Catch Weeds Before They Go To Seed.

Seed pods not only look unkempt and inhibit continued bloom, but can disperse too many seeds of otherwise worthy plants.

It may seem futile to pull certain weeds this late in the season. Those in unrefined parts of the garden that get little or no irrigation might be so dry that they only deteriorate and scatter their abundant seeds when pulled. The soil may be so dry that roots are difficult to extract, especially since the drying foliage now separates from the roots so easily. The only hope is that removal of dying weeds might eliminate at least some of the seeds for the next generation of weeds.

Foxtail and burrclover are not only annoying, but are also dangerous to dogs and cats as their seeds mature and dry. After all, the seeds rely on animals for dispersion, so intentionally stick to fur. The problem is that seeds can get stuck in more than fur, and sometimes get into ears, eyes, nostrils and elsewhere. Seeds from a few other weeds can do the same.

Cheeseweed is not a dangerous weed, and is relatively easy to eradicate. The roots even stay attached to the stems when they get pulled. The problem with leaving them to mature is that they become infested with rust (a fungal disease) that spreads to other desirable plants. Saint John’s wort, snapdragons and roses are particularly susceptible to rust.

Feral Jupiter’s beard and montbretia that grow where they were not intentionally planted are often allowed to bloom before getting pulled. However, after bloom, stems separate so easily from roots that most of the roots remain to regenerate as soon as they are able. If left long enough after bloom, both Jupiter’s beard and montbretia sow seeds to infest even more.

Fortnight lily (or African iris) are not often a weed, but can get that way if their seed capsules are not removed before they mature and pop open. Besides, development of these capsules diverts resources from continued bloom. It is best to remove the capsules before they get floppy, and to remove as much of the finished flower stem as possible without removing stems that have not yet bloomed.

Both dusty miller and coleus are grown for their distinctive foliage but not their bloom. Flowering stems stretch and exhibit inferior foliar color and texture, so can actually get snipped before they bloom.

Mulch Retains Moisture And Insulates

Mulch helps to insulate the soil.

Nature is smart. It should be. It has been operating efficiently since the beginning of time. That is certainly longer than anyone has been gardening in defiance of nature. Imported plants that need unnatural watering and soil amendment continue to benefit from nature. Some assets, such as weather, are direct from nature. Some, such as mulch, are copied.

Summers are long, dry and somewhat warm here. Without rain, there is plenty of time for the soil that roots inhabit to become dry. Warmth and aridity increase the consumption of moisture by plant species that are not accustomed to such extensively dry weather. That is precisely why landscapes and home gardens are so reliant on supplemental irrigation.

Because water is expensive, plants that do not require much of it are popular. Automated irrigation systems should operate as efficiently as possible to minimize waste. Since turf grass is very consumptive, lawns should not be overly expansive. Conservation of water is common here. There are several techniques for doing so. Mulch is one of the simplest.

Although adding mulch to a garden is unnatural, it works like the natural detritus within a forest. It retains moisture and insulates the surface of the soil. Without mulch, surface soil can become uncomfortably dry and warm for roots. Mulch also inhibits the proliferation of weeds. Because weeds consume moisture, their absence indirectly conserves moisture.

Mulch generally goes into the garden during early spring, before weed seed germinates, and after the removal of the detritus of winter. It can be practical at any time though, even as the soil becomes dry and dusty through summer. Various forms of mulch are available from garden centers. Home compost works splendidly, but costs nothing more than labor.

Alternatively, several types of groundcover can function as mulch. Some types consume more moisture than they conserve, but exclude weeds. Some types, such as ceanothus, lantana and licorice plant, might not crave any more water than the plants they surround. Their maintenance should involve less effort than removal of weeds which they displace. They are more visually appealing anyway.

Squirrels Fear The Unknown Too

Pierre Francois dutifully protects ripening fruit.

It is embarrassing when my mother teaches me a practical gardening technique that I should have known about, especially if the particular technique is as simple and downright silly as what my mother does to protect ripening fruit from squirrels. A friend of hers suggested it; and it seems to be significantly more effective than the few fancier ideas that I recommended.

I should first mention that there is nothing new about repelling animal pests with effigies of other animals that they are afraid of. Scarecrows and stuffed snakes and owls have been around for centuries. As the name implies, scarecrows scare crows who perceive them to be potentially troublesome people. Rats and terrestrial rodents avoid snakes. Squirrels and some birds are afraid of owls.

When I was in about the fourth grade, I remember that National Geographic World magazine (which is now National Geographic Kids) featured a silhouette of a predatory bird that could be cut out and taped to windows to deter birds that might otherwise break their necks as they tried to fly through the clear glass. The associated article explained that the cut-out silhouette was effective because birds instinctively knew what to fear. A silhouette of a harmless seagull would not have been as effective.

However, some deterrents are not so specific, but instead rely on the fear of the unknown. Beach balls outfitted with decals of huge eyes look weird in the garden, but work because so many birds have bird brains that think such contraptions are big, scary and possibly predatory animals. Flash tape and old compact discs work simply because birds do not know what the reflected flashes are.

Scarecrows and other inanimate effigies should be relocated occasionally so they seem to be alive. They should stay near what they are in the garden to protect, and not loiter when it is gone. For example, if protecting ripening fruit, they should leave after the last of the fruit is gone. Otherwise, the target pest animals realize that they are fake or dead. Beach balls, flash tape and compact discs are more animated, so need not be moved so much, if at all, but are too tacky to stay all year.

All this may seem complicated, but can be simple enough for my mother to master with . . . well, allow me to explain.

Pierre Francois is a cute, fuzzy and seemingly French plush toy bunny made in China, who knows all about protecting ripening fruit from squirrels. (‘Stuffed animal’ is no longer politically correct.) After seeing how expensive a fake owl would be, my mother put Mr. Francois in the peach tree. He and his sort are free if borrowed (stolen) from the grandchildren, or very cheap at garage sales or thrift stores. Although cute and soft to us, Mr. Francois is big, intimidating and unfamiliar to squirrels. Before the squirrels get acquainted with him, the peaches will have been harvested, and Pierre Francois will have been reassigned to an apple tree.

Saturation Of Soil Distresses Roots

Some riparian plants tolerate soil saturation.

Saturation of the soil should be a rare problem within the local chaparral climates. Water is a limited resource. That is why plants that are not native or endemic to other chaparral or desert climates rely on supplemental irrigation. Many exotic species would not survive through the locally long and dry summers without it. Water is only sufficient during winter.

The unfortunate reality is that soil saturation is among the more common problems within landscapes that rely on gardeners. Although most gardeners are proficient with irrigation, some are not. They would prefer to irrigate too generously than risk desiccation. They do not assume the expense of the water, or of the plant material that succumbs to saturation.

Although significantly less common within home gardens that do not rely on professional gardeners, soil saturation is possible. It occasionally happens within pots or planters that lack adequate drainage, or if the drainage becomes clogged. Saucers that contain water that would otherwise damage decking or flooring might inhibit drainage if constantly full.

Besides within pots and planters, saturation is more likely within dense garden soil than within coarser soil. Downspouts could saturate surrounding soil through the rainy winter season. Leaky plumbing might do the same at any time, even if it is merely irrigation pipe that leaks only while operating. Of course, excessive irrigation produces most saturation.

Saturaturation deprives soil or medium of aeration. Roots avoid soil or medium that lacks adequate aeration. Trees and large shrubbery therefore disperse most of their roots near the surface of saturated soil. Such shallow root dispersion limits stability. The expansion of such shallow roots displaces and fractures pavement and curbs, and heaves lawn turf.

Excessive irrigation causes soil saturation during summer. Excessive frequency is more likely to cause saturation than excessive volumes of water. Unfortunately, it is impossible to prescribe appropriate irrigation schedules and application rates. Climate, soil type and plant material are all relevant considerations. Moisture requirements change seasonally, and from year to year, as plants mature.

Taking It To The Streets

Tipu tree is the topic for tomorrow.

No matter how unique the individual gardens are, conforming street trees really unify a neighborhood. Streets of tract homes are typically planted with a common street tree that is complimentary to the architectural styles of the homes, and is complaisant to the difficulties of life at the curb. Neighborhoods of mixed architectural styles sometimes have difficulty finding a tree that suits every home, so often select two or more options. Older neighborhoods are not quite as selective about conforming street trees because so many various trees get mixed in over the years.

Before selecting a street tree, it is best to inquire with the particular municipality about designated street trees. Home owners associations generally install their own trees where needed, with little or no regard for the preferences of individual residents. Some urban neighborhoods (that are not home owner associations) are nearly as selective, requiring individual home owners to maintain a specific street tree or trees. Others do not require street trees, but limit selection for those who desire them. Selection is very often limited to only a single species.

There are of course many rural and unincorporated neighborhoods without limitations for street trees, and neighborhoods where limitations simply are not enforced. However, selection should still be limited to trees that are appropriate for curbside planting. Such trees should have high branch structure so that they can be pruned for clearance above the largest of trucks that can use the roadway. They should be reasonably clean, and not produce anything that could be messy on cars parked below. Roots should be complaisant with concrete curbs and sidewalks, particularly where space is limited. Foliage and bark must be resilient to harsh exposure and enhanced glare (from surrounding pavement).

London plane (sycamore) and crape myrtle trees are the two most common street trees planted by landscapers, and are the most commonly pre-designated street trees, but are actually not the best of choices. London plane is popular among landscapers because it can survive the neglect that landscapers are notorious for, but has aggressive roots that eventually damage concrete, especially since landscapers waste so much water and keep the soil saturated. Crape myrtle is remarkably colorful both in bloom and with fall color, and has remarkably complaisant roots, but does not get tall enough for adequate clearance, and often gets infested with insects that drop sticky honeydew on parked cars.

This was the topic for yesterday.

Aquatic Plants Are All Wet

Both cattail and duckweed are native.

Home gardens and landscapes should be compatible with their respective climates. For local chaparral climates, plants that do not need much watering through the long and dry summers are appropriate. Aquatic plants are the extreme opposite. They require regular replenishment of the ponds that they inhabit. Arid warmth increases their need for water.

Aquatic plant can not be ‘drought tolerant’. Several, such as duckweed, water lettuce and water hyacinth, float over the surface of water. Water lily and lotus inhabit the mud below the water, and extend their foliage to float over the surface of the water. Waterweeds stay completely submerged, with or without roots. Aquatic plants need water for their survival.

Marginally aquatic plants are somewhat less dependent on water. Cattail and yellow flag iris inhabit shallow ponds and saturated soil, but can survive if their situations drain for a while. If they stay too dry for too long, they can initiate dormancy, and then recover when saturation resumes. Canna inhabits either shores of shallow ponds, or evenly moist soil.

Regardless, all aquatic plants require maintenance that is completely different from what terrestrial plants require. Even those that need only minimal maintenance will eventually necessitate muddy and messy interaction. Much of such interaction is under water that is difficult to see through while murky. Aquatic plants are innately heavy and totally sloppy.

Moreover, some common aquatic plants grow like weeds. Water hyacinth and giant reed are two of the most invasive exotic species in California. So, not only are they sloppy, but they are also voluminous! Because they are very invasive, they should not inhabit ponds that they could escape. Besides, giant reed is too overwhelming for most home gardens.

Few home gardens include natural ponds or water sources to contain as ponds. Garden ponds are therefore mostly contained within some sort of sealed infrastructure, and need replenishment to compensate for evaporation. Fountains aerate the water for a healthier ecosystem, but also increase evaporation. Some tall aquatic plants also consume water, as the foliage that extends above water transpires.

How To Deceive Smart Seeds

Some seeds need help to germinate.

Plants could not proliferate as they do if they were as unintelligent as they seem to be. Actually, much of their activity would be considered quite ingenious if it could be observed in a more ‘human’ perspective. From their exploitation of pollinators to their aggressive tactics for competition with other plants, the behavior of plants is obviously very deliberate and purposeful.

Because they are so reliant on the weather, pollinators and so many other environmental factors, the life cycles of plants are on strict schedules. They must also adapt to diseases and all sorts of other pathogens. Fires and grazing animals are problems for many, but advantages to most.

Most seeds develop during summer and autumn. When they fall to the ground, they need to know to delay germination until spring to avoid frost and the likelihood of getting eaten. Seeds of many plants, particularly those from more severe climates, germinate only after being ‘stratified’ by a specific duration of cold weather. Such seeds need to be artificially stratified by refrigeration in order to germinate any differently from their natural schedule, or where winters are not sufficiently cold.

Many seeds require ‘scarification’ by digestion by animals that naturally eat them, or by the quick heat of a wildfire, to break or soften a hard outer coating that otherwise inhibits germination. Seeds that need to be digested actually rely on animals for distribution. Seed that need heat want to be the first to regenerate after a wildfire, before competing plants recover.

Goldenrain tree, and many maples and pines produce so many seeds that even if less than one percent germinate in the garden, they seem to be prolific. However, for more reliable germination of a majority of seeds, they should be scarified. The seeds of many pines that crave fire can be heated briefly in an already hot oven to simulate fire, just enough to heat the seed coat without roasting the seeds. Some people actually prefer to spread them on a piece of paper, and then burn the paper. Seeds that only need their hard outer coating to be damaged slightly might need only to be sanded lightly on sandpaper. I actually prefer to rub my canna or Heavenly bamboo (nandina) seeds on a brick or bit of sandstone.

Toxic Plants In Home Gardens

Even toxic plants have their attributes.

Oleander that inhabits freeway medians is poisonous enough to be hazardous. Two tons of Buick cruising at sixty-five miles per hour past such oleander has more potential to be hazardous. The risk associated with toxic plants within freeway medians is as limited as their accessibility. Remarkably durable and resilient oleander is therefore quite practical.

Realistically, established oleander is quite practical for many landscapes. (Oleander leaf scorch limits the practicality of new installation though.) It is not the sort of vegetation that is appealing for consumption. Caustic sap should deter anyone who tries. It is poisonous primarily to curious young children or chewing dogs. It is generally safe in their absence.

Foxglove, angel’s trumpet, castor bean, nightshade and poison hemlock are significantly more hazardous because they are easier to consume. The seeds of castor bean and the fruits of nightshade actually seem to be edible. Poison hemlock sometimes mingles with foraged greens. Many diverse toxic plants exhibit hazardously appealing characteristics.

Some toxic plants are appealing enough to come indoors, where cats who never venture outdoors might take an interest in them. Dumb cane (Dieffenbachia) is a popular but very toxic houseplant. Mistletoe, although a parasitic and undesirable weed, is popular as cut foliage at Christmas. Its berries are very toxic. Poinsettia exudes caustic sap if disturbed.

Some toxic plants are toxic only because they are allergens. They affect only those who are allergic to them. Most people are allergic to poison oak. Fewer are allergic to related plants, such as African sumac. Some people are more or less allergic to a few species of Grevillea or Primula. Reaction to such species can be comparable to that of poison oak.

Too many toxic plants inhabit home gardens to list. Some are familiar fruit and vegetable plants, such as elderberry and potato. Some should be removed for the safety of children or pets. Selection of new plants can simply and conveniently omit any concerningly toxic plants. Generally though, with responsible interaction, most toxic plants are not too risky.

Good Neighbors Make Good Fences

Is privacy really worth big fences?

Good old fashioned suburbia will never bee the same. Bigger modern homes on smaller modern parcels leave little space for gardening and trees. What is not shaded by the taller homes is shaded by the taller fences, which are ‘needed’ for privacy since the homes are closer together. Building codes in most municipalities limit the height of fences, but lattice screens are often added on top for extra height.

Because lumber is not of the quality that it was when shorter light duty redwood fences were built decades ago, relatively expensive modern fences do not last nearly as long. They might last longer if they would get repaired instead of replaced when only the posts rot. Green technology seemed to work better before it became trendy.

Ironically, no one wants these bigger and bolder fences that are closer to home to be so prominent in the landscape. We try to obscure them with vines that can tear them apart, or shrubbery that can push them over. Watering these vines and shrubs accelerates rot in the posts.

Shrubbery intended to obscure a fence should not be so voracious that it wants to displace the same fence that it is intended to obscure. Some types of pittosporum work nicely because they support themselves without leaning against other features in their surroundings too much, even if they eventually get quite large. However, they do get quite thick, and can obscure a fence so well that no one would miss the fence if it were to get pushed over! A good hedge without a fence is sometimes a better option.

Many types of vines can be kept much closer to a fence than shrubbery can, but most tend to be more destructive. Star jasmine works nicely if allowed to climb a trellis directly in front of the fence, but should not be allowed to get between planks in the fence, or to get too intertwined in lattice. If it gets too fluffy, it can be shorn back like a light hedge.

Clinging vines like creeping fig can be very appealing on fences, and can be shorn like hedges, but will eventually necessitate the replacement of the fences that they climb. For those who appreciate such a tailored appearance, replacement of the affected fences every few years is a fair compromise.

Perennial Plants Keep On Giving

Can a canna be too perennial?

Many popular annual bedding plants have potential to be perennial if they get a chance. Cyclamen commonly perform as a cool season annual, only until replacement with warm season annuals. However, after summer dormancy, their tubers can generate foliage and bloom again for several following winters. Replacement is just easier than maintenance.

Real annuals complete their entire life cycles, from germination to dispersal of seed and finally death, within a single year. Biennials generate vegetative growth through their first year, and then disperse seed and die during their second year. Perennials perform for at least two years, whether or not they get any opportunities to do so within home gardens.

Home garden culture complicates this classification though. Those who enjoy gardening expect perennial plants to reliably perform for many years or indefinitely. Many perennial plants do so with only minimal intervention. Some are self-sustaining, and might seem to naturalize. That may be why so many smaller or less vigorous types classify as annuals.

Another qualification of perennial plants is that they lack woody stems and roots. In other words, they are herbaceous. Palms and species of Yucca that develop trunks classify as perennial plants also, but for simplicity, the larger types are herbaceous trees. Generally, perennials are terrestrial. A few are epiphytic (live in trees) or lithophytic (live on stones).

Although several perennial plants can survive indefinitely here without intervention, most perform better with some degree of attention. Most ferns are neater if groomed to remove deteriorated fronds. Many grasses benefit from severe shearing during winter. African iris blooms better in response to regular deadheading to remove developing seed capsules.

Perennial plants are very diverse. It is impossible to generalize about their maintenance. One commonality among many is that they multiply. Lily of the Nile can produce so many individual shoots that it can eventually become too congested to bloom. Division of such shoots every several years or so promotes bloom, as well as propagates more plants for elsewhere in the landscape.