New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Last year I was brave and published my New Year’s resolutions– at least those that pertain to the garden. It’s now the day of reckoning. Let’s see how I did and which ones I’ll  keep for 2011.   In the garden, as in life, simple changes can make a big difference over a long time. I’m adding a couple new ones that are important, too.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m starting to learn about local mushrooms. They come up in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January.
Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.  Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Of the 16 gardener’s resolutions I made last year I can honestly say I achieved half of them.

I did pay more attention to the size that plants grow and believed the tag when it said "spreading habit". But I also found that pruning shears are life savers  when you just have to have that new foliage plant that just came out.

I started making garden journal entries in February instead of January as I resolved. But then I tried to make up for it in March, May, June, October, November and December.  I missed 5 out of 12 months. I get a "C-".

I added more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects which kept the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like.  ( That counts as two resolutions )

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it, not jumping up to rearrange containers. (This one was easy)

I applied to get my little garden certified as a wildlife habitat  with the National Wildlife Federation by making sure I provided food sources, water, cover, places to raise young and used sustainable gardening techniques.

I fertilized my perennials a couple of times this year with organic compost and fertilizer instead of just once and boy were they happy. The trees and larger shrubs really only need a light dose once a year so I was good there.

I wore sunscreen everyday. (My doctor wants a hat, too. Maybe this year I’ll wear one.)

The other half of last year’s resolutions are being recycled as they’re still good ones:

I will not buy a new flower, shrub or tree until I have a plan for it in the garden.

I will sharpen and clean my garden tools so they look spiffy and work better.

I will start a worm bin with my kitchen scraps and a compost pile for leaves and plant debris. (I have so many raccoons it’s like a party out there at night but I’m going to come up with a critter-proof solution.)

I will weed regularly- not waiting until they’re so tall they swallow up my gardening tools when I lay them down.

I will accept a few holes in my plants but tour the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and I need to break out an organic pesticide.

I will prune my maples, transplant my overgrown containers and divide my perennials when I’m supposed to.

I will plant more things to eat. Edibles anywhere in the garden feed the body and the soul. (This summer was so cold I didn’t have much luck in my partial shade.)

I will stop rationalizing my plant habit is better than gambling, clothes shopping or smoking.

I will do better to practice what I preach in this column.

Happy New Year in 2011 from The Mountain Gardener

Happy Holidays in the Santa Cruz Mountains

If my plants could talk they’d have a long list of requests for Christmas. A lot of people tell me they talk to their plants but I don’t. Hopefully we are in sync without any words spoken by either of us.  I  do know they have some needs and wants so here are few of what made it to their .

From the fruit trees:  All I want for Christmas are my two prunings per year, my two prunings per year, my two prunings per year. Gee, if I could have one each summer and winter, I’d produce lots of fruit each year. And Santa, I’d also like some nitrogen from composted manure or an organic fertilizer in March, then after I’ve set fruit in June and again after harvest. Also don’t forget to water me regularly and deeply during the dry months.

From the California native plants:  All I want for Christmas is a place in the landscape. Here in California we are blessed with thousands of plant species, many found nowhere else on Earth, that have evolved with our unique climates, soils and fauna. Renew and rediscover the value we provide to conservation and habitats. Plant some of us to connect you to the land. And remember we need water and pruning, too, just on our own schedule.

From the houseplants:  All I want for Christmas is a little light in the winter, not much fertilizer, if any and to dry out a bit between waterings. Also who likes cold drafts from the front door? Dust my leaves occasionally and don’t repot me during the winter and in return I’ll keep your indoor air cleaner and healthier.

From the birds in the garden: Please Santa, send me some berries to eat.  I like redtwig dogwood fruits and also elderberries, toyon, wax myrtle, mahonia and coffeeberries. My hummingbird friends would like some flowering currants, manzanita blossoms and any salvias you happen to have in the workshop.

From the perennials: All I want for Christmas is the right growing conditions for me. If I’m a sun lover don’t try to grow me under the trees and if I like it cool and moist put me where I’ll be happy winter and summer. I’ll thrive and bloom and be happy and healthy and you won’t waste valuable time and money. If I could talk I’d also ask for some fresh compost in the spring and a light haircut would be nice, too.

From the spiders among the plants: We’re in all healthy gardens and we’re good for them.  As important predators of pests we reduce insect damage on plants.  We eat more insects and other invertebrates annually than the weight of all humans combined. All we want for Christmas is a pesticide-free garden so we can do our work.

From me to you: All I want for Christmas is for everyone to have a Happy Holiday.


Native Plants for Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here.  The community trees are lit, homes and businesses are brightly decorated and Mother Nature is soaking up that much appreciated rainfall. Santa is looking at the list you secretly keep and if you’ve been good you can probably add one more request to that list.  There’s still time to get natives in the ground so add some of these plants to your Christmas list.

The . If your soil is workable, I’d plant most native plants now. Even a winter dormant plant can benefit from the spring growth if it is in the ground for that to happen. Don’t plant in soil that is still thick gooey mud from the rain. Let the soil drain a bit between storms. Most natives put down roots during the cool wet months which prepares them for the warm, dry summer.

Before planting, dig the hole twice as wide as the container but no deeper. If it isn’t damp to the bottom of the hole from the rains, fill the hole with water. Also you may want to mix in some compost with mycorrhizals to break up your clay soil or to amend sandy soil. Mycorrhizals are not fertilizer. They are living microbes that have evolved with plants. They improve nutrient and water uptake by enhancing the absorptive surface of the roots. they also improve the living soil. It is rare that a native plants needs a fertilizer.

Although most natives don’t like their roots cut or messed with, you do need to ensure that the roots aren’t circling round and round. When you remove the plant from the container, check the roots. If they are circling, gently pull them out of the swirl so they can start growing out, away from the plant. Leaving the roots circling could eventually choke the plant later when it’s mature. Water in well. The rains will take care of the rest.

Plants can adapt to conditions that are somewhat like their native area but will survive poorly at best in radically different soils from that which they come from. They can modify but not alter the basic nutrition available in a soil. If a plant grows in serpentine clay it will not be able to grow in sandy loam unless the plant was part of that community.

Good natives to plant if you have clay soil are shrubs like coffeeberry, toyon, western redbud, flowering currant,blue elderberry. Perennials that tolerate heavy soils are douglas iris, hummingbird sage, western sword fern, Chilean aster, foothill penstemon, yarrow and bicolor lupine. Groundcovers and grasses to plant include woodland strawberry, California fescue,  blue-eyed grass, purple needle grass and deer grass.

Those of you that live in sandy soils can ask for Nevin’s barberry, native sages, monkey flower, ceanothus and manzanitas.  Some good ceanothus varieties are Tilden Park, Frosty Dawn and Joyce Coulter. You can even find some with blooms at this time of year for our resident hummingbirds. Manzanita favorites include Howard McMinn and Vandenberg,

Ask Santa for a California native to plant between storms.

Holiday Decorations from Nature

December is all about decorating for me. I usually have several craft projects going at once. Right now I’m working with all the small shells I brought back from Mexico.  My poor relatives. After so many years, their walls are covered with art projects but they always look forward to one of my wreaths to brighten up the front door or an inside wall.

I make several styles of wreath. The quickest and easiest is made by attaching dried hydrangea flowers to a grape vine wreath or a metal frame.  Even a coat hanger can be bent to make a frame.  If you have grapes or honeysuckle vines, you can make a frame yourself. Coil several 3-6 ft lengths of vine together then wrap with more vines until you get a wreath as thick as you want. Allow the wreath to dry. Then attach the flowers with thin floral wire.  You don’t even have to cover a natural wreath frame completely and if your blossoms aren’t completely dry when you harvest them you can finish them off inside.  I also tuck hydrangea flowers into my Christmas tree and use some to decorate an evergreen outside.

From the redwood canopy to the forest floor there is an abundance of foliage, berries and cones that make beautiful holiday decorations. Choose long lasting foliage from juniper, Southern Magnolia, redwoods and pines.  Deodar cedar and spruce drop their needles too quickly.  Be sure to prune to a well placed branch that is at least a third as big as the one you are pruning. Boxwood, citrus leaves, English laurel, red-trig dogwood branches and camellia leaves also hold up well in a wreath or swag.

Berries provide color in the winter garden, food for birds and other wildlife and are attractive in wreaths, swags and arrangements inside as well.  English holly is a classic but stems of cotoneaster, iris foetidissima and nandina berries will hold up well indoors for 10 days or more.  Toyon, a California native shrub, is covered with red berries at this time of year which look beautiful against the handsome green foliage.  If the robins don’t get them, the berries also hold up well inside.  For best berry production, clip branch tips lightly after berries finish but before buds form.  Berries for outdoor color includes Strawberry tree, crabapples, beautyberry, Hawthorn trees, pyracantha and skimmia.

Pointsettias also hold up well inside either as a cut flower or a living plant.  They need a very bright spot in the house and allow the soil to dry slightly but not completely between waterings .   Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop.  Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container.  Pointsettias are brittle but if you break off a branch, sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.  It’s too cold here in the mountains for pointsettias to survive outside at night usually.

But aren’t pointsettias poisonous?  Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although pointsettia leaves and flowers might give you a stomach ache if you ate them, they wouldn’t kill or seriously hurt you.  With this in mind, you should still keep pointsettias out of the reach of small children.

Happy Holidays to all my faithful readers.

How to Handle Freeze Damage

Frozen deep golden ginkgo leaves at the base of my trees wasn’t what I had in mind as I watched my tree develop that beautiful fall color last week. I watched them land with a soft thud on the frosty ground this morning. When we get a really hard frost some plants do get nipped that normally would be fine in a light frost.  Here’s how to deal with frost damage.

Don’t be tempted to rush out and prune away the damaged parts of the plant.  This winter will have more cold weather and the upper part of your plant, even if damaged, can protect the crown from further freezing. This applies to citrus trees, too.  If a perennial like Mexican bush sage froze and is now gooey and black, cut the plant down to the ground. It will re-grow come spring from the root system. If the old, dead foliage and stems are not gooey, leave them until after the last frost next spring. They provide an extra degree or two of protection for tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year. This advice applies to all your perennials. And the best part, you don’t have to lift a finger until next year. One last tip: if you do have plants that need covering in a frost, use a blanket, towel or other type of cloth and not plastic.  The cold will go right through plastic covering and damage the plant.

Color in the Winter Garden

‘Tis the season… to enjoy your garden from inside on a wintry day when the weather is cold and blustery. Why not dress up your entrance with winter blooming plants to welcome you home or place them where you can see them outside a window? Besides bedding plants like primroses, violas and pansies, there are colorful shrubs that bloom during the winter. Here are some good additions to your garden to brighten things up.

Yellow is always a cheery color in the garden at any time of year. The deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold or tagetes lemmonii  are carried on branch ends sporadically all year, peaking in winter and spring. Finely divided leaves are strongly fragrant when crushed and smell like a blend of marigold, lemon and mint which is why deer avoid them. Prune them lightly to control shape and size. They grows  3-6  ft tall and as wide.  Another shrub that blooms all winter and has yellow daisies is euryops.  They, too, are deer resistant and grow to about 3 ft.    If you have a little more space, try ‘Rose Glow’ leptospermum near a ceanothus ‘Concha’.  The contrast between the deep red flowers of the tea tree with the bright blue flowers of the California lilac will certainly get your attention. These larger shrubs reach about 6 ft tall and as wide.

Camellias are another great shrub that start blooming in the winter.  Actually, Camellia sasanqua start flowering in the fall and some like the popular  red ‘Yuletide’  bloom right at Christmas time.  ‘Chansonette’ is another beautiful  variety with rich pink flowers.  Sasanqua camellias can tolerate a little more sun than the more common camellia japonicas.  They come in a variety or forms from compact shrubs to open vining types that can be espaliered.   If you don’t have any of this variety they would make a good addition to your garden.

has been the standard in U.S. and European gardens since the 1800’s when they were introduced from China and Japan.  Their flowers range from formal types like my favorite, ‘Nucchios’  Pearl’   to anemone form, rose form and peony- like flowers .  Their flowering season can be early (Oct-Nov.), midseason (Jan. – March) or late ( March – May ) which is why it seems that camellias are always blooming.