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.



Lawn Begone !!


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salvia_nemorosa_East_FrieslandNow that everyone has received a summer water bill or two, it’s hitting home about the need to conserve. I recently received this email which might describe your situation also. “I let my grass die in this drought and now the area looks awful…Can you recommend a low water, deer proof ground cover?” Sound familiar?

Replacing a traditional lawn with ground covers or other solutions takes a bit of problem solving. Some water districts require you replace 50% of your lawn with hardscape and the other half with approved drought tolerant plants in order to qualify for a rebate. How do you go about designing this to fit your tastes and lifestyle?

If you want to replace the lawn with other ground covers and plants which are the best for our area? Do you want a low ground cover that you can walk on or would low-growing shrubs work for your area? There are also drought tolerant grasses that make good lawn subs. Here are some ideas that you can use in your own landscape.

Those of you with lawns fall into two groups.  Those that need a small recreational space for the kids and erigeron_glaucusthose who don’t. If you’ve been thinking that this is the year to go lawn-free here are some tips.

After removing the turf, start by looking at your pathways as they become focal points. A curving flagstone path laid down over gravel will allow excess water to soak into the earth rather than run off. Enlarge sitting areas to accommodate a table, chairs and a shade umbrella. Small crushed gravel is affordable and sounds great underfoot as you walk.

Layer plants on berms along your path, arranging low growing varieties like lavender, santolina, teucrium, beach strawberry, salvia nemorosa and creeping rosemary at the base and taller ones like salvia Hot Lips, ornamental grasses and ceanothus at the top if your area is sunny.  Shady gardeners can use tall plants like red-flowering currant with dicentra eximia at the base. Group plants to give them a sense of mass and use different textures and foliage colors for contrast. Make sure the plants you choose will stay the size you envision without much pruning.

Walk-on ground covers like dymondia, lippia, potentilla duchesnea strawberry and several kinds of thyme create the look of lawn but require a fraction of the irrigation.
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One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging, fertilizing or much irrigation. You can walk on it and it stays green all winter, shading into bronze tones when the weather cools. It even blooms in midsummer for several weeks. Bees will be attracted to it at this time. Thyme prefers sun and poor, sandy soil. Autumn is the best time to install from flats cut into 4″ plugs planted about a foot apart. It will fill in within 3 years. Plant them closer together if you’re impatient. You’ll love your new lavender-blooming “lawn”.

There are also Ca. native and prairie meadow grasses that you can walk on. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho, Calif. and red fescue, carex pansa, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass. Occasional shearing keeps them looking  best but they may be left alone with no mowing at all. Weed control is important during establishment but a healthy stand may be sustained with virtually no weeding after that.

Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass, catlin sedge and valley meadow scutellaria_suffrutescenssedge.  All grow 4-8″ tall and can be either left alone or mowed every so often.  They are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

Scotts Valley Water District has a good list of lawn substitute grasses and other water conserving plants.

If the idea of a flowering meadow right outside your door appeals to you, plant an eco-lawn, a mix of grasses and flowering plants.  Both low water use and low maintenance, an ecology lawn might include flowering perennials like English daisy, Roman chamomile and yarrow interspersed with native grasses.   Cut this style of lawn every 3 weeks in spring and once during the summer.  This is enough to keep the yarrows from developing woody stems while also allowing the perennials to flower between cuttings.

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing shrubs like baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, creeping mahonia, rosemany prostratus, rubus, manzanita, creeping snowberry and ribes viburnifolium work well and are easy to grow.

Don’t be a slave to your water guzzling grass lawn. You have lots of options to reduce or replace it.



Add Drama to the Garden with Large-Leafed Plants


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philodendron_selloumGardens have different personalities. Some gardens mimic nature with plants that attract birds and butterflies and other wildlife and look a bit wild. Some are neat and tidy with perennials lined up evenly along pathways and clipped hedges under the windows. All gardens are a reflection of their owners.  When I visit a garden to help the owner change, add or “take the garden to the next level” I know which ideas will resonate with that person and which will just not work for them. Sometimes it’s easier for someone looking at a garden for the first time to visualize what’s needed.

Regardless of your style I often recommend one simple solution to update a garden. Many gardens end up with too many small-leafed plants. Nature is the master at this survival strategy. Small leaves are often more efficient at retaining water in drought conditions. When all your leaves are the same size, however, the garden gets boring. Using large, bold architectural plants allows the eye to rest on a focal point rather than try to take in everything at once, scanning back and forth.

Plants, like people, come in all sizes and shapes and so do their leaves. Some have huge and dramatic leaves while others are just showy and outsized enough to work well when viewed up close or at ground level. Some plants look tropical and others are right at home in the redwood understory. Some require regular water while others are able to withstand some drought. There’s a bold, breathtaking plant for every garden.

Because they reflect light, glossy leaves look even larger than they are. Make those leaves variegated or wavy with a dimpled texture and the effect is even more striking.

Here are a few large-leafed plants that work well in our area.

In partial shade try Fatsia japonica also called Japanese aralia. It’s deer resistant with bold foliage thatfastia-japonica looks tropical but still at home in the forest. Philodendron selloum with its huge, glossy leaves is also easy to grow. Oakleaf hydrangeas have it all: bold foliage that turns red in fall as well as huge white flower clusters in summer.

Tasmanian tree ferns are hardier in our winters than the Australian variety and are about as dramatic a plant as you will find. Bear’s Breech require only moderate water and serve well as a focal point in the garden.

hosta_Sum_and_SubstanceIn my own garden, I’m finding the chartreuse leaves of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ can take more sun than I originally thought. The deer walk right by their thick, dimpled leaves which is a definite plus. I like all hostas for their bold leaves whether variegated, glossy or wavy.

At ground level, some of my favorite large-leafed perennials that require only moderate water include hellebore, aspidistra, bergenia, coral bells and the dry-shade California native. wild ginger or asarum caudatum.

If you garden in more sun you can add pizzaz to your garden by planting something with large-leaves inasarum_caudatum front of those tall ceanothus, manzanita and toyon. Matilija poppy is a show stopper if you have room for it. Rhubarb, windmill palm, smoke bush and Western redbud also have huge leaves as do canna lily, banana, sago palm, loquat and angel’s trumpet. These are just a few of the many plants with big leaves that work magic in gardens around here.

Adding plants with dramatic foliage instantly makes-over the garden.



Low Tech Tools for the Garden


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Sometimes it’s the little things that count. A cool breeze on a hot day. The song of a bird up in the trees. An orange sky at sunset. As gardeners we appreciate each cluster of tiny, new tomatoes. We notice new branches growing on the ginkgo and the Japanese maple. There are many little things that make my life as a gardener easier. As I go about my chores cleaning, pruning, transplanting and watering I rely on lots of low tech tools. Perhaps some of these might make your life easier, too.

water_wand_soft_rain_nozzleI have several different nozzles for hand watering plants but my favorite by far is a soft rain nozzle on the end of a watering wand. With this type of nozzle I can deliver a lot of water right where I want without beating the life out of the soil. The adjustable ones have a soft spray setting but not enough water comes out and I am left standing there for what seems like forever to thoroughly water a plant or pot. Hand watering is time consuming but it can help a new plant establish a much larger root system than a drip system can. There is even one wholesale plant grower who considers drip irrigation of native and drought tolerant plants just plain bad.

On the subject of watering, be sure you invest in a good quality hose. As my father used to say, you get what you pay for. Those small stiff hoses will cause you no end of problems on a hot day as you struggle with a tangled mess. I’m not a big fan of coiling a hose tightly inside a pot either for storage. They  look tidy but it’s really hard to pull the hose out where needed easily and quickly.

Another of my indispensable gardening items are my gloves. I’ve tried many expensive leather models but I always go back to the plastic coated stretchy cotton gloves,  Garden gloves protect your hands from infection.  You can be exposed to microbacterium from rose thorns and it’s also present in some compost materials.  Remember to always clean cuts and puncture wounds with soapy water and peroxide and see a doctor if you develop inflammation swelling or joint pain.

Whether you’re transplanting a new plant of potting up one to the next size pot, you need to loosen the gardening_toolsroots to help them develop a stronger root system. Sometimes the roots may have completely filled the pot and are circling around themselves. A six pack or 4″ pot often has a mat of roots at the bottom of the pot.  If you place the plant into the ground or into another pot without first loosening the roots, they will continue to grow in a circle, rather than reaching out into the soil, developing and anchoring the plant.

I have a claw cultivator that I use for this purpose on big plants but I find more often I’m reaching for a kitchen fork I have in my tool kit for this purpose. It’s easier for me to tease delicate root balls without going overboard. I also have an old serrated bread knife that is perfect for scoring really tough root balls. It’s also a good tool for root pruning a large plant when you need to give it fresh soil to grow in the same pot.

Of the many hand pruners on the market I have always liked my smaller Felco #6. I need to break out the pruning saw or loppers for larger cuts anyway so I why lug around a large, heavy hand pruner? I also often use kitchen shears for deadheading which makes the job go quickly. More often than not if I use my thumb and forefinger to remove old flowers I break off more than I intended. Using a scissors instead I can make a clean cut and not tear off a new bud by mistake.

My last tip is the best one. Make a habit of walking around your garden, preferably with the beverage of your choice, and just look at the plants. That way you can monitor pest and disease problems before they get out of hand and decide what to do. Give this step the fancy name Integrated Pest Management and enjoy your garden.

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