Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Please vote for Bamboo and More…

If you enjoy reading my blog, please vote for Bamboo and More in CBS Sacramento’s Most Valuable Blogger Awards 2011.

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Thank you!

Baby steps towards garden ornaments

Our garden has made great progress in the last few years, but its appeal rests almost entirely on the plants we’ve chosen and the way we’ve combined them. One major frontier remains largely unexplored: garden ornaments, or yard art.

Last year we added a few Asian-themed ornaments, but other than that I had always thought our garden would look better unadorned.

Granite lantern in the Koyabu style
Cast-concrete Guanyin head
Craftsman style granite lantern next to Fargesia robusta

However, the more gardens I visit—either in person or on the web—the more curious I become about the possibilities of giving our garden a unique character through ornaments.

While I have a soft spot for whimsy and kitsch, such as the cow and mannequin at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA, they wouldn’t feel right in our garden even if we had the room.

Cow at Annie’s Annuals
Life-size mannequin at Annie’s Annuals

The space that has provided the most inspiration is Mark and Gaz’s garden at Alternative Eden. Their choice of décor is elegant, exotic, and timeless, and it strikes the right balance between not enough and too much. Check out these vignettes to see what I mean: 1 2 3.

However, I must admit that I don’t possess the innate sense of taste and design that Mark and Gaz do. I greatly admire their garden but I’m not sure I would be able to come up with something so cohesive—and what works in their garden may not work in ours. My inherent sense of style is more along the line of Matthew Levesque, although not quite as creative.

With ample time and an unlimited budget it would be relatively easy to go out and buy all the things that strike your fancy, but we have neither so we’re adding pieces as we come across them and can afford them.

Earlier this year we bought a few pieces of Haitian metal art made from oil drums that I’m very fond of. Just a couple of days ago I moved them from their old spot against the fence and hung them from the trunks of our bay trees. I love the almost monochromatic look of silver on silver, yet I think that they stick out enough to be noticeable without being in your face.

Haitian metal art
110822_oil_drum_art1 110822_oil_drum_art2
Haitian metal art

We just started to explore garage sales as potential sources for yard art. On Saturday we found two wooden masks ($7 for both!) which, while not made for outside display, are OK during the dry months of the year. I’m a bit of a sucker for ethnic masks (I have three in my office) so these appealed to me right away.

One is a Maya-inspired piece that for now is hanging on the fence between some potted bamboos. I’m not 100% sure that it’s right for this location, but I’ll give it a try for a while.

Mayan warrior shield (?)
110822_metalart maya
Mayan warrior shield and Haitian metal art

The other mask is a rather forbidding looking demon that looks good matched by the dark culms of a black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).

Chinese (?) mask next to black bamboo

Time will tell whether these ornaments work or not in our garden. Since we have two active kids (10 and 13) and an equally active dog, it’s not a good idea buying fragile pieces of pottery because the odds of them being broken is high. But I’ll keep my eyes open for new finds, and if past history is any indication, something will smack me in the face (figuratively, hopefully) when I least expect it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

From Bradford pear to timber bamboo

When we bought our house in 1997, the front yard was “graced” by two Bradford pear trees (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’). Once considered a near-perfect street tree—it grows fast, it’s hardy, tough and drought tolerant, and it has pretty white flowers in the spring and beautiful red foliage in the fall—the reality is that as the tree ages, its limbs become too heavy and break off from their weak attachment points. One of our neighbors had a Bradford pear that split in the middle, luckily missing the house as it broke apart.

As if that genetic disposition to breakage wasn’t bad enough, our Bradford pears were also infested with mistletoe, weakening them even more. We were already concerned because bits and pieces had been breaking off over the years, but one sunny and calm Sunday morning in the fall of 2009, an entire limb broke off of one tree and fell across the street, almost touching the sidewalk on the other side. Luckily, no cars had been parked in front of our house or our neighbor’s, otherwise pretty serious damage would have ensued. This was the last straw for us and we petitioned the City of Davis to have the tree removed. After the tree had been examined by the city arborist who agreed with our assessment, the matter went to the city tree commission which luckily approved our petition (they’re quite conservative when it comes to the removal of trees, but this one clearly was a hazard and liability). At the very end of December 2009 the city came and cut down the tree and ground out the stump.

Even in 2005, before our big remodel, it was easy to see the mistletoe infestation on the Bradford pear that eventually led to its removal.
Summer 2008, a year and a half before the Bradford pear was removed

Instead of having the city plant another tree, we opted to go our own way and replace the Bradford pear with something that would grow much faster than a tree and give us a more unique look: a giant clumping timber bamboo aka Bambusa oldhamii.

I bought a 5-gallon plant from Madman Bamboo and it went in the ground at the beginning of February 2010.

Bambusa oldhamii planted in early February 2010
Looking a bit lost in this seemingly large space

Initially, the Bambusa oldhamii looked quite lost in the space where the Bradford pear had been, but when summer rolled around and the oldhamii began to shoot, things began to change. The new culms measured between ¾ and 1 inch in diameter and shot skyward at a very satisfying pace.

The oldhamii made it through the winter with flying colors, and as you can see in the following photo, it had increased in size over the prior year by several orders of magnitude.

March 2011

Fast forward five months to August of 2011, and what was a wispy plant 1½ years ago is now an assertive presence in front of the house.

August 2011
August 2011

Shooting season began in late July, and the biggest of this year’s culms is 2 inches in diameter. I expect it to top out at 25-30 feet.

2 inch culm

I’m so used to the oldhamii that I hardly remember what it was like to live with the brittle and messy Bradford pear. But even though the tree itself is gone, there’s still plenty of life left underground. A veritable army of suckers has appeared for the past 1¾ years. I keep a close eye on the area and every couple of weeks, I arm myself with my trusty hori-hori knife and cut them out. In the spring, I tried a chemical sucker suppressant but all it did was temporarily slow down sucker production. Removing them manually, again and again and again, seems to be the most effective approach. At some point all the energy stored in the roots has to be used up.

The Bambusa oldhamii doesn’t seem to be bothered by the Bradford pear roots that are left underground. It forms a fairly tight clump anyway, and if down the line it meets up with the roots, they will act as a rhizome barrier, deflecting its growth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering I want to keep the clump from getting too close to the fence.

110821_oldhamii suckers1
 110821_oldhamii suckers2
Bradford pear suckers, August 21, 2011

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!