Friday, April 29, 2011

What caught my attention in our backyard today

Even though our property is on the small side, I go exploring every day—sometimes twice a day—to see how things are coming along. Changes are coming fast and furious at this time of year, and I’m finally making a systematic effort to document as much of it as I can.

110428_hosta_june lamium
While our climate isn’t really conducive to hostas, they are among my favorite shade plants so I keep trying. This is a cultivar called ‘June,’ surrounded by a sea of Lamium maculatum .’Purple Dragon’.
This hosta ‘Sagae’ just came up a few weeks ago—really late because of the cooler than usual weather. To the right is a variegated farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Argentea’) just planted this spring.
My favorite shade-loving grass, bar none: Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). After four years in the ground, it’s finally put on some size (about 15 inches high).
Meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium) starting to bloom
First flowers on this columbine ‘McKana’s Giant’ (Aquilegia caerulea ‘McKana’s Giant’)
Trailing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) in all their glory.
They reseed reliably every year.
Nasturtiums in our backyard succulent bed.
‘Black Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus nigra ’Black Lace’). Planted three years ago from a 4” container, it’s finally coming into its own. Very difficult to photograph because of its purple-black foliage against the redwood fence. It’s just now starting to bloom, and the flowers are stunning.
‘Black Lace’ elderberry flower head.
This is one of my wife’s favorite plants.

I can’t wait to see what I might discover tomorrow!

How often do you check for progress in your garden?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ice plants lighting up the garden

Three years ago I planted some trailing ice plants (Delosperma cooperi) in a hot and dry spot in our front yard where previously nothing much would grow. This area is at the bottom of a slight slope which used to be dominated by a mistletoe-infested Bradford pear. This tree hogged all the water and nutrients it could, making it difficult for other plants to thrive near it.

Delosperma cooperi bordering a sea of yellow:
Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) at the top left,
Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens) below it

Fortunately, this tree was removed by the City of Davis in January of 2010 and we replaced it with a giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii). This area is now completely transformed. Not only is the bamboo thriving, all the other plants are as well. This includes our trailing ice plants. They have more than quadrupled in size and at the moment are lighting up this part of the planting strip with a color so intense, it almost looks unreal.

Delosperma cooperi in full bloom
The flowers only open up when exposed to strong sunlight. This is what they look like in the morning and evening, or on cloudy days.

Delosperma cooperi is one of many plants that go by the moniker “ice plant.” Native to South Africa, it is a drought-tolerant creeper with very small leaves—significantly smaller than the sea fig (Carpobrotus chilensis), for example. It needs full sun and well-drained soil but does tolerate a bit more water than many other ice plants. It blooms from spring to fall, although in my experience the initial burst of flowers is by far the best.

Unlike most other ice plants, Delosperma cooperi is very cold hardy, supposedly all the way to zone 5. However, the Missouri Botanical Garden says that in the St Louis area (zone 6), Delosperma cooperi is “at best semi-evergreen and is not reliably winter hardy.”


Delosperma cooperi flowers are typically fuchsia purple, like ours. However, in recent years some hybrids have come out that have different colors. At the top of my wish list is salmon pink Delosperma ‘Kelaidis’, named after Panayoti Kelaidis, Curator of Plant Collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens where it appeared as a seedling mutation. I’m still waiting for this hybrid to make an appearance at our local nurseries; I’m sure it will eventually since it’s distributed by Monrovia under the registered trademark Mesa Verde®.

Apparently, Delosperma cooperi is easy to propagate from cuttings. I will definitely give this a try so I can spread it to different areas of our front yard planting strip.

Some interesting side notes:

In addition to Delosperma cooperi, the name “ice plant” is also used for the sea fig (Carpobrotus chilensis) commonly found along the shoreline on Central California’s Monterey Peninsula, the closely related Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis), as well as many other plants in the genera Lampranthus, Drosanthemum (known as the “vygies”), and Aptenia. Confusion reigns supreme!

Many gardeners on the California coast lump all ice plants together under the moniker “mesembryanthemum.” Today, the genus Mesembryanthemum only contains a few ice plants rarely seen outside South Africa. However, in the past it also contained the ice plants so ubiquitous along the California coast, especially the invasive sea fig, Carpobrotus chilensis, which in spite of its species name is native to South Africa, not Chile. It has become such a common sight that many people—including gardening web sites—think it’s a California native. Massive efforts have been made in the last 20 years to eradicate Carpobrotus chilensis and edulis so native plants have a chance at a comeback. While ecologically sound, this hasn’t been an easy sell to the public since in a floral beauty contest Carpobrotus would beat the coastal natives any day.

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.