How to Design a Perennial Border


rhododendron_occidentale2.1600When 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, kerria_japonica2hazelnut 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.

ompholodes2.1600Mid-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.



Express your Garden Style with Paths and Good Design


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalkways 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 winding pathseating 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.
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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.



Smart Irrigation


dry_river_bed2.1280Several 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.
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“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.
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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 watering_schedule.1280controllers. 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.



A Succulent Wall Like No Other


succulent_wall.1280I 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, graptopetalum.2048serpentine, 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 lion_fountain.1600iron 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 my_garden_rock.1024provide 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.

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