Tag Archives: gardening tips

What Works in your Garden?

I’m vacationing next week in southern Mexico traveling east from the state of Chiapas to the Yucatan peninsula.  In addition to exploring ruins, waterfalls, cenotes and flamingo breeding grounds  I’ll be especially interested in the local plants which vary from  hardwood forests of mahogany and cedar to tropical.  I always study how people landscape around their own homes whenever I travel.  You can get some great ideas this way.  I’ll be sharing all that I discover in next week’s column. 

Around here this is a good time to pull plants that have been struggling now that we’ve had some rain to soften the soil a bit. Pay careful attention to and which aren’t. Be realistic about plants that don’t suit the conditions you have to offer. Replace them with plants that have proven themselves adaptable and well suited to your own garden. Thoughtful editing and repetition are the key to a successful garden.  Such self-sufficient plants require far less work, water, fertilizer and pruning.

Your own personal palette of good plants for your yard are the ones that look most at home planted right where they are. They do best in the soil, sun, wind and weather your garden offers and the maintenance is a snap. These plants don’t have to be the kind of dull and monotonous shrubs that you see around some freeway ramps. They might be the shade-loving native Western swordfern for year round interest.  Planted in masses these ferns aren’t water hogs and look like nature planted them.  Or how about the easy-peasy bergenia cordifolia which will be blooming soon planted as groundcover under the trees? Large, heart shaped leaves grow to 12 across and turn beautiful bronze color in the fall. Pink to rose-red flowers on red stalks appear in late winter.

Camellia sasanqua, with glossy evergeen leaves and showy flowers in fall and winter, can be grown as a shrub or espaliered against a wall. Camellias are easy to grow and an established shrub requires only a deep watering every 10 days or so in the growing season.

Elfin thyme is the perfect groundcover between cracks in pavers paths or other areas that get light foot traffic. And if you want any planting to look better, just pop in a black mondo grass and you’ll have instant sophistication.  Not all "go-to" plants are quite so glamorous, though. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ears are high on my list because they grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ grows only 12" tall, blooms with purple flowers and spreads to make a beautiful edging or low border

The key to preserving both our backs and the earth’s resources is to choose the right plant for the right place. Keep the plants that are thriving and replace the unhappy plants with a smaller palette of plants that have proven themselves successful in your own garden. Whether these are California natives or plants from other regions that perform well, you’ll be happy you got rid of the malingerers.

Bees as Pollinators

Does spring have you thinking about the birds and the bees? Good. As a gardener you need a variety of insects and other creatures to pollinate your plants.

Most fruits and vegetables, except crops like tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant, beans, beets and wheat, need bees to pollinate them. Honeybees are vital for the pollination of the rest of your vegetables and fruits.

Honeybees will pollinate a wide variety of crops throughout the growing season. Unlike other insects that might go from cucumber blossom to dandelion to squash flower when the honeybee leaves a hive in search of food, it will feed on only one type of flower- whichever type it tasted first on that trip. That way, it picks up and deposits only one kind of pollen making honeybees particularly efficient at pollinating crops.

A combination of factors has caused the honeybee population to decline in the last 50 years. Honeybees aren’t native to the U.S. Colonists brought them here in the 1600’s to pollinate the apple trees, provide honey and also wax for candles. For centuries their numbers expanded, but since the late 1950’s they’ve steadily declined. They die more easily when disease parasites strike and they’re less likely to survive a harsh winter.

One threat comes from varroa and tracheal mite, two parasites that can kill honeybees and decimate colonies. Another is colony collapse disorder, a disease that quickly kills off bees in large numbers. Scientists are close to figuring out the cause of the disorder which appears to be linked to a combination of nutritional deficiencies, pesticides, virus and other diseases. Entomologists hope that over time, natural selection will result in stronger bees and less threatening mites.

You can help increase the chances of the bee’s survival and ensure your own bountiful fruit and vegetable crops by planting flowers that they like and add more native plants to your property. Some of the plants that are excellent bee attractors include annuals like cosmos and zinnia that are a favorite of butterflies, too. Calif. poppies and sunflowers are also frequented by bees. Perennial plants they favor are Mexican bush sage, lavender, penstemon, asters, rosemary, Russian sage, coreopsis, gaillardia, echinacea, sedum and erysimum. Native plants that attract both honeybees and native bees include ceanothus, toyon, buckwheat, coyote mint, salvia, ribes and sambucus.

Since pesticides are another deterrent to their survival, look for non toxic ways of controlling garden pests.

Remember that the 1600 species of our native bees are also in decline mainly from habitat loss. They are solely responsible for pollinating many of our native plants. Being solitary they do not make a hive but make nests underground, one female per nesting hole and she lays her eggs there. Be sure to leave some unmulched areas near your flowering plants for her to burrow.

Honeybees and native bees need help to survive and we’re the ones who need to give it. Besides planting nectar and pollen sources you can help by buying local honey which support beekeepers.

What to do in the Garden in February in the Santa Cruz Mountains

While you’re out in the garden between rain storms:

* Revitalize overgrown or leggy hedges by cutting back plants just before the flush of new spring growth.
* Fight slugs and snails now with an iron phosphate bait like Sluggo before they start feeding on your young seedlings and new transplants.
* Spray for peach leaf curl one last time before buds begin to open. Do not spray 36 hours before rain is predicted.
* Begin sowing seeds of cool season vegetables outdoors. If it’s been raining heavily, allow the ground to dry out for several days before working the soil. Plant seeds of beets, carrots, chard, lettuce, peas, spinach, arugula, chives kale and parley directly in the ground. Later in the month start broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Indoors, start seeds of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant so they will be ready to transplant outdoors in 8 weeks.

Fertilize.  Perennials, shrubs and trees will get their first dose of organic all-purpose fertilizer for the season. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until the last flower buds start to open. Roses will get a high nitrogen fertilizer to give foliage a boost and next month, I’ll feed with a high phosphorus fertilizer to encourage blooms.
Cut back woody shrubs  To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage, artemisia and butterfly bush cut back to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though,  only lightly prune them after blooming.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim.
Feed chelated iron to azaleas, citrus and gardenias to green up their leaves. Cool soil makes the leaves of these plants yellow this time of year. 
Divide perennials. My garden is shady all winter and I have better results if I transplant and divide plants in late winter. Agapanthus, asters, coreopsis, daylilies, shasta daisy and liriope are plants that tend to become overcrowded and benefit from dividing.

Fall Gardening Tips

Someone asked me the other day  " What’s good to plant this time of year "?  It’s a good question.  I often receive emails asking for advice or ideas for solving all sorts of gardening problems and landscaping situations.  You may be wondering about some of these yourself.  Hopefully, they will solve your problem, too.

What is good to plant at this time of year ?
Fall is a good time to plant just about anything in this area. If you want an ornamental tree with spring flowers or a shade tree to keep the house cool in the summer, now is the time to plant.  The ground is moist now so digging is much easier and the warm soil will encourage root growth.  Shrubs of all types as well as perennials settle in nicely when planted in October and November.  Don’t have color in your garden from fall foliage like you see in other yards when driving around?  Take advantage of fall sales at local nurseries.  There are tons of plants now in fall color to choose from.

Why do trees turn colors in the fall?
The shorter days and cooler temperatures of autumn cause trees to switch into energy-storage mode, at which point their leaves stop producing chlorophyll.  For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments.  It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins,  yellow  and orange carotenoids –  that make fall foliage  so glorious. Some years the show is more dramatic than others.  The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool ( but not freezing ) nights. 
A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent.   Freezing temperature, meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly, denying the opportunity to enter their slow, colorful dormancy. 


When do we usually get the first frost here? 
I have kept a weather calendar since 1992 and based on my records there was a light frost on Oct. 29, 2002.  I’ve seen an early hard frost as early as November 7th but more commonly, frost comes later in November.   In "97-’99 frost didn’t occur until the first week of December.  Be prepared.

How long can I leave my houseplants outside? 
Halloween is a good time to bring them in.  We don’t have the heater on full blast usually this early so they don’t suffer  shock going from a cold environment to a heated one.  Be sure to inspect them for insect pests and wash them off before bringing them inside. I have to confess, I roll the dice and leave spider plants, wandering jew, Hawaiian shefflera and creeping charleys outside under the overhang. I’ve been pretty lucky most winters.

Some winters my tree ferns and bananas suffer.  How can I protect them if we have a really cold spell?  
Many subtropical plants benefit from extra mulch to help them survive a hard frost.  People from the east coast know all about this.  Just be sure to take it away from the stem or trunk come spring or the mulch can cause rotting.

Help Bees Help You

Bees are getting a lot of press lately, Most fruits and vegetables, except crops like corn, wheat, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans and beets, need bees to pollinate them. Of the 3 million hives in this country about 600,000 have disappeared. Our bees are at risk and research has not found the smoking gun for colony collapse disorder ( where bees leave the hive and mysteriously never return ). In the 1980’s a mite caused a huge die off but now researchers are looking to a virus from Israel that might causing a decline in the bee’s immune system, like AIDS for bees. Pesticide are also contributing to the decline. Maybe these interfere with the bees ability to find their way home. It may be that there are several reasons that are causing our bees to be at risk.

What can we do to help?  For one, we can attract native bees to the garden. Native bees are solitary, meaning they do not make a hive but make nests underground, one female per nesting hole, where she lays her eggs. Some of the things we do in our gardens, such as mulching, is good for the soil and deterring weeds but not helpful for ground nesting bees.  The key is to leave some unmulched sections near your flowering plants for them to burrow.

Native bees won’t sting you. It’s not that they don’t have a stinger, they just don’t use them on people. Also most of our 1,600 species of native bees are too small to be able to sting.  Native bees are solely responsible for keeping many native plants pollinated. To help bees and other pollinator insects—like butterflies—you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, and thus, through the whole growing season. Choose several colors and shapes of flowers, plant flowers in clumps and plant where bees will visit- in sunny spots sheltered from strong winds.

Native bees love Ray Hartman ceanothus and toyon, for instance. Also ribes, sambucus, penstemon, echinacea, sedum, salvia, Ca. poppy, buckwheat, willow, sunflowers, lavender, basil, agastache, marjorum, rosemary, erysimum, zinnia and aster.

All species of bees will benefit from these tips.  Let’s lend a helping hand to these vital pollinators.

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.