Lessons from the Garden

With summer winding down I’m looking at my garden and thinking about change. What can I do this fall so that next year I can save more water and make the garden more beautiful?

free_bark_chipsWith our shifting climate and availability of resources we learn new ways to keep our gardens thriving. Mulching is one way to do it. Cover all bare soil with mulch – mulch your garden, mulch your hillside, mulch your trees, mulch around your perennials and shrubs.

A nice layer around plants conserves moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages microorganisms to flourish in the soil. An added benefit is that it prevents erosion which might be especially important this winter. Protect your soil from runoff with 3 inches or more of mulch.

I had Davey Tree drop off a load of wood chips recently and the quality was excellent. The chips are small with a few green leaves and will look great as soon as they are spread. There are other sources of mulch and they’re all good. Replenishing mulch is an ongoing task – one that keeps on giving.

While up in the Pacific Northwest recently I saw many of the same problems and effects of the drought that we are encountering. You can see see native trees suffering there as well as ornamental trees in residential landscapes. No one up there is used to watering a tree in the summer.

The moral of the story: Don’t let this happen to your trees. Use a soaker hose, deep root irrigator or a hose turned on slowly to occasionally moisten the soil 18” deep under the drip line and a bit beyond. Even our native oaks can use a drink after 4 years of drought. Just be sure to keep the trunk area dry. The feeder roots are way out at the edge of the canopy.

You might also be noticing deciduous trees already starting to show fall color. This is a survival mechanism. It’s to their benefit to drop foliage prematurely when moisture is scarce. From their point of view reproduction is over for the year and they can rest up and regroup for next year.

Our native redwoods are showing signs of the drought also as the heat of summer takes its toll. You can see older, interior needles and small branches die off and start to drop This happens every year about this time but this year I’m seeing more brown branches than ever. The world’s tallest tree can live for 2200 years. The age of these trees at maturity is 400-500 years so most have survived other droughts as well.

Coast redwoods prefer to have a full canopy right to the ground and its own, thick mulch layer surrounding the trunk. Redwoods on hot, south facing slopes seem to be suffering more than other redwoods this year. I’ve also seen small patches of redwood trees that appear to have totally died off. Redwoods are usually resistant to disease but drought stressed trees can suffer from several pathogens and fungal diseases are exacerbated by stress. Some pathogens have been particularly active in the last several drought years. It is not uncommon, however, to find in the same vicinity healthy trees that do not show any signs of disease.

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amaryllis_belladonnaIf you are looking for the perfect drought tolerant flower for your late summer garden you can see them blooming everywhere these days. I’m talking about those huge pink flowers on tall stems that emerge from the ground almost mysteriously at this time of year. Their bare 2-3 foot stalks rise from bare earth, each topped by a cluster of fragrant, trumpet-shaped rosy pink flowers.

Amaryllis belladonna lend drama and color to the late season garden. Even their common name – Naked Lady – sounds exotic. They are so plentiful many people think they are native to the area. But being a long lived bulb it’s more likely they were brought here by early settlers.

Native to South Africa amaryllis belladonna perform best is areas with warm dry summers like ours. Growing in most soils with reasonable drainage they get all the moisture they need from winter rains. Heat and dryness during late spring and summer are necessary for blooming.

Because moving a belladonna lily can easily stop its blooming for several years, it is best to divide clumps only when necessary or to move them during or just after blooming, keeping as much soil intact around the bulb as possible.

The strongly scented flower clusters make an excellent cut flower and last for about a week. A word of caution – the plants are poisonous if eaten. You can find the huge bulbs at local nurseries or ask a neighbor who wants to divide theirs for some.

500 Columns and Counting

Little did I know when I walked into The Press Banner office and offered my services as a gardening columnist back in October of 2005 that I’d still be writing for the paper almost 10 years later. Time flies when you’re having a good time.

Since I wrote my first column about the benefits of fall planting we have had some really wet winters and some very dry ones. A couple of winters challenged our gardens with deep freezing nights while early or late frosts challenged our enthusiasm. It’s all a part of growing plants and designing gardens and I hope I have helped you by providing helpful tips over the years.

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Sherman the buttermilk/moss slurry eater

Everybody likes a good chuckle and we gardeners need more than most. Gardeners love to swap stories. So go ahead and laugh at my attempt to be Martha Stewart in my own garden. When the following incident was unfolding I was a bit frustrated. Time has softened the edges.

I moved up to Bonny Doon last year. The existing garden has some beautiful old rock walls created from many kinds of fieldstone and covered with moss. Another section has a new concrete block retaining wall lacking any character. So last fall I scraped off some moss from the old wall and mixed it with buttermilk hoping to spruce up the plain one when the moss took hold.

With bucket and 4 inch paintbrush in hand I tackled the wall slapping on the moss slurry with abandon just before the winter rains started. I had almost completed my project and looked back to admire my work imagining how beautiful the wall would look covered with dark green moss.

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stone walls in my garden

What I didn’t count on was Sherman, the Welsh springer spaniel. He had been following me licking off most of the buttermilk. I added hot sauce to the remainder of the slurry but that barely slowed him down. Between Sherman and all that rain we got last December most of it washed off anyway and there is only a smattering of moss here and there on the new wall but it’s a start. Hope springs eternal for a gardener.

I learn so much from other gardeners. Usually I’m invited into their garden and I have passed on many of those great ideas. But don’t be surprised if I walk up to your garden one day on a whim like I did to my sister’s neighbors, Bob and Bev when I saw them picking raspberries and strawberries early one morning. I introduce myself and ask for a garden tour. Being gracious they agreed but asked if they could have their breakfast first! Later I got to sample many a berry, watch the goldfinches flitting about and hear how their vegetable garden had evolved.

I always make the most of any excursion. You don’t have to go to an island off Honduras where gardeners protect their plants from nocturnal blue crabs by planting in washing machine baskets to find interesting solutions to gardening challenges.

From Doc Hencke’s wonderful arboretum-like landscape I learned about trees, from Robby, the serial mole killer, I learned about smart irrigation and from the collections of Ron, Marc, Pete and Ed of Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club I discovered the world of bonsai.

The Maloney’s of Scotts Valley shared rose growing tips. Al Hiley up in Felton is a wealth of local history knowledge and Vickie Birdsall of Montevalle Park in Scotts Valley knows how to replace water thirsty lawns with low water use plants. Cactus expert, Professor Loik of Felton got me up to date on why and how to grow this interesting plant in our times of drought. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of knowledge I’ve gained including visits to our own UCSC Arboretum, Casa Dos Rios in Gilroy, Stanford campus, Napa, Carmel and a dogwood nursery in Corralitos.

So keep those emails coming. I’m happy to offer helpful solutions or at least a shoulder to cry on. If you have an idea for a column let me know. And if you want someone to appreciate your gardening efforts as much as you do invite me over. I’m available. Happy Gardening.

Save Water in the Garden like they do in Carmel

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Aeonium ‘Sunburst’, echeveria, statice and agapanthus grouping

You can sum up a Carmel garden with one of two descriptions – hot and dry or mild and dry. Closer to the coast the weather is mild year round while further up Carmel Valley it can get pretty toasty.

In either place, the people of Carmel are used to paying close attention to their water consumption. Monterey County water districts have some of the most stringent regulations around.

On a recent trip to this beautiful part of the world, I took the opportunity to study their beautiful low water-use gardens. What makes for a successful garden that doesn’t include a lawn and lush perennial border? Here are some of the plants and strategies that I admired while in Carmel.

Because many homeowners are replacing their lawns with low water-use landscapes a well thought out design is more important than ever.

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Libertia peregrinans

Stone makes a garden look like it’s part of nature. Granite boulders are one of the go-to choices for accent rocks due to their lower cost and I saw many gardens with beautiful installations using granite. But it was the creamy yellow Carmel stone that caught my eye. It’s used for everything there from retaining walls and steps to veneer for homes.

Carmel stone is a Monterey sedimentary shale and can be found throughout the Santa Lucia mountain range. The best stone colors, however, come from quarries in Monterey County. With beautiful rust, orange, pink and caramel iron oxide striations it’s plentiful and relatively light by rock standards. That’s probably why it was the material of choice for the native Ohlone tribes who built the Carmel Mission.

In addition to the beautiful stonework and boulders in Carmel gardens, plant selection is often unique and bold as well as easy on the water budget. I wasn’t familiar with Globularia sarcophylla ‘Blue Eyes’ when I first saw it blooming. Covered with hundreds of button size flowers of cream with dark blue centers it really stood out. This showy little Canary Island shrub is very drought tolerant and hardy down to 10 degrees.

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Anigozanthos ‘Gold Velvet’

Another plant that looked great paired with old fashioned shasta daisies was the medium sized Gold Velvet kangaroo paw. Flowering for most of the year this variety has more resistance to black spot, needs less trimming and is frost tolerant. Plant kangaroo paws in a well mulched garden using chunky bark chips and ensure the crown of the plant is above soil level. Remove older flower stems and cut back foliage every 1-2 years. Kangaroo paw offer drought tolerant color in the garden.

Dramatic purple leafed phormium ‘Guardsman’ accented one of the gardens. Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Los Alamitos’ -Texas sage – would complement this phormium. The gray foliage and pink flowers smother this plant in color from summer into fall. Succulents like aeonium ‘Sunburst’ and echeveria paired with agapanthus and statice made a nice vignette in another garden.

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Leucodendron ‘Ebony’

A visit to several nurseries in Carmel Valley shed more light on what customers are buying in these times of drought. One of the smaller leucodendrons called Ebony is a favorite. This bushy compact shrub grows 3 to 4 feet tall and a bit wider with lustrous blackish-purple foliage and burgundy red bracts surrounding the flowers from late winter to summer. One of the great things about this species is its ability to tolerate only occasional to infrequent irrigation once established.

Other low water-use plants featured at the local Carmel nurseries include California native Woolly Blue Curls, the stunning teucrium ‘Azureum’, Velour Pink Mexican Bush Sage and Wyn’s Wonder Australian fuchsia.

Lots of awesome gardens, nurseries and plants – so little time. Take some ideas from the people of Carmel and embrace low water-use gardens.

Gardening with Kids

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Adelyn and the giant hosta

My friend Adelyn came to visit the other day. Adelyn just turned three. We always have a good time exploring my garden and checking out the forest. This time was even more fun.

I didn’t have any cherry tomatoes to share because Mr. Gopher got to the plants first but there are always lots of flowers to admire and some have a wonderful fragrance. Over a dozens hummingbirds visit my feeders daily and they love the flowers that produce nectar, too. Songbirds have their own feeders plus suet to eat and all the little seeds that nature can provide. My sunflowers will soon be ripe for the goldfinches to enjoy.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly or a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless.

Sure it would be great to have a large vegetable garden to share with Adelyn. We could build a teepee out of fallen branches and plant scarlet runner beans around the outside. Or we could grow a pizza garden in a circle divided like pizza slices with long wooden stakes. We’d plant tomatoes, sweet red peppers and basil in the slices and use stepping stones to mimic pepperoni slices.

But I have lots of other cool things so when Adelyn comes to my house we become a couple of naturalists and horticulturalists and that’s OK with us.

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Adelyn with her new bird book

For her last visit I made Adelyn her own bird book with pictures I took here at my house. It has photos of other things besides birds – butterflies, flowers, a tree frog and pictures of family when they have visited. It was fun to watch her run around and identify which bird or flower had a picture in her book.

In a short time, she had seen the grosbeak, junco, chickadee, purple finch, goldfinch and nuthatch all snatching a seed from the feeder. The flowers were easier to find as they don’t fly. She really liked the blue hydrangeas and the red flowering maples. Hiding among the huge hosta leaves was fun for her, too.

We took some more pictures during the afternoon and printed them out on the computer to add to her little book. The book is one of those inexpensive four by six inch photo albums with sleeves for the photos. We looked for the chipmunks to photograph for the album but they were out feeding elsewhere in the forest.

Adelyn playing in the garden
Adelyn playing in the garden

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can cut will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallowtail butterflies. Another easy to grow flower for cutting is the snapdragon.

Besides flowers, fragrant plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden. Lamb’s ears are soft and furry.

Get a kid into gardening and nature and they’ll be good stewards of the land for a lifetime. Plus you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.

Great Plants for a California Garden

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Leucospermum with chondropetalum

Our local UCSC Arboretum is a place everyone can enjoy. You can marvel at the dozens of jewel-tone hummingbirds darting about feeding on nectar of colorful flowers while strolling the gardens for new plant ideas.

There are still lots of dramatic leucospermum in bloom as well as California native plants that flower mid to late summer. The rainfall last December helped many of the drought tolerant plants grow more foliage and put on a better show this year. The hummingbirds couldn’t get enough of the erica blooming in shades of pink, orange and red. There must have been a dozen darting about feeding and chirping between the shrubs.

If you are looking for some inspiration for new low water-use plants you haven’t tried the nursery at the Arboretum has a good selection. They replenish the stock from their growing area on a regular basis so there’s always something to catch your eye. Here are some that I plan to grow myself or recommend to others.

Hemiandra pungens

Color in the garden is something we all relish. One of the plants that caught my eye is called Hemiandra pungens. Pretty lavender-magenta flower clusters cover this small one foot plant. It’s drought tolerant although it looks better with occasional summer water.

This bright little shrub is another of the plants from Australia being trialed at the Arboretum. The Koala Blooms plant introduction program is a joint venture which include growers here and in Australia. Plants are evaluated for their beauty, durability and sturdiness with regard to drought, weather extremes and variations in soil types. Out of the trailing process new plants are selected and offered for sale to the public. Visit the Arboretum website for info on other great plants you might want to try in your garden. www.arboretum.ucsc.edu/koala-blooms

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Pimalea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’

Another showy perennial that’s sure to make it’s way into the next appropriate garden I design is Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’. Bright pink umbel blossoms cover this small plant for many months starting in the spring. It’s hardy down to 25 degrees and requires little water once established. Also originating in Australia it looks great in a native low water-use cottage garden.

The common name for this plant is pink rice flower. The pot in the arboretum nursery happened to be placed near a red mimulus but it looked great even though you might think the color combination would be all wrong. Nature has a way of making things work despite the rules of the color wheel.

Several varieties of correa – also called Australian fuchsia – caught my eye. Although the flowers of this plant resemble fuchsias they are not related. Some do best with regular watering during the summer but the lovely correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’ is drought tolerant once established. Grow this three foot compact evergreen shrub in partial sun where it will bloom from fall through springtime and provide nectar for hummingbirds during the wintertime.

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Salvia guarantica

I was also drawn to the brilliant cobalt blue flowers of salvia guarantica. This plant is worth growing – in sun or partial shade – even though you might need to cut it down to ground level after each winter like Mexican bush sage. Growing four to five feet tall it starts blooming in early summer and continues till frost. They also do well in containers and are a favorite of hummingbirds.

Prostanthera was well represented with three varieties – ‘Poorinda Bride’, ’Purple Haze’ and my personal favorite, the Variegated Mint Bush. They are all good choices for colorful, easy to grow, hardy shrubs that require only occasional irrigation.

Among other choices at the Arboretum nursery were stand-by’s such as lion’s tail, Mexican marigold, Germander sage, Copper Glow New Zealand tea tree and giant buckwheat. This local resource offers a cornucopia of inspiration.