Saturday, January 30, 2016

You Had Me at Diplacus

Monkey flower - Formerly Mimulus, now Diplacus

Ever since I started this blog, I've done my level best to use the botanical names for the California native plants that I write about. Sure, it's painful at times - more often than not I had to do a Web search for the name, then copy-paste the name (at times with a detour through a plain text editor to strip out formatting).

Island snapdragon - Formerly Galvezia speciosa, now Gambelia speciosa
But it all seemed worth it, and here's how the argument goes: 
  • Botanical names are precise, and allow botanists all over the world to know precisely which plant you mean. 
  • Common names are fuzzy. There are often multiple common names for the same plant, or the same common name for multiple plants. 
  • After all, if you have to learn a new plant name, might as well learn the botanical name. 

It worked fairly well for me for a while. Sure, having learned Latin in Europe, I often pronounced the vowels in the botanical Latin as I would pronounce Spanish vowels. Most Americans prefer the English pronunciation. But eventually, we were usually able to communicate. Sure, many of my friends or visitors to the garden tour really preferred the common name, which I happily provided (troubles with common names like Manzanita, but mostly this worked). 

Things started getting weird a few years ago, when I couldn't find the plant names I was looking for in the plant list database that we use for the garden tour. "Wait, I know coffeeberry is Rhamnus Californica," I would mutter. "What happened?" Sometimes, another Web search yielded the new name. Sometimes, if the name change was recent, I had to get help from the Webmaster. 

I reached a new level of confusion when I was volunteering at the CNPS nursery recently and was told that some of the plants that used to be named Mimulus are now called Diplacus. But not all of them. And it was just a little bit complicated.

California Coffeeberry - Formerly Rhamus Californica, now Frangula California
I know that for a botanist, there are compelling reasons to change the names. The name changes clarify which plants belong to the same species, and which plants belong to different species. Compelling arguments for the beauty of a clean taxonomy can be found on the Internet, and I'm sure it will all be wonderful in the end. 

However, I'm not a botanist, I'm a gardener. I care primarily what the plant wants, how it looks, and which critters find it attractive.  Sun or shade? 2 feet tall or 5 feet tall? Yellow flowers or red? Hummingbird magnet or great for butterflies? And there, the species doesn't matter that much, it's often the cultivar. You can find Manzanita that grow very tall, and others that are ground covers. Most California Coffeeberry plants have red berries, but there's a cultivar with yellow berries. 

So, going forward, I'll write a my posts using the common names, and I'll start using the common names (unless I'm talking to botanists). Let's see how it goes - I can always change my mind again.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Using Defensible Space Zones as Planting Guidelines

Wonderful coyote bush blossoming in my garden, December 2015

Recently my son-in-law dug out the roots of the huge coyote bush that volunteered to grow in my garden, 20 feet from my office window. Between me and the bird bath, actually. Where it grew. Really big.

There it was gone! And it had roots as big as Mr Squirrel's biceps!

Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) grows prolifically and quickly here, especially on the sunny south slope below our ridge, which is clad in chaparral shrubs: primarily chamise, coyote brush, manzanita, coffeeberry, and black sage. That's what Mother Nature wants to have on that slope. Unfortunately for fire safety!

Now - I've loved this coyote bush dearly. It shaded lower plants. It put on an absolutely fabulous show of fluffy white seeds late last year. But then its long spindly trunks began flopping open and falling and breaking and it just wasn't looking so pretty. Plus, I can't see the birds in the bird bath any more.

I know I could have coppiced it. It's a great way to refresh a coyote bush. It would soon grow back - but it would also soon be just as big.

I have also been looking for a place to plant the summer holly I bought at the last CNPS plant sale.

Newly planted summer holly plant (Comarostaphylis diversifolia)

A fellow volunteer, during a slow spell between CNPS plant sale customers, told me that I had to buy this plant. It was perfect for my garden. So I did.

That was back in October. I've been looking for a spot ever since.

When the coyote bush began flopping over, I knew I had found my spot.

Summer Holly is a shrub from California's Channel Islands. A variant is found in San Diego and Baja California - not sure which one this is but it seems to have the flat leaves of the mainland plant. It has madrone-like clusters of urn-shaped white flowers in mid-summer; its trunks and bark are reminiscent of a manzanita; and its evergreen foliage is similar to toyon. It's deer resistant too.

True, it could end up 20 feet tall, but it's slow growing, and I don't think it'll grow that big on the shallow layer of soil that covers the sliced-off top of the ridge upon which our house and small garden area sit. Plus I think I'd be able to see the bird bath through its multiple trunks.

Summer Holly in its new bed (lower left).

Defensible Planting Zones

Those who are familiar with this blog will know that one of my dearest projects is to gather seed locally to grow and plant local natives on our property. But I don't limit my garden choices to local natives.

I've developed a planting guideline for myself by repurposing the 100 Foot Defensible Zone law for fire safety:

  • First 30 feet: It's my garden and I'll plant what I want to -- that isn't invasive or harmful or likely to hybridize with rare or endangered or special local wild species.
  • Next 70 feet: Mostly locally native, and hopefully defensible in the event of a small wildfire.* 
  • Beyond 100 feet: Just remove non-native weeds (as I do closer in too of course).
These guidelines allow me to try old favorites like hollyhocks (they don't like it here, unfortunately) and interesting California natives from other parts of the state (like summer holly). 

Maybe you'll find it useful too, if you are also lucky enough to live in the midst of California's amazing native flora.

* We remove dead wood, thin the chaparral somewhat, try to avoid fire ladders (shrubs growing up into tree branches). There's pretty much no way we can defend against major wildfire, given our ridge top position and our bedecked wooden house. We would just focus on fleeing with our photograph albums and computers!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Inspired by "A Buzz in the Meadow" by Dave Goulson

My "meadow" of weedy Mediterranean annual grasses
Dave Goulson is a professor of biology at the University of Southampton in the U.K. He has a special interest in bees and a desire to do long-term studies of wild bees in their natural habitat.

There are just two problems with that: it’s hard to find funding for long term studies, and it’s hard to find a natural habitat, or even any habitat, unaffected by neonicotinoid pesticides.

So Goulson bought a farm in the Charente region of France, complete with mouldering farmhouse (his description of its wild inhabitants is just wonderful), and there he set about creating from scratch the kind of flower-rich hay meadow that has supported European wildlife for thousands of years.

Like heathland, such ancient meadows are not wild places. They are a semi-natural habitat type, probably created by Bronze Age settlers. Here is a description from the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism web site:
Semi-natural pastures and meadows are typified by extensive farming using traditional breeds of livestock, and have a relatively low productivity compared with intensively managed grasslands. They are central to the concept of High Nature Value farming and are profoundly valuable for the large range of ecosystem services they provide. For example, globally more carbon is stored in grasslands than in forests. … Semi-natural pastures include not only grasslands but also other vegetation communities used for grazing and browsing, such as heathlands, scrublands and wood pastures. [T]hese various semi-natural communities … all require continued grazing and/or mowing for their maintenance.
This is a description of heathlands from the Forestry Commission of England website):
Lowland heathlands and their wildlife have developed through a process of tree removal, grazing and burning that in some areas continues today. … Lowland heathland is a rare and threatened habitat. It supports many different types of rare plants and animals and is a priority for conservation.
It reminds me of our beautiful, flower-rich California meadows and coastal prairies.

John Muir wrote: “None of Nature's landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” (“The Wild Parks and Forest Reservations of the West.”) But many of California meadows were extensively managed by humans for thousands of years, through burning, seed scattering and other means. This prevented encroachment by shrubs and trees, promoted growth of useful species such as those with edible bulbs and seeds, and made hunting easier by keeping the views open.

It's worth mentioning that not all California meadows (or prairies to be more precise) would close up and disappear without such interventions. But human action extended and protected them, because they were useful.

Unfortunately more recent human intervention has had the opposite effect, here in California and in Europe. Prairies and meadows have been reduced to remnant fragments by modern agriculture and urban development.

Goulson has inspired me to try and create a meadow in part of our property that has been covered in invasive Mediterranean grasses since long before we moved in.

A meadow - starting with about 40 purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) seedlings!
It probably wasn’t a meadow before the developer shoved the top of the ridge over the north side to make a platform for our house. It was probably clad in redwoods and other evergreen trees. But those Mediterranean grasses have been happy here for a long time, and I have hopes I can replace them with a meadow-like garden, using local natives whose seeds I've gathered. I have four native grass species, and some flowering perennials to get things going.

Purple needlegrass from seed gathered half a mile away. Fun to begin with our state grass!

So -- we’ll see – hopefully I’ll have more to say about it in future posts. Good things I hope!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Other Approach to Seedlings

I've been rather quiet on the blog because Mr. Mouse and I lived abroad for 6 months, and then came home to a garden that didn't really invite lots of blog posts. The drought has been bad, and even a CA native garden suffers - in fact, if you went hiking last fall, you might have been shocked how dry everything looked. 

But that was then. Now, the rains have come, and everything changed again. To my surprise and delight, I'm finding that the house sitters fairly casual approach to gardening has resulted in unexpected benefits: The annuals that were just drying up as I left did not get taken out until July, and that gave them plenty of time to scatter their seeds. 

Now, everything is green In the sidestrip, Phacelia -- always a bit weedy -- is almost forming a solid mat (shown above). However, I'm finding that a single Elegant Clarkia seems to have scattered enough seedlings to cover the front if I pull the Phacelia. So I'm expecting quite a bit of weeding, but hoping for a great show of flowers.

On the other side, the same Phacelia mat. 

Here, I'm also planning on pulling quite a few of the plants, and on the right, I'm already uncovering a combination of Tidy Tips and Elegant Clarkia. 

Tidy Tips and Clarkia

Things are even more impressive in the back. Green, green - bring it on!

Annuals in the back garden

As in the front, the baby plants all depend on what lived here before. In some areas, I have seedlings of Baby Blue Eyes (or is that Five Spot?), with a few poppies mixed in. 

Baby Blue Eyes and Poppies

In other areas, I see a mix of Clarkia and Poppies, and in the shade, I'm hoping for Chinese Houses. 

Clakia and Poppies
I admit that I'm looking at the explosion with some trepidation - how much weeding will be necessary to keep the bounty under control? Will it be stunning, or will they all die because they dry out? But then I remind myself of the very bad luck I seem to always have with seedlings in pots (who ate all my Gilia?) and so I think I'll take a chance and see what happens!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Entrance garden bed planting - Coyote mint, Lupines, Bladderpod, and Paintbrush

Today I planted the entrance garden bed. I also planted the old wheelbarrow. Photo from early evening.

It's been a while since I complained about the entrance garden. That's partly because it's starting to look a little better -- but still, it's just a few inches of sandy chaparral soil over something very close to hard-pan. The coffeeberry is barely clinging to life but the wart-leaf ceanothus, Ceanothus papillosus, while just two feet tall, is leafing out. The Artemisia californica is similarly dwarfed but looking much better now. A couple salvias I put in there are giving me cause for hope too.

But after today, all being well, or even 50% being well, I won't have cause to complain any more. With a ton of tough plants a-growing in the greenhouse, and today's slightly warmer temps (mid fifties Fahrenheit) -- and the promise of a bit of rain in the forecast -- I got busy.

Coyote mint, California fuchsia, etc. growing in the greenhouse.

I decided to put in:

  • Lavender bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus), maybe five plants, near the center, since it gets tall.
  • Coyote mint (Monardella villosa), planted several around the edge of the bed in three places.
  • Bladder pod (Peritoma arborea -- it's been renamed from Isomeris arborea), which I grew from seed Ms. Town Mouse kindly suggested I gather in her garden.  
  • Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis probably), along with its companion plants, here and there.

Except the bladder pod, they're all local natives grown from seed gathered one or two generations ago from nearby wild plants.

Paintbrush (slender leaves), with coyote mint. I've also grown it with bush lupine and Torrey's melic grass.

I have to say I'm very enthusiastic about the coyote mint. It grew really well in the south garden - just farther along the side of the house from the entrance garden.

Monardella villosa, coyote mint growing in June 2015 in the south garden. Parent of all the current young plants. I was lucky to find one wild plant I hope to find more wild ones so I can widen the gene pool!

I'm also excited about the bladderpod. A southern native, it can grow up to 5 feet tall. But I don't expect it to achieve such giddy heights in the entrance garden. Here's a picture of the flowers and interesting pods (Wikipedia):

Bladderpod, Cleome isomeris.jpg
"Bladderpod, Cleome isomeris" by Dawn Endico from Menlo Park, California - Bladderpod Uploaded by PDTillman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

Today I had help from a young gardener!

My granddaughter, 4, did a great job as my garden helper today.

She dug, planted, patted, and watered the coyote mint! And all in her special dress and fancy shoes!
All in all I'm pretty happy this evening. I finished off the planting by dousing all the plants in anti-deer spray -- cross fingers!

The bed is looking good! Though if these salvias take off, to say nothing of the little oak seedlings, I may have to transplant them! Too much of a good thing I can deal with.

Of course the big question is whether the paintbrush will survive transplanting. I hope at least a few of them will -- cross toes!