April’s explosion of annuals and perennials marked the beginning of the flower season. Silhouettes from the winter garden had disappeared, and the shady areas continued to deepen as new leaves filled in the crowns of trees. At the Gardens at Heather Farm, native Heuchera maxima blooms during late spring and early summer.
The genus Heuchera (pronounced HOY-ker-uh), a member of the Saxifragaceae family, is native to the United States. Though sometimes called coral bells because of its tiny bell-shaped flowers, Heuchera gets its genus name from an 18th-century German professor of medicine and botany, Johann Heinrich von Heucher. California is home to 15 species, as well as many new cultivars. Native species grow in a variety of habitats, ranging from below 500 feet to 10,000 feet, though the Heucheras at high altitudes can be quite small.
Heuchera maxima, the largest of the California species, is also known as alum root. Hundreds of delicate creamy-white flowers fill the 3-foot-tall magenta stems, which rise above clumps of crinkled, heart-shaped leaves. As the flowers age and seed heads form, they turn reddish-pink, making it hard to distinguish whether the flowers are pink or white.
Happy in a garden with clay soil, Heuchera maxima performs best with some afternoon shade in our climate. Though drought-tolerant, it also can handle a little summer water. At Heather Farm, it is planted in the shade garden, which receives summer water, as well as in the East Bay Municipal Utility District water conservation garden, planted under valley oaks. The EBMUD garden plants thrive without summer water, but are a bit smaller than the irrigated plants.
The Heuchera at the Gardens at Heather Farm don’t have pest or disease problems. Tiny white hairs on the stems deter most insects. Hummingbirds often visit the flowers. If allowed to go to seed, Heuchera will naturalize prolifically in the garden.
– Patrice Hanlon
Our rose garden is looking better than it ever has. And they are all grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers!
We have to particularly thank our volunteers, because as a private nonprofit, not a City of Walnut Creek facility, we rely on a great group of volunteers to maintain the roses.
One of my favorite summer herbs — Ocimum basilicum, or basil — is one of the easiest to grow. Its history has inspired legend, symbolism, religious rituals and culinary delights. European, Asian, African, Caribbean, Mediterranean and South American cultures all have ancient stories and uses in medicine and the kitchen.
Probably originating in Asia and Africa, Ocimum basilicum is thought to have been brought to ancient Greece by Alexander the Great and to have made its way to England from India in the mid-1500s. It arrived in North America in the early 1600s.
Its growing requirements are simple: a warm, sunny spot, with nighttime temperatures above 60 degrees. And it likes rich soil and plenty of moisture. Basil can be sown in the garden once soil temperatures have warmed, or it can be started in pots and transplanted into the garden.
Harvest your basil when the leaves are young, but don’t fertilize, since doing so creates a bushier plant at the expense of flavor. After harvesting, the leaves can be frozen in polyethylene bags after being quickly blanched in boiling water.
If growing basil in containers, two or three plants can be grouped in a 12- or 14-inch pot. For the smaller varieties such as lemon, cinnamon or Thai basil, place four or five plants in one large pot.
For long-term storage, the Italian method works best. Pack dry basil leaves in layers in glass jars. Place a pinch of salt between the layers.
Basil begins flowering by midsummer, but to maintain the best flavor and most leaf production, the flowers should be pinched back to prevent seeds from forming. Start pruning basil when plants have produced six to eight leaf pairs. Cut it back to only eight inches above the ground to stimulate new leaf production.
The most popular basil is Genovese, the one grown for pesto. Other varieties include lettuce leaf, sweet and Italian large leaf. In her new book “The Drunken Botanist,” Amy Stewart includes wonderful recipes for fresh basil in cocktails.
The Gardens at Heather Farm will present a sale April 27 that features a variety of basils, along with zinnias and other summer annual flowers that help attract pollinators to the vegetables in your garden. Go to http://gardenshf.org for a listing of plants, including the basils.
– Patrice Hanlon
Despite less winter rain than usual, the open spaces on the hillsides in the Gardens at Heather Farm are greening — thanks to the spring annuals we cultivate and the ever-present weeds intermingling with those annuals, as if we had planted them, too.
In defense of weeds, I try to remember the many attributes they add to the landscape, but their story has become hazy with the passage of time, our disconnection from the natural world and our love of orderly gardens. Still, weeds can tell us many things about our garden soil, water flow, nutrients and fertility.
And we mustn’t forget that they were the first vegetables, home medicines and dyes. Some are abrasive enough for cleaning pewter, others sturdy enough for arrow shafts. Their flowers provide nectar for bees and other pollinators, which are beginning to emerge as we celebrate the spring equinox.
One of the many welcome weeds here in the gardens is Tragopogon porrifolius, commonly known as Salsify, Purple Goatsbeard or Vegetable Oyster. It is a biennial herb and a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family. The genus Tragopogon is derived from the Greek words tragos, meaning “goat,” and pogon, meaning “beard” (which refers to the feathery hairs when the plant is in seed). The species name porrifolius refers to the leeklike leaves, while the common name Salsify comes from the old Latin solsequium (sol meaning sun and sequens meaning following, since the flower is heliotropic).
Native to southern Europe, Salsify is cultivated worldwide for its creamy white roots, which can be cooked or used as a relish. The flavor is said to resemble that of oysters. The root can be baked, stewed or used in soup.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, an encyclopedia of remedies published by Nicholas Culpeper in 1653, says the Salsify root should be stewed to treat gall problems and jaundice.
I have not tried eating Salsify, but I thin it from the gardens here so it does not take over, leaving little patches intermittently to help support our pollinators, birds and bees.
– Patrice Hanlon
The Gardens at Heather Farm offer many places for a respite from the busyness of our urban setting. Nestled on six acres within the 102-acre Heather Farm Park, the Gardens provides areas where visitors can find a bench or a grassy area to picnic. If you sit quietly for long enough, you’ll see bluebirds flying from branch to branch eating insects, and digging in the soft soil for worms. Battles are beginning over which will build their nests in the bluebird boxes installed here by the Audubon Society about five years ago.
At the top of the Mural Garden, two benches offer nice vistas of the gardens and park. In winter months when not much is in bloom, the bright spot in this garden is Elaegnus x ebbingei ‘Gilt’s Edge’. This plant’s waxy, deep-green leaves are edged in yellow with specks of silver dusted on top; the undersides are just as beautiful with their copper silver sheen, consisting of tiny scales. The rust-colored stems have fine hairs, and both are characteristics of a plant that can withstand heat. This plant makes you think of bright sunlight, even on a gray day.
One of 45 species that include evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees growing throughout Europe, Asia and North America, Elaeagnus x ebbingei is an evergreen shrub that grows up to 10 feet in height. It makes a good addition for a sunny garden, but can tolerate shade, and so is well suited for spaces under deciduous trees. At the Gardens at Heather Farm, it grows in full sun during the winter months, but in partial shade once the trees in the Mural Garden have leafed out. Small, fragrant, silver-white, bell-shaped flowers bloom during autumn; they are followed by small red fruit that is edible.
Known for its toughness, Elaeagnus tolerates poor soils, since its root nodules contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria that enrich the soil. Once established, the plant is fine with minimal amounts of water in summer. It stands up to hard shearing and shaping, or can be lightly shaped during the winter months to maintain its size. It grows fairly quickly, and several plants can be placed to create a hedge, windbreak or screen.
My life is so busy – always trying to cram so much into each hour that I rarely take any downtime. Because of that I was hesitant to sign up for The Gardens first Winter Walk, “Discover Our Feathered Inhabitants”, but my love of outdoor birds and gardens drew me to sign up. We started with some quiet time and a poem read by one of our leaders, Jackie Jordan; our other two leaders were Patrice Hanlon and Dan Stanton. We are reminded that the Gardens are very meditative and they change every day; and nature can bring out more in us. The Gardens allow us to take time to slow down and to refresh ourselves.
Strolling through the Gardens we immediately came upon several birds to observe –one was a beautiful Black Phoebe that was delighted to be scratching around the ground. Patrice Hanlon the Garden Director was excited as well because just the day before her group of volunteers had cleaned up that area and stirred up lots of good things for the bird to forage on. The Gardens is a safe haven for all creatures because of its dedication to sustainability and not using chemicals. After that sighting we began strolling and chatting about the birds that make The Gardens their home –whether permanent or migratory. Approaching the ponds I was delighted to see my favorite bird – the Great Blue Heron– so majestic and peaceful in its setting. We also got lucky with several sightings of the Black Crowned Night Heron. They are pros at hiding in the trees that surround the ponds. There were so many birds to observe that we could have spent hours. There are other animals that make the park their home – in particular the river otters that go between the native ponds and the big pond. Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to see them – they come out much earlier in the day, so a good reason to come back.
Nearing the end of the walk we stopped to reflect down by the big oak next to the native pond and were asked to write a poem if we were so inspired – I have never written a poem but was so surprised how inspired I was to bring reflection on our time together. I am definitely looking forward to the next walk scheduled for February 22nd.
On this mild winter day
We stroll The Gardens
Looking for Birds
Looking for Reflection
Looking for Peace
On this mild winter day
We stroll The Gardens
Cold, dry, cloudless days make working in the garden a pleasure. From the upper hillside overlooking the rose garden, the early-morning activities include watching the resident otters out for a meal and a little play. This amphibious mammal, known for its grace and playful nature, can be spotted eating fish from a perch on the pond filters and delighting visitors. The river otter’s fur consists of two layers — a coarse, waterproof outer coat and a softer layer that keeps the animal warm. While in the water, the coat is covered by a silvery sheen of air bubbles that cling to the outer hairs.
In the garden, our tough California native plants are not fazed by a lack of water or by cold temperatures. One of the garden work horses — Rhamnus californica, or California coffeeberry — is at its peak during the autumn months, when its deep red berries begin to blacken. Now is the time when the minute yellow-green starlike flowers, which are small and insignificant, shine against the brilliant ruby-colored stems of this evergreen shrub. It is amazing that such tiny flowers could produce the beautiful berries that are quite prominent throughout the summer months.
The pale green fruit ripens as the heat of summer intensifies, turning eggplant purple and then jet black — hence the name coffeeberry. It is a favorite of quails, thrushes, robins, finches, towhees, thrashers and jays and is a great wildlife-habitat plant. The leaves appear waxy, and their edges curl during the heat to conserve moisture.
California coffeeberry is a member of the Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn) family, which includes approximately 900 species of mostly trees and shrubs. The name Rhamnus californica recently was changed to Frangula californica; however, nurseries are more likely to know it by the former name.
Two other native family members include Rhamnus crocea, spiny redberry; and Rhamnus ilicifolia, holly-leaf redberry. California coffeeberry’s native habitat is widespread throughout the state, which is one reason it does well in a variety of garden settings. Ranging from the coast to the inland valleys, it can tolerate inland heat or the cool coastal breezes. In the garden, it combines well with toyon, sages, ceanothus and other plants that like dry conditions. It makes a great screen or hedge, and it has few diseases or pests, though with poor drainage it can be susceptible to water mold. It does not mind pruning and once established, does well with little or no summer irrigation.
This wonderful California native shrub is growing in the East Bay Municipal Garden, but the best display can be found in the Diablo Ascent Garden, behind the bronze eagle. This cultivar, Rhamnus californica ‘Eve Case,’ has the fattest berries.