Dry River Beds – Beautiful & Beneficial


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Dry river bed down a steep slope

With so many people replacing their thirsty lawns with low water-use plants, I’m getting lots of requests for ideas about what to do with all that empty space. The sky’s the limit when you have a blank slate. Let me get you started.

If your old lawn was in the front you might consider putting in a sitting area for a couple of chairs and a bistro table. Use simple crushed gravel or more formal flagstone underfoot and surround the space with a low seat wall to add a bit of privacy.

Adding a dry river bed is another good solution. A dry river bed can slow runoff, spread it out and sink it back into the soil. Connected to a downspout they keep even more rainfall on your own property. If we get the El Nino storms that are predicted this will be a welcome addition to your landscape.

A dry river bed is a rock-lined swale that uses rounded river rock in addition to vegetation to allow

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Dry river bed with grasses and deer resistant oleander

runoff to soak into the ground. Make sure there is a 2% slope from beginning to end to ensure that water is conveyed away from your house to the desired location. Non-woven geotextile fabric is often used underneath the rock.

You can create a depression or rain garden at the end of your dry river bed and plant it with plants that tolerate wet feet in the winter. Both a dry river bed and a rain garden allow water to sink back into the ground. The plants remove pollutants from the runoff from roofs or other impervious surfaces.

A rain garden might be a simple, shallow depression filled with plants that can flourish in both moist and dry conditions. The size and depth will depend on your how much water you need to capture in a winter runoff

Sometimes a dry river bed will receive so much runoff that a dry well or dispersal pit is installed at the end. If you have a high water table or clay soil the water may not always soak in fast enough and an overflow device like this is needed. The goal is to keep water on your own property and not in the street or the neighbors’ yard.

There are good looking dry river beds as we’ll as bad looking ones. A quick Google image search will show you what I mean. Your goal is to create something that looks like it belongs right where it is. The plants, the accent rocks, the cobble, the location – all need to work together.

If your property has a natural slope follow the natural terrain if possible. You can install a dry river bed on flat land also by creating a channel for the river bed to follow. Keep in mind that even a dry river bed is more interesting if it is not all visible at once. Soft, flowing curves and bends create a natural look.

Start with the rocks and cobble. Rounded river cobble looks most natural for the creek bed. In nature, water flowing down a river would round off sharp rock edges to produce cobble of different sizes. A river never has just one size of rocks and yours shouldn’t either.

Accent rocks can be any type that you like as long as you get a variety of rock sizes and shapes. Use the larger stones to direct and channel water. Placing rocks on the outside of a curve creates a more natural look.

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Pheasant Tail grass along cobble path

As in all gardens there is always a bit of maintenance to keep things looking and working great. Weeding in the first couple of months while plants become established is important. Replenish mulch as needed until the plants grow in.

Periodically remove leaves that have landed in your river bed and reposition rocks moved by runoff to keep your dry creek bed working for you when you need it. Also don’t start your dry creek bed too close to the foundation of your home if that area is flat. You can direct the water through a drain pipe connected to a downspout to a lower starting spot in your garden.

So whether you are adding a dry river bed to add interest to your lawn-free landscape or to double as catchment for winter storm runoff, make yours look like it’s always been there.



A Visit with a Plantsman Extraordinaire


upper_patio.1600Spring just wouldn’t be the same without a visit to Doc Hencke’s garden in Scotts Valley. I think of it as a learning experience at his personal arboretum, outdoor laboratory, propagation field trial and stunningly beautiful landscape. At every turn colorful vines bloom high up into the trees he has collected and nurtured from his travels. Richard Hencke is a walking encyclopedia, energetic and funny while sharing his knowledge and stories about each and every plant. Here are just some of the highlights of this year’s visit.

The definition of the word arboretum describes Richard Hencke’s anemone_clematis_vine.1920garden perfectly. It’s a place where an extensive variety or trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific, educational and ornamental purposes and my tour this year started at a tall California native Flannel Bush which he had to rope to the ornamental iron fence after it blew over in that wind storm a month ago. Looked to me that his efforts to save it will be successful and if anybody can it will be Doc Hencke.

Explaining that the soil in this part of his garden is blue hard sub soil and has taken it’s toll on a couple other plants. One of his Eutaxia obovata also called the Bacon and Eggs plant was just going out of bloom but 2 others nearby have suddenly died. Quite the loss as this shrub is one of those plants that really gets your attention when it’s covered with thousands of golden pea-shaped blossoms.

Next on the tour came the straw bale veggie garden. Since the soil in this straw_bale_veggies_Richard.1600sunny spot is also sub par this method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. He used a meat thermometer to check their internal temperature and determine when this process was complete and vegetables would thrive. He then soaked them with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. His crop of kale, lettuces, spinach, bush beans and cucumbers looked robust and happy.

Always the story teller, Richard pointed out a Cantua, the Sacred Flower of the Andes that he air layered to increase his collection. He laughed when he told me of a trip to Peru and the guide who misidentified several plants. Richard had to gently supply the correct name for the species.

Also in his collection is an experimental round avocado developed by DT Fleming in Maui during the early 1900’s. It has survived 3 winters so far in Hencke’s Scotts Valley landscape so he is becoming more confident of its ongoing success. Took Richard quite a while to figure out which was the top of the seed. Being round he had stuck the toothpicks in the sides but put the wrong end in the water glass. He laughed that as soon as he figured out his error and turned it the other way up. It sprouted right away.

His Variegated Mint Bush at the edge of the back patio was just completing it’s blooming cycle but still covered with deep purple blossoms. Nearby we stopped at a very large clump of salvia confertiflora starting to bloom with showy red spikes of flowers. Richard lamented that it’s a little too happy. The clump has grown to near invasive size. “Why did I plant this here? Now what am I going to do with it?, he said. This is a good lesson for all of us. The right plant in the wrong place can become a nightmare.

His collection of salvias that are planted in the right place include a beautiful salvia mexicana that will soon be covered with rich blue flowers. He also grows saeonium_blooms.1600alvia chiapensis and a salvia-like plant native to Hawaii called salvia lepechinia. This deliciously scented plant will be covered soon with reddish lavender lipstick-like flowers adored by hummingbirds like all the salvias.

The Hencke garden has a hillside for Hawaiian plants, a slope where he nurtures and propagate succulents, a shade garden for heliconia and houseplants that have adapted to his climate but trees are Richard’s first love. He showed off his hillside that is now home to sugar pine, silver poplar, gingko, alder, New England black cottonwood, tamarix, purple weeping birch and an Oklahoma Wild Sand plum that could win awards for it’s size and beauty.

Richard uses a Smart Timer to monitor and control his irrigation. That way he can use the minimum of water that allows his plants to survive. I put him in touch with another local gardener, Robby Frank, who helped him install the system. Gardeners are always pleased to help and share what they know and what they grow.

I enjoyed so many more plants and trees in Richard’s garden I could hardly keep up with the stories of their humble beginnings. As usual he packed my car with rooted cuttings and starts of many plants. I’m looking forward to the time when my Sacred Flower of the Andes starts to bloom.



Gardening for Frogs and other Creatures


Pacific tree_frog_on_potReading about the new wetland pond construction at the Ben Lomond SLV Homeschool in The Press Banner this past October 31st has me thinking about a low spot in my own garden that becomes soggy during the winter. Most mornings and evenings I hear the resident Pacific Tree frog singing his heart out. Maybe I can encourage even more frogs as well as dragonflies, salamanders and toads by installing my own wetland habitat. There are a lot of landscapes that I encounter that also have a “problem” area with poor drainage and this would be the perfect solution. I’ve thought about building a wetland garden or bog garden for many years. This winter I’m going to do it.

The difference between a wetland garden and a bog garden is basically how long the water remains during the year. A wetland pond in our area is often seasonal, drying up in the summertime. A bog garden is damp even in the summer. A shady spot with a high water table is a good spot for a bog garden.

Wetlands are important to our ecosystem. One of the greatest wetlands in North America at Flame_Skimmer_dragonfiy-matingthe southern end of the San Joaquin Valley has almost completely vanished. There used to be almost 5 million acres of wetlands in the Central Valley and now only a small percentage remains. This habitat destruction is causing the disappearance of birds, frogs, amphibians and other wetland wildlife. You can help encourage these species in your own backyard and grow plants that are beautiful, too. Every little bit helps.

Most wetland plants don’t require standing water to grow successfully and will survive even in an area that appears dry most of the growing season. Many frogs including the Pacific Tree frog only need 3-4 weeks of water to lay eggs and the pollywogs to mature. Other frogs need a longer time to reproduce. The water need only be a little over a foot deep.

To create a wetland in an area that isn’t naturally moist and has heavy clay soil you will need to lay down a waterproof, nontoxic liner and cover it with soil. For a bog garden add decomposed plant matter and peat, Branches and logs can be placed around the edges as perches for birds and dragonflies and provide a spot for turtles to bask in the sun. Winter rains provide the best water to fill your wetland pond. Frogs and other amphibians are extremely sensitive to chemicals in tap water. Wildlife will be naturally drawn to your wetland. If you build it, they will come, I promise.

Blue_Damselfly-matingThere are many wetland plants that grow quickly when the soil in wet and then die back when the soil dries up only to return when moisture is again present. Species like cattails and rushes will do well being common in wetlands in our area. The plants you select depends on the amount of light, the length of time the soil will be saturated and the depth or water. Native trees like Big-Leaf maple, Red Alder and Box Elder are good companions for a wetland garden as are shrubs such as Snowberry, marsh baccharis and Yellow-twig dogwood.

Other native plants include Stream orchid, Deer fern, Horsetail, Cardinal lobelia, Twinberry honeysuckle, Cardinal Monkeyflower, Wood’s Rose, Blue Elderberry, Blue-eyed Grass, California Wild Grape and Giant Chain Fern.

Creating a mini-wetland in your own yard provides many of the same benefits that natural wetlands offer, providing habitat for creatures like butterflies, bees, salamanders, frogs and birds.



Gardens Change with Time


quiet_path.1280Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her deer_grass.1280property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each Calif_buckwheat.1280area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.



Spring Tasks for Santa Cruz Mountain Gardeners


tulips4You know spring is here when bleeding hearts and tulips are in full bloom. When baseball season begins and song birds start their families. Can you imagine our ground frozen 30″ down like it is in Chicago’s Wrigley Field? My heart goes out to those gardeners still dreaming over seed catalogs. Just yesterday I was in a rose garden in Scotts Valley. The Double Delight roses had already started to open and the fragrance was lovely. All of the roses were lush, healthy and full of buds. Just like all your plants should be. If you haven’t gotten to the following garden tasks now’s the time so your garden this year can be beautiful and use less water.

* Check drip systems for leaks or emitters clogged by dirt or earwigs. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly and move them farther away from the crown of the plant and out to the feeder roots under the canopy.

* Spread fresh compost or bark mulch around all your plants. Good soil is the secret bleeding_heartsto successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost of bark chips do.

* Transplant if you need to move any plants in the garden that have outgrown their space or are not with other plants of the same water usage  Now is a good time because plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil. If your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant.  Organic matter, such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure, boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.

* Fertilize if you haven’t already done so. Citrus, shrubs and fruit trees just emerging from dormancy are begging for their first meal of the season. Lawns begin their spring growth now also and benefit from a boost of organic nitrogen. You can also spread a thin layer of composted manure over your lawn. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn will benefit it by shading the roots as it get warmer and as they break down they help feed it, too. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost or manure and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming before feeding them.

* Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Weeds rob your plants of precious water. Think of weeding as free gym time.

* Check for aphids. They are out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples.  A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them.   If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them.  As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun.  Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.

Ants can also bring aphids up into trees and shrubs such as camellias, citrus and roses.  Ants feed off honeydew secreted by aphids, scale and other plant-juice sucking insects.  Ants also protect these pests from natural predators.  To keep them off, wrap trunks with a 1-2″ wide strip of masking tape and coat with a sticky barrier like  Tanglefoot.  Keep the barriers free of dirt and check them periodically for breaks.  Reapply when necessary

* The most important to -do for early spring is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.



Growing Cover Crops- Part I


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.

aster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048“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 lettuces_after_cover_cropping.1024before 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.

Soil_builder_cover_crop_mix.1600Martin 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.



Growing Wine Grapes


Napa_Valley_vineyard.2048Prune orchards once reigned supreme in the Napa Valley. Pears, walnuts and fodder for grazing sheep were also grown where now 45,000 acres of premium wine grapes flourish. The crush is on in Napa County.  Mostly cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot are being harvested at night but back in 1928 the prune crop was worth twice as much as wine grapes.

We all have an insect or two that we have to deal with in our gardens.  I found out on a recent excursion to Napa Valley that all those acres of grape vines could possibly be lost if the European grape moth has its way. Believed to have been imported in vegetables from Europe it was first detected in Napa County in 2009. Back in 2011 Santa Cruz County was dealing with the same pest. With quarantine efforts and eradication of fruits and flowers near the area where they were first detected our county hasn't had much of a problem with them since.

Integrated pest management is the ecologically sound approach to pest control. In Napa County, I learned that the European grape moth is being well controlled in recent years by organic sprays such as spinosad and BT. Another very effective control method used is mating disruption with pheromones.

These techniques might not be as picturesque as planting roses around a grape orchard as an early cabernet_sauvignon_grapes.2048warning system for fungal diseases but they have worked for the grape moth. Roses are traditionally planted at the perimeter of vineyards as both they and grape vines are prone to powdery mildew and Downy mildew in our Mediterranean type climate. If powdery mildew appears on the roses, the vineyard can be sprayed with sulfur. Although sulfur does not cure powdery mildew, it will prevent it.

Downy mildew is another deadly mildew that attacks the green parts of the grape vine. Once Downy mildew is detected on the rose bushes, the grape vines can be immediately sprayed with a solution of copper sulphate and lime.

Many of the vineyards also plant lavender and rosemary to repel many harmful insects, provide habitat for beneficial insects preying on undesirable insects and add a pleasant flavor to the wine.

cabernet_grapes_ready_for_crush.2048Sitting outside on a tasting room patio planted with beautiful flowering shrubs and perennials it's hard to imagine the delicious wine in your glass doesn't come effortlessly on the part of the winery. Like our area that grows pinot noir grapes exceptionally well, the terroir of the Napa valley is expressed in the flavor of its wine. The qualities of the soil, geography and climate all contribute.

A vast array of soils of volcanic and marine origin coexist in Napa Valley. Half of the world's soil orders occur here with more than 100 soil variations all affecting the character of the grapes. Soils guide the grape grower as to which rootstock and grape varieties to plant.  Valley floor soils tend to be deeper and more fertile and produce vigorous growth so the crop must be tightly managed to produce concentrated grapes. On the hillsides the vine has to struggle to survive the spare, rocky soils and naturally sets a smaller crop, producing smaller grapes of highly concentrated color and flavors.

Walking among the vines, I noted drip irrigation in use. I found out that traditionally Old World wine regions consider natural rainfall the only source of water that will still allow the vineyard to maintain its terroir characteristics. Spain has recently loosened the regulations of the European Union Wine Laws and France has been reviewing the issue.

Grapes depend on a certain amount of water mainly in the spring and summer and so here in California as well as other summer dry regions of the world like Australia, the vines are irrigated starting in May or June. It's a fine line to determine how much and how often to irrigate to preserve the flavor of the grape and not just grow lush plants with high yields.

In our own gardens we can train a plant to put down deep roots decreasing the amount of watering it needs. So it is in grape growing where the vine receives sufficient water during budding and flowering but irrigation is then scaled back during the ripening period so that the vine funnels more of its limited resources into developing grape clusters.

I enjoyed the gardens of the Napa Valley as much as the wine tasting. White Japanese anemone, pink sasanqua camellia and oakleaf hydrangea are all blooming. The dogwood trees are budded for next year's show and the Japanese maples are starting to color.

It's interesting to know that one grape vine produces about 4-6 bottles of wine per year and in 1968 the nation's first Agriculture Preserve was established to protect open space and prevent future over development.

 



Beneficial Gardens in a Small Space


waterfall_2He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of santivalia2nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens  that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia.  They have flat  flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.

blue_thunbergia2Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.



Sustainable Tips for the Landscape


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithout a doubt the most requested item I'm asked in the design process is to include low water use plants and solutions that are low maintenance. We live in the west where rainfall occurs predominantly from late fall through late spring in a good year and the amount and duration varies tremendously. Whether you live in the shade or the sun it's a smart idea to keep water costs down in the summer and preserve this natural resource.

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people and conserve water  while providing habitat and food for the rest of nature. A great place to learn more about the benefits of organic gardening, water conservation and sustainable healthy living is The Garden Faire this Saturday, June 22nd at Scotts Valley's Sky Park from 9am to 5pm.

In it's 8th year, The Garden Faire is a free-admission, educational event for the whole family with OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAknowledgable speakers, interactive demonstrations, food and beverage, live music, garden goods and plants for sale. This year The Faire will focus on the whole person offering a healthy rest stop with chair massage, reiki and a tea house.
This event is sponsored in part by both SLV and Scotts Valley Water Districts because they know the importance of sharing information about ways to conserve water.

What can you do right now to save water in your landscape? First choose wisely what you plant in the garden and how you water. Start with a smart design by evaluating how the space will be used and what plants will thrive with a minimum of care and pruning.  Select the best trees and place them to shade the south side of the house to reduce cooling costs. Supplement the soil by making soil health a priority. Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste.
    
helleborus_argutifolius2A time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you'll be dragging the hose over there for just one plan or running the irrigation system longer to keep it happy.  If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you'd like, move those to their own spot. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

Your method of irrigation helps conserve water. Hand watering where possible, especially new plantings, directs the water exactly where its needed and you can shut off the hose as soon as the plants receive enough water. A soaker hose is another efficient option that reduces evaporation during the watering process. An automatic irrigation system with a rain sensor, weather based controller or soil moisture sensors is the newest way to save water.

Plant  dry climate plants like tea tree ( leptospermum), lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and shade the soil with drought tolerant ground covers like ceanothus, manzanita, oregano and thyme to conserve moisture. Try Corsican hellebore (helleborus argutifolius)for a tough, low water use plant in a shady area. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible to keep the landscape looking green and fire safe.

To improve soil structure, plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter.  Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

California natives or plants from similar climates in the world are low maintenance, low irrigation plants and usually need less tending, fertilizer and pruning. Like all plants they require a period of irrigation in order to become established. Even plants that require no irrigation after becoming established like Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron) will need some water for the first 2 summers, at least, and maybe even during the first winter if there is a long dry spell.  The rule of thumb to determine if a plant is established and self sufficient and therefore not requiring any more irrigation is when it has grown 2-3 times the size it was when planted or after is has been growing for 2 summers.
 



Camp Joy, Boulder Creek


Camp_Joy_sign2If you've ever eaten a Camp Joy cherry tomato you'll know why I was excited to be given a tour of the new seedlings in the greenhouse by Jim Nelson, the creator of this beautiful, organic family farm. Since 1971 this non-profit farm has been providing educational, creative programs for kids and adults. It is an example of and encourages others who wish to begin their own sustainable farm.

It was a warm, spring day when I visited and Jim was gently watering the herb, vegetable and flower seedlings by hand using water from a large can that had warmed to room temperature and given off any chlorine that was present. Camp Joy has a spring plant sale coming up April 27th and 28th and another on Mother's Day weekend and Jim was pleased with the progress of the seedlings. They grow proven varieties that do well in our area. Group paintings done by charter school children decorated the wall of the greenhouse.

Outside we were accompanied by Jim's two dogs, Ruby and Rownya, as we admired the garlic crop that will rotated90.kids_painting_in_greenhousebe braided after harvest and offered for sale in the fall along with dried flower wreaths and onion braids.

The farm offers a Camp Joy Cooperative weekly for 3-5 yr olds encouraging them to explore their surroundings through all their senses. Garden tours for school age children or a group of any age are also offered. Everyone at the farm is happy to share what they've learned about growing and preparing food, saving seed, bees and other insects, goats and garden crafts. And there is always something to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed while having lunch in the gazebo.

Walking along a path bordered by phlox, aster, oregano, iris and nigella we admired a blooming Buff Beauty rose covering an arbor. Jim planted this as well as his favorite Madame Alfred Carrier 42 years ago when he first came to the property. His friend at UCSC, Alan Chadwick introduced him to it. The soft fragrance blended with the blooming lilacs and wisteria.

To maintain fertile soil, a cover crop of fava beans was just starting to bloom in a several areas. Ladybugs were plentiful on the flowers. The beans will be cut down, Jim explained, in about a month. Members of the farm will eat some of the beans while young and sweet and let some mature so they can save the seed. The goats also enjoy fava beans at the flowering stage. There is a fund-raising art program, called Kids for Kids, offered in May, the proceeds going to help improve the goat barn and yard.

lilac_wisteria-arborNext we visited the Kid's Garden. Art, cooking and gardening projects are ongoing in this area. Wholesome, healthy food and beautiful flowers are all part of the farm. The plot of godetia was setting bud and will be offered as cut flowers during the upcoming sales.

Everything is grown with care at Camp Joy. Jim explained that compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of "real soil" allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. He sometimes used kelp and fish emulsion as fertilizer but mostly it's the compost that makes the seedlings so strong.

Camp Joy offers lots of classes for kids and adults alike. Family members and interns are passionate about the farm and enjoy sharing. On this beautiful day, we were greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost.  It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Take advantage of the Spring Plant Sale at Camp Joy. Bring the family and walk through the garden. Visit their website for more information about their events and classes.  http://www.campjoygardens.org 

 



The Best Bareroot Varieties for your Garden


Imagine biting into that first apricot of the season. The juicy, sweet flesh the color of an orange sunset. Maybe a rich dark burgundy plum, sweet but slightly tart, makes you think of those summers when you picked them off the tree in your parents backyard. And then there are cherries, pears ,apples, peaches and nectarines to look forward to. Now is the perfect time to plant some of your favorite fruit trees while they are available in bare root.

plumsGrowing fruit trees in the backyard has come a long way in recent years. Even in season those organic peaches from the farmer's market are expensive when you load up a big bag 'cause you just have to have a couple of each variety after trying the samples. Starting a home orchard or adding to your own edibles during bare root season is the way to go.

With a little planning you can have a prolonged harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space. Maximize the length of harvest by choosing varieties with different ripening times. Then train those fruit trees to stay small by pruning them in summer (winter pruning tends to invigorate trees), plant them close together or you can even plant several in the same hole. Small trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net and harvest than large trees.

The hard part is choosing which will be your next fruit tree. I've talked to several experts about their favorites. Here's what they told me.

Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and Garden loves apples. His highest praise goes to Cox's Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious, American Golden Russet and Mutsu. Plant these varieties and you could be eating apples from August through October. Did you know that at one time in American history russet apples were the most desired and wages were actually paid in cider made from russet apples?

Sheila from ProBuild told me she has seen a lot of interest in new introductions such a Pluerry, a hybrid she described as plum meets cherry. Bella Gold Peacotum has also been very popular since being introduced last year by Dave Wilson Nursery. This peach x apricot x plum fruit has slightly fuzzy skin like an apricot but with a mildly sweet flavor all its own.

Flavor Delight aprium has become a favorite because of its resistance to brown rot. It's 3/4 apricot, 1/4 plum with the clean tang of an apricot boosted by the sweetness of a plum. This variety is also recommended by Orin Martin.

Spice Zee Nectaplum is another hybrid that is getting a lot of buzz. I've heard it described as being "just about the tastiest fruit… ever eaten- very sweet, with an indescribably rich taste and aroma".  Being a gorgeous tree with deep red leaves in the spring that gradually become a dark green by mid-summer makes it ornamental in the garden as well.

Chris and Dave from Mountain Feed like many of the heirloom fruit trees. If a variety is older than 50 years it is classified as an heirloom. Does that apply to people, too? In addition to apples, Chris told me about his favorite pear, Belle Lucrative, which he described as an amazing French butter pear. This classic variety of 19th century France has a juicy, syrupy melting texture.

Plums are also high on his list of favorites. Luther Burbank varieties such as Elephant plums_on_the_treeHeart, Beauty, Inca and the ever-popular Santa Rosa are easy to grow and need very little care once established.

Bare root trees need to be planted while they are still dormant. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put into the ground soon. You want your tree to start developing its new permanent roots in its permanent home. Fruit tree like pears and apples will be dormant for a while longer so you can wait a bit longer to plant them.

Take advantage of bare root season to add more edibles to your landscape. A smart design can make your garden look beautiful while feeding your family.
 



Saving Water in the Garden


With so much rain this winter it's easy to forget just how precious water is. Globally, water is the new oil. In our own Santa Margarita aquifer everything we can do to replenish the groundwater is vital for our own survival and for that of generations to come. Water cost money – to buy, store, collect, pump, filter and distribute. It just makes good sense to be water wise in your home and garden.

Scotts Valley Water District has been offering a free information series during January about water conservation. Each Wednesday night from 7:00-8:30 a different subject is presented. They are open to the public. I've attended two so far- Storm Water Management and Rainwater & Greywater Harvesting, lots valuable information about ways to save water and money.

rainwater_catchment_tanks2
When it rains it pours. Think about ways to slow this free water from the sky and prevent it from running off your property. Allow it to spread and sink into the ground. Easy ways to do this can also make for a beautiful landscape.

Design your patio using permeable pavers that allow storm water to percolate into the soil. Whether you choose flagstone over a gravel base, pervious concrete, interlocking pavers with spaces between or crushed gravel all enable rainwater to seep into the soil, recharge the aquifer and prevent runoff into streams and storm drains.

Pervious pavement for driveways can capture runoff , recharge the groundwater and keep pollutants in place in the soil. Large volumes of runoff causes serious erosion and siltation in rivers and streams. Naturally occurring micro-organisms digest car oils, leaving little but carbon dioxide and water. Turf block (concrete blocks with holes) is a good choice for areas that don't receive a lot of heavy traffic and can also be used for paths with gravel or groundcover between.

TerraSole_catchment_pipes2

Plants and trees also slow water runoff. They help stabilize slopes and prevent erosion of valuable nutrient-rich topsoil. They create wildlife habitat and act as a natural pest control. A beautifully designed landscape using California native or drought tolerant plants reduces the need for fertilizers, pesticides, excessive watering and overall maintenance requirements.

You can design a rain garden to capture stormwater runoff from roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces and allow the water to sink back into the ground. A dry creek bed can also be a good way to slow runoff. Some utilize drain pipe underneath to capture the rainwater so it has time to percolate into the ground.

Using vegetation or mulches to cover bare soil is a key ingredient to slow down runoff. 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, conserve soil moisture and prevent weed growth. It's all part of the plan to slow, spread and sink water back into the ground.

Installing a rain barrel is a simple way to catch rainwater runoff from your roof. If you have room you might consider a large water tank above or below the ground to collect water. A friend of mine operates a small nursery on her Watsonville property. Sherry and her husband, John, decided to collect the rainwater runoff into a series of tanks to save money and utilize this resource. The 4500 sq.ft roof of their barn provides enough water to fill 3 large tanks. Last year they collected enough water to irrigate their nursery, Terra Sole, for quite a bit of the year. They eventually plan to install solar panels to offset the energy required to pump the water. Every little bit helps

If you'd like more information and ideas about how to beautify your landscape and save water, maintenance costs and time  please come to the last Water Wednesday presentation by Scotts Valley Water District on Jan 30th at 7:00 pm at their office on Civic Center Drive. LeAnne, the water conservation coordinator, and I will be showing slides of landscapes, some of which I designed, that feature low water use plants, lawn replacement ideas and California natives. There's a solution for every family and lifestyle.
 



Happy New Year 2013 from The Mountain Gardener


It's a humbling experience to read some of my past columns celebrating the New Year. Once you write something down it's there forever. Like a social media post it can haunt you. Such lofty goals I've set for myself over the years. But now it's that time of year when I look around the garden and think about the good things I accomplished and some that didn't get done.  A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.

unidentified_yellow_mushroom
We live in a rain forest. Easy to remember the past few weeks as gentle and not so gentle raindrops fall on the thick redwood duff beneath the trees.  Mushrooms of every color and type poke through leaves still bright with the shades of fall. Last year was pretty dry until March. Not that great for fungi but this year should be spectacular. All the better to continue learning about our local mushrooms. It's one of my favorite goals for the New Year. The fungus fair in Santa Cruz is coming up the weekend of January 11th and I want to be better informed before my volunteer shift as a basketeer arrives.

Each year I pledge to plant more things to eat. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. They are more than just vegetables and fruit trees. When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You can connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped.
Growing edibles is more that time spent doing healthy physical work it's connecting us to the earth and to each other.

This year I was able to visit gardens in far away places such as Poland to learn about Eastern European landscaping styles and traditions. Some were very different than what we are used to here in western gardens. Gardeners, though, are the same everywhere-eager to show off and share. I also had the opportunity to visit Abkhazi Garden and the famous Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia during the summer. Nothing can prepare you for the wonder that can be created out of nothing. I came back overflowing with inspiration for my landscape designs.

Next I plan to visit Chihuly Gardens in Seattle and a green wall installation in Tacoma. There's no better way to recharge your creative batteries than to see an inspiring garden. Even a walk around your neighborhood can give you ideas for your own garden. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a huge boulder and wished I could magically transport it to my own yard.

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don't get hung up on achieving everything you would like. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don't get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget. And ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues and future meals. But there's always next year or next month or the summer after next.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It's good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. So don't worry if you don't get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It's all in the baby steps. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would be plant a tree or a seed or a garden?

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.



Good Shrubs for Erosion Control in the Santa Cruz Mtns


cistus purpureus
You know fall is just around the corner when you hear thunder. Seems like summer just started but now plants like lilac, rhododendron and dogwood have already set flower buds for next year. We don't know exactly what winter will bring. Will we receive lots of rain or a meager amount?

The latest from the Climate Prediction Center for the San Francisco Bay Area 2012-13 rainy season is that a mild El Nino event may be setting up. There has been a  weakening of the positive sea surface temperature in the Pacific. El Nino has been known to come with plenty of rain for our area. We are still in a wait and watch mode.

Long range outlooks for the fall from the CPC run from equal chances for above or below normal rainfall to a slight tendency toward below normal. For the November through January period the probabilities start to shift and a slight chance of above normal rainfall creeps up along the coast from the south.  By the time we get to the December through February period, the outlook is for above normal precipitation for the whole state with significant above normal chances for the Bay Area.

This is not a forecast but an outlook for the probabilities of above or below normal precipitation. If we do get heavy rains in January or February you should be prepared. Do you have a slope that might have an erosion problem?  Now is the time to start planning and planting. The nights are cooler, the days shorter, the soil still warm. Everything that a new plant needs to get a good start.

What plants are good for controlling erosion in our area? When choosing plants to cover a bank for erosion control, assess the conditions of the area you want to plant.  Is it in the sun or shade?  Is it a naturally moist area or dry?  Do you intend to water it or go with our natural cycle of wet in the winter and dry in the summer? Matching the plant to the site conditions will ensure success.

When designing a plant layout I consider whether I want a sweep of the same plant or a tapestry effect with a variety of plants.  Using more than one type of plant allows me to work with contrasting foliage adding pattern to my composition.  To create a stunning combination choose 5 or 6 styles and repeat them in small drifts to carry the eye through the composition. Add grasses for linear texture.

If the area you need to stabilize is large and mostly shade, consider Ribes viburnifolium aka Evergreen Currant which grows 3-6 ft tall spreading to 12 ft wide. It needs no irrigation when established. Another plant that tolerates shade and needs no irrigation after 3 years is Mahonia repens aka Creeping Mahonia. It grows 1 ft tall by 3 feet wide spreading by underground stems that stabilize the soil.

Symphoricarpos aka Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry can hold the soil on steep banks. They tolerate poor soil, lower light and general neglect. Philadelphus lewisii aka Wild Mock Orange tolerates some aridity and partial shade. This beautiful, fountain shaped, fragrant flowering shrub grows about 8 ft tall by 8 ft wide and is not fussy about soil.

A bank in the sun would contain a different plant palette. Some of my favorite plants to control erosion in this situation include Ceanothus in all its forms. Groundcover types like Centennial, Anchor Bay and Maritimus are not attractive to deer like the larger leaved varieties. Rockrose such as Cistus purpureus also provide large-scale cover for expansive sunny areas.  Their dense strong root systems helps prevent soil erosion. Choose from white, pink or magenta flowers on plants varying from 1-5 ft. high depending on which variety you choose. This Mediterranean native is fast growing, drought tolerant and deer resistant.

Smaller plants for color that control erosion are lavender, California buckwheat, salvia leucophylla, California fuchsia, deer grass, needle grass, mimulus, yarrow, Pacific Coast iris, bush poppy, penstemon and artemisia.

These suggestions are just a few of the plants that control erosion. Every area is different and every situation unique. Email me if you would like help with your area.
 



Lake Tahoe vs Santa Cruz Mts


Lake Tahoe

Boy are we spoiled living here like we do. Our climate is just cold enough in the winter to grow delicious fruit that likes a bit of chill but not so cold that we're forced inside during those months. Our summers are warm and long allowing vegetable gardens to thrive as well as people.

Not so at Lake Tahoe where I recently spent some time. Here cold winters make snow sports reign supreme and summer brings a short growing season. Locals told me that their lilacs are just now blooming, the peonies are in tight bud and many gardeners don't bother growing vegetables. Late snow often in June and early snow sometimes in late August make gardening in the Sierra so much more difficult.

I visited a beautiful nursery in Tahoe City, the Tahoe Tree Nursery to get a feel for what's popular in these parts. This destination nursery is landscaped for weddings as well as bringing in perennials, trees and shrubs to sell from their growing grounds in Loomis in the central valley. Quaking aspen grew in lovely stands providing shade for ferns, hostas and ligularia.  Favorite perennials are echinacea or cone flower and were offered in all the hot new colors: Hot Papaya, Raspberry Truffle, Marmalade, Primadonna White as well as the beautiful magenta standard, Magnus. Many varieties of coreopsis, stachys, lonicera, rudbeckia, kniphofia and hardy geranium are also popular. Rugosa roses do well in this climate also.

On a hike to Shirley Lake in the Squaw Valley area the wildflowers were in full splendor. Fields of

Shirley lake
Indian paintbrush, mules ears, penstemon, lupine, phlox and delphinium and Mariposa lily covered the slopes. Early summer starts off this areas growing season and everything was lush with new growth and color.

In our part of the world, our early wildflower season is almost over but perennials and flowering shrubs are at their peak and need a bit of attention about now. Here are some tips of what to do in the garden in July.

Make sure vines have support. Some grow so fast that if you look away for a week they become a tangled mess. A little maintenance goes a long way in this department.

Trim back early flowering perennials to encourage the next flush of blooms.

Turn the compost pile often and keep moist.

Add additional mulch to planting beds to keeps roots cool and preserve moisture.

Check ties on trees to make sure they aren't cutting into the bark.

While your out in the garden, take some cuttings from favorite plants like roses, hydrangeas, geraniums, trumpet vine, blackberries, lavatera and salvia. Softwood cuttings are taken during the growing season from relatively soft flexible growth.  Gather 8-12" cuttings early in the day. Discard flowers, buds and side shoots. Then cut the stem into 3-4" pieces, each with at least 2 nodes. Keep track of which end is the bottom and dip in rooting hormone. Poke holes with a pencil in a rooting medium such as half peat moss or potting soil with half perlite, vermiculite, or sand or use perlite or sand only and insert cuttings. Enclose each container in a plastic bag to maintain humidity, opening the bag for a few minutes each day for ventiliation. Place the containers in bright shade.

Some cuttings take 4-6 weeks to root while others take longer. Once they have taken root and are sending out new leaves, open the bags. When the new plants are acclimated to open air, transplant each to its own pot of light weight potting soil.

Enjoy your garden even more this summer by rooting your own plants for yourself, to give away or trade. This is how early settlers filled their gardens, too.
 



Down the Garden Path


Arbor path

You can be led down the garden path, get off the beaten path or take the path less traveled. Everywhere are references to paths in literature and philosophy. Paths make a garden more interesting, too. Simply by changing the shape of your path or the materials underfoot or adding a focal point at a bend, yours can change the look of your whole garden. Consider some of these ideas to update your path.

On my recent excursions to Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park, Filoli Garden in Woodside and our own Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon, I fell in love with some of the wonderful paths that I found underfoot.

Every garden path begs you to wonder where does it lead? It's the journey as well as the destination that makes it so alluring. As you walk, the garden should slowly reveal surprises, maybe architectural accent plants appear, a wonderful scent greets you, a distant view opens up or drifts of colorful flowers at the edge beckons you to stop and enjoy the scene.

In the front yard you want a solid path directing visitors from a parking area to the front door. It should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side with interesting views along the way like low walls or plant materials to create a sense of enclosure. You want a person to feel they are walking through a defined space and although you may alter the direction of the entry walk to make it more interesting the purpose of the path is to find the front entry area.

But what about all those other paths that wind around the house and in the back garden? Here's where you can get creative.

Paths can be designed to slow people down. Plan pauses along the way- a widening here, a sitting bench nestled beside a bird feeder there,  a beautiful piece of garden art next to a tree with interesting bark or a view of distant mountains. You can route them in ways that direct your sight toward beautiful things and away from compost piles and trash cans. Good paths have entries easy to see and pull you in.
 
When I design a path in a garden I think about how it will fit into the rest of the landscape and the look of the house. Flagstone, brick or pavers are great for paths you're likely to travel on barefoot. You can soften the path's look by planting low groundcovers between pavers. Allow at least 2" of soil between flagstone or pavers and amend the soil so it won't pack down with foot traffic before planting.  

Bark or gravel looks great for natural looking paths and a gently curving path invites you to stroll among the plants. If it leads you to a small circular patio all the better.

How wide should you make an informal path? If you want to soften the edge with low plants, allow 3 1/2 to 4 feet. Small grasses, aromatic herbs, fragrant flowers and colorful foliage plants look natural beside a path.

I've seen articles about creating a garden path in a weekend if you're starting from scratch. You can update one of your existing paths easily, too, in about the same time.

An interesting path I encountered once was created from materials found onsite. Old untreated redwood timbers were cut and installed at an angle every 6 ft or so along a packed decomposed granite path. In between were small pieces of flagstone connected with bands of 2" Mexican black pebbles. The look was interesting and inexpensive to achieve.

Look around your own yard for found items that would give your path that personal touch. Old bricks and broken concrete will find new life and you'll save the expense of having to haul it away.



Tomatoes for the Santa Cruz Mountains


heirloom_tomatoes
The spring sun has started to warm the soil. I'm already having visions of eating ripe, luscious tomatoes later in the season. I have several friends who are tomato fanatics and share their trials, tribulations and successes with me. Every year brings new hope to a gardener who is excited to grow the best tomatoes ever.

One friend who loves her tomatoes is going to finally start a gardening journal in a binder. With a page devoted to each of her tomatoes, complete with color pictures, seed grower descriptions and space for her own notes, this year her tomatoes just can't fail to be delectable.

During the last couple of years, cool spring and early summer weather  took its toll on tomato production and taste so this year she is trying some different types for cooler climates. Many of these tomato varieties originate from cooler growing areas in Russia and other northern growing areas. She chose from Alaska, Amber Colored, Anna Russian or Azoychka varieties that are all Russian heirlooms,  Alicante from England or Black Krim originally from the Isle of Krim on the Black Sea in the former Soviet Union. Of course, Black Cherry, the only true black cherry tomato, is on the list. With a description of "irresistibly delicious with sweet, rich, complex, full tomato flavor that bursts in your mouth" , who could resist?

This tomato aficionado planted out her early "tried and true" varieties that she started from seed in the ground the last week of March in Wall O' Water season extenders to keep them warm. Night time temps in March were pretty cold so they needed all the help she could give them. The regulars include Early Girl, Stupice, Carmello and Sun Sugar.

New seedlings she bought and recently planted include Purple Cherokee, Paul Robeson, Northern Lights, Black Plum, Green Zebra and Sunset Red Horizon. She is also trying "a Red Brandywine that didn't do well last year but if we are lucky enough to have a warmer season if may do better".  She is "looking forward to the addition of new colors ( green striped, black, purple, marbled orange and red)  and hoping to enjoy the nuances of flavor that accompany them".

Renee's Garden Seeds has lots of great tomato varieties available online at www.reneesgarden.com. One is a colorful trio of treasured heirlooms that consists of Black Krim, the glowing orange Sweet Persimmon and traditional Italian Costuluto Genovese. She offers a total of 13 varieties including  heirloom Camp Joy cherry as well as everybody's favorite Sungold. For containers, there's Super Bush and for that burger, Big Beef Beefsteak tomato.  I'd like to try a Chianti Rose or the Italian Pompeii plum tomato.

According to Renee's website, tomatoes are native to South America and were carried to Europe in the 1500's by the Spanish conquistadors. Southern Europeans began enjoying their fruits early on, but in England they were viewed with suspicion and grown as ornamentals only as they are members of the nightshade family. In this country, Thomas Jefferson grew tomatoes to eat although most Americans didn't start cultivating tomatoes for the kitchen until the end of the Civil War.

Hope springs eternal for a tomato grower. What tomatoes are you growing this year? What were your best producers in years past? I'd love to hear from you as the season progresses and I'll share this with readers later in the summer or early fall.
 



Trials & Tribulations of a Test Garden


Lemon Fizz santolina and friends
While at the Watsonville Terra Sole Nursery recently, owner's John and Sherry Hall shared with me their experiences growing and experimenting with plants in their own landscape and nursery. From these personal trials, they decide what to propagate and sell in the small, independent nursery they operate on their property.

With a philosophy to share what they learn with their customers, they grow native and unusual plants and other drought tolerant plants that are adapted to our dry summer climate. Sherry told me that they grow their plants as sustainably as possible, hand pulling weeds and collecting snails by hand. They said they propagate and grow their plants without growth regulators or dangerous chemicals. I saw many birdbaths both in their own landscape and in the nursery. Sherry told me they encourage feathered friends like the Western Bluebird to live in the garden to eat bugs. It's a win-win situation.

Sustainable doesn't just get lip service at this nursery. They don't use labels on their containers making it easy to recycle them. And John makes his own succulent garden boxes from 100 year old barn wood. They looked awesome planted up with a collection of various succulents propagated in the greenhouse.

I commented on the hardy geraniums and other plants coming up through the gravel on the nursery floor. John and Sherry both laughed as they told me "it's the best place to propagate some of the plants. Our son works at a big grower nearby and can't propagate some of these plants even in his $10,000 greenhouse".

What were some of my favorite plants that I saw on the tour and which do they think are the best performers?  
In the test garden, a Lemon Fizz santolina, with foliage so brilliant it looked like a lit light bulb, nestled at the base of a burgundy phormium. A blooming euphorbia completed the vignette. Santolinas are drought and deer tolerant. One important thing Sherry has learned from the test garden is how close to plant things. "They get a lot bigger than you'd imagine from seeing them in that cute little gallon can".

They have an extensive coral bell or heuchera collection that they have been testing for the past 4 years. Starting with 80 plants of different kinds, 90% have survived. The fancy hybrids do need some summer water and compost to look their best. The variety Pinot Gris, with molasses colored foliage, really stood out among the rest.

The echinacea were just emerging from dormancy and will bloom during the summer.  They are very dependable in the garden unless the gophers get them, I was told. Agastache is another one of their favorites and the hummingbirds love them, too. They grow many colorful cordyline from clumpers to tall types. They are doing great, Sherry said. "Maybe a little too great" as they get big fast. Gaillardia have been disappointing but maybe they received too much water at the wrong time, she confessed.

In the nursery, I was drawn to the hardy geranium, 'Bill Wallace'. Loaded with purplish-blue flowers, this mounding perennial blooms for a long time. In another spot, I couldn't miss the rich, dark burgundy flowers of the camellia "Night Rider". "It's the only camellia we grow", the Hall's explained. A very slow grower, it's perfect for containers.

At the Spring Trials they bought a flat of a new acacia called 'Cousin Itt'. This plant is very different from the invasive tree we see blooming each winter. A well behaved 30" mound of soft, emerald green foliage it's drought tolerant and would look great near a dry stream bed.

With so many plants to talk about, we ran out of time and ended with the "under-used, under-appreciated" Beschorneria.  This genus of succulent plants belong to the subfamily agavoides and is native to Mexico. The Hall's are concentrating on propagating a variegated variety in their nursery. A tall blooming red spike had emerged from one of the green species.

This is just a taste of the many plants I learned about that day at Terra Sole Nurseries. From drought tolerance, disease resistance, cold and wildlife compatible the experiments continue.

You can find out more about this small nursery at www.terrasolenurseries.com.



Terra Sole Nursery Trials New Plants


Cordyline
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to start your own little nursery on your property? What would you grow? How would you decide?  Over the years, I've been asked by home owners with a bit of extra property what would be good to grow. What is there a market for? So I decided to ask some friends who trial plants on their Watsonville property and operate a small nursery there how it all works.

Terra Sole Nurseries was founded in 2004 by John and Sherry Hall with the goal of experimenting and growing native, unusual and drought tolerant plants that are adapted to our dry summer climate. "We push the limits on water use in our test garden until we fall too much in love with a plant and can't bear to see it die with our tough love approach", Sherry said as we talked about the their operation.

Just back from attending the California Spring Trials,  Sherry and John were excited to share how they decide what to grow In their nursery. Their focus is to grow a large variety of native and unusual plants, some of which are old-fashioned, some are hot new introductions. What treasures did they find this year?

During the course of a week at the Spring Trials,  the world's prominent plant breeders, propagation specialists, growers, marketing professionals and plant enthusiasts share the latest and greatest at several open houses throughout California. The robust plant varieties of today are a direct result of the countless hours and decades of study from the dedicated professionals spending their time observing, testing and experimenting the new varieties that are more disease resistant, more floriferous, the best performers and are easy to grow in ordinary landscapes and gardens.  

How does a plant get from an idea in a breeder's mind to your local nursery? It all starts with the breeders who might cross pollinate thousands of plants to select maybe a hundred of the best ones. Then the growers buy an unrooted cutting or the seed or plugs of rooted plants and grow them onto a larger size. This is where the finish growers buy the plugs and liners to put into bigger pots growing them to retail or sellable size. Terra Sole Nurseries bought some of the newest plants on the market this year themselves.

What are some of the newest trends that we might see in our neighborhood nursery this year? The breeders of impatiens have developed a variety that appears to have a gingerbread man in the center. Called Patchwork this  impatien has a bigger flower and comes in six bi-colors.

Grafted vegetables, higher in antioxidants, are being developed. Non GMO vegetable varieties are grafted onto vigorous rootstalks to produce a plant disease resistant higher in nutrients. Tomatoes, basil, cucumbers. peppers and lettuce are just some of the vegetables being grown.

Biodegradable pots made from wheat are another of the new trends being offered for sale at the Spring Trials. The pots look like plastic yet breakdown after being used and can be recycled in your compost system. They hold up to the normal environmental pressures of heat, water and cold.

Sunset Western Gardening and HGTV are both offering their own branded plants that are available this year. Patented varieties coming out include a compact hardenbergia called Meena, two upright. compact nandinas- Flirt and Obsessive with bright red winter color and a compact mahonia called Soft Caress with non-prickly foliage. A cold hardy salvia named Amistad that has a very long bloom time will also be coming out soon.

To simplify choices for gardeners, better dahlias, calibrachoa, petunias and pansies are coming on the market this season. Several types are grown in the same pot so the buyer need only to plant one of these in a basket or container to get a combination that will look good and grow happily all season.

With so many plant choices which ones do Terra Sole Nurseries trial in their own garden and grow in their nursery? Next week I'll talk about what Sherry and John have their eye on, which plants they grow and the results of their own plant trials. You can find out more about the nursery at www.terrasolenurseries.com.



San Francisco Flower & Garden Show 2012


Every year after attending the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show I'm exhilarated by the creativity of the display gardens  and the fresh use of familiar plants. Don't even get me started on the new plant introductions

Water feature at SF FGS
I want to use in my next landscape design. This year the world-class show celebrated its 25th anniversary.

A Flower and Garden Show is a huge and complex production. Creating the 20 display gardens is a demanding task and planning for them begins many months before the show opens. By the night before the show opens 1,200 cubic yards of sawdust and mulch ( that's about 150 dump truck loads ) have been spread and 280,000 pounds of rock stacked in undulating walls and water features.

The flowers and plants for the garden come from all up and down the West Coast. Many plants are forced into early bloom for the show as Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. Even flowering trees are sometimes kept in greenhouses so that their buds can be timed to open the week of the show. It's not a perfect science. One display garden creator who garnered 5 awards told me that hundreds of daffodils she had planned to use in her garden bloomed a week early due to warm weather. 

This year the theme of the show was "Gardens for a Green Earth". There were tips for edible gardening at home including containers for herbs and veggies on the patio and small space gardening, too. One of my favorite gardens combined tomato and flowering vines cascading over the edge of a stone vaneer wall.  Raised vegetable boxes bordered the deck for easy access and a stone water fall splashed into a huge half oak barrel.

Another interesting garden was the Low Impact Bay Friendly Garden. Modern in design, this low water-use garden featured tall raised beds surrounding a pervious concrete stepping stone patio set in a gravel base. Pervious concrete is said to be able to take in storm water a a rapid rate of over 5 gallons per minute per square foot of surface area. That far exceeds the flow rate needed to prevent runoff in even the most severe rain events.
The rainwater is temporarily stored in the course gravel layer underneath while it is allowed to naturally percolate into the underlying soil. This could be a good solution to solve site drainage problems.

Most of the display gardens featured water in them. Some were large affairs with cascading boulders while others were small and understated. In one, a length of copper tubing delivered a shower of drops in front of an aged corrugated iron panel. Another consisted of a simple stacked flagstone ledger waterfall flowing into a flagstone pond- a DIY project?  Even used tires were used as the base for the flagstone edging around a pond although frankly, I couldn't picture this water feature in anybody's backyard. One I did like was a simple flume of water pouring into a small metal rectangle lined with Mexican black pebbles. A little feature with lots of impact.

Fire pits were prevalent, too. From ornate fireplaces to glass filled affairs to simple metal rounds filled with cobbles outdoor living is enhanced with fire and water.

I had to laugh when a man asked me at one of the gardens what I was taking a picture of.  Well, I explained, I take photos of paths and steps and how they're put together and the materials they're made of for future reference. "Oh, that's a good idea" he said, and started taking pictures, too. All in a day at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.

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