Sweet Peas & Cool Season Veggies

Fall is in the air – sort of. The sun is setting earlier each day but our days are still beautiful. The autumnal equinox on September 23rd marks the beginning of fall when day and night are of approximately equal length. Gardeners living in Minnesota and Maine are thinking about "battening down the hatches" for winter already. Us, we’re just starting our fall planting season. There are so many possibilities for fall and winter edibles as well as colorful flowers, berries and foliage. For the biggest show there’s no better time to plant than early fall.  Let the fun begin.

While most of the summer annuals and perennials will bloom until at least October, there are cool season varieties that come into their own as our nights cool and last through the winter.  Try  colorful combinations of snapdragon, pansies, violas, sweet alyssum, calendula, chrysanthemum paludosum, forget-me-not, Iceland and shirley poppies, ornamental kale and cabbage, primrose, stock or sweet peas.

Who doesn’t  love old-fashioned sweet peas? A small bouquet will perfume a room with a delicious scent. They remind me of my Aunt Ruth who grew them every year and let me pick a bunch each spring whenever I went to visit. There are many new varieties and colors these days but back then her sweet pea vines were covered with the classic mixed colors of violet, blue, pink, peach and white.

Sweet peas have been around for a long time and many different countries claim that they originated there. One story is that a monk, Father Cupani, first harvested them in the wild on an island off Sicily in 1695` and sent the seeds to the Netherlands. In the 1800’s, an Scottish nurseryman named Harry Eckford began hybridizing and introducing larger varieties in a wider range of colors where they became quite a sensation. The most famous and perhaps the most important use of this flower was the extensive genetics studies performed by Gregor Mendel. Since they self-pollinate, their characteristics such as height, color and petal form could easily be tracked. But whether they came from Ceylon- the modern day Sri Lanka, China or Sicily, heirloom sweet peas are as exquisite in the garden and they are in the vase.

I like to plant early blooming types of sweet peas in October or early November. These varieties flower in the shorter days of late winter. Winter Elegance and Early Multiflora are common early flowering types. Also plant some of the more fragrant spring flowering heirlooms and Spencer’s at the same time to extend your harvest time. My very favorite sweet pea with long stems for cutting and an intense fragrance is called April in Paris. Large ruffled blossoms are a soft primrose cream, tinted at the edges in dark lilac that deepens and increases with age. You can’t go wrong no matter what color or style sweet pea you choose. They are all beautiful.

Now that the weather has cooled, plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, bok choy, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6" of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients. You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.

This is also the time to start perennial flowers seeds so that they’ll  be mature enough to bloom next year. Happy Fall.

How to Create a Meadow

Have you thought about creating a meadow but don’t know where to start? Need some inspiration to get going? Take a hike through the breathtaking meadows in Lassen Volcanic National Park like I did recently and you’ll get all the ideas you need to create the meadow of your dreams in your own backyard.

A wildflower meadow in Mt LassenNature is not subtle when painting a scene and neither should you. In Lassen I hiked through waist-high meadows of blue lupine and pale lilac coyote mint. White corn lily spikes grew tall and majestic providing contrast and drifts of goldenrod and Indian paintbrush added just the right amount of  punch. The meadows took my breath away.  I marveled at swaths of mariposa lily, pussy paws, alpine aster, scarlet gilia. So many wildflowers – so little time. You can have the same thing each spring and summer. Here’s how.

Meadows can supply an ever-changing display of seasonal colors and textures. A natural meadow has grasses of varying heights, bloom times and colors. Self-sowing wildflowers mix in between perennials and grasses in drifts. Sure there are lots of different flowers in a meadow, but mixed throughout are drifts or large patches – and it’s the combinations of both that makes a meadow look natural. Around the borders of your meadow make sure to plant insect-magnets such as rudbeckia, agastache, monarda and Russian sage or other perennials.

Establishing a meadow requires a bit of patience but once you’ve gotten rid of existing weeds your drifts of wildflowers, perennials and small shrubs will take care of themselves with just a little follow up weeding. Weed control is essential and should be accomplished prior to planting. Now is a good time to start by working in compost, watering the area to bring up the weed seeds and then hoeing them off in about 3 weeks.

If you plan to include grasses in your meadow, get them established first before starting wildflowers from seed or the wildflowers will overwhelm the young grasses. You can mimic nature by using native shrubs to form the bones of your meadow. Try coffeeberry and toyon and then fill in around them with flowering natives such as monkey flower and monardella. A meadow of California natives might feature a colorful carpet of seaside daisy, golden aster, blue-eyed grass and checkerbloom or simply a blend of dune sedge and yarrow. Just remember to plant in drifts to get the most impact.

Another good combination for a hot, sunny meadow would be buckwheat, silver lupine, salvia and foothill penstemon. Or try combining rockrose, agastache, russian sage and gaura interspersed with some drifts of wildflowers. What about penstemon, gaura and Mexican primrose mixed in the lion’s tail?

Shade gardeners might enjoy a meadow of bush anemone,Pacific Coast iris, columbine and wild ginger. Or try combining salal, dicentra eximia, hellebore and campanula in the shade.

Some gardens have nearly year round natural moisture. Good choices for this type of meadow are miscanthus grasses, daylily, asters, monarda and cornflowers from seed. Wild columbine, hardy geraniums, gloriosa daisy and asclepsia also work in a moist meadow as would chondropetalum, yellow flag, calla lily and lobelia cardinalis.

Most meadows can be cared for with an annual pruning in early winter. Wait until some of the wildflower seeds have ripened before cutting to insure a new crop of wildflowers and grasses next year. Weed between plants until they have had a chance to become established and fill in. The shrubs and other perennials might need a little cleanup in the spring. too.

If you would like to see some of the other wildflowers I enjoyed, check out the Lassen National Park website.

Diamond Heights ceanothus, Sunroses & Ligularia

Some plants have become the darlings of the garden while other perfectly good plants are being left in the dust ( no pun intended ) and ignored. Take Hot Lips salvia, for instance. Seems every garden now has a few. I know, I know, I’m as enamored with this variety as anybody and responsible for extolling its virtues but I want to give credit where credit it due to some underused but awesome plants. Who are these forgotten all stars?

One of my favorite groundcovers for sunny areas that looks beautiful as it fills in between other low water use plants is Ceanothus ‘Diamond Heights‘.  Carpet an area with a dense, low mat of golden yellow and lime-green variegated foliage that looks great year round.  The pretty light blue spring flowers take second place to the leaves.

This is one of those versatile plants, performing just as well in dry soils and tough situations as it does in sheltered gardens with partial shade and rich soils. If you want a spectacular effect, plant it as a group. Each plant covers 3-5 ft. Because the foliage makes a cover that weeds seldom manage to penetrate, it’s a real maintenance saver. Use it on difficult sites such as banks as well as in garden beds and raised beds. It’s also a stunner as a container plant, the foliage spreading wide on all sides.

What looks good with Diamond Heights? Try putting it with wispy, grey-blue lavender Little Spires perovskia and Hidcote lavender or Blue-eyed grass and coffeeberry.  It’s vibrant foliage also brightens the ground beneath native oaks.

Another perennial groundcover that I love to use in a tough, particularly problematic spot is Helianthemum or Sunrose. If you have enough thyme in your garden, it’s time to branch out and try this plant. Masses of colorful, inch wide flowers appear in early summer and last well into autumn. Colors include soft yellow, pinks, oranges, apricot and reds.

While the flowers are the main attraction, I find the range of foliage almost as wonderful. Some varieties have soft, grayish leaves, others a light green while some even have crinkled bright green foliage. Sunroses are work horses, hugging the ground and making an excellent low ground cover 2-3 ft across for a sunny location. They are very drought tolerant when established and don’t mind poor soils or even sandy soils.

My favorite cultivar is Belgravia Rose with its bright rose-pink flowers and grey leaves but compact Wisley Primrose covered with bright yellow flowers is also high on my list. This tough plants is rarely bothered by pests or diseases as long as there is good drainage and are attractive to bees and butterflies adding to their garden appeal.

Rounding out my list of favorite underused plants is one for shade gardeners. Because there are not many yellow flowers for the shade garden, Ligularia dentata Othello is a perennial that I like to include in a border. It’s like adding a little sunshine. This clump-forming perennial with bold leaves and 4" daisy-like golden flowers in July and August are born on plants that reach 2-3 ft tall and 2-3 ft wide. This variety likes moist soil. Plant them with other moisture loving plants such as ferns, hostas and Japanese forest grass. Ligularias are deer resistant.

These are just a few of the plants that I use in landscape designs to add punch to a garden. If you’re looking for something different in your landscape give them a try.



"Gardening is a way of showing that you believe in tomorrow."   Anonymous

And if Salvias have any say in the matter, there will be lots of tomorrows. This large genus of plants in the mint family contains about 900 species, excluding hybrids and cultivars. They are native to Europe, Africa, Asia, Mediterranean, and Central and South America including our southwest. The name salvia is from the Latin word, salvere ( to save ) referring to the long-held belief in the herb’s healing properties.

There’s a salvia of every color and purpose for the garden. Recently I enjoyed touring the salvia garden at Cabrillo College and also revisited my friend, the "Hillbilly Gardener", and his collection of salvias in Scotts Valley. I was joined by dozens of hummingbirds and even more happy bees. The showy display of flowers ranging from blue to red, apricot, soft yellow, purple, pink and even white was breathtaking.

Ernie Wasson, the nursery and garden curator with the Ornamental Horticulture Dept at Cabrillo, explained that they grow 150 types at the college all of them propagated there. Three years ago, he hosted a Salvia Summit which attracted many visitors from as far away as Kew Gardens in England, Australia and New Zealand.

Many salvias have hairs growing on the leaves, stems and flowers which help to reduce water loss. Sometimes the hairs secrete volatile oils that give a distinct aroma to the plants. This often results in the plants being unattractive to grazing animals and some insects. Other species are tolerant of wet feet and grow in boggy conditions.

Some of the standout varieties at the Cabrillo garden included Salvia gesneriiflora Tequila or Big Mexican Scarlet Sage. Blooming with huge red, tubular flowers in the shade we sampled the sweet nectar again and again. Two sages that smelled like Vick’s were Salvia somalensis from Somalia and African Blue Sage. The bees  loved Salvia Mystic Spires best while we loved the fragrant leaves of Salvia dorisiana or Tutti Frutti sage from Honduras. Salvia cinnabarina smelled like – well, you can guess – cinnamon. The truest blue plant in the world, the Gentian sage or salvia patens was a show stopper. It spreads slowly from tuberous roots.

Have a wet spot? Try salvia uliginosa or Bog salvia. Want a smaller variety that lasts for along time? Try a microphylla type like Hot Lips. Salvia greggii varieties, although stunning, do not survive as long in the garden. I learned that the famous Hot Lips salvia was brought back from Oaxaca, Mexico from cuttings by Dick Turner of Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. The original plant was bought by a maid for a housewarming gift. If you’ve ever wondered why the flowers of this plant are sometimes bicolor and other times mostly red, it has to do with the season. When the nights are warm in summer, the new flowers are all red with an occasional solid white one. As fall approaches, the flowers again will be bicolored red and white.

Another showy variety growing both at Cabrillo and at my salvia aficionado’s garden in Scotts Valley was Salvia confertiflora or Red Velvet sage. This spectacular late blooming sage from Brazil grows 5-8 ft tall with large foot long flower stalks that work well in flower arrangements both as a fresh cut flower or dried.  It will grow in light shade under redwoods. Salvia chiapensis blooms from spring to fall in this Scotts Valley garden. Another long blooming favorite is Phyllis’ Fancy that has just begun to flower but will continue till frost. This lovely sage with lush looking foliage grows 4 ft tall by 4 ft wide and fits into most gardens.

I saw over 20 varieties of salvia in this Scotts Valley garden but I’m sure there are many more tucked away that weren’t blooming. From the brilliant red of Holway’s sage to the soft magenta of Louis Saso salvia to the compact Dara’s choice, this garden has a salvia for every spot and a spot for every salvia.

August to-do’s

In case you haven’t been keeping track, summer is winding down. True we will be enjoying great weather for months to come but nature uses daylight hours to mark its calendar. And even though I’m busy visiting reader’s gardens, camping, hiking and painting there are some tasks I need to in my own garden.

Around this time of year, annual and perennials in containers and hanging baskets can become leggy with flowers only at the end of long branches. At the same time, overly rambunctious growers can overwhelm neighboring plants, crowding or even suffocating them for lack of light and air.

Renew them by cutting back about half of the stems 2/3rds of the way to the base. When those stems grow back and begin to bloom in about two weeks, cut back the remaining stems the same way. While you’re at it, cut back aggressive growers as far as necessary to give surrounding plants space for healthy growth. Fertilize with a soluble plant food to keep them blooming through October.

Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials in the ground as often as you possibly can. Annuals like zinnias and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa, marguerites and lantana.

These plants know they’re on this earth to reproduce. If they get a chance to set seed, the show’s over- they’ve raised their family. Try to remove fading flowers regularly and you’ll be amply rewarded.

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time in August or September if you haven’t already done so this month. All shrubs, especially broad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year’s buds.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in September and October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Here are more to-do’s for late August for this area:

Prune fruit trees that have already finished fruiting. Wait to prune others until after harvest, although many see summer pruning as a way to thin an overabundant crop.  Summer pruning opens the tree to light, producing bigger, healthier fruit. Overall summer pruning will slow the growth of a tree by removing energy wasting water sprouts, helping keep dwarf trees a manageable size.

Sow root veggies such as beets, carrots. leeks, onions and parsnips directly in the ground and start germinating cool-season veggies- broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, and spinach -so they are ready to plant in mid-September.

Now that you’ve taken care of your chores reward yourself by adding perennials to your garden for color in late summer through fall. Good choices include aster, chrysanthemum, coreopsis, gaillardia, gaura, Japanese anemone, echinacea, rudbeckia, Russian sage, scabiosa, Mexican marigold, verbena ad yarrow.
Blooming shrubs  that will flower well into fall are abutilon, blue hibiscus, butterfly bus, cape fuchsia, plumbago, lavatera, princess flower and salvia.