Archive for November, 2011

The Last Harvest of Summer

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Pumpkins, just in time for Thanksgiving

Sorta sweet, sorta sad… the last harvest of summer.

Expressive beauties: Peruvian lilies are low-maintenance flowers with a lot of personality

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

I remember clearly when I saw my first Peruvian lily. It was the early 1980s, and I was in graduate school in Santa Barbara studying the tiny plankton that swim in our oceans. At the end of another weeks-long research cruise, my then boyfriend (now husband) met me at the dock with a huge hug and an equally huge bouquet of Alstroemeria, the Peruvian lilies.

I was thrilled to be back on terra firma (I get horrendously seasick) and equally thrilled by the beautiful bouquet. We both marveled at the delicate, trumpet shaped flowers with the most amazing color patterns. The flowers were the palest yellow, as I recall, with spots and dashes of deep burgundy all through their throats. Somehow, the patterns made the blooms look almost like they were smiling.

Illustration by Cristina Martinez Byvik

I’d been at sea for a long time, but honestly, the flowers had expressions.

Now, more than 20 years later, I still think Peruvian lilies have expressions. I grow four or five varieties in our garden, and I plant them in all the gardens I design. They are easy to grow, full of blooms, make excellent cut flowers, and are incredibly drought tolerant. Exactly my type of plant!

Peruvian lilies are perennials that form upright green stems from 3 feet tall all the way down to 8-inch dwarfs. Each stem is lined with delicate green leaves and topped in a cluster of up to a dozen lily-shaped trumpets, each about 3 inches long.

While my first Peruvian lilies were soft yellow and burgundy, garden hybrids range from nearly white, soft pink and soft yellow to brilliant gold, bright red and intense magenta, coral, even purple. Most are multicolored with yellow throats and those burgundy/black speckles and streaks.

Peruvian lilies are native to Chile and Argentina (ironically, not Peru).

The varieties commonly available are nearly all hybrids. The wild species live a true Mediterranean life. They sprout new stems in fall, bloom through spring, then retreat back into the ground to avoid the heat of summer. The new hybrids are “everblooming,” meaning they are bred to shorten the dormancy cycle so plants bloom nearly year-round.

If you have a Peruvian lily that goes dormant through most of the summer, chances are its an older hybrid. Nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t bloom for quite as long as the newer ones.

Dig up a clump of Peruvian lilies and you’ll see how they survive dry times. Stems arise from fleshy, white, pinky-sized tubers that store water underground. As plants mature, they make more and more tubers. So, allow enough space (at least 4 or 5 feet across) for them to spread. If the patch gets too large, it’s easy to share those tubers. See one you love in a neighbor’s garden? Ask for some tubers to take home.

Peruvian lilies prefer well-draining soil, in the ground or in a pot. Plants need very little water once established.

They bloom best in full sun but tolerate part shade. If blooms are sparse, transplant to a sunnier location and/or increase water a bit. For maximum bloom, fertilize once in early spring and once in early fall with all-purpose, organic fertilizer.

Some older hybrids reseed aggressively. Newer ones, though, are bred for sterile flowers so they don’t reseed.

If you want cut flowers, do not cut the stems. Instead, grab a stem just a few inches below the flowers and yank (yes, YANK) the entire stem out of the ground. As stems finish blooming, yank those out, too. Somehow, yanking stimulates the tubers to sprout more flowering stems. So, the more you yank, the more flowers you get.

Some Favorite Varieties:

I’ve yet to meet a Peruvian lily I didn’t love. Here are some to start with.

‘Casa Blanca’ has white petals, each with a soft pink streak and pale yellow throat. Burgundy brown dots and dashes. Three-foot-tall stems.

‘Third Harmonic’ petals are golden orange and coral pink with burgundy dots and dashes. Three- to 4-foot-tall stems.

‘Kyty’ has butter-yellow petals with deep red dots and dashes on 3-foot-tall stems.

The ‘Princess’ series dwarf Alstroemeria have multicolored pink, orange, magenta or coral flowers with burgundy/deep brown dots and dashes. Most are under a foot tall.


While most nurseries offer a few varieties of Alstroemeria, you’ll find the largest selection at Garden Glories in Vista. This small nursery is open by appointment, so call first (858) 449-5342 or email

(This entry first appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, Saturday November 5, 2011)

Don’t Plant This: Palm Edition

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

My husband and I had brunch this morning with Celia and Nate Levy at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.  Celia is the travel agent who has done such a fabulous job putting together the garden tour I am leading to Holland and Belgium next May. Brunch was delightful – both food and company!

On the way back to our car, I noticed this amputated palm stump literally attached to the home next to the museum.  Its a perfect example of “Don’t Plant This!”

A stump is all that remains of a palm tree planted way too close to this house, many moons ago

Clearly the palm was planted many years ago, and by someone who had no idea how large it would get.

The point of attachment

Unfortunately for the palm, it was planted way to close to the house.

The palm literally grew into the home's exterior wall

When it became a problem, rather than removing the entire palm, the owners simply cut it down to eave height!  Such a pity.

This palm tree will never recover from being cut part way down

Lessons from this pitiful situation:

1) Do your homework.  Know how large a plant will get (height and width) before you buy it and certainly before you plant it.

2) Don’t plant large plants too close to a house, a driveway, a sidewalk, etc.

3) If you have to remove a plant, remove the WHOLE THING.  Don’t leave a stump to die and rot in place.


Blades of Glory: Whether catching morning dew or in your morning brew, lemon grass has it covered

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.

This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.

Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.

Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.

Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).

If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.

To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.

East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.