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.

Man’s Best Friend

Sherman wishing he could be a Detection Dog.

Dogs are amazing. They can do incredible things. Well maybe not my dog, Sherman, who is more likely to get into mischief than save mankind but we’ve all heard stories about detection dogs sniffing out drugs, explosives, cadavers and disaster survivors. In the mid 90’s, handlers started training them for conservation tasks such as sniffing out scat from endangered species and detecting trafficked ivory. Now their olfactory prowess is being used in the fight against invasive plants and insects. And this year dogs are being trained to sniff out Covid 19 odor with 82% accuracy. The list of how man’s best friend is helping us just keeps getting longer.

It was my friend Cindy who told me about this latest use of detection dogs while we were walking on the beach. Her rescue dog, Sienna is obsessed with retrieving a ball thrown into the surf so she’d be the perfect candidate for a detection dog, assisting conservationists in the fight against invasive species.

Although I come across more French broom than Scotch in our area detection dogs can be trained to sniff out all invasive broom. They’re doing this in New York where Scotch broom is just starting to invade and land managers hope to eradicate it before it becomes widespread like it is here and all along the Pacific Northwest. Broom displaces native plants with thickets impenetrable to wildlife and changes the chemistry of the soil around it so that native plants can’t grow there. Broom grows quickly as it is able to fix nitrogen from the air giving a competitive advantage to other non-native weeds. It poses a serious threat to birds, butterflies and biodiversity. Broom contains a high amount of oil, which is flammable and increases the fire hazard. It’s also toxic to livestock and dogs depending on the amount ingested. And those are just some of the reasons why New York wants to keep broom away.

“Our field in the last 15 years has just exploded.” said Pete Coppolillo, executive director of the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation in Bozeman, Montana. The organization partners with government agencies, researchers and nonprofits on five continents to provide trained dogs and handlers for conservation projects. Besides helping to detect New York broom they have provided trained dogs to find invasive knapweed in Montana, Chinese bush clover in Iowa, yellow thistle in Colorado as well as invasive zebra and quagga mussels on boats here in California.

Working Dogs for Conservation trains shelter dogs for detection work, screening 1000 dogs for every one they put to work. To make the cut, the dogs have to be not only good sniffers and high-energy, but also seriously obsessed with toys so they’ll stay motivated to work for a reward – the chance to play with a ball.

Because I eat a lot of oranges and lemons I looked up recent papers to see if dogs were still being used to detect citrus greening disease. Sure enough what started 5 years ago with just a few dogs has increased dramatically and many dogs are now being trained. Tim Gottwald, a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture plant pathologist, said during a recent presentation in Riverside that dogs in Florida have been 99% accurate and in tests just this last December and February in Southern California backyards, they were more than 92% accurate even when distracted by the homeowners. Because dogs can actually smell the bacteria that causes greening disease within a few weeks after infection well before lab tests can confirm, their work is vitally important.

Detection Dogs are the saints of the dog world.

So when you’re petting “man’s best friend” tonight appreciate all the great things he does for you and for our planet.

These are a Few of my Favorite Plants

While staying at a friend’s house during the evacuation I was able to stroll through her garden. She’s also a landscape designer and her garden is as beautiful as you’d imagine. She’s addicted to plants and keeps adding to her megs collection on a regular basis. Among the blooming perennials I came across were some of my person favorites. All three are wonderful low water, wildlife and pollinator friendly plants.

Epilobium ‘Everett’s Choice’

The first plant that caught my eye was an epilobium ‘Everett’s Choice’. The name Epilobium is considered current but this group of sub-shrubs used to be called Zauschneria and are so different from the other epilobiums like Fireweed that many California native plant enthusiasts and even the experts often still refer to them as Zauschneria.

This low-growing vigorous ground-hugging shrub remains under 6 inches tall by up to 4 to 5 feet wide with fuzzy gray-green leaves that are covered with long whitish hairs. Vivid red-orange tubular flowers are produced in profusion in the late summer into fall. It does best in full sun but will tolerate some shade. Quite drought tolerant, but remains a fuller and more attractive plant with an occasional summer watering. It likes well-drained soil best but will do OK in heavier soils if not over watered. California fuchsia are deer resistant and attractive to hummingbirds.

Echo Mango kniphofia

The second plant that caught my eye is also a hummingbird magnet. Kniphofia, also called Red Hot Poker blooms spring into summer with torch-like clusters that open from the bottom up. The selection at my friend’s garden was probably Echo Mango. Whether the cultivar blooms with red, yellow, orange or mango colored flowers this perennial grows to about 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide in full sun. It is evergreen and requires little summer water. Deer don’t like this plant either so that’s a plus and it’s hardy to below 15 degrees.

Sdum ‘Autumn Joy’

Many of you already grow sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’. A succulent perennial to 1-2 feet tall it has wide cabbage-like rosettes of pale blue-green leaves and rich, dark pink flowers that put on a spectacular show above foliage in summer and fall. Plant in sun in a dry well-drained soil and water however much or little you want. The foliage dies back in the winter but is root hardy to below -30 degrees. This group of sedum was given the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993. Beautiful in the rock garden, perennial garden or spotted into a natural meadow setting it attracts bees and butterflies and is deer resistant. The seed heads can be left for winter interest as well as a food source for birds but stems should be removed prior to the new buds opening in February.

Any one of these plants would be a lovely addition to your garden if you don’t already grow them.

Remembering 9/11

My sister Evan and I on the ferry to San Juan Island

I got off the ferry at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island with my sister back in 2004. It was the day before 9/11 and we were visiting a family friend who used to live across the street from us. The next morning we walked to the downtown area and found ourselves immersed in a memorial parade commemorating the 3rd anniversary of that terrible day – 9/11/2001.

We certainly didn’t expect to see a full on memorial parade complete with marching band, bagpiper, banners, American flags and finally taps being played mournfully by a lone bugler. We had tears in our eyes. A couple weeks ago I came across the digital photos and videos I captured of that moving day. I don’t have them now as the original CD was burned in the fire. I will always have that day’s experience captured in my mind, though.

Lavender Sisters

Later that day my sister and I visited Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Seemed fitting to walk among soothing lavender fields. Spread over 25 acres with lake and Olympic Mountain views it is lovely. The fragrance from the oil of the lavender plant is believed to help promote calmness and wellness, reduce stress and anxiety – a good thing on a sad day.

Even the old Lime Works is beautiful heere.

For years when my sister was still here, we visited many islands in Puget sound touring destination nurseries and public gardens. Roche Harbor is a picturesque sheltered harbor on the northwest side of San Juan Island and this was our next stop on 9/11. This harbor is world all its own. Exploring the historic Hotel de Haro we walked among the blooming perennial beds. It was drizzling by then making the colors of the flowers pop even brighter. So many beautiful perennials – roses, anemone, heliotrope, tibouchina intertwined with coleus and lime sweet potato vine. Lovely. Even the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Co. which dates back to the 1880’s and is now a tourist destination is landscaped beautifully.

All in all, that day on September 11, 2004 will always be etched in my memory. It was a day to remember

What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Robles Rd, Snata Cruz Ca
Devastated area along Robles Road in Santa Crus Mountains

Like all of you, I’ve lived a lifetime in the past week and a half. With my power out for several days after the lightning storm in Bonny Doon, I was out of the loop without media or even water from the well. On Tuesday afternoon my friend Colly provided me with a place to shower and a delicious shrimp Louie salad. My dog Sherman and I went home later that afternoon. Power was back on and I was able to water all my plants and went to bed early. I knew nothing of any fires except the 35 acres on Monday north of Davenport. That didn’t seem out of control to me. So when my neighbor drove up my long steep driveway at 11pm and told me he had just driven by Crest Ranch and saw flames I started gathering pet supplies for Sherman and Archer the cat. Reverse 911 call had come in and also the Code Red Mobile Alert but I wouldn’t have heard them if not for the neighbor waking me up. And then I see Colly’s face on my cell about midnight when her call came in. “Come on down, Sweet Pea”, she said. I left my house shortly after and took very little. After the Paradise fire I knew that 2 miles away was nothing for a wild fire out of control.

At Colly’s we settled in about 1:30 to get a few hours sleep. Mid afternoon we were evacuated from her house in Ben Lomond and a close fellow designer friend and her husband took us all in. They have been self isolating since March so to open their house to us was a big thing and we will be grateful to them for the rest of our lives.

I was hopeful that the fire maps showing spot fires only around my house were accurate but Thursday late afternoon a neighbor walked down my road before the hard road closures and texted me this picture he took from the bottom of my driveway. It’s hard to tell what remains of my brick house in the upper right hand corner of the photo. The detached garage, gardening shed and wood shed are gone as is the 5th wheel with sturdy awning on the lower right. I don’t know what remains of the 100 or so redwoods on my property. I think of my chipmunk families, owls, songbirds and hummingbirds that might not have been able to outrun the flames. Nature will heal itself and so will I.

Harvesting, Drying and Preserving Herbs

thyme_oregano_basil
Herbs: thyme, oregano, basil

Now that you have an assortment of herbs growing nicely in your garden what do you do with them? Mine seem to be growing more exuberantly than I anticipated and if I don’t keep up with snipping them often some will go to seed or get leggy and unproductive. Then what would I do when I’m putting together my favorite Nectarine Caprese Salad with fresh basil and mint leaves?

Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom when leaves are at peak flavor and oils are strongest. Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Harvest on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

To store, wash herbs lightly with the leaves on the stems in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room. You can also lay them in a shallow basket or on a screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.

Those herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils so don’t do that until you use them. And remember that because dried herbs are not as potent as fresh, the correct ratio is one tablespoon of fresh herbs vs one teaspoon of dried.

Here are some herbs that do double duty in the garden:   

Basil – repels flies and mosquitos.    Plant with tomatoes to improve flavor.

Catnip – deters flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Also repels mice.

Chamomile – improves the flavor of cabbages, onions and cucumbers. Accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil; also a host for beneficial hoverflies and good wasps and increases the productions of essential oils in herbs.

Chives – improves growth and flavor of carrots and tomatoes.    Keeps aphids away from mums and sunflowers.    When planted by roses, helps prevent black spot.

Coriander/Cilantro – repels aphids, spider mites and potato beetle. Coriander tea is a good spray for spider mites.

Dill – improves the growth and health of cabbage and lettuce. Plant by tomatoes to trap the tomato hornworm. Attracts many beneficials. Do not plant by caraway or carrots.

Lemon Balm – deters many bugs, especially mosquitos and squash bugs.

Mint – deters cabbage moths, ants, rodents, aphids and fleas. Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps.    Attractive to earthworms.   

Rosemary – plant with cabbage, carrots, beans, and sage,    Deters cabbage looper and bean beetles.

Tarragon – beneficial to plants throughout the garden as is thyme.   

Greek Oregono – Use oregano in tomato sauces, pizza and egg dishes.

Greek oregano
Greek oregano

Lavender – Dry lavender in bundles to make sachets, lavender wands, shortbread cookies.

Dry lavender in bundles
Dry lavender in bundles

Thymus Vulgaris Faustini – This variety of thyme is one of the most flavorful of all the thyme varieties. It is noticeably sweeter and spicier than English types and is the preferred variety for culinary uses.

Thymus Vulgaris Faustini
Thymus Vulgaris Faustini

Growing & Using Herbs

This collection of herbs features dill, Italian parsley and basil plus nectar-rich zinnias to attract pollinators.

There are creative cooks who pair fresh herbs with their produce and other dishes and then there’s me who needs all the inspiration I can get to up my game in the kitchen. I have the basic herbs growing – Italian parsley, rosemary, basil, thyme and oregano – but I want to learn more uses for common herbs.

I have used Italian parsley for lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. The oregano and basil goes well on a stuffed baked potatoes and poached salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint is delicious, too. I forgot, I have lemon verbena which goes well with carrots, beets, corn, tomatoes and all types of fruit. I need to get some sage. It would pair well with beans, apples, tomatoes, cauliflower or potatoes. Other herbs that I need to add are cilantro, summer savory and tarragon.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. Smell the essential oil. You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste depending on the source of the stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer as they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in water.

Grow herbs like these in attractive planters near your kitchen door

Nearly all herbs are perennial and can be grown from seed. Anise, coriander (also known as cilantro), dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden as they do not transplant well. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers and goes to seed. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work and start new plants to eat. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill and summer savory.

Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. Occasionally, spider mites may be found on low growing herb plants in hot, dry weather and aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Washing the foliage off early in the day helps in controlling mites and aphids.

Here are some growing tips:
Most herbs like 6-8 hours of full sun. Well drained soil is essential. If drainage is poor, work in plenty of organic matter or grow in raised beds or containers. Water regularly until the plants are growing steadily. Then most will need only occasional watering. Exceptions are basil, chives, mint and parsley which prefer evenly moist soil. Many herbs attract beneficial insects if they are allowed to flower.

Fresh herbs are the most flavorful. The stuff in spice jars that you get in the store is often tasteless when compared to the real thing. When cooking with herbs, there is a general rule of thumb to keep in mind regarding the ratio of fresh to dry. Because dried herbs are often more potent and concentrated than fresh herbs, you need less. That means the correct ratio is one tablespoon of fresh herbs to one teaspoon of dried. Herb plants make beautiful ornamental additions to perennial beds and borders, too. Next week I’ll talk about how to harvest, dry and preserve herbs.