Dogwoods in the garden

Eastern flowering dogwood growing in Bonny Doon

I’m so excited. The dogwoods are blooming. Earlier this month there was nary a flowering dogwood to be found but now I’m seeing them everywhere. The native dogwoods in the Sierra are slower this year as the snow hasn’t even melted in many places yet but they’ll be blooming before you know it. If every year you vow to add a dogwood to your own garden here are some tips.

Dogwood are a good tree choice for the allergy sufferer as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers, which are actually bracts, are pollinated by insects. Their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes.

Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Chief’

There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata. Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida is native to the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or the Western dogwood.

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that’s blooming now. With various shades of pink or white blossoms they are stunning but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease.

Our native Western dogwood is unfortunately prone to leaf spot fungal diseases when grown out of their range. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding and flower and grow with little care in morning sun or light shade.

The kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. Cornus capitata Mountain Moon is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree.

Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robin and sparrow are just two of the bird species than build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings.

Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4:00 PM. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’ll be happy.

Earth Day – Kids Can Make a Difference

Scarlett Biles playing in my garden

Start summer early with the kids by planting a fruit tree, flower, vegetable or native shrub now. Planting something is having confidence in the future. Earth Day is almost here. It celebrates the natural beauty of our planet, our clean air and reminds us of what we can do to keep it healthy. Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues and is now a global celebration. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children.

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

Adelyn Biles displays her art 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 foliage 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.

The Easter Bunny – artist Adelyn Biles

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears which are soft and furry, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

All kids love lady bugs. Make your garden a more inviting place for these and other beneficial insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Lady bugs will patrol your plants looking for tiny insects and their eggs.
Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.

Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous. Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt. and search “plants”.

Scarlett playing with the hot dog bun before lunch in the garden

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, a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless. And be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside.

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.

Gardening in Grosbeak Time

Black-headed grosbeak

Just like the swallows that return each year to Capistrano I can set my own calendar by the Black-headed grosbeaks arrival in my garden. Although they eat a lot and dominate the feeders for several months I enjoy their antics. With vibrant orange, black and white coloring I could watch them all day. They are the clowns of the bird world and signal that spring is truly here and I better get to finishing up my garden chores. Everything is growing gangbusters these days with all the abundant rainfall.

Fertilize -Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden. I use an organic balanced granular fertilizer on everything. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the winter season and they may be lacking in iron. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost 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. Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants or wash it off with the hose. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom and you see new leaves emerging.

Time to divide daylilies and move if needed.

Transplant – If you need to move or divide any plants that have outgrown their space or are not growing with other plants of the same water usage now is a good time. 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 allowing 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.

Spread fresh compost or wood chip mulch around all your plants to help plants get off to a strong start. 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 wood chips on top of the soil letting it slowly decompose and filter down into the soil. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips but they at least conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.

Check for aphids – They may be 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.

The dreaded hedge parsley weed before setting those seeds that stick to everything

Weed while the soil is moist and before weeds have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. I’m still battling hedge parsley with it’s sticky seed balls that cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed. I’ll be out there again this spring pulling them.

Spring daffodils

The most important to-do for early spring 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.

The Art of Bonsai

Forsythia bonsai- just one of the many bonsai in Bud Brown’s collection

Every year I have the privilege a visiting a bonsai artist from Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai in anticipation of their annual show at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. This will be the clubs’ 31st annual show and will feature over 100 stunning bonsai trees developed by members and special demonstrators. I got the full tour of Bud Brown’s collection recently at his home in Boulder Creek plus some inside tips on how he grows such impressive specimens.

Bud told me he first became interested in bonsai way back during the second Watsonville Bonsai clubs’ exhibition. From my calculations that happened back in 1976 and since then he’s been collecting, training, buying, selling, teaching and digging up potential trees whenever he has the chance. He still has a some of his original trees although the earthquake in 1989 saw a lot of them take a tumble and most of his vintage Japanese pots smash to the ground. Now he uses bungee cords to secure them to benches. Bud hasn’t decided which of his 80-90 trees will be in prime condition for the show that takes place on April 5th and 6th but whichever ones make the cut they will be displayed beautifully.

Japanese maple bonsai

Bud’s collection consists mainly of wisteria and myriad varieties of Japanese maple but he also has an Irish yew, coast and Dawn redwoods, a couple forsythia, flowering peach, a star magnolia and a walnut although ”the squirrels always get the nuts,” he told me. Many of Bud’s trees have been in his collection since the 80’s and he has a story that goes with each. When you go to the bonsai show you will see a card telling you how old the tree is and how long it has been in training. It’s the back story that I find interesting.

One of his wisteria, now covered with fat buds about to burst hopefully in time for the upcoming show, Bud found growing out of the pavement in the road. It literally had no roots when he dug it up but as you might know wisteria are the energizer bunnies of the plant world- it’s hard to kill one.

Another wisteria that was featured prominently in last year’s show suffered last summer from the heat wave and also the smoke and soot from the fires. It’s in rehab this year but will hopefully bounce back for next year’s show.

The flowering peach which was in full bloom at the time of my visit came from a 90 year old Portuguese friend 25 years ago. It was planted on a piece of lave so Bud has incorporated the lava into the present pot so he can remember his friend of long ago.

Bud pointed out a Japanese maple that, to my untrained eye, looked quite impressive. He told me he purchased it for barely nothing from famed bonsai expert Jahn Naka as it had not been trained correctly. “A maple,’ Bud told me, “should have branches that grow up and out. This one’s not life-like.”

Japanese maple

The secret to Bud’s success undoubtedly comes from the 5 goldfish tanks and the horse trough which also houses goldfish. He keeps them to collect rainwater and for the nutrient rich water. Besides using the water directly for irrigation Bud siphons the fish debris off the bottom, too. Guess it’s not a secret now. Bud was excited to show me that one of the fish was pregnant.

When you go to the show this weekend- which runs 10am to 5pm both Saturday and Sunday April 6 & 7 at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz on 705 Front Street- you will be inspired to learn more about bonsai. In addition to admiring the impressive finished bonsai trees, at 2pm each day there will be a demonstration by either bonsai artist Mike Pistello (Saturday) or sensei Katsumi Kinoshita (Sunday) who will style and transform a common nursery stock plant into a a specimen you’ll surely want to take home if you win the raffle. There will be many of other raffle prizes, complimentary tea, coffee and cookies, finished and pre-bonsai trees and pots for sale plus performances at 11am each day on the corner of Cooper and Pacific Ave. Saturday’s performance will be by Watsonville Taiko drummers and Sunday will showcase the Nori project musicians.

But wait, there’s more. Carolyn Fitz will be offering calligraphy and Semi-e ink painting demonstrations with hands on opportunities and Lesley Hasagawa, origami artist, will offer her expertise throughout both days.

Don’t miss out on this family friendly even this weekend. Admission is only $5.