Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

We are in the midst of National Pollinator Week (June 15–21)! An unprecedented group of twenty-four conservation and gardening organizations has formed the National Pollinator Garden Network and, with First Lady Michelle Obama, launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.


The Network challenges the nation’s gardeners to create one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016.

This campaign encourages home gardeners to help reverse the decline of honeybees and native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. This extraordinary initiative underlines the importance of pollinators to our food supply and invites home gardeners to take effective personal action even as the nation’s Pollinator Task Force mobilizes more than fifteen federal agencies to improve pollinator health.

In a recent column, we urged keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using less-toxic alternatives. The Pollinator Partnership (, a member of the new Network, offers specific advice:

  1. Plant for Pollinators (the website includes a link to a cellphone app that lists 1,000 pollinator friendly plants native to the United States)
  2. Reduce or eliminate the impact of pesticides.
  3. Register as a SHARE site (see more about this below)
  4. Reach out to others – inform and inspire
  5. Buy local and organic produce, including honey
  6. Conserve all of our resources; use less and reduce your impact.
  7. Support the work of groups promoting science based, practical efforts for pollinators

The Network concurs with these recommendations, as expected, and adds these complementary ideas:

  1. Provide a water source
  2. Situate your garden and/or plants in a sunny area with wind breaks
  3. Create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  4. Establish continuous blooms throughout the growing season

Once you establish your pollinator habitat garden, visit to register your garden on the Pollinator Partnership’s SHARE site. Adding your garden to the site’s map of the United States gives you personal bragging rights as a friend to pollinators and supports the effort to encourage others to participate in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

The website for the Challenge ( provides links to each of its members, and most (or all) of these groups identify pollinator-friendly plants.

Still, because gardening is specific to location, Monterey Bay area gardeners should focus on plants to native to the local region. To find such plants, visit these websites:

California Native Plant Society 

Las Pilates Nursery

Xerces Society

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The bees and other pollinators will thank you, and your garden will be richer for the effort.

Garden Plants on the Move (Moving Trees & Shrubs)

Autumn in the garden is a good time to prepare for relocating shrubs or trees that would look or grow better in a different location.

If the thought of moving a shrub or tree troubles you, recognize that even good plants need not be permanent. Here are some reasons for moving a healthy shrub or tree.

  • The tree or shrub has grown so large it’s crowding a walkway or other plants.
  • Other nearby plants have grown so large that they are shading a plant that needs sun.
  • Other nearby plants are now gone, exposing a plant that needs shade.
  • The tree or shrub is needed elsewhere in the landscape.
  • The gardener wishes to install a new feature, and the tree or shrub is in the way.
  • The gardener has wishes to establish a thematic plant bed where an off-theme tree or shrub is growing.

When preparing to relocate a plant, first decide on where it will go. Examine the new location to ensure that it is the right place for this particular plant. Confirm that the soil is suitable, the drainage is good, and the exposure it right for the plant. Finally, make certain that the new spot could accommodate the plant when it is fully grown. Then, dig a hole twice the width of the intended root ball.

Ideally, prune the roots to protect against transplant shock. This involves digging a trench around the plant, outside the intended root ball, refilling the trench and watering to settle the soil. Root-prune in March for plants to be moved in October, and in October for plants to be moved in March.

Then, plan how to move the plant, taking its size into consideration.

Small Shrubs and Trees

For a shrub less than three feet tall, or a tree with a trunk is less than one inch wide, you could move it bareroot, i.e., without digging up a root ball. To move such a smaller plant bareroot, dig a trench around it, cutting the longer roots, wash the soil off the lateral roots, and use a flat shovel to remove the soil under the plant. Keep the roots moist until you are ready to transplant.

Not-so-small Shrubs and Trees

If you are preparing to move a plant that is between three and five feet high, decide how large a root ball to provide. For industry standards for transplanting different plants of various sizes, visit the website, and search for “root ball.” For example, moving a five-foot tree or shrub requires an eighteen-inch wide root ball. A root ball of that size could weigh 250 pounds, so plan for the appropriate equipment and helpers.

Larger Shrubs and Trees

Most gardeners will hire a tree service to move a tree or shrub that is larger than five feet high. If you prefer to do such work yourself, I will say “best wishes,” and predict that you will have professionals do your next transplant.

Really Large Trees

Even very large trees—up to forty-five feet high—can be moved successfully, if not cheaply. The widely available tree spade uses an array of large shovels to dig a conical divot to pluck a plant from the ground, and deposit it in a matching hole. For video clips of tree spades in various sizes, browse to and search for “tree spade.” To see an interesting DIY device, search YouTube for “Tree Toad 24 inch Tree Transplanter.”

Tree Spade

A mechanized tree spade makes transplanting large bushes and small or medium trees a much easier proposition. Photo: Dutchman Industries


A newer technology for moving larger plants is the “air tool,” which uses compressed air to blow soil away from a tree’s roots. This bareroot method avoids pruning or breaking the roots, so the plant experiences little trauma and quickly resumes its usual growth cycle. To see a brief video demo of the air tool, visit, click on “Trees & Shrubs” and scroll to the link, “How to Move Large Trees Using an Air Tool.”

After moving a tree or shrub, transplanting herbaceous perennials is easy!

What is Blooming Now

If today’s walk through your garden yields satisfaction, congratulations!

If it tilts toward disappointment, a good time for seasonal planting would be now.

Many plants need a dormant period to prepare for the spring, but many other plants will bloom while most are dormant. We can’t turn winter into spring, but with a bit of planning we can enjoy color in the garden at any time of the year.

The moderate climate of the Monterey Bay area supports year-round color possibilities that are elusive or non-existent in many other areas.

Here are examples from my garden.

Salvias originate from several parts of the world, and some species from Mexico are in bloom now.

S. wagneriana (Wagner Sage) stands as one of my favorite blossoms, with pink corolla and white calyx. This large shrub does best in partial shade, and tends to sprawl in full shade.

S. karwinskii (Karwinski’s Sage), another large plant, displays pink-coral and green blooms from fall to spring.

S. holwayi (Holway’s Sage), our third example, grows only about three feet high, but spreads to cover an increasingly large area. Its small blooms are red and purple, and prolific.

Aloe arborescens (Torch Aloe) produces numerous vibrant red-orange inflorescences (called racemes) about eight-to-ten inches long. The plant grows easily and can rise to nine feet tall. In South Africa, where it is endemic, it is called called Krantz Aloe. The Afrikaner word ‘krantz’ means a “rocky ridge” or “cliff,” indicating its natural habitat, but it thrives in deep fertile soil.

Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican Hellebore) comes from the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia. It grows in sun or shade and produces many seedlings that germinate readily. (I have many plants in a growing swath.) It grows to four feet tall and wide, and produces many pale green flowers from late December to March. After flowering, it can be cut to the ground to stimulate a new cycle of growth.

Daphne odora “Aureo-marginata” (Winter Daphne), which comes from China and Japan, is  appreciated for its evergreen, gold-edged foliage, and prized for its beautiful rosy-pink flower buds that open to white, sweetly fragrant flowers in winter and early spring. The flowers grow on the stems, so they are not useful in arrangements, but can be brought indoors to float in water.

Edgeworthia chrysantha (Chinese Paper Bush) is a relative of the Daphne odora (both from the family Thymelaeaceae) and another sweetly fragrant winter bloomer. To be quite honest, both the Daphne and the Edgeworthia in my garden are in bud at the moment, but they will be in flower in January through March.

It is always a pleasure to have flowers in winter. Still, many conifers and succulents provide foliage with much visual appeal.

Enjoy your winter garden.


Several garden writers have listed plants that bloom in each season of the year. One of the better books is The Perennial Garden: Color Harmonies through the Seasons, by Jeff Cox and Marilyn Cox (Rodale Books, 1992).

A book that I refer to often for various purposes is The California Gardener’s Book of Lists, by Catherine Yronwode, with Eileen Smith (Taylor Publishing, 1998). Among its other treasures are lists of “Perennials that Bloom in Winter” and “Shrubs That Provide Winter Interest.”




Gardening for the Future

During a period of cold and rainy days, and holiday season attractions (and distractions), it may be difficult to focus on gardening priorities and attend to necessary tasks. On the other hand, this could be a very good time to plan future directions.

In this column, we consider resolutions for the coming year.

Our resolutions often address immediate needs, e.g., weeding in a more timely and consistent manner, upgrading the landscape design, removing a tree or shrub that has evolved from asset to liability, or installing a long-overdue drip irrigation system.

Each avid gardener could develop his or her own list of resolutions that are certainly worthy and not to be dismissed. Today’s goal is not to discourage productive actions but to suggest the importance of the long view.

This column is inspired by a recent report that chemical pesticides are used more extensively in the United States now than ever before. See below for a link to “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012. The author cites research evidence of the link between pesticide exposure and certain cancers and other health problems and negative impacts on the environment, and states that genetically engineered crops are leading to dramatic increases in the use of pesticides.

These data are particularly troublesome, given the recent defeat of a state proposition to label genetically modified organisms (fruits, vegetables and meats). This proposition lost 47% to 53%, when multinational food corporations spent $46 million in a campaign that claimed falsely that the proposition was “flawed” and would be costly to consumers. The Organic Consumers Association, an advocate of that proposition, points to several similar initiatives in other states, begins preparing for another vote in California, and insists it is only a matter of time before GMO labeling becomes law.

Residential gardeners can resolve to support reduced uses of chemical pesticides by applying only organic methods in their own gardens, buying organically grown groceries and supporting the labeling of GMOs, when another vote is scheduled.

So-called “conventional” gardening, which relies upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides, was introduced in the early 1940s, during World War II. Americans are only beginning to recognize its threats to human health and the environment.

Organic gardening methods originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago. These methods are attuned with nature, inexpensive to apply, and proven to be effective.

For more satisfying gardening in the short term, a good resolution is to bring new-to-you plants into your garden regularly. Countless options are available in garden centers, catalogs and websites. New horticultural treasures can add learning opportunities and rewarding experiences to your gardening activities.


If you think that pesticides are simply a good thing in the garden or the agricultural field, read “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012.

For a good introduction to organic gardening methods, read Organic Gardening magazine which is available from magazine stands or the Organic Gardening website. This publication has been a leading advocate of this natural approach to gardening for decades. It offers its magazine, online information and several authoritative books from various publishers. Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening is a classic in the field.

Guidance in purchasing organically grown foods is available from The Daily Green, which lists “The Dirty Dozen” (foods with the highest pesticide residue), beginning with apples. When these foods are grown with so-called “conventional” methods, they will have relatively high concentrations of pesticides. If you want to eat these foods, buy only  produce that has been certified as organically grown. Federal regulations require that foods that are labeled as “organic are grown without the use of pesticides.

Consumer demands to label genetically modified organisms are sure to continue on a state-by-state basis, until such initiatives force federal requirements for such labeling.To follow the political battle, visit the website of the non-profit Organic Consumers Association. This is one of several organizations that are pressing this issue, with determination to succeed in the long run.

The Organic Consumers Association seeks to persuade the Natural Products Association to stop calling GMOs “natural.” The term “natural” when applied to foods has no federal definition or standard and should not be mistaken for “organic” foods.

Late-season New Growth on Roses

At this time of the year, ordinarily, roses have entered dormancy. This status, characterized by stopped growth above ground, protects the rose from winter freezes and provides a rest period that supports the plant’s longevity and productivity. Hothouse roses subject to year-round harvesting of blossoms have shorter lives and fewer blossoms, compared to the typical garden rose.

During dormancy, the rose reduces its metabolism, holds its fluids and nutrients away from the stems and stores them the core of the plant. This is the rose’s defensive position, designed to avoid a possible freeze of liquids in the stems.

The plant continues to develop below ground: root growth continues during the winter months and is important for newly planted roses.

Gardeners in the world’s colder regions worry that an unusual warm spell in the late winter or early spring might cause their roses to “break dormancy.” The plants could produce new growth that would be killed by a late freeze.

In more temperate climates, such as the Monterey Bay area, roses could show new growth of leaves and buds in the early winter for the same reason: an unusual warm spell. The National Weather Service, reports that the Monterey Bay area is having such a warm spell this year: November’s average high temperature was about five degrees above the historical level. When the NWS reports December’s data, we might well see the same pattern.

In such cases, gardeners need to either let their roses develop such new growth, or proceed with seasonal pruning. Here are three issues.

First, the new growth might not survive the winter cold. If that happens, the plant will have wasted energy producing the new growth, but suffered no lasting harm. A rose has two inactive dormant buds at the base of each leaf that can activate to grow new canes or leaves.

Second, if the new growth survives, the rose will miss its opportunity to rejuvenate. This could have long-term negative effects on the rose’s life and blossom production.

Finally, a break from dormancy means that the plant is sending fluids into the stems, making it vulnerable to a freeze that would expand the fluids and cause splits and tissue damage.

The preferred response to a broken or delayed dormancy, then, is to help the rose to enter dormancy. The gardener can do this by removing all leaves from the plant. This action will halt photosynthesis and encourage dormancy.

Once the plant becomes dormant, the gardener could accomplish seasonal pruning during the dormant period, which will continue to the early spring, after the last date when frost is expected.

Scientists are virtually unanimous in agreement that human-produced carbon dioxide emissions are causing global climate warming. This change is having countless effects, and including new issues for gardeners.

Fortunately, roses are tougher than they appear.


As part of my research into rose dormancy, I visited the website of the American Rose Society, which has great information on many aspects of rose growing. I didn’t see discussion of the late-season new growth growth issue, so I clicked on the link, “Ask a Question About Growing Roses,” and asked my questions.

I received a quick response from AIS Master Rosarian Karl Bapst, a self-described “Rosenut.” His own website has a wealth of rose-growing information that I expect to visit often in the future.

I even quoted Karl (without attribution!) for the closing line of my column.

Rather than trying to summarize his detailed information, I am including our e-mail dialog below, with minor editing.


Roses in this area (USDA Zone 9a) should be dormant now (mid-December). Some people have started winter pruning, only to discover that their roses have new leaves, due to an unusual warm spell (possibly global warming) in November. This new growth probably won’t survive the colder weather in January, but what harm might be done to the plant by pruning when new growth is showing? Also, what harm might cold weather cause to a rose with spring-like new growth in December?


In your area, I doubt your winter temps will drop down far enough to damage any new growth. New growth has lots of sugar that acts as natural antifreeze. In my area, zone 5a, mid-spring temps can drop to the mid to low 20s and new spring growth is seldom affected. If it is affected, new growth occurs to replace it.  Keep in mind there are two inactive dormant buds at the base of each leaf. If that new leaf should die, one or both of the buds activate growing new canes or leaves. So, should any new growth be damaged by temps below the mid 20s, it’ll soon be replaced.

We often have new growth before we prune in spring. The rose bushes do just fine. I’ve pruned as late as late April and early May (due to inclement weather or illness) after the bushes are leafed out with no bad results. The roses even bloom at their normal times.

Roses are tougher than they appear.


I have sent in my column today with recommendations based on your advice, but I have a follow-up question. Last night, a Consulting Rosarian recommended responding to this new growth by defoliating the plant to encourage dormancy and completing seasonal pruning. (Most people around here prune between mid-December and mid-January.)



In warmer growing zones where there may not be natural dormancy, removing the leaves will promote a period of dormancy when the daylight shortens and temperatures moderate as we approach the winter solstice. Roses don’t naturally go dormant and will grow all year if conditions are right.

Modern roses bloom best on new wood, pruning promotes new wood so one gets more and bigger blooms. In my zone 5, winter’s cold and gloomy overcast skies, freeze and kill the leaves. Most stay on the bush until new growth or pruning removes them. The frozen soil and canes causes all growth to stop until conditions improve in late winter or early spring. Summer cutting of roses is pruning. You’ve noticed that cutting a bloom in summer causes a new cane to develop, usually from the base of the leaf under the cut. This occurs after your December/January pruning but on a larger scale.

Should you fail to prune or cut back then, any blooms produced on the un-pruned bush will normally be smaller and fewer on shorter canes. You’ll notice, though, any blooms will come from those short new growth canes. Even blooms that grow from the old cane tips will be on new growth.

In my area, we have no choice. When removing winter die-back or damaged canes, we force new cane growth. Often, especially on hybrid teas, which are naturally very winter-tender, removing die-back requires pruning almost to the ground. These bushes will bloom in late May/early June and will have grown to full size by July.

Understand, Old Garden Roses (OGRs, once-a-year blooming roses) bloom on old wood and buds are set the previous fall. Pruning on OGRs is done after they bloom or these buds would be removed when pruning. Should you get any questions from people asking why their roses don’t bloom it’s usually due to them pruning too early on Old Garden Roses.


I read a variety of online material in preparing this column, and found various pieces of relevant information.

For example, here’s an interesting point for the website:

“Most rose plants that are capable of dormancy will not naturally initiate this process in response to cold weather. Most rose plants which are domestically grown in North America are hybrids with breeds of plants that evolved in Asia (most roses are Asian and are crossbred for their desirable characteristics, such as smell and appearance). Asian winters are not as harsh and, thus, dormancy in Asian roses is an evolved response to a lack of light. This can create problems for such roses in North America, where a cold winter can still supply enough sunlight to encourage the plant to keep growing.”

Such subtleties can be challenging for a garden writer with a deadline, and impossible to explore in a single column. I made no effort to explain the role of winter light in promoting or discouraging dormancy.

More Gifts for the Gardener

Last week, we explored the “Upscale” category of gifts for the gardener and planned to explore three more categories: Kitsch, Junktique, and Living.

To some, Kitsch gifts might be seen as tasteless, aesthetically deficient, and excessively sentimental; the flipside of this category is “cute” or perhaps “charming,” depending on individual tastes. This is the category found in many garden centers and garden catalogs, with few exceptions. We mind find cartoon-like pottery figures of animals, gnomes and pixies, whirligigs, clever signs and labels (“So many weeds, so little Thyme”) and the like. Visit for current kitsch-links.

Kitsch-y items typically lack the enduring appeal of fine art. That quality might be seen as a shortcoming, but by encouraging turnover it serves the popular thirst for new experience.

The Junktique category includes recycled items, primarily. This is where we find items like bowling balls and wine bottles as garden decorations; discarded boots, children’s wagons, sinks and toilet bowls as plant containers; bicycles and ladders as focal points.

The best-known junktique in the garden is the bottle tree, created by mounting bottles (wine, usually) on a branched apparatus of some kind. The practice of displaying empty bottles in the garden originated centuries ago, when some believed glass bottles would trap the night’s hostile spirits, which would be destroyed by the morning light. Reportedly, African slaves brought the practice to North American.

We are still searching for the dramatic histories of other garden junktique.

Finally, the Living category focuses on plants and personal services. When gifting plants, consider these guidelines:

  1. Avoid the commonplace (garden centers display ornamental kale in the fall, but there are other options, really);
  2. Respect the recipient’s priorities (it’s helpful when gardeners mention their horticultural cravings);
  3. Offer to install larger plants (even a bare-root fruit tree will thrive under a friend’s helping hand).

For some gardeners, an offer of timely assistance will be the ultimate gift. Here are suggested guidelines.

  1. Offer services that you are qualified to perform (all aspects of gardening require knowledge and skill, and the garden owner rules in setting standards)
  2. Offer services that the gardener wants. (Hauling will be welcomed; plant selection probably not; weeding is great if the giver recognizes weeds)
  3. Deliver the promised services on time.

Visit for more about gifts for gardeners, and additional categories, e.g., useful tools, books for reference or inspiration, and artworks to enhance—or compete with—the natural environment.

People reveal themselves through their gardens, which will show if the owner values great craftsmanship, short-lived “stuff,” frugality, exceptional plants or meticulous care. Let such revelations guide the gift-giver.

Their gardens also will reveal if they are not gardeners, in which case the gift-giver might consider other categories of gifts.

Enjoy this season for garden rejuvenation and development, and for gift giving.


Your favorite gardener will appreciate and value a gift of your time and horticultural talents. Such gifts respond to the spirit of the season, uniquely supportive of personal relationships, and good for the garden as well.

Still, there are many other gifts that most gardeners will desire and welcome. If your gardening friend is making do with worn-out tools or without the right tools for the task, a well-chosen, well-made tool might be exactly “on target.” Visit your local garden center or shop on line to find tools that meet the recipient’s needs and fall within the giver’s budget.

Many excellent gardening books also are available. Again, this is a gift category that succeeds best when it aligns well with the recipient’s informational needs and reading preferences. A good strategy for selecting a gift book is to visit the website of the American Horticultural Society to review its recommendations. The AHS itself has published several very good books, recognizes the best books of each year, and lists  the 75 Great American Garden Books.

In the Kitsch category, visit the Blue Fox Farm website, which presents a list of “Funny Quotes for Rustic Garden Signs.”  These sayings are not available as garden signs, but the website includes information on how to make your own signs with the saying of your choice (scroll to the bottom of the page).


Gifts for Gardeners

This is the season to make your favorite gardener happy.

We will explore gifts for a gardener in these four categories: Upscale, Kitsch, Junktique, and Living.

Upscale depends on what the recipient would find enduring in appeal and impressiveness. This is not the same as “expensive,” but alas upscale items tend to be costly.

The Kitsch category is often defined with negative terms, e.g., tasteless, aesthetically deficient, and excessively sentimental. Never mind! One person’s “kitsch” is another’s “cute.” This is hazardous territory for the gift-giver, unless his or her taste reflects that of the recipient.

Items that may be considered Junktique are often old, but the essential concept is that they are recycled: their use is the garden is not the same as their original purpose. (A friend collects antique gardening and farming tools, but those belong in a category of their own.) This is where you find a discarded bed frame with a new life as a “garden bed.”

Finally, we have the Living category, the principal members of which are plants and personal services. This category might also include certain fauna (a nice koi for a friend’s pond, for example) but does not include feral mammals or herbivorous insects. That would be whimsy gone overboard.

Watch for next week’s column for an exploration of the Kitsch, Junktique and Living categories. For today, here are examples of the Upscale category. (I have no financial interest in any of these items, but am available for field-testing!)

  • Bronze garden tools are stunning in appearance, quite durable in use, and suggestive of the Bronze Age (late to arrive in the Americas). Find them at
  • Hand-made, heirloom-quality garden tools are American made and exceptionally rugged. One source is
  • How about a high-grade shovel, engraved with the gardener’s name? Find it at the Best @ Dianne B:
  • Nicely designed, and well-made garden pots, statues or decorative art pieces will be welcomed, especially if they echo the style of the recipient’s garden. A Gothic urn wouldn’t belong in a contemporary garden, for example, unless one could call it eclectic. Many choices are available at (click on “Garden Ornaments”).
  • Decorative corners for raised beds, available from, combine an attractive appearance with a necessary function. A gift set of four corners could be complemented with the lumber for a sizable raised bed, a desirable asset in most gardens.

The Upscale items listed above can be ordered online; early decision-making would provide time for timely delivery.

In all cases, evaluate a gift you are considering by asking if you would be an appreciative recipient. That works best when you are a gardener yourself!


This essay lists the website of the British maker of bronze garden tools, but these tools are in fact available closer to home. Harley Farms Goat Dairy, in Pescadero, California, contacted us to report that they can supply the full range of these tools, “along with goat cheese and other high quality hand made products.” In fact, I saw these impressive tools at the Harley Farms booth at the 2012 San Francisco Garden Fair, but then misplaced their contact information! The website has photos of the tools.

Cacti of the Sonoran Desert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tuscon, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tuscon in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tuscon area. Visit for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tuscon area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More to come

Gardener’s Gold

If you have deciduous trees in your garden, you might be fretting these days over the task of raking and disposing of the fallen leaves. You might instead welcome this form of nature’s bounty, because your trees have contributed the raw material for an excellent natural resource for your garden: leaf mold.

Leaf mold, which is simply partially decomposed leaves, can be used as a mulch to discourage weeds, retain moisture and insulate the roots of plants from the coldest weather. It can also be used as a pH-neutral soil amendment, like compost, to retain moisture, improve soil texture, add nutrients and support the growth of beneficial soil organisms of all kinds.

The question, then, is how to convert the fallen leaves to leaf mold.

The raking can’t be avoided, but the rest of the task could take any of several forms, depending on the gardener’s patience and available space, and the kind of leaves. Some leaves, including oak and holly, contain relatively high levels of cellulose and are slower to break down.

The easiest conversion of leaves to leaf mold is to pile the leaves in an out-of-the-way location and let them decompose on their own schedule. This process could require a year or more, but could be hastened in several ways, singly or in combinations.

  • Leave your leaf pile in a shaded location, or cover it with a plastic tarp. This helps to retain moisture, which supports the decomposition process, which depends upon the work of fungi.
  • Water the leaf pile occasionally, to maintain a damp (not soggy) condition.
  • Turn the pile occasionally, to expose the contents to oxygen.
  • Shred the leaves. Smaller pieces have greater exposure to the air and moisture, and therefore break down faster. Run over the leaves with a lawn mower—almost any kind would do—or put them through an electric leaf shredder or leaf blower-vacuum. My American Sycamore’s big leave tend to block my blower-vacuum, so they have to be roughly shredded first with the mower. For smaller quantities, place the leaves in a trashcan and shred them with a weed whacker. n order to keep your yard in tip-top shape and to protect your lawn from succumbing to the cold snow, you need to ensure that you take the proper steps to ensure that your lawn can spring back in the spring! Consider shoppok – cyclone rake the cost of this product in this site is better than other places.
  • Add nitrogen. Old dry leaves are almost all carbon, so the addition of nitrogen will speed their breakdown. Add green vegetation or nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Dry chicken manure has twice the nitrogen content as horse or steer manure.

The leaf mold is ready when it has become soft and crumbly. Use it to mulch your plant, spreading it about three inches deep (not too close to the base of the plant). Or dig a similar amount into the soil; this could be easiest when preparing a new bed, and is particularly helpful for improving soil that contains an excess of clay or sand. Leaf mold also could be included in containers to lighten their weight.

Enjoy gardener’s gold in your garden!

Growing Terrestrial Orchids

Most orchids are epiphytes, meaning that they grow on another plant. Epiphytes are not parasites, which are plants that scrounge nutrients from another plant. An epiphyte attaches itself to another plant (a tree, usually) and gets moisture and nutrients from the air and rain and sometimes from debris accumulating around it.

To grow an epiphytic orchid, the gardener must reproduce the temperature, humidity and light level that the plant has evolved to require. This is true for all plants, to be sure, but these orchids have become accustomed to very particular environment that can be difficult for the gardener to provide.

Experienced orchid growers claim that success with epiphytic orchids requires only creating the plant’s preferred conditions. This typically includes planting the plant in coarse bark chips to provide ample access to air.

Without denying the accomplishments of amateur orchid growers, I confess to having killed more than my share of epiphytic orchids.

Given that sad history, I am delighted to have discovered hardy terrestrial orchids. These are plants that thrive in well-drained soil and within a moderate climate like that of the Monterey Bay area. Some terrestrial orchids will even take freezing temperatures.

Terrestrial orchids that are popular for home gardens have been described in three groups according to water needs:

  • Upland species include Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium), Chinese Ground Orchid or Hyacinth Orchid (Bletilla) and Hardy Calanthe (Calanthe);
  • Transitional species include Grass Pink (Calopogon), Marsh or Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza), Egret Flower (Habenaria), Fringed Orchid (Platanthera), Fragrant Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes), and Helleborine (Epipactis);
  • Wetland species include Rose Pogonia (Pogonia).

Three years ago, I acquired a small Lavender Chinese Orchid (Bletilla striata), which is widely available, and planted it in semi-shade, assuming that all orchids want shade. Although I never watered or fertilized the plant, it grew well but produced only occasional blossoms. This was disappointing because Bletillas often will have as many as 20 flowers on a single spike.

Then I learned that this plant prefers full sun exposure. I lifted it and discovered it had developed about twenty pseudobulbs, which are storage organs (like tubers) that some orchids produce. These can be planted six inches apart, about three inches deep, so I should have several patches of these plants in bloom in the spring.

Terrestrial orchids can provide an exotic display in the garden without requiring extraordinary care. The Chinese Ground Orchid is particularly easy to grow, and the Lady’s Slipper and Hardy Calanthe are also good choices for most gardens. The Transitional and Wetland species require more moisture, making them inconsistent with water conservation goals, but a small display would be tolerable.

If you enjoy the unique beauty of orchids, but have had poor experiences with epiphytic species, growing terrestrial orchids could be an appealing option.


Here are current books about the  cultivation of hardy orchids.My principal reference for this column was the Mathis book, but other books listed offer additional information and other perspectives.

  • The Orchid Manual: For the Cultivation of Stove, Greenhouse, and Hardy Orchids, With a Calendar of Monthly Operations, and Classified Lists of Species, by Thomas Appleby. Forgotten Books (June 23, 2012) (Note: this is a reprint of a classic book published in 1845.
  • Growing Hardy Orchids, by Philip Seaton, Phillip Cribb, Margaret Ramsay and John Haggar. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Original edition (March 15, 2012)
  • Growing Hardy Orchids, by John Tullock. Timber Press (September 15, 2005)
  • The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hardy Perennial Orchids, by William D. Mathis. The Wild Orchid Company (2005)
  • Hardy Orchids, by Phillip Cribb and Christopher Bailes. American Orchid Society (December 1989)
  • Hardy Terrestrial Orchids for Perennial Gardens with a focus on Bletilla, Calanthe, and Spiranthes – Excluding Cypripedium, by Dennis Carey & Tony Avent. Plant Delights Nursery Inc.

Selected sources of hardy terrestrial orchids: