Friday, April 1, 2011

Bay tree flower orgy

Our property is a corner lot, about 8,100 sq. ft. in size. Due to the way our house is positioned, our backyard is fairly small although we do have pretty deep side yards. What little there is of the backyard proper is dominated by four sweet bay trees (Laurus nobilis). Most of you probably know sweet bays are cute potted trees or large shrubs, but given enough time and the right climate, they can actually grow very tall. Ours are now as tall as our two-story house, about 35 ft. When our house was built 20+ years, ago, it might have seemed like a good idea to plant four bay trees 8 ft. apart, but now they are too close together for my taste. Every now and then I toy with the idea of having one or two of them taken out, but considering how tall they are, this would not be a trivial (or cheap) undertaking.

Sweet bay trees are evergreen and quite attractive (and they produce a never-ending supply of bay leaves), but they are such greedy drinkers and feeders that it is well nigh impossible to grow anything underneath them. There is a dense mat of fine roots right under the surface, so even digging is a chore. After trying for several years, we finally gave up and decided to put containers under the trees. That turned out to a great solution. Last December we set up two 6x2 ft. galvanized steel stock tanks under the bay trees and planted them with running bamboos. Once they have filled in, we will finally have lush a “understory.”

If you follow this blog even casually, you’ll know that we’ve had a very wet spring. In fact, as of today, 3/31/11, our rain fall for the season is 25% above average. While bay trees are quite drought-tolerant, they do love water, and the extra rations they’ve been getting this year have kicked flower production into overdrive. In the 14 years we’ve lived in this house, I’ve never seen so many flowers on the trees! Walking outside at lunchtime today, the air was abuzz with untold numbers of bees flitting from one flower cluster to the next. I was watching them for a while, and they were positively drunk on pollen!

From my home office window upstairs I have a great view of all four bay trees—if I reached out far enough, I could actually touch them—and I must say that I find their flowers to be as beautiful as the much more ephemeral bloom of cherry or plum trees.

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Our backyard dominated by four Laurus nobilis (our backyard is so small that I had to digitally stich four photos together to create this panorama)
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I’ve never seen so many flowers on our bay trees
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Flowers and pollen everywhere
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Perfect crown of bay leaves and flowers
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Bee busy harvesting pollen
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Check out the amount of pollen this bee is carrying around on its belly

If you ever need bay leaves for cooking, let me know and I’ll send you a lifetime supply!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The bamboos are waking up

After a month of below-average temperatures and record precipitation, we’ve now swung to the other end of the extreme: Today’s daytime high was above 80°F. Since the soil is still saturated from all the rain, many bamboos are now going into catch-up mode. Here are some of our bamboos that are producing shoots right now.

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Our Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda)
has two new shoots
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New shoot on Sasa veitchii. Clearly the nursery container is getting too small…
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Temple bamboo
(Semiarundinaria fastuosa),
two new shoots (at the very edge of the pot)
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Dwarf greenstripe bamboo (Pleioblastus viridistriatus). This is probably the most vibrant bamboo there is. I cut the old growth down to the ground a while ago, but in a few weeks the whole container will be a riot of chartreuse.
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Fargesia robusta, producing taller culms than last year but still in its juvenile phase. This has not been a fast grower for me.
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Yushania boliana in a half-barrel. One of my favorite mountain bamboos.
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Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’), fat new shoot
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Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’), another new shoot
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Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’), new branches developing on a culm from last year
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Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’), the shoot on the left is new. I love the vibrant contrast.

I fertilized our bamboos about six weeks ago with an all-purpose lawn fertilizer. However, the copious rain we’ve had since then probably washed a lot of that away so I’m going to fertilize again this weekend. Now is the time when bamboos begin their most active growth phase and they need lots of food to grow.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Uncovering the succulents

Here in the Sacramento Valley, March was dominated by wave after wave of rain. In fact, our rainfall total to date is 22", 126% of normal. This has been a boon for many of our plants, including the bamboos, but plants native to drier parts of the world—like many succulents—aren’t all that fond of so much moisture, especially in conjunction with the colder-than-average temperatures we’ve been having. For this reason, I had covered our succulent display table and the succulent bed next to our front door at the beginning of March to keep most of the rain away from the plants.

Today is the first sunny day we’ve had in a long time, and the forecast calls for more of the same all week. In fact, temperatures are supposed to climb into the high 70s by Thursday. This is perfect weather for sun-loving succulents, so I decided to uncover them today. I didn’t have much time to spend outside but it felt great folding up the tarps. With any luck, I won’t need them again until November. The succulents should be able to handle any rain that is yet to come.

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Succulent bed next to front door
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Potted succulents on front porch. Many of these will be moved to other areas or used in some projects I’m working on.
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Uncovered display table
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In the black bowl on the top shelf of the display table: Agave schidigera 'Shira ito no Ohi', a Japanese dwarf cultivar, flanked by Cleistocactus straussii

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Opuntia littoralis var. vasey with a developing flower bud
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Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’ in a glazed pot in the back yard. It had been covered as well.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Potting rescued cactus sections

About three weeks ago I blogged about finding trimmings from a Queen of the Night cactus (Cereus hildmannianus susp. hildmannianus) in a neighbor’s yard waste. I placed the cactus segments in a dry spot on our front porch so any wounds could heal and callus over.

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Three of the rescued Queen of the Night segments

Today I took advantage of a break in the rain and put the segments in 5-gallon plastic nursery pots. Since I knew the segments wouldn’t stay upright on their own, I cut two 5 ft. lengths of ¼" PVC pipe for each pot and attached them to the pots using two small screws on each side. This will prevent the pipe sections from tilting. Originally I was going to use wooden stakes but ¼" PVC pipe ended up being much cheaper than wooden stakes—crazy!

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Screws holding the PVC pipe sections upright

I filled each pot about ⅓ of the way with dry soil mix (½ pumice, ¼ coir, ¼ regular potting soil), inserted the cactus segment, and tied it to the PVC pipe with stretch tape. Finally I added another 3" of soil mix as well a layer of lava rock for extra stability. Important: The soil has to be completely dry otherwise the sections might begin to rot before they get a chance to form roots.

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Potted segment
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Lava rock added for stability so the pot won’t get knocked over

And voilĂ , here are the potted sections lined up against the wall next to our front door. This area is roofed, so they will stay dry if the rain continues. Rooting will take some time because it’s still relatively cool. As soon as we reliably get temperatures in the 70s, it should take 6-8 weeks for roots to form. The best indicator of success would be new growth at the tip.

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The procedure I followed is basically the same outlined on SacredCactus.com for San Pedro cactus. While Queen of the Night is from a different genus, it’s similar enough so that the rooting information they give should work for my cactus as well.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ghost plant babies

A couple of months ago I bought a ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) on sale. Also known as “mother-of-pearl plant,” this succulent from Mexico is a vigorous grower with woody trailing stems topped with fleshy rosettes that range in color from pale gray to pink. Its leaves break off very easily, which is why it’s best to put this plant in a permanent location and refrain from moving it around.

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Graptopetalum paraguayense
Although supposedly hardy to zone 7b (5°F), mine has developed some brown spots from the cold, damp weather, and yet at the same time it produced flower stalks that are about to open up.

Since I haven’t decided yet where I will ultimately put it, I have had to move mine around a fair amount, and even though I tried to be careful, I still knocked off a few leaves. Knowing that many succulents can be propagated from leaf cuttings, I decided to put a few of the leaves in a dry place to see what happens.

I expected to see roots developing at the end that was attached to the plant, much like what happened with my Graptopetalum amethystinum, a related species also from Mexico:

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Graptopetalum amethystinum leaf forming new roots

Much to my surprise, it wasn’t roots that formed at the end of the leaves, it was miniature rosettes, i.e. babies!

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Babies forming at the end of the leaves,
which are resting on top of some soil but are completely uncovered
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Close up

The other end of the leaves is beginning to shrivel because the newly forming rosettes are “consuming” the leaves in order to grow. I’ve found many references to leaf cuttings resulting in babies, but nobody ever talks about what to do with these new plantlets. Do you plant them now, or do you leave them until the old leaves have shriveled up and roots are beginning to form? I will leave mine in peace for a while longer in hopes of finding out what the proper procedure is. If you know, please leave a comment below.

Interesting side note: Although Graptopetalum paraguayense is very common in cultivation, its habitat, according to UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, “was unknown until quite recently. It turns out that G. paraguayense is a highly endemic species, restricted in nature to a single mountain in northeast Mexico that rises abruptly out of a low plain covered with tick- and snake-infested scrub forest.”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gifts from a fellow gardener

Today at lunchtime I headed over to a fellow gardener’s house to pick up some cuttings. I love seeing other gardeners’ yards, and hers was just beautiful: meandering mounded beds full of succulents and other drought-tolerant plants, and even a relaxing water feature. Very inspiring. I wish more people would eliminate at least some of their lawns in favor of more interesting and water-saving landscaping. The best we can do is to lead by example.

I’m very happy with what S. gave me, especially since some of these plants are completely new to me.

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Rock purslane (Calandrinia grandiflora). This Chilean native forms 1x3 ft. mounds and sends up 2-3 ft. stems with vibrant purple flowers. This plant is new to me, and I will put it outside the fence in the front of the house where it will get plenty of sun all year long. Hardy to 15”F or so.
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Another new-to-me succulent: Oscularia deltoides, a South African member of the ice plant family. Forms dense mats that in the spring are covered with pink flowers.
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This is an old friend, the jade plant (Crassula ovata). My wife wanted some cuttings to grow in the house. Our outside jade plants are still doing well.
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S. also gave me a beautiful abutilon hybrid called Nabob (Abutilon x hybridum ‘Nabob’). This has the potential to grow to 10-12 ft. It will go in a sheltered spot in the back yard near our orange tree. The maroon flowers are particularly beautiful.
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And finally a variegated lilyturf (Liriope muscari). I don’t know which cultivar, but it’ll go well with the ‘Silvery Sunproof’ we already have.

The spirit of sharing is very much alive among gardeners, and I will do my part to continue the tradition.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Aeonium update

In early January I blogged about three kinds of aeoniums we have growing. Since then, they have changed quite a bit. Considering that aeoniums are winter growers and go dormant in the heat of the summer, this isn’t entirely surprising.

Many Internet sources advise their readers to keep aeoniums dry in the winter. In my experience, that is incorrect. Since their main growing season is winter and spring, they do need water then. This is no different from aloes that hail from winter-rainfall areas, such as Aloe ferox, Aloe marlothii, Aloe maculata, Aloe arborescens, etc.

Aeoniums come from the Canary Islands where most of the precipitation occurs in the fall and winter so our weather patterns are quite comparable, even though on average the Canary Islands receive only 13" (325 mm) of rain a year compared to our 18" (or 20+ this year).

Two of our aeoniums are in pots on our covered front porch. I have been watering these once every two weeks—a generous dousing until water runs out the bottom of the container. The third one, Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’, is planted in the succulent bed next to our driveway and has been getting the full amount of rain we’ve been blessed with this year. While I would never have given it the same amount of water if it had been in a pot, the excess didn’t seem to affect it adversely.


Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ is a hybrid of Aeonium haworthii, apparently developed in Australia. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful aeoniums in spite of its relatively small size. Looking at the photos below, it’s easy to see how much brighter the central leaves have gotten since January, no doubt because of the increase in light levels. Also notice the new rosettes forming around the largest one (third photo).

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Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ on 3 January 2011
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Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ on 24 March 2011
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Lots of new growth—the small plantlets all around the large rosette in the middle will grow into rosettes of their own

Aeonium undulatum is the second potted aeonium that lives on our covered front porch.  It hasn’t grown as much as ‘Kiwi’ has, but the leaf margins have acquired a subtle but noticeable reddish margin while the center of the rosette has lost its bright “eye”. Even though our front porch doesn’t get much direct sun—just a little in the late afternoon—the increase in light levels has been enough to prompt these changes.

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Aeonium undulatum on 3 January 2011
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Aeonium undulatum on 24 March 2011

Our third aeonium is planted in the ground, as mentioned earlier. Since I’ve lost the plant tag, I assumed it was Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’, but now I think it might be a hybrid called ‘Cyclops’ (ostensibly a cross between Aeonium undulatum and Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’, developed by breeder Jack Catlin). The darkening of the outer leaves is very noticeable, and even the leaves in the center of the rosette have acquired a purple margin. Its cousin, a cultivar named ‘Zwartkop’ (literally “black head” in Dutch), is one of the most popular aeoniums, and one of the “blackest” plants you can find.

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Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’ on 3 January 2011
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Now that spring is officially here, many nurseries and garden centers here in central Northern California have started to roll out this year’s crop of succulents, which typically includes at least three or four different aeonium cultivars. In addition to ‘Zwartkop’ (which I have added to my collection in the meantime), another popular hybrid is ‘Sunburst’ (which I will buy as soon as I’ve found a “perfect” specimen). If you live in zone 9b or above, aeoniums make great outdoor plants. If you live in a colder area, you can enjoy them outdoors in spring through fall and bring them inside for the winter.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Looking for spring during a break in the rain

Today we had torrential downpours alternating with periods of sunshine, and I took advantage of the latter to look for a few signs of spring. I needed confirmation that this is actually late March, not late November as the weather would have you believe. Spring is indeed all around us, even though most plants are at least two to three weeks behind schedule because of the unseasonably cool weather. Our daytime temperatures are as much as 15° below average!

According to the weather experts, we have at least two more storm fronts to look forward to before we get a more extended break from the rain. Yeah, I can’t contain my excitement.

But in the meantime, I’m enjoying the bits and pieces of sunshine that Mother Nature is sending our way, and I hope you will, too.

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New leaves and flower buds forming on our Washington Navel orange
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Black Lace elderberry leaving out (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’)
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Black Lace elderberry leaving out (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’)
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Blue Skies lilac getting ready to bloom
(Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’)
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Blue Skies lilac getting ready to bloom
(Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’)
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Crimson Queen Japanese maple leaving out
(Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’)
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Variegated Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans ‘Stairway to Heaven’)
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Dwarf greenstripe bamboo (Pleioblastus viridistriatus) beginning to shoot
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Rhubarb Victoria (Rheum x cultorum ‘Victoria’)
New leaf unfurling
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Pea flower (Pisum sativum)