Winter containers for Birds

Outside my window there’s a feast going on. The gingko trees are clothed in bright yellow leaves right now but soon they will drop every leaf on almost the same day and cover the ground like carpeting.  It’s a feast for the eyes.   Hopping among the branches even as I write this is a tiny greyish-olive bird with a white eye ring looking for insects.  It’s either a kinglet or a vireo.  I wish I were a better backyard birder.  The Anna’s hummingbird is also here looking for food.  What plants provide food for winter birds and also give the garden color at the same time?

Why not plant some containers that look great and will supply food for your winged visitors?   Grevillea Canberra Gem is blooming now and is a hummingbird favorite.   Combine it with winter blooming annuals like primroses or pansies and violas.    It’s always amusing to me how much the mail order catalongs from the East Coast can command for a tiny primrose division and we here in California can find them plentiful and inexpensive. 

Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers  would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful.  Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.

Penstemon are a favorite garden perennial and bloom late in the year attracting hummingbirds.  Some are short-lived but the variety, Garnet, is an exception.  Combine it with white cyclamen for a traditional holiday look.

For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  

Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Combine them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.

Mexican Bush sage pairs beautifully with the deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold.  Both of these perennial shrubs grow to 3 ft tall and as wide and bloom in winter.  Hummingbirds love bush sage and I’ve seen them bloom right through January unless we have a hard frost.

If you have room for a small evergreen tree in the garden, consider the . It is easy to grow and has year round interest. In the fall and winter, clusters of small white or pink urn-shaped flowers attract Anna’s hummingbirds. Fruit resembling strawberries ripen in the fall and attract other birds.

Plant a feast for your eyes and for our feathered friends, too.

Christmas cactus

Every year I’m amazed how many flowers appear almost overnight on my They bloom their heads off despite little care on my part. The show will continue for a month or more. They are the perfect plant in my opinion.

What’s my secret? Well, I don’t do any heroic moves some garden books recommend like giving them 12-14 hours of total darkness each night from September through November. Nor do I lower the temperature of my house to a brisk 55 degrees or lower each evening.  I do fertilize them every couple of weeks during the summer with a liquid fertilizer high in phosphorus ( the middle number ).  I use one of those fertilizers with a dropper. It’s easy and I don’t have to drag out a spoon to measure.  I’m all for convenience.

I grow mine under a small florescent plant light but a bright window would also be good.  Let the soil dry a bit between waterings from spring though September. They thrive on neglect.

Christmas cactus and their relatives, Thanksgiving and Easter cactus, live in trees in their native Brazil.  They are true cactus but the spine are so tiny and soft you never notice them. They prefer rich, porous soil like what may accumulate in the crevices of tree branches. Repotting is only necessary if plants become top heavy. Use a course, fast draining mix, such as one that’s suitable for orchids. I haven’t transplanted any of mine for many years. Nearly every outer leaf makes a flowers, so the bigger the plant, the heavier the bloom. Next spring I’m going to transplant mine to the next size pot, I promise.

Now that the plants have set flower buds, though, I don’t let them get too dry. This could cause them to drop their buds. Use room temperature water for all your houseplants.  Don’t put Christmas cactus near ripening fruit, the ethylene gas could cause bud drop.

Christmas cactus are incredibly forgiving. They can live for 25 years or more. Pick one up this season an you’ll see why gardeners often treat them like a favorite pet.


A Thanksgiving Poem

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 the Mayan civilization was emerging. 

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.

I’m thankful for the views from Pasatiempo 
that’s perched atop a knoll overlooking Monterey Bay
and for the golf course and historic Hollins House that we all enjoy.

And finally,.
I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.


With the holidays upon us, there’s probably no other tree that typifies the season more than the Bright orange fruits peak out between the leafy branches now but soon they’ll hang alone like Christmas ornaments.

Persimmons are one of the best fruit trees for ornamental use. Their handsome branches spread wide to 30 feet and they can grow almost as tall making them a beautiful shade tree in the garden. Striking, dark green leaves turn stunning shades of yellow, orange or red in fall even in the mildest of climates. After the leaves drop and especially after we’ve had frost the fruit colors brilliant orange-scarlet and brightens the tree for several months, unless harvested.

Persimmons are easy to grow, too. They are one of the few fruit trees that are deer resistant ( the foliage anyway ).
They accept almost any soil, acidic or alkaline, as long as it is well drained. Reaching bearing age at 5 you can expect your tree to live 50 to 75 years. That’s a lot of persimmons for eating fresh,or for baking into cookies, bread and pudding. Or you can try your hand at persimmon wine or beer as the early settlers did or dry the fruit. They are loaded with vitamin A and C.

Fruit drop is one of the only problems you may encounter when your tree is young. Persimmons have a natural tendency to drop their fruit prematurely. Large quantities may drop if the tree is under stress from over or under watering or given too much nitrogen fertilizer.

How much water and food does a persimmon need? Apply enough water to wet the soil 3-4 feet deep when the soil 6" below the surface is just barely moist. Fertilize once in late winter with organic fruit tree food. Persimmons do not respond or need fertilizers other than nitrogen. They are not troubled by excesses or deficiencies of other elements. Persimmons are remarkable free from disease and pests.

The most common types of persimmons grown are the Japanese varieties, Hachiya and Fuyu. Hachiya is the most popular commonly available in markets. Fruit is astringent until soft when it becomes very sweet and pudding-like. They make be picked when firm-ripe to protect them from the birds and allowed to ripen off the tree. They keep a month or more in the refrigerator.

The smaller Fuyu persimmon is a non-astringent variety. These are picked hard and have a mildly sweet flavor. When they soften off the tree they become sweeter and can be kept for several months in the refrigerator. You can also freeze whole persimmons or pulp.

Be sure to harvest either type using a pruning shears.  Cut 1/2 to 1 inch above the fruit so the greenish crown remains intact. Don’t try to remove fruit without also taking the calyx cap and a short bit of fruit stem or they can rot. Whether you plant your own tree or buy the fruit at the market, take advantage of persimmon season and the beauty they bring.

Persimmon are among the best fruit trees to grow for the gardener who has little time to spare.

November Gardening tips

We all want to in the garden. Who wants a high maintenance landscape that takes up all our resources? If you grow edibles you already know they take a bit of care so it’s even more important to have the rest of the yard more sustainable.

As much as we would like, there’s no such thing as a no maintenance garden. Perennials and grasses, for instance, need a haircut in the spring  before they reward us with beautiful flowers and foliage that shimmers in the breeze. Your garden can be truly low maintenance, however, if you follow a few guidelines.

Shrubs, planted in exactly the right place needs little pruning or maintenance. There they can be allowed to happily grow to their full potential and beauty.  A garden needs foliage color, texture and form for interest year round.  An evergreen shrub that meets all of these requirements and then some is Coprosma. Valued for ease of maintenance in difficult situations and able to get by on little water when necessary, the foliage is a show stopper.

During the growing season the variegated foliage of Evening Glow is pink and gold and in the winter it turns orange-red.  The variety, Rainbow Surprise, is pink and cream for most of the year but the leaves are washed with red In the fall and winter. These tidy shrubs stay low and compact and look beautiful as foundation plants, in borders, short hedges and containers. Not bothered by pest or diseases you can plant it and forget it.

If you already have a tree, shrub or perennial that is suffering from insufficient space or the wrong light conditions, now’s the time to move it. Water the plant first and allow the moisture to be taken up into the plant. Then prepare the new hole. Be sure to fill the hole with water if it’s dry. Dig up as much of the root ball as is practical to move, keeping it intact. Lift or lever the plant onto a tarp and pull or carry it to its new location. Replant at the same depth and keep watered but not soggy. Next year you won’t be troubled by extra pruning or diseases as you’ll have the right plant in the right spot.

An easy task to do while you’re out enjoying the garden is to comb out the off-color blades of evergreen grasses such as blue oat or blue fescue. Striking in the winter garden, these grasses will look fresh if you don some of those rubber coated gloves and run your fingers through the grass. The brown blades will come right out while leaving the healthy steel blue leaves intact. Try it. It’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Fall Blooming Plants

Just because the sun goes down early now, don’t put your garden to sleep yet. Make sure you have as well as fiery foliage to perk up the view outside your windows.

Some of my favorite shrubs for the fall garden have orange flowers. If you have a spot at the back of the garden for a showy 4-6 ft shrub that requires little or no water, add a Lion’s Tail and enjoy whorls of tubular, 2" deep orange flowers that bloom from summer right through fall.

For a shorter orange-flowering shrub, consider a dwarf pomegranate. This ornamental reached 3 ft high and 6 ft wide. Blooming when only a foot tall or less, their showy orange-red single flowers are followed by small, dry red fruit that is also decorative. You can use this little shrub in borders, edging or even containers. When established in the ground they require only moderate watering.

The vibrant orange flowers of these shrubs absolutely glow when planted near purple flowers. Blooming now are Purple Pastel salvia greggii. Also called Autumn Sage, this evergreen shrub typically grows 3-4 ft high and as wide. Remember to shorten and shape plants before new growth begins in spring o keep tidy. Hummingbirds love salvias as do bees so planting them near the vegetable garden can help increase your harvest.

A groundcover for sun or partial shade that is striking in early to late autumn is dwarf plumbago. At this time of year the intense, dark blue flower clusters contrast with its red fall foliage. This 6-12" high groundcover tolerates inconsistent watering and is good for growing under oak trees.

Another drought tolerant groundcover blooming now is Huntington Carpet rosemary. Unlike some of the older varieties of creeping rosemary, this one spreads quickly yet maintains a dense center. Growing to 18" high it’s covered with pale blue flowers through the winter and into next spring. Good drainage is essential for rosemary. Lighten dense soil with plenty of organic matter. Heavy feeding and too much water result in leggy growth.  Rosemary responds to frequent pinching.  Prune older plants frequently but lightly. Don’t cut into bare wood.

This last fall blooming show stopping combination is not orange but red, purple and white. You may have Mexican bush sage, Hot Lips salvia greggii and Santa Barbara daisy in your garden already. They are popular, easy-to-grow, low water use plants. Combine them and step back.  You’ll love the way the white of the daisy brings out the intense red and purple hues of the other two.  This vignette really pops.

If you garden cries out for more fall flowers consider adding some of these plants to your garden.

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