All posts by Jan Nelson

I am a landscape designer and consultant in the Santa Cruz mountains in California. I write a weekly gardening column for the Press Banner newspaper. I am also a Calif. Advanced Certified Nursery Professional and managed The Plantworks Nursery in Ben Lomond, Ca. for 20 years.

Edibles & Ornamentals – The Bare Root Way

Autumnalis flowering cherry

It’s been a weird winter, weather-wise, but aren’t they all one way or another?  My flowering plum is blooming weeks early. I have an Autumnalis flowering cherry tree that blooms several times a year. The last blooming cycle started in late November and it’s still blooming now. This tree came into my life 20 years ago as a bare root tree. We’re old friends. Now is the time to add ornamentals and edibles like fruit, nuts, berries and vegetables while they’re available in bare root form. They are easy to plant, economical and establish quickly.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant. Once leaves emerge or flower buds start to swell, roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing new permanent roots in their final home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

apple ready to eat from a bare root tree

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-900 chilling hours per winter. What does that mean? Well, many fruit trees, lilacs and peonies need a certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less. You can give the plant more chilling in the winter but not less. Those in coastal Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious. We can grow both.

What if you don’t get full sun where you’d like to grow fruit trees? Apples, pluots and plums are good choices for an area that gets some sun- at least 5 hours a day during the growing season. The ideal is full sun but these trees will still set and ripen some fruit in partially shaded conditions. With peaches, nectarines or apricots it’s a different story. These fruits need hot sun to develop sweet, tasty fruit. Too little sun and they will not deliver anything close to what you have in mind.

Bare root fruit trees at Mountain Feed & Farm Supply

What’s the correct way to plant a bare root tree? According to research amending the soil is no longer recommended. Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond has a great web site with all the information you need to get your new fruit trees off to a good start including pruning, staking, mulching and care as they mature.

Don’t plant in heavy saturated soil with a high clay content, however. If your soil drains poorly it’s best to place your bare root tree at an angle in a trench, cover with soil and water in. Wait to plant until the soil is crumbly and friable with plenty of pore space. Digging in waterlogged clay soil is one of the worst things you can do for your soil’s health.

With a little planning you can have fresh fruit 7 months of the year. By growing your own fruit you’re not at the mercy of mechanical harvesters and shipping practices. You can grow fruit and harvest it when the time is right. Homegrown fruit is a world apart from agribusiness and much less expensive than the Farmer’s Market.

Rx for Winter Houseplants

I have a pet maranta. It doesn’t have legs or a mouth but it can say “Goodnight”.  When it’s dark this common houseplant closes it’s leaves unfolding them the next day with the light. Because it’s easy to grow, my prayer plant, the common name, is one of my favorites. Doesn’t hurt that the foliage is an absolute stunner with vivid red veins over a two-tone green background.

Maranta growing under table lamp

I treat this plant, as I do all my houseplants, a little differently during the dark days of winter. It’s their time to rest. Here are some tips to help your indoor plants thrive at this time of year while they get ready for spring growth.

A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it receives filtered light. They’re used to warm rain and perfect drainage. We put them in pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with. Most houseplants will tolerate darker conditions if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry allowing oxygen to move back into the root zone. Let the soil in a 4-6 inch pot dry half an inch down between waterings then water with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water or the roots will rot. If your plant is in a larger pot let the soil dry a couple inches between waterings. A moisture meter is very helpful for larger plants.

Parlor palm

Move plants into the best light you have. Even a table lamp will provide light for a plant growing underneath. Remove dust with a moist cloth or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Dust blocks light from getting to leaves.

Fertilize less often skipping December and January and starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Houseplants are essentially dormant in winter needing fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Don’t re-pot a plant in winter when they are slow to grow new roots. Replant when the growing season resumes in March or April. Choose a pot only two inches bigger than the old pot each time you transplant. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing and watering during the growing season.

Avoid placing plants in cold drafts near high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway. Ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

If you have medium to low light conditions in your house some of the best upright plants are philodendron, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola, ferns and palms. Hanging plants that grow well in low light are heart-shaped philodendron, pothos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

pest-free maranta

If you do find insects on your plants, a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow up spraying a week later. Horticultural oil works well also by smothering insects and their eggs. If you have tiny black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently. They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Fungi and You

Oyster mushrooms

I’ll bet if you walk around your yard you’ll find mushrooms poking through the soil under trees, between shrubs, even next to the driveway. This has been a banner year for fungi as early rains then mild weather helped make our local fungi very happy. The edible ones are one of the most nutritious foods in the world, packed with antioxidants. Without fungus, we’d have no bread, cheese, beer or wine. Fortunately, I have a friend who is takes their identification very seriously and finds lots of delicious types on his mountain biking ventures and he likes to share. Thank you, Robby.

Honey mushrooms

The same cluster of dark brown mushrooms has come up again just outside my back door. Could they be edible? Might I be able to try out one of those delicious sounding recipes in my “Gourmet’s Guide to Mushroom Cookery”?

While there are many wild mushrooms growing in this area that are edible there are just as many that are poisonous. Mistakenly ingesting them can cause death or liver damage so severe that a transplant would be needed for you to survive. In November, Santa Cruz County received the second report of a hospitalized person who became seriously ill after eating mushrooms collected in the La Selva Beach area. According to the press release, both illnesses were probably due to the mushroom Amanita phalloides. Other common poisonous mushrooms found throughout the county are Amanita ocreata and Galerina autumnalis.

amanita muscari

The common name for these mushrooms are Death cap, Destroying angel, and Deadly galerina. A single mushroom can be fatal if eaten although surprisingly there is no harm in handling them. If you know what you are looking for they are fairly easy to identify. If you aren’t a mushroom expert the amanitas may look like just another white gilled mushroom similar to a meadow mushroom or the galerina just another little brown mushroom of which there are many related species of unknown edibility.

A couple years ago on a hike in Fall Creek with the Sierra Club, I saw many beautiful mushrooms. Chanterelle grew in several locations along the trail. Although they were positively identified, collecting in a state park is prohibited so we took pictures only. We found huge clumps of honey mushrooms that are often eaten but sometimes cause stomach upset. Why a person would consume this variety is beyond me but sure enough, there’s a recipe in my book for fresh swordfish steak smothered with a mixture of sliced shitake, oyster and honey mushrooms.

Coral fungi

We came across an impressive Coral fungi emerging from the forest duff. They are quite distinctive looking and many are edible. My Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Aurora, however, states that even this unique looking family of fungi can be hard to identify. Many are mildly poisonous while some are edible.

So if it’s difficult to correctly identify edible mushrooms in the wild can you grow them yourself? It’s hard to achieve this in the back yard as fungi spores have a mind of their own as to where they want to live. Plus our temperate rain forest has no shortage of diverse mushroom types all spreading their own spores.

Several years ago at the Fungus Fair in Santa Cruz I purchased a package of oyster mushroom dowel plugs used to inoculate freshly cut heart wood. This method is not as easy as it sounds as you can’t use logs that are laying around in the forest because they may already be contaminated with other kinds of fungus. After 11 months of care my logs had yet to produce any oyster mushrooms. Undaunted I’ve now got a mushroom kit that consists of a plastic bag of growing medium containing Oyster mycelium. According to the instructions I should be harvesting mature size mushrooms in 2-3 weeks and get 4-5 crops from the kit. I’ll keep you posted.

There are over a thousand beautiful fungi to discover in our area. They live in such lovely places. Get out and enjoy the beauty of mushrooms. There’s fungus among us.

Gardening Trends for 2018

Who doesn’t love to read garden magazines with all those beautiful photographs during the winter and dream about your garden’s potential. Ditto for all the gardening blogs on the internet that are written by some very talented people who seem to have more free time than most of us. Here are some trends for 2018 you might embrace.

Buddleja ‘Red Hot Raspberry’

Most of us garden with a backdrop of mountains. Nature is all around us even if you live in a neighborhood with curbs. Some of the new trends will appeal to those who grow edibles while some will appeal to the gardener who loves their garden but doesn’t have time to do a lot of maintenance. What’s new this year is a return to some old fashioned ideas.

Embrace the smaller garden. You can create an instant meditation garden that encourages you to stop and sit for a couple minutes by placing a small bench where you can view something interesting in your garden. Small gardens are not only compact they are easier to care for. Containers on the patio or deck allow you to grow plants for food as well as for the birds and the bees. There are more new dwarf vegetable, herb and flower varieties being introduced every year.

Loropetalum ‘Jazz Hands’

Many of us are removing overgrown shrubs and replacing them with water smart, easy-to-care-for plants that will stay the right size in smaller spaces. Nearly every plant these days has a compact version that is only half the size. Good reason to look again at some reliable old favorites with a new twist like loropetalum ‘Jazz Hands’, abutilon ‘Lemon Drop’, Buzz Hot Raspberry buddleja, dwarf pomegranate and crape myrtle.

A new version of the drought tolerant Grecian laurel bay tree is available now that will only grow to 6-8 feet tall in 10 years. Laurus nobilis ’Little Ragu’ adds that classic Mediterranean flavor to soups and sauces. When I moved to this area 30 years ago I made the mistake of using our native bay tree for a spaghetti sauce. Now I can grow the real deal and not ruin my sauce.

Clematis with alstroemeria

To create a sense of privacy, peace and quiet, enclose your garden. When a fence isn’t possible or preferred, plant a deep bed of mixed low water, low maintenance shrubs as a screen. Vines, like clematis, grown on a trellis provide nearly instant privacy and enclosure. If the front of your house faces the street, a few well-placed shrubs can block the view into your home.

Other trending looks in the gardening world are to combine ornamental plants with edibles. Well, maybe this isn’t new to you but it’s a good reminder that your veggies don’t have to be in a special raised bed or plot but can by planted throughout the garden. Think tomatoes, pole beans and other vining veggies trained on an metal obelisk within a perennial bed. Or compact versions of beans, eggplant, chard, hot peppers, tomatoes or edible flowers like nasturtiums planted among your other plants or along path borders.

Even if you’re not redoing your whole garden you can plant a small section or vignette using a more toned down palette. Whether it’s shades of pink or white or blue this look will give your garden a calm feeling.

Everything old is new again from old fashioned flowers, bicolor blooms, solar lights for the garden, sharing extra produce with neighbors and super fragrant plants.

Thoughts for the New Year from The Mountain Gardener

Well, it’s happened again– the sun made it’s way around our planet once more. As the calendar turns to a New Year these are some of my thoughts for 2018.

The New Year – 2018

You, fellow gardeners, are unique. I can’t imagine any group of people more diverse and feisty and independent than gardeners. Yet we have such a connection. We love and are fascinated with nature. We find our deepest satisfaction in coaxing plants from the earth, in nurturing their growth. We are enduring pragmatists.

Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree next July? Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will still be there tomorrow.

Allow some empty places for new plants, transplants or garden art. It makes a garden your own. Add whatever makes you happy and your heart soar when you’re in your garden. Pay attention to the size that a plant will attain. It will save you lots of problems later. Weed often but not when you’re enjoying a beverage.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

Sherman looking for squirrels

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget and ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues but there’s always next year or next month or the summer after next.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning.

Accept a few holes in your plants. Walk around the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and you need to break out an organic pesticide. This is a good time for to have that beverage.

Plant more edibles if you can. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. More than just vegetables and fruit, growing food connects us to the earth and to each other.

When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Do your best even if you only have a few containers to grow an Early Girl tomato or some Rainbow chard.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year to all of you fellow gardeners from The Mountain Gardener. May your tomatoes be sweet and your roses as fragrant as a summer’s eve.

A Christmas Poem for Gardeners

Hydrangea Christmas tree

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
All the creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the native grass lawn there arose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
Fruit, vegetables and color: it must belong to an artiste.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Our old feeding grounds are now covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we just don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, go ahead and make a wish,
And each time you see one of us, think welcome, not banish.
And all of us creatures will give you our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
” Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night ! ”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote this poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.