Jul 21, 2010

Summer Flower Superstar

Since there were some comments in my last post about the inevitable summer senescence of the native garden, I wanted to highlight a summer flowerer that I'm newly delighted with. Madia elegans. I'd read that it was a good for summer flowering, so bought three in 4" pots last fall. Then off to Yosemite I went for a little birthday treat, and when I came back I discovered I'd misjudged how much water the little pots would need while I was gone. Two of the three were toast, but I planted the survivor, and though it looked pretty sad, it hung on through the winter. Then I totally forgot about it!  Its foliage was pretty inconspicuous as the annuals started growing around it. Then right about when the last of the Clarkias were finishing up and I was feeling a bit sad to see the color go, I spotted a bud on a very tall stalk in among the Clarkias. It actually took me a minute to remember, Oh yeeaaah, that's that Madia that's supposed to bring summer color. Within a few days it was. That was a few weeks ago, and it's still going strong.  In the mid-day, the sun hits it full-on, and the flowers completely close up. Then when the evening shade moves over the plant, back out the sunny flowers come. On a sunny but not-too-hot day, the petals sort of semi-curl and look like they're getting ready to keel, but then they freshen right up again in the evening.

The plant is quite delightful, about 4.5 feet tall, narrow and sturdy.  It is is common throughout most of the state, and couldn't be easier once you get it in the ground. I hadn't watered  at all this year till I just ran the drip for a little while this weekend, and I think this plant would be fine whether I had done that or not. I plan to get several more this fall (and not kill them) and intersperse them here and there.

Jul 19, 2010

The Clarkia Clearcut

This weekend I finally cleared out the crusty remains of annual wildflowers that make the yard so showy in the spring, occasionally causing people on their daily constitutionals to stop and point and say nice things. (Full credit goes to the flowers themselves--it's not like I can take credit for letting a few annuals go to seed.) But that breathtaking season is long over, and I worry that people who aren't familiar with the concepts of California native gardening might think the yard is just a case of another homeowner who plants a spring garden, has enormous success for a little while, only to slack off and let it fail miserably. I actually have been that person in the past. These days though, it's a case of the plants doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

This is the second summer of the post-Ivy War era, and the second time I have, let's face it, let the annuals run amok. It does make for a spectacular spring, but they end up choking other things.  I refer to the corner yard as the Clarkia Forest in the spring though it is dotted with other flowers. But during the Clarkias' heyday, I spotted a poor Allium unifolium, which had gamely reproduced itself over its first year, but it was weak and pathetic, due to smothering by annuals. I also found a Monardella villosa, which is a great plant to have, what with its compact size and relatively late flowering schedule, but it too was nearly dead because of shading by annuals. So this coming fall, I really must steal myself to cull the volunteers. I've never had the heart to before, but sparing too many annual seedlings equals sacrificing other plants.  I had planned to simply spare myself the onslaught of fall seedlings by cutting down the stalks before most of the seeds dispersed--but time gets away from a person. The seed capsules were definitely in full dispersal mode.

Here's a pictorial progression of the Clarkia Forest.

While I am loathe to show my dorky self here, this picture surreptitiously taken by my Sweetie, does show a sort of carpet of small Clarkias in front of me, just in front of my handful of weeks. This is in mid-March.

Note the taller plant on the leftmost part of the above photo, which is white sage. Below is the same spot in the yard photographed a bit over two months later. The white sage is again on the left of the photo, but all you can see of it is its white-flowered stalks; as you can see, the wildflowers grew right up too.

This is the stage where passersby stop and ask the names of various flowers.

And then this weekend, well overdue for a tidying-up. Fortunately I have very mellow, tolerant neighbors.

And finally, a shot after the clearing. I spread a little bark, which I normally don't, because I always read that one mustn't ever let the crowns of natives be covered, and I fear the bark will slump downslope and encroach on said crowns, but I couldn't resist, because it creates a more cared-for look. It also covers up the drip irrigation tubing, which became alarmingly visible after the dead-plant removal.  I'm pretty happy with the "after" look--it seems reasonably classic California.

There is some color yet to come.  There is a lot of Solidago californica (goldenrod) in there, only one stalk of which is starting to bud.

I do have a bit of trouble with this plant being leggy and floppy, unfortunately. But also, various buckwheats are blooming strong, and the pearly everlasting (Gnaphalium californicum) will keep its dry whitish flowers on for a long time. The fuchsias (Epilobium) will be in full bloom later--not highlighted in this photo shoot, but I have a couple tucked here and there, old standbys that they are.  Aster will bloom later too. So, the color continues in some measure, but even if it didn't, I'm fine with just letting the yard rest. Summer is about relaxing, after all.

Jul 12, 2010

Four Seasons in One Hike

When I lived in San Francisco I used to love going running with the Crowded House song "Four Seasons in One Day" on my iPod (which of course hadn't been invented yet and was really a crude little device we called a "walkman"), because no matter where in the city I chose to run, I would seem to travel through at least four seasons. It struck me hiking near my current East Bay home this weekend that the situation was similar, even though the temperature and relative humidity stayed pretty constant. Looking around though, I could indeed see samples of each of the four seasons, at least as we identify them in California.

The weather has been unseasonably cool this summer, even cool enough that my non-heat-loving Sweetie has been agreeing to hike with me--so I'm going to cheat a little and call this the hike's representative of winter. Also, cresting a large hill, a westward vista revealed a blanket of fog stretching itself along the coast toward Mount Tam and I knew all too well what it felt like for the people under it. There is a famous saying, often (but I've heard erroneously) attributed to Mark Twain: "The worst winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."  So I count that fog sighting as winter and summer both.

Then right underfoot I came across one, then another, impressive and stunning patch of Clarkias. I think it must be Clarkia affinis. The first is in semi-woodland, mixed with monkey flower, and the second is on completely exposed and sun-baked grassland. Its bloom time seems similar to Clarkia amoena, or Farewell to Spring, so it's natural to find it here in early summer. But as you can see by some of the photographed yet-to-unfurl buds, it's stretching its bloom time well, well into summer. I find it such a marvel that it manages to bring itself into existence among the nearly impenetrable mat of weedy grasses--all now crispy and dry as straw, another unmistakable emblem of the California summer.

I love the way the Clarkia petals catch the sunlight, like little chalices, and look so frail and dainty, even as one glance around the parched surroundings  proves that they are in fact tough as nails.


For comparison, here is Clarkia amoena in my yard a couple months ago. I think the garden conditions might cause it to be a bit exuberant, and also the nurseries might tinker around with the gene pool a bit. Honestly? I like the rugged, no-frills little Clarkia in nature better.

Another cheerful and willing bloomer on the dry and sun-drenched path is my old friend Grindelia stricta. Last summer I grew this guy in my yard, but wrote that I had to evict it because it just got too crazy. I had gumplants upwards of six feet in height; here in its natural home (a mere 2 miles away) it stays about knee-high, It's a cheery treat near the top of this hike's biggest climb, and it manages to bloom in spring and then way into summer. When I run this trail in the hot months, it's like a reward for making it to the top.

Next spring-summer spanning plant is Gnaphalium californicum. I am newly a huge fan. I have it in my yard for the first time this spring and have adored how it looks like little white lights among everything else. Up in the hills it grows in great patches and is at its most glistening and impressive now. In a few weeks, it will dry out but will remain quite lovely for a long time--hence its common moniker, Pearly Everlasting. On this hike, I see it in both stages.

Fresh spring look:

Mid-summer look:

Another spring flowerer I see soldiering on everywhere I look is good old monkey flower, Mimulus aurantiacus. In somewhat shaded areas on my hike, this plant looks as fresh as it must have in April. In my yard, it's pretty well gone into dormancy. I don't really know why all these plants I'm mentioning last longer in their natural homes than they do in my yard. Not like anyone's watering them out on the trail.

The fourth season, which I haven't got to yet, fall, is quite visible on much of the monkey flower, however. I find it so stunning to see the leaves turning scarlet, even as the yellow flowers are still fresh and bright.

What a lovely fall palette. And not too early, for us Californians. I find it pretty typical of the poison oak to be donning its scarlet wardrobe right about this time.

Another dazzlingly red denizen of this particular woodland is the spiny Ribes--it's not the speciosa that so many people put in their yards; I think it may be Ribes californicum or menziesii. At any rate, it's getting dressed for fall.  The monkey flower, poison oak and Ribes know what some of us don't want to admit yet: fall is right around the corner.


Hike location: http://www.ebparks.org/parks/sobrante_ridge

Jul 5, 2010

Managing the Snake Menace

I mentioned a few months ago that I've been letting my little feline friend of friends come out in the garden with me, but that I was a little worried it would give him a chance to have a reptilian encounter of the venomous variety. I wrote that post in March and my little snake-in-the-grass meadow region has gone from being a dense green patch, to a globe-gilia-packed thicket, to the cut-back, semi-dormant little plot that it is now. Here's the progression, taken from roughly the same spot, in mid-March, mid-May and this morning:  


As you can see,  there's plenty of visible ground in between the grass bunches now. And yet I'm more nervous than ever about the possibility of witnessing a Cat v. Rattler Smackdown in my back yard, mainly because it is high snake season, so I sent an email to Gary Bogue, the local newspaper's fantastic and heroic animal-advocate columnist.  Here is my letter with Gary's reply, followed by two great reader responses (the responses are a little way into each column):




It looks like the majority opinion is that there isn't a huge risk but there is some, so the best bet is to keep the fuzzy would-be explorer indoors. But people who give that advice haven't heard the howls of a cat that has been given a taste of the outdoors and then had it taken away, so I'm still going out with him daily. He's not exploring the whole world but he's allowed to investigate most of the yard on his leash while I'm nearby. Meanwhile, I'm working with little Miss Skittish Kitty to try to get her to let me put the leash on her so that she can go out and spare me her howls.

Back to the grass patch. This year it was unbelievably dense with Globe Gilia (Gilia capitatum). I haven't quite reached the point that I refer to any native wildflower as a weed, but man that flower does seed itself around! Next year I'm going to try to keep it at bay a bit, and try to mix in more Silene laciniata, Linanthus grandiflorus and Linum lewisii instead.  Here are those flowers, in that order, taken from elsewhere in the yard today:


I think they'd do a good job of dressing up the meadow patch, because they take up very little space, but add sweet little spots of color--red, white and blue, no less. And they flower well into the summer. The Silene seems to flower all summer, and I had a volunteer Linanthus in the ground last year that punched out flowers till August. This is my first year with the native flax (Linum lewisii), but it's still flowering where I have it in pots. (I do have one in the meadow, but it seems to be done blooming, probably because I haven't bothered to splash it with occasional water.)

The two grasses in the meadow are Festuca rubra 'Pt. Molate' and Koelaria macrantha, or June Grass. The latter will stay bunchy, but the fescue will spread, presumably into a lawn alternative if desired. I haven't decided yet whether that is desired. I may pull it up as it spreads, in order to preserve some open space and keep the snake menace in check better. It's also nice to leave some open ground space for the birds to scuffle around on.

If anyone has any experience with meadow gardening in snakeville--and especially if anyone has any knowledge about how cats relate to snakes--I'd love to hear from you! I recognize that one of the goals of native gardening is to help wildlife, and I accept that some of that wildlife happens to have poison in its fangs, it's just that I want the fangs kept well away from my little gardening buddy's paws!