When Good Plants Go Bad:Toxic Holiday Plants

With the holiday season upon us I like colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets like my cat Archer and dog Sherman or for small children?

I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations.

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. Mostly it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night being native to Mexico but they thrive in the warmth of the house. They need a bright spot and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle and if you break off a branch, sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

The other pet in my household, Sherman, the Welsh springer spaniel. doesn’t usually pay attention to the plants but if they have plastic wrapping he’s been known to get into mischief. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around the dog or cat?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are also toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for ivy.

Mistletoe contains multiple substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats, It can cause severe intestinal upset as well as a sudden and sever drop in blood pressure, breathing problems and even sometimes hallucinations. If a large amount of mistletoe or ivy is ingested, seizures and death may follow. The leaves and berries of holly and mistletoe plants, even dried, should be kept well out of your pet’s reach.

While serious complications aren’t likely with most holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

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
the lower parts of Fall Creek
and for the canyons, hiking trails and small waterfalls
that feed the year-round creek.

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 Bonny Doon where you can see both the Pacific Ocean
and the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley
and for the resilience of the people recovering after the fire
on the mountain made of sandstone and shale.

I’m thankful that California’s oldest state park, Big Basin, with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets and mountain iris
will recover in time as will 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.
There’s always something to be grateful for. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

Ornamental Grasses in the Garden

For gardens that don’t receive heavy frost you can’t beat Red Fountain Grass for color and drama

Throughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but in the fall especially I hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden.” There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of ornamental grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too.

Grasses are versatile plants and come in all sizes, from ground-huggers to shrub-like clumps. Some form upright tufts, some look like mop-top mounds and others form arching fountains. They easily adapt to the same conditions most garden plants thrive in, rarely needing any special soil, preparation or maintenance. And more subtly, their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as no other plants do.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

In addition to true grasses plants like lomondra and phormium are beautiful year round.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture, light and movement of a grass would be perfect, look to the taller varieties. Stipa gigantea (Giant Feather Grass) is a semi-evergreen grass which grows 4-6 feet high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach even taller. The flowers open early in June silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

Pheasant Tail grass is another easy to care for ornamental grass

Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of Red Fountain Grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with its fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass, You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1 to 2 feet tall. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

Pennisetum foliosa takes a beating and keeps on ticking.

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. his grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try Elijah Blue fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.

Japanese Maples in the Fall

This Coral Barked maple used to live in my garden.

I used to have several very large Japanese Maples in containers. Starting from small specimens they grew over 15 years into beautiful trees. Each fall I would look forward to how each would color up and every year was different depending on the weather. Unfortunately they did not survive the fire that burned my home in Bonny Doon. Unlike redwoods, madone and Doug fir they are a non-sprouting species. I’ll be getting some new trees soon to plant in containers but for now I look to others trees for that neon fall foliage.

Many of you readers were evacuated during the summer and your garden did not get watered. Others have limited water available even now. So if your Japanese maple has suffered from hot weather, smoke and just plain tough conditions have heart. Your maple will come back next year as good as ever.

Other things to consider regarding fall coloring is that it can be disrupted by wind and rain coming at the wrong time. Japanese maples have a more delicate leaf than some of other trees and are more susceptible to the elements of nature at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.

A fine example of a large mature Coral Barked maple.

At a local wholesale nursery recently I walked through their 36 inch box Japanese maple specimens getting ideas for future projects. Several that caught my eye included the variegated ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Oshio Beni’ with its orange and crimson fall coloring. Other notable maples that display vibrant fall coloring included ’Seiryu’, an upright laceless variety which turns bright gold, yellow and crimson in the fall. Also beautiful, the ‘Autumn Moon’ maples promised varying shade of gold to red.

This Bloodgood Japanese maple in fall color used to live in my neighbor’s garden.

Leaves change color when they are going into winter dormancy. When nights get long enough, leaves develop a corky layer of cells between the leaf stalk and the woody part of the tree. This slows the transport of water and carbohydrates. The manufacture of chlorophyll is slowed and the green color of the leaves begins to fade, allowing the other pigments to show through. Since the transport of water is slowed down, food manufactured by the remaining chlorophyll builds up in the sap of the leaf and other pigments are formed which cause the leaves to turn red or purple in color depending on the acidity of the sap.

For example, sumacs and California wild grape almost always turn red because red pigments are present and their leaf sap is acidic, while many of the oak and sometimes ashes will get a purplish color because the sap is less acidic. Trees like birch don’t have much orange pigment, so they appear mostly yellow in the fall. Others don’t have much yellow pigment and turn mostly orange or read. Some trees have a balance of pigments and look pinkish. The brown color or many oaks can be attributed to a buildup of tannins which is a waste product in the leaves.

Years ago after my sister on Washington’s Fox Island lost a tree in a windstorm, I visited a local nursery up there looking to find her a replacement for her prominent accent spot. I had my eye on the rows of coral-barked Sango Kaku maples when I saw them. Lined up alongside were several trees with bark so bright I couldn’t believe my eyes. “What are these”, I asked?” Won just smiled and told me they were called Beni Kawa Japanese maples and were a cultivar originally developed in 1987. They are prized for their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple. I was hooked. How could I not plant this gorgeous tree in my sister’s yard?

I learned that the bark of this tree can be polished to keep the bright color. Lichen often grows on older trees hiding the salmon red bark of the new branches. I’ll have to try using a soft cloth on my coral bark maple and see how it turns out. The Beni Kawa is a fast growing Japanese maple that will eventually reach 10-15 ft tall and 5-12 ft wide. It is hardy to 15 degrees.

Won grows his trees in a 50/50 mixture of top soil blend and fine crushed bark. He fertilizes with a balanced granular fertilizer and prunes in the winter. The 6 ft tree I bought my sister will not need to be pruned for a couple of years allowing it to establish a strong root system.

So don’t miss out on Japanese maple season. You won’t regret getting a new one for your yard or patio.

Gardens Change with Time

Whether you want them to or not all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature that the fittest survive. Possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of those classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of 14 acres of land. Located at the base of Mount Madonna the property is called Casa Dos Rios. Jean Myers, the owner, loves to share her property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked. Jean laughed as she pointed out the California rose thicket that has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. Her new plan is to remove the wild rose to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There was a quietness to the landscape as the wind blew the grasses. Deer grass has naturalized in garage swaths. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

California aster are butterfly and pollinator magnets

The California aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks that cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

This ground cover is fire wise native and has high quality nectar favored by hummingbirds

Another late blooming plant, the California fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Native iris tolerates sandy, clay and serpentine soils and seasonal flooding

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she had a story to tell about each area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” said Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives that attract wildlife and conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I was hoping to always have a bit of Casa Dos Rios in my own garden.

Enriching the Soil with Cover Crops

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese protected their soil from erosion and increased fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. Planting a cover crop is another way to improve and retain your soil. One of these days winter rains will come so be ready.

A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Orin Martin of UCSC’s Alan Chadwick Garden shows the extensive root system of bell beans.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume. Growing a cover crop also increases beneficial soil bacteria.

Fava beans, when grown as a cover crop and tilled into the soil in spring, increases soil fertility.

Cover crops are called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil, however, as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

Recent research now recommends planting a mixture of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch, which are the best legumes for our area, grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but nowhere near as efficiently as bell beans. Crimson clover seed is more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

You don’t need to use an inoculant on legume seed. Our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

Work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds should be already cleared but this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area should be raked again lightly 1-2 inches down and covered with 3-4 inches of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything. Water in lightly.

If you plan to let your small vegetable garden lie fallow over the winter instead of planting it with a cover crop you can cover it with manure and straw and I’ll talk about that in another column.

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