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.

November ideas in the Garden

Rhododendrons in spring. Pin down branched in fall to encourage rooting.

Warm days, short days, cold days and hopefully rainy days – all in the fall of the year here in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s part of what makes our area so special to us. We are inspired by Mother Nature and our mountains. We feel a connection with nature as we enjoy our gardens. There are some easy things you can do at this time of year to extend that enjoyment. Gardening should be fun, too.

Taking cuttings of shrubs is a relatively easy and economical way to make new plants. Some plants that can be increased by hardwood cuttings include manzanita, coffeeberry, crape myrtle, pittosporum, euonymous, forsythia, spirea, viburnum and roses. Edible plants like currants, figs, grapes and quinces also make good subjects.

Purple Magic crape myrtle- take cutting soon after it drops leaves.

For deciduous plants it’s best to take cuttings soon after the shrub drops leaves and goes dormant. Evergreen shrub cuttings can be taken now. Start by taking cuttings of year old wood that’s about a quarter inch in diameter. Discard the top couple of inches of each stem since this unripened wood doesn’t have enough stored nutrients to survive. Cut the stems into 6-9 inch pieces. Because a cutting won’t grow if planted upside down, make the top cut at a slant, so you can keep track of it. Then dip the bottom ends in rooting hormone and tap off any excess.

You can store cuttings from dormant shrubs bundled and labeled in boxes of sand in the garage or outdoors in a well-drained trench. Each will form a callus at the base where roots will form next spring. Come spring, plant the cuttings in good soil in shade with only the top bud exposed. Water as needed and once the new plants develop leaves and increase in size, start feeding them monthly with a balanced fertilizer. By next fall your new shrubs should be well established and ready to be moved to their permanent place in the landscape.

Also you can simply pin down a stem of a plant like manzanita or rhododendron by putting a rock on it so the soil makes contact. After a year or so you will have a new plant that you can dig up and move. Other natives like ceanothus can be propagated in a peat and grit mix and will root in about 50 days if given bottom heat. Take these cuttings in January.

Stake trees. Trunks with leaning tops or those planted in very windy areas need support. To determine how high to place ties, move your hand up the trunk until the treetops straightens. I usually allow the stake to reach up into the canopy a bit so that a wind gust doesn’t snap off the trunk right at the base of the canopy. Tie the tree to the stake loosely in several places. Trees in containers are tied tightly to the the stake but those in the ground should have some wiggle room to stimulate the trunk which will make it stronger. This is a good time to check existing tree stakes to make sure the ties aren’t digging into the trunk and the stakes are large enough to support your tree. Remember to keep your tree staked only as long as needed and then remove the supports.

Pick last roses and add alfalfa meal or pellets which will soak into ground and prepare them for next spring. Don’t prune until the end of January.

Groom strawberries and mulch to deter slugs in winter.

To help protect citrus from frost damage, pull mulch back from below the canopy. This allows the ground to absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

Fall Gardens

Pineapple sage blooming now.

The end of daylight savings time signals to me that autumn is really here in our mild California surroundings. Enjoy these crisp mornings and warm days and to make your garden more compelling, try mixing in late flowering perennials as well as trees and shrubs with bold leaves and a wide range of autumn color.

Sasanqua camellia blooms from fall into winter.

Bright trees and shrubs add color flashes to fall gardens. Sasanqua camellias have already started blooming and will continue to flower throughout the winter. In addition to asters and rudbeckia, Japanese anemones are the stars of the border at this time of year. The electric blue flowers of dwarf plumbago contrast with reddish leaves as night temperatures dip, Encore azalea and Endless Summer hydrangea are blooming now, too.

Other perennials that are blooming now are California fuchsia, Pineapple sage and Mexican bush sage.

California fuchsia

I love my patch of California fuchsia. Starting in the summer and flowering through fall this California native is covered with orange or scarlet-orange flowers that attract hummingbirds like crazy. A great plant along the path or draping over a rock wall this perennial thrives in areas that might fry other plants. Also known as Epilobium canan or Zauschneria it is in the evening primrose family and native to dry slopes and chaparral especially in California.

Mexican Bush Sage

Mexican bush sage look great blooming alongside California fuchsia. Orange and blue are opposite on the color wheel so they look fabulous together. The bright red flower spikes of Pineapple sage look pretty nearby so the whole area is a hummingbird feast.

But what about vivid foliage in the garden? Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

A great tree for the gardener interested in edibles is the Fuyu persimmon. This beautiful small tree is ornamental with glossy green leaves and also offers a dramatic fall display in shades of yellow, orange and red. Bright orange fruit begins to develop in late October and clings to bare branches usually through December. The tree looks more like it’s covered with holiday ornaments than fruit. And have you priced persimmons in the store lately?

Blueberries are a must for the edible gardener. They make a beautiful hedge that provides showy red or yellow fall color. Because of our colder winters here in the mountains, we can grow both northern highbush which are self-fertile and southern highbush which produce better with another type to pollinize them. They can be great foundation plants around the home as well as in the garden.

A vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that need covering quickly, this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet red leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Japanese barberries are deer resistant, low water-use small shrubs that make them superb hedge plants, background plants against fences and foundations or accent plants. Red or lime colored summer foliage changes to orange, red or amber in the fall. I love the graceful growing habit of many of the varieties but there are pillar forms and also dwarf types.

Bright foliage on trees like red maples, liquidamber, Chinese pistache, ginkgo, ornamental pear, cherry or crabapple, dogwood, goldenrain, locust, katsura, oak, redbud, sumac and witchhazel all add to the fall drama of the landscape.

Light up your garden as the light fades and the days shorten. I know my garden needs a greater variety of fall color than just the Japanese maples in pots on the deck and the barberries. I’m waiting for my purple smoke bush to turn luminous scarlet and add color flashes to my fall garden.

Halloween From the Garden

So many pumpkin varieties to choose from for decorating and eating.

Halloween is just around the corner and besides deciding what you or the kids are going to be this year, it’s time to bring in any plants that you plan to overwinter in the house. Whether they’re the houseplants that you put out on the patio for the summer or frost tender plants that you want to save, this is the time to bring them in and here’s why.

Although our nights are still above freezing, plants need to acclimate to the indoor environment before you start turning on the heater regularly. Be sure to wash them thoroughly and inspect them for any insects that may have taken up residence while they were vacationing outside. Usually you can dislodge any hitchhikers with a strong spray of water but if that doesn’t do the trick, spray them with a mild insecticidal soap or one of the other mild organic herbal sprays like oil of thyme.

Another tip: Fall is not a good time to prune. Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming. Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or late spring after leaves and needles form. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.

If you want to decorate for Halloween there is a plenty of plant material you can harvest from your own garden or nearby woods. Manzanita branches can often be found on the ground and make great arrangements combined with nandina or other berries. Some of the trees have started to turn color and their leaves can also be used for wreaths. The leaves of New Zealand flax last a long time and add fall color in bouquets.

Classic mums, pumpkin and Blue Hakkaido squash at my doorstep.

Mums are the classic fall flower. They come in nearly every color except blue and the flowers have many shapes from daisy to spider mums. They are perennials and make good additions to the garden. Best of all they make excellent cut flowers.

Several years ago a friend gave me a Blue Hokkaido winter squash to decorate my front entry and eat afterwards. It was delicious. This year, a good friend grew the Cinderella pumpkin (Rouge viv d’Etampes) which is said to have been the inspiration for Cinderella’s carriage. This French heirloom pumpkin was very popular during the 1880’s and will be tasty in pies and savory dishes later this fall. For now, the glowing orange-red color contrasts magically with the very pronounced lobes and flattened top.

A giant Cinderella pumpkin with a “friend’.

Many gardeners feel the Cinderella pumpkin is the very best pumpkin to grow in your garden. It’s the first to set fruit, first to ripen and is mildew resistant. Their bright orange creamy flesh is perfect for baking. Oven roasted they produce a pumpkin puree that is neither watery or bitter. Delicious in pumpkin spice muffins, pumpkin soup, or with vegetables and sausage. I even found aa recipe for pumpkin mac n’ cheese baked in a pumpkin. I’m so excited.

Pumpkin was a staple food for the early pioneers. It was easy to grow as a few seeds dropped into a shallow hole grew into a mature fruit. Yes, technically they are a fruit not a vegetable along with summer and winter squash and gourds. Their thick rind would allow them to be kept almost indefinitely.

Cinderella pumpkin in progress.

If you decide to grow the Cinderella pumpkin next year, you can start inside in pots or wait to plant in the ground when night temps are 55 degrees or over. In the garden, group them with other deep rooted plants that grow rapidly and need lots of water such as corn, cucumbers, melons and tomatoes.

Fall Color in Your Backyard

Quaking aspen

Soon I’ll be hiking in the Sierra among the native dogwood and hoping I”m not too late to see fall foliage. Last year I enjoyed the display of Quaking Aspen near Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4. Did you know that a massive grove of 47,000 aspen in Utah is one of the largest organisms on the planet? They all share the same genetic material and a single root system. There is a contender for this renown in Oregon where a honey mushroom measuring 2.4 miles across lives in the Blue Mountains. Interesting stuff.

Bloodgood Japanese Maple

Around here I’m just starting to see some trees and shrubs put on their coat of many colors. In my own yard, I have a Bloodgood Japanese maple that has been in full color for a couple weeks now. None of my other maple varieties are showing any color but that’s okay as I’ll be able to enjoy the upcoming show for many months. That is, if strong winds don’t dry out the leaves prematurely. I’ve watered well hoping this won’t happen. Weather conditions play a major part in the intensity of fall color. The time of year is nearly consistent but 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.

Crape Myrtle

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leaf falls to the ground it is colored only by natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

Forest Pansy redbud

California native, Cercis occidentalis (Western redbud) turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

Trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Easterm redbud, Chinese flame tree (Koelreuteria bipinnate), ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

Fall Bulbs

Tulips welcoming spring

Last year I dropped the ball. Thinking that the daffodils in pots from last year would bloom enough in the spring to satisfy my spring fever I didn’t get any new ones. Well, I was wrong and I’m not making that mistake again. Although it’s a little early to plant bulbs in our area, I have several bags of daffodils and tulips ready and waiting for the ground to cool.The selection of bulbs is always best early in the fall.

My garden is shady all winter and most of spring so my growing conditions aren’t the best. That’s why it’s worth it to me to get some new bulbs each year. Sure, there are a smattering of daffodils that have naturalized on my hillside but it’s a meager display and when spring fever hits, well, you know how hopeful and eager we all are.

Deer resistant daffodils

A word to the wise, 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.

Valthemia bloom for a very long time.

One of the more unusual bulbs I grow in pots is Forest Lily (valthemia bracteata). I got several bulbs over 25 years ago and each fall as the bulb re-emerges I look forward to it’s months-long blooming season. 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. I grow them light shade and allow them to go summer dormant. Valthemia 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 and now I have the chance. A friend divided hers and gave me a handful of bulbs a couple months ago. They need to be completely dry in summer so planting in pots will be perfect for this most striking and unusual bulb. 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. Amazing flower. I’’m looking forward to photographing my own next year.

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.

Parrot tulip

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.

Why Plant Cover Crops?

Cover crop mix

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese increased their soil’s fertility and protected it from erosion by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. Planting a cover crop is another way to improve and retain your soil.

A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume. Growing a cover crop also increases beneficial soil bacteria.

Cover crops are called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil, however, as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

Orin Martin shows the extensive root system of bell beans

Recent research now recommends planting a mixture of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch, which are the best legumes for our area, grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but nowhere near as efficiently as bell beans. Crimson clover seed is more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

You don’t need to use innoculants on legume seed. Our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

Work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds should be already cleared but this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area should be raked again lightly 1-2 inches down and covered with 3-4 inches of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything. Water in lightly.