How to Design a Perennial Border


rhododendron_occidentale2.1600When I visit my best friend’s house I park next to the perennial border that lines her driveway. At any given time of year there is something blooming, flowers filling the air with fragrance and juicy apples hanging on the tree for picking later in the summertime. She has some California natives as well as traditional cottage garden plants all mixed in together. Originally from Illinois, she loves a garden filled with lush green and color but has designed the space with plants that can use less water than you would expect and still look spectacular.

What makes for a successful border? You see DIY articles in the gardening magazines showing lovely combinations with rules to follow but they always seem to be for a different climate or location. We often have borrowed scenery from the mixed woods and some of their ideas just don’t work well here. Here are some tips for planting a terrific perennial border in our neck of the woods.

Some of the key players in my friends perennial border are natives like Western azalea, kerria_japonica2hazelnut and flowering currant. These are large, woody shrubs that add height, texture and year round interest. They provide the backbone or structure to the border throughout the seasons and even in the winter. She also has a weeping bottlebrush which is evergreen and provides nectar for the hummingbirds as does the flowering currant. An apple tree and a persimmon tower over all the other plants creating a canopy for the shrubs, herbaceous perennials and groundcovers. You could also plant spirea, weigela, cornus and viburnums to provide structure to your border.

My friend’s border is planted so that there is something of interest every month during the growing season. The persimmon tree is the star of the late fall garden with bright orange fruit that hang like ornaments on the tree. In the spring I can’t take my eyes off the kerria japonica whose graceful shape is covered with double golden, pom pom shaped flowers. The vivid, new foliage of the Rose Glow barberry complements the stand of Pacific coast iris with similar cream and burgundy flowers blooming next to it.  Under the bottlebrush a sweep of billbergia nutans or Queen’s Tears is flowering with those exotic looking, drooping flower clusters. They make a great groundcover under the tree and also are long lasting in a vase.

ompholodes2.1600Mid-sized filler plants that thrive in this border include Hot Lips salvia, daylilies and polemonium to name just a few. Daffodils and tulips have naturalized throughout the space. Groundcovers grow thickly to shade the soil and prevent precious moisture evaporation.  Lamb’s ears like their spot under the flowering currant and the omphalodes have spread throughout the border. This little plant looks and blooms like the forget-me-not but the delicate deep blue flowers don’t produce those sticky seeds that plague both our socks and animal fur.

This border get morning sun and mid-afternoon sun until about 3pm. If you have a situation that calls for all sun lovers you could try asters, shasta daisy, grasses, coreopsis, achillea, echinacea, gaillardia, sedum, kniphofia, lavender, liatris and rudbeckia.  Perennials that work well to attract butterflies and hummingbirds include monarda and my personal favorite, cardinal flower.  Both have long, tubular flowers in bright colors such as red, orange and yellow. it’s easy to have the birds and butterflies coming all season when you plant perennials with overlapping bloom times.

Perhaps some of these plant combinations would look great in your garden, too. Just don’t worry too much about the “rules” of perennial borders. Mix it up. You don’t want the border to look like stadium seating. The idea is to have fun and create a border that makes you happy.



What to do in the Garden in February


flowering_plum.1024The unusually warm January weather has made the early flowering trees and shrubs bloom even earlier this year. Actually it’s not so unusual for us to have a warm streak around here in January. What is unusual is the prolonged dry and stable conditions we have encountered. The high pressure system that blocks our usual winter rains does not usually last more than 2-3 weeks even in the heart of the rainy season. The persistent ridge has not behaved in a typical manner. We can only hope the ridge breaks down in the next few months and brings us more than a smattering of rain here and there.  What should a gardener be doing in February?

Prune fruit trees. Smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. quince_red.1280Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open. Do not spray 36 hours before rain in predicted. Be sure to spray the ground around each tree.

I recommend keeping winter pruning to a minimum and prune again in the summer time. Winter pruning is invigorating to fruit trees and there will be excessive vertical rebound growth, the witch’s broom-like riot of growth that emerges after a tree is given a haircut. Such growth is often dense and doesn’t bear much. A lot of the tree’s stored energy issued to produce all these unwanted branches, leaving much less for the production of fruit.

quince_red-closeup.1280Due to our unusual weather some low-chill fruit tree varieties like Fuji apples, many apricots, peaches, nectarines and pears such as Comice and Seckel, might break bud and flower earlier because of the winter freeze and then warm weather. Plants that flower prematurely risk losing those flowers if night temps plunge but the long-term health of the plant probably won’t be affected.

Strawberries are oblivious to the weather. Blackberries and some raspberries are another story. Like some fruit trees, their chilling requirements may have already been met, their buds are swelling and they’re ready to take off. A rapid chill could freeze the buds and the canes might begin to die from the top down. But even if the entire cane dies, healthy new canes will emerge in spring. The early summer berry crop could be lost but fall berries will be fine.

Prune woody shrubs  To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia cut them down to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim. You won’t be able to know for sure, until perhaps early summer, if the freeze killed plants like Coprosma, Echium, Tibouchina or lantana so be patient.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven’t already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kind to your soil and the beneficial soil microorganisms.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.  Cut some branches during flowering to bring in for bouquets.

Prune roses and rake up any debris beneath the plant to eliminate overwintering fungal spores. Remove any old leaves that still cling to the plant. Spray the stems and bare ground with a combination organic horticultural oil and a dormant spray.

Prune established perennials later in the month if you might get frost that could damage new foliage. Giving your maiden hair ferns a haircut now allows the new growth to come out fresh. Prune winter damaged fronds from your other ferns.

Divide perennials before new growth starts. Agapanthus, asters, coreopsis, daylilies, shasta daisy and liriope are plants that tend to become overcrowded and benefit from dividing.

Mother Nature knows how to adjust to changes in the weather- slowing down when it’s really cold and catching up when it’s mild.



Bare Root Fruit Trees – Part II


Easter_Buerre_pearGrowing fruit in your garden or home orchard may be even more important in the future than ever before. The lack of rainfall last year and this winter will probably raise the price of fruit at the market. If the water farmers rely on is rationed during this years growing season, fruit production will also suffer. You can start growing your own fruit by planting a bare root tree now and this is how to do it. It only takes a few years for a young tree to start producing. By using lots of mulch and perhaps installing a laundry to landscape gray water system, trees require a fraction of the water as other landscaping.  Just imagine eating fruit off your own trees.

One of the primary advantages of bare root plants is that they tend to have an extensive, well developed root system as a result of being allowed to develop normally in the ground. They are dug while dormant. When the trees are handled well the root system is left intact and the tree has a better chance of rooting well and surviving when planted.   Bare roots don’t have to adapt to any differences between container soil and the garden soil.  Bare root trees are also less expensive to ship because they have no soil on the roots making them much lighter and easier to handle.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant.  Once leaves emerge Janice_Seedless_Kadota_figor flower buds start to swell tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing their new, permanent roots in their permanent home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

With this in mind be wary of spring sale bare root stock.  Also trees in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy.  Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.

What is the proper way to plant a bare root tree? Select a spot with at least 6 hours or more of summer sun. To test for drainage if you have heavy soil, dig a hole about a foot deep. Keep the organic top soil from the top of the hole separate from the soil you dig out from the bottom of the hole. Fill the hole with water. If the water drains within 3-4 hours, fill the hole again. If it takes longer than 3-4 hours to drain on either filling you will either have to find another spot,  build a raised bed or berm or plant in containers.

If you are happy with your location, dig the planting hole 24″ wide x 24″ deep again keeping the organic matter separate from the sub soil. Ultimately, trees must grow in the surrounding soil. Don’t amend your soil unless it is very sandy. If you amend the slow draining native soil around the tree the hole will just fill with water killing the tree. Adding organic amendment to extremely sandy soils, however, can help retain moisture in the root zone.

Place your tree in the hole and start filling in around the roots with the sub soil first, then the organic top soil. Wiggle your tree as you fill in around it to settle the soil. Tamp down the soil lightly with your foot when the hole is half filled and then top off the hole with the organic top soil.  Stake the tree low and loose for the first couple of years. You want to keep the root zone stable in the wind while it is becoming established but allow the top of the trunk and branches to move with the wind. They will grow much thicker faster. Water in well and again the next day. You should not need to water again until the tree there is new growth of several inches.

Prune the central leader and branches of your new tree 1/3 to 1/2 to a plump bud facing the direction you would like the new growth to grow. Mulching is especially important to bring back the beneficial organisms in the soil. Bioactivity reduces fertilizer requirements. Mulching keeps the ground cooler in the summer and retains moisture. After your tree is established you can fertilize with an organic fertilizer. Keeping the nitrogen low but the phosphorus and potassium higher will help control the size of the tree making it easier to harvest that delicious fruit.

This year I have my eye on an heirloom French butter pear called Easter Beurre that ripens in December with tender, sweet, melting flesh. Also I want to try the Janice Seedless Kadota fig with it’s incredibly sweet flavor. It’s said to have better flavor than Black Mission. I think they should have named this fairly new fig after me spelling it Janis but it’s too late now.

Don’t miss the opportunity to add a fruit tree to your garden this winter.



Bare Root Fruit Trees – Part 1


bare_root_fruit_treesIt’s bare root season again. There’s something magical about a small leafless tree with bare roots that will produce mouth-watering fruit when it grows up. Even ornamental shade trees, flowering shrubs like lilacs and vines like wisteria start out looking like twigs. Buying a new addition for your garden or home orchard in bare root form is economical. They establish quickly and are easy to plant. Every year there are more types available including delicious time honored heirloom varieties as well as modern favorites. It’ll be hard for me to decide which ones I’ll recommend for edible gardens I design this year.

A visit to Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond has me inspired. They specialize in edible plants and trees as well as all things related to harvesting and preserving them.  Renee was eager to share with me her favorite fruit tree varieties.  Many of these delicious heirlooms are locally grown here in the Santa Cruz Mountains by Tierra Madre Farms who use organic farming practices to keep the trees and the soil healthy. I like the idea that this small farm is dedicated to promoting and preserving our world’s crop diversity.

When May rolls around I’ll be anxiously awaiting the first cherries, apricots and peaches. Then the early nectarines arrive, sweet and juicy followed by the plums that ripen next. Later in the summer apples, figs and pears make their debut as well as late ripening plums and peaches. With a little planning you can have fresh fruit 7 months of the year.

I’d never heard of some of the bare root heirloom varieties I saw buried in tubs of sawdust so I did a little research to find out what all the fuss was about. Why had they passed the test of time and then disappeared off our store shelves? By growing your own fruit you’re not at the mercy of mechanical harvesters and shipping practices. You can grow fruit and harvest it when the time is right. Homegrown fruit is a world apart from agribusiness.

Who doesn’t look forward to the first cherries of the season? Plant an Early Purple Guigne cherry and you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood. This heirloom has been grown in this country since the early 1800′s and figured in a court case in San Jose in 1884. Seems a Mr. Bassford  bought 300 of these bare root trees in December of 1897. When they fruited several years later he found that the cherries were quite different from the variety which he had paid for. Court records show that he claimed the cherries were inferior in size and appearance to the Early Purple Guigne that he had wanted and were nearly valueless to him on the market. He sued but lost his case after testimony revealed and Judge Spencer ruled that the name Early Purple Guigne applied to different types of cherries in different localities and the original bare root trees were not fraudulently sold.

Another early ripening cherry to try is the classic Governor Wood which produces beautiful sweet and juicy, golden-yellow fruit with a red blush. Introduced in 1842 this cherry is still prized for its abundant crop of delicious fruit. How about a sour cherry like Montmorency? This heirloom dates back to 300 B.C. but it was the French colonist who first planted cherry pits along the Saint Lawrence River in the 1600′s. Michigan produces over 90,000 tons of this bright red cherry with yellow flesh and clear juice.

Here’s a win-win growing tip for cherry trees.  Birds love cherries as much as we do but if you prune your tree when young so it branches low on the trunk, you can harvest the lower cherries for yourself and let the birds take the fruit from the upper branches.

Apricots also ripen early and heirloom varieties that I recommend are the classic Blenheim and one Oldmixon_Free_peachcalled Hemskirk which is considered one of the very best apricot varieties with bright orange, rich and juicy flesh. An excellent heirloom peach to consider is the Oldmixon Free. in 1807 cuttings of this peach were sent to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. It’s stunningly beautiful while in bloom and the juice of Oldmixon Free peach is candy sweet.

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-900 chilling hours per winter.  What does that mean?  Well, many fruit trees, lilacs, and peonies need a  certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less.  You can give the plant more cold in the winter and it’ll like that just fine but not less.  Those in coastal Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious.  We can grow both.

Next week I’ll tell you about more luscious tasting plum, apple, fig and pear varieties you’ll want to grow. I’ll also give you tips on how and where to plant your new tree.

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