Gophers in Your Garden?

I didn’t have much of a gopher problem during the dry years. All my plants went into the ground with nary a thought as to the danger they would one day find themselves in. Now it’s a different story and it’s war. I”m not giving up and I’m not giving in. Here’s my story and what I’m doing about the destructive critters.

Zebra iris blooming just one week before rhizome was eaten by a gopher.

As you know there’s nothing, well almost nothing, as heartbreaking in the garden as losing a favorite plant you’ve nurtured and enjoyed for years. Whether the death comes from fungal problems, insect infestation or a rodent, you feel a loss. And so it was with me just recently when I discovered one of my prized Zebra iris eaten by a gopher. Then a couple of years ago my birch tree keeled over in the driveway, roots mostly eaten off. I saved the birch by replanting it in a huge gopher basket. Thankfully it was dormant season so the tree had time to recover the next spring. The jury’s out on whether I can save the iris.

Did you know that gophers usually live alone within their burrow system except when females are caring for their young or during breeding season? They are nocturnal, territorial and active year round. All those mounds you see are created by one animal as the female will drive off her young just a few weeks of giving birth. If you dispatch a female before she gives birth in the spring you can often solve your problem. Don’t give her the chance to have another litter in June. She can live for 3-5 years.

White birch gopher victim

I don’t advocate using poison baits as those anti-coagulant toxins can be passed on to pets, hawks and other predators that might eat them. Each morning I do look for any signs of fresh activity and I’ll set a cinch trap with a flag after probing for the tunnel direction. I also discourage them by flooding the tunnels and stomp hard on any new surface tunnels.

There are no gophers in the Northeast but the Golden gopher of the Midwest is twice as large as our Pocket gopher who got it’s name as they love to store food in side pockets inside their head. Gophers love sprouts and apples and will gorge themselves to destruction if they are plentiful.

Urban myths to control gophers include Juicy Fruit gum and laxatives but they are not effective per studies at UC Davis. Putting glass or dried rose cuttings with thorns down a hole is effective as gophers are hemophiliacs and will bleed to death if cut. Castor oil is effective for a short time as is coyote, cat or any other urine. Fish emulsion or meat products are deterrents as gophers are committed vegetarians.

Are there plants that gophers won’t eat? They seem to avoid lavender, sage or salvia, rosemary, thyme and oregano. As a designer I have a slightly longer list of gopher resistant plants but always recommend planting in stainless steel gopher baskets anyway. You can’t be too careful.

I have to chuckle at a list of plants supposedly not on a gopher’s menu that I found in a magazine several years ago. Apapanthus was on the list. I can assure you that a gopher will burrow right underneath an agapanthus in order to get water from the roots.

Firesafe Landscaping

I’ve hiked the trails of the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve for many years, even before the 2008 Martin Fire. Since then we’ve had wet and dry winters but I was amazed at the amount of regrowth this year when I visited recently. The trees are getting huge, the shrubs robust and the flowering perennials took my breath away.

Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Everything is green and lush now around our homes and wild areas but summer is right around the corner and with it comes the increased danger of fire. What should we be doing to keep our homes safe? Is there a landscape that is safer in a wildfire than another? Which plants burn more readily?

Fire safe landscaping is a term used to describe defensible space. It can look like a traditional landscape. The idea is to surround the home with things less likely to burn and place them to provide separation between canopies and avoid creating fire ladders. Highly flammable plants should be placed, whenever possible, with low-growing and/or low fuel plants.

The three basic rules that Cal Fire advocates to make your home and community safe are to remove dead vegetation, thin out live vegetation and prune up your trees within 100 feet of your home or at least to your property line. There are guidelines for each area within that 100 feet but that’s a good rule of thumb to follow.

Silver lupine

Your landscaping should be well-spaced, watered appropriately and the plants fire resistant. Plants should be low enough around the home that if they do catch fire they won’t give the flames a ladder to the eaves of a structure or lower branches of trees. Replace flammable plants with fire-resistant plants. Fire-resistant plants have watery sap, little flammable material and open, airy growth. Plants that provide fruit or flowers for bouquets are usually fire-resistant.

Even green plants will burn and several such as rosemary, lavender, large ornamental grasses, Japanese honeysuckle and juniper are actually extremely flammable. Some drought tolerant and native plants like sagebrush, baccharis, toyon, deer grass and buckwheat contain large amount of pitch, resin and dry flammable twiggy material. Keep these low and full of fresh green growth with frequent trimming. Remove dead limbs and twigs from manzanita. If you have these plants on your property yearly pruning and maintenance is important.
Prune pine, cedar, oak and other trees. Thin and separate clumps of brush to reduce their flammability and slow the spread of fire.

Plants with the ability to hold the soil in place and have value for wildlife and their habitat include some drought tolerant, California-friendly, fire resistant plants like western redbud, monkey flower, ceanothus, yarrow, California fuchsia and wild strawberry. Also consider coffeeberry, flowering currant, bush anemone, snowberry, California wax myrtle and evergreen currant. Non-native fire resistant plants from areas include rockrose, strawberry tree, Chinese pistache, barberry, escallonia, oleander, pittosporum, bush morning glory, dwarf pomegranate and wisteria to name just a few.

Penstemon heterophyllus

Groundcovers for areas closest to your house include ornamental strawberry, red fescue, and sedum. Perennials to try include bush morning glory, coreopsis, fortnight lily, hens and chicks, daylily, penstemon, santolina and society garlic. Vines that resist fire when maintained and watered occasionally include pink jasmine, white potato vine, cape honeysuckle and star jasmine.

Many people think they have to clear everything within 30 feet of their house to truly have a defensible space. This is unnecessary and actually unacceptable due to soil erosion and habitat destruction reasons. We want to retain the character of this beautiful area we live in, provide the food and shelter that our native wildlife are accustomed to but also reduce fire risk.

In areas 30-70 ft. away from your house plants should be trimmed and thinned to create well-spaced groups and help prevent a fire in the wildland from spreading to your home. Be cautious with slopes. If you have a large lot, the fringe area should be inspected and maintained regularly to eliminate any build up of dry brush and litter. This reduces the chance of surface as well as crown fires.

For example, grasslands mowed to leave 4-6″ of height allow insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals shelter, food and a place to reproduce. Leaving 4-6″ standing also provides some erosion protection and shades out some of the weeds that follow disturbance.

All vegetation, including native plants and ornamentals in a residential landscape, is potential wildfire fuel. Vegetation that is properly pruned and maintained, however, can slow a wildfire and reduce the amount of heat around your home.

Irrigation is vital in a fire safe landscape to maintain plant moisture especially within 30 ft around your home. Choose the right irritation system. While all plants can eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Consider drip irrigation and micro sprays for watering most of your landscape. Use sprinklers and micro spray for lawns and other groundcovers or turf. Even drought adapted species and natives will benefit from watering every month or so during the dry season. Unwatered landscapes generally increase the risk of fire.

Mulching around your plants will preserve the moisture in the soil. Plantings beyond 30 ft. should be irrigated occasionally but to a lesser extent. As you get 70-100 ft from the home, native plantings that require little or no irrigation should be used.

Many homes may not have 30 ft. between their house and the property line but following these guidelines will help. Plants in this area need to be the slowest to ignite and should produce the least amount of heat if they do burn. There are plants with some fire resistance which include drought tolerant California natives and Mediterranean climate selections. The key to fire resistance, though, is maintenance and keeping the moisture in the foliage high.

Plant arrangements, spacing and maintenance are often as important as plant types when considering fire safety. Group plants of similar heights and water requirements to create a landscape mosaic that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently. Use plants that do not accumulate dead leaves or twigs. Keep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis remove dead branches and brush, dry grass, dead leaves and pine needles from your yard, especially within 30 feet from your home and at least 150 ft if you’re on a hill. Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart with branches trimmed at least 10 ft away from your roof. It’s best, however, to keep trees further from your house. Low shrubs can be closer in and herbaceous perennials and groundcovers can be nearest the home.

Using fire resistant plants that are strategically planted give firefighters a chance fighting a fire around your home especially within the 100 foot defensible zone. Each home or property is different and you will need to look at the unique qualities of yours in planning your firescaping. Some of the info for this column was obtained from two valuable booklets, ‘Living with Fire in Santa Cruz County’, prepared by Cal Fire and available free from any fire department or online and another booklet published by the Calif. Department of Forestry.

Fragrance in the Garden

A sweet fragrance permeates the air as I step out my front door. Could it be the white flowering wild ceanothus cuneatus blooming now on the hillside and smells of plum blossoms and roses? Maybe the scent is coming from the fragrant sarcococca with those tiny white flowers you can barely see but can smell a mile away. Or could it be the sweetly scented lily-of-the-valley flowers blooming on the back patio? Make fragrance a daily delight with plants that release their perfume at different times of the day and the year.

Daphne odora ‘Maejima’

The word fragrance comes from the 17th century French word fragrantia meaning sweet smell. A garden’s fragrance can be as unforgettable as its appearance. The scent of a particular flower can make you remember past times and places. Plant them along a garden path to enjoy as you stroll, in containers to scent a deck or patio or locate them beneath a window and let their aroma drift indoors.

Several easy-to-grow shrubs have fragrant flowers as an added bonus. Mexican Orange or choisya ternata blooms most of the year. Pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira all have tiny blossoms that also smell like oranges. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive or osmanthus have a delicate apricot fragrance.

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ – Zebra iris

Then there are the perennials. My garden comes on a little later than most and the buds of the fragrant variegated Zebra iris are just opening. They will smell like grape Kool-aid when the sun allows the scent to develop.

Last year Chris and Rick Moran over at Brook Lomond Iris Farm gave me a couple Zebra rhizomes and they are growing quite nicely. Every year the Moran’s have a tall bearded iris show and sale over two weekends in the spring. This May 13th and 14th is the second weekend and the show takes place at their garden located at 10310 California Drive in Ben Lomond. The Iris Farm is educational, too, as the Moran’s are well-versed in organic gardening practices.

Chris told me a scented flower story about an iris called Scented Nutmeg. Seems that when the long awaited flower finally opened she bent down and smelled nothing. The blue flower was pretty anyway. Later when working out in the garden she smelled cookies baking. As none of the neighbors were home at the time she was puzzled. Sitting down the smell hit her again and she realized she was right next to the Scented Nutmeg. They just needed the sun to warm up the flower to give off the scent.

Philadelphus lewisii at Felton Covered Bridge

Other fragrant plants include California natives Philadelphus lewisii or Wild Mock Orange. Calycanthus occidentals or Spice Bush is native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.

In spring there may be nothing quite as spectacular as a wisteria vine, loaded with fragrant purple, pink, blue or white flower clusters, covering an arbor or pergola. Pink jasmine is another vigorous vine with intensely fragrant flowers as is Evergreen Clematis.

Nemesia and Dianthus

I can’t leave out the old fashion border carnation or dianthus. Their clove-scented flowers are born in profusion making them a nice addition to the mixed flower border and containers.

The list goes on and includes scented plants such as nemesia, wallflower, Japanese snowbell, hosta, coneflower, daphne, vitex, viburnum, Oriental lily, gardenia, nicotiana, phlox, rose, sweet pea, hyacinth, lilac, flowering crabapple, heliotrope, lavender, sweet alyssum, peony, moon flower, southern magnolia.

Watering Tips when Planting for the Birds & Bees

Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

I may not be so fond of gophers but I never tire of the birds, butterflies and bees that visit my garden. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures and it’s one of the top requests for nearly every garden that I design. Fortunately there are many plants that fit the bill and have low water requirements for our summer dry climate.

Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and even the hybrid of the two, Eddie’s White Wonder, all are very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.

Lesser goldfinch

There are many great low water-use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds. And I always can find space for another variety of manzanita or ceanothus.

Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. galvezia, mimulus, monardella. California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for birds in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent waterings. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots grow 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Sambucus nigra berries

Apply with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districts restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod -1/4” – 3/8” in diameter- into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.

The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly irrigation to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on type.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy for the birds, butterflies and bees to enjoy.

Creating a ‘Moon Garden’

As the days grow longer I anxiously await those warm summer nights when I can sit outside and enjoy the evening air. As daylight fades it’s the white or silver plants and flowers that come to life. Whether your view is from a window or from your favorite place on the patio be sure you have a “white garden” to light up the garden late into the evening. Sometimes the best color for your garden is white.

Cornus ‘Mountain Moon’

Even on a grey day a white garden looks fresh and inviting. With so many white flowering plants, those with white variegated foliage and silver leaved plants to choose from yours can beckon you throughout the seasons. White feels relaxed and clean and will slow you down after a long day.

The plants that take a starring role springtime in a white garden include some of my favorites. I just need to get them all in the same area of my garden in order for them to do their magic.

Iris pallida lends color to the white garden through it’s spectacular

Iris pallida in Butchart Gardens, Victoria, British Columbia

striped variegated foliage. Easy to grow and deer resistant they won’t break your water budget either. The bearded flowers are a spectacular shade of lavender blue and this variety of iris is more shade tolerant than most.

If I add a few more white flowering plants to another area I can have two moon gardens. I wish I had room for a sturdy trellis as I’d surely plant an evergreen clematis. Their scent alone would justify the space. Another candidate for a strong support would be a white blooming wisteria like Longissima Alba. Guess I could get a wisteria that’s been trained as a standard or tree. As it stands I’m keeping a star jasmine pruned to a shrub so I’ll have that sweet fragrance starting in late spring.

Leopard Plant

For my shady garden one of the flowering plants that glows in the fading light of the day or the light of a full moon is pieris japonica or Lily of the Valley shrub. The huge clusters of tiny bell-like flowers are spectacular. Along with the huge variegated foliage of ligularia ‘Argentina’ or Leopard Plant both are sure to draw my eye at the end of a long day.

Choisya or Mexican Orange is one of those work horse shrubs that grows fast, has few pests, is deer resistant and the fragrant lowers will scent your garden in the spring and sporadically throughout the whole year. The handsome foliage looks clean and vibrant even in the winter time.

Rhododendron occidentale

In addition to my white flowering dogwood I have long planned to add California native, Western Azalea to my garden. A true native of California it’s found only in our state except for a tiny spot where it extends into southern Oregon. In addition to the Sierra Nevada it grows naturally in our area and then up the coast north of San Francisco. The large floral trusses are breathtaking- sparkling white marked with a bright yellow spot. The fragrance of the flowers is sweet and spicy clove reminiscent of cottage pinks and carnations. Their beauty and fragrance will enhance any garden.

Other native plants with white flowers are Philadelphus lewisii or Wild Mock Orange. Also Carpenteria californica or Bush Anemone is a beautiful plant to include in a white garden as is silver lupine and douglas iris ‘Canyon Snow’ -often described as being one of the most reliable native iris.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Later in the season look to white hydrangeas– mophead, lace cap or oakleaf- to add to your moon garden. Sally Holmes roses, hardy geranium ‘Biokovo’, Even the common Santa Barbara daisy when planted en masse makes quite a statement in the white garden.

Forest Bathing in the Redwoods

You know the feeling that you get when you are out walking slowly in the forest, stopping to admire a wildflower or mushroom that catches your fancy? You know it’s good for the mind and body, but why? It turns out that there are more benefits to being out in nature than the calmness it brings.

Sherman out on the trail ‘Forest Bathing’

Having a dog gives me a reason to be out on the trail. Being out in my garden simply enjoying the birds and flowers also promotes health and studies have shown that spending time in natural environments lowers our stress levels and improves our memory.

Apparently what we take for granted living where we do is all the rage for city dwellers with high stress lives. The idea is simple. Spending time in a natural area and walking in a relaxed way is calming, rejuvenating and restorative.

In the past several decades there have been many scientific studies that demonstrate the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in natural areas. Many of the benefits from the forest actually come from the air. Trees give off phytoncides, such as alpha-pinene and d-limonene, which are volatile organic compounds or aerosols. These compounds protect the trees and plants from insects and disease, but they also benefit us.

Forest bathing is what the Japanese call it. Shinrin-yoku is their term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Forest therapy has roots in many cultures throughout history. John Muir wrote that “Wilderness is a necessity.” Scientists is Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons.

Trees give off organic compounds that support our immune systems and help our system fight cancer. Other scientifically proven benefits of forest bathing include reducing blood pressure, accelerating recovery from surgery or illness, improving sleep and our mood and reducing stress. Forest bathing lowers our heart rate and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Soaking in the forest air increases our NK or natural killer cells by about 50 percent.

All I know is that when Sherman and I are out in the garden or strolling in the forest we feel good. We stop to watch the progress of a banana slug. We listen for new bird calls. And as a garden designer I strive to create a space for clients that brings that feeling to them whenever they are outside.

Part of of that good feeling we get being outside has to do with the color green. Green is the color of spring, of growth, renewal and rebirth. It renews and restores depleted energy. It’s a positive color and increases our feelings of relaxation and calmness. Often I get a request for including the color green in a client’s plant palette. We tend to overlook it’s value.

If you don’t have a forest of your own bring that forest feeling to your own garden. Stroll in a relaxed way without thinking about weeds or pruning or other items on your to-do list.

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