Spring Bloom in Fall--It's a Problem

In today's SF Chronicle (January 1, 1917), I wrote about plants that bloomed last fall in San Francisco that ought not to have been blooming until spring, caused by continuing climate change.

While it's true that we typically have our warmest "summer" weather from mid-September to mid-October, this weather has been lasting longer than usual. Last fall, the warm days and mild nights lasted until near the end of November. We celebrated time spent outdoors in nice weather, but some of our garden plants reacted by blooming and leafing out as if it were spring. This is a problem for the plants, which put energy and physical matter into doing this, so that when spring really does come, they have less stored matter and food energy to do it all again. This weakens the plant, leaving it more susceptible to all kinds of setbacks.

Case in point is my apple tree, which has borne bountiful crops of delicious apples for 30 years. But recently it has been trying to bloom in fall. Then, because winters aren't quite cold enough, it blooms later than usual in the spring. And, because of the energy it used up in fall, it blooms more sparsely. Two years ago, it had practically no fruit.

Last year it did better, though not as well as it used to do. The photo below, which I sent to the Chronicle, but they didn't use in the paper, shows my tree last November, with a few last apples and last leaves till hanging on while blooms and new leaves opened all around them. Now, on January 1, all the new leaves have succumbed to cold, wasting all that effort.

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If you are growing other temperate plants in the Bay Area, such as cherries and plums (ornamental or fruiting), magnolias, lilacs, or azaleas, you may be having the same kind of problem. What's to be done to save our plants? Obviously continue to work against climate change, a movement in which California in general is doing well.  But we can also join an effort to record the changes, in which our regional data will provide extremely valuable evidence.

More data about how climate change is affecting plants in our region is especially important so that we are represented in a system that has so much more data from cold-winter regions.

There are two organizations that are seeking citizen science data. One is the National Phenology Network (www.usapn.org/), sponsor of the National Phenology Project. It studies both plant and animal species. Another, Project Budburst (budburst.org), is studying only plant responses. Phenology is the study of what plants and animals do in response to seasonal changes.

Sending records to these databases is easy to do online. Log in, choose a plant, and tell them what it is doing on various dates. Children can do it at home and school classes can do it. Both web sites have curriculum information to help teachers fit the work into classes. It teaches observation, appreciation of plants, climate science, ecology, and how science is done

So as our new, and rather unnerving, year begins, please help observe and record what is going on with nature. Your reports will be powerful.

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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Gardening Up Close--Managing Self-Sowers, Plants with Runners, and Bulbs

Gardening: Up Close   What to do about plants that crowd eachother and themselves. 

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Garden plants do not just stand still and look pretty. Not only do they grow taller, but they also leap wildly from place to place, creep stealthily outside their allotted area, and sometimes bunch up until they are so close together they can barely breathe, let alone bloom. So one of the tasks of the gardener is to serve as a plant referee. This photo shows three plants that are competing for the same space. Not only that, but one of them is competing with itself! These plants also illustrate the three main ways plants reproduce: seeds, runners, and bulbs, and how a gardener might referee their competition.   

            The blue-flowered lobelia is an annual, a plant that grows only from seed, blooms in a couple of months, and dies in under a year. It spreads in a garden by dropping seeds. They might grow where they drop or may roll or be moved by water into new places. In my garden, dropped lobelia seed doesn't grow very often, resulting in only a few random plants a year, so it doesn't make a pest of itself. I watch for the  small lobelias with their first blue flowers, and either leave them unmolested where they choose to grow, or move them to a place I prefer. I left the one in the photo alone to grow where it voted to put down its roots. I thought it a nice touch at the base of the broken concrete retaining wall next to the creeping fern.

            Then the fern began to creep toward the lobelia. Its rhizomes crept forth, forming new plantlets every few inches. OK with me, since it makes a nice backdrop for the tiny sapphire blossoms. The fern is Blechnum penna-marina, a South American species that in cool moist locations, in mild winter gardens, makes a tidy perennial patch of low, leathery leaves.This one survived in a neglected corner of my garden for several years, just getting by, but has been growing happily in the new spot to which I moved it about five years ago. It has filled in its space and slightly enlarged the area it covered.

            As this past spring progressed, the lobelia got bigger, and then the fern began to creep under and past it, into the area where I have been growing some Babiana. Babiana is from South Africa, where it blooms after winter rains and can survive the  long dry summer. The leaves that emerge with my California autumn rains grow to about eight inches tall. Then in late winter flower stems reach a foot or so tall, each bearing about a half-dozen rosy-purple flowers. Very nice on an early spring afternoon with the sun shining through.

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            Spring passes, summer comes, I cut the browning flower stems, then the dying leaves. Soon there is only a tidy brown stubble, awaiting another chance to grow. The bulbs, or in this case, the similar structures known as corms, have stored up food enough to send down fresh roots when the rains begin again, to start the process over.

            Babiana has been the perfect choice for this tiny strip of rather sandy soil between the brick patio and the retaining wall. It turned out that strip was so narrow that it was very difficult to keep moist all through the summer, but since Babiana is dormant all summer, it needs zero summer water.             

            As the fern runners continue their reach, fern roots are going to tangle with the perennial Babiana corms. I have no way of knowing if the Babiana will survive this overrunning of its territory, so I must consider taking out some of the competing fern growth.

            Mediating further in the direction of fern control now is the fact that the Babiana corms, have been multiplying in their appointed spot for several years. This plant, as is the case with bulbs generally, doesn't move around, it just becomes more crowded. The plant is fighting with itself to find more room. There are more and more leafy plants each year. At first, the stand just produced more flowers, but in the past couple of years, the number of flower stems has held steady, or maybe even decreased. The Babiana is succeeding so well that it has begun to fail.

            At this point, I need to dig up all the corms and divide them. This just means separating them--they are loosely connected--and resetting the largest of the bulbs with a bit of room among them. If there are too many large ones for the space allotted, I'll have the choice of giving the planting more room or giving some of them away.

            There will also be small ones that won't bloom for two or maybe three years. These can be interplanted with the large corms in a larger area, or can be grown in an out-of-the-way place until they bloom, when you can decide where you want a new bed of Babiana. Or, they can be given to someone who wants to wait while they reach blooming size, or added to compost.          

            The questioning mind might wonder: If bulbs that grow from year to year crowd themselves up until there are few blooms, what happens in nature? In the case of Babiana, I have been told that they got their scientific name from the fact that baboons like to eat them. They dig up the corms and chomp them down, probably in the dry season when it is easier to wipe them clear of soil and they provide a welcome bit of moist food. I imagine baboons eat the biggest corms first, but miss some and especially miss the small ones, naturally thinning the lot.

            In some cases, as with Watsonias, the corms eventually form a large circular mound. If some animal begins to bite or kick out a corm here or there, and some that become detached might don't get eaten, they might roll off to a new location to start a new stand of Watsonias.

            The same goes for plants like my fern that grow from rhizomes or runners. Some foraging animal might break some off and not do a thorough job of munching all the broken plant bits, so some broken bits could roll or blow to a new place and send down roots.

            But a garden is not part of an intact ecosystem, with an equilibrium between animals and plants, so when plants are fighting it out, the gardener must step in. I now need to legislate the locations of the running fern and the clumping Babiana. Where do I want to let them be? And do I want to let the innocent lobelia, which grew from a randomly dropped viable seed right between the fern and the Babiana live out its short life in peace?

            First, I will dig up the part of the fern that has overtaken the Babiana bed, pot it up and save it for a friend who wants to grow some. Then I will dig up all of the Babiana corms and see what I have there. I will probably dig some fertilizer, a bit of earthworm compost, into the place they have been growing. Then I'll replant some of the larger corms 4 inches deep and 4 inches apart. (I looked the best depth and spacing up in a book.)  What if there are more large ones than I need for my tiny space? Hmm. Then a decision needs to be made.

            I will not disturb the part of the fern under the lobelia right now, because it is such a cheerful spot of blue! Only when it begins to fade will I decide if I have taken out enough of the fern.  

            But for a while longer, I will simply enjoy the battle, letting visitors to the garden think that this handsome plant grouping is an intentional and stable garden arrangement, created by nature and my careful planning.

I'll show that first photo again and if your eyes are sharp, you will see two other situations developing that will need attention one day.

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Did you notice the different kind of fern, the one with the larger fronds, at the base of the broken concrete, just above the lobelia? There seem to have been fern spores in the crannies of the used concrete we got through Craigs List, and some of them have germinated. Chances are this wll be a large fern, too large for the space. I may not be able to priy it out to move it either, so when it starts to overwhelm the spot, I may have to just rip it out. Sigh.

And arching up into the cracks of the concrete above and to the right of that fern, you will notice the leaves of some creeping campanula that has reached down from the top of the wall. Nice now; it made a few blue flowers that were very winsome in the wall in June. But if the wall were to be covered with it you'd lose the charm of the wall. You got it, more ripping out in the offing.


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:



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.

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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!


There were Two Little Birds--And They Have Flown

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This is a photo from the first day we knew there were two little mourning doves in the hanging basket. Seems they stayed on different sides of the parent bird until this day, when we looked and saw two little eyes and two little beaks. So there have been two all along!

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Things moved really fast after that. This is the next day. Momma and Papa are not in the nest, and babies have grown quite a lot of feathers in preparation for flight.

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The following day, Momma and Papa are sitting together on our back fence. Babies are stil in the nest. Change is a-wing!

The next day, the nest was empty. Only one month from egg to fledging! Fun to watch, but David ran out immediately to water the fern! We didn't fertilize. The birds have been doing that--hopefully not too much!

A Birth in the Nest on Our Porch

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We have had a blessed event in the hanging basket on our back porch. We were hoping for two, since there were two eggs (see recent post) but we only see one mourning dove chick. References say that often only one chick survives, and that seems to be the case here. Still, it sure is cute.Here it is a bit closer.

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Go little bird! We are rooting for you. (And glad cats can't access your hanging nursery.)


Mourning Doves Take up Residence

When my husband began to water his large hanging staghorn fern, a bird flew up, protesting loudly! I don't know who was more startled, the human or the bird. It flew to the back fence, where we could see it was a mourning dove.

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Investigation showed the nest, with its two white eggs. The pair lays only 2, maybe 2 more later in the summer. The sphagnum moss was practically enough as is, nestwise, but they did bring in a few wisps of dry grass.

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We went upstairs and saw that it took the bird about 15 minutes to work its way back to the nest, flying across the garden to the other fence first, then making the leap, or flight, back. So we have been watching. The basket is wide enough that there is room for the nest and some watering can action without sogging up the nest, if we can do it without scaring the birds too much. They take turns on the nest. My husband noticed them changing today. It took a very long time for the partner to decide it was safe to go to the nest, and then the exchange was very fast. My husband found himself anthropomorphically thinking "Don't they want to get acquainted a bit when changing the guard?"

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I'm afraid we can't tell Mom bird from Dad bird, but bird it is. The eggs hatch in about 2 weeks, and it has been over a week since our discovery, so...  (I'll let you know when it happens.)


Frost and Hail in SF on February 25th--But Not Quite Snow

On February 25th, we almost had snow in San Francisco, but not quite. We saw some flakes falling past the TV camera on Twin Peaks, not enough to make me want to run up there and look. I taught the next morning and when I got up there was a good frost in our back yard, and some hail embeded in it. I've seen hail here, and frost, but not both together.

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Here are some beets. Very frozen, very dry surface, still in shade.Hail particles are frozen into the frosty surface.

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This is a creeping campanula. Same thing, hail in the frost.

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This is the windshield of my car. A good icing, with hail embedded and bunched up at the bottom. I started to scrape, using my little rubber scraper. It's great for raindrops, but not so much for ice, so I was glad to have a different car, one that had been indoors overnight, to load up and drive instead. But by the time my husband got up and read my note, the frost was gone from the outdoor car. Nope, he said, no frost at all.

At City College, I began final prep for teaching, but had to run out to the garden to grab a few shots. I love the look of a frosted cabbage plant. This one is 'January King', one of the most handsome varieties.

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I love the way frost accents the edges of leaves.

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Morning light on the frosted wood frame of a garden bed.The plants are borage.

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Everything pictured here is fine now. No damage on these plants. The only damage I noticed at the college garden was to nasturtium. In my back garden, the shrub impatiens (Impatiens sodenii) are damaged--the young leaves are partially dead. I think I will just cut them back, since there are nice green leaves at the bases of the plants, protected by weeds and the uppper leaves from the falling cold air.