mineral content that is used for the irrigation. On the positive side the deer seemed to be browsing other neighborhoods these days leaving the park to the occasional fox and the raccoon.
There are 56 pocket gardens in common areas throughout the park. Vickie’s goal is to convert as many as possible from lawn to drought tolerant plantings.
putting green area
The putting green area-which is across from Vickie’s house- used to be all lawn. She started taking out the lawn little by little a couple years ago and last fall finished the new landscaping. Incorporating re-purposed stepping stones and feather rock from other places in the park. a new path bisects a lovely garden which will use little water once established. Starting from gallon cans the new plantings are growing in nicely. Vickie told me she uses plants with different textures, foliage colors and heights and repeats the groupings which makes all the elements work together.
She was proud to show me how well the Carmel Creeper ceanothus is filling in. Other nearby plants include Little John callistemon, Rose Glow barberry, Golden Sunset coleonema, euphorbia, Emerald Carpet manzanita and Moonshine achillea to name just a few. The real eye catchers are 2 very drought tolerant sea holly. The metallic, iridescent blue flowers and stems of these eryngiums glowed in the afternoon sun.
The park has 2 lakes and as we walked along the shore of the lower lake, Vickie pointed where they installed a bio filter area to clean the nitrates from the water flowing down from the north lake. Yellow flag iris, gunnera and tulle grasses help keep the algae down. Several turtles and koi were enjoying the water lilies that have just started to bloom.
Step ponds between the lakes
Vickie has taken out the pockets of lawn along the step ponds connecting the two lakes. Under locust and birch trees, the small waterfalls are bordered by myoporum ground cover, shasta daisies, asparagus ferns, ornamental grasses and agapanthus. The new plantings are thriving under lots of mulch and are much easier to maintain.
Along the road to the lodge, Vickie pointed out more drought tolerant plantings which have replaced lawn such as Jerusalem sage, Pride of Madeira, manzanita, ornamental grasses and Purple-leafed hop bush. At the lodge she has installed small areas of artificial turf for barbecues and the front garden is a work in progress converting the lawn to dymondia and other plantings. The gophers are not helping with the progress, she admitted.
Vickie says she started converting the lawns in the park way before the drought. She has done 10 so far and has plans for many more.
Montevalle park is a good example of how an area can still be beautiful and serene without all the lawns. With lots of soil amendment and mulch the new plants bring lots of color plus birds and butterflies using a fraction of the water that was used previously. I was invited back to see the pink lotus blooming in the north lake in July and August. I’ve put it on my calendar.
Last week the first real taste of summer weather arrived and it was a wake up call for me. Over the past couple of months I’ve planted several new plants that will be drought tolerant once established but for now their root system requires more frequent watering than my established plantings. I’ll have to wait for the cooler weather starting in late September to plant any major additions to my landscaping. But for now I love to be out in my garden and there are lots of other things I can do to enjoy my time outdoors.
Pruning is a good way to spend a couple of hours in your garden. I’m not talking about trimming plants into little balls but the kind of pruning that makes for a healthier and happier plant.
If you grow Japanese maples now is the time to remove dead branches and train your tree to look like one of those specimens you see in the magazines. Thinning cuts build your ideal tree limb structure. If yours is a young tree, though, don’t be tempted to head back long branches too soon. As these mature they give your tree that desirable horizontal branching.
This principle is important to keep in mind when you train any young ornamental tree. Lateral buds grow along the sides of a shoot and give rise to sideways growth that makes a plant bushy.
Summer pruning of fruit trees controls size by removing energy-wasting water sprouts. Summer is also a good time to remove leafy upper branches that excessively shade fruit on the lower branches. Winter pruning is meant to stimulate the tree. Summer pruning uses thinning cuts-where the branch is cut off at its point of attachment, instead of part way along the branch- and these cuts do not encourage new growth but control the size of your tree making fruit harvest easier.
Summer pruning also can control pests like coddling moths, mites or aphids. Just be sure to dispose of these trimmings and don’t compost them.
If you have apricots and cherries, summer pruning only is now advised as they are susceptible to a branch killing disease if pruned during rainy weather. Prune stone fruits like peaches and nectarines after harvest by 50%. They grow quite rapidly. Apricots and plums need to have only 20% of their new growth pruned away.
Red Delicious apple
Be sure to thin the fruit on your trees. That’s another good reason to keep them smaller so you can more easily reach the branches. The best time to do this is when the fruit is still small. Thinning fruit discourages early fruit drop and improves the quality of the remaining fruit. It helps to avoid limb damage from a heavy fruit load. Also it stimulates next year’s crop and helps to avoid biennial bearing. Left to their own devices, a fruit tree may bear heavily one year and then light or not at all the next year. Some types of fruit trees like peaches and Golden Delicious apples are likely to bear biennially if the current year’s fruit crop isn’t thinned.
While I have the pruners out I’ll be shearing back early flowering perennials to encourage another round of blooms. And I’ll add some more mulch to areas that are a little thin. I’ll be checking the ties on my trees to make sure they aren’t too tight and remove the stake if the trunk is strong enough to support the tree on its own.
And I’ll be looking for any pest problems so I can do something about them before it gets out of hand. I’m OK with a few holes here and there but a heavy infestation should be trimmed off or sprayed with an organic insecticide. I inspect the tips of my fuchsias regularly for fuchsia mites and clip off any distorted growth. I hate to spray even organics on them due to the hummingbird activity.
Most importantly, enjoy your time outdoors. If a task is too big to do at one time, break it down into smaller sessions. As they say, take time to smell the roses.
Zepherine Drouhin climbing rose
My office window looks out on a gingko tree. Hanging from its low branches two bird feeders are visited throughout the day by many songbirds. As an added bonus a climbing Zepherine Drouhin rose grows up into the branches and has just started to bloom with vivid, dark pink flowers. They look like ornaments hanging from the tree. This spot wouldn’t be right for a trellis so if it weren’t for the help of the gingko I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my beautiful rose. In your own garden think about trees, shrubs and even sturdy vines as support for other vines.
Creating an outdoor room with vines can make your yard feel cozy. They readily provide the walls to enclose a space. Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely. Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established. Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape. By adding walls and a ceiling to your garden, you’ll be able to enjoy another dimension in addition to more color and fragrance too.
I’m always amazed at the variety of vines my friend Richard grows up into the canopy of his
many trees. From Lady Banks rose to clematis to blood-red trumpet vine to a spectacular double white pandora vine his trees do double duty in his garden.
For a vine with long lasting interest, try growing an orange trumpet creeper up into a tree. It blooms from midsummer to early autumn and hummingbirds love it. It can tolerate wet or dry conditions, sun or shade and is generally pest free.
Plant vines for fragrance in your garden. Let them scramble up a tree or through the branches of a shrub. Evergreen clematis bloom with showy white fragrant flowers clusters above shiny dark green leaves in spring. Clematis montana
clematis armandii with hardenbergia vine
is covered with vanilla scented pink flowers in spring also. Carolina jessamine’s fragrant yellow flower clusters appear in masses from late winter into spring.
Another way to double your pleasure with vines is to let the thick stems of a mature, vigorous vine such as grape, wisteria, passionflower or a large climbing rose like Lady Banks serve as a framework for a more delicate stemmed vine like clematis or Goldflame honeysuckle.
Or you can enjoy the classic combination of a flowering clematis like purple Jackmanii intertwined with a white Iceberg rambling rose for another great look. Other vines that are beautiful and easy to grow are our native honeysuckle, lonicera hispidula with its translucent red berries in the fall. Violet trumpet vine, white potato vine, hardenbergia and Chilean jasmine are also good choices.
Growing vines is easy if you follow a few guidelines. To encourage bushy growth on young vines, pinch out the stems terminal bud. If you want just a few vertical stems, though, don’t pinch the ends but instead remove all but one or two long stems at the base.
Often when I’m called out to take a look at a vine that has gotten out of control the only advice I can give is to cut the entire vine to the ground in late winter or early spring and start training it all over again. You can avoid this drastic measure by pruning periodically to keep your vine in bounds. Just before new growth begins, cut out unwanted or dead growth. If you can’t tell what to remove, cut the vine’s length by half and remove the dead stems later. On vines like hardenbergia or Carolina jessamine that bloom in late winter, wait to prune until after they have finished flowering.
Many vines require only deep but infrequent waterings. If you are interested in planting a new vine to provide color and fragrance in your garden there are lots of good suggestions on Scotts Valley Water Districts’ web site. www.svwd.org
Some to consider from their list of 800 low water use plants are bougainvillea, trumpet creeper, Carolina jessamine, primrose jasmine, cat’s claw yellow trumpet vine and purple leaf grape. Also on the website is a search function in the Water-Smart Gardening section for vines and other plants for particular situations such as shade, erosion, natives or low maintenance. It’s a valuable resource right at your fingertips.
Angel of Grief
A friend of mine who attended Stanford University told me that the next time I was on the campus I should check out the famous Angel of Grief marble statue. Tucked in the trees behind the mausoleum that houses the remains of Leland Stanford, his wife and son, this statue was commissioned by Jane Stanford in honor of her deceased brother. It’s a duplicate of several others that are in places like Costa Rica, Canada, Luxembourg and Cuba and is actually the second on this site after the original was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
It is indeed moving to stand in front of this massive white marble statue. Nearby is a cactus garden that is equally impressive to this horticulturalist. Alive with hummingbirds and songbirds, the flowers hummed with activity. In these days of designing drought tolerant gardens I’m always on the lookout for tough plants that combine well making a garden a delight to stroll and enjoy. I came away with lots of ideas. Here are some succulents that would work well in a drought tolerant garden in our climate.
On a hot day, the color blue makes everything feel cooler. Plants with blue foliage or flowers can serve to calm a riot of color, connect different color schemes and make a space seem larger. One such succulent that serves this purpose well is called Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandraliscae. As a ground cover this beauty spreads 2-3 ft wide but only 12-18” tall. It’s very drought tolerant in full sun or light shade but will also tolerate regular irrigation and is hardy down to 20 degrees. The blue-gray foliage really stands out when paired with burgundy or pink.
Another favorite succulent that I like to use in drought tolerant landscapes is the Ghost plant which is a much easier name to remember than graptopetalum paraguayense. The colors of their 3-6” wide rosettes are what really catch your eye. Ranging from lavender blue to light pink and pale blue on the same plant, this colorful succulent will spread wide but only about 1 foot tall. It’s very hardy to winter lows of 20-25 degrees and will even rebound from being frozen if temps drop below that.
The Stanford cactus garden has milder winters than us so not all the plants there handle our cold and potential rainy winter weather. But another plant that does great in our climate is calandrinia grandiflora. Brilliant purple, poppy-like flowers rise out of a rosette of succulent gray-green leaves to make a colorful show from spring to fall. Beside being so showy- especially in a large group- this plants needs only very occasional water and is hardy down to 15-20 degrees. It’s super easy to grow and spreads quickly suppressing all weeds as it grows. Maybe that parking strip out front or bare hillside would look great planted with some calandrinia.
As I strolled through the many winding pathways in this cactus and succulent garden I was amazed when I came across a tree euphorbia taller than I. It really does look like something straight out of a Dr. Suess book. It would need a bit of protection here when temperatures drop below 25 degrees but if you like unusual plants this is the one you’ve got to have. Between the long yellowish-green leaves and the bunches of greenish-yellow flowers-really bracts- it’s a show stopper.
Besides the massive barrel cactus in the Stanford cactus garden, there are many, many varieties of aloe, agave, hens and chicks and yucca to name just a few. I was reminded by the huge Joshua trees of my years living in the Antelope Valley. This garden was originally planted around 1880 and many of the original historical plants are still there. Volunteer restoration work began in 1997 and is ongoing. With approximately 500 cacti and succulents it’s worth checking out if you’re in the area.
Alluvial Terrace Nursery
There’s nothing like learning about trees from someone who has discovered for themselves what makes a winner and how to grow it. Recently I had the opportunity to tour a small wholesale nursery near Corralitos. Jon Craig has evolved from Silicon engineer to a propagator of plants and trees and he’s all the happier for it. He laughs when he says he has loved plants for a very long time starting with his first job mowing lawns. As a former engineer it’s all about the research and the plants he grows showcase his success.
His very favorite tree is the dogwood. Not just any dogwood but the ones that bloom with the largest flowers for the longest time. There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata, Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida grows on the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or Western dogwood.
Jon Craig with cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’
We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that blooms early in the spring. It’s beautiful but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease. Our Western dogwood is prone to leaf spot fungal diseases. The Kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.
The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.
Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. That tree is Jon Craig’s very favorite. With a name like Mountain Moon you can just picture it blooming high in the Himalayas. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree. They are edible but bland and tasteless to us. The birds love then though and they remain on the tree while woodpeckers and robins have a feast.
Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’ is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4pm. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’re happy.
Ruby Fall redbud
Besides enjoying the hundreds of blooming dogwoods, I learned about a redbud that is not as fussy as the lovely Forest Pansy. Ruby Falls and Merlot promise to be more reliable in the garden and more heat resistant.
Jon will try his hand growing just about any plant that he thinks others will also enjoy. A fine crop of Alice oakleaf hydrangea grew near a block of Michelia ‘Inspiration’ getting ready to flower and scent the air. The lilacs had finished blooming but the peonies were just starting their show. Jon shared a tip about tree peonies he learned recently from a well-seasoned Japanese gardener. He followed her advice and cut back the tree peony stem in the dormant season forcing it to produce new stems. Voila- they are now loaded with flowers.
Jon grows many other types of dogwood and also Copper beech, magnolia macrophylla, Royal Raindrops crabapple , Sheri’s Cloud nyssa and even a Purple-leaved hazel. I could only fit a couple of 5 gallon cans in my car so a beautiful smoke bush in full bloom and a Black Lace elderberry now call Bonny Doon home. But I have my eye on one of those spectacular Mountain Moon evergreen dogwoods for the back garden.
My garden is alive with birds. Butterflies and bees also seem to find it an interesting place to visit. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures. Fortunately there are many that have low water requirements which is a prerequisite these days.
But how do you plant something new given the new water restrictions? And what about those existing trees, shrubs and perennials that birds, bees and butterflies depend on? How much water do they need to survive?
Everybody loves winged creatures in the garden. Adding plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies is at the top of the list of requests for nearly every garden that I design.
Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and even the hybrid of the two, Eddie’s White Wonder, all are very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.
In every garden possible I try to include low water use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds. And I always can find space for another variety of manzanita or ceanothus.
Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. Galvezia, mimulus, monardella, California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for them in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.
So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?
As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent waterings. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. After the last two winters of little rain, many trees are showing signs of stress. It’s not easy to replace a tree that will take 20 years to regrow if you have to replant. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots are 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.
Apply with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districts restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod -1/4” – 3/8” in diameter- into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.
Homestead Purple verbena
The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly waterings to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on it’s water needs.
With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy for everyone to enjoy.
I’ve gotten several emails lately requesting more information about something mentioned in a recent column. I also received a phone call from a reader describing a bad encounter with a certain common plant. She wanted to share her experience so it didn’t wouldn’t happen to anybody else. And a conversation about how bad the poison oak is this year triggered a discussion about how to dispose of the stuff. So here goes. All the news that’s fit to print.
Whether it was Joe Friday who said it or Dan Akroyd in the Dragnet parody. we all want “Just the Facts, Ma’am“.
ramial bark chips
In my column a couple weeks ago about garden planning for the drought, it was the last line “And don’t forget the… mulch (no shredded bark, please)” that caused a bit of confusion. It’s great that everyone has accepted the value of covering the soil with organic mulch. Organic mulches- such as bark chips, treated sawdust, straw or even grass clippings- keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms, conserve soil moisture, combat weed growth and protect the soil from erosion.
But is there an organic mulch that is better than another?
There are many types of mulch available. Nurseries sell different types of mulch in bags, building supply yards carry everything from bark nuggets in different sizes to treated sawdust to chipped bark and even shredded redwood bark. It’s the shredded redwood bark, also called gorilla hair, that does nothing for the health of your soil. If you have a very steep slope you may have to go with this type of mulch but that’s the only time I can recommend it. It will cling to a hillside without washing down in winter rains but treated sawdust would also work for this type of terrain and is much better for soil health.
Of all the types of organic mulches out there, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips come from trees and brush with branches up to about 3” in diameter with or without leaves. These chips contain a high percentage of thin young bark and young wood. This is what makes them so valuable to the garden. Young wood is a tree’s factory for producing protein, glucose, fructose, lignin and polysaccharides. It’s an important source of nutrients for living things at all levels according to a study by soil scientists, G.Lemieux and R.A.Lapointe. You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies who are probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.
About that call from a reader who had a terrible experience after pulling some plants in her yard that had gotten a little out of hand. She said she and her husband ended up with severe eye burn after getting some toxic sap from euphorbia in them. She said they really don’t know if some of sap became airborne while they were pulling stems or if they accidentally rubbed some near their eyes at some point in the day. They went to Urgent Care right away for treatment but the pain lasted for days. She described it as one of the most painful experiences she has ever had. Euphorbias are very deer resistant and drought tolerant and are being used more and more in gardens.
Many of us, me included, grow tropical milkweed or Asclepias curassavica to attract monarch butterflies. The milky sap from this plant protects the monarch from being eaten and can cause the same painful burning of the eye. I read of a case where a gardener’s clothes brushed some stems while she was tending the garden. Later she wiped the sweat out of her eyes and didn’t realize she had also touched her pants. She ended up with cornea burn causing temporary blindness and had to take strong pain relievers and steroids to elevate the pain.
Lastly, a fine crop of poison oak is growing this year so thick in places you can barely avoid it. The new foliage literally glistens with toxic oils. Many birds relish the white berries that form later in the season. 9 out of 10 people will get a rash if even one drop of urushiol oil touches the skin. And this oil has lasting power. It can stay active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to 5 years. Burning dead or dormant poison oak branches is especially dangerous as urushiol oils released in smoke can produce disastrous results if inhaled. So what to do with the stuff if you pull it out? Do not put it in your green waste can. It can end up being ground into mulch along with other green waste. Instead put it in your gray garbage can. Other plant matter that has to be put in the garbage can is pampas grass and bamboo. Don’t put them into green waste
So that’s the skinny on shredded redwood or gorilla hair, common plants with toxic sap and poison oak disposal. Be careful out there.
May is the month for you if you make a note when your favorite plant starts to bloom. May is the month for you if you count the number of hummingbirds at the feeder everyday. May is the month for you if you’ve been waiting for the soil to warm enough to plant melons and peppers and winter squash.
A friend gave me a blue Hokkaido squash last fall and I saved the seeds. I’ve been waiting patiently to plant them. It’s one of the best tasting, beautiful squash you can grow. I’m looking forward to harvesting my own this fall. They store for quite a while, taste great and look stunning in a Halloween display along side orange pumpkins. I can hardly wait.
Plants are growing like crazy this month preparing to reproduce at their given time. The birds, bees and even those pesky tree squirrels are finding lots of food and nectar to feed their young. We know the dry months of summer are coming and are preparing by modifying irrigation systems to conserve water and mulching all bare soil. I think we deserve to set a little time aside between gardening tasks to enjoy the wonder of nature and our own gardens.
Honey bee collecting pollen
Here’s a task that requires no work at all but the benefits are huge. Set aside a small area of your yard, say 10% or so, and leave it uncultivated. Let it grow wild and see what native plants and wildlife show up. This would be a good spot to plant milkweed and let it self sow for the Monarch butterfly.
Don’t push yourself and bite off more than you can do in the garden at a time. Landscaping doesn’t have to be done all at once. Maybe choose a new tree or a couple low water use shrubs to plant and care for this summer. Choose something that looks good year round to provide interest. Or take one corner this year and another corner next year to redo or install. This won’t break your water budget or your back.
Food gardening is hard work. Maybe this year grow just those edibles that taste so delicious freshly picked from the garden. Edibles like strawberries, blueberries, herbs, lettuces, chard and arugula are ornamental, don’t take up too much room and are easy to grow. I was disappointed with the way my tomatoes tasted last year. They were OK but no where near as tasty as the dry-farmed Early Girls at the Farmer’s Market. This year I’m only going to grow cherry tomatoes. One of life’s simple pleasures is picking and eating your own fruit as you work in the garden. Beside my favorite Sungold I’m going to try growing local heirlooms like Chadwick’s Cherries, and Camp Joy.
Don’t get me started on the weeds this year. With those early fall rains everything you don’t want in the yard is going nuts. I have actually been gaining ground on controlling many of the annual weeds around my house. The soil is soft and the smaller root system is more likely to let go so as I walk around I pick a few or as many as don’t seem like work. Each plant can produce so many hundreds of seeds that I think of it as free exercise.
When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished it’s time to prune them. If you prune just before the plant blooms you risk removing that year’s flowers. If you prune several month after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically it’s best to prune a bit each year to shape and thin the plant. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. There’s no need other than looks to deadhead old flowers.
It was great to get a bit more rain last week. Plants appreciate the moisture especially during spring. Come summer everything slows down to survive and that’s a part of our unique climate here, too.
In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.
The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.
Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.
salvia ‘Bees Bliss’
In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.
Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.
Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.
As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.
Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.
These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.
Spring just wouldn’t be the same without a visit to Doc Hencke’s garden in Scotts Valley. I think of it as a learning experience at his personal arboretum, outdoor laboratory, propagation field trial and stunningly beautiful landscape. At every turn colorful vines bloom high up into the trees he has collected and nurtured from his travels. Richard Hencke is a walking encyclopedia, energetic and funny while sharing his knowledge and stories about each and every plant. Here are just some of the highlights of this year’s visit.
The definition of the word arboretum describes Richard Hencke’s garden perfectly. It’s a place where an extensive variety or trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific, educational and ornamental purposes and my tour this year started at a tall California native Flannel Bush which he had to rope to the ornamental iron fence after it blew over in that wind storm a month ago. Looked to me that his efforts to save it will be successful and if anybody can it will be Doc Hencke.
Explaining that the soil in this part of his garden is blue hard sub soil and has taken it’s toll on a couple other plants. One of his Eutaxia obovata also called the Bacon and Eggs plant was just going out of bloom but 2 others nearby have suddenly died. Quite the loss as this shrub is one of those plants that really gets your attention when it’s covered with thousands of golden pea-shaped blossoms.
Next on the tour came the straw bale veggie garden. Since the soil in this sunny spot is also sub par this method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. He used a meat thermometer to check their internal temperature and determine when this process was complete and vegetables would thrive. He then soaked them with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. His crop of kale, lettuces, spinach, bush beans and cucumbers looked robust and happy.
Always the story teller, Richard pointed out a Cantua, the Sacred Flower of the Andes that he air layered to increase his collection. He laughed when he told me of a trip to Peru and the guide who misidentified several plants. Richard had to gently supply the correct name for the species.
Also in his collection is an experimental round avocado developed by DT Fleming in Maui during the early 1900’s. It has survived 3 winters so far in Hencke’s Scotts Valley landscape so he is becoming more confident of its ongoing success. Took Richard quite a while to figure out which was the top of the seed. Being round he had stuck the toothpicks in the sides but put the wrong end in the water glass. He laughed that as soon as he figured out his error and turned it the other way up. It sprouted right away.
His Variegated Mint Bush at the edge of the back patio was just completing it’s blooming cycle but still covered with deep purple blossoms. Nearby we stopped at a very large clump of salvia confertiflora starting to bloom with showy red spikes of flowers. Richard lamented that it’s a little too happy. The clump has grown to near invasive size. “Why did I plant this here? Now what am I going to do with it?, he said. This is a good lesson for all of us. The right plant in the wrong place can become a nightmare.
His collection of salvias that are planted in the right place include a beautiful salvia mexicana that will soon be covered with rich blue flowers. He also grows salvia chiapensis and a salvia-like plant native to Hawaii called salvia lepechinia. This deliciously scented plant will be covered soon with reddish lavender lipstick-like flowers adored by hummingbirds like all the salvias.
The Hencke garden has a hillside for Hawaiian plants, a slope where he nurtures and propagate succulents, a shade garden for heliconia and houseplants that have adapted to his climate but trees are Richard’s first love. He showed off his hillside that is now home to sugar pine, silver poplar, gingko, alder, New England black cottonwood, tamarix, purple weeping birch and an Oklahoma Wild Sand plum that could win awards for it’s size and beauty.
Richard uses a Smart Timer to monitor and control his irrigation. That way he can use the minimum of water that allows his plants to survive. I put him in touch with another local gardener, Robby Frank, who helped him install the system. Gardeners are always pleased to help and share what they know and what they grow.
I enjoyed so many more plants and trees in Richard’s garden I could hardly keep up with the stories of their humble beginnings. As usual he packed my car with rooted cuttings and starts of many plants. I’m looking forward to the time when my Sacred Flower of the Andes starts to bloom.
Front and center in the news and in your garden is the drought and what you can do about it in your own landscape. If you’ve dabbled before with replacing thirsty plants with climate-appropriate low water use California native plants or those from areas similar to ours this is the year to step up your efforts.
Gov. Brown’s mandate for water conservation state wide is a call to action to transform our landscapes into resilient gardens that not only save water but act to build the earth into a living sponge that harnesses rainwater and replenishes the aquifer.
Replacing that water guzzling lawn now that the kids have grown or dramatically reducing it’s size is a good place to start and is easier than you think. If you’ve been paralyzed with the thought of digging out and hauling away hundreds of square feet of heavy sod or using dangerous grass-killing chemicals, sheet mulching is the method for you.
This simple technique eliminates the lawn by smothering it with layers of recycled, compost and renewable materials. Here’s how to do it:
1. Mow the lawn down to 1-2”, leave the clippings in place and soak with a hose. Don’t worry. This soaking is nothing compared to what you’ll soon be saving by removing your lawn.
2. Flag the locations of sprinkler heads you will be keeping for your new plantings and cap off the ones you won’t need.
3. Add an inch of compost to speed up the decay of the grass. If your lawn borders a driveway, path or sidewalk you’ll have to remove about 3” inches deep of soil along these edges and back 8-12” so that the new mulch doesn’t slide off into the sidewalk.
4. Put down 2-3” of cardboard or newspaper overlapping the edges by 6-8” to prevent regrowth at the edges. You can buy recycled cardboard in rolls for larger projects or find your own at appliance or bicycle stores. Wet the cardboard or newspapers to keep them in place as you go along. It’s best to use cardboard or newspaper that will break down quicker. Weed fabric is not recommended as it takes much longer to break down. Don’t use plastic sheeting because water and air cannot penetrate it.
5. Add a 3” layer of mulch such as bark chips from a tree trimming company. You can use compost, straw or shredded plant material. If you have Bermuda grass or other weeds like oxalis you will need to layer about 8”of mulch to smother them.
6. Water thoroughly.
If you can wait a month or more to let the decomposition process get going so much the better. If you just can’t wait you can begin planting now by scraping away the mulch and poking a hole in the cardboard or newspaper where the plant is to go. Then add some compost to help the new plant become established. Be sure to plant high enough to prevent crown rot and keep the mulch a couple inches away from the stem. The top of the root ball should be 1-2” above the soil and just below the mulch.
Modify the sprinkler to drip and remember to adjust your irrigation system run times to accommodate your new plantings.
This is a basic “lasagna” method for lawn removal. If you are planning to replant with water smart grasses you would choose finer composted mulch instead of bark chips. Either way the process works on the same concept as a compost pile. As the lawn dies from lack of light, it decomposes with the activity of beneficial worms, insects and microorganisms coming up from the soil and doing their job to break down the nitrogen and carbon in the sheet-mulch layers. It’s a win-win situation for the environment and your water bill.
Seems like just about everything is in bloom. Sure there are many plants and trees who’s season is still a ways off but the flowers of early spring really get our attention. Longer days trigger both flora and fauna to reproduce. Being that it’s the beginning of April I thought I’d give you a heads up on what to do in the garden this month. That way you can budget your time and enjoy the beauty around you and still get your chores done.
Earth Day is coming up on Saturday, April 18th and National Arbor day is April 24th. What better way to celebrate in your own backyard than to plant a tree, shrub, flower or edible? I’m enjoying the succession of flowering trees in my own yard. First came the plums, then the flowering crabapple and now the Forest Pansy Redbud. My crape myrtle will bloom by summer but I think I’ll plant another tree that will bloom in May to celebrate, maybe a late-blooming Kousa dogwood.
Planting a tree is having confidence in the future. Like the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” In case you were wondering, Arbor Week in California was celebrated mid-March. That’s because each state observes Arbor Day based on the best tree-planting time in their area. On the first Arbor Day, April 10,1872, an estimated one million trees were planted. Make yours the one million and one tree planted.
Other to-do’s for this month include:
Fertilize -Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden. Lawns and groundcovers are beginning their spring growth spurt and new leaves on trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to emerge. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the winter season and they may be lacking in iron. Feed them with organic citrus or fruit tree fertilizer. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants or wash it off with the hose. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom and you see new leaves emerging.
Transplant – If you need to move any plants in the garden that have outgrown their space or are not growing with other plants of the same water usage now is a good time. Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil. If your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant. Organic matter such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.
Spread fresh compost or bark mulch around all your plants to help plants get off to a strong start. Good soil is the secret to successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or bark chips on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or bark chips but they do conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.
Check for aphids – They are out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples. A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them. If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them. As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun. Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.
Ants can also bring aphids up into trees and shrubs such as camellias, citrus and roses. Ants feed off honeydew secreted by aphids, scale and other plant-juice sucking insects. Ants also protect these pests from natural predators. To keep them off, wrap trunks with a 1-2″ wide strip of masking tape and coat with a sticky barrier like Tanglefoot. Keep the barriers free of dirt and check them periodically for breaks. Reapply when necessary.
The most important to-do for early spring is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.
I received an email from a reader not too long ago who lives on a ridge top outside Scotts Valley. She wrote that her “flowering plums have no ‘buzz’ about them when she walks by. Even (her) rosemary is not a buzz. A Few yes, but not nearly the normal. Why is this year different?” Where have the honey bees gone?
Bees have been in the news a lot especially since 2006 when beekeepers started to report higher than usual colony losses. We depend on honey bees to pollinate everything from fruit to vegetables to nuts. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult or dead bee bodes but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. According to the US Dept of Agriculture no scientific cause for CCD has been proven. But I read about recent research that has discovered a link between a family of systemic insecticides and colony collapse. This got my attention.
Honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of problems from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources and now we are finding out more about the sublethal effects of pesticides.
Insecticide labels warn the user not to spray when bees are present or allow the spray to reach a water source. But what area the effects of systemic insecticides used to control aphids, mealy bugs, lawn insects, grubs, thrips, termites, scale, or leaf beetles on your roses, trees, shrubs and lawn? The makers of these products that contain imidacloprid, a common systemic, say their studies show that even if a product is highly toxic for insects, it is almost impossible that the insect will ever get in touch with this product and are not at risk.
But that’s not really the whole story. Unlike other pesticides which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, a systemic pesticide is taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues- the leaves, flowers, roots, stems as well as pollen and nectar.
Neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of systemic insecticides that are especially effective against sap feeding insects like aphids. They are also being used to treat genetically engineered corn seeds. Applied to seeds, the pesticide spreads through the plant as they grow attacking the nervous systems of a wide range of corn crop pests.
This is where the recent studies have shown that these pesticides do affect honey bees but not by outright killing them. After exposure to pollen from one of these systemics the bees navigational systems seemed to go haywire. and they were several more times more likely to die before they could make their way back to the hive. Another study has shown that these neonicontinoids can wreak havoc with the bee’s neural circuitry causing them to forget associations between the scents of flowers and food rewards.
A Florida beekeeper sums it up by saying “The thing is, you don’t have to physically kill the bee. You just have to impair him so he can’t find his way back to the nest. “
Bottom line, protect our pollinators and improve honey bee survival. Plant more plants that provide nectar and pollen for honey bees such as bee balm, agastache, clover, catmint, lavender, yarrow, hyssop, aster, coreopsis, verbena and black eyed Susan. Natives plants that are good sources include California poppy, salvia, buckwheat, ceanothus and toyon. Use only organic insecticides and avoid applying during mid-day hours when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants and only then if you can’t control a pest with any other methods including Integrated Pest Management techniques.
Help save the bees.
It all started several years ago at the annual bonsai show presented by the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai Club. I was sitting in the front row watching the sensei (meaning teacher) finish styling an overgrown 5 gallon juniper into a breathtaking specimen. It was truly impressive with the branches suggesting a tree growing on a windswept hill. The raffle started which is one of the main fund raisers for the club. Of the many prizes offered the large specimen created by the sensei is the the most coveted. I sat and sat and sat as dozens of numbers other than mine were called and eager winners walked away with smaller finished bonsai, starter plants, pots and tools. But then the last number was drawn with much fanfare as this was for the giant creation. I heard my number. I was beside overjoyed not only because I never win anything but because this prize was so exquisite.
Fast forward to the present. With the 27th Annual Bonsai Show coming up I knew I would be asked how my specimen was doing. I hate to admit but I hadn’t repotted it as I should have and how do I prune the darn thing? So I sought out an expert in the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club to help me. Although it’s not difficult repotting a bonsai is quite different than repotting an ornamental shrub on your patio. I didn’t want to mess up.
Fellow Bonny Dooner and longtime member of the club, Ed Lambing was more than happy to show me his collection and help me with the repotting of my juniper. He even shared with me his recipe for the mix he uses which is usually a highly guarded secret by bonsai enthusiasts-on the same scale with “if I told you I’d have to kill you”.
Ed and Nancy Lambing have created a beautifully landscaped garden that just keeps getting better with time. From the koi pond to the naturalistic rock swimming pool to the wisteria pergola everything looks like it has always been just so. At every turn Ed has displayed his larger bonsai on tree trunks and flat rocks. He also has a greenhouse for repotting and nurturing cuttings, a bonsai nursery where specimens are in training and a bonsai display area for his prized specimens that gets the best morning sun and afternoon shade.
The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of the living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot while “sai” means to plant. Ed’s interest in this art form first started 30 years ago. He now has more bonsai than I could count. He has a California juniper bonsai that is estimated to be 400 years old based on It’s trunk diameter. It takes 100 years for this plant to grow 3/4” trunk thickness. Other trees in his collection include several very old and gnarled olive trees, citrus, shefflera, maples and elms to name just a few.
Back in the greenhouse we started to repot my juniper. Ed wired some small branches to create a more wind-blown look, eased my root-bound dwarf Japanese garden juniper from it’s pot and proceeded to tease the roots. Other steps ranged from wiring screen over the holes in the bottom of the pot to root pruning 2/3 of the root hairs- yikes- and then placing the trunk over gravel at the side of the new pot to mimic the effects of wind on the tree. Ed advised me that my tree was a good prospect for a root over rock or “Sekijoju” specimen in the future. I’ll need to find just the right rock for the upper roots to grip and look like they were exposed by erosion over a period of time.
After wiring the top heavy juniper into the pot. Ed added his special bonsai potting mix and then used a chopstick to wiggle the mix down into the root ball to eliminate air pockets and compact the mix over the entire pot. Bonsai in America has thankfully evolved into it’s own style. I love the look of the glazed pot I used when repotting my tree but traditional Japanese style would have used a plain unglazed one.
All the members of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club are busy getting ready for their annual show. Each decides which of their specimens will be entered in the show, offered for sale or contributed to the raffle. Moss needs to be collected, the correct base chosen to complement each specimen, training wires removed, pots cleaned and polished.
Ed has a 20 year old Japanese Maple that he plans to show. It started life before he got it as a 5 gallon plant and has been in training ever since. Unfortunately, a beautiful wisteria which was just starting to bloom at the time of my visit will be mostly finished by the time of the annual bonsai show so won’t be there.
One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look. While some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families others just look very old and some techniques help further this allusion. Ed plans to show another California Juniper, this one 200 yrs old and originally styled by famed bonsai sensei “Mr California Juniper”, Harry Hirao. Using the “Jin” technique it has the illusion of even more age due to the weathered dieback of some branches.
Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured. You can find out more by attending the 27th Annual Bonsai Show which takes place from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm on both Saturday, March 28th and Sunday, March 29th at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz. Entry fee is $5 per person for the Bonsai Show and Museum.
Besides taking in the beautiful bonsai on display you can purchase breathtaking finished bonsai and starter plants as well as get experienced help with trees purchased. There will be door prizes and refreshments. You might even win the raffle for the demonstration specimen created each day at 2:00 pm by Bonsai Artist, Mike Pistello.
With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbor’s yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that can make a plant thrives or just mope along? And how can you plan when one “reliable” plant source says the plant will get 6 ft tall an another shows that same plant as reaching 8-12 ft tall and just as wide?
When designing a garden whether it’s a client’s or my own I need to take into account the growing conditions such as soil type, nutrients, water requirements, high and low temperature, space and light. Most all plants use water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water or nutrients can be harmful to your plant’s progress.
Healthy soil provides an anchor for plant roots and helps support the plant in addition to providing nutrients. Healthy soil contains micro organisms and adding organic matter to your soil when you plant and in the form of mulch will increase your soil’s fertility.
Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor but how can you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade or moisture? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to look up during the growing season and see how many hours of sun, part sun, bright shade or partial shade your area is receiving. To simplify, it’s not as important what is going on during the winter but knowing the summer conditions is crucial. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.
Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.
Plant your new addition correctly. When digging the hole be sure that you loosen surrounding soil 2-3 times the width of the root ball. There is no rule that you can’t loosen the soil even wider around your planting hole. Use the shovel to loosen the edges of the hole so that it’s not hard and smooth. Roots have an easier time of growing out from the initial hole is sides aren’t hard as a rock. You can loosen the soil below the depth of the root ball if it’s really hard and amend it also. Be sure to firm the soil underneath the plant so the crown of your plant doesn’t sink below grade and drown during winter rains or watering. Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil also allows for a 2” thick layer of mulch.
If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil all the above tips are important for your planting success.
Being that it’s nearly spring I decided to check on the progress of this year’s wildflowers. I figured the back of a motorcycle was a good way to get up close and personal with the backroads of our rolling hills. Outfitted in my riding suit I looked more like a storm trooper out of Star Wars than a gentle gardener but safety comes first. So off I rode heading down Hwy I recently on a beautiful sunny day.
Outside Watsonville I rode past strawberries so ripe and red you could see them from the road, then over towards San Juan Bautista where the apricot and walnut trees are getting ready to blossom. After lunch on the plant-filled patio at Jardines de San Juan I rode out of town. The real treat came while riding Hwy 25 which is the gateway to The Pinnacles National Monument. Although the rains have not been nearly enough for the year they have been generous enough to carpet the hillsides with wildflowers. Vast fields of rich blue annual lupine bloomed below patches of golden poppies covering the hills. Large expanses of acid yellow wild mustard swayed in the breeze. Coreopsis, fiddlenecks and thousands of small, ground hugging wildflowers completed the scene. The weather was warm and perfect for a wildflower outing and two female elk crossing the road could not have agreed more.
But there was more adventure to come. On I rode down to Priest Valley on Hwy 198. Arriving at sunset at Strohn Rocking 7 Ranch I first observed a flowering cherry besieged with small moths. Interesting in itself, it was the bats that came out to swoop up the moths for dinner that fascinated me. This historic 160 acre property is nestled in the Diablo Mountain Range of Southeast Monterey County and was one of the original homesteads that operated as a pump station when the oil fields of Coalinga were first established and the pipeline extended to the coast along this route.
The animals were penned up to protect them from bobcats, coyote, mountain lions and other predators at night but come morning they are fed and most get to free range for the day. All except the peacock and guinea fowl who won’t come in for their own good. The rest of the menagerie including 2 alpacas, several wild turkey, chickens, a herd of African Pygmy goats, a dozen Indian Runner ducks and two French geese enjoy the grasses growing around the ranch. A wild pheasant comes and goes as he pleases but roosts at sunset in the tall trees. Cottontail rabbits scurried everywhere along with some baby bunnies looking longingly at the garden and ornamental plants that were protected by chicken wire.
I was sorry to leave the ranch and all it’s inhabitants but had heard that Jolon Road west of King City had good wildflower potential. Bisecting Fort Hunter Liggett the area has been mostly protected from ranch and farming activity and still boasts oak tree forests. Either it was too early for a good wildflower display or winter rains have not been adequate so I headed on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road up and over the Santa Lucia range to the coast. This is one of the most gorgeous drives on the Central Coast as the roller coaster road passes Nacimiento River and ends with breathtaking views of the Pacific. Lots of California poppies decorated the roadside.
I’m looking forward to more wildflower adventures next month. We live in such an awesome and gentle place.
A year or so ago I planted a special kind of Japanese maple in my sister’s landscape. I traveled up to her house recently to celebrate our birthdays which are only 2 days apart and to check on the maple’s progress. Prized for their their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple, my sister’s Beni Kawa Japanese maple is coming along fine. I forgot to buff the bark with a soft cloth to polish it which keeps the color bright but I’ll be sure to remember that next summer when I visit again.
I also wanted to check in on her neighbor’s organic garden that I wrote about last summer. Bob was happy to show me what’s in the works for this year. Although he was fighting a cold -you can’t keep a good gardener down- he shared a few tips he is trying out this year.
Raw sawdust is his magic weapon in the strawberry patch. Sprinkled between the strawberry plants it is said to prevent annual weeds from germinating. He’ll get back to me with the results later in the season. His grapes were nicely pruned, the raspberries just starting to bud and the garlic which he planted last fall was about a foot high. The raised veggie boxes have been planted with lots of peas. Inside the green house, several types of kale and lettuce were just emerging in their flats.
Bob told me that this year again everything seems to be about 3 weeks early- sound familiar? As I walked the neighborhood enjoying the various blooming plants and taking in the sights of majestic Mt Rainier and the Puget Sound I admired many plants that also thrive here in our neck of the woods. A plant that grows in a multiple of growing conditions is always a winner in my garden. Here are a few notables from Fox Island.
What could a plant that is iconic of Scotland have in common with our area? Easy to grow heather and true heath look great in the garden at any time of year. Although both belong to the Ericacaea family, they are botanically different and are divided into the Calluna genus and the Erica genus. In the garden, however, they are nearly identical in color, shape and growing habits.
I love their colorful foliage and flowers and have seen the true heath, Erica canaliculata ‘Rosea’ blooming now also in gardens in our area. It is tolerant of winter lows a bit less than 25 degrees and will thrive in soil that is more alkaline than the calluna vulgaris heathers. Calluna types need more organic matter in the soil to really do well. Our acidic mixed redwood soils provide this and calluna cultivars are very cold tolerant. All need good drainage.
Another shrub that I admire where ever I find it is Valley Rose’ Lily-of-the-Valley. The other vivid rose variety which grows a bit taller is Valley Valentine. It seemed most gardens on Fox Island had at least one of these beautiful plants in full bloom including the stunning white flowering forms. Books might tell you they require average water but established specimens are remarkable tolerant of drought.
Although it wasn’t blooming yet I came across a lovely choisya Sundance also called Mexican Orange Blossom shrub which describes the fragrant orange blossom-like blooms. The new growth of this fast growing, evergreen, deer resistant shrub is colored bright chartreuse and provides year round color to the garden.
To round out my tour of local landscapes on Fox Island many of the early rhododendrons were starting to bloom. Covered with vivid pink flower trusses they looked great planted with viburnum davidii, daffodil and narcissus, iberis and black mondo grass. All grow great in our area too. We have a lot in common despite the distance between us.
There are some plants that are so showy in the garden they are worth budgeting a little extra summer water. They really get your attention.That plant for me is the hydrangea. Want instant drama in the garden? Plant one of the many hydrangea varieties. All have flowers so large they can’t help but steal the show. Easy to grow, they are pest and disease free. Here are some of my favorites and how and when to prune them.
Back in 2001 a new variety of hydrangea macrophylla was introduced. Called Endless Summer it has the unique ability to re-bloom throughout the spring and summer on both current and older season wood resulting in a much longer blooming season. This was great news for me because as sure as the sun rises, a heat wave would descend upon my garden in May and many of my traditional mopheads and lacecaps would crisp up and the show would be over way too soon. With Endless Summer I get continuous flowering through the summer. How do I prune this variety to get the most blooms?
When you read care instructions about pruning any hydrangea and they refer to new and old wood it’s really just another name for a stem they are talking about. New stems growing this growing season will be green. Old stems that grew last year are brown.
Prune Endless Summer hydrangeas as needed to keep them symmetrical. Remove dead stems you are sure will not be leafing out this year. To revitalize a mature plant-about 5 years old- remove about a third of the oldest canes in the spring by cutting them as close as possible to the ground. If your plant looks fine, leave it alone. You can prune off spent flowers in August but I prefer to leave the flower heads on the plant for winter interest.
Classic bigleaf hydrangeas -hydrangea macrophylla- mostly bloom on last years stems or old wood. The proper time to prune them is right after blossoming in July or August. Again I like to leave the dried flower heads on for fall and winter color so I prune lightly in late summer and again now lightly to shape. I may be cutting off some potential flower buds by pruning now but those stems usually flower by early fall and I’m not wacking back the whole plant.
If your bigleaf hydrangea doesn’t bloom well any more it may be time for more drastic measures. Cut back non-blooming stems to about 6 inches high. This will stimulate the growth of news productive stems.
Another showy hydrangea with huge pyramidal flowers is called hydrangea paniculata or Pee Gee hydrangea. With chartreuse blooms, Limelight is one of my favorites. They tolerate drought better than other hydrangeas which is another plus. Because they bloom on new wood in midsummer into fall, prune them in winter or early spring. Cut away old flowers and prune to open the plant to sunlight.
Hydrangea arborescens like ‘Annabelle’ produce enormous white flowers and also bloom on new wood during the summer prune during the winter or spring. This is the variety you see grown as hedges. I think I need one of these in my garden.
Vying for attention in my garden is the oakleaf hydrangea or hydrangea quercifolia. I love this plant because it is so versatile. I often include it in a landscape design because it is easy to grow in a variety of situations from deep shade to mostly sun and it tolerates some drought. The stunning summer display of elongated, creamy white flower clusters age to pink by autumn and then papery, rusty brown in winter. But it’s the fall display of handsome leaves that resemble oaks that will get your attention. Mine turns the color of bright burgundy but I’ve seen bronze and crimson color on others. Prune them in early summer right after flowering.
Even in our coldest winters, hydrangeas in our area are easy to grow and don’t suffer winter damage to the flower buds as those in snow country do. Lucky us. I’m looking forward to my hydrangea show which will last most of the year.
Looking out the window on a rainy day I forget that spot way back in the shade in the back of the garden will be bone dry come summer. It’s too far away to water conveniently very often with a hose and extending the irrigation for just that one area under the trees in the shade is not practical. I sympathize with clients when they ask me what will grow in a problem area like this. Believe me I know it’s a challenge to bring in some colorful foliage, texture or might I be so bold as to want flowers, too? Take a tip from one who lives in a similar area with the same problems. We’re in this together.
At this time of year when the plums are blooming and the flowering pears are clothed in white blossoms, I want something to extend this look out in the garden. There are several plants that bloom early in dry shade and fortunately they are also deer resistant. Later in the season when soil moisture all but disappears there are other plants that will take over center stage.
But first here are the candidates for early spring color and fragrance in shady gardens.
Fragrant Winter daphne is a handsome evergreen shrub and I especially like the variegated foliage of the variety ‘Aureomarginata’. This small, deer tolerant shrub is good looking year round and does well under the shade of small trees. Although many daphnes are tricky to grow, this one is adaptable and easy to please. During the summer water it as infrequently as the plant will allow. This is usually about once per month. Little or no water in summer will reward you with clusters of fragrant purple flowers that start opening at this time of year. Cut them to bring inside with hellebore for a pretty bouquet.
For fragrant May flowers try daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ which is also easy to grow and requires only occasional water as does daphne transatlantic ‘Summer ‘Ice’. Summer Ice produces sweetly scented flowers for an extraordinarily long time. Flowering begins in early April and can continue as late as November.
Another powerfully fragrant plant for dry shade is commonly known as sweetbox. Sarcococca may not be showy enough to give to your Valentine but the sweetly scented flowers attract hummingbirds and fill the winter garden with a delicious fragrance for weeks starting in January.
Sarcococca ruscifolia forms an upright bushy shrub about 4 feet tall. Another variety called sarcococca hookeriana humilus makes a great ground cover as it rarely exceeds 1 1/2 feet tall. Both plants have dark green leaves, attractive berries and are deer resistant.
Hellebores are another winter blooming plant with foliage that looks great, too. I have several varieties including orientalis, argutifolius and foetidus. My Golden Sunrise has large, canary yellow flowers. It’s been blooming for almost a month and will continue for several more weeks. Hellebores are often still flowering during the Christian season of Lent from which they get their common name, Lenten Rose. They are good plants for naturalizing under trees as they are low maintenance, survive with little water and are disease free.
Other plants that bloom at this time of year and require only moderate summer irrigation include Lily-of-the-Valley shrub, clivia, bergenia, mahonia and Pacific Coast iris.
As summer approaches other plants and shrubs will lend their color and texture to the dry shade garden.
Western Wild ginger and Pacific Coast Iris are great ground covers. Good shrubs include deer resistant Osmanthus fragrans or sweet olive. Their white flowers are tiny but powerfully fragrant. Bloom is heaviest in spring and early summer but plants flower sporadically throughout the year. This compact shrub grows at a moderate rate in full sun to partial shade and reaches 10 feet.
Heavenly bamboo are work horses in the shady garden. For a different look try growing nandina filamentosa or Thread-leaf nandina. This evergreen small shrub grows to 2-3 ft tall with very lacy, almost fern-like growth. New foliage is reddish in color and during the fall the leaves turn orange or purplish red. Pinkish-white flowers bloom in clusters in late spring and summer.
There are lots of other shrubs and plants that require only occasion summer water for those shady spots. Email me and I can share even more ideas and suggestions.
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In the spirit of practicing what I preach I set out to do a little pruning around the ‘ol homestead last week. Since I cut back the hydrangeas pretty hard last year this time round I did only a bit of shaping. The fuchsias haven’t gone totally dormant this year but as they bloom on new wood I cut them back by a third. Then I looked at the roses. I have a few climbers and several shrub roses. This is how I’m going to get the best rose show ever this year.
I want my roses to produce lots of roses on a compact shrub and not just a few exhibition size blooms so I prune my shrubs moderately. My goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation aiming for a vase-shaped bush with an open center. I’ll cut out canes that cross, saving the better of the two, prune spindly and diseased stems and dead wood. I’ll also prune canes that appear weak or broken. Healthy canes appear green or reddish while old and dying canes are brown. Cut back the remaining stems by about third. When pruning, cut canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing leaf bud or a swelling on the cane. Slant the cut away from the bud to encourage growth outward. Clean pruners after every use to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp to make clean cuts.
Heirlooms roses such as David Austin and other old antique garden roses require less pruning because their open look is part of their charm.
Same goes for climbing roses. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.
My roses still have many of last years’ leaves and are pushing new growth already. I know those old leaves will spread fungus spores and possibly infect the new growth so I’ll patiently pluck them off. If you have a huge climber this might not be possible and spraying with fungicide may be your only option if you’ve had disease problems in the past. Rake up the debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It’s a good idea to spray the bare plant, coating the trunk, branches and twigs and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually only have problems with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light horticultural oil in 1 quart water and spray every 7 to 10 days during the spring.
Pruning intimidates some gardeners but when you understand the reasons for making the cuts, pruning becomes less daunting. The reasons to prune are for health, appearance and to control size.
Prune your roses throughout the growing season, too. Deadheading, or cutting off spent flowers, encourages plants to rebloom. Every time you cut a rose bloom to bring it indoors or deadhead a fading rose, prune the stem down to shape the plant at the same time. Prune to a spot that has at least 5 leaflets. Roses grow from the point where they are cut, so consider the overall shape of the plant as you snip.
Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can always trim them up again later. Roses are like redwoods -you can’t kill one- they’re the energizer bunnies of the plant world.