Dry river bed down a steep slope
With so many people replacing their thirsty lawns with low water-use plants, I’m getting lots of requests for ideas about what to do with all that empty space. The sky’s the limit when you have a blank slate. Let me get you started.
If your old lawn was in the front you might consider putting in a sitting area for a couple of chairs and a bistro table. Use simple crushed gravel or more formal flagstone underfoot and surround the space with a low seat wall to add a bit of privacy.
Adding a dry river bed is another good solution. A dry river bed can slow runoff, spread it out and sink it back into the soil. Connected to a downspout they keep even more rainfall on your own property. If we get the El Nino storms that are predicted this will be a welcome addition to your landscape.
A dry river bed is a rock-lined swale that uses rounded river rock in addition to vegetation to allow
Dry river bed with grasses and deer resistant oleander
runoff to soak into the ground. Make sure there is a 2% slope from beginning to end to ensure that water is conveyed away from your house to the desired location. Non-woven geotextile fabric is often used underneath the rock.
You can create a depression or rain garden at the end of your dry river bed and plant it with plants that tolerate wet feet in the winter. Both a dry river bed and a rain garden allow water to sink back into the ground. The plants remove pollutants from the runoff from roofs or other impervious surfaces.
A rain garden might be a simple, shallow depression filled with plants that can flourish in both moist and dry conditions. The size and depth will depend on your how much water you need to capture in a winter runoff
Sometimes a dry river bed will receive so much runoff that a dry well or dispersal pit is installed at the end. If you have a high water table or clay soil the water may not always soak in fast enough and an overflow device like this is needed. The goal is to keep water on your own property and not in the street or the neighbors’ yard.
There are good looking dry river beds as we’ll as bad looking ones. A quick Google image search will show you what I mean. Your goal is to create something that looks like it belongs right where it is. The plants, the accent rocks, the cobble, the location – all need to work together.
If your property has a natural slope follow the natural terrain if possible. You can install a dry river bed on flat land also by creating a channel for the river bed to follow. Keep in mind that even a dry river bed is more interesting if it is not all visible at once. Soft, flowing curves and bends create a natural look.
Start with the rocks and cobble. Rounded river cobble looks most natural for the creek bed. In nature, water flowing down a river would round off sharp rock edges to produce cobble of different sizes. A river never has just one size of rocks and yours shouldn’t either.
Accent rocks can be any type that you like as long as you get a variety of rock sizes and shapes. Use the larger stones to direct and channel water. Placing rocks on the outside of a curve creates a more natural look.
Pheasant Tail grass along cobble path
As in all gardens there is always a bit of maintenance to keep things looking and working great. Weeding in the first couple of months while plants become established is important. Replenish mulch as needed until the plants grow in.
Periodically remove leaves that have landed in your river bed and reposition rocks moved by runoff to keep your dry creek bed working for you when you need it. Also don’t start your dry creek bed too close to the foundation of your home if that area is flat. You can direct the water through a drain pipe connected to a downspout to a lower starting spot in your garden.
So whether you are adding a dry river bed to add interest to your lawn-free landscape or to double as catchment for winter storm runoff, make yours look like it’s always been there.
We all enjoy privacy around our homes. Even if you’re best friends with your neighbor you don’t always want to wave at them each morning in your robe. Whether you have a property tucked way back in the forest with a next door neighbor that looks right down on your deck or a postage stamp size lot that could be an jewel if you just had a screen between you and the next property, there are techniques designers use to make your home a private oasis.
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.
Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.
A dwarf tree that also works nicely in this situation is a Southern magnolia called Little Gem. Naturally a very compact narrow tree it grows to 20-30 ft tall but only 10-15 ft wide. It can be trained as an espalier against a wall or fence and the sweetly scented flowers will fill your garden with fragrance.
Other 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.
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. I’ve never used the subtle spicy leaves for flavoring sauces but I might try it next time a recipe calls for bay leaves. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.
Italian buckthorn is another evergreen screening shrub to consider. It reaches about 15 feet tall by 6-8 ft wide and has low water needs. It can grow 2-3 feet in its first few years making a quick screen. There’s a variegated version with stunning foliage that looks awesome mixed with the green variety in a hedge.
Another favorite hedge plant, the 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 a sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ with their showy variegated foliage.
If it’s just not practical to screen the perimeter of your property redirect your line of sight to keep attention focused on the garden instead of on the landscape beyond. A recirculating fountain as simple as an urn spilling onto cobbles at the base can disguise noise and become the focal point. There are lots of ways to add privacy to your home.
I am fortunate as a garden columnist and landscape designer to be invited to see, stroll and learn about beautiful gardens. Sometimes it’s a particularly successful method of irrigation, plant selection, placement or care that someone wants to share. Other times it’s the story of how their garden evolved. All gardens are interesting in their own way.
Recently I received an email from a reader in Scotts Valley who wanted to share what Montevalle Park has been doing to save water. Well I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about water.conservation. Here is how this unique mobile home park has changed their landscaping to save water.
Vickie Birdsall, my host and President of the HOA, welcomed me to her little corner of the world. Officially Montevalle is a mobile home park but is unique in that each lot under the oaks, pines and redwoods is a different size. Vickie told me that back in the early 70’s when Ray Retzlaff developed the park it was the first in California where people could purchase the lot they lived on and collectively own all the amenities. The lots were divided with the trees in mind so that a pre-made home could be installed without disturbing the trees.
As you drive through the park on winding roads each homeowner has made their property unique. Many have views of the woods, some with mountain vistas. All have established landscaping and enjoy the common areas including 2 lakes connected by a waterfall.
Vickie is now the President of the Association but for many years was in charge of the landscaping. She knows about the sandy soil of the park and the well water with its high mineral content that is used for the irrigation. On the positive side the deer seemed to be browsing other neighborhoods these days leaving the park to the occasional fox and the raccoon.
There are 56 pocket gardens in common areas throughout the park. Vickie’s goal is to convert as many as possible from lawn to drought tolerant plantings.
putting green area
The putting green area-which is across from Vickie’s house- used to be all lawn. She started taking out the lawn little by little a couple years ago and last fall finished the new landscaping. Incorporating re-purposed stepping stones and feather rock from other places in the park. a new path bisects a lovely garden which will use little water once established. Starting from gallon cans the new plantings are growing in nicely. Vickie told me she uses plants with different textures, foliage colors and heights and repeats the groupings which makes all the elements work together.
She was proud to show me how well the Carmel Creeper ceanothus is filling in. Other nearby plants include Little John callistemon, Rose Glow barberry, Golden Sunset coleonema, euphorbia, Emerald Carpet manzanita and Moonshine achillea to name just a few. The real eye catchers are 2 very drought tolerant sea holly. The metallic, iridescent blue flowers and stems of these eryngiums glowed in the afternoon sun.
The park has 2 lakes and as we walked along the shore of the lower lake, Vickie pointed where they installed a bio filter area to clean the nitrates from the water flowing down from the north lake. Yellow flag iris, gunnera and tulle grasses help keep the algae down. Several turtles and koi were enjoying the water lilies that have just started to bloom.
Step ponds between the lakes
Vickie has taken out the pockets of lawn along the step ponds connecting the two lakes. Under locust and birch trees, the small waterfalls are bordered by myoporum ground cover, shasta daisies, asparagus ferns, ornamental grasses and agapanthus. The new plantings are thriving under lots of mulch and are much easier to maintain.
Along the road to the lodge, Vickie pointed out more drought tolerant plantings which have replaced lawn such as Jerusalem sage, Pride of Madeira, manzanita, ornamental grasses and Purple-leafed hop bush. At the lodge she has installed small areas of artificial turf for barbecues and the front garden is a work in progress converting the lawn to dymondia and other plantings. The gophers are not helping with the progress, she admitted.
Vickie says she started converting the lawns in the park way before the drought. She has done 10 so far and has plans for many more.
Montevalle park is a good example of how an area can still be beautiful and serene without all the lawns. With lots of soil amendment and mulch the new plants bring lots of color plus birds and butterflies using a fraction of the water that was used previously. I was invited back to see the pink lotus blooming in the north lake in July and August. I’ve put it on my calendar.
With our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbor’s yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that can make a plant thrives or just mope along? And how can you plan when one “reliable” plant source says the plant will get 6 ft tall an another shows that same plant as reaching 8-12 ft tall and just as wide?
When designing a garden whether it’s a client’s or my own I need to take into account the growing conditions such as soil type, nutrients, water requirements, high and low temperature, space and light. Most all plants use water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water or nutrients can be harmful to your plant’s progress.
Healthy soil provides an anchor for plant roots and helps support the plant in addition to providing nutrients. Healthy soil contains micro organisms and adding organic matter to your soil when you plant and in the form of mulch will increase your soil’s fertility.
Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor but how can you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade or moisture? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to look up during the growing season and see how many hours of sun, part sun, bright shade or partial shade your area is receiving. To simplify, it’s not as important what is going on during the winter but knowing the summer conditions is crucial. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.
Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.
Plant your new addition correctly. When digging the hole be sure that you loosen surrounding soil 2-3 times the width of the root ball. There is no rule that you can’t loosen the soil even wider around your planting hole. Use the shovel to loosen the edges of the hole so that it’s not hard and smooth. Roots have an easier time of growing out from the initial hole is sides aren’t hard as a rock. You can loosen the soil below the depth of the root ball if it’s really hard and amend it also. Be sure to firm the soil underneath the plant so the crown of your plant doesn’t sink below grade and drown during winter rains or watering. Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil also allows for a 2” thick layer of mulch.
If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil all the above tips are important for your planting success.
A year or so ago I planted a special kind of Japanese maple in my sister’s landscape. I traveled up to her house recently to celebrate our birthdays which are only 2 days apart and to check on the maple’s progress. Prized for their their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple, my sister’s Beni Kawa Japanese maple is coming along fine. I forgot to buff the bark with a soft cloth to polish it which keeps the color bright but I’ll be sure to remember that next summer when I visit again.
I also wanted to check in on her neighbor’s organic garden that I wrote about last summer. Bob was happy to show me what’s in the works for this year. Although he was fighting a cold -you can’t keep a good gardener down- he shared a few tips he is trying out this year.
Raw sawdust is his magic weapon in the strawberry patch. Sprinkled between the strawberry plants it is said to prevent annual weeds from germinating. He’ll get back to me with the results later in the season. His grapes were nicely pruned, the raspberries just starting to bud and the garlic which he planted last fall was about a foot high. The raised veggie boxes have been planted with lots of peas. Inside the green house, several types of kale and lettuce were just emerging in their flats.
Bob told me that this year again everything seems to be about 3 weeks early- sound familiar? As I walked the neighborhood enjoying the various blooming plants and taking in the sights of majestic Mt Rainier and the Puget Sound I admired many plants that also thrive here in our neck of the woods. A plant that grows in a multiple of growing conditions is always a winner in my garden. Here are a few notables from Fox Island.
What could a plant that is iconic of Scotland have in common with our area? Easy to grow heather and true heath look great in the garden at any time of year. Although both belong to the Ericacaea family, they are botanically different and are divided into the Calluna genus and the Erica genus. In the garden, however, they are nearly identical in color, shape and growing habits.
I love their colorful foliage and flowers and have seen the true heath, Erica canaliculata ‘Rosea’ blooming now also in gardens in our area. It is tolerant of winter lows a bit less than 25 degrees and will thrive in soil that is more alkaline than the calluna vulgaris heathers. Calluna types need more organic matter in the soil to really do well. Our acidic mixed redwood soils provide this and calluna cultivars are very cold tolerant. All need good drainage.
Another shrub that I admire where ever I find it is Valley Rose’ Lily-of-the-Valley. The other vivid rose variety which grows a bit taller is Valley Valentine. It seemed most gardens on Fox Island had at least one of these beautiful plants in full bloom including the stunning white flowering forms. Books might tell you they require average water but established specimens are remarkable tolerant of drought.
Although it wasn’t blooming yet I came across a lovely choisya Sundance also called Mexican Orange Blossom shrub which describes the fragrant orange blossom-like blooms. The new growth of this fast growing, evergreen, deer resistant shrub is colored bright chartreuse and provides year round color to the garden.
To round out my tour of local landscapes on Fox Island many of the early rhododendrons were starting to bloom. Covered with vivid pink flower trusses they looked great planted with viburnum davidii, daffodil and narcissus, iberis and black mondo grass. All grow great in our area too. We have a lot in common despite the distance between us.
It probably won’t come as a big surprise to you that I have a lot of friends that are also landscape designers. We get together to talk plants, garden design challenges and plant problems while enjoying good food along with a little wine thrown in for good measure. Recently I had the opportunity to visit one of these friends and although I was only there briefly to pick up something I couldn’t help but ask about several of the beautiful plantain her own garden. Some of her favorites include those with interesting foliage and texture and that flower over a long season. Maybe some of these plant ideas will work in your own garden.
Being winter and all I was immediately drawn to the hundreds of soft apricot and creamy yellow flowers covering a 3 foot wide Peruvian Lily. This selection of alstroemeria, called Inca Ice, is much shorter and compact that the taller ones that can be somewhat floppy in the garden. Alstroemeria were named by Carl Linnaeus, often called the Father of Taxonomy, for his friend and student Klaus von Alstroemer. Native to South America, the summer growing types come from eastern Brazil while the winter growing plants are from central Chile.
Peruvian Lily spread slowly outward from rhizomes and grow in full to part sun. They are hardy to 15-20 degrees and can tolerate dry conditions although they look best with irrigation. The Inca series grows 2-3 ft tall and can be covered with flowers from spring to late fall or winter if the weather is mild. The flower stems are long enough for cutting. This variety also comes in light orchid, pale yellow and white with red and green markings. What’s not to love about this plant?
Tucked next to the blooming Inca Ice Peruvian Lily, a clump of bright, burgundy red Festival grass complemented the soft yellow of a Leucodendron discolor and a variegated Flamingo Glow Beschorneria. I was not familiar with this variegated agave relative with its soft-tipped chartreuse striped leaves. I found out this beautiful plant is drought tolerant, hardy to 15 degrees and will bloom with 5 foot pink stalks with reddish pink bracts.
Other plants that boast more foliage color than flowers brought this winter garden to life. Several varieties of helleborus just starting to show pink, white and rose color were surrounded by the brilliant chartreuse-yellow foliage of sedum Angelina ground cover. A variegated Japanese Lily-of-the-Valley shrub grew nearby getting ready to bloom soon.
Beautiful bright pink, cream and green variegated Jester Leucodendron bordered the driveway. I’ve seen this plant also called Safari Sunshine in nurseries. With its smaller size of 4-5 feet this evergreen shrub has showy, rich red bracts that sit atop the branches now in late winter and lasting into spring. Drought tolerant like Safari Sunset and deer resistant, too, leaucodendron are hardier than other protea.
Every interesting garden has good bones. It has focal points, texture, repetition and unity among other elements. My friends garden is no exception. A lovely caramel colored New Zealand Wind Grass dominated another area allowing my eye to rest for a while. I wish they would quit renaming this plant that used to be stipa arundinacea but is now anemanthele lessoniana. The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but the effect is beautiful in the garden. I’ve always called it Pheasant Tail grass but I could find no reference as to why this common name is used. Life used to be simple before DNA sequencing!
So if you’re in the mood to add a couple of interesting plants to your garden, take a tip from what a landscape designer grows in her own garden.
Reading about the new wetland pond construction at the Ben Lomond SLV Homeschool in The Press Banner this past October 31st has me thinking about a low spot in my own garden that becomes soggy during the winter. Most mornings and evenings I hear the resident Pacific Tree frog singing his heart out. Maybe I can encourage even more frogs as well as dragonflies, salamanders and toads by installing my own wetland habitat. There are a lot of landscapes that I encounter that also have a “problem” area with poor drainage and this would be the perfect solution. I’ve thought about building a wetland garden or bog garden for many years. This winter I’m going to do it.
The difference between a wetland garden and a bog garden is basically how long the water remains during the year. A wetland pond in our area is often seasonal, drying up in the summertime. A bog garden is damp even in the summer. A shady spot with a high water table is a good spot for a bog garden.
Wetlands are important to our ecosystem. One of the greatest wetlands in North America at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley has almost completely vanished. There used to be almost 5 million acres of wetlands in the Central Valley and now only a small percentage remains. This habitat destruction is causing the disappearance of birds, frogs, amphibians and other wetland wildlife. You can help encourage these species in your own backyard and grow plants that are beautiful, too. Every little bit helps.
Most wetland plants don’t require standing water to grow successfully and will survive even in an area that appears dry most of the growing season. Many frogs including the Pacific Tree frog only need 3-4 weeks of water to lay eggs and the pollywogs to mature. Other frogs need a longer time to reproduce. The water need only be a little over a foot deep.
To create a wetland in an area that isn’t naturally moist and has heavy clay soil you will need to lay down a waterproof, nontoxic liner and cover it with soil. For a bog garden add decomposed plant matter and peat, Branches and logs can be placed around the edges as perches for birds and dragonflies and provide a spot for turtles to bask in the sun. Winter rains provide the best water to fill your wetland pond. Frogs and other amphibians are extremely sensitive to chemicals in tap water. Wildlife will be naturally drawn to your wetland. If you build it, they will come, I promise.
There are many wetland plants that grow quickly when the soil in wet and then die back when the soil dries up only to return when moisture is again present. Species like cattails and rushes will do well being common in wetlands in our area. The plants you select depends on the amount of light, the length of time the soil will be saturated and the depth or water. Native trees like Big-Leaf maple, Red Alder and Box Elder are good companions for a wetland garden as are shrubs such as Snowberry, marsh baccharis and Yellow-twig dogwood.
Other native plants include Stream orchid, Deer fern, Horsetail, Cardinal lobelia, Twinberry honeysuckle, Cardinal Monkeyflower, Wood’s Rose, Blue Elderberry, Blue-eyed Grass, California Wild Grape and Giant Chain Fern.
Creating a mini-wetland in your own yard provides many of the same benefits that natural wetlands offer, providing habitat for creatures like butterflies, bees, salamanders, frogs and birds.
Throughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but it’s at this time of year that I especially hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden”. There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too. This is the time of year that grasses say “Fall is here”.
There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.
Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.
Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum-a restio, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.
So let’s say you are putting in a new patio and want a few low grasses as accents between some of the pavers. A variety like Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass, with it’s creamy white foliage that turns pink in cold weather, would look great here. You could also use Ogon sweet flag for dense clumps the color of buttery in a shady spot, black mondo grass or blue fescue grass for even more color.
If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture of a grass with light and movement would be perfect, look to taller varieties to achieve this. Miscanthus purpurascens or Flame Grass grows 4 to 8 feet tall in the sun. Their magenta leaves turn to milky white in winter. Maiden grass sports narrow upright leaves 5 to 8 feet tall and creamy flowers. Their seed heads float and bounce in the the breeze. Planting them just above the horizon allow you to enjoy their swaying and dipping backlit at sunset.
Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of red fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with it’s fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass, You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1 to 2 feet tall. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.
Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. This grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination.
For a touch of whimsy, you can’t beat fiber optic grass. This grass-like sedge from Europe and North Africa looks like a bad hairpiece. You can grow it at the edge of a shallow pond or display it inside in a pot on a pedestal to show off it’s flowering habit. Seeing is believing with this one.
These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.
I love my smart phone. I can’t imagine a day without it. A friend of mine told me that I would discover uses that I could only have imagined when I first got it. One of the simple things I use it for is taking pictures. Since I always have it in my back pocket I can whip it out in gardens, nurseries, in the wild or in any landscape that catches my attention.
It wasn’t until I started photographing gardens that I realized the importance of combining plants. So now when I design a grouping of plants that look good together I’m thinking of strong foliage plants, colorful flower spikes alongside soft mounds of foliage and delicate flowers alongside bolder blooms.
With the first day of fall next week I’m thinking of ways that will have any garden bursting with interest for the next few months. These are strategies for combining plants that are adaptable to all types of garden conditions whether you live in the sun or the shade and will also look good in other seasons of the year.
A vignette is a small group of plants that make a pleasing scene because of their complementary and contrasting features. I have several lists of good plant combinations that I regularly refer to when designing a garden. I usually start with a strong foliage plant then add other plants that have interesting texture, form or color.
When you look at a garden that you admire it’s usually the dramatic form of one of the plants that draws you in. When you use a plant with a bold, architectural form it makes a statement. The spiky foliage of Cream Delight phormium alongside a Burgundy loropetalum would make a good combination. Or how about creating a vignette of Festival Burgundy cordyline with Annabelle hydrangea and Cream de Mint pittosporum?
During the next few months plants begin to show soft, fall colors. Combine the fading foliage of these plants with plants that complement each other. The reddish fall color or Oakleaf hydrangea along with the pinkish-tan color of their fading flowers looks wonderful when combined with Japanese Forest Grass as it turns pink before winter. Another complementary fall combination is Royal Purple Smoke Tree surrounded by a bed of Autumn Joy sedum.
Strong colors sometimes contrast instead of blend when plants change colors in the fall. I like to tone down a combination with silver foliage. An example of this would be a plant grouping of Evening Glow phormium, sedum Autumn Joy and Glacier Blue or Tasmanian Tiger euphorbia.
Another way to create a great plant combination is by blending textures. Coral Bark Japanese maple and Plum Passion nandina work well together. Cistus Sunset with Spanish lavender and rosemary is another good combination. I also like a large mass of Blue Oat Grass and Salmon salvia greggii planted together. Santa Barbara daisy goes well with Red Fountain Grass.
My list of potential plant combinations is pretty long as I’ve made notes over the years. Each garden has its own personality and growing conditions. A hot, dry garden might depend on a ground cover ceanothus along with lavender while a shadier garden might use natives like heuchera maxima, iris douglasiana, yerba buena and salvia spathacea. Whatever plants you choose, let them work together to make exciting vignettes in your garden.
You can feel the weather changing as summer winds down. It’s more than just the passing of the Labor Day holiday and the school year starting. The nights are longer and cooler. The days are not quite so hot and the flowers in the garden seem brighter and more colorful. I look past the soft blue and lavender blossoms and am drawn to the warm shades of gold, rust, orange, hot pink and red. They shout autumn is on the way.
There’s nothing quite like adding a few new perennials to brighten up the garden. There are many that don’t require a lot of water after they become established. I recently visited a garden where the irrigation was reduced to the point that that most of the plants were barely hanging on. But there among the crispy plants were two Hot Lips salvia blooming as big as you please. This plant is popular for a reason. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it and it blooms for a long time. It stays compact and is a great carefree shrub for water wise gardens.
Daisy flowers always bring a smile to my face. As members of the composite family they have a flat landing surface for butterflies to land on. Coneflowers are one of my favorites. When they start blooming in the early summer I enjoy them both in the garden and as cut flowers inside. Some have a slight fragrance. Hybridizers have introduced beautiful shades of gold, yellow, orange, burgundy and coral in addition to the traditional purple and pure white. Because they are dormant in the winter they are good candidates for the garden that has summer sun but winter shade. They are not attractive to deer and are good additions to the low water garden.
Another perennial that blooms throughout summer and fall is gaillardia also known as blanket flower. I’ve seen this tough plant grow in neglected gardens that the owner swears does nothing to keep it going. They are covered with dozens of large reddish-orange flowers with yellow edging and bloom over a long period. This plant also attracts butterflies. You can start perennials from seed at this time of year for next year’s bloom.
Don’t overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope’, New Zealand flax, red fountain grass and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.
Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylily and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.
Another thing to do while out in the garden this month is to 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.
Soon it will be time to start cool season veggies or plant cover crops in the garden. It’s never too soon to start planning for erosion control in those areas that caused you problems during last spring’s storms. But for now add some early fall color and have fun in the garden.
Summer may be winding down but we still have lots of great outdoor weather to enjoy for several more months. This means more time to spend outdoors in the garden relaxing, entertaining and cooking on the grill. I like the relaxing part most of all so it’s important to me that what I see and feel when I’m out in the garden have an atmosphere that appeals to me. Here are a few ideas that I’ve used in my own and other people’s gardens I’ve helped to create.
Outdoor spaces are just more inviting if they feel like a real room with a ceiling, walls and attractive flooring. An arbor or pergola is a good way to provide a lid on your outdoor space. If you have natural trees in your garden they can shield you from the sky in some areas and open up other areas to passing clouds and sun. You can achieve a similar effect with groups of potted trees that shade your sitting area. Japanese maples, ornamental plums,cherries or crabapple are just a few of the trees that do well in pots. If you like to grow edibles plant a fig in a pot to provide some shade.
The sounds you hear while in the garden are part of the experience, too. The atmosphere just wouldn’t be the same without the sound of rustling grasses, wind chimes or birds splashing about in the bird bath or fountain. Auditory elements can come from the sound of gravel crunching underfoot as you walk or the wind in the trees.
Create the atmosphere you like by using the colors and textures you most admire in your garden. I use to live in a lot of shade so white, silver and gold foliage and flowers were really important to bring life to the garden. I still love these shades but cool blue, baby pink and soft yellow also appeal to me.
Texture in the garden refers to the overall visual texture of the plants. Large and bold foliage like Flowering Maple, Pride of Madeira, rhododendron, viburnum, oakleaf hydrangea or hosta make a large garden appear smaller. Soft, fine foliage will make the garden appear larger by giving it the allusion of more space. Examples of finely textured plants include ornamental grasses, Breath of Heaven, ferns and asters. You might use different textured plants in different parts of your garden to get the affect you like.
Blur the garden’s boundaries to make it more interesting. You won’t be able to see the whole garden at one glance if you curve the path behind some shrubs, tall plants or sheer, see-through perennials. Leave some wild areas for the birds and bees to join you. Garden organically and mix in native plants wherever you can to keep the garden healthy.
Creating atmosphere in the garden is the art of combining space and time, light and weather to make a garden that we feel reflects who we are. It’s different for every gardener. One person might like straight rows of vegetables while another scatters poppies and nasturtiums randomly. Whatever appeals to you it should be close to your heart and that’s the atmosphere in your garden that’s right for you.
Last Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.
The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.
The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they lamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.
White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape ground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.
In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.
On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a mound for overbearing strawberries.
Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.
The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.
They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed. Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.
Bob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.
All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.
Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.
A garden is the perfect example of the circle of life. A garden is nature’s way of taking and giving back life to the earth. A garden represents the infinite nature of energy. I am reminded of this as my best friend lost her dog to cancer recently and within a day my niece gave birth to her first child. A garden holds hope. And it can heal our sorrows.
I am in a garden every day. Sometimes it’s the garden of friends I’m enjoying or helping a client with theirs or strolling a public garden and of course, I am in my own garden daily. Wherever I go I receive something from the experience and try to leave some positive energy there. The events this week have me thinking about what makes a garden that heals? And on the other side of the circle of life what’s important in a kid and pet friendly garden?
Through our history gardens have been used to aid in the healing process. Japanese Zen Gardens and Monastic Cloister gardens are good examples of this. Viewing natural scenes helps us reduce stress and negative emotions and replaces them with positive feelings.
To make your garden look better and make you feel better when you’re in it pay special attention to plant selection. Allow the plants to dominate with a minimal amount of hardscaping. Choose plants that are fragrant, colorful or soft to the touch. Plants that attract wildlife make a garden a happy place. Simple, bold mass plantings are more comforting than a wild mix of many varieties. Leave that to the cutting garden. Enclose the space to keep your thoughts inward and peaceful.
It’s just as important if you have children and pets to create a garden that is calming and relieves stress.
Picking plants for a backyard that is shared with dogs is especially important if your dog naturally nibbles on greenery or berries. Some plants are lethal while others can cause illness or vomiting. I was surprised to see so many common plants on the ASPCA website that could cause problems like carnations, primroses and geraniums. What’s safe for us like grapes and avocado are not good for dogs. Check the list to make sure the plants your are considering are safe for your dog.
Plants near paths should have soft foliage without thorns and spines which can cause eye injury. Brittle plants like salvias should be in the center where they’ll be protected. Densely planted areas are usually avoided by dogs but planting in raised beds or mounds help, too. Pieces of driftwood placed at the front of a border will discourage them. Start with one gallon or larger plants that can stand up to a little roughhousing.
Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous. Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt.
http://www.calpoison.org and search “plants”.
What makes a great experience for a kid in the garden? In a nutshell, you can teach children of any age about beneficial insects in a garden and other wildlife. Older kids can identify and nibble edible flowers like calendula, dianthus, nasturtiums, pansies, peas and beans. Grow flowers that kids can cut like zinnias and snapdragons and plants to touch that are soft and furry like lamb’s ears.
Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden. You can plant tall growing sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a “door” that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown. Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long gardening stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside. Scarlet runner beans are also good and have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds. Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.
Make your garden one everyone can enjoy.
I get a lot of calls from homeowners who need help seeing their property through new eyes. Maybe they’ve lived there for a long time but the landscaping needs an update. Or maybe they’re just moving in and the landscaping has been neglected for a while. Whatever the reason, there are techniques I use to bring out the best in a space. This is the time of year when all things seem possible. Take a few moments to really look at your garden. Look at the view from inside the windows and from the driveway as you enter. Then imagine all it could be with some simple changes.
The elements of garden design, like arrangement of paths, planting beds and open spaces, shape your garden. Have you ever noticed how your eye is drawn along a path through the garden? The plantings along the sides serve to frame but it’s the style of the path itself that enhances your experience in the garden.
The materials you choose for a path determine how fast or slow your walk will be. A casual path of gravel or bark chips lends itself to slow meandering around bends in the path. Flagstone pavers set in sand with spaces left between for low growing ground covers are good choices for both major access walks and smaller paths. Be sure to space the stones no further than a comfortable stride apart. Other materials that make good paths are brick, cobbles and pressure-treated lumber.
A curved line or offset sections of paving slows movement inviting you to notice the surroundings. Curves should look as if they are supposed to be there. Place a large plant, rock or sculptural feature at a turning point so that you must walk around the object. Remember a lightly curved path makes a nice entrance walk or a stroll through the garden but stick with straight lines for a path to take out the trash or get fire wood.
Walkways should be designed for comfort and accessibility. A walk that leads to your front door should be 4-5 feet wide, enough to accommodate 2 people walking in opposite directions at the same time. Smaller paths, 24″ wide, are OK for one person to stroll through the garden further out from exits and entrances.
If your garden is small, a tapering path edged with curving flower beds will seem to converge on the horizon, giving the illusion of depth and distance. Plantings of grasses in the beds will create a sense of movement.
You can separate plants and people by designing seating along the walkways. A good spot to place seating is at a fork in the path or where two types of paving meet another. Any object you can comfortably sit on is a possibility. Besides wood or ornamental iron benches, rocks, tree stumps, seat walls and planters can also double as seating.
The best gardens include focal points other than plants and trees. The art you place in your garden reflects your style as much as the art you have in your home. A ceramic pot placed as a focal point can add drama to your space. A metal sculpture or wall hanging can do the same. The great thing about making a garden is that you don’t have to do it all at once. And gardens are easy to alter as your ideas change. A garden is never done.
Creating interest outside a window depends not only on plant choices but also simple design solutions. Keep the garden simple and restful. Editing some of the plants will make the garden lower maintenance, too. Plants that have overgrown the space need constant pruning. Move them to a better spot.
Limit the number of elements in the garden. Rather than trying to include everything in the garden try for a unified look with the fewest number of things. Make each one count. Place objects to define a space. This doesn’t mean creating separate garden rooms necessarily but more like a set of boulders to signify distinct parts of the garden.
Another tip that makes an area more restful visually is to limit your plant palette. Plants that you can see through make a space seem larger. Some plants like Japanese maple, nandina and dogwood are naturally airy while other plants like camellia can be pruned for openness. Low growing, mounding ground covers help unify the garden. Plant soothing greenery for year round appeal with seasonal color from perennials and shrubs.
With a little planning your landscaping can express your own style.
Last fall my sister lost her favorite tree in a windstorm. She lives on Fox Island in the southern part of Puget Sound. I remember hearing about the extraordinary Pacific storm on the national news shattering records in the Northwest. Gusts up to 76 mph closed bridges, falling trees hurt 2 people and thousands lost power. Her Silk Tree didn’t stand a chance.
While visiting over the Christmas holiday I thought it would be a nice present to replace her dearly departed tree. Several nice ornamental trees made the short list including the Katsura tree with leaves that smell like vanilla in the fall and Forest Pansy redbud with magenta spring flowers, burgundy heart-shaped summer leaves and reddish-orange fall color. We also considered the native Pacific dogwood but she already had one in the yard. Driving around we started to notice the beautiful color of the Coral Bark Japanese maples in many landscapes and the decision was made.
I knew we would have no trouble finding a good specimen in the Pacific Northwest and I was right. Close by in Gig Harbor we found Yang’s Nursery and I walked into the realm of a Japanese maple expert. Owner Won Yang opened the nursery to give us a tour of the grounds. We walked between rows of hundreds of maples and marveled at the huge bonsai specimens of Weeping Katsura tree, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, several different conifers and a very impressive, beautifully pruned Oshio Beni Japanese maple all over 20 years old.
Won showed us his greenhouses where he propagates the maples himself. He has been in the business for 30 years so he knows his stuff. Starting with a small green maple seedling with a half inch stem that is cut off 6″ above the ground, he carefully grafts a tiny tip of new growth from the desired specimen onto the larger stem. It will take at least 3 years before the new tree will be big enough to sell. Won’s pride in his work was apparent as he smiled at the rows of newly grafted maples.
Back out among the maples, I had my eye on the rows of coral barked Sangu Kaku maples when I saw them. Lined up alongside were several trees with bark so bright I couldn’t believe my eyes. “What are these”, I asked? Won just smiled and told me they were called Beni Kawa Japanese maples and were a cultivar originally developed in 1987. They are prized for their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple. I was hooked. How could I not plant this gorgeous tree in my sister’s yard?
I learned that the bark of this tree can be polished to keep the bright color. Lichen often grows on older trees hiding the salmon red bark of the new branches. I’ll have to try using a soft cloth on my coral bark maple and see how it turns out. The Beni Kawa is a fast growing Japanese maple that will eventually reach 10-15 ft tall and 5-12 ft wide. It is hardy to 15 degrees.
Won grows his trees in a 50/50 mixture of top soil blend and fine crushed bark. He fertilizes with a balanced granular fertilizer and prunes in the winter. The 6 ft tree I bought my sister will not need to be pruned for a couple of years allowing it to establish a strong root system.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the new tree evolves as it grows especially since I know where this Beni Kawa Japanese maple was born.
I designed other parts of this garden but this area was all hers. She’d been interested in cactus and succulents for a long time before deciding to combine her passion for these plants and her love of gardening to a problem spot in the garden. The results are jaw-dropping impressive and I was honored to visit this garden and get a private tour. My friends live on the river in Ben Lomond and working as a team have created a living wall on a slope that runs the length of their driveway rising steeply up to a road on the upper side.
Most people would have built a block retaining wall and added a few low water use plants for erosion control and called it a day. But not this couple. He’s a rock hound and has collected specimens on every vacation and job site for a very long time. “His rock collection became so large we needed to bring them out in the open and put them in a place where he could see them daily”, she says. My eyes were riveted on a mosaic of colors as the various stones of jasper, jade, granite, serpentine, travertine, chert, sandstone, obsidian, lava and limestone intertwine. “The wall has been quite an adventure”, the couple says casually as my eyes darted back and forth, up and down admiring each vignette. Almost all of the succulents and cactus plants were obtained for free from discards and generous friends and the garden art in the wall was found on construction sites and recycled. The wall itself is an ongoing labor of love. Starting just a year and a half ago with a short block wall as the base, this living succulent wall has been built with mortar, rebar and dry laid stones and even has a sturdy set of stairs, a flagstone and pebble path and several places to sit and take in its beauty.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful rock walls and colorful succulents that filled every crevice and cascaded down the rocks. How do you make it so stable I asked? “A good mason handles a rock only 9 times”, he said with a laugh. Seems there’s a story that accompanies every little section. An unusual black ornamental iron railing surrounds a tiny slate patio at the top. It consist of typical sunflowers on the sides but in the middle of each section is a bat with wings extended. Really gets your attention I have to tell you. I was told that Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame used to live in Ben Lomond. He had a patio made for his aging mother and this was the surrounding railing. It arrived via some friends who now own the house and said they could have it as long as they never sold it. Along with some rocks from Tarzan’s old garden it is permanently installed in the succulent wall. At the top of the wall along the road lives a red rose that’s been in the garden a very long time. Story goes that a neighbor distributed these roses to many in the neighborhood and they originally came from Eleanor Roosevelt when she visted the area. Succulents for the wall are part trial and error, part research.
Drainage for any succulent is a must so first a mix is created using pumice, gravel and sand. This is used for the pockets in the wall and also for containers which are filled with rocks and only a few inches of the mix is added to the top. They have found that by using frost blankets over only the most frost sensitive varieties their collection survives our winters. The first winter they did protect them while getting established but now they are on their own. Even if some turn to mush, I was told, they are cleaned up in the spring, replanted and grow back just fine. And being succulents they multiply and there are even more to tuck into crevices the next year.
The wall contains hundreds and hundreds of plants, both succulents as well as other plants that provide colorful foliage and contrast to the rock. A new section is being developed with dark green serpentine and orange jasper rocks. Blue chalk stick (Senecio vitals ‘Serpents) is just one of the succulents growing here along with several varieties of crassula, echeverria, graptopetalum St. Ives, agave, sempervivum and aloe. There is a pink and blue section and a chartreuse and burgundy section, too. Every color of the rainbow is represented. Every succulent garden is unique and the owner’s of this one have created their own astonishing living wall. From fossil rocks shaped like hearts to slate pavers chipped into a heart shape to Hens and Chicks growing in the rock crevices and forming a heart, this garden shouts love.
I walk regularly in Henry Cowell State Park in Felton. I can’t imagine losing the majestic redwood forest I enjoy so much to a fire. Over the summer there were several arson caused fires in the park. Actually 10 separate fires have occurred in the same general area and along the San Lorenzo River over the past 6 months, some caused by campfire escapes and some by arson. All of them were caused by humans.
We live in this beautiful area because of the natural scenery and wildlife. To lose any part of it to wildfire would be tragic. Whether a fire is caused by humans or natural causes such as lightning it’s all the same to our neighborhood, our homes, our pets, our lives.
We know that fire in some instances can be good for the land. After many years of fire exclusion an ecosystem that needs periodic fire to remain healthy becomes overcrowded and flammable fuels build up. The Forest Service manages prescribed fires to benefit natural resources and protect communities. However, as we build homes further into nature prescribed fires are not always possible. This is where mechanical treatment can benefit ecosystems and people.
Mechanical treatment include thinning of dense stands of trees or other fuels that make an area better able to withstand fire. Pruning loser branches, piling brush or creating fuel breaks encourage a more manageable fire should one occur.
Last week I talked about how to make the area closer to your home more firesafe. Here are some more tips.
In areas 30-70 ft. away from your house plants should be trimmed and thinned to create well-spaced groups and help prevent a fire in the wildland from spreading to your home. Be cautious with slopes. If you have a large lot, the fringe area should be inspected and maintained regularly to eliminate any build up of dry brush and litter. This reduces the chance of surface as well as crown fires.
Plant arrangements, spacing and maintenance are often as important as plant types when considering fire safety. Group plants of similar heights and water requirements to create a landscape mosaic that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently. Use plants that no not accumulate dead leaves or twigs. Keep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis remove dead branches and brush, dry grass, dead leaves and pine needles from your yard, especially within 30 feet from your home and at least 150 ft if you’re on a hill. Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart with branches trimmed at least 10 ft away from your roof. It’s best, however, to keep trees further from your house. Low shrubs can be closer in and herbaceous perennials and groundcovers can be nearest the home.
Extremely flammable plants have a high content of oil or resin and should be separated from each other, removed of dead branches and lower limbs and kept free of dry debris anywhere around your property. Extremely flammable pyrophytes like hollywood juniper, pines, fountain grass and Japanese honeysuckle will need a higher level of maintenance. Other common plants that are highly flammable ares sagebrush, buckwheat and deer grass. Rosemary and purple hopseed also fall into this category.These contain oils, resins and waxes that make them burn with a greater intensity.If you have these plants on your property yearly pruning and maintenance is important.
Irrigation is vital in a fire safe landscape to maintain plant moisture especially in the 30 ft around your home. Choose the right irritation system. While all plants can eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Consider drip irrigation and micro sprays for watering most of your landscape. Use sprinklers for lawns and other groundcovers or turf. Even drought adapted species and natives will benefit from watering every month or so during the dry season. Unwatered landscapes generally increase the risk of fire.
Mulching around your plants will preserve this precious commodity in these times of drought. Plantings beyond 30 ft. should be irrigated occasionally but to a lesser extent. As you get 70-100 ft from the home, native plantings that require little or no irrigation should be used.
Using fire resistant plants that are strategically planted give firefighters a chance fighting a fire around your home especially within the 100 foot defensible zone. Each home or property is different and you will need to look at the unique qualities of yours in planning your firescaping. Some of the info for this column was obtained from 2 valuable booklets. ‘Living with Fire in Santa Cruz County’, prepared by Cal Fire and available free from any fire dept or online and another from Calif. Dept of Forestry at www.fire.ca.gov/.
I drove through the Groveland area near Yosemite a couple of days before the Rim Fire started on August 17th. The local talk over Tioga Pass was then about the recent Aspen fire in the Sierra National Forest. The Rim fire has now burned 400 square miles of forest and cost $122 million to fight to date. What started as a 40 acre fire when discovered exploded to over 100,000 acres within 2 days. It is now the 3rd largest in California history.
Remote sensing satellite images indicate that virtually all the vegetation is dead on nearly 40% of the burned area. Chaparral and oaks will resprout but ecologist say it could take 30 to 50 years for the forest to reestablish itself. It scorched some of the last remaining old growth in the Stanislaus National Forest. Two years of drought and constant slow warming across the Sierra Nevada worked to turn the Rim Fire into an inferno. For years forest ecologists shaded_fuel_brake_example.2048have warned that Western wildfires will only get worse. The fuels get drier and drier.
There have been two wildfires close to where I live in Felton, one of which was only 5 miles away on Martin Grade in Bonny Doon several years ago. How can I protect my home? Is there a landscape that is safer in a wildfire than another? Which plants burn more readily?
Many people think they have to clear everything within 30 feet of their house to truly have a defensible space. This is unnecessary and actually unacceptable due to soil erosion and habitat destruction reasons. We want to retain the character of this beautiful area we live in, provide the food and shelter that our native wildlife are accustomed to but also reduce fire risk. For example, grasslands mowed to leave 4-6″ of height allow insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals shelter, food and a place to reproduce. Leaving 4-6″ standing also provides some erosion protection and shades out some of the weeds that follow disturbance.
Fire safe landscaping is a term used to describe defensible space. It can look like a traditional landscape. The idea is to surround the home with things less likely to burn and place them to provide separation between canopies and avoid creating fire ladders. Highly flammable plants should be placed, whenever possible, with low-growing and/or low fuel plants.
Many homes may not have 30 ft. between their house and the property line but following these guidelines will help. Plants in this area need to be the slowest to ignite and should produce the least amount of heat if they do burn. There are plants with some fire resistance which include drought tolerant California natives and Mediterranean climate selections. The key to fire resistance, though, is maintenance and keeping the moisture in the foliage high.
For example, Baccharis pilularis or dwarf coyote brush is generally considered highly flammable if its lush green top growth covers a hazardous tangle of dry branches and leaves several feet high. Trim this plant down low in early spring, remove the dry undergrowth, follow with a light feeding and watering and the new top growth is now resistant to fire.
Other considerations may be as important such as appearance, ability to hold the soil in place and wildlife habitat value. Some fire-resistant California friendly plants are western redbud, monkey flower, ceanothus, sage, yarrow, lavender, toyon, California fuchsia and wild strawberry. Also consider coffeeberry, flowering currant, bush anemone, snowberry, California wax myrtle and evergreen currant. Fire resistant plants from areas include rockrose, strawberry tree, Chinese pistache, barberry, escallonia, oleander, pittosporum, bush morning glory and wisteria to name just a few.
Next week I will discuss plant spacing arrangement and maintenance to help you prepare a fire-safe landscape around your home.
He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.
It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.
While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.
The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia. They have flat flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.
This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.
Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.
As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.
Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.
She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.
Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.
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Each time I’m in my garden it’s a different experience. The familiar buzz of hummingbird wings brings a smile to my face. Sometimes it’s the silence that gets my attention. Where are the chirping songbirds or the raucous scolding of the jays? Where is the wind, the rustling of the forest grass leaves? Other times the quaking of the redwood boughs a hundred feet up makes the garden come alive like giant wind chimes. Sound adds dimension to the garden.
I consider the music of the garden as well as plants and people when developing a design. I’m not talking about the popping sounds that corn makes when they don’t have enough water. Or as it matures, increase in weight, the leaves losing moisture and becoming more brittle, a puff of wind causing the stalks to strike each other and produce a spectrum of sound. Or when lupine seed pods explode with enough force it sounds like someone throwing stones against a fence.
No, I’m talking about how water, wind and wildlife play a big role in the music of a garden. Even the sound of crunching as you walk on a gravel path brings your garden to life.
The sound of moving water in the garden not only attracts birds but soothes the soul. It can drown out unwanted neighborhood noise or sound as subtle as a violin. I enjoyed a table top fountain with a bamboo deer scare for many years until the raccoons discovered it. The sound was incredibly soothing on a hot day. Pondless waterfalls are easier to maintain if you aren’t interested in fish or water plants. Small recirculating garden fountains can be placed on your deck or patio or tucked into garden beds. Urn and jar fountains offer a hint of bubbling water and the soothing sound of flowing water to your landscape.
A friend of mine has a different wind chime at each corner of his house. He can tell the direction of the wind, the intensity, even potential changes in the weather just by listening to the chimes. There are bamboo chimes available that produce a peaceful relaxing sound or musically tuned metal tubes or those made of wood or shells. Enhance the wind with these lulling sounds.
The wind is different in each season. Summer breezes cool you and also catch on a billowy plant to bring not just sound but movement. Ornamental grasses are the stars of the garden when the wind rustles through the leaves and seed heads. Loose shrubs like butterfly bush, hydrangea, spirea, spice bush and bush anemone also sway in the wind and bring sound to the garden. Allow a larger plant like Japanese maple to spill into the path where you will brush against it slightly to create that sound you hear in the forest when you walk. Enjoy the rattle of seeds in pods like those of iris as they dry during the summer.
The sounds of wildlife are my favorites in the garden. Any type of pond or waterfall with some plants growing in or adjacent will attract tree frogs. Buzzing insects collect nectar and pollinate flowers. My two simple birdbaths are a magnet for varied thrush, spotted towhees, chickadees, warblers, kinglets and goldfinches. The rest of their time they are performing expert insect control elsewhere in my garden .Hummingbirds are frequent visitors as they fight for territory and feed on spiders and nectar rich flowers.
Let your garden to make music.