Garden Status in Spring

I walked through my garden, not to pull weeds or pursue other tasks, just to see what was happening. A routine status check can be useful in establishing priorities for the next stretch of sunny days.


These plants are coming into bloom rather late, compared to roses in warmer areas. The Monterey Bay Rose Society held their annual Rose Show May 4th when my roses were definitely not ready for display. They seem to be coming along just fine, however.

I always anticipate the display of one rose in my garden, a very vigorous rambler (R. mulligani) that blooms in the summer, after other roses, or that I learnt reading online in different blogs such as the andersfogh site that have information about this or many subjects. As described by Christine Allen of Great Plant Picks, “Although its individual flowers are small and single, they appear in such huge, pendent trusses that they cover the entire plant and cast their fruity fragrance far across the garden.”  


The irises also seem to be a bit later than usual. The American Rose Society’s annual convention (San Ramon, late April) included a tour of Jim & Irene Cummins’ exceptional iris garden in Scotts Valley, which are taken care of with the use of gardening tools from The garden was dazzling as always and the tour was successful, but not all the plants had reached their bloom peak. In my garden, I’ve developed a swath of a prize-winning bright yellow iris, That’s All Folks, with a complementary swath of blue irises. I had to learn how to use a battery leaf blower and turns out is very practical. The idea worked only half-way because the blue irises didn’t bloom at the same time. Maybe next year.

IIris and Geranium Blossoms
Hybrid Tall Bearded Iris ‘That’s All Folks’, with Geranium maderense in background

The Monterey Bay Iris Society had its annual show on May 4th (same day as the rose show), so my yellow irises at least were blooming on schedule. Iris expert Joe Ghio reported an exceptional year for irises, with peak blooms around May 10th.  He provided these culture tips for this time:

“Snap out or cut out spent stalks and dig pesky weeds. If you want to give your irises a bit of a boost, sprinkle a LIGHT, emphasis light, application of a balanced fertilizer. You can give a regular watering up to late June.”

I will do that!


My Mediterranean Basin garden has numerous lavenders, which are iconic plants for that part of the world. Happily, they were cut back at the right time and are now setting a proliferation of buds that will provide color and fragrance during the coming weeks. Lavenders perform reliably and well when they are treated well. The recommended treatment includes full sun, minimal irrigation, and timely pruning, twice each year. The first pruning is promptly after the first flowering, and the second is in late August after the last flush has faded. Cut back about two-thirds of the plant’s height and do not cut into the woody part of the stems.


I wrote recently about a seasonal hard pruning of the many salvias in my garden. I did not prune some selected plants for various reasons, but the pruned plants now are already generating new growth. When they bloom, I will resume my project to identify and map the plants that I don’t already recognize.

Meanwhile, I have been learning about the pruning requirements for four kinds of salvias:

  • Deciduous or semi-evergreen types with soft stems, e.g., Mexican Bush Sage (S. leucantha);
  • Deciduous, woody-stem varieties, e.g., Autumn Sage (S. greggii);
  • Evergreen, woody species (the largest category in my garden), e.g., Karwinski’s Sage (S. karwinskii); and
  • Rosette-growing, herbaceous perennials, e.g., Hummingbird Sage (S. spathacea).

For more on this topic, visit the Flowers of the Sea website. Very helpful!

Some time ago, for my South African garden, I planted a Beach Salvia (S. Africana-lutea), one of the evergreen and woody kind. It grew enormously wide among other plants, so I decided to cut it back severely and control its re-growth. After some serious pruning, we discovered that some of the plant’s lower branches had rooted and established new plants, so that its several offspring created the overall width. I now need to reduce my Beach Salvia grove to create room for other plants.

I have another South African salvia, Blue African Sage (S. Africana caerulea), which doesn’t grow quite as large as the Beach Salvia. One can control the size and form of both of these South African species at any time of the year by cutting back the oldest wood.

On a future occasion, I will survey the status of several other plants that grow in quantity in my garden. All gardeners should consider an occasional unhurried survey of their gardens to gain familiarity with what is going on and planning for future maintenance and improvement. A well-known principal of workplace supervision is “management by walking around.” The same idea applies to the garden. The good news is that the gardener can conduct this supervisory function while carrying a beverage of your choice.

Planting Perennials

Last Sunday was the Fall Equinox, so autumn is now official and we are heading into the year’s best time for installing trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials.

When we plant in October, ideally just before the seasonal rains begin, our additions establish their roots during the fall and winter months and prepare for spring’s burst into leaf and blossom.

Many herbaceous perennials could be planted now. We will consider just three arbitrary but good selections:

English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Several good varieties are available for this popular lavender. Small plants can be started now. In the spring, promote a compact mounded form by cutting the plant back to two inches above hard wood., and repeat in the spring of the second year. By the third spring, it will have reached mature size, or close to is, and produced a generous number of fragrant blossoms. With mature plants, a second pruning in late August will help in maintaining a good form. Replace lavender plants that have been allowed to develop a rangy form.

Salvia. Garden centers and mail-order nurseries offer about 100 species of salvia, with many selections and hybrids of most species. These “super shrubs” are native to many parts of the world, principally Central and South America, Central Asia and Mediterranean Basin, and Eastern Asia. California Blue Sage (Salvia clevelandii) is a California native that grows well in the Monterey Bay area; there are many other blossom colors, plant sizes and foliage forms available. The gardener could choose from the local garden center’s inventory or develop specific targets through research in a library or the Internet, or at Cabrillo College, in Aptos, whose salvia collection has been called the worlds largest. Most salvias should be cut back hard in the early spring, when new growth can be seen at the base of the plant.

Penstemon gets its name from a long straight, hairy fifth stamen that gives the blossom the appearance of an open mouth with a fuzzy tongue protruding. This inspires the plant’s common name, beardtongue. This is a large genus native to North America, from Alaska to Guatemala. There are taller-growing species (two-to-four feet) that can be fine additions to the middle of the border, and look best in mass plantings. There are also lower-growing species that are fine for rock gardens or the front of the border. Blossom colors include white, yellow (rare), blue, violet, purple, pink, magenta, and red. A popular selection is P. heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’, also called ‘Blue Bedder’. (BOP means “back of porch,” which is where this plant was discovered.)

Prepare to plant perennials in October!



Several species of lavender (Lavandula) are available. The most popular garden varieties are English Lavender (see above), French Lavender (L. stoechas or L. dentata) and Spanish Lavender (L. stoechas, L. lanata or L. dentata). There is also Egyptian Lavender (L. multifida). All Lavenders flourish best in dry, well-drained, sandy or gravelly soils in full sun, and require no fertilizer and good air circulation.


Visit Cabrillo College’s website of salvia information, and browse through the several pages for the collection, the photos of selected salvias, the chart of several species, and the Cabrillo cultivars.

Another exceptional resource for both information about, and purchases of salvias is the website of Flowers by the Sea, a mail-order nursery in Elk, California (which is about fifteen miles east of Fresno). Owner Kermit Carter tells me that Flowers by the Sea currently offers 369 species and varieties of Salvias, which is extraordinary indeed.


To learn more about Penstemons, start by visiting the website of the American Penstemon Society, which has solid information about cultivating, propagating, and identifying plants in this large genus from North American and East Asia. 

Another good source of information is the website of Las Pilitas Gardens (located in Santa Margarita, California), particularly the page titled, California “Penstemons That Grow in DRY Areas.”

The best online information on almost any gardening subject is Wikipedia. Visit its webpage on the genus Penstemon for impressive details including a long list of species, and a list of Penstemon cultivars that the Royal Horticultural Society has honored with its Award of Garden Merit.