Saturday, December 11, 2010

Five things in our yard that I love right now

The near-constant gray skies and frequent rain these past couple of weeks have made me more morose than I like to be. It’s all too easy to focus on the ugly things winter brings to our gardens.

Today, as a reprogramming exercise, I decided to look for five things in our yard that make me feel good. This is what I’ve come up with, in no particular order.


Succulents: They don’t really change in the winter. They’re always beautiful, and we have lots of them. This is an Aloe marlothii that has doubled in size in the last two years. When it eventually blooms, it will look like this.

Still blooming: This Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips') will probably bloom for another month, then take a break and start up again in late spring. It’s a real power house. Most flowers are red and white, but some are pure white, others pure red.
Soon to bloom: If temperatures don’t drop too much, I expect this flowering maple (Abutilon x hybridum ‘Souvenir de Bonn’) to bloom soon. There are quite a few new buds, and even some flowers. Of course if it gets really cold, it may die back, but today I’m only thinking happy thoughts.
101210_tropicals peartree
Tropicals still hanging on: My elephant ears (Alocasia macrorrhizos ‘Borneo Giant’) still looks good. The leaves are larger than ever, almost 2 ft. across and 4 ft. tall. The cold spell at Thanksgiving (27-28°F) didn’t faze it at all, but it’s protected by the house on one side and trees in front and behind it.
Citrus: Our Bearss limes are ripe—so ripe that they’re falling off the tree. Yes, these are limes even though they look like lemons. They start out dark green but eventually turn bright yellow.

Which five things in your yard do you like right now?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Creeping wire vine


A few days ago I freshened up a large glazed pot that has been under the bay trees in our back yard for the last three years. In its original incarnation (see photo on the right), it contained a purple cordyline (Cordyline australis 'Purple Sensation'), a Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) and a creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris).

The cordyline snapped in half during a windstorm because its stem was thin and weak. I replanted it in a different pot where it’s been doing well. The Japanese forest grass got moved to the “Japanese” garden outside the dining room because it looked too crowded in the pot. What stayed was the wire vine.

The next feature plant was a young Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi). The vision I had in my head was grand but the tree fern just didn’t do much at all. For every new frond it produced, it lost an old one so it never got any bigger. I suspect it had to do with our low humidity and high temperatures in the summer—very different from the climate where they grow natively. So a few weeks ago, I yanked out the tree fern. What stayed was the wire vine.

101208_brown_pot_with_variegated_fatsiaThe wire vine, over the last couple of years, has grown tremendously. What I originally planted were two 4” containers, one on either side of the pot. Now the pot is all but invisible beneath the cascading tangle of leaves and intertwining stems. I love the effect; it’s like a miniature version of an overgrown old garden.

The moribund tree fern has now been succeeded by a variegated Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’). When I was at Capital Nursery in Sacramento on Saturday, I initially picked out another cordyline but when I saw this aralia, I had to have it. Its large leathery leaves are a perfect foil for the dainty-looking but tough leaves of the wire vine. I’m very pleased with this new combination and I hope it will last longer than any of my previous experiments.

I’ve read reports online where people complain of how invasive creeping wire vine is when planted as a groundcover. They say that the stems root wherever they touch the ground. Since mine is in pots, I’ve not had any problems. Considering that the ground under the bay trees is a near-solid mat of fibrous roots, and bone-dry to boot, I’m not worried that it will take over.

Close-up of leaves and stems
You can see how tough this little plant is!

We also have wire vine planted in a pot next to the granite lantern in our Japanese-inspired garden bed outside the dining room. The “thriller” plant here is a sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), and its growth habit and texture form a beautiful complement to the wire vine.

Wire vine and sword fern in our “Japanese” garden
Wire vine spilling over the bamboo edging
Close-up of wire vine leaves and stems clambering over the bamboo edging

Can you tell that I just love this intricate-looking plant that is tough as nails?

Latin name: Muehlenbeckia axillaris
Common name: Creeping wire vine, maidenhair vine, mattress vine
Native to: East coast of Australia; New Zealand
Light preference: Sun to shade; doesn’t appear to be picky
Water needs: Average to low; leaves will go limp if too dry
USDA zone: 6-9

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Seasonal color from ornamental grasses

When you ask gardeners around here why they plant ornamental grasses, fall color isn’t usually one of the reasons given. I’m no different. I love ornamental grasses, too, and given the space, I would be happy to have a garden with nothing but rocks and grasses—including bamboos, which are really just giant grasses. But fall color isn’t something I typically associate with ornamental grasses.

After taking a closer look at what’s happening in our garden right now, I’m about to reconsider. In the last week, we’ve transitioned from fall to winter; quite abruptly, actually. Our chaste tree in the back yard lost all of its leaves in a matter of days, covering the small patio outside the dining room. Hand-sized leaves from our neighbor’s sycamore tree are piling up in our planting beds in the front yard. And our deciduous grasses have turned from green to shades of yellow and brown.

In years past, I never paid much attention to the different hues grasses go through as they go dormant, but they are quite distinct—and surprisingly beautiful.

101208_bloodgrass lemongrass
Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron) in the pot in the foreground; lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) in the background. Lemongrass is evergreen in our area unless we experience lower than usual temperatures (below 28°F or so), in which case it gets top-killed. Both of these grasses get about a half a day of sun in our yard.
Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha), a relative of the ever-popular Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster’. The bamboo in the red pot is Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’, a running bamboo with green-and-yellow culms that would be too invasive to plant in the ground in our small yard.
Variegated Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Albostriata'), one of my favorite ornamental grasses of all. In our climate, it needs shade and regular irrigation to thrive. This one has green leaves with white striping but there are quite a few other cultivars as well. When they turn yellow in the fall, the variegation is all but invisible. 

This is a non-variegated greenish-yellow variety of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’), turning butterscotch yellow. Hakonechloa macra is a slow but steady grower for us. This one was planted two years ago as a small 2.5” plug.
Miscanthus sinensis is native to China, Korea and Japan. Its common names include maiden grass, Chinese silver grass, and eulalia grass. We have several cultivars, including this one, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Super Stripe’. I planted it last year from a 4-inch pot and it’s really upsized this year. I was pleasantly surprised to see the interesting shades of yellow and brown as it’s going dormant.
101208_Miscanthus sinensis Dixieland
A variegated Miscanthus sinensis cultivar called ‘Dixieland’, growing inside the fence in our front yard. At 4 ft., it’s smaller than many other maiden grasses.
This is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’ in the planting strip outside the fence in the front yard. Even now it has a commanding presence.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ is the largest maiden grass we have, growing on the south side of the house next to the sidewalk. The plant alone was a good 5 ft. tall this year; the flower panicles added another couple of feet. The stalks got so heavy this summer that they started to lean and we had to tie up the entire plant. I will have to take some divisions in the spring to reduce the size of the clump.

In my experience, miscanthus needs at least 5-6 hours of direct sun a day in order to thrive and to flower. We used to have a couple of ‘Gracillimus’ in the back yard where they only got a couple of hours of direct sun, and they were floppy and rather wretched-looking. I dug them up and gave them to a friend who planted them in a sunny spot; there they’ve been doing very well.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mail-order catalogs

I’m sure you get a lot of gardening-related catalogs in the mail: from nurseries, seed companies, garden supply stores, etc. I certainly do. In the past, I used to receive even more, but considering how virtual the world has gotten there are still plenty of printed materials that arrive in the mail every week.

While I realize that printed catalogs are a fairly frivolous use of resources, not to mention far less user-friendly than an online version, I must confess that I love curling up on the couch with a new plant catalog. I guess it’s for the same reason I still prefer reading a real newspaper in the morning as opposed to getting the news off the web. There’s something comforting and real about things you can touch, versus online information that blinks into and out of existence in a heartbeat. A printed catalog is something that doesn’t disappear. It lasts as long as you bother to keep it. (Mind you, I don’t keep them as long as I used to—too much clutter and grumbling from my wife!)

Nurseries send out plant catalogs during the darkest days of the year because they know us all too well. Here we are, sick of the snow or rain already even though winter hasn’t even really begun, dreaming of sunny spring days, starved for unfurling leaves and burgeoning blossoms. And then we receive a catalog that’s filled from cover to cover with the most perfect plants ever seen, a riot of shapes and colors that pushes every button in a gardener’s brain. Is it fair to do this to us plant lovers when we’re at our most defenseless? Absolutely not, but let’s face it, these evil geniuses are allied with the Dark Side anyway.

So today I receive the Spring 2011 catalog from Bluestone Perennials. On the cover is a stunning vision in white, yellow and purple. During the first feverish seconds I don’t even know what it is, but I don’t care, I must have it. It’s not until a minute or so later that I realize it’s a viola, and I’m not really into violas.

Then I start to page through the 90-page glossy catalog. In no time, I have a list of plants I must have—NOW!—or I will perish. Except these plants are not available now. Shipping to our zone doesn’t even start until late March. What these calculating masterminds—no doubt cackling at the efficacy of their wicked campaign—are selling is the promise of botanical nirvana. You know, dangling the proverbial carrot right in front of our face with no intention of giving it to us any time soon.

Evil, evil people.

OK, get out of my way. I must place an order. Right now. Especially since there’s a 15%-off coupon for early birds!

Disclaimer: I hope the good folks at Bluestone Perennials don’t take offense at my words. They’re a great company, and I’ve always been more than happy with the plants I ordered from them. But they could make their catalog just a tad less attractive so I wouldn’t be tempted so much.

Bamboo muhly

101207_bamboo_muhly3Looking at the photos in this post, it’s easy to see why so many people think this is a type of bamboo. Its lacy foliage is strikingly similar to Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata subsp. aztecorum). Its shoots look like bamboo shoots, and its culms (stems) have culm sheaths—the papery leaves that form a protective casing around new shoots and eventually fall off.

But bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) is not a bamboo, in spite of its common name, its look and its growth habit. It is a clumping warm-season grass native to southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico where it grows on dry rocky slopes up to an elevation of 4,000 ft.

Bamboo muhly grows to a height of 4-6 ft. and is equally suitable for in-ground planting and container culture. Befitting its natural habitat, it prefers well-draining soil but it seems to do OK in heavier soils as well as long as it doesn’t get water-logged for long periods of time. While drought-tolerant, it is not a true xeric plant; it does need occasional irrigation in the summer to growth and look its best. It’s rated for USDA plant hardiness zones 8-10, i.e. areas where winter lows are above 10°F.

I love how the leaves of bamboo muhly form a filigree curtain that provides visual interest yet doesn’t block the view. I can see it being used to great effect in xeriscaping as well as Mediterranean gardens. It would also fit perfectly into a very minimalist design or even a Japanese garden.



We have two of these lovely grasses: One is in a terracotta pot next to the small succulent bed outside our dining room. I pruned it way back last year because it was getting a bit unruly—a treatment it didn’t seem to mind at all. Now the culms are beginning to lean almost protectively over the aloes and agaves next to it.



Our other bamboo muhly is in the ground next to a lime tree at the edge of our driveway. It is much larger than the potted one in the back yard—both plants were the same size when I bought them a couple of years ago—but the base is still a tight clump. I planted it in front of a cable TV utility box and it does a good job of hiding the unsightly contraption without preventing access should it ever become necessary.



I was at Capital Nursery in Sacramento over the weekend, and I was happy to see that they carry bamboo muhly now; previously it was almost impossible finding it locally. A quick web search produced quite a few online sources as well.

Note: If you’re interested in ornamental grasses, you have to take a closer look at the other members of the Muhlenbergia family, especially Muhlenbergia capillaris (Gulf muhly). In addition to fine-textured, needle-thin leaves, Gulf muhly produces outstanding flower panicles that from a distance look like a cloud of pink or white, depending on the cultivar.

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