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Thursday, February 26, 2009

GAIL'S GARDEN: Questions and Answers About Gardening

The first in a continuing series: Everything you wanted to know about gardening, but were afraid to ask

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What is the difference between a perennial and an annual?

An annual is a plant that only lives for one year: we are all familiar with annual vegetables like tomatoes, peas, and corn which must be replanted every year. In the flower garden pansies, California poppies, petunias, and sweet peas are all familiar annuals. These annual plants complete their life cycle of birth, flowering, seed production, and death within one year. They are almost always grown from seed: either by you, the home gardener, or by the nursery where you buy them in 4” pots or six-packs.

A perennial is a plant that normally lives for several years: in the vegetable garden we think of artichokes, rhubarb, and asparagus. Some perennials are evergreen, some lose their leaves, and some die back almost to the ground, but in all perennials at least the root structure persists throughout the year to produce new growth in the spring. In the flower garden there many common perennials that die almost to the ground in cold weather: Peruvian lily (alstroemeria), Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum), gladiolus, and iris. Common evergreen perennials for our Mediterranean climate are lavender, rosemary, penstemon, and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens: a wonderful California native grass).

What is the difference between compost and mulch?

So many people are confused about this! Compost is the aerobically decomposed remnants of organic matter. When you put your garden clippings into the green bin, the waste company takes all those grass mowing, tree trimming, and rose pruning wastes to Sonoma Compost on Mecham Road in Petaluma. There they are chopped and mixed, aged and heated until they decay into a wonderful, weed-free soil amendment and fertilizer called compost.

See for all the details on some great products for your garden’s long term health, and a healthier planet! You can also make your own compost: check the back of your Sunset Western Garden Book for many different options.

Use compost to amend your soil by spreading it on the surface two to four inches deep, by rototilling it in, or by mixing it into each planting hole you dig (use 25% compost and 75% native soil in the hole). Because of the multitude of soil nutrients and organisms found in compost, it has the unique ability to improve both sandy and clay soils, provide natural time-release fertilizer to all your plants, and encourage the health of beneficial soil dwellers like earthworms.

Ok, so what is mulch? A mulch is anything you spread over the surface of the garden to control weeds, hold moisture, and prevent erosion. A mulch can be organic or inorganic. Inorganic mulches that we see commonly used around Sonoma County are gravel and landscape fabric: these add no nutrients to the soil. A commonly used organic mulch is wood chips: these break down very slowly and add minimal amounts of nutrition to your soil.

So why are some of the composts called mulches? Because compost makes a great mulch! Spread over the surface of exposed garden soil, it provides weed control, holds water, prevents erosion, and feeds the soil: all in one operation. That’s why I use only compost for my mulching needs: two to four inches every other year (with a layer of newspaper or cardboard over any really tough weeds) take care of weeding and feeding my garden: easy, economical, and green. Try it: you’ll be amazed at the results!

Edible and Ornamental!

Yes, the time has come to turn our thoughts to the vegetable garden. You can start planting vegetables outside now: starts and seeds are available at all our great local nurseries.

I know many of us think of the vegetable garden as a separate garden from our ornamental or flower garden, and we try to put it way back in an out of the way spot so that it is out of sight in down times. But I think we need to re-examine this frame of mind: why hide your edibles?

There are so many edible plants that are attractive to look at, why not let them share space with your shrubs and flowers?

There are many advantages to mixing edibles and ornamentals throughout the garden.
If your strawberries are planted near the back door, not only do they provide a nice groundcover around your roses or iris, but they are handy for picking every time you go out. Lettuce and other salad greens grown near the patio are much more likely to get the frequent picking and watering they need than those that languish in the far corner of the yard. When your herbs are grown in pots outside the kitchen door, harvesting and using them becomes a simple and healthful part of everyday meal preparation. I love to grow rosemary near the barbeque where it can be quickly picked and thrown on meats as they cook, or you can use those long stems to make shish kabob skewers.

Herbs like oregano, basil, lavender and sage are very attractive and deserve to be grown in the flower beds for enjoyment of their eye-appeal, as well as their taste.

Many plants which you may already grow as ornamentals produce edible parts which can contribute to your family’s healthy, homegrown eating. Did you know that bamboo sprouts are good eating? Harvest the shoots when they are less than 1 foot tall, remove the tough outer leaves and root section, slice thinly, and boil for 20 minutes (do not eat them raw, as them contain toxic substances!). They are crunchy and nutritious (high in potassium) additions to salads, stir-frys, and soups.

Of course, you will need to use organic growing methods with any plants which you intend to harvest for food. I hope that you have already banished all chemical products from your entire garden, but even organic/natural products can be harmful if eaten: always check labels for safety before using on food crops.

Last summer I visited a wonderful garden in the North of England, Hutton-in-the-Forest, where the flower borders were anchored by apple trees interplanted with roses: beautiful and edible! Rose hips, those large red or orange fruits produced on your roses if you forget to prune, as high in vitamin C, and make excellent jams or tea. Check out rose hip recipes at If you want to grow roses especially for big, juicy hips, varieties of Rosa rugosa are recommended.

Many other shrubs and trees that we commonly use as ornamentals produce edible fruits: oregon grape (Mahonia), quince (Chaenomeles), currant (Ribes), pineapple guava (Feijoa) and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). The bay tree (Larus nobilis) is a valuable evergreen ornamental whose leaves can be used in cooking.

Orchard trees and vines can be easily integrated into the garden setting: Meyer lemon, persimmon, apple, plum, and olive are all beautiful and productive in our climate. If you have a frost-protected area, you can try oranges and other citrus. I love an arbor smothered in grape vines: pluck the fruit, then sit and relax a while in the shade.

Don’t forget than there are many easy-to-grow edible flowers that add taste and color to salads, cakes, and even cheeses! Some of my favorites are pansies (Viola), nasturtiums, borage, roses, lavender, mint, and rosemary. For lots of great recipes and fun ideas check out

Start your beautiful edible garden today! If you need planning help, call Gail at 829-2455 for a in-home consultation. Happy home-grown eating!

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