Fung Lum

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Acer robustum, Chinese maple?

Fung Lum was an architecturally imposing Chinese restaurant in Campbell years ago. It was more famous for the facade of the building than for the food. Although the food was purportedly excellent, not everyone ate there. Everyone in town knew the building though. It was prominently situated right on Bascom Avenue, at a time when the region was still somewhat suburban.

The meticulously pruned and groomed landscape in the minimal space between the ornate facade and sidewalk was mostly rather low so that it did not obscure the architecture. The tallest features were strategically situated to be unobtrusive. Except for only a few of what seemed to be big, sprawling but low profile Japanese maples, there were no other significant maple trees.

‘Fung Lum’ means ‘maple grove’. Commercials on the radio said so. When I was a kid, I therefore expected to see at least a few maples that grew as trees rather than low sprawling mounds in the associated landscape. I figured that the maple grove must be out back where the parking lot was. I sort of wondered if their maples were Chinese, and what Chinese maples were like.

I probably should have been content in believing that the mix of holly oaks, flowering pears and other common trees in the neighborhood were maples. No one else noticed a discrepancy. For all I know, the name referred to a maple grove in China. Maybe the Japanese maples out in front were the grove. They could have been Chinese. Maybe I put way too much though into this.

Now, I actually work with what is purported to be some sort of Chinese maple, perhaps Acer robustum. It really does resemble a Japanese maple. It produces the foliage that can be seen to the right in the last (sixth) picture that I posted early this morning. If it really is a Chinese maple, I would not be surprised if cultivars of this species were what lived in front of Fung Lum.

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This is the sixth picture from this morning.

Mild Weather Is Still Problematic

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Minimal frost delayed certain spring blooms.

It is amazing that so many orchards are so productive in California, and that so many similar orchards had formerly been productive in the urban areas in which so many of us now live. Nowadays, it takes so much work to care for just a few fruit trees in home gardens. Horticulture is not what it used to be.

Diseases and pests get transmitted all over the world at a rate unlike at any other time in history. It is just too easy to buy and sell infected plants online, and get them delivered without adequate inspection. Many varieties of plants that are so easily imported may not perform as reliably as the more traditional varieties.

Modern landscaping does not make fruit production any easier. Most deciduous fruit trees do not get pruned adequately or properly. Many get too much water. Almost all must live in crowded landscape conditions where diseases and pest proliferate. Sanitation (removal of infected plant parts) is rarely as efficient as it should be.

Then there is all this crazy weather! First, the winter does not get as cool as it should. Then, it does not get warm enough in spring. It is all so difficult to keep track of. Many plants do not know how to respond. Those that stay dormant through cool weather got an early start. Those that like warmth in spring started late.

The unfortunate deciduous fruit trees that need both a good chill through winter and nice warm spring weather are really confused. Early blooms were ruined by brief late frosts or brief rain showers. Some delayed blooms were not synchronized with pollinators. Some of the minimal fruit is developing slowly.

Even the fruitless or ‘flowering’ relatives of the deciduous fruit trees are annoyed by the weather. Many flowering cherry trees that should have bloomed profusely prior to foliation delayed bloom until lower foliage started to appear. However, both bloom and foliation are so slow and sporadic that upper stems stayed bare quite late.

Flowering crabapple trees, which generally bloom after flowering cherries, actually bloomed more reliably, and were not delayed as much. Hopefully, fruiting apple and pear trees, although late, will be more productive than so many of the cherry, apricot, plum, peach and nectarine trees will be this year.

Bedding Plants That Defy Seasons

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Some seasonal annuals are really perennials.

Bedding plants that go into the garden in spring are generally warm season or summer annuals. They should perform through summer until the weather gets too cool for them the following autumn. Bedding plants that go into the garden in autumn are generally cool season or winter annuals. They should perform through winter until the weather gets too warm for them late the following spring.

That sounds simple enough. Each type of bedding plant performs best within a specified season. Since they are annuals, they complete their life cycles within a single season within a single year. Of course, it is not so simple here where seasons are as unique as they are. Winter is mild. Summer is arid. Some bedding plants that are annuals in harsher climates may survive as perennials.

For example, busy Lizzie and wax begonia are warm season annuals in most climates. They succumb to frost as weather cools in autumn. Locally, they can survive through winter if sheltered from mild frost. Any that survived through last winter can regenerate now. As bedding plants, they will not be as uniform as they were last year. However, their variability would be fine for mixed bedding.

If sheltered and warm enough, wax begonias may actually continue to perform right through winter. If they dislike the aridity of summer, they can even perform slightly better through winter than they do through summer. Their best performance is often about now and again in autumn, between the two extremes of summer and winter. They challenge their designation as a warm season annual.

Even some of the bedding plants that really are annuals may not behave as such. Alyssum and nasturtium can disperse seed to replace themselves before they finish. They are not true to type, so their progeny eventually revert. Nonetheless, simple yellow and orange nasturtium and white alyssum are splendid for many relaxed gardens. Nasturtium might perform better in summer or winter.

Bedding plants usually know more about what they should be doing than those who are managing and manipulating them.

Streets Are Cooler With Shade

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Parked cars stay cooler in shade.

There really is no such thing as a perfect tree. Some are not quite as messy as others. Some have better structural integrity than others. Some have gentle roots; and some stay proportionate to tight spots. However, without exception, all trees grow, drop leaves, and disperse roots.

This is an important consideration when selecting any tree, and especially when selecting a street tree for the narrow space between the curb and the sidewalk (which is commonly known as a park strip). Even where there is no sidewalk, or where the sidewalk is at the curb, most of the obstacles are the same.

Street trees should have reasonably complaisant roots that should not be likely to damage curbs, sidewalks or roadways, at least for several years. They should naturally develop reasonably high branches. They will need to be pruned higher than trucks that may park at the curb. Street trees must also tolerate harsh exposure.

Wider park strips can of course accommodate larger trees. Those that are only two feet wide or narrower are probably not wide enough for any tree larger than photinia, purple-leaf plum or English hawthorn, which are difficult to prune for clearance over roadways and sidewalks.

Messy leaves, flowers or fruit that might not be a problem within the garden might be more of a problem at the curb. It is not so easy to rake such debris if cars park over it. Trees that are commonly infested with scale or aphid are likely to drop sticky honeydew (scale and aphid poop) onto parked cars.

Unfortunately, those who get street trees do not always get to select them. Many municipalities assign specific trees to specific streets. Some streets have a few trees to choose from. Others have only one option. Home Owners’ Associations (HOAs) decide if and where new trees get planted.

Crape myrtle is probably the most common choice for a new street tree because the roots do not get big enough to damage pavement. However, the canopies are not very big either. They stay too low to be pruned above trucks. Crape myrtle is susceptible to scale infestation that can get bad enough to make sidewalks sticky.

For many years, London plane (sycamore) had been another popular street tree. Unfortunately, the voracious roots can damage pavement within only a few years. The messy foliage discolors and starts to fall before autumn.

Multi Trunk Trees Seem Natural

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Overgrown shrubbery becomes multi trunk trees.

For several years in the late 1960 and early 1970s, European white birch were trendy. Most lived in ubiquitous groups of three. Where three did not fit, a single multi trunk tree, typically with three trunks, was a popular option. Each multi trunk tree provided as many trunks as a few single trunk trees. For these particular white birch, the elegant white trunks were their most appealing feature.

Multi trunk trees, which are popularly known as ‘multis’, are only structurally different from their counterparts with single trunks. Multi trunk crape myrtle are genetically identical to crape myrtle of the same cultivar, but with single trunks. The only difference is that multi trunk trees branch at ground level, instead of at the top of a single straight trunk. Each needs to be pruned to the desired form.

Multi trunk birch, paperbark and lemon gum exhibit appealing bark. More trunks display more bark than single trunks. Multi trunk strawberry tree, olive and oak exhibit appealingly sculptural form. Cork oak and crape myrtle provide both appealing bark and sculptural form. Silk tree, acacia and deciduous magnolia display their bloom more effectively with lower and broader multi trunk form.

Trees get help to develop into a desired form. European white birch, lemon gum and silk tree are more likely to develop single trunks naturally. Coppicing compels them to regenerate with several trunks. Conversely, olive, crape myrtle and strawberry tree develop a few trunks naturally. Single trunk trees need thinning to remove the superfluous trunks, and staking to straighten a single trunk.

In home gardens, multi trunk trees sometimes evolve from overgrown shrubbery. Pineapple guava may be shrubby for may years before lower growth gets pruned away to reveal sculptural trunks within. English laurel that gets too overgrown for containment pruning might become a delightful multi trunk tree instead. It will be pleased to grow freely from the top if lower growth gets pruned off.

Multi trunk trees are no more natural than trees with single trunks are, but they seem to be.

Some Seeds Can Hurt Pets

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Foxtail is a potentially dangerous weed.

Weeds always have unfair advantages. They grow fast enough to bloom and disperse seed before the rain of early spring runs out, so they do not need any supplemental water. They seem to be able to grow anywhere. Their abundant seed seem to be able to get anywhere. Many produce seed with creative tactics for hitching rides on animals or being blown around by the wind.

This can be a serious problem for the unfortunate animals that interact with these exploitative weed seeds. Burclover and foxtail that are designed to stick to the short hair of grazing animals just long enough to get moved to greener pastures can get seriously tangled in the softer and longer fur of cats and dogs. Foxtail and other thin seeds can get lodged into noses, ears and eyes.

This is why it is so important to control these sorts of weeds, even if the landscape is not a priority. Gardens without resident cats can be visited by neighbor cats who can be hurt by dangerous weed seeds, or disperse the seed into other gardens. Mistletoe seed is not really so dangerous, but has a sneaky way of sticking to birds and squirrels for dispersion.

Thistles are more of an annoyance than actually dangerous. Their seed does not stick into fur. It just gets blown about in the wind. The problem is that the spiny foliage of some types is too painful to handle. If neglected long enough to go to seed, thistles can be seriously prolific. Because it is dispersed by wind, the seed can get anywhere without any help.

Weeds can be recycled in greenwaste, only because greenwaste gets sterilized in the recycling process. Some annual weeds can be composted if they get collected before they produce seed. If there is any seed, some of it may survive the composting process, and germinate wherever the compost gets used. It would be better to dispose of such risky biomass.

Likewise, crabgrass, dandelion, oxalis and other perennial weeds should not be composted because some of the stolons (modified stems) or roots survive the process. Just like seed, some of these surviving vegetative parts can grow into new weeds wherever the compost that contains them gets dispersed. Such resiliency is one of the qualities that makes them ‘weeds’!

Nature Gets Too Much Credit

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So much of nature is unnatural.

Vegetation make people feel closer to nature. It is, after all, what most of us expect to see out in the wild. Most vegetation that is observed in forests and undeveloped areas really is natural. Much of the associated insects and wildlife are natural as well. Such flora and fauna know how to survive within their respective ecosystems. They can not rely on any unnatural intervention from anyone.

Naturalized exotic (non-native) species proliferate only because they are adapted to similar environmental conditions. A lack of pathogens that afflicted them within their natural ranges is a major advantage for most of them. Nonetheless, they are unnatural components of what is commonly considered to be nature. Most naturalized exotic species actually interfere significantly with nature.

Vegetation and associated wildlife that inhabits synthetic landscapes is very different from that which lives out in nature. Only some of the vegetation has potential to naturalize. Even less is native. Almost all of it is reliant on artificial intervention for survival, particularly irrigation. Associated wildlife is reliant on the survival of the reliant vegetation. Landscapes accommodate. Nature does not.

With few exceptions, landscapes that emulate nature are impractical. Landscapes within forests are some of those few exceptions that might need no more than what the forests provide. Even in such situations, combustible vegetation and structurally deficient trees should be cleared away from homes. In California, nature is innately combustible. It is messy and potentially dangerous too.

Most urban landscapes of California would still be dreadfully bleak if limited to natural components. Both San Jose and Los Angeles are naturally chaparral regions. They were formerly inhabited by sparsely dispersed trees on scrubby grasslands. Now, relatively abundant vegetation in both regions is more appealing, and improves urban lifestyles, but is nothing like what nature intended.

Nature is simply inadequate for what is expected of urban landscapes of California.

Lawn Loses Some Turf Wars

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Mow Town

As a landscape feature, lawn and turf are in a distinct category. Just as arborists specialize in arboriculture (horticulture of trees), there used to be horticulturists who specialized in turf. Even though it is just as interesting, and in most regards, much more demanding than other plant material, many horticulturists who are not specialists with turf do not want to bother with it.

Turf is undeniably the most useful of all plant material, which is why there is so much of it. Unfortunately, it is also the most demanding. It requires more water than any other plant material, except only for aquatic plants and some bedding plants. (Small ponds with aquatic plants are actually less consumptive than larger lawns.) Mowing and edging needs to be done almost weekly.

All this work and water is probably worth the effort where turf gets the most use, such as athletic fields and parks. Yet, it is good incentive for alternatives where applicable. Larger patios and decks mean smaller lawns, and are usable ‘hardscape’ areas. Less demanding ground cover plants, and even old fashioned gravel and bark, work nicely over unused areas.

Since it was invented for the athletic field of the Astro Dome, artificial turf has had a bad reputation. It did not feel or look like real turf, and eventually succumbed to wear and tear. Realistically though, it worked. The main problem was that it was constantly compared to real turf, instead of recognized as an alternative to turf, like carpeting for garden space.

Modern artificial turf is much more convincing. It actually looks and feels something like turf, and is more resilient to weathering and wear. It is convincing enough to be used for athletic fields and playgrounds. It would be just as appropriate for landscapes inhabited by dogs if the dogs do not dig. Artificial turf can be expensive, but saves so much in water and labor.

Removing a real lawn and leveling the area for new artificial turf can be stressful to the root systems of mature shrubbery and trees around it, and even in neighboring gardens if the lawn is near a fence. Because artificial turf needs no soil amendment, excavation should be minimal. Because it needs no water, artificial turf can be placed right up against tree trunks.

After artificial turf is installed, some adjacent shrubbery and trees may want to be occasionally watered through the first few summers until they adapt to the lack of watering where the former lawn was. Such plants will not need as much water as the original lawn got, and will only need it temporarily if they get enough water in other areas of their roots zones.

Seed Of Doubt Gains Popularity

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Seed for vegetable gardening is scarce.

Many of us who are still sowing spring seed know the doubt. Seed for warm season vegetables and bedding plants is presently scarce. Consequently, we doubt that all the varieties that we want are still available. Many unusual varieties that we purchase by mail order or online are sold out. Some more popular and reliably obtainable varieties in supermarket seed racks are going fast too.

Home gardening is very suddenly more popular than it had been for a very long time. Those who can not work at their respective professions have much more time to work in their gardens. Many want to grow a bit more produce at home, in order to shop amongst others in supermarkets less frequently. Many who have never enjoyed gardening before are now taking a serious interest in it.

This adds a few more complications to planning the garden. Choices really are limited. Some of us must be satisfied with what we get. Instead of trying new and unusual varieties, we might need to try old and common varieties. It might be a new and unusual experience, and an interesting way to learn why they have been so popular for so long. This applies to young plants as well as seed.

Although more varieties are available online and by mail order, it is now more important to purchase them early. Delivery is not as prompt as it was prior to this increase in popularity of gardening. Seed providers are overwhelmed by the demand. Since it is already late in the season, it is probably too late to order seed that start in spring. It is not too early to start procuring seed for autumn.

It is also a good time to share surplus with friends and neighbors who may be experiencing the same scarcity of seed and seedlings. Although it is too late to wait for delayed delivery of seed that gets sown in spring, it is not too late to sow some types if they are already available. If left outside to avoid personal interaction with recipients, seed might need protection from rodents and birds.

Anyone who is experienced with gardening knows that it involves challenges. This is certainly a new one.

Eucalypti Are Innately Drought Tolerant

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Distinctive foliage provided by red ironbark.

Drought is nothing new here. There could be plenty of rain next winter and for years afterward; but eventually, there will be another series of dry winters, prompting rationing all over again. Landscapers and big box garden centers continue with business as usual. It is up to us to manage our gardens responsibly. Besides native plants, aloes, yuccas, junipers and eucalypti are four groups of formerly popular, drought tolerant plants that are worthy of more attention again.

Eucalypti had gotten a bad reputation even before they became popular the last time around. Tasmanian blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, that was planted so extensively for wood pulp and timber throughout California, is a huge and extremely messy tree. Yet, it is still the most familiar of the eucalypti.

Garden varieties of eucalypti are much more docile. Even though they drop their evergreen foliage and hard seed capsules throughout the year, they do so on a smaller scale. The tall and elegant lemon gum constantly sheds strips of bark like the Tasmanian blue gum does, but does not get big enough to be too overwhelming.

Because they are so undemanding, and some are somewhat messy, eucalypti are best in unrefined parts of the landscape, and away from lawn. Their mess is no problem over ivy or iceplant. They are happiest where other trees might be unhappy. Generous watering actually inhibits root dispersion, and can cause vigorous but structurally deficient stem growth.

Eucalypti innately prefer to be planted while very young, even from four inch or one gallon (#1) pots. Larger (and more expensive) trees, such as boxed trees, take so long to get established that they get passed up by faster growing tiny (and less expensive) trees. Because they are sensitive to confinement, eucalypti are unfortunately rare in nurseries.

The online catalog of Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, which is famous for excellently weird and undemanding plants, features lemon flowered mallee, red capped gum, silver princess gum, bell fruited mallee and fuchsia gum, all in four inch pots. The bell fruited mallee and fuchsia gum are like large but airy shrubbery that do not get much taller than the eaves.