The Sacred Trees of Our Lives

Incense_Cedar_DSC_2175The Stanislaus River ribbons through Kennedy Meadow in the high Sierra, and at its edge stands a magnificent incense cedar tree.  In my mind’s eye, that tree has seen the lives of four generations of my family pass through, like the river that has flowed past it for ages.  The cedar has come to symbolize our love of the place, for the stunning high-mountain beauty we long to see every year.  So much so, that many of us have said we want our ashes spread around it when we leave this earth.  Sadly, we gathered around it last year to do just that, as we honored my beloved niece’s wishes.

Certain trees have held a special place in the hearts of humans all over the world and through the ages, for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes the reverence was inspired by the fact that many trees are life-giving, providing food and shelter.  But beyond their practical uses and beauty, some trees have been seen not only as powerful symbols of life and death, but also, as having spiritual or supernatural powers.

Tree of LifeIn many cultures and religions, there is some version of the symbolic “Tree of Life.”  With its roots reaching deep into the earth and its branches reaching skyward, it often symbolized the connections between the heavens, earth and the underworld.  In Jewish mythology there is a tree of life or “tree of souls” in the Garden of Eden, which blossoms and creates new souls.  In Christianity there is also a tree of life, but it is overshadowed by its neighbor in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

maypole-1Trees have also symbolized fertility to many cultures.  An example is the maypole dance, which evolved from ancient ribbon dances around a living tree as part of spring rites to ensure fertility. While scholars believe this ritual originated with the pagan May Day festival known as “Beltane” in the UK and Ireland, and “Walpurgis” in Germanic European countries, there were similar ribbon dances in pre-Columbian Latin America.

Throughout history, people have looked to certain trees for healing, protection and even granting wishes, because they believed benevolent spirits live in them.  The notion of “wishing trees” can be seen worldwide to this day, as hopefuls hang rags, wreaths, ribbons and other offerings on tree branches.  In Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin recounts seeing one tree in South America festooned with rags, meat, cigars and more.

Examples of specific sacred trees and species of trees abound.  There is an ancient fig tree, called the “Bohdi” tree, which lives in front of a temple in India.  The Buddhists there revere it because it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under it.  In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the departed find eternal peace in a landscape inhabited by sycamore trees. The Celts practiced rituals in what they ok-acorn-festival-dancerconsidered sacred oak groves.  Some scholars believe the word “druid”—those mysterious high priests of the area—was formed from a combination of ancient Irish and Welsh words for oak (“daur” and “derw”), and the Indo-European root “wid,” meaning “to know,” referring to a people who lived in oak forests.  Central California Native Americans, from the coastal Ohlone to the foothills Miwok, understandably cherished oaks because they provided the acorns that made up a large portion of their diet.  In Malcolm Margolin’s The Ohlone Way, he describes the joyous dancing and celebrations at night in the acorn groves at harvest time:  “The people chanted and danced—not merely for a distant god or goddess—but rather for the oak trees themselves…”

Our intimate connections to trees are ancient.  Today, especially in the “developed” world, few people believe in the powers ascribed to trees in ancient times.  And yet, in honor of Arbor Day (April 26), it makes sense to stop and consider how trees are, or should be, sacred to us:  they give us food, shelter, homes for the birds and bees we love, a sense of awe, childhood memories, a gathering place for celebration and remembrance, and in a very real sense, the air we breathe.



Plant for a Lifetime of Memories

Going through an old box of photos of my childhood home the other day, I noticed that several beloved bushes appeared somewhere in the background in most of them.  From the time I was a toddler until I left home at 18, there was that fragrant purple lilac at the back fence, the blue hydrangeas under my parent’s bedroom window, and a huge rose Blue hydrangeasbush with large, pink, blousy flowers that nodded from the weight of their many petals.  I’d guess you have memories, too, of garden plants that traveled with you through the decades.

It’s officially spring, and while I’d never try to talk you out of bringing home flats of those annual wonders you have to replace every year, I’d like to make the case for also including long-lived, flowering perennials that keep coming back on their own for tens, sometimes hundreds of years (we should live so long).

Here’s a short list of flowering perennials that typically live at least 20 years if sited and cared for properly.  They are either woody, deciduous plants or those that die back to the ground in winter and reemerge from the underground “mother” plant every year.

Lilac (Syringa).  With their unforgettable scent and beauty, some varieties of lilac have been known to live 100-plus years.  Native to the Balkans, lilacs were introduced to the American colonies in the 18th century.  There are bush and tree lilacs, their heights ranging from six to 20 feet.  The conical, clustered blooms typically last only a few weeks, purple-lilacbut what a show!  Lilacs prefer slightly alkaline soil, regular watering and full sun, although in the foothills, most varieties will appreciate partial shade in the hottest part of the day.  While these fragrant beauties are extremely long-lived, they are also slow to start.  If you plant a lilac as a bare root cutting, it might be five to ten years before it blooms (mine took seven).

Peony BushPeony (Paeonia).  If you’d like to have a small, mounding bush with flowers that rival roses, one that deer won’t eat (honest, mine are 20 years old), and that are rarely bothered by pests, this is your plant.  Most garden peonies are descended from Chinese species, and are either small herbaceous bushes or trees to six feet tall.  The color range is stunning and some have a lovely fragrance.  Like lilacs, peonies do best in regions that experience a cold enough winter for full dormancy.  They are also extremely long lived, from 70 to 100 years.  The one tricky thing about peonies is planting.  If they are planted too deeply, they will usually refuse to flower, so read the instructions.

Coneflower (Echinacea).  This North American native is a garden staple for anyone who wants a hardy, long-blooming, drought-tolerant perennial that the bees and butterflies love.  Coneflowers have been known to live for 20 years, so while its longevityEchinacea-Purple-Cone-Flower isn’t as impressive as lilacs or peonies, it still lives much longer than many (especially non-native) garden bedding plants.  And lately, with the growing interest in drought-tolerant natives, hybridizers have introduced a dizzying number of colors and petal forms.  Coneflowers are not fussy about soil and typically grow to a height of about three to four feet.

Sage (Salvia).  Belonging to the mint family, there are hundreds of species of salvia.  While most have that wonderful sage scent, only a few are used for culinary purposes.  Native to the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico, salvias are beloved for their frequently summer-long bloom and drought tolerance.  The color of their blooms run the salvia_hot_lips_02gamut from white, yellow, pink, red, to purple.  Their longevity varies by species and variety, but I can attest to long life in these three, which I planted 20 years ago:  S. microphylla, “Hot Lips”; S. chamaedryoides, “Germander Sage”; and S. clevelandii, “Allen Chickering.”

While a bush that lives for 20 or 100 years is admirable, plants that will give you pleasure for five to 10 years shouldn’t get short shrift.  Here are a few:  daylilies, hosta, wild geranium, Russian sage, many sedums, hydrangea and iris.

So, happy planting.  May some of your garden choices turn out to be old friends that stay close through the years.


Gardening for Wildlife


In a single morning recently, as I sipped coffee on the deck, several of my favorite critters came calling.  An Anna’s Hummingbird drank from a nearby feeder and a red-flowering sage and then, incredibly, flew to within ten inches of my face and hovered there, looking at me, as if to thank me for my kindness (or so I imagined). One of the beautiful, noisy neighborhood Stellar’s Jays splashed and cooled herself in the simple bowl of water and pebbles I placed on the deck railing.  And a butterfly danced all over my newly planted butterfly bush.

I have been thrilled—and at times, restored—by simple visitations like these.  And so, I find myself drawn more and more to the idea of focusing my ever-evolving garden plans as much on creating a wildlife habitat as on designing an aesthetically pleasing landscape.  They aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but to root a garden design in enticing and caring for the wild things first is a different exercise than deciding where to put the petunias.

My inspiration these days is the simple design model offered by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat in your own backyard.  To plan such a garden, the NWF recommends you focus on providing four things: food (ideally from native plants), water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young.

FOOD.  Grow as many native plants as possible to provide the seeds, berries, nectar, foliage, nuts, fruit, sap and pollen that local wildlife thrive on. Want the thrill of hummingbirds spring through fall without having to endlessly restock that sugar-water feeder?  Plant these beautiful flowering natives to attract hummers:  California fuchsia, penstemon and columbine (among many others).  If you would like to draw all manner of birds, try plants that produce the seeds and berries they love:  lupine, California poppy (I’ve read that quail relish them), yarrow, Western serviceberry, and wild strawberries.  And to help save the honeybees, consider one of their favorites, the California lilac (Ceanothus), a beautiful, native evergreen bush with smoky purple flowers in spring.

WATER.  If your property doesn’t have a natural creek or pond, birdbaths and well-designed water features will go a long way in helping wildlife get through our hot, dry summers.  And here’s an interesting National Wildlife Federation suggestion:  create puddles. “Butterflies, males in particular, can often be seen engaging in a behavior called ‘puddling,'” says naturalist David Mizejewski in the NWF book, Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. He explains that “When they find a wet, muddy patch of soil, they gather up the liquid, which is rich in minerals.”

COVER.  Wildlife need places to find shelter from inclement weather and from predators.  Dense bushes and trees are good, such as the California flannel bush, holly and mallows, as are our native conifers and oaks.  Other good cover for birds and other small animals include a rock pile, a bramble patch, or a hollow log.

RAISING YOUNG.  Many of the same trees, bushes, plants and landscape features that provide food and cover for birds, mammals and reptiles also serve them in rearing young.  You can add to your native plantings by adding nesting boxes designed to suit wildlife, ponds for frogs, and host plants that feed the caterpillar stage of butterflies. Milkweed, for example, is the only food the caterpillar stage of Monarch butterflies will eat.

For extensive lists of native plants that draw local wildlife, contact the Tuolumne County Master Gardeners and the California Native Plant Society.  Detailed guidelines and checklists for creating your own Certified Wildlife Habitat at home can be found on the National Wildlife Federation website, http://www.nwf.org.

Make Every Drop Count With Efficient Irrigation

Gone are the days when it was okay to water our gardens and lawns with sprinklers and sprayers that shot six feet into the air, and flooded the driveway and street gutters.  These days, we know we need to conserve, and that means employing irrigation methods that deliver water directly to the soil around or inches above the plants that need it, to minimize or completely eliminate water loss to evaporation or runoff.

Following are examples of more efficient irrigation products for the garden, and the pros and cons of each.

Soaker hose. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Soaker Hoses are made from a porous material that delivers water slowly and evenly along the length of the hose—as long as the ground is relatively flat. If placed on a steep incline, gravity and the force of flow will result in more of the water being delivered at the downhill end of the hose. On level ground, the spread of water is typically only a few inches from the hose, so they are best used in very narrow beds or a line of individual plants. The biggest advantages of soaker hoses are that they are inexpensive and easy to set up in the garden.

There are several disadvantages of soaker hoses. They are not the best choice for beds that have widely spaced plants, because you end up watering the empty spaces (or weeds) in between. If your water is relatively high in minerals, the life of a soaker hose will be short, maybe a season or two, as the microscopic holes clog easily.

Similar to a soaker hose is drip tape, a more lightweight product that works well for row crops and raised beds.

Shrubbler drip emitter. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Drip Systems are the classic 1/4″ to 1/2″ black tubing into which you attach emitters, pressure regulators, backflow devices, filter screens, and timers if you want them. As a matter of fact, if you want to get your geek on in the garden, a drip system is the way to go because there is a mind-boggling selection of components available to choose from.  A basic emitter head will precisely water the soil around an individual plant.  “Shrubbler” and “bubbler” emitters deliver water in a wider radius, perfect for shrubs and trees. “Micro-jet” heads let you adjust the low-level spray to a quarter, half or full circle for more dense plantings or ground covers. And “turbulent” emitters are said to minimize clogging by the self-cleaning action of the head design.

The disadvantages of drip systems are setup and maintenance, and depending on the size of your garden, cost.  Emitter heads are notorious for clogging and have to be either cleaned or replaced periodically.

Inline spray emitter. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Adjustable Sprayers can cover a radius of up to 12 feet or more. They can be installed in a drip system on risers, or, as with “rain birds” or other high-performance sprayers, attached to a PVC pipe or even a hose end.  These sprayers lose a little more water to evaporation than do basic drip emitters, but they are more effective at watering lawns and large, dense plantings of ground covers and ornamentals.  Plus, if like me, spider mites are the bane of your gardening existence, these taller, far-reaching sprayers help minimize spider mites’ favorite conditions on plants:  hot, dry and dusty.

Here are some basic tips to increase the effectiveness and durability of any of the watering systems mentioned above:

  • Bury tubing and hoses under mulch to slow damage from direct sun and extreme temperatures.
  • Choose emitters that are ideal for the plants/areas you need to water.
  • If you want to set up a drip system on an incline, consider purchasing the pressure regulators and emitters that will produce an even flow of water.

I have fond, far-away memories of running through six-foot-high sprinklers in summer as a child.  But some things, alas, should be left in the past.

Make Gardening Failures Lessons Learned

I was driving to work recently, feeling disappointed about my gardening failures this past year, when a segment on National Public Radio lifted my frustrated gardener spirits.  A scientist was talking about how most of his ilk actually embrace failure because it always offers new data and, most importantly, raises new questions (and what is a scientist if not someone who always wants to know Why?).

It occurred to me that that attitude toward failure is a great mindset for gardeners, because let’s face it, pests happen, plants die, and one way or another, Mother Nature always seems to have the final say.  Better to accept the fact that gardening is, and always will be, a trial and error undertaking.  Best to focus on what you can learn from this year’s disappointing bounty or another year’s curious blight.

Here are a few gardening failures I learned from (or relearned) this year:

DeerDeer-proof, schmeer-proof.  I live on a third of an acre that is largely unfenced.  My attempts to protect veggies and ornamentals from the huge, adorable deer families frequenting my yard were marginal at best.  Liquid Fence?  Sure, it works for a few weeks, until the deer catch on and munch away anyway.  Wire cages?  Yes, if you anchor them down as if you were expecting a tornado (or a big buck’s insistent nose), and if you NEVER forget to put them back on after tending to the plant underneath.  And as for “deer-resistant” plants, my experience is that there are only a few, mostly because they’re toxic if eaten:  foxglove, daffodil, oleander and some iris.  If deer are hungry, they will eat almost anything.

Lesson:  In my neighborhood, you really, really need to have a strong eight-foot fence if you want to keep the deer from decimating your garden.

“Natives” aren’t always foolproof.  For one thing, many gardening books and online sources define native plants broadly as those that are indigenous to the U.S.  Problem is, a plant that is native to the Florida wetlands, the humid-summer Midwest or the cool-summer, foggy California coast is probably going to fail miserably in the Mother Lode.

Lesson:  To reduce gardening failures, choose plants that are native to the foothills or areas with similar growing conditions, such as many Mediterranean plants.

Better plant tagsDon’t rely on nursery plant tags.  Read 95% of the tags that accompany nursery plants, especially at big-box stores, and they will say, “Sun to part shade.”  My guess is that those overly generalized tags are simply a cost-effective way to stay in some vague, safe range of growing advice for vast inventories of plants.  I have tried and failed more times than I can count when trusting plant tags that don’t address the specifics of my locale.

Lesson:  If you aren’t familiar with a plant’s ideal growing conditions, look it up first in the Sunset Western Garden Book or the UC Extension website at http://www.ucanr.edu before buying it.

When life gives you lemons . . . Because much of my large front yard is not yet landscaped, the trees and shrubs I have planted enclose mostly bare land.  Read: weeds.  Vast swaths of weeds that I battle spring through summer, mostly by pulling.  At the end of this summer, though, I got smart.  I bought an affordable, lightweight weed whacker.  After the first Saturday of “mowing” the weeds down to about an inch, I stood on the front deck, looked down at all of that controlled greenery and finally saw it:  a free lawn!  Without the endless watering and fertilizing!  Okay, so it didn’t look like fescue up close.  But it WAS a nice, flat green covering instead of bare dirt, or worse, unkempt weeds that produce foxtails and burrs that plague my dogs.

Lesson:  Until I finish my years-long work of landscaping, I will treat myself to a free “lawn” by timely, artful weed whacking.

tomatoes on vineIf you want it, never give up.  As in, tomatoes.  I swear, I swear, I swear, I watered my five tomato plants in half-whiskey barrels deeply and consistently this past summer.  Still, half of them got blossom end rot (from inconsistent watering, say the experts).  But I absolutely refuse to give up on my dream of growing so many tomatoes each summer, I have to give away the excess.

Lesson:  Try again next year.  Failure schmailure.


Peony: An Old-Fashioned, Easy-Care Beauty

Peony BushPicture this:  A blooming bush with flowers as heartbreakingly beautiful as roses, that deer won’t touch, that loves the extended cold of our foothill winters, and that can live up to 100 years.  Pure fantasy?  Nope.  Let me introduce you to the amazing peony.

Beloved in old-fashioned cutting gardens, the peony is the official flower of China, the state of Indiana, and the 12th wedding anniversary.  The plant was used in ancient times for medicinal purposes, when it was thought to soothe headaches and treat asthma.

Most garden peonies are perennial hybrids native to China, but species peonies are found in Asia, southern Europe and the western United States.  Peonies grow to a neat, rounded bush from two to four feet tall with large, dark green leaves that make it attractive even when not in bloom.  But speaking of blooms, they are spectacular, coming in every color except blue and unfurling in spring or early summer, depending on the variety.  Many peony flowers look a lot like the centifolia or “cabbage” roses, which pack up to 100 petals per bloom.  The difference is that some peony flowers can reach 10 inches across.  A few are fragrant, reminiscent of old-fashioned roses.

Peony Magenta and Light PinkThe most widely available garden types are herbaceous and tree peonies.  Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground each fall, while tree peonies have permanent woody branches.  Peonies do best in Zones 7 to 9 and prefer full sun; however, in areas with extremely hot summers (like ours), it’s best to situate them so they get light afternoon shade.  They don’t like to dry out, but I’ve found if they get a little shade in the afternoon and are generously mulched, they require only moderate water.

Peony SorbetWhile peonies are relatively carefree once established, they are very persnickety about how they are planted.  Site preparation is everything.  They prefer relatively rich, deep soil that is regularly fed with phosphorus.  And here’s the real deal-breaker:  their thick roots must never be planted too deeply, or they won’t flower.  Make sure to read up on the variety you choose; one inch difference in planting depth can make your plant refuse to bloom.  As with most perennials, it’s best to plant in fall, several weeks before the first expected frost.

I have found peonies to be relatively pest free—and that includes deer.  My peonies are almost 20 years old and not once have the neighborhood deer touched them.  Nor have they ever been attacked by insects or snails.  There is a curious thing that happens with ants, though.  The year my peonies first bloomed I saw the fat round buds covered in ants.  At first I freaked because I knew about the symbiotic relationship between ants and aphids.  But the aphids never came.  I later learned that experts speculate the buds secrete some kind of “nectar” the ants harvest; then once the flower fully opens, the ants depart.  Some think the peony might produce this substance to enlist the ants’ help in opening the buds.  Whether or not this is true, what is true is that the ants do no harm.

Now, about the peony that is native to the western U.S:  It’s Peony Browniicalled P. Brownii (with a subspecies called P. Californica) and grows in dry sagebrush and Ponderosa pine country in the West.  It doesn’t put on a flower show as dramatic as the Asian hybrids, but it has its own subtle beauty.  I’ve never seen the native in nurseries but have read they can be grown from seed.  If you’d like to try, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) site offers photos of the plant and has a short list of seed companies that carry them:  http://calscape.org/Paeonia-brownii.

Peony White w Yellow CenterUntil a few years ago there was a nursery in Calaveras County called Dragonfly Peony Farm, which evidently carried over 100 varieties of hybrids.  Sadly, I never made it out there before it closed.  Another disappointing thing is that peonies aren’t all that common in local nurseries.  Consequently, I’m on a quest this year to find nurseries and growers in Northern California so I can satisfy this new flower lust.

A long-lived, nearly pest-free beauty that thrives in my foothills garden?  Count me in.

Succulents that Thrive in Foothill Gardens

It’s mid-June, and I’m thinking about how, so far, our spring and early summer have been relatively mild.  But I know the brutal, 90- to 100-degree weather is coming (I’m not a fan), so my gardening thoughts are turning to a group of plants that have evolved to thrive in long, hot, dry summers:  succulents.  From the soaring saguaro cactus to the “baby toes” groundcover, succulents are tough, sun-loving, long-lived plants that are great for drought-prone areas.  But not all succulents can withstand our cold, wet winters and heavy soil, so it’s best to know which ones can.

Cactus 1But first, a few definitions.  The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word “succulentus,” which means juice or sap.  They are defined by their ability to store moisture and are represented by more than 40 botanical families around the world.   While native succulents can be found worldwide, one family is indigenous only to the American and South American West:  cactus (Cactaceae).   What makes cacti different from all other succulents are round, cushion-like structures called “areoles,” from which spines, branches, hair and flowers grow.

If there’s one trait all succulents share in addition to their capability to store moisture in their fleshy leaves and stems, it’s that they must have excellent drainage.  A rocky and/or sandy soil is best, so if your soil is heavy clay, you can add coarse builder’s sand and/or gravel to lighten it.  Most succulents will thrive in a rock garden that gets plenty of sun.  Another plus is, because of their tough, sometimes prickly or fuzzy “skin,” succulents aren’t typically appealing to garden pests or deer.

Generally speaking, only gardeners in the lower foothill elevations will have success growing desert-born cacti because higher up, it’s often too shady and/or cold and wet in winter for them.  Most other succulents evolved in cooler, wetter places than deserts, so they’re better candidates for foothill gardeners.

Here are some succulents that, if sited correctly and not overwatered, should flourish here:

SedumSedum – Also known as “Stonecrop,” Sedum is a large genus (400-plus species) of flowering plants in the family Crassulaceae.  Some of the most attractive, hardy—and unusual—groundcovers around are varieties of Sedum, and because there is such a range of leaf and flower colors, you can create a veritable tapestry with them to replace a lawn, cover a hillside or adorn a rock garden.  A few popular varieties include:  S. angelicum (“Angelina”), with delicate whorls of green to yellow leaves reminiscent of pine needles, only in miniature; “Firecracker” Sedum with tiny, oval, burgundy leaves that form what look like dense flowers; and “Tricolor” Sedum, with green leaves edged in pink and Sedum autumn Joywhite.  Taller than the 3” – 6” varieties above, the beloved “Autumn Joy” Sedum grows to 18” to 24” and is a show-stopper in fall, as its large, showy flower clusters emerge mauve-red and soften to a dusty pink.  Autumn Joy in bloom, like many Sedum, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Sempervivum – “Hens and chicks” is the more popular name for this more cactus-looking plant that is also in the Crassulaceae family.  Ground huggers, hens and chicks have grey or green leaves that form around each other in a rosette, and they propagate by forming offsets. The “hen” is the main, or Hens and Chicks Sedummother, plant, and the “chicks” are the offspring, which cluster close to the mother plant.  Echeveria is a similar-looking succulent, although it’s a different genus and has been hybridized extensively.  Graptosedum is related to Echeveria and has the same bluish-grey, thick, fleshy leaves; but it propagates by sending out a stem from the center of the rosette.

The Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills are home to a number of native Sedum, including “Canyon Liveforever” (Dudleya cymosa) and “Bitter Root” (Lewisia rediviva).  The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape website (calscape.org) is a good resource for researching native Sedum, as is our local CNPS chapter website (sierrafoothillscnps.org).

It occurred to me that I could literally plant nothing but succulents in my garden and end up with everything I would want—color, texture, variety, food for the butterflies and birds—minus the water bills, pesky insects and the need to fertilize.  Hmm. . .