Tag Archives: sustainable gardening

Stars of the Fall Garden

More and more of us are embracing the concept of gardening with a sense of place. To garden where you live means accepting that your garden in California is naturally more subdued by fall. Plants that bring color to the garden at this time of year are invaluable. A successful garden is a feeling.

The fall bloomers and ornamental grasses are at their peak right now and thanks to our recent rainfall they are getting a big drink. Many birds are loading up on carbohydrates and fats to provide fuel for their migration. Others will stick around and want to be in the best possible condition for the winter season. In addition to seeds, nuts and acorns, flowers are important in their diets,

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Lion’s Tail

With Halloween almost upon us orange blooming plants like Lion’s Tail look perfect in the autumn garden and gets 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.

California fuchsia is also at the height of its blooming season. Starting in the summer and flowering through fall this California native will be covered with orange or scarlet-orange flowers that attract hummingbirds like crazy. A great plant along the path or draping over a rock wall this perennial thrives in areas that might fry other plants. Also known as Epilobium canan or Zauschneria it is in the evening primrose family and native to dry slopes and chaparral especially in California.

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Orange Stalked Bulbine

Another good choice for your drought tolerant garden is the long blooming Hallmark bulbine. The Orange Stalked bulbine is 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.

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Mimulus Jelly Bean Gold

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 on the market. All are deer resistant, gopher resistant, drought tolerant and hummingbird magnets.

What’s in your Soil?

“The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.
  Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return
  so that new life can celebrate this day.”  -Betty Peck

Soil makes all the difference to the plants you grow. The biggest issue we gardeners face is the ongoing battle with soil. If yours is difficult to manage or just plain unproductive you’ll be disappointed like me with the performance of many of the plants you put in the ground. Even tough plants like California natives have soil preferences and they are not always what’s in your garden.

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Low water-use plant responding to fertile soil

We live on ancient sea cliffs.  Soils in Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley consist of shallow, excessively drained weathered sandstone and shale. Felton soils were formed from shale, sandstone or mica schist. Those in Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek had their beginnings from weathered sandstone or granite. Although these provide the necessary mineral component of our soil. organic matter or humus from decayed plant and animal material are necessary also for fertility.

Here’s why improving your soil will make a difference to the health of your plants.

Good soil-with both organic matter and minerals-helps plants grow by forming the food supply for soil bacteria that help make food available for plant growth. Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that drip out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zone. The protozoa eat bacteria and the nematodes eat not only the bacteria but also fungi and other nematodes to get carbon. What they don’t need they expel and this feeds the roots much like earthworm castings.

Down in the soil, if a plant needs different foods it can change what is secretes. Different substances will attract different bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. This huge diversity of soil biota helps the good guys keep the bad guys in check.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts in the

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Collection of perennials one year after planting in amended soil.

form or non-organic fertilizers. The salts kill the bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix. Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well.

The soil food web is also responsible for soil structure. Bacteria create slime that glue soil particles together. Fungi weave threads to create larger soil particles. Worms and insects distribute bacteria and fungal spores throughout the soil and create pathways for air and water.

What can you do to bring your soil back to life?
• Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with 2-3” of compost, wood chips or other organic mulch.
• Apply mycorrhizal fungi, especially in a new garden that’s been rototilled or chemically fertilized. You can find this in most organic fertilizers and some organic potting soils.
• Try to avoid walking on the root zone of plants. This kills fungi in the soil. Install stepping stones to preserve soil structure.

Feed your soil- not your plants.

Sheet Mulch Away that Old Lawn

Replacing that water guzzling lawn or dramatically reducing the size is a good place to start conserving water and is easier than you think. If you’ve been paralyzed with the thought of digging out and hauling away hundreds of square feet of heavy sod or using dangerous grass-killing chemicals, sheet mulching is the method for you.

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Sheet mulching in progress

This simple technique eliminates the lawn by smothering it with layers of compost and renewable materials. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Mow the lawn down to 1-2”, leave the clippings in place and soak with a hose.
  2. Flag the locations of sprinkler heads you will be keeping for your new plantings and cap off the ones you won’t need.
  3. Add an inch of compost to speed up the decay of the grass. If your lawn borders a driveway, path or sidewalk you’ll have to remove about 3” inches deep of soil along these edges and back 8-12” so that the new mulch doesn’t slide off into the sidewalk.
  4. Put down 2-3 layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard overlapping the edges by 6-8” to prevent regrowth at the edges. You can buy recycled cardboard in rolls for larger projects or find your own at appliance or bicycle stores. Wet the cardboard or newspapers to keep them in place as you go along. It’s best to use cardboard or newspaper thatwill break down quicker. Don’t use plastic sheeting because water and air cannot penetrate it.
  5. Add a 3” layer of mulch such as bark chips from a tree trimming company. You can use compost, straw or shredded plant material. If you have Bermuda grass or other weeds like oxalis you will need to layer about 8” of mulch to smother them.
  6. Water thoroughly.
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Plants installed immediately after sheet mulching

If you can wait a month or more to let the decomposition process get going so much the better. If you just can’t wait you can begin planting now by scraping away the mulch and poking a hole in the cardboard or newspaper where the plant is to go. Then add some compost to help the new plant become established. Be sure to plant high enough to prevent crown rot and keep the mulch a couple inches away from the stem. The top of the root ball should be 1-2” above the soil and just below the mulch.

Modify the sprinkler to drip and remember to adjust your irrigation system run times to accommodate your new plantings.

This is a basic “lasagna” method for lawn removal. If you are planning to replant with water smart grasses you would choose finer composted mulch instead of bark chips. Either way the process works on the same concept as a compost pile. As the lawn dies from lack of light, it decomposes with the activity of beneficial worms, insects and microorganisms coming up from the soil and doing their job to break down the nitrogen and carbon in the sheet-mulch layers. It’s a win-win situation for the environment and your water bill.

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One year after lawn removal by sheet mulching

Water conservation starts with losing or reducing the thirsty traditional lawn and reducing irrigation. Transform your landscape into a resilient garden that not only saves water but acts to build the earth into a living sponge that harnesses rainwater and replenishes the aquifer at the same time. Attracting wildlife to your new beautiful garden is a bonus.

Be sure to apply for your rebates and have your lawn inspected, even if it’s dead, before you start.

Save Water with a Dry Lush Landscape

In all the years I’ve been a landscape designer I’ve never heard anyone say to me “I want my garden to look like the desert.”  Using California native plants along with appropriate low water use plants from other Mediterranean dry climate areas can save water and look lush at the same time. We live in an area naturally rich with trees and shrubs and wildflowers that survive on seasonal rainfall. Here are some ideas to give your landscape a lush look while saving water.

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Succulent garden in progress

There’s no better place that showcases a dry lush landscape that my friend Richard Hencke’s garden in Scotts Valley.  Doc Hencke has been at this gardening business a long time starting when he was a kid in Texas and Oklahoma. I am always inspired whenever I visit his garden and come home with a car full of plant starts from his greenhouse. He’s a propagator extraordinaire who loves to share and is a good friend.

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Judy’s succulent garden

On this day I also wanted to see his new raccoon-proof pond and surrounding landscaping. There calandrina starts are settling in nicely. They haven’t started blooming yet but will soon with those neon-pink flowers that sway above the plant on long stems. This spectacular Chilean perennial is long blooming and perfect for a dry garden or difficult spot like a parking strip or hillside. It will suppress weeds as it grows, quickly spreading into a dense groundcover. Nearby is another bed filled with aeonium, sedums, kalanchoe, baby toes and other succulents designed by his wife, Judy.

Doc Hencke’s garden is comprised of a couple dozen different areas or garden rooms. He’s been enjoying discovering new succulents and adding to the new dry lush hillside. He’s growing several varieties of aloe, cordyline and yucca along with douglas iris which are doing fine given the same irrigation as the rest of the dry hillside. Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandralis border the path and their long bluish-green fleshy leaves look great near the red cordyline.

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Doc Hencke’s dry lush entry landscaping

The secret to a lush look is to group plants into a vignette of complimentary elements. A vignette is a brief but powerful scene. Garden vignettes can be more than just plants. Doc Hencke’s driveway garden is a good example. An array of textural plants is combined with a weathered teak bench, richly colored, glazed pots filled with the architectural strappy leaves of phormium and a recirculating water fountain to complete the scene. The blue stone retaining wall is the perfect compliment to the blue and gold succulents that grow in the nooks and crannies.

A dry lush plant palette could also include plants such as Little John bottlebrush, dietes ‘Katrina’, Festival Burgundy cordyline, Hot Lips salvia, Variegated dianella, Amazing Red phormium, Icee Blue podocarpus, phlomis, Southern Moon rhaphiolepis, Gulf Stream nandina and Cousin Itt acacia.

A visit to this amazing garden wouldn’t be complete without admiring Doc Hencke’s prized Sand plum which he swears is the tallest in the country. Also called Chickasaw plums they are found naturally on sandy prairies in Oklahoma and Texas where they are very effective in stopping blowing sand. Wikepedia states this early blooming plum grows to 20 feet tall and Richard’s is about 30 feet tall. Just another in his long line of horticultural successes.

Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

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Orin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

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Sunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

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Ginger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

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UCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

Bees- Pollinators for a Bountiful Harvest

Pollination or the transfer of pollen in and between flowers of the same species leads to fertilization and successful seed and fruit production in plants. Pollen can be carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, moths, beetles or by the wind but bees pollinate approximately 1000 plants worldwide including apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds and tequila. Clearly we need our bees- both native bees and honeybees.

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honey bee pollinating African blue basil- photo courtesy of Gaylon Morris

Honeybees aren’t native to the United States. The colonist brought them here in the 1600’s to pollinate apple trees and for their honey and wax for candles. They are loyal to the plants they feed on and that makes them valuable to farmers and orchard owners. It works this way. When a worker bee leaves a hive in search of food it will feed on on one type of flower- whichever type it tasted first on that trip. Unlike other insects that might go from a cucumber blossom to dandelion to squash flower the honeybee sticks to one thing. That way it picks up and deposits only one type of pollen making honeybees particularly efficient in pollinating crops.

We know that honeybees are having a hard time of it due to diseases, parasites and pesticides. Planting flowers that bees like can increase the chances of bees’ survival as will cultivating native plants, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for the ecological region of our California Coastal Chaparral, Forest and Shrub Province by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

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honey bee on echium wildpretii

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depends on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

We can all help honeybees and other pollinating animals by being more mindful of the way we tend our yards. Reduce the amount of lawn you have and plant natives and flowers that will attract them. Use organic pesticides carefully and only if absolutely necessary. Buy local honey and support beekeepers. Honeybees and other pollinators need help to survive and we’re the ones to provide it.