Category Archives: Design trends

Natives attract Birds, Bees & Butterflies

It’s always a breathtaking experience taking a walk at this time of year. You might see the cobalt blue flowers of ceanothus or a stand of dicentra formosa with their dainty pink bell-shaped flowers backlit in the spring sunlight. Coral bells are in full bloom as are the Pacific coast iris. These are just a few of our local native plants. Everywhere you look nature is beginning the season fresh with anticipation and promise.

California is a vast domain when it comes to natural features and different soils. From hills and mountains to deserts, valleys and ocean bluffs, there are 6000 plus plant species within our borders. Hundreds of these are showy and useful plants worthy of cultivation in our garden. Some, like ceanothus, have already been cultivated for a century or more, both here and abroad.

There are features of the California landscape that present a certain flavor and seasonal progression, quite distinct from that of the subtropics and year-round, moist forests that many traditional garden plants come from. Plants of hilly and mountainous areas are often found in rocky or sandy soils and require well-drained garden soils. Many plants of the chaparral have poor resistance to the root pathogens that thrive in a warm, moist soil and may not tolerate typical garden style irrigation in summer.

Matching or creating the right conditions is the key to success to grow California natives. Planting on a raised mound or berm, for instance, is one way to drain water away from sensitive crowns. Knowing where in California a given native plant comes from can help you make the right decisions.

That being said there are many natives with an amazing broad tolerance of different conditions. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) grows in both sandy and clay soils as does yarrow (Achillea millifolium) which is also a good cut flower. Carex grass and Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus) also do well in most soils.

If you garden in clay soils, good native shrubs are Western redbud, manzanita, spicebush, bush anemone, ceanothus, garrya, Pacific wax myrtle, Western mock orange, blue elderberry, mahonia, California wild rose and snowberry. Native perennials for clay soil include coral bells, sticky monkeyflower (a good cut flower), salvias, deer grass, rubus and Dutchman’s pipe vine.

Sandy conditions require California natives that are decidedly drought tolerant. You may already grow many of our manzanitas and ceanothus. But do you also have lupine, lavatera, coffeeberry, buckwheat, fuchsia-flowering gooseberry, purple sage, wallflower or the beautiful Douglas iris?

Then there are the folks that live in the shade. Native plants from canyons and riparian areas will do well in your garden. They require some summer watering but that’s all. Native shrubs that tolerate bright shade are manzanita, spicebush, bush anemone, ceanothus, mahonia, Pacific wax myrtle, any of the ribes, wild rose, snowberry and huckleberry. Perennials for color are columbine, Western bleeding heart, California. fuchsia, Douglas iris and coral bells.

Where ever you garden, to provide food, nectar or berries for our winged friends be sure you have some flowering currant, sticky monkey flower, coffeeberry, salvia clevelandii, Dutchman’s pipe vine, wax myrtle, California fuchsia, aster chilensis.

The Wonderful World of Wisteria

Wisteria are one of those vines that you either long for or lament ever having planted. They are all fragrant with a delicious sweet scent that varies from faint to strong to almost overpowering. Bees and hummingbirds love them. Here are some tips to choose and enjoy one in your garden.

Wisteria are one of nature’s most resilient survivors. They are able to withstand and recover quickly from difficult conditions. To some they are a little too tough for their own good with a growth rate rivaling bamboo during the summer. If you dream of a wisteria-covered pergola shading your patio here are some maintenance tips that are sure to keep both gardener and vine happy.

Wisteria are so vigorous they can be pruned at any time, keeping them in bounds and clearing out unwanted or dead growth. Prune out any stems you see extending into eaves, windows or shingles. If yours has gotten away from you, you can even prune it down to the ground and start over with training although you’ll have to wait a few years for your vine to bloom again.

To their control size major pruning is done during the dormant season. Start by trimming the long tendrils that grew over the summer back to about 6 inches from the main trunk. Cutting the tendrils back in this way will initiate flower bud development, neaten the plant up, and show off the attractive trusty, gnarly character of the vines.

Whatever time you do renovation pruning remember the response of the wisteria to aggressive pruning is to literally explode with new runners. They put energy into new vegetative growth at the expense of flowering. Make sure you keep up on ongoing maintenance pruning by removing all unwanted runners right to their point of origin. Then prune back the others to 3 buds or sets of leaves. Repeated pruning of these runners is what will eventually give you spurs of wood, short laterals that in turn will provide you with flower clusters. You need to prune these runners all season long which ends up being every 3-4 weeks.

Do not fertilize your wisteria. They do not flower well if there is an over abundance of luxuriant growth. Over feeding also ends up giving them the means to become un unmanageable monster. If you have trouble getting your vine to flower an application of a high phosphorus fertilizer may promote blooming.

Maintaining a wisteria requires some diligence but the reward is worth the effort. Remember this especially during winter pruning season to make summer maintenance easier. If you find that the wisteria vine has invaded a nearby bed, cut roots with a shovel below the soil line to control any that have wandered.

Which variety of wisteria should you get to cover your arbor, pergola, tree or other structure?

Chinese varieties such at ‘Cooke’s Special’ have clusters of fragrant blue-purple flowers 20 inches long. This variety can re-bloom which makes it a favorite. Chinese wisteria can take up to 20 years to mature enough to produce flowers, but once it has matured, the plant is very long lived and can live up to 100 years.

Japanese wisteria like ‘Caroline’ bloom early with mauve flowers. ‘Royal Purple’ , known also as ‘Black Dragon’ , has sweetly scented dark purple flowers. Japanese wisteria are most effective when grown on pergolas so their long flower cluster can hang freely.

American wisteria, native to more eastern areas of the U.S. is a smaller, less invasive species that grows about a third the rate of Asian wisteria. ‘Amethyst Falls’ blooms at an early age with lightly fragrant purple racemes. Use in containers for porch or patio, train up an arbor or trellis or as a small free-standing tree.

Silky varieties produce a profusion of short, 6 inch, fat clusters of strongly scented flowers that open all at once. They have velvety seed pods and bloom best in full sun.

All parts of the wisteria vine contain a toxin known as wisteria which can cause stomach upset. Growers should also be wary of pets and children eating the flowers or seed pods.

Filoli Gardens in May

What fun is must have been for the children raised in the 1900’s at Filoli Estate. You can just imagine what a kid could do on 654 acres of orchards, fields and gardens creating a maize of places to hide and seek. As gardeners a visit to Filoli Gardens will inspire you to re-imagine what your own garden can be. It’s spring. Here are some of my takeaways from my recent visit to Filoli.

Filoli Gardens is a manicured garden around the mansion and carriage house so the paths are straight and formal. Lined with dwarf boxwood each path encloses a different grouping of plants that change with the seasons. Many of us have meandering paths in our gardens separating the different garden rooms. The elements of garden design, like arrangement of paths, planting beds and open spaces, shape your garden. Your eye is drawn along a path through a garden. The plantings along the sides serve to frame but it’s the style of the path itself that enhances your experience in the garden. Some of the paths at Filoli Garden are gravel, some grass and some brick and mortar. All draw the visitor deeper into the garden to explore and linger at each spot.

Every month there is a different assortment of trees, shrubs, bulbs and vines blooming at Filoli. On this visit the wisteria took center stage. Their fragrance was intoxicating. To keep them in check volunteers keep them pruned tightly. Yes, it’s an ongoing task but the rewards are worth it. I’ll cover wisteria care in another column so you’ll know how to live in peace with your wisteria.

As in any garden, color plays an important role. It’s the wow factor we all go for. At Filoli on my recent visit the foxglove were in full bloom. I liked the apricot ones growing under the wisteria outside the carriage house. But then a bed of dark rose foxglove under another wisteria vine caught my eye. In my humble opinion, the combination could have been enhanced with some white flowers or silver foliage to tone it down but this bed was breathtaking. Everyone was photographing it and posing in front. Something to remember is that light colors like pale pink and blue, creamy yellow and lavender are more vivid in low light or on an overcast day.

Another show stopper was a vivid red azalea blooming throughout the gardens. Even from a long distance you couldn’t help but be drawn to them. Many were planted to be viewed against the dark green foliage of large shrubs and the mature columnar yews. As opposites on the color wheel, red and green are complementary and striking when paired together.

Some of the best beds still had some late blooming tulips. One of my favorite combinations was the softest pink parrot tulips with the purple allium pom pom flowers towering overhead. Another bed featured medium pink tulips, allium, white foxglove and the feathery burgundy foliage of fennel. A nice combination indeed and one you wouldn’t think of normally.

A huge Beni Hoshi flowering cherry was in full bloom with soft pink rhododendrons below. There are so many varieties of rhododendrons that you can have them blooming from March until May. They are long-lived and deer resistant.

Like kids in a candy store, my fellow companions, who are both Master Gardeners, enjoyed every turn at Filoli Gardens. We plan to go back in a couple months for the next rotation of flowering trees, roses and perennials.

Growing Veggies in Shade, Containers & Small Spaces

I have been gardening for a very long time. But even now I feel I know just a little bit about a whole lot of subjects. Every day I learn something new. Now that spring weather has finally arrived I’m anxious to start planting like the rest of you. Because I have a lot of shade that rotates during the day and a small space to garden I am limited by what I can grow successfully. On a lark I signed up for a free ChatGPT Open AI account to see what all the fuss was about and whether I could learn anything from my query. Let’s just say the results were a little dry. So here are my own thoughts about growing vegetables in containers, small spaces ors shade.

The best veggie varieties for growing in containers are: beans, chard, chili peppers, kale, lettuce, onions, radishes, spinach, sweet peppers and tomatoes. Last year I grew some French Marcotte container bush beans which were delicious although I ended up nibbling on them raw while putzing around on the deck. They were delicious. Strawberries are great for containers, too.

Little Crunch Snap Pea

Last week I started some Little Crunch Container Snap Peas. The package says I’m to get loads of crispy, sweet pods on vigorous short vines that are perfect for snacks. Peppers, both chili and sweet varieties do well in containers, too. You might want to try growing bite-sized sweet peppers for your pizza or for snacking while out in the garden.

Tomatoes are always popular to grow whether in the ground in a small garden or in pots on the patio. Bush types (determinate) don’t grow as large as indeterminate vines. If you like large size tomatoes, plant Bush Beefsteak and you’ll be harvesting clusters of delicious 8 ounce. tomatoes in just 62 days. A half wine barrel can house a taller tomato like the ever popular Sungold. Small gold-orange cherry tomatoes ripen early and are oh-so-sweet. You’ll plant these every year after you’ve tasted one.

Zucchini lovers might try the non-rambling Raven or Astia varieties which won’t take up as much space as a traditional type. If you have a little space to spare grow the round French heirloom squash, Ronde de Nice. Jade colored zucchini produce over a long period. Harvest the fruit when they reach golf ball up to baseball size. They are sublime grilled or try them stuffed. A tip to encourage pollination when squash or melons bloom is to pinch off leaves covering the blossoms in order to give pollinators a clear path to the flowers.

Herbs make good additions to the smaller garden, too. They can be kept compact with frequent pinching as you harvest sprigs for cooking. They also attract beneficial insects to the garden. Oregano, chamomile and fennel are good insectary herbs.

Shade tolerant vegetables for your brightest spots – the partial shade areas – include beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, summer squash and early maturing tomatoes like Early Girl, Stupice, San Francisco Fog, Isis Candy as well as other cherry tomatoes. Corn and peppers will be lankier and bear later and only modesty in partial shade.

Root crops and leafy plants can tolerate more shade than fruiting crops. Beets, carrots, potatoes, celery and turnip will grow quite happily in partial shade. So will shallots and bunching onions, cilantro, garlic, chives, kale, leeks, parsley, oregano, cilantro and thyme. Leafy plants can tolerate partial to light shade because their leaves grow larger to absorb the sunlight the plants need. In very light shade areas concentrate on leafy green like Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, arugula, radishes and tarragon.

Shade can be decidedly helpful to some crops. Leafy greens will be more tender and succulent, without the bitterness they tend to acquire when conditions are too hot. A combination of a bit of afternoon shade and an abundance of moisture will help cut-and-come-again crops like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and celery stay in good condition longer in hot weather.

Whatever plants you grow in your shady garden, be sure not to crowd them. Plants tend to sprawl there and if placed too close together they will compete for available light. Place your vegetables plants wherever they will get the most light even if it means putting different crops in separate places. A small harvest is still better than no harvest at all. Your vegetables may take a bit longer to mature without full sun so be patient.

Growing Dogwoods

When the dogwoods start to bloom I”m torn between the flowering crabapples and cherries and wisteria and lilacs. But those huge dogwood flowers – or more precisely, bracts – get my attention every time I drive along the thoroughfares of San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley. Most of us are familiar with the common Eastern dogwood but there are so many more great cultivars available now. Here’s some information you’ll find useful if you’re in the market for dogwood tree and how to care for them if you already are lucky enough to have one in your garden.

There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata. Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida is native to the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or the Western dogwood.

Our native Western dogwood is unfortunately prone to leaf spot fungal diseases when grown out of their range. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding and flower and grow with little care in morning sun or light shade.

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood (cornus florida) that’s blooming now. With various shades of pink, red or white blossoms they are stunning. Take note that their root system is prone to disease if not grown with good drainage.

An awesome variety ‘Pringlei’ or Mexican Flowering Dogwood is grown by a fellow gardener and it’s a stunner. With its unusual flowers than look like Chinese lanterns to the red fall color this is a species to be on the look out for.

The Wedding Cake Tree (cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ ) is another unique variety. When this small dogwood blooms the large flowers cover the tree like snow. The tiered horizontal branches resemble a wedding cake when in bloom.

The kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood rootstock. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttallii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’ is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree.

Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robin and sparrow are just two of the bird species that build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings.

Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4:00 PM. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’ll be happy.

Dogwood are a good tree choice for the allergy sufferer as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers, which are actually bracts, are pollinated by insects. Their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes.

Earth Day Facts to Ponder

This year Earth Day is focusing on climate change. Earth Day is always a celebration of the natural beauty of our planet reminding us that we need to keep it healthy. Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues. So plant a tree, clean up litter, garden, hike in the woods, marvel at emerging wildflowers, be in contact with the soil and breathe fresh air outside on this day.

The affects of climate change have been front and center for us here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Few of us anticipated that we would have storm after storm hit us – 31 atmospheric river storms starting last December. The intensity and duration of these storms caused record snowfall and deadly flooding. According to UCLA climate scientist, Daniel Swain, there isn’t a clear cut answer as to what caused the wet weather. “It could be anything from Hunga-Tonga volcanic eruption last spring which injected a record breaking amount of water vapor into the stratosphere…it could be an unusual transition from La Niña to El Niño.. it could be bad luck.” Whatever the reason, the effects of climate change are here to stay.

Celebrate Earth Day in your own backyard by being outside. It’s your own personal outdoor living room – a safe place for pets and kids to play. Just get outside, maybe trim some shrubs, plant something for the birds and pollinators. When you become a steward of your own yard, you are helping to preserve you own corner of the ecosystem. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children.

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can cut will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallowtail butterflies. Another easy to grow flower for cutting is the snapdragon.

Besides flowers, fragrant foliage plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden.

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears which are soft and furry, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

All kids love lady bugs. Make your garden a more inviting place for these and other beneficial insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Lady bugs will patrol your plants looking for tiny insects and their eggs. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.

Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no-brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous. Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt. and search “plants”.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly, a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless. And be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside.

Get a kid into gardening and nature and they’ll be good stewards of the land for a lifetime. Plus you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.