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.

Ornamental Grasses for Every Type of Garden

One of the most dramatic sites in a garden is an ornamental grass backlit by late afternoon sun. They seem to come alive as their tawny flowers spikes glow and sway in the breeze. Their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as few other plants do.

Stipa gigantea

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth

Pheasant’s Tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana)

habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, libertia, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, and liriope to name just a few.

I have to admit it’s the showy accent grasses that always get my attention. A personal favorite is Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass. This semi-evergreen grass grows 2-3 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 6 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

I like variegated plants and two-tone grasses combine well with many other garden plants. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an especially refined and elegant ornamental grass. Fine leaf blades are green with clean, paper-thin, white margins that give the plant a silvery cast when viewed from a distance. It is luminous when backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. Morning Light tends to keep its upright shape better than some other cultivars and rarely flops. The reddish bronze plumes that appear in late fall are spectacular.

libertia perigrinans

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2″ of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

Color & Fragrance in the Fall Garden

So I walk out my front door and a sweet honey fragrance overwhelms my senses. What’s blooming now that coul

osmanthus hetrophyllus ‘Goshiki’

d be giving off a scent so strong I can smell it from a long way off? I don’t see anything flowering that I know to smell so delicious. Following my nose I find it. The teeny, tiny, white flowers of a variegated Osmanthus heterophyllus -Goshiki False Holly- is making it’s presence known in a big way and I’m enjoying every minute.

In the fall I appreciate flowering plants all the more. With the season is winding down and the fall color display just starting, color and fragrance are the heroes of my garden these days. In addition to the variegated Goshiki False Holly, the vanilla-scented heliotrope are still blooming. Mine looks pretty ragged at the end of winter but bounces back each year and with a little dead heading during the summer keeps on providing those deep vivid purple flower clusters -until Thanksgiving some years.

Dianthus

Also I notice the apricot-colored dianthus is blooming another round of clove-scented flowers. Dianthus and their close relatives, the carnations, are a must-have in any garden. Combine pinks as their called with other perennials of the same medium water requirements and grow them near your door or patio chair where you can enjoy them regularly.

Although ceratostigma plumbagioides – Dwarf plumbago – flowers don’t have fragrance their deep, electric blue flowers along with the foliage that turns reddish brown as the weather cools are a valuable groundcover for dry areas under oaks, for instance. They thrive in sun or part shade with moderate to o

Dwarf plumbago

ccasional irrigation. Beautiful when planted in drifts or as a filler between other shrubs.

With Halloween coming up orange blooming plants like Lion’s Tail look perfect in the autumn garden and get the attention of birds, bees and butterflies. The scientific name leonotis leonurus translates from the Greek words meaning lion and ear in reference to the resemblance of the flower to a lion’s ear but this perennial shrub has long been called Lion’s Tail in California. A member of the mint family it starts blooming in very early summer and continues through fall. Having very low water needs and hardy down to 20 degrees it’s perfect for a drought tolerant garden.

bulbine

Another good choice for your drought tolerant garden is the long blooming Hallmark bulbine or Orange Stalked bulbine. It’s a succulent you’ve got to try. Starting in late spring and continuing through fall and often into winter this one foot tall groundcover spreads to four or five feet wide. The orange star-like flowers with frilly yellow stamens form atop long stalks that rise above the foliage. Remove spent flower stalks to encourage reblooming.

mimulus ‘Jelly Bean yellow’

What’s a fall garden without an orange or gold hued mimulus to feed the hummingbirds? Mine haven’t stopped blooming since early summer. Deer resistant and drought tolerant Sticky Monkey flower get the sticky part of their common name from their leaves which are covered with a resinous oil discouraging the larvae of the checkerspot butterfly from dining too greedily.

Orange and blue are opposite on the color wheel so they look fabulous together. Enter the salvias with their mostly blue and purple flowers. From California natives such as salvia clevelandii to Mexican bush sage to Autumn sage there are thousands of varieties available. All are deer and gopher resistant, drought tolerant and hummingbird magnets.

Bulbs that Bloom in a Shady Garden

Many of us garden in the shade year round. Others have sun in the summer but shade from fall through spring as the sun’s arc becomes lower. Do you look at the fall bulbs for sale and think ‘Is there any hope that my garden might look like the pictures on the package come spring?” Here are some encouraging tips for you if this describes your garden.

Tulips growing in shade

If you dream about drifts of colorful flowering bulbs under your trees in the spring but didn’t think they would bloom in the shade, think again. Even if your entire garden is shady year round there is hope.

Some bulbs manage to grow just fine beneath trees-even evergreen trees. Many from the daffodil clan, including jonquils and narcissus will grow, bloom and naturalize year after year under tree canopies or other lightly shaded areas. Common ones to try are Golden Harvest, the classic, large yellow King Alfred daffodil and Dutch Master with pure gold flowers. Barret Browning has a soft. butter-yellow corolla and a pumpkin orange frilly tube.

Other common bulbs that will bloom in light shade are crocus, scilla, tulips, grape hyacinth, leucojum, snowdrops, chionodoxa and lily of the valley.

Gold Cup daffodils

To make sure your bulbs stand out in the landscape, figure at least 20-40 bulbs per drift. If your ground is hard or impacted by roots, be sure to pick up a sturdy, foot-operated bulb planter to make is easier to dig. Naturalizing daffodils is an affordable way to grow more flowers and they’ll come back every year without losses from deer and gophers.

Squirrels, mice and moles, however, are observant and crafty. Once they discover newly planted bulbs, they’ll assume it’s food. Just disturbing the earth is a tip off for them. Daffodils and narcissus bulbs are unappetizing but if they dig them up and leave them exposed with just a nibble taken from them, so much for any spring flower display. Protect your bulbs with wire baskets or spray them with foul tasting repellent, letting the spray dry before planting. You can also bury the bulbs with ground up egg shells.

Mid-season tulips

Planting bulbs along side a path makes for a beautiful look come spring. If you installed a flagstone or stepping stone path or sitting area this fall, now is the best time to plant groundcovers between. Low, sturdy types that can withstand some foot traffic include blue star creeper for regularly irrigated area and creeping, woolly or elfin thyme for drier spaces. Make sure you have enough planting mix between the pavers for the plugs to grow. Fill the largest spaces first and allow them to spread into the little cracks. Mixing groundcover types looks great as long as they have the same water requirements. Low growing pennyroyal and corsican mint smell wonderful when you walk on them as does chamomile, although you need to mow this one occasionally to keep it neat and tidy.

Whatever you bulbs you choose to try this fall, you will be happy you planted some bulbs come spring. And to help them bloom again the following year fertilize them at the time of planting with bulb food or bone meal worked into the soil a couple inches at the bottom of the hole. Mature bulbs respond to an early spring feeding with the same fertilizer.

 

California Natives for Erosion Control

Who knows what the weather will be like this winter but what we do know is that some of our rain events will come with a vengeance. It’s not that unusual for our area to get 8 inches of rainfall during a storm and that can create havoc on an unprotected hillside. Fortunately, October is a good time to do something about it.

Pink Flowering Currant

Fall is the perfect time to plant in our area. The soil is still warm encouraging root growth and the weather is mild. Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow and spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are well suited to this job.

Common native shrubs include ceanothus and manzanita of all

Calycanthus occidentalis

types. Calycanthus or Spicebush has fragrant flowers in late spring blooming well into summer with a spicy fragrance. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. All these plants have deep roots and control erosion.

Ribes s. King Edward VII

Ribes sanguinem or Flowering Currant is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. Choose from white flowering ‘White Icicle’ or ”Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ with spectacular deep red flower clusters. ‘Spring Showers’ has 8 inch long pink clusters. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, matilija poppy and western elderberry. ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and baccharis. Ceanothus maritimus, ‘Heart’s Desire’ and ‘Anchor Bay’ are all good groundcover selections and are not attractive to deer.

Symphoricarpos – Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry – can hold the soil on steep banks. This native tolerates poor soil, lower light and general neglect.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy -dendromecon rigid- is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one – not around the stem – to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.

 

Shady Garden Success Stories

If you read my column regularly or even once in a while you’ve probably heard me lament about the difficult growing conditions here in my garden. Between the sandy soil, 5 hours of intense sun but for only 6 months of the year, gophers, squirrels, moles, deer and chipmunks I’m happy if any plant thrives. So it is with pleasure that I report to you the small successes I’ve had lately and maybe give you hope that you might also grow plants that provide some color and fragrance in your garden along with attracting hummingbirds, songbirds, bees and butterflies.

As the sun shifts lower in the sky, my garden becomes shadier each day. The soil is still warm, however, and that encourages root growth so even though I won’t see much happening above ground until late next spring hope springs eternal and I am driven to plant more natives as well as other appropriate plants that will fill in those blank spots.

Gaura l. ‘Siskiyou Pink’

This week a clump of deep pink gaura lindheimeri is blooming like crazy. If I had my druthers I wouldn’t have planted it among a stand of orange flowering California fuchsia but it still looks great against the gray foliage of the epilobium or zauschneria or whatever it’s called now days.

Gaura ’Siskiyou Pink attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and needs only occasional water. The books will tell you gaura requires full sun but mine is thriving without a lot of sun. Don’t be afraid to try a plant you like despite what the books tell you.

Zauschneria aka epilobium

Same goes for the light requirements of the California fuchsia. Mine is happily spreading and it gets only partial sun for part of the year. Las Pilitas nursery website, a great source of information, does say they will tolerate part-shade and commonly grow where there is extra moisture in the winter and spring, gradually drying through fall. Guess that 140 inches of rainfall I got up here in Bonny Doon last winter would fall into that category. As far as the renaming of plants California fuchsia apparently is now called epilobium canum but the name zauschneria may come back so call them whatever works for you.

One of these days I want to plant a few more native plants that will tolerate shade and attract wildlife. Toyon with it’s red berries is high on my list as is Pacific wax myrtle. I have a pink flowering currant which is doing well as well as sambucus mexicana which the hummingbirds, jays and chipmunks like and a Black Lace elderberry.

Sambucus ‘Black Lace’

Of course, all the different ceanothus do well in partial shade, grow fast and the birds and bees love them both in bloom and now that they are full of berries and seeds. My covey of quail find the berries irresistible. Apparently porcupine like them also but fortunately for my dog, Sherman, I don’t have any of those.

California native Pacific Coast Iris, Woodland Strawberry, Heuchera maxima, Western Columbine, Bleeding Heart, Mimulus and Wild Ginger all do well in my lean, shady, sandy soil. For some reason I don’t have any any coffeberry or any Oregon Grape but they are both on my wish list. Coffeeberry is one of the best all around native plants for wildlife and mahonia or Oregon Grape bloom in the winter and provide much needed nectar for hummingbirds.

Take advantage of the fall planting season to spruce up the problem spots in your shady garden. Email me at janis001@aol.com if you would like more suggestions.

Growing Chrysanthemums

It’s that time of year when every store I visit has mums for sale. Chrysanthemums are so common we often think of them as temporary filler plants in fall containers and borders. But mums are perennials and can play a bigger role in your garden if you let them.

Garden mums

Chrysanthemums were first cultivated in China as far back as the 15th century. Over 500 cultivars had been recored by the year 1630. There are records in Japan from the 8th century relating the mums.

The botanical name for the garden chrysanthemum has been changed to dendranthemum grandiflorum but I never hear anyone use this name. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Yellow or white chrysanthemum flowers of the species. C. morifolium are boiled to make tea in some parts of Asia. In Korea, a rice wine is flavored with chrysanthemum flowers. Chrysanthemum leaves are steamed or boiled and used as greens in Chinese cuisine.

Another variety of chrysanthemum- cinerariaefolium- is important as a natural source of insecticide. The pyrethrins extracted attack the nervous system of all insects. it is harmful to fish and should be used with caution but it’s not persistent in the environment and is biogradable.

Mums, black mondo grass, Blue Hokkaido squash

Grown for years to flower only in late summer and fall, chysanthemums are short day plants, setting buds when they receive light for 10 hours and darkness for the other 14 hours of the day. This is why mums bloom in the spring on leggy stems if they are not cut back. And this is how growers manipulate their blooming, adjusting the dark and light periods with shades in the greenhouse so buds will form in any month. They’re nearly constantly available in grocery stores and florists in every season.

At this time of year when garden mums abound pick a plant with lots of buds. They bloom only once and won’t set more flowers until next year. Those buds, though, last a long time if you don’t let them dry out.

The specific type of plant doesn’t matter since they all have long term growth potential. If you particularly like one color or form of chrysanthemum, plant it now to enjoy again next year. You never know what the growers might decide to grow next season.

Choose a well-drained, sunny spot to plant them. Like many members of the aster family, mums don’t tolerate soggy ground. After blooming, trim off the old flowers and cut back plants to within a 4 or 5 inches of the ground. If you started with 4 inch pots, trim back by half.

Next spring pinch them back whenever growth gets to 8 inches tall. Keep pinching until July, then allow plants to start forming buds for the traditional fall show. Mums need regular water so plant them in spots where you have other plants with the same water needs.

All parts of chrysanthemum plants are potentially toxic to dogs, cats, horses and other mammals. Ingesting the plants can cause vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivating, rashes or lack of coordination, according to the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.