Category Archives: California Native Plants

Layering Plants for Wildlife

I confess , I’m a lazy gardener.  In July, my idea of working in the garden consists of removing seed pods from the fuchsias and trimming a few parsley and basil springs for dinner. I don’t have to spend time spraying for harmful insects and diseases because the birds and other creatures I encourage in my garden provide natural pest control. Having wildlife in the garden saves time and money, too.

A wildlife garden doesn’t have to be messy. It just requires the right balance between form and function. Areas close to the house can look more refined because they get more attention. Spots farther away from the house can be a little more relaxed because they are seen at a distance.

Plant in layers, providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides the greatest range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites for birds and other creatures. Towhees, black-headed juncos and robins like to stick to the shrub layer but are frequently found foraging in leaf litter on the ground where they find insects for food. Warblers and chickadees tend to search for insects in the canopy layer. 

Many native plants provide essential food and foraging areas for wildlife. Plants from similar climates like the Mediterranean region also have benefits for wildlife.

Coffeeberry are a favorite for many birds. This native grows in full sun or partial shade and aren’t fussy about soil. Established plant need no irrigation but will accept regular gardening watering unlike many other natives. They make up for small inconspicuous flowers with large berries than turn from green to red to black as they ripen. Use this 4-8 ft. shrub for your middle layer.

If it’s summer color you’re after, look to Vitex agnus-caste. This large shrub can be trained as a multi-stemmed small shade tree if you like. Fragrant lavender-blue flower spikes cover this plant summer to fall. Even the leaves are aromatic with handsome lacy, fanlike leaflets. Vitex thrives in heat with moderate water and is deer resistant.

Pacific wax myrtle is another shrub to use in your middle layer as a screen.  This 10 ft evergreen can also be trained as a small 30 ft tree. It’s one of the best looking native plants for the garden with aromatic glossy dark green leaves. Clusters of tiny berries are a favorite food source for several species of birds, especially warblers.

Other natives for the middle layer include Howard McMinn manzanita, Ray Harman ceanothus, bush anemone, western redbud, snowberry, pink-flowering currant and philadelphus. Native plants for the ground cover layer would also include Emerald Carpet manzanita and Yankee Point ceanothus.

You don’t need a lot of land or a huge garden to use the layering principal. Even the smallest yard can have all three layers that offer beauty and shade for us and nesting sites, food and foraging areas for wildlife.

Pacific Dogwood & Plants with Seasonal Interest

Driving east to Yosemite recently, I was reminded of how diverse botanically and geologically is the state of California.  Leaving the redwood forest here, I passed tawny grasslands and oak studded foothills to a mixed evergreen forest up in the Sierras. Many of the same plants grow here- buckeye, solomon seal and western azalea. I was hoping the native Pacific dogwood would still be blooming and was not disappointed. Huge white flowers, resembling butterflies, covered these small trees. I last saw them a couple of years ago when they wore bright red fall foliage. This got me thinking. What other plant are interesting in more than one season?

    

 

                            Here is a table of trees and shrubs to add to your garden

name flowers? fruit berries? Fall color? interesting bark?
Dogwood yes yes yes yes
Golden Raintree yes yes yes yes
Maple no no yes yes
Crape Myrtle no no yes yes
Redbud yes no yes yes
Fringe tree yes no yes yes
Katsura yes no yes yes
Crabapple yes yes no no
Persimmon no yes yes yes
Nandina yes yes yes no
Japanese barberry no yes yes no
Smoke bush no yes no yes
Blueberry yes yes yes no

Other plants that make a bold statement in the garden are big-leaved perennials. If one of your garden beds or borders need something to quickly enliven the scene, look to giant leaves to give contrast. Often a planting will have too many similar flower or leaf sizes and end up looking fussy, overly detailed and chaotic. That’s when large architectural plants come to the rescue.

Ligularia dentata form 3 ft. clumps in partial shade. From midsummer to early fall, 3-5 ft. stems bear 4" wide orange-yellow daisy-like flowers. Their leaves are the most striking feature. Othello has deep purplish green, kidney-shaped leaves almost a foot across while Desdemona has leaves with purple undersides and green upper surfaces. Ligularia clumps can remain undisturbed for years and stay lush and full from springtime through frost.

For borders in the sun, cannas add drama. They stand bright and tall with huge leaves on 4-6 ft. stems. Some like Pretoria and Tropicana have striped leaves and others have bronze leaves like Wyoming and Sunburst Pink. Flowers range from orange, red, pink, yellow, cream and bicolor. Canna leaves are useful in flower arrangements but the flowers themselves do not keep well. In the garden border, canna foliage, backlit by sunshine, positively glows.

Red bananas are grown for the impact of their beautiful leaves which range in color from deep claret brown to re-purple to green. Plant them in full to part sun in an area protected from the wind to avoid shredded leaves. Ornamental bananas grow fast to 15-20 ft and make a bold tropical accent in any garden.

 

A White Garden with Fragrance

Gardens are living things-changing over time. One year everything in the garden seems to bloom in April and May. Other years different plants reach maturity and provide color and structure during the summer. If your garden needs a few plants that will "pop" in the landscpe why not add a white bloomer that you can still enjoy after the sun goes down?

A great looking native plant for the back of the border is philadelphus lewisii or wild mock orange. Fragrant, white, satiny 2" flowers attract butterflies in late spring and early summer. Goose Creek is a doulbe-flowered selection that forms a fountain shape 4-10 ft tall and is fairly drought tolerant. Not fussy about soil type but it must have good drainage.

Another sweet-scented, white flowering Ca. native is carpenteria californica or bush anemone. Although this plant needs little water once established it can also accept ordinary garden conditions making it valuable closer to the house in the "lean, mean and green" zone that the fire dept wants irrigated more to retard flames. Clusters of fragrant 2-3" white blossoms with yellow centers appear at the ends of the branches. This shrub grows slowly to 4-6 ft tall and would be beautiful along a path or next to the patio where you could enjoy it’s fragrance in the evening, too.

Roses are among the showiest fragrant flowers you can grow in your garden. Sure they need a little extra water but the pay back is spectacular. Place them in areas with other plants that need regular water. Here are my favorite white roses.

Full Sail- a medium upright hybrid tea rose with large bright white flowers and a strong honeysuckle fragrance.
John F. Kennedy- Huge, full greenish white buds open to rich white and smell like licorice. This rose stands up well to hot weather.
Iceberg- One of the top ten roses of the workls and the best landscpe white around. It also comes as a climber. Honey scented rose clusters are borne in great profusion. This rose is extremely disease resistant and needs little care.  Looks great as a hedge or in mass plantings. This the the part I love, they have very few thorns.
Stainless Steel-  A rose that is so close to white it would shine in a moon garden. With pale silvery lavender flowers and a fragrance stronger than Sterling Silver it’s easier to care for and grow. Flower size and color are best with cooler temperatures or in a bit of shade.

What else can you grow in a white garden? If I had more room, I’d have a Longissims Alba wisteria with pure white fragrant flowers that cascade in spikes up to 4 ft long. Or I’d grow a Krasavitsa Moskvy lilac whose lavender-rose tinted buds open to full, double, creamy, fragrant white flowers.

I also like the also called mock orange because it’s flowers really do smell like citrus blossoms. Their green and white foliage can lighten up a dark corner in any garden and scent the air. Tuck some sweet alyssum along a path and your white garden is complete.

Plant Communities of the Santa Cruz Mtns

Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and ho-hum results in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place. 

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

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak.  Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, needle and giant feather grass and rockrose also do well here. Another plant to try that will also flourish in your garden is a native of New Zealand called Coprosma.  There are many colorful varieties now available like "Evening Glow".  All are valued for their colorful variegated foliage especially in the cooler months when the leaves turn orange red.  Many coprosmas grow to 4-5 ft but Evening Glow is just 14" tall. They need little water and can be happy in full sun or partial shade.

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where bigleaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow.  Most plant grow lush in this deep soil.  If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider brunnera which blooms now with tiny clear blue flowers that freely self-sow without being invasive. It has large heart-shaped leaves that are showy, too,

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

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants include silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here.  When you plant in these soils amend with compost to provide needed nutrients. Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8" tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red.  Mulch these beauties with gravel or crushed stone.

Remember right plant-right place.

Hardy Winter Plants

    PROMISE YOURSELF  to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
    To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet. 
    To make all of your friends feel that there is something in them. 
    To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
    To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best. 
    To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. 
    To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
    To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
    To give so much time to the improvement of yourself, that you have no time to criticize others.
    To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of        trouble.
                                             Christian D.  Larson

   
 Sure has been cold the past few weeks.  Many of the perennials in my garden have suffered from frost and will need to be cut back later in February or March.  After strolling through Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco recently, I’m newly inspired for the coming season.


At the arboretum you can experience unique gardens created with California natives or drought tolerant plants from Australia.   Other gardens have plants from New Zealand or So. Africa.  Meandering paths bisect each garden.   It is a marvelous place to explore and discover what plants appeal to you as each is clearly labeled.  Be sure to take your camera.  It’s a great way to see what a mature specimen of a plant or tree looks like. Those descriptions on a nursery can don’t compare to seeing a plant in person.

While you’re up in Golden Gate park  don’t miss the new museum of natural history, planetarium, tropical rainforest and aquarium.  Green technology is used and explained throughout, including the green roof.  Last summer I wrote about visiting Rana Creek nursery in Carmel and talking to the grower of the native plants that cover the roof.  The  plants selected, eight drought tolerant California natives, include  prunella, armeria, stonecrop, goldfield, lupine, poppy,  plantain and beach strawberry.  I didn’t see seedlings of the spring wildflowers on the roof when I visited but the stands of prunella and beach strawberry were thriving.  Also beach asters seemed to be doing well although they weren’t listed.  Seeds may have blown in.  If you’re thinking of replacing your traditional lawn in the spring with drought tolerant ground covers, consider these plants.   They are not only survivors but will flourish under adverse conditions. 

As I write this, I’m spending the holiday in the Seattle area near Lake Washington.  Here you can really see plants that know how to survive the elements.  Actually, it’s hard to identify most of them as they are totally covered with snow.  It snows everyday.  Beautiful white powder blankets the trees and landscape. My sister’s  perennial planters will not be joining her this spring.   So pretty to look but not that great when you venture out  to get last minute presents.  Snowplows are scarce up here.

What plants bloom in the winter where we live?  A little color at this time of year is always welcome.   Native mahonia are just coming into full and glorious yellow flower.  The hummingbirds love their flowers as well as hellebores, sasanqua camellias and strawberry trees.

Oregon  grape ( mahonia ) are deer-resistant shrubs with large, prickly leaves.  Long sprays of fragrant, yellow flowers rise above the foliage in January and February.  Blue fruit follows which is also attractive.   Mahonias grow best in partial shade but will take full sun if given occasional, deep watering in the summer.

Sasanqua camellias are valuable for their massive display of large flowers in fall and winter.  If you’re driving along and see a shrub covered with dark pink, white, lilac or red flowers, most likely it will be this plant.  They are often called the roses of winter.  Many are fragrant and can be espaliered on a trellis.  Sasanqua camellias are easy to grow in partial shade and need only moderate water. 

Another wonderful plant for winter color that I saw so many of at the arboretum is winter heath.  Heaths and heathers love acidic soil so combine well in sunny areas near rhododendrons and azaleas.  Ground cover types are smothered with lilac, pink or rose flowers starting in December and last into April. 

Don’t forget Iceland poppies, violas and cyclamen for small color accents.  Happy New Year  from The Mountain Gardener and may your garden flourish this year. 

 

The Dog Days of Summer

Despite how hot it’s been,  the "dog days of summer"  just came to an end August 11th.  Where did this expression come from?

Some say it signifies hot sultry days not fit for a dog, but the dog days are defined as the period from July 3 through August 11 when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction ( or nearly so ) with the sun.  As a result, some felt the combination of the brightest luminary of the day (the sun) and and brightest star of the night ( Sirius) was responsible for the extreme heat that is experienced during the middle of the summertime.  Since Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky it’s reasonable to guess that it adds some heat to the earth but the amount is insignificant.

The name "dog star" came from the ancient Egyptians who called Sirius, the dog star, after their god, Osirus, whose head in pictograms resembled that of a dog.  They called the period of time from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction "the dog days of summer"  because it coincidentally fell at the time of  year when it was very hot.  We now know that the heat of summer is a direct result of the earths tilt. Now you know… the rest of the story.  

 

 

Containers

If your deck or patio needs some perking up about now, plant up a new container or add to your existing ones.  Almost anything goes when it come to combining plants in containers and nearly any type of container looks good with the right plant.  I have over 250 in a sprawling garden of containers arranged like a border on my deck, under trees, around my front door, down my driveway… places  where planting in the ground just isn’t possible.  I can move them farther apart, up, down, to the front or to the back to create a display that is always evolving.  I add spots of vivid color where I need it and texture where I want it.  I have the flexibility to remove anything past its prime or bring forward a fragrant plant when I want to really enjoy its scent up close.

So what looks great in containers?  One simple strategy I use a lot is to put just one plant in a pot.  A single perennial like a flowering maple looks good year round.  My asparagus meyeri really looks dramatic in a low ceramic pot. The princess flower and my enormous hosta sieboldiana (which I’ve named Bob) can be hidden behind other pots in the winter when they are dormant.  Succulents, like a large hen and chicks, are always real standouts in a pretty container as are grasses.   I have a Sango Kaku Japanese maple in a large cobalt blue glazed pot as the thriller in one vignette with chartreuse green barberry  and a fragrant heliotrope as fillers and lysimachia aurea and purple calibrachoa as spillers.  I like burgundy foliage so Sizzling Pink loropetalum  is one of my favorite background plants.  It looks great with Japanese forest grass and black mondo grass.  The purple leaves of oxalis triangularis works well in this color scheme, too.  My displays change every year and also as the summer progresses.  I live in partial shade but if you live in the sun try the rich colors of canna lily, black-eyed susan, kangaroo paw, aeonium and old fashioned variegated geraniums.

Although I take a more-is-merrier approach to container gardening, numbers alone don’t mean much.  Five pots are enough to create a dramatic composition on a porch or patio.  The trick is not how many pots you have, but what you do with them.  I use overturned nursery or clay pots,  boxes and plant stands to stage my plants so short but showy plants can be placed up off the ground at eye level.  Containers of plants placed in front hide the risers from view.  By elevating pots with various props, I create combinations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.  

Staging can also be an effective way to display garden art like sculpture , fountains and handsome empty pots.  It’s easy to place ornaments where they look best -a place of honor – by raising them up in your grouping.

 
When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn’t count green, unless it’s lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.  

Whatever plant or container you choose, you’ll enjoy the results now that the dog days of summer are over.