29th Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai Exhibit

Once Upon a Time in a place not so far away a group of kids gathered to learn about the art of bonsai. This group of home-schooled kids gather weekly at the old Redwood Elementary School in Boulder Creek on “outdoor day” to hike, craft and learn about nature.

Chris Howe shows kids how to start styling their junipers

On this day, after returning from a morning hike, everyone was ready to get started creating their own bonsai. With the 29th Annual Exhibit of Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club fast approaching on Saturday and Sunday April 8th & 9th at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, there was no time to lose and most of the kids wanted their newly created bonsai to be included in the show.

Former president of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai, Chris Howe, has been a long time bonsai aficionado dating back to the days when we used to work together at a local nursery. His daughter Gloria is in this class along with 12 of her 3rd to 5th grade classmates. Chris had an attentive audience as he related a short history of bonsai and gave a few tips for the kids to get started styling their own dwarf Japanese garden junipers.

If you’ve ever tried your hand at creating a bonsai yourself but didn’t know where to start, Chris gave us all the perfect “rule” that the sensei masters use. “Imagine you are a tiny bird trying to land in a tree. Make some spaces among the branches and leaves so the little bird can land.”

Gloria Howe adds moss to her bonsai

With this advice the kids got started on their one gallon junipers. All the plants and pots were donated for the class by the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club. Each child also received a free bonsai coloring book showing the different styles and techniques which was also donated to the class by the club.

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of this living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot, while “sai” means to plant. One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look -appearing to be veterans of years of struggle against natural forces. Some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families while others just look very old and some techniques help further this illusion.

There is a technique called Jin which causes weathered-looking dieback on a branch and is created by stripping a branch of bark. When asked by Chris nearly all the kids wanted to have a branch tip or two crushed by pliers so they could peal off the bark. In nature, deadwood is created when a tree is hit by lightning, exposed to sustained periods of drought or when branches snap due to ice stress, wind or weight of snow. The wood dies off and is bleached by intense sunlight.

Gloria with her finished bonsai and others from classmates.

As living things, bonsai are always growing, leaves and stems being pinched, the branches wired into natural looking shapes, the trunks thickening. Chris showed the class one of his prized bonsai specimens and explained which techniques he used to style it.

Don’t miss the upcoming 29h Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai show Saturday and Sunday, April 8th & 9th at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz from 10am -5pm each day. Entry fee is $5 per person to the museum and the show. Kids 12 and under get in free so it’s a great way to spend the day.

Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured.

Besides taking in the beautiful bonsai on display you can purchase finished bonsai and starter plants as well as get experienced help with trees purchased. There will be door prizes and refreshments. You might even win the raffle for the demonstration specimen created each day at 2:00 pm by Bonsai Master, Eric Shrader on Saturday or if you come to the show on Sunday created by Sensei Katsumi Kinoshita.

Favorite Plants of Landscape Designers

Big surprise. Many of my friends are also landscape designers. We get together to talk plants, garden design challenges and plant problems while enjoying good food along with a little wine thrown in for good measure. Recently we met in Corralitos to exchange favorite go-to plant ideas and tour the truly fabulous garden of our host. Filled with interesting foliage and texture as well as plants that flower over a long season we all came away excited to use them in our next design. Maybe some of these ideas will work in your own garden.

Fremontodendron californicum

Every interesting garden has good bones. A successful one has a focal point, garden rooms with “walls” and a “ceiling”, plants with different textures and foliage color, repetition and unity. My friend’s garden is no exception.

Rivaling for our attention from the breathtaking view of Monterey bay, a fremontodendron, in full bloom, was a real show stopper. This California native shrub requires little irrigation and provided the perfect backdrop to the entry garden.

Loropetalum / Agave ‘Blue Glow’

Other plants that brought this garden to life included a stunning Blue Glow agave paired with the burgundy foliage of loropetalum rubrum. Both have low water needs and aren’t attractive to deer.

Eggs and bacon plant

A small recirculating fountain tucked within a pocket garden provided an inviting lure for songbirds. Surrounded by the unique lotus corniculatus or eggs and bacon plant along with a tropical-looking melianthus major aka honey bush this garden room invited one to stick around for awhile.

We garden designers were impressed with the size and vigor of acacia ‘Cousin Itt’. This lovely small plant with emerald green, feathery foliage stays small in the garden and has low water needs. Not to be confused with the bully acacia tree seen around here, it’s one of the good guys. Plant in full sun to partial shade.

Euphorbia wulfennii

In deer country you can’t go wrong with euphorbia characias wulfenii ‘Bruce’s Dwarf’. It does an excellent job of seeding itself so beware. Grow it where it can self sow and not become a problem child. Very hardy in winter and water sparingly. In spring and summer the flower heads form at the branch tips covering the plant with a chartreuse color.

A French hybrid lilac called Pocahontas scented the air as we exchanged our favorite plants that pull a garden together. The winners included hardy geraniums like Biokovo and Karmina and California native heuchera maxima. Canyon Snow Pacific coast iris also got a lot of votes. Groundcover sedum ‘Angelina’ and lime thyme garnered support also.

Abelia ’Kaleidescope’ and ‘Confetti’ got the nod from several of us. Also high on the list of favorite plants, the variegated gold and green cistus was used by many because of its low, mounding habit that hugs the ground and provides a bright evergreen accent to a sunny garden.

So if you’re in the mood to add a couple of interesting plants to your garden, take a tip from what landscape designers use or grow in their own gardens.

Tips for Planting Success

With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full potential during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbors yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that makes a plant thrive or just mope along? And how can you plan when one source shows the plant’s size at 6 feet tall while another has that same plant as 8-12 ft tall and just as wide? What’s a gardener to do?

Callistemon ‘Little John’

When designing a garden, whether it’s for a client or my own garden, I take into account the growing conditions such as soil type and fertility, winter low temperature, space and light. All plants need water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water can be harmful to your plant’s health.

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor. How do you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to note how many hours of full sun, part sun or bright shade your area is receiving during the middle of the day. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.

Most plants enjoy morning or late afternoon sun. Winter conditions are not always as important as those of the summer. Then again if your area gets no winter sun and your soil is heavy clay that sun-loving native plant might not survive. Sometimes it’s complicated.

Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt Tamboritha’

Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.

Plant your new addition correctly. Dig the planting hole at least twice as wide as the container but no deeper than the depth of the root ball unless the soil is deeply compacted. Leaving the bottom of the hole undisturbed helps prevent the plant from settling below its root crown. In soil containing a high percentage of clay, score the sides of the planting hole with a shovel to aid root growth outward from the hole.

It’s best not to add soil amendments or fertilizers directly to the planting hole, although it may be beneficial to spread some well composted manure to the surface before digging the hole. Wait until new growth is several inches long before applying fertilizer.

Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil allows for a 2 inch thick layer of mulch around the plant but don’t bury the crown. After planting don’t till the soil again allowing the beneficial organisms to re-establish.

If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil the above tips are even more important for your planting success.

Flowering Trees & Shrubs of Early Spring

Outside my window the Blireiana flowering plum is covered with dark pink, double blossoms. It’s one of my favorite early spring blooming trees with a sweet fragrance strong enough to scent the garden. We look forward to the earliest flowers of the new season knowing that winter will soon be over. Spring officially begins on March 20th.

Old fashioned shrubs like flowering quince and forsythia figure prominently in many old gardens because they are tough plants able to survive neglect and still look beautiful.

Forsythia ‘Kolgold’

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.

Clivia miniata

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 winter garden although they would do fine in morning sun. If you have a north facing window you can grow them as houseplants. Clivia are hardy to several degrees below freezing but mine, under an overhang, have survived temps of 23 degrees without damage. Clivia breeders have produced gold and peach colored flowers also but I still like the standard orange ones.

A beautiful vine that blooms in winter is hardenbergia ‘Happy

Hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’

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. It requires little water once established and is 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.

Kids of Summer-Garden Related Activities

We’re lucky in that our kids are surrounded by nature. It’s a big world out there, filled with plants to taste, smell and touch, birds that sings, insects that buzz, lizards that do push-ups and mammals to watch. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children. Kindle a child’s curiosity early and you create a gardener, horticulturist and naturalists for life.

With a long, warm spring and summer to spend outdoors what fun, educational and interesting things can you do with kids?

Adelyn playing among hostas

Want some help out in the garden this year? Then get your kids interested. I’m not talking about getting the kids out before breakfast to help with the wheat crop harvest but fun things the entire family can enjoy.

Growing our own food is now common place. Even those who only have room for a couple of containers are vegetable gardening. Plant a pizza garden. On the ground use a hose to form a round garden shape and border it with stones or another type of edging of your choice. Divide the “pizza” into slices using stakes or one of your plant varieties such as basil. Add stepping stones for the pepperoni slices and plant each section with one tomato plant and one green bell pepper and fill in with garlic, oregano, chives and basil. By summer you’ll be harvesting the makings for a delicious home made pizza. A container pizza garden would be similar but on a small scale. Both are fun to create, plant and harvest.

Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden. You can plant tall sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a “door” that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown. Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long garden stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside. Scarlet runner beans have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to scarlet red flowers that attract hummingbirds. Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.

Adelyn watering garden

Another fun project is growing birdhouse gourds. This fast growing vine can beautify fences and trellises during the growing season. In the fall, dry and hollow them out to make birdhouses or gorgeous crafts. You can burn patterns into the surface and stain the gourds with shoe polish making beautiful objects of art that make great gifts.

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.

Flowers that kids can pick for bouquets will be interesting for them to grow also, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallow-tail butterflies. Other easy to grow flowers for cutting are snapdragons and who hasn’t pinched these to make faces?

Pettable 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.

Fragrant flowers and foliage teach us to stop and savor our surroundings. I always love it when I can introduce a youngster to the different plant smells. They never forget the experience and will go back again and again to a fragrance they like. Fragrant flower choices include sweet alyssum that attracts pollinators, chocolate cosmos, nemesia and heliotrope. Foliage plants that smell great are lemon basil, lime thyme, orange and chocolate mint.
Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies. Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.

Adelyn drawing the landscape

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 drawing on my wall so we both remember the fun we had in the garden.

It’s fun to explore outside with kids. Their natural curiosity is infectious as you get down to their level with nature.
A couple years ago I got the idea to make a nature guide for my friend Adelyn from pictures of the birds and flowers here in my own garden. She’s now almost 5 years old and still has her well-worn book. What’s a nature book if you can’t take it outside?

Adelyn’s book has photos of other things besides birds and flowers. There are butterflies and a tree frog as well as pictures of family. It’s fun to watch her run around and identify which bird or flower from the pictures in her book.

Adelyn with her nature guide

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 her nature book. The flowers are the easiest to find as they don’t fly away and later the blue hydrangeas will be blooming.

The next time Adelyn and Scarlett come to visit we’ll take more pictures and print them out on the computer to add to her nature guide. The book is one of those inexpensive four by six inch photo albums with sleeves for photos. Maybe the chipmunks will be here and pose for a photo. We can also do some face painting to showcase the flowers we find.

Scarlett showing off face painting

Another fun thing to do outdoors is a visit to Camp Joy in Boulder Creek. Camp Joy welcomes children to learn about growing and preparing food, seed saving, bees, goats and garden crafts. They also offer garden tours for school age children or groups of any age.

When I visited the farm a while back everyone was busy working but happy to share their knowledge with me. In the Kid’s Garden there were plants to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed. Just to walk around the garden is a sensory experience in tasting, touching, smelling, listening and seeing. After touring the farm, you can have your lunch or snack in the center of this beautiful garden.

On the beautiful day I visited I was greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost. Compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of “real soil” allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. Kelp and fish emulsion are used as fertilizer but mostly it’s the compost that makes the seedlings so strong. It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Entry to Camp Joy garden

Later in April or early May Camp Joy will hold their annual plant sale of seed starts of veggies, herbs and flowers that are successful for our area. Take a lunch and make a day of it.

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 or a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless.

The Wonderful World of Aloe

Probably because our winter has been so dramatic every time I see the brilliant flower spikes of an aloe plant glowing brilliant red, yellow and orange I marvel. Beloved by hummingbirds and sustainable garden aficionados alike aloes are easy to grow. So easy that a couple of these tough-as-steel succulents are growing right out of the cracks in a gas station parking lot in town and blooming without any supplemental water or care. How’s that for bullet proof?

Aloe ferox

Our Mediterranean climate is 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 at a time that 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 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 a many habitats in it’s native Cape Region of South Africa and is listed on the endangered plant list.

Aloe arborescens – 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.

Aloe maculata

The Soap Aloe or Aloe maculata is so tough that it can survive just about anywhere. Besides the parking lot I mentioned earlier it’s growing in my Bonny Doon garden that receives no winter sun at all. The gritty soil here drains quickly which helps them survive given the 124 inches of rainfall received so far this winter. 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.

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