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.

New Plants for the Garden

Every season new varieties of colorful flowering annuals and perennials are introduced by hybridizers. These new plants are field tested and bred for better performance, disease and insect resistance, flower size, color and heat tolerance.  Where does this happen?  What goes into that gorgeous vivid red geranium you see on the bench at the nursery?

Over 30 breeders of flower seeds and perennial starts each spring showcase their new varieties in trials held throughout the state.  Professional growers visit the trials to choose which new varieties they will grow this year and offer to local nurseries and garden centers.  Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy is one of the locations that hosts the colorful spectacle.

Fragrant, wisteria-covered arbors shade paths that wind throughout the landscaped grounds . The grounds are open to the public to enjoy throughout the summer.  Also on site are the greenhouses where breeders work on creating new and better flower varieties.  It was interesting to see several acres planted with fava beans as a cover crop. Soon the fields of this flowering legume will be cut down and tilled into the soil to add nitrogen. Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed new plants. After a few weeks of decomposition the energized soil will be ready for planting test flowers that Goldsmith seeds will further evaluate.

All of the seeds are actually grown in greenhouses in Holland and Guatemala. Cool season flowers like primroses, cyclamen, violas and pansies are produced mainly in Holland while warm season flowers like dahlias, geraniums, gazanias, and verbenas are grown at different elevations in Guatemala. I learned Goldsmith Seeds has been developing and growing seed in Guatemala for 40 years.

What new cultivars really impressed me at the trials?  There’s a new geranium that combines the best features of ivy and zonal geraniums. I liked the amazing color of Calliope Dark Red but all the colors were show stoppers. They would be perfect for baskets or beds in full sun or part shade. And you should see all the colors that calibrachoa now comes in-light blue, dark blue, deep yellow, peach, orange, even white with rose veins. These have now been bred to bloom earlier in the season which is why you’re seeing them in nurseries now.  There were many fragrant flowers like . I always looks forward to them when they arrive at the nursery. 

Try something new in your garden this year. There are so many good choices.
 

Fragrant Plants for Spring

Spring is busting out all over.  Huge saucer magnolias and dainty flowering cherries adorn trees everywhere you look.  Many spring bloomers are deliciously fragrant, too. Whether you’re planting edibles in the vegetable garden or containers on the deck include plants that entice you to linger and enjoy their sweet scent.

Old fashion lilacs will be blooming soon. Nothing ways "Spring" like the legendary scent of these shrubs.  Give them a spot in full sun with enough room for them to spread 6′ wide. While most plants accept slightly acidic soils, lilacs are an exception.  Dig lime into your soil at planting and side dress yearly if your soil is acidic.

Looking for something in vanilla? Evergreen clematis vines make a great screen with 6" long, glossy leaves and creamy white, saucer shaped, vanilla-scented flower clusters.  Provide study support for them to climb on. They are slow to start but race once established.

Outside the veggie garden, citrus blossoms can scent the air.  Plant lemons oranges, mandarins, kumquats, grapefruit and limes in full sun areas.  Established trees need a good soak every other week so keep them on a separate watering system from your other edibles.

Inside the veggie garden, include scented plants that attract beneficial insects.  Fragrant lavender and sweet alyssum are good choices.  For sheer enjoyment, plant perennial carnation and dianthus for their intense clove fragrance.  Cinnamon Red Hots grow to 15", are deer resistant, bloom all spring and summer and don’t need deadheading.  Velvet and White border carnations are among the least demanding and most satisfying perennials in the garden. As cut flowers they are long lasting and highly fragrant in bouquets.

Another fragrant perennial to tuck among your other plants or veggies is Berries & Cream Sachet nemesia. Intensely fragrant blossoms are purple and white, just like blackberries covered with cream.  They bloom for months without any special care but if flowers decline, cut plants back to stimulate new growth.

Fragrant shrubs that are easy to grow are osmanthus, bush anemone, choisya, philadelphus, butterfly bush, and daphne.  Scented perennials include sweet violets and chocolate cosmos.  Plant several chocolate cosmos for the strongest effect. They really do smell like dark chocolate on a warm day.  Vivid purple heliotrope don’t winter over around here but their vanilla and licorice fragrance make them worth replanting each year.

Plant for fragrance. It’s your reward for all the care and tending you give your garden.
 

Plant Communities of the Santa Cruz Mtns

Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and ho-hum results in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place. 

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest and redwood forest, chaparral and the sandhills.

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak.  Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, needle and giant feather grass and rockrose also do well here. Another plant to try that will also flourish in your garden is a native of New Zealand called Coprosma.  There are many colorful varieties now available like "Evening Glow".  All are valued for their colorful variegated foliage especially in the cooler months when the leaves turn orange red.  Many coprosmas grow to 4-5 ft but Evening Glow is just 14" tall. They need little water and can be happy in full sun or partial shade.

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where bigleaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow.  Most plant grow lush in this deep soil.  If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider brunnera which blooms now with tiny clear blue flowers that freely self-sow without being invasive. It has large heart-shaped leaves that are showy, too,

Chaparral areas are the hottest, driest slopes of these mountains. Dense thickets of manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, coffeeberry, ceanothus, monkey flower and sage are native here. These plants are adapted to little water and often have tiny, thick, waxy,  light green or grayish leaves. Soils tend to be rocky, shallow and overlaying rock or a subsoil that is mostly clay. Plants here need to have an extensive root system that reaches widely and deeply for water. If you live here be sure you have the spring blooming western redbud and Julia Phelps or Dark Star ceanothus. The combination of magenta and electric blue flowers is unforgettable.

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants include silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here.  When you plant in these soils amend with compost to provide needed nutrients. Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8" tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red.  Mulch these beauties with gravel or crushed stone.

Remember right plant-right place.

It’s Spring – What do I do?

Yes, we need more rain but the recent sunny weather has been good for both people and plants. I remember many years ago when we had "The Miracle March" as a local meteorologist called it. It rained for 30 days straight. This was great for the watershed but drowned new emerging roots, starving them of oxygen and causing lots of fungal problems.  Let’s hope Mother Nature spreads out the remaining precipitation keeping everyone happy.

Spring begins today. This year, especially, think of gardening as therapy.  Every moment you put in your garden is paid back with fresh vegetables and fragrant flowers.  Think about it- stir up the soil, plant some seeds and you have flowers and vegetables in a few months.  The satisfaction you get from cultivating living things is priceless.

Get started on this free therapy by tending to your garden this week:

Plant low water use plants in place of those that have been struggling. Use your precious time, space and sun to grow the plants you most want to look at, pic or eat.  As a reminder, never work with soil that is very wet and keep off your lawn the, too, as this can compact the soil.

Cut back deciduous shrubs and vines except those that flower now in the spring. Don’t prune rhododendrons, camellias, or azaleas until the last flowers have started to open and green growth has started.
Prune frost  damaged shrubs if you can tell how far down the die back goes otherwise wait until growth starts in the spring.  For your shrubs, test bark for viability by scraping with a sharp knife.

If you are interested in being less of a slave to your lawn, consider reducing the size. If you’ve decided that you don’t need a traditional grass lawn anymore at all, replace it with a sustainable alternative.

Check for early aphids and blast them off with a hose or use no-tozic sprays like horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Check for snails and slug damage and apply organic iron phosphate bait. Earwigs and sowbugs can be controlled by organic spinosad. Reduce their numbers by eliminating hiding places.  Clean out leaf litter and garden debris and use organic iron phosphate bait.  Copper pennies in your containers can also deter them.

Get weeds out of the garden early and you’ll save yourself a lot of digging later. Weeds rob your plants of precious moisture and nutrients.

Plant cool season vegetable like peas, chard, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, onions and other greens.  You can also sow seeds of beets and carrots. The soil is still too cold for tomatoes and other warm season vegetables. 

Grow the sweetest strawberries this year by planting them in a bed that receives at least 6 hours of direct sun at midday.  Don’t water too much.  This can dilute their flavor.  You want the soil to be moist but not wet. Don’t apply excess nitrogen fertilizer which causes overly lush growth at the expense of berry production. Also keep beds free of weeds and space each strawberry plant about a foot apart.

Plant a spring flowering tree such as a flowering cherry, dogwood, crabapple or plum or a native western redbud to welcome the new season and make your spirits soar.
 

Planning this Summer’s ‘Staycation’

Picture yourself this summer with your family outdoors  during your  "staycation" – relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard.  Now is the perfect time to plan while the yard is still a bit bare and you can see the space for what it really is.  Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable in the hot summer. We usually get a heat wave in May so be prepared early.  National Arbor Day in the last week of April but each state sets its own day of celebration. California celebrates this week, March 7-14, as the week to plant a tree.

There are so many good choices for our area.  First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions.  Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak.  Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple.  If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, with brick or pavers?  If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden.  Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

After you’ve planted your tree and planned your hidden getaway take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden .  Lawns and groundcovers are beginning their spring growth spurt and new leaves on trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to emerge. Spread compost, manure, or organic fertilizer to help plants get off to a strong start.  If you need to move any plants in the garden, now is a good time.  Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Think of weeding as free gym time. The last frost of the season is approximately March 15th.  Spring is on its way.
 

Planning the Garden

As you plan this year’s garden, whether it’s a new vegetable bed, un-thirsty perennials,  shade trees , or anything in between, think of how they will affect your surroundings. Will they take up less of the earth’s resources and not too much of your own time and energy? Changing weather patterns make it smart to find new, more sustainable ways to garden.  Downsize your garden’s neediness without sacrificing beauty or productivity.

Start with a smart design.

  • Does your garden utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers that help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water?
  • Have you considered installing a rain garden or small, planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite?
  • Have you grouped plants in your garden according to their water needs? Do you have some plantings that can survive on rainfall alone after their second season? Have you chosen plants that are locally grown and adapted to our climate?
  • Do you have an irrigation system that is efficient without being wasteful?  Do you water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff? Do you water in the early morning or evening to maximize absorption?
  • Do you have deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter? Do you have trees and shrubs to clean the air of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide? Trees also breathe in carbon dioxide ( a major greenhouse gas) , use the carbon to build mass, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.
  • Does your garden feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife? Do you have perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds? Have you planted flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects? Do you use organic pesticides?
  • Do you make your soil a priority by adding compost each year? Do you mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water?  Do you use natural fertilizers like manures or fish emulsion that feed the soil? Do you compost the green and brown waste your garden produces-fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables?
  • Do you stay ahead of weeds , pulling them before they set seed and spread?

       
Take steps to make your corner of the world contribute to the larger landscape around you.