Flowers in the spring make me happy. When my grandmother was alive, she often had cut flowers from her garden on the piano, arranged in a vase that belonged to my great-grandmother. I have wanted to recreate the serenity of that picture in my mind. So when I get seed magazines early in February, I dutifully look over the vegetables and herbs that make up the majority of my garden, but it’s the flower varieties that are my true delight.
The dictionary defines an ornamental as a plant grown for its beauty rather than for use. But ornamental flowers do have an important use. They attract pollinators. Ornamental plants and flowers, especially native plants, have evolved over time with the pollinators that visit them as they transfer pollen from one flower to another. And, of course, the pollinators get energizing nectar at the same time.
So while my husband may consider my ornamental plants an indulgence, I justify my effort to help them grow and succeed since they serve a critical purpose. I even tuck the occasional ornamental plant among my edibles.
Ornamentals thrive in the same conditions that most vegetables need. They like loamy soil, sufficient water to keep the soil from drying out, and sun for at least six hours a day. Good drainage helps—a sloped site is great—and they welcome a yearly application of compost. Some ornamentals need staking or trellising to support their growth.
So-called native ornamentals are the ones that thrive in our Mediterranean-type climate of rainy winters and dry summers. They may have originated in western Africa, Australia or around the Mediterranean Sea. They have had a long time to interact with pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths or bats. This long association creates the symbiosis that secures the continued presence of that species. The California Native Plant Society has a good selection of these native ornamental plants and flowers and conducts a plant sale twice a year in Napa.
One of my favorite native plants that blooms as early as February and continues through summer is the Ceanothus Dark Star (California wild lilac). It is an evergreen perennial shrub. This plant is extremely drought tolerant and thrives with little watering after the first year. This species can be seen on the east side of Highway 29 south of Trancas Street in Napa. The blooms are blue and blue-purple, and some varieties reach 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide.
Another favorite native of mine is Ribes sanguineum (red-flowering currant), which is a deciduous perennial shrub. It ranges from 5 to 12 feet tall and wide. It grows well in partial to deep shade, and it tolerates clay soil. It blooms from January to March, providing food for bees early in the year. Birds are attracted to the blue-black berries in the fall. The flowers are deep pink to red, and the leaves resemble maple leaves.
A third ornamental that I enjoy is the dahlia in its many varieties. It is a perennial grown from tuberous roots. About a month before planting dahlia tubers in spring, add a generous amount of compost to the bed. Dahlias are wonderfully diverse. Blooms may be single or double and in shapes such as pompom, ball and orchid. Height ranges from one foot to more than seven feet, with blossoms ranging from 2 to 12 inches across and in all colors but true blue. Dahlias prefer full sun and do best with staking or caging and moderate watering. Their strong stems can hold the flowers erect even after cutting.
Zinnias are another long-time favorite of mine. They have colorful round flowers; the “elegans” species is the most common. Zinnias may be annuals or perennials. They like full sun and need regular watering. You can grow them from seed or nursery starts, but they don’t benefit from being planted too early. The plants bloom until October or the first frost. They are prone to powdery mildew if subjected to cool, foggy or damp weather. These warm-weather plants have strong stems and long-lasting blooms. Cut flowers can last up to a week.
Now, where did I put my great grandmother’s vase last fall?
Workshop: The U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Tomato Fun Facts and Growing Tips” on Sunday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Ave., Yountville. Tomatoes just want to grow — they’re practically weeds — but they do need a few basics such as the right planting time, the right site and the right amount of water and pest control. Learn some fun facts about tomatoes, and some solid research-based growing tips. Register with Yountville Parks & Recreation or call 707-944-8712.
Workshop: The U.C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Garden Basics 2: Ornamentals & Flowers” on Sunday, April 23, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. The workshop will showcase dozens of blooming ornamentals. Tips for grouping plants with similar growing requirements, good selections for our Mediterranean climate, flowers for pollinators, growing flowers from seed, best-performing perennials for Napa County and the use of structural plants to define your garden will complete the morning discussion. In the afternoon, visit a local garden that features ornamentals. Bring a sack lunch and please wear walking shoes and clothes appropriate for outdoors.Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).