Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The demise of Creepy Joe

For a month this 7 ft. scarecrow has been standing guard at our front door. It’s a fisherman, complete with a creel and bamboo fishing pole, and it even has Gore-Tex boots and a Ralph Lauren shirt (wonder what guy was duped into getting rid of those). While its face is quite cheery, it sheer size is enough to give you the chills, especially if have a vivid imagination and are a horror movie addict like I am.


Anyway, Halloween is over and the time has come to say goodbye to Creepy Joe.

It is just a scarecrow filled with straw after all!
Pants with nobody inside them
Ashes to ashes, and straw into compost tumbler

That’s the end of Joe the Fisherman. May he make good compost!

Good thing our younger daughter’s elementary school will have another scarecrow auction next year.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

First freeze of the season

Tonight the thermometer is forecast to drop to below freezing for the first time this season. If the weather people are right, this will be followed by two more nights of freezing temperatures before night-time lows climb back above 32°.

Most of our succulents are quite hardy so the 28° to 30° forecast for the next three nights shouldn’t be a big deal. However, last winter a few of them were damaged at 26° so I’m going to take precautions, especially since I don’t trust forecasts 100%.

Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’.
Lost 50% of its leaves last winter at 26° but came back with a vengeance this year and is now looking better than ever.

To protect this tropical soft-leaf agave, we draped a strand of holiday lights over it and then covered it and a few neighboring plants with a frost blanket.

Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’, protected with holiday lights and frost blanket

Our flapjack plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) was damaged badly last winter as well. The little plant in the top left in the first photo below completely melted in last winter’s three-day freeze, and it’s much smaller this year than it originally was. The larger plant is one I bought in the spring. It’s just now developing its signature flapjack leaves and I want to do everything I can to save it.


Flapjack plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)

To protect the flapjack plant, I simply put a plastic bin over it and added an old sheet. I hope that this is sufficient to protect it.

Flapjack plant with protection

Even a mild freeze lays waste to our large-leaf tropicals such as this giant elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza ‘Borneo Giant’). I’m not too worried about losing the leaves because the tubers are fully hardy in our climate and will resume their explosive growth when temperatures warm up in the late spring. It seems that consistent temperatures in the mid to high 70s are needed to trigger new growth.

Giant elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza ‘Borneo Giant’)

One tropical I’ve decided to protect at the last minute is our Golden Lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa). Its corm is supposed to be hardy down to 10°F but its leaves will not survive a hard freeze. Since our plant has put on so much growth this year—it’s easily 5 ft tall now and has at least 5 pups (babies growing from the crown of the plant)—I want to try to protect the leaves. It may be a fool-hardy endeavor but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

Golden Lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) as of this afternoon
Golden Lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) protected with a frost blanket

Another plant we need to protect is our potted Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia). It has a reputation for being very frost sensitive. We just got it this summer so we don’t have any first-hand experience with this citrus species.

Potted Key lime in its previous home

We moved this Key lime from its previous home on the flagstone walkway in front of the house to a more sheltered location under the eaves, strung Christmas lights over it, and covered it with a frost blanket.

Key lime with frost protection

I’ve added quite a few new bamboo species this year, but even the subtropical bambusas I’ve planted, such as Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’) and Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’) are hardy to the mid to low 20s. I’m not going to worry about protecting them, which would be an impossible task anyway considering how large they’ve gotten.

We have several tender perennials in our front yard, both inside and outside the fence. Experience has shown that some of them, especially the salvias native to southern Mexico, are very frost-sensitive whereas others, like autumn sage cultivars (Salvia greggii) don’t seem to be fazed. I don’t spend much time obsessing over these plants. If they live, fine. If not, we’ll replace them in the spring. After all, getting new plants is half the fun of gardening!

Many of you who live in colder climates will probably laugh at the extent we go to when a low of 28° is expected. For you, 28° might be a balmy day-time high in the winter. But we are attached to our wimpy plants and want them to live so we can enjoy them again next year.

Note: The frost blankets we use (N-Sulate brand) are made of a medium-weight permeable fabric. There’s quite a bit of debate as to whether frost blankets actually work. For our purposes they do seem to be effective. All we need them to do is provide an environment that is a couple of degrees warmer than the air to prevent damage to our plants.

Monday, November 22, 2010


"The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

--Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1820

What a charming custom that is, and yet in our house mistletoe doesn’t engender friendly feelings of that sort. Maybe it’s because we have too much of it, year round, to the point where it’s about to bring another of our trees to its knees.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on a wide range of trees, its roots invading the bark to extract water and nutrients from the tree. Usually the host doesn’t die because the mistletoe would die with it. However, some trees, like our Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford') get weakened to the point where limbs start to break off. Since this poses considerable danger to anything or anybody near the tree, the only solution is to remove it. This is what happened last year to a Bradford pear in our front yard.

The mistletoe infestation on the second Bradford pear in our front yard has gotten much worse this year, to the point where it, too, will most likely have to be cut down. Since this is a City tree, a defined procedure has to be followed. We’ve started the process but it can take a quite a while before a decision is made. Fortunately, all work will be done by the City at no expense to us.

The large green clump in the photo above is mistletoe
Another large clump of mistletoe
Here you can clearly see the point where the mistletoe is attached to the tree
A branch with berries. The berries are eaten by birds which in turn pass the seeds in their droppings. When seeds deposited on tree branches begin to sprout, their roots penetrate the tree bark.
Almost ripe berries
The leaves are fleshy, reminiscent of succulents

When our neighborhood was built in 1989/1990, Bradford pears were apparently the street trees de jour because every other house on our street seems to have, or have had, one. Many have been removed over the years because they became brittle and split in the middle; of the remaining ones, more than 90% are infested with mistletoe to some degree. I think it’s just a matter of time before they will all have to go. My hope is that cities have learned about diversification and not longer populate entire neighborhoods with just a couple of different tree species.

For more information about mistletoe, check out the University of California pest management web site.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fall at the UC Davis Arboretum

The Arboretum is a 100-acre public garden along the banks of Putah Creek on the south side of the University of California Davis campus. It contains more than 22,000 plants and trees adapted to our Mediterranean climate of cool, wet winter and hot, dry summers. At the southwestern end of the Arboretum you’ll find the Valley-Wise demonstration garden, which I briefly mentioned in my post about the succulent beds in our front yard.

With its bike and pedestrian paths along the creek bed, crossed here and there by quaint wooden bridges, and a small lake in the middle, the Arboretum is a treasured resource in our small college town, much used by students and the public alike.

It is also an inspiration for home owners who want to use more climate-appropriate plants in their landscaping. While the larger trees, like the valley oaks, are too massive for today’s smaller residential lots, many other shrubs, grasses and flowering plants are eminently suitable for just about any landscaping design, be it traditional, contemporary or anywhere in between. Since the majority of plants in Arboretum are clearly labeled, it’s easy to take a walk and pick out favorite plants that might look good in your own yard.

The Arboretum is home to the UC Davis Teaching Nursery and holds several plant sales in the spring and the fall that draw gardeners and enthusiasts from all over Northern California. I’ve bought quite a few unusual and rare plants there over the years, including several of my farfugiums and a couple of bamboo muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia dumosa) that I love. Prices are relatively high, but the plants are top quality and often cannot be found anywhere else.

The Arboretum has also published a list of All-Stars, 100 tough plants ideally suited for our climate. These plants were chosen by the horticultural staff of the Arboretum and extensively tested in the field. Many local nurseries are now carrying at least some of the All-Stars; they’re easy to identify by their special tag.

The Arboretum is open 24 hours a day. During the week, you’re charged $6 for parking, but on the weekends parking is free. My preferred lot for parking is Lot 5a at the corner of A Street and Old Davis Road (enter campus from A Street in downtown Davis). Alternatively, you can park for free at Davis Commons, aka the Borders Shopping Center, in downtown and connect to the Arboretum from the west side of the parking lot.

The Arboretum is a great place to visit any time of year, but I particularly love it in the fall when the trees and shrubs turn color. It’s about as good as it gets as far as fall foliage in the Sacramento Valley is concerned.

This morning, we went for a leisurely stroll through the Arboretum with the kids and the dog. The air was crisp and clear after yesterday’s downpour; the sky blue and filled with puffy white clouds. Really, a picture-postcard fall day.

Here are some photographic impressions of what you will find in the Arboretum at this time of year.

‘Autumn Gold’ ginkgo (Gingko biloba ‘Autumn Gold’) reflected
in Lake Spafford
‘Autumn Gold’ ginkgo
View of Lake Spafford in the heart of the Arboretum
Maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), a California native extensively used in public landscaping
Just one of many beautiful shade trees
Valley oak (Quercus lobata), the largest oak tree in North America (up to 100 ft. tall); its life span is up to 600 years
Valley oak bark
Bark of Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus s. aspleniifolius); sometimes the bark is even more interesting than the rest
of the tree
Another tree with outstanding bark: Guadalupe Island cypress (Cupressus guadalupensis)
Just in case we need a reminder
where we are:
California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera)
A beautiful found still life: toyon branch on top of pine needles; toyon is also known as “California holly”, and rumor has is that Hollywood was named after it
Seeing something in bloom this late in the year is always a welcome sight: chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum)
Every now and then you get a reminder that the Arboretum is part of a research institution: these stock tanks—identical to the ones we just set up in our back yard—are used for a wetlands simulation
101121_UCDA_watertower pricklypear
The water tower, one of the landmarks of UC Davis, is visible from I-80
101121_UCDA_valley_oak mondavi_center
The Mondavi Center, one of the leading performing arts venues in Northern California, seen through the filigree of a 400-year old valley oak

Friday, November 19, 2010

Planting winter vegetables

The first of a series of winter storms is going to hit us tomorrow, which in our case means rain and high winds. The rain is welcome, the winds are not.

In the morning Heather got our raised vegetable beds ready for winter planting. She ripped out all what was left of our summer vegetables and herbs—still quite a bit of basil, loads of jalapeños and a sad-looking squash or two—and topped off the beds with the soil we had brought in a few days ago for our bamboo stock tanks. Amazing how much soil seems to disappear from the veggie beds every year; I guess it just gets compacted. A 2-inch layer of composted chicken manure on top, and the beds were ready to go. Heather, with the help of our younger daughter Elena, was finally able to plant the winter vegetables we bought a while ago at Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville.

For the peas Heather resurrected a teepee she built years ago for bush beans. Sure beats trying to tie up the peas to the fence!

Copper-tubing teepee for peas

The other two vertical beds are now home to cauliflower and spinach.

101119_cauliflower 101119_spinach

Cauliflower and spinach in the two other vertical beds

In the horizontal bed next to the Alphonse Karr bamboo (and clothesline), Heather and Elena planted Bright Lights chard. I’m not the biggest fan of chard, but it’s OK if cleverly disguised in soups and stews. And if the humans don’t eat, it’ll make a nutritious ingredient for dog food.


Bright Lights chard

When I took the photos above I couldn’t help but notice how big our rhubarb is getting. It’s in a half barrel between two of the vertical vegetable beds. We have two kinds (forgot which because the tags are gone), and this kind is much larger than the other. We should finally have enough next year to make more than just a token amount of rhubarb compote. Can you tell that I love rhubarb?

A piece of useless trivia: While trying to figure out if rhubarb is considered a fruit or a vegetable, I came across this on Wikipedia: “Rhubarb is botanically classified as a vegetable; however, in the United States a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was used in the United States as a fruit it was to be counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties. A side effect was a reduction in taxes paid.[1]

I’m so happy that this has been settled once and for all!


Even after filling the stock tanks, topping off the vegetable beds and filling some stray pots we still have quite a bit of soil left.


Most of it will go on the tropical beds in the front yard. That is, after I move all the pots on the front porch out of the way so we can reach that area with our garden cart. That’s on my agenda for tomorrow, weather permitting.

As I’m typing this, the first wave of rain has arrived. It’s still just a gentle patter on the roof, but much more rain is in the forecast. We’re heading north to Mount Shasta for Thanksgiving next week, and the in-laws are already getting a dusting of snow. By next week it might be a foot or more. That would make for beautiful photos…

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stock tanks for bamboo

In our back yard we have four bay trees (Laurus nobilis) that were planted when the house was built in 1990. Now the trees are 30-40 ft. tall and shade a large part of our back yard—not to mention provide us with a never-ending supply of bay leaves. If anybody in our area needs bay leaves for cooking or crafts, drop by. You can have as many as you like!

Unfortunately, the root system of bay trees is shallow and extensive, so planting under them has been an exercise in futility and frustration. Digging is hard enough since the roots form a dense mat, but almost anything we planted over the years ended up dying since the trees suck up all the moisture and nutrients. The few plants that have survived the longest include a cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), which I believe is truly indestructible, a Japanese holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) and a clivia (Clivia miniata). Since this is a such a shady area, it would be ideal for ferns, astilbes, hostas and the like, but these plants like rich soil and moisture and would never be able to compete with the voracious roots of the bay trees.

In the last few years we’ve put pots of different shapes and sizes under the bay trees. We’ve had pots with just one plant each, and communal pots with several plants that complemented each other. Some of these arrangements worked well, others not so much. As we learned, container gardening requires a great deal more attention, and plants need to be fussed over or swapped out a lot more often than they would in the ground. As much as I like to putter around in the yard, I eventually got tired of the constant care these pots seemed to need.

So the inevitable happened: The artfully designed arrangements went bye-bye, to be replaced with bamboo such as Fargesia dracocephela ‘Rufa’, Phyllostachys bambusoides 'Castillon' and Hibanobambusa tranquillans 'Shiroshima'. I love the lush green effect these bamboos provide.

Back fence under bay trees before stock tanks

Now we’re about to take the use of containerized bamboos even further.

A few days ago we bought two 2x2x6 ft. stock tanks made of galvanized steel. These tanks are typically used as watering troughs for cattle and horses but they make great containers for bamboos as well. I understand that many people think they’re too industrial-looking (“ugly” would be another word) but personally I think they’re quite attractive.

Being made to withstand harsh outdoor conditions, these tanks should last for many years. We’ve used a small 2 ft. round tank as a planter for a long time, and it was well used even when it came into our possession.

Stock tanks to be used for bamboo

Since these tanks are quite large (they hold 180 gallons of water), they require quite a bit of soil: about 1.8 cubic yards. That’s the equivalent of 24 smaller (1 cu.ft.) or 12 larger (2 cu.ft.) bags of potting soil per container. Buying this much soil in individual bags is much too expensive so we opted for the bulk delivery of a high-quality soil mix as well as some gravel to put in the bottom of the tanks for drainage.

Soil and gravel in our driveway

The first step was to level the two areas under the bay trees where the tanks would go. My wife—bless her soul—did most of the prep work. We placed six concrete stepping stones on the ground to keep the tanks elevated by few inches.

Stepping stones to keep tanks off the ground

Next I punched a series of small drain holes along the front of each tank. I chose to do this in the front rather than in the back because I want to monitor the holes for stray rhizomes that might eventually want to escape. Then we added about 3 inches of pea gravel to create a drainage zone at the bottom of each tank.

Gravel layer

On top of the gravel we put weed cloth to keep the soil separate from the gravel, and hopefully most of the roots in the soil layer. My wife and I were going back and forth between using weed cloth and leaving it out, so most likely it wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t used it. (If you have any experience with using weed cloth in containers—positive or negative—please leave a comment at the bottom of this page.)

Weed cloth on top of gravel layer

The final step was straightforward enough: fill up each tank with soil. This required a number of trips with our trusty garden wagon, and a great deal of shoveling, but eventually both tanks were filled.

Left stock tank after filling it with soil

I added a layer of composted steer manure on the top to give the soil even more zing even though it already has all kinds of goodies in it: mushroom compost, chicken manure and who knows what else. This soil is dreamy: loose, crumbly and fertile-looking. If I were a plant, I’d want nothing more than to put down roots in this soil.

If you live in the Davis/Woodland/West Sacramento area and are wondering where the soil came from: We bought it at our favorite place for landscaping supplies, Dixon Landscape Materials. We cannot recommend them highly enough. They have a large selection at reasonable prices, and they are super nice to work with.

Right stock tank after filling it with soil

The final—and most important step—is to plant the bamboo. That will have to wait for another day. I don’t even have the plants yet! I will pick them up from Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol the week after Thanksgiving.

UPDATE 12/4/10: The stock tanks have now been planted. Click here to read about it.