In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.
The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.
Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.
salvia ‘Bees Bliss’
In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it 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.
Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.
Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
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 irresistable.
Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.
These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they 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 mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.
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.
Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.
It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.
A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.
At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.
The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.
The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.
Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.
Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.
We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.
It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.
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.
When I visit my best friend’s house I park next to the perennial border that lines her driveway. At any given time of year there is something blooming, flowers filling the air with fragrance and juicy apples hanging on the tree for picking later in the summertime. She has some California natives as well as traditional cottage garden plants all mixed in together. Originally from Illinois, she loves a garden filled with lush green and color but has designed the space with plants that can use less water than you would expect and still look spectacular.
What makes for a successful border? You see DIY articles in the gardening magazines showing lovely combinations with rules to follow but they always seem to be for a different climate or location. We often have borrowed scenery from the mixed woods and some of their ideas just don’t work well here. Here are some tips for planting a terrific perennial border in our neck of the woods.
Some of the key players in my friends perennial border are natives like Western azalea, hazelnut and flowering currant. These are large, woody shrubs that add height, texture and year round interest. They provide the backbone or structure to the border throughout the seasons and even in the winter. She also has a weeping bottlebrush which is evergreen and provides nectar for the hummingbirds as does the flowering currant. An apple tree and a persimmon tower over all the other plants creating a canopy for the shrubs, herbaceous perennials and groundcovers. You could also plant spirea, weigela, cornus and viburnums to provide structure to your border.
My friend’s border is planted so that there is something of interest every month during the growing season. The persimmon tree is the star of the late fall garden with bright orange fruit that hang like ornaments on the tree. In the spring I can’t take my eyes off the kerria japonica whose graceful shape is covered with double golden, pom pom shaped flowers. The vivid, new foliage of the Rose Glow barberry complements the stand of Pacific coast iris with similar cream and burgundy flowers blooming next to it. Under the bottlebrush a sweep of billbergia nutans or Queen’s Tears is flowering with those exotic looking, drooping flower clusters. They make a great groundcover under the tree and also are long lasting in a vase.
Mid-sized filler plants that thrive in this border include Hot Lips salvia, daylilies and polemonium to name just a few. Daffodils and tulips have naturalized throughout the space. Groundcovers grow thickly to shade the soil and prevent precious moisture evaporation. Lamb’s ears like their spot under the flowering currant and the omphalodes have spread throughout the border. This little plant looks and blooms like the forget-me-not but the delicate deep blue flowers don’t produce those sticky seeds that plague both our socks and animal fur.
This border get morning sun and mid-afternoon sun until about 3pm. If you have a situation that calls for all sun lovers you could try asters, shasta daisy, grasses, coreopsis, achillea, echinacea, gaillardia, sedum, kniphofia, lavender, liatris and rudbeckia. Perennials that work well to attract butterflies and hummingbirds include monarda and my personal favorite, cardinal flower. Both have long, tubular flowers in bright colors such as red, orange and yellow. it’s easy to have the birds and butterflies coming all season when you plant perennials with overlapping bloom times.
Perhaps some of these plant combinations would look great in your garden, too. Just don’t worry too much about the “rules” of perennial borders. Mix it up. You don’t want the border to look like stadium seating. The idea is to have fun and create a border that makes you happy.
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.
Several years ago I was invited to tour a beautiful garden in the hills above Scott Valley High School. Robby Frank was more than eager to share his techniques for gardening in deer country. He was also in a personal battle with gophers and moles and I affectionately bestowed upon him the title, serial mole killer. I am happy to report that Robby has won the war on all fronts. His garden is more lush than ever and with that comes the ongoing dilemma of saving water in the landscape especially in this time of drought. He solved the problem by installing a Smart Irrigation Controller and has been so pleased with the results he’s on a Smart Irrigation crusade to educate fellow gardeners. Here’s his story.
We all know mulching is one of the ways to conserve water in the landscape. Robby has long been an advocate of composting and regularly renews the mulch in his garden. He even calls himself “Mr Mulch”. He has permeable paths and a dry river bed that allow rainwater runoff to soak into the soil slowly. He keeps his plants pruned in a naturalistic manner because “smaller plants use less water'”. But all this wasn’t enough. His 3 “dumb timers”, as he calls them, were using too much water. That’s when he started researching weather based smart irrigation timers.
“To me it seemed like an easy way to conserve water and it’s better for the plants as well”, Robby said. “It will increase the irrigation times if the weather is hotter and dryer than usual, decrease if it’s colder and turn itself off if it rains”. Robby was already familiar with the Rainbird brand of controllers although there are many other companies that offer them. That’s why he eventually chose the “Simple to Set” Smart Indoor/Outdoor Irrigation timer or Rainbird SST 1200s.
Scotts Valley Water District offers a Landscape Rebate program for weather based irrigation controllers and has a list of acceptable models on their website. Robby paid $165 online for his controller as he couldn’t find a local store that stocked them. Since then he has convinced the local Ace Hardware to carry them. It replaced his 3 old controllers and he received a rebate from the SV water district for $100. San Lorenzo Water District has a similar rebate program.
To qualify for the credit, he arranged for someone to come to his house to take pictures of his old controllers. After installation they came again to see the new controller and he completed the necessary paperwork. The rebate credit which can vary from $75-$100 doesn’t cover the cost of the controller or installation labor and is determined by the type of controller installed. You can’t go wrong with saving water, money and getting a rebate, too.
The best part of the new system is how it saves water and is better for the plants. The controller is never turned off. You enter your zip code and the watering schedule you prefer and the controller adjust the amount of water either up or down as needed. For instance, when it was dry before the December freeze, the controller watered his landscape at 20-30% of normal so the plants were not totally dry during that week and were better able to stand the extended freezing temps.
Likewise, the sensor can trigger the controller to irrigate 130% of normal if it’s exceedingly hot and dry. The controller, also called a timer, comes with 10 years of historical weather data for any US ZIP code and includes a rain and temperature sensor.
Robby showed me how amazingly easy it is to set up and program the controller. It’s called the Simple to Set irrigation timer and I agree. Because he propagates most of his succulents himself from cuttings, it’s easy for him to add a bit of extra irrigation on a one-time or sort term basis until they become established. He couldn’t do that with his old timer. It had to water the whole area on a valve the same. Now he has 12 zones that he easily programmed for just the right amount of water whether it’s several times a week or once a month.
Robby Frank is on a crusade to save water and Smart Irrigation is the way to do it. If you want to read more about how he battles deer and moles you can access the story I previously wrote about him on my blog by searching Serial Mole Killer. He would love to find other local like-minded gardeners to share stories.
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 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.
Each year I wait for them in my garden and so do the robins, varied thrush, jays, spotted towhees, grosbeaks and band-tailed pigeons. The fruit of sambucus mexicana, a California native plant, is relished by an incredible number of songbirds. The creamy flower clusters in the spring are a favorite of bees and other beneficial insects. My Western Elderberry grows tall and gangly in the shade of a California bay tree, shorter and more compact in the sun. Their exuberance for life makes me happy just to watch them provide for so many other species.
We've all driven down Hwy 1 past the strawberry fields and seen the wetlands at high tide as their many fingers reach far up into the Watsonville area. At low tide the Harkins Slough is visible off to the west, grasses blowing gently in the wind. Struve Slough passes under Hwy 1 also but most of it is hidden. The Watsonville sloughs wind around farms, fields and low hills not visible from the highway.
California has lost over 90 percent of its wetlands and the Watsonville Sloughs are one of the largest remaining freshwater marshlands in the state's coastal zone. It provides a crucial resting place for many specie of migrating birds. This area covers about 800 acres adjacent to the city of Watsonville. The slough system has 6 interlinked freshwater sloughs fed by the waters of the Pajaro Valley watershed.
Many of the plants native to the wetlands will be available at a sale to fund educational programs put on by the organization Watsonville Wetlands Watch who's mission is to protect and restore the wetlands while educating the community.
The Native Plant and Backyard Festival will take place Saturday, September 28th from 10-2pm at the Fitz Wetlands Educational Resource Center building behind Pajaro Valley High School. It will be their second annual plant sale. Plants beneficial for backyard habitat gardens will be featured many which were grown in their own greenhouses. Natives like buckwheat or eriogonum as they are called are a mainstay of the slough ecosystem as well as our chaparral areas and several varieties will be offered for sale.
One of my favorite eriogonums is the Red Buckwheat for several reasons. In addition to attracting beneficial insects the flowers can be dried and used in arrangements. The roots are deep and will hold the soil and bring up subsoil nutrients to the surface. They are very drought tolerant. In the weeks to come the buckwheat's long nodding flower heads will produce a huge bounty of seed favored by migrating songbirds and water birds, some of which will spend the winter here.
Coast asters will also be available for sale and make a nice addition to any garden. They provide flower color in the fall and combine well with other perennials and grasses such as yarrow and Idaho fescue. They colonize easily and help stabilize slopes and banks and can also be used as an understory plant. They are very drought tolerant. Native grasses will also be for sale as well as plants of the coastal prairie and wildflowers.
Besides the native plant sale, Watsonville Wetlands Watch will have workshops with expert speakers, an Eco Kid Zone, food, a marimba band, a raffle, live animals and local wildlife displays. Free habitat consultations for your own backyard, demonstration habitats, a wetlands wildlife photography exhibit and a tour or their new greenhouse.
For more information about the sale and this wonderful organization visit www.watsonvillewetlandswatch.org
Your own backyard can make a difference for wildlife. Even a small plot of plants rich in nectar and pollen along with some water, rocks, stones and mulch can make your backyard come alive. Create your own backyard habitat by choosing the right native plants to attract butterflies, birds and other fauna and at the same time conserve water and help maintain the diversity of our animal population.
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.
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.
A few Sundays ago I spent the afternoon at AT&T Park watching the Giants play baseball. It was kids day. Hundreds of Boy Scouts were attending the game in uniform. Kids were everywhere eating peanuts and wearing the orange and black team colors. Some were sitting with their grandparents, some very, very young fans in their parents arms being smeared with sun screen. It was a beautiful day on the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, the team didn't get the memo that we were supposed to get another win against the Diamondbacks. Oh well, there's always next year.
A friend forwarded an article he saw in the SF Chronicle by Janny Hu recently about the Giants plan to create an organic garden behind the center field wall. The Giants Garden would be created between the left and right field bleachers in an area that is now concrete and an adjacent area where replacement sod is grown.
Plans for the edible garden include hydroponic troughs, concrete planters and living green walls which would supply produce for some of the parks' concessions, serve as an open air dining area and a community classroom during the offseason. If you're hankering for a nice kale and strawberry salad next season while you watch the game you're in luck. The Giants hope to have the garden ready for Opening Day 2014.
If the Giants can do it, you can, too. We all want the area around our homes to be beautiful, welcoming, productive, useful. In designing landscapes for people I strive to integrate vegetables, herbs and fruit trees with flowering shrubs and perennials to feed the family while attracting hummingbirds and other wildlife. Not everybody has room for a separate vegetable garden and companion planting is a good way to avoid problems with pests and diseases.
Plants when attacked by pests, exude chemicals and hormones that actually attract nearby beneficial insects. Perennials like agastache, coneflower, coreopsis, scabiosa and yarrow are rich in nectar and pollen and irresistible to beneficials. Many herbs also attract beneficials. Cilantro in bloom is one of the top insectary plants. Caraway, chervil, dill, fennel, lovage and parsley flowers also attract beneficials and are easy to grow among your other plants. Allow your salad and cabbage crops to bloom. Arugula and brassica flowers are much appreciated by beneficials.
Plants like lettuces, spinach and swiss chard look great in the flower bed and flowers make great companions in the vegetable garden. Dahlias repel nematodes. Geraniums repel cabbage worms, corn ear worms and leaf hoppers. Plant them by grapes, roses, corn and cabbage. Marigolds discourage beetles, whiteflies and nematodes. They act as trap plants for spider mites and slugs. A word of caution, don't plant them by cabbage or beans. Nasturtiums act as a barrier trap around tomatoes, radishes, cabbage and fruit trees. They deter whiteflies, and squash bugs and are a good trap crop for black aphids.
Herbs that help deter pests. Catnip/catmint repels mice, flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Chamomile improves the flavor of cabbage, onions and cucumbers. It also accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. As a host for hoverflies and good wasps it increases productions of essential oils in herbs. Summer savory repels bean leaf beetles and improves the flavor of beans. All beans enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. They are good for planting with all of your vegetables except onions, garlic and leeks.
Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries.
If it's almonds you crave, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden. A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame. Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.
Planting flowers and edibles together makes sense and good use of your garden space.
Gardeners are always on the look out for new plants. I recall when I worked at a nursery looking over the showy dahlia shipment for the one that was a deeper, more vivid shade than all the rest. One color that always gets my attention is chocolate. Whether I find it in the foliage of a plant or the flower itself it's one of my favorites. You can imagine my delight when I discovered the Chocolate Flower Farm in Langley on Whidbey Island while I was visiting the Puget Sound recently. I was a kid in the candy store.
As a landscape designer I often get requests for certain colors to be included in the plant palette. Mahogany,burgundy, deep magenta, midnight blue, eggplant often make the list. Many people like dark flowers or foliage paired with ivory, others prefer peach or chartreuse. I marveled at all the combinations at the Chocolate Flower Farm.
Some plants are the color of chocolate and some smell like the real thing. Chocolate cosmos looks and smells just like a dark chocolate bar. The warmth of the day releases this delicious fragrance. A favorite flower for the perennial bed it's always a winner with kids.
In addition to chocolate cosmos, a wildflower called chocolate flower or berlandiera lyrata grew at the farm. I also enjoyed the fragrance of warm chocolate in the flowers of chocolate akebia, chocolate mint and chocolate snakeroot.
Strolling the grassy paths at the Chocolate Flower Farm I admired a Sparkling Burgundy pineapple lily. The foliage, nearly black, glistened in the sun growing next to a white-flowering Nine Bark called Summer Wine.
Nearby a clump of two-tone chocolate and ivory daylillies bloomed. With grazing horses nearby and a dozen ducks taking turns bathing in a kiddie pool the scene was idyllic. At every turn a different pairing of chocolate flowers and foliage caught my attention.
One section featured plants for a kid's chocolate garden. Easy to grow chocolate pincushion flower, chocolate viola, chocolate nasturtium, chocolate snapdragon, chocolate sunflower and chocolate painted tongue would be fun for any child to have in their own garden.
I loved a penstemon called Chocolate Drop as well as a Mahogany monarda the color of deepest magenta. Blooming black sweet peas grew up and and over an old bed frame. A dark purple-black clematis from Russia called Negritanka intertwined with lime green hops covering an arbor. Toffee Twist sedge, Royal Purple smokebush, Chocolate Sundae dahlia, Sweet Hot Chocolate daylily, Chocolate Plant and Hot Cocoa roses grew in many of the flower beds.
What makes dark foliage or dark flowers pop? At The Chocolate Farm each bed pairs the deep rich chocolate color with another contrasting shade. I don't know which was my favorite. One area featured peach, pink and silver to offset the darker shades. Pink dahlia and fairy wand, blue oat grass and rose colored sedum 'Autumn Joy' made a lovely vignette. Another bed paired the yellow flowers of phygelius 'Moonraker' and digitalis grandiflora with white anemone and ivory dahlias set among Chocolate Baby New Zealand flax.
Not to be ignored the dark chocolate shade of black sambucus growing next to a golden Himalayan Pheasant Berry made an impression. All-gold Japanese Forest grass at the base of dark leaved Tropicana canna lily was also a show stopper.
If you are up on Whidbey Island, the Chocolate Flower Farm is a great place to spend an afternoon. If your vacation plans don't include the Pacific Northwest, plant some chocolate in your own garden.
When do art and science come together to make your life more beautiful? If you thought of garden design you'd be right. Recently I was treated to a garden tour by fellow designer and good friend, Joy Albright-Souza, who has combined her love of art as a hobby with her degree in science and her passion for the environment to create beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. "It was natural to combine the two interests into garden design", Joy says.
Last fall several of her design ideas were featured in a DYI book called 'Landscape Ideas You Can Use'. Understanding garden design is the goal of this book and offers specific information on plants and hardscaping options. Fountains, rock gardens and landscaping for play are three of the categories that Albright-Souza Garden Design provided examples.
I have been to Joy's garden many times enjoying a game on the petanque court during a barbeque. Petanque is a game similar to bocce but can be played in a smaller backyard. It's a great way to get the whole family involved in a game together. I've heard Joy laugh that she'd like a petanque court in every yard- it's that fun.
Located on the outskirts of Scotts Valley we visited one of the gardens she designed that features a petanque court. Replacing a lawn with drainage problems, the court recently served as a dance floor for a wedding. The property is located on the site of an old quarry and the granite walls conveniently provide crushed gravel to top dress the petanque court.
As we walked around this garden at sunset the back-lit grasses sparkled like jewels. Locating plants to achieve this effect was no accident on this designer's part. She carefully thought out every aspect from the deer resistant plant palette to the water fall prominent from the dining area inside the house. Even the fenced veggie garden is on a grand scale to protect the owner's roses and hydrangeas from the deer.
Some of plants that are not bothered by deer in this garden include the lavender flowering prosanthera or Variegated Mint Bush. Both beautiful and fragrant this small shrub makes a good hedge or accent plant in deer country. Another blooming plant and favorite of mine, Petite Butterfly Sweet Pea shrub, looked great paired with a helianthemum called Mesa Wine Sun Rose. The Pink Muhly grasses will bloom in the fall. The new, fresh Japanese Blood grass glowed in the late afternoon sun.
We talked about the accent boulders in the garden as we walked around. Joy explained that when the rocks were delivered she ear marked the largest and most interesting for particular spots. One is at the corner of the petanque court and looks to be an invitation to sit a while. Another flat topped boulder marks a junction of two walkways and begs one to try it out, too. Others were placed reminiscent of Japanese garden design.
A large dolphin sculpture was moved from a driveway location where few could enjoy to a spot in the upper garden where it serves as the focal point in a widening of the cobblestone paver path and can be viewed up close. Placing garden art in prominent places that can be seen from different parts of the garden is part of a good garden design.
If you are ready to transform your own space, consider some of these ideas. Understanding landscape styles, materials, structures, lighting and plants is part of the fun. Joy writes a blog as part of Albright-Souza Garden Design called per joy that is informative and entertaining. This spring get inspired to transform your own garden.
Winter is a great time to daydream about future gardens – the garden that could be, the garden of your dreams. Soon it'll be time to prune the roses. The fruit trees are there just waiting for dormant spray and a little winter pruning and those tangled vines beckon you every time you walk by. But for now why not let your imagination go wild and consider adding a green wall to enjoy while you sit on the patio this summer?
While I was up in the Pacific Northwest over Christmas time I had the opportunity to visit two impressive green walls. Also called living walls they got me thinking about the wall behind the patio table on my deck. It would look just awesome covered with living plants. Much of the cost of a large green wall installation is the irrigation system which allows for easy maintenance but since I'm willing to water it by hand every few days my wall will be an affordable version. First though, some inspiration.
The first wall I visited was the 20-by-40-foot living wall at the Goodwill-Milgard Work Opportunity Center in Tacoma.
Designed by the the famous French inventor of modern green walls, Patrick Blanc, this wall literally dripped with plants, moss and raindrops
on the day I was there.
Installed in 2009 the diagonal swaths of plants are inserted between a double layer of felt, slit to make planting pockets. Most of the soil was knocked off small 4" plants, even the woody plants. I read that Blanc used 96 different species initially but only the toughest have survived. Granted it was December when I saw the wall and some of the plants were dormant but those remaining were quite colorful and made a beautiful tapestry. Stripes of golden acorus grew beside ribbons of bergenia, artemisia, euphorbia, rubus, carex grass, Asiatic jasmine, thyme, pachysandra and vinca minor. Bands of variegated iris high up on the wall caught my eye and I marveled at the woody lily-of-the-valley shrubs and skimmia that remained small in this environment.
A drip irrigation runs across the top of the wall and in a horizontal band halfway down. Water and fertilizer drip through the felt to keep the plants perpetually moist and nourished similar to the mossy cliffs where many of these plants grow in their native environments. There's a freeze switch to stop the irrigation on the coldest days so the wall doesn't turn into a solid wall of ice. I was told that the wall is pruned twice a year via a cherry picker.
The plan for my own living wall is to mimic the look with those Woolly Pocket planters
made from recycled plastic bottles.
They're the simplest and lightest to use. For clients I can suggest an outdoor wall near the kitchen planted with rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley and other sun-loving herbs. Or in a super shady spot, the pockets could be planted with hardy houseplants like spider plant, creeping jenny, queen's tears, small ferns, wandering jew and creeping charlie. These have all survive at my house under the overhang for more years than I can count.
The second living wall I visited in Seattle covered a new building outside the new Amazon offices.
This green wall is constructed from a vertical metal grid that supports square modular trays.
The plants grow lush in soil pockets with micro spray irrigation providing moisture and nutrients. The effect is beautiful to look at and experience.
Winter chill made the plants pop with bright colors and glowed with deep gold, burgundy red, acid green and tawny auburn. Diagonal bands of familiar hardy plants such as carex buchanii, cotoneaster lowfast, iberis, star jasmine, Powis Castle artemisia, liriope and ferns drew my eye up, down and sideways. The wall encloses a small plaza with warm wood and concrete seating which would be inviting to sit and stay awhile on a warm day.
I'm looking forward to putting together my own green wall. I may even grow succulents in a frame in another spot. It's an easy fun project to enhance your time outdoors and I plan to suggest this design solution whenever possible in the future. Take the time to day dream about something new and fun for your own garden.
There's no way around it. January may signal the start of the new year but most of our plants still have the day off. I need inspiration on these cold mornings when most of my plants are asleep. This is the time of year when it's doubly important to include plants
in your garden that can take a licking, keep on ticking and provide some much needed food for our feathered friends.
During the winter small songbirds and hummingbirds face big challenges, too. Just like us, they need to keep warm. Our fuel might be a comfort food like hot stew, theirs are foods rich in antioxidants and fats or high octane nectar. Native shrubs with berries or nectar at this time of year will benefit them as well as providing hardy winter color in your garden.
Small flocks of Chestnut-backed chickadees frequent my garden regularly. I can hear their familiar chattering from quite a distance. I read in Audubon magazine that they weigh about as much as a dozen paperclips but their bodies are large for their mass. They have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day's fuel to keep from freezing.
Other birds that I enjoy in my garden at this time of year are Lesser goldfinches, Townsend warblers, Ruby-Crowned kinglets, robins, brown creepers, Hutton's vireo, Dark-eyed juncos and Anna's hummingbirds. These native plants will make both of you happy and it's not too late to plant.
Mahonia (Berberis aquifolium) is one of my favorites for winter color and spring berries. Fat cluster of golden yellow flowers light up the Douglas fir woodland understory. In the garden it has a surprising level of adaptability to tough conditions including low water, not-so-great soil and shade or partial sun. In the barberry family, they have gorgeous prickly foliage and powdery-blue, then black berries that the birds devour in late winter and early spring. Hummingbirds rely on the flowers as a source of nectar-rich food in wintertime when there isn't much else around. I saw them visiting these beautiful flower spikes in Seattle recently at Chihuly Glass Exhibit (got the spelling right this time). There are many cultivars of mahonia now available and they are all great.
Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) is a native that starts its show in fall. It thrives in a woodland garden or in the dry shade under oak trees. A background plant most of the year, the white berries on thie 4-foot shrub stand out when the leaves drop. Seldom troubled by pests this small shrub can be used to control erosion and is deer resistant. Beautiful ornamental white fruits cover the plant at this time of year and are valued by varied thrush, robins and quail.
Hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) can provide both berries and nectar for local birds. Large, pink nectar-rich blossoms give way to red juicy berries in the fall and often hang on the vines during the winter. They are relished by birds. By pruning them a bit to get more branching they'll be denser and flower more. It's as deer proof as they come. They do well in clay soil in full sun and also shade. Snowberry, Hummingbird sage, toyon and coffeeberry are other natives that complement them.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is the official shrub of the State of California. Also called the Christmas berry shrub it's common in chaparral and open wooded forest. Many birds enjoy their bright red berries throughout the winter including cedar waxwing, bushtit, warblers, robins, flickers, finches and sparrows. Toyon make a good screen as well as a beautiful specimen plant. They are drought tolerant when established but tolerate some water in the garden if drainage is good. They are relatively fire resistant, like full sun but will tolerate shade. They adapt to sand, clay or serpentine soils. Butterflies also are attracted to the flowers in the summer.
These are just a few great natives to plant in your garden. Other native plants for the winter garden are Pacific wax myrtle, Strawberry tree and Red-twig dogwood.
By choosing plants that are native to our region birds spend less energy and time foraging for food as they more easily recognize them as a food source. You can have your beautiful berries and color and the birds can eat them, too.
Recently I visited a garden of glass and it was spectacular.
At the base of the Space Needle in Seattle, the newly opened Chihuly Garden and Glass Exhibit is a marriage of garden and art like no other I've ever seen. To experience larger-than-life blown glass in vibrant rainbow colors nestled among trees and shrubs was magical. I was transported beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary.
You may have seen some Dale Chihuly glass art at the DeYoung Museum when it was displayed there several years ago. Some of the pieces were influenced by Pacific Northwest American Indian art, others reminiscent of plants and sea forms. In a PBS special currently airing called Chihuly Outside, I learned that his love of blown glass has evolved since 1995 from installations in glass houses in Europe and the U.S. to massive outside exhibits in Finland, Venice, Japan, Australia and Jerusalem. The Chihuly Gardens and Glass Exhibit in Seattle is his most ambitious project ever.
Soft winter sunlight backlit the glass art that seemed to sprout up from the earth. Evergreen magnolia trees, pines and weeping cedar formed a dark green backdrop for the vivid blue, red, yellow, orange, mauv
e and chartreuse blown glass. Coral Bark maples
echoed the same shade of glass reeds and spears. Red Twig dogwood
sported a stand of fiori or flower inspired glass. Cobalt glass spheres reflected the Space Needle nearby. Swaths of steel blue eryngium or sea holly
were still blooming a bit complementing the ruby glass behind.
Seattle is cold in the winter with lots of rain (sound familiar?) so plants appropriate to the site and climate are a must. Lily-of-the-Valley shrubs provide year-round interest. Their burgundy flower buds hung in clusters ready to open in the spring. Mahonia, which are native to our area also, bloomed with spikes of yellow flowers attracting hummingbirds that over winter in the area. Helleborus or Lenten Rose held tight flower buds just waiting to open. Sasanqua camellias in pink, rose and white popped with color.
Chihuly Glass Garden
Lots of burgundy coral bells
carpeted the ground in front of massive logs that looked like petrified wood. I had to check for myself. Mondo grass, epimedium, strawberry begonia and Japanese Forest
grass complemented more flower inspired glass art. Strolling the garden and looking at the glass from different angles as the changing light filtered through was awesome. Chihuly doesn't so much mimic nature as borrow inspiration from it. As with all art, it's in the eye of the beholder and I fell, hook, line and sinker under its spell.
This garden of glass reminds you of frog legs with webbed toes, anemones waving in the incoming tide, towers of tall ti plants. Harmonizing plants and art is the creation of designer Richard Hartlage. Conifers, evergreen grasses, small shrubs and ferns set off the brilliant glass art. A green roof can be seen from above,a green screen of evergreen clematis encloses one side and large crape myrtles provide beautiful winter bark that blends with the lavender and burgundy glass sculptures.
A visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit in Seattle was a day spent with light and glass and the plants that make them sparkle. I hoping to see this garden next July when the asters and rhododendrons are in bloom. Even in the quiet months of winter it was spectacular.
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It's a humbling experience to read some of my past columns celebrating the New Year. Once you write something down it's there forever. Like a social media post it can haunt you. Such lofty goals I've set for myself over the years. But now it's that time of year when I look around the garden and think about the good things I accomplished and some that didn't get done. A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.
We live in a rain forest
. Easy to remember the past few weeks as gentle and not so gentle raindrops fall on the thick redwood duff beneath the trees. Mushrooms
of every color and type poke through leaves still bright with the shades of fall. Last year was pretty dry until March. Not that great for fungi but this year should be spectacular. All the better to continue learning about our local mushrooms. It's one of my favorite goals for the New Year
. The fungus fair in Santa Cruz is coming up the weekend of January 11th and I want to be better informed before my volunteer shift as a basketeer arrives.
Each year I pledge to plant more things to eat. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. They are more than just vegetables and fruit trees. When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You can connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped.
Growing edibles is more that time spent doing healthy physical work it's connecting us to the earth and to each other.
This year I was able to visit gardens in far away places such as Poland to learn about Eastern European landscaping styles and traditions. Some were very different than what we are used to here in western gardens. Gardeners, though, are the same everywhere-eager to show off and share. I also had the opportunity to visit Abkhazi Garden and the famous Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia during the summer. Nothing can prepare you for the wonder that can be created out of nothing. I came back overflowing with inspiration for my landscape designs.
Next I plan to visit Chihuly Gardens in Seattle and a green wall installation in Tacoma. There's no better way to recharge your creative batteries than to see an inspiring garden. Even a walk around your neighborhood can give you ideas for your own garden. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a huge boulder and wished I could magically transport it to my own yard.
New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don't get hung up on achieving everything you would like. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don't get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget. And ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues and future meals. But there's always next year or next month or the summer after next.
Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It's good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. So don't worry if you don't get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It's all in the baby steps. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would be plant a tree or a seed or a garden?
Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.