Protect Praying Mantis Egg Cases In Spring Gardens

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Praying mantis are the gardener’s best friend.  They feed on the pest insects that damage our plants in the summer.  In early spring the egg cases laid the year before are vulnerable to our winter’s end clean up in the garden.  So keep a sharp eye out because you don’t want to lose these natural pest controls that keep your garden in perfect ecological balance.   Though frightening to look at, the adult praying mantis is a harmless beneficial.  They travel from plant to plant consuming pesky aphids, damaging caterpillars and many other problem pests.  With a good population of them in your organic garden, they keep the ecological balance of predator to prey.  But without them you’re vulnerable to explosions of pest populations called infestations, which cause serious damage to ornamentals and food crops.  If you find an egg case on a stick or board, save it in a protected sunny place in your garden until weather warms and the nymphs hatch out.  Then discard it.  The mantis egg case is often found on bark, twigs, fences and masonry.  The case sticks fast to the surface and is hard, like a fingernail.  When temperatures rise high enough the near microscopic nymphs inside begin the hatch out.  Nymphs are miniature versions of the adult insect. Each nymph will begin feeding immediately after hatch.  They’ll go after microscopic pests such as spider mites that cluster on the undersides of leaves to suck away their vital juices.  This single egg case may produce a dozen nymphs or more to inhabit the summer garden.  If you don’t have praying mantis in your garden, you can order egg cases online to create a new population at The Beneficial Insect Co:  

Lessons of Native Plants Is Observing Habitat

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At 2000 feet on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains many plant communities merge to create one of the most diverse ecosystems in the state.  If you study this region year in and year out in all seasons, you will soon learn the secrets of the native perennials that bedevil so many gardeners. A south facing Yuba River canyon wall in full spring bloom. This region is dissected by three forks of the Yuba River that have carved chasms through the rock flowing from the high country west to the valley floor.  In the spring, when the Yuba storms through these canyons, the rocky cliffs burst into bloom.  Springing out of rock on the south facing walls as if by magic are beautiful apricot monkey flower, blue lupine and purple penstemon.  And in some places grow the tiny succulent Dudleya.  All are perennials fed by tap roots stretching deep into fissures between the rocks to reach moisture accumulated there.  Even as temperatures climb and rainfall ceases these plants remain lush, green and blooming until this trapped moisture is exhausted and all goes dormant again for the long dry season.  This teaches us that these species are naturally dormant at this time, and forcing them into year around growth with unseasonable watering will quickly spell their demise. Apricot monkeyflower (Mimulus) and lupine on the canyon wall. Mimulus has also taken up residence on banks where roadway gravel and the fines of blasting a road out of the cliff create an infertile rocky scree.  Here there is little organic matter and marginal fertility.  Drainage is extreme.  These roots thrive in an oxygen rich dry soil medium that protects them during the late summer and fall as drought stretches for six months or more.  What this example illustrates is that drainage is more important to these natives than fertility.  My experience with using gravelly road base mixed with native clay in raised beds verified this, and natives thrive in this nearly sterile soil mix with rare problems of rotted roots that plague them in more fertile, organically rich ground. Native monkeyflowers chose to grow from seed in this rocky, infertile scree at the side of a road bank. My eighteen years in the northern Sierra has shown me the silent language of natives there.  They speak loudest through the places where they choose to reproduce in the wild, for there they find optimal conditions.  For all who wish to learn more about these beautiful natives and cultivate them better, spend time in the wild, because it’s the only way to truly observe and understand their loudly spoken cultivation instructions. 

Helping Grandmother Make a Gardening Journal


In response to my Yardsmart column suggesting readers start their garden journal on the new year came this wonderful email from Sheila: “My extraordinary gardener mother is 92, and our green-thumb family members would like to have a comprehensive journal for her to record her numerous plants, and shrubs and trees, maintenance experience, pruning advice, blooming, fertilizing and planting tips and schedules, etc (by month).  We would never be able to recapture this lore without a written record. What kind of journal do you recommend?  At 92, we have no time to waste.”  My advice: Don’t buy a “gardener’s journal”.  They’re just too general and not archival enough.  For this much wisdom you’ll need a lined bound blank journal with large pages (8×11 inches or so).  Be sure it can open up and sit flat on the table because older folks can’t keep pressure on flopping pages while they write. Next, create headlines on the pages with water color or marker or pen. This breaks all that gardening knowledge into smaller pieces that Mom can manage.  That’s how authors do it.  When she sees the title it will be her cue to remember the past.  Begin with a twelve month schedule of activities.  Title every few pages with a month so she can jot down tasks for that month in the right section.  Stick on colored permanent page tabs for books each month’s title page so she can go to them without a lot of effort.  Print the letter of the month on the tab to facilitate this. Follow the annual cycle pages with specific titles such as rose pruning.  The more specific you are with categories, the more it will jog her memory about what she’s done over all those years.  If you’re not sure what categories to include, go to any gardening book and peruse the index for subject headings - you’ll find plenty.  Scrounge around your house to find any old photos of her previous gardens that can be glued into the journal for visuals.  If she still has a garden, take new photos of every aspect of it and every plant if you want to.  Then for example, you can glue in an ancient hydrangea bush in full bloom and Mom can write about where it came from and how she’s cared for it over the years.  If you need pictures of plants for Mom’s journal, click here download our free eBook, Online Botanical Illustrations Inside you’ll find links to the beautiful digital archives of antique plant illustrations you can download and print for free.   Finally, decorate the cover.  Include pictures of Mom at various ages or any way you want to personalize it in her own style.  Then when she receives it she’s clear on exactly what the book is for. This seems like such a wonderful project, I only wish I could have a copy when Sheila’s Mother finally sets it all down for posterity.   

Desert Garden Sculptures are Outsider Art

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My mother would take one look at this stuff and snort, “Weird!”  And maybe that’s why I dig it so much.  The truth is, those weird creative souls who make these things for the world to enjoy are the true artists of our time.  But you have to drive way out into the California desert to find them, and just maybe you’ll stumble upon something like this once in a lifetime.  In a tiny hamlet up in the high desert a vacant lot has sprung up in outsider art.  A composition inspired by the old expression, “cast pearls before swine” is played out by a cast off pig mama with her brood of piglets.  They’re arranged among the weeds next to a rusted out 1930s car body.  The sign bids locals to bring strands of cheap beads and they appear as if by magic.  Elsewhere in the lot is another community expression.  Inside a circle of stones is a sign that says “It is better to give to the circle than to take”.  Over time folks have brought all sorts if things to make their contribution.  The circle is filled and comfortable seating is provided for those who wish to take in this spontaneous sculpture garden of outsider art. Let not the modernists be ignored here.  Three chairs with pots are truly sculptural. For the garden designer in all of us there is much to learn here.  Art happens.  Beauty is where you find it.  Seeds of great design lie in spontaneous expression.  Even the most unlikely things can be beautiful.  While the sign says to give to the circle, this is one garden that lets you take away a mind full of fresh, unpretentious ideas.   

Dot and van Gough and Meteor Showers of Fall


Dot has been watching the meteor showers every night and recalled her favorite words on the relationship of spirit to art by Vincent van Gough.  She thinks he may have seen meteors and the night sky more vividly than we ever will and was so inspired to write these lines: I have…a terrible need…shall I say the word?…of religion.  Then I go out at night and paint the stars.  Starry Night by Vincent van Gough What Impressionist painter Vincent van Gough sought was his own sense of spirituality, which he celebrated through his art.  We, too, may express our spirituality in our gardens and the plants that dwell within them.  For no one who knows the deep truths of horticulture can help but feel a divine presence, a force that orders the never-ending cycle of the seasons, the microscopic soil flora, and the monumental trees.  Whether our religious rites are best expressed by turning the earth, arranging beautiful flowers, or composing the essential palette of a living botanical painting, our creative endeavors touch the very soul of our being.    A humble Starry Night garden mosaic by Mo  

Humboldt’s Lilies In A Field of Wildfire

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Another tale of native plants and wildfire.  A most remarkable event occurred one spring following a massive damaging wildfire in the High Sierras.  The disaster area that was nothing but blackened ground and the charred remnants of what had once been a beautiful forest.   All over this west facing slope bloomed a hundreds of tall Humboldt Lilies.  These huge lilies, many as tall as I stand are rarely seen any more.  Unlike moisture loving native leopard lilies, this Lillium humboldtii prefers high dry west facing slopes.  This stand of plants rising from long dormant bulbs had been literally buried alive by the dense brush and trees that had once covered the hill.  They must have sat there in the soil for decades denied sun and therefore never stimulated to bloom, or if they did it was hidden under the brush.  But after the wildfire burned away the cover, and with a healthy fertilization of ash, the lilies bloomed with a vengeance. This is a most stunning example of a species that once grew out in the open when regular fire burned through the mountains in pre-settlement times.  But with logging and fire suppression that plant community changed so radically the lilies could not thrive.  In time that whole colony might have died out entirely illustrating how many understory native species are disappearing under over-crowded forests.  For me this was a once in a lifetime experience when Nature showed me in no uncertain terms that what we consider “natural forests” today are really a quite unnatural community of plants.  And sadly, without forest management the Humboldt lily will dwindle down into a few individuals, and may someday soon disappear altogether. For more on natives and wildfire, click here to read Good Fire Bad Fire Controversy Click here to buy California Wildfire Landscaping by Mo Gilmer

Plant Talk and Heat Waves


Scorched, singed and wilted.  Did your beautiful summer garden get slammed by the heat wave?  Let’s face it, cold hardy plants just don’t do 105 degrees in New York and they’re going to let you know that in no uncertain terms. But theirs is a silent language that shows you rather than tells you that they’re not happy campers.  Here are some of their signs and how to interpret their visual language: Yellow blotches with brown crispy spots.  If you’re conscientious and water your plants in direct sun to cool them off, the water can cause sunburn.  Remember that a magnifying glass which can turn sunlight into a concentrated beam so hot it will burn paper.   A drop or puddle of water on a leaf will act the same way to fry the plant tissue beneath it.  A good rule of thumb is never water your plant’s foliage in direct sun or at a time of day when it will soon be in direct sun.  Wilting tips but the soil is wet.  Each plant can transfer water from root to leaf at its own pace, which keeps leaf cells fat and happy.  In excessive heat the leaves lose moisture quickly and demand more, but when this exceeds the plant’s ability to transfer moisture, no amount of water in the root zone is going to help.  Adding more water to the roots only stimulates root rot.  The only way to aid the plant shade it with an umbrella or shade cloth, or even a bed sheet until temperatures drop at night.  Big yellow blotches on the leaves.  Known as sun scald or scorch, this is caused by two things.  First it can simply be a plant’s inability to cope with excessive heat and direct solar exposure – a common problem with shade plants that are temporarily in the sun during certain times of the day.  Sudden browning of leaf edges.  This will be your first sign that the plant is dehydrated and it’s sacrificing it’s outermost tissues to protect those closer to its inner core.  These may have a very dry root ball and deserve a long deep soaking rather than just a surface spray.