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Posts from the ‘maintenance’ Category

January maintenance tips

Winter in the Bay Area can be a forgetful time in the garden. Since we aren’t necessarily spending our days and evenings outside it’s easy to forget about your garden. However, there are chores that are necessary during the winter months to keep your garden thriving. There are also plenty of fun gardening and enhancement opportunities this time of year too – consider them a bonus! You can ensure a stellar spring garden if you follow these winter gardening tips.

January Maintenance Tips:

Trees and Shrubs: Most shrubs and deciduous shade trees can be pruned now (flowering trees shouldn’t be pruned until after they’ve bloomed) to promote healthy structure and growth during spring time months.
Bonus: Now is a great time to plant fruit trees – bare root trees are now available at many nurseries are typically less expensive than those potted in soil. Dormant fruit trees, like apple, cherry, plum and pear, require a certain amount of hours below 45 degrees to break winter dormancy and produce a healthy crop. Make sure you find the right tree for your microclimate.

Shop early for spectacular bare root rose varieties!

Shop early for spectacular bare root rose varieties!

Roses: For your existing roses, prune no more than half of the new growth from the last growing season. Pinching and pruning encourages vigorous new growth.
Bonus: January and February are the best months to plant new roses, and bare root stock is now showing up in Bay Area nurseries. This time of year the stock should be full with desirable varieties.

Be sure to rake and clean up leaves from planting beds before they cause damage!

Be sure to rake and clean up leaves from planting beds before they cause damage!

Raking: Stay on top of it. Fallen leaves can damage lawns and choke perennials if allowed to sit for too long.
Bonus: Got kids? Consider it a fun day raking the leaves into piles and playing in them. Got (pre -) teenagers? Make them earn their allowance and assign them the weekend chore.

What does a healthy lawn mean to your family?

What does a healthy lawn mean to your family?

A Healthy Lawn: This is a great time of year to aerate and fertilize your lawn. Aeration is a simple process that improves drainage and opens the thatch so water and oxygen can reach the roots. This helps microorganisms thrive and break down accumulated thatch build up. It also helps to reduce compaction which occurs naturally over time. All of this combined improves water absorption, produces deep root growth, and encourages a healthier grass that chokes out weeds. Once aerating is complete, fertilize your lawn to ensure a speedy and healthy recovery.
Bonus: A healthy, well-tended lawn improves the value of your property and the aesthetics of your neighborhood, not to mention the enjoyment a lawn can provide for your family.

Tired of looking at a vacant veggie bed? Plant now there are plenty of veggies to tend to!

Tired of looking at a vacant veggie bed? Plant now there are plenty of veggies to tend to!

Bonus! Veggies! Lots of vegetables want to be planted in fall and winter for spring harvest- it’s not too late! Some of the best to plant now: asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, peas, spinach and turnips. Year round vegetables like carrots, beets and radishes can be planted now too. Maybe this is your year to create the kitchen garden you always wanted – stick to the resolution to eat more locally and garden more frequently!

Rather not get your hands dirty? Call our maintenance department at (510) 444 -5195 to set up an annual maintenance visit. We can get your garden all spruced up for a spectacular spring.

Bonus! Considering design changes in your garden?! Now is the perfect time to have our designers complete your landscape design plans. Depending on the size and scope of your project a design could take 4 – 6 weeks, giving you plenty of time to design and build your garden for enjoyment this year, as soon as this spring!

Downton Abbey and the English Garden

Well a year has come and gone and a new year is upon us.  For the third year in a row the New Year also brings us a new season of Downton Abbey.   The third season begins this Sunday, January 6th, on PBS.  Along with the intriguing story line and great interiors we are also treated to wonderful views of the landscape surrounding the great English manor house, Highclere Castle.

Downton Abbey has used Highclere Castle to film the exterior shots since the series began.  It seems the creators of the show are enchanted by Highclere Castle’s location and frequently include wonderful shots of long views within the estate parkland.   This is understandable since Highclere Castle estate sits on 1,000 acres and dates back to the 8th century.

Charles Barry designed Highclere Castle and building began in1839.  Charles Barry also designed the Houses of Parliament in London.  You can’t help but notice the resemblance.  The Estate is presently owned by the Carnavon family, who acquired it in 1679 from the Bishops of Winchester who had owned the Estate for 800 years.

Before I go over the landscape, I want to go over some of the historical details of the grounds of Highclere Castle.

The 1,000 acre parkland was original designed by Capability Brown at the end of the 18th century.  Capability Brown was a proponent of the more relaxed English garden style and designed close to 170 garden parks and fine country estates.  His style broke away from the traditional formal garden style popular in France.  Capability Brown’s design style attempted to mimic nature; trees and ponds were scattered throughout the landscape.  In addition to the parkland and arboretum, the present garden also contains The Secret Garden and Monks’ Garden.

The current owners, Lady Carnavon and the 8th Earl of Carnavon oversee the Highclere Castle gardens.  The owners not only maintain the original scheme but also actively add to the garden.

The first season of Downton Abbey begins in 1912, at this time the garish display of Victorian bedding plants was out of fashion.  The trend was a more relaxed ‘country house’ style of herbaceous borders and rambling roses.  Lady Carnavon adheres to this relaxed Edwardian garden style in her new planting.

As early as the 13th century fruit trees were planted in the garden.  Today fruit trees (peach, nectarine and quince) can be found trained on the brick garden walls.  Roses, blue and white Agapanthus, Lavender and Penstemons have been added to the undulating borders of The Secret Garden.  Rose varieties include ‘Penny Lane’, Alberic Barbier’ and ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.  Giant white-flowered mophead Hydrangeas also can be found in The Secret Garden.

If you want to capture the feeling of an English garden, regardless of the size of your own garden, there are several key elements to keep in mind.

Use a large variety of plant varieties even in small flowerbeds.  Shrubs and perennials of the same variety should not be planted en masse.  If you do plant en masse, use varieties that seem wild.

Plant perennials that do not need trimming.  Instead choose those that ramble through the border.  Remember that you want to avoid the ‘designer’ look and lean towards a more natural feeling.

Eliminate straight rows and geometric planting patterns for trees and shrubs.  Plant in odd numbers to get away from symmetry and rigid formality.

Pathways and planting beds should be curved.  Avoid straight lines and square beds.  Even hedges should be allowed to grow in a more natural style.

If you decide on using sculpture in the garden, choose something that looks aged.  The piece should be pastoral and peaceful, not new and modern.

Even if we do not live in a grand English estate set in acres of rolling parkland we can still use key design ideas that embrace Capability Brown’s time tested theories.  These ideas can be used regardless of the garden size or location.

In the mean time, with the long winter nights ahead of us, its great to sit back, relax and watch the drama unfold on Downton Abbey.  Once the series has run its course we will be that much closer to spring and spending time in our own gardens.

Plan now to enjoy later – Fall Bulbs!

Fall is the perfect time of year to get your garden ready to enjoy next spring. It’s the time to add perennials, groundcovers and shrubs as they will establish from the rains and not necessarily require supplemental water from irrigation systems. It is also the time to plant bulbs that will pop up after you’ve forgotten about them come spring time. The flowering spring time show you will get from your bulbs will be well worth the early effort, however, you have to plant you bulbs before winter to ensure this gorgeous show happens.

You will need to select locations in your garden that get adequate sunlight and have good drainage. Bulbs will not thrive in areas of poor drainage. If you have clay soil, like many areas in the bay area, be sure to loosen the soil at least a foot deeper than the recommended planting depth (typically you loosen the soil 2” – 3” below the planting depth in well draining soil) and amend soil with peat moss to help with drainage. Don’t forget to plant the bulb pointy end up with about 3” – 4” top soil covering the tops. When selecting your bulbs from a nursery be sure to hand pick bulbs without soft spots or mold, or order from a vendor like Van Engelen Inc, who can send high quality bulbs to your residence.

Small Hycinthoides bulbs for a client’s garden!

When ordering your bulbs a good rule of thumb to follow is 4 large bulbs per square foot, or 9 small bulbs per square foot. It may seem like a lot per square foot in your garden, but it will not disappoint. Also, take into consideration that some bulbs, like tulips, require refrigeration chilling for 6 weeks before they can be planted in the ground.

Large tulip bulbs that are being chilled for a few more weeks

In milder climates like areas within the san francisco bay area we are lucky that some bulbs we plant “perennialize” and we don’t have to plant them every year, like in other parts of the country. The daffodil is one of the most popular planted bulb in the bay area. It typically returns each springtime in our gardens and is also deer proof. A showy plant that is deer proof in this area is hard to come by, so plant your bulbs this fall and enjoy them come spring!

Large and small bulbs, check back next spring and we will show you the results of our fall bulb plantings!

A Green Roof for our Chicken Coop

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After many months of pondering, I finally planted up the empty void atop our family chicken coop and turned it into a beautiful green roof. Even though the roof is fairly small, I see it everyday from our second story home, so it is very important to me. I considered wanting a green roof with a natural meadow look that would just turn golden in the summer months or a collection of California native wildflowers interspersed amongst creeping sedum. In the end, I chose a mix of succulents and fescues, all very hardy and requiring hardly any maintenance. I am happy with the end result because it is extremely easy to care for, requires very little water, and looks good throughout the seasons.

I chose the succulents because I needed something that could withstand the shallow four inch depth of the roof. I know the groundcover sedums are very popular for green roofs for the very fact that they spread wide without a lot of water and have considerably short root structures. But since I would be looking at the green roof everyday, I wanted something with bolder leaves and more texture. I chose seven different varieties for the green roof including: Echeveria, that has rosettes ranging from one to five inches in diameter. They are different hues of grey-blue, mauve, and burgundy. Interspersed are some Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ and Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’ to set off the bold leaves of the Echeveria. Along the edges I put in a few draping purple flowering plants, Convolvulus mauritanicus. to soften the edges.

I chose all of these plants for their durability and low water requirement, important aspects to consider when planting a green roof. I will use the spray hose to water them a few times a week, until they get established since I did not set up an irrigation system. I think the succulents will flourish with the temperate San Francisco climate and ability to survive with little water.

One thing I did not anticipate was the chickens eating the succulents when left to freely roam the garden. I went a little overboard at the nursery and bought some succulents to plant at ground level, only to discover the chicks, and my daughter, love to pluck the fleshy leaves off! For now, I am keeping my favorite varieties on the roof to divide and live on so I can root them in the garden beds later on and not care if they get plucked.

Goodbye to My Agave vilmoriniana

Last weekend I said goodbye to a fixture in my San Francisco garden, my gigantic Agave vilmoriniana, or Octopus Agave. It was a tattered, spindly castoff when I rescued it from a client’s garden about eight years ago – and it developed into an architectural wonder before exploding into bloom. We’ve actually had an ongoing dialogue here in the office about the preponderance of blooms we’ve been noticing from agaves and phormiums. Agave americana is called Century Plant, alluding to the lack of frequency of bloom time. It’s a bumper crop year.

If you know agaves, like the Octopus agave or the Century plant, you’ll understand that the beautiful bloom is also the death knell of these amazing plants. One morning in early June, I made my way down to the disaster zone of my garden to see the spike of the bloom begin. It was about 15 inches tall when I first noticed it – and from then until it reached its maximum 18’ height you could practically watch it grow with the naked eye. A neighbor a backyard block away even commented on the fast-growing, incredibly tall Octopus agave bloom. He could see it from his backyard deck.

This is where it gets interesting. Agave vilmoriniana is not a native to our region, nor is the moth that pollinates it in San Francisco – but agaves are resourceful. If you leave the stalk intact and allow the plant to die, and endure the dying blooms, it miraculously begins to produce pups, or bulbils. Upon my inspection, it looks like there are two pups where each bud once bloomed. I believe in their native environment, as the agave bloom topples, the pups that reach soil will root and continue to grow. Since the native regions of most agaves are so harsh, it makes sense that they would need to produce many plants in order that a few survive.

In an ideal world, I would let the bloom fully mature and topple back to earth and the bulbils continue to mature. But this delinquent gardener is not that patient. It’s time to get this garden in proper order! I hacked the not-so-wilty bloom down this weekend, and have begun to harvest the bulbils. I also yanked the dying Agave vilmoriniana plant from the soil – only to plant another in its place. It’s such a lovely spot for the curving Octopus arms. Let me know if you want to try some bulbils. I have thousands!

Can you believe it is October?!?

Happy October – can you believe it?!? Only three more months left to 2012. There are lots of things you can be doing in your garden this month to continue to enjoy it throughout the fall and to get it ready for the upcoming new year. Check out this great article from our friends at Houzz – Northern California Gardener’s October Checklist – reminds us how lucky we are to live in such a great climate where we still can enjoy our gardens.

More Confessions of a Delinquent Gardener

I can’t believe how this month is rushing by. The good news is that I’ve been so busy in my garden, I haven’t been updating my posts. I haven’t achieved my goal of 20 minutes a day in the garden, but i have good reasons! In addition to seeing friends and live music some nights, and being really busy here at work, we went to a great presentation by the good people at, and another great presentation by The Splinter Group at the Moraga Barn. To make up for it, I’ve been spending hours outside on the weekend with my husband and our dogs and the one million (slight exaggeration) hummingbirds that have come to call our garden home. Did I mention I’ve inadvertently created a garden chock full of hummingbird food? More good news: We’re mostly on track to meet our October 6 (San Francisco staple) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass garden party – check back for pictures of our garden party.

So what is considered hummingbird food in my garden? Almost everything. I have Tecoma stans, two cultivars of Abutilon, Iochroma ‘Sunset’, Cuphea salvadorensis, Pandorea pandorana (much more fun to call it by its common name: Wonga Wonga Vine), Thunbergia alata, three cultivars of Cannas, Fuchsia boliviana (both straight species and alba), lovely Meyer lemon blooms, and the giant flower spike of my Agave vilmoriniana while it was blooming (more on that later). It’s also amazing to see hummingbirds fly up into the depths of the giant tubular throat of the Brugmansia.

With all of this natural hummingbird food blooming almost all year long in San Francisco, who needs hummingbird feeders? I didn’t design my garden to be a haven for hummingbird food, I guess we just like the same kind of flowers! Regardless, if you’re in Sunset Zone 17 (areas influenced by the ocean, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley), try any combination of these plants to provide hummingbird food for your fine-feathered friends. My next venture is to see how many hummingbird species actually frequent my garden. I know we have lots of Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna) for sure. And I’m fairly certain I’ve seen a ruby-throated hummingbird, but i have to admit (this is a confessional after all) that I’m not the most experienced birder. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Just what have we been up to over the past 24 days, you might ask? A giant garden clean-up and reorganization of the tool shed. Reorganization and a lot of replanting of all of my container garden. I’m most excited about my new, lovely Meyer lemon tree. It’s absolutely loaded with fruit, and Meyer lemons are a staple in my cooking. Planting up some herb pots to enhance my kitchen garden is on this week’s agenda. We’ve also focused on weeding, weeding, weeding – with all of the animals in my garden, both domestic and wild, I have to keep things organic. Fortunately, I actually enjoy weeding. I also spend A LOT of time removing spent Brugmansia flowers. We also retrofitted our irrigation. One of my favorite things this weekend was spray painting my rusty garden chairs. They’re going to look great if we switch our gravel to basalt.

We have two looming questions: 1) Do we change out the gravel in our garden or just top dress our existing? And 2) Do we go with real or synthetic sod?

I REALLY hate our gravel. From the moment we poured the first wheelbarrow-full out I hated it. I believe my first question was, “Did we just create a giant litterbox?” We kinda did – but at least it’s easy to keep clean. I do love the gravel for its crunchy sound as we sit around the fire pit on those chilly San Francisco nights. I think I’ll love it more if we switch to black basalt gravel. I just need to decide how MUCH more I would love it…

If you asked me two years ago if I would even consider artificial turf you would have gotten the hairy eyeball. But my thoughts have changed – at least for my garden (and many San Francisco gardens) requirements. First of all, I have very limited space. We mostly use our garden to entertain at the picnic table or around the fire. I like the idea of a flat soft space, and I currently don’t have a space to recline, relax and enjoy the circus of hummingbirds flitting about the garden (I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve counted no fewer than 15 buzzing around at one time). I’m embarrassed to say it, but this is my confessional, we have already installed real sod lawn, wait for it, THREE times. Here are my sod problems: My garden is pretty shady – mostly from a beautiful, prolific and extraordinarily messy giant Brugmansia. There are dogs. I love to let my plants to grow into the lawn area. I want to keep my lawn chair on the lawn. And this last should be no surprise, I’m a lazy mower. Artificial turf technology has improved by leaps and bounds, especially for residential homes. The artificial turf is lush and green – my dogs even enjoy laying on it. One major complaint is that it’s much hotter to walk on than real sod, but we rarely have that problem in San Francisco. It still seems kinda crazy, though. Artificial turf can also be cost-prohibitive, at least at the time of installation. It promises to pay off over time with maintenance and water savings.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. If you actually made it this far, check back in October to see the results!