Traveling with the Mountain Gardener


Truckee_RiverSo 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 perennial_borderto 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.

Sun_King_AraliaStrolling 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.



Add Drama to the Garden with Large-Leafed Plants


philodendron_selloumGardens 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 thatfastia-japonica 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.

hosta_Sum_and_SubstanceIn 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 inasarum_caudatum 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.



Drought Tolerant Plants for Birds & Butterflies


red_breasted_nuthatchI 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 plantlavender_West_Zayante 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 natiOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAve 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 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgrow 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.



Low Water Use Plants for the Garden


leucadendron_discolor2Has 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 cordyline_leucadendronthan 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_gardensSucculent 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.

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