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by Charlene Burgi

(This is part three of our garden expert Charlene’s trip to Italy. Read the first and second installments.)

A day exploring Florence and visiting the leaning tower of Pisa completed our stay in Tuscany. Liguria was our next destination, where we found the five picturesque fishing villages along the Italian Mediterranean otherwise known as Cinque Terre. We were pleasantly surprised as we headed out of the Tuscan region as we drove under an unmarked, ancient aqueduct still carrying water to regions that I imagined to be nearby.

To the north loomed mountain ranges that I thought to be covered in snow. We soon realized the glistening white of the mountains near Carrara were quarries of marble that Michelangelo once traversed searching for the perfect piece to create artwork such as his sculpture of David.

As we continued north, the roads wound like a lazy snake through the wildflower-covered hills. Below lay the clear waters of the Mediterranean. We soon found the time allotted to explore this region was too short. We only had two nights and a full day to see all that we could. Transportation to these little fishing villages required taking a train, a boat, or hiking, so we opted to take in only two of the five villages. We were thankful for the ability to reach the jeweled towns, for it was only in 1926 that roads were cut into the hillside to reach them. Otherwise, they could only be reached by boat!

Randy at the public grotto

Randy at the public grotto

We arrived during the weekend and the tiny communities were mobbed with tourists. We walked along the busy, narrow streets where I noticed people milling about a grotto. Upon closer inspection, we saw the grotto featured an open spigot where the drinking water flowed freely. People clamored to the precious liquid to refill their water bottles, wash their hands, or cool their brow.

The sight of water freely flowing unnerved the water conservationist in me. It was an assault to my senses! The paradox is, while the water escaped into the basin below, every restaurant in Italy charged for a bottle of drinking water—asking with or without “gas” (known to us as sparkling water). I wondered why the restaurants in Marin don’t exercise this practice with water being such a precious commodity—after all, I now understand that it is so European! Would that practice ever catch on?

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

After recovering from the grotto, we traversed the breadth and width of the beautiful beaches and tiny streets that were covered with magnificent flora. Bougainvillea, lantana, ivy geraniums, and so much more filled the grounds of exquisite estates that faced the Mediterranean.

As we walked along one path, Lynette asked me to identify a plant. I had never seen it before but fell in love with the delicate flower. Guido and Paulo, friends of Lynette who live in Italy and met us at Cinque Terre, quickly pulled out their smart phones to identify the plant as Capparis spinosa, otherwise known as capers—the very accoutrement that we use in cooking! I couldn’t wait to find out more about this plant. It was, in fact, one of the first things I investigated upon my return. To my surprise, Capparis will grow in Marin! Why has this beauty eluded me, and would the nurseries be able to find this deciduous perennial bush also known as Flinder’s rose? True to its Mediterranean origin, it needs very little water, requires fast draining soil, but tolerates poor soil. This all made perfect sense as the plant we saw was growing in a rock wall. It can act as a groundcover or trail over walls. What a treasure!

Caper (Capparis spinosa)

Caper (Capparis spinosa)

May I encourage you to also explore using this plant in your landscape? The buds can be pickled if you use capers in your recipes. Just taking in the beauty of the delicate flowers from late spring through summer would bring enough joy as you watch the flowers open in the morning and close as evening approaches.

I fell asleep that night wondering if capers could survive in our little greenhouse in Lassen and missing the Mediterranean climate of Marin where I knew this plant could thrive and enhance any garden.

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by Charlene Burgi

(This is part two of Charlene’s trip to Italy. Read the first installment here.)

Central and northern Italy’s flora was amazing. The dense, lush vegetation filled every inch that didn’t have a structure or wasn’t cultivated for crops (primarily grapes and olive trees in the Tuscan region). The narrow, twisting, hilly roads in Greve guided us through forests thick with brambles, vines, and wildflowers. Each turn in the road surprised us with charming, tiny villages as we made our way to the Autostrada that paved the way to the ancient walled cities of Tuscany.

Stone steps in Italy

One of thousands of steps

For several days, San Gimignano, Siena, Montepulciano, Pienza, Montalcino, Monteriggioni, and Lucca found my daughter Lynette, her husband Jeff, and my son Randy coaxing me up the steep roads, and what seemed like thousands of steps, to reach the heart and plazas of these walled medieval towns. All the Stair Masters of the world could not have prepared me for this grueling exercise! Though my calves were screaming, the desire to explore drove me on to find the artifacts and ancient art I had read about. In every plaza we found a well covered with a metal grate. The steps leading up to each well provided seating for the weary tourist.

Outdoor restaurant with containter plants in Italy

Dining al fresco

What I didn’t expect was the abundance of window boxes crammed with color that brightened up the ancient structures from the 12th and 13th centuries. Within these ancient cities, all the vegetation was in containers. Repeatedly, star jasmine seemed to be the “star” as its scent filled the air. Despite the size of the plants, I was impressed that all flourished so well in containers. One restaurant even created an outdoor covered arbor using containers of grape vines and, you guessed it, star jasmine to provide shade for the diners underneath.

smoketree in bloom

Smoketree (Cotinus coggygria)

The stone walls of the cities sprouted beautiful foliage that accented the patterns formed by stone masons of yesteryear. The fortress walls angled back toward the center of the town. Even though the stone collected the heat from the summer sun, rain could easily find its way into the crevices to irrigate the tenacious plants.

And rain it did! While in Pienza, Randy and I ducked into the Palazzo Piccolomini, the former papal palace, to find an open roof that allowed rain to collect in the marble-covered room below. Indoor plants of all types prospered in this wealthy environment. Upon our return to the car, we entered a beautiful park where familiar Cotinus coggygria (smoketree) was in full bloom, but sporting white panicles instead of the familiar smokey, pinkish-purple that I know. At that point, the sky opened up and we were grateful for the canopy of trees in the park acting as a giant umbrella for these ill-prepared tourists!

Plants sprouting from a wall San Gimignano

San Gimignano

If conditions are right, plants will thrive. This knowledge was driven home to me over and over again as I witnessed the beauty around me abounding in containers, crevices, and other harsh conditions. It drove home the point of planting native for maximum effectiveness. Year-round rain in Tuscany may increase gardening options without the need of irrigation, but the same principle still applies here at home.

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Italy

by Charlene Burgi

Poppies of Tuscany

Poppies of Tuscany

How do I even begin to describe everything about this dream trip? First, I sadly left at home my husband Jack who needed to tend to our critters, but I was blessed to be able to share this adventure with my children. My daughter and son-in-law (Lynette and Jeff), son (Randy), and I arrived at our first destination in the Tuscan hills of Chianti at dusk while it was just light enough to embrace our magnificent surroundings. We found the environment to be a wonderful assault on our senses.

Visually, the beauty of the green rolling hills covered in terraced grapevines reminded me of Sonoma on steroids. The twilight seemed to accentuate the villas and highlight the ancient walled cities proudly sitting alit atop the crest of each rolling hill. Wild vegetation abounded in the hollows that were dotted with the orange-red poppies famously associated with Tuscany.

Little-leaf linden

Little-leaf linden

And what was that fragrance? As we departed from our rented car, the air filled with the scent of star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)—yet there was something more, something I couldn’t identify by scent or sight. The fragrance was much stronger as we approached one of the trees that lined the walk to our vacation home. Large clusters of tiny yellow-green flowers graced the bottom of dark green leaves in the canopy of the tree. Drawing from the recesses of my mind, I remembered the nursery would occasionally carry a tree with these same leaves—little-leaf linden (Tilia cordata). The small nursery trees did not bear the fabulous fragrant cluster of flowers. This new-found knowledge about this flowering tree caused me to regret that more of these trees did not find their way into Marin! The next day, we drove a few miles to the tiny town, Greve, where an alley of linden trees further confirmed the need to share and praise its beauty with you!

Fruiting Mulberry

Fruiting mulberry

It goes without saying that our sense of taste was also enriched. Fresh fruit and vegetables were plentiful and locally grown. I failed to mention that one of the trees leading to the door of our vacation home was laden with a type of sweet berry. The big heart-shaped leaves on the tree were a dead giveaway that the tree was a fruiting mulberry (Morus alba). Typically found in Marin are the fruitless mulberry trees that play havoc on sidewalks with their shallow root systems. However, the marble gravel walk to the doorway was not jeopardized by these roots, and the berries were delicious as we sampled from this big tree.

Our first dinner in Tuscany continued to shock our senses—specifically Jeff’s senses as the proprietor suggested he try an aperitif made at their establishment. To date, we all continue to howl remembering Jeff’s expression as he indulged in what appeared to be a green slime liquid. After imbibing, however, he stated it was an amazing drink. We were all taken aback when told the drink was made from the leaf material of the hedge surrounding the outdoor patio. Our hostess, struggling with our lack of understanding in Italian, quickly departed from the restaurant and returned with leaf in hand—Grecian laurel (Laurus nobilis)—the true bay leaf that is called for in our recipes.

Tuscany countryside

View from the bedroom window in Tuscany

That night, we all turned in anticipating what the next day would bring. Little did we realize we would soon experience the screaming calf muscles that would result from traversing the steep hills and clambering up countless steps to explore all Tuscany held in store for us. I fell asleep that first night to the sound of perhaps a nightingale or mockingbird. My senses were still on overload but too tired to identify the lovely song.

More to follow next week.

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by Charlene Burgi

The caps and gowns of graduation are behind us. Summer vacation has officially begun. Trips are planned and reservations are made for a long and well-deserved rest from the hubbub of routine schedules.

Alas, while preparing for vacation, we tend to put aside the fact that the evapotranspiration rate is at its highest peak in June and July, which means plants require more irrigation now than any other time of year. The days are longer and plants are at their peak performance—either flowering or fruiting. Vegetable gardens are rapidly nearing the time to begin harvesting.

The question is what to do about this conundrum of vacation plans during the garden’s critical time of need! Perhaps a few suggestions will alleviate the angst of keeping the garden alive for a week or two while you have some fun in the sun elsewhere.

  1. Get your plants in optimal health before leaving. If the plants are well-fed, insect-free, and well-hydrated, they will stand a much better chance of surviving while you are gone.
  2. Watering container plants with rope wick

    Creative water wicking

    Before leaving, remove all hanging containers. The exposure to wind and circulating air, plus heat from the sun, will dry out these plants in short order. Cluster the containers in a shady area of the garden. Place the containers that have drainage holes in trays filled with water. The soil will wick up the moisture from the tray to the root system of the plant. If you do not have drainage holes, place a large vessel of water near the cluster of container plants and insert a cotton rope or twine into the water so one end of the rope rests at the bottom. Drape the excess rope over the top of the soil in each planted container, or run individual ropes from the water to each plant. Again, the rope will wick up the water and provide moisture to each planted container. (Note: Lightly cover the water vessel to slow evaporation.)

  3. Plants in the ground may require a bit more creativity if you do not have an automatic irrigation system. There are hose timers that attach to a hose bib and are available at your local hardware or irrigation store that will automatically turn on and off at a designated day and time that you set. Run a hose to the area where plants are in need of irrigation and attach a soaker hose to the open end of the hose. Wind the soaker through the garden to each plant until all plants are adequately covered.
  4. Water jug drip system

    Water jug drip system

    Fill one-gallon empty milk containers with water and replace the cap. Insert a very tiny pin hole into the bottom of the container and place two or three like-containers around trees. (Experiment before leaving to see how long the water lasts.) Depending on the size of the pin prick, you might need to add another pin hole at the top of the container.

  5. If interested, you can add polymers to your existing soil (polymers are found at your local nursery) .The polymers will retain water and release moisture as the soil dries out. Read directions carefully before using. This is a case of, “if a little is good, a lot can be disastrous.”
  6. Lawns. Let them go! While turf grass is one of the highest consumers of water, lawns are also extremely forgiving. If your lawn is dependent on a manual sprinkler, you can either employ a hose timer, or let the lawn go into dormancy without water. After returning from vacation, resume your watering schedule and the lawn will green up in a short period of time.
  7. Mulch, mulch, mulch! Three inches of mulch in and around your plants will reduce evaporation and retain the moisture you are providing.
  8. Lastly, ask a neighbor to check in weekly. If milk jugs or water containers require refilling before your return, it wouldn’t take long to assist with this chore.

The topic of this blog is a cagey way for me to let you know I am leaving for Italy for two weeks’ vacation. Many of you know all of my grandparents came from northern Italy many, many years ago. My son, daughter, her husband, and I have family there to meet. I promise my return will fill these blogs with pictures and new-found knowledge of gardening in the “old country.” Meanwhile, enjoy the blog written by some of my former coworkers at the district who graciously offered to enlighten you each week that I am gone.

Until then, ciao!

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by Charlene Burgi

There is a line in The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams that has stuck with me over the years: “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” I can think of several turns in life where those lines sculpted who I am today.

Odd as it might be, one of these specific changes involves water and how it is used. I’ve developed a sensitivity to both water conservation and water waste. It is an awareness that doesn’t go away once you’ve walked through that gate.

A friend and retired employee who I worked with at MMWD recently moved out of state. While gainfully employed at the district, Ken Feil and I worked in different departments with different responsibilities, yet we both kept an eye open for water waste as well as good conservation practices. Although we have retired from our positions, the awareness of water remains.

Not long after Ken and his wife Peg moved, I got a call from them. Their beautiful new home was professionally landscaped; however, their first sight of the irrigation system in action was water spewing in every direction including halfway into the street. One station had four different types of sprinkler heads, which required running the water for hours to keep some of the plants alive. Ken’s conversation with the landscape maintenance company caused further consternation: The company’s response was that the water only cost $75.00 a year and they are sitting on one of the largest underground aquifers in the United States. I am not certain if these folks are still employed at Ken and Peg’s home, but I can bet they are more educated now!

The Pit River, tributary to the Sacramento

The Pit River, tributary to the Sacramento

A knock on the door this week found my downtrodden neighbor carrying a letter stating that all irrigation to his planted fields must cease and desist. The water rights from tributaries, streams, and creeks in the area that feed the Sacramento River are to “flow free.” All the crops that feed his livestock will wither in the hot summer sun. All the hours of plowing and planting were for naught. Water in Lassen is plentiful, but unlike Ken and Peg’s landscaper, we know the groundwater can be diminished if we are not aware of surrounding conditions. We can only hope that those on the receiving end of the water we let flow freely will appreciate the sacrifice others made and not waste it.

I found comfort in this thought shortly after our neighbor’s visit. Another call came in from the neighbor living across the street from my mom’s house in Marin. She wanted us to know that a riser popped off the sprinkler system and was gushing over the landscaped area. I really appreciated her observation and taking the time to call so it could be repaired. Her call also let me know that the conservation efforts and education by those at MMWD are working.

While MMWD is dependent on water captured in the beautiful reservoirs on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed, I recognize there are other water districts throughout the state working hard to raise awareness of conservation and water waste among their customers so they, too, realize that water is a precious commodity. Once that awareness sinks in, it will be like the line in The Velveteen Rabbit—that awareness “lasts for always.”

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Something New

by Charlene Burgi

Last summer my vegetable garden struggled to grow despite my attempt to thwart the army of squirrels, rabbits, and other varieties of herbivore varmints within 50 miles that caught wind of planted vegetables. Try as I might, nothing stood in their way of consuming each tender morsel of green as it appeared from the richly worked soil. Wire baskets were overturned, five-foot perimeter fencing must have been a standing joke (if these critters communicated with each other), and even garlic and onion sprays couldn’t keep the onslaught at bay.

Don’t get me wrong: Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini were safe from the furry marauders. And several plants managed to survive safely inside the greenhouse. But this year I wanted fresh green beans, peas, Swiss chard, strawberries, asparagus, Yukon Gold potatoes, garlic, onions, beets, and companion flowers filling the garden.

Hoop and U staple

Hoop and U staple

I had to try something new to dissuade the beasts and may have found an answer. First, Jack built several raised beds. We attached 3/8-inch hoops using U-shaped fence staples hammered to the inside lengths of the boards across from each other at one-foot intervals. The fence staples made perfect holding spaces to insert the hoops since they were hammered only half way into the board. After the plants and seeds were planted, a layer of ultra-light garden fabric was placed over the hoops and secured with clothes pins at the top of each hoop and on the bottom of each side of the hoop. Each end of the planter is secured with a 2×4 resting on top of the planter with the fabric sandwiched between the two boards.

Open for pollination

Open for pollination

During the daylight hours (and when the pups are outside and on critter patrol) I roll the fabric back to allow for any pollination required for fruit production. In the evenings, the fabric is put back in place and secured with the clothes pins.

Granted, this is only day two of the plantings but who could resist the strawberry/asparagus bed? The strawberries are turning red and almost ready for picking, and the asparagus is just working its way up through the trenches that are being backfilled with soil. Both are great companions sharing the same bed.

Secured planter

Secured planter

The second raised planting bed is teeming with bush beans, beets, carrots, and marigolds—yet another mixture of companion plants. Peas are planted in the ground behind each bed; my thought is to drape the excess fabric over the plants once the peas germinate. Potatoes are growing in the old clawfoot bath tub with onions—a good team together. I will leave the tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and zucchini to fend for themselves since they did so well last year.

Do you have trouble with critters in the garden? You might want to try this critter prevention program. We used recycled lumber lying around from the house construction so the costs to install were minimal.

On a side note, I was driving down past the old barn on our property last Sunday when four round furry balls came waddling across the pasture toward the car. I stopped as I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at until they drew closer … and closer—then challenged the car! There were four badgers with these adorable faces, growling as if they could conquer the world. Wouldn’t you know I failed to have my camera with me—or my cell phone! I wonder if they are herbivores? Hummmm!

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The Dilemma

by Charlene Burgi

Oft times we dream of adding water features in our gardens. The trickle of falling water draws people and wildlife to the soothing sounds. The shimmering blue water cools the air as well as those entering the area. Birds, bees, dragonflies, and butterflies along with other wildlife also benefit from the sustenance it provides.

However, the negatives of having a water feature in your garden can outweigh the positives. For example, large surface areas of water evaporate at a fast rate, requiring frequent refilling of the pond and consuming precious water resources. Pool covers that slow down evaporation are not an option to eliminate this problem. Even if covers for water features were available, the feature would lose its beauty and benefit if it were covered.

There are also the issues of mosquitoes breeding in the pools of water, pumps jamming with debris that finds its way into the system, and raccoons finding this spot a desirable way-station for washing their food before dining. If a water feature supports fish, the raccoons may consider this pond the best location for one-stop shopping and dining.

While building our new home, my husband Jack included a beautiful waterfall in the front with a modest-size pond. Yes, I love all the positives listed above including the family of toads that live there and croak us to sleep during the warm evenings.

Dog in a rock pond

Pup in the pond

The dilemma for us, in addition to the above list of negatives, is two golden retriever pups whose day wouldn’t be complete unless they found their way into the water—whether it be 35 degrees or 95 degrees outside. The dripping pups manage to collect the bark from the heavily mulched garden on their wet fur and then, more often than not, scamper into the house (they know how to open the door) and plop down on the living room carpet to share their adventure with us. Needless to say, the living room carpet is shampooed almost as often as one shampoos their hair!

Jack and I pondered the dilemma of keeping or eliminating the feature. The current water shortage, wet dogs, and the loss of wildlife that visit our garden to quench their thirst were all considered. We decided we could still meet our needs (and sanity) as well as the needs of wildlife if we converted the pond into a disappearing underground pond by placing our recirculating water pump into a water collection box hidden beneath the fall rocks. The falls would be lower, reducing evaporation; a screen placed over the water collection box would eliminate foreign debris from entering the pump area; and the natural, irregular depressions in the rocks under the falls would continue to support a watering hole for wildlife. I could add streams of low-growing lavender along the side of the bank where the pond was located. The newly created dry creek bed could be threaded with blue aubrietia and violets for spring/summer color and Ceratostigma plumbaginoides for continued fall color. The picture is in my head. Now to create it!

Lavender water plants along driveway

Lavender water illusion designed by Jack

Do you have this type of dilemma? Is there a water feature that is causing you more trouble than the time you have to give to it? Or are you thinking of adding a water feature to your garden but hadn’t realized the pitfalls of maintaining it—even with the help of golden retriever pups? Consider installing or revamping an existing water feature into a disappearing pond. (Remember that the water district requires all water features to use recirculating systems.) I can’t wait to see our outcome! If you have experience with ponds, and other water feature ideas, please share solutions with the readers!

I am wishing a well-deserved day of rest to those who serve or served in our military and their families. Blessings to all.

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by Charlene Burgi

Leaking sprinkler head

Sprinkler in need of repair

Have you ever been in a hurry and patched something together just to make it work? The quick fix may be intended to be temporary, but it is soon forgotten because the “band-aid” is still holding—by the skin of its teeth!

Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to forget the patch and be lulled by the warm sun that urges us to embrace a day of fun. After all, the electrical tape is still (almost) stopping the leaking hose. The valve can still work if it is turned on manually. And the epoxy putty seems to be doing the job on that P-trap under the sink. It is so easy to miss the magic words in the directions that state it is a temporary fix. And these fixes are just that—temporary.

I have learned over the years that temporary fixes can be costly! A few years ago, someone used an epoxy “band-aid” on a pipe under my kitchen sink. I had no idea it was there when I bought the house. And the product was as good as its word. Shortly after new hardwood floors were installed in the kitchen, the epoxy putty revealed its existence and the limits of its longevity. The slow leak seeped under the sink cabinet and made its way under the beautiful hardwood floors. The wood swelled ever so slightly in the form of a slight ridge. Then the buckling began. The insurance company wouldn’t cover the loss since the leak had existed for some time—albeit undetected! Fortunately, the hardwood floor person I use is a true craftsman and was able to repair the damage in short order, and I learned to install plastic trays under my sinks as added insurance!

Drip irrigation system leak flooding plants

Drip irrigation system leak

I often wonder how we get sidetracked or put leaks or breaks on hold. I remember people calling the water district to say their toilets flushed all by themselves. Did they know their toilet was leaking so severely that the water tank level needed to replenish itself and so flushed automatically to refill? Or does anyone realize they are robbing their plants of water if the water pressure is so high on their irrigation system that the water droplets atomize into the atmosphere before ever making it to the ground? That mist you see with high water pressure isn’t helping the root system that feeds your plants. A broken irrigation line can cause another serious hit to the pocketbook if it is flooding one area of the garden while failing to deliver water to the plants in another. In addition to water lost, the parched plants may be lost, too.

Another temporary fix is replacing a missing sprinkler head with the wrong size and type nozzle. Why would that matter? The gusher stopped, didn’t it? Let’s take a closer look at this band-aid. Some nozzles are rotors, some spray, and some are impacts—and they all perform differently. In addition, different irrigation manufacturers sell spray nozzles that provide different gallons per minute and throw water different distances. To keep things simple, let’s assume the spray nozzles installed in your garden provide three gallons of water per minute per nozzle. And let’s say all the nozzles on the valve are throwing the irrigation water 15 feet in order to attain head-to-head coverage for good distribution uniformity. (Distribution uniformity is applying water evenly to an area so it comes down like rain and the entire area receives an equal depth of water.) What would happen if the nozzle installed for a temporary fix only produced one gallon of water per minute? Or the temporary nozzle only threw out enough water to cover eight feet instead of 15 feet? It wouldn’t take long for a dry spot to develop while the warm sunny days found you away, playing in the sun.

My husband Jack has a motto that is good to live by: Do it once, do it right. It will save you time and money in a long run. If you are not certain how to “do it right,” hire a licensed plumber for indoor water issues or a licensed landscape contractor that specializes in irrigation. Then you can relax while taking in this beautiful weather!

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by Charlene Burgi

I would have missed the celebration if not for the headlines seen on an internet nursery promotion this morning! It’s National Wildflower Week! Ironically, I’d been thinking about bees, butterflies, and birds for this week’s blog topic. After all, it seemed like a perfect follow up to the spiders and snakes blog that we posted last month. But, how could I not address National Wildflower Week with this newfound knowledge?

California poppies

California poppies

It didn’t take long to consider that native flowers would tie in perfectly with bees, butterflies, and birds. Native plants go hand-in-hand with supporting our wildlife. To further confirm and validate my choice of blog topic, a swallowtail butterfly found itself trapped in our greenhouse, and the first poppies emerged in the same garden area this week. Is this a coincidence?

A force greater than me was pushing me to discuss the timing of nature! Isn’t it amazing that the very needs of bees, butterflies, and birds coincide with food and shelter sources for migrating patterns, the awakening of winter dormancy, and emerging pupation of butterflies? Simultaneously, bees and butterflies are popping up everywhere along with wildflowers.

The chirps of baby birds are now heard when entering the barn. Robins along with various species of birds not commonly seen flock to the birdfeeders or are viewed pecking the juiciest worms from the earth. Sandhill cranes, bald eagles, hawks, geese, and ducks fly overhead and delight us in their aerial show during the spring like no other time of the year.

Phlox

Phlox

To provide sustenance for migrating and emerging wildlife, early spring produces sprays of lavender-blue lupine, brilliant orange poppies, and soft pink, creeping phlox highlighting the roadsides and nearby hills. Phlox is a favorite for swallowtails, and it is little wonder that one surprised us when we entered the recently watered greenhouse!

Wildflowers can also be found in our trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. Western dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) are now peaking through the thicket of the forest with their showy white flowers and giving away their understory cover. It doesn’t take long for the bees, butterflies, and birds to seek out this treasure for its nectar. Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and Ceanothus (wild lilac) are wild-flowering shrubs that have an attractant that helps sustain these garden visitors during the spring months. The perennial yarrow is pushing out multi-floral, flat-landing petals that bees and butterflies find so easy to perch upon. Douglas iris are found in profusion throughout grassy slopes and woodland areas. Their flowers are beacons to honey and native bees, as are Salvia spathacea (Hummingbird sage) and Clarkia.

While I barely touched on meadow type wildflowers, it is important to remember that many bees, butterflies, and birds depend on the shelter of trees and shrubs for nesting and protection. In addition to shelter, butterflies require food sources to complete their lifecycle and find these by foraging on favorite plants in the garden.

Even though early May is dedicated to celebrating National Wildflower Week, may I suggest a strategy to keep the bees, butterflies, and birds around for a longer period of time? Provide shelter by planting tall native shrubs. Create a shallow muddy area where bees and butterflies can drink. Set out baths for birds to drink and clean their feathers (be sure to clean your bird baths weekly to control the spread of disease), and leave areas of loose soil, which are ideal for quail to dust themselves. Find summer blooming flowers that will provide nectar to keep birds close by. And situate feeders in trees for added protection from overhead hawks.

Let me challenge you to do something this week to honor the natural beauty surrounding us. I found one website (wildflower.org) that suggested 20 ways to celebrate National Wildflower WeekBay Nature’s Gardening for Wildlife with Native Plants is a great resource. If you’re nearby the district’s Corte Madera office, there are free copies in the lobby.

The weather is going to be beautiful. Seize the day with a packet of poppy seeds in hand!

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by Charlene Burgi

Plants can be trendy. The latest fashions in garden magazines tout the “new” look and often move our landscapes in a direction that side-steps some awesome plants like mahonia—otherwise known as Oregon grape. Sadly, when we lose sight of these plants, the demand diminishes and nurseries stop growing or carrying them.

Mahonia leaves in winter

Mahonia in winter

This forgotten plant came to my attention during the winter when the plant world in Lassen lay dormant. The intense purplish red of the holly-like leaves gleamed while other vegetation appeared as lifeless sticks or totally disappeared in the frozen tundra. My lost memory of this treasure soon regenerated, and mahonia moved to the top of my list of “must haves.”

Mahonia with yellow flowers

Mahonia in spring

This spring this plant further captured my attention when I visited the rancher’s home next to us. As I pulled up, brilliant yellow flowers caught my eye. Again, mahonia was the star that accented the front gate. I mentioned to our neighbors what a lovely plant they had and was taken aback when they shared they have tried to chop it down for years! It seems the leaves can be scratchy to those entering the gate since it is situated so close to the entrance of their home.

Apparently, Oregon grape is one tough plant as it continues to regenerate itself despite the abuse! The deer and rabbits have full access to browse on it, yet it remains untouched by these furry plant destroyers. Mahonia grows in sunny or shady areas, requires minimum water, and despite its common name—Oregon grape—is classified as a California native for those purists who only want native plants in their landscape.

Oregon grape comes in assorted sizes to fit any need in your garden. Mahonia repens makes for a lovely groundcover. And Mahonia nervosa is the well-behaved plant that resembles the holly-leaf fern growing to two feet and spreading to four feet with the bonus of yellow flowers followed with purple berries. The perfect dry shade garden filler! If you are looking for a large shrub, Mahonia aquifolium will grow to 12 feet and act as a great deterrent for anyone trespassing beyond perimeters of the garden.

I almost forgot to mention another great attribute of this plant—the “grape” produced from Oregon grape! Birds are attracted to the fruit, jellies can be made from it, or it can be left as ornamental. It is also resistant to diseases, which adds to its desirability for the organic gardener.

How did this plant get lost in the eyes of gardeners? I guess the same way that geraniums were forgotten before the drought in the ’70s. If this plant piques your interest, check out your local nursery to see if they still carry this winner!

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