Tag Archives: garden design

Save Water with a Dry Lush Landscape

In all the years I’ve been a landscape designer I’ve never heard anyone say to me “I want my garden to look like the desert.”  Using California native plants along with appropriate low water use plants from other Mediterranean dry climate areas can save water and look lush at the same time. We live in an area naturally rich with trees and shrubs and wildflowers that survive on seasonal rainfall. Here are some ideas to give your landscape a lush look while saving water.

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Succulent garden in progress

There’s no better place that showcases a dry lush landscape that my friend Richard Hencke’s garden in Scotts Valley.  Doc Hencke has been at this gardening business a long time starting when he was a kid in Texas and Oklahoma. I am always inspired whenever I visit his garden and come home with a car full of plant starts from his greenhouse. He’s a propagator extraordinaire who loves to share and is a good friend.

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Judy’s succulent garden

On this day I also wanted to see his new raccoon-proof pond and surrounding landscaping. There calandrina starts are settling in nicely. They haven’t started blooming yet but will soon with those neon-pink flowers that sway above the plant on long stems. This spectacular Chilean perennial is long blooming and perfect for a dry garden or difficult spot like a parking strip or hillside. It will suppress weeds as it grows, quickly spreading into a dense groundcover. Nearby is another bed filled with aeonium, sedums, kalanchoe, baby toes and other succulents designed by his wife, Judy.

Doc Hencke’s garden is comprised of a couple dozen different areas or garden rooms. He’s been enjoying discovering new succulents and adding to the new dry lush hillside. He’s growing several varieties of aloe, cordyline and yucca along with douglas iris which are doing fine given the same irrigation as the rest of the dry hillside. Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandralis border the path and their long bluish-green fleshy leaves look great near the red cordyline.

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Doc Hencke’s dry lush entry landscaping

The secret to a lush look is to group plants into a vignette of complimentary elements. A vignette is a brief but powerful scene. Garden vignettes can be more than just plants. Doc Hencke’s driveway garden is a good example. An array of textural plants is combined with a weathered teak bench, richly colored, glazed pots filled with the architectural strappy leaves of phormium and a recirculating water fountain to complete the scene. The blue stone retaining wall is the perfect compliment to the blue and gold succulents that grow in the nooks and crannies.

A dry lush plant palette could also include plants such as Little John bottlebrush, dietes ‘Katrina’, Festival Burgundy cordyline, Hot Lips salvia, Variegated dianella, Amazing Red phormium, Icee Blue podocarpus, phlomis, Southern Moon rhaphiolepis, Gulf Stream nandina and Cousin Itt acacia.

A visit to this amazing garden wouldn’t be complete without admiring Doc Hencke’s prized Sand plum which he swears is the tallest in the country. Also called Chickasaw plums they are found naturally on sandy prairies in Oklahoma and Texas where they are very effective in stopping blowing sand. Wikepedia states this early blooming plum grows to 20 feet tall and Richard’s is about 30 feet tall. Just another in his long line of horticultural successes.

What’s Old is New Again in Garden Plants

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Pittosporum tobira fragrant flowers

I remember walking with the main horticulturalist at Filoli Garden many years ago and hearing her extol the virtues of the established plantings that have survived drought and neglect with no pest problems for a very long time and are still growing beautifully in the garden. It’s not always the latest cultivars that have staying power. Some of the newer varieties are better but some are not as vigorous, some of those lovely variegated, striped or dark foliage plants revert over the years, some are prone to pests and diseases. Don’t overlook using been-around-for-ages workhorse plants in your garden.

Some of the survivors at Filoli Gardens over the years are California natives and others are just tough plants from other parts of the world. Take the common pittosporum you see in most every old garden. This plant makes a fine hedge, focal point or ground cover depending on the genus with a sweet fragrance in the spring while providing the bones or structure to your garden.

All of the various types of pittosporum are hardy in winter, grow in sun or shade and have low water needs. Pittosporum tobira flowers are scented like orange blossoms. Pittosporum eugenoides and tenuifolium – commonly grown as a hedge or small tree – have highly fragrant blossoms as does the ground cover ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’.

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Lithodora ‘Grace Ward’

On a recent trip to the Gig Harbor, Washington area, lithodora ‘Grace Ward’ caught my attention in many gardens. With those electric blue flowers covering this ground cover it’s quite the show stopper. Lithodora is used more extensively than creeping rosemary in the Pacific Northwest as it can survive temps down to 0 degree or less. Growing with only moderate to occasional irrigation give this plant a try in your own garden.

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Agapanthus africanus

Next plant on my bring-back-the-old-favorites list is the lowly agapanthus or Lily of the Nile.  Sure you see it at every fast food restaurant and hotel you pass but the reason is that it grows and blooms so reliably with little care. This is one plant where the new cultivars are proving to be just a tough as the standard agapanthus africanus.

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Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’

Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’ produces luxurious green foliage that tinges purple-red in the winter months. In summer large umbels of very deep blue flowers rise above the foliage on tall blackish stems. This variety takes a couple years to establish but blooms reliably from then on.

Two smaller types of agapanthus are ‘Queen Anne’, a semi-dwarf variety and the dwarf ’Peter Pan’. Both are available with blue or white flowers. There is also a variegated dwarf called ‘Tinkerbell’ which grows well also. All agapanthus tolerate frost and neglect and require only moderate watering.

So in addition to all the ceanothus- a California native- that grow so reliably don’t overlook some of these other workhorses. There’s a reason these plants have been grown successfully for such a long time. Be sure you include these old favorites in your garden along with those new cultivars that you just have to try out.

A World in Stone

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Lion’s head wall fountain

There’s a reason that stone in a garden gives us the feeling that it has been there a long time. The rustic elegance of a dry laid stone wall, natural stone paver patio, huge stone slab steps, outdoor stone fireplace or flagstone garden path reminds us that we humans have used stone for over two million years when we first started making stone tools.

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Ocean Pearl sauna wall detail

Stone is much more than the Wikipedia definition of “a naturally occurring solid aggregate of one or more minerals.”  Granite, for instance, comes from igneous rocks formed slowly as it cooled deep under the earth’s surface. Sandstone and limestone are sedimentary rocks formed by the compaction of grains or pieces of any kind of existing rock material then cemented over millions of years by the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates and sometimes contain fossils formed at the time of deposition. Then there is metamorphic rock like marble and slate that were formed at extreme high pressures and temperatures beneath the earth’s crust from other types of rock. The presence of swirls, linear patterns or banding is a key characteristic of this kind of stone.

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Whimsical wall detail- anchor, agate, shells

In Ben Lomond lives a stone advocate who has created a spectacular decorative stone wall, a stone shower and sauna room, stone patio, paths and slab steps and he’s invited me to come and view them at his home before he puts it on the market.

Jon Troutner has been in the stone business for a long time. He owned Antolini Masonry and Landscape Supply in Santa Cruz for 20 years until he lost his lease and sold the company in 2008. Afterwards he used his expertise and some choice materials he saved to use at his home in Ben Lomond and another in Aptos. Jon’s primarily a musician these days but his creative vision in stone is a magical experience as he walks me around his home.

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“eel-head” rock peaking out of wall

Jon’s property is located near Love Creek up on a hill and has a lovely canyon view. When he bought the property 5 years ago the backyard was just sand but now it is fully landscaped. Ocean Pearl, one of his favorite stone types that he used in his whimsical wall and sauna, comes from a quarry on Vancouver Island that he used to own. Jon gave this this type of quartzite it’s unique name because of the subtle hues and shadings in the stone.

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“Where’s Waldo” stone wall

Jon’s creations in stone have a look of their own. Being a harmonica player he puts an old harmonica somewhere on each of his unique walls. It’s his personal signature and he pointed out one in the sauna and one in the “Where’s Waldo?” wall as he calls it.

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mermaid in stone wall

“What’s a ‘Where’s Waldo’ wall, I ask?” Jon just laughs and explains that this 1987 children’s book is about the travels of Wally where readers are asked to locate him hidden in an illustration and to re-explore each scene locating other objects too. Jon showed me three mermaids, five otters, two turtles, three seahorses and an eel-shaped rock poking out from the “waves” of ocean pearl stone veneer on the showpiece wall he created to enclose the patio. There are also ship net balls, an anchor, abalone shells, fossils and his signature harmonica. “I pictured this wall as the ocean floor,” Jon explained.

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fossils in stone wall

As we walk around, Jon points out the Vermont slate floor and the ocean pearl veneer sauna room, the basalt shower with rounded cobble stone floor, the Indian rainbow cut sandstone shady patio, the Connecticut bluestone slab steps, the ocean pearl columns, the tumbled Arizona gold flagstone path and the 125 pound crystals from Brazil that are lighted at night.

This place is magical and timeless. Jon’s creative vision will live forever in his stone creations.

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.

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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.

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.

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.