Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Planting a new bamboo…using a backhoe

During a recent visit to Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery in Gold Beach, Oregon (on the web at I bought a Chusquea culeou ‘Roja,’ a special form of this South American clumping bamboo that Tradewinds owner Gib Cooper found in batch of more than 1,000 seedlings. Similar to Chusquea culeou ‘Caña Prieta,’ new culms are dark red when exposed to the sun, slowly fading to greenish yellow.

Chusqueas are unique to the New World. Native to Central and South America, this genus includes over 100 species (experts agree that there might be quite a few additional species out there that haven’t been properly classified yet) whose habitat ranges from the tropical lowlands to the mountain slopes of the Andes. Consequently, some chusquea species barely tolerate temperatures in the high thirties (1-3°C) while others are hardy to 0°F (-18°C).

Like many mountain bamboos from the Himalayas, chusqueas aren’t able to handle high nighttime temperatures coupled with warm soils and high humidity. Gardeners in areas where summer temperatures stay above 70°F (20°C) at night, such as is the case in many parts of the Midwestern, Southern and Southeastern United States, won’t have much luck growing chusqueas.

While summer nights here in Davis are generally cool enough, our daytime highs, which often approach or even exceed 100°F (38°C), are taxing on chusqueas. They do survive, but typically don’t develop their full potential.

For this reason, I decided to plant my Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’ on my parents-in-laws’ property in Mount Shasta, in the mountains of far Northern California. Even though summer highs might reach the 90°F mark (32°C), this doesn’t happen all that often, and summer nights are always pleasantly cool. I planted a Chusquea gigantea in their backyard last fall, and after an initial setback (irrigation failure) it made it through the winter with flying colors and has put up beautiful new culms this year.

When I plant a new bamboo in our garden—or anything else for that matter—I dread digging holes because of our clay soil. That problem doesn’t exist at my in-laws. Their soil is loose and friable (never mind the occasional rock) and a dream to garden in. In addition, they have a rather impressive looking backhoe that makes digging holes a breeze. While admittedly it would have been easy enough to use a plain old shovel to dig a hole for this 3-gallon plant, standing by and watching the backhoe do all the work was even easier. The Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’ was planted in no time flat and is now settling into its new home. I have high hopes for plenty of thick and colorful culms next year!

Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’ in 3-gallon container
Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’ culms
Mature culm (left), new culm (right)
My father-in-law getting ready to dig the hole
Making sure the hole is well watered before planting the bamboo
Check out the developing shoot (green square)
Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’ in its new home
Different view

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Taming Alphonse Karr bamboo

Alphonse Karr (Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’) is one of the most carefree and beautiful clumping bamboos for milder climates (zone 8 and up). As people are realizing they can enjoy the beauty of bamboo even in a small yard without having to deal with the invasiveness typical of running bamboos, Alphonse Karr is finding its way into more and more gardens. All larger nurseries in the Sacramento area now carry at least a few clumping bamboos, and Alphonse Karr is usually one of them. Like most bamboos of the (sub)tropical genus Bambusa, it’s fairly easy to propagate and hence available at a reasonable price.

In February 2010, I bought a large division of Alphonse Karr from a local gardener. He had topped it pretty severely—there were virtually no branches left—but just six months later it produced more than a dozen culms close to ½” in diameter.

Alphonse Karr in February 2010
Alphonse Karr in September 2010

In March of 2010 I bought a Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’). It was a small plant with short wispy culms, and I planted it about five feet from the Alphonse Karr. My goal was to create a lush screen of contrasting culm colors and leaf sizes that would give our front yard some privacy from the street, not to mention a tropical look.

Three clumping bamboos near the gate to our front yard, April 2010

The growth of the Baby Blue bamboo has been astounding--this year we have culms that are close to 1” in diameter. While the plant still forms a tight clump at the base, its culms are beginning to merge with those from the Alphonse Karr next to it.

110704_Bambusa_Barbellata AlphonseKarr_labeled
Baby Blue (left) and Alphonse Karr (right, behind gate) in early July 2011

Last year I made an admittedly half-hearted and naïve attempt to keep the Alphonse Karr in its corner by placing a large round of wood right next to the base of the plant, hoping it would get the message and grow towards the right where there is plenty of room. Needless to say it didn’t listen to me and popped out what I thought were two shoots right under my makeshift barrier.

Errant shoots/culms on July 15
Errant shoots/culms on July 22

Initially I was inclined to just let them be, especially since they started to right themselves after a few days, but then I decided to do the smart thing and remove them. Snap, a second later the new culms were gone—being immature, they broke off instantly, saving myself the trouble of resorting to a spade or saw.

As it turns out, there were three new culms under the round of wood; one hadn’t pushed its way out yet. Taking out what were some of the thickest culms this specimen had yet produced did produce a bang of mental pain, but I thought it’s better to act now to avoid an ugly mess later on.

Alphonse Karr after removing the errant shoots
Alphonse Karr in July 2011 (behind gate)

The point I’m trying to make is this: Don’t hesitate to remove bamboo shoots or culms if they pop up in places where you don’t want them. You are in control and have the ability to steer your bamboo in the direction you want it to go. If you do a little bit of maintenance and shaping every now and then, you won’t end up dealing with an unkempt and overgrown clump of bamboo later on—and you save yourself a lot of work in the process.

Note to myself: Replace the round of wood with a more suitable barrier to prevent culms from growing towards the Baby Blue bamboo. Apparently, metal flashing weighed down with concrete blocks or paving stones is a good way to manage the growth of clumping bamboo—click here for more information about this technique. I will give it a try very soon.

The three fat culms I removed—almost too pretty to throw away
I love the striping

We have another clump of Alphonse Karr in the backyard behind an umbrella clothesline. When I planted it two years ago, my wife made it clear to me that I would have to keep the culms away from the clothesline. Well, you can imagine what happened. New culms kept popping up, and I let them be. Now at least three culms regularly get entangled in the clothesline, and even I realize that something needs to be done about it. I’m still debating whether to remove the offending culms altogether (they’re so nice, the very thought hurts) or top them so they’re shorter than the clotheslines. I’ll probably start out with the latter to see how it goes. I’m still hoping the clothesline will magically get taller or move to a different spot in the yard :-).

Alphonse Karr getting entangled in clothesline…
…as can be seen here

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA

Mention Annie’s Annuals to any garden enthusiast in the Bay Area or Sacramento, and they get a dreamy look on their face. I had never been there before, but I’d been drooling over their catalog and web site for years. Located in Richmond in the East Bay, Annie’s Annuals is less than an hour from my house, but it took a visit from my plant-loving mother to get off my duff and go.

Davis was basking under a perfect blue sky when we left, but when we got to Richmond, the area was shrouded in high fog and temperatures were in the low 60s, 20 degrees lower than at home. Richmond gets this kind of fog quite frequently in the summer, and it contributes to what is one of the best growing climates in the entire state. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing and rarely go above 90. No wonder the plants at Annie’s Annuals looked perfect. They truly are in paradise there.

Virtually all plants Annie’s Annuals are in 4-inch containers and were grown at the nursery, typically from seed. Prices at the nursery range from $4.50 to $10.50 and are appreciably lower than on their web site (which is understandable, considering how labor-intensive picking, packaging and shipping is). The nursery is in a less-than-picturesque part of town, but considering how expensive land is in the Bay Area, I didn’t expect it to be any different. Having been to many nurseries over the years, including many who seem to care little for plants or for customers, I would give Annie’s Annuals a full 10 out of 10 as far as cleanliness, health of the plants, display, and especially labeling is concerned. It is very obvious that the nursery is run by people who love plants and who want to make sure their customers know what they’re getting. I wouldn’t be able to name a nursery that is better organized than Annie’s Annuals. For plant lovers, it doesn’t get better than this!

Looking toward the parking lot from right inside the entrance
I love the lavishly landscaped garden rooms…
…and the whimsical garden art
Teetering on the edge of tacky, but still this side of cool
I never used to be a dahlia fan, but seeing this type of dahlias with lots of smaller flowers could make a convert, especially after reading a recent post on Alternative Eden
Every nursery needs a cow!

Annie’s Annuals has a large selection of smaller succulents, with a heavy focus on aeoniums—Canary Island natives that thrive in the mild Bay Area climate. While our aeoniums at home are in their summer dormancy and look a bit ratty, the ones at Annie’s Annuals were picture perfect.

Aeonium ‘Sunburst’
Fantastic succulent combination featuring purple dyckia, aeonium and a mat-forming ice plant (Delosperma nubigenum)
Aeonium species and Delosperma nubigenum
A rare crested form of Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata var. orbiculata)
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata var. orbiculata)

To my delight, I found a handful of different Puya species. Puyas are terrestrial bromeliads, just like the pineapple whose fruit we all love. They are native to South and Central America—many of them from Chile—and produce remarkable flowers once mature. Today I bought a Puya mirabilis, the smallest puya and the quickest to bloom, to go with the Puya coerulea I’d bought earlier this year at a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale.

Sapphire tower (Puya alpestris). The flowers on this puya are a bluish turquoise color with a metallic sheen that looks unreal. Like all puyas, this species forms a dense mound of overlapping rosettes with spiny leaves.
Close-up of Puya alpestris flowers. The silvery leaves in the background belong to a Puya laxa.

Annie’s Annuals also carries a large selection of exotic plants that aren’t succulents, especially from South Africa. Since our climate is very similar to that of South Africa, many South African natives do really well here. Before my next trip, I will do more research in advance and come prepared with a wish list!


Berkheya cirsiifolia.
This stunning flower grows on top of a wickedly spiny stem. Not a user-friendly plant, but beautiful and exotic and hence very desirable to me.
Senecio cristobalensis.
I almost bought this Mexican native but couldn’t think of a space in our garden that would be big enough to accommodate its mature size (8 ft. tall x 6 ft. wide). But what a statement it makes! Fuzzy leaves, too. Hardy into the high teens.

An entire section of the nursery is dedicated to California natives. It was astounding to see the selection they carry, ranging from large shrubs like flannel bush and ceanothus to small succulents like Dudleya and Lewisia.

Datura metel ‘Belle Blanche’. Daturas are considered weeds by some and they can look gangly in their native desert environment, but with richer soil and regular water they are stunning.
Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Native to many parts of California, they are manna to Monarch butterflies. The flower heads are very showy and fragrant, too. Likes poor, dry soil. I’m thinking of creating an area just for milkweeds in our garden to attract more butterflies.
Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset’. A small succulent from California and the Pacific Northwest (the rosette is about 5 inches across), the flowers are truly spectacular.
Another lewisia with longer and more narrow petals (Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Plum’)
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in a range of colors
Eschscholzia californica ‘Red Chief’, my favorite poppy color

The range of colors, shapes and textures was simply astounding. While I typically gravitate towards drought-tolerant perennials that are at home in xeric or Mediterranean gardens, I spent quite a bit of time looking at perennials and annuals more typically found in cottage gardens.

Variety of flowering perennials and annuals planted in larger pots so customers can see what the small 4-inch plants they buy will look like
Yellow fig-leaved hollyhock (Alcea rugosa). Unlike the common biennial hollyhock, this Russia native is perennial and blooms from summer through fall. Now I wish I had bought one…
Convolvulus tricolor ‘Royal Ensign’. These flowers are like a beacon that you can see from a hundred feet away!
Cosmidium x burridgeanum 'Brunette'. One of the showiest cosmos I’ve ever seen. An annual, but reseeds.

Considering the smorgasbord laid out in front of me this morning, I had a hard time reeling myself in. While in hindsight it’s clear that I shouldn’t have been quite as conservative, especially considering that Annie’s Annuals is almost an hour away, I only bought seven plants. They’re all very different, though, and fill niches in our garden—including some niches that were created by me buying them :-).


My haul this morning. It includes three succulents (Dudleya pulverulenta, Puya mirabilis, Aeonium hierrense), a native lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), a sweet black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), a coral-colored perennial from Uruguay (Dicipliptera suberecta), and a rare palm-leaved begonia from Brazil that will be confined to a pot because it needs protection in the winter (Begonia luxurians)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ornamental grasses light up IKEA parking lot

The other evening we went to IKEA in West Sacramento, about 20 minutes away. Knowing that their parking lot is landscaped with lots of ornamental grasses, I brought my camera along. By the time we were done with our shopping, it was 7:45pm and the grasses were ablaze with the golden glow of the setting sun. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw such a magnificent sight in what is otherwise a completely ordinary parking lot next to the freeway. It goes to show that beauty is everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')


Giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea)




Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

The strip of deer grass was already in the shade and therefore didn’t light up like the other grasses

Whoever designed the landscaping for this IKEA parking lot made very smart choices. All three grasses are perfectly adapted to our climate (deer grass even is a California native), very drought-tolerant, and maintenance free. Perfect for a wide open asphalt lot that produces a great deal of reflected heat.

Well done, IKEA!