Progating Heirloom Veggies, Fruit Trees & Christmas trees

‘Tis the season. No, not that season but the time to propagate and increase the number or your plants. Maybe you want to save seed from your heirloom vegetables or start more shrubs inexpensively. How about getting more fruit trees or even trying your hand at starting your own Christmas tree?

Let’s start with saving seed. When your vegetables start to produce this summer, you may want to save some of the seed of plants that produced the best-tasting, earliest ripening fruits. These will be strains that are particularly adapted to our climate.

You can only save seed from open-pollinated varieties– those vegetables that are bee or wind pollinated. All . You cannot save seed from F1 hybrids as their unique traits, such as specific disease resistance and early maturity, are uniform only in the first generation of seed. Seed saved from hybrids they will not come true when replanted.

Hybrids have their place in the garden especially if you have a very short or cool season, not many hours of sunlight as you’d like or a serious nematode problem.

If you enjoy saving seed, it’s fun to identify your best plants to save and use every season. Become a backyard breeder and develop your own unique cultivars for your garden.

Propagating fruit trees involves more than saving seed because 99% of all seedling trees bear fruit inferior to that produced by the parent. It may be the same species but it is unlike that of the parent in flavor, color and date of ripening. To obtain a true-to-type fruit tree that is a clone of the parent tree, it is necessary to graft or bud on a desired rootstock. The graft wood, called a scion, should be collected in January so you have lots of time to ask the neighbor for a small, pencil-thin branch of their peach tree to add to yours or to get a branch grafted onto your tree that would pollinate your cherry, apple or whatever you might need. You can even graft different trees together if they are compatible such as an apricot on plum rootstock or almond on peach.

Mid-July to early September is the best time to propagate broadleaf evergreen shrubs. The growth flush is complete, the wood is firm and the leaves have matured. Using cuttings 3-6" long and rooting hormone they will root in 4-6 weeks. Ceanothus, manzanita and camellia are just a few of the shrubs that can be rooted this way.

And what about those visions of starting your own Christmas tree? It’s difficult to start a tree from a cuttings unless it’s a very fresh cut tree and the cutting is taken from currents seasons growth near the base of the plant. Most evergreen trees used for cut Christmas trees start their lives from seeds. These seedlings grow 1-2 ft in a year or two. After transplanting, they become 6 footers in 5-8 years. So if you are patient you can grow your own from one of those started seedlings. Doug fir, Scotch pine and Noble fir are popular varieties.

There are so many types of plants and methods to increase your collection. Perennials, houseplants, berries and grapes all lend themselves to propagation. I f you have a favorite plant or just want to increase your plants inexpensively there’s a way to do it. 

Rhododendrons and other Poisonous Plants

My fascination with poisonous plants was piqued recently while researching organic methods for eliminating rhododendron root weevils. You’ve probably seen their damage-scalloped or notched leaf margins starting in May or June. The adult weevils feed at night but usually do not seriously injure the plant. It’s the larvae feeding unseen on roots that will cause severe damage and death of the plant if weevils are left uncontrolled.

Because rhododendrons contain toxic resins that are more concentrated in the foliage, to pesticides along with a tolerance for the toxins in the leaves. Organic or even chemical sprays have little effect anymore according to a study funded by the Rhododendron Society of America and end up killing hundreds more predatory beetles and other beneficial insects in the process.

Applying parasitic nematodes to your soil is one way to control weevils. Other tactics include placing a shallow pan of water under the plant or a soup can filled with soapy water buried up to the to attract and drown the adults . You can also try banding the trunks with tape or waterproof paper and smearing the bands with a sticky barrier like Tanglefoot. Spreading some coffee grounds under the plants also helps to discourage them from crawling up the trunk after they spend the night at the base of the plant. And if you’re really determined you can hand pick them after dark- effective but not much fun.

Rhododendrons are just one or our beautiful plants that are poisonous. Children are more susceptible to the effects of plant toxins and should be taught not to eat seeds, berries or leaves from any plant. Do not assume a plant is nontoxic because birds or wildlife can consume it without harmful effects. Be prepared for an emergency by keeping syrup of ipecac on hand and the number of the Poison Control Center. ( 1-800-222-1222 )

Small pets can also be at risk if they ingest parts of poisonous plants out in the yard. Know what plants you have and keep a list. Oleander and foxglove are notorious deadly plants. Here are just some others you might not know.

Hydrangea leaves, flowers and branches contain cyanide. Lantana foliage and especially unripe berries also contain dangerous toxins while delphinium leaves and seeds contain toxic alkaloids which decrease as the plant ages. Sweet peas, lobelia, impatiens, carnations, calla lily, mums and bleeding hearts also have plant parts with come degree of negative effect if ingested.

Surprisingly, even some vegetables contain natural toxins. Diseased celery and green potatoes as well as potato leaves and sprouts produce a very strong toxin. Raw, green, young asparagus shoots can cause dermatitis and the red berries that form on their feathery branches are poisonous. Large quantities of tomato leaves and stems contain alkaloid poisons. Livestock have died from eating the foliage. I guess the deer that browse your tomato vines aren’t ingesting enough to cause them harm as they seem to know just when you have another set of buds for them to nibble.

Trees are not the most common cause of accidental poisonings around the home but a few species may present a hazard.
The black seed inside apples contain cyanide although you have to eat large quantities for them to be deadly. Peach kernals, bark and twigs contain cyanide also as do apricot, cherry and plum pits.

You don’t have to eliminate plants around the home that have natural toxins. Humans have lived for centuries around gardens and orchards. Just be prepared by knowing what plants grow on your property.

Great Shrubs-not the ‘usual suspects’

Everybody has them. Some are burgundy, while some are variegated with fragrant flowers. I’m talking about shrubs that provide reliable good looks without a lot of work. Plants that have high impact, are low maintenance and contribute year-round interest should be the stars of your garden. Perennials are pretty but shrubs provide long term beauty without all the work. Here are some shrubs that I use often in designs. Shrubs I couldn’t live without.

Shrubs can be problem solvers. Let’s say you have a bare spot between you and the neighbor next door. The neighbor is nice and all but still you’d rather they didn’t look right into your kitchen window. You want a shrub with some pizazz as you will see it daily when you’re doing dishes. You’d like something different than the usual suspects for screening.

A wonderful plant for this spot would be Lophomyrtus Sundae. This evergreen, myrtle relative grows in full sun or partial shade and requires only moderate watering. Showy, creamy variegated leaves on burgundy stems make this narrow 8-12 ft tall by 4-8 ft wide shrub really stand out in the border. Small white summer flowers are an added bonus.

Need a fast growing, deer resistant, drought tolerant evergreen shrub for a sunny spot? Luma apiculata reaches 6-8 ft tall in no time and can even be trained as a small tree. Dense, deep green leaves, beautiful smooth bark and white to pinkish late summer flowers all make this plant valuable in the landscape. Birds will like the blue-black, half inch fruits although they are not especially tasty to us.

What tolerates considerable shade, blooms with fluffy yellow flowers that smell like chocolate or vanilla and is dense enough to make a good screen or informal hedge?  Azare dentata grows to 15 ft tall, 12 feet wide and can also be trained as a small tree if you want. It would combine well with other tall shrubs in the shady border like Lily-of-the-Valley shrub, podocarpus Maki, hydrangea, Japanese aucuba, mahonia and rhododendron.

Another shrub to ignite a border with smoldering shades of burgundy and purple is the Royal Purple smoke bush. Their stems grow straight up which makes them a useful addition to any border in need of diverse forms. Growing up to 15 ft tall and wide, you can keep this drought tolerant plant in check by cutting back hard each spring after the first leaves break out. They will send up new growth year after year. If left unpruned, wispy, smoky flower clusters appear in spring. Even the youngest specimens turn a striking burnished orange-red in fall. They grow in full sun or partial shade.

There are so many  interesting, easy to grow shrubs. Any one of these will earn its keep with good foliage, interesting form and low maintenance.

Watering tips for Santa Cruz Mountain Gardens

Summer is in full swing now and you may be torn between reading a book on the chaise lounge or pruning the wisteria. Actually, it’s important to do both. Watering is crucial also as plants are vigorously growing and the warmer weather evaporates available soil moisture quickly.

Ignore generalities such as "provide one inch of water each week" or "don’t water at midday,the leaves will burn". Instead, become aware of your garden’s moisture needs. Hot, sunny, windy slopes or shady beds with clay soil and new plantings all require a different watering strategy.

When is the best time to water? Is it true that water droplets will scorch leaves in the sun? According to a study published in New Phytologist, a journal of research in plant science, there is a slight risk of leaf burn on fuzzy leaved plants like ferns. The hairs can hold the water droplets above the leaf surface and act as a magnifying glass to the light beaming through them. The study also reported that water droplets on smooth leaves, such as maples, cannot cause leaf burn, regardless of the time of day.

However, in my thirty years of gardening , my own observation is that the leaf burn on a fuzzy leaf must be very small, indeed, as I’ve never observed any damage. If you find a plant needs water midday, by all means go ahead and water it. Containers even benefit from the cooling effect that watering provides.

That being said, watering in the morning is the most efficient whether you water by sprinkler, drip system, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolster the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning.

Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Checking soil moisture and improving a soils ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you’re out in the garden. Don’t wait for plants to wilt and burn before correcting watering problems.

Most plants need 18" depth of well-drained soil to thrive although trees and many vegetables roots grow several feet deep. More than an inch of water per week may be needed for their success and in the case of many trees and native plants, deeper but more infrequent watering is required.

You can easily measure how much water you are applying. If you have a sprinkler system, place a straight-sided container like a tuna can on the outside edge of the area being watered. Let the sprinkler run until one inch of water has accumulated in the can. When using a drip system or soaker hose, irrigate until a 3" deep test hole dug 1 ft out from the emitter or end of the soaker is moist. Moisture at that level indicates than an inch of water has been applied. The best way to determine how many inches of water your soil needs for a good soak is by digging down after the water has had a chance to settle. When watered well, the soil should feel cool and damp at the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels warm and dry you haven’t watered long enough. You need to do this test just once to get a feeling for how much water your soil can hold and how deeply it’s soaking in.

Be kind to your plants this summer. It only take a few minutes for a drop of water suspended form a soil particle to be drawn upward from a root tip to the farthest leaf blade and then released from leaf stomata as air cooling vapor. How cool it that?