All posts by Charm

Winter Pruning Perennials

Winter Pruning Perennials

If you are in the bay area, you know that we are having bizarre weather this year– it has hardly gotten cold since winter began, and we have had some downright hot days, like the day before Christmas when I saw people hiking at the beach in tank tops and daisy dukes. Normally, the perennial pruning should have had already been done last month or even a bit earlier, but here we are in January, and they are still not dormant, or only starting to go dormant. At this point, if you don’t force your perennials to go to sleep, you won’t get the fresh spring foliage, and the plant won’t have enough energy to set flower buds, as it will be trying to keep it’s old, stale foliage alive. Here is a guide on how to prune certain popular ornamental perennials, perennial ground covers, and perennial shrubs. I will group together plants that take similar pruning.

Lavender, Rosemary, Autumn Sage (Salvia gregii), Sticky Monkey Flower:

These shrubby perennials should be sheered in half, from where the foliage begins on the branch to where it ends, so that half of the foliage is retained. After sheering half of the foliage off, trim off the dead branches inside the plant.

Santa Barbara Daisy/Fleabane (Erigeron), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), Plumbago:

Cut back these ground covers all the way to an inch from the ground. Leave the little sticks; they will die back and fall off after the plant recovers in the spring.

Desert Sage/Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha):

Cut all old, tall, woody, brown stalks to the base of the plant; work around and leave the fresh, short, soft, white stalks.

Bacopa, Lamium, Arctotis, Dianthus, Dusty Miller:

Cut only the branches or stalks that have died back or look spent on these ground covers. For a fresher look, also cut away woody branches that only have a little bit of foliage at the tips.

Snow-in-Summer, Yarrow ‘Terra Cotta’ (Achillea millefolium ‘Terracotta’):

Sheer these groundcovers to the ground. No need to worry about preserving new growth– they will come back from their root base.

Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium only, the plant commonly called Geranium– not true Geraniums such as Johnson’s Blue), Cineraria, Santolina, African Daisies, Rudbeckia, Asters, Fried Egg Plant/Matilja Poppy (Romneya coulteri), Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Woodland Sage (Salvia nemorosa), ‘Moonshine’ Yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Moonshine’), Carnations, Blanket Flower (Gaillardia):

Cut these perennials back hard to new growth, as low as an inch or two, as long you are leaving the fresh, new growth. Some of these plants have stalks that die back while the new growth springs from the ground– cut back to the base of new growth.


This is the perfect time to cut ferns all the way back to their base, which should be covered in brown, fuzzy, unfurled fiddleheads. No need to leave any leaves at all, which makes for a very fast pruning.

Still to come in the Winter Pruning Series:

Ornamental Grass Pruning

Hydrangea and Rose Pruning

Small Deciduous Tree Pruning

Natural Pest Control Series– Declare War on the Raccoons!

Natural Pest Control Series– Declare War on the Raccoons!


Raccoons are a pain in the butt. They break into your garbage can and spread trash all over the street looking for their next rotting meal, they scratch up your fence by climbing over it, they come in to your house through your dog or cat door to eat your pets’ food, they poop in your garden, destroy your compost pile, live under your house or deck in your crawl space, and do you the kind favor of harvesting all of your tree fruit right before it ripens (thanks, racoons!) You may feel helpless against the wrath of the raccoon, but there are things that you can do to chase them out of your garden which starts with cutting them off from their food source or nesting area.

If you know that raccoons live under your deck, or in your crawl space, secure that area with a strong metal mesh, such as hardware cloth. Be sure to nail or screw it in tight since these pesky vermin can use their hands to pry things up. Before you secure these spaces, though, make sure they aren’t occupied first. It would be no good to have a litter of baby raccoons trapped under your house.

To remove the raccoons’ food source, you have to figure out what they are up to in your garden, which shouldn’t be hard since they normally make a mess. Make sure that your garbage bin and green waste bin are shut securely by making use of bungee cords, clamps, or some sort of garbage closure invention that is available at your local hardware store. Do you have a compost pile? If it is open, then avoid putting kitchen scraps in it and just focus on leaves and garden trimmings. If it is enclosed, and the raccoons still manage to get in, enclose the entire bin with chicken wire. Don’t forget to avoid putting meat or seafood scraps, fat, shells, or bones in your compost– not only is that a green flag for raccoons to rummage through, but it is also bad for your compost pile.

Fruiting trees ready for the harvest are another attractant to this beast. If your trees are small enough, you could drape a net or mesh material over the tree when the fruit is not yet ripe. Make sure that the net or mesh is big enough that you can secure it all the way around the canopy of the tree and to the trunk. That way the raccoons cannot sneak their way under the net. Finally, don’t leave your pet or backyard animal food outside and available– make sure your cat food, dog food, chicken scratch, goat feed, or whatever other kind of pet food that you might have is put away by the time that night rolls around. Raccoons are nocturnal, so if you really must feed the neighborhood feral cats, just make sure food is back inside by sunset.

Two more food sources for raccoons that you must consider is fish and grubs. Do you have a fish or Koi pond in your backyard? Do you have a hard time keeping the raccoons out? You could either quit keeping fish, or put some sort of mesh over the pond’s surface. Grubs are a fat, gray worm that live in the soil just below the surface. If you have raccoons digging in your garden, or rolling back the corners of your lawn sod, this is what they are looking for. Raccoons’ hearing is so good that they can detect the grubs moving in the soil. Kill the grubs with organic spray-on grub killer to get rid of the raccoons from tearing up your groundcover and lawn. Safer brand makes one that is safe to use in a yard that you keep your pets in.

Raccoons have very soft paws and they are adverse to stepping on pointy things. So, the next step at raccoon prevention would be to put spiky objects around your garden. Track your raccoons and figure out where they enter and exit your yard, and where they like to hang out in your garden. They tend to climb and hang out in tall trees, and if you have any holes under your fences, they will come through that way instead of climbing over. At the base of their climbing tree and at any fruit trees, and at the hole under the fence, and at any exit and entry points into the garden, spread items that they will be adverse to tread on. Next time you trim rose bushes or blackberry vines, instead of tossing the trimmed branches, put them in the raccoon path. There are many types of irritating objects you can put around the top of your fence– metal pigeon roost prevention spikes, low-voltage electrical fencing, barbed wire, nail or screw tips sticking out, or you could grow thorny vines there, such as climbing roses. Lemon trees, shrubby Palm trees, Firethorn (Pyracantha), Roses, and Barberries (Berberis) are all bushes that have thorns, and could be planted in a place that raccoons frequent. Also, certain plants have very sharp points at the ends of their leaves, such as Aloe, Yucca, Century Plant (Agave), and Cordyline.

Raccoons also have a strong aversion to a few different smells– if you put out shallow dishes around your garden filled with ammonia, vinegar, or “Critter Ridder”, the raccoons will be sure to stay away. Just remember that if you do that, you will have to refresh the dishes often. “Critter Ridder” can be purchased at specialty nurseries, and on the internet.

My last piece of advice is to eliminate their communal poop pile. If there is a pile of feces in your yard that is always in the same place, no matter how many times you pick it up, and it grows, this is a raccoon port-a-potty. Treat this communal bathroom spot as you would a pile of nuclear waste– stay away from it as best as you can while you are getting rid of it. I am not kidding when I tell you that contact with this pile of feces can literally kill you. Raccoons are host to all sorts of parasites, and they can be transferred to humans by direct or indirect contact with the feces. Some of the parasites are so tiny that they are like mushroom spores and just kind of float around the raccoon waste. Raccoons host a certain kind of parasite that will crawl up into a human’s brain and in turn kill the human. So, do not pick up this poop as you would with dog doo or cat droppings. Follow the instructions in the CDC’s guide to remove the raccoon latrine or call a professional to do it.   Sometimes this isn’t enough effort as the raccoons will try again to build up their pile in the same area. Be persistent, and continue to bury the feces under dirt or soil. Eventually they will find a different bathroom.

I hope this information helps in your war with the raccoons. Don’t be discouraged– wars are won one battle at a time!

Dangnabbit! Go Away, Rabbit!


Winter Vegetable Garden

Winter Vegetable Garden

Growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs is one of the best things that you can do for yourself and your family.  When you pick the food, and bring it to your table, you are eating the freshest food available.  The taste will amaze you, and the nutrients and minerals are plentiful and will give you a buzz of energy.  You will know what is in (or not in) your food, too, as you will have control over application of pesticides and herbicides, whereas you have no idea what really happened on the farm that grew your grocery store produce.  Your body will thank you for getting some exercise out in the yard and for eating more fruits and vegetables.  Not only is it healthy, but it is extremely satisfying to watch your garden grow.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are lucky to have a mild enough climate that we can grow food year round.  The trick is growing the right stuff for the season.  It is early enough to sow seeds for winter production, but if you want to bypass the seedling stage, your local hardware store sells vegie starters, and sometimes organic is available.  If you want to insure that your vegies and herbs are organic, then go with non-GMO seeds.  The advantage to non-GMO seeds, especially Heirloom varieties, is that you will be able to collect seeds from the food that you produce, and then you won’t have to pay for next year’s crop seeds.

How To Set Up Your Winter Garden

You can easily grow food in pots, as long as the pot is big and deep enough.  Start with an organic soil, meaning that it is comprised of parts that were all natural in their origin.  Avoid soils, such as Miracle Gro, that advertise “moisture control” or “added fertilizers” and stuff like that; you want to be able to control what kind of fertilizers you are applying.  (Note: Miracle Gro is owned by Round-Up, and Round-Up is owned by Monsanto, if you get my drift.)

If you want heartier plants and a bigger harvest, plant in the ground.  The main problem with planting in the ground is gophers.  I suggest that if you are planting in the ground, lay down galvanized chicken wire or gopher mesh, and pin it down with landscape fabric staples.  Make sure to protect the edges of the garden; maybe fold it up on the ends so the gophers can’t get in laterally from on top of the wire.  This can become quite a project– if you lay it straight down on the ground, you will have to build up the soil on top, which can be costly (depending on the size of your garden bed, you will have to order a few cubic yards of soil to be delivered, and then you will have to cart it from where the dump truck drops it to it’s ultimate destination.)  Another way to do this, which is just as laborious but not as expensive, is to dig down a couple feet of your garden bed and pile the soil to the side, lay down the wire, and then put the garden soil back on top of the chicken wire, bringing in a few bags of fresh soil and compost to mix in with your native soil.  Either way you perform this, lightly tamp the soil before you sow your seeds.

Keep your seeds and soil slightly moistened for the next few weeks while your seeds germinate and the seed leaves emerge from the soil surface.  Don’t drown or drench the soil since you could wash away the seeds– the “shower” setting on your hose end sprayer is perfect for lightly moistening the surface.

When your seedlings are an inch or two inches tall, it is time to thin them.  Instead of pulling them, just cut them off at the base.  This makes it so you don’t disturb the roots of the seedlings that you want to keep.  By the way, you can eat most of the various types of thinned seedlings– sprouts are delicious and highly nutritious.

Keep a close eye out for slugs, snails, caterpillars and cut worms which can devastate a field of seedlings overnight.  I look through my garden each morning for caterpillars, and go out with a flashlight at night to collect slugs during their respective seasons.

Once your plants are tall, they may “bolt” if there is a hot and sunny day, meaning they send up a leggy flower stalk.  Trim off the bolted section right away, if the goal is to grow greens.  Bok choy, kale, and lettuce will begin to send energy to the flower instead of the intended greens, and the greens will die back, so it is imperative to stay on top of these bolts.  No need to waste the trimmed flower stalks– bok choy and kale flowers are edible and delicious, a festive, colorful look to any salad, steam, or stirfry.

What to Grow in Your Winter Garden

Almost all of the Cruciferous vegetables are winter producers, and are all packed densely with vitamins, minerals, micro-nutrients, and phytochemicals.  They taste incredible when eaten the same day of the harvest, and will give you a buzz of energy.  The Cruciferous vegetables, also known as ‘cole crops’, that can be successfully grown in the San Francisco bay area’s winter are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard, bok choy, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kohlrabi, horseradish, and arugula.  All of these plants can be eaten in their entirety– from the thinned seedlings or sprouts to the foliage, flowers, stalks, seeds, and roots.  The broccoli leaves are good steamed or stir-fried, and the stalks are packed with Vitamin C.  Radish sprouts are a spicy addition to your salad, and the full grown greens would give fresh squeezed green juice a nice kick.

Besides growing the hearty, protein-rich greens of the Cruciferous family, it is also the perfect season to grow your other greens– lettuces, spinach, and chard.  Lettuce should be protected from full sun to avoid it bolting, and can be thinned and eaten as baby greens.  It can also be planted all through out the winter to insure continuous crops.

Peas and fava beans can be planted, and will need something to climb on; a good use for your tomato cages and cucumber trellises after those summer crops have been harvested.

Winter is a great time to grow shade loving herbs– basil, thyme, lemon balm, parsley, chives, and mint will all thrive.  Just keep in mind that thyme and mint both spread on runners and are best to isolate from the garden bed, instead grow in a wide, shallow pot.

Garlic, shallots, and onions can be planted, as well as artichokes, rhubarb, and parsnips.  If you live in a sunny area without a lot of fog, then you can plant your carrot seeds as early as January for a spring crop.

Also, don’t forget that the winter rains give a newly planted tree a boost towards establishment, so this would be a good time to get your back-yard mini orchard planted.  Plum, apple, pear, and lemon are all good Bay Area producers, and can normally be found at the nurseries now and after Christmas.  Other citrus, such as Kumquat, Orange, and Grapefruit, will do well if you live in a hotter area, such as Oakland or San Mateo.  Avoid stone fruits such as peach and apricot, as the trees have a very hard time growing here, they are prone to local fungal diseases, and they don’t produce.  Also, avoid Avocado and Fig, unless you were looking to plant an awesomely large, future shade tree– both are well suited to grow heartily in our area, but rarely will they produce ripened fruit.

Good luck, and check back in the spring for your summer garden checklist.

Winter Pruning Series

Winter Pruning Series

While my fellow San Francisco Bay Area residents are gearing up for winter (and celebrating another World Series victory by the SF Giants!), my husband and I are gearing up for pruning season.  Like pest and disease control, pruning is an extensive topic, overwhelming in detail and specifics, so I will not be able to explain everything quickly, which is why I am introducing another series– pruning practices.  One of my pet peeves is poor pruning, so I hope that my knowledge can make a positive impact on the home gardener, and turn around bad habits in the garden that can lead to pests, diseases, and an ugly mess.

As always, if you submit a question in the comments section, I will be sure to respond with the appropriate garden advice, and if you need one-on-one instruction or hands-on garden training, my husband and I are available for hire as your personal garden coach team.

Winter Pruning Overview

As the days grow colder, and darkness beckons earlier and earlier, most of our Bay Area plants sense the signaling change and decide to go to sleep for the winter.  The hibernation begins as early as late fall, whereas some plants don’t begin to go dormant until winter is fully upon us.  The main pruning season is November through January in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Since we have such nice weather, and the days fluctuate between hot and sunny, clear and cold, warm and overcast, biting winds and rain, even the occasional freeze, our poor plants get confused!  Our plants have no idea whether to go to sleep, or wake up, keep blooming or drop their leaves.  Sometimes you need to give them direction and assistance by forcing them into dormancy, and then giving them a gentle meal to help them wake back up in the spring.

Spring may be the best time to clean out your house, but the winter is all about cleaning out the garden.  This is the perfect time to reduce overgrown hedges, cut back unruly, leggy perennials, and give shape to wild or heavy trees.  Pruning is the perfect garden activity to keep us busy in that slow season when the plants aren’t growing; something to do between picking up the fall leaves and pulling the excited winter weeds, exuberant from the nitrogen-rich rains.

Pruning is a necessary activity to keep your garden healthy and safe.  The obvious reason to prune is to reduce the overall size of plants, shrubs, vines, and trees and rein some control over your garden.  The more subtle reason is to prevent diseases from spreading and pest infestations.  By keeping plants open and airy, pests have no shelter to congregate, and mold, mildew, and fungus don’t have a dark, dank place to grow.  By removing diseased tree branches, you can prevent the spread of the disease.  By removing dead tree branches, pests don’t have a place to move in and populate.  By removing branches that have poor form or weak connections, you keep your garden a safer place– said branches don’t have the opportunity to fall in your garden or on you, your pets, or your family when a gust of wind blows through.  Also, if a branch does fall as opposed to being neatly removed, there could be a large tear in your tree that will compromise the health of the tree– tears are another entry point for pests and diseases.

There are a number of plants that should not be pruned in the winter, and the rule of thumb on those are the ones that are in bloom that season.  The most common winter bloomers in the San Francisco Bay Area are: Camellias, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Pieres, Hellebores, Citrus trees, and most succulents.  These plants should be pruned in the summer instead, before they set their winter buds.  With that short list out of the way, you can see just how busy you will be this winter in the garden (unless your garden is comprised of a Camellia pygmy forest!)

The plants and trees that you should focus on will be the perennials, shrubs (especially the ones that drop their leaves, such as roses and hydrangeas), vines, and deciduous trees, especially Maples and fruiting trees, that rely on annual pruning for shape and fruit production, respectively.

In the mean time, while you are waiting to winter prune your garden, it’s time to sow seeds for your winter vegetable garden!  Come back next week for my article on which vegies and herbs do great during our cool, dark and rainy winters.

Low maintenance lawns for shady areas

Low maintenance lawns for shady areas

I live and work in Pacifica, which is a coastal community well known for it’s fog.  I have been able to grow lawns here successfully, but it took some practice to figure out which kinds of grass do well.  Aside from going with the recent, revamped trend of putting in artificial turf, there are at least two types of sod that will work in the sun as well as light shade/foggy conditions.  They are both low-maintenance as well.

No Mow Grass  (

Another recent trend is using No Mow grass, a very fine fescue that grows in tall clumps and has a natural wave to it, mimicking the look of sand dunes.  Deep green year round, this fescue requires little water and can take light sun or moderate shade, and never needs mowing, as it’s name suggests.  This is not a good kind of grass if you mean to play or hang out on your lawn– but perfect if you only want to look at it.  I have seen it successfully at use on the boulevards and along slopes in San Francisco.

Medallion Dwarf with Bonsai  (

This sod is a special blend of two types of grasses– one suited to sun, and one to shade, so it is perfect for full sun areas that also deal with fog on a regular basis.  When planted in full sun, you will have a super thick carpet of wide emerald green blades (as seen on this website on the home page and the services page), crowding out potential weeds.  When planted in part shade, you will have a full lawn of thin, soft, dark green blades.  When planted in the full shade, you will have a sparser lawn, but at least you will have a lawn!  Medallion Dwarf Bonsai’s slogan is “Slow Growing, Less Mowing”– you only have to mow every other week in the growing season, and every three weeks in the winter when the lawn goes dormant in mild-season climates.  Requires a moderate amount of water– three times a week is sufficient during the growing season.

Alternate Shady Area Idea– Groundcover Lawn

If you don’t want the fluffy dune look of the No Mow fescue, but have a large area that you don’t want to have to mow, consider installing groundcover in that area.  Two things to be forewarned about: during establishment of the groundcover, weather you have planted by plug or by seed, you will be wrestling with weeds until the desired plants fill in; most groundcovers are invasive, and will want to travel into your neighboring flower beds.

Some excellent choices for full to part shade ground-hugging creepers would be Lesser Periwinkle aka Dwarf Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Scottish Moss, Irish Moss, Dichondra, and Baby’s Tears.  If you want a little height to your shaded groundcover lawn, choose one of these groundcovers: Carpet Bugle (Ajuga), Lamium, Red Clover or Ornamental Oxalis (such as Charmed Wine Shamrocks).

Advantages & Health Benefits of Doing Your Own Gardening

Advantages & Health Benefits of Doing Your Own Gardening

Of course, there are many pros to hiring a gardener to take care of your home’s grounds, but there is also a major con, which is you missing out on all the health benefits and advantages of taking care of your garden.  The well-known health benefits include receiving Vitamin D from the sun, exercise, and stress relief in the form of fresh air and communing with nature.  Here are some of the little known advantages:

  • Become more “in tune” with your local environment and neighborhood
  • Understand your local wildlife and weather patterns
  • See and socialize with your neighbors more often, in turn improving neighborly relations
  • Notice garden pests or plant diseases before they become a problem or infestation
  • Understand your garden’s growth patterns, soil type, and sun patterns to assign appropriate plants in the right places
  • Set an example in your community and inspire others to do the same
  • Save money (by not spending it on a gardener)
  • Opportunity to grow your own food, which leads to a plethora of more health benefits

Some of you are a garden novice and have never pulled a weed in your life, while others are experienced garden enthusiasts.  If you don’t know how to do anything in your garden, don’t be discouraged!  Here are some tips on being successful at becoming your home’s gardener:

  • Start out by trying and seeing how far you get; take notes if you have questions
  • Hire a garden coach for a gardening consultation to answer the questions you’ve recorded and give you general garden advice
  • Receive garden training through free or inexpensive one-time classes offered in your area, or take a general Horticulture class at your local community college to learn the basics.  Some colleges allow you to audit classes for free, which is good if you are not looking for credit.  If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, free classes are available at the Urban Farmer Store.
  • Pick up a reference book and keep it on hand just in case you don’t know how to do something.  Good choices for the San Francisco Bay Area would be the Sunset Western Garden Book or Pam Pierce’s Golden Gate Gardening.  A great resource for free or cheap gardening books is your local library’s annual book sale, or garage sales/flea markets/thrift stores/used book stores.
  • Follow one of the many gardening blogs available on the internet (such as this one!)  A lot of them are open to comments; in that case, the authors want to answer your questions
  • Join an on-line gardening forum to post gardening questions & receive a myriad of answers and opinions; look for one specific to your area
  • Join your local garden club to be with like-minded people that would be happy to answer your questions; a lot of gardening clubs have guest speakers that give lectures at the meetings
  • Call the Master Gardener help line to get questions answered, a free service if your area has a Master Gardener program, normally run by the local University
  • Read your local paper’s Home and Garden section each week to pick up random garden advice

Remember: there is no such thing as a “black thumb”– only uninformed, future garden experts.

So, you want to do your own gardening, but you don’t know where to find the time.  My advice to you would be to set aside a specific time each week, and stick to it.  Don’t blow it off or prioritize other activities in the time slot you’ve allotted.  If you can’t set aside a weekly time, then set aside some time each month, or every other week.  Put it in your calendar so you don’t forget or schedule something else in your garden’s time slot.  Your body and mind will thank you for it!

Natural Pest Control Series– Take a Hike, Thrips!

Natural Pest Control Series– Take a Hike, Thrips!

As a garden coach, one of the main problems that I have to solve for my clients is pest identification and elimination.  From insects to mammals, there are plenty of pests out there that can disrupt your garden’s natural beauty.  Each month, I will share a blog post featuring a pest and natural ways to rid your garden of it.  This garden advice will be invaluable if you apply it and are persistent.  This month’s feature is on those minute suckers, thrips.

What in the Heck are Thrips?

Thrips are miniscule flying insects that are so tiny that you may never spot them, but you will spot the damage after it is done!  These small bugs live in the soil under the affected tree or shrub, and attack said plant starting at the bottom and working their way up.  If you are diligent about checking the shaded leaves on certain plant species, chances are you will be able to stop the infestation before too much damage has been inflicted.

Thrips suck the life out of a plant a little bit at a time, and can make that plant very unsightly but rarely does it actually kill a plant.  If the infested plant does die, most likely, there were also other factors at play.  You can identify thrips activity by the affected leaves– the tops of the leaves will have a silvery sheen while the underside of the leaves will be covered with tiny brown or black dots (their feces!)  If you hold the leaf up to the light, the veins will be prominent as the leaf has been close to skeletonized.

Thrips are an elongated, slender insect similar-looking to a pincer bug, but on a much smaller scale, measuring one millimeter long, about the size of a tip of a pencil.  They can be yellow, brown, black, white, or red, and lay microscopic clear eggs on the foliage, but chances are you will never see them or their eggs, only the damage they inflict.  They tend to eat while the leaf is still curled up in bud form; when the leaf unfurls, the damage is revealed but by then the thrips are long gone.

Thrips tend to affect the same species of plants, attacking the new leaves, but have been known to eat just about any plant, including vegetable plants and fruiting trees, and they will eat any part off of the plant, including the flowers and the fruit.  Their favorite leaf meals include the ornamental genii Rhododendron, Azalea, Pieres, Hydrangea, Fuchsia, most ferns, and specific species Prunus laurocerasus (English laurel hedge).  They are also carriers of certain diseases that they can pass on to plants, such as tomato spotted wilt virus (Tospovirus) and impatiens necrotic spot virus (another strain of the tomato spotted wilt virus.)

Nasty!  How To Get Rid of Thrips

Thrips will attack plants that are already suffering another ailment, such as dehydration, compacted soil, nutrient deficiency, oxygen deprivation to the roots, or the wrong type of light exposure.  I see them most affecting low-light, moist corners where drainage and air flow is poor.  The first step in thrips management is prevention– if your plants are being regularly fed, given the proper amount of water and light, and are pruned in a way that air flows through the plant, chances are that thrips will pass them by.  As a rule of thumb, most insect infestation can be prevented through good pruning practices, proper watering, and regular composting, which will both aerate the soil and fertilize.

If prevention didn’t work, and you have a thrips problem, it is time to attack it in the bud, literally!  Spray the affected plants and it’s neighbors once a week until you see that the fresh, new growth unfurls healthy and green, not silvery and skeletonized.  Spray with neem oil or with mineral oil.  Both mineral oil and neem oil are safe enough for a human to ingest– mineral oil in large doses is used in humans as a laxative, and neem oil was used traditionally in Ayruvedic medicine for many applications in humans, including as a parasitic.  Neem oil comes from the Neem Tree in India and is a biopesticide used as both as a repellent and a larvicide, while mineral oil’s action is to kill insects by smothering them.  Personally, I have found the neem oil to be more useful in the fight against thrips, but using either one will yield results as long as you are adamant about keeping up on the weekly spray schedule.

neem_oilNeem Oil

Even after you see positive results of the spraying, (ie: new growth unaffected,) keep up a monthly spray schedule for a while until you are quite sure your infestation has been eliminated.  Since thrips have a life cycle that includes eggs and larvae, once you have killed all of the adult insects, round two and round three are right around the corner!  Also, when spraying, be sure to spray under the leaves and in the body of the plant– it may be useless to just spray the top of the leaves on the outside of the plant.

mineral_oilMineral Oil

Another natural method of removing thrips from your garden would be to use beneficial insects, although this is a difficult way to control thrips due to the fast turnover in their life cycle, and their very small size.  Some beneficial insects that have been known to work are aphid wasps, anthocorid bugs, and phytoseiid mites. Predator nematodes, minute pirate bugs, ladybugs, lacewings, and thrips predators have also been known to make an impact.  Just remember– if you are using beneficial insects, DO NOT spray or you will potentially also kill your good bugs!!!

nematodesBeneficial Nematodes

A third method would be using sticky traps, which are pieces of cardboard covered in an extremely sticky solution that traps the bugs.  Hang the sticky trap in the affected plant.  Use of sticky traps could also be a year-round way of monitoring thrips activity in the garden, and catching them before they become a nuisance.

sticky_thrip_trapStciky Thrip Trap

Only diligence will allow you to win in your fight against thrips, so keep it up and before you know it you will be saying ‘sayonara’ to those little buggers!


Take a Day-tour to Visit the Beautiful Gardens of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Take a Day-tour to Visit the Beautiful Gardens of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Most of the gorgeous gardens open to the public in San Francisco are located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, but there are also a few gems scattered throughout the city.  For a city that is covered in concrete and asphalt, there is an amazing amount of green to be found in the form of trees and grass.  There are countless parks and POPOS (publicly owned private open spaces) but this time I will only mention a few, focusing on gardens in Golden Gate Park rather than lawns and urban woods.

New Zealand Christmas Tree in San Francisco's Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park
New Zealand Christmas Tree

By far my favorite garden in SF is the San Francisco Botanical Garden (formally known as the Helen Strybing Arboretum) in Golden Gate Park.  Located centrally off of 9th Ave. and Lincoln, it is in the main attraction hub of the park– a stones throw from the CA Academy of Science and the de Young Fine Arts Museum.  Long before I was a garden coach, I was just a horticultural student and my teacher would meet me and my classmates every Saturday at the Arboretum to learn about the extensive plant collection presented at this botanical garden from five corners of the Earth.  With over 7,500 varieties of plants stretching over 55 acres, this was the ideal outdoor classroom to learn about both unusual beauties and common species.  A lot of the plants are labeled with plaques describing it’s botanical name, common name, family, and where it’s naturally found in the world.  For all the time that I spent in the garden, I was always able to learn more.  You might say that without this spectacular resource within my reach, I might not be a garden coach today!

Strange Succulent in San Francisco's Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park
Interesting Succulent

The Arboretum is sub-divided into 24 mini gardens that flow together marvelously.  Pack a lunch, and arrive in the morning to beat the crowds and see more wildlife, such as birds and squirrels.  From the entry garden, travel through the Asian Cloud Forest of Magnolia trees, raining giant satin petals and littering the ground in pink to enter Japan, with it’s ponds and dwarf conifer trees.  You will then find yourself skirting a field of CA wildflowers before entering the dusky and cool Redwood forest.  Next you will briefly find yourself in a bright and vibrant Mexico before heading into Southern Australia with it’s unique Bottlebrush trees, and then popping out at my favorite scene, the subtly colorful succulent garden, canopied by an enormous Monkey Hand tree.  A short trek will lead you into New Zealand, then Chili, and Eastern Australia, where the aroma of Eucalyptus trees prevail, before arriving in the in the primitive plant plot where you will be in awe over the colossal trees and perennials that accompanied the dinosaurs in ancient times.  Take a minute to ogle the ducks and geese in the wildfowl pond before moving on to sensory overload in the garden of fragrance.  Head past the fountain down into Africa to view the awesome and jaw-dropping Proteas and Leucadendrons, and then end your stay with a picnic on the main lawn.

Magnolia Flower in San Francisco's Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park

If you haven’t had enough plants for one day, after lunch, head out the back entrance of the Botanical Garden and cross over the street into the rose garden on your way to the Japanese Tea Garden, for an afternoon stroll through peaceful Zen gardens of finely manicured plants and grasses.  Fluffy Bamboo, stout Camellias, and grand Maple trees pervade this garden, along with evergreen Bonsais and boxwood topiaries.  Color interrupts the blissful green in the way of cascading Wisteria blossoms and persistent Azalea blooms.  Travel serenely past Koi ponds, over stone bridges and down wooden walkways before taking an afternoon break in the outdoor tea room.

Protea Flower in San Francisco's Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park

If you are ready for one more late afternoon garden, it’s time to cut through the de Young sculpture garden on the north side of the building, and head over to the Conservatory of Flowers.  Before entering the building, take time to admire the bright blanket of annuals and bulbs covering the beds in front of America’s oldest wooden and glass domed conservatory.  In the Conservatory, you will be transported into a different world, one of heat, humidity, tropical wonders, and your own imagination.  You will spy many rare orchids and other exotic epiphytes hanging from the impressively sized glossy-leaved trees.  Blooming vines wind their way through the canopy while a plethora of carnivorous plants abound and amaze.  The indoor pond sports a mini rice paddy and giant lily pads, strong enough to hold a grown man; look through the glass sided pond to see the roots.  When you finally need to leave the thick, cloying air of the Conservatory behind, be sure to check out the neighboring outdoor Dahlia summer garden (if the timing is right) and the breathtaking succulent garden that borders it.

Tibouchina Flowers in San Francisco's Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park
Tibouchina Flowers

That concludes your Golden Gate Park garden tour– now it is time to head back out of the park on 9th Ave and get some dinner at another San Francisco gem– award-winning Marnee Thai Restaurant!  Enjoy, have fun, and don’t forget your camera!!!

Get Involved in the Peninsula Gardening Scene!

Get Involved in the Peninsula Gardening Scene!

Novice and professional gardeners alike can participate in a number of different programs happening on the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula; participation in these programs will help better one’s education and grasp on Bay Area plants and gardening techniques, as well as provide a network of like-minded people.  New friendships bloom at the monthly meetings and bi-annual celebrations of the Pacifica Garden Club, and your group of horticultural allies will just keep growing if you join the UC Master Gardener Program of San Mateo & San Francisco Counties.  Both of these programs can transform a novice into a budding garden consultant, eager to share their newly learned garden advice, whereas a professional can take their business to the next level with an influx of new connections and credentials.

The Pacifica Garden Club is an excellent resource for learning, meeting others that are interested in gardening, and helping build a richer community as the members of the Garden Club help raise money for non-profits in the area, and extend their knowledge to other Pacifica citizens.  They have a guest speaker at each of their meetings that teach the members various gardening techniques such as pruning, irrigation installation and repair, growing vegetables, and keeping bees.  They also encourage their members to share their own specialized expertise in round-table discussions.

There are a number of ways to participate in the Pacifica Garden Club; as a member, a guest speaker, or as a Pacifican garden owner for the annual garden tour.  There is open enrollment and a small annual dues fee for interested parties to become a member– members meet once a month throughout the year for education and club business.  The Pacifica Garden Club invites guests to come and sit in on a meeting before deciding if they want to join.  Besides monthly meetings, their members also attend a potluck party in July, a holiday party in December, and the all-day Pacifica garden tour in June.  The proceeds for the admission to the garden tour are put back into the community as the Pacifica Garden Club raises funds for local charities, such as the Pacifica Resource Center and the Pacifica Libraries.  There are a number of other activities throughout the year in which members may find themselves learning, sharing their knowledge or giving back to the community, such as at the beach on Earth Day, at their booth at the Fog Fest, and at the Sanchez Art Center where they maintain a flourishing, fog-loving, flower garden.  Please view their website or contact them with any questions at this email:

If you have more time on your hands and want to get more involved in gardening and helping out your community, then it’s time to become a Master Gardener!  This program is sponsored and run by the University of California agricultural and natural resources department, so the members are trained by UC scientists and other experts.  After completing an intensive education series, members go out into their community to volunteer their knowledge to the home gardener, promoting sustainable gardening practices and a healthy, balanced environment.

You don’t have to know a lot or have a lot of experience in gardening to join the UC Master Gardeners of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties program– all you need is the desire, drive, and time to make a long-term commitment to become a certified Master Gardener, and then to maintain your status.  There is a $325 fee to join the program that pays for the 16-week garden training program, which entails over 75 classroom and field hours.  After the education time is complete, the next step is to take your new knowledge into the community as you will be expected to volunteer fifty hours in the first year before you are able to graduate and obtain your certification.  Volunteering can be in the form of manning the UC Master Gardener Helpline (answering gardening questions from the public and doling out garden advice), teaching workshops, and helping homeowners with their gardens.  You will become your own garden coach after this strenuous year, and will have the certificate to prove it!  If you are interested in learning more about the program, please visit the UC Master Gardeners of San Mateo & San Francisco Counties website or email your questions here:

Out of the various clubs, classes, and programs available on the Peninsula, these are just two examples of how you can get more involved and educated in gardening, more involved in your local community, and make new friends and acquaintances along the way!

Gardening Advice for Bay Area Residents – Highly Successful Plants

Gardening Advice for Bay Area Residents  –  Highly Successful Plants

Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area can be an extensive and confusing task.  Due to our incredibly temperate climate, we can grow tens of thousands of different varieties of plants here.  Also, there are all the micro-climates to keep in mind.  On top of that, we have our own set of pests and diseases to contend with.  It may be difficult to know what to plant with all of these rules, particulars, and possible problems to deal with.

It can be utterly overwhelming trying to learn all the different plants since they all have different needs to keep them alive– the main factors being watering frequency, sun exposure, temperature, soil type, pH level, and feeding frequency.  But there are other things to consider also, when picking the right plants to survive in the SF Bay Area– what types of pests and diseases are these plants prone to, how much room does it need in your garden, is it sensitive to other plants growing close to it– does it compete for resources?  Then there are the maintenance factors: how often does one need to prune this particular plant, how messy is this plant– does it drop it’s leaves in the fall, reseed itself all over the place, send up suckers?  How does this plant grow– does it have the structure you are desiring, does it grow compact and neat, or leggy and messy?  Does it take to sheering, or will it need to be pruned by hand?

The San Francisco Bay Area climate is extremely similar to five other regions in the world– Japan, South Africa, Australia/New Zealand, certain parts of South America, and the Mediterranean.  Within this generalized climate are many “micro-climates”, mini environments within our main climate.  For example, the same plants that grow in the hot and sunny hills of Berkeley are not necessarily the same plants that grow in the foggy, salty air of the seaside community of Pacifica.  Even within the same city, one can experience many different micro-climates as they travel through– San Francisco being a stellar example of this.  The moist and cool climate on top of Mount Sutro is the complete opposite of the hot and arid neighborhood of the Mission.  The wind tunnels in downtown San Francisco makes for a difficult environment for successful plantings, whereas the same struggling plants in downtown may thrive in the sheltered Golden Gate Park with it’s many over-story trees providing protection from the wind.

The pests and diseases found here in the Bay Area are extensive– some of them imported, while others are native.  The insects that do damage to plants and seem to be the most prevalent here are snails, thrips, white fly, scale, caterpillars, Fuschia mite, and Japanese bark beetle (that has killed off over half of our mature Monterey Pine trees).  The larger pests, which can be much more difficult to prevent and control, include gophers, deer, raccoons, and rats.  The diseases that seem to pop up over and over are the Armillaria (Root Rot Fungus or Honey Fungus), Sudden Oak Death, rust, black sooty mold, and powdery mildew.

I have devised a list of plants that will work in all the various micro-climates of the bay area, and are resistant to the prevalent pests and diseases for your reference.  If you would like more advice, please feel free to hire me as your personal garden coach as I can work with your micro-climate and particular set of pests and diseases that your neighborhood is accustomed to, as well as suggest what is right for your garden’s soil type and exposure.  But for now, I would like to offer your this free garden advice: please feel free to try out this list in your garden– it should work in any San Francisco Bay Area garden, from Pacifica to Mill Valley; from the Sunset district of San Francisco to the Piedmont neighborhood of Oakland.


Fresh succulent planting
Fresh Succulent Planting

Succulents as a generic term cover a wide range of plant genii, and come in an extensive array of shapes, sizes, and colors.  I love succulents and I use them often in my designs to provide a variety of texture and shades of year-round color without the reliance of fleeting flowers.  Aloe, Agave (“Century Plant”, Echeveria (“Hen’n’chicks”), Senecio (“Blue Fingers”), Jade, Iceplant, and Sedum are some of our most popular varieties, and within these families or genii there is a wide variety of sizes, leaf shape, and colors/patterns.  For example, Aloe comes in green, pink, and striped; can be kept small in a pot, or can overtake the back corner of your garden if planted in-ground.  Sedum can be a delicate groundcover, each leaf being as small as a pinhead, or it can be a sprawling perennial with flower stalks as tall as your knee and big, fluffy, fist-size flower heads.  I clump succulents together in one category as they are all extremely
similar in their care, and they are incredibly well-suited to the Bay Area.

succulent growing on concrete
Succulent Growing on Concrete

Succulents don’t require much water at all, but will thrive with regular water, growing quickly and filling in the intended space with grace.  If you overwater them, they will rot out and die.  If you under-water them, they will not grow but very slowly die back, killing off leaves, but will hang on for years with absolutely no water except what they pull out of the air of our humid environment.  They would prefer soil that drains well, like sandy soil, but will thrive in loamy soil, and will do just fine growing out of bedrock.  I have seen them naturally growing out of the cliff walls of Montara Mountain in Pacifica, and blooming alongside delicate annual flowers in humus-rich soil of a garden, and just plugging along at the beach in the sand dunes of Pacifica State Beach, adding a riot of color in an otherwise drab scene.

Succulent growing on rock cliff
Succulent Growing on Rock Cliff

Succulents don’t require much care, other than occasionally remembering to water them.  They will be fine with or without food.  They don’t make much of a mess, unless you never water them (then you will be picking up dead leaves) or unless you water them regularly (then you will have to prune them a couple of times a year; not bad!)  They are highly resistant to pests and diseases.  Snails and slugs don’t care for them, neither do deer, gophers, or all the tiny creepy crawlers that attack more sensitive, less tough plants.  I have never had to spray a succulent, or plant them behind a fence, or in a gopher basket.

Succulent garden example
Succulent Garden Example

Design wise, succulents work well in pots, hanging on a wall in a frame, in the ground, mixed in with other types of plants, or even growing out of a hole in a lava rock.  They create an amazing display of color and texture when you mix up different species– I have seen leaf colors in all shades of pastels; powder blue, light orange, and red being popular colors.  They generally bloom in the winter with the rains, but have been known to bloom year round with regular water.  Their bloom colors range from pale pink to hot fuchsia, yellow, white, orange, and everything in between.  Finally, one of my favorite aspects of succulents is that they take well to rooting from cuttings.  Which means that you could plant up your garden with them for free, if you can gain enough free cuttings from your friends and neighbors.

California Natives

california poppy
California Poppy

We are in California, so it is only logical that the natives to this state would do wonderfully here.  They also require little care as they are so well-suited to our climate and environment that they tend to take care of themselves.  Some home gardeners resist CA natives because they say that they are “ugly” or that they never bloom, but I have to disagree with that, and will introduce you to some of the natives that blow this theory out of the water.

clarkia in nature
Clarkia in Nature

Clarkia (Farewell-To-Spring), Eschschlozia (CA poppies), and Checkerbloom (a mallow groundcover) are all perennial groundcovers that will carpet the ground in pink or orange blooms.  Mix in some Indian paintbrush, Douglas Iris, Wild Strawberry, and Globe Lily, and you will have a riotous field of spring and summer color.

sticky monkey flower
Sticky Monkey Flower

Perennial blooming shrubs include Sticky Monkey Flower, Huckleberries, Penstemon, and Lupine for a variety of heights and colors, including purple, yellow-orange, blue, and pink.  Both Coffeeberry and Elderberry have interesting and colorful foliage along with their brightly colored summer berries.

douglas iris
Douglas Iris

Colorful and interesting trees and shrubs are numerous.  Ceanothus comes in tree, shrub, or groundcover form, and whose dark green glossy foliage is covered so thick in tiny purple or blue flowers in the spring that you cannot see the green under it.  Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californica, native of Fremont, CA) is a shrubby tree that grows as wide as it grows tall, and sports fist-size, stunning dark yellow flowers with rich orange buds.  Both Manzanita shrubs and Madrone trees have an amazing display of peeling bark that reveal a rich reddish, smooth trunk underneath, and also both sport clusters of tiny, bell-shaped, white waxy blossoms that attract hummingbirds.

CA natives are drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant, low-maintenance, and can grow in any soil condition, especially in crappy soil that most imported ornamentals would shrivel and die in.

Other Specific Plants That Grow Great Here

Agapanthus orientalis (Lily of the Nile) is a Bay Area standby, and tends to thrive with or without water, in good or poor soil, in the shade or the sun, in the garden or on the side of a freeway.  The only problems I’ve ever had with them is mammalian pests– deer like their flower buds, and gophers enjoy their juicy roots.  Snails make the plant their home although don’t eat it.

flax (phormium)
Flax (phormium)

Phormium tenax (Flax) is the plant with sword-shaped leaves that come in all colors and sizes; there seems to be at least one of every block in the Bay Area.  “Tom Thumb” is a small, chocolate-brown flax that grows no bigger then 1’x1′, whereas “Allison Blackman” variety has olive green to bronze leaves with yellow stripes and red margins and grows as big as 5’x5′.  ‘Maori Maiden’ and ‘Maori Queen’ are known for their brilliant red and pink striped leaves, lending year-round color to any garden, and never growing taller more than 4’x4′, tending to average out at 3’x3′.  The ‘Sundowner’ sports leaves of orange and bronze that light up when the sun’s rays shine through it for an amazing impact.  Plant Flax in the back of a small garden to lend the garden depth and make it appear larger than it is.  Flax will take any soil, any amount of water, tend to not be bothered by pests (except the occasional gopher), and are not known to catch any diseases, although they do prefer full sun.  Their blooms are interesting, but insignificant; the plant is used more for it’s leaves.

Gaillardia (Blanket Flower) is a perennial plant that lays down and acts like a groundcover, taking up a lot of space and providing a never-ending supply of bright and interesting flowers throughout the early spring through late fall.  In the early winter, they must be cut back to the base, when there is new growth there.  The flowers are red balls with yellow centers, fringed with red petals that are dipped in orange and then yellow at the tips.  Very colorful!  The buds are flat and yellow, with an outer ring of red.  The dead flowers are even interesting, dark, fluffy balls of fading color, and can be left on the plant for a variety of texture (but should be deadheaded every couple of weeks to keep the plant blooming).  This plant never gets pests or diseases, can thrive in a drought tolerant garden or in an irrigated one, and handles different types of soil well.  It’s only fussy point is that it prefers full sun.

I hope you have been enjoying my blog posts.  I am attempting to share some free knowledge with you, but if you desire more hands-on garden training, my husband and I are available for hire as a garden tutor for you to provide you landscape consultation tailored to your specific needs and desires.  Click here to visit our contact page.  Thanks!