Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club’s 28th Annual Show

Driving up Love Creek in Ben Lomond it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the famous slide in 1982 that caused such devastation and loss of life. The ferns are lush now bordering the creek which flows to the San Lorenzo river. I’m on my way to visit an old friend, Chris Howe who is getting his bonsai collection ready for the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai Club’s 28th Annual show coming up on the first weekend of April. We used to work together at a local nursery and I’m looking forward to seeing his plants.

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Ilex crenata bonsai

Chris first became interested in the art of bonsai about 15 years ago. Working in a nursery he could see the potential of overlooked, overgrown specimens with interesting trunks begging to to be styled into trees that look much older than their size suggests. To further his knowledge of this ancient craft he joined the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai Club and was their president for four years.

Chris lives with his family, two dogs and some chickens on 14 acres so there is plenty of space to shelter his prized bonsai specimens as well as those in early training or waiting to attain that most sought after illusion of age. “They’re never finished”, Chris laughed. He says his kids, Gloria, Ruby and Frederick, all show some interest in his hobby although the youngest is more apt to toss the ornamental rocks around than marvel at how old the bonsai look.

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Chris trims Chines elm bonsai

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of this living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot, while “sai” means to plant. One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look -appearing to be veterans of years of struggle against natural forces. Some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families while others just look very old and some techniques help further this illusion.

Among his collection, Chris has an impressive Liquidambar orientalis he is hoping to enter into the show this year. Slow growing and native to the eastern Mediterranean regions of Turkey and the Greek island of Rhodes where large stands still grow, Chris methodically pinched every large leaf leaving the smaller ones. This technique will cause the tree to eventually produce only small leaves making the tree look older.

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Boxwood exhibiting Jin and Shari

The boxwood is a shrub that lends itself to training. In addition to a couple boxwood that date back to his nursery days, Chris has a large specimen that was in the show last year and has been in his care for 10 years. it’s actual age is unknown. A technique called Jin which causes weathered-looking dieback on a branch and is created by stripping a branch of bark had already been initiated as was Shari which removes bark on part of the trunk. In nature, deadwood is created when a tree is hit by lightning, exposed to sustained periods of drought or when branches snap due to ice stress, wind or weight of snow. The wood dies off and is bleached by intense sunlight. This technique is almost exclusively used on evergreen trees, as creating Jin of Shari on deciduous trees often looks unrealistic

As living things, bonsai are always growing, leaves and stems being pinched, the branches wired into natural looking shapes, the trunks thickening and sometimes developing nebari or that most sought after look when the surface roots of the tree or root flare are visible above the growing medium. Included in Chris’s collection are a dramatic California buckeye, many Japanese maple, Chinese elm, ilex crenata and a tilia which is called a lime tree in the British Isles. He found the tilia many years ago thrown in some bushes behind an apartment complex in Santa Cruz. Chris speculates that the original owner bought the tilia as a finished bonsai but thought it was dead as it’s deciduous. You can never tell where a good bonsai will originate.

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“Raffle-worthy” juniper

All the members of the club are busy getting ready for their annual show. Each decides which of their specimens they will offer for sale, contribute to the raffle or to enter into the show. Moss needs to be collected and placed over the soil and around the rocks in the pot, the correct base chosen to complement each specimen, training wires removed, pots cleaned and polished. Some members have styled and trained one of 20 small junipers the club bought last fall to sell in the raffle as a fundraiser. I thought Chris’s specimen turned out especially well and hope I’m the one who wins it at the upcoming show.

Don’t miss the upcoming 28th Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai show Saturday, April 2nd and Sunday, April 3rd at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz from 10am -5pm each day. Entry fee is $5 per person to the museum and the show.

Be inspired and have all your questions answered about growing bonsai from the experts. At 2:00 pm both days there will be a demonstration by the bonsai artist, Mike Pistello (Saturday )and bonsai sensei, Katsumi Kinoshita (Sunday). In the demonstrations, each will show where and how much to trim an ordinary piece of plant material, how to wire the branches to set their growth in the desired shape and how to pot the tree. The completed bonsai will be raffled afterwards.

Also at 1:00 pm both days, Carolyn Fitz, a SCBK member and Sumi-e brush painting artist, will present an “Exclusive behind-the-scene: Japanese Bonsai Ink Painting.”

Come and enjoy an amazing exhibit of bonsai. For sale will be finished bonsai, pre-bonsai trees, pots and more. Door prizes, special entertainment and complimentary tea and cookies will be available as well as free advice from experienced members.

Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured.

Adding Bright Color to the Garden

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Yellow primrose

Do you ever look at the collection of cut roses at the market and think “Which is my favorite color today?” Sometimes it’s the strawberry pink ones I’m drawn to other times i like butterscotch or deep red. It’s the same dilemma in my garden. I try to use restraint and stick to just 3 colors but who can do that, really? In early spring I love the soft pink and pure white of bleeding hearts, camellias and early rhododendrons but maybe because I’m surrounded by so much green, I’m drawn in summer to the bright jewel colors of orange, yellow and red in my garden.

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Clivia miniata or Kaffir lily

I’m looking forward now to my orange clivia flower clusters that are emerging from deep within the dark green strappy leaves and will be opening soon. The color is especially vivid on a dark rainy day. I also have lots of deep golden and red primroses blooming now. I’ve enjoyed these same plants blooming repeatedly for many years in partial shade. I even get some sporadic blooms throughout the summer.

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Japanese Forest Grass – hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

Also at this time of year I get color from foliage too. My ‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass and the variegated one have emerged from winter dormancy and they are some of my favorites. Besides being deer resistant the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind adds another dimension to the garden. The chartreuse leaves of heuchera ‘Citronelle’ – coral bells – add a colorful touch of foliage all year round. There’s a variety called ‘Lemon Chiffon’ and another named ‘Lime Rickey’ that i want to add to my collection also.

Later in the season I look to brighter flowers to brighten my garden. High on my wish list for several years is the kniphofia or red hot poker. In addition to yellow and red varieties there’s a cool dwarf one called ‘Mango Popsicle’ available now. This terrific drought tolerant plant attracts hummingbirds and blooms continuously from late spring into fall. Other colors in this dwarf ‘Popsicle’ series are banana, creamsicle, lemon, papaya, pineapple and fire glow. All would look awesome planted in a drift.

There are so many plants I want to add to my perennial garden on the terraces between the low rock walls. Some of the existing plants are California natives like salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ with some water smart South African plants such as coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’ and leucodendron ‘Safari Sunset’ and an Australian grevillea ‘Coastal Gem’ thrown in.

Because I wechinacea_Hot_Coralant to add more vibrant colors to this area I’m looking to some of the new echinacea or coneflower. From deep gold to pumpkin orange to red-orange sunset colors this perennial has medium water needs once established and is deer tolerant. I”m hoping the seed heads will attract more goldfinches to my garden if I don’t deadhead but allow the flowers to remain on the stalks throughout the summer and into the fall. I can also plant more California native grasses for the goldfinches like blue and yellow-eyed grass and festuca californica.

Santolina 'Lemon Fizz'
Santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’

A plant like santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’ provides chartreuse mounds of fragrant foliage for year-round color. In the summertime it’s topped with bright yellow flowers. This compact evergreen plant is perfect to edging pathways, borders and in herb gardens. Plant in mass for a colorful, drought tolerant ground cover.

I have quite a few native sticky monkey flowers in orange and yellow that the

mimulus aurantiacus
mimulus aurantiacus

hummingbirds love. Also the reddish-orange California fuchsia adds color to my landscape later in the summer cascading over the rock wall. A lemon yellow fremontodendron or flannel bush would add some height to my slope.

Also I’ve wanted an Island Snapdragon or galvezia speciosa to add to my red-yellow-orange color scheme. This evergreen California native blooms with bright red snapdragon-like flowers in late winter through early fall. It’s a tough plant and very adaptable to many garden situations and soils. It can

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Fremontodendron californicum

even be hedged or pruned to ground level to keep the foliage fresh.

The bright colors of yellow, orange and red play well with blues and purples and are especially useful in mid-summer when the harsher light of the direct overhead sun can wash out paler hues.

Gardening Zones in the Santa Cruz Mountains

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Sunset Gardening Zone map

You know when you walk out the door how hot or cold it is, how windy, shady, moist or dry. You know if your soil is pure sand or hard clay because you’ve dug a few holes in your time. You don’t need a book to tell you these things. So why are the gardening zones described in Sunset Western Gardening book important when you add a new plant to your garden ? And why are they so confusing in our area?

I hear it all the time when garden consulting. “What zone am I?” “My plants keep dying, what can I do?”
The growing conditions in your garden determine how successful your plants will be. Besides weather and climate your soil affects how plants grow.

For decades, climatic data has been compiled and maps generated to help make sense of local growing conditions. In the 1930s, Sunset Magazine began mapping the western states, taking into consideration the unique climatic growing conditions along with the traditional data of minimum and maximum temperatures, latitude, elevation, ocean influence, continental air influence, mountains and hills and the local topography.

Today the map has become known by many as the gold standard for western growing advice. Zones are numbered from the harshest (Zone 1) in the north to the mildest (Zone 33) in the south.

To accompany the map a plant encyclopedia was developed that assigned the appropriate zone(s) for each plant. The system helps take some of the guesswork out of plant selection if you take into account your microclimate and how your garden differs from areas close by.

Soil quality is not taken into consideration in zone mapping. Since the soil houses the water and nutrient uptake system for most plants, it plays an important role. Most plant guides describe soil requirements in terms of well-drained, acid or alkaline, poorly drained or high organic matter. Many soils can be modified with amendments or by the use of raised beds.

The zone system isn’t perfect. After all, the data collectors don’t live here in our neck of the woods. We are unique and they are looking at the entire western United States. Still, it’s a good idea to take a look at the Sunset zone you live in to see if a plant might survive in your garden but keep these exceptions in mind.

We really only garden in three zones around here – zone 15, 16 and 17. With each new edition of Sunset’s Western Garden Book I eagerly look to see if they’ve figured out that Felton is not in zone 7 but they haven’t done so yet.

The Sunset map shows Felton as being in zone 7 and described as a ridge top instead of on the valley floor. This is the most confusing part of the map in the current edition of Western Gardening. Based on my experience even ridge tops like the highest portions of Bonny Doon and the Summit area that get an occasional dusting of snow fall mostly in a colder zone 15. Zone 7 areas like the Sierra foothills have a much colder winter cold average than any place around here. It’s confusing to both new and seasoned gardeners alike. Here are some tips to help you determine in what zone you garden.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area. Winter lows average 20-30 degrees although we are trending toward warmer winters these last few years. 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 and fancy succulents need 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. This zone is influenced by marine air approximately 85 percent of the time and the remaining 15 percent of the time by inland air. In general this zone has a moist atmosphere, cool summers and mild winters. Afternoon winds are common. Lows over a 20-year period ranged from 21 to 28 degrees.

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 above freezing. The area has a temperate feel from the combination of thermal belts and the coastal influence, with summers warmer than Zone 17 and winters warmer than Zone 15.

Zone 17 – This zone hugs the coastline on the west side of Highway One.  Mild wet usually frostless winters are accompanied by almost daily blankets of fog.

Beside the zone you also need to note how much sun or shade you get during the growing season- April through September. Most plants can survive without sun during the winter as they are either dormant or semi-dormant but need good drainage. It’s those areas that get a blast of sun from about 11 am to 4 pm in the summer that you need to plan for more carefully.

There may also be microclimates on your property. Are you near the river in a canyon or gulch or up on a south facing slope? Some areas in your garden may be several degrees warmer than other spots such as up against a brick wall or at the top of a slope from where cold air drains. Planting a citrus at the top of a slope that drains away the cold will make your tree much happier than if planted in a low open area.

If you have questions about which zone you are in, email me and I’d be happy to help. I hope this helps in choosing plants that will thrive in your garden.

Things to do in the March Garden

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Blireiana Flowering Plum

Spring is in the air, flowers blooming everywhere, birds singing in the trees, bees buzzing in the breeze. What’s a gardener to do on a day like this when just being outside is a celebration of life? Here at The Mountain Gardener headquarters- my office with the big picture windows overlooking the Blireiana flowering plum and several bird feeders- I’m taking my time to do the following gardening tasks this month.

* Check drip systems for leaks or emitters clogged by dirt or earwigs. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly and move the emitters farther away from the crown of the plant and out closer to the feeder roots which are under the whole canopy.

* Spread fresh compost or bark mulch around all your plants. Good soil is the secret to successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips do but they do conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.

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Gold Cup daffodils

* Transplant any plants in the garden that have outgrown their space or are not with other plants requiring the same water usage Now is a good time because plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil. If your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant. Organic matter such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.

* Fertilize if you haven’t already done so. Citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen and iron which is not absorbed easily during the cold season. Shrubs and fruit trees just emerging from dormancy are begging for their first meal of the season. Lawns -if you still have a small section- and ground covers begin their spring growth now also and benefit from a boost of organic nitrogen. Spread a thin layer of compost over everything. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to shade the roots as it get warmer and as they break down they help feed it, too. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost or composted manure and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming and you see new leaf growth starting before feeding them.

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crocus blooming

* Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Weeds rob your plants of precious water. Think of weeding as free gym time. And don’t remind me of how many spiny-ball hedge parsley weeds have germinated all over my property this year. I truly picked every single one before they set seed last year but the rains have exposed more of the seeds that were down deeper. Oh well, I’m on it and will not be defeated.

* Check for aphids. They are out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples. A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them. If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them. As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun. Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.

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primula obconica – pink bicolor

Ants can also bring aphids up into trees and shrubs such as camellias, citrus and roses. Ants feed off honeydew secreted by aphids, scale and other plant-juice sucking insects. Ants also protect these pests from natural predators. To keep them off, wrap trunks with a 1-2″ wide strip of masking tape and coat with a sticky barrier like Tanglefoot. Keep the barriers free of dirt and check them periodically for breaks. Reapply when necessary

The most important to-do is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today. Daylight Saving Time starts Sunday, March 13th and we’ll all have more time to spend in the garden.