Merry Christmas from The Mountain Gardener

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, this time of year is special to each of us in our own way. We really do greet friends and neighbors with a bigger smile and a warm holiday wish when we see them on the street, at a community event or even in a store. It means a lot to me when a reader says how much they learn from my column. If you've enjoyed even one of them, I'm a success.  Isn't there a saying to the affect that a person is a success if they get up in the morning and do what they want to do? I'm blessed to be able to do just that- give gardening advice with the occasional pearl of wisdom thrown in and create gardens. How fortunate can one get?

I look out my window and see the chickadees working the plants for aphid eggs. I cleared a path of downed branches for the deer twins to pass behind my fence on their regular route. My resident raccoon family are happy finding worms along the driveway. And my cat, Jasmine, has grown a luxuriously thick, black winter coat.

There's not much else I need to do in the garden right now. Roses don't get pruned back until the end of January. Dormant spraying of fruit trees can be done in January and again in February. There'll be lots of time in late winter to prune deciduous trees. So sit back and enjoy the holidays.

While you're out and about you may see a shrub blooming with large flowers in red, pink or white. Chances are it's a camellia sasanqua. This species of camellia is native to the evergreen forests of southern Japan and many of the neighboring islands as far south as Okinawa. Cultivars began appearing in Japan in the late 1600's but it was the Dutch traders who imported some specimens into Europe in 1869. The leaves can be used to make tea and the seeds used to make tea seed oil for lighting, lubrication, cooking and in cosmetics. Tea oil has a higher caloric content than any other edible oil available naturally in Japan according to Wikipedia. All this from an incredibly beautiful shrub for partial shade.

Another plant  that I forget about until it starts blooming about now is the Christmas cactus. Each year I'm amazed at how many blooms I get from these tough, neglected plants. If you have a Christmas cactus that is dropping buds, though, you should look for a few conditions that might be contributing to this problem.   Temperature change is a major factor -moving your plant from a warm location to a cooler one or vice versa.  Ripening fruit nearby will give off ethylene gas and cause the flower buds to drop.  Watering with cold water or a cold draft from the front door might also be the culprit.  Keep plants away from furnace vents and fireplaces, too.  Christmas cactus are easy to grow in bright light and average home temperatures.  I have two that bloom their heads off and I have to confess my care for them is nowhere near what  I advise you to do.  They are forgiving, though, and live for a very long time sometimes being handed down from within families.

Most importantly I want to wish you and yours a wonderful holiday from The Mountain Gardener.

Art & Landscapes @ the DeYoung & Palace of Fine Arts

Still thinking of what to give that special someone for Christmas? Recently I spent the day at the De Young Museum enjoying the Renaissance paintings on loan from Venice, Italy. Also got over the The Palace of Fine Arts for the exhibit of the the Impressionist, Passarro.

 The paintings are powerful and inspiring. I was especially drawn to the landscapes. Looking at the pomegranate, olive and apple trees gave me some ideas for holiday presents.

Because Venice was literally built on a forest of tree trunks driven into the mud of a marsh it's geography is unique. In a city built on water, plants were highly valued and nurtured on terraces and courtyards. There was a longing for natural settings and this is clear in the the Renaissance painters work. Mediterranean plants from the mainland were brought over to grace the houses of the wealthy. Laurel trees, signifying purity and chastity, are often depicted in these masterpieces.

What a great gift one of these masterpieces  would make. But what if you don't have millions to buy an original? Here are some other ideas to consider.

The landscapes depicted in many of the paintings inspired me to work on my Christmas list.  I'm a gardener starved for color, life and greenery.  It was 29 degrees in my garden in Felton this morning and I know many of you experienced even colder temps after the brightness of the stars on a clear overnight sky.

Thick frost finished off this year's garden- what was left after the wind storm anyway. Even the more sheltered places look a little winter weary this year. Winter is here a tad early for our California gardens. Make the most of those empty spaces in your garden and those of the fellow gardeners you'd like to remember during the holidays.

Are your containers looking a little sad about now? A little bleak and bare? Then so are everybody else's. Why not go beyond cabbages and pansies and give some inspiration with colorful textural combinations that will last through the darkest days of winter.

Native plants grow well in containers. Sure most are great drought tolerant additions to the garden but have you thought about putting them together in a container for giving to someone on your list? Any of the cool blue succulents in the dudleya family look breathtaking planted in blue glazed container. A manzanita like Dr. Hurd  looks quite dramatic in a large pot. Don't worry about if the plant will outgrow the container eventually. You are essentially planting a giant bonsai and root pruning every few years will keep both of you happy and healthy. Drainage is the most important aspect of planting most natives so be sure to add pumice or lava rock to your planting mix.

What else would make a good gift? There's always a new pair of gardening boots for that special gift but if you're thinking smaller, maybe a dry arrangement from seed heads, pods and foliage from your garden in a thrift shop container would fit the bill. Leaving dried perennials and grasses to overwinter in the garden is a present for our birds who appreciate the banquet. There's no need to tidy up unless they've collapsed in a slimy heap. Take advantage of the excuse to kick back over the holidays and enjoy yourself.

Holiday Wreaths

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. The garden's been put to rest for the winter covered with a nice blanket of compost. The recent wind storm provided me with lots of material to make a beautiful holiday wreath for the front door or swag to decorate a window. Wreaths are easy and fun to make. They cost virtually nothing and make wonderful gifts for family, friends and neighbors, too.  I was invited to a neighbor's 8th annual holiday wreath making party.  I could hardly wait.

Kinda like a barn raising party without the barn, this fun group gets together for the first two weekends in December each year to inspire each other to create wonderfully unique wreaths and other decorations from natural materials. Each crafter is encouraged to invite another friend or relative and as many as 32 people will be joining my neighbor, Barbara, for the fun over the next two weeks.  Some will come from as far away as Folsom and Roseville and include both men and grandchildren who take part in the festivities.

Creative people amaze me. Amidst dozens of downed branches, the wreath makers started to work. Barbara and her husband started collecting foliage and berries weeks ago in their pick up truck. She laughed when she told me that this year they were very sad because they were unable to get trimmings from their favorite variegated holly as it was being guarded by a pit bull. Mostly they collect from neighbors trees. Green waste cans of friends might supply a wonderful mix of hydrangea flowers and other pruned goodies. Monterey cypress and pines from the Davenport area are coveted along with Hollywood junipers, cedar, leptospermum, eucalyptus sprays and variegated pittosporum foliage. Large piles of English laurel, purple hopseed bush, rosemary and bottlebrush surrounded us. Last year was the first for acacia branches as they didn't know if it would hold up but it worked great and is now a staple. Tristania leaves and berries are another new addition to the wreaths.

Barbara explained that she once took a floral making class at Cabrillo. "I got hooked", she says,"now I'm obsessed". Some "wreathers" as we're called work fast putting together bundles of mixed foliage with lightening speed and attaching them to the frame with wire on paddles. Others are more meticulous grouping each bundle of various foliage with exactly the same mix. That's pretty much it for required tools- gloves, clippers, a frame and paddle wire. A hot glue gun is a nice too for attaching accents like cones, berry clusters, driftwood, lichen, feathers, shells or flowers. Floral picks work nicely for small fruits like Meyer lemons, clementines or small pomegranates.

The record for most wreaths made in a single season is apparently held by Martha who created 7 in the course of two weeks to decorate her home and to give away as gifts. Our hostess, Barbara, holds the record for making the largest wreath which measured in at 36" and graced her front door last year. Wreaths for a front door, she explained, should be able to hold up to constant movement so she is careful not to use berries that might loosen and fall. California pepper and nandina berries usually work in this location. You can bet her front door this year will sport another marvelous creation.

Look outside your door for different shades of foliage and spent flower heads, With just a couple of bags worth of materials you can make wreaths with your kids for many of those on your Christmas list.

Mushroom Stories

I'll bet if you walk around your yard you'll find mushrooms poking through the soil under trees, between shrubs, even next to the driveway. This has been a banner year for fungi with soft soaking rains every week or so while the soil is still warm. The same cluster of dark brown mushrooms has come up again just outside my front door. Could they be edible? Might I be able to try out one of those delicious sounding recipes in my "Gourmet's Guide to Mushroom Cookery"?

While there are many wild mushrooms growing in this area that are edible there are just as many that are poisonous. Mistakenly ingesting them can cause death or liver damage so severe that a transplant would be needed for you to survive.  In November, Santa Cruz County received the second report  of a hospitalized person who became seriously ill after eating mushrooms collected in the La Selva Beach area. According to the press release, both illnesses were probably due to the mushroom Amanita phalloides. Other common poisonous mushrooms found throughout the county are Amanita ocreata and Galerina autumnalis.

The common name for these mushrooms are Death cap, Destroying angel, and Deadly galerina.  A single mushroom can be fatal if eaten although surprisingly there is no harm in handling them. If you know what you are looking for they are fairly easy to identify. If you aren't a mushroom expert the amanitas may look like just another white gilled mushroom similar to a meadow mushroom or the galerina just another little brown mushroom of which there are many related species of unknown edibility.

On a recent hike in Fall Creek with the Sierra Club, I saw many beautiful mushrooms. Chanterelle grew in several locations along the trail. Although they were positively identified, collecting in a state park is prohibited so we took pictures only. We found huge clumps of honey mushrooms that are often eaten but sometimes cause stomach upset. Why a person would consume this variety is beyond me but sure enough, there's a recipe in my book for fresh swordfish steak smothered with a mixture of sliced shitake, oyster and honey mushrooms.

We came across an impressive Coral fungi emerging from the forest duff. They are quite distinctive looking and many are edible. My Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Aurora, however, states that even this unique looking family of fungi can be hard to identify. Many are mildly poisonous while some are edible.

So if it's difficult to correctly identify edible mushrooms in the wild can you grow them yourself? It's hard to achieve  this in the back yard as fungi spores have a mind of their own as to where they want to live. Plus our temperate rain forest  has no shortage of diverse mushroom types all spreading their own spores.

Last year at the Fungus Fair in Santa Cruz I did purchase a package of oyster mushroom dowel plugs used to inoculate freshly cut heart wood. This method is not as easy as it sounds as you can't use logs that are laying around in the forest because they may already be contaminated with other kinds of fungus. After 11 months of care my logs have yet to produce any oyster mushrooms.  Undaunted I've now got a mushroom kit that consists of a plastic bag of growing medium containing Oyster mycelium. According to the instructions I should be harvesting mature size mushrooms in 2-3 weeks and get 4-5 crops from the kit. I'll keep you posted.

This year the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair at Louden Nelson Community Center takes place January 13-15, 2012.
For more info visit their website at     In the meantime, get out and enjoy the beauty of mushrooms. There's fungus among us.