Monday, June 29, 2015

Joyful June in Country Mouse Garden - with Clarkia rubicunda!

Clarkia rubicunda - Ruby Chalice Clarkia (locally wild)

Please join me in a pictorial wander through my garden. As you will see Clarkia rubicunda is the plant of the month! I'll gather seed this year - should get about a pound - and will restrain them next year - hoping to sprinkle those lovely blossoms throughout the garden and not let them overwhelm the pool garden, where the deer and the rabbits can't roam! But - I'm not complaining!

Let's relax a while with the monkeyflower draped over the chair

The astonishing profusion of deer weed

butterflies everywhere!

On the coyote mint too...

Lovely lovely

What berries we're having this year on the manzanita!

Huh! One lone California fuchsia blossom! A bit early there, mate!

Did I mention Clarkia rubicunda?

The clarkia does look lovely with the sage

Winifred Gilman sage

Bees and buzzing in the goldenrod

Beds developing in the north garden. Rushes rocketing up wonderfully

Is that a morel?? Dried up one? I found it while weeding.

Oh the Matilija poppy!

Wonderful misty mornings in June!

Patio dining - with a bat tucked inside the shade umbrella! What a surprise!

Time to harvest seeds - Aquilegia formosa - Western colombine..

And Fernald's iris

Eriogonum rubicunda mixed in with clarkia

Poppies, sunflowers - and clarkia

Camissonia (yellow annual) popped up this year after long absence - under non-native sage.

Toyon blooming abundantly

Heartleaf penstemon doing its end-of-stem firework display - with Clarkia

And lest we forget -- more Clarkia rubicunda!!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Gardening for Wildlife can be Harsh

The shy little Bewick's Wren

Sitting on a cushion, four feet from a tangle of toyon and coyote bush, I hear an eruption of urgent chattering within the thicket, and a buzzing in another bush a few feet to its right. I recognize the sounds of the Bewick’s wren, one of my favorite small birds. Bzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzzz. Bzz bzz bzzz.

Continuously the noises endure. The birds are distressed. It’s distressing. My heart sits heavy like a lump of clay stuffed with stones. What can I do? I have no idea what I would be interfering with.

The Thich Nhat Hanh meditation I had begun is fluttering like rags at the edge of my mind.

Breathing in, I calm myself. Breathing out, I feel at ease. Breathing in, I smile. Breathing out, I release. Breathing in I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I feel it is a wonderful moment. 

It is not a wonderful moment. A Western Scrub Jay takes off from the behind the bush. He or she flies in confident upward swoops to the top of a Monterey pine a couple hundred feet away.

Western Scrub Jay at our bird bath

My heart twists. I find I am holding my breath. There is a little noise from the wrens, then silence.

I note that the jay does not clean its beak on the branch of the pine, which may be a good sign. Good that is, if you are on the side of the wrens.

I feel like I’m sitting before Schrodinger’s nest. I want to believe that the little mother stuck to her nest and poked at that big bad jay till he gave up. But I can’t. And I can’t think of the jay’s nestlings either.

An empty nest, somewhere else in the garden.

Whatever actually happened in a sense doesn’t matter. Life eats life. It’s going on all around me, and within me too. I’m having Tennyson’s emotional crisis, without his particular disturbance of faith. Nature is indeed, among other things, red in tooth and claw.

We who garden for wildlife, and encourage others to do so, tend to emphasize easier things...

The hummingbirds, who are flashing their beautiful colors and twittering all around me

I still keep up my dad's practice of feeding hummingbirds

The sparrows and finches I’ve watched feasting on the bunch grass seeds

Butterflies nectaring on the coyote mint

House finches eating elderberries

Lizards catching flies --
Well, insects are harder (though not impossible) to empathize with.

Near the Bewick Wren’s nest (or where I anyway surmise there is a Bewick Wren's nest) I hear a little buzzing to the left now. Then, a little later, buzzing to the right. Do I hear a brief fluttering within the bush?

Who am I kidding. If that jay wasn’t successful this time, she’ll be back. I wonder how long birds feel distress? I wonder what child-free birds do with the rest of their summer? Do they breed again? Do they rest and grow plump?

I’m not sure what to do with this wrenching empathy. I feel the need to end this post on an uplift. I know it’s a kind of inappropriate tenderness that makes me close my eyes during certain parts of any David Attenborough documentary. He is as boyishly enthusiastic about hyenas taking down baby gazelles as he is about the amazing colonies of bats whose guano he sinks knee-deep into as he approaches their cave. I adore him, I do, with a love that goes back fifty years or more. I just can’t be him.

Thich Nhat Hanh would meditate to the source of his anger or upset and look for the loving or forgiving action to take. But here no wrong has been done. What action is needed? This is just what it is to be alive. We suffer. We rejoice. We feel. We eat.

Feast of food for humans, made from mostly native plants (and animals)
 at one of Alrie Middlebrook's Eating California lunches.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

That's not drought tolerant--that's normal - Saxon Holt's Summer-Dry website, and getting "occidented"

This book changed my life!

I'm preparing to give a talk on best books for native plant gardeners. I was thinking about books that get gardeners reoriented, or I should say occidented, turned towards the summer-dry west where we live, rather than the summer-wet east where many of us used to live, when it comes to how we garden.

It was the first chapter of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates that did it for me.

It's a book based through and through on the idea of gardening where you are. And on good principles including use of natives and non-harm to wild areas (though it is not limited to gardening with natives by any means). Ms Town Mouse reviewed it back in 2009 here.

In fact, Gardening Where You Are is the title of the first chapter. I still have a visceral memory of its ideas filling my head and my heart though I read it ten or maybe eleven years ago. I also loved the writing itself.

An East Bay landscape. Photo by Saxon Holt. Downloaded from

I visited the page of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)--the unromantically named yet inspired organization that brought this book into being--to see if the book was ever updated (it wasn't).

However, I was happy to discover there that Saxon Holt, photographer for the book, has launched a new web site called Summer-Dry, with multiply-indexed access to all the photographs in the book. The site has the tag line:

Celebrate Plants in Summer-Dry Gardens.

What a striking inversion. I have to stop apologizing for summer dry gardens! Sheesh! What was I thinking! Talk about getting reoccidented!

And the site has an interesting blog. In his post on the term drought-tolerant, Saxon Holt says:

"Summer-dry gardens are naturally dry for long periods.  It’s not drought, it’s normal."

Another mind-shifting notion! I love it! You should read his whole post.

Incredibly, given my little trip down the memory lane of garden book reading, there is also a post on the web site by Nora Harlow, author of the chapter that so inspired me, about writing that chapter! Nora is Community Affairs Representative at East Bay Municipal Utility District and a landscape architect - and a wonderful writer.

She says that while walking through Joshua National Park in Southern California, stuck in writer's block ...

California Southern Desert. Photo by Saxon Holt downloaded from

... and daydreaming about reproducing that beautiful desert landscape in her Northern California home... when...

"[T]he truth suddenly came unbidden to me.  If I wanted that garden I would have to pack up and move … I went straight to my computer and typed these words: Gardening Where You Are.  The rest of that chapter tumbled out as if writing itself, and in a few short days it was done."

Here is the first paragraph of Nora Harlow's opening chapter to the book Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region. The ideas are no longer revolutionary to me, and probably not to you either. Still, I hope you enjoy it half as much as I did.
Some call it natural gardening. Others describe it as sustainable, ecological, regional, or bioregional. Whatever it’s called, the approach to landscaping outlined here is attuned to local climate, microclimate, topography, and soils, and responsive to the reality of limited resources. The natural approach to landscape design and maintenance conserves water and energy, protects wildlands, limits green waste, and provides habitat for wildlife. At the same time, it requires less upkeep than traditional landscapes, and it connects the gardener—and those who live, work, or play in the garden—to the rhythms of life: the seasons, the weather, the daily miracles of the natural world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Deer, deer!

Nice coffeeberry! You can keep that coyote bush though.

As I was writing the last post a young doe stepped past my window and down the path and began nibbling on the coffeeberry bush.

I've seen her in our garden before. She also likes the honeysuckle (the non-native kind that seems to live forever - it was here before we arrived at this house).

I enjoy watching her calm, slow ways. That hesitant walk. I'm not sure why she's alone. She looks like a yearling maybe or a two year old. I'm not sure how to tell.

But when she started on my California Fuchsia - I tapped on the window.


She turned and jogged off down the hill into the chaparral.

What do the deer never eat? I wondered - Can I landscape with just those and just give up on the rest?

AFAIK, deer don't eat my:

  • Grasses (though rabbits will munch young plants)
  • Rushes, sedges
  • Ferns
  • Salvias
  • Succulents
  • Iris
  • Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.)
  • Sagewort (Artemisia californica)
  • Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis)
  • Golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
  • Golden rod (Solidago canadensis)
  • Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus)
  • Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)
  • California aster (Symphyotrichum chilense)
  • Coast aster (Corethrogne filaginifolia
  • Hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Elderberry (Sambucus sp.)
  • Deer weed now how weird is that? (Acmispon glaber)
There are probably a few I'm forgetting. 

I can't be sure of anything though -- and in drought conditions they will eat anything green, or so it seems. 

Of plants that survive - and maybe thrive - on deer nibbling (once they get past their tasty "spring salad" early growth period that is), I'd count Ceanothus, toyon, and Ribes (flowering currant). I'm hoping that the huckleberry I planted will survive too - so far so good. They don't grow in our immediate neighborhood, but I like them and they grow wild in our county. 

Buckwheats are a mixed bag. I'm disappointed that they munch on the coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) that I planted last year, but they are not interested in other species such as the naked buckwheat (E. nudum) or, so far, the E. crocatum that I planted for color last year. 

When I tried growing penstemons here - something ate them sometimes. So frustrating.

I'm most upset when they eat the Clarkia rubicunda and the Epilobium canum. (California fuchsia) because they are locally native and bring such lovely color to the garden after the spring flush.

I'm not even thinking about other things which I have long ago stopped trying to grow and I may have to come back and edit this post to add to the list. 

Maybe this will help you pick some plants for your deer-filled gardens. But always remember the catch: Your deer may differ!

Monkeyflower? No thanks!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Coppicing deer grass rejuvenates it so fast!

This deer grass had started to look permanently bleached, with a thick thatch
It was with trepidation (and a lot of effort!) that five weeks ago, I took the shears to a huge deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) --

Will it grow back? How long will it take?

-- which Ms. Town Mouse gave me, I forget - five years ago? It had outgrown her space. That thick thatch was, I fear, a cosy home for some mice! And I don't think there were many new flower spikes last year.

Also, I confess: it had started to outgrow my space -- but well, that's my fault.

You have to give deer grass room!

I like deer grass so much, I planted a row of three more in front of my greenhouse - partly to shade the bottom rack inside the greenhouse behind them. They look lovely, but maybe two more would have been plenty.

Why didn't I coppice them all? My nickname should be the Hesitant Horticulturist: I was timid. I wasn't sure how fast it would grow back, or if I'd waited too long.

A Master Gardener site says that early in spring is a good time - and so does Helen Popper in her wonderful California Native Gardening: a month-by-month guide  (Read Ms. Town Mouse's xlnt review here.)

In another place, late winter is recommended.

End of April is not really early spring - but it worked out for me, maybe because May has been so cool and foggy for us this year. So I'll try to remember and post about this in February next time!

Deer grass is a fantastic, large, mounding, warm season native grass, with tall, stiff spikes, and it's dependable. It likes a little water but doesn't need much. I think mine get by on the runoff from my watering in the greenhouse (the floor is just mulch).  They do need room to show off their lovely form.

Things are looking up -- now at the end of May, look at that coppiced plant! I'm so happy - I had forgotten that they could be green!

Five weeks after coppicing
(BTW do you see the little seedling between the larger plants? It's the only one I've seen.)

I'm not sure planting the pelargoniums back there was a good idea either
but they look kinda pretty threading through the blond grass. For now anyway!

You can see the old stems in there - I imagine they'll kind of mulch-out over time.

I plan to use this plant more in the garden - despite my fear of fire - I know now that I have the power of coppicing!

In fact I can pretty easily propagate what I need by dividing the plants I have. If I dig up all the deer grass this winter (or maybe all but the original which I love just where it is), I can get say nine divisions. It'll be hard work but worth it! I can put two back in front of the greenhouse -- for that nice three-plant spread which I know now is best (or maybe I'll be ready to try something else there) -- and I'll have seven plants to establish elsewhere - a swathe or other structural element in the garden. Deer grass is great for that.

Deer and rabbits will nibble young plants but I haven't had any trouble with them since the plants grew larger. So I'll protect the divisions when I plant them out, for a while.

In fact for fall, I'm hoping I'll be able to propagate enough of my key species to create large swathes - which in a big garden like this (and for the benefit of pollinators) is definitely the way to go.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wonder in an unexpected moment - western azalea (and phacelia and red twig dogwood)

Note: this post is edited as I had misidentified red twig dogwood as ninebark - I won't do that again! My thanks to an astute commenter (see below.)

So as I drive the creek-side road up towards our ridge-top road, I keep my eye open for seeding natives that might like to extend their reach by a mile or two to my restoration garden. I stopped to check and -  POW!! I saw the white and yellow blossoms of Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale).

I've been keeping my eye on the Phacelia californica (I think that's the phacelia species) that grows along the road side.

Phacelia californica. Not the showiest of native perennials, but useful for wildlife and locally wild where I live. You can buy prettier ones like Tansy Leaf Phacelia (which is an annual).

A shot showing the foliage for your ID-ing pleasure

The stems and leaves are prickly-irritating so I don't want to put them where I'll be doing a lot of hand-weeding. I'd just like them to live wild and prosper in the wilder parts of the property.

I took four flower heads that had mostly gone to seed - though the fruiting bodies are a bit green still. I'm hoping some seeds will mature and dry in a paper bag. There are enough blooming plants that I think it's worth just a try. I'll wait before checking them again and try to learn their seed ripening time for future reference.

Because the inflorescence is a scorpioid raceme (yes I did have to look that up), new flowers bloom towards the unfurling end while flowers lower on the rachis (another term I had to look up) get on with turning into seeds.

And BTW this is the area where there is a nice reg twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) shrub, another shade lover.  So far I've failed to make plants from cuttings - I have one still hanging on but I'm not hopeful. So I'm moving on to trying from seed.

Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea

In bloom, red twig dogwood has round, creamy-white inflorescences. Here you can see unripe fruits. I'll keep checking and hope to make a note of when they ripen, for future reference.

So - the western azalea story.

Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) growing right along the road-side river bank! I'll be checking these blossoms for seeds too, along with the dogwood and phacelia.

Usually I've seen the western azalea in this creek only in inaccessible locations, deep in a poison-oak filled area. Here it was proffering nice soft- to semi-hard shoots, hanging out where the road maintenance hedge-trimmer tractor attachment would be sure to macerate them e'er long.  They begged to be turned into cuttings and - hopefully - increase the western azalea population in our area.

So I took out my little folding scissors and neatly snipped off four low-growing shoots, about six or eight inches each, leaving narry a stub.

Back in the greenhouse, I made eight or nine cuttings and put them in my plastic greenhouse with other cuttings.

Western azalea cuttings

I've set the mini-greenhouse up in a peculiar part of our bathroom where I hope cuttings will not get too hot or dry out too fast. The deck outside is shaded. (It's an owner-built house and has some oddities in the original construction that Wood Rat is putting to rights bit by bit!)

My latest attempt to grow cuttings in this mini-greenhouse in the bathroom!

I have to confess I've not had terrific luck with cuttings lately, except for anything in the Ribes genus. If you fancy a go at growing from cuttings I can recommend Ribes as a slam dunk no matter how you do it!

A few miscellaneous cuttings - some Ribes, some Salvia - one dogwood, and four western azalea!

So - wish me luck. If they do grow, and I get more than the one or two plants I think I can support with a bit of irrigation in the shadiest part of our property - I'll offer them to neighbors who have creeks on their properties. That would be fabulous. But - I'm not going to be too disappointed if it doesn't work. Just coming upon those lovely blooms was enough pleasure for me.

And oh here is another lovely bloom that was growing in that nice part of the road (which is otherwise slowly succumbing to invasive weeds, I'm very sorry to say).

A bit of yarrow, Achillea millefolium, growing nearby.

Footnote: I always gather responsibly (very small percentage of seeds, minimal gathering of material for cuttings), and only very locally to my property - never in public parks or protected areas. I gather with permission on my neighbors' properties, and along verges of nearby county roads. I was told by a commenter a while back that gathering from roadsides is illegal (tell that to the berry pickers!!). I actually tried to get a ruling from local authorities on the legality of such gathering and they were not aware of any rules preventing me from doing so. Road maintenance crews routinely scalp these county roadsides so I feel absolutely no guilt about doing what I do!