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.

 


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.

 


Addendum to Herb Society Lecture on Unusual Herbs to Grow

These are some extra notes about the herbs I spoke about in my talk on unusual herbs at the Annual Conference of the Herb Society of America on June 21, 2014, including a list of mail order sources for seeds and/or plants. If you want more info about these herbs, send me questions as comments. Or, if you'd like a repeat of the talk I gave to the Herb Society, send me a line about that (see Contact).

The Herbs:

Ocimum kilimandscharicum and O. basilicum 'Dark Opel'--African Blue Basil

This plant is covered thoroughly on  other pages of this blog. Do a search for other posts about it.

 

Herbalea Basils

'Wild Magic', 'Green Ball', 'Habana'

These are the three of the new, patented Herbalea basils I was able to purchase locally. There are up to 15 Herbalea varieties. I have nothing to add about them today, but will be blogging about them more as I continue to grow and cook with them.

 

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Calamintha nepeta--nepitella

This mint family herb has a flavor of mint and oregano together. It is popular in Tuscan cuisine, especially with mushrooms and artichoke.

Has, in the past, been classified as a thyme, melissa, clinopodium, and satureja. Has also been called Calamintha glandulosa.

Etymology:

cala, from Gr. kalos=beautiful   and    minthe=mint

Related Species:

There are two other common Calamintha species that you may encounter--and that are not the herb  nepitella! They are Calamintha sylvatica and Calamintha officinalis.

Funghi e Zucchini Trifolati (Mushrooms and Zucchini sliced thinly as you would truffles)

Adapted from adribarrcrocetti.com

 1 Pound mushrooms (cremini, porcini, white button, or any combination), thinly sliced

2 small zucchini (about 8 ounces), thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons of chopped nepitella

2 tablespoons of chopped parsley

1 teaspoon salt, divided

freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

 Brush the mushrooms or wipe them with a damp towel to clean. Cut off and discard the dry ends of the stalks. Slice mushrooms thinly. Slice zucchini into very thin rounds.

Heat olive oil in a 12 inch sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until it takes on a pale gold tone. Do not brown garlic, or it will be bitter. Increase to medium high and add mushrooms. Sauté, tossing mushrooms until they have taken up the oil. Don't be tempted to add more oil. Add 1/2 teaspoons of salt and continue cooking, tossing occasionally.

As the mushrooms cook, they will exude liquid. Cook until the liquid is almost completely evaporated, which will take 5-8 minutes.

Add zucchini and the other 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook until tender. Add a few twists of freshly ground black pepper and the herbs. Toss lightly. Remove from heat. Test for seasoning. Serve.

Eat this hot as a side dish, or cold as a crostini or antipasto.

 

Dracocephalus moldavica--dragonhead, moldavian balm

Entire plant has a lemony flavor. It is grown to make tea and for its attractive, blue, edible flowers.

This plant has been known as Moldavica moldavica.

Etymology:

 draco=dragon   cephalum=head   moldavica=from from Moldavia

Related species:

Dracocephalus parviflorum, American dragonhead, is native to Alaska and is treasured there as a native plant whose oil-rich seeds provide a food for birds. Has a slight minty smell to crushed leaves, probably hasn't been explored as an herb.

The ornamental Phystostegia virginiana, best known as obedience plant, is also sometimes called "false dragonhead." The quite similar Phystostegia parviflora was once called Dracocephalum nuttali.

 

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Dysphania ambrosioides--epazote

A strong-scented herb native to Mexico and used in Mexican cuisine with beans and in sauces.

Until quite recently, ths plant was classified as Chenopodium abrosioides, and is still considered quite similar to the chenopodiumns, although no chenopodium I know of has that strong a scent.

Etymology: 

 fr. Greek dysphanis=obscure, referring to the inconspicuous flowers, ambrosioides fr. Latin, ambrosia, referring to some similarity a botanist saw to plants in the genus Ambrosia (ragweed)

Etymology of the common name: from Nahuatle, informally known as Aztec, epatl=skunk and tzotl=dirt

Recipe Adapted From The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking, by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz

Frijoles

2 cups pinto, black, or red beans                  3 Tablespoons lard or salad oil (I used olive oil)

2 onions, finely chopped                               Salt

2 cloves garlic, chopped                                Freshly ground pepper

Sprig of epazote (or a bay leaf)                     I Tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped

2 or more serrano chiles, chopped

Wash the beans and place in a saucepan without soaking, with enough cold water to cover, 1 of the chopped onions, one of the garlic cloves, the epazote (or bay leaf) and the chiles. [If you can't find fresh serranos, she suggeste dried pequin chiles, crumbled. You could also try a bit of fresh Jalapeno, or you could reduce, or omit chiles] Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat; then simmer gently, adding more boiling water as it boils away. When the beans begin to wrinkle, add one tablespoon of the lard or oil. Continue cooking until the beans are soft. At this point, stir in enough salt to taste. Cook another 30 minutes over the same heat, but do not add water, as there should not be a great deal of liquid when the beans are done. Heat the remaining lard [or oil] in a skillet and sauté the remaining onion and garlic until limp. Add the tomato and cook for about two minutes over medium heat; add three tablespoons of beans, bit by bit, with some of the liquid from the pot, and mash, until you have a smooth, fairly heavy paste. Return this to the bean pot and stir into the beans over low heat to thicken the remaining liquid. .

[The epazote adds a very subtle flavor, not at all what you expect from the scent of the raw plant. I served this with a little bottled green sauce splashed on top, which made it even better. )

 

Cryptotaenia japonica

A celery family herb/vegetable that grows best in shade.

Etymology:

Crypto from Greek kryptos=hidden and tainia=fillet or ribbon

I think this means that oil tubes, present in plants of this family, are hidden in some way. There are typical oil-tube ridges on the seeds (really fruits), so I'm not sure what is hidden.

Related species:

Cryptotaenia canadensis

Native to the Eastern half of the US and Canada and known as honewort. Similar in appearance to C. japonica and also edible. Grows in shady places. Seed available from Prairie Moon Nursery (prairiemoon.com). If you are seeking it in the wild, check first to learn if it is a listed endangered species your state.  Also be aware that some wild members of the celery plant family are deadly poisons--so make sure you have the identified the plant correctly before you eat it.

 

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Centella asiatica--gotu kola

This celery family herb is used in Asian cooking, including blended into a sweetened drink.

This plant was once classified as Hydrocotyle asiatica.

There has been much discussion about whether the Centella growing in the Western Hemisphere (US and Canada) are the same species as the one growing in Asia. The North American plants have been called Centella erecta, but are often now considered a variety of Centella asiatica.

Etymology:

centella is a diminutive of cent, therefore a "little coin"

Related Species:

Several Hydrocotyle species are found in both Asia and some parts of the U.S. They differ from Centella in having a leaf stem (petiole) in the middle of a round leaf (peltate) rather than at the edge of a shovel or kidney shaped leaf. The Hydrocotyles are, like Centella, fond of wet places and are edible.

Be aware if you plan to collect any of these plants in the wild that they can carry bacteria if growing in unclean water and can also take up toxins that might be in the water.

 Recipe From Encyclopedia of Asian Food By Charmaine Solomon

2 bunches gotu-kola or

about 250 g/8 oz/ 2 cups leaves without stems

3 shallots or

1 small onion, finely chopped

Good squeeze lime or

lemon juice

1 sliced chilli (optional)

75 g/2-1/2 oz/1 cup fresh grated coconut

Salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Wash well and strip leaves from stems. Shred finely with a sharp knife, combine with other ingredients and serve immediately. The flavor is slightly sour, slightly bitter. Some people prefer this salad to be lightly cooked, if so bring a tablespoon of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the boil in a wok or pan, add all iingredients and toss over heat briefly, stopping before leaves lose their green color.

 

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Houttuynia cordata--fish mint, lizard tail

The plant has a strong scent and flavor that reminds some of fish. It is used in SE Asian cooking.

This plant is in the family Saureraceae, whose name derives from the root saur, meaning lizard.

Another genus in this family has a long, drooping, lizard tail-like flower head, and the name floats around the family.

Etymology:

Houttuynia is named after the Dutch botanist Martin Houttyn, who lived 1720-1798. Cordata refers to the heart-shaped leaves.

An Ornamental Cultivar:

The plant is sometimes called "chameleon plant" which is an echo of the name of a popular ornamental cultivar. In fact, non Asians might never have seen the original, green-leaved species that is used as an herb.

Related Species:

Anemopsis californica is a plant in a different genus in the Saureraceae that is native to California and nearby southwestern states. It was called yerba mansa by native Californians, who used it medicinally. It is now sold by native plant nurseries as an ornamental that grows to 3 feet tall, with large gray-green leaves and large spikes of tiny flowers, each with its white bract, and several white bracts at the base of the spike. It can be grown in wet places and is cold hardy.

 

Persicaria odorata--rau ram, Vietnamese coriander

Has a flavor that Westerners consider close to that of cilantro, but is not used as a substitute in Asian cooking, but as an herb with a distinctive flavor of its own.

All Persicarias used to be Polygonums.

Etymology:

 Persicaria is from the Latin word persicum, meaning peach. Someone thought the leaves resembled those of a peach tree.

Related Species:

You will come across other Persicarias, both domestic and weedy. The weedy ones are often given the common name of knotweed, as in common knotweed or swamp knotweed. The ornamental species and varieties are often grown for their colorful leaves, sometimes purple, sometimes variegated. A very common species, grown in gardens for many years, is P. capitata, a ground  cover plant with small round heads of pink flowers. I did not investigate edibility or flavor of other species of Persicaria.

 

Tagetes lucida--sweet mace, winter tarragon

Most marigolds, plants in the daisy family, have an unpleasant, pungent flavor, the leaves of this one are sweet and similar to tarragon in flavor.

Etymology:

Tagetes refers to the Roman god Tages, an adopted son or grandson of Jupiter, who was originally the Etruscan god of prophecy. Lucida is from the Latin root meaning clear or bright, referring to the bright flowers. Tagetes lucida is sometimes sold as "Mexican mint marigold." The common name marigold was given to plants in the Western Hemisphere genus Tagetes by Euorpeans. They chose this name because Tagetes flowers  reminded them of the European flower Calendula. As is frequently the case with medieval European plant names, the word marigold is a Catholic reference, short for Mary's Gold--a flower of the Virgin Mary.

Related Species:

This is not the marigold commonly listed as having edible flowers. That is Tagetes tenuifolia, or signet marigold. The flowers of that species are milder in flavor than those of most marigolds, but the plant doesn't have the sweet flavor of Tagetes lucida.

 

Mail Sources for Plants Discussed by Pam Peirce at the Annual Meeting of the Herb Society of America

In Concord, CA, June 21, 2014 (See web addresses of suppliers at the end of the list.)

 

African Blue Basil

Richters Herbs--Plants

 

Herbalea Basils (Wild Magic, etc.)

No Mailorder Source Located Yet

Sold locally by Sweetwater Nursery

 

Nepitella

Richters Herbs--seeds and plants

Valley Seed Company--seeds 

Nichols Garden Nursery--seeds

Richters Herbs

Nichols Garden Nursery

                              

Dysphania ambrosioides--Epazote

Nichols Garden Nursery

 

Cryptotaenia japonics--Mitsuba

Nichols Garden Nursery--seeds

Richters Herbs--seeds

 

Centalla asiatica--Gotu Kola

Richters Herbs--plants

 

Houttuynia cordata

Richters sells plants of both green and tricolor {'Chameleon') varieties

 

Persicaria odorata--Rau Ram

Richters sells plants including "Colosso' plants, which are shipped April-Nov and are 12.00 each!

 

Tagetes lucida--Sweet Mace or Winter Tarragon

Richters sells seeds of the species and plants of Tarragold--a trademarked variety.

 

Web Addresses of Sources Listed Above:

richters.com

nicholsgardennursery.com

valleyseedco.com

 

 


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.


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.

 


Early Blight Appears on Local Potatoes

When I saw these symptoms on some potatoes in a local garden, I thought they looked like early blght of potato and tomato, a disease caused by the fungus Alternaria solani. But I thought it unlikely, because this is not a common disease in our region. I tried to return to get good photos of the diseased plants, but when I arrived, the plants had been pulled, so my photos show leaves I selected to show the symptoms.

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The most diagnostic symptom is those dark brown lesions on the leaves with concentric rings visible in them. Those are from repeated growth of the fungus and release of spores. Symptoms are similar on tomato. Also susceptible are a number of wild potato/tomato relatives and other members of this plant family.

Eventually, the brown spots coalesce so that the entire leaves become brown and die.

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(This is an entirely different disease from Late Blight, which is Phytophthora infestans. Search this blog for more on that disease, with photos of its symptoms.)

Potato/tomato early blight is spread by spores, as are most fungi. I sent a sample of the diseased leaves, through the Cooperative Extension, to Brenna Aegarter, a UC potato expert in Stockton to ask for help identifying the disease. She lifted spores from the leaves with Scotch tape and put them under the microscope. Here is what she saw, followed by her reply:

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"There is clearly Ulocladium and Cladosporium (which are common “molds” on senescing/decaying leaves) as well as some Alternaria spores. However, the challenge is that there are two types of Alternarias in the world. One type is a common mold and would often be found on dying leaves. The other type are pathogens of plants and infect tissue that is living (and includes Alternaria solani cause of early blight). The ones that are not pathogens have short “beaks” while the pathogenic ones have long beaks (the narrow section of the spore that extends out).  Under the microscope I saw Alternaria spores with beaks, but the beaks were not so long as to entirely convince me that they are spores of Alternaria solani. But I have sent my photo to a colleague to see what he thinks. Stay tuned!"

Later, I heard from her to the effect that her colleague had confirmed that the beaked spores are Alternaria solani. If you look at the slide, you will see the ones with a long point on one end. There are the other, decay bacteria spores also, and I think the large, long objects are probably plant hairs.

I will, in my next post, explain this disease and what to do about it.


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.


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.

 


Late Blight Sample Sent for Analysis

I sent my first specimen of tomato/potato late blight off for analysis this week. I found symptoms on a purple potato that grows in the City College of SF garden. I sent it to a lab in Oregon, as I described in my March 2nd post, to become a part of the usablight.org project. They want to know which "clonal lines" of this disease organism are causing the disease in various parts of the country. For my part, I want to know which ones we have here in the Bay Area. Once we find that out, we will be better able to predict which tomato or potato varieties might resist the disease in our region.

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This is the photo of the specimen I sent to the usablight.org lab. They want us to send leaves that are still partly green, like these, but clearly infected. The whitish stuff on the surfaces is, I hope, spores of late blght.

If you want to take part in this survey and find out more about your particular strain, or, more correctly, clonal line, of late blight, go to usablight.org and learn how to submit samples. The first step is to have them send you a copy of the permit that will let you ship your disease samples across state lines to be tested in a lab in Oregon. Do this soon, so you will have the permit in hand when late blight rears its ugly head in your garden.

If you have overwintering potatoes, you might see late blight soon. In last year's tomato trial, the disease showed up at the end of July. Gardens with cool, damp, foggy weather are more likely to be affected by this disease. Spores fly through the air from other infected plants, land on your plants, and begin to grow. Please see the March 11, 2012 post for more details.