Gardening in Containers

Planting in containers can be a complement to planting in the ground, and it has multiple appeals:

  • alternative to garden space that’s limited (or lacking entirely);
  • opportunity for creative combinations of pots and plants;
  • supports either long-term or seasonal displays;
  • freedom to hide pots with plants after blooming;
  • design strategies for paved areas, like decks and patios;
  • ideal use of wide stairways; and
  • invites large and dramatic arrangements;

Container gardeners soon develop their personal likes and dislikes, but if this approach is new to you, here are ideas to consider.

Plan plants and pots as complements: One method is to choose a container that you like, and then find a plant that would work well with it. The reverse strategy can work too, but there are more plants than pots, so it’s easiest to find the right plant for a given pot. Find complementary colors, textures, and sizes. (One rule of thumb: the plant ‘s mature height should be about twice the height of the container.)

Think big pots: For a striking presentation, select large pots. A collection of one-gallon plastic nursery pots will minimize cost, but will also minimize impact. Smallish decorative containers, even when individually attractive, still under-sell the horticulture. Big pots produce big results, and provide more root room and hold more moisture between watering sessions.

Think multiple pots: Just like planting in the ground, mass effects can be pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the soul. A substantial array of containers can present an eye-catching display. Three is better than two, and, given lots of available space, fifteen is better than twelve. Multiple-pot displays could emphasize annuals or perennials, and can be particularly effective with bulbs.

Plan the overall look:  It’s too easy to accumulate both plants and pots one at a time, which leads to a confusing conglomeration. Such groupings reflect piecemeal landscaping, which is all too popular and ultimately minimizes bang for the buck. The first step in planning for multiple pots emphasizes the overall effect, even when limited time and resources requires building the display over weeks or even months. The plan should encompass the style of the containers. They need not all be the same, but they should work together. A Talavera planter probably will look out of place among several terra cotta pots. The plan also should also consider blossom color combinations, e.g., complementary, analogous, triadic, etc. Search the Internet for “color harmonies.”

Plan individual containers: An important difference exists between a floral arrangement, and a container that plays a role in a larger display. When planning a standalone display, the “thriller, filler, spiller” design works fine. When planning for a big, dramatic effect, however, plant each container with one type of plant in one color. And fill the containers: for example, a 12-inch wide pot can accommodate up to 30 bulbs. A more timid installation will look, well, timid.

Consider the passage of time: When building a display of seasonal plants, keep their bloom period in mind. When blooms have faded, move the containers out of sight and bring in different, ready to bloom containers. An intermediate approach involves installing layers of bulbs with successive bloom periods. This requires some planning, but the extended display can be gratifying.

Large-scale container planting takes some research. If you are considering a display of bulbs, right now is the time to order bulbs to be planted in the fall, for spring blooms. One good online resource is Brent & Becky’s Bulbs. I’ve had the pleasure of having dinner with Brent and Becky Heath, so I’m partial, but there are other very good online bulb nurseries, some of which offer wholesale prices for container gardening on a larger scale.

For design inspiration, search the Internet for “bulbs in containers,” and select “images.”

Do you have a suitable space for container gardening?

Hybridizing Aloes

Hybridizing plants is an easy process: bees do it! They’re usually pollinating plants of the same species, but occasionally, they move a plant’s pollen to a different, compatible species and, without intention, begin the process of natural hybridization.

Human hybridizers, by contrast, have a plan: to improve specific plants. Pursuing this goal requires more than accident. Legendary hybridizer and sometime romantic botanist Luther Burbank said, “The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.”

Another important secret, according to contemporary hybridizer, Karen Zimmerman, is fun! She strongly recommends and enjoys hybridizing aloes and growing plants from seed.

Zimmerman is the Succulent Propagator for the Huntington Library, Art Galleries andBotanical Gardens, in San Marino, California. The Huntington’s Desert Garden is one of the largest and oldest assemblages of cacti and other succulents in the world, so her work includes a generous measure of fun.

Speaking to the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, Zimmerman focused on hybridizing aloes, a genus of succulent plants that includes some 450 species.These include the common Aloe vera, which has a variety of medicinal uses, including soothing sunburns, but a wide range of other forms exist within the genus.

As a hybridizer, Zimmerman studies the several kinds of aloes and explores the potentials of combining features of different kinds to produce hybrids with desirable characteristics. She described several categories of aloes:

  • Size & Form: miniatures, shrubs, trees, and creepers
  • Unusual Leaf Arrangements: fan, spiral rosette
  • Teeth, Prickles, “Warts” or Bumps
  • Colors: white, green, red, black, various patterns

She recognized several prominent hybridizers of aloes, including Kelly Griffin ofAltman Plants, and Brian Kemble of The Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery. Hybridizing can build upon the products of other hybridizers, or work primarily with natural species. Hybridizers typically welcome efforts to add to their successes by crossing their hybrids with other plants. This approach is not so much plagiarism as respect. 

Generally, hybridizing can seek improvements in plants for landscape appeal, flowering, vigor, pest or disease resistance, or other characteristics. Zimmerman emphasizes what she terms “fantasy aloes,” which have unusual colors, patterns, or spinose teeth on the leaf margins. She has introduced several hybrid aloes with names that suggest fantasies, e.g.,  ‘Dragon’,‘Gargoyle’, ‘Wily Coyote’, and ‘Chameleon’.

Aloe ‘DZ’ a hybrid by Karen Zimmerman

The process begins with transferring pollen from one plant to another. Zimmerman uses various tools for this task, and currently favors her fingers, tweezers, and dentistry tools.

The nextstep is to collect the resultant seeds, which are small and easily lost.Zimmerman recommends mesh drawstring gift bags, which are inexpensive and effective in catching seeds.

She plants the seeds with labels indicating the “pollen parent” and “seed parent,” plus date and other information of interest. Her planting mix is 80% pumice and 20%forest humus, with the seeds covered with grit. The seeds need to be kept in warm, moist conditions, which can be provided with a closed plastic bag in indirect light.

Aloes, which are monocots, germinate and produce one leaf from the seed in about two weeks. As the plants develop, the hybridizing process consists of editing: the cross between two plants produces numerous seedlings, some of which hopefully will exhibit the desirable traits the hybridizer intended, and others (perhaps all!)will be—as Zimmerman describes them— less interesting, boring, or even ugly.

The seedlings will take various amounts of time to show their mature form. Zimmerman compares them to human teenagers, who reveal their “true selves” at various ages. Some very young seedlings will be unique in interesting ways, while others might be late bloomers.

Editing the seedlings can be the hybridizer’s most important function. It involves choosing those that are worthy of continued development and those that are discarded to make room on the nursery bench.

The hybridizer thinks of appropriate names for the successes and eventually introduces them to commercial distribution. That process uses tissue culture(cloning) to propagate enough cultivars to meet market demand. Seed propagation doesn’t work because growing hybrids from seed yields unpredictable results.

Throughout her talk, “Aloes on My Mind,” Zimmerman demonstrated her continuing enthusiasm for hybridizing aloes, and revealed that, “The real fun is imaging what’s next!”

The succulent gardeners in her audience recognized that hybridizing plants is easy and an enjoyable aspect of gardening that they might just try themselves. One of them could produce next season’s most exciting hybrid aloe.

Planning a Cutting Garden

An ornamental garden, as contrasted with an edible garden, often will yield a number of blossoms suitable for occasional floral arrangements. To produce blossoms specifically for indoor display, however, the gardener needs to develop and maintain a cutting garden.

A cutting garden can be as small or as large as the gardener chooses. Because it serves as a “blossom factory,” it need not be a landscaping feature. It could be a rectangular space with plants in orderly and efficient rows. The bed could be as short or long as desired, but should be no more than about four feet wide, with access on both sides for cultivation, maintenance and harvesting.

The bed should follow the familiar basic standards: fertile soil with good drainage, six-to-eight hours of sunlight, and convenient access to irrigation.

A grouping of Dahlia ‘Jomanda’. Image courtesy of the Monterey Bay Dahlia Society

Plant selection should reflect the gardener’s preferences, which might be based on personal favorites, intended combinations of blossom colors, or other criteria. Unless the gardener has particular plants in mind, the initial plant selection might be based on expert recommendations.

The best source I know for such recommendations is Debra Prinzing, advocate for American-grown flowers, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet and Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm. Here are her current top ten picks for summer bouquets:

  • Dahlia — medium-sized forms
  • Zinnia — Queen series for soft colors; Persian Carpet varieties for textural accents
  • Sunflower—‘Plum’, ‘White Night’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Strawberry Blonde’, ‘Chocolate’
  • Cosmos—Double Click and Cupcake series
  • Ammi—(called false Queen Anne’s Lace) ‘Dara’, ‘White Dill’, and ‘Green Mist’
  • Yarrow—both pure colors and muted/pastel varieties
  • Shasta Daisy—especially double forms like ‘Crazy Daisy’ and ‘Sante’
  • Roses —try some in the caramel and terra cotta range: ‘Hot Cocoa’, ‘Cinco de Mayo’, ‘Pumpkin Patch
  • Herbs— purple basil and ‘Berggarten’ sage for foliage and fragrance
  • Nigella—blue blooms, unusual seedpods, and lacy greenery are eye-catching

After the gardener has selected plants for the cutting garden, the options are to buy and install small plants at a garden center, or plant seeds. Buying small plants involves paying someone for starting the plants from seed, so it’s faster and more expensive than growing your own. But choices could be limited Planting seeds requires less expense, and also provides access to a wide range of options.

Seeds should be planted at the right time of the season. Some seeds should be started indoors in early spring; others are best planted in the ground in early spring, early summer, or mid-summer/early fall. This month is still a good time to start certain seeds for a cutting garden.

An excellent source of recommendations for seasonal planting of seeds for flowering plants is local expert Renee Shepherd. For a timely list of flowers to plant now, browse to her website, click on “Gardening Resources” and search “Time to plant Renee’s Garden Seeds.” Her seeds are among those on display in garden centers.

Seed packets typically have brief instructions for successful planting of seeds.

Flowering plants that have multiple, branching stems will produce maximum yield of good quality flowers with long stems when their primary stems are cut back (“pinched”) at an early stage of growth. Examples include carnation, cosmos, dahlia, and snapdragon.

Pinching is not appropriate for plants that produce just one flower per plant. Examples of such plants include flax, stock, and single-stemmed sunflowers.

Growing your own flowers for bouquets and floral arrangements is one of the most satisfying garden activities. A good time to start your own unique cutting garden, and beginning to gain experience and enjoy the process,  is mid summer/early fall. That’s right now!

Landscaping for Historical Homes

The MontereyBay area was settled in the 1800s; incorporation of Santa Cruz was in 1866, andMonterey in 1889. The area has a good number of older houses, and some current owners of those earlier residences might wish to create a garden that reflects their home’s historical landscape.

A landscaping friend recently began work with a client who lives in a residence built in 1895, and wants to create a garden typical of that era. My friend would like to identify plants that were in home gardens at that time.

A gardening nerd could not ignore such a challenge!

I search the Internet for lists of plants that were in residential gardens of the Monterey Bay area in 1895 (or around that time), and discovered that homeowners did not share lists of plants in their gardens.

There were several missions in central California that typically had gardens of edible and ornamental plants, and missions often recorded their activities. They seemed a promising source of information, but my searches yielded no fruit.

By chance, I learned that the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley was formally established in 1890 “to form a living collection of the native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants of the State of California…” and “within two years the collection numbered 600 species.” Given this garden’s impressive online database of plants, compiling a list of native California plants of the era seemed simple.

I found, however, that the earliest entries in the garden’s database begin with acquisitions in 1900, and very few in the early years of the century. Vanessa Handley, Director of Collections and Research told me that the initial acquisition records were not maintained after the garden was moved in 1925-28 from its original central campus location to its current position in Strawberry Canyon, above the main campus.

I visited the website of the California Garden and Landscape History Society, which pointed me to “the most extensive scholarly treatment of California landscape history,” CaliforniaGardens: Creating a New Eden, by David C. Streatfield (Abbeville Press,1994). That book and others that looked helpful were available in used (but good) condition for quite reasonable prices, so I ordered a few additions to my library.

The first book that arrived is Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640–1940, by Denise Wiles Adams (TimberPress, 2004). This book includes an appendix of plant lists extracted from nursery catalogs, focusing on about 100 of the most popular plants, organized by different regions in different eras. These lists represent an extraordinary research project by Ms. Adams.

Her lists for the Mountain and WesternStates include but of course do not target the Monterey Bay area. They would provide fine guidance for planning a historical garden for specific periods: 1870–1899,1900–1924, and 1925–1940.

The plants listed are mostly recognizable; today’s plants certainly existed 150 years ago. The plants we find in local garden centers or mail-order catalogs, however, are often contemporary cultivars that would have developed many years after early gardeners planted their gardens. Projects to create an accurately historical garden should feature species plants, rather than the latest hybrid introductions.

The next challenge would be to find species plants!

Gardening for the Near Future: Spring Bulbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fritillaria meleagris, by Farmer Gracy

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

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

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

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

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

Repotting a Container Plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medusa Plant by Keith Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering a Chilean Plant

Ochagavia litoralis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Shopping for Help in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying Your Mystery Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fierce Lancewood

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

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

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

Visit Public Gardens on Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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