Ring in the New Year with Gardening Resolutions


New Years calendar
New Years calendar

I’m hoping to start 2016 off right. This will be the year when all good intentions pay off in my garden. Since motivation is the key to fruition I’m going on on a limb so to speak and write down my resolutions. I believe simple changes can make a big difference in the garden over time.

Since moving to this garden in Bonny Doon a couple of seasons ago I now have to accept the fact that tall redwoods screen a lot of the sun my garden receives. It’s a difficult situation with shade most of the day except the hottest midday hours. Tough on a shade plant, little blooms on the sun lovers. The gophers have systematically eaten most of the new additions anyway so this year I’m going to move the survivors to the sunniest spots and plant in gopher baskets. I’ve confessed before that I was a little cavalier with my use of gopher baskets in the past but not anymore. This year I resolve to take the extra steps necessary so my hummingbird population will have lots of nectar plants to visit.

Each year I pledge to plant more things to eat. Maybe I can’t grow all the edibles I’d like but I can sure try my hand at those that can get by on 5 hours of sun per day. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. They are more than just vegetables and fruit trees. When you grow plants you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You can connect with neighbors by trading your extra pomegranates for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Growing edibles is more that time spent doing healthy physical work- it connects us to the earth and to each other.


New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t get hung up on achieving everything you would like. Have I just given myself a bye if my plans don’t pan out this year? Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Planning landscape changes that conserve water will benefit the environment and your budget. Ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues and future meals.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. So don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree or a seed or a garden?

This year I was able to visit some gardens and nurseries in Carmel, the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, Yellowstone National Park and Mendocino. There’s no better way to recharge your creative batteries than to see an inspiring landscape. Even a walk around your neighborhood can give you ideas for your own garden. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a huge boulder and wished I could magically transport it to my own yard.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m continuing my fascination with local mushrooms. This year is starting off great with rainfall coming down at regular intervals. Fungi emerge so quickly and in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January and my stint as a volunteer basketeer.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.

Christmas Lore from The Mountain Gardener


Sherman and Christmas tree
Sherman and Christmas tree

We all celebrate the holidays in a different way. Each family has their own traditions and memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. These celebration date back thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary, mistletoe and poinsettia. How did this come about?

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts use to plant a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

hummingbird ornament
Hummingbird ornament on Noble fir Christmas tree

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into a wreath or garland.

Evergreen trees also play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas time. People walking over the herb released the fragrant scent and filled the home with blessings and protection.

How did our enduring fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants in Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek-Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated it’s a good one.

The Yule log dates back to the Saxons and Celtics. Oak trees represented strength, endurance, protection and good luck. It was the most sacred tree of Europe. On the eve of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, people would keep a huge oak log burning for 12 hours. They would toss oak twigs and acorns into the fire, shout out their hopes and resolutions for the coming New Year and sing Yuletide carols. A piece of the Yule log was saved to start the fire the following year.

It’s traditional for us to have some poinsettias in the house for the holidays but they don’t have a very long history of European tradition like other plants because poinsettia is a native of Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves or bracts turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.

Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features the harvest foods of Africa: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. It is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your traditions and have a wondrous holiday.

Holiday Wreaths Done Right


pittosporum tobira
Christmas wreath made with Chinese pistache berries, dried hydrangea blooms, Variegated pittosporum tobira, holly, eucalyptus and cedar cuttings

The holiday season just wouldn’t be complete without a day spent with the Felton Christmas Wreath Makers at their annual get together at Barb’s house. Many of us are regulars were anxious to get started and arrived mid morning eager to dig into the various piles of wreath making greens graciously supplied by Barb and her husband, Reggie. We all shared stories and some laughs over glasses of sparkling cider or champagne and french pastries.

This year Barb and Reg collected a slightly different mix of material than in previous years. “It’s different every year”,  she said.  “The drought has helped some plants set more berries. And while greens from our favorite gathering places looked much better than last year others looked terrible. You just never know.”

I arrived at Barb’s beautiful garden entering through a wrought iron gate. I had forgotten her plump chickens that she keeps for their eggs and thought she had added some new garden art. Once they started pecking around for insects it all came back to me. They entertained us all day taking dust baths underneath the camellias.

Barbs_ rooster
Barb’s rooster

Barb has a great eye for combining plants, garden art and hardscaping in her landscape. The curving brick path leads to the raised deck where she hosts the wreath making party. She has a chiminea fireplace in case the day turns chilly but the sun was shining on this morning after a storm went through the day before. This woman has good luck in the weather department.

Everyone makes a slightly different style wreath choosing greens, berries, seeds pods and hydrangea blooms or flower clusters of eucalyptus, acacia, pittosporum and Ruby Glow tea tree. Hollywood juniper, deodar cedar, red cedar, black pine, boxwood, camellia, oleander with long, slender seed pods and red flower buds, California bay, privet with berries and bottlebrush are just some of the plant material that we used this year.

We wreath makers come in all sizes and ages. I took time out to watch Barb help her grand daughter Sawyer attach dried hydrangea blossoms to her own little wreath. They were pretty engrossed in their project and I had to laugh when Sawyer decided hers had just the right amount of decorations on it.

One creative wreath maker this year made a horse head from a candy cane shaped wire frame she bought online. Using just two types of greens, Hollywood juniper for the horse’s coat and feathery Black pine boughs for the mane, a pine cone for the eye and some red ribbon for the bridle her creation is sure to be a hit with her niece, a horse lover.

If you’re thinking of getting together with your neighbors to make wreaths or swags, start by having each bring a couple grocery bags of greens to share with other wreath makers. It helps if you can borrow a couple tables and have a few extra clippers on hand in case someone forgets theirs like I did. Each person brings their own wreath frames of wire or grape vine and some thin gauge wire on a paddle to attach the bundles to the frame. Wire coat hangers work just fine, too.

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreens for use in wreaths and swags. Cuttings from fir, redwoods, pine, holly, mahonia, strawberry tree, toyon and cotoneaster parneyi make fine additions to your wreath or swag. But don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately. To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.

Trust me, you can’t make an bad wreath. They all turn out beautiful.

Gifts from the Garden

Lesser Goldfinch

With the colder, rainy weather my feathered friends appreciate the seed in the feeders I have around my house even more. The Anna’s hummingbirds still frequent their feeders regularly now that the pineapple sage flowers and flowering maple are about the only nectar source in my garden. I strive to attract wildlife to my garden with the right plants, water and shelter.

That brings me to Christmas. The turkey leftovers are gone signaling it’s time to dust off the Christmas list. I add an idea for a present for a loved one and then one for me. I’m the easy one. I like everything. Sometimes I’m stumped, sometimes it all comes together seamlessly but whatever I decide to give I know some of the best gifts are the ones from nature or that I make myself. With that in mind I have a few ideas up my sleeve.

A friend loaned me a book entitled ‘Wildlife Gardens’ that is published by the National Home Gardening Club. Within the 8 chapters, ranging from “Who’s Out There and What are They Looking For” to “When Wildlife is a Problem” are many ideas, reminders and advice to discover the wildlife garden. Whether yours is a young friend or a long time friend that’s on your gift giving list, there’s a gift idea from nature for everyone.

The wildlife garden is a place to relax and recover a sense of connection with other creatures. Nesting boxes, flowers and other plants encourage birds to make their homes in your yard. Give a bird feeder or suet feeder to someone and they’ll be hooked. You can make simple feeders yourself. A platform with edges gives many birds a chance to feed at once. You can add a roof supported by branches you find in your own garden to upgrade the look.

Plants provide needed food year round in the garden and especially during the winter. Why not give a friend a

Swallowtail butterfly feeding on butterfly bush.

plant or offset of one of your plants that birds, bees or butterflies would appreciate? Some easy-to-divide favorites that attract birds include foxglove, coral bells, red-hot poker, California fuchsia, mahonia and purple coneflower.

You might have one of the following butterfly favorites that you could divide and pot up for a friend. Yarrow, aster, veronica, agapanthus, astilbe, coreopsis and gaura to name a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be great to pot up for a gift.

A fun thing I like to do during the holidays is decorate a plant or tree outside with edible ornaments for the birds. You could trim an evergreen swag and decorate it as an easy gift. Both fruit-eating and seed-eating birds will appreciate the dietary boost during the lean winter months. For the fruit-eaters attach dried apples, hawthorn berries, cranberries and grapes to the greenery. You can also thread them onto wire loops with raw whole peanuts in the shell and wire orange slices to the branches.

Seed-eaters relish stalks of ornamental wheat tied to the branches, along with ears of dried corn. The favorite of all the “ornaments” is peanut butter-coated pinecones encrusted with wild birdseed mix and hung with florist wire. Millet sprays tied to the branches are a hit, too. Look around your garden for other berries that you can use to decorate your own trees or plants or a swag of evergreen cuttings as a present for the birds and the nature lover on your list.

succulentsAlso on my list of gift ideas is a dry arrangement of seed heads, pods and foliage from my garden in a thrift shop container or tea tin. A selection of little succulent cuttings you can spare look great in a recycled container or pot and would be a welcome addition to anyone’s kitchen window.

The holidays, maybe even more this year, are a time to bring a smile to someone you care about. Your gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show your love.