Weeding Ideas, Early Blooms

Gardening friends are pulling weeds that sprouted during our recent warm days and wishing for effective treatments. There are no quick and easy solutions to weed problems, but the longer view dictates “weeding before seeding.”

Ever optimistic, I am testing an organic pre-emergent herbicide that is based on corn gluten, a natural material that discourages the formation of roots. It’s neither cheap or 100% effective, but might be worth a try. For more information on a pelletized product, visit eartheasy.com and search for “corn gluten.” For a liquid version, go to amazon.com and search for “Green It.”

Another organic approach is the application of vinegar, which can kill really young weeds. Household vinegar (5% acidity) has some effect but horticultural vinegar (20-30% acidity) works better but dangerous to the user.

Other organic weed killers are based on clove oil will kill at least the top growth of mature weeds.

Still, the best, cheapest and most reliable way to kill weeds is pulling or digging them out by their roots.

Take a break from weeding to anticipate the coming spring and enjoy plants that are in bloom now in your garden. As I look around, I am pleased to see these early bloomers:

Wagner’s Sage (Salvia wagneriana), a large sub-shrub from Mexico and Central America has gorgeous hot pink or pink and white bracts that are greatly appreciated by hummingbirds as well as gardeners.

Wagner’s Sage

Salvia blossom - scarlet

Big Mexican Scarlet Sage

Big Mexican Scarlet Sage (Salvia gesneriiflora ‘Tequila’), another treasure from Mexico and Central America, produces brilliant red flowers with a striking black calyx and grows about ten feet high in California gardens. My neighbor has a stand of this plant that has grown fifty feet wide and well over fifteen feet high with support from adjacent shrubs.

 

 

 

 

Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana), from Australia, is a vigorous, woody vine that climbs with support from a tree or large shrub, or a trellis of some kind. Its popular varieties have differently colored blossoms: ‘Snowbells’ (white), ‘Ruby Belle’ (pinkish), ‘Ruby Heart’ (cream with ruby blotch), and ‘Golden Showers’ (yellow). My specimen grows on 2” x 2” rail attached to a fence and produces white racemes. The plant usually flowers in spring; we’re still in winter, so this is an early bloom.

Other plants now in bloom include

  • Beach Sage (Salvia africana-lutea), interesting wrinkly, golden brown flowers, from South Africa.
  • Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’), delicate blossoms, fine fragrance;
  • Common Hyacinth (H. orientalis), one of the earliest bloomers
  • Trumpet Daffodil (Narcissus ‘King Alfred’ probably), a cheerful yellow blossom
  • Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii ‘Santa Cruz’), a large, frequent blooming evergreen shrub

A plant to watch is the Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), which is now preparing for early blossoming. This hardy orchid, native to China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, is delightfully easy to grow. It is a terrestrial orchid that requires no extraordinary care and produces rose-mauve blossoms that resemble a miniature Cattleya orchid flower. An established clump will produce dozens of flower spikes. I recently moved several plants from too-shady spots into large shallow containers, anticipating the development of clumps in a couple years. They are not particularly frost-tender, but recent frost warnings encourage moving the pots under shelter.

As always, gardening involves the exercise of patience.

Wild Geraniums in the Landscape

Recently, I’ve dug a lot of geraniums of my garden because they had grown exuberantly in the wrong place. I will describe these interlopers later in this column.

Plants that grow where they are not wanted have been called “weeds,” but that’s not an appropriate name for these plants because they are garden-worthy in all respects. A better description would be “prolific,” which is a desirable trait for garden plants.

My project to manage geraniums in my garden prompts a brief overview of the Geranium family (Geraniaceae),

Let’s first review the confusion over genus names in this family. Today, we understand that the Geraniaceae includes three principal genera: geranium, pelargonium, and erodium. During the 1750s and 1750s, when Carl Linnaeus was naming plants, he included all three of these genera as geranium. In 1789, another botanist concluded that geranium and pelargonium were, in fact, different genera. Others later decided that erodium was also a separate genus. Despite this long-standing agreement on these names, many gardeners still call pelargoniums “geraniums,” although they are quite different, each with desirable characteristics.

The name “geranium” refers to the crane, while the name “pelargonium’ refers to the stork, but I actually do not find that helpful.

The true geraniums are often called “wild,” although many popular varieties are hybrids, or “hardy,” even though some geranium species don’t do well in winter. (Pelargoniums are not winter-hardy.)

The genus Geranium includes 422 species of annual, biennial and perennial plants. Most geraniums are native to the eastern part of the Mediterranean region, but they are found throughout the temperate regions of the world and the mountains of the tropics.

An excellent guide to this family of plants is the website Geraniaceae, which is maintained by Robin Parer, a very knowledgeable person in Marin County.

The site describes plants within the three principal genera of the Geraniaceae. It lists many species of Geraniums in the following groups (with numbers of species): Annuals (6); Borders & Bedding (169); Ground Covers (86); Rock Gardens & Containers (39); Scramblers & Crawlers (23); and Shade (83).

Ground cover geranium

Geranium cantabrigiense

The geranium I dug out of my garden is G. x cantabrigiense. The species name is based on the Latin name for Cambridge, England, where the hybrid was developed. My plant is the cultivar ‘Biokovo’, which is a natural hybrid discovered in Croatia’s Biokovo Mountains. The Perennial Plant Association named this plant 2015 Perennial Plant of the Year. It is an excellent ground cover that grows up to a foot high and displays white blossoms with a pink throat and prominent pink stamens. The blossoms generally open in late spring and continue into the fall, but have appeared early this year.

This plant had spread in several parts of my garden. I had yards and yards of it! I removed a 3’ x 30’ bed that amounted to perhaps 25 percent of the total so plenty continues to grace the landscape and will need future control. I removed these plants because they were growing in an area I had designated for natives of California and Mexico; I have planted this area with seeds of two varieties of the Four O-Clock (Mirabilis jalapa), which is a Mexican native and another vigorous grower.

Geranium leaves

Geranium canescens

Another geranium in my garden is G. canescens, which is a larger, relatively rare South African species that has been growing in my garden for only seven months. The species name means “to become grey, to become old,” but the plant, which is luscious green and doesn’t appear to deserve that name. It has large, deeply lobed leaves, and will display pink flowers later in the spring.

To explore the garden possibilities for the geranium, visit Geranaiceae.com or talk to Robin Parer in person at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, which returns to the San Francisco’s Cow Palace, April 4–8, (www.sfgardenshow.com/).

Hardy geraniums can be fine additions to the garden landscape.

Selecting Cannabis Seeds

After happening upon a month-by-month checklist for growing cannabis, beginning about now, my curiosity took over and I searched for seeds for my first legal marijuana grow.

This column is intended for gardeners who have interest in personal (non-commercial) cultivation of marijuana, and lack experience in this area.

Seeds are easy to find on the Internet: just search for “marijuana seeds.” They are more expensive than the seeds of familiar garden plants because they are still new on the gardening scene. Weed seeds are all too easy to come by, but several cannabis cultivars have been brought to the market, each with a combination of desired characteristics, so the marketplace is thriving.

While exploring the options, the basics of seed selection and marijuana cultivation gradually came into focus.

An important option relates to the fact that cannabis is normally dioecious, meaning that it produces separate male and female plants. Occasionally, however, some plants can be monoecious, having male and female flowers on the same plant. Unfertilized female flowers produce the best buds, so some growers will either grow only female plants or identify and remove male flowers before they can produce pollen. With a little care, one could pollinate female flowers selectively to produce seeds for a subsequent generation of plants.

Cannabis breeders have developed “feminized” plants, i.e., without male chromosomes, which are available as an easy option for growing buds of desirable quality. These plants can only produce unfertilized female flowers. A gardener could either propagate cuttings from a feminized plant to produce another generation of plants or buy seeds of the same or different cultivar, choosing from wide and growing range of possibilities.

Another important option in seed selection involves the recently modified growth cycle. Natural (“wild”) marijuana plants are photosensitive and dependent on the onset of longer nights to trigger the development of the desired buds. Growers have had to simulate this transition from the vegetative stage to the flowering stage by providing high light levels during the vegetative stage followed by periods of darkness to prompt the flowering stage. Cannabis breeders have made this process easier by developing “auto-flowering” plants that progress to the flowering stage after the passage of a certain amount of time, rather than in response to light changes. Auto-flowering plants still grow during their vegetative stage best under high light levels, but such plants can be grown at any time of the year and without burdensome manipulations of light and darkness.

A third option concerns the mature size of the plant. Using wild plants again as our reference, the most popular species, Cannabis sativa, when grown outdoors without controls can reach or even exceed twelve feet in height. California law limits personal cultivation of marijuana to indoor sites, e.g., a greenhouse, where plants are less likely to grow to an unmanageable size and be trained to be smaller, bushier and more productive of buds. Still, breeders have developed so-called compact plants that will remain under four feet tall at maturity.

There are additional variables to consider in seed selection: the plant’s relative strength of psychoactive THC versus medicinal CBD; a given strain’s balance of C. indica and C. sativa; and the character of the plants’ effect on a user, which the individual user surely would moderate.

The curious gardener might wish to explore this horticultural byway. Those that do should comply with state law and local regulations regarding personal cultivation of marijuana.The Cannifornian website is a great source of information on regulations in California’s cities and counties.

Regard gardening as adventure!

Continue reading

Identify Your Mystery Plants

When adding a plant to your garden, best practice includes knowing about the plant’s growing needs and mature size. Retail sources of plants should and usually do provide such basic facts on a label or catalog entry. The gardener could make do with that information or could dig a little deeper in a reference book like Sunset’s Western Garden Book, or through the growing riches of online resources

To learn more about a given plant, begin with the botanical name, which is the plant’s unique identifier. Common names might be helpful in finding a plant’s botanical name: some garden books will cross-reference common and botanical names, and a web search for a common name might turn up the botanical name. Another strategy, especially when acquiring a plant from another gardener, is to ask the donor or members of a local garden society that specializes in the plant of interest. The most dedicated gardeners often will come up with the correct name, but for those who will only hazard a guess, check the name with a reliable source.

On occasion when an unfamiliar plant lacks a name, there’s no one to ask, and your curiosity reigns, the Internet will save the day.

The Internet offers various online plant identification resources, but they are mostly automated operations and not very accurate. To be less than polite, some are outrageously bad and a waste of time.

One online plant identifier that works quite well and with impressive speed is the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum. Its accuracy and efficiency are derived from the participation of actual living gardeners, rather than the current generation of computers. (A future machine might outperform all horticulturists in plant ID tasks, but it’s not here yet.)

I frequently need the name of unlabeled plants that I see in a private or public garden, or that I acquire at a garden exchange. A recent column (ongardening.com/?p=2925) included a photo of a mystery plant seen at a garden tour.

Firecracker Plant

Firecracker Plant

The Plant ID Forum quickly identified it as a Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis ), an impressive Mexican shrub with a specific name that compares it to the horsetail rush. My next step is to find a source for this plant.

At a local garden exchange, I acquired two small plants that were mysteries to me, so I sent photos to the Plant ID Forum.

Creeping Fucshia

Creeping Fucshia

I soon learned that one is a Creeping Fuchsia (Fuchsia procumbens) that is a New Zealand native, thought to be the world’s smallest fuchsia, and categorized as an endangered species due to habitat loss. Quite a discovery!

 

 

 

 

Young Peperomia Plant

Coin Leaf Peperomia

My other mystery plant from the garden exchange is a Coin Leaf Peperomia or Baby Rubber Plant (Peperomia polybotrya ‘Variegata’), which is native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. I learned that it’s primarily for its foliage, and thrives as a houseplant in indirect light.

 

 

 

Your plants need not be mysteries! Sign up for the Plant ID Forum, a free service of the National Gardening Association.  Once you have established this connection, explore the website’s several forums and other features. If you have gardening questions other than finding the name of a mystery plant, try the Ask a Question Forum, which is a fairly new feature of this site. It welcomes the full range of inquiries, from “there are no stupid questions” to “stump the experts.” It can be quite useful in broadening your gardening knowledge

Daisy Tree for Dramatic Effect

My Daisy Tree is a doozy!

I first encountered this striking plant during a visit, several years ago, to the Esalen Institute. A gardener at the Institute told me its name, and later I found a small specimen to add to my garden.

This is Montanoa grandiflora, a native of southern Mexico (around Mexico City) and some other Central American countries. The plant was named for Luis Jose Montana (1755-1820), a physician, politician and amateur botanist. The specific epithet “grandiflora” is often applied to certain roses, but it just means “large flowers” and is applied to some other plants as well. For this plant, a different rose term, “multiflora” (many small blooms) would be more accurate.

The Daisy Tree is a member of the Sunflower tribe (Heliantheae) of the enormous Aster family (Asteraceae), and a relative to several familiar garden flowers: CoreopsisCosmosEchinaceaRudbeckia, and Zinnia, as well as the commercially important sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke. The Montanoa genus includes thirty-five species. Surprisingly, none of these are listed in Sunset’s Western Garden Book.

This plant grows well in full sun in the Monterey Bay area’s climate and is winter-hardy down to the mid-20s (which do not concern local gardeners).

Daisy Tree - long shot

Daisy Tree
Montanoa grandiflora

The Daisy Tree’s uniqueness comes first from its size. It grows up to twelve feet high and twelve feet wide (mine is about ten by ten). Its second feature is its floriferous nature. Some reports indicate that its flowers can be so abundant as to conceal the foliage, but I can still see my plant’s large lobed leaves. It’s possible that a little irrigation and fertilizer would increase the floral yield; my plant has grown on its own, without my assistance.

Daisy Tree Blossoms

Daisy Tree Blossoms

 

 

 

The flowers are unremarkable individually, but they appear in late October or early November and could last into early December. They create a fine display and provide a pleasantly sweet fragrance that suggests chocolate or vanilla. Some sniffers have found the fragrance resembles that of freshly baked cupcakes, so the blossoms might recall one’s own olfactory memories.

After the blossoms fade, attractive chartreuse seed heads last through the winter.

In early spring, horticulturists recommend cutting a Montanoa grandiflora hard to allow the development of new sprouts from the base.

This might seem like drastic action for such a large shrub, but that treatment has worked fine for another large Mexican native in my garden, the Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis). My garden includes a stand of Tree Dahlias. I cut them to the ground last spring and they have now reached about thirty feet high and are about the begin blooming (a little later than the Tree Daisy.

Tree Dahlia- Long Shot

Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis)

Traa Dahlia Blossom

Tree Dahlia Blossom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stunning annual growth cycle of these larger plants demonstrates their vigor, and their presence in the garden provides wonder and beauty. The bees enjoy them as well!

The Tree Daisy and Tree Dahlia are not commonly available in garden centers, in my experience, but both are available as small plants via mail order from Annie’s Annuals.

Most gardens can accommodate a few really large plants. While appropriate placement is always important, they can provide a dramatic feature to the landscape.

Alternatives to Trendy Plants

When thinking about irises, gardeners—and all garden groupies—envision the tall bearded varieties. Decades of hybridizers have tweaked these plants to produce luscious colors, fascinating forms, great productivity and disease resistance. They are excellent plants that are easy to grow and great assets in the landscape.

The same can be said of roses and tulips, which include popular garden selections that have been hybridized through multiple generations to produce qualities that qualify them as “super plants.”

The hybridizers are creative, imaginative, and extraordinarily painstaking and patient as they build upon past successes and pursue horticultural perfection, the definition of which continues to evolve.

Home gardeners who enjoy these plants can be drawn into the endless process of acquiring the latest introductions featured in each season’s mail-order catalog photos. Each offers something a bit different and better than its predecessors.

For many gardeners, this process can be absorbing and defining of the essence of gardening.

Consider an adventuresome alternative: stepping off the bandwagon and exploring the vast array of related, less fashionable plants that can be equally beautiful with a more natural look, often relatively free of pests and diseases, and invariably less expensive.

Roses

When it comes to roses, look for the “own-root” selections. These are plants that are grown from cuttings and do have developed their own roots, rather than being grafted on a rootstock such as “Dr. Huey.” These are often historic varieties or stable hybrids. The advantages of own-root roses over grafted roses include greater cold-hardiness, shapelier (because they do not grow from a graft), and complete absence of rootstock suckers. Mail-order sources of own-root roses include Heirloom Roses, High County Gardens, David Austin and others.

Photo of a Pink Rose Blossom

Rosa ‘Mary Rose’ by David Austin Roses

Irises

Alternatives to the tall bearded hybrids include the beardless varieties. The America Iris Society identifies many species of breadless irises, organized in several series within subsections. For an excellent overview of beardless irises, search for Ben Hager’s article, “Beardless Iris,” on the Pacific Horticulture magazine website.

One series listed by the AIS, Series Californicae, may be of particular interest to readers of this column. Most of the species in this series are referred to collectively as Pacific Coast Irises (PCIs), because they are native to and grow well in coastal habitats, like the Monterey Bay area. Right now is the ideal time to plant PCIs.

Local hybridizer, Joe Ghio, has created many new PCI cultivars and won numerous national awards for his introductions. His catalog of both tall bearded irises and PCIs is available for $3 from Bay View Gardens, 1201 Bay St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

Tulips

The several groups of hybrid tulips include Darwins, Triumphs, Fosterianas, Gregeiis, Kaufmannias, Viridifloras, and others. These groups include many hundreds of cultivars that could overwhelm the most avid collector. All produce uniquely gorgeous blossoms, require a winter dormant period for reliable bloom, and attract gophers. Alternatives to these very popular plants, especially for areas without several weeks of cold weather, are called the species tulips. These are “the little bulbs that have given rise to all the big showy hybrids.” These smaller plants are native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, or Asia Minor, and grow fine in the Monterey Bay area.

Species tulips that are good selections for the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate include Tulip sylvestris (Europe), T. bakeri “Lilac Wonder” (Crete), T. clusiana var. chrysantha and “Lady Jane” (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), and T. saxatilis (Crete).

Most mail-order sources of tulips, daffodils and other geophytes usually also offer species tulips. Look for them in the catalogs of McClure & Zimmerman, Van Engelen, Brett & Becky’s Bulbs, John Scheepers, and others.

Gardening for the Senses

Gardeners develop and maintain ornamental gardens primarily for the visual appeal of beautiful blossoms and lush foliage. These gardens also please the sense of sight with the shapes of plants and the similarities or contrasts between plants.

Ornamental plants could also please three other of our senses:

  • Taste is served by certain plants that are both edible and ornamental, e.g., Saffron (Crocus sativus);
  • Touch is valued in plants that interesting texture, e.g., Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina); and
  • Hearing relates to plants that rustle in the breeze, e.g., New Zealand Flax (Phormium.

There are more examples of ornamental plants that appeal to these senses, but they are minor features of the garden, relative to plants that appeal to our sense of sight.

The fifth important category of ornamental plants is the aromatic plants: those that appeal to the gardener’s sense of smell.

The blossoms or the leaves, or both, of aromatic plants, produce volatile compounds that are known as essential oils. Their primary purpose, of course is to attract pollinators, but people have found myriad culinary, medicinal, therapeutic, and even magical and uses of such plants. Books have been written about such desirable applications. Here, we focus on our enjoyment of the aesthetic appeal of aromatic plants.

Plants with aromatic foliage release their essential oils primarily during the heat of the day. When the sun goes down, the foliage must be rubbed to appreciate the fragrance.

In comparison, some aromatic flowers release their perfumes during the evening and night hours to attract moths that have evolved to reach the plant’s nectar through long corolla tubes,

Many aromatic plants produce pleasant fragrances during the daytime and can be desirable additions to the landscape. An online search for “aromatic plants” will yield the information needed to select and locate plants to optimize daytime and evening enjoyment.

For example, very popular evening-scented aromatic plants include Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), Border Phlox (Phlox paniculata), Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), Night-scented Phlox (Zalusianskya ovata), and Night-scented Stock (Matthiola bicornis).

The aromatic California native plants may be particularly interesting to gardeners in the Monterey Bay area. We appreciate the studies of Jackie Pascoe, a member of the California Native Plant Society, to select a few noteworthy plants in this large group.

  • Spice Bush (Calicanthus occidentalis) – wine barrel scent
  • Vanilla Grass (Hierogonum occidentalis) – vanilla scent
  • Fragrant Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia fragrans) – minty, but entirely unique scent
  • Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) – minty scent
  • Wild Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) – orangey scent
  • Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) – clean scent, “like a sweet desert morning”
  • Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) – wonderfully spicy scent
  • Catalina Perfume (Ribes viburnifoium) – fine wine scent

You could find some of these aromatic plants at the California Native Plant Society’s sale on Saturday. For info, see the story elsewhere in today’s newspaper.

Another good opportunity to learn about aromatic plants is to visit the Aroma Garden at UCSC’s Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Explore the large and varied universe of aromatic plants to discover your preferences, and add a few to selected locations in your garden to expand your sensual enjoyment.

Inspiration for Next Year’s Garden

We are now one week into the fall season of the year (the autumnal equinox occurred last Friday. Now is the time to plant in preparation for the new season. In the spring, many gardeners become inspired as garden centers display flowers that have been nitrogen-dosed into bloom, but the fall is best for installing new herbaceous perennials, and woody shrubs and trees. This time is good for such tasks because the plants will have time to establish their roots during the winter months and prepare to burst into bud and bloom in the spring. As this underground growth happens, our seasonal rains (hopefully) will provide needed moisture.

Planting and transplanting involve the pursuit of landscape design visions, which makes the late spring/early fall also a fine season for touring gardens for new ideas.

The Garden Conservatory, a non-profit organization, conducts a national program of one-day garden tours, known as the Open Days program. The tours are organized in local clusters of three-to-five outstanding private gardens. The Conservatory publishes an annual catalog of Open Days events, which are scheduled from April through October.

Last weekend, I visited one of the Open Days clusters in San Jose, and volunteered as the greeter at one of the gardens. There were three gardens on tour: a garden designer’s “intensely private sanctuary” with extensive stone and cast embellishments; a design gem, once featured in Sunset magazine and recently recovered from five feet of flood waters; and an artist’s nicely designed and well-managed collection of palms, cycads, bromeliads, ferns and succulents.

I won’t attempt to describe these gardens in more detail. The direct experience is always best. These three gardens are not larger than standard city lots, and they each presented details that most gardeners could adapt for their own landscapes. They also have interesting and well-grown plants, one of which (shown below) I could not identify:

Photo of Unknown Plant in Container

Mystery Plant

This striking plant was in the designer’s garden, but he was not present when I visited. The flower resembles that of the Firecracker Plant (Cuphea ignea), but the leaves are quite different. I’m searching for its name.

Several design details caught my attention. I particularly liked the use of small black river stones (Mexican pebbles), which are available in several sizes. These can be used loosely as a stone mulch, placed in sand or concrete as decorative pavement, or in other ways as imagination might lead.

Another design detail of interest was the use of small Christmas light strings, woven into hanging metal pieces, e.g., chandelier, empty birdcage, etc. and serving a decorative lighting under a patio roof. Not everyone has a similar situation, but the effect would be attractive in the evening.

Thirdly, I was impressed by the use of very large carved stone, natural stone, and cast concrete pieces in a relatively small landscaped environment. Placing massive blocks requires bold commitment as well as physical effort, but such pieces express permanence with great clarity. Even a single specimen could be a strong addition to a garden, and a vote against more tentative actions.

Visit the Garden Conservatory’s Open Days website < www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days > for more information.

If you are ready to add plants to your garden, a good opportunity is the 5th Annual Native Plant Sale of the Watsonville Wetlands Watch. The sale will be 8:30–1:00 on Saturday, October 7th, at the organization’s resource center at the Pajaro Valley High School campus in Watsonville. The sale supports the group’s education and restoration programs in the Pajaro Valley. For info, visit www.watsonvillewetlandswatch.org/.

Grasses & Sedges in the Landscape

Gardening with flowering plants usually involves focuses on broad-leafed plants, which comprise the very large class of dicotyledons (“dicots”). In this column, we consider the monocotyledons (“monocots”), which include three families of narrow-leafed plants: grasses, sedges, and rushes. Dicots and monocots have several differences; most importantly, dicots have two embryonic leaves in each seed, while monocots have one.

Cultivation of these two classes of flowering plants has pretty much the same general requirements, plus the usual variations of specific plants. The narrow-leafed monocots, however, bring a distinctive form to the landscape and are also valued for such qualities as a gentle movement, drought tolerance, and low maintenance.

We might think of all garden-quality monocots as ornamental grasses, but grasses, sedges, and rushes each have unique shapes, which are described in a familiar rhyme: “Sedges have edges/Rushes are round/Grasses are hollow/What have you found?”

Gardeners can use ornamental grasses in several ways in the landscape. An excellent resource about many specific kinds of grasse and their uses is the exceptional book, The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn (Timber Press, 2009). Grass expert John Greenlee wrote this book, and garden photographer Saxon Holt provided excellent images. Their collaboration builds on their previous impressive works: Greenlee’s The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses (with photography by Derek Fell) (1992) and Holt’s contributions to Nancy J. Ondra’s Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design (2002).

The sub-title of The American Meadow Garden emphasizes lawn grasses, but the book actually explores a variety of landscape uses of grasses: groundcovers, fillers, backgrounds, accents and natural lawns. Several grass varieties can be used in more than one of these ways.

Even a cursory scan of this book reveals an impressive range of garden-worthy grasses and their distinctive appearances. The garden designer is well advised to begin with a particular landscaping goal and then to look for grasses for optional approaches to meeting the goal.

My own current project, the development of a fairly large bed of Mediterranean basin plants, includes an interest in moving several existing sedge plants from another part of the garden. The plant is a European native, Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa). Interestingly, this plant had been — and might still be — sold as a California native plant called Berkeley Sedge or Foothill Sedge (C. tumulicola). It was correctly identified as C. divulsa in 2005.

Photo of Grey Sedge

Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa), often sold by the incorrect name, ‘Berkeley Sedge”

By any name, Greenlee calls this plant “by far one of the most versatile and manageable of all the groundcover sedges.” It grows twelve-to-eighteen inches high, and up to thirty-six inches wide, and is evergreen in the Monterey Bay area. It tolerates clay or sand and dry or moist conditions, and competes well with tree roots. It grows well in sun but prefers light shade. It’s true workhorse in the garden, and by most accounts attractive either as a single tussock or in larger areas.

This plant naturalizes easily to the point that some plant people consider it to be invasive. Unwanted seedlings can be removed easily enough, but gardeners should be aware of this plant’s ability to spread.

Grey Sedge will work well in the lightly shaded portion of my Mediterranean basin bed. I will plant divisions of the existing clumps about eighteen inches apart, and expect them to spread to form an interesting smallish meadow.

My specimens of Grey Sedge had been imposters in my California native bed, so their removal from that bed creates an opportunity to replace them with California native grasses. There are good options for accents and ground covers, to be explored in another column.