How to Design a Perennial Border


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Rockrose, Grevillea and Ceanothus for Low Water Use Gardens


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Drought Tolerant Gardening


arctostaphylos.1280Last 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 bush_poppy.1600alone 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.

lupine_silver.16003) 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.



Frozen Plant Care and Plants that Don’t Freeze


toyon.1600Early 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, flowering cherryyou 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.

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