Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bamboos in the snow

This summer we planted several bamboos at my in-laws’ place in Mount Shasta in the mountains of Northern California (zone 7b): golden vivax (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’), stone bamboo (Phyllostachys angusta), yellow groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata), Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’, Fargesia denudata and Chusquea gigantea. We also put a container-grown black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) in the ground.

We’re back in Mount Shasta for Thanksgiving and I just took some pictures of the bamboos. Quite a difference, to say the least. Some of them I couldn’t even find!

11/27/10 update: It snowed all night and most of the morning. Everything looks magical when covered with new snow, especially bamboos, so I’m adding new photos from this morning.

Stone bamboo (Phyllostachys angusta) in July 2010 right after we planted it…
…and now in the snow
Golden vivax (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’) in July 2010…
…and now in the snow
Chusquea gigantea, barely visible in the foreground
Yellow groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) in the snow. Since this was was quite small, just 4 ft. tall, it didn’t get bent over by the snow like the others.
Peek-a-boo! A Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’ is hidden under the mound in the foreground.
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) in early October…
…and now, flattened by the snow and almost invisible

All of this is business as usual for those of you who live in areas that regularly get snow, but for us fair-weather people, it’s startling to see how plants 4,6 or even 8 ft. tall can virtually disappear under the weight of the snow.

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