How to Make Your Coastal Garden Thrive
by Jack McKinnon
May 2012— Living on the Northern California coast is truly a gift. The beauty here is without compare. Migrating birds are seen all year round and the Pescadero marsh is a wonder to behold.
It is no surprise that gardeners flourish here. The soil has been building for centuries, the water supply is good, the weather is temperate and the spirit of the place invites creativity. All is well here and getting better every day. This month’s garden tips will include resources and techniques that are used by coastal gardeners and farmers to achieve the success that makes this place unique.
1. The Pescadero garden tour is a highlight of the year for local gardeners. No two gardens are alike, and their locations differ so much that they often have unique plants to observe. For more information, call Jodi Behrens at 650-879-0877 or just come to Pescadero on May 19. There will be plenty of people to give you directions to the sign-up in front of the post office. The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the cost is $25 per person or $40 for two. I recommend arriving early.
2. My favorite nursery — and I do visit a lot of nurseries — is still Half Moon Bay Nursery. There are several nurseries on Highway 92 and a few to the north on Highway 1, but don’t miss this one. Any nursery that plays opera to its plants has something going for it above and beyond the call of duty. When I was gardening for Sunset Magazine we made regular, seasonal trips to Half Moon Bay Nursery for flowers. This nursery’s perennials, natives, shrubs, groundcovers, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and greenhouse plants are always well tended and in very good show. And the staff members are helpful, friendly and knowledgeable.
3. Pastorino’s Nursery has hundreds of roses and the selection is great. Decide on the color you want, and decide if you want a climber, bush, tree or hybrid tea rose. Then have a good time picking out just the right rose for you.
4. Bongards Treescape Nursery has a good selection of trees that grow on the Coastside. Ask the staff for recommendations. Bongards also has shrubs and some annuals.
5. In a world where hand grown is becoming more and more appreciated, there is no better place to buy your food and your preserves than where the people who grow and produce those items can meet you. Granted, more and more markets are selling locally produced foods and they deserve whatever business you cannot get locally yourself, but there is no better way to shop than at the farmers markets. This is where the best chefs go early in the morning to buy their produce. Need I say more? Half Moon Bay has its farmers market on Saturday mornings, starting May 5; the Pacifica farmers market is held Wednesday afternoons, starting May 2; and Pescadero has its farmers market on Thursday afternoon, starting May 3.
6. As I grew up my mother cut coupons to save every penny she could to feed the nine of us in my family. She would also buy her eggs from the local farm and make me grow vegetables in the back yard. This wasn’t just about economy. She watched every Julia Child show and had a shelf of cookbooks 3 feet long. There was no doubt that quality was just as important as quantity. More and more people on the Coastside are growing their own produce. I always recommend starting with greens. They are easy to grow, one can cut what is needed, and the greens will continue to grow year round.
7. There are microclimates to learn and know on the Coastside. I have talked with native plant specialists and it is amazing how a species of plants will flourish in one place and 5 feet away won’t last the season. Often the wind, light, soil and temperature of an area will determine what will grow there and what will not. I recommend doing some research on the plants you want to grow before spending any money. There is plenty of information on the Web about every plant you encounter. Of course you have to get them identified in order to look them up. See tip 9 for my recommended book to help with that.
8. Many plants propagate easily. Dividing a clump of grass can provide from three to 10 new starts. Natives are often propagated from seeds and there are many resources on line for how to do it. Succulents, which are quite popular and varied, propagate easily by placing a cutting in sandy soil.
9. Walk the coast whenever you need to clear your head. There are several good plant identification books out. The first one I would recommend is Plants and Plant Communities of the San Mateo Coast by Avis Boutell, Toni Corelli and Nancy Frost. Published by the San Mateo Coast Natural History Association, this book is a keeper.
10. One of my favorite things in life is watching red-tailed hawks. I had one for a while as a licensed falconer and have never looked at them the same since. With vision like 10-power binoculars, talons like needles and a spirit like a fighter pilot, these birds clean up on gophers, mice, voles, rabbits, rats and rattlesnakes. Anything that eats gophers, let alone all those other nuisances to gardeners, is just fine in my book.
Jack McKinnon is a garden coach who worked for Sunset’s gardens for 12 years. For a tour of your garden, complete with your own personal tips and techniques, call him at 650-455-0687 or visit his website, www.jackthegardencoach.com.