Controlled Chaos: Welcoming Self-Seeded Plants Into Your Garden

In this month's SF Chronicle column (which will appear December 13, 2015) I reviewed a book called Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-seeding Plants. Every vegetable gardener knows that some vegetables self-seed in gardens. The mustard or arugula we didn't pull out before they set seed, the last beans, hiding in the foliage until they ripen and drop, the parsnip we let bloom to attract beneficial insects. These all will result in little surprises in the following year. With our long California seasons, with plenty of time for seeds to ripen, we probably see more volunteer crop seedlings than would gardeners in short-summer climates.

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(Self-seeded arugula with Daffodils, in February. A free salad green that decorates the garden until you eat it up.)

               What do we do about it? Depending on our needs, we may let the volunteer grow and eat it. Or, if it is in the way, we may move it, or if that isn't possible, because it will not transplant well, or if we have too many seedlings of it, we pull it out. No problem. We usually kind of like it that nature has given us something we might eat without having to sow the seed. So it is a short leap to enjoying volunteers in our flower gardens.

               The Cultivating Chaosbook is a celebration of ornamental plants that grow from naturally dropped seed, as opposed to seed we replant each year. It will be an inspiration to those who want to have a truly beautiful ornamental garden that embraces some of these plants. It includes many photos of handsome gardens or parts of gardens using self-sowing plants, tips on using them well in gardens, and a plant encyclopedia to illustrate and discuss the merits of a number of plant candidates.

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(I shot this image at Annie's Annuals. This nursery, in Richmond, CA, is a good source of plants that will reseed, such as these red poppies. They are at anniesannuals.com.)

                Here I must acknowledge that some gardeners are afraid of self-seeding plants. It has been a fashion recently to plant home gardens that are like the gardens of a commercial establishment in that the plants have been chosen to grow slowly, need little pruning, and stay put. A thick mulch is applied to keep weeds down, and any wayward seeds usually perish in the mulch. It's called low-maintenance gardening, and I suppose it is, but oh, how I would miss the serendipity of an old-fashioned garden flower bed.

               The authors of Cultivating Chaos understand that one does not want a garden to be 100% chaos. They say the trick to creating a pleasing garden design with self-seeding flowers is to contrast their relative chaos with "clearly defined architectural forms and areas of quiet that are the result of traditional garden planning."

               Yes! I knew this when I decided what I wanted in my own garden. It needed enough structure created by hardscape that some of the planted areas could be more random (or chaotic), with only an occasional formal row of some plant to add a modicum of order. Broken concrete and used bricks create low retaining walls and a patio, with some paths made of concrete pavers or decomposed granite. Now I have to decide how much self-sowing to allow. I have learned, as did the authors of Cultivating Chaos, that much of what goes on to manage the potential chaos is removal of unwanted seedlings.

               Removing self-seeding plants is weeding, really, but what you remove is often, and, as the process continues, more often, a flower rather than a true weed. (If there is bare earth, and even if there is a mulch, really, there will be weeds. So one might as well be weeding out flower seedlilngs as weedy plants with no ornamental value.)

               I must say here that my book, Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, features a number of self-seeding ornamentals that thrive in our regional microclimates. I grow many of these in my own garden--including columbine, blue nigella Kenilworth ivy, feverfew, linaria, cineraria, nasturtium, Johnny-jump-up, and California poppy. I do buy plants and seed, but I depend on self-sowers to fill in between them and bloom each year without having to be purchased or sown.(And I also have volunteer parsley, chervil, arugula, potatoes, an occasional parsnip.)

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(A self-seeded Alpine strawberry, golden feverfew, purple cineraria, and columbine fill in this corner of my garden.)

               And, as I said earlier, many gardeners are afraid of self-sowers, so they are afraid of my book. A sad fact, since they are losing access to so much useful information, including information on which of the featured plants are deer tolerant, snail tolerant, drought tolerant (most), or attractive to humming birds.

             The book Cultivating Chaos skips lightly over potential problems and over the chance of plants escaping into wildlands. However, in Wildly Successful Plants, I don't skip these hard parts, but have delved into them thoroughly so that a gardener can make decisions that are responsible for our region and for an individual garden.

               One of the main principles of responsibility is that plants act differently in different regions. I was surprised to find lady's mantle (Alchimella mollis) listed in Cultivating Chaos as a self-seeder, as it has never done that in my garden. Nor has blanket flower (Gaillardia). On the other hand, they say that Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) can be expected to self-sow only in dry locations with sandy soil. Here, in a dry summer Mediterranean climate, that plant reproduces like crazy (though the variety 'Spindrift', mentioned in Wildly Successful Plants, is said not to produce seed.)

               There is also a question of whether a plant could become a wildland weed. Again, only a paragraph of warning in Cultivating Chaos, but a careful analysis in Wildly Successful Plants. My analysis is possible in part because I am writing about a specific region, whereas Cultivating Chaos, which was written by Germans and which tries to be more universal in coverage, can't deal with the fact that fennel and ox-eye daisy, which they recommend, are nasty weeds here, while lady's mantle, as I mentioned, doesn’t seem to self sow at all.

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(California poppies are featured in both Cultivating Chaos and Wildly Successful Plants, but I've explained in Wildly Successful Plants that the native in the Central California Coast region is this two-toned variety.

               To be a wildland weed, incidentally, a plant needs not only to self-sow, but to be able to compete in regional undisturbed or lightly disturbed wildland habitats. This ability varies by plant and by region, and I've analyzed it carefully before suggesting each plant in Wildly Successful Plants.

               The strength of the book Cultivating Chaos lies not in its analysis of using self-sowing plants responsibly, but in its photos. They give design ideas that will inspire you to want a bit of chaos in your garden. There are all-the-same-color flower plantings and ones with bold contrasting color schemes; informal gardens with only paths through the self-sown beds; and gardens in which chaos plays against formal hedges and hardscape. There are self-sowers peeking up through pavers and ornamenting dry-stone walls. There are photos of plants that have formed handsome seedpods, backlit to show their edges. The photos make me want to create ever more lovely self-seeded chaos in my garden.

Full bibliographic Info:

Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants, Jonas Reif, Christian Kress, with photos by Jürgen Becker, Timber Press, 2015.

Wildly Successful Plants Northern California, Pam Peirce, with photos by David Goldberg, Sasquatch Books, 2004.

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(Seedpods of some common self-seeding flowers.)


Some Resources for Waterwise Gardeners

This is not meant to be a complete list, by any means, but here are a few publications and links that will be useful if you are selecting plants for a waterwise garden.

WUCOLS stands for Water Use Classification of Landscape Plants. This project, sponsored by UCDavis, California Dept of Water Resources, California Center for Urban Horticulture, lets you find out the water needs of over 3,500 landscape plants in six different regions of California. The most recent version WUCOLS IV,can be accessed at the following address:

http://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/   Click on "Plant Search" Or you can use this link: WUCOLS IV

For information on growing California Native Plants, check out the Las Pilitas web site, laspilitas.com, or use this link: Las Pilitas Nursery.

Here are links to two articles on the subject of watering trees during a drought that were recently in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Trees Out on A Limb

Watering Trees in A Drought

Finally, here is a short list of books that you will find useful as you seek ideas and plants for a waterwise garden:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Burnstein, Fross, O'Brien, Cachuma Press, 2005.Photos, text on garden uses and care.

New Sunset Western Garden Book. I think the most recent is 2012, and it does have all color photos, which are helpful, but the text of couple of editions right before this one were a little more thorough.

Plant Life in the World's Mediterranean Climates, Peter B. Dallman, University of California Press, 1998. Maps and charts show how the 5 mediterranean regions are similar and, importantly, how they differ, then explains the habitats to which many of our favorite plants are adapted.

 Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region, East Bay MUD, 2004. Inspiring photos and useful information.

The Random House Book of Indoor and Greenhouse Plants, Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, Volumes 1 & 2, Random House,1997. Despite the name, thiese two volumes cover mostly mediterranean and other subtropical plants that we can grow outside. The photos and text about the plants in their native habitats are very useful.

Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, Pam Peirce, Sasquatch Books, 2004.California garden history, plant origins, garden maintenance instructions, garden design, and a philosophy for a regional garden.


San Bruno Mountain Plant Sale--Mission Blue Nursery

Mark your calendar on Saturday February 21st, 2015 to visit Mission Blue Nursery at 3401 Bayshore Blvd., in Brisbane, for a native plant sale to benefit San Bruno Mountain Watch. You can learn more about the sale, and about San Bruno Mountain, at http://www.mountainwatch.org/sbmw-plant-availability/. Indeed, as the link address implies, you can access a list of plants that will be offered for sale. There is also a link to driving directions to the nursery. (Brisbane is just south of SF on the Bay side of the Peninsula, nestled into the base of San Bruno Mountain on its east side.)

This is an opportunity to shop at a nursery that is usually only open to the public by appointment and with a $100 minimum. All proceeds from the February 21st sale will benefit San Bruno Mountain Watch, an organization that works to protect the mountain.

Bring boxes to carry plants that you select. You can pay with cash, check or credit card.

San Bruno Mountain is a San Mateo County Park that offers wonderful hikes. There are fine Bay and City views and a wealth of native plants to see as you walk. These hikes are especially enjoyable in spring, when so many of our native flowers are in bloom.

 

 


Mendocino--Coastal Walk


This is part two of a plant photo report from our recent trip to Mendocino. The first shows some plant highlights from the Coast Botanical Garden. This one will show you some of the plants and views from a hike around the town of Mendocino on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To take this walk, one usually starts at the south end of the town, crossing the last business street will take you down near the bluffs. Just find a trail, turn right, and start walking, pausing often for views and closer looks at the plants. If you keep walking you will pass around the West side of town and come out at the northwest corner. Then you can turn inland and walk south back down the main drag.

     The wide swath of weeds and wild flowers follows the coast. Below the bluffs are inaccessible beaches between rocky cliffs. Wild waves splash around the many rocks near the shore. There are natural arches and even a blow hole. This beach aster overlooks one of the vertiginous views. .

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   If you are a food gardener, one plant on the walk is instantly familiar. It's a cole crop, probably collards. These plants have escaped from cultivation to grow happily in this maritime habitat much like that of the European coasts where they evolved. The waxy coating on their leaves evolved to protect them from damp air. However, while these are definitely collards, when I collected seed, some years ago, to see what would grow, I discovered that they produced plants with rather tough leaves. They have probably drifted from the more palatable cultivated ones that farmers originally grew nearby and are toughened by the cold, windy location and low water.

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 If you know plants and have sharp eyes, you will see that it is growing amidst a stand of poison oak, which is also common near this trail--whatch your step if you take it!

We were there at the end of May, when several iconic coastal California natives were in bloom. One is California poppy, a mid-California coastal variant, which is yellow.

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Another is Sidalcia, or checkerbloom, a low plant with flowers like miniature pink hollyhocks.

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The plants I've shown so far (except for poison oak) are all ones that have been brought into gardens successfully. This last one, not so much. Castilleja, commonly known as Indian paintbrush, only grows where it can link its roots to another plant to share sustenance. To grow it you have to sow the seed next to a plant it can link to, possibly native bunch grass, or buckwheat. This isn't done often, but this wild specimen shows why it might be worth a try.

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Finally, we walked back to town, where the gardens include many old plants such as the ones mentioned in my book Wildly Successful Plants. This particular old cultivar of fuchsia shows no fuchsia mite damage at all, making it a good candidate for modern gardens or for breeding programs trying to bring back the old fuchsias lost to the mite.

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Mendocino--Coast Botanical Garden

At the end of May, we took a trip to Mendocino, where we visited the Coast Botanical Garden. It is always a treat, in part because the plantings are lovely, and in part because there are such a variety of environments. At the front, there is a perennial garden, then cactus and succulents, trees and shrubs, water garden, woodland garden, and if you keep on walking, you enter wild land that eventually leads to a tall grassy bluff over the ocean. Below there are rocks and waves. Above, native bunch grasses and wildflowers. One year there was a sea otter in the rocks below us. This year, no such luck, but I got this shot of the California native seathrift (Armeria maritima) at the very edge of the bluff.

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I knew that this species was from near the ocean, from the "maritima" in the specific epithet, but I had never pictured exactly what that could mean-right over the water as it is.

It was also fun to see all the native succulents, the Duddleyas, that grew down the rocky slopes to the water, but not possible to climb down and photograph them.

In the perennial plantings of the garden, there are both native and non-native plants. And of the natives, both species and cultivated varieties of wild species. This wonderful California poppy variety is called 'Champagne and Roses'.

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And right in the front, in the window boxes of the cafe, there was this wonderful planting of bidens. Both cultivars have larger flowers than the species, and the rusty-orange one has purple leaves. I wanted it, but the nursery manager said she was not only out of it, but so were all of her suppliers! Darn!

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 I was so busy taking photos that I forgot to ask the name of the cultivar, but I am hoping to find it again. Any reader happen to know what it is called?

Next post I will show some photos of plants in the town of Mendocino and the coastal trail around the city. The town is full of common and rare flowers and surrounded by a skirt of wild flowers.

 


More Late Summer Bloom for San Francisco

I've been writing about flowers that bloom in my garden in late summer and fall. This time of year is always a challenge, because the summer is dry and so many mediterranean and California native plants bloom earlier in the year. I have the further problem that my garden is in a foggy and cool part of the city, and the backyard goes into shade in fall and winter. This results in outbreaks of powdery mildew diseases and gray mold. So I am writing about plants that resist these diseases.

The photo below is of pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, which provides reliable color, from September into November. The photo was taken on October 15th. November 15th, it was still in bloom. The spot where it is planted is in sun from April until September, then in open shade, so it gets the sun it needs to prepare to bloom.

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This plant attracts hummingbirds and offers a whiff of pineapple to gardeners who brush against it. The edible flowers are attractive in salads, especially in a fruit salad. The leaves have such a tantilizing scent, but unfortunately, do not hold the scent when they have been cooked.

In winter, pneapple sage loses most of its leaves. In spring, I cut back any bare stems, and new, leafy ones grow to replace them.

Another late-blooming flower with tubular red flowers is the California fuchsia. (It used to be called Zauschneria californica, but has had a botanical name change, so it is now to be called Epilobium canuum.) I grow it in a place that gets sun all year, but it could handle winter shade, since it is mostly dormant in winter. You wouldn't want it too near to a pineapple sage plant, in any case, since one small, red tubular flower in a small space is enough.

California fuchsia blooms from July onward into autumn. This year, following our spectacularly mild November, some parts of the plant are still blooming at the end of December. It has no scent, however it does share with pineapple sage that it attracts hummingbirds. It has no scent. The other morning when I went to pick up the paper, a hummer was taking its breakfast in the California fuchsias. 

The main drawback I have found to California fuchsia is that the plant is very brittle. If a cat fight happens in it, or you have to reach through it to get to other plants, the meter reader has to push it aside to read a metor, damage will occur. Pieces will break off and have to be discarded. So be careful where you put it.

After California fuchsia blooms, it looks pretty ratty and you will want to cut it back. Maybe the first year just cut back partway, but  I cut my established plants to near the ground and it comes back fine.

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For some bright yellow in late summer and autumn, grow goldenrod. There is a native species, Solidago californica, which I think is the one in the photo. These plants are about 3 feet tall and were covered with bees--honeybees, bumble bees, large and small native bees--they were all having a feast.

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Here is a big bee, probably native, not a bumblebee.

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This one was a wee little bee, probably another native. After goldenrod blooms, cut it back partway. It is a semi-evergreen perennial. And, by the way, it is falsely accused of causing hayfever. Apparently it is the ragweed that blooms at the same time as Eastern goldenrod species that is the culprit.

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Coming up: Some flowers for winter color.


Saving Miner's Lettuce Seed

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If you live in California, and want to grow this wonderful edible native plant, miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), now is the time to save some seed. I wrote about it in Golden Gate Gardening, as an edible weed, but it's so good it is worth growing on purpose.

If miner's lettuce grows somewhere nearby, you can collect it now, save the seed. Then, in Fall, you can scatter it. It should be well up in December, and then will make its lovely, succulent leaves, so delicious in a salad, until the following April.

To find seed for next year, look now, in late April or in May, for plants with circular leaves that are still green and have long flowering stems. Thse will have a number of seedpods forming on the stems, with maybe a flower at the top. Gather some of these leaves, or, if you like, a whole plant bearing a few of them. 

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Spread what you have collected on newspaper indoors. Use a fully opened piece of newsprint, or maybe two or three together. As the pods dry, the seeds will pop out, and will actually jump up to a couple of feet from the pod. Thus you will find them all around the paper, or, if it is too small, on the floor nearby. The seeds are small, rounded, and shiny black. They have a white tip on one side where they were attached to the pods.

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The process will take a week or two. Here you can see the seeds and bits of pods around a plant that is drying. After the seeds pop out, you will have to separate them from the chaff. You can do this with various kitchen items, such as collanders or sieves. I used a sieve, which left me with some tiny fine chaff mixed with seeds, then blew lightly to get the chaff to fly away. It doesn't have to be perfect, of course, but seeds are easier to sow if they are free of debris, and also any bits of plant mixed with them can bring moisture that can lead to decay.

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Here's a closer view of some of the seeds before I cleaned out the chaff. After you've removed most of the chaff, keep the seeds in an open dish or jar for a couple more weeks, to make absolutely sure they are dry. Then you can store them in a paper packet or you can close the jar. Be sure to label your seeds as Miner's Lettuce and write the date of the year you saved the seed.

Make a note in your calendar so you'll remember plant the seed in October. Scatter it in an out-of-the way corner of your garden, in moist soil you have amended and dug. Scratch the soil surface a bit after you sow, pat the surface lightly, and then water. Water to keep the surface moist if rains don't do it for you. The seed leaves are long and narrow. The first few leaves will be triangular. Then the mature leaves form, the round ones. You can eat them, flowers and all, after the flowers start to form in their centers, but when the flower stems elongate they are ready for another year of seed saving. Or just let some fall in place, in hopes the plants will self-sow!

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Here's a salad containing miner's lettuce, corn salad, edible flowers, and some cut up chard stems.


Strange Winter Weather Shows in the Garden

We ate the last of the 2011 cucumbers on January 12th. This is a good 2 months later than I usually eat my last cuc. (see photo on post of December 30th, 2011). That's the good side of our continuing mild, sunny, San Francisco winter. But there are downsides too.

One downside is that leafminer flies have continued to fly, mate, and lay occasional eggs on my chard plants. The chard at City College has lost several leaves to their damage. By this time of year, the flies have usually died or are dormant pupae in the soil. It hasnt been so bad that there is no edible chard, as can sometimes happen in summer, but I am surprised to see ANY at this time of year.

     Another is that my apple tree had flowers on it in November into December. Not supposed to happen until April! (Ours is a late bloomer.) So that's energy the tree is wasting that it could be spending on making leaves, flowers, and fruit next year.

    And then there is miner's lettuce. Or, that is, there is no miner's lettuce. Usually by this time of year I have been making delicious salads from this California native plant that comes up freely in my garden. It is usually beginning to appear by November, and I have enough for the first salad in the first or second week of December. But this year, by mid-January, I have seen only a few very small seedlings

This is what I am usually seeing by this time of year:

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     This is a mature miner's lettuce plant, about 15 inches across and a foot tall. The mature leaves are round, with the flower stem coming from the middle of the leaf. The whole plant is delicious and replaces much of the lettuce in my salads from December through mid April.

This is what I saw today, January 15th, 2012:

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     There are only very young miner's lettuce plants like this one. They are about 4 inches across and low to the ground. The young leaves of miner's lettuce (on this plant nibbled a bit by a slug) are spatulate--sort of triangular. The mature, round leaves haven't even begun to show up yet, and it looks like there won't be any for a couple more weeks.

Today on the Prairie Home Companion, on National Public Radio, I heard Garrison Keeler talk about how the lakes in Minnesota were finally frozen solid so the ice fishers could fish safely, and how glad everyone was for the single digit temperatures. Well, I would prefer double digit, myself, and mostly above freezing, but I do have reasons to prefer our normal winter weather.

Tonight it is colder than it has been for several weeks and rain is predicted for next week, so maybe our wait for winter is at an end. But does the weather so far mean a shorter miner's lettuce season? Hope not.

Are any plants or pests acting differently due to the mild winter in your garden?

 

 

 


More on Native Dogwood, other California Natives

I finally found the image of flowers from the plant shown in my last post with berries. Here it is, as taken on May 15th, 2011.

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It's a grab shot, and I think it isn't quite in focus, but you can plainly see that the flowers have 4 petals, so at this stage, you can tell (I should have seen) that it is not a viburnum, which would have had 5 petals. As you can see the leaves look better in May than they did by the time the plant had matured berries.

     It is apporaching time to see the spring wild flowers on hills near SF again! In anticipation, here is a photo I took on May 2nd of 2011, on a trail above College of San Mateo. It shows a mix of plants. The ones I can identify are a blue Iris douglasii and a yellow version of paintbrush. That is prrobably coastal paintbrush, Castilleya latifolia, since the bracts (that look like flowers) of that species can be yellow as well as red. C. latifolia is native to coastal, central California.

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The Iris you can grow in your garden, the paintbrush, not so much, since it has a semi parasitic relationship with adjacent plants that is hard to get underway on purpose.

These spring-like winter days make me ready for spring, though with an ominous feeling that we need some rain to make those spring flowers bloom!