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.



Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve 2014


peak_rush_roseI 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 silver_bush_lupinethe 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.

yerba_santaOur 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 Reggiardo_waterfallfalls, 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-
http://www.inaturalist.org/places/bonny-doon-ecological-reserve

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