May – Words of Wisdom


With each new season, we start fresh with high expectations for a bountiful harvest of vegetables and mouth-watering fruit,  fragrant flowers to pick for bouquets and healthy plants to attract beneficial insects to the garden. As the months pass it seems one problem after another crops up. Don't get discouraged, though. Most any condition or disease can be corrected with the right information. I get many emails from readers with some of the same problems that you might have. Here are a few recent inquiries.

 

GARDEN HOSES

One reader asked about the safety of her new hose. The label on the hose states not to drink from it and she is wondering if it's safe to use it to water her organic vegetable garden.

Most of us grew up drinking water from the hose and on a hot day we still do. But is it safe? A recent study by the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., that reviews consumer products addressed potentially hazardous chemicals in gardening tools. The group tested nearly 200 gardening products, including hoses and discovered some disturbing findings.

To illustrate how chemicals can migrate from harden hoses into water, the research team left a section of garden hose filled with water out in the sun for several days. When the water was tested it was found to exceed federal standards for safe drinking water for several chemicals- including 4 times the standard considered safe for phthalates, 18 times that for lead, and 20 times that for BPA, an organic compound banned from baby bottles.

Most garden hoses that are sold are still made of PVC which can leach unsafe levels of lead into water. There are safer options available, though. Food grade Ether-based polyurethane or natural rubber hoses are a better choice. Look for hoses with nickel or chrome-plated fittings as brass can also leach lead into water.

Plants don't generally absorb lead, unless there is a high concentration of it in the soil but who wants to take a chance? With any hose, even one labeled "drink-safe' let the water run until it's cold before you drink from it because bacteria can grow in warm standing water.

CITRUS ADVICE

Another reader asked what she should do for her Meyer lemon which has yellow leaves. I told her that the yellowing is due to insufficient nutrients. First, apply a fertilizer containing nitrogen. There is also a chance that iron, sulfur and magnesium could be in short supply. Look for these ingredients on fertilizer bags and apply as directed. Also don't overwater citrus. Let the plant dry 2" below the soil surface between deep waterings.

LAWN CARE

Lawns also need a deep watering to train roots to grow deep. When to water? One easy method is to walk on the lawn and check in an hour after stepping on it. If it hasn't rebounded the lawn needs water. Also leave grass clippings to decompose after mowing. You'll need to mow about once per week so the clippings are short and can decompose quickly.

RHODODENDRONS

When everyone's rhododendrons but yours are blooming what can you do?  This plant sets flower and leaf buds in late August or September so fertilizing regularly for the next few month is important. Also water deeply when the soil is dry 1-2" deep and mulch the soil around your plant to keep the roots cool and moist. Rhododendrons and azaleas are shallow rooted so don't work up the soil underneath.

Feel free to email your questions to me. I'm happy to help.
 



Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon


Enter the Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon with me as I preview several gardens that will be featured on the tour this coming weekend.  While some of our gardens have a few areas with a "wow factor" , the gardens I was privileged to visit have this element at every turn. I was amazed, impressed and truly honored to spend time in each of them.

First stop was a garden that took my breath away. Looking past the lush lawn, the view takes in all of Monterey Bay. It wasn't always this way, the owner explained. When she moved to the property in 1981, she didn't even know there was an ocean view. It was only after some judicious pruning that this stunning view was revealed.

We  ambled through the many paths that took us up close and personal with perennial beds overflowing with blooming iris, spirea, weigela, succulents, hardy geraniums, coprosma and coleonema to name just a few.

Rabbits are an ongoing problem in this garden. Seems they love her Angelina sedum, coprosma, and Rose Campion as much as she does. Little 12" tall fences surround several of the beds which looks comical but apparently works as the rabbits don't like to jump over them.

Stained urbanite has been stacked by the owner to make short retaining walls and the look is quite classy blending in the flagstone and gravel paths. She explained how easy it was to stain the broken concrete from the old driveway by slapping on some concrete stain. "Piece of cake", she told me.

Other flower beds she edged with Sonoma fieldstone, stacking them herself. At every turn you can see the personal touches that make a garden unique. An old rusty mailbox was tucked into one of the beds overflowing with blooming pansies and million bells calibrachoa.  I loved this garden.

Next stop was another garden 30 years in the making. You won't believe the "before" pictures when you see this garden now. I could barely see the potential in the old pictures but the owner could and started to build up the rock hard soil bed by bed. After many years she has created  an organic garden full of flowering rhododendron, roses, viburnum, herbs, vegetables, citrus, apples and a 5 year old  Staghorn fern that measures 4 ft across.

The owner explained that deer are not a problem because they won't jump the irregular picket fence. Seems the wide pickets confuse their eyesight. Unfortunately, the gophers have decided recently that after 14 years, her camellias are now on the menu and she has lost almost all of the original 40 in the past year. Instead of lamenting her loss, she sees it as an opportunity to add new plants. She has the optimism that all gardeners possess.

Chickadees nested in a box attached to the porch. Garter snakes and alligator lizards patrol the flower beds. A bathtub, sunk into the earth serves as "the poor man's hot tub". Old metal chairs are planted with flowers and ferns and other found garden art is sprinkled generously though out the garden. This is the garden of an artist whose studio is nestled back among the trees. At every turn you feel the peacefulness of this wonderful place. This is a garden to experience not just view.

The last garden I was lucky enough to preview, was an asphalt driveway just 6 short years ago. There are occasional unplanted spots that still show asphalt. What a transformation. With the help of lots of top soil and an auger this gardener has created a spectacular space.  "Everything grows like crazy here", she explained.

The front garden is open to deer and is planted with echium, leucospermum, arctotis, barberry, thyme, rosemary and New Zealand flax. One of her favorite plants is a huge variegated holly that buzzed so loudly with bees I thought the electrical line coming into the house was making all the racket.

In the back, a small orchard edged the fence. Blooming lilacs by the deck heavily scented the air. Succulents intermingle with peony, erysimum and gaura. This gardener explained she " she is one of those people who buys whatever she likes and then finds a place for it". Having had previous experience growing grapes and olives in Sonoma, she is a hands-on gardener who does it all herself. She's a self-described  "drip queen".

A ceramic artist, her sculptures are focal points though out the garden. There is a lot of other garden art in this garden, too.

Where do these gardeners find the garden art, water features and other items that give their gardens that personal touch? One explained, she is always on the lookout for estate sales as she drives around or sees advertised in the paper. "That's were you can really find the treasures", she explained. "Little old ladies have some great plants and other wonderful finds in the back of the garden".

The Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon Tour takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 19th and 20th. Don't miss it.
 



A Ben Lomond Garden Coexists with Deer


One of the perks of writing this gardening column for the Press Banner is being invited to visit beautiful gardens. I  recently had the honor to tour the garden of fellow columnist, Colly Gruczelak, writer of Plain Talk About Food, at her home in Ben Lomond. I've known Colly for many years going back to when she moved here in 2004 from Thousand Oaks.  If you know Colly it will come as no surprise that she is just as enthusiastic about plants as she is about good food. She gardens with a resident deer population and had lots to say about this dilemma.

When she first moved to the Ben Lomond property there was "nothing in the garden but bottlebrush and bare ground" she said. Not wanting to fence the property she has come to know what the deer are not interested in eating for dinner- in her garden anyway. Located right on the San Lorenzo River, her garden blends perfectly with the natural woodland setting.

A huge Fragrantissima Improved rhododendron poked its beautiful white flower trusses through an ornamental low fence. A Sally Holmes rose bloomed atop the fence, too. Colly explained she has included several roses in the garden and will spray them with a bitter repellent if the deer become too interested but often surrounding a rose with plants the deer don't like is enough to keep the buds safe.

A beautiful purple Grand Slam rhododendron bloomed nearby. Colly keeps plant tags in her Sunset Western Gardening book so she can look up a plants name when necessary. Given the hundreds of beautiful specimens in the garden this is no easy task.

I was surprised to see so many azaleas blooming in the garden. I knew rhododendrons are deer resistant but it surprised me to learn that her azaleas thrive also . Colly grows Encore azaleas that bloom continually throughout the season. They border all the garden paths and this first flush of flowers was spectacular.

She has an Iceberg rose intertwined with a Jackmanii clematis. The buds of the clematis were not quite open but I can imagine how stunning this purple and white combination will be. I love Iceberg roses. They scent the air with honey and vanilla. Colly doesn't worry about pruning the clematis according to the book. She "leaves it alone" and from the looks of the many buds about to burst with color it's doing just fine.

Another gardening tip Colly shared with me is her use of bungee cords to quickly hold up a plant until she has the time to tie it up properly. She buys 5 of these cords for a dollar and swears by their usefulness.

We stopped to admire a Cherokee Brave dogwood in full bloom. Underneath,  blue violet columbines covered the ground. As they reseed the patch grows larger and larger. The blue and pink made a breathtaking  combination blooming at the same time.

As we strolled through the garden I saw many other plants happily growing in spite of the deer. Fragrant daphne, fuchsia thymifolia, Australian fuchsia, Jack Frost brunnera, Mt. Tamboritha grevillea, lily-of-the-valley and Cape plumbago were all untouched. It surprised me to hear that she is replacing a large stand of white rockrose with Kaleidescope abelia. Seems her deer loved this rockrose and "ate it to the ground". Go figure about rockroses. Along her road there were lots of the dark pink variety not even nibbled in the slightest.

We finished our tour at the new sitting area she has created to enjoy with her husband in the evening. I'm sure it's the perfect way to end the day.
 



Zauchneria & other Favorite Plants for the Santa Cruz Mountains


I don't have room for any new plants. Really I don't, but come spring I just can't help myself. Every pretty plant I see in a nursery or at a friend's house, I want. Admiring from afar just won't do. I rationalize that if I choose from plants that will do well in my specific environment then it's OK to add something new to the garden. If you want to be armed with a check list of possible new plants that are almost guaranteed to do well in your own neck of the woods and without a lot of water, here are some good choices.

For those who live in the sun, consider a brilliant red California fuchsia. Hummingbirds and butterflies are both attracted to zauschneria which starts blooming in summer and continues through fall. They provide a principle nectar source for hummingbirds though the hottest, driest season. Deer aren't interested in them, either.

Ghostly Red is one of my favorites for sunny slopes although it will grow in some shade and is tolerant of many soils including alkaline, sand, clay and serpentine. The foliage is grey-green and shows off the intensely red flowers. It grows about 1-2 feet tall which is tall enough to attract the hummingbirds but low enough to be neat and tidy. Each plant can spread to 5 feet wide.

Another good variety of California fuchsia is Everett's Choice. This fast growing groundcover has dark orange-red flowers on a low, spreading plant. Furry grey foliage creeps along the ground and looks beautiful next to a path or rock wall. It's drought tolerant but will look fuller with an occasional drink after it's established. As with all California fuchsia a hard winter pruning will produce a denser plant the following year.

Consider combining either of these grey-leaved California fuchsias with the new Black Adder phormium to make a dramatic statement in your garden. Black Adder was bred from the deep, deep brown Platt's Black phormium but its color is even more striking. Deep, burgundy-black leaves have a high gloss overlay which eliminates sun fading. Black Adder is a strong and healthy grower with an upright but not stiff architectural form. When mature it reaches 3 ft tall by 3 ft wide so fits nicely into the garden.

Originally native to New Zealand, phormiums are also known as flax and their hemp-like plant fibers were traditionally used by New Zealand's Maori people to make rope, baskets and cloth.

Other good companion plants for California fuchsia are Bee's Bliss salvia, Western redbud, rockrose, buckwheat, armeria maritima, deer grass and ground morning glory. Ceanothus, rosemary and manzanita also look good with California fuchsias.

Shady gardeners ( no, I'm not making a moral judgement here ) or should I say gardeners who live in the shade or have portions of their gardens in the shade, have lots of plants to tempt them. Favorite plants for dry shade include flowering currant which is so spectacular at this time of year. This shrub blooms with huge clusters of pink, rose or white flowers. Other plants that attract hummingbirds in bright shade are Western columbine, bleeding heart, heuchera and mimulus. You can find these in a rainbow of beautiful colors these days.  Humminbirds love salvia spathacea so much they're called Hummingbird flower. Also suitable for planting under oaks are Douglas iris. I love the white Pacific Coast hybrid variety, Canyon Snow. Their white flowers make an area under tall trees come alive.

A couple of new additions to the garden would be fun especially if they don't use up your water budget. With a little planning you can have color, attract wildlife and have water for the vegetable garden, too.
 


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