Carex pansa and other Lawn Substitutes

I lucked out the other day when I was invited on the spur of the moment to visit a garden in Felton. I was at her daughters house to help with some design ideas for the backyard when the offer came that maybe I would like to see how her no mow-no water carex pansa lawn was doing at the end of the summer. Would I? I jumped at the chance.

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Blue ground morning glory in perennial border

Located only a couple blocks away, Michele Mosher’s garden was a real treat to visit. You can tell in an instant a garden that has been created and nurtured by a plant lover. It was truly a work of art. Each path wound between beds with just the perfect mix of shrubs and perennials. Chocolate cosmos bloomed alongside sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and caught my eye right away. Blue ground morning glory, honey bush, salvia guaranitica starred in some beds. She told me she hasn’t watered the lamb’s ears, phormium, lavender, ceanothus, rosemary and salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ this summer.

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carex pansa at end of summer- no mow and no water

On the far side of Michele’s carex pansa meadow she grows a border or society garlic and blue fescue grass. She has not watered her meadow at all this year. Although browning in spots now it didn’t look bad at all. She told me that she did mow occasionally while it was becoming established in order make it thicker but prefers the meadow look. Also weed control at first was important but now she does virtually no weeding at all. Michele planted her carex pansa lawn from plugs.

Native turf grasses can work as a play surface for children mowed at two to three inches high. If allowed to grow naturally, the clumpy, meadow-like nature of this type of turf would be a tripping hazard for most play activities.

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sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and other perennials

Lawns like carex pansa and other no-mow native grasses such as blue grama, California and red fescue and bent grass don’t need constant mowing to stay short. A handfull of trims per year, depending on the site, will suffice. Carex pansa forms a 6-8″ high mat of narrow, dark green leaves that are moderately tolerant of foot traffic and excellent between pavers and stepping stones. Occasional shearing keeps it looking it’s best but can be left alone with no mowing at all. This grass only needs an occasional irrigation to keep it green.
Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass, catlin sedge, carex texensis, Berkeley sedge and valley meadow sedge. All grow 4-8″ tall and can be either left alone on mowed every so often. They are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

If you’ve decided that you don’t need a traditional grass lawn anymore at all, replace it with a sustainable alternative like Michele did to save water and time.

Succulents: One Solution for the New California Garden

According to Weather West, a California weather blog authored by climate scientist, Daniel Swain, the latest seasonal predictions do not inspire a great deal of hope that the coming winter will bring drought relief. “A substantial La Nina event no longer appears to be in the cards. If it’s present at all, it will probably be quite weak.” Seems that persistent West Coast winter ridge may just rear its ugly head again. Even if subtle shifts in the large-scale atmosphere pattern lead to a different outcome here, our persistent drought is still on the table.

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Aeonium ‘Sunburst’ with statice limonium perezii

More and more people are asking me to update their landscaping to use less water and be lower maintenance. Many want a more modern look and what could be more architectural and clean looking than a succulent garden?

Converting to a low water landscape requires careful planning and design to achieve the look you want. You need to evaluate drainage patterns, soil types, slopes, areas of sun and shade and building locations. Hardscape features, such as patios, paths and decks require no water to maintain and by selecting permeable materials such as porous pavers and gravel, rainwater can infiltrate the ground. Large boulders can be used as accents.

Next comes the fun part- plant selection. In choosing the best succulents for your garden think about if your area gets frost during the winter. Does it have protection from a building or evergreen tree or do you live in a banana belt that rarely freezes? Are you planting in sun, shade or a combination?

In addition to the hardy succulents like sedum and sempervivum many showy succulents need only a bit of protection during our winters. Aeonium decorum ‘Sunburst’ is one of the showiest species with spectacular variegated cream and green 10″ rosettes. It looks terrific planted with black Voodoo aeonium. Aeoniums do well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

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Echeveria ‘Lace’

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so also do well in our our cool wet winters. ‘After Glow’ is frost tolerant and looks to be painted with florescent paint. There are spectacular hybrids being developed every year. These are not as hardy as the traditional hens and chicks but well worth the effort to find a place where they can survive a freeze. Frilly ‘Mauna Loa’ sports turquoise and burgundy foliage while Blue Curls echeveria looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

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Succulent selections

Aloes from South Africa and Arabia are old world plants. Many, like the medicinal aloe vera, are frost tender, but other such as the tree-like aloe plicitilis are hardy down to 25 degrees and look great either in the garden or in pots. Did you know the Egyptians used aloe in the mummification process or that there are no known wild populations of aloe? In South Africa an aloe called ferox is used in the same way as aloe vera for burns and stomach problems.

To ensure success when growing succulents, make sure your soil is fast draining. Our winter rains can rot even the toughest plants when their feet sit in soggy soil. Add sand, gravel or pumice to your soil or plant on mounds to increase drainage.

Late Summer Tasks for the Garden

It’s darker in the mornings now with the sunset coming earlier each evening. All that time I thought I’d have back in June to get things accomplished in the garden has vanished in what seems like a wink of an eye. Still the weather these days is perfect for being outside and pecking away at my to do list. There are also some late summer/early fall tasks that need attention.

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Alstroemeria ‘Rock & Roll’

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like alstroemeria, agapanthus, coreopsis, iris, daylily, yarrow, rudbeckia, calla lily, aster and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart although they don’t always bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves. Start perennial flowers seeds now so that they will be mature enough to bloom next year.

This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage and soil temperatures are still warm which creates an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new roots system should be well established.

Perhaps it’s time to remove or reduce lawn. Replant with more drought tolerant ornamental grasses or perennials.

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Achillea millefolium

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time with an all-purpose organic fertilizer or layer of compost. This advice doesn’t apply to California natives. They like compost only around the roots during the winter while they get ready for their growing season.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in the fall. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new flower bud to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6″ of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.

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Soil builder cover crop mix

If you aren’t going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover, fava or bell beans after you’ve harvested your summer vegetables.

Cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

And whatever you do, enjoy being outside in this beautiful place we call home.

Mixed Bouquets with Foliage & Flowers

Every year I vow to grow flowers to cut for those fabulous mixed bouquets I see on my friend’s tables and arrive in their arms to grace my own house. But alas, between the lack of enough sun, the soil and those annoying gophers, I have not been very successful in the cut flower department. The secret to a fabulous bouquet is not just the flowers but the interesting foliage and that is something we all have in our gardens. I’m still going to plant more perennial flowers this fall that are good for cutting but I’ll use them as accents in my bouquets and concentrate on more foliage.

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Smoke bush with Franz Shubert phlox paniculata

Great foliage plants come in all shapes and sizes. In shady gardens, fragrant variegated daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub for both flowers and foliage. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub or small tree with blooms that smell like apricots. Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ will add white with a hint of lime to your bouquets. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets and the leaves turn red in fall which is an added bonus. Our native shrub philadelphus, also called mock orange, has flowers that smell like oranges and it will grow in some shade as well as sun.

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Hydrangea Limelight with Marjorie Channon pittosporum

While just about any plant material that strikes your fancy will work in a mixed bouquet there are four types of plant forms that naturally look good together: Spires for height and architectural properties with flowers like liatris, snapdragon, gladiola, salvia, Bells-of-Ireland as well as the strappy leaves of flax or cordyline. Round for focus such as roses, dahlias, long-stemmed marigolds, peonies. Lacy for fillers- ferns, baby’s breath, dill. Foliage from shrubs such abelia, breath of heaven, Calif. bay, and ornamental grasses. Don’t forget grapes and other vines, herbs, woody trees branches and prunings from smoke tree and Japanese maples which also look handsome in a bouquet.

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Mixed bouquet- Filoli Garden

What can you still plant this time of year for cutting? Some flowers that lend themselves to cutting with long stems and a long vase life are:

Kangaroo paw- Low-water use perennial with unusual fuzzy tubular flowers of pink, orange, red or yellow.
Alstroemeria- showy flowers attract hummers and butterflies.
Penstemon- Tubular flowers attract hummingbirds
Coreopsis- Double yellow flowers attract butterflies.
Gloriosa daisy- Bold gold, orange and mohogany daisies 5-7″ across with a brown center. Pick when center is
just starting to get fuzzy. Double forms have a shorter vase life.
Coneflowers- Pinkish,white, orange or yellow flowers attract butterflies.
Snapdragons, planted now will bloom long into fall and provide spiky accent that attracts butterflies. Pick off lower
blooms as they wilt.
Pink muhly grass- Airy plumes of feathery, deep rosy-pink flowers on tall stems.

I have a great list of California natives that are good for cutting also. Email me if you would like some of these suggestions.

The best time to cut is early in the morning. Cut non-woody stems on a slant for maximum water absorption. Cut woody stems straight across and smash the ends. Plunge immediately in a bucket of tepid water. Indoors, recut each stem under water so an air bubble doesn’t keep the water from being absorbed.Then pull off any foliage or flowers that will be below the water level in the vase. Fill the vase with lukewarm water. You can add cut flower food but I find that changing the water every two days, recutting the stems and making sure no foliage is under water works just as well.

Save Water with a Dry Lush Landscape

In all the years I’ve been a landscape designer I’ve never heard anyone say to me “I want my garden to look like the desert.”  Using California native plants along with appropriate low water use plants from other Mediterranean dry climate areas can save water and look lush at the same time. We live in an area naturally rich with trees and shrubs and wildflowers that survive on seasonal rainfall. Here are some ideas to give your landscape a lush look while saving water.

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Succulent garden in progress

There’s no better place that showcases a dry lush landscape that my friend Richard Hencke’s garden in Scotts Valley.  Doc Hencke has been at this gardening business a long time starting when he was a kid in Texas and Oklahoma. I am always inspired whenever I visit his garden and come home with a car full of plant starts from his greenhouse. He’s a propagator extraordinaire who loves to share and is a good friend.

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Judy’s succulent garden

On this day I also wanted to see his new raccoon-proof pond and surrounding landscaping. There calandrina starts are settling in nicely. They haven’t started blooming yet but will soon with those neon-pink flowers that sway above the plant on long stems. This spectacular Chilean perennial is long blooming and perfect for a dry garden or difficult spot like a parking strip or hillside. It will suppress weeds as it grows, quickly spreading into a dense groundcover. Nearby is another bed filled with aeonium, sedums, kalanchoe, baby toes and other succulents designed by his wife, Judy.

Doc Hencke’s garden is comprised of a couple dozen different areas or garden rooms. He’s been enjoying discovering new succulents and adding to the new dry lush hillside. He’s growing several varieties of aloe, cordyline and yucca along with douglas iris which are doing fine given the same irrigation as the rest of the dry hillside. Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandralis border the path and their long bluish-green fleshy leaves look great near the red cordyline.

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Doc Hencke’s dry lush entry landscaping

The secret to a lush look is to group plants into a vignette of complimentary elements. A vignette is a brief but powerful scene. Garden vignettes can be more than just plants. Doc Hencke’s driveway garden is a good example. An array of textural plants is combined with a weathered teak bench, richly colored, glazed pots filled with the architectural strappy leaves of phormium and a recirculating water fountain to complete the scene. The blue stone retaining wall is the perfect compliment to the blue and gold succulents that grow in the nooks and crannies.

A dry lush plant palette could also include plants such as Little John bottlebrush, dietes ‘Katrina’, Festival Burgundy cordyline, Hot Lips salvia, Variegated dianella, Amazing Red phormium, Icee Blue podocarpus, phlomis, Southern Moon rhaphiolepis, Gulf Stream nandina and Cousin Itt acacia.

A visit to this amazing garden wouldn’t be complete without admiring Doc Hencke’s prized Sand plum which he swears is the tallest in the country. Also called Chickasaw plums they are found naturally on sandy prairies in Oklahoma and Texas where they are very effective in stopping blowing sand. Wikepedia states this early blooming plum grows to 20 feet tall and Richard’s is about 30 feet tall. Just another in his long line of horticultural successes.

Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

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Orin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

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Sunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

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Ginger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

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UCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

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