Garden tips for May | May 11, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 11, 2012

Garden tips for May

Look around and pay attention to what is truly beautiful

by Jack McKinnon

I was sitting on the bench in front of Half Moon Bay Nursery on a Monday. The nursery was unusually busy for a weekday. My client hadn't arrived yet for our "walk through," and traffic on Highway 92 was trickling by at a medium pace.

I noticed the fremontodendron in bloom, the roses starting to bud, the veggies stocked and ready to be planted and the birds singing somewhere nearby. There was something about just taking in the beauty that made those few minutes special.

I looked to my right and in a small bamboo planter was a serene sculpture surrounded by baby's tears, five-fingered ferns and campanula. I thought, "I have to write my column this month about this." How often do I just get to sit and look around me at the beauty at hand?

All too often I am making a plant list, trying to convey a design concept, getting a client to understand that water does not equal love or that plants need water more than once a year. And then there is soil building, compost, mulch and fertilizing.

This month's tips will be about looking around, paying attention to what is truly beautiful and enjoying spring here in Northern California. I will try to lighten you up as I have been so that maybe, one day, you can sit on a bench and realize how good this life really is.

1. You probably think I am going to recommend buying a bench. I have a better idea. Find a bench that already exists and stop for a few minutes this week and sit on it. Seniors have this one down, but why wait? The opportunity is whenever you see a bench. It is a good exercise.

2. Check out variegated plants. Variegated means (usually) the leaf is green with a yellow edge. Sometimes the yellow is different and this is where variegation gets interesting. Here are a few plants to check out either in nurseries, your garden book or online: Fuchsia magellanica gracilis 'aurea,' Ficus pumila 'variegata,' Vinca minor 'sterling silver,' Berberis thunbergii 'Aurea nana' and Weigela florida 'variegata'(my favorite plant right now).

3. Buy yourself a new plant. This means buy a plant variety you have never had before. Even seasoned horticulturists can do this. There are so many to choose from. It doesn't have to be expensive and you don't have to have a green thumb. A small succulent can cost as little as $2 and require almost no care. Please do water it at least once every two weeks though.

4. Watch a squirrel for 10 minutes. There are literally thousands of them in Palo Alto. I have no doubts they are watching us all the time. If you hate squirrels then watch one for 20 minutes. This may bring about two things. The first one is you may learn something about squirrels that will help you discourage them from your garden. And the second is that squirrel will think twice about sticking around "that person who always stares" at them.

5. Pull a weed for somebody else without them knowing it. If they catch you, it doesn't count. This is a good exercise in observation of your neighbors' poor gardening skills and also in your goodwill toward them. Who knows, if everybody pulled everybody else's weeds for them and didn't get found out, the world would be a much better place.

6. Listen to birds singing. This is quickly becoming a lost art. If you cannot identify the bird, there are plenty of resources in the library. There are also recordings and people that can help you to learn. Check out Listening to birds can create powerful memories and bring back good ones. I heard a mockingbird the other day that reminded me of visiting my grandmother in Fresno 50 years ago.

7. Give a woman a flower. This is a basic spring exercise that everybody can practice. It doesn't have to be a rose (although roses are nice); it can be a daphne or a gardenia or whatever. The first flower I gave my wife (before we married) was a cluster of Forget-me-nots. The marriage lasted 10 years. It must have worked.

8. Take a garden tour. It doesn't have to be fancy and you don't have to enter the property to enjoy a garden. Decide on a neighborhood you are interested in exploring and invite a friend for a walk. I do this all the time with clients in my garden coaching business. We talk about the designs, the plants, what works and what doesn't. It is a great way to learn what is going on in the gardening world. You do not have to bother anybody, it doesn't cost anything and you get exercise too.

9. Ask a gardener to lunch. You buy (and you choose what you can afford) and be clear that you want to talk gardening. Most gardeners I know love to talk gardening. There is always something new going on and who knows, you may have something you can share as well. Invite them to visit a nursery with you sometime and make a date for another lunch. This way, you get to know them and what they are most interested in (in the garden) and when you visit the nursery you can ask more questions about their specialty.

10. Notice garden art. It is very different from other fine art. For one thing it usually has a serenity about it. Often it anchors a location in the garden. It draws the eye and complements the surrounding flora and fauna. If it is simple and placed well it can be quite profound. Other times it can set a theme for conversation, contemplation or inspiration.

There was a Bufano sculpture of St. Francis at Sunset Magazine I will never forget. It was nice to visit on my coffee breaks.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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