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Gail's Garden - March 2016


Gail's Garden - March 2016

by Gail Fanning

Master Gardeners of Sonoma County are hosting lots of great talks this month: on March 5 at 10:30 the Food Gardening Specialists talk about ‘Growing Vegetables with Less Water’ at the Windsor Public Library;  on March 12 at 10:30 Steve Albert talks about ‘Planting the Spring and Summer Kitchen Garden’ at the Rincon Valley Library. Check out all their offerings here.

Looking for more color in those shady spots in your garden, but tired of camellias and rhododendrons?  Here are some ideas to consider.  Perennial ground covers for shade include Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum) in many varieties, and Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’, one of my favorites. Evergreen and slowly spreading with dainty pink flowers, ‘Biokovo’  is very drought tolerant in a shady location and requires only a once yearly trim to keep it neat and tidy.  Larger perennials happy in the shade are many and varied: Geranium cinereum ‘Ballerina’ (pink) or ‘Brookside’ (blue) are clumping true geraniums that provide a long season of color after a short winter time dormant period. So many new Heuchera (coral bells) and  Heucherella (a hybrid of coral bells with foamy bells, Tiarella) in many colorful leaf varieties from yellow to orange to purple are now available: Emerisa Gardens has a nice selection.  They are wonderful under Japanese maples and other small trees which enjoy high shade. Colorful shrubs for shade include the native Carpenteria with lovely white flowers, Abutilon with its graceful bell-shaped flowers in warm colors from yellow to orange to red, and Nandina varieties perform excellently in shade with year round colorful foliage. Choisya ternata (Mexican orange blossom) is not particularly showy, but it has a delightful scent and glossy green foliage; the ‘Sundance’ variety has bright yellowy/green leaves. 

A number of summer blooming bulbs will appreciate some shade too.  Hardy Cyclamen are a lovely spreading ground cover which is surprisingly drought tolerant: I has seen them growing wild and untended on the rocky slopes above the Mediterranean in Greece and Isreal. Astilbes are dependable for delightful blooms in many colors. Bright red blooming Crocosmia is always fresh looking with its arching green leaves. Dutch iris  (Iris hollandica) will bloom reliably in half-shade situations, providing brilliant blues, purples, and yellows which are excellent for cutting.

Have you been confused by people who talk about microclimates in their garden?  What exactly is a microclimate?  Wikipedia defines it as ‘a local atmospheric zone where the climate differs from the surrounding area.’  Well, that makes it a bit complicated sounding, but it’s just a part of the garden where it is hotter, colder, wetter, or drier than the rest of the garden.  A microclimate can be as small as a few square feet, like that area under the eaves of your house where rain never falls and the ground is always dry.  It can be the half acre at the bottom of the field where water collects and the ground remains moist all year round, perfect for willows and dogwood to thrive.  If you have mature trees they will create their own microclimate which is drier than surrounding areas because they soak up most of the water themselves. The south facing wall of your house where the sun shines longest is usually a warmer microclimate: if you want to try a frost tender bougainvillea outdoors, this is the spot to use. Use microclimates to your advantage by carefully considering the needs of any plant before you put it in the ground.

Garden Conservancy Open Days are coming up this spring. Los Angeles area gardens start in April. San Francisco dates are yet to be published, but keep an eye on the website for details. Did you know that the Garden Conservancy runs on volunteer power?  Get involved in their wonderful work: you can share your own garden, greet visitors to open gardens or will promote events locally. All the details can be found at

Have a gardening question you would like answered?  Send me an e-mail at