Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Garden Celebrates Spring


This rainy season has been good news / bad news all around. The good news is that we've had a lot more rain for the rainfall year because of two large storms in late fall. The bad news is that it pretty much hasn't rained at all this calendar year.

This has had two effects on the plants: Everything is quite lush and beautiful - and everything is blooming early and might not last long - it's warm, sunny, and dry.

Today, I want to celebrate the beautiful blooms that the garden has been offering for several weeks now. Above Salvia leucophila 'Pt. Sal Spreader' looks wonderful with purple blossoms and green winter foliage.



Ceanothus 'Tilden Park' is also stunning this year. After a disappointing display last year, I'm impressed with the blossoms everywhere, and the pollinators are happy too.


And the first bulbs are also showing up - above, a dainty Tritileia.


And here's how it all looks from the street. Certainly beats the dead lawns some houses are now featuring - and my front garden does not have automatic irrigation (though I hand water just a bit in late spring).


I'm also happy with the Phacelia this year. Not sure whether they aren't quite as weedy because I pulled quite a few, or whether they self-control when it's fairly dry. But there's less danger of them choking all other plants - and the bumble bees appreciate them more than ever.


Both Phacelia and the tidy tips shown above reseed quite reliably every year. I started with, I think, two tidy tip seedlings from Annie's and I enjoy them along the walkway to the front step. They're even growing in some cracks in the driveway - I try my best not to run over them.


In the back garden, I removed 3 large Ceanothus thyrsiflorus and planted some 1-gallon Ceanothus 'Midnight' instead. I did this in part because thyrsiflorus clearly wanted more sun, and the redwoods shade the spots for quite a big part of the day. Last year, I wasn't sure whether the experiment was going to succeed, but I'm more hopeful now- and I certainly love the color of this particular Ceanothus. Nice contrast to Mimulus puniceus, the southern red monkey flower that also tolerates some shade.


I'll leave you with another reminder that we're not just planting for our own enjoyment but for the different critters that visit the garden. And the hummingbird sage above is a great plant both for pollinators and for hummingbirds. I think they're building a nest nearby, and I'm so happy I can offer some natural food for them.

Happy spring!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Going Wild In the CNPS Booth at the 2015 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show

Ellen Edelson (Yerba Buena chapter) and Town Mouse, in the CNPS booth at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show
Yesterday we mice did our annual stint in in the California Native Plant Society booth at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.

Ellen Edelson, who volunteers with the Yerba Buena (San Francisco) chapter of CNPS, has ensured that CNPS is well represented at the show for more years than I know. She brings a whole booth-load of stuff in her small truck, along with enough energy to power the entire event center.


This year Ellen had a conflicting commitment, and other volunteers stepped forward to fill in until she could get to the show. Town Mouse was there on opening day, and did all the cut flower arrangements. 




Even at closing on Sunday, when we were there to take the last shift and help with tear-down, the flower arrangements still looked absolutely lovely (as you can see). Town Mouse has quite a talent!

We mice wandered the maze of exhibit gardens and vendors for a couple of hours before our shift in the booth. This year's show theme was Going Wild. But really only a couple of the exhibit gardens lived up to that name in my view and, I think, Town Mouse's too. 

One that spoke to me was called Bring Nature Home. Here we both enjoyed the mixing of wood and stone and the wilderness feel to the garden, and the abundance of native plants. 


Oh, I would love to create an entrance like the above in my garden!



The Bring Nature Home garden was brought to us by the National Wildlife Federation, SUN Sustainable, and Vallee Landscaping, and was designed by April Owens, Nancy Bauer, and Charlotte Togovitsky.


I found walking into this dell particularly enchanting. The garden was called Uproot. I confess I didn't spend much time thinking about the plants assembled. I just enjoyed the magical space that being in this meadow slope gave me.


And it was fun to see how it was created from tiers of black gallon pots.

Town Mouse wore a jacket that took "Going Wild" in a whole different direction!

The Uproot garden designed by students of landscape architecture at University of California, Berkeley. I liked how they left the infrastructure open to view - a fun flip-side.


Living Light, designed by David Warren, was another fun garden to walk through. It featured succulents and edibles and native plants - and a cool wild-looking living roof. And an amazing bee habitat by Harkness Gardens. The living roof cabin even had a fungus garden inside!






The Living Light garden featured log cabins by Sterling Log Cabins of Vashon Island, WA, Old World Design, in Oakland CA, Green Gallery Landscape & Harkness Landscape, Berkeley CA.


Many exhibits focused on imaginative use of environmentally friendly and recycled materials. Town Mouse felt that some designers were using plants for their color and form rather than any other criteria for grouping them, such as their sun/shade/water needs, or native plant community, or value to pollinators. Still, there were plenty of visual treats, like this one (I didn't record the designer, unfortunately).


Want to see more? I uploaded a set of garden show photos to this Flickr album. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How I water my suburban garden in winter and spring


It's been another strange winter in California. Yes, we did get more rain - regrettably, it all arrived in two large storms, with months of no-rain-at-all in between.

It's hard for us humans to cope with this - I so loved the rain, rejoiced when seeing the mushrooms come up everywhere, the lychen and mosses green up. And then it did not rain for a long time. Interestingly, many of the plants did not mind very much - if anything, the mild weather with very little frost got us early bloomers like the Maurandia below.


And the manzanitas were spectacular. All of them, starting in December and still going strong in February.


Of course my fingers twitched on the irrigation controller - no rain at all in January? I'd better do something! But I remembered the good advice from my garden designer who said that most of the plants are happiest if they're left alone in winter.


As long as the temperature doesn't get into the sixties consistently, the plants are half asleep, and extra watering won't help. Sure, the neighbor's redwood trees will suck the moisture right up, no matter what the temperature. But benefit of watering is limited, especially for established plants. (I did water 2 newcomers every other week).


I'm happy to report that my benign neglect, and refusal to start watering in winter, did not seem to cause problems - the different bulbs and the annuals such as the tidy tips above came up happily and by now, I'm starting to see flowers everywhere.

Here's the catch, though: In spring, California native plants do expect and require water. It's gotten quite warm in the last few days. So, even though some of the soil in my garden is still somewhat moist, I have turned on the drip, at 50% for March. I'll leave it on until we'll get a storm, then increase the percentage in April and May.

In June, I hold steady and in July and August I start reducing the irrigation - plants can go semi-dormant in summer, and most of them perk right back up when the rains start again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sowing Native California Plant Seeds in Early Springtime

Eight native California plant species in one box!
Spring comes to California sometime in the week following New Year it seems. By late February in my neck of the woods, spring is positively bouncing up and down, with blooms and germination and happy birds and bees everywhere. No wonder this is when we get family visitors from Minnesota - especially this year.

So I decided to follow nature and sow seeds when wild seeds are germinating all around me.

I'm off to a successful start in the greenhouse — in the seed box, there is at least one seedling in each section, just eight days after sowing! And I also direct-sowed some clarkia, too.

Nurseries might sow perennials in July, so that plants are ready for a fall planting. But I don't have nursery conditions. I've found that in mid-July it's just too hot up on our ridge for me to have much success.

BTW You can read about native plant nurseryman and propagation expert Dara Emery's seed sowing schedule in my earlier post: Dara Emery's Seed Sowing Schedule (And Stories from Reality).

I had seeds in large bags to prepare for storage and old seeds that needed to be sorted through, so I picked a few species for my north garden area, which has some quite sunny areas and some partial shade, and stays moist longer than any other part of the property.

California aster has abundant seeds - and they are very hairy.

Hairy seeds of California Aster, after rubbing through a sieve.

I just kept rubbing them through a sieve till the hairs separated, then walked through the garden lifting and dropping the seeds into a bowl till most of the hairs had lifted off in the breeze.

Some of what was left. (There were some more seeds but I had stored them before I thought to take a picture)

Maybe some seeds lifted off in the breeze too, but that's OK. I had plenty. Enough to share with the birds and maybe some will germinate in unexpected places. Aster can take over a garden, spreading into a large patch. I have space to spare, so that's not a problem for me.

I sowed far fewer seeds than in earlier years - eight species in a box instead of eight boxes. I've learned from experience. So far, it's looking good. Just eight days after sowing, I'm seeing germination in all species I sowed!

California aster seedlings

Course it remains to be seen if the seeds growing are the ones I sowed and not some strangers that blew in on a breeze! With the exception of the rosy buckwheat, they are all local natives gathered within a mile of my home (or grown from second generation wild plants in my garden).

  • Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, rosy buckwheat (nursery stock) – quite a few
  • Artemisia douglasiana, mugwort – a couple.
  • Symphyotrichum chilense, Pacific Aster  – quite a few!
  • Solidago californica, California Goldenrod – one.
  • Monardella villosa, coyote mint – a few.
  • Anisocarpus madiodes, Woodland Madia – a few.
  • Ceanothus papillosus, wartleaf ceanothus, from 2012 – a few. 
  • Dudleya caespitosa, bluff dudleya from 2012 (and 14?) – quite a few!

I'll be thrilled if I get lots of these plants. They are great for wildlife, especially for pollinators, and except for the mugwort, have pretty flowers too. 

I'd love to have a lot of the rosy buckwheat in our fenced-off garden - I just love the raspberry blooms, and so do bees and butterflies. And deer. 

We don't get buckwheat in my neighborhood. Naked buckwheat does grow a mile away and I've grown some in my garden. It reseeds right where I planted it but doesn't spread. So I decided non-local garden buckwheats are OK. Of course if I see any rosy naked buckwheat down where it grows wild, I'll have to rethink the idea!

Mugwort may not be so ornamental. It disappears half the year, too. But it's a nice green and smells amazing, and birds love the seeds too. It's also good for erosion control, so I'm going to try to get it established on the slopes of the north garden. It grows wild just up our road half a mile.

Then, there's the Clarkia. I harvest a lot - a LOT - of Clarkia rubicunda, ruby-chalice clarkia, our local native species. I've been growing it for about four years or more now, and I have a good population that reseeds wonderfully.

I have so much, in fact, that I'm thinking of reseeding my neighborhood. Unfortunately where I originally gathered the Clarkia seeds from (con permiso), the invasives are taking over - sticky eupatory and french broom and Oxalis pes-caprae. So sad! It's a steep slope with lots of poison oak, or I'd maybe try to do a bit of weeding. What am I saying -  I'm weeding full time on my own property!

So I decided to just sow some of them - my oldest seeds, from 2012, all over the place, especially along the path in the north garden. They are germinating!

Tiny Clarkia rubicunda seedlings along the bank above the path.

Slightly older Clarkia rubicunda seedlings 

Unfortunately deer and gophers eat the Clarkia, so I'm just hoping that enough grow so the browsers don't take them all.

This year, I've got major gopher holes and mounds in my fenced garden. And shallow tunnels humping up under my mulch paths. I squish them down whenever I see them. Sorry critter! Of course that isn't enough.

Where I usually have rampant Clarkia, things are looking very sparse and it can only be the gophers I think. Even I, sentimental as I am, am contemplating calling in the gopher guy, who humanely kills them with traps that cut their little heads off!

Well - I hope to post a few updates on the progress of these seeds, and maybe I'll sow few more this week. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

California Native Garden Foundation and Live Oak School, Santa Cruz: Workdays in March


Alrie Middlebrook is a force of nature. Her organizations, the California Native Garden Foundation (CNGF) and the Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education (ELSEE), are headquartered in San Jose, but her influence extends much farther.

Alrie Middlebrook at an "Eating California" outdoor haute cuisine event I attended at the Middlebrook Center, December of 2013.

Last October, Leigh Klein, the garden teacher at Live Oak elementary school, reached out for help with weeding and sheet-mulching in preparation for planting natives in the school garden. I showed up with a friend - and was bowled over to find out that it was one of Alrie's projects!

A while back, I wrote a review of Alrie and Glenn Keator's book, Designing California Native Gardens, one of my favorites. Alrie's vision has expanded since then, to include food—California edible plants to be more precise, sustainability, and visionary forms of urban agriculture. She is promoting haute-cuisine cooking with native plants at one end of the spectrum, and school gardens at another, all in service of a vision you get pretty quickly if you have a chance to talk to her.

Now in her 70s, Alrie has the all the push and hutzpah of a 20-something high-tech CEO. She moves mountains, grant awarding bodies, and a whole heap of interns. She prods and encourages and energizes. Why, she even got me to write this post! The woman is invincible!

So - this blog post is to say: More work days are planned for Live Oak Elementary School. Alrie wrote to me:
Thank you for you support of Live Oak School. There has been amazing progress on the garden in the school. We currently have $5000 from Lowes that we can use on the garden. With that money we plan to add in a outdoor kitchen connected to a grey water system for the school.

We are having work days on March 7th and 14th from 10-3 at Live Oak School to clean up the garden in preparation for the addition of the kitchen and we would love your support and help.
If you are a Santa Cruz area reader, why not show up and lend a hand? But beware - Alrie may energize you beyond your wildest expectations!

Below are a few photos from the workday I attended back in October 2014. Parents and children turned out as well as community volunteers.

Tough weeds - lots of ivy growing on the fence

Leigh Klein, Live Oak school's garden teacher. .

I'm standing next to the supervisor… The garden will have a complete make-over.

My CNPS friend Ann Garside talks to Alrie Middlebrook.

Layers of cardboard. Volunteers went to supermarkets for cardboard and got lots of it.

The man with the chainsaw is a professional in the parks department whose child happens to go to the school. He is slicing an enormous ivy trunk.

Huge pile o' mulch - to go on the cardboard.

Oy - water goes on the mulch, matey! The weeds gone and cardboard and mulch laid - and watered - volunteers take a welcome rest. Pizza and prizes were provided!

Alrie fed our minds as well - and showed us the plan for the garden.

A sketch of the plan!  The area cleared and prepared was at the bottom edge. I'm looking forward to checking out the progress on March 7 or March 14.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How I water my garden in a California winter drought


Salvia 'Bee's Bliss' never gets water. Planted at chaparral edge.

I titled this post carefully - I'm not an expert. This is just what I do, and I'd love to hear from other native gardeners. How are you dealing with this winter drought?

This post is based on a question by frequent commenter Ed Morrow of Carmel Valley, which a beautiful area south of us and inland from the town of Carmel. Its climate is somewhat similar to my ridge-top climate, which tends to be warmer and dryer than in the valleys around me. Ed said:
It's time to start pulling the hoses and doing some hand watering. But how much and how often? Is there some good way to judge how much water to apply, is there some best way to apply it? Should I invest in a soil probe to see how deep the moisture goes? Any ideas? How much and in what way to water during our winter drought?
Maybe Town Mouse will add her thoughts to this post. She's more aware of watering, and does use soil probes. She also has a city watering bill, whereas I have a quarterly well-water bill that is not based on consumption! I'm not lavish, but I'm not niggardly either.

It's been dry since our one good winter storm in very early December. We are all hoping for the next promised drenching, supposed to hit north of here in a few days. The last promised storm stayed north of us, so we are fingers and toes crossed!

For a while after the last rain we had some good fog drip, but in the past six weeks or so, with temperatures into the seventies and even eighties, I've been hand watering. Here's how I've been coping.

Where I have seedlings, I water fairly lightly and often. Once a week, maybe more if the sun is beating on them all day. Their roots are not that deep, and they dry out quickly, especially in fluffy garden soil.

Planted from local wild seed, Clarkia rubicunda (ruby chalice clarkia), reseeds freely in my garden. 

I also water recent plantings, maybe once a week, once every other week - depending how recently they went in. I give them a bit more of a focused soak. I move from plant to plant to plant, and back again to give the water a chance to sink in. It's a pleasant and relaxing task - if you have the time to do it. Probably each plant gets around 20-30 seconds of hose time.

I water chaparral plants either not at all (I have a large wild chaparral area), or way less than riparian/shady plants. I don't have that much time - or water.

Salvia mellifera, black sage, local wild native at garden edge, never gets water

I also know the soil: where the water sinks in easily and stays wet longer; where the bedrock is not far below the surface, and more frequent watering keeps things going.

I check the turgidity of tender plants - but sclerotic (stiff-leaved) plants like manzanita don't droop, so it's harder to tell with them. Then again, they are sclerotic to withstand dry periods, so I don't worry too too much. Just a little. How much drought can they take?


Our local wild manzanita, Arctostaphylos crustacea var. crinita is starting to bloom!

I mimic the season. I don't think you can give too much water in winter because nature dumps - or used to anyway - tons of water at a time in winter. We also typically get some coastal fog and foggy-drizzle - not as much as lower places, but we do get our share. Fog just dampens things down, so I do some of that kind of light watering too.


Wild local native madrone, Arbutus menziesii, with exceptional blossoms this year. I've been watering new plantings on the slope it grows on. I think it benefitted!

The old finger in the soil is another test, for potted plants: If you feel dampness, no need to water. I'm sure probes and all that are better than the finger test.

I have salvias that look happy with no water, and a potted coreopsis that droops if I miss a couple days.

Deep watering is good, of course for deep-rooted plants. But even plants with deep roots generally have shallow roots too. True, if they never get a deep watering (from man or nature) maybe they won't put their deep roots down so far. But I guess I don't worry so much about deep watering to get them over dry spells. Also, I just have too much garden to do deep watering!


Pink flowering current (Ribes sanguineum glutinosum var. glutinosum) is a joy in the winter garden! This one is in the shade and gets a bit of extra water because of nearby new plantings. It is a plant that benefits from a bit of watering.

Coast redwoods, for all they are so tall, have very shallow roots. (They interlock to keep the trees upright in high winds.) In extremely warm winter drought periods, I would probably water planted ones like Ed's (he didn't plant them!) maybe every month, for say 20 mins of sprinkler time. Just a guesstimate. My natively-here trees are looking OK still and I never water those. But I worry about them all the same. How many dry winter years can they take? Coastal redwoods only grow where there is fog drip along the California coast.

I also like to give foliage a bit of a spritz because I think the plants would enjoy (yes, enjoy) that, and it gets the dust off.

Budbreak on a young buckeye tree (Aesculus californica). They're native near here, but I planted this one as there are none on our ridge. Buckeyes are drought tolerant - though this one may get a little water from the slope above, which I'm watering lightly to help new plantings get established.

I think how much to compensate for lack of rain depends on how deep the plant roots go, and what type of plants you're watering, and how recently they were planted. And also how much time you've got to fuss over them — as well as your water bill!

How are others living with winter drought coping? I'd love to know…