Tag Archives: wildlife gardening

Native Plants for the Santa Cruz Mts

In celebration of Native Plant Week earlier this month, let’s talk about using . How do you pick the best ones for your situation and what do they need to grow in your garden?

California is a vast domain when it comes to natural features and different soils. From hills to mountains to deserts to valleys and ocean bluffs, there are 6000 plus plant species within our borders. Hundreds of these are showy and useful plants worthy of cultivation in our garden. Some, like ceanothus, have already been cultivated for a century or more, both here and abroad.

There are features of the California landscape that present a certain flavor and seasonal progression, quite distinct from that of the subtropics and year-round, moist forests that many traditional garden plants come from. Plants of hilly and mountainous areas are often found in rocky or sandy soils and require well-drained garden soils. Many plants of the chaparral have poor resistance to the root pathogens that thrive in a warm, moist soil and may not tolerate typical garden style irrigation in summer.

Matching or creating the right conditions is the key to success to grow California natives. Planting on a raised mound or berm, for instance, is one way to drain water away from sensitive crowns. Knowing where in California a given native plant comes from can help you make the right decisions.

That being said there are many natives with an amazing broad tolerance of different conditions. Heteromeles arbutifolia or toyon grows in both sandy and clay soils as does Achillea millifolium or yarrow which is also a good cut flower. Carex grass and Erigeron glaucus or Seaside daisy also do well in most soils.

If you garden in clay soils,  good native shrubs are Western redbud, manzanita, spicebush, bush anemone, ceanothus, garrya, Pacific wax myrtle, western mock orange, blue elderberry, mahonia, California wild rose and snowberry. Native perennials for clay soil include coral bells, sticky monkeyflower ( a good cut flower ), salvias, deer grass, rubus and Dutchman’s pipe vine.

Sandy conditions require California natives that are decidedly drought tolerant. You may already grow many of our manzanitas and ceanothus. But do you also have lupine, lavatera, coffeeberry, buckwheat, fuchsia-flowering gooseberry, purple sage, wallflower or the beautiful Douglas iris?

Then there are the folks that live in the shade. Native plants from canyons and riparian areas will do well in your garden. They require some summer watering but that’s all. Native shrubs that tolerate bright shade are manzanita, spicebush, bush anemone, ceanothus, mahonia, Ca. wax myrtle, any of the ribes, wild rose, snowberry and huckleberry. Perennials for color are columbine, Western bleeding heart, Ca. fuchsia, Douglas iris and coral bells.

Where ever you garden, to provide food and nectar or berries for our winged friends be sure you have some flowering currant, sticky monkey flower, coffeeberry, salvia clevelandii, Dutchman’s pipe vine,wax myrtle, Ca. fuchsia, aster chilensis or seaside daisy.

A Private Arboretum in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Recently I had the honor to tour a remarkable garden in Scotts Valley. This horticulturalist calls himself a hillbilly gardener but he is no such thing. Some of his plants come from as far away as Oklahoma, Texas and Hawaii. What a thrill to see spring growth emerge from the new leaves of his unusual trees, flowering shrubs and perennials.

Our first stop was to admire his large collection of echium candicans or Pride of Madeira. These stately shrubs reach 5-6 ft tall and 6-10 ft wide so they make quite a show when the huge flower clusters are in full bloom. Being deer resistant and drought tolerant they are perfect for our mountain environment. The color of the spikes varied from pink to lilac, sapphire blue and purple. This gardener is resourceful. He got many of his seedlings along Hwy 17 where they had reseeded after being used as brush to stabilize the slopes after the ’89 earthquake. The bees were really happy visiting the hundreds of blossoms on the beautiful spring day that I was there.

Tucked under wild cherry trees collected in Texas, are second generation iris of dark purple and pure yellow. Originally from his grandmother’s garden in Virginia, these iris are descendants from a light blue variety and a pale yellowish-beige douglas iris.

This extraordinary gardener also has a huge wild rose from Missouri covered now with fragrant white flowers, a wild olive from Texas and a sand plum from Oklahoma.  There is a yucca about 4 ft tall that he and his brother started as cuttings when they were teenagers in Port Arthur, Texas. He is also the proud father of a couple of bald cypress complete with "knees". This tree of southern swamps and other low nutrient areas grows woody projections above the ground or water level to act as a structural support and stabilizer allowing them to resist very strong winds. Even hurricanes rarely overturn them.

A beautiful Canary Island palm, planted from a seedling in 1996 that he had nurtured in a gallon can, is now over 9 ft tall.  Akebia vines grow up oak trees, passiflora and white wisteria vines up redwoods, a yellow banksia rose rambles up into a madrone and madevillea laxa is happy growing up an oak, too. A willow-leafed hakea salicifolia, indigenous to New South Wales and Queensland, graces his entry with its tiny, white fragrant flowers.

Other trees this gardener loves include Causarina, native also to Australia, sugar pine, incense cedar, Western red cedar, deodar cedar, staghorn sumac and a maytens tree.  His mother in Pennsylvania taught him to plant his first garden at age 4 and he cherishes his Eastern white pines, pinus stroblis, and giant sequoias, three of which he grew from seed.

And I can’t forget his collection of salvias. The red flowers spike of salvia confertiflora bloom year round. The beautiful salvia mexicana will soon to be covered with rich, blue flowers. He also grows salvia chiapensis and a salvia-like plant native to Hawaii called salvia lepechinia. This deliciously scented plant will be covered soon with reddish lavender lipstick-like flowers adored by hummingbirds like all the salvias.

A new greenhouse where he has a small collection of orchids will soon house new seedlings that are sprouting in a germination station under lights. Of the many Hawaiian seeds he has collected are maile, a flowering plant that is probably the oldest and most popular material used in leis by early Hawaiians, milo- a chocolate and malt powder popular in many parts of the world, gossypium tomentosum, coral vines, hibiscus and the koa tree.

There were hundreds more cool plants I learned about and got to admire that day. I’ll be visiting this garden again and again for the next round of wonders. it’s a marvel.


Vines for the Santa Cruz Mountains

If you enjoy and beautiful blooms, you can have them both when you plant vines.  Vines use little space, add color to bare walls and fences, cover free-standing arbors, provide shade and extend the garden skyward.  Vines are amazing plants.
If your trees aren’t big enough to provide shade yet , vines on a pergola or lattice work can cool a west facing patio.  They can also block the wind making your garden more comfortable.   Vines with large, soft leaves can soften sounds that would otherwise bounce off hard surfaces.  Birds will love you for your vines.  They offer shelter for many species and nectar for others. 
Creating an outdoor room with vines can make your yard feel cozy.  They readily provide the walls to enclose the space.  Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely.  Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established.  Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape.
Hide something unattractive with a covering of vines. A dog house, old stump, or rock pile can become a pleasant view when covered with vines.  Disguising a concrete block retaining wall with a climbing hydrangea will reward you with a great show of flowers each spring. A native vine like Roger’s Red wild grape or Boston ivy will provide fall color on the same wall.
Planting vines in containers or planters on a deck, balcony or paved area can add beauty to these areas. Remember that large containers offer more root space than small ones and require less frequent watering and transplanting.  Vine need support for them to climb.  A small lattice structure or netting stretched between posts works well for vines such as clematis and pink jasmine.  The  structure doesn’t need to be in the container.
Combining vines can have twice the effect.  A classic combination is to plant a large flowering clematis like Jackmanii with a rambling rose.  I’ve seen these on arbors and split rail fences and the look is breathtaking.
For a vine with long lasting interest, try trumpet creeper which blooms from midsummer to early autumn. Hummingbirds love it. Growing in sun or shade, it can tolerate wet or dry conditions and is generally pest free.  Give it lots of space to grow. 
Climbing hydrangea has showy white spring flowers and bright yellow autumn color before the leaves fall.  During the winter months the peeling bark provides interest.  It thrives with a bit of shade and regular moisture.  This is an excellent choice for masonry walls and the trunks of mature trees.  It will clothe a wall with white flowers and turn a dull trunk into a floral masterpiece. 
Plant vines for fragrance in your garden.  Evergreen clematis bears showy white fragrant flowers clusters above shiny dark green leaves in spring.  Clematis montana is covered with vanilla scented pink flowers in spring also.   Carolina jessamine‘s fragrant yellow flowers appear in masses throughout  late winter into spring.       
Star jasmine is a wonderful vine for sun or shade and it’s intense fragrance near a patio or open window will delight you.  It is easy to grow and is generally not  troubled by pests. Pink jasmine blooms mostly in the spring but sporadically through fall with showy, sweet scented pale pink flowers.  It grows fast to 15 feet and is tolerant of drought.  It can also be allowed to cascade over a wall or from a hanging basket.
Other vines that are beautiful and easy to grow are the native honeysuckle, lonicera hispidula with its translucent red berries in the fall. Violet trumpet vine, white potato vine, passion flower, Lady Banks rose, hardenbergia, Chilean jasmine and wisteria.
The above vines are just a few of the wonderful vines that do well in our climate, in a wide range of soils and conditions.  They are pest resistant and need little fertilization or care other than pruning to control size if needed.   Look around your garden for a spot that would be enhance by a beautiful vine.

New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Last year I was brave and published my New Year’s resolutions– at least those that pertain to the garden. It’s now the day of reckoning. Let’s see how I did and which ones I’ll  keep for 2011.   In the garden, as in life, simple changes can make a big difference over a long time. I’m adding a couple new ones that are important, too.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m starting to learn about local mushrooms. They come up in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January.
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.

Of the 16 gardener’s resolutions I made last year I can honestly say I achieved half of them.

I did pay more attention to the size that plants grow and believed the tag when it said "spreading habit". But I also found that pruning shears are life savers  when you just have to have that new foliage plant that just came out.

I started making garden journal entries in February instead of January as I resolved. But then I tried to make up for it in March, May, June, October, November and December.  I missed 5 out of 12 months. I get a "C-".

I added more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects which kept the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like.  ( That counts as two resolutions )

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it, not jumping up to rearrange containers. (This one was easy)

I applied to get my little garden certified as a wildlife habitat  with the National Wildlife Federation by making sure I provided food sources, water, cover, places to raise young and used sustainable gardening techniques.

I fertilized my perennials a couple of times this year with organic compost and fertilizer instead of just once and boy were they happy. The trees and larger shrubs really only need a light dose once a year so I was good there.

I wore sunscreen everyday. (My doctor wants a hat, too. Maybe this year I’ll wear one.)

The other half of last year’s resolutions are being recycled as they’re still good ones:

I will not buy a new flower, shrub or tree until I have a plan for it in the garden.

I will sharpen and clean my garden tools so they look spiffy and work better.

I will start a worm bin with my kitchen scraps and a compost pile for leaves and plant debris. (I have so many raccoons it’s like a party out there at night but I’m going to come up with a critter-proof solution.)

I will weed regularly- not waiting until they’re so tall they swallow up my gardening tools when I lay them down.

I will accept a few holes in my plants but tour the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and I need to break out an organic pesticide.

I will prune my maples, transplant my overgrown containers and divide my perennials when I’m supposed to.

I will plant more things to eat. Edibles anywhere in the garden feed the body and the soul. (This summer was so cold I didn’t have much luck in my partial shade.)

I will stop rationalizing my plant habit is better than gambling, clothes shopping or smoking.

I will do better to practice what I preach in this column.

Happy New Year in 2011 from The Mountain Gardener

What to Plant in Clay Soil in the Santa Cruz Mountains

              "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 is a wonderful thing. It grows our food, anchors our trees and provides a foundation under our feet. But it sure can be hard to work with if it’s not the soft, crumbly loam that many plants prefer. It’s amazing that anything grows in some of the soils here in the Santa Cruz mountains. Some folks garden in an ancient sea bed of sand and there are others who have such heavy clay in their gardens that you wonder how anything survives.  Recently I helped plant in the dense clay of Garrahan Park in Boulder Creek and I dedicate this column to those of you with similar inhospitable soils.

The soil in Boulder Creek required a pick ax to break up enough to plant. Sound familiar?  Although rich in nutrients it needed compost in many areas to provide the environment  necessary so beneficial microbes, worms and other critters could do their work and aerate the soil. A thick layer of mulch will be spread over the soil by The Boy Scouts to preserve the structure and prevent it from packing down again.

There are many plants that are tolerant of clay soils and plant selection is half the equation. The park chose mostly California natives that won’t need fertilization or pruning, can be eventually weaned from irrigation and will provide food for the birds and visiting children. Juncus, a type of grass, red-flowering currant, redtwig dogwood, California rose and western redbud will be the stars of the park in the wet, clay soil. The drier side of the park was planted with deer grass, toyon, California rose, huckleberry, coffeeberry , ceanothus, native honeysuckle, vine maple, native iris and California fescue grass.

I’m sure the park will be the crown jewel of the area and hopefully you will come to visit and see the progress of the plants. Kinda like a local demonstration garden in the San Lorenzo Valley.

There are plants from similar environments in other parts of the world that would also do well if you garden in heavy soil. One of my favorite trees for these conditions is the strawberry tree. Also hackberry, ash, gingko and paperbark trees work well also. Shrubs to try include flowering quince, bottlebrush, Australian fuchsia, smoke tree, escallonia, pineapple guava, mahonia, osmanthus, Italian buckthorn, elderberry and vitex. Easy perennials for clay soils are yarrow, bergenia, carex grasses, fortnight lily, coreopsis, echinacea, nepeta, salvia, teucrium and verbena to name just a few.

If you’re not familiar with some of these plants it’s easy to see what they look like by Googling images. It’s what I do to see a plant full grown and not just a line drawing or a close-up of the flower.

So you see, there are plants that will be successful even in heavy, clay soil, you just have to pick the right ones.

Attracting Birds to your Garden

Fall brings with it not only foliage color but also colorful fruits and berries that invite birds into your garden. If you’re a backyard birder you probably already have lots of plants to lure our feathered friends,

If you have room for a new tree, consider Paul’s scarlet hawthorn.  With clusters of double rose flowers and small vivid red fruits resembling tiny apples in late summer and fall that hang from the branches well into winter, this tree offers interest in more than one season.  Robins are attracted to hawthorn berries.
Flowering crabapples sport showy edible fruit relished by many birds in the winter, including black-headed grosbeaks.  Fruit color ranges from reddish purple, brilliant red to golden orange.  Crabapples are good lawn trees and their spring blossoms are stunning.  To avoid disfiguring diseases, choose varieties that are resistant to cedar-apple rust, scab and powdery mildew.   Among these is ‘Prairiefire‘, with pink flowers and dark red fruit.  This tree grows 20 feet tall.
A native that puts on a fall show is  A background plant most of the year, the white berries on this 4-foot shrub stand out when the leaves drop.  Snowberry is a good choice for erosion control on banks.

Looking like clusters of pale purple pearls, the gorgeous fruits of beautyberry ( Callicarpa ) are born well into winter.  This deciduous shrub reaches to 6 feet and takes sun or light shade.
For both bird-attracting berries and brilliant winter stems, plant redtwig dogwood.  Native along creeks and other moist spots from northern California through the Northwest, it performs well with little additional summer water once established in gardens
Other shrubs with beautiful colored berries include barberry, cotoneaster, currant, elderberry, mahonia, nandina and pyracantha.  As an added bonus many of these berries make good holiday decorations, too.