Category Archives: California Native Plants

A Day at Sierra Azul Nursery

Smoke Bush showcasing rusted metal sculpture

It was one of those days when the light is soft as the fog burns off over Watsonville. My group of fellow landscape designers were gathered for a private tour of Sierra Azul Nursery and Garden. The picnic tables were set by owner Lisa Rosendale and covered with delicious salads, chili, appetizers, desserts and beverages. We were in for a real treat.

Lisa’s nursery is a demonstration and sculpture garden as well as a retail and wholesale nursery. She and her husband Jeff grow drought tolerant and exotic plants that promote the use of Mediterranean climate adapted plants in water conserving gardens and landscapes including fruit trees and plants for shade gardens. It was fun and interesting to hear the back story of the soil, growing conditions and trials and tribulations of the 2 acre demonstration garden straight from the source.

Seems this property, which is directly across from the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, sits on 20 feet of clay covered with 2 feet of top soil. The drainage is poor as Lisa found out when they planted a field of Grosso lavender. It turns into a marsh during wet years. She still harvests some lavender spikes to make into wands for sale but many of the plants have died.

A few of the many sculptures amid blooming Bidens

The demonstration garden is always evolving. The mounds showcase Mediterranean plants and many types of full grown grasses, trees, shrubs and perennials. The birds and the bees love it. A different scent greets you at every turn. Lisa did confess that maybe one of the self sowing ornamental grasses is too much of a good thing. Personally we thought they were charming. “Nothing we can do about it”, Lisa said, “Plants grow where they want.”

There are breathtaking sculptures incorporated into the plantings that are permanent. This is also the13th year that the exhibition Sculpture IS in the Garden featuring 52 artists and 80 sculptures have been installed throughout the garden. They will be on display through October 31. Admission is free. Relax under the umbrellas, bring your picnic lunch and spend an afternoon like we did enjoying the demonstration garden and the exhibit.

But back to the plants. Some were new to me and some old favorites not to be forgotten. There are hundreds of plants growing on mounds in the demonstration garden. These were just a few of my favorites.

Velbet Centauria- a Dusty Miller relatvie

Similar to a dusty miller, a Velvet Centauria (centauria gymnocarpa) immediately caught my eye. This beautiful, fast growing sub-shrub features soft grayish-white filigreed leaves and purple thistle-like flowers. It blooms from spring to mid-summer, is deer resistant, tolerant of any type of soil and is very drought tolerant. As a 3 foot by 6 foot wide groundcover it looks great between other contrasting colored plants.

Mt Loma Prieta Spike Coast Redwood

Another cool plant that all of us commented on was a columnar redwood called Mt. Loma Prieta Spike Coast Redwood. With its robust, upright weeping habit a mature specimen will measure 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide. This cultivar originated as a natural mutation by Allan Korth around the time of the earthquake. He is thought to have found the mother plant near the epicenter near Mt Loma Prieta peak.

Phlomis fruticosa

Just a few of the other plants of note was a beautiful blooming upright hypericum called Mystic Beauty. A California native, salvia lilacina ‘De la Mina’ , was in full bloom among one of the many sculptures. A huge clump of bidens covered with red and yellow flowers grew among three upright sculptures that resembled giant cabbages. A gold cultivar of phlomis fruticosa or Jerusalem Sage was stunning in the late afternoon light. Covered with “smoke”, a Purple Smoke tree looked spectacular next the a rusted metal sculpture. Lisa told us that the artists who created the different works came to the nursery to decide on just the right spot that would showcase both the sculpture and and plants.

Don’t miss visiting Sierra Azul. You’ll be glad you did. If you want to see more photos of the nursery and just some of the sculptures visit my blog on my website.

Good Plants to Espalier

Sometimes it seems that every gardener who asks me for advice has the same problem: “What can I do with my narrow planting area?” It might be a fence line that needs something pretty or an area against the house but whatever problem spot you have there’s a solution for you.

Apple tree trained as an espalier

You might be considering a vine on a trellis and there are many to choose from but are there other plants that can be trained to grow flat against a wall, supported on a lattice or a framework of stakes? An espaliered plant can be a fruit tree or ornamental tree or shrub. While most any tree or large shrub can be made into an espalier, the trick is to select a species that will ultimately fit your space and conditions. There are many plants you might not have thought about that are easy to train so they don’t take up too much space.

The practice of training fruit bearing plants like fig, apple and pear and citrus dates back to the Roman and Egyptians, but it was the Europeans – specifically the French – who perfected the designs we see today.

Narrow spaces can be challenging. One of my favorite plants that naturally grows flat is grewia occidentalis or Lavender Starflower. it grows fast in sun and attracts hummingbirds and other birds. Beautiful lavender flowers cover the plant from spring to fall.

Another plant, azara microphylla, also grows 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. The chocolate fragrance of this plant is really what makes it a show stopper.

Red flowering quince

Flowering quince is another old garden staple providing early color. They are easy to care for and nearly indestructible in almost any soil that is well drained and not overly fertile. Once established quince is a very drought tolerant plant and their spiny branches make them an excellent choice for hedges, screening or as a security barrier. There are red, pink, orange and white flowering varieties. The Toyo Nishiki cultivar even has pink, white and solid red flowers all on the same branch.

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.

Abutilon ‘Kathy Bells’

Other ornamental shrubs that make great espaliered plants are abutilon, bougainvillea in frost free areas, callistemon, camellia, dodonaea, feijoa, gingko, sarcococca, viburnum, ribes, rhaphiolepis, pyracantha, pittosporum tobira and osmanthus fragrans. Trees that can be trained include cercis, agonis flexuosa, eriobotrya, and podocarps.

A fremontodendron waiting to be trained as an espalier

California native plants that can be espaliered are garrya, fremontodendron. Carolina cherry, flowering currant, vine maple and ceanothus while the branches are young and supple.

Don’t be overwhelmed if an espalier gets out of hand during the season. Just nip the branches back to a leaf node. Use heavy jute to attach the branch to the support wire or stake. After a season the jute will rot away which keeps the branch from being girdled by the restraint.

Growing Flowers for Cutting

Wild Blue Yonder and Golden Celebration roses with alstroemeria

Go ahead and bask in the beauty of your spring garden this year after so much rain. Then start planning and planting to add more cut flowers so you can bring the outside in. Even if you have a lot of flowers already for bouquets there is always that nook or cranny that can fit one more.

A friend of mine has a garden that has so many roses and other flowers that she can cut huge bouquets for her own tables and still have enough to share with friends. Admiring a colorful mixed bouquet of roses and alstroemeria on her table the other day I was envious that my meager shady garden produces only enough flowers for the hummingbirds. If you yearn for more flowers in your garden I have some ideas for you.

Comapassion rose

“If I only had one rose in my garden”, my friend said to me, “I’d plant ‘Compassion.” I can tell you after receiving a bouquet of this beautiful double apricot, copper and gold rose from her that she’s on to something. Exceptionally fragrant, this profuse continual bloomer is also disease resistant even in part shade. It can be grown as a large shrub but is more effective when trained as a climber where its fragrance can be enjoyed along a path near your doorway or alongside a patio or deck. The fragrance is a combination of honey and peaches. A small bouquet scented my entire house.

If you are looking to increase your cut flower potential like I am, here are some suggestions. For starters it’s always good to grow perennial plants that come back every year but self sowing annuals are also great so don’t forget to plant some of those also. Self-sowing annuals that have a long vase life are bachelor buttons, clarkia, cosmos, flax, love-in-a-mist, nasturtium, cleome and calendula. Zinnia, snapdragon, statice and marigolds also make good cut flowers.

For sunny spots grow perennial penstemon and kangaroo paw. Coreopsis attract butterflies and are long lasting in bouquets. Coneflowers, dahlias, gloriosa daisy, delphinium, foxglove, scabiosa, aster, shasta daisy and yarrow also make good cut flowers. Penstemon are good for cutting and the tubular flowers attract hummingbirds.

Native flowers that last for a week or more in a bouquet include clarkia and sticky monkeyflower. Yarrow and hummingbird sage will last 4-6 days in a vase. Our native shrub philadelphus, also called mock orange, has flowers that smell like oranges and will grow in some shade as well as sun.

Mixed bouquet of Oakleaf hydrangea with Marjorie Channon pittosporum

The secret to a fabulous bouquet is not just the flowers but the interesting foliage and that is something we all have in our gardens. Great foliage plants come in all shapes and sizes. In shady gardens, fragrant variegated daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub for both flowers and foliage. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub with apricot scented blooms. Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ will add white with a hint of lime to your bouquets. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets during the summer and the leaves turn red in fall as an added bonus.

Foliage from shrubs such as abelia, breath of heaven, California bay, ornamental grasses, grapes and other vines, herbs, woody tree branches like smoke tree and Japanese maple also look handsome in a bouquet.

Compassion rose in a bouquet

To make cut flowers last, pick them early in the morning before they are stressed by heat. Pull off any foliage or flowers that will be below the water level in the vase. Fill a clean vase with 3 parts lukewarm water mixed with 1 part lemon-lime soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar and a crushed aspirin. Another recipe for floral food is 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 tablespoons white vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water. The sugar helps buds open and last longer, the acid improves water flow in the stems and the bleach reduces the growth of bacteria and fungus. Change the water and re-cut the stems every few days to enjoy your bouquet for a week or even longer.

Helping Bees Help Us

Honey bee gathering pollen

Outside the birds are chirping like crazy in anticipation of this year’s nesting activities. The bees are becoming more active every day searching for nectar in the flowering trees and shrubs. Ceanothus season is coming soon and then they’ll really be busy. Last year was a banner year for my native bees and bumble bees. There were also a lot of European honey bees around. Maybe I was just lucky. What can you do to help our pollinators in these times of diminishing habitat, disease, climate change and pesticide use?

There are 1600 species of native bees in California with several hundred living in Santa Cruz county alone. They are solely responsible for pollinating many of our native plants. Being solitary they do not make a hive but make nests underground or live in wood, one female per nesting hole and she lays her eggs there. Leaving areas in your garden near flowering plants un-mulched helps her find a nesting hole. The hard working females mate, make nests, collect pollen for their young and lay eggs. Males live to mate and only pollinate inadvertently when they visit flowers for nectar to fuel their flight.

Long-horned native bee

Common native bees in our area are the yellow-faced bumble bee and the long-horned bee which has stripes a little like a yellow jacket. The hard working bumble bee is easy to identify from its bight yellow facial hair and yellow bands on their backs and abdomens. Female bumble bees’ hind legs widen to form pollen baskets often filled with bright yellow, moistened pollen pellets.

The long-horned native bee gets their name from the long antennae of the males although the females do not have this. Males may be seen by day jostling for female attention above a patch of blooming plants while the females are collecting pollen. Only the females have branched hairs on their legs for carrying pollen.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for our area to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

Honey bee searching for nectar and pollen

The higher temperatures that come with climate warming can affect a bee’s ability to detect a flower’s pollen. A flowers scent is what tells a bee that nectar is present. If the weather gets to hot the plant will spend less energy on producing fragrance and just try to survive. When flowers stop emanating these enticing smells, some bees have a tough time finding food and may abandon certain area. Studies have shown that warming climates already have affected our central coast bumblebee population during the past 30 years especially the California bumblebee.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depend on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

Honeybees and native bees need help to survive and we’re the ones to give it. Besides planting nectar and pollen sources you can help by buying local honey which support beekeepers.

Hedges & Living Fences

When I visited eastern Poland many years ago each house and garden was enclosed with a fence or hedge of some sort. Some fences were wood, some stone, some ornamental iron and some were living fences that divided properties. I thought the living hedges were the most beautiful and neighborly. Whether you need to screen a water tank or noisy road or the neighbor’s second story window there are lots of choices. Fall planting season is still going strong.

Many people only think of plants that remain evergreen when they need screening. However, if you use one-third deciduous plants to two-thirds evergreens they will weave together and you won’t be able to tell where one leaves off and another begins. This makes mature hedges secure borders, especially if you throw a few barberries or other prickly plant into the mix. You’ll also get seasonal interest with fall color and berries for wildlife.

Azara microphylla

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.

Variegated Mint Bush

Variegated Mint Bush is another shrub to consider for a living hedge. Creating pleasing plant combinations is a big part of gardening and this one would look great alongside a Fringe Flower of either color. Allow each plant to interweave and grow together. The Mint Bush will grow 4-6 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide. The foliage smells very strongly like mint so deer avoid this shrub, too.

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.

Pacific Wax Myrtle

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. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.

osmanthus heterophyllus

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 its sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ for their showy variegated foliage. Email me and I’ll give you even more suggestions.

Provide the best growing environment for the fastest results. By this I mean amending the soil at planting time if your soil is not very fertile. Cover the soil with mulch and fertilize with compost or organic fertilizer. Water deeply when needed especially during the first three years when young plants put on a lot of growth.

Fall Planting California Natives

The chill is in the air. At least as I write this. Next week it could return to summer-like weather but for now I’m thinking of what plants I want to add to my garden this fall planting season. California native plants are well suited to planting at this time of year and acclimating to their new homes without much stress. Here are some ideas to get you started.

matilija poppy

By planting from mid-September through mid-November, roots of all plants have a chance to grow during autumn and most of the winter as well without having to supply nourishment to the leafy portion of the plant. Roots of deciduous plants still grow even after plants drop their foliage as long as the ground temperature is above 50 degrees. Cooler day and night temperatures slowly harden off the top of the plant to prepare for the cold days of winter.

Another reason that fall is the no-fail planting season is because plants put in the ground in fall need less water to establish. The plants themselves use less water since photosynthesis is slowed by shorter days even if it’s occasionally hot. Evaporation rates slow down also during fall so moisture in the soil lasts longer as well. Sometimes we get lucky with fall and winter rains perfectly spaced so the ground never completely dries out. I’ve heard rumblings about an El Nino winter but you know how that sometimes goes here in our coastal area.

ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’

Plants that thrive in dry, shady spots benefit especially from fall planting as they need established root systems before next years dry season. Dry shade sometimes occurs in places beyond the reach of the hose but also under native oaks. To protect their health, it’s a requirement that plants underneath thrive with little or no summer irrigation.

Plants of proven success under these conditions include native currants and gooseberry. Ribes sanguinem (red flowering currant) is a show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. There are many selections of this plant to choose from so if the huge white flowers appeal to you ‘White Icicle’ will be beautiful in your landscape. ‘Barrie Coate’ and ‘King Edward VII’ have spectacular deep red flower clusters and ‘’Spring Showers’’ has 8″ long pink ones. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, snowberry, matilija poppy and western elderberry. ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and snowberry, baccharis, ceanothus maritimus and Anchor Bay are good groundcover selections.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy (dendromecon rigida) is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one ( not around the stem ) to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.