We never stop learning. No matter how much we think we know about a subject, there is always more to learn.
Take mulching, for example. Mulching is simply covering the soil around plants with a protective material, organic or inorganic. This helps maintain moisture in the garden, decreases soil compaction, modifies soil temperatures and adds nutrients and humus to the soil as they decompose.
It’s that time of year to mulch existing perennials, shrubs and trees. While a little chicken manure is good worked into the veggie garden, composted horse manure works better as a mulch for the rest of the garden. Chicken manure is high in phosphates and too much can inhibit beneficial microbes in the soil. It also feed the weeds. They love it. A better method would be to cover a layer of compost or composted horse or steer manure with a thick 4" layer of wood chips.
Wood chips offer additional benefits: They’re local, free from arborists, and affordable from the transfer station in Ben Lomond . Any disease in the chips doesn’t transfer to healthy plant roots, as long as you don’t dig the chips into the soil. You can also buy clean chips from landscape supply yards or in convenient bags from nurseries.
To make the most of , learn what kind of soil you’re working with. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst ( www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/ ) offers a basic standard test for $9. It includes pH, buffer pH, extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), extractable heavy metals (Pb, Cd, Ni, Cr), and extractable aluminum, cation exchange capacity, percent base saturation.
Our local soil testing laboratory in Watsonville, Perry Laboratory, offers a comprehensive test. Their web site is www.perrylaboratory.com. The landscape package they offer includes basic fertility, micronutrients, salinity, alkalinity, texture, organic matter content and lime content. The main difference between the two labs is that Perry’s will give you specific recommendations based on your results to improve your soil.
Make sure you get fresh mulch spread over your garden plants soon. You’ll be amazed at the difference in your garden this season. A mulched garden is a happy garden.
Just like the swallows that return each year to Capistrano I can set my own calendar by the Black-headed grosbeaks arrival in my garden. Although they eat a lot and dominate the feeders for several months I enjoy their antics. With vibrant orange, black and white coloring I could watch them all day. They are the clowns of the bird world and signal that spring is truly here and I better get to finishing up my garden chores. Everything is growing gangbusters these days with all the abundant rainfall.
Fertilize -Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden. I use an organic balanced granular fertilizer on everything. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the winter season and they may be lacking in iron. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost 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. Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants or wash it off with the hose. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom and you see new leaves emerging.
Transplant – If you need to move or divide any plants that have outgrown their space or are not growing with other plants of the same water usage now is a good time. 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 your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it allowing it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant.
Spread fresh compost or wood chip mulch around all your plants to help plants get off to a strong start. 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 wood chips on top of the soil letting it slowly decompose and filter down into the soil. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips but they at least conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.
Check for aphids – They may be 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.
Weed while the soil is moist and before weeds 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 cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed. I’ll be out there again this spring pulling them.
The most important to-do for early spring 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.
What happens to a plant when the thermometer tops 100 degrees like it did a couple weeks ago? Planning for more hot weather this summer is a requirement for a successful garden. Are there some plants that can survive tough times more easily?
Photosynthesis is one of the most remarkable biochemical processes on earth and allows plants to use sunlight to make food from water and carbon dioxide. But at temperatures about 104 degrees the enzymes that carry out photosynthesis lose their shape and functionality. A garden that provides optimum light and water but gets too hot will be less vigorous. Tomatoes, for example, will drop blossoms and not set fruit if temperatures are over 90 degrees. Plants that endure hight heat can be stunted, weakened and attract pests and diseases even if water is available.
Plants do have natural systems that respond to heat problems. Some plants are better at this than others. Plants can cool themselves by pumping water out through the leaves for a kind of swamp cooler effect. They can also make “heat-shock” proteins which reduces problems from over heating. All these strategies do take resources away from a plants other needs like growth, flowering and fruiting.
It’s no surprise that many California natives are adapted to high temperatures. In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation and handled the heat wave just fine. One is Bees Bliss Sage, a low groundcover that can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.
Another plant that can handle high temps is salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last through the summer. This salvia survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering and wash off the foliage every so often its much happier.
Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.
As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistible.
Other California native plants that can handle the heat with little water include eriogonum, manzanita, artemisia, California milkweed, ceanothus, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, bush lupine, native penstemon, monardella, mahonia nevinii , fremontodendron and holly-leafed cherry.
Other well adapted plants that are known to be more tolerant of heat include butterfly bush, germander, rosemary, smoke tree, rudbeckia, coreopsis, lantana, plumbago, gaillardia, lilac, sedums, oregano and verbena.
These plants can be the rock stars of your garden. Some natives can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and wood chip mulch to encourage the soil microbes and keep the soil cool.
There’s a saying that you should learn something new everyday and while visiting Robby Franks’ Scotts Valley garden recently I added valuable lessons to my irrigation know-how and successful succulent and other low water-use plant cultivation.
You might remember a prior column of two about this “serial mole killer” as Robby laughingly described himself several years ago. He told me he’s licked his huge mole problem by exclusion and trapping plus he’s been the benefactor of a large gopher snake and a couple king snakes from the neighbors so he’s pretty confident now that his garden and all the work that goes into dividing and transplanting and mulching will not go in vain.
The soil in Robby’s garden is quite sandy and thin. He’s done wonders adding his own compost over the years. We all know mulching is one of the best ways to conserve water in the landscape. Robby has long been an advocate of composting and regularly renews the mulch in his garden. He even calls himself “Mr Mulch”. He has permeable paths and a dry river bed that allow rainwater runoff to soak into the soil slowly. He keeps his plants pruned in a naturalistic manner because “smaller plants use less water'”. But all this wasn’t enough. His 3 “dumb timers”, as he calls them, were using too much water. That’s when he started researching weather based smart irrigation timers.
“To me it seemed like an easy way to conserve water and it’s better for the plants as well”, Robby said. “It will increase the irrigation times if the weather is hotter and dryer than usual, decrease it if colder and turn itself off if it rains”. After research Robby eventually chose the Rainbird ”Simple to Set” Smart Indoor/Outdoor Irrigation timer.
At a raised feeding platform a covey of quail were enjoying an afternoon snack. Below a group of Mexican marigold, fortnight lily, society garlic and euphorbia were thriving and Robby explained they are all watered with one irrigation hub called an Apollo 8 Port Bubbler. It is simple to install and screws onto an existing sprinkler riser or other 5/8” tubing. Each port can be adjusted to deliver just the right amount of water to each area. Attached a micro spray to the end of the 1/4” tubing and plants grow larger and deeper root systems.
Robby’s garden is a diverse collection of plants from all over the world. He told me he’s been impressed how the cordyline are growing and considers them better performers than the popular New Zealand phormium in both heat and cold conditions. But succulents are his passion. He’s got five varieties of sedum, three types of aloe including his favorite ‘Red Tip’, two varieties of sempervivum although he laments they are slower growing then he’d like, echeveria and his new favorite plant, Dyckia ‘Red Devil’. Although technically not a succulent but in the genus bromeliad it does have similar characteristics. “They remind me of an underwater scene”, he said. Their dark, spiky foliage did look a bit like giant sea anemone.
Robby does a lot a research and loves to share the knowledge he’s gained about plant cultivation and irrigation. Many a garden in Scotts Valley have benefited from his passion. Robby Frank is on a crusade to save water and Smart Irrigation and mulching is one way to do it.
With summer winding down I’m looking at my garden and thinking about change. What can I do this fall so that next year I can save more water and make the garden more beautiful?
With our shifting climate and availability of resources we learn new ways to keep our gardens thriving. Mulching is one way to do it. Cover all bare soil with mulch – mulch your garden, mulch your hillside, mulch your trees, mulch around your perennials and shrubs.
A nice layer around plants conserves moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages microorganisms to flourish in the soil. An added benefit is that it prevents erosion which might be especially important this winter. Protect your soil from runoff with 3 inches or more of mulch.
I had Davey Tree drop off a load of wood chips recently and the quality was excellent. The chips are small with a few green leaves and will look great as soon as they are spread. There are other sources of mulch and they’re all good. Replenishing mulch is an ongoing task – one that keeps on giving.
While up in the Pacific Northwest recently I saw many of the same problems and effects of the drought that we are encountering. You can see see native trees suffering there as well as ornamental trees in residential landscapes. No one up there is used to watering a tree in the summer.
The moral of the story: Don’t let this happen to your trees. Use a soaker hose, deep root irrigator or a hose turned on slowly to occasionally moisten the soil 18” deep under the drip line and a bit beyond. Even our native oaks can use a drink after 4 years of drought. Just be sure to keep the trunk area dry. The feeder roots are way out at the edge of the canopy.
You might also be noticing deciduous trees already starting to show fall color. This is a survival mechanism. It’s to their benefit to drop foliage prematurely when moisture is scarce. From their point of view reproduction is over for the year and they can rest up and regroup for next year.
Our native redwoods are showing signs of the drought also as the heat of summer takes its toll. You can see older, interior needles and small branches die off and start to drop This happens every year about this time but this year I’m seeing more brown branches than ever. The world’s tallest tree can live for 2200 years. The age of these trees at maturity is 400-500 years so most have survived other droughts as well.
Coast redwoods prefer to have a full canopy right to the ground and its own, thick mulch layer surrounding the trunk. Redwoods on hot, south facing slopes seem to be suffering more than other redwoods this year. I’ve also seen small patches of redwood trees that appear to have totally died off. Redwoods are usually resistant to disease but drought stressed trees can suffer from several pathogens and fungal diseases are exacerbated by stress. Some pathogens have been particularly active in the last several drought years. It is not uncommon, however, to find in the same vicinity healthy trees that do not show any signs of disease.
*** If you are looking for the perfect drought tolerant flower for your late summer garden you can see them blooming everywhere these days. I’m talking about those huge pink flowers on tall stems that emerge from the ground almost mysteriously at this time of year. Their bare 2-3 foot stalks rise from bare earth, each topped by a cluster of fragrant, trumpet-shaped rosy pink flowers.
Amaryllis belladonna lend drama and color to the late season garden. Even their common name – Naked Lady – sounds exotic. They are so plentiful many people think they are native to the area. But being a long lived bulb it’s more likely they were brought here by early settlers.
Native to South Africa amaryllis belladonna perform best is areas with warm dry summers like ours. Growing in most soils with reasonable drainage they get all the moisture they need from winter rains. Heat and dryness during late spring and summer are necessary for blooming.
Because moving a belladonna lily can easily stop its blooming for several years, it is best to divide clumps only when necessary or to move them during or just after blooming, keeping as much soil intact around the bulb as possible.
The strongly scented flower clusters make an excellent cut flower and last for about a week. A word of caution – the plants are poisonous if eaten. You can find the huge bulbs at local nurseries or ask a neighbor who wants to divide theirs for some.
I am fortunate as a garden columnist and landscape designer to be invited to see, stroll and learn about beautiful gardens. Sometimes it’s a particularly successful method of irrigation, plant selection, placement or care that someone wants to share. Other times it’s the story of how their garden evolved. All gardens are interesting in their own way.
Recently I received an email from a reader in Scotts Valley who wanted to share what Montevalle Park has been doing to save water. Well I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about water.conservation. Here is how this unique mobile home park has changed their landscaping to save water.
Vickie Birdsall, my host and President of the HOA, welcomed me to her little corner of the world. Officially Montevalle is a mobile home park but is unique in that each lot under the oaks, pines and redwoods is a different size. Vickie told me that back in the early 70’s when Ray Retzlaff developed the park it was the first in California where people could purchase the lot they lived on and collectively own all the amenities. The lots were divided with the trees in mind so that a pre-made home could be installed without disturbing the trees.
As you drive through the park on winding roads each homeowner has made their property unique. Many have views of the woods, some with mountain vistas. All have established landscaping and enjoy the common areas including 2 lakes connected by a waterfall.
Vickie is now the President of the Association but for many years was in charge of the landscaping. She knows about the sandy soil of the park and the well water with its high mineral content that is used for the irrigation. On the positive side the deer seemed to be browsing other neighborhoods these days leaving the park to the occasional fox and the raccoon.
There are 56 pocket gardens in common areas throughout the park. Vickie’s goal is to convert as many as possible from lawn to drought tolerant plantings.
The putting green area-which is across from Vickie’s house- used to be all lawn. She started taking out the lawn little by little a couple years ago and last fall finished the new landscaping. Incorporating re-purposed stepping stones and feather rock from other places in the park. a new path bisects a lovely garden which will use little water once established. Starting from gallon cans the new plantings are growing in nicely. Vickie told me she uses plants with different textures, foliage colors and heights and repeats the groupings which makes all the elements work together.
She was proud to show me how well the Carmel Creeper ceanothus is filling in. Other nearby plants include Little John callistemon, Rose Glow barberry, Golden Sunset coleonema, euphorbia, Emerald Carpet manzanita and Moonshine achillea to name just a few. The real eye catchers are 2 very drought tolerant sea holly. The metallic, iridescent blue flowers and stems of these eryngiums glowed in the afternoon sun.
The park has 2 lakes and as we walked along the shore of the lower lake, Vickie pointed where they installed a bio filter area to clean the nitrates from the water flowing down from the north lake. Yellow flag iris, gunnera and tulle grasses help keep the algae down. Several turtles and koi were enjoying the water lilies that have just started to bloom.
Vickie has taken out the pockets of lawn along the step ponds connecting the two lakes. Under locust and birch trees, the small waterfalls are bordered by myoporum ground cover, shasta daisies, asparagus ferns, ornamental grasses and agapanthus. The new plantings are thriving under lots of mulch and are much easier to maintain.
Along the road to the lodge, Vickie pointed out more drought tolerant plantings which have replaced lawn such as Jerusalem sage, Pride of Madeira, manzanita, ornamental grasses and Purple-leafed hop bush. At the lodge she has installed small areas of artificial turf for barbecues and the front garden is a work in progress converting the lawn to dymondia and other plantings. The gophers are not helping with the progress, she admitted.
Vickie says she started converting the lawns in the park way before the drought. She has done 10 so far and has plans for many more.
Montevalle park is a good example of how an area can still be beautiful and serene without all the lawns. With lots of soil amendment and mulch the new plants bring lots of color plus birds and butterflies using a fraction of the water that was used previously. I was invited back to see the pink lotus blooming in the north lake in July and August. I’ve put it on my calendar.