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.

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: 

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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Gardening In the Line of Fire

Manzanita's spring blossoms, of the Genus Arctostaphylos

December 4, 2017: California seems to be on fire.  Everywhere. It started last week when Santa Ana winds stirred up a wildfire in Ventura, California, just to the north of Los Angeles County. I was on my way up to Santa Monica to take care of some business at the courthouse there.  Everyone was talking about the fires. It was a warm, dry day, more like summertime than Christmastime. The sky was hazy and girls passed by with masks over their faces, so as not to breathe in too much ash and particulates. The golden sun took on a new color. It was just the beginning of what would become the week ahead.

My car radio was alive with chatter about how this was not the fire season: It is too late in the year and fires are supposed to be over.  "Newbies" to Los Angeles had to call into the radio station to put in their "two cents," annoying me with how they know all about living in LA.  "This is what it's like living in LA: you never know when there might be a fire and we are always living with this danger..." much like folks back East live with tornadoes or hurricanes or ice storms. I suppose that's what they meant. I wanted to call in and say, "No. This NOT normal for Los Angeles."

For one thing, we are in our 6th year of drought. Nothing is normal now. The trees are stressed. Aluminum has been sprayed on us day in and day out for weather modification... Ah, but that is a subject for another post.

As the car radio droned on, I started thinking about the backyard gardeners in Southern California. We all spend much time and money planning our landscapes: shopping for the right plants, learning where to place them, and how to care for them.  Then, should a fire appear out of nowhere and strike our neighborhood, causing evacuations, we have to leave our gardens behind. When we leave our houses, we leave our gardens, too.  And we don't know what we will come back to.

What a terrible feeling that is!  Even if the insurance companies reimburse you for your house, how do you replace the garden?  All that love and careful nurturing of your plants: they are like friends that cannot be replaced. The only choice is to start over. You assess the damages, decide what to keep and what cannot be saved, and you move on.  And that takes time and money.

So, now we come to why I am writing this blog post. There are things you CAN do to mitigate the destructive effects of wildfires on your garden and make the new garden stronger.  With a little bit of  research, you can make your new garden even more fire resistant!  I suggest you start with taking a look at which plants you choose to put in.

In Southern California there are native plants that are fire resistant and plants that are fire tolerant. There are a good many varieties of plants to choose from. You do not have to go with strickly a "cactus and succulent" garden if you don't want to.  I want to introduce you to some of the native plants I know of that would work well in your new garden.  Like the lovely Manzanita~ If you had a garden full of Manzanita, they would survive fires. Yes, they still burn, but they do not die. Instead, they grow back from a basal stump and eventually return to their enchanting pre-fire forms, producing sweet pink blossoms in spring that pollinators so enjoy.

After a fire, your garden will be void of much brush; it may look like a whole new palette to paint on. So rather than fill it with more plants that would be destroyed if wildfires should come again, consider using native plants that stand up to fire, plants that will be with you for a lifetime. It will make coming home after an evacuation that much less stressful. Your favorite plants might be charred and blackened. They might be smaller versions of their former selves. But they will continue to grow. And the wildlife that called them home will return, too. They will put out seeds that native birds rely on. The ecosystem will continue to thrive, and your garden will be reborn!

Remember, plant fire resiliant and fire tolerant native plants.  Look them up. Research your options.  I will post some great native choices in upcoming blog posts for you.  Because, I am a Southern California gardener, too.  I have lived in the chaparral & soft-scrub areas of the Santa Monica Mountains for most of my adult life. And I have seen what wildfires can do. I am no "newbie" to this place. And I am here to tell you, you can be strong. You can create a better and stronger garden that will last you a lifetime~ 


Friday, December 8, 2017

Toyon, Hollywood's Native Christmas Berry Bush

Toyon Bush, Heteromeles arbutifolia,
Santa Monica Mtns, Photo by Kathy Vilim

Ever wonder how Hollywood got its name?  

The Toyon bush, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is a drought tolerant perennial shrub native to chaparral regions of California (such as the Santa Monica Mountains). Toyon has long been beloved by Californians, especially during the month of December when it produces glossy red berries in profuse clusters.  

The shrub resembles another winter evergreen found back East, European Holly, Ilex aquifolium, which is frequently used in Yuletide decorations for its red berries.

It has been said that the Hollywood Hills were once covered in Toyon bushes. Even before Hollywood’s development back in the 1920's, women would collect Toyon holly branches and pick the berries to decorate for Christmas. 

After so much berry picking, the State of California passed a law against “collecting plants on public land or land not owned by the person picking the plant without the landowner’s written permission” lest the plants get picked out.

Some say this is how Hollywood got its name.  Others say this is not true, that the story is just a romantic notion, and that the name Hollywood was simply chosen by a woman friend of the developers who named it after an Ohio town. Originally, the development was called Hollywood Land.

Romantic notion or not, the Hollywood hills could still be covered in Toyon bushes with their red berries in winter, and their red berries can still be used in decorating, especially pretty contrasting with green pine needles in wreaths.  

The name "Toyon" is in fact the Native American name for the bush, given by the Ohlone people, and is still the name used today. The native people, including the Chumash and Tongva, used the wild, edible berries (tomes) for food, despite their containing glycosides, which would be largely removed by cooking. The berries would be made into jelly, or they would be dried and stored for later use in porridge or pancakes. Toyon leaves were used as a tea for upset stomachs. 

On April 17, 2012 Los Angeles chose the Toyon bush as the City’s official native plant. The Toyon earned this distinctive status by having such a long and colorful history in Hollywood going back to the City’s founding. 

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a native plant that is drought tolerant once established. It will accept some garden water if drainage is good, tolerates adobe soil, but also lives in beach sand. Toyon likes full sun, but tolerates full shade and is fire-resistant if irrigated in summer. It grows easily to 8ft, but can be pruned as desired or to 15ft when left in the wild.

These native plants have wildlife value: The fruit provides food for our local birds, including mockingbirds, robins, and cedar waxwings.  Bears and coyotes eat the berries and spread them, and in the spring Toyon’s white flowers are beloved by bees and butterflies.

So, if you are looking to add new native bushes to your yard, Toyon is a wonderful choice for humans and wildlife alike. And a great Holiday Gift to the birds!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Six Smart Reasons to Leave the Autumn Leaves

Six Smart Reasons to Leave the Autumn Leaves

Autumn is in full swing. No matter where you live in North America, gardeners are watching leaves falling as temperatures cool. Even if you don’t have a deciduous forest in your backyard, you still have bare tree branches, bushes going dormant, perennial plants dying back, and lawns turning brown.  You can’t leave all the leaves on the lawn; that wouldn’t make for a healthy lawn come spring.  But, you don’t have to rake up every single leaf and over-tidy the garden. And you don’t want to send those raked up leaves to the dumpster either. 

There are plenty of reasons not to over-tidy when preparing your garden for winter, and here are (6) of them:

1.    Create Winter Landscape Interest

When you look out on your backyard on a winter’s day, the expanse of white landscape need not be bleak. Instead it can be wonderfully serene, still, and punctuated by the appearance of seedpods left standing. Sedums are some of those plants that add visual interest, as well as tall grasses, and even the dried brown seeds on bushes such as lilacs. Fallen tree branches and hollow logs that stand out like dark sentinels against the white, can leave us to wondering as we gaze out our windows what wildlife might be hunkered down for protection there.

2.      Consider Wildlife

There are beneficial insects, such as bees, butterflies and ladybugs, that need to overwinter in your yard, sometimes in the very leaf litter you were about to rake up and throw away. More and more gardeners are becoming aware that their yards are home to an entire world of critters besides themselves. The web of life is interwoven on so many levels, with insects relying on protection during cold winter months in the thickets of snow-covered branches, in hollowed logs, under the lowest branches of bushes, or even under peeling bark high up in tall trees. Some of these insects provide essential food for birds in the wintertime when insects are scarce.

Native bees are among those insects seeking protection. Some spend the winter as larvae burrowed into the ground. Others hide in the stems of grasses or inside tree hollows. Then there are pest-eating insects like ladybugs, who hibernate in the winter. If you leave them a comfortable place to sleep, they will be there for you first thing in spring when they can go to work right away policing your garden for pests.

Not all butterflies migrate to warmer climes in winter, and those that stay can hide in leaf clutter that the responsible gardener has thoughtfully left alone. Some survive as caterpillars hidden in their host plants; they will stay hidden there until spring comes to warm them up.

You can see how fragile the web of life is out there in your backyard, and how we must be very vigilant not to destroy it, for the continued health of the garden.

3.      Making Homes for Bird Friends

Eastern Bluebirds in the Snow

Of all the birds that have visited your feeders throughout the year, some do not migrate south.  Instead they choose to stay on and make a go of it. They find refuge in tree cavities and under bushes, eating winter berries and what insects they can find. Some birds are insect-eating birds that cannot survive on feeder seeds alone. Gardeners welcome wrens, nuthatches, pheobes, bluebirds, titmice, as they consume many of the insects and caterpillar pests that would otherwise wreak havoc on your spring garden. These birds can find insects hibernating in the natural habitat you have left for them by not tidying up too much.

4.      Caring for the Rose and Perennial Gardens

A heavy layer of leaf mulch is a perfect way to protect roses from freezing temps. Snow is a great insulation, keeping perennial beds sheltered from frigid, biting winds that would harm soft perennial plants.  If you live in an area that freezes but gets little to no snow, it is especially important to have leaf mulch to pack into your garden beds. Caution: Some perennials will suffer from rot if too much leaf litter is piled up against them, so be aware of which plants you are mulching.

      5.  Saving Essential Nutrients for Next Year’s Lawn

Photo AP

Your lawn can benefit from the many nutrients found in that leaf litter, as well. So, too, can the rest of your garden. Leaf mulch also cuts down on weeds and stabilizes soil temperatures. To do this, instead of raking up leaves, run them over with your lawnmower and save them in piles. You can store them in plastic bags or bins made of chicken wire.

     6.   Planning the Spring Vegetable Garden

Photo: Hannah O'Leary / OSU Extension Service

Come spring, you will need compost for your vegetable garden.  Compost consists of not just food scraps. A large bulk of it can be decaying leaf litter mixed with manure.  Ideally, for every gallon bucket of kitchen scraps and grass clippings you toss into the pile, you should have three gallon buckets of fall leaves or straw to cover it with.

Mulch vegetable beds with a thick (6-inch) layer of leaves. Make a blanket of oak leaves to cover fallow vegetable beds in the fall. This will protect the bare soil from hard rainstorms. Slowly over the winter months leaves will break down, to be turned back into the soil come spring.

Composting creates a sort of semi-artificial nutrient cycle. Yes, the nutrients are eventually recycled back into the soil, but instead of allowing plant and animal waste to sit around and naturally decompose wherever it falls, composting makes all the decomposition take place in one spot. 

~ Instead of all that work tidying up the garden this autumn, hope you enjoy instead walks through the backyard with your camera, perhaps looking for wildlife in hiding or photographing the artful arrangement of dried plants that nature has waiting for you.