Good Timing for Good Gardening

If you have an oak tree or an apple tree, this column is for you. If you have neither, read on nevertheless for seasonal ideas that generalize to other gardening processes.

The first concept of value is that timing is an essential strategy for successful gardening. Our plants operate on a natural cycle that waits for no gardener.

Apple Trees

Right now (the end of June) is the year’s last opportunity to maximize the yield of your apple trees. This time-sensitive task involves thinning your apples to allow each of the remaining apples to develop its greatest size and sweetness.

You can begin thinning apples a short time after the blossom drop when small apples appear, up to when the apples are no larger than table tennis balls. Once they grow beyond that size, thinning is not as effective.

Apple trees will thin themselves: the “June drop” is Nature’s way to produce larger fruits and avoid broken branches.

Commercial growers use chemicals for thinning, but hand thinning is practical for small home orchards. The largest young apples are the “king apples,” from the earliest blossoms. Use pruners or small clippers to remove the smaller fruits to so that the remaining fruits are about six inches apart. Let them drop then rake them for disposal. This might seem brutal but the harvest will be gratifying.

Oak Trees

During the July–November period, California Oakworms (Phryganidia californica) attack our Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia). The infestations vary in severity, but in a bad year the caterpillar-like larva of the Oakworm can defoliate a tree severely and provide a nasty display for the homeowner as well.

Some experts say Oakworm attacks are natural occurrences that rarely cause permanent damage to otherwise healthy oak trees. During last Saturday’s Garden Faire, however, I spoke with James Neve of Tree Solutions, who says homeowners need not suffer the presence of these insects and their droppings (frass), and their trees need not suffer defoliation. He recommends watching for the presence of oakworms in mid-July by placing a white paper plate under the tree’s branches and checking for frass. If the pests show up, consider whether spraying or injecting a biological control would be indicated.

Tree Solutions sprays with “Bt.” (Bacillus thuringiensis) or Pyrethrum (derived from Chrysanthemum flowers) or injects with Abamectin (derived from a soil bacterium). The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program recommends these sprays and also a commercial product, Spinosad. A regular reader of this column reports good results with Spinosad. Most garden centers have these controls and spray equipment for do-it-yourselfers.

Other timely tasks: deadhead your roses, propagate your favorite woody plants from softwood cuttings, and above all, hydrate your plants during these hot and dry days.


For good, reliable information about the California Oakworm, visit the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources website by clicking here.

For the commercial website of Tree Solutions (serving the Monterey Bay area), click here. (This is a free plug for a good business.)

Enjoy your garden.

Rock Gardening

In the garden, one thing always seems to lead to another.

I began by thinning one plant that had begun to crowd a bed in my garden. The plant is the Rain Lily (Zephyranthes candida), a low-growing bulb in the Amaryllis family, native to South America. It has grassy foliage, evergreen in the Monterey Bay area, and six-petal blossoms, white with a pink wash. (Pink blossoms are more common in the genus.)

After a few seasons in the ground, the Rain Lily generates many small bulbs and spreads happily. My original one-gallon clump expanded to fill nearly half of a semi-circular bed about thirty-feet in diameter.

I gathered hundreds of bulbs to share on June 23rd through the Garden Exchange at The Garden Faire (

That project created open space in that prominent front yard bed, and the opportunity to rethink its design. A rock garden seemed an obvious choice: the bed is already mounded and has a few largish boulders.

My preliminary inquiries into rock garden design revealed that this bed doesn’t qualify as a rock garden, but is instead a “rockery.” A rock garden has particular soil, rocks, and plants; a rockery is simply any planting bed with decorative rocks.

Serious rock gardeners study instances in which plants grow in a rocky environment. This occurs typically in a mountainous region, which will have high elevation, rocky ledges on sloping sites, rock outcroppings on more level land, and crevices, which are narrow, soil-filled spaces between rocks. The soil in such regions typically will be poor in nutrients and fast to drain. The climate usually will be windy and marked by much sun exposure.

The plants in a natural rock garden will have evolved to survive in those relatively hard conditions. The classic rock garden plants are called “alpines,” meaning plants that grow in The Alps, one of the great mountain range systems of Europe. These plants could be herbaceous or woody, and grow up to about one foot high.

Another category of rock garden plants includes small rock (“saxatile”) plants, which grow in rocky sites at lower elevations. These plants are easier than alpines to grow in most residential gardens because the gardener doesn’t need to recreate the uncommon conditions of a mountainous environment.

A popular feature for rock gardens is the scree bed, an area of loose rocks and stones that might occur at the bottom of a slope, perhaps deposited there by a landslide. A larger rock garden might have a sand bed, an acid heath bed, an “alpine meadow, or a boggy area beside a pond or stream.

A rock garden could succeed in a small setting as well, making this interesting naturalistic design concept adaptable for placement in gardens of all sizes.


A small rock garden could be created in a container. An appropriate container would be a hypertufa trough, which you can build yourself. Here are instructions from Fine Gardening magazine.

If you have larger project in mind, take the time to research the basic concepts, to be sure you are on the right track and won’t end up with a rockery instead of a rock garden. There are good books on the subject. Here are three that are available on

Rock Garden Design and Construction, by North American Rock Garden Society (2003)

The Serious Gardener: Rock Gardens (New York Botanical Gardens), by Ann Halpin and Robert Bartomonei (1997)

The Rock Garden Plant Primer: Easy, Small Plants for Containers, Patios, and the Open Garden, by C. Gray-Wilson (2009)

Anatomy of the Garden

Many gardens begin as level rectangles, with a residence more or less in the middle. It doesn’t have to be that way.

If your garden has natural changes of elevation or an irregularly shaped boundary, or both, you could have an interesting context for your garden design.

Dramatic departures from the level of course could be more challenging than inspiring. Workers on steeply sloped vineyards in Germany’s Rhine Valley hold on long ropes to keep from tumbling into the water.

Likewise, an oddly shaped plot could be more trouble than help. Municipal regulations generally prohibit building on small parcels of very unusual form, but such a parcel could accommodate a community garden.

If your garden amounts to a level rectangle, and consequently lacks interest, consider your options for creating elevation changes.

Below-grade elevation change possibilities include a swimming pool, a naturalistic pond, a bog garden (more shallow than a pond) and a rain garden (which collects rainwater and lets it seep into the ground). A swimming pool is mostly a recreational resource, but the other three offer interesting gardening possibilities.

For very large parcels, another below-grade option is the ha-ha. This is a ditch between a garden and a natural area, intended to keep domestic or wild livestock from straying into the garden. The ha-ha typically runs across the line from the residence to the natural area in the distance.

Above-grade elevation changes include raised beds, berms, terraces and sculpted landscapes.

Raised beds are usually rectangular, rising only a few inches above grade, primarily to improve drainage. They could be simple low mounds or might have low walls of wood or other materials. A raised bed also could be about table height, to raise the planting surface for the gardener’s convenience. Such beds are sometimes made for accessible gardening by gardeners with physical limitations.

Raised Beds - Corten

Berms are like large raised beds. They generally are eighteen to twenty-four inches high, curved for a natural look, four or five times as long as wide, and with sloping sides. They could provide higher quality soil (imported), superior drainage, or just visual interest.

For a short article on creating and using berms in the landscape, click here.

Terraces are similar to steps, and, like steps, provide one or more level areas to ease the transition from one elevation to another. They also have aesthetic value when well designed, and can improve the visibility of ornamental plants.

To view an unusual example of a terraced landscape (a rice field in China), click here.

Sculpted landscapes, above- or below-grade, are typically large-scale imaginative earthen constructions intended primarily for visual interest.

A fine example of a sculpted landscape can be seen at the WiIlliam J. Clinton Presidential Center (click here).

These possible elements of the landscape are not difficult or very expensive to accomplish, and could transform a flat rectangular garden into an interesting landscape. They also offer a fine opportunity for creativity in garden design, complementing the core activities of plant selection and placement.

Enjoy your garden!

Click to Enlarge

These clustered raised beds are made of Corten steel for long-term use.


Touring Exceptional Gardens

Recently, I wrote about the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, which provides tours of exceptional private gardens. Since then, I visited two clusters of four private gardens south of the San Francisco Bay area.

Some gardens were the product of devoted gardeners who were pleased to dialog with the visitors about their gardens and specific plants and other features. These homeowners clearly enjoyed hands-on gardening.

Other gardens were the products of the designer, the installation contractor and the maintenance crew. The homeowners were more clients and admirers and satisfied with owning a showcase.

Here are some highlights of these tours.

  • A narrow, south-facing side yard with espaliered fruit trees next to the house and raised beds along the fence. Efficient and productive use of a space that is often wasted.
  • Espaliered Apple TreesA cluster of sixteen raised beds of Corten steel, each about five by ten feet, with four-foot aisles. Major commitment to growing edibles and ornamentals.
  • An outdoor dining room with seating for twenty-four, on a brick patio under an arbor of pollarded plane trees (Platanus × acerifolia). Nice
  • Dining Room for 24 Guests, Brick PatioA twenty-foot tall weeping Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca ‘Pendula’) next to a koi pond. (I must remove the five-foot specimen that eventually will outgrow its space in my garden.)
  • Weeping Atlas CedarA sharply sloped area at the back of the property with a twenty by forty foot children’s play yard on stilts, a zip line and a newly planted vineyard. Good use of a difficult part of the landscape.

Many visitors focused on individual plants, particularly those in current fashion, e.g., Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’ and R. ‘Spice so Nice’ growing on a fence, several Oakleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea quericifolia), a large Matilija poppy (Romney coulteri), and a great number of ornamental grasses.

The benefits of touring private gardens also include seeing combinations and swaths of selected plants, examining the design of ornamental borders and studying the overall layout of the landscape, including hardscape features and garden art. There is much to learn from other people’s gardens.

For info on future Open Days, visit

Exceptional Gardens

Avid gardeners have a small number of valuable champions. Among them are public botanical gardens and arboreta, and private residential gardens of exceptional quality.

The Garden Conservancy is an organization that works to make exceptional residential gardens accessible to the public. This non-profit organization was established in 1989 by Frank Cabot, a distinguished American gardener who passed away late last year.

The Conservancy conducts two primary programs, as follows:

The Garden Preservation Program

Here, the Conservancy identifies exceptional gardens and works to help them survive and prosper. It has extended its assistance to some ninety gardens, to date, supporting their transition from private to non-profit ownership and management. The Conservancy has continuing relationship with sixteen gardens in the United States, of which two are in northern California.

One of these is the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which is in fact the first garden of the Conservancy’s Preservation Program. This is a forty-year-old, three-acre garden of succulents, the long-term project of Ruth Bancroft (b. 1908) who continues her interest in the garden. The garden is managed by a non-profit organization, which maintains a regular schedule of days for public visits. For more information, visit the website

The other Preservation Program in California is the Gardens of Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay. The prisoners and staff of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island developed the gardens originally; they are maintained today by a partnership that includes the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. Admission to the gardens is free of charge, but visits involve a private ferry that does charge for its services. For information:

These two gardens are interesting and memorable destinations for daytrips by Monterey Bay area gardeners.

The Open Days Program

The Garden Conservancy also facilitates access to many additional private gardens, which are selected by the Conservancy for inclusion in its Open Days program. This program offers self-guided tours to private gardens during the spring, summer and fall months. The organization groups gardens in clusters within a given area, for the convenience of visitors. Visitors are welcome at any time within the announced schedule; the admission fee is $5 per garden. The Conservancy offers the Open Days Directory, a national publication that lists Open Days and participating gardens with garden descriptions, open hours, and directions.

This weekend, for example, includes Open Days on Saturday, June 2 for a cluster of four gardens in the San Francisco Peninsula area (Atherton, Palo Alto, Portola Valley), and on Sunday, June 3 for a cluster of gardens in the Telegraph Hill area of San Francisco.

For information on the Garden Conservancy’s programs, visit

More: Return to this page after June 2, 2012 for notes from the Open Days gardens of the SF peninsula.

Works in Progress

One of gardening’s countless sayings is that all gardens are works in progress. That is true of my own garden. Long-time readers of this column will recall that I have been developing a drought-tolerant garden with beds representing the world’s five major dry-summer regions: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, Chile’s central coast, southwestern coast of Australia, and California’s coast.

This project involves converting an existing a nondescript landscape into a thematic garden. In addition to the five summer-dry regions, the garden includes beds devoted to roses, irises and salvias.

Despite the progressive nature of gardening, there are occasional moments to celebrate reaching certain accomplishments. After many weekends of diligent work, I can report that my helpers and I have cleared a daunting accumulation of weeds, upgraded the irrigation controllers and valves, installed drip tubing and emitters, and mulched every square foot of bare soil.

During this time-consuming process, several good plants died. Hand watering has never been my strong suit!

We have the continuing adventure of finding plants from these far-flung regions, putting them in the ground, and documenting the collections with paper records and plot diagrams.

This approach to landscaping has yielded two important realizations. First, collecting plants by dry-summer region tends to abandon all but very basic design concepts. By definition, all dry-summer plants are suitable candidates for the Monterey Bay climate. Also, the gardener can still select and place plants that have mature sizes that are right for the space. Finally, the gardener can still position the smaller plants in front and the larger plants in back.

The finer points of landscape design generally are beyond reach. This garden does not include subtly artful contrasts of leaf textures; complementary, analogous or triadic combinations of blossom colors; or a year-round schedule of blooms. It also does not include plant communities (clusters of plants that grow together in nature). Instead, each bed offers an essentially random collection of plants from a climatic region, some of which seem puzzled by their strange bedfellows.

In my view, it is interesting nevertheless.

As I gradually convert the garden to a “botanical zoo,” I have to decide the fate of plants that were included in the previous landscape but do not belong in the new landscape. I could just relocate smaller plants. Most Monterey Bay area gardens already include plants from dry-summer climates because they are good choices for the local climate.

Larger shrubs and trees are another story. I have callously removed some smaller trees, donated two huge salvias to a friend who maintains a more spacious garden, and given away many smaller perennials. Currently, I am agonizing over a thirty-foot elderberry (Sambucus cerulea?) that is shading the Australian garden.

Enjoy your own work in progress!


Here are photos of the elderberry tree in the Australian garden, and a Blue Hibiscus, one of the plants that isn’t getting all the hours of sun that they prefer.

Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) and Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii ‘Santa Cruz’)

A Plant so Rare

James Russell Lowell’s poem, “What is So Rare as a Day in June,” offers a lyrical perspective on nature, and suggests the rare (or perhaps just uncommon) plants that avid gardeners find appealing.

At the recent annual plant sale by Cabrillo College’s Horticulture Department, I picked up two that qualify as uncommon.

One is a crested iris, Iris gracilipes, the slender woodland iris from China and Japan, which is where most crested iris species grow.

The crested iris gets its name from a yellow or white crest (like the beard on a bearded iris) along the sepals (like petals). Typically, they are dwarfs, growing about eight inches tall, with violet blossoms about one or two inches across. They prefer a shady, moist spot in soil that is slightly acid. Now I need to find such a place for it in my garden.

My other uncommon treasure from the sale is a Puya venusta, which is called “Chagualillo” in Chile. I already have P. berteroniana and P. coerulea, so I could claim to be a small-scale collector of these Chilean plants. The puyas are bromeliads (pineapple family members) with spectacular blossoms. P. berteroniana, for example, has “6- to 10-foot flowering spikes of metallic, deep bluish-green flowers highlighted by vivid orange stamens.”

Who would —or another gardener—want to own a Japanese crested iris or a Chilean puya?

The obvious explanation might rest on the pleasure of dazzling garden visitors with plants they are unlikely to have seen elsewhere. In fact, one could see puyas at the Huntington Garden or the U.C. Berkeley Botanic Garden, but probably not at a garden center or most residential gardens.

Another, less vainglorious reason for growing uncommon plants is to enjoy them privately for their own sake, and to learn their cultivation.

A truly selfless motivation would be to conserve a plant genus or species that is in danger of extinction. According to California’s Department of Fish and Game (DFG), this state is home to over 6,500 species, subspecies, and varieties of native plants. Of these, 223 are designated under California law as rare, threatened, or endangered. The threat of a plant’s extinction is often based on human encroachment or destruction of the plant’s habitat.

In 1968, the California Native Plant Society began its Rare Plant Program in coordination with the DFG, to develop current and accurate information on “the distribution, ecology, and conservation status of California’s rare and endangered plants.” The CNPS generally wants such plants to thrive in their natural setting, but also endorses “conservation gardens,” as a substitute home for plants that lose their natural habitats to the relentless march of progress.


The concept of a “rare” plant could be interpreted in different ways, depending on the interpreter. California’s Department of Fish and Game does not have an official definition for a “rare” plant. California’s Fish and Game Code, however, includes definitions of “endangered” and “threatened” species, as follows:

"Endangered species" means a native species or subspecies of
a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant which is in
serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all, or a significant
portion, of its range due to one or more causes, including loss of
habitat, change in habitat, overexploitation, predation, competition,
or disease.
"Threatened species" means a native species or subspecies of
a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant that, although not
presently threatened with extinction, is likely to become an
endangered species in the foreseeable future in the absence of the
special protection and management efforts required by this chapter.

The Fish & Game Code also defines a “candidate” species:

"Candidate species" means a native species or subspecies of a
bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant that the commission
has formally noticed as being under review by the department for
addition to either the list of endangered species or the list of
threatened species, or a species for which the commission has
published a notice of proposed regulation to add the species to
either list.

Some commercial firms that sell plants will specialize in, or feature, plants that they call “rare.” Several such plant purveyors can be located by searching the Internet for “rare plants,” but whether their plants are actually rare in the sense of “not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value,” is a matter of personal opinion.

These sellers may be expected to employ a relatively inclusive definition of rarity, to avoid a situation in which their livelihood depends on many customers seeking a very small number of plants.

If a plant meets your personal definition of rareness, you can enjoy it even if it could be found in great numbers somewhere else in the world.

Example: At the San Francisco Flower & Garden a few years ago, I bought an enormous bulb of the Giant White Squill, which I had never seen. The bulb was larger than any other bulb I had encountered (they can be as large as a soccer ball, and 8-to-10 pounds), and I had no idea what a Giant White Squill might be, so it certainly qualified as rare in my lexicon.

I soon learned that the Giant White Squill is Urginea martitima, a plant that is native to the Mediterranean Basin and fairly common as a roadside volunteer. No matter: it is still a rarity in my garden.

Snails relish the plant’s large fleshy strap-like leaves, so it has had a tough time in my garden, but I am still expecting to see a flower stalk in August. It could be six feet tall!

Fondness for Foliage

At this time of the year, gardeners often become bemused by blossoms, which beautify our gardens, garden centers and garden magazines. The seasonal burst of colorful petals surely ranks among the finest rewards of gardening.

These flowers, however delightful visually and olfactorily (if that is a word), can tempt us to overlook another important element of the landscape: foliage.

One of history’s great gardeners, Christopher Lloyd, wrote, “Certain groups of plants have particularly dull and dreary foliage and depend 100 percent on their flowers to disguise the fact.” There are many examples: the entire very large Daisy family (the Compositae), dahlias, chrysanthemums, and many more.

“Dull and dreary” is a matter of opinion, of course, and Lloyd was never reticent in expressing his opinions, but when we contrast “ordinary” foliage with the alternatives we discover that the leaves of plants offer great variety and appeal, rivaling that of the flowers.

Foliage has been categorized often, with varying degrees of success. Leaves occur in so many subtly different ways that grouping them succeeds only if we accept compromises.

With that caution, foliage has been described principally in terms of two important variables: color and texture.

The principal foliage color group is green. The briefest survey of a plant collection reveals that green leaves come in many different hues of green.

Other major color groups include gold (yellow, bronze, brown, etc.); dark colors (red, purple, black); the silver, gray and blue cluster, and multicolored leaves.

Texture, the other important variable, might refer to the overall size of the leaf: bold or large, medium, fine, or lacy.

Texture might refer to leaf shape: spiky or sword-shaped, round, oval, palmate, and many other shapes.

Texture might also refer to leaf surface, which could be glossy, dull or fuzzy, smooth or crinkled. A complete description of any given leaf involves multiple characteristics that botanists have defined and that the home gardener can safely reduce to a favored few.

For the gardener, the many colors and textures of foliage represent opportunities for adding interest and beauty to landscapes, container gardens and floral arrangements.

Books and articles on gardening and floral arrangements often feature combinations that the writer finds particularly appealing. Given the variability of both flowers and foliage, an immense number of good combinations could be described. Ultimately, the best combinations reflect individual preferences.

The gardener’s practical approach to designing an aesthetically pleasing combination of flowers and foliage involves study available plants, and imagining them together with a creative eye. This also involves moving potted plants around, to see them beside potential companions. This strategy works best in garden centers, where all plants are movable.

More about foliage plants and ideas for their many uses:

Look for these books in your local bookstore or library, or search online.

The Foliage Garden: Creating Beauty Beyond Bloom, written by Angela Overy, with photographs by Rob Proctor (Harmony Books, 1993).

This book is full of good ideas for the garden. It’s a welcome alternative to the many books that lists descriptions of plants within the author’s category of interest.

Foliage, written by Harold Feinstein (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 2001).

A “coffee table” book of dramatic full-page photographs of foliage, with plain black backgrounds, plus brief essays by the author and contributors, introducing a series of topical photos.

Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture Beyond Flowers, written by Nancy J. Ondra, with photographs by Rob Cardillo.

This book provides the familiar list of plant descriptions within a category. In this case, sub-categories organize foliage plants in three color groups (gold; red to black; and silver, gray and blue) plus “Marvelous Multicolors.” This approach is quite helpful to the gardener in planning a bed.

Foliage Plants, written by Christopher Lloyd (Random House, 1985)

Christopher Lloyd (d. 2006), creator of the highly regarded estate garden, “Great Dixter,” (today, a popular public garden), was one of gardening’s gurus and a prolific writer of authoritative books on many aspects of gardening. His sharp opinions, generously offered, make reading his books amusing as well as instructive.

I am just now reading this book, so I will refer interested persons to a brief review on the website, Good Reads.

Cut Flowers, Three Ways

People, like bees, are attracted to flowers, always for beauty (and occasionally for food).

We enjoy flowers in our gardens, but we want them indoors, as well. Americans buy some ten million cut flowers a day. About eighty percent are grown outside of the United States and brought in by air, in a stunningly efficient transition from field to vase.

Amy Stewart told the story of the global flower industry in Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful (Algonquin Books, 2008). Her fascinating book explores “the startling intersection of nature and technology, or sentiment and commerce.” According to one reviewer, Flower Confidential reveals so much about the technology and chemistry of the flower biz that it “may compel us to return to something purer, more local.”

Stewart’s fellow garden writer, Debra Prinzing, responds to that vision in The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012).

Prinzing clearly favors emerging alternatives to the $40 billion dollar floriculture industry, which focuses on uniformity and durability. In her view, “factory flowers” may seem close to perfect, but they offer little or no scent, a maximum of preservatives and pesticides, and by the time they reach your vase, a relatively short life. She writes that they “have lost the fleeting, ephemeral quality of an old-fashioned, just-picked bouquet.”

The alternative she applauds is the nascent industry for producing cut flowers that are sustainably grown and locally sold. The 50 Mile Bouquet profiles a series of small-scale organic flower businesses, mostly on the west coast, and operated mostly by couples that are inspired by nature and particularly by flowers.

Prinzing explores floral design, featuring imaginative individuals who advocate “green” floral design. Their arranging supplies do not include green foam, the main ingredient of which is a known carcinogen, formaldehyde.

A chapter on “The DIY Bouquet” explores flower arranging by amateurs who love flowers, including some who prefer their flowers in the garden, arranged by nature.

The final chapters address the role of florals in celebrations & festivities, and resources for flower growers and arrangers.

The book is a feast for all who enjoy having flowers in their lives and in their gardens. It is the product of a flower lover and gifted writer (and president of the Garden Writers of America, no less). This beautiful book also includes fine photographs by David E. Perry, whose pictures capture the book’s spirit and the commitment of many flower growers and floral designers that we come to know.

My third perspective involves designing and cultivating personal cutting gardens, and “The Gardener’s Dilemma.” Read on!

One of a gardener’s dilemmas (there are several) is whether to enjoy flowers in their natural state, in the garden, or to cut them for indoor display.

George Bernard Shaw said, “I like flowers, I also like children, but I do not chop their heads and keep them in bowls of water around the house.”

He was one who prefers to enjoy flowers in the garden!

There is a solution to this dilemma: the cutting garden.

By definition, a cutting garden functions as a bloom producer. By comparison, a tropical flowerbed has the very different purpose of providing an attractive vista.
In planning a cutting garden, the gardener’s priority is to prepare an efficient growing ground, one that can be used to produce a large number of blooms with a minimum of effort.

This perspective leads the gardener firstly to selecting a site that receives at least six hours of sunlight each day, because plants that produce a lot of blossoms need full exposure to the sun.

The size of the site depends on how many flowers the gardener wishes to grow. A bed of just twenty square feet could accommodate a couple dozen plants.

An important consideration is that the bed will be fully accessible by the gardener, for preparing the soil, planting seeds or seedlings, mulching, weeding, and harvesting blooms. For good access, the bed should be no deeper than four feet, and accessible from both sides. A larger bed should have a path every four feet to provide equivalent access.

Because the cutting is intended to be productive rather than beautiful at all times, it could be located in a less prominent area of the garden.

Secondly, the soil in the cutting garden should be have soil that is not mostly sand, so it will hold moisture, and not mostly clay, so it will drain well. Stated differently, the soil should be good garden loam, with a balance of sand, clay and organic material. If your soil is less than ideal, dig in a generous measure of compost, or, for extremely poor soil conditions, consider installing raised beds and filling them with amended soil from a landscape supply outlet.

The third consideration is that the site should have easy access to water. A automatic irrigation system would be most convenient, but at least hose watering should be readily available.

Then, select plants that produce the flowers you want. A great many flowering annuals and perennials would be suitable for a cutting garden, so the selection is a personal matter. If you need suggestions, consider the nominations of Roger Cook, landscape contractor, visit the This Old House website and search for “cutting garden.”

Buy either seeds or seedlings, again depending on your preference. Seeds are less expensive; seedlings are easier and faster to grow.

Read the seed packages or plant tags to learn how large the plants will grow, how to space them, when they will bloom, and other useful information. You might want to select plants that bloom at different times, to provide cut flowers over a long period.

Place taller plants where they will not block your access or the sun’s access to the smaller plants. This might be in the middle, or on the north side of the bed.

Other placement issues to consider include grouping plants with similar sun, water and drainage needs.

After watering in the plants, plan on mulching the bed, providing regular water and weeding as needed. When the plants begin to bloom, deadhead the blossoms to enjoy them indoors and promote more blooms.

Enjoy your cutting garden.

Our Eyes on Irises

Now blooming: the magnificent irises.

Most often, you will see hybrid forms of the tall bearded irises. These plants are most popular among the 250 species of irises; hybridizers have been striving for decades to create imaginative new forms of the original plant, the German Iris (Iris germanica).

A comparison of the German Iris with any of today’s hybrids reveals a dramatic difference. The ancestor is an attractive but rather small, rather droopy flower on a short stem, with very few blossoms, usually an unexciting yellow or purple. The modern hybrid is much taller, with proud standards and horizontal falls, multiple stems and blossoms, and any of an astonishing range of colors—anything but true red—and combinations of colors.

The iris, named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, has inspired legions of gardeners to collect and cultivate newly introduced hybrids and to share the rhizomes with friends (or customers). I have seen several private gardens with scores of different, striking tall bearded irises specimens, in a rainbow of colors, and a mere scattering of other plants. Only roses receive such dedication.

The popularity of the tall bearded iris can distract from other garden-worthy species in the genus iris. Indeed, at least 250 other species have been identified, each easily recognizable as an iris but with a unique look.

The principal groups of species irises are as follows:

Bulbous Irises

This group includes the Dutch, Spanish and English Irises (named most often for the country that popularized them, rather than the country of origin), and the Reticulata Irises (their bulbs have a reticulate or netted covering). Bulbous irises grow from bulbs, rather than from rhizomes.

Rhizomatous Irises

This group is most often hybridized, as already mentioned. The name refers to the colorful and fuzzy “beards” that decorate the falls. The beard serves no known function, but might attract pollinators.

There are two sub-groups of rhizomatous irises: bearded: dwarf, median, tall bearded, aril and arilbred (their seeds have an aril or “collar”); and beardless: Japanese, Louisiana, Pacific Coast, Siberian and Spuria irises.

Species Irises

There are many species irises, each with subtle differences. About eight are popular choices for home gardening. My garden includes an I. unguicularis, called the Winter Iris for when it produces light purple, fairly small blossoms, often hidden among an abundance of leaves. My specimen grew into a large clump, so yesterday I dug it out and used my dull garden hatchet to make four divisions of this Greek native for my Mediterranean Basin garden.

Crested Irises (botanically between bearded and beardless) and Tender Crested Irises (orchid-like blossoms; can be grown warmer spots of the Monterey Bay area).


To learn more about irises…and especially options beyond the popular tall bearded irises…visit these websites:

An excellent (and fairly recent) book for a wealth of information is
Claire Austin’s Irises: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia (Timber Press, 2005).