Tag Archives: garden design

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.

drought tolerant plant plugs
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.

Save Water in the Garden like they do in Carmel

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Aeonium ‘Sunburst’, echeveria, statice and agapanthus grouping

You can sum up a Carmel garden with one of two descriptions – hot and dry or mild and dry. Closer to the coast the weather is mild year round while further up Carmel Valley it can get pretty toasty.

In either place, the people of Carmel are used to paying close attention to their water consumption. Monterey County water districts have some of the most stringent regulations around.

On a recent trip to this beautiful part of the world, I took the opportunity to study their beautiful low water-use gardens. What makes for a successful garden that doesn’t include a lawn and lush perennial border? Here are some of the plants and strategies that I admired while in Carmel.

Because many homeowners are replacing their lawns with low water-use landscapes a well thought out design is more important than ever.

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Libertia peregrinans

Stone makes a garden look like it’s part of nature. Granite boulders are one of the go-to choices for accent rocks due to their lower cost and I saw many gardens with beautiful installations using granite. But it was the creamy yellow Carmel stone that caught my eye. It’s used for everything there from retaining walls and steps to veneer for homes.

Carmel stone is a Monterey sedimentary shale and can be found throughout the Santa Lucia mountain range. The best stone colors, however, come from quarries in Monterey County. With beautiful rust, orange, pink and caramel iron oxide striations it’s plentiful and relatively light by rock standards. That’s probably why it was the material of choice for the native Ohlone tribes who built the Carmel Mission.

In addition to the beautiful stonework and boulders in Carmel gardens, plant selection is often unique and bold as well as easy on the water budget. I wasn’t familiar with Globularia sarcophylla ‘Blue Eyes’ when I first saw it blooming. Covered with hundreds of button size flowers of cream with dark blue centers it really stood out. This showy little Canary Island shrub is very drought tolerant and hardy down to 10 degrees.

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Anigozanthos ‘Gold Velvet’

Another plant that looked great paired with old fashioned shasta daisies was the medium sized Gold Velvet kangaroo paw. Flowering for most of the year this variety has more resistance to black spot, needs less trimming and is frost tolerant. Plant kangaroo paws in a well mulched garden using chunky bark chips and ensure the crown of the plant is above soil level. Remove older flower stems and cut back foliage every 1-2 years. Kangaroo paw offer drought tolerant color in the garden.

Dramatic purple leafed phormium ‘Guardsman’ accented one of the gardens. Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Los Alamitos’ -Texas sage – would complement this phormium. The gray foliage and pink flowers smother this plant in color from summer into fall. Succulents like aeonium ‘Sunburst’ and echeveria paired with agapanthus and statice made a nice vignette in another garden.

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Leucodendron ‘Ebony’

A visit to several nurseries in Carmel Valley shed more light on what customers are buying in these times of drought. One of the smaller leucodendrons called Ebony is a favorite. This bushy compact shrub grows 3 to 4 feet tall and a bit wider with lustrous blackish-purple foliage and burgundy red bracts surrounding the flowers from late winter to summer. One of the great things about this species is its ability to tolerate only occasional to infrequent irrigation once established.

Other low water-use plants featured at the local Carmel nurseries include California native Woolly Blue Curls, the stunning teucrium ‘Azureum’, Velour Pink Mexican Bush Sage and Wyn’s Wonder Australian fuchsia.

Lots of awesome gardens, nurseries and plants – so little time. Take some ideas from the people of Carmel and embrace low water-use gardens.

Dry River Beds – Beautiful & Beneficial

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Dry river bed down a steep slope

With so many people replacing their thirsty lawns with low water-use plants, I’m getting lots of requests for ideas about what to do with all that empty space. The sky’s the limit when you have a blank slate. Let me get you started.

If your old lawn was in the front you might consider putting in a sitting area for a couple of chairs and a bistro table. Use simple crushed gravel or more formal flagstone underfoot and surround the space with a low seat wall to add a bit of privacy.

Adding a dry river bed is another good solution. A dry river bed can slow runoff, spread it out and sink it back into the soil. Connected to a downspout they keep even more rainfall on your own property. If we get the El Nino storms that are predicted this will be a welcome addition to your landscape.

A dry river bed is a rock-lined swale that uses rounded river rock in addition to vegetation to allow

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Dry river bed with grasses and deer resistant oleander

runoff to soak into the ground. Make sure there is a 2% slope from beginning to end to ensure that water is conveyed away from your house to the desired location. Non-woven geotextile fabric is often used underneath the rock.

You can create a depression or rain garden at the end of your dry river bed and plant it with plants that tolerate wet feet in the winter. Both a dry river bed and a rain garden allow water to sink back into the ground. The plants remove pollutants from the runoff from roofs or other impervious surfaces.

A rain garden might be a simple, shallow depression filled with plants that can flourish in both moist and dry conditions. The size and depth will depend on your how much water you need to capture in a winter runoff

Sometimes a dry river bed will receive so much runoff that a dry well or dispersal pit is installed at the end. If you have a high water table or clay soil the water may not always soak in fast enough and an overflow device like this is needed. The goal is to keep water on your own property and not in the street or the neighbors’ yard.

There are good looking dry river beds as we’ll as bad looking ones. A quick Google image search will show you what I mean. Your goal is to create something that looks like it belongs right where it is. The plants, the accent rocks, the cobble, the location – all need to work together.

If your property has a natural slope follow the natural terrain if possible. You can install a dry river bed on flat land also by creating a channel for the river bed to follow. Keep in mind that even a dry river bed is more interesting if it is not all visible at once. Soft, flowing curves and bends create a natural look.

Start with the rocks and cobble. Rounded river cobble looks most natural for the creek bed. In nature, water flowing down a river would round off sharp rock edges to produce cobble of different sizes. A river never has just one size of rocks and yours shouldn’t either.

Accent rocks can be any type that you like as long as you get a variety of rock sizes and shapes. Use the larger stones to direct and channel water. Placing rocks on the outside of a curve creates a more natural look.

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Pheasant Tail grass along cobble path

As in all gardens there is always a bit of maintenance to keep things looking and working great. Weeding in the first couple of months while plants become established is important. Replenish mulch as needed until the plants grow in.

Periodically remove leaves that have landed in your river bed and reposition rocks moved by runoff to keep your dry creek bed working for you when you need it. Also don’t start your dry creek bed too close to the foundation of your home if that area is flat. You can direct the water through a drain pipe connected to a downspout to a lower starting spot in your garden.

So whether you are adding a dry river bed to add interest to your lawn-free landscape or to double as catchment for winter storm runoff, make yours look like it’s always been there.

The Garden of Our Dreams vs The Real World

polygala_Petite_ButterflyWith our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbor’s yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that can make a plant thrives or just mope along? And how can you plan when one “reliable” plant source says the plant will get 6 ft tall an another shows that same plant as reaching 8-12 ft tall and just as wide?

When designing a garden whether it’s a client’s or my own I need to take lavender_West_Zayanteinto account the growing conditions such as soil type, nutrients, water requirements, high and low temperature, space and light. Most all plants use water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water or nutrients can be harmful to your plant’s progress.

Healthy soil provides an anchor for plant roots and helps support the plant in addition to providing nutrients. Healthy soil contains micro organisms and adding organic matter to your soil when you plant and in the form of mulch will increase your soil’s fertility.

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor but how can you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade or moisture? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to look up during the growing season and see how many hours of sun, part sun, bright shade or partial shade your area is receiving. To simplify, it’s not as important what is going on during the winter but knowing the summer conditions is crucial. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.

Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.

Plant your new addition correctly. When digging the hole be sure that you loosen surrounding soil 2-3 times the width of the root ball. There is no rule that you can’t loosen the soil even wider around your planting hole. Use the shovel to loosen the edges of the hole so that it’s not hard and smooth. Roots have an easier time of growing out from the initial hole is sides aren’t hard as a rock. You can loosen the soil below the depth of the root ball if it’s really hard and amend it also. Be sure to firm the soil underneath the plant so the crown of your plant doesn’t sink below grade and drown during winter rains or watering. Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil also allows for a 2” thick layer of mulch.

If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil all the above tips are important for your planting success.

Creating Atmosphere in the Garden

Pride_of_MadeiraSummer may be winding down but we still have lots of great outdoor weather to enjoy for several more months. This means more time to spend outdoors in the garden relaxing, entertaining and cooking on the grill. I like the relaxing part most of all so it’s important to me that what I see and feel when I’m out in the garden have an atmosphere that appeals to me. Here are a few ideas that I’ve used in my own and other people’s gardens I’ve helped to create.

Outdoor spaces are just more inviting if they feel like a real room with a ceiling, walls and attractive flooring. An arbor or pergola is a good way to provide a lid on your outdoor space. If you have natural trees in your garden they can shield you from the sky in some areas and open up other areas to passing clouds and sun. You can achieve a similar effect with groups of potted trees that shade your sitting area. Japanese maples, ornamental plums,cherries or crabapple are just a few of the trees that do well in pots. If you like to grow edibles plant a fig in a pot to provide some shade.

The sounds you hear while in the garden are part of the experience, too. The atmosphere just wouldn’t be the same without the sound of rustling grasses, wind chimes or birds splashing about in the bird bath or fountain. Auditory elements can come from the sound of gravel crunching underfoot as you walk or the wind in the trees.

Create the atmosphere you like by using the colors and textFlowering_Mapleures you most admire in your garden. I use to live in a lot of shade so white, silver and gold foliage and flowers were really important to bring life to the garden. I still love these shades but cool blue, baby pink and soft yellow also appeal to me.

Texture in the garden refers to the overall visual texture of the plants. Large and bold foliage like Flowering Maple, Pride of Madeira, rhododendron, viburnum, oakleaf hydrangea or hosta make a large garden appear smaller. Soft, fine foliage will make the garden appear larger by giving it the allusion of more space. Examples of finely textured plants include ornamental grasses, Breath of Heaven, ferns and asters. You might use different textured plants in different parts of your garden to get the affect you like.

Blur the garden’s boundaries to make it more interesting. You won’t be able to see the whole Breath_of_Heavengarden at one glance if you curve the path behind some shrubs, tall plants or sheer, see-through perennials. Leave some wild areas for the birds and bees to join you. Garden organically and mix in native plants wherever you can to keep the garden healthy.

Creating atmosphere in the garden is the art of combining space and time, light and weather to make a garden that we feel reflects who we are. It’s different for every gardener. One person might like straight rows of vegetables while another scatters poppies and nasturtiums randomly. Whatever appeals to you it should be close to your heart and that’s the atmosphere in your garden that’s right for you.

Add Drama to the Garden with Large-Leafed Plants

philodendron_selloumGardens have different personalities. Some gardens mimic nature with plants that attract birds and butterflies and other wildlife and look a bit wild. Some are neat and tidy with perennials lined up evenly along pathways and clipped hedges under the windows. All gardens are a reflection of their owners.  When I visit a garden to help the owner change, add or “take the garden to the next level” I know which ideas will resonate with that person and which will just not work for them. Sometimes it’s easier for someone looking at a garden for the first time to visualize what’s needed.

Regardless of your style I often recommend one simple solution to update a garden. Many gardens end up with too many small-leafed plants. Nature is the master at this survival strategy. Small leaves are often more efficient at retaining water in drought conditions. When all your leaves are the same size, however, the garden gets boring. Using large, bold architectural plants allows the eye to rest on a focal point rather than try to take in everything at once, scanning back and forth.

Plants, like people, come in all sizes and shapes and so do their leaves. Some have huge and dramatic leaves while others are just showy and outsized enough to work well when viewed up close or at ground level. Some plants look tropical and others are right at home in the redwood understory. Some require regular water while others are able to withstand some drought. There’s a bold, breathtaking plant for every garden.

Because they reflect light, glossy leaves look even larger than they are. Make those leaves variegated or wavy with a dimpled texture and the effect is even more striking.

Here are a few large-leafed plants that work well in our area.

In partial shade try Fatsia japonica also called Japanese aralia. It’s deer resistant with bold foliage thatfastia-japonica looks tropical but still at home in the forest. Philodendron selloum with its huge, glossy leaves is also easy to grow. Oakleaf hydrangeas have it all: bold foliage that turns red in fall as well as huge white flower clusters in summer.

Tasmanian tree ferns are hardier in our winters than the Australian variety and are about as dramatic a plant as you will find. Bear’s Breech require only moderate water and serve well as a focal point in the garden.

hosta_Sum_and_SubstanceIn my own garden, I’m finding the chartreuse leaves of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ can take more sun than I originally thought. The deer walk right by their thick, dimpled leaves which is a definite plus. I like all hostas for their bold leaves whether variegated, glossy or wavy.

At ground level, some of my favorite large-leafed perennials that require only moderate water include hellebore, aspidistra, bergenia, coral bells and the dry-shade California native. wild ginger or asarum caudatum.

If you garden in more sun you can add pizzaz to your garden by planting something with large-leaves inasarum_caudatum front of those tall ceanothus, manzanita and toyon. Matilija poppy is a show stopper if you have room for it. Rhubarb, windmill palm, smoke bush and Western redbud also have huge leaves as do canna lily, banana, sago palm, loquat and angel’s trumpet. These are just a few of the many plants with big leaves that work magic in gardens around here.

Adding plants with dramatic foliage instantly makes-over the garden.