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.

Favorite Japanese Maples

A Sango Kaku Japanese Maple in fall color

I have two Japanese maples on my deck. They are not nearly as large as those I had up in Bonny Doon but you have to start somewhere. One is a common acer palmatum seedling and the other a ‘Sanguo Kaku’. They have not started to show any fall color yet. It’s been a hot summer as you know.

Many of you readers were evacuated last summer and your garden did not get watered. This summer has been hot and everyone is trying to conserve water. So if your Japanese maple has suffered from hot weather, smoke and just plain tough conditions you may not get a spectacular fall foliage display this year. I see trees of all kinds going into an early dormancy showing a touch of fall color only. Every year is different.

Other things besides hot weather and not enough summer water to consider regarding fall coloring is that it can be disrupted by wind and rain coming at the wrong time. Japanese maples have a more delicate leaf than some of other trees and are more susceptible to the elements of nature. We most likely won’t get rain spoiling the display but wind during this time will put a quick end to the autumnal display.

At a local wholesale nursery recently I walked through their 36 inch box Japanese maple specimens getting ideas for future projects. Several that caught my eye included the variegated ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Oshio Beni’ with its orange and crimson fall coloring. Other notable maples that display vibrant fall coloring included ’Seiryu’, an upright laceleaf variety which turns bright gold, yellow and crimson in the fall. Also beautiful, the ‘Autumn Moon’ maples promised varying shade of gold to red.

Leaves change color when they are going into winter dormancy. When nights get long enough, leaves develop a corky layer of cells between the leaf stalk and the woody part of the tree. This slows the transport of water and carbohydrates. The manufacture of chlorophyll is slowed and the green color of the leaves begins to fade, allowing the other pigments to show through. Since the transport of water is slowed down, food manufactured by the remaining chlorophyll builds up in the sap of the leaf and other pigments are formed which cause the leaves to turn red or purple in color depending on the acidity of the sap.

For example, sumacs and California wild grape almost always turn red because red pigments are present and their leaf sap is acidic, While many of the oak and sometimes ashes will get a purplish color because the sap is less acidic. Trees like birch don’t have much orange pigment, so they appear mostly yellow in the fall. Others don’t have much yellow pigment and turn mostly orange or read. Some trees have a balance of pigments and look pinkish. The brown color or many oaks can be attributed to a buildup of tannins which is a waste product in the leaves.

So don’t miss out on Japanese maple season. You won’t regret getting a new one for your yard or patio.

In The October Garden

I love to read those articles in gardening magazines with titles like “How to Create a Complete Backyard in a Weekend” or “This Front Yard in Just one Year.” If you’re like me you think, “Can I really do that?” There are some short cuts that can make this happen and fall is the perfect time to try out some of them.

Start by making sure you have paths where you need them. Simple flagstone set in sand or soil work fine for meandering through the garden. A more formal and permanent path is needed to lead guests to the front door but stepping stones are quick and easy in other areas. Hardscaping like paths, walks and fences establish the framework for everything else to build from.

Russian Sage

If you want your garden to fill in quickly, choose key plants that grow fast and are suited to your conditions of sun exposure, soil type and water availability. Plants given their preferred conditions will grow and flourish more quickly. Designate irrigated areas for must-have plants and use plants that like it dry in your other areas. Most important, if you are going for high impact quickly, choose plants that perform right away instead of those needing a few growing seasons to grow in.

Begin your planting by choosing trees and shrubs for structure, especially in the winter. Fast growing trees include chitalpa, red maples, mimosa, birch, raywood ash, flowering cherry and purple robe locust. Shrubs that fill in quickly are butterfly bush, bottlebrush , choisya, rockrose , escallonia, hydrangea, philadelphus, plumbago and weigela.

Next come perennials that mature quickly and make your garden look like it’s been growing for years. East Friesland salvia is one such plant and blooms summer through fall if spent stems are removed. Their intense violet-blue flower spikes cover plants 18″ tall spreading 2-3 ft wide. They look great in wide swaths across the garden or along the border of a path and attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.

One of hundreds of different salvias, Hot Lips.is a favorite or hummingbirds.

Don’t forget the other salvias. There are some 900 species of salvias. They all grow quickly and are the workhorses of the fall garden. Autumn Sage (Salvia greggi) is drought tolerant and deer resistant (really). Although it tolerates some shade it looks best when planted in full sun. To encourage repeat blooms trim off spent flowers stalks when they start to look rangy. They come in a wide range of colors to accent or match any garden. Recent selections include magenta, burgundy, red, rose, pink, salmon and white.

Walkers Low catmint is another perennial that keeps going and growing. This vigorous spreading member of the mint family blooms profusely with little spikes of 1/2 inch periwinkle blue flowers from late spring through fall. Catmints are easy to care for. Shear plants back by half at the beginning of the season and after flowers fade. They are drought tolerant, too.

Where you need a big clump of color to fill in a space look also at penstemon, mondarda, purple coneflower and yarrow. They all put down deep roots and mature quickly. Be sure to include combinations that bloom in different months.

Yes, creating a garden slowly over many years is satisfying, but if you need to fill in a new area quickly, draw on some of these tips and your bare dirt will be full and beautiful in no time.

Fall Planted Bulbs Reap Big Rewards in the Spring

It’s that that time of year when we see the beginnings of fall color in the trees. There’s a nip in the air in the morning, the squirrels are busy burying acorns and it’s time to buy bulbs that will welcome spring in next year.

Speaking of squirrels, squirrels, mice and moles are observant and crafty. Once they discover newly planted bulbs, they’ll assume it’s food. Just disturbing the earth is a tip off for them. Daffodils and narcissus bulbs are toxic but if they dig them up then leave them exposed with just a nibble taken, so much for any spring flower display. Protect your bulbs with wire baskets or spray them with foul tasting repellent, letting the spray dry before planting. You can also bury the bulbs with ground up egg shells. Another way to foil squirrels is to plant the bulbs deeply, This only works if you have good drainage, however. Next year, if the squirrels start nibbling the foliage as it emerges try spraying it with hot pepper spray.

Long lived Veltheimia or Forest Lily blooms for a long time.

One of the more unusual bulbs I grow in pots is Forest Lily (velthemia bracteata). I got several bulbs over 25 years ago and fortunately divided them a couple years ago to give as gifts. My pots of these spectacular bulbs did not come back after the fire but I was fortunate that one of my friends gave me hers. The bulbs are enormous and bloom for months. The handsome foliage lis thick and wavy, looking somewhat like a succulent but it’s the huge, showy dark pink flower spikes that bloom from February to May that I love. Grow them light shade and allow them to go summer dormant. Velthemia are native to the northern Cape area in South Africa where it grows on rocky slopes along the famous Namaqualand Flower Route.

Another bulb I’ve wanted to grow for a long time is Ixia viridiflora. A friend divided hers a couple years ago and gave me a handful of bulbs. They need to be completely dry in summer and I forgot and watered the pots that I planted them in so alas, I was not able to enjoy this most striking and unusual bulb but I want to try again this fall. Few plants can beat it for sheer brilliance of flower. Each flower is a brilliant turquoise green with a purple-black eye in the middle. The dark eye is caused by the deep blue sap of the cells of the upper epidermis. The green color is due to the effects of light being refracted from the cell wall and granules embedded in the pale blue cell sap.

What about bulbs in the shade? Bulbs that will bloom in light shade are crocus, scilla, tulips, grape hyacinth, leucojum, snowdrops, chionodoxa and lily of the valley. Many from the daffodil clan, including jonquils and narcissus will grow, bloom and naturalize year after year under tree canopies or other lightly shaded areas.

Whatever you bulbs you choose to try this fall, you will be happy you planted some bulbs come spring. And to help them bloom again the following year fertilize them at the time of planting with bulb food or bone meal worked into the soil a couple inches at the bottom of the hole. Mature bulbs respond to an early spring feeding with the same fertilizer.

Ornamental Grasses for Every Garden

Pheasant Tail grass is carefree and long lived.

One of the most dramatic sights in a garden is an ornamental grass backlit by late afternoon sun. They seem to come alive as their tawny flowers spikes glow and sway in the breeze. Their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as few other plants do.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rarely found on grasses They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. A garden just isn’t complete without the architectural qualities they provide.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, libertia, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, dianella, cordyline and liriope to name just a few.

Mendocino Reed Grass

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses like Mendocino Reed Grass (pennisetum foliosa) with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. If you like blue foliage, try Elijah Blue fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination.

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture. light and movement of a grass would be perfect, look to the taller varieties. A personal favorite is Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’.

There’s a reason old favorites like Karl Foerster feather reed grass is so popular in landscapes. It doesn’t get too tall or overpowering in the smaller garden and its upright habit is neat and tidy. Pheasant Tail grass is another popular grass that is carefree and long-lived. It grows to only 3 by 3 feet, is not fussy about soil and looks good anywhere you plant it. It combines beautifully with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage and is extremely drought tolerant once established.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2″ of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.

California Natives for Fall Planting

Matilija poppy – a good low water native shrub to plant this fall

Beautiful beginning-of-fall weather is here and you may be thinking what plants you might to add to your garden this fall planting season. California native plants are well suited to planting at this time of year, acclimating to their new homes without much stress. Here are some ideas to get you started.

By planting from mid-September through mid-November, roots of all plants have a chance to grow during fall and most of the winter without having to supply nourishment to the leafy portion of the plant. Roots of deciduous plants still grow even after plants drop their foliage as long as the ground temperature is above 50 degrees. Cooler day and night temperatures slowly harden off the top of the plant to prepare for the cold days of winter.

Another reason that fall is the “no-fail” planting season is because plants put in the ground in fall need less water to establish. The plants themselves use less water since photosynthesis is slowed by shorter days even if it’s occasionally warm. Evaporation rates slow down also during fall so moisture in the soil lasts longer as well. Sometimes we get lucky with fall and winter rains perfectly spaced so the ground never completely dries out. Unfortunately there is a 66% chance of a La Nina winter but let’s hope we get more rain than last season.

Plants that thrive in dry, shady spots benefit especially from fall planting as they need established root systems before next years dry season. Dry shade sometimes occurs in places beyond the reach of the hose but also under native oaks. To protect the health of native oaks, it’s a requirement that plants underneath thrive with little or no summer irrigation.

King Edward VII flowering currant – A California native show-stopper shrub for erosion control

Plants of proven success under these conditions include native currants and gooseberry. Red flowering currant is a 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 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 is 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. Rbes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia, snowberry, ceanothus maritimus and ‘Anchor Bay’s are good groundcover selections.

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

Bush poppy

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.

Gardening Solutions for a Shady Garden

Shade is lovely on a hot day with a lemonade or ice tea in your hand. But what if much of your garden is shady most of the day but then gets blasted with several hours of intense sun during the hottest part of the day? Are you always on the look out for plants that can survive these tough conditions? If your garden falls into this no man’s land of not enough sun for the sun lovers but too much for most shade loving plants here’s what I recommend.

Loropetalum chinense- good for sun or shade

One of the workhorse plants that does well in sun or shade is Fringe Flower (loropetalum chinense). 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. You can prune loropetalum 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.

Lily Turf (liriope) is another deer resistant perennial that’s great for sun or shade as a ground cover, at the edge of a path or mixed border. Evergreen grasslike leaves form tufts 18 inches tall. Liriope do well along streams or garden pools and can compete 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.

Creme Brulee coral bells with iriope

Coral Bells (heuchera) can survive in the shade but can also take that short blast of afternoon sun. 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 ‘Citronelle’ in front of taller perennials or as a border edging. Coral Bells grow well in containers, too.

Lily of the Valley shrubs like this Valley Valentine are well suited to the shady, part sunny or sunny garden.

Lily of the Valley shrub (Pieris japonica) looks good in shade or sun. 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 the new foliage emerges with a red tint there is always something attractive happening with this plant. It’s deer resistant also.

Oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia) also looks good in shade or sun. Showy leaves resembling oaks, turn bronze or crimson in the fall. Huge white flower clusters bloom in late spring through summer and turn pinkish as they age. They are attractive if left on the plant for the rest of the season.

Among my other favorite plants for these tough conditions are Flowering maple, nandina, Chinese Ground orchid, billbergia, flowering currant, hummingbird sage, spice bush, philadelphus, carpenteria, osmanthus, daphne, hellebore, campanula and hardy geraniums.

Don’t give up if your garden has tough growing conditions. There’s a solution for everything.