Recommended Websites
Recommended books:

Western Garden Book by Sunset

Western Garden Book of Edibles by Sunset

California Native Plants for the Garden by Bornstein, Fross, and O’Brien

Edible Landscapes by Rosalind Creasy

The Edible Herb Garden by Rosalind Creasy

Western Garden Problem Solver by Sunset

Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do about It Robert Glennon

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    Trees for Fall Color

    There is fall color in California.  Here are some trees to look for or plant in your landscape.

    Chinese Pistache

    Pistacia chinensis

    The Chinese Pistache is the ornamental version of the Pistachio Nut tree and is a medium tree with varied fall color from yellow, to orange to red all on one tree.  Trees in rows can even be varied from each other in coloration.  It is one of the most dependable for fall color in mild winter climates.  This tree can grow over 30’ tall and wide and can take a range of water to drought tolerant once established.  The fruit is red and matures to blue black and can be considered a bit messy for pathways or sitting areas.  Otherwise makes a good patio area tree, street tree or elsewhere in the garden.

    Maidenhair Tree

    Ginkgo biloba

    Ginko just transitioning to yellowThe Ginkgo is an ancient prehistoric survivor that thrived worldwide and is now limited as a native to two small areas in China.  The broad fan shaped leaves turn gold in fall and the leaves fall in about 3 weeks.  The Ginkgo can grow to 70’ tall but 35’-50’ is more common.  The width is usually half of the height.  These trees are tolerant of many conditions including pollution, heat, acid or alkaline soil and resistant to oak root fungus. They are not usually bothered with pests or disease.  Young trees require regular water until 20’ tall than cut back to occasional watering.  Be sure to plant male specimens as the fruit on a female is messy and ill smelling.

    American Sweet Gum

    Liquidambar styraciflua

    A native of the eastern U.S. the Sweet Gum can reach 60’ tall.  Lower limbs eventually spread 20’ or more.  Most folks would recognize this tree from its spiky spherical seed pods or prickle balls.  An attractive tree year round, the leaves turn purple, yellow or red in fall.  The seed balls can be a litter problem and it’s best to NOT plant this tree in areas of walkways, cars and mowing.  This tree takes regular water until established then moderate watering.  Three varieties were propagated especially for California for fall color, ‘Palo Alto’, ‘Festival’, and ‘Burgundy.’  There is a columnar variety if you want screening in a tight place called 'Slender Silhouette.' 

    Japanese Maple

    Acer palmatum

    Bloodgood Japanese Maple with Coral Bark Japanese Maple behindThere are a lot of varieties of Japanese maples and favored for their airy and delicate look.  They come in dwarf shrub size to 25’ tall trees. The leaves are generally deeply cut 5-9 lobes with variations in toothed edges.  They have all year interest from sculptural shape, spring green or red leaves, summer leaves in green, red or variations, to fall color of yellow or red.  Bark can be green, coral red, blackish red and eggplant purple.  They thrive best in filtered sun and in the same microclimate and soil as azaleas.  The leaves can become brown on the edges from leafburn or leaf scorch.  Leafburn is too much salt in the soil and needs occasional deep watering to leach the salt out.  Leaf scorch is when the tree isn’t getting enough water in dry weather to accommodate evaportranspiration (water evaporating from the leaves).   The more finely cut the leaf, the more likely these will be an issue. They make beautiful specimen plants and look lovely in groves.   Use by entryways, patios, with ferns and azaleas, in large pots and along pools.  Grafted Japanese Maples are more prone to heat and wind and need more regular watering than seedling varities. Japanese Maple 'Disectum'


    Crape Myrtle

    Lagerstroemia hybrid

    The Crape Myrtle is a popular shrub or small tree.  With beautiful bark characteristics, spring bloom in a wide variety of colors and fall color from golden to brilliant orange and red makes this a plant of year round interest.  The Lagerstroemia indica is powdery mildew prone in the SF Bay area and hybrids are resistant and a better choice for gardens. The hybrids are a cross between the L. indica and L. fauriei which is highly powdery mildew resistant.  A large amount of varieties are available.  Crape Myrtles require full sun and moderate water and can be used street side, around patios and as a specimen in a garden.  Their heights and sizes vary with cultivar just as the floral and fall colors vary. Most just need moderate water once established.  They can grow 8’-25’ tall with width slightly less than or half the height depending.  So be sure you know what you have before buying it.


    Fall Planting Ideas for Color

    Fall is a great season to plant new plants and bulbs.  Additionally, there are many cool weather edible plants you can insert into veggie beds now.  It is also a great time to enjoy the fall blooming shrubs and perennials in your garden.  If you are lacking color in your garden now is the time to visit a nursery and see what is blooming or colorful.  Keep in mind it's listed dimensions when full grown before you decide to take it  home!

    Here are some ideas:

    For fall color now, you can plant many annuals available at the nurseries.  However, consider making room for permanent plants that will give you color each fall and into winter.  Sages are a great addition to the garden for that fall color.

    This Cream Delight New Zealand Flax has color and texture year round.  The annual Coreopsis in front adds a bit of color and the Mystic Spires Sage behind with it's purple towers of color add a seasonal color with some added drama.  This sage may go dormant to the ground in areas with frost.

    Mexican Bush Sage and Pinneapple Sage are great fall color additions and highly loved by hummingbirds.  They will have blooms until heavy winter frost and are evergreen plants.  To control size they can be cut back in spring after frost is done.  

    Black and Blue Sage with Mexican Feather Grass have very interesting textures together.  Additionally, when the sage goes dormant to the ground in winter, the grass still fills in the area.


    For Spring Color, you can plant many bulbs now for color in early spring until summer.   Anemones and Mondo Grass work well in an area where seasonal replanting occur.  Daffodils and Grape Hyacinths bloom in early spring and bring bright color to the end of a gloomy winter.  Plant bulbs in an area with ground cover for best affect.  Here, the ground cover is soft Lamb's Ear and the Hyacinths are planted along a sidewalk. For a more monochromatic style, plant bulbs of different shades of one color in groupings.  Here there are yellow Irises and a pale yellow Freesia. A New Zealand Flax in the background makes a good back drop for this grouping.  The bulbs are a pale yellow Freesia near the Flax, and the peachy Tulips in the foreground.  Other plants include the red Kangaroo Paw and soft Lamb's Ear ground cover.  The grassy leaves coming in from the right belong to yellow Irises not yet in bloom for the photo.  This warm vignette will be carried over by color in the Flax and bloom from Kangaroo Paw until summer.  The Freesia will come up every year once planted, however, Tulips require a high amount of chill we don't get here and rarely come back much less bloom.  They are often planted as an 'annual.'

    Mirror PLant is a good choice for year round shrubs that add extra interest in winter when nothing else seems to bloom. They are often green with pale variegated colors or dark brown and when winter chill hits they warm up with an overall color change.  New growth will be the normal summer variegated color.Coprosma 'Rainbow Surprise'Coprosma 'Tequillia Sunrise'Coprosma 'Marble Queen'Variegated plants of New Zealand Flax, Euonymous, Geraniums and many other plant types available in nurseries year round are good additions any time of year to the garden.

    Vegetables to plant now are cool weather plants such as:  lettuce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, carrots, onions, beets, radishes, potatoes, celery, brussel sprouts, cabbage spinach, peas and some squash.


    Compost is More than Organic, It's Natural!

    What is the importance of compost in the garden? Compost is nature's way of adding nutrition to the soil for the plants, protecting surface roots, reducing water run off, retaining moisture and reducing methane gas in the landfill.  Compost can be used to amend clay type soils and as top dressing instead of mulch or with a fine layer of mulch on top.  Anyone can do it following a few simple steps.

    Composting doesn't have to take a lot of your time, you can compost for a quick return or long term.  Whatever works for your schedule and needs.  It’s a natural decay process that produces a rich soil like humus.  Compost won’t smell bad unless there are inappropriate waste materials added.

    Not interested in regular compost maintenance?  You can still get compost in time for spring by piling your vegetable and plant debris (I'll tell you how in a bit) in your compost bin.  Let it pile up and do its thing over time and you’ll have some compost in spring.  It will take about a year if not processed.  A 3'x3'x3’ bin will give you about 6-9 cubic feet of usable compost in a year.  You will need a minimum of 3’x3’x3’ bin and a maximum of 5’x5’x5’.

    Interested in more compost?  Then a bit of maintenance to regular maintenance will give you quicker results.  Here's the skinny:

    Turn and process your compost about 2-3 times and you will have compost in about 8 weeks.    The standard is to turn it once a week and spray a bit of water for a return in 6-12 weeks.  You want the pile to be layered with browns and green (more on that later) and reach a temperature of 158 degrees F.  You can get a compost thermometer to determine when it is ready.  After turning, you wait for it to build heat again and turn again until it is ready to use.  Turning the pile adds oxygen, add some moisture with water, and nature will add the organisms.  You will see earth worms, red worms and sow bugs in a short time.  Bacteria, fungus, nematodes and other microbes will add to the decaying process.  If you get ants, then it is too dry and you need to add more water.

    My own compost is on the slow schedule.  I really don’t have time to look after it.  I pile in fruit and vegetable debris from the kitchen, flower tops from my hydrangeas, leaves and grass and chipped larger stuff.  I even chip the branches from my Christmas tree each year.  I process it in spring and fall and I get about a cubic yard of compost each year.  I use it for my vegetable gardens, to amend my clay type soil when I plant a new plant, and I top dress plants that need a nutrient boost.  Other than my acid loving plants, I try not to use store bought products to fertilize my yard.   If you don't want to invest in a small chipper (about $100) you can still get results composting the smaller stuff.

    So just what can you put in a compost bin?  The objective is to layer “brown” and “green” waste.  BROWN adds Carbon: fallen dried leaves, dead branches then broken into a few inches of bits or chipped, shredded paper (no glossy color ads that contain lead), toilet paper and paper towel tubes, shredded cardboard, paper egg cartons, saw dust, wood chips.  GREEN adds Nitrogen: green leaves, grass clippings unless you leave them on the lawn, coffee grounds including the coffee filter, vegetable and fruit waste from the kitchen and garden, plant pruning broken down to bits, chicken manure.  Dryer lint is ok if it is natural fibers and not synthetics, like cotton.

    DO NOT add any dog or cat waste  (possible parasites), meat & dairy products (attracts critters), wood ash, thorny plants, any plant that you don’t want to grow in your yard like poisonous plants such as Oleander or invasives such as Ivy and weed seeds, and nothing that has been treated with herbicide.   Avoid adding diseased plant material so you don’t spread it to unaffected plants.  Dog or cat fur from grooming is ok and if scattered in the yard in spring, the birds will use it to line their nests.

    The Maintenance:  turning with a pitch fork and mixing the layers a bit helps add needed oxygen.  Grass clippings need to be mixed a bit when added to avoid matting.  Add your produce debris from the kitchen as you acquire it.  Potato peels, broccoli stems, banana peels, apple skins, artichoke leaves, trimmed lettuce leaves and so on.  Leaves in fall are easy to process when they fall on a lawn and are mowed and instantly chipped and mixed with the grass clippings.  Occasionally spray in some water to keep things moist.  Adding green wastes will add moisture too.  If it just isn't heating up or processing, you may need more green stuff.

    Composting in Place: Leaving grass clippings on the lawn allows for those nutrients that were used to return to the soil.  It provides Nitrogen to the soil, promotes deeper root growth, and encourages worm and nematode activity which help to aerate the soil naturally.  Likewise when dead heading flowers and pruning leaves I leave them in the planters to compost at the site.  I always remove anything that looks diseased to avoid spreading and contaminating other plants.  Also avoid any piling of debris against plant stems and tree trunks.

    You have rich brown compost, now what?  For a new planting, mix in 4” of compost with existing soil.  For annual amendment, top soil with ½ to 3” layer and mix in with the soil.  It will add nutrients, microbes, help retain water and improve plant growth.  Coarse compost (not like a fine soil yet) can be used to top dress your planting beds.  Screened fine compost can be added to lawns, about a ½”.  Compost can also be used on house plants and is great added to vegetable beds before new planting in Spring.  See my post on vegetable gardens for more info.

    Compost bin available through Santa Clara CountyTypes of bins:   there are those shaped as cubes or have little domes these are all rodent ‘resistant’ due to the tops and no holes larger than ¼".  You do have to keep them closed to keep critters out.  Open piles or those contained by chicken wire etc., are accessible to rodents and have to be actively turned.  If you keep an open pile you can only use yard trimmings and no food products.  It is against the law to attract rodents.  The more “active” your maintenance the less likely rodents will want to nest in your compost.

    If your composting pile isn’t decaying you either don’t have enough moisture or too much brown material.  A pile of branches will take a very long time to decompose.

    If your compost pile smells bad then you have too many food scraps, or inappropriate food scraps like meat and dairy or it is too wet.

    Worm composting bins for just food scraps is another method of composting.  You will also need shredded paper for the ‘brown” part of the mix and add fresh produce waste buried into the existing decomposing mass.

    The County of Santa Clara has a lot of info and they have low cost sales of compost bins and worm bins throughout the year often tied into a free workshop.


    Irrigation For Summer

    Sumer is our driest season.  Make sure you are re-checking your irrigation systems.  Check that there are no leaks, clogged sprinkler heads, that heads point in the correct direction, and plants are actually getting water by checking the soil.  Also make sure the sprinklers are only watering what you want to water and not the street.  Mulch helps retain water in the soil especially for drip irrigation.  Again check that all emitters are actually giving the plants water.  With weather getting warmer, it is a good time to also make sure your schedule makes sense in the amount of water your system is putting out.   Inaccurate watering is the most common problem of declining plant health.  Too little and too much can both cause stress and disease which ultimately kill the plants.  Additionally, we had a very dry winter, and in California that is usually a sign of drought for the next number of years.  Consider changing to a drought tolerant landscape with a chosen area for those special water needs plants to decrease your water bill and to have a more sustainable garden.


    Vegetable Gardens

    You can grow vegetables straight in the ground of your existing flower beds or raised beds and containers.  Planting beds raised off the ground gives you a few advantages of not sitting on the ground when planting and maintaining and complete control over the soil composition.  Even if you are a beginner and just want to try a tomato for the season you can have home grown ripe produce!  Following are some tips to help you have a successful vegetable garden.  Just remember, full sun, space to grow, good soil and regular water.

     Seeds can grow very fast and add a drip system on a timer and you are good to go!

    Vegetable Gardening Notes


    Using the existing clay can be a chore but it is do-able.  Mix the tilled soil  50/50 with compost  and manure mix and remove all the rock.  A minimum of 12 inches deep, 18  inches is better especially if planting root or tuber vegetables.  You may just want to plant tubers in a pot!   The compost helps break up the dense particles of clay type soils.

    Compost can be made or purchased and mixed with either chicken manure or bat guano.  If purchasing the manure by the bag it should already be ‘aged’ and ready to use.  If it is fresh, it will need to be aged by mixing with the compost and sitting for at least a week to cook and leach out the acids that will burn plants.  Do not use cattle manure.  It is too acidic and may contain many weed seeds.  Rabbit manure is fine if aged as well.

    Plant placement:

    Placement of tall plants such as tomato, corn and pole beans need to be in a North location of the bed in order to not shade other plants.  Tomatoes like a lot of heat, so next to a stucco or brick wall will add heat even after the sun sets.

    Sprawling plants need support and it helps save space and prevents disease. Tomatoes, Pole beans, peas, cucumbers, squash, and so on.  They can grow on an arbor too.

    Mix long lived and short lived vegetables.  Long lived tomatoes and peppers etc. and for example short are carrots, radishes, and lettuce.   Every couple weeks or so add some fresh new seeds of short lived veggies to keep the crop going.

    Air circulation helps prevent disease, so plant according to full grown size.  Example a baby tomato next to young basil, the tomato will grow too big and overwhelm the basil which will not do well.  Although next to carrots which will be harvested before the tomato is too big helps use space efficiently.

    Cool vs Warm plants:

    Generally the difference between cool and warm growing plants is if you eat the seeds or fruit it needs heat and is warm growing, such as beans and tomatoes, if you eat the plant itself like lettuce it is cool growing.  There are a few exceptions such as sweet potatoes need the heat and peas prefer cooler weather.  All can be planted in early spring after frost (usually mid March).  Early fall for cool plants only.

    Raised beds vs. Using the Existing Ground

    Sunset Magazine June 2009The existing ground is already there but it may not be ready to use.  Usually it contains rocks and at times roots of other plants that may need to be removed.  Also if the soil isn’t well draining it will need to be dug up or tilled with compost and manure mix added. If the soil is a loose fluffy well drained soil without rocks, then it is ready to use.  The best pH level is between 6.0 and 7.0. Simple do-it-yourself soil test kits are available at home improvement centers and nurseries.

    Raised beds cost more up front but are less work if the soil needs a lot of help.  Raised beds also give the gardener control of the height and can include a ‘bench’ to sit on the side and work in the bed easier.  Raised beds can be used in conjunction with the existing soil to create a vertical design aesthetic. Plants climbing up arbors or tomatoes in cages can also add to the multi-dimensional look of the garden space.

    If building raised beds from scratch do NOT use any pressure treated wood.  This is made with arsenic or another toxic chemical and is not a good use with edibles.

    Any framing lumber will do.  Redwood may hold up longer but it isn’t necessary to pay the extra cost.  A wood bed can last a decade easily.  You could even use composite such as Trex.  Making a bed from brick or stone is everlasting but also can not be relocated if needed and more expensive than wood.   Deck screws are better than nails.  The screws hold better than nails and deck screws are made to be rust resistant.  Galvanized nails are also considered rust resistant but it is coated and not always reliable.  There are many design options or you can do a simple constuction as mine is at the top of this post.  One afternoon it was built, filled with new soil, planted and ready to grow!  Note, the stain used to color and seal the wood was NOT applied to the interior of the bed, only exterior.

     Sunset Magazine May 2005

    Flowers in a Veggie Garden

    Adding flowers to a vegetable garden has many benefits.  It is visually appealing but also attracts pollinators and beneficial insects.  Without the pollinators, many of the vegetables may have small harvests.  Also, the flowers seem to be a magnet for harmful insects as well, it is better to sacrifice a nasturtium to the aphids than your vegetables!   Some veggies can add color as well, many chard and kale have beautiful colors and peppers come in various shapes and colors as well.   Tomatoes can even be yellow and eggplants have that deep purple color. Check my web links for Renee's Garden for interesting and heirloom seeds.  Yamagami's Nursery in Cupertino also carries many interesting vegetables ready to plant.

    Adding visual interest there are some perennial vegetables to consider, artichoke, asparagus, horseradish and rhubarb.   These require a permanent location much like herbs such as sage, rosemary, lavender and thyme.  Artichoke may die back midsummer, the space can be covered with annual cosmos which also brings color and pollinators.  French Tarragon is not available by seed and is superior for culinary uses than Russian Tarragon.  Yamagami's should carry it in spring.  Herbs in the garden always attract more pollinators and can be grown with your ornamental plants in the landscape with other water wise plants.  Just remember, full sun is just that and plants need at least 6 hours of sun.

    Climacteric Fruit:- Continues to ripen after picking such as Apple, apricot, avocado, banana, fig, guava, kiwi, mango, some melon, nectarine, peach, pear, persimmon, pineapple guava, plum, quince and tomato.

    Non Climacteric- Don’t ripen further after picking such as Blackberry, blueberry, cherry, citrus, grape, olive, pineapple, pomegranate, raspberry and strawberry.

    Espalier possibilities

    Apple, apricot, cherry, citrus, currants, fig, grape, peach, nectarine, pear, persimmon, pineapple guava, pomegranate.

    Nectarine, grape and peach form fruit on new wood. Prune carefully.

    Blueberries are being used more in landscapes and are beautiful shrubs.  They need hot afternoon shade and pH levels 4.5-5.5 just like azaleas and Japanese Maples.  Use four varieties to lengthen the harvest period and you need at least two for good pollinization.  Acidic organic matter can be purchased.   Use pine needles or composted oak leaves for top dressing of mulch.   Blueberry roots require a wide non-compacted well drained soil.  The roots do not grow deep much like roses and need a wider area for growth.  Check out my section on Blueberries for specifc plants that do well in mild winter climates such as California.

    Poisonous plants to know about:

    Oleander leaves and flowers, hyacinths bulbs, daffodil bulbs, castor bean, crocus, lily of the valley leaves and flowers, iris underground stems, foxglove leaves, bleeding heart foliage and roots, wisteria seeds and pods, azaleas all parts, , jasmine berries, yew berries and foliage, black locust tree bark, sprouts and foliage, morning glory, cytisus (or genista /scotch broom), delphinium, flame lily, lantana berries, horse chestnut, columbine, belladonna, oak acorns, passion flower leaves, Ligustrum (Privet) leaves and berries, sweat peas, sumac, Daphne berries, honeysuckle berries, calla leaves.

    Also to know: tomato leaves and flowers,  potato all green parts including potato if green, rhubarb leaves, Prunus species-cherry, plum, almond, peach- stems and leaves, elderberry roots, asparagus berries,

    Poisonous to dogs and cats:

    All bulbs, grapes, ferns, asparagus fern, cyclamen, kalanchoe, hydrangea, fox glove, morning glory, onion, tomato plant, dieffenbachia (house plant), heavenly bamboo, holly, oleander, rhododendron, sago palm,  yucca, mistletoe, aloe, avocado, Japanese yew,  schefflera (house plant), ivy, Easter lilies, lantana, chocolate, raw kidney beans, lima bean, garlic high doses, all lilies – attractive to cats

    Euphorbia and poinsettia (euphorbia family) are not particularly toxic but can upset stomach and fluid can cause irritating rash.

     So get out and try something simple such as a cherry tomato or bell peppers in a 18" wide pot, your success will inspire you to try more!

    Resources: Sunset's Western Garden Book of Edibles, Rosalind Creasy's book Edible Landscaping, and my own personal experience gardening and growing up in the countryside.  Check out my book list for great tips and inspiration for gardening and landscaping.