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.

The February Garden

Just one of my my many Merriam’s chipmunks

The battle is on. I’ve gotten new bird feeders in an effort to thwart the squirrels. Hopefully, I’ve slowed them down. The chipmunks are so cute I’ve just given them free range. The suet feeders attract beautiful Townsend warblers daily in addition to pygmy nuthatches, chickadees, juncos, purple finches and lesser goldfinches. Did you know that lesser goldfinches are perfect mimics and can belt out the songs of 15 different birds in succession? Amazing.

banana slug

I have an Autumnalis flowering cherry that’s in full bloom again for the third time in a year. I love this tree. I’ve had to up my banana slug relocation program efforts during this moist weather. They are scavengers feeding on detritus and small dead insects on the forest floor so I’m sure they are happy when I relocate them to other parts of my property. Banana slugs reproduce year round. They live up to 7 years and move over 6 inches per minute which seems slow until you relocate one and within a short time it’s back on the patio.

Flowering maple outside my backdoor.

The hummingbirds are happy with the flowering maples (Abutilon) that bloom nearly year round plus I have several nectar feeders to provide food until the flowers in the garden start to bloom. I’m waiting patiently for the buds on my pink flowering currant to start showing color. They’re still pretty small at this stage but I’ve assured my hummingbird population that soon they will have long clusters of nectar-rich flowers to visit. When I was out pruning last week I didn’t touch this plant otherwise I’d have cut off all those potential flower clusters loaded with nectar. This is what I did do in my garden.

The mild-ish winter, so far at least, has encouraged many of my plants, normally still dormant at this time of year, to start growing for the season. What’s a gardener to do when the roses, fuchsias, oakleaf hydrangeas and many other plants aren’t even dormant?

Cut back woody shrubs to stimulate lush new growth. Trim plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune those after blooming later in the season and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.

Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. My fuchsias were starting to grow and bloom already so this was hard for me to do but because fuchsias bloom on new wood it was necessary. Container fuchsias can be cut back almost to the pot rim. Do this right away if you haven’t already done so.

My hydrangeas in back. I might have gone overboard that winter with the soil acidifier.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although aluminum sulfate is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it’s not as kind to beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are better for your soil.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs like lilac, weigela and spirea or flowering trees such as cherry, plum and crabapple now. These and evergreens like rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias should be pruned after they flower. You can cut some branches while they are blooming to bring into the house for bouquets.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that might have gotten hit by frost. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area or at least it used to be. We gardeners are always betting Mother Nature will go our way and our efforts will not have gone in vain.

Prune fruit, nut, shade trees and deciduous vines like clematis.

Cut back ornamental grasses. I’m pruning California fuchsia, salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ and hummingbird sage now. They look okay now but I want the encourage new, compact growth.

So that’s what’s happening in my world. How about yours?

Roses in the Garden- Pruning Tips

This beautiful bouquet of mixed roses could be yours, too, if you prune now.

Last fall I designed a garden for some friends after they had a new septic system installed. Little was left of the old garden after the bulldozer left. On Susan and Ken’s wish was a new dogwood, a designated space to grow tomatoes, grasses and a cutting garden. When bare root rose season rolled around Susan got her wish and bought several in her favorite colors: purple, lavender and mauve. They are strongly scented and disease resistant. If you have room for a few more roses now’s the time to get yours in bare root.

And if you haven’t already pruned your roses it’s time to do that too. Here are some tips.

Strike It Rich

Roses are super forgiving so don’t be intimidated by all those rules. Just ask my friend, who shall remain nameless but writes the food column for this paper. Her roses are spectacular.

It’s best to prune your roses before they start leafing out or some of their energy will be wasted. If yours have not dropped all their leaves, pull off old leaves after pruning to prevent the spread of fungal diseases.

Cabbage roses with baby’s breath.

Most of us want our rose bushes to produce lots of roses on a compact shrub and not just a few exhibition size blooms so prune your shrubs moderately. The goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation aiming for a vase-shaped bush with an open center. Cut out canes that cross, saving the better of the two, prune spindly and diseased stems and dead wood. Also prune canes that appear weak or broken. Healthy canes appear green or reddish while old and dying canes are brown. Cut back the remaining stems by about third. When pruning, cut canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing leaf bud or a swelling on the cane. Slant the cut away from the bud to encourage growth outward. Clean pruners afterward to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp to make clean cuts.

Same goes for climbing roses. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Heirlooms roses such as David Austin, other old antique garden roses, and floribunda roses require less pruning because their open look is part of their charm. Keep this in mind and prune lightly. Old garden roses that bloom once in the spring should be pruned after flowering.

If you have a huge climber de-leafing might not be possible and spraying with fungicide may be your only option if you’ve had disease problems in the past. Rake up the debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It’s a good idea to spray the bare plant, coating the trunk, branches and twigs and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually only have problems with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light horticultural oil in 1 quart water and spray every 7 to 10 days during the spring.

Pruning intimidates some gardeners but when you understand the reasons for making the cuts pruning becomes less daunting. The reasons to prune are for health, appearance and to control size.

Hot Cocoa

Prune your roses throughout the growing season, too. Deadheading or cutting off spent flowers encourages plants to re-bloom. Every time you cut a rose bloom to bring it indoors or deadhead a fading rose, prune the stem down to shape the plant at the same time. Prune to a spot that has at least 5 leaflets. Roses grow from the point where they are cut so consider the overall shape of the plant as you snip.

Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can always trim them up again later.

By the way, my friend Susan ended up with a Twilight Zone (dark purple), a Distant Drums (bronze/lavender), an Angel Face (another lavender) and two Mr. Lincoln’s (classic red) which are Ken’s favorite. The Barbara Streisand, which was to be another lavender, wasn’t available.

Bare Root Edibles

Ginger Gold apples at the Chadwick Garden at UCSC

I live in mountain lion country. With deer high on their list of preferred food choices I’ve opted not to plant fruit trees that would be magnets for the deer. That doesn’t stop me from dreaming about the delicious edibles available during bare root dormant season. Looking over the availability lists of bare root fruit trees and other edibles at our local nurseries I see several new varieties that I’m hoping to find eventually at the farmer’s market.

How delicious does a Sweet Treat Pluerry sound? This is a first of its kind combination with the sweetness of a cherry and the zing of a plum resulting in colorful fruit that hangs on the tree for over a month. Or how about planting a Cot-N_Candy White Aprium from a bare root? This white flesh apricot-plum hybrid fruit tree has incredible very sweet and juicy flavor.

A friend of mine has a fruiting mulberry tree. The first time I tasted one of these juicy blackberry-looking fruits I was hooked. Black mulberries were grown near ancient temples in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, where the trees thrived in the heat, poor soils and drought. They can be grown as a tree or large shrub making them perfect for smaller gardens. I see four varieties available bare root from San Lorenzo Garden Center. Their online availability and descriptions are most helpful and enticing. Did you know that apples and pears can live up to 60 years, apricots have a 70 year life expectancy, plums live for 40 years but peaches and nectarines live only about 20 years?

Shop now for bare root plants while they are still dormant. Even if you want to add fruit trees or other edibles to your garden and the weather has interfered don’t delay. Once leaves emerge or flower buds start to swell the tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing permanent roots in their new home- yours. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

Don’t plant now in heavy saturated soil with a high clay content. If your soil drains poorly it’s best to place your new bare root tree at an angle in a trench, cover with soil and water in. Then wait to plant until the soil is crumbly and friable with plenty of pore space. Digging in waterlogged clay soil is one of the worst things you can do for your soil’s health.

What’s the correct way to plant a bare root tree? According to research amending the soil is no longer recommended. Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond has a great web site with all the information you need to get your new fruit trees off to a good start including pruning, staking, mulching and care as they mature.

Cherry trees live 30-35 years bearing fruit in 3-6 years

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-1200 chilling hours where the temperature is 45 degrees or less during the dormant season. You can give a fruit tree more chilling in the winter but not less. Those in coastal Santa Cruz, for instance, can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious. We can grow both.

What if you don’t get full sun where you’d like to grow fruit trees? Apples, pluots and plums are good choices for an area that gets some sun- at least 5 hours – every day during the growing season. The ideal is full sun but these trees will still set and ripen some fruit in partially shaded conditions. With peaches, nectarines or apricots it’s a different story. These fruits need hot sun to develop sweet, tasty fruit. Too little sun and they will not deliver anything close to what you have in mind.

Don’t miss the opportunity to add a fruit tree or other edible to your garden this winter.

RX for Sad Houseplants

Maranta or Red Prayer Plant

Tucked on window sills and tabletops my houseplants clean the air and provide indoor beauty while the landscape outdoors is mostly resting. They are easy to keep healthy if I follow a few tips during the dark days of winter. it’s their time to rest.

A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light. They’re used to warm rain and perfect drainage. We put them in pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with. Most houseplants will tolerate darker conditions if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry allowing oxygen to move back into the root zone. Let the soil in a 4-6 inch pot dry half an inch down between waterings then water with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water or the roots will rot. If your plant is in a larger pot let the soil dry a couple inches between waterings. A moisture meter is very helpful for larger plants.

Move plants into the best light you have. Even a table lamp will provide light for a plant growing underneath. Remove dust with a moist cloth or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Dust blocks light from getting to leaves.

Fertilize less often skipping December and January and starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Houseplants are essentially dormant in winter needing fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Don’t re-pot a plant in winter when they are slow to grow new roots. Replant when the growing season resumes in March or April. Choose a pot only two inches bigger than the old pot each time you transplant. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing and watering during the growing season.

Avoid placing plants in cold drafts near high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway. Ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Spathiphyllum or Peace Lily can tolerate low light but won’t bloom under those conditions

If you have medium to low light conditions in your house some of the best upright plants are philodendron, peace lIly, Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola, ferns and palms. Hanging plants that grow well in low light are heart-shaped philodendron, pothos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

If you do find insects on your plants, a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow-sup spraying a week later. Horticultural oil works well, too, by smothering insects and their eggs. If you have tiny black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently. They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Houseplants that Fight Indoor Air Pollution

Bromeliads are just one of the common indoor houseplants that clean the air and are safe for pets.

It’s amazing how many potential pollutants can be found in a home. For most of a winter day, our homes are closed tight with no windows or doors open to let out pollutants and let fresh air circulate. Toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene can be released from furniture upholstery, carpets, cleaning products, paint, plastics and rubber. Carbon monoxide from the incomplete burning of wood and nitrogen oxides from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and smog can also be present in indoor air.

Then there are airborne biological pollutants. These include bacteria, viruses, animal dander and dried cat saliva, house dust and pollen. House mites, the source of one of the most powerful biological allergens, grow in damp warm environments. Mold and mildew grow in moist places like central heating systems and are just one more source of indoor pollution.

Many common houseplants help fight pollution indoors. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Yikes, who knew all that was going on right under our noses?

Areca palm and the pothos growing below are easy houseplants to grow.

Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the home. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, snake plant, pothos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list of plants that fight indoor pollution.

If you have a cat of dog that you share your home with most of the above plants aren’t safe for them if they are chewers according to the ASPCA website. While all plants clean the air only ferns, spider plants, areca and parlor palms and phalaenopsis orchids from the above list are safe.

Other houseplants toxic for dogs and cats according to the ASPCA are asparagus fern, lilies, cyclamen, jade plant, aloe vera, azalea, begonia, ivy, mums, coleus, sago palm, kalanchoe and rubber plant. Keep your pets safe by keeping toxic plants out of reach.

There are many houseplants that are safe for cats and dogs and every plant photosynthesizes and cleans the air to some extent. Some of the common ones include African violet, aluminum plant, bromeliads, peperomia, areca palm, polka dot plant, cast iron plant, Christmas cactus, chenille plant, creeping Charlie, false aralia, Tahitian bridal veil, wandering jew, goldfish plant, piggy-back plant and the succulents, donkey’s tail and hens and chickens.

With a little planning you can clean the air in your home while keeping the pets safe.

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