I’ve gotten several emails lately requesting more information about something mentioned in a recent column. I also received a phone call from a reader describing a bad encounter with a certain common plant. She wanted to share her experience so it didn’t wouldn’t happen to anybody else. And a conversation about how bad the poison oak is this year triggered a discussion about how to dispose of the stuff. So here goes. All the news that’s fit to print.
Whether it was Joe Friday who said it or Dan Akroyd in the Dragnet parody. we all want “Just the Facts, Ma’am“.
ramial bark chips
In my column a couple weeks ago about garden planning for the drought, it was the last line “And don’t forget the… mulch (no shredded bark, please)” that caused a bit of confusion. It’s great that everyone has accepted the value of covering the soil with organic mulch. Organic mulches- such as bark chips, treated sawdust, straw or even grass clippings- keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms, conserve soil moisture, combat weed growth and protect the soil from erosion.
But is there an organic mulch that is better than another?
There are many types of mulch available. Nurseries sell different types of mulch in bags, building supply yards carry everything from bark nuggets in different sizes to treated sawdust to chipped bark and even shredded redwood bark. It’s the shredded redwood bark, also called gorilla hair, that does nothing for the health of your soil. If you have a very steep slope you may have to go with this type of mulch but that’s the only time I can recommend it. It will cling to a hillside without washing down in winter rains but treated sawdust would also work for this type of terrain and is much better for soil health.
Of all the types of organic mulches out there, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips come from trees and brush with branches up to about 3” in diameter with or without leaves. 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 a tree’s 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 soil scientists, G.Lemieux and R.A.Lapointe. You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies who are probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.
About that call from a reader who had a terrible experience after pulling some plants in her yard that had gotten a little out of hand. She said she and her husband ended up with severe eye burn after getting some toxic sap from euphorbia in them. She said they really don’t know if some of sap became airborne while they were pulling stems or if they accidentally rubbed some near their eyes at some point in the day. They went to Urgent Care right away for treatment but the pain lasted for days. She described it as one of the most painful experiences she has ever had. Euphorbias are very deer resistant and drought tolerant and are being used more and more in gardens.
Many of us, me included, grow tropical milkweed or Asclepias curassavica to attract monarch butterflies. The milky sap from this plant protects the monarch from being eaten and can cause the same painful burning of the eye. I read of a case where a gardener’s clothes brushed some stems while she was tending the garden. Later she wiped the sweat out of her eyes and didn’t realize she had also touched her pants. She ended up with cornea burn causing temporary blindness and had to take strong pain relievers and steroids to elevate the pain.
Lastly, a fine crop of poison oak is growing this year so thick in places you can barely avoid it. The new foliage literally glistens with toxic oils. Many birds relish the white berries that form later in the season. 9 out of 10 people will get a rash if even one drop of urushiol oil touches the skin. And this oil has lasting power. It can stay active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to 5 years. Burning dead or dormant poison oak branches is especially dangerous as urushiol oils released in smoke can produce disastrous results if inhaled. So what to do with the stuff if you pull it out? Do not put it in your green waste can. It can end up being ground into mulch along with other green waste. Instead put it in your gray garbage can. Other plant matter that has to be put in the garbage can is pampas grass and bamboo. Don’t put them into green waste
So that’s the skinny on shredded redwood or gorilla hair, common plants with toxic sap and poison oak disposal. Be careful out there.
With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full 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 neighbor’s yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that can make a plant thrives or just mope along? And how can you plan when one “reliable” plant source says the plant will get 6 ft tall an another shows that same plant as reaching 8-12 ft tall and just as wide?
When designing a garden whether it’s a client’s or my own I need to take into account the growing conditions such as soil type, nutrients, water requirements, high and low temperature, space and light. Most all plants use 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 or nutrients can be harmful to your plant’s progress.
Healthy soil provides an anchor for plant roots and helps support the plant in addition to providing nutrients. Healthy soil contains micro organisms and adding organic matter to your soil when you plant and in the form of mulch will increase your soil’s fertility.
Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor but how can you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade or moisture? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to look up during the growing season and see how many hours of sun, part sun, bright shade or partial shade your area is receiving. To simplify, it’s not as important what is going on during the winter but knowing the summer conditions is crucial. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.
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. When digging the hole be sure that you loosen surrounding soil 2-3 times the width of the root ball. There is no rule that you can’t loosen the soil even wider around your planting hole. Use the shovel to loosen the edges of the hole so that it’s not hard and smooth. Roots have an easier time of growing out from the initial hole is sides aren’t hard as a rock. You can loosen the soil below the depth of the root ball if it’s really hard and amend it also. Be sure to firm the soil underneath the plant so the crown of your plant doesn’t sink below grade and drown during winter rains or watering. Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil also allows for a 2” thick layer of mulch.
If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil all the above tips are important for your planting success.
Outside my window, the Forest Pansy Redbud has started to display its spectacular burnt 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. Out back I have a Catawba Crape Myrtle also starting to show fall color. Its leaves are turning a rich butterscotch shade which is lovely but not the reddish-orange described in the books. What causes fall color to vary from plant to plant? How does location in the garden, weather, climate and growing conditions affect what you see each fall?
The brilliant fall color we see in the leaves of trees and plants is always there. It’s just masked by chlorophyll during the growing season as the plant is busy making food while the sun shines during photosynthesis. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode, at which point their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins and yellow and orange carotenoids that make fall foliage so glorious.
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 temperatures or winds meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying them opportunity to enter their slow, colorful dormancy. Finally, trees that are under stress because of pests, disease, injury or drought may drop their leaves with no color change at all.
So if your garden becomes shady early in the fall this may result in less vivid fall foliage. If your trees are stressed by drought like this year you may not get the usual colorful fall display. These and the above factors all affect the intensity of fall foliage colors.
Now is a good time to shop for plants and trees that can punch up the color of fall in your garden. Seeing your new addition in person will show you exactly what color you are going to get. Sure Autumn Gold Ginkgo will probably always color up bright yellow and Sango Kaku Japanese maples will show off their characteristic golden foliage but the fall color of Purple Smoke Bush, Katsura tree, Witch Hazel, Pomegranate, Oakleaf Hydrangea and Blueberry, to name just a few, can vary.
I received an email from someone new to the area about when to expect our first frost. I’ve kept a weather journal since 1992 and based on my records occasionally we get a light frost at the end of October. Mostly though, the earliest frost has occurred about second week of November with late November being the most common. Be prepared by moving frost tender plants under overhangs if possible or having frost blankets (not plastic) ready to cover delicate plants.
Transplanting in Fall
Need to move a plant or install plants out of containers and into the garden soil? Now through February offers the best time to do this. Soils are still warm at this time of year which helps new roots get established quicker than in later winter.
Prepare the new location first before excavating any plant. Dig a hole twice as wide as the rootball, but just the same depth. Use a sharp spade to make clean cuts through roots. Cut roots will form new, dense and healthy roots.
Before replanting, especially from a container, check for roots that have circled the interior of the pot. These must be tugged loose and straightened when planted. Don’t be shy about loosening roots. When replanting be certain to keep the rootball at the same level it was and don’t add soil over the rootball. Most plants need oxygen at the soil level.
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.
I 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 roots 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.
Surrounded 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 garden 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.
Double 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 smiled 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.
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.
Last 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 upcoming 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.
Another 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 great 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.
Last 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 alone 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.
3) 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.
Growing fruit in your garden or home orchard may be even more important in the future than ever before. The lack of rainfall last year and this winter will probably raise the price of fruit at the market. If the water farmers rely on is rationed during this years growing season, fruit production will also suffer. You can start growing your own fruit by planting a bare root tree now and this is how to do it. It only takes a few years for a young tree to start producing. By using lots of mulch and perhaps installing a laundry to landscape gray water system, trees require a fraction of the water as other landscaping. Just imagine eating fruit off your own trees.
One of the primary advantages of bare root plants is that they tend to have an extensive, well developed root system as a result of being allowed to develop normally in the ground. They are dug while dormant. When the trees are handled well the root system is left intact and the tree has a better chance of rooting well and surviving when planted. Bare roots don’t have to adapt to any differences between container soil and the garden soil. Bare root trees are also less expensive to ship because they have no soil on the roots making them much lighter and easier to handle.
Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant. Once leaves emerge or flower buds start to swell tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing their new, permanent roots in their permanent home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.
With this in mind be wary of spring sale bare root stock. Also trees in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy. Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.
What is the proper way to plant a bare root tree? Select a spot with at least 6 hours or more of summer sun. To test for drainage if you have heavy soil, dig a hole about a foot deep. Keep the organic top soil from the top of the hole separate from the soil you dig out from the bottom of the hole. Fill the hole with water. If the water drains within 3-4 hours, fill the hole again. If it takes longer than 3-4 hours to drain on either filling you will either have to find another spot, build a raised bed or berm or plant in containers.
If you are happy with your location, dig the planting hole 24″ wide x 24″ deep again keeping the organic matter separate from the sub soil. Ultimately, trees must grow in the surrounding soil. Don’t amend your soil unless it is very sandy. If you amend the slow draining native soil around the tree the hole will just fill with water killing the tree. Adding organic amendment to extremely sandy soils, however, can help retain moisture in the root zone.
Place your tree in the hole and start filling in around the roots with the sub soil first, then the organic top soil. Wiggle your tree as you fill in around it to settle the soil. Tamp down the soil lightly with your foot when the hole is half filled and then top off the hole with the organic top soil. Stake the tree low and loose for the first couple of years. You want to keep the root zone stable in the wind while it is becoming established but allow the top of the trunk and branches to move with the wind. They will grow much thicker faster. Water in well and again the next day. You should not need to water again until the tree there is new growth of several inches.
Prune the central leader and branches of your new tree 1/3 to 1/2 to a plump bud facing the direction you would like the new growth to grow. Mulching is especially important to bring back the beneficial organisms in the soil. Bioactivity reduces fertilizer requirements. Mulching keeps the ground cooler in the summer and retains moisture. After your tree is established you can fertilize with an organic fertilizer. Keeping the nitrogen low but the phosphorus and potassium higher will help control the size of the tree making it easier to harvest that delicious fruit.
This year I have my eye on an heirloom French butter pear called Easter Beurre that ripens in December with tender, sweet, melting flesh. Also I want to try the Janice Seedless Kadota fig with it’s incredibly sweet flavor. It’s said to have better flavor than Black Mission. I think they should have named this fairly new fig after me spelling it Janis but it’s too late now.
Don’t miss the opportunity to add a fruit tree to your garden this winter.
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A poem for Gardeners
by Jan Nelson “The Mountain Gardener”
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
All the creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.
The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.
They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.
A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
Fruit, vegetables and color: it must belong to an artiste.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !
Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.
We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses they vowed.
Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help we eat plants, we don’t eat steaks.
If you’ve been good this year, go ahead and make a wish,
And when you see us, welcome us , don’t banish.
All of us creatures will give you our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.
So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
” Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night ! ”
My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote this poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.
Early on one of those freezing mornings I came across a large stand of California native toyon shrubs, every branch covered with juicy red berries. Dozens of songbirds were enjoying the feast loading up and bracing for another cold night. You couldn’t ask for a more Christmas-y plant. Bright red and green- the Christmas colors. I made a note to put toyon on my list for gift ideas. What would be better than to give my loved ones something that feeds the birds and the spirit?
Toyon is a hardy shrub in our area no matter how low the temps drop. Many of the plants in your garden may not be so lucky after the multiple nights of freezing weather we recently experienced. Even if you covered sensitive plants a hard frost can nip plants that normally would be fine in a light frost. Here’s how to deal with frost damage.
Don’t be tempted to rush out and prune away the damaged parts of plants. This winter will have more cold weather and the upper part of your plant, even if damaged, can protect the crown from further freezing and provide protection for tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year. This applies to citrus trees, too. If a perennial like Mexican sage froze to a gooey, black mess, cut the plant down to the ground. It will re-grow come spring from the root system.
Remember If you have plants that need covering in another frost later this winter, use a frost blanket, light towel, sheets, burlap or other type of cloth and not plastic. The cold will go right through plastic and damage the plant.
Getting back to my Christmas list, everybody loves color in the winter garden. Besides toyon berries to feed the birds and other wildlife, Strawberry trees have fruit for much of the winter as do crabapples, beautyberry, pyracantha and nandina if the robins don’t get them first.
Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful. Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.
For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers. A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.
If the idea of sitting under a beautiful shade tree in the summer would appeal to the gardener on your list, you might consider giving them a Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorn that’s covered in masses of rosy blossoms in the spring and colorful berries in the winter. October Glory Maple is a great tree for shade and gorgeous fall color. Autumnalis Flowering Cherry blooms twice a year giving you double the show. Mine is in the middle of its fall blooming cycle right now. It’s a welcome sight. A smaller Southern Magnolia like ‘Little Gem‘ with huge fragrant white flowers would also make a nice gift.
These are just a few of the shade and ornamental trees that would make a valuable addition to any landscape. Visit a nursery to look for those plants with berries and winter color for other gift ideas.
I’ve lived in California my entire life and have traveled on many a back road enjoying the scenery, the trees, the flowers, the birds. Discovering a new road, the road less traveled, is half the fun of any journey. It was close to sunset recently when I found myself on one of those roads. Actually I kinda got lost on my way to Aunt Rosemary’s house and ended up on the back side of Mt. Diablo. Serendipity, the occurrence of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, was on my side.
With the winter sun skimming the tops of the rolling hills and a meadowlark announcing his presence in the row of walnut trees growing along the road I was reminded of the seasons here in the mild winter areas of California. The setting sun filtered through the grasses tawny in late fall. These grasses are just one of the many ornamental grasses that grace our gardens. With winter coming on, some go dormant, some are evergreen and some are deciduous. How should you take care of the grasses in your garden?
If your grass is big like a miscanthus and now sports that beautiful wheat color as it goes dormant, you can enjoy the show to provide structure to the winter garden as well as seed and cover for wildlife. Come February or early March, before new growth starts from the base, tie the stems into a bundle with twine or a bungee cord and prune down to 10 inches using sharp hedge shears or electric hedge pruning shears.
But what about those other grasses and grass-like plants? How do you keep them neat looking and fresh throughout the year?
If it’s small and goes dormant, like Japanese forest grass, Japanese blood grass or Fountain grass, you can prune them anytime now until early spring. I like to leave them to provide winter interest through the holidays but there will come a day in January when the winter storms will start blowing the leaves everywhere. Then I’ll prune the stems down to 3″ for the shorter grasses or 6″ for the taller fountain grasses. If I prune too low there’s a danger of cutting into the crown of the plant. Moisture then tends to settle into the crown and can rot them out.
Then there are the spiky grasslike plants like New Zealand flax or Cordyline that stay evergreen but can look ratty after a long, hot summer or cold winter. Prune these anytime for cleanup or size reduction, midspring for rejuvenation.
Select the oldest or most damaged leaves and cut them from the base out one by one. To control size, cut out ton more than 2/3 of he tallest leaves at the base. If your plant has severe damage and needs total rejuvenation wait until midspring and cut down to 1 foot. It will regrow in about 4 months but may need retrimming as the leaves grow out.
Lastly, there are those small grasses that stay evergreen such as Blue oat grass, Pheasant tail grass, Acorus, Mondo grass, Carex, Mexican feather grass and Liriope. Like the flaxes, clean up can be done anytime but pruning for rejuvenation should be done early to midspring.
If your grass is looking a bit disheveled, comb out the old stems. Rubber gloves work great for this as the spent foliage clings to the rubber and comes out easily. If you need to go for the big chop to bring it back to its former glory, wait until early spring and cut back by 2/3. Cutting back too much will allow moisture to gather in the crown and cause rot. Rejuvenation pruning shouldn’t be done more than every 2-3 years as small evergreen grasses have less vigor than grasses that go dormant. Mexican feather grass is the exception and can be pruned back hard anytime its needed.
So that’s all there is too it. Decide if your grass is large and goes dormant, small and goes dormant or large and stays evergreen and take it from there for beautiful ornamental grasses year round.
It came out of the earth suddenly, pushing soil and plants that were in it’s way to the side. Just a bit of moisture had allowed this large clump of honey mushrooms to emerge and start its path to reproduction. At this time of year when the trees are turning the color of flame and some have already gone into dormancy it seems the earth is growing silent. Winter will soon be here. For nature life continues. Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness, the time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.
The Giant Pacific salamanders in the forest duff are resting up for next seasons batch of young. Maybe now that we’ve had some rain the deer will have something to eat other than my garden. As the weather cools, my garden plants are looking past their prime. The seed heads that remain invite small song birds to feast on what remains. Chickadees hop from plant to plant. They even find something to eat in the Japanese maple leaves and the old dried hydrangea flowers that have turned a dusty rose color. Spotted towhees scratch for seeds buried under fall leaves. I’m always slow to cut down and clear everything away but there are some things I should be doing this autumn. I’ll pay if I leave everything for next spring when it all needs doing at once.
First, I’ll cut back perennials such as hostas, asters and mums, which collapse into a gooey mess and shelter slugs and snails. I’ll pick up and dispose of diseased leaves, especially under the roses to prevent pathogens from spreading. Coneflowers, ligularia and rudbeckia flowers and ornamental grasses can stay to contribute winter interest for me and the birds.
I’ll leave as much foliage as possible to provide cover, protection from cold winds and foraging spots for other critters and good insects. I’ll wait to cut back the stems and foliages of not only the grasses but evergreen perennials, salvias, hardy fuchsias until spring. There are few things as rewarding as seeing your winter garden turn into a sanctuary for wildlife.
As weeds emerge I’ll spend a little time here and there keeping up with them. There are 300 dormant weed seeds per square inch of soil and I don’t want to add to that.
I don’t have the space to plant a cover crop so I like to top dress the soil with compost or bark chips. I have a few new trees that need staking to secure them through the winter. This prevents breakage and allows new roots to grow deep and stable. Be sure to set the stake on the windy side of the tree and tie loosely so it has some wiggle room This movement stimulates the trunk to grow thicker. Come next summer the trees will probably be ready to stand on their own. I don’t want to keep them staked longer than necessary. Also check any trees or shrubs that were transplanted and are still tightly bound to a stake. Remove or reset the stake so the trunk will not become girdled as it grows.
A word about all those leaves that cover the ground, the lawn and the perennial beds at this time of year. You can build up your garden soil by running a mower over them to chop into smaller pieces and spread over the soil. Worms and other organisms will start to break them down right away. Next spring dig what’s left into the soil. If you leave more than an inch or two of whole leaves on top the rains will compact them into a soggy mess and prevent oxygen from reaching the soil. If you have too much of a good thing when it comes to leaves, it’s best to put them into your green waste can.
Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long. They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. My abutilons are a winter favorite for them in my garden. Keep your feeders up year-round and keep them clean.
Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese knew how to protect their soil from erosion and increase fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants 3500 years ago also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. I learned this and also how to protect and improve my soil from Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at a cover crop workshop recently on the campus.
“It’s all about the biology of the soil”, Martin said. “You grow the soil that helps you grow the plants”. A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward, he explained. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.
Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume.
Cover crops are also called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.
From late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil however as you can ruin the structure of your soil.
The Chadwick Garden, Martin explained, originally was heavy red clay. 35 years of soil building with bell beans and vetch cover crops and compost have established a level of fertility that now supports several acres of vegetables, fruit trees, berries and beneficial flowering plants. Fall-sown, spring ploughed-down cover crops are the sole fertilizer used for the better part of the last decade.
Martin explained that recent research now recommends planting a tandem of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch which are the best legumes for our area grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.
There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but no where near as efficiently as bell beans. Crimson clover seed is also more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.
A question came up about using inoculants on legume seed. Martin explained that our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.
We all followed Martin out to the cover crop trial plots to see how the different types were growing. Bark chips will soon be applied to the paths. All of the gardens are mulched several times per year with wood chips. A 10 year study, Martin explained, demonstrated the amazing benefits of ramial chipped wood which is the type the tree service companies provide for free.
We watched him work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds were already cleared but Martin said this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area was raked again lightly 1-2″ down and covered with 3-4″ of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything, he said. Water in lightly.
There are 3 ways to fertilize, Martin said. You can buy chemical fertilizer which is expensive and doesn’t do much for the soil. You can apply compost, which being carbon based, ramps up beneficial fungal organisms in the soil. Or you can cover crop or grow green manure which increases beneficial soil bacteria. Orin Martin has proof of the benefits of the last two methods.
I never want summer to end. Who doesn't love those long days and warm nights? The calendar might say fall is near but Indian summer is one of the our best seasons so I love this time of year, too. But then I get all excited when spring rolls around and everything is in bloom. It's all good. I have a check list of some garden tasks I need to do at this time of year so I better get to them between hiking and trips to the beach.
Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time if you haven't already done so last month. All shrubs, especially broad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year's buds.
Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves. You can always cut lower on the stem if you need to control height.
Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials in the ground as often as you possibly can. Annuals like zinnias and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa, echinacea and lantana. Santa Barbara daisies will bloom late into winter if cut back now.
These plants know they're on this earth to reproduce. If they get a chance to set seed the show's over, they've raised their family. Try to remove fading flowers regularly and you'll be amply rewarded. If you want to start perennial flowers from seeds this is the time so that they'll be mature enough to bloom next year.
Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylilies and penstemons that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don't bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves. If you're on a roll out in the garden, though, go for it now.
It's still a little hot to plant cool season veggies starts in the ground. They appreciate conditions later in September when the soil is still warm but temps have cooled. It is OK to plant seeds of beets, carrots, spinach, arugula, mustard, leeks, onions, peas, radishes and turnips.
If you aren't going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover after you've harvested your summer vegetables. Next month I'll talk about how to go about doing this and how this benefits your soil.
Cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.
Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don't even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.
Now that you've taken care of your chores reward yourself by to your garden for color in late summer through fall. Take a look at the garden areas that aren't working for you and replant. Good choices include aster, chrysanthemum, coreopsis, and gaillardia. Abutilon also called Flowering Maple come in so many colors that you probably need another one in your garden. Petite Pink gaura looks fabulous planted near the burgundy foliage of a loropetalum. Don't overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.
One last to do: Make a journal entry celebrating the best things about your garden this year.
A few Sundays ago I spent the afternoon at AT&T Park watching the Giants play baseball. It was kids day. Hundreds of Boy Scouts were attending the game in uniform. Kids were everywhere eating peanuts and wearing the orange and black team colors. Some were sitting with their grandparents, some very, very young fans in their parents arms being smeared with sun screen. It was a beautiful day on the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, the team didn't get the memo that we were supposed to get another win against the Diamondbacks. Oh well, there's always next year.
A friend forwarded an article he saw in the SF Chronicle by Janny Hu recently about the Giants plan to create an organic garden behind the center field wall. The Giants Garden would be created between the left and right field bleachers in an area that is now concrete and an adjacent area where replacement sod is grown.
Plans for the edible garden include hydroponic troughs, concrete planters and living green walls which would supply produce for some of the parks' concessions, serve as an open air dining area and a community classroom during the offseason. If you're hankering for a nice kale and strawberry salad next season while you watch the game you're in luck. The Giants hope to have the garden ready for Opening Day 2014.
If the Giants can do it, you can, too. We all want the area around our homes to be beautiful, welcoming, productive, useful. In designing landscapes for people I strive to integrate vegetables, herbs and fruit trees with flowering shrubs and perennials to feed the family while attracting hummingbirds and other wildlife. Not everybody has room for a separate vegetable garden and companion planting is a good way to avoid problems with pests and diseases.
Plants when attacked by pests, exude chemicals and hormones that actually attract nearby beneficial insects. Perennials like agastache, coneflower, coreopsis, scabiosa and yarrow are rich in nectar and pollen and irresistible to beneficials. Many herbs also attract beneficials. Cilantro in bloom is one of the top insectary plants. Caraway, chervil, dill, fennel, lovage and parsley flowers also attract beneficials and are easy to grow among your other plants. Allow your salad and cabbage crops to bloom. Arugula and brassica flowers are much appreciated by beneficials.
Plants like lettuces, spinach and swiss chard look great in the flower bed and flowers make great companions in the vegetable garden. Dahlias repel nematodes. Geraniums repel cabbage worms, corn ear worms and leaf hoppers. Plant them by grapes, roses, corn and cabbage. Marigolds discourage beetles, whiteflies and nematodes. They act as trap plants for spider mites and slugs. A word of caution, don't plant them by cabbage or beans. Nasturtiums act as a barrier trap around tomatoes, radishes, cabbage and fruit trees. They deter whiteflies, and squash bugs and are a good trap crop for black aphids.
Herbs that help deter pests. Catnip/catmint repels mice, flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Chamomile improves the flavor of cabbage, onions and cucumbers. It also accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. As a host for hoverflies and good wasps it increases productions of essential oils in herbs. Summer savory repels bean leaf beetles and improves the flavor of beans. All beans enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. They are good for planting with all of your vegetables except onions, garlic and leeks.
Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries.
If it's almonds you crave, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden. A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame. Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.
Planting flowers and edibles together makes sense and good use of your garden space.
Some things in the garden need to be planned out in advance while others happen by chance. For instance, this year when our spring rains stopped dead in their tracks I gave up adding any more acidifier to my hydrangeas. You need to change the pH of the soil around hydrangeas well before they set buds. I like mother nature to water for me early in the season and she didn't cooperate. As luck would have it, the flowers this year are majestic purple, mauve and magenta where before they were sky blue. Frankly, I'm thrilled with this years color palette. Hooray for serendipity.
Early summer is the right time, however, for many other garden activities that you don't want to leave to chance.
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.
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.
If your fruit trees are starting to produce too heavily, remove excess immature fruits. Doing so allows remaining fruit more room to grow and prevents branches from breaking under the weight. When apples, pears and stone fruits such as apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums reach 1/2' in diameter, pick some off, leaving the remaining fruits spaces 6-10" apart along the branch. Later, to protect your ripening fruit, enclose the tree with bird netting, hang strips of mylar flash tape near brach tips or substitute old CD's.
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.
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.
To encourage continued bloom on annuals, perennials and shrubs, remove faded flowers before they start to form seeds. Make sure you remove the entire flower head and the base where seeds form ( such as the bulbous part of dahlia, petunia or fuchsia flowers) and not just the petals. Cut the stem down to where leaves start. The season has just started and you'll be enjoying lots more flowers in the months to come if you deadhead regularly.
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.
Also re-apply mulch if it's getting thin in spots. Check ties on trees to make sure they aren't cutting into the bark. Cultivate lightly around trees to discourage weeds and allow water to penetrate.
Don't be afraid to move a plant that is not working where its growing now. Make a note in your journal reminding yourself to transplant it sometime in the fall. Gardening is a dynamic and fluid process. Enjoy piecing together pieces of the puzzle.
Now's the time to plant cool season vegetables from starts or seed like chard, snow or shelling peas, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, lettuce, mustard and onions. You can also sow seeds of beets, radish and carrots directly in the ground. Inside it's time to start your warm season vegetable seeds such as tomatoes as well as eggplant and peppers. Usually you start them inside about 8 weeks before last spring frost. Counting back 6 weeks from when night temperatures stay in the mid 50 degree range also works to figure out when to start.
For those who enjoy container gardening, try combining some colorful chard with parsley, alyssum and some Johnny-jump-ups. In another large pot grow some kale, spinach along with Windowbox sweet peas. All stay compact and you can harvest healthy greens close to the kitchen door.
You know spring is coming when you see daffodils starting to open. You know spring is coming when plum trees begin their glorious show. And you know spring is coming when you begin to think of all those garden tasks that still need your attention.
February is one of those months that ease us into the gardening season. Didn't get the roses pruned at the end of January? There's still time. Didn't dormant spray for fungal diseases and insect control? There's still time. Didn't plant any new berries yet for summer desserts? There's still time – but don't delay much longer.
What is important to do in the garden in February?
Prune fruit trees and smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open.
Prune your roses if you haven't already.
Prune repeat flowering roses by removing spindly or diseased shoots and dead wood. Do this before they start leafing out which wastes plant energy. Cut back the remaining stems by about a third, cutting canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing bud. Don't worry whether your pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again later. You want to produce lots of roses not just a few of exhibition size. Aim for a vase-shaped bush with an open center.
Prune old garden roses that bloom once in the spring after flowering. Climbing roses require little pruning. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.
If any old leaves still cling to the plant, remove them. Rake up any debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It's a good idea to spray both the bare plant and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually have a problem only with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light oil in 1 quart water and spraying every 7 to 10 days. Thoroughly coat the trunk, branches and twigs.
Cut back woody shrubs. To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia to within a few inches of the ground. Don't use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don't cut back to bare wood inside the plant. Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim.
Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven't already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although sulfur is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it is not as kind to many beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kinder to your soil.
Don't cut back grasses yet if you get frost in the area where they grow. Wait until mid-March.
Don't prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples, rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower. You can cut some branches during flowering to bring in cuttings for bouquets.
Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that got hit by those January frosts. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area.
Continuing in the spirit of all things fall it's prime time to plant tulips and other spring blooming bulbs, If you're like me and have squirrels scampering up every tree, checking out planting beds and planters for choice acorn planting spots, you are undoubtedly aware of how difficult it is to keep them from digging up and eating the bulbs. Yes you can plant the bulbs surrounded by chicken wire or hardware cloth but there's an easier way that's just as effective.
Dig the hole and plant the bulb as you normally would, but instead of caging it, cover the bulb with poultry grit, which is make up of crushed granite, shale or oyster shells and is available at feed stores. The squirrels don't like trying to dig through the sharp grit and quickly give up.
Next spring if they have the nerve to eat the flower buds right when they emerge from the soil you might just have to plant the types of bulbs that squirrels won't eat such as daffodils, snowdrops, chionodoxa, hyacinth or fritillaria.
It's also time to plant a cover crop in your vegetable garden to improve production next year. Fall cover crops include legumes such as fava beans, peas, vetch and clovers which germinate and grow quickly but not so fast as to harm late season or overwintering vegetable crops. Oat grass can be sown to hold the soil and protect it from erosion.
Cover crops also protect the soil from pounding winter rains which compact the soil surface and leach out nutrients. They are thick enough to choke out emerging weeds and their root systems break up and aerate hard soil. Members of the pea family gather nitrogen into their roots to further benefit the soil.
In the spring you can tun the cover crop into the soil and allow it to decompose in place or pull the plants and compost them separately. That way you can plant right away and add the compost back into the garden later when it has finished decomposing.
Seeds germinate best when the soil is in the 50 degree range so don't delay.
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Above the clear turquoise water of the Big Sur coastline, wildflowers still bloom in October. Bright orange Sticky Monkeyflower meander among a carpet of rosy blooming California Buckwheat. Deep orange California fuchsia flower on hillsides alongside the bright white flower heads of yarrow. They make a striking combination. Under the partial shade of pine trees lavender
explode with color. Even poison oak contributes deep rusty-red tones to the landscape making it easier to identify and avoid. This wild land offers lessons and ideas to make our own gardens more beautiful.
Big Sur has areas of chaparral, oak and pine woodlands, riparian or streamside woodlands and redwood-tanbark-oak woodlands. Nearly half of all the flora of California grows here and many northern and southern California plants mix in this unique location. . Only in Big Sur will redwoods and yuccas thrive together. The look is startling. Certainly not a combination you would think of for your own garden.
Near McWay Falls
on Hwy 1, fragments of an elaborate stone house still remain along with some of the landscaping. Christopher McWay and his wife Rachel settled the area in the late 19th century.The land passed through several owners until former U.S. House of Representative Lathrop Brown and his wife Helen acquired it and built a beautiful stone structure overlooking McWay Cove. The house was torn down 50 years ago but many of the landscape plants still thrive after all these years
. Hardy pittosporum eugenoides have survived without any supplemental watering. A huge stand of blooming Naked Ladies covers the rocky slope. We all know what survivors these bulbs are. Tall Mexican palms and ornamental trees surround the fragments of stone staircases and walls reminding us that nature will endure.
What allows all plants to thrive in their environment is the simple set of conditions that they like. It's nearly impossible to grow ferns in the hot sun around here and don't even think about trying a California fuchsia in the shade. Soil is important, too. Rich, moist soil is perfect for wild ginger but gravelly, well drained soil works best for Five-fingered ferns. Match the right plant with the right spot and you'll have success every time. Big Sur is a chock full of success stories.
Here are more tips for early fall in the garden.
Fall is not a good time for major pruning. Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don't prune when leaves are falling or forming. Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.
Do refresh perennials, such as butterfly bush, salvia and yarrow by cutting a third to half of their growth.
Rake leaves– compost or put in your green can. If large leaves are left in place they will mat down and set up fungal problems come spring.