Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Radical hair cuts

Even though we’re still in the middle of winter and not out of the woods yet as far as frost is concerned, we decided to start our annual round of trimming on the perennials outside the low fence in our front yard. This 4-ft. wide strip provides color from spring to early winter but often ends up looking like an overgrown jungle by the end of the year.

In July of 2010 and now

Last year we left some plants untouched, which was not necessarily the wisest choice. Many of our lavenders, now going into their 5th year, have grown large and woody. The interior is dead and moldy from a lack of light and air circulation. This is not good for the long-term health of the plants even though the outside looks perfectly vital. After a radical hair cut, our lavenders look unattractive now but as soon as it warms up, new growth will quickly cover up the unsightly mounds.

Grosso lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’) in July of 2010
and now after its radical hair cut

Radical hair cuts were also given to the Silver Arrow maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’) and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) shown in the photos below. The Mexican bush sage had its top growth fried by frost on January 11th and looked particularly unsightly. There’s already new basal growth so maybe we’ll get another round of bloom in the next couple of months. Typically, Mexican bush sage blooms for us from fall until spring.

101208_silberpfeil bush_sage
Silver Arrow grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) in mid-November and now

My 9-year old daughter, who was helping my wife with the trimming, couldn’t quite fathom why we would cut back plants that were still blooming (like the lavenders). I totally understand how she feels. Although I know it’s necessary, I still feel like I’m doing something horrible when I take the pruning sheers or nippers to a blooming plant.

My wife’s valiant trimming efforts produced quite a pile of plant matter. Fortunately, we have curbside pickup of yard waste!


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Indulging the blahs

Except for a brief interlude of sunshine on Friday, we’ve had nothing but gray, foggy weather for the last couple of weeks. I realize that compared to what winter is like in many other parts of the country, we have nothing to complain about. However, the damp and dank that accompanies this all-pervasive grayness gets into your bones and into your head.

Gray and dank—that’s how it’s been for the last few weeks

I want to go outside and work in the yard, but the soil is still saturated from the rain and the frost window is still wide open so there’s little point in doing any planting. There’s cleanup to do, but that kind of work doesn’t excite me even on the cheeriest and sunniest of days. I do have my 11 projects for 2011 to focus on, but most of them require better and warmer weather otherwise they become onerous instead of fun.

Books I’m currently reading

Even though I generally try not indulge the blahs, today I will give in to them. I think it’s healthy to give the finger to your to-do list now and then, and simply do nothing. I plan on curling up on the couch with a stack of gardening books I just checked out from the library. I’ll dream of gardening in places very different from ours, and maybe I’ll be inspired to try a new thing or two.

Indulging the blahs can be a great way to recharge your creative batteries.

Agave at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
I’d love to be there right now. The light in the desert is pure magic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Calla comeback

Last week I posted a photo of the calla lilies in our back yard after a particularly cold night (10 hours below 32°F). I was convinced that all top growth was dead and that we would have to wait for the leaves to grow back from the rhizomes.


I’m very happy to report that I was wrong.

While some leaves are clearly damaged…


…and some look curiously yellow…


…the majority of them fared much better shape than I had anticipated.


It even looks like the flower stalks have survived unscathed and the flowers will open up soon, provided the temperatures manage to stay above freezing.


What a testament to the resilience of these beautiful plants!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My first restio

Restios are rush-like flowering plants native to the southern hemisphere, especially Australia and South Africa where they often dominate their native environment. In South Africa, they are found in the fynbos, the scrubland of the Western Cape characterized by its Mediterranean climate with winter rainfall. The fynbos is part of the Cape Floral Region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If I ever come into money, that part of the world is high on my bucket list travel destinations.

Thamnochortus insignis

Some restios superficially resemble bamboos, others reeds and yet others horsetails (Equisetum hyemale). Since restios have no leaves, photosynthesis takes place in the green stems. The stems sometimes have papery sheaths, very much like the culm sheaths on bamboos.

In the landscape, restios can be a commanding presence. The tallest species, like Rhodocoma gigantea and Calopsis paniculata, can grow to 9 ft. and add great structure to a garden.

Thamnochortus insignis—close-up of stems

Restios are easy to care for. Give them a place in full sun, well-drained soil on the acidic side and good air circulation, and they are happy. Once established, most of them are quite drought-tolerant. Restios are typically able to withstand temperatures down to 20°F or even lower.

While restios haven’t entered the horticultural mainstream yet, at least not in California, I do see Cape rush (Elegia tectorum, sometimes still listed by its older name Chondropetalum tectorum) fairly regularly at larger nurseries.

Thamnochortus insignis—new shoot

My first restio, however, is Thamnochortus insignis, commonly called “thatching reed” or “dekriet”. I came across it on Thursday at the Landscape Cacti & Succulents Nursery at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. The first thing I noticed were the brown brush-like flower bracts bobbing on top of thin stems. The stems reminded me of a horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) and are highly decorative, especially viewed up close. (Play this short video from Roger’s Gardens; you’ll see Thamnochortus insignis near the beginning.)

Thamnochortus insignis—bracts

The plant I bought is in a 2-gallon container and currently 4½ ft. tall. It has the potential to grow to 6-8 ft. but since it’s so open and airy, it doesn’t have a heavy, intrusive presence. Our specimen will stay in a container and live somewhere near the front door where its beautiful structure can be admired all year.

Thamnochortus insignis—juvenile growth. Mature plants only have long green stems with seasonal flowers. As with all restios, male and female flowers are on separate plants.

The next restio I will be looking for is the broom reed (Elegia capensis). From its culms and culm sheaths to its feathery growth, it reminds me a lot of bamboo—in particular Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’) or one of the Chusquea species.

I love it when I discover new plants. It always makes me wonder how many other plants are out there that I don’t know about yet.

5/22/2011 UPDATE: more restios planted.

Here are some short but interesting articles about restios:

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Succulent sale at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

The Landscape Cacti & Succulents Nursery at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden has a plant sale every Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Right now they’re running a special: Buy $150 in plants, get 30% off.

They offer a large selection of succulents, especially agaves (more than 50 species/varieties) and aloes (close to 20), but they also have yuccas, dasylirions, hesperaloes as well as numerous cacti. All plants are grown outside in full exposure and are hardy in our zone 9 climate.

Their prices are a bargain, even more so now with the 30% off special. A full list of available plants and prices can be found at

To see photos of the Landscape Cacti & Succulents Nursery, check out this Picasa web album.

Many of the agaves and aloes in the succulents beds in our front yard came from the Landscape Cacti & Succulents Nursery. I hadn’t been there in quite a while since we’d run out room for landscape succulents and my main focus had shifted to bamboos. However, one of my projects for 2011 is to fashion some sort of succulent display stand that would go next to our front porch. The goal is to get many of the potted succulents off the front porch and elevate them so they are displayed more attractively and can be viewed up close.

Succulent collection on our front porch. The display stand would go to the left, between the porch and the fence.

The bulk of our potted succulents are agaves, with a couple of aloes thrown in for good measure. While agaves are my favorite succulent group, I want a little more variety for our display stand. Paging through Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate by Gwen Moore Kelaidis for inspiration, I realized that cacti would make great companions for our agaves. While agaves are more horizontal in growth, cacti are decidedly vertical. While agaves mostly come in shades of green (even variegated ones are at least half green), cacti come in a variety of colors and hues, ranging from steely gray to deep purple. Spines and hairs contribute additional color.

Last weekend I happened to be at a large local nursery and I checked out their selection of cacti. While they had about 30 different species, they were the 2-3 inch containers you see in all the big box stores. I’m simply not patient enough to wait 10 years for these puny cacti to grow to a decent size. In addition, after reading the plant labels I realized that most of these cacti weren’t frost-tolerant and would have to be brought inside for the winter—a chore I simply don’t want to face.

That’s when I thought of the Landscape Cacti & Succulents Nursery at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. While Berkeley is an hour away and going to their Thursday morning sale means taking time out of my work day, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

Their cactus selection is very different from what the box stores carry; much more focused on the types of cacti you’re likely to find in a serious collection, including California and Southwest natives. I could have bought a 5-foot Silver Torch (Cleistocactus strausii) for $80—no doubt more than 10 years old—but I opted for smaller plants that I would be able to handle easily. Even though it was raining, I spent a good hour looking at all the plants and was expertly advised by a volunteer who, since I was the only customer, was able to focus all her attention on me. I walked away with quite a haul: 11 cacti, a  beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata), two thread-leaf agaves (Agave filifera) for a friend, and a South African thatch reed (Thamnochortus insignis)—not a succulent but a beautiful plant I had to have. After my 30% discount I paid a little over $110. I’d say that’s quite a bargain, considering what I got.

Now the pressure is on to come up with a plant stand so my new babies can be appropriately displayed!

Most of the cacti in this box fall under the “old man cactus” label because of the white hairs that protect the plants from the harsh sun. They are native to the high mountain regions of South America.
Three prickly pears (Opuntia) native to the West and Southwest (California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Utah). All of them are hardy to 0°F and will produce stunning flowers in the spring as well as edible fruit. The ones I picked are smaller species (2-4 ft.) as opposed to the tall and sprawling Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica) so common in California.
Silver Torch (Cleistocactus straussii), native to Bolivia and Argentina. Hardy to 14°F. The volunteer at UCBG thought I should buy several so I could have a colony (she sweetened the deal to convince me). Here’s a good photo of mature silver torches in a cactus garden. We won’t have room for adult specimens but I
figure we get to enjoy them for at least 10 years before we need to rehome them.
My favorite, Old Man of the Andes (Oreocereus celsianus). So cute in spite of its scary-looking spines.
Two nice-sized thread-leaf agaves (Agave filifera) I got for a friend

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bambutopia becomes Bamboo and More

Since I blog about more than just bamboo, I decided to change the name of this blog from "Bambutopia" to "Bamboo and More". The URL will change to in the next few days.

Jade plant (Crassula ovata)

The jade plant can’t seem to get any respect. While succulents like agaves, aloes and of course cacti are the centerpieces in many contemporary gardens, the jade plant (Crassula ovata) seems to be out of style, considered old-fashioned. Maybe it’s because it’s so common here in California that it fades into the background and nobody ever bothers to actually look at it?

One of our jade plant in its somewhat haphazard home on the edge of the driveway

I must say I was pretty disrespectful towards the jade plant as well. About a year and a half ago I was given two potted jade plants. I really didn’t know what to do with them or where to put them. Since I wasn’t that fond of them, I put one right next to the driveway up near the garage door and the other on the edge of the succulent bed on the other side of the driveway. Maybe I was hoping they’d bite the dust so I wouldn’t have to find a permanent location for them. They sat outside throughout the winter of 2009/2010, surviving 28°F nights without any cover. They sat outside throughout the summer of 2010, surviving 100°F days and reflected heat without much water (I gave them some when I remembered, maybe once a month). Here they are, in the winter of 2010/2011, still sitting where I had originally put them. And they’re looking mighty fine, thriving even and getting ready to bloom. A plant that puts up with everything I put it through and is no worse for the wear, that plant gets my respect!

The other jade plant just starting to bloom

In hindsight, my neglect was actually of a good thing. I read that the most common cause of death for a jade plant is overwatering.

From the thickness of the trunk you can see that this jade plant is actually quite a few years old

I was at a local nursery yesterday, and when I saw this variegated jade plant (Crassula ovata ‘Tricolor’) in a 3" container, I couldn’t help but bring it home. Maybe it was my way of doing penance for the mistreatment of our other two jade plants.

Variegated jade plant

The jade plant (Crassula ovata) is a succulent shrub from South Africa where it grows on dry hillsides. In its native habitat—just like in California—most of the rain falls in the winter, which is why the jade plant blooms here in January and February.

In our zone 9 climate, jade plants do very well outside although according to the experts they don’t seem to tolerate temperatures much below 30°F for extended periods of time. Like all succulents, they require good drainage.

My advice: Don’t fuss over them too much. Benign neglect seems to work very well.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bamboo gloves


No, not gloves for bamboo—gloves from bamboo. These utility gloves are made of 70% rayon made from bamboo and 30% cotton. As a bamboo aficionado, I was very pleased when I found these gloves in my Christmas stocking (literally). They’re available from Amazon if you’re interested.

It’s wonderful seeing more and more products made from bamboo. I’m still tempted to get this.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dividing purple fountain grass

Usually I wait until February before I cut back or divide ornamental grasses. However, after a week of leaden skies I was so happy to see the sun on Sunday morning that I decided to tackle a potted purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum').

This particular plant was so root-bound that it was difficult to water it effectively. Consequently, it ended up looking much less impressive in the fall of 2010 than it had the year before. 

Purple fountain grass in September of 2010

I should have known by looking at the shape of the pot that the root ball wouldn’t just slip out. It took a lot of cutting and prying with my hori hori before I was able to pull the plant out, with my wife firmly holding on to the pot.

Plant as it came out of the pot

The rest was easy. Using my trusty reciprocating saw, I cut off the very bottom, which was just a mat of roots anyway—and then sliced the root ball into three chunks.

Divided root ball

I planted the larger of the three chunks in the original glazed pot, using soil left over from our stock tank project. The other two went into 5-gallon nursery pots, and a small rooted division that apparently got yanked out of the root ball as I was extracting it went into a quart-sized pot. I love purple fountain grass, and I’m glad to have extra plants this year.

Repotted divisions

The repotted divisions have lots of room to grow and it will be much easier to get water to their roots.

We have another purple fountain grass in a similar glazed pot that also needs to be divided. But that’s a job for another day.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dawn of the dead

A lethal night gave way to the dawn of the dead.

That could be the byline for a horror movie starring cold-sensitive plants, and that’s exactly what happened last night.

Typically, when we have frost, it’s for a few hours around dawn. But last night we hit the 32°F mark at 11p.m. and we were below freezing until 9 a.m. this morning (the low was 26.7°F according to Weather Underground.) That’s 10 hours of frost, and that’s bad news for many of our tender plants, not to mention our citrus crop. It’ll take a few days to get a definitive picture of what is damaged, but one thing is clear already: This was the most brutal night of this winter. (Yes, I know we’re all “sensitive petals”, as our Australian friend Bill would say, but we can’t help it.)

The succulents I’d covered with a frost blanket appear to be OK, as are the potted plants on our front porch. But there are still casualties; with any luck they will recover in time.

Variegated Eureka lemon in the front, yellow lotus banana behind it. Some of the leaves on the Eureka lemon don’t look good, especially the tender new growth. There are quite a few flower buds as well. Not sure what will happen to them.
Yellow lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa). It looks terrible but it’s actually hardy to 10°F. It will grow new leaves as soon as we have consistently warm weather.
Giant elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhizos 'Borneo Giant'). The leaves are toast. I’m frankly surprised they lasted as long as they did. The tubers are hardy to zone 8 and will produce new leaves in the summer as soon as the soil temperature is consistently above ~60°F.
Euphorbia ‘Helena’s Blush’ (Euphorbia amygdaloides hybrid). It is supposed to be hardy to 0°F. No clue why it collapsed like it did.
Our calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) look very droopy. Last year I covered them up but still lost about half of the leaves. They’ll bounce back fairly quickly once it gets a little warmer.
Large Agave chiapensis with frost damage (dark spots). Hardy to 28°F. I should have covered this one up; that’s what I did last winter and it sustained no damage. This is just cosmetic damage, but agaves don’t exactly grow fast so the plant will be disfigured for a while.
Agave celsii, supposedly hardy to 20-25°F. This one is in a pot in an exposed spot on our front porch. All I had to do is move the plant to a more sheltered position to protect it…but I didn’t. The dark spots are damaged tissue. This isn’t lethal but the leaves will be pock-marked.
Tower of jewels (Echium wildprettii). Endemic to the Canary Islands and supposedly hardy to 20°F. Too soon to say if there’s any real damage. I lost one of these stunning plants last fall for no apparent reason.

Our bamboos are OK even though these two sub-tropical Bambusas had quite of a bit of frost on their leaves.

Baby blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbelatta). Hardy to 21°F. Some leaves have had a yellowish cast for a few weeks now and may fall off soon. No cause for worry, the plant itself it fine and will grow new leaves in the spring. The culms are unharmed.
Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii). Hardy to 21°F as well. No damage here, but this is the first time I’ve seen this much frost on its leaves.

Most perennials in our garden aren’t fazed by a low of 27°F. They keep on trucking as if nothing had happened. In fact, frost makes their leaves extra beautiful, especially since it’s so fleeting.


Citrus trees and fruit are fairly sensitive to frost. I checked our Washington navel orange tree, which is full of fruit, and it looks unharmed. I picked a couple of oranges and they tasted fine, but that doesn’t mean much at this stage. It’ll be a few days before frost-damaged fruit begins to turn mushy and lose its flavor (that happened last year).

Some experts recommend picking frost-damaged fruit as quickly as possible and juicing it right away in order to preserve the flavor. I’m not sure yet what we’ll do; the optimist in me hopes that most of our fruit had enough protection from overhanging branches and is OK. We’ll reassess tomorrow.

Readers in the citrus belt: Farmer Fred, a well-known Sacramento-area master gardener with a weekly radio show, has some useful information about citrus protection on his website. Read this and this.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Great finds at Lowe’s

The other day I stopped at Lowe’s* and happened to walk by the clearance rack in the garden center. Usually you see a few sad-looking annuals that are past their prime, but this time the clearance rack was a veritable cornucopia.

There were quite a few ornamental grasses that looked dead but are really just dormant, so I snapped up some Heavy Metal switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal'), purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum’) and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). The price sure was right: $1 per 1-gallon plant. I passed on the Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra'), which, while beautiful, is quite invasive in our climate. Plus, I already have one in a container.

Even though Christmas is over, the holiday spirit must still be in the air, because I felt compelled to buy a 1-gallon size holly for $1.50. It looked so festive with its glossy dark-green foliage and red berries. Usually you need a female plant and a male plant nearby to get berries, but the container I bought actually contains a female (Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess') and a male (Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Prince'). The label aptly calls this arrangement ‘Royal Court’. I have no idea what I will do with it, but for now I’m enjoying how nice it looks. Maybe eventually my in-laws want to plant it at their place. It is supposed to grow to 15 ft., and we certainly don’t have the room for that.

110106_barrel_cactus_from_lowesHowever, the find of the day was this beauty. It’s an absolutely perfect golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). It’s in a 7 gallon container and is a full 13 inches across. The price was $25, marked down from $67. This is the largest golden barrel I’ve ever seen in a box store, and certainly the best bargain. I imagine that a specimen this large would cost in the neighborhood of $100 in a succulent nursery.

This native of Mexico can grow to 3 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide. According to succulent expert Debra Lee Baldwin, the typical growth rate is about 1 inch per year, so mine is in its early teens.

A mature golden barrel typically blooms in March and April. Judging from the old seed pods on the top, this one bloomed last year so hopefully it will bloom again this spring.

Golden barrels are hardy to 14°F for short periods. That’s much colder than it gets here so winter temperatures are not an issue. The biggest problem is keeping the cactus relatively dry in the winter. Even though golden barrels tolerate more water than many other cacti, rot is a real danger in a wet winter like the one we’re experiencing this year. I will probably plant my golden barrel in a decorative pot so I can move it to a dry spot in the winter.

The point of today’s post is this: Remember to check the clearance corner the next time you’re at your local nursery or garden center. You never know what you might find!

* For non-U.S. readers: Lowe’s is the 2nd largest home improvement warehouse chain in the U.S.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Portland Japanese Garden: Ornaments

While plants form the natural backbone of a Japanese garden, ornaments provide the human element. Professor Tono, the designer of the Portland Japanese Garden, felt that “among the garden ornaments, probably there is nothing so impressive as the stone lantern” and that stone lanterns “do much to humanize the landscape”.

Lanterns are founds in very specific locations—places where traditionally their light would have shown visitors the way, such as at the junction of two trails or next to a water basin or well. Beyond that, they are found in spots where they lend drama or balance to a view; there their purpose is symbolic instead of functional.


The 18 ft. Sapporo pagoda lantern was a gift from Portland’s sister city Sapporo in 1963. This two-ton stone pagoda has five tiers representing the five elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space or ether); the nine rings on top represent the Buddhist concept of nine heavens; and the lotus blossom on the very top represents Buddha.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Portland Japanese Garden: Plants

“A garden is the medium to give people a moment to lift them up, giving themselves something they did not have before. It is … a moment to feel a revolution.”

—Hoichi Kurisu, former landscape director of the Portland Japanese Garden,
as quoted in Human Nature by Bruce Taylor Hamilton

A Japanese garden, like any garden, would be incomplete without plants. No matter how minimalistic it is, it needs living, growing things, even if they are just mosses. In a more metaphorical sense, plants function as the “garments” of the garden, changing as the seasons change, underscoring the concept of life in constant flux.

In a Japanese garden, plants are placed in very specific ways in order to create balance. This balance comes from how plants harmonize—or contrast—with each other. Evergreens are juxtaposed with deciduous plants; coarser-textured pines with soft maples; tall bamboos with low-growing mosses.

Similar plants are typically grouped in uneven numbers; plantings of three or five are considered particularly pleasing and in keeping with the Japanese sense of proportion.


Lace-leaf maple showing a highly intricate branching pattern created through controlled pruning and shaping. Japanese maples are a symbol of grace and represent balance