Friday, April 15, 2011

More spring color

If you live on the West Coast, I’m sure you know what I mean when I say this has been one weird spring. Temperatures have been below normal for an unusually long period of time, so plants we expect to see in early to mid-March are just now peeking their heads out of the ground (like lily of the valley). It’s been so cold at night that we haven’t even planted tomatoes yet although that’s on the list for this weekend.

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), blooming as reliably as ever

Poking around in the garden at lunchtime today (yes, I did check for more bamboo shoots), I kept shaking my head at how confused the normal growth pattern has been this year. But things are finally getting into full swing, and once daytime temperatures reliably stay above 70°F, perennials like echinaceas, salvias, and rudbeckias will finally catch up to where they would normally be in the middle of April.

Coral aloe (Aloe striata) blooming for the first time ever. The red flower spike on the left is from a kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos flavidus).
Our red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) are finally starting to bloom. I do have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this plant: I really like the flowers, short-lived as they are, but the leaves are pretty unattractive in my eyes.
110414_succulents nasturtiums
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) growing in between succulents in our back yard. The nasturtiums were here when we bought the house in 1997, and they have reseeded year after year. Many different things have been planted in this narrow bed over the years, but the nasturtiums have remained.
Coral bell in full bloom (Heuchera x brizoides 'Firefly'). The plant behind it is our remaining Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha).
Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’. It is supposed to withstand our hot summers better than most über-engineered heuchera hybrids, but the colors still fade to an unattractive brown by the middle of the summer.
Variegated flowering maple (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii') growing behind—and on top of—a giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum)
Newly emerged Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra'),
as electric as can be. The tips of the blades will eventually turn dark red.
More ornamental grasses starting their initial growth spurt:
Korean feather grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha)…
…and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)
Variegated Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans 'Stairway to Heaven'), hard to beat when it comes to foliage. This is a new addition to our woodland garden, and I hope it will thrive.
More stragglers arriving late on the scene this year:
Hosta plantaginea ‘Aphrodite’…
…and lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). This is a transplant from my mother-in-law’s garden in Mount Shasta and does remarkably well here in our much warmer climate.
And finally a plant that I love as much as I hate it: peppermint (Mentha x piperita). It’s growing so fast at the moment, it feels I could sit there and watch it. Aside from our running bamboos—which are confined to containers—this is easily the most invasive plant in our yard. We use peppermint for cooking and drinks (think mojitos!) but do try to keep on top of it because its rhizomes can travel long distances FAST. Luckily, it’s easy to pull out.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fence-top cactus planters

A while ago I snagged two rectangular 30" x 6" planter boxes at a warehouse sale for $1 each. It turns out they were designed for office partition walls and originally cost in the vicinity of $75. Yikes!

I didn’t like the original charcoal gray color so I spray-painted the planters desert sand—a much more attractive choice for what I was planning on doing with them.

I didn’t have the original $25 mounting brackets, but a quick trip to the hardware store and $2.50 later I had all I needed: 1" L-shaped brackets and short wood screws that allowed me to attach the planters to the top of the 4 ft. fence that surrounds our front yard.

The final step was the most fun: putting the cacti in the planters. Since I want to be able to swap the plants out as needed (or desired), I simply placed the potted cacti into the boxes and filled them up with small river pebbles. The extra weight will prevent the containers from being knocked over or stolen.

I think the final result is rather nice. Everybody walking up the driveway to our front door will be able to look at these little gems. Several of them are getting ready to bloom, which will be an added attraction.

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Both planter boxes seen from the driveway

Left to right:

1. Opuntia microdasys 'Albata' (aka Bunny Ears)
2. Parodia leninghausii
3. Mammillaria camptotricha  var. marnier-lapostollei
4. Opuntia microdasys 'Albata' (aka Bunny Ears)


Left to right:

1. Mammillaria prolifera (aka Texas Nipple Cactus)
2. Thelocactus hexaedrophorus var. lloydii
3. Parodia uebelmannia
4. Stenocactus nova

Aside from the Bunny Ears and the Texas Nipple Cactus, I got these cacti at our local Ace Hardware store. Their source is Lone Pine Gardens, a fantastic succulent and bonsai nursery on the edge of the picturesque town of Sebastopol, just ten miles from the beautiful Sonoma County coast. I visited Lone Pine Gardens a few years ago before my current cactus obsession but I did get a couple of small agaves at the time. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit.

As small as Sebastopol is, it actually has several nurseries that I can highly recommend:

Lone Pine Gardens—Succulents, cacti, bonsai.

Peacock Horticultural Nursery—Succulents (many different kinds of agaves in 4” and 1-gallon containers), perennials, uncommon plants like farfugiums and other Asian shade plants. A great place to stop on your way to or from Bodega Bay, and reasonably priced, too.

Bamboo Sourcery—The name says it all. Read about my visit to Bamboo Sourcery last December.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shooting bamboos

No, I’m not talking about practicing your gun skills. I’m talking about bamboo shoots rising from the earth like an army of zombies hell-bent on taking over the world. (OK, I got a bit carried away there.)

It’s the time of year when many running bamboos begin to shoot. Since we live on a small lot within the city limits, all our running bamboos are confined to containers. This limits their growth potential but I still enjoy checking for progress every day.

Here are some of the running bamboos that are shooting at the moment:

Dwarf greenstripe (Pleioblastus viridistriatus). Its color is so electric, it makes this dark corner of our back yard glow.
Chinese walking stick (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda). The shoots turn into culms (“canes”) in just a matter of days. This species loses its culm sheaths much more quickly than any other I’ve observed.
Koi (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’). In addition to the two fat shoots, there’s a third one, barely visible.
Koi (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’)
Temple bamboo (Semiarundinaria fastuosa). The two shoots on the right are fairly wispy and won’t impress hard-core bamboo aficionados, but I love seeing even modest new growth on a potted plant.
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).
In this pot since 2009.
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).
Six shoots so far, much thicker than the existing culms. Funny how all of the new shoots are on one side of the pot.
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Amazing how intricate (and odd-looking) the anatomical structures of a bamboo shoot are.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Marin County drive

A good friend from out of state was visiting this weekend so we decided to go for a drive to Marin County. Marin is located north of San Francisco; the two are connected by the Golden Gate Bridge. This is arguable one of the most beautiful spots in California, and certainly one of the most beloved by its residents.

Our first stop was Battery Spencer in the Marin Headlands. From there you have a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge towards the San Francisco. We were there at 10:30 in the morning so the light wasn’t the greatest (late afternoon is best) but it’s still a a jaw-dropping sight.

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from Battery Spencer

Taking Conzelman Road, we stopped at several other batteries that date back to the 1800s. Here is an interesting article about them. Most are open for exploration, and walking through the dim tunnels is lots of fun, not just for kids.

Rodeo Beach near Marin Headlands Visitor Center

Several hours later we found ourselves in elusive Bolinas—road signs pointing to the town keep disappearing. We had a great lunch at Coast Café; be prepared for a long wait on Sundays, but the food is worth it.

From San Francisco north to Bodega Bay and beyond, one of the most striking plants you’ll see in bloom at this time of year is Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans). Native to the island of Madeira in the North Atlantic and related to the Tower of Jewels (Echium wildpretii) that we have growing in our yard, it thrives in the sunny but cool coastal climate.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)

Flowers are usually purple (left in the photo below) but blue cultivars have become very popular as well. We had a variegated variety called Star of Madeira a couple of years ago and it did really well in our yard until it got killed off by frost (it’s only hardy to 30°F or so and I had forgotten to cover it).

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)

Aeoniums, native to the Canary Islands, also thrive in the Marin County climate. The following two photos were taken in Bolinas.

Several aeonium species. Check out that flower stalk!
Aeonium (most likely canariense) nestled against a piece of driftwood

After lunch, we continued north towards Point Reyes, stopping frequently to take photos.

Spring in Northern California distilled into one photo
Cypress-lined country road near Bolinas
Stand of Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) north of Bolinas. In Marin County, eucalyptus trees are hated as much as they are loved, but it’s hard to resist the incredible fragrance that wafts into your car as you drive along a eucalyptus-lined road.

After a coffee break in Point Reyes Station, a small burg of 800 declared one of the 10 coolest towns by Budget Travel, we turned east and slowly made our way back to Davis, again stopping often to photograph the constantly changing interplay of puffy white clouds, blue sky, and electrically green hills.

110410_hills clouds2
110410_hills clouds

Sometimes taking a day off and going for a leisurely drive is the best thing you can do to recharge your batteries.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring at the Ruth Bancroft Garden

The last time I had visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, east of San Francisco, was back in early February. Nothing was in bloom at that time, and many succulents – especially cacti – were enclosed in rain shelters. How different everything was today!

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Beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata) surrounded by a feathery cassia (Cassia artemisioides) in full bloom. This Arizona native produces pea-like flowers from late winter to May.
Same shrub, but a different yucca: Yucca schottii, native to southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
Coming from the southern hemisphere, this is a fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis) native to the Western Cape of South Africa. It’s one of my favorite aloes because it looks so unusual. Ours will flower for the first time this spring (post to follow).
Tree euphorbia (Euphorbia lambii), native to La Gomera in the Canary Islands. It looks very similar to the common wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides), but with a trunk! This tree was easily 8 ft. tall. I’d never seen this species before, and I was blown away by its streamlined elegance.
Another plant I’d never seen before. This is a giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea), native to California and Baja California. The trunk can be up to 6 ft. tall; this one was about 4 ft. It would look stunning underplanted with California poppies!
110409_agave poppy
Speaking of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), here is one in front of a century plant (Agave americana)
The Ruth Bancroft Garden has many different aeonium species. This is an Aeonium canariense, and it’s getting ready to bloom. The central part of the rosette is turning into a flower stalk that will soon be 3-4 ft. tall. After blooming, this rosette will die (much like an agave) but there are many pups all around it that will continue on.
Prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) producing flowers. I don’t know what species this is, but it looks like the flowers will be yellow.
Stenocactus crispatus, native to Mexico. It blooms at a young age as long as it gets plenty of sun
Ferocactus echidne, commonly called Sonora barrel or Coville’s barrel. To me one of the most beautiful barrel cacti.
As much as I loved all the succulents, my favorite plant on today’s visit was this shrubby eucalyptus from Western Australia. Its common name is “bell-fruited mallee” (Eucalyptus preissiana). Unlike most eucalyptus that grow to an impressive size, this species is a shrub that generally doesn’t get taller than 7-8 ft. The leaves are a bluish gray with a pink margin and yellowish-pink veins. The flowers are pale yellow and absolutely stunning. My mission now is to fine one of these for our front yard.
Closeup of two flowers. The buds have reddish “hats” that pop off as the flower develops.
Closeup of two flowers.

The Ruth Bancroft Garden is located in a residential neighborhood in Walnut Creek, albeit on a busy street, and the contrast between the xeric wonderland that hides behind the cinder block walls along Bancroft Street and the staid and—yes—boring landscaping of the adjacent properties is quite stark. How much water people could save in California if only they gave up a quarter or half of their lawn and replaced it with low-water landscaping!