He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.
It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.
While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.
The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia. They have flat flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.
This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.
Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.
As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.
Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.
She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.
Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.
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Gardeners are always on the look out for new plants. I recall when I worked at a nursery looking over the showy dahlia shipment for the one that was a deeper, more vivid shade than all the rest. One color that always gets my attention is chocolate. Whether I find it in the foliage of a plant or the flower itself it's one of my favorites. You can imagine my delight when I discovered the Chocolate Flower Farm in Langley on Whidbey Island while I was visiting the Puget Sound recently. I was a kid in the candy store.
As a landscape designer I often get requests for certain colors to be included in the plant palette. Mahogany,burgundy, deep magenta, midnight blue, eggplant often make the list. Many people like dark flowers or foliage paired with ivory, others prefer peach or chartreuse. I marveled at all the combinations at the Chocolate Flower Farm.
Some plants are the color of chocolate and some smell like the real thing. Chocolate cosmos looks and smells just like a dark chocolate bar. The warmth of the day releases this delicious fragrance. A favorite flower for the perennial bed it's always a winner with kids.
In addition to chocolate cosmos, a wildflower called chocolate flower or berlandiera lyrata grew at the farm. I also enjoyed the fragrance of warm chocolate in the flowers of chocolate akebia, chocolate mint and chocolate snakeroot.
Strolling the grassy paths at the Chocolate Flower Farm I admired a Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily. The foliage, nearly black, glistened in the sun growing next to a white-flowering Nine Bark called Summer Wine.
Nearby a clump of two-tone chocolate and ivory daylillies bloomed. With grazing horses nearby and a dozen ducks taking turns bathing in a kiddie pool the scene was idyllic. At every turn a different pairing of chocolate flowers and foliage caught my attention.
One section featured plants for a kid's chocolate garden. Easy to grow chocolate pincushion flower, chocolate viola, chocolate nasturtium, chocolate snapdragon, chocolate sunflower and chocolate painted tongue would be fun for any child to have in their own garden.
I loved a penstemon called Chocolate Drop as well as a Mahogany monarda the color of deepest magenta. Blooming black sweet peas grew up and and over an old bed frame. A dark purple-black clematis from Russia called Negritanka intertwined with lime green hops covering an arbor. Toffee Twist sedge, Royal Purple smokebush, Chocolate Sundae dahlia, Sweet Hot Chocolate daylily, Chocolate Plant and Hot Cocoa roses grew in many of the flower beds.
What makes dark foliage or dark flowers pop? At The Chocolate Farm each bed pairs the deep rich chocolate color with another contrasting shade. I don't know which was my favorite. One area featured peach, pink and silver to offset the darker shades. Pink dahlia and fairy wand, blue oat grass and rose colored sedum 'Autumn Joy' made a lovely vignette. Another bed paired the yellow flowers of phygelius 'Moonraker' and digitalis grandiflora with white anemone and ivory dahlias set among Chocolate Baby New Zealand flax.
Not to be ignored the dark chocolate shade of black sambucus growing next to a golden Himalayan Pheasant Berry made an impression. All-gold Japanese Forest grass at the base of dark leaved Tropicana canna lily was also a show stopper.
If you are up on Whidbey Island, the Chocolate Flower Farm is a great place to spend an afternoon. If your vacation plans don't include the Pacific Northwest, plant some chocolate in your own garden.
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In the summertime, kids have lots of time to enjoy the great outdoors. What better way to teach them how our planet works than to let them grow something in their own garden. Share your enthusiasm for gardening by getting your kids or the neighbor kids interested, too. You'll find sharing your knowledge with a child particularly rewarding and you will have helped create a fellow gardener for the rest of their life.
It may be July but it's not too late to start. Make it enjoyable for everyone by giving kids their own section of the garden or yard to do as they please. I planted pansies as a child in my special area. I also had a couple of big pots filled with potting soil to start my own seeds. Size doesn't matter as long as you let the child choose what they'd like to grow.
Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies. Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.
I remember when I was little and had my own garden patch how excited I was to see a dragonfly. My father was happy, too, as they are a great way to control mosquitoes and other pests. They're the top predators of the insect world. I was fascinated by their bright colors- some reddish orange, some blue, some purple. By planting a variety of plants and flowers to attract them they would visit my little garden often. They seemed to find a water source to lay their eggs on their own. I was amazed at how fast they could fly. I've read they can reach speeds of 30 mph. They are an important part of my early gardening experience.
Edible flowers are also fun for kids to grow. Some common ones to try are tuberous begonia petals that 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 in ice cubes like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme. The blossoms of beans and peas can be added to a salad or sandwich or use them to decorate the tops of cupcakes and cookies.
Plant a pizza garden. Use a hose to form a round garden shape and border it with stones or another type of edging of your choice. Divide the "pizza" into slices using stakes or one of your plant varieties such as basil. Add stepping stones for the pepperoni slices and plant each section with one tomato plant and one green bell pepper and fill in with garlic, oregano, chives and basil. By summers end you'll be harvesting the makings for a delicious home made pizza.
Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden. You can plant tall growing sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a "door" that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown. Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long gardening stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside. Scarlet runner beans are also good and have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds. Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.
Another fun project is growing birdhouse gourds. This fast growing vine can beautify fences and trellises during the growing season. In the fall, dry and hollow them out to make birdhouses or gorgeous crafts. You can burn patterns into the surface and stain the gourds with shoe polish making beautiful objects of art that make great gifts.
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 swallow-tail butterflies. Other easy to grow flowers for cutting are snapdragons and who hasn't pinched these to make faces ?
Besides flowers, fragrant plants like lemon basil, lime thyme, orange mint, chives, sage and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid's garden. Lamb's ears are soft and furry. Get a kid interested in gardening and they'll be happy for a lifetime.
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Under blue skies on a perfect spring day I sat recently with Colly, my friend, fellow columnist and gardening enthusiast, surrounded by roses, roses and more roses. Next to an old apple tree and a gnarled cherimoya we enjoyed a delicious picnic lunch Colly brought while she shared stories about this rose nursery called Roses of Yesterday.
Back in the 1960's one of Colly's many jobs was to proof read the catalog for Roses of Yesterday and Today as it was then called so she is quite familiar with the history of this rose business located on Brown's Valley Rd. in Corralitos. It's not quite a grand as it was in the old days but the massive old roses growing in the ground were magnificent in size and we admired and rated each one on the fragrance scale.
Roses of Yesterday, one of the oldest antique rose nurseries in the U.S., was established in the 1930's. It has passed through several generations and owners since then. They still use the honor system to sell their old, selected modern, unusual and rare rose varieties. A young father, kids playing in the car, loaded up a collection of potted roses and deposited a check in the cash box before leaving.
Another sign advised that the nursery doesn't spray their roses with fungicides, insecticides, herbicides or other chemicals and the rose petals can be used for salad, jams, spritzers and teas. I did notice some rose slug damage on some of the roses but it was minimal. We noted the Sally Holmes roses and the rugosa roses had the least pest problems.
The garden contains many huge old roses. The first mammoth plant we encountered, Newport Fairy, was over 15 feet tall and nearly as wide. Covered with hundreds of small pink flowers it provided cover for many small songbirds who hopped inside searching for insects. This hybrid multiflora rose was first bred in1908. Lots of Red Admiral butterflies and Swallowtails found the surroundings to their liking, too.
We walked under a Cecile Brunner- engulfed pergola and then we saw it. Against a fence in filtered light, a spectacular single white rose with stiff, butter yellow stamens shaded an old wooden bench. We searched for the name tag and found, buried among a groundcover of sweet violets, the name Kathleen. This unusual and unforgettable hybrid musk rose from 1922 blooms repeatedly with blossoms richly perfumed. The catalog states the flowers drop cleanly and orange rose hips form along with the new blooms.
Several English lavender plants grew between the rugosa roses. We especially liked a small double magenta one called Rugosa Magnifica as well as a lovely white variety named Rugosa Blanca. Rugosa roses are very old dating back to before 1799 and bloom repeatedly with a marvelous fragrance. Large orange rose hips will form when the disease and pest resistant foliage drops. These edible hips are very high in vitamin C and are also relished by wildlife. I've been told the crinkly foliage of rugosa roses is deer resistant.
Growing nearby, a burnt orange rose got our attention. This amazing rose with two tone reddish orange petals and a lighter orange to yellow reverse is similar to Hot Coca. Called Stretch Johnson the flowers have the classic fragrance of rose petals and the disease resistant dark green glossy foliage of this floribunda was lovely.
The garden contains roses of all types especially old fashioned single roses as well as ruffly cabbage varieties. One bright pink single rose was especially beautiful. We thought the name tag read Rosa Wichuraiana but it must have been referring to the white groundcover rose nearby. We also loved a bright pink rose called Marguerite Hillig with its sweet fragrance and graceful arching canes.
The 4 inch dusky pink blossoms of Dainty Bess, a hybrid tea climbing rose, decorated one of the fences. I learned this is a classic variety among hybrid teas since 1925 from the online catalog. The non-stop blooms are exceptionally long lasting on the plant and in bouquets.
From Ballerina to Climbing New Dawn to a huge Heinrich Munch with double pink blossoms covering a rose bush 20 feet across with a foot wide trunk, I enjoyed every inch of this old rose garden and nursery and it was fun to hear personal anecdotes from Colly about Dorothy Stemler, the rose aficionado who's touch can be still be seen in the gardens of Yesterday and Today.
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