Summer Bulbs

begonia_tuberousA couple of warm days and I'm ready for spring. Good thing the vernal equinox got the memo. Spring officially started March 20th. The longer days that we get during Daylight Savings Time makes my spring fever complete. I look at my garden and the Easter egg colored daffodils, narcissus, tulips and hyacinths and never want the show to end.  By planting summer bulbs now I can get just that.

Think of cutting brilliant flowers for bouquets during the summer, combining them with a couple stems of mother fern and a sprig of late flowering wisteria on the dining room table. There are so many summer bulbs to choose from and they live over to increase in size each year. Here are just a few of my favorites.

Tuberous begonias make a spectacular show in bright shade or a morning sun location. Their flowers are so huge and brightly colored they put on quite a show. Upright varieties are easy to grow in the ground if you have good drainage. Otherwise, either dig up the bulbs to overwinter in the garage or plant in pots that can be placed under an overhang to spend the winter with dry feet. Those jewel-toned hanging begonias start blooming during the summer and continue until fall. The 61st annual Begonia Festival in Capitola takes place over Labor Day weekend if you want to see them up close and personal.

At Easter time we see tall, white calla lilies blooming everywhere. They make great cut flowers and are deer resistant but I especially like the smaller colored varieties that bloom a little later in the spring and summer. Many years ago we were impressed with the yellow and pink ones that were being grown. Then came the rusty orange ones and now you can buy calla lilies in black, lavender, plum and flame red. I especially like a two-tone deep rose and burgundy one called Dark Eyes.

Dahlias are another deer resistant summer bloomer. One visit to the dahlia competition at the county fair and you'll be wanting several giant dinner plate dahlias in your own garden. Dahlia flowers come in many forms. Cactus dahlias have a starburst shape. Ball dahlias are large, perfect formal types that make superior cut flowers. Then there are dark-leafed varieties and powder puff dahlias as big as dinner plates. Karma dahlias were developed by the cut flower market in Holland because of their extraordinarily strong stems and almost iridescent colors.

Daylilies come in so many colors these days you'll run out of room in the garden for all of daylily_Always-Afternoonthem. There's a dark rose and burgundy variety with a yellow throat that I have my eye on called Always Afternoon. Daylilies provide long lasting color in the garden and naturalize easily. All are good cut flowers but be careful if you have cats. Some flower varieties are toxic for cats although they are non-toxic to dogs.

If you don't have any freesias in your garden you should. This fragrant flower blooms in March right along with the daffodils. The old-fashioned favorite, a white variety called freesia alba, has a rich sweet scent. Freesia hybrids come in all the colors of the rainbow and are deer resistant.

We've all gotten Stargazers lilies in a bouquet that seemed to last forever. Grow your own to bring inside during the summer. Salmon Star is an Oriental lily hybrid of the original Stargazer and equally beautiful. Asiatic lilies, Trumpet lilies, Tiger lilies also make good cut flowers and are easy to grow. Keep flowers away from cats. Dogs are okay.

Don't forget about adding some new gladiolas for that summer bouquet or deer resistant crocosmia in one of the new deep apricot and red combinations.  Or how about Ixia or African corn lily or brodiaea for the cutting garden?

Bulbs are super easy to grow. I always design some into a garden for their color and fragrance and you can, too.

Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai 25th Anniversary Show

hawthorn_bonsai 2Last year I was introduced to the world of bonsai. Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai president Ron Anderson, gave me a private tour of his personal bonsai collection at his home in Boulder Creek. Shortly afterwards I attended the club's yearly show held then in Scotts Valley. I arrived a bit late and the afternoon demonstration had already started. The sensei, meaning teacher, was in the process of turning a large 5 gallon overgrown juniper into a finished bonsai. The wiring had been done initiating the training of the branches to form a more pleasing shape and the root pruning was about to begin. All of us in the audience were mesmerized by the seemingly brutal treatment of the plant but the results spoke for themselves. A beautiful, graceful juniper specimen displayed in a large, brown tray did all the talking.

Then the raffle began. Small finished bonsai specimens, starter plants and bonsai trays donated by club members to raise money all went to happy recipients as their ticket numbers were called. The final drawing was for the beautiful, graceful juniper just created by the sensei master. I could not believe my eyes when the winning number was announced. I was the winner. My specimen still lives happily displayed atop a large flat rock in my garden.

The show spans both a Saturday and a Sunday. On the Sunday afternoon last year, the sensei created another large bonsai of  junipers tucked into pockets on a piece of lava rock. As luck would have it, a member of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club, Marc Shaw, won the prize. Recently I had the opportunity to see how it's doing along with the rest of his collection at his home. What a treat.

Marc has been interested in bonsai for 30 years. While working his way through college he found a job at a nursery in Southern California. His father had been a nurseryman so the love of plants runs in his family. He took a bonsai class with the owner of the nursery from John Naka, widely thought to be one of the first people in California to bring the ancient art form of bonsai to the U.S. Since then Marc has increased his collection and knowledge but admits he has learned the most since joining the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club 10 years ago.

One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how they old they look. Some actually are hundreds of years old and handed down in families. Others just look very old and some techniques help further this illusion. Marc shared his method for increasing the size of the trunk of a plants. A thick, twisted trunk is usually only found on an old tree. Marc  has a small plot of land in his garden devoted to growing his future specimens. Underlaid with flooring material buried 6" deep he grows a plant for about 2 years in the ground. This way the roots can grow wide but not deep and helps the future tree trunk to increase in girth.  He has even knocked out a bonsai plant already growing in a shallow pot and transplanted it into the ground for a couple of years to change the look of the trunk.

Marc is especially drawn to developing bonsai that is called "root over rock" or Sekijoju. This simple but time consuming technique mimics the way the upper roots of a tree grip a rock tightly and then are exposed by erosion over a period of years. He has many specimens in training starting them out by teasing the roots and spreading them over a beautiful rock. Collecting interesting rocks is part of the fun and Marc has a spot the family visits in Lake Nacimiento where he finds jaspar.

His oldest bonsai, a mugho pine, is 30 years old. Maybe someday it will rival he oldest bonsai specimens that are estimated to be about 800 years old as I found out on this website – In the meantime, he will continue to graft and air layer and train his specimens to perfection.

The 25th Anniversary Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai show is March 23rd the 24th at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. Don't miss it.


rosemary_prostratus 2Last year I became a gourmet chef. That may be a slight exaggeration but growing herbs near my kitchen door raised the bar in my cooking skills. No more having to traipse halfway around the house for a snip of Italian parsley for the lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. And you should taste my stuffed baked onions with oregano and basil not to mention the poached salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint. Yes, growing my own herbs has made cooking more fun, more flavorful and more nutritious.

Throughout history
herbs have been important to us. Ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram as a tonic and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments. Their athletes made a lotion of bruised mint leaves for use after a bath. Rosemary was eaten in the Middle Ages as a tranquilizer and headache cure. Mint was used at that time to purify drinking water that had turned stale on long ocean voyages.

Parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, wild leeks and lavender are just some herbs that wereOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA found to be growing in America by the early settlers. They also brought many herbs with them for flavoring food, storing with linens, strewing on floors, dying fabrics or burning just for the pleasant fragrance. Chives were planted in meadows by early Dutch settlers so cows would give chive flavored milk.  Herb gardens were an essential feature of pioneer homes and slips, seeds and plants were exchanged as we do now.

Some herbs, like oregano, contain chemical compounds that are known to have antioxidants, disease preventing and health promoting properties. Thymol, an essential oil found in oregano and thyme is strongly antiseptic and has been found to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. Thymol has been used to control varroa mites and the growth of mold in bee colonies  although some studies indicate it also increases the permeability of other pesticides through the bee cuticle.

Herbs are super easy to grow. I started with the basic four – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, adding basil, oregano, chives, marjoram and mint soon after. This year I'm going to start some summer savory, tarragon, coriander and a Grecian laurel plant for bay leaves.

Most herbs are perennials. They overwinter and come back each year. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers, goes to seed and needs to be replanted. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill, and summer savory.

You can grow herbs in the ground, in containers outside or in pots inside the house if you have a sunny window. Herbs need good drainage. None will grow in wet soils. If your garden soil is poorly drained you will have to amend it with compost for any chance of success. The soil does not have to be especially fertile, though. Herbs need little fertilizer as highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor.

I grow all my herbs in pots outside. That way I can use a good quality potting soil and make sure they get watered when the soil is dry an inch or two down. Mints like spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, Cuban or mojito mint and orange bergomot need to be contained anyway as they spread. Some mints are grown as a groundcover and encouraged to spread like Corsican mint, pennyroyal and the California native yerba buena (satureja douglasii).

Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Anise, coriander (also known as cilantro), dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden as they do not transplant well. You can start basil now inside from seed but our nights are still too cold to plant basil starts outside.

Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. Occasionally, spider mites may be found on low growing herb plants in hot, dry weather. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Washing off the foliage early in the day helps in controlling mites and aphids.

How do you harvest herbs? Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To ensure good oil content, pick leaves after dew has disappeared but before the sun gets too hot. Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering. To store, wash herbs with the leaves on the stems lightly in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, Drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down in the sun until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room before stripping leaves off stalks. Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.

Fresh herbs are the most flavorful. The stuff in spice jars that you get in the store is often tasteless when compared to the real thing. Herb plants make beautiful ornamental additions to perennial beds and borders, too. This year make your garden come alive with herbs.


Blueberries for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Blueberries, the wonder food:  a powerhouse of nutrition and antioxidants. Kids and adults alike love them fresh off the plant, on cereal, in desserts.  And blueberry plants are beautiful in the garden. I often design these highly ornamental shrubs into a garden to provide edibles in the landscape that serve both as a fun food to nibble as you walk in the garden and to provide a colorful accent in the fall when the foliage turns fiery red, orange and yellow.

Under the branches of a large shade tree at UCSC Farm & Garden, I met with fellow blueberry enthusiasts for a  workshop recently to learn from the experts how to grow blueberries in the home garden. Liz Milazzo, field production manager, shared her personal top 8 varieties. She also told us how to choose varieties for different locales and growing conditions, how to select an appropriate planting location, prepare the planting hole or container, create soil conditions that blueberries need to thrive, how to pruning correctly and care for your blueberry plants to keep them productive.

blueberry_old_berries_new_flowers2UCSC Farm & Garden grows 1/10th of an acre of different kinds of blueberries.  As we walked between the rows of plants for the pruning demonstration I noticed many of them still had leaves and almost ripened blueberries. Liz explained that these berries were set last November and although they are ripening slowly their taste will be inferior. The best tasting berries will come from flowers set in March. You can choose early and late ripening blueberry varieties to extend your harvest. Berry size and overall yield are more important to commercial growers as are varieties that set in clusters making it easier for them to harvest. For the home gardening, taste is what we are looking for and it's easy for us to pick a berry here and another there as they ripen to perfection.

So what are the top picks of the Farm manager? Drumroll, please. Her #1 pick for the Santa Cruz area is Southmoon. This variety produces early, mid and late season and is a nice blend of acid and sweet.  Coming in at #2 is Jubilee, an upright shrub with sky blue berries. Liz also likes other southern highbush varieties such as O'Neill, Santa Fe, Sapphire, Windsor, Jewel and Misty.

Some of these are tall woody plants while others are more spreading. For containers, a tall variety like Windsor or Jewel would not work as well as a medium sized bush with an arching form such as Misty, Southmoon or Jubilee.

Blueberries need 6 hours of sun or more, regular watering and lots of mulch over their roots. They naturally grow in bogs. The year before the Farm planted their blueberry field, the pH of the soil was 6. Blueberries prefer more acidic conditions so after having their soil tested they tilled in redwood mulch and soil sulfur at the recommended rate. Striving to keep the soil at 4.5 – 5.5 pH they renew the mulch yearly in the fall and add vinegar to the water each time they irrigate to acidify the soil. The Farm uses a commercial grade vinegar but the home gardening can use inexpensive white vinegar at a rate of 1 tablespoon/gallon of water. Liz explained that this will bring city water down to a pH of 5 and blueberries love it.

The Farm irrigates the blueberries 2-3 times per week with 1/2 gallon per hour emitters on a drip line every 12". They place 2-3 emitters per plant.

Because blueberries require acidic soil rich in organic matter an easy way to supply this is to buy rhododendron and camellia ready made organic soil and use it in containers or to amend native soil 50%.  Renewable and sustainable soil amendments include cottonseed meal, feather meal and mustard meal which comes from crushed mustard seed. Pescadero Gold available at Mountain Feed is a good source for mustard meal.

A 3-4" layer of mulch over the roots is especially important as blueberries have shallow roots close to the surface of the soil. They don't have root hairs like other plants and depend on mycorrhizal fungi to absorb nutrients. Protect this active zone with a mulch of organic woody material such as wood chips, redwood compost, clean sawdust, pine bark, pine or redwood needles.

Blueberries deserve a little extra attention to their growing conditions. They repay you with scrumptious, nutritious berries.