Tuesday, June 19, 2018

If you plant it, they will come~

Here in Southern California gardeners experience unique challenges, drought being one, but there are joys as well, such as having hummingbirds that visit all year long.  If you want to attract more butterflies and hummingbirds and even native bees (which do not sting, BTW) to your garden, then you want to plant more flowers.  It’s as simple as that, really. And, if you like seeing flowers blooming, then this is a win-win for you: Plant them and they will come!

While our East Coast friends are blanketed in snow, their gardens asleep and requiring little care, here in Southern California we are somewhat obligated to keep our front yards looking tidy and vibrant--- all year long.  At the same time, after working in the garden we can enjoy sitting back in our favorite chair with a cold drink--- all year long.

To my mind, there is nothing more rewarding than watching pollinators move about my garden.  It means that I have planted enough nectar-rich native plants.  Butterflies, hummingbirds, and native bees are all looking for nectar.  They zoom in on the splashes of color they spy down below in your yard, and close in to see if they can feast at your place today. I used to grow flowers just for the beauty and fragrance, but now I’ve found that adding wildlife to the garden scene makes it all the more interesting.

I recommend native plants and wildflower seeds. Why? Because native plants are naturally adapted to our climate, our soil, and our weather, so they require less water and little maintenance.

Attract Pollinators with Nectar Rich Wildflowers: Native wildflower seed mixes are a wonderful addition to your garden. They can be spread en masse for a sweeping meadow look, even replacing your lawn entirely, or they can be tucked into existing flower borders.  An interesting idea is to hand-sow wildflower seeds in pots or barrels and place them in sunny locations.  Their blooms will be unique from the usual big box store flowers we see everywhere.  And the pollinators will come.  For better success, you need to sow local native wildflowers, rather than a generic mix meant for the entire country. Native seed mixes are available for both Southern California’s coastal areas and for inland areas.

Attract Hummingbirds: The hummingbirds will thank you over and over again with repeat visits if you plant their beloved sage, aka Salvia.  Salvias are perennials that will stick around, growing larger year after year, filling out a garden bed and adding more flowers.   While there are many different varieties of sage, look for Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) with whorls of red flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted to these plants, with red being their favorite color. Hummingbird sage can be grown in garden beds, as a ground cover, or under trees.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on
San Joaquin Willow Bush (
Salix gooddingii)Location: Leo Carrillo State Park
 Photography by Kathy Vilim
Attract Monarch Butterflies: We should all add milkweed plants to our gardens for the monarch butterflies. I watch the monarchs sometimes on my walks, flitting about my neighbors’ yards, looking for that splash of color that means one thing: nectar, and looking for that special plant, the Milkweed (Ascelpias), that is the only plant they can lay their eggs on to raise the next generation (called a host plant).  When the young caterpillars emerge, they will devour the plant, consuming as many as 20 leaves each; it will be their food and their safety until they emerge as butterflies.  So, plant milkweed for the youngsters and a variety of nectar-rich flowers for the adults.   (Important: Plant the variety of Milkweed (Ascelpias) that is native to your region – NOT the Tropical Milkweed.  For most of us in Los Angeles, that would be the Narrow-Leaf Milkweed for coastal regions.)

Attract Native Bees: Having more bees in your yard is the answer to a flourishing vegetable garden. Native (wild) bees do NOT sting, so don’t be afraid to attract them. For an easy-to-grow bee magnet, plant the wonderfully aromatic Rosemary plant. Did you know this herb helps improve memory retention? Not remembering the past, but future-memory, remembering what you have planned for tomorrow! Anything that helps me with my To-Do List is a welcome addition to my garden.

Go Organic:  One more important thing to mention: Your garden will NOT support butterflies and other pollinators if you are spraying chemicals.

Resources: One source of native wildflower seeds is the Theodore Payne Foundation.  They also raise native plants, like Salvia and Milkweed.  http://store.theodorepayne.org/SFNT.html. For more resources on finding native plants, visit your local chapter of the Native Plant Society http://www.calscape.org/plant_nursery.php

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Recollections of Memorial Days Past

It is a gray cloudy morning with a chill in the air; we are having the typical beach weather called June Gloom. Today in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend 2018, I cannot help but remember Memorial Days that have gone before. Many times I'd gone down to Topanga Canyon Boulevard with my husband on Memorial Day morning to watch the Topanga Days Parade put on by local businesses.  (Topanga Canyon can be found in the Santa Monica Mountains, a town wedged in between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley, in the northwesterly part of Los Angeles County.)

On some years the weather would be just like it is today, cool and cloudy, while other years it would be very hot, with 90dg weather heating up early in the morning.  One year it was so hot that kids in the parade were throwing water-filled balloons at the audience - and no one minded!

Then there were years when we wouldn't bother to walk down to the boulevard to watch the Topanga Days Parade. Instead, we would watch from our own deck atop the hill as firetrucks announced the start of the parade. The deck was always very breezy, and truthfully we needed binoculars to see much of anything!

One year my girlfriend asked me to meet her at Green Thumb Nursery in Canoga Park, California.  That year the weather got up to 100 dgs in the San Fernando Valley.  I thought I would die! How can she be looking at plants in the blazing sun?  Sweat began to form on my neck, as I dashed for shade.

Nothing says Road Trip like the announcement that Memorial Day is just around the corner. I recall years when I was running a business, that it was impossible to reach customers on the phone. Everyone was so anxious to get away from their jobs that they would plan their vacations for the unofficial "Start of Summer."

May Wildflowers of Topanga Canyon, Photo by Kathy Vilim

In Topanga Canyon I was perfectly content to be a hermit on the "First Day of Summer." I did not mind staying away from the Topanga Days Fair, with its press of people. Likewise, I did not mind declining invites to barbecues, with some kind of meat sizzling on a grill.

Instead, I recall enjoying Memorial Days in the garden, listening to the live music from Topanga Days that would waft up from across the canyon, from the hillside beyond. Many happy times were spent with a wine glass in hand listening to varying degrees of good rock -n roll music or reggae from my garden bench. My gaze softening as my mind mellowed, I would follow the movements of lizards across rock walls and wait for hummingbirds to notice the newly-filled, ruby red feeder.

As long as I had my music-filled garden and my hummingbird friends, I was happy to welcome in the unofficial First Day of Summer~

Thursday, May 17, 2018

April is the Month for Garden Tours

The Manzanita bush off to the right is my favorite native plant in this grouping.

April is the month for garden tours. All across North America spring has sprung, and the excitement over new blooms is evident by the number of garden tours and walks that can be found.  Here on the West Coast there certainly have been a plentiful group of gardens to visit.   Some tours charge an entrance fee and the fees vary widely, but others are FREE. I attended one such FREE garden tour on April 28th in Southern California, the 2018 Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase.

This year the focus of the 2018 Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase was on sustainability.  The garden tour in Mar Vista was a self-guided tour and included gardens that were made up of native plants and other drought tolerant plants.  Visitors were given a map of homes that are practicing water-wise techniques. On this user-friendly tour day, homeowners or their landscapers were available to answer questions at each garden.

Raised beds are a water wise way to grow vegetables after a lawn removal.

Besides native plant gardens, there were also vegetable gardens and succulent gardens to visit. Again, with the focus being on sustainability, some of the things folks wanted to know were: How can we reduce our water consumption, and in the case of a vegetable garden, how can we still create viable food gardens during a drought year? With the DWP offering incentives for water-guzzling lawn removals, homeowners must decide what they want to plant.  (This popular DWP program is being renewed in July.)  Raised beds in front yards are one answer to the lawn removal debate. 

Most gardens on the Native Plant Garden Tour seemed to make use of succulents for their drought-tolerance.  But succulents are NOT California natives.  Most come from places like Africa, Australia or China.  As a native plant enthusiast, I wish the tour organizers would have done more to inform visitors of the difference.  Yes, succulents will save water and so are applauded by the DWP.  But going a step further by planting things that BELONG here, that are native/local to Southern California, not the desert, would have been applauded by me.

Succulents are not native plants but are drought tolerant and create a distinctive look.

Most people would ask: What’s the difference between natives and succulents? If both are drought tolerant, who cares?  For an answer to that, I would urge people to pick up a book like Douglas Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home.  In it he describes the intricate connection between the microbes in the soil, the insects, and the birds who eat the insects.  They are all part of an ecosystem, a food network that existed long before Los Angeles was developed and covered over in green lawns and gray asphalt.  Succulents, while adding a distinctive look, do not contribute to the healthy network of native wildlife like native plants do. 

Yet and still, the 2018 Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase offered a wonderful opportunity for folks to get out and enjoy the April sunshine, meet like-minded folks, and learn water-wise tips.  I only wish April came around more often.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Lovely Manzanita

Arctostaphylos, Baby Bear Manzanita Bush,
Photo Credit: Las Pilitas Nursery, Santa Margarita, California

The lovely Manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) with its delicate pink urn-shaped flowers in spring hardly seems like a tough, fire-resistant plant. But in fact this small tree is a survivor. If a wildfire were to come through your garden or the hillsides behind your house, you would be glad Manzanita was planted there.

Manzanita has a deep crimson bark that is very dense, strong and heavy.  In a fire, the wood would be slow to burn, but burn it would. Still, the plant would not burn to the ground; instead, a basal stump would remain for new growth to branch out in the next rains.

Manzanita is a California plant, native to chaparral and soft-scrub ecosystemsm of areas such as the coastal Santa Monica Mtns.  There are many varieties of Manzanita, and they can be found growing wild from San Diego north to Carmel.

Not all Manzanitas are as equal, when it comes to fire resistance. Small bushes, in general, are best. One of the recommended Manzanitas for fire resistance is this one: Arctostaphylos Baby Bear Manzanita Bush. Baby Bear grows to about 6ft tall and 6ft wide. It is drought-tolerant in Coastal California.

Anna's Hummingbird on Arctostaphylos, Baby Bear Manzanita Bush
Photo Credit: Las Pilitas Nursery, Santa Margarita, California

Manzanita is a favorite of pollinators, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and bees with its spring blooms. Plant Manzanita in a bird garden, and let the birds enjoy the fruit.

Manzanita can fit into any size garden. Each plant has its own unique shape, making it a work of art in the garden. Manzanita come in many shapes and sizes, from trees and bushes to groundcovers! They make graceful specimen plants or can be pruned into hedges.

For myself, I love walking through the fog and seeing Manzanita sentinels standing out along the pathways~  May they always grace the coast of California.

You can read more of this Series, starting with: Gardening in the Line of Fire

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Resolutions Become Memories

Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois, October, 2017
Photo by Kathy Vilim

'Tis the time of year for Resolutions. Actually, by now all resolutions should be in place. I am not one to make resolutions usually, but last year Jan. 2017 I made a big one: I resolved to get back to Chicago to see my aging parents.  I hadn't been back for 10 years! Things get busy and time flies by. But I decided to make this happen! Guess what: my best memories of 2017 took place back on that vacation.

My happiest moment of 2017 and the scene that sticks in my mind is this one: Sitting in the car with my father, together listening to Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe", watching yellow autumn leaves blow across the driveway. Then, it starts to rain. Yellow leaves began sticking to the windshield. It was a heavenly moment with my father and all of my favorite things: Ravel, autumn leaves and rain!

Deciduous Forest of Illinois, Photo by Kathy Vilim

There were other happy moments on my vacation, as well, like looking out of my brother's patio door, and hearing the distinctive pitter patter of... is that rain? Yes! And it was the first rain I'd seen all year living now as I do in drought-stricken Southern California. The rain began softly but steadily and continued for hours, growing louder as time went on, bringing with it the familiar smell that told me I was back home in Illinois.

Then there was a walk through the woods, down a trail through a forest of deciduous trees with their yellow leaves. Ah, I thought, now THIS is familiar, not just visually, but the smell of the forest, the closeness of the trees on either side of the trail. The trail went on, turning this way and that, and I had no way of knowing where it led.  I just followed it, deep in thought, crunching leaves underfoot as I did so, with my father. 

I remember thinking to myself: My father is still with me! Here with me right now. After 10 years I am walking next to him and talking to him.  And it seemed as if it were just yesterday that I'd been with my mom & dad.  It was as if all those years away never existed. I thought I missed my aging parents, but at that moment I realized just how much.  And how much I missed the whole place, my home where I grew up in Illinois, and the prairies with their tall, swaying grass turning brown and golden.
Naperville River Walk, Photo by Kathy Vilim

Just now, I hear seagulls crying out, as if to say, "Don't forget us! You'll hear no more of us back there!" Chiding me. Yes, it's true, I do love to wake up to the sound of seagulls...

Yes, life happens while we are busy making other plans. So, if a visit to your aging parents is in order, I encourage you to make a Resolution to see them. I think you will be glad you did.

Happy New Year's Resolutions!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

'Shrooms from Santa Claus on the Winter Solstice

Santa's distinctive style has drawn comparisons to 17th-century Siberian shamans.
(Illustration: Yumiyumi/Shutterstock)

Have you ever wondered where the Story of Santa Claus came from?  Me too. Then, looking at Mother Nature Network News the other day, a story by Russell McLendon caught my eye, "7 mind-bending facts about Magic Mushrooms."

Apparently, there are magic "muscimol" mushrooms found all over the world. There are also religious shamans all over the world. In Siberia, the variety of mushrooms ingested by shamans is Amanita muscaria.  And these 'shrooms help the shamans commune with the spirit world.  

What's this got to do with Santa?  Well, each year on the Winter Solstice (December 21st), beginning as far back as the 1600s, the Shamans of Siberia began an annual custom.  They would gather magic mushrooms, dry them, and go out into the neighborhood to give them to the villagers as gifts. The Shamans' custom was to dress up in costumes that resembled the mushrooms... red with white trim. They would take their reindeers with them and climb up onto the rooftops to enter the houses though specially-made openings, since the front doors were snowed in all winter long, and so unusable. 

The Shamans' reindeers also ingested the mushrooms frequently, by simply foraging in the woods where they are plentiful. In an altered state, Shamans enjoyed being able to communicate with the reindeers' spirits. 

Considering the hallucinogenic properties of Amanita muscaria, is it any wonder folks started seeing reindeers flying from the rooftops with a plump man in a red suit carrying gifts on wintery Christmas nights?

So, the next time you look up in the sky on a winter's night and recall the Santa Claus story, you are going to remember the Siberian shamans' magic mushrooms and think: makes as much sense as anything else!

Enjoy your Winter Solstice today, shortest day of this year. 

And to read McLendon's wonderful complete story, visit: https://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/blogs/facts-about-magic-mushrooms. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Bringing Nature Indoors for the Holidays

Holiday Wreath with Red Toyon Berries (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Photo Credit: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County

Bringing Nature Indoors for the Holidays

Nothing makes the holidays like decorating and entertaining.  The winter holidays deserve something special that can only be found by bringing nature inside from your garden.  For me, I find great joy from using the bits of nature that I find right outside my doorstep in my decorating: pine cones, sea shells, acorns, even air plants can be moved inside when temps turn cool.  These pieces of nature are like art, each one truly unique.

I get such joy from sharing my garden with my family and friends as we sit at the table and move around the house. Table place settings, fireplace mantels, decorating candles, making wreaths --- all can be made special and unique with your own personal garden finds.  If you do not have a garden, a walk through a forest or a walk along a seashore can produce unique nature-inspired finds, as well.

The Wreath
My favorite holiday ornament is the wreath that hangs on the front door: it is like a Welcome Mat to the Christmas Season.  It gives me great pleasure to make this out of found garden objects.  Here is a simple “how to” wreath you can try:

Things Needed:
Metal wreath shape from art store
Thin wire
Nail or hook longer than the wreath is deep
Green Pine needles
Ribbons or yarn
A special ornament
Red Toyon berries.


Find young pine tree branches. Clip them to about 12”. Weave branches through metal frame. Secure with thin wire. Add berries, esp red or blue, and secure with fine steel string. (Look for red berries from Toyon bushes; they are the native plant of Los Angeles.) Add at the bottom of the wreath a pine cone and a favorite ornament.  Secure with a ribbon or, my favorite, white yarn (stands out nicely against the greenery).  Tiny extra “balls can be added. Or ball-shaped fruit, such as tiny apples or oranges can be substituted.  Don’t worry about flocking!  Just hang on the door with a big nail.  

Photo Credit, via A Piece of the Rainbow, Ananda

The same sort of wreath can be used at your table around a candle.  Select a smaller wire frame and twist pine branches onto it.  Decorate with shiny balls but also bits of the garden, esp the red berries. In California, these would be Toyon.