What is Blooming Now

If today’s walk through your garden yields satisfaction, congratulations!

If it tilts toward disappointment, a good time for seasonal planting would be now.

Many plants need a dormant period to prepare for the spring, but many other plants will bloom while most are dormant. We can’t turn winter into spring, but with a bit of planning we can enjoy color in the garden at any time of the year.

The moderate climate of the Monterey Bay area supports year-round color possibilities that are elusive or non-existent in many other areas.

Here are examples from my garden.

Salvias originate from several parts of the world, and some species from Mexico are in bloom now.

S. wagneriana (Wagner Sage) stands as one of my favorite blossoms, with pink corolla and white calyx. This large shrub does best in partial shade, and tends to sprawl in full shade.

S. karwinskii (Karwinski’s Sage), another large plant, displays pink-coral and green blooms from fall to spring.

S. holwayi (Holway’s Sage), our third example, grows only about three feet high, but spreads to cover an increasingly large area. Its small blooms are red and purple, and prolific.

Aloe arborescens (Torch Aloe) produces numerous vibrant red-orange inflorescences (called racemes) about eight-to-ten inches long. The plant grows easily and can rise to nine feet tall. In South Africa, where it is endemic, it is called called Krantz Aloe. The Afrikaner word ‘krantz’ means a “rocky ridge” or “cliff,” indicating its natural habitat, but it thrives in deep fertile soil.

Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican Hellebore) comes from the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia. It grows in sun or shade and produces many seedlings that germinate readily. (I have many plants in a growing swath.) It grows to four feet tall and wide, and produces many pale green flowers from late December to March. After flowering, it can be cut to the ground to stimulate a new cycle of growth.

Daphne odora “Aureo-marginata” (Winter Daphne), which comes from China and Japan, is  appreciated for its evergreen, gold-edged foliage, and prized for its beautiful rosy-pink flower buds that open to white, sweetly fragrant flowers in winter and early spring. The flowers grow on the stems, so they are not useful in arrangements, but can be brought indoors to float in water.

Edgeworthia chrysantha (Chinese Paper Bush) is a relative of the Daphne odora (both from the family Thymelaeaceae) and another sweetly fragrant winter bloomer. To be quite honest, both the Daphne and the Edgeworthia in my garden are in bud at the moment, but they will be in flower in January through March.

It is always a pleasure to have flowers in winter. Still, many conifers and succulents provide foliage with much visual appeal.

Enjoy your winter garden.

More

Several garden writers have listed plants that bloom in each season of the year. One of the better books is The Perennial Garden: Color Harmonies through the Seasons, by Jeff Cox and Marilyn Cox (Rodale Books, 1992).

A book that I refer to often for various purposes is The California Gardener’s Book of Lists, by Catherine Yronwode, with Eileen Smith (Taylor Publishing, 1998). Among its other treasures are lists of “Perennials that Bloom in Winter” and “Shrubs That Provide Winter Interest.”

 

 

 

Gardening for the Future

During a period of cold and rainy days, and holiday season attractions (and distractions), it may be difficult to focus on gardening priorities and attend to necessary tasks. On the other hand, this could be a very good time to plan future directions.

In this column, we consider resolutions for the coming year.

Our resolutions often address immediate needs, e.g., weeding in a more timely and consistent manner, upgrading the landscape design, removing a tree or shrub that has evolved from asset to liability, or installing a long-overdue drip irrigation system.

Each avid gardener could develop his or her own list of resolutions that are certainly worthy and not to be dismissed. Today’s goal is not to discourage productive actions but to suggest the importance of the long view.

This column is inspired by a recent report that chemical pesticides are used more extensively in the United States now than ever before. See below for a link to “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012. The author cites research evidence of the link between pesticide exposure and certain cancers and other health problems and negative impacts on the environment, and states that genetically engineered crops are leading to dramatic increases in the use of pesticides.

These data are particularly troublesome, given the recent defeat of a state proposition to label genetically modified organisms (fruits, vegetables and meats). This proposition lost 47% to 53%, when multinational food corporations spent $46 million in a campaign that claimed falsely that the proposition was “flawed” and would be costly to consumers. The Organic Consumers Association, an advocate of that proposition, points to several similar initiatives in other states, begins preparing for another vote in California, and insists it is only a matter of time before GMO labeling becomes law.

Residential gardeners can resolve to support reduced uses of chemical pesticides by applying only organic methods in their own gardens, buying organically grown groceries and supporting the labeling of GMOs, when another vote is scheduled.

So-called “conventional” gardening, which relies upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides, was introduced in the early 1940s, during World War II. Americans are only beginning to recognize its threats to human health and the environment.

Organic gardening methods originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago. These methods are attuned with nature, inexpensive to apply, and proven to be effective.

For more satisfying gardening in the short term, a good resolution is to bring new-to-you plants into your garden regularly. Countless options are available in garden centers, catalogs and websites. New horticultural treasures can add learning opportunities and rewarding experiences to your gardening activities.

More

If you think that pesticides are simply a good thing in the garden or the agricultural field, read “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012.

For a good introduction to organic gardening methods, read Organic Gardening magazine which is available from magazine stands or the Organic Gardening website. This publication has been a leading advocate of this natural approach to gardening for decades. It offers its magazine, online information and several authoritative books from various publishers. Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening is a classic in the field.

Guidance in purchasing organically grown foods is available from The Daily Green, which lists “The Dirty Dozen” (foods with the highest pesticide residue), beginning with apples. When these foods are grown with so-called “conventional” methods, they will have relatively high concentrations of pesticides. If you want to eat these foods, buy only  produce that has been certified as organically grown. Federal regulations require that foods that are labeled as “organic are grown without the use of pesticides.

Consumer demands to label genetically modified organisms are sure to continue on a state-by-state basis, until such initiatives force federal requirements for such labeling.To follow the political battle, visit the website of the non-profit Organic Consumers Association. This is one of several organizations that are pressing this issue, with determination to succeed in the long run.

The Organic Consumers Association seeks to persuade the Natural Products Association to stop calling GMOs “natural.” The term “natural” when applied to foods has no federal definition or standard and should not be mistaken for “organic” foods.

Late-season New Growth on Roses

At this time of the year, ordinarily, roses have entered dormancy. This status, characterized by stopped growth above ground, protects the rose from winter freezes and provides a rest period that supports the plant’s longevity and productivity. Hothouse roses subject to year-round harvesting of blossoms have shorter lives and fewer blossoms, compared to the typical garden rose.

During dormancy, the rose reduces its metabolism, holds its fluids and nutrients away from the stems and stores them the core of the plant. This is the rose’s defensive position, designed to avoid a possible freeze of liquids in the stems.

The plant continues to develop below ground: root growth continues during the winter months and is important for newly planted roses.

Gardeners in the world’s colder regions worry that an unusual warm spell in the late winter or early spring might cause their roses to “break dormancy.” The plants could produce new growth that would be killed by a late freeze.

In more temperate climates, such as the Monterey Bay area, roses could show new growth of leaves and buds in the early winter for the same reason: an unusual warm spell. The National Weather Service, reports that the Monterey Bay area is having such a warm spell this year: November’s average high temperature was about five degrees above the historical level. When the NWS reports December’s data, we might well see the same pattern.

In such cases, gardeners need to either let their roses develop such new growth, or proceed with seasonal pruning. Here are three issues.

First, the new growth might not survive the winter cold. If that happens, the plant will have wasted energy producing the new growth, but suffered no lasting harm. A rose has two inactive dormant buds at the base of each leaf that can activate to grow new canes or leaves.

Second, if the new growth survives, the rose will miss its opportunity to rejuvenate. This could have long-term negative effects on the rose’s life and blossom production.

Finally, a break from dormancy means that the plant is sending fluids into the stems, making it vulnerable to a freeze that would expand the fluids and cause splits and tissue damage.

The preferred response to a broken or delayed dormancy, then, is to help the rose to enter dormancy. The gardener can do this by removing all leaves from the plant. This action will halt photosynthesis and encourage dormancy.

Once the plant becomes dormant, the gardener could accomplish seasonal pruning during the dormant period, which will continue to the early spring, after the last date when frost is expected.

Scientists are virtually unanimous in agreement that human-produced carbon dioxide emissions are causing global climate warming. This change is having countless effects, and including new issues for gardeners.

Fortunately, roses are tougher than they appear.

More

As part of my research into rose dormancy, I visited the website of the American Rose Society, which has great information on many aspects of rose growing. I didn’t see discussion of the late-season new growth growth issue, so I clicked on the link, “Ask a Question About Growing Roses,” and asked my questions.

I received a quick response from AIS Master Rosarian Karl Bapst, a self-described “Rosenut.” His own website http://www.rosenut.com/ has a wealth of rose-growing information that I expect to visit often in the future.

I even quoted Karl (without attribution!) for the closing line of my column.

Rather than trying to summarize his detailed information, I am including our e-mail dialog below, with minor editing.

KARWIN

Roses in this area (USDA Zone 9a) should be dormant now (mid-December). Some people have started winter pruning, only to discover that their roses have new leaves, due to an unusual warm spell (possibly global warming) in November. This new growth probably won’t survive the colder weather in January, but what harm might be done to the plant by pruning when new growth is showing? Also, what harm might cold weather cause to a rose with spring-like new growth in December?

BAPST

In your area, I doubt your winter temps will drop down far enough to damage any new growth. New growth has lots of sugar that acts as natural antifreeze. In my area, zone 5a, mid-spring temps can drop to the mid to low 20s and new spring growth is seldom affected. If it is affected, new growth occurs to replace it.  Keep in mind there are two inactive dormant buds at the base of each leaf. If that new leaf should die, one or both of the buds activate growing new canes or leaves. So, should any new growth be damaged by temps below the mid 20s, it’ll soon be replaced.

We often have new growth before we prune in spring. The rose bushes do just fine. I’ve pruned as late as late April and early May (due to inclement weather or illness) after the bushes are leafed out with no bad results. The roses even bloom at their normal times.

Roses are tougher than they appear.

KARWIN

I have sent in my column today with recommendations based on your advice, but I have a follow-up question. Last night, a Consulting Rosarian recommended responding to this new growth by defoliating the plant to encourage dormancy and completing seasonal pruning. (Most people around here prune between mid-December and mid-January.)

Comments?

BAPST

In warmer growing zones where there may not be natural dormancy, removing the leaves will promote a period of dormancy when the daylight shortens and temperatures moderate as we approach the winter solstice. Roses don’t naturally go dormant and will grow all year if conditions are right.

Modern roses bloom best on new wood, pruning promotes new wood so one gets more and bigger blooms. In my zone 5, winter’s cold and gloomy overcast skies, freeze and kill the leaves. Most stay on the bush until new growth or pruning removes them. The frozen soil and canes causes all growth to stop until conditions improve in late winter or early spring. Summer cutting of roses is pruning. You’ve noticed that cutting a bloom in summer causes a new cane to develop, usually from the base of the leaf under the cut. This occurs after your December/January pruning but on a larger scale.

Should you fail to prune or cut back then, any blooms produced on the un-pruned bush will normally be smaller and fewer on shorter canes. You’ll notice, though, any blooms will come from those short new growth canes. Even blooms that grow from the old cane tips will be on new growth.

In my area, we have no choice. When removing winter die-back or damaged canes, we force new cane growth. Often, especially on hybrid teas, which are naturally very winter-tender, removing die-back requires pruning almost to the ground. These bushes will bloom in late May/early June and will have grown to full size by July.

Understand, Old Garden Roses (OGRs, once-a-year blooming roses) bloom on old wood and buds are set the previous fall. Pruning on OGRs is done after they bloom or these buds would be removed when pruning. Should you get any questions from people asking why their roses don’t bloom it’s usually due to them pruning too early on Old Garden Roses.

KARWIN

I read a variety of online material in preparing this column, and found various pieces of relevant information.

For example, here’s an interesting point for the eHow.com website:

“Most rose plants that are capable of dormancy will not naturally initiate this process in response to cold weather. Most rose plants which are domestically grown in North America are hybrids with breeds of plants that evolved in Asia (most roses are Asian and are crossbred for their desirable characteristics, such as smell and appearance). Asian winters are not as harsh and, thus, dormancy in Asian roses is an evolved response to a lack of light. This can create problems for such roses in North America, where a cold winter can still supply enough sunlight to encourage the plant to keep growing.”

Such subtleties can be challenging for a garden writer with a deadline, and impossible to explore in a single column. I made no effort to explain the role of winter light in promoting or discouraging dormancy.

More Gifts for the Gardener

Last week, we explored the “Upscale” category of gifts for the gardener and planned to explore three more categories: Kitsch, Junktique, and Living.

To some, Kitsch gifts might be seen as tasteless, aesthetically deficient, and excessively sentimental; the flipside of this category is “cute” or perhaps “charming,” depending on individual tastes. This is the category found in many garden centers and garden catalogs, with few exceptions. We mind find cartoon-like pottery figures of animals, gnomes and pixies, whirligigs, clever signs and labels (“So many weeds, so little Thyme”) and the like. Visit ongardening.com for current kitsch-links.

Kitsch-y items typically lack the enduring appeal of fine art. That quality might be seen as a shortcoming, but by encouraging turnover it serves the popular thirst for new experience.

The Junktique category includes recycled items, primarily. This is where we find items like bowling balls and wine bottles as garden decorations; discarded boots, children’s wagons, sinks and toilet bowls as plant containers; bicycles and ladders as focal points.

The best-known junktique in the garden is the bottle tree, created by mounting bottles (wine, usually) on a branched apparatus of some kind. The practice of displaying empty bottles in the garden originated centuries ago, when some believed glass bottles would trap the night’s hostile spirits, which would be destroyed by the morning light. Reportedly, African slaves brought the practice to North American.

We are still searching for the dramatic histories of other garden junktique.

Finally, the Living category focuses on plants and personal services. When gifting plants, consider these guidelines:

  1. Avoid the commonplace (garden centers display ornamental kale in the fall, but there are other options, really);
  2. Respect the recipient’s priorities (it’s helpful when gardeners mention their horticultural cravings);
  3. Offer to install larger plants (even a bare-root fruit tree will thrive under a friend’s helping hand).

For some gardeners, an offer of timely assistance will be the ultimate gift. Here are suggested guidelines.

  1. Offer services that you are qualified to perform (all aspects of gardening require knowledge and skill, and the garden owner rules in setting standards)
  2. Offer services that the gardener wants. (Hauling will be welcomed; plant selection probably not; weeding is great if the giver recognizes weeds)
  3. Deliver the promised services on time.

Visit ongardening.com for more about gifts for gardeners, and additional categories, e.g., useful tools, books for reference or inspiration, and artworks to enhance—or compete with—the natural environment.

People reveal themselves through their gardens, which will show if the owner values great craftsmanship, short-lived “stuff,” frugality, exceptional plants or meticulous care. Let such revelations guide the gift-giver.

Their gardens also will reveal if they are not gardeners, in which case the gift-giver might consider other categories of gifts.

Enjoy this season for garden rejuvenation and development, and for gift giving.

More

Your favorite gardener will appreciate and value a gift of your time and horticultural talents. Such gifts respond to the spirit of the season, uniquely supportive of personal relationships, and good for the garden as well.

Still, there are many other gifts that most gardeners will desire and welcome. If your gardening friend is making do with worn-out tools or without the right tools for the task, a well-chosen, well-made tool might be exactly “on target.” Visit your local garden center or shop on line to find tools that meet the recipient’s needs and fall within the giver’s budget.

Many excellent gardening books also are available. Again, this is a gift category that succeeds best when it aligns well with the recipient’s informational needs and reading preferences. A good strategy for selecting a gift book is to visit the website of the American Horticultural Society to review its recommendations. The AHS itself has published several very good books, recognizes the best books of each year, and lists  the 75 Great American Garden Books.

In the Kitsch category, visit the Blue Fox Farm website, which presents a list of “Funny Quotes for Rustic Garden Signs.”  These sayings are not available as garden signs, but the website includes information on how to make your own signs with the saying of your choice (scroll to the bottom of the page).

 

Cacti of the Sonoran Desert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tuscon, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tuscon in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tuscon area. Visit ongardening.com for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tuscon area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More to come

Gardener’s Gold

If you have deciduous trees in your garden, you might be fretting these days over the task of raking and disposing of the fallen leaves. You might instead welcome this form of nature’s bounty, because your trees have contributed the raw material for an excellent natural resource for your garden: leaf mold.

Leaf mold, which is simply partially decomposed leaves, can be used as a mulch to discourage weeds, retain moisture and insulate the roots of plants from the coldest weather. It can also be used as a pH-neutral soil amendment, like compost, to retain moisture, improve soil texture, add nutrients and support the growth of beneficial soil organisms of all kinds.

The question, then, is how to convert the fallen leaves to leaf mold.

The raking can’t be avoided, but the rest of the task could take any of several forms, depending on the gardener’s patience and available space, and the kind of leaves. Some leaves, including oak and holly, contain relatively high levels of cellulose and are slower to break down.

The easiest conversion of leaves to leaf mold is to pile the leaves in an out-of-the-way location and let them decompose on their own schedule. This process could require a year or more, but could be hastened in several ways, singly or in combinations.

  • Leave your leaf pile in a shaded location, or cover it with a plastic tarp. This helps to retain moisture, which supports the decomposition process, which depends upon the work of fungi.
  • Water the leaf pile occasionally, to maintain a damp (not soggy) condition.
  • Turn the pile occasionally, to expose the contents to oxygen.
  • Shred the leaves. Smaller pieces have greater exposure to the air and moisture, and therefore break down faster. Run over the leaves with a lawn mower—almost any kind would do—or put them through an electric leaf shredder or leaf blower-vacuum. My American Sycamore’s big leave tend to block my blower-vacuum, so they have to be roughly shredded first with the mower. For smaller quantities, place the leaves in a trashcan and shred them with a weed whacker.
  • Add nitrogen. Old dry leaves are almost all carbon, so the addition of nitrogen will speed their breakdown. Add green vegetation or nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Dry chicken manure has twice the nitrogen content as horse or steer manure.

The leaf mold is ready when it has become soft and crumbly. Use it to mulch your plant, spreading it about three inches deep (not too close to the base of the plant). Or dig a similar amount into the soil; this could be easiest when preparing a new bed, and is particularly helpful for improving soil that contains an excess of clay or sand. Leaf mold also could be included in containers to lighten their weight.

Enjoy gardener’s gold in your garden!

Sharing Plants

The fall season is both the best time for planting, and an excellent time for gardeners to share plants.

Plant and cutting exchanges, which are popular in the Monterey Bay area, invite gardeners to bring plants or cuttings from their garden to swap for plants or cuttings offered by another gardener.

That seems like a fair trade, but because plants vary greatly in size, condition and desirability, a really balanced exchange would be difficult to achieve.

Still, these exchanges often succeed without even requiring a contribution. They work because plants propagate naturally on their own: the gardener does not incur a significant cost, and still reaps the satisfaction of giving something of value to another gardener.

Cheap thrills!

Propagating plants for sharing require a significant investment of time: growing plants from seeds or cuttings and then giving them away could amount to a generous gift of the gardener’s time. However, opportunities exist for sharing plants with little effort.

For example, if your daffodils or irises need dividing, you could very well end up with a surplus of bulbs or rhizomes that you could share.

Another example: plants might self-propagate in your garden to the point that you have more than you want, and would prefer to reclaim the space for other plants.

In my garden, Pig’s Ear (Cotyledon orbiculata) and Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis) had grown too large. With the help of a friend, we uprooted dozens of each plant for others to propagate.

Succulent Cotyledons can be propagated most easily from tip cuttings.

Japanese Anemones are best propagated from root cuttings taken in the late fall or early winter. We lifted them rather early, but we saw vigorous new white shoots on the roots, and felt that they would re-root quickly in a new environment. This plant produces beautiful pink or white blossoms, and grows so readily that it’s almost invasive.

Plant society sales offer another sharing opportunity. While these are not free exchanges, they typically offer plants at below-market prices. And the gardeners who grow these plants gain satisfaction from sharing both their plants and their enthusiasms.

Watch for opportunities to share plants with your friends and neighbors. You will both grow from the experience.

More

The Web has very helpful information resources for plant propagation.

Wikipedia – Plant Propagation (often my first stop)

Plant Propagation.com

Stover’s Nursery

North Carolina State University

YouTube also offers several short video recordings (often simply produced) on aspects of plant propagation.

Cacti of the Sonoran Deseert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tucson, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tucson in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tucson area. Visit ongardening.com for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tucson area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More coming soon

Interesting Weeds

Yes, even weeds can be interesting. Here are two examples.

First, I’ve written about the “weed seed bank” that exists in all gardens. This inventory of dormant seeds lurks in the top few inches of soil, waiting for life-giving sunlight, air and moisture.

The weed seed bank results from earlier generations of weeds that dropped their seeds under the plant, projected them a few feet away or cast them to the winds for wider distribution. Such seeds might also be brought to the garden as the undigested part of a bird’s meal, tracked in on a visitor’s clothing, or imported with a plant from a friend or the local nursery. Whatever the source, they are part of every garden.

The weed seed bank might be called simply the seed bank, because it includes wildflowers and other garden-worthy plants as well as weeds. Abandoned gardens eventually sprout their hidden wealth of weeds and wildflowers.

Weed seeds can remain in the soil, ready for germination, for several years. Gardeners are wise to use mulch to discourage the germination of weeds and help realize “low maintenance” gardening.

Dormant seeds can be amazingly long-lived under the right conditions. Earlier this year, Russian scientists reported their discovery in Siberia of seeds that a squirrel had buried in the Early Pleistocene era, about 31,800 years ago. The seeds soon were frozen in permafrost and didn’t thaw until retrieved by the research team. With great care, scientist Svetlana Yashina cared for the seeds, which germinated and produced a flowering plant and a new generation of seeds.

The plant is the Narrow-leaved Campion (Silene stenophylla), once known by mammoths and wooly rhinos. An evolved form of this plant grows today in Arctic regions. The genus Silene includes many species, including several wildflowers of Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

The story of bringing this prehistoric plant into blossom raises the possibility that more plants could be recovered from frozen seeds in Siberia, the Arctic and the Yukon, and the intriguing prospect for the gardeners to grow prehistoric weeds and other plants. Examples of other specimens include the Sago Cycad (Cycas revoluta) and the Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba). Both of these plants, which are distant relatives, have fossil histories from more than 250 million years ago, and are available today as young plants.

***

A second example of interest in these lowly plants involves harvesting them for the dinner table. Dandelions and purslanes are only a beginning. A new cookbook, Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, by Tama Matsuoka Wong, with chef Eddy Leroux, describes many culinary and nutritional benefits of several common weeds. Ms. Wong’s website, Meadows and More, offers more details and an extensive weed identification section.

More

For more about the prehistoric Narrow-leaved Campion (Silene stenophylla), including pictures, browse to the article in Discover magazine.

Another interesting ancient plant is the Amborella trichopoda (no common name), which has been called “the most primitive living flowering plant.” It may be the earliest of the angiosperms: flowering plants that emerged about 130,000,000 years ago. A useful article about this plant is available on Wikipedia. This Arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz is the only place in the United States that is growing this plant for botanical study. For a 1999 article on the Arboretum’s work with this plant, click here.

For more information on the book, Foraged Flavor, browse to the New York Times article.

Ms. Wong’s website, Meadows and More, has a wealth of information on culinary uses of common weeds, and an extensive series of weed photographs, with expert identifications.

For identification of weeds that are common in California, visit the Weed Photo Gallery on the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management website.

Good Sense or Obsession?

Do you know the names of the plants in your garden?

Many gardeners don’t care about plant names, but knowing the names of those in your garden can be helpful.

The common names for plants are useful in the same way that all names are useful: they identify a particular person, place or thing: you can identify and refer to each plant with accuracy. Rather than saying “that plant with small red blossoms and fancy leaves by the birdbath,” you can say, “the geranium by the birdbath.” (Another common name for the geranium is “stork’s bill,” referring to the shape of the seed.)

More precisely, you could use the plant’s botanical name: “the Pelargonium sanguineum by the birdbath,” or, in the case of a hybrid, “the Pelargonium ‘Rozanne’ by the birdbath.”

Advanced info: the plant commonly called a geranium is really a member of the genus Pelargonium. The true geranium, also called a “hardy geranium,” is a member of the genus Geranium.

When a friend admires a blossom and asks, ““What plant is that?” and you know it only as “that small plant with small red blossoms and fancy leaves,” you can say, apologetically, “I don’t know,” or defiantly, “The name doesn’t matter, I only care that it adds color to my garden.” Either response won’t satisfy you or your friend.

Once you have identified a plant’s botanical name, however, you identify the plant for your friend, look up cultivation advice on the Internet, find in the plant in a garden book, or ask for it at a garden center. And tell the difference between a Geranium and a Pelargonium.

Most gardeners will have difficulty remembering the botanical names of all the plants in a large garden. Some will put plant labels next to the plants as memory aids. This practice can become a “time-suck” because labels fade, become buried or disappear mysteriously.

Also, for some gardeners, plant labels are intrusions on the garden’s natural appearance.

The non-label option is the garden map. This can be a simple sketch of the entire garden or (more commonly) each planting bed in the garden, with plants represented by shapes of various sizes, and with plant names by the shapes or on a numbered list. The simpler the sketch, the easier it is to keep current as plants are added, subtracted, moved or expired.

Several specialized drawing tools can be found on the Internet, either free or low in cost, to make more formal garden maps. Most are simple to use and handy for planning a vegetable garden, but they generate rather stiff-looking diagrams, rather than a picture of an ornamental planting.

Enjoy mapping your garden!

More

There are several software applications for planning and laying out an edible garden, and a few for designing an ornamental garden (not that veggies can’t be attractive!). Those vegetable garden planners that I’ve seen have excellent information and rather limited graphics. They work best for utilitarian projects, in which efficient use of space is more important than the visual effect.

If you want to plan an edible garden, take a look at this sample of software products (see others online by searching for “garden planner”).

Kitchen Garden Planner by Gardener’s Supply

PlanGarden by PlanGarden.com

Vegetable Garden Planner by Mother Earth News

A very good (perhaps the best) vegetable garden planner:

WikiGrow by LocalGrow

The best tool I’ve found for mapping an ornamental landscape is the following:

Garden Planner, Version 3.0 by smallblueprinter

This inexpensive application supports drawing an irregularly shaped planting bed (like mine), in addition to rectangular vegetable gardens, and representing plants with unique symbols. Mapping a large and full bed takes time, but this software makes the task much easier than using commercial graphics software, e.g., Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator (and much less expensive as well). I will post the result of my efforts in the near future.