Northern California Garden Tours

Visits to public and private gardens can be inspiring and informative, so when a reader asked for suggestions for garden visits in northern California, I was pleased to respond.

If you plan to travel within the Golden State this summer, consider including one or more of the following gardens on your itinerary. Information on these gardens, including travel directions, is available on the Garden Visits website.

San Francisco/Oakland Area


Farther North in California

If you will travel in June or July, consider the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program of exceptional private gardens in northern California (<> click on “Open Days/Schedule”):

  • June 8: Mendocino County
  • July 20: Contra Costa County
  • July 21: San Francisco East Bay

As always, enjoy your own garden and share it with friends and neighbors, but explore your choices of these public and private gardens for new ideas!

Contain Your Garden

For a break from maintaining your plants in the ground, and an opportunity to add interest to your landscape, try container gardening. Growing plants in containers gives gardeners many of the challenges and rewards associated with landscape gardening.

Container gardening projects often begin by identifying a spot for a focal point. This might be next to the front door, in the corner of a balcony or patio, at the end of a garden vista, or any of several other locations.

Other projects begin with an attractive container, possibly one already in the gardener’s collection, found online or in a garden center or even discovered in an antique shop. Choose from glazed ceramic, cast iron, cast stone, terra cotta, or even molded plastic; actually, any object that holds planting mix and drains water will do. Get creative!

Certainly, a container project could begin with one or more plants that inspire the vision for a pleasing display.

Container gardening novices need practical experience to generate confidence and stimulate ideas. For a good first step toward that experience, plant one plant in a twelve-inch wide container of your choice.

For the next step, plant three plants in a larger container, up to eighteen to twenty-four inches across. This project adds a flurry of variables, but a popular strategy uses one each of three kinds of plants:

  • Thriller: catches the eye with a big, bold and beautiful centerpiece.
  • Filler: grows lower and complements or contrasts with the thriller.
  • Spiller: sprawls over the side of the container, and softens the composition.

In this approach, plenty of options remain. Spend time at the garden center to consider possible combinations of color, texture and size. Feel free to assemble plants to see how they look together (put back those you don’t buy!).

When ready for an advanced project, select a large container, up to thirty-six inches across, place it at its ultimate destination, add planting mix, and add your selection of plants.

Basic guidelines for all these steps of container gardening: (a) use fast-draining planting mix, not garden soil; (b) include several plants, for a lush appearance, (c) keep the container watered, especially in hot weather, and (d) some displays are better than others, but there are no mistakes.

Enjoy your container gardens!


Explore the Internet to learn more about any aspect of container gardening. Here is a selection of useful websites to start with:

The Container Garden Picture Gallery provides photos of dozens of examples of container gardens, including several in unconventional containers. Most examples identify the plants that were used, but this site offers ideas, not “how-to” advice.

Home and Garden Television (HGTV) provides 307 articles (really, not a typo!) on all aspects of container gardening. The answers to your questions must be available somewhere among the HGTV articles on Container Gardening!

HGTV video clips on Container Gardening is a collection of brief video recordings showing skilled gardener’s techniques. Some of us learn better by watching demonstrations than by reading articles. (In fact, the absolutely best way to learn gardening methods is by doing them yourself!)

If you are feeling “crafty” try your hand a making your own unique, rustic-looking Hypertufa planter. Here are the step-by-step instructions for creating a container with a mixture of peat moss, perlite and cement called hypertufa.

Spring Pruning

Pruning is among the most challenging tasks for many gardeners, so timely reviews of this topic may be helpful.

One of the three most important times of the year for pruning is right now.

Our plants grow with seasonal cycles, so here are the dates that gardeners should know:

  • Spring Equinox (1st day of spring)       March 20
  • Summer Solstice (1st day of summer)  June 21
  • Fall Equinox (1st day of fall)                  September 22
  • Winter Solstice (1st day of winter)        December 21

Let us say we’re at mid-spring, because we don’t need to be obsessive. This is time to prune shrubs that flower in early spring.

Here are a few popular members of this desirable group:

  • Saskatoon Serviceberry (Amelanchier ainifolia, a good choice for this area);
  • Slender Deutzia (Deutzia gracillis, a hydrangea relative with lots of white blossoms);
  • Hybrid Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia, several good cultivars);
  • Beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis ‘Pink Cloud’, a deer resistant native of China);
  • Honeysuckle or Woodpine (Lonicera periclymenum, favorite of hummingbirds);
  • Lewis’s Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii, a California native; the genus name comes from the Greek word for “brotherly,” like the Pennsylvania city);
  • Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris, the Descanso hybrids have been bred for mild winters);
  • Bridal Wreath or Shrubby Spiraea (S. x van houttei or S. japonica, butterfly magnet);
  • Doublefile Viburnum (V. plicatum tomentosum ‘Shasta’, great lacecap flower heads;
  • Weigela (Weigela florida, several selection of cultivars)(don’t call it “why-gee-li-a”),

Prune these shrubs soon after their spring blooms have faded, because the plant then will develop buds for the next season’s blossoms. Do not prune after the Fourth of July, because you will remove the new buds and won’t have flowers next spring.

Generally, maintenance pruning for these shrubs involves cutting to the ground about one-third of the oldest branches.

Spring Pruning of Roses

Late winter is still the usual time for major pruning of roses, but there are situations in which some mid-season pruning might be appropriate. In particular, if a rose has grown more exuberantly than you wanted, you could cut it back at this time of the year.

Many roses alternate between heavy flowering periods and rest periods. The timing guideline is to prune between bloom flushes, just so you are not removing blooms.

At this time, you should also remove any suckers, which are vigorous branches that grow from the rootstock of grafted roses and “suck” energy from the primary plant. If you think you have a sucker, make sure it is not a desirable new basal stem from above the bud union: look for differences in the leaves and prickles of the desired plant. Then, pull the sucker off so it won’t grow back; cutting just encourages re-growth.

Enjoy your garden!


(more to come)

Cut Flowers from the Garden

As I write this week’s installment, a friend is cutting flowers from my garden to decorate a garden party this weekend. I rarely bring blossoms into my home, so I am pleased to see how a skilled flower harvester goes about this process.

Important activities precede and follow actually cutting flowers! To begin, select plants that you like for arrangements, bloom at convenient times and produce lots of blossoms. You might stick with familiar options, or favor more exotic choices. In either case, include foliage plants to complement arrangements. Visit for suggestions.

The design of a cutting garden emphasizes convenient access to the plants, more than the appearance of the landscape. Planting in widely spaced rows works well. You might locate your cutting garden in an out-of-the-way—and sunny—spot.

Cultivating a cutting garden involves only good basic gardening.

When you are ready to cut flowers for arrangements, here’s a few guidelines:

  • start early, when the plants are full with sugars and moisture;
  • use clean, sharp tools, and dipped in bleach between plants (a good idea if disease is evident, but a bit fussy otherwise);
  • cut from different parts of each plant, to leave a good appearance (important with flowering shrubs);
  • take long stems when possible (you can make them shorter later); and
  • immerse cut flowers promptly in cool water.

It may be helpful to gain deeper familiarity with selected plants, to understand better when and how to gather their bounty. For more on this point, see for links to useful websites.

For more in-depth treatment of this topic, here are three highly rated books:

  • Cutting Gardens, by Anne Halpin and Betty Mackey.
  • The Cutting Garden: Growing and Arranging Garden Flowers, by Sarah Raven with Pia Tryde (Photographer).
  • An American Cutting Garden: A Primer for Growing Cut Flowers Where Summers Are Hot and Winters Are Cold, by Suzanne McIntire.

Here’s a fine opportunity to learn more about cut flowers: a Cut Flowers Workshop, June 9th, 9:30 – 4:00 in the Alan Chadwick Garden at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Join Zoe Hitchner of Everett Family Farm and Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden, to learn how to select, grow and arrange cut flowers from your garden to create beautiful bouquets. The workshop will include both lectures and hands-on practice.

Costs: $75 for Friends of the Farm & Garden members, $85 general public. Pre-registration is required, online or by mail – visit for information, call (831) 459-3240 or email

For many, bringing arranging cut flowers in the home or gifting them to friends is the ultimate purpose of gardening. Whether you bring your garden’s bounty indoors or appreciate them outdoors, enjoy your garden!


A friend asked for recommendations for handling a cut flower from an aloe plant. (I rarely get easy questions!) She asked specifically whether or not she should seal the cut end of the flower stem by fire. My best answer on the spot was to run a simple test: put a flame to one stem and not to another, then see which lasts longer in a vase.

When I searched the web for a more direct answer, I found a recommendation to enjoy aloe blossoms in the garden, and not in a vase, because they won’t last more than half a day. Better choices for succulent blossoms as cut flowers are  Bryophyllum (on the left) or Aeonium (on the right).


Here is useful advice on the web from Gardener’s Supply Company on creating a cutting garden, including twelve “easy-care favorites.”

More useful advice, this time from Real Simple, on the same topic.

Then, a third presentation on the basics, from

Here’s good advice on the actual cutting of flowers and keeping them as long as possible. It’s from the Royal Horticultural Society, which should not be questioned.

Seasonal Delights

Spring is in full swing: plant sales and garden tours keep us occupied in discovering new plants and encountering new ideas for the garden landscape.

At several recent sales, I accumulated twenty new plants and a big handful of dahlia tubers. One of my prizes is a “beloved serpent” (Agapetes ‘Ludgvan Cross’, A. serpens X A. rugosa). This rare caudiciform plant from the Himalayas produces four-foot arching branches that are festooned with gorgeous pendant blooms. I had an A. serpens before, but sadly it expired.

After my plant-buying frenzy, I became immersed in a hurry-up project that has postponed installation of those plants. I must keep them watered!

Here are upcoming opportunities to gain inspiration and plants.

May 4th & 5th – Monterey Bay Iris Society Annual Show. Louden Nelson Community Center, 3013 Center Street, Santa Cruz. 12:00 to 6:00 p.m. Saturday; 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. This free admission event provides the year’s best opportunity to see outstanding iris blooms and decide which rhizomes to buy when opportunities arise. Click on the thumbnail image for a full-size the MBIS poster:

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 1.00.30 AM

May 5th – Marina Tree and Garden Club’s Sixth Biennial Marina Garden Tour. This self-guided tour includes six varied private residential gardens, two public water-wise demonstration gardens, and a community food garden with 89 raised beds. Visit the gardens from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., in any order. Tour tickets are $15. For information, and slides of previous tours, browse to <>.

May 11th, 12th and 13th – Cabrillo College’s 35th Annual Spring Plant Sale. This free event, billed as the largest annual college plant sale in Central California, will offer “over 1000 different organic vegetable starts, perennial edible crops, annuals, bedding plants, culinary & medicinal herbs, cut flowers, natives, perennials, salvias, succulents and vines.” On May 10th (Friday) there will be Presale and Silent Auction for Friends of the Garden. For info and a plant sale inventory, visit <> Memberships will be available at the gate for $25 (no surprise).

At last year’s silent auction, I acquired an uncommon Japanese dwarf crested iris (Iris gracilipes). It has been growing well in my garden, and I’m anticipating flowers in May or June.

May 11th – Annual St. Philip’s Garden Tour and English Tea Luncheon, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. This unusual occasion always includes exceptional gardens and a unique “full High Tea Luncheon of English favorites such as scones with jam and cream, a delicious and light carrot-cilantro soup, sausage rolls and finger sandwiches, and last but not least, English toffee and shortbread cookies!” Visit <> for a Ticket Order Form and request for a luncheon seating time.

Visit garden tours and shows with camera and note pad; visit the sales ready to buy and bring home new delights for your garden.