Fourth of July in January

toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

To see Fourth of July colors in January, we need only take a hike in the hills and canyons around us. The red berries of toyon together with the white and blue flowers of ceanothus comprise the patriotic palette of native winter flora.
The vivid scarlet berries and saw-toothed leaves of the toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) have some similarity to holly berries and leaves. Hollywood owes its name to this resemblance. The first inhabitants of Tinsel Town, emigres from the Eastern U.S. and homesick for their holly bushes, thought they had found it when looking at the toyon. Wander around the Hollywood Hills today, even near the famous Hollywood sign, and you will yet see many native toyon bushes, their red berries shining brilliantly amid an otherwise pale winterscape.
Enter ceanothus. This is, by far, the most diverse of California native plants even if, in our area, its presence is limited to the arboreal types whose flowers are either white or baby blue. As you get closer to the coast, however, even as the plants become reduced in stature, the ceanothus blue will become darker, even marine in hue. As you approach the coast and the climate becomes increasingly mild, you encounter shrub, sub-shrub and, eventually, prostrate ceanothus varieties.
Ceanothus flowers are fragrant and – as a camping-out convenience – may be rubbed between the palms and used as a substitute for soap.
The toyon grows into a tall, arching shrub, up to 15 feet tall. Tree ceanothus will reach or surpass this height. Both grow well in Valley gardens and, once established, do not require any water other than winter rain. Toyon and ceanothus are excellent plants for dry, sloping terrain or other sites where installing an irrigation system would be problematic, expensive or both. You need only water them for the first year or two following planting; after that, they will fend for themselves quite nicely.
FOCUSING ON FICUS: As a result of the recent windy weather, I witnessed several broken clay pots in areas exposed to the elements – on pool decks, walkways and in open courtyards. Potted ficus trees are notorious for falling over in the wind. These trees grow rapidly and, unless they are put into increasingly larger pots as they get taller, will become top heavy within a few years and prime candidates for falling over.
You can keep a ficus tree in the same pot for years as long as you keep it trimmed down to a safe size and root-prune it regularly. Ficus trees, like most other plants, become root-bound if left in the same-size container for a prolonged period of time. Prevent this root-bound condition by cutting away the outer third of the root ball and repotting with fresh soil every two years or so, depending on how quickly the plant grows.
Q: “Can coffee grounds be an effective fertilizer? Every morning I make a pot of coffee and toss the grounds. I’ve always wondered if I could toss them in my back yard instead. Would shadier plants that like rich soil, such as hydrangeas, get some benefit from this?”
– Melanie O’Brien, Valencia
A: Coffee grounds are typically thrown onto a compost pile. A compost pile consists of fallen leaves, grass clippings, barnyard manure (if you have access to a barn or stable) and kitchen waste such as vegetable and fruit peels, egg shells, tea bags and coffee grounds. The pile is turned frequently and kept moist in order to decompose into humus-rich earth for your garden as quickly as possible.
Coffee grounds have an acidic pH and, as you suggest, would benefit acid-loving plants such as hydrangeas, azaleas and camellias, as well as most evergreen shrubs and trees. You could sprinkle the coffee grounds directly around your plants but, to speed up their decomposition, you should keep humus-rich mulch – such as oak leaf mold or rotting straw – around these same plants. The bacteria that are active in the mulch will go to work on your coffee grounds as well. Oak leaf mold or other highly decomposed organic material is sold by the bag at your local nursery. Straw is available by the bale at animal feed and supply stores such as the Red Barn in Tarzana.
TIP OF THE WEEK: It may be mid-January, but the Valley spring is only a month away. In February, buds of early-blooming fruit trees, such as peaches, may already start to open. So if you have not yet winter pruned your fruit trees, do so now. Roses should also be winter pruned by the end of this month. Canes may be cut back as short as 18 inches. As a general rule, the more severely you cut roses back in the winter, the fewer flowers you will see in spring’s first crop, but the roses you do get will be larger than if you had pruned less drastically.

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