Monday, February 21, 2011

Desert trip—day 1: Davis to 29 Palms

We left home this morning to head to Southern California for a week in the desert. When we headed out at 7 a.m., it was 32°F in Davis, and the roofs of the houses in our neighborhood were white with frost. We had planned to stop only a few times but as we got close to the Consumnes River south of Sacramento, the sun shining through the fog-shrouded oak trees was too stunning to pass up so I stopped for a few photos. Truly iconic views of the Central Valley.

Valley oaks in the morning mist south of Sacramento

In fact, at this time of year, the Central Valley is at its most beautiful. The grass is almost neon green, and on a day like today, with blue sky and puffy white clouds, everything seems larger than life. This is a long and wide valley, sparsely populated, especially on the western side, and you sometimes drive for 30 miles before you get to another town.

The Central Valley ends at Bakersfield, and we headed east through the Tehachapi Mountains where we were greeted by snow-covered hillsides. In fact, it must have snowed earlier in the morning because we saw traces of snow very close to the road. No surprise, considering the road goes up to 4000 ft.

Snow-covered hills in the Tehachapi Mountains

On the other side of the Tehachapis, the road drops pretty quickly and before you know it, you are in the Mojave Desert where Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) dot the landscape. This is the western- and northernmost edge of their growing range, and they are noticeably smaller here.

23 miles to Barstow

Our destination for today was the town of Twentynine Palms just outside Joshua Tree National Park. We decided to approach it from the north through Barstow—a town many consider ugly but I have a soft spot in my heart for it—, heading south through Lucerne Valley. This part of our drive was particularly beautiful because for many miles we were the only car on this two-lane highway that wends its way through unpopulated desert.

South to Lucerne Valley
What happens when you don’t water your palm trees—or, Boulevard of Broken Dreams 2011
Joshua Trees in Yucca Valley

We arrived in Twentynine Palms at a little after 4 p.m. and checked into the Harmony Motel, a very small but cozy place that is a throwback to the classic era of the American motel. U2 stayed here while working on their album The Joshua Tree back in the 1980s. The rooms here aren’t fancy and the place isn’t the cheapest, but they have a beautiful xeric garden full of cacti, agave and desert shrubs.

Octotillo and palm tree at Harmony Motel
Part of the desert garden at Harmony Motel
Century plant (Agave americana) and jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
Downtown Twentynine Palms on Sunday evening

Tomorrow we’ll spend the day in Joshua Tree National Park before heading on to the Salton Sea, a truly unique place that few people visit.

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Colors of early spring

This afternoon I took advantage of a break in the rain to see what it’s in bloom at the Ruth Storer Valley-Wise Garden at the UC Davis Arboretum. This garden is dedicated to flowering perennials and small shrubs that do especially well in our Mediterranean climate. The focus is on plants that need relatively little water and maintenance, and yet look good most of the year.

While the majority of plants aren’t blooming yet, there was still a surprising variety of color. It was just what my sore eyes needed after a week of sometimes torrential rain.

Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’) in full bloom. This is my favorite winter-blooming plant, bar none. The smell is intoxicating. This is also the largest one I’ve ever seen. It’s clearly sited in a perfect spot as far as soil, draining and sun is concerned.

We had a winter daphne under the bay trees in our back yard  that did really well for 7 or 8 years, then just died, as they’re wont to do. Our current one, in the ground for three years, isn’t doing much. Too much competition from the bay tree roots, is my guess.
Close-up of Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
White winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Alba’) in the
UC Davis Arboretum White Garden. A truly stunning plant, and incredibly fragrant.
Close-up of Daphne odora ‘Alba’
The other prolific winter bloomer around here is the hellebore. There are many different cultivars, and I’m not an expert, especially since the ones I’ve tried to grow in our garden have died. This one is the regular Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius).
110219_violets hellebore
What a perfect combination for late winter/early spring: Hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus) and
sweet violet (Viola odorata).
110219_hellebore aloe
This combination is bit more exotic: Helleborus argutifolius and
an Aloe striata x maculata hybrid.
Bergenia crassifolia in full bloom.
Does anybody know why its common name is “pipsqueak”?
Bergenia crassifolia flower
Another favorite shrub of mine in early spring: the flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa). This cultivar is called ‘Blood Red’. At this time of year, the flowering quince is the undisputed queen of color in my book. It’s too bad that the rest of the year it is so ordinary—so much so that I couldn’t even describe what it does look like!  (In the photo above, the contrast with a flowering rosemary is particularly nice.)
Close-up of flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Blood Red’).
We have a bed of regular white calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) in our backyard and I’m very fond of them. This white-and-green cultivar is called ‘Green Goddess’, and I’m frankly not sure whether I like it or not. It is an attention-getter, though.
Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) just beginning to bloom. This is a fairly uncommon sedum that grows to 3 ft., forming stalks that look very much like the stalks of a mature jade plant.
Flower of Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum), just beginning to open up.
Even though they’re a long time from flowering, these striped-leaf Dalmatian iris (Iris pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’), native to Croatia, look stunning as they put out new growth.
Is there a more classic spring flower than the daffodil? As common as it is, it’s such a welcome sight every spring (or in our case, late winter).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Starting cannas from seed

Cannas produce copious amounts of seeds that are rounded, dark brown to black in color, and heavy enough to sink in water. Since they resemble shotgun pellets (and could possibly be used as that, considering how hard they are), cannas are sometimes called “Indian shot”.

Canna seeds have a very tough protective coat, presumably to allow them to survive until the next rainy season arrives. To speed up germination, various methods have been proposed. They all involve cutting, clipping, or nicking the seed coat—a method called scarification in horticultural jargon. This allows water to penetrate the seed in order to trigger germination.

After trying various techniques involving nail clippers and emery boards, I’ve settled on the following procedure. I’ve used it successfully in past years to germinate several species of canna. This year I’m trying it on the banana canna (Canna musifolia), one of the tallest species (up to 8 ft.) with possibly the largest leaves of any in this genus. In fact, the leaves strongly resemble bananas, hence the common name.

Just a few of the canna seeds I collected last fall.
Step 1: Nick the seed coat using a Dremel rotary tool. After trying a nail, ice pick, nail clipper, etc., I decided to switch to a Dremel (which we use to file down the dog’s nails) because the seed coat really
is that hard to penetrate.
Nicked seed coat—I probably took off a bit too much;
just a tiny nick is needed
Step 2: Put the nicked seeds in a glass of warm water (almost hot) for 48 hours. Replace the water twice a day so it doesn’t go sour.
Step 3: Stick the seeds in growing medium and keep it moist
(but not soggy). Keep in a relatively warm place with direct light. The experts call for 70-75°F, but it’s never that warm in our house and it doesn’t seem to matter too much.

Everybody has their own preferred seed growing medium and technique, so by all means, use what works for you. I simply stuck my seeds in small cactus pots filled with a coarse potting mix. I keep it moist by spraying it with a spray bottle. You should see growth in as little as 5 days.
Here are some cannas in our front yard, in the back behind the banana (left), lemon tree (middle) and bamboo (right). Their leaves add a tropical flair, and their flowers are hummingbird magnets.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gully washers

The series of winter storms that has been thrashing us all week with on-again, off-again rain and at times gale-force winds came to a head on Thursday with torrential downpours—veritable gully washers.

Like many gardeners I’m obsessed with the weather. Even after 4¾ decades on earth I’m still in awe of the forces of nature, and I could watch the Weather Channel all day long if they didn’t have that stupid background music and so many commercials.

Here are some photos I took during the height of the rain earlier in the day. These photos aren’t really about anything, but hopefully they convey a little of the spectacle I was witnessing.

I love watching the sheets of rain being driven down the street.
Our three bambusas in the front yard. They love the rain!
View from the front door. I didn’t step out any further!
15-gallon Bambusa mutabilis blown over by the wind. I’ll tie it to the fence so it stays upright, otherwise the roots don’t get any water.
My temporary cactus shelter
is holding up well!
That’s what happens when your gutter is clogged. Many of the leaves from our formerly mistletoe-infested Bradford pear tree land on the front porch roof. The squirrels must have knocked off some of the gutter guard sections so leaves ended up in the gutter.
View of the woodland garden in the back yard from the dining room. I love standing by this window, looking out at the rain.
Taken through the wet window,
this photo has an almost impressionistic feel.
Our trusty red wagon deserves better than being left in the rain, but since it’s old, it just doesn’t get any respect.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Agaves in the rain

After seeing my post on my temporary rain shelter for cacti, a reader asked what I do to protect my agaves. The short answer is: nothing. However, things are never as simple as they seem, so here is some background information.

About half of our agaves are planted in the ground in mounded beds. This ensures that the crown and most of root system are above grade so water can drain freely. The soil in our mounded beds is heavily amended with pea gravel, sharp sand and crushed pumice. Even if these beds get a good soaking, there is never any standing water that might lead to rot.

Agave filifera subsp. schidigera (left), Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ (center top), and Aloe striata (right). The highest parts of this mounded bed are close to 2 ft above grade.
Agave ‘Blue Glow’ (left) and Agave victoriae-reginae (right) hiding under the leaves of a ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)
Same two agaves from a lower perspective.
Even though it may not look like much, the overhanging leaves do provide shelter from the rain, cold and sun.
Agave vilmoriniana in the driveway-side succulent bed. While not planted on top of the mound, it’s still sufficiently raised to ensure good drainage.

Some of our potted agaves are out in the open year round. The key to preventing rot caused by too much water is to make sure they are in the right container size. As you can see in the photo below, both the Aloe marlothii on the left and the Agave americana 'Mediopicta Aurea’ on the right fill their pots so there is no excess of soil that would get saturated in a downpour and stay wet for an extended period of time.

Potted Aloe marlothii (left) and
Agave americana 'Mediopicta Aurea’ (right )

Other potted agaves are on the edge of our front porch where they are protected by the roof overhead. If rain is accompanied by strong winds—as was the case this morning—they do get a bit wet but since the potting soil is loose and free draining, that doesn’t really matter.


I have yet to loose an agave to rot caused by excess water, which leads me to believe that they are far more water-tolerant than other succulents, especially cacti and some aloes. If I lived in a climate that gets more than 30 inches of rain a year I would be more concerned, but here in the Central Valley where we get a mere 20 inches, there’s no reason to be excessively worried.

Note: For a post on protecting tender succulents from frost, click here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A visit to the Mexican jungle

No, I didn’t go myself—I wish I could. Instead I did the next best thing: I watched a travelogue of somebody else’s trip.

A few weeks ago, fellow bloggers Mark and Gaz at Alternative Eden posted a list of their favorite garden DVDs. It’s an impressive list with lots of DVDs that sounded interesting to me. Unfortunately, most of them are only available in the U.K. That’s a real shame, considering what a large market the U.S. and Canada are.

One of these titles was particularly intriguing: Around the World in 80 Gardens, by British TV gardening personality Monty Don. I ordered the DVD set from Amazon UK, and it finally arrived.

Monty Don’s visit to the surreal gardens of Las Pozas near Xilitla, Mexico
Monty Don’s visit to the surreal gardens of Las Pozas near Xilitla, Mexico

If you watched the introduction to Around the World in 80 Gardens above, you heard Monty talk about his own reassessment of what a garden is and whether it even needs plants. The gardens at Las Pozas are certainly full of vegetation—in fact, a staff of 50 is busy keeping the jungle at bay—but plants aren’t the focus of the garden. That’s a concept that is pretty unfamiliar to most of us who fill our gardens with plants, but it’s an intriguing one, not so far removed from Japanese Zen gardens which often consist of little but sand and rocks.

I can’t wait to watch more episodes of this one-of-a-kind project. Click here to see a list of episodes available on YouTube.

If you speak Spanish and are interested in learning more about Edward James and Las Pozas, this is a great video. Fondo Xilitla, the official website for Las Pozas, has a wealth of information as well (in English and Spanish).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rain shelter for cacti

After a few weeks of truly beautiful early-spring weather, we’re in for a week of rain and periods of high winds with gusts of up to 40 mph.

The rain is much needed because our precipitation totals for the season have fallen below normal now—we had a wet December with above-average precipitation, but January and February have been very dry. Since inland California typically doesn’t get any rain between May and October, now is the time when we build up our water supply.

While rain is good news for California and almost everything we grow, cacti and other succulents prefer to be dry in winter. A little rain doesn’t hurt, but extended exposure can lead to rot, which in turn can spell the demise of the plant.

Just a few few weeks ago I blogged about how Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek protects its sensitive succulents from the winter rain. In our garden, I’ve never done anything in particular to protect the plants in our raised succulent beds from the rain because these beds contain mostly agaves, aloes, yuccas, echeverias and senecios—no cacti, which are generally more sensitive to overwatering and don’t like to be wet at all during their winter dormancy.

However, now that I’m the proud owner of a budding cactus empire, I’m more aware of how detrimental too much winter rain can be. Next fall we will build a more permanent (and visually attractive) solution to protect our succulent display table. For this week’s bad weather I quickly threw together a temporary shelter consisting of a plastic sheet that I found in the garage, and an assortment of rocks and bricks to weight it down on top of the fence. I’ve been keeping an eye on it all day to see how it handles strong gusts, and so far so good.

I wonder what the neighbors will think???

I should mention that I moved the taller columnar cacti from the display table to the front porch before I put up the tarp—I didn’t want them to get damaged by the billowing plastic.

High-tech way of making sure the tarp doesn’t fly off

Yes, I agree, my makeshift shelter isn’t the most beautiful thing, but it should do the trick.

How does that old saying go? Necessity is the mother of all invention? Well, in spite of the necessity, I’m not much of an inventor—just a gardener who typically flies by the seats of his pants.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tropical trimming

This past weekend I was busy cutting down most of our tropical plants that had gone dormant for the winter. I like to keep the dried up foliage through early spring because it provides extra protection for the crown of the plant, or its rhizomes or corms, depending what it is. However, spring is here so it decided it was time to trim the tropicals. (I probably just cursed ourselves, saying that spring has arrived.)

Our tropical bed before I cleaned it up. It’s located on the south side of our house where the front yard meets up with the back yard (that’s the fence you see on the left in the photo). It’s a small space, and it went unused for many years until we built an L-shape raised bed specifically for large-leaved tropicals such as a gingers (alpinias, hedychiums, curcumas) and elephant ears (both colocasias and alocasias), with some trailing plants like creeping wire vine and tradescantia thrown in for good measure.
This bed gets buried under the leaves from two ornamental pear trees, an Aristocrat in our back yard, and a Bradford in the front yard. Leaves make great compost so I left most of them. I added a bag of composted chicken manure and then about four inches of topsoil left over from another project because the soil level in the raised beds had dropped quite significantly over the last couple of years.
This is what it looks like now, after removing the dead foliage and topping off the soil.
Guess what I found under all those leaves? The butterfly gingers (Hedychium coronarium) are already budding out.
Just to give you an idea of what this area looks like in the summer: this is our tropical bed last July (the nice lady is my mom).