Category Archives: drought tolerant gardens

Spring Garden Madness & the Lessons Learned

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Tower of Jewels echium- a favorite of bees

Everybody’s garden looks the best in the spring. Plants are full of new, healthy growth and the heat of summer has not yet descended. Early flowering plants are at there peak and those that wait until summer to flower so that their nectar will attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees are patiently awaiting their time in the sun. It’s a glorious time in the garden.

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Filoli flower arrangement

With this in mind I recently strolled Filoli Garden in Woodside to see what they were doing to conserve water while maintaining all their flower power. I also toured 5 gardens in Palo Alto on the Gamble Garden tour and got lots of ideas for sustainable and beautiful gardens.

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Filoli Sunken Garden

Filoli Garden is eye candy for any gardener. The estate grounds are maintained to perfection and it was interesting to see what changes they have in store for all those gorgeous, emerald green lawns. The roses, foxglove and peonies were in full bloom, the tulip pots now filled with colorful pansies. Several lawn areas had been reseeded while the large north lawn at the top overlooking the grounds had been allowed to go brown. This is what I learned they have planned to conserve water for the new lawn areas.

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Filoli solarium

Filoli is testing turf varieties that might grow well with less water and mowing in the coastal microclimate of Woodside. They have sown or planted twelve species and blends to trial. Each block will have a corresponding sign telling about the variety. The types being trialed include No Mow Fescue Mix, carex pansa, June grass, U.C. Verde buffalo grass, Pacific hair grass and Molate red fescue. Agrostis pallens, blue grama grass and purple needle grass are also included in the trials.

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No mow red fescue lawn

Many of these varieties are among the lawn replacement recommendations from Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Water Districts. Rethink you lawn this year like Filoli Gardens and get a rebate, too.

Next on my spring garden tour agenda were several private gardens showcased on the annual Gamble Garden tour in Palo Alto. Because it’s a walking tour I got as many ideas from the gardens featured as I did passing by the front yards of the other houses. This is the neighborhood where Steve Jobs used to live. I don’t know if his family still does but his orchard on the corner lot is thriving.

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Rustic fence

The theme of this year’s garden tour, Garden are for Living, came through loud and clear in each of the gardens. Many featured sustainable features such as a decomposed granite patio that also serves also as a patanque court, poured in place concrete pavers, corten steel raised bed and path edging and dry laid flagstone paths. Edibles were included in every garden- from a grape-covered pergola to a cleverly designed raised veggie bed complete with steel corners and banding and lighting for evening dinner harvesting.

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low water combination- Olive, Iceberg rose and rosemary

While walking the neighborhood a low water use plant combination of ornamental olive trees underplanted with rosemary and Iceberg roses complemented one Mediterranean style home. Another garden nearby featured a rustic fence made from fallen tree branches. I must have taken a hundred pictures to remind me of all the great design ideas I saw that day. There is nothing like a spring garden tour to get the creative juices flowing.

A Visit to the Brook Lomond Iris Farm

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Aztec Sun

What do you get when you combine a world renowned pottery artist with a reformed corn grower? On California Street in Ben Lomond, the result is the Brook Lomond Iris Farm of Rick and Chris Moran. This fun, educational, inspiring couple recently invited me to admire this year’s crop of tall bearded iris grown with certified organic gardening practices as well as to share their organic vegetable garden, cactus and succulent collection and Chris’ unique pottery. They are getting ready for this year’s annual iris sale coming up April 30th as well as May 1st and 7th from 9:00-4:00 each day when the iris blooms will be at their peak.

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Coiled pottery by Chris Moran

Upon arriving my eyes were torn between the colorful beds of iris on my left and the blooming cactus and succulent collection displayed on the flagstone entry garden on the right. I later learned Chris cut and laid the flagstone herself. Inside the house Chris’s fabulous coiled pottery vases, urns and jugs in their great room were so amazing I had a hard time tearing myself away to start the tour of the back garden and iris beds in the front. Cody, their new dog, was good company as I learned how the Moran’s came to start an iris farm.

When Rick Moran was 13 years old he worked at LoPresti tomato farm in Connecticut. “I hated it,” he laughs. Later when he was a student at UCSC he used to pass by the Chadwick garden and says he “got the gardening bug by osmosis”. After graduation the couple moved to Bar Harbor Maine where they started a community garden. Chris displayed the cactus and succulents she had moved there in a heated porch which was quite the talk of the town for neighbors passing by on a snowy day.

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Organic vegetable garden

When they moved back to this area and found the sunny lot in Ben Lomond, Rick added nine yards of chicken manure mixed with rice hulls and planted corn. He had visions of savoring succulent ears of corn for dinner but quickly realized that the amount of water needed to grow corn was prohibitive. That was after the Chris’ succulent failure. He and Chris wanted to come up with a crop they could make a little supplemental income. She used to sell her cactus and succulents when they lived in Capitola at the drive-in in Santa Cruz many years before but after planting fancy succulents in the front yard and seeing them turn to mush in a Ben Lomond freeze they realized succulents weren’t going to work either.

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Stepping Out

Enter “The Queen of the Garden” as iris are called. The Morans researched these stunning flowers and found them to be drought tolerant and deer and gopher resistant. Having a high water table Iris are the perfect crop. They require no extra water at all with summer being the plant’s dormant season. Chris worked for the City of Santa Cruz for 25 years and started their Home Composing program. They compost all garden waste and kitchen scraps using the compost as the only fertilizer for the iris beds and vegetable garden. They get 15 wheelbarrows of compost a year from their simple bins. Straw is spread as mulch to control weeds between the iris beds’

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Tall bearded iris beds

The iris are starting their blooming cycle now. Some bloom earlier than others. By planting early, mid and late blooming varieties you can extend their colorful show for several months. Iris also make a good cut flower and many are fragrant. Chris told me that you can tell when an iris was hybridized from it’s shape. The early types are not as frilly as modern varieties. She pointed out a bed of Wabash Heritage which was first introduced in the 1920’s- simple with three falls. The lovely sky blue flowers of Striped Zebra iris smelled of Grape Koolaid. Chris explained that the flower scent develops as they sit in the sun. The aroma is not as strong when they first open.

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Bearded iris closeip

The Brook Lomond Iris Farm is located at 10310 California Drive off Highway 9 in Ben Lomond. Just look for the tall flags waving in the breeze and bring your camera. Iris rhizomes for sale are chosen for hardiness in this area and the Morans are always on the lookout and adding the newest varieties available such as the deep purple Dusky Challenger. The Iris Farm is educational as well as beautiful- a place the whole family will enjoy.

Climate Smart Plants for the Garden

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Climate smart verbena lilacina with blue oat grass

All this talk about “drought tolerant” plants or “water smart” plants is misleading in some ways. What really matters for the success of a plant in your garden is that they are climate smart. You can call the new California garden climate tolerant or climate adapted but it all comes down to the same thing. The plants you choose to grow in your garden should be able to naturally tolerate periods of lower than average water. This doesn’t mean no water during extremely long dry periods. No plant can live without water.

I have two books that I look to for plant ideas when called upon to design a garden in our area. This first was published by East Bay MUD in 2004 and is called ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates’. The other book I refer to regularly for ideas and information is ‘California Native Plants for the Garden’. Both are invaluable in these times of water conservation. One of the best tips each of them offer is to garden where you live.

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Philadelphus lewesii near Felton Covered Bridge.

All of us live in a summer-dry climate. Summer-dry gardens are naturally dry for long periods. Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and failure in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place whether it’s a California native from an area with similar soil and exposure or a plant from another Mediterranean-like climate with growing conditions like yours.

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest, redwood forest, chaparral and 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, giant feather grass, rosemary and rockrose do well here. California natives such as western mock orange (philadelphus lewisii), wild ginger and western sword ferns grow here also.

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Iris douglasiana (Pacific Coast Iris)

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where big leaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow. Most plant here grow lush in this deep soil. If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider giant chain fern, aquilegia, dicentra, Pacific Coast iris and fuchsia-flowering gooseberry.

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 and shallow with 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 a classic combination would be 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 like silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here. Buckwheat and sticky monkey flower do well here. You might also try growing 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 them with gravel or crushed stone.

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callistemon ‘Little John’

Remember right plant-right place. Don’t try to force nature although most gardens do look better with some summer water. Closer to the house we expect a fuller look. Combinations I’m going to try this season include leucospermum paired with blue echium or grey-leafed westringia planted with red-flowering callistemon ‘Little John’.

Looking at Grasses in a New Way

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Calamagrostis Foliosa

I regularly receive plant availabilities via email listing what’s looking good in that wholesale nursery for the week. Besides being a good reminder of plants that have fallen through the cracks in my memory many times I’m inspired to think of them in a new way. With spring around the corner – yes, hard to believe but true – this is the time to rethink your landscaping again. From saving water to saving time there are lots of ways to change what you have in your landscape to make it look more inviting and pleasing to the eye.

Tired of looking at all that moisture conserving but uninteresting mulch you spread last year? Whether you are replacing the lawn you allowed to go brown last summer or just want an expanse of water smart low grasses or grass-like plants for an area I’ve got some great suggestions for you.

 

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carex meadow

If you want a lawn substitute that you can walk on but don’t need to use it as a play area there are California native and prairie meadow grasses that will be perfect for this kind of situation. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho fescue, Calif. and red fescue, carex pansa, Berkeley sedge, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass. Occasional shearing keeps them looking best but they may be left alone with no mowing at all. Weed control is important during establishment but a healthy stand may be sustained with virtually no weeding after that.

Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass and carex texensis. They stay short and can be either left alone or mowed every so often. Tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet. Scotts Valley Water District has a good list on their website of lawn substitute grasses and other water conserving plants.

Other areas in your landscape might look great with an expanse of a grass or grass-like plant with a slightly taller profile. Here are some of my favorite ornamental plants that are water smart, have beautiful foliage and often showy flower heads to sway in the breeze and bring life to the garden.

Moor grass or more specifically Sesleria ‘Greenlee’ is a new-ish introduction. This evergreen, clumping blue-green grass grows to 1 foot tall and a little wider with rose-purple flowers in spring and summer. It tolerates a wide range of conditions from wet to dry, sun to shade and is hardy down to 0 degrees. Lovely planted in swaths to give your garden that restful feeling.

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Libertia peregrinans

One of my very favorite small grass-like plants is Orange Libertia. Native to New Zealand this stunning plant is great back lit and planted in masses. Growing to just under 2 feet tall, the leaves are green in the center and bright orange along the margins. Lightly fragrant, pure white blooms appear in the spring. This beauty takes the sun or light shade and has moderate water needs. It’s hardy to about 15 degrees and forms colonies by rhizomes.

Blue oat grass is another small grass that add elegance to borders, containers and moonlit gardens. In late spring graceful stems bloom with delicate oat-like flowers that age to tawny brown by midsummer. Ruby grass, festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’ and Chinese fountain grass are also small grasses that can be massed together for a stunning effect.

Plants with grass-like foliage like mondo grass, liriope, small phormiums and many of the dianella or flax lily are also water smart and can be used alone or in groups.

Time to start thinking of new ways to save water and time this growing season.

Changing Times – Changing Gardens

Maybe our gardens in California should never have looked like a Monet painting filled with layer upon layer of water thirsty perennials and lush green lawns big enough for a soccer match. Because we were first settled by Easterners who could grow these plants with natural rainfall I’m going to give us a pass. It wasn’t our fault. But now we are wiser and smarter. We may have been kicking and screaming at first but all us us now accept that water is limited and we need to use it wisely.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to live in graveled yards with no landscaping. Our goal should be to figure out what the new California landscape should realistically look like and plant accordingly. We can still be surrounded by green and silver foliage and colorful flowers that look lush without breaking our water budget.
Look outside the old box and discover a whole new plant palette and a way of gardening that works for all of us.

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Drought tolerant plant plugs

Recently in the mail, I received a collection of low water use, low maintenance plants native to Australia. I plan to trial the small plugs in my own garden but I know already that they are going to be winners. I have seen a couple of them at the wholesale nurseries. Others are improved selections of known tough, drought tolerant plants. They are well suited to our Mediterranean climate, easy to grow in well drained soils and hardy in winter. I’m looking forward to a time when they are available in local nurseries. In the meantime, I plan to specify them where appropriate in future landscape designs.

I”m excited about all 5 varieties of plants I received. Three are grass-like and the other two are compact versions of well known shrubs.

You might be familiar with the compact bottlebrush ‘Little John’. Breeders now have come up with a new improved version called Callistemon ’Better John’ because of its vigorous growth and dense blue-gray foliage. This 3 foot tall by 3 feet wide shrub is easy to grow, quick to establish and is long lived in the landscape. Hummingbirds love the 4-6 inch long red flowers during the spring.

The other shrub variety I am going to test is Westringia ‘Grey Box’.  Westringia are deer resistant and very drought tolerant once established and ‘Wynabbie Gem’ and ‘Morning Light’ have been popular for years for this reason. Grey Box is a new dwarf form with beautiful grayish-green foliage. It doesn’t need pruning to keep it at 3 feet tall and wide. From late winter to summer, white quarter-sized flowers appear in small clusters along the stems. I’m anxious to grow this shrub myself.

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Lomandra ‘Breeze’

A couple of the grass-like plant plugs I received are an favorite of mine. I’ve seen lomandra ‘Breeze’ growing in heavy shade and also in sun. Deer don’t like it and it looks great with little water. Now there’s a new cultivar called ‘Baby Breeze’ which stays at a graceful 18 inches tall. If you want the look of a short grass with no maintenance Lomandra is the new go-to plant. It even has yellow-orange tiny flower spikes in late spring.

Lomandra ‘Katrinus Deluxe’ is the other selection I’m going to grow out. It’s extremely drought tolerant, very shade tolerant, cold and heat tolerant and deer resistant also. It looks like an ornamental grass but you don’t have to cut it back in winter. It’s evergreen even when temperatures drop into the teens.

Dianella ‘Little Rev’ is the last plant I’m looking forward to growing. This flax lily has an weeping architectural habit. It’s a very tough and drought tolerant grass-like plant good for erosion control as well as planting on it’s own or in groups. In spring it blooms with masses of small dark violet flowers. This is a clumping plant for full sun to partial shade that slowly spreads by rhizomes. As with the others this plant also is low maintenance and requires little water once established.

I’ll keep you posted as I discover new plants for our changing times and changing gardens.

The Changing Season of September

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Japanese forest grass

You never know where new gardening ideas and inspiration can come from. The other day I stopped by to help a friend water a garden by the river in South Felton while the owners were out of town. We both enjoyed the unique combination of plants and garden art placed strategically though out the garden. It was clear that this soothing garden was created with love. If gardening keeps you sane, don’t stop because of the drought.

Covered with huge white, heavily ruffled flowers a Rose of Sharon ‘Helene’ anchored the entry to a small deck overlooking the San Lorenzo river. With a reddish-purple eye and handsome, leathery dark green leaves this attractive shrub will bloom nearly continuously over the summer and fall without setting seeds.

Other gems in this garden that caught my eye included a Japanese painted fern paired with a purple leaved coral bells. A foxtail fern and variegated hosta looked great nearby. Japanese forest grass, oakleaf hydrangea, liriope, helleborus and winter daphne grew among the ferns.

These are shade plants and most like a regular drink of water. They are combined with plants with similar water requirements in this garden but if your garden is in more sun remember that it doesn’t take a lot of water to make a garden beautiful. An garden_art.1920 Japanese_painted_fern-heuchera.1920unthirsty garden can fill you with joy.

Gardening makes us learn new things. If you water less frequently, some plants may decline or even die eventually. Remove those that do and replace them with plants that will thrive with less water.

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Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’

Some to try as replacements are agastache or Hummingbird mint. Plant near your organic edible garden to provide nectar for pollinators as well as hummingbirds. The flowers are edible as a salad garnish, in baked goods and in cocktails while their foliage can be added to herb salads or in a cup of tea.

Other perennials that bloom now and into fall include asters, gaillardia and all the salvias. California fuchsia are just starting their long fall bloom cycle, too.

I like the bright flowers of gloriosa daisy, especially the longer lived Goldsturm variety. These perennials make good cut flowers and are tough and easy to grow. They are descended from wild plants native to the eastern U.S. but require only moderate water once established.

Need more late summer perennials to extend your season? Coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter. Now days there are many colors to choose from in addition to the traditional rosy purple daisies. They are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets. The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years. If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower. Echinacea purpurea and other varieties are used as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon. The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.

Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states. It was used to treat snake and insect bites because of its antiseptic properties and to bathe burns. They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache. It was also used for purification. The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.

Enjoy unthirsty color in your garden this fall.