Category Archives: organic gardening

A Visit to the Brook Lomond Iris Farm

Aztec Sun
Aztec Sun

What do you get when you combine a world renowned pottery artist with a reformed corn grower? On California Street in Ben Lomond, the result is the Brook Lomond Iris Farm of Rick and Chris Moran. This fun, educational, inspiring couple recently invited me to admire this year’s crop of tall bearded iris grown with certified organic gardening practices as well as to share their organic vegetable garden, cactus and succulent collection and Chris’ unique pottery. They are getting ready for this year’s annual iris sale coming up April 30th as well as May 1st and 7th from 9:00-4:00 each day when the iris blooms will be at their peak.

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Coiled pottery by Chris Moran

Upon arriving my eyes were torn between the colorful beds of iris on my left and the blooming cactus and succulent collection displayed on the flagstone entry garden on the right. I later learned Chris cut and laid the flagstone herself. Inside the house Chris’s fabulous coiled pottery vases, urns and jugs in their great room were so amazing I had a hard time tearing myself away to start the tour of the back garden and iris beds in the front. Cody, their new dog, was good company as I learned how the Moran’s came to start an iris farm.

When Rick Moran was 13 years old he worked at LoPresti tomato farm in Connecticut. “I hated it,” he laughs. Later when he was a student at UCSC he used to pass by the Chadwick garden and says he “got the gardening bug by osmosis”. After graduation the couple moved to Bar Harbor Maine where they started a community garden. Chris displayed the cactus and succulents she had moved there in a heated porch which was quite the talk of the town for neighbors passing by on a snowy day.

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Organic vegetable garden

When they moved back to this area and found the sunny lot in Ben Lomond, Rick added nine yards of chicken manure mixed with rice hulls and planted corn. He had visions of savoring succulent ears of corn for dinner but quickly realized that the amount of water needed to grow corn was prohibitive. That was after the Chris’ succulent failure. He and Chris wanted to come up with a crop they could make a little supplemental income. She used to sell her cactus and succulents when they lived in Capitola at the drive-in in Santa Cruz many years before but after planting fancy succulents in the front yard and seeing them turn to mush in a Ben Lomond freeze they realized succulents weren’t going to work either.

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Stepping Out

Enter “The Queen of the Garden” as iris are called. The Morans researched these stunning flowers and found them to be drought tolerant and deer and gopher resistant. Having a high water table Iris are the perfect crop. They require no extra water at all with summer being the plant’s dormant season. Chris worked for the City of Santa Cruz for 25 years and started their Home Composing program. They compost all garden waste and kitchen scraps using the compost as the only fertilizer for the iris beds and vegetable garden. They get 15 wheelbarrows of compost a year from their simple bins. Straw is spread as mulch to control weeds between the iris beds’

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Tall bearded iris beds

The iris are starting their blooming cycle now. Some bloom earlier than others. By planting early, mid and late blooming varieties you can extend their colorful show for several months. Iris also make a good cut flower and many are fragrant. Chris told me that you can tell when an iris was hybridized from it’s shape. The early types are not as frilly as modern varieties. She pointed out a bed of Wabash Heritage which was first introduced in the 1920’s- simple with three falls. The lovely sky blue flowers of Striped Zebra iris smelled of Grape Koolaid. Chris explained that the flower scent develops as they sit in the sun. The aroma is not as strong when they first open.

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Bearded iris closeip

The Brook Lomond Iris Farm is located at 10310 California Drive off Highway 9 in Ben Lomond. Just look for the tall flags waving in the breeze and bring your camera. Iris rhizomes for sale are chosen for hardiness in this area and the Morans are always on the lookout and adding the newest varieties available such as the deep purple Dusky Challenger. The Iris Farm is educational as well as beautiful- a place the whole family will enjoy.

Troubles in the Garden

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Milkweed aphids

Some of us enjoy sitting in our gardens, relaxing and watching birds and other wildlife. Others grow fruit and vegetables and know their way around the kitchen. Whatever you like to do sometimes pests get in the way.

In my own garden recently I discovered my butterflyweed covered with yellow milkweed aphids. They’re not interested in any other plants just this one. Oleanders get this same sucking pest also. I’ve washed them off twice with a strong spray of water but must have missed a few as they are back. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any monarch butterflies to help me with this problem. I’d rather not even use an organic pesticide to control the outbreak. It would harm any monarch eggs that I’ve overlooked.

With pest control on my mind this week, I received an email from fellow Press Banner columnist, Dr. Terry Hollenbeck. “I thought of you when I found an article in an old gardening magazine”, he wrote. “It’s ‘The Home Gardener’ and was published in September, 1945.”

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DDT ad in ‘The Home Garden’ magazine published September 1945

Dr. Hollenbeck scanned the pages from his own magazine and sent them to me. Terry goes on to note that the editorial about the new wonder insecticide DDT warns readers in 1945 to proceed cautiously with it. Then later in the magazine on page 99 in a half page ad there appears an advertisement for DDT, the “Army’s sensational insect killer that gardeners have been waiting for…that is absolutely safe to spray”.

There has been a lot of research now on DDT and it’s effects on our bodies and that of wildlife. I was surprised when I Googled DDT that it’s still being used in the world and also found a published study debunking it’s adverse effects on raptors. Guess one can find statistics to support any argument if you look hard enough.

Here is what I found out about current use of DDT that I found interesting.

Back in 1972 the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) issued a cancellation order for DDT use in the United States based on research showing adverse environmental effects to wildlife and potential human health risks. Studies have continued to show a relationship between DDT exposure and reproductive effects in humans and as a result, today, DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and International authorities.

India is the only country now producing DDT. China and North Korea having discontinued production in recent years. 12 countries still use DDT for vector control of mosquitos and protozoa – the parasitic diseases of malaria, dengue and black fever which kill more than 800,000 people each year.

Many organizations are now promoting an integrated approach to mosquito and protozoa carried diseases. It’s not a DDT or nothing solution. Some of these organisms are developing a resistance to DDT and other chemicals. Like in our own backyards, you have to look at the whole picture. Successful programs to educate communities about non-chemical methods of control mosquitos are underway in many countries such as Vietnam.

DDT is known to be very persistent in the environment. It accumulates in fatty tissues and can travel long distances in the upper atmosphere. Because of its persistence, there is still concern for residues in the U.S.
Today nearly 40 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. we continue to live with its long lasting effects. According to the organization Pesticide Action Network, USDA found DDT breakdown products in 60% of heavy cream samples, 42% of kale greens and 28% of carrots. These breakdown products of DDT were found in the blood of 99% of people tested by the CDC.

Something to think about when I see all those mustard yellow aphids on my asclepsias. Maybe I’ll get the hose out one more time or rub them off with a gloved hand.

Garden Planning for the Drought

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helleborus orientalis

In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.

The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.

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salvia ‘Bees Bliss’

In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

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Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

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California fuchsia

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.

Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.

Where Have all the Bees Gone?

honey_bee_hoveringI received an email from a reader not too long ago who lives on a ridge top outside Scotts Valley. She wrote that her “flowering plums have no ‘buzz’ about them when she walks by. Even (her) rosemary is not a buzz. A Few yes, but not nearly the normal. Why is this year different?” Where have the honey bees gone?

Bees have been in the news a lot especially since 2006 when beekeepers started to report higher than usual colony losses. We depend on honey bees to pollinate everything from fruit to vegetables to nuts. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult or dead bee bodes but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. According to the US Dept of Agriculture no scientific cause for CCD has been proven. But I read about recent research that has discovered a link between a family of systemic insecticides and colony collapse. This got my attention.

Honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of problems from zinnia_with_honey_bee2deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources and now we are finding out more about the sublethal effects of pesticides.

Insecticide labels warn the user not to spray when bees are present or allow the spray to reach a water source. But what area the effects of systemic insecticides used to control aphids, mealy bugs, lawn insects, grubs, thrips, termites, scale, or leaf beetles on your roses, trees, shrubs and lawn? The makers of these products that contain imidacloprid, a common systemic, say their studies show that even if a product is highly toxic for insects, it is almost impossible that the insect will ever get in touch with this product and are not at risk.

But that’s not really the whole story. Unlike other pesticides which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, a systemic pesticide is taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues- the leaves, flowers, roots, stems as well as pollen and nectar.

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of systemic insecticides that are especially effective against sap feeding insects like aphids. They are also being used to treat genetically engineered corn seeds. Applied to seeds, the pesticide spreads through the plant as they grow attacking the nervous systems of a wide range of corn crop pests.

This is whoney_bee_pollen_sacshere the recent studies have shown that these pesticides do affect honey bees but not by outright killing them. After exposure to pollen from one of these systemics the bees navigational systems seemed to go haywire. and they were several more times more likely to die before they could make their way back to the hive. Another study has shown that these neonicontinoids can wreak havoc with the bee’s neural circuitry causing them to forget associations between the scents of flowers and food rewards.

A Florida beekeeper sums it up by saying “The thing is, you don’t have to physically kill the bee. You just have to impair him so he can’t find his way back to the nest. “

Bottom line, protect our pollinators and improve honey bee survival. Plant more plants that provide nectar and pollen for honey bees such as bee balm, agastache, clover, catmint, lavender, yarrow, hyssop, aster, coreopsis, verbena and black eyed Susan. Natives plants that are good sources include California poppy, salvia, buckwheat, ceanothus and toyon. Use only organic insecticides and avoid applying during mid-day hours when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants and only then if you can’t control a pest with any other methods including Integrated Pest Management techniques.

Help save the bees.

Gardens Change with Time

quiet_path.1280Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her deer_grass.1280property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each Calif_buckwheat.1280area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.

Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest- Part 2

deer_Japanese_mapleLast Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking  longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.

The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.

The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they hydrangea_paniculata_Limelightlamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.

White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape front_perennial_bedground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.

In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.

On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a streammound for overbearing strawberries.

Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.

The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.

They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed.  Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.

cornBob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.

All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.

Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.