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.

Attracting Bees, Butterflies and Birds with California Native Plants

This collection of California natives includes heuchera, Douglas iris and carex grasses.

It’s always a breathtaking experience taking a walk at this time of year. You might see the cobalt blue flowers of ceanothus or a stand of dicentra formosa with their dainty pink bell-shaped flowers backlit in the spring sunlight. Coral bells are in full bloom as are the Pacific coast iris. These are just a few of our local native plants. Everywhere you look nature is beginning the season fresh with anticipation and promise.

California is a vast domain when it comes to natural features and different soils. From hills to mountains to deserts to valleys and ocean bluffs, there are 6000 plus plant species within our borders. Hundreds of these are showy and useful plants worthy of cultivation in our garden. Some, like ceanothus, have already been cultivated for a century or more, both here and abroad.

There are features of the California landscape that present a certain flavor and seasonal progression, quite distinct from that of the subtropics and year-round, moist forests that many traditional garden plants come from. Plants of hilly and mountainous areas are often found in rocky or sandy soils and require well-drained garden soils. Many plants of the chaparral have poor resistance to the root pathogens that thrive in a warm, moist soil and may not tolerate typical garden style irrigation in summer.

Matching or creating the right conditions is the key to success to grow California natives. Planting on a raised mound or berm, for instance, is one way to drain water away from sensitive crowns. Knowing where in California a given native plant comes from can help you make the right decisions.

That being said there are many natives with an amazing broad tolerance of different conditions. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) grows in both sandy and clay soils as does yarrow (Achillea millifolium) which is also a good cut flower. Carex grass and Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus) also do well in most soils.

If you garden in clay soils, good native shrubs are Western redbud, manzanita, spicebush, bush anemone, ceanothus, garrya, Pacific wax myrtle, Western mock orange, blue elderberry, mahonia, California wild rose and snowberry. Native perennials for clay soil include coral bells, sticky monkeyflower (a good cut flower), salvias, deer grass, rubus and Dutchman’s pipe vine.

This collection of Pacific Coast iris is growing in Gamble Gardens in Palo Alto. Pacific Coast iris include 11 species and 8 subspecies of iris including the Douglas iris.

Sandy conditions require California natives that are decidedly drought tolerant. You may already grow many of our manzanitas and ceanothus. But do you also have lupine, lavatera, coffeeberry, buckwheat, fuchsia-flowering gooseberry, purple sage, wallflower or the beautiful Douglas iris?

Then there are the folks that live in the shade. Native plants from canyons and riparian areas will do well in your garden. They require some summer watering but that’s all. Native shrubs that tolerate bright shade are manzanita, spicebush, bush anemone, ceanothus, mahonia, Pacific wax myrtle, any of the ribes, wild rose, snowberry and huckleberry. Perennials for color are columbine, Western bleeding heart, California. fuchsia, Douglas iris and coral bells.

Where ever you garden, to provide food, nectar or berries for our winged friends be sure you have some flowering currant, sticky monkey flower, coffeeberry, salvia clevelandii, Dutchman’s pipe vine, wax myrtle, California fuchsia, aster chilensis.

Dogwood Magic

Hopefully this Eastern flowering dogwood, shown here a couple years ago before the fire, will rebound.to it’s former glory.

It seems to happen overnight. The dogwoods are blooming and they’re spectacular. You can’t miss hose huge bright white or pink bracts. I was pleased to see that the pink flowering dogwood on my old street in Bonny Doon has managed to bloom a bit despite surviving the fire and the lack of rainfall last year. Life can be tough. Nature is tougher.

Dogwood are a good tree choice for the allergy sufferer as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers, which are actually bracts, are pollinated by insects. Their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes.

There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata. Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida is native to the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or the Western dogwood. I’m looking forward to enjoying our native dogwood bloom next month in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

Our native Western dogwood is unfortunately prone to leaf spot fungal diseases when grown out of their range. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding and flower and grow with little care in morning sun or light shade.

Cherokee Chief dogwood

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood (cornus florida) that’s blooming now. With various shades of pink, red or white blossoms they are stunning. Take note that their root system is prone to disease if not grown with good drainage.

The Kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood rootstock. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttallii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Mountain Moon- A long blooming disease-resistant variety

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. Cornus capitata Mountain Moon is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Huge flowers up to 6 inch wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree.

Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robin and sparrow are just two of the bird species that build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings.

Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4:00 PM. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’ll be happy.

Celebrate Earth Day Everyday

Adelyn Biles, future naturalist, identifies flora and fauna in the garden. Photo from a couple years ago.

Start summer early with the kids by planting a fruit tree, flower, vegetable or native shrub now. Planting something is having confidence in the future. Earth Day is always on April 22ch and celebrates the natural beauty of our planet, our clean air and reminds us of what we can do to keep it healthy. Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues and is now a global celebration. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children.

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendula are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can cut will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallowtail butterflies. Another easy to grow flower for cutting is the snapdragon.

Besides flowers, fragrant foliage plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden.

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears which are soft and furry, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

All kids love lady bugs. Make your garden a more inviting place for these and other beneficial insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Lady bugs will patrol your plants looking for tiny insects and their eggs.
Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.

Scarlett Biles playing hide n’seek in the garden a few years ago.

Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous. Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt. http://www.calpoison.org and search “plants”.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly, a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless. And be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside.

Get a kid into gardening and nature and they’ll be good stewards of the land for a lifetime. Plus you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.

Small Space Veggies & Fruit Trees

Crunch container snap peas. photo courtesy of Reneesgarden.com

You know that growing your own fruit and vegetables can supply your family with fresh tasting and nutritious food. But what if you don’t have much space for a big garden or an orchard of fruit trees? I’m definitely in this category. Now days there are lots of dwarf and compact varieties available for smaller yards and containers. Here are some good ones to try.

The best veggie varieties for growing in containers are: beans, chard, chili peppers, kale, lettuce, onions, radishes, spinach, sweet peppers and tomatoes.

photo courtesy of Reneesgarden.com

Renee’s Garden www.reneesgarden.com – offers seed for a French Mascotte container bush bean which sounds delicious. Both ornamental and easy to harvest for a long period. There are many bush bean varieties to try. They also offer a container chard called Pot of Gold that I want to grow. Renee’s Garden also offers seed for kale, many lettuces and a snap pea for containers called Crunch that I want to try also. With so many choices my lack of space won’t keep me from growing edibles this year.

Pot of Gold chard. – photo courtesy of Rennesgarden.com

Peppers, both chili and sweet varieties do well in containers, too. You might want to try growing bite-sized sweet peppers for you pizza or snacking while out in the garden.

Tomatoes are always popular to grow whether in the ground in a small garden or in pots on the patio. Bush types (determinate) don’t grow as large as indeterminate vines. If you like large size tomatoes, plant Bush Beefsteak and you’ll be harvesting clusters of delicious 8 oz. tomatoes in just 62 days. A half wine barrel can house a taller tomato like the ever popular Sungold. Small gold-orange cherry tomatoes ripen early and are oh-so-sweet. You’ll plant these every year after you’ve tasted one.

Zucchini lovers might try the non-rambling Raven or Astia varieties which won’t take up as much space as a traditional type. If you have a little space to spare grow the round French heirloom squash, Ronde de Nice. Jade colored zucchini produce over a long period. Harvest the fruit when they reach golf ball up to baseball size. They are sublime grilled or try them stuffed. They are unique in the garden and wonderful in cuisine. A tip to encourage pollination when squash or melons bloom is to pinch off leaves covering the blossoms in order to give pollinators a clear path to the flowers.

Herbs make good additions to the smaller garden, too. They can be kept compact with frequent pinching as you harvest sprigs for cooking. They also attract beneficial insects to the garden. Oregano, chamomile and fennel are good insectary herbs.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Greenish-yellow skinned fruit with attractive red color ripens in late September into October. They grow to 8-10 feet at maturity.

Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries. The fruit is large, dark red or nearly black. Firm, sweet, dark red flesh has good flavor and texture. Stella cherries grow 10-12 feet tall and bear at a young age.

If it’s almonds you crave for your patio or mini-orchard, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden.

A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame. Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Don’t let lack of space stop you from enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

The Fragrances of Spring

When I walk out my sliding glass doors it hits me. Blooming now since early winter, the pale yellow primroses fill the air with the sweetest scent. It’s only the yellow ones and not all shades of yellow that are fragrant but these make your head turn. The sweet alyssum I planted last fall on the deck is getting a run for the money in the fragrance department.

Many other spring bloomers are deliciously fragrant, too. Whether you’re planting edibles in the vegetable garden or containers on the deck, include plants that entice you to linger and enjoy their sweet scent.

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.

Old fashion lilacs will be blooming soon. Nothing ways “spring” like the legendary scent of these shrubs. Give them a spot in full sun with enough room for them to spread 6 feet wide. While most plants accept slightly acidic soils, lilacs are an exception. Dig lime into your soil at planting and side dress yearly if your soil is acidic.

Looking for something in vanilla? Evergreen clematis vines make a great screen with 6 inch long, glossy leaves and creamy white, saucer shaped, vanilla-scented flower clusters. Provide study support for them to climb on. They are slow to start but race once established.

Outside the veggie garden, citrus blossoms can scent the air. Plant lemons oranges, mandarins, kumquats, grapefruit and limes in full sun areas. Established trees need a good soak every other week during the warmer months so keep them on a separate watering system from your other edibles.

Inside the veggie garden, include scented plants that attract beneficial insects. Fragrant lavender and sweet alyssum are good choices. For sheer enjoyment, plant perennial carnation and dianthus for their intense clove fragrance. Cinnamon Red Hots grow to 15 inches, are deer resistant, bloom all spring and summer and don’t need deadheading. Velvet and White border carnations are among the least demanding and most satisfying perennials in the garden. As cut flowers they are long lasting and highly fragrant in bouquets.

Combine the old fashion fragrance of carnations with nemesia for a real treat.

A fragrant perennial to tuck among your other plants or veggies is Berries & Cream Sachet nemesia. Intensely fragrant blossoms are purple and white, just like blackberries covered with cream. They bloom for months without any special care but if flowers decline, cut plants back to stimulate new growth.

More scented perennials include sweet violets for spring fragrance and chocolate cosmos for later in the season. Plant several chocolate cosmos for the strongest effect. They really do smell like dark chocolate on a warm day. Vivid purple heliotrope smell like vanilla and licorice.

Fragrant shrubs that are easy to grow are Mexican Orange (choisya ternata) which 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 (osmanthus fragrans) have a delicate apricot fragrance. Other fragrant shrubs include California native Philadelphus lewisii (Wild Mock Orange) and Calycanthus occidentals (Spice Bush) another 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.

Plant for fragrance. It’s your reward for all the care and tending you give your garden.

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