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.

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