Groundcover on Slopes

California native ceanothus goundcover

Now that we’ve had a bit of rain – and I’ll admit .37 inches is not much to write home about – it’s time to get serious about planting groundcover to protect that valuable soil on your slope.

Living ground covers add beauty to the garden while holding the soil in place and preventing erosion. They contribute to soil health by encouraging microorganisms. A garden wouldn’t thrive as well without groundcovers.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are among those well suited to this job.

Calycanthus occidentalis

Common native shrubs that fit the bill include ceanothus and manzanita of all types. Ceanothus maritimus, ‘Heart’s Desire’, ‘Valley Violet’ and ‘Anchor Bay’ are good groundcover that are not attractive to deer. Spicebush (calycanthus occidentalis) has fragrant flowers in late spring blooming well into summer with a spicy fragrance. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. All these plants have deep roots and control erosion.

King Edward VII Flowering Currant

Flowering Currant (ribes sanguinem) is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. Choose from white flowering ‘White Icicle’ or ”Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ with spectacular deep red flower clusters. ‘Spring Showers’ has 8 inch long pink clusters. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, matilija poppy, western elderberry (sambucus nigra and mexicana) and baccharis.

Bush poppy

Bush poppy (dendromecon rigid) is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry (Symphoricarpos) will hold the soil on steep banks. This native tolerates poor soil, lower light and general neglect. Evergreen Currant (ribes viburnifolium) and creeping mahonia also tolerate shady conditions.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose and salvias including ‘Bees Bliss’.

Low water-use non-native ground covers like cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, rosemany prostratus, rubus pentalabous, correa and sarcococcas are also good low-water choices.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one – not around the stem – to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.

It’s time to enjoy the fall weather and cover that ground before winter.

Autumnal Equinox

The autumnal equinox will arrive on Monday, September 23rd this year. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator – like where we live. Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

With the changing of the season, take advantage of fall planting weather. It was a hot summer and I’m ready for fall. This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage while soil temperatures are still warm creating 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 root systems should be well established.

I had hoped to spend some time at the UCSC Arboretum earlier this year when the showy pincushion and leucospermum protea were flowering but I never made it. Because anytime’s a good time to visit the arboretum I dropped by recently. There is always something in bloom there and the hummingbirds know it. Here are just a few of the spectacular fall blooming plants that you might want to add to your own garden.

Leaucadendron Jester

The Leaucadendron ‘Jester’ (Sunshine Conebush), another type of protea, were loaded with brilliant deep wine-red bracts. This evergreen shrub grows to 5 feet tall and is very pest and disease resistant. Deer aren’t interested in the showy bright pink, cream and green foliage and it’s quite drought tolerant once established. You can cut the branches as they are prized for use in floral arrangement. People think that protea are hard to grow but really it’s a plant-it-and almost-forget-it kind of plant. They need good drainage and don’t like phosphorus fertilizer preferring poor soils with minimal care. Sounds like a winner to me.

Epilobium ‘Mattole Select’

A little further down the trail I came across another easy to care for plant. California fuchsia have undergone several name changes over the years but whether you call them epilobium or zauchneria they are in bloom now. The ‘Mattole Select’ cultivar forms tidy 6 inch high mats of beautiful silver foliage. Late summer through fall brings orangey-red tubular flowers which attract hummingbirds. Spreading by underground rhizomes, this epilobium increases size a little less vigorously than the others. It’s more shade tolerant than most California fuchsias and needs just a bit more water but it’s still quite drought tolerant. Pruning plants down to a few inches in late autumn helps rejuvenate them for the following year.

Grevillea junipera ‘Monoglo’

As I followed the hummingbirds around the arboretum I came across another groundcover that both the birds and the bees favored. Grevillea juniperina ‘Molonglo’ (Juniper Leafed Grevillea) blooms with a soft yellow flower unlike most grevillea. This fast growing evergreen forms a mass of dark green soft needle-like leaves and bears an extremely profuse show of light golden yellow flowers from late spring to winter. This tough hardy drought tolerant plants is the perfect groundcover for large areas and will cascade down slopes and walls.

I’m looking forward to another visit to the arboretum this winter as the Australian garden will be in full bloom then.

Ornamental Grasses & Grass-like Plants

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ with convolvulus trailing over side.

Looking for plants that require minimal care, only occasional grooming, just enough water to meet their needs and are deer resistant? Plants that add beauty, movement and sound to your garden? You may already have some ornamental grasses and grass-like plants but this is a good time to add a little more pizazz and beauty to your landscape.

Diseases and insect pests are rarely found on grasses They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. Grass-like plants such as lomandra, dianella, cordyline, carex, restio, phormium, Japanese Forest grasss and liriope are some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. A garden just isn’t complete without the architectural qualities they provide.

Pheasant Tail Grass

There’s a reason old favorites like Karl Foerster feather reed grass is so popular in landscapes. It doesn’t get too tall or overpowering in the smaller garden and its upright habit is neat and tidy. Pheasant Tail grass is another popular grass that is carefree and long-lived. It grows to only 3 by 3 feet, is not fussy about soil and looks good anywhere you plant it. It combines beautifully with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage and is extremely drought tolerant once established.

I like variegated plants and two-tone grasses combine well with many other garden plants. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an especially refined and elegant ornamental grass. Fine leaf blades are green with clean, paper-thin, white margins that give the plant a silvery cast when viewed from a distance. It is luminous when backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. Morning Light tends to keep its upright shape better than some other cultivars and rarely flops. The reddish bronze plumes that appear in late fall are spectacular.

Libertia – a grass-like plant

A grass-like plant that I think should be used more often in gardens in libertia. Narrow, rigidly straight leaves form compact clumps that are especially useful i poolside, accent planting and thrive as well in containers. They require only moderate watering and can add a warm punch of color,

Dianella combined with loropetalum, pieris and primula
Dianella with loropetalum, pieris and primula

Another plant that is finding a place in the low maintenance garden is dianella. With 18 inch clumps of soft blue leaves, light blue flowers with lavender-purple fruits dianella cerulean ‘Cassa Blue’ is just one of this group of perennial flax lily that makes a great addition to the garden. Dianella intermedia grows fast with whitish blossoms during the summer months. The berries which follow are deep purple-blue and highly ornamental They can be especially attractive filling a shady nook though this plant can thrive in either su or shade.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

Man’s Best Friend

Sherman wishing he could be a Detection Dog

Dogs are amazing. They can do incredible things. Well maybe not my dog, Sherman, who is more likely to get into mischief than save mankind but we’ve all heard stories about detection dogs sniffing out drugs, explosives, cadavers and disaster survivors. In the mid 90’s, handlers started training them for conservation tasks such as sniffing out scat from endangered species and detecting trafficked ivory. Now their olfactory prowess is being used in the fight against invasive plants and insects.

It was my friend Cindy who told me about this latest use of detection dogs while we were walking on the beach. Her rescue dog, Sienna is obsessed with retrieving a ball thrown into the surf so she’d be the perfect candidate for a detection dog, assisting conservationists in the fight against invasive species.

Although I come across more French broom than Scotch in our area detection dogs can be trained to sniff out all invasive broom. They’re doing this in New York where Scotch broom is just starting to invade and land managers hope to eradicate it before it becomes widespread like it is here and all along the Pacific Northwest. Broom displaces native plants with thickets impenetrable to wildlife and changes the chemistry of the soil around it so that native plants can’t grow there. Broom grows quickly as it is able to fix nitrogen from the air giving a competitive advantage to other non-native weeds. It poses a serious threat to birds, butterflies and biodiversity. Broom contains a high amount of oil, which is flammable and increases the fire hazard. It’s also toxic to livestock and dogs depending on the amount ingested. And those are just some of the reasons why New York wants to keep broom away.

“Our field in the last 15 years has just exploded.” said Pete Coppolillo, executive director of the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation in Bozeman, Montana. The organization partners with government agencies, researchers and nonprofits on five continents to provide trained dogs and handlers for conservation projects. Besides helping to detect New York broom they have provided trained dogs to find invasive knapweed in Montana, Chinese bush clover in Iowa, yellow thistle in Colorado as well as invasive zebra and quagga mussels on boats here in California.

Working Dogs for Conservation trains shelter dogs for detection work, screening 1000 dogs for every one they put to work. To make the cut, the dogs have to be not only good sniffers and high-energy, but also seriously obsessed with toys so they’ll stay motivated to work for a reward – the chance to play with a ball.

Because I eat a lot of oranges and lemons I looked up recent papers to see if dogs were still being used to detect citrus greening disease. Sure enough what started 5 years ago with just a few dogs has increased dramatically and many dogs are now being trained. Tim Gottwald, a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture plant pathologist, said during a recent presentation in Riverside that dogs in Florida have been 99% accurate and in tests just this last December and February in Southern California backyards, they were more than 92% accurate even when distracted by the homeowners. Because dogs can actually smell the bacteria that causes greening disease within a few weeks after infection well before lab tests can confirm, their work is vitally important.

So when you’re petting “man’s best friend” tonight appreciate all the great things he does for you and for our planet.