Thursday, December 17, 2015

Happy Solstice!

As we approach the winter solstice, a 'calendar' that goes back literally thousands of years, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our place in the natural world. No matter how many electronic gadgets we have or how big and modern our houses are, we are still tied to natural rhythms. In the very least we are governed by the length of the day and in three days we hit the shortest day of the year. Just as it's hard to appreciate four distinct seasons if you only have two (or even one), it's hard for us to fully appreciate the warmer and longer days of spring and summer without first experiencing the shorter and colder days of winter. Or to put it another way, don't hate the winter for being winter. Honor it and then also cherish the days as they get longer.
Now suspend that mutual honoring with the fact that Oakland and the Bay Area offer the opportunity to garden year round, a suspension of reality that most other parts of the country don't get to indulge in. It's a delicate suspension of two worlds but one I'll take. Today I wandered out into the garden, camera in hand, not expecting there to be much to photograph. But surprise, surprise there were a host of solstice visual treats that compelled me to photograph. Here they are and while none are about to win any photography awards anytime soon, it is a way of sharing my winter garden.

Front yard area. The S. African Osteospermum 'Voltage Yellow' thinks it's summer and is putting on a very cheerful show. To the right and in front is the new Coprosma 'Pina Colada.' They make a colorful winter pairing.

Luculia pinceana. This winter blooming shrub gets my vote for best shrub nobody's ever heard of. Very pretty pink flowers but the real attraction is its heavenly scent. Truly, one of the most intensely fragrant shrubs you'll ever smell. Sweet!

Any guesses what this is? It's a Cotinus 'Royal Purple' in its near winter disguise. I get different colors every late fall, sometimes orange, sometimes gold, sometimes red. All beautiful!

While the Cotinus is just about done, my Leucospermum 'Veldfire' is just getting started. That fuzzy little center is the earliest stage of what will become one of the most magnificent flowers in all of the Proteaceae world.

This odd but vigorous plant is a Pelargonium crispum variegated Lemon. So, the crispum name owes to the crinkly leaves; the variegated moniker owes to the yellow and green leaves and the lemon, well, it really does smell powerfully of lemon. It's kind of a wonder plant, giving a little of everything to its caretaker.

The photographer in me coached this Salvia discolor. "There, just a little to the left. Turn slightly to me. There, hold it!" It does look good against the gray stucco wall, showing off a bit of its white undersides and stems.

Winter means Daphnes, at least to me. Here's my D. odora variegata. It started as a tiny 4" potted plant so it's made good progress in a mere year and a half. It's planted along the main walkway, along with other fragrant plants, so all can enjoy its sweet smell.

Kalanchoe 'Chocolate Soldier.' Whatever name you give to this kalanchoe, it showcases bluish-gray, felty leaves, highlighted with those chocolate tips. Very easy to grow, whether in a pot or in the ground.

Heavenly bamboos (Nandina domestica) may be called utilitarian (you say that like it's a bad thing ...) but they're also beautiful and look good year round. This year I'm finally getting a few red berries. 

If you're wondering what the heck I'm shooting here, it's the last of the Viburnum opulus foliage, now a pinky-orange. This is my Jungle Strip, where the various shrubs are largely left to fend for themselves. They've done surprisingly well, augmented by the occasional deep watering.

This Asarina erubescens 'Bridal Wreath' isn't making a break for it (though it certainly looks like it). It's still producing a few late season, all white flowers. Probably the easiest Asarina to grow and that's saying something. 

Here's another attempt to capture winter color on dying foliage. In this case, it's a tuberous begonia, offering up a mix of reds and golds on otherwise dark green leaves.

Thunbergia alata 'Arizona Red.' This IS the time of year for Thunbergias, especially in the milder zones. This new variety is possibly the reddest of all the 'Susans.'  It'll likely bloom well into late January if not longer.

Sempervivium tectorum calcareum. This Hens and Chicks is a favorite of mine and I love the name. The species name 'tectorum' makes it seem solid and tough and that's sort of what it is.

"The Wooly Bush that ate Oakland!" Well, almost. My Adenanthos sericeus is now 12' tall! Umm, that's a bit taller than the 6' listed on the seller's label ... If I ever write a book I'm tempted to title it "Your results May Vary." Indeed. And when I run for president my slogan will be 'A wooly bush in every garden!' (forget about chickens in pots). Okay, you have to be of a certain age to get the reference.

Succulent bowl #4. As is. Meaning, I just pulled out a couple tiny weeds, pointed the camera and click. It's progressing nicely and the Crassula muscosa (Watch chain plant) in back has kind of gone wild.

Zygonista murasakikomachi. Easy for you to say. Translation: an orchid. Love the color!

My favorite Camellia reticulata, C. 'Frank Hauser' has produced its first flower. Yes, this is its actual color! And the photo doesn't even make clear its silky petals and how wavy they are (not flat like C. japonica varieties). No wonder Reticulatas are considered the Queens of the camellia world.

From the extravagant to the sublime, here's a photo of my Chaenomeles 'Cameo.' Love the subtle colors and the fact that flowering quinces start blooming in winter.

Though my juvenile Jacaranda 'Bonzai Blue' is done blooming, it looks like it will hold onto its foliage year round here in Oakland. This dwarf only reaches 5-6' so it's easy to keep it in a container, as I've done. Love the foliage and of course those lovely purple flowers when they arrive.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Tis the season for conifers

Well, the blogpost gremlin is playing tricks again. See my opening comments at the end of the photos before checking out the pictures.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Barry's Silver + Cham. obtusa 'Nana Lutea.' Two of my favorites in the dwarf conifer (DC) garden. I love the color of the former and the latter's wide 'branches' look like panels. It's all about contrasts and complementary looks in making a DC garden.

Cham. pisifera juniperoides aurea. This is one of the new additions to the garden. I like its bushiness, light green color and nice rounded form. 

Cham. pisifera 'Boulevard.' This handsome shrub will get to six feet and as you can already see it has a fat conical shape. Love its glaucous tones and dense habit.

Cham. pisifera 'Snow.' This shot is the one not from my garden but I love it all the same. It's aptly named, with its new tips a snowy white color. It forms a dense 2' x 2' mound, making it one of the few dwarf conifers commonly available to showcase this shape.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Knaptonensis.' Cryptomerias are commonly called Japanese cedars, though their variety makes them seem at first glance quite different from our association with western cedars. This two foot tall species features attractive bright white new growth, meaning it will enliven any shady spot in your garden. 

Cryptomeria japonica 'Vilmoriniana.' One of the distinctive features of this rounded shrub is its inclination to turn a bronzy color in the fall and winter, as it's done here.  The rest of the year the foliage is a light green. This little guy tops out at about 18."

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Rimpelaar.' Here's the first of the Youngblood photos. Another of the mounding varieties, Rimpelaar almost looks like a bluish-green hedgehog that's rolled up into a ball. Like many of the dwarf varieties, it looks best combined with other conifers or with compatible plants such as Hellebores, Euphorbias or Azaleas.

Possibly the bluest of all the dwarf conifers, this Cham. lawsoniana 'Blue Surprise' makes a great focal point in a conifer garden or dappled shade area. It gets to six feet so it has enough presence to really make a statement.

Cham. obtusa 'Gold Fern.' You can see how this beauty came across its common name. The delicate foliage reminds one a bit of an Asparagus fern and of course the new growth has a golden sheen. Its multi-branching thus more open habit belies its small stature. This guy only gets to 18" tall!

Cham. pisifera 'Curly Tops.' One of the most distinctive of the False Cypress, this beauty gets its name from its tightly curled tips. Add to that its rich colors and attractive shape and you have a highly sought after specimen. 

Pinus mugo. This dwarf Mugo pine (photo courtesy of Monrovia Growers) is a nice change of pace from the main two genera featured above. This guy tops out at 3-5' and is a bit wider, though it will take many years to reach full size. I just love everything about this guy!

It's December and the holiday season is upon us. For those of us not overwhelmed with the task of shopping, it's a good time to reflect upon one of the origins of Christmas. No matter your reference, Christmas involves a Christmas tree and that tree is of course a conifer. That's appropriate to the season, as deciduous trees have, or will soon, shed their leaves. Whether you have a conifer in your garden or simply enjoy their majestic presence all around us, they are a wonderful reminder of the season. Among other pleasures, they are popular with many seed eating birds. So, in the spirit of the season, here are a few of my favorite dwarf conifers. Some are in my dwarf conifer bed, while others are ones you may see in your local nursery or in a neighbor's garden.
They've also been on my mind due to an article I wrote about them for Pacific Horticulture magazine. That article will appear in the Winter issue, out in early January. The first batch of photos are mine, most of them from my dwarf conifer garden. The second batch, starting with the Chamaecyparis Rimpelaar, are courtesy of Youngblood Nursery. The last photo of the Mugo Pine is courtesy of Monrovia Growers. Here they are.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

African Daisies

As winter quickly descends on us here in the Bay Area, it is worth noting that it is fast approaching summer in places like Australia and South Africa. This realization is brought home to gardeners when looking at or buying various plants all known by the common name of African Daisies. Perhaps most commonly that name is applied to Osteospermums. This sun loving perennial offers up a variety of flower colors, most notably pinks, purples and whites but also includes copper colors. It kicks into gear starting about now (see my photo below of O. Voltage Yellow).
Gazanias are another popular member of the South African daisy group. Now firmly ensconced in most nurseries's ground cover section, these tough, very low growing perennial daisies feature yellows, oranges, reds and pinks. They're tough enough to be used in median strips, in rock gardens or just any location where you want to add bright colors.
The least known of the African daisies might be Arctotis. That's not the case for anyone who's ever planted them in their garden. These tough, spreading perennials are easy to grow, spread quickly without being invasive and seem to bloom nonstop from late fall through late spring. They offer a range of colors -- reds, oranges, pinks and yellows -- and for some, lovely silvery foliage that complements the bright colors of the flowers. They also stay low, topping out at a height of about 6 inches, and are an excellent choice for a sunny, well-drained location.
All three African daisies are drought tolerant once established, making them great choices for our identical Mediterranean climate. That's doubly so during our current drought.
Sometimes a plant's, or group of plants, popularity is fleeting. Not so with these hard working South African daisies. Long may they prosper!

And now the garden photos.

Fall is often about foliage and in this case it's my Summersweet (Clethra) turning golden before it sheds its summer clothes. The golds are particularly striking framed by the dark leaves of the Viburnum and the Camellia.

Plectranthus 'Sapphire Dream.' This low growing variegated Plectranthus is one of my favorite species. Besides the attractive variegation, it offers the bluest flowers of all the species. It hasn't gone too wild, which is good because it's in a narrow bed.

Though it's just getting ready to begin a new bloom period so not showy right now, I took a photo of my Lotus plant to illustrate what a great ground cover it makes. Contrary to many people's expectations, Lotus will bloom in the winter (given enough sun). 

Many people don't immediately think of Dianthus as providing winter color but some will bloom seemingly year round. There's something simple but sweet about 'pinks,' as they are known.

Osteospermum 'Voltage Yellow.' As noted above, Osteos are a great all purpose plant and are especially valued as they bloom in the winter. Plus, 'Voltage Yellow' is one of my all time favorite variety names!

Euphorbia atropurpurea. Though not yet in bloom, this little known Euphorbia has red flowers, not chartreuse. It's still in a pot, which explains why it's not as full and bushy as it might ordinarily be.

Scaevola 'Yellow.' I never quite understood what all the fuss was about with Fan flowers and then I tried a 4" pot of this yellow-flowering variety. It proceeded to go berserk on the flowering front, now having been in continuous bloom since July. Case closed.

My Heliotropium 'Alba' appears to like the cooler weather. It's looking much healthier and is getting ready to start a new bloom cycle. Plus, the Alba is by far the most fragrant of all the Heliotropes.

This is the time of year for XMas cactus and here's my coral-colored variety. It surprises some people that many cacti have some of the showiest flowers on the planet. This coral color is harder to come by so I'm glad I grabbed it when I did.

Lepechinia hastata. One of those plants I collectively group as 'perfect plants,' this Pitcher sage as it's known fits the bill for this exclusive club. So, what does it take to qualify? These plants are vigorous, establish easily, are not prone to diseases or getting eaten by insects, are deer proof, flower over a very long period, have attractive foliage (in this case also aromatic), are very drought tolerant and take virtually no care. Whew, that's quite a high bar to cross but this lovely plant fits the bill!

Do bees dig Scabiosas? Indeed. Pincushion flowers are rich in nectar and though they're thought of as a 'butterfly plant' they're equally popular with bees. Here's my S. ochroleuca, with its distinctive butter yellow flowers.

They sometimes say about things that happen in real life that a wild-eyed writer could never make up something so impossible. One might say here that the gorgeous flowers of Canarina canariensis are simply too stunning to be real. But real they are and even though this photo is borrowed from the web, my specimen is putting on a growth spurt. Canarinas are winter bloomers here and I can only hope my specimen rewards me this winter!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Nat Geo Journeys

I watched two programs on National Geographic Wild last night and it motivated me to share these two places  -- Spain's Coto Donana wetlands and Australia's NE rainforest. I'm going to borrow some text from the web (put in parentheses),  so excuse the pilfering. As I was watching the programs, I wrote down three animals/birds from each region that really stood out. They're posted below, with a little explanation. So, no need to put on your hiking boots or rain gear, here's a brief journey to these two distinctive environments.
"Considered one of the most valuable wetlands in Europe, Spain’s Coto Doñana, located where the Guadalquivir River reaches the Atlantic Ocean, is a sanctuary for millions of migratory birds and endangered species. Doñana covers an area of 280,000 hectares in the southwest of Spain, in which a mix of land and water, man and nature, has created an immensely diverse environment. Marshlands, natural beaches, dune systems and a variety of forests and bushlands constitute a sanctuary for 6 million migratory birds and for endangered species like the Iberian lynx and the Imperial eagle"
Here are the three animals and birds that caught my eye in the program.

"The Iberian lynx portrays many of the typical characteristics of lynxes, such as tufted ears, long legs, short tail, and a ruff of fur that resembles a 'beard.' Unlike its Eurasian relatives, the Iberian lynx is tawny colored and spotted. The coat is also noticeably shorter than in other lynxes, which are typically adapted to colder environments." The program pointed out that the serious population decline owed in large part to the disappearance of its main prey - rabbits. When the native rabbit species was reintroduced, the lynx population rebounded.

Purple heron. "The purple heron is similar in appearance to the more common grey heron but is slightly smaller, more slender and has darker plumage. It is also a more evasive bird, favoring densely vegetated habitats near water, particularly reed beds. It hunts for a range of prey including fish, rodents, frogs and insects, either stalking them or standing waiting in ambush." What makes this bird a real beauty, besides the plumage, is the distinctive striping on its head and neck.

Kudos to anyone who can name this little critter. It's a Small-spotted Genet. Here's some info on this little creature, who seems to have a wild cat's body and a raccoon's tail. "Common genets have a slender, cat-like body 17-22" in length and a tail measuring 13-20." The legs are short, with cat-like feet and semi-retractile claws. They have a small head with a pointed muzzle, large oval ears, large eyes, and well-developed whiskers.The fur is dense and soft, and the coat is pale grey, with numerous black markings. The back and flanks are marked with about five rows of black spots, and a long black stripe runs along the middle of the back from the shoulders to the rump. There is also a black stripe on the forehead, and dark patches beneath the eyes, which are offset against the white fur of the chin and throat. The tail is striped, with anything from eight to thirteen rings along its length." Believe it or not, these curious animals were kept as pets and were introduced to the Iberian peninsula between 1000-1500 years ago. They have now prospered over southern Europe and North Africa.

"The Wet Tropics of Queensland consists of approximately 8,940 km² of Australian wet tropical forests growing along the north-east Queensland portion of the Great Dividing Range. These tropical forests have the highest concentration of primitive flowering plant families in the world. Only Madagascar and New Caledonia, due to their historical isolation, have humid, tropical regions with a comparable level of endemism. 370 species of bird have been recorded in the area, as well as 107 mammal species." Due to this amazing diversity, this rain forest is near the top of my list for a travel destination.

Golden Bower bird. This cute little guy probably wins the award for the most industrious bird on the planet. It gets its common name from the males' proclivity in building huge nesting structures. "The male Golden Bowerbird builds a maypole type of bower of one or two towers of sticks up to 3m tall with a display perch. Skilfully laid sticks connect the towers and decorations are placed on them. These are often white, off-white and pale green orchids, jasmine, other flowers, seedpods and lichens. The sticks become glued together by the action of fungi after some time. To maximise the time a male can spend at a bower, he hides fruits in different places throughout the bower. The bower is very important to the bird, and rival males may steal higher valued decorations from each others’ bowers. This is because the females are discriminative – they will only select the male who uses ornaments that are the rarest or hardest to obtain. The average life of a bower structure is 9 ½ years, and the same sites are often used from generation to generation, perhaps for 60 years."
As I say, industrious doesn't begin to describe these guys. Major OCD, n'est-ce pas?

This little guy looks a tad surprised but that's no doubt because the photographer, shooting at night, had to use a powerful flash. This handsome daredevil is a Striped Possum (or a regular possum with a Zorro fetish perhaps). "These dainty possums are usually around 10 inches long and weigh around 15 ounces. They usually live between 5 and 7 years. They feed heavily on bugs (termites, crickets and ants) plus bug larvae from moths and beetles. These omnivores also eat a variety of other foods, such as fruit, pollen, nectar, foliage and flowers. Striped possums give off an unpleasant, musk-like and aggressive body odor, although the specific purpose for it isn't certain." That would certainly keep me at a safe distance. 

This distinctively colored bird is a Red-browed Finch. "This species is highly sociable and is usually seen in small flocks of 10 to 20 individuals. Flocks prefer semi-open woodland, especially edges of forests, where brushy scrub meets cleared areas, especially near creeks. The finch makes short, piping high-pitched cheeps. When disturbed, the whole flock will disperse, cheeping, and re-congregate near-by. It is a seed eater, living mostly on grass and sedge seed, but will happily feed on many non-native seeds. Like other weaver finches it builds a large domed nest, with a side entrance, out of grass and small twigs. Nests are usually built 2–3 metres above the ground in dense shrubs. Nesting is communal. Both parents share nest building, incubation of the eggs, and feed the young together."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Relief of Rain

For those of us in drought stricken northern California, the two recent rainstorms were a most welcome event. Meteorologists are pretty sure we're in for a major El Nino winter so we may make significant progress for getting the land a good soak and starting to replenish our reservoirs. In any case, our gardens certainly appreciated the drink and it did clear the air.
I return this week to sharing photos of my garden and talking about those plants. I grew up in B.C. Canada so can appreciate transplants to the Bay Area who are a bit confused about being able to garden year round. I wouldn't have it any other way but there is something to be said for having a winter rest period, a time away from the garden so that one returns refreshed in the spring. That said, today's photos are evidence that there is life beyond the late summer/early fall.

Coprosma 'Pina Colada' A new and aptly named variety on the market, I couldn't resist its exuberant colors. Mirror plants as they are known are a great all season shrub for a sunny location. 

My 'Hint of Gold' Caryopteris is off and running and loves its sunny location. I tried growing it in a container and it wasn't happy. Here it is, in one of my median strip beds. Bluebeards as they're called (an odd name to be sure as the flowers are purple and don't hang down like beards) are a great butterfly plant and are even called Butterfly bushes by some.

If this little guy looks familiar, he should. This is one of the butterflies I featured in last week's blog. Gulf Fritillary butterflies are becoming more frequent visitors to my garden and are always a welcome sight.

These strange looking seedpods belong to Tecoma x smithii. Here is a cluster of them unopened and then below we see one that is about to open. It has a fluffy seedhead, similar to milkweeds.

Duranta 'Gold Mound' For some reason this dwarf evergreen shrub has taken a long time to get established. It's finally getting a little volume to it and in doing so it's showing off to more dramatic effect its bold golden hues.

Two weeks ago I showed a closeup photo of the leaf on my Abutilon thompsonii. Here's the whole plant. This is a smaller-sized, bushier type Flowering maple. Though the peach-colored flowers are pretty, it's the foliage that made me invite it into my garden.

Those familiar only with the dwarf common Celosias might be a bit taken back with the taller, bushier species. Here's a C. argentea cristata 'Cramer's Burgundy' starting to branch out. Love that color and the way the flowers exhibit a wavy, textured look.

Okay, not the most exciting photo. It's here to remind us that it's the beginning of bulb season. With the exception of the pot with the wider leaves (a Ferraria ferrariola), the other bulbs sending up shoots are various Lachenalia species. These early blooming bulbs from South Africa are a most welcome treat in December and January.

My Mandevilla 'Giant Crimson' soldiers on and even if it's not as abundant in bloom as it once was, there's no mistaking its vivid red flared trumpet-shaped flowers in the late fall.

Speaking of bulbs, here's Oxalis latifolia. No, not the dreaded and invasive oxalis with the yellow flowers that's starting to pop up in people's gardens about now but rather a winter blooming variety with lime green 'shamrock' leaves and vivid pink flowers. One of my faves!

Shooting in the sun and shooting in the shade can yield very different results, as is evidenced here with a shade photo of my Tecoma stans 'Bells of Fire.' Less fire and more orange soda perhaps? Lovely nonetheless and this dwarf  version is happy in a large pot.

Abutilon 'Lucky Lantern Red.' This guy is back to blooming after a two month pause. Word to other abutilon owners; these large shrubs or small trees don't bloom year round. It just seems like it. Still, not many other plants have such a long bloom season.

Immediately recognizable, honeysuckle bushes are, despite their commonality, one of the most fantastic fragrance plants for the garden. There's just no mimicking that intensely sweet smell. Add in their popularity with bees and hummingbirds and it's no wonder they're one of the most popular vines/bushes in our gardens.
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