Tag Archives: California Native Plants

Groundcover Tips for Fall

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

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

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

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

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

One of my favorites is Elfin thyme. It doesn’t need mowing, edging or fertilizing or much irrigation. You can walk on it and it stays green all winter, shading into bronze tones when the weather cools. It even blooms in midsummer for several weeks. Bees will be attracted to it at this time. Thyme prefers sun and poor, sandy soil. Autumn is the best time to install from flats cut into 4" plugs planted about a foot apart. It will fill in within 3 years. Plant them closer together if you’re impatient. You’ll love your new lavender-blooming "lawn".

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

If you don’t need to walk on your groundcover, low-growing shrubs that are good groundcovers are baccharis, ceanothus maritimus, cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, creeping mahonia, rosemany prostratus, rubus, manzanita, creeping snowberry and ribes viburnifolium to name just a few.

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

Why Plant in the Fall?

Those lazy, crazy, foggy days of summer are behind us now. What a strange summer it was. Checking my un-scientific weather records I’ve kept since 1999, I find no other summer that was as cool at this one. This comes as no surprise to you tomato growers out there, I know.   At the other end of the spectrum, a few years, like the summer of 2006 and 2008 were real scorchers. We’re all looking forward to Indian summer which is the best planting season of the year.

There is plenty of time to plant California natives, Mediterranean plants or any other perennial, shrub, grass or tree.  By r, roots have a chance to grow all autumn and most of the winter as well without having to supply nourishment to the leafy portion of the plant. Roots of deciduous plants still grow even after plants drop their foliage as long as the ground temperature is above 50 degrees.  Cooler day and night temperatures slowly harden off the top of the plant to prepare for the cold days of winter.

Another reason that fall is the no-fail planting season is because plants put in the ground in fall need less water to establish. Plants themselves use less water since photosynthesis is slowed by shorter days even if it’s occasionally hot. Evaporation rates slow down also during fall so water in the soil lasts longer as well. Sometimes we get lucky with fall and winter rains perfectly spaced so the ground never completely dries out.

Even cool season annuals such as snapdragons, pansies and violas, Iceland poppies and primrose planted in early fall have time to develop better roots before flowering and because they start blooming earlier they bloom over a longer time.

So get out the shovel, prepare you soil and make a shopping list.

Plants that thrive in dry, shady spots benefit especially from fall planting as they need established root systems before next years dry season. Dry shade sometimes occurs in places beyond the reach of the hose but also under native oaks. To protect their health, it’s a requirement that plants underneath thrive with little or no summer irrigation.

Plants of proven success under these conditions include native currants and gooseberry. Claremont pink flowering currant ( Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) are beautiful in spring with pale pink flower clusters that darken as they age. The powdered, blue-black berries are edible although the seeds are bitter. To get a taste of the fruit, though, you’ll have to compete with the birds. Chapparal currant is another tough reliable shrub that blooms early and often, flowering from December through March. The pendulous flower clusters are 2-6 inches long and range in color from dusty pink to rose red.

Other winning shrubs for dry shade include mahonia, nandina, osmanthus, snowberry, coffeeberry, aucuba, barberry and upright manzanita.

Groundcovers that thrive under oaks or other dry shady spots include hellebore, evergreen currant, correa, manzanita and sarcoccoca.

Whatever conditions you have in your garden, don’t miss out adding some great plants during the fabulous fall planting season.

 

Butterflies of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Have you noticed how many butterflies are visiting your garden lately?   I see California Sister, Common Buckeye and Western Tiger Swallowtail everywhere I look. We have about area. Many of these occur only in our mountains, forests and chaparral environments. They are easy to attract and make a permanent feature of your landscape. Here’s how.

Butterflies are less efficient than bees as pollinators but have their place in the ecosystem. They do not pick up much pollen on their bodies. Still they visit a variety of wildflowers and other plants to probe for nectar adding beauty and color to the garden. Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?

To attract the species of butterfly most common in your area, a butterfly garden should include plants that accommodate all stages of the life cycle ( egg, larvae, pupa and adult ). When both adult nectar and larval host plants are available, they will attract and support a butterfly population. In addition to the right plants, your garden should also have sun, a water source, protection from wind and plants in clusters. When maintaining your garden avoid the use of insecticides, including BT.

As adults, most butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers. Some local butterflies, however, like the Mourning Cloak and Red Admiral, feed primarily on rotting fruit or tree sap for moisture and nutrients and the California Sister also feeds on aphid honeydew.

In the larval stage, most butterfly species are limited to a single plant family and occasionally a single genus. To attract more Western Tiger Swallowtails, for instance, provide larval host plants such as willow, sycamore, alder, Big Leaf maple, sycamore, plum and ash. Common Buckeye lay their eggs on mimulus and verbena while California Sister use the coast and canyon live oak. Planting a variety of grasses and shrubs like ceanothus, buckwheat, coffeeberry, bush lupine and manzanita and also perennials like redwood violet, California aster and wallflower to attract a variety of local butterflies. If your garden is near a wild area that naturally supports the caterpillar stage, you can plant just the nectar plants to attract butterflies to your garden.

Filling your garden with nectar producing flowers is the fun part. Adult butterflies rely on sugar-rich nectar for their daily fuel. Different species have different flower color and shape preferences. Many butterflies produce scents that attract the opposite sex and many of these scents smell like the flowers that they are attracted to and visit. The scent of these butterfly pollinated flowers may have evolved as an adaptation to ensure their survival.

Butterflies typically favor flat, clustered flowers that provide a landing pad although larger butterflies can feed on penstemon and salvias while hovering. Butterflies have good vision but a weak sense of smell. Unlike bees, butterflies can see red and are attracted to brightly colored flowers. PInk, red, orange, yellow and purple are the most attractive nectar source colors but they also use blue and white.

Consider the blooming time of each plant. Having plants blooming in the sun for many hours in the day will lengthen your viewing time. Nectar rich flowers include yarrow, aster, verbena, scabiosa, buckwheat, toyon, salvia, erysimum, zinnia, lantana and coneflower.

In addition to nectar, butterflies need a source of water and salts. A patch of mud kept wet year round or a shallow depression lined with pebbles and kept moist will work fine. Also provide some flat rocks for them to bask in the sun in an area protected from the wind by shrubs.

Having your own butterfly garden will enable you to witness close-up the wonder of butterflies and the flowers on which they feed.
 

Resilient Plants for Santa Cruz Gardeners

We all approach the new gardening season with enthusiasm and optimism. Then the rain come down hard and pelts your new plants into the ground, the nights turn cold again and some of the plants in your garden aren’t so happy anymore. That’s when you need some tried and true plants to star in your landscape no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.

I’m often asked to give suggestions for resilient plants for a problem spot. These plants may have beautiful foliage, bark and texture, too, and serve two purposes in the garden. They may have flowers for some of the year to provide nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds or berries to feed wildlife. Most of all they are easy to care for and trouble free.

Snowberry gets an A+ for all of these qualities. A California native of shaded, mixed evergreen and oak woodlands, this 3-6 ft shrub thrives in a variety of locations including the dry shade under large trees like oaks. It tolerates poor soil and neglect and will grow well in full shade but blooms better and produces more berries if it gets some sun. Clusters of pure white berries appear in late summer and early fall and last through much of the winter. In late spring or early summer, its pretty blue-green leaves provide a nice contrast to the tiny pink flowers which hummingbirds love. Bees produce a white honey from their nectar rich pollen.

They can be pruned as a nice hedge providing twiggy, dense shelter for wildlife.Because of their vigorous root system, they are useful to stabilize banks and slopes. Maintenance is easy- simply prune away some of the suckers every few years to keep it in check. If it gets too tall,  shear it back in late winter to keep compact. The berries are not the first choice for most birds but thrushes will eat them if there isn’t anything else available. Other wildlife will eat the berries, too.

Lewis and Clark collected this plant and brought it back to Thomas Jefferson. It was sent to England in 1817 and became a popular garden novelty among plant collectors there.

If showy flowers are what you’re looking for in a specific spot, the perennial Phygelius would make a nice addition to your garden. This large 3-4 ft plant blooms from early spring into fall and you can grow them in full sun or light shade. Related to snapdragons and penstemon, the flowers also suggest fuchsias which is where they get their common name, Cape Fuchsia. Coral Princess is one of my favorites with lots of tubular, soft salmon and yellow flowers which attract hummingbirds.

In the same bed you might plant a few to fill and and add a nice contrast at the base of the Cape Fuchsias. This bright bluish-pink true geranium groundcover grows 8" tall and spreads slowly but widely. Easy to care for true geraniums are hardy in the winter, need just average watering and can be sheared each fall for fresh spring flowers.
 

Redwoods in Maui

Redwoods in Maui?  I first heard about them at the Nature Center in .  A sign there said they were grown for commercial reasons in Hawaii. So now that I’m here on the island of Maui I just had to see them for myself.

I knew that redwood from our forests was used in the early 1900’s for surfboards. They were tough and durable but also heavy so the boards were redesigned in the 1930’s combining redwood with balsa.  Balsa was hard to get in large quantities so the boards were constructed of both- with balsa at the center and the rails of tougher redwood to strengthen the board.

But how did redwoods come to be planted in Maui?  Like our area that was clear cut in the 1800’s for lumber and to fuel the lime kilns so too the forests of Maui were harvested in the 1700’s.  Sandalwood, exported to China for its fragrant aroma, became the island’s first cash crop. Millions of trees were logged from the mountain forests. The men of the farming class were forced to cut trees, first on the lower slope and then farther up into the mountains, to pay for the chief’s acquisitions of weapons, warships and European imports.  Further damage was done by livestock brought by westerners  – pigs, goats, sheep and especially cattle. 

When the watershed was destroyed, the water disappeared for sugar cane, too. Reforestation started in the 1920’s when nearly two million trees were planted annually.  Fast growing species like redwoods, cedar, sugar pines and eucalyptus were planted to increase the watershed.  While these introduced trees and shrubs prevented catastrophic destruction, they produced sparse forests with fewer species than the complex, multi-layered systems created by native forests.

Fast forward to 2007 when the area was devastated by a wildfire.  Hawaii is not an area that is renewed by fires like California. It destroyed most of the forest. The redwood trees survived however. This area must suit redwoods as it is draped in clouds and fog at 6000 feet and many of the trees planted in the 20’s and 30’s are over 100 feet tall. Now the area is replanted with native trees as well as 57.000 redwood seedlings that received a blessing at planting time.  More redwoods were replanted because they are less prone to spread fire.

So if you’re in Maui up near Haleakala crater in Polipoli State Park check out the quiet, serene Redwood Trail.  Some of the trees probably came from redwood seedlings from our area.

Backyard Wildlife Certification

One of my New Year resolutions is to get my garden certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It will be fun for me and would also be a good school project for your kids. They can keep track of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, insects, mammals, lizards and frogs that come to visit your yard. Once your backyard is certified by NWF, you can order and display an attractive Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to convey your commitment to wildlife conservation and the environment and help spread the word to your neighbors.

All species of wildlife need the basics of food, water, cover and places to raise young. We can help conserve our natural resources like soil, water, air and habitat for native wildlife by gardening in an environmentally friendly way.  Here are some of the simple steps I’m doing in my small garden garden to reach this goal.

To provide food in my shady garden I plan to include Ca. native snowberry, pink flowering currant and mahonia for berries that attract birds.  Hummingbirds will find nectar from coral bells, western columbine and fuchsia-flowering currants. I also keep my feeders up year round for them.

Butterflies will like like Santa Barbara daisy, sweet alyssum and columbine. Plants that will attract beneficial insects are Ca. rose, coast live oak and ceanothus. Although I try to plant natives for their beauty and toughness, I believe that finding the right balance by mixing natives with non natives can enhance benefits to wildlife.

Next, I provide clean water for drinking, bathing and reproduction. I don’t have room for a pond but I do have bird baths that I keep filled year round. I’m also planning to make a puddling area for butterflies.

Wildlife need places to find shelter from the weather and predators. I keep some areas of my garden orderly but leave some less manicured. I plant in layers providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides a large range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites. Keep in mind, wildlife need to feel safe in their surroundings. They tend to steer clear of large, open spaces. I find most of the wildlife that visit my yard start at the wooded area in the back and work their way up through dense shrubs, wild berries, a dead tree and a small log pile.

Evergreens and deciduous trees provide nesting areas for birds. The rock wall and leaf pile are favorite spots for mice, sakes and salamander to lay their eggs or raise young. Butterfly larvae find food on host ceanothus, huckleberry, oaks, bleeding hearts, foxglove, sweet alyssum, ornamental strawberry, dogwood, viburnum, crabapple and red flowering currant. I’d plant a wisteria for them if I had more sun.

I conserve our valuable resources by doing simple measures like mulching, using drip and soaker hoses, planting low-water use plants like natives suited to this area, using organic pesticides only when necessary and using organic fertilizers.

In my little corner of the world, I’ve created a beautiful wildlife garden. Visit the National Wildlife Federation at NWF.org to get started on your own certification.