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.

Interesting Plants to Update your Garden

Tired of seeing the same plants in your garden and everywhere else? Feel like changing things up a bit? With this question in mind I’ve turned to my fellow landscape designers to see what plants they are using these days so that every garden they design doesn’t look the same. You can have too much of a good thing.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to recommend a plant that hasn’t been shown to be a reliable grower in a variety of conditions. Sometimes the latest and greatest plant introduction turns out to be a dud. Other times a new cultivar of an old favorite hits a home run. Here are some oldies but goodies and new plants to add to your garden.

 

Loropetaum ‘Jazz Hands Dwarf PInk’

Loropetalum ‘Jazz Hands’ is getting the nod from everyone who’s grown it. If you love the deer tolerance, low maintenance. moderate watering and toughness of regular Chinese Fringe Flower this showy dwarf variety is even easier to grow. Staying low and tidy Jazz Hands Dwarf Pink has cool purple foliage with a cranberry undercurrent and hot pink blooms. It looks great combined with Jazz Hands Dwarf White. Local wholesale nurseries are growing it so it’s readily available.

Speaking of local sources for plants, we live in one of the prime growing areas for landscape plants. I recently learned that one of my favorite plants Canyon Snow Pacific coast iris is going through a difficult time. Seems it’s become less vigorous than the other colors in the Canyon series and the growers are working to improve their stock. We need to count on a plant’s performance. There’s enough other issues to deal with in our gardens without starting with a wimpy plant.

Cistus variegata ‘Mickie’

Rockrose have always been favorites in the low water use garden. There’s one with a low, mounding habit that hugs the ground and creates a super colorful accent to the sunny garden. With brilliant gold leaves splashed in the center with green this variegated cistus hybridus called ‘Mickie” is hardy in winter, grows only 14-18 inches tall and spreads to about 2 feet wide. Perfect for containers or smaller gardens.

If you like to include California native plants in your garden Woolly Blue Curls or trichostema lanatum has been shown to be reliable in the garden if given full sun, good drainage and little fertilizer or amendment. Group similar plants and forget about them. They bloom from late spring through summer and make a good cut flower. Another common name for this plant is Romero or California Rosemary which dates back to the Portola expedition in 1769.

If you want to make a big splash in your garden or container try growing Salvia ’Amistad’ or Friendship Sage. With fast growth in the warm months to 4 or 5 feet tall, the rich royal purple flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. It will grow in light shade with medium water requirements and remain evergreen in warmer parts of your garden.

Cousin Itt acacia

Acacia ‘Cousin Itt’ continues to be a favorite for many of us. This lovely small plant with emerald green, feathery foliage that 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.

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.

How to Live in Peace with a Wisteria

A wisteria is one of those plants that you either love or dread. One of nature’s most resilient survivors they are able to withstand and recover quickly from difficult conditions. To some they are a little too tough for their own good with a growth rate rivaling bamboo during the summer. If you dream of a wisteria-covered pergola shading your patio here are some maintenance tips that are sure to keep both gardener and vine happy.

Wisteria at Filoli Gardens in Woodside

Wisteria are so vigorous they can be pruned at any time, keeping them in bounds and to clear out unwanted or dead growth. Prune out any stems you see extending into eaves, windows or shingles. If yours has gotten away from you, you can even prune it down to the ground and start over with training although you’ll have to wait a few years for your vine to bloom again.

To their control size major pruning is done during the dormant season. Start by trimming the long tendrils that grew over the summer back to about 6 inches from the main trunk. Cutting the tendrils back in this way will initiate flower bud development, neaten the plant up, and show off the attractive trusty, gnarly character of the vines.

Pruning during the dormant season will also give you a fighting chance of keep your wisteria from getting into mischief. As you know if you have a wisteria, those long tendrils are capable of growing another 25 feet during the summer.

Wisteria shading a patio

Whatever time you do renovation pruning remember the response of the wisteria to aggressive pruning is to literally explode with new runners. They put energy into new vegetative growth at the expense of flowering. Make sure you keep up on ongoing maintenance pruning by removing all unwanted runners right to their point of origin. Then prune back the others to 3 buds or sets of leaves. Repeated pruning of these runners is what will eventually give you spurs of wood, short laterals that in turn will provide you with flower clusters. You need to prune these runners all season long which ends up being every 3-4 weeks.

Do not fertilize your wisteria. They do not flower well is there is an over abundance or luxuriant growth. Over feeding also ends up giving them the means to become un unmanageable monster. If you find the wisteria vine has invaded a nearby bed, cut roots with a shovel below the soil line to control any that have wandered.

Maintaining a wisteria requires some diligence but the reward is worth the effort. Remember this especially during winter pruning season to make summer maintenance easier.

Cooke’s Purple wisteria

Which variety of wisteria should you get to cover your arbor, pergola, tree or other structure?

Chinese varieties such at ‘Cooke’s Special’ has clusters of fragrant blue-purple flowers 20 inches long. This variety can re-bloom which makes it a favorite.

Japanese wisteria ‘Caroline’ blooms early with mauve flowers. ‘Royal Purple’ (also known as ‘Black Dragon’) has sweetly scented dark purple flowers. Japanese wisteria are most effective when grown on pergolas so the long flower cluster can hang freely.

Silky varieties produce a profusion of short, 6 inch, fat clusters of strongly scented flowers that open all at once. They have velvety seed pods and bloom best in full sun.

 

How to Plant a Spectacular Container Garden

There’s something about a beautiful container overflowing with interesting flowers, foliage or succulents that always gets my attention and although I already have 241 containers I’m always on the lookout for ideas to create one more.

Wall planter with ivy geraniums

You can grow anything in a container. Think of them as furnishings. Grow herbs and other edibles near the kitchen door, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, hummingbirds and butterflies, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Next come the fillers. Fillers can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. The last plants are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plant

Mixed container planting

colors, two is sometimes enough. That doesn’t count green unless it’s lime. Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done. You want the pots to look good right away. Big pots, at least 16″ across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

In choosing a container, remember a porous clay pot will dry out fast in the summer sun as will a small pot. If you want pots on a sunny deck, you’ll have better results if your container is made or ceramic or colored plastic and is big enough to allow 2 inches of potting soil around the root ball. I don’t use water absorbing polymer granules in my containers as they are all in shade in winter and would stay too wet depriving plant roots of oxygen.

Water when the top 1 inch of soil in the container is dry. On a very hot day, watering mid day will cool the soil although I like to get my watering done early. Get to know your plants. Plants that are still growing into their containers need less frequent watering than those that are getting root bound. How much water? Water until it runs out the bottom and empty the saucer the next day if any water remains. Use a gentle nozzle that doesn’t dislodge the soil or compact it. Also make sure the water in the hose isn’t hot from lying in the sun.

Plants in containers are watered frequently and the water draining out of the bottom carries away nutrients. Actively growing plants need regular feeding from spring to early fall. Water soluble fertilizers are fast acting. Dry granules and time release capsules last longer. Organic fertilizers tend to work more slowly and are especially ideal for trees, shrubs and long lived perennials or for large planters in which you keep the same soil from year to year. Be sure plants are moist before feeding. The best fertilizer is the one that you get out of the package and onto your plants.

Tales from The Mountain Gardener

In celebration of my 600th column for The Press Banner here are some amusing highlights from the past 12 years including some featuring my sidekick Sherman. My springer spaniel has been part of many of my adventures or should I say misadventures and I suspect his collaboration will continue.

The author in her own garden

Time flies when you’re having a good time and that’s exactly how I feel writing my 600th column for the Press Banner. It all started back in Oct. 2005 when I wrote my first column about the benefits of fall planting and this unique area we call home. Since then I’ve covered everything from attracting birds to zucchini pollination and barely touched on all the gardening tips and advice that you might find useful.

Gardeners love to swap stories and I’m no exception. I remember helping someone with a planting plan.They were quite pleased with their new garden but the next time I saw them they told me the husband had pulled out a whole section of plants that turned red and then died. They wanted help to uncover the possible cause. I laughed when he showed me the plant tag from one the victims. They were Japanese barberries that turn red before losing their leaves in the fall. Guess that’s a lesson for us all. A gardener needs patience and a sense of humor.

Years ago I took a trip to Guatemala, Honduras and Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras. It was on Utila that I saw plants growing in washing machine baskets. I thought it was a clever way to re-use old appliances but wondered why there were so many old washing machines on a tiny island. A local laughed and told me the baskets protect their plants from the big blue crabs that come out at night. Seems the crabs will sever the stem right at ground level and drag the whole plant into their hole. Also the baskets protect the plants from the iguanas who will eat anything within two feet of the ground. And you thought deer, gophers and rabbits were a problem?

Sherman, moss eater.

I moved up to Bonny Doon a couple years ago. The existing garden has some beautiful old rock walls created from many varieties of fieldstone and covered with moss. Another section has a new concrete block retaining wall lacking any character. So when fall weather arrived I scraped off some moss from the old wall and mixed it with buttermilk hoping to spruce up the plain wall when the moss took hold.

With bucket and 4 inch paintbrush in hand I tackled the new wall slapping on the moss slurry with abandon just before the winter rains started. I had almost completed my project and looked back to admire my work imagining how beautiful the wall would look covered with dark green moss.

What I didn’t count on was Sherman, my Welsh springer spaniel. He had been following me licking off most of the buttermilk. I added hot sauce to the remainder of the slurry but that barely slowed him down. The rain washed off most of the mixture so there is only a smattering of moss here and there on the new wall but it’s a start. Hope springs eternal for a gardener.

I always make the most of any excursion. You don’t have to go to an island off Honduras to find interesting solutions to gardening challenges.

Perennial garden in Poland

The gardens in eastern Poland were spectacular. The soil here, deposited by glaciers, is rich with sediment and nutrients. Sunflowers border neat plots of cabbage, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and leeks. Black-eyed Susan cover the hillsides with swaths of gold blooms. Berries such as currants, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry are grown in large plots and fenced with wire. Every 10 feet or so plastic bags are attached and wave in the breeze. I was told this keeps the wild boar, roe and red deer at bay.

I love to receive emails from readers with questions and ideas for columns. Inquiring minds want to know. Email me at janis001@aol.com.

Tranquil Blue in the Garden

With the heat of summertime upon us I’m drawn to those areas in my garden that have blue, white and lavender flowers. A hot day just seems cooler there.

Washed out magenta is nature’s favorite go-to color and the shade that hybrids will revert to it if allowed to go to seed. Among gardeners, red is a favorite color. Orange and yellow come next, then pink and purple with blue and white both comparatively rare in nature last on the list.

geranium ‘Orion’

So naturally, most of us gardeners want the elusive blue flower in our gardens. Knowing that cool colors recede, place them around the edges or at the back of a garden to make your space appear wider or deeper.

True blue flowers are rare. We use words like cerulean, azure, cobalt, sapphire, turquoise, electric blue or steel blue when describing blue flowers. Hybridizers have tried for years to produce a true blue rose or blue daylily. Blue plant pigment is hard to manipulate. It occurs in the daylily as a sap-soluble pigment and is difficult to segregate. Lilacs, purples, orchids and mauves we have and working with them hybridizers may eventually get near blue, but pure blue probably never. Recently, some companies have found a way to insert some blue in the center of their daylily flowers but a totally blue daylily has never been produced.

Rose hybridizers striving for true blue have come close by

hydrangea macrophylla

crossbreeding lavender hybrid teas in order to produce offspring having optimum amount of cyanidin, the pigment that imparts purple or magenta tones and flavone, the pigment that gives light yellow tones.The results have been more of a silvery lilac or mauve. A blue rose is still in the future although labs in Australia and Japan are genetically modifying the pigments from petunias to produce a blue rose. Their results are not yet perfected and these roses are more of a lilac in color and can not survive conditions outside the lab. It is apparently very difficult to isolate the pigment cyanadin. Delphiniums have a monopoly on it.

omphaloides

The color blue is calming and tranquil. It is the color of serenity and peace and is said to slow down the metabolism and reduce the appetite. When brightened with white or combined with yellow or orange in a complementary color scheme the results of blue in the garden are breathtaking. The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll used plants with golden leaves or clear yellow flowers to spice up blue gardens. Just remember that blues and purples are the first flowers to fade as darkness falls so be sure to have those whites and yellows to carry your garden into evening.

There are many blue perennials as handsome as they are durable that we can enjoy in our gardens today.
Some of my favorites are old fashioned hydrangeas, violas and campanula. Both are valuable in the shade garden along with omphaloides and brunnera. The blue spikes of a long blooming peach-leaf campanula just go together with the white and green variegated foliage of Jack Frost Siberian bugloss.

agapanthus africanus

In early spring we are dazzled by our native ceanothus which bloom with deep blue, sky blue or electric blue flowers. Emerald Blue phlox subulata carpets the ground in spring with clear blue flowers that top creeping stems. Penstemon Blue Springs, a California native hybrid, carries dense spikes of bright blue, bell-shaped blossoms.

Make sure your garden has a blue section to cool you on a hot day.

Designing a Garden Path

You can be led down the garden path or get off the beaten path or take the path less traveled. Everywhere are references to paths in literature and philosophy. Paths make a garden more interesting, too. Simply by changing the shape of your path or the materials underfoot or adding a focal point at a bend, yours can change the look of your whole garden. Consider some of these ideas to update your path.

Cottage garden flagstone path

Every garden path begs you to wonder where does it lead? It’s the journey as well as the destination that makes it so alluring. As you walk, the garden should slowly reveal surprises. An architectural accent plant might appear, a wonderful scent greet you, a distant view open up or a drift of colorful flowers at the edge may beckon you to stop and enjoy the scene.

In the front yard you want a solid path directing visitors from the parking area to the front door. It should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side with interesting views along the way like low walls or plant materials to create a sense of enclosure. You want a person to feel they are walking through a defined space and although you may alter the direction of the entry walk to make it more interesting the purpose of the path is to find the front entry area.

But what about all those other paths that wind around the house and in the back garden? Here’s where you can get creative.

Paths can be designed to slow people down. Plan pauses along the

Abkhazi Garden, Victoria, BC, Canada

way, widening it at some spots while placing a sitting bench nestled beside a bird feeder at another spot. Place a unique piece of garden art next to a tree with interesting bark or a view of distant mountains. You can route paths in ways that direct your sight toward beautiful things and away from the compost pile and trash cans. Good paths have entries that are easy to see and pull you in.

When I design a path in a garden I think about how it will fit into the rest of the landscape and the look of the house. Flagstone, brick or pavers are great for paths you’re likely to travel on barefoot. You can soften the path’s look by planting low ground covers between pavers. Allow at least 2 inches of soil between flagstone or pavers and amend the soil so it won’t pack down with foot traffic before planting.

Bark or gravel looks great for natural looking paths and a gently curving path invites you to stroll among the plants. If it leads you to a small circular patio all the better.

Bluestone path-mortared with accent boulders

How wide should you make an informal path? If you want to soften the edge with low plants, allow 3 1/2 to 4 feet. Small grasses, aromatic herbs, fragrant flowers and colorful foliage plants look natural beside a path.

An interesting path I encountered once was created from materials found onsite. Old untreated redwood timbers were cut and installed at an angle every 6 feet or so along a packed decomposed granite path. In between were small pieces of flagstone connected with bands of 2 inch black Mexican pebbles. The look was interesting and inexpensive to achieve.

Look around your own yard for found items that would give your path that personal touch. Old bricks and broken concrete will find new life and you’ll save the expense of having to haul it away.