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 not-so-green-thumb 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 maybe two:  the toxic foxglove 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 some Mediterranean plants.

Don’t rely on nursery plant tags.  The labels that accompany nursery plants, especially at big-box stores, are often very nonspecific (“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 Sunset’s Western Garden Book or the UC Extension website at before buying it.

When life gives you lemons . . . Because much of my large front yard is not 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 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 amended then 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:

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 Sedum.  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 ( is a good resource for researching native Sedum, as is our local CNPS chapter website (

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. . .

Low-Maintenance Plants for Slopes


The view from my kitchen window was really ugly for years:  a very steep, rocky slope that, I admit, I left to the weeds for too long.  I didn’t have the money or energy to consider terracing or a solid fence.  And until I learned otherwise, I assumed that hot, dry hillside was just too harsh an environment to plant anything I’d want to look at as I washed dishes.

Slopes are definitely challenging, garden-wise.  Watering and drainage are problematic, Slope gardennot to mention access in general, for plants that need deadheading or any other routine maintenance.  Fortunately, I learned in time that there are scads of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that can cover a hillside with attractive foliage and flowers.  They also provide the added benefit of preventing soil erosion, which is a very good thing if the hillside is just ten feet from the back of your house (like mine).

Following are either western native or drought-tolerant, low-growing plants that make light work of routine “gardening” on slopes.  Most grow to six to 12 inches tall, but a few can reach 24 inches.  Most can take direct sun, but a few look their best with a little afternoon shade.  The list is loosely organized by virtue.

Concha ceonothusNo-water wonders  These three top my list for low-maintenance plants that are happy on a hot, dry hillside: creeping California lilac (Ceanothus), with smoky purple flowers the bees love;  creeping manzanita (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), with tiny, bell-shaped pink flowers and red fruit; and prostrate rosemary, with pale blue blooms and scented foliage.  All three bloom in spring, and once established, require zero supplemental water.  The only downside is that these plants are relatively slow growing, so if you want to cover a slope in a hurry, choose from other plants mentioned below.

Fast coverage   Native dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is one of the fastest-growing, toughest groundcovers around.  Low-growing wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) sports small, glossy, dark green leaves and teensy lilac flowers.  Creeping St. John’s Wort (Hypericum calycinum) will easily cover a problematic slope, and its fairy-like yellow flowers are lovely; but it can be invasive, so site it with that in mind.  St. John’s Wort is one of those hardy groundcovers that looks better if it receives some afternoon shade.

RockroseDazzling flowers   Most of the plants mentioned above have lovely blooms, but there is nothing like the car-stopping appeal of a carpet of pink-flowering, creeping thyme.  Rockrose (Cistus) is a small, mounding bush that is covered with pink or white crepe-paper-like flowers in spring and summer, and probably wins the prize for a plant that thrives on neglect.

sedum-angelina-foliageInteresting texture  If you like a more rock garden/desert look, there is a mind-boggling selection of succulent Sedums, many of which flower in late summer or fall.  “Angelina” and “Dragon’s Blood” are two favorites.  Creeping junipers can provide dramatic, almost sculptural texture, as well as being evergreen.  Artemesia californica “Canyon Gray” is a low-growing, native sagebrush that has feathery grey foliage and is a nice companion to the pink-flowering rockrose.

There are many more options for slopes and hillsides than you might think, so don’t give up on them too quickly.  Here are some resources for finding more suitable plants:  University of California’s “The California Garden Web” at  The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society at



Control Garden Pests With Inexpensive, Safe Methods

The first day of spring is 17 days away, which means it’s time to start thinking about the best ways to battle the insects and diseases that plague us gardeners once temperatures start to rise.  These days, I go for simple, cheap and safe.

Here are a few favorites:

Spraying waterWater.  Starting in spring when those pesky aphids start to appear, get in the habit of giving aphid-prone plants (can you spell r-o-s-e-s?) an all-over blast of water in the morning.  A hard spray, including the undersides of leaves, knocks off and often kills soft-bodied insects on plant surfaces such as aphids, mites and thrips.  The trick to this tactic is commitment; it won’t control the populations unless you do it every day.  Spraying in the morning ensures plenty of time for the moisture to evaporate, which will help avoid molds and fungus.

Vegetable Oil.  There are two things you can do with inexpensive veggie oils.  First, fill an empty tuna can about three-quarters full, add a scrap of any kind of leftover meat, then set the can next to any plant that has been plagued by earwigs or slugs.  They climb into the can and drown in the oil.  The second use is in making homemade horticultural oil, which, when sprayed onto the plant when insects are present, basically smothers them—without leaving a toxic residue.  Some gardeners also swear by homemade sprays as pest deterrents, mixing oil and water with ingredients like dish soap and cayenne pepper (for leaf-chewing insects) or garlic (for deterring deer). While these homemade concoctions are not proven scientifically, they are inexpensive, harmless tactics that just might help in combination with other practices.

(Tip:  I’ve learned to give plants a shake before aiming the spray nozzle, to give any ladybugs and other beneficial insects on the plant a chance to escape the blast.)

copper tape in gardenCopper.  Wrapping copper foil or flashing around tree, shrub, and woody perennial trunks and planter boxes will keep snails away for years.  According to the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, “It is believed that copper barriers are effective because the copper reacts with the slime that snails and slugs secrete, causing a disruption in their nervous system similar to an electric shock.”  Another use of copper is in a “Bordeaux” mixture, which is a combination of copper sulfate, lime and water.  It’s been used for decades as an effective fungicide and bactericide, especially on fruit and nut trees, vine fruits and ornamental plants.  It’s used to prevent or control leaf curl, fire blight, black spot on roses and downy and powdery mildews, among other diseases.  The mixture is best used in fall or winter when plants are dormant because it can damage leaves.  “Fixed copper” fungicide sprays are another variant, but they don’t withstand winter rains as well as Bordeaux mixture.

Plastic Sheets.  Using heavy, clear plastic sheets to solarize soil not only kills harmful soil-borne pests, but also kills many weeds, pathogens and nematodes, making way for beneficial microorganisms to quickly repopulate.  On top of that, solarization actually improves soil, say the experts at UC IPM.  “It can improve soil structure by increasing the availability of nitrogen and other essential nutrients for growing healthy plants.  Plants Solarizing weedsoften grow faster and produce both higher and better quality yields when grown in solarized soil. This can be attributed to improved disease and weed control, the increase in soluble nutrients, and relatively greater proportions of helpful soil microorganisms.”  Solarization involves heating the soil by covering it with a clear plastic tarp for four to six weeks during a hot period of the year when the soil will receive the most direct sunlight.   When done properly, solarization will kill soil-borne pests up to 18 inches deep.

To learn get more details about these, and other simple, environmentally friendly pest and disease controls, visit, the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management website.

Black and Boo! in the Garden

The color of midnight is synonymous with the witching hour, when the souls of the dead are closest to us and all is dark and spooky.  Imagine the silhouette of a bat, a witch’s pointy hat, and of course, the proverbial bad-luck black cat.

But all creepy crawlies and sinister potions aside, the color black—or as close as nature gets to it—is actually a fun and surprising color to work into your garden, at All Hallows’ Eve or anytime.  From deer-resistant “Coal Seam” black bearded iris (plant the bulbs now!) to “Sorbet Black Delight” viola, which loves the cooler weather, there are foothill-friendly plants to consider planting now to add a shock of near-black flowers or foliage to your garden.  Of the following examples, most are perennial in our climate zone.

Sambucus nigra“Black Lace” Elderberry (Sambucas nigra) is a gorgeous, large bush with finely cut leaves reminiscent of Japanese maples.  The foliage is purple black, and in spring, it sports soft pink flowers.  In autumn the bush is loaded with purple-red berries that birds love, and that you can harvest to make jam or wine.  The leaves, stems and unripe berries are toxic, though, so situate the bush accordingly (and use only in witches’ brews).

“Midnight Ruffles” Lenten rose (Hellebore) is perfect for the cool, shady woodland garden.  Its near-black blooms with white and yellow centers put on a show from mid-winter through early spring.  The plant itself grows to 20” tall and almost as wide.  The Lenten rose was so named because it usually blooms during the season of Lent.  And while there won’t be any flowers at Halloween, the plant was used centuries ago in witchcraft and medicinally, so if you’re so inclined . . .

HeucheraCoralBellsCoco-2T“Obsidian” coral bells (Heuchera) offers maroon-black foliage on another beloved woodland plant.  It prefers part to full shade and sends up tall, slim stems topped with small pink or white flowers in spring.

Bugle weed (Ajuga) is a fast-growing, attractive groundcover with coal-dark green leaves.  In mid- to late spring it forms dramatic stalks of purple flowers.  This is another “black” plant that, like vampires, doesn’t do well in full sun.

“Victoriana Silver Lace Black” Primrose is a rare variety in nurseries but worth hunting for.  Its scalloped flower petals are black-brown, edged in white, and whorl around a yellow center.

Black mondo grass is a dense, purplish black, mounding plant that is great for borders or interspersed among other plants that prefer regular water.  It produces dark lavender flowers in summer that are followed by purple berries in the fall.

Thinking about next spring, there are several Calla lilies with purple-black blooms.  Two other sun-loving, tropical-looking beauties are “Black Coral Elephant Ear (Colocasia) and “Black Knight” Canna, both from 4’ to 6’ tall with giant leaves.  Especially good in pots are “Black Prince” Coleus and the velvety “Black Cat” petunia (you can buy seeds now online).

Japanese-Black-PumpkinGetting back to the scary season at hand, how about this dark-as-night oddball:  “Japanese Black Kabocha,” a knobby-skinned, almost-black “pumpkin” with yellow-orange flesh that’s wickedly good.  Find one now and you can not only have the coolest Jack-O’-Lantern on the block, but also, seeds to plant next year’s yummy—if not creepy—crop!


Rachel Oppedahl is a UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener who plans to order a “Black Magic” rose soon.  In the meantime, she’s got a string of garlic on the door. 

Gardening in February? You bet.

You know how the success of a lot of household projects, from painting to replacing floors, hinges on stellar prep work?  How, if you don’t plan ahead and do the necessary preparation, the job just doesn’t turn out right?  It’s kind of like that with gardening. And if you ask me, February is the perfect month to adopt a preparation state of mind.

It may be cold and rainy, or dumping snow, but there are things you can do this month to continue to create the garden of your dreams (or protect the one you already have) by preparing for the growing season.

Natural-Ways-to-Kill-Aphids-Tips-and-Spray-Recipes-3Keep the bugs at bay.  Rather than waiting until mid-spring, when hoards of aphids and other pests cover your beloved plants, one of the simple actions you can take now to prevent or minimize their presence in your garden is to use dormant oil (also called horticultural oil) sprays. Many common pests overwinter on plants and/or in surrounding soil, so these sprays work by smothering the pests that are actually on the plant and the soil surface at the time you spray. They can even kill eggs and larvae.  Horticultural oil sprays are relatively nontoxic, and come in heavier, dormant versions for use in winter, and lighter, summer sprays.  Always read the labels to ensure you use them wisely.

Another thing you can do now to prevent pest damage is to stock up early on some store bought and homemade insect deterrents, such as copper foil rings and/or diamataceous earth around plants to repel snails; liquid fence and/or caging to foil the deer; and used tuna cans that you can fill with cooking oil and position by plants that have been attacked in the past by earwigs.

Pruning-Trees-shrubs-1024x817Prune wisely.  The best time to prune many trees, shrubs and hardy perennials is in the dead of winter, when they are dormant.  That said, don’t assume you can use your loppers and pruning shears with abandon.  Its always wise to look up any and every plant you want to prune, to determine the best time of year to do so.  For example, some bushes flower on new wood formed this year (typically, in spring), so this might be the last month to do any hard pruning, lest you remove the very twigs or vines that would produce blooms.  Another example:  some perennials, such as some varieties of sage (salvia), resent being pruned hard at any time of year.  The last example are fruit trees, which are a whole science unto themselves.  So, use the cold, rainy days of February to read up on individual plants before cutting them back.

Make a mindful shopping list.  Next month, nurseries (especially the big box stores) will no doubt explode with colorful annuals, shrubs, trees and everything in between.  Resist the temptation to wander those dizzying aisles without a thoughtful plan.  Things to consider in making your shopping list:

Even though the nursery shelves are overflowing with petunias, lobelias and begonias, we all know that in the foothills, snow and hard frosts can occur well into May.  Just say no until Memorial Day.  Instead, shop now for useful garden tools and/or equipment that will make gardening easier, and hence, encourage you to spend more time there.  Think ergonomics:  stools, knee pads, tool totes or extension rods to help you reach what you couldnt before.  Or maybe you need efficiency:  better irrigation systems or books/websites for landscape planning.  Or how about simple products like gardeners hand cream, solar path lights, or more sturdy, yet comfortable garden shoes?

Curl up on the couch with these garden “chores.”  Some cold, grey Saturday or Sunday in February, curl up on the couch with a hot cocoa and peruse a good seed catalog, put some gardening related events on your calendar (the Tuolumne Master Gardener Demonstration Garden lectures start in February!), or start a new notebook to track your plant purchases and performance through the season.

And you thought chilly, wet February had nothing to do with gardening!