Category Archives: California Native Plants

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.

Fragrant Plants in the Garden

It was an especially fragrant bouquet of roses on my dining table this week that got me thinking about what an incredible thing our sense of smell is. it’s the only sense that has a direct connection to our brains. We can detect at least a trillion distinct scents. Our scent cells are renewed every 30 to 60 days. Some of the most pleasurable scents, according to recent research, include vanilla, some orange scents, cinnamon, crayons and cookies. I don’t have any crayon or cookie scented flowers but wouldn’t that be a great addition in the garden?

Chinese lilac

Where does fragrance come from? Fragrance in flowers is nature’s ways of encouraging pollination. Just as it draws you to take a deeper whiff, it lures insects to blossoms hidden by leaves and other plants. Some flowers are fragrant only at night and attract only night-flying pollinators like moths, while others are more fragrant only during the day and attract insects like bees and butterflies. The fragrance itself comes from essential oils called attars that vaporize easily and infuse the air with their scents. They are present in different combinations in different plants, but often they are markedly similar which is why there are irises that smell like grapes and roses that smell like licorice.

Pink wisteria

Place sweet-smelling plants where you can enjoy them throughout the season. The potency of flower scents varies greatly, so consider the strength of a fragrance when deciding where to put a plant. Subtle fragrances such as sweet peas. lemon verbenas, scented geraniums and chocolate cosmos smell wonderful right outside the back door. Add stronger scents where people naturally congregate- decks, pools and spa areas, dining alcoves, gazebos. Stargazer lilies, jasmine, lilacs, daphne, citrus and peonies will make your guests linger.

Your front entry should have fragrant plants to greet you when you come home. Train a fragrant climbing rose over a pergola at the gate. Fill some of the containers in your entry with scented bedding plants like dianthus , nemesia, freesias, stock or aromatic evergreens like rosemary and lavender. Plant sweet smelling shrubs like Mexican orange, buddleja, or philadelphus beside a path. Or plant carnations or lavender next to a garden bench or near your hammock.

Brugmanansia

Be sure to include fragrant plants that release their scent in the evening, especially in the areas of the garden you most frequent after dark. Since the majority of night-scented blossoms have white flowers, these plants also light up the landscape at night. Angel trumpet or brugmansia is one such plant as is flowering tobacco and night blooming jessamine.

Several easy-to-grow shrubs have fragrant flowers as an added bonus. Choisya blooms smell like oranges as does pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive or osmanthus have a delicate apricot fragrance.

Philadelphus lewisii

Other fragrant plants include California native Philadelphus lewisii. Calycanthus occidentals is native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.

Ideally, when you’ve finished, your garden will smell as intriguing as an expensive perfume. The top note will be floral- jasmine, honeysuckle, rose. The middle register will be spicy, such as the vanilla of heliotrope or purple petunias or the clove of dianthus. Finally, underneath the tones that give perfumes their vigor, like artemisia, sage and santolina.

Not every inch of the garden needs to be fragrant but a waft or two of fragrance from the right plants can turn a garden from ordinary to enchanting.

Watering Plants in the Summertime

All plants need water– even those that are tolerant of our summer dry conditions. Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests.

What happens to a plant when the thermometer tops 100 degrees? Are there some plants that can survive tough times more easily?

Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

Photosynthesis is one of the most remarkable biochemical processes on earth and allows plants to use sunlight to make food from water and carbon dioxide. At temperatures about 104 degrees, however, the enzymes that carry out photosynthesis lose their shape and functionality. A garden that provides optimum light and water but gets too hot will be less vigorous. Tomatoes, for example, will drop blossoms and not set fruit if temperatures are over 90 degrees. Plants that do endure hight heat may be stunted and weakened attracting pests and diseases even if water is available.

Plants have natural systems that respond to heat problems. Plants can cool themselves by pumping water out through the leaves for a kind of swamp cooler effect. They can also make “heat-shock” proteins which reduces problems from over heating. All these strategies can take resources away from a plants other needs like growth, flowering and fruiting.

California fuchsia

It’s no surprise that many California natives are adapted to high temperatures. Some California native plants that can handle the heat with little water include salvia, mimulus, California fuchsia, eriogonum, manzanita, artemisia, California milkweed, ceanothus, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, bush lupine, native penstemon, monardella, mahonia nevinii, fremontodendron and holly-leafed cherry.

Other well adapted plants that are known to be more tolerant of heat include butterfly bush, germander, rosemary, smoke tree, rudbeckia, coreopsis, lantana, plumbago, gaillardia, lilac, sedums, oregano and verbena.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

Be sure that you water trees and shrubs deeply checking soil moisture first with a trowel. Established small to medium shrubs should be watered when the top 3-6″ is dry, large shrubs and trees when the top 6-12″ is dry.

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent irrigation. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots grow 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Bush Poppy

Apply water with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water district’s 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 that’s 1/4 inch – 3/8 inch 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.

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 type.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy

Ceanothus: The Most Valuable Plant in your Garden

Those of you who read my column regularly might have noticed I often write about plants that are valuable to the birds and the bees as well as butterflies and wildlife in the general. I have 10 bird feeders around my house. Four for the hummingbirds and the other six have black oil sunflower seed and hulled chips. At this time of year when there are so many young the extra food is much appreciated. I provide water and nectar plants for the bees and butterflies as well. If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all the critters it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.

Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’

Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas.

One of the upright types I grow is ceanothus thysiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.

A new variety I’ve recently learned about from my friend and fellow Press Banner columnist, Colly Gruczelak, is called Celestial Blue. She planted several 2 years ago from 4″ mail order sleeves and they are now 3 ft tall and 4 ft wide. In her sandy garden, home to her personal deer population, the flowers look like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it makes a good screen or accent. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.

A great variety I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most and tolerates clay soil more than other species.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant blue three-inch flower spikes.

Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 10-15 years although some live longer.

Diamond Heights ceanothus

Several members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended. Adding fertilizer mights kill off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.

Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.

Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.