Category Archives: low maintenance gardening

Gardens Change with Time

quiet_path.1280Call 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 deer_grass.1280property 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.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The 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 Calif_buckwheat.1280area. 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.

Rockrose, Grevillea and Ceanothus for Low Water Use Gardens

cistus_Grayswood_PInkThere are so many great plants that don’t require a lot of water to look beautiful. It’s always a plus if they attract hummingbirds and other wildlife. Some favorites are so reliable that we consider them tried and true. Who doesn’t want to include more plants like this in the garden? On the lookout for cultivars of old favorites I came across a few that I plan to include this year in my own garden and also in upcoming drought tolerant designs. I’m excited.

Rockrose is a medium sized shrub that works in so many low water use situations. Besides nice looking foliage the flowers of this shrub provide lots of color, too. With soft grey-green leaves and lovely baby pink flowers, Grayswood Pink cistus is a winner. It grows to about 3 feet tall and 4-5 feet across and is covered in blooms from spring to summer and then sporadically through the year. Bees, butterflies and birds are all attracted to rockrose. Leave it to the British to be at the forefront of gardening trends, the Royal Horticultural society gave this cultivar their Award of Garden Merit in 2002.

Rockrose are tough evergreen shrubs but they do not respond to hard pruning. Best cistus_Sunsetto lightly trim each year to control size as needed. They are tolerant of poor soils and are quite drought tolerant once established. Hardy to 15- 20 degrees they survive our winter lows. Other rockrose favorites of mine include the variety Sunset which grows to only 2 feet high and 4 feet wide with bright pink flowers much of the summer. I also like cistus purpureus for its glowing magenta flowers with a red spot at the base of each petal. Its  common name is Orchid rockrose which is Pantone’s color of the year.  Rockroses are deer resistant.

Grevilleas are one of those plant families that have so many types of flowers, growth habits and sizes that they hardly seem to be related to each other at all. Most are native to Australia and so flower during our winter and early spring. They are invaluable nectar sources for hummingbirds and other nectar feeding birds when most of our plants are still snoozing. If you have deer problems plant Rosemary grevillea. Scarlet Sprite is a mounding, compact shrub 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide with soft textured needle-like leaves. The rosy pink and cream colored flowers are showy in winter and spring. It’s hardy to 20 degrees and is similar to Noelii which was once the most common grevillea in cultivation in California but it’s not as prickly and is denser growing also.
grevillea_lanigera_Mt_Tamboritha
If you want a drought tolerant low spreading groundcover to attract hummingbirds plant a Wooly grevillea.  I especially like the pinkish-red and cream spider like flowers of the variety Mt Tamboritha. They grow about 1-2 feet high and spread to 4 feet in sun or partial shade. They are tolerant of moist soil and are hardy to about 18 degrees. The nectar-rich flowers are abundant in winter and spring but they will bloom sporadically during the rest of the year.

We are lucky there are so many ceanothus varieties native to California. From ceanothus_thyrsiflorus_Bixby_Bridgegroundcovers to large shrubs there’s a plant size to fit every location in the garden. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus is one of the shrubs starting to bloom in our area right now. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. Growing to 8 feet Bixby Bridge has large sky blue flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds. With large shiny green leaves and those huge flowers it will steal the show in your garden.

There are a few other drought tolerant plants that I have my eye on. They include a new variety of rosemary called Mozart. It has the darkest blue flowers I have ever seen and will grow into a mound 3 feet tall by 6 feet wide. Hardy to 10 degrees it will fit in nicely in dry gardens mixed with lavenders and rockrose.

The new lavender variety I found is called Lavender Silver Frost. Named for its incredible powder-white foliage and dark purple flowers its gorgeous.  At just over 2 feet tall and a 3 feet wide it’ll be beautiful with the rest of dry garden plants.

Sustainable Tips for the Landscape

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithout a doubt the most requested item I'm asked in the design process is to include low water use plants and solutions that are low maintenance. We live in the west where rainfall occurs predominantly from late fall through late spring in a good year and the amount and duration varies tremendously. Whether you live in the shade or the sun it's a smart idea to keep water costs down in the summer and preserve this natural resource.

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people and conserve water  while providing habitat and food for the rest of nature. A great place to learn more about the benefits of organic gardening, water conservation and sustainable healthy living is The Garden Faire this Saturday, June 22nd at Scotts Valley's Sky Park from 9am to 5pm.

In it's 8th year, The Garden Faire is a free-admission, educational event for the whole family with OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAknowledgable speakers, interactive demonstrations, food and beverage, live music, garden goods and plants for sale. This year The Faire will focus on the whole person offering a healthy rest stop with chair massage, reiki and a tea house.
This event is sponsored in part by both SLV and Scotts Valley Water Districts because they know the importance of sharing information about ways to conserve water.

What can you do right now to save water in your landscape? First choose wisely what you plant in the garden and how you water. Start with a smart design by evaluating how the space will be used and what plants will thrive with a minimum of care and pruning.  Select the best trees and place them to shade the south side of the house to reduce cooling costs. Supplement the soil by making soil health a priority. Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste.
    
helleborus_argutifolius2A time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you'll be dragging the hose over there for just one plan or running the irrigation system longer to keep it happy.  If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you'd like, move those to their own spot. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

Your method of irrigation helps conserve water. Hand watering where possible, especially new plantings, directs the water exactly where its needed and you can shut off the hose as soon as the plants receive enough water. A soaker hose is another efficient option that reduces evaporation during the watering process. An automatic irrigation system with a rain sensor, weather based controller or soil moisture sensors is the newest way to save water.

Plant  dry climate plants like tea tree ( leptospermum), lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and shade the soil with drought tolerant ground covers like ceanothus, manzanita, oregano and thyme to conserve moisture. Try Corsican hellebore (helleborus argutifolius)for a tough, low water use plant in a shady area. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible to keep the landscape looking green and fire safe.

To improve soil structure, plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter.  Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

California natives or plants from similar climates in the world are low maintenance, low irrigation plants and usually need less tending, fertilizer and pruning. Like all plants they require a period of irrigation in order to become established. Even plants that require no irrigation after becoming established like Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron) will need some water for the first 2 summers, at least, and maybe even during the first winter if there is a long dry spell.  The rule of thumb to determine if a plant is established and self sufficient and therefore not requiring any more irrigation is when it has grown 2-3 times the size it was when planted or after is has been growing for 2 summers.
 

Saving Water in the Garden

With so much rain this winter it's easy to forget just how precious water is. Globally, water is the new oil. In our own Santa Margarita aquifer everything we can do to replenish the groundwater is vital for our own survival and for that of generations to come. Water cost money – to buy, store, collect, pump, filter and distribute. It just makes good sense to be water wise in your home and garden.

Scotts Valley Water District has been offering a free information series during January about water conservation. Each Wednesday night from 7:00-8:30 a different subject is presented. They are open to the public. I've attended two so far- Storm Water Management and Rainwater & Greywater Harvesting, lots valuable information about ways to save water and money.

When it rains it pours. Think about ways to slow this free water from the sky and prevent it from running off your property. Allow it to spread and sink into the ground. Easy ways to do this can also make for a beautiful landscape.

Design your patio using permeable pavers that allow storm water to percolate into the soil. Whether you choose flagstone over a gravel base, pervious concrete, interlocking pavers with spaces between or crushed gravel all enable rainwater to seep into the soil, recharge the aquifer and prevent runoff into streams and storm drains.

Pervious pavement for driveways can capture runoff , recharge the groundwater and keep pollutants in place in the soil. Large volumes of runoff causes serious erosion and siltation in rivers and streams. Naturally occurring micro-organisms digest car oils, leaving little but carbon dioxide and water. Turf block (concrete blocks with holes) is a good choice for areas that don't receive a lot of heavy traffic and can also be used for paths with gravel or groundcover between.

Plants and trees also slow water runoff. They help stabilize slopes and prevent erosion of valuable nutrient-rich topsoil. They create wildlife habitat and act as a natural pest control. A beautifully designed landscape using California native or drought tolerant plants reduces the need for fertilizers, pesticides, excessive watering and overall maintenance requirements.

You can design a rain garden to capture stormwater runoff from roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces and allow the water to sink back into the ground. A dry creek bed can also be a good way to slow runoff. Some utilize drain pipe underneath to capture the rainwater so it has time to percolate into the ground.

Using vegetation or mulches to cover bare soil is a key ingredient to slow down runoff. Mulches are a good choice for areas with less than 33% slope, Vegetation works well on areas with less than a 50% slope. Mulch can be organic-such bark chips, straw or grass clippings or inorganic gravel or cobbles. All protect soil from erosion, conserve soil moisture and prevent weed growth. It's all part of the plan to slow, spread and sink water back into the ground.

Installing a rain barrel is a simple way to catch rainwater runoff from your roof. If you have room you might consider a large water tank above or below the ground to collect water. A friend of mine operates a small nursery on her Watsonville property. Sherry and her husband, John, decided to collect the rainwater runoff into a series of tanks to save money and utilize this resource. The 4500 sq.ft roof of their barn provides enough water to fill 3 large tanks. Last year they collected enough water to irrigate their nursery, Terra Sole, for quite a bit of the year. They eventually plan to install solar panels to offset the energy required to pump the water. Every little bit helps

If you'd like more information and ideas about how to beautify your landscape and save water, maintenance costs and time  please come to the last Water Wednesday presentation by Scotts Valley Water District on Jan 30th at 7:00 pm at their office on Civic Center Drive. LeAnne, the water conservation coordinator, and I will be showing slides of landscapes, some of which I designed, that feature low water use plants, lawn replacement ideas and California natives. There's a solution for every family and lifestyle.
 

Fall Wildflowers & October to-do’s

Above the clear turquoise water of the Big Sur coastline, wildflowers still bloom in October. Bright orange Sticky Monkeyflower meander among a carpet of rosy blooming California Buckwheat. Deep orange California fuchsia flower on hillsides alongside the bright white flower heads of yarrow. They make a striking combination. Under the partial shade of pine trees lavender Seaside Daisy explode with color. Even poison oak contributes deep rusty-red tones to the landscape making it easier to identify and avoid. This wild land offers lessons and ideas to make our own gardens more beautiful.

Big Sur has areas of chaparral, oak and pine woodlands, riparian or streamside woodlands and redwood-tanbark-oak woodlands. Nearly half of all the flora of California grows here and many northern and southern California plants mix in this unique location. . Only in Big Sur will redwoods and yuccas thrive together. The look is startling. Certainly not a combination you would think of for your own garden.

Near McWay Falls on Hwy 1, fragments of an elaborate stone house still remain along with some of the landscaping. Christopher McWay and his wife Rachel settled the area in the late 19th century.The land passed through several owners until former U.S. House of Representative Lathrop Brown and his wife Helen acquired it and built a beautiful stone structure overlooking McWay Cove. The house was torn down 50 years ago but many of the landscape plants still thrive after all these years.  Hardy pittosporum eugenoides have survived without any supplemental watering. A huge stand of blooming Naked Ladies covers the rocky slope. We all know what survivors these bulbs are. Tall Mexican palms and ornamental trees surround the fragments of stone staircases and walls reminding us that nature will endure.

What allows all plants to thrive in their environment is the simple set of conditions that they like. It's nearly impossible to grow ferns in the hot sun around here and don't even think about trying a California fuchsia in the shade. Soil is important, too. Rich, moist soil is perfect for wild ginger but gravelly, well drained soil works best for Five-fingered ferns. Match the right plant with the right spot and you'll have success every time. Big Sur is a chock full of success stories.

Here are more tips for early fall in the garden.

Fall is not a good time for major pruning.  Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease.  As a general rule, don't prune when leaves are falling or forming.  Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form.  To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.  

Do refresh perennials, such as butterfly bush, salvia and yarrow by cutting a third to half of their growth.

Rake leaves– compost or put in your green can. If large leaves are left in place they will mat down and set up fungal problems come spring.
 

Trials & Tribulations of a Test Garden

While at the Watsonville Terra Sole Nursery recently, owner's John and Sherry Hall shared with me their experiences growing and experimenting with plants in their own landscape and nursery. From these personal trials, they decide what to propagate and sell in the small, independent nursery they operate on their property.

With a philosophy to share what they learn with their customers, they grow native and unusual plants and other drought tolerant plants that are adapted to our dry summer climate. Sherry told me that they grow their plants as sustainably as possible, hand pulling weeds and collecting snails by hand. They said they propagate and grow their plants without growth regulators or dangerous chemicals. I saw many birdbaths both in their own landscape and in the nursery. Sherry told me they encourage feathered friends like the Western Bluebird to live in the garden to eat bugs. It's a win-win situation.

Sustainable doesn't just get lip service at this nursery. They don't use labels on their containers making it easy to recycle them. And John makes his own succulent garden boxes from 100 year old barn wood. They looked awesome planted up with a collection of various succulents propagated in the greenhouse.

I commented on the hardy geraniums and other plants coming up through the gravel on the nursery floor. John and Sherry both laughed as they told me "it's the best place to propagate some of the plants. Our son works at a big grower nearby and can't propagate some of these plants even in his $10,000 greenhouse".

What were some of my favorite plants that I saw on the tour and which do they think are the best performers?  
In the test garden, a Lemon Fizz santolina, with foliage so brilliant it looked like a lit light bulb, nestled at the base of a burgundy phormium. A blooming euphorbia completed the vignette. Santolinas are drought and deer tolerant. One important thing Sherry has learned from the test garden is how close to plant things. "They get a lot bigger than you'd imagine from seeing them in that cute little gallon can".

They have an extensive coral bell or heuchera collection that they have been testing for the past 4 years. Starting with 80 plants of different kinds, 90% have survived. The fancy hybrids do need some summer water and compost to look their best. The variety Pinot Gris, with molasses colored foliage, really stood out among the rest.

The echinacea were just emerging from dormancy and will bloom during the summer.  They are very dependable in the garden unless the gophers get them, I was told. Agastache is another one of their favorites and the hummingbirds love them, too. They grow many colorful cordyline from clumpers to tall types. They are doing great, Sherry said. "Maybe a little too great" as they get big fast. Gaillardia have been disappointing but maybe they received too much water at the wrong time, she confessed.

In the nursery, I was drawn to the hardy geranium, 'Bill Wallace'. Loaded with purplish-blue flowers, this mounding perennial blooms for a long time. In another spot, I couldn't miss the rich, dark burgundy flowers of the camellia "Night Rider". "It's the only camellia we grow", the Hall's explained. A very slow grower, it's perfect for containers.

At the Spring Trials they bought a flat of a new acacia called 'Cousin Itt'. This plant is very different from the invasive tree we see blooming each winter. A well behaved 30" mound of soft, emerald green foliage it's drought tolerant and would look great near a dry stream bed.

With so many plants to talk about, we ran out of time and ended with the "under-used, under-appreciated" Beschorneria.  This genus of succulent plants belong to the subfamily agavoides and is native to Mexico. The Hall's are concentrating on propagating a variegated variety in their nursery. A tall blooming red spike had emerged from one of the green species.

This is just a taste of the many plants I learned about that day at Terra Sole Nurseries. From drought tolerance, disease resistance, cold and wildlife compatible the experiments continue.

You can find out more about this small nursery at www.terrasolenurseries.com.