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.

Ceanothus: The Most Valuable Plant in your Garden

Those of you who read my column regularly might have noticed I often write about plants that are valuable to the birds and the bees as well as butterflies and wildlife in the general. I have 10 bird feeders around my house. Four for the hummingbirds and the other six have black oil sunflower seed and hulled chips. At this time of year when there are so many young the extra food is much appreciated. I provide water and nectar plants for the bees and butterflies as well. If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all the critters it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.

Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’
Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas.

One of the upright types I grow is ceanothus thysiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.

A new variety I’ve recently learned about from my friend and fellow Press Banner columnist, Colly Gruczelak, is called Celestial Blue. She planted several 2 years ago from 4″ mail order sleeves and they are now 3 ft tall and 4 ft wide. In her sandy garden, home to her personal deer population, the flowers look like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it makes a good screen or accent. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.

A great variety I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most and tolerates clay soil more than other species.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant blue three-inch flower spikes.

Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 10-15 years although some live longer.

Diamond Heights ceanothus

Several members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended. Adding fertilizer mights kill off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.

Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.

Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.

The Cutting Garden

Bringing flowers indoors, whether displayed in a simple mason jar or a crystal vase, brightens my day. I wish I had more flowers growing in my own landscape.

A mixed bouquet of fragrant roses and carnations with quince and gerbera daisies.

The secret to a fabulous bouquet is not just the flowers but the interesting foliage and that is something we all have in our gardens. I’m still going to plant more perennial flowers that are good for cutting but I’ll use them as accents in bouquets and concentrate on more foliage.

Great foliage plants come in all shapes and sizes. In shady gardens, fragrant variegated daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub for both flowers and foliage. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub with apricot scented blooms. Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ will add white with a hint of lime to your bouquets. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets during the summer and the leaves turn red in fall as an added bonus. Our native shrub philadelphus, also called mock orange, has flowers that smell like oranges and will grow in some shade as well as sun.

For sunny spots grow penstemon and kangaroo paw. Coreopsis attract butterflies and are long lasting in bouquets.
Perennial coneflowers, dahlias, gloriosa daisy, delphinium, foxglove, scabiosa, aster, shasta daisy and yarrow also make good cut flowers. Self-sowing annuals that have a long vase life are bachelor buttons, clarkia, cosmos, flax, love-in-a-mist, nasturtium, cleome and calendula.

A deconstructed bouquet of peonies.

Native flowers that last for a week or more include clarkia and sticky monkeyflower. Yarrow and hummingbird sage will last 4-6 days.

To make cut flowers last, pick them early in the morning before heat stresses them. Flowers cut in the middle of the day will have difficulty absorbing enough water. Cut non-woody stems on a slant for maximum water absorption. Woody stems can be cut straight across but smash the ends. Plunge immediately in a bucket of tepid water. Indoors, fill a container with cool water and re-cut each stem under water so an air bubble doesn’t keep water from being absorbed.

Pull off any foliage or flowers that will be below the water level in the vase. Fill a clean vase with 3 parts lukewarm water mixed with 1 part lemon-lime soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar and a crushed aspirin. Another recipe for floral food is 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 tablespoons white vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water. The sugar helps buds open and last longer, the acid improves water flow in the stems and the bleach reduces the growth of bacteria and fungus. Change the water and re-cut the stems every few days to enjoy your bouquet for a week or even longer.

While just about any plant material that strikes your fancy will work in a mixed bouquet there are four types of plant forms that naturally look good together: Spires for height and architectural properties with flowers like liatris, snapdragon, gladiola, salvia, Bells-of-Ireland as well as the strappy leaves of flax or cordyline. Round flowers such as roses, dahlias, long-stemmed marigolds and peonies provide focus. Lacy flowers are fillers- ferns, baby’s breath, dill. Foliage from shrubs such as abelia, breath of heaven, California. bay, ornamental grasses, grapes and other vines, herbs, woody tree branches like smoke tree and Japanese maple which also look handsome in a bouquet.

A deconstructed arrangement separates each type of flower into their own vase or container instead of grouping them in a mixed bouquet. Vary the size and shape of the vases and containers and group them together to create a unique vignette. All bouquets are beautiful.

Harvesting, Drying and Preserving Herbs

Now that you have an assortment of herbs growing nicely in your garden what do you do with them? Mine seem to be growing more exuberantly than I anticipated and if I don’t keep up with snipping them often some will go to seed or get leggy and unproductive. Then what would I do when I’m putting together my favorite nectarine-caprese salad with fresh basil and mint leaves?

Chives and Tuscan Blue rosemary

Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom when leaves are at peak flavor and oils are strongest. Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Harvest on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

To store, wash herbs lightly with the leaves on the stems in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, Drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room. You can also lay them in a shallow basket or on a screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.

Those herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils so don’t do that until you use them.

Here are some herbs that do double duty in the garden:
Basil- repels flies and mosquitos. Plant with tomatoes to improve flavor.
Catnip- deters flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Also repels mice.
Chamomile-improves the flavor of cabbages, onions and cucumbers. Accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. Also a host for beneficial hoverflies and good wasps and increases the productions of essential oils in herbs.
Chives- improves growth and flavor of carrots and tomatoes. Keeps aphids away from mums and sunflowers. When planted by roses, helps prevent black spot.
Coriander/cilantro- repels aphids, spider mites and potato beetle. Coriander tea is a good spray for spider mites.
Dill- improves the growth and health of cabbage and lettuce. Plant by tomatoes to trap the tomato hornworm. Attracts many beneficials. Do not plant by caraway or carrots.
Lemon balm- deters many bugs, especially mosquitos and squash bugs.
Mint- deters cabbage moths, ants, rodents, aphids and fleas. Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps. Attractive to earthworms.
Rosemary- plant with cabbage, carrots, beans, and sage, Deters cabbage looper and bean beetles.
Tarragon- beneficial to plants throughout the garden as is thyme.

How to Create a Butterfly Garden

Butterflies are magical creatures. They captivate us with their beauty and freedom of flight. Often I’m asked when designing a garden to include plants that will attract them and design areas to provide habitat. Recently there was a hatch of orange Militta Crescent butterflies in our area. I’ve seen hundreds of them up here in Bonny Doon alone. What can I do to increase the chances of them sticking around ?

Western swallowtail feeding on Butterfly bush

We have about 90 species of butterflies in the Monterey Bay area. Many of these occur only in our mountains, forests and chaparral environments. They are easy to attract and make a permanent feature of your landscape.

A butterfly garden should include plants that accommodate all stages of the life cycle – egg, larvae, pupa and adult. When both adult nectar and larval host plants are available, they will attract and support a butterfly population. In addition to the right plants, your garden should also have sun, a water source, protection from wind and clusters of plants. When maintaining your garden avoid the use of insecticides, including BT.

As adults, most butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers. Some local butterflies, however, like the Mourning Cloak and Red Admiral, feed primarily on rotting fruit or tree sap for moisture and nutrients and the California Sister also feeds on aphid honeydew.

In the larval stage, most butterfly species are limited to a single plant family and occasionally a single genus. To attract more Western Tiger Swallowtails, for instance, provide larval host plants such as willow, sycamore, alder, Big Leaf maple, sycamore, plum and ash. Common Buckeye lay their eggs on mimulus and verbena while California Sister prefer coast and canyon live oak. Planting a variety of grasses, perennials and shrubs like ceanothus, buckwheat, coffeeberry, bush lupine, manzanita. redwood violet, California aster and wallflower will attract many of the local butterfly species. If your garden is near a wild area that naturally supports the caterpillar stage, you can plant just the nectar plants to attract butterflies to your garden.

Filling your garden with nectar producing flowers is the fun part. Adult butterflies rely on sugar-rich nectar for their daily fuel. Different species have different flower color and shape preferences. Many butterflies produce scents that attract the opposite sex and many of these scents smell like the flowers that they are attracted to and visit. The scent of these butterfly pollinated flowers may have evolved as an adaptation to ensure their survival. Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?

Butterflies typically favor flat, clustered flowers that provide a landing pad although larger butterflies can feed on penstemon and salvia while hovering. Butterflies have good vision but a weak sense of smell. Unlike bees, butterflies can see red and are attracted to brightly colored flowers. Pink, red, orange, yellow and purple are the most attractive nectar source colors but they also use blue and white.

Consider the blooming time of each plant. Having plants blooming in the sun for many hours in the day will lengthen your viewing time. Nectar rich flowers include yarrow, aster, verbena, scabiosa, buckwheat, toyon, salvia, erysimum, zinnia, lantana and coneflower.

In addition to nectar, butterflies need a source of water and salts. A patch of mud kept wet year round or a shallow depression lined with pebbles and kept moist will work fine. Also provide some flat rocks for them to bask in the sun in an area protected from the wind by shrubs.

Having your own butterfly garden will enable you to witness close-up the wonder of butterflies and the flowers on which they feed.

All About Herbs

I’m helping my friend Colly, the food columnist for the Press Banner, with her cooking class at the new Boys & Girls Club in Scotts Valley. Colly has planned a summer program filled with delicious recipes and I’m looking forward to learning along with the kids in the class. The first week was all about eggs. I’m sure we’ll be using herbs in a future recipe so I’m getting my own herb garden ready. Whether you grow herbs in pots or in the ground here are some tips.

Herbs growing in pots- parsley, oregano, basil and thyme.

Growing herbs near my kitchen door has raised the bar in my cooking skills. No more having to traipse halfway around the house for a snippet of Italian parsley for the lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. The oregano and basil are nearby for stuffed baked potatoes. This summer I plan to poach salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. Smell the essential oil. You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste depending on the source of the stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer as they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in water.

The herbs I consider essential in the kitchen garden are basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley and sage. I also grow lemon verbena for tea, potpourri or sachets for my closet and drawers and hope to add summer savory, tarragon and Grecian laurel for bay leaves.

Nearly all herbs are perennial and can be grown from seed. Anise, coriander (also known as cilantro), dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden as they do not transplant well. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers and goes to seed. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work and start new plants to eats. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill and summer savory.

Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. Occasionally, spider mites may be found on low growing herb plants in hot, dry weather. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Washing off the foliage early in the day helps in controlling mites and aphids.

Here are some growing tips:
Most herbs like 6-8 hours of full sun. Well drained soil is essential. If drainage is poor, work in plenty of organic matter or grow in raised beds or containers. Water regularly until the plants are growing steadily. Then most will need only occasional watering. Exceptions are basil, chives, mint and parsley which prefer evenly moist soil. Many herbs attract beneficial insects if they are allowed to flower.

Fresh herbs are the most flavorful. The stuff in spice jars that you get in the store is often tasteless when compared to the real thing. Herb plants make beautiful ornamental additions to perennial beds and borders, too. Next week I’ll talk about how to harvest, dry and preserve herbs.

Making the Most of your Garden

Early summer is the right time for many garden activities that you don’t want to leave to chance. Keep these reminders in the back of your mind to tackle when the mood hits you.

Pink wisteria in bloom before summer pruning

Look for any pest problems so you can do something about them before they get out of hand. I’m OK with a few holes here and there but a heavy infestation should be trimmed off or sprayed with an organic insecticide.I inspect the tips of my fuchsias regularly for fuchsia mites and clip off any distorted growth. I hate to spray even organics on fuchsias due to the hummingbird activity. Lately I’ve seen rose slugs making lace out of the leaves so I crush by hand or spray with organic BT. Walk around your garden with a beverage in hand to spot problems on a regular basis.

Many plants, both vegetable and ornamental, are bothered by aphids and other sucking insects as well as foliage and flower eating bugs. From cucumber beetles, flea beetles, stink bugs, weevils, curculios to borers , the list of trouble makers is endless.

To help deter them mix up some pepper spray in your kitchen.

  • 1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 quart warm tap water

Let stand I hour, strain and spray plants either in the morning or evening.

If you battle dandelions and don’t want to use chemical weed killers around pets and children, get out the white vinegar from the cupboard. On a hot sunny day spray straight white vinegar directly on the weed. This method will kill whatever it touches so direct the spray carefully. If the dandelion is in the lawn, wait a week, pour some water on the dead spot to dilute any lasting effects of the vinegar. Then poke some holes and drop in grass seed. Sprinkle a bit of fertilizer where the seed is planted and keep the area moist. In three weeks you won’t remember where the dead spot was and the dandelion will be long gone.

Another garden to-do this month includes summer pruning of wisteria. To increase flowering next spring and keep these vines under control cut new growth back to within 6″ of the main branch. If you want to extend the height or length of the vine, select some of the new streamer-like stems and tie them to a support in the direction you wish to train the plant.

Twist off spent rhododendron flower trusses

While I have the pruners out I’ll be shearing back early flowering perennials to encourage another round of blooms. The season has just started and you’ll be enjoying lots more flowers in the months to come if you deadhead regularly. Perennials and shrubs that benefit from trimming an inch or two below the spent blooms are erysimum, lavender and Pink breath of heaven which will keep them compact.

Twist off spent rhododendron flower trusses and fertilize them.

Apply the second fertilizer application for the year to your citrus and fruit trees. The last one should be immediately after harvest. Apply the fertilizer to the soil around the drip line of the tree where feeder roots are located and scratch into the surface. Water in well. As with all fertilizers, make sure the trees are moist before you fertilize. Young trees in their first, second or third growing season should receive half the rate of established trees.