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.
Posted in Garden Tips, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Irrigation, Landscape Design and Gardening, Protecting Your Plants | Comments Off on Construction, Heat Waves, and Tree Care – What Not To Do

The Language of Flowers – Designing a Peace Garden Part II

In my last article I explored the world of plant symbolism and particularly those species we associate with peace – the olive tree, the apple tree, lavender, violets and white poppies. At the end of that article I promised you a sketch of a patio peace garden. Here it is…

My peaceful garden sketch is based on the real-time square footage of a condo patio here in Sonoma, CA.

I know sounds silly to believe that one can actually beget amity by installing a garden with plants that someone from the Victorian era deemed denotative of peace. But I think that peaceful intention and effort are powerful. Doesn’t the process of choosing plants that symbolize peace, watching the magic of their growing cycle and delighting in their blossoms and fruit make us all happier people? And if we are happier people aren’t we more likely to be cooperative, compassionate, fair and forgiving? Well that is my argument.

I looked into the psychological impact of gardening and research actually does back up my viewpoint. Scientific studies show that gardening and especially vegetable gardening reduces stress and increases our sense of well-being. Growing plants and playing in the dirt increases serotonin and dopamine levels and reduces cortisol. Sarah Rayne, in her May 2015 Psychology Today article Petal Power: Why is Gardening So Good for Our Mental Health tells us that gardening allows us to nurture, gives us a sense of responsibility, helps us to relax and work through problems, and provides a conduit to vent anger safely. Gardening reduces anxiety. KQED’s Kristofor Husted explored the positive impact of gardening February 2012 in The Salt titled Can Gardening Help Troubled MindsThe segment looked at how horticultural therapy improved health and self-image and also reduced recidivism in prison yards, troubled youth programs, retirement homes and veteran’s homes.

The studies and observations I researched support the positive impact of gardening – although they don’t specifically focus on peace plants. No one has studied that yet. As it turns out all the peace plants in my design are edible anyway. Olives, apples, lavenders, violets and California native (Eschscholzia) poppies are either yummy to munch, have medicinal components, or add a bit of spice to a garden salad. Isn’t that terrific?

The peaceful plant palette:

  1. Olive (Olea europaea). Drought tolerant tree. Grey green foliage. Evergreen. Fast growing. Full sun.
  2. Apple (Malus pumula). Loves water but can be pretty tough once stabled. Bright green foliage. Deciduous. Moderate grower. Full sun. Beautiful pink blossoms that fade to white.

    By Barbetorte, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Lavender (Lavendula sp.) There are many species, cultivars and sizes. Evergreen. Woody sub-shrub. Grey green to medium green foliage. Full sun. Flowers may be deep purple, lavender, pink or white. Aromatic! Water-wise.
  4. Violets (Viola odorata). Violets are shade to part-sun loving annuals that reseed vigorously. Purple-blue blossoms. Great scent. About 6” tall by 12” wide. Prefer moderate water.
  5. White Poppies (Eschscholzia californica “Alba” or “White Linen” Annuals that love the sun and reseed vigorously. Low to moderate water. Blossoms vary from creamy white to pure white.

My peaceful garden sketch is based on the real-time square footage of a condo patio here in Sonoma, CA. I wish you well growing your peace garden.

 

Posted in California Native Plants, Design Ideas for the Garden, Garden Tips, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Landscape Design and Gardening, Vegetable Gardening, Why I love Sonoma | Comments Off on The Language of Flowers – Designing a Peace Garden Part II

Spring Garden Chores and Tips

Five Spring Garden Chores You Shouldn’t Forget

  1. Check the soil level in your planter boxes. The soil settles and compacts over the year(s). I have often seen client’s boxes that are less than half full. Replenish with organic potting soil and/or compost.
  2. Test your irrigation system and repair any broker emitters and spray heads.
  3. Clean and sharpen your hand pruners, trowels, shovels and spades. It will make gardening so much easier.
  4. Fertilize your ornamental shrubs to encourage healthy spring growth. I like to use gentle and natural fertilizers such as fish meal emulsion mixed with water.
  5. Clean up and cut back any ratty branches and twigs of perennials that you didn’t take care of this winter. Make room for new growth!

Tips and tools for Gardeners with Disabilities

  1. If you have arthritis in your hands www.ArthritisSupply.com has a list of gardening tools that might help. Oxo Good Grips has a line of gardening tools with nice big handles.
  2. If you have painful knees invest in knee pads. Duluth Trading Company has a line of gardening pants called Heirloom Gardening Pants that have pockets where you can insert knee pads. You can also keep it simple and buy a foam gardening mat.
  3. If your back is troublesome try out a gardening seat. Some gardening tool buckets double as seats when you put the cover on them. Milwaukee Bucket Organizer Bag is just one example. Raised beds about 18-24” high with built in benches eliminate a lot of back strain while gardening too but that requires a bigger monetary investment.

Four Fabulous Native Plants for Part Shade

I was cruising through California Flora Nursery’s website the other day looking at part shade plants. There are many cultivars of normally sun-loving plants that can take a decent amount of light shade.

  1. Arctostaphylos “Sebastopol White” (Manzanita) is an 8 foot shrub that has sweet little white flowers and beautiful bark. It is very drought tolerant.

    By Burkhard Mücke (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Salvia “Mrs Beard” (Sage/Salvia) grows 2 feet tall and spreads 4-6 feet wide. It has grey-green leaves and sweet pale lavender flowers.

    By Bri Weldon (Salvia sonomensis) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Ceanothus hearstiorum (Hearst Ceanothus/California Lilac) can take a lot more shade than most ceanothus. It is a low growing ground cover that tops out at 1 foot tall by 6 feet wide. It has tiny, wrinkly little leaves that are more deer resistant than most ceanothus. Sweet blue flowers appear in spring.

    Stan Shebs [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Epilobium “Select Mattole” (California Fuchsia/Zauschneria) can take light shade as well. It grows about 6 inches tall and spreads by rhizomes. If you like orangy-red flowers this is your plant. It blooms solidly from late summer through late fall. Cut it back in winter for best results.

    By Jennifer Wheeler, BLM Arcata [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in April Garden Tips, Design Ideas for the Garden, Garden Chores, Garden Tips, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Landscape Design and Gardening, Sustainability | Comments Off on Spring Garden Chores and Tips

The Language of Flowers – Designing a Peace Garden

Most of would agree that there is too much upset, misunderstanding, violence, and war in the world. It seems like every time we tune into the news tragedy and confrontation abound. For every story that we read there are a hundred different responses. We can bury our heads in the sand, complain, get politically involved, volunteer for a charitable organization or try to spread good will and forgiveness. Most of all we want peace.

As a landscaper and plant lover I like to think about how this desire for peace could be expressed in a landscape design. I am not alone. I googled peace garden and found a website titled “156 Peace Gardens Around the World.” The one I’m most familiar with is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. I lived and taught there for a year and cycled through the park every Wednesday on my way to classes. I learned to avoid the Children’s’ Peace Monument because it always made me weep.

Not all of us live near a peace park. So how can we bring the contemplation of peace into our own little backyard gardens? If we have the money, space and time, we can install peace poles, erect small statues of famous people associated with peace, and start raising doves. I like those ideas. However, as a plant nerd, I am even more pleased that there are plants both big and small that are associated with peace. We can put them in our planting plans!

Not all of us live near a peace park. So how can we bring the contemplation of peace into our own little backyard gardens? If we have the money, space and time we can install peace poles, erect small statues of famous people associated with peace, and start raising doves. I like those ideas. However, as a plant nerd, I am particularly pleased that there are plants both big and small that are associated with peace. We can put them in our planting plans. What fun! I love this stuff!

In a previous article I talked about the book “The Language of Flowers: A Novel” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. In the back Vanessa lists numerous plants and their symbolic meanings. She lists one plant, the olive, as a symbol of peace. The others I discovered in the website www.flowermeaning.com.

Below is a peaceful plant list to consider for your garden.

The peaceful plant palette:

  1. Olive (Olea europaea). Drought tolerant tree. Grey green foliage. Evergreen. Fast growing. Full sun.
  2. Apple (Malus pumula). Loves water but can be pretty tough once established. Bright green foliage. Deciduous. Moderate grower. Full sun. Beautiful pink blossoms that fade to white.

    By Barbetorte, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Lavender (Lavendula sp.) There are many species, cultivars and sizes. Evergreen. Woody sub-shrub. Grey green to medium green foliage. Full sun. Flowers may be deep purple, lavender, pink or white. Aromatic! Water-wise.
  4. Violets (Viola odorata). Violets are shade to part-sun loving annuals that reseed vigorously. Purple-blue blossoms. Great scent. About 6” tall by 12” wide. Prefer moderate water.
  5. White Poppies (Eschscholzia californica “Alba” or “White Linen” OR Amapolas blanca. All are annuals that love the sun and reseed vigorously. Low to moderate water. Blossoms vary from creamy white to pure white.
    By Cliff Hutson, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ponder these amicable plants for your landscape. Next time, I’ll provide two sketches for the peaceful garden. One will suit a diminutive patio terrace. The second sketch will accommodate larger growing area.

Posted in California Native Plants, Design Ideas for the Garden, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Landscape Design and Gardening, March Garden Tips | Comments Off on The Language of Flowers – Designing a Peace Garden

The Language of Flowers – Designing a Love Garden

Upon a good friend’s recommendation I recently read the book “The Language of Flowers: A Novel” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. The novel is set in San Francisco and North Bay wine country. A confused, self-sabotaging 18-year-old woman, freshly ejected from the foster care system, struggles to find her way in the world of work, responsibilities and love. She struggles with homelessness, a guilty conscience and depression. Armed with a brilliant botanical mind and a passionate interest in flower symbolism she finds self-forgiveness, meaningful relationships and a degree of financial success as a florist specializing in the language of flowers.

According to Wikipedia, The language of flowers is a cryptic communication system that utilizes flowers as the alphabet of choice. Around the globe many traditional cultures have attributed meaning to particular flowers. During the eighteen-hundreds, floral communication skyrocketed in Victorian England and the United States. “Gifts of blooms, plants, and specific floral arrangements were used to send a coded message to the recipient, allowing the sender to express feelings which could not be spoken aloud in Victorian society.”

I was reading this book in February around Valentine’s Day and I got to thinking it might be fun to design a Love Garden. Let’s say you want a spot in your garden to meditate on love. Maybe you want to bring more love into your life. Or perhaps you want to better appreciate the relationships you have. You might just wish there was more love and less hardship in the world.

Here is what you need to do:

  1. Find a little plot of soil in full sun.
  2. Amend your soil very well with compost.
  3. Add drip irrigation.
  4. Purchase some love plants. See below. Meanings in bold face.
  5. Wait for a sunny day when you are in a good mood to install your plants. Add mulch.
  6. Find a little bench or chair and place it in front of your garden so you can watch it grow and thrive.

Loving plant palette:

  1. Pink Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus). Pure Love. I will never forget you. Evergreen. Nice scent. Low edging plant.

    By Zeynel Cebeci (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Dwarf Myrtle (Myrtis communis “Compacta”). Love. Evergreen. Maintain at 2-3’ tall, Might want to get taller. Don’t let it. White flowers.

    By Ziegler175 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus). Joy in Love and Life. Annual. Often self-seeds. Buy taller cultivars that grow 3-4’ tall. Pink and white flowers.

    By Love Krittaya (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Red Rose. Love. Any red rose that grows 4-5’ tall. Ask at your nursery. I think a pinky-red would be best in this arrangement. Deciduous woody shrub.

    Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4259976

  5. White Rose. A Heart Acquainted with Love. Any white rose that grows 4-5’ tall. Deciduous woody shrub.

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

  6. Small Focal Point Tree – Maintain a smaller tree so it doesn’t shade out the love-fest understory.
    1. Dwarf Linden Tree (Tilia cordata “Lico Dwarf” or “Green Globe”. Conjugal Love. Deciduous OR

      By AnRo0002 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

    2. Hawthorn Tree (Crataegus sp.) Love, Protection, Hope.

      By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma (Own work)[CC BY-SA 4.0 Commons

Final Note: This is a moderate water using plant palette. Enjoy its meaning and beauty but remember to balance your water budget with low water use plants in the rest of your garden!

Posted in Design Ideas for the Garden, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Landscape Design and Gardening, March Garden Tips, Roses | Comments Off on The Language of Flowers – Designing a Love Garden

Wet Winter Garden Tips for March 2017

Standing water and slick conditions inhibit drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Heavy skies press down on us in a study of 50 shades of grey. We pass the time contemplating rain drop sizes and the angle of sheeting down pours. It is hard to imagine working in the garden this blustery winter. But the weeds thrive and prosper. Flower and leaf buds are swelling. Tangled dormant trees and shrubbery beg to be tamed. So grab any fair weather window you can and let’s get to work. Here are a few tips for the intrepid California gardener.

“Saucer Magnolia” by Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

  1. If you have standing water or really boggy, mucky soil in your garden beds you can remedy that problem with compost. Be generous with the compost. Mix it thoroughly into your existing soil if possible. This will improve water retention and drainage. Do this after we have had a few days in a row of dry weather. Top dress all planting beds with mulch to increase absorbency.
  1. Weed now. The soil is soft and cooperative. If you pluck the weeds out before they set fruit, you can recycle them on site in your compost pile rather than outsourcing them in the yard waste bin.
  1. Bare roots and bulbs. We are at the tail-end of bare root season. Scurry over to your favorite nursery and see what they have left it stock. Summer blooming bulbs are available for planting now too.
  1. Prune your dormant trees and shrubs. Remove crossed, crooked, broken and over-reaching branches. Be careful though. Even after a few days of dry weather the conditions in and around your trees can be slippery. Budget conscious do-it-yourselfers who climb into their trees to reach the high branches should wear a harness, eye protection, gloves and sturdy shoes. Better yet, call a certified arborist or tree care profession to take care of your structural and aesthetic tree pruning.
  1. Get inspired. Walk the neighborhood and see what is blooming now. Maybe you can fit these plants into your own garden for a spot of late winter color for 2018 and beyond. In my part of town Viburnum, Rosemary, Saucer Magnolias, Camellias and Bergenias are spreading floral joy.
Posted in California Native Plants, Design Ideas for the Garden, Garden Chores, Garden Tips, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Great Gardens, Parks, Nurseries and Landscapes, Landscape Design and Gardening | Comments Off on Wet Winter Garden Tips for March 2017

What To Look For In A Tree Removal Arborist

tree removal

As a consulting arborist and landscape designer I periodically recommend that a diseased, damaged or high risk tree be removed from a client’s property. It is not a recommendation I take lightly. Tree removal is expensive. It can also be emotional for the tree owner. Think about it. We often design entire landscapes around existing large, old specimen trees. When we lose a big tree like this we lose the focus of the garden, the shade, the bird habitat, the history.

I recently had to take out two large old pines from my backyard. They weren’t heritage trees. In fact, many consider Monterey pines planted inland away from their native California coastal environment to be junk trees. I had become attached to my pines and all the birds they supported. The trees dictated the focus of my backyard – a woodland garden. Something I had always wanted. Now I’m left with holes in landscape. My little sanctuary is less private. Next summer all my shade happy plants are going to bake. I miss my little woodland.

Another issue with large tree removal is that it is potentially dangerous. You want to make sure your arborist knows what he or she is doing. I recommend you interview multiple arborists. Make sure the arborist is licensed and carries liability insurance. Check their Cal OSHA record for violations. Ask about how they will remove the tree, what kind of access they will need, how many workers will be there on removal day and whether the owner or employee with the actual license will be there all day. Find out whether the price includes stump grinding, chipping and removing the limbs off site. Do you want some of the wood for fire wood? Ask them if that is included or extra.

I hired Graham Charles of Second Nature Tree Service to remove my pines. I must say he and his crew did a perfect job. He said they would arrive between 8:00 and 8:15 AM. At 8:05 five very polite and organized men marched into my backyard laden with chainsaws, pulleys, a large winch, harnesses and hard hats. The crew got set up quickly. The first chainsaw started buzzing within 10 minutes of their arrival. Some crew members carefully helped me clear out the side yard of furniture, pottery and outdoor bric-a-brac as this was the best path for them to haul out the severed tree limbs. For the next seven hours a meticulous flurry of activity filled the air space. They were very safe and systematic in how they removed and lowered branch and trunk sections to the ground. It was fascinating to watch how they used a system of pulleys high up in the trees and a large powerful winch low on one trunk to accurately lower the limbs exactly where they wanted. One guy was up in the tree with the chainsaw. He was so efficient you’d think that he was born with that chainsaw in his hand. Three other attentive and efficient crew members assisted with the process. They cut up, hauled and chipped the debris. Graham diligently guided and directed the entire operation. After the trees were gone they cleaned up quickly and put everything back in place. I looked around after they left. My backyard was immaculate. If it weren’t for the fact that my two pines were gone you never would have known they had been there.

On a final note, check with your local municipality to see if you need a tree permit for your tree removal. Some species are protected and require formal justification for removal.

Posted in Arboriculture, Garden Chores | Comments Off on What To Look For In A Tree Removal Arborist

Nursery News September 2016 – Fall Gardening Tips

I stopped by Sonoma’s local retail nurseries last week to find out what is ready and in stock for your fall garden chores.

Daffodil

Daffodils

Lydia Constantini, over at Sonoma Mission Gardens (SMG) on Arnold Drive, reports that spring blooming bulbs are now on hand.  Autumn is the time to plant our beloved daffodils, tulips, narcissus, amaryllis, lilies, ranunculus, and peonies. All of SMG’s bulbs come pre-chilled. Store your bulbs in a cool, dark and dry place if you are going to wait to plant them. It is easiest to put them in the ground when the soil softens after our first good set of autumn rain showers.

Get a jump start on your holiday indoor bouquets and consider forcing paper whites, hyacinths and amaryllis. Put the bulbs in a clear vase with some pretty rocks at the bottom. Do this six weeks prior to your holiday event. Better yet, stagger your forced bulbs by planting them in multiple vases one week apart. You’ll have bounteous bulb blooms throughout the season.

SMG will be launching their bare root pre-sale in early October. You can order roses, fruit trees and berries for winter planting. Check out their list of Dave Wilson Nursery’s unique and unusual trees if you like fruit trees who hail from off the beaten track.

Primrose plant

Primrose plant

Josie Garcia and Jean Ryan over at Wine Country Garden Center on Broadway are excited about their large selection of fall flowering plants. They are gorgeous. Remember, we are lucky here in Sonoma. We can have flower power color year round. Primroses and ornamental kale will live through the winter. Pansies and violas survive temperatures into the teens. Snap dragons love the cool season and will blossom until our first hard frost. Cyclamen is a perennial. It shines during the winter, dies back in summer and returns again each fall to add sparkle to the winter garden.

Cyclamen parviflorum by Mark Griffiths - Own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cyclamen parviflorum by Mark Griffiths – Own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Ryan reminds us that fall is a good time to plant shrubs here. The soil is still warm and the plants can take advantage of the winter rains. However, it is not a good time for installing citrus or bougainvillea. For these frost tender plants it is best to wait until spring.

Both nurseries have a good selection of fall and winter veggies. Peas can go in the ground now. Cilantro loves the cooler weather. Fall and winter are excellent seasons to grow your own cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and other winter greens.

Posted in Design Ideas for the Garden, Garden Tips, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Landscape Design and Gardening | Comments Off on Nursery News September 2016 – Fall Gardening Tips

Three More Drought Tolerant Bunch Grasses

I love bunch grasses. They are easy to care for, natural looking and come in a huge variety of colors and sizes. One of the best things about bunch grasses is their resistance to deer. If deer browse your garden on a regular basis consider bunch grasses. Not all bunch grasses are drought tolerant though. Some prefer moist soil. Be careful when you make your choice at the nursery.

I think that most bunch grasses look best when they are clustered together in a mass planting but there are exceptions. A large bunch grass with dramatic plumes can stand alone as a focal point. Diminutive grasses look sweet scattered throughout a rock garden if they are placed in a repeating pattern.

A couple of months ago I wrote about three California native bunch grasses. These are deer grass (Mulhenbergia rigens), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) and leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa). All are water-wise and deer resistant. I encourage you to incorporate these native gems into your landscape. Today I introduce you to three more garden-worthy specimens.

Festuca californica 'River House Blues' - Ron's California Fescue Photo by Carol Bornstein

Festuca californica ‘River House Blues’ – Ron’s California Fescue
Photo by Carol Bornstein

California fescue (Festuca californica) is native to California and Oregon. In the wild it is typically found in large swaths under native oaks. It is accustomed to partly shady conditions but can take full sun along the coast. This attractive grass grows about 2’ tall and wide. It is known for its blue-green to grey-green firm leaves that arch up and outwards. The flowering stalks emerge blue-green as they rise above the foliage. As they age they turn golden beige. California fescue is a cool season plant. New growth appears in early spring. It will fade to tan over the dry season if not irrigated. In the garden this plant looks best with some irrigation. A number of cultivars such as “River House Blues” or “Horse Mountain Green” have been developed for specific shades of blue, green or gray foliage. Consider this plant for a woodland garden.

 

 Chondropetalum elephantinum - Large Cape Rush Photo by San Marcos Growers. www.smgrowers.com

Chondropetalum elephantinum – Large Cape Rush
Photo by San Marcos Growers. www.smgrowers.com

Cape rush (Chondropetalum elephantinum) isn’t a bunch grass. In fact, it doesn’t even belong to the grass family. But it looks like a grass. It has tough, wiry, medium green, upright stems that form dense clumps. It is a large specimen growing approximately 5’ tall and wide. Cape rush creates little brown flower clusters at the tips of its branches that cause the plant to arch elegantly outward. Cape rush is versatile. It thrives in full sun or part shade. It performs well in both wet and dry soils. It is known to be a well behaved plant. Maintenance requirements include removal of the older brown stems if that look bothers you. The book Plants and Landscapes For Summer Dry Climates by East Bay MUD warns us not to cut it back as the stems will not regrow.

 

 Bouteloua gracilis - Blue Grama Grass Photo by San Marcos Growers. www.smgrowers.com

Bouteloua gracilis – Blue Grama Grass
Photo by San Marcos Growers. www.smgrowers.com

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) is a small, fine-textured, medium green bunch grass with multiple landscape applications. It grows 8-14“ tall. Because it spreads (slowly) it that can be grown as a natural looking turf substitute or used as the featured grass in a dryland meadow. It prefers full sun and can take most soil types. It is known for its unusual flowers that appear in spring and summer. California Native Plants for the Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brian describes blue grama grass flowers as charming and shiny. They report that the “straight toothbrush-like spikes are held perpendicular to the stalk and curl gracefully as the fade to a straw color.” Yes, this is a unique plant. It is also a tough grass that takes heat, foot traffic and stands up to deer. Blue gamma grass stays green all year on the coast. It turns beige when during the dry season when planted inland.

Bouteloua grass. Photo credit: PlantRight.org

Bouteloua grass. Photo credit: PlantRight.org

Once again I wish you well incorporating bunch grasses into your water-wise garden.

Posted in California Native Plants, Design Ideas for the Garden, Gardening Tips & Techniques, Landscape Design and Gardening, Sustainability | Comments Off on Three More Drought Tolerant Bunch Grasses

Fig Trees: The Dark Side

Landscaper in love. That’s me. If you read my last article you know that I absolutely adore everything about my backyard edible fig tree (Ficus carica). It feeds me. It gives me shade. It pleases my eyes. And it attracts pretty birds to my garden. I love my fig tree.

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Unfortunately there is a dark side to fig trees. Fig trees can be invasive in some parts of California. They have infested and overrun forest waterways and stream sides in California’s Central Valley and its surrounding foothills. Edible fig trees have also escaped and overtaken moist areas in the Channel Islands and along California’s southern coast. If you live in these parts of the state, and especially if you live near a natural waterway, open space, or a nature preserve, you should refrain from installing an edible fig tree. I feel the urge to insert a disappointed emoji face here. Yes, it is sad.

The problem with figs in moist areas is that they form dense thickets that are difficult to eradicate. The roots are stubborn and re-sprout even if when the trees are cut down to the ground. When the branches weep downward and touch the ground they can form roots that cause the thickets to grow and expand. Fig thickets can dominate and drive our native valley oak trees and other native plants in riparian woodlands. This is not a good thing.

The edible fig is listed on the California Invasive Plant Council’s (Cal-IPC) Invasive Plants of California’s Wildland list. We must be careful where we plant and install this tree in California. At the same time this is not an immediate call to remove your backyard fig tree. In the right place, a fig tree is a joy and an asset.

If you live in the North Bay of San Francisco, note that the Marin Municipal Water District’s invasive plant list currently allows fig trees to be planted. The Napa Watershed Information and Conservation Council does not list fig trees as an invasive plant species present in the Napa River watershed. I did not find any authoritative references about fig trees being invasive in Sonoma County either.

So enjoy your fig tree. Eat its fruit. Shade bathe under its summer canopy. Dress your salads with juicy fig dressing. Sip fig brandy.

But be careful to contain its roots if you live near a waterway. If you are concerned about fig roots becoming invasive on your property, consider planting your fig tree far away from any existing creeks. You can also place fig trees in pots or install root barriers to contain runners – like you would with bamboo.

Stay posted and I’ll tell you more about figs and fig trees in the days and weeks to come.

Posted in Fig, Landscape Design and Gardening, Why I love Sonoma | Comments Off on Fig Trees: The Dark Side