Happy New Year 2017

Mother Nature made her presence known this past month. She has a way of doing that. Between the 25 inches of rain that fell in December alone up here in Bonny Doon and the short but impressive cold snap that descended upon us before Christmas I’m humbled. As the calendar turns to a New Year these are some of my thoughts for 2017.

Happy New Year 2017

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree next July. Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will still be there tomorrow.

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget. And ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues. But there’s always next year or next month or the summer after next.

I did fulfill some goals I had for this year, adding more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects. They’ll keep the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like. I’m going to count this as two resolutions.

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it- not jumping up to rearrange containers or deadhead. This one was easy.

I accepted a few holes in my plants and walked around the garden regularly to identify if a problem was getting out of control and I needed to break out an organic pesticide.

I tried to plant more edibles but my growing conditions thwarted me. The Farmer’s Market and generous friends helped fill the gap. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. More than just vegetables and fruit trees growing food connects us to the earth and to each other.

When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Do your best even if you only have a few containers to grow an Early Girl tomato or some Rainbow chard.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year to all of you fellow gardeners from The Mountain Gardener. May your tomatoes be sweet and your roses as fragrant as a summer’s eve.

A Christmas Poem by The Mountain Gardener

Hydrangea Christmas tree

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
The creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
With edibles and perennials at the very least.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, go ahead make a wish,
And each time you see us, think welcome, not banish.
And all of us creatures will give it our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote the original poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

Holiday Wreath Makers Invade Felton

Somewhere in Felton near the San Lorenzo river sits a home beneath the redwoods. Surrounded by a white picket fence it’s the site of the annual holiday wreath makers get together and this year we have gathered to kick off the season with pink champagne, cranberry-orange scones and the tools of our trade: gloves, clippers and paddle wire.

Wreath of mixed evergreens, roses and tulips

Our hostess Barb Kelley and her husband Reg ventured forth earlier in the week to collect evergreen boughs, holly, flowering branches and various berries for us all to use in our wreaths. Since this extravaganza of supplies and good cheer continues for a week many will return time and time again with grandchildren, friends, neighbors and relatives to make many a wreath. One year Barb counted 50 wreaths made in a single week. This year 44 were made by over 30 wreath makers. To say we have a great time would be a gross understatement.

It all started 13 years ago when Barb needed a quick Secret Santa gift for her bunco card group. She’s a talented lady with flower arranging expertise so a wreath was an easy item for her to put together.

A few of the 30+ wreath makers including Barb on the right.

I am always amazed at how many creative people come for this annual event that. One of the show stopping wreaths this year incorporated red and pink roses long with dark pink tulips. Dried hydrangea blooms are always a good accent and we all agreed that the blooming Ruby Glow tea tree branches and the Chinese pistache dark pink berry clusters added just the right amount of color to the other types of variegated foliage.

Long time attendee and material gatherer Martha was up in Tahoe skiing due to the early snow and was greatly missed. I think she holds the record for most wreaths made in a single season. Barb holds the record for the biggest which also weighed the most. Described as a “Kardashian” it lacked nothing in glitz and glamour.

Variegated holly and conifer wreath

This year I had my eye out for good wreath making plants that also have low water requirements in the garden. Besides the leptospermum “Ruby Glow” I also found that many of our drought resistant native plants have thicker leaves by design and are perfect additions to a holiday wreath. I haven’t found a manzanita or ceanothus variety that doesn’t last well in a wreath. Also madrone, bay laurel, mahonia, toyon with berries, Douglas fir and redwood boughs and cones look right at home in a wreath or swag.

A wreath in progress

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreen shrubs and trees to use in a holiday wreath. Besides the plants already mentioned cuttings from strawberry tree, pines, cedar, boxwood, camellia, privet, bottlebrush, pittosporum, leucadendron and nandina berries are long lasting in a wreath. At this time of year, prune your shrubs and trees from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight into the plant.

I look forward to getting together with my fellow wreath makers each December. This is my fourth year and I wouldn’t miss it. You can’t make a bad wreath. They all turn out great plus your shrubs get a little early pruning too.

Are Common Holiday Plants Safe?

Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants inside the house but during the winter as we spend more time inside we appreciate them even more. With the holidays season upon us I like to enjoy some colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

Poinsettia colors

I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations. Which plants do I need to watch out for?

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. It is too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night but being native to Mexico they thrive in the warmth of the house.

Poinsettia bracts

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. They need a bright spot in the house and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

Cyclamen

There are two pets in my household- a cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is

Amaryllis

toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms, however.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t likely with holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Trees Help offset rising CO2 levels

Never underestimate the power of nature especially that of plants. I was heartened this week to read about a study recently published by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory regarding the increased rate that the earth’s vegetation is absorbing human-induced CO2.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Santa Cruz Mountains looking towards Monterey Bay

When I was a kid my father used to work at the Berkeley Lab. As a welder during the 50’s I remember him coming home and tell me about working on the bevatron which was the state of the art atom-smasher being built there. The goal of Berkeley Lab which Dad used to call The Radiation Lab has always been to bring science solutions to the world.

A new study published in this month’s Berkeley Lab newsletter, has found that plants are grabbing more carbon from the air than in previous decades. The study is based on extensive ground and atmospheric observations, satellite measurements of vegetation and computer modeling.

“To be clear, human activity continues to emit increasing amounts of carbon”, the study explains but plants have slowed the rate of increase in the atmosphere by absorbing more. “It’s a kind of snowball effect: as the carbon levels rise in the atmosphere, photosynthesis activity flourishes and plant take in more carbon, sparking more plant growth, more photosynthesis and more carbon uptake.”

Another player was identified in the study. Plant respiration, a process in which plants use oxygen and produce CO2, did not increase as quickly as photosynthesis in recent years. This is because plant respiration is sensitive to temperature. The study showed that between 2002 and 2014, plants took in more CO2 through photosynthesis but did not “exhale’ more CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration.

We what does this all mean? “This highlights the need to identify and protect ecosystems where the carbon sink is growing rapidly,” says Trevor Keenan, a research scientist and author of the paper. “Unfortunately, this increase in the carbon sink is nowhere near enough to stop climate change. We don’t know where the carbon sink is increasing the most, how long this increase will last, or what it means for the future of Earth’s climate.”

Still I’m hopeful that the earth will heal itself if given the chance and we can thank plants including the humble houseplant for helping offset increasing levels of CO2 from fossil fuel emissions.

Berkeley Lab is at the forefront of research in the world of science. Earlier this month they hosted a three day forum to study and share information about how plants transport water from their roots up through the stem and how they respond to stress such as drought. The new data will provide insight about how to better tend crops and other plants under stress and to improved understanding and forecasting for drought-related die-offs of trees and other plant species.

Also in the news at Berkeley Lab is the research the lab is doing in the search for an Ebola cure. Rather than using human or lab animals, a crystal isolated from the cells of a broccoli related plant called mouse-ear cress, provided the target related protein. Researchers have used this plant as a model species for studying cell activities and genetics since the mid-1940’s and in 2000 this plant’s genome was the very first plant genome to be sequenced. Quite an honor for another humble plant.

Let us be thankful for the plants we all love so much.

A Thanksgiving Poem for the Santa Cruz Mountains

pumpkin_and_mumsA Thanksgiving Poem  by Jan Nelson,  The Mountain Gardener

Once upon a time when our area was under the sea
there were no parks or trails or trees or gardens.
I’m thankful that our mountains rose from an ancient ocean
and we can now enjoy this beautiful place we call home.

I’m thankful for the bigleaf maples with leaves as big as saucers
and for the giant redwoods that sprouted long ago
and the five-fingered ferns that grow lush
along Fall Creek on the way to the old lime kilns.

I’m thankful for the pond and western turtles who live at Quail Hollow
and for the unique sandhills, grasslands and redwoods
and for the western bluebirds and other creatures that call it home.

I’m thankful for the dog park and soccer field at Skypark
where little kids and dogs both big and small have a place of their own
and for the picnic area and Fourth of July fireworks,
and the Art and Wine festival and Music in the Park on summer nights.

I’m thankful also for all our parks from Garrahan, Junction, Highlands,
Fall Creek, Henry Cowell and Felton Covered Bridge in San Lorenzo Valley,
to Lodato, Siltanen and MacDorsa parks in Scotts Valley.
Each place is unique and is each one of us.

I’m thankful for Bonny Doon where I can see both sides of Ben Lomond Mountain
and for the Ecological Reserve with its fossilized marine animals and sharks teeth
that are exposed in the mountain made of sand.

I’m thankful for California’s oldest state park. Big Basin, with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets, fragrant azaleas and mountain iris
and for the banana slugs, marbled murrelets and red-legged frogs who make it their home.

I’m thankful for the whisper of the wind blowing across the water at Loch Lomond
and for the gentle whir of fishing reels along the bank,
thick with tan oaks, redwoods and madrone.

And finally, I’m thankful for friends, family and neighbors
who share the knowledge that in nature life continues.
Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness,
and take time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

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