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Gail's Gardens - July 2015

Gail's Gardens - July 2015

by Gail Fanning

Everyone hates gophers, right? They are a pest in the garden, but I got to thinking about it: they must have a purpose like all of nature’s creatures: so I did some research. I discovered that gophers (and other burrowing animals like moles and badgers) are incredible dirt moving machines. Each gopher moves up to a ton of soil each year: a mini rototiller! They bring soil from lower levels up to the surface, and add compost to lower levels with their food and manure. This is especially good for compacted and heavy soils. Their tunnels allow for water to penetrate more deeply into the earth, and slow down run-off in heavy rainfall. The surface mounds that digging animals create provide a seedbed for new plants. Gopher tunnels create havens for salamanders and toads that need cool, damp conditions. And of course gophers are prey for animals, hawks, and snakes. So, respect your gophers and keep them at bay with wire cages around your yummy plants: they rarely bother plants that are strong smelling like rosemary, lavender, and onions.

Don’t miss this chance to learn more about the very important art of pruning: Ellen Solomon teaches Summer Pruning and Espalier for fruit trees on Wed. July 22: morning in the classroom, and afternoon in the orchard for hands-on practice. Register at SRJC (707) 527-4372 or www.santarosa.edu/communityed

I grow lots of heuchera (coral bells) and love their tough and attractive foliage: evergreen, drought tolerant, and deer and gopher resistant. Some of the best for our area are the hybrids developed at the Santa Ana Botanic Garden. The breeding program there started in the 1950s with crosses between Heuchera maxima (Island alum root, a California native) and Heuchera sanguinea (Scarlet coral bells, native to the Southwest and Mexico). The resulting plants are larger with more colorful flowers than either species. There are a number of different flower colors available: ‘Santa Ana Cardinal’ = red, ‘Wendy’ = pink, ‘Opal’ = white. The Santa Ana hybrids all have plain green leaves: the first purple-leaved heuchera introduced to the gardening world was Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’. It was discovered by Brian Halliwell in 1980 growing at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. 

Since then there have been a numbers of purple leaved cultivars, as well red, orange, and yellow leaved heucheras: many of these have been produced by the Oregon grower Dan Heims, arguably the most prolific modern Heuchera breeder. His company, Terra Nova, has collected unusual sports and color breaks from plants in their tissue culture program. He has released heucheras with incredible foliage color including silver, gold, orange, and chocolate. Terra Nova has an awesome website with new introductions each year: check it out! You can buy some of his amazing plants at Cottage Gardens in Petaluma, and Emerisa in Santa Rosa. To learn more about these great tough and easy garden plants, I recommend his book: Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells by Dan Heims and Grahame Ware.

If you want to try heucheras: here are some tips that work for me. In its native habitat this plant inhabits shady woods and canyons, so they are happy to grow under your oaks and redwoods.

Plant them in half to full shade with water at least once a week (they can survive with less, but won’t look very good). They do best in well-drained soil: they love hillsides and rocky walls. They are hardy to 10-15 degrees F. and deer resistant!

Divide your heucheras in spring (every 3-5 years is best). Cut back the main plant hard; then take the old woody stems you have removed and trim them back to firm tissue with just few leaves. Pot these old stems up, and they will quickly grow into new plants for next year. 

Remember that newer varieties will be patented: asexual propagation of patented plants is strictly prohibited without the written authorization of the patent holder or the patent holder’s agent. The process of developing new plants and bringing them to market is quite expensive and takes many years of effort. Please support our growers by respecting their patents.

Need garden advice? Send me an e-mail at bluehilldesign9@aol.com.