Toxic Holiday Plants

With the holiday season upon us I enjoy colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

I already have a beautiful poinsettia on my table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations. Some of these plants that may be toxic.

Poinsettia

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. This is the classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year. Mostly it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night but being native to Mexico they thrive in the warmth of the house. They need a bright spot and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

There are two pets in my household– a cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

Cyclamen

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

Amaryllis

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms, however.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t likely with holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Winter Flowering Plants & Gift Ideas

Finally the rain has come. Outside my window a Townsend warbler feasts on suet. It’s a rainy day and I”m enjoying the vivid colors of my late fall garden. Backlit leaves take on a whole new look.There are so many ways of combining plants in the garden. I’m taking notes so I remember my favorites to include in my own garden and future designs.

Many of my grasses and plants are deciduous and are in the process of going dormant. Even when I mix in broadleaf evergreen plants these groupings lose their impact this time of year. I have only been gardening at this house for a few years so the new plants are still small except the ceanothus that grow like a weed. I’ve had to replant many shrubs and perennials as I was a little cavalier with my gopher basket use at the beginning. But I persevere as I love color in the garden, especially foliage color.

It’s the combinations that look great year-round that hold a garden together. I’ve got two leucadendron that are real troupers when it comes to drought, mucho summer sun, zero winter sun, sandy soil and deer browsing.

The ’Safari Sunset’ shows off those vivid burgundy bracts nearly year round with the best show starting during the summer and extending right through to the next spring. Leaucadendron require good drainage and prefer acidic conditions. It’s easy to love this plant to death with too much water.

Mexican marigold

Yellow is always a cheery color in the garden at any time of year. The deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold are carried on branch ends sporadically all year, peaking in winter and spring. Finely divided leaves are strongly fragrant when crushed and smell like a blend of marigold, lemon and mint which is why deer avoid them. Prune them lightly to control shape and size. They grows 3-6 ft tall and as wide. Another shrub that blooms all winter and has yellow daisies is euryops. They are deer resistant and grow to about 3 ft.

Blue and yellow foliage or flowers combine well. You can pick from yellow or gold foliage plants such as phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, abelia “Kaleidoscope’, coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’ or sedum ‘GoldMoss’ and pair it with a dwarf blue spruce, blue fescue or blue oat grass, hens and chickens, a blue euphorbia such as ’Glacier Blue’ or ‘Blue Haze’ or the blue-gray succulent senecio mandraliscae.

If you have a little more space, try ‘Rose Glow’ leptospermum near a ceanothus ‘Concha’. The contrast between the deep red flowers of the tea tree with the bright blue flowers of the California lilac will certainly get your attention. These larger shrubs reach about 6 ft tall and as wide.

You might have one of the following butterfly favorites that you could divide and pot up for a friend. Yarrow, aster, veronica, agapanthus, astilbe, coreopsis and gaura to name a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be great to pot up for a gift. A gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show you care.

One of the lime foliage Heuchera 

With the holiday season upon us think of giving plants as gifts. Any of the above plants would be appreciated by fellow plants lovers or you could give an offset of one of your plants that birds, bees or butterflies would appreciate. Some easy-to-divide favorites that attract birds include foxglove, coral bells, red-hot poker, California fuchsia, mahonia and purple coneflower.

Twas the Week after Thanksgiving

If working in the garden Thanksgiving weekend is not high on your list then you’re in luck. Here are some reasons why along with other information you need to know.

In the category of news you can use. A reader shared with me that a plant I mentioned a couple weeks ago in my column about hedges- Italian buckthorn or rhamnus alaternus – has evolved and is now considered invasive by the California Invasive Plant Council. Seems that over the past 3 to 4 years Italian buckthorn ‘John Edwards’ has overcome the reproduction invasion barrier of being entirely dioecious (having male and female plants separate). The shrub has become a serious problem in riparian and other wildland areas. Birds love the berries which are apparently all female. Thank you to my faithful reader for sharing this information with me. Don’t plant this shrub.

Being that November has was so dry up until the day before Thanksgiving I looked up the current El Nino rain prediction for this winter season. Interesting enough I found lots of info on the surfline website in addition to NOAA. Sounds like we’re still on track for California’s midsection to have an equal chance of more precipitation than other years and warmer than usual from December to February. Can’t come soon enough for me.

For me the growing season is pretty much over except to enjoy what’s left of fall color and the ornamental grasses waving their seed heads in the wind. A lot of perennials are dying back but I’m not in a hurry to neaten things up. The seed heads left in the garden supply food for birds and other creatures while the foliage provides shelter for the plant in the cold and frost. Remove anything when it turns slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for the birds and winter interest.

Lesser Goldfinch

At this time of year my garden is visited mostly by chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, purple finches and warblers. They will spend the winter here and I’m doing them a big favor by not cutting back brown foliage containing nutrient-rich seed heads. Some of the reliable seed producers that I won’t have to clean up this weekend include artemisia, aster, coreopsis, penstemon, sedum, lupine, salvia, black-eye Susan, coneflower, phlomis, monarda, agapanthus and grasses.

Chickadees gather hundreds of seeds in fall and early winter and store them in hiding places to ensure themselves a food supply later in the season. They are a remarkable bird that we take for granted being so common. I read in Audubon magazine a couple years ago that a chickadee weighs about as much as a dozen paperclips but their body is large for their weight. This means they have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day’s fuel to keep from freezing.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long. So In addition to the plants in my garden that supply nectar I keep my feeders up year-round and keep them clean. They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. In addition to nectar rich natives like mahonia my abutilons are a winter favorite for them.

And I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few well placed branches to use in a holiday wreath, I’m off the hook for this task right now. Deciduous trees are still in the process of losing their leaves and are not fully dormant. Evergreens shrubs and conifers can be trimmed lightly but most shaping is done when they start growing in late winter or very early spring.

A Thanksgiving Poem by Jan Nelson, The Mountain Gardener

Once upon a time when our area was under water
there were no parks or trails or trees or gardens.
I’m thankful that our mountains rose from an ancient ocean
so we could enjoy this beautiful place we call home.

I’m thankful for the Bigleaf maples
that shower me with leaves as big as saucers
as I walk in Henry Cowell along the River trail
and for the giant redwoods that sprouted long ago
at the time of he Mayan civilization.

I’m thankful for the Five-fingered ferns that grow lush along Fall Creek
on the way to the old lime kilns
and for the canyons, hiking trails and small waterfalls
that feed the year-round creeks.

I’m thankful for the sweet music of the violist
who practices inside the Felton Covered Bridge
and for the sound of children laughing as they play in the park.

I’m thankful for the pond and western turtles who live at Quail Hollow
and for the unique sandhills, grasslands and redwoods, too,
and for the plants and other small creatures that live only there.

I’m thankful for the dog park and soccer field at Skypark
where little kids and dogs both big and small have a place of their own
and for the bocce ball court and picnic area, the skatepark and Fourth of July fireworks,
for the Art and Wine festival and Music in the Park on summer nights.

I’m thankful for Bonny Doon where you can see the Pacific
and panoramas of the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley
and for the wineries, lavender farm and fossilized marine animals and sharks teeth
that are exposed in the mountain made of sand.

I’m thankful for California’s oldest state park. Big Basin,with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets and mountain iris
and for the salamanders, banana slugs, marbled murrelets
and red-legged frogswho make it their home.

I’m thankful for the whisper of the wind blowing across the water at Loch Lomond
and for the gentle whir of fishing reels at the edge
of thick tanoaks, redwoods and madrone.

And finally, I’m thankful for friends and family and neighbors who share all this with me.
I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

Hedges & Living Fences

When I visited eastern Poland many years ago each house and garden was enclosed with a fence or hedge of some sort. Some fences were wood, some stone, some ornamental iron and some were living fences that divided properties. I thought the living hedges were the most beautiful and neighborly. Whether you need to screen a water tank or noisy road or the neighbor’s second story window there are lots of choices. Fall planting season is still going strong.

Many people only think of plants that remain evergreen when they need screening. However, if you use one-third deciduous plants to two-thirds evergreens they will weave together and you won’t be able to tell where one leaves off and another begins. This makes mature hedges secure borders, especially if you throw a few barberries or other prickly plant into the mix. You’ll also get seasonal interest with fall color and berries for wildlife.

Azara microphylla

Narrow spaces can be challenging when you need to screen the house next door. There’s not room for a big, evergreen tree or hedge to solve the problem. One way is to use plants that can be espaliered against a fence or trellis. Some plants like azara microphylla naturally grow 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.

Variegated Mint Bush

Variegated Mint Bush is another shrub to consider for a living hedge. Creating pleasing plant combinations is a big part of gardening and this one would look great alongside a Fringe Flower of either color. Allow each plant to interweave and grow together. The Mint Bush will grow 4-6 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide. The foliage smells very strongly like mint so deer avoid this shrub, too.

Small trees that make a good screen are purple hopseed, and leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’. Both have beautiful burgundy foliage. California natives that can be espaliered against a fence include Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Western redbud, mountain mahogany, toyon, pink flowering currant, Oregon grape and spicebush.

Pacific Wax Myrtle

If you have a wider space to grow screening plants, one of my favorites is Pacific wax myrtle. This California native grows quickly to 30 ft tall with glossy, rich forest green leaves. Its dense branches make a nice visual and noise screen for just about anything or anybody. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.

osmanthus heterophyllus

California coffeeberry grows 6-8 feet tall and gets by with very little summer water once established. Birds love the berries. I also like osmanthus fragrans for a screen with its sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ for their showy variegated foliage. Email me and I’ll give you even more suggestions.

Provide the best growing environment for the fastest results. By this I mean amending the soil at planting time if your soil is not very fertile. Cover the soil with mulch and fertilize with compost or organic fertilizer. Water deeply when needed especially during the first three years when young plants put on a lot of growth.

Ornamental Grasses in the Fall

Throughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but especially in the fall I hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden.” There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of ornamental grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too.

Giant Feather Grass focal point near spa

Grasses are versatile plants and come in all sizes- from ground-huggers to shrub-like clumps. Some form upright tufts, some look like mop-top mounds and others form arching fountains. They easily adapt to the same conditions most garden plants thrive in, rarely needing any special soil, preparation or maintenance. And more subtly, their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as no other plants do.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

Giant Feather Grass

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture. light and movement of a grass would be perfect, look to the taller varieties. Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass is a semi-evergreen grass which grows 4-6 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 7 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

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