Getting to the bottom of it…

Many woody perennials winter over more successfully if the previous year’s growth and bloom stalks are left intact through the cold weather.  Generally falling into this category are many of the salvias, echinacea, monarda, achillea, lantana, and buddleia. All of these can be pretty rangy or twiggy by their season’s end and it is hard for me to resist cleaning them up in the late fall just to make the garden’s overall appearance tidier. If trimmed back so late in the season that no new growth has long enough to harden off the plant is left with a plethora of twiggy hollow stems exposed to water by the cuts. Water will fill the hollow stems and can cause rotting down to the base of the plant. We don’t lose many of these plants in my mild winter garden to frost or bitter cold but many could be lost to overzealous fall cleanup! The natural die back of the current year’s growth acts as protective armor for the next year’s new growth.

So, when do you know the time is right to cut back? There is no one size fits all or date to mark on your calendar. As with all plant maintenance the first step is to know how the plant grows. Several of the plants listed above push their new leaves out at the soil level forming a clump of new growth at the base as the soil starts to warm up at winter’s end. Soil temperature is a better indicator of impending spring growth than air temperature. As you walk through your garden finishing up your rose and summer blooming shrub pruning be mindful of what’s going on at the base of your perennials. Today as I raced the rain to get the last of my four ‘Eden’ climbing roses pruned I surveyed a nearby bed and found these specimens giving me the heads up that it is time to tidy them up for the impending spring.


Okay, so I had all ready trimmed a good many of last year’s stems from this Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine’ (Bee Balm) before it occurred to me that this was a good topic for a post! You can clearly see the flurry of new rosettes of growth. The old growth was so ready to be gone that most of it just fell off at my touch.


I decided to wait a few more days to trim back the old stems on this Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Bloom’ as the very first of the new growth has just appeared.


It’s cousin and neighbor, Salvia leucantha ‘Velour Pink’ was well on its way so I trimmed back all its spent stems.


This Gaura lindheimeri is a relatively new bicolor called ‘Rosyjane’. It is a little more compact than the species but still looks better throughout the season with regular tidying up. This is the first winter for this cultivar in my garden and you can see the remains of the original top growth is about 1/3 the size of the new growth clump. I will carefully trim all of the old stems to just below the new growth or just wait another week or so and be able to gently pull them off.

There is no rocket science here–the first principle of readying woody perennials for spring is to walk your garden regularly and see what your plants are doing! Understand their growth habits and each will tell you in their own time when to clean them up in anticipation of a great new gardening year.

A Year in the Garden…Filoli in February

Filoli  is a fine example of an early 20th century country estate located in Woodside, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. The 654 acre estate is a National Trust for Historic Preservation site which was opened to the public in 1976 and features a 54,000 square foot home, more than 16,000 square feet of formal gardens, a six acre orchard and numerous marvelous open meadow and woodland spaces. They boast extensive educational offerings in horticulture, nature education, botanical art, the decorative arts, flower arranging and much more plus lecture series events and opportunities for nature hikes. Filoli is in its final year of a three year Centennial Celebration and has declared 2017 its Year of the Garden.

For the last several years they have offered an eight month horticultural certificate program called A Year in the Garden. Long on my bucket list, I declared 2017 MY year in this marvelous garden. This informative series of classes covers a broad range of topics from basic botany to water management and garden design. A huge perk for its students is that it is taught by Mimi Clarke who was a full time Filoli staff gardener for over ten years. Mimi now maintain gardens for a number of private clients but has not lost her love of Filoli and has a wealth of knowledge of the gardens and its plant material gained over her many seasons of stewardship of the grounds and its plantings.

In future posts I’ll tell you more about the history of Filoli and share with you more photos of both the home and grounds. The day of the first class meeting arrived with dark skies and a steady drizzle of rain which made both the almost 4 hour journey from my home and photography in the garden challenging.

Clad in our boots and raincoats, our group of fourteen was met in the Visitor and Education Center to be escorted behind the scenes to our classroom in the Potting Shed located near the estate’s original greenhouses. And a very nice potting shed it was…


This lovely building was built in the last few years with funds donated by a generous Filoli benefactor and offered the perfect setting to begin our study, surrounded by the garden staff’s tools of their trade and with lovely views of both work in progress and the surrounding woodland.

Mimi Clarke gave us a short overview of the series and we all had the opportunity to introduce ourselves. Many of my fellow students characterized themselves as novice gardeners and their hopes for what they would gain from the class were as varied as their ages and hometowns. I think we’ll be a fun group and everyone will learn from each other’s experiences.  I was really excited to hear that most class days will have a nice balance of classroom work and hands on work in the garden or garden walks.

Our morning topic was part one of two lectures devoted to Basic Botany. No matter how many times I have heard these plant growth basics, I feel a little more empowered every time. So many of the decisions we make about how we choose, plant or prune individual  specimens should be based on basic knowledge of their root, stem and leaf structures and often, they are not. We just put them in the hole and hope for the best–often applying a one process fits all plants philosophy. We cut them back hoping to make them fit the size or shape we require without regard to their genetic disposition. We prune when it is convenient for us rather than the optimum time in the growth cycle of the plant. I can never hear these basics too often! I also appreciated Mimi’s concise explanation of botanic nomenclature and the importance of knowing your plants by their scientific names rather than their common or regional names. The printed material we received on botany basics and types of root, stem and leaf systems along with illustrations of leaf classifications is to the point and will be a good addition to my references.

After a quick lunch break we set out on our first garden exploration–the Landscape Tree and Shrub I.D. Walk.

As a quick diversion we first spent a few minutes learning about the literally hundreds (maybe thousands?) of potted up daffodils, tulips and foxgloves lined neatly in the yard area outside our potting shed classroom.

We learned that these pots are used not only for color in and around the patio and walkway areas of the garden but also placed in the beds to fill in gaps. Once each pot’s peak bloom has passed it is replaced with a new one whose bulbs were set in a bit later, thus extending the bloom season as long as possible. Spent daffodil bulbs are then planted in the outlying areas of the garden to provide color the next year. Spent tulip bulbs are composted as there is not enough winter chill to have them bloom from year to year in the ground.

With umbrellas up and a great handout relieving us from too much note taking Mimi led us through various parts of the property stopping at intervals to highlight trees and shrubs many of which are considered to be foundation plantings of the estate, meaning that the species was included, often in large groupings repeated throughout the grounds, in the estate’s early landscape design. Here is a small part of what we saw:


This stately grove of Olea europaea ‘Mission’, or Mission olives, was planted around 1918 and is an original landscape feature. The Mission olive is native to California and was developed by Spanish missions in the late 1700s. The trees in winter have a soft cushion of oxalis underfoot and still bear fruit after almost 100 years!


An allee of Plantanus x acerifolia, commonly called London plane trees, is an example of a stylized pruning technique called pollarding. If left to mature naturally, these deciduous trees would grow to 65-100 ft. tall with trunks more than 10 ft. in diameter. Pollarding produces the short, club-like branches you can clearly see in winter. As spring arrives long whips of new growth will leaf out to provide a shady canopy and a tree whose size is much more in keeping with the needs of the walkway. Growing against the building’s brick wall you can see the leafless trunks of a very large wisteria. Filoli has both Wisteria floribunda (Japanese wisteria) and Wisteria sinensis (Chinese wisteria) growing on many of its brick facades. Without a label it is impossible for me to tell which species this is until it leafs out and starts to flower. I’ll check back in on this one as the year progresses–it will be spectacular to photograph in bloom!


Three species of camellias are prominent in the Filoli landscape: Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua and Camellia reticulate. Pictured are several cultivars of sasanqua camellias. Mrs. Roth, the second owner of the estate had a particular fondness for camellias and had them shipped in from all over the world. Many cultivars of Helleborus, commonly called Lenten Rose, carpet the shaded areas under the camellias. I especially liked this one which almost appeared striped from above.



This amazing specimen is Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’, the Camperdown Elm. This cultivar is unable to reproduce from seed and is propagated from grafts. The wide canopy and contorted pendulous branches develop slowly over time, ultimately reaching up to 30′ high and wide. This Camperdown Elm was planted in 1918. These elms are very susceptible to Dutch Elm disease and thus are rare in world today, usually found on large old estates. In the background left you can see three of  the over 200 Taxus baccata ‘Stricta’ which are planted on the property. Cuttings for these Irish Yew trees were taken from Muckross, the Irish estate of Filoli’s original owners, Mr. and Mrs. William Bourn, II.

Our semi-sogginess did not dampened our enthusiasm as we finished our walk and gathered up our belongings for the day, looking forward to our next class in March.


Daffodils lead the way each year in Filoli’s parade of blooms. Although I saw several blooming naturalized colonies my visit was just a bit too early to see them in their full glory. The estate’s annual event, Daffodil Daydreams, spans Friday, February 24-Sunday, February 26, and will feature talks, tours, demonstrations and hands-on activities all in celebration of this beautiful bulb whose blooms signals the coming of spring. If you would like more information about this event or anything else going on at Filoli go to their website:

Over the fence…

Each gardener works her ground for different reasons. Some love the physical labor and breathing the fresh outside air. Some enjoy seeing their planning on paper come to life.  Some use their gardens to express their creative core and reveal themselves to others who view and enjoy the resulting beauty. Some just revel in the diverse plant world God has given us with which to work.

I am probably a little bit of each of those gardeners but most of all I am a social gardener. While it is true that most of us actually labor in our physical garden space alone, with the exception of spouses or children who are conscripted into service, there is so much “gardening” that goes on in the world around us bringing each of us into contact with others whose unique gifts, knowledge and experience enrich our lives. Enthusiasm is the catalyst for the movement of ideas among individuals who might never cross the other’s path if not for their shared passion. Enthusiasm is–by its very nature–SOCIAL.

In every city I have gardened I have made friends for whom the seed of our relationship was a shared love of our gardens. Those seeds grew to sturdy plants, blossoming into relationships that grew far beyond our gardens. I think back to my thirties and Mary C. who made many garden center trips with me trying to develop a steep, dry slope into a cottage (hillside cottage?) meadow. Her plant knowledge was far superior to mine and I learned so much from her! BFF Judi H. and I have toured, shopped, planned and planted together for more than 30 years even though we have not lived in the same city since 1997. Beautiful Mary S. introduced me to the wonders of her Southern woodland landscape and a host of plants I knew but had never grown. We traveled the back roads of Georgia to nurseries far and wide, took in classes and events at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, celebrated our successes and bemoaned our failures for a decade. Karen B., also a Georgia girl, gardens in a relaxed style we all could take lessons from–she taught me that not every garden need be weed free and groomed to be a source of pleasure to those who inhabit it. It was always a joy to drive by her home and see her in her broad brimmed hat and gloves picking blueberries or a bloom or two to fill the glass wall vases in her kitchen.

As my Central Valley garden grows in years, so have I. Now in my sixties with gardening friends in their 60s, 70s and beyond, our gardening dreams may be loftier than our knees and backs can follow through on but our enthusiasm has not waned. Ellen H. has expanded my meager knowledge of local birds and their homes in my garden. Ann D. has taught me more about trees and wildflowers than I could have hoped to learn from a book. She has a keen scientific body of knowledge and is my go-to for native plant and wildlife information. We approach with chagrin our shared inheritance of gardens not well planted nor well tended by their previous owners. We exchange knowledge, ideas and plants ‘over the fence’ just as gardeners have done for centuries.

Please enjoy a few plantings from all of my gardens which came to me over the fence from cherished gardening friends.


Parting words to gardeners ‘over the fence’ everywhere.


Succulent dreams…

Succulents are everywhere! Long a staple in the schemes of gardens in mild winter and temperate summer locales such Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area I am seeing more and more creeping into the landscapes in my  San Joaquin Valley. Even the big box home improvement stores have copious supplies practically year-round. The growing interest in low water gardening has us all looking at plants with new eyes hoping they will be just the solution to our current challenges.

Four or five years ago I toured the San Francisco Decorator Showcase home, an event  held annually to benefit the city’s University High School.  That year’s home was a gorgeous 4 story, very early 20th century mansion not far from The Presidio and overlooking the Palace of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Bay. The landing just outside the home’s very formal front door was flanked by the first examples I had seen of what we now call ‘living walls’. These horizontal facades consist of generally metal frameworks to which are attached individual plant openings made from root retaining bags or boxes. Each opening is individually planted and when the plants fill out, a solid wall of green is established. In the intervening years since this first glimpse many different systems of this kind, in all manner of sizes and materials, have been developed and are readily available to home gardeners. These particular walls were planted entirely in succulents and were preceded, as you walked up the steps, by two extremely large bowl shaped urns planted with additional succulents, mostly having very bold natural structures. I was in love! The juxtaposition of the century old limestone home with all its turn of the century ornamentation and these modern and very statement making plantings was not only fun but also gave the home an upbeat, young, fresh look. Unfortunately the photos I took did not survive the transition from Blackberry and PC to iPhone and Mac and my vivid memory of the scene cannot be inserted as media into this post! I have spent time each of the ensuing years trying to come up with just the right combination of structure and succulents to add a semblance of these pleasing points of interest to my own garden world.

Research was my first task so, of course, I bought a book to add to my gardening reference library. It was lovely reading but ever so much more academic information than I needed fullsizeoutput_97d as I could really only buy whatever succulents are locally available and most of those are labeled only with the genus name or possibly just a common name. Wherein my book had descriptions of hundreds of Echeveria, many very different from one another, my ability to narrow down the labeled Echeveria at my local Home Depot to anything more specific was pretty pitiful. I abandoned my traditional desire to plan my plantings and keep detailed records and labels of everything and reduced my hunt to the lowest common denominator. I bought the smallest pots of as many different shapes and colors variations as I could find.  Now the learning curve began!

My first attempts were in rather shallow broad dishes which I set out on the patio tables around the pool. These bowls were lovely when planted in the late spring but as the summer set in I quickly learned the difference between succulents and cacti. Almost all cacti are succulents but all succulents are definitely NOT cacti. I fried the whole lot in short order. I suppose had I actually read my book rather than just looking at the photos I would have learned that many succulents are not very tolerant of strong sun. And again the meagerness of accurate labeling weighs in to make it a challenge to determine whether what you are purchasing is a cast iron performer or prefers its sun to be filtered.

Somewhat chastened by this experience I put my sumptuous succulent planter dreams away for the season. Not to be outdone by these pesky but perky plantlets in their 3″ pots I gave it a go the next year, keeping my bowls in bright light under the covered patio and was rewarded with plants that quickly outgrew their containers.  I transferred all of them to an empty concrete fountain, left by the home’s previous owner, which had enough fine cracks in it to make it unusable as a fountain but perfectly drained as a planter. Here you see that effort:


Upon the initial transfer of the plants into the fountain the center was quite flat and uninteresting. Several days later Dave came across a display of tall rectangular plastic pots at Costco which were preplanted with a variety of succulents and brought one home on a whim.  We pulled out the smaller plants from the fountain’s center area and literally set the entire pot into the soil about 3″ so it would be stable. Height and importance were added instantly to the planting! The plastic planter remains in place as I write this some 3+ years later–a long term bang for our $12.99. Specimens have waxed and waned in the bowl through the seasons. I break off bits and tuck them in here and there. The fountain is sited in a morning sun only area and is protected enough to have avoided most loss from freezing winter cold.

Above you see a few bits from the bowl as it looked yesterday–overall a successful venture! I planted a second unused fountain in the front garden the next year. Sited in full southern sun it has been more challenging to keep going. It has become an “only the strong survive” site. I pop in a few new little pots each fall to give them the best chance of settling in and then it is up to them to hang on.  A couple of specimens have flourished in that area of searing sun, including this very structural pencil like selection and the pebble shaped blue green mat in the foreground. Sooner or later I’ll hit upon just the right ones to acclimate to the spot but it clearly is not happening in an organized fashion. You live–you stay, you die–oh, well!


Because the ground freezes in the winter, local gardeners striving to maintain broad swathes of interesting succulents planted in the ground rather than pots face more challenges than our lucky gardening friends further south and in the more temperate Bay Area. Specimens need to be identified which can tolerate the proposed site in terms of summer sun and winter cold. I know I’ll be seeing many fine examples of these gardens as I travel south for the spring tours and I’ll post as many photos as I can. Let me tease you with a bit of the front garden pictured below. These photos were taken in Pasadena the first week of December. The low slung historic Spanish bungalow is a charming backdrop for a front garden chock full of mature succulent specimens and other unthirsty selections. Its charm was equal to any white picket fenced English garden I’ve seen.

2017–Best garden year yet!

I have been writing this encouragement on the January page of my calendar for more years than I can remember! Gardeners are by nature hopeful people with full faith that each new year will bring them garden miracles in abundance. This will be the year my soil, after many seasons of amending and turning over, will reach its peak friability and provide all the nutrients my plants require to perform their best. This will be the year perennial selections added in the last couple of seasons, having slept a year and crept a year, will leap with abandon. This will be the year the aphids will find my neighbors’ crape myrtles more hospitable than mine. This will be the year of a world wide snail and slug extinction event…

For the first time since Thanksgiving I have spent a bit of time in my garden assessing what needs to be done and reflecting on changes I would like to make this year. We have had an incredibly wet and quite cold last 6 weeks. At this midpoint mark in January we have had almost 10″ of rain since October with over 4″ of that in the last 2 weeks. These numbers will not sound like much to gardeners in other parts of the country but here in the Central Valley of California our average annual rainfall (July 1-June 30 being our rain year) rarely exceeds 11″. We are in a historic 6 year drought in an area whose best rain years would constitute emergency conditions for residents in states blessed with naturally wetter weather. We have prayed for rain and now, of course, don’t know what to do with all this water!

Don’t misunderstand me–I am excited to have the low areas of my dormant lawn look vaguely like weedy duck ponds. The water will eventually soak in and give me a little better start when the heat comes. What we really need is more snowfall in the upper elevations of the Rocky and Sierra Mountains. The spring melt of the mountain snowpack is the source of most of the water which fills the California  reservoirs and carries us through the summer–many parts of this state receive zero rainfall from May through October. So it is more than likely that even this very wet winter will not change any of our water restrictions, residential or agricultural, and we will continue learning how to live in this new normal world of lawn free landscapes and unthirsty plantings. Of the 4 areas from which we removed lawn in 2016 two have been replanted and are prospering, one remains untouched and has a lovely covering of bright green winter annual weeds and the last is about 3/4 renovated. We were only about 5 feet from having all the tilling and amending done on that bed when my sweet Dave got out his big, bad axe to remove an especially large root adjacent to the driveway. Unfortunately there was a labyrinth of unseen sprinkler pipe under the root and well…you know the rest of the story. When the water finally drains out of the very large trench he had to dig to make the repair we will be back on the road to completion–look for pics of this very large bed in a future post.

So everything looked pretty much as I would expect at this time of year. It’s time to start pruning the roses. The weeping standard ‘Renae’ roses in the front are so top heavy I fear they may crack at their grafts and the climbers on the pavilion trellis have gone mad! My roses have always been incredibly forgiving and even in years when I feel as though I have just hacked at them they have rewarded me with wonderful bloom seasons–maybe they are ever hopeful that they will get a new gardener who knows what she is doing!


This time last year one of my planned changes was to remove this row of Prunus laurocerasus, common cherry laurels, which grow behind the pavilion in a very narrow bed up against our side fence. These fast growing evergreens are prolific reseeders and have to be constantly pruned to keep them out of the canopy of mature Bradford pears growing on the other side of the fence. I only got as far as cutting them down to bare trunks last spring. Even these plants have forgiven me and offered me another chance to decide in their favor. Hmmm…


Through heat, drought, rain and wind this rosemary soldiers on. It looks exactly the same now as it did in 110 degree weather with no water last July. The tag on this warrior said Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’, commonly know as creeping or prostrate rosemary. Last summer I cut it back by half and it did not even blink. It is about waist high now and clearly not prostrate. In the ground now for almost 6 years and yet to produce even a single  blue flower. I am hoping that 2017 will be its year!

I’ll continue to keep you updated on what is happening in my garden and I have many fun garden road trips planned that you are invited to come along with me through posts and photos. The Mary Lou Heard Garden Tour in Southern California is back on my calendar this year after a few years absence. I also hope to do at least 3 of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days this year: LA, Marin County and San Jose. I am looking forward to seeing the offerings on this year’s Gamble Garden Spring Tour. I am very excited to be participating in the Garden Bloggers Fling being held in the Washington DC/Virginia area in late June. I will have the opportunity to tour a number of public and private gardens over several days and get to meet garden bloggers from all parts of the country. I also hope to bring all of you along to a series of classes I am taking at Filoli in Woodside. If you are unfamiliar with Filoli now is the time to check them out at –you will be amazed. There are 16 acres of formal gardens as part of a large country estate established in the early 20th century, a lovely historic home and a full schedule of garden events and education. I will participate in their A Year in the Garden program which includes classroom instruction and hands on experiences in a wide range of horticultural topics. It is always fun to meet gardeners from other areas–no matter the differences in climate or growing conditions we all speak the same language of excitement, enthusiasm and hope that THIS will be our garden’s best year yet!

Every winter’s enduring promise–the Hellebores are almost open!

No calendar needed…

…to know that it is Thanksgiving week! Every year my tall bearded iris ‘Frequent Flyer’ bursts back into bloom to mark the season.


‘Frequent Flyer’ has been touted as one of the best repeat-blooming Iris germanica for mild winter gardens. Introduced in 1994, this pure white selection has beards tipped with lemon yellow and is wonderfully fragrant.


A single division from my front garden colony was transplanted in this sweet spot in the back garden in the fall of 2014–too many stalks and buds to count two years later!