Category Archives: Funny gardening stories

A Walk on the Wildside: The Ongoing Saga of the Hillbilly Gardener

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Fourth of July roses

Many years ago I was invited by a Scotts Valley resident to visit their garden. This was no ordinary garden I was to learn during my visit and each spring I look forward to seeing what’s new at Doc Hencke’s garden. From his roots in Oklahoma and Texas he describes himself as the “Hillbilly Gardener” but with his extensive knowledge of trees, vines and just about anything that grows he is one of the most successful and enthusiastic horticulturists I know. I wore my walking shoes and we started talking about what changes he’s noted in his landscape the past few years of drought coupled with this winter’s rains.

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Straw bale veggie garden with Joe Ghio bearded iris

First stop- the straw bale veggie garden. The soil in this part of the garden is blue hard sub soil so this above-ground method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place a couple years ago he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. Using a meat thermometer he determined by the internal temperature when fermentation was complete. He then soaked the bales with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. The straw bales are decomposing each year but he’s going to use them once more this season. His crop of kale, lettuces and chard looked robust and happy.

Nearby a bed of Joe Ghio hybrid bearded iris were in full bloom. “It’s been a great year for iris”, Richard said. Not so good for peach leaf curl. The rains this winter set the perfect stage for the fungus to proliferate. He joked that the birds get the peaches anyway.

Richard is redoing his pond this year. He’s tired of fighting the raccoons and algae. Steeper sides will deter the raccoons and deeper water will help to prevent algae growth. He was forced to remove a curly willow that shed leaves into the pond as their natural salicylic acid was poisoning the pond.

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Succulent collection with blooming kangaroo paw

Last year a new succulent bed was planted along the back of the house and patio. His Sticks on Fire all died over the winter from the cold and rain but the aeonium ’Zwartkop’, echeveria ’Sunburst’, kangaroo paw and various sedums were filling in nicely.

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Weeping leptospermun

Below the patio the golden Mexican marigold and blue Pride of Madeira were in full bloom along with a gorgeous stand of Weeping Leptospermum. “Magnificent this year, just look at this plant. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like in another 15 years?”, he said. Pointing out the visual boundaries he creates with flowering vines growing up into the trees, Richard observed that some are going better than others. Sound familiar in your own garden? Even this expert propagator is sometimes stymied by Mother Nature.

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Richard and his giant China Doll tree

I love to hear Doc Hencke’s stories as he shows me around. Stopping at a China Doll houseplant that has now grown into a tree he tells me he thinks it’s one of the tallest specimens ever. His giant bird of paradise flower pod opened last week. I’d never seen their enormous blue, prehistoric-looking flowers before.

Richard’s new desert garden along the driveway is growing in nicely with the aloe plicatilis blooming for the first time. Also the yucca he and his brother dug up inTexas is finally blooming. “I’ve only waited 52 years for it”, he laughs.

There are so many stories that come with each and every plant in Richard’s collection. It’s always a walk on the wild side.

500 Columns and Counting

Little did I know when I walked into The Press Banner office and offered my services as a gardening columnist back in October of 2005 that I’d still be writing for the paper almost 10 years later. Time flies when you’re having a good time.

Since I wrote my first column about the benefits of fall planting we have had some really wet winters and some very dry ones. A couple of winters challenged our gardens with deep freezing nights while early or late frosts challenged our enthusiasm. It’s all a part of growing plants and designing gardens and I hope I have helped you by providing helpful tips over the years.

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Sherman the buttermilk/moss slurry eater

Everybody likes a good chuckle and we gardeners need more than most. Gardeners love to swap stories. So go ahead and laugh at my attempt to be Martha Stewart in my own garden. When the following incident was unfolding I was a bit frustrated. Time has softened the edges.

I moved up to Bonny Doon last year. The existing garden has some beautiful old rock walls created from many kinds of fieldstone and covered with moss. Another section has a new concrete block retaining wall lacking any character. So last fall I scraped off some moss from the old wall and mixed it with buttermilk hoping to spruce up the plain one when the moss took hold.

With bucket and 4 inch paintbrush in hand I tackled the wall slapping on the moss slurry with abandon just before the winter rains started. I had almost completed my project and looked back to admire my work imagining how beautiful the wall would look covered with dark green moss.

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stone walls in my garden

What I didn’t count on was Sherman, the Welsh springer spaniel. He had been following me licking off most of the buttermilk. I added hot sauce to the remainder of the slurry but that barely slowed him down. Between Sherman and all that rain we got last December most of it washed off anyway and there is only a smattering of moss here and there on the new wall but it’s a start. Hope springs eternal for a gardener.

I learn so much from other gardeners. Usually I’m invited into their garden and I have passed on many of those great ideas. But don’t be surprised if I walk up to your garden one day on a whim like I did to my sister’s neighbors, Bob and Bev when I saw them picking raspberries and strawberries early one morning. I introduce myself and ask for a garden tour. Being gracious they agreed but asked if they could have their breakfast first! Later I got to sample many a berry, watch the goldfinches flitting about and hear how their vegetable garden had evolved.

I always make the most of any excursion. You don’t have to go to an island off Honduras where gardeners protect their plants from nocturnal blue crabs by planting in washing machine baskets to find interesting solutions to gardening challenges.

From Doc Hencke’s wonderful arboretum-like landscape I learned about trees, from Robby, the serial mole killer, I learned about smart irrigation and from the collections of Ron, Marc, Pete and Ed of Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club I discovered the world of bonsai.

The Maloney’s of Scotts Valley shared rose growing tips. Al Hiley up in Felton is a wealth of local history knowledge and Vickie Birdsall of Montevalle Park in Scotts Valley knows how to replace water thirsty lawns with low water use plants. Cactus expert, Professor Loik of Felton got me up to date on why and how to grow this interesting plant in our times of drought. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of knowledge I’ve gained including visits to our own UCSC Arboretum, Casa Dos Rios in Gilroy, Stanford campus, Napa, Carmel and a dogwood nursery in Corralitos.

So keep those emails coming. I’m happy to offer helpful solutions or at least a shoulder to cry on. If you have an idea for a column let me know. And if you want someone to appreciate your gardening efforts as much as you do invite me over. I’m available. Happy Gardening.