- Author: Karen Metz
Over the years we have had a changing relationship with the neighborhood squirrels. Early on there were not many interactions. The housing development was new and there were not any mature trees nearby.
We enjoyed putting out our bird feeders and watching the finches, blue jays, and doves that came to visit. Gradually our landscaping grew as did our neighbors'. But about this time, we got a West Highland Terrier, so the squirrels didn't drop in much.
But then we lost our Westie to cancer. Suddenly the squirrels descended and seemed to be occupying the bird feeders more than the birds. We purchased a squirrel proof feeder. This feeder worked through the perches. If any creature that was too heavy landed on the perches it would trigger a metal mesh to slide down and block the openings to the seeds. This worked beautifully…..for a while.
Then one squirrel was large enough and smart enough to realize he could hang from the top of the feeder, brace his feet on the bottom of the feeder, and reach in and grab the seeds, totally bypassing the perch mechanism. None of the other squirrels could do it although they certainly tried. They learned to sit on the ground underneath the clever squirrel and catch all the seeds he dropped. He dropped a lot! Sometimes we had five squirrels in our small backyard. Other than running out to shoo them away, we didn't know what to do.
Suddenly that one special squirrel was gone. We don't know if he was hit by a car, attacked by a predator or succumbed to old age, but we didn't see him again. So, the rest of the squirrels were left with only the dropped seeds from the birds feeding at the feeders. The numbers decreased to one or two. This seemed manageable.
The next change was on my part. I became very interested in succulents. I had succulents on the front porch and succulents on the back patio. Soon I needed more room to display them. I got a vintage metal ladder with wooden rungs. I put several shallow succulent pots on the steps. I also found some special hooks to put on the fence which allowed you to slip pots into them. Everything looked so pretty.
Pretty soon I saw that the succulents on the fence were constantly disturbed. I was never sure if the squirrels were digging underneath the new plantings to bury seeds or to look for insects or if they were trying to eat the plants and pulled them loose in the process. I kept trying to replant the pots without success.
Also, about this time I noticed that occasionally one of the shallow pots on the ladder would be turned over and on the ground. Arrgh! I would put everything back in the pot add more soil and try again. Now the squirrels did not need to use that ladder. There were two eight-foot oleander shrubs on either side which they had always used to get to the feeders from the fence, with a stop off at the dwarf crabapple if they desired.
Now, I have to admit that I have always liked the squirrels and enjoyed watching them feed and chase each other. They have brought my family a lot of joy over the years. But everything came to a head when I saw a squirrel happily sitting in the succulent pot on the top step of the ladder. He was nibbling away. It did explain why that particular plant had been looking so poorly, it was getting squashed and eaten. I just wasn't going to let the squirrels destroy my succulents.
There had to be a way we could all coexist. Then suddenly I remembered I had several pots of Aloe. Aloe is tough. Aloe is drought tolerant. And many varieties of Aloe have thorns. I got several well-established plants and slipped them into the fence hooks. I got another Aloe to put on the top step of the ladder. If they wanted to go down the ladder now, they would have to go through thorns.
It's been over three weeks and so far, nothing has been uprooted or overturned. The squirrels seem to be back in the shrubbery. Peace reigns in the kingdom, at least for now.
- Author: Michelle Davis
At last Saturday's plant sale at the UC Davis Arboretum, I bought a Tagetes lucida. You might know it by one of its numerous other names: Mexican mint marigold, sweet-scented marigold, Santa Maria, Yerba Anise, African Marigold, Sweet Mace, Pericon, winter tarragon, Spanish tarragon, and Mexican tarragon. Technically, this plant is not a true tarragon. French tarragon (or German tarragon if you live in Germany) is Artemisia dracunculus. Its flowers are tiny and green, and the leaves are used a lot in French cooking. Their flavor is described as herbal or fresh. You may remember adding it while making béarnaise - it is a key ingredient in the sauce.
Mexican tarragon is thought to taste like French tarragon, but with a bit of anise or licorice flavor as well. Mexican tarragon's leaves are similar to the French variety, but the flowers look like those of single marigolds – 5-petaled and bright yellow, hence the name “lucida” meaning light or bright.
Mexican tarragon's use has been traced back to the Aztec culture in Guatemala. It was used to add peppery warmth to a cocoa beverage called chocolatl, as a good luck charm for safe passage across waterways, and to ward off demons while harvesting maize. The whole plant was also used to treat gastrointestinal problems and colds.
Today's cook can add the fresh or dried flower petals and/or the fresh young leaves to corn, tomatoes, squash, avocados, summer fruits, eggs, fish and chicken. In some cultures, it is an added flavoring for alcoholic beverages, cakes, and custards. A little bit, finely chopped, goes a long way.
One of its best features of Tagetes lucida is that it attracts bees, butterflies, and birds and also repels some of the not-so-wanted insects in the garden. It is a perennial in USDA zones 9 through 11 attaining a height of about 2 ½ to 3 feet. It likes full sun but will take partial shade. A freeze will cause it to die back, but it should return in the spring. It requires good drainage and is drought-tolerant, but it does better with some water, just not on the leaves. Wherever the stems touch the ground, it can sprout a new plant. It can also reseed.
I will be planting it near my pineapple sage in a bed with mostly herbs. Wish it and me luck!
- Author: Kathy Low
You've probably had a similar experience. You see an interesting plant in a mail-order catalog or nursery website you suddenly desire for your garden. You order it. But when it arrives you're disappointed that instead of receiving a lush mature plant, you receive something that looks like a twig with two small wilting leaves on it. That's the story of my Phalsa Berry plant (Grewia asiatica), also known as a Falsa berry and Sherbert berry that I received in the mail this spring.
If you're unfamiliar with the Phalsa plant, it's a subtropical deciduous shrub or small tree in the Tiliaceae family. Mature plants grow from 6 to 15 feet tall. It has long skinny droopy branches when mature. It bears small clusters of yellow blossoms in the spring.
The plant is self-fertile, grows in most well-drained soils in full sun. It's a fast-growing plant, with most plants producing berries in their second year. It does require annual pruning since berries are borne on the current year's growth. Native to India and Southeast Asia, it is hardy in USDA zones 9 – 11.
The phalsa berries are small, measuring about one to two centimeters in size. Purple in color when ripe, they usually contain only a single seed. The berries a high in vitamin C, but are acidic and slightly astringent. Ripe berries have a very short shelf life of only a few days. The fresh berries are frequently juiced and made into a refreshing beverage with sugar added to sweeten the taste. Commercially, the berries have also been used in soft drinks in Asia.
In India folklore, the plant's leaves and bark have been used to treat a variety of conditions ranging from cancer to urinary problems.
Since I've never tasted a fresh phalsa berry, I'll have to wait another year until my plant bears a crop of berries for me to try one. Who knows, I may end up not liking its taste, just like I realized I didn't like the taste of fresh goji berries when my plant finally gave me a crop. But that a different story.
- Author: Betsy Buxton
This question actually came up last year at the Vallejo Farmers' Market:
Nice couple: “We went to Hawaii a couple of weeks ago and bought this plant called an “Aloha Lily” and brought it home; can you tell us how to care for it?”
Me: “It's a what? Never heard of it but let's look in the Sunset Western Garden Book for it. Nope, not in here; what does it look like?”
Them: “It's about 8 inches tall with green leaves.”
Me: “What do the leaves look like – long and strappy or long and fat or short and roundish?”
Them: “Long and strappy. The shopkeeper said everyone knows what an “Aloha Lily” is.”
Me: “Well, I don't so let's play 20 questions. Does it have flowers on it now and what does it look like and what color is it?”
Them: “It has more than 1 flower – I think- it's long and fuzzy and white.”
And so it went for another 10 minutes until the “aha” moment: “and it has little green leaves at the top of the white flower(s?).” Anyone have a clue yet about this plant?
This couple had fallen in love with a Eucomis or Pineapple Flower! Not actually from Hawaii but from South Africa, with thick spikes of closely set ½ inch long flowers that are topped with clusters of leaf-like bracts that resemble pineapple tops. These plants, from bulbs, bloom during the summer and have purplish seed capsules which hang on to keep the floral show going even longer. They grow best in rich soil with plenty of humus whether in the ground or in pots. Reading about their “need” for rich soil, I feel very sorry for mine which never get the humus OR fertilizer but continue to grow and bloom every year!
If this seems like something you'd want, then make a grouping of pots with both the E. bicolor with green flowers with purple-edged petals. Add the E. comosa with greenish-white flowers tinged pink or purple with stems that are spotted purple at the base. Variety ‘Sparkling Burgundy' has dark purple leaves which will be up to 2 feet long (or more with shade. I also have a mini-version with 6 inch long green leaves and a flower spike of about 3 inches!
All of these plants have been purchased from an online nursery which specializes in tropical plants. When the frost comes, the leaves and spikes “meltdown”, but never fear – the bulbs are merely resting, not dead.
***Speaking of plants and such, remember to mark your calendars for Saturday, Sept 22, for the UC Master Gardeners annual fall plant exchange from 9am-12pm – NO EARLY BIRDS! Again, this event will be at our office at 501 Texas Street in Fairfield. Hope to see you there!!
- Author: Launa Herrmann
Maybe it's just me — an ordinary gardener who's growing a little skeptical while getting a bit older. Or is there actually a disconnect from what the marketplace is selling us and what research and experience show? For the sake of both the plant and our pocketbook, shouldn't we know a little something about what we're about to buy? Here's what I mean:
As I write this I'm looking at a photo in glossy mail-order catalog from a classy well-known store. The item for sale is titled “Faux Succulent Wall Panel” and features a wall hanging consisting of four separate yet different panels, each appearing to contain a random mix of Echeveria, Aeonium, other fake succulent look-a-likes — and several Tillandsia — all glued onto fake moss and fake dirt.
What? Tillandsia? A Tillandsia is not a succulent, but an epiphyte. A Tillandsia does not grow in soil or moss, but retrieve nutrients from the air. That's why it's commonly called an air plant. As a consumer, I see a problem with this “Faux Succulent Wall Panel” because I have over three dozen plants in my personal collection. As a Master Gardener, I really don't want to give this a pass because I've researched Tillandsia thoroughly enough to write and speak about the topic. But at this point in time, I doubt the retailer knows or cares about the difference between a succulent and an epiphyte, and could argue that little harm is done to the consumer because we're talking about fake plants here.
But what about real living Tillandsia — the groupings of air plants now on display in our local brick and mortar stores, especially those on garden section shelves? From my observation, many are dead on arrival since air plants have no chance of survival when drowned in water, over-saturated with moisture and suffocated in the soil. This has actual consequences for both plants and consumers. Pretty packaging won't console unknowing consumers who all too soon will discover their purchase a disappointment — and a waste of money. For example:
• Photo No. 1 shows Tillandsia xerographica – a rare epiphyte from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. This air plant is currently on the CITES list of endangered species. So why is this exquisite beauty, known by many as the Silver Queen, stuffed into dirt-filled pots and watered with a hose like every other plant in the nursery section? Death is imminent. Cause: soil suffocation and drowning.
• Photo No. 2 shows air plants glued to moss that is glued to a bottom plate that is covered with a cute little glass top. No air can enter the container and the moisture buildup evident inside cannot escape. Death is imminent. Cause: oxygen deprivation and drowning.
• Photo No. 3 shows air plants also glued to moss glued to the bottom of mini terrariums with a side opening. Notice the light brown color of the Tillandsia. Cause of death: Fried, dried, glued and neglected.
For me, the shelf condition of these air plants clearly illustrates the importance of knowing a little something about what you're buying — not only for the sake of the plant but your wallet. One cannot underestimate the intrinsic value of research. To increase our success as gardeners, taking time to do a little investigation before choosing plants is critical. So is learning the best season and best location in which to plant that tree you want. And discovering which variety of vegetables is more disease resistant.
Here on this blog, you'll find information on an infinite number of topics written by Master Gardeners who are just ordinary people passionate about plants. We enjoy sharing not only great experiences but the mistakes we make, and the resources and research results we unearth along the way. We take to heart what Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Jennifer Baumbach, tells each new crop of MG graduates: You don't need to know all the answers about every topic or every plant. What is most important is knowing where to go to get the answers.
In the meantime, check out Gardening Resource Guide, Second Edition, Published July 2016. This 108-page hidden gem of information and resources specific to Solano County is available for purchase through Master Gardeners of Solano County. For your copy, visit us Monday through Friday 8 a.m. - 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. at 501 Texas Street, First Floor, Fairfield, CA 94533, solanomg.ucanr.edu, 707-784-1322.