Tag Archives: pruning

the gloriously messy coyote bush

The coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) that I grew from wild-collected seed a few years ago is now a pretty major heap of greenery, something on the order of ten feet tall and even wider. The plant is a reliable, bright green, informal background shrub that asks for almost no water. Insects appreciate its late-season flowers for nectar when few other natives offer nectar on the menu.

Coyote bush seed litter, floating
Coyote bush seed litter, floating
Coyote bush seed litter--stuck on doormat. It can get everywhere...
Coyote bush seed litter–stuck on a doormat. It can get everywhere…

Coyote bushes are either male or female, though almost all cultivars sold in nurseries are male plants, for reasons about to become obvious. Also, the most commonly-grown versions of this plant around here are the low-mounding groundcover forms like ‘Pigeon Point.’ My plant is a female, and beginning in November or so it also puts out an enormous quantity of seeds that are attached to a fluffy white structure called a pappus. The plant makes so many of these seed structures that the branches look like they’re covered with snow. And when the wind blows, these seeds float poetically on the breezes the way dandelion seeds do. (Both the dandelion and coyote bush hail from the ginormous daisy family of plants.) But the poetry stops and the cursing begins when the seeds land and you have coyote seedlings everywhere in the garden. I kid you not when I say that I pulled well over a thousand of these seedlings from around the garden just this past spring. These things are prolific.

Snow- (and endless maintenance-) on-a-stick
Snow- (and Maintenance-) on-a-stick

The last couple of years I’ve been giving the plant a good trimming before the seed production gets too out of hand. I didn’t get to the task this year until a week ago, after the plant had already begun broadcasting its seed. Doing it in early to mid-November would have been ideal. The plant doesn’t mind the haircut, and by the beginning of spring you can hardly tell the plant has been pruned.

Cutting back the coyote bush trimmings--One way to reduce the amount of seed litter
Coyote Bush trimmings–One way to reduce the amount of seed litter

We can let wild plants into our gardens, but we often exert at least some level of control to make “nature” conform to the needs of a city garden. Now that I’ve lived with the mess and maintenance the last few years, I think that it’s time to pot up a half dozen or so seedlings and select for a male plant to replace this gloriously messy female. I’ll miss the late-autumn “snowfall,” but not the pruning and weeding. Sometimes what works really well in nature doesn’t transition so well into our little cultivated plots of land.

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.

trimming leaves

Here’s a little plant-tidying tip that I picked up years ago. If you have sword-shaped leaves that have died on their ends, instead of chopping off the ends blunt and square, trim them into a pointed shape using very sharp pruning shears or scissors. This gives you a more natural shape to what’s left.

If someone looks really closely they won’t be fooled by your handiwork, but it’ll draw less attention than if you’d just lopped off the brown tips.

Leaf with dead tips before pruning

Leaf after trimming

the snake path

I just wrote about Robert Irwin’s terrific artwork in the UCSD Stuart collection. The collection has another piece that I like, Alexis Smith’s Snake Path, from 1992.

From the collection’s page on the artist:

Smith’s work for the Stuart Collection alludes to the complex relationship between nature and culture or, in the context of the university, between knowledge and the landscape. Her Snake Path consists of a winding 560-foot-long, 10-foot-wide footpath tiled in the form of a serpent whose head ends at the terrace of the Central Library. The tail wraps around an existing concrete pathway as a snake would wrap itself around a tree limb. Along the way, the serpent’s slightly rounded body passes a monumental granite book carved with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The snake then circles around a small tropical garden representing Eden. These pointed allusions to the biblical conflict between innocence and knowledge mark an apt symbolic path to the university’s main repository of books. The concept of finding sanctuary within oneself – outside the idealistic and protected confines of the university – speaks directly to the student on the verge of entering the “real world.”

Here’s their official overview picture of the work:

And here are some snapshots from a walk there last week, first a closeup of the hexagonal slate tiles that make up the snake’s “scales”:


…and here are a couple shots of Eden, maybe not exactly “tropical,” as described, but a lush planting that contrasts to the surrounding native vegetation:



The plants in “Eden” are plants that have biblical references or those that somehow look like they’d belong in an eden. In the two pictures above you can see how the Italian cypresses have been pruned in a way that to me recalls some of the plants in the background of Leonardo’s 1470s Annunciation, now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:


So…you can study garden books on how to prune a plant–or you can study a painting by Leonardo da Vinci!