Resilient Plant Communities

In a recent column, I referred to a book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. Rainer and West present landscape design ideas that are worth applying in home gardens, and indeed in all kinds of gardens. Their ideas are intended to result in gardens that are “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

To review that recent column, visit ongardening.com, click on “Essays 2017” and then “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes.”

The ideas presented in this book ring true to nature and good sense, and require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.

This column cannot replace reading the authors’ thoughtful review of familiar landscaping practices and groundbreaking recommendations, but w can consider their essential messages.

Rainer and West indicate that good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.

The first of these relationships recalls the “right plant in the right place” axiom, which often refers to locating the plant where it will have the soil, exposure, and moisture that it needs to thrive. To these aspects of place the authors recommend locating plants in the grassland, woodland/shrubland, or forest environment that is their natural home. A garden, as a built environment, should look and function like a “distilled version” of one of those archetypical landscapes.

Consideration of the relationship of plants to people addresses the visual appeal of the landscape. The authors state that plant communities need not be limited to a naturalistic style and can exist within any other style. There are too many garden styles to list, but the basic idea is that the gardener can develop any preferred style and still maintain the plant’s relationships to place and other plants.

Rainer and West feature the relationship of plants to other plants and write about the “levels of sociability” of plants. In nature, some plants grow as individuals, or in groups of various sizes, or in large areas. For example, plants that tend to grow separately from other plants would be candidates for containers, and some plants propagate across vast numbers in large fields (see photographs of this year’s superbloom of wildflowers).

The authors recommend combining plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities. This approach allows plants to support each other, form a diverse and lush garden (as distinct from swaths of a single variety), and provide natural mulch that retains moisture and blocks entry of weeds and invasive plants. They categorize plants in four layers:

  • structural/framework plants — trees, shrubs, upright grasses and large leafed perennials that form the visual structure of the planting (10-15% of the total)
  • seasonal theme plants — mid-height plants that dominate the scene when in bloom, and provide supporting companions to the structural plants when not in bloom (25-40%)
  • ground cover plants — low, shade-tolerant plants that cover the soil, control erosion and provide nectar (50%)
  • filler plants — short-lived species, e.g., annuals, that fill gaps and add short seasonal displays (5-10%)

The authors describe this plant community approach collectively as resilient gardening. The benefits include growing healthy plants, minimizing maintenance (always a popular objective), and providing a systematic approach to developing an attractive, full grouping of plants.

I have been vaguely dissatisfied with a garden that separates plants from other plants by mulch. Developing layered plant communities will require reviewing plants already in place, searching for new plants for the needed layers, and allowing time for growth. The authors have not provided tidy “recipes” for plant communities because there are too many possible variations, including personal preferences, to put in a book. Instead, they have left the design process to each interested gardener.

Enjoy your garden, and consider learning about—and developing—resilient plant communities for your garden.

The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days

The garden tour is a favorite activity of many garden societies, gardeners, and some garden owners.

Garden societies use tours to advance their goals to promote gardening and gardeners use them to gain practical ideas and inspiration. Garden owners want to share their success in the joint pursuits of horticulture and landscape design, and perhaps also their accomplishments in garden art and furnishings.

Volunteers are needed to support smooth and effective logistics, and garden tourists pay a small fee for the opportunity to explore the gardens. Such fees raise funds for the sponsoring group and cover expenses, e.g., publicity signage, plant lists, and refreshments.

These events generally are instances of homegrown Americana, but one group, the national non-profit Garden Conservancy, has significantly advanced the art of garden touring. The Conservancy is an organization that shares over 300 outstanding gardens each year through the annual Open Days program, which it describes as America’s only national garden-visiting program. It offers “a wide variety of gardens… representing the incredible range and definition of what a garden can be: expansive estates and small backyard oases, manicured hedges and wild country gardens, plant collections and outdoor art, edible gardens and gardens that support wildlife.“

The Conservancy’s annual directory demonstrates the national scope of the Open Days program. The book lists gardens by date and location—in most continental U.S. states plus Alaska and Hawaii. The directory is an efficient way to invite visits to one’s local gardens

For a given date and location, the directory lists one-day garden visits for a single garden or, as available, two, three or more nearby gardens.

Conservancy Olson-front door

Recently, I volunteered for Open Days, serving as greeter and ticket-taker for a well designed and maintained garden at a Palo Alto residence. The garden was designed about thirty years ago in Colonial Williamsburg style, and currently has an interpretation of the classic white garden theme, that Vita Sackville-West originated in the 1930s at the Sissinghurst Castle Garden, in the Weald of Kent, England. While the formal style of this garden is not my taste, I genuinely enjoyed seeing it and appreciated the gardener’s skill and dedication. Numerous visitors also indicated their pleasure with examining the garden and photographed highlights.

Conservancy Olson - dining

 

This garden was one of a cluster of five gardens on the day’s Open Days tour for the Palo Alto–Atherton area.

 

 

 

The Open Days program has an opportunity in September to broaden your garden visions by visiting a cluster of gardens in the San Jose area. Here are brief descriptions (excerpted from the Directory) of these gardens:

  • Garden of Cevan Forristt: reflects “his sense of the mysterious and playful” and demonstrates his skill in combining diverse symbolic objects—stone urns and animal troughs, deities and chains, giant ceramic vessels and delicate woodcarvings.”
  • Holden Garden: featured in Sunset Magazine (2003), “in the center of this garden a small waterfall cascades into a six-sided koi pond…each area of the garden is filled with interesting details that invite lingering looks.”
  • Woodford Semitropical Garden: “a twenty-year-old garden specializing in rare and unusual tropical and semitropical plants [featuring] rare palms (135 species) and cycads (twenty-five species), bromeliads, cactus and succulents and other companion plants.”

Visiting one or all three of these fascinating gardens could be a very nice day trip from the Monterey Bay area. (It’s really not far away!)

For more information about these gardens, browse to the Conservancy’s Open Days website, click on Open Days Schedule, and then search for “San Jose.”

I addition to sharing outstanding gardens through the Open Days program, The Garden Conservancy’s Preservation Program “assists outstanding gardens with the expertise they need to survive and thrive.” Its inspiration and first preservation project is the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California. Today, that garden continues under the management of a non-profit corporation, providing and flourishing as a tribute to its founder as a resource for gardeners with interest in cactus and succulent plants.

The Conservancy welcomes contributions and memberships.

Gardeners can grow, too! Plan your Open Days visit.

Designing Naturalistic Landscapes

Landscape design has been analyzed, discussed, and written about by many people, and from several angles. Most treatments of this subject consider the built landscape as part of built environment, which contrasts with the natural environment. Generally, they describe landscapes as vignettes or vistas that please the beholder’s eye by combining forms or colors from an aesthetic perspective. Aesthetics determine whether a garden is Victorian, Italian, Japanese, modern, white, classical, etc. Often, this approach results in random groupings of favored plants, with the only design principle being “tall plants in back.”

There are more horticultural perspectives for thinking about landscapes. For example, we have the idea of companion planting, in which proximities affect plant vigor. Then, we have generic groupings, as with small or large collections of roses, cacti, irises, or some other plant genus. Another horticultural approach involves grouping plants with similar needs for moisture. Such “hydrozoning” responds to the horticultural needs of plants and incidentally organizes the gardener’s irrigation tasks. A tropical landscape focuses on plants with an exotic look and a continuing thirst (not a good choice in the land of persistent drought).

Moving further into horticultural considerations, we encounter climate-oriented landscaping, with emphasis on plants from the world’s Mediterranean or “summer dry” regions, which of course include the Monterey Bay area. This landscaping approach supports plant development and vigor and eases the gardener’s workload.

The attractive subset of summer-dry landscaping is landscaping with California native plants, which combines the climate-oriented approach with the ecological compatibility of flora and fauna.

The more naturalistic form of landscaping with California native plants is landscaping with California plant communities. There are various ways to define this state’s several plant communities but essentially, the coast, the mountains, and the deserts are different horticultural environments, and therefore support different plants. A very useful book on this topic has been provided by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).

The next level of appreciating the difference between built and natural landscapes can be found in the book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015). This book has been called “inspiring,” “masterful,” “groundbreaking,” and a “game-changer.” Reviewers have also praised it for “lyrical, passionate, and persuasive writing” and “lavish” illustrations.

Planting in a Pot-Wild World - coverThe authors deplore the ways in which typical gardening and landscaping practices have ignored the ways in which plants thrive in natural combinations, and present A New Optimism: The Future of Planting Design. They state, “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

The book (which we have just begun studying) advocates planting in interlocking layers of plants, which reflects the dynamic way plants grow together in nature. There is much to learn about this approach. The authors envision improved plant labels that provide more useful information about how a plant grows and recommend relevant resources as the http://www.cnps.org/cnps/grownative/California Native Plant Society.

Both aesthetic and horticultural approaches to plant selection have significant impacts on the success of gardening and the amount of work involved in maintaining a garden. If your gardening involves mostly keeping plants alive, replacing plants that have died, combating weeds, and wanting the garden to look better, it could be time to give more attention to plant communities.

Pruning Evergreen Shrubs

Let’s consider evergreen shrubs, which differ from deciduous shrubs by continuing in leaf year-round. This is not the same as retaining leaves all year: evergreen shrubs sometimes are described as dropping their leaves year-round, for on-going renewal.

A separate group of evergreens is comprised of coniferous trees and shrubs, which are pruned primarily in late winter or early spring, before the appearance of new growth. It is now generally too late in the year for pruning coniferous evergreens. Exceptions include removing unwanted whole branches of spruces and junipers, which may be done at any time, and trimming yews and arborvitae can be done when they have a second flush of growth in mid-summer.

We will address the pruning of conifers next winter. These plants require minimal pruning, except as needed to control their size and shape. If you have such plants in your landscape, mark your calendar with a reminder to consider pruning needs around next February.

The larger group of evergreen shrubs should be pruned as needed in April or May, i.e., in mid-spring, after any risk of frost has passed and ideally before new growth starts. In the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate, there is little chance of frost except in inland regions, and new growth might appear early in the spring. If the gardener initiates light pruning after new growth can be seen, the downside is that some of the plant’s energy will have been wasted, but the plant will simply replace the shoots that have been trimmed.

For pruning purposes, evergreen shrubs can be regarded in one of three groups.

  • Early flowering. Examples include Berberis, Camellia, Ceanothus, Daphne, Mahonia, Pieris, Azalea, Rhododendron, and Viburnum. They bloom in winter, spring or early summer. Many shrubs in this group should be pruned only lightly and deadheaded.
  • Late flowering. Examples include Eucryphia (Leatherwood), and laurels (e.g., English Laurel). These plants bloom in summer and late autumn on either old or new growth. They need little pruning.
  • Mid-season flowering. Examples include Calluna (Heather), Erica, Lavandula (Lavender), Santolina, and Thymus (Thyme). These bloom on old growth in spring or early summer, or on new growth in late summer and autumn. Generally, pruning involves removing shoots after flowering to about one inch of the previous year’s growth.
Daphne Bloom

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata” in bloom

The pruning strategy for these plants follows these following basic steps;

First, remove any diseased, damaged, or dead branches. They will not heal themselves and could spread disease, so prompt removal benefits the healthy parts of the plant and helps the gardener to evaluate other needs for pruning.

The second step, then, is to remove branches that are crowding other branches, or compromising the desired appearance of the shrub. The pruning objectives might include reducing the overall size of the plant, either to work better within the landscape plan or to clear a walkway.

A common problem arises when an established, healthy plant grows larger than expected or wanted. Such outcomes should not be surprising: information on the mature size of a plant is readily available at the garden center or in a reference book or website. A bit of research during plant selection can save future effort.

Shrubs that have become badly overgrown might need rejuvenation pruning. In such cases, remove one-third to one-half of the branches to ground level, and reduce all other branches by one-third. In the following two years, remove half of the older branches to ground level.

Pruning time also should be used as an opportunity to evaluate the overall health of the plant. If it has sparse or leggy growth, consider the need for greater exposure to sunlight. For example, a nearby tree might have grown to shade a plant that grows best in full sun, or the plant might have been installed originally in partial shade. In such cases, prune the tree that blocks the sun, or move the shrub to a sunnier spot.

Another factor limiting the plant’s growth might be poor soil, which can be treated with fertilization during the growth period, and regular applications of compost. The gardener should avoid planting in soil with minimal nutrient value, e.g., sandy soil or sub-soil (lacking loamy top soil). If this is unavoidable, consider planting in better soil in mounds, raised beds, or containers.

A third factor might be insufficient drainage. Some shrubs thrive in soggy soil, but the large majority need oxygen at their roots, so the surrounding soil must be allowed to dry out between irrigations. This can be a problem that results when plants are placed in low-lying areas, or in moisture-retaining clay soil.

The third step in pruning includes mulching and feeding. These actions minimize weeds around the plant and help the plant to grow.

The final step is to stand back to appreciate a job well done.

Pruning Deciduous Shrubs

Right now is the right time to prune some (not all) shrubs in your garden.

The first group of targets for pruning in April included flowering shrubs that bloom in the spring on old wood. These plants should be pruned soon after their blooms have faded. This practice allows ample time for buds to develop and bloom in the following spring. Pruning long after the blooms have faded will remove buds as they develop, and reduce or eliminate blooming next year.

Fading Lilac Bloom

The accompany photo shows fading blooms of a Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘White Angel’) in my garden. This is one of the Descanso Hybrids, which were developed in southern California for mild winter regions, like the Monterey Bay area. Unlike the lilacs from my youth in Connecticut, these hybrids bloom without a winter chill. This plant bloomed nicely and produced a fine fragrance, and now needs pruning in preparation for next year’s flowering.

Here are examples of additional plants in this group that grow well in the Monterey Bay area.

  • Flowering Quince Chaenomeles speciosa)
  • Forsythia (F. ovata and other species)
  • Japanese Rose (Kerria japonica)
  • Lily-of-the-Valley Shrub (Pieris japonica)
  • Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii and other species)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius and other species)
  • Purple-leaf Sand Cherry (Prunus × cistena)
  • Viburnum (V. tinus ‘Compactum’ and other species)
  • Weigela (W. florida and hybrids)
  • Winter Daphne (D. odora)

You can identify additional plants in this group by direct observation. If you are undecided, look up your plant in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, the American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, or a pruning reference book. You can also search for the plant on the Internet, ideally by botanical name.

Some gardeners are reluctant to prune their plants, either because of uncertainty or a fear of damaging the plant. It can be helpful to regard pruning as therapy for the plant, i.e., it helps and does not hurt the plant.

Pruning improves the plant first by removing dead, broken or diseased twigs and branches. Such parts of the plant are not good for the plant, and could be harming it by spreading disease or drawing resources.

Other benefits are beneficial primarily for the gardener. Timely pruning will improve flowering, fruiting, and overall shape. Flowering shrubs growing without the care of gardeners or landscapers will develop a pleasing natural habit entirely on their own. They will also produce enough flowers and fruit to reproduce, and enough roots and branches to ensure healthy growth. With this in mind, always prune for specific objectives. Before picking up the clippers, take the time to stand or sit down to examine the plant and decide what pruning is needed.

There are two main approaches to pruning: cut back the plant more or less evenly, and remove selected stems or branches entirely. These approaches can be combined. In this case of the lilac, cut below each faded blossom, just above a developing bud, and also remove entirely up to one third of the older branches to encourage new branches growing from the base.

Net week, we’ll consider seasonal pruning of evergreen shrubs.

Remember to sharpen your clippers to make your cuts clean and easy.

Moving a Large Rose

The message for today is about the benefit of study before action. This report happily does not include a disastrous mistake resulting from a lack of preparation.

My occasion for garden research involves transplanting a large rose.

A large rose can be an asset in the garden when it is in a place where it grows well and looks good. Occasionally, however, a rose that has been growing for years in a suitable location needs to be relocated. Reasons for transplanting an established rose usually involve landscaping issues: wrong color, need the space for a different plant, too close to a walkway, too big for the space, etc. Other reasons might have cultural factors related to soil quality or sun exposure.

In my garden, the plant at issue is a Dortmund rose. This is a large climber that the American Rose Society has rated at 9.2 (“Outstanding”), in recognition of its glossy green foliage, crimson red single blossoms with a white eye, vigor, hardiness, and disease resistance. It is a popular and well-known variety hybridized in 1955 by The House of Kordes in Germany.

dortmund_cluster_1024x768 copy

It has been growing for several years in my garden on an arbor gate. Like all roses, it thrives in full sun, but it is being overshadowed by the growth of a very large Pittosporum tree. The Dortmund would produce an abundance of its gorgeous blooms if it were in full sun.

At the same time, the time has come to complete another large arbor, elsewhere in the garden. That work has been scheduled and should be completed within a month’s time. The new arbor, in the middle of the rose garden, would be a fine location for a climbing rose, and a good, sunny home for the Dortmund.

My Internet search on moving a large rose soon yielded the different procedures for transplanting during dormant and non-dormant periods. Early spring (about now) is the non-dormant or growing period, and still an acceptable time for this task.

The most important preparation for moving a rose as it is growing is to irrigate it generously, to ensure that its cells are maximally full of water before cutting its roots.

Treatment with liquid B1 transplanting fertilizer has been recommended as well, but field trials reported in Sunset magazine have demonstrated that plain water works better!

Suggested supplementary treatments include Green Light Liquid Root Stimulator, and Dr. Earth Organic #2 Starter Fertilizer with beneficial microbes. These would be worth including.

Other preparatory steps include cutting down much of the top growth to reduce demand on the roots and to make moving the plant easier.

To transplant a shrub rose, cut the top growth to twelve-to-eighteen inches. A review of best practices for pruning a climbing rose, however, suggests retaining long, flexible canes to be trained to grow as horizontally as possible. Horizontal canes promote the development of vertical, bloom-producing shoots.

As soon as the new arbor is completed, it’s rose transplanting time!

Growing Tomatoes

If you are thinking of growing tomatoes this year, you have joined with many (millions?) of gardeners who have made tomatoes the most popular edible plant for home gardens.

There are many reasons for this popularity:

  • Tomatoes are good for your diet. They are very good sources of flavonoids and desirable phytochemicals, and have anti-carcinogenic properties.
  • Organically grown tomatoes (which the home gardener can ensure) are more nutritious. They might be smaller than conventionally grown tomatoes (not important) but they offer more vitamin C and phenolic content.
  • Home grown tomatoes often have flavor that is superior to commercial varieties.
  • Growing your own tomatoes also provides access to a wide range of heirloom varieties.
  • Tomatoes are exceptionally versatile in the diet and in the kitchen.
  • They quite possibly the easiest edible plant to grow (along with garlic).

Assuming you are inspired to try growing tomatoes in your garden, the first step, as usual, is plant selection. There are thousands of varieties to choose from. Many will thrive in the moderate climate of the Monterey Bay area, but here’s a short list of recommendation compiled by organic gardening expert Barbara Pleasant.

These selections are for the Pacific Northwest. Plant recommendations often are for the Pacific Northwest or the Southwest, leaving central coastal California somewhere in the middle, but the Monterey Bay area seems closest to the Pacific Northwest in terms of seasonal temperatures and sun exposure.

Slicer Tomatoes:  ‘Early Girl’, ‘Beefsteak’, and ‘Stupice’, followed by ‘Big Beef’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, and ‘Willamette’.

Cherry Tomatoes: ‘Super Sweet 100’, ‘Sungold’, and ‘Sweet Million’, followed by ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Gold Nugget’.

Paste/Canning: ‘Roma’, ‘San Marzano’,  ‘Amish Paste’, followed by  ‘Viva Italia’ and ‘Principe Borghese’.

Really Big Ones: ‘Brandywine’, ‘Beefsteak’,  ‘Mortgage Lifter’, followed by  ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Goliath,’ and ‘Hillbilly’.

Saladette/Pear: ‘Yellow Pear’,  ‘Stupice’, ‘Glacier’, then ‘Juliet’, and ‘Principe Borghese’.

Here are tips for growing a bounty of tasty tomatoes.

  • Plant seedlings that you buy or grow yourself because transplants grow best.
  • Plant in full sun about two feet apart, to provide access and airflow between plants.
  • Provide good nutrients by adding compost to the soil, plus organic fertilizers, including sulfur and crushed eggshells.
  • Pinch the lower leaves from the seedling and buy the stem so that the lowest leaves are just above the soil. Roots will grow from the leaf nodes so deep planting adds stability to the plant.
  • Water for a couple days, then two inches of water per week. (Some people claim that withholding water after fruit set adds to the flavo of the fruit00r. Dry farming tomatoes in this way is most successful after ample winter rains…like this year!)
  • As the plant grows, prune the smaller shoots, leaving four or five main branches. Support the plant with stakes or a tomato cage to keep the fruit off the ground and make harvesting easier.

This would be a good year to add to your tomato-growing experience and pleasure.

Your local garden center or grocery store might well have good seeds or seedlings for your garden. You could also explore these sources:

  • Tomato Fest: A Mendocino County grower of heirloom tomatoes
  • Love Apple Farm: Great varieties for sale at Ivy’s Porch, 5311 Scotts Valley Drive, Scotts Valley (to June 4), and San Francisco Flower & Garden Show (April 5-9)
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Mail order sources for seeds of tomatoes and many other edibles.

Enjoy growing tomatoes in your garden— and eating them anywhere.

Growing Dahlias

Dahlias are among the easier blossoming plants to cultivate in the garden. As natives of Mexico, they thrive in the Monterey Bay area climate and bring drought-tolerance as well.

As mentioned in today’s article about the upcoming sale of the Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, dahlias are available in many different blossom forms and colors and can be a fine addition to the garden.

This column offers basic practices for growing dahlias after you have selected tubers at the Society’s sale.

The first consideration is to select a location will full exposure to the sun and good drainage. Dahlias, like most flowering plants, grow best with six hours of sun each day, and in well-drained soil. Sandy loam is fine, but clay soil will require substantial amendment with organic material.

Dahlia with Bee

Dahlias can be planted any time between the last day of frost (which is not a concern in this area) and as late as mid-June. The local tuber sale is scheduled around the time when last season’s tubers are ready to be dug and divided, so the day of the sale represents a good beginning for the local planting season. If you are not ready to plant, store your new tubers temporarily in a cool, shady environment.

Most dahlias will need staking, so it’s a good practice to position a sturdy stake for each tuber, and to install the stake at the same time that you plant the tune. Inserting a stake later runs the risk of stabbing the tuber.

If you don’t want bare stakes in the garden while the plant develops, you could install a short piece of plastic pipe with the top at ground level next to the tuber, then, when the plant grows to need staking, insert a thin stake (bamboo?) in the plastic pipe and tie the plant to the stake.

Plant the tuber several inches deep, with the “eye” (the growing point) facing up. Some tubers might lack such an eye, and will not sprout, but well-selected tubers will have viable growing points. The eye can be difficult to confirm, so selection can require some experience in identifying tubers that are ready to grow.

Separate the tubers from each other by about two feet.

Protect the sprouting plants from snails and slugs. A good practice is to visit your plants in the night (with a flashlight) or in the early morning to remove any crawling pests that have discovered them. Regular applications of an organic snail control, e.g., Sluggo, also works.

Control flying pests with insecticidal soap or other organic pesticides.

Generally, soil with ample organic content will provide sufficient nutrients for dahlias. If your soil seems “lean,” regular applications of high-nitrogen, organic fertilizer would be helpful.

As each plant grows, tie it to a stake to ensure that it remains upright. The first tie should hold the main stalk loosely to the stake; later ties could connect branches to the stake.

Each branch generally will produce three buds. To produce large blossoms, many gardeners remove two of these buds when they appear. This disbudding process allows the plant to direct nutrients to the remaining bud, with positive effect. If you have several dahlias growing in the garden, you will still have lots o blooms.

At the end of the season, the top growth dies back, and the plant produces several new tubers. The gardener can remove the top growth, and can either dig and replant the tubers or leave them in the ground. In the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate, dahlias grow quite well when simply left in the ground. After two or three years, they will become crowded and will benefit from dividing.

Enjoy your dahlias! They are wonderful additions to the garden.

Communing with Nature

Good gardening practices almost always equal “working with Nature.” That is simply because natural processes have emerged after many eons as the Earth’s flora and fauna developed strategies for successful survival and propagation.

We write “almost always” from an excess of caution: it would be safe to say “always,” except for the use of the slippery term, “good.” The term “best” would also be debatable.

Still, all gardening practices that are beneficial for air, water, soil, plants and animals turn out to be time-honored, natural practices.

Not surprisingly, these practices are also beneficial to the gardeners, because we are also members of the animal kingdom, and tool-users as well.

Some of the gardener’s benefits are physical: everyone can gain health from exercise that is appropriate to one’s age and ability. Some are economic, providing either an inexpensive form of recreation or, for those with backyard nurseries, supplemental income.

Most benefits, however, are psychological, generating positive feelings, mental peace, and the release of “happy hormones,” e.g., serotonin and dopamine. Admittedly, the latter benefit could be called a physical benefit, but it affects the psyche.

Working with Nature, therefore, works best for gardeners and literally everything in their surroundings. This concept can and should guide the gardener’s response to questions that arise in the garden. “What would Nature do about [insert gardening issue here]?”

This concept also works in reverse. Many commercially motivated gardening practices might appear to save time or increase productivity, but they often create harm in the long run, and sometimes even in the short run.

The worst of these practices involves bringing synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides into the garden. Non-toxic, effective organic products are readily available and should always be preferred.

Another avoidable and unnatural practice is the use of power tools in the garden, with gas-powered devices being the most problematic. The most common of these are gas-powered leaf blowers, which contribute faster than cars to climate change and air pollution and disturb the peace that we value in our gardens and neighborhoods.

The usual arguments favoring leaf-blowers include (a) our desire for tidy surroundings and (b) the operator’s interest in making the surroundings tidy as quickly as possible.

We should acknowledge, firstly, that Nature is not tidy. When trees drop their leaves in natural surroundings, the leaves decompose in time and add nutrients to the soil. When trees drop their leaves on pavement, we perceive untidiness. This suggests that we should plant trees only where their leaf drops would be beneficial.

If that is unrealistic (many people like street trees and patio trees), we should use manual methods to remove dropped leaves. Rakes and brooms work quite well, and in capable hands can be as efficient as leaf-blowers, and certainly much easier on the environment and our psyches.

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

For these reasons, many communities have already banned gas-powered leaf blowers, including Carmel and Santa Barbara to our south, and Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Menlo Park to our north. The Santa Cruz Coalition for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE) has launched a petition favoring a local ordinance to ban these unnecessary and harmful tools. Check it out at http://preview.tinyurl.com/kvgws3d .

 

Succulent Dish Gardens

While the rain soaks your garden, there still good ways to explore the world of horticulture. Planning landscape improvement and browsing the Internet for ideas or answers to questions both can be rewarding.

Developing a dish garden is a third option, one that involves actual gardening, albeit on a small scale.

Dish gardening can be enjoyed at any time, but it’s well suited as a rainy-day activity: it requires little time or space, yet it invites the application of gardening knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities.

A wide range of plants could be placed in a dish garden. Generally, good choices include plants that produce small leaves, grow slowly, and will thrive in the environment intended for placement of the finished garden.

Plant selection determines the design of the project, which might emphasize foliage, color, shady setting (e.g., a moss garden), a miniature landscape (e.g., a fairy garden), a Zen garden, a rock garden, cacti, or succulents. For inspiration, browse to Pinterest and search for “dish-garden” or “succulent dish garden” or other design concepts.

Here are two very different examples

Zen Dish Garden

Zen Dish Garden

 

 

 

Succulent Dish Garden

Succulent Dish Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article focuses on succulent plants, which have good form while young, and many will either stay small or grow slowly.

Start by selecting plants. If you are already growing succulents, you will have ready access to small plants or cuttings that will root easily in a dish garden. If you don’t have sufficient succulents, small plants are readily available at garden centers. Gather plants with a specific grouping in mind.

Another important consideration is container selection. Dish gardens usually are placed in shallow containers; they provide enough root room for small plants, and they are lightweight enough to move easily. Bonsai containers work well, but any container could be pressed into service. Even actual dishes could be used, but they could be tricky to provide ample soil and to water without drainage (water lightly!)

As a practical matter, choose a container that will fit in the location intended for the finished dish garden.

Once the plants have been placed, parts of the planting surface might remain exposed. These areas could provide an aesthetically desirable context for the plant, like “white space” in graphic design. They could be covered by a top dressing that would complement the design: sand, pebbles, gravel, and decorative rocks are popular options.

Non-plant elements are optional. Some designs call for the inclusion of natural components, e.g., rocks, driftwood, shells, etc. They should be selected for their attractive character because they will be viewed close-up.

Some designs require artificial decorative items for completion or enhancement. Such items should be selected and placed as integral components of the design, rather than included merely because they are cute or colorful.

It is at this point that we note that personal preferences are of paramount importance. Dish gardens are, after all, expressions of an individual’s creative ideas, so whatever pleases the dish gardener stands as a success.

So, when weather frustrates your gardening goals, consider dish gardening as an indoor alternative.