Twas the Night before Christmas, a poem for gardeners

santa_ornament

Twas the Night Before Christmas
A poem for Gardeners
by Jan Nelson “The Mountain Gardener”

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
All the creatures were stirring,  the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

 
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
Fruit, vegetables and color:  it must belong to an artiste.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck,  they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help we eat plants, we don’t eat steaks.

If you’ve been good this year, go ahead and make a wish,
And when you see us, welcome us , don’t banish.
All of us creatures will give you our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
” Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night ! ”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote this poem in 1822 in New York.  I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

Frozen Plant Care and Plants that Don’t Freeze

toyon.1600Early on one of those freezing mornings I came across a large stand of California native toyon shrubs, every branch covered with juicy red berries. Dozens of songbirds were enjoying the feast loading up and bracing for another cold night. You couldn’t ask for a more Christmas-y plant. Bright red and green- the Christmas colors.  I made a note to put toyon on my list for gift ideas.  What would be better than to give my loved ones something that feeds the birds and the spirit?

Toyon is a hardy shrub in our area no matter how low the temps drop. Many of the plants in your garden may not be so lucky after the multiple nights of freezing weather we recently experienced. Even if you covered sensitive plants a hard frost can nip plants 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  plants.  This winter will have more cold weather and the upper part of your plant, even if damaged, can protect the crown from further freezing and provide protection for tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year. This applies to citrus trees, too. If a perennial like Mexican sage froze to a gooey, black mess, cut the plant down to the ground. It will re-grow come spring from the root system.

Remember If you have plants that need covering in another frost later this winter, use a frost blanket, light towel, sheets, burlap or other type of cloth and not plastic.  The cold will go right through plastic and damage the plant.

Getting back to my Christmas list, everybody loves color in the winter garden. Besides toyon berries to feed the birds and other wildlife, Strawberry trees have fruit for much of the winter as do crabapples, beautyberry,  pyracantha and nandina if the robins don’t get them first.

Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers  would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful.  Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.

For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.

If the idea of sitting under a beautiful shade tree in the summer would appeal to the gardener on your list, flowering cherryyou might consider giving them a Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorn that’s covered in masses of rosy blossoms in the spring and colorful berries in the winter.  October Glory Maple is a great tree for shade and gorgeous fall color. Autumnalis Flowering Cherry blooms twice a year giving you double the show.  Mine is in the middle of its fall blooming cycle right now.  It’s a welcome sight. A smaller Southern Magnolia like ‘Little Gem‘ with huge fragrant white flowers would also make a nice gift.

These are just a few of the shade and ornamental trees that would make a valuable addition to any landscape. Visit a nursery to look for those plants with berries and winter color for other gift ideas.

Caring for Ornamental Grasses

rolling_hillsI’ve lived in California my entire life and have traveled on many a back road enjoying the scenery, the trees, the flowers, the birds. Discovering a new road, the road less traveled, is half the fun of any journey. It was close to sunset recently when I found myself on one of those roads. Actually I kinda got lost on my way to Aunt Rosemary’s house and ended up on the back side of Mt. Diablo. Serendipity, the occurrence of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, was on my side.

With the winter sun skimming the tops of the rolling hills and a meadowlark announcing his presence in the row of walnut trees growing along the road I was reminded of the seasons here in the mild winter areas of California. The setting sun filtered through the grasses tawny in late fall. These grasses are just one of the many ornamental grasses that grace our gardens. With winter coming on, some go dormant, some are evergreen and some are deciduous. How should you take care of the grasses in your garden?

If your grass is big like a miscanthus and now sports that beautiful wheat color as it goes dormant, you can enjoy the show to provide structure to the winter garden as well as seed and cover for wildlife. Come February or early March, before new growth starts from the base, tie the stems into a bundle with twine or a bungee cord and prune down to 10 inches using sharp hedge shears or electric hedge pruning shears.

But what about those other grasses and grass-like plants? How do you keep them neat looking and fresh throughout the year?

If it’s small and goes dormant, like Japanese forest grass, Japanese blood grass or Fountain grass, you hakonechloa_winter.1600can prune them anytime now until early spring. I like to leave them to provide winter interest through the holidays but there will come a day in January when the winter storms will start blowing the leaves everywhere. Then I’ll prune the stems down to 3″ for the shorter grasses or 6″ for the taller fountain grasses. If I prune too low there’s a danger of cutting into the crown of the plant. Moisture then tends to settle into the crown and can rot them out.

Then there are the spiky grasslike plants like New Zealand flax or Cordyline that stay evergreen but can look ratty after a long, hot summer or cold winter. Prune these anytime for cleanup or size reduction, midspring for rejuvenation.

Select the oldest or most damaged leaves and cut them from the base out one by one. To control size, cut out ton more than 2/3 of he tallest leaves at the base. If your plant has severe damage and needs total rejuvenation wait until midspring and cut down to 1 foot. It will regrow in about 4 months but may need retrimming as the leaves grow out.

carex_oshimensis_EvergoldLastly, there are those small grasses that stay evergreen such as Blue oat grass, Pheasant tail grass, Acorus, Mondo grass, Carex, Mexican feather grass and Liriope. Like the flaxes, clean up can be done anytime but pruning for rejuvenation should be done early to midspring.

If your grass is looking a bit disheveled, comb out the old stems. Rubber gloves work great for this as the spent foliage clings to the rubber and comes out easily. If you need to go for the big chop to bring it back to its former glory, wait until early spring and cut back by 2/3. Cutting back too much will allow moisture to gather in the crown and cause rot. Rejuvenation pruning shouldn’t be done more than every 2-3 years as small evergreen grasses have less vigor than grasses that go dormant. Mexican feather grass is the exception and can be pruned back hard anytime its needed.

So that’s all there is too it. Decide if your grass is large and goes dormant, small and goes dormant or large and stays evergreen and take it from there for beautiful ornamental grasses year round.

Garden Tasks for Late Fall

honey_mushroomsIt came out of the earth suddenly, pushing soil and plants that were in it’s way to the side. Just a bit of moisture had allowed this large clump of honey mushrooms to emerge and start its path to reproduction. At this time of year when the trees are turning the color of flame and some have already gone into dormancy it seems the earth is growing silent. Winter will soon be here. For nature life continues. Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness, the time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.

The Giant Pacific salamanders in the forest duff are resting up for next seasons batch of young. Maybe now that we’ve had some rain the deer will have something to eat other than my garden. young_buckAs the weather cools, my garden plants are looking past their prime. The seed heads that remain invite small song birds to feast on what remains. Chickadees hop from plant to plant. They even find something to eat in the Japanese maple leaves and the old dried hydrangea flowers that have turned a dusty rose color. Spotted towhees scratch for seeds buried under fall leaves. I’m always slow to cut down and clear everything away but  there are some things I should be doing this autumn. I’ll pay if I leave everything for next spring when it all needs doing at once.

First, I’ll cut back perennials such as hostas, asters and mums, which collapse into a gooey mess and shelter slugs and snails. I’ll pick up and dispose of diseased  leaves, especially under the roses to prevent pathogens from spreading. Coneflowers, ligularia and rudbeckia flowers and ornamental grasses can stay to contribute winter interest for me and the birds.

I’ll leave as much foliage as possible to provide cover, protection from cold winds and foraging spots for other critters and good insects. I’ll wait to cut back the stems and foliages of not only the grasses but evergreen perennials, salvias, hardy fuchsias until spring. There are few things as rewarding as seeing your winter garden turn into a sanctuary for wildlife.

As weeds emerge I’ll spend a little time here and there keeping up with them. There are 300 dormant weed seeds per square inch of soil and I don’t want to add to that.

I don’t have the space to plant a cover crop so I like to top dress the soil with compost or bark chips. I have a few new trees that need staking to secure them through the winter. This prevents breakage and allows new roots to grow deep and stable. Be sure to set the stake on the windy side of the tree and tie loosely so it has some wiggle room This movement stimulates the trunk to grow thicker. Come next summer the trees will  probably be ready to stand on their own. I don’t want to keep them staked longer than necessary. Also check any trees or shrubs that were transplanted and are still tightly bound to a stake. Remove or reset the stake so the trunk will not become girdled as it grows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA word about all those leaves that cover the ground, the lawn and the perennial beds at this time of year. You can build up your garden soil by running a mower over them to chop into smaller pieces and spread over the soil. Worms and other organisms will start to break them down right away. Next spring dig what’s left into the soil. If you leave more than an inch or two of whole leaves on top the rains will compact them into a soggy mess and prevent oxygen from reaching the soil. If you have too much of a good thing when it comes to leaves, it’s best to put them into your green waste can.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long.  They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. My abutilons are a winter favorite for them in my garden. Keep your feeders up year-round and keep them clean.