All posts by Jan Nelson

I am a landscape designer and consultant in the Santa Cruz mountains in California. I write a weekly gardening column for the Press Banner newspaper. I am also a Calif. Advanced Certified Nursery Professional and managed The Plantworks Nursery in Ben Lomond, Ca. for 20 years.

A Poem of Thanksgiving by the Mountain Gardener

Once upon a time when our area was under the sea
there were no parks or trails or trees or gardens.
I’m thankful that our mountains rose from an ancient ocean
and we can now enjoy this beautiful place we call home.

Mini pumpkins, Indian corn and redbud leaves

I’m thankful for the bigleaf maples with leaves as big as saucers
and for the giant redwoods that sprouted long ago
and the five-fingered ferns that grow lush
along Fall Creek on the way to the old lime kilns.

I’m thankful for the pond and western turtles who live at Quail Hollow
and for the unique sandhills, grasslands and redwoods
and for the western bluebirds and other creatures that call it home.

I’m thankful for the dog park and soccer field at Skypark
where little kids and dogs both big and small have a place of their own
and for the picnic area and Fourth of July fireworks,
and the Art and Wine festival and Music in the Park on summer nights.

Grocery-bag turkey

I’m thankful also for all our parks from Garrahan, Junction, Highlands
and Felton Covered Bridge in San Lorenzo Valley,
to Lodato, Siltanen and MacDorsa in Scotts Valley.
Each place is unique and is each one of us.

I’m thankful for Bonny Doon where I can see both sides of Ben Lomond Mountain
and for the Ecological Reserve with its fossilized marine animals and sharks teeth
that are exposed in the mountain made of sand.

I’m thankful for California’s oldest state park. Big Basin, with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets, fragrant azaleas and mountain iris
and for the banana slugs, marbled murrelets and red-legged frogs who make it their home.

Thanksgiving table decorations

I’m thankful for the whisper of the wind blowing across the water at Loch Lomond
and for the gentle whir of fishing reels along the bank,
thick with tan oaks, redwoods and madrone.

And finally, I’m thankful for friends, family and neighbors
who share the knowledge that in nature life continues.
Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness,
and take time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

The Beauty of Fall

Looks like Indian Summer is over and fall is really here. The trees, especially our own Big Leaf Maples, are showing off their new fall clothes and the rains will soon green up the hills. Will the foliage be as vivid this year?

Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’

Although we don’t get as much fall color as other areas we enjoy what we have just as much. Besides we don’t get snow on Halloween. Enjoy these cool nights and warm days. That’s the combination that brings on the best fall colors.

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leaf falls to the ground it is colored only by natural pigments. It’s these colors -red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Quaking aspen- Wyoming

Weather conditions play a major part in fall color. Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing, nights.

A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperature meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying the opportunity to enter a slow, colorful dormancy.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

California native Western redbud turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

more Forest Pansy in fall color

Other trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Chinese flame tree, ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be. I’m off to the the Sierra to see for myself the dogwood, cottonwood, willow, black oak and quaking aspen in fall color. What’s not to love about fall?

Ornamental Grasses for Every Type of Garden

One of the most dramatic sites in a garden is an ornamental grass backlit by late afternoon sun. They seem to come alive as their tawny flowers spikes glow and sway in the breeze. Their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as few other plants do.

Stipa gigantea

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth

Pheasant’s Tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana)

habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, libertia, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, and liriope to name just a few.

I have to admit it’s the showy accent grasses that always get my attention. A personal favorite is Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass. This semi-evergreen grass grows 2-3 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 6 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

I like variegated plants and two-tone grasses combine well with many other garden plants. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an especially refined and elegant ornamental grass. Fine leaf blades are green with clean, paper-thin, white margins that give the plant a silvery cast when viewed from a distance. It is luminous when backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. Morning Light tends to keep its upright shape better than some other cultivars and rarely flops. The reddish bronze plumes that appear in late fall are spectacular.

libertia perigrinans

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2″ of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

Color & Fragrance in the Fall Garden

So I walk out my front door and a sweet honey fragrance overwhelms my senses. What’s blooming now that coul

osmanthus hetrophyllus ‘Goshiki’

d be giving off a scent so strong I can smell it from a long way off? I don’t see anything flowering that I know to smell so delicious. Following my nose I find it. The teeny, tiny, white flowers of a variegated Osmanthus heterophyllus -Goshiki False Holly- is making it’s presence known in a big way and I’m enjoying every minute.

In the fall I appreciate flowering plants all the more. With the season is winding down and the fall color display just starting, color and fragrance are the heroes of my garden these days. In addition to the variegated Goshiki False Holly, the vanilla-scented heliotrope are still blooming. Mine looks pretty ragged at the end of winter but bounces back each year and with a little dead heading during the summer keeps on providing those deep vivid purple flower clusters -until Thanksgiving some years.

Dianthus

Also I notice the apricot-colored dianthus is blooming another round of clove-scented flowers. Dianthus and their close relatives, the carnations, are a must-have in any garden. Combine pinks as their called with other perennials of the same medium water requirements and grow them near your door or patio chair where you can enjoy them regularly.

Although ceratostigma plumbagioides – Dwarf plumbago – flowers don’t have fragrance their deep, electric blue flowers along with the foliage that turns reddish brown as the weather cools are a valuable groundcover for dry areas under oaks, for instance. They thrive in sun or part shade with moderate to o

Dwarf plumbago

ccasional irrigation. Beautiful when planted in drifts or as a filler between other shrubs.

With Halloween coming up orange blooming plants like Lion’s Tail look perfect in the autumn garden and get the attention of birds, bees and butterflies. The scientific name leonotis leonurus translates from the Greek words meaning lion and ear in reference to the resemblance of the flower to a lion’s ear but this perennial shrub has long been called Lion’s Tail in California. A member of the mint family it starts blooming in very early summer and continues through fall. Having very low water needs and hardy down to 20 degrees it’s perfect for a drought tolerant garden.

bulbine

Another good choice for your drought tolerant garden is the long blooming Hallmark bulbine or Orange Stalked bulbine. It’s a succulent you’ve got to try. Starting in late spring and continuing through fall and often into winter this one foot tall groundcover spreads to four or five feet wide. The orange star-like flowers with frilly yellow stamens form atop long stalks that rise above the foliage. Remove spent flower stalks to encourage reblooming.

mimulus ‘Jelly Bean yellow’

What’s a fall garden without an orange or gold hued mimulus to feed the hummingbirds? Mine haven’t stopped blooming since early summer. Deer resistant and drought tolerant Sticky Monkey flower get the sticky part of their common name from their leaves which are covered with a resinous oil discouraging the larvae of the checkerspot butterfly from dining too greedily.

Orange and blue are opposite on the color wheel so they look fabulous together. Enter the salvias with their mostly blue and purple flowers. From California natives such as salvia clevelandii to Mexican bush sage to Autumn sage there are thousands of varieties available. All are deer and gopher resistant, drought tolerant and hummingbird magnets.

Bulbs that Bloom in a Shady Garden

Many of us garden in the shade year round. Others have sun in the summer but shade from fall through spring as the sun’s arc becomes lower. Do you look at the fall bulbs for sale and think ‘Is there any hope that my garden might look like the pictures on the package come spring?” Here are some encouraging tips for you if this describes your garden.

Tulips growing in shade

If you dream about drifts of colorful flowering bulbs under your trees in the spring but didn’t think they would bloom in the shade, think again. Even if your entire garden is shady year round there is hope.

Some bulbs manage to grow just fine beneath trees-even evergreen trees. Many from the daffodil clan, including jonquils and narcissus will grow, bloom and naturalize year after year under tree canopies or other lightly shaded areas. Common ones to try are Golden Harvest, the classic, large yellow King Alfred daffodil and Dutch Master with pure gold flowers. Barret Browning has a soft. butter-yellow corolla and a pumpkin orange frilly tube.

Other common bulbs that will bloom in light shade are crocus, scilla, tulips, grape hyacinth, leucojum, snowdrops, chionodoxa and lily of the valley.

Gold Cup daffodils

To make sure your bulbs stand out in the landscape, figure at least 20-40 bulbs per drift. If your ground is hard or impacted by roots, be sure to pick up a sturdy, foot-operated bulb planter to make is easier to dig. Naturalizing daffodils is an affordable way to grow more flowers and they’ll come back every year without losses from deer and gophers.

Squirrels, mice and moles, however, are observant and crafty. Once they discover newly planted bulbs, they’ll assume it’s food. Just disturbing the earth is a tip off for them. Daffodils and narcissus bulbs are unappetizing but if they dig them up and leave them exposed with just a nibble taken from them, so much for any spring flower display. Protect your bulbs with wire baskets or spray them with foul tasting repellent, letting the spray dry before planting. You can also bury the bulbs with ground up egg shells.

Mid-season tulips

Planting bulbs along side a path makes for a beautiful look come spring. If you installed a flagstone or stepping stone path or sitting area this fall, now is the best time to plant groundcovers between. Low, sturdy types that can withstand some foot traffic include blue star creeper for regularly irrigated area and creeping, woolly or elfin thyme for drier spaces. Make sure you have enough planting mix between the pavers for the plugs to grow. Fill the largest spaces first and allow them to spread into the little cracks. Mixing groundcover types looks great as long as they have the same water requirements. Low growing pennyroyal and corsican mint smell wonderful when you walk on them as does chamomile, although you need to mow this one occasionally to keep it neat and tidy.

Whatever you bulbs you choose to try this fall, you will be happy you planted some bulbs come spring. And to help them bloom again the following year fertilize them at the time of planting with bulb food or bone meal worked into the soil a couple inches at the bottom of the hole. Mature bulbs respond to an early spring feeding with the same fertilizer.

 

California Natives for Erosion Control

Who knows what the weather will be like this winter but what we do know is that some of our rain events will come with a vengeance. It’s not that unusual for our area to get 8 inches of rainfall during a storm and that can create havoc on an unprotected hillside. Fortunately, October is a good time to do something about it.

Pink Flowering Currant

Fall is the perfect time to plant in our area. The soil is still warm encouraging root growth and the weather is mild. Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow and spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are well suited to this job.

Common native shrubs include ceanothus and manzanita of all

Calycanthus occidentalis

types. Calycanthus or Spicebush has fragrant flowers in late spring blooming well into summer with a spicy fragrance. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. All these plants have deep roots and control erosion.

Ribes s. King Edward VII

Ribes sanguinem or Flowering Currant is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. Choose from white flowering ‘White Icicle’ or ”Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ with spectacular deep red flower clusters. ‘Spring Showers’ has 8 inch long pink clusters. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, matilija poppy and western elderberry. ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and baccharis. Ceanothus maritimus, ‘Heart’s Desire’ and ‘Anchor Bay’ are all good groundcover selections and are not attractive to deer.

Symphoricarpos – Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry – can hold the soil on steep banks. This native tolerates poor soil, lower light and general neglect.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy -dendromecon rigid- is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one – not around the stem – to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.