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One of our favorite “trouble plants” is the lovely buttercup oxalis, Oxalis pes-caprae. It is a fascinating little herb originally from South Africa. Above is a patch of lantana that has been completely smothered in a lush carpet of buttercup oxalis.

Yes, it is a noxious invasive that can overwhelm many other kinds of plants. Despite what some gardeners may say (Oh, that stuff never dies. It will be there forever!) it can be tamed, controlled and even completely eliminated. But without the use of icky chemical toxins (please, don’t!) it could take a bit of persistent work.

140519-0733In South Africa it’s a native surrounded by local herbivores that eat it. Here in California it can spread rapidly through underground runners and bulbs. Many gardeners hate it because it is very difficult to remove. Directly pulling up the plant almost always leaves the bulbs behind, which can be as deep as six inches or more. Yikes!

 

it can be done!
The good news is: They can be cleared by persistent, complete plucking of all new rosettes every few weeks during the winter growing season.

But you really will have to keep after them! Do not allow any rosettes to get to the blooming stage because that is when they send out dozens of tiny underground bulblets. Each bloomer will be surrounded by a six-inch radius of tiny new plants next spring. You must pull out all rosettes, no matter how tiny.

It is enough to pluck out the stems if you are patient and persistent, but the biggest ones can come back four or five times before they give up. Fortunately, we can move faster. Just keep plucking.

You can eliminate them faster if you get the bulbs. Use a long, thin, sharp tool like a weeder, screwdriver, or thin trowel to shove down deep under each rosette. Your goal is to break open the soil without breaking the lowest stem of the plant. It can be tricky, especially if your soil is dense, but there is a certain joy in gently shaking off loosened soil to find a bulb clinging to the thin thread at the bottom of the root. That one will not come back!

 

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you can eat all of it
Not everything about buttercup oxalis is bad. Not only is it exceptionally pretty, it is also edible. The sweet-sour yellow flowers and flower stalks are great in salads, and the bulbs are said to be good for getting rid of tapeworms. I haven’t had a chance to test that claim yet.

As invasive as they are, we love these little plants. But we keep them in their place. Where is that? Several places, actually.

 

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a drift in the leaves
Natives-only gardeners may cringe, but there can be a place for these little beauties in a deep nature garden. There may be a spot in the semi-shade with deep leaf debris, where buttercup oxalis can poke up through the leaves. The best place for such an oxalis drift is under a deciduous bush or tree, so that they can enjoy some filtered sun during the winter growing season. The annual leaf drop from above can challenge them and help to keep them under control.

In the picture above there are lemon-yellow buttercup oxalis flowers under the blooming wisteria vine, and spilling out into a sunny meadow of california poppy, wild strawberry, and English violet.

If you want a big harvest of the sweet-tangy flowers you can create a more robust and productive drift of oxalis. Just let the little cuties grow in some likely place. In the picture below is such a drift among some beautiful rocks. If it is strictly removed from other garden areas it can be a gorgeous and tame part of the ecosystem. But it will definitely need to be controlled around the edges.

 

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tame, beautiful, delicious
The best place of all for a wonderful, edible little invader like buttercup oxalis is a container. As you might imagine, they are fairly easy to grow. We’ve been growing some in our eco-packs. Want one?

Read more about buttercup oxalis at Wikipedia.

 

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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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Did you miss the previous episode in this series? You can also jump back to the beginning.

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December 19, 2012. Morning sun slants across the garden at little yellow house. There was some serious rain, and now thousands of sprouts are popping up in every blank space. The garden is greening up!

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Above: An odd little corner of the front strip features a variety of fascinating plants including petty spurge, groundsel, mallow, cut-leaf geranium, English violets, buttercup oxalis and more, plus a few pretty autumn leaves. Here’s a closer look:

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Right now, our most important task in this garden is thinning out extra sprouts of anything that is too abundant, plus removal of certain plants like buttercup oxalis that we generally prefer to restrict to selected areas because of their invasive nature.

Below: An area shadowed by a purple lantana in the street strip shows a bit of frost on leaves of English violet.

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Above: On the left side of the front walk the daisy bushes enjoy the sun while the wisteria bush behind it is still in shade. It leaves are turning yellow and dropping down. There’s frost on the neighbor’s roof in the background. Under the daisy bushes in front there is a carpet of violets and decorative strawberries, still filling in. Like almost every other plant in this garden they were there to begin with, not deliberately planted.

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Above: Skipping forward to Christmas eve, 2012 the garden continues to grow in rapidly. In the front strip is a drift of blooming buttercup oxalis, pushing up between the frost-burned stems of lantanas. In spite of the frost damage, some stems of lantana still bear pretty purple flowers.

This is one of two areas where we are allowing the oxalis to stay. Here it has to compete with the vigorous lantanas, and it is also quite difficult to extract from this zone without damaging the lantanas. The other oxalis drift is under the big wisteria bush, where they look pretty pushing up through the carpet of fallen leaves.

Below: Closer looks at the buttercup oxalis. The beautiful yellow flowers are edible and excellent in a tart-sweet, tangy way. Try them in salads!

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Below: A few more sweet little scenes from the garden at little yellow house on Christmas eve, 2012. We see English violets, sweet alyssum, a cute mushroom, and some autumn color.

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Next: Wisteria drops its leaves, the owner begins a stone patio, and there’s lots more thinning to do.

Did you miss the previous episode of this series? You can also jump back to the beginning.

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It’s November 19, 2012, and the garden at little yellow house is now as blank as it will be. The big square section on the right of the front walk is about 50% bare ground. The biggest plant is the pittosporum bush  near the house on the left. To its right (near the truck) is the bare space where the giant silk tree came out.

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On the left side the big wisteria looms over three just-pruned daisy bushes. On the right are some grayish French lavender bushes, and on the left a butterfly iris and a low Santa Barbara daisy. Directly in front are some decorative strawberries and English violets.

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The right side street strip contains purple-blooming lantanas, still unpruned and just recovering from the damage done during the great big silk tree removal. Also present here, buttercup oxalis and some annual grasses pushing up between the step stones at the street edge. At the upper right, the street strip is temporarily shaded by a street-side recycling bin.

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In the left side street strip the blue mailbox post rises near a massive clump of red-flowering stonecrop, also known as sedum, currently not blooming. Beyond, a wild-looking mix of white flowering sweet alyssum, creeping oxalis, California poppies, and much more. This small section of the garden is already one of the most diverse, ecologically healthy areas.

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Between the big pittosporum bush and the front of the house an old flagstone walkway is being deconstructed. These stones will be reassembled into a more eco-friendly mortar-free patio where mosses and other small plants can establish their own kind of ecosystem between the stones. Beyond the remains of the walk way is the blank space where the silk tree was removed. This is where the next major action will take place. Let’s fast forward a couple of weeks to December 5…

140510-0917Here in Menlo Park we are very tree-aware. When a large old tree comes out (a “heritage tree”) the law says you have to plant a new tree that can grow as big.

At right, two trusty garden experts from Roger Reynold’s Nursery put in in a strapping young red maple. Sadly, Roger Reynold’s has since gone out of business.

We chose a large-leafed deciduous tree to replace the old silk tree. While this maple will drop its big crinkly leaves all over the garden, they will be easy to remove from the tops of bushes and smaller plants, and easy to redistribute under the bushes and in other deserving parts of the garden. Unlike the old silk tree, it will not drop tons of fine debris, smothering everything beneath. It will also experience a wonderful annual cycle, being beautiful in different ways around the year. A big improvement!

For now, the new garden citizen is small and bare. In coming episodes of this series of posts you’ll be able to watch as it leafs out, grows a bit, drops its leaves, then leafs out and grows some more. We’ll prune it now and then as its branches reach out into the air. It will be quite a few years before it reaches the garden-shading extent of the old silk tree!

Below: On December 10, 2012 the garden at little yellow house basks in the slanting winter sun. Even now, it is mostly a blank slate. Its deep nature evolution has only just begun!

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Next: the garden greens up with massive diversity, and the first frost of the winter.

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In the morning after a rain, in a client’s leafy forest garden… this beautiful gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) posed at the edge of a rock. It was still chilly and wet, and this torpid insect was so sleepy that I could touch it. When I did, it opened up its wings for a few seconds…

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A few minutes later the sun finally emerged, and the butterfly opened its wings again, absorbing warmth. After about 30 seconds it flitted up into the air, soon landing on a nearby viola flower. Wake up, it’s time for breakfast!

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Gulf fritillaries are mostly tropical butterflies, whose larvae feed on passion fruit vines. They are not endangered and are surprisingly common in the Bay Area, especially this year for some reason.

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Want to encourage more gulf fritillaries in your garden? The best way is to plant a passion vine, but you can also attract them with hardy, nectar-laden tropical flowers like lantana.

The second butterfly was a real blessing. At a different client’s garden, it was right there on the blooming pieris bush, just long enough that I was able to snap a picture…

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Is it a monarch or a viceroy? This one is a monarch (Danaus plexippus) as indicated by the lack of a dark bar across the hind wing. Actually, viceroys (Limentis archippus, non-poisonous butterflies who benefit from their resemblance to the poisonous monarchs) seldom are seen in the Bay Area, being more common to the east of the Sierras.

By September 1 the project at little yellow house was well under way. Did you miss the previous episode? You can also jump back to the first post in the series.

Let’s focus on the front yard, starting right out at the street.

street strips: lantanas, violets, sedum, alyssum, agapanthus

There are two strips of garden between the sidewalk and the street. Like many such street strips, they receive lots of sun and tend to be dry and hard-packed. In the foreground above is the longer strip containing a lot of trailing purple lantana. At this stage it is still dry and hard, but even so the lantana is blooming and there are violets (in the sun!) with green leaves.

In the background is the second, shorter strip with green sedum, white alyssum, and behind them some large agapanthus with their strappy leaves. We’ll deal with all of those another day!

Above: Along the streetside edge of the lantana strip is a zone of deeply embedded gravel. Until just before this picture was taken there was an evil bender board, secured into place by nasty lengths of rebar pounded down straight into the ground. Maybe you can see the darker area just under the front edge of the lantana, where the bender board’s removal has left a little “cliff” of freshly exposed soil. This bender board marked an artificial and definitely non-naturalistic division between the gravel and the lantanas. Out with it!

One more note about bender boards and rebar: As a barefoot gardener, I can tell you it is not fun at all to step down directly onto the top of one of those lengths of rebar.

As for the gravel, it is slated to be removed by shoveling the mixed soil and gravel into a large-mesh sieve, allowing the soil to fall through. The soil will be returned to the street strip. Later still, irregular slate stones will be placed here directly on the naked ground, adjusted with dirt underneath and between so that they will make a nice stepping zone for people getting out of cars. Because the stones will be directly on the ground, small plants will be able to grow between them, forming their own special micro-ecosystem.

You might have already gathered that I am strongly opposed to artificial dividing technologies like bender boards, underground weed barriers, and the like. A genuine deep nature garden does not require any kinds of technology to keep plants where they “belong.”

Above: The small walkway between lantanas on the left and the sedum on the right has been widened by using undercut pruning on both sides. The old limits on both sides are visible by the darker shade where the “beards” of both kinds of plants used to extend across the cement.

Undercut pruning is a special technique. If properly applied, it can tame wild mats and tangles of plants without leaving them looking “pruned.” How it is used varies depending on the type of plant. The lantana, with its tangles of brown, nearly naked stems, required a different approach than the thick-stemmed, heavy sedum. Only experience can convey the specific style of cutting needed for each kind of plant.

south corner: mugo pine, fake stream, daisy bushes

Above: The mugo pine has been pruned back, exposing the beautiful multiple trunks. Grasses have been removed in that area. As the garden evolves, various small herbs and flowers will be allowed to grow underneath the pine, filling in that space and making it look pretty.

To the right of the pine and extending back behind the daisies at the far right is a grass-overgrown fake stream created with gravel, bender boards, rebar, and a little wall made out of stacked flat slate stones. You can probably already guess how I feel about fake streams. All of these artificial barriers and divisions will be removed.

The center area in front is heavily overgrown with grass. Beneath and among the grass stems are Santa Barbara daisies, ornamental strawberries, and violets. Also there is a spiky-leaved plant (possibly an iris) with its leaves sticking up. About half of the grass (the easy half!) has already been removed. Clearing out the rest of this grass will entail several hours of careful work. The strawberries and violets, plus anything else interesting, will be preserved as much as possible.

Above: looking back toward the street from the walkway leading up to the house. In the shady foreground are some lavender bushes. Beyond them is the other end of the fake stream, and beyond that the daisy bushes. Beneath them, mixed grass, violets, and strawberries.

Next: We are just about to do a massive transformation of the back yard. Stay tuned!

Did you miss the previous episodes? Here they are:

little yellow house #1

little yellow house #2

This series of posts begins with pictures taken on August 28, 2012. A new client and a Big New Project! Let’s call it Little Yellow House… and please watch these pages for a continuing series of updates.

Above: the house from the street, facing north. Dominating the picture is an old silk tree (Albizia sp.) which is now reaching the end of its life. One of the most important early issues of this project is that this noble giant has to be removed, because it is seriously infected by a fungus that has taken advantage of the tree’s weakness during recent dry years after the automatic sprinklers failed some years back.

In the foreground a large wisteria bush forms a rounded hump to the left of the light pole. Like the rest of the garden, this wisteria has been allowed to fend for itself for many years. It has sent out dozens of long sinewy shoots that have twined together to form this rather large mound.

At the base of the light pole to the left of the blue mailbox, a small streetside strip contains agapanthus, sweet alyssum and red-flowering stonecrop (Sedum sp.).

As beautiful as it may be with its spreading form, the silk tree’s leaves are turning yellow. Not only is it doomed by disease, but this tree has seriously hampered the vegetation below by shedding vast quantities of its finely divided leaves and flowers which cover the plants below, preventing them from fully absorbing what light gets through its own foliage.

In nature, this habit of dropping leaves and flowers benefits the silk trees by suppressing undergrowth and creating a special ecosystem of leaf mould and decomposition critters, but here in this garden we want a much more varied ecosystem.

Yes, sadly, the silk tree must go.

Above: Looking north-northeast from the south corner, in front of the wisteria is a sweet little mugo pine. In front, purple daisies and some stray wisteria runners. Some serious pruning needed here, but this south corner of the garden will be one of the easiest areas to handle.

Above; looking west from the street end of the driveway, the wisteria bush is at the left edge of the picture in the background. Just in front of the wisteria but behind the front walkway is a wildly overgrown section containing some daisy bushes and a whole lot of grass, under which are some struggling decorative wild strawberries (Fragaria sp.) that are invisible in this picture.

Below the silk tree’s branches in front of the house is an area containing old, deeply entrenched clumps of agapanthus and butterfly iris, running from the right foreground into the center background. Both of these are species that can eventually take over large areas of garden space, highly drought-tolerant and unfortunately rather invasive if left untended.

In the larger center front section are lots of violets and various other plants adapted to the part shade of the silk tree. As we shall see, there are a whole lot of far more troublesome plants here that are yet to be revealed. Just wait until I get a chance to start watering!

Above: looking southwest from the end of the driveway. In foreground at right, healthy but highly invasive agapanthus clumps. Behind them, violets and more. Further back, the overgrown section with daisy bushes and grass in front of the wisteria bush. At left, extending back along the sidewalk in the early morning shadow of the parked car, two streetside strips. The closer one contains purple trailing lantana struggling to survive in the dry, sun-blasted conditions near the street. Other kinds of “weeds” and grass also compete for that space.

Above: at the base of the mailbox, a small streetside strip containing lush carpets of sedum and some white-flowering sweet alyssum with a few more purple trailing lantana. There is also more agapanthus in there too. In the back, the overgrown, grassy area in front of the wisteria and to the right of the mugo pine.

Above: a closer look at the overgrown area in front of the wisteria mound. It is early afternoon by now, and I have already removed a lot of the tallest grass stems. Wild strawberries are now visible at the base of the daisy bushes. At far left, an agapanthus in the front strip displays a tall stalk with white flowers.

Next: we visit the back yard.