Plant Combinations that Inspire

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Bearded iris with blue fescue

Outside my window a Townsend warbler feasts on suet. It’s a rainy day and my obsession with low water use plants is momentarily taking a break. Each day the soft colors of my fall garden are becoming brighter and more vivid. Backlit leaves take on a whole new look. There are so many ways of combining plants in the garden. I’m taking notes so I remember my favorites to include in my own garden and future designs. Fall is a good time for planting or planning.

Many of my grasses and plants are deciduous and are in the process of going dormant. Even when I mix in broadleaf evergreen plants these groupings lose their impact this time of year. I have only been gardening at this house for a little over a year so the new plants are still young. I’ve had to replant many shrubs and perennials as I was a little cavalier with my gopher basket use. But I persevere as I love color in the garden, especially foliage color.

Festival grass with leucadendron

It’s the combinations that look great year-round that hold a garden together. I’ve got two leucadendron that are real troupers when it comes to drought, mucho summer sun, zero winter sun, sandy soil and deer browsing.

The ’Safari Sunset’ shows off those vivid burgundy bracts nearly year round with the best show starting during the summer and extending through the next spring. Leucadendron require good drainage and prefer acidic conditions. It’s easy to love this plant to death with too much water. I mulch mine heavily with bark chips. I’m thinking of adding the South African, long-blooming bulbine ‘Hallmark Orange’ at its feet. The combination of the two guarantee color year round.

Blue and yellow plant combination Cream Delight phormium, Blue fescue grass, semperviven succulent

Blue and yellow are another combination that always look good together. You can pick from yellow and gold foliage plants such as phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, abelia “Kaleidoscope’, coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’ or sedum ‘GoldMoss’ and pair it with a dwarf blue spruce, blue fescue or blue oat grass, hens and chickens, a blue euphorbia such as ’Glacier Blue’ or ‘Blue Haze’ or the blue-gray succulent senecio mandraliscae.

In these days of converting lawns to low water use landscapes, choosing the right plants is even more important. Use to be a row of foundation shrubs between the lawn and the front windows were the norm. This was not a very inspiring look at best. Think of the possibilities to create a whole new look for your front or back yard.

I like all the colors so it’s hard to whittle down a plant palette to just a few for the whole garden. Breaking up your areas into different “garden” rooms allows you to pair colors like silver, purple and black in one section using a bronze phormium, a burgundy loropetalum and silver thyme.

In another section of the garden that can be seen from a window might you might want to attract hummingbirds.

Red / Gold plant combination Red phormium, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope, rosemary, phytostegia

Blooming late in the season the super tough Pineapple sage with eye-popping red flowers combines well with the dark green of an upright rosemary and an Amazing Red phormium for an architectural dramatic touch.

In a garden that inspires you the plants should be ones that you love looking at and taking care of. Some of us like the look of dark green plants while others like grasses that move in the wind. Others are not fans of succulents. Whether you grow plants to feed the birds and attract wildlife or want a little bit of everything there’s a combination of plants that’s perfect for you and your garden.

Feels like Fall

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pumpkin_and_mumsThere’s a chill in the morning air now. Several gardeners told me that their thermometer registered 32 degrees recently and there was frost on the pumpkin. Well, actually they said the white stuff was on their peppers but you get the idea. I’ve heard this saying for years so I looked it up and found some picturesque fall scenes described for gardeners and farmers a hundred years ago.

Thanks to James Whitcomb Riley who wrote the poem ‘When the Frost is on the Punkin’ we can picture the landscape in Indiana in the early 1900’s. Tall corn, when dry was gathered into shocks which were teepee like in appearance and tied at the top. Left in the fields winter_squashthey were used as needed for livestock feed.

Pumpkin was a staple food for the early pioneers. It was easy to grow as a few seeds dropped into a shallow hole grew into a mature fruit. Yes, technically they are a fruit not a vegetable along with summer and winter squash and gourds. Their thick rind would allow them to be kept almost indefinitely.

Another stanza of Rileys’ poem describes an autumn scene not so different than our own gardens. Whether you grow apples and pears or a landscape for wildlife your garden is gently going to sleep now. Enjoy this time of year. Here’s the whole poem.

by James Whitcomb Reilly

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and the gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’; of the guineys and the cluckin’ of the hens
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O it’s then the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock

They’s somethin kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here -
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny monring of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock -
When the frost is on the punkin and fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries – kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A preachin’ sermons to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below – the clover overhead! -
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too!
I don’t know how to tell it – but if sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me -
I’d want to ‘commodate ’em – all the whole-indurin’ flock -
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Edible Plants for Birds, Bees and People

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rain gauge Nov1With every rain forecast I hope for enough precipitation to give my garden a good soak. Last Monday I was not disappointed. I heard the pitter patter of rain on leaves and jumped up in the morning to check the rain gauge. To my delight the last storm dropped 1.67 inches of the wet stuff on my garden in Bonny Doon. The prior three October showers had barely totaled a tenth of an inch. Last year, the hills and meadows were already greening up with 3” of the wet stuff. After this much needed precipitation the deer are happy, the forest is happy, our gardens are happy, everybody is happy.

Some weather forecasters are predicting a drier than normal November for our area while a recent NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) report predicted El Nino rains starting this November. I’m going with the folks at NOAA. A November 1st rain event qualifies them as the best forecasters so far.

I’m enjoying the vibrant colors of the fall garden. Everything is brighter after a rain. I’ll also be looking for some new plants with berries for the birds, more shrubs with fall and winter interest and a couple new grasses. With water conservation in mind here are some of the plants I’m considering. Some put on their best show at the end of the season.

PIneapple guava edible flowers

I can’t get enough of delicious pineapple guava fruit thanks to my best friend, Karen. Her plant is loaded with fruit this year. Pineapple guava has been on my wish list for a while because of its versatility and this fall I’m going to plant one. Easy to grow Feijoa sellowiana needs only occasional watering. An established plant can survive without any supplemental water but If you want to enjoy more flowers and delicious fruit give them a little extra water especially during flowering and fruiting periods. Mulch the soil around the plants to protect the shallow roots and conserve moisture.

The early summer flowers are showy, contrast nicely with the gray green foliage and are completely edible. You can eat them right off the plant, toss them into a salad, add them to iced tea or make jelly. They have a fruity flavor and bees, butterflies and birds also appreciate them. The pineapple-flavored 2 inch oval fruit is produced three to four months after the flowers. It’s easy to cut the little fruits in half and scoop out the fleshy inside with a spoon.

Pineapple guava grow at a medium rate to about 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. You can easily train one as an espalier, hedge or small specimen tree. They do well in containers, too, so if you’re like a lot of people with limited space or time this is a good plant to grow. Did I mention they’re deer resistant? This is one unfussy plant.

Toyon berries

Another plant that is definitely going to be planted in my landscape this fall is a California native. Each year when I see a toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) covered in red berries I vow to get one for myself. They have very low water needs even in the summer and make a good addition for the back of the garden. Irrigate them occasionally during spring and summer to promote fire resistance. Although they often take a few years to establish, their deep roots are good for soil erosion and slope stabilization.

Also known as the Christmas berry, no berry is more sought after when is season. Robins love them. Waxwings and purple finches also rip open the fruits to eat in great numbers. Unlike pyracantha berries birds do not get drunk on toyon berries. Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.

Toyon is one of the classic shrubs of the California chaparral. Except for an extension into Baja, the shrub only occurs in California. Its resemblance to European holly and abundance in Southern California’s Holly Canyon were the origin of the name Hollywood. The name toyon was given by the Ohlone tribe and is the only California native plant that continues to be commonly known by a Native American name.

Toyon make good container specimens and the berries can be used in place of English holly for Christmas decorating.

Confessions of The Mountain Gardener

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Everything in my garden does not always turn out the way I imagined. I make lots of mistakes. From putting in all the drip emitters backwards- yes, I actually did that- to my ongoing banana slug relocation program I should be able to face challenges in the garden and come out triumphant. But alas that is not always the case.

Gaura linheimeri ‘Belleza Dark Pink’

If you’re like me there are always plants that end up in the wrong place. My Gaura languish and reach for more light. My mildew resistant crape myrtle never recovered from last May’s foggy weather and has nary a blossom. Other plants shrivel up in too much sun. The possibilities are endless. Every garden is different. A plant that should be able to look great growing in full sun might get too much of a good thing in your garden planted up against a wall or near a flagstone patio. Conversely, some plants that should bloom just fine in partial shade never really do in parts of my garden or grow sideways reaching for more sun, finally flopping over in a valiant effort to get enough light.

I study my sun and shade patterns throughout the year. Really I do. I plant similar plants together in hydrozones to maximize irrigation efficiency. But still as the season winds down it’s obvious that I have made bad decisions along the way. Throw in the rogue gopher, the dog digging for said gopher and the occasional deer and mole and I seem to remember more failures and near-misses that successes.

Gaura reaching for more light

I hope to learn from my mistakes and it’s never too early to start. Now’s the time to move those plants that will never do well where they are now. It’s time to plant new ones including native plants or transplant those in containers into your garden. October through February offers the best time to do this. In the fall the soil is still warm which encourages rooting and rain will be coming soon. Late winter offers natural rainfall to help plants establish before the next warm season arrives. Rearranging the garden makes for satisfactory fall work. After all you already own some of the plants, no need to buy everything new.

Transplanting and installing succeeds best if you take care of the roots as well as the top of the plant. Good growth comes from root health. Here are some tips for happy roots.

Prepare the new location first before transplanting any plant. Dig a hole twice as wide as the rootball but just the same depth. If the hole is dry fill it with water and let drain. Amend the native soil. Don’t be shy about loosening roots. Cut roots will form new, dense, healthy roots. Don’t add soil over the rootball. Keep the rootball a little higher than grade to allow for a layer of mulch and for any settling. Plants need oxygen at the soil level. Firm the soil after planting and water thoroughly.

Lessons I have learned that are easier to follow include when to expect our first frost. I’ve kept a weather journal for many years. Weather patterns change from year to year and we get updates from the media if frost is expected. You should prepare now as the first frost can come in November. Occasionally we have had a late October frost but mostly the first frost arrives about the second week of November with late November being the most common. Be prepared by bringing in your houseplants and moving frost tender plants like those fancy succulents under an overhang or porch.

I’m not sure when I’m going to be planting my wildflower seeds. Normally, I’d do it now but with the potential heavy rains we are hoping to get. I think I’ll hedge my bets, planting some now and another batch in February. By waiting until late winter I’ll be able to hoe off any tall weeds that have germinated that would outcompete the wildflowers.

One last thing and you’ll be happy to hear this. Fall is not a good time to prune. Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples prune after leaves mature next year.

Troubles in the Garden

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Milkweed aphids

Some of us enjoy sitting in our gardens, relaxing and watching birds and other wildlife. Others grow fruit and vegetables and know their way around the kitchen. Whatever you like to do sometimes pests get in the way.

In my own garden recently I discovered my butterflyweed covered with yellow milkweed aphids. They’re not interested in any other plants just this one. Oleanders get this same sucking pest also. I’ve washed them off twice with a strong spray of water but must have missed a few as they are back. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any monarch butterflies to help me with this problem. I’d rather not even use an organic pesticide to control the outbreak. It would harm any monarch eggs that I’ve overlooked.

With pest control on my mind this week, I received an email from fellow Press Banner columnist, Dr. Terry Hollenbeck. “I thought of you when I found an article in an old gardening magazine”, he wrote. “It’s ‘The Home Gardener’ and was published in September, 1945.”

DDT ad_The-Home_Garden-Sept1945
DDT ad in ‘The Home Garden’ magazine published September 1945

Dr. Hollenbeck scanned the pages from his own magazine and sent them to me. Terry goes on to note that the editorial about the new wonder insecticide DDT warns readers in 1945 to proceed cautiously with it. Then later in the magazine on page 99 in a half page ad there appears an advertisement for DDT, the “Army’s sensational insect killer that gardeners have been waiting for…that is absolutely safe to spray”.

There has been a lot of research now on DDT and it’s effects on our bodies and that of wildlife. I was surprised when I Googled DDT that it’s still being used in the world and also found a published study debunking it’s adverse effects on raptors. Guess one can find statistics to support any argument if you look hard enough.

Here is what I found out about current use of DDT that I found interesting.

Back in 1972 the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) issued a cancellation order for DDT use in the United States based on research showing adverse environmental effects to wildlife and potential human health risks. Studies have continued to show a relationship between DDT exposure and reproductive effects in humans and as a result, today, DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and International authorities.

India is the only country now producing DDT. China and North Korea having discontinued production in recent years. 12 countries still use DDT for vector control of mosquitos and protozoa – the parasitic diseases of malaria, dengue and black fever which kill more than 800,000 people each year.

Many organizations are now promoting an integrated approach to mosquito and protozoa carried diseases. It’s not a DDT or nothing solution. Some of these organisms are developing a resistance to DDT and other chemicals. Like in our own backyards, you have to look at the whole picture. Successful programs to educate communities about non-chemical methods of control mosquitos are underway in many countries such as Vietnam.

DDT is known to be very persistent in the environment. It accumulates in fatty tissues and can travel long distances in the upper atmosphere. Because of its persistence, there is still concern for residues in the U.S.
Today nearly 40 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. we continue to live with its long lasting effects. According to the organization Pesticide Action Network, USDA found DDT breakdown products in 60% of heavy cream samples, 42% of kale greens and 28% of carrots. These breakdown products of DDT were found in the blood of 99% of people tested by the CDC.

Something to think about when I see all those mustard yellow aphids on my asclepsias. Maybe I’ll get the hose out one more time or rub them off with a gloved hand.

Changing Times – Changing Gardens

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Maybe our gardens in California should never have looked like a Monet painting filled with layer upon layer of water thirsty perennials and lush green lawns big enough for a soccer match. Because we were first settled by Easterners who could grow these plants with natural rainfall I’m going to give us a pass. It wasn’t our fault. But now we are wiser and smarter. We may have been kicking and screaming at first but all us us now accept that water is limited and we need to use it wisely.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to live in graveled yards with no landscaping. Our goal should be to figure out what the new California landscape should realistically look like and plant accordingly. We can still be surrounded by green and silver foliage and colorful flowers that look lush without breaking our water budget.
Look outside the old box and discover a whole new plant palette and a way of gardening that works for all of us.

drought tolerant plant plugs
Drought tolerant plant plugs

Recently in the mail, I received a collection of low water use, low maintenance plants native to Australia. I plan to trial the small plugs in my own garden but I know already that they are going to be winners. I have seen a couple of them at the wholesale nurseries. Others are improved selections of known tough, drought tolerant plants. They are well suited to our Mediterranean climate, easy to grow in well drained soils and hardy in winter. I’m looking forward to a time when they are available in local nurseries. In the meantime, I plan to specify them where appropriate in future landscape designs.

I”m excited about all 5 varieties of plants I received. Three are grass-like and the other two are compact versions of well known shrubs.

You might be familiar with the compact bottlebrush ‘Little John’. Breeders now have come up with a new improved version called Callistemon ’Better John’ because of its vigorous growth and dense blue-gray foliage. This 3 foot tall by 3 feet wide shrub is easy to grow, quick to establish and is long lived in the landscape. Hummingbirds love the 4-6 inch long red flowers during the spring.

The other shrub variety I am going to test is Westringia ‘Grey Box’.  Westringia are deer resistant and very drought tolerant once established and ‘Wynabbie Gem’ and ‘Morning Light’ have been popular for years for this reason. Grey Box is a new dwarf form with beautiful grayish-green foliage. It doesn’t need pruning to keep it at 3 feet tall and wide. From late winter to summer, white quarter-sized flowers appear in small clusters along the stems. I’m anxious to grow this shrub myself.

Lomandra ‘Breeze’

A couple of the grass-like plant plugs I received are an favorite of mine. I’ve seen lomandra ‘Breeze’ growing in heavy shade and also in sun. Deer don’t like it and it looks great with little water. Now there’s a new cultivar called ‘Baby Breeze’ which stays at a graceful 18 inches tall. If you want the look of a short grass with no maintenance Lomandra is the new go-to plant. It even has yellow-orange tiny flower spikes in late spring.

Lomandra ‘Katrinus Deluxe’ is the other selection I’m going to grow out. It’s extremely drought tolerant, very shade tolerant, cold and heat tolerant and deer resistant also. It looks like an ornamental grass but you don’t have to cut it back in winter. It’s evergreen even when temperatures drop into the teens.

Dianella ‘Little Rev’ is the last plant I’m looking forward to growing. This flax lily has an weeping architectural habit. It’s a very tough and drought tolerant grass-like plant good for erosion control as well as planting on it’s own or in groups. In spring it blooms with masses of small dark violet flowers. This is a clumping plant for full sun to partial shade that slowly spreads by rhizomes. As with the others this plant also is low maintenance and requires little water once established.

I’ll keep you posted as I discover new plants for our changing times and changing gardens.

Fall Color in the Garden

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fall color_maples-Yellowstone_Lake
Fall color at Yellowstone Lake

I’m starting to see a little fall color showing in some trees and shrubs. Might not be much but I’m always optimistic about such events. When I was in Wyoming the aspen and maples were beginning to turn red and gold and shrubs with berries acted like bird magnets. During this fall planting season look again at where a low water use plant that colors or fruits in the fall might be a great addition to your garden.

What causes those fabulous fall colors? The colors are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll in the leaves busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines.

Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode, at which point their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

fall color_mixed forest_Wyoming
Mixed forest fall color near Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Weather conditions also play a major part in fall color. Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool -but not freezing – nights.

A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperature meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying the opportunity to enter a slow, colorful dormancy.

This year because many trees are stressed by drought they may not put on their usual show before the leaves drop. I have some native big leaf maples that are probably not going to turn color before leaf drop. Stress can be caused by pests, disease, injury or drought.

California native Western redbud turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like Spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet red leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Other low water use trees and shrubs that provide fall color include Chinese flame tree, Idaho locust, Chinese Tallow, Chinese pistache, Crape Myrtle and Smoke tree.

A great tree for the gardener interested in edibles is the Fuyu persimmon. This beautiful small tree is ornamental with glossy green leaves and also offers a dramatic fall display in shades of yellow, orange and red. Bright orange fruit begins to develop in late October and clings to bare branches usually through December. The tree looks more like it’s covered with holiday ornaments than fruit. And have you priced persimmons in the store lately?

Blueberries are a must for the edible gardener. They make a beautiful hedge and provide showy red or yellow fall color. Because of our colder winters here in the mountains, we can grow both northern highbush which are self-fertile and southern highbush which produce better with another type to pollinize them. They can be great foundation plants around the home as well as in the garden. Blueberries are low maintenance. Just a light pruning once a year after the season’s harvest and the shrubs will maintain a tidy appearance. Most are pest and disease resistant and since they don’t have thorns, they are child and pet-friendly.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

Great Grasses for the Santa Cruz Mountains

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Sawtooth Mtns
Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Recently I took a road trip to see some of our great country. The Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming have been on my bucket list for a long time. In addition to the amazing places I visited and the buffalo, elk and bald eagles I got to see up close and personal I was able to take a look at passing gardens of people who live in harsh climates and get some tips on plants that survive and thrive in these conditions. If you are looking for tougher plants for your own garden to add this fall planting season here are some ideas.

Some of these plants are old favorites and some are new. There’s a reason a plant is used over and over again. It’s reliable and trouble free. Plants that are have low water requirements are a must, too.

Throughout the small towns I passed through as well as larger ones like Jackson Hole, Wyoming I again and again

rudbeckia hirta
rudbeckia hirta

saw Karl Foerster feather reed grass planted in landscapes along with the Black-eyed Susan variety Goldsturm.

Feather reed grass tolerates heavy clay soil unlike many of the other ornamental grasses. Forming a clump only 2 feet wide it can fit in a smaller garden without overwhelming other plants. Even in light shade it blooms early in June with tight, vertical flower stalks of feathery, purplish-green flowers which turn golden as the sterile seeds mature in summer. Feather reed grass looks good throughout most of the winter providing interest until cut to the ground just before the new shoots appear.

Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of Red Fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Eaton Canyon is a dwarf variety that is root hardy down to 20-25 degrees. Plant it in full sun and irrigate little to occasionally. Be sure to cut this grass back in late winter even if it hasn’t suffered much from frost. The new growth will look so much better for this treatment.

Another grass I’m hearing a lot of good things about is called Pink Crystals or Ruby grass. Melinis nerviglumis has pretty blue-green foliage that forms a one foot tall clump turning puplish-red in the fall. Very showy pink flowers rise above the foliage in the spring and summer. This grass will tolerate considerable dryness.

Pheasant Tail grass

Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.


Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw and lomandra ‘Breeze’.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare and they are not attractive to deer. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

The Changing Season of September

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Japanese forest grass

You never know where new gardening ideas and inspiration can come from. The other day I stopped by to help a friend water a garden by the river in South Felton while the owners were out of town. We both enjoyed the unique combination of plants and garden art placed strategically though out the garden. It was clear that this soothing garden was created with love. If gardening keeps you sane, don’t stop because of the drought.

Covered with huge white, heavily ruffled flowers a Rose of Sharon ‘Helene’ anchored the entry to a small deck overlooking the San Lorenzo river. With a reddish-purple eye and handsome, leathery dark green leaves this attractive shrub will bloom nearly continuously over the summer and fall without setting seeds.

Other gems in this garden that caught my eye included a Japanese painted fern paired with a purple leaved coral bells. A foxtail fern and variegated hosta looked great nearby. Japanese forest grass, oakleaf hydrangea, liriope, helleborus and winter daphne grew among the ferns.

These are shade plants and most like a regular drink of water. They are combined with plants with similar water requirements in this garden but if your garden is in more sun remember that it doesn’t take a lot of water to make a garden beautiful. An garden_art.1920 Japanese_painted_fern-heuchera.1920unthirsty garden can fill you with joy.

Gardening makes us learn new things. If you water less frequently, some plants may decline or even die eventually. Remove those that do and replace them with plants that will thrive with less water.

Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’

Some to try as replacements are agastache or Hummingbird mint. Plant near your organic edible garden to provide nectar for pollinators as well as hummingbirds. The flowers are edible as a salad garnish, in baked goods and in cocktails while their foliage can be added to herb salads or in a cup of tea.

Other perennials that bloom now and into fall include asters, gaillardia and all the salvias. California fuchsia are just starting their long fall bloom cycle, too.

I like the bright flowers of gloriosa daisy, especially the longer lived Goldsturm variety. These perennials make good cut flowers and are tough and easy to grow. They are descended from wild plants native to the eastern U.S. but require only moderate water once established.

Need more late summer perennials to extend your season? Coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter. Now days there are many colors to choose from in addition to the traditional rosy purple daisies. They are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets. The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years. If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower. Echinacea purpurea and other varieties are used as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon. The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.

Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states. It was used to treat snake and insect bites because of its antiseptic properties and to bathe burns. They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache. It was also used for purification. The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.

Enjoy unthirsty color in your garden this fall.

Lessons from the Garden

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With summer winding down I’m looking at my garden and thinking about change. What can I do this fall so that next year I can save more water and make the garden more beautiful?

free_bark_chipsWith our shifting climate and availability of resources we learn new ways to keep our gardens thriving. Mulching is one way to do it. Cover all bare soil with mulch – mulch your garden, mulch your hillside, mulch your trees, mulch around your perennials and shrubs.

A nice layer around plants conserves moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages microorganisms to flourish in the soil. An added benefit is that it prevents erosion which might be especially important this winter. Protect your soil from runoff with 3 inches or more of mulch.

I had Davey Tree drop off a load of wood chips recently and the quality was excellent. The chips are small with a few green leaves and will look great as soon as they are spread. There are other sources of mulch and they’re all good. Replenishing mulch is an ongoing task – one that keeps on giving.

While up in the Pacific Northwest recently I saw many of the same problems and effects of the drought that we are encountering. You can see see native trees suffering there as well as ornamental trees in residential landscapes. No one up there is used to watering a tree in the summer.

The moral of the story: Don’t let this happen to your trees. Use a soaker hose, deep root irrigator or a hose turned on slowly to occasionally moisten the soil 18” deep under the drip line and a bit beyond. Even our native oaks can use a drink after 4 years of drought. Just be sure to keep the trunk area dry. The feeder roots are way out at the edge of the canopy.

You might also be noticing deciduous trees already starting to show fall color. This is a survival mechanism. It’s to their benefit to drop foliage prematurely when moisture is scarce. From their point of view reproduction is over for the year and they can rest up and regroup for next year.

Our native redwoods are showing signs of the drought also as the heat of summer takes its toll. You can see older, interior needles and small branches die off and start to drop This happens every year about this time but this year I’m seeing more brown branches than ever. The world’s tallest tree can live for 2200 years. The age of these trees at maturity is 400-500 years so most have survived other droughts as well.

Coast redwoods prefer to have a full canopy right to the ground and its own, thick mulch layer surrounding the trunk. Redwoods on hot, south facing slopes seem to be suffering more than other redwoods this year. I’ve also seen small patches of redwood trees that appear to have totally died off. Redwoods are usually resistant to disease but drought stressed trees can suffer from several pathogens and fungal diseases are exacerbated by stress. Some pathogens have been particularly active in the last several drought years. It is not uncommon, however, to find in the same vicinity healthy trees that do not show any signs of disease.

amaryllis_belladonnaIf you are looking for the perfect drought tolerant flower for your late summer garden you can see them blooming everywhere these days. I’m talking about those huge pink flowers on tall stems that emerge from the ground almost mysteriously at this time of year. Their bare 2-3 foot stalks rise from bare earth, each topped by a cluster of fragrant, trumpet-shaped rosy pink flowers.

Amaryllis belladonna lend drama and color to the late season garden. Even their common name – Naked Lady – sounds exotic. They are so plentiful many people think they are native to the area. But being a long lived bulb it’s more likely they were brought here by early settlers.

Native to South Africa amaryllis belladonna perform best is areas with warm dry summers like ours. Growing in most soils with reasonable drainage they get all the moisture they need from winter rains. Heat and dryness during late spring and summer are necessary for blooming.

Because moving a belladonna lily can easily stop its blooming for several years, it is best to divide clumps only when necessary or to move them during or just after blooming, keeping as much soil intact around the bulb as possible.

The strongly scented flower clusters make an excellent cut flower and last for about a week. A word of caution – the plants are poisonous if eaten. You can find the huge bulbs at local nurseries or ask a neighbor who wants to divide theirs for some.

500 Columns and Counting

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Little did I know when I walked into The Press Banner office and offered my services as a gardening columnist back in October of 2005 that I’d still be writing for the paper almost 10 years later. Time flies when you’re having a good time.

Since I wrote my first column about the benefits of fall planting we have had some really wet winters and some very dry ones. A couple of winters challenged our gardens with deep freezing nights while early or late frosts challenged our enthusiasm. It’s all a part of growing plants and designing gardens and I hope I have helped you by providing helpful tips over the years.

Sherman the buttermilk/moss slurry eater

Everybody likes a good chuckle and we gardeners need more than most. Gardeners love to swap stories. So go ahead and laugh at my attempt to be Martha Stewart in my own garden. When the following incident was unfolding I was a bit frustrated. Time has softened the edges.

I moved up to Bonny Doon last year. The existing garden has some beautiful old rock walls created from many kinds of fieldstone and covered with moss. Another section has a new concrete block retaining wall lacking any character. So last fall I scraped off some moss from the old wall and mixed it with buttermilk hoping to spruce up the plain one when the moss took hold.

With bucket and 4 inch paintbrush in hand I tackled the wall slapping on the moss slurry with abandon just before the winter rains started. I had almost completed my project and looked back to admire my work imagining how beautiful the wall would look covered with dark green moss.

stone walls in my garden

What I didn’t count on was Sherman, the Welsh springer spaniel. He had been following me licking off most of the buttermilk. I added hot sauce to the remainder of the slurry but that barely slowed him down. Between Sherman and all that rain we got last December most of it washed off anyway and there is only a smattering of moss here and there on the new wall but it’s a start. Hope springs eternal for a gardener.

I learn so much from other gardeners. Usually I’m invited into their garden and I have passed on many of those great ideas. But don’t be surprised if I walk up to your garden one day on a whim like I did to my sister’s neighbors, Bob and Bev when I saw them picking raspberries and strawberries early one morning. I introduce myself and ask for a garden tour. Being gracious they agreed but asked if they could have their breakfast first! Later I got to sample many a berry, watch the goldfinches flitting about and hear how their vegetable garden had evolved.

I always make the most of any excursion. You don’t have to go to an island off Honduras where gardeners protect their plants from nocturnal blue crabs by planting in washing machine baskets to find interesting solutions to gardening challenges.

From Doc Hencke’s wonderful arboretum-like landscape I learned about trees, from Robby, the serial mole killer, I learned about smart irrigation and from the collections of Ron, Marc, Pete and Ed of Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club I discovered the world of bonsai.

The Maloney’s of Scotts Valley shared rose growing tips. Al Hiley up in Felton is a wealth of local history knowledge and Vickie Birdsall of Montevalle Park in Scotts Valley knows how to replace water thirsty lawns with low water use plants. Cactus expert, Professor Loik of Felton got me up to date on why and how to grow this interesting plant in our times of drought. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of knowledge I’ve gained including visits to our own UCSC Arboretum, Casa Dos Rios in Gilroy, Stanford campus, Napa, Carmel and a dogwood nursery in Corralitos.

So keep those emails coming. I’m happy to offer helpful solutions or at least a shoulder to cry on. If you have an idea for a column let me know. And if you want someone to appreciate your gardening efforts as much as you do invite me over. I’m available. Happy Gardening.

Save Water in the Garden like they do in Carmel

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Aeonium ‘Sunburst’, echeveria, statice and agapanthus grouping

You can sum up a Carmel garden with one of two descriptions – hot and dry or mild and dry. Closer to the coast the weather is mild year round while further up Carmel Valley it can get pretty toasty.

In either place, the people of Carmel are used to paying close attention to their water consumption. Monterey County water districts have some of the most stringent regulations around.

On a recent trip to this beautiful part of the world, I took the opportunity to study their beautiful low water-use gardens. What makes for a successful garden that doesn’t include a lawn and lush perennial border? Here are some of the plants and strategies that I admired while in Carmel.

Because many homeowners are replacing their lawns with low water-use landscapes a well thought out design is more important than ever.

Libertia peregrinans

Stone makes a garden look like it’s part of nature. Granite boulders are one of the go-to choices for accent rocks due to their lower cost and I saw many gardens with beautiful installations using granite. But it was the creamy yellow Carmel stone that caught my eye. It’s used for everything there from retaining walls and steps to veneer for homes.

Carmel stone is a Monterey sedimentary shale and can be found throughout the Santa Lucia mountain range. The best stone colors, however, come from quarries in Monterey County. With beautiful rust, orange, pink and caramel iron oxide striations it’s plentiful and relatively light by rock standards. That’s probably why it was the material of choice for the native Ohlone tribes who built the Carmel Mission.

In addition to the beautiful stonework and boulders in Carmel gardens, plant selection is often unique and bold as well as easy on the water budget. I wasn’t familiar with Globularia sarcophylla ‘Blue Eyes’ when I first saw it blooming. Covered with hundreds of button size flowers of cream with dark blue centers it really stood out. This showy little Canary Island shrub is very drought tolerant and hardy down to 10 degrees.

Anigozanthos ‘Gold Velvet’

Another plant that looked great paired with old fashioned shasta daisies was the medium sized Gold Velvet kangaroo paw. Flowering for most of the year this variety has more resistance to black spot, needs less trimming and is frost tolerant. Plant kangaroo paws in a well mulched garden using chunky bark chips and ensure the crown of the plant is above soil level. Remove older flower stems and cut back foliage every 1-2 years. Kangaroo paw offer drought tolerant color in the garden.

Dramatic purple leafed phormium ‘Guardsman’ accented one of the gardens. Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Los Alamitos’ -Texas sage – would complement this phormium. The gray foliage and pink flowers smother this plant in color from summer into fall. Succulents like aeonium ‘Sunburst’ and echeveria paired with agapanthus and statice made a nice vignette in another garden.

Leucodendron ‘Ebony’

A visit to several nurseries in Carmel Valley shed more light on what customers are buying in these times of drought. One of the smaller leucodendrons called Ebony is a favorite. This bushy compact shrub grows 3 to 4 feet tall and a bit wider with lustrous blackish-purple foliage and burgundy red bracts surrounding the flowers from late winter to summer. One of the great things about this species is its ability to tolerate only occasional to infrequent irrigation once established.

Other low water-use plants featured at the local Carmel nurseries include California native Woolly Blue Curls, the stunning teucrium ‘Azureum’, Velour Pink Mexican Bush Sage and Wyn’s Wonder Australian fuchsia.

Lots of awesome gardens, nurseries and plants – so little time. Take some ideas from the people of Carmel and embrace low water-use gardens.

Gardening with Kids

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Adelyn in hosta
Adelyn and the giant hosta

My friend Adelyn came to visit the other day. Adelyn just turned three. We always have a good time exploring my garden and checking out the forest. This time was even more fun.

I didn’t have any cherry tomatoes to share because Mr. Gopher got to the plants first but there are always lots of flowers to admire and some have a wonderful fragrance. Over a dozens hummingbirds visit my feeders daily and they love the flowers that produce nectar, too. Songbirds have their own feeders plus suet to eat and all the little seeds that nature can provide. My sunflowers will soon be ripe for the goldfinches to enjoy.

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly or a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless.

Sure it would be great to have a large vegetable garden to share with Adelyn. We could build a teepee out of fallen branches and plant scarlet runner beans around the outside. Or we could grow a pizza garden in a circle divided like pizza slices with long wooden stakes. We’d plant tomatoes, sweet red peppers and basil in the slices and use stepping stones to mimic pepperoni slices.

But I have lots of other cool things so when Adelyn comes to my house we become a couple of naturalists and horticulturalists and that’s OK with us.

Adelyn with her new bird book

For her last visit I made Adelyn her own bird book with pictures I took here at my house. It has photos of other things besides birds – butterflies, flowers, a tree frog and pictures of family when they have visited. It was fun to watch her run around and identify which bird or flower had a picture in her book.

In a short time, she had seen the grosbeak, junco, chickadee, purple finch, goldfinch and nuthatch all snatching a seed from the feeder. The flowers were easier to find as they don’t fly. She really liked the blue hydrangeas and the red flowering maples. Hiding among the huge hosta leaves was fun for her, too.

We took some more pictures during the afternoon and printed them out on the computer to add to her little book. The book is one of those inexpensive four by six inch photo albums with sleeves for the photos. We looked for the chipmunks to photograph for the album but they were out feeding elsewhere in the forest.

Adelyn playing in the garden
Adelyn playing in the garden

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can cut will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallowtail butterflies. Another easy to grow flower for cutting is the snapdragon.

Besides flowers, fragrant plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden. Lamb’s ears are soft and furry.

Get a kid into gardening and nature and they’ll be good stewards of the land for a lifetime. Plus you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.

Great Plants for a California Garden

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Leucospermum with chondropetalum

Our local UCSC Arboretum is a place everyone can enjoy. You can marvel at the dozens of jewel-tone hummingbirds darting about feeding on nectar of colorful flowers while strolling the gardens for new plant ideas.

There are still lots of dramatic leucospermum in bloom as well as California native plants that flower mid to late summer. The rainfall last December helped many of the drought tolerant plants grow more foliage and put on a better show this year. The hummingbirds couldn’t get enough of the erica blooming in shades of pink, orange and red. There must have been a dozen darting about feeding and chirping between the shrubs.

If you are looking for some inspiration for new low water-use plants you haven’t tried the nursery at the Arboretum has a good selection. They replenish the stock from their growing area on a regular basis so there’s always something to catch your eye. Here are some that I plan to grow myself or recommend to others.

Hemiandra pungens

Color in the garden is something we all relish. One of the plants that caught my eye is called Hemiandra pungens. Pretty lavender-magenta flower clusters cover this small one foot plant. It’s drought tolerant although it looks better with occasional summer water.

This bright little shrub is another of the plants from Australia being trialed at the Arboretum. The Koala Blooms plant introduction program is a joint venture which include growers here and in Australia. Plants are evaluated for their beauty, durability and sturdiness with regard to drought, weather extremes and variations in soil types. Out of the trailing process new plants are selected and offered for sale to the public. Visit the Arboretum website for info on other great plants you might want to try in your garden.

Pimalea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’

Another showy perennial that’s sure to make it’s way into the next appropriate garden I design is Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’. Bright pink umbel blossoms cover this small plant for many months starting in the spring. It’s hardy down to 25 degrees and requires little water once established. Also originating in Australia it looks great in a native low water-use cottage garden.

The common name for this plant is pink rice flower. The pot in the arboretum nursery happened to be placed near a red mimulus but it looked great even though you might think the color combination would be all wrong. Nature has a way of making things work despite the rules of the color wheel.

Several varieties of correa – also called Australian fuchsia – caught my eye. Although the flowers of this plant resemble fuchsias they are not related. Some do best with regular watering during the summer but the lovely correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’ is drought tolerant once established. Grow this three foot compact evergreen shrub in partial sun where it will bloom from fall through springtime and provide nectar for hummingbirds during the wintertime.

Salvia guarantica

I was also drawn to the brilliant cobalt blue flowers of salvia guarantica. This plant is worth growing – in sun or partial shade – even though you might need to cut it down to ground level after each winter like Mexican bush sage. Growing four to five feet tall it starts blooming in early summer and continues till frost. They also do well in containers and are a favorite of hummingbirds.

Prostanthera was well represented with three varieties – ‘Poorinda Bride’, ’Purple Haze’ and my personal favorite, the Variegated Mint Bush. They are all good choices for colorful, easy to grow, hardy shrubs that require only occasional irrigation.

Among other choices at the Arboretum nursery were stand-by’s such as lion’s tail, Mexican marigold, Germander sage, Copper Glow New Zealand tea tree and giant buckwheat. This local resource offers a cornucopia of inspiration.

Dry River Beds – Beautiful & Beneficial

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Dry river bed down a steep slope

With so many people replacing their thirsty lawns with low water-use plants, I’m getting lots of requests for ideas about what to do with all that empty space. The sky’s the limit when you have a blank slate. Let me get you started.

If your old lawn was in the front you might consider putting in a sitting area for a couple of chairs and a bistro table. Use simple crushed gravel or more formal flagstone underfoot and surround the space with a low seat wall to add a bit of privacy.

Adding a dry river bed is another good solution. A dry river bed can slow runoff, spread it out and sink it back into the soil. Connected to a downspout they keep even more rainfall on your own property. If we get the El Nino storms that are predicted this will be a welcome addition to your landscape.

A dry river bed is a rock-lined swale that uses rounded river rock in addition to vegetation to allow

Dry river bed with grasses and deer resistant oleander

runoff to soak into the ground. Make sure there is a 2% slope from beginning to end to ensure that water is conveyed away from your house to the desired location. Non-woven geotextile fabric is often used underneath the rock.

You can create a depression or rain garden at the end of your dry river bed and plant it with plants that tolerate wet feet in the winter. Both a dry river bed and a rain garden allow water to sink back into the ground. The plants remove pollutants from the runoff from roofs or other impervious surfaces.

A rain garden might be a simple, shallow depression filled with plants that can flourish in both moist and dry conditions. The size and depth will depend on your how much water you need to capture in a winter runoff

Sometimes a dry river bed will receive so much runoff that a dry well or dispersal pit is installed at the end. If you have a high water table or clay soil the water may not always soak in fast enough and an overflow device like this is needed. The goal is to keep water on your own property and not in the street or the neighbors’ yard.

There are good looking dry river beds as we’ll as bad looking ones. A quick Google image search will show you what I mean. Your goal is to create something that looks like it belongs right where it is. The plants, the accent rocks, the cobble, the location – all need to work together.

If your property has a natural slope follow the natural terrain if possible. You can install a dry river bed on flat land also by creating a channel for the river bed to follow. Keep in mind that even a dry river bed is more interesting if it is not all visible at once. Soft, flowing curves and bends create a natural look.

Start with the rocks and cobble. Rounded river cobble looks most natural for the creek bed. In nature, water flowing down a river would round off sharp rock edges to produce cobble of different sizes. A river never has just one size of rocks and yours shouldn’t either.

Accent rocks can be any type that you like as long as you get a variety of rock sizes and shapes. Use the larger stones to direct and channel water. Placing rocks on the outside of a curve creates a more natural look.

Pheasant Tail grass along cobble path

As in all gardens there is always a bit of maintenance to keep things looking and working great. Weeding in the first couple of months while plants become established is important. Replenish mulch as needed until the plants grow in.

Periodically remove leaves that have landed in your river bed and reposition rocks moved by runoff to keep your dry creek bed working for you when you need it. Also don’t start your dry creek bed too close to the foundation of your home if that area is flat. You can direct the water through a drain pipe connected to a downspout to a lower starting spot in your garden.

So whether you are adding a dry river bed to add interest to your lawn-free landscape or to double as catchment for winter storm runoff, make yours look like it’s always been there.

Save Water – Save Trees

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I had to do it. I couldn’t resist. Even though I’d vowed not to get any new plants until fall planting season when I saw the one gallon Pride of Madeira just begging for a new home I succumbed to my impulse. I rationalized this plant was on my wish list and will be drought tolerant so I wasn’t being totally irresponsible.

I’ve always wanted an echium fastuosum on my hillside. I admire those huge spires of purple-blue flowers whenever I see them in other gardens. These are tough plants getting by with no summer water once established and the flower spikes are bee magnets. I covered it with a layer of shade cloth for a few days because it was so hot when I planted it. This will help it establish more quickly while the roots take hold in the soil.

Flame tree on Stanford campus

In your own garden it’s wise to establish a drought to-do list. I’m talking about what plants get your precious water and what to let go.

As we enter another dry year many of our ornamental and fruit trees are dying. Many were watered along with the lawn you have now let go brown. Others might have been surviving on natural rainfall. Whatever the case in your garden don’t let your trees die.

Nature has already killed an estimated 12 million trees in Calif. forests since the drought began four years ago. Most of these have fallen victim to bark beetles that attack trees weakened by drought.

In our own neighborhoods, trees are a long-lived asset. A tree is not something that can be easily replaced. It’s OK to appropriately water trees. Dying trees can be a safety hazard and removing a dead tree is expensive.

It takes years to grow a tree to mature size. Save and use shower and cooking water to help them out. Maybe it’s time to install an simple laundry-to-landscape system to water your landscape trees. Or set up a separate drip or soaker hose for your trees and give them a good deep drink at least once or twice a month. And remember that the tree’s feeder roots are not at the base of the trunk but out at the drip line and a little beyond.

laurel tree.1600
Laurel tree on Stanford campus

A rule of thumb for determining when to irrigate is when 50% of the water has been depleted from the soil in the plants’ root zone. This allows a buffer of water in the soil in case the weather suddenly turns hot and windy and applies to trees, shrubs and perennials.

Sandy soils hold less water than clay soils and must be irrigated more frequently. A common misconception is that it takes more water to grow plants in sandy soil than in clay soil. Actually the total amount required for the whole year is the same for both soil types. The amount of sunlight, wind, temperature and humidity control how much water a plants needs – the soil is only the reservoir.

To check the water content in the soil dig 8-16 inches down into the soil with a trowel, shovel or soil tube and feel the soil. At about 50% available water:
* Course soil appears almost dry and forms a ball that does not hold shape.
* Loamy soil forms a dark ball that is somewhat moldable and can form a weak ribbon when squeezed
between the finders.
* Clayey soil forms a good, dark ball and makes a ribbon an inch or so long and slightly sticky.

If you are planning to plant some new trees this fall, be sure they are drought tolerant natives or low water use non-natives. There are many nice specimens to choose from. And don’t skimp on the mulch.

It’s important to maintain our existing tree canopy and plant for the future. Even in times of drought, no especially in drought, planting and stewardship of trees is critical. Not just for their future but for ours as well.

Screen the Neighbors with Low Water-Use Plants

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ribes sanguineum

We all enjoy privacy around our homes. Even if you’re best friends with your neighbor you don’t always want to wave at them each morning in your robe. Whether you have a property tucked way back in the forest with a next door neighbor that looks right down on your deck or a postage stamp size lot that could be an jewel if you just had a screen between you and the next property, there are techniques designers use to make your home a private oasis.

azara microphylla

Narrow spaces can be challenging when you need to screen the house next door. There’s not room for a big, evergreen tree or hedge to solve the problem. One way is to use plants that can be espaliered against a fence or trellis. Some plants like azara microphylla naturally grow flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great.

Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.

A dwarf tree that also works nicely in this situation is a Southern magnolia called Little Gem. Naturally a very compact narrow tree it grows to 20-30 ft tall but only 10-15 ft wide. It can be trained as an espalier against a wall or fence and the sweetly scented flowers will fill your garden with fragrance.

Other small trees that make a good screen are purple hopseed, and leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’. Both have beautiful burgundy foliage. California natives that can be espaliered against a fence include Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Western redbud, mountain mahogany, toyon, pink flowering currant, Oregon grape and spicebush.

If you have a wider space to grow screening plants, one of my favorites is Pacific wax myrtle. This California native grows quickly to 30 ft tall with glossy, rich forest green leaves. Its dense branches make a nice visual and noise screen for just about anything or anybody. I’ve never used the subtle spicy leaves for flavoring sauces but I might try it next time a recipe calls for bay leaves. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.

Italian buckthorn is another evergreen screening shrub to consider. It reaches about 15 feet tall by 6-8 ft wide and has low water needs. It can grow 2-3 feet in its first few years making a quick screen. There’s a variegated version with stunning foliage that looks awesome mixed with the green variety in a hedge.

Another favorite hedge plant, the California coffeeberry grows 6-8 feet tall and gets by with very little summer water once established. Birds love the berries.

I also like osmanthus fragrans for a screen with a sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ with their showy variegated foliage.

If it’s just not practical to screen the perimeter of your property redirect your line of sight to keep attention focused on the garden instead of on the landscape beyond. A recirculating fountain as simple as an urn spilling onto cobbles at the base can disguise noise and become the focal point. There are lots of ways to add privacy to your home.

Tips for New Landscaping after Replacing a Lawn

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santonlina, euphorbia, phormiun – low water use plant grouping

Tired of looking at that brown patch of lawn and trying to convince yourself it’s a badge of honor in these times of drought? You tell yourself “It greens up in the winter so I’ll water just enough to keep it from totally dying now”. But wouldn’t a beautiful, sustainable, low water use garden be a more inviting place to spend your free time?

Replacing a lawn that is not used anymore can be the first step in a whole new kind of landscaping-a landscape that looks like it belongs where you live. Here are some very good reasons to lose the lawn and benefit the planet at the same time.

Even in years where we have normal winter rainfall we always have a seasonal drought. It’s called summer. Without our usual winter and spring rains, though, even native trees and shrubs are struggling. All the more reason that plant selection now is even more critical than before.

libertia peregrinans

You’ve see pictures of some not-so-great looking lawn replacement projects. A drought tolerant plant here, another there, add an accent rock and that’s supposed to thrill you when you come home for the day? What’s missing is a garden designed to enhance our natural environment. When you remove your lawn, it’s a wonderful opportunity to not only create a garden than conserves water but also provides habitat for wildlife including birds and butterflies and improves the soil.

A living landscape does as much for our own pleasure as it does for the environment. It increases biodiversity of plant, animal and insect populations. It fosters healthy soil which can hold more moisture by supporting microbes and insects. Healthy soil can filter pollutants and improve water quality.

Think of using native and well-adapted, non-natives that connect with the natural landscape. Use tough plants on the edges and group greener, low water use plants closer to the house. Here are some good plants to use in a lawn-less landscape that won’t break your water budget.

When planting time rolls around this fall consider a green carpet of blue grama grass. This native sedge can provide a green carpet on much less water and can be mowed or not. It’s on the list of approved water-wise grasses eligible for rebates from our local water districts.

dymondia groundcover between flagstones

Another ground cover eligible for lawn replacement rebate is dymondia. I love the grey foliage of this low ground cover. It fills in nicely between stepping stones or can take light foot traffic in larger areas.

For a taller look that you don’t need to be able to walk on, the ground cover forms of ceanothus, manzanita or creeping rosemary are good very low water alternatives to a lawn. I have a very low Hearts Desire ceanothus that hasn’t been watered yet this year and it still looks green and lush.

Native yarrow, penstemon and salvia are the work horses of the garden needing little water once established and attracting all sorts of insects and birds. Other natives on the 800+ Approved Low Water Use Plant list include Pacific Coast iris, helianthemum, libertia, santolina, California fuchsia, rockrose, lavender, myoporum, coffeeberry, teucrium, verbena and kangaroo paw to name just a few. You can download the list from or

I am not a big fan of artificial lawns. They do not provide habitat for wildlife, beautify our environment or improve the soil. They get significantly hotter than the surrounding air temperature contributing to the heat island effect by increasing air temperatures. Also artificial turf is a synthetic material with a relatively short lifespan ranging from 10-20 years and will eventually end up in a landfill. They can not be recycled. There are many other beautiful, low water use options that result in more sustainable and beneficial landscapes.

Water and soil management as well as plant selection are key to water conservation in the landscape.

Water Conservation Tips from Scotts Valley

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lower lake.1280
lower lake

I am fortunate as a garden columnist and landscape designer to be invited to see, stroll and learn about beautiful gardens. Sometimes it’s a particularly successful method of irrigation, plant selection, placement or care that someone wants to share. Other times it’s the story of how their garden evolved. All gardens are interesting in their own way.

Recently I received an email from a reader in Scotts Valley who wanted to share what Montevalle Park has been doing to save water. Well I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about water.conservation. Here is how this unique mobile home park has changed their landscaping to save water.

Vickie Birdsall, my host and President of the HOA, welcomed me to her little corner of the world. Officially Montevalle is a mobile home park but is unique in that each lot under the oaks, pines and redwoods is a different size. Vickie told me that back in the early 70’s when Ray Retzlaff developed the park it was the first in California where people could purchase the lot they lived on and collectively own all the amenities. The lots were divided with the trees in mind so that a pre-made home could be installed without disturbing the trees.

Sea Holly

As you drive through the park on winding roads each homeowner has made their property unique. Many have views of the woods, some with mountain vistas. All have established landscaping and enjoy the common areas including 2 lakes connected by a waterfall.

Vickie is now the President of the Association but for many years was in charge of the landscaping. She knows about the sandy soil of the park and the well water with its high mineral content that is used for the irrigation. On the positive side the deer seemed to be browsing other neighborhoods these days leaving the park to the occasional fox and the raccoon.

There are 56 pocket gardens in common areas throughout the park. Vickie’s goal is to convert as many as possible from lawn to drought tolerant plantings.

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putting green area

The putting green area-which is across from Vickie’s house- used to be all lawn. She started taking out the lawn little by little a couple years ago and last fall finished the new landscaping. Incorporating re-purposed stepping stones and feather rock from other places in the park. a new path bisects a lovely garden which will use little water once established. Starting from gallon cans the new plantings are growing in nicely. Vickie told me she uses plants with different textures, foliage colors and heights and repeats the groupings which makes all the elements work together.

She was proud to show me how well the Carmel Creeper ceanothus is filling in. Other nearby plants include Little John callistemon, Rose Glow barberry, Golden Sunset coleonema, euphorbia, Emerald Carpet manzanita and Moonshine achillea to name just a few. The real eye catchers are 2 very drought tolerant sea holly. The metallic, iridescent blue flowers and stems of these eryngiums glowed in the afternoon sun.

The park has 2 lakes and as we walked along the shore of the lower lake, Vickie pointed where they installed a bio filter area to clean the nitrates from the water flowing down from the north lake. Yellow flag iris, gunnera and tulle grasses help keep the algae down. Several turtles and koi were enjoying the water lilies that have just started to bloom.

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Step ponds between the lakes

Vickie has taken out the pockets of lawn along the step ponds connecting the two lakes. Under locust and birch trees, the small waterfalls are bordered by myoporum ground cover, shasta daisies, asparagus ferns, ornamental grasses and agapanthus. The new plantings are thriving under lots of mulch and are much easier to maintain.

Along the road to the lodge, Vickie pointed out more drought tolerant plantings which have replaced lawn such as Jerusalem sage, Pride of Madeira, manzanita, ornamental grasses and Purple-leafed hop bush. At the lodge she has installed small areas of artificial turf for barbecues and the front garden is a work in progress converting the lawn to dymondia and other plantings. The gophers are not helping with the progress, she admitted.

Vickie says she started converting the lawns in the park way before the drought. She has done 10 so far and has plans for many more.

Montevalle park is a good example of how an area can still be beautiful and serene without all the lawns. With lots of soil amendment and mulch the new plants bring lots of color plus birds and butterflies using a fraction of the water that was used previously. I was invited back to see the pink lotus blooming in the north lake in July and August. I’ve put it on my calendar.


Pruning, Thinning and other Early Summer Tasks

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Last week the first real taste of summer weather arrived and it was a wake up call for me. Over the past couple of months I’ve planted several new plants that will be drought tolerant once established but for now their root system requires more frequent watering than my established plantings. I’ll have to wait for the cooler weather starting in late September to plant any major additions to my landscaping. But for now I love to be out in my garden and there are lots of other things I can do to enjoy my time outdoors.

Pruning is a good way to spend a couple of hours in your garden. I’m not talking about trimming plants into little balls but the kind of pruning that makes for a healthier and happier plant.

Japanese maples

If you grow Japanese maples now is the time to remove dead branches and train your tree to look like one of those specimens you see in the magazines. Thinning cuts build your ideal tree limb structure. If yours is a young tree, though, don’t be tempted to head back long branches too soon. As these mature they give your tree that desirable horizontal branching.

This principle is important to keep in mind when you train any young ornamental tree. Lateral buds grow along the sides of a shoot and give rise to sideways growth that makes a plant bushy.

Bing cherries

Summer pruning of fruit trees controls size by removing energy-wasting water sprouts. Summer is also a good time to remove leafy upper branches that excessively shade fruit on the lower branches. Winter pruning is meant to stimulate the tree. Summer pruning uses thinning cuts-where the branch is cut off at its point of attachment, instead of part way along the branch- and these cuts do not encourage new growth but control the size of your tree making fruit harvest easier.

Summer pruning also can control pests like coddling moths, mites or aphids. Just be sure to dispose of these trimmings and don’t compost them.

If you have apricots and cherries, summer pruning only is now advised as they are susceptible to a branch killing disease if pruned during rainy weather. Prune stone fruits like peaches and nectarines after harvest by 50%. They grow quite rapidly. Apricots and plums need to have only 20% of their new growth pruned away.

Red Delicious apple

Be sure to thin the fruit on your trees. That’s another good reason to keep them smaller so you can more easily reach the branches. The best time to do this is when the fruit is still small. Thinning fruit discourages early fruit drop and improves the quality of the remaining fruit. It helps to avoid limb damage from a heavy fruit load. Also it stimulates next year’s crop and helps to avoid biennial bearing. Left to their own devices, a fruit tree may bear heavily one year and then light or not at all the next year. Some types of fruit trees like peaches and Golden Delicious apples are likely to bear biennially if the current year’s fruit crop isn’t thinned.

While I have the pruners out I’ll be shearing back early flowering perennials to encourage another round of blooms. And I’ll add some more mulch to areas that are a little thin. I’ll be checking the ties on my trees to make sure they aren’t too tight and remove the stake if the trunk is strong enough to support the tree on its own.

And I’ll be looking for any pest problems so I can do something about them before it gets out of hand. I’m OK with a few holes here and there but a heavy infestation should be trimmed off or sprayed with an organic insecticide. I inspect the tips of my fuchsias regularly for fuchsia mites and clip off any distorted growth. I hate to spray even organics on them due to the hummingbird activity.

Most importantly, enjoy your time outdoors. If a task is too big to do at one time, break it down into smaller sessions. As they say, take time to smell the roses.

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