Horridculture – Bad Guys

P91211Roots hold up trees. That is part of their job. They grow along with the trees they support, and disperse as necessary to maintain stability. Trees grown within the confinement of cans (pots) or boxes, and then installed into a landscape, are typically staked temporarily until their roots adequately disperse and stabilize. Once unnecessary, stakes and bindings must be removed.

Mature palms that get relocated are supported temporarily by guy wires. They are just too big to be supported by stakes. Because palm trunks to not grow any wider as at they grow taller, they are not damaged by the sorts of bindings that would damage the fattening trunks of other trees. Like stakes on other trees, guy wires must be removed as they become unnecessary.

Although they can be appropriate in unusual circumstances in which stakes would not be practical, guy wires are rarely used on trees that are not palms. Mature trees that get relocated can be guyed if too big to be supported by stakes. Because trunks and limbs of such trees expand (circumference), it is more important for guy wires to be remove when they become obsolete.

As useful as guy wires can be, they are more often used improperly or inappropriately. Firstly, those who install them rarely do so correctly, with the wires or cables as straight as possible between each end. Cabled anchors are usually pounded into the ground perpendicularly to the direction of the cable, so that the cable merely slices through the soil when tension is applied.

Once installed, cables are very often left in place long enough to constrict the growing trunks or limbs that they are attached to. Cables that apply too much tension or limit the motion of the trees they support (in the breeze) for too long will actually inhibit root dispersion. Trees will only become as stable as they need to be. Besides all this, lingering cables are just plain unsightly.

The cabled trees in these pictures demonstrate another set of problems that should be corrected by simple and necessary pruning, and comparably necessary adjustment of the automated irrigation. Guy wires should most certainly not be necessary for such mature trees of this species, and will interfere with necessary root dispersion without remedying the primary problems.

Firstly, the trees are too low and dense. Even if stability were not a concern, they should be pruned for a bit more clearance above the patio to the right of the picture, and perhaps allow a bit more sunlight to the plants below, even if only temporarily. More importantly, pruning would temporarily decrease weight and wind resistance of the canopies while roots adapt accordingly.

Secondly, the landscape is getting irrigated too much, even for the ferns in the background. This maintains soil saturation so that stabilizing roots can not disperse into deeper strata. Roots that might have extended deeper earlier will drown and rot. Until this happens, excessive irrigation promotes heavy superfluous growth that the compromised root system can not support.

Automated irrigation should be disabled for winter, and operated only manually and minimally if the weather stays dry long enough for the ferns to get drier than they are comfortable with. It can be adjusted accordingly when reactivated in spring. Even before that happens, and roots disperse, the guy wires can be removed as soon as these trees get pruned as they should be.P91211+

Florists’ Cyclamen

91218It is unfortunate that most florists’ cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, are enjoyed as cool season annuals only through winter, and then discarded as they are replaced by spring annuals. They can actually survive as perennials for several years, with white, red, pink or magenta flowers hovering above their marbled rubbery foliage each winter. Foliage typically stay less than six inches deep.

Florists’ cyclamen are probably typically discarded seasonally because, after blooming through winter, they take some time to redirect their resources to adapt to their landscape situations as the weather warms through spring. During that time, they can look rather tired. Shortly after they recover, they defoliate for dormancy through the warmth of summer. Some do not survive the process.

When they regenerate through the following autumn, they are not as uniform as they were when first installed. This is probably not a problem where a few florists’ cyclamen are planted with mixed annuals or perennials that compensate for their irregularities as well as their dormancy through summer. However, it does not work well for the uniform flower beds that they are often installed into.

Seasonal Potted Plants For Christmas

91218thumb‘Tis the season for seasonal potted plants. These are not well established houseplant or potted plants that live out on porches and patios through the year. Seasonal potted plants are those that are purchased at their prime, allowed to live in our homes and offices while they continue to bloom or maintain their foliage, and then most likely get discarded when no longer visually appealing.

Poinsettia epitomizes winter seasonal potted plants. Florists’ cyclamen, azalea, holly, amaryllis, Christmas cactus and small living Christmas trees are other overly popular choices. All are grown in very synthetic environments designed to force optimal performance, with no regard to survival afterward. They are like cut flowers that are not yet dead. They are true aberrations of horticulture.

Technically, any of them can survive as potted plants, or out in the garden after they serve their purpose as appealing seasonal potted plants. Their main difficulty is that it is not so easy for them to recover from their prior cultivation, and adapt to more realistic environmental conditions. For now, it is best to enjoy them at their best, and try to maintain them at their best for as long as possible.

Eventually, they all experience a phase in which their original growth deteriorates to some extent, while they start to generate new growth that is adapted to the situation that they are in at the time. Christmas cactus are probably the most proficient at adapting, and becoming delightful houseplants. They are even likely to bloom occasionally, although not on any particular schedule for winter.

Holly, azalea and cyclamen can eventually get planted out in the garden. Most hollies grow into large evergreen shrubbery, but do not produce as many berries as they originally did. Azaleas are cultivars that were developed to be seasonal potted plants, so are a bit more finicky than those developed more for landscapes. Cyclamen can be added to pots of mixed annuals and perennials.

Living Christmas trees are not so easy to accommodate. Most are pines that need their space.

Curb Mongrel

P91208Fruit trees, with few exceptions, have been extensively bred to produce the quality of fruit that we expect from them. Some are consequently genetically unstable, or at least less genetically stable than their wild ancestors were. Even if they never mutate or try to revert to a more stable state, they are very unlikely to produce seed that can develop into genetically similar trees.

In other words, they are not ‘true-to-type’. Their seed might grow into trees that produce fruit that resembles that of one of their ancestors, or of a pollinating parent tree. It is impossible to predict what fruit will be like until it actually develops.

That may take a while. Some seed grown fruit trees start out with juvenile growth, and take a few years to mature enough to bloom and produce fruit. Some types of avocado trees grow tall and lanky for a few years before they bloom. Most citrus are fruitless and wickedly thorny through their juvenile phase.

Grafted fruit trees or those grown from cuttings are true-to-type because they are genetically identical clones of their single parents. Cuttings and scions (for grafting) are made from adult growth, so do not need to mature through a juvenile phase.

The unpredictability of genetic variability is the main reason fruit trees are not often grown intentionally from seed. Juvenility might be the second main reason. However, neither of these two reasons prevents curb mongrels from growing wherever their seed lands, which is often next to sidewalks and curbs where cores and pits get discarded.

Curb mongrels generally get removed and disposed of, just like any other weed. It would be more practical to plant a known cultivar of fruit into a situation where such a tree is actually desired. Every once in a while, a curb mongrel appears where it is allowed to stay, and eventually produces fruit that justifies its preservation.

Well, that was not what happened with this curb mongrel apple tree that appeared adjacent to a patio used for outdoor dining. It was not compatible with the landscape, so got removed before it was able to produce any fruit. It looks like it was grafted, but only because someone tried to cut it down without removing the stump two years ago.

The problem now is that it came up with enough roots to survive relocation. It is not so easy to dispose of a tree with such potential, even though there is no way to know what its potential is until it fruits. It will get planted into a private garden and pruned back accordingly. If we had planned for it to be relocated, the process would have been delayed until it was defoliated.

If the fruit is of inferior quality, the tree can be removed and discarded. At least we tried. Alternatively, a desirable cultivar can be grafted onto it. In a home garden, no one needs to know that it is not a known understock (rootstock) cultivar. The foliage resembles that of ‘Red Delicious’, which makes sense for seed that likely originated from a commonly discarded core.



There is quite a bit of open space in some parts of the landscapes. It is not as if the landscapes are lacking much. There just happens to be a few spots where a bit more could be added. This expanse of healthy English ivy was already appealing, but lacked interest.

There is also quite a bit of spare plants out and about in the landscapes. It is not as if there is anything wrong with spare plants. There just happens to be too many of them. These cannas got overgrown and crowded within their original colony in another landscape, so needed to be divided and thinned out.

We are not a so-called ‘landscape’ company, which profits from the removal of some plants, and the installation of others. There is no incentive to dispose of as much vegetation as we could bill a client for. Nor is there any incentive to install as many new and expensive plants as we could fit into any available space. It is not a ‘business’.

To the contrary, it is in our own best interest to exploit resources that are already available to us. For example, when we thinned out these crowded cannas from one situation, we reassigned them to other situations where they could grow and become assets to their new landscapes. Also, viburnums that were removed from one site were reassigned as hedges in other situations.

We will be doing more of this sort of reassignment now that the weather is cooler and rainier, and the plants that will get relocated are dormant. Carpet roses that must be removed from the boundary of a playground because they are too thorny will be relocated to a broad roadside, where they can grow wild. They will be replaced with lily-of-the-Nile that is crowded elsewhere.

Six on Saturday: Pet Rock Amongst Redwoods


Macabee Gopher Trap was invented in Los Gatos. So was the Bean Pesticide Sprayer. Both were very useful in the vast orchards that formerly occupied the Santa Clara Valley. Another one of the more famous invention that originated in Los Gatos was not so practical. Actually, it was weirdly impractical. What was weirder was that it became such a craze in 1975 and early 1976.

It was the Pet Rock.

1. Pigeons don’t lay eggs in December. They certainly don’t lay such big eggs, or leave them without a few twigs to keep the from rolling away. Now that I think of it, pigeons don’t live here.P91207-1

2. Oh, it is just a rock, painted by someone named Madeline. Perhaps, it is a Pet Rock named Madeline. It seems to be of impeccable breeding. Form, color and temperament are exemplary.P91207-2

3. Perhaps it was painted by someone named Joy, or it is named Joy. Well, whatever or whoever it is, it seems to be very important. It was put back in the hanging basket of zonal geranium.P91207-3

4. That’s the hanging basket with the zonal geranium in it, right there, second from the left. It is not exactly a good place for a Pet Rock to nest. Notice the plaque over the rail right below it.P91207-4

5. The plaque identifies all three species of redwood in the landscape. The green, blue and brown dots next to the names correspond to a diagram showing where each is within the landscape.P91207-5

6. The defoliated dawn redwood is to the left. The small giant redwood is to the right. Those in between and in the background are the native coastal redwoods, which grow wild in the region.P91207-6

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:


Italian Stone Pine

P90102Even though it can get about fifty feet tall and wide, Italian stone pine, Pinus pinea, often gets planted as a small living Christmas tree into confined urban gardens. It gets so big so fast that it can get to be a serious problem, as well as expensive to remove, before anyone notices. It is really only proportionate to large public spaces such as parks or medians for big boulevards. The bulky trunks typically lean one way or another. The long limbs spread laterally to form an unusually broad and flat-topped canopy.

The paired needles are about four to six inches long. However, small living Christmas trees are still outfitted with juvenile foliage that looks nothing like adult foliage. Juvenile needles are single, very glaucous (bluish) and only about an inch or an inch and a half long. Adult foliage may not develop for a few years. The four or five inch long cones mature slowly for three years. Squirrels and birds like the big seeds, which would otherwise be known as pine-nuts if people could get them first.

(Apologies for this inadequate illustration of Italian stone pines damaged by traffic. It was the only picture of Italian stone pine I could find.)

Christmas Trees – Dead Or Alive

41203thumbChristmas trees are like vegetables. Really, they are like big vegetables that do not get eaten. They are grown on farms, and then harvested and sent off to consumers. Although they smell like a forest, and they are descendents of trees that naturally grow in the wild somewhere, there is nothing natural about their cultivation. In fact, most are grown a very long way from where their kind are from. Therefore, bringing a cut Christmas tree into the home takes nothing from the wild, and does not interfere with nature any more than eating vegetables does.

Firs, particularly Douglas fir, are the most popular of Christmas trees. Pines are probably the second most popular. Redwoods, spruces, cedars, cypresses or even Junipers can also work. They each have their own distinct color, texture and aroma. Healthy and well hydrated trees that continue to get watered as needed should have no problem lasting through Christmas. Ultimately though, cut Christmas trees are not good for much after Christmas, and eventually get composted or otherwise disposed of.

Living Christmas trees might seem like a better option to cut Christmas trees because they dispel any unfounded guilt associated with cut Christmas trees, and initially seem to be less disposable. The problem is that they have problems of their own. Simply purchasing one is a big expense. Even the big ones are smaller than cut trees, but much heavier and unwieldy. Contrary to popular belief, only a few types that grow slowly, such as some spruce, can actually live in a tub for more than one or two years, and even they can be finicky.

The main problem is where to plant a living Christmas tree when it outgrows its container. Conifers innately do not like to be confined for too long. Yet, in the ground, most grow into substantial trees. The common little Christmas trees that are already decorated are actually the worst since they are juvenile Italian stone pines or Canary Island pines, which grow big and fast. Potted trees can not be planted out in the wild because their confined roots need to be watered until new roots can disperse. Even if they could survive, non-native trees should not go into natural ecosystems.

Horridculture – Half-Breed

70726thumbCher explained a long time ago that a half-breed is nothing to brag about. Some of us just don’t get it. A few clients still introduce me to their weirdly bred stone fruit trees as if they are both justification for great pride, as well as something that a professional horticulturist of the Santa Clara Valley has not already encountered a few thousand times. I at least try to act impressed.

The stone fruits that grew in the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley half a century ago were the best. That is why they were grown here. The climate and soil were ideal for their production. Traditional cultivars produced so abundantly and reliably that there was no need to breed new cultivars. The quality was exemplary. Consequently, only a few were actually developed here.

Half-breeds, or weird breeds of any unnatural ratio, started to be developed more than a century ago. A few happened incidentally where different species of the same genus of Prunus grew. They were enjoyed as novelties for home gardens, but were not sufficiently productive or reliable for orchard production. Their fruit was for fresh eating only, since it did not dry or can well.

Now that the orchards are gone, and the only stone fruits in the Santa Clara Valley are in home gardens, these weird half-breeds and others are becoming more popular. Nurseries will soon be stocking several along with their incoming bare root stock. There is certainly nothing wrong with them. However, they are not necessarily any better than their well bred ancestors either.

Apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum and prune, as well as almond, are the traditional stone fruits, of the genus Prunus. (Almonds are the seeds or ‘stones’ of a stone fruit that does not get eaten, but instead gets discarded as a hull.) There are many cultivars of each. Some can be canned. Prunes and some apricots can be dried. There is no need for more, or for ‘improvement’.

Pluot, plumcot, aprium, apriplum, nectaplum, peacotum, pluerry and others like them are the weird interspecific hybrids (which are hybrids of two or more species within the same genus, which for these examples is ‘Prunus‘). Some are half-breeds. Some are breeds of different ratios, such as a half-breed with a half-breed parent, or a half-breed grandparent. It is confusing!

It is also an unjustifiable fad. There are more disadvantages to these weirdly bred stone-fruits than there are advantages. They really don’t get the best of both parents, but might get half of each. Again, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. There are those who legitimately prefer such hybrids. The point is that fads are not necessarily good, and many are just plain weird.


91211Of all the popular pittosporums in Western landscapes nowadays, the karo, Pittosporum crassifolium, is certainly not one of the most familiar. It might have been one of the earliest to have been popularized here though. Because of its resiliency to coastal climates, it was a common hedge in San Francisco during the Victorian Period. With minimal watering, it did well farther inland too.

Karo are nice fluffy evergreen shrubs that can get fifteen feet tall. They excel both as informal screens and refined hedges, and can be staked as small trees on single straight trunks. Alternatively, lower growth of big shrubby specimens can be pruned up to expose a few delightfully sculptural trunks. ‘Compactum’ is a densely foliated mounding cultivar that might stay less than three feet tall.

The Latin name, Pittosporum crassifolium, is quite descriptive. The literal translation is “sticky-seed thick-leaf”. The two or three inch long leaves are not really thick, but their slightly grayish upper surfaces and more grayish tomentous (fuzzy) undersides make them seem almost succulent. Small and round seed pods eventually split open to reveal dark seed glued together with sticky resin.