How to Design a Perennial Border


rhododendron_occidentale2.1600When I visit my best friend’s house I park next to the perennial border that lines her driveway. At any given time of year there is something blooming, flowers filling the air with fragrance and juicy apples hanging on the tree for picking later in the summertime. She has some California natives as well as traditional cottage garden plants all mixed in together. Originally from Illinois, she loves a garden filled with lush green and color but has designed the space with plants that can use less water than you would expect and still look spectacular.

What makes for a successful border? You see DIY articles in the gardening magazines showing lovely combinations with rules to follow but they always seem to be for a different climate or location. We often have borrowed scenery from the mixed woods and some of their ideas just don’t work well here. Here are some tips for planting a terrific perennial border in our neck of the woods.

Some of the key players in my friends perennial border are natives like Western azalea, kerria_japonica2hazelnut and flowering currant. These are large, woody shrubs that add height, texture and year round interest. They provide the backbone or structure to the border throughout the seasons and even in the winter. She also has a weeping bottlebrush which is evergreen and provides nectar for the hummingbirds as does the flowering currant. An apple tree and a persimmon tower over all the other plants creating a canopy for the shrubs, herbaceous perennials and groundcovers. You could also plant spirea, weigela, cornus and viburnums to provide structure to your border.

My friend’s border is planted so that there is something of interest every month during the growing season. The persimmon tree is the star of the late fall garden with bright orange fruit that hang like ornaments on the tree. In the spring I can’t take my eyes off the kerria japonica whose graceful shape is covered with double golden, pom pom shaped flowers. The vivid, new foliage of the Rose Glow barberry complements the stand of Pacific coast iris with similar cream and burgundy flowers blooming next to it.  Under the bottlebrush a sweep of billbergia nutans or Queen’s Tears is flowering with those exotic looking, drooping flower clusters. They make a great groundcover under the tree and also are long lasting in a vase.

ompholodes2.1600Mid-sized filler plants that thrive in this border include Hot Lips salvia, daylilies and polemonium to name just a few. Daffodils and tulips have naturalized throughout the space. Groundcovers grow thickly to shade the soil and prevent precious moisture evaporation.  Lamb’s ears like their spot under the flowering currant and the omphalodes have spread throughout the border. This little plant looks and blooms like the forget-me-not but the delicate deep blue flowers don’t produce those sticky seeds that plague both our socks and animal fur.

This border get morning sun and mid-afternoon sun until about 3pm. If you have a situation that calls for all sun lovers you could try asters, shasta daisy, grasses, coreopsis, achillea, echinacea, gaillardia, sedum, kniphofia, lavender, liatris and rudbeckia.  Perennials that work well to attract butterflies and hummingbirds include monarda and my personal favorite, cardinal flower.  Both have long, tubular flowers in bright colors such as red, orange and yellow. it’s easy to have the birds and butterflies coming all season when you plant perennials with overlapping bloom times.

Perhaps some of these plant combinations would look great in your garden, too. Just don’t worry too much about the “rules” of perennial borders. Mix it up. You don’t want the border to look like stadium seating. The idea is to have fun and create a border that makes you happy.



Winter Flowers that Use Less Water


In our neck of the woods we could change the iconic saying inscribed on a New York Post Office that reads  “Neither snow now rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”  to “neither drought nor freeze nor wind can stay the coming of spring”.  Spring is everywhere whether we are ready or not. The birds are announcing their presence in anticipation of the breeding season. Early blooming Saucer magnolia are covered with huge pink and purplish flowers. Daffodils are already opening.

There’s not a more important time of the year to have flowering plants in the garden. The restorative benefits of growing things is astonishing. They soothe the soul and refresh the spirit. Here are some plants I like to plant in my own garden as well as recommend to others.
clematis_armandii4
Scented flowers are nature’s way of rewarding pollinators with nectar and people with smiles. One such plant blooming now is the vine, Evergreen clematis or clematis armandii.  Most books say it can thrive on occasional summer water, defined as every 10-14 days during the dry months, but I’ve seen established vines bloom in spots that receive no supplemental summer water at all. The vanilla fragrance of the creamy white, star-shaped flower clusters is fabulous, their heady scent filling the air. This vigorous, cold hardy, evergreen vine has foliage that emerges bronze colored and then matures to a glossy dark green. It’s a great choice for filling a large space.

We’ve had a little rain but I still think it’s a good idea to concentrate on plants that need only daphne_odora_Aureomarginataoccasional water during the summer months or drought tolerant species that can thrive with water 1x per month. A good plant choice that fits the bill is Variegated Winter Daphne. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is evergreen and wonderfully fragrant. This deer tolerant shrub is good looking year round and does well under the shade of small trees. Although many daphnes are tricky to grow, this one is adaptable and easy to please. During the summer water it as infrequently as the plant will allow. Little or no water in summer will reward you with clusters of fragrant purple flowers that start opening at this time of year.  Cut them to bring inside with hellebore and euphorbia for a pretty bouquet.

For May fragrant flowers try daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ which is also easy to grow and requires only occasional water as does daphne transatlantic ‘Summer ‘Ice’. Summer Ice produces sweetly scented flowers for an extraordinarily long time. Flowering begins in early April and can continue as late as November.

helleborusHelleborus is one tough plant. Also called Lenten Rose this extremely cold hardy, deer tolerant perennial blooms in the dead of winter. It looks especially good planted under winter and early spring flowering deciduous shrubs like witch hazel, viburnum, red or yellow twig dogwoods. Cut foliage to the ground in December so that flowers are displayed unobstructed.

Other drought tolerant plants in this family include the Corsican hellebore which is the largest of the hellebores. Creamy, pale green flowers float above leathery, evergreen foliage. This hellebore is tough and long lived if left undisturbed. It will grow in sun or shade and prefers a well drained or sandy soil but will tolerate clay if drainage is good. Once established it is fully drought tolerant.

Helleborus foetidus is also called Stinking hellebore but don’t let the name fool you. Only if you crush the leaves or stems do you get a strong chlorophyll smell which makes the plant unattractive to deer. The flowers last throughout the winter. This unique plant is the only plant discovered to date that uses yeast to produce heat.

Rounding out the short list of low water use, winter flowering plants are vine maple, berberis thunbergerii, euphorbia characias wulfenii, iris pallida, ribes sanguineum, huckleberry, forsythia, witchazel, azara microphylla,  western wild ginger and rosemary.



Beneficial Gardens in a Small Space


waterfall_2He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of santivalia2nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens  that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia.  They have flat  flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.

blue_thunbergia2Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.



Lessons from the Sierra Nevada


Lake Mary2Maybe we can't improve on Mother Nature but can we learn from her to make our own gardens more beautiful. My late summer travels this year took me to Lake Mary in the Mammoth Lakes area where I began to get ideas. This small Sierra lake formed in a depression in the glacial moraine below majestic Crystal Crag. Dozens of small streams keep the meadows blooming with wildflowers even in August. Granite slabs and obsidian domes the size of small states create an impressive landscape. Everywhere I looked I  saw how the plants, stone and water came together to make a combination that would look incredible in a regular garden.

Horseshoe Lake nearby was particularly fascinating for another reason. Back in 1990 the pines near the lake began to die off. Drought and insect infestation were first suspected but were found not to be the cause. It wasn't until 1994 that a soil survey revealed an exceptionally high concentration of carbon dioxide. The trees were being killed by CO2 in their root zone.

What caused such high concentrations of this gas? A swarm of earthquakes in 1989 allowed magma to push up from deep within the earth into tiny cracks causing limestone-rich rocks beneath Mammoth Mountain to be heated and release carbon dioxide gas. We also live in earthquake country. Thankfully this has never happened around here.

The art of bonsai involves creating nature in miniature. The Eastern Sierra does it on an immense scale. The boulders are huge beside the trail, the conifers towering above you as you hike. You can take this same look and scale it down to garden-size.

Evergreen conifers are often overlooked as additions to the landscape. If a white fir or bristlecone pine won't fit into your backyard there are many smaller types that provide year round structure. Maybe a 4 foot golden Feelin' Sunny deodar cedar would look spectacular in a small border, rock garden or container. Or how about a dwarf Wilma Goldcrest Monterey cypress against a backdrop of trees or shrubs with red or purple foliage? Don't overlook these elegant workhorses in the garden.

Pink Sierra Currants, adorned with shiny, translucent fruits were ripe for the picking as I walked along the trail on the way to Box Lake in the Rock Creek area. This currant is similar to our familiar red-flowering currant but is a smaller bush. I found it growing in moist areas as well as dry spots and would do well in any garden.

Blue Sierra lupine, Crimson columbine, blue Sierra Fringed gentian, pyrola or pink wintergreen and spice bush or calycanthus occidentals are just a few of the wildflowers still blooming in profusion. Given similar conditions all these beautiful flowers will grow in your garden. Tucked next to an accent rock you can have the Sierras right out your own window.

The diversity of plants on the eastern side of the Sierra is made possible by three vegetative communities: the Sierra Nevada range, the Great Basin and the North Mojave Desert. Our own area is rich also in plant species. Our cool moist coastal conditions and warm dry chaparral allow us to grow an amazing number of different kinds of plants. Enjoy all that your garden can be.
 

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