Sustainable Landscaping

In February the landscape stirs to life. Well, not in Minnesota or even Tahoe but around here the plums, tulip magnolias , manzanita, forsythia, flowering currants and quince are in full bloom. Other deciduous trees and plants that still look bare now are starting to grow new roots deep underground. It’s time to plan this year’s garden. Think about how you can blend artistry with ecology.

A landscape developed with will improve the environment by conserving resources. It will require less maintenance and fertilizing, be balanced with our climate in mind and use less pesticides and water. Most of all it will be visually pleasing with lots of flowers. bees and butterflies.

Your goal may be a more drought tolerant garden but what’s right for your site? What plants to use that are more likely to withstand disease and pest damage? How do you keep the soil healthy and what irrigation system should be installed to provide for the needs of the landscape in the most efficient way possible?  Where do you put the compost bin so you can return garden waste and kitchen waste back to the garden while recycling nutrients within the landscape? There are many components in designing and installing a sustainable landscape that is right for you and your site.

Start with a smart design. Utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers the help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water. Maybe you need a rain garden or small planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite.

Group plants in your garden according to their water needs. Some maybe can survive on rainfall alone after their second or third season while the perennial beds and vegetable garden will require a different schedule. Water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff. Water in early morning or evening to maximize absorption.

Plant deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter. Trees and shrubs clean the air of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide and breathe in carbon dioxide ( a major greenhouse gas) , use the carbon to build mass, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.

Feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife in your landscape. Plant perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia and other natives to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds. Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects and use organic pesticides.

Make your soil a priority by adding compost each year. Mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water and use natural fertilizers like manures or fish emulsion that feed the soil. Compost the green and brown waste your garden produces like fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables.
Stay ahead of weeds, pulling them before they set seed and spread.

Take steps to develop a beautiful landscape that is right for you and your site and make your corner of the world contribute to the larger landscape around you.


Indicator Plants

If you’re like me you’ve caught a case of pre-spring fever. How can we help it when the flowering plums almost overnight are cloaked in bright pink blossoms and clumps of bright yellow daffodils turning their faces to the sun? If you have allergies, it’s no secret that every acacia in the county is blooming. It’s fascinating to mark time with events in the botanic world. There’s even a word for it- Phenology. Websites like USA National Phenology Network at  offer lots of information on the subject.

When do they occur each year? Phenology is a real science that has many applications. In farming and gardening, phenology is used chiefly for planting times and pest control. Certain plants give a cue, by blooming or leafing out, that it’s time for certain activities, such as sowing particular crops or insect emergence and pest control.  Often the common denominator is the temperature.

Indicator plants are often used to look for a particular pest and manage it in its most vulnerable stages. They can also be used to time the planting of vegetables, apply fertilizer, prune and so on. Here are some common garden plants and what they indicate:

When daffodils begin to bloom, sow peas.
When dandelions bloom, plant spinach, beets and carrots.
When lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, sow peas, lettuce and other cool-weather crops.
When lilacs are in full bloom, plant beans.
Once lilacs have faded, plants squash and cucumbers.
When apple trees shed their petals, sow corn.
When dogwoods are in full bloom, plant tomatoes, peppers and early corn.
When bearded iris are in bloom, plant peppers and eggplants.
When locust and spirea bloom, plant zinnia and marigolds.

When forsythia and crocus bloom, crabgrass is germinating. When this happens the soil temperature at a depth of 4" is 55 degrees. Treat with a pre-emergent.
When crocus bloom, prune roses and feed your lawn.
Mexican bean beetle larvae appear when foxglove flowers open.

Record your own observations at  Project BudBurst at  to start a data base for our area. Another great site is National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service  at  Sites like these can also help you design orchards for pollination and ripening sequence, design for bee forage plantings, design perennial flower beds and wildflower plantings as well as plantings to attract beneficial insects and enhance natural biological control. How cool is that?

Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Recently I went to the moon. At least it seemed like it. Walking through a portion of the 600 acres of burned out  vegetation from the , I couldn’t help but think of it as a moonscape. The misty fog was lifting after a night of rain and milky sun warmed us as we walked through the burned out trees. It was surreal and made even more so by nature’s valiant effort to regrow and fill the void left by the fire. At ground level the earth was bursting with life. Every inch of sandy soil was growing or sprouting something alive. You could almost hear it if you listened closely.

The fire destroyed 3 homes and severely damaged another. About 60% of the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve burned. It’s amazing to see the recovery already taking place. The bracken ferns came first, followed by the endangered Bonny Doon manzanita some of which have sprouted from their bases while 6" tall starts from seed are everywhere. The burned gnarled trunks rendered the landscape otherworldly and magical. Pockets of manzanitas that were spared by the fire were in full bloom dripping with clusters of delicate, white urn-shaped flowers. This manzanita is endemic to the Santa Cruz sandhills and does not occur anywhere else on the planet. Did you know that manzanita leaves are still used in Russia in the tanning industry due to their high tannic acid content?

Golden chinquapin sprouted from the bottom of their mother tree and around the base are scattered the burr-like spiny bracts that contained a sweet tasting nut. California broom, so unlike the invasive Scotch broom, blanket the ground. They are one of the first plants to colonize an area after a fire and their quick growth can aid in erosion control as well as soil enrichment, through their relationship with the nitrogen producing bacteria, Rhizobium, in their roots.

Large stands of Bush poppies were growing in between the huge manzanita trunks. Bush poppies are common in sandy or rocky soils, often in burned out areas. These plants were taller than I’ve seen elsewhere in this area reaching 4-5 ft  Come spring they are going to be spectacular when they bloom in April-July but they also flower a bit in all seasons.

Silver-leafed lupine were doing their part to help the soil both by stabilizing with their deep roots and building up the nitrogen supply with the bacteria in its root nodules. Warty-Leaved ceanothus grew in large patches and were getting ready to bloom with their deep purple flowers.

Yerba santa were plentiful being an opportunist in the area and finding lots of open areas. They easily sprout from  from the roots after the fire as well as seeding themselves.

This area is a fire ecology and will come back just fine. It’s an extraordinary maritime chaparral habitat with a dense concentration of unique endemics that have emerged here in response to tens of thousands of years of periodic fires.


Garden Tasks for early February -Santa Cruz Mts

What to do in the garden in early February

Do cut back woody shrubs  To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage, artemisia and butterfly bush cut back to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though, only lightly prune them after blooming.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim.

Do Cut back hydrangeas if you haven’t already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although sulfur is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it is not as kind to many beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kinder to your soil.

Don’t cut back grasses yet if you get frost in the area where they grow.
Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, Flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.
Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost.
Prune frost  damaged shrubs if you can tell how far down the die back goes, otherwise wait until growth starts in the spring.

Winter Color in the Garden

Make sure you have color in your garden every month of the year. Whether this comes from vivid foliage, bright berries,  interesting bark or flowers it pays to add to your color palette every month of the year. That’s why it’s so valuable to see what’s available in February as well as summer, spring and fall.

I’m a push over when it comes to striking foliage plants. I find them every bit as vibrant as flowers.  Bright flowers may be the frosting on the landscape but brilliant foliage is the cake. Here are some of my favorites that will add color to your garden this month.

Leucadendron Jester, a sport of Safari Shine is a drought tolerant shrub that’s especially showy this time of year when the flowering bracts turn deep red. Growth is slow and compact to maybe 3-4 feet. It looks like a striped carnival has hit town with its broadly edged creamy white to buff yellow leaves that take on coral pink tints in cold weather, especially towards the tips. It’s hardy to 20 degrees.

Correa Wyn’s Wonder is another favorite in the winter. Bright reddish pink fuchsia-like flowers dangle from this  2-3 foot tall variegated evergreen shrub. Hummingbirds love these flowers from fall through winter. Easy to grow in full sun or part shade it’s hardy to 20-25 degrees.

What’s not to love about a plant with both intensive fragrance and variegated foliage? I’m talking about daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata‘ which is in bloom right now.  A colorful sport discovered in England called Rebecca  has the same sweetly scented pink flowers but the leaves are more vividly variegated than the original. The stripes are wider and more buttery yellow and the flowers are a softer shell pink. These gorgeous little shrubs get a bad name for being finicky to grow.  Less is more when it comes to their care. They thrive in partial shade in humus-rich soil with good drainage. Don’t keep them soggy during the summer or they succumb to crown and root rot. They don’t transplant well but are quite deer resistant. Daphne are not long lived, usually lasting for 8-10 years but what a life they live.

I also am partial to Nandina especially in winter when their foliage turns as bright red as their berries. Sienna Sunrise is useful when you need a 3-4 foot narrow plant, maybe near the front door while the variety fills a space 3 x 3 feet with the same vibrant red foliage in the cool months.