Virtual Tour of California’s Eco-Regions

I had the opportunity this week to get an intriguing glimpse of the Monterey Bay area’s offering of the California Naturalist Program for 2013. The occasion was a talk on California’s biodiversity, by botanist, ecologist and conservationist Todd Keeler-Wolf.

The presentation was at the UCSC Arboretum, and co-sponsored by the Ray Collett Rare and Extraordinary Plants Lecture Series and the California Naturalist Program. The Arboretum hosts both of these activities.

The California Naturalist Program’s goal is to “foster a committed corps of volunteer naturalists and citizen scientists, trained and ready to take an active role in natural resource conservation, education and restoration.”

Two more important points about the Program: it includes nine talks and nine field trips during and April and May, and the 2013 session is already fully subscribed so latecomers can’t enroll. Keeler-Wolf’s talk was an exception.

If your interests focus on ornamental or edible gardening, this Program might seem a major stretch. Still, even hobby gardening is rooted in science, and organic gardening in particular is strongly connected to environmental protection and conservation. Gardeners are already engaged in these topics.

Keeler-Wolf’s talk about California’s eco-regions underlined the importance of location to success in gardening. We should learn about the native environment of each plant we grow, and strive to match that natural situation or provide something close to it.

A California native plant’s accustomed situation involves more than a region within this state: it includes the specific microclimate in which the plant has evolved to grow well.

Keeler-Wolf described California’s great biodiversity, and the ways in which the state’s eco-regions vary in terms of climate, topography, geology and vegetation. He described the woodland forests, scrublands, and grasslands that exist within California’s Mediterranean climate zone, and explained how they differ and which plants grow in each eco-region.

For example, when viewing a natural area from a distance, as through an airplane window, we see that vegetation on south-facing slopes differs clearly from vegetation on nearby north-facing slopes.

There are many more eco-regions: wetlands, montane conifer forests, subalpine zones, deserts and others. There were too many to remember, but still fascinating! Ultimately, the overall message about the state’s eco-regions has greater significance than the many details. The speaker made the point that the survival of many native plants is closely tied to a very specific natural environment, and when that environment is converted to commercial agriculture or paved over, the plants could be doomed.

You too could be citizen scientist, and discover new dimensions to your interest in gardening. You might even plan to earn a California Naturalist certificate in 2014.

Here is more information about the California Naturalist Program, including the 2013 schedule of lectures and field trips.

UCSC Arboretum’s California Naturalist Program

The University of California’s California Naturalist Handbook






Quick and Easy Gardening

When selecting a gardening book, look for content that aligns well with your needs and interests. That might seem like advice from Mr. Obvious, but it is easy to be drawn into material that is too specialized or too fundamental in terms of your gardening goals.

Many gardeners share an interest in low-maintenance gardening, so that is has become an inside joke for landscape designers and contractors.

In fact, several factors influence the level of effort that a garden requires. Certainly, landscape size and plant selection are significant contributors to the maintenance task.

Another very important factor that can impact the time and effort required is the gardener’s knowledge of gardening. Simply stated, if you know what to do and when to do it, your efficiency goes up, your error rate goes down and your successes multiply.

So, how does one acquire that knowledge? One way is to spend a lifetime with hands in the dirt and heightened awareness, but there are shorter roads to expertise.

If you regard yourself as a novice, you might enroll in Gardening 101, but such courses can be hard to find and time-consuming.

A good alternative is Sunset Publishing’s 2013 book: The 20-Minute Gardener: Projects, Plants, and Designs for Quick and Easy Gardening, edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel.

Despite its title, this book does not present a schedule for gardening in 20-minutes a day, but does provide good basic information on many aspects of gardening, so that one could use his or her time efficiently and effectively.

The first 40-plus percent of the book deals with Setting Up Your Space; Quick Fixes; Inspired Ideas, Easy Projects; and Techniques. Many sections within this part of the book begin with an action verb: Choose Easy-Care Plants, Keep Plantings Accessible, Plant Seasonal Containers, etc. This style amounts to setting clear objectives, always a good first step in getting work done.

The next section, which equals nearly half the book’s pages, presents brief descriptions of plants. There are countless gardening books that list and describe plants (gardeners apparently love lists!); the value of this section rests on the shortness of its plant lists in each of several categories. In this way, the book focuses attention on garden-worthy, easy to grow plants, but minimizes the pleasures of discovering and trying less familiar plants.

Such adventures might not be the novice gardener’s highest priority.

The remaining pages provide useful information and a good index.

Overall, the book offers clear and reliable gardening advice that could help the novice gardener establish the knowledge base for low-maintenance gardening, and lead to productive and satisfying gardening experiences. The 20-Minute Gardener is valuable resource for the targeted readers.

Enjoy your garden!

Renovating a Fuchsia Bed

My garden includes a small collection of fuchsias in a northeast-facing bed, where the plants thrive in open shade most of the day, after a little morning sun. Large, very beautiful Bolivian fuchsias (Fuchsia boliviana), both red and white forms, provide the background and uncertain varieties of smaller upright (not trailing) fuchsias are in the foreground.

The bed also has a wonderfully fragrant winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’), which thrives in the same exposure.

The bed also had—until quite recently—a licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), which has very attractive woolly grey-green leaves.

All the plants had become quite large and the bed was overly full of plant life, so I began a renovation project.

The winter daphne doesn’t like pruning and it had retained a nicely mounded form, so I left it alone for the present.

I soon decided, however, that the licorice plant had to go. It’s an asset, there’s another specimen elsewhere in the garden, and this bed should focus on different varieties of fuchsia. The licorice plant, which grows rapidly, has fleshy branches and shallow roots and was easily removed without digging.

Fuchsias flower on new wood, so to control their size they can be pruned heavily, down to six–to-ten inches. The right time for this pruning, and for installing new plants and relocating existing plants is the early spring, after which the plants begin what the American Fuchsia Society refers to as their “aggressive growth cycle.”

I appreciate the height of the Brazilian fuchsias, so I didn’t cut them down, but I did renew the smaller plants. A couple sessions of tearing out and heavy pruning transformed the bed from a botanical tangle to a sparse mini-landscape.

It became evident that the licorice plant had dominated the middle of the bed, the winter daphne had occupied one end of the bed, and the smaller fuchsias were clustered at the other end. Given the project’s good seasonal timing, I relocated three fuchsias and installed a new fourth plant to create a more even distribution within the bed.

My local garden center had just received a shipment of fuchsias in gallon cans, so I could take my pick from the new inventory. Several different plants were all labeled only as upright, medium size plants: the wholesale nursery accepts only orders for “assorted fuchsias,” with the effect of downplaying the unique identities of the several varieties. I like to record the genus, species and cultivar of each plant in my garden, but this practice makes that difficult.

In any event, my renovated fuchsia bed should look great in a few weeks.

Enjoy your garden!

Fuchsia boliviana (red form)