The Dog Days of Summer

A swallowtail visits a butterfly bush

Just when I thought this summer wasn’t 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 “Dog Days of Summer” 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 Farmer’s 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 know… 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 aren’t 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.

My 700th Post: Stories from the Past

Since writing my first column in October 2005 I have shared with you, my good readers, many a gardening tip, confession, aspiration, resolution, success story and utter failure in my garden. We live and learn from our mistakes. We gardeners love to swap stories and sometimes I learn as much from you as you do from me.
Gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

Just one of many, many chipmunks that visit me daily.

Right now I’m suffering from the too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome. No, I’m not talking about an overly productive zucchini or plum crop but my chipmunk population. I feed a lot of birds and try to grow as many plants that attract wildlife as I can. But it’s just possible that between this year’s abundance of rainfall and the resulting explosion of seeds and nuts from conifers in our area that the chipmunks have produced larger litters this year. Don’t get me wrong. I love my Merriam’s chipmunks. If you are interested I can email you the very short list of ornamental plants they don’t eat. At this point it consists of lantana, lewisia and loroptealum. I can tell you they love basil and parsley but who doesn’t? I’ve covered those pots with upside down gopher baskets secured with shish kabob skewers and so far it’s working.

With Guatemala and Honduras in the news I recall my trip there in 2007. On Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras, I noticed plants growing in washing machine baskets. I thought it was a clever way to re-use old appliances but wondered why there were so many old washing machines on a tiny island. A local laughed and told me the baskets protect their plants from the big blue crabs that come out at night. Seems the crabs will sever the stem right at ground level and drag the whole plant into their hole. Also the baskets protect the plants from the iguanas who will eat anything within two feet of the ground. And you thought deer, gophers and rabbits were a problem?

Tom Miller in 2017 with his Mountain Gardener column collection.

I get emails often from readers asking for advice. I’m happy to problem solve anyway I can. Text me a picture and if I can help, I will. Over the years, Lompico resident, Tom Miller, has reached out many times with gardening questions. Several years ago he posed with his collection of The Mountain Gardening columns that he cut out of the paper and saved. Sitting on his deck with all the clippings and flowering pots, it’s quite a testament to his loyalty. So Tom, are you still saving my columns now that I’m up to 700 of them or have you run out of space on your desk?

I have to give you an update on my moss-covered retaining wall that I started several years ago. With the rainfall this year and the year before last, the moss grew nicely during the winter and spring. This is despite my dog Sherman licking most of the moss starter slurry off initially. I still remember looking back at the wall after painting on the moss/buttermilk mixture ala Martha Stewart’s instructions and seeing him licking it all off. Even adding hot sauce to the mixture didn’t slow him down but I guess enough moss spores survived as the wall looks pretty good during the wet season.

Young bobcat watching me from outside the window. He was so curious.

So between watching the quail and their walnut-sized babies on legs and the recent visit from a young bobcat watching me at my drafting table, I’ve managed to write 700 columns for The Press Banner. Hopefully, I’ve addressed your particular gardening problem but if not, send me an email like Helen of Spring Lakes did this winter and I’ll get right on it.

Staycation Tips

Although I’ve taken several mini-trips around our great state this year I’m staying close to home this summer. With so many wonderful places to enjoy around here what’s not to love? Well maybe I’m planning on a bigger trip next year but for now I have so much beauty and wildlife right outside my window, I’m content.

Picture you and your family this summer outdoors during your “Staycation”, relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining, 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.

DIY gazebo

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.

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.

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.

Memorial Day Cornhole Championship. Pictured with me and Sherman is Joy Souza

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. 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 summer to enjoy your own piece of paradise.

Shade Gardening Ideas

Some of us garden in shade. We may live under the trees so that shade is year round. Maybe most of your shade happens in the winter. Maybe your garden is morning shade but in the afternoon it gets a blast of hot summer sun. What’s a gardener to do? The choices for sunny locations are many but for those of us who garden in shady or partially shady places we have a tough time finding good, reliable plants. Looking back over the years,

Daphne odora ‘ Maejima;

Looking for shade tolerant flowering shrubs to cut for bouquets? Fragrant daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub or small tree with blooms that smell like apricots in winter. For summer fragrance grow Carol Mackie or Summer Ice daphne.

Plants to grow in dry shade areas include bergenia, mahonia, nandina filamentosa and fragrant sarcococca. Clivia, Viburnum ‘Mariesii’. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets and the leaves turn red in fall which is an added bonus.

Chinese Ground Orchid ( bletilla striata)

Chinese Ground Orchid ( Bletilla striata ) is another of my favorites plants for shade. A natural companion for ferns and wildflowers, this plant is tougher than it looks. Vivid, magenta blooms resembling small cattleya orchids emerge on long stalks for about 6 weeks in the spring.

Queen’s Tears

Every spring I look forward to the unique flowers of my Queen’s Tears billbergia. This pineapple relative makes a vigorous, deer resistant groundcover under trees without becoming invasive. Exotic looking rosy-red spikes are topped with drooping pink, blue and green flowers that look like dangling earrings. Insects never bother them. Give them a little water now and then and forget them. They’re that easy to grow.

Lobelia cardinalis

California native Western Wild Ginger and Pacific Coast Iris grow well in shade also as do Western Sword fern and Woodwardia ferns. Coral Bells, columbine, lewisia, lobelia cardinalis, ribes, salvia spathacea, fragraria, dicentra, calycanthus, philadelphus or Mock Orange and carpenteria to name just a few.

What veggies can you grow in shade? Without much sun, plants photosynthesize less and produce less sugar. On the bright side- no pun intended – shade does offer some benefits. Gardens in the shade don’t have to be watered as often and weeds don’t grow as quickly.

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

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

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

Whatever plants you grow in your shady garden, be sure not to crowd them. Plants tend to sprawl there and if placed too close together they will compete for available light. Place your vegetables plants wherever they will get the most light even if it means putting different crops in separate places. A small harvest is still better than no harvest at all.

Sure, every garden is different- different look, different soil, different degree of shade, but it’s surprising how often one of these plants plays a starring or supporting role in a vignette or border

Those of us who live under the trees know a shady garden is a pleasant place to spend time on a hot summer day. Be thankful for what you do have.

A Day at Sierra Azul Nursery

Smoke Bush showcasing rusted metal sculpture

It was one of those days when the light is soft as the fog burns off over Watsonville. My group of fellow landscape designers were gathered for a private tour of Sierra Azul Nursery and Garden. The picnic tables were set by owner Lisa Rosendale and covered with delicious salads, chili, appetizers, desserts and beverages. We were in for a real treat.

Lisa’s nursery is a demonstration and sculpture garden as well as a retail and wholesale nursery. She and her husband Jeff grow drought tolerant and exotic plants that promote the use of Mediterranean climate adapted plants in water conserving gardens and landscapes including fruit trees and plants for shade gardens. It was fun and interesting to hear the back story of the soil, growing conditions and trials and tribulations of the 2 acre demonstration garden straight from the source.

Seems this property, which is directly across from the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, sits on 20 feet of clay covered with 2 feet of top soil. The drainage is poor as Lisa found out when they planted a field of Grosso lavender. It turns into a marsh during wet years. She still harvests some lavender spikes to make into wands for sale but many of the plants have died.

A few of the many sculptures amid blooming Bidens

The demonstration garden is always evolving. The mounds showcase Mediterranean plants and many types of full grown grasses, trees, shrubs and perennials. The birds and the bees love it. A different scent greets you at every turn. Lisa did confess that maybe one of the self sowing ornamental grasses is too much of a good thing. Personally we thought they were charming. “Nothing we can do about it”, Lisa said, “Plants grow where they want.”

There are breathtaking sculptures incorporated into the plantings that are permanent. This is also the13th year that the exhibition Sculpture IS in the Garden featuring 52 artists and 80 sculptures have been installed throughout the garden. They will be on display through October 31. Admission is free. Relax under the umbrellas, bring your picnic lunch and spend an afternoon like we did enjoying the demonstration garden and the exhibit.

But back to the plants. Some were new to me and some old favorites not to be forgotten. There are hundreds of plants growing on mounds in the demonstration garden. These were just a few of my favorites.

Velbet Centauria- a Dusty Miller relatvie

Similar to a dusty miller, a Velvet Centauria (centauria gymnocarpa) immediately caught my eye. This beautiful, fast growing sub-shrub features soft grayish-white filigreed leaves and purple thistle-like flowers. It blooms from spring to mid-summer, is deer resistant, tolerant of any type of soil and is very drought tolerant. As a 3 foot by 6 foot wide groundcover it looks great between other contrasting colored plants.

Mt Loma Prieta Spike Coast Redwood

Another cool plant that all of us commented on was a columnar redwood called Mt. Loma Prieta Spike Coast Redwood. With its robust, upright weeping habit a mature specimen will measure 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide. This cultivar originated as a natural mutation by Allan Korth around the time of the earthquake. He is thought to have found the mother plant near the epicenter near Mt Loma Prieta peak.

Phlomis fruticosa

Just a few of the other plants of note was a beautiful blooming upright hypericum called Mystic Beauty. A California native, salvia lilacina ‘De la Mina’ , was in full bloom among one of the many sculptures. A huge clump of bidens covered with red and yellow flowers grew among three upright sculptures that resembled giant cabbages. A gold cultivar of phlomis fruticosa or Jerusalem Sage was stunning in the late afternoon light. Covered with “smoke”, a Purple Smoke tree looked spectacular next the a rusted metal sculpture. Lisa told us that the artists who created the different works came to the nursery to decide on just the right spot that would showcase both the sculpture and and plants.

Don’t miss visiting Sierra Azul. You’ll be glad you did. If you want to see more photos of the nursery and just some of the sculptures visit my blog on my website.

Good Plants to Espalier

Sometimes it seems that every gardener who asks me for advice has the same problem: “What can I do with my narrow planting area?” It might be a fence line that needs something pretty or an area against the house but whatever problem spot you have there’s a solution for you.

Apple tree trained as an espalier

You might be considering a vine on a trellis and there are many to choose from but are there other plants that can be trained to grow flat against a wall, supported on a lattice or a framework of stakes? An espaliered plant can be a fruit tree or ornamental tree or shrub. While most any tree or large shrub can be made into an espalier, the trick is to select a species that will ultimately fit your space and conditions. There are many plants you might not have thought about that are easy to train so they don’t take up too much space.

The practice of training fruit bearing plants like fig, apple and pear and citrus dates back to the Roman and Egyptians, but it was the Europeans – specifically the French – who perfected the designs we see today.

Narrow spaces can be challenging. One of my favorite plants that naturally grows flat is grewia occidentalis or Lavender Starflower. it grows fast in sun and attracts hummingbirds and other birds. Beautiful lavender flowers cover the plant from spring to fall.

Another plant, azara microphylla, also grows flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great. The chocolate fragrance of this plant is really what makes it a show stopper.

Red flowering quince

Flowering quince is another old garden staple providing early color. They are easy to care for and nearly indestructible in almost any soil that is well drained and not overly fertile. Once established quince is a very drought tolerant plant and their spiny branches make them an excellent choice for hedges, screening or as a security barrier. There are red, pink, orange and white flowering varieties. The Toyo Nishiki cultivar even has pink, white and solid red flowers all on the same branch.

Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.

Abutilon ‘Kathy Bells’

Other ornamental shrubs that make great espaliered plants are abutilon, bougainvillea in frost free areas, callistemon, camellia, dodonaea, feijoa, gingko, sarcococca, viburnum, ribes, rhaphiolepis, pyracantha, pittosporum tobira and osmanthus fragrans. Trees that can be trained include cercis, agonis flexuosa, eriobotrya, and podocarps.

A fremontodendron waiting to be trained as an espalier

California native plants that can be espaliered are garrya, fremontodendron. Carolina cherry, flowering currant, vine maple and ceanothus while the branches are young and supple.

Don’t be overwhelmed if an espalier gets out of hand during the season. Just nip the branches back to a leaf node. Use heavy jute to attach the branch to the support wire or stake. After a season the jute will rot away which keeps the branch from being girdled by the restraint.

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