Category Archives: container gardening

Low Water Use Plants for the Garden

leucadendron_discolor2Has the hot, dry, windy weather made your garden look like mid-summer? Our meager spring rains have all but disappeared from the soil and what hasn’t evaporated the weeds have taken. The local water companies all have water conservation requirements starting last month. I’m getting lots of calls and emails asking for advice about the best way to use water efficiently in the landscape so the garden doesn’t look like the Sahara this summer. I’m helping others redesign their gardens with an eye towards ongoing water conservation.

Conserving water is now a way of life. This doesn’t mean you need to let your valuable trees and shrubs die. Water smarter with an efficient irrigation system set to run less often and encourage deeper rooting. It’s a good time to reduce the size of the lawn or better yet, replace it with a low water substitute and get a rebate. Allocate your water budget wisely. Pay attention to which plants are doing well and which aren’t. Be realistic about plants that don’t suit the conditions you have to offer. Remove them and replace with plants that have proven themselves adaptable and are well suited to your own garden. The key to preserving the earth’s resources is to choose the right plant for the right place.

Many of your most successful plants can manage on a lot less water cordyline_leucadendronthan you think.  These may be California natives or water-wise Mediterranean or Australian plants that perform well here. Plan now. Any new plant, even drought tolerant ones, require some irrigation to get established so maybe postpone that big garden planting until after mid-September when the weather is cooler but the soil is still warm which encourages rooting.

We gardeners will always find a way to enjoy our outdoor space. A plant in a pot doesn’t require much care and is easy to water. An interesting plant combination that will thrive in tough conditions is the burgundy, grass-like Festival cordyline planted with Leucadendron discolor. The burgundy foliage of the Festival grass looks great combined with the red and yellow flowers of the leucadendron. Both of these plants require little water once established.

succulent_gardensSucculent gardens are another fun way to have a garden and conserve water at the same time. Selecting an interesting container or hunting for a new one is part of the fun. During the winter you can cover or move the planter for frost protection so you can choose some of the more colorful but tender succulents.

As a reminder, many common garden plants that you normally consider not very drought tolerant like camellia require only a deep watering every 10 days or so in the growing season. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ears grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ grows only 12″ tall, blooms with purple flowers and spreads to make a beautiful edging or low border that is very drought tolerant.

Elfin thyme is the perfect groundcover. It’s a good lawn substitute for an area that gets only light foot traffic. Gorgeous when in bloom with light pink flowers in summer. It will cover dry slopes, fill in between stepping stones or creep over a rock. Elfin thyme likes good drainage and is very drought tolerant. In fact overwatering with impair growth.

I also recommend old favorites such as Jerusalem sage, gray or green santolina, low and upright forms of rosemary, manzanita and ceanothus as well as California fuchsia, scaevola and Homestead verbena. Low water use plants can be colorful as well as gentle on the water budget.

Vegetable Tips for Late Winter

albrightsouza_chardNow's the time to plant  cool season vegetables from starts or seed like chard, snow or shelling peas, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, lettuce, mustard and onions.  You can also sow seeds of beets, radish and carrots directly in the ground. Inside it's time to start your warm season vegetable seeds such as tomatoes as well as eggplant and peppers.  Usually you start them inside about 8 weeks before last spring frost. Counting back 6 weeks from when night temperatures stay in the mid 50 degree range also works to figure out when to start.

For those who enjoy container gardening, try combining some colorful chard with parsley, alyssum and some Johnny-jump-ups. In another large pot grow some kale, spinach along with Windowbox sweet peas. All stay compact and you can harvest healthy greens close to the kitchen door.
 

What to Do in the Garden in February

Blue Nikko hydrangeaYou know spring is coming when you see daffodils starting to open. You know spring is coming when plum trees begin their glorious show. And you know spring is coming when you begin to think of all those garden tasks that still need your attention.

February is one of those months that ease us into the gardening season. Didn't get the roses pruned at the end of January? There's still time. Didn't dormant spray for fungal diseases and insect control? There's still time. Didn't plant any new berries yet for summer desserts? There's still time – but don't delay much longer.

What is important to do in the garden in February?

Prune fruit trees and smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. Combine 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.

Prune your roses if you haven't already.

Prune repeat flowering roses by removing spindly or diseased shoots and dead wood. Do this before they start leafing out which wastes plant energy. Cut back the remaining stems by about a third, cutting canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing bud. Don't worry whether your pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again later. You want to produce lots of roses not just a few of exhibition size. Aim for a vase-shaped  bush with an open center.

Prune old garden roses that bloom once in the spring after flowering. Climbing roses require little pruning. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

If any old leaves still cling to the plant, remove them. Rake up any debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It's a good idea to spray both the bare plant and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually have a problem only with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light oil in 1 quart water and spraying every 7 to 10 days.  Thoroughly coat the trunk, branches and twigs.

Cut back woody shrubs. To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia 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.

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. Although sulfur is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it is not as kind to many beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kinder to your soil.

Don't cut back grasses yet if you get frost in the area where they grow. Wait until mid-March.

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.  You can cut some branches during flowering to bring in cuttings for bouquets.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that got hit by those January frosts. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area.
 

A Garden Reflects it’s Designer

To quote Luther Burbank, "Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul".  After visiting the garden of Bev Kaplan in Boulder Creek I couldn't agree more.

urbanite retaining wall
I never tire of being invited to spend time with a fellow gardening enthusiast. Everyone creates a unique garden which reflects their individuality and personality. To share a garden is a personal experience. To tell the story of each part and how it came to life is a special honor bestowed on those we care about. Here is the story of Bev's garden.

Bev and her husband, Jeff, bought the property in 1992. Then it was covered with poison oak and Scotch broom but they saw potential and got started on the dramatic transformation. A huge culvert that runs under the driveway used to be lined with old Texaco 50 gallon drums. Now redone with stone,  it blooms with agapanthus that were being given away by a friend. Groundcovers blanket the slopes now but in the winter the culvert carries a lot of water.

Bordering the driveway are planters built with concrete from the old pool. Her "designer" bearded iris have finished blooming but Bev bragged about the huge 6" flowers that they bear each spring. Deer can reach this part of the property so iris and grasses survive well here.

A steep slope along another side of the driveway is home to her resident deer. She pointed to the wisteria vines growing over the trees. When in bloom they cover the slope with purple blooms and a wonderful fragrance. She started the wisteria 14 years ago from one seed collected from the hamburger joint at the southern edge of Boulder Creek. It took 7 years for it to bloom but now when the seed pods burst they hit the kitchen window a hundred feet away.

Strolling under the Southern magnolia tree with those huge, white flowers that smell like oranges, we

Bottle garden
passed the "Bottle Garden". Bev explained she just gave up trying to grow anything in this shady area so made bouquets of colored bottles placed upside down in pots. It's charming, whimsical and the ultimate in recycling.

"Maple Lane" was our next destination. Her large Japanese maple collection grows happily alongside abutilon, which are also called Flowering maples.  Hummingbirds enjoy all of the flowers equally be they colored red, orange or yellow. Sweet violets and astilbe find homes here, too.

A welcoming flagstone patio under the shade of massive redwoods held a large firepit and lots of chairs. Calling her home, "Bev's Bread and Breakfast", she explained that many relatives come from out of town to stay and the warmth of the fire ring is welcomed by those who are used to warmer nights. Camellias and rhododendrons enclose this beautiful patio with a view of the San Lorenzo Valley.

Everywhere I looked in this garden, glass beads were sprinkled between stepping stones. Like jewels, I was told these "Pixie Fairy Gems" keep the weeds down and invite the fairies – clear ones brightened up the shade, blue ones nestled between the brick-red stepping stones in the hospital area.

Opposite the hospital area, which didn't house any current patients I noticed, a several bowling balls sat atop a patch of Mexican pebbles. These belonged to her husband's late parents and she wanted to remember them by creating this unusual garden.

pool_garden
Finally arriving at the pool garden I was speechless. This labor of love is a riot of color attracting dragonflies, hummingbirds and songbirds and butterflies by the score. I asked how she takes care of all of it. Bev smiled and pulled out a large serving spoon and a pair of kitchen shears. "With these", she said.

During a delicious lunch of spinach souffle and fresh lemonade with mint, I was surrounded by the fragrance of honeysuckle, star jasmine, scented geraniums, buddleja, nemesia, purple petunia and dianthus. Many varieties of salvia, calibrachoa, scaevola, dahlia and gladiola filled the many pots and hanging baskets around the pool.

Bev takes care of the entire garden with just a little help. She doesn't spray with anything, even organics, preferring to keep bugs at bay by washing the deck with simple green, hand picking and spritzing with the hose.

It was a day I'll always remember. This garden is a personal labor of love and I hope to be invited back to see the hawk babies when they fledge.
 

Lessons from Butchart Gardens and the Pacific Northwest

Butchart Garden
I can see snow-covered Mt. Rainier from my sister's deck. Last night a rainbow bridged the Puget Sound which flows around Fox Island at the southern end of the sound. The landscape here is lush and green. Dogwoods, foxgloves and rhododendrons are still in full bloom. This temperate rain forest receives more rain than ours but I see many of the same woodland plants that we grow. I study each garden for new ideas.

The next day we head for Vancouver Island. As the clouds clear the Victoria Clipper pulls into the harbor. The Empress Hotel's landscaping is picture perfect. Purple rhododendron, hosta, and hellebore grow under the white Kousa dogwood trees. Late afternoon sun backlights each leaf. Gingko trees and weeping birch frame the Parliament building. The lights come on and outline each gable and tower. Still exploring the city later I look at my watch. It's after 10pm and still light. I forget we are closer to the land of the midnight sun at this latitude.

Visiting gardens is always the highlight of all my trips.  Butchart Gardens, a National Historic site of Canada, is a prime example of quarry restoration. Huge 100 year old poplar trees with gnarled trunks frame the famous sunken garden. Throughout the perfectly manicured lawns perennial beds grow oriental poppy, Japanese iris, Asian lily, hosta, black mondo grass, black-eyed susan, and lady's mantle. This kind of perfection comes with a price. We saw several gardeners raking and deadheading while several others cleaned around the stone border with pastry brushes.

Victoria is famous for its hanging baskets. At Butchart Gardens several hundred hand from every arbor, trellis, pergola and shepherd's hook. Mixed baskets of long blooming annuals and perennials are started early in the greenhouse then brought out in full bloom. One of my favorites featured peach-toned tuberous begonias, trailing sapphire lobelia, bacopa and coral calibrachoa. I was drawn to the dozens of hanging fuchsias and a rainbow of begonias planted with columbine, ferns and gold acorus grasses.

It must be fun to plant up the large pots that decorate the grounds. Even the wooden recycling receptacles have mixed planting on the top. Several noteworthy pots were planted with orange flowering maples paired with blue Mexican poppies and a variegated geranium. Another we liked contained a striking Electric Pink cordyline, coral petunia, calibroachoa and Bonfire begonia.

Fragrant flowers entice the senses and are planted everywhere. Strolling through the garden, vanilla scented heliotrope greet you. Spice-scented stock is planted nose high atop rock walls. Mrs. Butchart started this tradition and the garden strives to have something fragrant blooming every season of the year.

The roses were just starting to open. Many of them originated in England and Australia. The Queen's

Pink peony
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Golden Jubilee was honored with decorative flags hung from the light posts. Flanked my tall gorgeous blue delphiniums it was quite a sight.

If it was early for the roses, the peony did not disappoint. I have never seen so many in one place. This climate is perfect for their culture. I had a hard time deciding which was my favorite. Double deep burgundy flowers grew alongside soft peach and bright pink ones. A cool white one paired well with Bridal Veil spirea. A soft peach variety looked great with the darker orange oriental poppies.

Always on the lookout for planting ideas, the endless vignettes were inspiring. The many different garden rooms in this garden allowed for countless combinations. One that caught my eye paired a purple smoke bush with coral verbascum and the variegated iris pallida. The blue flowers of the iris contrasted perfectly with the coral flowers and burgundy foliage of the other two plants.

I saw this garden in a new light on this visit. It was spectacular. Next week I'll recount my visit to Abkhazi Garden outside Victoria.

Container Planting 101

A tree in full bloom is a breathtaking sight. A flowering shrub covered with fragrant blossoms is awe inspiring, too, but it's a spectacular group of plants in a great container that never fails to get my attention.

I love container gardening. Whether combining edibles with flowering plants or succulents with lots of color in an interesting container, I can never have enough in my garden. I nestle them along paths, stage them on the deck and admire them everywhere I see them in nurseries, magazine articles and other gardens.

You can grow anything in a container.  Herbs and other edibles, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

There's a spot on my deck that I see right outside my kitchen window. In the spring I grow red tulips to contrast against the green shrubs in the background.  They're a beautiful sight. This year I didn't have much of a display as the squirrels decided they loved them, too. Now I'm yearning for that bright red spot of color to brighten my view.

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Mixed planting container
I'm putting together a container with a thriller, fillers and spillers featuring vivid red and contrasting purple with some  pink, white and gray to cool and complete the vignette. Here's how I went about putting together this mixed container.

I started with a classic color scheme, combining a primary color with a secondary color- red with purple. Can't go wrong with that. But then I saw this empty beautiful teal blue glazed pot in a corner of my transplant area and decided that maybe a mixed color container would echo that English garden look. So much for a planned color scheme. When it gets down to it whatever looks good to you is the perfect combination.

I've chosen plants that have the same light requirements. A container in full shade might have a Japanese painted fern as the focal point, a burgundy oxalis triangularis as filler and Kenilworth ivy to spill over the sides. A container of sun-loving natives could combine one of the new colors of mimulus or monkey flower with a lewisia and an Emerald Carpet manzanita to spill over the edge.

Opposite colors that always look good together are red and green, the Christmas colors, yellow and purple, the Easter egg colors or orange and blue, the sunset colors. Mix them with a color next door on the color wheel or white or gray to blend everything together.

My thriller ( the tallest plant ) is a vivid red nicotiana. I loosen each root ball with my trusty kitchen fork that I often use for this purpose as it's easier to control  than a larger garden claw. Depending on how root bound the plant is, don't be afraid to score or scratch the outer and bottom tangled roots. If you don't your plant may never really grow into the surrounding soil.  

My pot will be seen from the front only so I'll position this plant toward the back. If your container will be seen from all sides then start in the middle and work out to the edges. Make sure there is some fresh soil between each root ball and also around the sides of your container.

I use a good quality potting soil and work in some control release fertilizer before planting. I'll water everything in to settle the soil after planting with a dilute solution of fertilizer like Maxsea 3-20-20 Blossom Booster because the extra phosphorus will encourage rooting and also the next round of flowers in my container.

Sometimes, I put just one plant in each pot. A specimen like a bold hosta or Japanese maple doesn't need any help to make a statement. Ditto for the All-Gold Japanese Forest grass, hydrangeas and roses. You can stage several pots to make a dramatic composition. A short but showy plant can be elevated up off the ground at eye level if placed on a plant stand or overturned clay pot. Smaller plants grouped at the front can hide what's behind if needed.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn't count green, unless it's lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you're done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

Be sure to have the children plant up containers of their own. Plants that appeal to their senses are always a big hit.   Soft, touchable plants like lambs ears and artemisia 'Powis Castle', or fragrant plants like chocolate cosmos and scented geraniums are easy to grow. Or plant up a pizza container with bell pepper, cherry tomato, basil and oregano.

Another idea is to plant up a salsa container with tomatillo, cilantro, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes. Harvest some onions and garlic from the garden and a lime from the potted lime tree you have growing on the patio and you'll have delicious salsa on no time.

The ideas for great container gardens are endless. Try a new combination this year.
 

Art & Landscapes @ the DeYoung & Palace of Fine Arts

Still thinking of what to give that special someone for Christmas? Recently I spent the day at the De Young Museum enjoying the Renaissance paintings on loan from Venice, Italy. Also got over the The Palace of Fine Arts for the exhibit of the the Impressionist, Passarro.

 The paintings are powerful and inspiring. I was especially drawn to the landscapes. Looking at the pomegranate, olive and apple trees gave me some ideas for holiday presents.

Because Venice was literally built on a forest of tree trunks driven into the mud of a marsh it's geography is unique. In a city built on water, plants were highly valued and nurtured on terraces and courtyards. There was a longing for natural settings and this is clear in the the Renaissance painters work. Mediterranean plants from the mainland were brought over to grace the houses of the wealthy. Laurel trees, signifying purity and chastity, are often depicted in these masterpieces.

What a great gift one of these masterpieces  would make. But what if you don't have millions to buy an original? Here are some other ideas to consider.

The landscapes depicted in many of the paintings inspired me to work on my Christmas list.  I'm a gardener starved for color, life and greenery.  It was 29 degrees in my garden in Felton this morning and I know many of you experienced even colder temps after the brightness of the stars on a clear overnight sky.

Thick frost finished off this year's garden- what was left after the wind storm anyway. Even the more sheltered places look a little winter weary this year. Winter is here a tad early for our California gardens. Make the most of those empty spaces in your garden and those of the fellow gardeners you'd like to remember during the holidays.

Are your containers looking a little sad about now? A little bleak and bare? Then so are everybody else's. Why not go beyond cabbages and pansies and give some inspiration with colorful textural combinations that will last through the darkest days of winter.

Native plants grow well in containers. Sure most are great drought tolerant additions to the garden but have you thought about putting them together in a container for giving to someone on your list? Any of the cool blue succulents in the dudleya family look breathtaking planted in blue glazed container. A manzanita like Dr. Hurd  looks quite dramatic in a large pot. Don't worry about if the plant will outgrow the container eventually. You are essentially planting a giant bonsai and root pruning every few years will keep both of you happy and healthy. Drainage is the most important aspect of planting most natives so be sure to add pumice or lava rock to your planting mix.

What else would make a good gift? There's always a new pair of gardening boots for that special gift but if you're thinking smaller, maybe a dry arrangement from seed heads, pods and foliage from your garden in a thrift shop container would fit the bill. Leaving dried perennials and grasses to overwinter in the garden is a present for our birds who appreciate the banquet. There's no need to tidy up unless they've collapsed in a slimy heap. Take advantage of the excuse to kick back over the holidays and enjoy yourself.
 

Succulents for Color

Fresh from a day spent among the spectacular world of succulents I’m excited about using these unique plants in new ways. Succulent Gardens in Moss Landing hosted a day of speakers, tours and demonstrations showcasing these  fabulous, unearthly-looking plants. I’ve always liked succulents grown along a walkway, around accent boulders or tucked between perennials. Now I’m creating awesome vignettes in containers that I can move under an overhang to protect from excess rainfall and frost if necessary. There are so many impressive varieties to choose from. Here are some of my favorites that I enjoyed on the tour.

Many showy succulents need only a bit of protection during our winters.  Aeonium decorum Sunburst is one of the showiest species with spectacular variegated cream and green 10" rosettes. This plant  grows 2′ tall and looks terrific with black Voodoo aeonium in a pot. Sunburst is hardy to 28 degrees while Voodoo will go down to 32 degrees. Aeoniums do so well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

Aeoniums propagated from tissue culture are now affordable. There was a time when a 2" seedling cost upwards of $100. Tissue culture involves taking the cells from the core of the plant and growing it in a sterile medium like agar. The resulting plants are exact copies of the mother plant and mature quickly.

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so do well in our our cool wet winters. After Glow is frost tolerant and looks to be painted with florescent paint. There are spectacular hybrids being developed every year. These are not as hardy as the traditional hens and chicks but well worth the effort to find a place where they can survive a freeze. Frilly Mauna Loa sports turquoise and burgundy foliage while echeveria Blue Curls looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

Aloes from South Africa and Arabia are old world plants. Many like the medicinal aloe vera are frost tender but some, like the tree-like aloe plicitilis, are hardy down to 25 degrees and look great either in the garden or in pots.  Did you know the Egyptians used aloe in the mummification process or that there are no known wild populations of aloe? In South Africa, an aloe called ferox is used in the same way as aloe vera for burns and stomach problems. This variety is hardy down to 20 degrees and blooms in January.

When potting succulents in containers, be sure to use a quality potting mix as good drainage is essential. There are special succulent mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. A great tip I got from Debra Baldwin, author of Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, is to add Dry Stall to regular potting soil. Dry Stall is a horse bedding product made with pumice. It is similar to perlite although heavier and less expensive.

Her recipe for succulent soil mix differs with the size of the leaf. For fat, juicy leaves use 75-90% pumice of perlite to potting soil. Fine-leaved varieties thrive in a soil mix of 25% pumice to 75% soil and all the rest get a mixture of 50/50. Don’t add gravel or clay shards at the bottom if planting in a container as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

Because succulents use little water they are easy to care for. If you hate the idea of having to water after you get home from work, create the garden of your dreams with succulents.

Tough Succulents & other Plants for Containers

I have hundreds of plants in containers (295 at last count). You’d be amazed how many pots you can squeeze on a wrap-around deck, including the railings! Some of my favorites are those that house my succulent collection. I’ve come to think of them as pets as they grow over the years. They are tough, resilient and beautiful.

All my plants must be able to survive our winters without intervention on my part. I remember one cold snap about 10 years ago when the surface of my deck was frozen by early evening. I decided to move some cymbidium orchids onto the covered porch, slipped and almost broke my leg. Never again, I vowed. I may move a few succulents out of the pouring rain for the winter season but that’s the extent of my coddling.

The simplest and most sophisticated of all hardy container designs is to plant a skim of sedum across the surface of a shallow container. There are so many to choose from Then leave it alone to grow and drip down the sides.

Another plant combination that works well is to anchor a large pot with a slow growing shrub or dwarf tree that lends height as well as carries your display through the season.Plant a few hens and chickens (echeveria or sempervivum)  at the base and maybe a couple of blue fescue grasses for contrast.

Fast growing succulents, like trailing Sedum acre Lemon Ball or Golden Girl are fun and easy to grow and propagate. I’ve had my original for years although I thought I’d lost it last winter. Sixty inches of rain washed out all the soil in the pot and floated away most of the plant. From one small piece it has recovered beautifully.The chartreuse foliage would blend nicely with chocolate foliage like Carex Red Rooster or even chocolate cosmos.

Libertia, an iris relative with golden-orange swordlike leaves, looks great underplants with any of the succulents. This beautiful grass-like plant grows 2 ft high and 1 ft wide forming a colony by rhizomes. They are especially attractive when backlit. Clusters of inch wide, white flowers bloom from late spring to midsummer. Grow them in sun or light shade along with your succulents, phormiums and grasses.

Be sure to use a quality potting mix in your containers. There are special succulent and cactus mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. of the pot as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

There are lots of succulents to plant up in interesting containers or simple clay pots. Some take full sun, while others like a bit of shade. Some handle frost easily while others need some protection. Let your imagination go wild.
 

Winter containers for Birds

Outside my window there’s a feast going on. The gingko trees are clothed in bright yellow leaves right now but soon they will drop every leaf on almost the same day and cover the ground like carpeting.  It’s a feast for the eyes.   Hopping among the branches even as I write this is a tiny greyish-olive bird with a white eye ring looking for insects.  It’s either a kinglet or a vireo.  I wish I were a better backyard birder.  The Anna’s hummingbird is also here looking for food.  What plants provide food for winter birds and also give the garden color at the same time?

Why not plant some containers that look great and will supply food for your winged visitors?   Grevillea Canberra Gem is blooming now and is a hummingbird favorite.   Combine it with winter blooming annuals like primroses or pansies and violas.    It’s always amusing to me how much the mail order catalongs from the East Coast can command for a tiny primrose division and we here in California can find them plentiful and inexpensive. 

Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers  would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful.  Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.

Penstemon are a favorite garden perennial and bloom late in the year attracting hummingbirds.  Some are short-lived but the variety, Garnet, is an exception.  Combine it with white cyclamen for a traditional holiday look.

For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  

Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Combine them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.

Mexican Bush sage pairs beautifully with the deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold.  Both of these perennial shrubs grow to 3 ft tall and as wide and bloom in winter.  Hummingbirds love bush sage and I’ve seen them bloom right through January unless we have a hard frost.

If you have room for a small evergreen tree in the garden, consider the . It is easy to grow and has year round interest. In the fall and winter, clusters of small white or pink urn-shaped flowers attract Anna’s hummingbirds. Fruit resembling strawberries ripen in the fall and attract other birds.

Plant a feast for your eyes and for our feathered friends, too.

Veggies & Fruit trees for Small Spaces

You know that growing your own fruit and vegetables can supply your family with fresh tasting and nutritious food. But what if you don’t have much space for a big garden or an orchard of fruit trees. Now days there are lots of available for smaller yards and containers. Here are some good ones to try.

Tomatoes are always popular to grow whether in the ground or in pots. Bush types don’t grow as large as vines. If you like large size tomatoes, plant Bush Beefsteak and you’ll be harvesting clusters of delicious 8 oz. tomatoes in just 62 days. A half wine barrel can house a taller tomato like the ever popular Sungold . Small gold-orange cherry tomatoes ripen early and are oh-so-sweet. You’ll plant these every year after you’ve tasted one.

Zucchini lovers might try the semi-vining Raven variety which won’t take up as much space as a traditional type. These plants bear black-green, white flesh fruit with a mild sweet flavor and are very tender. If you have a little space to spare grow the round French heirloom squash, Ronde de Nice. Jade colored zucchini produce over a long period. Harvest the fruit when they reach golf ball up to baseball size. They are sublime grilled or try them stuffed. They are unique in the garden and wonderful in cuisine.  A tip to encourage pollination when squash or melons bloom is to pinch off leaves covering the blossoms in order to give pollinators a clear path to the flowers.

Herbs make good additions to the smaller garden, too. They can be kept compact with frequent pinching as you harvest sprigs for cooking. They also attract beneficial insects to the garden. Oregano, chamomile and fennel are good insectary herbs.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Greenish-yellow skinned fruit with attractive red color ripens in late September into October. They grow to 8-10 feet at maturity.

Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries. The fruit is large, dark red or nearly black. Firm, sweet, dark red flesh has good flavor and texture. Stella cherries grow 10-12 feet tall and bear at a young age.

If it’s almonds you crave for your patio or mini-orchard, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden.

A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame.  Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Don’t let lack of space stop you from enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

Citrus in the Garden

There’s always so much to do in the garden in early spring.  It can be overwhelming deciding what’s important and what can wait. This is how I tackle my garden to spruce things up in a hurry.

First, I decide what problems stand out and choose what to do based on which areas will be the most noticeable. Which improvements will have the most impact?

Focus your attention where family and friends gather- the patio, a shady spot if it’s hot or a sunny area if it’s cool in your garden. Clean up what catches your eye like dead limbs, tall weeds or clutter. Sweeping the deck or patio will make the whole garden look better.

Flowers attract the most attention. Focus on the beds closest to gathering spots and those places you see outside the windows.  Enhance what you have. Blooming or bright foliage plants can fill in gaps in beds.

Perk up your entry with new plants. Group several containers filled with plants you love.  The bigger the plant you use, the more immediate the effect. Combine shades of all one color like blue, purple or red for a more dramatic look.

What else can you do to spice up your landscape?  Plant a dwarf citrus. They grow to only 8 feet so fit into small spaces. Plant in a spot that gets full sun and has well drained soil. Citrus are slow growing and do great in containers, too.

A favorite lemon variety is Improved Meyer. It a actually a cross between a lemon and an orange and tastes slightly sweeter than a true lemon  such as the Eureka. The fruit is very juicy and holds well on the tree, increasing the sweetness.

If your’e looking for an ornamental specimen for a patio container, consider a Nagami kumquat. Small reddish-orange fruit hang on the tree nearly year round and you eat them whole-peel and all. This small symmetrical tree is Japan’s most popular kumquat.

Another very attractive citrus is the which is also known as the Clementine. Its weeping form, dense, dark foliage and fruit that is held toward the outside make this a very showy specimen either in a container or in the ground. Sweet and juicy fruit hold on the tree for several months. This is the variety you see in the market from December to May. Wouldn’t  it be great to have one in your garden?

Chrysanthemums

 I can think of only a handful of perennials that bloom so easily, so prolifically and come in so many colors as the chrysanthemum.   Although they will be available throughout fall, the best supplies are often found now.  If you need to perk up your tired containers of flower beds, think of the reliable mum.

Actually, their botanical name has been changed to dendranthemum grandiflorum but I never hear anyone use this name.  It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Purple Mums

Mums represent the changing season with their bonze, yellow, orange and red tones.  Other flower colors include pink, lavender, purple and white to match any color scheme you might have.

Grown for years to flower only in late summer and fall, they are short day plants, setting buds when they receive light for 10 hours and darkness for the other 14 hours of the day.  This is why mums bloom in the spring on leggy stems if they are not cut back.  And this is how growers manipulate their blooming, adjusting the dark and light periods with shades in the greenhouse so buds will form in any month.   They’re nearly constantly available in grocery stores and florists in every season.

    At this time of year, garden mums abound.  Pick a plant with lots of buds, they bloom only once and won’t set more flowers until next year.  Those buds, though, last a long time if you don’t let them dry out. The specific type of plant doesn’t matter since they all have long term growth potential.  There is a European mum that produces hundreds of buds and stays relatively small and compact when set out in the garden.  If you particularly like one color or form of chrysanthemum, plant it now to enjoy again next year.  You never know what the growers might decide to grow next season.

Choose a well-drained, sunny spot to plant them.  Like many members of the daisy family, mums don’t tolerate soggy ground.  After blooming, trim off the old flowers and cut back plants to within 6-8" of the ground.  If you started with 4" pots trim back by half.

Next spring pinch them back whenever growth gets to 8" tall.  Keep pinching until July, then allow plants to start forming buds for the traditional fall show.  Mums need regular water so plant them in spots where you have other plants with the same water needs.

This fall, add to your mum collection or start a new one.  The pungent scent of their leaf reminds us that cooler weather is on the way.  And don’t forget to cut some for a bouquet to bring inside the house.
    
 

Primroses

Primrose

Looking for something new for the shade? Primroses are back in more brilliant shades than ever.  I  chuckle when I see the catalogs originating from the east coast offering these beauties for sale at prices befitting tulipmania.  Here English primroses are a cool season staple.  By planting these little jewels early you can enjoy months and months of blooms.

Primula Fantastique is a new cultivar with exquisite richly colored flowers feathered at each tip with a contrasting shade.  Super Nova and Rosanna are also new introductions that have to be seen to fully appreciate the brilliant additions they will make to your shady borders.  Add some new color to your garden.  You’ll be glad you did. 

 

Echinacea

Echinacea Need more late summer perennials to extend your season?  Purple coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter.  Showy 4" rosy purple daisies are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets.  The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years.  There is also a beautiful white variety called White Swan.  If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.  

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower.  E. angustifolia is used nowadays as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon.  The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.   Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states.  It’s antiseptic properties were used to treat snake and insect bites, to bathe burns and to help cure the “sweats.”  They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache.  It was also used by the Native Americans for purification.  The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.

Gloriosa Daisy ‘Prairie Sun’

Gloriosa Daisy 'Prairie Sun'

Late summer color can be an opportunity to add new plant that will bring beauty to your garden right through fall.  Many summer annuals are leggy and in need of cutting back about now.  If you like spending time outdoors at this time of year take advantage of this glorious weather and make sure your garden has lots of colorful flowers. 

Golden yellow perennials like gloriosa daisies, coreopsis and golden mums stand up to strong sun now, and later in the season burn like embers under gray skies.  You’re probably familiar with the traditional Black-eyed Susan with a prominent purplish black cone in the center.  There are many varieties of this type with russet, bronze or mahogany bands.  But a gloriosa daisy I especially like has huge 5" golden yellow blooms with pale yellow tips and sports a light green central cone instead of the familiar brown one.  Prairie Sun looks stunning with any shade of blue or lavender like asters, Russian sage or salvias.  Try it in front of the sky blue flowers of cape plumbago for a breathtaking combination.

Gloriosa daisies make good cut flowers and are tough and easy to grow.  They are descended from wild plants native to the eastern US and require only moderate water once established. 

See-through Plants in the Border

So often we design a border with short plants in the front, medium-size plants in the middle and large or tall plants in the back.

Sure, you can see and enjoy all the plants this way but the garden may feel static with the arrangement. Adding lacy, medium to tall plants to the front or middle of the border entices the viewer to move closer or wander into the garden for a better look at the plants that are slightly obscured.

Not every plant that you can see through will be successful in the mid or foreground. An ideal see-through plant has delicate foliage. The flowers have a loose growth and the stems are fine enough to see the plants behind them. Strong stems that don’t flop or need to be staked are a must. The best plants are usually at least 3 feet tall. The width of the plant doesn’t matter as you can use more or less of them as needed.

Place see-through plants at intervals that provide a rhythm or flow to your bed and invites the viewer to pause. Start them at least a few feet down from the beginning of the border. The corners of the bed usually need a plant with a denser habit to mark the beginning or the end.

To use see-through plants effectively in the garden it’s best to plant large splashy flowers or foliage behind them. Plants like roses, daylilies, Shasta daisies and hostas all qualify as backdrops. Subtle foliage plants get lost in the mix, instead use bold complimentary or contrasting colors.

Japanese anemones will soon be blooming and their loose form make perfect see-through plants. Graceful branching 2-4 ft high stems bear single or semi-double white, silvery pink or rose flowers. This plant is slow to establish but spreads readily if roots are not disturbed. Use in borders or partial shade under high branching trees with the vibrant purple of princess flowers in the back ground or a red flowering maple.

For a bed in a more sunny location, consider planting an ornamental grass in the foreground. Grasses are the perfect see-through plant contributing both upright form and the ability to sway in the wind. Other perennials that are blooming now and make good candidates for see-through plants are gaura, agastache, kangaroo paw and lobelia cardinalis.

Look around your garden for places that need something airy and try a new combination today.

The Dog Days of Summer

Despite how hot it’s been,  the "dog days of summer"  just came to an end August 11th.  Where did this expression come from?

Some say it signifies hot sultry days not fit for a dog, but the dog days are defined as the period from July 3 through August 11 when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction ( or nearly so ) with the sun.  As a result, some felt the combination of the brightest luminary of the day (the sun) and and brightest star of the night ( Sirius) was responsible for the extreme heat that is experienced during the middle of the summertime.  Since Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky it’s reasonable to guess that it adds some heat to the earth but the amount is insignificant.

The name "dog star" came from the ancient Egyptians who called Sirius, the dog star, after their god, Osirus, whose head in pictograms resembled that of a dog.  They called the period of time from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction "the dog days of summer"  because it coincidentally fell at the time of  year when it was very hot.  We now know that the heat of summer is a direct result of the earths tilt. Now you know… the rest of the story.  

 

 

Containers

If your deck or patio needs some perking up about now, plant up a new container or add to your existing ones.  Almost anything goes when it come to combining plants in containers and nearly any type of container looks good with the right plant.  I have over 250 in a sprawling garden of containers arranged like a border on my deck, under trees, around my front door, down my driveway… places  where planting in the ground just isn’t possible.  I can move them farther apart, up, down, to the front or to the back to create a display that is always evolving.  I add spots of vivid color where I need it and texture where I want it.  I have the flexibility to remove anything past its prime or bring forward a fragrant plant when I want to really enjoy its scent up close.

So what looks great in containers?  One simple strategy I use a lot is to put just one plant in a pot.  A single perennial like a flowering maple looks good year round.  My asparagus meyeri really looks dramatic in a low ceramic pot. The princess flower and my enormous hosta sieboldiana (which I’ve named Bob) can be hidden behind other pots in the winter when they are dormant.  Succulents, like a large hen and chicks, are always real standouts in a pretty container as are grasses.   I have a Sango Kaku Japanese maple in a large cobalt blue glazed pot as the thriller in one vignette with chartreuse green barberry  and a fragrant heliotrope as fillers and lysimachia aurea and purple calibrachoa as spillers.  I like burgundy foliage so Sizzling Pink loropetalum  is one of my favorite background plants.  It looks great with Japanese forest grass and black mondo grass.  The purple leaves of oxalis triangularis works well in this color scheme, too.  My displays change every year and also as the summer progresses.  I live in partial shade but if you live in the sun try the rich colors of canna lily, black-eyed susan, kangaroo paw, aeonium and old fashioned variegated geraniums.

Although I take a more-is-merrier approach to container gardening, numbers alone don’t mean much.  Five pots are enough to create a dramatic composition on a porch or patio.  The trick is not how many pots you have, but what you do with them.  I use overturned nursery or clay pots,  boxes and plant stands to stage my plants so short but showy plants can be placed up off the ground at eye level.  Containers of plants placed in front hide the risers from view.  By elevating pots with various props, I create combinations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.  

Staging can also be an effective way to display garden art like sculpture , fountains and handsome empty pots.  It’s easy to place ornaments where they look best -a place of honor – by raising them up in your grouping.

 
When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn’t count green, unless it’s lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.  

Whatever plant or container you choose, you’ll enjoy the results now that the dog days of summer are over.