Category Archives: California Native Plants

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.

Big Basin State park

Spent the afternoon hiking in Big Basin State Park in search of blooming Western azaleas. There are several large specimens right at park headquarters Western Azalea but I wanted to find some out in the forest. Our hike took us up into the shaded understory of old growth redwoods and douglas firs and the largest huckleberries I’ve ever seen. The weather was perfect. Earlier in the week temps hit mid 90’s but today was barely 80 degrees and very pleasant. It really wasn’t until we hit the lower part of Dool trail that we found the elusive Western azalea growing in the sun along the stream. The scent of this plant fills the air. Wonderful. Seems this plant will get quite large and grow happily in the shade but it just won’t bloom unless it’s in the sun. I plan to search more trails in the park for this very fragrant flowering shrub.

Designing under native oaks

We are all interested in unthirsty plants these days. When I design gardens under our native oaks there are several principles that I follow that I want to share with you. Drought tolerant plants are a must in this situation. Evergreen oaks even have special needs requiring a different plant palette than deciduous oaks like blue and valley oaks.Bush anemone

Most oak roots are in the upper 3 ft of the soil. The roots which take up water and nutrients are in the upper 12". The critical root disease zone for an oak is within 6-10 ft of the trunk. Do not irrigate plants or disturb the soil in this area. Outside this zone but within the drip line one deep watering per month is allowable for your plantings.
The leaf mulch that accumulates under a large coast live oak increases soil moisture and available nutrients, improves soil structure and moderates soil temperature. It’s a valuable resource that can be used in other parts of the garden. Never remove the entire insulating layer of leaves from under a trees canopy and don’t allow leaf mulch to cover the trunk.
One of the showiest California natives for planting under a coast live oak is carpenteria californica or Bush anemone. This evergreen shrub is resistant to oak root fungus and grows in sun or shade. Although this plant can get by with no summer water after becoming established, occasional summer water will help maintain a fresher look. The compact variety ‘Elizabeth’ produces a profuse display of white flowers with as many as 20 flowers per cluster. Cut back the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the stems after flowering to keep it compact.

Another deer resistant plant I like to use under oaks is Centennial ceanothus. This gopher resistant low spreading groundcover grows 12" high and 8 ft wide. Cobalt blue flower clusters cover the plant each spring. They also attract birds.
Western redbud can be grown as an accent shrub or small tree under coast live oaks. Large bluish grey rounded leaves have heart-shaped base making quite a show among smaller leafed plants. The magenta sweet-pea shaped flowers cover the branches in spring. Scattered flowers may also appear in late summer and fall. Flattened seedpods rustle in the wind in late summer and fall. And if that’s not enough to love about western redbuds they brighten the landscape with a fall color display of yellow or red leaves. Western redbuds respond well to pruning. Thin the oldest trunks each year to keep them growing vigorously. You can also cut the entire clump to the ground to rejuvenate it. This is truly a four season plant.

Combine any of these plants with coffeeberry, native irises, pink-flowering currant, toyon, berberis aquifolium, snowberry, hummingbird sage or yerba buena to complete your woodland garden and keep your oaks happy too.


What to plant under native oaks

Wester Sword FernVisited a site yesterday under dozens of huge native oaks. The clients wants to plant a little landscaping here and there to enhance her property but not endanger her oaks. Naturally both deer and gophers abound. The deer trail goes right below her deck. I was able to give her some information about planting near oaks and will develop a plan for her installer to follow. There are several plants like mahonia ( now berberis ) that would require little water after becoming established and also I am considering ceanothus ‘Centennial’ for an area below the flagstone landing. I’ll add more to this post as I develop the planting plan for this beautiful property. 


Coast Redwood region

Mimulus in Henry Cowell state park

This May I hiked the trail in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, Ca. I usually hike the trails from the San Lorenzo river side of the park off Hwy 9 but this time I entered from the chaparral side on Graham Hill. I was in search of the Western azalea that I heard grew along the trail.  I am planning to use the photos in my upcoming book : ‘The Mountain Gardener: 21 Tips for Successful Gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  During the first half of the day I didn’t come across any azaleas. After taking a break at the river and painting a watercolor, my friend Evan and I started back. It was on the return hike up the trail that I started to see the bright green leaves of hundreds of azalea plants. Only a few in the sun were flowering which is how I missed them on the way down. Now that I know where they are you can be sure I’ll be at that spot next spring to see the display. Hopefully, it will be a wetter winter and more of them will be flowering.

Rana Creek

Sisyrincium bellumRecently I had the opportunity to tour Rana Creek Nursery in Carmel Valley that grows native plants for restoration projects, green roofs and bioponds. They designed and installed the green roof at the California Academy of Science Museum in Golden Gate park in San Francisco. Over 1 million native plants were grown for this roof scheduled to open Oct. 2008.