My Garden Today
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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fungal Matters

A majestic mushroom...a type of ectomycorrhizae (Wikipedia)
I've been thinking a lot about fungi lately....fungi and toxins.  I'll get to the toxins at another time, but fungi are very interesting little creatures.  You've heard of mycorrhizae, right?  There has been much chatter in the gardening world of mycorrhizae (pronounced MY-COR-YZA) but many people may not know what exactly mycorrhizae do, what they are and why they're important.  I'll try to quickly sort it out here. 

(First, mycorrihizae aren't plant roots and they aren't exactly fungi, they are the connectors between the two.  For simplicity, I'm treating them here as a unit.  My apologies to all scientific types who find this a disgusting example of a layperson oversimplifying perfectly comprehensible scientific facts.)

We've known about mycorrhizae for a long time.  These little fungal plant pals have been around for millennia.  Some speculate that they were a key factor in moving aquatic plants onto land millions of years ago.  However, advanced research on these plant/fungal relationships is relatively recent, still evolving and may actually save the world (see TED talk below.)

There are many specific types of mycorrhizae.  They are generally categorized into two types depending on how they colonize the roots of a plant; ectomycorrhizae and endomycorrhizae.  Both attach themselves to plant roots which then lengthen the reach of the root well beyond the distance the root can actually extend itself.  The ectos colonize the surface of roots and the endos colonize the cellular layers below the root surface and extend out.   

Ectomycorrhizae (white) on Douglas Fir Roots (Wikipedia) 
Not only do these fungal networks spread long distances but they are tiny and can push into very small soil pores in search of water and nutrients, to places plant roots can't reach.  You thought roots were small?  Well, these little mushrooms are much, much smaller.  Some can only be clearly seen with an electron microscope. But some, like the delicious truffle, are big and much sought after.  Why do the plants allow these little interlopers to invade them?  Because they nourish the plants, water them and protect them from disease.   And, here's the key takeaway point for home gardeners:  They do it so you don't have to.

You may not know it, but you are nurturing a system of mycorrhizal connections in your garden right now.  Yes, right now.  What a good gardener you are!  

There are a couple of ways you can accidentally do damage to this web of fungal plant helpers, so try to avoid doing these couple of things and your plants, trees and shrubs will thank you. 
     1) Don't rototill your soil... as in the good old days of farming. 
         Rototilling basically chops up the fungal networks and it takes them a while to  
         rebuild themselves after the assault. 
     2) Don't dump excess nitrogen or synthetic fertilizers on your plants.  The plants don't
         need their co-dependent little fungi if they have you and they will summarily drop their 
         fungal network in favor of your easy N, so don't be an enabler. 

(By now you may be wondering what the fungi get out of this arrangement...don't worry, they are fairly compensated in the form of carbohydrates, sugar, fed to them by the plant.)

One final point to make about mycorrhizae; they pal around with about 95% of the plant world.  This means that most of the plants in your garden are willing to take their calls, accept their friend request and have dinner with them.  So invite them in!  Don't be shy.  Fungi are your friends. 

One other final point to make about mycorrhizae.  A number of organic soil companies and plant growers (including the most famous of all 'Crafters' of plants) inoculates their growing soils with these fungi.  When you plant one of their plants, you receive the invisible gift of mycorrizhael inoculation for the extra dollars you spend on their plants.  Doesn't that make you feel better about spending over $12 on a 1 gallon plant? 

One other final point, and this is my final, final point.  You can inoculate your existing soil with mycorrizhae.

If you find this subject as endlessly fascinating as I do, take a look at this TED talk.  You will never, ever look at a mushroom the same way again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Edible Landscaping - Part One

The best thing about being a Master Gardener here in Orange County, CA is that a legion of dedicated scientists and professional horticulturists have agreed to embed a bunch of enthusiastic lay-people with their hard-earned (and expensive) scientific knowledge of horticulture, agriculture, plant diseases, insects and soil chemistry for free. How great is that?

Of course, in return we must pledge our gardening souls to the larger community of home gardeners in the form of providing good, science-based gardening information. And we must solemnly promise not to pass on advice gained from well-wishing friends and relatives (As I was advised not too long ago by just one of those well-wishers, 'Simply sprinkle moth balls around your vegetable garden, honey, it'll get rid of those pesky voles and gophers.' Yes, and any aspirations I might have to good health, too. Do not do this! Mothballs are a noxious mix of neurotoxins and carcinogens. Consult with a Master Gardener before taking any advice of this kind.)

So it was with great pleasure that I recently attended an intensive Train the Trainer workshop on Edible Landscaping at UCLA, intended to ready us for our avowed mission to take this valuable knowledge out into the world through seminars, workshops and talks to the general public. (Like the excellent talks given at the Farm and Food Lab at the Great Park in Irvine, run by Master Gardeners. (See this link for more info:

What is Edible Landscaping you ask? One of the most famous and enthusiastic proponents of Edible Landscaping is Rosalind Creasy of Northern California. (Check out her terrific website for more information on her gardens and activities at )

This is her work. Isn't it fantastic? Take a look at the blackberries in full fruit against the climbing rose. Underneath the mirror* are luscious basil plants mixed with geraniums and fuchsia.  Those bold leaves reflected in the mirror are zucchini.  They are harvested near the same time in Northern California, where she lives, and precisely when roses are in full bloom, so this combination may be somewhat fleeting.  But that's one of the great things about edible landscaping - the ability to experiment and change your planting scheme throughout the edible growing season. 

The unusual thing about this combination of edible and ornamental plants is that it is in her front yard!  Not in her backyard, hidden from the neighbors. Not in raised beds relegated to some sunny corner in the back forty. But up front and center in her publicly viewed space, her front yard. This is the essence of Edible Landscaping! Isn't it beautiful?

Most of us have dug colorful and ubiquitous ornamental kale into our front yards which comes in a variety of magenta-purple mixes as well as white. This is a great starter plant, but why stop there? Well, one thing that should stop you, at least temporarily, is a quick analysis of your sunlight, soil and irrigation. If you are a lucky soul and have well draining, loamy soil in full sun make sure you have adequate irrigation for your edible landscape and forge on. If not, you'll likely need to improve your soil at least a little, especially our native California soils, and determine that you have at least 6 hours of sunlight and good availability of water suitable for the needs of the edibles you want to grow. Potable water should always be used on edibles, using grey or reclaimed water isn't recommended since it could introduce pathogens to you and your garden.

Some edibles need less water than others; artichokes and many herbs, for example. Some need less light, but admittedly most need at least 6 hours of solid sunlight to be productive.
Photo: Bonnie Plants
Who knew you could grow artichokes as a foundation plant?  Since they're a perennial they'll come back in successive years, too.

Stay tuned for Edible Landscaping - Part Two:  Fun and Games with Garden Pathogens

(*A side note on the use of mirrors in the landscape...I do worry about the increased use of mirrors placed in the landscape to make small gardens appear larger or to soften a blank wall with reflected greenery. Depending on their finish and placement, they might not be confusing and dangerous for birds, but I've seen a number of fairly large mirrors in the landscape that I just know mean trouble for birds.  So assess your site from a bird's perspective before you introducer a mirror into your landscape.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Plants I've Known and...Killed

I was just reading the following description of  Euphorbia graminea 'Diamond Frost' on the Proven Winners website:

"I want to thank my parents, my breeder, and especially the millions of fans who have made me the Most Award Winning Plant in Proven Winners History. At my 2005 debut I was just a new, 12 -18 inch Proven Winners Euphorbia. I never imagined my career would last. I suppose its because of my annual nature (except in zones 10 11). At first, I thought you liked me solely for my incredible, continuously blooming clouds of airy white flowers. But as I grew in more containers and landscapes across North America, you praised my mounded habit, and how well I tolerate heat and drought. My versatility both as a single and in combinations. Others spoke of how easy I am to grow. In letters you wrote of my ability to stay beautiful without deadheading. And I was deeply touched by your appreciation of my deer resistance.

Without you, I would still be just another plant in the unforgiving world of commercial horticulture.
If I could, I would keep you with me in the full to part shade forever.

"A Real Simple magazine Top 10 goofproof Plant"

Here is a close-up photo:

In the garden it becomes a confetti-like, fluffy mound that is too fantastic for words.

I killed this plant in my own garden.  And it wasn't because winter came and it's an annual since it's not an annual here in Southern California.   There is a distinct possibility I'll try it again if only to prove to myself that I'm not a 'goof.'

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why We Need Wild Nature

This might just be the most beautiful thing ever!  Keep it handy to lift you up when you forget that we're in the midst of this every day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Gifts from the Garden

Zen Frog in Martini Swamp
     This week I'll be helping with a very timely and sure to be fun UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener presentation at Irvine's Great Park entitled 'Gifts from the Garden'.   I was tasked with making up a few small planted containers that could be used as hostess gifts for the coming holiday season. 

Since I'm slightly obsessive and once I get started with this kind of thing I usually end up spending too much money and taking an inordinate amount of time getting it done, I tasked myself with a limit of $10 or less per planted container and only one afternoon spent planting them up.  I tied each of the containers together with a common theme.

When I began, I wasn't sure what I would end up with.  But after prowling my local consignment shop, Michael's craft store and Pier 1 clearance bins, some ideas started taking shape.  The results were surprising, so easy and a number of the containers cost well under my $10 allocation! 

I bought all of my supplies at just a few places.  The plants came from my vacation home, also known as our local nursery, Plant Depot.   I bought a mix of herbs in 4" pots and 6 packs.  There was some landscape fabric lying around our garage which was handy for wrapping the little plants to preserve their soil.  I also needed spaghnum moss, craft tweezers, 20 gauge wire, raffia wrapped wire, pliers, some faux insects (from the craft store's clearance bin), scissors and a glue gun.

Here are the results of an afternoon of planting in the warm fall sun:

1) These two matching wire egg baskets came from the consignment shop.  The planted one features Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus).

Wire Egg Basket Planted with Lemon Thyme

2)   This faux copper pot is planted with Oregano and topped with a toy turkey.  I love all the details on the turkey.  

I wrapped his feet with wire, left a longish piece at the end and poked it into the soil, then covered the top with moss.  It looks like he's sitting in a bed of Oregano!  It took about 15 minutes to make.

This would make a great Thanksgiving hostess gift.  A few of them lined up would be a fun centerpiece on a buffet table.

Faux Copper Pot, Toy Turkey and Oregano
3)  An inexpensive porcelain gravy boat with glass rooster placecard holder planted with Tricolor Sage (Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor') which features purple and olive green leaves with bright white edges.   Fun and whimsical, but elegant, too.

4)  A trip to the beach in a bowl!  The inside edge of this mini goldfish bowl (actually a votive holder) was packed with beach pebbles, found beach glass, some shells and Cilantro.  (The craft store had single metal votive holders on long stems.  I later thought that a little candle would have been a perfect addition to the beach theme, a bonfire!)

Pebbles, Beach Glass, Shells, Moss and Cilantro

5)   A cheerful red teapot with Lemon Verbena and floating butterflies on swirly stems.  This is where the glue gun came in.  Scrapbook butterflies were glued to raffia wrapped craft wire.

6)  These two little lidded tins in metal and bright red reminded me of compost bins.  I put Chives in one and Cilantro in the other and added a couple of butterflies.  One on red wire and one on silver wire.  The result is kind of silly and whimsical.  Fun for a fall garden party as party favors or with guest's names at place settings.

One thing to note:  All of these containers are somewhat ephemeral.  The herbs are meant to be taken home and planted in a garden or pot.  Although some of the containers would make better long term homes than others (you could pre-drill drainage holes in the teapot bottom, for example) most of them are just too small and lacking in drainage to make good homes for long.

Still, with this caveat to the hostess or party-goer, these planted pots would make a fun and functional addition to a holiday table.   Bon appetit!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Irrational Exuberance

Trycyrtis hirta just emerging in the Spring
     Almost three years ago we moved from New York state back to California.  While living in Long Island's Zone 7 I discovered and fell in love with a few plants that really should probably stay in the damp, woodlands of coastal New York; Epimedium, Callicarpus, Japanese Painted Fern.   A few of them I just couldn't give up forever so I've mail ordered and imported them to an appropriate (or so I tell myself) north-facing, shady microclimate in my Southern California side yard. 

As I set about recreating little vignette reminders of my New York garden I am wondering if it is all worth it.

Today, one of my very favorite plants, Trycyrtis hirta, is in bloom after a yearlong battle with slugs, fungus, dry rot, wet rot, locusts, asps and invading foreign armies.

You tell me...Here is what I saw when I went outside to inspect it this morning. 

It is covered in these stunning little spotted flowers.  It's still just a baby, only two years old, so it hasn't yet grown into its full size or arching habit. 

Part of me - a big part - says, YES!  It is worth it!  Just to be able to admire this complex and beautiful thing created by Mother Nature (for no real purpose that I can discern, except perhaps as a snail Chateauneuf de Pape) makes it worth it.  It really is the most remarkable flower I think I've ever seen.  It's like a tiny orchid, but better.  The closer you look at it, the more complex it gets.

So, my next quandary is....Is this worth it?

Another tiny baby plant, from Heronswood Nursery in Washington State, Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight', aka False Hydrangea.  It will one day - and here is the irrational exuberance again - enshroud the stark whitish property line wall (as viewed from our dining room) with a dense cloak of shining silver green leaves and glowing white Lacecap Hydrangea-like flowers. 

Not next week, not even next year, but eventually...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Texture in the Fall Garden

Nasella tenuissima, Pittosporum Creme de Mint
and mossy fountain
It has slowly been dawning on me all summer that texture is supplanting color as a more interesting element in my garden.    Maybe it's becoming apparent now because in the midst of a very slow, gentle Southern California autumn, there is no fall color, not really, and it wasn't that long ago that I was awash in color at this time of year.   

Every once in a while, usually from the freeway, I'll glimpse what might be a deciduous tree with a shimmer of fall color.  Not often, though.  The blueberries that I feel compelled to grow in our alkaline soil have vivid red tips.   I'm not sure if this is fall color or their silent expression of reproach at being planting down here where they don't really belong.
Norway Maple leaves blanket
the ground

Either way, this small shaft of color in no way compares to the stunning oranges, reds and yellows which would fill the sky overhead and eventually blanket the ground at my former home on Long Island, New York.  

So maybe this is why I am lately noticing subtle and not so subtle texture contrasts all over my garden; summer flowers are mostly gone and as I search for some change to signal the passing season I find texture in lieu of fall color.

From this angle, I admire the texture of wispy Coleonema beside chunky Coleus lanuginosa beside a splash of Liriope beside old fashioned Cast Iron Plant. Each calmly asserting their form, much more gently than would a Sumac or Dogwood as their emerald chlorophyll slowly ebbs away.
It's really in the fall that the garden starts to come alive in California.  As the weather cools and the rains start to sprinkle or pour all the accumulated salts are washed from the soil and the plants are renewed. 

A contrast of scale; my newly beloved (as I have set up colonies all over my garden!) Coleus lanuginosa (really a Plectranthus) with Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' sans the mauve.
The Coleus (I know...for goodness sake, enough with the Coleus!) with our native groundcover Coyote Mint 'Pigeon Point' with the ever-present and armageddon-proof Rhaphiolepis 'Clara'.

My hope is that the Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis) is ornery enough (it is a clay tolerant, dry summer loving California native after all) to compete with the polite, but relentless Coleus.  I'd like it to weave its way through the coleus as a dainty contrast to the succulent, waxy leaves.

And to end the way I began with a contrast of stone against  plant:  Aztec man, purchased at a Long Island antique market, and very content to be relocated to the West Coast, nestled in a bed of Dianthus 'Ichmery'
(Annies Annuals in Richmond, CA.)