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.

putting green area.1280
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.

step ponds.1280
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.

Vines- What, Where and How

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Zepherine Drouhin climbing rose

My office window looks out on a gingko tree. Hanging from its low branches two bird feeders are visited throughout the day by many songbirds. As an added bonus a climbing Zepherine Drouhin rose grows up into the branches and has just started to bloom with vivid, dark pink flowers. They look like ornaments hanging from the tree. This spot wouldn’t be right for a trellis so if it weren’t for the help of the gingko I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my beautiful rose. In your own garden think about trees, shrubs and even sturdy vines as support for other vines.

Creating an outdoor room with vines can make your yard feel cozy. They readily provide the walls to enclose a space. Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely. Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established. Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape. By adding walls and a ceiling to your garden, you’ll be able to enjoy another dimension in addition to more color and fragrance too.

I’m always amazed at the variety of vines my friend Richard grows up into the canopy of his

Rosa banksiae

many trees. From Lady Banks rose to clematis to blood-red trumpet vine to a spectacular double white pandora vine his trees do double duty in his garden.

For a vine with long lasting interest, try growing an orange trumpet creeper up into a tree. It blooms from midsummer to early autumn and hummingbirds love it. It can tolerate wet or dry conditions, sun or shade and is generally pest free.

Plant vines for fragrance in your garden. Let them scramble up a tree or through the branches of a shrub. Evergreen clematis bloom with showy white fragrant flowers clusters above shiny dark green leaves in spring. Clematis montana

clematis armandii with hardenbergia vine

is covered with vanilla scented pink flowers in spring also. Carolina jessamine’s fragrant yellow flower clusters appear in masses from late winter into spring.

Another way to double your pleasure with vines is to let the thick stems of a mature, vigorous vine such as grape, wisteria, passionflower or a large climbing rose like Lady Banks serve as a framework for a more delicate stemmed vine like clematis or Goldflame honeysuckle.

Or you can enjoy the classic combination of a flowering clematis like purple Jackmanii intertwined with a white Iceberg rambling rose for another great look. Other vines that are beautiful and easy to grow are our native honeysuckle, lonicera hispidula with its translucent red berries in the fall. Violet trumpet vine, white potato vine, hardenbergia and Chilean jasmine are also good choices.

lonicera heckrottii

Growing vines is easy if you follow a few guidelines. To encourage bushy growth on young vines, pinch out the stems terminal bud. If you want just a few vertical stems, though, don’t pinch the ends but instead remove all but one or two long stems at the base.

Often when I’m called out to take a look at a vine that has gotten out of control the only advice I can give is to cut the entire vine to the ground in late winter or early spring and start training it all over again. You can avoid this drastic measure by pruning periodically to keep your vine in bounds. Just before new growth begins, cut out unwanted or dead growth. If you can’t tell what to remove, cut the vine’s length by half and remove the dead stems later. On vines like hardenbergia or Carolina jessamine that bloom in late winter, wait to prune until after they have finished flowering.

Many vines require only deep but infrequent waterings. If you are interested in planting a new vine to provide color and fragrance in your garden there are lots of good suggestions on Scotts Valley Water Districts’ web site.

Some to consider from their list of 800 low water use plants are bougainvillea, trumpet creeper, Carolina jessamine, primrose jasmine, cat’s claw yellow trumpet vine and purple leaf grape. Also on the website is a search function in the Water-Smart Gardening section for vines and other plants for particular situations such as shade, erosion, natives or low maintenance. It’s a valuable resource right at your fingertips.

How the Angel of Grief turned into a Cactus Garden

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Angel of Grief
Angel of Grief

A friend of mine who attended Stanford University told me that the next time I was on the campus I should check out the famous Angel of Grief marble statue. Tucked in the trees behind the mausoleum that houses the remains of Leland Stanford, his wife and son, this statue was commissioned by Jane Stanford in honor of her deceased brother. It’s a duplicate of several others that are in places like Costa Rica, Canada, Luxembourg and Cuba and is actually the second on this site after the original was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

cactus_garden_path.1280It is indeed moving to stand in front of this massive white marble statue. Nearby is a cactus garden that is equally impressive to this horticulturalist. Alive with hummingbirds and songbirds, the flowers hummed with activity. In these days of designing drought tolerant gardens I’m always on the lookout for tough plants that combine well making a garden a delight to stroll and enjoy. I came away with lots of ideas. Here are some succulents that would work well in a drought tolerant garden in our climate.

senecio mandraliscae

On a hot day, the color blue makes everything feel cooler. Plants with blue foliage or flowers can serve to calm a riot of color, connect different color schemes and make a space seem larger. One such succulent that serves this purpose well is called Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandraliscae. As a ground cover this beauty spreads 2-3 ft wide but only 12-18” tall. It’s very drought tolerant in full sun or light shade but will also tolerate regular irrigation and is hardy down to 20 degrees. The blue-gray foliage really stands out when paired with burgundy or pink.

Another favorite succulent that I like to use in drought tolerant landscapes is the Ghost plant which is a much easier name to remember than graptopetalum paraguayense. The colors of their 3-6” wide rosettes are what really catch your eye. Ranging from lavender blue to light pink and pale blue on the same plant, this colorful succulent will spread wide but only about 1 foot tall. It’s very hardy to winter lows of 20-25 degrees and will even rebound from being frozen if temps drop below that.


The Stanford cactus garden has milder winters than us so not all the plants there handle our cold and potential rainy winter weather. But another plant that does great in our climate is calandrinia grandiflora. Brilliant purple, poppy-like flowers rise out of a rosette of succulent gray-green leaves to make a colorful show from spring to fall. Beside being so showy- especially in a large group- this plants needs only very occasional water and is hardy down to 15-20 degrees. It’s super easy to grow and spreads quickly suppressing all weeds as it grows. Maybe that parking strip out front or bare hillside would look great planted with some calandrinia.

euphorbia lambii

As I strolled through the many winding pathways in this cactus and succulent garden I was amazed when I came across a tree euphorbia taller than I. It really does look like something straight out of a Dr. Suess book. It would need a bit of protection here when temperatures drop below 25 degrees but if you like unusual plants this is the one you’ve got to have. Between the long yellowish-green leaves and the bunches of greenish-yellow flowers-really bracts- it’s a show stopper.

barrel cactus

Besides the massive barrel cactus in the Stanford cactus garden, there are many, many varieties of aloe, agave, hens and chicks and yucca to name just a few. I was reminded by the huge Joshua trees of my years living in the Antelope Valley. This garden was originally planted around 1880 and many of the original historical plants are still there. Volunteer restoration work began in 1997 and is ongoing. With approximately 500 cacti and succulents it’s worth checking out if you’re in the area.

The Best Dogwoods & How to Grow Them

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Alluvial Terrace Nursery

There’s nothing like learning about trees from someone who has discovered for themselves what makes a winner and how to grow it. Recently I had the opportunity to tour a small wholesale nursery near Corralitos. Jon Craig has evolved from Silicon engineer to a propagator of plants and trees and he’s all the happier for it. He laughs when he says he has loved plants for a very long time starting with his first job mowing lawns. As a former engineer it’s all about the research and the plants he grows showcase his success.

His very favorite tree is the dogwood. Not just any dogwood but the ones that bloom with the largest flowers for the longest time. There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata, Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida grows on the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or Western dogwood.

Jon Craig with cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that blooms early in the spring. It’s beautiful but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease. Our Western dogwood is prone to leaf spot fungal diseases. The Kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Mountain Moon

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. That tree is Jon Craig’s very favorite. With a name like Mountain Moon you can just picture it blooming high in the Himalayas. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree. They are edible but bland and tasteless to us. The birds love then though and they remain on the tree while woodpeckers and robins have a feast.

Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’ is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4pm. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’re happy.

Ruby Fall redbud

Besides enjoying the hundreds of blooming dogwoods, I learned about a redbud that is not as fussy as the lovely Forest Pansy. Ruby Falls and Merlot promise to be more reliable in the garden and more heat resistant.

Jon will try his hand growing just about any plant that he thinks others will also enjoy. A fine crop of Alice oakleaf hydrangea grew near a block of Michelia ‘Inspiration’ getting ready to flower and scent the air. The lilacs had finished blooming but the peonies were just starting their show. Jon shared a tip about tree peonies he learned recently from a well-seasoned Japanese gardener. He followed her advice and cut back the tree peony stem in the dormant season forcing it to produce new stems. Voila- they are now loaded with flowers.


Jon grows many other types of dogwood and also Copper beech, magnolia macrophylla, Royal Raindrops crabapple , Sheri’s Cloud nyssa and even a Purple-leaved hazel. I could only fit a couple of 5 gallon cans in my car so a beautiful smoke bush in full bloom and a Black Lace elderberry now call Bonny Doon home. But I have my eye on one of those spectacular Mountain Moon evergreen dogwoods for the back garden.

Planting for Birds and Watering Tips

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Purple finch

My garden is alive with birds. Butterflies and bees also seem to find it an interesting place to visit. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures. Fortunately there are many that have low water requirements which is a prerequisite these days.

But how do you plant something new given the new water restrictions? And what about those existing trees, shrubs and perennials that birds, bees and butterflies depend on? How much water do they need to survive?

Everybody loves winged creatures in the garden. Adding plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies is at the top of the list of requests for nearly every garden that I design.

Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and even the hybrid of the two, Eddie’s White Wonder, all are very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.


In every garden possible I try to include low water use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds. And I always can find space for another variety of manzanita or ceanothus.

Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. Galvezia, mimulus, monardella, California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for them in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent waterings. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. After the last two winters of little rain, many trees are showing signs of stress. It’s not easy to replace a tree that will take 20 years to regrow if you have to replant. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots are 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Apply with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districts restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod -1/4” – 3/8” in diameter- into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.

Homestead Purple verbena

The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly waterings to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on it’s water needs.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy for everyone to enjoy.

Keeping Gardening Facts Straight

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I’ve gotten several emails lately requesting more information about something mentioned in a recent column. I also received a phone call from a reader describing a bad encounter with a certain common plant. She wanted to share her experience so it didn’t wouldn’t happen to anybody else. And a conversation about how bad the poison oak is this year triggered a discussion about how to dispose of the stuff. So here goes. All the news that’s fit to print.

Whether it was Joe Friday who said it or Dan Akroyd in the Dragnet parody. we all want “Just the Facts, Ma’am“.

ramial bark chips

In my column a couple weeks ago about garden planning for the drought, it was the last line “And don’t forget the… mulch (no shredded bark, please)” that caused a bit of confusion. It’s great that everyone has accepted the value of covering the soil with organic mulch. Organic mulches- such as bark chips, treated sawdust, straw or even grass clippings- keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms, conserve soil moisture, combat weed growth and protect the soil from erosion.

But is there an organic mulch that is better than another?

There are many types of mulch available. Nurseries sell different types of mulch in bags, building supply yards carry everything from bark nuggets in different sizes to treated sawdust to chipped bark and even shredded redwood bark. It’s the shredded redwood bark, also called gorilla hair, that does nothing for the health of your soil. If you have a very steep slope you may have to go with this type of mulch but that’s the only time I can recommend it. It will cling to a hillside without washing down in winter rains but treated sawdust would also work for this type of terrain and is much better for soil health.

Of all the types of organic mulches out there, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips come from trees and brush with branches up to about 3” in diameter with or without leaves. These chips contain a high percentage of thin young bark and young wood. This is what makes them so valuable to the garden. Young wood is a tree’s factory for producing protein, glucose, fructose, lignin and polysaccharides. It’s an important source of nutrients for living things at all levels according to a study by soil scientists, G.Lemieux and R.A.Lapointe. You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies who are probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.


About that call from a reader who had a terrible experience after pulling some plants in her yard that had gotten a little out of hand. She said she and her husband ended up with severe eye burn after getting some toxic sap from euphorbia in them. She said they really don’t know if some of sap became airborne while they were pulling stems or if they accidentally rubbed some near their eyes at some point in the day. They went to Urgent Care right away for treatment but the pain lasted for days. She described it as one of the most painful experiences she has ever had. Euphorbias are very deer resistant and drought tolerant and are being used more and more in gardens.

Many of us, me included, grow tropical milkweed or Asclepias curassavica to attract monarch butterflies. The milky sap from this plant protects the monarch from being eaten and can cause the same painful burning of the eye. I read of a case where a gardener’s clothes brushed some stems while she was tending the garden. Later she wiped the sweat out of her eyes and didn’t realize she had also touched her pants. She ended up with cornea burn causing temporary blindness and had to take strong pain relievers and steroids to elevate the pain.

Poison oak

Lastly, a fine crop of poison oak is growing this year so thick in places you can barely avoid it. The new foliage literally glistens with toxic oils. Many birds relish the white berries that form later in the season. 9 out of 10 people will get a rash if even one drop of urushiol oil touches the skin. And this oil has lasting power. It can stay active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to 5 years. Burning dead or dormant poison oak branches is especially dangerous as urushiol oils released in smoke can produce disastrous results if inhaled. So what to do with the stuff if you pull it out? Do not put it in your green waste can. It can end up being ground into mulch along with other green waste. Instead put it in your gray garbage can. Other plant matter that has to be put in the garbage can is pampas grass and bamboo. Don’t put them into green waste

So that’s the skinny on shredded redwood or gorilla hair, common plants with toxic sap and poison oak disposal. Be careful out there.

Celebrate May in the Garden

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Valthemia bracteata

May is the month for you if you make a note when your favorite plant starts to bloom. May is the month for you if you count the number of hummingbirds at the feeder everyday. May is the month for you if you’ve been waiting for the soil to warm enough to plant melons and peppers and winter squash.

A friend gave me a blue Hokkaido squash last fall and I saved the seeds. I’ve been waiting patiently to plant them. It’s one of the best tasting, beautiful squash you can grow. I’m looking forward to harvesting my own this fall. They store for quite a while, taste great and look stunning in a Halloween display along side orange pumpkins. I can hardly wait.

Plants are growing like crazy this month preparing to reproduce at their given time. The birds, bees and even those pesky tree squirrels are finding lots of food and nectar to feed their young. We know the dry months of summer are coming and are preparing by modifying irrigation systems to conserve water and mulching all bare soil. I think we deserve to set a little time aside between gardening tasks to enjoy the wonder of nature and our own gardens.

Honey bee collecting pollen

Here’s a task that requires no work at all but the benefits are huge. Set aside a small area of your yard, say 10% or so, and leave it uncultivated. Let it grow wild and see what native plants and wildlife show up. This would be a good spot to plant milkweed and let it self sow for the Monarch butterfly.

Don’t push yourself and bite off more than you can do in the garden at a time. Landscaping doesn’t have to be done all at once. Maybe choose a new tree or a couple low water use shrubs to plant and care for this summer. Choose something that looks good year round to provide interest. Or take one corner this year and another corner next year to redo or install. This won’t break your water budget or your back.

Food gardening is hard work. Maybe this year grow just those edibles that taste so delicious freshly picked from the garden. Edibles like strawberries, blueberries, herbs, lettuces, chard and arugula are ornamental, don’t take up too much room and are easy to grow. I was disappointed with the way my tomatoes tasted last year. They were OK but no where near as tasty as the dry-farmed Early Girls at the Farmer’s Market. This year I’m only going to grow cherry tomatoes. One of life’s simple pleasures is picking and eating your own fruit as you work in the garden. Beside my favorite Sungold I’m going to try growing local heirlooms like Chadwick’s Cherries, and Camp Joy.

Don’t get me started on the weeds this year. With those early fall rains everything you don’t want in the yard is going nuts. I have actually been gaining ground on controlling many of the annual weeds around my house. The soil is soft and the smaller root system is more likely to let go so as I walk around I pick a few or as many as don’t seem like work. Each plant can produce so many hundreds of seeds that I think of it as free exercise.

Azalea blooms

When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished it’s time to prune them. If you prune just before the plant blooms you risk removing that year’s flowers. If you prune several month after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically it’s best to prune a bit each year to shape and thin the plant. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. There’s no need other than looks to deadhead old flowers.

It was great to get a bit more rain last week. Plants appreciate the moisture especially during spring. Come summer everything slows down to survive and that’s a part of our unique climate here, too.

Garden Planning for the Drought

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helleborus orientalis

In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.

The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.

salvia ‘Bees Bliss’

In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

salvia clevelandii

Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

California fuchsia

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.

Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.

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