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Pass When it Comes to Pampas Grass

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Ever drive along the roadways of California and notice a huge, fountainy grass with big, feathery, buff-colored plumes?  To the untrained eye, pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)  looks like a statuesque, beautiful grass, but oh!  Beware!

Pampas spreads out of control

Pampas spreads out of control

In her wonderful horticultural history, Southern California Gardens, Victoria Padilla tells how in the mid 1800s, Joseph Sexton “the father of horticulture in Santa Barbara” popularized pampas.
Vast acreage was devoted to pampas as demand grew, not just for  garden plants but also for plumes to decorate hats and other items.  “Pampas grass became so popular.” Padilla writes, “that it was almost a national emblem, and was used not only for indoor decorations, but for parades and even on holiday greeting cards”

Notice how the pampas towers over John Sexton!

Notice how the pampas towers over John Sexton!

If only Sexton had known what would happen not a full century later.  Pampas was so well adapted to growing in California’s Mediterranean climate, this South American native has become one of our worst invasive plants.   It invades natural habitats, crowding out the plants that native animals depend on for food, shelter, and cover.  It clogs waterways causing the buildup of sediments and again destroying native habitats.  Its dry leaves and plumes allows fire to jump from plant to plant, even across wetlands.

Pampas’ destructive nature has not gone unnoticed.  There are efforts at every level in the state to stop the sale of pampas in nurseries.  At the same time, millions of dollars are spent annually in eradication programs both for habitats and for garden situations.

In fact, home gardener Sandy Shapiro initiated a backyard pampas eradication program in his hometown of Encinitas, California.  Project RIP, or “Remove Invasive Pampas Grass” was intended as a model program to show residents how to get pampas off their properties.

Still, wholesale and retail growers continue to offer dwarf and variegated hybrid pampas such as such as ‘Gold Band,’ ‘Silver Comet,’ and others.    Because identical looking seedlings don’t pop up in the nurseries, they assume these plants are sterile and “safe” for garden use.   But are they right?

Pampas is beautiful, but beware!

Pampas is beautiful, but beware!

Not according to Marie Jasieniuk, Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. Jasieniuk identified genes found in both wild (invasive) pampas populations and cultivated landscape pampas varieties sold by nurseries and garden centers in California, in other states across America, in Europe and New Zealand.  She compared the genetics of cultivated varieties to 29 wild populations of pampas from Crescent City in the north to La Jolla in Southern California.

Jasieniuk’s research determined that wild populations of pampas have genes in common with the so-called sterile, cultivated varieties.

In other words, while they don’t breed true-type offspring, cultivated pampas definitely breed with the wild growing pampas and contribute to the overall problem of invasive pampas.

According to Jasieniuk, ” landscape plantings are probable sources of invasive populations…  Our results strongly suggest that …. landscape planting has contributed to the range expansion of invasive C. selloana in California.”

Further, results suggest that even as we spend millions of dollars eradicating wild growing populations of pampas, landscape plantings continue to “replenish” the wild populations. Therefore, Jasieniuk writes, “management efforts that target secondary releases by eradicating landscape plantings may be highly effective in controlling existing invasive populations as well as preventing further invasive spread.

In other words, to eliminate invasive pampas from both native habitats and cultivated areas, we need to stop planting all varieties of the pampas, Cortaderia selloana in our gardens.

Beautiful but dangerous.  Sounds like the beginning of a good novel.  If only it were fantasy rather than reality….


Festival of Flavors!

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

What’s the surest way to get the most flavor from vegetables and fruits?  Grow em yourself…..from seed!

Starting vegetables from seed was the topic of the talk I gave at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s Festival of Flavors this past Friday. The topic seemed fitting since the huge variety of vegetables seeds on the market offers gardeners their widest range of possiblities!

It always seems so magical to me to start with little pieces of what look like wood; Add with some water, light, and a bit of seed starting mix to make those seeds  sprout and grow into bountiful plants that produce delicious vegetables.

Homegrown veggies always put supermarket veggies to shame.

By 3 pm Friday, the seats in the speakers’ area were full and everyone had a package of gourmet red chard ‘Scarlett Charlotte’ seeds I brought with from my good friend Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seed.

My dear friend and mentor Jan Smithen, author of Sun Drenched Gardens, introduced me to the audience and away we went.

I love the fact that people are interested again in growing their own vegetables, herbs, and fruits. It only follows that they are interested in starting them from seed. It is a skill that was once commonplace, then nearly lost, but is now coming back around again. Much to my delight!

We started with a lesson on reading seed packets.scarlet-charlotte-2

scarlet-charlotte-1

Its ironic how important label information is and how little effort most companies put into their labels. Some companies do a great job and Renee writes some of the best. She deftly combines romance and detailed how-to with delicious suggestions for cooking and eating each variety.

Being a frugal gardener (is there any other kind?), I presented several examples of containers for starting seeds – old cottage cheese or yogurt containers, take-out food containers, or plain ‘ole four packs recycled from the nursery.

I prefer four packs to six packs, since the cells in a four pack are large enough to support seedlings all the way to transplant. With six-packs, seedlings can get only so large before they need to be “moved up” to larger containers. Saving that step saves my time, and it also means seedlings develop faster since they don’t have to go through transplant shock twice (once being moved up and the second time when I put them in the ground).

And by the way, someone asked me about using egg cartons. The simple response is: “don’t bother.”

Anything being reused has to be disinfected first, of course, to keep the tiny seedlings free of deadly bacteria and fungi. I give containers a good soak in a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach to 9 parts water). While I’m at it, I throw in plastic plant labels so I can reuse them, and I give my pruners a dip too (I dry and oil them afterwards).

Fresh seed starting mix is important as well. As compared to potting soil, Seed staring mix is more finely milled so the tiny seedlings have an easy time pushing up through the surface. It is also pasteurized to kill the pathogens. Black Gold seedling mix is one of my favorites. I had the purple-and-black label bags with me on Friday.

We spent half an hour going through the how-to process of how to start seeds, both small and large, in containers and as what I like to call “seed sandwiches” (more on that in a future blog).

When we ran out of time to talk about how to do cuttings, the audience insisted on continuing. So, I spent another 15 minutes demonstrating cutting basics a beautiful pink-flowering perennial Salvia chiapensis from Monrovia growers.

The audience was wonderful. They were tremendously enthusiastic asked great questions – always the most fun part of any talk.

During the hour-long presentation, I divulged some of my favorite hints for success …Think I’m gonna give them all away here? No way! But I’m happy to share those secrets when you invite me to speak to your group or event!