Garden Tasks-Rain or Shine

Those of you who lived in the Santa Cruz mountains during the winter of 1982 remember it well. Following two days or torrential rains, a large section of hillside above Love Creek gave way. Thirty homes were destroyed and ten people were killed by the slide. The rainfall totaled 111 inches that year.

Rain gauge on 2/8/17 showing 99.99″ +10″ more as of 2/18/2017

During the winter of 1997 the San Lorenzo Water Department recorded 90 inches of rain. The department’s historical rainfall data goes back to 1888 and shows that during the winter of 1889 a whopping 124 inches of rain fell. This winter is one to rival the books with about 70-110 inches of rain falling so far depending where you live. We don’t aspire to break any records.

How does this much rainfall affect our gardens? If you have addressed drainage issues and are slowing, spreading and sinking all this water, congratulations. But what about the plants? Fortunately most plants are dormant or semi-dormant at this time of year. Even plants that don’t lose their leaves aren’t in growth mode yet. When a plant is actively growing either roots or new foliage it will suffer if the roots are soggy day after day. Fungal problems and root rot will take its toll on a plant. An extremely wet March or April is not a good thing.

We gardeners are the eternal optimists and hope that only gentle rains will fall through May. And during those lulls in the weather this is what I’m going to be doing over the next month.

California fuchsia – zauchneria californica

Prune fruit, nut, shade trees and deciduous vines like clematis. Cut back woody shrubs like Mexican bush sage, artemisia and butterfly bush to stimulate lush new growth. You can cut back these plants close to the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Prune them lightly after blooming without cutting into bare wood.

Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim.

mophead hydrangeas in June

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although sulfur is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it is not as kind to many beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are better for your soil.

I’ll wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Already damaged foliage can protect a plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of last hard frost in our area. Or at least it used to be.

Don’t cut back grasses yet if you get frost in the area where they grow. Wait until mid-March. If you live where you rarely get frost go ahead and prune these plants back now. I’m going ahead and pruning California fuchsia, salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ and hummingbird sage now. They look terrible.

camellia sasanqua

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples, rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower. You can cut some branches during flowering to bring in cuttings for bouquets.

I can tell that spring will soon be here as the flowering plum buds are showing color. Can’t tell from the weather report, though.

About Roses

Roses are the flower of love. Many of us have fond memories of favorites in our mother’s garden or of a beautiful bouquet given or received on Valentine’s Day. It’s dormant season for roses which is good for both pruning and adding a few to the garden.

David Austin rose

As a designer I have clients who have inherited roses and want to keep them as a remembrance. Others want to create a cutting garden filled with roses and other perennials. Don’t feel guilty for growing those beauties in your own garden. They use less resources than you think and there are many ways to grow them sustainably.

Roses, whether bush types, climber or ground cover carpet varieties, use a moderate amount of water in order to thrive according to the latest Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) list. This amount of summer irrigation is the same as many of the plants on the list of Scotts Valley Water District’s 800 Approved Low Water-Use Plants for lawn replacement. Plants such as Emerald Carpet manzanita, Joyce Coulter ceanothus, Siskiyou Blue fescue grass, Pacific wax myrtle, butterfly bush, yarrow hybrids and Tapien verbena have similar water requirements.

Since now is the time to prune your roses here are a few tips.

Strike it Rich hybrid tea rose

Prune shrubs moderately to keep them compact. The goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation aiming for a vase-shaped bush with an open center. Cut out canes that cross, appear weak or are diseased, spindly or dead. Healthy canes appear green or reddish while old and dying canes are brown. Cut back the remaining stems by about one third. When pruning, cut canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing leaf bud or a swelling on the cane. Clean pruners after every use to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp.

Prune heirlooms roses such as David Austin and other old antique garden roses less 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 make the cane flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Zepherine Drouhin climbing rose

Pluck off and rake away any old leaves. They can spread fungal spores. Consider spraying dormant plants with a combination of organic horticultural oil and copper soap or lime-sulfur. 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.

Prune your roses throughout the growing season, too. Deadheading, or cutting off spent flowers, encourages plants to re-bloom. Mulch around your roses to conserve water and encourage soil microorganisms.

Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can always trim them up again later.

Take Advantage of Bare Root Season

Take advantage of those rare breaks in the weather to get basic chores in the garden done. Who thought last fall we’d be wishing for less precipitation or at least that it would be spread out over a longer time? Looking back at National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) winter season predictions from last November, their best guess was that our La Nina condition was weak and drought was expected to persist in California. Let’s hope our record rainfall makes its way down into the aquifer.

What should a gardener be doing between rain storms?

bare root fruit trees displayed at Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond

Shop for bare root plants. If you want to add fruit trees or other edibles to the garden and the weather has interfered with your plans don’t delay. Shop for your plants now 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 permanent roots in their new home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, 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.

Don’t plant in heavy saturated soil with a high clay content, however. If your soil drains poorly it’s best to place your bare root tree at an angle in a trench, cover with soil and water in. Wait to plant until the soil is crumbly and friable with plenty of pore space. Digging in waterlogged clay soil is one of the worst things you can do for your soil’s health.

What’s the correct way to plant a bare root tree? According to research amending the soil is no longer recommended.  Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond has a great web site with all the information you need to get your new fruit trees off to a good start including pruning, staking, mulching and care as they mature.

Red Delicious apples

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-1200 chilling hours where the temperature is 45 degrees or less during the dormant season. You can find out how many hours of chilling your area gets by going online to www.getchill.net and use the WunderMap from Weather Underground. You can give a fruit tree more chilling in the winter but not less. Those in coastal Santa Cruz, for instance, can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious. We can grow both.

Ginger Gold apples

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.

Don’t miss the opportunity to add a fruit tree or other edible to your garden this winter.

Winter Weather All-Stars

Between storms I’ve been scouting for flowering plants that really hold up to pounding rain. Sure pansies, primroses and cyclamen are pretty but they’re looking a bit beat up about now. I have been impressed with many flowering shrubs and trees that are happily blooming despite so much rainfall this winter.

As I write this during another series of storms, my weather station here in Bonny Doon has recorded 85.06 inches of the wet stuff this season with 39.76 inches of that having fallen so far in January alone. I have put out straight sided containers on several occasions to double check my gauge with an old fashion ruler. Yep, the weather station is accurate.

All this rain makes me have even more respect for the flowering plants that are holding up to the weather. These plants are my heroes and you might consider including them in your garden too.

Autumnalis flowering cherry

One of my favorite small ornamental trees, blooming several times a year, is the Autumnalis flowering cherry. It blooms in the spring, a little during the summer, again in the early fall and then another round of blossoms show up in December and January. I’m not sure how it got the name Autumnalis ‘cause it sure can’t read a calendar. I was afraid I would loose the winter show with so much pounding rain but the pale pink blossoms have come through just fine and and chickadees who land in it before going to the feeder remind me that spring will be here before I know it.

Cinnamon Snow helleborus

Also here in my own garden the hellebore flowers are holding up well. One of my favorites is called Cinnamon Snow but all of the varieties of this buttercup relative accept wind, rain, cold and less than perfect soil while getting by with only moderate watering in the shady summer garden. Deer aren’t attracted to them either.

Australian fuchsia

Recently, after seeing a Pink Australian Fuchsia blooming so profusely despite the rain, I decided to add a variegated variety called Correa ‘Wyn’s Wonder’ to my own garden. Although not related to hybrid fuchsias, the flowers are similar and their nectar will feed the Anna’s hummingbirds. They grow well in dry shade under oaks are deer resistant and drought tolerant.

A favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers is the evergreen mahonia. Plant a mahonia if you want to attract winter hummingbirds. They are blooming now with bright yellow flower clusters that will last for months. Each flower will set a purple berry looking like a cluster of grapes. The edible berries make good jelly, too. There are 70 varieties of mahonia including our own native Oregon Grape which grows in the understory of Douglas fir forests. Mahonia aquifolium is resistant to summer drought, tolerates poor soil and doesn’t create a lot of leaf litter.

daphne odora

Other tough winter blooming plants include winter daphne, abutilon, witch hazel, edgeworthia, camellia and grevillea. Driving around I’m seeing that the Saucer Magnolia’s don’t mind the pounding rain either. Enjoy color in the garden regardless of what Mother Nature brings our way.

Houseplants Facts to Know

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.

Areca palm

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.

Many common houseplants help fight pollution indoors. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. 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.

Pothos

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.

BromeliadSome 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, snake plant, pothos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list of plants that fight indoor pollution.

Bromeliad species

If you have a cat of dog that you share your home with most of the above plants aren’t safe for them according to the ASPCA website. While all plants clean the air only ferns, spider plants, areca and parlor palms and phalaenopsis orchids from the above list are safe.

Other houseplants toxic for dogs and cats according to the ASPCA are asparagus fern, lilies, cyclamen, jade plant, aloe vera, azalea, begonia, ivy, mums, coleus, sago palm, kalanchoe and rubber plant. Keep your pets safe by keeping toxic plants out of reach.

There are many houseplants that are safe for cats and dogs and every plant photosynthesizes and cleans the air to some extent. Some of the common ones include African violet, aluminum plant, bromeliads, peperomia, areca palm, polka dot plant, cast iron plant, Christmas cactus, chenille plant, creeping Charlie, false aralia, Tahitian bridal veil, wandering jew, goldfish plant, piggy-back plant and the succulents, donkey’s tail and hens and chickens.

With a little planning you can clean the air in your home while keeping the pets safe.

Houseplant Confidential – Part I

Tucked on window sills and tabletops my houseplants clean the air and provide indoor beauty while the landscape outdoors is mostly resting. They are easy to keep healthy if I follow a few tips.

Spathiphyllum aka Peace Lily

A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light. They’re used to warm rain and perfect drainage. We put them in pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with. Most houseplants will tolerate darker conditions if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry allowing oxygen to move back into the root zone. Let the soil in a 4-6 inch pot dry half an inch down between waterings then water with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water or the roots will rot. If your plant is in a larger pot let the soil dry a couple inches between waterings. A moisture meter is very helpful for larger plants.

Move plants into the best light you have. Even a table lamp will provide light for a plant growing underneath. Remove dust with a moist cloth or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Dust blocks light from getting to leaves.

Dracaena

Fertilize less often skipping December and January and starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Houseplants are essentially dormant in winter needing fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Don’t re-pot a plant in winter when they are slow to grow new roots. Replant when the growing season resumes in March or April. Choose a pot only two inches bigger than the old pot each time you transplant. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing and watering during the growing season.

Avoid placing plants in cold drafts near high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway. Ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Sansevieria

If you have medium to low light conditions in your house some of the best upright plants are philodendron, peace lIly, Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola, ferns and palms. Hanging plants that grow well in low light are heart-shaped philodendron, pothos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

If you do find insects on your plants, a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow up spraying a week later. Horticultural oil works well, too, by smothering insects and their eggs. If you have tiny black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently. They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Next week: toxic and non-toxic houseplants for cats and dogs and those that clean the air.

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