Tag Archives: flowering shrubs

A Walk on the Wildside: The Ongoing Saga of the Hillbilly Gardener

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Fourth of July roses

Many years ago I was invited by a Scotts Valley resident to visit their garden. This was no ordinary garden I was to learn during my visit and each spring I look forward to seeing what’s new at Doc Hencke’s garden. From his roots in Oklahoma and Texas he describes himself as the “Hillbilly Gardener” but with his extensive knowledge of trees, vines and just about anything that grows he is one of the most successful and enthusiastic horticulturists I know. I wore my walking shoes and we started talking about what changes he’s noted in his landscape the past few years of drought coupled with this winter’s rains.

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Straw bale veggie garden with Joe Ghio bearded iris

First stop- the straw bale veggie garden. The soil in this part of the garden is blue hard sub soil so this above-ground method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place a couple years ago he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. Using a meat thermometer he determined by the internal temperature when fermentation was complete. He then soaked the bales with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. The straw bales are decomposing each year but he’s going to use them once more this season. His crop of kale, lettuces and chard looked robust and happy.

Nearby a bed of Joe Ghio hybrid bearded iris were in full bloom. “It’s been a great year for iris”, Richard said. Not so good for peach leaf curl. The rains this winter set the perfect stage for the fungus to proliferate. He joked that the birds get the peaches anyway.

Richard is redoing his pond this year. He’s tired of fighting the raccoons and algae. Steeper sides will deter the raccoons and deeper water will help to prevent algae growth. He was forced to remove a curly willow that shed leaves into the pond as their natural salicylic acid was poisoning the pond.

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Succulent collection with blooming kangaroo paw

Last year a new succulent bed was planted along the back of the house and patio. His Sticks on Fire all died over the winter from the cold and rain but the aeonium ’Zwartkop’, echeveria ’Sunburst’, kangaroo paw and various sedums were filling in nicely.

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Weeping leptospermun

Below the patio the golden Mexican marigold and blue Pride of Madeira were in full bloom along with a gorgeous stand of Weeping Leptospermum. “Magnificent this year, just look at this plant. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like in another 15 years?”, he said. Pointing out the visual boundaries he creates with flowering vines growing up into the trees, Richard observed that some are going better than others. Sound familiar in your own garden? Even this expert propagator is sometimes stymied by Mother Nature.

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Richard and his giant China Doll tree

I love to hear Doc Hencke’s stories as he shows me around. Stopping at a China Doll houseplant that has now grown into a tree he tells me he thinks it’s one of the tallest specimens ever. His giant bird of paradise flower pod opened last week. I’d never seen their enormous blue, prehistoric-looking flowers before.

Richard’s new desert garden along the driveway is growing in nicely with the aloe plicatilis blooming for the first time. Also the yucca he and his brother dug up inTexas is finally blooming. “I’ve only waited 52 years for it”, he laughs.

There are so many stories that come with each and every plant in Richard’s collection. It’s always a walk on the wild side.

Screen the Neighbors with Low Water-Use Plants

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ribes sanguineum

We all enjoy privacy around our homes. Even if you’re best friends with your neighbor you don’t always want to wave at them each morning in your robe. Whether you have a property tucked way back in the forest with a next door neighbor that looks right down on your deck or a postage stamp size lot that could be an jewel if you just had a screen between you and the next property, there are techniques designers use to make your home a private oasis.

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azara microphylla

Narrow spaces can be challenging when you need to screen the house next door. There’s not room for a big, evergreen tree or hedge to solve the problem. One way is to use plants that can be espaliered against a fence or trellis. Some plants like azara microphylla naturally grow flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great.

Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.

A dwarf tree that also works nicely in this situation is a Southern magnolia called Little Gem. Naturally a very compact narrow tree it grows to 20-30 ft tall but only 10-15 ft wide. It can be trained as an espalier against a wall or fence and the sweetly scented flowers will fill your garden with fragrance.

Other small trees that make a good screen are purple hopseed, and leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’. Both have beautiful burgundy foliage. California natives that can be espaliered against a fence include Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Western redbud, mountain mahogany, toyon, pink flowering currant, Oregon grape and spicebush.

If you have a wider space to grow screening plants, one of my favorites is Pacific wax myrtle. This California native grows quickly to 30 ft tall with glossy, rich forest green leaves. Its dense branches make a nice visual and noise screen for just about anything or anybody. I’ve never used the subtle spicy leaves for flavoring sauces but I might try it next time a recipe calls for bay leaves. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.

Italian buckthorn is another evergreen screening shrub to consider. It reaches about 15 feet tall by 6-8 ft wide and has low water needs. It can grow 2-3 feet in its first few years making a quick screen. There’s a variegated version with stunning foliage that looks awesome mixed with the green variety in a hedge.

Another favorite hedge plant, the California coffeeberry grows 6-8 feet tall and gets by with very little summer water once established. Birds love the berries.

I also like osmanthus fragrans for a screen with a sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ with their showy variegated foliage.

If it’s just not practical to screen the perimeter of your property redirect your line of sight to keep attention focused on the garden instead of on the landscape beyond. A recirculating fountain as simple as an urn spilling onto cobbles at the base can disguise noise and become the focal point. There are lots of ways to add privacy to your home.

Hydrangeas-Summer Drama for the Garden and How to Prune Them

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are some plants that are so showy in the garden they are worth budgeting a little extra summer water. They really get your attention.That plant for me is the hydrangea. Want instant drama in the garden? Plant one of the many hydrangea varieties. All have flowers so large they can’t help but steal the show. Easy to grow, they are pest and disease free. Here are some of my favorites and how and when to prune them.

Back in 2001 a new variety of hydrangea macrophylla was introduced. Called Endless Summer it has the unique ability to re-bloom throughout the spring and summer on both current and older season wood resulting in a much longer blooming season. This was great news for me because as sure as the sun rises, a heat wave would descend upon my garden in May and many of my traditional mopheads and lacecaps would crisp up and the show would be over way too soon. With Endless Summer I get continuous flowering through the summer. How do I prune this variety to get the most blooms?

When you read care instructions about pruning any hydrangea and they refer to new and old wood it’s really just another name for a stem they are talking about. New stems growing this growing season will be green. Old stems that grew last year are brown.

Prune Endless Summer hydrangeas as needed to keep them symmetrical. Remove dead stems you are sure will not be leafing out this year. To revitalize a mature plant-about 5 years old- remove about a third of the oldest canes in the spring by cutting them as close as possible to the ground. If your plant looks fine, leave it alone. You can prune off spent flowers in August but I prefer to leave the flower heads on the plant for winter interest.

Classic bigleaf hydrangeas -hydrangea macrophylla- mostly bloom on last years stems or old wood. The proper time to prune them is right after blossoming in July or August. Again I like to leave the dried flower heads on for fall and winter color so I prune lightly in late summer and again now lightly to shape. I may be cutting off some potential flower buds by pruning now but those stems usually flower by early fall and I’m not wacking back the whole plant.

If your bigleaf hydrangea doesn’t bloom well any more it may be time for more drastic measures. Cut back non-blooming stems to about 6 inches high. This will stimulate the growth of news productive stems.

hydrangea_paniculata_LimelightAnother showy hydrangea with huge pyramidal flowers is called hydrangea paniculata or Pee Gee hydrangea. With chartreuse blooms, Limelight is one of my favorites. They tolerate drought better than other hydrangeas which is another plus. Because they bloom on new wood in midsummer into fall, prune them in winter or early spring. Cut away old flowers and prune to open the plant to sunlight.

Hydrangea arborescens like ‘Annabelle’ produce enormous white flowers and also bloom on new wood during the summer prune during the winter or spring. This is the variety you see grown as hedges. I think I need one of these in my garden.

Vying for attention in my garden is the oakleaf hydrangea or hydrangea hydrangea_quercifolia_bloomquercifolia. I love this plant because it is so versatile. I often include it in a landscape design because it is easy to grow in a variety of situations from deep shade to mostly sun and it tolerates some drought. The stunning summer display of elongated, creamy white flower clusters age to pink by autumn and then papery, rusty brown in winter. But it’s the fall display of handsome leaves that resemble oaks that will get your attention. Mine turns the color of bright burgundy but I’ve seen bronze and crimson color on others. Prune them in early summer right after flowering.

Even in our coldest winters, hydrangeas in our area are easy to grow and don’t suffer winter damage to the flower buds as those in snow country do. Lucky us. I’m looking forward to my hydrangea show which will last most of the year.

Will Any Plants Thrive in Dry Shade?

daphne_odora_AureomarginataLooking out the window on a rainy day I forget that spot way back in the shade in the back of the garden will be bone dry come summer. It’s too far away to water conveniently very often with a hose and extending the irrigation for just that one area under the trees in the shade is not practical. I sympathize with clients when they ask me what will grow in a problem area like this. Believe me I know it’s a challenge to bring in some colorful foliage, texture or might I be so bold as to want flowers, too? Take a tip from one who lives in a similar area with the same problems. We’re in this together.

At this time of year when the plums are blooming and the flowering pears are clothed in white blossoms, I want something to extend this look out in the garden. There are several plants that bloom early in dry shade and fortunately they are also deer resistant. Later in the season when soil moisture all but disappears there are other plants that will take over center stage.

But first here are the candidates for early spring color and fragrance in shady gardens.

Fragrant Winter daphne is a handsome evergreen shrub and I especially like the variegated foliage of the variety ‘Aureomarginata’. This small, deer tolerant shrub is good looking year round and does well under the shade of small trees. Although many daphnes are tricky to grow, this one is adaptable and easy to please. During the summer water it as infrequently as the plant will allow. This is usually about once per month. Little or no water in summer will reward you with clusters of fragrant purple flowers that start opening at this time of year. Cut them to bring inside with hellebore for a pretty bouquet.

For fragrant May flowers try daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ which is also easy to grow and requires only occasional water as does daphne transatlantic ‘Summer ‘Ice’. Summer Ice produces sweetly scented flowers for an extraordinarily long time. Flowering begins in early April and can continue as late as November.

Another powerfully fragrant plant for dry shade is commonly known as sweetbox. Sarcococca may not be showy enough to give to your Valentine but the sweetly scented flowers attract hummingbirds and fill the winter garden with a delicious fragrance for weeks starting in January.

Sarcococca ruscifolia forms an upright bushy shrub about 4 feet tall. Another variety called sarcococca hookeriana humilus makes a great ground cover as it rarely exceeds 1 1/2 feet tall. Both plants have dark green leaves, attractive berries and are deer resistant.

helleborus_orientalisHellebores are another winter blooming plant with foliage that looks great, too. I have several varieties including orientalis, argutifolius and foetidus. My Golden Sunrise has large, canary yellow flowers. It’s been blooming for almost a month and will continue for several more weeks. Hellebores are often still flowering during the Christian season of Lent from which they get their common name, Lenten Rose. They are good plants for naturalizing under trees as they are low maintenance, survive with little water and are disease free.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Other plants that bloom at this time of year and require only moderate summer irrigation include Lily-of-the-Valley shrub, clivia, bergenia, mahonia and Pacific Coast iris.

As summer approaches other plants and shrubs will lend their color and texture to the dry shade garden.

Western Wild ginger and Pacific Coast Iris are great ground covers. Good shrubs include deer resistant Osmanthus fragrans or sweet olive. Their white flowers are tiny but powerfully fragrant. Bloom is heaviest in spring and early summer but plants flower sporadically throughout the year. This compact shrub grows at a moderate rate in full sun to partial shade and reaches 10 feet.

Heavenly bamboo are work horses in the shady garden. For a different look try growing nandina filamentosa or Thread-leaf nandina. This evergreen small shrub grows to 2-3 ft tall with very lacy, almost fern-like growth. New foliage is reddish in color and during the fall the leaves turn orange or purplish red. Pinkish-white flowers bloom in clusters in late spring and summer.

There are lots of other shrubs and plants that require only occasion summer water for those shady spots. Email me and I can share even more ideas and suggestions.

Winter Plants that Flower even in the Rain

flowering cherryBetween holidays and storms I’m spending more time looking out the windows at the garden than I am actually outside in it. We have been fortunate to have received so much rain. We welcome it. We embrace it knowing that the trees are getting a deep soak and the aquifer rejoices. I’m impressed and amazed how many flowering plants are blooming despite being pounded by 33” of rain up here in Bonny Doon. These plants are my heroes and you might just consider including them in your garden too.

One of my favorite small ornamental trees that blooms several times in my garden during the year is the Autumnalis flowering cherry. I am not exaggerating when I say it blooms in the spring, a little during the summer, again in the early fall and now in December. I’m not sure how it got the name Autumnalis ‘cause it sure can’t read a calendar. I was afraid I would loose the December show with so much pounding rain but the pale pink blossoms have mostly come through just fine and and chickadees who land in it before going to the feeder remind me that spring will be here before I know it.

Another tough plant that can take weather extremes is the Lily-of-pieris_japonica_variegatedthe-Valley shrub (Pieris japonica). There are many varieties of this early winter bloomer. Some have pure white flowers, other sport various shades of pink or dark rose. Mine is the smaller variegated foliage model with dainty, drooping clusters of pure white flowers in early spring. Right now it is covered with flower buds so dense that you’d think it was already blooming. The new growth in the spring has a beautiful pink tint. This shrub will hold up to the wildest weather. Another plus for the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub is that is useful for fire scaping in the landscape and it isn’t on the menu for deer either.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamellia flowers, thick, tough and full of color, easily sail through winter weather. Camellias bloom for a long time and with so many types you can have one blooming from October all the way through May. This showy evergreen shrub is drought tolerant once established. Yes, with some mulch and a deep soak every so often they require much less irrigation than you’d think. There are fragrant varieties, such as Pink Yuletide, a sport of the popular red Yuletide.

Camellias are easy to grow in containers. Even if you only have a small space, a variety like Fairy Blush only reaches 4-5 ft and has a delicate fragrance also. Like other types, camellias make wonderful cut flowers. With short stems they work best floated in a low bowl or container. Group them together for a beautiful display of color inside your house.

A favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers is the evergreen mahonia.1600mahonia. They are already blooming with cheery, bright yellow flower clusters that will last for months. When each flower sets a purple berry they look like grape clusters. The edible berries make good jelly, too. There are 70 varieties of mahonia including our own native Oregon Grape which grows in the understory of Douglas fir forests. Mahonia aquifolium is resistant to summer drought, tolerates poor soil and doesn’t create a lot of leaf litter.

Other tough winter blooming plants include witch hazel, edgeworthia, michelia and grevillea. Enjoy color in the garden regardless of what Mother Nature brings this winter.

Treats & Tips for the September Garden

salvia_m_Hot-LipsYou can feel the weather changing as summer winds down. It’s more than just the passing of the Labor Day holiday and the school year starting. The nights are longer and cooler. The days are not quite so hot and the flowers in the garden seem brighter and more colorful. I look past the soft blue and lavender blossoms and am drawn to the warm shades of gold, rust, orange, hot pink and red. They shout autumn is on the way.

There’s nothing quite like adding a few new perennials to brighten up the garden. There are many that don’t require a lot of water after they become established. I recently visited a garden where the irrigation was reduced to the point that that most of the plants were barely hanging on. But there among the crispy plants were two Hot Lips salvia blooming as big as you please. This plant is popular for a reason. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it and it blooms for a long time. It stays compact and is a great carefree shrub for water wise gardens.

Daisy flowers always bring a smile to my face. As members of the composite family they have echinacea_Wild_Berrya flat landing surface for butterflies to land on. Coneflowers are one of my favorites. When they start blooming in the early summer I enjoy them both in the garden and as cut flowers inside. Some have a slight fragrance. Hybridizers have introduced beautiful shades of gold, yellow, orange, burgundy and coral in addition to the traditional purple and pure white. Because they are dormant in the winter they are good candidates for the garden that has summer sun but winter shade. They are not attractive to deer and are good additions to the low water garden.

gaillardiaAnother perennial that blooms throughout summer and fall is gaillardia also known as blanket flower. I’ve seen this tough plant grow in neglected gardens that the owner swears does nothing to keep it going. They are covered with dozens of large reddish-orange flowers with yellow edging and bloom over a long period. This plant also attracts butterflies. You can start perennials from seed at this time of year for next year’s bloom.

Don’t overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope’, New Zealand flax, red fountain grass and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylily and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.

Another thing to do while out in the garden this month is to cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

Soon it will be time to start cool season veggies or plant cover crops in the garden. It’s never too soon to start planning for erosion control in those areas that caused you problems during last spring’s storms. But for now add some early fall color and have fun in the garden.