Stategies to Save Time & Water in the Garden

Tulips say “Spring is here.”

How nice that we’ve gotten some much needed rainfall earlier this month. I was getting a bit nervous after our dry February. So far this season I’ve received 39 inches of rainfall up here in Bonny Doon. Not enough for sure but getting closer to what use to be our normal of 60 inches.

But now we’ve turned the corner on spring with flowers bursting open within hours on these nice days. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned to my yard for the breeding season. Like clockwork they show up on almost the exact day each year. It’s my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

Looking forward to the rest of spring, here’s what I’ll be doing around here in April.

One of the perks of a cool, rainy spring is that shrubs and perennials have longer to establish a good root system before hot weather arrives. Ground covers have time to spread and shade the soil, conserving moisture come summer. What strategies can you follow that will make your garden low maintenance this summer and give you extra time to enjoy it?

Plant in masses. When designing or reworking your garden, make it easy on yourself by planting fewer varieties but in greater numbers. Planting this way will reduce the number of different maintenance tasks for that area. For example, if you have a large hillside that you want to cover, plant it with a groundcover like ceanothus gloriosus which fans out 6-15 feet. Some manzanitas like arctotaphylos uva-ursi eventually spread to15 feet each. Sage leaf rockrose and germander are also good for sunny areas. A shady spot could be planted with ajuga, creeping mahonia or Walkabout Sunset lysimachia.

Calla lilies come in many colors beside classic white.

Another time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no-brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you’ll be dragging the hose over to that bed for just one plant or having to run your irrigation system more for it. If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you’d like, move those to their own spot. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have one of more of the following characteristics: deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

Avoid putting thirsty plants in hard-to-reach places. If the irrigation system doesn’t reach that far, keep it simple by planting drought tolerant woody shrubs or perennials there.

Pluck weeds when the soil is moist and before they 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 will cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed.

Plant edibles among your other plants near the kitchen. Tricolor sage looks great alongside other plants with pink and violet leaves. Purple basil planted below the silver foliage of an artichoke is another great combination. Lemon thyme growing next to a burgundy colored dwarf New Zealand flax would look spectacular, too. And don’t forget to plant decorative and delicious Bright Lights Swiss chard with its stalks of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, green and white throughout your beds. It’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

So get the lemonade ready to enjoy all your free time later this season.

Earth Day 2020

Adelyn Biles at 17 months learning about how to water a garden.

Earth Day celebrates the natural beauty of our planet and reminds us that we need to keep it healthy. Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues. This year is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and while we’ll not be gathering together you can plant a tree, clean up litter, garden, hike in the woods, marvel at emerging wildflowers, be in contact with the soil and breathe fresh air outside on this day.

Celebrate Earth Day in your own backyard by being outside. It’s your own personal outdoor living room – a safe place for pets and kids to play. Just get outside, maybe trim some shrubs, plant something for the birds and pollinators. When you become a steward of your own yard, you are helping to preserve you own corner of the ecosystem. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children.

Adelyn several years ago identifying flowers and critters from her “nature book.”

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.

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.

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. http://www.calpoison.org and search “plants”.

Scarlett & Adelyn enjoying the tree fort their Dad made.

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.

Spring is Here and it’s “Essential”

Spring is busting out all over. Meadows are lush with new grasses, trees are leafing out, wisteria are blooming, the dogwoods are starting to flower. Here around the homestead the songbirds and hummingbirds are busy building nests and feeding like there’s no tomorrow. We can all be grateful we live in such a beautiful place.

Heliotrope

Many spring bloomers are deliciously fragrant, too. Whether you’re planting edibles in the vegetable garden or containers on the deck, include plants that entice you to linger and enjoy their sweet scent.

The word fragrance comes from the 17th century French word fragrantia, meaning sweet smell. A garden’s fragrance can be as unforgettable as its appearance. The scent of a particular flower can make you remember past times and places. Plant them along a garden path to enjoy as you stroll, in containers to scent a deck or patio or locate them beneath a window and let their aroma drift indoors.

Old fashion lilacs will be blooming soon. Nothing ways “spring” like the legendary scent of these shrubs. Give them a spot in full sun with enough room for them to spread 6′ feet wide. While most plants accept slightly acidic soils, lilacs are an exception. Dig lime into your soil at planting and side dress yearly if your soil is acidic.

Looking for something in vanilla? Evergreen clematis vines make a great screen with 6 inch long, glossy leaves and creamy white, saucer shaped, vanilla-scented flower clusters. Provide study support for them to climb on. They are slow to start but race once established.

Outside the veggie garden, citrus blossoms can scent the air. Plant lemons oranges, mandarins, kumquats, grapefruit and limes in full sun areas. Established trees need a good soak every other week during the warmer months so keep them on a separate watering system from your other edibles.

Dianthus

Inside the veggie garden, include scented plants that attract beneficial insects. Fragrant lavender and sweet alyssum are good choices. For sheer enjoyment, plant perennial carnation and dianthus for their intense clove fragrance. Cinnamon Red Hots grow to 15 inches, are deer resistant, bloom all spring and summer and don’t need deadheading. Velvet and White border carnations are among the least demanding and most satisfying perennials in the garden. As cut flowers they are long lasting and highly fragrant in bouquets.

Nemesia and carnations

A fragrant perennial to tuck among your other plants or veggies is Berries & Cream Sachet nemesia. Intensely fragrant blossoms are purple and white, just like blackberries covered with cream. They bloom for months without any special care but if flowers decline, cut plants back to stimulate new growth.

More Scented perennials include sweet violets and chocolate cosmos. Plant several chocolate cosmos for the strongest effect. They really do smell like dark chocolate on a warm day. Vivid purple heliotrope smell like vanilla and licorice.

Fragrant shrubs that are easy to grow are Mexican Orange (choisya ternata) which blooms most of the year. Pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira all have tiny blossoms that also smell like oranges. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive (osmanthus fragrans) have a delicate apricot fragrance. Other fragrant shrubs include California native Philadelphus lewisii (Wild Mock Orange) and Calycanthus occidentals (Spice Bush) another native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.

Plant for fragrance. It’s your reward for all the care and tending you give your garden.

Tips for Growing Vegetable in the Shade

We humans used to be mostly foragers and obtained our nutrition by being hunter-gatherers. Foragers use to enjoy a comparatively leisurely life with good nutrition by working just a few hours each day, while those in agricultural communities toiled almost ceaselessly and had comparatively poor nutrition. What happened to make us the agricultural society we are today?

Cool and warm season vegetables

The end of the ice age occurred at the same time that foragers migrated around the globe. Warmer, wetter and more productive climates may have increased populations in some regions. The increased population pressure. may explain why some communities of foragers began to settle down and begin growing food. The rest is history. Many of us are returning to growing and producing our own food whenever we are able. Even on a small scale, a garden, a few fruit trees, a chicken or two or three, all help to put healthy, nutritious food on our table.

Enter 2020. As we all are staying close to the homefront I’m grateful that it’s spring and I can be out in the garden. And this is the year I plant more edibles. Yes, I battle squirrels and chipmunks as well as shade but I believe I can outsmart them if I put my mind to it. That’s the plan anyway. In the meantime here are some guidelines I’ll be following.

There are three types of shade. A partially shady location is one that receives 2-6 hours of sun, either in the morning or in the afternoon. It can also refer to a full day of dappled sunlight. Most edibles that prefer full sun will grow in partial shade, especially if they receiver their hours of fullest sunlight in the morning. A lightly shaded garden receives an intermediate level of shade. While it may receive only an hour or two of direct sun during the day it is bright enough the rest of the time to allow a variety of edibles-especially leafy greens to grow. Full shade is found under mature trees that have dense, spreading foliage. Unpruned oaks and maples cast this kind of shade in summer. Heavy shade under mature evergreens is often dry. A fully shaded location like this is fine for woodland plants but in not a great place for edibles.

See how much $ you can save by growing your own Sungold tomatoes

Whatever level of shade you have in your yard, make the most of the situation. First, if you have the choice, opt for afternoon shade. Shade in the afternoon is more hospitable in the summer when the sun is fierce. The severe temperature swings created by a combination of shade in the morning and blazing sun all afternoon are difficult for most plants to withstand. Gardens facing east will enjoy bright sun all morning and shade in the early afternoon.

If you garden under deciduous trees you can give plants a head start by starting the seeds indoors or direct seeding early before the trees leaf out. All trees, however, bring roots as well as shade to the garden and tree roots will compete with garden plants for water and nutrients. Any plant grown where there are tree roots will need extra water and fertilizer to make up for the competition. If you can’t get the garden out of the dense shade of trees, at least get it past the tree dripline where most of the roots are located. If that’s not possible, it might be better to plant in containers beneath the trees to prevent tree roots from invading the root zone of your vegetables.

Be patient. Your tomatoes will take a little longer to mature in a shady garden.

Shade tolerant vegetables for your brightest spots-the partial shade areas- include beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, summer squash and early maturing tomatoes like Early Girl, Stupice, San Francisco Fog, Isis Candy as well as other cherry tomatoes. Corn and peppers will be lankier and bear later and only modesty in partial shade.

Root crops and leafy plants can tolerate more shade than fruiting crops. Beets, carrots, celery and turnip will grow quite happily in partial shade. So will shallots and bunching onions, cilantro, garlic, chives, kale, leeks, parsley and thyme. Leafy plants can tolerate partial to light shade because their leaves grow larger to absorb the sunlight the plants need. In very light shade areas concentrate on leafy green like Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, radishes and tarragon.

Shade can be decidedly helpful to some crops. Leafy greens will be more tender and succulent, without the bitterness they tend to acquire when conditions are too hot. A combination of a bit of afternoon shade and an abundance of moisture will help cut-and-come-again crops like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and celery stay in good condition longer in hot weather.

Whatever plants you grow in your shady garden, be sure not to crowd them. Plants tend to sprawl there and if placed too close together they will compete for available light. Place your vegetables plants wherever they will get the most light even if it means putting different crops in separate places. A small harvest is still better than no harvest at all. Your vegetables may take a bit longer to mature without full sun so be patient.