Category Archives: California Native Plants

Sneeze-less Landscaping

It was brought to my attention by a reader who suffers from pollen allergies that blooming acacias are not the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year. Acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet ones you have to watch out for.

Evergreen clematis blooming below flowering pear tree.

About 25-30 popular landscape plants are responsible for the majority of plant-related allergies in California. During the height of the pollen season- from late February to June- there are often thousands of pollen grains in every cubic meter of air. One can breathe hundreds of them with every breath. Though pollen can travel many miles, the majority tend to stay in the general area of their origin.

Redwoods, oaks, alders, ashes and other wind pollinated trees like olives, birch, box elder, cypress, elm, juniper, maple, fruitless mulberry, pine, walnut, willow and privet are the major source of spring pollen. Most native plants are good in the sneeze-less landscape but if you have bad allergies or asthma it best to avoid wind-pollinated ceanothus, elderberry and coffeeberry.

You may not be able to avoid those culprits growing on other’s property but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneeze-less landscape. Replacing existing plants may be impractical but planning future plantings with these things in mind will save you a lot of headaches down the road and let you enjoy the sunshine outside in your garden.

Clematis armandii or Evergreen clematis flowers

Flower type is a good way to judge plants. The best looking flowers usually cause allergy sufferers the fewest problems. Plants with bright, showy flowers are usually pollinated by insects, rather than by the wind. These flowers produce less pollen and their pollen is larger and heavier, sticking to the insect rather than becoming airborne and lead to sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.

Some trees that are good for anti-allergy gardens are apple, cherry, dogwood, magnolia, pear and plum. Shrubs like azaleas, boxwood, lilac, rose-of-Sharon, hydrangea and viburnum are also not likely to cause problems. Good flower choices include alyssum, begonia, clematis, columbine, bulbs like crocus, daffodil, hyacinth. Also dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdrag

Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ (good)  Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’ (bad)

on, sunflower, verbena and zinnia. Lawns of perennial rye grass, blue grass and tall fescue blends are usually OK as they will not flower unless allowed to grow to 12″ or higher. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, can pollinate when the lawn is very short, sometimes as quickly as a few days after mowing.

Hopefully, our rainy weather will not cause problems for allergy sufferers. Symptoms may become worse if the body reacts to the disappearance of the pollen following its initial appearance only to have to have more of it later in the spring. According to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, “You become sensitized to it, so when you’re…re-exposed, you can get an even more violent allergic reaction.”

Here’s to a sneezeless spring for you allergy sufferers.

Finding Fall Color in the Santa Cruz Mountains

The beginning of fall really started for me with those drenching October rains. Night time comes early now as daylight savings time ended last Sunday. Our fall color foliage trees and shrubs are starting to turn color. Will they be as vivid this year? Although we don’t get as much fall color as other areas we enjoy what we have just as much. Besides we don’t get snow on Halloween. Enjoy these cool nights and warm days. That’s the combination that brings on the best fall colors.

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Japanese maple showing fall color

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines.

Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Weather conditions play a major part in fall color. Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing, nights.

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Quaking aspen in Wyoming

A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperature meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying the opportunity to enter a slow, colorful dormancy.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

California native Western redbud turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other California native plants like Western dogwood, Spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow, red or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet red leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

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Japanese maples on author’s patio

Trees and shrubs that also provide fall color include Eastern dogwood, Chinese flame tree, Ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese Tallow, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, smokebush, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, Eastern redbud, sumac, crabapple, goldenrain, locust, oak leaf hydrangea and barberries.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

Light up your garden as the light fades and the days shorten. Now through late fall is a good time to shop for plants that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

When Rainfall Causes Problems

If you were waiting for some rain before planting to control erosion wait no more. That last storm brought plenty of the wet stuff and the next round is hopefully not far off. You’ve gotten a reminder of those areas that need stabilization during the rainy season.

Fall is the perfect time to start planning and planting. The nights are cooler, the days shorter and the soil still warm. Everything that a new plant needs to get a good start.

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Steep hillside at author’s house covered with erosion control plantings

Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow, spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. This is important while new plants are growing in. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

What plants are good for controlling erosion in our area? When choosing plants to cover a bank for erosion control, assess the conditions of the area you want to plant. Is it in the sun or shade? Is it a naturally moist area or dry? Do you intend to water it or go with our natural cycle of wet in the winter and dry in the summer? Matching the plant to the site conditions will ensure success. California natives are well suited to this job.

If the area you need to stabilize is large and mostly shade, consider ribes viburnifolium or Evergreen Currant. Like mahonia repens or Creeping Mahonia it needs no irrigation when established. Another native, the Common or Creeping Snowberry can also hold the soil on steep banks, spreading by underground stems that stabilize the soil.

A bank in the sun would contain a different plant palette. Common native shrubs for sun include ceanothus groundcover types such as ‘Centennial’, ‘Anchor Bay’ and maritimus that are not attractive to deer like the larger leaved varieties. Manzanita are also excellent at controlling erosion.

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Western mock orange aka philadelphus lewisii

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are Western redbud, mountain mahogany, Western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, bush poppy, matilija poppy. spicebush, pink flowering currant and Western elderberry.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage, deer and needle grass, Pacific Coast iris, penstemon, artemisia and salvia.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered

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California fuchsia

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.

These suggestions are just a few of the plants that control erosion. Every area is different and every situation unique.

Stars of the Fall Garden

More and more of us are embracing the concept of gardening with a sense of place. To garden where you live means accepting that your garden in California is naturally more subdued by fall. Plants that bring color to the garden at this time of year are invaluable. A successful garden is a feeling.

The fall bloomers and ornamental grasses are at their peak right now and thanks to our recent rainfall they are getting a big drink. Many birds are loading up on carbohydrates and fats to provide fuel for their migration. Others will stick around and want to be in the best possible condition for the winter season. In addition to seeds, nuts and acorns, flowers are important in their diets,

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Lion’s Tail

With Halloween almost upon us orange blooming plants like Lion’s Tail look perfect in the autumn garden and gets the attention of birds, bees and butterflies. The scientific name leonotis leonurus translates from the Greek words meaning lion and ear in reference to the resemblance of the flower to a lion’s ear but this perennial shrub has long been called Lion’s Tail in California. A member of the mint family it starts blooming in very early summer and continues through fall. Having very low water needs and hardy down to 20 degrees it’s perfect for a drought tolerant garden.

California fuchsia is also at the height of its blooming season. Starting in the summer and flowering through fall this California native will be covered with orange or scarlet-orange flowers that attract hummingbirds like crazy. A great plant along the path or draping over a rock wall this perennial thrives in areas that might fry other plants. Also known as Epilobium canan or Zauschneria it is in the evening primrose family and native to dry slopes and chaparral especially in California.

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Orange Stalked Bulbine

Another good choice for your drought tolerant garden is the long blooming Hallmark bulbine. The Orange Stalked bulbine is a succulent you’ve got to try. Starting in late spring and continuing through fall and often into winter this one foot tall groundcover spreads to four or five feet wide. The orange star-like flowers with frilly yellow stamens form atop long stalks that rise above the foliage. Remove spent flower stalks to encourage reblooming.

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Mimulus Jelly Bean Gold

What’s a fall garden without an orange or gold hued mimulus to feed the hummingbirds? Mine haven’t stopped blooming since early summer. Deer resistant and drought tolerant Sticky Monkey flower get the sticky part of their common name from their leaves which are covered with a resinous oil discouraging the larvae of the checkerspot butterfly from dining too greedily.

Orange and blue are opposite on the color wheel so they look fabulous together. Enter the salvias with their mostly blue and purple flowers. From California natives such as salvia clevelandii to Mexican bush sage to Autumn sage there are thousands of varieties on the market. All are deer resistant, gopher resistant, drought tolerant and hummingbird magnets.

Late Summer Tasks for the Garden

It’s darker in the mornings now with the sunset coming earlier each evening. All that time I thought I’d have back in June to get things accomplished in the garden has vanished in what seems like a wink of an eye. Still the weather these days is perfect for being outside and pecking away at my to do list. There are also some late summer/early fall tasks that need attention.

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Alstroemeria ‘Rock & Roll’

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like alstroemeria, agapanthus, coreopsis, iris, daylily, yarrow, rudbeckia, calla lily, aster and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart although they don’t always bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves. Start perennial flowers seeds now so that they will be mature enough to bloom next year.

This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage and soil temperatures are still warm which creates an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new roots system should be well established.

Perhaps it’s time to remove or reduce lawn. Replant with more drought tolerant ornamental grasses or perennials.

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Achillea millefolium

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time with an all-purpose organic fertilizer or layer of compost. This advice doesn’t apply to California natives. They like compost only around the roots during the winter while they get ready for their growing season.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in the fall. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new flower bud to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6″ of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.

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Soil builder cover crop mix

If you aren’t going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover, fava or bell beans after you’ve harvested your summer vegetables.

Cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

And whatever you do, enjoy being outside in this beautiful place we call home.

California Natives for Containers

My ambitious plans to augment this garden here in Bonny Doon with California natives and colorful plants to attract birds and wildlife is not turning out exactly as I’d pictured. I thought that I had licked my gopher problem by planting everything in baskets. Not so, now they just come up next to their plant of choice at night and eat whole thing from the top, dragging the rest down into their neat little hole while leaving the root still snug in its basket. Hopefully, some will regrow from the roots.

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Western azalea

But I’m not giving up on planting for the birds and bees. I’ve got plans to increase my container garden collection. Gardening in containers is easy. I can control the soil, water and light and the gophers can’t undermine my efforts. There are a lot of California native plants that do well in containers and I’m going to place them where both the birds and I can enjoy them.

For some of my largest containers I’ll choose from natives like Western Azalea, Deer Grass, Chaparral Pea or Giant Chain Fern. Any of the taller growing ceanothus and manzanita would look great too by themselves or combined with smaller growing plants.

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Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

For small to medium containers I can use Conejo Buckwheat, Hummingbird Mint, Penstemon Heterophyllos, Mimulus, Woolly Blue Curls or Coastal Daisy, These combine well with colorful Lewisia, Dog Violets or Wild Strawberry.

I might combine a madrone with a Canyon Gray Coastal Sagebrush – Artemisia californica – which grows about a foot high and will trail over the side of the container adding beautiful gray color to contrast with the rich green of the other leaves. I also like the combination of California Hazelnut, Deer Fern, Redwood Sorrel and Wild Ginger.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Giant Elk Clover is one such California native that is an attention getter. Chilopsis linearis-Desert Willow is another great subject for containers as it is slow growing and beautiful in leaf and flower. Other architectural natives that will catch your eye as the centerpiece of a container are Hibiscus or Rose Mallow and Pacific Dogwood. The thriller goes in the center of the pot or if your container will be viewed from only one side it goes in the back.

Next come the fillers. They can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. Good fillers include Heuchera Maxima and Western Maidenhair Fern.

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California fuchsia

The last plants I’ll add are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container. Redwood Sorrel, Wild Ginger and Miner’s Lettuce are good choices. California Fuchsia would look spectacular with its red or orange flowers and grey foliage spilling down the side of my container.

The best overall soil mix for natives in containers sharp sand and horticultural pumice added to a good potting soil. Never use perlite or that puffed up pumice because it will float and look terrible. Happy Container Gardening.