Monday, May 16, 2011

Backyard snapshot

After taking a look at what our front yard looks like in mid-May I want to do the same for the back yard. It’s very useful having these photos as a reference to look back on six months or a year down the line.

As is the case in the front yard, we’ve made a lot of progress over the last 4+ years. However, since a significant portion of our backyard is in dry shade, it’s proven to be relatively difficult to find the right mix of plants that thrive in these conditions. Competition from trees make matters worse, necessitating frequent irrigation or container plantings. Still, every challenge is an opportunity—or a riddle, as the case may be. While I’m happy with the state of the front yard, the backyard continues to be a work in progress. I know that eventually we’ll have that lush oasis I’m dreaming about, and in the meantime I’ll learn a thing or two about gardening in the face of adversity.

The first set of photos are of our Asian-inspired area in the side yard just outside our dining room (which also opens to the front porch). This area is mostly shade and plants have to be able to compete for water and nutrients with yet another unwelcome Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana). This is not a city tree but because of the location having it removed would be very costly so we’ll continue to put up with it.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) towering above the granite lantern, Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) and creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) in a pot to the right of the lantern, giant columbine (Aquilegia 'McKana's Giant'), and another clumping bamboo (Borinda angustissima) all the way on the right
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) on the left, giant columbine (Aquilegia 'McKana's Giant') on the right, and chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) in the back
Plants of note in this photo:
I love how our chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) has come into its own, defining this space without dominating it
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Potted Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var dissectum 'Red Dragon'), giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’)

The next photo looks towards the dining room window (there’s a sliding door just to the right of the window, which you can’t see). This shallow planting bed gets morning and midday sun so I planted some smaller succulents there. Right now, the bed is dominated by nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) that reseed every year. Once summer arrives the leaves turn brown and I rip them out, but enough seeds will have fallen to ensure next year’s crop.

Plants of note in this photo:
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), bamboo muhly grass(Muhlenbergia dumosa) in the pot in the background

In the next photo, the big pot on the left is our black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) which produced 10 ft. culms this year. These culms have begun to leaf out, almost merging with the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) behind it. The smaller pots on the right contain lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), which we use for cooking, and Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’).

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’)

Moving counterclockwise from the potted black bamboo, you’ll find a variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’), carpets of lamium (Lamium maculatum ’Purple Dragon’) and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and a juvenile blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera) so heavy with leaves that the culms bend over under the weight.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), lamium (Lamium maculatum ’Purple Dragon’), shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’)

Next to the Borinda papyrifera is our Blue Skies lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’) that gave us a beautiful show this spring…

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Blue Skies lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’),
Blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera)

…flanked on the left by yet another clumping bamboo (Fargesia robusta), finally putting on some height in its 3rd year in the ground.

Plants of note in this photo:
Fargesia robusta

Continuing counterclockwise, we have our potted Koi bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’), described several times in earlier posts, and a planting bed currently dominated by a Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’). Also seen in the photo below (middle bottom) is a Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue').

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue'), Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’), Koi bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’)

Our backyard is dominated by four sweet bay trees (Laurus nobilis) under which not much will grow. For years we put up with a rather barren wasteland but in recent years we’ve been adding more and more containers with leafy plants. As the plants grow, the fence will gradually be obscured, giving the illusion that our backyard is deeper than it actually is.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
White Dragon bamboo (Fargesia apircirubens 'White Dragon') in the dark-brown urn, Yushania maculata (to the right of the middle bay tree), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) in the red bowl, variegated aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata') and creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) in an urn you can’t see, Shiroshima bamboo (Hibanobambusa tranquillans ‘Shiroshima’) in the back on the right, Sasaella masamuneana ‘Albostriata’ in the clay pot on the bottom right
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) in half barrel, foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Myers') in the blue pot, Rufa bamboo (Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’) in the red pot on the right

The final photo is of the area to the left of the bay trees, extending to the corner of our property. This area is characterized by dry shade; the extensive root system of the nearby bay trees sucks up a lot of the available moisture so I’ve had to increase irrigation times. However, after some trial and error this is shaping up to be a pretty nice looking area full of shade-loving (or at least shade-tolerant) plants. The use of containers in the background adds vertical interest. I consider this to be a work in progress and will post updates in the future.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Dwarf green stripe bamboo (Pleioblastus viridistriatus) in the upper left, leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) in front of it, Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata), Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) in the clay pot in the center, astilbe (Astilbe sp.) in front of it, greater wood rush (Luzula sylvatica) on the right. Barely seen behind it is a Teague’s blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus 'Teague's Blue’).

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Today has been the weirdest day.

I woke up to the sound of a gully washer, followed less than an hour later by sunshine and dramatic skies. Before I finished my 2nd cup of coffee, the sun was gone, obscured by clouds so dark that I considered turning on the light. Lightning and thunder were next, and then the clouds opened up again, but what poured forth wasn’t rain but hail. It only lasted for a couple of minutes, but it was the most intense hail storm I had ever seen. Knowing that the hail stones would melt very quickly, I grabbed my camera and headed outside to document this unusual event.

Now, an hour and a half later, there’s no trace it ever happened (except for the pile near the key lime, see below), the sun is shining, and I just saw a hummingbird flutter by outside.

Silly me, I thought today was May 15th, but apparently it’s still April.

Hail on roof
Violets (Viola odorata), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), and potted squid agave (Agave bracteosa) in back yard
This could be a photo of the first snow fall of the season (if it ever snowed here)
Raised vegetable beds
Succulent display table
A whole avalanche of hail shooting off the roof and collecting next to our potted key lime
Variegated maiden hair grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’) outside the front yard fence
Trailing ice plant (Delosperma cooperi), looking decidedly more forlorn than usual
Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’
Agave lophanta ‘Quadricolor’
Puya coerulea var. violacea

While hail damage was minimal overall, some plants were affected. (Click here for an update.)

Karly Rose fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose’) looking decidedly less perky than the other day
Siskiyou Pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink') looks a tad flattened, too
Echeveria bifida var. metallica showing cosmetic damage—darker green is showing where the purplish metallic skin was punctured
This is a Euphorbia x martinii, one of the woody spurges. Like all euphorbias, its sap is a milky latex-like substance that is irritating to some people. It looks like the hail stones must have hit the plant hard enough to release some of the sap because the entire plant is dotted with white drops of latex. None of our other woody spurges show this kind of damage.

5/20/2011: Click here for a hail damage update.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Front yard coming into its own

Spring and early summer are my favorite time of year when it comes to gardening. Everything seems to be growing at an explosive pace, and temperatures are still pleasant enough to be able to work outside with a minimum of discomfort. It’s much different in the middle of summer when the thermometer hits 100°F!

As a baseline for the rest of the year, here is a series of photos showing what our front yard looks like at the moment.

The area inside the fence still needs a few weeks to hits its prime…


…but the planting strip outside the fence is there already and will only get better, especially when the rudbeckias and echinaceas start to bloom. Since our house is at the corner of the street, it seems that everything we do gets noticed and commented on. While I sometimes wish we had a more private location, I’m happy knowing that our efforts have inspired others in the neighborhood to spruce up their front yards.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Soap aloe (Aloe maculata) in bloom, English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) about to bloom, trailing ice plant (Delosperma cooperi) pretty in pink, cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens), Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’), Rigoletto maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Rigoletto')
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens), giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’), Rigoletto maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Rigoletto'), Karly Rose fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose’), Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips')
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’), Rigoletto maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Rigoletto'), Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), Siskiyou Pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink'), electric blue sage (Salvia chamaedryoides)
110511_rigoletto catmint
Plants of note in this photo (top to bottom):
Rigoletto maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Rigoletto'), Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’)
110511_ebluesage lavendar catmint
Plants of note in this photo (top to bottom):
Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’) , Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), electric blue sage (Salvia chamaedryoides)
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’), Rigoletto maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Rigoletto'), Siskiyou Pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink'), Karly Rose fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose’),
Red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria)
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips'), Dixieland maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Dixieland'), Siskiyou Pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink'), Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’)
110511_gaura catmint
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Siskiyou Pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink'),
Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’)
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria),
Silberpfeil maiden hair grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Silberpfeil')
110511_kniphofia hotlips catmint
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’), Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips')
110511_bushsage blacklace
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha),
Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’)

To show you how far we’ve come, here are some “before” photos. I’m extremely gratified with the progress we’ve made in the last four years.

The original house in August of 2006, just days before our remodel kicked off.
As you can see, the front yard is mostly lawn and some overgrown shrubs and perennials closer to the house.
One year later, July 2007.
The 2nd story addition has been completed but the front yard is still a blank slate. The flagstone has been delivered, and the fence line has been staked.
September 2007. The fence has been built and we have completed the initial planting. See how tiny these plants are? They are all 4° plants from Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville, CA. The biennials (rudbeckias) are gone, but the perennials are still there.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Veggie update

Last week we had two days in a row where the thermometer hit 90°F but since then it’s been about 10°F cooler than normal. Most of our vegetables love—and need—hot summer temperatures to thrive so progress has been slower than expected. Still, all the veggies we’ve planted have grown since we put them in the ground. Since they’re still small, I decided to get out my macro lens and take some close-up photos. Most of the time we don’t stop to take a look at the small details even though they can be very beautiful.

One of our heirloom tomato seedling putting out new leaves. The new growth looks so fragile and tender, yet with hot weather these leaves can grow rapidly.
Leaves on one of the larger tomato seedlings
Our Sun Gold cherry tomato has started to flower…
…and produce fruit. Notice the mosquito-like insect (no idea what it is but it seems to enjoy hanging out on the side of this tomato)
The bush beans I planted have doubled in size
Snap pea left over from our winter garden—there are still quite a few pods, which my wife and daughters are enjoying
Zucchini blossom
Our yellow crookneck squash (or golden zucchini) has set fruit already
This sweet basil was razed by rats, the eternal scourge of our garden, but is growing new leaves and looks like it will live
Another sweet basil nearby escaped unharmed and is pumping out new leaves. I’m counting the weeks until we have enough to make pesto.
In mid-April I sowed seeds for several Mexican chile pepper varieties, including three varieties of chilhuacle I’m growing to make mole. Pepper seeds need high heat to germinate and progress hasn’t exactly been explosive. Still, about ten seeds of the 75 I sowed have germinated. These seedlings are tiny (about ½”) and I’m making a concerted effort to keep them moist so they don’t fry in the sun. I’m not usually so obsessive about vegetable seeds, but these peppers are difficult to find, and I really want them to make it.