Getting Ready for the Ironwoods

IMG_1288.jpgIn late November or early December, after the first rains moisten the soil, we will be planting two Fernleaf Catalina Ironwood trees on the eastern slope.  In preparation, Pierre and Ken have been whacking away at the huge root mass that’s in the way.  Above is a photo of Ken out on the slope wielding his chainsaw. Below is a close-up of what the Ironwoods should look like in a few years time.  In summer they will be covered with flower clusters between 4 and 8 inches across.  Year-round their fern-like leaves will stay bright green; their rough, shredded bark, reddish brown.




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The Plants of Jungle Stairs

How, you might wonder, did Jungle Stairs go about selecting its planting scheme?  There were a number of criteria, beginning with microclimate. Thus, the west slope is not only quite shady but also exposed to winds that, at times, can exceed 45 mph.  Not every plant can withstand such conditions.  By contrast, the eastern slope lies on the lee side of Collingwood Hill.  It’s also sunny,  which makes it prime real-estate for many California natives and their Mediterranean allies.

With that as a starting point, our plant designer, Todd Gilens, picked a “palette” for each slope. In a very real sense, he “painted” our hillsides with shapes and colors that, in time, should evolve into an eye-pleasing tapestry.

“Plant palette” is a landscaping term. It refers to the overall look–the style–of a particular array of plants.  Among the palettes familiar to Californians is the Mediterranean palette, with its gray-scale textures and soft pastel hues.  Our palette,  which is composed largely of plants native to California, could be considered an offshoot of its Mediterranean cousin, and, indeed, we do have plants of Mediterranean origin mixed in with the natives. Among the shared characteristics of these plants– as well as others from similar climate zones– is their extremely low demand for water.

In addition, the plants Todd selected have value to wildlife, especially birds and beneficial insects, from bumble bees and butterflies to parasitic wasps almost too small to see.  For the insects we are setting a table of flowering plants plumped with nectar and pollen, as well as host plants for butterfly larvae.  For the birds we are constructing a multi-course feast.  As the fruit course, we are offering currants and coffeeberry;  as the seed course, sages and California lilacs. And for the hummingbirds, we are providing nectar sources, among them, manzanitas and California fuchsias.

Already bumble bees have happily discovered the Phacelia we planted at the top of the eastern stairs. Soon, we hope, those who walk the staircase will find themselves nose to beak with a hummingbird.  Day by day, it seems, our hillsides are becoming more alive.





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What’s Up With All That Burlap?

Many people have noticed–and wondered about–the burlap we’ve been stretching across our two slopes.  We’ve explained its purpose to individuals who’ve asked,  but that’s left many others in the dark.

Here’s a short run-down of the whys and wherefores of the burlap and what’s beneath it.

What you are looking at is “sheet mulch,” an effective, low-cost means of dealing with weed-infested areas. Often it’s referred to as the lasagna method of weed control.  It consists of multiple layers or newspaper or cardboard laid down around new plantings.

Ideally sheet mulch would be invisible. On the flat, for example, it stays in place without a problem and can thus be easily covered by more attractive bark mulch.  On the steep slopes of Jungle Stairs, however, the cardboard and newspaper quickly slide downhill.  So in order to get our lasagna layers to stay in place, we had to pin them down with strips of burlap.

The burlap has another function as well: It provides a rough surface so that we can, we hope, get shredded bark to stick.  The bark mulch will not only hide the sheet mulch but also make it more effective in retaining moisture and discouraging weeds.  In a short amount of time the bark, along with the newspaper and cardboard, will decay and add organic material to the soil.

In the meantime, our ongoing battle with weeds has been eased, which frees us up to do more fun stuff, like the planting scheduled for this fall.

So far, at any rate, sheet mulch has been a big win for Jungle Stairs.


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Project Fremontodendron

Fremontodendron californicum is also known as the California Flannel Bush. Here is a close-up of its blossoms.

On Wednesday we began the task of removing the Cotoneaster on the eastern slope. Why are we doing this? Cotoneasters are all over, right? Well, that’s the problem.  Certain species of these popular ornamentals– including the Cotoneaster at Jungle Stairs–are running amok in Bay Area wild-lands. Over time they can completely take over an area, elbowing other plants aside.

Taking out our Cotoneaster will do more than remove a nuisance. It will also open up a new vista across the slope and enable us to see the Fremontodendron we have planted just behind it. This big, showy shrubs will soon become 15 to 20 feet tall and almost as wide.  We all appreciate the fact that large plants, both shrubs and trees, often serve as visual blocks that frame the landscape or block straight-on views into neighboring houses.  Our Fremontodendron is positioned to perform that role.

Fremontodendrons are a good choice, I think, because they appear to do very well in our area of San Francisco.  There’s a big one at the corner of Castro and 21st Street whose saucer–size lemon yellow flowers I look forward to each spring. Earlier this year, in another part of the city,  I caught  a cluster– maybe there or four Fremontodendrons– at the height of their bloom. All I can say is, Wow.

Maybe the coolest thing about Fremontodendrons–in addition to Fremontodendron californicum, the genus includes the endangered Fremontodendron mexicanum and Fremontodendron decumbens— is their deep evolutionary history.  As the Annie’s Annuals and Perennials catalogue informs us, Fremontodendrons are “one of the few survivors from 60 million years ago, when California was less mountainous & more tropical.” To put 60 million years ago in perspective, that’s just 5 million years after that big asteroid splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico and put an end to Age of Dinosaurs.

In losing the Cotoneaster, we do not want to make the hillside unfriendly to birds and other wild things. Bees, for example, love Fremontodendron nectar, which may help them fight off microbial predators. Plus many species of birds like to drink from its blossoms,  which fill with rain-water in the wet season. We also are planting many other types of shrubs and sub-shrubs that bear berries and seeds birds like, including ceanothus, redberry and coffeeberry.

For more about Fremontodendron californicum check out:


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What’s a Weed?

A working definition might be an aggressively spreading plant that is not native to the area in which it is growing.

But that’s not entirely adequate, as the above photo shows. Neither Santa Barbara daisies nor pink knotweed are native here, and yet they perform admirably in certain spots, cascading over retaining walls and decorating sidewalk cracks.

I like to refer to plants like these as “useful weeds” because they are aggressive, tough and yet easy to control.

Certain native wildflowers, I’ve found, can also be usefully weedy. Every year, for example, the California poppies and Clarkias in my garden go to seed and pop up hither and yon. Yet it’s a simple matter to yank out the ones too many.

The bad actors, the so-called noxious weeds, are those that not only spread but also, once established, become a bear to remove. At Jungle Stairs, in addition to pokeweed (subject of an earlier post), we’ve got wild fennel, English ivy, French and Spanish broom, plus various thistles along with problematic grasses.

But the weed burden does seem to be much reduced from what it was. Dare I hope that we’re gaining the upper hand?


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Gradations of Shade

Ever wonder about the difference between full shade and light shade?  C. Colston Burrell at the Fine Gardening website offers the best explanation I’ve come across: “In nature, full sun is analogous to meadows, prairies, and other open country. Cultivated plants that require a full day of direct summer sun — 10 or more hours — are native to these ecosystems. Light shade occurs along edges of woodlands and in savannas where trees provide up to 25 percent canopy closure and plants receive 5 to 10 hours direct sun. In partial shade, such as in open woods, and small clearings with up to 50 percent canopy closure, plants get less than five hours of direct sun and are shaded for at least half the day. Full shade occurs in forests and woodlands with complete canopy closure. Plants there may take in less than an hour of direct sun a day, though they may glean filtered or dappled light throughout all or part of the day as the sun tracks across the sky. In deep shade, direct sunlight seldom, if ever, reaches the ground. This occurs in coniferous forests, or in gardens where walls or building overhangs block out the sun.”  Plants that do well in light shade will struggle in deep shade and vice versa. As you walk up or down Jungle Stairs West, see how many gradations of shade you can find.

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Featured Plant: Calandrinia

This long-blooming succulent, aka Shining Rock Purslane, grows at the top of Jungle Stairs West as well as all over our neighborhood. It may be of Chilean origin but San Francisco’s bees adore it. Take a look at the honey bee prowling around in the blossom on the lower right of this photograph. When it flies away,  it will carry back to its hive a load of distinctive red pollen, protein-rich food for the next generation.IMG_1191.jpg

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Surprise Brush Haul

This morning we found out that a DPW truck was coming by at 11:00 am to pick up a load of brush. Luckily it didn’t take long to assemble a work crew.  Pat, Pierre, Jonathan, Mari and Marc, who just had cataract surgery yesterday! And, of course, the Mad Gardener was there as well. Here we all are.  Photo Credit: Jonathan Patrizio55674127363__A79BD810-8764-49D0-A147-6FEF8D9C3722.jpegIMG_4646.jpeg


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Featured Plant: Sticky Monkey Flower

Sticky Monkey Flower, Mimulus aurantiacus, is a shrubby perennial that, around June, bursts into riotous bloom in the coastal scrub of California.  It’s related to snapdragons and, also, to  foxgloves, a Eurasian exotic that’s considered invasive in Bay Area wildlands.

The common name captures two of the plant’s key characteristics–the yellow-orange flowers, which supposedly look like smiley monkey’s faces, and the sticky underside of the leaves.  The stickiness comes from secretions of a resin that composes almost 30% of a leaf’s weight, according the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.   The resin is there because Sticky Monkey Flower is a preferred food source for the larvae of Euphydryas chalcedona, the variable checkerspot butterfly.

“Resin production in the leaves fluctuates seasonally with the laying of butterfly eggs… During the wet season, the larvae emerge and begin to feed on the nutritious spring leaves of the evergreen shrub. Nutrient levels as well as resin production in the leaves are high during this period of new growth. The resin that the larvae consume inhibits their growth, and protects the plant to some degree. In the early summer, the plant begins to allocate its energy towards flowering, away from the leaves, and the larvae stop feeding.”

The variable checkerspot went extinct in San Francisco’s Presidio around 1978 due to loss of habitat. It has now been reintroduced there in the wake of a major effort aimed at restoring native chaparral.  A number of the key butterfly plants the Presidio has re-introduced can also be found at Jungle Stairs.

So look closely the next time you pass by a Sticky Monkey Flower. You may well spot the flutter of black and-orange wings along with visiting bees and hummingbirds.


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East side before & after

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