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Notes from the Garden / August

calibrachoaThey’re called the Dog Days of summer. You know those sultry days with the hottest summer temperatures. The Romans associated the hot weather between July 24th and August 24th with the star Sirius which they considered to be the “Dog Star” because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog). The Old Farmer’s Almanac uses slightly different dates but the Dog Days of summer are definitely here.

Recently I moved to Bonny Doon where gardening in the hot, sandy soil is very different than the shady clay I was used to. One thing I’ve noticed is the existing drip system has not been modified to allow for the growth of the plants. The emitters which were originally placed at the base of each plant are not even close to covering the current size of the root zone. The crown of the plant is getting overwatered with each cycle but the rest of the plant is bone dry. Time to add more emitters maybe even downsizing to half gallon ones and moving them away from the middle of the plant. No sense wasting water that’s not doing the plant much good.

As summer rolls along you may become more aware of the different microclimates in your garden. With the drier and hotter weather this year some of your plants that used to get along just fine might be showing signs of stress. Taking note of these changes in the performance of your plants is what makes for a more successful landscape. When the weather cools towards the end of September you will want to move or eliminate those plants that aren’t thriving. Be sure to keep a thick layer of mulch on the soil around your plants to conserve that precious water you do allocate to each of your irrigation zones.

The drought may be affecting our garden but it doesn’t have to stop us from being out in the garden. There are lots of things to do in the garden now. The joy of gardening can take many forms including adding wind chimes or adding a bird feeder or bird bath. Take time to groom the plants that need some cleanup. Many perennials benefit from a little haircut at this time of year to extend their blooming into the fall season. Lavenders especially will keep their compact shape by a hard pruning now. This forces new growth in the center so the plant doesn’t get woody.

Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials as often as you can. Annuals like marigolds, petunias and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa, marguerites and lantana.

These plants know they’re on this earth to reproduce. If they get a chance to set seed, the show’s over- they’ve raised their family. Try to remove fading flowers regularly and you’ll be amply rewarded.

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time in August or early September. All shrubs, especially rose_Icebergbroad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year’s buds.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in September and October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

zinniaI grow mostly perennials but I have to admit that I’m a big zinnia fan. I remember one of my first gardens. Each year I would plant different sizes and colors of zinnias grouping them like a rainbow. Swallowtail butterflies loved them as much as I did. I spent many an afternoon, camera in hand, photographing them in action. Kids and adults alike enjoy the wildlife that’s attracted to the garden. Be sure to take time to smell the roses as they say.

Lawn Begone !!

salvia_nemorosa_East_FrieslandNow that everyone has received a summer water bill or two, it’s hitting home about the need to conserve. I recently received this email which might describe your situation also. “I let my grass die in this drought and now the area looks awful…Can you recommend a low water, deer proof ground cover?” Sound familiar?

Replacing a traditional lawn with ground covers or other solutions takes a bit of problem solving. Some water districts require you replace 50% of your lawn with hardscape and the other half with approved drought tolerant plants in order to qualify for a rebate. How do you go about designing this to fit your tastes and lifestyle?

If you want to replace the lawn with other ground covers and plants which are the best for our area? Do you want a low ground cover that you can walk on or would low-growing shrubs work for your area? There are also drought tolerant grasses that make good lawn subs. Here are some ideas that you can use in your own landscape.

Those of you with lawns fall into two groups.  Those that need a small recreational space for the kids and erigeron_glaucusthose who don’t. If you’ve been thinking that this is the year to go lawn-free here are some tips.

After removing the turf, start by looking at your pathways as they become focal points. A curving flagstone path laid down over gravel will allow excess water to soak into the earth rather than run off. Enlarge sitting areas to accommodate a table, chairs and a shade umbrella. Small crushed gravel is affordable and sounds great underfoot as you walk.

Layer plants on berms along your path, arranging low growing varieties like lavender, santolina, teucrium, beach strawberry, salvia nemorosa and creeping rosemary at the base and taller ones like salvia Hot Lips, ornamental grasses and ceanothus at the top if your area is sunny.  Shady gardeners can use tall plants like red-flowering currant with dicentra eximia at the base. Group plants to give them a sense of mass and use different textures and foliage colors for contrast. Make sure the plants you choose will stay the size you envision without much pruning.

Walk-on ground covers like dymondia, lippia, potentilla duchesnea strawberry and several kinds of thyme create the look of lawn but require a fraction of the irrigation.
erysimum_Apricot_Twist
One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging, fertilizing or much irrigation. You can walk on it and it stays green all winter, shading into bronze tones when the weather cools. It even blooms in midsummer for several weeks. Bees will be attracted to it at this time. Thyme prefers sun and poor, sandy soil. Autumn is the best time to install from flats cut into 4″ plugs planted about a foot apart. It will fill in within 3 years. Plant them closer together if you’re impatient. You’ll love your new lavender-blooming “lawn”.

There are also Ca. native and prairie meadow grasses that you can walk on. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho, Calif. and red fescue, carex pansa, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass. Occasional shearing keeps them looking  best but they may be left alone with no mowing at all. Weed control is important during establishment but a healthy stand may be sustained with virtually no weeding after that.

Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass, catlin sedge and valley meadow scutellaria_suffrutescenssedge.  All grow 4-8″ tall and can be either left alone or mowed every so often.  They are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

Scotts Valley Water District has a good list of lawn substitute grasses and other water conserving plants.

If the idea of a flowering meadow right outside your door appeals to you, plant an eco-lawn, a mix of grasses and flowering plants.  Both low water use and low maintenance, an ecology lawn might include flowering perennials like English daisy, Roman chamomile and yarrow interspersed with native grasses.   Cut this style of lawn every 3 weeks in spring and once during the summer.  This is enough to keep the yarrows from developing woody stems while also allowing the perennials to flower between cuttings.

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing shrubs like baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, creeping mahonia, rosemany prostratus, rubus, manzanita, creeping snowberry and ribes viburnifolium work well and are easy to grow.

Don’t be a slave to your water guzzling grass lawn. You have lots of options to reduce or replace it.

Good Cut Flowers to Grow in Shade or Sun

mixed_bouquet.2048I have a shady garden so each flower on a shrub, tree, perennial or annual is a precious commodity. I wish I had more so that I could walk out into the garden and gather armloads of fresh flowers to decorate the dinner table with big bouquets. Most flowers last longer outside on the plant that when cut and I haven’t planted enough for cutting and to enjoy in the garden, too. This year I’m going to do something about that. There are beautiful flowers to grow in the shade as well as the sun that are also long lasting in the vase.

For starters I can take some tips from a bouquet that recently graced a friend’s table. It magenta_clematis.1600probably won’t come as a big surprise to you that many of my friends are also garden designers like I am. The beautiful mixed bouquet I admired was comprised of both flowers and foliage. White calla lily, magenta and white clematis and wisteria along with branches of blooming white spirea and viburnum snowball were the stars of the bouquet. Lacy spikes of coral bells and lilac columbine filled in between. Mauve colored hellebore and tulips rounded out the arrangement. Clearly I was impressed.

If you are looking to increase your cut flower potential like I am here are some suggestions. For starters it’s always good to grow perennial plants that come back every year but self sowing annuals are also great so don’t forget to plants some of those also.

In shady gardens, fragrant daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub or small tree with blooms that smell like apricots.  Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets and the leaves turn red in fall which is an added bonus.

Our native shrub philadelphus lewisii, also called mock orange, has flowers that smell like oranges and it will grow in some shade as well as sun.

Cooke's_purple_wisteria.1600In sunnier spots I’m going to plant carnations and dianthus because I love their intense clove fragrance both in the garden and in bouquets. Chocolate cosmos is always on my list. Who doesn’t love the smell of chocolate? Lemon verbena and scented geraniums are other great bouquet candidates.

Penstemon are good for cutting and the tubular flowers attract hummingbirds in the garden. Kangaroo paw don’t require much water to grow their unusual fuzzy tubular flowers. Coreopsis attract butterflies as are long lasting in bouquets. Used to be that coreopsis only came in bright yellow with maybe a bit of brown as an accent but now they are available in pinks, white, lilac and palest yellow.

Add more coneflowers, dahlias, gloriosa daisy, delphinium, foxglove, scabiosa, mimulus, aster, shasta daisy and yarrow to the perennial garden so you have extras for cutting then look to self sowing annuals that are easy to grow. Some that make good cut flowers are bachelor buttons, clarkia, cosmos, flax, love-in-a-mist, nasturtium, spider flower and calendula.

Annual flowers such as zinnia, lisianthus, snapdragon, statice and marigolds are great in containers where you can make every drop of water count and are also good for cutting.

To make cut flowers last,  pick them early in the morning before heat stresses them.  Flowers cut in the middle of the day will have difficulty absorbing enough water.  Take a bucket of tepid water with you and place stems in it as you cut.  Indoors, fill the kitchen sink with cool water and recut each stem underwater. The pull off any foliage or flowers that will be below the water level in the vase.  You’ll be amazed just now long your flowers will last when you cut them under water.  It’s worth the extra step.  Now fill a clean vase with 3 parts lukewarm water mixed with 1 part lemon-lime soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar, and a crushed aspirin.  Another recipe for floral food to add to the water is 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 tablespoons white vinegar , 1/2 teaspoon bleach in 1 qt water.  The sugar helps buts open and last longer, the acid improves water flow in the stems and the bleach reduces the growth of bacteria and fungus.  Change the water and recut the stems every few days to enjoy you bouquets for a week or maybe even two.

Santa Cruz Co Fair

I was on my deck recently with a friend who commented that everything smelled so good that it must be nice to just sit and enjoy the garden. I thought to myself "What? How can I just sit when there is so much to do?" That's when it hit me, Why do we create gardens if not to enjoy them?  So as summer winds to an end broccoli_sweet_alyssum2celebrate what you've created and just sit and enjoy the fragrance, sights and sounds of your garden.

At the Santa Cruz County Fair last week there was plenty of inspiration to enjoy the fragrance, sights and sounds of a county fair.   Before I even arrived I stopped at a broccoli field bordered by sweet alyssum. The fragrance was lovely and I knew the beneficial syrphid flies were doing their job as predators of aphids that might find a broccoli plant irresistible.
zinnia_with_honey_bee2
At the fair I always admire the colorful beds of mixed zinnias. I didn't see any swallowtail butterflies looking for nectar but I know it's one of their favorite flowers. Lots of honey bees did find the zinnias to their liking. Next year I'm going to try my hand at zinnias again. They are one of those old fashioned flowers that are easy to grow. Kids love that they come up so quickly and develop a flower one can really be proud of.

At the Farm History display old food processing equipment and jars caught my attention. I could admire the apple boxes with their imaginative labels for hours. An educational poster of old pictures from the late 1800's showed workers spraying horticultural oil on apple trees to eradicate apple scab. When DDT came on the scene, it was used until banned in 1973 but it is still being detected in water and fish. Organic apple growers utilize integrated pest management techniques now.

I love seeing the poultry, lamb judging, dairy cows and cattle and pigs but it was the 3 day old baby goats that had the biggest audience. Naturally, I'm drawn to the horticultural exhibits. Who doesn't enjoy the dahlia competition with every color and flower type represented? A dark magenta cactus dahlia was my favorite. These mammoth flowers take longer to grow and fewer are produced by each plant but they are so worth it.

After the bonsai exhibit and vowing to do better with my own collection, it was the roses that I circled repeatedly smelling each to decide which was the most fragrant. I'm partial to the scent of my own lavender Neptune and baby pingiant_pumpkin2.1280k Falling in Love but the winners at the fair were outstanding especially the white JFK.

After the watercolor and fine art exhibit I pressed on to the agriculture building where apple pie and jams, beans, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, herbs and other fruit and vegetable entries are displayed. The pumpkin judges awarded first prize to a giant specimen but many were close in weight. I know there is an art and science to growing these behemoths. Maybe someday I'll try my hand but I like the smaller eating varieties that are so sweet.

Back at home, I'm tempted to prune the spent hosta flower stalks but I'm taking my own advice and am going to just sit and enjoy the scent of the last of the jasmine blossoms. The Iceberg rose sweetens the air with the scent of honey. The mophead hydrangea blooms have taken on that tawny dusty rose shade that will last for many more months. The Anna's hummingbirds visit the abutilons every hour sipping nectar and I can see buds forming on the Autumnalis Flowering Cherry getting ready for it's second show of the year. Be sure to take time out and enjoy your garden. You deserve it.
 

Beneficial Gardens in a Small Space

waterfall_2He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of santivalia2nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens  that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia.  They have flat  flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.

blue_thunbergia2Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.

Merry Christmas from The Mountain Gardener

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, this time of year is special to each of us in our own way. We really do greet friends and neighbors with a bigger smile and a warm holiday wish when we see them on the street, at a community event or even in a store. It means a lot to me when a reader says how much they learn from my column. If you've enjoyed even one of them, I'm a success.  Isn't there a saying to the affect that a person is a success if they get up in the morning and do what they want to do? I'm blessed to be able to do just that- give gardening advice with the occasional pearl of wisdom thrown in and create gardens. How fortunate can one get?

I look out my window and see the chickadees working the plants for aphid eggs. I cleared a path of downed branches for the deer twins to pass behind my fence on their regular route. My resident raccoon family are happy finding worms along the driveway. And my cat, Jasmine, has grown a luxuriously thick, black winter coat.

There's not much else I need to do in the garden right now. Roses don't get pruned back until the end of January. Dormant spraying of fruit trees can be done in January and again in February. There'll be lots of time in late winter to prune deciduous trees. So sit back and enjoy the holidays.

While you're out and about you may see a shrub blooming with large flowers in red, pink or white. Chances are it's a camellia sasanqua. This species of camellia is native to the evergreen forests of southern Japan and many of the neighboring islands as far south as Okinawa. Cultivars began appearing in Japan in the late 1600's but it was the Dutch traders who imported some specimens into Europe in 1869. The leaves can be used to make tea and the seeds used to make tea seed oil for lighting, lubrication, cooking and in cosmetics. Tea oil has a higher caloric content than any other edible oil available naturally in Japan according to Wikipedia. All this from an incredibly beautiful shrub for partial shade.

Another plant  that I forget about until it starts blooming about now is the Christmas cactus. Each year I'm amazed at how many blooms I get from these tough, neglected plants. If you have a Christmas cactus that is dropping buds, though, you should look for a few conditions that might be contributing to this problem.   Temperature change is a major factor -moving your plant from a warm location to a cooler one or vice versa.  Ripening fruit nearby will give off ethylene gas and cause the flower buds to drop.  Watering with cold water or a cold draft from the front door might also be the culprit.  Keep plants away from furnace vents and fireplaces, too.  Christmas cactus are easy to grow in bright light and average home temperatures.  I have two that bloom their heads off and I have to confess my care for them is nowhere near what  I advise you to do.  They are forgiving, though, and live for a very long time sometimes being handed down from within families.

Most importantly I want to wish you and yours a wonderful holiday from The Mountain Gardener.