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.