Category Archives: grasses

Dry River Beds – Beautiful & Beneficial

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Dry river bed down a steep slope

With so many people replacing their thirsty lawns with low water-use plants, I’m getting lots of requests for ideas about what to do with all that empty space. The sky’s the limit when you have a blank slate. Let me get you started.

If your old lawn was in the front you might consider putting in a sitting area for a couple of chairs and a bistro table. Use simple crushed gravel or more formal flagstone underfoot and surround the space with a low seat wall to add a bit of privacy.

Adding a dry river bed is another good solution. A dry river bed can slow runoff, spread it out and sink it back into the soil. Connected to a downspout they keep even more rainfall on your own property. If we get the El Nino storms that are predicted this will be a welcome addition to your landscape.

A dry river bed is a rock-lined swale that uses rounded river rock in addition to vegetation to allow

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Dry river bed with grasses and deer resistant oleander

runoff to soak into the ground. Make sure there is a 2% slope from beginning to end to ensure that water is conveyed away from your house to the desired location. Non-woven geotextile fabric is often used underneath the rock.

You can create a depression or rain garden at the end of your dry river bed and plant it with plants that tolerate wet feet in the winter. Both a dry river bed and a rain garden allow water to sink back into the ground. The plants remove pollutants from the runoff from roofs or other impervious surfaces.

A rain garden might be a simple, shallow depression filled with plants that can flourish in both moist and dry conditions. The size and depth will depend on your how much water you need to capture in a winter runoff

Sometimes a dry river bed will receive so much runoff that a dry well or dispersal pit is installed at the end. If you have a high water table or clay soil the water may not always soak in fast enough and an overflow device like this is needed. The goal is to keep water on your own property and not in the street or the neighbors’ yard.

There are good looking dry river beds as we’ll as bad looking ones. A quick Google image search will show you what I mean. Your goal is to create something that looks like it belongs right where it is. The plants, the accent rocks, the cobble, the location – all need to work together.

If your property has a natural slope follow the natural terrain if possible. You can install a dry river bed on flat land also by creating a channel for the river bed to follow. Keep in mind that even a dry river bed is more interesting if it is not all visible at once. Soft, flowing curves and bends create a natural look.

Start with the rocks and cobble. Rounded river cobble looks most natural for the creek bed. In nature, water flowing down a river would round off sharp rock edges to produce cobble of different sizes. A river never has just one size of rocks and yours shouldn’t either.

Accent rocks can be any type that you like as long as you get a variety of rock sizes and shapes. Use the larger stones to direct and channel water. Placing rocks on the outside of a curve creates a more natural look.

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Pheasant Tail grass along cobble path

As in all gardens there is always a bit of maintenance to keep things looking and working great. Weeding in the first couple of months while plants become established is important. Replenish mulch as needed until the plants grow in.

Periodically remove leaves that have landed in your river bed and reposition rocks moved by runoff to keep your dry creek bed working for you when you need it. Also don’t start your dry creek bed too close to the foundation of your home if that area is flat. You can direct the water through a drain pipe connected to a downspout to a lower starting spot in your garden.

So whether you are adding a dry river bed to add interest to your lawn-free landscape or to double as catchment for winter storm runoff, make yours look like it’s always been there.

What to Do in the Garden in Wintry Weather

toyon-berriesTwas the weekend after Thanksgiving and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a gardener. I should probably do something productive, but what? Should I be good and do a little light weeding? Maybe I can muster up the energy to plant a few more bulbs. Come spring I’ll be happy I did. Then again I could make notes of my gardening successes and not so great horticultural decisions. “I know”, I say to myself, “this weekend I’ll revel in what I don’t have to do in the garden”.

I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwell placed branches to use in a holiday wreath, I’m off the hook for this task right now. Deciduous trees are still in the process of losing their leaves and are not fully dormant. Evergreens shrubs and conifers can be trimmed lightly but most shaping is done when they start growing in late winter or very early spring.

The season is pretty much over for me except to enjoy what’s left of fall color and the ornamental grasses waving their seed heads in the wind. A lot of perennials are dying back but I’m not in a hurry to neaten things up. The seed heads left in the garden supply food for birds and other creatures while the foliage provides shelter for the plant in the cold and frost. Remove anything that has turned slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for food and winter interest.

hakonechloa_winter2At this time of year my garden is visited mostly by chickadees, nuthatches and goldfinches. They will spend the winter here and I’m doing them a big favor by not cutting back brown foliage containing nutrient-rich seed heads. Some of the reliable seed producers that I won’t have to clean up this weekend include artemisia, aster, coreopsis, penstemon, sedum, lupine, salvia, black-eye Susan, coneflower, phlomis, monarda, agapanthus and grasses.

Chickadees gather hundreds of seeds in fall and early winter and store them in hiding places to ensure themselves a food supply later in the season. They are a remarkable bird that we take for granted being so common. I read in Audubon magazine a couple years ago that a chickadee weighs about as much as a dozen paperclips but their body is large for their weight. This means they have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day’s fuel to keep from freezing.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long. So In addition to the plants in my garden that supply nectar I keep my feeders up year-round and keep them clean.
They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. In addition to nectar rich natives like mahonia, my abutilons are a winter favorite for them.

Other tasks I can put off at least for this weekend include planting wildflower seeds. I see California poppies coming up all over the place. Nature knows when the time is right. Well, maybe I’ll broadcast a few working them into the soil very lightly. I need to hoe off some early weeds that would compete with them. How many calories aren’t burned in light gardening? I might just reconsider not being a total couch potato this weekend.

Gardens Change with Time

quiet_path.1280Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her deer_grass.1280property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each Calif_buckwheat.1280area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.

Ormanental Grasses Take Center Stage

phormiumThroughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but it’s at this time of year that I especially hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden”. There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too. This is the time of year that grasses say “Fall is here”.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf Orange_libertiaor shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum-a restio, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

So let’s say you are putting in a new patio and want a few low grasses as accents between some of the pavers. A variety like Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass, with it’s creamy white foliage that turns pink in cold weather, would look great here. You could also use Ogon sweet flag for dense clumps the color of buttery in a shady spot, black mondo grass or blue fescue grass for even more color.

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture of a grass with light and movement would be perfect, look to taller varieties to achieve this. Miscanthus purpurascens or Flame Grass grows 4 to 8 feet tall in the sun. Their magenta leaves turn to milky white in winter. Maiden grass sports narrow upright leaves 5 to 8 feet tall and creamy flowers. Their seed heads float and bounce in the the breeze. Planting them just above the horizon allow you to enjoy their swaying and dipping backlit at sunset.

Japanese_Blood_grassBesides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of red fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with it’s fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass, You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1 to 2 feet tall. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAamend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. This grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination.

For a touch of whimsy, you can’t beat fiber optic grass. This grass-like sedge from Europe and North Africa looks like a bad hairpiece. You can grow it at the edge of a shallow pond or display it inside in a pot on a pedestal to show off it’s flowering habit. Seeing is believing with this one.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.

Caring for Ornamental Grasses

rolling_hillsI’ve lived in California my entire life and have traveled on many a back road enjoying the scenery, the trees, the flowers, the birds. Discovering a new road, the road less traveled, is half the fun of any journey. It was close to sunset recently when I found myself on one of those roads. Actually I kinda got lost on my way to Aunt Rosemary’s house and ended up on the back side of Mt. Diablo. Serendipity, the occurrence of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, was on my side.

With the winter sun skimming the tops of the rolling hills and a meadowlark announcing his presence in the row of walnut trees growing along the road I was reminded of the seasons here in the mild winter areas of California. The setting sun filtered through the grasses tawny in late fall. These grasses are just one of the many ornamental grasses that grace our gardens. With winter coming on, some go dormant, some are evergreen and some are deciduous. How should you take care of the grasses in your garden?

If your grass is big like a miscanthus and now sports that beautiful wheat color as it goes dormant, you can enjoy the show to provide structure to the winter garden as well as seed and cover for wildlife. Come February or early March, before new growth starts from the base, tie the stems into a bundle with twine or a bungee cord and prune down to 10 inches using sharp hedge shears or electric hedge pruning shears.

But what about those other grasses and grass-like plants? How do you keep them neat looking and fresh throughout the year?

If it’s small and goes dormant, like Japanese forest grass, Japanese blood grass or Fountain grass, you hakonechloa_winter.1600can prune them anytime now until early spring. I like to leave them to provide winter interest through the holidays but there will come a day in January when the winter storms will start blowing the leaves everywhere. Then I’ll prune the stems down to 3″ for the shorter grasses or 6″ for the taller fountain grasses. If I prune too low there’s a danger of cutting into the crown of the plant. Moisture then tends to settle into the crown and can rot them out.

Then there are the spiky grasslike plants like New Zealand flax or Cordyline that stay evergreen but can look ratty after a long, hot summer or cold winter. Prune these anytime for cleanup or size reduction, midspring for rejuvenation.

Select the oldest or most damaged leaves and cut them from the base out one by one. To control size, cut out ton more than 2/3 of he tallest leaves at the base. If your plant has severe damage and needs total rejuvenation wait until midspring and cut down to 1 foot. It will regrow in about 4 months but may need retrimming as the leaves grow out.

carex_oshimensis_EvergoldLastly, there are those small grasses that stay evergreen such as Blue oat grass, Pheasant tail grass, Acorus, Mondo grass, Carex, Mexican feather grass and Liriope. Like the flaxes, clean up can be done anytime but pruning for rejuvenation should be done early to midspring.

If your grass is looking a bit disheveled, comb out the old stems. Rubber gloves work great for this as the spent foliage clings to the rubber and comes out easily. If you need to go for the big chop to bring it back to its former glory, wait until early spring and cut back by 2/3. Cutting back too much will allow moisture to gather in the crown and cause rot. Rejuvenation pruning shouldn’t be done more than every 2-3 years as small evergreen grasses have less vigor than grasses that go dormant. Mexican feather grass is the exception and can be pruned back hard anytime its needed.

So that’s all there is too it. Decide if your grass is large and goes dormant, small and goes dormant or large and stays evergreen and take it from there for beautiful ornamental grasses year round.

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.

Let Your Garden Sing

waterfall2Each time I’m in my garden it’s a different experience. The familiar buzz of hummingbird wings brings a smile to my face. Sometimes it’s the silence that gets my attention. Where are the chirping songbirds or the raucous scolding of the jays? Where is the wind, the rustling of the forest grass leaves? Other times the quaking of the redwood boughs a hundred feet up makes the garden come alive like giant wind chimes. Sound adds dimension to the garden.

I consider the music of the garden as well as plants and people when developing a design. I’m not talking about the popping sounds that corn makes when they don’t have enough water. Or as it matures, increase in weight, the leaves losing moisture and becoming more brittle, a puff of wind causing the stalks to strike each other and produce a spectrum of sound. Or when lupine seed pods explode with enough force it sounds like someone throwing stones against a fence.

No, I’m talking about how water, wind and wildlife play a big role in the music of a garden. Even the sound of crunching as you walk on a gravel path brings your garden to life.

The sound of moving water in the garden not only attracts birds but soothes the soul. It can drown out unwanted neighborhood noise or sound as subtle as a violin. I enjoyed a table top fountain with a bamboo deer scare for many years until the raccoons discovered it. The sound was iOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAncredibly soothing on a hot day. Pondless waterfalls are easier to maintain if you aren’t interested in fish or water plants. Small recirculating garden fountains can be placed on your deck or patio or tucked into garden beds. Urn and jar fountains offer a hint of bubbling water and the soothing sound of flowing water to your landscape.

Japanese_forest_grass 2A friend of mine has a different wind chime at each corner of his house. He can tell the direction of the wind, the intensity, even potential changes in the weather just by listening to the chimes. There are bamboo chimes available that produce a peaceful relaxing sound or musically tuned metal tubes or those made of wood or shells. Enhance the wind with these lulling sounds.

The wind is different in each season. Summer breezes cool you and also catch on a billowy plant to bring not just sound but movement. Ornamental grasses are the stars of the garden when the wind rustles through the leaves and seed heads. Loose shrubs like butterfly bush, hydrangea, spirea, spice bush and bush anemone also sway in the wind and bring sound to the garden. Allow a larger plant like Japanese maple to spill into the path where you will brush against it slightly to create that sound you hear in the forest when you walk. Enjoy the rattle of seeds in pods like those of iris as they dry during the summer.

The sounds of wildlife are my favorites in the garden. Any type of pond or waterfall with some plants growing in or adjacent will attract tree frogs. Buzzing insects collect nectar and pollinate flowers. My two simple birdbaths are a magnet for varied thrush, spotted towhees, chickadees, warblers, kinglets and goldfinches. The rest of their time they are performing expert insect control elsewhere in my garden .Hummingbirds are frequent visitors as they fight for territory and feed on spiders and nectar rich flowers.

Let your garden to make music.

Fall Blooming Perennials

Every garden changes over time.  Gardening is a process, a constant experiment so don't get discouraged when things don't go exactly as planned. For example, a cool spring may cause some things to bloom later while a warm, dry winter speeds up plant and flower development. Maybe that pink flowering tree now conflicts with the red blooms nearby. Whether it's caused by climate change or just the weather, take comfort that your garden can grow more beautiful each year with a little tinkering now and then.

At this time of year look to the following plants combined with ornamental grasses coming

Pheasant's Tail Grass
into bloom to carry your garden until autumn color from trees and shrubs kicks in. Go for dramatic extravagance with color combinations than inspire.

Russian sage
Russian sage.  Tall, airy, spike-like clusters , create a lavender-blue cloud of color above the finely textured gray leaves. This perennial has a long blooming season and the cool color of the flowers is stunning in the fall garden. There are several varieties available with different shades of soft blue to violet blue flowers. Most grow 3-4 ft tall. Little Spire Russian sage is a shorter, upright selection that doesn't flop over in the landscape. It adds a sense of lightness to the garden. You'll love the cool color on a hot day.

Aster x frikartii 'Moench'.  The lavender-blue flowers on this perennial can get 3" across and cover the plant with blooms from early summer to fall, even longer in mild winter areas if spent flowers are removed. They attract butterflies and make a good cut flower. This reliable, drought tolerant plant thrives in full sun, grows 2- 3 ft tall and is mildew resistant.

Agastache which is also called hyssop attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and bees to your garden It's also deer resistant. Aromatic foliage on Blue Fortune smells like peppermint-lemon when brushed or crushed. The flowers on Electra are vivid orange. Then there's licorice mint hyssop, orange hummingbird mint hyssop, anise hyssop and a whole slew of hybrids of every color in the rainbow- lavender, pink, apricot, orange, purplish, coral, powder blue, tangerine, red – you name it. Agastache is easy to grow in full sun or partial shade and is drought tolerant. Just be sure to provide excellent drainage.

Salvia-  the workhorses of the garden. Their long blooming season makes them right at home in the fall garden. There are some 900 species of salvias.  They are the largest genus in the mint family. Choose from many new cultivars like Dancing Dolls with rose and cream colored flowers. Another good choice is a Ca. native hybrid called Starlight that blooms with long white flower wands that really stand out at twilight.
There are lots of Salvia greggii varieties available such as Pink Frills, Golden Girl and Neon Dancer which has vivid rose and red flowers.  Salvias are drought tolerant and deer resistant (really). Although they tolerate some shade they looks best when planted in full sun. To encourage repeat bloom trim off spent flowers stalks when they start to look rangy. They will rebloom for months.

Another common plant from this huge family is the Mexican bush sage.  So showy that people mistake them for huge lavender plants. They are vigorous and upright growing to 3-4 feet tall and as wide.  Velvety purple and white flowers cloak foot-long stems. Salvia Santa Barbara is a compact selection that grows 2-3 ft high and spreads 5 ft wide. They stop blooming only when frost hits them.  To limit plant size and renew flowering stems, cut back close to the ground before spring growth begins.  You can't go wrong with these plants if you have a large space to fill.  Hummingbirds love them, too.

Perennials should be planted in multiples, not only for beauty's sake but also for lower maintenance. Let your trees and shrubs lend structure and year round interest with an explosion of perennial color that gets all the attention. Just don't hesitate to change what needs adjustment or transplanting if needed to a better location.

Ornamental Grasses

stipa gigantea
One of the most dramatic sites in a garden is an ornamental grass backlit by late afternoon sun. They seem to come alive as their tawny flowers spikes glow and sway in the breeze. This is what grasses are all about and why they are so popular. Who could resist?

Grasses are versatile plants and come in all sizes, from ground-huggers to shrub-like clumps. Some form upright tufts,  some look like mop-top mounds and others form arching fountains. They easily adapt to the same conditions most garden plants thrive in, rarely needing any special soil, preparation or maintenance. And more subtly, their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as no other plants do.

Grasses serve many functions in a garden. If you want to replace your lawn and save water you can choose from California natives. Some are low like Carex pansa or sesleria while others like Festuca californica make great flowering accents and look their best massed in groups. Other good natives for meadows are Blue grama grass or Boutelous gracilis, Creeping wild rye or Leymus triticoidies, and Alkali sacation or Sporobolus airoides.

Both San Lorenzo Valley Water ( http://www.slvwd.com ) and Scotts Valley Water Districts ( http://www.svwd.org ) offer many tips and incentives to conserve water. There are lists on the website of water smart grasses. Their rebate programs offers several landscaping credits including  converting an existing lawn to water-wise grasses.  Both districts have guidelines and procedures to apply for the rebates on their websites.

My favorite shade tolerant varieties for meadows include red fescue, acorus gramineus or Sweet flag, festuca altissima, bromus beneckenii, and several varieties of carex-divulsa, blanda and texensis.

But it's the showy accent grasses that always gets my attention and Pink Muhly grass has got to be at the top of the list. A must have for the low maintenance garden this ultra-rugged, ultra-tough California native grass is topped in late summer and fall by enormous plumes of cotton-candy pink that can also be used in dried arrangements.

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.

Another personal favorite ornamental grass is Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass. This semi-evergreen grass grows 2-3 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 6 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. It takes drought once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

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" 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.

New Plants for 2011

I know this gardening season isn’t over yet, but I’m already . Some are already being grown on a limited basis by the wholesale growers while others won’t become available until 2011. Recently I had the opportunity to view up-close and personal some of these new unique perennials, shrubs and grasses. It’s exciting to envision these in our own gardens.

It’s no secret our weather is just about perfect here. That’s why so many of the wholesale nurseries have operations in this county. They know the growing conditions are excellent here for annuals, perennials, grasses and woody ornamentals.

Many of the plants we buy start life as small plugs and liners. Some of these are produced in tissue culture labs located in places such as India, China, Guatemala and Holland. These are then grown on to sellable size by other wholesale growers before they eventually arrive at your local nursery. If you have a Black Mondo or carex grass or a cordyline, hellebore or heuchera it may have been started from a tissue culture somewhere on another continent and has more frequent flyer miles than you do.

Plant tissue culture consists of taking a piece of a plant, such as a stem tip, and placing it in a sterile ( usually gel-based ) nutrient medium where it multiplies, It’s similar to taking a cutting of your favorite houseplant and growing it to share with a friend. The production of plants in sterile containers allows the propagator to reduce the chance of transmitting diseases, pests and pathogens.

One of the new plants that I saw that really caught my eye is the grass,  Pennisetum Fireworks. The variegated pink striped blades of this grass are just as spectacular as the pink flower heads. Some gardens with clay soil and heavy frost in winter may need to grow this plant in a container but it’s worth babying this one, it’s so beautiful.

You may have bought a bright orange Begonia Bonfire this year and were impressed with the hundreds of flowers that it easily produced over the season. Well, next year you’ll be seeing the Sparkle series begonia which is similar. This tuberous begonia is nothing like the classic you are familiar with.  One plant will grow to about 24" in the ground or a container and depending on which color you choose, will be covered with scarlet, white blush, rose or apricot flowers.

And don’t even get me started on all the new mimulus colors that are going to be available next year. The Jellybean series comes in classic orange and gold but also red, purple, pink, light pink, lemon and terra cotta. Remember these are deer resistant, too.

Also there are new hummingbird favorite agastache flavors out now.  Picture in your garden, flower spikes in colors that look like fruit- grapefruit, apricot, grape and orange nectar.

I haven’t even touched on new introductions like Green Jewel echinacea or dwarf butterfly bushes in magenta, violet or pink. How about a bush form of the vine, HardenbergiaMeena will grow 36" tall and have purple flowers in winter.

Look for one of these new perennials next year. It’s going to be a colorful year in the garden.
 

The Dog Days of Summer

Despite how hot it’s been,  the "dog days of summer"  just came to an end August 11th.  Where did this expression come from?

Some say it signifies hot sultry days not fit for a dog, but the dog days are defined as the period from July 3 through August 11 when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction ( or nearly so ) with the sun.  As a result, some felt the combination of the brightest luminary of the day (the sun) and and brightest star of the night ( Sirius) was responsible for the extreme heat that is experienced during the middle of the summertime.  Since Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky it’s reasonable to guess that it adds some heat to the earth but the amount is insignificant.

The name "dog star" came from the ancient Egyptians who called Sirius, the dog star, after their god, Osirus, whose head in pictograms resembled that of a dog.  They called the period of time from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction "the dog days of summer"  because it coincidentally fell at the time of  year when it was very hot.  We now know that the heat of summer is a direct result of the earths tilt. Now you know… the rest of the story.  

 

 

Containers

If your deck or patio needs some perking up about now, plant up a new container or add to your existing ones.  Almost anything goes when it come to combining plants in containers and nearly any type of container looks good with the right plant.  I have over 250 in a sprawling garden of containers arranged like a border on my deck, under trees, around my front door, down my driveway… places  where planting in the ground just isn’t possible.  I can move them farther apart, up, down, to the front or to the back to create a display that is always evolving.  I add spots of vivid color where I need it and texture where I want it.  I have the flexibility to remove anything past its prime or bring forward a fragrant plant when I want to really enjoy its scent up close.

So what looks great in containers?  One simple strategy I use a lot is to put just one plant in a pot.  A single perennial like a flowering maple looks good year round.  My asparagus meyeri really looks dramatic in a low ceramic pot. The princess flower and my enormous hosta sieboldiana (which I’ve named Bob) can be hidden behind other pots in the winter when they are dormant.  Succulents, like a large hen and chicks, are always real standouts in a pretty container as are grasses.   I have a Sango Kaku Japanese maple in a large cobalt blue glazed pot as the thriller in one vignette with chartreuse green barberry  and a fragrant heliotrope as fillers and lysimachia aurea and purple calibrachoa as spillers.  I like burgundy foliage so Sizzling Pink loropetalum  is one of my favorite background plants.  It looks great with Japanese forest grass and black mondo grass.  The purple leaves of oxalis triangularis works well in this color scheme, too.  My displays change every year and also as the summer progresses.  I live in partial shade but if you live in the sun try the rich colors of canna lily, black-eyed susan, kangaroo paw, aeonium and old fashioned variegated geraniums.

Although I take a more-is-merrier approach to container gardening, numbers alone don’t mean much.  Five pots are enough to create a dramatic composition on a porch or patio.  The trick is not how many pots you have, but what you do with them.  I use overturned nursery or clay pots,  boxes and plant stands to stage my plants so short but showy plants can be placed up off the ground at eye level.  Containers of plants placed in front hide the risers from view.  By elevating pots with various props, I create combinations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.  

Staging can also be an effective way to display garden art like sculpture , fountains and handsome empty pots.  It’s easy to place ornaments where they look best -a place of honor – by raising them up in your grouping.

 
When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn’t count green, unless it’s lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.  

Whatever plant or container you choose, you’ll enjoy the results now that the dog days of summer are over.