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Best Garden Plants for the San Francisco Bay Area

On my radio show today, I had a conversation with Dustin Strobel, nursery manager at a Sloat Garden Center, about careers with plants. 

In the course of the discussion, I mentioned my favorite garden plants for the San Francisco Bay Area and a listener asked if I'd post them on this blog. So here we go.

Dustin also mentioned his favorite plants but even though he's the professional nurseryman, I think my picks are better so I'll list mine first.

All my comments pertain best to climate conditions in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there's little or no frost.

Bougainvilla,  Spectabilis. 15-20 foot tall, drought-resistant when established, and truly "spectabilis." 



Bougainvillea, James Walker.  More open form that Spectabilis but the color is super--the hottest pink.


Rose, Black Magic. The best garden rose for cutting. This gorgeous flower (and yes, most of them look that good) lasts almost two weeks in a vase. It's mildew-resistant and so in the Bay Area, doesn't need to be sprayed. It is, however, a tall, gawky plant. And if you want long-stemmed single roses, you need to disbud--that is, pinch out the side flower buds as soon as you see them.


Zinnia, Magellan Coral. (available in six-packs for just a few bucks.) These are annuals but flower machines, blooming nonstop on compact 12"-tall plants from May through November.



Meyer Lemon.  These are sweeter than standard lemons but they ain't oranges. In addition to the good fruit, the 5' tall by 8' wide shrub is quite ornamental. That picture is a realistic image of how prolific it is. Do remember that all citrus are very heavy feeders--That means that an orange, lemon, or grapefruit tree with a four-foot spread, it needs about three pounds of heavy-nitrogen fertilizer every year, divided into three doses: perhaps April, July, and September. My guest recommended using Maxsea acid plant food.  Other experts recommend using any old high-nitrogen fertilizer, even lawn fertilizer, which is much cheaper.


Poppy, Drama Queen. Surreal 4" flowers on a 4' tall plant. If I were making a movie about a utopian future, this would be part of the landscape. The problem, alas, with poppies is that they bloom for just a few weeks and then look like crap for the rest of the year. So you might want to buy a 4" pot of it and one of Poppy Naughty Nineties mentioned below from Annie's Annuals, let 'em bloom and when seed pods form, harvest the seeds, save 'em in dry place, then plant 'em in 3-4" pots in November or December and come spring, you'll have brand new plants plus plenty to give away.

There are other terrific plants I didn't have time to mention:


Argyranthemum, Comet Pink. These are classic daisies but in clear pink, in profusion, constantly for eight months in a row.  Best of all, they completely cover the 2-foot wide symmetrical mound. By November or December, they get leggy, so take cuttings, dump the plants, and in early spring, plant the rooted cuttings.


Geranium, Calliope Dark Red. (sold at Home Depot as Big Red.) These are too big for flower pots. They can get to be 2 1/2 feet in diameter in just months. But if you have the room, this is the best geranium. It is a true brilliant red. Not dark as its name says, just a solid rich red--no orange tones like the usual geranium.


Impatiens, Xtreme Lavender. (if your area doesn't get downy mildew). There are many other great impatiens in the Xtreme series and the Accent series, but I find this color particularly attractive. And the plants are vigorous, quickly growing into a 8"-tall mound. 

Bird of Paradise. This is the quintessential tropical plant but it will grow wonderfully in much of the Bay Area. The six-foot-tall and wider shrub is great under an eave as long as it gets lots of sun. 

Rose, Day Breaker. This rose is special because it has it all: floriferousness, health, attractive foliage, on a four-foot plant with shiny leaves. And in the Bay Area, roses bloom eight months out of the year.

Tomato, Early Girl. I've tried every darn tomato that's claimed to be the best-tasting: Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Big Beef, Better Boy, and Park Whopper, and in the end, at least here in Oakland, Early Girl is always the best-tasting. If you like very small cherry tomatoes that do tend to crack, even better tasting is the yellow Sun Gold.
Kumquat, Fukushu. Whether or not you like the taste of kumquats, this is the most ornamental plant I can think of. In China, it's often grown in pots as seen here, but can, of course, grow in the ground in the Bay Area.


Viola, Denim. This is my winter savior. When everything else is dull, ratty or dead, this is producing flowers like this on a disease-free, 8" plant. Available in six-packs for just a few bucks.

Now, let's turn to the recommendations of the guest on my radio program, Dustin Strober.

Rose, Double Delight. Yeah, it has fragrance but it's gawky and mildew-prone. A bad pick, Dustin.

Poppy, Naughty Nineties. Yes, it's great. Almost as good as Drama Queen.



Alonsoa  Meridionalis (Apricot or Red) I hadn't heard of this one but it sounds like a winner--a three-foot tall plant covered with bloom for a long season. Available at Annie's Annuals.


Blueberry, Bountiful Blue. I don't know it but he was real big on it.

Tibouchina. The flower is a gorgeous and unique royal purple, which cover 6-8 foot shrubs for months at a time. 

A caller mentioned tuberous begonia. A fabulous plant, many of which trail and so are perfect for a hanging basket--if it doesn't get destroyed by mildew.

And finally, three that I think are overrated

Lilac. Blooms a few weeks and then for the rest of the year, it's a gawky shrub.

Iris. Blooms for two weeks and then, yeah, it has, year-round, decent lance-shaped leaves, even variegated, plus it's drought resistant, but nah.

Primrose. There are thousands of types, but I'm talking about the most common ones, the ones they sell in the supermarket. They bloom for a few weeks in the winter, get damaged by rain or squirrels, and then, it's to the garbage with them. Not worth buying. You want winter blooming on a compact plant? Try the aforementioned Viola Denim.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

A Title for a Soap Opera

Do you like any of these titles for a soap opera that focuses on work issues?

Our Work Days

Our Days of Work

It's a Living

Trade Secrets

Work Stories

I'd also welcome any other suggestions AOL will be publishing my written continuing saga about work. We're hoping to use Days of Our Work Lives but the owner of the rights, NBC, hasn't responded to our request for the rights. 

How to Use an Expert

Take expert opinion with a few grains of salt.

Multiple-award-winning research by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Philip Tetlock found that the average political expert’s predictions were little more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee’s.

Yet our thirst for guidance causes the media to bombard us with an unending parade of experts’ predictions, and not just on politics.

For example, financial TV shows routinely feature an expert convinced the stock market will rise followed by an expert equally convinced it will fall. In fact, 60 to 90 percent of the time, investors do better in an unmanaged index fund such as Vanguard's than in a fund actively managed by experts.

Another example: Edgar Fiedler, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Treasury said, “Ask five economists, you’ll get five answers, six if one went to Harvard.” 

And experts aren’t much better in the here-and-now.

For example, medical professionals cause 440,000 unnecessary deathsa year! And in the confidentiality of my career counseling office, more than one physician has said things to me like, “I hate having to do so much guesswork—How confident am I that my patient is healthy, needs or doesn’t need the test? Not confident enough.” We view highly educated physicians as experts. I know they're doing the best they can but I wish they were more often right.

And even when the medical establishment gets it right and crows, their boasting can be overstated. For example, Genentech/Roche, one of the world’s most respected biotech/pharma companies, in its 38 years, has employed some of the world’s leading expert researchers. Its blockbuster drug Herceptin yields $6 billion in sales every year with a cost per patient of $54,000 a year. For a long time, Genentech's website touted Herceptin as its poster-child drug. Yet, fact is, Herceptin extends lifespan just a few months and the quality of those few months may not even be worth living thanks to the drug's side effects plus those of adjuvant chemotherapy, radiation and therapy. Alas, I'm not cherry-picking. A half-joke among staff at the prestigious University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Cancer Center is that UCSF stands for You Can Suffer Forever.

Yes, doctors can fix bones, cure many infections, and be remarkable technicians. They can, for example, replace an amputated arm with a remarkably capable robotic one. But to, overall, call most physicians "experts," is a stretch.

Let’s look even at this website's focus: psychologists. Some psychologist experts assertthat long-term psychodynamic therapy is best. Yet many other experts insist cognitive-behavioral therapy is superior.

Another example: Some psychologists believethat TV and video games are children’s anti-Christs. Other experts, including Harvard researchers, insistTV and video games are benign, that kids who will be violent aren’t made moreso even from the notorious Grand Theft Auto. Other experts go even further, claiming that TV and video games are a net good, especially for children from deprived backgrounds, a way to expand kids’ vocabulary, thinking skills, and experiences. (See this battle of the experts.)

So, in making decisions, are we left to flip coins? Consult Ouija boards? Of course not. Our best shot at a wise decision is generally to:

1. View an expert’s opinion as merely one worthy data point.

2. Especially if it’s an important decision, get a second opinion, if not from a live person, by crowd-sourcing. For example, you might use a Google search to identify a few articles written by experts.

3. Synthesize the information you get from experts, using your common sense and incorporating your values and gut feeling.

Do that and your decisions will usually be more expert than an expert’s.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich to Appear on "Work With Marty Nemko"


I rarely promote my NPR-San Francisco radio program (KALW-FM, 91.7 FM,) Work with Marty Nemko, but an upcoming show is special.

On the April 27, 2014 edition of the program, I am honored that former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, who has appeared previously on the program, will return for an hour-long conversation. 

First, I'll ask him about key moments and decisions in his life. My primary goal will be to unearth career and life lessons for all of us. 

Then, we'll have a conversation about the workplace and economic issues of the day, likely to include whether it's wise to increase the minimum wage, corporate regulation, and economic stimulus. 

Most interesting to me, we'll try to have a bold, forward-thinking discussion about what to do about the decline of good jobs. 

Somewhere in the second half of the hour, I'll ask listeners to call in with a question or comment. Feel free to call in. The call-in number will be 415-841-4134.

I hope you'll join us. It will be from 11:00 AM to noon on April 27, 2014. It can be heard in the San Francisco Bay Area on 91.7 FM, worldwide live at www.kalw.org. It will then be available for free download on iTunes and on the National Public Radio website

The Elitist Common Core Standards

The Common Core is the new K-12 curriculum that the Obama Administration is pressuring all states to adopt.

I have a deep concern about it, and it's not the absurd arguments of the Religious Right.

The problem with the Common Core is--in the name of high standards--forcing all students to learn arcana that is utterly useless.  Only the out-of-touch PhD.-riddled committee could have mandated it.

I make this argument more powerfully with specifics in an op-ed published today in The Daily Caller.

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