Discovering Gladioli

My garden includes several gladioli. I do not recall planting even one of these plants, but there they are, almost always in the wrong places. They have popped up, for example, in the middle of the rose bed, and on the edge of the entry path to my front door.

One definition of weeds is “plants that grow where they are not wanted,” but these plants have attractive blossoms. In fact, the sword lily—as it is sometimes called—is among the most desirable plants for cut flowers. The blossoms are available in many different colors.

Now that their blossoms have faded and the stalks are drying out, it’s the right time to corral their spread and get them growing in better places. This calls for some research.

The genus Gladiolus is a member of the iris family (Iridaceae), including about 300 species, the large majority of which are natives of South Africa. The species range in height from 1.5 feet (G. tristis) to 3 feet (G. callianthus, the Abyssinian Sword Lily) to 6 feet (the common grandiflora hybrids).

Gladiolus byzanthus By Meneerke bloem

Gladiolus byzanthus
By Meneerke bloem

The 5.5 feet plants that have appeared are probably garden hybrids and are best placed in the middle or back of the bed.

Once the plant’s blossoms have turned brown, the stems should be cut below the lowest flower to discourage the plant from setting unwanted seeds. In the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate the corms can be left in place, or dug for planting in a different location. My garden is organized geographically, so I will replant the corms in the South African bed.

Once dug, the corms can be grouped in three categories: old, large corms are viable but lack vigor; younger corms at least .75 inches in diameter will produce blossoms in the spring; and cormlets about the size of peas can be planted to produce blossoms after a year of development.

Corms may be stored in a cool, dry, dark and well-ventilated place until replanting in the following year from January to March. After planting they will bloom reliably in 80–to–100 days, depending on the variety. This invites succession planting about 1 or 2 weeks apart to yield a series of blooms for cutting or enjoying in the garden.

The corms should be planted where they will get rich soil, full sun, and good drainage. They should be planted about 4 inches deep and about 6 inches apart. Apply an organic, water-soluble fertilizer when the plants are 10 inches tall, and again when the flower spikes begin to show color.

As the plants grow, they might require staking, either with individual stakes or a grid made of stakes and string (but almost none one of the several volunteers in my garden has flopped).

As sometimes happens, plants that introduce themselves unexpectedly in the garden can be appreciated and welcome. So far, I am glad to discover gladioli and looking ahead to a fine display in the spring and summer of next year. I might even become interested in buying corms of different species and different colors.

For information about gladiolus varieties and cultivation of these plants, visit the website of the North American Gladiolus Council.

Designing with Succulents

An avid gardener I talked with recently mentioned that he and his wife are not at all interested in succulents. They have none in their garden and do not intend to add any.

I wasn’t advocating succulent plants at that time, but I find their preference to be puzzling. In fact all plants store moisture to some degree; those we call “succulents” just have more effective ways of managing during dry periods.

Given this perspective, we might consider the reasons why many gardeners find succulent plants to be appealing and others do not.

Some who don’t like these plants might think all succulents are cacti with sharp points, and don’t want to be harmed. We must respond with the old line that all cacti are succulents, but all succulents are not cacti. Also, a few cacti do not have sharp points, and a few succulents that are not cacti also have sharp points. With simple precautions the gardener can avoid being poked, and with study can appreciate Nature’s strategy for some plants to defend themselves from hungry predators. (Cactus spines are really modified leaves designed to minimize moisture loss.)

Other gardeners who don’t like succulent plants might just be unfamiliar with their great variety of forms, structures, colors, landscape value, and unique qualities. For these gardeners, an excellent introduction to succulent plants is Debra Lee Baldwin’s new book, Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2017). This book, due for release later this month, is the completely revised second edition of Baldwin’s 2007 book of the same title.

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Baldwin has organized her ideas about succulent plants in six sections: essential garden design ideas; specialty gardens; cultivation advice; descriptions of selected plants; categorized lists of plants; and drought-tolerant companion plants.

Each section includes the author’s solid information based on her own gardening knowledge and inputs from other experts, and excellent images from her own work and other photographers. Baldwin brings a strong background of garden writing and photography to this task, as well as extensive experience in gardening. She is also a popular speaker and a producer of many short YouTube video recordings on succulent gardening.

Other books provide an encyclopedic resource or a botanical analysis of succulent plants, but Designing with Succulents, as its title indicates, focuses on design ideas for landscape vignettes, plant combinations, and containers. The book shows and describes exciting examples of designs from public and private gardens in southern California, and several other parts of the United States.

Among many other ideas, Designing with Succulents demonstrates the aesthetic value of larger plants in the landscape. Familiar good advice for adding plants to the garden includes being aware of the plant’s mature size. Buying only small plants minimizes expense, but filling the garden with plants that will never grow into larger size leaves the landscape with little drama or architectural interest.

Gardeners new to these plants will find both useful information and inspiration in this book. Experienced growers of succulents also will discover motivation to explore possibilities for refining their gardens and containers, and enjoying gardening with succulents.

Propagating Softwood Cuttings

I like to know the names of the plants in my garden, partly because I can Google them for information about cultivation and routine care. I also want to know their geographic origin because I have organized my garden in Mediterranean climate zones, and want the plants to be in the right zone.

That’s a bit wonky, I know, but that’s how my garden is organized.

Despite that need for plant names, I lost track of the name of a plant in the Australian area of my garden. Here is the plant:

Teucrium betonicum - close up

Teucrium betonicum

By chance, I came upon the plant’s name while searching the Internet for examples of landscape designs for Mediterranean climate gardens. It is a Madeira Germander (Teucrium betonicum), which is from the Madeira Islands, which are in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Canary Islands. That area is within my informal definition of the Mediterranean climate zone.

Other germanders are native to other parts of the Mediterranean area. A popular plant for Mediterranean climate landscapes is the Bush Germander (Teucrium fruticans). My germander is considered “relatively rare,” which I find appealing for some reason.

This plant grows vigorously, rising to just over six feet with evergreen foliage and showy spikes of rose-violet flowers. According to my landscaping plan, however, it is in the wrong place. This plant grows vigorously, rising to just over six feet with evergreen foliage and showy spikes of rose-violet flowers. According to my landscaping plan, however, it is in the wrong place.

I’d like to move the plant to the Mediterranean area of my garden. I might give that a try during the winter months after it is out of bloom and into dormancy. It might move easily and survive nicely, or the process might kill it.

I might look for a replacement plant, but I haven’t seen this “relatively rare” plant in local garden centers and searches of mail order sources were unsuccessful.

An alternative approach is to propagate the plant from tip cuttings. This strategy requires time for the new plants to grow to maturity, but it is easy and inexpensive. I could use three specimens in my Mediterranean garden, and growing three new plants would require only slightly more effort than growing one.

As it happens, late spring/early summer the right time of the year to propagate shrubs. The most difficult part of the process is to take cuttings at the right maturity, called softwood. Greenwood cuttings are too young, and woody cuttings are too mature. Softwood snaps when bent, while green wood bends without snapping and wood does not bend.

Take a softwood cutting that has two or three leaves, and neither bud nor blossom. Cut an inch or so below the bottom leaf, then remove the bottom leaf. This leaves the leaf node from which roots will develop. Treat the leaf node with root hormone (available at garden centers), and insert the cutting into moist potting soil. Press the soil around the cutting to eliminate air pockets, and place the cutting in a warm spot with indirect light. Keep it moist (not wet) for about a month, and test for root growth by tugging gently on the cutting. Once roots have formed, maintain the plant as it grows to begin enough for transplanting in the garden.

This outline of softwood propagation shows that the process is not difficult; more detailed descriptions of the process are available in books or on the Internet.

If you haven’t tried propagating a favored shrub from your garden or another’s garden, right now is a good opportunity to try this “real” gardening activity. Propagation is most satisfying when you could use several clones of a plant to develop your garden or to give to friends.

Planning a Garden Staircase

The many pleasures of gardening include having multiple projects going at any given time. The projects typically are at different stages of development, ranging from vague interest to almost done.

The projects also differ in duration and immediacy. Some are time-sensitive, e.g., removing weed before they set seed, or installing plants before the onset of winter rains, or pruning apple trees before bud break.

Other projects can be pursued at any time, whenever the mood strikes and enough planning has been accomplished.

One such project now waiting for my attention is the replacement of a short flight of wooden steps that have begun to deteriorate. These were created some time back by the simple process of installing railroad ties on a slope. The wooden pieces we call “railroad ties” are not actual ties, which I believe are soaked in creosote and not really good for gardens. They are instead 6” x 6” lumber that is 36” or 48” long.

The slope at issue is neither long nor steep. I pulled a cord from the top of the slope, used string level to adjust the height of the cord above the bottom of the slope, and measured the drop at twenty-four inches. By the way, I used a non-stretchy cord (Mason’s twine) to minimize sagging along the length of the run.

Once the height of the stairway has been determined, the next decision concerns the rise of the steps and the depth of the treads. These measurements should relate to each other and should be consistent throughout the stairway (even a short one).

Garden steps might use basic dimensions: a rise of 5 1/2 to 7 inches and a tread of 12 to 18 inches. Or they might have a shorter rise and a longer tread to provide a slower walk up the slope. For a stairway that would be a comfortable walk for most people, the tread plus twice the height of the riser should equal 26 or 27 inches: Tread + (2 × Riser) = 26 or 27.

For a chart of several suitable combinations of tread and riser, visit

My stairway project needs to elevate walkers just two feet over a distance of roughly ten feet, so I could use 4” risers with 18” treads. This would require six steps and risers, extending over a nine feet horizontal distance. I would level the lower part of the path beyond the nine-foot distance.

There would be a slight curve to this stairway, so I will keep the centerline of the treads to a consistent 18 inches.

The next phase of this project is to select the material for the steps. There are countless options, including cut stone, natural stone, cast concrete, salvaged concrete (“urbanite”), wood, and perhaps others. For design ideas and exemplary uses of various materials, visit and search for “garden steps.”

California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) lasts well when planted in soil, and is a good choice for garden steps. (Other rot-resistant woods include black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), teak (Tectona grandis), ipe (Tabebuia spp), and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), but these are more expensive materials for steps.)

Stone steps would be nice but might require more cost and more labor.

Labeling GE Foods —A Slow Process

Legislating can be a long, slow process.

Almost a year ago, Congress approved legislation that established a national standard for labeling foods that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. This legislation was a compromise between the vast majority of consumers who wanted to know what is in their food, and the food industry that was concerned that labeling GE ingredients would reduce sales of such foods.

The compromise language limited the legislation to “bioengineered” foods, preempted state laws on the subject, and permitted food manufacturers to use various forms of labels: text, symbol or electronic or digital link.

The legislation allowed two years for writing regulations to implement these standards, which are to become effective at the end of July of 2018.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is developing those regulations, recently invited comments on 30 questions related to the standards and indicated that the USDA would use input on those questions in drafting proposed rules.

The 30 questions are available online at the Agricultural Marketing Service website.

Once drafted, the proposed rules themselves would be submitted for public comments.

In response to these 30 questions consumer-interest groups, e.g. focused on the following issues:

  • Define “bioengineering” broadly, and compatibly with the federal definition of “organic;”
  • Require labels on foods that include even very small amounts of GE ingredients;
  • Identify GE foods on product labels, or on product shelves in the case of raw foods;
  • Make regulations effective in July of 2018, as called for in the legislation, with no delays.

Consumer-interest groups were sharply disappointed in this legislation, given the overwhelming support for labeling of GE foods, and are now seeking to tilt the compromise language in favor of straightforward, text-based labels.

Critics of the legislation had been particularly negative about its allowance for labels in the form of symbols (e.g., QR codes), website addresses or telephone numbers, as an alternative to text. The argument was that anything other than textual information on packages or shelves would be less useful, particularly for people who lacked the ability to scan digital codes or access the internet while shopping. The pressure for text-based information could take the form of petitions, boycotts or both.

Consumer groups typically advocate the purchase of federally certified organic foods (as well as ginseng) as the ultimate protection against GE foods. While that advice still stands, there are signs that Congress is working toward “reforming” the National Organic Standards Board, which defines “organic” foods.

In a future column, we will explore that dynamic.

Mosses in the Garden

Learning about flowering plants (angiosperms) can be a lifelong study for a gardener. One report states that they include 416 families, approximately 13,164 known genera and about 295,383 known species. Angiosperms are within the group called vascular land plants, i.e., plants that have specialized tissues for conducting water and minerals throughout the plant, and for conducting the products of photosynthesis.

Other kinds of vascular land plants include clubmosses, horsetails, ferns, and gymnosperms (e.g., conifers). Seaweeds and other plants that grow in water (aquatics) are in a different group.

The scientific term for vascular land plants is Tracheophytes, a name with the same root as our own windpipes (trachea). The suffix “–phytes” means “plants.”

The complement to vascular land plants could be non–vascular land plants, which do not have the specialized tissues of vascular plants, and that have very different ways to grow and propagate. For example, instead of roots they have rhizoids, which are similar to the root hairs of vascular plants.

Non-vascular land plants, called Bryophytes (“moss plants”), have three divisions: mosses, liverworts and hornworts. There are some 18,400 species among the Bryophytes, including about 13,000 mosses, 5,200 liverworts and just 200 hornworts. This group is clearly much smaller in number than the Tracheophytes. The plants also are typically much smaller in size, even in some cases microscopic.

The current issue of Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society, includes an absorbing article on Bryophytes, and suggests that we should care about them because of their aesthetic charm, contributions to biodiversity, and ecological functions, which include hydrological buffering and nutrient cycling.

Because of such qualities, about two years ago interested persons formed the Bryophyte Chapter of the California Plant Society, to “increase understanding and appreciation of California’s mosses, liverworts, and hornworts—and to protect them where they grow.” For information on this CNPS chapter, visit its website.

The aesthetic aspect of Bryophytes, particularly for mosses, might be interesting to gardeners and landscapers. Moss gardening can be a fascinating pursuit for the adventurous gardener with sufficient time and patience.

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There are moss varieties for many different situations, including both sunny and shady settings as well as a wide range of soil types (except sand). Growing mosses for an unusual garden bed or between stepping stones or pavers can take a year or two and consistent irrigation. For information on such projects, search the Internet for “moss gardens” or visit the website of Moss & Stone for the useful paper, “How to Grow Moss.”

Bryophytes and especially mosses are an under-appreciated and fascinating part of the plant kingdom, and mosses could be a welcome addition to the home garden.