What’s Not to Love about Ceanothus?

Ceanothus growing near the Covered Bridge in Felton

They grow quietly for most of the year – their seed feeding many kinds of birds, their flowers providing nectar for hummingbirds and bees and their foliage offering good nesting sites. They’re fast growing, fragrant, beautiful and they’re in full bloom right now.

If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all wildlife it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.

Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas. And maritimus ‘Valley Violet’ is another great looking deer tolerant groundcover, too. Most of these types grow quite wide and are good for erosion control.

One of the upright types I have is ceanothus thyrsiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area, is fragrant and self sows. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.

A friend of mine grew a new cultivar – ceanothus ‘Celestial Blue’ – with flowers that looked like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it made a good screen. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.

Another cultivar I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most, tolerate clay soil more than other species and is possibly one of the most beautiful species you can grow in your garden.

Carmel Creeper ceanothus

But are “nativars” as good for wildlife as wild types for the ecosystem? Well, it depends. More on this in another column. It’s complicated.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant, blue three-inch flower spikes.

Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 20-25 years although some live longer. There are some on my property that are older. These receive no summer water although I have some that are at least 15 years old that get occasional summer irrigation, so go figure. I’ll keep you posted when they pass.

Members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended and they grow so fast. Adding fertilizer kilsl off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.

Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.

Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.

The Art of Forest Bathing

My local trail on a foggy day

I started this Shelter in Place with the best of intentions. The first week I had a daily “to-do” list which included such lofty aspirations as meditation, cooking something new and healthy from the pantry, stretching, drawing and painting, deep cleaning the house, transplanting those overgrown pots. “I can do this.” I said to myself. After all, there are dozens of Zoom classes and You Tube videos in my inbox to explore and motivate me. Well, I can tell you now that after years of wanting to deep clean the house but lacking the time, I discovered this week that wasn’t the reason. We end up spending our time on what matters to us and actually I’ve gotten to most of the “to do” list although it’s taken me since March 18th to accomplish. What I didn’t need motivation for was to walk quietly nearby in the forest.

You know the feeling you get when you are out walking slowly in the forest, stopping to admire a wildflower or mushroom that catches your eye? You know it’s good for the mind and body, but why? It turns out that there are more benefits to being out in nature than the calmness it brings.

My dog Sherman enjoying a slow walk in the forest

Having a dog gives me a reason to be out on the trail. Being out in my garden simply enjoying the birds and flowers also promotes health and studies have shown that spending time in natural environments lowers our stress levels and improves our memory.

Apparently what we take for granted living where we do is all the rage for city dwellers with high stress lives. The idea is simple. Spending time in a natural area and walking in a relaxed way is calming, rejuvenating and restorative.

In the past several decades there have been many scientific studies that demonstrate the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in natural areas. Many of the benefits from the forest actually come from the air. Trees give off phytoncides, such as alpha-pinene and d-limonene, which are volatile organic compounds or aerosols. These compounds protect the trees and plants from insects and disease, but they also benefit us.

Forest bathing is what the Japanese call it. Shinrin-yoku is their term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Forest therapy has roots in many cultures throughout history. John Muir wrote that “Wilderness is a necessity.” Scientists is Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons.

Forest bathing with Sherman

Trees give off organic compounds that support our immune systems and help our system fight cancer. Other scientifically proven benefits of forest bathing include reducing blood pressure, accelerating recovery from surgery or illness, improving sleep and our mood and reducing stress. Forest bathing lowers our heart rate and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Soaking in the forest air increases our NK or natural killer cells by about 50 percent.

All I know is that when Sherman and I are out in the garden or strolling in the forest we feel good. We stop to watch the progress of a banana slug. We listen for new bird calls. And as a garden designer I strive to create a space for clients that brings that feeling to them whenever they are outside.

Part of of that good feeling we get being outside has to do with the color green. Green is the color of spring, of growth, renewal and rebirth. It renews and restores depleted energy. It’s a positive color and increases our feelings of relaxation and calmness. Often I get a request for including the color green in a client’s plant palette. We tend to overlook it’s value.

If you don’t have a forest of your own bring that forest feeling to your own garden. Stroll in a relaxed way without thinking about weeds or pruning or other items on your to-do list.

Every Garden Deserves a Dogwood

Eastern dogwood growing near my house in half day sun.

The dogwoods are blooming. Dogwood are a good tree choice for the allergy sufferer as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers, which are actually bracts, are pollinated by insects. Their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes.

There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata. Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida is native to the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or the Western dogwood.

Our native Western dogwood is unfortunately prone to leaf spot fungal diseases when grown out of their range. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding and flower and grow with little care in morning sun or light shade.

Cherokee Chief flowering dogwood

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood (cornus florida) that’s blooming now. With various shades of pink, red or white blossoms they are stunning. Take note that their root system is prone to disease if not grown with good drainage.

The kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood rootstock. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttallii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Evergreen cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’ is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree.

Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robin and sparrow are just two of the bird species than build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings.

Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4:00 PM. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’ll be happy.

Stategies to Save Time & Water in the Garden

Tulips say “Spring is here.”

How nice that we’ve gotten some much needed rainfall earlier this month. I was getting a bit nervous after our dry February. So far this season I’ve received 39 inches of rainfall up here in Bonny Doon. Not enough for sure but getting closer to what use to be our normal of 60 inches.

But now we’ve turned the corner on spring with flowers bursting open within hours on these nice days. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned to my yard for the breeding season. Like clockwork they show up on almost the exact day each year. It’s my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

Looking forward to the rest of spring, here’s what I’ll be doing around here in April.

One of the perks of a cool, rainy spring is that shrubs and perennials have longer to establish a good root system before hot weather arrives. Ground covers have time to spread and shade the soil, conserving moisture come summer. What strategies can you follow that will make your garden low maintenance this summer and give you extra time to enjoy it?

Plant in masses. When designing or reworking your garden, make it easy on yourself by planting fewer varieties but in greater numbers. Planting this way will reduce the number of different maintenance tasks for that area. For example, if you have a large hillside that you want to cover, plant it with a groundcover like ceanothus gloriosus which fans out 6-15 feet. Some manzanitas like arctotaphylos uva-ursi eventually spread to15 feet each. Sage leaf rockrose and germander are also good for sunny areas. A shady spot could be planted with ajuga, creeping mahonia or Walkabout Sunset lysimachia.

Calla lilies come in many colors beside classic white.

Another time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no-brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you’ll be dragging the hose over to that bed for just one plant or having to run your irrigation system more for it. If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you’d like, move those to their own spot. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have one of more of the following characteristics: deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

Avoid putting thirsty plants in hard-to-reach places. If the irrigation system doesn’t reach that far, keep it simple by planting drought tolerant woody shrubs or perennials there.

Pluck weeds when the soil is moist and before they have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. I’m still battling hedge parsley with it’s sticky seed balls that will cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed.

Plant edibles among your other plants near the kitchen. Tricolor sage looks great alongside other plants with pink and violet leaves. Purple basil planted below the silver foliage of an artichoke is another great combination. Lemon thyme growing next to a burgundy colored dwarf New Zealand flax would look spectacular, too. And don’t forget to plant decorative and delicious Bright Lights Swiss chard with its stalks of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, green and white throughout your beds. It’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

So get the lemonade ready to enjoy all your free time later this season.

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.

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