The other yuletide…

I have written in other posts about the great love of camellias I developed during the almost dozen years I lived in Georgia. The neighborhood in which I lived started developing in the 1920s as a sort of suburban alternative to downtown living. Although only a mile or so from downtown it was on the other side of the river–literally–and removed from the business hustle and bustle.  Homes on large wooded lots (some up to 5 acres but most in the 3/4 to 1-1/2 acre range) were built through the next several decades resulting in a residential area with many unique homes of varying architectural styles and surrounding grounds both formally and informally landscaped. In the 40s and 50s the Shirley Hills neighborhood was home to many serious horticultural hobbyists and a few homes still have the large glass greenhouses which marked that era. Camellia breeding was very popular during this time and the legacy of that pursuit remains today in hundreds of mature camellias, many 15+ feet in height. It is not uncommon to see very large plants which have a variety of grafts, dating from decades ago, producing a number of different cultivars of different flower color and form. The wide variety of camellias grown results in a very long bloom season starting in October (earliest blooming Camellia sasanqua varieties) through April (latest blooming Camellia japonica varieties) and offering a riot of pink, reds and whites along with striped and mottled blossoms.

An early blooming favorite in Shirley Hills, just as it is in the Central Valley of California, is Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’. As a side note: in Georgia only Camellia japonica are commonly referred to as camellias–pronounced “ca-may-ya”. Camellia sasanqua, which often bloom earlier, have smaller leaves and less showy flowers, are simply called sasanquas. ‘Yuletide’ is an upright shrub with small dark green leaves and medium sized single coral red flowers sporting bright yellow stamens. Its name implies that it will be blooming at Christmas time although mine always came into bloom by late October and typically were finished by mid December.

Last year I added a Camellia sasanqua to a small partially shaded area visible from our back patio. My other 12 in ground camellias grow in a narrow side bed along our western property line.  We attach shade cloth panels from the roof to the fence during the hottest months to prevent them from burning. While they grow very successfully there and bloom profusely in February, March and April they are only visible from windows in our hall bath and master bedroom! In my quest for a smaller scale fall/winter bloomer to fill this shady spot with some color I found the other ‘Yuletide’ and this little darling has just started to come into bloom.

This is Camellia sasanqua ‘MonDel’ which is being grown and sold by Monrovia Nurseries under the name ‘Pink-A-Boo’. ‘Pink-A-Boo’ is a sport of the Yuletide camellia. The term sport refers to a naturally occurring genetic mutation of a plant. ‘Pink-A-Boo’ is indistinguishable to the eye from ‘Yuletide’ with the exception of its clear medium pink flower color. A sport  may produce a plant with  mottled foliage or flowers,  leaf color different from its parent or flowers sized or carried differently. The key is that the new characteristic has not been engineered by man but by nature. Sports are eagerly anticipated  by gardeners–who wouldn’t want to have the only plant of its kind? To be a success commercially a sport must be able to hand down its unique traits to its offspring.

I love the way these blooms open! The half open bowl shape is just as attractive as the fully opened flower and the bloom’s fragrance is equal to if not more lovely than ‘Yuletide’. I try to clip a few blooms every few days to float in a bowl in my kitchen. This tidy camellia would make a lovely hedge or espalier with its glossy dark green leaves all year and the bonus of the blooms in early winter!

Keep your eye on the crown…

The crown of a plant is where the roots join the stem. Most plants grow best when the crown is planted just at the soil level.  There are plants which prefer to sit a few inches below the soil level such as the clematis and plants which prefer to be a bit above the soil as they are particularly susceptible to rot in damp conditions.

Many herbaceous perennials grow by forming multiple stems/leaves around the base (crown) of the plant. Examples of this growth habit can be seen on shasta daisies, hostas, rudbeckias and asters. Throughout the growing season and especially as we head into the fall; what’s going on at the crown tells you when to get out your clippers!

Perennials have very specific growth cycles throughout their season unlike annuals. Annuals typically are almost ready to bloom when you put them in and bloom continuously until they are replaced with new ones for the next season. As perennials live in your garden year-round they need a rest every now and then. That rest doesn’t necessarily coincide with the change of season. Throughout the spring, summer and fall periodic deadheading of the flowers and trimming back of foliage can encourage new growth and perhaps more bloom periods. This is especially true in mild winter regions like mine where perennials aren’t automatically forced into dormancy by freezing cold or snow.

New growth at the crown of herbaceous perennials is your signal that it is time to trim back existing foliage and flowers, freeing up all the plant’s energy to put on new leaves, stems and flowers. In my garden the asters are perfect examples of this principal. While traditionally a fall flowering species, my asters pop their heads up in early spring and are huge sprawling masses by mid summer. They get tired looking and sometimes a bit bug eaten and, as their growth habit is to continue to branch out layering each new flowering stem at the last set of flowers, an individual stem may be 4-6 feet long but only blooming toward the tips. Remember this photo from earlier in the year:


This single plant ends up laying all over whatever is underneath it and the huge rock behind it. I gather up the stems periodically to take a peek ant the base of the plant.  When  a flurry of new foliage at the crown has begun to show I know it is time to cut back the older stems, flowers and all. It is often heart wrenching! About 3 weeks ago I headed the whole plant back-clipping off each stem individually rather than just grabbing at the base and whacking (my usual M.O.) in hopes of not damaging the new basal growth. Below you see the same plant with a nice healthy basal clump and several new long flowering stems starting the whole cycle again.


The columbine at the front of the long shade bed provides another example. I am not sure I have showed you Aquilegia x cerulean ‘Origami Blue and White’ before so here’s a look at early spring:

These sweet girls not only regrow from the same crown yearly but also throw a good bit of seed so when the original plants finally die out I have plenty of others to move around! They tend toward mildew on their foliage as the fall approaches. The spent foliage will fall to one side a bit and in the upper part of the photo you can just see the new leaves emerging from the crown:


The oldest of the leaves will all pull off easily revealing the new foliage. These are early spring bloomers for me so I will not have encouraged any new flowers by removing the oldest foliage but they will be a bit tidied up while they rest.


Just like everything in nature–one size does not fit all here! Only mild to temperate winter gardeners will want to use these techniques this late in the year. Gardeners with freezing winters, with or without snow, do not want to push any new growth so close to winter and generally leave on the stems of herbaceous and woody perennials to protect the crown from rot–doing their major clean up in spring.

Our mild fall continues and a few things in the garden are thinking it is spring! I have narcissus leaves a foot tall and these fun things are blooming:

2016 Salvia update…

As I write today it is a cool 64 degrees with overcast skies.  We have had several lovely days as the result of a “Pacific trough”, whatever that is. Our temps will climb as the week progresses but I think we have hope of an actual transition to fall with nothing in the forecast over 88 degrees!

Last week I shared a little of my annual autumn reset routine for my garden. In addition to the cleaning up and cutting back I like to take stock of how the new plants to the garden have done through their first summer. I added many new salvias in the early spring, some of which I shared photos in my May 26th post. Although some have been less successful than others I lost only one for which there was no hope of return. I planted a leafy and flower filled Salvia ‘Heatwave Brilliance’ in a sunny spot near a large south facing rock to add a bit of color to an otherwise fairly sterile area. The snail social media must have blown up with the news–I can envision the Twitter handle @newfood! just lighting up the screens on all their teeny, tiny smartphones. The NEXT DAY I went out to poke in its newly made label and the foot tall and wide plant had been reduced to 6 or 8 totally naked stems and even those stems had been chewed down…OMG. This casualty was the only salvia snail activity I saw all summer. I could almost see a little banner declaring Go Big or Go Home! waving over the wretched remains of a plant so recently set that my trowel was still  pushed into the ground next to it.

The new salvias were planted in areas ranging from morning sun/afternoon partial shade  to  full day southern sun. Limited water was in play for all but clearly those planted in the baking sun had consistently drier soil.


In this photo there are four salvias from foreground to background: Salvia greggii ‘Raspberry’, Salvia microphylla ‘La Trinidad Pink’, Salvia ‘Heatwave Blaze’ and Salvia ‘Heatwave Glare’. You can barely see ‘Heatwave Glare’ (white) at the edge of the picture. This bed has morning sun until about noon and then is gradually shaded by the house as the sun moves to the west. The foliage is still fresh and green and they are fairly compact. While none of them is covered with flowers, the flowers are quite lovely both from a wide view and close up. I do have ‘Heatwave Blaze’ staked with a low half hoop just behind the edging as anything that might stray into the field of the string trimmer is doomed. Can’t say much for the lawn, can you? Here’s a little closer view of ‘Heatwave Glare’ and ‘Heatwave Blaze’.

This bed, which curves around into a more sunny area, also contains several varieties of campanula and hardy geranium, dianthus, cuphea, hellebores, calla lilies, penstemon, iris and roses has been a great success this year with a nice succession of flowering from spring until now.


In sharp contrast, this bed sits just in front of the shade canopy of a large sequoia and is in full southern sun all day. There are four salvias in the bed although only 3 are visible in the photo. Left to right they are: Salvia x jamensis ‘Shell Dancer’, Salvia microphylla ‘Ultra Violet’ and Salvia ‘Heatwave Glimmer’. ‘Shell Dancer’ is quite tall with lovely bicolor flowers. ‘Ultra Violet’ is a naturally shorter cultivar at about 12″-18″.  All three are leggy and look pretty beaten down. They will definitely get their trimming back to see if I can stimulate some fresh new growth and blooms in this slightly cooler weather.

I have long believed that many plants recommended for full sun cannot withstand our Central Valley scorching summer afternoons so it would be an easy leap to think that based on my garden these salvias will not meet my needs for full sun perennials. All of these featured today are from the greggii-microphylla complex of salvias which are native to the dry deserts of Mexico and have proven adaptability to harsh climates. I think the word ‘adaptable’ is key here. My morning sun/afternoon partial shade bed probably is closer to the greenhouse/commercial nursery conditions in which they were propagated and grown than to their native habitat. It is also important to remember whenever you add plants which are characterized as waterwise or drought tolerant that usually the words ‘when established’ are included. I’m willing to wait them out for one or two more seasons in hopes their performance in the full sun and drier areas will improve with time as they become acclimated to their planting locations.

These two are in conditions about midway between protected and extreme and have done nicely. On the left is Salvia ‘Fancy Dancer’ and to its right is Salvia greggii ‘Dark Dancer’. ‘Fancy Dancer’ sports the same bicolor pink blooms as ‘Shell Dancer’ but on a more compact plant. ‘Dark Dancer’ is quite tall at about 30″ and is uncharacteristically unfloppy for a salvia that tall. Is unfloppy a word?


Salvia ‘Mystic Blue Spires’ has been a winner for a first year plant! At about 24″ tall and wide this single plant has bloomed continuously since I dug it in. I have deadheaded the flowers as they faded but done no trimming of the plant otherwise.  Wilt on the hot days has been minimal considering it has had barely 4 months to establish its root system.  It is a bee, butterfly and hummingbird magnet. I love the bold color and plan to add a few more of these if I can find them this fall.

While not new in 2016 these two deserve a mention. Salvia melissodora, often called Grape Scented Sage, on the left is one that garden literature deems “challenging to grow outside its native habitat of Northern Mexico.” I planted a 4″ pot in an area of the garden we commonly refer to as the ‘death zone’–hot, hot, hot and dry, dry, dry. The little guy struggled for the first year then started to settle in gradually over the last 2. I now have a lovely 4′ plant which blooms sporadically throughout the year. The pale lavender clusters of grape scented blossoms are not spectacular but the plants soft green foliage looks pretty  good year around and will provide a nice backdrop if I can ever get anything else to grow in its corner of doom. On the right is an little guy with huge pink blooms (in relation to the plant’s overall size) which was an unmarked nursery find last fall. Its foliage indicates it is probably from that greggii-microphylla complex. It is encouraging that after a winter to settle in it looks much better than its newly planted cousins sharing a similarly hot southern exposure.


I’ll close with this snap of a bud forming on one of the Salvia ‘Coral Nymph’ plants which have been so popular with the bees and hummers this year. This cultivar is usually sold as an annual though I have had some winter over successfully each year. As I was photographing other salvias for this post I noticed the bud color variegation, then quickly saw that all the buds were similar. I have grown this cultivar for over 20 years and never noticed the interesting bud. Sometimes we spend our garden hours looking at the big picture, creating  swathes of color, designing vignettes of foliage with contrasting color or texture or arranging plants to provide views at varying heights and forget to look closely at the very plants we are using. This bud reminded me to spend a little more time getting to know the amazing details that nature provides us if we just look closely enough.