Saturday, August 27, 2011

Baby cactus update

In April, I received a bunch of cactus seedlings from fellow garden blogger Alan in St Louis. He had chronicled their early days on his fantastic blog It’s Not Work, It’s Gardening (1 2 3 4 5 6).

In the four months since they’ve been living at our house, some have put on a tremendous amount of growth while others have been much slower. I guess it all depends on the genus and species. Some cacti, like prickly pears (opuntias) are much faster growing than, say, saguaros. According to the seed packet, these seedlings could be any number of things: saguaro, hedgehog, fishhook barrel, dollar prickly pear, desert prickly pear, christmas cholla, cane cholla, Santa Rita prickly pear, cardon. There is no way of making a positive identification until they are much bigger.

Anyway, let’s take a look at these spiky fur balls:

Some of the seedlings in early May…
…and in mid-August
These are clearly columnar cacti, and they’re also the ones with the brightest color. The taller of the two is about 1¼" in height.
These are are round and very spiky, about ⅜" across
Amazing how the spikes are longer than the cactus!
This one might be a fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni). At least it reminds me of my much larger specimen (check here).

A little while ago I also got some cactus cuttings from my mother-in-law who had gotten them from the receptionist at her doctor’s office (talk about passalong plants!). The cuttings weren’t rooted, so I stuck them in some pots with well-drained soil and let them do their thing. Starting three or four weeks later, I began to water them once a week, and they’ve clearly liked this treatment.

I still haven’t positively identified these babies, but they might rat tail cactus (Disocactus flagelliformis). In any case, being a tropical cactus, they are unlikely to tolerate any kind of frost so they’ll live inside during winter.

Rat tail cactus (?) babies. The taller ones are close to 3".
In this close-up you see how many new “branches” have developed
on this one small plant

I also received a few other tropical cacti from fellow blogger Steve of Steve’s Garden. In the photo below, the three cuttings on the left are an Epiphyllum species, and the three on the right are Hylocereus, also known as dragonfruit or pitaya (most likely Hylocereus undatus)

Cuttings received on April 28, 2011

Let’s take a look at how much they have grown since I got them at the end of April.

Dragonfruit cutting four months later. The section with the blue outline is the original cutting, everything else is new growth (about 16").
Another dragonfruit cutting—the two branches (about 3" in length)
on either side of the vertical stem are new
Epiphyllum cuttings. About 6" of new growth. The section with the blue outline are the original cuttings.

It’s been great following the progress of these plants all summer long. Unlike my beloved bamboos, these plants are small and still fit on one table where I can keep a close eye on them.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gerhard and the Bamboostalk?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the clumping bamboos in our front yard. They’ve put on tremendous growth this year. Just how much was brought home this morning when I looked out the upstairs loft window. There are more new culms than I bothered to count, and they haven’t even leafed out yet. Once they have, the view from upstairs will be very different for sure!

Left (back): Bambusa oldhamii
Middle: Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’
Right: Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’

Our giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), the darker green bamboo on the left, has five new culms that range from 1½ to 2 inches in diameter. They’re not visible from this angle yet, but once they’ve reached their final height, our neighbor’s front yard might be almost invisible.

I love all this growth—that’s the reason why we planted bamboo in the first place—but it is a bit scary to think that it will continue next year, and the year after…

I will definitely cut back on the fertilizer and maybe on the water, too. Otherwise I might find myself in my own version of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Gerhard and the Bamboostalk, one might say.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who says pink isn’t a manly color?

Whenever I go to our local ACE Hardware store, I walk through their garden center. The selection is fairly mainstream but they do carry a good and frequently changing selection of 3" and 4" plants from Lone Pine Gardens, a specialty succulent nursery in Sebastopol, California—the same town where Bamboo Sourcery and Hardcore Espresso are located, two businesses I’ve blogged about before.

I often walk away with a new addition to our cactus collection, and this Sunday was no different. I ended up buying a Gymnocalycium friedrichii, a small globose cactus from northwestern Paraguay that is actually quite hardy (down to USDA zone 8). I had eyed this species all summer, and this time ACE had nice-sized plants in 4” pots that were getting ready to bloom.

This is what the cactus looked like when I bought in on Sunday:


Today the flowers opened up in all their pink glory. While pink isn’t a favorite color of mine, it does complement the reddish hue of the cactus itself.


Like many cactus flowers, they’re only open from noon to mid-afternoon, starting to close at 5pm or so. When the flowers are closed, their pinkness is even more pronounced.


Unfortunately, as is the case with all cactus flowers, they don’t bloom for very long. But I think the cactus itself has a unique look, and I will enjoy it even without flowers.

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.

Click here to vote.

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.