Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Top Ten (Plus Two) Garden Plants for May

Heritage Lavender with California Poppies
Lavender & Poppies Combine Beautifully

Easy to Grow Food & Flowers to Plant Now


Gardening is a never-ending process on the central CA coast, just like all yard-work. In this temperate climate, it’s easy to dream big, yet always feel a bit behind in what needs to be done. There’s planning, preparing the soil, planting, thinning, weeding, applying organic fertilizer, and of course watering throughout the dry season. There’s harvesting, hiring a garden-sitter if you go on vacation, and turning over the beds at the end of harvest. Even in winter, there’s trimming the perennials and protecting them from freezing. That’s a lot of work. So why do we do it?


If you’ve ever tasted a homegrown tomato warm from the vine or a plate of lightly steamed just-harvested spring pea pods with garden mint, you know that store-bought produce just can’t compare with veggies we grow at home. There’s a thrill in watching a seed sprout and a tiny plant grow into food, in nurturing something that in turn nourishes us. You might feel tied in some primal way to the seasonal cycles, compelled to grow plants of your own choosing when Mother Nature graces us with wild offerings of her own, like right now!

Alpine Strawberry Blossom and Fruit
Alpine Strawberries add Ground Cover
If you’re considering gardening, but think that it might be too much work, you are wise! To simplify things, start with plants that are either easy to grow or have a big flavor payoff over store-bought. Before I list some central coast candidates, here are some general suggestions for success:

  • Start with just a few plants, no more than you can plant in one day. Choose your favorite easy-care plant/s, so it’s more of a nurturing experience than a chore to care for them.

  • Know your plants: how much sun, water, and room they need, whether they can be grown in containers, what kind of soil is best for them, how much time you’ll need to devote to their care, etc. Look for online advice, or better yet, ask an expert at your local garden center.

  • Know where you are going to put your plants before you buy them. Dig the beds and add organic soil amendments, or budget the time to do so, before buying your plants.

  • Consider container gardening. Although containers incur a one-time cost and require extra watering and other special care, they’re easy to weed and can be moved as sunlight conditions change during the year. They also beautify your patio and walkways.

  • Start with established plants from a knowledgeable farm, nursery, or plant store. In general, growing from seed takes more time, talent, and equipment.  Unless they choose easy-to-grow seeds (some listed below), growing from seed can unnecessarily discourage novices.

I recommend starting these plants in May, particularly for Santa Cruz county and Bay Area residents:

Four containers of tomatoes
Two Cherries and Heirlooms in Sunny Zone
1. Tomatoes: Big payoff in flavor over store-bought varieties, but growing tomatoes in fog can be challenging. Tomatoes prefer warm nights and require 6 hours of sunlight each day to produce fruit. If you’re above the fog belt, no problem. If you’re in the fog belt, plant a variety that requires fewest days to come to maturity. Early Girls, at about 55 days, are a good bet. Most heirlooms are not, requiring up to 100 days. Cherry tomatoes, in particular the golden yellow Sun Golds, are also good. Ask about best varieties for your microclimate at your garden center. Get large, well-established plants that are not too leggy. Put tomato cages around them now to support the fruit later.

Note: I have had good luck with tomatoes in large containers, IF I’m able to water them every day in summer when it’s hot, especially before tomatoes are start turning red. Though tomatoes like full sun, a dehydrated young tomato plant is likely to be a poor producer regardless of care later in the season. They generally produce more tomatoes if planted in the ground.

Three Pots of Herb Plants on Patio
Top 3 Herbs: Thai Basil, Oregano, Marjoram
Sweet Italian Basil to Join them Soon!
2. Basil and other Italian Herbs: It’s so convenient to pick your own fresh basil to use spontaneously in salads, sandwiches, and pasta. Basil is easy to grow, with one caveat: slugs and snails love it. So it’s best grown in containers with a strip of self-stick copper foil wrapped around the pot about 2/3 of the way up from the ground. Note that slugs are smarter than you might think, and will climb up any pathway past the copper to devour the basil in no time. This includes the thinnest blade of grass that might come into contact with the pot above the copper if bent in a certain way, and tendrils that drop from above with addition of a slug’s weight. Set your basil pots away from other vegetation, out of contact with other pots, and in an area without overhanging shrubs or vines. Oregano and marjoram are less popular with slugs, and make a fresh display in pots near the basil, in addition to encouraging impromptu Italian-influenced cuisine.

3. Leaf Lettuce: Leaf Lettuce grows to maturity quickly and can be harvested throughout the summer. Try a variety pack of several kinds of lettuce plants for endless salad combinations. Lettuce is the first veggie I’d recommend beginners grow from seed. Renee’s Garden has a large variety of container-friendly lettuces, including ruby and emerald (mixture of red and green leaf), baby butter lettuce, romaine, and mesclun (fancy mixed greens). Depending upon your location and choice of lettuce, slugs may be a problem. Try a container with copper foil. Most leaf lettuces can be grown in containers if given enough room between plants.

4. Summer Squash: Most varieties of summer squash are easy to grow IF you have room enough for them to spread. Most will produce large quantities that must be faithfully harvested during peak season to avoid the "7 lb. stuffed-zucchini-for-dinner" syndrome. Though squash is decidedly not container-friendly, Renee’s Garden has a Container Zucchini that I’m trying this year. Growing squash from seed is not difficult, and I will let you know the results of my container experiment. 

Young squash plants can appeal to slugs. If slugs like your squash plants, you can build a wall with Slug Off Copper Barrier, or any piece of copper 3 inches high that’s thin enough to bend and surround the plant.

A 2-inch wide sprinkling of diatomaceous earth around the perimeter of the plant is another natural  remedy for slug-eaten plants; it abrades slugs’ bodies, so they’ll avoid it. Be aware that you’ll have to reapply the earth if it rains or washes away with watering. Find diatomaceous earth with pet or swimming pool filter supplies.

Closeup of Rosemary Blossom
Rosemary Blossoms for Many Months
5. Rosemary: A favorite perennial, mature rosemary resists drought, cold, and bugs. It can be grown close to the ocean in full sun. It withstands extreme temperatures while providing cooking herbs year-round. Established plants grown in the ground in partial shade need no water all summer. Container-grown rosemary is sensitive to extreme heat and cold during its first year or so, though it likes to dry out between waterings. Available in both upright and trailing varieties, with blue-purple blossoms in early spring through summer, rosemary becomes a part of your landscaping as it continues to grow throughout the years. Plan accordingly, and enjoy.

Bonus edible: Strawberries: The central coast and Santa Cruz mountains are ideal locations to grow strawberries, if you have enough room and sun. The vines spread, crowding out weeds and providing ground cover. Generally the most productive species require the most room. Inquire at your garden center about which varieties are best suited to your mini-habitat. Though I’ve never grown strawberries before, I just purchased an alpine strawberry, known for small yet delicious fruit. I will let you know how it goes.

Bunny Sculpture in Informal Garden
Some Bunny in Nigella and California Poppies
6. California Poppy: Now available in numerous colors from white to yellow to red, the original orange poppy is endemic to California and grows just about anywhere that sunny, dry weather follows spring rains. Though an annual, California poppy reseeds every year. You can count on its descendents coming up spring after spring, though not in exactly the same spot. Usually planted by seed before the winter rains, in May various plants are available as well. Get them in the ground right away, keep them watered till established, and they will bloom for generations. Great for informal, no-fuss borders and wild, weedy parts of the yard. Hardy outdoors, but too delicate for cut flowers.

7. Cosmos: Cosmos is another showy and drought-tolerant flower. It’s pink to white to purplish and grows to about 3 feet tall, blooming during summer. Renee’s Garden also sells a knee-high variety. You can grow it readily from seed if you keep it moist until seedlings are established, with shade cloth or daily watering. This year I’m experimenting with both seeds and pre-started seedlings. 

Seedlings have extensive and delicate roots, so handle plants with care when transplanting to the garden. Water the container and dig appropriate size holes in the garden first. When planting, make an effort not to disturb the integrity of each plant's roots and their surrounding soil. Water after planting, then every day for several days until roots recover from transplant shock. Like the California poppy, cosmos will reseed in following years somewhere in the general area of the original plants. To replant the seeds more formally, collect them when flowers are withered and seeds are dark brown, and plant next year. Cosmos can be used as cut flowers.

Yellow Marigolds
Newly Planted Mini-Marigolds
8. Marigold: Bright and easy-care, marigolds are available in numerous shades of yellow, orange, and brown. Many are multi-colored. Blossoms can be small and dainty to large and globular, generally on a rather short stalk. They repel bugs and are often used between vegetable garden rows for this purpose. Beginning in mid-spring, they bloom continually till frost or cold weather. Though annual, you can easily gather the seeds for replanting in following years. Use them for cut bouquets.

Nigella Blossoms in Misty Foliage
Classic Blue Nigella
9. Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella): Available in many shades of blue, purple, pink, as well as white and variegated, Nigella will reseed itself indefinitely, and tends to spread throughout the years. The fernlike foliage and graceful flowers turn into attractive seed pods that can be dried and used in flower arrangements. I have only grown these from seed, and understand that they don’t like being transplanted. If you’re going to transplant seedlings, use the method recommended above for cosmos. Growing nigella from seed is easy. Rake in the seed, press the soil down, and water daily until plants are established, letting bed get dry between waterings. Nigella blossoms are rather short-lived. For longer display, collect seeds from dry seed pods (or buy more seeds) and replant about once per month during growing season. Remember to water the seedlings daily, though blooming plants don’t need much watering.

Bee Zeroing in on Lavender Blossom
Bees Love Lavender
10. Lavender: Lavender is similar to rosemary, in that once established it’s a drought and cold resistant plant that grows ever-bigger and becomes a permanent part of the landscape, blooming year after year. Lavender’s smell is legendary, and some varieties (French, for example) are used in foods, dried floral arrangements, and as sachets. Lavender is said to induce sleep, so is popular in dream pillows and night-time teas. There are numerous varieties and forms, with blooms from purple to blue to white. Many are container-friendly, though most will get larger if planted in the ground. Once established, they need little care, though watering container-bound lavender every week or two is recommended. I have two varieties planted, and am trying Renee’s French perfume lavender, a mini-lavender that is container-friendly. I’m excited about this and will take photos once the seeds come up.

Bonus flower: Sunflower: Showy annual sunflowers are endemic to the Americas. Many varieties are available, both branched (with many blossoms) and single-stalked (one large blossom). Most varieties grow to 4 – 6 feet, but dwarf varieties, about 1 foot high, are also available and appropriate for sunny window boxes. I like growing a variety of sunflowers from seedlings as an informal border, or along a fence. Children enjoy planting them because they grow tall relatively quickly. You can also grow them from seed. Birds as well as humans enjoy the seeds, and sunflowers attract bees. Plus, they are just so darned cheery and bright!

If I missed any of your favorite easy-to-grow plants, please leave a comment to tell us about them.

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