Thursday, May 31, 2012

Volunteer cardoon in our backyard

Last fall I noticed that a plant with soft silver green leaves was emerging at the edge of our peppermint patch. This spot is not in a planting bed per se, nor does it get watered. That anything other than peppermint or weeds would grow there was amazing enough. Even more curious was the fact that the plant appeared to be a cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), or artichoke thistle. We had never grown cardoon in the backyard before, so a seed must have found its way to our house from somewhere else. How are cardoon seeds spread? By the wind? By birds? I really don’t know.

December 18, 2011

Fast forward four months to April. The cardoon is beginning to bulk up. Its leaves are getting larger and more architectural.

April 5, 2012

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Front yard in late May

I spent a lot of time in the garden this Memorial Day weekend. Yes, a bit of it was relaxing in our new hammock. But I also did some actual work, ranging from repotting plants that had outgrown their previous containers (happens more quickly than you think) to adding more soil to our bamboo stock tanks (the soil had settled a lot) to removing cochineal scale from a prickly pear (isopropyl alcohol and a small brush).

None of these chores were all that exciting—or photogenic—so I didn’t take any pictures. However, I’d like to show you what the front yard looks like at the end of May. I periodically take snapshots like these to have a basis for comparison later on.

The first two panoramas were taken from halfway across the street. The initial wave of spring flowers (Spanish lavender, Jerusalem sage, Cape balsam, red-hot pokers) is over, but the French lavenders are about the bloom and the grasses are beginning to look fantastic.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

My first rock planting

One of the vendors at the Carmichael Cactus & Succulent Society Show last weekend, Merlyn Lenear, was selling succulent dish gardens made of hollowed-out pumice rocks.

Merlyn Lenear dish garden

This gave me the idea to try something similar in our own garden. We have several larger boulders that, if they were dense rock like granite or basalt, would be impossible to lift by a single person. However, since they’re pumice (sometimes also called “tuff”), they’re remarkably light; I can lift one of them without having to strain too much.

Here is the rock I picked for my first experiment. Also note the spider agave (Agave bracteosa ‘Calamar’) next to it.


Friday, May 25, 2012

First prickly pear flower of the season

I love opuntias although—or because—they aren’t soft and cuddly. I wish we had room for one of the larger species, like the almost spineless Opuntia robusta shown here. But since we don’t, I’m making do with a few smaller potted specimens.

In the spring, new growth starts to appear. Most of it turns out to be new pads, often looking strange and fascinating:


But with any luck, a few of the buds turn out to be flowers. This is the case with my Opuntia macrocentra var. macrocentra, a plant I bought in January 2011 at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. While it has put on a few pads since then, it has never bloomed—until now.

This is a picture I took at 8 am this morning:


And this is what I found when I checked again after lunch:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What’s eating my fatsia?

Last week I complained about the massive number of spider webs popping up in the garden, especially on and around my succulents. But as annoying as these webs are, spiders are very beneficial and don’t eat plants.

The same can’t be said about the rapscallions that have been devouring my variegated fatsia (Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’).


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How we saw the eclipse on May 20, 2012

The solar eclipse a few days ago was a huge topic of conversation around town. Although Davis wasn’t in the central path that saw a total eclipse, we could definitely see the effect. At 6:30pm the sunlight started to dim, and for 20 minutes everything was cast in the kind of light you see in cheap Sci-Fi movies. It was a bit unsettling, actually, but then I have watched many of those movies and I know what typically happens (play Twilight theme).

There were no alien landings—at least not around here—but the shadows produced by the tall trees across the street were strange and fascinating.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Of kumquats and pony tail palms

Our local Costco warehouse recently had a nice selection of extremely reasonably priced citrus trees in 5-gallon containers and I couldn’t resist grabbing a kumquat. I’ve always wanted one—I think the small, bright fruit looks very cheery in the dead of winter, and you can just pull it off the tree and eat it without peeling.

The variety I got is called Fukushu and apparently it’s widely grown as a potted plant in Japan. I took my cues from that and put mine in a red glazed pot next to our backyard fence. I think it looks great there, and there is still room for smaller plants at the base of the pot.

Kumquats, by the way, are considered the most cold hardy of all citrus. They can take temperatures as low as 15°F, far lower than most other varieties.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Carmichael Cactus & Succulent Society show

This morning I went to the Carmichael Cactus & Succulent Society Show & Sale in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. I was glad for this opportunity since I missed the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society Show & Sale in early May because of my trip to Germany. I feel lucky that the Sacramento metro area is large enough to support two very active cactus and succulent societies!

I knew that now is the time when many cacti are in bloom but I was still stunned when I walked into the door and saw this:

Planta Seca sale table
Planta Seca sale table
Planta Seca sale table

I stood there transfixed for a minute before the crowd of people pushed me along. The sheer number of cacti in bloom—and the many different colors—were almost more than my brain was able to process.

Bill Munkacsy, aka Planta Seca, had the largest sale table and since nobody can resist cactus flowers, it was also the most crowded. I must admit I was not immune and bought a few more rebutias.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Itsy bitsy spider

I don’t have anything against spiders—itsy bitsy or otherwise. In fact, I even tolerate a small population of them in the house, figuring they will eat the mosquitoes that might otherwise swoop down on us in the middle of the night. However, in the last few weeks the spider populations in the garden appears to have exploded. Mind you, I never actually see the spiders, but I see their webs everywhere!


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

First wave of cactus flowers

Cactus enthusiasts love their prickly friends year round, but even people who normally shy away from plants that can hurt you stop dead in their tracks when they see a blooming cactus. There is something magical about flowers emerging from amidst the spines, especially when they are in hues so vibrant they border on the psychedelic.

While my cactus collection is quite small, I have a handful of cacti that are blooming their heads off right now. Unlike annuals or perennials which often bloom for weeks if not months on end, many cactus flowers are only open for a few days. There are exceptions, like the mammillarias I’ll show you first. They have been blooming for a week now.

This is a Mammillaria spinosissima, sometimes called “red-headed Irishman.” Its flowers are small, but they form a perfect ring around the top of the cactus.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New backyard furniture

In January I broke the glass top of our backyard dining table. For a while I way toying with the idea of crafting a mosaic top but lethargy got the better of me. As spring rolled on, it became clear we needed a replacement—sooner rather than later. Initially, I looked at various stores specializing in outdoor furniture but I quickly realized that they are modern-day highway robbers. There was no way I way paying more for outdoor furniture than what we have inside!

So instead of getting a fancy $2000 dining set, we decided to go the cheap route: IKEA and Costco. IKEA actually had a table that was perfect for us, and in typical IKEA fashion, it has a name with multiple umlauts: ÄPPLARÖ.


The ÄPPLARÖ table has two drop leaves, which allows us to save space when it’s just the four us. Yet with the leaves extended, we have room for eight.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Letter from Germany, part 4

In this final installment, I’ll take you to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of southeastern Germany. This is an area I had never visited; in fact, I had never even heard of it until last year. Located deep in the former East Germany, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains are part of Saxon Switzerland National Park which, in turn, adjoins Bohemian Switzerland National Park in the Czech Republic.

View of the Elbe River from the Bastei

One source I consulted called the Elbe Sandstone Mountains the “Grand Canyon of Germany.” While this comparison is a bit tenuous, there is no doubt that this is one of the most beautiful areas of Germany.

Panoramic view from the Bastei overlook in the photo above

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Letter from Germany, part 3

After spending the weekend in northern Bavaria, we traveled to Dresden, the capital of the state of Saxony. We had visited Dresden in early 1990s and although renovation work on many historic buildings had already begun, much of the city still looked drab and neglected from four decades of neglect under communist rule. Not so now. While construction work is still ongoing in places, an immense amount of progress has been made.

View of the Frauenkirche

The most obvious hallmark of what has been achieved is the Frauenkirche, the large Lutheran church in the heart of Dresden which was destroyed during the firebombing by the Allies during World War II. Still a ruin during my 1993 visit, the Frauenkirche was painstakingly reconstructed over 13 years and reconsecrated in 2005. The cost of reconstruction was a jaw-dropping €180 million ($250 million at today’s exchange rate).


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Letter from Germany, part 2

In yesterday’s posts I showed you some photos from the northern Bavarian town of Hersbruck where I grew up. It’s a small town of 12,000 surrounded on all sides by fields and forests.

Fields just outside of town

Many buildings in the town center are hundreds of years old, and thanks to strict laws their original appearance has been preserved.

One of the three gates that were part of the medieval fortification

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Letter from Germany, part 1

It's been four years since I’ve been back to Germany—the first time since I’ve started to blog about gardening and plants in general. Looking at the world around me with that in mind has been an awesome experience. This is the place where I was born—a town with over 1,000 years of history—and while buildings and people change, the fields and forests that surround it have remained remarkably unchanged since I moved away when I was 18.


Here are the some impressions from my first couple of days. Think of them as picture postcards from the heart of Bavaria.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Leaving on a jet plane

I’m flying to Germany on Thursday so updates in the next week may be spotty. I will try to write as many posts as I can, but what with family functions and a few days of sightseeing, I may not have much opportunity. Please bear with me.


Central Europe had a very hard winter and a lot of plants were damaged or killed outright. I’ll let you know what I’ll find.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Foothill College Bamboo Garden, part 2

In yesterday’s post, we covered about half of the Bamboo Garden at Foothill College in the wealthy Silicon Valley enclave of Los Altos Hills. Today we’ll complete the loop through this 2-acre bamboo paradise. Enjoy!

Bambusa beecheyana, a tropical clumper that in its native habitat in Southern China can reach truly epic heights (60 ft.)
Bambusa beecheyana culms that were strangely mottled.
It’s a nice effect, but I have no idea what causes it.
Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’, commonly planted for its vibrant culm color. One of my favorite running bamboos.
120427_FoothillBG_Bambusa-multiplex-Alphonse-Karr- --textilis_01
LEFT: Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’
CENTER: Bambusa textilis
RIGHT: Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’
If I were forced to pick a favorite bamboo, this would probably be it: Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’). It’s not the most elegant bamboo—it looks a little like a shaggy dog—but there’s something wild and free about it that I love. I photographed a particularly beautiful specimen at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in December (click here).
Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’)
Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’)
LEFT: Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’), just recently planted and smaller than the one in our front yard
CENTER: Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’)
RIGHT: Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’
All of these three bamboos are subtropical clumpers that will take some frost.
Dendrocalamus asper, another truly magnificent (and gigantic) tropical clumper. Native to Thailand and Indonesia, it can grow to 100 (!) ft. in its native habitat and reach a culm diameter of up to 8 inches. Hardy only to 32°F. I’m surprised there wasn’t more frost damage since Los Altos Hills does have a few nights of temperatures below below freezing each winter.
Eric Fandel, my intrepid traveling companion for the day, taking closeups of Dendrocalamus asper
Dendrocalamus asper culms
Leopard or snakeskin bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra ‘Bory’) as seen from the top of the hill where Dendrocalamus asper is growing
Pleioblastus fortunei, an attractive variegated species that is among the most vigorous bamboos in existence, growing at the base of an unidentified running  bamboo
Path with Pleioblastus fortunei on the right
Another view of the gathering area in the Phyllostachys vivax grove I showed you in yesterday’s post
Punting pole bamboo (Bambusa tuldoides), a somewhat ignored but quite attractive clumping bamboo (hardy to 21°F)
View from the top of the hill
The bamboo on the right is Sinobambusa tootsik ‘Albostriata’, an elegant running bamboo with variegated leaves that in my yard has been maddeningly slow to upsize
(maybe because it’s in a pot?)
Here it was transcendently beautiful
Thamnocalamus spathiflorus, a species I had never even heard of before. Nice looking, too. This is a clumping bamboo from the eastern Himalayas that is hardy to 15°F.
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Bory’ up close. Many of the culms had hard water stains on them. Since rain water is soft, it must be from the irrigation. I saw standpipes that were about a foot tall, but these hard water stains extended all the way up to eye level. They must use a spray head that shoots up that high.  It’s clear the local water has a lot of calcium in it, which would explain the chlorosis (yellowing) of the phyllostachys leaves seen in many of yesterday’s photos.
Phyllostachys vivax, one of the giant running timber bamboos of China
Phyllostachys vivax
Phyllostachys vivax
Phyllostachys vivax. These culms get quite a bit of sun, which would explain their bleaching. But I was able to scratch off the white coating, so I assume it’s also caused by the hard water.
As was the case at Hakone, the most elegant bamboo at Foothill College Bamboo Garden was moso (Phyllostachys edulis). With its grayish green culms and its luminescent white internodes it’s one of the most recognizable bamboos—as well as the most valuable in economic terms. Most bamboo flooring sold in the U.S. (and presumably elsewhere) is made of moso. Avery Island, Louisiana, home of E. A. McIlhenny, the founder of TABASCO hot sauce, has extensive stands of moso.
Phyllostachys edulis

I would like to complement the folks maintaining the Foothill College Bamboo Garden for their excellent signage. Without their labels, Eric and I wouldn’t have recognized half of the specimens!