Landscaping Tips for Great Gardens

By this time of the year, you probably have planted some new perennials for color in your garden. But if you look around and still feel something is missing the answer may be that your landscape needs more than color. As a landscape designer I am often called upon for ideas to create richer landscapes that provide four seasons of interest. Here are some tips I pass along.

A more sophisticated appeal and enduring quality in your landscape can be achieved if foliage color is used to complement, or contrast with, other plants within the design. This technique unifies the overall look while offering appeal throughout the season. One plant that would make this happen is Rose Glow Japanese barberry. Their graceful habit with slender, arching branches makes a statement by itself but it’s the vivid marbled red and pinkish foliage that steals the show until they deepen to rose and bronze with age. In the fall, the foliage turns yellow-orange before dropping and bead-like bright red berries stud the branches fall through winter.

Abelia Confetti is another small shrub that can be used to unify your landscape. Growing only 2-3 ft high and 4-5 ft wide with leaves variegated white, their foliage turning maroon in cold weather. Abelias are adaptable plants, useful in shrub borders, near the house or as as groundcover on banks. White, bell-shaped flowers are plentiful and showy during summer and early fall.

Texture in foliage is very important in good garden design. Varying the size and shape of leaves creates diversity and variety among neighboring plants. Striking visual interest can even be achieved when working with two different plants with similar shades of green.

An example of this would be combining Gold Star pittosporum tenuifolium with grevillea noellii. The first has dark green oval foliage on 10-15 for dense plants while the latter is densely clad with narrow inch long glossy green leaves. Clusters of pink and white flowers bloom in early to late spring and are  a favorite of hummingbirds.

Using the same plant shape throughout a landscape can create and tie the entire design together. Forms and shapes of plants and trees can be columnar, conical, oval, round, pyramidal, weeping, spreading and arching. A loropetalum with its spreading tiers of arching branches could be repeated throughout your garden to create visual interest and balance. A dogwood tree could also repeat this same form as their branches grow horizontally.

Consider also layering plants to create a beautiful garden. From groundcovers all the way up to the tallest tree, natural looking designs mimic nature.

Don’t forget about focal points. This could be a Japanese maple cloaked by a wall of dark evergreens or a statue or pottery at the end of a long, narrow pathway. Focal points draw attention and even distract the eye from an unsightly view.

There are many solutions to make your garden complete. Consider using some of the above design elements to make your landscape beautiful. 

Unthirsty Plants

Our summer unofficially kicked off with Memorial Day weekend. What better way to start the season than to spend some time outdoors and do a little gardening?

Plant some new water efficient plants for color and to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Afterwards spread  fresh bark or compost to mulch the soil. This insulates and protects shallow roots from the heat of the summer sun. While keeping the soil cool, mulch slows the evaporations of water from the soil so it stays moist.

Some of my favorite plants are survivors– easy to grow with minimal water use once established while also attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden.

Ceanothus is one plant that does it all.  Brilliant blue or stark white flowers in spring provide nectar for both hummers and butterflies.  Ceanothus also provide food for butterfly larvae. A new ground cover variety with gold and deep green variegated foliage can bring color to the garden year round. Growing 3-5 feet wide and 2 feet tall this perennial can survive with only occasional summer water.

Everyone should have some lavender in their garden. Hummingbirds and butterflies both favor this plant and there are new introductions every year from growers. Elegance Purple forms a bushy compact mound with sensational purple flowers in early sumer. Goodwin Creek is an old stand-by that blooms from spring to late fall with deep violet blue flowers. For midsummer bloom plant Grosso which is a widely planted commercial variety in France and Italy. It’s possibly the most fragrant lavandin or all. Spanish lavender blooms spring into summer if sheared. By planting an assortment of lavenders you can have a succession of flowers throughout the season.

Penstemon also lure hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. They come in a wide range of colors and varieties from native species to garden hybrids. Another long blooming, tough plant is achillea Moonshine (yarrow). Butterflies love to alight on their yellow flat landing pads. The dense flower clusters make good cut flowers and the gray-green foliage blends with all color in the garden. Yarrow need only routine care once established. They can take some watering although they endure drought once established. Cut them back after bloom and divide when clumps get crowded. 

There are so many salvias to choose from and all are great additions to a tough love garden. Autumn sage blooms summer through fall in colors ranging from deep purple through true red to rose, pink and white. Purple Pastel is especially beautiful covering 3-4 foot plants with blossoms filled with nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Those who seek true blue flowers for their gardens might try planting salvia chamaedryoides. This elegant front-of-the-border plant has silvery foliage which sets off the brilliant blue flowers. Heaviest bloom is in late spring and fall. Deadheading encourages rebloom.  This salvia is drought tolerant but blooms longer and better with a little summer water.

Three more un-thirsty bloomers that even beginner gardens can’t kill are . All attract hummingbirds.  Coreopsis also make good cut flowers.
 

A White Garden with Fragrance

Gardens are living things-changing over time. One year everything in the garden seems to bloom in April and May. Other years different plants reach maturity and provide color and structure during the summer. If your garden needs a few plants that will "pop" in the landscpe why not add a white bloomer that you can still enjoy after the sun goes down?

A great looking native plant for the back of the border is philadelphus lewisii or wild mock orange. Fragrant, white, satiny 2" flowers attract butterflies in late spring and early summer. Goose Creek is a doulbe-flowered selection that forms a fountain shape 4-10 ft tall and is fairly drought tolerant. Not fussy about soil type but it must have good drainage.

Another sweet-scented, white flowering Ca. native is carpenteria californica or bush anemone. Although this plant needs little water once established it can also accept ordinary garden conditions making it valuable closer to the house in the "lean, mean and green" zone that the fire dept wants irrigated more to retard flames. Clusters of fragrant 2-3" white blossoms with yellow centers appear at the ends of the branches. This shrub grows slowly to 4-6 ft tall and would be beautiful along a path or next to the patio where you could enjoy it’s fragrance in the evening, too.

Roses are among the showiest fragrant flowers you can grow in your garden. Sure they need a little extra water but the pay back is spectacular. Place them in areas with other plants that need regular water. Here are my favorite white roses.

Full Sail- a medium upright hybrid tea rose with large bright white flowers and a strong honeysuckle fragrance.
John F. Kennedy- Huge, full greenish white buds open to rich white and smell like licorice. This rose stands up well to hot weather.
Iceberg- One of the top ten roses of the workls and the best landscpe white around. It also comes as a climber. Honey scented rose clusters are borne in great profusion. This rose is extremely disease resistant and needs little care.  Looks great as a hedge or in mass plantings. This the the part I love, they have very few thorns.
Stainless Steel-  A rose that is so close to white it would shine in a moon garden. With pale silvery lavender flowers and a fragrance stronger than Sterling Silver it’s easier to care for and grow. Flower size and color are best with cooler temperatures or in a bit of shade.

What else can you grow in a white garden? If I had more room, I’d have a Longissims Alba wisteria with pure white fragrant flowers that cascade in spikes up to 4 ft long. Or I’d grow a Krasavitsa Moskvy lilac whose lavender-rose tinted buds open to full, double, creamy, fragrant white flowers.

I also like the also called mock orange because it’s flowers really do smell like citrus blossoms. Their green and white foliage can lighten up a dark corner in any garden and scent the air. Tuck some sweet alyssum along a path and your white garden is complete.

Permaculture and You

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.

Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides ( when necessary ) you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like beautiful fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.

You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and siting plants. Deep rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought tolerant trees creates shade which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.

Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. You might install a rain garden in an areas like this. A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawn ares. The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.

Plant dry climate plants like lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and drought tolerant ground covers like oregano and thyme to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible.

Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.

For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds; ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.

To , plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large leaf plants for a living mulch. Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like a weed patch. With a little planning your garden can be beautiful and productive.

Taking Care of your Soil

Gardening is all about dirt-its care and feeding, its microbes and fungi, bacteria and earthworms. So whether you’re planting your vegetable garden or a border of perennials, feed the soil- not the plants. Start by using organic fertilizers and pesticides. Here’s why.

Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that it drips out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zones. To make a long story short, the protozoa eat bacteria and the nematodes eat not only the bacteria but also fungi and other nematodes to get carbon. What they don’t need they expel and this feeds the roots much like earthworm castings.

It gets even more interesting down in the soil. If the plant needs different foods it can change what is secretes. Different substances will attract different bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. This huge diversity of soil biota helps the good guys keep the bad guys in check.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts ( non-organic fertilizers). The salts kill the bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix. Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well.

The soil food web is also responsible for soil structure. Bacteria create slime that glue soil particles together. Fungi weave threads to create larger soil particles. Worms distribute bacteria and fungal spores throughout the soil and create pathways for air and water.

What can you do to bring your soil back to life? 

  • Add 1/4" of compost on top
  • Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with dried leaves and grass clippings for annuals.
  • Use aerated compost tea
  • Apply mycorrhizal fungi, especially in a new garden that’s been rototilled or chemically fertilized. You can find this in most organic fertilizers and some organic potting soils.
  • Try to avoid walking on the root zone of plants. This kills fungi in the soil. Install stepping stones to preserve soil structure.
  • After employing the above suggestions if you’re looking to add something new to your newly revitalized shady border consider planting a flowering maple that bears lilac blue flowers. Abutilon vitifolium grows to 6-8 ft in partial shade. Gray green maple-like leaves reach 6" or longer. Flowers grow singly or in clusters on long stalks. Abutilons need good drainage.

    As a ground cover underneath them, grow . Vivid periwinkle blue flowers bloom spring through summer. Campanulas are a large family of perennials. Some are low groundcovers like Get Mee’s to 3 ft tall peach leafed campanulas. Both are easy to grow and are choice plants for borders.

Veggies & Fruit trees for Small Spaces

You know that growing your own fruit and vegetables can supply your family with fresh tasting and nutritious food. But what if you don’t have much space for a big garden or an orchard of fruit trees. Now days there are lots of available for smaller yards and containers. Here are some good ones to try.

Tomatoes are always popular to grow whether in the ground or in pots. Bush types don’t grow as large as vines. If you like large size tomatoes, plant Bush Beefsteak and you’ll be harvesting clusters of delicious 8 oz. tomatoes in just 62 days. A half wine barrel can house a taller tomato like the ever popular Sungold . Small gold-orange cherry tomatoes ripen early and are oh-so-sweet. You’ll plant these every year after you’ve tasted one.

Zucchini lovers might try the semi-vining Raven variety which won’t take up as much space as a traditional type. These plants bear black-green, white flesh fruit with a mild sweet flavor and are very tender. If you have a little space to spare grow the round French heirloom squash, Ronde de Nice. Jade colored zucchini produce over a long period. Harvest the fruit when they reach golf ball up to baseball size. They are sublime grilled or try them stuffed. They are unique in the garden and wonderful in cuisine.  A tip to encourage pollination when squash or melons bloom is to pinch off leaves covering the blossoms in order to give pollinators a clear path to the flowers.

Herbs make good additions to the smaller garden, too. They can be kept compact with frequent pinching as you harvest sprigs for cooking. They also attract beneficial insects to the garden. Oregano, chamomile and fennel are good insectary herbs.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Greenish-yellow skinned fruit with attractive red color ripens in late September into October. They grow to 8-10 feet at maturity.

Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries. The fruit is large, dark red or nearly black. Firm, sweet, dark red flesh has good flavor and texture. Stella cherries grow 10-12 feet tall and bear at a young age.

If it’s almonds you crave for your patio or mini-orchard, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden.

A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame.  Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Don’t let lack of space stop you from enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

Citrus in the Garden

There’s always so much to do in the garden in early spring.  It can be overwhelming deciding what’s important and what can wait. This is how I tackle my garden to spruce things up in a hurry.

First, I decide what problems stand out and choose what to do based on which areas will be the most noticeable. Which improvements will have the most impact?

Focus your attention where family and friends gather- the patio, a shady spot if it’s hot or a sunny area if it’s cool in your garden. Clean up what catches your eye like dead limbs, tall weeds or clutter. Sweeping the deck or patio will make the whole garden look better.

Flowers attract the most attention. Focus on the beds closest to gathering spots and those places you see outside the windows.  Enhance what you have. Blooming or bright foliage plants can fill in gaps in beds.

Perk up your entry with new plants. Group several containers filled with plants you love.  The bigger the plant you use, the more immediate the effect. Combine shades of all one color like blue, purple or red for a more dramatic look.

What else can you do to spice up your landscape?  Plant a dwarf citrus. They grow to only 8 feet so fit into small spaces. Plant in a spot that gets full sun and has well drained soil. Citrus are slow growing and do great in containers, too.

A favorite lemon variety is Improved Meyer. It a actually a cross between a lemon and an orange and tastes slightly sweeter than a true lemon  such as the Eureka. The fruit is very juicy and holds well on the tree, increasing the sweetness.

If your’e looking for an ornamental specimen for a patio container, consider a Nagami kumquat. Small reddish-orange fruit hang on the tree nearly year round and you eat them whole-peel and all. This small symmetrical tree is Japan’s most popular kumquat.

Another very attractive citrus is the which is also known as the Clementine. Its weeping form, dense, dark foliage and fruit that is held toward the outside make this a very showy specimen either in a container or in the ground. Sweet and juicy fruit hold on the tree for several months. This is the variety you see in the market from December to May. Wouldn’t  it be great to have one in your garden?

Companion plants for the Vegetable Garden

Many of us are growing our own vegetables this year. Homegrown vegetables taste better and can be picked fresh from the garden preserving valuable nutrients. We can reduce our carbon footprint as our own produce doesn’t have to be delivered by truck. It’s also a good way to get the kids involved and spend time together.
And there’s nothing quite like picking a warm tomato or raspberry from the vine while you work in the garden. 
Whether you’ve started your garden already or are still in the planning stages, here are some useful tips.

Group vegetables together that have similar watering needs. A good guideline is to group plants by how big they get and how fast they grow. The bigger and faster growing they are, the more water they will use. Corn, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes and squash, for instance,  all grow rapidly and use similar amounts of water.   Deep rooted  melons, beans and tomatoes, however,  can get by with a deep soak (down to 4 feet) after they have flowered and started to set fruit.

Growing companion plants with your vegetables is one way to avoid problems with pests and diseases. Companion plants that repel pests or attract beneficial insects work best when planted from 1-6 feet away. Plants, when attacked by pests, exude chemicals and hormones that actually attract nearby beneficial insects.

Flowers make great companions in the vegetable garden

  •  Dahlias repel nematodes.
  • Geraniums repel cabbage worms, corn ear worms and leaf hoppers.  Plant them by grapes, roses, corn and cabbage. 
  • Marigolds discourage beetles, whiteflies and nematodes. They act as trap plants for spider mites and slugs. Don’t plant them by cabbage or beans.
  • Nasturtium act as a barrier trap around tomatoes, radishes, cabbage and fruit trees. They deter whiteflies, and squash bugs and are a good trap crop for black aphids    ?     
  • Herbs that help deter pests include:
  • Catnip/catmint which repel mice, flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils
  • Chamomile improves the flavor of cabbage, onions and cucumbers. It also accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. It also hosts hoverflies and good wasps and increases productions of essential oils in herbs.
  • Summer savory repels bean leaf beetles and improves the flavor of beans. All beans enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. They are good for planting with all of your vegetables except onions, garlic and leeks.

Your garden may be one raised bed or a few containers on the patio. Whatever the size, plant some of these colorful and useful combinations and you, too, will be bragging about how many vegetables you grew this year.

New Plants for the Garden

Every season new varieties of colorful flowering annuals and perennials are introduced by hybridizers. These new plants are field tested and bred for better performance, disease and insect resistance, flower size, color and heat tolerance.  Where does this happen?  What goes into that gorgeous vivid red geranium you see on the bench at the nursery?

Over 30 breeders of flower seeds and perennial starts each spring showcase their new varieties in trials held throughout the state.  Professional growers visit the trials to choose which new varieties they will grow this year and offer to local nurseries and garden centers.  Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy is one of the locations that hosts the colorful spectacle.

Fragrant, wisteria-covered arbors shade paths that wind throughout the landscaped grounds . The grounds are open to the public to enjoy throughout the summer.  Also on site are the greenhouses where breeders work on creating new and better flower varieties.  It was interesting to see several acres planted with fava beans as a cover crop. Soon the fields of this flowering legume will be cut down and tilled into the soil to add nitrogen. Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed new plants. After a few weeks of decomposition the energized soil will be ready for planting test flowers that Goldsmith seeds will further evaluate.

All of the seeds are actually grown in greenhouses in Holland and Guatemala. Cool season flowers like primroses, cyclamen, violas and pansies are produced mainly in Holland while warm season flowers like dahlias, geraniums, gazanias, and verbenas are grown at different elevations in Guatemala. I learned Goldsmith Seeds has been developing and growing seed in Guatemala for 40 years.

What new cultivars really impressed me at the trials?  There’s a new geranium that combines the best features of ivy and zonal geraniums. I liked the amazing color of Calliope Dark Red but all the colors were show stoppers. They would be perfect for baskets or beds in full sun or part shade. And you should see all the colors that calibrachoa now comes in-light blue, dark blue, deep yellow, peach, orange, even white with rose veins. These have now been bred to bloom earlier in the season which is why you’re seeing them in nurseries now.  There were many fragrant flowers like . I always looks forward to them when they arrive at the nursery. 

Try something new in your garden this year. There are so many good choices.
 

Fragrant Plants for Spring

Spring is busting out all over.  Huge saucer magnolias and dainty flowering cherries adorn trees everywhere you look.  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.

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′ 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" 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 so keep them on a separate watering system from your other edibles.

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", 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.

Another 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.

Fragrant shrubs that are easy to grow are osmanthus, bush anemone, choisya, philadelphus, butterfly bush, and daphne.  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 don’t winter over around here but their vanilla and licorice fragrance make them worth replanting each year.

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

Plant Communities of the Santa Cruz Mtns

Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and ho-hum results in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place. 

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest and redwood forest, chaparral and the sandhills.

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak.  Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, needle and giant feather grass and rockrose also do well here. Another plant to try that will also flourish in your garden is a native of New Zealand called Coprosma.  There are many colorful varieties now available like "Evening Glow".  All are valued for their colorful variegated foliage especially in the cooler months when the leaves turn orange red.  Many coprosmas grow to 4-5 ft but Evening Glow is just 14" tall. They need little water and can be happy in full sun or partial shade.

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where bigleaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow.  Most plant grow lush in this deep soil.  If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider brunnera which blooms now with tiny clear blue flowers that freely self-sow without being invasive. It has large heart-shaped leaves that are showy, too,

Chaparral areas are the hottest, driest slopes of these mountains. Dense thickets of manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, coffeeberry, ceanothus, monkey flower and sage are native here. These plants are adapted to little water and often have tiny, thick, waxy,  light green or grayish leaves. Soils tend to be rocky, shallow and overlaying rock or a subsoil that is mostly clay. Plants here need to have an extensive root system that reaches widely and deeply for water. If you live here be sure you have the spring blooming western redbud and Julia Phelps or Dark Star ceanothus. The combination of magenta and electric blue flowers is unforgettable.

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants include silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here.  When you plant in these soils amend with compost to provide needed nutrients. Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8" tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red.  Mulch these beauties with gravel or crushed stone.

Remember right plant-right place.

It’s Spring – What do I do?

Yes, we need more rain but the recent sunny weather has been good for both people and plants. I remember many years ago when we had "The Miracle March" as a local meteorologist called it. It rained for 30 days straight. This was great for the watershed but drowned new emerging roots, starving them of oxygen and causing lots of fungal problems.  Let’s hope Mother Nature spreads out the remaining precipitation keeping everyone happy.

Spring begins today. This year, especially, think of gardening as therapy.  Every moment you put in your garden is paid back with fresh vegetables and fragrant flowers.  Think about it- stir up the soil, plant some seeds and you have flowers and vegetables in a few months.  The satisfaction you get from cultivating living things is priceless.

Get started on this free therapy by tending to your garden this week:

Plant low water use plants in place of those that have been struggling. Use your precious time, space and sun to grow the plants you most want to look at, pic or eat.  As a reminder, never work with soil that is very wet and keep off your lawn the, too, as this can compact the soil.

Cut back deciduous shrubs and vines except those that flower now in the spring. Don’t prune rhododendrons, camellias, or azaleas until the last flowers have started to open and green growth has started.
Prune frost  damaged shrubs if you can tell how far down the die back goes otherwise wait until growth starts in the spring.  For your shrubs, test bark for viability by scraping with a sharp knife.

If you are interested in being less of a slave to your lawn, consider reducing the size. If you’ve decided that you don’t need a traditional grass lawn anymore at all, replace it with a sustainable alternative.

Check for early aphids and blast them off with a hose or use no-tozic sprays like horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Check for snails and slug damage and apply organic iron phosphate bait. Earwigs and sowbugs can be controlled by organic spinosad. Reduce their numbers by eliminating hiding places.  Clean out leaf litter and garden debris and use organic iron phosphate bait.  Copper pennies in your containers can also deter them.

Get weeds out of the garden early and you’ll save yourself a lot of digging later. Weeds rob your plants of precious moisture and nutrients.

Plant cool season vegetable like peas, chard, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, onions and other greens.  You can also sow seeds of beets and carrots. The soil is still too cold for tomatoes and other warm season vegetables. 

Grow the sweetest strawberries this year by planting them in a bed that receives at least 6 hours of direct sun at midday.  Don’t water too much.  This can dilute their flavor.  You want the soil to be moist but not wet. Don’t apply excess nitrogen fertilizer which causes overly lush growth at the expense of berry production. Also keep beds free of weeds and space each strawberry plant about a foot apart.

Plant a spring flowering tree such as a flowering cherry, dogwood, crabapple or plum or a native western redbud to welcome the new season and make your spirits soar.
 

Planning this Summer’s ‘Staycation’

Picture yourself this summer with your family outdoors  during your  "staycation" – relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard.  Now is the perfect time to plan while the yard is still a bit bare and you can see the space for what it really is.  Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable in the hot summer. We usually get a heat wave in May so be prepared early.  National Arbor Day in the last week of April but each state sets its own day of celebration. California celebrates this week, March 7-14, as the week to plant a tree.

There are so many good choices for our area.  First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions.  Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak.  Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple.  If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, with brick or pavers?  If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden.  Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

After you’ve planted your tree and planned your hidden getaway take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden .  Lawns and groundcovers are beginning their spring growth spurt and new leaves on trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to emerge. Spread compost, manure, or organic fertilizer to help plants get off to a strong start.  If you need to move any plants in the garden, now is a good time.  Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Think of weeding as free gym time. The last frost of the season is approximately March 15th.  Spring is on its way.
 

Houseplants that Fight Indoor Air Pollution

Areca palm- one of the best houseplants to fight indoor pollution.

It’s amazing how many potential pollutants can be found in a home. For most of a winter day, our homes are closed tight with no windows or doors open to let out pollutants and let fresh air circulate. Toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene can be released from furniture upholstery, carpets, cleaning products, paint, plastics and rubber. Carbon monoxide from the incomplete burning of wood and nitrogen oxides from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and smog can also be present in indoor air.

Then there are airborne biological pollutants. These include bacteria, viruses, animal dander and dried cat saliva, house dust and pollen. House mites, the source of one of the most powerful biological allergens, grow in damp warm environments. Mold and mildew grow in moist places like central heating systems and are just one more source of indoor pollution.

Bromeliads clean the air inside your home and are safe for pets

Many common houseplants help fight pollution indoors. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Yikes, who knew all that was going on right under our noses?

Easy to grow pothos

Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the home. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, Boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, snake plant, pothos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list of plants that fight indoor pollution.

If you have a cat of dog that you share your home with most of the above plants aren’t safe for them if they are chewers according to the ASPCA website. While all plants clean the air only ferns, spider plants, areca and parlor palms and phalaenopsis orchids from the above list are safe.

Other houseplants toxic for dogs and cats according to the ASPCA are asparagus fern, lilies, cyclamen, jade plant, aloe vera, azalea, begonia, ivy, mums, coleus, sago palm, kalanchoe and rubber plant. Keep your pets safe by keeping toxic plants out of reach.

There are many houseplants that are safe for cats and dogs and every plant photosynthesizes and cleans the air to some extent. Some of the common ones include African violet, aluminum plant, bromeliads, peperomia, areca palm, polka dot plant, cast iron plant, Christmas cactus, chenille plant, creeping Charlie, false aralia, Tahitian bridal veil, wandering Jew, goldfish plant, piggy-back plant and the succulents, donkey’s tail and hens and chickens.

With a little planning you can clean the air in your home while keeping the pets safe.