Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day 2011

I was invited by follow garden blogger Alan Lorence, aka It’s Not Work It’s Gardening, to participate in a reading project blog meme in celebration of Earth Day 2011. This particular meme was originated by The Sage Butterfly. It gives each blogger two assignments:

  1. List at least three books that “inspired you to perform any sustainable living act or inspired you to live green, and then tell us why they inspired you.”
  2. Post links to at least three other blogs.

If I’m making this sounds a bit complicated, it really isn’t. The goal is simple: raise awareness for Earth Day; encourage others to live green and sustainably; and inspire people to read.

Earth Day is Friday, April 22, 2011. The theme for this year is “A Billion Acts of Green: [a] people-powered campaign to generate a billion acts of environmental service and advocacy before Rio +20.” Visit the Earth Day 2011 web site for all the information, and check your local newspaper for Earth Day events in your area.

Three books that have inspired me

I had a hard time narrowing my choices down to three, but here they are. A decidedly mixed bunch that reflects my personal interpretation of “living green:” reuse as creatively as you can; eat local food; and create an environment that you feel connected to.


Matthew Levesque: The Revolutionary Yardscape

110421_rev_yardscapeTo call Matthew Levesque’s creations “inspired” would be an understatement. He is a master at repurposing anything and everything to create beautiful garden features, ranging from planting containers to arbors and tables and benches. This book really opened my eyes to what you can do with materials that were originally used for a completely different purpose. My favorite designs in this book are decorative elements made out of wildly divergent materials such as water heater baffles, eyeglass lenses, and pipette sterilizers. After reading this book, you’ll think twice before you throw anything away.


Mollie Katzen: The Moosewood Cookbook

110421_moosewood2Originally published in 1978 when Mollie Katzen was a member of the Moosewood Collective in Ithaca, NY, this hand-lettered cookbook has had a lasting influencing on my life. It was given to me as a goodbye gift after I finished graduate school in 1987 and it set me on a course towards organic vegetarian food from local sources that has more or less lasted until now. While I’m no longer a strict vegetarian, 80% of what I eat is from plant sources, and I try to make a real effort to buy produce that is grown as close to where I live as possible.


Dwell Magazine

Dwell Magazine’s byline is “At Home in the Modern World,” and it’s a perfect description of this monthly dedicated to modern architecture and design. With its focus on contemporary yet sustainable living, frequently in small spaces built from alternative materials, it is the polar opposite of mainstream shelter publications such as House Beautiful where square footage and decadent trimmings still reign supreme.

What makes Dwell stand out from the crowd is the quality of the ideas and the writing—both border on the philosophical at times and are leagues above anything else published in the architectural magazine market.



Three blogs I would like to recommend

The blogs I’m recommending are not focused on sustainability per se, but they are all mindful of how fragile our environment is. Hardcore environmentalist probably wouldn’t approve of focusing so heavily on non-native plants, but I find that the beauty the comes with a mindfully designed garden is the best way to inspire others to get their hands dirty and transform their own plot of land.

It’s Not Work It’s Gardening

St Louis blogger Alan Lorence posts daily about the goings-on in Midwestern garden. Alan’s writing is as inspiring as his stunning photographs. His Earth Day post is here.

Man Man Bamboo

Sean Bigley runs a small but exquisite bamboo nursery out of the backyard of his suburban Sacramento home. He got me interested in—or shall I say obsessed with?—bamboo, and will forever be a major source of inspiration. I outlined some of the environmental benefits of bamboo in this post.

Alternative Eden

I continue to be amazed at the exotic paradise gardeners Mark and Gaz have created in decidedly un-tropical England. Their garden shows that you can push past the boundaries imposed by your climate and create a lush look no matter where you live.

Being happy in your own small corner of the world and using no more than what you need, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Golden and black bamboo update

A week ago I wrote about the “shooting” of our running bamboos. Shooting, if you remember, means producing new shoots that will turn into “culms” (or canes).

Today I’d like to post a quick update on our two most prolific shooters: golden Koi (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’) and black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).

I can’t believe how many new shoots Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ is producing this year. I’ve only had the plant for a couple of years. It started out as a small division with two culms; this year there are eight new culms!

Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’

In addition to regular shoots I also have a whip shoot. This is when a rhizome—the woody underground structure from which the shoots/culms originate—hits an obstacle, is redirected to the surface, and turns into a culm, albeit often a relatively weak one. Considering how many nice-sized new culms there are, I will remove the whip shoot soon. In fact, after the culms have reached their final size and have started to leaf out, I will probably move this bamboo to a larger pot.

Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’:
a real shoot (right) and a “whip shoot” (left)

As you can see in the next photo, rhizomes sometimes surface and then duck right back into the soil. It’s very possible that the whip shoot in the previous photo is attached to this rhizome.

Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ rhizome, surfacing and ducking back under

The next couple of photos show the progress our black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) has made in the last week. Quite impressive! The shoots have now become culms reaching towards the sky.

Phyllostachys nigra on 4/12/11
Phyllostachys nigra on 4/20/11
Check the height of these new culms!

I can’t wait for the culms to leaf out and then turn black over the next season or two. This will be a stunning potted plant in a year’s time!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Weekend projects

We had a a busy weekend catching up on projects that had long been over due. As much as I love gardening, I’d rather be planning or planting than doing grunt work, but without the latter, it’s hard to do the former.

Over the years, the bark we’d used as mulch in the planting strip outside the front yard fence had broken down or been washed away by the winter rains, and in quite a few spots the soil had begun to look like this:

Cracked soil due to lack of mulch

This planting strip gets full sun for 6-8 hours. Without a protective mulch, the plants would fry in our hot summer weather since water would just run off without really soaking in (the planting strip slants down to the street).

On Friday I ordered bark from Dixon Landscape Materials in nearby Dixon, CA and on Saturday morning we went to work.

2 cubic yards of bark in our driveway
(the decomposed granite is for another project that was supposed to happen this weekend but didn’t)
In addition to keeping the soil cool and minimizing evaporation of precious water, fresh bark looks and smells awesome
This is the emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’)
which I recently planted
I also mulched the stock tanks we installed last December

Another chore that really needed to be done was to pressure-wash the flagstone walkway and patio in the front of our house. Installed in the summer of 2006, this flagstone has had no maintenance other than occasional sweeping. Since this past winter had been a long and rainy one, a lot of grime and moss had settled on the stone, making it look permanently dirty and dingy.

Our neighbor (the best neighbor in the world, I might add, and not just because she makes awesome cakes and cookies) let me use her pressure washer and so I spent a couple of hours on Sunday spritzing all the grime away.

The difference is like night and day. While I had known that the flagstone was dirty, I hadn’t really known how dirty until it was clean again.

Before and after
Front porch after cleaning. I love how saturated and shiny wet flagstone is. Too bad it dries to a dull finish and a much lighter color. I might just try one of those sealants that give you that wet look, even though the ones I’ve seen make the stone look like cheap plastic.
Front walkway after pressure washing

The final project of the weekend was the easiest and quickest of them all. We love to eat and cook Mexican food, and in the last few years I’ve been experimenting with moles, the rich sauces that are the hallmark of Mexican regional cuisine. Many use chili peppers that are very hard to find in the U.S., and some—like the famous chilhuacle from Oaxaca—are hard to source even in Mexico. Instead of always using substitutes that are never quite the real thing, I decided to grow my own specialty peppers from seeds. My original intention had been to start the seeds indoor in January or February, but somehow time got away from me. Now it’s mid-April and our daytime temperatures are consistently in the 70s so the soil should be warm enough to sow straight in the ground.


Since our four raised vegetable beds were empty except for some snap peas, I appropriated half of the biggest bed and sowed the varieties shown above. I believe there were 15 or 20 seeds in each package, but I don’t expect them all to germinate. In fact, if I get 5 or each, I’d be happy. Germination can be pretty slow so I’m trying to be patient while I keep the soil moist. I’ll keep you updated on my great Mexican pepper experiment of 2011!


Sunday, April 17, 2011

First cactus flower of the year, part 2

In yesterday's post I showed a photo of our first blooming cactus of the year, Parodia werneri subsp. werneri. Today the second flower (out three) opened, and I’m so excited that I want to show you some more photos.

Please bear in mind that this cactus is only 2½ inches wide and 1¾ inches tall. The flowers are almost as tall as the plant! They have such a metallic sheen, that they almost look fake.

They’re only open for about four hours in the middle of the day. They’re fully open by noon and fully closed by 4 pm. When they’re closed, they look relative plain and unassuming—they certainly don’t give away the beauty hidden within.




Tomorrow, I promise, it’ll be back to regular programming. No cacti, just coverage of good old weekend yard work, and some sowing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

First cactus flower of the year

I don’t have time for a long post today, but I really wanted to show you this photo. It’s our first cactus flower of the year. This cactus is in one of the planter boxes I just installed on top of the fence that surrounds our front yard—see this post for details.

What is remarkable that I just bought this plant last week at the Ruth Bancroft Garden and here it is, blooming already (it did have three developing buds last week).


The cactus is a Parodia werneri subsp. werneri. It used to be called Notocactus uebelmannius, but underwent a name change when the International Organization for Succulent Plant Study (IOS) merged the genus Notocactus into the genus Parodia in 1989. This kind of taxonomical musical chairs happens fairly regularly as new research results are published. I must admit that while I have some interest in (or tolerance for) taxonomy, my eyes start to glaze over when I delve too deeply into it.

All I really need to know is that Parodia werneri subsp. werneri:

  • Doesn’t seem to have a common name in English that would make referring to it quite a bit easier
  • Hails from southern Brazil
  • Has a solitary growth habit
  • Will get to about 6 inches in diameter
  • Likes to be watered regularly in the summer but must be kept dry in the winter because it rots easily
  • Is hardy to 25°F
  • Has electric purple flowers that appear in mid-spring

And it’s beautiful in the eyes of this beholder, which for most people is all that matters.

After all, most gardeners wouldn’t go to the trouble of caring for a plant as ugly as this one.

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.

110412_cactus_box1 2
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.