Hedges & Living Fences

When I visited eastern Poland many years ago each house and garden was enclosed with a fence or hedge of some sort. Some fences were wood, some stone, some ornamental iron and some were living fences that divided properties. I thought the living hedges were the most beautiful and neighborly. Whether you need to screen a water tank or noisy road or the neighbor’s second story window there are lots of choices. Fall planting season is still going strong.

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

Azara microphylla

Narrow spaces can be challenging when you need to screen the house next door. There’s not room for a big, evergreen tree or hedge to solve the problem. One way is to use plants that can be espaliered against a fence or trellis. Some plants like azara microphylla naturally grow flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great.

Variegated Mint Bush

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

Small trees that make a good screen are purple hopseed, and leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’. Both have beautiful burgundy foliage. California natives that can be espaliered against a fence include Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Western redbud, mountain mahogany, toyon, pink flowering currant, Oregon grape and spicebush.

Pacific Wax Myrtle

If you have a wider space to grow screening plants, one of my favorites is Pacific wax myrtle. This California native grows quickly to 30 ft tall with glossy, rich forest green leaves. Its dense branches make a nice visual and noise screen for just about anything or anybody. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.

osmanthus heterophyllus

California coffeeberry grows 6-8 feet tall and gets by with very little summer water once established. Birds love the berries. I also like osmanthus fragrans for a screen with its sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ for their showy variegated foliage. Email me and I’ll give you even more suggestions.

Provide the best growing environment for the fastest results. By this I mean amending the soil at planting time if your soil is not very fertile. Cover the soil with mulch and fertilize with compost or organic fertilizer. Water deeply when needed especially during the first three years when young plants put on a lot of growth.

Ornamental Grasses in the Fall

Throughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but especially in the fall I hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden.” There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of ornamental grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too.

Giant Feather Grass focal point near spa

Grasses are versatile plants and come in all sizes- from ground-huggers to shrub-like clumps. Some form upright tufts, some look like mop-top mounds and others form arching fountains. They easily adapt to the same conditions most garden plants thrive in, rarely needing any special soil, preparation or maintenance. And more subtly, their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as no other plants do.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

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, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

Giant Feather Grass

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture. light and movement of a grass would be perfect, look to the taller varieties. Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass is a semi-evergreen grass which grows 4-6 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 7 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

Bulbs for the Santa Cruz Mountains

There’s not a year that goes by that I don’t plant some new bulbs in the fall. I may battle squirrels, deer and shade but come spring it’ll all be worth it. Daffodils and narcissus are safe but what would spring be without all the other gorgeous bulbs to welcome in the season?

King Alfred daffodil

This year I’ plan to try some different varieties of bulbs and to foil the squirrels I”m going to plant them really deep in areas that have excellent drainage. Squirrels rarely dig far under the surface so they aren’t likely to reach the bulbs. If you have less than stellar drainage, your bulbs will rot if you plant them deeply, so use chicken wire cages or gopher baskets when you plant them. Next year when they emerge from the soil, if the squirrels start eating the tops of the stems, spray the buds daily with hot pepper spray. All mammals except humans hate hot peppers. I’ve also heard that paprika and egg shells deter them.

I love those huge, showy tulips as well as the new colors of daffodil and narcissus coming out each year. I’ve wanted to plant Spring Starflower or Ipheion for a long time. Their starry white flowers bloom over a long period in spring and they naturalize easily. Spring Snowflake ( leucojum vernum ) will also naturalize in the garden. The flowers are small and bell shaped, white with a green or yellow spot and have a slight fragrance. And I want to include some species tulips. They will re-bloom year after year just like they do in the wild in Europe, North Africa and Asia.

Naturalized daffodils and tulips

Another bulb I’ve wanted to grow for a long time is Ixia viridiflora. They need to be completely dry in summer so planting in pots will be perfect for this most striking and unusual bulb. Few plants can beat it for sheer brilliance of flower. Each flower is a brilliant turquoise green with a purple-black eye in the middle. The dark eye is caused by the deep blue sap of the cells of the upper epidermis. The green color is due to the effects of light being refracted from the cell wall and granules embedded in the pale blue cell sap. Amazing flower.

I think tucking several huge allium bulbs among clumps of summer-flowering perennials will make quite a statement next year and the deer generally avoid them as they are in the garlic family. The flowers from in clusters and are best known in the round pom-pom form, but they can be star or cup-shaped or nodding pendant-shaped. They look great with foxglove, monarda and hardy geraniums. The flower heads can be left on the plant to dry as they look attractive in the garden and can be cut for arrangements.

A bulb native to our area that I’m also interested in trying is Triteleia or Triplet Lily. There are several species of this brodiaea bulb found here in grasslands and serpentine soils. They are undemanding plants and make good cut flowers lasting for 7-10 days in water.

Up close and personal with a tulip flower

Other interesting bulbs that I want to try include hyacinthoides, hermodactylus tuberosa and bellevalia. All of them are beautiful.

What about bulbs in the shade? Bulbs that will bloom in light shade are crocus, scilla, tulips, grape hyacinth, leucojum, snowdrops, chionodoxa and lily of the valley. Many from the daffodil clan, including jonquils and narcissus will grow, bloom and naturalize year after year under tree canopies or other lightly shaded areas.

Quaking Aspen, Fall Color & Climate Change

Inspired by a website called “Dude, Autumn Happens Here, Too” (https://www.californiafallcolor.com/ ) I set off last week to see the quaking aspen groves in the Sierra. As I drove up Highway 4 and over Ebbetts Pass the aspen groves came into view. Markleeville and Monitor Pass displayed some nice color, too. As I enjoyed the fall display I wondered if they would be as beautiful for future generations or if our impact on the environment would cause these glorious trees to change in any way.

Quaking Aspen on Ebbetts Pass, Hwy 4

Quaking aspen (Populua tremuloides) is the most widespread tree species in North America. They generally grow in high altitude areas but also exist at sea level in places like the state of Washington along the Pacific coast where climate conditions are ideal. Quaking aspen provide food for foraging animals and habitat for wildlife. They also act as a fuel break retaining much more water in the environment than do most conifer species.

High mountain systems, such as the Sierra Nevada, are uniquely sensitive to anticipated global climate changes and act as “canaries in the coal mine” to provide early signals of significant climate-driven changes. Research in the Sierra Nevada by Pacific Southwest Research Station, a USDA Forest Service research organization, shows how vegetation has responded to climate in the past and indicates changes than might be coming in the future over the next decade.

Climate has a profound influence in shaping our environment and natural resources. By looking at tree ring records of living and ancient wood and pollen lake sediments present climate can be compared to historic patterns to show climate changes.

Research indicates a complex, unpredictable future for aspen in the West, where increased drought, ozone and insect outbreaks will compete with carbon dioxide fertilization and warmer soils with unknown cumulative effects. They are vulnerable in the face of climate change. Hopefully, we will not lose this wonderful tree in California.

Weather conditions play a major part in the intensity of fall color. The time of year is nearly consistent but 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.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

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 leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

Trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Chinese flame tree, ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Planting Cover Crops to Enrich Your Soil

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese knew how to protect their soil from erosion and increase fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. Planting a cover crop is another way to improve and retain your soil.

UCSC Farm & Garden cover crops

A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume. Growing a cover crop also increases beneficial soil bacteria.

Cover crops are also called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil, however, as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

fava beans

Recent research now recommends planting a mixture of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch, which are the best legumes for our area, grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but nowhere near as efficiently as bell beans. Crimson clover seed is more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

You don’t need to use inoculates on legume seed. Our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

Work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds should be already cleared but this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area should be raked again lightly 1-2 inches down and covered with 3-4 inches of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything. Water in lightly.

 

At Home with The Mountain Gardener

When I think about my home and garden what often comes to mind is sharing. “Wouldn’t so-and-so love this plant or flower or meal, too?” Besides my adult friends I get to borrow some children occasionally to share my little piece of paradise up here in Bonny Doon. This is the story of my day at home and in the garden with 3 1/2 year old Scarlett Biles.

Scarlett Biles, The Mountain Gardener & Sherman

I called our outing “Camp Sherman’ in honor of my springer spaniel who is ever at our side. All of us, including Sherman, donned colored neckerchiefs ‘cause everyone at day camp wears one and you can sit on it in a pinch. First order of the day was to start a little photo album to remember it all so Scarlett helped me print out a picture her mother Kelly had taken of us back at her house. It’s amazing what kids these days can do with very little instruction. She’s a computer whiz.

Scarlett clowning with the hot dogs buns

Although our lunch menu was not exactly a gourmet meal to remember we had a good time making PB&J on hot dog buns to take with us for our hike. After finding a flat spot at the side of a trail that is almost in my backyard, we set up our “camp”. Sherman found a stick to chew while we looked at the butterfly, wildflower, tree and bird guides I had in my day pack. Kids love to identify what they see in nature. Scarlett found the picture of the tan oak leaf right away. We listened quietly to the birds in the forest and found them on an app on my phone. I was busy drawing when I saw that Scarlett had figured out how to play a bird call on my phone after seeing me go through the steps once. It’s so true. If you’re ever stumped on your computer ask a kid to figure it out.

Scarlett at the computer

Back at the homestead, Scarlett helped print out more pictures we took on the hike for her photo album. I added a couple of pics that I already had when the Acorn woodpeckers showed up at the feeder as well as the chipmunks. Naturally, it was time to eat again and watermelon and root beer seemed to go together. We were both sad when it was time to take her home but big sister Adelyn showed me their new tree-fort-in-progress when we got there. Suffice it to say a good time was had by all.

So, the moral of this story is that having a garden is not all about the pruning, planning and transplanting. And a gourmet meal shared with friends can be as simple as a PB&J. It’s the little things in life that count the most. Although I have plans to prune the hydrangeas hard this winter and maybe not let so many of the impatiens balfourii self sow next year it’s all part of enjoying our homes and gardens and not worrying about the little stuff unless the little stuff is 3 1/2 years old.

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