Fun Facts from the Garden

Bob, the hosta seboldiana in bloom.

I confess, I’m not one who talks to plants. Although I have a huge hosta seboldiana named Bob as well as an offset that I cleverly named Bob the Second, I don’t address them personally. Maybe that’s going to change. I was very intrigued reading a recent article in Audubon magazine by Nathan Ehrlich. Scientists have discovered that plants give off electrical impulses in response to threats. Polygraph expert and former CIA interrogation specialist Cleve Backster confirmed this when, on an impulse, he hooked up a tropical dracaena to a polygraph and threatened the plant with a flame. The dracaena displayed the same electrical signals that people do when they lie. From lettuce to bananas, the results were similar.

Biologists Baldwin and Schultz have published work suggesting that some plants can communicate through the air. When the researchers threatened poplars and maples they found that nearby trees, with no physical contact, released defensive chemicals that inhibit digestion, thus hindering predators’ ability to consume the trees leaves or bark.

Plants have many ways to defend themselves. One common way is by being poisonous or irritating. You can get severe eye burn if you get the toxic sap from a euphorbia in them. You just have to accidentally rub some sap near your eyes to trigger a reaction that will require a trip to Urgent Care. The pain can last for days and has been described as a very painful experience. Euphorbias are very deer resistant and drought tolerant and are being used more and more in gardens. Great plant that requires respect.

Many of us are growing milkweed (Asclepias) to attract monarch butterflies. The milky sap from this plant protects the monarch from being eaten and can cause the same painful burning of the eye. I read of a case where a gardener’s clothes brushed some stems while she was tending the garden. Later she wiped the sweat out of her eyes and didn’t realize she had also touched her pants. She ended up with cornea burn causing temporary blindness and had to take strong pain relievers and steroids to elevate the pain. Yikes.

One of my favorite classes when I attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was Plant Taxonomy. On the surface the subject sounds a little dry but the professor was all about plant reproduction which is quite exciting and more varied than you think.

It’s fascinating to mark time with events in the botanic world. There’s even a word for it- Phenology. Websites like USA National Phenology Network offer lots of information on the subject. Visit http://www.usanpn.org/

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in climate. When do they occur each year? Phenology is a real science that has many applications. In farming and gardening, phenology is used chiefly for planting times and pest control. Certain plants give a cue, by blooming or leafing out, that it’s time for certain activities, such as sowing particular crops or insect emergence and pest control. Often the common denominator is the temperature.

Indicator plants are often used to look for a particular pest and manage it in its most vulnerable stages. They can also be used to time the planting of vegetables, apply fertilizer, prune and so on. Record your own observations to start a data base for our area.at https://budburst.org/ Another great site is National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service at https://attra.ncat.org/ Sites like these can also help you design orchards for pollination and ripening sequence, design for bee forage plantings, design perennial flower beds and wildflower plantings as well as plantings to attract beneficial insects and enhance natural biological control. How cool is that?

But back to plant reproduction. Mosses reproduce from male and female mosses which produce spores. Conifers produce two type of cones on the same tree. Wind blows the pollen to another cone which combine to make a baby conifer which lives in a seed inside the cone.

Flowering plants like this Princess Flower have both male and female parts in each flower.

Then there are to most advanced plants – the flowering plants. Some flowering plants have both male and female flowers. They are monoecious meaning “single house”. Dioecious plants have male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another. Plants that rely on flowers for reproduction are very dependent on outside help such as insects and animals which is where we come in. Be a citizen scientist in your own backyard.

Celebrating 800 Columns

The author in her old garden in Bonny Doon before the fire.

Since writing my first column in October 2005 I have shared with you, my good readers, many a gardening tip, confession, aspiration, resolution, success story and utter failure in my garden. We live and learn from our mistakes. We gardeners love to swap stories and sometimes I learn as much from you as you do from me.
We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

With Guatemala and Honduras in the news I recall my trip there in 2007. On Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras, I noticed plants growing in washing machine baskets. I thought it was a clever way to re-use old appliances but wondered why there were so many old washing machines on a tiny island. A local laughed and told me the baskets protect their plants from the big blue crabs that come out at night. Seems the crabs will sever the stem right at ground level and drag the whole plant into their hole. Also the baskets protect the plants from the iguanas who will eat anything within two feet of the ground. And you thought deer, gophers and rabbits were a problem?

Sherman is caught red-handed licking the buttermilk/moss mixture from the wall.

I lost my dog Sherman recently but one of my favorite anecdotes about him involved a wall and some buttermilk. The interlocking paver wall at my house in Bonny Doon stood out like a sore thumb and I wanted moss to grow over the concrete blocks like it did on the fieldstone retaining walls. I still remember looking back at the wall after painting on the moss/buttermilk mixture ala Martha Stewart’s instructions and seeing Sherman licking it all off. Even adding hot sauce to the mixture didn’t slow him down but I guess enough moss spores survived as the wall looked pretty good during the wet season before last year. Now I’m not so sure what survived on the wall since the fire but I’ll check on it next winter after the rains start – fingers crossed .

Like everybody else I didn’t go many places in 2020 during Covid times so I fondly remember my trip to Poland years ago. I did a lot of bird watching, hiking and punting. The gardens in eastern Poland were spectacular. The soil there, deposited by glaciers, is rich with sediment and nutrients. Sunflowers border neat plots of cabbage, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and leeks. Black-eyed Susan cover the hillsides with swaths of gold blooms. Berries such as currants, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry are grown in large plots and fenced with wire. Every 10 feet or so plastic bags are attached and wave in the breeze. I was told this keeps the wild boar, roe and red deer at bay.
Sure looked funny, though.

This is my 800th column for The Press Banner. The first came about this way. I typed up a sample column and marched into the editor’s office. I’ve forgotten his name but little did I know that he had taken horticulture classes himself and so had a soft spot for my idea to write a weekly gardening column. Next thing I know he says he wants 5 columns, 400 words each, excluding prepositions, on his desk by Friday and the column would be called ‘The Mountain Gardener’ and not ‘Ask Jan’ which I had suggested. I knew my father who always encouraged me to write would be proud. I was now a newspaper columnist.

Improving Your Garden in a Few Easy Steps

Abelia Confetti pairs nicely with the burgundy foliage of a loropetalum

By this time of the year, you probably have planted some new perennials for color in your garden. But if you look around and still feel something is missing the answer may be that your landscape needs more than color. As a landscape designer I am often called upon for ideas to create richer landscapes that provide four seasons of interest. Here are some tips I pass along.

A more sophisticated appeal and enduring quality in your landscape can be achieved if foliage color is used to complement, or contrast with, other plants within the design. This technique unifies the overall look while offering appeal throughout the season. One plant that would make this happen is Rose Glow Japanese barberry. Their graceful habit with slender, arching branches makes a statement by itself but it’s the vivid marbled red and pinkish foliage that steals the show until they deepen to rose and bronze with age. In the fall, the foliage turns yellow-orange before dropping and bead-like bright red berries stud the branches fall through winter.

Abelia Confetti closeup.

Abelia Confetti is another small shrub that can be used to unify your landscape. Growing only 2-3 ft high and 4-5 ft wide with variegated eaves and foliage turning maroon in cold weather. Abelia are adaptable plants, useful in shrub borders, near the house or as as groundcover on banks. White, bell-shaped flowers are plentiful and showy during summer and early fall.

Texture in foliage is very important in good garden design. Varying the size and shape of leaves creates diversity and variety among neighboring plants. Striking visual interest can even be achieved when working with two different plants with similar shades of green.

An example of this would be combining Gold Star pittosporum tenuifolium with grevillea noellii. The first has dark green oval foliage on 10-15 foot tall dense plants while the latter is clad with narrow inch-long glossy green leaves. Clusters of pink and white flowers bloom in early into late spring and are a favorite of hummingbirds.

Loropetaum chinense

Using the same plant shape throughout a landscape can create rhythm, balance and harmony and tie the entire design together. Forms and shapes of plants and trees can be columnar, conical, oval, round, pyramidal, weeping, spreading and arching. A loropetalum with its spreading tiers of arching branches could be repeated throughout your garden to create visual interest and balance. A dogwood tree could also repeat this same form as their branches grow horizontally.

Consider also layering plants to create a beautiful garden. From groundcovers all the way up to the tallest tree, natural looking designs mimic nature.

Don’t forget about focal points. This could be a Japanese maple cloaked by a wall of dark evergreens or a statue or pottery at the end of a long, narrow pathway. Focal points draw attention and even distract the eye from an unsightly view.

There are many solutions to make your garden complete. Consider using some of the above design elements to make your landscape beautiful.

Summer Pruning for Beauty & Health


Everything in the garden is full and lush in June. Your Japanese maple might be getting a little too full for your taste-outgrowing its space, crowding the neighbors, looking like a boring blob. Take the fear out of pruning with these easy steps.

Pruning any plant is necessary for several reasons – to control size or shape, to remove dead or diseased branches, to improve structure or to stimulate new growth. Pruning also can improve the health of a plant by increasing air circulation, allowing more light into the center and reducing disease problems.

Japanese maples do not need a lot of pruning. June is the best time of year to prune them as the leaves have become full size. The least favorable time to prune would be early to mid fall just as it is sending nutrients and energy to store for the cold months. Bring out your tree’s personality by symmetrically thinning out about a third of the small twigs throughout the tree and any dead twigs. Japanese maples less than 15 years old are prone to put on new growth that looks like a buggy whip – unattractively skinny with no side branches. Shortening or removing the buggy whips only stimulates more of the same. Be patient. You will be surprised to find that, as the whips age, they fatten up, develop lateral branches and turn into nice-looking scaffold limbs. Make sure not to thin too much on the sides of the tree if they are exposed to sunlight as that could cause sunburn. Use the “1/3 rule” when deciding where or how far back to cut a branch – that is prune to an upward or outward growing branch that is at least a third as big as the one you are cutting.

Avoid attempting to restrict the height of a Japanese maple. It won’t work. The tree will simply grow faster with thin, unruly branches. You can reduce the height of the tree a bit by removing branches that grow in an upward direction to a lower branch. The width of these trees, on the other hand, can be somewhat modified. Trim side growth and foliage that is hanging too low by cutting to branches farther back in the tree. It’s time consuming to prune a little, then stand back to decide where the next cut will be, but when you’re finished, your new tree will have an airy, delicate appearance allowing you to see into the tree and admire the attractive branching pattern.

While you have the pruners out shear back early flowering perennials to encourage another round of blooms. Add more mulch to areas that are a little thin. Check the ties on trees to make sure they aren’t too tight and remove the stake if the trunk is strong enough to support the tree on its own.

Look for distorted growth on your fuchsias and treat for fuchsia mites.

Look for any pest problems so you can do something about them before it gets out of hand. I’m OK with a few holes here and there but a heavy infestation should be trimmed off or sprayed with an organic insecticide. Inspect the tips of fuchsias regularly for fuchsia mites and clip off any distorted growth. I hate to spray even organics on them due to the hummingbird activity.

Most importantly, enjoy your time outdoors. If a task is too big to do at one time, break it down into smaller sessions. As they say, take time to smell the roses.

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.

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