Sunday, December 5, 2010


We woke up to fog this morning. Fog is one of my favorite things about winter in the Sacramento Valley. We don’t get the heavy tule fog the San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento is known, for but we still get our share, especially in the southeastern part of Davis because we are closer to the Yolo Bypass than the rest of town.

Our fog usually burns off by mid-morning so I quickly grabbed the camera and headed out for a walk along the Putah Creek greenbelt that forms the southern edge of town. I only encountered a few bicyclists but had the path to myself otherwise. What a peaceful way to start a Sunday!

Putah Creek greenbelt in South Davis
Valley oak in the fog
Tree in the fog along the old north fork of Putah Creek
Found composition of leaves
Fallen leaf with beads of water
Winter sun
Last leaf hanging

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stocking the stock tanks in our back yard

I always look forward to Saturdays because I get to sleep in and work in the garden as much as I want to. On the agenda today: Planting the bamboos I picked up from Bamboo Sourcery in the stock tanks we set up in our back yard a few weeks ago.

There were two major factors that influenced my selection of bamboos for these stock tanks. In each tank I wanted a taller bamboo with small leaves and a shorter one with large leaves; the taller one would ideally be no higher than 10-15 ft. because of the bay trees overhead. In addition, the bamboos would have to be shade-tolerant because the bay trees block most of the sun.

Considering there are many hundreds of varieties of bamboo you’d think that I’d have at least 50 to choose from. However, with the limitations we had to contend with, there were far fewer candidates than I had expected.

I opted for running bamboos instead of clumping because I want the tanks to be filled with culms in just 2-3 years. Clumping bamboos would have remained in discrete clumps and I would have had to plant more than just two plants per tank.

This is what I finally selected:

For the stock tank on the left, (1) Indocalamus tessellatus, a relatively short bamboo (4 ft. on average) with huge leaves (up to 24” long), and (2) Pleioblastus gramineus, a 10-12 ft. runner that produces lots of canes in close proximity and eventually forms a tight hedge. Pleioblastus gramineus has thin, graceful leaves that give it the look of a “grass tree” and are a beautiful juxtaposition next to the oversized leaves of the Indocalamus tessellatus.

For the stock tank on the right, (1) Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’, a running bamboo very similar to Indocalamus tessellatus with leaves that are a tad smaller, and (2) Yushania maculata, a 10-12 ft. species with distinctive blue-green culms and glossy narrow leaves. In his recently published book Practical Bamboos, UK bamboo expert Paul Whittaker calls Yushania maculata one of his favorite bamboos. I must admit I based my selection in no small part on Whittaker’s recommendation. Yushania maculata is a relatively recent introduction from China and still quite rare so I was not able to look at a mature specimen.

When you buy bamboos, the plants you get from the nursery are often sparse with just a few wispy culms, or else a bit on the scruffy side. I’ve learned not to worry about that because what you really pay for is the underground stuff—rhizomes and roots—that will soon produce much better looking above-ground growth. My plants from Bamboo Sourcery were no exception, especially the Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’ and Yushania maculata for the right stock tank. Next year, once they have produced new culms, I will prune out the unsightly old growth and we’ll then have the finished look that right now only exists in my mind.

The Pleioblastus gramineus  was stuck in its nursery container so I gave it a good whacking all the way around and it finally came out
Very nice looking rhizomes and roots on Pleioblastus gramineus 
  This is the left stock tank with Indocalamus tessellatus on the left and Pleioblastus gramineus on the right
  Alternate view of this stock tank, with the large-leafed Indocalamus tessellatus in the foreground

When I removed the Sasa megalophylla for the right-hand stock tank from its nursery container, I saw that the root ball was alive with thousands upon thousands of tiny ants. I wasn’t too keen on introducing an ant colony in our pristine stock tank so I plopped the sasa in a bucket and filled it with water. Within minutes ants had run up the culms and congregated on the leaves. I hosed off the leaves several times and eventually was able to get rid of most of the ants before I planted the sasa in the stock tank.

Sasa megalophylla leaf  with escaping ants
Right-hand stock tank with Yushania maculata on the left (three bare culms) and Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’ on the right

The Yushania maculata has two new shoots that haven’t even leaved out yet, and one mature culm that is about 10 ft. tall (see above). Curiously enough, there are no branches further down on this tall culm. I wonder if they’ve been removed at the nursery? Many of the photos I’ve seen of this species do show branching further down on the culm.

  Mature culm on Yushania maculata reaching well into the branches of the bay tree above it

I’m pleased with my selection of bamboos for these two 2x2x6 ft. stock tanks. Now I have to be patient while the plants settle into their new home and grow the underground structure needed to produce new culms with lush leaves. But then, we all know that the sweet thrill of anticipation is a big part of what we love about gardening!

AUGUST 2011 UPDATE: Click here to read about changes to the stock tanks.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How to take better photos of the natural world

I recently wrote a guest column on how to take better travel photos for a great blog project a friend of mine is involved in, Novel Adventurers. Quite a few of these tips apply to plant photography as well so here’s an adapted version.

In the 30+ years that I’ve been taking photos, I’ve made all the mistakes that can be made—many more than once. Eventually I came to realize that each mistake is an opportunity to get better. If you feel frustrated with your pictures, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, look at them calmly and try to figure out what exactly you don’t like. Then work on improving that particular area. The following tips should help you get images that you’re happy with, whether you’re a complete novice or have been taking photos for a while.

Pick a subject.

This may sound redundant but a lot of photos don’t have a real focal point, especially those showing more than one plant. What is the viewer supposed to look at? If they’re not sure, their eyes will soon glaze over. Before pressing the shutter button, ask yourself: What is it that fascinates me in this scene? What do I want others to see? If you can’t answer these questions, chances are your photos won’t excite others either. As Ansel Adams once said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Take a look at the two photos below. I find the first one to be too busy, with too many competing elements. The viewer’s eyes dart back and forth between the various agaves, not sure which one is the main focal point. The second photo, in contrast, shows just one artichoke agave (Agave parryii ‘Truncata’), dynamically positioned in the lower 1/3 of the frame, with a darker-colored Agave americana providing a complementary backdrop.


Agaves at Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA

Don’t center your subject.

Putting the focal point of your photo right in the center does result in a symmetrical, balanced image. Often that works, but almost just as frequently it results in a less than exciting composition. Move your subject off center, even right into a corner. This will create visual tension and grab the viewer’s attention.

In the photo below, I could have positioned the lantern in the center of the frame, but moving it to the lower left and including the bamboo results in a more dynamic composition.

Japanese lantern and Buddha Belly bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa) at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia

Get closer.

Many photos do have an interesting subject but unfortunately it only occupies a small portion of the frame. Taking photos means being in motion. Don’t stand still. Get up close with your subject, or at least zoom in. Know that in many cases walking right up to a subject and using a wide-angle lens creates a more dynamic composition than standing back and zooming in. In addition, zooming in, or using a telephoto lens, increases the risk of camera shake, even in spite of today’s image-stabilization technologies.

Unless you want to take extreme close-ups, specialized macro equipment is not needed. Many compact digital cameras have a macro setting that allows you to get impressively close.

The leaf in the photo below was so large and so high up on the plant that it was able to walk right up to it. Focusing on just one leaf, rather than including the entire plant, I was able to emphasize structure and color.

Elephant ear (Alocasia sp.) at Taronga Zoo, Sydney, Australia

Change the perspective.

We’re used to seeing the world from eye level. To mix things up, lie down on your belly or climb onto a table or wall. You’ll be surprised by how different everything looks from down low or up high. The best photos show us the world from an unfamiliar perspective.

Tree canopy, Sarah Island, Tasmania.

Include people.

A photo showing nothing but a plant can be a thing of beauty. In some cases, however, including people in the frame adds perspective that emphasizes a plant’s height or other special features. Take a look at the photo below. If it weren’t for the people, you wouldn’t really know how tall this Bambusa oldhamii is.

Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia

Take control of the flash.

When set to Auto, the flash often pops up when it’s not really necessary and conversely it doesn’t come on when it is needed. Remember that you are in control. You can turn the flash off when you get a washed out photo, and you can force it on when having extra light is a good thing. Take a look at the picture of the spider below. If I hadn’t forced the flash on, the spider web would have been barely visible. The flash brings out the beautiful colors in the spider and illuminates its web.

Unknown spider species, Sydney, Australia

Don’t be daunted by the information in this post. You don’t have to remember it all right away. Just focus on one or two of these tips at a time, and then go out and practice, practice, practice. There are beautiful images all around you, just waiting to be captured.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three new bamboos from a fellow collector

This has been a good week as far as bamboos are concerned. On Tuesday I picked up my order from Bamboo Sourcery, and today I received three more plants from a fellow bamboo collector. All three are running bamboos in the genus Phyllostachys.

The first one, Phyllostachys nigra ‘Hale’, is a somewhat smaller variety of the ever popular black bamboo. Its culms are supposed to turn black faster than on the regular nigra. This one will eventually go in a large pot in our back yard. We already have a regular Phyllostachys nigra, so it’ll be interesting to see how these two varieties differ. My in-laws have yet another variety of black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra ‘Punctata’, at their place in Mount Shasta.

The second one, Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’, is a green-culmed bamboo that many consider to be the true Phyllostachys nigra from which the black-culmed black bamboo originated. I know, bamboo taxonomy can be confusing, and I don’t spend too much time trying to figure out why plants are named a certain way. Henon is a giant timber bamboo that can grow to 50 ft. with 4” culms. Its wood is very dense and strong and can be used for construction. The culms start out a medium green but age to an almost eerie gray. The leaves are small and delicate-looking which adds to the overall beauty of this giant. The Henon I got today will eventually go to my in-laws where it will have room to roam. Maybe some day it will form a grove like this one. Where we live, there simply isn’t room for that.

The third one, Phyllostachys bambusoides, also called “Japanese timber bamboo” or “madake” (苦竹), is the strongest temperate timber bamboo. It’s the preferred bamboo for construction in Japan. It’s even larger than Henon, potentially as tall as 70 ft. with 6” culms. It’s a fairly slow grower and not as cold hardy as Henon, but it should still do fine in Mount Shasta at my in-laws’ place (which my wife has taken to calling “Experimental Bamboo Garden North”).

Madake is the bamboo species planted at the Mendocino National Forest Genetic Resource & Conservation Center in Chico, 1.5 hrs north of here, which my wife and kids visited this summer (see photos below). This place, popularly called the “Tree Farm”, is a true Northern California gem that very few people outside of Chico know about. I’m waiting for Huell Howser to do an episode of California’s Gold on it!

I love it when a big box like this one arrives!
Amazing that these three bamboos fit in the box
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Hale’ after unpacking
Root ball of Phyllostachys nigra ‘Hale’; I was excited to see a new shoot forming
101202_Ph_bambusoides_05 101202_Ph_bambusoides_04
One of the culms on the Phyllostachys bambusoides (madake) had gotten bent
a little too much so I fashioned a splint for it
Madake at the Tree Farm in Chico (photos by Heather Bock)
Here are the three beauties after I put them in 5-gallon containers

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Shibataea kumasaca

Shibataea kumasaca, that’s quite a tongue-twister, isn’t it? If you feel daring, pronounce it three times fast!

Shibataea kumasaca was one of the six varieties I picked up yesterday at Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol. My plant came in a 1-gallon container and from the rhizome growing out of the drain hole, it was clear that it needed a new home.

Sometimes called “ruscus-leafed bamboo”, this is a beautiful shorter species that grows to 3-6 ft. Its leaves are short and stubby and quite distinct from other bamboos. This Japanese native is very useful as a ground cover or low hedge and makes a stunning specimen plant in a decorative pot.

It is a running variety, although supposedly not very aggressive, but containment is still advised if planted in the ground in a small yard. According to the literature, it’s hardy to –10°F and can therefore be grown in most of the continental U.S. It likes shade, especially in hotter climates.

Shibataea kumasaca prefers acidic soil and suffers from leaf burn if the soil is too alkaline. A good place to plant it would be underneath a pine tree because pine needles naturally acidify the soil. In our case, we don’t have pine trees and I wanted to put it in a pot anyway, so I simply worked a generous amount of peat moss into the planting mix. Another way to acidify the soil, especially suitable for potted plants, is to water them with a weak vinegar solution (2 tablespoon of vinegar to 1 gallon of water). That’s what I will do going forward.

Rhizomes and roots coming out the drain hole of the 1-gallon nursery container
Rhizomes circling around in the pot; definitely time for a new home!
Shibataea kumasaca in its new pot

I realize that my plant is a bit scruffy-looking at the moment but it will produce new leaves soon enough. If you want to see photos of Shibataea kumasaca at its best, click here and here.

I haven’t decided yet where my Shibataea kumasaca will ultimately go, but wherever it is, I will be sure to put a paving stone underneath the pot to make sure no rhizome can grow through the drain hole into the ground. Our yard is small, and I don’t want to have to deal with an escaped running bamboo, not even one as benign as this one.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Final visit to Bamboo Sourcery

This morning I drove to Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, CA to pick up six bamboos I had ordered. I couldn’t help but feel sad knowing that in all likelihood this would be my last visit. In September, Bamboo Sourcery announced that they would cease operations in November (they recently extended this deadline by a couple of weeks). I don’t know what the reasons are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the economy. They must have been affected by the dramatic downturn of the housing market in California and the attendant decrease in landscaping business.

What makes the closure of Bamboo Sourcery even more poignant is the fact that this isn’t just a backyard business with limited stock. Bamboo Sourcery was a major player in the industry, offering as many as 300 varieties, including many obscure ones that few other nurseries carried. Their 8-acre facility in the hills on the western edge of Sebastopol, about 20 minutes from the coast, comprises the nursery and sales operations, several houses as well as demonstration gardens with mature specimens of many running and clumping species, all clearly labeled. Walking through the clumping bamboo garden this morning, all I could hear was the rustle of leaves—no cars, no people, no man-made sounds. I kept wondering what will happen to this magical place with its thousands of bamboos. I don’t know if they will find a buyer for the nursery, or whether a shroud of benign neglect will settle on this hilly property. It would be a shame to lose this unique resource. Maybe it can be turned into a non-profit botanical garden?

Entrance to Bamboo Sourcery, with a beautiful specimen of Fargesia nitida 'Nymphenburg' (commonly known as “fountain bamboo”)
Office trailer, surrounded by mature bamboos
Planting next to the office; Otatea acuminata aztecorum on the left and Sasa palmata 'Nebulosa' on the right
Plants waiting for customer pickup
Row of 25-gallon containers
Creek trail with Yushania anceps 'Pitt White' on the right. It was impressive seeing a mature specimen of this variety. It’s technically a clumping bamboo but the rhizomes have a very long neck so the behavior is very similar to a running bamboo. This is a stunningly beautiful plant but needs space.
101130_bamboosourcery_Robert_Young nigra
Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’ (yellow) with one culm of Phyllostachys nigra (black)
Mature specimen of Himalayacalamus asper, a tightly clumping mountain bamboo from Tibet. Not very cold-hardy
(rated to 15°F) and not very tolerant of high summer temperatures either. Appears to do really well in coastal locations.
Another clump of Himalayacalamus asper on the right, with Phyllostachys angusta (stone bamboo) on the left)
Trail through the clumping bamboo garden
Gate to the lower propagation area
My haul, to be planted in the stock tanks and containers in our back yard

Bamboo Sourcery appears to be sold out of the most popular varieties in 1- and 5-gallon sizes, but they still have lots of 15- and 25-gallon plants—these are impressive plants for instant effect. Varieties less in demand are still available in smaller sizes. The price list on their web site is updated daily so check there if you’re looking for something specific.

If you live in Northern California and want a great deal on bamboos, you have until December 18th to make the drive to Sebastopol in Sonoma County, about an hour north of San Francisco. Unfortunately November 29th was the last day for shipping so no more mail orders. Contact information and driving directions are on their web site.

UPDATE 4/13/11: Bamboo Sourcery re-opened for business on March 15, 2011. For more details, visit their web site.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mistletoe-infested pear tree getting a trim

Last week I wrote about our Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford') suffering from mistletoe infestation. At that time we were expecting the City to cut down the tree altogether because that’s what they did last year with our other Bradford pear. The remaining one seemed to have much more mistletoe, at least in our eyes, so I considered it a logical candidate for removal.

However, this morning a City tree trimming crew showed up—much to our surprise since we hadn’t been notified. They proceeded to remove all the branches that had mistletoe growing on them. This certainly solves the problem in the short term, but since Bradford pear trees are susceptible to mistletoe infestation, I won’t be surprised to see this problem rear its ugly head again in a few years. I’ll definitely keep a close eye on this tree!





Bradford pear last week…
…and  today, after all the mistletoe has been removed