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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens


In the Garden with Joan

On her In the Garden blog, Joan provides practical advice about designing, planting and caring for gardens throughout Santa Barbara, the Central Coast and the state of California.

Edible Gardening with Children: Summer Playtime in the Garden

It's never too early to start.

It’s never too early to start teaching your kids to tend edibles.

School’s out and there’s no better time to enlist your kids to grow fresh edibles. Many summer crops grow fast and yield bounty that children like to eat. Start your kids playing in the dirt early, and they’ll develop an appreciation for home-grown food and healthy habits for life.

If you don’t have children, gather your neighbors’ kids instead. Or simply vow to rediscover your inner child by taking time to view your garden with wide-eyed wonder, kneeling down to breathe in the scents and to inspect your emerging edibles from a ground-level perspective.

With the popularity of school gardens, some parents may even face a bit of role reversal, with their kids being the ones pestering them to plant veggies. Regardless of the youngsters you round up, don’t be intimidated if they seem to have more gardening experience than you do. The following is a quick-start guide, no matter who’s just beginning to dig in the dirt.

Getting Started

Green beans and sunflowers are both easy to grow.

Green beans and sunflowers are both easy to grow.

Select a sunny spot in your yard with a nearby source of water. Work in compost or other organic material to a depth of eight to 12 inches to improve the fertility of the bed and ensure that it drains well. Older children can use a shovel or rake to help prepare the soil, while the younger set may be content with stomping on dirt clods to break them up.

Solicit opinions about what to grow. Summer crops include beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, sunflowers, tomatoes, tomatillos and zucchini. Warm-season herbs are good companion plants for attracting beneficial insects to the fray, and include basil, borage, chamomile, cilantro and dill.

Depending on the ages of your entourage, decide whether to grow their choices from seeds or plants. Large seeds that reliably sprout and are easy for young hands to grasp include beans, corn, pumpkins and sunflowers. Sow any of these directly in the ground.

You may be better off buying transplants of eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, all of which can be fussy about germinating if our early-summer skies stay gray. Planting a few seedlings also provides instant gratification and helps remind your kids to water the bare spots where they’ve sown seeds that haven’t popped up yet.

Strategies for the Long Haul

Find ways to provide some action during the long gap between planting and harvest.

Choose edibles that grow by leaps and bounds, such as melons or pumpkins. Make a chart measuring how far their vines advance each day.

Build a teepee out of bamboo planting stakes, then train climbing pole beans up the stakes for a shady retreat. Plant a forest of tall sunflowers with a secret, open center in which your child can putter or daydream. Make a bench out of two overturned pots and a board.

Select plants that do something interesting along the way. Show your child how to squirt a kernel of corn or thunk a melon to test for ripeness.

Sweet Italian Long peppers are photogenic in the garden and beautiful on the plate.

Sweet Italian Long peppers are photogenic in the garden and beautiful on the plate.

Older children may get a kick out of growing a pizza garden, complete with peppers, tomatoes, basil and oregano. Competitive tykes might like to grow enormous vegetables, such as champion-size pumpkins or baseball bat zucchinis. Or go for oddball colors, such as purple string beans and yellow cherry tomatoes.

Some children may be more excited about bugs than vegetables. Buy a bag of live ladybugs to scatter at dusk. Supply a magnifying glass to watch the ladybugs devour aphids or to get up close and personal with earthworms, green lacewings and the like.

Take photographs, starting with the first day of planting. Turn over a camera to older children to document their own progress.

Hand-draw and color plant tags out of cardboard, construction paper or oversized popsicle sticks. Laminate them or slip them inside plastic sandwich bags, then attach them to stakes in the garden.

Don’t underestimate the magic of mud. If watering becomes too much of a chore, fill the buckets for your kids, then promise them that after they water their garden, they can have a few extra buckets to make a mud hole or draw pictures on the pavement.

Who can resist a Halloween pumpkin?

Who can resist growing a pumpkin for Halloween?

To avoid the, “When will we get there?” questions from younger children, tie maturity dates to events they can relate to. Tell them, “The pumpkins will be ready by Halloween,” “You can pick the beans when Grandma comes to visit in July,” or “The corn will be ready for our Labor Day picnic.”

Be prepared to step in and take over weeding and watering duties, or to stand back if your budding gardener insists on tending everything.

Arrange for a trustworthy friend to take special care of the garden if you leave on vacation. There’s nothing worse for a child — or an adult — than to discover that their tenderly nurtured seedlings have died due to someone else’s neglect.

Harvest Time

Growing their own food often results in children eating — or at least trying — vegetables that they otherwise reject. Kids who detest eggplant, for instance, might give it a nibble if they’ve grown their own.

Show your children how to check for ripeness by looking for the last tinges of green to vanish from a red tomato or the swelling of bush beans within their pods.

Put younger children in charge of spotting what’s ready to be picked. Older children can use a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors to harvest their crops.

Praise every effort. By learning to plant, nurture and harvest, your children will gain an appreciation of nature and an understanding of what they can accomplish by taking responsibility for a patch of earth. From such youthful beginnings do mighty gardeners grow.

# # #

This article was first published in Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Water Conservation and the Drought: Local Landscape Experts Meet to Discuss Ways to Cut Water Use

Colorful bands of catmint (Nepeta) in the foreground and erect, white and purple sage (Salvia) provide exuberant color in this  waterwise garden.

Colorful bands of catmint (Nepeta) in the foreground and erect, white and purple sage (Salvia) provide exuberant color in this waterwise garden.

They’re not hitting the panic button yet. But there is an increasing sense of urgency on the part of local water agencies to get out the word that the drought is serious and that people need to start using significantly less water.

Earlier this week, water purveyors met at Chase Palm Park Center with about 30 landscape architects, designers, irrigation specialists, master gardeners and other landscape pros to talk about the drought and explore ways to capture the public’s attention.

“Obviously we had a lot of rain in recent days. But I want to make sure that people understand that we’re still at only 46 percent of normal,” said Len Fleckenstein, Water Conservation Coordinator for the Santa Barbara County Water Agency. He added, “Every day that percentage goes down, if we don’t get rain.”

Representatives from Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta said their water districts have already declared Stage One drought conditions, and are calling for consumers to voluntarily cut their water use by 20 percent. Mandatory restrictions of 20 percent or more could come as soon as this summer.
Continue reading

How to Keep Your Trees Healthy During the Drought

Our beautiful coast live oaks are at risk from the drought and will benefit from deep, wintertime watering.

Our beautiful coast live oaks are at risk from the drought and will benefit from deep, wintertime watering.

Make like rain and start irrigating your trees.

The two gentle waves of rain that fell this week have been wonderful for washing off dust, freshening the air and moistening the soil. But they only put a dent in a water deficit that’s been building for the past few years. 2013 was one of our driest years on record and both Gov. Jerry Brown and Santa Barbara County have declared a drought emergency.

So why suggest upping your irrigation if we’ve had a little rain, plus we’re in a drought?

Because there’s so much to lose if you lose your trees.

Trees provide immense value to our landscapes. As foundation plants, they supply structure, shade and wildlife habitat, and take considerable years to grow. They are far more deserving of our precious water than thirsty lawns and smaller plants that are easier to replace. If you lose a 30-year-old tree to drought, you’ll have to wait another 30 years for a new one to grow the same size.

And given the current weather outlook, deep-irrigating your trees over the next few months is the best way to keep them healthy and head off drought stress, especially for our majestic coast live oaks.

“We’re in our third year of much lower than average rainfall,” said Heather Scheck, plant pathologist with Santa Barbara County Agriculture and Weights & Measures. “I already see signs throughout the south county that trees are seriously stressed.”

Those signs include smaller canopies; dry, twiggy branch tips; and leaves that have lost their sheen, are fewer in number and are steadily dropping. Ordinarily, coast live oaks push out most of their growth over winter, then go dormant during summer. But the drought is restricting their ability to produce new leaves and flowers, which leaves them more susceptible to pest infestations and disease.

Oaks and other mature trees that don’t ordinarily get irrigated face the greatest threat.

What To Do

That's too much blue sky!

That’s too much blue sky!

To see whether your trees are faltering, Scheck advises standing beneath each tree and looking up.

“Do you see a lot of blue sky? If it’s in your own yard, have you done any supplemental watering or has it only had rainfall as irrigation?”

Yet even if you don’t see signs of stress, it’s important to start watering.

“Now is the natural time for the trees to be receiving water as precipitation,” said Scheck. “Ideally, you would imitate natural rainfall as naturally as possible.”

Loop a soaker hose around the tree, as far from the trunk as it will reach. That ensures the best coverage throughout the root zone, which extends to the edge of the canopy and beyond. Or use a small, whirly sprinkler in the morning when the air is still, and move it to different spots around the tree every half hour or so.

Apply the water slowly. If there’s too much pressure, the water may run off rather than penetrate the top layer of earth or even a thick layer of mulch. Water for at least an hour. Wait a few hours or until the next morning, then dig around in the zone to see how deep and far the water has soaked in.

Scheck advises irrigating long enough that the water seeps at least a foot or two into the soil.

“A general rule is that 1 inch of water will penetrate 12 inches of soil. But that totally depends on your soil type. The goal is to go deep,” she said. “If you do it too fast, they don’t get the benefit. All we’re trying to do is replace the missing rain, trying to make up what’s missing, not go over.”

She noted that soaking trees is not at all like watering grass. Instead of frequent, shallow cycles, trees prefer deep watering every few weeks. Also, don’t bother to spray the leaves. The water should be directed at the roots, Scheck said.

If you’ve been raking away leaves from beneath your oaks, stop immediately. That loose, thick layer of leaves is marvelous mulch that keeps the soil surface cool and holds in moisture. If you don’t have several inches of build-up already, apply 2 two 3 inches of loose, organic material as soon as possible. Just don’t pile up the mulch against the trunk, as wet mulch against the bark can lead to disease.

What’s At Risk

If you use a sprinkler to soak your trees, run it slowly and pull it out toward the edge of the canopy so the water doesn't strike the trunk.

If you use a sprinkler to soak your trees, run it slowly and pull it out toward the edge of the canopy so the water doesn’t strike the trunk.

Trees that lie beyond the reach of our drip systems and sprinklers, instead relying on winter rains to quench their thirst, face the greatest peril.

But folks whose landscapes are filled with native and Mediterranean plants and turned off their irrigation last fall might want to deep-soak their plants a few times, too. As might people who put in new plants last fall and have patiently waited for winter rains to water them in.

Hydrating those plants now, at the time of year when they’re programmed to grow, should increase their vigor and enhance their ability to survive voluntary — or mandatory — water restrictions later on.

Likewise, the county is working to shore up its street trees.

Udy Loza, certified arborist for the Santa Barbara County Public Works Transportation Division, said he’s ordering several hundred “water gator” bags for young street trees that have no source of irrigation other than rainfall. The bags, which look like rugged trash sacks, typically hold about 20 gallons of water. They’re pocked with holes that slowly release the water within the trees’ root zones to give them a good, deep soak.

“Up until this last year and a half, we haven’t had a problem,” Loza said. “(Now) We’re really trying to ramp up our watering so we don’t lose our trees… The public can expect to see the gators over the next month or so.”

Additional Steps

The dead cluster on the left isn't of much concern because coast live oaks do naturally shed leaves. But the crispy edges on the green leaves in the center indicate the tree is already beginning to suffer.

The dead cluster on the left isn’t of much concern because coast live oaks do naturally shed leaves. But the crispy edges on the green leaves in the center indicate the tree is already beginning to suffer.

With voluntary water cutbacks of 20 percent now in place countywide, some folks may question why anyone would advise opening the tap even wider.

But stopping watering entirely, without any thought as to the future needs of your plants, may not be the wisest course of action.

Instead, set priorities as to which plants in your landscape are most important. As permanent fixtures that provide long-term beauty, shade, cooling, habitat for wildlife and protect the watershed, trees typically top the list.

Then take steps to ensure the health of your choices. Heavily mulch whatever those are, and water them carefully. Drip irrigation is often the most efficient method, since it applies water slowly, evenly and directly to a targeted area.

To get through the drought, don’t skimp on the “bones” of your landscape. Instead, let your lawn go dry, along with water guzzlers and other plants that can be most easily replaced when rains do return. Fill the new gaps with several inches of mulch to prevent the soil from cracking, to dissuade weeds from taking hold and to create a better look than bare dirt.

If you use organic material, such as wood chips, shredded wood or bark nuggets, put the mulch right on the soil. However, if you mulch with gravel, lay down landscape fabric — not black plastic — first. Landscape fabric is porous. It allows moisture and oxygen to reach the earth, but separates the gravel from the soil. Without it, in a few years the dirt is likely to come up through the gravel, the gravel is likely to get smooshed into the dirt and you’re likely to end up with a gritty mess.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Push Back That Fence!



It drives me nuts when people install a fence on top of their front-yard property line, or flush with a corner of their house. That is, unless there’s a compelling reason to do so.

Instead, I much prefer stepping back the fence a few feet, or sometimes pulling it forward.

Doing so creates a sense of depth, provides all sorts of planting possibilities and is far more interesting than simply erecting a flat, hard face against a sidewalk or in line with the exterior of your home.

While it may have been nearly a year since I wrote the following for Fine Gardening magazine, the advice still holds true today.





Martha Garstang Hill, the very talented artist who drew the illustrations, granted permission for me to display her work here on my website. You can view more of her creations at

The illustrations are also reprinted with permission © 2012, The Taunton Press, Inc., Fine Gardening issue #147, September/October 2012. You can visit the magazine’s website by clicking here: Fine Gardening.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton, Martha Garstang Hill and the Taunton Press. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text, illustrations or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Amaryllis: Those Lovely Naked Ladies

This hybrid amaryllis blooms in a gloriously gaudy shade of pink.

This hybrid amaryllis blooms in a gloriously gaudy shade of pink.

Love ’em and leave ’em.

That’s about all there is to successfully growing naked ladies in the garden.

Aside from the shock value of their name, the sight of the South African bulbs is downright inspiring. Each plump bulb sends up several bare, rubbery-looking stems about 18 inches tall. On top blooms a cluster of spectacular pink trumpet flowers. There’s nary a leaf in sight — giving rise to the common name, naked lady.

Equally amazing is that the bulbs require next to no care, blooming beautifully everywhere from carefully tended gardens to vacant lots, and subsisting entirely on winter rains.

Indeed, about the only way to kill your naked ladies is with kindness, by watering during summer, applying fertilizer or burying them in mulch.

By Way of Background

These blushing beauties rise, naked from the earth, in a more demure shade of pink.

These blushing beauties rise, naked from the earth, in a more demure shade of pink.

The genus Amaryllis contains only two species: our naked lady or belladonna lily, Amaryllis belladonna; and the more recently discovered, and still very obscure, Amaryllis paradisicola. Both species hail from rocky areas in the western part of the Cape of South Africa, where the Mediterranean cycle of warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters matches our climate on the Central Coast.

But in one of those confusing moments where common names and botanic names don’t sync up, there are other, similar bulbs that go by the common name of amaryllis. These imposters actually belong to the genus Hippeastrum. They bear giant red, pink or white trumpet-shaped flowers at Christmas, rather than in summer. They’re native to South America, rather than South Africa. And they have hollow flower stalks, rather than solid flower stalks.

Further muddling the issue is that during the slave trade that started in the 1500s, seafarers and merchants rounding the Cape of South Africa dug up naked lady bulbs and distributed them across Europe and on sugar cane plantations in Brazil and other parts of South America. The true amaryllis bulbs have naturalized in South America so well over the past 500 years that it appears that they’re native there, too.

But in truth, the “real” amaryllis are native only to the Cape. And fortunately for us, the climate of their origin matches ours so completely that they’re a no-brainer on the Central Coast. Even better — while their native sites are rocky, they’ll do just fine in heavy clay soil, provided they’re not watered. They absolutely detest summer irrigation and will shrivel up and die if they’re anywhere near a sprinkler that runs on a regular basis.

Patience, Patience

Flamethrower, anyone?

Flamethrower, anyone?

Probably the most finicky aspect of growing naked ladies is the time that it takes for them to bloom for the first time.

Their natural cycle begins in winter, when they send up floppy clumps of strappy, green leaves that look somewhat like small agapanthus. By late spring or early summer, the leaves go brown, dry up and disappear.

In August, the show begins, seemingly overnight. Stout, brownish-purplish stems rise rapidly out of the earth. On top are big, brown tips with silhouettes like gas flames. Before you know it, those brown tips have split open, each firing up a bloom of three to 10 pink trumpets flaring out from the center.

In my garden, full-size bulbs have waited two years before producing their first flower stalks. That’s pretty typical. Even if you divide and transplant naked ladies that have been blooming in your garden for years, they may sulk for a year or two before they regain their bearings and start producing new, luscious blooms.

From seed, naked ladies require even more patience. They may sit quietly in the earth for three to six years before growing large enough to bear foliage and bloom.

Planting Time

Nothing short of exquisite.

Nothing short of exquisite.

The window of opportunity for planting — or dividing an existing patch — is late summer to early fall, when the bulbs are dormant. Interestingly enough, naked ladies are considered dormant even when they’re blooming: their dormancy is keyed to the leaves having shriveled up, rather than any flowering going on.

Full-size bulbs are the size of a tangerine or larger. Plant them up to their papery necks. This means about two-thirds of the bulb goes in the ground and a third stays up. Too deep, and they may rot. Or you may forget about them and accidentally dig them up or plant something else over top of them. You can mulch around the bulbs, but don’t cover their necks.

Once your amaryllis are up and growing, don’t worry about dividing them. Leave them alone, and they’ll continue to expand, flourish and bloom for decades.

If you do harvest any of the seeds, plant them barely beneath the surface of the soil, ignore them, and you’ll have a fun surprise several years from now.

Unlike some bulbs, naked ladies are not as content in containers.

However, if you’re squeezed for space or might move in the next year or two, plant one bulb per 6-inch or 8-inch pot, with the neck exposed. When your naked ladies are up and blooming, bring them out front and center. They can while away their down-time behind your garage or tucked in a corner. Make sure they receive at least half a day of sun, wherever they are.

Seeds of Wisdom

South African bulb expert Dick Doutt spent years hybridizing his beloved amaryllis, in search of a perfect circle. This is one of his beautiful results.

South African bulb expert Dick Doutt spent years hybridizing his beloved amaryllis, in search of a perfect circle. This beautiful spiral, with the top flowers still to open, is one of his creations.

The flaring, trumpet flowers of naked ladies usually form a quarter-circle and tend to face toward the sun.

Hybridizers, however, have been striving to create flower clusters that radiate from the stem in a full circle.

Renowned Southern African bulb expert Dick Doutt excelled in those efforts, and shared a number of his hybrids with me before he died in 2011. All of the amaryllis pictured here are results of his work.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Please Join Me

Just one of the beautiful gardens that I'll feature in my talk.

Just one of the beautiful gardens that I’ll feature in my talk.

On Wednesday, August 7, I’ll be the featured speaker for the monthly meeting of the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society.

My talk will be: “Digging the Good Life: Creating Colorful, Water-Conserving Gardens.”

I’ll describe how to create gardens in a number of different styles by using the wide range of colorful and interesting low-water plants that thrive in our mild, wonderful climate. Continue reading

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