Colorful Houseplants

My birthday falls in February and Valentine's Day does, too. The weather this month can be a bit gloomy some years. That's why I'm always thrilled to receive a flowering indoor plant to brighten things up. Many bloom for a very long time making them a good investment. They are easier than you think to take care. Color inside the house is like seeing a rainbow. Flowering plants make you smile.

My mother used to love anthuriums so I always think of her whenever I see them. Found in wet tropical mountain forests of Central and South America some varieties have the unique ability to swivel their leaves toward the sun. Anthurium andraeanum is the common variety grown mainly in Florida and the Netherlands as an indoor house plant.

anthurium_closeup_rrAnthuriums are durable and will survive for a remarkable period of time, even under adverse conditions. The beautiful waxy flowers along with large, heart-shaped glossy leaves are able to handle dryness around the root ball but then need to be watered thoroughly and allowed to dry slightly between waterings. They can take as much indirect light as you can provide. Lower levels of light will slow down flower production but the plant will survive just about anything. They make me think I'm in Hawaii again.

The amazing bromeliad family includes Spanish moss and the edible pineapple. Bromeliads are commonly called "air plants" but really they are epiphytes growing up in the air on tree limbs and crotches or in rock crevices, free of any connection to the ground. There are just a few species which grow on the ground and are rooted in soil. Bromeliads are distinctive as they have so many forms, textures, colorful leaves and long-lasting blooms. That's why I like them. They are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I have a collection of tillandsias also in the bromeliad family. Some grow in shells, some on drift wood, some in terrariums. These are what most people think of as air plants but really they do need a lukewarm shower now and again like they would get in the tropics.

Then there are the bromeliads with bright, colorful bracts or modified leaves surrounding a tiny bromeliad_rflower. Bromeliads flower only once, then send out new young offsets. All bromeliads share a common characteristic: trichomes which are tiny scales on their leaves. These scales serve as a very efficient absorption system. Bromeliads are very tolerant of drought conditions. In a normal house, it's not necessary to keep the central cup filled with water. If your plant is growing in a lot of light and you do fill the cup with water, make sure to flush it every so often to remove any salt build up.

Bromeliads are not heavy feeders and normally live on the scanty nutrients their roots obtain from rotting leaves. During the growing season you can use a liquid fertilizer at half or quarter strength. There are so many types of bromeliads to choose from. All are beautiful and provide color for a very long time.

There a several other blooming houseplants that are also personal favorites. We all have a couple of African violets happily blooming in a windowsill. Phalaenopsis orchids are pretty easy to bring into bloom in the average house. And one of the best houseplants for a hanging basket that takes lower light levels and dry conditions is the Lipstick plant. Free-flowering in shades of orange or red, the Lipstick plant is a relative of African violet and Streptocarpus. With showy flowers they are also related to "Goldfish plants". They prefer a well-drained potting mix since they are accustomed to surviving on rainwater running off the trees in the wild.

Remember that hanging plants that are closer to the ceiling where the air is warmer will dry out faster and need to be watered more frequently.

Living plants bring the outside in, clean the air and provide color when the sky is grey.

Vegetable Tips for Late Winter

albrightsouza_chardNow's the time to plant  cool season vegetables from starts or seed like chard, snow or shelling peas, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, lettuce, mustard and onions.  You can also sow seeds of beets, radish and carrots directly in the ground. Inside it's time to start your warm season vegetable seeds such as tomatoes as well as eggplant and peppers.  Usually you start them inside about 8 weeks before last spring frost. Counting back 6 weeks from when night temperatures stay in the mid 50 degree range also works to figure out when to start.

For those who enjoy container gardening, try combining some colorful chard with parsley, alyssum and some Johnny-jump-ups. In another large pot grow some kale, spinach along with Windowbox sweet peas. All stay compact and you can harvest healthy greens close to the kitchen door.

Zones in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Seems like I "Google" something nearly everyday. I can barely remember what life was like before the information highway. For subjects like gardening however information from your own neck of the woods is the best. Locals have knowledge of weather patterns, plant behavior, pests and diseases, flowering sequences- you name it – there's a neighbor or friend or local expert who can help you. I'm fortunate in that lots of people ask questions of The Mountain Gardener about gardening here in our unique part of planet earth. Here are some recent inquiries. You might be wondering about the same things.kale covered with frost

We all rely on Sunset's Western Garden Book as the bible for gardeners. With each new edition I eagerly look to see if they've figured out that Felton is not in zone 7. Sure it was pretty cold around here in January but even with climate change the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valleys are not as cold as a zone 7. Even considering microclimates we can grow a wide variety of plants that would not survive in the Sierra foothills, the Gabilan range, the Coast range or other zone 7 areas. Wish they would ask local nurseries and knowledgeable horticulturists what the weather is really like here.

Knowing the climate in your area helps determine what you can grow in your garden.  It's confusing to both new and seasoned gardeners alike. Here are some tips to help you determine in what zone you garden.

Zone 7 has the coldest winters in our area.  Very high ridge tops like the Summit area and the most northern portions of Bonny Doon lie in this zone.  My records show average winter lows ranging from 15-25 degrees based on 20 years of input from gardeners in these areas.  This does not apply to other areas of zone 7, just those around here.   Record lows have occurred during freezes in 1990, 1996 and 2007 but as gardeners we rely on average highs and lows to help guide our planting times.  Spring weather comes later in this zone with the growing season mainly from April – October.

Zone 15 encompasses most of our area.  Winter lows average 20-30 degrees. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call "a cold 15".  Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. Often there is damage to the tips of oleanders and citrus while gardenias and tropical hibiscus need a lot of extra protection.There are warmer parts of this zone, though, where the growing season starts in March and ends in November.  These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this "banana belt". Pasatiempo also falls in this thermal zone.  Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay near or above freezing. You might have cold pockets on your property however so plan accordingly.

Some gardening tasks are dependent on the weather. Many shrubs,perennials and grasses are to be pruned after danger of frost is past and many vegetables should be started after this time as well. As a reminder the estimated date of our last hard frost is March 15th. I've kept a weather journal for my area, the San Lorenzo valley, since 1992.  Based on my records, we may get a few frosts, especially after a storm, in late March or early April but for the most part, we have mostly passed the chance of having a heavy frost. Still it's a good idea to have a cardboard box or blanket ready to protect your young seedlings.

I hope this helps in choosing plants that will thrive in your garden.

What to Do in the Garden in February

Blue Nikko hydrangeaYou know spring is coming when you see daffodils starting to open. You know spring is coming when plum trees begin their glorious show. And you know spring is coming when you begin to think of all those garden tasks that still need your attention.

February is one of those months that ease us into the gardening season. Didn't get the roses pruned at the end of January? There's still time. Didn't dormant spray for fungal diseases and insect control? There's still time. Didn't plant any new berries yet for summer desserts? There's still time – but don't delay much longer.

What is important to do in the garden in February?

Prune fruit trees and smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open.

Prune your roses if you haven't already.

Prune repeat flowering roses by removing spindly or diseased shoots and dead wood. Do this before they start leafing out which wastes plant energy. Cut back the remaining stems by about a third, cutting canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing bud. Don't worry whether your pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again later. You want to produce lots of roses not just a few of exhibition size. Aim for a vase-shaped  bush with an open center.

Prune old garden roses that bloom once in the spring after flowering. Climbing roses require little pruning. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

If any old leaves still cling to the plant, remove them. Rake up any debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It's a good idea to spray both the bare plant and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually have a problem only with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light oil in 1 quart water and spraying every 7 to 10 days.  Thoroughly coat the trunk, branches and twigs.

Cut back woody shrubs. To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia to within a few inches of the ground. Don't use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don't cut back to bare wood inside the plant.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven't already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although sulfur is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it is not as kind to many beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kinder to your soil.

Don't cut back grasses yet if you get frost in the area where they grow. Wait until mid-March.

Don't prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.  You can cut some branches during flowering to bring in cuttings for bouquets.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that got hit by those January frosts. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area.

The Best Bareroot Varieties for your Garden

Imagine biting into that first apricot of the season. The juicy, sweet flesh the color of an orange sunset. Maybe a rich dark burgundy plum, sweet but slightly tart, makes you think of those summers when you picked them off the tree in your parents backyard. And then there are cherries, pears ,apples, peaches and nectarines to look forward to. Now is the perfect time to plant some of your favorite fruit trees while they are available in bare root.

plumsGrowing fruit trees in the backyard has come a long way in recent years. Even in season those organic peaches from the farmer's market are expensive when you load up a big bag 'cause you just have to have a couple of each variety after trying the samples. Starting a home orchard or adding to your own edibles during bare root season is the way to go.

With a little planning you can have a prolonged harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space. Maximize the length of harvest by choosing varieties with different ripening times. Then train those fruit trees to stay small by pruning them in summer (winter pruning tends to invigorate trees), plant them close together or you can even plant several in the same hole. Small trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net and harvest than large trees.

The hard part is choosing which will be your next fruit tree. I've talked to several experts about their favorites. Here's what they told me.

Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and Garden loves apples. His highest praise goes to Cox's Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious, American Golden Russet and Mutsu. Plant these varieties and you could be eating apples from August through October. Did you know that at one time in American history russet apples were the most desired and wages were actually paid in cider made from russet apples?

Sheila from ProBuild told me she has seen a lot of interest in new introductions such a Pluerry, a hybrid she described as plum meets cherry. Bella Gold Peacotum has also been very popular since being introduced last year by Dave Wilson Nursery. This peach x apricot x plum fruit has slightly fuzzy skin like an apricot but with a mildly sweet flavor all its own.

Flavor Delight aprium has become a favorite because of its resistance to brown rot. It's 3/4 apricot, 1/4 plum with the clean tang of an apricot boosted by the sweetness of a plum. This variety is also recommended by Orin Martin.

Spice Zee Nectaplum is another hybrid that is getting a lot of buzz. I've heard it described as being "just about the tastiest fruit… ever eaten- very sweet, with an indescribably rich taste and aroma".  Being a gorgeous tree with deep red leaves in the spring that gradually become a dark green by mid-summer makes it ornamental in the garden as well.

Chris and Dave from Mountain Feed like many of the heirloom fruit trees. If a variety is older than 50 years it is classified as an heirloom. Does that apply to people, too? In addition to apples, Chris told me about his favorite pear, Belle Lucrative, which he described as an amazing French butter pear. This classic variety of 19th century France has a juicy, syrupy melting texture.

Plums are also high on his list of favorites. Luther Burbank varieties such as Elephant plums_on_the_treeHeart, Beauty, Inca and the ever-popular Santa Rosa are easy to grow and need very little care once established.

Bare root trees need to be planted while they are still dormant. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put into the ground soon. You want your tree to start developing its new permanent roots in its permanent home. Fruit tree like pears and apples will be dormant for a while longer so you can wait a bit longer to plant them.

Take advantage of bare root season to add more edibles to your landscape. A smart design can make your garden look beautiful while feeding your family.