Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Weekend chores

This past weekend was very productive. Taking advantage of the beautiful spring weather, we spent most of Saturday in the yard. My wife pruned our bay trees, which resulted in a pile of trimmings that was as impressive in its volume as it was fragrant due to the massive number of blossoms. I don’t know what we would do without curbside yard waste pickup!

I started out the day picking up some used terracotta pots that a kindly soul had posted on Freecycle. With an ever increasing collection of small succulents, these terracotta pots are just what I needed. I cleaned them and then sterilized them for 30 minutes in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Good as new!


Last week I posted about leaf cuttings from our ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) that I was trying to root. Instead of roots, the leaves had little baby plants forming at the tip. However, on Saturday, just a few days later, I noticed bright pink roots forming on the underside. I took that as a definite sign to find a more permanent home for the leaf cuttings, which is what I did. Eventually these will be planted out into one of our succulent beds.

Graptopetalum paraguayense
Baby plants and roots on leaf cuttings
Planted in small pots filled with home-made succulent mix

A couple of months ago I ordered some plants from Sequim Rare Plants. I’d temporarily put them in 1-gallon containers because it was too cold and wet to plant them out. Now conditions are ideal, so I put them in the ground where they will be much happier.

Helleborus 'Janet Starnes', grown primarily for its variegation.
I hope it will do better than the last hellebore I’d tried.
Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum’
Very difficult to find locally, so I ordered two. They were small but have grown quite a bit since I received them. In the ground they should size up quickly.
Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum’
Planted in our Asian garden bed to replace the one that got chewed to pieces by rats in the fall. Fortunately, that plant is making a comeback, too. The large plant further back is Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’.
Farfugium japonicum ‘Cristata’
A farfugium cultivar with ruffled edges. This one I actually bought at Capitol Nursery in Sacramento in the fall but had kept in a pot until now. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure whether I’d like it, but it has grown on me. Once it gets larger, it might end up being quite impressive.

I also planted the restio I’d bought at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in January. It’s a Thamnochortus insignis, which has the potential to grow to 4-6 ft. I planted it in the strip outside our front yard fence where it will get the full sun it needs. It’s supposed to be quite drought-tolerant once established—definitely a plus for this exposed spot.

Thamnochortus insignis

I’m still toying with the idea of getting a few other restios to go in that general area to increase its attractiveness in the winter when most of our perennials are either dormant or dingy-looking. Check out what a fellow garden blogger is doing with restios in his Eichler home in San Mateo.

Saturday’s achievement also included planting the 15-gallon emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’) I bought back in October. That’ll be the topic of tomorrow’s post.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Strawflower cactus rant

I realize that by posting this I’m professing my ignorance about something that is probably a lot more common than I ever knew. I must be too much of a babe in the woods to realize that there’s very little the nursery industry won’t do to make a buck. But could it be that they’re just giving people what they want? That’s an even more horrendous thought!

Until now I thought that sticking googly eyes on cacti is the height of tackiness and should be punished as plant torture.

But today I found something even more insidious. I was at Lowe’s today (a large U.S. home improvement chain, for non U.S. readers) and they had tray upon tray of blooming cacti. The spooky thing was that the blossoms all looked the same even though the cacti were from many different genera. The price label said “strawflower cactus”, which didn’t mean anything to me at first. I continued browsing and finally found a really nice 3“ Opuntia johnsonii that had both a new pad forming and one of these perfect “strawflowers”. As I was getting ready to put it in my cart, I saw there there was a strand of plastic filament attached to it. I carefully grabbed it and pulled it away from the cactus, and in front my eyes—which were literally turning into googly eyes!!!—the flower fell off the cactus as the filament of glue(!) become unraveled. Yes, dear readers, the “strawflower” was just that: the bloom of a strawflower, hot-glued to the poor cactus.

I felt cheated and began to look around to see if there were other customers nearby that I could share my outrage with, but pretty soon I began to laugh. Tray upon tray—probably more than a hundred—cacti with multi-colored strawflowers glued onto them.

When I got home, I did a quick Google search, and apparently it’s a very common practice. The flower is the bract of Xerochrysum bracteatum, commonly called “golden everlasting,” and even though it’s dead, it still opens and closes based on changes in humidity and temperature. Apparently these flowers last for years—which is obviously much, much, much longer than a real cactus flower ever would. I suppose I can see the attraction of a flower that doesn’t die. After all, that’s why people buy artificial plants.

Whenever I see a cactus flower now I will look very closely. Not just at the flower per se, but also at the telltale signs of hot-glue residue.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Enjoying spring and frozen yogurt

Another sunny spring day in the People’s Republic of Davis. After 6+ hours of yard work that had everyone pinching in—including the girls—we treated ourselves to frozen yogurt at Davis Commons in downtown. As is our custom, we walked over to the UC Davis Arboretum Terrace next to the Borders book store where we enjoyed our frozen confection surrounded by the sights of springs. I had last been to the Arboretum Terrace at the beginning of March, and compared to then, many more plants were in bloom. The big surprise was the stunning tulip magnolia outside the garden proper, nestled against the Borders building. Its blossoms are floral perfection.

Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’). Coincidentally, I planted three farfugiums in our backyard today.
Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and
lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis)
Sprenger’s asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myersii’) looking particularly great after all the rain we had
110402_Arbutus-andrachne- -Cercis-occidentalis_02
Turkish madrone (Arbutus andrachne) and
Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)
California lilac ‘Ray Hartmann’ (Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman’)
California lilac ‘Ray Hartmann’ (Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman’)
Spider aloe (Aloe x spinosissima)
Tulip magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora)

How is spring coming along in your neck of the woods? What is your favorite spring flower/shrub/tree?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Lilac is blooming

It took two months from bud break, but our lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’) is finally blooming. I wish I could digitize its fragrance and attach it to this post!

Those of you living in more temperate climes probably don’t quite understand why I’m making such a fuss about this, but lilacs are still relatively uncommon in the warmer parts of California because they can be difficult to grow here. Luckily, more and more low-chill hybrids like our ‘Blue Skies’ are becoming available. Personally, I’m waiting for a yellow one like ‘Primrose’. Or a low-chill re-bloomer like ‘Bloomerang’.


To me, there are few plants that smell as good as lilacs. In fact, I can only think of two: violets, and citrus trees. Speaking of which: It shouldn’t be long now before our orange, lime and lemon trees begin to bloom.

How can you not love spring?

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.

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)
I’ve never seen so many flowers on our bay trees
Flowers and pollen everywhere
Perfect crown of bay leaves and flowers
Bee busy harvesting pollen
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.

Our Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda)
has two new shoots
New shoot on Sasa veitchii. Clearly the nursery container is getting too small…
Temple bamboo
(Semiarundinaria fastuosa),
two new shoots (at the very edge of the pot)
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.
Fargesia robusta, producing taller culms than last year but still in its juvenile phase. This has not been a fast grower for me.
Yushania boliana in a half-barrel. One of my favorite mountain bamboos.
Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’), fat new shoot
Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’), another new shoot
Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’), new branches developing on a culm from last year
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.

Succulent bed next to front door
Potted succulents on front porch. Many of these will be moved to other areas or used in some projects I’m working on.
Uncovered display table

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

Opuntia littoralis var. vasey with a developing flower bud
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.

Cereus hildmannianus_06
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!

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.

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

And voilà, 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.


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.