Creating a ‘Moon Garden’

As the days grow longer I anxiously await those warm summer nights when I can sit outside and enjoy the evening air. As daylight fades it’s the white or silver plants and flowers that come to life. Whether your view is from a window or from your favorite place on the patio be sure you have a “white garden” to light up the garden late into the evening. Sometimes the best color for your garden is white.

Cornus ‘Mountain Moon’

Even on a grey day a white garden looks fresh and inviting. With so many white flowering plants, those with white variegated foliage and silver leaved plants to choose from yours can beckon you throughout the seasons. White feels relaxed and clean and will slow you down after a long day.

The plants that take a starring role springtime in a white garden include some of my favorites. I just need to get them all in the same area of my garden in order for them to do their magic.

Iris pallida lends color to the white garden through it’s spectacular

Iris pallida in Butchart Gardens, Victoria, British Columbia

striped variegated foliage. Easy to grow and deer resistant they won’t break your water budget either. The bearded flowers are a spectacular shade of lavender blue and this variety of iris is more shade tolerant than most.

If I add a few more white flowering plants to another area I can have two moon gardens. I wish I had room for a sturdy trellis as I’d surely plant an evergreen clematis. Their scent alone would justify the space. Another candidate for a strong support would be a white blooming wisteria like Longissima Alba. Guess I could get a wisteria that’s been trained as a standard or tree. As it stands I’m keeping a star jasmine pruned to a shrub so I’ll have that sweet fragrance starting in late spring.

Leopard Plant

For my shady garden one of the flowering plants that glows in the fading light of the day or the light of a full moon is pieris japonica or Lily of the Valley shrub. The huge clusters of tiny bell-like flowers are spectacular. Along with the huge variegated foliage of ligularia ‘Argentina’ or Leopard Plant both are sure to draw my eye at the end of a long day.

Choisya or Mexican Orange is one of those work horse shrubs that grows fast, has few pests, is deer resistant and the fragrant lowers will scent your garden in the spring and sporadically throughout the whole year. The handsome foliage looks clean and vibrant even in the winter time.

Rhododendron occidentale

In addition to my white flowering dogwood I have long planned to add California native, Western Azalea to my garden. A true native of California it’s found only in our state except for a tiny spot where it extends into southern Oregon. In addition to the Sierra Nevada it grows naturally in our area and then up the coast north of San Francisco. The large floral trusses are breathtaking- sparkling white marked with a bright yellow spot. The fragrance of the flowers is sweet and spicy clove reminiscent of cottage pinks and carnations. Their beauty and fragrance will enhance any garden.

Other native plants with white flowers are Philadelphus lewisii or Wild Mock Orange. Also Carpenteria californica or Bush Anemone is a beautiful plant to include in a white garden as is silver lupine and douglas iris ‘Canyon Snow’ -often described as being one of the most reliable native iris.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Later in the season look to white hydrangeas– mophead, lace cap or oakleaf- to add to your moon garden. Sally Holmes roses, hardy geranium ‘Biokovo’, Even the common Santa Barbara daisy when planted en masse makes quite a statement in the white garden.

Forest Bathing in the Redwoods

You know the feeling that you get when you are out walking slowly in the forest, stopping to admire a wildflower or mushroom that catches your fancy? You know it’s good for the mind and body, but why? It turns out that there are more benefits to being out in nature than the calmness it brings.

Sherman out on the trail ‘Forest Bathing’

Having a dog gives me a reason to be out on the trail. Being out in my garden simply enjoying the birds and flowers also promotes health and studies have shown that spending time in natural environments lowers our stress levels and improves our memory.

Apparently what we take for granted living where we do is all the rage for city dwellers with high stress lives. The idea is simple. Spending time in a natural area and walking in a relaxed way is calming, rejuvenating and restorative.

In the past several decades there have been many scientific studies that demonstrate the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in natural areas. Many of the benefits from the forest actually come from the air. Trees give off phytoncides, such as alpha-pinene and d-limonene, which are volatile organic compounds or aerosols. These compounds protect the trees and plants from insects and disease, but they also benefit us.

Forest bathing is what the Japanese call it. Shinrin-yoku is their term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Forest therapy has roots in many cultures throughout history. John Muir wrote that “Wilderness is a necessity.” Scientists is Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons.

Trees give off organic compounds that support our immune systems and help our system fight cancer. Other scientifically proven benefits of forest bathing include reducing blood pressure, accelerating recovery from surgery or illness, improving sleep and our mood and reducing stress. Forest bathing lowers our heart rate and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Soaking in the forest air increases our NK or natural killer cells by about 50 percent.

All I know is that when Sherman and I are out in the garden or strolling in the forest we feel good. We stop to watch the progress of a banana slug. We listen for new bird calls. And as a garden designer I strive to create a space for clients that brings that feeling to them whenever they are outside.

Part of of that good feeling we get being outside has to do with the color green. Green is the color of spring, of growth, renewal and rebirth. It renews and restores depleted energy. It’s a positive color and increases our feelings of relaxation and calmness. Often I get a request for including the color green in a client’s plant palette. We tend to overlook it’s value.

If you don’t have a forest of your own bring that forest feeling to your own garden. Stroll in a relaxed way without thinking about weeds or pruning or other items on your to-do list.

Easter Lilies in the Garden

Whether you observe Passover, Western or Eastern Christianity Easter when this time of year arrives I wait patiently for my Easter lilies to come up in the garden. The shoots are now about 6″ tall but they are a long way from blooming and I look forward to those huge, fragrant, white trumpet-shaped flowers. I pick up a few new blooming plants each year to enjoy now and celebrate Easter. It’s a tradition that marks spring along with decorating eggs, chocolate bunnies and Easter baskets.

Easter Lily aka Lilium longiforum

Easter lilies that are blooming at his time of year have been forced under controlled conditions to flower in time for Easter. This is a very tricky process since Easter falls on a different day each year dependent upon celestial bodies. Falling on the first Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox, Easter can be any day between March 22 and April 25. Crop scheduling and timing is critical. The flowers must bloom exactly when they’re suppose to with no margin for error.

Did you know that over 95% of all the bulbs grown for the Easter lily market are produced by just 10 farms in a narrow coastal region straddling the California-Oregon border? Known as the Easter Lily Capitol of the World, the area offers a climate of year-round mild temperatures, deep, rich alluvial soils and abundant rainfall which produces a consistent high quality bulb crop.

The Easter lily or Lilium longiforum, is native to the southern islands of Japan where it was grown and exported to the US until WW ll. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 the Japanese source of bulbs was abruptly cut off. As a result, the value of lily bulbs sky-rocketed and many who were growing lilies as a hobby here decided to go into business. The Easter lily bulbs at the time were called ‘White Gold’ and growers everywhere attempted to cash in on the crop. By 1945, there were about 1,200 growers producing bulbs up and down the Pacific coast from Vancouver to Long Beach. But producing quality, consistent lily bulbs proved to be quite demanding with specific climatic requirements. Over the years, the number of bulb producers dwindled to just the 10 current farms near the Oregon border. Even after the Japanese started to ship bulbs again after the war, they have never been able to come close to the quality of our US grown bulbs.

Easter Lily

Here’s how to make your Easter lily continue to thrive in your garden. For the longest possible period of enjoyment, remove the yellow anthers from the flowers before the pollen starts to shed. This gives longer flower life and prevents the pollen from staining the white flowers. Place the plants in bright indirect daylight, not direct sunlight, and water when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Do not let the plant sit in water.

After blooming, plant your lily outside in sun or part shade after letting it acclimate to brighter conditions for a week or so before transplanting. Plant in a well-drained garden bed that has been amended with lots of organic matter like compost and mulch the surface with more compost. As the original plant begins to die back, cut the stems back to the soil surface. New growth will soon emerge but go dormant again during the winter. Next year they will bloom naturally in the early summer.

Easter lilies are a great addition to the flower border. Easy to grow, fragrant and hardy.

29th Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai Exhibit

Once Upon a Time in a place not so far away a group of kids gathered to learn about the art of bonsai. This group of home-schooled kids gather weekly at the old Redwood Elementary School in Boulder Creek on “outdoor day” to hike, craft and learn about nature.

Chris Howe shows kids how to start styling their junipers

On this day, after returning from a morning hike, everyone was ready to get started creating their own bonsai. With the 29th Annual Exhibit of Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club fast approaching on Saturday and Sunday April 8th & 9th at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, there was no time to lose and most of the kids wanted their newly created bonsai to be included in the show.

Former president of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai, Chris Howe, has been a long time bonsai aficionado dating back to the days when we used to work together at a local nursery. His daughter Gloria is in this class along with 12 of her 3rd to 5th grade classmates. Chris had an attentive audience as he related a short history of bonsai and gave a few tips for the kids to get started styling their own dwarf Japanese garden junipers.

If you’ve ever tried your hand at creating a bonsai yourself but didn’t know where to start, Chris gave us all the perfect “rule” that the sensei masters use. “Imagine you are a tiny bird trying to land in a tree. Make some spaces among the branches and leaves so the little bird can land.”

Gloria Howe adds moss to her bonsai

With this advice the kids got started on their one gallon junipers. All the plants and pots were donated for the class by the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club. Each child also received a free bonsai coloring book showing the different styles and techniques which was also donated to the class by the club.

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of this living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot, while “sai” means to plant. One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look -appearing to be veterans of years of struggle against natural forces. Some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families while others just look very old and some techniques help further this illusion.

There is a technique called Jin which causes weathered-looking dieback on a branch and is created by stripping a branch of bark. When asked by Chris nearly all the kids wanted to have a branch tip or two crushed by pliers so they could peal off the bark. In nature, deadwood is created when a tree is hit by lightning, exposed to sustained periods of drought or when branches snap due to ice stress, wind or weight of snow. The wood dies off and is bleached by intense sunlight.

Gloria with her finished bonsai and others from classmates.

As living things, bonsai are always growing, leaves and stems being pinched, the branches wired into natural looking shapes, the trunks thickening. Chris showed the class one of his prized bonsai specimens and explained which techniques he used to style it.

Don’t miss the upcoming 29h Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai show Saturday and Sunday, April 8th & 9th at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz from 10am -5pm each day. Entry fee is $5 per person to the museum and the show. Kids 12 and under get in free so it’s a great way to spend the day.

Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured.

Besides taking in the beautiful bonsai on display you can purchase finished bonsai and starter plants as well as get experienced help with trees purchased. There will be door prizes and refreshments. You might even win the raffle for the demonstration specimen created each day at 2:00 pm by Bonsai Master, Eric Shrader on Saturday or if you come to the show on Sunday created by Sensei Katsumi Kinoshita.

Favorite Plants of Landscape Designers

Big surprise. Many of my friends are also landscape designers. We get together to talk plants, garden design challenges and plant problems while enjoying good food along with a little wine thrown in for good measure. Recently we met in Corralitos to exchange favorite go-to plant ideas and tour the truly fabulous garden of our host. Filled with interesting foliage and texture as well as plants that flower over a long season we all came away excited to use them in our next design. Maybe some of these ideas will work in your own garden.

Fremontodendron californicum

Every interesting garden has good bones. A successful one has a focal point, garden rooms with “walls” and a “ceiling”, plants with different textures and foliage color, repetition and unity. My friend’s garden is no exception.

Rivaling for our attention from the breathtaking view of Monterey bay, a fremontodendron, in full bloom, was a real show stopper. This California native shrub requires little irrigation and provided the perfect backdrop to the entry garden.

Loropetalum / Agave ‘Blue Glow’

Other plants that brought this garden to life included a stunning Blue Glow agave paired with the burgundy foliage of loropetalum rubrum. Both have low water needs and aren’t attractive to deer.

Eggs and bacon plant

A small recirculating fountain tucked within a pocket garden provided an inviting lure for songbirds. Surrounded by the unique lotus corniculatus or eggs and bacon plant along with a tropical-looking melianthus major aka honey bush this garden room invited one to stick around for awhile.

We garden designers were impressed with the size and vigor of acacia ‘Cousin Itt’. This lovely small plant with emerald green, feathery foliage stays small in the garden and has low water needs. Not to be confused with the bully acacia tree seen around here, it’s one of the good guys. Plant in full sun to partial shade.

Euphorbia wulfennii

In deer country you can’t go wrong with euphorbia characias wulfenii ‘Bruce’s Dwarf’. It does an excellent job of seeding itself so beware. Grow it where it can self sow and not become a problem child. Very hardy in winter and water sparingly. In spring and summer the flower heads form at the branch tips covering the plant with a chartreuse color.

A French hybrid lilac called Pocahontas scented the air as we exchanged our favorite plants that pull a garden together. The winners included hardy geraniums like Biokovo and Karmina and California native heuchera maxima. Canyon Snow Pacific coast iris also got a lot of votes. Groundcover sedum ‘Angelina’ and lime thyme garnered support also.

Abelia ’Kaleidescope’ and ‘Confetti’ got the nod from several of us. Also high on the list of favorite plants, the variegated gold and green cistus was used by many because of its low, mounding habit that hugs the ground and provides a bright evergreen accent to a sunny garden.

So if you’re in the mood to add a couple of interesting plants to your garden, take a tip from what landscape designers use or grow in their own gardens.

Tips for Planting Success

With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full potential during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbors yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that makes a plant thrive or just mope along? And how can you plan when one source shows the plant’s size at 6 feet tall while another has that same plant as 8-12 ft tall and just as wide? What’s a gardener to do?

Callistemon ‘Little John’

When designing a garden, whether it’s for a client or my own garden, I take into account the growing conditions such as soil type and fertility, winter low temperature, space and light. All plants need water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water can be harmful to your plant’s health.

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor. How do you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to note how many hours of full sun, part sun or bright shade your area is receiving during the middle of the day. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.

Most plants enjoy morning or late afternoon sun. Winter conditions are not always as important as those of the summer. Then again if your area gets no winter sun and your soil is heavy clay that sun-loving native plant might not survive. Sometimes it’s complicated.

Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt Tamboritha’

Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.

Plant your new addition correctly. Dig the planting hole at least twice as wide as the container but no deeper than the depth of the root ball unless the soil is deeply compacted. Leaving the bottom of the hole undisturbed helps prevent the plant from settling below its root crown. In soil containing a high percentage of clay, score the sides of the planting hole with a shovel to aid root growth outward from the hole.

It’s best not to add soil amendments or fertilizers directly to the planting hole, although it may be beneficial to spread some well composted manure to the surface before digging the hole. Wait until new growth is several inches long before applying fertilizer.

Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil allows for a 2 inch thick layer of mulch around the plant but don’t bury the crown. After planting don’t till the soil again allowing the beneficial organisms to re-establish.

If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil the above tips are even more important for your planting success.

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