Category Archives: gardening tips

How to Plant a Vignette in your Garden

Most people want to do the right thing, they just don’t always know what it is- in the garden, anyway. Often when I visit a garden to help with the design, I find lots of great plants scattered about that just need to find the right spot to call home and something to tie them together.

We all do it – over the years buying plants we just have to have with no plan of where they might be used effectively. The garden becomes a collection of mismatched plants and that dramatic border you’ve envisioned just don’t come together.

Where to begin? Picture sections of the garden as separate scenes composed of small groups of plants that look good together because of their complementary and contrasting features.

Start with a strong foliage plant, then add other plants with interesting textures, forms and colors to complete the scene. Don’t simply alternate textures because that could make the garden look too controlled and predictable. Sometimes repeating a bold, course texture makes the planting restful.

Select the first plant in a vignette for its foliage. Because it serves as the main plant, it has to have leaves that look clean year round or from the time they emerge in spring until fall. Avoid plants that become discolored or tattered as the season progresses from weather, disease or pests. You can discover reliable foliage plants by observing other gardens, especially in late summer.

Examples of strong anchor foliage plants for shade include Japanese maple, hydrangeas, dogwood, pieris japonica, camellia, aucuba, rhododendron, ribes sanguineum and viburnum,. Good plants to anchor a sunny garden vignette would be butterfly bush, a tall grass like miscanthus sinensis Morning Light, ceanothus Concha, rockrose, western redbud, bush anemone Japanese barberry and lavatera.

Select supporting plants to balance the main plant in your grouping. Vary the shapes of these secondary plants to create interesting compositions. Too many plant like iris, daylilies or liriope with swordlike leaves, for instance,  would create vertical chaos. You can use one but no more than two plants to add vertical emphasis. Also using more fine-textured plants than course, large-leaved plants seems to work better. Shady medium-sized plants might include hardy geraniums, hosta, carex Evergold, ligularia, coral bells, Pacific coast iris and western sword fern. Good supporting plants for sun include salvia, penstemon, rudbeckia, yarrow, artemisia, eriogonum, blue oat grass and society garlic.

Groundcovers finish a vignette. Look for color cues from your first foliage plant and choose a low grower that complements it. Color can connect plants that differ greatly in form and color. Think of groundcovers as carpeting for your garden. Golden creeping Jenny and lamium Pink Pewter are good choices for a shady area while elfin thyme and dymondia would tie together a group in the sun.

Don’t be afraid to move a plant that is not working where its growing now. Make a note in your journal reminding yourself to transplant it sometime in the fall. Gardening is a dynamic and fluid process. Enjoy piecing  together pieces of the puzzle.
 

Permaculture and You

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.

Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides ( when necessary ) you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like beautiful fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.

You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and siting plants. Deep rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought tolerant trees creates shade which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.

Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. You might install a rain garden in an areas like this. A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawn ares. The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.

Plant dry climate plants like lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and drought tolerant ground covers like oregano and thyme to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible.

Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.

For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds; ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.

To , plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large leaf plants for a living mulch. Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like a weed patch. With a little planning your garden can be beautiful and productive.

Veggies & Fruit trees for Small Spaces

You know that growing your own fruit and vegetables can supply your family with fresh tasting and nutritious food. But what if you don’t have much space for a big garden or an orchard of fruit trees. Now days there are lots of available for smaller yards and containers. Here are some good ones to try.

Tomatoes are always popular to grow whether in the ground or in pots. Bush types don’t grow as large as vines. If you like large size tomatoes, plant Bush Beefsteak and you’ll be harvesting clusters of delicious 8 oz. 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 semi-vining Raven variety which won’t take up as much space as a traditional type. These plants bear black-green, white flesh fruit with a mild sweet flavor and are very tender. 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. They are unique in the garden and wonderful in cuisine.  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.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Greenish-yellow skinned fruit with attractive red color ripens in late September into October. They grow to 8-10 feet at maturity.

Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries. The fruit is large, dark red or nearly black. Firm, sweet, dark red flesh has good flavor and texture. Stella cherries grow 10-12 feet tall and bear at a young age.

If it’s almonds you crave for your patio or mini-orchard, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden.

A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame.  Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Don’t let lack of space stop you from enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

Citrus in the Garden

There’s always so much to do in the garden in early spring.  It can be overwhelming deciding what’s important and what can wait. This is how I tackle my garden to spruce things up in a hurry.

First, I decide what problems stand out and choose what to do based on which areas will be the most noticeable. Which improvements will have the most impact?

Focus your attention where family and friends gather- the patio, a shady spot if it’s hot or a sunny area if it’s cool in your garden. Clean up what catches your eye like dead limbs, tall weeds or clutter. Sweeping the deck or patio will make the whole garden look better.

Flowers attract the most attention. Focus on the beds closest to gathering spots and those places you see outside the windows.  Enhance what you have. Blooming or bright foliage plants can fill in gaps in beds.

Perk up your entry with new plants. Group several containers filled with plants you love.  The bigger the plant you use, the more immediate the effect. Combine shades of all one color like blue, purple or red for a more dramatic look.

What else can you do to spice up your landscape?  Plant a dwarf citrus. They grow to only 8 feet so fit into small spaces. Plant in a spot that gets full sun and has well drained soil. Citrus are slow growing and do great in containers, too.

A favorite lemon variety is Improved Meyer. It a actually a cross between a lemon and an orange and tastes slightly sweeter than a true lemon  such as the Eureka. The fruit is very juicy and holds well on the tree, increasing the sweetness.

If your’e looking for an ornamental specimen for a patio container, consider a Nagami kumquat. Small reddish-orange fruit hang on the tree nearly year round and you eat them whole-peel and all. This small symmetrical tree is Japan’s most popular kumquat.

Another very attractive citrus is the which is also known as the Clementine. Its weeping form, dense, dark foliage and fruit that is held toward the outside make this a very showy specimen either in a container or in the ground. Sweet and juicy fruit hold on the tree for several months. This is the variety you see in the market from December to May. Wouldn’t  it be great to have one in your garden?

New Plants for the Garden

Every season new varieties of colorful flowering annuals and perennials are introduced by hybridizers. These new plants are field tested and bred for better performance, disease and insect resistance, flower size, color and heat tolerance.  Where does this happen?  What goes into that gorgeous vivid red geranium you see on the bench at the nursery?

Over 30 breeders of flower seeds and perennial starts each spring showcase their new varieties in trials held throughout the state.  Professional growers visit the trials to choose which new varieties they will grow this year and offer to local nurseries and garden centers.  Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy is one of the locations that hosts the colorful spectacle.

Fragrant, wisteria-covered arbors shade paths that wind throughout the landscaped grounds . The grounds are open to the public to enjoy throughout the summer.  Also on site are the greenhouses where breeders work on creating new and better flower varieties.  It was interesting to see several acres planted with fava beans as a cover crop. Soon the fields of this flowering legume will be cut down and tilled into the soil to add nitrogen. Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed new plants. After a few weeks of decomposition the energized soil will be ready for planting test flowers that Goldsmith seeds will further evaluate.

All of the seeds are actually grown in greenhouses in Holland and Guatemala. Cool season flowers like primroses, cyclamen, violas and pansies are produced mainly in Holland while warm season flowers like dahlias, geraniums, gazanias, and verbenas are grown at different elevations in Guatemala. I learned Goldsmith Seeds has been developing and growing seed in Guatemala for 40 years.

What new cultivars really impressed me at the trials?  There’s a new geranium that combines the best features of ivy and zonal geraniums. I liked the amazing color of Calliope Dark Red but all the colors were show stoppers. They would be perfect for baskets or beds in full sun or part shade. And you should see all the colors that calibrachoa now comes in-light blue, dark blue, deep yellow, peach, orange, even white with rose veins. These have now been bred to bloom earlier in the season which is why you’re seeing them in nurseries now.  There were many fragrant flowers like . I always looks forward to them when they arrive at the nursery. 

Try something new in your garden this year. There are so many good choices.
 

Plant Communities of the Santa Cruz Mtns

Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and ho-hum results in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place. 

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest and redwood forest, chaparral and the sandhills.

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak.  Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, needle and giant feather grass and rockrose also do well here. Another plant to try that will also flourish in your garden is a native of New Zealand called Coprosma.  There are many colorful varieties now available like "Evening Glow".  All are valued for their colorful variegated foliage especially in the cooler months when the leaves turn orange red.  Many coprosmas grow to 4-5 ft but Evening Glow is just 14" tall. They need little water and can be happy in full sun or partial shade.

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where bigleaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow.  Most plant grow lush in this deep soil.  If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider brunnera which blooms now with tiny clear blue flowers that freely self-sow without being invasive. It has large heart-shaped leaves that are showy, too,

Chaparral areas are the hottest, driest slopes of these mountains. Dense thickets of manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, coffeeberry, ceanothus, monkey flower and sage are native here. These plants are adapted to little water and often have tiny, thick, waxy,  light green or grayish leaves. Soils tend to be rocky, shallow and overlaying rock or a subsoil that is mostly clay. Plants here need to have an extensive root system that reaches widely and deeply for water. If you live here be sure you have the spring blooming western redbud and Julia Phelps or Dark Star ceanothus. The combination of magenta and electric blue flowers is unforgettable.

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants include silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here.  When you plant in these soils amend with compost to provide needed nutrients. Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8" tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red.  Mulch these beauties with gravel or crushed stone.

Remember right plant-right place.

It’s Spring – What do I do?

Yes, we need more rain but the recent sunny weather has been good for both people and plants. I remember many years ago when we had "The Miracle March" as a local meteorologist called it. It rained for 30 days straight. This was great for the watershed but drowned new emerging roots, starving them of oxygen and causing lots of fungal problems.  Let’s hope Mother Nature spreads out the remaining precipitation keeping everyone happy.

Spring begins today. This year, especially, think of gardening as therapy.  Every moment you put in your garden is paid back with fresh vegetables and fragrant flowers.  Think about it- stir up the soil, plant some seeds and you have flowers and vegetables in a few months.  The satisfaction you get from cultivating living things is priceless.

Get started on this free therapy by tending to your garden this week:

Plant low water use plants in place of those that have been struggling. Use your precious time, space and sun to grow the plants you most want to look at, pic or eat.  As a reminder, never work with soil that is very wet and keep off your lawn the, too, as this can compact the soil.

Cut back deciduous shrubs and vines except those that flower now in the spring. Don’t prune rhododendrons, camellias, or azaleas until the last flowers have started to open and green growth has started.
Prune frost  damaged shrubs if you can tell how far down the die back goes otherwise wait until growth starts in the spring.  For your shrubs, test bark for viability by scraping with a sharp knife.

If you are interested in being less of a slave to your lawn, consider reducing the size. If you’ve decided that you don’t need a traditional grass lawn anymore at all, replace it with a sustainable alternative.

Check for early aphids and blast them off with a hose or use no-tozic sprays like horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Check for snails and slug damage and apply organic iron phosphate bait. Earwigs and sowbugs can be controlled by organic spinosad. Reduce their numbers by eliminating hiding places.  Clean out leaf litter and garden debris and use organic iron phosphate bait.  Copper pennies in your containers can also deter them.

Get weeds out of the garden early and you’ll save yourself a lot of digging later. Weeds rob your plants of precious moisture and nutrients.

Plant cool season vegetable like peas, chard, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, onions and other greens.  You can also sow seeds of beets and carrots. The soil is still too cold for tomatoes and other warm season vegetables. 

Grow the sweetest strawberries this year by planting them in a bed that receives at least 6 hours of direct sun at midday.  Don’t water too much.  This can dilute their flavor.  You want the soil to be moist but not wet. Don’t apply excess nitrogen fertilizer which causes overly lush growth at the expense of berry production. Also keep beds free of weeds and space each strawberry plant about a foot apart.

Plant a spring flowering tree such as a flowering cherry, dogwood, crabapple or plum or a native western redbud to welcome the new season and make your spirits soar.
 

What Zone Are We?

Spring is coming. Like me, you’re  probably anxious to get started in your garden. We’ve gotten some much needed rain and hopefully there is more to come. As you’re thoughts turn to gardening, though, make sure those new plant choices are the right ones for your area.

Notice how much sun or shade an area gets during the growing season- from April through September. Knowing  also which Sunset climate zone you are in is equally as important to make sure your garden thrives. Every year I get asked which zone the areas of Scotts Valley, San Lorenzo Valley, Bonny Doon are in. It’s confusing in Sunset Western Gardening Guide as our area has many microclimates and their map is not detailed enough to reflect this. They even show Felton as being on a ridge top instead of on the valley floor. Here are some tips to help you determine in what zone you garden.

Zone 7  has the coldest winters in our area.  Very high ridge tops like the Summit area and the most northern portions of Bonny Doon lie in this zone.  My records show average winter lows ranging from 15-25 degrees based on 20 years of input from gardeners in these areas.  This does not apply to other areas of zone 7, just those around here.   Record lows have occurred during freezes in 1990, 1996 and 2007 but as gardeners we rely on average highs and lows to help guide our planting times.  Spring weather comes later in this zone with the growing season mainly from April – October.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area.  Winter lows average 20-30 degrees. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call "a cold 15".  Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. Often there is damage to the tips of oleanders and citrus while gardenias and tropical hibiscus need extra protection.There are warmer parts of this zone, though, where the growing season starts in March and ends in November.  These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this "banana belt". Pasatiempo also falls in this thermal zone.  Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay above freezing. Lucky you.

 

Planning for Extreme Weather

Drought one year,  rainy the next.  How do you plan for these weather events in your garden?

CLIMATE-PROOFING used to mean tossing a little mulch on the garden, hauling pots of tender plants indoors or under an overhang.   But global warming and cyclical climate change has caused weather to grow so volatile that these traditional practices just don’t cut it anymore. Our gardens need year-’round help to deal with the new weather realities, including increasingly rain events in the winter and dry springs and of course our usual dry summers. . If you doubt the significant effects of climate change on our gardens, think about all the plants you consider hardy that may have died off in a really cold spell or the usually drought tolerant plants that didn’t like our dry spring last year.   The list varies by microclimate, but might include escallonia, abutilon, verbenas, Melianthus major, phormium and yuccas. Have you noticed birds returning earlier in the spring and lilacs blooming two weeks ahead of when they flowered 30 years ago?

We need a fresh arsenal of garden strategies, and it will help if we better understand the changing weather where we live and garden.  Our climate is influenced by the Santa Cruz mountain range and moderated by the Pacific Ocean.  Sixty inches of rain is "normal" for us but it’s been a few years since we’ve had this much.  While there is great year-to-year variability in our weather,  we need to be prepared for the worse case scenario.  You can lose both precious plants and trees as well as all the money and work you put into the garden.

How to deal?

• Begin by choosing tough, sturdy, self-reliant plants that need less water and fertilizer. Healthy plants are naturally resistant to pests and diseases when put in the sun/shade/water situations that suit them.

Compost-enriched soil provides the foundation for thriving plants that are more resilient to disease, drought or insect damage. Healthy soil absorbs water like a sponge and also stores carbon from the atmosphere, helping reduce greenhouse gases.

Reduce water consumption by using drought-tolerant and native plants, and by grouping plants with like water needs. Water with drip systems or soaker hoses; use tools like watering bags to keep new trees healthy. Remember to check whether your soil is dry before irrigating, and make sure you are watering more than just the surface.

Weed regularly so you aren’t wasting water on nuisance plants. To keep weeds down and water in, mulch garden beds at least once a year in late winter.

Global warming is creating what climatologists call "heavier rainfall events." This means more runoff and more stormwater problems. We can help by avoiding chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and using porous surfaces like pebbles, gravel or pavers for patios and driveways rather than solid concrete. Install rain barrels and cisterns to capture rainwater to use for irrigation. Consider taking advantage of low-lying or boggy spots in your garden to create a rain garden, planted with moisture-loving natives, to slow down the passage of rainwater through the soil.

• Nurture the birds, bees and insects in your garden that are also confused by climate change. Make your garden a healthy habitat for all living things by eschewing chemicals. Plant a diverse array of flora that blooms early and late to encourage pollinators. Add natives and plenty of berried plants to feed and attract creatures.

• And finally, a few ideas on saving energy: Solar garden lights are the smart way to go; cut energy use on other outdoor lights by putting them on a timer. If you aren’t yet lawn-free, at least get rid of your gas mower, blower and weed eater, and use rakes and hand clippers; you’ll be rewarded with blessed quiet as well as energy efficiencies. You might consider arbors and pergolas for shade in summer and rain protection in winter. And it might not be a bad idea to invest in a rain barrel.

Hardy Winter Plants

    PROMISE YOURSELF  to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
    To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet. 
    To make all of your friends feel that there is something in them. 
    To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
    To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best. 
    To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. 
    To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
    To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
    To give so much time to the improvement of yourself, that you have no time to criticize others.
    To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of        trouble.
                                             Christian D.  Larson

   
 Sure has been cold the past few weeks.  Many of the perennials in my garden have suffered from frost and will need to be cut back later in February or March.  After strolling through Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco recently, I’m newly inspired for the coming season.


At the arboretum you can experience unique gardens created with California natives or drought tolerant plants from Australia.   Other gardens have plants from New Zealand or So. Africa.  Meandering paths bisect each garden.   It is a marvelous place to explore and discover what plants appeal to you as each is clearly labeled.  Be sure to take your camera.  It’s a great way to see what a mature specimen of a plant or tree looks like. Those descriptions on a nursery can don’t compare to seeing a plant in person.

While you’re up in Golden Gate park  don’t miss the new museum of natural history, planetarium, tropical rainforest and aquarium.  Green technology is used and explained throughout, including the green roof.  Last summer I wrote about visiting Rana Creek nursery in Carmel and talking to the grower of the native plants that cover the roof.  The  plants selected, eight drought tolerant California natives, include  prunella, armeria, stonecrop, goldfield, lupine, poppy,  plantain and beach strawberry.  I didn’t see seedlings of the spring wildflowers on the roof when I visited but the stands of prunella and beach strawberry were thriving.  Also beach asters seemed to be doing well although they weren’t listed.  Seeds may have blown in.  If you’re thinking of replacing your traditional lawn in the spring with drought tolerant ground covers, consider these plants.   They are not only survivors but will flourish under adverse conditions. 

As I write this, I’m spending the holiday in the Seattle area near Lake Washington.  Here you can really see plants that know how to survive the elements.  Actually, it’s hard to identify most of them as they are totally covered with snow.  It snows everyday.  Beautiful white powder blankets the trees and landscape. My sister’s  perennial planters will not be joining her this spring.   So pretty to look but not that great when you venture out  to get last minute presents.  Snowplows are scarce up here.

What plants bloom in the winter where we live?  A little color at this time of year is always welcome.   Native mahonia are just coming into full and glorious yellow flower.  The hummingbirds love their flowers as well as hellebores, sasanqua camellias and strawberry trees.

Oregon  grape ( mahonia ) are deer-resistant shrubs with large, prickly leaves.  Long sprays of fragrant, yellow flowers rise above the foliage in January and February.  Blue fruit follows which is also attractive.   Mahonias grow best in partial shade but will take full sun if given occasional, deep watering in the summer.

Sasanqua camellias are valuable for their massive display of large flowers in fall and winter.  If you’re driving along and see a shrub covered with dark pink, white, lilac or red flowers, most likely it will be this plant.  They are often called the roses of winter.  Many are fragrant and can be espaliered on a trellis.  Sasanqua camellias are easy to grow in partial shade and need only moderate water. 

Another wonderful plant for winter color that I saw so many of at the arboretum is winter heath.  Heaths and heathers love acidic soil so combine well in sunny areas near rhododendrons and azaleas.  Ground cover types are smothered with lilac, pink or rose flowers starting in December and last into April. 

Don’t forget Iceland poppies, violas and cyclamen for small color accents.  Happy New Year  from The Mountain Gardener and may your garden flourish this year. 

 

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the Night Before Christmas
                 A poem for Gardeners
                    by Jan Nelson "The Mountain Gardener"

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
All the creatures were stirring,  the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the native grass lawn there arose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.
 

 

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
Fruit, vegetables and color:  it must belong to an artiste.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck,  they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Our old feeding grounds are now covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we just don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year,  go ahead and make a wish,
And each time you see one of us,   think welcome,  not banish.
And all of us creatures will give you our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
" Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night ! "

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote this poem in 1822 in New York.  I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

 

Winter Containers and Holiday Wreaths

Ahhh… the holidays.   You’ve put up your decorations and perhaps a  tree or what ever your family does  traditionally.   Friends and neighbors wave  ‘ Merry Christmas ‘  when you see them in town.  The  relatives from back east are arriving soon to celebrate with you. 

What?    Did you say… people will be coming from parts of the country where it’s bleak and cold and miserable?   Well,  show them how lucky we are that our ground doesn’t freeze.  Put together some  handsome winter containers using  these cool ideas for those big empty pots by the front door or on the patio. 

Cool season annuals like pansies and primroses are great for containers but there are many more plants that are hardy, easy to care for and offer texture and color, too.   White artemisia combines well with almost any other color.  Here’s a good place to show off those burgundy pansies.  Or combine it with the silvery and purple-patterned foliage of heuchera ‘Amethyst Mist‘ .    Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Use them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.  Rainbow chard would look equally stunning.   Dwarf conifers look elegant surrounded with white primroses.  How about a container with the bluish foliage of euphorbia ‘Silver Swan‘  combined with ajuga ‘ Black Scallop ‘  or  an ajuga like ‘Burgundy Glow‘  with variegated pink, purple and cream leaves?  Add lavender pansies and pinkish coral bells to set off your container.   For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and best of all, they will be blooming very soon.  Hellebores bloom in the winter, too and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and will be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  
   
Here are some tips for keeping your containers looking good through winter:

Any good potting soil will work but drainage is particularly important for plants that will be out in the rain.     To improve drainage in containers that once held summer annuals, dump out the soil and add one quarter perlite.   Don’t use a pot of soil that had polymers in it to retain summer water.  Winter plants don’t need the extra dampness. 

When filling the containers, don’t add gravel or bits of broken pots to the bottom.  Gravel and pot shards will hamper drainage.  Instead, fill the entire pot with the soil mixture.  A paper coffee filter or screen over the drainage hole will keep the soil from slipping out andl allow water to disperse.  And it will keep earwigs and sow bugs from finding a new home in the bottom of your pots.

Choose the biggest containers you have.  Not only can you tuck more plants into it, but the room will also help protect roots from the cold.   Unlike summer containers, winter plantings won’t be growing much so you can put the plants closer together.  Don’t use saucers under containers.  Plantings that are left standing in water-filled saucers can rot.  Instead, set containers on planter feet or bricks. 

Wreaths and swags

What else should you be doing to get ready for the relatives?   How about making a wreath or a swag to drape over the mantel or front door and in the process getting a little pruning done? While you’re in the decorating mood,  take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreens to use in wreaths and swags.  Cuttings from Douglas fir, redwoods,  pine, holly, mahonia, make fine additions to your wreaths and swags.  But don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately.  To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out.  Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk.  If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.  To force upward growth, cut the branch just beyond an upward facing shoot.  To foster spreading growth, cut the branch just beyond a downward facing shoot. 

After you’ve finished pruning, spray the greens with water to remove dust and insects.  Trim cuttings to desired size.  To keep them fresh, immerse the cut ends in a bucket of water and store outdoors in a shady spot until your ready to decorate.  Be sure to strip the foliage from the portions of the stems that will be under water if you are using the cuttings in a bouquet.       
   
Most of all, whatever you do (and even if you don’t get everything done you planned) , enjoy the season with friends and family. 

 

Grapevine “Christmas Tree”, late Bulbs & Rosemary

 It’s great to see so many magazines and TV shows showcasing quick, inexpensive Christmas gifts and decorations to make from simple objects.  As we all try to reduce, reuse and recycle , here’s  an idea that you can use to decorate your deck or front porch with items you already have.

What’s more "green" than recycling your own garden cuttings?  You probably have a large pot where the plants are just about through for the season.   Pull out the spent plants but keep the soil.  You’ll be making a Christmas "tree" from a tomato cage turned upside down and secured with large U-shaped staples poked into the pot’s soil. Tie the wire prongs that are normally sunk into the ground with twine to make a pointed top. 

 Once the cage is anchored in place you can weave prunings from grapevines or honeysuckle in and around it.  Any vine will work as well as  long flexible branches from shrubs like cotoneaster, willow or abutilon.
If you have an electrical outlet nearby you can weave small lights throughout the tree.  If you want to get fancy, poke dried hydrangea flowers or berry sprigs or rosemary cuttings into the "tree".    After the holidays, you can plant primroses in the container and store the tomato cages for next summer. 

 It’s not too late to plant bulbs.  We get enough cold around here for many more months so the bulbs will get enough chilling even though you’re getting a late start.  The worst that can happen is the blooms may be slightly smaller and bloom on shorter stems.   I always start my bulbs about now as the squirrels have buried most of their acorns for the season and tend to leave my pots alone.  If they do discover them, I put gravel over the the surface and that seems to stop the party.   I plant lots of pots because the color will be so welcome in early spring. 

A simple ( read lazy ) way to plant that I’ve always had success with is to reuse the soil in a pot that just finished up like impatiens or other annuals.  Some I plant with cool season color but many, especially the glazed ones, I take out half of the soil, layer some bulbs, and pack the top with the rest of the soil.  Voila !  Instant spring bouquet in less than two minutes.  If you haven’t planted any bulbs yet,  do go out and get some now.  You’ll be very glad you did.

A word to the wise:  protect against killing frosts that often hit this month.   Watch out for still, starry nights and be prepared to protect tender plants with frost blankets.   Even a sheet, tarp, cardboard box, or regular blanket will help. If you do use plastic, make sure it is supported by poles and not draped right on top of the plant.  Better yet,  sink four 1×1 stakes to make a frame around tender plants,  then you’ll be ready  to throw something over quickly on a cold night.  Plants must be watered adequately to survive a freeze.  Drought stressed plants are more susceptible to damage. 

A plant that’s hardy, drought tolerant, blooms in the winter and makes a nice wreath, too, is the rugged rosemary.  One of the most versatile of all herbs, rosemary can be used in a variety of ways in both the garden and kitchen.  You can use an upright version like for a deer resistant screen.  Low. prostrate types make great ground covers.  And they do well in pots on the deck or outside the kitchen door.  Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions from hot sun to partial shade  and survives down to around 15 degrees.   It will accept regular watering as long as there is good drainage.  You can add it to a mixed perennial bed or delegate it to the back forty.  Rosemary will flourish for decades in your garden but too much fertilizer will result in a shorter-lived plant.

 Harvest leaves for cooking anytime.  Plant some by the barbeque so you can toss plant sprigs over the coals to flavor food as it cooks.  Or use rosemary branches dipped in sauce to baste grilled food.   Mmm… yummy.

Japanese Maple tips for fall foliage

 If the foliage on your  Japanese maple recently dried up before turning color or during the process, the following question I recently received may be of interest to you. The reader  was concerned because he had had some dieback in early spring while his maple was leaving out.  So when his tree fritzed this month he thought the tree might be having more fungal problems.

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. 

Getting back to that poor Japanese maple with the dried up leaves,  the whole process of fall coloring 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 at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.  The good news is that your maple will be just fine next year.

Japanese Maple tips for fall foliage

 If the foliage on your  Japanese maple recently dried up before turning color or during the process, the following question I recently received may be of interest to you. The reader  was concerned because he had had some dieback in early spring while his maple was leaving out.  So when his tree fritzed this month he thought the tree might be having more fungal problems.

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. 

Getting back to that poor Japanese maple with the dried up leaves,  the whole process of fall coloring 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 at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.  The good news is that your maple will be just fine next year.

Put your Garden to Bed

 There’s a peaceful quality to this time of year.  Mother Nature is winding down for the season turning deciduous trees ablaze with fall color.  Cool season pansies and violas turn their little faces to catch the sun.  It’s time to put the garden to bed for a greener spring next year. 

 Here are some suggestions, but promise you won’t try to do everything on one weekend.  it’ll just seem like work.  Gardening should be something you enjoy. 

  • Build up your soil by layering the vegetable beds with 2" of leaves newly fallen from your trees.  Soil building worms and organisms will start their work right away.  In the spring, dig what’s left into the soil.  If you want the leaves to break down faster, run over them with a lawn mower, then rake them up for mulch.
  •  Prevent erosion of your precious soil by mulching with straw or bark.  Mulch used around perennials, shrubs and trees will help moisture percolate into the soil instead of running off into storm drains or creeks along with fertilizers.    Mulch also keeps the soil from becoming compacted by winter rains.  If you don’t have enough leaves to use as mulch try layering newspapers and cardboard and cover with straw.  3-4" of mulch around the base of trees and large shrubs will hold weeds down, too.  Be sure to keep mulch a couple of inches away from the base of your plants so trapped moisture doesn’t rot the trunk. 
  • Chop down leftover vegetable plants and spent annuals flowers and layer on the vegetable bed under cardboard to decompose.  Don’t do this with diseases plants such as squash plants with powdery mildew.   These can be put in the curbside yard waste can.  Hot commercial composting systems can kill disease spores.
  • Clean empty pots and store them upside down in a dry location.  That way you’ll keep any soil diseases from being passed on to next year’s plants. 
  •  Store any excess leaves to use next summer if you have a lot of deciduous trees.  They’re like gold.  They make great bedding for a worm bin and next summer you can use them in the compost pile when you have an abundance of nitrogen rich green material but little carbon-based brown stuff to mix with it. 
  • Leave a little debris for wildlife so beneficial ground beetles have a place to live and birds can snack on seeds left on shriveled flowers.  Coneflowers, ornamental grasses and crocosmia all attract birds to their seed heads through the winter. 

The bottom line is to do those fall clean-up jobs as you have the time and energy.  Cleaning up in increments leaves height and interest in the garden and feeds the birds, too.

What you should do first, though, is to bring indoors houseplants that  spent the summer out on the patio. Also bring in any plants too tender to survive the winter outside. Be sure to inspect them for insect pests and wash them off.   Sub-topical plants  like tree ferns and bananas benefit from extra mulch to help them survive the worst of the winter weather.

It’s not too late to reseed thin spots on your lawn or apply a fall fertilizer to an existing one and if you have citrus trees, rhododendrons, azaleas or camellias they’ll benefit from an application of   Citrus use it for flower bud development and fruit sweetness.  Rhodies, azaleas, and camellias need it when flower buds begin to form.  It also improves flowering and root development of any plant and helps plants resist diseases and cold weather damage. 
 

What to do with Green Tomatoes

With night temperatures dipping down into the 30’s,  you may be thinking your tomato vines are done for the season.  But what about all those green tomatoes just hanging there?   Don’t let these underage beauties go to waste.    There are lots of ways to use them.   Opportunity is hanging on the vine, ready to be picked.
 
When fall frost approaches,you  can pick unripe, mature green tomatoes to ripen indoors. A mature green tomato has a glossy, whitish green fruit color and mature size.   Taste one by taking a 1/4" slice of a medium-size tomato and sample it.  Your taste buds will register a firm, fresh fruit with an immature tomato flavor and a hint of sweetness similar to a zucchini.    Select fruits only from strong healthy vines, and pick only those fruits free of disease, insect or mechanical damage.  Remove stems to prevent them from puncturing each other and if dirty, gently wash and allow the fruit to air dry.

Store your tomatoes in boxes, 1 to 2 layers deep, or in plastic bags with a few holes for air circulation.
If you have a cool, moderately humid room, simply place them on a shelf but out of direct sunlight.  They may be stored in the dark also.

 As tomatoes ripen, they naturally release ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening. To slow ripening, sort out ripened fruits from the green tomatoes each week. To speed up ripening, place green or partially ripe fruits in a bag or box with a ripe tomato. Green, mature tomatoes  stored at 65-70 degrees, will ripen in about 2 weeks. Cooler temperatures slow the ripening process. At 55 degrees, they will ripen in 3-4 weeks. Storage temperatures below 50 degrees will slow ripening, but results in inferior quality.

If tomatoes  are stored where the humidity is too high the fruit molds and rots. If humidity is too low, the fruit shrivel and dries out. Since homes vary in humidity levels, you will need to learn by trial and error what works best.

 Tomatoes ripened indoors are not as flavorful as vine ripened fruits. However, compared to store bought, you will be delighted with your own home ripened tomatoes.

 If you have peppers still green on the vine, they can be ripened in the same way as tomatoes.  

Another way to take advantage of your late tomatoes is to use them green to make a culinary delight in the kitchen.  Again your green tomato must be of mature size.  Avoid the small ones.  They will have a bitter taste and can ruin your recipe.  Core a green tomato before use.  Unripe tomatoes often have a woodier stem and a unique core piece.  This hard, white core section is not always continuous with the stem, so you have to look for it.   It’s small, about the size of a pea and sits in the tomato somewhere within the top inch of where the stem attaches.  You can see and feel a hard white piece that’s different from the test of the fruit if you slice a tomato in half. 

We’ve all heard of fried green tomatoes made by coating tomato slices with seasoned flour, then an egg mixture and finally with panko bread crumbs.  Be sure to lightly press the slices between paper towels to remove excess moisture  before coating.  Then fry the coated slices in about 2" of oil, turning once.  Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with kosher salt.   They’re especially tasty if you brown a little crushed garlic in the oil first and then remove it.  
     

Another way to use them is to .  Golden-brown, carmelized green tomatoes produce a deep, rich flavor that is perfect with sauteed nectarines, peaches and apricots.  Even when baked, they hold their supple but firm texture and develop a delicate sweetness similar to an apple. 

 Extend your harvest and don’t let anything in the garden go to waste.

Erosion and You

 Now that we’ve had a bit of rain, it’s time to get serious about planting wildflowers for spring color and to attract bees,   cover crops to renew your soil,   and erosion control seed and plantings to hold your slope during the winter rains.

 Let’s start with the fun stuff- wildflowers.  Picture your meadow or garden filled with beautiful wildflowers, attracting all sorts of songbirds, hummingbirds, dragonflies and other beneficial insects.  If this is your goal, first get rid of existing weed seeds that in the soil and can smother out the slower growing wildflowers. The rains earlier this month will have germinated those pesky weed seeds so you can hoe them off now.  Be careful not to cultivate over 1" deep or you will bring more weed seeds to the surface.

Next, choose a site with at least a half day of sun.  Rake the soil lightly and spread the seed at the recommended rate.  It helps to mix the tiny seeds with 4 times as much sand or vermiculite so you don’t spread the seed too thickly.  Rake the seed very lightly into the soil and tamp it down for good soil contact.  Then you can wait for the next rain or water the area by hand.  It’s important to remember that after your wildflowers have germinated they must remain moist.  If mother nature doesn’t cooperate , you will need to hand water a for a while- a small price to pay for all that beauty in the spring.

What’s a cover crop?  These are grasses or legumes that grow during the fall and winter and then are tilled into the soil in the spring.  They help prevent erosion when planted on slopes and energize the soil when planted in the garden.   Preserve you topsoil and nutrients by planting a pretty cover crop like crimson clover. 

Crimson cloverCrimson clover has beautiful magenta glowers, but its primary benefit happens below the ground- the soil gains nitrogen, a better structure and greater biological activity.  Growing a legume, like clover, will "fix" nitrogen in the soil.  You can reduce the amount of fertilizer you use in the spring by 1/3 to 1/2,  especially in areas like the vegetable garden that need a lot of nutrients to produce all those good things to eat.   If you’re going to be growing peas or beans as the garden’s next crop, though, don’t use a legume cover crop in these areas.  You may end up with all vine and no peas or beans to harvest.  Heavy feeders like corn or squash will really respond to the extra nitrogen.

How do they do this?  Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose in the garden bed, that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed the leafy growth of other plants.

 Besides reducing erosion a cover crop like crimson clover  can reduce soil compaction and their tap roots break up clay soil.
    To plant, rake the bed, sow the seed by hand and rake again.  Water to help germination if rains don’t do it for you.  Next spring, chop them down when they begin to flower.  Early spring is the best time to dig the clover into the soil because that dose of green manure is at it’s peak before the plant matures.  After a few weeks of decomposition, you energized soil is ready for vegetable seeds and starts. 

 Another way to prevent erosion is to plant native grasses, herbaceous and woody plants.  If you haven’t started planting a steep slope yet, you may need to use jute netting to stabilize the slope while the permanent plants are becoming established.  Santa Cruz erosion mix is a quick growing grass especially suited for our conditions.  You can also plant crimson clover under jute netting.

Whatever you choose, take steps now to prevent . 
 

To do or not to do in October

This weeks to do or not to do:SterlingRed Cyclamen

Wait to prune all your trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form.  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.  To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.

Plant cool season annuals and perennials for fall, winter and spring flowers.  The sooner you get them in the ground, the faster they get established.  Planted too late, they may just sit until spring.  Good choices for this area are cyclamen, primroses, calendula, pansies, violas, Iceland poppies, snapdragon, stock, chrysanthemum paludosum, ornamental cabbage and kale, alyssum and English daisy. 

Planting Fruit Trees in the fall

 We all know fruit is good for us and it tastes so yummy, too.  I love it when a plan comes together !  I’m still enjoying juicy, late nectarines, plums and pluots in addition to newly ripening apples and pears.  Can persimmons and pomegranates be far behind?

Trees are an essential part of every garden so why not have some that produce something good to eat, too?  A large apple or plum can serve as a shade tree if you prune the lower branches so you can walk under it.  A dwarf fruit tree would make a good focal point in a garden bed.  Consider adding a fruit tree now to your garden.  The trees available now are now more mature that those sold bare root in January.  Many are already producing fruit.  

If you have fruit trees in your garden already, look to add late ripening varieties that can extend your season.   Goldmine nectarines ripen in late summer where most other varieties mature earlier in June and July.  Their juicy, sweet white flesh has excellent flavor.  Needing only 400 hours of chilling in the winter – this refers to the # of hours below 45 degrees during the dormant season – they are good for mild winter areas like Pasatiempo.  A great late peach ripening in August is Late Elberta.  You’ll love its large, delicious yellow fruit.

And many apples, like my favorite, the Fuji, ripen in the fall.  With firm, crunchy white flesh Fuji apples can’t be beat for eating right off the tree.  They also keep well and bear in mild winter areas.

So what should you be doing to keep your trees healthy?

  • Water:  A trees network of roots generally extend to the drip line, which is as far as the branches spread from the trunk, so set your sprinkler or soaker hose to cover the entire area.
  • Fertilize one last time for the season to replace the potassium and magnesium that have been leached out of the root zone.
  • Weed:  Young trees especially will benefit from careful weeding around their trunk which can be a hiding place for rodents in the winter. Girdling can be fatal for a tree if the bark is chewed away. 
  • Cleanup:  Practice good sanitation by cleaning up fallen fruit , especially if it has signs of pests and diseases that can come back to haunt you next spring.

It’s too late for light summer pruning and too early for dormant pruning.  However, there are a couple of things you can do now before leaves drop.  Assess the tree.  A main pruning goal is to allow light into the central part of the tree so the lower branches aren’t shaded by those above.  Also look for weaker branches, those with fewer leaves or less fruit.  You might even put a piece of yarn on those branches to mark them for later pruning. 

If you have a fruit tree that is just too large for your space, despite pruning, consider replacing it with a smaller variety.  Many types of fruit trees are available in dwarf varieties as well as semi-dwarf.  It depends on the root stock.  Remember: right tree, right spot.
 

Early October to-do’s

Early October to-do’s

If you have planted cool season veggies like cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli or brussels sprouts be on the look out for small holes in the leaves, which are signs of cabbage worms or diamondback moth larvae.

Cabbage worm adults are the white butterflies frequently seen around cabbage plants in the daytime.  Their yellow, bullet-shaped eggs, attached to the undersides of leaves, hatch into 1 1/2" long green worms with a light stripe down the back.

Diamondback moths fly in the evening.  Their larvae are tiny 1/4" long green worms that feed on the undersides of leaves and when disturbed, wriggle rapidly and often drop from the plant on a silk thread.  Adult moths spend the winter hidden under plant debris.

Clean up after harvest and cultivate the soil thoroughly to expose and destroy overwintering moths and the pupae of cabbage worms.  In the meantime, treat your current crops, when leaves show feeding damage, with organic BT while the worms are still small.

Happy October. 

 

Late September “to do’s”

Cool Season Vegetables

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6" of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.

You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.
If you aren’t going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover after you’ve harvested your summer vegetables.  Next month I’ll talk about how to go about doing this and how this benefits your soil.

rocking garden saying

This is also the time to start perennial flowers seeds so that they’ll  be mature enough to bloom next year. 

 Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylilies and penstemons that are overgrown and not flowering well.  You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.  If you’re on  a roll out in the garden, though, go for it now.  You never know what other projects you may be working on next spring. 

Enjoy our early fall weather out in your garden.
   

Homegrown carrots

 If you love carrots like I do,  now is the time to plant  the seeds  directly in the ground.

Carrots as we know them originated from forms grown around the Mediterranean.  By the 13th century carrots were well established as a food in Europe and came with the first settlers to America, where Indians soon took up their culture.

Flavor differs greatly among varieties and planting time affects flavor, too.  September is one of the best months to plant.  Carrots achieve their sweetest taste when the last few weeks of growth occur in cool weather.  Also, unless a carrot is bred to be harvested young, it won’t develop full flavor until mature.

Two ingredients determine a carrot’s flavor- sugar and terpenoids ( volatile compounds that impact the carrot flavor ).   Because terpenoids develop earlier than sugars, a carrot that is harvested too young might taste bitter. For peak flavor and texture, dig carrots anytime after they’ve developed a deep orange color.

Commercial carrot varieties have been developed for uniformity of shape, as well as for color, disease resistance and ease of harvest.  But home gardeners can select a carrot more for flavor than appearance.  So how do you choose the sweetest ones to grow?  

Carrots are normally grouped into several types-  Nantes,  Chantenay, Danvers, imperator and Paris market.   For flavor it’s difficult to beat a Nantes.    Nantes Coreless or Little Finger are two popular varieties.  They’re not a carrot you’ll find in the grocery store because they’re difficult to harvest commercially and don’t store well.  Both are juicy and sweet.  Nantes coreless grows to 6-7 " long, is blunt-tipped and fine grained.  Little Finger is unmatched for snacks, pickling or steaming.  It grows to just 3-4" long and is ideal for container gardening. too.  

Red Cored Chantenay has broad shoulders and strong tapered tips.  This wedge-shaped carrot is rarely grown by commercial growers.  For the home garden it produces 6" long carrots that keep well when left in the soil, store well after digging and are sweet and crunchy.  They perform well in heavy soil, too.

Danvers Half Long are another variety that are tasty raw, cooked, or juiced.   Carrots found at the super market are usually Imperators just so you know.

Whichever variety you choose to grow, prepare the soil by deeply working in organic matter.  Avoid fresh manure or your carrots will develop fine, hairy roots.  Remove exposed clods and stones from the soil and soak the bed before planting.  Scatter seeds thinly on top and cover with 1/4" compost to keep soil from crusting so the seed can punch through.  Firm soil gently and keep moist.

Germination take 10-17 days.  To help keep the tiny seeds moist, you can cover the seedbed with wet burlap just until they germinate.   When seedling have 2 or 3 leaves, thin them to 2" apart.  Keep soil deeply and evenly watered.   Control weeds with shallow hoeing.  Fertilize once a month and in a 60-75 days your carrots will be a deep orange color and at their peak flavor.  You just can’t beat pulling a sweet carrot straight from the earth for sweetness.  

 

Things to do in the garden in August

Here are some reminders of things to do in your garden in August.

  • Cut back  berry vines that have produced fruit.  Canes of the current season should be trained in place.
  • Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather.  Sometimes you don’t even know how bad  the infestation      is until all your leaves are pale with stippling.  Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water.  Spray the undersides of infected leaves with insecticidal soap, switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides. 
  • Start cool season veggies seeds now so they are ready to put in the ground in 6-8 weeks when the  weather is cooler.  You can start broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, lettuce and spinach seeds in containers.  Carrots, onions, peas, beets and radishes can be sown directly in the ground. 
  • One last to do:  Make a journal entry celebrating the best things about your garden this year

Tobacco bud worm and you

petunias

Geranium, penstemons and petunias sometimes become infested by budworms.  Foliage may be chewed, flowers may open tattered and full of holes or appear dried up and not open at all.   Tiny black droppings on the foliage are left behind. The striped caterpillar larval form of a native moth is a close relative of the corn ear worm, the tobacco or geranium budworm.  Moths lay eggs singly on host plants.  After hatching, the caterpillars chew fully opened flowers and occasionally dine on the leaves.  Spraying early on with organic BT is effective if done before the worms burrow inside the flower buds.  Remove dried up buds and flowers that may harbor the caterpillars and pull up and destroy ragged, end-of-season petunias that my have eggs sticking to the plant remains.  There may be two generations per year so preventative spraying with BT may protect established plants of geraniums or penstemon.  

Fuchsias

If your fuchsias aren’t blooming and the leaf tips look curled up and deformed, your plants are infested with fuchsia gall mite.  First discovered on the West Coast in 1980, it is often mistaken for a disease because of the way it distorts and twists fuchsia leaves and flower buds.  The damage caused can be debilitating.  The leaves curl and distort so much that normal photosynthesis is disrupted and weakened plants fail to bloom  Infested plants usually recover if further mite damage is controlled.  Prune off all distorted foliage and buds.  This may be the best method of control as petroleum oil or insecticidal sprays need to be made every 4-7 days to disrupt the mite life cycle.  Neem oil is not recommended for use on fuchsia flowers.

There are several gall mite-resistant fuchsias, both hanging and upright, that are very bit as showy as the traditional fuchsia varieties.  if you have been plagued by fuchsia mites, try growing one of these instead.   

Garden coaching

Right plant-right place

Lately I’m getting a lot of requests for garden coaching. The economy probably has something to do with it. People want to know what plants will thrive in the different areas of their gardens or why something isn’t working. Who can afford to waste $ on the wrong plant in the wrong location?  When I make house calls there are several problems that seem to keep cropping up. Maybe one of these tips will help make your garden grow.

  Poor soil
If your soil looks like a sandy beach, amend it each time you plant something new with organic matter like compost or planing mix. Then be sure to mulch the surface to preserve precious moisture and soil structure and keep roots cool. Yearly, add organic mulch around existing planting keeping the immediate area around the crown of the plant open. If your native soil is just a little on the sandy side, you may not need to amend the soil much before planting but don’t forget that all important mulch. Crushed gravel or cobbles uses as a mulch holds in moisture the same way as bark or compost.

Those of you who live under redwoods may have the opposite problem- heavy clay soil, dense enough to make pottery. Surprisingly, adding organic matter to these soils solves this problem, too. The key is preserving the soil structure fterwards by mulching so it doesn’t pack down every time you water or during the winter rains.

 Not watering deep enough or watering too often
Sure there’s a period of time when you first plant something that you need to water more often until it’s established but even then watering every day is rarely needed. As a rule of thumb, water a new 1 gallon plant when the top 1/2 " – 1" is dry. A newly planted 5 gallon container will need watering when the top 1 1/2 – 2" is dry. A tree or large shrub planted from a 15 gallon container needs watering when the top 2-3" is dry. Hot days as well as shady locations vs sunny sites will all affect how long you can go between waterings.  When you do water apply enough to water the entire root zone deeply. If the water doesn’t penetrate 1-3 ft down, depending on the plant, it will suffer and even die. Drip systems are great if you have them set properly. Don’t waste water by having your timer set for 10 minutes every other day. If you have 1 gal/hour emitters that’s less than 3 cups of water each. How deep is that going to penetrate? Set your system so that each zone gets enough water for long enough to really count. This applies to established low-water use plants, too. They need a deep soak every 2-4 weeks.
One last tip on drip systems: make sure the emitter isn’t right next to the stem or trunk. Plants need water applied at the drip line where the feeder roots are located, not drowning the crown. Move it out as the plant grows and the dripline enlarges.

  Gopher baskets
If you need to plant in gopher baskets, make sure you eliminate the air pockets between the root ball and the side of the basket. Many times I’ve dug around a plant that is not doing well only to find big air spaces down the side of the basket or the planting hole where the soil was not properly tamped down. The roots on that side of the plant will die under these conditions and possibly the whole plants will be killed.

  Right plant-wrong place
Become familiar with the sun patterns of your property during the growing season- spring through fall. Many of us don’t have winter sun and lots of plants can adapt to this but they are more exacting when it come to light requirements during the growing season. It gets pretty hot around here so a spot with sun in the afternoon is fatal to a plant that is not a sun lover. For those optimists out there, those delicate rays that filter through your trees do not constitute a sunny garden. You have bright shade and there are lots of great plants that can provide color and texture in your shady garden. Make sure you follow tip #1 in both spots so your plant isn’t fighting crummy soil on top of everything else it has to handle.

Hopefully, these tips will help make your garden grow better.

Planting under mature trees

lush plants under mature trees

We live under oaks and are surrounded by redwoods. We know the value of trees in the landscape. Trees shade us in the summer. Their showy blossoms herald a much awaited spring and their colorful foliage in the fall quietly marks the end of the growing season. You can hang a hammock between two of them or tie a rope swing for the kids from a large branch. Yes, trees are our companions, but how can you create a garden under one of them?

Planting under a mature tree can be a challenge. Caution is required to avoid damaging their roots and the plants will need to cope with dry soil, shade, root competition and ever-changing moisture and light conditions. You want both your new plants and your tree to thrive.

Meet your tree’s needs first. Some trees are more agreeable than others about giving up some of their ground. You can still plant beneath trees that are sensitive to having their roots disturbed, but you’ll need to make a few concessions. When purchasing plants to grow under trees, think small. Small plants require a smaller planting hole and this will minimize disturbance to the roots. You may have to buy more plants but you’ll have an easier time tucking them among the roots.
Don’t alter the grade of the soil or change the soil pH very much. Even adding a layer of soil that is more than 2" deep can reduce the amount of moisture and oxygen available to the tree and hinder gas exchange to existing roots, causing trees to suffer or even die.

Only the toughest plants have a chance of surviving among the surface roots of shallow rooted trees. Be careful when disturbing sugar maples, elms. cherries and plums, dogwoods, magnolias, pines and oaks. The majority of a trees roots are small woody roots and fine hair roots that grow within the upper 12-18" of soil and extend far beyond the trees drip line. These roots are responsible for absorbing water and nutrients from the soil.

If you encounter a root larger than 1 1/2 – 2" in diameter while digging a hole for a plant, move the planting hole a few inches away to avoid slicing through the root. You will sever mats of small tree roots when digging, but they’ll regenerate fairly quickly.
To avoid wounding the bark, which may cause insect and disease problems, start planting at least 12" away from the trunk. Oaks, remember, shouldn’t have any plantings closer than 6-10 feet from the trunk and those should be drought tolerant. After planting, water to settle the soil and spread 2-3" of mulch to conserve moisture and keep weeds down. Be sure to keep mulch at least 12" away from the base of the tree. Mulch can hold moisture against a tree’s bark and cause rot and disease.
Trees that will tolerate some disturbance to the root zone include Eastern redbuds( both the green-leafed species and the purple- leafed Forest Pansy ) and red maples ( also a good lawn tree. ).
Common trees that are easy going about planting underneath are crabapples, ginkgos, hawthorns, honey locust, poplars, silver maples and willows.

So what plants will transform your bare patch of hard earth and knobby roots into a shady nook? If you’re going for a lush look, consider hostas and ferns, paired with the hardy geranium Biokova. Other good companions are astilbes with their feathery flower plumes and variegated euonymus fortunei with bergenia or digitalis mertonensis.
Trees with branches limbed high look good with small shrubs planted underneath. Red-leaf barberry can brighten up this spot and also provide fall color. Small nandinas like Harbor Dwarf make a good ground cover and their foliage takes on an orange-red color in winter. Fragrant sarcococca grows well in this situation, too.
Low groundcovers make a simple statement under the crown of a tree. Ajuga, pachysandra and sweet woodruff all grow well here. Or you might like the look of the shade tolerant grass-like plant , cares morrowii ‘Evergold’. This stunning sedge makes a beautiful clump 1-2 ft. high and 2-3 ft wide with dark green leaves and a central band of creamy white.
You can have a beautiful garden under a mature tree by following these tips and conquering this challenging site.

 

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. Whatís 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- Iím 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 itís 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 donít 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, Iím 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.

The Dog Days of Summer

A swallowtail visits a butterfly bush

Just when I thought this summer wasnít going to be as hot as last, the weather changed. With so many different microclimates in our area, one can always find a cool spot, though. Where did the term ďDog Days of SummerĒ come from?

The Romans associated the hot weather from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction “the dog days of summer” because it coincidentally fell at the time of year when it was very hot. This falls between July 24th and August 24th.The Old Farmerís Almanac uses slightly different dates but the Dog Days of summer are definitely here.

The name “dog star” comes from the ancient Egyptians who called Sirius, the dog star, after their god, Osiris. His head in pictograms resembles that of a dog. When the Dog Star rises in conjunction with the sun some felt the combination of the brightest luminary of the day – the sun – and and brightest star of the night – Sirius – was responsible for the extreme heat experienced during the middle of the summertime. Since Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky it’s reasonable to guess that it adds some heat to the earth but the amount is insignificant.

We now know the heat of summer is a direct result of the earth’s tilt, but now you knowÖ the rest of the story.

As summer rolls along you may become more aware of the different microclimates in your garden. With the drier and hotter weather some of your plants that used to get along just fine might be showing signs of stress. Taking note of these changes in the performance of your plants is what makes for a more successful landscape. When the weather cools towards the end of September you will want to move or eliminate those plants that arenít thriving. Be sure to keep a thick layer of mulch on the soil around your plants to conserve that precious water you do allocate to each of your irrigation zones.

Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials as often as you can. Annuals like marigolds, petunias, zinnia and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa and lantana.

Lagerstroemia ‘Purple Magic’

One of my favorite plants of summer is Crape Myrtle. They bloom in the summer when we are outside more. Their fall foliage is spectacular and the bark is beautiful during the winter. Plant growers have hybridized new varieties that are more mildew resistant and smaller in size. I have my eye on a variety called Purple Magic that grows 6-10 feet tall and as wide. You can keep it as a multi-stemmed shrub or select several stems to train as a small tree. I also like Rhapsody in Pink, a slightly taller variety and Dynamite with its red flowers and orange-red fall color.

Swallowtail butterflies are regular visitors to the garden at this time of year. They especially like butterfly bush as well as zinnias and many other flowers. They are easy to photograph if you move slowly.

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time in August or early September. All shrubs, especially broad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year’s buds.

Angel Face rose

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in September and October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Gardening in Grosbeak Time

Black-headed grosbeak

Just like the swallows that return each year to Capistrano I can set my own calendar by the Black-headed grosbeaks arrival in my garden. Although they eat a lot and dominate the feeders for several months I enjoy their antics. With vibrant orange, black and white coloring I could watch them all day. They are the clowns of the bird world and signal that spring is truly here and I better get to finishing up my garden chores. Everything is growing gangbusters these days with all the abundant rainfall.

Fertilize -Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden. I use an organic balanced granular fertilizer on everything. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the winter season and they may be lacking in iron. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost 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. Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants or wash it off with the hose. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom and you see new leaves emerging.

Time to divide daylilies and move if needed.

Transplant – If you need to move or divide any plants that have outgrown their space or are not growing with other plants of the same water usage now is a good time. 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 your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it allowing it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant.

Spread fresh compost or wood chip mulch around all your plants to help plants get off to a strong start. 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 wood chips on top of the soil letting it slowly decompose and filter down into the soil. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips but they at least conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.

Check for aphids – They may be 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.

The dreaded hedge parsley weed before setting those seeds that stick to everything

Weed while the soil is moist and before weeds have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. Iím still battling hedge parsley with itís sticky seed balls that cling to my shoelaces and the dogís fur if I donít get it before it sets seed. Iíll be out there again this spring pulling them.

Spring daffodils

The most important to-do for early spring 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.

Watering Plants in the Summertime

All plants need water– even those that are tolerant of our summer dry conditions. Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests.

What happens to a plant when the thermometer tops 100 degrees? Are there some plants that can survive tough times more easily?

Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

Photosynthesis is one of the most remarkable biochemical processes on earth and allows plants to use sunlight to make food from water and carbon dioxide. At temperatures about 104 degrees, however, the enzymes that carry out photosynthesis lose their shape and functionality. A garden that provides optimum light and water but gets too hot will be less vigorous. Tomatoes, for example, will drop blossoms and not set fruit if temperatures are over 90 degrees. Plants that do endure hight heat may be stunted and weakened attracting pests and diseases even if water is available.

Plants have natural systems that respond to heat problems. Plants can cool themselves by pumping water out through the leaves for a kind of swamp cooler effect. They can also make ďheat-shockĒ proteins which reduces problems from over heating. All these strategies can take resources away from a plants other needs like growth, flowering and fruiting.

California fuchsia

Itís no surprise that many California natives are adapted to high temperatures. Some California native plants that can handle the heat with little water include salvia, mimulus, California fuchsia, eriogonum, manzanita, artemisia, California milkweed, ceanothus, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, bush lupine, native penstemon, monardella, mahonia nevinii, fremontodendron and holly-leafed cherry.

Other well adapted plants that are known to be more tolerant of heat include butterfly bush, germander, rosemary, smoke tree, rudbeckia, coreopsis, lantana, plumbago, gaillardia, lilac, sedums, oregano and verbena.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

Be sure that you water trees and shrubs deeply checking soil moisture first with a trowel. Established small to medium shrubs should be watered when the top 3-6″ is dry, large shrubs and trees when the top 6-12″ is dry.

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent irrigation. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots grow 12-36Ē deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Bush Poppy

Apply water with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districtís restrictions. Donít dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod thatís 1/4 inch – 3/8 inch in diameter into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.

The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24Ē deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly waterings to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12Ē or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on type.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy

April in the Garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Spring might have officially started mid-March but judging from the wonky weather it’s hard to tell. We did experience a ďMiracle MarchĒ† with a pretty good dose of needed rainfall along with some very cold weather. You never know what to expect in March around here.

Sherman, my Welsh springer spanial, enjoying a spring day in Scotts Valley

But now weíve turned the corner on spring with flowers bursting open within hours on these nice days. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned to my yard for the breeding season. Like clockwork they show up on almost the exact day each year. Itís my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

Looking forward to the rest of spring, hereís what Iíll be doing around here in April.

Hopefully weíll have plenty of April showers. This latest rainfall is surely† welcomed. One of the perks of a cool, rainy spring is that shrubs and perennials have longer to establish a good root system before hot weather arrives, ground covers have time to spread and shade the soil, conserving moisture come summer. What strategies can you follow that will make your garden low maintenance this summer and give you extra time to enjoy it?

Plant in masses. When designing or reworking your garden, make it

ajuga reptans, a groundcover for shady spots

easy on yourself by planting fewer varieties but in greater numbers. Planting this way will reduce the number of different maintenance tasks for that area. For example, if you have a large hillside that you want to cover, plant it with a groundcover like ceanothus gloriosus which fans out 6-15 feet. Some manzanitas like arctotaphylos uva-ursi eventually spread to15 feet each. Sage leaf rockrose and germander are also good for sunny areas. A shady spot could be planted with ajuga, creeping mahonia or Walkabout Sunset lysimachia.

Another time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you’ll be dragging the hose over to that bed for just one plant or having to run your irrigation system more for it. If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you’d like, move those to their own spot. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have one of more of the following characteristics: deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’ – A low maintenance, low water groundcover for sunny spots

Avoid putting thirsty plants in hard-to-reach places. If the irrigation system doesn’t reach that far, keep it simple by planting drought tolerant woody shrubs or perennials there.

Pluck weeds when the soil is moist and before they have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. Iím still battling hedge parsley with itís sticky seed balls that will cling to my shoelaces and the dogís fur if I donít get it before it sets seed.

Plant edibles among your other plants near the kitchen. Tricolor sage looks great alongside other plants with pink and violet leaves. Purple basil planted below the silver foliage of an artichoke is another great combination. Lemon thyme growing next to a burgundy colored dwarf New Zealand flax would look spectacular, too. And don’t forget to plant decorative and delicious Bright Lights swiss chard with its stalks of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, green and white throughout your beds. Itís one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

So get the lemonade ready to enjoy all your free time later this season.

How to Plant a Spectacular Container Garden

Thereís something about a beautiful container overflowing with interesting flowers, foliage or succulents that always gets my attention and although I already have 241 containers Iím always on the lookout for ideas to create one more.

Wall planter with ivy geraniums

You can grow anything in a container. Think of them as furnishings. Grow herbs and other edibles near the kitchen door, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, hummingbirds and butterflies, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Next come the fillers. Fillers can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and Iíll plant several around the thriller. The last plants are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plant

Mixed container planting

colors, two is sometimes enough. That doesnít count green unless itís lime. Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done. You want the pots to look good right away. Big pots, at least 16″ across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

In choosing a container, remember a porous clay pot will dry out fast in the summer sun as will a small pot. If you want pots on a sunny deck, you’ll have better results if your container is made or ceramic or colored plastic and is big enough to allow 2 inches of potting soil around the root ball. I donít use water absorbing polymer granules in my containers as they are all in shade in winter and would stay too wet depriving plant roots of oxygen.

Water when the top 1 inch of soil in the container is dry. On a very hot day, watering mid day will cool the soil although I like to get my watering done early. Get to know your plants. Plants that are still growing into their containers need less frequent watering than those that are getting root bound. How much water? Water until it runs out the bottom and empty the saucer the next day if any water remains. Use a gentle nozzle that doesn’t dislodge the soil or compact it. Also make sure the water in the hose isn’t hot from lying in the sun.

Plants in containers are watered frequently and the water draining out of the bottom carries away nutrients. Actively growing plants need regular feeding from spring to early fall. Water soluble fertilizers are fast acting. Dry granules and time release capsules last longer. Organic fertilizers tend to work more slowly and are especially ideal for trees, shrubs and long lived perennials or for large planters in which you keep the same soil from year to year. Be sure plants are moist before feeding. The best fertilizer is the one that you get out of the package and onto your plants.

June in the Garden-What to Do?

I didnít get everything done in May that I had on my to-do list. Who ever does? Anyone who tends a garden knows how fast plants grow with the longer, warmer days and nights. So this month I continue to work on my own garden tasks as well as help others renovate their gardens to look great, support native pollinators, wildlife and habitat.

If you battle dandelions and don’t want to use chemical weed killers around pets and children, get out the white vinegar from the cupboard. On a hot sunny day spray straight white vinegar directly on the weed. This method will kill whatever it touches so direct the spray carefully. If the dandelion is in the lawn, wait a week, pour some water on the dead spot to dilute any lasting effects of the vinegar. Then poke a bunch a holes and drop in some grass seed. Sprinkle a bit of fertilizer where the seed is planted and keep the area moist. In three weeks you won’t remember where the dead spot was and the dandelion will be long gone.

Many plants, both vegetable and ornamental, are bothered by aphids and other sucking insects as well as foliage and flower eating bugs. From cucumber beetles, flea beetles, stink bugs, weevils, curculios to borers, the list of trouble makers is endless. To help deter them mix up some pepper spray in your kitchen.
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 quart warm tap water
Let stand I hour, strain and spray plants either in the morning or evening.

Pink rhododendron.

When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished itís time to prune them. If you prune too many months after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically itís best to prune lightly each year to shape plants that have become too leggy. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. To increase rhododendron bloom next year, break off any faded flower trusses just above the growth buds being careful not to damage the new buds.

Swallowtail feeding on lemon

Apply the second fertilizer application for the year to your citrus and fruit trees. The final one for the season should be immediately after harvest. Apply the fertilizer to the soil around the drip line of the tree where feeder roots are located and scratch into the surface. Water in well. As with all fertilizers, make sure the trees are moist before you fertilize. Young trees in their first, second or third growing season should receive half the rate of established trees.

Another garden to-do this month includes summer pruning of wisteria. To increase flowering next spring and keep these vines under control cut new growth back to within 6″ of the main branch. If you want to extend the height or length of the vine, select some of the new streamer-like stems and tie them to a support in the direction you wish to train the plant.

Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’

Another maintenance tip is to shear spring blooming perennials to keep them full and compact. Candytuft, phlox subulata, aubrieta and other low growing perennials benefit if you cut off spent bloom and an inch or two of growth. Other perennials and shrubs that benefit from the same treatment to keep them compact are erysimum, lavender and Pink breath of heaven.

Tips for Planting Success

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 doesnít always turn out to be the case and sometimes itís hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isnít an exact science. What works over at the neighbors yard doesnít 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 plantís size at 6 feet tall while another has that same plant as 8-12 ft tall and just as wide? Whatís a gardener to do?

Callistemon ‘Little John’

When designing a garden, whether itís for a client or my own 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 plantís health.

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor. How do you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade? 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. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.

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 itís complicated.

Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt Tamboritha’

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 doesnít freely flow between them. Thereís 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.

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 unless the soil is deeply compacted. Leaving the bottom of the hole undisturbed helps prevent the plant from settling below its root crown. In soil containing a high percentage of clay, score the sides of the planting hole with a shovel to aid root growth outward from the hole.

Itís best not to add soil amendments or fertilizers directly to the planting hole, although it may be beneficial to spread some well composted manure to the surface before digging the hole. Wait until new growth is several inches long before applying fertilizer.

Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil allows for a 2 inch thick layer of mulch around the plant but donít bury the crown. After planting donít till the soil again allowing the beneficial organisms to re-establish.

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