Monday, December 6, 2010

Beneficial garden insects

To some, the phrase "beneficial insect" may seem like an oxymoron but experienced gardeners know that there are a host of insects you want taking up residence in your garden. One of the most beneficial is the praying mantis, pictured above. A co-worker at Grand Lake Ace garden center took this photo yesterday and this guy had to be a good 4" long! Praying mantis will eat a whole variety of bad insects in the garden so are very valuable guardians to attract. Of course many people know that ladybugs eat aphids and other small insects, if you can entice them to stick around. But these two very common and recognizable 'good' predators are just the most familiar.
Other visitors you want to lay out the welcome mat for include dragonflies and damsel flies, which go after soft-bodied insects; assassin bugs (those commonly seen, elongated orange & black covered bugs) which feed on caterpillars & harmful beetles; the common black ground beetle, an equal opportunity predator; brown lacewings that eat aphids, mealybugs & scale insects and surprisingly yellow jacket and paper wasps, whose larva eat a variety of insects. And that's not mentioning spiders, a very beneficial predator to have around.
One thing I think is worth mentioning. No one likes ants in the house, especially large numbers raiding your honey jars and such but outside ants do no harm to your garden. They appear in numbers after rains or when you've just watered near a colony but in short order they return underground. There really is no need to poison them, especially since that leaves poisons in the soil. The only area where they can be a concern is if you have thrips or some such harmful chewing insect on say a citrus tree and the ants go to harvest the honeydew that certain insects create. These insects can sometimes hitch a ride on the ants and thus spread to other trees, thus infecting them. Generally though ants are just a benign insect that we can peacefully co-exist with.
So who are the bad guys? Beyond the aphids and mealybugs and caterpillars that everyone is familiar with, you'll want to somehow contain or rid yourselves of a few of these guys: the largish green stink bug, the aptly named orange & black harlequin bug, the destructive cucumber beetle, leaf miners and whiteflies, leafrollers, cabbage worms (that lead eventually to the pretty, white cabbage moths) and coddling moths, which go after fruit trees.
An excellent at-a-glance guide to both categories of insects is the Mac's Field Guide to Good & Bad Garden Bugs, which you can find in a single, laminated page at many nurseries.
Encouraging good predators in your garden will lead to a healthier garden and less work for you in combating the "forces of evil."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Container Water Gardens talk

I was pleased to be able to give a talk recently at the Montelindo Garden Club. The topic was container water gardening and it was spurred by an article I'd had published in the SF Chronicle on that topic back in June of this year. For those of you who missed the article the first time, or who might want to look at some of the photos that appeared with the article (more online than in the paper itself), here is the link to the container water gardens story.
I also mentioned to those at the meeting that I'd post some plants that those looking to construct a water feature could use. Here's that list:

Upright (vertical) Plants
Acorus calamus
Cyperus alternifolius (Papyrus)
Equisetum (Horsetail)
Irises -- ensata, fulva, Siberian, pseudacorus
Juncus (Rush)
Lobelia cardinalis
Sagittaria (Arrowhead)
Sarracenia (Pitcher plant)

Marginals (broader-leaved usually)
Caltha (Marsh marigold)
Carex elata or C. aquatilis
Colocasia/alocasia (Elephant ears/taro)
Mimulus (water loving species)

Cascading plants
Houttuynia (especially the variegated variety)
Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny)
Ranunculus repens (Creeping buttercup)

Floating plants
Azolla (Mosaic plant)
Parrot's Feather
Water hyacinth
Water lettuce

Egeria (Anacharis)
Parrot's Feather

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Back in the flow

Some of you may have noticed a recent absence in my posting. I've been recovering from oral surgery and busy with other non-gardening issues (ahh, life) and am just now getting back to my favorite routines. I'm afraid my garden has suffered a bit as well though it's still showing off some late summer color. I still however have been enjoying the variety of birds that have been visiting my garden and today I spotted my first Common red-shafted flicker, a very exciting event for bird watchers. My two jays are still coming to the kitchen window to retrieve the whole peanuts I leave for them each morning. And the new suction cup feeder, containing hulled sunflower seeds and peanut pieces, is proving very popular with a variety of finches and the occasional oaktit.
Gardening wise, this is a good time for clean-up and saying goodbye to the annuals that provided so much color during the spring and summer. Fall is the best time to plant pansies, violas, snapdragons and delphiniums for sunny areas. And there's no lack of choices for shade either. Cyclamen and primroses are excellent choices for a splash of color. Perennial wise, think about adding one or more varieities of plectranthus for those of you in zones 10 or 11. Then there's hardy fuchsia species, hellebores (Lenten rose), Japanese anemones, a variety of ferns, asarums and shade loving campanulas. Fall and winter is the time to plant shrubs, whether sun loving (azaleas, correas, coprosmas, ceanothus etc.) or part shade (rhodies, camellias, hydrangeas, mahonias, sarcococcas). And of course it's time to plant spring blooming bulbs. Don't forget to make note of where you buried these bulbs!
So get out there you lazy bums. Gardening is a year round pleasure (job?) here in the Bay Area and planning ahead yields great rewards. This is also an excellent time to plant perennials and ground covers, getting them established for the spring.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Garden Prep

Fall is a time for enjoying the last of the summer flowers and the advent of shrubs that are coming into season but it's also an excellent time to begin prep for the upcoming spring. Vegetable gardeners can dig under their finished crops and add other amendments such as compost, hay, manure and worm castings. Consider planting a cover crop during the winter months. Choices include fava beans, mustard, clover, hairy vetch and alfalfa. And of course, keep up with turning the materials in your compost bin or pile.
As I'm primarily a flower gardener, fall is the time to get organized for the coming late winter/early spring season. I'm pulling out the last of my spring & summer annuals and using the opportunity to amend any vacant areas in my beds. Gardening is all about the soil. Part of my late fall ritual is hauling out pots from the summer-dry storage area that contain winter & spring bulbs. These are mainly South African bulbs such as lachenalias (cowslips), species gladiolas and ferrarias. I even noticed last week, in the beginning of October, that one of my lachenalias had sent up multiple shoots! No one seems able to predict what plants will do in this year of the weird weather.
For those of us with perennial beds, it's not too early to begin top dressing with soil amendments and compost.
And for you bird lovers, now is a good time to supplement local birds' diets with appropriate bird food. Hang a hummingbird feeder if you don't have one, restock your bird feeders with a high quality birdseed and for those of you who love goldfinches, buy a sock feeder and fill with nyjer seed (commonly available). You'll have a colony of these very sociable, colorful birds at this feeder in no time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More shade selections

Following up on my earlier posting, where I listed some excellent choices for adding color to shady spots in your garden, here's a few favorites that stay low. Some can even be used as ground covers.

Ajuga reptans. Whether you go for the green or the chocolate tones, ajugas are tough, low water plants that are good for adding a bit of texture to a shady spot. Plus, purple flowers!

Asarum canadense. One of my favorite shade ground covers. Known as BC ginger, this fast spreading GC with the heart-shaped verdant green leaves also offers as a bonus cute, oddly colored flowers. The Panda Face variety has leathery brown & eggplant flowers that one can only call weird.

Bergenia. An oldie but goody, this plant is an excellent choice for adding masses of green foliage as an understory planting. It has pink and white flowering varieties.

Campanula muralis. A popular and surprisingly resilient GC that once settled in provides lots of cheerful purple flowers over a long season. Charming kidney-shaped, toothed leaves add to its appeal.

Carex. There are quite a few sedges that can handle a fair amount of shade, though not dark shade. They offer grass-like textures in a variety of light greens and golds. Hardy, attractive, versatile.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Garden Visitors

As we head into fall, with its cooler temperatures and fewer flowers in bloom, my thoughts turn to helping the various winged visitors to my garden. I have several kinds of hummingbirds that are regular visitors and they love my marmalade bush's nectar rich orange flowers, as well as the salvias that are in bloom right now. But I recently decided to hang a hummingbird feeder to augment their feeding and that has proven very popular. I have it outside my kitchen window, in full view of my writing desk, so I get wonderful views of their visits.
There are of course a variety of other birds around our tree-lined street. The list includes finches & sparrows of all kinds, titmice, jays, mockingbirds, towhees, the occasional oriole and, since I've hung a sock feeder filled with nyjer seed, a crew of lesser goldfinches. Providing birdseed for these visitors will not only bring you the delight such visitors bring but help the ecosystem. Birds help to keep the insect population in balance among other useful functions. For those of you wanting to check out birds in your area, you might take a look at One doesn't need to venture out into the woods to observe a variety of bird life. Give them a little food and fresh water and they'll find you!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Garden Photos

Here are a few recent photos from my garden.
Top line: Selaginella tamariscina 'Snow Tip' This is a new, brighter club moss. Love it!
2nd line left: Brugmansia Charles Grimaldi. Taking over the walkway!
2nd line right: Red banana leaf. So architectural.
3rd line left: Mahonia lomariifolia. Normally a winter blooming shrub, this one didn't want to wait apparently.
3rd line right: One of the whiter tricyrtis varieties, a nice contrast to the purple ones.
4th line left: Scyphanthus elegans. My vote for unheralded plant of 2010. A charming little climber that looks like it might be a painting.
4th line right: Abutilon Tangerine. Such a rich color that just looking at it makes you feel like you need to go on a diet!
5th line left: King protea. Caught this as it was just past its peak of blooming, giving it a distinctive look.
5th line right: A cute little fringed dianthus.
6th line left: Lilium tigrinum splendens. One of my favorite Tiger lilies & it's prolific.
6th line right: Helenium 'Mardi Gras' The easiest, most prolific and one of the showiest of the heleniums. It's been in constant bloom since May.
Bottom line left: Ratibida 'Pulcherima' This Mexican Hat is nearly a year round bloomer for me.
Bottom line right: One of my oriental lilies, a late bloomer this year.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sausal Creek walk

A friend and I recently took a walk up the Sausal Creek trail (near Dimond Park in Oakland), where we were treated to a variety of birds, aquatic creatures and much greenery. Here are a few photos from that walk. My favorite photo is of a giant spider web, where because of the short field of focus and the sun shining through the web, I was lucky enough to catch some iridescent colors. Here are the photos:
Top line: I love how the light played with the ascending column of leaves
Middle line left: Arching branches of a bay laurel tree
Middle line right: Water skimmers and the mesmerizing ripples they created in the stream
Bottom line left: The spider web with the shimmering colors
Bottom line right: Ivy forming a cascading wall of green

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Gardening Myths

Can you believe everything you read in gardening books or magazines? In an attempt to answer that perennial question I looked at a number of conventional gardening wisdoms and found a few that are more myth than fact. That led to the article 10 Common Gardening Myths. Take a peek to see if you're up to date on the latest in gardening practices. As we all know, gardening is a communal experience, where we need to take advantage of the experience of professionals, neighbors & friends to assemble a collective wisdom.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Got shade?

I believe that would be a rhetorical question as all of us have some or a lot of shady spots in our garden. Most gardeners are familiar with the 'usual suspects' for planting in shady areas but there are actually quite a few to choose from. Here are a few of my favorites, broken down into four categories: color (colorful flowers); evergreen shrubs or perennials; deciduous plants; and low growing plants. Readers will need to check sources for the degree of shade and water needs.

Japanese anemone. There are getting to be an impressive variety of these hardy perennials. Not just pinks and whites, in single and double flowering forms, but lavender and burgandy shades as well. Tough, drought tolerant and showy!

Brunnera. People choose brunneras for their lovely heart-shaped foliage, ranging from solid mint green to striking variegated forms like Jack Frost, but they also produce the loveliest blue, forget-me-not flowers.

Begonias. Not the small bedding ones but the larger cane begonias, which range in height from 3-8 feet, with colorful leaves as large as a foot long and large sprays of pink or white flowers. Some cane begonias, like Irene Nuss, are real show stoppers!

Calceolaria. This plant's no longer a well kept secret and that's a good thing! Whether you're planting the yellow colored 'lady slippers' of C. mexicana or going bold with the burnt orange flowers of C. 'Kentish Hero' it's hard to go wrong with this long blooming small shrub.

Campanulas. Often take nor granted, there are some real showy shade loving campanulas, with open face or bell-shaped flowers ranging in color from white to pink to all manner of purples. Try C. punctata with its pink bell shaped nodding flowers sprinkled with red dots inside or C. incurva, with its large bell-shaped flowers that are an otherworldly icy-blue color.

Dicentra. We're all familiar with the pink & white "bleeding hearts" but there are quite a few varieties in this interesting genus, including D. scandens, with its canary-yellow flowers.

Francoa. Commonly known as Bridal's Wreath, this vigorous deciduous perennial produces 18" stems populated with white, pink or lavender flowers, rising from lush green foliage.

Ligularia. This plant is worth having in your shade garden just for its large, broadly heart-shaped leaves, some with striking variegation, but it also produces masses of single form yellow flowers on tall stems making it a showy addition.

Lysimachia. Many people are familiar with the gold & green 'creeping jennies' but there are also taller lysimachias that are even showier. Try L. ciliata with its spikes of bright yellow flowers, the 'Purpurea' variety having deep burgandy foliage. White isn't always dramatic but the buddleja-like cones of white flowers on L. clethroides catch the eye right away.

Plectranthus. These perennial members of the mint family are growing in popularity and I think a major reason for that is P. 'Mona Lavender.' With its showy orchid like lilac-colored flowers and dramatic purple undersides to dark green leaves, it's easily the showiest of the many species available.

Polemonium. This deciduous perennial is gaining in popularity, in part because of variegated forms like Brise d'Anjou. Most polemoniums have pale lavender-blue flowers but there are also pink and yellow flowering species. These plants add grace & charm to our gardens.

Pulmonaria. Lungworts have made the transition from medicinal curiosity to popular shade addition in part because of their dramatically speckled leaves. But the flowers hold their own too, tiny cup-shaped blue, pink or bi-colored gems that rise on six inch stems.

Thalictrum. Meadow rues are becoming more popular, thanks to the charmingly simple, tiny purple flowers on certain species or the spirea-like heads on T. flavum.

Senecio stellata. An old favorite that's making a comeback, this tough annual puts out masses of pink to purple flowers in the late spring and summer, making for a great floral show. It can bloom so heavily that sometimes the flowerheads can bend the branches to the ground!

Tricyrtis. Toad lilies make an appropriate end to this section, offering as they do sprays of extravagantly speckled funnel-shaped white, pink or purple flowers on tall stems. I'm not sure how a flower can be both subtle and dramatic but toad lilies accomplish that trick.

There are plenty more plants that bring color into shade gardens but hopefully readers will find something in this list they hadn't considered adding to their shade garden and they'll make a new best friend!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nitobe Japanese Gardens, Vancouver

Here is another wonderful garden I visited on my trip to Vancouver B.C. It's Nitobe Japanese Gardens up on the University of B.C. campus. A pretty good size, with a small lake, and very green as is the case with many Japanese gardens, where the focus is more on form, symbolism and mood than on colorful flowers. Very peaceful and lush. I'll let the photos speak for themselves rather than providing a redundant description. This garden was a wonderful discovery as I hadn't discovered it in previous visits to the city.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Butchart Gardens photos

Here are a few photos from my trip to Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. It's a fabulous garden, a restored quarry that was a labor of love for Mrs. Butchart. The feature part of the garden is the huge sunken garden, which is featured in the last six photos.
Top line left: Myself and my nephew in front of the sunken garden
Top line right: One of many fabulous hanging baskets
2nd line left: Harbor as seen through spyhole in hedge
2nd line right: Part of large Japanese garden area
3rd line left: Pond in Japanese garden
3rd line right: One of many large sculptures in the garden
4th line left & right: Show water feature at bottom end of sunken garden
5th line left: Lots of trees, planted to achieve a layered, textured effect
5th line right: Japanese maples are a feature part of the garden
Bottom line left: Sunken garden, view one
Bottom line right: Sunken garden, view two

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Great Green North

Greetings from Vancouver B.C. where the city seems at times more like one great park. Lots of little parks and certainly lots of people with gardens but also many, many streets lined with trees. It's a gardener's city, with lots of spring rains, summer sun, long days from May to September and plenty of inspiration from neighbors. Nurseries though are not quite as plentiful as in the Bay Area but there are enough to keep one's garden growing strong. And if there aren't flowers to bring in from your garden, there are no shortage of flower shops. Vegetable gardening is just as popular here in Vancouver; I've spotted many a garden growing tomatoes, beans, squashes and more. Not that there aren't plenty of places to buy fresh, and sometimes locally grown, produce. All in all a wonderful place to live -- and I did from '69 to '71 -- except for one small detail. The long gray/rainy winters. Alas! That of course only makes the city greener and cleaner so perhaps not too great a price to pay.
It's nice to have a break in tending my own garden and equally nice to get inspiration from other gardens. But then it will be nice to be back home and get reacquainted with my own little slice of paradise ...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Tour

I'm up in Vancouver B.C. visiting family but also taking in the local public gardens. People here also love gardening in a big way and the mild West coast climate allows for a long growing season. Yesterday I made the trek to the famous Butchart Gardens outside Victoria, on Vancouver Island. It's more of a large park-like garden than a botanical garden, with lots of instant color achieved through mass plantings of annuals, but the foundations are there, especially a great number of magnificent Japanese maples. The Sunken Garden was lovely, with great views from multiple angles and the Japanese gardens were peaceful and inviting. There is a large rose garden and a wild planted Mediterranean garden as well. For some reason those in charge of the flower selection really like heliotropes and calceolarias, as there were tons of them planted everywhere. I'll post photos on my return.
Today my nephew and I head up to the University of British Columbia to take in two gardens there, the UBC botanical garden (which I have seen in a previous visit) and a Japanese garden next door. It should be quite stimulating.
Everything in Vancouver is so lush, given the 60 inches of rain the city normally gets. And clean. It's a beautiful city, one I enjoyed living in for two years many a moon ago.
By the time I return it will be August, which I know is disconcerting for many of us gardeners, as it seemed like we never quite had a spring and summer is just now starting it seems. Our local nurseries are already beginning to stock some early fall plants like rudbeckias and toad lilies and there are many salvias available. Going on vacation is always invigorating but there will be so much work to do when I return. For now, though, the bliss of amnesia.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy Fourth photos

Top left: Livingstone daisy. So colorful; so tough.
Top right: Red day lily. Such an intense blood red!
2nd line left: Cosmidium. The "other" chocolate smelling annual.
2nd line right: Clarkia amoena. No other word but glorious!
3rd line left: Centaurea "Amethyst-in-Snow." Love this plant.
3rd line right: Cynoglossum. Top of the list for lovers of true blue flowers.
4th line left: Flemish Antique breadseed poppy. Isn't Nature wonderful?
4th line right: Grevillea 'Moonlight.' Very large showy flowers and THAT color!
5th line left: Calceolaria 'Kentish Hero.' Orange lovers unite!
5th line right: Scyphanthus. My new favorite flower of 2010. Charming climbing annual.
6th line left: Leycesteria formosa. I call this the Pagoda plant because the flowers look like little Chinese pagodas.
6th line right: Helenium 'Mardi Gras.' A lovely bi-colored helenium.
Bottom left: Canary Creeper nasturtium. One of my favorite scrambling vines.
Bottom right: Dietes vegeta. It may be common but that doesn't mean it isn't pretty.
01 09 10