Monday, March 9, 2015

How to Grow Your Own Perennials

When we first moved to our home 5 years ago, it was a mostly blank slate.  A few exotic plants here and there and ivy.  Lots of ivy.

In transforming our lot into a garden for food and wildlife, I visited a lot of nurseries.  I bought a lot of plants.  And spent a lot of money.

Five years later, most of our yard is full of happy California natives, herbs and other drought tolerant, pollinator-friendly perennials.  While the plants are fairly well established, there are still bare spots waiting to be filled.

I have decided, however, that I have spent enough money establishing my garden though.  I'm now putting my plants to work for me by growing my own perennials.  I use 4 primary methods for growing perennial plants.


I learned how to propagate by accident when a new prized native perennial had a branch snapped off. I quickly read up on what to do and ended up turning that broken branch into a new plant.

Island Bush Snapdragon - my first propagated plant.  It is 3 years old. 

Island Bush Snapdragon, all grown up.  Ground nesting birds - Juncos- nest inside.
To propagate a plant, you simply need to snip off a sprig.  Your cutting should not have many leaves and no flowers on it.  You want it to put its energy into growing roots - not keeping leaves alive.   Clear the stem of leaves and dip it into rooting hormone or cinnamon.  Then poke it into a pot filled with potting soil.  Keep your cutting damp and in 6 months to a year, it can be transplanted into your garden.

Some of my recently propagated plants and runner plants.  They will be ready for planting in the fall.
Think about season before snipping.  Propagated plants grow better in different seasons.  For instance, pineapple sage is better to propagate in the fall but other plants might be better to do in the spring.  You can find out when to cut your particular plants for propagating through an Internet search or by reading books on the subject.  For my natives, I rely heavily on California Native Gardening: Month by Month Guide which specifies which months work best for which plants.


Growing perennials from seed requires more steps and patience and sowing annuals but is basically the same process.

Milkweed and Hooker's Evening Primrose growing in my greenhouse now.
Perennial seeds need more coddling than their annual brethren.  Some (like my native milkweed) just need to be soaked overnight.  Others need to be cold stratified.  To achieve this, you can either plant them in the fall and leave them outside where they will get the cold naturally or put them in a bag with some damp potting soil and refrigerate for two to four weeks, depending on the species.

Once your seeds are ready to be planted, treat them just like annuals - put them in a starter mix, keep them warm and well-lit and well watered.  Unlike annuals, which can be transplanted out to the garden in short order, these little fellows need more pampering.  I have lost many perennials by transplanting them before they were ready.  It works better to pot starts up to a larger container and let them spend from 6 months to a year - depending on variety - in a pot.  At that point, they are big enough to survive the big bad outdoors.

Monarch butterfly on native milkweed in my backyard.

If you want to grow a perennial that you do not have yet in your garden, buy the seed from a reputable source.  To grow from a plant in your backyard, simply collect the seeds and plant.  My native milkweed bloomed last year and I happily collected the seed.  As I type this, those seeds are germinating in my greenhouse, producing more milkweed plants for more neighborhood monarchs.

Milkweed seed
You can also grow trees from seed.  Oak trees grown from acorns have been better structure than nursery planted oaks.  Here are detailed instructions on planting acorns.  I have also planted California buckeyes from seeds.  Like acorns, you collect the large seeds in the fall.  It is best to get them off the tree or right after they have fallen to the ground.  Plant them within a couple of days and wait until spring.  I have had 5 out of 6 seeds germinate this way.

California buckeye - the result of a buckeye seed planted last fall.

California fuchsia (front) reseeded itself in the perfect spot. California figwort (middle) grown from seed last year. 
If you read my posts regularly, you know I love lazy gardening!  I often do not cut my perennials back when recommended.  I like to leave them up over the winter - the seeds fodder for wildlife, the dead stems useful for nest building.  Occasionally, there will be another bonus.  Some of the plants will actually reseed themselves around the garden.

Lamb's ear reseeded itself in my garden path. I transplanted it last fall to fill in the front of a side yard bed.
My favorite California fuchsia plant (seen below) has had babies.  Lots of them!  Resulting in 8 to 10 free plants around my garden and a few more dug up and shared with friends.

Hummingbird on California fuchsia

Grey hairstreak butterfly on chaparral mallow
Finally there are those perennial plants that spread by rhizomes or runners.  Some may complain about these as being aggressive but, so long as they are not invasive exotics, I look at them as more free plants!  I planted a beloved chaparral mallow four years ago.  I have kept it in bounds by digging up runners and either replanting them around the garden or sharing them with friends.  At least 4 friends and one local elementary school boast my mallow's babies in their gardens.

Similarly, I planted a native elderberry a few years back.  Sadly, the elderberry died its first winter but a single woodland strawberry plant that had hitched a ride in the nursery pot thrived, and spread and spread.  Last fall, I was looking for a native ground cover that tolerated shade to plant in the front yard.  When my Internet search landed on woodland strawberries, I did not hustle down to the nursery.  Instead, I simply dug up the requisite amount of strawberries from the patch in the backyard.

The back held of this bed is full of woodland strawberries.  Free to start with, they have spread nicely.  I've take some out for planting elsewhere in the garden.

Although growing your own perennials takes time, it results in a full garden and wallet.  Do you grow your own perennials?  What methods do you use?

This post is part of the Tuesday Garden PartyMaple Hill Hop and Green Thumb Thursday.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How To Provide Nesting Material for Birds in Your Garden

Although much of America is still buried under piles of snow, birds here in California have been busy building nests for the last month.  Because I want to encourage birds to nest nearby and increase them as visitors to our garden, I am happy to provide as much nesting material as possible.  Fortunately, it is easy and very inexpensive.


Lazy gardeners rejoice!  When fall comes around, do not hasty to cut back perennials and dead annual stems.  Don't rake up the twigs and pine needles.  Leave the mulch alone.  Let grass clippings lie on your lawn. You are doing a service to local wildlife - not to mention your soil as the organic material will also enrich your soil as it decays.

Spider webs make great bird nest fodder!

Mulching with organic materials - above, pine needles - help the soil and provide nesting materials.  


The robins' nest (above) fell from one of our trees during a windstorm last year.  As you can see, much of it is comprised of twigs and pine needles.  A fair amount of the bottom, though is from the native bunch grasses (below) that I put in a couple of years ago. 

California native "deer grass".


Last year, I made the decision to skip plastic garden tape and opt for twine.  To ditch the metal and plastic plant markers and use wooden popsicle sticks.  I wanted biodegradable-only materials in the garden.

I was glad of my decision when I watched finches gathering strands from last year's bean tepee twine for this year's nests.


Three years ago (I kid you not!), I invested $5 in a ball of cotton batting from local birding store. We do not have snow here in California but we do (occasionally) have rain.  This fluff has remained on the tree year in and out and is used every year by birds building nests.

Just this January, I watched a mother hummingbird gathering material multiple times.  Unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough to get a good photo but you get the idea.

Even though it seems like a great reuse, do NOT offer dryer lint which can be harmful to birds.  


Finally, you can pull together your small yarn scraps, bits of twine and pet hair.  Put them in a suet or peanut bird feeder or mesh bag and hang them on a tree.  Word of warning - pet hair is the most favorite of birds in our garden.  We've even have fights break out over it.  

By following these simple steps, you can welcome more wildlife into your garden.

This post is part of Tuesday Garden Party, Green Thumb Thursday, and Maple Hill Hop

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

When Green Living is a Labor of Love

You care about your kids' future.  Or the planet.  Or the open space and wildlife.  Or your health.  And so you decide to "go green".  You recycle more and shop less.  You use reusable bags and eat local food and bicycle.  You compost and grow a garden and bake your own bread and spend your time reading the back of deodorant bottles.

And at some point, it becomes, well, too much.

Green living should not be a chore.  By focusing on the fun stuff, we can stick with our positive lifestyle changes and, maybe, add more. If you are looking to extend your lighter living choices, here are a few things that the superheroes of the Green Phone Booth find irresistible.

Read the rest at The Green Phone Booth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

9 Ways to Shop Local for the Holidays ... And Beyond

A banner hangs across the main street of a local town.

Last year, I tried for a Nothing New Christmas, but this year, I admit that I am buying a bit more.  That said, I am trying to make my money count.  Did you know that "$45 out of every $100 spent at small businesses stays local."  Only $15 out of every $100, by contrast, stays local when you shop at national chains?  There are many more reasons to buy local - preserve the character of your area, create local jobs, foster entrepreneurship, and "help sustain vibrant, compact, walkable town centers" to name a few.

To be honest, though, one of the best reasons to shop local for the holidays is because you get better gifts.

1) Toy Stores - In my experience, independent toy stores carry more American and locally made products than chain stores.  They also offer a wider selection of educational and old fashioned toys as well as arts and craft kits and supplies.  If you are heading out this weekend to stuff the stockings, skip the Dollar Spot at Target and peruse your local toy store.  Try some old fashioned wooden airplanes, a wooden top, a jump roper or a bag of magic tricks.  If your elf prefers Legos or My Little Pony, never fear.  Local toy stores will likely carry that too.

Read the rest at The Green Phone Booth.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Give Thanks for Bees This Thanksgiving

Guest post from Amy Ziff at Veriety.  (Original post here)
From about as long as I can remember Thanksgiving in my family has really been about food first and foremost.  Of course immediately followed by family.  (If not for family, both real and adopted, who would all that food be for anyway?!) Then, not exactly as an afterthought, we would give thanks.  

These days, I’m profoundly aware of the need for gratitude in our lives, and not just as a virtue but because gratitude can have a profound effect on happiness as well. [] 

Of course as a Mom and healthy living coach, I love that this holiday is about food too!  Bringing gratitude and food together leads me to think about where our Thanksgiving food actually comes from. 

I’m grateful for the animals who will give their lives for the feast on our table, grateful for the farmers who grow and prepare our food, including tending to the animals who provide much of it.  And, I’m grateful for beekeepers and their incredible fleet of workers – literally worker-bees! – who, with their pollinator brethren, make many our favorite Thanksgiving dishes possible.  

Did you know that Cranberries, Pumpkins, Celery, Onions, Brussel Sprouts, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Carrots, Apples, Pears, Vanilla, even some Coffees all require the work of a pollinator? (In fact 71 out of the top 100 crops providing 90% of the world’s food are pollinated by bees. One out of every three bites of food is pollinated by honeybees alone.  Bees contribute over 20 billion to the US economy and $217 billion to the global economy annually!)  

While researching this column I found out that there is something we can do to extend this gratefulness one step further this thanksgiving.  We can actually thank the bees and other pollinators and speak out to protect them. 

Turns out that bees are dying at alarming rates. A certain kind of pesticide, known as neonicotinoids (neonics), are a key contributor to their die-offs.  (In Europe there is a 2-year ban on these pesticides in order for them to figure out the path forward.) But here in the US neonics are among the most heavily used insecticides. At the same time we’re seeing the loss of pollinators (including butterflies, earthworms, lady bugs, dragon flies, reptiles, and birds).  

Beekeepers report an unprecedented 30% loss in hives over the last eight years.  The bees in this case are the “canaries in the coal mine” sending out a warning for all pollinators.  Studies clearly indicate neonics as a key factor in bee declines.

From now until November 24th we have a unique opportunity to call on President Obama and his administration to take action to protect pollinators.

If you want to give thanks, then take a moment to tell the EPA and USDA to suspend bee-harming pesticides. There is a short window to speak out for the bees and other pollinators.  Visit www. and submit written comments to comments regarding: EPA docket number EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0806. Or, visit the Friends of The Earth commentary page for this topic. 

Urge the administration to take the following steps: 

o Immediately stop the release and use of neonicotinoids for agricultural uses—including seed treatments—as well as cosmetic and other unnecessary uses pending pesticide re-evaluation.
o Ensure that new pollinator habitat is free from neonicotinoids and other systemic insecticides and that all pollinator-attractive plants planted have not been pre-treated with these insecticides.

Don’t let the gratitude activism stop there!  Have your kids write a note and spread the word to others.  Please share this link on facebook, write a blog post, send out a thankful tweet #grateful4bees.  Lets make sure to thank those who are born to give – the bees, and all the pollinators – and work all their lives making Thanksgiving and every meal possible. 

Thank YOU for taking the time out to read this post and to for taking action. I am grateful to live in a world with people who know the meaning of gratitude.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

13 Green(er) Gifts for the Gardeners On Your List

It is that time of year again. While I am all about less gifts, less consumption, more experiences, if you really want to buy me or any other gardener a present this year, here is what people with dirt under their nails appreciate:

1) Sharpened Tools. Every winter, gardeners tuck away their tools - dulled from months worth of snipping and maybe a bit rusted from being left outside in the first rainstorm of the season.  Some gardeners are organized enough to have their tools "winterized" - sharpened and cleaned - or do it themselves.  For the rest of us, this is an ideal gift!  It has no carbon footprint, extends the useful life of our tools and is a service readily available at most locally owned nurseries.  You can also bring clippers to almost any knife sharpening service.

2) Seeds or Plants from Your Own Garden. If you have your own garden, what is more thoughtful than carefully saved seeds or propagated plants.  Bonus: inexpensive and low impact.

3) Coupon for a Project: Last year, my dad rigged up my bat house in the absolute perfect location (not that the bats have appreciated it yet but someday...).  The year before, my husband built me a potato condo. This year, I'm hoping for a raised bed cover for keeping heat in and bugs out. Hint, hint, honey!

My bat house. 
Continued at The Green Phone Booth

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Birdbath in Every Garden

Many of us aren't thinking about gardens right now. With winter bearing down, our minds drift toward pumpkin pies and holiday spices. But not so fast.

Just because you are not spending oodles of time in your yard now does not mean that the birds aren't.  Many birds are still migrating southward and looking for a place to take a dip.  Plus, if you do not currently own a bird bath, there is still time to put one on your Christmas or Hanukkah list. Here's why you should:

Birdbaths bring beauty and life into your garden. We have far more diverse and interesting visitors to our bird baths than to our two feeders.  The same four or five species that hit the feeders with regularity do enjoy our bird bath but so do migrating birds such as orioles, warblers, grosbeaks and woodpeckers.

Birdbaths offer a lifeline to wildlife during difficult times.  California is in its third year of an epic drought, which has been particularly tough on native wildlife.  The drought is driving animals into densely populated areas, desperate for food and water.  We have had deer and hawks visit our birdbaths this year in addition to the usual songbirds and squirrels.

A thirsty bobcat gets a drink. Photo used with permission from Don Barclift.

Deer in our front yard. Those mostly ignored the plants - looking for water and shade.

Birdbaths even help imperiled pollinators.

Honeybees are frequent visitors to our birdbaths. 

A birdbath on the cheap.  If a new birdbath isn't in the budget - or on the gift list - never fear.  Birdbaths are readily available at garage and estate sales and on Craigslist. I bought two of our five birdbaths second hand - for about $15 each.  High quality bird baths can last generations.

If you cannot find a second hand birdbath, Pinterest is full of ideas for repurposed ones that are free or nearly so: overturned trashcan lids, repurposed frying pans and our pot/saucer below.  I have even seen neighbors put out kitchen bowls of water for the thirsty mammals entering our neighborhood.  No effort to share water with wildlife is too small.

World's cheapest birdbath.

How to situate a birdbath in your garden.  My highest priority in placing a birdbath is purely selfish. Put it somewhere you can see it! I have one that I can watch through the kitchen window and another through the family room window.  Being able to admire the visitors to our garden has turned my husband, my kids and most definitely my indoor cats into avid birdwatchers.  At least once a week, someone will note, "There's a new kind of bird in the birdbath! What is it?"  We get out the ID book and start squinting.

The view from our family room window.

After you have figured out places where you can enjoy your new birdbath, consider your visitors.  Our most popular birdbaths have partial shade with a tree overhead.  Birds regularly land in the tree to explore the situation before dipping in for a drink.  If you have neighborhood cats, it is a good idea to keep the area surrounding the birdbath clear so that cats cannot hide nearby.  More great tips here.

Our hanging birdbath is popular with smaller songbirds and pollinators. 

Making a commitment. If you add a birdbath to your garden, it is all for naught if you don't keep it full. Birds and other wildlife are looking for a dependable source. Refilling it every couple of days will keep mosquitoes from being a problem and will clear out debris.  Moreover, because birdbaths are so shallow, mosquitoes are rarely an issue. I also scrub mine out every couple of months when algae builds up.

I hope I have convinced you to entice beauty into your yard and extend a hand to wildlife.  I hope I have convinced you that we need a birdbath in every garden.

This post is part of the Homestead Barn HopBackyard Farming ConnectionMaple Hill Hop, and Green Thumb Thursday.


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