More Early Horticulture in the Santa Cruz Mountains

If you have an old rose like this Zephirine Drouhin on your property
it just might have been planted by early settlers in the San Lorenzo Valley.

Landscaping in the Santa Cruz mountains in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s could be lush or sparse depending on the location and logging activities. A picture from the 1880s of the Harmon cabin off Highway 9 shows many palms that look like Canary Island date palms. Perhaps they were imported from a nursery in San Francisco and brought down here by railroad. The landscaping is lush and full of plants.

Pictures of the Locatelli barn in 1892 near the grammar school in Boulder Creek, however, show the hills nearly clear cut. Railroad tracks at that time ran right through downtown. Simple houses with picket fences were located very near the tracks and these yards had no trees, shrubs or flowers at all. It must have been quite hot for them in the summertime.

By 1905, residents of the area had settled in and planted fruit trees, vegetables and ornamentals. A photograph of a chicken ranch on Huckleberry Island shows lots of landscaping around the house. Certainly the available chicken fertilizer helped the roses and wisteria that appear in the pictures to bloom.

Up on Alba Road. in Ben Lomond, the J.N. Walters family grew strawberries and peaches. Photos taken in 1915 show palms and hollyhocks in their yard. Out on Bear Creek Road, the Ercoli villa featured yucca which I saw in many other photographs. Most likely they originated from the deserts in the southern California and Mexico and were brought north by the missionaries.

California fan palms and canna lilies appear in many landscapes. The Middleton house in Boulder Creek was heavily planted with native western sword ferns. Black locust trees planted for their fragrance and flowers are still seen here today where they have naturalized. Originally planted for erosion control, particularly on strip mined areas, their durable timber was used for homes.

The 1915 Panama Pacific Expo introduced more plants to the public. In 1916, construction of a home in Brookdale featured timber, flooring and doors shipped from the Expo to this area by Southern Pacific railroad. When the house was finished in 1926, photographs show a beautiful home surrounded by hollyhocks, roses and wisteria.

Also in the San Lorenzo Valley Museum archives are the scrapbooks of the Valley Floral Club, later called the Valley Garden Club. Dating back to 1947 they contain old newspaper clippings as well as the minutes of monthly meetings, details of various speakers and pictures of plants and members. One old clipping from 1928 shows as ad for “Calif. Redwood Burl Ferns ” for 75 cents that were a ..”.guaranteed curiosity in any home for several years”.

That’s my trip down the memory lane of horticulture in the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Lorenzo Valley.

If you have any of these plants in your garden, remember the early settlers enjoyed them also. You might even plant a historical garden for the fun of it.

Early Horticulture in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Our gardens reflect who we are. Some of us plant edibles while others fill their gardens with fragrance. Some concentrate on native plants, attracting hummingbirds and wildlife while others have a bit of everything.

This area is rich in history. I love to look at old photos and try to identify what the early settlers planted around their homes in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Most of this area was heavily forested until the late 1800′s. Boulder Creek, in 1899, was the 5th largest shipper of timber in the entire country. Quarry operations also used forest trees and shrubs to fuel the lime kilns. Early logging techniques were very hard on the environment. Clear cutting was common and included the understory madrone and tan oak. After the removal of the broadleaf trees, the conifers were cut, to be followed by burning. To clear the bark from the logs and thin the shrub growth to facilitate with log removal, a fire was set. This first fire in itself was no problem since the trees could and would re-sprout from the base. But after removal of the logs by ox team, another fire was set and since these fires were uncontrolled, they would burn surrounding areas as well. The result was a sequence of fires that would kill the growing sprouts and saplings and allow invasion of shrubs, thus delaying the natural reforestation. Burning plus severe soil erosion at times so damaged the land that it could no longer support trees. In other areas the forest did not return until a long successional sequence of brushland to woodland to forest had occurred.

Hebe from New Zealand were all the rage after the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

So what could a woman do to make a house a home back in those days? Many settlers arrived from the east coast, the midwest and Europe and brought with them seeds and starts of plants. As early as 1871 nurseries in San Francisco were importing plants such as pittosporum tenuifolium and the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco allowed many more plants to become available to homeowners. Hebe from New Zealand were all the rage. The brochure for this world fair describes a Palace of Horticulture and Tower of Jewels as …” a great garden, itself, a marvel of landscape engineering skill… one side of a magic carpet on which these beautiful palaces are set with its floricultural splendors for a wondrous beauty, has never been equaled.”

My interest in early local horticulture started after looking at a friends family photographs from the turn of the century. His family had a resort with a natural spring and rock-lined forest paths close to Highway 9 in South Felton. This was very near the Big Tree Grove resort ( now Toll House ) that opened in 1867. I remember looking at the photos and marveling at all the flowers surrounding the dwelling. The redwood trees have now grown back but at that time there was lots of sunshine, a by-product of clear cutting. I could see roses, lilacs and Shasta daisies in the photo surrounding the wrap around porch.

Years ago I spent some time in the SLV Museum archives looking at old photos of houses dating from 1892 to 1926. I’ll share what I discovered about early landscaping next week in Part II.

Trees for Shade, Wildlife & the Future

Crape myrtles provide summer flowers and fall color.

We don’t plant enough trees. Everyone wants an instant garden but nature doesn’t work that way. When you look out from your windows into your landscaping what catches your eye first? I’ll bet the most majestic and inspiring sight in your garden is probably a tree that frames your house giving it a sense of permanence, welcoming you home and providing a haven for songbirds that serenade you on a summer day.

Large or small, trees make the world go round. They produce oxygen and act as a giant filter that cleans the air we breathe. A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.

Trees clean the soil by absorbing dangerous chemicals and other pollutants that have entered the soil. They can either store the harmful pollutants or actually change them into a less harmful form. Trees can filter sewage and clean the water that runs off into our streams. They can absorb and lock away carbon dioxide as wood so it is not available as greenhouse gasses.

If you live near a busy street trees can muffle the noise almost as effectively as a stone wall. They also act as a windbreak during windy and cold seasons reducing the drying effect of the wind and keeping it from blowing precious topsoil away.

Trees slow storm water runoff which helps recharge our aquifers. On top of all the beneficial things trees do for us they provide shade and keep us cool in the summer. In the winter they break up the wind reducing heating costs. Trees increase property values. If you’ve been thinking about adding a few trees to your own property here are some of my favorites. Some don’t get enough recognition others are classics. All make great additions to the garden.

I like Forest Pansy redbud for its stunning red foliage, Sango Kaku Japanese maple for its year round interest, Strawberry tree and Tristania laurina ‘Elegant’. Evergreen Dogwood (Cornus capitata) is also known as Himalayan flowering dogwood and lives up to its name in every respect. This variety is slow growing reaching 20 feet tall in sun or partial shade after about 25 years. After flowering, red fruit provides a treat for the birds.

To make your garden more compelling also consider planting a Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn gold’ or Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’. Also called Apple Serviceberry it has edible small fruits you can use in jam and grows fast. Chinese Fringe Tree has magnificent clusters of fragrant, fringe-like blooms and is a terrific accent for small yards.

We are all familiar with the huge flowers in late winter of the Saucer magnolia. This beautiful tree also makes a good lawn tree. Oklahoma redbud takes heat and drought but can also tolerate regular garden watering. Chitalalpa ‘Pink Dawn’ grows 12 feet in three years then grows more slowly to 25 feet with a 25 foot spread. Its pink trumpet-shaped flowers are a welcome sight during the summer. Crape myrtle (lagerstroemia indica) also blooms at the same time providing your garden with color when you’re outdoors the most.

The fruitless Swan Hill olive combines beautifully with iceberg roses and rosemary in this garden.

Swan Hill olive produces no pollen or fruit, takes drought conditions and casts light shade. Chinese pistache provides brilliant fall color growing to 35 feet by 30 feet wide.

Plant a tree for yourself and for future generations.

How to Make your Garden More Sustainable

Yarrow (achillea millefolium) collects phosphorus, copper and potassium from the soil and brings it to the surface.

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.

Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.

You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and siting plants. Deep rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought tolerant trees creates shade which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.

Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. You might install a rain garden in an areas like this. A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawn ares. The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.

Bee’s Bliss salvia is a good low water use ground cover that shades the
soil and conserves moisture as does ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’.

Plant dry climate plants like lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and drought tolerant ground covers like Bee’s Bliss salvia and ceanothus ‘Anchor Bay’ or ‘Heart’s Desire’ to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible.

Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.

For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds, ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.

To improve soil structure, plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large leaf plants for a living mulch. Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too. To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and yarrow. Yarrow is often planted in young orchards to bring nutrients near the top of the soil for young trees to use. S

Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like a weed patch. With a little planning your garden can be beautiful and productive.

Give A Hardy Geranium a Place in Your Garden

Geranium ‘Orion’

On my daily walk near the Boulder Creek Golf Course I see my neighbor has planted their partly shady bank with blue hardy geraniums. Already starting to bloom this large swath of color is going to be breathtaking very soon. True geraniums are becoming more popular. They are the work horses of the perennial border – hardy, versatile, long blooming plants for edgings, borders and ground covers.

Most people use the common name geranium to describe what is actually a pelargonium. Ivy geraniums, Martha Washington pelargoniums and zonal geraniums are all pelargoniums. Hardy geraniums, also called cranesbill, look very different. Leaves are roundish or kidney-shaped and usually lobed or deeply cut. Flower colors include beautiful blue, purple, magenta, pink or white and often completely cover the plant with color. I’ll bet if you visited a garden on a tour or admired a picture in a garden magazine it contained true geraniums. Here are just a few strong performers available among the dozens of species.

Blue flowers in the garden are always a hit as they combine so well with other colors. Geranium Orion’s abundant clear blue flower clusters bloom over a long season. Use this 2 foot spreading plant in sun or part shade in a mixed border or as a groundcover. There are other blue flowering geraniums. I use to grow geranium ‘Brookside’ in my own garden. It’s large bright blue flowers are larger than ‘Johnson’s Blue’. ‘Rozanne’ is another common favorite with stunning blue flowers.

Another fast growing variety is geranium incanum which covers itself spring through fall with rosy violet flowers. Cut back every 2-3 years to keep neat. This variety endures heat and drought better than other types but needs some summer water. It self sows profusely which might be exactly what you want as a groundcover in a problem area.

Geranium ‘Biokovo’

If pale pink is your color, plant geranium x cantabrigiense ’Biokova’. This excellent groundcover spreads slowly. The numerous one inch flowers are long lasting and cover the plant from late spring to early summer. Their soft pink color is indispensable when tying together stronger colors in the border and the lacy foliage is slightly scented.

Karmina geranium

Another geranium in the same family is ‘Karmina’. I’ve been using this deep rose flowering variety for several years in designs in areas that receive moderate irrigation. With lush green leaves on a low spreading plant it’s pretty even when not in bloom.

There are a couple other varieties that are popular and deserve a try. They are Award Winning Mavis Simpson’ and Russell Pritchard’. Both have bright pink or purple flowers and make good additions to your perennials.

Geranium maderense grows best in shade. This dramatic native of Madeira is the largest geranium with huge 1-2 foot long leaves shaped like giant snowflakes. Clusters of thousands of rose tinted flowers form on a 3 foot trunk. This perennial is short-lived but self sows freely. Add some of these architectural plants to your border for color and structure.

Give a hardy geranium a place in your garden.

All About Soil

This pine tree growing in Bryce Canyon must have found just the right soil to survive.

“The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.                 

Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return so that new life can celebrate this day.” 

-Betty Peck

Soil makes all the difference to the plants you grow. The biggest issue we gardeners face is the ongoing battle with soil. If yours is difficult to manage or unproductive you’ll be disappointed with the performance of many of the plants you put in the ground. Even tough plants like California natives have soil preferences and they are not always what’s in your garden.

We live on ancient sea cliffs. Soils in Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley consist of shallow, excessively drained weathered sandstone and shale. Felton soils were formed from shale, sandstone or mica schist. Those in Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek had their beginnings from weathered sandstone or granite. Although these provide the necessary mineral component of our soil, organic matter or humus from decayed plant and animal material are necessary for fertility.

Here’s why improving your soil will make a difference to the health of your plants.

Gardens in Poland use organic methods to increase soil fertility.

Good soil-with both organic matter and minerals-helps plants grow by forming the food supply for soil bacteria that help make food available for plant growth. Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that drip out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zone. The protozoa eat bacteria and the nematodes eat not only the bacteria but also fungi and other nematodes to get carbon. What they don’t need they expel and this feeds the roots much like earthworm castings.

Down in the soil, if a plant needs different foods it can change what is secretes. Different substances will attract different bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. This huge diversity of soil biota helps the good guys keep the bad guys in check.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts in the form or non-organic fertilizers. The salts kill the bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix. Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well.

The soil food web is also responsible for soil structure. Bacteria create slime that glue soil particles together. Fungi weave threads to create larger soil particles. Worms and insects distribute bacteria and fungal spores throughout the soil and create pathways for air and water.

What can you do to bring your soil back to life?
• Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with1/4“ of compost and 2-3” wood chips or other organic mulch.
• Apply mycorrhizal fungi, especially in a new garden that’s been rototilled or chemically fertilized. You can find this in most organic fertilizers and some organic potting soils.
• Use aerated compost tea
• Try to avoid walking on the root zone of plants. This kills fungi in the soil. Install stepping stones to preserve soil structure.

Feed your soil- not your plants.

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