Category Archives: low water use plants

Sheet Mulch Away that Old Lawn

Replacing that water guzzling lawn or dramatically reducing the size is a good place to start conserving water and is easier than you think. If you’ve been paralyzed with the thought of digging out and hauling away hundreds of square feet of heavy sod or using dangerous grass-killing chemicals, sheet mulching is the method for you.

sheet_mulching_in_progressSheet mulching in progress

This simple technique eliminates the lawn by smothering it with layers of compost and renewable materials. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Mow the lawn down to 1-2”, leave the clippings in place and soak with a hose.
  2. Flag the locations of sprinkler heads you will be keeping for your new plantings and cap off the ones you won’t need.
  3. Add an inch of compost to speed up the decay of the grass. If your lawn borders a driveway, path or sidewalk you’ll have to remove about 3” inches deep of soil along these edges and back 8-12” so that the new mulch doesn’t slide off into the sidewalk.
  4. Put down 2-3 layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard overlapping the edges by 6-8” to prevent regrowth at the edges. You can buy recycled cardboard in rolls for larger projects or find your own at appliance or bicycle stores. Wet the cardboard or newspapers to keep them in place as you go along. It’s best to use cardboard or newspaper thatwill break down quicker. Don’t use plastic sheeting because water and air cannot penetrate it.
  5. Add a 3” layer of mulch such as bark chips from a tree trimming company. You can use compost, straw or shredded plant material. If you have Bermuda grass or other weeds like oxalis you will need to layer about 8” of mulch to smother them.
  6. Water thoroughly.

sheet_mulch_installPlants installed immediately after sheet mulching

If you can wait a month or more to let the decomposition process get going so much the better. If you just can’t wait you can begin planting now by scraping away the mulch and poking a hole in the cardboard or newspaper where the plant is to go. Then add some compost to help the new plant become established. Be sure to plant high enough to prevent crown rot and keep the mulch a couple inches away from the stem. The top of the root ball should be 1-2” above the soil and just below the mulch.

Modify the sprinkler to drip and remember to adjust your irrigation system run times to accommodate your new plantings.

This is a basic “lasagna” method for lawn removal. If you are planning to replant with water smart grasses you would choose finer composted mulch instead of bark chips. Either way the process works on the same concept as a compost pile. As the lawn dies from lack of light, it decomposes with the activity of beneficial worms, insects and microorganisms coming up from the soil and doing their job to break down the nitrogen and carbon in the sheet-mulch layers. It’s a win-win situation for the environment and your water bill.

sheet_mulching_one_year_afterOne year after lawn removal by sheet mulching

Water conservation starts with losing or reducing the thirsty traditional lawn and reducing irrigation. Transform your landscape into a resilient garden that not only saves water but acts to build the earth into a living sponge that harnesses rainwater and replenishes the aquifer at the same time. Attracting wildlife to your new beautiful garden is a bonus.

Be sure to apply for your rebates and have your lawn inspected, even if it’s dead, before you start.

Kurapia – The Perfect Groundcover

A groundcover is defined as any plant that grows over an area of ground. They are usually low-growing, spreading plants that help stop weeds from growing and prevent moisture loss. We gardener know that they do so much more in the landscape. Living ground covers add beauty to the garden filling in between plants while holding the soil in place and preventing erosion. They contribute to soil health by encouraging microorganisms. A garden wouldn’t thrive as well without ground covers.

Kurapia_groundcoverKurapia groundcover growing in part shade

With this in mind I encourage many kinds of ground covers in my landscape. It’s a difficult place to find the best ones because of the lack of winter sun and only 5 hours of good summer sun. Still I’ve found a choice one that I’d like to share. It’s tough and reliable in many situations including hot summer gardens. If it will grow in my yard it will surely grow in yours.

Kurapia is ta deep rooted, low water use, low maintenance ground cover. It’s parent is in the Lippia genus and has naturalized worldwide. However, Kurapia has been bred to have sterile seeds and its growth habit is much more compact and tamed. Though it is sterile with respect to seed production, it does flower and is bee and butterfly friendly, blooming from May to October. This is a good groundcover if pollination of nearby fruit trees is needed or your want to encourage bees in your garden for general pollination. If bees are an issue for someone in your family Kurapia can be mowed once or twice a month to cut the blooms off. Mowing benefits this groundcover making it grow denser which naturally surpasses weeds once it fills in.

Kurapia_closeupCloseup of Kurapia flowers

Kurapia has been extensively studied at UC Davis and UC Riverside comparing it with No Mow as well as other drought tolerant cool and warm season grasses. Kurapia exceeded them all going 52 days without water and still maintained its green color. An extensive root system that goes as deep as four feet and a dense 2” to 3” tall mat-like top is the secret. The California sod grower recommends more frequent irrigation but it still requires just 60% of the water of a traditional lawn.

Kurapia does not require much fertilization either. One time in the spring for growth and flowering and once in the fall to keep the green color through the winter is sufficient. Mine looks great year round and I have to confess I’ve never fertilized it. Kurapia is evergreen and does not have a dormant period though growth stops or slows does in the winter. It spreads and self repairs by stolons. This groundcover grows in sun to partial shade requiring only three hours of sunlight. However it tends to stay more compact in full sun.

Kurapia will handle light to moderate foot traffic. It cannot take consistent high traffic though it is very walkable. My dog Sherman finds it great for his morning constitutional and I’ve never seen yellow spots as a traditional lawn will get.

Kurapia is hardy to 20 degrees though in tests it has survived temperatures as low as 12 degrees. It’s deep root system is unparalleled for erosion on slopes. Did I mention it takes 60% less water and how much you mow is up to you? Like I said, if it will grow in my garden under less than ideal conditions it will grow in yours.

Spring Garden Madness & the Lessons Learned

echium_Tower_of_Jewels_bee_closeupTower of Jewels echium- a favorite of bees

Everybody’s garden looks the best in the spring. Plants are full of new, healthy growth and the heat of summer has not yet descended. Early flowering plants are at there peak and those that wait until summer to flower so that their nectar will attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees are patiently awaiting their time in the sun. It’s a glorious time in the garden.

Filoli_flower_arrangementFiloli flower arrangement

With this in mind I recently strolled Filoli Garden in Woodside to see what they were doing to conserve water while maintaining all their flower power. I also toured 5 gardens in Palo Alto on the Gamble Garden tour and got lots of ideas for sustainable and beautiful gardens.

Filoli_sunken_garden.2048Filoli Sunken Garden

Filoli Garden is eye candy for any gardener. The estate grounds are maintained to perfection and it was interesting to see what changes they have in store for all those gorgeous, emerald green lawns. The roses, foxglove and peonies were in full bloom, the tulip pots now filled with colorful pansies. Several lawn areas had been reseeded while the large north lawn at the top overlooking the grounds had been allowed to go brown. This is what I learned they have planned to conserve water for the new lawn areas.

Filoili_solariumFiloli solarium

Filoli is testing turf varieties that might grow well with less water and mowing in the coastal microclimate of Woodside. They have sown or planted twelve species and blends to trial. Each block will have a corresponding sign telling about the variety. The types being trialed include No Mow Fescue Mix, carex pansa, June grass, U.C. Verde buffalo grass, Pacific hair grass and Molate red fescue. Agrostis pallens, blue grama grass and purple needle grass are also included in the trials.

no_mow_lawn_red_fescueNo mow red fescue lawn

Many of these varieties are among the lawn replacement recommendations from Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Water Districts. Rethink you lawn this year like Filoli Gardens and get a rebate, too.

Next on my spring garden tour agenda were several private gardens showcased on the annual Gamble Garden tour in Palo Alto. Because it’s a walking tour I got as many ideas from the gardens featured as I did passing by the front yards of the other houses. This is the neighborhood where Steve Jobs used to live. I don’t know if his family still does but his orchard on the corner lot is thriving.

fence_rusticRustic fence

The theme of this year’s garden tour, Garden are for Living, came through loud and clear in each of the gardens. Many featured sustainable features such as a decomposed granite patio that also serves also as a patanque court, poured in place concrete pavers, corten steel raised bed and path edging and dry laid flagstone paths. Edibles were included in every garden- from a grape-covered pergola to a cleverly designed raised veggie bed complete with steel corners and banding and lighting for evening dinner harvesting.

olive_Iceberg-rose_rosemarylow water combination- Olive, Iceberg rose and rosemary

While walking the neighborhood a low water use plant combination of ornamental olive trees underplanted with rosemary and Iceberg roses complemented one Mediterranean style home. Another garden nearby featured a rustic fence made from fallen tree branches. I must have taken a hundred pictures to remind me of all the great design ideas I saw that day. There is nothing like a spring garden tour to get the creative juices flowing.

A Visit to the Brook Lomond Iris Farm

Aztec SunAztec Sun

What do you get when you combine a world renowned pottery artist with a reformed corn grower? On California Street in Ben Lomond, the result is the Brook Lomond Iris Farm of Rick and Chris Moran. This fun, educational, inspiring couple recently invited me to admire this year’s crop of tall bearded iris grown with certified organic gardening practices as well as to share their organic vegetable garden, cactus and succulent collection and Chris’ unique pottery. They are getting ready for this year’s annual iris sale coming up April 30th as well as May 1st and 7th from 9:00-4:00 each day when the iris blooms will be at their peak.

IMG_7813Coiled pottery by Chris Moran

Upon arriving my eyes were torn between the colorful beds of iris on my left and the blooming cactus and succulent collection displayed on the flagstone entry garden on the right. I later learned Chris cut and laid the flagstone herself. Inside the house Chris’s fabulous coiled pottery vases, urns and jugs in their great room were so amazing I had a hard time tearing myself away to start the tour of the back garden and iris beds in the front. Cody, their new dog, was good company as I learned how the Moran’s came to start an iris farm.

When Rick Moran was 13 years old he worked at LoPresti tomato farm in Connecticut. “I hated it,” he laughs. Later when he was a student at UCSC he used to pass by the Chadwick garden and says he “got the gardening bug by osmosis”. After graduation the couple moved to Bar Harbor Maine where they started a community garden. Chris displayed the cactus and succulents she had moved there in a heated porch which was quite the talk of the town for neighbors passing by on a snowy day.

organic_vegetable_garden.1600Organic vegetable garden

When they moved back to this area and found the sunny lot in Ben Lomond, Rick added nine yards of chicken manure mixed with rice hulls and planted corn. He had visions of savoring succulent ears of corn for dinner but quickly realized that the amount of water needed to grow corn was prohibitive. That was after the Chris’ succulent failure. He and Chris wanted to come up with a crop they could make a little supplemental income. She used to sell her cactus and succulents when they lived in Capitola at the drive-in in Santa Cruz many years before but after planting fancy succulents in the front yard and seeing them turn to mush in a Ben Lomond freeze they realized succulents weren’t going to work either.

SteppingOutStepping Out

Enter “The Queen of the Garden” as iris are called. The Morans researched these stunning flowers and found them to be drought tolerant and deer and gopher resistant. Having a high water table Iris are the perfect crop. They require no extra water at all with summer being the plant’s dormant season. Chris worked for the City of Santa Cruz for 25 years and started their Home Composing program. They compost all garden waste and kitchen scraps using the compost as the only fertilizer for the iris beds and vegetable garden. They get 15 wheelbarrows of compost a year from their simple bins. Straw is spread as mulch to control weeds between the iris beds’

bearded_iris_beds.1600Tall bearded iris beds

The iris are starting their blooming cycle now. Some bloom earlier than others. By planting early, mid and late blooming varieties you can extend their colorful show for several months. Iris also make a good cut flower and many are fragrant. Chris told me that you can tell when an iris was hybridized from it’s shape. The early types are not as frilly as modern varieties. She pointed out a bed of Wabash Heritage which was first introduced in the 1920’s- simple with three falls. The lovely sky blue flowers of Striped Zebra iris smelled of Grape Koolaid. Chris explained that the flower scent develops as they sit in the sun. The aroma is not as strong when they first open.

bearded_iris_closeup.1600Bearded iris closeip

The Brook Lomond Iris Farm is located at 10310 California Drive off Highway 9 in Ben Lomond. Just look for the tall flags waving in the breeze and bring your camera. Iris rhizomes for sale are chosen for hardiness in this area and the Morans are always on the lookout and adding the newest varieties available such as the deep purple Dusky Challenger. The Iris Farm is educational as well as beautiful- a place the whole family will enjoy.

Climate Smart Plants for the Garden

verbena_lilacina-blue_oat_grassClimate smart verbena lilacina with blue oat grass

All this talk about “drought tolerant” plants or “water smart” plants is misleading in some ways. What really matters for the success of a plant in your garden is that they are climate smart. You can call the new California garden climate tolerant or climate adapted but it all comes down to the same thing. The plants you choose to grow in your garden should be able to naturally tolerate periods of lower than average water. This doesn’t mean no water during extremely long dry periods. No plant can live without water.

I have two books that I look to for plant ideas when called upon to design a garden in our area. This first was published by East Bay MUD in 2004 and is called ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates’. The other book I refer to regularly for ideas and information is ‘California Native Plants for the Garden’. Both are invaluable in these times of water conservation. One of the best tips each of them offer is to garden where you live.

Philadelphus_Felton_Covered_BridgePhiladelphus lewesii near Felton Covered Bridge.

All of us live in a summer-dry climate. Summer-dry gardens are naturally dry for long periods. Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and failure in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place whether it’s a California native from an area with similar soil and exposure or a plant from another Mediterranean-like climate with growing conditions like yours.

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest, redwood forest, chaparral and sandhills.

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak. Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, giant feather grass, rosemary and rockrose do well here. California natives such as western mock orange (philadelphus lewisii), wild ginger and western sword ferns grow here also.

iris_douglasiana.2048Iris douglasiana (Pacific Coast Iris)

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where big leaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow. Most plant here grow lush in this deep soil. If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider giant chain fern, aquilegia, dicentra, Pacific Coast iris and fuchsia-flowering gooseberry.

Chaparral areas are the hottest, driest slopes of these mountains. Dense thickets of manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, coffeeberry, ceanothus, monkey flower and sage are native here. These plants are adapted to little water and often have tiny, thick, waxy, light green or grayish leaves. Soils tend to be rocky and shallow with overlaying rock or a subsoil that is mostly clay. Plants here need to have an extensive root system that reaches widely and deeply for water. If you live here a classic combination would be the spring blooming western redbud and Julia Phelps or Dark Star ceanothus. The combination of magenta and electric blue flowers is unforgettable.

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants like silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here. Buckwheat and sticky monkey flower do well here. You might also try growing Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8″ tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red. Mulch them with gravel or crushed stone.

callistemon_Little_John.1600callistemon ‘Little John’

Remember right plant-right place. Don’t try to force nature although most gardens do look better with some summer water. Closer to the house we expect a fuller look. Combinations I’m going to try this season include leucospermum paired with blue echium or grey-leafed westringia planted with red-flowering callistemon ‘Little John’.

Great Plants for a California Garden

leucospermum_orange-chondropetalum.1600Leucospermum with chondropetalum

Our local UCSC Arboretum is a place everyone can enjoy. You can marvel at the dozens of jewel-tone hummingbirds darting about feeding on nectar of colorful flowers while strolling the gardens for new plant ideas.

There are still lots of dramatic leucospermum in bloom as well as California native plants that flower mid to late summer. The rainfall last December helped many of the drought tolerant plants grow more foliage and put on a better show this year. The hummingbirds couldn’t get enough of the erica blooming in shades of pink, orange and red. There must have been a dozen darting about feeding and chirping between the shrubs.

If you are looking for some inspiration for new low water-use plants you haven’t tried the nursery at the Arboretum has a good selection. They replenish the stock from their growing area on a regular basis so there’s always something to catch your eye. Here are some that I plan to grow myself or recommend to others.

Hemiandra pungens

Color in the garden is something we all relish. One of the plants that caught my eye is called Hemiandra pungens. Pretty lavender-magenta flower clusters cover this small one foot plant. It’s drought tolerant although it looks better with occasional summer water.

This bright little shrub is another of the plants from Australia being trialed at the Arboretum. The Koala Blooms plant introduction program is a joint venture which include growers here and in Australia. Plants are evaluated for their beauty, durability and sturdiness with regard to drought, weather extremes and variations in soil types. Out of the trailing process new plants are selected and offered for sale to the public. Visit the Arboretum website for info on other great plants you might want to try in your garden. www.arboretum.ucsc.edu/koala-blooms

Pimalea_ferruginea-Bon_Petite.1600Pimalea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’

Another showy perennial that’s sure to make it’s way into the next appropriate garden I design is Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’. Bright pink umbel blossoms cover this small plant for many months starting in the spring. It’s hardy down to 25 degrees and requires little water once established. Also originating in Australia it looks great in a native low water-use cottage garden.

The common name for this plant is pink rice flower. The pot in the arboretum nursery happened to be placed near a red mimulus but it looked great even though you might think the color combination would be all wrong. Nature has a way of making things work despite the rules of the color wheel.

Several varieties of correa – also called Australian fuchsia – caught my eye. Although the flowers of this plant resemble fuchsias they are not related. Some do best with regular watering during the summer but the lovely correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’ is drought tolerant once established. Grow this three foot compact evergreen shrub in partial sun where it will bloom from fall through springtime and provide nectar for hummingbirds during the wintertime.

Salvia_guarantica.1600Salvia guarantica

I was also drawn to the brilliant cobalt blue flowers of salvia guarantica. This plant is worth growing – in sun or partial shade – even though you might need to cut it down to ground level after each winter like Mexican bush sage. Growing four to five feet tall it starts blooming in early summer and continues till frost. They also do well in containers and are a favorite of hummingbirds.

Prostanthera was well represented with three varieties – ‘Poorinda Bride’, ’Purple Haze’ and my personal favorite, the Variegated Mint Bush. They are all good choices for colorful, easy to grow, hardy shrubs that require only occasional irrigation.

Among other choices at the Arboretum nursery were stand-by’s such as lion’s tail, Mexican marigold, Germander sage, Copper Glow New Zealand tea tree and giant buckwheat. This local resource offers a cornucopia of inspiration.