April in the Garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Spring might have officially started mid-March but judging from the wonky weather it’s hard to tell. We did experience a “Miracle March”  with a pretty good dose of needed rainfall along with some very cold weather. You never know what to expect in March around here.

Sherman, my Welsh springer spanial, enjoying a spring day in Scotts Valley

But now we’ve turned the corner on spring with flowers bursting open within hours on these nice days. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned to my yard for the breeding season. Like clockwork they show up on almost the exact day each year. It’s my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

Looking forward to the rest of spring, here’s what I’ll be doing around here in April.

Hopefully we’ll have plenty of April showers. This latest rainfall is surely  welcomed. One of the perks of a cool, rainy spring is that shrubs and perennials have longer to establish a good root system before hot weather arrives, ground covers have time to spread and shade the soil, conserving moisture come summer. What strategies can you follow that will make your garden low maintenance this summer and give you extra time to enjoy it?

Plant in masses. When designing or reworking your garden, make it

ajuga reptans, a groundcover for shady spots

easy on yourself by planting fewer varieties but in greater numbers. Planting this way will reduce the number of different maintenance tasks for that area. For example, if you have a large hillside that you want to cover, plant it with a groundcover like ceanothus gloriosus which fans out 6-15 feet. Some manzanitas like arctotaphylos uva-ursi eventually spread to15 feet each. Sage leaf rockrose and germander are also good for sunny areas. A shady spot could be planted with ajuga, creeping mahonia or Walkabout Sunset lysimachia.

Another time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you’ll be dragging the hose over to that bed for just one plant or having to run your irrigation system more for it. If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you’d like, move those to their own spot. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have one of more of the following characteristics: deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’ – A low maintenance, low water groundcover for sunny spots

Avoid putting thirsty plants in hard-to-reach places. If the irrigation system doesn’t reach that far, keep it simple by planting drought tolerant woody shrubs or perennials there.

Pluck weeds when the soil is moist and before they have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. I’m still battling hedge parsley with it’s sticky seed balls that will cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed.

Plant edibles among your other plants near the kitchen. Tricolor sage looks great alongside other plants with pink and violet leaves. Purple basil planted below the silver foliage of an artichoke is another great combination. Lemon thyme growing next to a burgundy colored dwarf New Zealand flax would look spectacular, too. And don’t forget to plant decorative and delicious Bright Lights swiss chard with its stalks of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, green and white throughout your beds. It’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

So get the lemonade ready to enjoy all your free time later this season.

Planting with Weather & Climate in Mind

Flowering bulbs beds @ Gamble Gardens

The other day I stopped by historic Gamble Gardens in Palo Alto. I had some free time before my eye appointment and Sherman, my dog, wanted to stretch his legs. You can mark time with the events in the botanical world and this garden is packed with good examples. School kids were tending the vegetable starts and beneficial-friendly flower beds. Volunteers were looking after the formal rose garden and tulip beds. Visitors like me and Sherman just wanted to take in all the early spring beauty.

Phrenology is the study of key seasonal changes in plant and animals from year to year such as flowering times, emergence of insects and migration of birds. When do they occur each year? Phenology is a real science that has many applications. In farming and gardening, phenology is used chiefly for planting times and pest control. Certain plants give a cue, by blooming or leafing out, that it’s time for certain activities, such as sowing particular crops or insect emergence and pest control. Often the common denominator is the temperature.

Websites like USA National Phenology Network at http://www.usanpn.org/ offer lots of information on the subject.

Indicator plants are often used to look for a particular pest and manage it in its most vulnerable stages. They can also be used to time the planting of vegetables, apply fertilizer, prune and so on.

Here are some common garden plants and what they indicate:

When daffodils begin to bloom, sow peas.
When dandelions bloom, plant spinach, beets and carrots.
When lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, sow peas, lettuce and other cool-weather crops.
When lilacs are in full bloom, plant beans.
Once lilacs have faded, plants squash and cucumbers.
When apple trees shed their petals, sow corn.
When dogwoods are in full bloom, plant tomatoes, peppers and early corn.
When bearded iris are in bloom, plant peppers and eggplants.
When locust and spirea bloom, plant zinnia and marigolds.

When forsythia and crocus bloom, crabgrass is germinating. When this happens the soil temperature at a depth of 4″ is 55 degrees. Treat with an organic pre-emergent.
When crocus bloom, prune roses and feed your lawn.
Mexican bean beetle larvae appear when foxglove flowers open.

Record your own observations. Another great site is National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service at http://attra.ncat.org. Sites like these can also help you design orchards for pollination and ripening sequence, design for bee forage plantings, design perennial flower beds and wildflower plantings as well as plantings to attract beneficial insects and enhance natural biological control. How cool is that?

Fun Stuff to do with Kids in Summer

There’s never a dull moment when kids are around. With active imaginations they can make up a game wherever they happen to be. Two little girls, Adelyn and Scarlett come to my house to visit me and my dog, Sherman. We use scented markers to draw what’s outside the window, make jewelry from construction paper, create art projects from styrofoam and colored popsicle sticks, carve pumpkins in the fall and explore the forest. There are always hummingbirds to watch, songbirds to identify and flowers to smell.

Adelyn enjoying her new nature book

Last summer I gave each girl a new nature photo album filled with pictures of plants, frogs, birds and butterflies as well as family  taken around my house. Adelyn was three she got her first nature book and being that she’s five now she needed an update. This was Scarlett’s first book. Scarlett is nearly three. Now that they have a brand new little sister we’ll make another for Lorelei when she gets older. The book is one of those inexpensive four by six inch photo albums with sleeves for photos. Maybe the chipmunks will pose for a photo. There are quite a few in my garden. t’s fun to watch the girls run around and identify birds and flowers from the pictures in their book.

Later this spring the black-headed grosbeaks will return but for now Adelyn and her little sister Scarlett can find juncos, chickadees, purple and gold finches and nuthatches in their nature books. The flowers are the easiest to find as they don’t fly away and later the blue hydrangeas will be blooming.

Scarlett & Adelyn with pumpkin collection pre-carving

In October we carved pumpkins out on the patio. The girls drew on them with markers and their Uncle Matt and their father Matt did the carving. Lots of stories were shared and pictures drawn later inside at my drafting table. Little Scarlett goes right to the harmonica to entertain everyone. She’s getting better each time but was pretty good even the first time she picked it up.

Adelyn and Sherman at the nursery

A few months ago Adelyn, Sherman and I went to a nursery to look at all the plants. We had a great time smelling all the flowers and I pointed out the plants with scented foliage too. The nursery cat followed us down every aisle teasing the dog. Sherman has a cat at home so he’s pretty harmless. I had to laugh when Adelyn told me later over lunch that she thought the nursery would be boring but it was anything but.

Although I don’t have full sun we are going to try our hand at growing carrots this spring in the purple pot I gave her for Christmas. That trowel will be super helpful, too. I think both of the girls would like to harvest some of those Rainbow Carrots I see in Renee’s Garden collection. The French Baby Carrots might be a big hit also.

Scarlett serenading lady bugs

Both girls love lady bugs. Make your garden a more inviting place for these beneficial insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Lady bugs will patrol your plants looking for tiny insects and their eggs.
Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.

Edible flowers are fun for kids to grow, too. Some common ones to try are tuberous begonia petals that taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and Johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

Adelyn with her drawing

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly, a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless. And be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside. I have my friend Adelyn’s drawings on my wall so we both remember the fun we have in the garden.

What Makes for a Sustainable Garden?

The redbud are just starting to show color in my yard. Flowering plum, tulip magnolia, manzanita, forsythia, flowering currant and quince are blooming in many a garden. Even the deciduous trees and plants that look bare now are starting to grow new roots deep underground. It’s time to plan this year’s garden. Think about how you can blend artistry with ecology.

Garden to attract birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects

A landscape developed with sustainable practices will improve the environment by conserving resources. It will require less maintenance and fertilizing, be balanced with our climate in mind and use less pesticides and water. Most of all it will be visually pleasing with lots of flowers. bees and butterflies.

Your goal may be a more drought tolerant garden but which plants are right for your yard? What plants will be more likely to withstand disease and pest damage? What kind of irrigation system should be installed to provide for the needs of the landscape in the most efficient way possible? Is it time to convert your sprinkler system to smart drip, inline drip emitters and micro-irrigation?

Where do you put the compost bin so you can return garden waste and kitchen waste back to the garden while recycling nutrients within the landscape? How do you keep the soil healthy? There are many components in designing and installing a sustainable landscape that is just right for your garden.

Start with a smart design. Utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers to help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water. Maybe you need a rain garden or small planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite.

Planting bed of plants with similar watering needs.

Group plants in your garden according to their water needs. Now’s the time to transplant if necessary to achieve this. Some maybe can survive on rainfall alone after their second or third season while the perennial beds and vegetable garden will require a different schedule. Water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff. Water in early morning or evening to maximize absorption.

Plant deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter. Trees and shrubs clean the air of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide. They breathe in carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, use the carbon to grow, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.

Feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife in your landscape. Plant perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia, ceanothus and other native plants to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds. Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects and use organic pesticides.

Make your soil a priority by adding compost each year. Mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water and use organic fertilizers, manure and fish emulsion that feed the soil. Compost the green and brown waste your garden produces like fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables.
Stay ahead of weeds, pulling them before they set seed and spread.

Take steps each year to encourage a beautiful, sustainable landscape and make your corner of the world part of the solution.

Choosing & Growing Flowering Dogwoods

A couple weeks ago in a column about allergy free landscaping, I mentioned dogwood being a good tree choice as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers are pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Producing less pollen, their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes. With dogwoods about to burst into bloom I thought I’d share some information about growing this iconic tree.

California native cornus nuttallii

There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata. Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida is native to the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or the Western dogwood.

Our native Western dogwood is unfortunately prone to leaf spot fungal diseases. Their large snow white flowers are especially brilliant along the shady forested roads along Yosemite valley. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding, flower and grow fine with little care.

Eastern flowering dogwood

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that blooms early in the spring. It’s beautiful but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease. The kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round.  Cornus capitata Mountain Moon is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree.

Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robin and sparrow are just two of the bird species than build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings. They are edible but bland and tasteless to us. Birds love them.

Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4:00 PM. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’ll be happy.

Gardening 101 – Climate Zones

You can tell right away 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? The USDA Plant Hardiness zone map may tell you where a plant may survive the winter but climate zone maps let you see where that plant will thrive year round.

Mixed forest Bonny Doon- zone 15

For decades, climatic data has been complied and maps generated to help make sense of local growing conditions. In the 1930’s, Sunset Magazine began mapping the western states, taking into consideration the unique climatic growing conditions along with the traditional data of minimum and maximum temperatures, latitude, elevation, ocean influence, continental air influence, mountains, hills and the local topography.

Today the map has become known by many as the gold standard for western growing advice. Zones are numbered from the harshest (Zone 1) in the north to the mildest (Zone 33) in the south.

To accompany the map a plant encyclopedia was developed that assigned the appropriate zone(s) for each plant. The system helps take some of the guesswork out of plant selection if you take into account your microclimate.

The zone system isn’t perfect. After all, the data collectors don’t live here in our neck of the woods. Still, it’s a good idea to take a look at the Sunset zone you live in to see if a plant might survive in your garden – if you keep these exceptions in mind.

Light dusting of snow in February 2018- Bonny Doon

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 although we are trending toward warmer winters these last few years. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call “a cold 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 above freezing.

Ceanothus near Felton Covered Bridge, a cold area near San Lorenzo River.

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. And 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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