Succulents for the Holidays

Grapevine wreaths are easy to assemble

It may be a bit early but as I stroll through different stores I’m always thinking if something would make a good gift for someone on my Christmas list. Often I’m looking for easy-to-make gifts that I can put together at home and on a recent visit to Succulent Gardens near Elkhorn Slough I came up with lots of ideas.

Succulents planted in an old VW at Succulent Gardens.

To be sure Succulent Gardens is jam packed with finished succulent wreaths, wood frames in all shapes filled with colorful succulents plus all the makings and starts to put together your own creation. They offer classes, too. But if you have succulents growing in your own garden and a grapevine wreath or any type of container that would make a great succulent garden you might want to try making one at home.

Grapevine wreaths come in all sizes. Using floral wire it’s easy to attach succulent cuttings, dried flowers or fresh, any type of greenery. moss or tillandsia. You don’t need to cover the whole wreath either making this type easy to create. After the holidays you can plant the succulent starts back in the garden.

If you’ve been thinking of including more succulents in your own landscape here are some tips for growing them in our area. The smaller varieties would make great wreath or planter specimens.

In choosing the best succulents for your garden think about if your area gets frost during the winter. Does it have protection from a building or evergreen tree or do you live in a banana belt that rarely freezes? Are you planting in sun, shade or a combination?

In addition to the hardy succulents like sedum and sempervivum many showy succulents need only a bit of protection during our winters. Aeonium decorum ‘Sunburst’ is one of the showiest species with spectacular variegated 10 inch rosettes. Sunburst is hardy to 28 degrees and looks terrific planted with black Voodoo aeonium which will take a light frost. Aeoniums do well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

Echeveria ‘Afterglow’

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so also do well in our our cool wet winters. ‘Afterglow’ is frost tolerant and hardy to 27 degrees. It looks to be painted with florescent paint. There are spectacular hybrids being developed every year. These are not as hardy as the traditional hens and chicks but well worth the effort to find a place where they can survive a freeze. Frilly ‘Mauna Loa’ sports turquoise and burgundy foliage while Blue Curls echeveria looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

To ensure success when growing succulents, make sure your soil is fast draining. Our winter rains can rot even the toughest plants when their feet sit in soggy soil. Add sand, gravel or pumice to your soil or plant on mounds to increase drainage.

When potting succulents in containers, be sure to use a quality potting mix as good drainage is essential. There are special succulent mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. Don’t add gravel or clay shards at the bottom if planting in a container as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

Because succulents use little water they are easy to care for. If you hate the idea of having to water after you get home from work, create the garden of your dreams with succulents.

Camellia sasanqua and How to Deal with Frost Damage in the Garden

‘Tis the season… to enjoy your garden from inside on a wintry day when the weather is rainy, cold and blustery. Why not dress up your entrance with winter blooming plants to welcome you home or place them where you can see them outside a window? Besides bedding plants like primroses, violas and pansies, there are colorful shrubs that bloom during the winter. Here are some good additions to your garden to brighten things up.

White Doves camellia sasanqua

Camellias are a great shrub any time of year, but camellia sasanqua start flowering in the fall and the popular red ‘Yuletide’ blooms right at Christmas time. A wonderful addition to the smaller garden, the White Doves camellia sasanqua stays compact reaching only 4-5 feet tall and a little wider. Sparkling white, semi-double blooms make quite a statement in the darker days of winter. By the way, White Doves camellia pairs beautifully with the white hydrangea, ‘Incrediball’, with it’s monstrous 12 inch flower heads. These flowers open green, then mature to white, finally fading again to green. Both are beautiful in a white garden.

Chansonette camellia sasanqua

‘Chansonette’ is another beautiful sasanqua variety with rich pink flowers. Growing to 2-3 feet tall and 8 feet wide they look great spread out on a trellis for those narrow places. Sasanqua camellias can tolerate a little more sun than the more common camellia japonicas. They come in a variety or forms from compact shrubs to open vining types that can be espaliered. If you don’t have any of this variety they would make a good addition to your garden.

Camellia japonica has been the standard in U.S. and European gardens since the 1800’s when they were introduced from China and Japan. Their flowers range from formal types like my favorite, ‘Nucchio’s Pearl’ to anemone form, rose form and peony- like flowers. There are early flowering varieties as well as types that bloom as late as May which is why it seems that camellias are always blooming.

Here’s how to handle freeze damage If the recent cold spell nipped any of your plants. Don’t be tempted to rush out and prune away the damage. This winter will surely have more cold weather and the upper part of your plant, even if damaged, can protect the crown from further freezing. This applies to citrus trees, too. If a perennial like Mexican bush sage froze and is now gooey and black, cut the plant down to the ground. It will re-grow come spring from the root system. If the old, dead foliage and stems are not black, leave them until you see new growth starting on the plant. They will provide an extra degree or two of protection for tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year. This advice applies to all your perennials. And the best part, you don’t have to lift a finger until next year. One last tip: if you do have plants that need covering in a frost, use a blanket, towel or other type of cloth and not plastic. The cold will go right through plastic covering and damage the plant.

A Thanksgiving Poem by The Mountain Gardener

Once upon a time when our area was under water
there were no parks or trails or trees or gardens.
I’m thankful that our mountains rose from an ancient ocean
so we could enjoy this beautiful place we call home.

I‘m thankful for the Bigleaf maples
that shower me with leaves as big as saucers
as I walk in Henry Cowell along the River trail
and for the giant redwoods that sprouted long ago
at the time of he Mayan civilization.

I’m thankful for the Five-fingered ferns that grow lush along Fall Creek
on the way to the old lime kilns
and for the canyons, hiking trails and small waterfalls
that feed the year-round creeks.

I’m thankful for the sweet music of the violist
who practices inside the Felton Covered Bridge
and for the sound of children laughing as they play in the park.

I’m thankful for the pond and western turtles who live at Quail Hollow
and for the unique sandhills, grasslands and redwoods, too,
and for the plants and other small creatures that live only there.

I’m thankful for the dog park and soccer field at Skypark
where little kids and dogs both big and small have a place of their own
and for the bocce ball court and picnic area, the skatepark and Fourth of July fireworks,
for the Art and Wine festival and Music in the Park on summer nights.

I’m thankful for Bonny Doon where you can see the Pacific
and panoramas of the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley
and for the wineries, lavender farm and fossilized marine animals and sharks teeth
that are exposed in the mountain made of sand.

I’m thankful for California’s oldest state park. Big Basin, with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets and mountain iris
and for the salamanders, banana slugs, marbled murrelets
and red-legged frogs who make it their home.

I’m thankful for the whisper of the wind blowing across the water at Loch Lomond
and for the gentle whir of fishing reels at the edge
of thick tanoak, redwood and madrone.

And finally, I’m thankful for friends and family and neighbors who share all this with me.
I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

All About Sweet Peas

Black Knight sweet peas

Between raking up redwood debris after recent windstorms and cleaning the roof and gutters I think we should all do something fun. The holidays are fast approaching and then we’ll have little time to play. Recently I got an email about when to plant sweet peas. This reader has collected seeds from the wild pea, lathyrus latifolia, and wanted to know when to plant them. Although the flowers of this perennial sweet pea are not fragrant, the culture is the same as all sweet peas. Now’s the time to plant.

Lathyrus latifolius or perennial sweet pea pods

The perennial or everlasting sweet pea we see growing wild is not native to our area. It has naturalized throughout the United States and Canada after having been introduced from the Mediterranean area in the 1700’s. It can be invasive but if it’s growing in an out of-the-way spot where you can enjoy the bright pink blossoms they require little care.

Mixed bouquet with sweet peas

Who doesn’t love old-fashioned sweet peas? A small bouquet will perfume an entire room with a delicious scent. They remind me of my Aunt Ruth who grew them every year and let me pick a bunch each spring whenever I went to visit. There are many new varieties and colors these days but back then her sweet pea vines were covered with the classic mixed colors of violet, blue, pink, peach and white.

Sweet peas have been around for a long time and many different countries claim that they originated there. One story is that a monk, Father Cupani, first harvested them in the wild on an island off Sicily in 1695 and sent the seeds to the Netherlands. In the 1800’s, an Scottish nurseryman named Harry Eckford began hybridizing and introducing larger varieties in a wider range of colors where they became quite a sensation. The most famous and perhaps the most important use of this flower was the extensive genetics studies performed by Gregor Mendel. Since they self-pollinate, their characteristics such as height, color and petal form could easily be tracked. But whether they came from Ceylon, the modern day Sri Lanka, China or Sicily, heirloom sweet peas are as exquisite in the garden and they are in the vase.

I like to plant early blooming types of sweet peas in October or November. These varieties flower in the shorter days of late winter. Winter Elegance and Early Multiflora are common early flowering types. Also plant some of the fragrant spring flowering heirlooms and Spencer’s at the same time to extend your harvest time.

My very favorite sweet pea with long stems for cutting and an intense fragrance of orange blossoms and honey is called April in Paris. Large ruffled blossoms are a soft primrose cream, tinted at the edges in dark lilac that deepens and increases with age. But maybe it’s Black Knight that’s my favorite sweet pea with those dark maroon strongly scented blossoms. You can’t go wrong no matter what color or style sweet pea you choose. They attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Deer generally ignore sweet peas. Sweet peas are not edible and may cause stomach upset.

November ideas in the Garden

Rhododendrons in spring. Pin down branched in fall to encourage rooting.

Warm days, short days, cold days and hopefully rainy days – all in the fall of the year here in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s part of what makes our area so special to us. We are inspired by Mother Nature and our mountains. We feel a connection with nature as we enjoy our gardens. There are some easy things you can do at this time of year to extend that enjoyment. Gardening should be fun, too.

Taking cuttings of shrubs is a relatively easy and economical way to make new plants. Some plants that can be increased by hardwood cuttings include manzanita, coffeeberry, crape myrtle, pittosporum, euonymous, forsythia, spirea, viburnum and roses. Edible plants like currants, figs, grapes and quinces also make good subjects.

Purple Magic crape myrtle- take cutting soon after it drops leaves.

For deciduous plants it’s best to take cuttings soon after the shrub drops leaves and goes dormant. Evergreen shrub cuttings can be taken now. Start by taking cuttings of year old wood that’s about a quarter inch in diameter. Discard the top couple of inches of each stem since this unripened wood doesn’t have enough stored nutrients to survive. Cut the stems into 6-9 inch pieces. Because a cutting won’t grow if planted upside down, make the top cut at a slant, so you can keep track of it. Then dip the bottom ends in rooting hormone and tap off any excess.

You can store cuttings from dormant shrubs bundled and labeled in boxes of sand in the garage or outdoors in a well-drained trench. Each will form a callus at the base where roots will form next spring. Come spring, plant the cuttings in good soil in shade with only the top bud exposed. Water as needed and once the new plants develop leaves and increase in size, start feeding them monthly with a balanced fertilizer. By next fall your new shrubs should be well established and ready to be moved to their permanent place in the landscape.

Also you can simply pin down a stem of a plant like manzanita or rhododendron by putting a rock on it so the soil makes contact. After a year or so you will have a new plant that you can dig up and move. Other natives like ceanothus can be propagated in a peat and grit mix and will root in about 50 days if given bottom heat. Take these cuttings in January.

Stake trees. Trunks with leaning tops or those planted in very windy areas need support. To determine how high to place ties, move your hand up the trunk until the treetops straightens. I usually allow the stake to reach up into the canopy a bit so that a wind gust doesn’t snap off the trunk right at the base of the canopy. Tie the tree to the stake loosely in several places. Trees in containers are tied tightly to the the stake but those in the ground should have some wiggle room to stimulate the trunk which will make it stronger. This is a good time to check existing tree stakes to make sure the ties aren’t digging into the trunk and the stakes are large enough to support your tree. Remember to keep your tree staked only as long as needed and then remove the supports.

Pick last roses and add alfalfa meal or pellets which will soak into ground and prepare them for next spring. Don’t prune until the end of January.

Groom strawberries and mulch to deter slugs in winter.

To help protect citrus from frost damage, pull mulch back from below the canopy. This allows the ground to absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

Fall Gardens

Pineapple sage blooming now.

The end of daylight savings time signals to me that autumn is really here in our mild California surroundings. Enjoy these crisp mornings and warm days and to make your garden more compelling, try mixing in late flowering perennials as well as trees and shrubs with bold leaves and a wide range of autumn color.

Sasanqua camellia blooms from fall into winter.

Bright trees and shrubs add color flashes to fall gardens. Sasanqua camellias have already started blooming and will continue to flower throughout the winter. In addition to asters and rudbeckia, Japanese anemones are the stars of the border at this time of year. The electric blue flowers of dwarf plumbago contrast with reddish leaves as night temperatures dip, Encore azalea and Endless Summer hydrangea are blooming now, too.

Other perennials that are blooming now are California fuchsia, Pineapple sage and Mexican bush sage.

California fuchsia

I love my patch of California fuchsia. Starting in the summer and flowering through fall this California native is covered with orange or scarlet-orange flowers that attract hummingbirds like crazy. A great plant along the path or draping over a rock wall this perennial thrives in areas that might fry other plants. Also known as Epilobium canan or Zauschneria it is in the evening primrose family and native to dry slopes and chaparral especially in California.

Mexican Bush Sage

Mexican bush sage look great blooming alongside California fuchsia. Orange and blue are opposite on the color wheel so they look fabulous together. The bright red flower spikes of Pineapple sage look pretty nearby so the whole area is a hummingbird feast.

But what about vivid foliage in the garden? Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

A great tree for the gardener interested in edibles is the Fuyu persimmon. This beautiful small tree is ornamental with glossy green leaves and also offers a dramatic fall display in shades of yellow, orange and red. Bright orange fruit begins to develop in late October and clings to bare branches usually through December. The tree looks more like it’s covered with holiday ornaments than fruit. And have you priced persimmons in the store lately?

Blueberries are a must for the edible gardener. They make a beautiful hedge that provides showy red or yellow fall color. Because of our colder winters here in the mountains, we can grow both northern highbush which are self-fertile and southern highbush which produce better with another type to pollinize them. They can be great foundation plants around the home as well as in the garden.

A vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that need covering quickly, this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet red leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Japanese barberries are deer resistant, low water-use small shrubs that make them superb hedge plants, background plants against fences and foundations or accent plants. Red or lime colored summer foliage changes to orange, red or amber in the fall. I love the graceful growing habit of many of the varieties but there are pillar forms and also dwarf types.

Bright foliage on trees like red maples, liquidamber, Chinese pistache, ginkgo, ornamental pear, cherry or crabapple, dogwood, goldenrain, locust, katsura, oak, redbud, sumac and witchhazel all add to the fall drama of the landscape.

Light up your garden as the light fades and the days shorten. I know my garden needs a greater variety of fall color than just the Japanese maples in pots on the deck and the barberries. I’m waiting for my purple smoke bush to turn luminous scarlet and add color flashes to my fall garden.

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