The Coastal Gardener: Chasing plants around California

I am leaving.

My belongings are in the car, the route is mapped and the tank is full.

As soon as the nursery closes Saturday I'll be gone, the pedal to the metal as we make our way north. We'll drive through the night and get to San Francisco by Sunday morning.

During the next seven days we will be a hop-scotching our way back to Orange County, stopping along the way for visits to some of our state's greatest public botanical gardens and some of nature's great natural gardens.

Some folks like lazy vacations. Check into a hotel, get up late, hang out by the pool or on the beach for a couple hours; maybe a little window shopping, then dinner at a nice restaurant and back to the room. Argh! That's fine for some, but I'd quickly go crazy.

I need nature. I need plants. I need to hear birds, see hills, touch soil and smell earth.

So off we'll go. Our first stop will be the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, formerly the Strybing Arboretum.

I've visited this garden many times and keep coming back for more. The Meso-American Cloud Forest will be my first destination; I am always fascinated by the unexpected plants there. Then to the native garden, the Mediterranean area, the New Zealand garden, the succulent collection … I could spend a week never leaving this place.

But the new green roof at the California Academy of Sciences, just a short walk away, is calling me. California's largest and greatest living roof debuted here almost three years ago and I still haven't seen it. I can't wait.

After taking in the rooftop, we'll continue on to the 132-year-old San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. At this Victorian era greenhouse we'll revisit tropical wonders like the huge Amazon water lilies, rare orchids, vireya rhododendrons and collection of bromeliads.

The next day, our road trip will arrive at what may be the most diverse collection of plants at any garden in the state, the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Ohhhh, I could spend another week here. In fact, I could spend a week in the South African section alone or in the arid house where a diverse collection of plants is meticulously cultivated. Wow!

This is a plant trip — and I'm not much for hotels anyway. So we'll be camping each night under stars and trees; redwoods some nights, oaks or cypress on others. Our nighttime home will be Mt. Diablo, the Big Sur coast, wooded stream sides and sandy beaches.

Every so often I like being "in" California — in its presence when I close my eyes at night and again when waking in the morning. What could be more glorious than awakening in nature's garden?

We will spend a day in Big Sur and the Monterey coast, hiking the trails, touching the waterfalls and with a little luck, maybe even seeing a California condor gliding overhead.

No trip along the California coast would be complete without a stop at the Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz.

This often overlooked garden houses the greatest collecting of Mediterranean climate plants in North America. The protea collection is especially noteworthy, as is the assembly of Australian plants. I'll photograph the rare silver trees, and I will want to check in on one of the first purple-leafed peppermint trees ever planted in the state.

It's been a couple of years. How large will it be? I'm anxious.

The Carrizo Plain, two and a half hours east of San Luis Obispo has been called California's Serengeti. The grassy plains here are spilling with wildflowers, pronghorn antelope roam the savannah and thousands of sandhill cranes visit each year.

Camping and hiking there will be primitive but stimulating — no shade, no running water, no toilets, no amenities. There are no five-star hotels on the Carrizo Plain. This is California's real Four Season's experience.

We'll squeeze in visits to Cal Poly's Leaning Pine Arboretum, a great presentation of Mediterranean climate plants and gardening.

Then, to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, lending its soils exclusively on our native flora. I am anxious to see its recovery from the 2009 fires that devastated parts of the garden.

Finally, the eccentric and entertaining Lotusland will again impress us with grotesque euphorbias, huge dragon trees, picturesque vistas and enough curiosities to keep us talking on the drive home.

Seven gardens, seven campgrounds, many wild places, three wilderness hikes and whatever other natural delights we might come upon.

Ahhhh, that's California.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar

Ask Ron

Question: My blueberry plants have done terrific. I think I picked about two gallons last year. But this year the plants look sickly, with only a few leaves. I think I'm watering too much so I'm backing off. Any suggestions?

—Kelly, Newport Beach

Answer: With the introduction of new varieties bred for our climate, many people are adding blueberries to their gardens. Blueberries love two things: water and acidity. It's unlikely you are over-watering your plants, since they can almost live in standing water. I suggest you water more, not less, and feed them periodically with cottonseed meal or a similar organic fertilizer to keep the soil acidic. Unfortunately, blueberries don't like poor water quality, which most of us cannot avoid. During the non-rainy months, periodically leach the soil around your plants with an extra long watering. This will flush some of these impurities out of the root zone.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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