Tag Archives: wildlife gardening

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.

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.

Celebrate Earth Day

Earth Day celebrates the natural beauty of our planet and reminds us of what we can do to keep it healthy.  Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues and is now a global celebration. In anticipation of this day I recently spent the morning in nature at the UCSC Arboretum where the birds and the bees were enjoying the nectar flowers. Whether you plant a tree, clean up litter, garden, hike in the woods or marvel at emerging wildflower, be in contact with the soil and breathe fresh air outside on this day.

Fremontodendron aka Flannel Bush

My day at the Arboretum started in the California native plant garden. Plants thrive when they’re natural to your area and the flannel bush, one of the most spectacular of our native shrubs, is a good example. Huge abundant deep yellow blooms cover the plant for a long time starting in the spring.

Iris douglasiana aka Pacific Coast Iris

Impressive swaths of rich blue Pacific Coast iris bordered the path. Nearby a bush poppy, covered with 2 inch yellow flowers put on it’s spring display. It will bloom sporadically for most of the year.

The South African and Australian gardens at the Arboretum is where all the action takes place for hummingbird watchers. The courtship display of the dozens of Anna’s hummingbirds, taking place inches over your head, sure puts one in contact with nature. You can bring nature into your garden with plants that attract these jewels of the avian world as well as butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Planting wildflowers on Earth Day is a good place to start.

Wildflowers like poppies, tidy tips, yarrow and baby blue eyes provide nectar and pollen for the pollinators, including honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees. Attract other beneficial insects such as ladybugs, parasitoid wasps and army worms to be the unpaid pest control agents in your garden. Beside wildflowers, plants such as aster, goldenrod and California fuchsia attract beneficial insects and are grown to attract, feed and shelter the insect parasites and predators to enhance your biological pest control. Everything is connected on the planet.

Protea or Pinchushion plant

The pincushion protea from South Africa is one the the brilliantly colored shrubs in this garden in the Arboretum. The flowers are striking, not only for their appearance, but also for their unusual structure and pollination sequence. They make a good long lasting cut flower.

Pink Rice Flower or pimelea ferrugine

In the New Zealand garden a beautiful small shrub with small dark green glossy leaves and masses of showy, fragrant magenta pink tubular flowers was attracting butterflies. The Pink Rice Flower was in full bloom and would sure look great in my garden in my well drained soil.

Remember that plants drink their food. If your soil dries out completely, your plants will starve. Take steps on Earth Day and the rest of the year to water wisely and retain the valuable moisture. Steps include improving your soil with organic matter, planning a smaller garden, choosing bush varieties of vegetables, placing plants closer together to shade the soil which helps conserve moisture and reduces weed growth. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Keep those moisture grabbing weeds at bay. Use a drip irrigation system to conserve water.

Celebrate Earth Day this April 22nd and throughout the whole year.

What Makes for a Sustainable Garden?

The redbud are just starting to show color in my yard. Flowering plum, tulip magnolia, manzanita, forsythia, flowering currant and quince are blooming in many a garden. Even the deciduous trees and plants that look bare now are starting to grow new roots deep underground. It’s time to plan this year’s garden. Think about how you can blend artistry with ecology.

Garden to attract birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects

A landscape developed with sustainable practices will improve the environment by conserving resources. It will require less maintenance and fertilizing, be balanced with our climate in mind and use less pesticides and water. Most of all it will be visually pleasing with lots of flowers. bees and butterflies.

Your goal may be a more drought tolerant garden but which plants are right for your yard? What plants will be more likely to withstand disease and pest damage? What kind of irrigation system should be installed to provide for the needs of the landscape in the most efficient way possible? Is it time to convert your sprinkler system to smart drip, inline drip emitters and micro-irrigation?

Where do you put the compost bin so you can return garden waste and kitchen waste back to the garden while recycling nutrients within the landscape? How do you keep the soil healthy? There are many components in designing and installing a sustainable landscape that is just right for your garden.

Start with a smart design. Utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers to help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water. Maybe you need a rain garden or small planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite.

Planting bed of plants with similar watering needs.

Group plants in your garden according to their water needs. Now’s the time to transplant if necessary to achieve this. Some maybe can survive on rainfall alone after their second or third season while the perennial beds and vegetable garden will require a different schedule. Water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff. Water in early morning or evening to maximize absorption.

Plant deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter. Trees and shrubs clean the air of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide. They breathe in carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, use the carbon to grow, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.

Feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife in your landscape. Plant perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia, ceanothus and other native plants to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds. Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects and use organic pesticides.

Make your soil a priority by adding compost each year. Mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water and use organic fertilizers, manure and fish emulsion that feed the soil. Compost the green and brown waste your garden produces like fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables.
Stay ahead of weeds, pulling them before they set seed and spread.

Take steps each year to encourage a beautiful, sustainable landscape and make your corner of the world part of the solution.

Choosing & Growing Flowering Dogwoods

A couple weeks ago in a column about allergy free landscaping, I mentioned dogwood being a good tree choice as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers are pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Producing less pollen, their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes. With dogwoods about to burst into bloom I thought I’d share some information about growing this iconic tree.

California native cornus nuttallii

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. Their large snow white flowers are especially brilliant along the shady forested roads along Yosemite valley. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding, flower and grow fine with little care.

Eastern flowering dogwood

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that blooms early in the spring. It’s beautiful but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease. 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 roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-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.

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. They are edible but bland and tasteless to us. Birds love them.

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.

Holiday Gifts from the Garden

I’m getting excited about the holidays. Time to dust off the Christmas list. I admit I look forward to what might be under the tree for me but half the fun of the holidays is coming up with an inexpensive gift that is just right for each person. With so many gardeners on my list, there are a lot choices.

I know some of the best gifts are the ones from nature or something that I made myself. With that in mind I have a few ideas up my sleeve.

Coreopsis ‘Mango Punch’

Plants provide needed food year round for wildlife in the garden and especially during the winter. Why not give a friend a plant or 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.

Or 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 are just a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be easy to pot up for a gift.

Another simple, inexpensive gift for the gardeners on your list is the tillandsia. Sometimes called air plants, these relatives of Spanish moss and pineapple have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just an occasional spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs.

Tillandsia mounted on drift wood

Tillandsia prefer the light from a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain. Wire one on a branch or piece of driftwood or place in a shell and they will live happily for years growing pups at the base that replace the mother plant.

echeveria ‘Lace’

Succulents are also easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants when it comes to watering and light conditions. Seems I’m always coming across someone who has a story about how long they have had a particular specimen and where it came from. “You see that hens and chicks over there?”, they say. “Well my aunt gave me a little slip way back when… and it blooms every year.” If you have succulents in your own garden, break off a couple, allow the bottom to callus and pot in a small recycled cup or container to give as a gift.

It’s not too late to start a couple of hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator to give as gifts. Part of the fun is watching the bulbs put out roots well before the fragrant blooms. Choose a hyacinth jar or other narrow necked jar that will support the bulb just above the water and keep in the frig until roots start to fill the jar. Take the bulb out of the dark and give it a bit more light each day for a week until acclimated to bright light. The house will fill with the sweet scent of spring even though it may only be January.

The holidays are a time to bring a smile to someone you care about. Your gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show your love.