Category Archives: planting tips

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.

Gardening Zones in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Sunset_zone_map
Sunset Gardening Zone map

You know when you walk out the door how hot or cold it is, how windy, shady, moist or dry. You know if your soil is pure sand or hard clay because you’ve dug a few holes in your time. You don’t need a book to tell you these things. So why are the gardening zones described in Sunset Western Gardening book important when you add a new plant to your garden ? And why are they so confusing in our area?

I hear it all the time when garden consulting. “What zone am I?” “My plants keep dying, what can I do?”
The growing conditions in your garden determine how successful your plants will be. Besides weather and climate your soil affects how plants grow.

For decades, climatic data has been compiled and maps generated to help make sense of local growing conditions. In the 1930s, Sunset Magazine began mapping the western states, taking into consideration the unique climatic growing conditions along with the traditional data of minimum and maximum temperatures, latitude, elevation, ocean influence, continental air influence, mountains and hills and the local topography.

Today the map has become known by many as the gold standard for western growing advice. Zones are numbered from the harshest (Zone 1) in the north to the mildest (Zone 33) in the south.

To accompany the map a plant encyclopedia was developed that assigned the appropriate zone(s) for each plant. The system helps take some of the guesswork out of plant selection if you take into account your microclimate and how your garden differs from areas close by.

Soil quality is not taken into consideration in zone mapping. Since the soil houses the water and nutrient uptake system for most plants, it plays an important role. Most plant guides describe soil requirements in terms of well-drained, acid or alkaline, poorly drained or high organic matter. Many soils can be modified with amendments or by the use of raised beds.

The zone system isn’t perfect. After all, the data collectors don’t live here in our neck of the woods. We are unique and they are looking at the entire western United States. Still, it’s a good idea to take a look at the Sunset zone you live in to see if a plant might survive in your garden but keep these exceptions in mind.

We really only garden in three zones around here – zone 15, 16 and 17. With each new edition of Sunset’s Western Garden Book I eagerly look to see if they’ve figured out that Felton is not in zone 7 but they haven’t done so yet.

The Sunset map shows Felton as being in zone 7 and described as a ridge top instead of on the valley floor. This is the most confusing part of the map in the current edition of Western Gardening. Based on my experience even ridge tops like the highest portions of Bonny Doon and the Summit area that get an occasional dusting of snow fall mostly in a colder zone 15. Zone 7 areas like the Sierra foothills have a much colder winter cold average than any place around here. It’s confusing to both new and seasoned gardeners alike. Here are some tips to help you determine in what zone you garden.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area. Winter lows average 20-30 degrees although we are trending toward warmer winters these last few years. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call “a cold 15”. Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. Often there is damage to the tips of oleanders and citrus and fancy succulents need extra protection. There are warmer parts of this zone though where the growing season starts in March and ends in November. These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving. This zone is influenced by marine air approximately 85 percent of the time and the remaining 15 percent of the time by inland air. In general this zone has a moist atmosphere, cool summers and mild winters. Afternoon winds are common. Lows over a 20-year period ranged from 21 to 28 degrees.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this “banana belt”. Pasatiempo also falls in this thermal zone. Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay above freezing. The area has a temperate feel from the combination of thermal belts and the coastal influence, with summers warmer than Zone 17 and winters warmer than Zone 15.

Zone 17 – This zone hugs the coastline on the west side of Highway One.  Mild wet usually frostless winters are accompanied by almost daily blankets of fog.

Beside the zone you also need to note how much sun or shade you get during the growing season- April through September. Most plants can survive without sun during the winter as they are either dormant or semi-dormant but need good drainage. It’s those areas that get a blast of sun from about 11 am to 4 pm in the summer that you need to plan for more carefully.

There may also be microclimates on your property. Are you near the river in a canyon or gulch or up on a south facing slope? Some areas in your garden may be several degrees warmer than other spots such as up against a brick wall or at the top of a slope from where cold air drains. Planting a citrus at the top of a slope that drains away the cold will make your tree much happier than if planted in a low open area.

If you have questions about which zone you are in, email me and I’d be happy to help. I hope this helps in choosing plants that will thrive in your garden.

The Best Dogwoods & How to Grow Them

Alluvial_Terrace_wholesale_nursery
Alluvial Terrace Nursery

There’s nothing like learning about trees from someone who has discovered for themselves what makes a winner and how to grow it. Recently I had the opportunity to tour a small wholesale nursery near Corralitos. Jon Craig has evolved from Silicon engineer to a propagator of plants and trees and he’s all the happier for it. He laughs when he says he has loved plants for a very long time starting with his first job mowing lawns. As a former engineer it’s all about the research and the plants he grows showcase his success.

His very favorite tree is the dogwood. Not just any dogwood but the ones that bloom with the largest flowers for the longest time. There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata, Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida grows on the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or Western dogwood.

Jon_Craig_with_Mountain_Moon.1600
Jon Craig with cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that blooms early in the spring. It’s beautiful but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease. Our Western dogwood is prone to leaf spot fungal diseases. The Kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

cornus_capitata_Mountain_Moon_closeup
Mountain Moon

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. That tree is Jon Craig’s very favorite. With a name like Mountain Moon you can just picture it blooming high in the Himalayas. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree. They are edible but bland and tasteless to us. The birds love then though and they remain on the tree while woodpeckers and robins have a feast.

Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’ is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4pm. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’re happy.

cercis_Ruby_Falls.1600
Ruby Fall redbud

Besides enjoying the hundreds of blooming dogwoods, I learned about a redbud that is not as fussy as the lovely Forest Pansy. Ruby Falls and Merlot promise to be more reliable in the garden and more heat resistant.

Jon will try his hand growing just about any plant that he thinks others will also enjoy. A fine crop of Alice oakleaf hydrangea grew near a block of Michelia ‘Inspiration’ getting ready to flower and scent the air. The lilacs had finished blooming but the peonies were just starting their show. Jon shared a tip about tree peonies he learned recently from a well-seasoned Japanese gardener. He followed her advice and cut back the tree peony stem in the dormant season forcing it to produce new stems. Voila- they are now loaded with flowers.

peony
peony

Jon grows many other types of dogwood and also Copper beech, magnolia macrophylla, Royal Raindrops crabapple , Sheri’s Cloud nyssa and even a Purple-leaved hazel. I could only fit a couple of 5 gallon cans in my car so a beautiful smoke bush in full bloom and a Black Lace elderberry now call Bonny Doon home. But I have my eye on one of those spectacular Mountain Moon evergreen dogwoods for the back garden.

The Garden of Our Dreams vs The Real World

polygala_Petite_ButterflyWith 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 lavender_West_Zayanteinto 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.