Flowering Trees & Shrubs of Early Spring

Outside my window the Blireiana flowering plum is covered with dark pink, double blossoms. It’s one of my favorite early spring blooming trees with a sweet fragrance strong enough to scent the garden. We look forward to the earliest flowers of the new season knowing that winter will soon be over. Spring officially begins on March 20th.

Old fashioned shrubs like flowering quince and forsythia figure prominently in many old gardens because they are tough plants able to survive neglect and still look beautiful.

Forsythia ‘Kolgold’

The bare stems of forsythia are completely covered with deep golden-yellow flowers in late winter and early spring and become the focal point of the landscape when in full bloom. The showy stems of this easy care shrub are great for cutting. Forsythias are native to eastern Asia but a chance discovery in Germany by a grower who specialized in breeding for the cut flower industry led to the especially vivid variety ‘Kolgold’ in the 1800’s. Forsythia has long been used in Chinese medicine. The flower petals contain powerful bacteria-fighting properties which make it an important dressing.

Flowering quince

Flowering quince is another old garden staple providing early color. They are easy to care for and nearly indestructible in almost any soil that is well drained and not overly fertile. Once established quince is a very drought tolerant plant and their spiny branches make them an excellent choice for hedges, screening or as a security barrier. There are red, pink, orange and white flowering varieties. The Toyo Nishiki cultivar even has pink, white and solid red flowers all on the same branch.

Clivia miniata

What would a shade garden be without a bright orange clivia? Every year I look forward to their huge flower clusters that emerge from between dark green, strappy leaves. Even in dark shade they will bloom and brighten the winter garden although they would do fine in morning sun. If you have a north facing window you can grow them as houseplants. Clivia are hardy to several degrees below freezing but mine, under an overhang, have survived temps of 23 degrees without damage. Clivia breeders have produced gold and peach colored flowers also but I still like the standard orange ones.

A beautiful vine that blooms in winter is hardenbergia ‘Happy

Hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’

Wanderer’. In the pea family, this evergreen vine looks like a small wisteria when in bloom. Pinkish-purple flowers cascade in clusters on twining stems that reach 12-16 feet long. It requires little water once established and is hardy to about 23 degrees. If you have an older, tangled plant you can rejuvenate it with hard pruning in early spring after flowering. Never prune in late summer or fall because you will cut off the wood that is going to bloom the following winter.

The last plant I couldn’t live without is Fragrant Sarcococca. The tiny white flowers of this plant are easily overlooked but you can’t miss their scent. I have one near the front door that greets me with that vanilla fragrance every time I walk in or out. The flowers are followed by a bright red fruit. Sweet Box forms a natural espalier against a wall and if you have a problem spot in deep dry shade where other plants won’t grow give this plant a try. They are easy to grow, deer resistant and trouble free.

Kids of Summer-Garden Related Activities

We’re lucky in that our kids are surrounded by nature. It’s a big world out there, filled with plants to taste, smell and touch, birds that sings, insects that buzz, lizards that do push-ups and mammals to watch. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children. Kindle a child’s curiosity early and you create a gardener, horticulturist and naturalists for life.

With a long, warm spring and summer to spend outdoors what fun, educational and interesting things can you do with kids?

Adelyn playing among hostas

Want some help out in the garden this year? Then get your kids interested. I’m not talking about getting the kids out before breakfast to help with the wheat crop harvest but fun things the entire family can enjoy.

Growing our own food is now common place. Even those who only have room for a couple of containers are vegetable gardening. Plant a pizza garden. On the ground use a hose to form a round garden shape and border it with stones or another type of edging of your choice. Divide the “pizza” into slices using stakes or one of your plant varieties such as basil. Add stepping stones for the pepperoni slices and plant each section with one tomato plant and one green bell pepper and fill in with garlic, oregano, chives and basil. By summer you’ll be harvesting the makings for a delicious home made pizza. A container pizza garden would be similar but on a small scale. Both are fun to create, plant and harvest.

Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden. You can plant tall sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a “door” that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown. Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long garden stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside. Scarlet runner beans have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to scarlet red flowers that attract hummingbirds. Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.

Adelyn watering garden

Another fun project is growing birdhouse gourds. This fast growing vine can beautify fences and trellises during the growing season. In the fall, dry and hollow them out to make birdhouses or gorgeous crafts. You can burn patterns into the surface and stain the gourds with shoe polish making beautiful objects of art that make great gifts.

Edible flowers are fun for kids to grow, too. Some common ones to try are tuberous begonia petals that taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and Johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can pick for bouquets will be interesting for them to grow also, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallow-tail butterflies. Other easy to grow flowers for cutting are snapdragons and who hasn’t pinched these to make faces?

Pettable plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

Fragrant flowers and foliage teach us to stop and savor our surroundings. I always love it when I can introduce a youngster to the different plant smells. They never forget the experience and will go back again and again to a fragrance they like. Fragrant flower choices include sweet alyssum that attracts pollinators, chocolate cosmos, nemesia and heliotrope. Foliage plants that smell great are lemon basil, lime thyme, orange and chocolate mint.
Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies. Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.

Adelyn drawing the landscape

Be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside. I have my friend Adelyn’s drawing on my wall so we both remember the fun we had in the garden.

It’s fun to explore outside with kids. Their natural curiosity is infectious as you get down to their level with nature.
A couple years ago I got the idea to make a nature guide for my friend Adelyn from pictures of the birds and flowers here in my own garden. She’s now almost 5 years old and still has her well-worn book. What’s a nature book if you can’t take it outside?

Adelyn’s book has photos of other things besides birds and flowers. There are butterflies and a tree frog as well as pictures of family. It’s fun to watch her run around and identify which bird or flower from the pictures in her book.

Adelyn with her nature guide

Later this spring the black-headed grosbeaks will return but for now Adelyn and her little sister Scarlett can find juncos, chickadees, purple and gold finches and nuthatches in her nature book. The flowers are the easiest to find as they don’t fly away and later the blue hydrangeas will be blooming.

The next time Adelyn and Scarlett come to visit we’ll take more pictures and print them out on the computer to add to her nature guide. The book is one of those inexpensive four by six inch photo albums with sleeves for photos. Maybe the chipmunks will be here and pose for a photo. We can also do some face painting to showcase the flowers we find.

Scarlett showing off face painting

Another fun thing to do outdoors is a visit to Camp Joy in Boulder Creek. Camp Joy welcomes children to learn about growing and preparing food, seed saving, bees, goats and garden crafts. They also offer garden tours for school age children or groups of any age.

When I visited the farm a while back everyone was busy working but happy to share their knowledge with me. In the Kid’s Garden there were plants to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed. Just to walk around the garden is a sensory experience in tasting, touching, smelling, listening and seeing. After touring the farm, you can have your lunch or snack in the center of this beautiful garden.

On the beautiful day I visited I was greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost. Compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of “real soil” allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. Kelp and fish emulsion are used as fertilizer but mostly it’s the compost that makes the seedlings so strong. It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Entry to Camp Joy garden

Later in April or early May Camp Joy will hold their annual plant sale of seed starts of veggies, herbs and flowers that are successful for our area. Take a lunch and make a day of it.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly or a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless.

The Wonderful World of Aloe

Probably because our winter has been so dramatic every time I see the brilliant flower spikes of an aloe plant glowing brilliant red, yellow and orange I marvel. Beloved by hummingbirds and sustainable garden aficionados alike aloes are easy to grow. So easy that a couple of these tough-as-steel succulents are growing right out of the cracks in a gas station parking lot in town and blooming without any supplemental water or care. How’s that for bullet proof?

Aloe ferox

Our Mediterranean climate is perfectly suited for the exotic looking family of Aloes. Some hail from the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar but mostly they are native to South Africa. The spikes of their showy flowers supply much needed nectar for hummingbirds at a time that not much else is blooming.

There’s a variety for any space, large or small, container or tree-like. Here are a few of the types I’m seeing blooming right now in our area.

Aloe ferox or Cape Aloe grows best in full sun but tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions. They can thrive in very dry conditions or grow in an area that receives regular irrigation- a good trait given our recent wet winter. The foliage is hardy to at least 20 degrees and the winter flowers down to 24 degrees. Cape aloe grow to 6 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide so plan accordingly if you plant one of these spectacular reddish-orange to orange succulents. Cape Aloe occupies a many habitats in it’s native Cape Region of South Africa and is listed on the endangered plant list.

Aloe arborescens – Torch aloe

Torch Aloe or Aloe arborescens blooms also in fall and winter. The bright yellow or red flower spikes cover this large clumping variety. This species has recently been studied for possible medical uses similar to the well known aloe vera plant. It’s the only other member of the Aloe family that is claimed to be as effective. It can survive much lower winter low temperatures than aloe vera.

Aloe vera has been grown for thousands of years in tropical climates. It is one of the most widely used medicinal plants on the planet. As a houseplant make sure the pot has plenty of drainage holes as they cannot tolerate standing water. Let them go completely dry between waterings and grow them in the very bright light of a south or west facing window.

Aloe maculata

The Soap Aloe or Aloe maculata is so tough that it can survive just about anywhere. Besides the parking lot I mentioned earlier it’s growing in my Bonny Doon garden that receives no winter sun at all. The gritty soil here drains quickly which helps them survive given the 124 inches of rainfall received so far this winter. My Soap Aloe aren’t blooming right now but others in better growing conditions are sporting showy flowers atop tall, multi branched stalks in colors ranging from red to gold. Once established this succulent needs only occasional water to look good. They grow in partial to full sun. The foliage gets 18 to 24 inches tall with the bloom spikes reaching 35 inches tall.

Every garden should have a variety of aloe to feed the hummingbirds in winter.

Sneeze-less Landscaping

It was brought to my attention by a reader who suffers from pollen allergies that blooming acacias are not the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year. Acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet ones you have to watch out for.

Evergreen clematis blooming below flowering pear tree.

About 25-30 popular landscape plants are responsible for the majority of plant-related allergies in California. During the height of the pollen season- from late February to June- there are often thousands of pollen grains in every cubic meter of air. One can breathe hundreds of them with every breath. Though pollen can travel many miles, the majority tend to stay in the general area of their origin.

Redwoods, oaks, alders, ashes and other wind pollinated trees like olives, birch, box elder, cypress, elm, juniper, maple, fruitless mulberry, pine, walnut, willow and privet are the major source of spring pollen. Most native plants are good in the sneeze-less landscape but if you have bad allergies or asthma it best to avoid wind-pollinated ceanothus, elderberry and coffeeberry.

You may not be able to avoid those culprits growing on other’s property but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneeze-less landscape. Replacing existing plants may be impractical but planning future plantings with these things in mind will save you a lot of headaches down the road and let you enjoy the sunshine outside in your garden.

Clematis armandii or Evergreen clematis flowers

Flower type is a good way to judge plants. The best looking flowers usually cause allergy sufferers the fewest problems. Plants with bright, showy flowers are usually pollinated by insects, rather than by the wind. These flowers produce less pollen and their pollen is larger and heavier, sticking to the insect rather than becoming airborne and lead to sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.

Some trees that are good for anti-allergy gardens are apple, cherry, dogwood, magnolia, pear and plum. Shrubs like azaleas, boxwood, lilac, rose-of-Sharon, hydrangea and viburnum are also not likely to cause problems. Good flower choices include alyssum, begonia, clematis, columbine, bulbs like crocus, daffodil, hyacinth. Also dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdrag

Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ (good)  Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’ (bad)

on, sunflower, verbena and zinnia. Lawns of perennial rye grass, blue grass and tall fescue blends are usually OK as they will not flower unless allowed to grow to 12″ or higher. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, can pollinate when the lawn is very short, sometimes as quickly as a few days after mowing.

Hopefully, our rainy weather will not cause problems for allergy sufferers. Symptoms may become worse if the body reacts to the disappearance of the pollen following its initial appearance only to have to have more of it later in the spring. According to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, “You become sensitized to it, so when you’re…re-exposed, you can get an even more violent allergic reaction.”

Here’s to a sneezeless spring for you allergy sufferers.

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.

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