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.

Ways to Enjoy the ‘Staycation’

Make this simple border for your flower bed from found wood pieces.

Enjoy your time outdoors while “sheltering in place” and take advantage of the opportunity to make some additions and modifications to your garden. It might be a long summer.

Picture you and your family this spring and summer outdoors during your “staycation”- relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining hopefully, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard. Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable. Whether it’s several umbrellas that provide the shade, a handmade gazebo, a tree or a combination, no one wants to bake in the sun. Plus your beverage gets hot if left in the sun.

A simple path can lead you to a quiet spot in the garden.

If you decide you need a shade tree in the yard, there are so many good choices for our area. First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions. Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak. Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple. If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, brick or pavers? If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

Place a bench where you can enjoy your garden.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden. Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

And what outdoor living place would be complete with a cornhole game? Friends of mine take this bean bag toss game everywhere. Camping, the beach, poolside or on the patio it’s fun for everyone. Even a rookie can toss, slide or airmail the bag directly in the hole while pushing his opponent’s bag off the board or, as often is the case, pushing it in the hole along with your own. It’s a fun game for all ages and you can easily make a DIY board if you want. Even two can play and make a game of it. I had no idea it was America’s favorite backyard game. There’s even a Pro Cornhole Championship on ESPN. Who knew?

After you’ve planted your tree, planned your hidden getaway, set up your corn hole game and sat around the fire pit in the evening, take advantage of the rest of the seasons to enjoy your own piece of paradise.

Things To Do in the March Garden

My Blireiana flowering plum is fragrant and starts blooming each February & March

Spring is in the air, flowers blooming everywhere, birds singing in the trees, bees buzzing in the breeze. What’s a gardener to do on a day like this when just being outside is a celebration of life? Here at The Mountain Gardener headquarters- my office with the big picture windows overlooking the Blireiana flowering plum and several bird feeders- I’m taking my time to do the following gardening tasks this month:

Old fashion Bleeding Hearts signal spring in the garden
  • Check drip systems for leaks or emitters clogged by dirt or earwigs. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly and move the emitters farther away from the crown of the plant and out closer to the feeder roots which are under the drip line.
  • Spread fresh compost or wood mulch around all your plants. Good soil is the secret to successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth. Bark nuggets do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips do but they do conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.
  • Transplant any plants in the garden that have outgrown their space or are not with other plants requiring the same water usage Now is a good time because plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil if it’s sandy. Organic matter enriches and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it and improve drainage. In fertile soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant. Organic matter such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.
  • Fertilize if you haven’t already done so. Citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen and iron which is not absorbed easily during the cold season. Shrubs and fruit trees just emerging from dormancy are begging for their first meal of the season. Lawns -if you still have a small section- and ground covers begin their spring growth now also and benefit from a boost of organic nitrogen. Spread a thin layer of compost over everything. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to shade the roots as it get warmer and as they break down they help feed it, too. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost or composted manure and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming and you see new leaf growth starting before feeding them.
  • Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Weeds rob your plants of precious water. Think of weeding as free gym time. And don’t remind me of how many spiny-ball hedge parsley weeds have germinated all over my property last year. I truly picked every single one before they set seed but November rains have exposed more of the seeds that were down deeper. Oh well, I’m on it and will not be defeated.
  • Check for aphids. They are out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples. A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them. If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them. As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun. Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.

Ants can also bring aphids up into trees and shrubs such as camellias, citrus and roses. Ants feed off honeydew secreted by aphids, scale and other plant-juice sucking insects. Ants also protect these pests from natural predators. To keep them off, wrap trunks with a 1-2″ wide strip of masking tape and coat with a sticky barrier like Tanglefoot. Keep the barriers free of dirt and check them periodically for breaks. Reapply when necessary

The most important to-do is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.

Vines- Fragrance and Beauty

Zepherine Drouhin rose growing up ginkgo is mostly shade.

My office window looks out on a gingko tree. Hanging from its low branches two bird feeders are visited throughout the day by many songbirds. A Zepherine Drouhin rose used to grow up into the branches and I miss those vivid, dark pink flowers. I think a gopher contributed to its demise. This spot wouldn’t be right for a trellis so if it weren’t for the help of the gingko I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the new vine I’m going to plant soon. In your own garden think about trees, shrubs and even sturdy vines as support for other vines.

Creating an outdoor room with vines can make your yard feel cozy. They readily provide the walls to enclose a space. Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely. Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established. Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape. By adding walls and a ceiling to your garden, you’ll be able to enjoy another dimension in addition to more color and fragrance too.

If your trees aren’t big enough to provide shade yet, vines on a pergola or lattice work can cool a west facing patio. They can also block the wind making your garden more comfortable. Vines with large, soft leaves can soften sounds that would otherwise bounce off hard surfaces. Birds will love you for your vines. They offer shelter for many species and nectar for others.

I’m always amazed at the variety of vines my friend Richard grows up into the canopy of his many trees. From Lady Banks rose to clematis to blood-red trumpet vine to a spectacular double white pandora vine his trees do double duty in his garden.

For a vine with long lasting interest, try growing an orange trumpet creeper up into a tree. It blooms from midsummer to early autumn and hummingbirds love it. It can tolerate wet or dry conditions, sun or shade and is generally pest free.

Fragrant clematis armandii blooming right now.

Plant vines for fragrance in your garden. Evergreen clematis (clematis armandii) bloom with showy white fragrant flowers clusters above dark green leaves. They’re in full bloom right now. There’s one growing over a fence up the road from where I live. I can smell it when I drive by if my car windows are open. Clematis montana is another variety of clematis that’s covered with vanilla scented pink flowers in spring also. Carolina jessamine’s fragrant yellow flower clusters appear in masses from late winter into spring.

Goldflame honeysuckle

Another way to double your pleasure with vines is to let the thick stems of a mature, vigorous vine such as grape, wisteria, passionflower or a large climbing rose like Lady Banks serve as a framework for a more delicate stemmed vine like clematis or Goldflame honeysuckle (lonicera heckrottii)

Or you can enjoy the classic combination of a flowering clematis like purple Jackmanii intertwined with a white Iceberg rambling rose for another great look. Other vines that are beautiful and easy to grow is our native honeysuckle, lonicera hispidula, with translucent red berries in the fall. Violet trumpet vine, white potato vine, hardenbergia and Chilean jasmine are also good choices.

Growing vines is easy if you follow a few guidelines. To encourage bush growth on young vines, pinch out the stems’ terminal buds. If you want just a few vertical stems, though, don’t pinch the ends but instead remove all but one or two long stems at the base.

Hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’

Often when I’m called out to take a look at a vine that has gotten out of control the only advice I can give is to cut the entire vine to the ground in late winter or early spring and start training it all over again. You can avoid this drastic measure by pruning periodically to keep your vine in bounds. Just before new growth begins, cut out unwanted or dead growth. If you can’t tell what to remove, cut the vine’s length by half and remove the dead stems later. On vines like hardenbergia or Carolina jessamine that bloom in late winter, wait to prune until after they have finished flowering.

Many vines require only deep but infrequent watering. They provide so much beauty for so little effort.

Tips for Planting Success

Wood chips used as a mulch around this Little John bottlebrush

With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full potential during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly went wrong. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbor’s yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that makes a plant thrive or just mope along? And how can you plan when one source shows the plant’s size at 6 feet tall while another has that same plant as 8-12 ft tall and just as wide? What’s a gardener to do?

When designing a garden, I take into account the growing conditions such as soil type and fertility, winter low temperature, space and light. All plants need water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water can be harmful to your plant’s health.

Mt. Tamboritha grevillea with pebble mulch

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor. How do you determine how much light your garden has? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to note how many hours of full sun, part sun or bright shade your area is receiving during the middle of the day. it’s not as important what”s going on during the winter but knowing the summer conditions is crucial. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy with few flowers or fruit. Too much sun for a particular plant and the foliage will burn.

Most plants enjoy morning or late afternoon sun. Winter conditions are not always as important as those of the summer. Then again if your area gets no winter sun and your soil is heavy clay that sun-loving native plant might not survive. Sometimes it’s complicated. Sorry, but it’s true.

Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.

Healthy soil provides an anchor for plant roots and helps support the plant in addition to providing nutrients. Healthy soil contains micro organisms and adding organic matter in the form of top mulch will increase your soil’s fertility. Fresh wood chips can rob your soil of carbon and nitrogen as they break down but sometimes that’s all you can get. It’s a trade off.

Plant your new addition correctly. Dig the planting hole at least twice as wide as the container but no deeper than the depth of the root ball. You can loosen the soil around the planting hole even wider if it’s compacted. Leaving the bottom of the hole undisturbed helps prevents the plant from settling too deep .Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil also allows for a 2 inch thick layer of mulch. Don’t bury the crown of the plant and keep mulch away from the stem or trunk. In soils containing a high percentage of clay, score the sides of the planting hole with a shovel to aid root growth outward.

Iris pallida happily growing at Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island

It’s best not to add soil amendments or fertilizers directly to the planting hole. Wait until new growth is several inches long before applying fertilizer. If you’re planting a bed of annuals you might amend that bed but unless your soil is extreme sand current research has shown that trees, shrubs and perennials do not benefit from soil amendments. Because their roots quickly outgrow the planting hole anyway amended soil could hold too much moisture and rot new roots or the plant roots will just stay within the amended planting hole and not grow wider.
After planting don’t till the soil again allowing the beneficial organisms to re-establish.

If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny, deep shade location or problem soil, the above tips are even more important for your planting success.

Landscaping for the Allergy Sufferer

Don’t blame Acacia for your sneezing

Everybody blames the Acacia tree for their allergies but they are not the real culprits for the allergy sufferer. I didn’t realize just how much redwood pollen is dispersed at this time of year. After those horrific winds a while back my patios were covered with 2 inches of thick yellow redwood “flowers”. Actually the flowers are the male cone but boy, can they put out the pollen. Ask a friend who is highly allergic just how much her life is affected by our dear redwoods. And because redwoods live in such a narrow band of coast line, there is no allergy shot for those highly affected by them. But back to what you can do in your yard if you suffer from allergies.

Yes, the acacia trees are in full bloom. Being one of the first flowering trees we see they get our attention. Blooming acacias are often blamed as the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year but acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet plants you have to watch out for. If you’re an allergy sufferer some plants are worse than others for you.

About 25-30 popular landscape plants are responsible for the majority of plant-related allergies in California. During the height of the pollen season- from late February to June- there are often thousands of pollen grains in every cubic meter of air. One can breathe hundreds of them with every breath. Though pollen can travel many miles, the majority tend to stay in the general area of their origin.

Redwoods are wind pollinated. Not good for the allergy sufferer.

Redwoods, oaks, alders, ashes and other wind pollinated trees like olives, birch, box elder, cypress, elm, juniper, maple, fruitless mulberry, pine, walnut, willow and privet are the major source of spring pollen. Most native plants are good in the sneezeless landscape but if you have bad allergies or asthma it best to avoid wind-pollinated ceanothus, elderberry and coffeeberry.

You may not be able to avoid those culprits growing on other properties but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneezeless landscape. Replacing existing plants may be impractical but planning future plantings with these things in mind will save you a lot of headaches down the road and let you enjoy the sunshine outside in your garden.

Flower type is a good way to judge plants. The best looking flowers usually cause allergy sufferers the fewest problems. Plants with bright, showy flowers are usually pollinated by insects, rather than by the wind. These flowers produce less pollen and their pollen is larger and heavier, sticking to the insect rather than becoming airborne and lead to sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.

Some trees that are good for anti-allergy gardens are apple, cherry, dogwood, magnolia, pear and plum. Shrubs like azaleas, boxwood, lilac, rose-of-Sharon, hydrangea and viburnum are also not likely to cause problems. Good flower choices include alyssum, begonia, clematis, columbine, bulbs like crocus, daffodil, hyacinth. Also good are dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdragon, sunflower, verbena and zinnia. Lawns of perennial rye grass, blue grass and tall fescue blends are usually OK as they will not flower unless allowed to grow to 12 inches or higher. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, can pollinate when the lawn is very short, sometimes as quickly as a few days after mowing.

We don’t know what’s going to happen rain-wise for us this spring. Symptoms can become worse for the allergy sufferer if the body reacts to the disappearance of the pollen following its initial appearance only to have to have more of it later in the spring. According to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, “You become sensitized to it, so when you’re…re-exposed, you can get an even more violent allergic reaction.”

Here’s to a sneezeless spring for you allergy sufferers.

What’s Blooming Now?

I confess I live vicariously through other people’s gardens mostly at this time of year. While I’m quite content to live in partial shade during the warm months of the year I miss having winter sun to jump start the early spring show of flowers. Everything arrives later in my garden. My flowering cherry and plums never disappoint but I see the fragrant winter daphne already in full bloom in Ben Lomond. I have plant envy.

Edgeworthia chrysantha

If you yearn for fragrant flowers have I got the plant for you. Paperbush Plant or Yellow Daphne as it’s sometimes called (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is related to daphne and shares that intoxicating scent. My friend has one of these. You know, the friend who shall remain nameless but writes the food column for this paper. Anyway, hers is starting to open and those butter-yellow flower clusters are as unique as anything you’ll ever see.

This deciduous shrub makes a fine backdrop in a dappled shade garden. Later in the spring it will fill out with slender blue-green foliage that turns yellow in the fall. Edgeworthia transforms into a glorious neatly mounding shrub in the summertime. Even the bark rises to the occasion being both beautiful and useful. Used for wallpaper and calligraphy paper now, historically it was used to make Japanese bank notes. You can even use the supple stems in wreaths as they are easily knotted.

Variegated Winter Daphne

I had to wait a couple years for my variegated winter daphne to settle in before setting flowers. This winter the flower clusters are about ready to open. There’s something special about a plant that will bloom in winter, hold up to rain and scent the garden all at the same time. With beautiful rosy-pink flower clusters and attractive yellow-margined variegated foliage, winter daphne make a great foundation plant for dappled shade gardens. They are deer resistant and have low water requirements during the summer. What’s not to love?

helleborus orientalis

Also here in my own garden the hellebore flowers are holding up well. One of my favorites is called Cinnamon Snow but I have a couple that bloom with spectacular double flowers they are beautiful also. All of the varieties of this buttercup relative accept wind, rain, cold and less than perfect soil while getting by with only moderate watering in the shady summer garden. Deer aren’t attracted to them either.

Another tough plant that can take weather extremes is the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub (Pieris japonica). There are many varieties of this early winter bloomer. Some have pure white flowers, other sport various shades of pink or dark rose. Mine is the smaller variegated foliage model with dainty, drooping clusters of pure white flowers in early spring. Right now it is covered with flower buds so dense that you’d think it was already blooming. The new growth in the spring has a beautiful pink tint. This shrub will hold up to the wildest weather. Another plus for the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub is that is useful for fire-scaping in the landscape and it isn’t on the menu for deer either.

A favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers is the evergreen mahonia. Plant a mahonia if you want to attract winter hummingbirds. They are blooming now with bright yellow flower clusters that will last for months. Each flower will set a purple berry looking like a cluster of grapes. The edible berries make good jelly, too. There are 70 varieties of mahonia including our own native Oregon Grape which grows in the understory of Douglas fir forests. Mahonia aquifolium is resistant to summer drought, tolerates poor soil and doesn’t create a lot of leaf litter.