Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sowing Native California Plant Seeds in Early Springtime

Eight native California plant species in one box!
Spring comes to California sometime in the week following New Year it seems. By late February in my neck of the woods, spring is positively bouncing up and down, with blooms and germination and happy birds and bees everywhere. No wonder this is when we get family visitors from Minnesota - especially this year.

So I decided to follow nature and sow seeds when wild seeds are germinating all around me.

I'm off to a successful start in the greenhouse — in the seed box, there is at least one seedling in each section, just eight days after sowing! And I also direct-sowed some clarkia, too.

Nurseries might sow perennials in July, so that plants are ready for a fall planting. But I don't have nursery conditions. I've found that in mid-July it's just too hot up on our ridge for me to have much success.

BTW You can read about native plant nurseryman and propagation expert Dara Emery's seed sowing schedule in my earlier post: Dara Emery's Seed Sowing Schedule (And Stories from Reality).

I had seeds in large bags to prepare for storage and old seeds that needed to be sorted through, so I picked a few species for my north garden area, which has some quite sunny areas and some partial shade, and stays moist longer than any other part of the property.

California aster has abundant seeds - and they are very hairy.

Hairy seeds of California Aster, after rubbing through a sieve.

I just kept rubbing them through a sieve till the hairs separated, then walked through the garden lifting and dropping the seeds into a bowl till most of the hairs had lifted off in the breeze.

Some of what was left. (There were some more seeds but I had stored them before I thought to take a picture)

Maybe some seeds lifted off in the breeze too, but that's OK. I had plenty. Enough to share with the birds and maybe some will germinate in unexpected places. Aster can take over a garden, spreading into a large patch. I have space to spare, so that's not a problem for me.

I sowed far fewer seeds than in earlier years - eight species in a box instead of eight boxes. I've learned from experience. So far, it's looking good. Just eight days after sowing, I'm seeing germination in all species I sowed!

California aster seedlings

Course it remains to be seen if the seeds growing are the ones I sowed and not some strangers that blew in on a breeze! With the exception of the rosy buckwheat, they are all local natives gathered within a mile of my home (or grown from second generation wild plants in my garden).

  • Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, rosy buckwheat (nursery stock) – quite a few
  • Artemisia douglasiana, mugwort – a couple.
  • Symphyotrichum chilense, Pacific Aster  – quite a few!
  • Solidago californica, California Goldenrod – one.
  • Monardella villosa, coyote mint – a few.
  • Anisocarpus madiodes, Woodland Madia – a few.
  • Ceanothus papillosus, wartleaf ceanothus, from 2012 – a few. 
  • Dudleya caespitosa, bluff dudleya from 2012 (and 14?) – quite a few!

I'll be thrilled if I get lots of these plants. They are great for wildlife, especially for pollinators, and except for the mugwort, have pretty flowers too. 

I'd love to have a lot of the rosy buckwheat in our fenced-off garden - I just love the raspberry blooms, and so do bees and butterflies. And deer. 

We don't get buckwheat in my neighborhood. Naked buckwheat does grow a mile away and I've grown some in my garden. It reseeds right where I planted it but doesn't spread. So I decided non-local garden buckwheats are OK. Of course if I see any rosy naked buckwheat down where it grows wild, I'll have to rethink the idea!

Mugwort may not be so ornamental. It disappears half the year, too. But it's a nice green and smells amazing, and birds love the seeds too. It's also good for erosion control, so I'm going to try to get it established on the slopes of the north garden. It grows wild just up our road half a mile.

Then, there's the Clarkia. I harvest a lot - a LOT - of Clarkia rubicunda, ruby-chalice clarkia, our local native species. I've been growing it for about four years or more now, and I have a good population that reseeds wonderfully.

I have so much, in fact, that I'm thinking of reseeding my neighborhood. Unfortunately where I originally gathered the Clarkia seeds from (con permiso), the invasives are taking over - sticky eupatory and french broom and Oxalis pes-caprae. So sad! It's a steep slope with lots of poison oak, or I'd maybe try to do a bit of weeding. What am I saying -  I'm weeding full time on my own property!

So I decided to just sow some of them - my oldest seeds, from 2012, all over the place, especially along the path in the north garden. They are germinating!

Tiny Clarkia rubicunda seedlings along the bank above the path.

Slightly older Clarkia rubicunda seedlings 

Unfortunately deer and gophers eat the Clarkia, so I'm just hoping that enough grow so the browsers don't take them all.

This year, I've got major gopher holes and mounds in my fenced garden. And shallow tunnels humping up under my mulch paths. I squish them down whenever I see them. Sorry critter! Of course that isn't enough.

Where I usually have rampant Clarkia, things are looking very sparse and it can only be the gophers I think. Even I, sentimental as I am, am contemplating calling in the gopher guy, who humanely kills them with traps that cut their little heads off!

Well - I hope to post a few updates on the progress of these seeds, and maybe I'll sow few more this week. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

California Native Garden Foundation and Live Oak School, Santa Cruz: Workdays in March

Alrie Middlebrook is a force of nature. Her organizations, the California Native Garden Foundation (CNGF) and the Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education (ELSEE), are headquartered in San Jose, but her influence extends much farther.

Alrie Middlebrook at an "Eating California" outdoor haute cuisine event I attended at the Middlebrook Center, December of 2013.

Last October, Leigh Klein, the garden teacher at Live Oak elementary school, reached out for help with weeding and sheet-mulching in preparation for planting natives in the school garden. I showed up with a friend - and was bowled over to find out that it was one of Alrie's projects!

A while back, I wrote a review of Alrie and Glenn Keator's book, Designing California Native Gardens, one of my favorites. Alrie's vision has expanded since then, to include food—California edible plants to be more precise, sustainability, and visionary forms of urban agriculture. She is promoting haute-cuisine cooking with native plants at one end of the spectrum, and school gardens at another, all in service of a vision you get pretty quickly if you have a chance to talk to her.

Now in her 70s, Alrie has the all the push and hutzpah of a 20-something high-tech CEO. She moves mountains, grant awarding bodies, and a whole heap of interns. She prods and encourages and energizes. Why, she even got me to write this post! The woman is invincible!

So - this blog post is to say: More work days are planned for Live Oak Elementary School. Alrie wrote to me:
Thank you for you support of Live Oak School. There has been amazing progress on the garden in the school. We currently have $5000 from Lowes that we can use on the garden. With that money we plan to add in a outdoor kitchen connected to a grey water system for the school.

We are having work days on March 7th and 14th from 10-3 at Live Oak School to clean up the garden in preparation for the addition of the kitchen and we would love your support and help.
If you are a Santa Cruz area reader, why not show up and lend a hand? But beware - Alrie may energize you beyond your wildest expectations!

Below are a few photos from the workday I attended back in October 2014. Parents and children turned out as well as community volunteers.

Tough weeds - lots of ivy growing on the fence

Leigh Klein, Live Oak school's garden teacher. .

I'm standing next to the supervisor… The garden will have a complete make-over.

My CNPS friend Ann Garside talks to Alrie Middlebrook.

Layers of cardboard. Volunteers went to supermarkets for cardboard and got lots of it.

The man with the chainsaw is a professional in the parks department whose child happens to go to the school. He is slicing an enormous ivy trunk.

Huge pile o' mulch - to go on the cardboard.

Oy - water goes on the mulch, matey! The weeds gone and cardboard and mulch laid - and watered - volunteers take a welcome rest. Pizza and prizes were provided!

Alrie fed our minds as well - and showed us the plan for the garden.

A sketch of the plan!  The area cleared and prepared was at the bottom edge. I'm looking forward to checking out the progress on March 7 or March 14.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How I water my garden in a California winter drought

Salvia 'Bee's Bliss' never gets water. Planted at chaparral edge.

I titled this post carefully - I'm not an expert. This is just what I do, and I'd love to hear from other native gardeners. How are you dealing with this winter drought?

This post is based on a question by frequent commenter Ed Morrow of Carmel Valley, which a beautiful area south of us and inland from the town of Carmel. Its climate is somewhat similar to my ridge-top climate, which tends to be warmer and dryer than in the valleys around me. Ed said:
It's time to start pulling the hoses and doing some hand watering. But how much and how often? Is there some good way to judge how much water to apply, is there some best way to apply it? Should I invest in a soil probe to see how deep the moisture goes? Any ideas? How much and in what way to water during our winter drought?
Maybe Town Mouse will add her thoughts to this post. She's more aware of watering, and does use soil probes. She also has a city watering bill, whereas I have a quarterly well-water bill that is not based on consumption! I'm not lavish, but I'm not niggardly either.

It's been dry since our one good winter storm in very early December. We are all hoping for the next promised drenching, supposed to hit north of here in a few days. The last promised storm stayed north of us, so we are fingers and toes crossed!

For a while after the last rain we had some good fog drip, but in the past six weeks or so, with temperatures into the seventies and even eighties, I've been hand watering. Here's how I've been coping.

Where I have seedlings, I water fairly lightly and often. Once a week, maybe more if the sun is beating on them all day. Their roots are not that deep, and they dry out quickly, especially in fluffy garden soil.

Planted from local wild seed, Clarkia rubicunda (ruby chalice clarkia), reseeds freely in my garden. 

I also water recent plantings, maybe once a week, once every other week - depending how recently they went in. I give them a bit more of a focused soak. I move from plant to plant to plant, and back again to give the water a chance to sink in. It's a pleasant and relaxing task - if you have the time to do it. Probably each plant gets around 20-30 seconds of hose time.

I water chaparral plants either not at all (I have a large wild chaparral area), or way less than riparian/shady plants. I don't have that much time - or water.

Salvia mellifera, black sage, local wild native at garden edge, never gets water

I also know the soil: where the water sinks in easily and stays wet longer; where the bedrock is not far below the surface, and more frequent watering keeps things going.

I check the turgidity of tender plants - but sclerotic (stiff-leaved) plants like manzanita don't droop, so it's harder to tell with them. Then again, they are sclerotic to withstand dry periods, so I don't worry too too much. Just a little. How much drought can they take?

Our local wild manzanita, Arctostaphylos crustacea var. crinita is starting to bloom!

I mimic the season. I don't think you can give too much water in winter because nature dumps - or used to anyway - tons of water at a time in winter. We also typically get some coastal fog and foggy-drizzle - not as much as lower places, but we do get our share. Fog just dampens things down, so I do some of that kind of light watering too.

Wild local native madrone, Arbutus menziesii, with exceptional blossoms this year. I've been watering new plantings on the slope it grows on. I think it benefitted!

The old finger in the soil is another test, for potted plants: If you feel dampness, no need to water. I'm sure probes and all that are better than the finger test.

I have salvias that look happy with no water, and a potted coreopsis that droops if I miss a couple days.

Deep watering is good, of course for deep-rooted plants. But even plants with deep roots generally have shallow roots too. True, if they never get a deep watering (from man or nature) maybe they won't put their deep roots down so far. But I guess I don't worry so much about deep watering to get them over dry spells. Also, I just have too much garden to do deep watering!

Pink flowering current (Ribes sanguineum glutinosum var. glutinosum) is a joy in the winter garden! This one is in the shade and gets a bit of extra water because of nearby new plantings. It is a plant that benefits from a bit of watering.

Coast redwoods, for all they are so tall, have very shallow roots. (They interlock to keep the trees upright in high winds.) In extremely warm winter drought periods, I would probably water planted ones like Ed's (he didn't plant them!) maybe every month, for say 20 mins of sprinkler time. Just a guesstimate. My natively-here trees are looking OK still and I never water those. But I worry about them all the same. How many dry winter years can they take? Coastal redwoods only grow where there is fog drip along the California coast.

I also like to give foliage a bit of a spritz because I think the plants would enjoy (yes, enjoy) that, and it gets the dust off.

Budbreak on a young buckeye tree (Aesculus californica). They're native near here, but I planted this one as there are none on our ridge. Buckeyes are drought tolerant - though this one may get a little water from the slope above, which I'm watering lightly to help new plantings get established.

I think how much to compensate for lack of rain depends on how deep the plant roots go, and what type of plants you're watering, and how recently they were planted. And also how much time you've got to fuss over them — as well as your water bill!

How are others living with winter drought coping? I'd love to know…

Monday, January 26, 2015

Mulch ado about — weed-free ferny paths

After unpacking our new Ikea kitchen, we had a lot of cardboard left over. So I decided to sheet mulch the path along the contour of our north-facing valley slope. It's about 120 feet long! It was hard work! I was so glad to see the bottom of the truck bed finally!

But soon the cardboard was thickly layered, and I spread three to four inches of Golden Nugget mulch on top.

The path has lasted well for several years without mulch, but the outside edges were starting to sink - I hope the mulch will help to spread the foot traffic pressure. Also it was getting weedy. Also - I'll need to put more stones on the downslope here and there to help shore things up - and add plants where there are none right now, to stabilize things more. The lower slope is a weedy future project.

I had to do a bit of rework because - ahem - I accidentally cut through an electrical cable running to a little building nearby. Thankfully, I survived to tell this tale!  Dear Mr Wood Rat patched things up, but had to disrupt the path. So I did a bit of remedial stone work:

And I made another little bench in the stone wall. You can see some of the bunch grasses I've been planted in this photo, too:

It's very comfy. Sometimes I sit there and see interesting birds back in the north garden.

Is this a varied thrush? Photo from a distance, so not a great shot… Seems to be a recent winter visitor.

Next I thought about plants. I've put a lot of bunch grasses on the slopes above - a friend came to help me one day and we had a good time. But I want to plant in and around the bank and the new walls, too. So I decided to rescue some ferns from the ditch of the little road I drive a lot. After seeing the road workers scalp the roadsides around here recently, with their mechanized scalping machines —  I no longer have any compunction about rescuing a few plants from the roadside ditches (not higher up where they might escape the blades of the road maintenance crews).

Some sweet polypody. I took three small clumps from three different spots in the ditch.

Of course many ferns live happily in our area with no help from me, and they seem to enjoy the stones. Some gold-back ferns, some woodfern. Also some sword fern.

These ferns just grew there all by themselves. Clever ferns!

I also brought one clump of five-fingered fern home with me. There was a lot more of it on the roadside, but it was growing higher than my "ethical collection zone."

I'm sorry to say I'm not quite finished with the path, but there isn't much to go.

Now, if we can only get some rain - our constant lament of late. January is shaping up as a warm, dry month indeed. Pleasant for humans — but only in the short term!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Winter Interest

In a recent post, the venerable garden rant came out strongly against "winter interest". "My garden stops in winter, which is just fine with me. I’m pretty much ignoring whatever winter interest it may have." And so on.

This was a great way to get lots of comments - everyone in an area of mild winters had something to say about their winter garden. So, let me add to the flurry, but I'd rather includes some photos to show what's special about winter in my California garden.

First, this is the time where the bones of the garden really show. Yes, some of the trees and shrubs lose their leaves, but that makes everything stand out more. The hummingbird sage (Salvia spatacaea) is truly green this time of year, and other plants, freshly pruned, are more compact and stand out more. Grasses are green this time of year - a great opportunity to remove last year's dried of stems.

Second, the shoots of the bulbs and seedlings of California native annuals make the gardener feel uplifted and hopeful. Will all those tidy tip seedlings above make it? Even if I get 10% I'll be happy!

Moss on the fountain, the rocks in the shade, and even on the folded up umbrella says: Yes, we do have seasons! Our winter if mild - no snow in the valleys. But I go out and hack a hole in the ice on the birdbath not that infrequently, and we have the heat on in the house. Some tender plants don't survive in my garden, and I gave up on them not wanting to play the covering with bedsheets game.

This depends partly on the plant. Maurandia, a delicate Southern California vine, freezes badly some years but resprouts. This year, so far, it's hanging in there, to the delight of the hummers who need the extra food this time of year.

My jade plant (not a native) often has some frost damage but blooms happily this year.

My green wall succulents are in a protected spot and love the extra moisture - and I love looking at them from the kitchen window.

But the true delight in the California winter garden are the early bloomers. As early as December, we find manzanitas, some of the currents, and some non-natives such as Camelias starting to put out flowers.

I'm sure this Sentinel manzanita turns some heads as the neighbors walk by.

And I'm always enchanted by the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry. It goes almost completely dormant in summer, but it's worth waiting for the winter and the flowers (I'm sure the hummers agree).

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Weeding sour grass, one thorough patch at a time.

Like many gardeners I have a persistent weed problem.  Well several, but the one I'm battling at the moment is Oxalis pes-caprae, commonly known as sour grass or Bermuda buttercup (though the plant comes from South Africa, not Bermuda).

Oxalis pes-caprae in the garden of someone who says, "Well at least it's green and has pretty flowers."
The picture above is NOT my garden. It is one I saw with shock and horror in Santa Cruz recently. The entire front yard is a sea of sour grass.

While I can get disheartened seeing those little clover-like leaves sprouting up from each plant's single main stem every flipping year, I do see less and less the more and more I pull early in the season - before the bulblets start to form along the stem. I hand pull and try to get as much of the root as I can.

THIS is my garden. I am definitely making progress. This is an area I've worked on for two years.
The worst thing areas are where the Oxalis grows among native blackberry (Rubus ursinus) which is covered with exceedingly thin prickles that get into the skin but won't get out.

I focus my efforts on a couple of garden areas, working thoroughly and repeatedly before the bulblets come. And then do the best I can on the rest. Next year - the same procedure, but many fewer plants in the focus areas. Some areas are almost clear now, just a few plants to pull. But it's a long haul.

To avoid depression, I focus on a defined small patch that I can clear by the end of one weeding session. That way, I can feel a sense of accomplishment when I'm done, rather than the endless torments of Sisyphus's gardening sister. If I find myself scrabbling at the plant tops, not really pulling each plant in Zen-like serenity - I know I've been too optimistic about what I can achieve in one session.

The Patch Weeded - and Beyond. (The slab is for a garden seat TBD.)
It's especially rewarding if you can do a bit of planting in the cleared area afterwards.

I added some local Juncus to the weeded area to help stabilize the down-slope side of the path.
The other thing about adding plants is it gives you a reason to weed there again, with hope for the future. And plantings can help shade out the Oxalis. So I'm told.

And speaking of Oxalis...

I have to be careful not to weed the locally native redwood sorrel, Oxalis oregana!
The yearly task is still daunting but less so every year. The only good thing about sour grass is that it disappears in early spring, so I can live in a pleasant delusion of success — until November rolls around again!

There are other approaches, and I'm working on one of them in this part of the garden - the north slope part. That is to sheet mulch the long snaking path that goes around the contour of the hillside. More on that anon!

Happy new year to one and all - may your gardening year ahead be full of growing - and weeding - success.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I'm Dreaming of a Wet Christmas

I'm dreaming of a wet Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know!

Where the raindrops splatter,
and everyone's gladder
To hear blessed water coming down.

I'm dreaming of a wet Christmas
With every storm that's coming in.

Where the mushrooms are growing,
And though it's not snowing,
We're all happy dancing in the rain!

May the jet stream stay where it's at
And may all your Christmases be wet!