Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rant: perfumed lawn fertilizer?

I try my best to keep this blog upbeat and positive, but today I’ve got to rant a little.

This morning I proceeded to apply weed-and-feed to the lawn in our front yard because it’s infested with oxalis, dandelion, and crabcrass. We hadn’t fertilized in years because we have a mulching lawnmower and try to use as few lawn-care chemicals as possible. But the weed problem had begun to turn nasty as you can see in the photos below.



The other week we bought a bag of Scotts Turf Builder With PLUS 2 Weed Control from our local Costco because it promised to solve the problems we’re having. What I didn’t pay attention to was the innocuous phrase “Green Meadow scent” printed in the upper left corner of the bag.

Scented weed-and-feed? Really?


I gagged when I opened the bag. Words fail to capture the extent of this assault on my olfactory system. If this is what “green meadows” smell like, I never want to smell one again. The comparison that came to mind was being trapped inside a clothes dryer with nothing but a jumbo-sized box of the most obnoxiously scented dryer sheets to keep you company.

OK, I do understand that people like freshly laundered clothes that smell of April rain, or tropical flowers, or the “outdoors” (hey, hang your laundry on a clothesline outside, and you’ve got that “outdoors” smell—for free!). But do people really need their lawn to smell like something else—specifically a “green meadow?”

I just don’t get it.

It’s been three hours now since I perfumed my lawn. And it still reeks to high heaven.

I think I’ll spread some manure along the perimeter of the lawn. At least that’s a smell I can deal with.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bamboo stock tank update

I love to write about my gardening successes, but I think it’s equally important—although much less fun—to write about things that haven’t gone so well.

Since very little grows under the four mature bay trees in our backyard, we decided last December to install two 2x2x4 ft. galvanized steel stock tanks and plant bamboos in them. Click here and here to read about this project.

The goal was to have a lush screen that would hide the fence and our neighbor’s house just beyond it. Now, nine months later, I must admit that this goal has not been reached. I know that we will get there, but it will be a while. In hindsight, I made two critical mistakes: I picked the wrong bamboos, and I underestimated how long it would take to reach the desired look.

This is what the stock tank on the right-hand side looked like last week:

Stock tank with Pseudosasa japonica ‘Tsutsumiana’ and Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’ (and assorted potted bamboos that are parked there because it is a convenient spot to put them on drip irrigation)

Mind you, the bamboo on the left had already been replaced because my original choice, Yushania maculata, died suddenly and mysteriously in early summer. The replacement is a green-onion bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica ‘Tsutsumiana’) I had been nursing. While it is a good bamboo for this spot, it’s small and would take a few years to provide that wow factor.

The bamboo on the right, Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’, has languished even though it did produce new culms. I’m convinced now that sasas simply don’t like our summer heat—not a surprise considering they hail from northern latitudes in Japan and they’re among the hardiest of all bamboos. My Sasa veitchii has fared even worse (see the last photo below); all its leaves turned brown even though it had received regular water.

Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’

After living with this unsatisfying situation for many months, I finally decided to make a radical change. This was precipitated by the fact that I had to move a large potted Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ to make room for the arborists who recently trimmed our bay trees.

Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ in its old home under the Chinese pistache

The Koi had completely filled this pot (18 in. tall and wide) and needed to be moved to a larger container. I was going to tackle that project last weekend when the proverbial light bulb went on in my head. Why not put the Koi in the stock tank?

Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ in front of the kitchen window after it had to be moved to make room for the arborists to throw bay tree branches over the fence

And that’s exactly what I ended up doing. Initially, the Koi didn’t want to come out of the red pot, but after I loosened one recalcitrant rhizome with my hori-hori knife, the root-and-rhizome mass slid out quite willingly. I meant to take a photo of it but forgot; the rhizomes looked great, promising nice new growth next spring.

I had already removed the two bamboos from the stock tank and dug a large hole in the center. Plopping the Koi into the stock tank took no time at all, and within a matter of minutes the stock tank had been transformed. Finally it looked like what I had envisioned. I’m very happy with the result, and I think the small, yellowish leaves of the Koi create an atmosphere of elegant airiness in a spot that had been the epitome of dullness.

 110814_Phyllostachys-aurea-Koi_12 110814_Phyllostachys-aurea-Koi_04
Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ in the stock tank

The green-onion bamboo went into the red pot—and the same space—the Koi had previously occupied. There it can take its time to live up to its true potential.

The Sasa megalophylla ‘Densa’ is near the compost tumbler next to the side of the house until I decide what to ultimately do with it.

As for the 2nd stock tank, it’s not ready for primetime either, as you can see in the photo below.

2nd stock tank with moribund Sasa veitchii on the right, Semiarundinaria yashadake 'Kimmei’ in the middle, and Indocalamus tessellatus on the left. A small potted division of Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Spectabilis' is parked in there too because it was easy to put in on drip irrigation, with the overflow running right into the stock tank.

However, I’m happy with the bamboos that are currently in it: Indocalamus tessellatus and Semiarundinaria yashadake 'Kimmei’. They’re still a few years away from giving me what I want, but I will be patient.

The Pleioblastus gramineus I had originally planted in the 2nd stock tank almost died (also because of high summer heat, I believe) and got moved to another pot where it’s currently trying to figure out whether it wants to live or not. In a sense, this was a valuable learning experience for me: Bamboos from extremely cold zones simply aren’t compatible with our climate, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tree trimming lets in the sun—too much of it!

Our small backyard is dominated by four sweet bay trees (Laurus nobilis), which over the course of 20 years have grown to 35+ ft. Luckily, their horizontal spread is rather limited compared to what would have been the case with, say, a sycamore or an oak. Still, the time had come to do some major trimming to keep the trees away not only from our house but also our neighbor’s. While we do light trimming throughout the year, this was a job for the pros so we called in a licensed arborist. A half a day and hundreds of dollars later the bay trees are once again held at bay (couldn’t resist the pun). Hopefully we’re good for at least 5 years before we have to do this exercise all over again.

Bay trees in our backyard prior to trimming
Bay trees in our backyard after trimming
Stitched panorama of bay trees after trimming—before, they had touched the house

This post is actually not so much about the tree trimming as it is about the sudden change in sun exposure that has resulted from it. From the photo above, it may not seem like that much was removed from the bay trees, but believe me, the difference is enormous. Our backyard is much brighter, and much sunnier. Spots that previously were in the shade all day long now get direct afternoon sun. In many cases that might be a welcome change, but depending on the kinds of plants that live in that spot, it might spell disaster.

Case in point: A large spotted leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum 'Kagami Jishi') that had lived very happily between two potted bamboos (Fargesia dracocephela ‘Rufa’ and Fargesia apicirubens ‘White Dragon’) was all of a sudden hit by the late afternoon sun like dead rays from an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Although the exposure was only an hour or two, it left the farfugium wilted like lettuce long past its prime. While it recovered throughout the evening, I cannot imagine that this semi-lethal dose of sunshine is good for the leaf cells of this tender woodland dweller, so I decided to move it across the yard. Now it resides under our Japanese maple, next to a small menagerie of juvenile bamboos in pots. There it gets a hour of late morning sun and is protected from the late-afternoon sun.

Spotted leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum 'Kagami Jishi') after unaccustomed exposure to late-afternoon sun
Close-up of wilted leaves
In its new home

While it’s impossible to prevent these radical shifts in lighting and sun exposure when trimming trees, be aware of the plants that might be affected by it and move or protect them as needed. Otherwise you might walk into your garden one evening and find a beloved plant fried to a crisp.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Queen of the Night goes out with a bang

The big news this week has been the flowering of our Queen of the night cactus (Cereus hildmannianus subsp.hildmannianus).

On Monday, the first of four blossoms opened up. See this post for photos.

Last night, the remaining three blossoms unfurled, providing a magnificent finale to what has been one of the most beautiful spectacles of nature I’ve seen. Maybe next year I’ll be more blasé about it, but for now I’m still basking in the glory of this event, as fleeting as it was.


Tonight the flowers look like the first photo, but I expect them to dry up quickly. Time will tell if pollination occurred. I spotted bees again this morning, and I transferred some pollen using a soft brush. I have no idea if that works but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

A big thank you to my wonderful wife for illuminating the flowers in the after-dark photos above!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Queen of the Night for one night only

Just yesterday I wrote about our Queen of the Night cactus (Cereus hildmannianus subsp. hildmannianus) getting ready to bloom. At that point I wasn’t sure when it would happen. However, when I checked yesterday afternoon, it became clear that the largest bud was going to open up very soon.

What then unfolded within a matter of hours was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. I had seen photos of cereus flowers, but this one was even more beautiful. The fact that this was going to be a one-night performance gave it a bittersweet note.

Here is a chronological photo diary of this special event:


By 8pm, the flower was completely open. It was huge, 7 in. across.


I checked again at 10pm, and the flower looked the same as in the last photo above...

…and it looked that way at 7:25am this morning. I wonder who visited it during the night?


When I checked again at 8:40am (it had warmed up into the mid-60s by then), I finally saw some insect activity: small striped bees that are native to our area, as well as some fat carpenter bees. While the flower didn’t smell all that attractive to me (more vegetal instead of floral), it must have smelled and tasted just fine to the bees.


By 11:00am, the flower had closed completely.


There are three buds left on this cactus segment, and they appear to be equally far along in their development. They may open up tonight, but tomorrow night is more likely.

Many people think that columnar cacti like this one are plain and uninteresting. Yes, they do look unassuming, but when they produce flowers, they outdo just about any other plant out there!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Queen of the Night getting ready to flower

In March, I found four cactus segments that had been thrown in the yard waste by a neighbor a few blocks away. Never one to walk by a plant that looks like it could be rescued, I schlepped them home (read post) and later put them in pots with free-draining soil mix (read post).

Three were kept in the backyard in a spot where they get only morning sun. The fourth was moved to the front of the house where it gets full sun from early afternoon to evening. I didn’t water the segments at all for couple of months. After that, I began to water very sparingly, once a week or so. While I didn’t see any signs of new growth, the segments didn’t rot either, so I figured I was on the right track.1

July 30

Since there were no external signs of progress to get me excited, I mostly ignored them. However, at the end of June I noticed something completely surprising on the tallest segment: flower buds! Never in a million years would I have expected of any of them to bloom this year; I wasn’t even 100% sure that they had rooted properly.

Now that I had something to focus on, I began to keep a close eye on the buds. As you can see in the next two photos, the growth has been quite rapid.

Left: July 30                                                                Right: August 5

In the week between August 5 and 11, when the next set of photos was taken, the flower stalks (if that’s would you call them on a cactus) doubled in length. Today, on August 14, they are 7 in. long. The bulging part at the tip that will become the flower is oddly beautiful. It reminds me of an elongated purple artichoke in miniature.

August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11

I have no idea when the flowers will open up, but I will be ready with my camera!

Some background:

The cactus is a Queen of the Night (Cereus hildmannianus subsp. hildmannianus), sometimes also called Peruvian apple cactus because of the shape of the fruit, or hedge cactus because in its native habitat (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil) it forms thick hedges. Its flowers are white, about 6 in. across (that’s huge!), and they are as ephemeral as they are beautiful. They open at sunset and begin to wilt by the next morning.

If the flowers are successfully pollinated during this extremely short time window (the main pollinators being moths and bees, although some sources mention bats), the cactus will produce edible fruit. Check out this short blog post.

1Out of curiosity, I just measured the tallest segment, and it has actually grown about 7 in. since I potted it!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Robert Young bamboo growing poolside

The other day I had lunch at a friend’s house in the East Bay, and I couldn’t help but admire her row of Robert Young bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’) planted against the fence behind her swimming pool. The small leaves provide a tropical backdrop for the entire backyard, and the yellow culms contrast wonderfully with the blue tile of the pool.


Since Robert Young is a running bamboo, the entire planting bed is contained with rhizome barrier to prevent the spread of rhizomes under the fence into the neighboring yard and under the concrete walkway into the planting strip right next to the pool.


Robert Young is said to be a strong grower, especially in warmer climates. However, my friend’s plants are acting more like clumping bamboos, with very little “running” taking place so far. Lewis Bamboo says that this behavior is typical for Seattle, but my friend’s location near Walnut Creek is a far cry from Seattle, considering temperatures regularly climb to 90°F and above in the summer.


These plants have been in the ground for five years, and I would have thought they’d have reached their mature dimensions (40 ft. in height, with a culm diameter of 3 in.) by now. But like so many plants, bamboos have a mind of their own, doing what they want whenever they want it. In addition, homeowners typically don’t care about statistics the way bamboo geeks like us do. All they want is a plant that looks attractive and fulfills its intended purpose. And using those yardsticks, my friend’s Robert Young bamboos are an unqualified success.