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Ways to Enjoy the ‘Staycation’

Make this simple border for your flower bed from found wood pieces.

Enjoy your time outdoors while “sheltering in place” and take advantage of the opportunity to make some additions and modifications to your garden. It might be a long summer.

Picture you and your family this spring and summer outdoors during your “staycation”- relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining hopefully, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard. Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable. Whether it’s several umbrellas that provide the shade, a handmade gazebo, a tree or a combination, no one wants to bake in the sun. Plus your beverage gets hot if left in the sun.

A simple path can lead you to a quiet spot in the garden.

If you decide you need a shade tree in the yard, there are so many good choices for our area. First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions. Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak. Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple. If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, brick or pavers? If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

Place a bench where you can enjoy your garden.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden. Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

And what outdoor living place would be complete with a cornhole game? Friends of mine take this bean bag toss game everywhere. Camping, the beach, poolside or on the patio it’s fun for everyone. Even a rookie can toss, slide or airmail the bag directly in the hole while pushing his opponent’s bag off the board or, as often is the case, pushing it in the hole along with your own. It’s a fun game for all ages and you can easily make a DIY board if you want. Even two can play and make a game of it. I had no idea it was America’s favorite backyard game. There’s even a Pro Cornhole Championship on ESPN. Who knew?

After you’ve planted your tree, planned your hidden getaway, set up your corn hole game and sat around the fire pit in the evening, take advantage of the rest of the seasons to enjoy your own piece of paradise.

Vines- Fragrance and Beauty

Zepherine Drouhin rose growing up ginkgo is mostly shade.

My office window looks out on a gingko tree. Hanging from its low branches two bird feeders are visited throughout the day by many songbirds. A Zepherine Drouhin rose used to grow up into the branches and I miss those vivid, dark pink flowers. I think a gopher contributed to its demise. This spot wouldn’t be right for a trellis so if it weren’t for the help of the gingko I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the new vine I’m going to plant soon. In your own garden think about trees, shrubs and even sturdy vines as support for other vines.

Creating an outdoor room with vines can make your yard feel cozy. They readily provide the walls to enclose a space. Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely. Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established. Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape. By adding walls and a ceiling to your garden, you’ll be able to enjoy another dimension in addition to more color and fragrance too.

If your trees aren’t big enough to provide shade yet, vines on a pergola or lattice work can cool a west facing patio. They can also block the wind making your garden more comfortable. Vines with large, soft leaves can soften sounds that would otherwise bounce off hard surfaces. Birds will love you for your vines. They offer shelter for many species and nectar for others.

I’m always amazed at the variety of vines my friend Richard grows up into the canopy of his many trees. From Lady Banks rose to clematis to blood-red trumpet vine to a spectacular double white pandora vine his trees do double duty in his garden.

For a vine with long lasting interest, try growing an orange trumpet creeper up into a tree. It blooms from midsummer to early autumn and hummingbirds love it. It can tolerate wet or dry conditions, sun or shade and is generally pest free.

Fragrant clematis armandii blooming right now.

Plant vines for fragrance in your garden. Evergreen clematis (clematis armandii) bloom with showy white fragrant flowers clusters above dark green leaves. They’re in full bloom right now. There’s one growing over a fence up the road from where I live. I can smell it when I drive by if my car windows are open. Clematis montana is another variety of clematis that’s covered with vanilla scented pink flowers in spring also. Carolina jessamine’s fragrant yellow flower clusters appear in masses from late winter into spring.

Goldflame honeysuckle

Another way to double your pleasure with vines is to let the thick stems of a mature, vigorous vine such as grape, wisteria, passionflower or a large climbing rose like Lady Banks serve as a framework for a more delicate stemmed vine like clematis or Goldflame honeysuckle (lonicera heckrottii)

Or you can enjoy the classic combination of a flowering clematis like purple Jackmanii intertwined with a white Iceberg rambling rose for another great look. Other vines that are beautiful and easy to grow is our native honeysuckle, lonicera hispidula, with translucent red berries in the fall. Violet trumpet vine, white potato vine, hardenbergia and Chilean jasmine are also good choices.

Growing vines is easy if you follow a few guidelines. To encourage bush growth on young vines, pinch out the stems’ terminal buds. If you want just a few vertical stems, though, don’t pinch the ends but instead remove all but one or two long stems at the base.

Hardenbergia ‘Happy Wanderer’

Often when I’m called out to take a look at a vine that has gotten out of control the only advice I can give is to cut the entire vine to the ground in late winter or early spring and start training it all over again. You can avoid this drastic measure by pruning periodically to keep your vine in bounds. Just before new growth begins, cut out unwanted or dead growth. If you can’t tell what to remove, cut the vine’s length by half and remove the dead stems later. On vines like hardenbergia or Carolina jessamine that bloom in late winter, wait to prune until after they have finished flowering.

Many vines require only deep but infrequent watering. They provide so much beauty for so little effort.

Love Is In The Air

Daffodils

One of my favorite classes when I attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was Plant Taxonomy. On the surface the subject sounds a little dry but the professor was all about plant reproduction which is quite exciting and more varied than you think. So with Valentine’s Day upon us here are some interesting facts about how plants get together and how you can help.

Red flowering quince

If you’re like me you’ve caught a case of pre-spring fever. How can we help it when the flowering plums are covered with hundreds of blossoms, the saucer magnolia flowers are already open, the flowering quince are in full bloom and every acacia in the county is blooming. It’s fascinating to mark time with events in the botanic world. There’s even a word for it- Phenology. Websites like USA National Phenology Network at http://www.usanpn.org/ offer lots of information on the subject.

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in climate. When do they occur each year? Phenology is a real science that has many applications. In farming and gardening, phenology is used chiefly for planting times and pest control. Certain plants give a cue, by blooming or leafing out, that it’s time for certain activities, such as sowing particular crops or insect emergence and pest control. Often the common denominator is the temperature.

Indicator plants are often used to look for a particular pest and manage it in its most vulnerable stages. They can also be used to time the planting of vegetables, apply fertilizer, prune and so on.

Here are some common garden plants and what they indicate:

When daffodils begin to bloom, sow peas.
When dandelions bloom, plant spinach, beets and carrots.
When lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, sow peas, lettuce and other cool-weather crops.
When lilacs are in full bloom, plant beans.
Once lilacs have faded, plants squash and cucumbers.
When apple trees shed their petals, sow corn.
When dogwoods are in full bloom, plant tomatoes, peppers and early corn.
When bearded iris are in bloom, plant peppers and eggplants.
When locust and spirea bloom, plant zinnia and marigolds.
When forsythia and crocus bloom, crabgrass is germinating. When this happens the soil temperature at a depth of 4″ is 55 degrees. Treat with an organic pre-emergent.
When crocus bloom, prune roses and feed your lawn.
Mexican bean beetle larvae appear when foxglove flowers open.

Magnolia soulangeana blooming at Filoli Garden

Record your own observations at https://budburst.org/ to start a data base for our area. Another great site is National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service at https://attra/ncat.org/ Sites like these can also help you design orchards for pollination and ripening sequence, design for bee forage plantings, design perennial flower beds and wildflower plantings as well as plantings to attract beneficial insects and enhance natural biological control. How cool is that?

But back to plant reproduction. Mosses reproduce from male and female mosses which produce spores. Conifers produce two type of cones on the same tree. Wind blows the pollen to another cone which combine to make a baby conifer which lives in a seed inside the cone.

Blireiana flowering plum

Then there are the most advanced plants – the flowering plants. Some flowering plants have both male and female flowers. They are monoecious meaning “single house”. Dioecious plants have male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another. Plants that rely on flowers for reproduction are very dependent on outside help such as insects and animals which is where we come in. Be a citizen scientist in your own backyard.

Twas The Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
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 lawn there rose 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,
With edibles and perennials at the very least.
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,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than 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 don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, do make a wish,
And then when you see us- welcome, don’t banish.
All of us creatures will give our best shot,
To nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear 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!”

Teddy bears have been popular since the early 1900’s

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

Halloween From the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A giant Cinderella pumpkin with a “friend’.

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

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

Cinderella pumpkin in progress.

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

Fall Color in Your Backyard

Quaking aspen

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

Bloodgood Japanese Maple

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

Crape Myrtle

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

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

Forest Pansy redbud

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

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

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

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

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