Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nasturtium: Naughty or Nice?

Every year these nasturtiums surprise me when they start popping up all over this bed and in neighboring beds. I usually don't notice them until the've already started blooming, but this year I tried to clear the japanese anemonie from around the lemon tree, so the nasturtium has become much more visible in their stealth mission to take over my garden. It's not that I don't like them (after all, they are quite tasty), it's just that I never know quite where they'll turn up.

I did pick up from the farmer's market a lovely red-flowered variety with rich, dark green leaves one year. I planted it in this same bed and it was devoured to the ground by either snails or earwigs by the next morning. I guess this volunteer, self-seeding variety is not as appealing to my garden critters.

I have learned to recognize the seeds (they look like small fresh garbanzo beans) and collect them as I'm pulling leggy leaf stalks from last year's growth, but still can't seem to control them, and at this point have decided to let them have their way, as long as they don't smother my newly planted lotus. It is amazing to me, and quite cheering that it is only the last day of November, and here already are eager volunteers ready to climb the fence for a winter's worth of blooms.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

An Ode to the Abutilon

When I encountered my first Abutilon in 2001, while taking a UC Berkeley extension plant ID class, I wasn't 'wowed' at first sight. I remember my initial impression being that the blooms, though profuse, drooped sadly alongside the leggy, almost weedy looking body of the plant.

Today I can't say that I disagree with that assessment, but over the years I have become much more fond of this easy-to-grow plant. And although I never envisioned myself as an abutilon afficionado, it is because the plant does so well in my garden that I am now decidedly a fan. It's almost as if the plant chose me, rather than the other way around.

Now I am host to a number of different hybrids, as well as one cultivar. They do vary dramatically in their details, but their overall effect helps to unite the garden aesthetic. Especially since I so love to pack plants in to my petite plot, lending to a 'specimen garden' feeling that I've learned to try to camouflage by repeating plants around the beds.

I'm still baffled by the once half-gallon twigs I planted in 2004, (a hybrid dark red 'Nabob' and bright orange 'Clementine') that are now 15-footers lording over my Dickonia Antarctica tree fern. Especially whist another 'nabob' I planted in the north bed originally, then moved to the new west wall planter box when it seemed to be suffering, is still languishing with no new growth. I even dote over it like the sickly child in the garden of strapping youths. Even the pictum 'Thompsonii', which I picked up as more of a curiosity, has become the focus of the western bed, spreading it's delicate branches of strikingly mottled leaves gracefully around the surrounding plants, like arms embracing the garden.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'

Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'
Originally uploaded by kath66.

I've never planted anything that bloomed so gorgeously so quickly. Yes, the plant was laiden with blooms when I put it in the ground, but most plants seem to drop their blooms, or they shrivel up as the plant gathers it's strength to settle into the earth, not so with Charles Grimaldi. I am in awe. Who knows, perhaps it will never bloom like this again, but at least I have record of what it is capable of producing. Now if I can just get some of the lower stems to branch out and fill in this gaping corner, covering the vining mess from the jasmine and honesuckle, I'll be really pleased.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Rejected and Ejected: Plants I've Tossed from My Garden

Originally uploaded by kath66.

Here, on the west fence is one of only two beds that have been completely replanted since inheriting this garden. The plants I've pulled over the years deserve their own list, which follows below. I've found that leaving a gently uprooted plant in a nursery pot on the front stoop with a 'FREE' sign along with the name of the plant, for those who care, usually results in the plant finding a new home within an hour. Lately I’ve been wishing we had a plant coop in the city so I could exchange some discarded mistakes for what could become garden treasures. From the speed with which my cast-offs have been adopted, there’s definitely a market for free plants out there.

What you see here now includes:
Grevillea ‘redhooks’, 3 ea Phormium, one small ‘jester’, one cream and white hybrid and one tiny ‘bronze baby’; Abutilon pictum thompsonii; Knifofia hybrid; Rosa ‘Altissimo’; Lonicera; Euphorbia characais; Clivia miniata; Sedum album;

What I removed from this bed, and the rest of the garden, and as important, why:
6 Roses, various colors and styles: without systemic inputs, produced nothing but aphid feed, black spot and rust after the first gorgeous bloom each May.

Vinca major: invasive, trying to limit color palette in garden to warmer tones.

Wisteria chinensis: a mistake on my part to fill the west trellis and wall. Both the look and the color were wrong for the garden. A costly mistake.

Bird of Paradise: Too big, too bulky. Replaced with ornamental grasses

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sharing the Neighbors Garden

IMG_2750, originally uploaded by kath66.

I am very fortunate to be surrounded on all sides by avid gardeners. My neighbor to the south is the 90-year-old retired gardener of the Palace of the Legion of Honor. He's also a succulent fanatic, and was a prisoner of war during WWII, which he will tell you about every day as he's carefully tending the mini-garden he's planted out front. He sat on a stool every day for a week building a planter from recycled bricks. His masonry isn't perfect, but his gardening is superb so you don't even notice.

But his is not the garden pictured in this photo. In fact, typical of so many urban environments, I don't know who exactly tends to this glorious garden. I never see anyone in it, albeit the plants are so large that they'd hide anyone pretty well who was lovingly mulching the beds. Here their tree dahlia is in full bloom, a good sign that the rainy season is on it's way. Every year for the past six years I can remember watching from the cozy library window as the first storm of the season blew the riot of delicate pink blossoms to and frow on their mile-high stems as they swayed in the wind and rain.

I remember reading how in Japan, where land is tight and gardens tend to be small, the surrounding landscape is always considered and brought into a garden's design providing a distant vista or peekaboo view. I keep wondering if I could make this strategy work for me, as I could certainly used more space, even if it's just an illusion.

The problem is that most of the surrounding gardens share a palette different from mine-- pink, fuchsia, purple, white, and blue-green glaucusy foliage, and a number of plants straddle their fences so they literally share the plants too. In this case two Bouganvilla's, one red one pink, and a pink climbing rose, I think a Cecil Brunner. These are in stark contrast to my deep reds, yellows and oranges. But I am enthralled with watching these gardens nonetheless. Maybe someday I'll even learn the gardeners names...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

When the Fountain Was New: A Blow by Blow on Installing Water Works

Part of the garden overhaul of 2005 included adding a fountain to the northwest corner. My husband thought it was crazy, and would take up too much space in an already confined layout, especially with the large (4'x3') iron grate set into the brick to cover the sunken catch basin and pump. But, since the grate is a salvaged steel plate, it can easily we walked upon, and therefore doesn't limit the foot traffic as much as anticipated. It is sharp in parts however, and little bare feet need to be watched carefully around it.

We started the project by laying the grate down on the brick and chalking a line around it. Jared used a rotary blade to make a clean line so the grate would fit snuggly against the cut edge. Next we broke up the brick with a sledge hammer, and then lifted it out with a crow bar. We hired a day-laborer to help us dig down into the three feet of clay and dirt, then haul it out into our waiting pickup to take to the dump. (Interestingly, even the dump separates good and bad soil--they'll take the good stuff, but the bad stuff goes on a pile with other 'organic household debris'. This was the third area of the brick patio we’d dug into to create new beds, and in total hauled more than 2 tons of clay earth to the dump. The fee was not cheap.)

We bought the pump, liner and PVC fittings for the urn at our favorite waterworks store, the urban farmer store, out in the Sunset. You basically say what you’re up to, and the staff will walk you through the bins of fittings, pipe, watering systems and show you exactly what you need. Talk about customer service! The urn itself came from American Soil Products in Berkeley (though their customer service leaves much to be desired, and can be summed up as DIY). The terra-cotta urn was hand made in Sicily, and has a slightly uneven, rustic and durable quality about it making it perfect for the purpose.

Jared built a wooden frame to secure the liner, and we stapled it onto the outer edge and set it into the hole, against the inside cut-edge of the brick. Next, he threaded the pipe and fittings from the pump, through an upturned terracotta pot set in the hole. We added the grate, then the urn, threading the pipe up through the drilled hole in the base. Next, we poured a batch of quickcrete into the urn around the pipe to ensure it would be stable--we both envisioned our young daughter pulling the urn over on herself. From there we plugged in the pump, filled the basin with water, and voila, we were in business. Almost.

What we forgot was that we would need to clean the filters in the pump as debris fell through the grate and sunk into the catch basin, then sucked into the pump intake filters. With the grate secured in place by an urn filled with concrete, it wouldn't budge. What finally worked, though I have to say I don't clean it as much as it should be done, is to use a wet/dry vac to take out the large matter and leave it at that. For a time we had a pot set into the urn perched on some submerged bricks. But after trying a Fuchsia procumbens variagata, then a sedum, and having them both suffer, I've yet to find just the right plant to cascade over the gurgling fountain. I love it nonetheless.

Alkaline Autumn

IMG_2661, originally uploaded by kath66.

It has taken me six years to figure out why the previous owner of our house stockpiled chelated iron. I actually didn't even figure it out myself. It was through a fantastic email I received after searching for answers to problems with my previously beautiful Grevillia 'redhooks'. I put the Grevillia in the ground about a year ago, and am trying to train it more as a tree with one leader, than as a bush, mainly because I don't have room to accomodate what I'm told is the tree's mature 15-foot width. It was coming along very nicely, but recently the growth in the middle of the plant has turned yellow, the tips of each leaf turning brown. The tree continues to grow, but obviously, there is something wrong.

The friendly response I received, within an hour(!!) from Jo at the Australia Native plants nursersy diagnosed my problem as alkaline soil, which is evidently a big problem this time of year in N. California, and being new to the subject I am hypothesizing that it has to do somehow with lack of rain. This leads to chlorosis, which is lack of chlorophyl I think, thus turning the leaves yellow. What distinguishes chlorotic leaves from overwatered leaves (I've had both) is the chlorotic leaves have green veins and yellow around them, as if you've give a yellow leave a sip of green water. I've noticed this most distincly in my citrus trees, but since Jo mentioned it, and I took a good look at all my plants, can honestly say that almost all of them have some symptoms, including the Cestrum, Abuitlon, and even the sword-leaved Clivia that I thought were getting sun-burned.

Jo's email recommended I give the Grevillia some iron chelate, for the short term, even pouring a diluted mixture over the leaves. Then dig some sulfer into the soil to combat the problem over the long term, followed by a long soak. I dutifully followed the prescription for every plant in the garden, and am waiting to hopefully see the leaves green up again.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Is My Garden Contributing to the Culture of Consumption?

An interesting article in the Chron Home Section on a fellow named Dan Ho lead me to pose and ponder this interesting question. I'd hate to think my puttering around digging in the dirt of an18' x 20' plot is somehow linked to the disease somtimes called 'affluenza' that I am trying to vigilantly guard myself and my daughter against. But I also know there have been months that my husband has had to bite his tongue when reviewing our credit card statments, the garden expenditures far surpassing our food reciepts. Ho, after an epiphany brought on by a mysterious seizure, has shed the bulk of his considerable wordly posessions in pursuit of what appears to me to be release, bliss- or call it what you will--some form of domestic nirvana.

So I had to laugh with self-recognition when reading Ho recall his life before his 'awakening', "I once bought a $3,600 cedar tree," he said, "because, you know, I needed something for the corner to create a transition from the oak tree to the anemone because the sedum on the brick walk just wasn't going to cut it. People think like that, and I did." Ummm, people definitely think like that, just see the post from last Thursday on my newly-planted corner Brugmansia. What makes Ho's message so amusing is that he has engaged the current home and garden fanaticism sweeping the nation using what seems to me to be eastern priciples of Buddhist thought, all without appearing to be contradicting himself. Underneath it all seems to run a deep-seeded earnestness - he walked the walk way before he started talking the talk. You can't say that about your average Martha Stewart wanna-be.

So is my garden contributing to the culture of consumerism? Yes, and no. But the honest joy that it gives me and the hours of pleasure I derive while not spending a penny might just tip me over to Ho's side just a little. Now if I could only cultivate that sense of 'capriciousness' he so highly prizes, I'll be on my way to garden paradise.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Kids in the Garden

IMG_1346, originally uploaded by kath66.

When we bought our home in 2001 we didn't have kids. The garden was full of roses that were gorgeous, but unbeknownst to me at the time, were kept alive and pest-free with healthy (or not) doses of systemic pesticide delivered through an automatic watering system. When we were moving in and discovered the entire wall of cabinets in the garage full of the 'rose treatments', we suddently realized that the garden was not being kept so healthy with compost applications from the handy bin inthe back corner like we'd thought. It took me a couple of years to nurse the roses into the ground. My attempts to amend the soil with alfalfa produced a thriving aphid farm. But I somehow couldn't take posession of the garden, as if the plants were their before I was and somehow had called dominion. It wasn't until the impending birth of our daughter, and a very delayed house extension (that was staged in the garden) that I finally gave up on the roses and took over the garden for real. I contemplated all the garden could be, and although making the garden a place for my daughter to play was an idea, I could never wholly give it up to her, and told my husband on more than one occassion when the subject of swings came up, that the garden was MINE.

What I have learned in the nearly three years since my daughter was born is that it is truly my garden, but that it is much more enjoyable when I can share it with her.

The Inspiring Plant Palette of Suzanne Porter

IMG_1944, originally uploaded by kath66.

A few years ago, the SF Chronicle ran a tribute to Berkeley Garden Designer Suzanne Porter upon her premature death due to cancer. The article was extremely well and lovingly written and really captured not only the talent of the woman, but her gardening inspirations that led her to appreciate such unique and hitherto unheralded plants, and especially folliage, and her way of putting them together to create a path for the eye, as would a painter. I loved the article, as it was a time I was searching for a vision form my own humble plot, and found an affinity with her aesthetic--particularly with her love of red, auburn, rust and brown foliage. Her favorite nurseryman, Don Rose, of Harlequin Gardens named a collection of plants after her. It took me a few hours to decode the list using my Sunset Western Garden Book and my American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia. Whenever I'm looking for a new plant, I pull out the list. It's conveniently organized by trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses and vines. Though much of what was on the list I'd have skimmed right over, I now give them considerable thought because Suzanne loved them. Somehow I trust her, even though I never even knew her.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Fixing a mistake

IMG_2660, originally uploaded by kath66.

As mentioned in the last entry, here is the Brugmansia. It is about to bloom, though it looks pretty naked here in the corner. The Phormium 'Guardsman' is suffering as it had been planted too low. I've realized that planting the root ball slightly above the ground level seems to work best and prevent the base of the plant from getting rot. Just a hypothoses, but it worked well with the P. 'jester' in the center bed. I've underplanted the brug with a 'sooty' dianthus. I've had it in a pot for two years being neglected and root-bound, and saw it on another blog and remembered how much I like it. Funny how sometimes you have to be reminded of what you have. I had just bought a bluish echevira for the spot, but it clashed terribly, and had to be tucked into a corner a bed away with some heleborus and Lotus.

Making changes

IMG_1937, originally uploaded by kath66.

Here, to the left, you can see a Cestrum 'auraniacum' that I'd planted to fill the corner and block the base of the honeysuckle and jasmine vines. It worked a little too well, and took over, but it was all leaves and produced so few flowers I finally pulled it last week and planted a Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi' in it's place. I was shocked at the difference at pulling it out, but I've also lost all the flowers visible here from the Anigozanthos (2 one red one yellow) and the Asclepias curassavica (scarlet milkweed). I'm looking forward to training the Brugmansia.

Addings mirrors--adding space

IMG_1930, originally uploaded by kath66.

Going back to the summer, when I added the mirrors above the planters, and at other strategic places in the garden. Jared was very skeptical about the idea at first, then absolutely loved the results, as did I. My only issue now is keeping them clean. As if washing the house windows isn't a big enough job...We picked up all the mirrors at my favorite salvage yard, a place just down 3rd street from us off of Cargo St. called Builder's Resource. I think I got nine mirrors, including a beautiful round one that survived from 1914, for about $50. Now we may have to hang some of them, as the plants are starting to hide them almost completely.

South-Western Planter Box Transformation

IMG_2678, originally uploaded by kath66.

After gathering suggestions from Shirley Watts, a hip garden designer from the East Bay, we built these planter boxes to run along the naked west and south walls of the deck. They're 18 inches wide, 15 ft long to the corner, and 25 in. high. Shirley recommended welded iron planters. After having them costed out at $1500, Jared said he could build them himself. I am always amazed at what he can do. He tested a product from Sydney Harbour paint company called liquid iron + instant rust' to acheive the finish. I was so impressed with the results, as was he. They're built of marine plywood, with drainholes in the angled bottoms that slant toward drain holes with pvc tubing drilled throught to below the deck. The interior is coated with a roll-on rubber sealant, and then a scratch coat that seemed to me to be liquid cement. This was to prevent the gouges from the shovel.

The planter is planted with a series of plants that have performed well in other parts of the garden, plus one lovely Acer Palmatum 'Bloodgood' marking the corner. There are two Abutilon, one yellow hybrid (moon chimes?), and one Megapotamicum; Euphorbia atropurpureum(?); Astelia Nervosa 'red gem'; Phormium 'sundowner'; Cana hybrid; Asparagus fern; Anigozanthos (kangaroo paw) red/green; Cestrum 'newellii'; Asplenium fern (3 ea); Helleborus x Sterniil; Clivia miniata.

As the planter rounds into the West wall, the plants repeat:
Cestrum 'newellii' moved from the south wall where it was unhappy in too much sun.
Loropetalum chinensis (green); Astelia nervosa, Asplenium fern and another Abutilon 'nabob', but this one seem to do nothing but suffer so I keep nipping it back hoping it will gather it's strength for the next growing season...

Summer into Autumn in Dogpatch

Suddenly it's November and the garden has fallen into shadows. The 'Big Tree' in the neighbors tiny garden casts a very powerful darkness over my poor suffering beds this time of year, a fact that I routinely forget during the peak of summer when I'm constantly moving plants that just can't take so much sun. The other big change in the garden is the western neighbor's removal of her long-suffering cherry tree during a big storm last March. Suddenly I had more sun than I knew what to do with. Not anymore. I am counting down to the winter solstice when the days will getlonger again. Today, by the time the sun peaked around the 'big tree', it was barely high enough in the sky to make it over the rooftops.

I think figuring out the sun patterns in urban gardens is one of the keys to success. Gardening in the golden gate is odd enough with our roughly three seasons--Fog/Wind(summer), Wet (winter), and Other (hopefully sunny) in between.