Category Archives: gardening tips

How to Plant a Spectacular Container Garden

There’s something about a beautiful container overflowing with interesting flowers, foliage or succulents that always gets my attention and although I already have 241 containers I’m always on the lookout for ideas to create one more.

Wall planter with ivy geraniums

You can grow anything in a container. Think of them as furnishings. Grow herbs and other edibles near the kitchen door, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, hummingbirds and butterflies, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Next come the fillers. Fillers can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. The last plants are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plant

Mixed container planting

colors, two is sometimes enough. That doesn’t count green unless it’s lime. Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done. You want the pots to look good right away. Big pots, at least 16″ across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

In choosing a container, remember a porous clay pot will dry out fast in the summer sun as will a small pot. If you want pots on a sunny deck, you’ll have better results if your container is made or ceramic or colored plastic and is big enough to allow 2 inches of potting soil around the root ball. I don’t use water absorbing polymer granules in my containers as they are all in shade in winter and would stay too wet depriving plant roots of oxygen.

Water when the top 1 inch of soil in the container is dry. On a very hot day, watering mid day will cool the soil although I like to get my watering done early. Get to know your plants. Plants that are still growing into their containers need less frequent watering than those that are getting root bound. How much water? Water until it runs out the bottom and empty the saucer the next day if any water remains. Use a gentle nozzle that doesn’t dislodge the soil or compact it. Also make sure the water in the hose isn’t hot from lying in the sun.

Plants in containers are watered frequently and the water draining out of the bottom carries away nutrients. Actively growing plants need regular feeding from spring to early fall. Water soluble fertilizers are fast acting. Dry granules and time release capsules last longer. Organic fertilizers tend to work more slowly and are especially ideal for trees, shrubs and long lived perennials or for large planters in which you keep the same soil from year to year. Be sure plants are moist before feeding. The best fertilizer is the one that you get out of the package and onto your plants.

June in the Garden-What to Do?

I didn’t get everything done in May that I had on my to-do list. Who ever does? Anyone who tends a garden knows how fast plants grow with the longer, warmer days and nights. So this month I continue to work on my own garden tasks as well as help others renovate their gardens to look great, support native pollinators, wildlife and habitat.

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 a bunch a holes and drop in some 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.

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.

Pink rhododendron.

When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished it’s time to prune them. If you prune too many months after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically it’s best to prune lightly each year to shape plants that have become too leggy. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. To increase rhododendron bloom next year, break off any faded flower trusses just above the growth buds being careful not to damage the new buds.

Swallowtail feeding on lemon

Apply the second fertilizer application for the year to your citrus and fruit trees. The final one for the season 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.

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.

Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’

Another maintenance tip is to shear spring blooming perennials to keep them full and compact. Candytuft, phlox subulata, aubrieta and other low growing perennials benefit if you cut off spent bloom and an inch or two of growth. Other perennials and shrubs that benefit from the same treatment to keep them compact are erysimum, lavender and Pink breath of heaven.

Tips for Planting Success

With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full potential during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbors yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that makes a plant thrive or just mope along? And how can you plan when one source shows the plant’s size at 6 feet tall while another has that same plant as 8-12 ft tall and just as wide? What’s a gardener to do?

Callistemon ‘Little John’

When designing a garden, whether it’s for a client or my own garden, I take into account the growing conditions such as soil type and fertility, winter low temperature, space and light. All plants need water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water can be harmful to your plant’s health.

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor. How do you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to note how many hours of full sun, part sun or bright shade your area is receiving during the middle of the day. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.

Most plants enjoy morning or late afternoon sun. Winter conditions are not always as important as those of the summer. Then again if your area gets no winter sun and your soil is heavy clay that sun-loving native plant might not survive. Sometimes it’s complicated.

Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt Tamboritha’

Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.

Plant your new addition correctly. Dig the planting hole at least twice as wide as the container but no deeper than the depth of the root ball unless the soil is deeply compacted. Leaving the bottom of the hole undisturbed helps prevent the plant from settling below its root crown. In soil containing a high percentage of clay, score the sides of the planting hole with a shovel to aid root growth outward from the hole.

It’s best not to add soil amendments or fertilizers directly to the planting hole, although it may be beneficial to spread some well composted manure to the surface before digging the hole. Wait until new growth is several inches long before applying fertilizer.

Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil allows for a 2 inch thick layer of mulch around the plant but don’t bury the crown. After planting don’t till the soil again allowing the beneficial organisms to re-establish.

If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil the above tips are even more important for your planting success.

November Tasks in the Santa Cruz Mountain Garden

Outside my window, the Forest Pansy redbud has started to display its spectacular orange fall color. There’s a suet feeder hanging from the branches so I get to enjoy the antics of the Pygmy Nuthatches, Purple Finches and the Chestnut-backed Chickadees all day long as I watch the changing colors of the foliage. Other than watch the birds and the changing foliage colors what should I be doing out there in the garden?

hedge_parsley_weed
Hedge parsley aka Torilis arvensis

Light weeding is easy now that the soil is soft and moist. The dreaded hedge parsley has germinated early with our October rains. With it’s spiny-ball seeds that stick to your dog’s fur and your socks it is not welcome on my property.  It’s invasive and a native of Europe. They’ll be easy to pull now.

Maybe I will plant a few more bulbs. The ground is cooling and there’s still plenty of time for them to receive adequate winter chilling. Come spring I’ll be happy I did.

california_poppies
California poppies

I just planted wildflower seeds on my hillside. I hoping for more California poppies. I see some of last year’s wildflowers have reseeded. Nature knows when the time is right. I spread the new seeds in swaths and worked them very lightly into the soil, first hoeing off some early weeds that would compete with them.

What not to do in the garden now? I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few well placed branches to use for holiday decorations, I’m off the hook for this task. Deciduous trees are still in the process of losing their leaves and are not fully dormant. Evergreen shrubs and conifers can be trimmed lightly but most shaping is done when they start growing in late winter or very early spring. Fall is not a good time to prune. Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples prune after leaves mature next year.

hakonechloa_winter
Japanese Forest grass in winter

The growing season is pretty much over for me except to enjoy what’s left of fall color and the ornamental grasses waving their seed heads in the wind. A lot of perennials are dying back but I’m not in a hurry to neaten things up. The seed heads left in the garden supply food for birds and other creatures while the foliage provides shelter for the plant in the cold and frost. Remove anything that has turned slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for food and winter interest.

At this time of year my garden is visited also by Lesser goldfinches and warblers who will spend the winter and I’m doing them a big favor by not cutting back brown foliage containing nutrient-rich seed heads. Some of the reliable seed producers that I won’t have to clean up this weekend include artemisia, aster, coreopsis, penstemon, sedum, lupine, salvia, black-eye Susan, coneflower, phlomis, monarda, agapanthus and grasses.

Used to be the first frost in our area came about the first or second week of November but not anymore. Be prepared whenever it comes by moving frost tender plants under overhangs if possible or having frost blankets ready to cover frost tender plants.

Pruning Ornamental Grasses

Who doesn’t love a garden filled with the movement and beauty of ornamental grasses especially during the fall? But how do you take care of them after the show is over for the season?

lomandra
Lomandra and NZ flax in mixed planting

When I recently received an email asking what to do with an ornamental grass that had already turned that soft tawny color I figured it was time to brush up on how to care for them. To prune or not to prune? That is the question.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth 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 grass-like plants like chondropetalum, New Zealand flax, kangaroo paw and lomandra that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer and only occasional grooming. Some flourish with just enough water to meet their needs while others need regular irrigation. Diseases and insect pests are rare and they are not attractive to deer. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

japanese_blood_grass
Japanese Blood grass – small and goes dormant

Basically, grasses and grass-like plants fall into 4 different pruning types: Large or small types that go dormant and large or small types that stay evergreen.

Large grasses that go dormant such as miscanthus and calamagrostis are pruned yearly in late fall to late winter. It’s best to hold off on pruning as long as possible to preserve the winter interest and to provide food for birds. When they turn brown and start shedding it’s time to prune. Gather the blades together with a bungee cord or rope and cut down to 10 inches.

Small grasses that go dormant such as Japanese blood grass or fountain grass should be pruned yearly at the same time. Don’t cut them too close to the crown or you risk losing a few clumps. Cut those under 3 feet tall down to 3 inches and those that grow taller down to 6 inches.

guardsman_flax
The Guardsman- NZ flax large & stays evergreen

Large, evergreen grass-like flax and cordyline can be pruned anytime to cleanup and resize but rejuvenation should be done mid-spring. When pruning to freshen up the foliage, select the most damaged leaves and cut them out at the base. If your plant is overgrown or suffered winter damage, prune severely in mid-spring cutting off all the foliage at the base. Tall cordyline varieties can be cut off a few feet from the ground and they will re-sprout below the cut or from the base.

Lastly, small evergreen grasses like carex, acorus, blue oat grass and blue fescue grass can be cleaned up in spring by putting on rubber gloves and combing through the grass. If this kind of cleanup isn’t enough you can reduce the height by two-thirds and in a couple of months they will look good again.

What’s in your Soil?

“The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.
  Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return
  so that new life can celebrate this day.”  -Betty Peck

Soil makes all the difference to the plants you grow. The biggest issue we gardeners face is the ongoing battle with soil. If yours is difficult to manage or just plain unproductive you’ll be disappointed like me with the performance of many of the plants you put in the ground. Even tough plants like California natives have soil preferences and they are not always what’s in your garden.

phormium_acorus_lomandra
Low water-use plant responding to fertile soil

We live on ancient sea cliffs.  Soils in Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley consist of shallow, excessively drained weathered sandstone and shale. Felton soils were formed from shale, sandstone or mica schist. Those in Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek had their beginnings from weathered sandstone or granite. Although these provide the necessary mineral component of our soil. organic matter or humus from decayed plant and animal material are necessary also for fertility.

Here’s why improving your soil will make a difference to the health of your plants.

Good soil-with both organic matter and minerals-helps plants grow by forming the food supply for soil bacteria that help make food available for plant growth. Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that drip out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zone. 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.

Down in the soil, if a 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 in the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Collection of perennials one year after planting in amended soil.

form or 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 and insects 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?
• Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with 2-3” of compost, wood chips or other organic mulch.
• 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.

Feed your soil- not your plants.