Friday, March 18, 2011

Baby Blue bamboo shooting

In April of last year, I planted a Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’) from a 3-gallon container that I had bought from a nursery in Florida.  It had about a dozen wispy culms, the largest of which was the thickness of a pencil, maybe a quarter of an inch thick and less than 3 feet tall. At the end of September, it had 27 culms, the tallest being about 12 feet in height.

Last October I said that Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’) was one of my favorite bamboos. That hasn’t changed. It produced new shoots until fall, made it through its first winter with flying colors (our winter low was 25°F), and is already shooting again!

I can’t wait to see how tall this season’s culms will be. Maybe 15 feet? Even taller? I love the fact that the base is still very tight, just a bit over a foot in diameter. This confirms what I read online, i.e. that the ‘Barbellata’ version of Bambusa chungii is a much tighter clumper than its big brother.

In light of the considerable ornamental merits of this bamboo, it’s a pity that there are no sources for it in Northern California. If you’re interested in buying one, I can recommend Tropical Bamboo or Beautiful Bamboo, both in Florida. Unfortunately, shipping charges to the West Coast are quite steep.

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Entire plant on 3/17/2011
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New shoots are marked in blue (there’s one more new shoot that isn’t visible in this photo). Note that I’ve removed most of the thin original culms because they looked straggly and constantly got in my way.
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One of the new shoots
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New branches forming on one of the thickest culms that came up last summer
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Same on a different culm. You can clearly see the powdery coating that gives this bamboo a bluish tint.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japanese maple leafing out

In the backyard we have a green Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) growing right up against the house. It was already here when we moved in 14 years ago and has growth tremendously since then. In fact, we prune it quite aggressively every year, otherwise it would make it difficult to walk out the sliding glass door on the left. Personally, I would have planted the tree a little further away from the house, but I’m glad we have because it provides a nice green accent.

It started to leaf out a couple of weeks ago and should be in full leaf in another week or so. It’s also flowering, but unless you look closely you’re likely to miss the flowers. I think they’re actually fairly attractive up close.

I don’t know what cultivar it is; I doubt it’s anything fancy. It’s an upright form with grayish green bark and “regular” leaves, i.e. not dissected.

If I had more room and patience, I would start collecting Japanese maples because I do love how they look. But at least we have our “plain” tree, which I find very beautiful even though it doesn’t have a pedigree.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Three succulents getting ready to bloom

As the rain continues to fall, plants that would normally be blooming already are holding back. I expect them to catch up as soon as sunshine returns, but for the rest of the week it looks like we’ll be bouncing from one storm to the next.

Since there’s not much I can do in the garden when the weather is like this, I decided to take photos of three succulents that are this close to flowering. Often the anticipation is as sweet as the payoff!

The first one is the coral aloe (Aloe striata). We have three of them, and two will flower this year for the first time. This is one of my favorite aloes, and I can’t wait for the flowers to open. I hope to have photos of the flowers at the end of next week, provided we get a decent amount of sun in the meantime.

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Aloe striata in the succulent bed next to our front door. The leaves have grown massively this past year. Each leaf is now between 18 and 20 inches long, so the plant has a diameter of more than 3 feet.
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This Aloe striata is in the succulent bed next to our driveway. It’s quite a bit smaller than the other one (about 2 feet in diameter) and a bit more reddish because it gets more sun.

The next one is the tiger or partridge-breast aloe (Aloe variegata). It bloomed liberally last year and has five flower stalks this year. It has a reputation for being sensitive to overwatering, but ours has gotten rained on as much as everything else and shows no sign of distress—knock on wood! The soil in this succulent bed is very loose and porous, which really helps.

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Aloe variegata in succulent bed next to our front door. It is now 11 inches tall.

The final succulent I want to mention today is a sedum from Mexico, Sedum confusum. This sprawling groundcover, up to 10 inches tall (ours is currently about 6 inches), is probably the most cold-hardy of the Mexican sedums—Internet sources say to zone 7. Its apple green foliage is attractive year round, but never more so than in the spring when it is covered with brilliant yellow flowers. I bought ours in a 6-pack, with each plant nothing more than a 4 inch sprig, and after almost two years in the ground they have grown into nicely shaped mounds (in the photo below you can see two of them).

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Sedum confusum in the planting strip outside the front yard fence. Some flowers have opened up already.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Euphorbias in bloom

Last fall I planted two new-to-me euphorbias, and they’re currently in full bloom. As you can see from the photos below, I’m talking about Mediterranean spurges, not the cactus-like euphorbias from Africa, which I also happen to love.

The first one was labeled as Euphorbia x martinii ‘Tiny Tim’ when I bought it, but it’s clear now that it is anything but tiny. ‘Tiny Tim’ is supposed to be no taller than 1 ft. whereas my plant is 2 ft. already. I’m beginning to think it’s the regular version of Euphorbia x martinii, a natural hybrid between Euphorbia amygdaloides and Euphorbia characias discovered in Southern France in the late 19th century.

But no matter what it is, it’s beautiful, especially right now in full bloom. It is planted in front of our giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), which makes for a good combination. Euphorbia x martinii is a relatively short-lived perennial (3-4 years), which is OK considering that by the time it dies, the bamboo will have expanded enough to cover any bald spot.

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Euphorbia x martinii
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Euphorbia x martinii close-up. The chartreuse colored “petals” are actually bracts, not part of the flower. The true flowers are the tiny star-like structures you can see toward the top of this stalk.

The other euphorbia I planted in the fall is a Euphorbia characias cultivar called ‘Glacier Blue’. It has grayish foliage edged in cream and looks great by itself. The flower clusters repeat the same variegation, which adds extra oomph in the spring. This is relative short euphorbia, up to 18 inches. Mine is about 12 inches now. I expect it to fill in over the course of the year and become denser by next spring.

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Euphorbia characias ‘Glacier Blue’
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Close-up of flower cluster

It seems that new spurge cultivars come out every year, and I’m happy to see more of them make into in our local nurseries. With their unique foliage, Mediterranean spurges form a nice contrast both to larger-leafed plants and to fine-bladed grasses like the Texas Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) in the 2nd to last photo above.

Note: Like all euphorbias, spurges contain a latex-like sap that is caustic and can cause skin irritation. Wear gloves when handling these plants, and make sure sap never gets anywhere near your eyes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Slugging it out with the slugs

Slugs are the bane of my existence as a gardener. I’m sure many of you feel the same. In the spring they come out of hibernation: voracious eating-machines that know no bounds. They particularly love the tender new shoots of vegetables and ornamentals and can wreak havoc in your garden.

Just last week I was happy to discover that our hostas and farfugiums are producing the first new growth of the season. But as much I love hostas and farfugiums, slugs love them even more. It seems that every new shoot that pokes its head out of the soil gets nibbled on, or worse, chewed to the ground. Not only does this set back the plant’s growth—after all, it needs its leaves for photosynthesis—but might even kill it.

Our farfugiums have had a hard life as of late. First rats ate all the leaves on our Farfugium japonicum 'Aureo-maculatum' and Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum' to the point where there was nothing left but chewed off leaf stalks poking out of the ground. And now that the plants are pushing new shoots, the slugs have made it their mission to eat the tender bits.

I hate using toxic chemicals in our garden, not only out of environmental concern, but also because we have a black lab who eats everything. I must admit that I was so p***ed off about what the slugs were doing that just yesterday I was considering buying Corry’s Slug & Snail Death granules because in my experience it is very effective. However, because of the way it and similar products are formulated, they smell very attractive to dogs, and our lab would certainly not be able to resist. Metaldehyde, their active ingredient, is highly toxic to dogs, causing seizures, increased heart rate, and very high body temperature, which, untreated, can result in death.

Even though our dog recently mauled my freshly planted canna seeds, I love her dearly and wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her. So instead of the effective but toxic metaldehyde-based slug killers I once again opted for the safe alternative: iron phosphate slug bait. In the U.S., Sluggo was the first brand, but now there are a few other competitors, including Escar-Go, Worry Free, and Ortho Elementals Slug and Snail Killer, which is what I bought because it was cheaper than Sluggo.

According to the manufacturer, iron phosphate occurs naturally in soil, and unconsumed bait will simply decompose. Iron phosphate causes extreme mucus production in snails and slugs, which in turn prevents them from feeding so they die in three to six days. Sounds horrible, but at least only these slimy pests are affected—iron phosphate is safe for all other critters, including dogs and birds.

I had always thought that iron phosphate-based bait was less effective than the far more toxic metaldehyde products, but a recent study by Oregon State University says that isn’t the case:

[r]esearch at OSU indicates that iron phosphate baits are as effective as metaldehyde baits for controlling our common gray garden slug.

That is good news, and it makes me feel better about shelling out $25 for a 5-pound box of Otho Elementals Slug and Snail Killer. And I will use it liberally, because I’m determined to win the fight this spring!

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What do you see in this photo? If your answer is “not much,” you would be correct. The yellow circles are chewed-off leaf stems. Just a couple of days ago, these were new leaves on a leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum 'Aureo-maculatum').
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Hosta ‘Stiletto’. The whitish bits are iron phosphate pellets.
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Close-up of mangled Hosta ‘Stiletto’. Every leaf on this miniature hosta has been nibbled on.
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Even my potted leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum 'Aureo-maculatum') isn’t safe. I’m not only talking about the holes in the leaves, but entire new shoots have been eaten.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chickening out on vinca

Last weekend’s gardening chores included planting a variegated periwinkle (Vinca minor ‘Illumination’) in the ground near a clumping bamboo (Borinda papyrifera). The idea was to let the vinca fill in the bare spots near the bamboo. Even when not in bloom this is a beautiful groundcover, and I was excited to have found it.

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Vinca minor ‘Illumination’

However, several readers expressed concern about vinca’s aggressive growth so I decided to do some research to confirm that I had made the right decision. I didn’t take long before I realized that I probably had not. The Internet is full of horror stories about vinca. Apparently it has the ability to engulf and smother everything in its path. Since it competes aggressively for water and nutrients, it simply starves other plants that might get in its way.

While I do take what I read online with a grain salt, enough doubt was raised in my mind that I decided to dig up my Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ and instead put it in a bowl in the same location. Our backyard is simply too small to play Russian roulette.

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Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ in the ground…
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…but now confined to a clay bowl with a piece of plastic underneath to prevent roots growing through the drain holes into the ground

Interesting bits and pieces of information I unearthed about vinca:

Vinca minor is classified as invasive in CA, CT, DC, DE, GA, IA, IL, IN, KY, MD, MI, NC, NJ, NY, OH, OR, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, VA, WA, WI, and WV.

The U.S. Forest Service featured Vinca minor as its Weed of the Week on 2/1/2006. I love the “Weed of the Week” designation. Why should the pretties get all the attention?

Vinca is native to Europe and was introduced to the U.S. in the 1700s as an ornamental.

During the Middle Ages, criminals wore wreaths made of vinca on their way to their place of execution.

In Italy it was called Flore de morte (flower-of-death) and placed on the bodies of dead infants.

The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: Of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones, and Certain Beasts describes a very special use for vinca:

When wrapped with earthworms, then beaten into a powder and cooked with an herb called houseleek [succulents we now call “sempervivum”], periwinkle will induce love between man and wife if they partake of it as part of their meals.

And there you have it. More than you ever wanted to know about vinca a.k.a. periwinkle, creeping myrtle, joy-on-the-ground, flower-of-death, blue buttons, hundred-eyes, devil’s eye, or sorcerer’s violet.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Of cannas, dogs, and dryer sheets

A few weeks ago, I blogged about starting cannas from seed. I ended up with four small (2-inch) pots, each containing one seed of banana canna (Canna musifolia). I placed the pots on the sill of our dining room window, which goes almost all the way to the floor. This window gets morning sun and good light most of the day. The pots were in plastic bags to create a warmer and more humid environment. So far so good.

Banana canna (Canna musifolia)
Image source:
Wikipedia

A couple of weeks later, we had dinner with friends and when we returned we were greeted by a nasty mess: pots and soil all over the floor, the plastic bags shredded into pieces. Apparently our black lab, forever obsessed with food, thought there might be something tasty inside those plastic bags, which were at a perfect height for her to reach. I’ll spare you my reaction, but in hindsight I do laugh about it—and I have no one to blame but myself. I’ve definitely learned my lesson: Never underestimate a Labrador retriever’s curiosity and always keep things that matter out of her reach!

Only one of the four seeds (just starting to germinate) survived the mauling, and I was extra determined to make it thrive. I’ve had problems in the past with seedlings dying, either from damping off, which is typically caused by a fungus, or from the larvae of fungus gnats which eat the tender roots of seedlings. Fungus gnats are small insects (about ⅛ inch in length) you often see buzzing around plants. They lay their eggs in cracks on the soil surface, and within a week, the larva begin to feast on roots.

There are several remedies to deal with fungus gnats (see here and here, for example). However, I recently read about a solution that promises to be not only quite effective, but also wonderfully fragrant.

Smithsonian.com called it a “modern old-wives tale”: Bounce® dryer sheets keep mosquitoes and gnats away. True or false? Now we know, at least as far as gnats are concerned. Kansas State University Department of Entomology professor Raymond Cloyd and colleagues conducted experiments to test whether Bounce® dryer sheets from Procter and Gamble (specifically Outdoor Fresh Scent™) repel adult fungus gnats. Their finding: Yes, they do, at least under laboratory conditions. To get all the details, read this summary by the American Society for Horticultural Science. The complete study can be found here.

Figuring I have nothing to lose, I decided to place a dryer sheet—fresh out of the box, not previously used—on top of my lone Canna musifolia pot. I cut a hole where the seedling had begun to emerge from the soil and put a small rock on top of the sheet to hold it down. If all goes well, no fungus gnat will go near it to lay their eggs. Of course I have no way of knowing whether there were eggs in the soil already, but I haven’t seen any gnats flying about lately.

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Dryer sheet on top of 2-inch pot, held down by a small rock

This certainly isn’t a scientific experiment, just something to give me peace of mind considering this is the only Canna musifolia I have left. But assuming you start with clean (sterile) potting medium, just placing a dryer sheet or two near your seed trays—not even necessarily on them—might be enough to keep gnats away.

One major question is still unsolved though: Is Bounce the only brand that works? Because I must admit that our dryer sheets are Costco’s Kirkland brand.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cactus rescued from the gutter

Our town has curbside yard waste pickup, which essentially means that you can put anything compostable out by the curb and the city will pick it up once a week. Walking around town, you can find all kinds of things of interest to a gardener. Some people even advertise plants they’re tossing out on Freecycle.org, a “network to promote waste reduction and help save landscape from being taken over by landfills.” 

Yesterday, as she was walking the dog, my wife came across a bunch of cactus segments lying in the street a few blocks from our house. Knowing that I would probably not be able to say no to such a find, she called me to ask if I was interested. I actually knew which house (and cactus) she was referring to, so I said sure. My wife, bless her heart, then proceeded to lug home a 40 inch segment, wrapped in a plastic poop bag she had on her. Luckily, the segment wasn’t very spiny—nothing like a prickly pear or cholla—so she didn’t sustain any physical harm.

I went back later in the day to get three more segments, ranging in length from 20 to 50 inches, because I didn’t want them to end up in the community compost pile. I ended up talking to the homeowner who told me that with all the rain we’ve been having her cactus (now 20 years old and mature) was growing more vigorously than she liked so she had been removing segments to keep it in check. I think she was amused by my rescue endeavors and added that every time she puts cactus pieces by the curb they tend to disappear quickly. It sure sounds like other cactus aficionados in town are keeping an eye on yard waste piles!

Image source: Wikipedia

The cactus these segments came from is a Cereus hildmannianus, technically subspecies hildmannianus (a big thank you to Xenomorf in the Cacti and Succulents forum on Dave’s Garden for the correct ID). Its common name is “Queen of the Night” because its blossoms open at night. Check out this beautiful photo of a specimen in bloom.

This Argentinian and Brazilian native has the potential to grow to 30 feet and can form a large clump. The plant my segments came from is about 15 feet tall and actually looks perfectly proportioned in front of a single-story home with Mexican architecture. I’ve found conflicting information about its cold-hardiness but it definitely does well in our zone 9b so I’d say it’s hardy to at least 25°F.

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The 40-inch segment my wife brought home
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The three other segments I got later in the the day

Cereus cuttings root very easily—in fact, I could have cut each of these segments into 12 inch chunks, and if the literature is correct, they would have rooted. However, before placing them in soil, it is crucial that the cut be completely healed (callused over). Otherwise you run the risk of infection and rot, especially if the soil is damp.

My segments aren’t cuttings per se. Instead, they are “arms” of the mother plant that were simply twisted off. Since the wounds have a very small surface area, they were dry by the time I brought home my finds. However, one segment had a fairly jagged tear so I decided to make a cleaner cut. I don’t think this was really necessary but I prefer to err on the side of caution in these things. I left the other three segments as is, i.e. I didn’t re-cut the wounds.

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Jagged wound that resulted from twisting the segment
off the mother plant
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Before making the cut, I sterilized the knife with 70% isopropyl alcohol
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After making the cut, I poured 70% isopropyl alcohol over it to kill any microorganisms and to dry out the tissue

The next step is to leave these segments in a protected place in the shade for a couple of weeks so a protective callus can form over the wounds. After that I will place them in pots with dry cactus mix, supported by sturdy stakes. Watering won’t be necessary (in fact, would be detrimental) until roots have begun to form. This could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the temperature. I’ll post updates as things happen.

The moral of this story is to keep an eye on what your neighbors toss out. Their yard waste could be your treasure!

Of course the downside of finding a treasure is figuring out what to do with it. Where am I going to plant these substantial cacti? That is the million dollar question!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spring in Napa Valley

Napa Valley is only an hour’s drive from here, but it might as well be 500 or 1,000 miles away considering how often we go. However, every time we visit I fall in love with it all over again. It is a stunningly picturesque valley, running north to south, surrounded on the western and northern sides by the Mayacamas Mountains and on the eastern side by the Vaca Mountains. The climate is Mediterranean and obviously as perfect as it gets for growing grapes since Napa Valley is one of the premier wine-making regions in the world.

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In early spring, the vineyards explode in a riot of green and yellow. The yellow is from wild mustard (Brassica juncea). History—or is it rumor?—has it that Spanish missionaries sowed mustard to mark the trail between their missions in California. It’s a wonderfully romantic story, but it is more likely that mustard was introduced as a cover crop and then just took over because it self-seeds so profusely.

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Wild mustard is very popular with vintners because it is so beneficial. It has a deep taproot that breaks up compacted soil and naturally repels nematodes that might otherwise damage grape vine roots. After it has peaked—and done its job of attracting tens of thousands of visitors—it is mowed and plowed under to add nitrogen to the soil.

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The photos in this post were taken on the eastern side of the valley along the Silverado Trail. I love the geometric patterns formed by the rows of grape vines in the vineyards, many of them alternating between yellow and green.

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Wild mustard can also be found outside of the vineyards, on hillsides and along the road. It truly is the most dominant plant in Napa Valley at this of year—so much so that it inspired the annual Napa Valley Mustard Festival, a popular art, music and wine festival that unfortunately this year has been scaled down because of the economy.

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Most of the old orchards that were planted alongside the vineyards are now gone, replaced by more vineyards, which admittedly are much more profitable than any orchard would ever be in Napa Valley. However, occasionally you still see fruit trees erupting in bloom in February. Their blossoms contrast beautifully with the vibrant green and yellow of the vineyards.

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On a warm day, the trees are alive with bees
and the occasional hummingbird

Monday, March 7, 2011

UC Davis Arboretum Terrace

The University of California Davis Arboretum truly is a treasure in our small college town. With miles of walking path and 17 different gardens/collections spread out over 100 acres, it’s a resource many UCD students and locals enjoy as part of their daily life.

I’ve blogged about the Arboretum before, most recently about their Valley-Wise Garden. This post isn’t about the actual Arboretum located on the UCD campus, but rather about the Arboretum Terrace, a demonstration garden in downtown right next to the Borders bookstore in the Davis Commons shopping center. This is a great location, smack in the middle of one of our most popular hangouts. In addition to gardeners wanting to learn more about suitable plants to grow in our Mediterranean climate, many people visit the Terrace to read, eat their takeout food from one of the nearby restaurants, or just enjoy some quiet time.

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View towards entrance

The Arboretum Terrace is landscaped like a Mediterranean courtyard, with meandering planting beds on either side, tables and chairs for relaxing, shade structures and a water wall at the far end, and large planters showcasing the possibilities of container gardening. Interpretive displays describe the basics of Mediterranean gardening, selecting climate-appropriate plants, and saving water.

Many plants used here are California natives; others come from other parts of the world with a similar climates. I love that this is a real horticultural treasure trove where you’ll find common plants like Spanish lavender and deer grass right next to plants rarely seen in commercial nurseries like Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum'.

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Potted black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)

I enjoy coming here, as does my entire family. We often get a smoothie from Jamba Juice or frozen yogurt from Pinkberry and then walk over to the Arboretum Terrace to consume it. The plants are meticulously maintained by a crew of volunteers and most of them are labeled. This allows you to write down your favorites and replicate the look in your own garden.

Even though it was raining today, I decided to see what’s in bloom, and I wasn’t disappointed.

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Beautiful vignette. The wall in the background is the Borders bookstore.
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Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum) in bloom (pink flowers). Unfortunately, the yellow-flowered plant wasn’t labeled, but it is a stunner.
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Creeping mahonia (Berberis aquifolium var. repens), small groundcover shrub to 2 feet. You can still see its beautiful fall color; new leaves are glossy green. The flowers are bright yellow. Native to the California mountains from the Klamath Range and the North Coast Range to the Cascades and Sierra Nevada.
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Vine hill manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’), evergreen shrub to 7 feet tall, very showy flowers; originally selected from wild stands in Sonoma County.
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California lilac (Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartmann’). ‘Ray Hartmann’ is an erect variety with the potential to grow up to 20 feet tall. Can be trained into a tree. All ceanothus demand perfect drainage and very little to no irrigation in the summer.
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Bush germander (Teucrium fruticans ‘Azureum’), small shrub to 5 feet tall. Very tough; grows pretty much anywhere. Reliable bloomer from spring to fall.
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Golden currant (Ribes aureum), deciduous shrub to 6 feet. Native to moist areas of the Sierra Nevada but tolerates anything from standing water to drought.
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Leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum’) surrounded by fallen blossoms from Taiwan cherry tree (Prunus campanulata).
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Potted aloes—the large ones in the foreground are a hybrid between common soap aloe (Aloe maculata) and coral aloe (Aloe striata)
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Spider aloe (Aloe x spinosissima). The Arboretum has a lot of these, both here in the Terrace and on campus. Appears to bloom from a young age.

If you’re ever in Davis, I highly recommend a visit to the Arboretum Terrace. It is located at the corner of 1st and E Street right next to Borders.