Lawn Begone !!


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salvia_nemorosa_East_FrieslandNow that everyone has received a summer water bill or two, it’s hitting home about the need to conserve. I recently received this email which might describe your situation also. “I let my grass die in this drought and now the area looks awful…Can you recommend a low water, deer proof ground cover?” Sound familiar?

Replacing a traditional lawn with ground covers or other solutions takes a bit of problem solving. Some water districts require you replace 50% of your lawn with hardscape and the other half with approved drought tolerant plants in order to qualify for a rebate. How do you go about designing this to fit your tastes and lifestyle?

If you want to replace the lawn with other ground covers and plants which are the best for our area? Do you want a low ground cover that you can walk on or would low-growing shrubs work for your area? There are also drought tolerant grasses that make good lawn subs. Here are some ideas that you can use in your own landscape.

Those of you with lawns fall into two groups.  Those that need a small recreational space for the kids and erigeron_glaucusthose who don’t. If you’ve been thinking that this is the year to go lawn-free here are some tips.

After removing the turf, start by looking at your pathways as they become focal points. A curving flagstone path laid down over gravel will allow excess water to soak into the earth rather than run off. Enlarge sitting areas to accommodate a table, chairs and a shade umbrella. Small crushed gravel is affordable and sounds great underfoot as you walk.

Layer plants on berms along your path, arranging low growing varieties like lavender, santolina, teucrium, beach strawberry, salvia nemorosa and creeping rosemary at the base and taller ones like salvia Hot Lips, ornamental grasses and ceanothus at the top if your area is sunny.  Shady gardeners can use tall plants like red-flowering currant with dicentra eximia at the base. Group plants to give them a sense of mass and use different textures and foliage colors for contrast. Make sure the plants you choose will stay the size you envision without much pruning.

Walk-on ground covers like dymondia, lippia, potentilla duchesnea strawberry and several kinds of thyme create the look of lawn but require a fraction of the irrigation.
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One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging, fertilizing or much irrigation. You can walk on it and it stays green all winter, shading into bronze tones when the weather cools. It even blooms in midsummer for several weeks. Bees will be attracted to it at this time. Thyme prefers sun and poor, sandy soil. Autumn is the best time to install from flats cut into 4″ plugs planted about a foot apart. It will fill in within 3 years. Plant them closer together if you’re impatient. You’ll love your new lavender-blooming “lawn”.

There are also Ca. native and prairie meadow grasses that you can walk on. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho, Calif. and red fescue, carex pansa, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass. Occasional shearing keeps them looking  best but they may be left alone with no mowing at all. Weed control is important during establishment but a healthy stand may be sustained with virtually no weeding after that.

Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass, catlin sedge and valley meadow scutellaria_suffrutescenssedge.  All grow 4-8″ tall and can be either left alone or mowed every so often.  They are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

Scotts Valley Water District has a good list of lawn substitute grasses and other water conserving plants.

If the idea of a flowering meadow right outside your door appeals to you, plant an eco-lawn, a mix of grasses and flowering plants.  Both low water use and low maintenance, an ecology lawn might include flowering perennials like English daisy, Roman chamomile and yarrow interspersed with native grasses.   Cut this style of lawn every 3 weeks in spring and once during the summer.  This is enough to keep the yarrows from developing woody stems while also allowing the perennials to flower between cuttings.

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing shrubs like baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, creeping mahonia, rosemany prostratus, rubus, manzanita, creeping snowberry and ribes viburnifolium work well and are easy to grow.

Don’t be a slave to your water guzzling grass lawn. You have lots of options to reduce or replace it.



Add Drama to the Garden with Large-Leafed Plants


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philodendron_selloumGardens have different personalities. Some gardens mimic nature with plants that attract birds and butterflies and other wildlife and look a bit wild. Some are neat and tidy with perennials lined up evenly along pathways and clipped hedges under the windows. All gardens are a reflection of their owners.  When I visit a garden to help the owner change, add or “take the garden to the next level” I know which ideas will resonate with that person and which will just not work for them. Sometimes it’s easier for someone looking at a garden for the first time to visualize what’s needed.

Regardless of your style I often recommend one simple solution to update a garden. Many gardens end up with too many small-leafed plants. Nature is the master at this survival strategy. Small leaves are often more efficient at retaining water in drought conditions. When all your leaves are the same size, however, the garden gets boring. Using large, bold architectural plants allows the eye to rest on a focal point rather than try to take in everything at once, scanning back and forth.

Plants, like people, come in all sizes and shapes and so do their leaves. Some have huge and dramatic leaves while others are just showy and outsized enough to work well when viewed up close or at ground level. Some plants look tropical and others are right at home in the redwood understory. Some require regular water while others are able to withstand some drought. There’s a bold, breathtaking plant for every garden.

Because they reflect light, glossy leaves look even larger than they are. Make those leaves variegated or wavy with a dimpled texture and the effect is even more striking.

Here are a few large-leafed plants that work well in our area.

In partial shade try Fatsia japonica also called Japanese aralia. It’s deer resistant with bold foliage thatfastia-japonica looks tropical but still at home in the forest. Philodendron selloum with its huge, glossy leaves is also easy to grow. Oakleaf hydrangeas have it all: bold foliage that turns red in fall as well as huge white flower clusters in summer.

Tasmanian tree ferns are hardier in our winters than the Australian variety and are about as dramatic a plant as you will find. Bear’s Breech require only moderate water and serve well as a focal point in the garden.

hosta_Sum_and_SubstanceIn my own garden, I’m finding the chartreuse leaves of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ can take more sun than I originally thought. The deer walk right by their thick, dimpled leaves which is a definite plus. I like all hostas for their bold leaves whether variegated, glossy or wavy.

At ground level, some of my favorite large-leafed perennials that require only moderate water include hellebore, aspidistra, bergenia, coral bells and the dry-shade California native. wild ginger or asarum caudatum.

If you garden in more sun you can add pizzaz to your garden by planting something with large-leaves inasarum_caudatum front of those tall ceanothus, manzanita and toyon. Matilija poppy is a show stopper if you have room for it. Rhubarb, windmill palm, smoke bush and Western redbud also have huge leaves as do canna lily, banana, sago palm, loquat and angel’s trumpet. These are just a few of the many plants with big leaves that work magic in gardens around here.

Adding plants with dramatic foliage instantly makes-over the garden.



Low Tech Tools for the Garden


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Sometimes it’s the little things that count. A cool breeze on a hot day. The song of a bird up in the trees. An orange sky at sunset. As gardeners we appreciate each cluster of tiny, new tomatoes. We notice new branches growing on the ginkgo and the Japanese maple. There are many little things that make my life as a gardener easier. As I go about my chores cleaning, pruning, transplanting and watering I rely on lots of low tech tools. Perhaps some of these might make your life easier, too.

water_wand_soft_rain_nozzleI have several different nozzles for hand watering plants but my favorite by far is a soft rain nozzle on the end of a watering wand. With this type of nozzle I can deliver a lot of water right where I want without beating the life out of the soil. The adjustable ones have a soft spray setting but not enough water comes out and I am left standing there for what seems like forever to thoroughly water a plant or pot. Hand watering is time consuming but it can help a new plant establish a much larger root system than a drip system can. There is even one wholesale plant grower who considers drip irrigation of native and drought tolerant plants just plain bad.

On the subject of watering, be sure you invest in a good quality hose. As my father used to say, you get what you pay for. Those small stiff hoses will cause you no end of problems on a hot day as you struggle with a tangled mess. I’m not a big fan of coiling a hose tightly inside a pot either for storage. They  look tidy but it’s really hard to pull the hose out where needed easily and quickly.

Another of my indispensable gardening items are my gloves. I’ve tried many expensive leather models but I always go back to the plastic coated stretchy cotton gloves,  Garden gloves protect your hands from infection.  You can be exposed to microbacterium from rose thorns and it’s also present in some compost materials.  Remember to always clean cuts and puncture wounds with soapy water and peroxide and see a doctor if you develop inflammation swelling or joint pain.

Whether you’re transplanting a new plant of potting up one to the next size pot, you need to loosen the gardening_toolsroots to help them develop a stronger root system. Sometimes the roots may have completely filled the pot and are circling around themselves. A six pack or 4″ pot often has a mat of roots at the bottom of the pot.  If you place the plant into the ground or into another pot without first loosening the roots, they will continue to grow in a circle, rather than reaching out into the soil, developing and anchoring the plant.

I have a claw cultivator that I use for this purpose on big plants but I find more often I’m reaching for a kitchen fork I have in my tool kit for this purpose. It’s easier for me to tease delicate root balls without going overboard. I also have an old serrated bread knife that is perfect for scoring really tough root balls. It’s also a good tool for root pruning a large plant when you need to give it fresh soil to grow in the same pot.

Of the many hand pruners on the market I have always liked my smaller Felco #6. I need to break out the pruning saw or loppers for larger cuts anyway so I why lug around a large, heavy hand pruner? I also often use kitchen shears for deadheading which makes the job go quickly. More often than not if I use my thumb and forefinger to remove old flowers I break off more than I intended. Using a scissors instead I can make a clean cut and not tear off a new bud by mistake.

My last tip is the best one. Make a habit of walking around your garden, preferably with the beverage of your choice, and just look at the plants. That way you can monitor pest and disease problems before they get out of hand and decide what to do. Give this step the fancy name Integrated Pest Management and enjoy your garden.



Drought Tolerant Plants for Birds & Butterflies


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red_breasted_nuthatchI admit I’m spending way too much time watching new birds come to the feeder. Every time I pass a window I check to see if the pair of purple finches is gobbling up the sunflower chips. She seems to love the safflower seeds, too. The pygmy nuthatches are the bullies of the feeder. Guess no one has told them they are teeny tiny little things. Spotted towhees come when the juncos are done and the stellar’s jays are gone. The Anna’s hummingbirds were really prolific this spring. Their young are drinking nectar almost faster than I can refill the feeders. I have lots of mimulus, salvia and ceanothus flowers for them to enjoy but I need more plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  I want to conserve water and also enjoy my winged friends.

Unthirsty plant choices are high on my list this year. Some of my favorite plants are survivors- easy to grow with minimal water use once established while also attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden.

Everyone should have some lavender in their garden. Hummingbirds and butterflies both favor this plantlavender_West_Zayante and there are new introductions every year from growers. There are dozens of new varieties to choose from. Hidcote Superior forms a bushy compact mound with sensational purple flowers in early summer. Or you might try Royal Purple, Betty’s Blue, Violet Intrigue, Sachet or Royal Velvet. Goodwin Creek is an old stand-by that blooms from spring to late fall with deep violet blue flowers. For midsummer bloom plant Grosso which is a widely planted commercial variety in France and Italy. It’s possibly the most fragrant lavender of all. Spanish lavender blooms spring into summer if sheared. By planting an assortment of lavenders you can have a succession of flowers throughout the season.

Penstemon also lure hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. They come in a wide range of colors and varieties from native species to garden hybrids. I especially like the red flowers of Garnet and the blossoms of the natiOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAve Blue Bedder.

Another long blooming, tough plant is achillea Moonshine. Butterflies love to alight on their yellow flat landing pads of this yarrow.  The dense flower clusters make good cut flowers and the gray-green foliage blends with all color in the garden. Yarrow need only routine care once established. They can take some watering although they endure drought once established. Cut them back after bloom and divide when clumps get crowded.

There are so many salvias to choose from and all are great additions to a tough love garden. Autumn sage blooms summer through fall in colors ranging from deep purple through true red to rose, pink and white. Purple Pastel is especially beautiful covering 3-4 foot plants with blossoms filled with nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Those who seek true blue flowers for their gardens might try planting salvia chamaedryoides. This elegant front-of-the-border plant has silvery foliage which sets off the brilliant blue flowers. Heaviest bloom is in late spring and fall. Deadheading encourages re-bloom.  This salvia is drought tolerant but blooms longer and better with a little occasional summer water.

More un-thirsty bloomers that attract either hummingbirds, butterflies or both and are easy to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgrow are gaura, coreopsis and homestead purple verbena. Asters, Russian sage, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, mums, autumn joy sedum and cosmos are also on the menu of our winged friends.  Many of these also make good cut flowers.

Plant some new water efficient plants for color that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Afterwards spread  fresh bark or compost to mulch the soil. This insulates and protects shallow roots from the heat of the summer sun. While keeping the soil cool, mulch slows the evaporations of water from the soil so it stays moist.

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