Groundcover Tips for Fall

The autumnal equinox happened this week. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator ( like where we live ). Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

Take advantage of fall planting weather by looking at what’s covering your ground. Be it the small lawn for the kids to play on, ground cover to keep the weeds at bay or erosion control to keep the hillside intact, this is an excellent time to plan for winter.

Let’s start with the lawn. If you still need a space for recreation, this is a good time to reseed those bare spots. Also to keep the lawn healthy, remove underlying thatch with a thatching rake. Then aerate the lawn by poking holes in the sod and fertilize with a complete lawn fertilizer like an organic all-purpose. Your lawn needs the phosphorus in the fall to encourage deep, strong roots for the winter.

If the kids are grown and no one is using that lawn, why not rip out the water guzzling grass and replace it with a walk-on groundcover? There are many to choose from like dymondia, lippia, potentilla duchesnea strawberry and several kinds of thyme.

One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging or 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.

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing shrubs that are good groundcovers are baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, creeping mahonia, rosemany prostratus, rubus, manzanita, creeping snowberry and ribes viburnifolium to name just a few.

It’s time to enjoy fall weather and cover that ground before winter.

Houseplants that are Good for You

As summer comes to a close, students are back in school and all of us are spending more time indoors. Time to spruce up our homes with houseplants. Whether you have a home office, small desk for studying or just a chair where you like to read, adding a few houseplants to clean the air and bring a touch of nature inside is a great idea. There are plants that thrive with little care and are   I know, my house is quite dark and my plants are happy and healthy.

Plain green leafy types do best where the light is low.   My favorite upright plants include schefflera, Hawaiian arboricola,  philodendrons like selloum and split-leafed, Chinese evergreen, spathiphyllum (peace lily),cast iron plant (aspidistra), parlor palm, snake plant and ferns .  They are native to the jungle understory, under the canopy,  and grow naturally in low-light areas.   Hanging plants that I grow in these same conditions are heart-shaped philodrendron, pathos, and grape ivy. 

Many common houseplants  help fight pollution indoors.  They’re reportedly able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air, through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. Some pollutants are also absorbed and rendered harmless in the soil.  Plant physiologists already knew that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process. Researchers have found many common houseplants absorb benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, as well.

Most of the plants  evolved in tropical or sub-tropical forests, where they received light filtered through the branches of taller trees. Because of this, their leaf composition allows them to photosynthesize efficiently under relatively low light conditions, which in turn allows them to process gasses in the air efficiently.

Some houseplants are better at removing formaldehyde from the air, while others do a better job on benzene; none is much help when it comes to tobacco smoke. But there are enough known plants that do a good job of removing pollutants from the air we breathe to cause us to view houseplants as more than just an attractive feature to decorate our homes.

One is the common succulent, Aloe vera (now renamed Aloe barbadensis), also known as "medicine plant." Many people already have one in a bright kitchen window because of the soothing, healing properties its viscous inner tissue has on burns, bites and skin irritations.

Soil and roots were also found to play an important role in removing air-borne pollutants. Micro-organisms in the soil become more adept at using trace amounts of these materials as a food source, as they were exposed to them for longer periods of time. Their effectiveness is increased if lower leaves that cover the soil surface are removed, so there is as much soil contact with the air as possible.

NASA studies generated the recommendation that you use 15 to 18 good-sized houseplants in 6 to 8-inch diameter containers to improve air quality in an average 1,800 square foot house. The more vigorously they grow, the better job they’ll do for you.

The best indoor pollution fighters are:

    * Hedera helix  – English ivy
    * Chlorophytum comosum  – spider plant
    * Epipiremnum aureum  – golden pothos
    * Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa’  –  peace lily
    * Aglaonema modestum  – Chinese evergreen
    * Chamaedorea sefritzii  – bamboo or reed palm
    * Sansevieria trifasciata   – snake plant
    * Philodendron scandens `oxycardium’ –  heartleaf philodendron
    * Philodendron selloum  – selloum philodendron
    * Philodendron domesticum  –  elephant ear philodendron
    * Dracaena marginata –  red-edged dracaena
    * Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana’  – cornstalk dracaena
    * Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig’   -Janet Craig dracaena
    * Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii’ –  Warneck dracaena
    * Ficus benjamina – weeping fig    


Why Plant in the Fall?

Those lazy, crazy, foggy days of summer are behind us now. What a strange summer it was. Checking my un-scientific weather records I’ve kept since 1999, I find no other summer that was as cool at this one. This comes as no surprise to you tomato growers out there, I know.   At the other end of the spectrum, a few years, like the summer of 2006 and 2008 were real scorchers. We’re all looking forward to Indian summer which is the best planting season of the year.

There is plenty of time to plant California natives, Mediterranean plants or any other perennial, shrub, grass or tree.  By r, roots have a chance to grow all autumn and most of the winter as well without having to supply nourishment to the leafy portion of the plant. Roots of deciduous plants still grow even after plants drop their foliage as long as the ground temperature is above 50 degrees.  Cooler day and night temperatures slowly harden off the top of the plant to prepare for the cold days of winter.

Another reason that fall is the no-fail planting season is because plants put in the ground in fall need less water to establish. Plants themselves use less water since photosynthesis is slowed by shorter days even if it’s occasionally hot. Evaporation rates slow down also during fall so water in the soil lasts longer as well. Sometimes we get lucky with fall and winter rains perfectly spaced so the ground never completely dries out.

Even cool season annuals such as snapdragons, pansies and violas, Iceland poppies and primrose planted in early fall have time to develop better roots before flowering and because they start blooming earlier they bloom over a longer time.

So get out the shovel, prepare you soil and make a shopping list.

Plants that thrive in dry, shady spots benefit especially from fall planting as they need established root systems before next years dry season. Dry shade sometimes occurs in places beyond the reach of the hose but also under native oaks. To protect their health, it’s a requirement that plants underneath thrive with little or no summer irrigation.

Plants of proven success under these conditions include native currants and gooseberry. Claremont pink flowering currant ( Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) are beautiful in spring with pale pink flower clusters that darken as they age. The powdered, blue-black berries are edible although the seeds are bitter. To get a taste of the fruit, though, you’ll have to compete with the birds. Chapparal currant is another tough reliable shrub that blooms early and often, flowering from December through March. The pendulous flower clusters are 2-6 inches long and range in color from dusty pink to rose red.

Other winning shrubs for dry shade include mahonia, nandina, osmanthus, snowberry, coffeeberry, aucuba, barberry and upright manzanita.

Groundcovers that thrive under oaks or other dry shady spots include hellebore, evergreen currant, correa, manzanita and sarcoccoca.

Whatever conditions you have in your garden, don’t miss out adding some great plants during the fabulous fall planting season.


Tough Succulents & other Plants for Containers

I have hundreds of plants in containers (295 at last count). You’d be amazed how many pots you can squeeze on a wrap-around deck, including the railings! Some of my favorites are those that house my succulent collection. I’ve come to think of them as pets as they grow over the years. They are tough, resilient and beautiful.

All my plants must be able to survive our winters without intervention on my part. I remember one cold snap about 10 years ago when the surface of my deck was frozen by early evening. I decided to move some cymbidium orchids onto the covered porch, slipped and almost broke my leg. Never again, I vowed. I may move a few succulents out of the pouring rain for the winter season but that’s the extent of my coddling.

The simplest and most sophisticated of all hardy container designs is to plant a skim of sedum across the surface of a shallow container. There are so many to choose from Then leave it alone to grow and drip down the sides.

Another plant combination that works well is to anchor a large pot with a slow growing shrub or dwarf tree that lends height as well as carries your display through the season.Plant a few hens and chickens (echeveria or sempervivum)  at the base and maybe a couple of blue fescue grasses for contrast.

Fast growing succulents, like trailing Sedum acre Lemon Ball or Golden Girl are fun and easy to grow and propagate. I’ve had my original for years although I thought I’d lost it last winter. Sixty inches of rain washed out all the soil in the pot and floated away most of the plant. From one small piece it has recovered beautifully.The chartreuse foliage would blend nicely with chocolate foliage like Carex Red Rooster or even chocolate cosmos.

Libertia, an iris relative with golden-orange swordlike leaves, looks great underplants with any of the succulents. This beautiful grass-like plant grows 2 ft high and 1 ft wide forming a colony by rhizomes. They are especially attractive when backlit. Clusters of inch wide, white flowers bloom from late spring to midsummer. Grow them in sun or light shade along with your succulents, phormiums and grasses.

Be sure to use a quality potting mix in your containers. There are special succulent and cactus mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. of the pot as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

There are lots of succulents to plant up in interesting containers or simple clay pots. Some take full sun, while others like a bit of shade. Some handle frost easily while others need some protection. Let your imagination go wild.