Archive

grasses

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One of our flagship deep nature gardens is called “birch corner.” It has been taking shape since late summer of 2013. With the help of some good tree work from our licensed friends and some power tools wielded by the client, we took out a dead old lawn under a big pistache tree, pruned the tree back to let in more light, and drastically limited a birch (the garden’s namesake tree) that was also stealing light from the garden area below.

The ground under the pistache was shaped into hills and valleys, and a lot of beautiful rocks were added to create a walking path and many step-able access points.

In the past year the garden has grown a wide variety of interesting plants. Some, like several varieties of blueberries, spreading patches of bidens, and yellow lantanas were deliberately planted. But many more, like the fluorescent orange zinnias, burgeoning arums, and drifts of small tree saplings emerged on their own from seeds already present in the soil.

Let’s have a look around!

 

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Above: Viewed from the street, the right (west) side of the garden includes the namesake birch tree at the far right. At the extreme right side of the picture is a wooden fence shading that side, with a climbing rose on it. In the spring and summer this fence is also covered by sweet pea vines, deliberately planted and just now sprouting back up from last year’s dropped seeds.

In the middle of the picture are two large clumps of yellow-flowering bidens, which will soon be limited back before they take over even more space. A clump of hair grass stands at the top of a low berm, and in the back against the fence is a young apricot tree. Also visible are a few rocks and some logs slowly decaying into the ground (trimmed from the pistache tree above).

Below: A closer look at a spreading patch of bidens, with an orange zinnia peeking in at the right.

 

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Below, a patch of cyclamen that was planted last winter near the shady base of the back fence is still thriving and blooming. The base of the apricot tree is at left. A closer look shows many little sprouts of new cyclamen. It looks like it is naturalizing nicely.

 

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In this first year at birch corner we are still encountering a variety of vigorous volunteers that will need to be either limited or removed completely. Among these are the many sprouts of variegated arum, almost all of which will have to go.

There are two (non-chemical) ways of removing arums. The first requires patience – simply pull out all the leaves as they appear, until the tubers below run out of steam. But that method takes some persistence. In coming weeks and months we’ll use the faster approach which is to dig down and actually remove the tubers.

Below, a sampling of the arums at birch corner. Each one has its own particular pattern of leaf variegation. We’ll save a few of the most interesting ones, but they will be kept under control. Some may be moved into containers, where their invasive nature will be tamed and we can enjoy their beautiful leaves, flowers, and the seed heads with their bright red seeds.

 

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Birch corner is a forest floor ecosystem, heavily influenced by a dense drop of leaves from the pistache tree every autumn. Those leaves contribute to a gently acidic soil type, which favors plants like the blueberry showing its fall colors in the picture below.

 

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Here in California, autumn marks the beginning of the winter growing season. At birch corner, one sign of the coming winter is thousands of tiny sprouts of petty spurge and a few other low growing annuals. These will fill in, forming a beautiful green carpet that competes with leaves falling from above.

 

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We leave you with a few more of the many interesting new kinds of plants coming in. How many of these can you identify?

 

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Large bunch grasses can be among the most challenging plants to prune. Every year they send up dozens of flowering stalks, which quickly turn into seed-heads shedding vast numbers of tiny potential grass sprouts all over the nearby landscape. Many gardeners resort to heavy weaponry to simply shear them right down to the ground, leaving behind an ugly, unhealthy, flat-topped “tuffet” of cut stems and leaves. Definitely not naturalistic!

I was recently faced with just such a challenge. Large clumps of perennial grass had gone to seed and grown out into unruly pompoms with long leaves (blades) trailing out across nearby plants. The client agreed that another annual shearing was not wanted, but could these grasses be limited back without sacrificing a natural look?

Of course they could! But it involved three different pruning methods, two of which were invented on the spot. Let’s start in the back garden, where a large grass looked like this in the “before” picture:

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First, the seed stems. They all had to come off. I reached in and clipped the seed stems way down among last year’s sheared-off stems. That worked to invisibly remove them, but there was a problem: I was also removing a lot of the green blades clinging to the stems. This was not good because those leaves made up about a third of the overall density. I was thinning too much!

I invented a new method just for this kind of grassy seed heads, clipping about half way up each stem, just a tiny bit above the node where the largest live blade was attached. Most of those blades were left in place, and the overall density was preserved. I call this new style of pruning “partial grass deadheading” because it leaves the lower half of the seed stalks in place while removing the business ends.

The second kind of pruning was also brand new. Unlike the leaves of broadleaf plants, grass blades elongate as they grow. This is an adaptation to herbivores that bite off the ends of the blades. Such shortened blades can still grow longer. But there are no grass-eating herbivores in most suburban gardens, and the blades of the bunch grasses tend to grow longer and longer. I realized that for these grasses to be trimmed in a healthy way I had to become that herbivore.

Having recently experienced a haircut, I realized that I could use a method similar to what my friend Janice had done to my head. I swept my hand across the ends of the over-long blades, scooping up a manageable handful and gently tugging outward. Then I clipped off the ends of all the blades in that handful, depositing the cut off bits into the debris bin. By repeating this operation all around the outer parts of the clump, I was able to reduce the lengths of the blades without creating a sheared off look. I call this pruning method “bunch grass haircut pruning.”

With the seed heads gone and the blades shortened all around, the bunch already looked much better. But the overall size of the bunch was too large and there were lots of old blades and stems around the base. It needed to be smaller without sacrificing the naturalistic look. I used a variant of undercut pruning. Reaching deep under at the base, I grabbed a small tuft and clipped it right at ground level, repeating and carefully observing the results all around the base of the plant. The density near the base was reduced, creating more of a fountain appearance and less of a pop-pom.

Here is the result on the bunch grass in the “before” picture above. Notice how much more visible are the small silvery plants near the base:

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Out in front of the house at the base of a tree, there are three more clumps of the same grass. Applying the same three pruning methods, these clumps were rapidly tamed. There is a “before” picture at the top of this post; here is another:

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Let’s have a closer look at the rightmost clump before pruning. See how dense are the seed stems, and how long the blades:

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This is how these grasses looked after the pruning. What do you think?

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I love pruning as much as I love creating deep nature gardens. I am available to prune almost anything in your garden (except mature trees, for which we bring in a licensed tree surgeon). If you are not near us, I am also available through online media (email or real-time video) to coach you on how to prune your plants.