Understanding the sun exposure needs of plants

As we enter the hottest parts of our San Joaquin summer, sun is a timely topic. 

Fall planting season will be here before we know it, and this is an excellent time for both experienced and budding landscapers to make plans for large-scale garden makeovers or the addition of a few new plants here and there. No matter what your future garden goals, it’s important to know about sun exposure and how it should affect your plant selection process.

Most gardeners are familiar with nursery plant tags and gardening reference books that use phrases such as “full sun” or “partial shade”—but what do those descriptions really mean? Let’s shed a little light on this important topic!

Sun versus shade

Over the eons, different plant species have evolved to adapt to the various environmental conditions specific to their location. Sun and light exposure is one important element of this adaptation, and we need to have an understanding of it to ensure that our plants thrive. General categories (which vary from source to source) are:

  • Full sun = 6 or more hours of direct sun. Vegetable plants and fruit trees need 8 to 10 hours of sun for best production. 
  • Light shade = 4 to 6 hours of direct sun. Many sun-loving plants can tolerate this condition, and plants preferring some shade can handle a bit of exposure to not-too-intense sunlight. 
  • Part(ial) shade/sun = 2 to 4 hours of direct sun. Some conditions that qualify: locations near or under trees with a light-filtering canopy; areas that received reflected light off buildings or fences; and areas that get several hours of morning sun but little to no afternoon sun.
  • Full shade= 2 hours or less of direct sun. Such areas include those covered mostly in shadow or that have dappled shade throughout the day.
  • Dense shade= No direct sun and little indirect sun. This includes areas under dense evergreen trees or shrubs, under overhangs, or in narrow, sheltered pathways. Growing conditions in such locations are difficult because they can also be very dry or because there is lots of competition for root space. Attractive mulches, pavers, or garden art are good solutions for such plant-unfriendly spaces.

Keep in mind that even dense shade does not mean a completely dark location, because all plants need some light to grow.

Plant tags will sometimes list more than one of these ratings. What does that mean? The first term listed is the plant’s preferred condition, while the secondary term is a condition the plant can also tolerate. For example, a plant with a tag saying “sun to part shade” would grow best in a sunny location but could still handle some shade. 

These ratings are sometimes qualified even further. One example from the Sunset Western Garden Book is the plant known as beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis).The sun exposure notation for this plant says, “afternoon shade in hottest climates,” and that description is very accurate. This ornamental groundcover is growing in one part of my yard to provide small, seedy snacks for chickens, and over the years it has spread by runners from the lightly shaded location where it was planted to an area that receives full afternoon sun in the summer. The adventurous, spreading parts of the plant look severely stressed at this time of year, whereas the parts shielded from afternoon sun are still lush and happy.

Sun-scorched leaves on a beach strawberry plant, Fragaria chiloensis (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

That’s intense

Light intensity is another important consideration. It’s a relatively simple concept: morning sunlight is gentler and less intense than the hot, harsh afternoon sun. Plants that need some shade will do better if they’re exposed to sun earlier in the day and protected from sun in the latter hours of the day.

Direct sunlight, where the sun’s rays fall directly on a plant’s leaves, is also very different than indirect sunlight, where a plant receives light reflected from other sources. Some plants, particularly houseplants native to shady tropical forest environments—Philodendron, Calathea, Plectranthus, Schefflera, and more—can be quickly and severely damaged by direct sun exposure on their sensitive leaves.

Location, location, location

Climate zones (either those defined by the USDA or Sunset) are an important consideration when evaluating sun exposure. If you purchase a plant from an out-of-area nursery or mail-order source, carefully investigate how it will respond to our local growing conditions. A plant might be rated as suitable for “full sun” by a grower located in the Bay Area or states in the northern U.S., but that rating often won’t translate well to our harsher summer environment.

Microclimates—the often-profound differences in climate conditions that can exist in a landscape—are also a key factor. Large trees, fences, walls, house orientations, and the seasons all affect the sun exposure that each area of a garden receives. A part of the yard that’s shady in the winter might not be in the summer as the angle of the sun changes. Plants in locations with a southern or western exposure or those near heat-reflecting walls or paving are more susceptible to light- or heat-related damage. Plants under a deciduous tree will receive more direct sun in the winter when the tree is bare than they do in the summer when the tree is leafed out. Pay close attention to these factors and make note of them when developing a planting plan.

I’ll use one difficult part of my own backyard to illustrate this concept. Due to the ever-changing angle of the sun throughout the year, the footprint of my house, and the location of overhangs, one small dry garden bed receives lots of full summer sun during the hottest time of year—including intense afternoon heat reflected off an adjacent stucco wall—but it’s in full shade all day during the coldest winter months. I haven’t found a perennial plant that’s happy with such extremes of sun exposure and growing conditions, so this little patch of soil is where I’ve resigned myself to “crop rotation,” growing heat-and-sun-loving herbs in the summer and shade-loving annuals in the winter.

As always, gardening is a matter of experimentation and trial-and-error! If a plant is scorching/bleaching or failing to thrive because of improper sun or shade exposure (or any other site-related condition), try transplanting it to another location that might be more suitable, and watch to see how it responds to its new home.

Some helpful resources that include sun exposure guidance/considerations are:

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

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How to use the Master Gardener Help Desk

Has your garden been invaded by an insect pest, and you have no idea what it is or how to safely banish it from your yard? Is one of your beloved and formerly thriving plants suddenly looking stressed and unhealthy, and you have no clue what’s wrong? Is your garden suddenly plagued by unfamiliar and tenacious weeds, and you want to learn what they are and the best way to remove and prevent them?

The San Joaquin Master Gardener Program, administered by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), has a Help Desk service specifically intended to help answer these types of questions. Here’s a brief summary of our contact information:

Master Gardener Help Desk
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to noon, Monday through Thursday 
Address: Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center, 2101 E. Earhart Blvd., Suite 200, Stockton
Phone: (209) 953-6112
Email: anrmgsanjoaquin@ucanr.edu
Website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Hotline_Office/

When you contact the Help Desk, remember that it might take a few days or even weeks to properly diagnose your particular plant and/or pest problem. Sometimes the cause, effect, and solution can be fairly easy to determine; at other times, Master Gardener volunteers might need to enlist the help of trained scientists (plant pathologists, entomologists, etc.) to correctly diagnose a condition or identify a pest. Remember that accurately determining the problem is the key to finding the appropriate and effective solution.

Plant damage and disorders have either biotic or abiotic origins. Biotic problems are those caused by living organisms: small mammals; chewing or sucking insects; snails and slugs; harmful fungi, bacteria, or viruses; and more. Abiotic problems arise from environmental factors such as pesticide toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, drought stress, overwatering, air pollution, mineral imbalances, excess or insufficient sun exposure, and so on. 

It’s most helpful for Help Desk volunteers if our “customers” initially visit in person and deliver actual plant and/or insect specimens. Diseases, disorders, and pests are often specific to particular plant species, so the first step in solving your garden-related problem is to accurately identify the affected plant. Having an actual sample or two in hand makes that process, and the eventual diagnosis, much easier. Later follow-up can be by email or phone.

How to submit plant samples:

  • Use sharp, sterile pruning tools to avoid spreading any potential diseases. 
  • If possible, trim off an affected piece of plant large enough to include leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, and even roots, if that could be where problems are occurring. This aids in plant identification and diagnosis.
  • For comparison’s sake, also trim and bring in a healthy portion of the plant.
  • Bring plant samples to the office as soon as possible after collecting them. Fresh samples are absolutely necessary for accurate diagnosis; old, dried, or rotten material can’t be used.
  • Place plant samples in sealable plastic bags large enough to accommodate them without damage. (This not only protects the sample, it also prevents accidental spread of potential plant pathogens.)
  • Write your name, contact information, and date and location of collection on each bag.
  • Refrigerate plant samples for a short time if immediate delivery to the Help Desk isn’t possible.
  • If it’s not physically possible to bring a sample—for instance, if the specimen is too large —please take a series of clear photos of the plant from different angles, ranging from a picture of the entire plant/tree to close-ups of the problem area.

How to submit insect samples:

  • Collect one or more insects using a method that won’t damage them. Squashed specimens or insects with missing body parts can’t be identified.
  • Place the insect(s) in a tightly sealable clear jar or container. (Plastic bags aren’t suitable, and a tight seal is necessary to prevent unintentional release of pests into new areas.)
  • If possible, preserve the insect by covering it with clear rubbing alcohol.
  • Write your name, contact information, and date and location of collection on the outside of each container.
  • Deliver your insect specimen(s) to the Help Desk as soon as possible; they can be refrigerated for a few days if necessary.
Master Gardener Win Rogers at the Help Desk window in the Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center. (Photo courtesy of Candy Walker)

We recognize that busy lives and work schedules prevent many people from visiting the Help Desk in person, which is why there are also options for emailing or calling our office. Email is by far the more effective of these two, because plant/pest photographs can be submitted electronically and because it gives both our office and our patrons a written record of the diagnosis process. If you call the Help Desk after hours, please leave a voicemail with your name, the date and time of your call, the city where you live, and your phone number and email address.

No matter what method you use to contact the Help Desk—in person visit, email, or phone call—be prepared to answer a long list of questions from our volunteers. Plant problems are often caused by a combination of factors, so our investigative work must necessarily cover a whole spectrum of issues. If you already know the exact ID of your plant, that’s a good start. We’ll also ask you to tell us, to the best of your abilities, what cultural care your plant has been receiving: timing and frequency of watering, fertilizer use, pesticide/herbicide exposure, daily sun/shade, pruning, etc. Environmental factors can lead to stressed plants, and stressed plants are more susceptible to diseases and pests, so this is all relevant data collection.

The Help Desk is staffed entirely by Master Gardener volunteers, with either one or two people present in the office during each weekday shift. Every attempt is made to keep the office staffed on a regular basis; however, it’s best to call ahead to ensure that someone will be available if you intend to visit the office in person.

Although Master Gardeners can’t make home visits or provide physical gardening assistance to individuals, our Help Desk volunteers work hard to provide San Joaquin County residents with a valuable public service, and we hope you’ll take advantage of it when needed! 

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Lavender makes a beautiful summer addition to your garden.

It will soon be officially summer and time to enjoy summer blooms. In last week week’s column, Kathy Ikeda advocated for Salvias and they are a great flowering perennial for our California Mediterranean climate. Another flower group that I love to grow is Lavender which is also well suited to our dry, warm climate. It too is very drought tolerant and does best in full sun and well-drained soils. It has grey-green scented foliage and will thrive with neglect except for annual pruning. It has been grown for centuries for its fragrance, and for use in cosmetics, culinary, wands, sachets and potpourri. It also attracts beneficial insects. There are many varieties and cultivars; so many that they are hard to identify in your garden if you don’t have the source information.
The English Lavender, (Lavandula angustifolia) grows to about 2-3 feet tall and wide and is good for making wands as well as for culinary use and its oil is the best for cosmetics. There are several cultivars of this species and I will only mention a few: see: https://www.highcountrygardens.com/search/go?w=english%20lavender
Lavandula augustifolia ‘Hidcote’ forms smaller mounds to 18 inches tall with deep purple, edible blossoms on 8 inch stalks. It is a good choice for edging walkways and garden beds.

English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ a violet cultivar.

A more heat tolerant cultivar is Lavandula augustifolia ‘Munstead’ which is 18-24 inches tall, mounding and suitable for walkway, rockeries, garden beds, knot gardens small hedges and mixes well with other perennials in the border. It will thrive on slopes and in rock gardens and will naturalize. It is a good choice for fresh or dried arrangements, sachets, essential oils and perfume.
The hybrid, Lavandula x ginginsii ‘Goodwin Creek Gray’, is a large bush with finely toothed silver grey foliage and long, slender, dark purple spikes. It is very heat and drought tolerant and works well in perennial borders as well as containers. One of its parents is the French lavender Lavandula dentata, which differs from the English lavender in that it is less hardy, taller and less compact with longer bloom time and longer lasting blooms. English lavender definitely has more of the characteristic lavender fragrance than the French lavender. Goodwin Creek Gray is an excellent French lavender selection for our area.
Lavandula x intermedia, also called Lavandin, is a hybrid cross between English Lavender and Lavandula latifolia (Portuguese Lavender). The Lavandin cultivars are slightly less hardy than Lavandula angustifolia, but tend to grow larger, up to 4 feet, bloom later from July to August, and produce more flower spikes than other Lavenders. There are several cultivars which you can examine at: https://victorslavender.com/available-plants-products/lavandula-x-intermedia/
Spanish lavender, or Lavendula stoechas, is just one of about 40 varieties of this fragrant herb and is somewhat more heat tolerant being native to southern Spain. It is similar in most aspects to others described, but the flowers are definitely unique. The top of each flowering stem grows larger, upright bracts that resemble rabbit ears. It is well suited to growing in containers. The flowers may be purple or pink, depending on the cultivar. ‘Ann’s Purple’ is larger than others, and it will grow about 30 inches tall and wide. ‘Purple ribbon’ produces dark purple flowers and is a little bit cold hardier than other cultivars. ‘Kew Red’ produces pink flowers of a dark raspberry shade. ‘Winter Bees’ will start to bloom earlier than most cultivars, beginning in late winter in California. ‘Lusko’s Dwarf’ grows to about 12 inches and is a good one for containers. For more information on Spanish Lavender see: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/lavender/spanish-lavender-plants.htm
Whatever lavender you choose it is relatively low maintenance, with low water requirements once it is established. Pruning need be done only once per year and best done in the spring just before new growth starts. Prune back by about a third which will keep the plant from getting too woody and increase the blooms for harvest. If there are dead branches remove them. If the plant is not pruned it may become very woody and blossoming will decrease. For more information on selecting the lavender see: https://www.gardenia.net/guide/how-to-choose-the-right-lavender.
Whatever lavender you choose it will provide enjoyment for years as they are long-lived perennials. I once grew several English Lavender plants from seeds and the plants kept going for over 20 years and still might be going, if the new owners care for them. It is indeed a plant of many virtues to love and enjoy.
If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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Create compact orchards for lots of fresh fruit.

Recently. Phil Pursel, representing David Wilson Nursery come to our monthly Master Gardener’s meeting to tell us about backyard fruit growing techniques. Yes, Master Gardeners do have meetings once a month to hear speakers to educate us on gardening issues and this one was very relevant. The size of home lots has shrunk noticeably in the last fifty years with population growth and land prices compelling construction of more homes per acre. Hence, many folks don’t consider growing a back yard orchard of fruit trees on small lots, but it is possible using some newer techniques.
I had a large fruit orchard where I previously lived that was nearly half an acre. Since downsizing, I had to become more rational about fruit growing and have learned that less can actually be more. I planted only 9 fruit trees and grafted three rootstocks of flowering plum to edible plums. In this article I describe some of the things that can be done to produce more tree fruit in smaller areas.
For starters, why would you want to do this? If you know what fresh ripe fruit tastes like, you might prefer home grown ripe fruit to those found in the supermarket that are picked before being ripe and are neither as tasty nor as sweet because they are picked and shipped before ripening.
When planning your orchard you should consider trees that will ripen sequentially and not all at once and crop size has to be considered too. A large Santa Rosa plum tree can ripen and drop several hundred pounds of fruit in a short time—more Jam making and fresh fruit than most can handle. Smaller trees mean less is more. For more information on this from Dave Wilson Nursery see: https://www.davewilson.com/home-gardens/backyard-orchard-culture
How do you pack more trees into small spaces, and thus increase the variety of fruit? One way that you can do this is to buy multi-grafted trees. This can work, but you need to be diligent. One or two of the grafts can become dominant and will crowd out the other grafts, so the fruit salad is not balanced among the tree parts. To avoid this here are some things you can do. If possible, select a tree that has the grafted limbs evenly spaced around the trunk and always plant the smallest limb (the “weakest” variety) to the south/southwest to insure that it gets plenty of sun.
Cut back the strongest growing varieties by 2/3rds and cut back the weakest variety by 1/2 — or not at all. Watch the growth-rate of the smaller limbs during the summer to determine if pruning is necessary and if the weakest variety is half the size of the others, don’t cut it back.

Three nectarine or peach trees planted together to be trained as a fruit bush. (Photo courtesy of the Master Gardener Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks, CA)

Another approach is high density planting with different varieties. You can plant 3 or 4 trees close together. The trees should have similar rootstock vigor so that one or more trees don’t dominate the others. The crowding of the trees will help decrease their vigor and summer pruning will keep them as fruit bushes that will provide crops of manageable size and the use of ladders can be avoided. See fruit bush at: http://homeorchard.ucdavis.edu/8057.pdf
When trees are kept small, more trees can be in a given space which results in more kinds of fruit and a longer harvest season. One cannot rely on dwarfing rootstocks to keep trees small. The only reliable method is summer pruning which decreases the plant’s vigor. Cut back new growth by one half or more in April and May or later in the summer. Trees can also be planted in a hedgerow which is basically creating a hedge of fruit bushes that are maintained in a shortened form by pruning.
Another approach to maximize your space is to espalier fruit trees against a wall, a fence or on a trellis in two dimensions. It is a technique started in Roman times. The fruit trees should be exposed to at least 6 hours or more of sunlight and requires paying attention to manage and train the plant to the espalier form.
There are a variety shapes for an espalier. There are cordon (branches straight out to the sides), fan (branches fanning up and to the side), candelabra (like a cordon but the branches turn at a right angle to form the shape of a candelabra), lattice (multiple trees with crossing branches). The fan and the candelabra forms take advantage of the natural tendencies of trees to grow in an upright direction and may be easier to maintain than the cordon approach. Most commonly espaliered trees are apple, pear and plum. Grapes are also often cordon trained. For more information on espalier techniques see: https://www.epicgardening.com/espalier-fruit-trees/
May your back yard orchard be fruitful!
If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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Superb and spectacular sages

Look up the word “sage” in the dictionary, and the first definitions are typically those referring to a wise person or the culinary herb. But the word also applies to a group of ornamental plants well known and loved by gardeners around the world.

Sage plants belong to the genus Salvia, a word not to be confused with the similar but very different “saliva.” On the other hand, Salvia plants are beautiful garden performers worth salivating over! They’re long-blooming and fragrant, they attract a variety of insect pollinators and hummingbirds, and they’re attractive and low-maintenance.

The name Salvia is derived from the Latin word “salvere” — meaning to save — referring to the natural healing properties of many sages. (Always refer to reputable sources and consult your medical professional before using these or any other plants for medicinal purposes.)

Salvias are members of the mint family — Lamiaceae, pronounced Lay-mee-AY-cee-ee — and their close cousins include other fragrant plants such as basil, lavender, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. All plants in this family share distinctive characteristics: square stems; paired, simple leaves with aromatic oils; and two-lipped, tubular flowers. The small flowers are borne in whorls at the ends of the stems, and depending on the species, the blooms can be in tight clusters or spaced loosely along the stems.

Sages are a diverse group of plants, ranging from large shrubs to low-growing groundcover forms. Some are grown as annuals, but most are perennial plants that can be used as foundation plantings in landscapes. Most thrive in well-drained soils, and their water needs are generally low to moderate.

Salvia officinalis is the scientific name of common culinary sage. It’s a low-growing shrub that can do double duty in the garden as both an attractive landscape plant and an edible herb. Its flowers are rose/mauve to lavender in color, and its leaves can be used either fresh or dried. There are several types with variegated foliage for added garden interest, including one named Tricolor, with gray-green leaves edged in white and pinkish-purple.

If you’re considering planting sage in your garden, think beyond the edible kind. There are countless species and hybrids of ornamental Salvia, some better adapted to our Central Valley climate than others. My personal favorites — most of which need only an occasional summer watering and no fertilizer — are:

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). This drought-adapted California native groundcover sage has earned its designation as a UC Davis Arboretum All-Star. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds, with large, deep-magenta flowers borne on sturdy spikes in winter and spring; cut flowering stems back to the ground when spent. The large bright green leaves have a mild fruity/minty scent, and the plant spreads by underground rhizomes. It’s good for dry locations with morning sun and afternoon shade, and is excellent when planted under oaks.

Mint bush sage (Salvia microphylla). This shrub is another Arboretum All-Star, and as the word “microphylla” suggests, it has tiny leaves, along with thin stems and delicate flowers that attract hummers and native bumblebees. There are many named varieties, including the popular ‘Hot Lips’, with its bicolor red and white flowers; ‘Pink’, with intensely pink blooms; and ‘Stormy Pink’, with light pink flowers that emerge from dark purple buds. The leaves of this sage species have a spicy-fruity scent, and the flowers appear almost year-round. Prune these plants back hard in winter to encourage plenty of new vigorous growth and blooms. 

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). These are large shrubs, up to 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Their long, narrow leaves are green above and grayish-white and fuzzy on the undersides. These sages are stunners when in bloom; their numerous long flowering spikes are covered in large, velvety, purple calyxes (bud coverings) from which the flowers emerge. The standard species has white flower petals; ‘Midnight’ has purple petals; and ‘Santa Barbara’ is a compact variety with vibrant violet petals. When these plants decline in the winter, cut them to the ground to renew and to control rangy growth.

Salvia leucantha at the Clovis Botanical Garden
(Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

Sierra San Antonio sage (Salvia x jamensis ‘Sierra San Antonio’). This sage is a cross between S. microphylla and S. greggi. It’s a long-blooming, small shrub (up to 1½ feet high by 3 feet wide) bearing peach- to cream-colored flowers with pastel yellow lips. It attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds and is gorgeous when paired with blue flowering penstemons.

Limelight Mexican sage (Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’). The coloration of this sage is stunning, with deep bluish-purple flowers emerging from bright chartreuse calyxes. This plant has a relatively tall and narrow form, with deep green, triangular leaves. It needs moderate water, some fertilizer, and light afternoon shade to look its best in our area.

Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ at the Clovis Botanical Garden (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

White sage (Salvia apiana). Native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of Southern and Baja California, this plant is also known as sacred sage for its long-standing spiritual and medicinal use by many Native American tribes. It’s a tall, fast-growing shrub with large, smooth, fragrant, silvery-blue-green leaves and 5-foot-tall spikes of white flowers tinged with lavender. This plant’s natural pollinators include native bumblebees, hawk moths, and wasps. Sadly, white sage is disappearing from its natural habitat due to its growing popularity and unscrupulous over-collection. Grow it at home, but leave it alone in the wild! It’s another Arboretum All-Star.

Other excellent sages for Central Valley gardens are:

  • Winifred Gillman sage (S. clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’)
  • Autumn sage (S. greggii)
  • Creeping sage (S. ‘Bee’s Bliss’) 
  • Germander sage (S. chamaedryoides)

Try experimenting with several of these spectacular sages, and relish the results.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our websitehttp://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/.

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New Zealand Garden Tour Finale

In the last report on our garden tour, I described some historic gardens in Hamilton. For me, it was one of the best parts of the trip, but there were still many excellent gardens to visit and I am sharing some of those with you today. Near Wellington we visited the Otari-Wilton’s Bush a Native Plant Garden and Forest which featured native plants large and small, and then we flew from Wellington to Queenstown on the South Island. Our first garden in Queenstown was Chantecler, a beautiful private estate garden where we got a glimpse of how New Zealand’s one-percent might enjoy life. The grounds were extensive and varied with hydrangeas in the shade and lavender, roses and fountains in the sunny spots.
Pam and I avoided the trip to Milford Sound choosing instead to recover at our hotel from the colds we caught from our fellow bus travelers, but we didn’t miss out on any gardens. After a long bus trip from Queenstown, our next stop was Glenfollach gardens in Dunedin. The most memorable part of this garden was the varied fuchsias which seem to thrive well all over New Zealand.
A fantastic venue was the Larnach Castle, a manor home built in the 1870’s by W.J. M. Larnach, a wealthy banker and politician, who, despite his fortune, committed suicide in 1898. The building itself was lavish with exquisite Victorian woodwork, tile and plaster features. It also had a spectacular view of the large bay at Dunedin Harbor as well as extensive and varied gardens.
We also visited the Dunedin Botanical Gardens which were fabulous with plants from Africa, South America and other areas as well as Rhododendrons, roses and other flower gardens and borders. It is a place that you could explore for more than a day. I was inspired to order and plant some Alstroemeria when I got home and likely will get some of the Tiger lilies too.
Trott’s garden was our next stop at Ashburton and it was a delightful garden of hedges and borders and one of our last garden was Ohinetihi in Christchurch which featured several large art pieces. There are so many gardens and hundreds of pictures I would love to share, but not enough room in this brief column. Soon I will be back to California garden issues–Happy gardening and garden travels.
If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

Fountain at Chantacler in Queestown, New Zealand

Otari-Wilton Bush Garden featured many native plants.

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A tour of New Zealand Gardens; Part 2

One of the Hamilton gardens–The Tudor garden featuring standards with mythical creatures.

The Auckland Botanical Garden was a large expanse of lawns and trees, but a disappointment as the roses were not well tended. There were some worthy sculptor pieces in the gardens.

We visited 21 gardens on this 2 week tour. Our first garden, Ayrlies, north of Auckland, is acknowledged by some as one of the outstanding gardens of New Zealand. It started out as three acres in 1964 and has overtime been expanded to 46 acres. It featured several ponds and large swathes of lawn and informal colorful perennial borders.

Sculptures were one of the good features at the Auckland Botanical Gardens.

The Hamilton Gardens were really exceptional and we had a guide to take us through the gardens allotted for our visit. Hamilton Gardens acknowledges that there is a history to tell about gardens, their development over time and across cultures. The gardens were established on a four acre former rubbish heap—a marvelous improvement. The gardens through history covered about 4000 years and, although we only saw a few of the 21 gardens, they were spectacular. The garden has plans to add more over time as money allows.

The Italian Renaissance garden featured Citrus, statuary and flowers.

Our first garden was a traditional classic Japanese garden of the Muromachi period from 1333 to 1568. A monochromatic abstraction of a natural landscape was on one side and a water featured landscape was on the other side of a pavilion overlook. We visited a classic Maori garden where Kumara (sweet potatoes) were a staple.

The Japanese landscape garden was beautifully done.
The Maori garden of the staple sweet potatoes.

The Indian Char Bagh Gardens were one of the most widespread traditional ‘Paradise Gardens’ or ‘Universal Gardens’ because of their widespread use. They were enclosed, four part gardens spread by Muslims from Asia to North Africa to Spain during the 8th to 18th centuries. They usually had a water feature and were a sensual experience of fragrance, sound and floral beauty.

The Char Bagh Garden

The Italian Renaissance gardens were filled with statuary, water features, citrus, flowers and hedges. The 16th century Tudor garden featured a tower overlooking knot gardens with lots of heraldic standards featuring fantasy beasts such as dragons and unicorns. Most Tudor gardens were destroyed by Cromwell or neglect.

We also looked at a large kitchen garden, herb garden and a small tropical garden too. It was a great day enjoying the history and variety of gardens.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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Restoring California’s native oaks

Imagine for a moment what our valley looked like only two centuries ago.

Before the mass settlement of California, grizzly bears, herds of tule elk and deer, and sky-darkening flocks of migratory birds were common in what we now call San Joaquin County. Northern Valley Yokuts and Miwok communities lived and thrived within the oak woodlands and riparian forests. It was very different from today.

San Joaquin County is now part of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation and the world. But this transformation came at great expense. Vast oak woodlands were clear-cut so that the flat and fertile land could be farmed, and in the process, our local native people, flora, and fauna were largely decimated or displaced.

Oak trees native to our county include valley oak (Quercus lobata),blue oak (Quercus douglasii), black oak (Quercus kelloggii), interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii),and more. The genus nameQuercus is a Latin word derived from two Celtic words: “quer” and “cuez”, meaning fine and tree, respectively. Very appropriate, since oaks are indeed fine trees.

Oak Grove Regional Park in northwest Stockton preserves one of the few remaining natural stands of valley oak woodland in this county. Although it’s been somewhat altered by human activity, it remains intact because it was once part of a late 1880s cattle ranch. If you wander the trails in the southern part of the park on a quiet morning — doing your best to ignore the closely encroaching residential development and the nearby freeway — you can get a sense of what’s been lost elsewhere. Or wander the stands of oak riparian forest in other nearby preserves: the Lodi Lake Nature Area, Caswell Memorial State Park in south-central San Joaquin County, or the Cosumnes River Preserve in southwestern Sacramento County.

One of my favorite depictions of what this area used to look like is “Forest Monarchs,” a large and iconic oil painting created in the late 1800s by famed landscape artist Albert Bierstadt. His stunningly beautiful rendering captures a herd of deer in a wildflower-filled field studded with towering, majestic, old growth oak trees; a picturesque Central Valley scene long gone. You can view it for yourself in the Hull Gallery at the Haggin Museum.

As you might be able to guess, our state’s remaining oak habitat is precious — and it continues to disappear. In the last seven decades, more than 1 million acres have been lost due to land development, wildfire, disease, harvesting for firewood, and other forms of habitat destruction.

Most of California’s native oak trees, at their mature size, are too large for a typical city residential lot. But anyone who owns a large parcel, farmland, or rangeland can potentially accommodate one or more oaks on their property. And anyone at all, regardless of property ownership, can participate in oak reforestation efforts.

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) is one organization helping to restore lost oak habitat, through a project called Re-Oak California. Participants throughout the state can collect acorns from native oak species and/or assist in oak replanting efforts.

This restoration initiative was begun by CNPS less than two years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating 2017 wildfires in northern Bay Area counties. That initial Re-Oak Wine Country project was expanded to cover all of California in 2018.

The environmental benefits of the Re-Oak California initiative are incalculable. A single mature oak tree can support hundreds of other plant and animal species. Birds and small mammals nest, shelter, and find food in their canopies. Countless insect species, including valuable pollinators, rely on oaks for food, shelter, and reproduction. Numerous animal species feed upon their abundant acorns. Oaks also grow in close association with a variety of understory shrubs, annual plants, and native grasses. The list of benefits goes on and on… not to mention the sheer beauty of a mature oak.

According to the California Wildlife Foundation’s California Oaks project, “California’s oak woodlands sustain higher levels of biodiversity than virtually any other terrestrial ecosystem in the state. More than 300 species depend on oak woodlands for food and shelter.” 

Oaks also help lessen the impact of climate change by reducing greenhouse gases. A 2008 study by the California Oak Foundation found that, “oak woodlands and forests sequester and store atmospheric carbon in quantities that contribute to the health and well-being of Californians.” They also “sequester carbon in the form of understory shrubs, grasses and forbs, downed woody debris (decaying logs and twigs) and soil borne carbon (not including below ground tree root systems).”

To learn more about Re-Oak California, visit http://www.cnps.org/acorns. Sign up to receive email updates and to learn how to properly save and mail in acorns for replanting. This year’s acorn collection will begin in the fall; acorns and seedlings from the 2018 collection effort are still being planted and tended.

If you’d like to learn more about our state’s many oaks species, their specific growth habits, and oak conservation efforts:

  • See CNPS’s November 2018 Re-Oak California press release
  • Read the book “Oaks of California” by Bruce M. Pavlik et. al., published in 1991 by Cachuma Press and the California Oak Foundation.
  • Visit the website of California Oaks, a project of the California Wildlife Foundation, and check out their many online resources.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

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A magnificent migration of painted ladies

If you’ve spent any time outside in the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed a greater than normal number of butterflies flitting past. You’ve been privileged to witness the largest migration of painted lady butterflies in nearly 15 years.

This miracle of nature was spawned by heavier than average winter and spring rainfall in the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. That rainfall triggered abundant plant growth and a “superbloom” of desert-region plants, which in turn encouraged an explosion in the population of the painted lady butterflies that rely on these plants.

Millions of painted ladies are now migrating from their starting points through California to locations in the northwest U.S.: Oregon, Washington, and some even as far as Alaska. It’s an unimaginably long journey for such a small and seemingly delicate creature. 

Professor Arthur Shapiro from the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California at Davis has studied butterfly migration for decades. He explains that the entire North American population of painted ladies butterflies migrates to the deserts of southeast California, West Texas and northern Mexico during the winter. When the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the local annual plants. Once they transform into adult butterflies, they begin flying north. They can live up to six weeks, but most don’t live that long. There are waves of migration: the first generation flies to northern California; the butterflies stop to breed; and the next generation(s) continue the journey to the Pacific Northwest.

These butterflies tend to fly low and fast (up to 25 mph), hugging open fields and flying sharply up and down to clear obstacles in their way. Their erratic flight is even more attention getting when their numbers are so great. A reserve of abdominal fat fuels each butterfly’s travel, and the insect stops to reproduce only when that energy source is expended.

Painted ladies scientific name Vanessa cardui – are gorgeous butterflies. Their predominant color is orange, but both the upper and lower surfaces of their wings are vibrantly and intricately patterned with other colors including white, black, grey, and shades of brown from tan to rust. 

Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) feeding from rosemary flowers (Photo © Kathy Ikeda)

Swarms of these beautiful butterflies first arrived at my neighborhood on March 22. That morning, a friend and I travelled to CalExpo in Sacramento for a special visit to the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show; by the time we returned to Stockton in the afternoon, countless painted ladies were fluttering down the streets, through yards, and over houses. It was an incredible and jaw-dropping sight.

The number of migrating painted ladies has decreased since then, but on calm sunny days many of these showy butterflies can still be seen in flight, stopping occasionally to rest.

For nearly three weeks, painted ladies have been visiting my garden to have a drink and take a breather before moving on. It’s been rewarding to watch them eagerly sip nectar from flowers and sun themselves with open wings. They seem especially attracted to the rosemary plants in full bloom (especially the Tuscan Blue variety) and the Bees’ Bliss sage (a California native Salviahybrid). 

And now, a bit of science.

Butterflies can be broadly grouped into two categories: generalists and specialists. Generalists are those types of butterflies whose caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of different plants. Specialists, on the other hand, are butterflies whose caterpillars rely on a single kind of “host plant” for their food. (Adult butterflies, the pretty flying insects we so love, don’t factor into this categorization because they sip nectar from many species of flowers.)

The painted lady butterfly is a generalist, since its caterpillars can feed on many different plants; they favor plants in the mallow, thistle, and borage families. On the other hand, some of our most common native butterflies are specialists. The iconic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)is the best-known specialist; its caterpillars only eat leaves of milkweed plants (Asclepiasspecies). Caterpillars of the stunning, iridescent, blue-black pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor)feed only on leaves of pipevine plants (Aristolochiaspecies). 

Unfortunately, the fact that painted ladies are thriving this year doesn’t mean that other native butterfly species are faring well. Many butterfly species, including monarchs, are in serious decline. Habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change all pose serious threats to the survival of butterflies and other pollinating insects.

You can help to reverse this sad trend by using ecologically safe gardening practices and filling your garden with butterfly-friendly plants. Nectar-rich flowers preferred by adult butterflies include a variety of California natives (asters, buckwheats, coyote mint, goldenrods, milkweeds, salvias, sunflowers) and introduced landscape plants (butterfly bush, cosmos, lantana, lavender, lilac, marigolds, pincushion flower, and rosemary).

Planting a garden to attract and nourish butterflies can be a rewarding experience. When you choose plants specifically to encourage butterflies and other pollinators, it helps restore lost natural environment and results in a garden with an assortment of beautiful plants and year-round bloom. What could be better? 

A few excellent resources for the budding butterfly gardener are:

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

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A tour of New Zealand gardens-Part 1.

New Zealand dahlias were mostly single or colarette and were developed there,

In January, Pam and I were fortunate to get included on a garden tour of private and public gardens in New Zealand. The tour was sponsored by the Northwest Horticultural Society located in Seattle and organized by Earthbound Expeditions which is also headquartered in Washington. There were 32 of us and we all managed to meet at the Grand Mercure hotel in Auckland on Jan 14 to start our garden adventure.

There were seven Master Gardeners, five garden designers, a retired flower farmer and two expert horticulturists who were very good at plant identification. They knew their plants whereas some of us were disadvantaged in this department, as the many native plants of New Zealand are pretty unique along with their exotic names. There were also 4 people who worked for or had retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service and I felt a kinship with them as I had worked in Fisheries for the State of California.

There were several spouses who were along for just the experience of seeing New Zealand, an exotic nation too far away for a casual visit. In addition to gardens, we also visited a Maori cultural center in Rotorua where we were an audience for mini-lectures on Maori culture as well as cultural dances and songs. After which we enjoyed a buffet dinner, so it was not all just about gardens. We traveled by bus and also got to see much of the countryside on both the North Island and South Island.

I noticed that Agapanthus was growing everywhere, so I thought it was the national flower. Actually the nation flower is the Kowhai (Sophora tetraptera), a yellow flower produced on an evergreen tree. I saw a lot more Agapanthus naturalizesd along all the roads. It is considered an invasive plant, not the national flower, although I can think of many worse invasive plants. For example, I found Vinca major, an old nemesis of mine, growing in a least two of the private gardens we visited and they are as unlikely to get rid of it as I was in my previously owned landscape.

New Zealand folks have made many bad decisions in an attempt to make New Zealand more like England. They imported hundreds of plants as well as birds and deer from England and created some serious ecological problems. They are now very strict with regard to plants and animals coming into the country having established a strict Biosecurity Act in 1993.

The common Bushtail possum, a nocturnal native of Australia, was introduced into New Zealand in the 1850’s to establish a fur industry, but it thrived with no predators and a mild climate. It has become a major orchard and garden pest. There are an estimated 30 million of them in New Zealand now down from 60 million as they are either poisoned or trapped. A cottage industry of blending possum fur with Merino wool is done to make a soft yarn for knitting and for sweaters. My wife, who loves to knit, bought some. We all seem to learn a little late about invasive plants and animals.

One of my many learning experiences was the discovery of many unusual dahlias in the gardens. I later learned that they have been bred in New Zealand by plant breeder Keith Hammett. Subsequently, I ordered some ‘Sunflower’ dahlia seeds from him, to see if I can grow a few here. They are mostly of the single or colarette form. Several of the dahlias had striking dark foliage. Only a few dahlias available here have such foliage.  

We got to visit about 21 gardens and they were spectacular in so many ways. Some of the large private gardens belonged to New Zealand’s wealthier citizens and some were small cottage gardens. All were works of long term, passionate gardening dedication. We visited two such cottage gardens that were crammed with flowers as well as some edibles.

Colorful front garden of Robyn Kilty in Christchurch.

Backyard of the cottage garden featuring ferns, flax and tiles.

The garden of Robyn Kilty in Christchurch was full of perennial flowers and grasses in the front yard of her 1865 worker’s cottage.  The side yard had an apricot, large ferns, flax, and several tile mosaics. The cottage managed to survive the 2011 Christchurch earthquake despite the chimney toppling through the roof into the living room. Robyn fortunately was not in the living room making her one lucky gardener.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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