How to Plant a Garden that will look like it’s been there forever

 

 I love to read those articles in gardening magazines with titles like "How to Create a Complete Backyard in a Weekend"   or   "This Front Yard in Just one Year".  If you’re like me you think  " Can I really do that " ?   There are some short cuts that can make this happen and fall is the perfect time to try out some of them.

Start by making sure you have paths where you need them.  Simple flagstone set in sand or soil work fine for meandering through the garden.  A more formal and permanent path is needed to lead guests to the front door but stepping stones are quick and easy in other areas.  Hardscaping like paths, walks and fences establish the framework for everything else to build off of.

If you want your garden to fill in quickly choose key plants that grow fast and are suited to your conditions: sun exposure, soil type and water availability.  Plants given their preferred conditions will grow and flourish more quickly.  Designate irrigated areas for must-have plants and use plants that like it dry in your other areas.  Most important, if you are going for high impact quickly, choose plants that perform right away instead of those needing a few growing seasons to grow in.

Begin your planting by choosing trees and shrubs for structure, especially in the winter.  Fast growing trees include chitalpa, red maples, mimosa, birch, raywood ash, flowering cherry and purple robe locust.  Shrubs that fill in quickly are butterfly bush, bottlebrush , choisya, rockrose , escallonia, hydrangea, philadelphus, plumbago and weigela.

Next come perennials that mature quickly and make your garden look like it’s been growing for years. is one such plant and blooms summer through fall if spent stems are removed.  Their intense violet-blue flower spikes cover plants 18" tall spreading 2-3 ft wide.  They look great in wide swaths across the garden or  along the border of a path and attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.  Walkers Low catmint is another perennial that keeps going and growing.  This vigorous spreading member of the mint family blooms profusely with little spikes of 1/2" periwinkle blue flowers from late spring through fall.  Catmints are easy to care for.  Shear plants back by half at the beginning of the season and after flowers fade.  They are drought tolerant, too.

Where you need a big clump of color to fill in a space. penstemon, crocosmia, cardinal flower, mondarda, purple coneflower and yarrow all put down deep roots and mature quickly.    

Be sure to include combinations that bloom in different months. 

 

 Yes, creating a garden slowly over many years is satisfying, but if you need to fill in a new area quicky, draw on some of these tips and your bare dirt will be full and beautiful in no time. 

 

Indian Summer in the Santa Cruz Mountains

We tend to think of September and October as ‘Indian Summer‘  because the weather is balmy,  even on the foggy coast.  The actual definition from the American Meteorological Society describes  ‘a time interval, in mid or late autumn of unseasonably warm weather, generally with clear skies, sunny but hazy days and cool nights.’
Several references make note of the fact that a true Indian Summer can not occur until there has been a killing frost or freeze.  And while we may expect wintery weather to arrive in November or December, here in this part of the world we consider this time of year our Indian summer.

The term ‘Indian Summer’ dates back to the 18th century.  A Frenchman named John de Crevecoeur wrote in 1778 about  ‘an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer, it’s characteristics… a tranquil atmosphere.’   No one know if is has anything to do with Indians, either.  It has been speculated that cargo ships in the 1700”s did much of their sailing over the Indian Ocean during the fair weather season in ‘Indian Summer’.  No one theory has been proven and since it’s been centuries since the term first appeared, it will probably rest with it’s originators. 

One thing we do know, fall is the best planting season of the year.  The soil is still warm encouraging root growth, the nights are cooler and days shorter which helps to conserve water, too.  This is a good time if you’re looking to add a new tree to shade the south side of your home, or perhaps start a hedge to screen the road.  If you want to add perennials to a border or start cool season annuals this is the time.

There are lots of deciduous trees to choose from that provide shade in the summer while letting the sun warm the house in the winter.  At this time of year trees with fall color come to mind. 

Maples like October Glory, Autumn Fantasy, Red Sunset and Autumn Blaze have gorgeous crimson red, magenta pink, or scarlet fall foliage,  Growing fairly fast to a mature height of 40-50 ft, they are large enough to provide that much needed summer shade.    Provide them with occasional deep watering and periodic feed to help keep roots deep. 

What about a hedge that screens the neighbor while also producing fruit?  Strawberry guavas can be grown as a 20 ft. single trunk tree, or a 10-15 ft multi-trunked tree , but are more often seen as a shrub 8-10 ft high.  Their 1 1/2" fruit is dark red or nearly black when ripe, with whiteRose of Sharon Red Heart flesh that is sweet but tart.  It can be harvested green and ripened at room temperature and is good eaten fresh or used in jellies, purees and juice drinks.  Even the bark of this evergreen shrub is a beautiful reddish to golden brown.  If you’re looking to add more edibles to your garden this is a good candidate.

Another shrub that would make a good addition to your garden is Rose of Sharon.  This hardy member of the hibiscus family blooms from mid summer until frost.  When dry summers have taken a toll on the rest of your border let this tough plant provide you with spectacular flowers.

There are dozes of varieties from double flowering forms to those with a contrasting eye.  Some reach 10 ft tall but can be pruned to shape.  One smaller one that I particularly like is called‘Red Heart‘.  It blooms with large white flowers with a burgundy eye, grows only 3 ft tall and looks beautiful when combined with the wine red flowers of chocolate cosmos.  Another favorite is ‘Blue Bird’ , a rich lavender blue variety with a deep red eye.  This one grows 3-5 ft tall and fits into the smaller garden, too.  Hibiscus syriacus are easy to grow.  They prefer full sun and tolerate some drought.  They are hardy to -10 degrees so our winters are a picnic for them.

Take advantage of Indian Summer to plant something new.

Late September “to do’s”

Cool Season Vegetables

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6" of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.

You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.
If you aren’t going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover after you’ve harvested your summer vegetables.  Next month I’ll talk about how to go about doing this and how this benefits your soil.

rocking garden saying

This is also the time to start perennial flowers seeds so that they’ll  be mature enough to bloom next year. 

 Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylilies and penstemons 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.  If you’re on  a roll out in the garden, though, go for it now.  You never know what other projects you may be working on next spring. 

Enjoy our early fall weather out in your garden.
   

Chrysanthemums

 I can think of only a handful of perennials that bloom so easily, so prolifically and come in so many colors as the chrysanthemum.   Although they will be available throughout fall, the best supplies are often found now.  If you need to perk up your tired containers of flower beds, think of the reliable mum.

Actually, their botanical name has been changed to dendranthemum grandiflorum but I never hear anyone use this name.  It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Purple Mums

Mums represent the changing season with their bonze, yellow, orange and red tones.  Other flower colors include pink, lavender, purple and white to match any color scheme you might have.

Grown for years to flower only in late summer and fall, they are short day plants, setting buds when they receive light for 10 hours and darkness for the other 14 hours of the day.  This is why mums bloom in the spring on leggy stems if they are not cut back.  And this is how growers manipulate their blooming, adjusting the dark and light periods with shades in the greenhouse so buds will form in any month.   They’re nearly constantly available in grocery stores and florists in every season.

    At this time of year, garden mums abound.  Pick a plant with lots of buds, they bloom only once and won’t set more flowers until next year.  Those buds, though, last a long time if you don’t let them dry out. The specific type of plant doesn’t matter since they all have long term growth potential.  There is a European mum that produces hundreds of buds and stays relatively small and compact when set out in the garden.  If you particularly like one color or form of chrysanthemum, plant it now to enjoy again next year.  You never know what the growers might decide to grow next season.

Choose a well-drained, sunny spot to plant them.  Like many members of the daisy family, mums don’t tolerate soggy ground.  After blooming, trim off the old flowers and cut back plants to within 6-8" of the ground.  If you started with 4" pots trim back by half.

Next spring pinch them back whenever growth gets to 8" tall.  Keep pinching until July, then allow plants to start forming buds for the traditional fall show.  Mums need regular water so plant them in spots where you have other plants with the same water needs.

This fall, add to your mum collection or start a new one.  The pungent scent of their leaf reminds us that cooler weather is on the way.  And don’t forget to cut some for a bouquet to bring inside the house.
    
 

Groundcovers

Ground covers are like a fancy carpet in the garden.  They add richness and beauty under trees and become the stars of the show in sunny apots.  Ground covers reduce maintenance by preventing weeds and reduce watering by acting as a living mulch.  

 

When choosing ground covers, assess the conditions of the area you want to plant.

  •  Is it in the sun or shade?
  •  Is it a naturally moist area or dry?
  •  Do you intend to water it or go with our natural cycle of wet in the winter and dry in the summer?
  •  Matching the plant to the site conditions will ensure success.

When designing a plant layout I consider whether I want a sweep of the same plant or a tapestry effect with a variety of plants.  Using more than one type of plant allows me to work with foliage contrast adding pattern to my composition. 

Splash color and texture on the ground under trees and shrubs with shade-loving ground covers like   Serbian bellflower.  It needs little water, blooms with star-shaped 1/2" blue flowers in spring and summer and spreads vigorously without becoming invasive.  Heart shaped foliage covers this mounding plant.

Lamiastrum is another perennial ground cover for partial or full shade.  Silvery variegated foliage can lighten up dark corners and small yellow flowers are a bonus in late spring.

To preserve good visibility along a walkway or lawn, use low-growing, long blooming perennials like diascia, Santa Barbara daisy and achillea.   All prefer full sun and moderate to little water.

 

Diascia is a So. African native with 1/2" wide flowers that appear on the ends of spreading stems.  Pink used to be the only flower color but now hybridizers have developed apricot, coral and lavender, too.  Diascia’s are hardy to 0 degrees and bloom nearly continuously if old flowers are cut off after flowering.

 

Santa Barbara daisy has become a popular ground cover as it reseeds readily and can cover a large area fairly quickly.  This 10-20" tall trailing plan spreads rapidly to about 2 ft, making it a great filler between larger shrubs and perennials.  Dainty 1/3" pinkish white flowers cool down hot sunny spots.  Trim this plant several times a year to keep tidy and encourage blooming.  

 

Achillea or yarrow are among the most carefree perennials for summer and early fall bloom.   They spread by underground runners and make great ground covers. Keep this in mind if you have a limited space.   The most common variety is Summer Pastels but if you want to add a punch of color to your garden, plant Cerise Queen with it’s cherry red flowers.   

 

Rockrose provide large-scale cover for expansive sunny areas.  Their dense strong root systems help prevent soil erosion.   Choose from white, pink or magenta flowers on plants varying from 1-5 ft. high depending on which variety you choose.  This Mediterranean native is fast growing and drought tolerant. 

 

To create stunning combinations of ground cover plants. choose 5 or 6 styles and repeat them in small drifts to carry the eye through the composition.

 

Add grasses for linear texture.  Good candidates are Blue Oat grass, a non-spreading clumping grass with silver leaves.  Carex Ice Dance is a spectacular evergreen ornamental grass with dark green narrow foliage edged with a pure white border.  Ice Dance spreads by underground runners in partial sun or shade.

 

Take the opportunity to survey your garden for bare spaces that can come alive with added texture and color.  


Homegrown carrots

 If you love carrots like I do,  now is the time to plant  the seeds  directly in the ground.

Carrots as we know them originated from forms grown around the Mediterranean.  By the 13th century carrots were well established as a food in Europe and came with the first settlers to America, where Indians soon took up their culture.

Flavor differs greatly among varieties and planting time affects flavor, too.  September is one of the best months to plant.  Carrots achieve their sweetest taste when the last few weeks of growth occur in cool weather.  Also, unless a carrot is bred to be harvested young, it won’t develop full flavor until mature.

Two ingredients determine a carrot’s flavor- sugar and terpenoids ( volatile compounds that impact the carrot flavor ).   Because terpenoids develop earlier than sugars, a carrot that is harvested too young might taste bitter. For peak flavor and texture, dig carrots anytime after they’ve developed a deep orange color.

Commercial carrot varieties have been developed for uniformity of shape, as well as for color, disease resistance and ease of harvest.  But home gardeners can select a carrot more for flavor than appearance.  So how do you choose the sweetest ones to grow?  

Carrots are normally grouped into several types-  Nantes,  Chantenay, Danvers, imperator and Paris market.   For flavor it’s difficult to beat a Nantes.    Nantes Coreless or Little Finger are two popular varieties.  They’re not a carrot you’ll find in the grocery store because they’re difficult to harvest commercially and don’t store well.  Both are juicy and sweet.  Nantes coreless grows to 6-7 " long, is blunt-tipped and fine grained.  Little Finger is unmatched for snacks, pickling or steaming.  It grows to just 3-4" long and is ideal for container gardening. too.  

Red Cored Chantenay has broad shoulders and strong tapered tips.  This wedge-shaped carrot is rarely grown by commercial growers.  For the home garden it produces 6" long carrots that keep well when left in the soil, store well after digging and are sweet and crunchy.  They perform well in heavy soil, too.

Danvers Half Long are another variety that are tasty raw, cooked, or juiced.   Carrots found at the super market are usually Imperators just so you know.

Whichever variety you choose to grow, prepare the soil by deeply working in organic matter.  Avoid fresh manure or your carrots will develop fine, hairy roots.  Remove exposed clods and stones from the soil and soak the bed before planting.  Scatter seeds thinly on top and cover with 1/4" compost to keep soil from crusting so the seed can punch through.  Firm soil gently and keep moist.

Germination take 10-17 days.  To help keep the tiny seeds moist, you can cover the seedbed with wet burlap just until they germinate.   When seedling have 2 or 3 leaves, thin them to 2" apart.  Keep soil deeply and evenly watered.   Control weeds with shallow hoeing.  Fertilize once a month and in a 60-75 days your carrots will be a deep orange color and at their peak flavor.  You just can’t beat pulling a sweet carrot straight from the earth for sweetness.  

 

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