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.

Gift Ideas for the Holidays

 It’s not too early to start planning for gifts to give for the holidays.  You might be putting together something quick to give to the hostess on Thanksgiving or planning ahead for Christmas presents.  Here are a  couple of ideas to consider:

 Colorful chard, kale, lettuce and spinach are not only nutritious and delicious, they’re also beautiful.  With food prices going higher and higher ,  plant up of pot of living greens in a container  to give as a gift.  Choose a container at least 12" wide and fill with potting soil.  If you plant from cell packs now they’ll be full next month to give  but even if you put a couple of herbs or veggies in a pretty pot  now they’ll be appreciated.  Bright Lights chard would look great by itself in a glazed pot.

These leafy greens can be harvested over a long period of time by gently tearing off the outer leaves and allowing the center to continue growing.  With food prices going higher and higher,  even someone who has never grown veggies before will appreciate a gift like this.  Plant up a couple for yourself, too, to have by the kitchen door.

For those of you that have a cool season veggie garden already in progress, it’s time to fertilize them to increase production.   

Give a bouquet from your garden to dress up a Thanksgiving table.  Right outside your door you can find plenty of fall leaves and berries and even a couple of flowers if you’re lucky.  Mexican bush sage are still blooming as are lion’s tail,  maybe a few cosmos, Japanese anemones and asters. Ornamental oregano holds up well , too, especially the variety Santa Cruz.    Foliage can be a key player and might be found from smoke bush, ornamental grass, purple hopseed, crape myrtle, Chinese pistache, oaks, maples and liquidambar.   Dogwood leaves would be beautiful as would ornamental pear.  Berry accents are a staple for a fall bouquet and you might have nandina, cotoneaster,  hawthorn,  dogwood or  crabapple in your garden.  Go out and fill a brown shopping bag with whatever strikes your fancy to create a beautiful fall bouquet to give or dress up your own table or entry.  Your arrangement should last about 4-7 days in a moderately cool room. 

I like to start hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator in pretty colored hyacinth jars to give as gifts.  Make sure the water barely touches the bottom of the bulb or it may rot.  It usually takes 6 weeks or so for the jar to fill with roots before you bring it out and place in a bright spot gradually so it can acclimate to the light.  Their fragrance is incredible.

Forcing narcissus bulbs is simple and make a classic gift that  can perfume an entire room.  Flowers take 4-6 weeks from the time you plant them to set buds so start them now.  You can plant them in a shallow pot filled with potting soil or nestled slightly in pebbles or sand in a water tight jar.   An interesting container from the thrift shop would make your gift unique.

Allow the plants to grow under cool, bright conditions to keep their stems compact and strong.  Stake flower stems if they start to flop over or you can give them a diluted solution of alcohol to keep stems and leaves 1/3 to 1/2 shorter than those growing in plain water.  The key thing is to let the bulbs develop roots in water and stones to anchor the roots as usual until the shoots rise 1 to 2 inches above the top of the bulb.  Then pour off the water and replace it with a solution of water containing 4 to 6% alcohol such as gin, vodka or rum. To get this percentage from an 80 proof distilled spirit, you would need 1 part liquor to 7 parts water.  This  yields a 5 percent solution. 

Use this alcohol-water combination when you need to add water to the bowl.  Cornell scientists say rubbing alcohol also works but because it is typically 70 percent alcohol, less is needed,  just 1 part to 10 parts water.   I wrote about this interesting method last year but thought you might want to be reminded abut this handy tidbit of information if you’re going to start for yourself or to give as gifts.


My Top Ten Favorite Plants for Shade

 Some of us live in mostly  shade and some of us in the sun.   The choices for sunny locations are many but those of us who garden in shady or partially shady places have a tougher time finding good, reliable plants. 
Looking back over the years, I find that time and again I use one of the following plants in a design for a shady garden.  Sure, every garden is different;  different look, different soil, different degree of shade, but it’s surprising how often one of these plants plays a starring or supporting role in a vignette or border. 

I call them  Jan’s Top 10 Plants for Shade.

#1    Loropetalum chinense or Fringe flower.  This handsome evergreen shrub comes in two versions: green foliage with white flowers or burgundy foliage with raspberry flower clusters. Flowering is heaviest in the spring but some bloom is likely throughout the year.   I place this plant in the foreground where you can appreciate it’s graceful shape.  It looks great as an accent or in a raised bed.   The burgundy form would add color to a woodland garden and they even do well in a container on the patio.   You can prune it to any size but please don’t turn it into a tight ball and ruin it’s shape.    Another plus is that it is not attractive to deer.

#2    Liriope or Lily Turf.     Another deer resistant perennial I use a lot as a ground cover , at the edge of a path, or in a mixed border.  Evergreen grasslike leaves form tufts 18" tall.  They do well along streams or garden pools and compete well with the roots of other plants like at the base of trees or shrubs.  Flower spikes, usually purple, are quite showy.  ‘Big Blue’ is a popular variety that does well in dry shade.  ‘Silvery Sunproof‘ has green strappy leaves with gold stripes that age to white and can take sun.  In shade they stay golden, which is really pretty.

#3    Heuchera or Coral Bells.  There are so many varieties of this perennial these days I hardly know where to start.  Whether native or a hybrid their flower spikes are a hummingbird favorite.  Colorful foliage,  often ruffled or variegated,  can be silver, amethyst, caramel or lime green.   Combine a tawny variety like ‘Caramel‘ with the chartreuse foliage of ‘Citronella‘ in front of taller perennials or as a border edging.  They make good container plants, too.    Plant them where they get a little afternoon shade and they’ll be happy. 

#4    Pieris japonica or Lily of the Valley shrub.  An evergreen shrub with year round interest, this plant blooms early in late winter though early spring , and is covered with little bells for several months.  Starting in fall , when reddish flower buds appear, through summer as new foliage emerges with a red tint there is always something attractive happening with this plant.  Deer resistant also.

#5    Dryopteris erythrosora or Autumn fern.  If you’re looking for brighten up a shady area, this is the fern for you.  New fronds emerge a coppery color unlike any other fern.  Although they appreciate regular water, they will tolerate dry shade in a pinch.  Deer don’t like ferns either.

#6    Hydrangea quercifolia or Oakleaf hydrangea.  Huge showy leaves resembling oaks, turn bronze or crimson in the fall.      White flower clusters , 8" long, bloom in late spring and early summer, turning pinkish as they age.  They  are attractive if left on the plant  for the rest of the season.   This deciduous shrub grows to 6 ft tall and can also be grown in containers.

#7    Hakonechloa or Japanese forest grass.  The most widely grown and I think the most beautiful variety is Aureola‘.  Use this graceful, chartreuse colored grass to lend a classy touch to containers or as an architectural accent to a border or along a path.  In cool weather, the leaves turn pinkish and blend with your other fall foliage.

#8    Nandina or Heavenly bamboo.  Not a true bamboo, this hardy, easy to grow shrub, comes in many forms.  Some are ground covers, some hedges, some narrow accents in restricted places.  Many have bright orange-red foliage in the winter and deer don’t like them. .  It can grow in dry areas and you can harvest the sprays of berries for a holiday wreath. 

#9    Cornus florida or Flowering dogwood.  Check out Cherokee Chief‘ to provide vivid red fall foliage color to your garden as well as scarlet fruit that hangs on the trees in the winter.  This variety bears deep rosy bracts that nearly cover the tree in spring.  Use this small handsome tree as a focal point in the garden.

#10    Acer palmatum or Japanese maple.  ‘Bloodgood‘ is probably the brilliant deep scarlet red maple you’re seeing around town.  In the spring and summer foliage is deep red but in the fall- look out -it turns neon red.  Growing to only 15 ft, this small tree can be placed anywhere , even in a container.

 There are many other great plants that come to mind that I also use and like.  Pacific coast iris, campanula, bush anemone, to name a few.  This is a good time to add some new plants to the shady spots in your garden. 

Put your Garden to Bed

 There’s a peaceful quality to this time of year.  Mother Nature is winding down for the season turning deciduous trees ablaze with fall color.  Cool season pansies and violas turn their little faces to catch the sun.  It’s time to put the garden to bed for a greener spring next year. 

 Here are some suggestions, but promise you won’t try to do everything on one weekend.  it’ll just seem like work.  Gardening should be something you enjoy. 

  • Build up your soil by layering the vegetable beds with 2" of leaves newly fallen from your trees.  Soil building worms and organisms will start their work right away.  In the spring, dig what’s left into the soil.  If you want the leaves to break down faster, run over them with a lawn mower, then rake them up for mulch.
  •  Prevent erosion of your precious soil by mulching with straw or bark.  Mulch used around perennials, shrubs and trees will help moisture percolate into the soil instead of running off into storm drains or creeks along with fertilizers.    Mulch also keeps the soil from becoming compacted by winter rains.  If you don’t have enough leaves to use as mulch try layering newspapers and cardboard and cover with straw.  3-4" of mulch around the base of trees and large shrubs will hold weeds down, too.  Be sure to keep mulch a couple of inches away from the base of your plants so trapped moisture doesn’t rot the trunk. 
  • Chop down leftover vegetable plants and spent annuals flowers and layer on the vegetable bed under cardboard to decompose.  Don’t do this with diseases plants such as squash plants with powdery mildew.   These can be put in the curbside yard waste can.  Hot commercial composting systems can kill disease spores.
  • Clean empty pots and store them upside down in a dry location.  That way you’ll keep any soil diseases from being passed on to next year’s plants. 
  •  Store any excess leaves to use next summer if you have a lot of deciduous trees.  They’re like gold.  They make great bedding for a worm bin and next summer you can use them in the compost pile when you have an abundance of nitrogen rich green material but little carbon-based brown stuff to mix with it. 
  • Leave a little debris for wildlife so beneficial ground beetles have a place to live and birds can snack on seeds left on shriveled flowers.  Coneflowers, ornamental grasses and crocosmia all attract birds to their seed heads through the winter. 

The bottom line is to do those fall clean-up jobs as you have the time and energy.  Cleaning up in increments leaves height and interest in the garden and feeds the birds, too.

What you should do first, though, is to bring indoors houseplants that  spent the summer out on the patio. Also bring in any plants too tender to survive the winter outside. Be sure to inspect them for insect pests and wash them off.   Sub-topical plants  like tree ferns and bananas benefit from extra mulch to help them survive the worst of the winter weather.

It’s not too late to reseed thin spots on your lawn or apply a fall fertilizer to an existing one and if you have citrus trees, rhododendrons, azaleas or camellias they’ll benefit from an application of   Citrus use it for flower bud development and fruit sweetness.  Rhodies, azaleas, and camellias need it when flower buds begin to form.  It also improves flowering and root development of any plant and helps plants resist diseases and cold weather damage. 

Let the Birds Control your Insect Pests

Looks like trick-or-treating for Halloween is as popular with my garden visitors as it is with kids.  No, I’m not talking about those four-legged twins with doe-eyes that look longingly through my deer fencing at my hydrangeas.  I’m referring to the many birds that flock to my garden to eat aphids, mealybugs, mites and spiders, keeping the insect population under control without me lifting a finger.   What could be more convenient and beautiful to watch?

Throughout the year there are many resident birds that help me in the garden as they go about their business of  nesting and raising their young.  Ladybugs and other beneficial insects also do their part but it’s the songbirds I depend on to really get in there and do a clean sweep.  As if that’s not enough I get to hear them sing and call to each other and enjoy their bright plumage as they flit through the trees.

My garden is not very big.  I have a small birdbath to provide water for drinking and bathing. Several hummingbird feeders supplement the food supply when they are feeding their young and to help them through the winter.  The plants I grow provide foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts for all wildlife ( except those deer, sorry ) that visit my garden.  Shrubs provide hiding places and shelter for birds and other wildlife to raise their young, avoid predators and get out of inclement weather.   In return, they keep my garden healthy.  I’m getting a good deal, if you ask me.

Just this morning I was happy to welcome my resident flock of Chestnut-backed chickadees who proceeded to scour every perennial, shrub and tree like acrobats looking for insects and seeds.  They are quite tame and friendly and easily attracted to feeding stations.   At the same time, a group of brilliant yellow and black Townsend’s warblers arrived to survey the scene.  The prefer our cool fir and redwood forests in the fall and spring and also find food in oaks, madrones and bay trees.  These little birds are so bright you can see them from quite a distance.

Hopping about and scratching the ground to expose beetles and worms, a couple of American robins were doing their share of insect control. They also love the leftover blackberries still hanging on the vine.   Back up in the trees, the acorn woodpeckers were working on beetles and grubs hiding under the bark.  These are just some of the feathered help I have visiting my garden.

What can you do to encourage this free labor?  In addition to oaks and madrones, plant trees like crabapple, hawthorn, loquat, dogwood  and fruit trees for colorful fruits and berries.  Native shrubs like oregon grape, toyon, coffeeberry,  California wax myrtle, snowberry, coyote brush, manzanita and elderberry all have berries that attract birds. Ceanothus are among the most valued shrubs as a food source attracting bushtits, finches, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, quail, thrashers, thrushes, towhees, warblers, white-crowned sparrows and wrentits.  Other shrubs to include are Japanese barberry, roses and junipers.

 Hummingbirds do their share of spider control when they have young and need extra protein.  Native plants like salvia, sagebrush, buckwheat, flowering currant as well as garden favorites like flowering maple, fuchsia, coral bells all provide nectar for them and butterflies, too.


 *  Avoid using chemical insecticides.   Most birds eat insects and spiders.  If you spray your plants with chemicals, you’ll create a sterile wasteland for protein-eating birds. You’ll also kill butterflies or their larvae.  Spray organic pesticides only if you absolutely have to and then direct the spray carefully. 

  *  Be unfastidious.  The best wildlife habitats are not overly manicured.  The less often you rake under bushes, the better it is for the birds.  Accumulated duff gives a place for insects and other creatures to breed and live.  When possible, leave small brush piles in out-of-the-way places.

If you’d like to identify the birds that you’ve attracted, you can get a free check list of the birds of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park from their gift shop.  Many of those birds will be in your garden, too.  They also sell a beautiful laminated color chart of local birds of Monterey Bay area.  Fun to have by your kitchen window for a quick reference when you see a splash of yellow fly by. 

What to do with Green Tomatoes

With night temperatures dipping down into the 30’s,  you may be thinking your tomato vines are done for the season.  But what about all those green tomatoes just hanging there?   Don’t let these underage beauties go to waste.    There are lots of ways to use them.   Opportunity is hanging on the vine, ready to be picked.
When fall frost approaches,you  can pick unripe, mature green tomatoes to ripen indoors. A mature green tomato has a glossy, whitish green fruit color and mature size.   Taste one by taking a 1/4" slice of a medium-size tomato and sample it.  Your taste buds will register a firm, fresh fruit with an immature tomato flavor and a hint of sweetness similar to a zucchini.    Select fruits only from strong healthy vines, and pick only those fruits free of disease, insect or mechanical damage.  Remove stems to prevent them from puncturing each other and if dirty, gently wash and allow the fruit to air dry.

Store your tomatoes in boxes, 1 to 2 layers deep, or in plastic bags with a few holes for air circulation.
If you have a cool, moderately humid room, simply place them on a shelf but out of direct sunlight.  They may be stored in the dark also.

 As tomatoes ripen, they naturally release ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening. To slow ripening, sort out ripened fruits from the green tomatoes each week. To speed up ripening, place green or partially ripe fruits in a bag or box with a ripe tomato. Green, mature tomatoes  stored at 65-70 degrees, will ripen in about 2 weeks. Cooler temperatures slow the ripening process. At 55 degrees, they will ripen in 3-4 weeks. Storage temperatures below 50 degrees will slow ripening, but results in inferior quality.

If tomatoes  are stored where the humidity is too high the fruit molds and rots. If humidity is too low, the fruit shrivel and dries out. Since homes vary in humidity levels, you will need to learn by trial and error what works best.

 Tomatoes ripened indoors are not as flavorful as vine ripened fruits. However, compared to store bought, you will be delighted with your own home ripened tomatoes.

 If you have peppers still green on the vine, they can be ripened in the same way as tomatoes.  

Another way to take advantage of your late tomatoes is to use them green to make a culinary delight in the kitchen.  Again your green tomato must be of mature size.  Avoid the small ones.  They will have a bitter taste and can ruin your recipe.  Core a green tomato before use.  Unripe tomatoes often have a woodier stem and a unique core piece.  This hard, white core section is not always continuous with the stem, so you have to look for it.   It’s small, about the size of a pea and sits in the tomato somewhere within the top inch of where the stem attaches.  You can see and feel a hard white piece that’s different from the test of the fruit if you slice a tomato in half. 

We’ve all heard of fried green tomatoes made by coating tomato slices with seasoned flour, then an egg mixture and finally with panko bread crumbs.  Be sure to lightly press the slices between paper towels to remove excess moisture  before coating.  Then fry the coated slices in about 2" of oil, turning once.  Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with kosher salt.   They’re especially tasty if you brown a little crushed garlic in the oil first and then remove it.  

Another way to use them is to .  Golden-brown, carmelized green tomatoes produce a deep, rich flavor that is perfect with sauteed nectarines, peaches and apricots.  Even when baked, they hold their supple but firm texture and develop a delicate sweetness similar to an apple. 

 Extend your harvest and don’t let anything in the garden go to waste.

Erosion and You

 Now that we’ve had a bit of rain, it’s time to get serious about planting wildflowers for spring color and to attract bees,   cover crops to renew your soil,   and erosion control seed and plantings to hold your slope during the winter rains.

 Let’s start with the fun stuff- wildflowers.  Picture your meadow or garden filled with beautiful wildflowers, attracting all sorts of songbirds, hummingbirds, dragonflies and other beneficial insects.  If this is your goal, first get rid of existing weed seeds that in the soil and can smother out the slower growing wildflowers. The rains earlier this month will have germinated those pesky weed seeds so you can hoe them off now.  Be careful not to cultivate over 1" deep or you will bring more weed seeds to the surface.

Next, choose a site with at least a half day of sun.  Rake the soil lightly and spread the seed at the recommended rate.  It helps to mix the tiny seeds with 4 times as much sand or vermiculite so you don’t spread the seed too thickly.  Rake the seed very lightly into the soil and tamp it down for good soil contact.  Then you can wait for the next rain or water the area by hand.  It’s important to remember that after your wildflowers have germinated they must remain moist.  If mother nature doesn’t cooperate , you will need to hand water a for a while- a small price to pay for all that beauty in the spring.

What’s a cover crop?  These are grasses or legumes that grow during the fall and winter and then are tilled into the soil in the spring.  They help prevent erosion when planted on slopes and energize the soil when planted in the garden.   Preserve you topsoil and nutrients by planting a pretty cover crop like crimson clover. 

Crimson cloverCrimson clover has beautiful magenta glowers, but its primary benefit happens below the ground- the soil gains nitrogen, a better structure and greater biological activity.  Growing a legume, like clover, will "fix" nitrogen in the soil.  You can reduce the amount of fertilizer you use in the spring by 1/3 to 1/2,  especially in areas like the vegetable garden that need a lot of nutrients to produce all those good things to eat.   If you’re going to be growing peas or beans as the garden’s next crop, though, don’t use a legume cover crop in these areas.  You may end up with all vine and no peas or beans to harvest.  Heavy feeders like corn or squash will really respond to the extra nitrogen.

How do they do this?  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 in the garden bed, that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed the leafy growth of other plants.

 Besides reducing erosion a cover crop like crimson clover  can reduce soil compaction and their tap roots break up clay soil.
    To plant, rake the bed, sow the seed by hand and rake again.  Water to help germination if rains don’t do it for you.  Next spring, chop them down when they begin to flower.  Early spring is the best time to dig the clover into the soil because that dose of green manure is at it’s peak before the plant matures.  After a few weeks of decomposition, you energized soil is ready for vegetable seeds and starts. 

 Another way to prevent erosion is to plant native grasses, herbaceous and woody plants.  If you haven’t started planting a steep slope yet, you may need to use jute netting to stabilize the slope while the permanent plants are becoming established.  Santa Cruz erosion mix is a quick growing grass especially suited for our conditions.  You can also plant crimson clover under jute netting.

Whatever you choose, take steps now to prevent .