Garden Photography

We photograph our gardens for many reasons: remembering and sharing our successes, documenting the history of the landscape or particular plants, or artistic expression. For any of these objectives, digital cameras enable us to take pictures that are in focus and well exposed, even when we work with little preparation.

Still, our photographs often fail to satisfy. Many of my pictures, to be quite frank, stink.

A few have turned out well, but I don’t always know why, or how to produce good pictures consistently.

Help is on the way!

The best garden photographer I know, Saxon Holt, has published his work in some 21 high-quality books on gardening. He is often listed as the author or co-author, always recognized for his photographic contributions, and frequently given awards for his work.

Holt also teaches garden photography, sharing his expertise through public talks and workshops, websites, social media, and now electronic publication. He has begun publishing ebooks in a series titled PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, and has released the first ebook in the series, “Good Garden Photography.” I wasted no time in buying a copy and learning from it.


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The book has six lessons:

  • Composition 101: Fill the Frame;
  • Composition and Balance;
  • Finding the Light;
  • Garden Appreciation;
  • Provocation and Intrigue; and
  • Telling Stories.

Holt presents these lessons informally, without technical jargon. His love of gardening comes through clearly, as does his deep knowledge of photography and enthusiasm for helping gardeners to succeed in their photographic adventures.

He takes advantage of digital publication by including links to his related essays on the Internet, to expand upon the lessons of the ebook. He illustrates his lessons with selections of his photographs that are in the ebook and the linked essays.

To gain maximum benefit from Good Garden Photography, your computer should have a color display and a connection to the Internet. Holt recommends taking a break after completing each of the six lessons; that would create good opportunities to reflect on the lesson’s content, and take your camera into the garden to apply what you have learned.

In his lessons, Holt emphasizes that “the photo should suggest an underlying story, which might involve no more than an illustration of a good garden technique or the celebration of a spectacular plant. Or it might tell us something of the garden’s creator or the site’s history. Make sure you have something to say before you click the shutter.”

I agree fully with the sense of this core concept, which can elevate a photograph from a forgettable snapshot to a communication with artistic quality. I will quibble, however, with his call that each photo should have a “story.” To me, a story is a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, which would be difficult to present with a single still photograph. My word choice preference for Holt’s concept would be that for each photograph the photographer should have in mind the picture’s “message.” That would be a sufficient challenge.

The forthcoming books in the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop are as follows:

  • Think Like a Camera (due February 1 2015)
  • Think Like a Gardener (due March 1, 2015)
  • The Camera and The Computer (April 1, 2015)

Useful Links

Saxon Holt Photography Includes an enjoyable and inspiring gallery of Holt’s photographs.

The Garden Library of Saxon Holt includes Holt’s Learning Center, store for books and prints, and photo gallery.

Celebrate Plants in Summer-Dry Gardens: About plants and landscapes for climates like that of the Monterey Bay area.


The classic question: “How does one get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” The same is true for any art form, including garden photography. Read Good Garden Photography and then reach for your camera!

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Gardeners’ Groups

There are two kinds of gardeners: those who grow ornamentals and those who grow edibles.

Of course, many gardeners do both, tilting one way or the other.

I definitely favor ornamentals, but my garden includes four dwarf apple trees, a dwarf lemon tree, a rampant fig tree, a weeping mulberry, an elderberry (that I intend to remove), two small Chilean Guavas (Myrtus ugni), a California Grape (Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’, which needs pruning urgently), and a current (Ribes sanguineum ‘Barrie Coate’). I could be overlooking other edibles.

The wonderful universe of gardeners also could be dichotomized in many other ways: specialist/generalist; avid/indifferent; green thumb/brown thumb; creative/unimaginative; propagator/plant buyer; installer/designer; scheduler/procrastinator.

I will not ask, “Which one are you?” because in all likelihood the typical home gardener shows most or all of those traits at one time or another.

In fact, someone who claims to adhere to just one approach to gardening would lack credibility. We like to focus on our successes with plants and forget the failures, but a honest gardener will admit to having killed his or her share of plants, often by either over- or under-watering. One who delights in dirty hands will be found visualizing an attractive new flowerbed or landscape vignette. And one who declares affection for all plants might be unmasked as a rose aficionado, or another sort of specialist.

The plant world offers enormous ranges of opportunities and challenges, and can easily overwhelm and frustrate the gardener who attempts to embrace it all. Valuable advice is implicit in the existence of plant societies, many of which offer members the comfort of focusing on a single genus. Examples include the American Iris Society, the American Rose Society, the American Dahlia Society, etc.

For a complete list, visit the website of the American Horticultural Association.

Most national societies’ websites will include links to local chapters, so it should be possible to find a nearby group of gardeners with shared interests.

Some organizations are interested in a fairly large category of plants, e.g., the California Native Plant Society, the Pacific Bulb Society, the California Rare Fruit Growers, the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Then, there are a few umbrella groups: the National Garden Clubs, Inc.; The Garden Club of America; and The Gardeners of America/Men’s Garden Clubs of America.

Some groups include edible gardening among their interests, but interestingly there is no sign of an American Tomato Society or a Lettuce Growers of America oriented to home gardeners.

Whatever most appeals to you in gardening, you probably could find a group that shares your interest. There might not be a nearby chapter, but the organization might at least have a useful website. Check it out!

Tree Pruning Season

Today, we are about one-third of the way through winter, and well into dormant period, which is the right time for winter pruning of trees.

Gardeners need always to be conscious of the change of seasons, because it affects the growth cycles of our plants. Let’s review.

Winter begins on the shortest day of the year, called the winter solstice. In 2014, that day was December 21st.

The days gradually grow longer until day and night lengths are equal, marking the first day of spring. That phenomenon, called the Vernal Equinox, will occur next in about ninety days, on March 15.

The cycle then continues for ninety days. The days grow longer and the nights grow shorter until we have the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice, which marks the beginning of summer.

Ninety days later, the day and night lengths again become equal and we will have the Autumnal Equinox, marking the first day of fall.

It is comforting in this troubled world that something of importance occurs on a predictable schedule.

So, this is the time for gardeners for winter pruning of trees.

Atlas Cedar After Storm

Atlas Cedar After a Wind Storm

Tree pruning involve practices that may be unfamiliar to some gardeners, and encourage them to avoid the work. The reality is that pruning is really not difficult, but complicated enough to that books have been written on the subject The complexities arise when considering the growth patterns of different trees, and the stylistic preferences of pruning specialists.

Without getting into all the in and outs and ups and downs of tree pruning, consider the basics. First, winter pruning, which is done during dormancy, stimulates growth in the desired directions. Summer pruning, by contrast, which is done after spring growth is done, directs or slows growth.

A third category, corrective pruning, could be done at any time, and should be done before seasonal pruning. The Four D’s of Pruning guide the removal of the following branches:

Dead – If a branch looks dead, scratch the bark to look for a green layer. If it’s green, it’s still living. It it’s not green, remove it.

Diseased –A sick branch can have various symptoms, depending the disease or insect infestation. Between cuts, clean clippers with 10% bleach water.

Damaged – Remove branches wounded or broken by storms or any other cause. They are unattractive and can foster diseases and insects.

Deranged (the root meaning is “moved from orderly rows”) – Remove suckers, water sprouts, and branches which cross or rub other branches, or point in the wrong direction.

A busy gardener might be tempted to skip this seasonal maintenance task, but trees, like everything else in the garden, grow better and look better when they are cared for regularly. Skipping seasonal pruning simply postpones the task, but doesn’t eliminate the need. Meanwhile, the tree doesn’t look its best.

Reach for your clippers!

Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

One of the best bargains in gardening is planting bare root trees and shrubs. And now is the time to do just that.

Bare root trees are dormant, by definition, and not attractive in the usual way, but they are excellent candidates for addition to your garden.

Bare Root Tree

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I have often written of the advantages of buying mail order plants, to draw from a wider selection than local garden centers can offer. That’s still a good practice for many plants, although there are drawbacks, as well: mail order buyers need to confirm that the plant of interest is right for their garden, particularly in terms of winter temperatures. Some tropical plants will not survive even the moderate winters of the Monterey Bay area, and some require more winter chill than they will receive in our climate, and will not blossom or fruit well here.

Years ago, eager to start a small orchard of antique varieties of apple and pear trees, I ordered ten bare root plants from a mid-west nursery, only to watch them struggle and eventually fail for lack of winter chill. Purely by chance, one tree, a Cox’s Orange Pippin, managed to survive my garden’s USDA zone and is producing very tasty apples to this year. That tree stands to remind me to do my homework before ordering mail order plants.

The hazards of selection are less important during bare root season because local garden centers are able to stock very good inventories of bare root trees and shrubs that are right for the local climate.

Despite the best efforts of garden centers, the economics of stocking containerized plants limit inventories of plants in pots: they cost more to ship and require more space, and offered at twice the price of the same plant in bare root.

Conversely, mail order suppliers (which still might offer a greater range of choices) can ship wholesale orders of bare root plants efficiently to garden centers, but have to recover the greater costs of shipping small quantities of plants to retail purchasers. So, for individual gardeners, the mail order price could be higher than the garden center price.

Additional benefits of buying bare root plants include larger root mass, according to researchers, easier to move and plant without soil and container, and faster growth because they adapt easily to local soil as they come out of dormancy.

The range of options at a garden center could include ornamentals, fruit trees, roses and berries. Many other shrubs could be offered in bare root form, as well, with the same advantages, but I have seen little development of that market.

When selecting an ornamental or fruit tree, look for a straight trunk, evenly spaced branches (if any), good spread of healthy-looking roots that have been kept moist, and a complete lack of any wounds or disease.

Many garden centers also offer espaliered fruit trees that have been developed by grafting branches in the right places, rather than by the time- and labor-consuming process of training. Some espaliered dwarf apple trees include grafts of several apple varieties, to produce a healthy young tree that will both fit a tight space in the garden and produce a selection of applies that ripen at different times during the season.

It is important to plant bare root specimens before bud break, so there is a small window of opportunity for the lowest prices. Don’t delay!

Goals for the New Year

Resolutions too often involve stopping something we enjoy doing, and easily abandoned. Let us instead try positive goals for gardening in 2015.

Good goals for gardeners might involve contributing to the community, sustaining the environment and adopting best practices in our gardens. We might not want to take on all those lofty goals at once, so here is a short list of options.

Volunteer at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

The best opportunity to test the waters is to attend the Arboretum’s annual series of free Volunteer Orientation and Training classes, which are held on seven Tuesday mornings, beginning January 13th.

I confess to a personal interest in this suggestion, but the Arboretum stands on its own as a unique resource for the Monterey Bay area and California. The orientation offers a fascinating experience to move behind-the-scenes into the Arboretum’s operation, and, if you decide to volunteer, a rewarding place to help out—in many different ways—during your available hours.

During the orientation sessions, Arboretum staff and volunteers present slide shows and walking tours through the various gardens and collections. The classes also introduce participants to horticulture, gardening, plant conservation, propagation and basic botany.

For information, visit <> and click on “Read more…”

Succeed with Fruit Trees

The Monterey Bay area is a fine place to grow a wide range of fruit trees, and you can enjoy Nature’s bounty IF you follow basic principles.

A good place to pick up those principles is the Free Fruit Tree Q&A Sessions conducted by Orin Martin, manager of UC Santa Cruz’s Alan Chadwick Garden, and Matthew Sutton, founder and owner of Orchard Keepers ( Sessions will be held from 10:00 to 12:00 noon, January 10th at The Garden Company, 2218 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, and January 17th at the San Lorenzo Garden Center, 235 River Street, Santa Cruz.

These sessions will kick off the 2015 series of fruit tree workshops offered by the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden. For information and to register the workshops, call (831) 459-3240, email, or see the Brown Paper Tickets site at

Graft a Fruit Tree

The Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers will host is annual free exchange of fruit tree scions from 12:00 to 3:00, Sunday, January 11th, at Cabrillo College’s Horticulture Building #5005, Aptos. Several hundred varieties of common, rare and experimental scions (cuttings) from all over the world will be available. There also will be grafting demonstrations, and experts and hobbyists to answer your questions.

Adding different varieties to your fruit trees is an interesting, productive, quick and very inexpensive way to learn about fruit trees and create new edibles in your garden.

For more information, send email to, or call 831-332-4699.

There are many other creative and productive goals for gardeners. Use this occasion to target your gardening visions during the coming year.