Featured Plant: Soap Root

One of the newest additions to the topmost tier of Jungle Stairs West is soaproot, Chlorogalum pomeridianum. If you look closely, you should see the signature wavy leaves poking out of the soil.

We have three soaproot plants, each of which should soon put out slender wands of delicate flowers much liked by foraging bees. After dark the flowers may be visited by a hawk moth, an insect so large it can be mistaken for a hummingbird. As the name suggests, soaproot was used by native Americans as a cleanser. It is also edible, though by no means choice. For more see this article in Bay Nature Magazine.



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Weekday Workday Report

Today was beautiful and sunny. Pat Holleran was out on Jungle Stairs West, and so was I. Of course, Pat got a lot more accomplished that I did. I spent a lot of my time trying to dig a hole big enough for a 5-gallon shrub. I hit rock–I think it was rock–about a shovel length down, and, well, I gave up. Clearly I’ve got to work on my biceps!

To me, the most interesting thing was the dryness of the soil below the surface. It’s remained dry despite last week’s rains. Earlier I had been worried about compacting soil by digging. Well, the good news is that’s not a danger. The bad news is that, below the surface, a big swath of Jungle Stairs West is looking as dry as desert sand.

I don’t quite know what this means for our planting plans. What I’m thinking it means is what I’ve observed with the coyote brushes planted on the west side. Those drought-tolerant shrubs have taken a good 3 to 4 years to establish, maybe because their tap roots have had to find their way through a layer of hard pan or, more likely, fractured rock that lies beneath the fluffy top-coat of organic duff.

Amazing that there is such a huge difference between our two slopes. Jungle Stairs East is a very different place. And it’s not just a matter of how much more light and how much less wind it gets. The soil there is different too. And I”m starting to think that soil differences matter a lot….


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Rain Rain Rain

I’m sitting indoors listening to the rain bands move through and thinking about how delighted our second Catalina Fernleaf Ironwood tree must be to be freed from its pot and able to stretch out its roots. If we get just an inch of rain, then the 3 ft. x 3 ft. area around the Ironwood will soak up 6 gallons of water, which is almost double the amount it gets from our weekly irrigation cycle. Here is the USGS Rainfall Calculator. If you want to monitor how much rain has fallen, you can check the nearby Collingwood Hill/Noe Valley Personal Weather Station 

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Manzanitas in Bloom

On both the east and west side of Jungle Stairs the manzanitas we’ve planted have burst into bloom. Here is a photo of one of the Sentinel manzanitas. If you look closely, you might be able to spot the big bumblebee visiting a flower that looks a little like a cluster of light pink teardrops.

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by | January 5, 2019 · 8:48 pm

Ironwood Is In! Rootball Is Toast, Almost!

Today Ken, Pierre and Marc did heroic work getting the cotoneaster root ball cut down to size and then filling in the hole around it.

There are still stumplets above ground, but these will soon be hidden by plants growing around them.

When the wood dries a bit more, we can drill holes in the stumplets and fill them with a non-toxic powder that hastens decay.

That’s not all that happened today.

With the hole around the stump filled back in, the stalwart trio was able to plant the second Catalina Fernleaf Ironwood tree.

Great timing as it looks like the Bay Area is in for 6 days of soaking rain.

Speaking of the rain:  

Looks like our workday will once again be rained out this weekend. 

It’s annoying only because we have plants we need to get into the ground and, of course, weeds to pull. But the plants already in the ground are going to be really happy.

If the rains skirt us for some reason, some folks could still get out on the slopes. Frankly, though, I’d rather have the rain.

Right now it looks like the next good weekend workday will be the following Saturday, Jan 12, and maybe Sunday the 13th, though for Sunday there are also showers in the forecast. Stay tuned.


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Operation Rootball

Left to right, Marc, Lucas, Pierre and Ken

Has anyone else noticed the big rootball that’s been sitting in the ground for months now? Today Ken, assisted by Lucas, Marc and Pierre, made significant progress in getting it chopped back to ground level. The winning technique included using a hose to get rid of imbedded soil and rocks and then attacking the woody stems with a variety of tools, including a chainsaw and an axe. Physically taxing, but we are now optimistic that, after one or two more sessions like this one, we will soon be able to fill in the hole and get on with planting.

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A Mahonia Surprise

The other day we were out on the western slope planting Mahonia or Berberis aquifolium var. repens, a creeping variant of Oregon grape, whose natural range extends from California up into British Columbia. Eventually we’re hoping to establish a cluster of six graceful evergreen shrubs, each 1 to 2 feet tall and as much as 5 feet across.  Yellow flowers in spring, bright blue berries in summer, red-tinged foliage in autumn. (See photo below.)

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But that’s not the end of the story.

On leaving, we noticed an interesting trio of tiny plants whose glossy, spiky leaves made them look a lot like holly.  But no, as neighbor Rube Warren explained to me, these are also mahonias, offspring of a shrub he planted in his backyard quite a while ago. And now that I know it’s there, I can easily spot the parent mahonia peeking out over the retaining wall at the edge of Rube’s property.

After doing a little research, I’ve concluded that this plant and its offspring are so-called shiny leaf barberries, close relatives of Oregon grape but endemic to California. If they thrive, these little seedlings should slowly grow into shrubs that are maybe 3 to 6 or more feet tall and as wide.  We’ve now flagged their locations so that we can monitor how they’re faring and maybe even — despite their spines — give them a little TLC.  For more see the Calscape Berberis pinnata link.

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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 shrub 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.

The Fremontodendron is a good choice, I think, because it appears 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

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What’s a Weed?

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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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Plant Maintenance Schedule

So…we’ve now put a bunch of plants in the ground. What should we do to make sure they stay pretty and happy?  Here’s the Yerba Buena Nursery’s maintenance guide for California native shrubs and perennials. Note the strong caution about do-it-yourself pruning of trees. Note also that the timing of pruning varies according to species. We should this winter severely prune (coppice) the coyote brush on the West Side.

Yerba Buena Nursery Native Plant Pruning and Dead-Heading Calendar

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