Friday, April 8, 2011

I’m gonna get you, sucker!

In January of 2010 the City of Davis removed a diseased Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford') in our front yard. This tree was the messiest thing you've seen, and I wasn't sad to see it go although I do miss the shade it produced. Here's the house with the tree in early 2009. You can clearly see the mistletoe infestation that led to its demise.

Mistletoe-infested Bradford pear, February 2009

We replaced the tree with a giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii). This particular species thrives in our hot-summer climate and has the potential to grow to 55 feet. Initially, it looked small and lost in the space:

Bambusa oldhamii on February 2, 2010,
planted from a 5-gallon container

However, it has tripled in size since then and last fall sent up culms that are almost 1 inch in diameter. That's still leagues away from the potential 5 inch culms that a mature oldhamii can produce, but the front of the house isn't looking quite as lost any more.

Bambusa oldhamii on February 28, 2011

Even though the stump of the Bradford pear was ground out, down to 2 ft., suckers kept popping up very quickly. (Like all callery pears, Bradford is prone to suckering—another strike against it, in my book.) All year I removed the suckers by cutting them off as far below the ground as possible. In many cases, the root from which they originated was actually quite close to the surface. My thinking was that eventually what energy is left in the roots will be used up and they will finally start to die and rot.

Predictably, there were no new suckers from late fall through early spring but they’ve been sprouting merrily since then.

Suckers in March of 2011, not only where the pear tree had stood…
...but also quite a distance away
This tree really wants to live…
…but I don’t want it to

I recently came across a product called Sucker Stopper RTU, made by Monterey Lawn and Garden Products, and I decided to try it. There are many testimonials on the Internet from customers who swear it works even though they use it to suppress suckers on trees they actually want to keep. In my case, I want the d**** thing to die!


On April 1st, I sprayed the suckers with Sucker Stopper RTU, a viscous, milky substance that clings to the suckers rather than running off.

Sucker Stopper RTU applied on April 1
Sucker Stopper RTU applied on April 1

Within a few days, the areas in contact with Sucker Stopper RTU began to turn brown and then black. This is what it looked like five days after application:

Five days after application
Five days after application

I don’t quite know what to expect at this point. My hope is that the growth regulator in Sucker Stopper RTU will migrate down to the roots and stop sucker production at that location. Maybe that is enough to kill off the roots. Or maybe there is more energy left in them than I thought and I’ll have to try another application.

If all else fails, I could try brushing full-strength Roundup® on the suckers. To be honest, I’d rather not resort to that since the suckers are very close to our Bambusa oldhamii as well as other perennials nearby, and Roundup would not be good for them.

Dear readers, if you have any ideas of how to put an end to my sucker problem, please leave a comment in the area below this post.

Note: To find out more about the callery pear disaster inflicted on America in the 1960s, check out this article.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

From bush sage to bamboo

In the fall, I bought a 15-gallon emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’) from Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, CA. As part of their going-of-business sale, it was 50% off and hence a great deal. We couldn’t immediately decide where to put it so it stayed in its nursery container through the winter. However, as the months progressed it became clear that it was severely pot-bound and really needed to go in ground.

Outside our front yard fence we had two full-sized Mexican bush sages (Salvia leucantha), which do really well in our climate even though they get knocked back a bit by frost. On the spur of the moment, we decided that one of them was enough (we also have the dwarf cultivar ‘Santa Barbara’, which is maybe a third the size), so I dug one up and divided it into three large chunks. I offered them on Freecycle, and within a day they were gone.

The bush sage’s spot is now occupied by the emerald bamboo. Tattered from the wind, it doesn’t look real hot at the moment. However, with some TLC, water, fertilizer, and sun, it will soon produce new leaves that will lend this area a cool tropical feel.

Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’ in its 15-gallon nursery container which kept getting blown over by the wind
Mexican bush sage that got removed. It had sustained some frost damage in the winter so I cut it to the ground in January. With spring finally here, it would grown to 5 ft. within a few months.
Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’ in its new home
New Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’ culm

Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’ is a tropical clumper, hardy to at least 20°F, with a very upright habit and the potential to grow to 35 ft. and produce 2" culms. Since the area where it’s planted is only a few feet from the sidewalk, I will definitely trim it as needed to keep it growing vertically, with no branches sticking out into the sidewalk. Here is a photo of a mature clump, clearly showing how straight this bamboo grows.

Bamboo Sourcery is back in business as of March 15th, 2011. They’re currently running a 50% off sale on select bamboos. Their former nursery manager and bamboo guru, Jesús Mora, is now with West County Oasis Bamboo Garden in Santa Rosa.

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.