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.

Salad vegetable scans 009 copy

(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.

Annie's Annuals IMG_1749 copy

(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.)

BY nr Fuchsia MG_1648 copy

(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.

BY Coast poppies IMG_1724 copy

(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.

67110013 copy

(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.


Master Gardener Spring Sales--Mostly Tomatoes

  36 scans 082 copy

Master Gardeners will be holding spring markets in three Bay Area counties in April. As reported in my SF Chronicle Column of April 5, they will be as follows:

San Mateo/San Francisco Master Gardeners will hold two sales. The first is on April 11, 9-1, at Redwood High School, 1968 Old County Road, Redwood City. The second is April 18th, 10-2, at Central Park in San Mateo, and is part of an open house at the park on that day. For more information: 2015 San Mateo/SF Spring Garden Market Information

Marin County Master Gardeners are having two sales on the same day, April 18th, both 9:30-12. One is at the Bon Air Shopping Center, 50 Bon Air Ctr., Greenbrae, the other is at the Pini Market, 1535 S. Novato Blvd, Nave Shopping Center, Novato..For more information: 2015 Marin County Tomato Market Information

Santa Clara Master Gardeners are having their sale on April 11, 9-2 at History San Jose, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose..:For more information: 2015 Santa Clara Spring Market Garden Information

All of the sales include tomato plants galore and Master Gardeners on hand to answer questions and the  April 11th sales in Redwood City and in San Jose include other kinds of seedlings and garden talks, and  a "green elephant" sales.

Each of the Master Gardener Organizations have prepared lists of the tomato varieties they will be selling, with information on the qualities of each variety. Here are links to the three 2015 tomato variety lists:

2015 San Francisco/San Mateo Tomato List

2015 Marin County Tomato Varieties

2015 Santa Clara County Tomato List

 

 

 


Roly-Poly Problems

I got the following question through my web site. I'll answer it below. I was trying to wait until I had a good photo of these little critters, but I don't seem to have very many of them these days, so there's no photo for this post.

The Question:
My veggie garden has been besieged by roly polies.  When I check gardening blogs, most answer that roly polies do not eat live plant tissue but they are definitely eating the base of my cucumber and squash plants. I caught most of them early and taped the base of the stems so they couldn't continue to gnaw away...but they have!!!  They continue to move up the stem even though the stem is tougher than when they were small seedlings.  I have lost a few plants to them. My vegies are mulched with my homemade compost which is a cold one and probably supports the rolly pollies.  How do I rid my soil of them?  They are everywhere!!  BTW I live in San Rafael, Marin County.  Should I solarize the soil?

The answer:Too many garden how-to books and other guides are researched by reading what others have written, so we get the same information over and over. And wrong information over and over is frustrating.

Roly Polies will generally eat any living or dead plant matter that is soft enough, inlcuding much dead, decaying plant matter. If there are only a few of them, they may not damage crops much, but when their populations build up, they do significant damage. While I've never seen sow and pill bugs eat squash stems, I have watched them chew up the blossom ends of summer squash fruit and eat into ripe tomatoes.

"Roly Polies" is a general common name for both sow bugs and pill bugs, which often occur together in gardens. These are two different species of animal, both more closely related to shrimp than to insects. We call the species that can't roll up sow bugs, the ones that form a tight ball when disturbed, pill bugs, but their habits and management are about the same.

Your goal is to make conditions unpleasant for them and to reduce their numbers if they get so numerous that they are becoming pests. Start by pulling the mulch back from your squash plants, leaving a bare area a few inches wide around them. Try to keep this surface, especially, but all of your garden soil or mulch surface, as dry as possible, since these creatures need to stay moist to survive.

I doubt that solarizing the soil will help with sow and pill bugs. They would tend to run out of the hot area under the plastic. You might get eggs, but the adults are very mobile.

Sow and pill bugs tend to congregate in moist dark places in the day time. You have to move fast, but if you know where they are hiding, and see a lot of them in one place, you can scoop them into a plastic bag, seal it, freeze it, and compost them. Or you can leave out traps, in the form of anchored opaque plastic sheeting or cardboard, remove it fast, and start scooping. Try using a kitchen scoop or a deep trowel.

If you have many sow and pill bugs in an area you are about to clear and replant, try to reduce the population before you plant seeds or set out new seedlings there. Waiting a couple of weeks may be enough, but if you have many of the creatures, you may want to use mechanical means, as just described, or chemical means, as follows, to reduce the population.

I never use chemical means as a first resort, but you may want to supplement your cultural and mechanical methods by using a product called SluggoPlus. In addition to the iron phosphate that kills snails and slugs, it contains Spinosad, an extract from a soil microorganism, that is toxic to sow and pill bugs, earwigs, and cutworms. Use it according to directions, including not spreading it any more thickly than the directions indicate, as it is toxic to pets. (If spread according to directions, very thinly, it is less likely that a dog might eat enough of it to harm it, but do read the directions.)

Good luck reducing your roly poly problem!

 

 


Ornamental Ginger--Late Summer Bloom in San Francisco

Ginger IMG_5422 copy
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.

Ginger cl IMG_5424 copy

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.

IMG_6101 copy ginger

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.

 


More on Early Blight of Potatoes & Tomatoes

(See photos in the previous post)

In my last post, I reported having seen some potato plants in San Francisco with what looked like early blight, a disease caused by the fungus Alternaria solani. I remembered from my research for the book Controlling Vegetable Pests, which I wrote in the early '90s, that this disease is not common here in California, but much more so elsewhere in the US. I wrote then that it is "less common in arid regions of the West, although overhead irrigation and frequent heavy dew promote disease in these areas." It showed up the week after we had an unusual June rain, and in a garden that has frequent fog. But the question is: Where did the spores come from?

My first thought was that someone had planted potatoes from the grocery store. These could carry the spores, even without symptoms, or could have had dark lesions with underlying brown or blacky corky rot from spores that grew on their surfaces. However, the gardener assured me that these were purchased at a nursery as certified disease-free.

So the spores must have blown in from a nearby garden or were carried in the rain. Then they landed on potato leaves that had some injury, at a time when the temperature and amount of hunidity were right for them to start growing, and the rest is history. The ideal temperature for early blight spore growth is 75-80 degrees F, but the symptoms develop fastest at 70 degrees. 

This disease can also infect tomato, and, occasionally, eggplant or pepper. Wild relatives of these plants are also susceptible. On tomato, the leafe symptoms, the bull's eye spots, are the same as on potato, and there may be sunken lesions on older stems. In additon, there may be excessive blossom drop (common here anyway due to cold nights) and leathery, sunken, dark brown lesions on the stem end of the fruits.

If this disease shows up in your garden, take the plants out of the garden. (In San Francisco, they can go in the Green Bin, since the municipal composting system will heat up enough to kill the spores.) If potato plants have formed tubers, eat them up soon, as they may decay in storage. Don't store them where you will kep other, healthy, potatoes later.

The spores can germinate in plant material from infected plants as long as it has not completely decayed, so pick up every bit of the plant and dig up most of its root. Do not save seeds from tomatoes that ripened on infected plants, as the spores can hide in the seeds.

Remove any solanum weeds that are growing in your garden, as they can harbor the disease. (They have flowers similar to those of tomato, but usually with white or pale lavender petals, and have clusters of small, inedible berries that turn black when ripe.)

Plan not to grow tomatoes or potatoes in the place where infected plants grew for two to three years.

When you do plant potatoes or tomatoes, provide your plants with adequate water and fertilizer and avoid getting water on the leaves of tomato'potato family plants. Start examining them when they are about a foot tall to be sure they do not have symptoms. Prevention is more successful than cure when it comes to plant diseases, but if you have had the disease, or if you see the first lesions it is causing, you might try the fungicide Serenade, which is based on a soil bacterium. Follow directions on the label, including repeated sprayings as it directs. (If you are spraying after seeing lesions on a leaf or two, pick off those first infected leaves before you spray.)

May early blight of tomato or potato not darken your door, or the leaves of any plants you are growing to produce food!


Saving Miner's Lettuce Seed

Salad 0299697-R01-033 copy
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. 

IMG_4607 copy

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.

IMG_4603 copy

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.

IMG_4605 copy

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!

IMG_1186 copy

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


Email as an Aphid Managment Tactic

I planted broccoli in my community garden last fall, and this spring, as it neared bearing age, it was overrun with aphids. The worst was the largest plant, which tipped over in a winter storm. (It is often the case that a plant with damaged roots becomes most attractive to aphids.) What to do?

I began by crushing as many aphids on leaves as I could find, and washing the leaves with the hose as I went. I looked over the plants carefully, checking the undersides of leaves and in curled over leaves.

When a leaf was heavily infested, I sometimes broke it off and took it away to a green bin (our municipal composting container here in San Francisco). As it began to bear heads, I removed them too, as they were so full of aphids I didn't want to try to get them clean.

I also noted that there were many lady beetles (ladybugs) on my African blue basil plant (a perennial that was coming back from winter), so I assume some of them were eating aphids on the broccoli, though I never saw one there. And, some of the aphids were turning brown and puffy, since they had been parasitized by the miniwasp that preys on aphids.

But after 2 weeks, with the problem not going away, I used a different pest management tactic, the email. I sent an email to a gardener in an adjacent plot to say that there were so many aphids on the Russian kale in that plot that it was certainly inedible, and so many that they were surely flying over to my broccoli in search of more to eat.

I think this tactic turned the tide. The next time I looked, the infested kale was gone (thank you!) and within a week, the infestation of my broccoli was much lower. I still searched and found pockets of aphids on inner leaves, but it was so much better.

IMG_4341 copy

Then, in a couple of weeks, presto, clean broccoli heads! I have been enjoying them ever since. I like to steam a few lightly and refirgerate them to cut up and put on a salad!

 


Do I need Legume Soil Inoculant--a way to test

To buy soil inoculant or not to buy soil inoculant for your legume crop, that is the question? You can buy it. There are strains for different legume crops, or you can buy one that is combined, for whatever you plan to grow. Some say it is already in you soil, so to buy it is to waste money. Here is a way to find out if you have enough of the right kind already:

The following information is from Iowa State University. Here is the link:

http://www.public.iastate.edu/~teloynac/354n2fix.pdf

-------------------------------------------------------

The question is whether there is a field test one can set up to find out whether suitable rhizobia are in the soil and fixing nitrogen in the roots of your legume crop. The answer is that there is, indeed a simple test one can set up to find out. Here is what they say:

If you wish to conduct a small field trial to determine if a) you have appropriate rhizobia in your soil and b) they are effective in fixing N, you may plant a SMALL area with the test legume. Mark plots and fertilize  portions of the area with N fertilizer (perhaps 100-200 lb N/acre). Extensive nodulation of the plants in the non-fertilized area would mean the proper strains are present that can nodulate the legume. Compare the fertilized and non-fertilized areas. If growth is generally comparable in both areas, the rhizobia are effective in fixing N. If all plants grow poorly, factors other than N may be limiting growth, such as variety adaptation, acidity, fertility, moisture, compaction, or other.

----------------------------------------

They say that the rhizobial bacteria are doing the best job if there are large nodules on the main root,and some on other roots too. From that, I'd say my photo of fava bean roots shows pretty good work being done fixing nitrogen. This is a very young plant.Already it is covered with nodules, with the biggest on themain root.

 Root nodulesIMG_1426 copy


Watsonias--Wildly Successful Plant of Late Spring

  IMG_3548 copy watsonias

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. 

IMG_3552 copy watsonias

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.

IMG_3210 copy watsonias

            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.

IMG_3209 copy watsonia

IMG_3212 copy watsonias

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.

IMG_3213 copy watsonias

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.