Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reshaping a disheveled bamboo

It goes without saying that I’m fond of the plants we have in our garden. After all, why grow something you don’t like? The same applies to our bamboos. We have about 30 different bamboo species in our garden. About half—the clumping bamboos--are in the ground, the others—running bamboos—are firmly contained in pots. While I like virtually all of them, I do have my favorites. One of them is chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa), a shade-loving clumping bamboo from the mountains of southwestern China. When exposed to the sun, its culms turn a lovely reddish brown, hence its common name.

I planted a chocolate bamboo in our Asian-inspired woodland garden in the fall of 2009. Read this post to see photos of what this area looked like at the time. In the following two years, what had started out as a spindly-looking plant grew into a beautiful specimen that has become the focal point of this corner of the backyard. I loved how everything looked this spring:

May 14, 2011

Over the course of the summer and fall, Borinda fungosa put out a lot of new growth. The thinner culms were weighed down by the leaves and started to droop heavily. By late fall, the granite lantern was all but invisible:

December 15, 2011. From this angle, you couldn’t see the lantern at all.

Doing something about this had been on my list of chores for a while, and last Sunday I finally got out the pruners. I cut down a few of the oldest (and thinnest) culms to open up the clump from the inside, and I removed the top 1/3 of the culms draping over the lantern. With a significant amount of weight gone, the culms returned to a more upright position, and the lantern became visible again. This is the result:

December 18, 2011 after pruning. The lantern is visible again!

Check out the next two photos. The left one was taken in May, the right one last weekend, after pruning. Balance has been restored.

Left: May 14, 2011
Right: December 18, 2011

One thing I’ve learned from growing bamboos—and the same holds true for many other types of plants: Don’t hesitate to trim growth you don’t like. Just because a plant grows a certain way doesn’t mean you have to live with it. Often all that’s required are small nips and tucks to get the look you want. You are in control. Exercise that right.

Sounds reasonable, you may say, but I’m often surprised by how hesitant people are to prune, trim or cut back a plant. It’s as if they are afraid of it. But I understand. I was like that, too, not all that long ago.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jalapeño ristra

Like last year, we planted jalapeños in one of our raised vegetable beds. Since the summer of 2011 was less hot than normal, it took noticeably longer for the peppers to ripen. I like to leave them on the plant until they’re bright red because I prefer the rounder, fruitier taste of fully mature jalapeños to the far more pungent and far less complex taste of green peppers. However, with Christmas almost upon us and day-time temperatures rarely exceeding the 50s, there’s really no way the jalapeños will continue to ripen.

Jalapeños in a raised bed

On Sunday afternoon  I proceeded to pull out our lone jalapeño plant. After I cut off the roots, I tied the stalks together with twine and hung them under the roof of our front porch. Instant ristra!

Jalapeño ristra
Some peppers have already started to dry
Do you see the face?

After the peppers are dry, they can be ground into powder or rehydrated in soups or stews. If I had a smoker, I’d smoke the fresh peppers to make chipotles.

I also tried some other hot peppers this year. I started four types of chilhuacles, a rare Mexican pepper used in the famed Oaxacan black mole sauce, from seed. Unfortunately, all seedlings but one were destroyed by hail in mid-May; the remaining one didn’t flower until fall and never set fruit. I also bought two mulato plants, but they only produced a total of four peppers. I think 2011 simply wasn’t a good year for peppers, just like it was a lousy year for tomatoes. We do need a string of 100°F+ days in the summer for these sun-loving plants to do their best.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The garden in December: backyard

In yesterday’s post I showed you highlights from the front yard. Today we’ll take a walk through the backyard. With nothing in bloom right now, the foliage plants take center stage.

The “woodland” garden on the left, and a planting strip with succulents on the right. The window straight ahead is our dining room (access is to a slider on the right, which you can’t see in this photo); the wall on the right is the kitchen.
Looking the other direction. The yellow Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) is the same as in the first photo; it turns brilliant yellow in late fall and then goes dormant for a month or two. The tree is a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and the large plant behind it a variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’). The large pot on the left is home to a black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), a truly beautiful running bamboo that needs containment in a small yard like ours.
Looking towards the potted black bamboo and the variegated shell ginger. The sea of leaves is courtesy of our Japanese maple.
The window on the left is the kitchen. Around the corner on the left is the woodland garden you saw earlier. The potted bamboo in the foreground is a yellow buddha belly (Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei’). Its leaves got fried by the recent high winds even though the soil was moist. This seems to happen at least once a year because this bamboo has relatively large leaves that are susceptible to drying out from the wind. This doesn’t mean the plant will die; it’ll grow new leaves in the spring.
Three potted bamboos on our backyard patio (from left to right): Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei,’ Bambusa dolichomerithalla ‘Silverstripe,’ Semiarundinaria fastuosa. I love sitting on the patio surrounded by this wall of green.
We installed two stock tanks last December and I posted an update in August. I’m very happy with this stock tank. The ‘Koi’ bamboo I planted there (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’) has settled in nicely and is providing a lacy screen from our neighbor’s house.
This is the other stock tank. I’m not so happy with this one, for reasons I mentioned in the August update. The bamboo on the left, Indocalamus tessellatus, is doing very well, but the Semiarundinaria yashadake 'Kimmei’ on the right isn’t doing much. I’ll give it until late spring, and if I’m still not happy with its progress, I will replace it with the Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Spectabilis' that is in a nursery container in the middle of the stock tank.
Variegated Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata') in a pot under the bay trees. The face on the fence is my favorite piece from Stockton potter Steve Pate that I picked up during a field trip with the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society.
Cordylines (Cordyline australis) in the “far” corner of the backyard—our backyard is really quite small so nothing is very “far.” Check out this post to see how much these cordylines have grown.
One of the Japanese forest grasses (Hakonechloa macra) planted near the cordylines. It’s about two years old and still very small; it definitely is a slower grower. The speckled plant is my one and only lenten rose (Helleborus argutifolius 'Janet Starnes'). I planted it less than a year ago and it hasn’t bloomed yet. May we’ll see some flowers this winter…
This variegated spurge is called ‘Tasman Tiger’ (Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’). It took a little while to get established and doesn’t get much sun in this location, but it looks like it will bloom in about a month. A mature clump is a sight to see—check out this photo.
Close-up of ‘Tasman Tiger.’ The variegation is very striking.
This sad-looking thing is Manfreda ‘Spot,’ a hybrid between Manfreda virginica (false agave) and Manfreda maculosa (Texas tuberose), both of them U.S. natives and hardy to zone 7. I’m including it here not because it’s attractive in this state, but because I find this underappreciated plant to be fascinating. This agave relative is deciduous, completely losing its leaves in winter and growing new ones in early spring. The new leaves have very pronounced brown spots (see here) which fade as the year progresses. ‘Spot’ is supposed to offset heavily, but so far I’ve only found one baby.
This impressive clump of bamboo is Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr.’ Planted in the fall of 2009, it has been an impressive grower, encroaching at times on the space allocated to our clothesline.
The artichoke in the foreground is a volunteer. I have no idea where it came from. I love the spiky look of artichokes and cardoons so I’m going to leave it where it is.
Potted succulents, many of them recent cuttings, on the make-shift potting table near the vegetable beds. Considering there’s no room left on the table itself, I’m not sure it will actually ever be used for potting. In front of the table on the left are the Western redcedar saplings I brought home from my in-laws to be trained as bonsai subjects.

While there continue to be areas in the backyard I’m not happy with (no clear vision or too much clutter), I’m actually glad there is work that remains to be done. I wouldn’t want a garden where everything is finished; I wouldn’t have anything to do and would be bored to death!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The garden in December: front yard

Winter is my least favorite season. Plants that looked great through spring, summer and fall begin to turn brown or go dormant. I know all about the circle of life (thank you, Elton John), but I still don’t like it.

It was against this frame of mind that I started to take photos of our front and back yard this morning. However, as I went along, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the many interesting things I saw. There are quite a few plants that are still blooming, while others look great in their winter “garb.” When I was done, I felt better. Winter isn’t all that bad after all!

This post is about the front yard. The back yard is covered in this post.

This raised bed next to our front porch is filled with tropical foliage plants, mostly elephant ears (both Alocasia and Colocasia) and gingers (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’, Hedychium coronarium, Hedychium gardnerianum)
The same bed seen from the street. The straggly shrub this side of the fence is a Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’) that needs a severe pruning in early spring.
111217_fy_bamboo musella
The three clumping bamboos in front of the house (Bambusa oldhamii outside the fence, Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ and Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ inside the fence).
To the left is a clump of golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) that tripled in size this year and bloomed!
More photos of the golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa). On the right is what’s left of the flower.
While Musella lasiocarpa is hardy to zone 7, its leaves are frost-sensitive and they are beginning to turn brown. Soon all leaves will be dried up.
To the left of the golden lotus banana, this roseleaf sage (Salvia involucrata) still has flowers. It has been in bloom non-stop since mid-summer.
Back to the bamboos. Here are the same three clumping bamboos (Bambusa oldhamii, Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ and Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’) as seen from the driveway
Bambusa oldhamii on the right, and a mixture of succulents and perennials in the planting bed in front of it. My favorite here is Yucca filamentosa ‘Bright Edge.’ The lavender all the way on the left (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’) is still blooming!
More photos of Bambusa oldhamii. I still like the way I thinned it out in late October. The focus is now on the beautiful culms instead of a mass of tangled leaves.
Another blooming lavender in the planting strip outside the front yard fence.
This Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips') is an incessant bloomer in our garden. We will give it a radical haircut soon, which in turn will stimulate another grow cycle. Read this interesting post on Paghat’s blog to find out more about this beautiful sage, including how it came into cultivation.
This Gaura lindheimeri, also known by the charming name ‘Whirling Butterflies,’ doesn’t seem to be fazed by nighttime lows around 32°F. It basks in the winter sun all day long.
Another faithful late-season bloomer is this pink autumn sage (Salvia greggii, don’t know which cultivar)
Our Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) is still going strong even though it got flattened by high winds a couple of weeks ago. I’ll trim it back tomorrow to the new growth emerging from the base.
This lamp post outside our front yard fence is a real eyesore. I’m hoping the emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’) I planted last spring will grow tall enough next year to soften the ugliness.
The pink-flowering plant on the left is the autumn sage you already saw above. The grass on the right is Stipa gigantea 'Pixie,' a dwarf form of the giant needle grass.
Stipa gigantea 'Pixie.' I bought it at the UC Davis Arboretum plant sale this past May.
Left: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Dixieland,’ the most upright of the maiden grasses we’ve grown.
Right: Elegia capensis, also known as “fountain rush,” a restio from South Africa which I recently moved.
After going to a bonsai show in October, I’ve become very interested in this ancient art form of growing miniature trees in containers. In the last few months I’ve picked up a few inexpensive shrubs that will be my first guinea pigs. I’m still deep into a stack of bonsai books I’ve checked out from the library, but I hope to go from theory to practice very soon. I think my first candidate will the Green Mound juniper (Juniperus procumbens 'Nana’) on the left.
I hope to style it like this.
While I’m saving the potted plants on the front porch (mostly succulents) for a separate post, I do want to show you this glazed strawberry pot filled with Echeveria subsessilis ‘Blue Azure’ and Aeonium ‘Kiwi’, with an unidentified Graptosedum or similar intergeneric hybrid thrown in for good measure The blue of the echeveria is almost otherworldly.
Close-up of Echeveria subsessilis ‘Blue Azure’

In this post we take a look at the back yard.