Fire!

P71018Fire is part of life here. It is a risk that those of us who live in the Santa Cruz Mountains must accept. We live in forests full of abundant vegetation fuel, where fire crews and equipment have limited access. The horrible Tubbs Fire that recently burned an urban neighborhood in Santa Rosa demonstrates how destructive, risky and unpredictable fires can be. That neighborhood was in town, outside of forests, where fire is not such a commonly accepted risk.

This morning, October 17, on the anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, our community woke to a fire of our own. The sunrise looked more like a colorful sunset, with orange and tan smoke everywhere. The ash that had fallen from the sky made it seem like there had been a cremation party last night. It is getting to look like Pompeii around here. The fire started last night as a house fire near Bear Creek Road outside of Boulder Creek, and moved into more than a hundred acres of forest. Crews from as far away as San Jose responded quickly, and seem to be containing it. The region was evacuated, and Bear Creek Road was temporarily closed. The fire is only 5% contained as I write this before noon. Fortunately, the humidity is up, and the temperature is down.

Fire is more than a part of life for us. It is part of nature. Although almost all fires here are caused by human activity now, fires had been burning forests and wildlands long before humans arrived. There certainly were not as many fires, but without anyone here to suppress them, they burned much larger areas for much more time. A fire started by lightning early in summer could burn for hundreds of miles until extinguished by a storm the following autumn. A single such fire could easily burn more area than all unnatural fires now burn each year. There were likely several such fires annually. That is why old photographs show that California was historically not as densely forested as it is now. Forests simply burned more regularly.

Many plant species know how to work with fire. A few, such as the giant redwood and coastal redwood, survive fire by being relatively noncombustible. They only burn if other vegetation around them gets extremely hot. Most of the pines do not mind burning because their cones open to disperse seed after getting cooked by fire. The seed germinate quickly the following winter to reforest the area that was just cleared by fire. If they are fortunate, they grow up and dominate the forest before other vegetation does, only to burn again a few decades later.

Then there are a few plants that take this technique a step further. Monterey pine is innately sloppy. By that, I mean that it holds much of its old dead limbs instead of shedding them. Lower limbs collect significant volumes of fallen needles, instead of letting the needles fall to the forest floor. Consequently, when a Monterey pine forest burns, it gets hot enough to incinerate competing vegetation and its seeds. Monterey pine cones do not burn completely. They insulate the seeds within just long enough to survive the quick and hot fire, and then open afterward to disperse seed. This is a significant advantage to the Monterey pine, even though they get incinerated too. Not much more than their own seed survives to dominate the forest.

California fan palms (and the related Mexican fan palms) collect long and very combustible beards of dead fronds. When they burn, they likewise incinerate everything below them. The single terminal buds of the palm trees remain safely insulated inside their thick trunks, and will regenerate later as if nothing every happened.

This tactic sounds violent, but it works for the trees that use it. However, enhanced combustibility is not such an asset in home gardens. That is why it is so important to either plant combustible plants at a distance from homes and buildings, or to maintain them so that they are not allowed to collect fuel.

If palms are allowed to wear their beards long enough to reach the ground, other combustible plants should not be allowed to get too overgrown around them. Alternatively, palms can be allowed to wear long beards if the lower portions are pruned up and away from other combustible plants.

Just like there are several plants that are not notably combustible, there are some that are notably combustible. Pines, cypresses, firs, spruces, cedars, junipers, acacias and eucalypti, although useful and appealing in the right situations, all happen to be notably combustible.

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Society Garlic

71025Some flowers are better left in the garden rather than cut and brought in. Society garlic, Tulbaghia violacea, looks like it would be an ideal cut flower, with nice bare stems. The aroma suggests otherwise. It smells something like a strongly aromatic combination of onion and garlic. Even in the garden, it might be a good idea to keep it at a distance. Deer and rabbits do not mess with it.

Society garlic is sometimes known as pink agapanthus because it has similar foliage and flowers, only much smaller. The tiny flowers are really more lavender pink than pink, and bloom in round clusters on stems about a foot and a half tall in late summer or early autumn. The narrow leaves are only about a quarter of an inch wide, almost grassy, but more rubbery like those of agapanthus.

Mature plants form dense clumps of foliage at least two feet wide. Variegated plants stay much smaller, but are also very likely to revert to green (non-variegated) growth, which if not removed, overwhelms and replaced variegated growth. Society garlic is very easy to divide for propagation. It likes full sun or slight shade. Although somewhat drought tolerant, it prefers regular watering.

Annuals Come And Annuals Go

71025thumbJust like warm season vegetable plants in the vegetable garden, flowering warm season annuals get replaced this time of year. Although the weather is still warm, cool season annuals should be planted now so they can disperse roots before the weather gets too much cooler. Except for a few short term annuals and perennials, most should perform until the weather gets warm next spring.

Pansy, viola, Iceland poppy, sweet William, calendula, stock and the various primroses should get down to the business of blooming rather efficiently, and hopefully compensate for the removal of deteriorating warm season annuals. Ornamental cabbage and kale, as well as cyclamen, can be a bit later because they are a bit more sensitive to warmth, but not slowed much by cool weather.

Nasturtium and alyssum can work as either or both warm and cool season annuals. Both are annuals, so individual plants do not last more than a few months. In hot spots, they may perform well in winter, but then get roasted in summer. In cold spots, they may do exactly the opposite. In the right situations, they self sow and bloom all year. Tired old plants should be groomed out if unsightly.

Chrysanthemums are the most prominent of seasonal color for autumn, and come in all sorts of colors that are ideal for an autumn palette. They are actually perennials that are grown as annuals. Unfortunately, they are usually grown as very short term annuals, that are allowed to bloom only once, and then replaced with something more wintry, like cyclamen or ornamental cabbage or kale.

Like cool season vegetable plants, most flowering cool season annuals should be planted as small plants in cell packs. Chrysanthemum, as well as cyclamen and ornamental cabbage and kale that get planted afterward, are the exceptions that should be planted as four inch potted plants, but they are expensive anyway. Primroses can be planted from either cell packs or four inch pots. (Primroses can cause a serious skin allergy, just from contact.) Nasturtium and alyssum should be grown from seed sown early.

Redwoods

P71014It is hard to beat redwoods. Seriously! There are only three specie, which are now three different genera; but one is the biggest tree in the world, one is the tallest tree in the world, and the third is one of only a few conifers that are deciduous. The biggest and the tallest are both native to California. The deciduous redwood is from China.

Dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, is the deciduous redwood from China. (See the picture above.) It was discovered relatively recently, in 1944, so is not nearly as popular in landscaping as the other two redwoods are. Ironically, it is actually better for urban gardens because it does not get as tall as other redwoods. The tallest forest trees (that need to compete with other tall trees) are a mere two hundred feet tall. More exposed urban trees rarely get half as tall. Also, dawn redwood is adaptable to a broader range of climates than the others are.

Giant redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum, is the biggest tree in the world. It lives in isolated groves in the Sierra Nevada, where old trees can get to be more 3,500 years old. The tallest are more than two hundred and fifty feet tall, with trunks more than twenty five feet wide near the ground. The trees are so massive that they could not be harvested without shattering much of the wood within. Of course, wild trees are now protected from harvest. They protect themselves from wildfires with thick bark and by branching so high above other vegetation.

Coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, gets about half as old, but about a hundred feet taller than the giant redwood. It lives on the coast of California, from Oregon to Monterey County. It has been extensively harvested because the wood is so resistant to rot and insects. Harvested trees regenerate quickly from roots, forming families of several genetically identical trees. Coastal redwood groves are dense enough to exclude other trees, and produce enough debris to prevent seeds of other specie from germinating. They are less combustible than other trees, and protect themselves from wildfires with thick bark. Their foliage regenerates efficiently if burned.

I grew up only a few miles outside of the natural range of coastal redwood, and now live amongst them. I never get tired of them. As majestic as they are, the trees that were harvested earlier were even bigger. I build an outhouse and a shower out of two hollow burned out stumps of coastal redwood. Another nearby stump is big enough build into a shed. It only needs a roof on top. Even after a century, the burned old growth stumps are still intact. They rot very slowly.

The area burned in the 1950s only because so many other more combustible trees grew back with the secondary growth after extensive harvesting of the old growth trees. Much of the secondary growth that was burned while only about half a century old recovered, and is now about a century old. Trees that grew after the fire are now about half a century old. As the forest thickens, firs, oaks, madrones, maples and bay trees get crowded out. Redwood really know how to manage their forest.

Rhody

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It was not easy for me to start this blog. I do not mean that getting it set up and operating was difficult. That part was a breeze. I mean it was not easy for me to go along with the crowd and do something that is so hip, trendy and popular. I never liked trends, and I certainly do not like trends that use the internet and computers. Well, at least I get to write about gardening and horticulture. It is a topic that I happen to be good at writing about. I do not need to post pictures of puppies, kittens, babies, what I cooked for supper last night or where I went on vacation.

This is Rhody, in the picture above. He is a puppy. He is terrified of kittens, barks at babies, will eat anything that I cook for supper, and will go anywhere we might go on vacation. He can not write my blog for me because he can not type. Besides, he does not speak American English, or any other human language. He does not help in the garden much. As I said, he is a puppy.

So, there I did it. I started a blog, and posted a picture of a puppy.

Well, getting back to Rhody. He is a terrier, which literally means that he is terrestrial, or associated with the soil. In other words, he digs. His kind were bred to exterminate rodents, particularly in the soil. Rhody is just now starting to figure this out, but still needs to work on his technique. He has not started to dig for gophers, and actually seems to be more interested in getting more closely acquainted with them when they emerge from their holes and stare at him for more than a few seconds. Rhody just stares back. Perhaps his is in telepathic communication with the gophers, and is negotiating their relocation to a better home on a nearby vacant hillside.

I do not mind. It is bad enough that gophers dig in the garden. I do not need Rhody digging in the garden too.

It is the terrestrial part that Rhody does not seem to understand. He already knows that he dislikes all other rodents above the surface of the soil, such as squirrels, rabbits, deer and horses. The squirrels are not much of a problem, but the rabbits eat big patches of iceplant and other succulents, and have eaten the foliage and buds of several small potted plants. Rhody chases them off every morning.

We still need to work on Rhody’s concept of what a true ‘rodent’ is. The deer had been eating leafy plants in the garden, but have been notably absent since Rhody chased them away only a few times. I do not like him to chase the deer because I am afraid that he might actually catch one. Fortunately, he does not see them until they are already fleeing. Rhody also needs to learn to not bark at horses.

Rhody is not allowed far from the house because coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions live in the surrounding forest, and sometimes come close to home. None of them are known for pursuing dogs, but could get nasty if chased by one. I would be pleased if Rhody worked only in the garden, which happens to be close to the house.

So, in summary, posting a picture of puppy who does what he can to protect the garden from vermin is not completely irrelevant to gardening.

The Trees Know

P71014The trees look spooky now. Box elders, honeylocusts and alders, and even some of the sycamores, have dropped so much of their foliage since that weirdly hot weather a few weeks ago. The smoky sky as a backdrop enhances the spooky factor. The trees do not seem to be too distressed. They just dropped their leaves a bit early to conserve resources. If they had not dropped foliage by now, they would be dropping it soon anyway.

Trees are not stupid. They know what they are doing. Otherwise, they would not survive as long as they do out in the elements. Sometimes, they seem to know what the weather will do before it does it; like dogs, cats and horses that start to get their undercoats early before a cold winter.

Deciduous trees and other plants defoliate for winter for a few reasons. Those from farther north probably see no need to work so hard to collect sunlight while sunlight is so minimal. Up north, days are shorter, and sunlight is diminished as it passes through so much of the atmosphere at a lower angle. Deciduous plants from colder climates shed their foliage because they know that if they do not, it will get frozen anyway. Those from snowy climates do not want foliage to collect heavy snow that can break limbs. Defoliation also eliminates much of the wind resistance that can break limbs during winter storms. There are a few advantages to being deciduous.

In California, we have a native California buckeye, Aesculus californica. In chaparral conditions, it can be ‘twice-deciduous’. It does not need to be so in less arid regions, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains. It really depends on the weather.

As a twice-deciduous plant, the California buckeye develops new foliage in spring like other deciduous plants do. It stays foliated as long as it wants to; but if things get too dry and warm in the middle summer, the foliage shrivels and falls. To a casual observer, the trees seem to die. However, between the first autumn rain and the first winter frost, California buckeye develops a second phase of autumn foliage to briefly compensate for summer dormancy. This foliage stays late until it gets frosted and falls. Winter dormancy is just like that of any other deciduous tree. In spring, the process starts all over again.

Where There’s Smoke . . .

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Do not work in the garden today if you happen to be in a region inundated by smoke from wildfires. The air is too toxic. The picture above was copied from the East Bay Times yesterday. It shows smoke obscuring much of the view of northern San Jose from the East Hills. It might be Milpitas. It is difficult to recognize.

The news says that this is the worst air quality recorded in the Santa Clara Valley, even worse than when we had smog back in the 1970s, and even worse than when there were serious fires much closer to home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Even the smoke from the Lexington fire in 1985 was not so thick.

If you must work in the garden, do not use machinery that might ignite vegetation near wildlands. Something as simple as a weed eater striking a stone can make a spark that can ignite overgrown grass. Barbecuing out in the garden is something that should be postponed for better weather.

The breeze that might move some of the smoke out of the area also accelerates fires that continue to burn, and increases the fire danger. Any new fires that get out of control are very likely to spread very rapidly. All the rain last winter enhanced the proliferation of vegetation. Recent unseasonably warm and arid weather desiccated much of the vegetation. Now, there is an abundance of vegetative fuel everywhere.

Wildfire is part of life in California. Many of us know how fire is an important part of the ecosystem, and how many plants in the wild benefit from it. However, none of this is any consolation when so many homes have been burned.

Bastards!

P71011Palm trees did not impress me much when I was young. Although striking in the right landscapes, they did not ‘do’ much. They made no fruit. They made no firewood. Only the big Canary Island date palms made any significant shade. What they did make was a big mess that was difficult to rake. They were expensive to maintain. They sheltered rats and pigeons. Their seedlings came up in the weirdest places.

Back then, the only two palms that I was really familiar with were the Canary Island date palm and the Mexican fan palm. Windmill palms were common too, but because they are so much less obtrusive, they did not get my attention. Queen palms had not yet become a fad, so were mostly in older neighborhoods outside of my world. I was aware that there was an odd type of Mexican fan palm, but never gave it much thought.

Then I went to college . . . and met Brent, from Southern California, where palms are more appreciated. I also met more palms that I had either ignored earlier, or had never seen before. After a while, Brent showed me around coastal Southern California, including the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica, where I saw palm trees at their best.

I will never forget turning onto Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, where the Beverly Hillbillies drove when they came to town. I had never seen Canary Island date palms and Mexican fan palms like that before. They were so majestic! They were so tall! They were so uniform! It did not change what I already knew about palms, but it did give me a different respect for them.

That odd Mexican fan palm that I mentioned earlier was actually the California fan palm, or the desert fan palm, which is classified as a distinct specie. It gets about half as tall, but twice as stout, with fluffier foliage. Because it is shorter and stouter, it stands straight, without bending like the taller and lankier Mexican fan palm does. It is also more genetically variable because it naturally grows in isolated oases rather than a contiguous range.

After seeing the California fan palm growing wild outside of Palm Springs, around the springs that Palm Springs is named for, it became my favorite palm. It is very stately in the right situations. It lines North First Street at Saint James Park in San Jose, and flanks the Palm Driveway at the Winchester House. Unfortunately, it really prefers to be out in the aridity and warmth of the desert. It looks rather sickly if it gets too much water.

While cruising around the Los Angeles area, Brent pointed out a few ‘bastards’, which are hybrids of California fan palm and Mexican fan palm. Apparently, they are not distinct specie, but rather subspecie. In other words, they hybridize freely. Each parent has attributes; and the bastards get the best of both.

Mexican fan palms, whether I like them or not, are very tall, elegant and graceful. They are exquisite skyline trees, with leaning or bowing trunks that can move casually in the wind. California fan palms are stout, stately and formal. If not watered too much, their straight and uniform trunks, and canopies of fluffy foliage, work nicely where conformity is desired. Bastards have trunks that are just thin enough to be elegant, but just stout and straight enough to be stately. Their canopies are more ‘lush’ than fluffy like those of the California fan palm.

Until recently, bastards were solitary trees that grew randomly from seed. They were not available in nurseries. If they had been, they would have been very variable because of their random breeding. However, someone took notice enough to cultivate what seems to be a cultivar known as Washingtonia X filibusta. (Washingtonia X filibusta is derived from the names of California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, and Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta. The ‘X’ designates it as a hybrid.) They are becoming the new alternative to the formerly all too common Mexican fan palm.P71011+

Dracaena Palm

71018Dracaena palm, Cordyline australis, is not a palm at all. It is more closely related to yuccas. (Incidentally, a few yuccas are also inaccurately known as palms as well, but that is another story.) The simple specie that grows taller than a two story house is rare nowadays. It develops a high branched canopy of evergreen olive drab foliage. The three inch wide leaves are about three feet long.

Modern cultivars stay significantly shorter, with somewhat shorter and less pendulous leaves. Some are nicely bronzed or purplish. Others are variegated with creamy white, pale yellow or pinkish brown. Trusses of minute flowers that bloom in early summer are not much to look at, and drop sawdust-like frass as they deteriorate. Bloom might be greenish white or blushed, and then fades to tan. Most modern cultivars do not bloom much, or may not bloom at all. The gray trunks have an appealingly corky texture.

Vegetables Grow All Year Here

71018thumbThe difficult part is pulling up the warm season vegetable plants while they still seem to be productive. It gets much easier after that. Putting new cool season vegetable plants back into the garden is much more gratifying. Vegetable gardening never stops here. One season starts before the previous season ends. If cool season vegetable plants get a late start, they take longer to produce.

If there is enough space in the garden, the cool season vegetable plants can go somewhere else, while the warm season vegetable plants finish with what they might still be working on. Tomatoes might last until frost. Even when it get too cold for the foliage, green fruit can still ripen on the vine, and a bit more on the kitchen windowsill. Green tomatoes remaining after that can be pickled.

If the soil does not need too much amendment, and the spacing works out well, new cool season vegetable plants can be planted in with the warm season vegetable plants so that they can start to grow and disperse roots while the warm season vegetables finish. By the time the warm season plants succumb to cooling weather, the new cool season plants will already be maturing nicely.

This technique does not work so well with last season’s tomatoes only because they are so greedy with nutrients. Fertilizer might compensate for plants that seem slow where tomatoes had been previously. A bit of amendment can be added to the soil when new cool season plants get planted, and more can be added between them when old warm season vegetable plants get removed.

Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower should all be planted as seedlings, so can work nicely with interplanting with aging warm season vegetable plants. Since only a few of each type are needed for a well outfitted garden, one or two cell packs of six or eight plants each should be sufficient. Each cell pack does not cost too much more than a packet of seed. Seedlings get established quickly.

Beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach and peas should be grown from seed sown directly into the garden, so do not work so well with interplanting. Too many individual plants of each type are needed. It just would not be practical to grow them from cell pack seedlings. Besides, they grow so efficiently from seed. Kale can be grown either from seed of seedlings. It might be too late for cucumbers.