Ornamental Ginger--Late Summer Bloom in San Francisco

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I continue my entries on flowers that bloom in August/September/October in my San Francisco garden. The garden is cool in summer, often foggy, damp, and almost completely in shade in late autumn through late winter. Many common late summer into fall flowers get gray mold or a powdery mildew in these conditions. Here's another that does not.
The plant piectured above was given to me as "ginger". It's Hedychium gardnerianum or Kahiri ginger, a plant native to the Himalayas. (Must be the lower parts of the Himalayas, where winter isn't so cold, but high enough that it doesn't require high heat and can tolerate cool summer nights.) I love having its big, bright, interesting, highly fragrant flowers in my garden at the end of the summer season.

Note that this isn't culinary ginger, not the one that's edible, only an ornamental plant with "ginger" in the common name.

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The part of the garden it's in is in shade, albeit open shade, from August until Aprill. But the plant blooms in late August and into September anyway, and never has a touch of botrytis or other fungus disease.

Here is how the plants look when they aren't blooming. They are 3-4 feet tall.

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In a warmer place, or if they had the right pollinator (not sure which or if it's both)  the flowers would be followed by orange fruits, but they haven't here. I have read that the plant is an invasive weed in Hawaii, where it does form seed, so it's just as well that it doesn't make seed here.

In any case, after they bloom, I cut off the spent flowers. By the next spring, the leafy stems that bloomed start to look kind of ragged, and, if the plant is healthy, about the same number of new shoots begin to come up at their bases. As soon as the new shoots are tall enough to be attractive, I cut the old ones to the ground, or actually, they sort of snap off just at soil level.

For the first 2-3 years I had the plants, they didn't bloom and made few new shoots. Whether they were just young, or needed better care, I can't say. After that time, I started fertilizing the plants in spring and summer, and giving them more water, and then they started blooming and growing new blooming stems each year.

Next entry (to come soon): California fuchsia vs. pineapple sage--two hummingbird pleasers.

 


Pineapple Lily--Flowers for Late Summer in San Francisco Gardens

My San Francisco garden is often foggy, cool, and damp in the summer, too much so for a number of late summer-into-fall kinds of flowers. I'm starting a series of posts about some plants that bloom in my garden in this season without succumbing to botrytis (gray mold) or other diseases encouraged by the cool, damp microclimate.

This first flower is Eucomis, also known as pineapple lily. I like it because it looks so dramatic, but it is easy to grow. I have grown it in containers for many years. It blooms without fail in mid-August and lasts several weeks. The leaves are low to the ground; the flower stem is over a foot tall.

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This plant is Eucomis comosa, which has white or pink flowers. Eucomis cl IMG_5021 copy
Here's a close up of one that has pinker flowers. You can see they are like miniature lilies. It is indeed a lily relative, but not related to pineapple. That name comes from the little tuft of leaves at the top of the flower stem, like the one above a pineapple.

Eucomis grows from bulbs, which you may find at a local nursery in the spring, or may have to mail order from a bulb specialty company. It can be grown in the ground if you like, or you can plant one or more bulbs in a container. In the ground or in a container, plant so the neck of the bulb shows at the surface.The plants are hardy to 10 degrees F.

Though the porch on which they are growing goes into shade while the Eucomis is still in bloom, becoming even more cool and damp, it never becomes infected with botrytis or any other disease. After it blooms, the flower stems and leaves pull out of the bulb easily and can be composted.

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Here is a group of eucomis plants in several containers. The ones in the back right are Eucomis bicolor, a similar species that has pale green flowers with purple edges. This species has the same growing needs as E. comosa.

 


Watsonias--Wildly Successful Plant of Late Spring

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In April and May I look for Watsonias. I love these big, graceful plants, with tall stems of trumpet-shaped flowers. These easy-to-grow bulb plants are one of South Africa's best gifts to Bay Area gardeners. They are among the 50 plants I featured in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, as very well suited to our gardens and easy to grow. (See cover, at right) They thrive in cool or hot summer areas. I don't know of an insect pest or a disease that troubles them, and snails don't seem interested either. 

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The red one in the two photos above is a hybrid, one of several usually available in nurseries for fall planting.  

After you plant the bulbs (correctly, they are corms), the leaves begin to grow with the first rains. They usually don't need any irrigation beyond rainfall to mature and bloom. Even last winter, which was rather dry, I didn't water mine, though I might do so in a really, really dry winter. After weeks of glorious mid- to late spring bloom, they die back in early summer. You don't have to water them in summer either. These are truly drought-tolerant plants! If the soil is well-drained, they won't mind a little summer water, but if kept too moist, they won't bloom as well the following year.

            The reason Watsonias do so well here is that they are from the Cape Region of South Africa, which has a similar rainfall pattern to ours. The regions where they grow have poor, sandy soil, so our rather poor soils are not a problem, though they can take moderate fertility, if you want to dig in a little compost. They stand up to wind and cool temperatures. They thrive in foggy microclimates. Full sun is best near the coast, but half-day will do. If you garden in a hotter inland microclimate, they will appreciate the hot soil while they are dormant. The spring-blooming Watsonias described here are hardy to 10° F.

            It's best to cut the flower stalks after they bloom and, in mid to late summer, cut brown leaves to the ground, before new green ones start to grow, so that they won't distract from next year's show. The deadheading and cutting back is really the only annual care they need.

            Watsonias are grand at the back of a border, where their 5- 6 foot tall flower stalks will be seen over other plants. Another way to grow them is behind a hedge, so they stand above it when in bloom, disappear when they die back. Or mix them into a narrow border with other plants of similar height--shrubs or other tall perennials. In addition to ornamenting the garden, Watsonias make good cut flowers.

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            Most of the Watsonia plants I see growing are hybrids, with peach, pink, or red flowers, which are readily available at nurseries for fall planting. I also see the pink or white-blooming ones that represent the species, Watsonia borbonica, especially in older gardens.

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I think the pink one in the three previous photos is the species, Watsonia borbonica. It is described as having "violet" stamens, and these look violet to me.

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This white one may be Watsonia borbonica ardernii, a subspecies that was discovered in the wild.

            Plant the corms about 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. You can plant in a circular area to get a nice clump, or could plant in a row.

            While the plants will thrive with little care, if you have time, and want to groom your plants to keep your garden looking at its best, here is what to do:

            While the plants are blooming, remove spent flowers every few days. They will fall off in your hand at a slight pull. When the top flower of the central stalk of flowers has bloomed and faded, cut that stalk off where it joins a lower flower branch that still has buds or open flowers. (You will need hand pruners for this, as the stalks are tough). When all of the side stalks have finished blooming, cut the entire flower stalk short enough that the cut end won't be visible above the leaves.

            When all of the flower stalks have been cut, you can ignore the plant until all the leaves turn brown, or you can go out every couple of weeks and remove brown leaves. It is up to you. But when all the leaves are brown, cut them as short as you can. You will need sharp pruners to do it. Don't wait until the green "swords" of the new leaves push through in fall, or you will have a devil of a time avoiding injury to the new leaves!

            That's about it, until, a number of years later, you might see that the clump is blooming less, or only near the edge, or that it is a bit too wide for its location. Then you might want to go out when the plants are dormant, in summer, and either remove some corms near the edges to reduce the clump size, or actually dig the whole thing up and replant corms.

            Either way, you will have some corms to plant elsewhere or to share. Full sized corms are 2-3 inches across and will probably bloom the following spring. Smaller ones (cormlets) will take 2 or more years to bloom. If you dig the whole clump, you will probably have more corms than you know what to do with, and may want to discard the smaller ones. (Or maybe go into the Watsonia corm business.)

            One more tip. You can grow Watsonias in a big pot, say 15 inches across for a group of corms, but in a pot you will need to give them a bit more care. From the time the plants start to grow to when blooms are starting to fade, fertilize lightly from time to time, and water regularly. You don't want the mix to be soggy, but unless rain is keeping it wet, water when the top inch is dry.

Learn about 49 more easy, beautiful garden flowers in Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.

 


Dramatic Tree Dahlia Success

In November, the big news in our home garden was the success of our tree dahlia. It began to bloom at the end of October and still had a few blossoms the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was so tall the flowers were at the level of our second story window. This is such big news because the tree dahlia we had previously, a single-flowered white one, was such a failure.

The white one grew tall all right, and it bloomed too. It's first buds opened just at Thanksgiving and there were plenty of buds. However, at the end of November or the first week of December, there was usually, seems like always, a big wind that lasted 1-3 nights. At the end of it, the flowers and buds were mostly gone and most of the leaves had also broken off. Then all we had was a blackened skeleton until we got tired of looking at it and cut it down. Such a disappointment.

But this one not only begins to bloom a month earlier, but also, when the wind howled three nights in a row last week, the leaves survived! So we had a glorious month of lavender flowers and now the plant is still rather attractive as it soaks up the last bit of sunlight before its annual cutting back. March is the suggested month for cutting back, and we are grateful to have an attractive plant to look at until then.

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So the moral is that all tree dahlias are not the same. This plant, native to South Mexico and Guatemala to Colombia, is Dahlia imperialis. The species has white, pink, or lavender flowers; single or double. (Because it is a composite flowerhead, "double" means that it has more than one ring of showy ray flowers around the small yellow disk flowers.) Are all white-flowered ones earlier and more delicate in wind? What about double ones? I have no idea. But I'm glad we found a way to enjoy it in our windy garden.

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Some Links for Seed School Class 1 August 20, 2011

Growing plants from seed is fun and saves money. I have written about saving and growing seed in both of my regional books Golden Gate Gardening & Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California. The first covers seeds of vegetables and herbs, the second covers many common California garden flowers.

Because Seed School at the Garden For the Environment in San Francisco (http://www.gardenfortheenvironment.org) starts tomorrow, I am putting a few links on this blog. The first class is on saving seed, so these are links that will be particularly helpful on that subject.

Here is a link to a series of articles by Tom Clothier, on every topic you can imagine relating to saving and starting seeds from Botany for Seedsavers and Genetics for Seedsavers to conditions for growing many kinds of seeds and dealing with damping off (decay) in seedlings.

http://tomclothier.hort.net/index.html

I also found his template for folding a seed packet that needs not tape or glue, for those times when you need to enclose some seeds when you are "in the field" with no access to other containers.

http://tomclothier.hort.net/templat3.htm

To find many wonderful printable templates for making paper seed packets when you have more time and materials, do a Google search for "seed packets" with "template". Here is one example of some of the pretty templates you will find with such a search:

http://content.bbcmagazinesbristol.com/gardensillustrated/pdf/GI_seedpackets.pdf

The following link is to native plant seed collection guidelines of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden. It covers getting permits for collecting on public land, keeping records, guidelines for amount of seed to take, and other important information for those who are thinking of doing this.

http://www.hazmac.biz/aboutus/Seed%20Collecting%20Guidelines.pdf

Another link of use to those who are interested in native plants is that to the Presidio Native Plant Nursery. They grow native plants for restoration projects and welcome volunteers. Much of what they do is starting plants and tending them as they grow, but they also sometimes involve volunteers in wild seed collecting and cleaning. They welcome volunteers 1-4 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

http://www.parksconservancy.org/help/volunteer/volunteer-native-plant-nurseries/presidio-native-plant-nursery.html

 Finally, here is a google search engine that has been set up to deal with all aspects of saving, obtaining, or growing seeds:

http://www.google.com/cse/home?cx=017813469075022978746:zxwdeucohtq

Hope to see you in Seed School. In the first class, I will cover the basics of seedsaving, and then we will clean some seeds I've saved and I will advise on ones you may have saved or plan to save.

(If you missed the class and would like to see it repeated, send me a comment and we will see if we can do it again.)

 


Naked Ladies--Wildly Successful Plant of the Month

In California, August is the month of the naked ladies. They are to be found dancing in gardens and along roads up and down the state. They dance, however, only in the wind, being rooted firmly in the ground--not wild California women, but pink lily-like blossoms of the plant Amaryllis belladonna. The fanciful name was inspired by the fact the plans have no trace of leaf when they are blooming.

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These, in our neighborhood, were planted behind a low privet hedge, so they peek modestly over the top when viewed from the street. (Not everyone finds them shocking, though, in Italy, they have the much more modest common name of Madonna lily, and in Spain, a name that translates to "Girls going to School.")

Below, I shot a cluster of them close up, so you can see the big bulbs at the top of the soil.

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This is a plant of mysteries. The first is the absence of leaves when it blooms. The explanation for their lack is that they have strap-like leaves in winter that you could easily mistake for Agapanthus leaves. They dry up completely well before the flower stem emerges.

The second mystery is why they sometimes refuse to bloom. In the wild, in the chaparrel-like fynbos of the Cape Province, they bloom only after a wildfire strikes--which happens every 5 to 40 years. In gardens, they tend to bloom every year, but if they are in shade in winter and spring, they may not bloom at all. One guess is that the wildfires remove other plants that shade the leaves in winter.

In South Africa, botanists puzzled for a long time about how the flowers were pollinated, considering a hawk moth, carpenter bees, and other bees. Whatever does it there, something also does it here, because seeds do form. They are soft pearly pink or white balls the size of BBs. I germinated them in pots, just to see, but they don't usually germinate in the garden. This is probably because fall rains are later here than in South Africa, so the delicate, fleshy seeds dry out before they can grow.

These plants grow nicely in unwatered parts of the garden. They rarely need any irrigation at all, being from the western, Cape region of South Africa that has a climate very similar to ours--wet in winter, dry in summer.You'd only need to water a bit in an unusually dry winter. And, while the plant has no need for summer water, it can tolerate a moderate amount of it in spring and summer in soil with good drainage, meaning you can grow it in the same bed as other plants that are moderately drought-tolerant. The bulbs are best left alone for a number of years to produce large clumps.

A good time to plant naked lady bulbs is late summer, when they are most dormant. If you are dividing an existing stand, dig them as soon as the blooms fade.

In South Africa, naked ladies are often interplanted with native bulbs that bloom at other times, such as spring blooming Agapanthus or winter blooming Chasmanthe. (Chasmanthe is a tall, orange or yellow-flowered plant often mistaken for crocosmia here.)

These were among the South African bulbs Thomas Jefferson obtained and tried to grow in his greenhouse, though in general, he wasn't a very successful greenhouse operator and soon gave up, deciding to use the greenhouse as a sun room instead. By 1850, the bulbs were introduced to California, which accounts for the fact they are sometimes seen blooming in places where no one lives now. They have survived in abandoned farm sites and on Alcatraz Island, where they were part of the prisoner or employee gardens recently rennovated. (While they persist, and multiply, they don't generally spread far from the original planting, so if they were planted in a row, the row remains, just blooming more profusely after many years.)

Gus Broucaret, instructor of Horticulture at City College of San Francisco tells me that as a boy in San Francisco in the 1930s or 40s, he would have dirt fights with his friends on undeveloped hillsides, and then dig up a naked lady bulb, slice it open and use the sudsy sap inside to clean their hands before going home to face mothers who didn't much approve of their dirtying play.

Naked ladies are deer and gopher resistant and are fragrant. If you have enough to cut as well as ornament the garden, you will find they are excellent cut flowers.

A similar plant, of interest to those with smaller gardens is Nerine bowdenii, which has pink flowers on bare stems to 2 feet tall in late summer. 

There is much more on Amaryllis belladonna and other easy heirloom California garden plants in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, available in many local bookstores and nurseries. (See cover at right.)

 


Rootstock Roses--what are they?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote my column Golden Gate Gardener, on www.sfgate.com, about rootstock roses. That is, I wrote about the roses that provide the roots onto which the stems of more desireable roses are grafted. I used the following photo to show what can happen:

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That yellow rose was the original one the gardener purchased. The red ones are growing from below the graft union, near the ground. No one cut them off, so they kept on growing. They are more vigorous than the grafted rose, because they are growing on their own roots, so they are likely to overgrow the yellow one and may very well kill it. This has been going on for this particular plant for several years. The gardener made a half-hearted attempt to cut away the red rose branches, and now seems to be ignoring the whole thing, so I am bidding goodby to the yellow ones.

I started to research what the red rose might be and discovered that while there are hundred of grafted rose varieties, there are only a handful of varieties commonly used to provide rootstocks for them. The most common red one is called 'Dr. Huey'. It's a wichuriana climber, bred by Captain George C. Thomas Jr., and named after Dr. Robert Huey another rosarian who had encouraged him. It is also sometimes called 'Shafter' after the town along Hwy 99 in California where many commercial roses are grown. The roses are red, averaging 2" in diameter, with 9-15 petals, and many stamens that stand up in a ring at their center,

That all sounded right, except that 'Dr. Huey' has flowers borne singly, that is, not in clusters. This rose blooms n clusters of 3 or up to 7 or 8, so it has to be a different variety.

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I also noticed that the stamens didn't stand upright, but bent out from the center before turning upward. Hmmm. What could it be?

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With further research, I found that there is another widely used red rootstock rose, 'Ragged Robin', which has large clusters of bloom, borne in flushes throughout the season, which, now that I think about it, is true of the one in the photos. It is a China rose, Rosa chinensis that was oiginally introduced in France as 'Gloire de Rosmannes'. (That sure sounds more elegant than 'Ragged Robin', doesn't it! I wonder when the name shifted.)

I called Jackson and Perkins Roses and sent them photos, to see if they could confirm my guess, and a rosarian there agreed that 'Ragged Robin' it is.

Rootstock roses are chosen for ability to grow in a wide variety of soils and climates, for vigor, for ease of rooting, and how well they accept a bud from a different variety chosen for its flowers. 'Dr. Huey' is popular because it is very good at all of this. Apparently, it  is a part of rose growing history that a bundle of cuttings of 'Dr. Huey' got mixed up with those of Gloire/Ragged cuttings in the Armstrong Roses growing fields and this mistake revealed that 'Dr. Huey' was a better rootstock. (Sorry, but my source didn't say how 'Ragged Robin' was inferior.) But both of these roses continue to be used, as well as several of other kinds. 

So the take home message is that rose plants shouldn't have two kinds of roses on them.. (I'm not talking about 'Joseph's Coat', a climber that naturally has red and orange roses and blends on one plant. Nor am I talking about Rosa chinensis mutabilis, the blossoms of which age from peach, to pink, to purple before the petals fall. I'm talking about a rose that suddenly has branches of flowers of a different color. Look low on your plants for the jog or bulge where the graft occured and don't let branches grow from below it or emerge from the ground. (Sometimes you can tell by the different leaves or thorns even before one of these rogue stems bloom.) If you get them while they are young, you may be able to just yank them from the plant, which makes them less likely to regrow. Failing that, prune them to the joint with a stem that has the original kind of flowers.


April Showers and Flowers (and Hail!)

April was so rainy that many people around here thought we were having an unusually wet winter, but I suspected it was about average for San Francisco, and it turned out I was right. After a few years of drought, average felt really wet! And, as is typical in March or April, we had hail, which is hard on the plants. This time the hailstones were only B-B sized. A few year's back we had hail the size of cooked chick peas, and that really shredded the plants.

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This is what last month's hail looked like. March 2010 009 copy 
Everything was left pretty much intact, but there were hail scars on the nasturtium leaves and on some succulents.

I ran out to move my potted tree peony out of the hail, but though it looks delicate, it is made of sturdy stuff. Here are three more images, showing the bloom opening and beginning to lose its petals.

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And that's all untul next year. Only one flower this year, but what a flower!

The potatoes are progressing too. Here are three shots. In the first, plants are emerging in their trenches. In the second, I've filled in the trenches, pushing soil up against the plants, which will encourate more tubers to form. In the third, I've mulched with straw, to keep down weeds and make sure the tubers don't get exposed to light.

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Finally, the apple tree bloomed. There are lots of flowers, and it has rained less since they opened, which is good news for fruit set and health. More bees will find the tree in sunny weather, and the tree is less likely to suffer from apple scab disease. The bloom is the first step toward our much appreciated crop of fresh, sweet, crisp fresh apples in October.

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