My Five Favorite Native California Flowers

California Poppy by Karen Boness

California poppy – Eschscholzia californica
Brilliant orange in spring and fades to yellow as it ages. This is a medicinal plant. Annual or perennial.

Ceanothus by Karen Boness

Blue Blossom/California Lilac/Ceanothus – Ceanothus sp
There are many species and cultivars but most are known for their deep blue, indigo or pale blue flowers. I especially love C. “Dark Star”. Evergreen shrubs and ground covers.

By The Marmot CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fremontia/Flannel Bush – Fremontodendron californium
This large, sprawling  shrub has fuzzy light olive-green leaves that can sometimes cause contact dermatitis.  But the profusion of brilliant yellow flowers in late winter or early spring make up for that. Evergreen shrub.

By ALAN SCHMIERER CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Baby Blue Eyes – Nemophilia menziesii
A lovely annual wildflower with 5 delicate blue petals and a white interior.  Fleeting, delicate and memorable.

By ALAN SCHMIERER CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Shooting Stars – Dodecatheon sp
Another early season annual wildflower. Its form resembles a shooting star. Mostly magenta/pink in color.  Prefers part shade to shady conditions.

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Five Favorite Salad and Cooking Greens

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Home grown tastes so much better than store bought pre-package arugula. Once they are fully established you wont’ be able to keep up. Keep harvesting and cutting them back. Good for both salads and cooking.

Red leaf lettuce
Best grown in winter and spring. They bolt too quickly in hot weather. I love them for the color they add to a salad.

Currently considered a super-food. Great cooked with garlic and then mixed with sour kraut! In a salad you can massage them with olive oil to make them easier to digest. Fantastic juiced with cucumber, ginger, lemons and apple. Cut them back to their base when they get old. They will regenerate.

I love chard. It cooks up a lot faster than kale and has a milder flavor. The young leaves are good in salad too. I recently have had problems with white fly and leaf miners in my chard so I harvest them early and often to stay ahead of the bugs.

Beet Greens
Double delight. Harvest the young greens for salad or soup. And later they bless you with the beautiful beet roots for roasting.

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A Vernal Celebration

Photo by Mehmet Kürşat Değer on Unsplash

Well we made it through another SF Bay Area winter. The late winter storms finally blessed us with a decent volume of moisture. It is warm out again. The sun hasn’t forgotten us. Everywhere little new leaves and teeny-tiny fruits are emerging from their winter homes inside branches and stems and bulbs and corms. It is a time for vernal celebration.

Here at Wild Willow we are enjoying the abundance of our spring garden – two types of radishes, arugula galore, colorful leaf lettuces and stalwart kale flashing bright purple stems. The first snow peas are almost big enough to devour. We thought the beets were going to bite the dust but they rallied after all.

My back is very pleased with our new raised veggie boxes. They aren’t anything fancy. Just hand-me-down redwood and good potting soil. But they are so productive. Since we have never seen any gophers, moles or voles around here we didn’t even bother with gopher wire. I guess it is possible we may regret that some day. For now, it is a joy to witness the edible abundance they hold. Read about my five favorite salad and cooking greens.

I’m already thinking ahead to our next wave of late spring veggies. It is too early in my opinion for hot season crops such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. There is enough time to sneak in another quick set of radishes, leaf lettuce and maybe even some more small beets.

I walk around the garden and note the 1-inch baby fig leaves. They look like minuscule green hands waving “Hello Sonoma.” I’m sure they have a good year ahead of them. Deep rich burgundy leaves are busting out of the dwarf Japanese maple. My new All-in-One almond tree inside the front courtyard hosts six fuzzy almonds. Who wouldn’t be excited about that? And the Asian pear and peach trees are loaded with pea-size balls. It seems a miracle that these hard spheres will grow into soft, delectable fruit. I can’t wait!

As always, the spring flowers entertain me greatly. I especially treasure the rich scent and the deep indigo of our native Ceanothus blossoms. I was crazy enough to sew ultra-prolific California poppies into my front yard a few years back. I am so in love with their shockingly orange blooms. Having a sad day? Look a California poppy in the face. You’ll be smiling soon. Click here to read and see my favorites!

I have spied ladybugs creeping about the foliage. Dark bumble bees hover among the ceanothus flowers. Even a few butterflies drift about. A pair of mourning doves are building a nest in the Southern magnolia tree. They a careful in choosing just the right stem or twig for their avian cradle.

I am grateful for all the great small pleasures my garden gives me. I hope you are celebrating this beautiful spring as well.

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The All in One Almond Tree

By Mghamdi (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The All-in-One almond tree (Prunus dulcis “All in One” ) is one of my favorite trees. I added three in my front yard just last year and I’m already treasuring them. If you like beautiful flowers, edibles, and water-wise landscaping make some space for a few of these botanical jewels.

Almond trees have many assets. First of all, they are drought tolerant. Yes, it is true that some high production almond growers use a lot of water on their trees. But they are aiming to feed the world. A home orchardist doesn’t need so much and can get a healthy crop of fruit with minimal water.

Almond trees also gift us with a glorious exhibit of five petaled white blossoms this time of year – mid February to early March. The blooms emerge before the new spring leaves so that every year for a few weeks almond trees dazzle us with a brilliant puffy white bouquet of loveliness. The scent of an almond blossom is divine.

Almond nuts are delicious. They are considered to be heart healthy too – containing protein and the right kind of healthy fat. According to a 2014 Washington Post article almond consumption increased 220% over a nine-year time period. So join the crowd. Eat almonds.

There are many nice features to the All-In-One almond tree in particular. It is a genetically small tree that only grows to 15 feet. It won’t get out of hand in your back yard. If you want to maintain your almond tree at a smaller size like 8 to 10-feet it’s easy. I suggest pruning this tree once a year during the dormant season (Dec or Jan).

All-In-One almond is self-fruitful so it doesn’t need a cross-pollinator. The fruit is sweet and yummy. It ripens mid fall. The shells are relatively soft so they are easy to process before eating.

They don’t need a lot of care. Horticulturists recommend good rich soil for your best crop but they can grow just fine in leaner soils. I recommend that you add compost to the soil under your almond trees once a year. Good drainage is a must. If you have heavy soil amend it with compost and/or create a little mound before planting.

These trees are best for mild-winter climates like here in northern California. They only require 300-400 chill hours to set their fruit. Almond tree buds and blooms are perennially at risk for frost damage in February and March because they break out so early. But I’ve never lost a crop to frost in all the years I grew them at Kenwood Permaculture.

Add some joy to your garden. Plant an All-in-One almond tree.




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Fruitless Olive Tree Options

Olive trees (Olea europaea) are icons of the water wise garden in Northern California.  They are immensely popular in drought tolerant landscape design.  What’s not to like about these sun-loving, evergreen gems?  They save money on the water bill. They thrive in barren and rocky soil. They are stalwart in the face of searing summer temperatures. Their trunk and branching structure become more beautiful over time – gnarled and ancient looking. Their silvery grey-green leaves shimmer in the rain and sparkle at sunset. They cast a lovey shade space under their canopy. You can up light them for dramatic, nocturnal garden viewing.

Additionally, that lovely fruit that can be cured for eating or transformed into tasty, nutritious olive oil.  Ah, here is the potential problem – the fruit. Olive trees are typically copious fruit producers. If you don’t intend to harvest for consumption you will have a big mess that can stain and smear sidewalks and decks. And it is a lot of work to clean it up!

Luckily, the plant growing industry has cultivated fruitless olive trees for landscapers and homeowners alike.  What many people don’t know is that we actually have a number of fruitless olive tree options:

Larger, single-trunk or multi-trunk fruitless trees with the look and feel of a classic olive tree.

INDALOMANIA [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Some of these cultivars are well-known such as “Swan Hill”, “Majestic Beauty”, and “Wilsonii”.  They have been available in the industry for a long time. A home-owner can expect all of these fruitless trees to reach 25-30’ tall and wide over time.  There are other fruitless olive tree cultivars in this size range that many people haven’t heard about. I recently bought some “Arizona Fruitless” trees for a client.  They are basically the same thing as “Swan Hill” but developed by a different grower since the “Swan Hill” patent expired.  All of these trees are excellent specimens that can be used as focal points, developed into an ornamental front yard grove, or used to line a driveway.

Small tree or large sized shrub fruitless olive.

By Karen Boness, Own work

If you have a smaller space such as a patio or tight corner in the garden consider the “Skylark” cultivar.  You can plan on this tree growing to about 12’ tall and wide.  It is often offered at the nursery as a multi-trunk plant but you can prune away outer branches and train it as a single trunk tree and use it as a focal point.  It can also be used as a tall, natural screening hedge.

Medium sized fruitless olive shrub.

Little Ollie by Karen Boness, Own work

I love the “Little Ollie” fruitless olive cultivar.  It grows 4’ to 6’ tall and wide and maintains a relatively neat, roundish form.  You can use this shrub for density and structure in any water-wise drought tolerant garden. It is also perfect for formal gardens due to its round form.  It can easily be kept at 3’x3’ for smaller spaces.

Note that some fruitless olive trees do bear a little bit of fruit sometimes.  I have seen that a few nurseries now certify their trees as fruitless.  Others tell you that the tree will bear some fruit only if there is a pollinator nearby.  The term “low fruiting” is being used more often to cover the occasional situation season when fruit-bearing occurs.  So check with your nursery before you buy.  And have fun with your fruitless olive trees!

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Note To Self: Tweak Landscape To Make It More Fire Safe

Like most Sonoma residents fortunate enough to survive the Oct 2017 fires with an intact home and an unburnt landscape, I’m re-evaluating my landscape. Before the fires I assumed that I’m safer here in town. But now it is clear that with enough wind and fuel a fire storm can devastate everything in its path – sometimes in a matter of minutes. The fire storm doesn’t care whether it consumes a forest, a rural property, or a densely populated neighborhood. My heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones and property in this disaster.

“Reducing Wildfire Risk” by State Farm via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

I highly advise that all of us in fire prone Northern California read the following sources.

  1. Cal Fire, as you would expect, has an excellent web site that includes a section that explains defensible space and fire safe landscaping. Their graphics about vertical and horizontal spacing of trees and shrubs (including variations for different slopes) are very informative. They also have a colorful, 48-page, fire safe plant list.
  2. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has an excellent 5-page article on Fire Resistant Landscaping by Suzanne Schettler. Schettler addresses the flammability of various plants, plant separation options such as planting islands, and also horticultural practices that keep your property more fire safe.
  3. Once you’ve read through Cal Fire and CNPS’s information you’ll be ready to re-evaluate your landscape layout and choose whether to prune, trim, add or remove certain plants. What I like about FireSafe Marin’s website is their extensive and somewhat interactive list of safe plants. They have great photos, links to descriptions, and sorting by plant type (tree, shrub, ground-cover, etc.). They also have a table of fire-prone plants which can be very helpful if you are trying to assess whether to remove a plant. Please look at this fire-prone plant list and take action to make your landscape safer.

Even if we have good horticultural practices, keep our gardens well maintained, and understand fire-safe landscaping it is easy to get too busy and overlook planting scenarios that are less-fire safe than they could be. Here is what I found on my property.

  • Reconsider ceanothus espalier shrubs against house. Even though ceanothus is considered a fire safe plant do I want any plant 7’ tall against the house? I chose to trim them back to 5’, thinned them out and will re-assess whether to remove them completely this winter.
  • Create a wider horizontal separation zone between Southern magnolia tree and fig tree canopies. Both trees are vigorous and within just a few years of growth their canopies nearly touch. To-do: Prune back canopy to create 10’ of air space as Cal Fire recommends.
  • Increase vertical and horizontal separation of screening shrubs from Magnolia tree. I have some ceanothus shrubs that screen out my neighbor’s yard. They are next to my magnolia and one is entangled in the tree’s lower canopy. This can create a vertical fuel ladder where a ground fire can move up into the canopy. Cal Fire recommends that the height of shrubs under trees should be no more than 1/3 the distance to the bottom of the tree’s canopy. To-do: Prune both magnolia tree and ceanothus shrub to remove fuel ladder.
  • Move firewood stack to a safe distance from house. It is currently in a side yard 5’ from the house. To-do: Move firewood 30’ from the house in what Cal Fire calls Zone 2.
  • Trim small tree in side yard that overhangs roof. How did that happen? It’s in a side yard that doesn’t get much attention. To-do: Trim back branch overhanging roof to a side node.

I hope this article inspires you to re-evaluate your landscape now to create a safer home for you, your family, and your community.

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Top Five Trees for Fall Color in Northern California

If you think your autumn garden looks a bit blah now is the time to act. The soil is still warm. Plant transpiration rates are down due to shorter daylight hours. Sales abound at plant nurseries. The rainy season is coming soon too. Fall is the best time to install new trees and shrubs in our marvelous Mediterranean climate.

Like 33% of the population fall is my favorite season. There is nothing quite like a hillside of brilliantly colored red, orange and yellow trees glowing in the gentle autumn light. Sadly, that sight is not common in California. Most of our native plants aren’t so showy this time of year. But there are many trees and shrubs that grow well in this area, don’t hog a lot of water and put on a good autumnal show.


By Tomomarusan (Own work) [GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Persimmon (Diospyros kaki).
This gorgeous modest sized 20-30-foot tree dazzles us with its bright orange leaves and its delicious fruit. The orange fruit ripens late after the leaves have fallen to the ground and put on a fiery display of their own. “Fuyu” is one of the most popular cultivars with its apple-firm flesh.

By Reggaeman [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis).
Chinese Pistache trees can grow up to 45-feet tall. They sport an expansive range of vibrant fall colors – reds, oranges, yellows – depending on the cultivar you choose. Birds love the little pinkish-red berries. Consider a Chinese Pistache if you are looking for a shade tree. They make well behaved street trees too. 

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ginkgo / Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba).
Ginkgos are famous for their unique fan shaped leaves that sizzle yellow in fall. There are many cultivars. Some grow tall and narrow. Others are more wide spreading. The dwarf cultivar “Jade Butterflies” grows very, very slowly to 12 feet. Female ginkgo trees have extremely stinky fruit so watch out if you get a seedling from a friend. This typically isn’t a problem at plant nurseries since they weed out female specimens.

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). Some people love Crape Myrtles. Others are tired of them. They are very common trees. There are many reasons why we see these trees all over California. They have beautiful bark. They grow relatively fast. They come in many different flower colors and bloom for months on end. They have very nice fall call – orangey-red. I’m a fan of these well-behaved, water-wise, fall-friendly trees. Check out the cultivars on line. They are delicious.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum).
I love Japanese maples for their delicate leaves, their soothing bark and their gentle form. They come in many sizes, shapes and colors. Pruning a Japanese maple is a joy. I enjoy teasing out a naturalistic form from a long forgotten specimen. The widely popular red leaf types contrast beautifully with the greenery around them. Japanese maples are also known for spectacular fall color. For the best fall color I recommend you choose a green leafed Japanese maple and enjoy the dramatic color transformation as the season progresses. Read Amy Campion’s blog if you want to be inspired about Japanese maple fall color choices.

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Heat Wave Plant Protection – 8 Easy Steps

By Pedros CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Mulch, mulch, mulch – Maintain at least 3 inches. It is the best thing you can do to protect tender plants roots and hold moisture in the soil. Don’t bury the stem of the plant though. Pull the mulch away from it – just a bit.
  2. Remove weeds near your favorite plants. They compete for water and nutrients.
  3. Make sure your planting beds are well irrigated prior to the heat wave. Then your plants can face the sizzling onslaught with vigor and vitality.
  4. During a heat wave apply additional irrigation water as needed. Remember to do this in the morning or evening when temperatures are cooler and evapotranspiration rates are lower.
  5. Protect tender plants from the sun if possible. Use shade cloth or set up a temporary shade sail with whatever you can find. Move potted plants to the shade.
  6. If you have a lawn, don’t mow before or during a heat wave. Taller grass blades help shade the roots.
  7. Don’t prune your plants right before a heat-wave unless absolutely necessary. Pruning typically triggers dormant buds to break. Tender new plant growth isn’t sturdy enough to withstand high temperatures.
  8. Delay installing new plants. They perform so much better when planted during cooler weather.
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Six Reasons Why I Love My Southern Magnolia Tree

I met my first southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) in a tree identification class at Merritt College in Oakland, CA a couple decades ago. From then on, I mostly witnessed them stationed in small street-side squares of dirt struggling to survive. Chlorotic, mis-pruned and heavy-headed, I wasn’t impressed with these trees.  Back then I was new to the plant world, particularly impressed by California natives and permaculture perfect plants, and the southern magnolia was neither.

“Magnolia Grandiflora” by Anna Anichkova (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

So when I bought my little west side Sonoma house the large southern magnolia just off the backyard patio did not excite me. I was too enthralled with my fig tree to pay much attention.  But over the years my Little Miss Sally Magnolia has grown on me.  I’ve learned to love her – almost as much as my fig.  Here’s why.

1. My southern magnolia (SM) provides excellent shade all year long.  Her leaves are large, lush, wavy, deep green and shiny.  I sit under her shadow as much as possible contemplating life, drinking my morning coffee, reading, and dreaming of landscape improvements to my back yard.

2. Although most SM trees require moderate water and relatively rich soil I don’t have to irrigate or fertilizer this tree. She’s been planted in a very large landscape bed with virtually no root zone impediments. (That’s key – not surrounded by concrete.) Like my fig tree, she is old and wily enough to have found her own source of water.  She grows at least a foot a year – which is average for a healthy SM.

3. In spring she flaunts pure white, sweet smelling ten inch blossoms. The bees love it!

4. Birds love her bright red berries.  Yum, Yum.  And the birds love to jump and play and nest and hide in her branches. My SM is a virtual bird hotel – providing me with endless hours of avian entertainment.

5. From a permaculture perspective the SM tree is a biomass plant extraordinaire.  In other words, she’s messy.  Nearly year round she sheds large leaves, plentiful petals, and sizeable seed pods.  This biomass can be utilized as soil protecting, soil building, water-conserving planting bed mulch.  Why buy mulch when your own SM tree provides it for free?  If you are a neat-nick like me lots of leaf litter could be a problem.  A messy tree does demand more sweeping, raking and plucking leafs out of your understory plants. If those extra chores bother you, install your new SM in a large naturalistic planting bed in the back of the garden.  Enjoy her from afar.   

6. Finally, I have read that the SM tree has both medicinal and edible qualities. According to, magnolia petals are used in traditional Japanese and Chinese medicine. The author has a recipe for magnolia petal honey.  I haven’t tried it yet but will report back when I do. reports that extracts of magnolia bark and/or flowers can assist with anxiety, menstrual cramps, weight loss, allergies and diabetes. 

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Construction, Heat Waves, and Tree Care – What Not To Do

I recently got a call from a woman who was very distressed about her Japanese maple trees. As she described the situation one Japanese maple was half dead and another one was one-quarter dead. This had all happened rather suddenly. She and her husband had lived on the property one year and they prized these mature 20-foot specimens for their delicate beauty and the afternoon shade they provided.

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 -sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

It sounded quite dire so I rearranged my schedule in order to look at the trees the following work day. Based on her description I suspected that her trees were succumbing to verticillium wilt which is caused by the soil borne Verticillium fungus. It ultimately chokes the tree’s vascular system thereby preventing water and nutrients from moving throughout the tree. One of the most obvious symptoms of verticillium wilt is that entire branches of leaves will wilt, brown and die at the same time. I came prepared to collect soil, root and foliage samples so I could send them to the lab.

When I was introduced to the trees I was surprised to see that from a distance the trees looked completely normal. They had nice form. They were green. There were no obviously dead branches. This did not look like verticillium wilt.

There were other obvious culprits though. And these culprits had nothing to do bugs, bacteria or fungus.

Upon closer inspection it was obvious that numerous leaves had dropped from throughout the tree. There was quite a pile of leaves under the trees in an otherwise extremely well-manicured garden. My clients informed me this happened at the end of the last heat wave. Ah! Water and heat-waved stressed trees will shed their leaves in order to preserve the core of the tree. This is especially prevalent in shallow rooted trees such as maples. Maybe the trees simply didn’t get enough water.

I also noted that there was a new, concrete, empty pond just beyond the drip line of the trees. The pond was placed in a small lawn just down slope from the Japanese maples. They were installing a koi pond but there had been months of delays. My clients were anxiously waiting for the contractor to return and complete the job. A tree’s root zone can extend 2-3 times the tree canopy. So root loss was also another likely culprit.

The irrigation valves for the lawn had been turned off for the koi pond construction. Unfortunately, the maples depended on the lawn sprayers for their water and hadn’t been irrigated in months due to the construction delays. To my client’s credit she had tried to hand water the maples during the heat wave. But it just wasn’t enough.

The site factor that concerned me the most was the mounded soil piled up and compacted around the trunks of the trees. This soil looked like it had been added at some point well after the trees had been planted. It buried the trees’ root crowns and several inches of the lower trunks. Grade changes around mature trees can be very harmful. If you scrape the soil away you take away important surface roots. If you mound up extra soil you can suffocate those surface roots. Worse yet, circling roots may form in this added soil and ultimately strangle the tree. When I inspected the soil around the trunks I noted it was full of small fibrous roots. My clients reported that this mounded soil had been there when my client’s bought the house. I suspect it had been there for years.

I normally instruct my clients to remove mounded soil that is burying tree root crowns. But I decided to delay that remedy. The risk was too great. The Japanese maples were already stressed and they didn’t need to lose even more roots. I instructed them to provide a deep watering to the trees three times a week. I instructed them to connect drip line emitters or soaker hose for the trees to an existing nearby drip irrigation zone so the trees can get regular water. We will evaluate slowly removing the mounded soil -over the course of several years- in the future.

What Not To Do To Your Trees:

  • Do not put your trees on the same irrigation zone/line/valve as your lawn. They should be on a separate independent line irrigated with drip emitters or soaker hoses.
  • Do not forget to turn your irrigation system back on after the rainy season or after construction.
  • Do not bury the root crown of your trees with excess soil or construction debris.
  • Do not forget to give all your plants extra water during heat waves.
  • Do not remove roots under the canopy of the tree if you can help it. These are the most critical roots. I was happy to see my clients’ new pond was beyond the canopy. Still, I’m sure that some of the trees roots had been severed and weakened the trees.
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