The World of Cacti in the San Lorenzo Valley


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Argentine_GiantThere are species of cactus that grow all over North and South America and have been naturalized in Africa, Asia and Australia. One type of opuntia, the familiar prickly pear, thrives just 700 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Professor Michael Loik told me as he gave me a tour of his cacti collection at his home in Felton. Professor Loik has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley for 18 years but it wasn’t until he and his wife moved to their present home in 2010 that he decided to combine his research, which focuses on the adaptations of desert and montane plants to light, drought, freezing and heat, to his own landscaping.

In his Felton front garden, Professor Loik grows 70 individual cactus specimens which represent 20 different species. He has a few succulents mixed in but says he is more fascinated with cactus. He told me that his love of this plant family started when he was 16 and saw some prickly pear cactus growing out of the snow in the Grand Canyon. “I was hooked”, he said. He ended up doing his PhD thesis on cactus adaptations from this early interest.

Professor Michael Loik is an internationally recognized expert on how plants cope with freezing and heat wave temperatures as well as rain, snowfall pattern and drought. He has done research in the Great Basin, the Mojave, Chihauhaun and Sonoran deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada as well as Costa Rica and Australia. With a weather station in the back yard, Professor Loik continues his research in his own front yard in Felton.

Standing among dozens of large prickly pear cacti, we spoke about all the colorful fruit they displayed. Those are actually a modified short Engelmanns_prickly-pearstem, he told me, and the large prickly paddle is really a long stem. The real fruit of the cacti is buried well within the flavorful pod.

At this time of year, none of the cacti were blooming but Professor Loik told me just a few weeks ago he had 11 blooms measuring a foot across on a Trichocereus pachanoi cactus. This species is bat and moth pollinated and has only a short time to attract a pollinator.

How does this garden grow? What’s his secret to keeping it alive and thriving in our area through drought and freezing?

When he first moved to Felton, Professor Loik took out the dying lawn and worked up the existing soil. After laying down weed block fabric he spread a 4” thick layer of course, well drained soil. Topping this is about 2” of half-inch California Gold crushed gravel.

Rainbow_hedgehog-Echinopis_sppProfessor Loik uses gray water from the laundry to hand water every week or so during the growing season of July to September. Cacti are use to this highly pulsed “rainfall” he told me, often receiving large monsoon rain periodically during the summer in their native range. He uses a liquid fertilizer occasionally during the summer.

Winter freezes affect only some of his specimens. Most of his collection are from areas of high altitude and can withstand our cold snaps. For those that are sensitive to freezing temps he covers them with towels and rags even soaking a towel with hot water to keep them even warmer during the night.

I had read that some plants produce chemicals that act like antifreeze but Professor Loik told me that according to his research “There is no particular antifreeze that we have identified. The plants that are tolerant of freezing where they live are able to withstand a certain degree of freezing within their stems (but outside of the cells). They are able to tolerate the loss of water from cells that goes along with extracellular freezing. Upon thawing, the cells take up the water they lost to intercellular spaces during freeze-dehydration.”

Professor Loik shared other ways that freezing temperatures can affect cactus Red_Torch_cactusplants. These range from damage caused by ice formation within the plant itself which can cause cells to break open and even kill the plant outright. Freezing temperatures make cacti vulnerable to bacterial and fungal diseases especially in their roots. Third, freezing temperatures combined with bright sunlight can lead to “photoinhibition” whereby chlorophyll absorbs light but the rest of the photosynthesis machinery in the cell cannot process the energy and leads to something akin to plant sunburn.

I learned so much visiting Michael Loik’s cactus garden and hearing about his work. His long-term fascination with the stem shapes, flower colors and spine patterns of cacti is evident in his incredible garden.

 

All photos were provided by Professor Loik.



Ormanental Grasses Take Center Stage


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

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 Orange_libertiaor 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-a restio, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

So let’s say you are putting in a new patio and want a few low grasses as accents between some of the pavers. A variety like Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass, with it’s creamy white foliage that turns pink in cold weather, would look great here. You could also use Ogon sweet flag for dense clumps the color of buttery in a shady spot, black mondo grass or blue fescue grass for even more color.

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture of a grass with light and movement would be perfect, look to taller varieties to achieve this. Miscanthus purpurascens or Flame Grass grows 4 to 8 feet tall in the sun. Their magenta leaves turn to milky white in winter. Maiden grass sports narrow upright leaves 5 to 8 feet tall and creamy flowers. Their seed heads float and bounce in the the breeze. Planting them just above the horizon allow you to enjoy their swaying and dipping backlit at sunset.

Japanese_Blood_grassBesides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of red fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with it’s fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass, You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1 to 2 feet tall. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAamend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. This grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination.

For a touch of whimsy, you can’t beat fiber optic grass. This grass-like sedge from Europe and North Africa looks like a bad hairpiece. You can grow it at the edge of a shallow pond or display it inside in a pot on a pedestal to show off it’s flowering habit. Seeing is believing with this one.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.



The Mountain Gardener’s Favorite Plant Combinations


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combination_loropetalum-pieris-dianellaI love my smart phone. I can’t imagine a day without it. A friend of mine told me that I would discover uses that I could only have imagined when I first got it. One of the simple things I use it for is taking pictures. Since I always have it in my back pocket I can whip it out in gardens, nurseries, in the wild or in any landscape that catches my attention.

It wasn’t until I started photographing gardens that I realized the importance of combining plants. So now when I design a grouping of plants that look good together I’m thinking of strong foliage plants, colorful flower spikes alongside soft mounds of foliage and delicate flowers alongside bolder blooms.

With the first day of fall next week I’m thinking of ways that will have any garden bursting with interest for the next few months. These are strategies for combining plants that are adaptable to all types of garden conditions whether you live in the sun or the shade and will also look good in other seasons of the year.

A vignette is a small group of plants that make a pleasing scene because of theirplant_combo2-phormium_CreamDelight-blueFescue-sempervivum complementary and contrasting features. I have several lists of good plant combinations that I regularly refer to when designing a garden. I usually start with a strong foliage plant then add other plants that have interesting texture, form or color.

When you look at a garden that you admire it’s usually the dramatic form of one of the plants that draws you in. When you use a plant with a bold, architectural form it makes a statement. The spiky foliage of Cream Delight phormium alongside a Burgundy loropetalum would make a good combination. Or how about creating a vignette of Festival Burgundy cordyline with Annabelle hydrangea and Cream de Mint pittosporum?

During the next few months plants begin to show soft, fall colors. Combine the fading foliage of these plants with plants that complement each other. The reddish fall color or Oakleaf hydrangea along with the pinkish-tan color of their fading flowers looks wonderful when combined with Japanese Forest Grass as it turns pink before winter. Another complementary fall combination is Royal Purple Smoke Tree surrounded by a bed of Autumn Joy sedum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStrong colors sometimes contrast instead of blend when plants change colors in the fall. I like to tone down a combination with silver foliage. An example of this would be a plant grouping of Evening Glow phormium, sedum Autumn Joy and Glacier Blue or Tasmanian Tiger euphorbia.

Another way to create a great plant combination is by blending textures. Coral Bark Japanese maple and Plum Passion nandina work well together. Cistus Sunset with Spanish lavender and rosemary is another good combination. I also like a large mass of Blue Oat Grass and Salmon salvia greggii planted together. Santa Barbara daisy goes well with Red Fountain Grass.

My list of potential plant combinations is pretty long as I’ve made notes over the years. Each garden has its own personality and growing conditions. A hot, dry garden might depend on a ground cover ceanothus along with lavender while a shadier garden might use natives like heuchera maxima, iris douglasiana, yerba buena and salvia spathacea. Whatever plants you choose, let them work together to make exciting vignettes in your garden.



Treats & Tips for the September Garden


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salvia_m_Hot-LipsYou can feel the weather changing as summer winds down. It’s more than just the passing of the Labor Day holiday and the school year starting. The nights are longer and cooler. The days are not quite so hot and the flowers in the garden seem brighter and more colorful. I look past the soft blue and lavender blossoms and am drawn to the warm shades of gold, rust, orange, hot pink and red. They shout autumn is on the way.

There’s nothing quite like adding a few new perennials to brighten up the garden. There are many that don’t require a lot of water after they become established. I recently visited a garden where the irrigation was reduced to the point that that most of the plants were barely hanging on. But there among the crispy plants were two Hot Lips salvia blooming as big as you please. This plant is popular for a reason. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it and it blooms for a long time. It stays compact and is a great carefree shrub for water wise gardens.

Daisy flowers always bring a smile to my face. As members of the composite family they have echinacea_Wild_Berrya flat landing surface for butterflies to land on. Coneflowers are one of my favorites. When they start blooming in the early summer I enjoy them both in the garden and as cut flowers inside. Some have a slight fragrance. Hybridizers have introduced beautiful shades of gold, yellow, orange, burgundy and coral in addition to the traditional purple and pure white. Because they are dormant in the winter they are good candidates for the garden that has summer sun but winter shade. They are not attractive to deer and are good additions to the low water garden.

gaillardiaAnother perennial that blooms throughout summer and fall is gaillardia also known as blanket flower. I’ve seen this tough plant grow in neglected gardens that the owner swears does nothing to keep it going. They are covered with dozens of large reddish-orange flowers with yellow edging and bloom over a long period. This plant also attracts butterflies. You can start perennials from seed at this time of year for next year’s bloom.

Don’t overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope’, New Zealand flax, red fountain grass and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylily and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.

Another thing to do while out in the garden this month is to cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

Soon it will be time to start cool season veggies or plant cover crops in the garden. It’s never too soon to start planning for erosion control in those areas that caused you problems during last spring’s storms. But for now add some early fall color and have fun in the garden.

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