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.

Autumnal Equinox

The autumnal equinox will arrive on Monday, September 23rd this year. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator – like where we live. Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

With the changing of the season, take advantage of fall planting weather. It was a hot summer and I’m ready for fall. This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage while soil temperatures are still warm creating an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new root systems should be well established.

I had hoped to spend some time at the UCSC Arboretum earlier this year when the showy pincushion and leucospermum protea were flowering but I never made it. Because anytime’s a good time to visit the arboretum I dropped by recently. There is always something in bloom there and the hummingbirds know it. Here are just a few of the spectacular fall blooming plants that you might want to add to your own garden.

Leaucadendron Jester

The Leaucadendron ‘Jester’ (Sunshine Conebush), another type of protea, were loaded with brilliant deep wine-red bracts. This evergreen shrub grows to 5 feet tall and is very pest and disease resistant. Deer aren’t interested in the showy bright pink, cream and green foliage and it’s quite drought tolerant once established. You can cut the branches as they are prized for use in floral arrangement. People think that protea are hard to grow but really it’s a plant-it-and almost-forget-it kind of plant. They need good drainage and don’t like phosphorus fertilizer preferring poor soils with minimal care. Sounds like a winner to me.

Epilobium ‘Mattole Select’

A little further down the trail I came across another easy to care for plant. California fuchsia have undergone several name changes over the years but whether you call them epilobium or zauchneria they are in bloom now. The ‘Mattole Select’ cultivar forms tidy 6 inch high mats of beautiful silver foliage. Late summer through fall brings orangey-red tubular flowers which attract hummingbirds. Spreading by underground rhizomes, this epilobium increases size a little less vigorously than the others. It’s more shade tolerant than most California fuchsias and needs just a bit more water but it’s still quite drought tolerant. Pruning plants down to a few inches in late autumn helps rejuvenate them for the following year.

Grevillea junipera ‘Monoglo’

As I followed the hummingbirds around the arboretum I came across another groundcover that both the birds and the bees favored. Grevillea juniperina ‘Molonglo’ (Juniper Leafed Grevillea) blooms with a soft yellow flower unlike most grevillea. This fast growing evergreen forms a mass of dark green soft needle-like leaves and bears an extremely profuse show of light golden yellow flowers from late spring to winter. This tough hardy drought tolerant plants is the perfect groundcover for large areas and will cascade down slopes and walls.

I’m looking forward to another visit to the arboretum this winter as the Australian garden will be in full bloom then.

Ornamental Grasses & Grass-like Plants

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ with convolvulus trailing over side.

Looking for plants that require minimal care, only occasional grooming, just enough water to meet their needs and are deer resistant? Plants that add beauty, movement and sound to your garden? You may already have some ornamental grasses and grass-like plants but this is a good time to add a little more pizazz and beauty to your landscape.

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. Grass-like plants such as lomandra, dianella, cordyline, carex, restio, phormium, Japanese Forest grasss and liriope are some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. A garden just isn’t complete without the architectural qualities they provide.

Pheasant Tail Grass

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.

I like variegated plants and two-tone grasses combine well with many other garden plants. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an especially refined and elegant ornamental grass. Fine leaf blades are green with clean, paper-thin, white margins that give the plant a silvery cast when viewed from a distance. It is luminous when backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. Morning Light tends to keep its upright shape better than some other cultivars and rarely flops. The reddish bronze plumes that appear in late fall are spectacular.

Libertia – a grass-like plant

A grass-like plant that I think should be used more often in gardens in libertia. Narrow, rigidly straight leaves form compact clumps that are especially useful i poolside, accent planting and thrive as well in containers. They require only moderate watering and can add a warm punch of color,

Dianella combined with loropetalum, pieris and primula
Dianella with loropetalum, pieris and primula

Another plant that is finding a place in the low maintenance garden is dianella. With 18 inch clumps of soft blue leaves, light blue flowers with lavender-purple fruits dianella cerulean ‘Cassa Blue’ is just one of this group of perennial flax lily that makes a great addition to the garden. Dianella intermedia grows fast with whitish blossoms during the summer months. The berries which follow are deep purple-blue and highly ornamental They can be especially attractive filling a shady nook though this plant can thrive in either su or shade.

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 inches 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.

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.

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.

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

Summer Fog & Winter Rain

Morning fog captured by redwood trees

I’m not sure how the subject changed from heirloom tomatoes to the the number of gallons of water that a redwood tree uses daily but over lunch the other day with my friend, Colly, the food writer for the Press Banner, and Susan, another friend of ours, this discussion got me thinking about the weather. Is it too early for winter precipitation predictions when the snow has barely melted in the Sierra?

Weather 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.

There have been several heat waves this 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 couple of days brought fog so thick it dripped from the trees. 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 produce 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. A redwood tree needs about 150 gallons of water each day. Every little bit helps in our summer dry climate.

Understory native plants in a redwood fairy ring.

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 who said “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 more nice soaking rainfall with it?

According to the National Weather Service at NOAA, “ All in all, El Nino is still present, but just barely”. Winter is still a long way off and there are many possible outcomes from the current conditions. 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.

Chocolate in the Garden?

Chocolate Flower Farm – Whidbey Island, WA.

I was at a nursery the other day viewing the eye candy and saw some chocolate cosmos. Naturally I had to take a whiff. Chocolate cosmos looks and smells just like a dark chocolate bar. The warmth of the day released this delicious fragrance reminding me of a day spent several years ago on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound with my sister, Evan. She’s no longer here, passing away 3 years ago this month, but the memories we shared at the Chocolate Flower Farm with be with me forever.

As a landscape designer I often get requests for certain colors to be included in the plant palette. Mahogany, burgundy, deep magenta and eggplant often make the list. Many people like dark flowers or foliage paired with ivory, others prefer peach or chartreuse. I marveled at all the combinations at the Chocolate Flower Farm.

In addition to chocolate cosmos, a wildflower called chocolate flower or berlandiera lyrata grew at the farm. I also enjoyed the fragrance of warm chocolate in the flowers of chocolate akebia, chocolate mint and chocolate snakeroot.

Ducks enjoy the Chocolate Flower Farm, too.

Strolling the grassy paths at the Chocolate Flower Farm I admired a Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily. The foliage, nearly black, glistened in the sun growing next to a white-flowering Nine Bark called Summer Wine.
Nearby a clump of two-tone chocolate and ivory daylilies bloomed. With grazing horses nearby and a dozen ducks taking turns bathing in a kiddie pool the scene was idyllic. At every turn a different pairing of chocolate flowers and foliage caught my attention.

One section featured plants for a kid’s chocolate garden. Easy to grow chocolate pincushion flower, chocolate viola, chocolate nasturtium, chocolate snapdragon, chocolate sunflower, chocolate painted tongue and, of course, chocolate cosmos would be fun for any child to have in their own garden.

Black Knight sweet peas

I loved a penstemon called Chocolate Drop as well as a Mahogany monarda the color of deepest magenta. Blooming black sweet peas grew up and and over an old bed frame. A dark purple-black clematis from Russia called Negritanka intertwined with lime green hops covering an arbor. Toffee Twist sedge, Royal Purple smokebush, Chocolate Sundae dahlia, Sweet Hot Chocolate daylily, Chocolate Plant and Hot Cocoa roses grew in many of the flower beds.

Burgundy daylilies wtih rusted garden art

What makes dark foliage or dark flowers pop? At The Chocolate Farm each bed pairs the deep rich chocolate color with another contrasting shade. I don’t know which was my favorite. One area featured peach, pink and silver to offset the darker shades. Pink dahlia and fairy wand, blue oat grass and rose colored sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ made a lovely vignette. Another bed paired the yellow flowers of phygelius ‘Moonraker’ and digitalis grandiflora with white anemone and ivory dahlias set among Chocolate Baby New Zealand flax.

Not to be ignored the dark chocolate shade of black sambucus growing next to a golden Himalayan Pheasant Berry made an impression. All-gold Japanese Forest grass at the base of dark leaved Tropicana canna lily was also a show stopper.

If you are up on Whidbey Island, the Chocolate Flower Farm is a great place to spend an afternoon. If your vacation plans don’t include the Pacific Northwest, plant some chocolate in your own garden.

Hardy Geraniums in the Garden

Geranium ‘Orion’

I feel sorry for them. They are the wallflowers of the nursery. Shoppers barely glancing their way before moving on to attention getters like dinner-plate dahlias. In the garden, though, they shine. They are the work horses of the perennial border. I’m talking about true geraniums- those hardy, versatile, long blooming plants for edgings, borders and ground covers.

Most people use the common name geranium to describe what is actually a pelargonium. Ivy geraniums, Martha Washington pelargoniums and zonal geraniums are all pelargoniums. Hardy geraniums, also called cranesbill, look very different. Leaves are roundish or kidney-shaped and usually lobed or deeply cut. Flower colors include beautiful blue, purple, magenta, pink or white and often completely cover the plant with color. I’ll bet if you visited a garden on a tour or admired a picture in a garden magazine it contained true geraniums. Here are just a few strong performers available among the dozens of species.

Geranium ‘Maderense’

Geranium maderense grows best in shade. This dramatic native of Madeira is the largest geranium with huge 1-2 foot long leaves shaped like giant snowflakes. Clusters of thousands of rose tinted flowers form on a 3 foot trunk. This perennial is short-lived but self sows freely. Add some of these architectural plants to your border for color and structure.

Blue flowers in the garden are always a hit as they combine so well with other colors. Geranium Orion’s abundant clear blue flower clusters bloom over a long season. Use this 2 foot spreading plant in sun or part shade in a mixed border or as a groundcover. There are other blue flowering geraniums. I grow geranium ‘Brookside’ on my own garden. It’s on it’s second round of blooms. It’s large bright blue flowers are larger than ‘Johnson’s Blue’. ‘Rozanne’ is another common favorite with stunning blue flowers.

Another fast growing variety is geranium incanum which covers itself spring through fall with rosy violet flowers. Cut back every 2-3 years to keep neat. This variety endures heat and drought better than other types but needs some summer water. It self seed profusely which might be exactly what you want as a groundcover in a problem area.

Geranium ‘Biokovo’

If pale pink is your color, plant geranium x cantabrigiense ’Biokova’. This excellent groundcover spreads slowly. The numerous one inch flowers are long lasting and cover the plant from late spring to early summer. Their soft pink color is indispensable when tying together stronger colors in the border and the lacy foliage is slightly scented.

Gernaium ‘Karmina’

Another geranium in the same family is ‘Karmina’. I’ve been growing this dark pink flowering variety for several years. With lush green leaves on a low spreading plant it’s pretty even when not in bloom.

There are a couple other varieties that are popular and deserve a try. They are Award Winning Mavis Simpson’ and Russell Pritchard’. Both have bright pink or purple flowers and make good additions to your perennials.

Give a hardy geranium a place in your garden.