Pat Rubin

Tower of Jewels (Echium wildpretii) adds a stalk its second year.

July: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 - 4:11 pm

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.

Tower of Jewels ( Echium wildpretii): Tower of Jewels comes by its name honestly. In its second year it sends up a plump stalk that, in full bloom, is covered with spirals of coral colored flowers that eventually fade to blue. The flowering stalks can reach 7 feet or more. It is a showstopper.

Officially dubbed Echium wildpretii, it is a biennial. That is, it blooms its second year, then dies. Of course, it leaves behind hundreds of seeds for the next generation. But during its brief lifetime, Tower of Jewels is a beautiful and hardy addition to California gardens.

It begins as a tiny, fuzzy-leaved seedling in early spring, and quickly forms a low whorl of soft, spiky silvery foliage the first year. The second year the plant grows ever plusher and larger before sending up a stout fuzzy stem, often 6 to 9 feet tall. Tower of Jewels blooms from the bottom up, and the flowers turn blue as they age. By season’s end, nothing is left except a hairy, silver skeleton, dripping with masses of seed.

Wear gloves when pulling the plant out of the garden; by the time it dies back the soft silvery hairs have become stiff and prickly. I scoop up the seeds and put them in a paper bag. They make great gifts to other gardening friends.

While it reseeds itself around the garden, coming up in slightly different areas each year, it is not an invasive plant. It does best in an area where there is some bare soil so that the seed has a chance to sprout. Dozens of seeds sprout in an area, and the plants duke it out among themselves to see which will survive and thrive. Of the dozens of seeds that sprout, only a few survive and make it to adulthood. It grows best left to sprout on its own since it dislikes growing in pots and doesn’t transplant easily.

E. wildpretii is native to the Canary Islands, though California suits its needs well. Full sun, average, even thin, soil and a limited amount of water are ingredients for success for this handsome and stately plant. In fact, grown in too rich a soil and overwatered, the plant sulks and hardly blooms. It is related to the “Pride of Madeira” that grows along California’s northern coastline.

Agave ( Agave sp.): Mention agaves, and most people think of the huge, succulent-looking century plants with sharp, stiff spines that are eye-level for children, and its huge fleshy arms that don’t seem to fit easily or gracefully into any garden scheme. Then there’s the towering spire of flowers, if you’re lucky, although the plant dies soon afterward and you’ve got this huge mess to clean out of the garden.

Things have changed. Today’s agaves are suited more for the small garden, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. All form rosettes of succulent-type leaves. If they flower, the stalk rises up from the center of the plant, and often that part of the plant dies once flowers are spent. However, the plant sets offshoots, called pups, alongside the mother plant before it dies, so you never really lose the plant. The smaller agaves are much easier to manage than the old-fashioned century plant.

The agaves originated in the American Southwest and in Mexico. They range in color from powder blue to steel gray to silvery white. Many of the new cultivars still have wicked looking spines, but since the plants are much smaller than the century plant, they are less threatening and easier to incorporate into a mixed planting.

The thread leaf agave ( A. filifera) has gently arching leaves that aren’t succulent-like at all. The plant comes in green with gold edged leaves, and vice versa. Each “leaf” has fine threads along the margins. Another favorite is A. parryi. It grows slowly to 3 feet by 3 feet, and in the right conditions, will send up a flowering stalk as high as 10 feet. The buds are pink, then open to reveal greenish yellow flowers. A. ‘Blue Flame’ is a smaller grower, and comes by its name honestly. Each succulent “leaf” looks like a slim blue flame.

Give agaves plenty of sun and good drainage. Even though they are shallow rooted, they need little water. They do well in pots.

What's in season in July: Apricots

You can call them "APE-re-cots" or "AP-re-cots, " your choice.

However you prefer to pronounce them, this stone fruit is well worth including in the home orchard.

The tree isn't too large for a small garden, is easy to prune to shape and doesn't demand too much in the way of spraying. Since it bears fruit on spurs (like apples), they are easy to espalier if you're really tight on space.

The trees must be tough: they've been cultivated in China for more than 4,000 years. Apricots are related to peaches and are similar in appearance, minus the fuzz.

According to the Sunset Western Garden Book, apricots prefer chilly winters, fairly warm, dry springs and freedom from late frosts. Unlike many other fruit varieties, apricots are self-fruitful so don't need another tree close by for pollination.

Fruiting spurs bear several years, so when pruning you need to encourage new growth. Thin the fruit to about 4 inches apart. Fruit ripens early to mid summer.

Prune apricots during the summer instead of in January. This helps prevent spreading canker diseases and limb dieback.

Most common apricot varieties: Tilton, Blenheim, Royal and Chinese.

Best advice for growing fruit trees: Buy a book on growing and pruning fruit trees. Take it out to the orchard with you when it's time to prune, and for each type of tree you grow, read the instructions.

Each type of fruit tree is different. One size does not fit all.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: Once ripe, store them in the refrigerator and use within a few days. To speed up ripening, keep them in a paper bag at room temperature until they are slightly soft and aromatic.

Preserving: Cut them in half, remove the stone, then spread the pieces on a cookie sheet and freeze until solid. Transfer to a freezer bag and freeze up to a year.

- Gwen Schoen

Apricot cobbler

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Serves 6

Apricot cobbler is an old-fashioned dessert. It's much easier and faster than making a pie. In the South it's often served warm with a splash of whole cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This recipe is from Gourmet magazine.

INGREDIENTS

Filling:

1 1/2 pound fresh apricots, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

7 tablespoons sugar, or more if the apricots are tart

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Topping:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

1/2 cup buttermilk

INSTRUCTIONS

Filling: Toss all filling ingredients together in a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie plate and let stand until juicy, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Topping: Sift together flour, baking powder and soda, salt and 1 teaspoon sugar in a bowl.

Blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in buttermilk with a fork just until combined (do not overmix).

Drop rounded tablespoons of dough over filling, leaving space in between to allow topping to expand. Sprinkle with remaining 2 teaspoons sugar.

Bake cobbler in middle of oven until fruit is tender and topping is golden, about 30 minutes.

Cool slightly, about 15 minutes, and serve warm.

Per serving: 339 cal.; 6 g pro.; 65 g carb.; 7 g fat (4 sat., 2 monounsat., 1 polyunsat.); 17 mg chol.; 351 mg sod.; 5 g fiber; 41 g sugar; 18 percent calories from fat.

Success in the July garden

High temperatures are here to stay: Adding mulch helps conserve moisture and keep soil from baking and drying. Spread 2 to 4 inches of mulch over the entire garden. Remember to keep it a couple inches away from tree trunks and shrubs and plant stems.

Check potted plants when temperatures exceed 100 degrees. They may need watering more than once a day. When watering, water gently until water comes out the bottom, and then water again.

Cut Mexican evening primrose to the ground when flowers are finished and you’ll get another flush of bloom in September.

Remove flowers from basil plants to keep them producing leaves.

Don’t worry if squash and melons wilt during the hottest part of the day as long as they recover each evening. If they don’t recover, they aren’t getting enough water.

Plant a second crop of squash and beans to extend the harvest into fall. Cover newly planted seedlings with shade cloth or newspaper during the hottest part of the day until they are established.

Shop for crepe myrtles while they are in flower so you know you’ll get the colors you want.

Trim spent flowers from black-eyed Susan, coneflowers, roses and agapanthus. Cut spent flower stalks of watsonia, daylilies, kniphofia and agapanthus.

Order bulbs for the best selection: lilies, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, crocus.

Cut iris leaves to about 3 inches. Dig up rhizomes if crowded and replant.

Beware people smoking around tomato plants. They can spread tobacco mosaic. If you smoke, wash your hands before handling tomato plants.

Pick vegetables – especially zucchini – daily to keep plants producing.

Add fresh water to birdbaths at least every other day.

Continue deep watering fruit trees through summer.

Plants not to trim after July: rhododendron, camellia, dogwoods, deciduous magnolias. If you trim them now, you’ll be cutting away next year’s flower buds.

Fruit trees can be summer pruned now. At this time of year they won’t respond with lots of wild growth.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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