What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Robles Rd, Snata Cruz Ca
Devastated area along Robles Road in Santa Crus Mountains

Like all of you, I’ve lived a lifetime in the past week and a half. With my power out for several days after the lightning storm in Bonny Doon, I was out of the loop without media or even water from the well. On Tuesday afternoon my friend Colly provided me with a place to shower and a delicious shrimp Louie salad. My dog Sherman and I went home later that afternoon. Power was back on and I was able to water all my plants and went to bed early. I knew nothing of any fires except the 35 acres on Monday north of Davenport. That didn’t seem out of control to me. So when my neighbor drove up my long steep driveway at 11pm and told me he had just driven by Crest Ranch and saw flames I started gathering pet supplies for Sherman and Archer the cat. Reverse 911 call had come in and also the Code Red Mobile Alert but I wouldn’t have heard them if not for the neighbor waking me up. And then I see Colly’s face on my cell about midnight when her call came in. “Come on down, Sweet Pea”, she said. I left my house shortly after and took very little. After the Paradise fire I knew that 2 miles away was nothing for a wild fire out of control.

At Colly’s we settled in about 1:30 to get a few hours sleep. Mid afternoon we were evacuated from her house in Ben Lomond and a close fellow designer friend and her husband took us all in. They have been self isolating since March so to open their house to us was a big thing and we will be grateful to them for the rest of our lives.

I was hopeful that the fire maps showing spot fires only around my house were accurate but Thursday late afternoon a neighbor walked down my road before the hard road closures and texted me this picture he took from the bottom of my driveway. It’s hard to tell what remains of my brick house in the upper right hand corner of the photo. The detached garage, gardening shed and wood shed are gone as is the 5th wheel with sturdy awning on the lower right. I don’t know what remains of the 100 or so redwoods on my property. I think of my chipmunk families, owls, songbirds and hummingbirds that might not have been able to outrun the flames. Nature will heal itself and so will I.

Harvesting, Drying and Preserving Herbs

Herbs: thyme, oregano, basil

Now that you have an assortment of herbs growing nicely in your garden what do you do with them? Mine seem to be growing more exuberantly than I anticipated and if I don’t keep up with snipping them often some will go to seed or get leggy and unproductive. Then what would I do when I’m putting together my favorite Nectarine Caprese Salad with fresh basil and mint leaves?

Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom when leaves are at peak flavor and oils are strongest. Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Harvest on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

To store, wash herbs lightly with the leaves on the stems in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room. You can also lay them in a shallow basket or on a screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.

Those herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils so don’t do that until you use them. And remember that because dried herbs are not as potent as fresh, the correct ratio is one tablespoon of fresh herbs vs one teaspoon of dried.

Here are some herbs that do double duty in the garden:   

Basil – repels flies and mosquitos.    Plant with tomatoes to improve flavor.

Catnip – deters flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Also repels mice.

Chamomile – improves the flavor of cabbages, onions and cucumbers. Accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil; also a host for beneficial hoverflies and good wasps and increases the productions of essential oils in herbs.

Chives – improves growth and flavor of carrots and tomatoes.    Keeps aphids away from mums and sunflowers.    When planted by roses, helps prevent black spot.

Coriander/Cilantro – repels aphids, spider mites and potato beetle. Coriander tea is a good spray for spider mites.

Dill – improves the growth and health of cabbage and lettuce. Plant by tomatoes to trap the tomato hornworm. Attracts many beneficials. Do not plant by caraway or carrots.

Lemon Balm – deters many bugs, especially mosquitos and squash bugs.

Mint – deters cabbage moths, ants, rodents, aphids and fleas. Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps.    Attractive to earthworms.   

Rosemary – plant with cabbage, carrots, beans, and sage,    Deters cabbage looper and bean beetles.

Tarragon – beneficial to plants throughout the garden as is thyme.   

Greek Oregono – Use oregano in tomato sauces, pizza and egg dishes.

Greek oregano
Greek oregano

Lavender – Dry lavender in bundles to make sachets, lavender wands, shortbread cookies.

Dry lavender in bundles
Dry lavender in bundles

Thymus Vulgaris Faustini – This variety of thyme is one of the most flavorful of all the thyme varieties. It is noticeably sweeter and spicier than English types and is the preferred variety for culinary uses.

Thymus Vulgaris Faustini
Thymus Vulgaris Faustini

Growing & Using Herbs

This collection of herbs features dill, Italian parsley and basil plus nectar-rich zinnias to attract pollinators.

There are creative cooks who pair fresh herbs with their produce and other dishes and then there’s me who needs all the inspiration I can get to up my game in the kitchen. I have the basic herbs growing – Italian parsley, rosemary, basil, thyme and oregano – but I want to learn more uses for common herbs.

I have used Italian parsley for lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. The oregano and basil goes well on a stuffed baked potatoes and poached salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint is delicious, too. I forgot, I have lemon verbena which goes well with carrots, beets, corn, tomatoes and all types of fruit. I need to get some sage. It would pair well with beans, apples, tomatoes, cauliflower or potatoes. Other herbs that I need to add are cilantro, summer savory and tarragon.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. Smell the essential oil. You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste depending on the source of the stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer as they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in water.

Grow herbs like these in attractive planters near your kitchen door

Nearly all herbs are perennial and can be grown from seed. Anise, coriander (also known as cilantro), dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden as they do not transplant well. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers and goes to seed. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work and start new plants to eat. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill and summer savory.

Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. Occasionally, spider mites may be found on low growing herb plants in hot, dry weather and aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Washing the foliage off early in the day helps in controlling mites and aphids.

Here are some growing tips:
Most herbs like 6-8 hours of full sun. Well drained soil is essential. If drainage is poor, work in plenty of organic matter or grow in raised beds or containers. Water regularly until the plants are growing steadily. Then most will need only occasional watering. Exceptions are basil, chives, mint and parsley which prefer evenly moist soil. Many herbs attract beneficial insects if they are allowed to flower.

Fresh herbs are the most flavorful. The stuff in spice jars that you get in the store is often tasteless when compared to the real thing. When cooking with herbs, there is a general rule of thumb to keep in mind regarding the ratio of fresh to dry. Because dried herbs are often more potent and concentrated than fresh herbs, you need less. That means the correct ratio is one tablespoon of fresh herbs to one teaspoon of dried. Herb plants make beautiful ornamental additions to perennial beds and borders, too. Next week I’ll talk about how to harvest, dry and preserve herbs.

Gardening in Clay Soil

“The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.
Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return
so that new life can celebrate this day.” -Betty Peck

California fuchsia tolerates heavy, clay soil.

Soil is a wonderful thing. It grows our food, anchors our trees and provides a foundation under our feet. But it sure can be hard to work with when it’s not the soft, crumbly loam that many plants prefer. It’s amazing that anything grows in some of the soils here in the Santa Cruz mountains. Some folks near Quail Hollow garden in an ancient sea bed of sand and there are others who have such heavy clay in their gardens that you wonder how anything survives.

I used to live up under the trees in Felton where the soil was heavy clay. Now in Bonny Doon, I garden in gritty soil. Both soils have their challenges but I think clay soil is the hardest to deal with. Soil that does’t drain quickly during the winter is especially challenging. Where’s that perfect loam when you need it?

Some soils in Boulder Creek requires a pick ax to break up enough to plant. Sound familiar? Although rich in nutrients, clay soil requires compost to provide the environment necessary for beneficial microbes, worms and other critters could do their work and aerate the soil. A thick layer of mulch spread over the soil helps to preserve soil structure and prevent it from packing down again.

Arbutus unedo growing at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

There are plants that are tolerant of clay soils but California native plants won’t tolerate standing water for any length of time. They’ll die from either root rot or suffocation as saturated soils prevent oxygen from getting to plant roots. You can plant on a slope where the water is unlikely to saturate the ground around the plant.

Search for native plants that will survive slow draining soils at Calscape- https://calscape.org. Using the Advanced Search tool you can see which plants tolerate different conditions. Enter your address to find plants for all kinds of sun, moisture and drainage situations. I found 48 plants native to Boulder Creek that tolerate slow drainage on the website. From ceanothus to manzanita to California fuchsia to Douglas iris you’re sure to find plants that look great and perform well.

Bergenia cordifolia – a useful groundcover for difficult soil.

There are plants from similar environments in other parts of the world that would also do well if you garden in heavy soil. One of my favorite trees for these conditions is the strawberry tree. Also hackberry, ash, gingko and paperbark trees work well also. Shrubs to try include flowering quince, bottlebrush, Australian fuchsia, smoke tree, escallonia, pineapple guava, mahonia, osmanthus, Italian buckthorn, elderberry and vitex. Easy perennials for clay soils are yarrow, bergenia, carex grasses, fortnight lily, coreopsis, echinacea, nepeta, salvia, teucrium and verbena to name just a few.

If you’re not familiar with some of these plants it’s easy to see what they look like by Googling images. It’s what I do to see a plant full grown and not just a line drawing or a close-up of the flower.

So you see, there are plants that will be successful even in heavy, clay soil, you just have to pick the right ones.

Gardening Solutions for Shade

Shade is lovely on a hot day with a lemonade or ice tea in your hand. But what if much of your garden is shady most of the day but then gets blasted with several hours of intense sun during the hottest part of the day? If you’re like me you are always on the look out for plants that can survive these tough conditions. So if your garden falls into this no man’s land of not enough sun for the sun lovers but too much for most shade loving plants here’s what I recommend.

Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubrum’ or ‘Ever Red’

Looking around my own garden one of the plants that does well in sun or shade is Fringe Flower (loropetalum chinense). This handsome evergreen shrub comes in two versions- green foliage with white flowers or burgundy foliage with raspberry flower clusters. Flowering is heaviest in the spring but some bloom is likely throughout the year. You can prune loropetalum to any size but please don’t turn it into a tight ball and ruin it’s shape. Another plus is that it is not attractive to deer.

Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’

Lily Turf (liriope) is another deer resistant perennial I use a lot as a ground cove or at the edge of a path or mixed border. Evergreen grasslike leaves form tufts 18 inches tall. Liriope do well along streams or garden pools and can compete with the roots of other plants like at the base of trees or shrubs. Flower spikes, usually purple, are quite showy. Big Blue is a popular variety that does well in dry shade. Silvery Sunproof has green strappy leaves with gold stripes that age to white.

Heachera ‘Citronelle’

Coral Bells (heuchera) can survive in the shade but can also take that short blast of afternoon sun. There are so many varieties of this perennial these days I hardly know where to start. Whether native or a hybrid their flower spikes are a hummingbird favorite. Colorful foliage, often ruffled or variegated, can be silver, amethyst, caramel or lime green. Combine a tawny variety like ‘Caramel’ with the chartreuse foliage of ‘Citronelle’ in front of taller perennials or as a border edging. Coral Bells grow well in containers, too.

Lily of the Valley shrub (Pieris japonica) looks good in shade or sun. An evergreen shrub with year round interest this plant blooms early in late winter though early spring and is covered with little bells for several months. Starting in fall when reddish flower buds appear through summer as the new foliage emerges with a red tint there is always something attractive happening with this plant. It’s deer resistant also.

Hydrangea quercifolia

Oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia) also looks good in shade or sun. Showy leaves resembling oaks, turn bronze or crimson in the fall. Huge white flower clusters bloom in late spring through summer and turn pinkish as they age. They are attractive if left on the plant for the rest of the season.

Among my other favorite plants for these tough conditions are Flowering maple, nandina, Chinese Ground orchid, billbergia, flowering currant, hummingbird sage, spice bush, philadelphus, carpenteria, osmanthus, daphne, hellebore, campanula and hardy geraniums.

Don’t give up if your garden is like mine. There’s a solution for everything.

Container Gardening

This simple arrangement features red fountain grass as the
thriller with a sedum spiller.

When I moved up here to Bonny Soon from Felton I brought several hundred plants figuring that with over 2 acres of land I could put most of them in the ground. Many trees and shrubs did get planted but then I ran out of appropriate planting spots and just kept the rest in pots to create a container garden. Naturally, I’ve added more plants in pots ‘cause I just can’t help myself when I see a colorful plant that will attract birds, bees and butterflies. My current count of potted plants is 253 so I’ve learned a thing or two about container gardening.

This container grouping for shade has just one type of plants per pot.

Mixed plantings in containers are the most dramatic with a thriller, some fillers and and a spiller or two but when I look around that’s not what I have the most of. Many of my large pots have trees like Dawn redwood, Japanese maples, flowering plums and cherries that I’ve had since the early ’90’s so I might underplant them with chartreuse sedum ‘Angelina’ or moneywort for a little color but that’s about it. I’ve found that even large trees and shrubs can survive in the same container for many, many years without root pruning or transplanting if they are fertilized once a year and watered thoroughly as needed.

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 don’t 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. That said I have found that I can fertilize everything once a year with an organic all-purpose fertilizer like True 4-4-2. Blooming plants like abutilon, fuchsia, orchids, angel trumpet and the lantana, which I grow because the chipmunks don’t nibble them, receive a water soluble fertilizer once a month. 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.

A group of succulents and cactus at Succulent Gardens in Castroville.

Be sure to use a quality potting mix in your containers. There are special succulent and cactus mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. Don’t add gravel or clay shards at the bottom of the pot as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom with a screen over the hole to keep out earwigs and sowbugs.

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.

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