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.



Rockrose, Grevillea and Ceanothus for Low Water Use Gardens


cistus_Grayswood_PInkThere are so many great plants that don’t require a lot of water to look beautiful. It’s always a plus if they attract hummingbirds and other wildlife. Some favorites are so reliable that we consider them tried and true. Who doesn’t want to include more plants like this in the garden? On the lookout for cultivars of old favorites I came across a few that I plan to include this year in my own garden and also in upcoming drought tolerant designs. I’m excited.

Rockrose is a medium sized shrub that works in so many low water use situations. Besides nice looking foliage the flowers of this shrub provide lots of color, too. With soft grey-green leaves and lovely baby pink flowers, Grayswood Pink cistus is a winner. It grows to about 3 feet tall and 4-5 feet across and is covered in blooms from spring to summer and then sporadically through the year. Bees, butterflies and birds are all attracted to rockrose. Leave it to the British to be at the forefront of gardening trends, the Royal Horticultural society gave this cultivar their Award of Garden Merit in 2002.

Rockrose are tough evergreen shrubs but they do not respond to hard pruning. Best cistus_Sunsetto lightly trim each year to control size as needed. They are tolerant of poor soils and are quite drought tolerant once established. Hardy to 15- 20 degrees they survive our winter lows. Other rockrose favorites of mine include the variety Sunset which grows to only 2 feet high and 4 feet wide with bright pink flowers much of the summer. I also like cistus purpureus for its glowing magenta flowers with a red spot at the base of each petal. Its  common name is Orchid rockrose which is Pantone’s color of the year.  Rockroses are deer resistant.

Grevilleas are one of those plant families that have so many types of flowers, growth habits and sizes that they hardly seem to be related to each other at all. Most are native to Australia and so flower during our winter and early spring. They are invaluable nectar sources for hummingbirds and other nectar feeding birds when most of our plants are still snoozing. If you have deer problems plant Rosemary grevillea. Scarlet Sprite is a mounding, compact shrub 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide with soft textured needle-like leaves. The rosy pink and cream colored flowers are showy in winter and spring. It’s hardy to 20 degrees and is similar to Noelii which was once the most common grevillea in cultivation in California but it’s not as prickly and is denser growing also.
grevillea_lanigera_Mt_Tamboritha
If you want a drought tolerant low spreading groundcover to attract hummingbirds plant a Wooly grevillea.  I especially like the pinkish-red and cream spider like flowers of the variety Mt Tamboritha. They grow about 1-2 feet high and spread to 4 feet in sun or partial shade. They are tolerant of moist soil and are hardy to about 18 degrees. The nectar-rich flowers are abundant in winter and spring but they will bloom sporadically during the rest of the year.

We are lucky there are so many ceanothus varieties native to California. From ceanothus_thyrsiflorus_Bixby_Bridgegroundcovers to large shrubs there’s a plant size to fit every location in the garden. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus is one of the shrubs starting to bloom in our area right now. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. Growing to 8 feet Bixby Bridge has large sky blue flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds. With large shiny green leaves and those huge flowers it will steal the show in your garden.

There are a few other drought tolerant plants that I have my eye on. They include a new variety of rosemary called Mozart. It has the darkest blue flowers I have ever seen and will grow into a mound 3 feet tall by 6 feet wide. Hardy to 10 degrees it will fit in nicely in dry gardens mixed with lavenders and rockrose.

The new lavender variety I found is called Lavender Silver Frost. Named for its incredible powder-white foliage and dark purple flowers its gorgeous.  At just over 2 feet tall and a 3 feet wide it’ll be beautiful with the rest of dry garden plants.



Trees of Stanford University


Flame_treeThe other day I visited the campus of Stanford University to view something from their archives. The campus is beautiful. Flowering trees in bloom every where you look. I was told by a colleague that Stanford has a huge collection of trees some planted back in the late 1880′s when the university was first built and the landscaping installed. The designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect also created New York’s Central Park. I wanted to find a mature specimen of a California native, the Catalina Ironwood, which is listed in their Encyclopedia of Stanford Trees, Shrubs and Vines.

The campus is huge and with so many areas to explore I missed the grove of Ironwood. There are over 400 species, 150 genera and 60 families which total 27,000+ individual trees growing on the central campus. Senator Leland Stanford vowed that no healthy oak be cut down and even today the dominant tree on campus is the coast live oak. There has been a loss of diversity from the original tree and shrub plantings of the 1880′s and 1890′s, which is well documented for conifers. Still the sheer number and variety of trees is impressive.

In the main quad by the Memorial Church and the grounds surrounding the Music library and the Green library I found dozens of trees which were all surveyed and named on a map I found online. It was fun to locate each tree.

I’m always on the lookout for mature tree specimens to photograph. When I recommend a tree to be included in a design I like to be able to share the image of what the tree will look like in the future. Trees anchor your house to the land. They are more than just a pretty face to look at from the kitchen window. They provide habitat, food and shelter to birds as well as giving shade in the summer. Some of the trees I saw on the Stanford campus may not be suitable for all gardens but they are interesting to learn about. Here are a few of the highlights of my campus botanical adventure.

In the main quad there are 8 circular planting beds containing over 80 individual trees. One that I was attracted to because of its unusual trunk and branching structure was the Flame tree or brachychiton acerifolius. Although not yet in bloom it will soon be covered with scarlet bells. I learned from the campus encyclopedia that this tree was planted in 1998 after the original specimen died. That flame tree, planted in 1891, was famous for the brilliant display it put on in May and June, covering the ground with a mantle of red bells. The pod-like fruits contain masses of irritating bristles but also nutritious yellow seeds that were eaten by the Aborigines after toasting.

The next tree that caught my eye had such formidable thorns that I wondered where it grew naturally. Floss-Silk_treeHow could it come by the pretty name, Floss Silk tree, with those deadly spines? I learned in September this tree redeems itself with masses of showy pinkish-white flowers so numerous they hide the foliage. Hummingbirds enjoy the nectar of the flowers which are used in Brazil as threads in upholstery. But the most distinctive feature of the tree is the wicked looking array of stout spines that crowd the trunk and protrude by an inch or more. Who knows why they evolved this way? The fruit of the Floss Silk tree is very large and on ripening the pods open to expose masses of white cottony kapok-like material that perhaps acts as a barrier to rats seeking the tiny seeds. Is it rats that the trees are hoping to deter by growing the huge spines?

Red_mulberryRedwoods, giant sequoia and Bristlecone pine live a long time but there’s something impressive about an ornamental tree that is over 100 years old. Planted in 1889, the trunk of the Red Mulberry tree growing in the quad has attained great character and girth. Mulberry leaves are the food of the silkworm and if you grow your own silkworms you can make silk. One silkworm produces about half a mile of incredibly strong monofilament to make its cocoon. The pale berries of the red mulberry are not as good to eat as the black mulberry but both grow quickly to provide shade for your home or patio.

A tree planted for beauty shade, habitat and posterity is a gift to all.



Garden Tasks for Late Fall


honey_mushroomsIt came out of the earth suddenly, pushing soil and plants that were in it’s way to the side. Just a bit of moisture had allowed this large clump of honey mushrooms to emerge and start its path to reproduction. At this time of year when the trees are turning the color of flame and some have already gone into dormancy it seems the earth is growing silent. Winter will soon be here. For nature life continues. Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness, the time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.

The Giant Pacific salamanders in the forest duff are resting up for next seasons batch of young. Maybe now that we’ve had some rain the deer will have something to eat other than my garden. young_buckAs the weather cools, my garden plants are looking past their prime. The seed heads that remain invite small song birds to feast on what remains. Chickadees hop from plant to plant. They even find something to eat in the Japanese maple leaves and the old dried hydrangea flowers that have turned a dusty rose color. Spotted towhees scratch for seeds buried under fall leaves. I’m always slow to cut down and clear everything away but  there are some things I should be doing this autumn. I’ll pay if I leave everything for next spring when it all needs doing at once.

First, I’ll cut back perennials such as hostas, asters and mums, which collapse into a gooey mess and shelter slugs and snails. I’ll pick up and dispose of diseased  leaves, especially under the roses to prevent pathogens from spreading. Coneflowers, ligularia and rudbeckia flowers and ornamental grasses can stay to contribute winter interest for me and the birds.

I’ll leave as much foliage as possible to provide cover, protection from cold winds and foraging spots for other critters and good insects. I’ll wait to cut back the stems and foliages of not only the grasses but evergreen perennials, salvias, hardy fuchsias until spring. There are few things as rewarding as seeing your winter garden turn into a sanctuary for wildlife.

As weeds emerge I’ll spend a little time here and there keeping up with them. There are 300 dormant weed seeds per square inch of soil and I don’t want to add to that.

I don’t have the space to plant a cover crop so I like to top dress the soil with compost or bark chips. I have a few new trees that need staking to secure them through the winter. This prevents breakage and allows new roots to grow deep and stable. Be sure to set the stake on the windy side of the tree and tie loosely so it has some wiggle room This movement stimulates the trunk to grow thicker. Come next summer the trees will  probably be ready to stand on their own. I don’t want to keep them staked longer than necessary. Also check any trees or shrubs that were transplanted and are still tightly bound to a stake. Remove or reset the stake so the trunk will not become girdled as it grows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA word about all those leaves that cover the ground, the lawn and the perennial beds at this time of year. You can build up your garden soil by running a mower over them to chop into smaller pieces and spread over the soil. Worms and other organisms will start to break them down right away. Next spring dig what’s left into the soil. If you leave more than an inch or two of whole leaves on top the rains will compact them into a soggy mess and prevent oxygen from reaching the soil. If you have too much of a good thing when it comes to leaves, it’s best to put them into your green waste can.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long.  They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. My abutilons are a winter favorite for them in my garden. Keep your feeders up year-round and keep them clean.

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