By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
When it comes to making decisions about new plants for your garden, consider combinations of the following types: California natives, plants that aid pollinating insects and plants that attract beneficial insects.
Including native plants in our gardens should be standard practice in California. We are lucky enough to have a wider variety of ecosystems, and a more diverse range of native plants, than any other state.
California's beauty is something to be preserved and nurtured, which we can do through gardening with natives. When you add native plants to your garden you help not only yourself (they are attractive and easy to manage), but the entire local ecosystem.
Birds and other wildlife have evolved in conjunction with certain plants; they require these plants for food and shelter. Many of the popular non-native plants don't fulfill these functions.
Stepping away from the familiar classics can be difficult. Many people's image of the "ideal garden" includes plants brought here from other continents. Hydrangeas come from Asia; lavender is native to Europe. Even the locally popular agapanthus hails from South Africa.
While working in a nursery, I once had a South African customer erupt into laughter. "That is a weed!” he exclaimed, pointing to the agapanthus. “It is despised where I come from." Obviously, there is room for interpretation in what defines an ideal garden.
If you are a novice native-plant gardener, I suggest starting with one of my favorites: monkeyflower. These plants bloom throughout the spring and summer and are fairly low maintenance. The most common bloom colors are yellow, orange and red, but pink and purple can be found as well. Interestingly, there are both drought-tolerant monkeyflowers (Diplacus spp.) and water-loving ones (Mimulus spp). Both types attract pollinators but different ones. Bees seem to prefer monkeyflowers with pink blossoms; hummingbirds prefer red-flowered varieties.
Also consider California gooseberries and currents (Ribes spp.). These fall-blooming shrubs produce unique flowers that hummingbirds frequent and berries that birds enjoy. Gooseberries have thorns while currants do not. The fruit is edible but can often be bitter. The best-tasting varieties are Ribes aureum and Ribes rubrum. Aesthetically speaking, my personal favorite is Ribes speciosum, or fuchsia-flowering gooseberry. The red hanging flowers give the shrub a colorful fringed look, a unique and eye-catching addition to any garden.
One California native that helps both pollinating and beneficial insects is milkweed. Our Napa-native varieties are showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias fasciculation). You may know that monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed. Compounds in the milkweed help to feed and protect the caterpillars after they hatch.
Urban development has destroyed much of the native landscape, causing monarch populations to decline dramatically. Planting milkweed will benefit these beloved insects. What's more, milkweed flowers produce a nutritious nectar that honeybees collect, improving their health and productivity. In addition, many beneficial insects are attracted to Asclepias.
Yes, there are good bugs in your garden. The most recognizable are lady beetles, but lacewings, syrphid flies and parasitic wasps also do good work. And spiders are among the most helpful denizens of your garden. One spider can eat around two thousand insects in a year. Just think about how much free extermination work you are getting from all those arachnids. Next time you see a spider, or any unknown insect for that matter, think before you squish it. It may be a new friend.
If you are looking for more information on native plants, plan to attend the Master Gardener workshop on Sept 23 (details below). You can also find beautiful natives for your garden at the upcoming California Native Plant Society Sale on October 7 and October 8 at Skyline Park in Napa.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a guided walk and talk on “Pollinators, Native Plants and Beneficials” on Saturday, September 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Martha Walker Garden at Skyline Park in Napa. Any discussion of pollinators would not be complete without some remarks on the bounty of beneficial insects found in everyone's garden. Come see if you can recognize some pollinators and beneficial insects. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in form (cash or check only)
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.
- Author: Denise Seghesio Levine
Time for last-minute holiday shopping, and if gardeners are on your list, you are in luck. Gardeners are some of the easiest people to shop for. There is always something a gardener can use.
Gardener-friendly finds range from tiny seed packets, garden clogs and bare-root roses to big-ticket items like greenhouses. So if you are still pondering last-minute gifts, consider some of these for inside and out.
More gardeners every year are embracing old-fashioned culinary skills and learning how to preserve their harvests. Canning jars, canning supplies and cookbooks about preserving and canning are more available than ever and welcomed by new and seasoned canners alike. Responding to the renewed interest in home preserving, merchants now stock beautiful jars, BPA-free canning lids and a plethora of pickling and preserving books. Little items like decorative labels for pantry jars are fun and useful, too.
For gardeners and cooks who are ready to move beyond basic water-bath canning, consider surprising them with a pressure canner. These devices process low-acid foods that cannot be safely preserved by the water-bath method. For example, you can process plain tomatoes with salt and lemon juice in a water-bath canner, but you need a pressure canner to process tomato sauce with onions or mushrooms. Pressure canners are easy and safe to use and expand the gardener’s ability to safely stock the pantry with produce from the garden. Regardless of what kind of home preserving you or your gardening friends do, follow the directions and processing times recommended by the USDA onits website and in its publications.
Compost buckets for collecting kitchen waste are now as fanciful and decorative as cookie jars—a good choice for any home composter tired of fruit flies hovering over the scraps on their way to the compost pile. Sure, there are utilitarian metal buckets, but you can also find ceramic compost keepers in a wide palette of colors, or more whimsical buckets that look like heads of romaine lettuce. Simple compost keepers are just good-sized lidded containers, while more expensive versions have replaceable charcoal filters to help keep odor down.
Compost thermometers can help dedicated composters monitor the temperature of their compost piles. Keeping a pile hot is essential for breaking down pathogens and killing weed seeds in compost. You can find these thermometers in garden-supply and hardware stores. For an aspiring composter, consider purchasing a home compost system. There are many types to choose from.
Every gardener can use another good reference book in his or her library. Noteworthy possibilities include one updated classic and a new local publication.
Sunset has recently reissued its popular Western Garden Book. First published 80 years ago, this gardening bible has been completely revised and updated for the ninth edition. Sunset has refreshed and expanded its compendium to meet gardeners’ evolving needs. This ninth edition includes new sections on edible landscapes and fire-wise gardens, as well as information on wall and roof gardens.
Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America by R. Michael Davis, Robert Sommer and John A. Menge (University of California Press) will be treasured by wild-mushroom enthusiasts. Davis teaches plant pathology and mushroom identification and culture at the University of California at Davis. Sommer and Mengeare emeritus professors at Davis. The three have compiled primary descriptions and illustrations of 300 species of mushrooms, plus text-only descriptions of many more. For “shroomers,” this is a helpful new addition to the field-guide section of the bookshelf.
Of course, a wonderful gift for Napa Valley gardeners is A Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Napa County, written by U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County. For tree lovers or anyone re-doing a landscape, consider Trees of Napa Valley by John Hoffman and illustrated by local Master Gardeners. Hoffman, now deceased, was a professional arborist and Napa resident. You can order both books online at http://ucanr.edu/sites/ucmgnapa/Gardening_Books/Our_Books/.
For gardeners who anxiously await the first hint of spring to start their gardening season, consider a soil thermometer. These devices take the guesswork out of when to plant. Just insert the thermometer into the soil as directed to know if your seeds are likely to sprout, or rot waiting for warmer soil. The same gardeners might also appreciate some floating row cover to extend the season or a mini-hothouse to get a jump on planting.
Ask Master Gardeners what they want for Christmas, and quite a few will tell you they would like a truckload of compost. I know that is what I am getting. I just don’t know if there will be a bow on it.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://cenapa.ucdavis.edu) 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, 707-253-4221, 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?