Notes from the Garden / August


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calibrachoaThey’re called the Dog Days of summer. You know those sultry days with the hottest summer temperatures. The Romans associated the hot weather between July 24th and August 24th with the star Sirius which they considered to be the “Dog Star” because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog). The Old Farmer’s Almanac uses slightly different dates but the Dog Days of summer are definitely here.

Recently I moved to Bonny Doon where gardening in the hot, sandy soil is very different than the shady clay I was used to. One thing I’ve noticed is the existing drip system has not been modified to allow for the growth of the plants. The emitters which were originally placed at the base of each plant are not even close to covering the current size of the root zone. The crown of the plant is getting overwatered with each cycle but the rest of the plant is bone dry. Time to add more emitters maybe even downsizing to half gallon ones and moving them away from the middle of the plant. No sense wasting water that’s not doing the plant much good.

As summer rolls along you may become more aware of the different microclimates in your garden. With the drier and hotter weather this year some of your plants that used to get along just fine might be showing signs of stress. Taking note of these changes in the performance of your plants is what makes for a more successful landscape. When the weather cools towards the end of September you will want to move or eliminate those plants that aren’t thriving. Be sure to keep a thick layer of mulch on the soil around your plants to conserve that precious water you do allocate to each of your irrigation zones.

The drought may be affecting our garden but it doesn’t have to stop us from being out in the garden. There are lots of things to do in the garden now. The joy of gardening can take many forms including adding wind chimes or adding a bird feeder or bird bath. Take time to groom the plants that need some cleanup. Many perennials benefit from a little haircut at this time of year to extend their blooming into the fall season. Lavenders especially will keep their compact shape by a hard pruning now. This forces new growth in the center so the plant doesn’t get woody.

Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials as often as you can. Annuals like marigolds, petunias and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa, marguerites and lantana.

These plants know they’re on this earth to reproduce. If they get a chance to set seed, the show’s over- they’ve raised their family. Try to remove fading flowers regularly and you’ll be amply rewarded.

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time in August or early September. All shrubs, especially rose_Icebergbroad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year’s buds.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in September and October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

zinniaI grow mostly perennials but I have to admit that I’m a big zinnia fan. I remember one of my first gardens. Each year I would plant different sizes and colors of zinnias grouping them like a rainbow. Swallowtail butterflies loved them as much as I did. I spent many an afternoon, camera in hand, photographing them in action. Kids and adults alike enjoy the wildlife that’s attracted to the garden. Be sure to take time to smell the roses as they say.



Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest- Part 2


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deer_Japanese_mapleLast Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking  longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.

The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.

The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they hydrangea_paniculata_Limelightlamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.

White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape front_perennial_bedground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.

In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.

On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a streammound for overbearing strawberries.

Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.

The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.

They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed.  Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.

cornBob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.

All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.

Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.



Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest


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strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.



Precipitation: Subtle and Uncertain


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fogWeather shapes our lives. We celebrate when the weather is good although that might mean mild and sunny for the soccer game or a rainy day when we desperately need it. We watch the Weather Channel forecast and the satellite image for what’s headed our way. Our climate is changing but it’s the seasonal weather that gets out attention.

Seems like we’ve had quite a few heat waves so far this year and it’s only mid-summer. Recently the temps soared to the high 90’s and low 100’s in some places and remained high even at night. The next day brought fog so thick it dripped from the trees. I could almost hear the trees absorbing the moisture. We know that redwoods thrive along the coast because of the fog. Have you ever wondered how much water a tree can get from this source?

Fog drip is precipitation that forms when fog droplets condense on the needles or leaves of trees. Redwoods especially are extremely efficient producers of fog drip but other conifers like Douglas fir and pines can collect quite a bit as do large madrone leaves. According to Dr. Todd Dawson, author of “Redwood” by the National Park Service, “A relatively small 100 foot tall redwood can gather the equivalent of four inches of rain in a single evening.”

Dawson’s studies have found that Doug firs along our coast produced anywhere from 7-27 inches of fog drip each year. He measured the fog drip below a single tanoak at a whopping 59 inches of precipitation along the Northern California coast. This summer moisture can provide as much as half the water coming into a forest for over a year. Trees can absorb a small amount of water through their needles and leaves, too. Every little bit helps in our summer dry climate.

Because of the water that accumulates below the trees many plants like our native Western Sword fern, the small Epipactis orchid and Phantom orchid are found in these unique conditions.

Fog drip occurs every summer. Ask Mark Twain said or whoever really penned the saying, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco”.

But what about this upcoming winter’s rainfall forecast? What’s the latest on our chances of El Nino coming to visit and bringing some nice soaking rainfall with it?

According to the National Weather Service at NOAA our hopes are dimming but not altogether gone that the drought will be eased with this winter’s rain. What started out as much warmer than normal Pacific Ocean temperatures last May indicating a strong El Nino effect has not changed much since. The Weather Service Center is still predicting that sea surface temperatures will be warmer than usual – the phenomenon known as El Nino-but the effect will be only “weak to moderate”.

That’s because the Pacific Ocean temperatures near the International Date Line have not continued to rise since earlier this year when they were well about average. While strong El Nino weather patterns usually create more rain for California, weaker El Nino”s typically don’t bring more rains to the region.

The Center said that there is now a 70% chance El Nino will develop by the end of the summer and an 80% chance that one will develop by the early winter. Unfortunately, Northern California isn’t likely to get a bump with a moderate event but Southern California just may benefit anyway.

Hopefully, we’ll be on the winning side of these forecasts. Water conservation will always be a part of our lives. Start planning now the changes you want to make in your garden this fall.

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