Gardening the Easy Way

During September, our gardens transition from summer blooms and harvests into a quiet period that invites installing plants in anticipation of the rainy season.

This is the time for knowledgeable gardeners to dig and replant bulbs, divide larger perennials, take cuttings, gather seeds from annuals, and buy and install new plants. This busy period is the true beginning of the gardening season. If you still think about gardening in the early spring and rush then to the local garden center to see what’s in bloom, you are quite simply gardening the hard way.

Let’s focus on seed propagation. If you have enjoyed some annuals in your garden this year, gather their seeds and plant them where they will create a pleasing display for next year. This process could not be simpler or more satisfying.

Timing is important, however. Monitor the favored plant to track the development of seeds. The objective is to gather the seeds when they ripen (turn brown) and just before the plant drops or disperses the seeds itself.

This year, I collected seeds from several Opium Poppies (Papaver somniferum), which are legal for ornamental use. The hybrid I believe is ‘Lauren’s Grape’, a rich ruby purple. The seeds develop in capsules that function like saltshakers. Clip pieces of stem plus capsule, keep them upright and drop them in a plastic bag, then shake the tiny seeds into the bag.

In October or November, loosen the soil in a sunny site, mix the seeds with sand to make them easier to scatter, and press them lightly into the soil to frustrate the birds. The plants will spring into life in April and bloom in May.

I also harvested seeds from a Butterfly Flower (Schizanthus grahamii), a Chilean annual that produces masses of magenta-pink, orchid-like flowers over a period of months. It doesn’t require all-day sun exposure, but appreciates bright shade. Planting tiny Butterfly Flower seeds is very similar to planting Opium Poppy seeds.

These seed-propagation projects took very little time and no expertise, money or resources, and will yield very fine displays of delightful blossoms next spring. This year, enjoy planting some annual seeds.



Organic Gardening magazine has provided a useful article on planting annuals from seed.

Creative Landscaping with Bulbs

If you will plant spring bulbs this fall, there is time for design. Brent and Becky Bulbs says the ideal planting time is after the first frost and before the ground freezes. It will be a long time before Monterey Bay gardens freeze over, so you need not rush to planting. They also recommend ordering early and planting when the shipment arrives.

Disclosure: I met Brent and Becky Heath at meetings of the Garden Writers Association, which has named them to its Hall of Fame for their many good works.

Landscaping Ideas

Tentative vs. Bold. Sprinkle bulbs here and there in your garden to good effect, or create large swaths for dramatic impact.

Captive vs. Free. Bulbs are good in containers because they can be moved in and out of the spotlight as needed, but they grow best and look most natural in the ground.

Clones vs. Communities. Both large and small displays of a single cultivar are charming, while mixtures of cultivars of the same plant can offer interesting comparisons and complementary colors and forms.

Big Event vs. Extended Display. Mail-order sources often list the flowering times of spring bulbs, e.g., very early, early, mid, late, and very late. You could plan your display for a garden party or other special event, or orchestrate an extended-season display in a prominent bed.

Monochrome vs. Polychrome. Mass planting of different bulbs that flower in the same color or analogous colors can please; designing color combinations can be challenging but satisfying when the design succeeds. Search the web for “color theory” for color wheels and ideas. The website “Color Matters” is terrific. The web also has demonstrations of many color combinations, which might mix bulbous plants with other types.  For example, see the Better Homes & Gardens website:

Botanical Garden. For an intriguing, educational and satisfying approach, group bulbs by their geographic origin.. There are bulbs from throughout the world, and very good choices from Mediterranean climate regions. South Africa is the home of a large number of bulbs, the Mediterranean Basin has many, and California’s native bulbs include Brodiaea, Calochortus, Triteleia and others.

Many mail order bulb nurseries indicate the origins of their bulbs, and some specialize in exotic choices. Good sources include (international), californianative bulbs,com (California), (South Africa), and (international). Also visit the website of the Pacific Bulb Society (www.pacific ) and search for “species bulbs” for a list of suppliers of seeds and bulbs.

Enjoy your spring bulbs!

Bulbs for Next Spring

Now that the spring-blooming bulbs have enriched our gardens and faded away, it is time to prepare next spring’s display.

Spring-blooming bulbs should be lifted, divided and replanted every three or four years, so if your existing bulbs could stay in place for another year or two, you can take time off—or attend to other garden priorities that are waiting for attention.

If your garden is still a Spring Bulb Free Zone, or if you wish to bring new or additional bulbs into the picture, now is the time. Let’s review.

The Daffodil (Narcissus) is the most popular spring-blooming bulb. A multitude of great choices is available. The American Daffodil Society advises that there are between 40 and 200 different Daffodil species, subspecies or varieties of species and over 25,000 registered cultivars (named hybrids). These are divided among the thirteen divisions of the official classification system. Visit the ADS website,, for full information on the divisions, which are the many delightful forms of the blossom. That website also has good advice on growing this garden favorite.

Visit Wikipedia (search for Narcissus) for fascinating (I think) information on sixteen selected species of Narcissus.

Another very popular spring-blooming bulb is the Tulip, which needs a chill period to grow well. The Monterey Bay area has insufficient cold days for Tulips, so plant pre-chilled bulbs. Most mail-order suppliers offer pre-chilled bulbs, and will ship them at planting time. Order early to be sure to get pre-chilled bulbs of the cultivars you prefer.

There are many beautiful spring-blooming bulbs beyond these favorites, so try other popular choices: Hyacinth, Crocus, Grape Hyacinth, Allium, Siberian Squill, Crown Imperial, Snowdrop, Anemone, and Freesia.

Planting spring-blooming bulbs begins with choosing a location that has full exposure to the sun and is well drained. Build a berm or raised bed to ensure good drainage. If your soil is heavy with clay content, dig in a generous, three or four inch deep layer of organic compost. Bulbs that will remain in place for the next bloom season also will benefit from a top dressing of a good compost material.

Plant the bulbs deeply: three times the height of the bulb. This works out to four-to-six inches to the bottom of the hole for a typical daffodil. Water them in and place mulch on the surface to retain moisture and discourage weeds.

Garden centers are beginning stock spring-blooming bulbs now. As always, the selection is broader when ordering from a catalog or on the Internet.

In next week’s column, we’ll consider opportunities for creative landscaping with spring bulbs.

More – Mail order sources for bulbs

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs – Spring/Fall 2013 Catalog

John Scheepers, Inc. – Beauty from Bulbs

Van Engelen, Inc. – Wholesale Price List

White Flower Farm – Fall 2013 Garden Book

Sizes of Irises

We are in iris planting season, made apparent by the annual sales of the Monterey Bay Iris Society and the deluge of catalogs from iris growers.

Iris family (Iridaceae) is huge, with about 2,000 species distributed among 65 genera. The bearded irises, the most popular form, are hybrids based on the German Iris (I. germanica), the Sweet Iris (I. pallida) and the Hungarian Iris (I. variegata). Bearded irises are available in many sizes, colors, color combination and blossom types, thanks to the tireless work of professional and amateur hybridizers.

Today, we review the six horticultural classifications of the bearded iris, both to broaden appreciation of this popular garden plant and to suggest landscaping opportunities.

Miniature Dwarf Bearded Iris (MDB): These are smallest (up to eight inches tall), and earliest to bloom, with the crocus and dwarf daffodil. Each plant produces multiple stems, providing a great display that lasts for weeks.

Tall Bearded (TB): These, the largest and most popular of the bearded irises, grow to 27.5 tall and more. They are the last to bloom.

Medians: there are four “medians,” all created by crossing MDBs and TBs.

  • Standard Dwarf Bearded Iris (SDB): Eight to sixteen inches tall. Blooms after the MDBs. As edging plants, they make a charming display. Their popularity with gardeners and hybridizers is growing, and new hybrids are appearing in great numbers.
  • Intermediate Bearded Iris (IDB): Sixteen to 27.5 inches tall. Blooms over a long period, beginning after the SDBs and continuing during the TBs. These provide welcome smaller versions of the TBs for a different look in the garden.
  • Miniature Tall Bearded (MTB): Also sixteen to 27.5 inches tall; blooms with the BBs and TBs, but produces smaller blooms. The MTB’s smaller flowers are perfect for smaller gardens and a more delicate look.
  • Border Bearded (BB): Also sixteen to 27.5 inches tall; blooms late, with the TBs. This classification’s name suggests its role: these irises are desirable for the garden bed border, compact and floriferous, with ample colors and color combinations to support creative color effects in the landscape.

This quick review of the several kinds of bearded irises is drawn from Kelly Norris’s new book, “A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts.”

Last week, I mentioned the Annual Rhizome Sale of the Monterey Bay Iris Society, Saturday, August 10th (that’s today, from 9:00 to noon!). Visit the sale at Aptos Farmer’s Market, Cabrillo College, Aptos. It’s an exceptional opportunity to add tall bearded irises to your garden at very low cost, and chat with local iris enthusiasts.


Good mail order suppliers of iris rhizomes

Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, near Salem, Oregon

Keith Keppel Iris, Salem, Oregon

Fred Kerr’s Rainbow Acres, North Highlands, California

Aitken’s Salmon Creek Gardens, Vancouver, Washington

Books on Irises (most available through

The Iris Family: Natural History and Classification, by Peter Goldblatt and John C. Manning   2008

Irises, by James Parry           2006

Classic Irises And the Men And Women Who Created Them, by Clarence Mahan             2006

Irises: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia, by Claire Austin             2005

Wild Lilies, Irises, and Grasses: Gardening with California Monocots, by Nora Harlow, Kristin Jakob     2004

Iris, by Theodore James , with Harry Haralambou            203

Irises, by Sidney Linnegar, Jennifer Hewitt            2003

Iris: The Classic Bearded Varieties, by Claire Austin            2002

The Gardener’s Iris Book, by William Shear            2002

The Siberian Iris, by Currier McEwen, with Jean G. Witt   1996

The World of Irises, by Bee Warburton, Beatrice A. Warburton and Melba Hamblen (Eds.)   1978

The Iris Book, by Molly Price            1972

The genus Iris, by G. I. Rodionenko   1961

Iris culture and Hybridizing for Everyone, by Wilma Vallette         1961

The Iris, by N. Leslie Cave     1959

Iris for Every Garden, by Sydney B. Mitchell           1949

Irises. Their Culture And Selection, by Gwendolyn Anley    1946

The Iris: A Treatise on the History, Development, and Culture of the Iris for the Amateur Gardener, by John Caspar Wister    1930

The genus Iris, by William Rickatson Dykes            1913




Teaming with Nutrients II

This column was planned to provide a closer look at Jeff Lowenfels’ new book, Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition. I confess that I have read only the early chapters, due partly to other demands on my time and partly to the book’s demand for concentrated study.

In other words, Lowenfels gives this subject the scientific detail it deserves and that approach requires slow reading.

The book opens with chapters on The Plant Cell, Some Basic Chemistry and Botany for Plant Nutrition. It then proceeds to The Nutrients, Water Movement Through Plants, and Nutrient Movement Through Plants.

The four remaining chapters address The Molecules of Life, The Importance of Soil Testing, Factors Influencing Nutrient Availability, and What and When to Feed Plants.

I’m still reading, but my early assessment of the book has two parts. First, the text offers clear but not easy reading. Second, it provides basic science that is fundamental to successful gardening.

We can approach gardening as an aesthetic exercise, choosing and arranging plants to provide a pleasing display. If they succeed, we are delighted; if they do not, we either move them to spots that might be more hospitable, or discard them in favor of other trials.

If we approach gardening from the more scientific approach of Lowenfel’s Teaming with Nutrients (and his previous book, Teaming with Microbes) we can achieve very high degrees of success and plants with vigorous good health. And good health in plants means more beautiful foliage and blossoms, and stronger resistance to diseases and insect pests.

There is a middle ground. This is the territory of “green thumb gardeners” who succeed because they enjoy intuitive knowledge but don’t know why their plants flourish.

I respect green thumb gardeners and I am grateful for the occasions when my efforts qualify me to join their ranks temporarily.

But perhaps we prefer that our gardens hold a measure of mystery!

Most garden books emphasize gardening’s aesthetic aspects; Lowenfels’ book provides a rare example of plant science and nutrition from the perspective of a dedicated gardener.

Mark Your Calendar

As you consider adding this book to your reading list, consider these events for avid gardeners:

• Annual Iris Rhizome Sale I, Monterey Bay Iris Society, Saturday, August 3rd, (yes, today!), Deer Park Shopping Center, Aptos;

• Annual Rhizome Sale II, Monterey Bay Iris Society, Saturday, August 10th, Aptos Farmer’s Market at Cabrillo College, Aptos;

• Annual Show, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, Saturday, August 31st, 1:00–5:00 and Sunday, September 1st, 10:00–4:00, Soquel High School, Soquel.

Teaming with Nutrients

Over two years ago, I reviewed an exceptional book on gardening in two of these columns. The book is Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 2010). That book uses readily accessible language to introduce gardeners to the microbial life that sustains healthy plants. It remains today an uncommonly scientific perspective on gardening and a valuable resource for all gardeners.

Now, the principal author of that book has released an equally valuable companion work: Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardeners Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition (Timber Press, 2013). In this book, Lowenfels provides easily understood explanations of the chemistry, biology and botany involved in how nutrients get to plants, and how they contribute to the plant’s health and vigorous growth.

Common knowledge indicates that nitrogen is responsible for strong stem and foliage growth, phosphorus aids in healthy root growth and flower and seed production, and potassium is responsible for improving overall health and disease resistance.

Many gardeners employ a fairly rudimentary approach to plant nutrition, and often adopt one of the following major perspectives on the subject.

The Balanced Fertilizer Group doses all plants with a chemical fertilizer with equal parts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, represented by the symbols N, P and K, e.g., a fertilizer labeled “10–10–10.”

The Customized Fertilizer Group uses chemical fertilizers that have varying percentages of these most important nutrients, depending on the cultivation objectives. For example, Osmocote’s Indoor/Outdoor Fertilizer, labeled 19–6–12, focuses on strong top growth and overall health, and less on root growth.

Both of these groups use more nitrogen than their plants really need, while unintentionally delivering excess nutrients that wash into waterways and harm aquatic ecosystems.

The Organic Fertilizer Group relies on fertilizers composed of organic plant or animal matter. These fertilizers include commercial products, manures and plant materials that a gardener composts in his/her own garden. These fertilizers also could be described in terms of N-P-K ratios, but compared to chemical fertilizers they act more slowly and over longer periods, and are friendlier to the environment.

The No-Fertilizer Group includes gardeners who add nothing to their gardens in the belief that plants will grow in the same soil year after year without depleting the nutrients. This is an error, as the garden’s declining performance demonstrates eventually.

In this book, Lowenfels offers deeper understanding of the major and minor plant nutrients and delivers the necessary science in a conversational style that most gardeners will appreciate.

Next week’s column will review Teaming with Nutrients in more detail and (no surprise) recommend reading this book as an investment in your long-term success in gardening.