Leucospermum with chondropetalum
Our local UCSC Arboretum is a place everyone can enjoy. You can marvel at the dozens of jewel-tone hummingbirds darting about feeding on nectar of colorful flowers while strolling the gardens for new plant ideas.
There are still lots of dramatic leucospermum in bloom as well as California native plants that flower mid to late summer. The rainfall last December helped many of the drought tolerant plants grow more foliage and put on a better show this year. The hummingbirds couldn’t get enough of the erica blooming in shades of pink, orange and red. There must have been a dozen darting about feeding and chirping between the shrubs.
If you are looking for some inspiration for new low water-use plants you haven’t tried the nursery at the Arboretum has a good selection. They replenish the stock from their growing area on a regular basis so there’s always something to catch your eye. Here are some that I plan to grow myself or recommend to others.
Color in the garden is something we all relish. One of the plants that caught my eye is called Hemiandra pungens. Pretty lavender-magenta flower clusters cover this small one foot plant. It’s drought tolerant although it looks better with occasional summer water.
This bright little shrub is another of the plants from Australia being trialed at the Arboretum. The Koala Blooms plant introduction program is a joint venture which include growers here and in Australia. Plants are evaluated for their beauty, durability and sturdiness with regard to drought, weather extremes and variations in soil types. Out of the trailing process new plants are selected and offered for sale to the public. Visit the Arboretum website for info on other great plants you might want to try in your garden. www.arboretum.ucsc.edu/koala-blooms
Pimalea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’
Another showy perennial that’s sure to make it’s way into the next appropriate garden I design is Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’. Bright pink umbel blossoms cover this small plant for many months starting in the spring. It’s hardy down to 25 degrees and requires little water once established. Also originating in Australia it looks great in a native low water-use cottage garden.
The common name for this plant is pink rice flower. The pot in the arboretum nursery happened to be placed near a red mimulus but it looked great even though you might think the color combination would be all wrong. Nature has a way of making things work despite the rules of the color wheel.
Several varieties of correa – also called Australian fuchsia – caught my eye. Although the flowers of this plant resemble fuchsias they are not related. Some do best with regular watering during the summer but the lovely correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’ is drought tolerant once established. Grow this three foot compact evergreen shrub in partial sun where it will bloom from fall through springtime and provide nectar for hummingbirds during the wintertime.
I was also drawn to the brilliant cobalt blue flowers of salvia guarantica. This plant is worth growing – in sun or partial shade – even though you might need to cut it down to ground level after each winter like Mexican bush sage. Growing four to five feet tall it starts blooming in early summer and continues till frost. They also do well in containers and are a favorite of hummingbirds.
Prostanthera was well represented with three varieties – ‘Poorinda Bride’, ’Purple Haze’ and my personal favorite, the Variegated Mint Bush. They are all good choices for colorful, easy to grow, hardy shrubs that require only occasional irrigation.
Among other choices at the Arboretum nursery were stand-by’s such as lion’s tail, Mexican marigold, Germander sage, Copper Glow New Zealand tea tree and giant buckwheat. This local resource offers a cornucopia of inspiration.
We all enjoy privacy around our homes. Even if you’re best friends with your neighbor you don’t always want to wave at them each morning in your robe. Whether you have a property tucked way back in the forest with a next door neighbor that looks right down on your deck or a postage stamp size lot that could be an jewel if you just had a screen between you and the next property, there are techniques designers use to make your home a private oasis.
Narrow spaces can be challenging when you need to screen the house next door. There’s not room for a big, evergreen tree or hedge to solve the problem. One way is to use plants that can be espaliered against a fence or trellis. Some plants like azara microphylla naturally grow flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great.
Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.
A dwarf tree that also works nicely in this situation is a Southern magnolia called Little Gem. Naturally a very compact narrow tree it grows to 20-30 ft tall but only 10-15 ft wide. It can be trained as an espalier against a wall or fence and the sweetly scented flowers will fill your garden with fragrance.
Other small trees that make a good screen are purple hopseed, and leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’. Both have beautiful burgundy foliage. California natives that can be espaliered against a fence include Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Western redbud, mountain mahogany, toyon, pink flowering currant, Oregon grape and spicebush.
If you have a wider space to grow screening plants, one of my favorites is Pacific wax myrtle. This California native grows quickly to 30 ft tall with glossy, rich forest green leaves. Its dense branches make a nice visual and noise screen for just about anything or anybody. I’ve never used the subtle spicy leaves for flavoring sauces but I might try it next time a recipe calls for bay leaves. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.
Italian buckthorn is another evergreen screening shrub to consider. It reaches about 15 feet tall by 6-8 ft wide and has low water needs. It can grow 2-3 feet in its first few years making a quick screen. There’s a variegated version with stunning foliage that looks awesome mixed with the green variety in a hedge.
Another favorite hedge plant, the California coffeeberry grows 6-8 feet tall and gets by with very little summer water once established. Birds love the berries.
I also like osmanthus fragrans for a screen with a sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ with their showy variegated foliage.
If it’s just not practical to screen the perimeter of your property redirect your line of sight to keep attention focused on the garden instead of on the landscape beyond. A recirculating fountain as simple as an urn spilling onto cobbles at the base can disguise noise and become the focal point. There are lots of ways to add privacy to your home.
santonlina, euphorbia, phormiun – low water use plant grouping
Tired of looking at that brown patch of lawn and trying to convince yourself it’s a badge of honor in these times of drought? You tell yourself “It greens up in the winter so I’ll water just enough to keep it from totally dying now”. But wouldn’t a beautiful, sustainable, low water use garden be a more inviting place to spend your free time?
Replacing a lawn that is not used anymore can be the first step in a whole new kind of landscaping-a landscape that looks like it belongs where you live. Here are some very good reasons to lose the lawn and benefit the planet at the same time.
Even in years where we have normal winter rainfall we always have a seasonal drought. It’s called summer. Without our usual winter and spring rains, though, even native trees and shrubs are struggling. All the more reason that plant selection now is even more critical than before.
You’ve see pictures of some not-so-great looking lawn replacement projects. A drought tolerant plant here, another there, add an accent rock and that’s supposed to thrill you when you come home for the day? What’s missing is a garden designed to enhance our natural environment. When you remove your lawn, it’s a wonderful opportunity to not only create a garden than conserves water but also provides habitat for wildlife including birds and butterflies and improves the soil.
A living landscape does as much for our own pleasure as it does for the environment. It increases biodiversity of plant, animal and insect populations. It fosters healthy soil which can hold more moisture by supporting microbes and insects. Healthy soil can filter pollutants and improve water quality.
Think of using native and well-adapted, non-natives that connect with the natural landscape. Use tough plants on the edges and group greener, low water use plants closer to the house. Here are some good plants to use in a lawn-less landscape that won’t break your water budget.
When planting time rolls around this fall consider a green carpet of blue grama grass. This native sedge can provide a green carpet on much less water and can be mowed or not. It’s on the list of approved water-wise grasses eligible for rebates from our local water districts.
dymondia groundcover between flagstones
Another ground cover eligible for lawn replacement rebate is dymondia. I love the grey foliage of this low ground cover. It fills in nicely between stepping stones or can take light foot traffic in larger areas.
For a taller look that you don’t need to be able to walk on, the ground cover forms of ceanothus, manzanita or creeping rosemary are good very low water alternatives to a lawn. I have a very low Hearts Desire ceanothus that hasn’t been watered yet this year and it still looks green and lush.
Native yarrow, penstemon and salvia are the work horses of the garden needing little water once established and attracting all sorts of insects and birds. Other natives on the 800+ Approved Low Water Use Plant list include Pacific Coast iris, helianthemum, libertia, santolina, California fuchsia, rockrose, lavender, myoporum, coffeeberry, teucrium, verbena and kangaroo paw to name just a few. You can download the list from www.sv.org or www.slvwd.com.
I am not a big fan of artificial lawns. They do not provide habitat for wildlife, beautify our environment or improve the soil. They get significantly hotter than the surrounding air temperature contributing to the heat island effect by increasing air temperatures. Also artificial turf is a synthetic material with a relatively short lifespan ranging from 10-20 years and will eventually end up in a landfill. They can not be recycled. There are many other beautiful, low water use options that result in more sustainable and beneficial landscapes.
Water and soil management as well as plant selection are key to water conservation in the landscape.
I am fortunate as a garden columnist and landscape designer to be invited to see, stroll and learn about beautiful gardens. Sometimes it’s a particularly successful method of irrigation, plant selection, placement or care that someone wants to share. Other times it’s the story of how their garden evolved. All gardens are interesting in their own way.
Recently I received an email from a reader in Scotts Valley who wanted to share what Montevalle Park has been doing to save water. Well I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about water.conservation. Here is how this unique mobile home park has changed their landscaping to save water.
Vickie Birdsall, my host and President of the HOA, welcomed me to her little corner of the world. Officially Montevalle is a mobile home park but is unique in that each lot under the oaks, pines and redwoods is a different size. Vickie told me that back in the early 70’s when Ray Retzlaff developed the park it was the first in California where people could purchase the lot they lived on and collectively own all the amenities. The lots were divided with the trees in mind so that a pre-made home could be installed without disturbing the trees.
As you drive through the park on winding roads each homeowner has made their property unique. Many have views of the woods, some with mountain vistas. All have established landscaping and enjoy the common areas including 2 lakes connected by a waterfall.
Vickie is now the President of the Association but for many years was in charge of the landscaping. She knows about the sandy soil of the park and the well water with its high mineral content that is used for the irrigation. On the positive side the deer seemed to be browsing other neighborhoods these days leaving the park to the occasional fox and the raccoon.
There are 56 pocket gardens in common areas throughout the park. Vickie’s goal is to convert as many as possible from lawn to drought tolerant plantings.
putting green area
The putting green area-which is across from Vickie’s house- used to be all lawn. She started taking out the lawn little by little a couple years ago and last fall finished the new landscaping. Incorporating re-purposed stepping stones and feather rock from other places in the park. a new path bisects a lovely garden which will use little water once established. Starting from gallon cans the new plantings are growing in nicely. Vickie told me she uses plants with different textures, foliage colors and heights and repeats the groupings which makes all the elements work together.
She was proud to show me how well the Carmel Creeper ceanothus is filling in. Other nearby plants include Little John callistemon, Rose Glow barberry, Golden Sunset coleonema, euphorbia, Emerald Carpet manzanita and Moonshine achillea to name just a few. The real eye catchers are 2 very drought tolerant sea holly. The metallic, iridescent blue flowers and stems of these eryngiums glowed in the afternoon sun.
The park has 2 lakes and as we walked along the shore of the lower lake, Vickie pointed where they installed a bio filter area to clean the nitrates from the water flowing down from the north lake. Yellow flag iris, gunnera and tulle grasses help keep the algae down. Several turtles and koi were enjoying the water lilies that have just started to bloom.
Step ponds between the lakes
Vickie has taken out the pockets of lawn along the step ponds connecting the two lakes. Under locust and birch trees, the small waterfalls are bordered by myoporum ground cover, shasta daisies, asparagus ferns, ornamental grasses and agapanthus. The new plantings are thriving under lots of mulch and are much easier to maintain.
Along the road to the lodge, Vickie pointed out more drought tolerant plantings which have replaced lawn such as Jerusalem sage, Pride of Madeira, manzanita, ornamental grasses and Purple-leafed hop bush. At the lodge she has installed small areas of artificial turf for barbecues and the front garden is a work in progress converting the lawn to dymondia and other plantings. The gophers are not helping with the progress, she admitted.
Vickie says she started converting the lawns in the park way before the drought. She has done 10 so far and has plans for many more.
Montevalle park is a good example of how an area can still be beautiful and serene without all the lawns. With lots of soil amendment and mulch the new plants bring lots of color plus birds and butterflies using a fraction of the water that was used previously. I was invited back to see the pink lotus blooming in the north lake in July and August. I’ve put it on my calendar.
My garden is alive with birds. Butterflies and bees also seem to find it an interesting place to visit. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures. Fortunately there are many that have low water requirements which is a prerequisite these days.
But how do you plant something new given the new water restrictions? And what about those existing trees, shrubs and perennials that birds, bees and butterflies depend on? How much water do they need to survive?
Everybody loves winged creatures in the garden. Adding plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies is at the top of the list of requests for nearly every garden that I design.
Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and even the hybrid of the two, Eddie’s White Wonder, all are very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.
In every garden possible I try to include low water use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds. And I always can find space for another variety of manzanita or ceanothus.
Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. Galvezia, mimulus, monardella, California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for them in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.
So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?
As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent waterings. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. After the last two winters of little rain, many trees are showing signs of stress. It’s not easy to replace a tree that will take 20 years to regrow if you have to replant. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots are 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.
Apply with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districts restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod -1/4” – 3/8” in diameter- into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.
Homestead Purple verbena
The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly waterings to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on it’s water needs.
With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy for everyone to enjoy.
In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.
The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.
Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.
salvia ‘Bees Bliss’
In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.
Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.
Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.
As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.
Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.
These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.
Looking out the window on a rainy day I forget that spot way back in the shade in the back of the garden will be bone dry come summer. It’s too far away to water conveniently very often with a hose and extending the irrigation for just that one area under the trees in the shade is not practical. I sympathize with clients when they ask me what will grow in a problem area like this. Believe me I know it’s a challenge to bring in some colorful foliage, texture or might I be so bold as to want flowers, too? Take a tip from one who lives in a similar area with the same problems. We’re in this together.
At this time of year when the plums are blooming and the flowering pears are clothed in white blossoms, I want something to extend this look out in the garden. There are several plants that bloom early in dry shade and fortunately they are also deer resistant. Later in the season when soil moisture all but disappears there are other plants that will take over center stage.
But first here are the candidates for early spring color and fragrance in shady gardens.
Fragrant Winter daphne is a handsome evergreen shrub and I especially like the variegated foliage of the variety ‘Aureomarginata’. This small, 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. This is usually about once per month. 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 for a pretty bouquet.
For fragrant May 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.
Another powerfully fragrant plant for dry shade is commonly known as sweetbox. Sarcococca may not be showy enough to give to your Valentine but the sweetly scented flowers attract hummingbirds and fill the winter garden with a delicious fragrance for weeks starting in January.
Sarcococca ruscifolia forms an upright bushy shrub about 4 feet tall. Another variety called sarcococca hookeriana humilus makes a great ground cover as it rarely exceeds 1 1/2 feet tall. Both plants have dark green leaves, attractive berries and are deer resistant.
Hellebores are another winter blooming plant with foliage that looks great, too. I have several varieties including orientalis, argutifolius and foetidus. My Golden Sunrise has large, canary yellow flowers. It’s been blooming for almost a month and will continue for several more weeks. Hellebores are often still flowering during the Christian season of Lent from which they get their common name, Lenten Rose. They are good plants for naturalizing under trees as they are low maintenance, survive with little water and are disease free.
Other plants that bloom at this time of year and require only moderate summer irrigation include Lily-of-the-Valley shrub, clivia, bergenia, mahonia and Pacific Coast iris.
As summer approaches other plants and shrubs will lend their color and texture to the dry shade garden.
Western Wild ginger and Pacific Coast Iris are great ground covers. Good shrubs include deer resistant Osmanthus fragrans or sweet olive. Their white flowers are tiny but powerfully fragrant. Bloom is heaviest in spring and early summer but plants flower sporadically throughout the year. This compact shrub grows at a moderate rate in full sun to partial shade and reaches 10 feet.
Heavenly bamboo are work horses in the shady garden. For a different look try growing nandina filamentosa or Thread-leaf nandina. This evergreen small shrub grows to 2-3 ft tall with very lacy, almost fern-like growth. New foliage is reddish in color and during the fall the leaves turn orange or purplish red. Pinkish-white flowers bloom in clusters in late spring and summer.
There are lots of other shrubs and plants that require only occasion summer water for those shady spots. Email me and I can share even more ideas and suggestions.
Twas 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 well 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.
At 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.
Call 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 property 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.
The 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 area. 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.
So far this year my travels have taken me up the coast of California and parts north. Then I headed a bit east to explore the Sierra Nevada. Statistics show that the drought is affecting all parts of the state. I’d heard that the Tahoe Queen had to modify it’s path around the rim of Lake Tahoe to avoid rocks. I had to check it out for myself. Just how low could that big blue body of water be? And what affect is the water situation having on the gardeners up there?
From the first glimpse of the Truckee river that is the sole outlet for Lake Tahoe I could see that the water was lower than usual. Still looked like enough water to negotiate a tube or small raft but the rafting companies have already closed for the season with the flow from the lake at only half of what it is normally in August. Hiking on the Tahoe Rim Trail next to the river was beautiful. The native plants and trees can exist even without the normal snowfall. They might not put on a lot of growth during dry years but they still looked healthy.
There is a chart at the dam where the Truckee river originates on the north side of Lake Tahoe. The graph shows that this is not the only drought event to have hit the Tahoe Basin. I was told the lake has been lower than this many times. Back in the 1930’s, 1962, 1976 and especially during the early 90’s the lake level dipped even lower. 2004 and 2010 were also low years. The lake level is just above the natural rim right now. The average daily evaporation rate of the lake is 397 million gallons.
In Tahoe City there is a destination nursery that I always visit when I’m in the area. In addition to several acres of trees and plants, the Tahoe Tree Company’s grounds are beautifully landscaped. A small lawn in surrounded by perennial beds loaded with flowers and a gazebo bordered with Autumn Joy sedum was just starting to bloom. Stands of quaking aspen towered over the shade beds of hosta, begonia, astilbe and New Guinea impatiens.
I asked one of the employees about how the drought has affected their customers. I noticed that many of the local residents had bright green lawns surrounded by dahlias, rudbeckia and ornamental grasses. She told me that many water companies serve the communities around the lake. They get some water from the lake itself but the rest is from springs which are drying up. The Tahoe City Public Utility District recommendation is to reduce water consumption by 20% with watering on even or odd days depending on your address.
Changes this season at the nursery range from reduced sale of seeds because seeds need regular watering to get started. Also customers are requesting more native plants but I was told that some of those requested are high water usage plants like dogwoods and willows. Customers are mulching more and learning which plants are drought tolerant. Popular natives include Sierra currant, Bitter and West Sand cherry, Mountain spiraea and elderberry.
Strolling the grounds of the nursery a brilliant gold plant caught my eye. Morning sun shone on a group of Sun King aralia and I had to find out more about this beautiful plant. In mid-spring this fast growing, 6 foot plant emerges with bright gold leaves. In sun the foliage remains gold through out the summer. In full shade, the foliage will be chartreuse to lime green in color. Spikes of tiny white flowers emerge in summer followed by ornamental black fruit. This plant is deer resistant. It’s needs some moisture so combine it with other average water users in the same bed.
We are all hoping this winter will bring us some relief from the drought, even those who live next to that big blue lake.
Gardens have different personalities. Some gardens mimic nature with plants that attract birds and butterflies and other wildlife and look a bit wild. Some are neat and tidy with perennials lined up evenly along pathways and clipped hedges under the windows. All gardens are a reflection of their owners. When I visit a garden to help the owner change, add or “take the garden to the next level” I know which ideas will resonate with that person and which will just not work for them. Sometimes it’s easier for someone looking at a garden for the first time to visualize what’s needed.
Regardless of your style I often recommend one simple solution to update a garden. Many gardens end up with too many small-leafed plants. Nature is the master at this survival strategy. Small leaves are often more efficient at retaining water in drought conditions. When all your leaves are the same size, however, the garden gets boring. Using large, bold architectural plants allows the eye to rest on a focal point rather than try to take in everything at once, scanning back and forth.
Plants, like people, come in all sizes and shapes and so do their leaves. Some have huge and dramatic leaves while others are just showy and outsized enough to work well when viewed up close or at ground level. Some plants look tropical and others are right at home in the redwood understory. Some require regular water while others are able to withstand some drought. There’s a bold, breathtaking plant for every garden.
Because they reflect light, glossy leaves look even larger than they are. Make those leaves variegated or wavy with a dimpled texture and the effect is even more striking.
Here are a few large-leafed plants that work well in our area.
In partial shade try Fatsia japonica also called Japanese aralia. It’s deer resistant with bold foliage that looks tropical but still at home in the forest. Philodendron selloum with its huge, glossy leaves is also easy to grow. Oakleaf hydrangeas have it all: bold foliage that turns red in fall as well as huge white flower clusters in summer.
Tasmanian tree ferns are hardier in our winters than the Australian variety and are about as dramatic a plant as you will find. Bear’s Breech require only moderate water and serve well as a focal point in the garden.
In my own garden, I’m finding the chartreuse leaves of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ can take more sun than I originally thought. The deer walk right by their thick, dimpled leaves which is a definite plus. I like all hostas for their bold leaves whether variegated, glossy or wavy.
At ground level, some of my favorite large-leafed perennials that require only moderate water include hellebore, aspidistra, bergenia, coral bells and the dry-shade California native. wild ginger or asarum caudatum.
If you garden in more sun you can add pizzaz to your garden by planting something with large-leaves in front of those tall ceanothus, manzanita and toyon. Matilija poppy is a show stopper if you have room for it. Rhubarb, windmill palm, smoke bush and Western redbud also have huge leaves as do canna lily, banana, sago palm, loquat and angel’s trumpet. These are just a few of the many plants with big leaves that work magic in gardens around here.
Adding plants with dramatic foliage instantly makes-over the garden.
I admit I’m spending way too much time watching new birds come to the feeder. Every time I pass a window I check to see if the pair of purple finches is gobbling up the sunflower chips. She seems to love the safflower seeds, too. The pygmy nuthatches are the bullies of the feeder. Guess no one has told them they are teeny tiny little things. Spotted towhees come when the juncos are done and the stellar’s jays are gone. The Anna’s hummingbirds were really prolific this spring. Their young are drinking nectar almost faster than I can refill the feeders. I have lots of mimulus, salvia and ceanothus flowers for them to enjoy but I need more plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. I want to conserve water and also enjoy my winged friends.
Unthirsty plant choices are high on my list this year. Some of my favorite plants are survivors- easy to grow with minimal water use once established while also attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden.
Everyone should have some lavender in their garden. Hummingbirds and butterflies both favor this plant and there are new introductions every year from growers. There are dozens of new varieties to choose from. Hidcote Superior forms a bushy compact mound with sensational purple flowers in early summer. Or you might try Royal Purple, Betty’s Blue, Violet Intrigue, Sachet or Royal Velvet. Goodwin Creek is an old stand-by that blooms from spring to late fall with deep violet blue flowers. For midsummer bloom plant Grosso which is a widely planted commercial variety in France and Italy. It’s possibly the most fragrant lavender of all. Spanish lavender blooms spring into summer if sheared. By planting an assortment of lavenders you can have a succession of flowers throughout the season.
Penstemon also lure hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. They come in a wide range of colors and varieties from native species to garden hybrids. I especially like the red flowers of Garnet and the blossoms of the native Blue Bedder.
Another long blooming, tough plant is achillea Moonshine. Butterflies love to alight on their yellow flat landing pads of this yarrow. The dense flower clusters make good cut flowers and the gray-green foliage blends with all color in the garden. Yarrow need only routine care once established. They can take some watering although they endure drought once established. Cut them back after bloom and divide when clumps get crowded.
There are so many salvias to choose from and all are great additions to a tough love garden. Autumn sage blooms summer through fall in colors ranging from deep purple through true red to rose, pink and white. Purple Pastel is especially beautiful covering 3-4 foot plants with blossoms filled with nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.
Those who seek true blue flowers for their gardens might try planting salvia chamaedryoides. This elegant front-of-the-border plant has silvery foliage which sets off the brilliant blue flowers. Heaviest bloom is in late spring and fall. Deadheading encourages re-bloom. This salvia is drought tolerant but blooms longer and better with a little occasional summer water.
More un-thirsty bloomers that attract either hummingbirds, butterflies or both and are easy to grow are gaura, coreopsis and homestead purple verbena. Asters, Russian sage, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, mums, autumn joy sedum and cosmos are also on the menu of our winged friends. Many of these also make good cut flowers.
Plant some new water efficient plants for color that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Afterwards spread fresh bark or compost to mulch the soil. This insulates and protects shallow roots from the heat of the summer sun. While keeping the soil cool, mulch slows the evaporations of water from the soil so it stays moist.
Has the hot, dry, windy weather made your garden look like mid-summer? Our meager spring rains have all but disappeared from the soil and what hasn’t evaporated the weeds have taken. The local water companies all have water conservation requirements starting last month. I’m getting lots of calls and emails asking for advice about the best way to use water efficiently in the landscape so the garden doesn’t look like the Sahara this summer. I’m helping others redesign their gardens with an eye towards ongoing water conservation.
Conserving water is now a way of life. This doesn’t mean you need to let your valuable trees and shrubs die. Water smarter with an efficient irrigation system set to run less often and encourage deeper rooting. It’s a good time to reduce the size of the lawn or better yet, replace it with a low water substitute and get a rebate. Allocate your water budget wisely. Pay attention to which plants are doing well and which aren’t. Be realistic about plants that don’t suit the conditions you have to offer. Remove them and replace with plants that have proven themselves adaptable and are well suited to your own garden. The key to preserving the earth’s resources is to choose the right plant for the right place.
Many of your most successful plants can manage on a lot less water than you think. These may be California natives or water-wise Mediterranean or Australian plants that perform well here. Plan now. Any new plant, even drought tolerant ones, require some irrigation to get established so maybe postpone that big garden planting until after mid-September when the weather is cooler but the soil is still warm which encourages rooting.
We gardeners will always find a way to enjoy our outdoor space. A plant in a pot doesn’t require much care and is easy to water. An interesting plant combination that will thrive in tough conditions is the burgundy, grass-like Festival cordyline planted with Leucadendron discolor. The burgundy foliage of the Festival grass looks great combined with the red and yellow flowers of the leucadendron. Both of these plants require little water once established.
Succulent gardens are another fun way to have a garden and conserve water at the same time. Selecting an interesting container or hunting for a new one is part of the fun. During the winter you can cover or move the planter for frost protection so you can choose some of the more colorful but tender succulents.
As a reminder, many common garden plants that you normally consider not very drought tolerant like camellia require only a deep watering every 10 days or so in the growing season. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ears grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ grows only 12″ tall, blooms with purple flowers and spreads to make a beautiful edging or low border that is very drought tolerant.
Elfin thyme is the perfect groundcover. It’s a good lawn substitute for an area that gets only light foot traffic. Gorgeous when in bloom with light pink flowers in summer. It will cover dry slopes, fill in between stepping stones or creep over a rock. Elfin thyme likes good drainage and is very drought tolerant. In fact overwatering with impair growth.
I also recommend old favorites such as Jerusalem sage, gray or green santolina, low and upright forms of rosemary, manzanita and ceanothus as well as California fuchsia, scaevola and Homestead verbena. Low water use plants can be colorful as well as gentle on the water budget.
I hike in the Bonny Doon Ecological reserve quite often but had never seen the waterfall. Since the Martin fire in 2008 I have written several columns about the remarkable comeback nature can make after a natural catastrophe. Each spring I eagerly await the new growth of manzanita, chinquapin, pine and the spring flower display. Recently I joined a group led by botanist and revegetation specialist Val Haley, who has been a volunteer at the reserve since 1993 and knows just about everything there is to know about this unique place on the planet.
During the Miocene Epoch which started about 23 million years ago and lasted until 5 million years ago, the global climate warmed. Plant studies show that by the end of this period 95% of modern plant families that reproduce by seeds existed. The soils in the reserve are a marine sediment and sandstone from an ancient sea that once encompassed California’s Central Valley. As the Santa Cruz Mountains were uplifted, the seabed and shoreline terraces were exposed and are known as the Santa Cruz Sandhills. This soil, called Zayante, is almost 90% sand and contains little organic matter. The Sandhills in Bonny Doon and other spots in our county are found no where else on earth.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, Val was excited to share her knowledge of the rare and endangered plants that have adapted to the sandhills. We enjoyed observing acorn woodpeckers visiting their granary in a Ponderosa pine and the bushtits eagerly eating manzanita berries. Along the trails we identified scat from some of the resident animals like coyote but didn’t see any evidence of Santa Cruz kangaroo rat. But it was the remarkable regrowth of the manzanita and pine and of the colorful wildflowers that got most of our attention.
There are several manzanita species living in the reserve and each has a different strategy of reproduction. Standing near a large burned out Silverleaf manzanita specimen, Val told us that this variety spreads its seeds outward from the trunk and with the heat of the Martin fire have sprouted in impressive numbers. Other varieties like the Brittleleaf manzanita are crown spouters and have regrown from their base. These new shoots are bigger and more vigorous than the seed spouters. Later we sought the shade of a live 20 ft Silverleaf manzanita. With a trunk of 12″ in diameter, Val estimated that this tree was about 200 years old. “They get much larger up here than at Quail Hollow”. she said. “And the berries make a really nice cider”. I’ll have to try making some.
Mimulus lined the trail covered in bright orange blooms. Their common name is monkey flower and Val told us she is authorized to collect their seed for revegetation projects. She places the seed pods in a box and then walks over them. It’s my “monkey flower walk”, she laughed. Interesting to note that with the rise of genetics many plants have been reclassified and renamed. This drought tolerant plant is now diplacus. Seems with all these name changes many of us are using common names more and more.
We found a small stand of the endangered spineflower. ‘Not as many this year”, she told us. Some years they will carpet open areas with small dusty rose flowers. The bush poppies were in full bloom. I was surprised to hear that they weren’t as prevalent in the sandhills until after the fire. The succession of plant life and how it paves the way for the next generation of plants is always being studied. It’s wonderful to witness firsthand.
Our area has a rich history of native people who lived here before us. Val enjoys sharing her knowledge of the old ways to be passed on to the next generation. Yerba santa grows everywhere in the reserve. Covered now with lovely lavender flowers, Val told us its the leaves that have long been shredded and steeped into a tea. Naturally sweet it’s a vasodilator and traditionally used to help with respiratory problems like bronchitis, asthma and colds.
The wildflowers may not be as plentiful this year due to the drought but we were treated to many little gems. Peak rush rose, a rockrose relative, bloomed with tiny yellow flowers. Purple gila flowered near the endangered Ben Lomond wallflower. Western azalea were just finishing their bloom cycle in a moist swale going down to Reggiardo creek. Blue dicks, silver bush lupine, sky lupine and a California poppy of a distinct genera and sporting a deep yellow color lined the path.
At the Reggiardo creek we saw dozens of flowering plants surrounding the falls, including heuchera, ceanothus papillosus, saxifrage, redwood sorrel, redwood violets, deer fern and Western burning bush.
My day at the reserve was filled with beauty and new found knowledge thanks to Val Haley, her expertise and her wonder-filled spirit. If you would like a preview of what you may see when you go visit the website-
We humans used to be mostly foragers and obtained our nutrition before the end of the last ice age by being hunter-gatherers. According to David Christian in his book ‘This Fleeting World’, agriculture arose independently in multiple, unconnected areas of the world in roughly the same historic timeframe. Foragers, he says, lived comparatively leisurely lives with good nutrition, working just a few hours each day, while those in agricultural communities toiled almost ceaselessly and had comparatively poor nutrition. What happened to make us the agricultural society we are today?
Christian points out that the end of the ice age occurred at the same time that foragers migrated around the globe. Warmer, wetter and more productive climates may have increased populations in some regions with increased population pressure. It may explain why, in several parts of the world, beginning about ten thousand years ago, some communities of foragers began to settle down.
The rest is history. Many of us are returning to growing and producing our own food whenever we are able. Even on a small scale, a garden, a few fruit trees, a chicken or two or three, all help to put healthy, nutritious food on our table.
The other day I was in a garden I helped create and saw the results of her edibles mixed in with ornamental plants and fragrant flowers that attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators to the garden. Her “chicken palace” would be the envy of every chicken in the county. Annie, the dog, was more than happy to show me how it was made with boards from the old barn, new corrugated iron siding along with some new wood. Their palace keeps the chickens safe from predators and sheltered from the elements. The best feature is the roosting spot near the top which can be easily accessed from doors that open at deck level to check for eggs. On this morning two of the girls were “working” so we didn’t disturb them.
Earlier in the week, I visited a garden where the only place available to grow vegetables was a little shady. Huge cottonwood trees shaded much of the area and even when thinned the trees would always block some of the sun. We decided she could grow cherry tomatoes that ripen even in part shade on the east side as most of the sun that reached the area fell from mid-day on. Also she likes green beans, so a bush variety would conserve space and not block the sun to other vegetables. There are so many bush beans available. She’ll pick from 8 different organic varieties available from Renee’s Garden Seeds. With mouth-watering names such as Royalty Purple, Tricolor Bush,
the favorite of gourmets, Nickel Filet, and the French yellow Roc D’Or she’ll have a hard time deciding.
Other vegetables that will produce without sun all day long include spinach, bush peas, kale, chard, lettuce and root crops like beets, carrots, potatoes and radishes. They may take a bit longer to mature without full sun so be patient.
I rounded out the week by visiting the UCSC Arboretum. Regardless of the time of year, whenever I pass by this jewel of a garden I always stop by to see what’s blooming and what the birds are up to. I had dropped by in February before the rains came and was a little concerned that the December freeze compounded by the lack of rain had stressed the plants. They were in survival mode and it didn’t look like they were going to be putting on their usual spectacular spring display. It was happy to see that the rains came in the nick of time and everything was now blooming away. Vivid lilac, aster-like flowers absolutely covered some low shrubs.
California flannel bush or fremontodendron californium were covered with bright yellow flowerss in the California Natives garden. A low growing species that may have been Pine Hill from the Sierra was also in full bloom. All were breathtaking.
Before I left I also enjoyed a stand of arcotis-like pink daisies that bordered the South African and New Zealand gardens. With no name tags to help me identify them I could only enjoy their beauty but then isn’t that what it’s all about?
Earlier this year the flowering plums were the first trees to welcome the beginning of spring. Then came the flowering cherries, crabapples, pears, redbuds and lilacs. But now the flowering dogwoods take over as the stars of the show. They are blooming everywhere I go. Whole neighborhoods, lined with dogwood trees, are coming to life. I know of several beautiful specimens along Hwy 9 that bursts into bloom this time of year covered in snowy white, pink or rosy blossoms. There are many types of dogwoods and every garden has the perfect spot for at least one. What better way to honor Earth Day 2014 than to plant a tree?
When thinking about where to plant your dogwood tree consider what role you want the tree to play in your garden. You might place it where it becomes the main focal point especially during the spring flowering season but also where you can enjoy the brilliant fall foliage. Maybe one located at the back of the garden would be nice drawing the eye along a path and the flowering shrubs growing along the edges.
Dogwoods need good drainage. If your garden has heavy clay soil plant your tree in a raised bed. They make excellent understory trees in high filtered shade if the air circulation and drainage are good. With 2-3″ of mulch dogwoods thrive in full sun, too. The fungal disease anthracnose is not usually a problem here in our summer dry area if drainage is good. Hybridizers have successfully crossed the Japanese dogwood, cornus kousa, with the eastern dogwood, cornus florida, to create the wonderful disease resistant Stellar series. Also the native Pacific dogwood, cornus nutalli, has been crossed with the eastern variety to produce Eddie’s White Wonder. Both are good choices.
The beautiful flowers of the dogwood are actually bracts, a leaf-like structure surrounding a flower. The colorful bracts of poinsettias, the magenta bracts of bougainvilleas and the bracts of the dogwood are often mistaken for flower petals. No matter what you call them, the blossoms are spectacular.
Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robins and sparrow are just two of the bird species than build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings.
The fruit of flowering dogwood is poisonous to humans but the root bark was used by Native Americans as a fever reducer, skin astringent, an anti diarrhea agent and as a pain reliever for headache and backache relief. It was also use to counteract the effects of many poisons and as a general tonic. The flowers were infused to reduce fever and relieve colic and several plant parts were used as medicine for blood diseases like malaria.
Because dogwood leaf litter decomposes more rapidly than most other species it has been planted on abandoned strip mines and used for urban forestry projects. The wood is hard, strong and shock resistant, making it suitable for wood products that need to withstand rough use like tool handles, roller skate wheels, golf club heads and knitting needles and spools.
Dogwoods look so great in our area because we get some winter chill. Some of my favorite varieties include cornus capitata also known as Evergreen or Himalayan Dogwood. It’s a slow growing tree which will reach 20 ft tall after about 25 years and has large white blossoms.
Other common favorites with rosy flowers are Eastern dogwood, Cherokee Chief and Cherokee Brave. Their leaves turn glowing red in fall with fruit lasting well into winter. There are lots of white blooming varieties also and this tree is the parent of the exceptional hybrid Eddie’s White Wonder and the anthacnose-resistant Stellar Pink.
The Japanese dogwood, cornus kousa, starts blooming several weeks later than the Eastern varieties and continues for 5-6 wks. The flowers open along with the leaves which is different than its relatives. This dense multi-stemmed tree grows to 20 ft tall. With raspberry-like fruits that persist into winter and leaves that turn yellow or scarlet in autumn it’s a beautiful addition to the garden.
Remember a mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. Trees clean the soil and air of pollutants, act as windbreaks and can muffle noises.
When 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, hazelnut 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.
Mid-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.
There 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 to 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.
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 groundcovers 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.
Last fall I wrote about the predictions for winter rains in our area. The Farmer’s Almanac predicted our “winter will be much rainier and cooler than normal”. Weather bloggers online posted an impressive number of charts and figures predicting “a general dry trend”. NOAA said we had an equal chance of precipitation totals going either way.
Even my favorite predictor, the Sandhill crane, who started it’s annual migration to the San Joaquin Valley several weeks earlier this year, seems to have gotten it wrong. The timing of their migration has been a good predictor of both wet and dry winters. This year the early migration predicted an early winter with plenty of rain and snow.
Every snowboarder, gardener and nature lover knows we are in a great drought that started last winter. Information about the California drought is all over the news. We are sure to get a few storms in the coming months but there will be no “Miracle March” from what I see and hear from the experts at NOAA and NASA. This extreme weather event will bring voluntary or possibly mandatory water rationing. What can we do to make the most of the water allotted to the garden and not let expensive mature landscaping die unnecessarily? How can you make your garden more drought tolerant?
1) Group plants in your garden according to their water needs. Some can survive on rainfall alone after their second or third season while the perennial beds, vegetable garden and fruit trees will require a different schedule. Late winter or early spring is a good time to transplant those plants that use more or less water than their neighbors.
2) Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste. Watering in the early morning is the most efficient way to maximize absorption whether you water by drip system, sprinkler, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolsters the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning. Water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff. This also allows plants to grow deep roots that can go longer between waterings.
3) Using vegetation or mulches to cover bare soil is a key ingredient to slow down runoff. Maximize what soaks into the ground. Mulches are a good choice for areas with less than 33% slope, Vegetation works well on areas with less than a 50% slope. Mulch can be organic-such bark chips, straw or grass clippings or inorganic gravel or cobbles. All protect soil from erosion and conserve soil moisture. Organic mulches keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms and prevent weed growth. Your plan should be to slow, spread and sink water back into the ground whether it be from rainfall or irrigation.
Of all the types of mulches, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips are those from trees and brush, from branches up to about 4″ in diameter with or without leaves. Deciduous hardwood is best but all chips are good These chips contain a high percentage of thin young bark and young wood. This is what makes them so valuable to the garden. Young wood is the trees factory for producing protein, glucose, fructose, lignin and polysaccharides. It’s an important source of nutrients for living things at all levels according to a study by 2 soil scientists, G. Lemieux and R.A. Lapointe. You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies like Davey Tree who is probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.
Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Improving your soil’s ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you’re out in the garden. Help ensure the health or your trees and garden by following these steps.
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Early on one of those freezing mornings I came across a large stand of California native toyon shrubs, every branch covered with juicy red berries. Dozens of songbirds were enjoying the feast loading up and bracing for another cold night. You couldn’t ask for a more Christmas-y plant. Bright red and green- the Christmas colors. I made a note to put toyon on my list for gift ideas. What would be better than to give my loved ones something that feeds the birds and the spirit?
Toyon is a hardy shrub in our area no matter how low the temps drop. Many of the plants in your garden may not be so lucky after the multiple nights of freezing weather we recently experienced. Even if you covered sensitive plants a hard frost can nip plants that normally would be fine in a light frost. Here’s how to deal with frost damage.
Don’t be tempted to rush out and prune away the damaged parts of plants. This winter will have more cold weather and the upper part of your plant, even if damaged, can protect the crown from further freezing and provide protection for tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year. This applies to citrus trees, too. If a perennial like Mexican sage froze to a gooey, black mess, cut the plant down to the ground. It will re-grow come spring from the root system.
Remember If you have plants that need covering in another frost later this winter, use a frost blanket, light towel, sheets, burlap or other type of cloth and not plastic. The cold will go right through plastic and damage the plant.
Getting back to my Christmas list, everybody loves color in the winter garden. Besides toyon berries to feed the birds and other wildlife, Strawberry trees have fruit for much of the winter as do crabapples, beautyberry, pyracantha and nandina if the robins don’t get them first.
Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful. Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.
For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers. A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.
If the idea of sitting under a beautiful shade tree in the summer would appeal to the gardener on your list, you might consider giving them a Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorn that’s covered in masses of rosy blossoms in the spring and colorful berries in the winter. October Glory Maple is a great tree for shade and gorgeous fall color. Autumnalis Flowering Cherry blooms twice a year giving you double the show. Mine is in the middle of its fall blooming cycle right now. It’s a welcome sight. A smaller Southern Magnolia like ‘Little Gem‘ with huge fragrant white flowers would also make a nice gift.
These are just a few of the shade and ornamental trees that would make a valuable addition to any landscape. Visit a nursery to look for those plants with berries and winter color for other gift ideas.