Gardening for the Near Future: Spring Bulbs

This time of the year is again the right time to plan a colorful display of flowers for next spring. If your garden failed to impress last spring, you can lay the groundwork for a more satisfying experience in the spring of 2019.

The early fall is the time to plant spring-blooming bulbs. A good selection of such bulbs will become available around mid-August to early September in local garden centers and from mail-order nurseries. Two categories of bulbs will be in the greatest demand and likely to be snapped up while some gardeners are just beginning to plan. These two categories are (a) the most popular and (b) the more unusual.

For a list of the most popular spring-blooming bulbs, visit the National Gardening Association’s website, garden.org and search for “The Top 50 Most Popular Spring-Blooming Bulbs.“ You will not be surprised to find several varieties of tulips and daffodils at the top of this list.

To learn about the more unusual spring bloomers, visit the website for Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, click on “Media” and open the file “Spring Flowering Bulbs Cultural Instructions.” This downloadable free publication includes both a long list of spring bloomers and detailed instructions for growing these plants, with particular information for the cultivation of tulips and daffodils.

Another good source of information for both popular and unusual spring bulbs, visit McClure & Zimmerman.

My garden includes a good number of daffodils (all the same cultivar) that I enjoy each year, but the more unusual bulbs are most appealing. This year, I am learning about fritillaria, a genus in the lily family, with about 140 species. The most popular is F. imperialis, called “The Crown imperial,” which is native to countries of the eastern Mediterranean region, e.g., Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The plant grows over three feet tall and is available in several varieties that have blossoms of different colors. It grows best in full sun, in zones 4–7. The Monterey Bay area is in zone 9, so F. imperialis might be a risky choice for growing here.

Fritillaria meleagris, by Farmer Gracy

A better choice for this area would be F. meleagris, called the Checkered Lily, “Snake’s Head Fritillary,” or “Guinea-Hen Flower.” This plant, which is native to Europe, will grow in sun or partial shade, in zones 3–8, so our local zone 9 environments might be “good enough” for this plant. It will reach to only fifteen inches tall, so it’s not as striking as F. imperialis.

Another important group of spring bloomers that the bulb catalogs do not offer is the irises. That must be because irises grow from rhizomes rather than bulbs, and are offered by specialty growers rather than bulb growers.

I call attention to irises because I have a long association with the Monterey Bay Iris Society, which is preparing its annual rhizome sales. The first sale will occur on Saturday, August 4th at the Deer Park Shopping Center in Rio del Mar. The second sale will be on Saturday, August 11th at the Aptos Farmer’s Market, at Cabrillo College, Aptos. These sales are excellent opportunities to acquire iris rhizomes at good prices and to receive good advice from local enthusiastic gardeners.

If you already have irises in your garden, they should be dug and divided every three or four years for maximum blooms. I call attention to this task because my own irises are overdue for dividing!

Whether you prefer popular or uncommon spring bloomers, preparing for a delightful spring garden happens during the next few weeks. To begin, identify space in your garden where you could plant spring-blooming bulbs, then acquire the bulbs (or rhizomes) of your preference at local garden centers, mail order nurseries, or the local sale of iris rhizomes.

Repotting a Container Plant

At a recent talk by a skillful gardener, I learned new techniques for repotting plants in containers.

First, let’s review the usual approach to this routine process.

When a plant has outgrown its container, the goal for repotting is to encourage and support the plant’s further growth.

The signs that a plant has outgrown its containers include roots growing out of the drainage hole, or roots filling the container (observed after lifting the pant from its container), or an abundance of multiple shoots or offsets. Additional signs of a pot-bound plan: a plastic nursery pot might bulge with the plant’s roots, or the soil in the container dries out quickly.

When the gardener observes the beginnings of such signs, it is time to remove the plant from its container and replant it in a larger container with fresh potting soil and irrigate to settle the soil around the roots. The common wisdom is to move the plant into the next larger container, e.g., from a one-gallon pot to a one-and-one-half gallon pot.

When a plant becomes significantly root-bound, however, good practice calls for root pruning. If roots have been circling the pot, cut through the roots with a hand pruner, and in some cases, peel away the outer layer of roots. If the roots are packed tightly in the pot, loosen the roots, cut away up to one-third of the roots, and make vertical cuts about one-third of the way up from the bottom of the root ball. These actions will stimulate the growth of new roots.

When reducing the root ball in this way, it could be appropriate to replant the plant in the same pot it had outgrown. This might be desirable when the gardener favors the container, or the container complements the plant nicely.

During this process, cut back a proportionate amount of the top growth to reduce the plant’s demand on its reduced root structure. In a short time, the plant will recover from repotting and resume vigorous growth.

Briefly, these are the usual steps to take to rescue a root bound plant and help to continue growing.

Then, Keith Taylor’s eye-opening talk and demonstration for the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society introduced different goals and techniques for repotting plants.

Medusa Plant by Keith Taylor

Taylor has been growing cacti and succulents for about twenty-seven years, with a previous background in bonsai cultivation. He has developed bonsai-related techniques for cultivating succulents, with an emphasis on caudiciform plants. Those are plants that develop a swollen trunk, stem or root—called a caudex—that stores moisture. These unusual plants are candidates for bonsai treatment and often favored by collectors.

(Note: The specimen shown here is a Euphorbia, which is not a caudiciform.)

Instead of repotting plants to encourage and accommodate growth, Taylor seeks to limit their size, promote larger and wider caudices, and stimulate compact top growth.

In pursuit of these goals, Taylor’s distinctive approach to repotting includes severe pruning of the plant’s roots and top growth. Without hesitation, he would cut off a plant’s taproot and close to all its fibrous roots to reduce the root ball to fit into a shallow bonsai pot. With some caudiciforms, he would cut the caudex literally in half, and wait for it to develop new roots.

Top growth pruning was equally extensive with the same objective of constraining the plant’s overall growth.

The roomful of avid gardeners of cacti and succulents understood Taylor’s bonsai pruning method, although this approach to gardening was unfamiliar them. These gardeners were familiar with limiting the size of their plants by keeping them in small containers with lean soil mixes and minimal moisture.

At the same time, many were astonished by Taylor’s relatively extreme pruning practices, which freely exceed the usual guideline to remove no more than one-third of a plant’s roots or top growth. While Taylor admitted that some of his early trials of such pruning were unsuccessful, he has found that many plants tolerate this treatment and respond well in time.

The gardeners in attendance learned that the one-third rule for pruning could be overly conservative and that more severe pruning could be effective in limiting plant growth. Bonsai-style pruning of cacti and succulents remains as a specialized form of container gardening and not everyone’s preference we learned that extreme pruning does not necessarily kill a plant.

Taylor’s distinctive pruning practices are closely related to his work in creating containers for plants. Examples of his extraordinary ceramic pots can be viewed on his website,  and his Facebook page, where he is known as “Kitoi” (his childhood nickname).

Even when we know basic gardening methods, new knowledge is always ready for discovery.

Discovering a Chilean Plant

Ochagavia litoralis

It’s not easy to find plants for my Chilean garden, so I was pleased to come upon a fine specimen at a local garden center. Its common name, calilla, must mean something, but because I don’t speak Chilean I will use its botanical name, Ochagavia litoralis.

The plant is a member of the Bromeliad family, which, with a few exceptions, is native to the tropical Americas. The family is quite large, with 51 genera and around 3475 known species. Some of its relatives are familiar, e.g., pineapple and avid gardeners will recognize some others: tillandsia, billbergia, puya,

My new acquisition, which grows to about one foot high and wide, has look-alike relatives, including Dyckia (from Brazil and central South America) and Hechtia (from Mexico). There are differences, including flower color, that require close examination.

In the course of my Internet searching, I learned about the Crimson Bromeliad (Fascicularia bicolor), which is a close relative of my new plant, and also from Chile. It is even rarer than the calilla, and about twice its size with softer spines and rosette centers that become bright red. My Chile garden should have one of those!

The Ochagavia litoralis forms multiple rosettes. The plant I bought looked like a candidate for division into three or more offsets. I have been pleased on occasion to acquire a plant that has outgrown its container because I could get multiple plants for one price. When I pulled this plant out of its pot, however, I found that its rosettes were more like branches than offsets so dividing it would be tricky. I just cleaned up some dry leaves and planted it without dividing.

The plant’s roots had filled its 1.5–gallon nursery can. For some time, the plant needed to move into a larger pot, or into the ground. San Marcos Growers, a wholesale nursery just north of Santa Barbara, had grown the plant. I have visited that impressive nursery, and have often drawn plant information from its excellent website. This plant, which some people regard as quite rare, might also have infrequent demand, with the result that it languished too long in the can.

Realistically, there are not many gardeners with an interest in Chilean horticulture, and even fewer that find very spiny plants appealing. The Ochagavia litoralis has foot-long spine-margined leaves, making it attractive in its own way, but hazardous to handle. I wore my newly acquired goatskin gloves with cowhide gauntlets and planted this specimen without the slightest injury. The gloves will be equally protective when dealing with roses, agaves, and cacti.

My new calilla is now safely and happily installed in my Chilean garden. I will need to practice its name.

***

For an inspiring garden tour this weekend, visit Love’s Garden, which on the west side of Santa Cruz. This free tour, from 1:00 to 4:00 on Saturday, features a permaculture food forest, with dozens of edible plants, a rainwater catchment and greywater recycling, all on a small residential lot. The enthusiastic gardener behind all this, Golden Love, is an ecologically friendly horticulturist and the proprietor of a long-standing landscaping business. For information and registration, visit the Love’s Garden website.

Shopping for Help in the Garden

Eventually, your horticultural aspirations will exceed your time and energy. Mine have!

In such circumstances, it will be time to shop around for help in maintaining or improving your garden. This task is not unlike arranging for other services for keeping the home working or upgrading your living situation.

There are, however, factors that are peculiar to the provision of gardening services. Because some readers of this column have asked recently for recommendations for such services, this column offers guidelines for consideration.

Begin the process by being clear in your own mind about the scope of services for which you intend to contract. You might require a regular schedule of unskilled work, e.g., mowing a lawn, or a one-time or short-term task, e.g., removing a tree stump.

At another level, you might require ongoing services to maintain and improve the garden, including weeding, pruning, fertilizing, installing new plants, and all the myriad of activities involved in gardening.

The larger packages of garden services involve significant installations or renovations. Two residences within one block of my own home have contracted for such projects as preparation for the sale of the property.

You might need landscape design preliminary to maintenance and improvement services. We will consider design services in a future column.

The first of these three categories of services, which we refer to as unskilled garden work, is generally available for $15 – $20/hour. People who offer to provide such services might well have related experience and skills, but these contractors generally require explicit instructions and supervision. Workers can be found through services such as People Ready, informal labor pools, or personal contacts with neighbors. Some landscaping services can offer a maintenance crew within this price range but might charge more to cover overhead costs. The additional cost should provide reliable scheduling, appropriate tools, and other conveniences.

The second category of services, i.e., ongoing maintenance and improvement, will be available from several local businesses. Costs will approximate $45/hour; the efficiency of the service can only be made clear through practical experience.

Search the Internet for “landscaping services [your community]” to identify the available services. To narrow the options, ask friends for recommendations and check reviewers such as Yelp. Be aware, however, that businesses could exploit online review services by submitting multiple positive reviews.

The professional standards followed by a landscaping business should reflect your own priorities. The best landscapers are stewards of the environment: they do not ever use toxic synthetic chemicals and rarely (if at all) use gasoline-powered equipment, e.g., lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and edgers.

Exceptions: tree services almost always will use gasoline-powered chain saws, stump grinders, and green waste shredders. When tree work is needed, those noisy polluters are difficult to avoid.

To locate a landscape service that protects the environment, search for Certified Green Gardeners. These are individuals who have completed Green Gardener training offered by Monterey Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Gardening, which is “a collaborative effort between Ecology Action, CA Landscape Contractors Association (Central Coast Chapter), Ecological Landscaping Association, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, Surfrider Foundation, Resource Conservation Districts, and more than 20 public agencies representing water utilities, solid waste and recycling, stormwater management.”

While this training is very desirable, it sadly does not guarantee that the contractor will always follow environmentally friendly practices. An in-person, on-site interview with a service representative, followed by a detailed written bid, would be appropriate to ensure best practices.

The same standards of environmental protection are applicable to the third category of services, those involving significant installations or renovations. Many landscape businesses are qualified to conduct larger-scale projects and might provide related design services as well. Again, the costs will depend on the scope and circumstances of the specific project, might add up to five figures, could contribute greatly to the homeowner’s enjoyment of the property, and when a sale of the property is planned, could add disproportionate value to the sale price.

When larger-scale landscape services are required, the homeowner should work only with individuals who hold a C-27 Landscape Contractor license issued by the Contractors’ State License Board, which is part of California’s Department of Consumer Services. Check the status of a prospective contractor online by visiting the CSLB website clicking on “Check a License.”

While at this same CSLB website, click on “Guides and Publications” to download and read these excellent CSLB publications, “What You Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor;” “What Seniors Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor;” and “A Consumer Guide to Home Improvement Contracts – Terms of Agreement.”

If you are spending serious money on maintaining and improving your garden, it’s definitely worth serious time on your homework. Hopefully, your project will be enjoyable and successful in all respects. When you are working with a licensed contractor and a well-written contract, you will be on solid ground if anything doesn’t proceed as you intended.

There are many quotations about being well prepared. Here’s a landscaping related quote by Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Identifying Your Mystery Plants

Inevitably, we encounter plants without knowing what they are, i.e., we don’t know their names. That’s hardly surprising because there are so many different plants. When botanists count the flowering plants, called angiosperms, which we appreciate in our gardens, they identify nearly 300,000 species in over 13,000 genera. That total does not include the growing numbers of cultivars of the more popular species.

Many gardeners, much of the time, simply don’t care to know the name of a plant that they enjoy. It’s enough to have the plant produce colorful blossoms and attractive foliage and to refer to it by the color of its flowers, its location in the garden, or a characteristic of its form or foliage.

When a better name is needed, gardeners often find the genus to be sufficient: it’s a rose or an iris or a daffodil.

Still, we sometimes want to identify the plant by its botanical name (genus + species) and its cultivar name. That level of detail has benefits:

  • allows the gardener to distinguish between a given plant and other similar plants, e.g., referring to a particular rose within a collection of roses by name, instead of pointing;
  • supports research into the plant’s origin, cultivation needs, and propagation methods, in the interest of growing the plant successfully, or shopping for similar plants;
  • satisfies the need that some gardeners experience to have a name for each plant.

Finding a plant’s correct name can be challenging. It helps if the gardener enjoys The Search.

Let’s consider broad categories of searches for a plant’s name: the gardener knows (or might know) the plant’s genus, the gardener knows (or might know) the plant’s common name; and the gardener has no information at all about the plant.

Given the plant’s genus, finding the species and ideally the cultivar might begin with a plant reference book, such as Sunset’s “Western Garden Book,” or the American Horticultural Society’s “A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.” Another approach involves searching the Internet. Wikipedia, which holds information on nearly all plant genera, is a valuable resource for such searches. Browse to Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org), enter the genus and scroll to the list of species. Whether using a book or the Internet, identifying the species of a given plant requires reviewing the options and deciding which aligns with the features of the plant in question.

Another option is the National Gardening Association’s searchable Plant Database (garden.org/plants/, which includes some 728,000 plants.

When the gardener knows the plant’s common name, some reference books will include a list of common names with links to the botanical names. Still, searching the Internet for the common name is the easier approach.

For the more popular garden plants, search the Internet for the respective society and look on its website for a searchable list of cultivars. Good examples include the American Rose Society, the American Iris Society, and the Pacific Bulb Society. There are many other such societies. Visit the website of the American Horticultural Society and search for “societies by plant type.”

On occasion, the gardener will have absolutely no information about a particular plant and wants to identify it.

Fierce Lancewood

That situation arose recently when a reader sent a photo of a strange-looking plant. In such cases, I draw upon the collective knowledge of participants in the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum, which is a free resource.

To my delight, the Forum participants soon identified the plant as Pseudopanax ferox (Fierce Lancewood, or Toothed Lancewood), which is native to New Zealand. I soon learned about the plant by searching for it on the Internet.

With a little research, you can identify the mystery plants in your garden.

Visit Public Gardens on Summer Vacation

We have now officially entered the summer season, which is an excellent time for gardening and traveling. One way to combine those activities is to visit a public garden.

The Internet harbors many “Top Ten” lists so my own travels began with a search for “best U.S. public gardens.” If you conduct your own search using these or similar words you will encounter a trove of possible destinations, including six lists that I explored. Here are some impressions.

First, there are many places that qualify as public gardens. National Public Gardens Day happened on May 11th, when 150 botanical gardens and arboreta within the United States offered free admission. These included most of the principal sites, but there are many more to discover.

Then, the Internet’s lists of Top Ten gardens are all strikingly different. While a few gardens appear in more than one list, it’s evident that there are diverse ideas of which gardens deserve to be called “best.” The direct experiences of the list-writers undoubtedly influence their selections. One exception is the USA Today’s list, which is based upon the votes of garden visitors.

The most popular gardens on these lists are Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA; New York Public Garden, New York City, NY; and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Miami, FL.

The most popular gardens in the western part of the nation (which might be more convenient for Monterey Bay residents to visit) include The Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, WA; Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WA; Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, OR; International Rose Test Garden, Portland, OR; Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, Mendocino, CA; San Francisco Botanical Garden, San Francisco, CA; Lotusland, Montecito, CA; Huntington Botanic Gardens, San Marino, CA; and Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, AZ.

To be accurate, the western U.S. includes these rather less accessible gardens of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which includes McBryde Garden, Allerton Garden, Limahuli Garden and Preserve (all on Kaua’I Island, HI) and Kahanu Garden (Maui Island, HI).

Noteworthy public gardens that are closest to the Monterey Bay area (in addition to the SF Botanical Garden) include the Arboretum and Botanic Garden at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Hakone Estate and Gardens, Saratoga, CA; University of California Botanical Gardens, Berkeley, CA; and Bancroft Garden & Nursery, Walnut Creek, CA.

For more information on any of these gardens, use their name to search the Internet.

The many available gardens could not all be mentioned here, and any omissions are not intended as downgrades. The reality is that each public garden offers a unique combination of plants and a setting that might appeal differently for the individual visitor, so a realistic strategy for the adventuresome gardener is to visit as many public gardens as may be convenient and practical and discover which is most satisfying. This could be a rewarding exploration that you might begin during this year’s summer season.

Small-scale Landscaping

“Landscaping” involves efforts to enhance an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view. For the gardener, this term might refer to the front or the back of the property. Developing and realizing a landscape design includes numerous steps and decisions, and a good deal of work, mostly because of the scale of the task. Landscaping the front yard, the backyard, or even a side yard could be a formidable challenge.

To make landscaping more manageable and enjoyable, consider garden vignettes. These are compact horticultural settings that could be regarded as small-scale landscapes.

The garden vignette concept conveys great versatility: it encompasses any of a wide range of areas, themes or design ideas. A vignette might occupy a quite small space, but we’re not dealing here with miniature landscapes, as for a model railroad garden.

Here’s a broad definition of a garden vignette: “a compact combination of living plants in containers or in the ground, perhaps with selected objects, that present a cohesive and attractive appearance.”

A garden vignette in one or several containers could test the gardener’s horticultural artistry. There are many possibilities, e.g., one plant or several in each container, complementary or contrasting combinations, usage of decorative stones or art objects, and the like. The appeal of containerized garden vignettes includes space needs so limited that they could fit on a balcony or a small patio, and time and cost demands so minimal that they could be developed fairly quickly, even by gardeners with very full schedules.

My current vignette project involves digging up three miniature roses into matching terra cotta pots and grouping them on a low wall, where they can be enjoyed better than is possible when planted in the ground. This is a simple design that requires keeping the roses fertilized and irrigated consistently.

A garden vignette in the ground could be quite small or fairly large in scale, depending on the space available and the desired effect. To begin developing such a vignette, identify the intended space and the preferred view of that space. If a desirable tree or shrub is in the space, design the vignette to use that plant as a feature or focal point, and select additional elements.

For a space that is without a desirable tree or shrub—or boulder, for that matter—you are dealing with a blank “canvas” and have the freedom and challenge to design your vignette from the ground up. One approach to this task is to visit your local garden center, find a few plants that you like and bring them together in their nursery pots to see how they look in combination. Most garden centers would support that process, especially when you either buy the plants or return them to their original locations.

This approach doesn’t work as well with mail-order catalogs.

Another approach is to adopt a combination that you see in another garden or in a garden book or magazine. We can all benefit from adopting successful ideas generated by other gardeners.

Because of the wide range of possible designs for a vignette, a useful next step to identify a theme or concept as a guide for selecting additional plants, natural objects or artworks to provide a pleasant setting. Consider, for example, complementary or contrasting forms or colors, or a characteristic that would be common to all the elements.

Developing one or several vignettes for your garden can be a satisfying creative exercise as you work at a limited scale that is both manageable and low in cost.

Protecting Roses from Weevils

If you have roses in your garden, right now would be a good time to examine your rosebuds. Look closely for small circular holes in the buds, and in blossoms that have already opened.

Rose Weevil photo by Ingrid Taylar

These holes were caused by the rose curculio, also called the rose weevil (Merhynchites bicolor), which is a kind of beetle, about one-quarter inch long.

The rose curculio’s damage ruins the blossoms and could ruin the entire plant if the gardener allows the insect to reproduce freely.

Fortunately, the rose curculio is fairly easy to control because its life cycle takes a full year and follows predictable stages.

Beginning in late May, the females crawl up the rose bushes to lay their eggs. Using their long snouts, they chew into the buds to feed and then turn to deposit their eggs in the buds. They could make multiple holes into a bud, and damage several buds.

When the eggs hatch, the legless white larvae feed on the buds and on the blossoms as they mature. The buds often are weakened by the adult’s feeding and fall to the ground with the larvae still inside.

The larvae burrow into the soil to pupate over winter, and, as adults, emerge in the late spring to continue the reproductive cycle.

There are several ways to interrupt this cycle and avoid damage to your roses. The timing of your controlling action is important in blocking the creation of a new generation of insects.

Starting in April, examine your roses to spot the adult rose curculio. They prefer roses with white or yellow blossoms, but could also be found on pink roses.

When you find rose curculios, either pick the insects by hand or shake branches to make them fall on to a cloth or bucket. They will play dead, but will soon revive and crawl back up the plant, so don’t be deceived: drop them in soapy water, where they will drown. You could also spray the adults with insecticidal soap or neem oil, but this treatment requires direct contact will not affect the eggs or larvae.

Predatory birds can be important allies in this process, so take steps to make your garden hospitable to birds by providing them with food, water, and shelter…and keeping synthetic chemicals out of your environment.

When you see damaged buds or blossoms, remove them immediately and dispose of them through the green waste (not the compost). Be sure to remove drooping buds. These buds have been weakened by the rose curculio and could already be supporting its larvae.

Once the larvae are in the soil, control measures are still possible. The most effective organic option is the importation of insect-parasitic nematodes, tiny worms that are natural predators of the larvae, and might already be present in the soil. These nematodes, which have been called “biological insecticides,” can be purchased from garden centers or the Internet, and imported into the rose bed.

With fairly easy but timely efforts, you can control this pest and enjoy your roses in their undamaged, beautiful form and color. The roses are looking particularly good this year, and definitely worth protecting.

Organize Plant Selection with Themes

Today’s column is about thematic gardening.

Let’s start by breaking down “landscaping” into its components.

Landscaping includes hardscapes (i.e., pathways, steps, walls, ponds, structures), but plants are enough to think about today. For our purposes, landscaping emphasizes plant selection and plant placement.

These two activities overlap in the development of landscape styles, which can be complicated and subjective. One approach defines styles in terms of décor, materials, plant palette, and fabrics.

Styles can be interesting and important, but for today let’s stay with the basics: plant selection and placement.

Plant placement involves the relationships among plants, e.g., combinations of color, height (tall plants in back) or form, swaths of plants vs. specimens.

We might explore plant placement issues on another occasion, but thematic gardening is about plant selection, so let’s stick with that.

When selecting new plants for the garden, consider the conditions for the plant’s health and growth: Specify the location for a new plant (available space, plant size) and satisfy cultivation issues (soil, exposure, moisture and drainage needs, climate, wind exposure, etc.), then…

…consider the universe of plants you can choose from. The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew concluded that there 391,000 vascular plants known to science. Add the large and growing number of recognized cultivars (hybrids and selected varieties). These creations of plant breeders are featured each year in plant catalogs and garden centers.

Given this enormous range of possible choices, how should the gardener proceed?

For many gardeners, the approach is to leaf through a mail-order catalog or stroll through the local garden center and choose plants that are striking or attractive or familiar.

This approach is not wrong, because there is no right or wrong, just personal preference. Still, a thematic approach is a more organized and ultimately more successful.

Thematic plant selection basically involves selecting plants to have a common characteristic, as a way to focus the selection process and adopt an organized approach to developing your garden.

This approach to plant selection could be used for an entire garden or sections of the garden, i.e., particular beds.

Some of the most popular themes are based on a single plant genus, e.g., Iris, Rose, Dahlia, Orchid, Hosta, Hellebore, Orchid, Fuchsia, Heuchera, Daffodil, Tulip, or another.

A variation of genus-oriented themes focuses on categories of plants within a genus. For example, there are several kinds of irises (tall bearded, intermediate, border, miniature), and the rose genus includes modern roses, old garden roses, and species roses. (My current projects include developing a bed of old garden roses.)

Other themes emphasize the botanical categories of plants, e.g., bulbous plants, succulents, edibles, conifers, variegated, blossom color, and others. There are many other possible categories.

Then, we have themes based on the native region of the plants. A California native plant theme is a popular choice, in the Monterey Bay area because these plants thrive in our climate and are hospitable to the regional fauna.

Thematic gardening can present challenges to identify plants within the theme, and then to hunt for sources of desired plants. Fortunately, the Internet is a powerful tool for success with these tasks. The thematic gardener needs to be an effective user of Google and other search engines. Once you have selected a theme to pursue, search the Internet for websites that offer useful information and ideas.

Thematic gardening offers several benefits.

  • Creates a purposeful approach to plant selection
  • Simplifies plant selection by focusing on a sub-section of available plants
  • Defines the related part of the garden, e.g., “the rose bed”
  • Adds to understanding and appreciation of the chosen part of the plant kingdom

At another level, thematic gardening brings harmony and calm to the garden landscape. By comparison, the all-too-common tendency to add plants with a random selection strategy can result in a botanical hodge-podge. The individual plants in such a garden might have gorgeous blossoms and foliage, but lack any relationship to adjacent plants. The effect could lack coherence, and could even be jarring.

If parts of your garden already follow a thematic approach, consider whether those parts please your eye more than other parts. If they do, develop a thematic approach for other parts of the garden.

Thematic gardening can be challenging and enjoyable.

Joys and Fears of Sharing Your Garden

Many people garden for their own enjoyment. Whether they grow a few plants in containers on a deck or manage an extensive landscape, they find satisfaction in the process and occasional—or frequent— successes as plants flourish and look just right in their location. A fine day in the garden might include installing a new botanical treasure or digging out a few pesky weeds or just enjoying a cool drink and watching a hummingbird at work.

Everything changes when a visitor shows up. Some gardeners will be pleased by a visit because it presents an opportunity to show off the collection of healthy gorgeous plants in charming combinations.

Other gardeners will experience a bit of tension, wondering if the visitor will appreciate the garden and understand that it includes faults that haven’t yet been corrected or shortcomings that haven’t yet been improved, not because they haven’t been noticed but due to the persistent lack of time.

This could be the time to blame the plants. The classic line is “You should have been here last week when the (fill in the blank) was in bloom.” (I actually experienced a version of this excuse at the United States Botanic Garden, on the National Mall in Washington, DC!)

Usually, the occasional visitor to one’s garden does not generate a big response, whether delightful or fraught, because most visitors will bring a few opinions and less expertise, and besides they won’t stay long. The experienced gardener can survive the visit without significant aftereffects.

Another situation entirely is the scheduled and publicized garden tour, in which the gardener’s efforts have been designated as exemplary, and worth the price of admission. Strangers who take the time on their otherwise busy weekend to visit your garden, and are willing to pay for the privilege, certainly bring more options and expertise than the casual drop-in. They might assume the guise of a novice seeking ideas for their own garden, but secretively they could observe every flaw and devote the remainder of the day to joking with their equally expert friend about the sorry mess they’ve witnessed.

That experience, real or imagined, is not good for the garden owner.

So, in anticipation of the inevitable scrutiny that is part of a garden tour, the garden owner might embark upon extraordinary preparation for a tour, to ensure that the garden will be beyond reproach. Sometimes, there will be no time for such efforts because the garden tour organizer has run out of time and must pin down one more garden, and will assure the garden owner that the garden is perfect just as it is, so absolutely nothing needs to be done before the tour, which will happen very soon (e.g., in a week or two). This proposition tests the gardeners’ self-confidence and philosophical resignation, and encourages the perspective that the garden “is what it is.” Ideally, the garden is always in prime condition and ready for an invasion of friendly and sometimes critical strangers.

Another scenario includes several weeks or even months before the date of the tour. Given plenty of lead-time, there are few barriers to converting the garden into a showcase of inspired horticulture. The exceptions include except cost, imagination and the gardener’s other life

The most positive attitude for the home gardener is to welcome both casual visitors and garden tourists to see your accomplishments and trust that they will be more appreciative than critical. After all, visitors who know anything about gardening will recognize your good work.

Sharing your gardening achievements will inspire your visitors to elevate their own standards, so open your garden to visitors when opportunities arise, and occasionally become a garden visitor yourself.