Do I Really Need to Dormant Spray and Prune my Fruit Trees?

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Gummosis canker on dwarf nectarine- Photo courtesy of Sherry Austin

A Face Book friend recently posted a picture of gummosis on her dwarf nectarine. While pruning her fruit trees she found the sticky stuff and shared her plight. While some folks post pictures of babies and political opinions on their Face Book page, my friends post pictures of plants and their fruit trees. Yes, if you haven’t already done so, this is the time to winter prune fruit trees and apply dormant spray to fend off diseases and insect pests. With rainfall expected throughout the spring this is not the year to omit this important task.

Why prune your fruit trees in winter? The reasons to prune fruit trees are to increase fruit production, develop strong 45-degree branch angles to support fruit load, remove limbs that grow down or straight up, maintain tree size and maintain fruit spurs. The dormant season is the best time to train a fruit tree during its first three years. Pruning trees during the dormant period tends to have an invigorating effect on the tree. Good for a young tree, not so good if you are trying to control size.

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Gummosis on plum in summertime.

Pruning of dead or diseased branches can be done anytime, however, the sooner the better. And don’t prune suckers in the winter. This insures they will grow back in the summer. Over zealous winter pruning can result in waterspouts so go easy at this time of year. Summer pruning, done in June or July, decreases size and vigor which helps to slow the growth of a tree.

Often I’m asked whether to paint a wound with sealing compound after pruning. This is no longer recommended as it encourages wood rot. A tree is best protected by proper pruning technique and timing. With this in mind, don’t prune during late spring or fall as a tree is most vulnerable during those times. When you cut away part of a plant, a would is left, susceptible to pests and diseases. To avoid trouble always prune so as to make small wounds, rather than large ones. Trimming a bud or twig produces a smaller wound than waiting until it is a large limb. Rubbing off a sucker bud leaves a smaller wound than if you want until it has a year’s growth or more.

My friends sticky amber gum oozing from her dwarf nectarine branch is the tree’s reaction to stress. Cankers or sunken lesions covered with gum may be caused by mechanical injuries, such as lawnmowers or pruning, insects, winter damage, sun scald, herbicide injury or various fungal or bacterial infections. Practice good sanitation by removing and destroying cankered limbs.

You can prevent or control many diseases and overwintering insects by applying a dormant spray this month. This can be the most effective spray of the season. Fungal diseases such as peach leaf curl, fire blight, scab and anthracnose as well as insects including aphids, San Jose scale, bud moth, leaf roller, coddling moth and whitefly larvae, mealybugs and mites can all be controlled.

There are several types of dormant sprays and all three types are considered organic. Lime-Sulfur or copper can be mixed with horticultural oil which smothers overwintering insects and eggs. This spray is good for all fruit trees except apricots which should be sprayed in the fall with copper and this month with horticultural oil.

Apply dormant spray when the temperature is above 40 degrees. Make sure you cover every nook and cranny of each branch and trunk until the tree is dripping and spray the surrounding soil. Spray only plants that have suffered from pests or disease. Sprays, even organic, can kill beneficial insects as well. Even though they’re organic, dormant sprays can be irritating to skin and eyes, Wear long sleeves and gloves and eye protection.

I hope I don’t find any pictures on Face Book of your plant pests or diseases but post away if you something wicked your way comes and I’ll try to help.

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Bare Root Fruit Trees- What, When and Why?

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Autumnalis flowering cherry blooming in January

I have an Autumnalis flowering cherry tree that blooms year round. The last blooming cycle started in late November and it’s still blooming now despite heavy rains. This tree came into my life 20 years ago as a bare root tree. We’re old friends. Now is the time to add ornamentals and edibles like fruit, nuts, berries and vegetables while they’re available in bare root form. They are easy to plant, economical and establish quickly.

Every year there are more fruit tree varieties available in bare root including delicious time honored heirloom varieties as well as modern favorites. It’ll be hard for me to decide which ones I’ll recommend for edible gardens I design this year.

Several years ago Orin Martin, the manager, master orchardist, horticulturalist and

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Apple variety

teacher extraordinaire at UCSC Alan Chadwick garden visited a group of fellow landscape designers bringing with him a bag of his favorite apples. As he cut slices of each for us to sample his highest praise went to Cox’s Orange Pippen, Golden Delicious, American Golden Russet, McIntosh and Mutsu apples. Plant these varieties and you could be eating apples from August through October. Did you know that at one time in American history russet apples were the most desired and wages were actually paid in cider made from russet apples?

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Bare Root Fruit Trees in bins with sawdust

If it’s peaches you crave, Renee of Mountain Feed & Farm Supply shared with me some peach leaf curl resistant varieties they carry. Listed by UC Integrated Integrated Pest Management Program they include Frost and the Q-1-8 white peach. The Frost is a medium-sized, freestone yellow peach with a delicious flavor. It has showy pink flowers in the spring. They ripen in July and require 700 hours of winter chill. The Q-1-8 peach ripens in July also. This white-fleshed, semi-freestone peach is sweet and juicy like Babcock and has showy blossoms in late spring. Peaches are self-fruitful and don’t require another peach to pollinize them.

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-900 chilling hours per winter. What does that mean? Well, many fruit trees, lilacs and peonies need a certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less. You can give the plant more chilling in the winter and that’s just fine but not less. Those in coastal Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious. We can grow both.

What if you don’t get full sun where you’d like to grow fruit trees? Apples, pluots and plums are good choices for an area that gets some sun- at least 5 hours- every day during the growing season. The ideal is full sun but these trees will still set and ripen some fruit in partially shaded conditions. With peaches, nectarines or apricots it’s a different story. These fruits need hot sun to develop sweet, tasty fruit. Too little sun and they will not deliver anything close to what you have in mind.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant. Once leaves emerge or flower buds start to swell tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing new permanent roots in their final home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches,

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Bartlett pear

plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

With this in mind be wary of spring sale bare root stock. Also trees in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy. Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.

When May rolls around I’ll be anxiously awaiting the first cherries, apricots and peaches. Easter_Buerre_pearThen the early nectarines arrive, sweet and juicy followed by the plums that ripen next. Later in the summer apples, figs and pears make their debut as well as late ripening plums and peaches. With a little planning you can have fresh fruit 7 months of the year.

By growing your own fruit you’re not at the mercy of mechanical harvesters and shipping practices. You can grow fruit and harvest it when the time is right. Homegrown fruit is a world apart from agribusiness and much less expensive than the Farmer’s Market.

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Pruning Roses- How, When & Why

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Mixed rose bouquet

In between storms I’m itching to get outside and do something in the garden. It’s too early to cut back the perennials as some frosty nights are sure to come our way between now and mid-March. But it’s just the right time to start pruning the roses. It’s best to prune your roses before they start leafing out or some of their energy will be wasted.

Last year, mine were looking just fine in January, thank you very much, so I thought I’d skip the pruning and removing last year’s leaves. Boy, what a mistake. Oh they looked great in January and February when there was no precipitation. Then some rain fell in March. I’m not kidding when I tell you that every single leaf got black spot and rust. My rose varieties are usually resistant to disease but they could not fight back against the fungal spores lurking in the soil just waiting to colonize those old leaves.

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Yellow fragrant rose

Roses give so much back I think they are worth the extra mulch and a little extra water to keep them producing those lovely blooms. There’s nothing quite as dramatic as a mixed bouquet of scented roses on the table.

I want my rose bushes 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. Then I’ll 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 afterward to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp to make clean cuts.

Same goes for climbing roses. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to 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.

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Bouquet of mixed roses

Heirlooms roses such as David Austin, other old antique garden roses, and floribunda roses require less pruning because their open look is part of their charm. Keep this in mind and prune lightly. Old garden roses that bloom once in the spring should be pruned after flowering.

I got off easy this year as one of my roses was pruned and de-leafed by a deer who got inside the fence one night but the others are getting pruned the right way and at the right time. 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 re-bloom. 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.

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Houseplants Clean the Air in Winter

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Spathiphyllum aka Peace Lily

Some of my houseplants look a little sad. They were forced to give up their regular place for the Christmas tree and table top decorations and the leaves are dusty and looking a bit droopy. Houseplants can absorb toxins from the air in your house. We spend more time indoors in the winter so that’s an important function. Let your houseplants work for you.

It’s amazing how many potential pollutants can be found in a home. For most of a winter day, our homes are closed tight with no windows or doors open to let out pollutants and let fresh air circulate. Toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene can be released from furniture upholstery, carpets, cleaning products, paint, plastics and rubber. Carbon monoxide from the incomplete burning of wood and nitrogen oxides from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and smog can also be present in indoor air.

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Dracaena

Then there are airborne biological pollutants. These include bacteria, viruses, animal dander and dried cat saliva, house dust and pollen. House mites, the source of one of the most powerful biological allergens grow in damp warm environments. Mold and mildew grow in moist places like central heating systems and are just one more source of indoor pollution.

The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

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Pathos

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Yikes, who knew all that was going on right under our noses.

Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the home. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, liriope, snake plant, pathos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list.

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Sanseveria

Caring for your houseplants in winter will keep them healthy. Remove dust which blocks light from getting to leaves. I use a moist cloth as it’s too much hassle to drag them to the shower.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry. Poke your finger into the soil. As a rule of thumb, if your plant is in a 4-6″ pot let the soil dry half an inch down between waterings then water thoroughly with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer with water for over an hour or the roots will rot. If your plant is in an 8-12″ pot let the soil dry to 1-2″ down before watering and if you have a bigger specimen the soil should be dry 2-3″ down before watering. Don’t panic if this takes 2-3 wks before the soil has dried sufficiently for a plant in a big pot. A moisture meter is very helpful for your larger plants.

Fertilize less often. Some houseplant growers skip fertilizing in December and January starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Think of your houseplants as essentially dormant in winter. They need fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Here in the Santa Cruz mountains many of us live under trees that block available light during the winter and cloudy days can further lower the amount of light your plants receive. Move plants into the best light you have. To avoid unnecessary trauma, don’t repot a plant in winter. If you’ve acquired a new plant, it’s best to put it inside the next size pot for the time being and replant it when the growing season resumes in March or April. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing during the growing season.

Plain green leafy types do best when there’s less light. Schefflera, arboricola and philodendrons like heart-leafed, selloum and split-leafed, pothos, Chinese evergreen, peace lily and ferns look good even in dreary conditions. They come from the under-story of jungles and grow naturally in low-light areas. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

I’m going to get more indoor plants for my own home and choose from those that filter the air best.

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Exploring Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens signWhat could be more lovely than spending Christmas Eve at a botanical garden? After a windy, stormy morning the clouds cleared and winter sun brought color to the golden heathers, early blooming rhododendrons and grevilleas growing in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. I’ve long wanted to visit this famous garden and here was my chance. I was not disappointed at what is described as 47 acres of beauty to the sea.

The mission of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden is to conserve plants in harmony with the Northern California coastal ecosystem. Like your own garden this one provides interest year round. I could see the affects of the long summer drought on some of the rhododendron leaf edges but winter rains have turned every fern and blade of grass bright apple green. Mushrooms emerged from damp earth and the Fern Canyon Creek looked more like a small river.

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Jan and Sherman enjoy the gardens

Dogs are welcome here at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden so Sherman, our Welsh springer spaniel, was overjoyed with the gardens, too. He seemed to favor the weeping Lebanon cedar and red-twig dogwood but the wild ginger was a big hit also.

It’s an easy half mile walk from the perennial garden to the spectacular vista at the ocean’s edge but with so many side gardens and side paths the journey is as long as you want. In the summer and fall the perennial garden is ablaze with blooming plants but even at this time of year there are many specimens that provide foliage color and structure.

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Euphorbia paired with lonicera nitida

I especially liked the combination of blue euphorbia paired with Baggeson’s Gold lonicera. This type of lonicera is not the familiar honeysuckle vine but an evergreen shrub called a box honeysuckle. It is hardy to cold and requires only moderate irrigation. Other favorite plants in this section of the garden were the blooming hellebore, pheasant tail grass, dwarf conifers, Hinoki cypress and a brilliant purple hopseed.

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Pink Delight rhododendron

Further down the path, the garden’s signature plant, the rhododendron, made its appearance. Several varieties from the Himalayas including Pink Delight and the fragrant, Harry Tagg, are early bloomers and were covered with blossoms. Many tree-like rhododendrons, including the native rhododendron californicum and the Big Leaf rhododendron will put on their show in late spring.

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Bergenia cordifolia

Blooming also in the woodland garden large stands of bergenia cordifolia bordered the path, their bright pink flower spikes surrounded by huge round leaves. Helleborus take any amount of winter weather and the Corsican hellebore at the botanical garden were also in full bloom.

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Fuchsia excorticata

I’ve seen huge fuchsia shrubs before but never a fuchsia tree with flaky bark and a few brave fuchsia flowers growing right out of the wood. Fuchsia excorticata is the world’s largest fuchsia and in its native habitat, New Zealand, is can grow to 36 feet tall and form a trunk over a yard in diameter. The flowers are rich in nectar and visited my honey-eating birds there. The dark purple berries, known as konini by Maori, are edible and taste like tamarillos. In New Zealand, possums love this tree fuchsia and have eaten it out of many locations.

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Pacific wax myrtle

After passing through an ingenious deer fence gate made from woven tree branches on a wooden frame, the rest of the garden trails wind through pine forest, a fern canyon and a creekside path finally emerging at the Pacific ocean along the Coastal Bluff Trail. This area is open to black-tail deer and native plants like mahonia, salal, wild ginger, huckleberry and Pacific wax myrtle abound.

Sherman loved the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens as much as I. The gardens are located an on Hwy 1 just south of Ft. Bragg. If you are in the area at any time of year. take a stroll through. You’ll be glad you did.

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Ring in the New Year with Gardening Resolutions

New_Years_calendarI’m hoping to start 2016 off right. This will be the year when all good intentions pay off in my garden. Since motivation is the key to fruition I’m going on on a limb so to speak and write down my resolutions. I believe simple changes can make a big difference in the garden over time.

Since moving to this garden in Bonny Doon a couple of seasons ago I now have to accept the fact that tall redwoods screen a lot of the sun my garden receives. It’s a difficult situation with shade most of the day except the hottest midday hours. Tough on a shade plant, little blooms on the sun lovers. The gophers have systematically eaten most of the new additions anyway so this year I’m going to move the survivors to the sunniest spots and plant in gopher baskets. I’ve confessed before that I was a little cavalier with my use of gopher baskets in the past but not anymore. This year I resolve to take the extra steps necessary so my hummingbird population will have lots of nectar plants to visit.

Each year I pledge to plant more things to eat. Maybe I can’t grow all the edibles I’d like but I can sure try my hand at those that can get by on 5 hours of sun per day. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. They are more than just vegetables and fruit trees. When you grow plants you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You can connect with neighbors by trading your extra pomegranates for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Growing edibles is more that time spent doing healthy physical work- it connects us to the earth and to each other.

camellia sasanquaNew Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t get hung up on achieving everything you would like. Have I just given myself a bye if my plans don’t pan out this year? Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Planning landscape changes that conserve water will benefit the environment and your budget. Ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues and future meals.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. So don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree or a seed or a garden?

This year I was able to visit some gardens and nurseries in Carmel, the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, Yellowstone National Park and Mendocino. There’s no better way to recharge your creative batteries than to see an inspiring landscape. Even a walk around your neighborhood can give you ideas for your own garden. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a huge boulder and wished I could magically transport it to my own yard.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m continuing my fascination with local mushrooms. This year is starting off great with rainfall coming down at regular intervals. Fungi emerge so quickly and in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January and my stint as a volunteer basketeer.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.

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Christmas Lore from The Mountain Gardener

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Sherman waiting for Santa

We all celebrate the holidays in a different way. Each family has their own traditions and memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. These celebration date back thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary, mistletoe and poinsettia. How did this come about?

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts use to plant a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

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Hummingbird ornament on Noble fir Christmas tree

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into a wreath or garland.

Evergreen trees also play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas time. People walking over the herb released the fragrant scent and filled the home with blessings and protection.

How did our enduring fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants in Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek-Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated it’s a good one.

The Yule log dates back to the Saxons and Celtics. Oak trees represented strength, endurance, protection and good luck. It was the most sacred tree of Europe. On the eve of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, people would keep a huge oak log burning for 12 hours. They would toss oak twigs and acorns into the fire, shout out their hopes and resolutions for the coming New Year and sing Yuletide carols. A piece of the Yule log was saved to start the fire the following year.

It’s traditional for us to have some poinsettias in the house for the holidays but they don’t have a very long history of European tradition like other plants because poinsettia is a native of Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves or bracts turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.

Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features the harvest foods of Africa: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. It is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your traditions and have a wondrous holiday.

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Holiday Wreaths Done Right

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Christmas wreath made with Chinese pistache berries, dried hydrangea blooms, Variegated pittosporum tobira, holly, eucalyptus and cedar cuttings

The holiday season just wouldn’t be complete without a day spent with the Felton Christmas Wreath Makers at their annual get together at Barb’s house. Many of us are regulars were anxious to get started and arrived mid morning eager to dig into the various piles of wreath making greens graciously supplied by Barb and her husband, Reggie. We all shared stories and some laughs over glasses of sparkling cider or champagne and french pastries.

This year Barb and Reg collected a slightly different mix of material than in previous years. “It’s different every year”, she said. “The drought has helped some plants set more berries. And while greens from our favorite gathering places looked much better than last year others looked terrible. You just never know.”

I arrived at Barb’s beautiful garden entering through a wrought iron gate. I had forgotten her plump chickens that she keeps for their eggs and thought she had added some new garden art. Once they started pecking around for insects it all came back to me. They entertained us all day taking dust baths underneath the camellias.

Barb has a greBarbs_ roosterat eye for combining plants, garden art and hardscaping in her landscape. The curving brick path leads to the raised deck where she hosts the wreath making party. She has a chiminea fireplace in case the day turns chilly but the sun was shining on this morning after a storm went through the day before. This woman has good luck in the weather department.

Barbs_wreathEveryone makes a slightly different style wreath choosing greens, berries, seeds pods and hydrangea blooms or flower clusters of eucalyptus, acacia, pittosporum and Ruby Glow tea tree. Hollywood juniper, deodar cedar, red cedar, black pine, boxwood, camellia, oleander with long, slender seed pods and red flower buds, California bay, privet with berries and bottlebrush are just some of the plant material that we used this year.

We wreath makers come in all sizes and ages. I took time out to watch Barb help her grand daughter Sawyer attach dried hydrangea blossoms to her own little wreath. They were pretty engrossed in their project and I had to laugh when Sawyer decided hers had just the right amount of decorations on it.

One creative wreath maker this year made a horse head from a candy cane shaped wire frame she bought online. Using just two types of greens, Hollywood juniper for the horse’s coat and feathery Black pine boughs for the mane, a pine cone for the eye and some red ribbon for the bridle her creation is sure to be a hit with her niece, a horse lover.

If you’re thinking of getting together with your neighbors to make wreaths or swags, start by having each bring a couple grocery bags of greens to share with other wreath makers. It helps if you can borrow a couple tables and have a few extra clippers on hand in case someone forgets theirs like I did. Each person brings their own wreath frames of wire or grape vine and some thin gauge wire on a paddle to attach the bundles to the frame. Wire coat hangers work just fine, too.

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreens for use in wreaths and swags. Cuttings from fir, redwoods, pine, holly, mahonia, strawberry tree, toyon and cotoneaster parneyi make fine additions to your wreath or swag. But don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately. To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.

Trust me, you can’t make an bad wreath. They all turn out beautiful.

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Gifts from the Garden

Lesser_Goldfinch
Lesser Goldfinch

With the colder, rainy weather my feathered friends appreciate the seed in the feeders I have around my house even more. The Anna’s hummingbirds still frequent their feeders regularly now that the pineapple sage flowers and flowering maple are about the only nectar source in my garden. I strive to attract wildlife to my garden with the right plants, water and shelter.

That brings me to Christmas. The turkey leftovers are gone signaling it’s time to dust off the Christmas list. I add an idea for a present for a loved one and then one for me. I’m the easy one. I like everything. Sometimes I’m stumped, sometimes it all comes together seamlessly but whatever I decide to give I know some of the best gifts are the ones from nature or that I make myself. With that in mind I have a few ideas up my sleeve.

A friend loaned me a book entitled ‘Wildlife Gardens’ that is published by the National Home Gardening Club. Within the 8 chapters, ranging from “Who’s Out There and What are They Looking For” to “When Wildlife is a Problem” are many ideas, reminders and advice to discover the wildlife garden. Whether yours is a young friend or a long time friend that’s on your gift giving list, there’s a gift idea from nature for everyone.

The wildlife garden is a place to relax and recover a sense of connection with other creatures. Nesting boxes, flowers and other plants encourage birds to make their homes in your yard. Give a bird feeder or suet feeder to someone and they’ll be hooked. You can make simple feeders yourself. A platform with edges gives many birds a chance to feed at once. You can add a roof supported by branches you find in your own garden to upgrade the look.

Plants provide needed food year round in the garden and especially during the winter. Why not give a friend a

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Swallowtail butterfly feeding on butterfly bush.

plant or offset of one of your plants that birds, bees or butterflies would appreciate? Some easy-to-divide favorites that attract birds include foxglove, coral bells, red-hot poker, California fuchsia, mahonia and purple coneflower.

You might have one of the following butterfly favorites that you could divide and pot up for a friend. Yarrow, aster, veronica, agapanthus, astilbe, coreopsis and gaura to name a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be great to pot up for a gift.

A fun thing I like to do during the holidays is decorate a plant or tree outside with edible ornaments for the birds. You could trim an evergreen swag and decorate it as an easy gift. Both fruit-eating and seed-eating birds will appreciate the dietary boost during the lean winter months. For the fruit-eaters attach dried apples, hawthorn berries, cranberries and grapes to the greenery. You can also thread them onto wire loops with raw whole peanuts in the shell and wire orange slices to the branches.

Seed-eaters relish stalks of ornamental wheat tied to the branches, along with ears of dried corn. The favorite of all the “ornaments” is peanut butter-coated pinecones encrusted with wild birdseed mix and hung with florist wire. Millet sprays tied to the branches are a hit, too. Look around your garden for other berries that you can use to decorate your own trees or plants or a swag of evergreen cuttings as a present for the birds and the nature lover on your list.

succulentsAlso on my list of gift ideas is a dry arrangement of seed heads, pods and foliage from my garden in a thrift shop container or tea tin. A selection of little succulent cuttings you can spare look great in a recycled container or pot and would be a welcome addition to anyone’s kitchen window.

The holidays, maybe even more this year, are a time to bring a smile to someone you care about. Your gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show your love.

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On Being Thankful

bamboo_forestIt took a trip to beautiful Hakone Gardens in Saratoga recently to put it all in perspective. It’s easy to overlook what’s really important in life when we are busy with everyday things. With Thanksgiving approaching the gardens were quiet on this crisp fall day giving me the opportunity to slow down and listen to the lessons of nature.

Majestic shoots of black bamboo emerge from the earth and tower above me 30 feet. The timber bamboo shoots are over 4 inches across and rise even taller. Bamboo is as strong as steel and sturdier than concrete. Very dense fibers give them extreme flexibility, allowing them to bend without snapping. They are strong and graceful at the same time reminding me of my sister who faces great physical challenges with character and poise. I’m thankful for every minute I get to share her now. Be kinder than necessary for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

At the pond a dozen Koi swam slowly over to me. They are huge, probably over 20 yeawisteria_trunkrs old. What have they heard from the thousands of visitors who talk to them over the years? Each koi is a unique fish and no two are quite the same. They have different color, scale types and patterns. They look wise with their beautiful patterns of orange, white, gold and navy. I’m thankful that… “Each of us is a unique strand in the intricate web of life and here to make a contribution”.  Deepak Chopra.

Hakone Gardens was first designed over a hundred years ago in 1917. As a traditional Japanese garden it was created to last forever. A landscape architect group from Japan comes to Hakone every other year for ten days to make improvements and oversee the constant care and maintenance. The wisteria arbor roof was raised not too long ago. The structure has a big job supporting the decades old vines which twist only in a clockwise direction. Wisteria, like other legumes, pull nitrogen out of the air from bacteria on their root nodules making it available to the plant. So many lessons to be learned from wisteria- perseverance, determination, self-reliance, I’m thankful for each new challenge which helps me build strength of character.

Japanese_mapleA Japanese garden mimics nature in a smaller setting. Designed for peaceful contemplation, each element -stone, water, plants and rocks – strive to provide a spiritual haven for visitors. Old wizened Japanese maples are pruned to capture their ancient power yet bestow peace and tranquility in the garden. I sat under the canopy of a lace-leaf maple to appreciate the glowing fall color backlit by the late afternoon sun. I’m thankful for this tree which symbolizes strength and endurance. To quote American novelist, Don Williams, Jr., “The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”

My visit to Hakone Gardens helped me remember that being grateful is something I should focus on every single day. When I don’t know something it’s an opportunity to learn. Be thankful. Each new challenge helps me to grow. Be thankful. And especially be thankful for the best things I have like friends and family.

Happy Thanksgiving from The Mountain Gardener.

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Plant Combinations that Inspire

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Bearded iris with blue fescue

Outside my window a Townsend warbler feasts on suet. It’s a rainy day and my obsession with low water use plants is momentarily taking a break. Each day the soft colors of my fall garden are becoming brighter and more vivid. Backlit leaves take on a whole new look. There are so many ways of combining plants in the garden. I’m taking notes so I remember my favorites to include in my own garden and future designs. Fall is a good time for planting or planning.

Many of my grasses and plants are deciduous and are in the process of going dormant. Even when I mix in broadleaf evergreen plants these groupings lose their impact this time of year. I have only been gardening at this house for a little over a year so the new plants are still young. I’ve had to replant many shrubs and perennials as I was a little cavalier with my gopher basket use. But I persevere as I love color in the garden, especially foliage color.

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Festival grass with leucadendron

It’s the combinations that look great year-round that hold a garden together. I’ve got two leucadendron that are real troupers when it comes to drought, mucho summer sun, zero winter sun, sandy soil and deer browsing.

The ’Safari Sunset’ shows off those vivid burgundy bracts nearly year round with the best show starting during the summer and extending through the next spring. Leucadendron require good drainage and prefer acidic conditions. It’s easy to love this plant to death with too much water. I mulch mine heavily with bark chips. I’m thinking of adding the South African, long-blooming bulbine ‘Hallmark Orange’ at its feet. The combination of the two guarantee color year round.

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Blue and yellow plant combination Cream Delight phormium, Blue fescue grass, semperviven succulent

Blue and yellow are another combination that always look good together. You can pick from yellow and gold foliage plants such as phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, abelia “Kaleidoscope’, coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’ or sedum ‘GoldMoss’ and pair it with a dwarf blue spruce, blue fescue or blue oat grass, hens and chickens, a blue euphorbia such as ’Glacier Blue’ or ‘Blue Haze’ or the blue-gray succulent senecio mandraliscae.

In these days of converting lawns to low water use landscapes, choosing the right plants is even more important. Use to be a row of foundation shrubs between the lawn and the front windows were the norm. This was not a very inspiring look at best. Think of the possibilities to create a whole new look for your front or back yard.

I like all the colors so it’s hard to whittle down a plant palette to just a few for the whole garden. Breaking up your areas into different “garden” rooms allows you to pair colors like silver, purple and black in one section using a bronze phormium, a burgundy loropetalum and silver thyme.

In another section of the garden that can be seen from a window might you might want to attract hummingbirds.

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Red / Gold plant combination Red phormium, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope, rosemary, phytostegia

Blooming late in the season the super tough Pineapple sage with eye-popping red flowers combines well with the dark green of an upright rosemary and an Amazing Red phormium for an architectural dramatic touch.

In a garden that inspires you the plants should be ones that you love looking at and taking care of. Some of us like the look of dark green plants while others like grasses that move in the wind. Others are not fans of succulents. Whether you grow plants to feed the birds and attract wildlife or want a little bit of everything there’s a combination of plants that’s perfect for you and your garden.

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Feels like Fall

pumpkin_and_mumsThere’s a chill in the morning air now. Several gardeners told me that their thermometer registered 32 degrees recently and there was frost on the pumpkin. Well, actually they said the white stuff was on their peppers but you get the idea. I’ve heard this saying for years so I looked it up and found some picturesque fall scenes described for gardeners and farmers a hundred years ago.

Thanks to James Whitcomb Riley who wrote the poem ‘When the Frost is on the Punkin’ we can picture the landscape in Indiana in the early 1900’s. Tall corn, when dry was gathered into shocks which were teepee like in appearance and tied at the top. Left in the fields winter_squashthey were used as needed for livestock feed.

Pumpkin was a staple food for the early pioneers. It was easy to grow as a few seeds dropped into a shallow hole grew into a mature fruit. Yes, technically they are a fruit not a vegetable along with summer and winter squash and gourds. Their thick rind would allow them to be kept almost indefinitely.

Another stanza of Rileys’ poem describes an autumn scene not so different than our own gardens. Whether you grow apples and pears or a landscape for wildlife your garden is gently going to sleep now. Enjoy this time of year. Here’s the whole poem.

WHEN THE FROST IS ON THE PUNKIN
by James Whitcomb Reilly

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and the gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’; of the guineys and the cluckin’ of the hens
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O it’s then the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock

They’s somethin kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here -
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny monring of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock -
When the frost is on the punkin and fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries – kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A preachin’ sermons to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below – the clover overhead! -
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too!
I don’t know how to tell it – but if sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me -
I’d want to ‘commodate ’em – all the whole-indurin’ flock -
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

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Edible Plants for Birds, Bees and People

rain gauge Nov1With every rain forecast I hope for enough precipitation to give my garden a good soak. Last Monday I was not disappointed. I heard the pitter patter of rain on leaves and jumped up in the morning to check the rain gauge. To my delight the last storm dropped 1.67 inches of the wet stuff on my garden in Bonny Doon. The prior three October showers had barely totaled a tenth of an inch. Last year, the hills and meadows were already greening up with 3” of the wet stuff. After this much needed precipitation the deer are happy, the forest is happy, our gardens are happy, everybody is happy.

Some weather forecasters are predicting a drier than normal November for our area while a recent NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) report predicted El Nino rains starting this November. I’m going with the folks at NOAA. A November 1st rain event qualifies them as the best forecasters so far.

I’m enjoying the vibrant colors of the fall garden. Everything is brighter after a rain. I’ll also be looking for some new plants with berries for the birds, more shrubs with fall and winter interest and a couple new grasses. With water conservation in mind here are some of the plants I’m considering. Some put on their best show at the end of the season.

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PIneapple guava edible flowers

I can’t get enough of delicious pineapple guava fruit thanks to my best friend, Karen. Her plant is loaded with fruit this year. Pineapple guava has been on my wish list for a while because of its versatility and this fall I’m going to plant one. Easy to grow Feijoa sellowiana needs only occasional watering. An established plant can survive without any supplemental water but If you want to enjoy more flowers and delicious fruit give them a little extra water especially during flowering and fruiting periods. Mulch the soil around the plants to protect the shallow roots and conserve moisture.

The early summer flowers are showy, contrast nicely with the gray green foliage and are completely edible. You can eat them right off the plant, toss them into a salad, add them to iced tea or make jelly. They have a fruity flavor and bees, butterflies and birds also appreciate them. The pineapple-flavored 2 inch oval fruit is produced three to four months after the flowers. It’s easy to cut the little fruits in half and scoop out the fleshy inside with a spoon.

Pineapple guava grow at a medium rate to about 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. You can easily train one as an espalier, hedge or small specimen tree. They do well in containers, too, so if you’re like a lot of people with limited space or time this is a good plant to grow. Did I mention they’re deer resistant? This is one unfussy plant.

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Toyon berries

Another plant that is definitely going to be planted in my landscape this fall is a California native. Each year when I see a toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) covered in red berries I vow to get one for myself. They have very low water needs even in the summer and make a good addition for the back of the garden. Irrigate them occasionally during spring and summer to promote fire resistance. Although they often take a few years to establish, their deep roots are good for soil erosion and slope stabilization.

Also known as the Christmas berry, no berry is more sought after when is season. Robins love them. Waxwings and purple finches also rip open the fruits to eat in great numbers. Unlike pyracantha berries birds do not get drunk on toyon berries. Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.

Toyon is one of the classic shrubs of the California chaparral. Except for an extension into Baja, the shrub only occurs in California. Its resemblance to European holly and abundance in Southern California’s Holly Canyon were the origin of the name Hollywood. The name toyon was given by the Ohlone tribe and is the only California native plant that continues to be commonly known by a Native American name.

Toyon make good container specimens and the berries can be used in place of English holly for Christmas decorating.

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Confessions of The Mountain Gardener

Everything in my garden does not always turn out the way I imagined. I make lots of mistakes. From putting in all the drip emitters backwards- yes, I actually did that- to my ongoing banana slug relocation program I should be able to face challenges in the garden and come out triumphant. But alas that is not always the case.

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Gaura linheimeri ‘Belleza Dark Pink’

If you’re like me there are always plants that end up in the wrong place. My Gaura languish and reach for more light. My mildew resistant crape myrtle never recovered from last May’s foggy weather and has nary a blossom. Other plants shrivel up in too much sun. The possibilities are endless. Every garden is different. A plant that should be able to look great growing in full sun might get too much of a good thing in your garden planted up against a wall or near a flagstone patio. Conversely, some plants that should bloom just fine in partial shade never really do in parts of my garden or grow sideways reaching for more sun, finally flopping over in a valiant effort to get enough light.

I study my sun and shade patterns throughout the year. Really I do. I plant similar plants together in hydrozones to maximize irrigation efficiency. But still as the season winds down it’s obvious that I have made bad decisions along the way. Throw in the rogue gopher, the dog digging for said gopher and the occasional deer and mole and I seem to remember more failures and near-misses that successes.

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Gaura reaching for more light

I hope to learn from my mistakes and it’s never too early to start. Now’s the time to move those plants that will never do well where they are now. It’s time to plant new ones including native plants or transplant those in containers into your garden. October through February offers the best time to do this. In the fall the soil is still warm which encourages rooting and rain will be coming soon. Late winter offers natural rainfall to help plants establish before the next warm season arrives. Rearranging the garden makes for satisfactory fall work. After all you already own some of the plants, no need to buy everything new.

Transplanting and installing succeeds best if you take care of the roots as well as the top of the plant. Good growth comes from root health. Here are some tips for happy roots.

Prepare the new location first before transplanting any plant. Dig a hole twice as wide as the rootball but just the same depth. If the hole is dry fill it with water and let drain. Amend the native soil. Don’t be shy about loosening roots. Cut roots will form new, dense, healthy roots. Don’t add soil over the rootball. Keep the rootball a little higher than grade to allow for a layer of mulch and for any settling. Plants need oxygen at the soil level. Firm the soil after planting and water thoroughly.

Lessons I have learned that are easier to follow include when to expect our first frost. I’ve kept a weather journal for many years. Weather patterns change from year to year and we get updates from the media if frost is expected. You should prepare now as the first frost can come in November. Occasionally we have had a late October frost but mostly the first frost arrives about the second week of November with late November being the most common. Be prepared by bringing in your houseplants and moving frost tender plants like those fancy succulents under an overhang or porch.

I’m not sure when I’m going to be planting my wildflower seeds. Normally, I’d do it now but with the potential heavy rains we are hoping to get. I think I’ll hedge my bets, planting some now and another batch in February. By waiting until late winter I’ll be able to hoe off any tall weeds that have germinated that would outcompete the wildflowers.

One last thing and you’ll be happy to hear this. Fall is not a good time to prune. Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples prune after leaves mature next year.

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Troubles in the Garden

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Milkweed aphids

Some of us enjoy sitting in our gardens, relaxing and watching birds and other wildlife. Others grow fruit and vegetables and know their way around the kitchen. Whatever you like to do sometimes pests get in the way.

In my own garden recently I discovered my butterflyweed covered with yellow milkweed aphids. They’re not interested in any other plants just this one. Oleanders get this same sucking pest also. I’ve washed them off twice with a strong spray of water but must have missed a few as they are back. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any monarch butterflies to help me with this problem. I’d rather not even use an organic pesticide to control the outbreak. It would harm any monarch eggs that I’ve overlooked.

With pest control on my mind this week, I received an email from fellow Press Banner columnist, Dr. Terry Hollenbeck. “I thought of you when I found an article in an old gardening magazine”, he wrote. “It’s ‘The Home Gardener’ and was published in September, 1945.”

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DDT ad in ‘The Home Garden’ magazine published September 1945

Dr. Hollenbeck scanned the pages from his own magazine and sent them to me. Terry goes on to note that the editorial about the new wonder insecticide DDT warns readers in 1945 to proceed cautiously with it. Then later in the magazine on page 99 in a half page ad there appears an advertisement for DDT, the “Army’s sensational insect killer that gardeners have been waiting for…that is absolutely safe to spray”.

There has been a lot of research now on DDT and it’s effects on our bodies and that of wildlife. I was surprised when I Googled DDT that it’s still being used in the world and also found a published study debunking it’s adverse effects on raptors. Guess one can find statistics to support any argument if you look hard enough.

Here is what I found out about current use of DDT that I found interesting.

Back in 1972 the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) issued a cancellation order for DDT use in the United States based on research showing adverse environmental effects to wildlife and potential human health risks. Studies have continued to show a relationship between DDT exposure and reproductive effects in humans and as a result, today, DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and International authorities.

India is the only country now producing DDT. China and North Korea having discontinued production in recent years. 12 countries still use DDT for vector control of mosquitos and protozoa – the parasitic diseases of malaria, dengue and black fever which kill more than 800,000 people each year.

Many organizations are now promoting an integrated approach to mosquito and protozoa carried diseases. It’s not a DDT or nothing solution. Some of these organisms are developing a resistance to DDT and other chemicals. Like in our own backyards, you have to look at the whole picture. Successful programs to educate communities about non-chemical methods of control mosquitos are underway in many countries such as Vietnam.

DDT is known to be very persistent in the environment. It accumulates in fatty tissues and can travel long distances in the upper atmosphere. Because of its persistence, there is still concern for residues in the U.S.
Today nearly 40 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. we continue to live with its long lasting effects. According to the organization Pesticide Action Network, USDA found DDT breakdown products in 60% of heavy cream samples, 42% of kale greens and 28% of carrots. These breakdown products of DDT were found in the blood of 99% of people tested by the CDC.

Something to think about when I see all those mustard yellow aphids on my asclepsias. Maybe I’ll get the hose out one more time or rub them off with a gloved hand.

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Changing Times – Changing Gardens

Maybe our gardens in California should never have looked like a Monet painting filled with layer upon layer of water thirsty perennials and lush green lawns big enough for a soccer match. Because we were first settled by Easterners who could grow these plants with natural rainfall I’m going to give us a pass. It wasn’t our fault. But now we are wiser and smarter. We may have been kicking and screaming at first but all us us now accept that water is limited and we need to use it wisely.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to live in graveled yards with no landscaping. Our goal should be to figure out what the new California landscape should realistically look like and plant accordingly. We can still be surrounded by green and silver foliage and colorful flowers that look lush without breaking our water budget.
Look outside the old box and discover a whole new plant palette and a way of gardening that works for all of us.

drought tolerant plant plugs
Drought tolerant plant plugs

Recently in the mail, I received a collection of low water use, low maintenance plants native to Australia. I plan to trial the small plugs in my own garden but I know already that they are going to be winners. I have seen a couple of them at the wholesale nurseries. Others are improved selections of known tough, drought tolerant plants. They are well suited to our Mediterranean climate, easy to grow in well drained soils and hardy in winter. I’m looking forward to a time when they are available in local nurseries. In the meantime, I plan to specify them where appropriate in future landscape designs.

I”m excited about all 5 varieties of plants I received. Three are grass-like and the other two are compact versions of well known shrubs.

You might be familiar with the compact bottlebrush ‘Little John’. Breeders now have come up with a new improved version called Callistemon ’Better John’ because of its vigorous growth and dense blue-gray foliage. This 3 foot tall by 3 feet wide shrub is easy to grow, quick to establish and is long lived in the landscape. Hummingbirds love the 4-6 inch long red flowers during the spring.

The other shrub variety I am going to test is Westringia ‘Grey Box’.  Westringia are deer resistant and very drought tolerant once established and ‘Wynabbie Gem’ and ‘Morning Light’ have been popular for years for this reason. Grey Box is a new dwarf form with beautiful grayish-green foliage. It doesn’t need pruning to keep it at 3 feet tall and wide. From late winter to summer, white quarter-sized flowers appear in small clusters along the stems. I’m anxious to grow this shrub myself.

lomandra
Lomandra ‘Breeze’

A couple of the grass-like plant plugs I received are an favorite of mine. I’ve seen lomandra ‘Breeze’ growing in heavy shade and also in sun. Deer don’t like it and it looks great with little water. Now there’s a new cultivar called ‘Baby Breeze’ which stays at a graceful 18 inches tall. If you want the look of a short grass with no maintenance Lomandra is the new go-to plant. It even has yellow-orange tiny flower spikes in late spring.

Lomandra ‘Katrinus Deluxe’ is the other selection I’m going to grow out. It’s extremely drought tolerant, very shade tolerant, cold and heat tolerant and deer resistant also. It looks like an ornamental grass but you don’t have to cut it back in winter. It’s evergreen even when temperatures drop into the teens.

Dianella ‘Little Rev’ is the last plant I’m looking forward to growing. This flax lily has an weeping architectural habit. It’s a very tough and drought tolerant grass-like plant good for erosion control as well as planting on it’s own or in groups. In spring it blooms with masses of small dark violet flowers. This is a clumping plant for full sun to partial shade that slowly spreads by rhizomes. As with the others this plant also is low maintenance and requires little water once established.

I’ll keep you posted as I discover new plants for our changing times and changing gardens.

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Fall Color in the Garden

fall color_maples-Yellowstone_Lake
Fall color at Yellowstone Lake

I’m starting to see a little fall color showing in some trees and shrubs. Might not be much but I’m always optimistic about such events. When I was in Wyoming the aspen and maples were beginning to turn red and gold and shrubs with berries acted like bird magnets. During this fall planting season look again at where a low water use plant that colors or fruits in the fall might be a great addition to your garden.

What causes those fabulous fall colors? The colors are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll in the leaves busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines.

Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode, at which point their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

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Mixed forest fall color near Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Weather conditions also play a major part in fall color. Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool -but not freezing – nights.

A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperature meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying the opportunity to enter a slow, colorful dormancy.

This year because many trees are stressed by drought they may not put on their usual show before the leaves drop. I have some native big leaf maples that are probably not going to turn color before leaf drop. Stress can be caused by pests, disease, injury or drought.

California native Western redbud turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like Spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet red leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Other low water use trees and shrubs that provide fall color include Chinese flame tree, Idaho locust, Chinese Tallow, Chinese pistache, Crape Myrtle and Smoke tree.

A great tree for the gardener interested in edibles is the Fuyu persimmon. This beautiful small tree is ornamental with glossy green leaves and also offers a dramatic fall display in shades of yellow, orange and red. Bright orange fruit begins to develop in late October and clings to bare branches usually through December. The tree looks more like it’s covered with holiday ornaments than fruit. And have you priced persimmons in the store lately?

Blueberries are a must for the edible gardener. They make a beautiful hedge and provide showy red or yellow fall color. Because of our colder winters here in the mountains, we can grow both northern highbush which are self-fertile and southern highbush which produce better with another type to pollinize them. They can be great foundation plants around the home as well as in the garden. Blueberries are low maintenance. Just a light pruning once a year after the season’s harvest and the shrubs will maintain a tidy appearance. Most are pest and disease resistant and since they don’t have thorns, they are child and pet-friendly.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

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Great Grasses for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Sawtooth Mtns
Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Recently I took a road trip to see some of our great country. The Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming have been on my bucket list for a long time. In addition to the amazing places I visited and the buffalo, elk and bald eagles I got to see up close and personal I was able to take a look at passing gardens of people who live in harsh climates and get some tips on plants that survive and thrive in these conditions. If you are looking for tougher plants for your own garden to add this fall planting season here are some ideas.

Some of these plants are old favorites and some are new. There’s a reason a plant is used over and over again. It’s reliable and trouble free. Plants that are have low water requirements are a must, too.

Throughout the small towns I passed through as well as larger ones like Jackson Hole, Wyoming I again and again

rudbeckia hirta
rudbeckia hirta

saw Karl Foerster feather reed grass planted in landscapes along with the Black-eyed Susan variety Goldsturm.

Feather reed grass tolerates heavy clay soil unlike many of the other ornamental grasses. Forming a clump only 2 feet wide it can fit in a smaller garden without overwhelming other plants. Even in light shade it blooms early in June with tight, vertical flower stalks of feathery, purplish-green flowers which turn golden as the sterile seeds mature in summer. Feather reed grass looks good throughout most of the winter providing interest until cut to the ground just before the new shoots appear.

Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of Red Fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Eaton Canyon is a dwarf variety that is root hardy down to 20-25 degrees. Plant it in full sun and irrigate little to occasionally. Be sure to cut this grass back in late winter even if it hasn’t suffered much from frost. The new growth will look so much better for this treatment.

Another grass I’m hearing a lot of good things about is called Pink Crystals or Ruby grass. Melinis nerviglumis has pretty blue-green foliage that forms a one foot tall clump turning puplish-red in the fall. Very showy pink flowers rise above the foliage in the spring and summer. This grass will tolerate considerable dryness.

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Pheasant Tail grass

Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

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Phormium

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw and lomandra ‘Breeze’.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare and they are not attractive to deer. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

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The Changing Season of September

Japanese_forest_grass.1920
Japanese forest grass

You never know where new gardening ideas and inspiration can come from. The other day I stopped by to help a friend water a garden by the river in South Felton while the owners were out of town. We both enjoyed the unique combination of plants and garden art placed strategically though out the garden. It was clear that this soothing garden was created with love. If gardening keeps you sane, don’t stop because of the drought.

Covered with huge white, heavily ruffled flowers a Rose of Sharon ‘Helene’ anchored the entry to a small deck overlooking the San Lorenzo river. With a reddish-purple eye and handsome, leathery dark green leaves this attractive shrub will bloom nearly continuously over the summer and fall without setting seeds.

Other gems in this garden that caught my eye included a Japanese painted fern paired with a purple leaved coral bells. A foxtail fern and variegated hosta looked great nearby. Japanese forest grass, oakleaf hydrangea, liriope, helleborus and winter daphne grew among the ferns.

These are shade plants and most like a regular drink of water. They are combined with plants with similar water requirements in this garden but if your garden is in more sun remember that it doesn’t take a lot of water to make a garden beautiful. An garden_art.1920 Japanese_painted_fern-heuchera.1920unthirsty garden can fill you with joy.

Gardening makes us learn new things. If you water less frequently, some plants may decline or even die eventually. Remove those that do and replace them with plants that will thrive with less water.

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Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’

Some to try as replacements are agastache or Hummingbird mint. Plant near your organic edible garden to provide nectar for pollinators as well as hummingbirds. The flowers are edible as a salad garnish, in baked goods and in cocktails while their foliage can be added to herb salads or in a cup of tea.

Other perennials that bloom now and into fall include asters, gaillardia and all the salvias. California fuchsia are just starting their long fall bloom cycle, too.

I like the bright flowers of gloriosa daisy, especially the longer lived Goldsturm variety. These perennials make good cut flowers and are tough and easy to grow. They are descended from wild plants native to the eastern U.S. but require only moderate water once established.

Need more late summer perennials to extend your season? Coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter. Now days there are many colors to choose from in addition to the traditional rosy purple daisies. They are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets. The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years. If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower. Echinacea purpurea and other varieties are used as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon. The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.

Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states. It was used to treat snake and insect bites because of its antiseptic properties and to bathe burns. They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache. It was also used for purification. The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.

Enjoy unthirsty color in your garden this fall.

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Lessons from the Garden

With summer winding down I’m looking at my garden and thinking about change. What can I do this fall so that next year I can save more water and make the garden more beautiful?

free_bark_chipsWith our shifting climate and availability of resources we learn new ways to keep our gardens thriving. Mulching is one way to do it. Cover all bare soil with mulch – mulch your garden, mulch your hillside, mulch your trees, mulch around your perennials and shrubs.

A nice layer around plants conserves moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages microorganisms to flourish in the soil. An added benefit is that it prevents erosion which might be especially important this winter. Protect your soil from runoff with 3 inches or more of mulch.

I had Davey Tree drop off a load of wood chips recently and the quality was excellent. The chips are small with a few green leaves and will look great as soon as they are spread. There are other sources of mulch and they’re all good. Replenishing mulch is an ongoing task – one that keeps on giving.

While up in the Pacific Northwest recently I saw many of the same problems and effects of the drought that we are encountering. You can see see native trees suffering there as well as ornamental trees in residential landscapes. No one up there is used to watering a tree in the summer.

The moral of the story: Don’t let this happen to your trees. Use a soaker hose, deep root irrigator or a hose turned on slowly to occasionally moisten the soil 18” deep under the drip line and a bit beyond. Even our native oaks can use a drink after 4 years of drought. Just be sure to keep the trunk area dry. The feeder roots are way out at the edge of the canopy.

You might also be noticing deciduous trees already starting to show fall color. This is a survival mechanism. It’s to their benefit to drop foliage prematurely when moisture is scarce. From their point of view reproduction is over for the year and they can rest up and regroup for next year.

Our native redwoods are showing signs of the drought also as the heat of summer takes its toll. You can see older, interior needles and small branches die off and start to drop This happens every year about this time but this year I’m seeing more brown branches than ever. The world’s tallest tree can live for 2200 years. The age of these trees at maturity is 400-500 years so most have survived other droughts as well.

Coast redwoods prefer to have a full canopy right to the ground and its own, thick mulch layer surrounding the trunk. Redwoods on hot, south facing slopes seem to be suffering more than other redwoods this year. I’ve also seen small patches of redwood trees that appear to have totally died off. Redwoods are usually resistant to disease but drought stressed trees can suffer from several pathogens and fungal diseases are exacerbated by stress. Some pathogens have been particularly active in the last several drought years. It is not uncommon, however, to find in the same vicinity healthy trees that do not show any signs of disease.

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amaryllis_belladonnaIf you are looking for the perfect drought tolerant flower for your late summer garden you can see them blooming everywhere these days. I’m talking about those huge pink flowers on tall stems that emerge from the ground almost mysteriously at this time of year. Their bare 2-3 foot stalks rise from bare earth, each topped by a cluster of fragrant, trumpet-shaped rosy pink flowers.

Amaryllis belladonna lend drama and color to the late season garden. Even their common name – Naked Lady – sounds exotic. They are so plentiful many people think they are native to the area. But being a long lived bulb it’s more likely they were brought here by early settlers.

Native to South Africa amaryllis belladonna perform best is areas with warm dry summers like ours. Growing in most soils with reasonable drainage they get all the moisture they need from winter rains. Heat and dryness during late spring and summer are necessary for blooming.

Because moving a belladonna lily can easily stop its blooming for several years, it is best to divide clumps only when necessary or to move them during or just after blooming, keeping as much soil intact around the bulb as possible.

The strongly scented flower clusters make an excellent cut flower and last for about a week. A word of caution – the plants are poisonous if eaten. You can find the huge bulbs at local nurseries or ask a neighbor who wants to divide theirs for some.

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