All posts by Evan Scott

Precipitation: Subtle and Uncertain

fogWeather shapes our lives. We celebrate when the weather is good although that might mean mild and sunny for the soccer game or a rainy day when we desperately need it. We watch the Weather Channel forecast and the satellite image for what’s headed our way. Our climate is changing but it’s the seasonal weather that gets out attention.

Seems like we’ve had quite a few heat waves so far this year and it’s only mid-summer. Recently the temps soared to the high 90’s and low 100’s in some places and remained high even at night. The next day brought fog so thick it dripped from the trees. I could almost hear the trees absorbing the moisture. We know that redwoods thrive along the coast because of the fog. Have you ever wondered how much water a tree can get from this source?

Fog drip is precipitation that forms when fog droplets condense on the needles or leaves of trees. Redwoods especially are extremely efficient producers of fog drip but other conifers like Douglas fir and pines can collect quite a bit as do large madrone leaves. According to Dr. Todd Dawson, author of “Redwood” by the National Park Service, “A relatively small 100 foot tall redwood can gather the equivalent of four inches of rain in a single evening.”

Dawson’s studies have found that Doug firs along our coast produced anywhere from 7-27 inches of fog drip each year. He measured the fog drip below a single tanoak at a whopping 59 inches of precipitation along the Northern California coast. This summer moisture can provide as much as half the water coming into a forest for over a year. Trees can absorb a small amount of water through their needles and leaves, too. Every little bit helps in our summer dry climate.

Because of the water that accumulates below the trees many plants like our native Western Sword fern, the small Epipactis orchid and Phantom orchid are found in these unique conditions.

Fog drip occurs every summer. Ask Mark Twain said or whoever really penned the saying, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco”.

But what about this upcoming winter’s rainfall forecast? What’s the latest on our chances of El Nino coming to visit and bringing some nice soaking rainfall with it?

According to the National Weather Service at NOAA our hopes are dimming but not altogether gone that the drought will be eased with this winter’s rain. What started out as much warmer than normal Pacific Ocean temperatures last May indicating a strong El Nino effect has not changed much since. The Weather Service Center is still predicting that sea surface temperatures will be warmer than usual – the phenomenon known as El Nino-but the effect will be only “weak to moderate”.

That’s because the Pacific Ocean temperatures near the International Date Line have not continued to rise since earlier this year when they were well about average. While strong El Nino weather patterns usually create more rain for California, weaker El Nino”s typically don’t bring more rains to the region.

The Center said that there is now a 70% chance El Nino will develop by the end of the summer and an 80% chance that one will develop by the early winter. Unfortunately, Northern California isn’t likely to get a bump with a moderate event but Southern California just may benefit anyway.

Hopefully, we’ll be on the winning side of these forecasts. Water conservation will always be a part of our lives. Start planning now the changes you want to make in your garden this fall.

Drought Tolerant Gardening

arctostaphylos.1280Last fall I wrote about the predictions for winter rains in our area. The Farmer’s Almanac predicted our “winter will be much rainier and cooler than normal”. Weather bloggers online posted an impressive number of charts and figures predicting “a general dry trend”. NOAA said we had an equal chance of precipitation totals going either way.

Even my favorite predictor, the Sandhill crane, who started it’s annual migration to the San Joaquin Valley several weeks earlier this year, seems to have gotten it wrong. The timing of their migration has been a good predictor of both wet and dry winters. This year the early migration predicted an early winter with plenty of rain and snow.

Every snowboarder, gardener and nature lover knows we are in a great drought that started last winter. Information about the California drought is all over the news. We are sure to get a few storms in the coming months but there will be no “Miracle March” from what I see and hear from the experts at NOAA and NASA. This extreme weather event will bring voluntary or possibly mandatory water rationing. What can we do to make the most of the water allotted to the garden and not let expensive mature landscaping die unnecessarily? How can you make your garden more drought tolerant?

1) Group plants in your garden according to their water needs. Some can survive on rainfall bush_poppy.1600alone after their second or third season while the perennial beds, vegetable garden and fruit trees will require a different schedule. Late winter or early spring is a good time to transplant those plants that use more or less water than their neighbors.

2) Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste. Watering in the early morning is the most efficient way to maximize absorption whether you water by drip system, sprinkler, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolsters the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning. Water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff. This also allows plants to grow deep roots that can go longer between waterings.

lupine_silver.16003) Using vegetation or mulches to cover bare soil is a key ingredient to slow down runoff. Maximize what soaks into the ground.  Mulches are a good choice for areas with less than 33% slope, Vegetation works well on areas with less than a 50% slope. Mulch can be organic-such bark chips, straw or grass clippings or inorganic gravel or cobbles. All protect soil from erosion and conserve soil moisture. Organic mulches keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms and prevent weed growth. Your plan should be to slow, spread and sink water back into the ground whether it be from rainfall or irrigation.

Of all the types of mulches, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips are those from trees and brush, from branches up to about 4″ in diameter with or without leaves. Deciduous hardwood is best but all chips are good These chips contain a high percentage of thin young bark and young wood. This is what makes them so valuable to the garden. Young wood is the trees factory for producing protein, glucose, fructose, lignin and polysaccharides. It’s an important source of nutrients for living things at all levels according to a study by 2 soil scientists, G.  Lemieux and R.A. Lapointe.  You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies like Davey Tree who is probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.

Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Improving your soil’s ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you’re out in the garden. Help ensure the health or your trees and garden by following these steps.

California Native Plants for Erosion Control

ribes_sanguineum_King_EdwardVII.1024Getting caught out in the rain last month was a timely reminder that the rainy season will soon be upon us.The Farmer’s Almanac predicts our “winter will be much rainier and cooler than normal”. Weather bloggers online posting an impressive number of charts and figures predict “a general dry trend”. NOAA says we have an equal chance of precipitation totals going either way.

My favorite predictor, the Sandhill crane, started its annual migration to the San Joaquin Valley several weeks earlier this year. Over the years, the timing of the migration has been a good predictor of both wet and dry winters. This year the early migration predicts an early winter with plenty of rain and snow.

Who knows what the weather will actually bring but we do know that some of our rain events will come with a vengeance. It’s not that unusual for our area to get 8″ of rainfall during a storm and you know what havoc that can create on an unprotected hillside. Yes, folks, I’m talking major erosion of your precious land. Fortunately, October is a good time to do something about it.

Fall is the perfect time to plant in our area. The soil is still warm encouraging root growth and the weather is mild. Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow and spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are well suited to this job.

Common native shrubs include ceanothus and manzanita of all types. Calycanthus lives up to its OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcommon name Spicebush. Fragrant flowers appear in late spring and continue to bloom well into summer with a spicy fragrance similar to a wine cellar. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine it with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. These also have deep roots and control erosion.

Ribes sanguinem (red flowering currant) is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. There are many selections of this plant to choose from so if the huge white flowers appeal to you ‘White Icicle’ will be beautiful in your landscape. “Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ have spectacular deep red flower clusters and ‘Spring Showers’ has 8″ long pink ones. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and are a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, snowberry, matilija poppy and western elderberry. Ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and snowberry, baccharis, ceanothus maritimus and Anchor Bay are good groundcover selections.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy (dendromecon rigid) is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one ( not around the stem ) to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does   not build up around the stem.

Garden Design Tips

A garden has many purposes. It's a place to grow delicious tomatoes and mouth watering fruit picked ripe off the tree. It's a place to read your favorite book on a comfy chair in the shade. It's a place to watch birds and butterflies when they visit the flowers you've planted just for them. It's a place that you go when you need to get away from all the hustle and bustle of daily life. And it's a place of healing.

This week I lost my little cat, Jasmine.  I forgive her for the occasional bird she caught. She really wasn't a hunter. Mostly she liked to just lay around in the shade. There is so much life in a garden. For now, mine will be a healing garden.

Gardens serve many functions. With our lovely summer weather they are truly another room – an outdoor room. We all recognize a well designed garden when we see it. All the garden's individual parts make sense together. They feel right. That's why some gardens not only look better, but feel better than others, too.

There are several design principles that you should use to get your garden to look its best. Once you have them down, a garden practically designs itself.  

First of all you want to create unity within your garden. Plants and other hardscape elements in a garden, like decks, paths or even rocks, have visual weight  that needs to be balanced so everything appears in proportion. A tall tree and low mounded shrubs growing opposite a group of airy perennials around a fountain looks natural and random but balanced. Think of a mimosa tree underplanted with Gulf Stream nandina opposite a group of monkey flower.

Your garden should include a variety of textures, seasonal interest and color to hold your attention and create excitement. Things should stand out from each other. Choose one or two contrasting elements, like the small green leaves of loropetalum against  broad, variegated hostas, or a tall, vertical thuja Emerald Green against low, mounding abelia Kaleidescope so your garden doesn't turn into a jumble.

A garden needs at least one object or area that is noticed first and most often. Your focal point can be a red Japanese maple rising above a low, wild ginger groundcover or a water fountain that instantly gets your attention. The sound of water is soothing and it's fun to see all the birds and butterflies that come to visit.

Because our area is nested among the trees or other wild areas I think an informal, naturalistic garden looks more like it belongs here. Curved paths and planting beds move the eye more slowly through the landscape and invite you to come and explore every corner and curve. Stillness and reflection result  when gentle rhythmic, repeating groups of plants curve toward a tall garden arbor, for instance. Create smooth transitions from one area of the landscape to another.

Repeating forms, textures, colors and sizes makes a garden easier to look at. Repetition sets the rhythm for the eye to move around the garden. Evenly space plants produces a predictable, well-controlled, peaceful feeling. A staggered, uneven repetition will have a bouncy, energetic effect.


Planting Cool Season Vegetables

August is a month of transition in the garden. Some plants like dahlias and crape myrtles  are in full glory while others are starting to wind down. If you look closely, dormant flower and leaf buds are just starting to form on lilacs, rhododendrons and camellias. Seems we’re still waiting for summer it’s been so cool but many plants count night time hours and it’s getting darker earlier and earlier.

Time to plant seeds for cool season vegetables. Start seeds of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, mustard, brussels sprouts and collards in containers. Fill flats or pots with potting mix and moisten the mix thoroughly before planting. Sow seeds of carrots, onions, beets, peas and radishes directly in the ground after amending soil with compost.

Cool season vegetables grow best and produce the best quality crops when average temperatures are between 55 and 75 degrees although they can tolerated slight frost when mature. The food value of cool season vegetables is usually higher per pound and per square foot than that of warm season vegetables because the edible parts of the plant are the vegetative parts-such as roots, stems, leaves and immature flower parts-rather than the fruits.

Examples include_
root – beet, carrot, parsnip, radish, turnip
stem – asparagus, white potato, onion
leaf – cabbage, celery ( fleshy  petiole ), lettuce, spinach
immature flower – broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke

Garden Art for Fun

What really makes a garden? For one it may be the comfortable reading chair tucked under a shade tree in the back of the garden. For another a cutting garden or vegetable garden puts a smile on the face of its creator. But for many a garden isn’t a garden until it gets your personal touch. Whether this is a succulent collection in old spice tins or an ornamental pot placed among your perennials, the possibilities are endless. Turn your old junk into garden treasures.

Whenever I visit a garden its the touch of whimsy that catches my eye. The Snowball viburnum and the fragrant roses covering the arbor may be spectacular but it’s the unexpected creations nestled here and there that make me appreciate everything so much more.

There are so many ways to inexpensively make a garden your own. Recent windy weather has resulted in lots of downed branches. The smaller 3" diameter sizes would be perfect interwoven and tied together for a homemade arbor. While this would not be sturdy enough for a vine as vigorous as a wisteria it would provide enough support for a climbing rose or star jasmine. Smaller branches can be used to make low fences to border a flower garden.

One garden I recently visited bordered their flower beds with small brightly glazed pots overturned on river cobbles. The effect was pure whimsy. I never get tired of the chair-turned-planter whenever I see it in a garden. You can use either a wooden or an ornamental metal chair as long as you can remove the center of the seat so a pot can rest on the frame. Fill with perennial purple wave petunias, red verbena and white geraniums for a July 4th tribute. Shade lovers could use Get Me lilac campanula, Goldilocks lysimachia and dwarf fuchsia’s instead.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a collection of commemorative metal canisters re-issued as a tribute to the anniversary of the product. From Quaker Oats to Hersheys cocoa, Hill Brothers coffee to Sunshine saltine cans I have more than I can display. Now I pole a drainage hole in the bottom, fill with an inch or two of gravel and plant with succulents. I especially like those that tumble over the sides like sedum Lemon Ball with golden foliage and yellow flowers.  Echeveria Perivon Nurburg with pink opalescent rosettes in the red Hills Brothers can is a show stopper, too.

You could get lucky and find an old Radio flyer wagon to plant up but if not look around your own basement or visit a thrift shop, garage sale or flea market for treasures for your own garden.