Category Archives: drought tolerant groundcovers

Autumnal Equinox in the Garden

The autumnal equinox happens on Saturday, September 22nd this year. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator ( like where we live ). Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

With the changing of the season, take advantage of fall planting weather by looking at what’s covering your ground. Be it the small lawn for the kids to play on, ground cover to keep the weeds at bay or erosion control to keep the hillside intact, this is an excellent time to plan for winter.

Let’s start with the lawn. If you still need a space for recreation, this is a good time to reseed those bare spots. Also to keep the lawn healthy by removing underlying thatch with a thatching rake. Then aerate the lawn by poking holes in the sod and fertilize with a complete lawn fertilizer like an organic all-purpose. Your lawn needs the phosphorus in the fall to encourage deep, strong roots for the winter.

If the kids are grown and no one is using that lawn, why not rip out the water guzzling grass and replace it with a walk-on groundcover? There are many to choose from like dymondia, lippia, potentilla, duchesnea strawberry or any of the kinds of thyme.

Living ground covers add beauty to the garden 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 groundcovers.

One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging or fertilizing or much irrigation. You can walk on it and it stays green all winter, shading into bronze tones when the weather cools. It even blooms in midsummer for several weeks. Note that bees are attracted to it as with all of the ground covers in the thyme family at this time.

kurapia

Another favorite that I have in my own garden is kurapia. It’s deep rooted, doesn’t require much water, is compact and low maintenance. It’s been bred to have sterile seeds. This is a good groundcover if pollination of nearby fruit trees is needed or you want to encourage bees to your garden for pollination. If bees are an issue kurapia can be mowed to cut off the blooms.

There are also Ca. native and prairie meadow grasses that you can walk on. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho, California and red fescue, carex pansa, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass.

grevillea lanigera ‘Mt Tamboritha’

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing native shrubs that are good groundcovers are baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, ‘Anchor Bay or ‘Heart’s Desire’, manzanita, creeping snowberry, creeping mahonia, salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ and ribes viburnifolium. Mediterranean ground covers like cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, rosemany prostratus, rubus pentalabous are also good low-water choices.

It’s time to enjoy fall weather and cover that ground before winter.

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.

Color & Fragrance in the Fall Garden

So I walk out my front door and a sweet honey fragrance overwhelms my senses. What’s blooming now that coul

osmanthus hetrophyllus ‘Goshiki’

d be giving off a scent so strong I can smell it from a long way off? I don’t see anything flowering that I know to smell so delicious. Following my nose I find it. The teeny, tiny, white flowers of a variegated Osmanthus heterophyllus -Goshiki False Holly- is making it’s presence known in a big way and I’m enjoying every minute.

In the fall I appreciate flowering plants all the more. With the season is winding down and the fall color display just starting, color and fragrance are the heroes of my garden these days. In addition to the variegated Goshiki False Holly, the vanilla-scented heliotrope are still blooming. Mine looks pretty ragged at the end of winter but bounces back each year and with a little dead heading during the summer keeps on providing those deep vivid purple flower clusters -until Thanksgiving some years.

Dianthus

Also I notice the apricot-colored dianthus is blooming another round of clove-scented flowers. Dianthus and their close relatives, the carnations, are a must-have in any garden. Combine pinks as their called with other perennials of the same medium water requirements and grow them near your door or patio chair where you can enjoy them regularly.

Although ceratostigma plumbagioides – Dwarf plumbago – flowers don’t have fragrance their deep, electric blue flowers along with the foliage that turns reddish brown as the weather cools are a valuable groundcover for dry areas under oaks, for instance. They thrive in sun or part shade with moderate to o

Dwarf plumbago

ccasional irrigation. Beautiful when planted in drifts or as a filler between other shrubs.

With Halloween coming up orange blooming plants like Lion’s Tail look perfect in the autumn garden and get 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.

bulbine

Another good choice for your drought tolerant garden is the long blooming Hallmark bulbine or Orange Stalked bulbine. It’s 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.

mimulus ‘Jelly Bean yellow’

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 available. All are deer and gopher resistant, drought tolerant and hummingbird magnets.

Plants that Hold up in the Heat

What happens to a plant when the thermometer tops 100 degrees like it did a couple weeks ago? Planning for more hot weather this summer is a requirement for a successful garden. Are there some plants that can survive tough times more easily?

Bees Bliss salvia

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. But at temperatures about 104 degrees 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 endure hight heat can be stunted, weakened and attract pests and diseases even if water is available.

Plants do have natural systems that respond to heat problems. Some plants are better at this than others. 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 do take resources away from a plants other needs like growth, flowering and fruiting.

It’s no surprise that many California natives are adapted to high temperatures. In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation and handled the heat wave just fine. One is Bees Bliss Sage, a low groundcover that can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

salvia clevelandii

Another plant that can handle high temps is salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last through the summer. This salvia survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering and wash off the foliage every so often its much happier.

mimulus arantiacus

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistible.

penstemon heterophyllus

Other California native plants that can handle the heat with little water include 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.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden. Some natives can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and wood chip mulch to encourage the soil microbes and keep the soil cool.

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_groundcover
Kurapia 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_closeup
Closeup 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.