Category Archives: drought tolerant plants

Succulents: One Solution for the New California Garden

According to Weather West, a California weather blog authored by climate scientist, Daniel Swain, the latest seasonal predictions do not inspire a great deal of hope that the coming winter will bring drought relief. “A substantial La Nina event no longer appears to be in the cards. If it’s present at all, it will probably be quite weak.” Seems that persistent West Coast winter ridge may just rear its ugly head again. Even if subtle shifts in the large-scale atmosphere pattern lead to a different outcome here, our persistent drought is still on the table.

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Aeonium ‘Sunburst’ with statice limonium perezii

More and more people are asking me to update their landscaping to use less water and be lower maintenance. Many want a more modern look and what could be more architectural and clean looking than a succulent garden?

Converting to a low water landscape requires careful planning and design to achieve the look you want. You need to evaluate drainage patterns, soil types, slopes, areas of sun and shade and building locations. Hardscape features, such as patios, paths and decks require no water to maintain and by selecting permeable materials such as porous pavers and gravel, rainwater can infiltrate the ground. Large boulders can be used as accents.

Next comes the fun part- plant selection. In choosing the best succulents for your garden think about if your area gets frost during the winter. Does it have protection from a building or evergreen tree or do you live in a banana belt that rarely freezes? Are you planting in sun, shade or a combination?

In addition to the hardy succulents like sedum and sempervivum many showy succulents need only a bit of protection during our winters. Aeonium decorum ‘Sunburst’ is one of the showiest species with spectacular variegated cream and green 10″ rosettes. It looks terrific planted with black Voodoo aeonium. Aeoniums do well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

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Echeveria ‘Lace’

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so also do well in our our cool wet winters. ‘After Glow’ is frost tolerant and looks to be painted with florescent paint. There are spectacular hybrids being developed every year. These are not as hardy as the traditional hens and chicks but well worth the effort to find a place where they can survive a freeze. Frilly ‘Mauna Loa’ sports turquoise and burgundy foliage while Blue Curls echeveria looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

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Succulent selections

Aloes from South Africa and Arabia are old world plants. Many, like the medicinal aloe vera, are frost tender, but other such as the tree-like aloe plicitilis are hardy down to 25 degrees and look great either in the garden or in pots. Did you know the Egyptians used aloe in the mummification process or that there are no known wild populations of aloe? In South Africa an aloe called ferox is used in the same way as aloe vera for burns and stomach problems.

To ensure success when growing succulents, make sure your soil is fast draining. Our winter rains can rot even the toughest plants when their feet sit in soggy soil. Add sand, gravel or pumice to your soil or plant on mounds to increase drainage.

A Walk on the Wildside: The Ongoing Saga of the Hillbilly Gardener

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Fourth of July roses

Many years ago I was invited by a Scotts Valley resident to visit their garden. This was no ordinary garden I was to learn during my visit and each spring I look forward to seeing what’s new at Doc Hencke’s garden. From his roots in Oklahoma and Texas he describes himself as the “Hillbilly Gardener” but with his extensive knowledge of trees, vines and just about anything that grows he is one of the most successful and enthusiastic horticulturists I know. I wore my walking shoes and we started talking about what changes he’s noted in his landscape the past few years of drought coupled with this winter’s rains.

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Straw bale veggie garden with Joe Ghio bearded iris

First stop- the straw bale veggie garden. The soil in this part of the garden is blue hard sub soil so this above-ground method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place a couple years ago he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. Using a meat thermometer he determined by the internal temperature when fermentation was complete. He then soaked the bales with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. The straw bales are decomposing each year but he’s going to use them once more this season. His crop of kale, lettuces and chard looked robust and happy.

Nearby a bed of Joe Ghio hybrid bearded iris were in full bloom. “It’s been a great year for iris”, Richard said. Not so good for peach leaf curl. The rains this winter set the perfect stage for the fungus to proliferate. He joked that the birds get the peaches anyway.

Richard is redoing his pond this year. He’s tired of fighting the raccoons and algae. Steeper sides will deter the raccoons and deeper water will help to prevent algae growth. He was forced to remove a curly willow that shed leaves into the pond as their natural salicylic acid was poisoning the pond.

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Succulent collection with blooming kangaroo paw

Last year a new succulent bed was planted along the back of the house and patio. His Sticks on Fire all died over the winter from the cold and rain but the aeonium ’Zwartkop’, echeveria ’Sunburst’, kangaroo paw and various sedums were filling in nicely.

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Weeping leptospermun

Below the patio the golden Mexican marigold and blue Pride of Madeira were in full bloom along with a gorgeous stand of Weeping Leptospermum. “Magnificent this year, just look at this plant. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like in another 15 years?”, he said. Pointing out the visual boundaries he creates with flowering vines growing up into the trees, Richard observed that some are going better than others. Sound familiar in your own garden? Even this expert propagator is sometimes stymied by Mother Nature.

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Richard and his giant China Doll tree

I love to hear Doc Hencke’s stories as he shows me around. Stopping at a China Doll houseplant that has now grown into a tree he tells me he thinks it’s one of the tallest specimens ever. His giant bird of paradise flower pod opened last week. I’d never seen their enormous blue, prehistoric-looking flowers before.

Richard’s new desert garden along the driveway is growing in nicely with the aloe plicatilis blooming for the first time. Also the yucca he and his brother dug up inTexas is finally blooming. “I’ve only waited 52 years for it”, he laughs.

There are so many stories that come with each and every plant in Richard’s collection. It’s always a walk on the wild side.

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’.

A Day at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

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water feature in a display garden

I remember my first San Francisco Landscape Garden show as it used to be called. The year was 1989- not long after the event started as a fundraiser for San Francisco Friends of Recreation and Parks. My father and I loved it. All those orchids and bonsai and beautiful gardens. It was held at Fort Mason and my father, a retired Army colonel, was quite familiar with the location. I was new to garden shows and was yet to discover that the display gardens are part theatre – part landscape design. ‘Who would plant a shrub that grows to 6 feet tall in front of that little bitty flowering perennial?”, I said to Dad. Well, I’ve been to a lot of garden shows since including the Northwest Flower and Garden show in Seattle and the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show when it was held at the Cow Palace and now, in it’s 30th year, at the San Mateo Event Center.

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Fellow landscape designers at the show

So this year I know what to expect. Or I think I do but there are always surprises. I’m with a couple fellow landscape designers and we have a keen eye for new plants in interesting combinations and design solutions for upcoming landscapes. In addition to the show gardens there are also hundreds of vendors selling all sorts of wonderful garden related items and vendors selling every type of plant you could possibly want. So much fun. Here are just some of the highlights if you weren’t able to attend this year yourself.

The display gardens offer inspiration from lawn replacement ideas to sustainable building methods to exciting new plant introductions. For five days each March, people from around the world are brought together to educate, encourage and inspire garden enthusiast of all ages and all levels of knowledge and experience. This year was no exception although I wish there had been more display gardens like in the “good old days” of the garden show.

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deer scare or Shishi Idoshi water feature

Who doesn’t enjoy sitting next to an impressive water feature? This year there were several incorporated in designs that also included low water use plants. A pondless waterfall can attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators to your garden. The soothing sound of the water can also mask street noise. One garden featured a Japanese bamboo deer scare or Shishi Odoshi. Perfect for a small space the bamboo spout fills with water and rocks forward to empty, then rocks back to create a gentle clacking sound.

Another impressive display garden featured succulents of every type and shape. Grouped by color and shape, large swaths of these modern succulents_basalt_column.1600looking plants created a living tapestry around columnar basalt landscape rocks. Other notable features of this garden were the brightly painted stucco walls enclosing the space and stucco-over-building-block retaining walls painted bright blue, red and terra cotta.

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creative wall lighting

I probably got the most practical ideas from the garden created by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers than any other garden. Theirs demonstrated ways to re-imagine your garden without a lawn.There were cozy sitting areas. plants that screen out the street or next door neighbor, a vertical edible garden, lawn alternatives like Kurapia and vibrant planters filled with low water use plants. The whole garden was engaging and useful. I also saw a great idea for wall lighting that used a rusted metal screen in front of the light creating an interesting pattern. You had to be there to appreciate it’s unique design.

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callistemon ‘Little John’

For me and my colleagues the plants and garden art both featured in the gardens and for sale are what keeps us at the show for a long time. There are so many new plant introductions to evaluate for future designs. From new and improved selections of old favorites such as variegated lavender ‘Meerlo’, a soft mahonia ground cover, abelia ‘Miss Lemon’ to nandina ‘Lemon Lime’ and callistemon ‘Slim Jim’ there is a perfect plant for every garden.

Think about what you want to do in your front or back yard this year to save water and maintenance and enhance the beauty of your space.

Adding Bright Color to the Garden

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Yellow primrose

Do you ever look at the collection of cut roses at the market and think “Which is my favorite color today?” Sometimes it’s the strawberry pink ones I’m drawn to other times i like butterscotch or deep red. It’s the same dilemma in my garden. I try to use restraint and stick to just 3 colors but who can do that, really? In early spring I love the soft pink and pure white of bleeding hearts, camellias and early rhododendrons but maybe because I’m surrounded by so much green, I’m drawn in summer to the bright jewel colors of orange, yellow and red in my garden.

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Clivia miniata or Kaffir lily

I’m looking forward now to my orange clivia flower clusters that are emerging from deep within the dark green strappy leaves and will be opening soon. The color is especially vivid on a dark rainy day. I also have lots of deep golden and red primroses blooming now. I’ve enjoyed these same plants blooming repeatedly for many years in partial shade. I even get some sporadic blooms throughout the summer.

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Japanese Forest Grass – hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

Also at this time of year I get color from foliage too. My ‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass and the variegated one have emerged from winter dormancy and they are some of my favorites. Besides being deer resistant the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind adds another dimension to the garden. The chartreuse leaves of heuchera ‘Citronelle’ – coral bells – add a colorful touch of foliage all year round. There’s a variety called ‘Lemon Chiffon’ and another named ‘Lime Rickey’ that i want to add to my collection also.

Later in the season I look to brighter flowers to brighten my garden. High on my wish list for several years is the kniphofia or red hot poker. In addition to yellow and red varieties there’s a cool dwarf one called ‘Mango Popsicle’ available now. This terrific drought tolerant plant attracts hummingbirds and blooms continuously from late spring into fall. Other colors in this dwarf ‘Popsicle’ series are banana, creamsicle, lemon, papaya, pineapple and fire glow. All would look awesome planted in a drift.

There are so many plants I want to add to my perennial garden on the terraces between the low rock walls. Some of the existing plants are California natives like salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ with some water smart South African plants such as coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’ and leucodendron ‘Safari Sunset’ and an Australian grevillea ‘Coastal Gem’ thrown in.

Because I wechinacea_Hot_Coralant to add more vibrant colors to this area I’m looking to some of the new echinacea or coneflower. From deep gold to pumpkin orange to red-orange sunset colors this perennial has medium water needs once established and is deer tolerant. I”m hoping the seed heads will attract more goldfinches to my garden if I don’t deadhead but allow the flowers to remain on the stalks throughout the summer and into the fall. I can also plant more California native grasses for the goldfinches like blue and yellow-eyed grass and festuca californica.

Santolina 'Lemon Fizz'
Santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’

A plant like santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’ provides chartreuse mounds of fragrant foliage for year-round color. In the summertime it’s topped with bright yellow flowers. This compact evergreen plant is perfect to edging pathways, borders and in herb gardens. Plant in mass for a colorful, drought tolerant ground cover.

I have quite a few native sticky monkey flowers in orange and yellow that the

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mimulus aurantiacus

hummingbirds love. Also the reddish-orange California fuchsia adds color to my landscape later in the summer cascading over the rock wall. A lemon yellow fremontodendron or flannel bush would add some height to my slope.

Also I’ve wanted an Island Snapdragon or galvezia speciosa to add to my red-yellow-orange color scheme. This evergreen California native blooms with bright red snapdragon-like flowers in late winter through early fall. It’s a tough plant and very adaptable to many garden situations and soils. It can

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Fremontodendron californicum

even be hedged or pruned to ground level to keep the foliage fresh.

The bright colors of yellow, orange and red play well with blues and purples and are especially useful in mid-summer when the harsher light of the direct overhead sun can wash out paler hues.