The Art of Bonsai

Forsythia bonsai- just one of the many bonsai in Bud Brown’s collection

Every year I have the privilege a visiting a bonsai artist from Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai in anticipation of their annual show at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. This will be the clubs’ 31st annual show and will feature over 100 stunning bonsai trees developed by members and special demonstrators. I got the full tour of Bud Brown’s collection recently at his home in Boulder Creek plus some inside tips on how he grows such impressive specimens.

Bud told me he first became interested in bonsai way back during the second Watsonville Bonsai clubs’ exhibition. From my calculations that happened back in 1976 and since then he’s been collecting, training, buying, selling, teaching and digging up potential trees whenever he has the chance. He still has a some of his original trees although the earthquake in 1989 saw a lot of them take a tumble and most of his vintage Japanese pots smash to the ground. Now he uses bungee cords to secure them to benches. Bud hasn’t decided which of his 80-90 trees will be in prime condition for the show that takes place on April 5th and 6th but whichever ones make the cut they will be displayed beautifully.

Japanese maple bonsai

Bud’s collection consists mainly of wisteria and myriad varieties of Japanese maple but he also has an Irish yew, coast and Dawn redwoods, a couple forsythia, flowering peach, a star magnolia and a walnut although ”the squirrels always get the nuts,” he told me. Many of Bud’s trees have been in his collection since the 80’s and he has a story that goes with each. When you go to the bonsai show you will see a card telling you how old the tree is and how long it has been in training. It’s the back story that I find interesting.

One of his wisteria, now covered with fat buds about to burst hopefully in time for the upcoming show, Bud found growing out of the pavement in the road. It literally had no roots when he dug it up but as you might know wisteria are the energizer bunnies of the plant world- it’s hard to kill one.

Another wisteria that was featured prominently in last year’s show suffered last summer from the heat wave and also the smoke and soot from the fires. It’s in rehab this year but will hopefully bounce back for next year’s show.

The flowering peach which was in full bloom at the time of my visit came from a 90 year old Portuguese friend 25 years ago. It was planted on a piece of lave so Bud has incorporated the lava into the present pot so he can remember his friend of long ago.

Bud pointed out a Japanese maple that, to my untrained eye, looked quite impressive. He told me he purchased it for barely nothing from famed bonsai expert Jahn Naka as it had not been trained correctly. “A maple,’ Bud told me, “should have branches that grow up and out. This one’s not life-like.”

Japanese maple

The secret to Bud’s success undoubtedly comes from the 5 goldfish tanks and the horse trough which also houses goldfish. He keeps them to collect rainwater and for the nutrient rich water. Besides using the water directly for irrigation Bud siphons the fish debris off the bottom, too. Guess it’s not a secret now. Bud was excited to show me that one of the fish was pregnant.

When you go to the show this weekend- which runs 10am to 5pm both Saturday and Sunday April 6 & 7 at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz on 705 Front Street- you will be inspired to learn more about bonsai. In addition to admiring the impressive finished bonsai trees, at 2pm each day there will be a demonstration by either bonsai artist Mike Pistello (Saturday) or sensei Katsumi Kinoshita (Sunday) who will style and transform a common nursery stock plant into a a specimen you’ll surely want to take home if you win the raffle. There will be many of other raffle prizes, complimentary tea, coffee and cookies, finished and pre-bonsai trees and pots for sale plus performances at 11am each day on the corner of Cooper and Pacific Ave. Saturday’s performance will be by Watsonville Taiko drummers and Sunday will showcase the Nori project musicians.

But wait, there’s more. Carolyn Fitz will be offering calligraphy and Semi-e ink painting demonstrations with hands on opportunities and Lesley Hasagawa, origami artist, will offer her expertise throughout both days.

Don’t miss out on this family friendly even this weekend. Admission is only $5.

Helping Bees Help Us

Honey bee gathering pollen

Outside the birds are chirping like crazy in anticipation of this year’s nesting activities. The bees are becoming more active every day searching for nectar in the flowering trees and shrubs. Ceanothus season is coming soon and then they’ll really be busy. Last year was a banner year for my native bees and bumble bees. There were also a lot of European honey bees around. Maybe I was just lucky. What can you do to help our pollinators in these times of diminishing habitat, disease, climate change and pesticide use?

There are 1600 species of native bees in California with several hundred living in Santa Cruz county alone. They are solely responsible for pollinating many of our native plants. Being solitary they do not make a hive but make nests underground or live in wood, one female per nesting hole and she lays her eggs there. Leaving areas in your garden near flowering plants un-mulched helps her find a nesting hole. The hard working females mate, make nests, collect pollen for their young and lay eggs. Males live to mate and only pollinate inadvertently when they visit flowers for nectar to fuel their flight.

Long-horned native bee

Common native bees in our area are the yellow-faced bumble bee and the long-horned bee which has stripes a little like a yellow jacket. The hard working bumble bee is easy to identify from its bight yellow facial hair and yellow bands on their backs and abdomens. Female bumble bees’ hind legs widen to form pollen baskets often filled with bright yellow, moistened pollen pellets.

The long-horned native bee gets their name from the long antennae of the males although the females do not have this. Males may be seen by day jostling for female attention above a patch of blooming plants while the females are collecting pollen. Only the females have branched hairs on their legs for carrying pollen.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for our area to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

Honey bee searching for nectar and pollen

The higher temperatures that come with climate warming can affect a bee’s ability to detect a flower’s pollen. A flowers scent is what tells a bee that nectar is present. If the weather gets to hot the plant will spend less energy on producing fragrance and just try to survive. When flowers stop emanating these enticing smells, some bees have a tough time finding food and may abandon certain area. Studies have shown that warming climates already have affected our central coast bumblebee population during the past 30 years especially the California bumblebee.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depend on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

Honeybees and native bees need help to survive and we’re the ones to give it. Besides planting nectar and pollen sources you can help by buying local honey which support beekeepers.

Just a Few of the Plants Blooming Now

Fragrant Blireiana flowering plum

Some years plants bloom a couple weeks earlier than usual but not this year. Our February weather put many plants on hold. Nature’s catching up now. Outside my window the Blireiana flowering plum is covered with dark pink, double blossoms. It’s one of my favorite spring blooming trees with a sweet fragrance strong enough to scent the garden. It usually blooms in February in time for my birthday but not this year. Worth the wait. We all look forward to the earliest flowers of the new season. Spring officially began on March 20th.

Forsythia

The cold and rainy weather didn’t stop an old fashioned shrub like forsythia from blooming. They figure prominently in many old gardens because they are tough plants, able to survive neglect and still look beautiful. The bare stems of forsythia are completely covered with deep golden-yellow flowers in late winter and early spring and become the focal point of the landscape when in full bloom. The showy stems of this easy care shrub are great for cutting. Forsythias are native to eastern Asia but a chance discovery in Germany by a grower who specialized in breeding for the cut flower industry led to the especially vivid variety ‘Kolgold’ in the 1800’s. Forsythia has long been used in Chinese medicine. The flower petals contain powerful bacteria-fighting properties which make it an important dressing.

Flowering quince

Flowering quince is another old garden staple providing early color. They are easy to care for and nearly indestructible in almost any soil that is well drained and not overly fertile. Once established quince is a very drought tolerant plant and their spiny branches make them an excellent choice for hedges, screening or as a security barrier. There are red, pink, orange and white flowering varieties. The Toyo Nishiki cultivar even has pink, white and solid red flowers all on the same branch.

Yellow clivia

Buds are just starting to form on my clivia or Kaffir Lily. What would a shade garden be without a bright orange clivia? Every year I look forward to their huge flower clusters that emerge from between dark green, strappy leaves. Even in dark shade they will bloom and brighten the late winter/early spring garden although they would do fine in morning sun. If you have a north facing window you can grow them as houseplants. Clivias are hardy to several degrees below freezing. I have a yellow flowering variety also but I’m not seeing any buds forming yet. Possibly it’s too young. Clivie bloom best when crowded.

Hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’

A beautiful vine that blooms at this time of year is hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’. In the pea family, this evergreen vine looks like a small wisteria when in bloom. Pinkish-purple flowers cascade in clusters on twining stems that reach 12-16 feet long. They require little water once established and are hardy to about 23 degrees. If you have an older, tangled plant you can rejuvenate it with hard pruning in early spring after flowering. Never prune in late summer or fall because you will cut off the wood that is going to bloom the following winter.

The last plant I couldn’t live without is Fragrant Sarcococca. The tiny white flowers of this plant are easily overlooked but you can’t miss their scent. I have one near the front door that greets me with that vanilla fragrance every time I walk in or out. The flowers are followed by a bright red fruit. Sweet Box forms a natural espalier against a wall and if you have a problem spot in deep dry shade where other plants won’t grow give this plant a try. They are easy to grow, deer resistant and trouble free.

Aloe & other Succulents in the late Winter Garden

Usually succulents are bullet-proof in the garden. Easy care, low water and dramatic they are great additions to the landscape. If you are having problems with fungal spots on yours after so much rain and cold you’re not alone. Still aloe, yucca and agave are worth growing as well as other succulents. Here is some useful information.

Cape Aloe

Succulents have demonstrated a wide tolerance to the fungi that cause leaf and some spots. Although they can disfigure plants they do very little damage despite their appearance.

There are other more serious fungal infections like anthracnose. It often appears as a moist tan colored rot with red, orange or pink pustules on the surface. Spots start small, but expand rapidly on both leaves and crowns. Once a succulents is infected the only treatment is removal of affected leaves. The application of copper fungicide may help to destroy fungal bodies. Root and crown rot don’t respond well to treatment and if you have planted your succulents in well draining soil there might not be much you can do about the excessive rain they’ve gotten recently.

Our Mediterranean climate is usually perfectly suited for the exotic looking family of Aloes. Some hail from the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar but mostly they are native to South Africa. The spikes of their showy flowers supply much needed nectar for hummingbirds now when not much else is blooming.

There’s a variety for any space, large or small, container or tree-like. Here are a few of the types I’m seeing blooming right now in our area.

Aloe ferox

Aloe ferox or Cape Aloe grows best in full sun but tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions. They can thrive in very dry conditions or grow in an area that receives regular irrigation- a good trait given our recent wet winter. The foliage is hardy to at least 20 degrees and the winter flowers down to 24 degrees. Cape aloe grow to 6 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide so plan accordingly if you plant one of these spectacular reddish-orange to orange succulents. Cape Aloe occupies many habitats in its native Cape Region of South Africa and is listed on the endangered plant list.

Torch aloe

Torch Aloe or Aloe arborescens blooms also in fall and winter. The bright yellow or red flower spikes cover this large clumping variety. This species has recently been studied for possible medical uses similar to the well known aloe vera plant. It’s the only other member of the Aloe family that is claimed to be as effective. It can survive much lower winter low temperatures than aloe vera.

Aloe vera has been grown for thousands of years in tropical climates. It is one of the most widely used medicinal plants on the planet. As a houseplant make sure the pot has plenty of drainage holes as they cannot tolerate standing water. Let them go completely dry between waterings and grow them in the very bright light of a south or west facing window.

The Soap Aloe or Aloe maculata is so tough that it can survive just about anywhere. My soap aloe aren’t blooming right now but others in better growing conditions are sporting showy flowers atop tall, multi branched stalks in colors ranging from red to gold. Once established this succulent needs only occasional water to look good. They grow in partial to full sun. The foliage gets 18 to 24 inches tall with the bloom spikes reaching 35 inches tall.

Every garden should have a variety of aloe to feed the hummingbirds in winter.

Arbor Day in California

California’s Arbor Day is celebrated on March 7th, in honor of famed horticulturist Luther Burbank’s birthday. The day is celebrated on different dates around the world because one of the features of Arbor Day is the planting of trees which is best done at certain times of the year. The simple goal of this day is to inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees.

Second growth redwood fairy ring.

We are fortunate to live here in the Santa Cruz mountains in a temperate rain forest with lots of trees. Our redwoods are especially important in our biodiverse watershed as is all flora and fauna in the forest. Redwoods and many native trees keep our environment moist. Let’s make it a priority to protect them and pass the baton of stewardship to our children who will inherit this place.

So whether you’ve been thinking about planting a redwood, heritage oak or other native tree, a fruit tree to feed the family, a shade tree to save on summer cooling, a flowering tree to attract pollinators, or a tree to hang the hammock on this is a good time to plant as well as nurture and celebrate all trees..

Trees are remarkable in how they grow and adapt to their environment. Some trees, like redwood, ponderosa pine, sycamore and madrone have especially beautiful bark. This is the tree’s protection from the outside world. Continually renewed from within, it helps keep out moisture in rain and prevents the tree from losing moisture when the air is dry. Bark insulates against cold and heat and wards off insect enemies.

The inner bark, or phloem, is the pipeline through which food is passed to the rest of the tree, It lives for only a short time, then dies and turns to cork to become part of the protective outer bark.

The next layer in is the cambium cell layer which is the growing part of the trunk. It annually produces new bark and new wood in response to hormones that pass down through the phloem with food from the leaves. These hormones are called auxins and stimulate growth in the cells. They are produced by leaf buds at the ends of branches as they start growing in spring.

Inside the cambium layer is the sapwood or xylem which moves water from the roots to the leaves. Sapwood is new wood. As newer rings of sapwood are laid down, inner rings lose their vitality and turn to heartwood.

Finally, the central supporting pillar of the tree is called heartwood. Although dead, it will not decay or lose strength while the outer layers are intact. A composite of hollow, needle-like cellulose fibers bound together by a chemical glue called lignin, it is in many ways as strong as steel.

fog filtering through the redwood trees.

Leaves make food for the tree. Their shapes help them reduce wind resistance, shed rain that could decay the leaf if left standing and produce chlorophyll. The narrow needles of a Douglas fir, for instance, exposes as much as three acres of surface to the sun.

Be kind to all trees. They are a valuable asset to your home and our environment. Earth Day is next month on April 22nd. Let’s continue to celebrate the natural beauty of our planet and learn what we can do to keep it healthy.

Climate Zones

You know when you walk out the door how hot or cold it is, how windy, shady, moist or dry. You know if your soil is pure sand or hard clay because you’ve dug a few holes in your time. You don’t need a book to tell you these things. So why are the gardening zones described in Sunset Western Gardening book important when you add a new plant to your garden ? And why are they so confusing in our area?

Sunset Climate Zones for the Santa Cruz Mountains

We all rely on Sunset’s Western Garden Book as the bible for gardeners. With each new edition I look to see if they’ve figured out that Felton is not in zone 7. Sure Felton gets pretty cold but even with climate change the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valleys are not as cold as a zone 7. Even considering microclimates we can grow a wide variety of plants that would not survive in the Sierra foothills, the Gabilan range, the Coast range or other zone 7 areas. Wish they would ask local nurseries and knowledgeable horticulturist what the weather and climate are really like here.

Knowing the climate in your area helps determine what you can grow in your garden. It’s confusing to both new and seasoned gardeners alike. Here are some tips to help you determine in which zone you garden.

We really only garden in two zones around here – zone 15 and 16. The Sunset map erroneously shows Felton as being in zone 7. Based on my experience even ridge tops like the highest portions of Bonny Doon and the Summit area which gets an occasional dusting of snow fall mostly in a colder zone 15.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area. Winter lows average 20-30 degrees. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call “a cold zone 15. Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. There are warmer parts of this zone, though. These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this “banana belt”. Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay near or above freezing. You might have cold pockets on your property however so plan accordingly.

Beside the zone you also need to note how much sun or shade you get during the growing season. There may also be microclimates on your property. Are you near the river in a canyon or gulch or up on a south facing slope? Some areas in your garden may be several degrees warmer than other spots such as up against a brick wall or at the top of a slope from where cold air drains. Planting a citrus at the top of a slope that drains away the cold will make your tree much happier than if planted in a low open area.

Soil quality is not taken into consideration in zone mapping. Since the soil houses the water and nutrient uptake system for most plants, it plays an important role. Most plant guides describe soil requirements in terms of well-drained, acid or alkaline, poorly drained or high organic matter.

If you have questions about which zone you are in, email me and I’d be happy to help. I hope this helps in choosing plants that will thrive in your garden.

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