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.

Planning for Extreme Weather

Drought one year,  rainy the next.  How do you plan for these weather events in your garden?

CLIMATE-PROOFING used to mean tossing a little mulch on the garden, hauling pots of tender plants indoors or under an overhang.   But global warming and cyclical climate change has caused weather to grow so volatile that these traditional practices just don’t cut it anymore. Our gardens need year-’round help to deal with the new weather realities, including increasingly rain events in the winter and dry springs and of course our usual dry summers. . If you doubt the significant effects of climate change on our gardens, think about all the plants you consider hardy that may have died off in a really cold spell or the usually drought tolerant plants that didn’t like our dry spring last year.   The list varies by microclimate, but might include escallonia, abutilon, verbenas, Melianthus major, phormium and yuccas. Have you noticed birds returning earlier in the spring and lilacs blooming two weeks ahead of when they flowered 30 years ago?

We need a fresh arsenal of garden strategies, and it will help if we better understand the changing weather where we live and garden.  Our climate is influenced by the Santa Cruz mountain range and moderated by the Pacific Ocean.  Sixty inches of rain is "normal" for us but it’s been a few years since we’ve had this much.  While there is great year-to-year variability in our weather,  we need to be prepared for the worse case scenario.  You can lose both precious plants and trees as well as all the money and work you put into the garden.

How to deal?

• Begin by choosing tough, sturdy, self-reliant plants that need less water and fertilizer. Healthy plants are naturally resistant to pests and diseases when put in the sun/shade/water situations that suit them.

Compost-enriched soil provides the foundation for thriving plants that are more resilient to disease, drought or insect damage. Healthy soil absorbs water like a sponge and also stores carbon from the atmosphere, helping reduce greenhouse gases.

Reduce water consumption by using drought-tolerant and native plants, and by grouping plants with like water needs. Water with drip systems or soaker hoses; use tools like watering bags to keep new trees healthy. Remember to check whether your soil is dry before irrigating, and make sure you are watering more than just the surface.

Weed regularly so you aren’t wasting water on nuisance plants. To keep weeds down and water in, mulch garden beds at least once a year in late winter.

Global warming is creating what climatologists call "heavier rainfall events." This means more runoff and more stormwater problems. We can help by avoiding chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and using porous surfaces like pebbles, gravel or pavers for patios and driveways rather than solid concrete. Install rain barrels and cisterns to capture rainwater to use for irrigation. Consider taking advantage of low-lying or boggy spots in your garden to create a rain garden, planted with moisture-loving natives, to slow down the passage of rainwater through the soil.

• Nurture the birds, bees and insects in your garden that are also confused by climate change. Make your garden a healthy habitat for all living things by eschewing chemicals. Plant a diverse array of flora that blooms early and late to encourage pollinators. Add natives and plenty of berried plants to feed and attract creatures.

• And finally, a few ideas on saving energy: Solar garden lights are the smart way to go; cut energy use on other outdoor lights by putting them on a timer. If you aren’t yet lawn-free, at least get rid of your gas mower, blower and weed eater, and use rakes and hand clippers; you’ll be rewarded with blessed quiet as well as energy efficiencies. You might consider arbors and pergolas for shade in summer and rain protection in winter. And it might not be a bad idea to invest in a rain barrel.

Hardy Winter Plants

    PROMISE YOURSELF  to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
    To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet. 
    To make all of your friends feel that there is something in them. 
    To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
    To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best. 
    To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. 
    To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
    To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
    To give so much time to the improvement of yourself, that you have no time to criticize others.
    To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of        trouble.
                                             Christian D.  Larson

   
 Sure has been cold the past few weeks.  Many of the perennials in my garden have suffered from frost and will need to be cut back later in February or March.  After strolling through Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco recently, I’m newly inspired for the coming season.


At the arboretum you can experience unique gardens created with California natives or drought tolerant plants from Australia.   Other gardens have plants from New Zealand or So. Africa.  Meandering paths bisect each garden.   It is a marvelous place to explore and discover what plants appeal to you as each is clearly labeled.  Be sure to take your camera.  It’s a great way to see what a mature specimen of a plant or tree looks like. Those descriptions on a nursery can don’t compare to seeing a plant in person.

While you’re up in Golden Gate park  don’t miss the new museum of natural history, planetarium, tropical rainforest and aquarium.  Green technology is used and explained throughout, including the green roof.  Last summer I wrote about visiting Rana Creek nursery in Carmel and talking to the grower of the native plants that cover the roof.  The  plants selected, eight drought tolerant California natives, include  prunella, armeria, stonecrop, goldfield, lupine, poppy,  plantain and beach strawberry.  I didn’t see seedlings of the spring wildflowers on the roof when I visited but the stands of prunella and beach strawberry were thriving.  Also beach asters seemed to be doing well although they weren’t listed.  Seeds may have blown in.  If you’re thinking of replacing your traditional lawn in the spring with drought tolerant ground covers, consider these plants.   They are not only survivors but will flourish under adverse conditions. 

As I write this, I’m spending the holiday in the Seattle area near Lake Washington.  Here you can really see plants that know how to survive the elements.  Actually, it’s hard to identify most of them as they are totally covered with snow.  It snows everyday.  Beautiful white powder blankets the trees and landscape. My sister’s  perennial planters will not be joining her this spring.   So pretty to look but not that great when you venture out  to get last minute presents.  Snowplows are scarce up here.

What plants bloom in the winter where we live?  A little color at this time of year is always welcome.   Native mahonia are just coming into full and glorious yellow flower.  The hummingbirds love their flowers as well as hellebores, sasanqua camellias and strawberry trees.

Oregon  grape ( mahonia ) are deer-resistant shrubs with large, prickly leaves.  Long sprays of fragrant, yellow flowers rise above the foliage in January and February.  Blue fruit follows which is also attractive.   Mahonias grow best in partial shade but will take full sun if given occasional, deep watering in the summer.

Sasanqua camellias are valuable for their massive display of large flowers in fall and winter.  If you’re driving along and see a shrub covered with dark pink, white, lilac or red flowers, most likely it will be this plant.  They are often called the roses of winter.  Many are fragrant and can be espaliered on a trellis.  Sasanqua camellias are easy to grow in partial shade and need only moderate water. 

Another wonderful plant for winter color that I saw so many of at the arboretum is winter heath.  Heaths and heathers love acidic soil so combine well in sunny areas near rhododendrons and azaleas.  Ground cover types are smothered with lilac, pink or rose flowers starting in December and last into April. 

Don’t forget Iceland poppies, violas and cyclamen for small color accents.  Happy New Year  from The Mountain Gardener and may your garden flourish this year. 

 

Armchair Gardening

Realizing that no one wants to actually work outside in the garden the week after Christmas, this column is devoted to something you can do from the comfort and warmth of an arm-chair or while looking out your windows.

Make an entry in your garden journal  (If you don’t have one, it’s never too late to start.) 

 Record what did well this year in your garden.  Were the fruit trees loaded with fruit as you’d hoped?  How many times did you fertilize them?  Did they flower well?   How many bees did you see pollinating them?  Should you add more plants to attract them?  Insect or disease problems?   Room for more?  What kinds would extend your harvest season?

Make notes of what other edibles you want to include in the garden next year.  Bare root season starts in January making it easy to plant grapes, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, artichokes and asparagus.
 
How productive were the tomatoes and other veggies?  Did you add enough compost to the beds to really feed the soil and the microorganisms?  Did you rotate your crops to prevent a build up of insect and fungal problems?

Think about how the perennials in your garden fared – the successes and not so great results.  Make a note if there are any higher water usage plants among the drought tolerant ones.  Come March, move them to a spot you’ve allocated a bit more water. 

While you still sitting in that comfy chair,  think about what changes you want to make to your garden.  Here are some tips for successful garden design:

    Take inventory
        How do you want to use your garden?  What activities do you want for outdoor living?  Examples include outdoor dining, a play space for the kids, watching wildlife, or a cutting garden that can be enjoyed form the kitchen window.  Look out your windows and decide if what you see needs  a little enhancement.  Use this list to lay out your design or improvements.

    Know your site
        Just as important as knowing your needs is exploring what your site has to offer.  You can call it site analysis but it’s simply observing your garden over time.  Where does the sun rise and fall as the seasons change?  Which spots are hot and sunny and which are shady and cool?  Put the terrace for morning coffee where you’ll be warmed by the morning sun and that relaxing retreat for reading where you’ll be shaded on a hot summer afternoon.

    Choose a style

        What feeling do you want to express in your garden?  Do you like the look of an Asian garden or maybe a country garden like those in Provence?  Maybe your ready for the clean look of a contemporary garden.  Choosing a theme helps pull the design together.  Think of the difference in feeling between a terra cotta pot overflowing with herbs and a modern water fountain.  Find inspiration in garden books and magazines and turn to them when shopping for materials for a path, furniture for the patio or plants for the beds.

    Add a framework
        Whether it’s the stone patio that gives the garden structure or the curve of a path , the bones of your garden are created by all of the elements in it.  Mark the boundaries of your garden.  Add privacy with screening from fences, arbors or informal hedges.  Create garden rooms- distinct areas using plaints or a change of grade.
    Sometimes a garden can seem larger if you block out what’s beyond it, drawing the eye inward.  On the other hand, know when to borrow scenery like a view of the mountains or a neighbors tree.

    Select the right plants
        Choose plants that support your design and meet your time available for maintenance.  Plants bring life to the garden.  They provide seasonal change, abundant bloom and bring wildlife.  Keep in mind how much time you want to spend taking care of your garden.   All gardens require maintenance.  A combination of shrubs and ground covers requires the least amount of work.  Perennials take more work- deadheading, trimming and dividing.  Native plants need little summer water and minimal care once established.  Whatever the size of your property, consider devoting a portion of it to native plants to create a wildlife area. 

Take stock of your garden from the comfort of your home and be ready for action when spring arrives.

 

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the Night Before Christmas
                 A poem for Gardeners
                    by Jan Nelson "The Mountain Gardener"

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
All 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 native grass lawn there arose 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,
Fruit, vegetables and color:  it must belong to an artiste.
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,
Our old feeding grounds are now 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 just don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year,  go ahead and make a wish,
And each time you see one of us,   think welcome,  not banish.
And all of us creatures will give you 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 this poem in 1822 in New York.  I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

 

Winter Containers and Holiday Wreaths

Ahhh… the holidays.   You’ve put up your decorations and perhaps a  tree or what ever your family does  traditionally.   Friends and neighbors wave  ‘ Merry Christmas ‘  when you see them in town.  The  relatives from back east are arriving soon to celebrate with you. 

What?    Did you say… people will be coming from parts of the country where it’s bleak and cold and miserable?   Well,  show them how lucky we are that our ground doesn’t freeze.  Put together some  handsome winter containers using  these cool ideas for those big empty pots by the front door or on the patio. 

Cool season annuals like pansies and primroses are great for containers but there are many more plants that are hardy, easy to care for and offer texture and color, too.   White artemisia combines well with almost any other color.  Here’s a good place to show off those burgundy pansies.  Or combine it with the silvery and purple-patterned foliage of heuchera ‘Amethyst Mist‘ .    Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Use them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.  Rainbow chard would look equally stunning.   Dwarf conifers look elegant surrounded with white primroses.  How about a container with the bluish foliage of euphorbia ‘Silver Swan‘  combined with ajuga ‘ Black Scallop ‘  or  an ajuga like ‘Burgundy Glow‘  with variegated pink, purple and cream leaves?  Add lavender pansies and pinkish coral bells to set off your container.   For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and best of all, they will be blooming very soon.  Hellebores bloom in the winter, too and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and will be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  
   
Here are some tips for keeping your containers looking good through winter:

Any good potting soil will work but drainage is particularly important for plants that will be out in the rain.     To improve drainage in containers that once held summer annuals, dump out the soil and add one quarter perlite.   Don’t use a pot of soil that had polymers in it to retain summer water.  Winter plants don’t need the extra dampness. 

When filling the containers, don’t add gravel or bits of broken pots to the bottom.  Gravel and pot shards will hamper drainage.  Instead, fill the entire pot with the soil mixture.  A paper coffee filter or screen over the drainage hole will keep the soil from slipping out andl allow water to disperse.  And it will keep earwigs and sow bugs from finding a new home in the bottom of your pots.

Choose the biggest containers you have.  Not only can you tuck more plants into it, but the room will also help protect roots from the cold.   Unlike summer containers, winter plantings won’t be growing much so you can put the plants closer together.  Don’t use saucers under containers.  Plantings that are left standing in water-filled saucers can rot.  Instead, set containers on planter feet or bricks. 

Wreaths and swags

What else should you be doing to get ready for the relatives?   How about making a wreath or a swag to drape over the mantel or front door and in the process getting a little pruning done? While you’re in the decorating mood,  take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreens to use in wreaths and swags.  Cuttings from Douglas fir, redwoods,  pine, holly, mahonia, make fine additions to your wreaths and swags.  But don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately.  To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out.  Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk.  If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.  To force upward growth, cut the branch just beyond an upward facing shoot.  To foster spreading growth, cut the branch just beyond a downward facing shoot. 

After you’ve finished pruning, spray the greens with water to remove dust and insects.  Trim cuttings to desired size.  To keep them fresh, immerse the cut ends in a bucket of water and store outdoors in a shady spot until your ready to decorate.  Be sure to strip the foliage from the portions of the stems that will be under water if you are using the cuttings in a bouquet.       
   
Most of all, whatever you do (and even if you don’t get everything done you planned) , enjoy the season with friends and family. 

 

Grapevine “Christmas Tree”, late Bulbs & Rosemary

 It’s great to see so many magazines and TV shows showcasing quick, inexpensive Christmas gifts and decorations to make from simple objects.  As we all try to reduce, reuse and recycle , here’s  an idea that you can use to decorate your deck or front porch with items you already have.

What’s more "green" than recycling your own garden cuttings?  You probably have a large pot where the plants are just about through for the season.   Pull out the spent plants but keep the soil.  You’ll be making a Christmas "tree" from a tomato cage turned upside down and secured with large U-shaped staples poked into the pot’s soil. Tie the wire prongs that are normally sunk into the ground with twine to make a pointed top. 

 Once the cage is anchored in place you can weave prunings from grapevines or honeysuckle in and around it.  Any vine will work as well as  long flexible branches from shrubs like cotoneaster, willow or abutilon.
If you have an electrical outlet nearby you can weave small lights throughout the tree.  If you want to get fancy, poke dried hydrangea flowers or berry sprigs or rosemary cuttings into the "tree".    After the holidays, you can plant primroses in the container and store the tomato cages for next summer. 

 It’s not too late to plant bulbs.  We get enough cold around here for many more months so the bulbs will get enough chilling even though you’re getting a late start.  The worst that can happen is the blooms may be slightly smaller and bloom on shorter stems.   I always start my bulbs about now as the squirrels have buried most of their acorns for the season and tend to leave my pots alone.  If they do discover them, I put gravel over the the surface and that seems to stop the party.   I plant lots of pots because the color will be so welcome in early spring. 

A simple ( read lazy ) way to plant that I’ve always had success with is to reuse the soil in a pot that just finished up like impatiens or other annuals.  Some I plant with cool season color but many, especially the glazed ones, I take out half of the soil, layer some bulbs, and pack the top with the rest of the soil.  Voila !  Instant spring bouquet in less than two minutes.  If you haven’t planted any bulbs yet,  do go out and get some now.  You’ll be very glad you did.

A word to the wise:  protect against killing frosts that often hit this month.   Watch out for still, starry nights and be prepared to protect tender plants with frost blankets.   Even a sheet, tarp, cardboard box, or regular blanket will help. If you do use plastic, make sure it is supported by poles and not draped right on top of the plant.  Better yet,  sink four 1×1 stakes to make a frame around tender plants,  then you’ll be ready  to throw something over quickly on a cold night.  Plants must be watered adequately to survive a freeze.  Drought stressed plants are more susceptible to damage. 

A plant that’s hardy, drought tolerant, blooms in the winter and makes a nice wreath, too, is the rugged rosemary.  One of the most versatile of all herbs, rosemary can be used in a variety of ways in both the garden and kitchen.  You can use an upright version like for a deer resistant screen.  Low. prostrate types make great ground covers.  And they do well in pots on the deck or outside the kitchen door.  Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions from hot sun to partial shade  and survives down to around 15 degrees.   It will accept regular watering as long as there is good drainage.  You can add it to a mixed perennial bed or delegate it to the back forty.  Rosemary will flourish for decades in your garden but too much fertilizer will result in a shorter-lived plant.

 Harvest leaves for cooking anytime.  Plant some by the barbeque so you can toss plant sprigs over the coals to flavor food as it cooks.  Or use rosemary branches dipped in sauce to baste grilled food.   Mmm… yummy.