• Diggin’ It

    Dana Goforth lives in Pacific Grove with five long haired cats and an awesome vacuum cleaner. She is a writer, artist, and gardener. Her latest book, Hollow Reed Reiki I, was published last year. You can find out more about Dana at www.danagoforth.com.

    Seed Savvy #2

    Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant. — Robert Louis Stevenson

    Read more…»

    Oh So Grateful for Glorious Grasses

    by Dana Goforth

    A leaf of grass is not less than the journeywork of the stars. — Walt Whitman

    cornucopiaThe cornucopia (from Latin cornu copiae, or horn of plenty), has long been associated with Thanksgiving. It’s symbolic representation of abundance can be traced to classical Greek mythology: the horn of a goat fed the infant Zeus, and the profusion of milk it produced gave continuous nourishment. Roman deities also claimed a bit of the “horn action,” claiming that the cornucopia granted everlasting power and prosperity. While these are interesting stories, it begs the question of how the horn of plenty or cornucopia landed on the pilgrim’s table?

    Recently, I read a story that made much more sense. A small Native American tribe in the Northeast was well known for their woven baskets. While most indigenous people made round baskets for storage, the women of this tribe were known for an unusual shaped design: one that begins at a point in the bottom and spirals up to a large, round opening. It was most likely made from reeds or grasses that were available in late summer or early fall. When the women made these baskets, they sang while weaving until the basket was completed. As they sang, they envisioned themselves at the point of the basket, grounded on Mother Earth, and, as the basket-making proceeded, so did the spiraling of their energies and their songs up to the stars. In essence, these women were singing spiritual abundance into being.

    Personally, I’m voting for the spirited, cone-shaped basket cornucopia at an early Thanksgiving gathering rather than the ancient goat horn metaphor.

    Traditionally, baskets are made with local plants and bark that are easily bent and shaped. Willow stems, grape vines, and even kelp are used in modern works. Native grasses are universally the preferred material by modern and ancient weavers. The grass can be tightly woven, even to the point of holding liquids. Looser weaving may hold fruits, nuts (especially good for acorns), vegetables, or other household goods.

    Grass Botany

    All grasses are in the Monocot (monocotyledon), family, as are palms, bamboos, garlic, and many flowering plants. OlivaInGrass_0911Monocot seedlings have a single seed-leaf, as compared to two that emerge. This group also includes plants grown from bulbs, rhizomes, and corms, such as onions. Many have a hollow stem surrounded in long, graceful sheaths of leaves.

    The grass family is vast and diverse with a presence in every type of environment, including water. Cattail, (Typha genus), may be the most recognizable aquatic one and is found around the world. Grasses are used to build homes and boats, and to make paper, fibers, medicinal ingredients, and, of course, baskets. Reeds are dried and used to make musical instruments, most notably the Peruvian flute. As food staples, corn, wheat, rice, and sugar cane are the mainstay of many diets, for both humans and animals. Aside from lawn grass, most grasses are relatively easy to grow and generally pest free. An added bonus — deer generally don’t eat ornamental grasses.

    Ornamental grasses are quite very diverse. Their form, texture, color, and motion can quietly add interest to any garden. From a gardener’s perspective, grasses are divided into two categories:, warm season and cool season grasses.

    Cool season grasses, such as Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca), Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), and Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), pop-up early in spring and may be at their most vibrant color well into the summer. It’s good to note that these types of grasses need to be frequently divided. If left unmaintained, they will die out in the center and leave a large, empty space.

    Warm season grasses handle heat and drought particularly well. They generally green up in late spring and early summer. Common ones are Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis). Hardy Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana), is also a late bloomer but is non-native and has become invasive in California. It is considered a pesky plant and extensive efforts have been made to eradicate the Pampas from the landscape. A personal warm season favorite is Buffalo Grass (Hierochloe odorata). It is a sacred plant to several Native American tribes… and it can be infused in vodka for an unusually tasty liqueur! Guaranteed to liven up any Thanksgiving event. (I know this from personal experience. Just saying.)

    Like bamboo, grasses are also divided into the sub-categories of running and clumping. A good example of the “runners,” is the diabolic Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon), also known as the bossy boots of grasses. While this grass may be popular on sports fields, it has no place in a proper garden. Other runners, such as the beautiful Black Mondo (Ophiopogon planiscapus), and Lilyturf (Liriope spicata), are slow to grow and make an excellent and attractive groundcover. As the name says, running grasses are somewhat aggressive and take more work to control.

    Conversely, clumping ornamental grasses stay in tidy mounds and behave themselves. They tend to be self-seeding and are easier to control than their more aggressive brethren. Clumping grasses are also more common at local nurseries and include the Fescue Miscanthus and Pennisetum genera.

    Looking for More Bang for the Buck?

    In my opinion, one of the greatest benefits of having grasses in the garden is the visual color, texture, and movement they provide. Horticultural eye candy so to speak. The gracefully arching Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), has a finely textured foliage and the seedheads provide color well into the winter. For unusual color, Purple Tufted Fescue (Festuca amethystine), and Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrical), are a nice addition. Blue Wheatgrass (Elymus magellanicus), is a stunning, light sage color and can highlight an otherwise dull area. It also pares well with many other plants. Great White Fleece Flower (Persicaria polymorphia), can be a specimen plant that draws much attention in a large garden with its creamy, delicate profuse flowers. Finally, the whimsical Lesser Corkscrew Rush (Juncus effuses), is fun to grow and does well in containers. An added bonus is that kids love the curlicue growth of the stem.

    For me, grasses are one of my favorite groups of plants. They offer so much variation, and their uses are far greater than most other plants. I particularly love the cornucopia metaphor and how a simple, functional piece of art has survived hundreds of years of tradition.


    Dana Goforth lives in Pacific Grove with 4 long haired cats and an awesome vacuum cleaner. She is a writer, artist, and gardener. Her latest book, Hollow Reed Reiki I, was published last year and is available at Artisana Gallery. You can find out more about Dana at www.danagoforth.com.

    Consider Bamboo

    by Dana Goforth

    the winter storm
    hid in the bamboo grove
    and quieted away.

    Matsuo Basho 1644–1694, Japanese Haiku Master

    bamboo brush paintingI was kneeling in front of a tomato plant, looking for the source of the black crumbles that covered one stem when someone walked in my backyard. Not an easy thing to do since the gate was closed and locked. Peering between the plants, I saw a little, old Asian lady dressed in a faded, floral smock and a tattered blue sweater. Her short hair was mostly white and she was carrying a plastic bag with the red Safeway logo stamped on the side. As I watched her, she purposely headed to the large clump of bamboo that separated my yard from the neighbors and pulled out a two-foot machete from the deceptive smock. As I stood up, I pulled my two-inch Felco pruners from my holster and said “Hello.”

    It was late spring but the tomato plants were huge and everything else in my garden was thriving. Including the bamboo as evidenced with the new shoots emerging in the basement, the hot tub deck, and in the downstairs bathroom. I cautiously approached the lady who magically appeared, and smiled. I wasn’t too worried because I was about twice as tall, but that machete… She smiled back, which was a good sign. Apparently, she was known in town to visit any bamboo grove and harvest the ‘culm’s’ or shoots in the spring. I pointed to the errant shoots poking out of the deck, hoping she would clean them up. She shook her head and said “No good.” With her shiny cleaver, she pointed to the short shoots peeking out of the ground. “These.” she said and skillfully whacked one free. My first lesson in bamboo harvesting.

    The Botany

    Bamboo is a monocot of the true grass Poaceae family and is of the woody Bambuseae tribe. Giant bamboos can grow up to seven inches in diameter and are the largest members of the grass family.

    The main stem of any bamboo is called a culm or shoot when it emerges from the ground. The culm is made up of solid, jointed segments called nodes. Internodes is the space between the nodes and is hollow in most species. Branching mainly occurs at the nodes and is varied in their numbers, length, and color. Bamboo foliage leaves grow at different intervals along the branches depending on the species. Culms also have leaves but their primary purpose is to protect the shoot as it grows. Eventually, these secondary leaves dry up and fall away.

    Beneath the soil, rhizomes transport water and nutrients, anchor the plant and store food. There are two types of rhizomes; Leptomorph rhizomes can grow many feet in a season and have numerous culms, and Pachymorph rhizomes, which will grow into one shoot.

    Bamboo is native to many countries including Africa, South American, but most notably, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Japan.


    Bamboo is extremely versatile and has been used by generations for numerous purposes, most notably as construction material. Because bamboo grows rapidly, some timber species over three feet in one day, molds can be made to shape the new shoots for specific purposes. Square bamboo timbers are common. Recently, bamboo flooring has become an international rage when designing eco-friendly buildings. In Chinese medicine, bamboo is uses for healing infections and bamboo charcoal is said to relieve joint pain. Paper, kitchen utensils (duh), musical instruments, woven baskets and even as cooking vessels are some of the more common products available. I love my chopsticks but I’ve found that bamboo cutting boards dull my knives fast. Recently, bamboo clothing has become popular, but since bamboo fibers cannot be made into traditional yarns and the cloth is actually a chemically-produced rayon.

    Your Bamboo

    With over 500 bamboo species, subspecies, varieties and cultivars, choosing a plant can be daunting. First, ask yourself if you want a running (leptomorph rhizome) or clumping (pachymorph rhizome) plant. If you choose a running bamboo, be prepared, you run the risk of confronting a machete welding old lady in the spring. Clumping bamboos are easier to control and do well in containers.

    Next question, height? In the right environment, some bamboos will reach over 60 feet in height. Dwarf bamboo’s such as Dwarf Whitestripe (Pleioblastus fortunei) and many sasa species are excellent ground covers (running type but easily managed). An added bonus is that several dwarf bamboos have beautiful, variegated leaves and do well under large trees. Some bamboos grow tall and straight while others like Mexican Weeping (Otatea acuminate aztecorum) will create a graceful arch up to 15’. Native to China and Japan, the genus Phyllostachys make up the classic, open bamboo groves and do well as barriers or living fences. Clumping Fargesia spps. also make beautiful hedges and range from 8’ to 16’. An added bonus; this type of bamboo is the food preferred by giant pandas… Just saying.


    To really impress your gardening friends, look beyond the leaf for color. Bamboo stems are much more lively. Black Cherry (Fargesia sp. ‘Jiuzhaigou’ 4) stems age to a deep wine color with purple and red branches. In shade, the culms of Himalayan Blue (Himalayacalamus hookerianus) have a stunning blue-grey coating, and Alphonse Karr (Bambusa mulitples) has yellow stems with irregular green stripes that can turn red in the sun. A quiet stunner is Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) with a lovely leaf structure and does quiet well in large, containers as a background for other plants.


    Believe it or not, bamboos are very sensitive to heat, humidity, and sunlight. While they might survive is a less than optimal environment, they will not thrive. Additionally, some bamboos such as Tibetan Princess (Himalayacalamus microphyllus) and Water Bamboo (Phyllostachys heteroclada ‘Purpurata’) do well in a waterscape. On our foggy coast, Semiarundinaria yamadorii (no common name) and Green Onion (Pseudosasa japonica ‘Tsutsumiana’) are both salt and extreme cold tolerant. Finally, many bamboos are native to extremely high altitudes and thrive in brittle temperatures.

    Choosing bamboo for your garden, like any plant, takes time and research. I found bamboo especially interesting because of all the cool nuances inherent to the species.


    Several common plants disguise themselves as the lofty bamboo. Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) and Heaveny Bamboo (Nandina domestica) are the most recognizable. Here are several things to look for in the real deal: 1. Must have solid nodes and almost always hollow internodes. 2. Never has bark. 3. Rarely flowers and never any flower petals. 4. If a does bamboo flower, the fruits are like grains and never soft fruit.

    Day Trip

    I love bamboo! When I discovered there was a bamboo nursery nearby, I was in heaven. Bamboo Giant is a funky, family owned nursery on 31 acres in Aptos. They claim to have the largest display of timber bamboo in North America. I don’t know if that’s true but they cultivate many of their plants and are very knowledgeable. There is a lovely, outdoor koi pond with a viewing gazebo and a footpath that winds through a giant bamboo forest. If you go, pray for wind: The timber talks! I have been there several times and have yet to see anyone welding a machete.

    Art in the Garden

    by Dana Goforth

    dana's windmill__fixedI recently had the opportunity to revisit a sculpture garden in Woodside. Runnymede Sculpture Farm is a hidden gem with over 160 sculptures placed throughout the acreage. My first visit, in 1998, was to view the recent work of artist Andy Goldworthy. Made entirely out of clay harvested from the farm, Andy designed a series of pod-like sculptures that appeared to have sprung out of the sloping terrain surrounding the walking paths. “Land Art”, as his work is called, is created with the intention of observing the slow process of his installations returning back to the earth. Last month, I was thrilled to see how lichen and moss contributed to the natural patina of the pieces and loved the chunky cracks and fissures that appeared since that initial visit.

    Runnymede Farm, like many other sculpture gardens, hosts a variety of work in different mediums. There is a practical quality to the mediums used in an outdoor piece of art. Ceramic is lovely but it will break in areas of extreme weather, as exemplified by Andy’s work. It does, however, do well on foggy coasts. Many metals will eventually deteriorate and melt into a pile of red, rusty dust. Bronze is does well outdoors and the patina will subtly change over the years. Carved stone or marble figures are beautiful. Their surface may host stunning green mosses and will last for eons. Cast cement is affordable but may be fragile and whither in salty air. Wood, or any other ‘natural’ material, will also transform in time, eventually decomposing. Plastic… seriously?

    Art is subjective. If you love a piece or the subject matter makes you uncomfortable, it’s done the job. Art in ones garden is very personal and should continue to give joy for years. And it ought to reflect the mood of your garden.


    From stone Buddha heads to pink flamingos, anything goes. In Germany and Italy, people have a passion for little gnome figurines and many consider them an essential component to their yard (especially if you’re a gnome!). Many Japanese gardens have lovely, stone lanterns that are not only visually appealing but may function as a small, light source as well. To really stretch the imagination (and pocketbook), follies were fashionable in 18th century England and France. A folly is an ornamental building with no practical purpose such as an artificial Roman ruin or temple tucked in an isolated corner of the estate. Good luck getting a folly past a planning commission these days however.

    Impulse buying leads to a well-stocked yard sale. When choosing a sculptural piece for the garden, ask yourself several questions. First, do you love it? This is important in buying any piece of art. Second, where in the garden will it live? I have a friend who’s passionate about frogs and has numerous figurines placed amongst her plants. She swears they move about after dark and sometimes disappear only to reappear at a later date. I suggest you personally move your pieces around until the location just feels right. Alleviates any confusion in the wee hours of the morning. Finally, will the piece compliment the overall feel of your garden or serve as a focal point of interest?

    Big Rocks

    In Asian cultures, entire gardens are created around natural stones and boulders. The shape may be rounded with a smooth surface or rough and craggy. A near white granite color will add a quiet drama while the negative space created between two lava-like boulders, judiciously place together, can draw the eye in a harmonious way. In the right location, a single, tall upright stone may look like an ancient guardian. Water features and unusually branched shrubs might be a stunning compliment to an interesting boulder. An exceptionally large rock may also serve as a resting place while a path of several large, flat rocks sparkles in the rain. Zen meditation gardens always include stone features that invite contemplation and serenity, in fact, stone gardens are considered an ideal place to relax.


    Aside from the pleasing, aesthetic purpose that a lovely sculpture brings, it can also be useful. I love birdbaths, whether or not the birds actually use them is not relevant. A birdbath stands alone and the added element of water is calming. Concrete or cast shallow bowls on pedestals are very common and come in a variety of styles. Raccoons and other critters also appreciate a birdbath and will joyfully remove the basin from the pedestal. If you purchase a birdbath, make sure the two pieces are attached or joined in such a way as to prevent breakage. Another friend of mine is a birder and takes his birdbaths seriously. Not only does he have several pedestal types in his yard, but over the years, he has found several large stones with deep indentations, holding enough water for the feathered bathers. Some are placed on the deck while others are tucked throughout his garden.

    Folk Art

    My grandfather and great uncle were both millers from Germany. In fact, they were raised working in the family smock style windmill. My uncle was also a fine carpenter. When he moved to the states, one of his projects was to make a scaled replica of the family windmill. It was an amazing piece of work that stood over five feet tall and was made entirely out of several, wooden refrigerator crates. Everything was carved by hand including the spokes of the blades and the intertwining cogs in the gears that made them turn. He did install a small, electric motor and I was always thrilled to see the blades actually turn when I was a child. Technically, the windmill was more of a piece of folk art rather than a sculpture but a piece like this reflects a family history and is a remarkable tribute to craftsmanship. As a polar opposite to the natural pieces Andy made at Runnymede, a homemade work of art in your garden reflects a personalized and intimate touch.

    Bringing it home

    There are tons more ways to introduce art into your garden. Trying hanging an old, interesting piece of metal on the fence or find a bright colored painting and tuck it in an unused space. Adding art to any garden not only adds an element of sophistication but can be fun and whimsical as well.


    Lawns Begone!

    Xeriscape planting for modern lawns: Pacific Grove-friendly

    by Dana Goforth

    The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. —Marcel Proust

    Several years ago, I was dividing an overgrown clump of grass (Stipa arundinacea ‘Scirocco’), when a very soft voice said, “Excuse me?”

    I looked around, but not seeing anyone, I shoved the hand spade deeper into the root ball.

    “Hello!” came the voice again. I looked around. No one. For a moment I thought the garden fairies were messing with me… at the very least the elves were at it again. I went back to work.

    For a third time, the voice spoke: “Excuse me!”

    With that I stood up. In front of me was a small tuft of curly red-brown hair attached to a face that just barely peeked over the top of my garden fence.

    “Hello,” I said, somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a fairy, but happy to find the face that went with the voice was not elfin.

    “That is a lovely plant. What’s its name?” the small person asked.

    “It’s a scirocco,” I said, and with that I met my wonderful neighbor Suzi.

    When Suzi moved into the house around the corner, her front yard was entirely covered with well-compacted Bermuda grass. Over several months, she removed the entire mess and had begun planting drought tolerant plants. After our meeting, she included several clusters of my sweet scirocco. Her challenge: to create a beautiful garden where once there was none.

    A landscape, whether in a small yard or a large commercial space that is designed to conserve water, is called a xeriscape. Xeriscape, (pronounced zēri skāpe), is derived from the Greek xeros meaning dry, and quite literally translates to dry landscape. Sometimes it’s referred to as a “dry-scape.” A xeriscape garden design not only protects the environment, but is also practical and can be extremely attractive when groupings of plants compliment each other.

    History of the Lawn

    The roots of the modern day lawn stretch back to medieval England and the nobility class. Lacking the common mow and blow maintenance practices used today, sheep and other herd animals grazed the lands surrounding the nobles’ mansions, providing free upkeep and fertilizer. Since England had a great deal of rainfall, the lawns were green and lush year round.

    In post WWII America, the suburban housing boom demanded a “nice” front yard, complete with a patch of green and a few trees lining the street. Whether it was to mimic the wealthy Europeans or introduce something other than a vegetable garden and chicken coop, lawns became extremely popular and often an obsession. At the same time, the unrestricted use of toxic chemicals (DDT and diazinon!) to achieve the perfect lawn, spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. Over-fertilization and the misuse of pesticides caused serious environmental damage, (including algae bloom from runoff water), not to mention numerous health issues.

    As an early advocate of natural landscaping, Lorrie Otto spoke out against lawns by calling them “sterile,” “monotonous,” and “flagrantly wasteful.” Her outrage in the late 1970s inspired the first grassroots anti-grass movement called the Wild Ones (www.wildones.org).

    It’s interesting to note that none of the grass seeds and turf commonly available for lawns is native. Bermuda grass is from Africa, Kentucky bluegrass comes from Europe, and Zoysia grass is native to Asia. Some fescue species, which are common for golf courses, are toxic to humans and often used as livestock fodder. (An excellent article on lawns, Turf War by Elizabeth Kolbert, was published in The New Yorker, July 21, 2008.)

    Going Native

    All plants, like people, need moisture to survive. A plant that is adapted to living in a dry environment is called a xerophyte. When Suzi first heard this word her eyes, like mine, crossed. Now, two years later, she is flinging the word around with ease. More common terms are drought-tolerant, drought-resistant, and even low-water-use. Fortunately, California has many wonderful native plants that are colorful, fragrant, and as an added bonus, support butterflies and bees in many ways. In addition, numerous plants native to our coastal areas thrive on the moisture in fog. It’s free and there is usually loads of it!

    Some of the most popular local plants include wild lilac ceanothus spp.; manzanita arctostaphylos spp.,; sage salvia clevelandii or leucophylla; and a personal favorite, matilija poppy romneya coulteri. For delicious flower and seed color, add Oregon grape berberis aquifolium (yellow); toyon heteromeles arbutifolia (red berries); California fuchsia epilobium (red); Pacific Coast iris (white and purple); and several penstemon spps. (centranthifolius); ‘Scarlet Bugler’ will attract humming birds.

    Many non-native plants will do very well in your new garden as well, especially plants native to South Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean region. Most species of euphorbia, rosemary, cistus, and grevillea prefer little water. Don’t forget to add a grass or two. California buckwheat eriogonum spps., will liven up a quiet spot in the breeze. (Suzie’s fairies like it, too).

    Other Features

    Many drought-resistant plants have an amazing visual texture that can make any landscape more interesting. Leaf size and type, unusual bark color, stem and branch structure are just some of the things to look for. Grevillea spp., have wonderful feather-like leaves that seem to change color daily, and some types of manzanita have red, curling bark.

    Stepping away from the plants for a moment. Large stones or boulders placed in strategic places can add grace and harmony. Think Japanese Zen gardens. Support local artists by purchasing a ceramic or metal sculpture as a focal point for your garden. As with grasses, kinetic sculptures add the interesting element of movement. Flagstone or gravel paths also create an attractive element and can enhance showy groupings or color spots. Instead of a direct pathway to the front door, try a curved route that features a favorite plant. Suzi added several brightly glazed containers, which draw the eye to certain areas.

    A low-maintenance xeriscape doesn’t necessarily mean no-maintenance, but it does minimize the output of water, which is good for your pocketbook and the environment. Many plants are easily divided and shared with friends and you might just meet a kindred soul in the neighborhood. Oh, and don’t forget to invite the fairies to your new garden; it’s the elves you have to watch out for.

    Happy Feet

    by Dana Goforth

    The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. — Franklin D. Roosevelt
    The nation that replenishes its soil replenishes itself. — Dana Goforth

    My first experience in understanding the importance of soil was about 25 years ago. I was living in the downstairs unit of a home in the Oakland hills. Just outside my door were three terraces overgrown with weeds and littered with stuff the bachelors upstairs decided to throw out the bathroom window, giving a whole new meaning to disposable shavers. After cleaning up the yard, I forged into new gardening territory that included double-digging bed preparation. To amend the soil, I decided to use aged horse manure from the stables at Tilden Park. When I asked to borrow the pick-up from one of the bachelors, I neglected to inform him of my intention (payback!). With a load of manure and a really, really good spade, I worked for several days digging and amending the soil. My efforts paid off when several months later, my vegetable garden was robust and hearty. So much so that the borage was over four feet high and in full bloom… and the boys upstairs found alternative disposal methods!

    One afternoon, my friend, Sandy, brought her daughter, Page, over to pick tomatoes. Page was a towheaded, precocious three year-old and a delight in the garden. We decided to stick her in the monster borage patch and take photos. Haloed by the purple-blue flowers, she looked down and giggled uncontrollably. She was squishing the wet soil through her toes and sinking into to ground. “Happy feet!” she bubbled. Happy feet, happy roots. I’ve never forgotten the phrase.

    Soil Composition

    Soil (never say dirt), is made up three elements: clay, sand, and organic matter. Each of these elements provides a different type of nutrient, which feed plants in various ways. The ratios of these components can vary widely. Sand, for instance, is finely ground up rock and contains little that a plant can assimilate. Most cacti will thrive in this type of soil, but will die a slow, rotting death if its feet are covered in too much moisture-retaining organic matter. Most other plants will wither and die when placed in soil in which the sand ratio is high. Very few plants can tolerate the dense, moisture laden properties of a primarily clay soil.

    In between these three primary elements are pockets know as “pore space” which contain air and water. Pore space can change seasonally and sometimes even daily. Many garden soils in Pacific Grove are predominately sand, and the regular addition of organic matter, such as compost, is recommended to retain moisture and to nourish the plants. In addition, sand has a minor abrasive quality and will “chew” through the matter faster than in a more balanced soil type.


    The holy trinity of fertilizer is nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash: N-P-K. (The N and P are easy enough to remember: nitrogen and phosphorus; but the K for potash refers to its nomenclature from the periodic table of elements, potassium.) Pot ash refers to the traditional method of leaching wood ash for use in the garden and in making soap and glass. It’s derived from the Old Dutch word potaschen. All plants need N-P-K elements to survive. Nitrogen provides proteins and causes new growth. Phosphorous provides energy for the plant and facilitates flower growth and seed production. Potash improves water retention, aids in protein synthesis, and promotes strong stems. Commercial fertilizers are required to list these ingredients on their products, generally in numbers referring to the amount of N-P-K in the mixture. What they are not required to tell you is where the ingredients come from. Many cheap, synthetic fertilizers contain treated human waste (sewage sludge) or dredged sediment from the bottom of a canal (usually near industrial output or a port of call). The term sludge is not pretty so marketing people have changed it to “biosolids” or “activated compost.” Whatever the hell they call it, I don’t want this stuff in my garden especially on culinary plants. Major ewwww factor. Pay the extra few dollars and use quality, organic fertilizer.

    I think of soil in the same way as I think of plants, as a living being. Both are reliant on things outside their control, like fallen leaves, worm casings, water, and sunlight. However, a home garden, with non-native needs, requires special amendments. For the most part, I make my own fertilizers. Here’s a source for each component:

    Nitrogen: Alfalfa Meal, Blood Meal (steamed), Hoof and Horn Meal, and Fish Meal.

    Phosphorus: Bone Meal, Phosphate Rock, and/or Soft Phosphate (colloidal).

    Potash: Wood Ash, Green Sand or finely ground Crush Granite (use in moderation, can affect the pH of the soil).

    Soil Modifiers

    To further fine-tune your soil fertility, modifiers may be added directly to the soil or your compost pile. Calcium is a common need and is available in the form of dolomitic lime, gypsum, and crushed eggshells. However, only a professional soil test will indicate the requisite of calcium. All types of grass-fed animal manure are a good source of organic matter and also work as a fertilizer. Aged manure is a great source of nitrogen, as illustrated by my Oakland garden. Be mindful of how much is needed, however, unless you want a backdrop of nuclear plants to photograph a toddler in. Compost is one of the most essential soil modifiers and works on many levels. It holds moisture, improves drainage, neutralizes toxins, releases nutrients, and feeds the micro-biotic life below, specifically beneficial worms. Making your own compost is easy, but you must plan its location and be prepared to give it some attention. For smaller gardens, bulk organic compost (OMRI listed) is available in Marina at Last Chance Mercantile. Support local businesses I always say.


    The definition of pH is a long and boring logarithm and makes my eyes cross. Simply put, a pH factor measures the hydrogen (H) ion activity in living things… ‘nuff said. All soils fall on the pH scale between acidity and alkalinity. Most vegetables grow best in slightly acidic soils. Camellias, rhododendrons, and many ferns thrive in extremely acidic soil; while lilacs (Syringa spp.), clematis spp., and some ceanothus spp., prefer a more alkaline pH. Again, professional soil testing is recommended before messing with this element of soil management.

    Feed the soil, not the plant

    Fertilizers, soil modifiers, and the pH balance of the soil all work together. Altering one will affect the others, which of course will affect the well being of your plants. Use your instinct and let the plant tell you when it has happy feet or is in need of attention.

    Note: I’ve referred to professional soil testing a couple of times as opposed to home testing products. A professional test may give you too much information on your soil profile, while a do-it-yourself test may be limited to the N-P-K only. Know what you want to test for before purchasing a kit.


    by Dana Goforth

    “Those herbs which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but, being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild thyme and watermints. Therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.” —Frances Bacon

    A number of years ago, my friend Cindy purchased a small piece of land in Idaho with the intention of living off the grid and being completely self-sufficient. Her first project, after drilling a well, was to create a vegetable and herb garden. In went tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and chard. Off to the side, she planted thyme, oregano, basil, and other culinary herbs. After two years, she capped the well and moved back to California; but her plan was to return to Idaho after her kids were grown. Ten years later, Cindy went back to her property, expecting to have it overrun with native grasses and wildflowers. She was amazed to find the herbs had not only survived the harsh northwest winters but had thrived. The land was covered with hearty bushes of thyme and oregano. Even the fragrant mint was happy… as evidenced by the clumps that covered the wellhead. The basil, on the other hand, didn’t do as well… it was nowhere to be seen.

    I tell this story to illustrate the hardiness of some herbs. Like many plants left to themselves, herbs will find the best place to survive.

    The definition of “herb” is broad. From a botanical viewpoint, an herb is a non-woody plant that bears flowers and dies back every year. But many culinary herbs are actually small, woody bushes and, in milder climates, are evergreen. Rosemary, for instance, is native to the Mediterranean region and does very well in Pacific Grove. (So well in fact, you might use your neighbors’ rosemary and save space for something else in your own garden.)

    Culinary Herb Garden

    A traditional “kitchen” garden became popular in medieval times and often included a special area for culinary and medicinal herbs. In France, a jardin potager is still popular in urban and rural households. I envision nuns lovingly tending a garden surrounded by tall, stone walls and gravel paths. A kitchen garden or potager may be well manicured or have a wild, un-cultivated feel. Large ceramic pots will compliment any garden. Those cute plants in a tiny 2” clay pots might rate high on the “awwww” meter, but there’s little bang for the buck in terms of culinary supply. Most common herbs want to spread their rooty toes and wings. Some rosemary species (Rosemarinus officinalis, for instance), can grow to six feet tall and just as wide. Similarly, thyme and oregano like space as Cindy’s surreptitious Idaho garden proved. Some common herbs should be in containers, especially if garden space is limited. Mint, spearmint, and peppermint have a tendency to bossy-boots their way through an entire garden but will thrive in a large container. Chive (Allium schoenoprasum) also likes to live in a pot… or two.

    Know your Herbs

    Going to a nursery or opening up a seed catalog can offer a daunting selection of herb varieties. Sage officinalis, for instance, has at least five varietals commonly used in cooking; but there are loads of sage species that should not be ingested (except by butterflies). Similarly, thyme can be creeping, red, English, French, lemon, lime, or even elfin. Thymus vulgarus is where to start for this traditional cooking herb. Let your taste buds take you down the thyme-covered path when deciding what to plant. Two more herbs, dill (Anethum graveolens) and French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), are interesting additions to both garden and kitchen. Dill will reseed easily so plant accordingly. Bringing it on home is basil. Basil has the distinction of having a wide range of flavors, which are very much dictated by the climate where they are grown. Again, there are many species of this smoky tasting herb, so do your research.

    Herb Lore

    Did you know that the word tarragon is derived from the Latin dracunculus, which means “little dragon”? I’ve never seen my tarragon plant actually breath fire, but you never know what happens after dark. Herbs and many other plants have a deliciously interesting history. In 1892, Richard Folkard wrote that rosemary was favored and that “young fairies, under the guise of snakes, lie concealed under its branches.” The ancient Greeks believed rosemary strengthened memory and routinely braided long stems in their hair during exams. Basil has the dual distinction of being both a sacred plant and a powerful protector plant. In India, basil was often laid with those who have passed away, but in ancient Egypt it was considered a token of love. Not so different in a broad sense I suppose. In addition, some herb lore mentions that basil is a plant to determine one’s chastity and would wither in the hands of the impure. Bringing it home is sage. When burned, not only does sage drive out negativity and evil spirits, but brings wealth and abundance as well. (I wonder if Cindy tried this before she moved?)


    We have several fine nurseries on the Peninsula, and I encourage you to shop locally. However, it may be cost-prohibitive for our nurseries to carry a large assortment of unusual herb plants or seeds. I recommend two wonderful businesses that have interesting and diverse inventories: Nichols Garden Nursery in Ashland, Oregon, and Crimson Sage in Northern California. Both have a robust online presence and an extensive organic selection. They also love to talk about their plants and seeds! Read more…»

    Creating a Butterfly Garden

    by Dana Goforth

    “Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.” ―Hans Christian Andersen

    Growing up I somewhat rural California, I had many opportunities to get up close and personal with nature. One of my first memories was of finding a magical chrysalis hanging from a tenacious weed poking through a sidewalk crack. When I was nose-to-nose with the find, I was amazed to see faint markings of a butterfly wing shimmering just below the surface. This happened outside my kindergarten room. I soon discovered that the pale green pod was home to a butterfly and the weed, well everyone knew it as the weed that oozed stingy milk stuff from the fragile stem. This “milkweed,” I later learned, is the host plant for monarch butterflies. A host plant is where a butterfly lays her eggs. The plant provides nourishment for the larvae or caterpillar as well as for the newly hatched butterfly. For the monarch, the chemical toxins in milkweed provide a natural defense for the butterfly during its life cycle: a fine example of the symbiotic relationship between plant and insect.

    A successful butterfly garden should begin with a host plant. For monarchs, this would be Asclepias tuberosa, derived from Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing. It has bright flower clusters that provide both food and shelter for the various stages of development. Host plants for other local species include grasses, mallows, and oak trees.

    Next comes butterfly food. Most flowers provide nectar for butterflies but the large monarch has special needs. Cluster flowers, such as yarrow (Achillea spp.), phlox (Phlox spp.), verbena (Verbena spp.), and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) offer stability for this large butterfly to comfortably latch on to and feed. Nectar producing daisy-like flowers provide a foundation for the monarch to comfortably consume a yummy snack. Aster species as well as dahlias, zinnias, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), coreopsis, yellow cosmos (Cosmos sulfureus) and rudbeckia flowers are ideal landing platforms as well. Spiky flowers, including cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and columbines (Aquilegia spp.), are easy for butterflies to grasp with their little paws. Many of the plants mentioned, readily re-seed year after year. If you want a larger plant or bush that offers a dramatic invitation to butterflies, try pride of madera (Echium spp.), chaste tree (Vitex spp.), and of course the butterflybush (Buddleia tuberosa). Most of these plants need full sun so plant accordingly. Monarchs and other butterflies will adore you. You might even see a hummingbird or two!

    Addressing the Challenges

    Here in Pacific Grove, where every other block seems to have its own unique micro-climate, growing sun-loving plants in the ground may be a challenge. Container planting can be fun and liven up an unused, sunny space. To create a nectar garden in pots, consider the height, color, and water needs of the plants and group them together for a dramatic presence. For instance, purple aster and yellow coreopsis will grow well in the same planter. Add a trailing plant such as white alyssum or lobelia to compliment. We have fairly temperate weather and many of the summer flowers continue blooming well into late fall especially if the spent flowers are removed. There are some early blooming plants which do well in containers and will tolerate our mild days, that are also favorites of local butterflies. Lovely purple chive (Allium schoenoprasum), candytuft (Iberis spp.), spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis), and siberian wallflower (Erysimum x allionii) are some personal favorites. When choosing your “large” butterfly nectar plants, remember that daisy-like shapes, spikes of closely placed flowers, and flat or round-topped clusters of small flowers are ideal for feeding.

    Finally, monarchs seem to prefer purple or pink flowers but have been spied dining on orange and yellow one as well! Experiment in your garden and see who visits!

    Going the Extra Mile

    My grandmother had an amazing butterfly garden. Her plants were so robust, we joked that there was more manure in the ground than soil. One of our favorite places in her garden was a cracked, blue and green ceramic birdbath. The birdbath itself was fairly unremarkable and didn’t hold much water, but what grandma put in it was fun. In the summer, we often had picnics by the flowerbeds in the backyard. Of course, this included red, drippy watermelon. One slice for each of us, and one slice for the old birdbath. Yup, the birdbath. By the end of the day, the watermelon placed in the birdbath would be covered with butterflies, usually monarchs. I loved trying to get them to hop on my finger and lick off the sticky juice. I still can’t look at a watermelon without having this special memory pop in!

    Enjoy making a butterfly garden. There is nothing like taking a moment to slow down and watch the dance of a humble butterfly!