By Susanne von Rosenberg, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
One of the challenges many gardeners face is how to make shady spots look good. Fortunately, many beautiful, flowering native plants thrive in shade.
When you are planning your shade garden, analyze what kind of shade you're dealing with. Is it deep, all-day shade, such as in a redwood or pine forest? Do you have full shade for part of the day from a fence or other structure, and then sun the rest of the day? Perhaps you have dappled shade from leafy trees with loose foliage or a trellis?
Different plants are appropriate for each type of shade. Also, do you have dry or moist shade? If your shady area has moist soil, you have the most choices. Even if you have dry shade, though, as many of us do, there are lovely, colorful choices.
Native plants suitable for shady areas range from low-growing ground covers to understory trees, such as dogwoods, that can grow up to 15 feet tall. Some are even deer resistant. To expand your options in dry shade areas, you can provide drip irrigation for plants needing some supplemental water. It's also a good idea to mulch your shade garden toward the end of the rainy season to retain as much soil moisture as possible.
For ground covers for dry areas, consider coyote mint (Monardella villosa) and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). Coyote mint grows one to two feet tall and has a light minty fragrance with light purple globe-shaped flowers. Butterfly mint bush (Monardella subglabra) has deeper purple flowers. Hummingbird sage ranges in height from a few inches tall to those with flower spikes six feet tall. The flowers are typically red or pink.
Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and wood strawberries (Fragaria californica) are more suited to moist areas, but both can do well in dryer areas with a little supplemental water. Wood strawberry plants grow four to eight inches tall. The fruits are small but delicious. Wild ginger benefits from a rinse every so often in summer to simulate the fog drip of its native coastal forest habitat. Wild ginger has heart-shaped dark green leaves and unusual flowers. It has a light ginger-like fragrance, and reportedly the roots can be used as ginger.
Yerba buena (Satureja douglasii) has similar growing requirements to wild ginger. It grows four to eight inches tall and has small white flowers. It is lightly fragrant and makes a lovely herbal tea. Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay was named for its large areas of Satureja douglasii.
Many native bushy plants are adapted to shade. California monkeyflower, many currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.) and cream bush (Holodiscus discolor) are all great choices. There are two genuses of California monkeyflower\s, diplacus and mimulus. Diplacus species are adapted to dry rocky slopes and therefore drought tolerant. Mimulus species are adapted to moist locations and need consistent moisture. Both come in a range of blossom colors, including yellow, white and red.
Our native ribes include species that flower in white, pink, yellow, and maroon with white. With sufficient water, ribes plants will grow between five and eight feet tall. I have a golden (yellow-flowered) and a pink-flowered currant bush in my yard. They bloom in spring and are gorgeous. The fruit is edible.
Ribes are summer-deciduous, meaning that if they do not get enough water, they will shed their leaves in the summer. You can plant them 10 to 15 feet from an irrigated area, and that will supply enough water to let them keep their leaves.
Cream bush (also called ocean spray and California spiraea) grows up to 6 feet tall and has beautiful 5-inch-long clusters of white flowers. I've added it to my list of plants to try. The growing notes caution that it has a lovely fragrance from 20 to 30 feet away, but that it smells like “old newspapers” close up. While I'm still trying to puzzle out how this is possible, I would definitely follow the recommendation to plant it 20 or more feet away from your house and garden areas you hang out in.
Finally consider native honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) and California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) for flowering vines for a shady area. California honeysuckles are not aggressive and like to grow into and through other bushes. There are species adapted to both moist and dry areas and different shades of flowers. Without support, California honeysuckle acts like a groundcover. Pipevine is deciduous and fairly drought tolerant (but can also tolerate moist soils). It has very unusual flowers that are about 1 inch long and shaped like a small pipe. Larva of pipevine swallowtail butterflies live on this vine.
Before you decide to plant any of these plants in your garden, review the growing requirements to make sure they're a good fit for what you have in mind. With a little research, you will find many other options as well.
Food Growing Forum: Second Sunday of the month through November. Sunday, February 14, 3 pm to 4 pm: “Seed Starting.” Register to get Zoom link: https://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32602
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As the rain subsides and the weather warms, spring finally become visible on the horizon. That means our time to get into the garden is drawing near.
Many of us, however, are looking at our winter-ravaged gardens and wondering where to start. If you have been braving the elements to tend your garden, you will probably be thrilled to begin spring garden duties. For the rest of us, however, spring garden prep can be daunting.
Where to begin? In our little garden, my wife and I will start with cleaning up leaves and other debris. This will not only improve the aesthetics, but it will also have a dramatic effect on the garden's health and on pest management. While a thick layer of leaves can act as compost, it also provides a cozy living space for snails and slugs, rodents, insects and fungus. During cleanup, we can also look for any problem areas or damaged plants that need attention.
Next up is everyone's favorite chore: weeding. Don't put this off. It is important to pull weeds before they go to seed and become an even bigger problem.
Then it is time to plan any new plantings. Planting in wet soil is not recommended, so check now for areas that may have drainage issues. Overly saturated soil will look black and have a rotten odor. If you find such a spot in your garden, leave it bare and let the sun evaporate some of the excess moisture. During any upcoming rainy periods, cover the area with plastic sheeting to prevent the problem from worsening. Remove the plastic on sunny days to let the water continue to evaporate.
Should your soil feel dry (unlikely given the amount of rain we've had) or at an acceptable hydration level, cover with a layer of compost or mulch. This material will improve moisture retention through the summer and improve soil tilth and biotic health. Good mulching practices can make a world of difference when it comes time to dig that tough Napa soil.
If you are planning to plant vegetables, early February is the perfect time to get some of them started. Broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, peppers, onion, peas, lettuce and tomatoes will all benefit from an early start inside your home or greenhouse. Sowing times vary by variety, so be sure to follow the instructions on the seed packet.
If you don't have a seed-starting tray and warming mat, consider investing in one. The extra warmth can reduce germination time considerably. When you are not starting seedlings, you can also use the kit to improve your results for any cuttings you want to propagate.
Thinking of adding some ornamental plants but not sure which ones to choose? Consider California natives. The benefits are myriad, but to me, their best attribute is the low amount of care they require once established.
Plants adapted to the regional climate are generally more drought tolerant, making them an easy choice for low-maintenance landscaping. Some personal favorites include the Matilija poppy (Romneya trichocalyx) and Ceonothus ‘Dark Star' (also called California lilac). Both have attractive flowers that enhance any garden.
Should you wish to attract hummingbirds, I recommend California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), scarlet monkey flower (Mimulus cardinalis) and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). The blooms of the California fuchsia persist well past those of many other flowering plants and can be relied upon to add a splash of vibrant red to a fall landscape.
Finally, don't let this winter's wet weather fool you into thinking that drought is a thing of the past. Southern California is still considered to be in drought conditions. Ground-water levels across the state continue to be a concern, and 2016 was the hottest year on record. Designing a water-wise garden is not only socially and environmentally responsible but will also certainly pay off in lower utility bills.
Proper plant choice, garden design and irrigation use can maximize your garden's beauty while minimizing your effort and expense. If you are interested in making such changes to your garden but need more information, call or e-mail the Master Gardener help desk. The volunteers there can help find answers to any questions you have.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Growing Summer Vegetables” on Saturday, March 11, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Learn what the garden needs to successfully produce spring and summer vegetables from seeds and seedlings. The workshop will cover soil types and preparation, temperature essentials, watering, fertilizing and harvesting, with a dash of integrated pest management. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Garden Forum: Join the U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County at a forum for home gardeners on Sunday, March 12, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Street, Yountville. Bring any questions about anything in the home garden. Questions about fertilizing, watering, planting, plant care, diseases and pests, tools and tool care or nursery purchases are welcome. Register with Yountville Parks & Recreation or contact 707-944-8712.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.