By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, April 19, 2019
“Gardening becomes increasingly difficult as we age, yet the garden beckons as strongly as ever,” notes Butte County Master Gardener Kay Perkins. Our bodies become less limber and agile, and more prone to injury, which makes tasks such as pulling weeds, pushing wheel-barrows, digging holes, pruning, hauling, and moving heavy objects ever more challenging with advancing years.
The workshop topics were summarized from a book by Sydney Eddison, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older. Eddison is the author of six previous books on gardening, and was awarded the National Garden Clubs, Inc.'s Award of Excellence in 2010.
For over 50 years, Eddison (who was born in 1932) was an aficionado of time-consuming gardening choices: "It took a great deal of effort to make my garden as high-maintenance as it is….That was the point of it all” she writes. Then a bothersome hip replacement put a damper on her garden activities, one of which was "digging great big holes and moving plants around all the time.” Refusing to give up the gardening she loved, she began researching low-maintenance garden techniques. Those discussed at the workshop are explained below. A list of suggested tools and plants can be found at the end of this article.
Rethinking Perennial Borders: Eddison once designed, planted, and maintained huge perennial borders. Perennials are notoriously labor intensive, often demanding year-round attention, including staking, deadheading, pruning, dividing, and neatening and tidying. Granted, they offer enormous rewards in terms of color and texture, and add overall interest to the landscape. Eddison argues that shrubs can play the same role in the garden, with infinitely less trouble. Shrubs offer the same or more value, for less work.
Choose compact or dwarf varieties of popular shrubs (such as buddleia) that need pruning only one or two times a year. Shrubs that produce berries add a splash of bright color to gray winter days, and provide a source of food to overwintering and migrating bird species. Eddison is a fan of conifers because they offer year-round color and variegated foliage texture, and also add structural interest in the form of cones, globes, and mounds. But choose wisely and think carefully before planting shrubs as they are more difficult to move than perennials.
List, list, list: Making lists saves time, reduces aggravation, and increases organization and efficiency. Take the time to develop a Master List and a Daily List. The Master List should contain all garden tasks, large or small, organized by season and species (such as tree, shrub, or perennial), prioritized by importance. Your list may seem daunting and impossibly long at first, but Eddison promises that you will be surprised by how many of these tasks you will be able to accomplish. Nothing beats the satisfaction of crossing a task off the list for that season.
The Daily List is developed from the Master List and should be realistic for the time you can allot to the garden on any given day, and for your abilities. This list should also indicate if the task is essential or aesthetic in nature. These lists can help you keep from getting distracted or pulled in different directions by the garden's demands. If you are lucky enough to have a helper in for the day, a list for your helper will save him or her time.
Hire Helpers: The wisdom of age tells you that those days of “I can do it all without help” are over. Start by determining what kind of help you need (and this will change over time). Do you need help periodically with large jobs, on a weekly, monthly, or seasonal schedule, or would you like to be able to call on someone as needed? Do you need an experienced professional, or someone to whom you can teach the necessary skills? Places to find garden helpers include: horticultural programs at high schools, vocational schools, and community colleges; referrals from fellow gardeners; and contacts from local nurseries. Be sure to be clear about what you want your helper to do. And make sure you are realistic in your expectations, the number of hours you think tasks will take, and what you are willing to pay.
Realize which plants have grown beyond your ability to manage. Decide whether to 1) continue to invest time and money into them; 2) give them a brutal pruning to see if that revives them; or 3) remove and replace them. The hardest friends to remove are the old landscape trees which have contributed shade and beauty to the garden over many years. If one must go, don't be too quick to replace it – you may find the increased sun allows new landscape opportunities and that you enjoy the newly-opened space.
Container Gardens: Gardening in attractive containers of varying shapes and sizes is an excellent choice for yards with poor soil, and for those gardeners with increasingly limited mobility and/or strength. Containers placed along paths or around decks create a sense of structure and privacy, while providing displays of life and color.
Before you move on to the following lists of ergonomic tools and plants to consider for your garden, consider Eddison's sage advice for the aging gardener: “Our best hope of a simpler way to garden is to follow nature and learn to go with the flow.”
Ergonomic Tools and Tool Suppliers: Loppers and pruners with soft grips; ratchet loppers and pruners; pole saws with extension handles; lightweight durable ultra-flexible kink-free garden hoses such as those made by Zero-G; digging and weeding tools such as those made by Radius Garden tools; hori hori knives; short- and long-handled weeders; shovels with U-handles; kneeling pads and benches; rolling seats; aprons with deep pockets.
Battery-Operated Tools: Blowers, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, weed whackers, hand spreaders.
Other Tips: Use lightweight containers or rolling carts for hauling; plant in raised beds; use a pool siphon for cleaning ponds and water features; keep a cell phone or whistle with you when gardening; take frequent breaks to stand and stretch; stay hydrated.
List of Easy-Care Plants for Butte County (compiled by Dana Drennan, UC Master Gardener of Butte County)
Shrubs: Callistemon (bottlebrush); Cercis (redbud); Chaenomeles (flowering quince); Cistus (rock rose); Cotinus (smoke tree or smoke bush); Dodonaea (hop bush); Grevillea; Echium; Lavandula (bush lavender); Osmanthus (sweet olive); Prostanthera (mint bush).
Perennials: Achillea (yarrow); Anigozanthos (Kangaroo Paw); Caryopteris (Bluebeard); Epilobium (California fuchsia); Hemerocallis (day lily); Iris (see below); Origanum (oregano); Nepeta (cat mint); Perovskia (Russian sage); Salvias; Solidago (golden rod); Teucrium (Germander); Westringia (Coast rosemary); grasses such as Bouteloua, Carex, Muhlenbergia, and Stipa.
List of Lower-Maintenance Perennials (compiled by Eddison)
Sedum 'Autumn Joy', Agastache “Blue Fortune”, ornamental grasses, Liriope, Boltonia asteroides “snowbank”, Amsonia, Aster 'Raydon's Favorite', lamb's ears, Siberian iris, and daylilies.
Sydney Eddison, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (Timber Press, Timber Press).
Susan Harris, 10 Great Things about Gardening for a Lifetime, at www.gardenrant.com
Finding an Ecological Niche: A Three-Part Series on Selected Foothill Woodland and Chaparral Species, Part 2 of 3: The Gray Pine
By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, March 8, 2019
[Note: Gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), buckeye (Aesculus californica), and blue oak (Quercus douglasii) are tree species that thrive in rugged local foothill woodland and chaparral habitat. Last edition, we covered the blue oak, and today the gray pine is featured. The final installment will explore the buckeye. All three species rely on adaptive strategies evolved over time allowing them to thrive in their challenging environment.]
But underneath that homely exterior lies a true gem. This tree's many common names testify to its importance: gray pine, California foothill pine, foothill pine, nut pine, bull pine, and ghost pine. Its pejorative historic name, digger pine, is no longer in use. The Maidu named it “towáni” and the Yana called it “c'ala'I.” Its scientific name derives from the English lawyer, naturalist, and writer on horticulture Joseph Sabine (1770 to 1837). Sabine had a lifelong interest in natural history and was an original fellow of the Linnean Society. It was Sabine who was responsible for sending David Douglas on specimen collecting trips, specifically to supply plants to the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens.
We are not certain of the lifespan of the gray pine, because older specimens were cut down by early settlers, but it is believed that these trees can live for over 200 years. When mature, they average from 40 to 80 feet tall. About 15 to 25 feet off the ground, gray pines develop two or more twisted stems that can grow at irregular angles to one another, resulting in a crown that appears open and ragged. Gray pine is self-pruning, and the remaining lowest branches will end up high above the understory. Where soils allow, gray pines can develop a deep taproot, but in hardpan soils their roots are spreading and shallow, and the bark thickens as the tree ages.
The female cones are the largest and heaviest in the entire pine family. They could be mistaken for a football lying amongst shed needles, as they can be up to one foot long, and when dry are dull orange/brown. A green cone can weigh over two pounds. That, and their sharp spines, warn one to be alert while treading under this tree!
Like the blue oak, a common co-habitant, the gray pine is endemic to the California Sierra Nevada and Coast Range foothills. The two trees are so often found together that "oak/foothill pine vegetation" or "oak/gray pine vegetation" describes a type of habitat characteristic of the chaparral and woodlands ecoregion in California. Gray pines even surpass blue oaks in their ability to tolerate harsh conditions: they are found in the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, and the Mojave Desert sky islands. They can handle from as little as 10 inches of rain per year to an annual 70 inches in parts of the Sierra Nevada. While these pines prefer rocky, well-drained soil, they will grow in notoriously poor serpentine soils and heavy, poorly drained clay soils. Their ability to withstand extreme soils comes from a special adaptive strategy: they are able to regulate uptake of soil nutrients as needed.
Surviving Drought and Fire
In an evolutionary adaptation to the dry hot summers of a Mediterranean climate, the gray pine has thin, gray needles up to 12 inches long that help it deflect heat and retain water. Surprisingly, this species is not fire resistant. On the contrary, it is highly flammable: its needles contain ether extracts; its wood, bark, cones, and needle sheaths all contain pitch; and its trunk often is coated with resin that has dripped from wounds. Its fire survival strategy lies in two specific adaptations. First, large trees will better survive moderate-severity fires because the thickened bark of mature trees and the self-pruned trunks with high branching limbs are best able to avoid fatal scorching. Second, seed regeneration is actually favored post-fire. As noted by the USDA, fire creates a receptive “bare mineral soil seedbed, and heat scarification of the woody seed coat increases germination rates.”
For California's native peoples, the gray pine was (and still is) a nutritional jackpot! Pine nuts are densely caloric, loaded with protein, easy to harvest, and store well for long periods. While many of California's pines provided food to native populations, the nuts of the gray pine were the most highly valued. They could be eaten raw, parched in baskets, and steamed in earth ovens. They were pounded into flour that was made into butter, soup, or bread; mixed with meal made from other dried seeds; and combined with dried salmon. In spring, green cones were roasted to yield a syrupy treat.
Every part of the pine tree had a use. Deadfall was used for firewood; needles served as tinder or were fashioned into torches and were also burned as a smudge for spider bites. Fresh, frangrant needles were spread on the floor of earth lodges. Supple branches were used as stirring sticks and to lift hot rocks from fires. Pine roots were used in basketry and the pine's abundant resin was used for medicinal purposes. Traditionally this species provided vital resources to native peoples. One can only imagine how horrifying it must have been for the tribes that relied so heavily on this tree, to see most of the old growth pines “harvested” during the Gold Rush era to fuel the engines at quartz mines.
Crooked, ragged, and awkward as the gray pine may appear, its ability to thrive under environmental hardship, and its value to native peoples' survival make it an ecological and cultural champion. After all, handsome is as handsome does.
For sources and further information, see the following:
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources (University of California Press, 2005).
Laura Brodhead, “Native Plant Society: An appreciation of the gray pine,” Redding Record Searchlight, February 4, 2017:
Conifer Society: http://conifersociety.org/conifers/conifer/pinus/sabiniana/
Trees of Stanford: https://trees.stanford.edu/ENCYC/PINsab.htm
For more information on gardening in our area, visit the Butte County Master Gardener web page at: http://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/. If you have a gardening question or problem, call our Hotline at (530) 538-7201.
Pine against the sky: http://www.treebuzz.com/forum/media/mature-digger-pine-trees-pinus-sabiniana.509/
Needles and cones: : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pinus_sabiniana.jpg
Rising From the Ashes, March 8, 2019
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are taking note of vegetation re-emerging on property destroyed by the Camp Fire. Robert DiPietro reports that while the fire destroyed everything on his Lower Pentz Road property between Stearns and Country Club, he is now seeinggarlic, red onions, artichokes, day lilies, primrose, columbine, and bluebells appearing, along with all of the grasses and some succulents and cacti. Fay Crociani has a daffodil blooming on her Upper Paradise lot – its leaves and stem are shorter than usual, but the color is beautiful, and she says tulips and naked ladies (amaryllis belladonna) have also survived the fire, while stachys (7-up plant), ceanothus (mountain lilac), penstemon and aastache have put up identifiable shoots. She, too, says some of her succulents are showing signs of life. “Snooping around my neighborhood,” Fay reports, “I saw a badly damaged camellia blooming its heart out and a rhododendron with hundreds of new strong leaf buds. Mother Nature strong!!!”
By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, February 8, 2019
It didn't take long. Soon after the first post-Camp Fire rains, there was green in the burned area. Along lower Skyway, a blanket of soft verdure overlay the harsh scars of incineration. While the people of Paradise rebuild and replant in the developed areas, what will grow back in the foothill grasslands and the forested areas?
Farther up the shoulder of the Sierra Nevada, starting at about 3,000 feet, the ecosystem shifts to the lower montane forest zone. Tree species thriving in this zone are a diverse mix of ponderosa pine, California black oak, sugar pine, incense cedar, and white fir.
- Fire-stimulated germination (ceanothus, manzanita)
- Adventitious or latent axillary buds, dormant until the next growing season or remaining latent for years (oaks, ceanothus)
- Lignotubers - rounded woody growth at or below ground level on some shrubs and trees that grow in areas subject to fire or drought, containing a mass of buds and food reserves (manzanita, chamise)
- Fire resistant bark (ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, cedar)
- Serotinous cones (seeds release in response to an environmental trigger such as fire) and fire-stimulated seed release (several pine species)
Plant recolonization after a fire or other major disturbance is known as secondary succession. In general, and broadly speaking, first the “pioneer species” appear, and the landscape is dominated by small flowering herbaceous plants which die back with the summer dry period. So the usual suspects that bloom each spring and early summer in our area, like lupine, poppy, and monkeyflower, should be back. We may also see the spectacular fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium, also classified as Epilobium angustifolium), often one of the first colonizers of the soil following a fire. After the 2016 Lake County fires, fireweed's beautiful magenta blooms dotted the hillsides along State Route 20.
Appearing next in post fire plant succession are the woody shrubs whose seeds and/or lignotubers survived beneath the burned soils. We can expect to see manzanita, ceanothus, and blue oak seedlings, and perhaps sprouts from the few bushes that weren't completely incinerated. The buckeye may come back, along with some of the other oak species listed above.
In the archetypal secondary succession schematic for these ecosystems, pines appear next on the landscape timeline. But a recent study conducted jointly by UC Davis and the US Forest Service surveyed more than a dozen burn sites in California and found that over 40% of pine tree forests did not successfully regenerate after a large, hot fire. Pine trees survive better after moderate, slow burning fires that kill the understory but do less damage to taller trees. In addition, high intensity burns can kill most trees in an area, so there may not be any left to drop seeds to start a new stand. Pines that do sprout have to compete with the shrubs that have developed post-fire survival strategies.
As noted in the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, 1996 report, “plant responses to fire vary and are often determined by a complex interaction among external factors such as temperature, soil moisture, and heat duration…and season of burn.”
What's different now? What's the overriding “external factor” in this case? It's the sheer intensity of this latest round of Northern California fires, and the attendant, albeit temporary, damage to the soils. Only time will tell which blend of survivors will return to create the green in the Camp Fire burn.
Aerial Footprint of the Camp Fire
Source: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Earthstar Geographics, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community
By Cindy Weiner, UC Master Gardener of Butte Count, November 16, 2018
Eve Werner, landscape architect and owner of Eve's Garden Design, likes to use coffeeberry (Frangula californica) as a screen, background or hedgerow. Its blackish berries resemble coffee beans and are very attractive to birds. This evergreen shrub can grow to six to ten feet tall and wide although the cultivar ‘Eve Case' is smaller, only reaching about five feet. It is native to Butte County and grows in Upper Bidwell Park. Werner says, “This adaptable plant thrives in full sun to shade with monthly to no summer irrigation.”
Jason Mills, owner of Ecological Solutions, suggests, “If you're looking for an evergreen shrub, why not try giving the local and less commonly used hollyleaf redberry (Rhamnus ilicifolia) a shot?” Hollyleaf redberry has small serrated leaves, resembling holly. It grows best in full sun or partial shade. The flowers are small and inconspicuous but develop into beautiful red fruit, which provide food for birds. It grows five to ten feet tall and needs no summer water once established.
Mills and Whittlesey like using the large perennial bunch grass deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Whittlesey says, “I use deergrass to bring a rhythm and flow into a garden. When in flower in later summer, it has a stronger architectural form which holds through the winter months. It combines readily in front of larger shrubs or as a foil for small shrubs and perennials.” Deergrass forms a dense clump to 4 feet tall and wide in full sun or light shade.
By Alicia Springer, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, November 2, 2018
Chicoans have a macro-example of this approach to storm water in our own Lindo Channel, which catches the overflow when Big Chico Creek runs high. While many towns direct excess storm water to concrete flood control culverts which whisk the water to treatment plants, Lindo Channel's runoff nourishes a riparian corridor of oaks, sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, and bay trees (along with nonnative brush). The stream flow recharges upper-level groundwater, and the greenery helps clear air pollution and offers sanctuary to birds and other animals large and small.
A swale is a shallow channel, bermed a bit on both sides, that lets gravity do the work of moving rainwater along a gently sloping course. The swale directs water away from structures and through a straight or meandering depression lined with river rock, grasses, or other vegetation that can tolerate periods of winter wet and summer dry (regional native plants generally fit the bill). A grassy, vegetative swale might be lined with cool-season native meadow grasses such as sedges (Carex species) or rushes (Juncus species) that thrive with winter moisture and go dormant over the dry summer. A rock-lined swale resembling a dry creek bed holds visual interest throughout the seasons. Water-loving plants can be sited closer to the flow, while more water-averse selections can keep their feet dry further up the banks.
In general, your rainwater collection surface should slope downward from the water source, or you can create a minimum 2% slope. Steep slopes can create erosion, so avoid orienting your swale down slope in such areas.
Locate your swale:
- At least five feet away from structures without a basement, or ten feet from structures with a basement.
- Away from septic systems and leach fields
- Away from a tree's crown or major root zone to avoid root rot
- In full or partial sunlight to support plantings
Anchor your artificial creek bed with larger stones, boulders, and deep-rooted plants such as deer grass (Muhenbergia rigens) and fescues (Festuca species). If space permits, larger shrubs can create a more dramatically varied look. Vegetation should be planted and at least partly established before the winter storms, so be prepared to irrigate in dry periods and through at least the first summer. Once well established, deep-rooted native plants will enjoy the cool season storm water and survive the summer heat.
From a simple gravel channel to a dry creek to a more elaborate retention pond, the hardscape elements of a rain garden project may seem daunting without step-by-step instruction. “Coastal California Rain Gardens” published by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR), offers detailed information about planning, building, and maintaining a rain garden. Another useful guide is “Slow it, Spread it, Sink it! Rain Gardens and Swales” published by the Napa County Resource Conservation District. Both publications offer additional plant suggestions and resource listings.
Additional information and plant names used in photos:
A dry creek rain swale in a suburban garden landscape. The swale, roughly 50 feet long x 10 feet wide, runs along a sloping driveway. Redbud (Cercis occidentalis), deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), St. Catherine's Lace (a buckwheat, Eriogonum giganteum), Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) and California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) are among the native species seen.
Plants that tolerate winter moisture and summer drought line the banks of the swale. Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) and California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) are seen. A redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is on a raised bank so rainwater can irrigate but not saturate the root area. The redwood will require summer watering to stay healthy in the Butte County climate unless it's near a perennial stream.
A decorative rain chain at the ‘headwaters' of the creek bed directs flow from the roof gutter. Note that the creek bed is directed away from the base of the redwood, which is on a higher bank.
Boulders and deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) stabilize the slope and provide pleasing visual variety. Larger native plant selections screen the property. These include toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), deer grass, and redbud (Cercis occidentalis).
Diagram of a grass-lined vegetative swale courtesy of Napa County Resource Conservation District.