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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Feb 16

Sweet Gardening

Posted on February 16, 2017 at 2:48 PM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

This Valentine's week, it seems appropriate to celebrate sweetness. In the garden, sweetness comes in many forms. 

Many flowers are associated with love in tradition or in name. The classic rose is usually the first flower one thinks about when sharing sweet thoughts. In Italy, on the other hand, carnations are a token of ardent love. The viola is known in many countries as love-in-idleness, kiss-her-in-the-pantry and tickle-my-fancy. Forget-me-nots also spell out their charm. 

Bleeding heart
 Bleeding hearts in the shade garden

In my garden, bleeding hearts adorn the shade garden. Their tiny fern-like foliage is a beautiful contrast to the large trusses of the rhododendron flowers nearby. In another section of the garden, the deep-burgundy, heart-shaped leaves of the Cercis 'Forest Pansy' (eastern redbud) are accented with magenta flowers.

Flowers also attract with their engaging fragrances. When working on the design of a garden, I love to plan for fragrance in many corners of the landscape. It is like a treasure hunt, as you search out the mysterious source of that magical scent. Is it a lilac in bloom? Or perhaps it is the tiny flower of the Sarcococca, which emits a walloping punch of perfume. Wisteria and jasmine clamoring up trellis archways are also a treat. In many cases, it is the sweet smell of wild violets that catch the attention of anyone strolling through. 

I would be remiss if I didn't include the edible sweetness that gardens can offer. A handful of blueberries, raspberries or grapes picked from these plants as you walk by will satisfy the sweetest taste buds of all. Add a heavier trellis and plant kiwi--one male to four female plants will keep your fruit bowl and the neighbors' filled for some time to come. Include your favorite peach, nectarine, apricot, plum, apple or other fruit-tree-of-choice for the total package. If planned correctly, there can be sweet fruit to pick for months on end.

Houseplants can also bring those sweet moments of joy for those without outdoor gardens. How can I not acknowledge beautiful indoor flowers such as orchids, or Stephanotis whose fragrance will take you into another world? Just this week I enjoyed the gift of two Christmas cactus that put on a Valentine's Day show for me.

Gardens, whether they be indoor or out, sing with fragrance and sweetness. Enjoy!
Feb 10


Posted on February 10, 2017 at 8:47 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

wet winterExtreme weather always seems to remind us of similar historic events. With the recent heavy rains, people have been sharing remember-when stories. As a native Marinite, I recall flooding on 2nd Street in San Rafael where my grandmother resided, the time Novato Creek rose to the second story of homes in San Marin, and the year a storm came in from an unusual direction, knocking down trees and power lines all over the county. Mill Valley looked as if a giant came through and played pick-up sticks with the trees. 

This year may become one of those that we talk about for years to come. Since July 1, we've received 71.25 inches of rain at Lake Lagunitas—218% of average for this date.  

Hopefully you have been spared significant storm damage, but you may still find impacts to your garden. With the high rainfall, soil has reached saturation. As a result, you might experience inefficient drainage. Flooding may have caused a silt-covered garden or extreme puddling. Or the thick layer of bark you just installed this fall may have floated away.

If you have experienced impacts, first work to clear hardscapes such as sidewalks, patios and paths of mud and debris. Next, if you need to step on the soil, lay down planks of wood and step on those to distribute your weight evenly and prevent soil compaction. There is a good chance the flooding may have compromised your soil structure, and nutrients may have leached out. These issues can be corrected over time. The best rule of thumb: Do not work the soil when it is saturated. Wait for it to become friable again—that is, when the soil crumbles easily in your hands.

If you have downed plants or trees, work slowly to remove them from the area. If a favorite plant has been uprooted and it is manageable to handle, move it into a container. If it is too large for a container, wrap the root ball in burlap and bind the burlap in place with rope as a temporary means of maintaining it until the weather subsides this spring. If these jobs are too big for you, hire professionals who have the right knowledge and tools.

Locate the source of any flooding. We cannot control the amount of rain coming from the sky, but we can help control how it behaves on our property. Make sure gutters and downspouts are clear of debris. Check grading and drainage: Grading should slope the soil away from the house, and surface and subsurface drainage should move excess water out to storm drains. If done correctly at the inception of landscaping, you will enjoy years of peace. And finally, make sure all irrigation is turned off!
Feb 03


Posted on February 3, 2017 at 10:26 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Some gardeners like to start their vegetable garden from seed, while others prefer buying plants ready to go into the soil to bypass the time and commitment of working with seed germination. Either process will provide an abundant crop to supply your family as well as the neighborhood, so there is no right or wrong choice.

Seed packets
 Seed packets
Personally, I find a special joy when starting a garden from seed because of the miraculous transformation of a hard tiny speck into something completely different. The birth of a plant from seed is amazing.

I was reading a book on plant propagation the other day, and one chapter touched on "conditioning" seeds. Many soils require conditioning, but seeds? This term was new to me and, I might add, the very reason I love gardening—there's always more to learn. 

Seed conditioning varies with each type of plant. Most seeds have some type of inhibitor that prevents germination unless the seed is exposed to certain conditions. This is nature’s way of ensuring seeds don’t germinate until environmental conditions are favorable for survival. For example, most seeds purchased in packets are dry conditioned—that is, these seeds must be separated from the parent plant and dried. This type of conditioning is typical in annuals; once the seeds have dried, the natural inhibitor diminishes. Then when the seed is exposed to moisture, the process of germination occurs.

Some seeds such as sweet peas and morning glories have a very hard seed coat that prevents moisture from penetrating without the aid of the gardener taking the extra step of filing or nicking the seed—a process known as scarification. An easier method is to soak the seeds in warm water overnight to soften the hard tissue casing. Heat can also cause scarification: Some pines, for example, depend on fire to release the seeds in their cones to repopulate a forest.

Some seeds need just the opposite exposure—they require cold temperatures followed by warmer temperatures for germination. This system is known as stratification. Cold temperatures cause the growth inhibitors to delay germination until the weather warms. This prevents seeds from germinating during the winter when tiny seedlings could be lost to frost.

The bottom line: Know your seeds and if any special conditioning is required for germination. In addition, remember that different plants have different germination periods. For maximum performance, note the recommended number of days between planting and the last frost date in Marin, and track your findings on a calendar. The joy comes when you see little seedlings poking their heads out of the planting medium.