baccharis season

Baccharis in seed medium view

This has been one of the most spectacular years I can remember for coyote bush brush, Baccharis pilularis.

Hillside with baccharis pilularis with seed

With many plants still dormant from a long season with no rain, the perky green baccharis with their over the top heads of white seeds stand out. They look especially amazing with the sun behind them, lighting up the masses of seed.

Baccharis seedhead

Here’s a closeup of a stem swarming with seeds…

Fuzzy baccharis seedhead

…looking closer…

Baccharis seed detail

…and closer still. You can see here that the seeds are attached to the white parachutes that give the plants their white color this time of year in the wilds. These photos were taken in Tecolote Canyon, a few blocks from my house, this past Friday, one day before our first measurable rainfall in 164 days knocked many of these seeds off the plants.

Coyote bush brush is sometimes used in native gardens, occasionally in this upright form, but more often in its prostrate Central California coastal form. The selections ‘Pigeon Point’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ are fairly popular. But if you grow the these selections you’ll find that only male plants are used horticulturally, meaning you’ll miss out on this display of seed heads that can begin in late summer and last until the winds and rains disperse them.

Male baccharis

For contrast, this is a boy coyote bush brush, sturdy and green with no supplemental water here near the coast. The buckwheats and sage and sagebrush have all retreated to their dormant gray late summer coloration all around him.

Male baccharis closup

And a closeup of his dried flowers. Nothing nearly so spectacular as his sisters this time of year. But he’s got one advantage in that he’s not filling the air with parachutes of seed blowing everywhere like his messy sisters.

Male or female, coyote bush brush plays host to more interesting beneficial local bugs than you’ll see on almost any other plant. I’ll be starting some of these from seed this year in hopes of getting one of these spectacularly messy female plants. Down-wind four houses from me is the canyon, so seed dispersal shouldn’t be a problem.

For further reading: In Praise of Baccharis pilularis, at Town Mouse and Country Mouse.

when plants collide

Agave attenuata colliding with tree aloes

Fifteen years I’ve been waiting for this plant to bloom. Fifteen years. And now that it’s blooming it throws its big bloom stalk into a tangle of two tree aloes growing together in what’s now a big three-plant smashup.

The flowering plant is Agave attenuata, the foxtail agave. Native to higher elevations in Mexico, it’s supposedly fairly rare where it originates. But in zone 10 and 9b-plus Southern California gardens it’s fairly common, with several gardens in every block of my neighborhood having one or more plants.

Many agaves, including the local native Shaw’s agave, Agave shawii, come armed with attractive but sharp spines. But A. attenuata is as soft and friendly a succulent as you’ll ever meet, and that’s one of its big appeals for home gardens. Another bonus is that it requires no supplemental watering in gardens near the coast.

Almost all of the agave species will bloom once and then die (monocarpy). Fortunately one plant of this species will have many rosettes, with only the blooming rosette dying back, leaving the rest to bloom in future seasons.

Agave attenuata with maturing bloom spike

At this point the stalk is taller than I am and is starting to grow downward in a thick arc.

Agave attenuata flower stalk with buds

The individual blooms are still closed up for business. Soon, though, the individual greenish white flowers will open up a few at a time, beginning at the base of the inflorescence and then slowly moving towards the end.

Agave attenuata at the neighbors

Here’s a plant at a neighbor’s house in full bloom last winter so that you can see what the agave does when it isn’t busy running into other plants. Very graceful, don’t you think?

I wish the flowering stem hadn’t collided with the aloes. The stalk is assertive and solid so that there’s no staking it or coaxing it out of harm’s way. Oh well. I can sit back and enjoy the flowering, even if the flowers aren’t in the place where I’d like them.

Anything that you have to wait fifteen years for it to bloom isn’t going to be the most convenient of species.

a visit to recon native plants

Weekend before last my native plant society organized a little propagation workshop that was hosted by Recon Native Plants. One of the sessions focused on growing plants from seed, another on propagating from cuttings. I’ve done a bit of both, though my success with seeds definitely outshines any luck with growing anything from cuttings. My main take-away for the cuttings session was to try to take the cuttings early in the morning, when the plants are least dried out. I’ll be giving that a try and sharing whatever successes or failures that that leads to.

My favorite part of the morning was a chance to tour the nursery and see a large wholesale operation dedicated to propagating California and Southwestern natives. Recon Mountain of PotsIn my little backyard-garden world I’m used to seeing a few plants in pots sitting around, waiting to be planted. To visit such a big facility is to see the world in a different way. Here’s an artfully arranged mountain of gallon pots filled with soil mix being planted with little artemesias. I’ll never complain again about having to pot up a half dozen transplants. Continue reading a visit to recon native plants

out with the old

Feathergrass in the ground

This will be the year that I finally win the battle against Mexican feathergrass, the blogger said optimistically. I doubt that I’ll be seeing the end of this beautiful but wildly overprolific grass any time soon, but I’ve completed pulling all the parent plants in the garden. With the source of seeds removed, the hundreds of unwanted seedlings that I have to pull up every year should diminish.

Feathergrass seedlings under sage

So how bad was the feathergrass problem? Here’s a shot underneath a black sage in the back yard, no closer than seventy-five feet from the nearest adult feathergrass plant capable of setting seed. The seed just blew downwind and set up household in the sheltered germinating conditions in the shade of the sage. Other areas of the garden will look like this when the rains begin again and all the banked seed begins to germinate. I hate to think that these might get to the local urban canyon, four houses away.

My relationship with Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima) started off in the early 1990s. Like most people who’ve planted it, I saw it at the nursery with its stalks weaving delicately in its beguiling come-hither way and fell in love. I bought two.

At first things between us went well. The grasses spread a bit, but the thought of free plants were a real bonus. I even gave plants away.

Though prolific, the plant isn’t currently listed as an invasive species on the master Cal-IPA inventory, but appears on a 2007 list of nominated species. It’s clear from some of the comments on a Fresh Dirt posting that it’s a growing problem in some areas, my neighborhood included.

Feathergrass in the trash

Yes, the stuff is gorgeous. But too high maintenance and potentially problematic in my area. It’s time for us to part ways.

So how will I get my fix for delicate, feathery grasses? This year has been my first time growing the native Aristida purpurea, purple three-awn, a species that’s found locally. The plant is shorter than the common feathergrass, which might be a bonus, depending on your garden situation. And unlike the nassella it has a decidedly purple color to it while it’s growing–very nice. I’ll post photos once my plants get a little bigger. I have no idea if it’ll be the same issue of the plant volunteering all over the garden, though I doubt it. Even if it escapes to the wilds, it’ll be in the company of others of its species. Not a problem.

pining for the fjords

Pining deerweed 2

Pining deerweed

Dead plants? Or are these just resting, pining for the fjords?

I suffer from that mix of laziness, lack of time and unrealistic expectations that will let me leave a dead plant in the ground longer than it probably should stay in a home garden that is trying to look presentable to the neighbors. Sometimes I’ll even water a dead plant, knowing I’m wasting my water, but secretly hoping that there might just be the least chance the plant isn’t really gone.

A few new plants in the garden don’t survive the initial transplant. I still find myself underestimating the water needs of a new plant. Aloe rootsJust because it’s “drought-tolerant” doesn’t mean it will take to its new dry home in the garden without enough water to get a proper root system established outside the confines of the little nursery containers. The plants above, two of the five deerweeds I planted this year, probably didn’t make it for that reason. It probably didn’t help that the smaller of the two plants was set into a bed where nearby plants had established a root system already and would likely steal away any water I gave the new plant. This picture shows some of the competing roots.

Pining mimulus

Dead Salvia cacaliaefolia

Other plants just seem to…die. Here’s an ex-monkey flower to the left. Maybe it was lack of water in its second year. Maybe it didn’t like its spot. And the plant to the right is my Guatamalan blue, the ivy-leaved sage, Salvia cacaliaefolia. No mystery with this one. It was getting way too big, and I pruned it ridiculously hard in late July or August. Killed it. There was a bit of green left as recently as a month ago, and this plant being a sage probably would have rooted if I’d stuck one of the green bits in some cutting mix. But I dozed. Dead plant.

Isomeris arborea back from the dead

But every now and then something like this happens. I’d planted this bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) in the late winter and kept it watered. It seemed to be hanging on okay but wasn’t a fast grower. Then a colony of some insects I’d never seen before descended overnight and seemed to be reproducing a new generation. In the process they stripped most of its leaves. The plant quickly dropped what few leaves were left and I wrote it off as dead. In a weird way I thought of its demise as a success story: The native plant provided food and shelter for one of the less usual visitors to the garden. Only in the course of things I thought the plant had perished. Bummer.

But here it is three months later, leafed out, waiting for the rains to come. With success stories like this I’m reluctant to give up on the plants in the other photos, but I think their time has come.

november garden bloggers bloom day

Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’ would be in every month’s bloom day posting because it never has stopped blooming for me since it went into the ground two years ago. The plants are getting huge and taking more than their share of the garden, and I’ll have to admit that they’re on my list of flowers that I’m almost tired of seeing. But because of these plants, the hummingbirds are a constant presence in the back yard. I’d hate to do anything rash like remove their favorite year-round source of nectar.

A while back I had to find out what it was about these plants that was so appealing. I took one of the flowers and popped it into my mouth. A tiny hit of flavor, faint but sweet, registered on my tongue. Pretty tasty if you’re a bird addicted to nectar. But I wondered if I was pimping my neighborhood birds with sugar water in the way a busy suburban parent might keep their kids supplied with gallons of soda.

Some other plants that are in the “I’m almost sick and tire of seeing them all the time” category: Salvia nemerosa ‘Snow Hills,’ Gaillardia pulchella, and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ They’re all in the gallery of flowers below.

The season also brings some new blooms to the fall garden: Oxalis bowiei, Protea Pink Ice, Camellia sasanqua ‘Cleopatra,’ lemongrass, and the plant formerly known as Lessingia filanginifolia var. californica (now relabeled as Corethrogyne filaginifolia var. californica). And then there are the sporadic bloomers. You can’t set your calendar by them, but they’re nice to have around. Hover over any image below for their name.

Happy Bloom Day, and thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting this monthly online garden party.

defensive boots

It’s a dangerous time out there for California garden bloggers. One of them just had a run-in of a thumb and a chipper-shredder, though fortunately with an outcome way short of what you’d see towards the end of Fargo. Fargo Snowglobe(If you don’t know Fargo, here’s the snowglobe that came with the deluxe collector’s letterboxed edition VHS tape which mirrors the tone of the film perfectly. It memorializes the infamous chipper-shredder scene where Trooper Marge Gunderson comes upon the criminal trying to dispose of his latest victim. When shaken, the snow in the globe is tainted with little red flakes. Magical…)

Another blogger broke her arm, taking her away from posting for a while.

Not to be left out, a little over a month ago, while working on my house repair project, I ended up stepping into a pile of scrap wood that happened to have a big spikey nail that was pointing straight up out of one of the boards. My work shoes–some battered old Skecher tennies that were hip in the late 1990s–were no match for the nail and…you know the rest. I’m perfectly fine now, but two days of painkillers and the week of crutches were no fun.

New boots 2

I really should have better shoes for working outside, I thought after the little accident. And this weekend I finally got around to replacing my unsafe and ugly tennies.

So here they are: some industrial Timberland workboots with steel toes and puncture-resistant soles. They weigh as much as a small sack of potatoes but are surprisingly comfortable.

So was this overkill for working outside and around the garden? They should be great for forcing a shovel into the patches of the garden where the earth is seriously hardpan clay. But they’re definitely nothing to wear when trying to weave gingerly through a bed of new seedlings. I haven’t had a chance to plant anything over the last couple of days, and I haven’t had a need to finesse my way around tiny little plants. But I think I’ll like them and that I’ll actually wear them gardening.

Scooter in shoebox

Whatever the verdict, one member of the household is already happy. Here’s Scooter, who doesn’t give a hoot about my new boots. But every new pair of shoes that enters the house means that there’ll be a shoebox accompanying them. The cat approves.

looking like spring again

November plum blossoms

I was confused the other day. Walking by the young plum tree, I noticed this. Flowers? In November? Apparently the plum was confused too.

After the long summer doldrums a lot in the garden is finally showing signs of waking up from its long nap. Some plants are showing new growth, others are blooming–even blooming when you don’t expect them to.

November narcissus

These paperwhite narcissus are a reliable indicator of the cooling days and nights ahead.

November Protea Pink Ice

Protea ‘Pink Ice’ coexists with the most xeric plants in the garden and stays a resilient green all year. Beginning in the fall this big shrub begins its flowers. This will go on all winter and into the spring.

November Salvia clevelandii

Salvia clevelandii‘s main flowering happens in the spring. But given the right conditions–a little supplemental water doesn’t seem to hurt–it can throw a few more flowers in the fall.

November Salvia spathacea

Ditto for Salvia spathacea. Sometimes a lot is made of the repeat-flowering abilities of some of the natives. With these two, the spring flowerings are always way more stunning, and you’ll never confuse spring for fall. But as reminders of the late winter and spring flowers ahead, they’re terrific.

November ceanothus

Another seasonally confused plant is this groundcover ceanothus. I’m only slowly now coming around to this genus. Groundcover versions like you see in the Burger King parking lot (think C. griseus ‘Yankee Point’) were all I saw for decades, but I’ve been trying to pay more attention to what other ceanothus have to offer. This one, unfortunately, is one of the Burger King-type varieties: low, flat, green all year on a low-to-moderate amount of water. It’s so inert and emphatically green it reminds me of plastic. I may never come to love this type, but fortunately there are other plants in the genus that do very different things.

November dendromecon

My campus is incorporating more natives into the landscaping, and all these photos of natives, from the salvias, down, come from an afternoon walk yesterday afternoon. Here a young plant of one of the dendromecons (either D. rigida or D. harfordii) provides an airy cloud of yellow.

November Heuchera

…and nearby one of the heucheras celebrates its spot in half-sun with occasional irrigation.

A few flowers, for sure. But it’s not really spring. We’ll need the rains to begin for that to happen.

“satisfactory germination”

ceanothus-leucodermis-flowers

Last spring’s trip to the Santa Ysabel Preserve introduced me to chaparral whitethorn in full bloom. This plant, Ceanothus leucodermis, has a reputation for being a touchy garden subject. But seeing its pale blue flowers set off against a plant with glowing white bark made me want to see if I might be able to grow it where I live, two thousand feet lower in elevation and much nearer the coast.

I was intrigued when the Theodore Payne seed listing offered it. One seed packet might give me several plants to try for not too much expense. Maybe one of the plants would end up in the spot in the garden that would make it happy.

Dara Emery book cover

The first challenge you face when a packet of seeds arrive is to get them to germinate. I was afraid that a plant that’s hard to grow might also be difficult to germinate, so I went to Dara Emory’s handy resource, Seed Propagation of California Native Plants for assistance. There she recommends two special treatments for the seed: boiling water treatment, followed by 1-3 months of stratification. But there was a sentence that made the process sound easier than that: “Hot water only may give satisfactory germination.”

The tinkerer in me took that as an opportunity to conduct another little garden experiment. I divided the seeds into three lots. Most went right back into the packet they came it–It was way too many seeds for me to contemplate dealing with, even if the germination rate was spotty.

I poured a small quantity of rapidly boiling water on the other two seed batches. Dousing with boiling water ordinarily would kill many living things. The first time you do it with seeds, it’s an act that you carry out trusting those who went before you, even as the act itself seems counterintuitive and reckless.

The ceanothus seeds made strange crackling noises when the hot water hit. They have incredibly hard seed coverings, so the crackling was the sound of the seed coats being breached. I let the water cool, and then placed most of the experimental subjects in moist peat moss, and wrapped them up in a ziploc bag for some hibernation in the veggie crisper drawer of the fridge. I saved out nine seeds which escaped the refrigerator treatment. Those went straight into seedling mix in pots that I kept watered on the floor of my unheated greenhouse, which is pretty close to being placed in a a bright spot outdoors.

That was August 1, and within 3 weeks I was beginning to see sprouting seeds. Considering that I could probably make space for three or so plants, this definitely constituted “satisfactory germination.”

I guess I was so happy with the seeds that didn’t receive cold treatment that I forgot about the seeds in the fridge. When I finally checked on them a month ago practically every seed had sprouted and was showing long green seed leaves reaching for a sun that didn’t exist in the refrigerator.

Ceanothus leucodermis seedlings

Now with all these seedlings I’m feeling like I’m running a botanical puppy mill. What will I do with all these plants? Of course, I doubt all of them will survive. (What culture was it where children were only named after they had reached their first birthday?) But there will be a few more plants than I’ll need.

Well, I suppose I could donate the spares to next year’s native plant society’s sale–but that’s not until October of 2010. And I could see if any of the members might be interested in swapping for some of their own spare plants hat I’d be interested in…

halloween hostess bouquet

What do you take to the Halloween party when you know the hosts will have everything taken care of?

Hostess present of sarracenia pitchers

Here’s my solution for tonight: a bouquet of carnivorous plant pitchers from the backyard bog garden. Shown here are two Sarrecenia leucophyllas, S. alata, and the hybrid S. Judith Hindle.

It was either those or a bloom of the stinking corpse flower, which unfortunately is between flowers. Besides, it’s probably better etiquette, even on Halloween, to show up with a bouquet of pretty but slightly creepy pitchers than a mammoth blossom that smells like carrion…

an artist loosed in a garden