Earth Day 2020

Adelyn Biles at 17 months learning about how to water a garden.

Earth Day celebrates the natural beauty of our planet and reminds us that we need to keep it healthy. Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues. This year is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and while we’ll not be gathering together you can plant a tree, clean up litter, garden, hike in the woods, marvel at emerging wildflowers, be in contact with the soil and breathe fresh air outside on this day.

Celebrate Earth Day in your own backyard by being outside. It’s your own personal outdoor living room – a safe place for pets and kids to play. Just get outside, maybe trim some shrubs, plant something for the birds and pollinators. When you become a steward of your own yard, you are helping to preserve you own corner of the ecosystem. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children.

Adelyn several years ago identifying flowers and critters from her “nature book.”

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can cut will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallowtail butterflies. Another easy to grow flower for cutting is the snapdragon.

Besides flowers, fragrant foliage plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden.

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears which are soft and furry, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

All kids love lady bugs. Make your garden a more inviting place for these and other beneficial insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Lady bugs will patrol your plants looking for tiny insects and their eggs.
Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.

Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous. Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt. http://www.calpoison.org and search “plants”.

Scarlett & Adelyn enjoying the tree fort their Dad made.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly, a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless. And be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside.

Get a kid into gardening and nature and they’ll be good stewards of the land for a lifetime. Plus you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.

Spring is Here and it’s “Essential”

Spring is busting out all over. Meadows are lush with new grasses, trees are leafing out, wisteria are blooming, the dogwoods are starting to flower. Here around the homestead the songbirds and hummingbirds are busy building nests and feeding like there’s no tomorrow. We can all be grateful we live in such a beautiful place.

Heliotrope

Many spring bloomers are deliciously fragrant, too. Whether you’re planting edibles in the vegetable garden or containers on the deck, include plants that entice you to linger and enjoy their sweet scent.

The word fragrance comes from the 17th century French word fragrantia, meaning sweet smell. A garden’s fragrance can be as unforgettable as its appearance. The scent of a particular flower can make you remember past times and places. Plant them along a garden path to enjoy as you stroll, in containers to scent a deck or patio or locate them beneath a window and let their aroma drift indoors.

Old fashion lilacs will be blooming soon. Nothing ways “spring” like the legendary scent of these shrubs. Give them a spot in full sun with enough room for them to spread 6′ feet wide. While most plants accept slightly acidic soils, lilacs are an exception. Dig lime into your soil at planting and side dress yearly if your soil is acidic.

Looking for something in vanilla? Evergreen clematis vines make a great screen with 6 inch long, glossy leaves and creamy white, saucer shaped, vanilla-scented flower clusters. Provide study support for them to climb on. They are slow to start but race once established.

Outside the veggie garden, citrus blossoms can scent the air. Plant lemons oranges, mandarins, kumquats, grapefruit and limes in full sun areas. Established trees need a good soak every other week during the warmer months so keep them on a separate watering system from your other edibles.

Dianthus

Inside the veggie garden, include scented plants that attract beneficial insects. Fragrant lavender and sweet alyssum are good choices. For sheer enjoyment, plant perennial carnation and dianthus for their intense clove fragrance. Cinnamon Red Hots grow to 15 inches, are deer resistant, bloom all spring and summer and don’t need deadheading. Velvet and White border carnations are among the least demanding and most satisfying perennials in the garden. As cut flowers they are long lasting and highly fragrant in bouquets.

Nemesia and carnations

A fragrant perennial to tuck among your other plants or veggies is Berries & Cream Sachet nemesia. Intensely fragrant blossoms are purple and white, just like blackberries covered with cream. They bloom for months without any special care but if flowers decline, cut plants back to stimulate new growth.

More Scented perennials include sweet violets and chocolate cosmos. Plant several chocolate cosmos for the strongest effect. They really do smell like dark chocolate on a warm day. Vivid purple heliotrope smell like vanilla and licorice.

Fragrant shrubs that are easy to grow are Mexican Orange (choisya ternata) which blooms most of the year. Pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira all have tiny blossoms that also smell like oranges. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive (osmanthus fragrans) have a delicate apricot fragrance. Other fragrant shrubs include California native Philadelphus lewisii (Wild Mock Orange) and Calycanthus occidentals (Spice Bush) another native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.

Plant for fragrance. It’s your reward for all the care and tending you give your garden.

Tips for Growing Vegetable in the Shade

We humans used to be mostly foragers and obtained our nutrition by being hunter-gatherers. Foragers use to enjoy a comparatively leisurely life with good nutrition by working just a few hours each day, while those in agricultural communities toiled almost ceaselessly and had comparatively poor nutrition. What happened to make us the agricultural society we are today?

Cool and warm season vegetables

The end of the ice age occurred at the same time that foragers migrated around the globe. Warmer, wetter and more productive climates may have increased populations in some regions. The increased population pressure. may explain why some communities of foragers began to settle down and begin growing food. The rest is history. Many of us are returning to growing and producing our own food whenever we are able. Even on a small scale, a garden, a few fruit trees, a chicken or two or three, all help to put healthy, nutritious food on our table.

Enter 2020. As we all are staying close to the homefront I’m grateful that it’s spring and I can be out in the garden. And this is the year I plant more edibles. Yes, I battle squirrels and chipmunks as well as shade but I believe I can outsmart them if I put my mind to it. That’s the plan anyway. In the meantime here are some guidelines I’ll be following.

There are three types of shade. A partially shady location is one that receives 2-6 hours of sun, either in the morning or in the afternoon. It can also refer to a full day of dappled sunlight. Most edibles that prefer full sun will grow in partial shade, especially if they receiver their hours of fullest sunlight in the morning. A lightly shaded garden receives an intermediate level of shade. While it may receive only an hour or two of direct sun during the day it is bright enough the rest of the time to allow a variety of edibles-especially leafy greens to grow. Full shade is found under mature trees that have dense, spreading foliage. Unpruned oaks and maples cast this kind of shade in summer. Heavy shade under mature evergreens is often dry. A fully shaded location like this is fine for woodland plants but in not a great place for edibles.

See how much $ you can save by growing your own Sungold tomatoes

Whatever level of shade you have in your yard, make the most of the situation. First, if you have the choice, opt for afternoon shade. Shade in the afternoon is more hospitable in the summer when the sun is fierce. The severe temperature swings created by a combination of shade in the morning and blazing sun all afternoon are difficult for most plants to withstand. Gardens facing east will enjoy bright sun all morning and shade in the early afternoon.

If you garden under deciduous trees you can give plants a head start by starting the seeds indoors or direct seeding early before the trees leaf out. All trees, however, bring roots as well as shade to the garden and tree roots will compete with garden plants for water and nutrients. Any plant grown where there are tree roots will need extra water and fertilizer to make up for the competition. If you can’t get the garden out of the dense shade of trees, at least get it past the tree dripline where most of the roots are located. If that’s not possible, it might be better to plant in containers beneath the trees to prevent tree roots from invading the root zone of your vegetables.

Be patient. Your tomatoes will take a little longer to mature in a shady garden.

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.

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 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. Your vegetables may take a bit longer to mature without full sun so be patient.

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.

Things To Do in the March Garden

My Blireiana flowering plum is fragrant and starts blooming each February & March

Spring is in the air, flowers blooming everywhere, birds singing in the trees, bees buzzing in the breeze. What’s a gardener to do on a day like this when just being outside is a celebration of life? Here at The Mountain Gardener headquarters- my office with the big picture windows overlooking the Blireiana flowering plum and several bird feeders- I’m taking my time to do the following gardening tasks this month:

Old fashion Bleeding Hearts signal spring in the garden
  • Check drip systems for leaks or emitters clogged by dirt or earwigs. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly and move the emitters farther away from the crown of the plant and out closer to the feeder roots which are under the drip line.
  • Spread fresh compost or wood mulch around all your plants. Good soil is the secret to successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth. Bark nuggets do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips do but they do conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.
  • Transplant any plants in the garden that have outgrown their space or are not with other plants requiring the same water usage Now is a good time because plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil if it’s sandy. Organic matter enriches and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it and improve drainage. In fertile soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant. Organic matter such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.
  • Fertilize if you haven’t already done so. Citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen and iron which is not absorbed easily during the cold season. Shrubs and fruit trees just emerging from dormancy are begging for their first meal of the season. Lawns -if you still have a small section- and ground covers begin their spring growth now also and benefit from a boost of organic nitrogen. Spread a thin layer of compost over everything. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to shade the roots as it get warmer and as they break down they help feed it, too. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost or composted manure and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming and you see new leaf growth starting before feeding them.
  • Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Weeds rob your plants of precious water. Think of weeding as free gym time. And don’t remind me of how many spiny-ball hedge parsley weeds have germinated all over my property last year. I truly picked every single one before they set seed but November rains have exposed more of the seeds that were down deeper. Oh well, I’m on it and will not be defeated.
  • Check for aphids. They are out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples. A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them. If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them. As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun. Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.

Ants can also bring aphids up into trees and shrubs such as camellias, citrus and roses. Ants feed off honeydew secreted by aphids, scale and other plant-juice sucking insects. Ants also protect these pests from natural predators. To keep them off, wrap trunks with a 1-2″ wide strip of masking tape and coat with a sticky barrier like Tanglefoot. Keep the barriers free of dirt and check them periodically for breaks. Reapply when necessary

The most important to-do is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.

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.

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