Culinary Herbs With Landscape Appeal

Rosemary is more common in common landscapes than within dedicated herb gardens.

Because of the unusually mild weather this past winter, many plants are waking up from winter dormancy early. The shrubby herbs like sage, rosemary, lavender and tarragon are already outfitted with fresh new foliage that will soon obscure the foliage that lingered through winter. Those that have not yet bloomed may do so sooner than expected.

New herb plants can be added to the garden any time now. Even if rain resumes (or actually ‘starts’), there should not be enough to cause new plants to rot, particularly since the warming weather will keep plants growing faster than the root rot that can kill them through cool and damp winter weather. Sage, tarragon, marjoram, mint and thyme are easier to grow from small plants. Dill, cilantro and basil are easier to grow from seed sown directly into the garden. Oregano, fennel and chives can be grown by either means.

Many of the woody herbs, like rosemary and the many varieties of lavender, are commonly used in landscaping, so can be found in even the most basic nurseries that do not feature a selection of other herbs. Because almost all herbs have sensitive root systems, they should be planted while small. The smaller 1 gallon plants are easier to grow (as well as less expensive) than the larger 5 gallon plants are. However, sweet bay is an exception that does not mind being planted as a 5 gallon or even larger tree where it needs to look mature now, even if only a few leaves get used in the kitchen. Low growing rosemary is a common ground cover. Upright varieties can be shorn into small hedges. Thyme makes a nice small scale ground cover between stepping stones, where it shares its fragrance when stepped on.

Chives, oregano, parsley, mint and thyme are not often marketed as common landscape stock, but are visually appealing enough to appear in the landscape. Herbs that are not so visually appealing can be planted in a separate herb garden, among vegetables in a vegetable garden, or simply out of the way. Basil, cilantro, tarragon, dill, sage and marjoram can be too unkempt at times. Basil and cilantro look good most of the time, but then get harvested in large enough quantities to leave bald spots. Fennel can be a striking foliage plant for a while as long as no one minds that it will eventually get harvested.


Weeding Before Weeds Start Seeding

Some cultivated species can become weeds.

Weeds are weeds simply because they grow so aggressively where they do not belong. They begin before the weather gets warm enough for desirable plants to grow. Some are already blooming and dispersing seed. This is why weeding is presently very important. Weeds innately compete with desirable vegetation for space, water and other resources.

Weeding should ideally eliminate target weeds before they disperse seed. Some weeds are sneaky. They bloom and disperse seed while young and seemingly innocent. Some conceal their bloom and seed with their lush foliage. They seem to know to do so during rainy weather that discourages weeding. They effectively provide their own replacement.

Some weeds regenerate vegetatively. They grow from stolons, rhizomes, bulbs, corms or other dromant storage structures. Many of these structures were dormant through winter. Some were dormant even longer. They are aware that winter is becoming spring, so now begin to grow. As they do, they generate more of the same structures, perhaps with seed.

Weeding is easiest as soon as weeds are big enough to grip. Their young roots separate easily from their soil before more thorough dispersion. Also, their soil remains thoroughly damp and soft from winter rain. However, it may be easier to eliminate a profusion of tiny seedlings by tilling. Weeding bulkier weeds, such as pampas grass, can involve digging.

Only a few weeds are woody vines, shrubs or trees. More weeds are perennial. The vast majority of weeds are annual. Regardless, the most substantial weeds are woody. Some can regenerate persistently from their stumps. Therefore, weeding of such weeds should involve removal of their entire stumps. It is important to dig rather than cut oak seedlings.

Few native species proliferate undesirably. Therefore, most weeds are exotic. Most were originally desirable, but naturalized. English daisy, periwinkle, pampas grass and broom were formerly popular flowers. Blue gum eucalyptus formerly provided wood pulp. Other weeds formerly grew as vegetables, fruits or grain. Many weeds were once forage crops.

Made In The Shade

Hosta happen to tolerate a bit of partial shade.

Modern gardens are shadier now than they ever have been. Ranch houses that were popular through the middle of the last century had those classic big eaves that shaded wide margins close to the homes. Prior to that, tall Victorian houses made big shadows. Modern houses though are even bigger. To make matters worse, lots and garden spaces are smaller and surrounded by ominously tall fences; so there is less space that is not shaded by something sometime during the day.

This is why small trees, sometimes known as ‘micro-trees’, are so popular. They are all that fit into some small gardens without creating too much shade for other plants. Large shrubbery, like some of the larger types of pittosporum, and some of the smaller types of podocarpus, often function quite nicely as small scale trees. Where not too shaded, pineapple guava and New Zealand tea tree are just as effective. They only need to be allowed to develop upper canopies with adequate clearance, while their lower limbs get pruned away, instead of getting pruned to stay down low as shrubbery typically does.

Camellia, hydrangea, aucuba, Japanese aralia, Oregon grape and Heavenly bamboo (Nandina spp.) are appealing shrubby plants for shady locations. Camellias and hydrangeas of course provide impressive blooms during their respective bloom seasons. Camellias also have the advantage of excellently glossy dark green foliage all year;  but hydrangeas are bare and need pruning in winter. Oregon grape and Heavenly bamboo, which are actually related, are more subdued but look more woodsy in bloom, and sometimes provide interesting berries afterward. Aucuba and Japanese aralia do not need showy flowers because their foliage is so bold. Japanese aralia has bigger and bolder leaves, but common types of aucuba are spotted with gold.

Balsam (Impatiens spp.), which is already one of the most popular warm season annuals that is beginning to get phased in as the weather gets warmer, is not quite as colorful in the shade as it is with better exposure, but can be impressive nonetheless. Cyclamen takes shade as well, but will actually be getting phased out through late spring and summer. Cyclamen is actually a perennial that can stay in the garden (if it is not in the way of anything else) to regenerate next autumn. As weather gets warmer in spring, caladiums and coleus can provide remarkably colorful foliage for shady spots through summer and early autumn.

Various types of ferns, although devoid of flower color, provide distinctive and often bold form and foliar texture. Australian tree ferns can actually get quite large and eventually function as small trees. Baby tears is a finely textured perennial ground cover that spreads as far as it has moisture. It can actually get to be invasive.

Crop Rotation Promotes Garden Efficiency

Squash eventually depletes particular soil nutrients.

Maya Angelou likely enjoyed gardening. She said, “In diversity there is beauty and there is strength”. That is how the healthiest of ecosystems, including home gardens, function. Vegetable gardens are generally diverse. However, each group of a particular vegetable is rather homogenous. Crop rotation can compensate with diversity through the seasons.

Crop rotation is growing different vegetables in particular places from season to season. It is the same as growing particular vegetables in different places from season to season. Distinctly consumptive vegetable plants should relocate each season. Less consumptive sorts may perform adequately in the same place for years. Diversity makes it interesting.

Each type of vegetable plant consumes particular nutrients from the soil. Eventually, they can deplete their soil of these particular nutrients. Crop rotation allows them to utilize the nutrients they need from undepleted soil instead. Meanwhile, other vegetable plants can grow in the vacated soil. These different types of plants utilize different types of nutrients.

For example, tomato plants notoriously deplete the soil of particular nutrients. Corn does the same. However, each depletes different nutrients. Therefore, corn can be satisfied in soil vacated by tomato plants. Likewise, tomato plants can be satisfied in soil vacated by corn. Furthermore, each promotes the restoration of the soil nutrients needed by the next.

Crop rotation also disrupts proliferation of several pathogens that infest vegetable plants. Dormant spores of bean rust disease overwinter in the soil beneath infested bean plants. They efficiently infest any receptive bean plants to occupy the soil during the next spring. However, they can not infest plants that are not related to beans, such as pepper or okra.

Summer vegetables should be situated accordingly as they return to vegetable gardens. Tomato, pepper and eggplants are related, so should not grow where any grew last year. The same applies to bean and pea. Squash and cucumber are related also, but are less consumptive. They may perform adequately within the same soil for more than one year. Several summer and winter vegetables are related.

Rain Can Ruin Bloom And Developing Fruit

Bloom is not really early. Frost and unusually torrential rain just happen to be late.

Again this year, the excellent weather that makes gardening so much fun even through winter has the potential to become a problem. Winters are innately mild here, and like this year, are sometimes mild and warm enough to prompt many plants to bloom much too early. Many of the fruit trees and their ‘flowering’ (non-fruiting) counterparts are already finishing bloom as if it is the middle of spring, even though the equinox is about two weeks away. This should not be a problem for the flowering cherries, plums, pears and apples (flowering crabapples), but is risky for the many trees that should produce fruit.

The problem is that, despite the weather, it really is winter and early spring, so could potentially rain while fruit trees are blooming. The rain can batter the blooms, or cause them to rot before they set fruit, compromising or even eliminating the fruit production for the following summer. Trees that are not blooming, or just barely showing ‘color’ of the first few blossoms, should be safe. Also, the trees that bloomed earliest and have already set fruit should likewise be safe, as long as the weather does not stay rainy too long, which it almost never does here. Trees that are in full bloom when it rains are the most sensitive to damage.

It is impractical to cover mature trees with plastic sheeting to protect them from rain. Even if it is possible to get the sheeting over the trees, it knocks much of the bloom or developing fruit off anyway. Also, if the sheeting is not removed when the rain stops, it can trap humidity, which can rot the blooms that were so carefully protected from the rain. (Although, high trees hold the plastic high enough from the ground to allow for good air circulation.)

Small trees are easier to cover, but do not produce enough fruit to worry about. In other words, it would be easier to buy fruit at a market, or to get it from friends and neighbors with different varieties (that bloom at different times) than to put too much effort into protecting trees from the rain. In most situations, it is best to just accept that fruit trees will sometimes have ‘off’ years when they either do not produce, or produce only minimal quantities of fruit. The good news is that trees that lose some but not all of their fruit often produce best.

Plum bloom is not resilient to late frost or rain.

Warm Season Vegetable Plants Begin

Tomato seed should already be sown.

Warm season vegetables, or summer vegetables, can occupy a garden systematically. A few lingering cool season vegetables may continue production for a while. Warm season vegetable plants can replace them as they finish. Several warm season vegetable plants should start as early as possible. Others grow in a few later phases through their season.

For example, indeterminate tomato plants are productive throughout their entire season. They can start as soon as convenient. However, determinate tomato plants produce only for two weeks or so. After their initial phase of a single plant or a few, subsequent phases can start about every two weeks. Each phase continues production after its predecessor.

Bush bean and several varieties of eggplant and pepper also produce for brief seasons. Okra and cucumber might produce for most of summer. Secondary phases may increase their production as well though. Of all warm season vegetable plants, corn benefits most from phasing. Each phase tends to mature so uniformly that it finishes within a few days.

Pole bean, squash, some cucumber and Indeterminate tomatoes need no phasing. Such warm season vegetable plants perform from spring planting until frost. Winter squash are warm season vegetable plants, but their fruit finishes for autumn. Indeterminate tomatoes are less profuse than determinate types. Cumulatively though, they are more productive.

It will soon be time to sow seed for corn, beans, root vegetables and most greens directly into garden soil. Seedlings for these warm season vegetable plants are not conducive to transplant. Besides, too many are needed. Cucumber and squash grow either from seed or small nursery seedlings. Only a few plants are needed, and they transplant efficiently.

For the same reasons, tomato, pepper and eggplant can grow from seedlings rather than seed. Moreover, since they are so vulnerable as they germinate and begin to grow, seed is less practical than seedlings. Varieties that are unavailable at nurseries can grow from seed in flats inside or in a greenhouse. Ideally, they should have started early enough for transplant into a garden during appropriate weather.


Surplus fruits and vegetables can be canned for later.

It seems to me that the reason that so many of the kids I grew up with do not like apricots is that they were so common when we were younger. Because there were still several abandoned orchards, and most of us had at least one apricot tree in our backyards, we ate apricots in every form imaginable; fresh, dried, in pies, in cobblers, as jams, as apricot nectar (juice) and of course, canned. By the time we grew up and moved on, we were done with apricots.

Apricots happen to be one of the many ‘high-acid’ fruits that are remarkably easy to preserve by canning, which is how and why they are available as jams and canned apricots at any time of the year. In fact, almost all of the fruits that were so commonly grown in the vast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, like prunes, plums, cherries, nectarines, peaches, apples and pears, are also high-acid fruits that are relatively easy to can in various forms. ‘Low-acid’ vegetables, like broccoli, corn, pumpkin (squash), spinach and beets, as well as meat and poultry, were not so commonly canned only because they take considerably more work to can with the use of a pressure cooker (in order to achieve higher temperatures).

Because home canning can potentially be dangerous if done improperly, it is best to learn something about it first. This is why the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy has arranged for UC Master Preserver Susan Algert to conduct the workshop ‘Safe Methods for Food Preservation and Canning’. Participants will learn the importance of canning to kill toxic pathogens, and why high-acid produce gets canned in a hot water bath while low-acid foods need to be canned in a pressure cooker. Canning is an alternative to freezing for preserving overly abundant produce from the garden.

(Outdated information regarding classes has been omitted from this recycled article.)

Warm Season Bedding Plants Begin

Alyssum grows very readily from seed.

Annual bedding plants are surprisingly more popular among those who enjoy gardening less. Those who procure the services of gardeners appreciate the rich colors and simple efficiency of annuals. Many who are more directly involved with their gardening consider them to be decadent. Nonetheless, warm season bedding plants will soon be in season.

Cool season bedding plants should perform well until the weather becomes too warm for them. There is therefore no rush to replace them yet. Besides, it is likely still a bit too cool for mature warm season bedding plants to be out in the garden. However, seed for warm season bedding plants takes time to grow. Some should start now to be ready for spring.

For example, petunia, impatien and zinnia are some of the most popular of warm season bedding plants. Almost all of them arrive at their respective gardens as somewhat mature plants within cell packs from nurseries. Presently, such plants may be vulnerable to frost. However, seed of these plants that begin now should start to grow after the threat of frost.

Not many of even the most avid of garden enthusiasts grow these popular warm season bedding plants from seed. Yet, a few do so. Some unusual or rare plant varieties are only available as seed. Many common wildflowers and ‘true to type’ annuals provide seed for subsequent generations. Such seed generally start in flats with shelter from frost indoors.

From flats, seedlings may graduate to cell packs or small pots prior to transitioning into a garden. Some should actually begin within cells rather than flats. Seedlings relocate into a garden when adequately mature, whether from flats, cells or pots. Seed for many warm season bedding plants perform best directly in the garden though, without transplanting.

Nasturtium seedlings do not grow well within the confinement of cells. Then, they remain somewhat pekid for a few days while they recover from transplanting into a garden. They grow so much more efficiently from seed sown directly into a garden. Marigold can grow about as well from seed directly in the garden as they can as seedlings that grew in flats.


The best rodent control devices are useless against gophers.

Punxatawney Phil retreated from his shadow on Gobbler’s Knob, predicting a late spring. That was more than two weeks ago, and we are still waiting for a late rainy season to start! Regardless, Punxatawney Phil did his job and has gone back home to hibernate, or whatever he does this time of year. If only all rodents would do the same. Gophers do not ever seem to take any time off.

There is little agreement on how to efficiently evict gophers from the garden. A rodenticide that can only be applied by qualified pesticide applicators is purported to be the most effective means of extermination for large scale landscapes, but is not available to the general public and is very expensive when applied by professional exterminators.

Thumpers, battery powered devices that emit low frequency vibrations at random intervals, are only moderately effective at repelling gophers, and look rather odd in a lawn. Those cheap plastic whirlie thingies that spin in a breeze, causing their wiry stems to vibrate, are probably just as effective if occasionally relocated to keep the gophers from getting too comfortable with them. People who do not consider them to be appealing lawn ornaments think that they are tacky though.

Flooding gopher runs with water, or leaving sharp objects or chewing gum in the runs are generally not effective. It is nearly impossible to flood a system of runs, which is typically equipped with drainage. Gophers who are unfortunate enough to cut themselves on something sharp will bleed to death because their blood does not coagulate, but they are careful to not do so. Likewise, gophers who eat chewing gum will die because they can not digest chewing gum, but they prefer to eat roots. Besides, who really wants make gophers die in such agony?

Good old fashioned McAbee gopher traps, which incidentally were invented in Los Gatos, are probably the most effective means with which to eradicate gophers. They are difficult to set for a beginner; so it is a good idea to get trained by someone with experience. It is also important to set the traps in pairs with one trap in each direction of the main run below the exit tunnel, instead of setting a single trap in the exit tunnel. It takes some extra digging but is worth it. Because each pair catches only a single gopher, the empty trap should be sprung when pulled from the ground to avoid hurting someone. Do not let dogs dig up traps!

Trapping is only a temporary solution. Eventually, more gophers are likely to move in, necessitating more trapping.

Freeze Damage Necessitates Selective Pruning

Warmth stimulates recovery from freeze damage.

Pruning at the proper time has been a concern all winter. Dormant pruning was timely as soon as defoliation began. It remains timely almost until bloom. Pollarding and coppicing are generally although unnecessarily a bit later within that range. Spring pruning begins soon after bloom. Pruning of freeze damage starts after the last reasonable threat of frost.

Frost is as variable as the many climates here. Generally, it causes more damage farther inland and at higher elevations. Conversely and generally, it causes less damage closer to the coast and at lower elevations. Many southern coastal climates experience no frost. However, frigid air drains downhill. Within any plateau, the frostiest areas are the lowest.

Last frost dates should help with scheduling of pruning or grooming of freeze damage to vulnerable vegetation. The last frost date for a climate is the average date of its last frost. Frost becomes increasingly unlikely afterward. That is the best time to add warm season vegetables and annuals to the garden. It is also when to begin grooming freeze damage.

If not too unsightly, freeze damage lingers until the last frost date for two primary reasons. It shelters vulnerable tissue below, including any new growth that develops prematurely. Also, removal of such damage stimulates new growth that would be even more exposed and innately more vulnerable to frost. However, priorities change soon after the last frost.

Then, it becomes important to groom or prune away freeze damage prior to generation of fresh new growth. For milder climates, it is already timely to do so. It might be a while for less mild climates. Even for frostless climates, this might be a good time to groom growth that is only incidentally shabby. Such grooming gets more complicated with new growth.

Many zonal geraniums are already extending new growth up through shabby old growth. Removal of such old growth or freeze damage without damaging mingling new growth is no simple task. If new growth stretches for sunlight below old growth, it might flop without support from the old growth. It may be more practical to cut all growth back to regenerate. Canna also develop similar complications.