Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Orchid Wednesday

Usually I don’t pay much attention to houseplants, but when we were visiting my in-laws over Easter weekend, I couldn’t help but notice my mother-in-law’s orchids. Their beauty was so seductive that I didn’t even try to resist. Out came the camera, and these portraits are the result of our little tête-à-tête.


These are Phalaenopsis hybrids, commonly called “moth orchids” because the flowers are said to resemble moths in flight.They are native to Southeast Asia, and most of them are epiphytic, i.e. they grow on other plants, usually trees. That explains why in cultivation they’re not potted in soil but rather in a coarse medium typically consisting of bark, expanded clay pellets, or sphagnum moss.

There are so many fascinating things to learn about orchids, and if I don’t stop myself now, there’s no telling where it might end!

I will, however, recommend an orchid book that is as spellbinding as a good thriller. It’s called Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy and was written by journalist Eric Hansen. This book is not about orchid cultivation or care, but rather about the weird, wonderful, and, yes, dangerous subculture of orchid collecting. Be sure to read the reviews on Amazon; you’ll be as intrigued as I was. The book was everything I had hoped it would be.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter planting at the in-laws

We spent this past weekend at my in-laws who live in Mount Shasta, 215 miles north of here, not only to celebrate Easter with them, but also to deliver a bunch of plants I’d been collecting for them since the fall. Some of them were divisions from plants in our own garden, others I got on close-out, and a few were regular purchases. This is what we hauled in our van:

7 lavenders
22 ornamental grasses
1 dogwood
2 junipers
2 bamboos

Our van loaded with plants…
…including two bamboos (Phyllostachys bambusoides and Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’)

Mount Shasta is in zone 7a and spring is just now starting to arrive there—weeks later than usual because of the longer-than-usual winter. In fact, they’d had fresh snow just last week! While Saturday, our planting day, was cool and drizzly, it was actually fairly pleasant for gardening.

The following photo shows the hill in front of their house where we planted everything except for the two bamboos and the holly. The section on the right (not visible in the photo) is studded with trees and hence shady, but the area you see below gets a good 6 hours of direct sun in the summer. Right now, the hillside is covered with periwinkle (Vinca minor), some irises, and the occasional Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) seedling.

Hillside before replanting

In their 1-gallon nursery containers, the lavenders and grasses looked to be of decent size, but once planted out, they seem to disappear into the carpet of conifer needles and periwinkle. Eventually they will dominate the hillside—especially the grasses in the 5-7 ft. range—but for now the fruits of our labor seem disappointingly meager. I’m so used to gardening on a small (sub)urban plot where even one plant makes a difference that I was a bit stunned to not see a more dramatic improvement right away.


In addition to grasses and lavenders, we also planted three shrubs on the hill: two ‘Old Gold’ junipers (Juniperus x media 'Old Gold'), a compact spreader to 2 ft. in height; and a variegated Siberian dogwood (Cornus alba 'Elegantissima'), renowned for its red stems which provide winter interest. The dogwood should look stunning with a blanket a snow.

‘Old Gold’ junipers (Juniperus x media 'Old Gold')
and  variegated Siberian dogwood (Cornus alba 'Elegantissima')

The following drawing shows what went where. It’s mostly for ourselves so we’ll be able to identify the plants later on. Many of the grasses are new to us, especially the switchgrasses (Panicum virgatum sp) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans 'Indian Steel'). These grasses are native to the tallgrass prairie that once covered large portions of the Midwest. They are very cold-hardy, and I’m hoping they’ll do well here in the Northern California mountains.


We also found a home for this holly that I bought on clearance at Lowe’s in January. It’s actually a matched pair of a female (Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess') and male plant (Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Prince').

Holly ‘Royal Court’ ((Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess'
and Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Prince')

The final two plants we put in the ground were running bamboos of the genus Phyllostachys. The first one, Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’, went on another hill across the driveway from where we put the ornamental grasses and lavenders. Here it will have room to expand. ‘Henon’ is a timber bamboo with the potential to produce 4” culms that grow 55 ft. tall. It’s the all-green version of the popular black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), and has small and elegant leaves just like its relative.

Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’, looking lost now,
but it will come into its own in a few years

The 2nd bamboo was a Phyllostachys bambusoides, also known by its Japanese name madake. It is a true giant (70 ft., 6” culms), with extremely sturdy culms that live 20+ years. It is a highly valued construction material in Japan, but it establishes much more slowly than other timber bamboos like ‘Henon‘. I don’t know how well it will do in Mount Shasta since it’s only hardy to 5°F, but the plant I had didn’t represent a great financial investment, so it’s worth a try.

I should add that the hole for the madake was dug in no time at all by my father-in-law using his trusty backhoe. In fact, the very first post I ever published on this blog was about transplanting a black bamboo (seen in the upper left quarter of the photo below) using this very backhoe. Click here to read this post.

Phyllostachys bambusoides

All in all, it was very productive Saturday, and we left behind an impressive jumble of empty nursery pots.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Planting tomatoes (and some other veggies)

Over the years we have grown many different vegetables but there are a few kinds that seem to do better in our garden than anything else: summer squash (yellow crookneck, zucchini, etc.), cucumbers, and tomatoes. While I’m not fond of summer squash myself, my wife likes it so we always get one plant (which, I might add, produces all the squash we need). Cucumbers, on the other hand, I do like, especially in refreshing dishes like Greek tzatziki or sliced with a simple vinaigrette.

However, summer vegetable gardening for me is all about tomatoes. The Sacramento area is a major producer of tomatoes, especially for canning. In fact, one of Sacramento’s nicknames is “Sacratomato.” Our weather is just about perfect: lots of sun and heat, and low humidity. While not drought-tolerant by any means, tomatoes don’t need to be watered every day either, like lettuce and other more sensitive veggies might. I find a deep watering every 3 days or so is sufficient. Our vegetable beds are on a drip which we run every three days for 30 minutes.

This spring has been much cooler than usual so we’re actually quite late putting out vegetables. We started on Friday with a couple of squash and cucumbers, a jalapeño to go with the Mexican chile peppers I started from seed the other day, and a bunch of tomatoes.

Two of the tomatoes are commercial varieties from our local Ace Hardware garden center: Sun Gold and Yellow Pear. These are small tomatoes with a concentrated flavor that in my mind are perfect for eating fresh and for cooking (I’m not into huge beefsteak tomatoes).

Sun Gold
Photo from
Yellow Pear
Photo from

We also planted a bunch of heirloom tomatoes a friend of ours had given us. Every year she supplies us with seedlings of rare and unusual varieties, and we love the suspense of not quite knowing what we’ll get. This year we have Amish Gold, Black from Tula, Gary Ibsen’s Gold, Japanese Black Trifele, and Oaxacan Jewel. Our friend gets her seeds from Gary Ibsen’s TomatoFest, and the photos and descriptions below are from that site as well. It certainly looks like a very interesting bunch!

Amish Gold
“Cross between Amish Paste and Sungold. Fruit has the gold color and flavor of the Sungold, the meatiness of the Amish Paste and delicious sweet/tart tomato flavors.”

Black from Tula
”Russian heirloom from Tula. Largest of the black tomatoes with 3-4", slightly flattened, oblate, dark brown to purple fruit with deep green shoulders. Deliciously outstanding, rich, slightly salty, smoky-fruit flavor.”

Gary Ibsen’s Gold
”Very juicy, 14 oz. , brilliant orange-gold globes with tropical fruit flavors with enough acid balance to guarantee a burst of tomato delight.”

Japanese Black Trifele
”Prolific quantities of 6 oz. fruit that looks like a beautiful mahogany-colored Bartlett pear with greenish shoulders. Very tasty flesh with a meaty core that produces luscious fruit all summer long.”
Oaxacan Jewel
“Beautiful 1/2 pound, yellow beefsteak tomato with red streaks throughout the fruit. Wonderfully rich, sweet flavors.”

Over the next few weeks we’ll add a few more things to our veggie beds, including beets as well as herbs like basil and cilantro which we consume in great quantities in the summer. On a hot summer day, I love nothing better than a Caprese salad, fresh bread, and a slushy blended margarita.

Here are the two beds we planted the tomatoes in. The big leafy plant in between the two beds is a rhubarb in a half barrel. It’s almost time to start harvesting it. Rhubarb compote and strawberry-rhubarb pie, I can’t wait!


We also planted a couple of things in a container next to the left-most of our four raised vegetable beds. It’s what my younger daughter sees from the window in her room, so we call it “her” barrel. Last week I sowed some cosmos and rudbeckia seeds (they’re already germinating), and just today we added this gerbera daisy and a strawberry that my daughter had picked out.


It’s great to see this corner of the back yard finally come alive!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Another exciting plant trade

Since starting this blog in October, I’ve chatted with many fellow gardeners from all over the world. Most gardeners love plants and eventually have more than they need. Trading is a fun way to share your bounty and in return receive plants that you might never have tried.

My latest trade arrived yesterday from a fellow garden blogger in the Midwest. Opening a box full of plants is like Christmas morning: You kind of know what you’ll get, but there’s still an element of mystery and surprise.


After removing everything from the box, I was still in suspense since the plants were so well packaged.


Four baggies of seeds of different vines, none of which I’ve ever tried before. It’ll be fun figuring out where to plant these.


Four 4” containers of cactus seedlings, started from a package of mixed cactus seeds. The varieties include “Saguaro, Hedgehog, Fishhook Barrel, Dollar Prickly Pear, Desert Prickly Pear, Christmas Cholla, Cane Cholla, Santa Rita Prickly Pear, Cardon,” none of which are hardy where my trade partner lives. I’d never seen cactus seedlings before and was very excited to lift off the cotton that protected them during shipping.


The seedlings are only a couple of months old and will need TLC for quite some time. I will keep them away from the hot sun and mist them every few days.


Next were two perennials. The first is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). We have two of them already, but my friend had plenty of seedlings to share so I gladly took another one. This grass is grown primarily for its flat flower heads that dry to a beautiful bronze color and are particularly ornamental in the winter when there is little else of interest. Chasmanthium latifolium can become invasive if allowed to reseed freely, but so far I’ve noticed little of that in our garden.


The next perennial is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), which is cultivated both as an herb and as an ornamental. We already have a variety of agastaches in the planting strip outside our front yard fence, but this is the first time I’ve ever tried this particular species. Click here to see a photo of its flowers.


The last plant in the box is what I’m most excited about: It’s a rhizome section of a stunning running bamboo called Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Spectabilis.' It’s a vigorous no-fuss bamboo with beautiful culm coloration. It is also one of the most cold hardy bamboos, although that’s not really an issue in our climate. I plan on keeping it in a pot until it gets too large, then it will go my in-laws who have enough acreage to let it run.


Here are the potted bamboo, Northern sea oats, and anise hyssop—ready to take their place in our garden.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Instant transformation of patio extension

#3 of my 11 projects for 2011 is to dress up the dirt area next to our front patio. Initially I wanted to lay flagstone but due to my inexperience with this kind of work, I decided that decomposed granite (DG) is the way to go: cheaper and definitely faster. Since we needed bark mulch for the planting strip outside our front yard fence anyway (click here to see this project), I ordered some DG along with it.

This is what this area looked like before:



I really hated the bare-dirt look, not to mention the fact that every time it rained this area got muddy.

A couple of hours of prepping and hauling DG were all it took to produce a marvelous transformation. The color of the DG (officially called “ginger”, but to me it looks more like a sandy coral) really complements the existing flagstone patio as well the chocolate color of our house.


The DG really sets off the potted plants (mostly succulents) in this area.


This is a panorama of the entire area as seen from the patio. Click the small photo below to see a larger version (it’ll take a few seconds to load).


It turns out I had estimated very generously when ordering the DG so there was plenty left over. We saved some to use as top dressing for potted succulents and gave the rest to two different neighbors. I love being able to share!

Last night, we helped our next-door neighbor spread the DG along a large planting box next to her driveway (we jokingly call it “the coffin”). It really dressed up that bed, and it will suppress weeds and prevent sprinkler runoff. Once she is done planting this area, it will be very attractive.

Our neighbor’s planting box next to her driveway

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!