Low Tech Tools for the Garden


Sometimes it’s the little things that count. A cool breeze on a hot day. The song of a bird up in the trees. An orange sky at sunset. As gardeners we appreciate each cluster of tiny, new tomatoes. We notice new branches growing on the ginkgo and the Japanese maple. There are many little things that make my life as a gardener easier. As I go about my chores cleaning, pruning, transplanting and watering I rely on lots of low tech tools. Perhaps some of these might make your life easier, too.

water_wand_soft_rain_nozzleI have several different nozzles for hand watering plants but my favorite by far is a soft rain nozzle on the end of a watering wand. With this type of nozzle I can deliver a lot of water right where I want without beating the life out of the soil. The adjustable ones have a soft spray setting but not enough water comes out and I am left standing there for what seems like forever to thoroughly water a plant or pot. Hand watering is time consuming but it can help a new plant establish a much larger root system than a drip system can. There is even one wholesale plant grower who considers drip irrigation of native and drought tolerant plants just plain bad.

On the subject of watering, be sure you invest in a good quality hose. As my father used to say, you get what you pay for. Those small stiff hoses will cause you no end of problems on a hot day as you struggle with a tangled mess. I’m not a big fan of coiling a hose tightly inside a pot either for storage. They  look tidy but it’s really hard to pull the hose out where needed easily and quickly.

Another of my indispensable gardening items are my gloves. I’ve tried many expensive leather models but I always go back to the plastic coated stretchy cotton gloves,  Garden gloves protect your hands from infection.  You can be exposed to microbacterium from rose thorns and it’s also present in some compost materials.  Remember to always clean cuts and puncture wounds with soapy water and peroxide and see a doctor if you develop inflammation swelling or joint pain.

Whether you’re transplanting a new plant of potting up one to the next size pot, you need to loosen the gardening_toolsroots to help them develop a stronger root system. Sometimes the roots may have completely filled the pot and are circling around themselves. A six pack or 4″ pot often has a mat of roots at the bottom of the pot.  If you place the plant into the ground or into another pot without first loosening the roots, they will continue to grow in a circle, rather than reaching out into the soil, developing and anchoring the plant.

I have a claw cultivator that I use for this purpose on big plants but I find more often I’m reaching for a kitchen fork I have in my tool kit for this purpose. It’s easier for me to tease delicate root balls without going overboard. I also have an old serrated bread knife that is perfect for scoring really tough root balls. It’s also a good tool for root pruning a large plant when you need to give it fresh soil to grow in the same pot.

Of the many hand pruners on the market I have always liked my smaller Felco #6. I need to break out the pruning saw or loppers for larger cuts anyway so I why lug around a large, heavy hand pruner? I also often use kitchen shears for deadheading which makes the job go quickly. More often than not if I use my thumb and forefinger to remove old flowers I break off more than I intended. Using a scissors instead I can make a clean cut and not tear off a new bud by mistake.

My last tip is the best one. Make a habit of walking around your garden, preferably with the beverage of your choice, and just look at the plants. That way you can monitor pest and disease problems before they get out of hand and decide what to do. Give this step the fancy name Integrated Pest Management and enjoy your garden.



Rose Tips and Tricks


The_Mystery_RoseSurrounded by roses of nearly every color in the rainbow I smelled vanilla, spice and honey. The sun peaked in and out of the clouds allowing the vivid hues of the petals to change with the light. I was enjoying the garden of rose aficionados Mark and Lane Maloney of Scotts Valley. Among their 40 rose bushes I was to learn how an expert cares for these beauties.

The oldest roses in the garden are 60 years of age. Mark dug them from his mother’s collection when she died in Atherton 5 years ago. He starting collecting most of his other roses 20-30 years ago when he and Lane moved to the Scotts Valley property. Because he seldom has a rose die the only new rose in the garden is a double blooming red variety called Legend and named after Oprah. It was just starting to open on the day I visited this amazing rose garden.

I asked Mark which rose is his favorite. It was hard to pin him down to just one. The Distant_Drum_rosegarden is divided into two separate beds. One bed is devoted entirely to roses while another blends roses with other perennials. I admired a large shrub covered with pinkish flowers and he replied “this is one my most beautiful roses. It starts out a deep dusty rose then fades to lighter shades as it ages”.  Most of the roses in the garden have large ornamental name tags that he purchased online. The sign at the base read Distant Drums.

I was drawn to the Double Delight as I know it’s one of the most fragrant. Another rose with an incredible scent is Dolly Parton but on this day it hadn’t opened yet. Mark described it as “big and pink”, which seems appropriate.

Strike_It_Rich_roseDouble Delight, like many roses, blooms in cycles. They set buds and bloom for a month, rest for a month, then set another round of blooms. Mark said he usually gets about 3 cycles per season. One of his favorite roses will bloom all summer non-stop. Strike it Rich lives up to the name with lovely sherbet-orange flowers.

Mark also likes Black Magic with deep, reddish-black blooms that last 2 weeks in the garden as does another of his favorites, Fame, with pink flowers so bright they are nearly iridescent .  With deep yellow blooms Gold Medal caught my attention. But then I saw St. Patrick with those cool greenish-white blooms. Mark told me that in the white rose department he thinks White Lightnin’ is a beautiful rose as is the classic, JFK.

The roses in the Maloney’s garden are lush and healthy. What’s your secret I asked? Mark Perfect_Moment_rosesmiled and handed me a Rose Garden Calendar he had prepared on his computer for me. In a nutshell this is how he does it.
Late December- prune heavily down to about 24″ tall.

Early January- spray roses with dormant spray and again in early February.

March 1- fertilize and repeat each month through September.

Mark uses a systemic fertilizer which keeps insects at bay. He also uses an acid fertilizer once or twice a year as well as putting banana peels on the surface of the soil for potassium. I laughed when he told me his banana peel tip. I was nearly standing on a blackened peel with sticker still intact when he shared this info.

His other “secrets” include picking off diseased leaves regularly, pruning lightly throughout the year, mulching with several inches of chipped wood and watering with 1″ of water per rose each week applied in a trough  surrounding the shrub.

Mark is a member of ARS (American Rose Society) with he suggests as a good source of information and also rose recommendations for different areas and climates. He also maintains the roses at the Scott House at Civic Center. So when Mark talks roses, I listen.



Gardening Projects and Ideas for a Rainy Day


As I looked out the window at the rain coming down I thought of all the things I should be doing in the garden. “Where does the time go”, I thought to myself. “Why did you frolic in all that sunshine last month instead of transplanting and moving plants to better spots”?  I could tell from the conversation going on in my head that I needed some inspiration so off I went to visit a local garden store. I knew I was in trouble as I explored and wanted to buy nearly every cool plant I saw. Here are some of the plants that really caught my eye.

tillandsia_on_apple_branchLast month for my birthday a friend gave me a collection of tillandsia attached to an gnarled, mossy apple branch that had fallen from a tree in her garden. There are many kinds of these bromeliads or air plants as they are sometimes called and they can be displayed in lots of ways. At the garden store, I saw miniature hanging terrariums that looked awesome with several tiny tillandsia specimens, glossy pebbles and moss bits arranged inside. The humidity inside the glass as well as the bright light from a window is just what they like.

Other tillandsia were mounted on bark, some on driftwood, some in table top terrariums and some displayed in beautiful baskets. Tillandsia, like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I’m always on the lookout for ideas for landscape plants that might be perfect in an edgeworthia_chrysanthaupcoming design. Often what is needed to complement a house or view from a window is a plant with interesting foliage color or  branching pattern and bark in the dormant season. Showy, fragrant flowers make a welcome addition to the front entry at any time of year but I found one new to me and it’s blooming now.

Tucked among other plants with soft yellow and green foliage I saw my first Edgeworthia or Chinese Paper Bush. Also called yellow daphne, this daphne relative is grown mainly for its flowers. Tubular, bright yellow flower clusters fade to creamy white. The showy display is memorable. They definitely possess that weird appeal that collectors love. In China this plant is used to make paper and medicine.

Edgeworthia chyrsantha are hardy to 10 degrees and prefer half day sun or afternoon shade during the hot summer sun. They grow to about 6 feet tall and a bit wider. The tropical looking foliage is attractive during the summer but it’s the overwhelmingly fragrant display of pendent, golden yellow flowers that will make you want to grow this shrub in your garden. I’m looking forward to planting it next to a fragrant daphne.

pittosporum_tenuifolium_Irene_PattersonAnother plant that caught my eye was an Irene Patterson pittosporum tenuifolium. With speckled frosty green leaves this shrub will really light up a dark area. It can take full sun but it’s the shady areas I have in mind. Hardy to 15-20 degrees it will survive our winters and is adaptable to most soils. I think it would look great paired with the variegated huge green and white leaves of ligularia argentea.

I was also inspired to plant up my own succulent garden after seeing the display planted in recycled wooden boxes, old tins, antique cheese boxes and weathered boots. Whatever you have on hand with a drainage hole will look   succulent_garden2great with a succulent or two planted inside. Succulents in containers can be moved out of winter frost and rain which increases the variety that can survive in our area. I have a vintage Swift’s Silverleaf pure lard tin that’s just waiting to provide a home for some new succulents.  I’m looking forward to going back to the garden store to choose just the right specimens for his special container.

It’s fun to have some gardening projects that I can do indoors. There’s lots of time to plant those new landscape plants that caught my eye on a rainy day.



Drought Tolerant Gardening


arctostaphylos.1280Last fall I wrote about the predictions for winter rains in our area. The Farmer’s Almanac predicted our “winter will be much rainier and cooler than normal”. Weather bloggers online posted an impressive number of charts and figures predicting “a general dry trend”. NOAA said we had an equal chance of precipitation totals going either way.

Even my favorite predictor, the Sandhill crane, who started it’s annual migration to the San Joaquin Valley several weeks earlier this year, seems to have gotten it wrong. The timing of their migration has been a good predictor of both wet and dry winters. This year the early migration predicted an early winter with plenty of rain and snow.

Every snowboarder, gardener and nature lover knows we are in a great drought that started last winter. Information about the California drought is all over the news. We are sure to get a few storms in the coming months but there will be no “Miracle March” from what I see and hear from the experts at NOAA and NASA. This extreme weather event will bring voluntary or possibly mandatory water rationing. What can we do to make the most of the water allotted to the garden and not let expensive mature landscaping die unnecessarily? How can you make your garden more drought tolerant?

1) Group plants in your garden according to their water needs. Some can survive on rainfall bush_poppy.1600alone after their second or third season while the perennial beds, vegetable garden and fruit trees will require a different schedule. Late winter or early spring is a good time to transplant those plants that use more or less water than their neighbors.

2) Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste. Watering in the early morning is the most efficient way to maximize absorption whether you water by drip system, sprinkler, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolsters the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning. Water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff. This also allows plants to grow deep roots that can go longer between waterings.

lupine_silver.16003) Using vegetation or mulches to cover bare soil is a key ingredient to slow down runoff. Maximize what soaks into the ground.  Mulches are a good choice for areas with less than 33% slope, Vegetation works well on areas with less than a 50% slope. Mulch can be organic-such bark chips, straw or grass clippings or inorganic gravel or cobbles. All protect soil from erosion and conserve soil moisture. Organic mulches keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms and prevent weed growth. Your plan should be to slow, spread and sink water back into the ground whether it be from rainfall or irrigation.

Of all the types of mulches, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips are those from trees and brush, from branches up to about 4″ in diameter with or without leaves. Deciduous hardwood is best but all chips are good These chips contain a high percentage of thin young bark and young wood. This is what makes them so valuable to the garden. Young wood is the trees factory for producing protein, glucose, fructose, lignin and polysaccharides. It’s an important source of nutrients for living things at all levels according to a study by 2 soil scientists, G.  Lemieux and R.A. Lapointe.  You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies like Davey Tree who is probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.

Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Improving your soil’s ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you’re out in the garden. Help ensure the health or your trees and garden by following these steps.

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