Aloe & other Succulents in the late Winter Garden

Usually succulents are bullet-proof in the garden. Easy care, low water and dramatic they are great additions to the landscape. If you are having problems with fungal spots on yours after so much rain and cold you’re not alone. Still aloe, yucca and agave are worth growing as well as other succulents. Here is some useful information.

Cape Aloe

Succulents have demonstrated a wide tolerance to the fungi that cause leaf and some spots. Although they can disfigure plants they do very little damage despite their appearance.

There are other more serious fungal infections like anthracnose. It often appears as a moist tan colored rot with red, orange or pink pustules on the surface. Spots start small, but expand rapidly on both leaves and crowns. Once a succulents is infected the only treatment is removal of affected leaves. The application of copper fungicide may help to destroy fungal bodies. Root and crown rot don’t respond well to treatment and if you have planted your succulents in well draining soil there might not be much you can do about the excessive rain they’ve gotten recently.

Our Mediterranean climate is usually 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 now when 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

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 many habitats in its native Cape Region of South Africa and is listed on the endangered plant list.

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.

The Soap Aloe or Aloe maculata is so tough that it can survive just about anywhere. 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.

Arbor Day in California

California’s Arbor Day is celebrated on March 7th, in honor of famed horticulturist Luther Burbank’s birthday. The day is celebrated on different dates around the world because one of the features of Arbor Day is the planting of trees which is best done at certain times of the year. The simple goal of this day is to inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees.

Second growth redwood fairy ring.

We are fortunate to live here in the Santa Cruz mountains in a temperate rain forest with lots of trees. Our redwoods are especially important in our biodiverse watershed as is all flora and fauna in the forest. Redwoods and many native trees keep our environment moist. Let’s make it a priority to protect them and pass the baton of stewardship to our children who will inherit this place.

So whether you’ve been thinking about planting a redwood, heritage oak or other native tree, a fruit tree to feed the family, a shade tree to save on summer cooling, a flowering tree to attract pollinators, or a tree to hang the hammock on this is a good time to plant as well as nurture and celebrate all trees..

Trees are remarkable in how they grow and adapt to their environment. Some trees, like redwood, ponderosa pine, sycamore and madrone have especially beautiful bark. This is the tree’s protection from the outside world. Continually renewed from within, it helps keep out moisture in rain and prevents the tree from losing moisture when the air is dry. Bark insulates against cold and heat and wards off insect enemies.

The inner bark, or phloem, is the pipeline through which food is passed to the rest of the tree, It lives for only a short time, then dies and turns to cork to become part of the protective outer bark.

The next layer in is the cambium cell layer which is the growing part of the trunk. It annually produces new bark and new wood in response to hormones that pass down through the phloem with food from the leaves. These hormones are called auxins and stimulate growth in the cells. They are produced by leaf buds at the ends of branches as they start growing in spring.

Inside the cambium layer is the sapwood or xylem which moves water from the roots to the leaves. Sapwood is new wood. As newer rings of sapwood are laid down, inner rings lose their vitality and turn to heartwood.

Finally, the central supporting pillar of the tree is called heartwood. Although dead, it will not decay or lose strength while the outer layers are intact. A composite of hollow, needle-like cellulose fibers bound together by a chemical glue called lignin, it is in many ways as strong as steel.

fog filtering through the redwood trees.

Leaves make food for the tree. Their shapes help them reduce wind resistance, shed rain that could decay the leaf if left standing and produce chlorophyll. The narrow needles of a Douglas fir, for instance, exposes as much as three acres of surface to the sun.

Be kind to all trees. They are a valuable asset to your home and our environment. Earth Day is next month on April 22nd. Let’s continue to celebrate the natural beauty of our planet and learn what we can do to keep it healthy.

Climate Zones

You know when you walk out the door how hot or cold it is, how windy, shady, moist or dry. You know if your soil is pure sand or hard clay because you’ve dug a few holes in your time. You don’t need a book to tell you these things. So why are the gardening zones described in Sunset Western Gardening book important when you add a new plant to your garden ? And why are they so confusing in our area?

Sunset Climate Zones for the Santa Cruz Mountains

We all rely on Sunset’s Western Garden Book as the bible for gardeners. With each new edition I look to see if they’ve figured out that Felton is not in zone 7. Sure Felton gets pretty cold but even with climate change the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valleys are not as cold as a zone 7. Even considering microclimates we can grow a wide variety of plants that would not survive in the Sierra foothills, the Gabilan range, the Coast range or other zone 7 areas. Wish they would ask local nurseries and knowledgeable horticulturist what the weather and climate are really like here.

Knowing the climate in your area helps determine what you can grow in your garden. It’s confusing to both new and seasoned gardeners alike. Here are some tips to help you determine in which zone you garden.

We really only garden in two zones around here – zone 15 and 16. The Sunset map erroneously shows Felton as being in zone 7. Based on my experience even ridge tops like the highest portions of Bonny Doon and the Summit area which gets an occasional dusting of snow fall mostly in a colder zone 15.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area. Winter lows average 20-30 degrees. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call “a cold zone 15. Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. There are warmer parts of this zone, though. These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this “banana belt”. Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay near or above freezing. You might have cold pockets on your property however so plan accordingly.

Beside the zone you also need to note how much sun or shade you get during the growing season. There may also be microclimates on your property. Are you near the river in a canyon or gulch or up on a south facing slope? Some areas in your garden may be several degrees warmer than other spots such as up against a brick wall or at the top of a slope from where cold air drains. Planting a citrus at the top of a slope that drains away the cold will make your tree much happier than if planted in a low open area.

Soil quality is not taken into consideration in zone mapping. Since the soil houses the water and nutrient uptake system for most plants, it plays an important role. Most plant guides describe soil requirements in terms of well-drained, acid or alkaline, poorly drained or high organic matter.

If you have questions about which zone you are in, email me and I’d be happy to help. I hope this helps in choosing plants that will thrive in your garden.

Pollen & the Allergy sufferer

Contrary to popular belief acacia trees are not to blame for spring allergies

The acacia trees are in full bloom. Being one of the first flowering trees we see they get our attention. Blooming acacias are often blamed as the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year but acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet plants you have to watch out for. If you’re an allergy sufferer some plants are worse than others for you.

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 pollens 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 sneezeless 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 properties but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneezeless 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.

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 in 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 good are dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdragon, 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 inches 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.

This year we’re not lacking for rain thankfully. Symptoms can become worse for the allergy sufferer 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.

Tough Flowering Plants for Rain & Snow

It takes a pretty tough plant to flower in heavy rain let alone snow. How do they do it? After getting well over an inch of snow last week at my house up here in Bonny Doon all I know is I want more of these steel-clad plants in my garden.

Helleborus orientalis blooming in the snow

I garden in pretty tough conditions- light wise- not receiving sunlight for 6 months of the year. Still I have winter daphne, helleborus, abutilon, loropetalum. Autumnalis flowering cherry and choisya blooming now. The pansies, cyclamen and primroses are looking a bit beat up but they’ll bounce back. These are my winter flowering heroes.

After the snow melted I have to say the hellebore help up perfectly. I received a couple new ones last year for my birthday. Wish I had saved the tags. The double burgundy one is lovely. 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

I had to wait a couple years for my variegated winter daphne to settle in before setting flowers but beginning last year it’s making up for lost time. There’s something special about a plant that will bloom in the depth of winter, hold up to rain and scent the garden all at the same time. With beautiful rosy-pink flower clusters and attractive yellow-margined variegated foliage, daphne make a great foundation plant for dappled shade gardens. They are deer resistant and have low water requirements during the summer. What’s not to love?

Another tough plant that can take weather extremes is the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub (Pieris japonica). There are many varieties of this early winter bloomer. Some have pure white flowers, other sport various shades of pink or dark rose. Mine is the smaller variegated foliage model with dainty, drooping clusters of pure white flowers in early spring. Right now it is covered with flower buds so dense that you’d think it was already blooming. The new growth in the spring has a beautiful pink tint. This shrub will hold up to the wildest weather. Another plus for the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub is that is useful for firescaping in the landscape and it isn’t on the menu for deer either.

Pink Australian fuchsia bloom profusely despite the rain, I added a variegated variety called Correa ‘Wyn’s Wonder’ to my own garden a couple years ago but I was cavalier about protecting it from gophers and alas it is not with me anymore. Still it’s a great plant. Although not related to hybrid fuchsias, the flowers are similar and their nectar feed the Anna’s hummingbirds when there’s not a lot of plants blooming for them. Australian fuchsia grow well in dry shade under oaks are deer resistant and drought tolerant.

I keep threatening to get a mahonia aquifolium. It would be perfect up here. They are a favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers with cheery, bright yellow flower clusters that last for months. When each flower sets a purple berry they look like grape clusters. 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.

Other winter blooming plants include euryops, witch hazel, edgeworthia, michelia, grevillea and camellia, of course. Enjoy color in the garden regardless of what Mother Nature brings this winter.

February in the Garden

I’m waiting patiently for the buds on my pink flowering currant to start lengthening a bit more. I wasn’t counting on the recent snow and cold snap but the buds are showing color and are doing fine. Although still small at this stage I’ve assured my hummingbird population that they’re on their way. When I was out pruning last week I didn’t touch this plant otherwise I’d have cut off all those potential flower clusters loaded with nectar. This is what I did do in my garden.

To stimulate new growth I trimmed woody evergreen shrubs like abelia and loropetalum. The Mexican bush sage and artemisia were cut to within a few inches of the ground. I don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune those after blooming later in the season and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.

Between rain storms I’ll prune my fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. The hanging fuchsias will be cut back to the pot rim. Fuchsias bloom on new wood so even if your plants didn’t lose all their leaves cut them back.

I cut back all the hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year and will apply a soil acidifier soon as I want the flowers as blue as I can get. Although aluminum sulfate is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it’s not as kind to beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are better for your soil.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs like lilac, weigela and spirea or flowering trees such as cherry, plum and crabapple now. These and plants with buds like rhododendron, azalea and camellia should be pruned after they flower. You can cut some branches while they are blooming to bring into the house for bouquets.

Even if you have already pruned your roses be sure to remove old leaves still clinging to the plant. Those will most likely develop fungal spots and diseases later if you don’t. Rake up any debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores

Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again using the following guidelines. The goal is to produce lots of roses not just a few of exhibition size. Aim for a vase-shaped bush with an open center.

Prune old garden roses that bloom once in the spring after flowering. Climbing roses require little pruning. 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 cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that might have gotten hit by frost. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area or at least it used to be. We gardeners are always betting Mother Nature will go our way and our efforts will not have gone in vain.

Prune fruit, nut, shade trees and deciduous vines like clematis.

Cut back ornamental grasses if you live where you rarely get frost. I’m pruning California fuchsia, salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ and hummingbird sage now. They look okay but I want the encourage new, compact growth.

And now I’m making myself a cup of tea and watching the chipmunk action in my garden. All of nature is getting ready for spring.

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