Category Archives: erosion control

California Native Plants for Erosion Control

ribes_sanguineum_King_EdwardVII.1024Getting caught out in the rain last month was a timely reminder that the rainy season will soon be upon us.The Farmer’s Almanac predicts our “winter will be much rainier and cooler than normal”. Weather bloggers online posting an impressive number of charts and figures predict “a general dry trend”. NOAA says we have an equal chance of precipitation totals going either way.

My favorite predictor, the Sandhill crane, started its annual migration to the San Joaquin Valley several weeks earlier this year. Over the years, the timing of the migration has been a good predictor of both wet and dry winters. This year the early migration predicts an early winter with plenty of rain and snow.

Who knows what the weather will actually bring but we do know that some of our rain events will come with a vengeance. It’s not that unusual for our area to get 8″ of rainfall during a storm and you know what havoc that can create on an unprotected hillside. Yes, folks, I’m talking major erosion of your precious land. Fortunately, October is a good time to do something about it.

Fall is the perfect time to plant in our area. The soil is still warm encouraging root growth and the weather is mild. Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow and spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are well suited to this job.

Common native shrubs include ceanothus and manzanita of all types. Calycanthus lives up to its OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcommon name Spicebush. Fragrant flowers appear in late spring and continue to bloom well into summer with a spicy fragrance similar to a wine cellar. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine it with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. These also have deep roots and control erosion.

Ribes sanguinem (red flowering currant) is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. There are many selections of this plant to choose from so if the huge white flowers appeal to you ‘White Icicle’ will be beautiful in your landscape. “Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ have spectacular deep red flower clusters and ‘Spring Showers’ has 8″ long pink ones. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and are a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, snowberry, matilija poppy and western elderberry. Ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and snowberry, baccharis, ceanothus maritimus and Anchor Bay are good groundcover selections.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy (dendromecon rigid) is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one ( not around the stem ) to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does   not build up around the stem.

Firesafe landscaping – Part II

I walk regularly in Henry Cowell State Park in Felton. I can’t imagine losing the majestic redwood forest I enjoy so much to a fire. Over the summer there were several arson caused fires in the park. Actually 10 separate fires have occurred in the same general area and along the San Lorenzo River over the past 6 months, some caused by campfire escapes and some by arson. All of them were caused by humans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe live in this beautiful area because of the natural scenery and wildlife. To lose any part of it to wildfire would be tragic. Whether a fire is caused by humans or natural causes such as lightning it’s all the same to our neighborhood, our homes, our pets, our lives.

We know that fire in some instances can be good for the land. After many years of fire exclusion an ecosystem that needs periodic fire to remain healthy becomes overcrowded and flammable fuels build up. The Forest Service manages prescribed fires to benefit natural resources and protect communities. However, as we build homes further into nature prescribed fires are not always possible. This is where mechanical treatment can benefit ecosystems and people.

Mechanical treatment include thinning of dense stands of trees or other fuels that make an area better able to withstand fire. Pruning loser branches, piling brush or creating fuel breaks encourage a more manageable fire should one occur.

Last week I talked about how to make the area closer to your home more firesafe. Here are some more OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtips.

In areas 30-70 ft. away from your house plants should be trimmed and thinned to create well-spaced groups and help prevent a fire in the wildland from spreading to your home.  Be cautious with slopes.  If you have a large lot, the fringe area should be inspected and maintained regularly to eliminate any build up of dry brush and litter.  This reduces the chance of surface as well as crown fires.

Plant arrangements, spacing and maintenance are often as important as plant types when considering fire safety. Group plants of similar heights and water requirements to create a landscape mosaic that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently. Use plants that no not accumulate dead leaves or twigs. Keep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis remove dead branches and brush, dry grass, dead leaves and pine needles from your yard, especially within 30 feet from your home and at least 150 ft if you’re on a hill. Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart with branches trimmed at least 10 ft away from your roof. It’s best, however, to keep trees further from your house. Low shrubs can be closer in and herbaceous perennials and groundcovers can be nearest the home.

Extremely flammable plants have a high content of oil or resin and should be separated from each other, removed of dead branches and lower limbs and kept free of dry debris anywhere around your property.  Extremely flammable pyrophytes like hollywood juniper, pines, fountain grass and Japanese honeysuckle will need a higher level of maintenance.  Other common plants that are highly flammable ares sagebrush, buckwheat and deer grass.  Rosemary and purple hopseed also fall into this category.These contain oils, resins and waxes that make them burn with a greater intensity.If you have these plants on your property yearly pruning and maintenance is important.

Irrigation is vital in a fire safe landscape to maintain plant moisture especially in the 30 ft around your home.  Choose the right irritation system. While all plants can eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Consider drip irrigation and micro sprays for watering most of your landscape. Use sprinklers for lawns and other groundcovers or turf. Even drought adapted species and natives will benefit from watering every month or so during the dry season. Unwatered landscapes generally increase the risk of fire.

Mulching around your plants will preserve this precious commodity in these times of drought.  Plantings beyond 30 ft. should be irrigated occasionally but to a lesser extent.  As you get 70-100 ft from the home, native plantings that require little or no irrigation should be used.

Using fire resistant plants that are strategically planted give firefighters a chance fighting a fire around your home especially within the 100 foot defensible zone. Each home or property is different and you will need to look at the unique qualities of yours in planning your firescaping. Some of the info for this column was obtained from 2 valuable booklets.   ‘Living with Fire in Santa Cruz County’, prepared by Cal Fire and available free from any fire dept or online and another from  Calif. Dept of Forestry at

Gift Plants for your Christmas List

I've barely finished eating leftover turkey a dozen different ways and already I find myself thinking of all things Christmas. I know I should relish Thanksgiving longer and not rush it but I can't help myself. I'm basically just a big kid at heart and there are so many fun gifts that come from the garden. Most of the people on my Christmas list live far from from here so I'm not giving anything away by sharing some of my gift ideas.

My Aunt Ruth is quite the gardener. I enjoy flowers of every kind whenever I visit her. There is always something in bloom.  She loves her neighbors who stop, talk and admire her landscape as she prunes or weeds. I'm going to give her a winter flowering camellia to spice things up at this time of year. Chansonette camellia hiemalis, a variety often classified with sasanquas will get heads turning. This easy to grow shrub is one of the most popular camellias for good reason. Rich pink, double flowers standout against the dark green foliage.  Spreading 6' tall and 8' wide this vigorous shrub is perfect to espalier on a trellis against a wall. They actually prefer winter sun and can tolerate more sun year round than other types of camellias. The beautiful flowers last a long time and will make my Aunt Ruth's garden the talk of the neighborhood.

My Aunt Rosemary lives in Concord in the Bay Area where it gets hot in the summer. The border around her patio would be perfect for a tea tree as it blooms for a long time and requires little or no water when established. They are called tea tree because Capt. Cook brewed a tea from the leaves and gave it to his crew to prevent scurvy. Just in case deer jump her fence they won't devour its needlelike leaves leaving her to enjoy the small showy flowers from winter until very late spring. I especially like the double white flowers on the variety Snow White as they really pop when combined with stronger colors.

My Aunt Alba especially likes fragrant flowers. In her garden she grows roses, gardenias, lilacs, sweet peas and pinks to name just a few. Fragrant Star erysimum would make the perfect addition to her perennial border. It blooms from spring until early fall with bright lemon yellow highly scented flowers. Radiant, variegated green and yellow foliage will stand out among her other flowers. As a bonus they are butterfly magnets. I've seen swallowtails visit this plants again and again on a sunny afternoon.

For those on my Christmas list that love California natives a Common Snowberry would make a great addition to their woodland garden or in the dry shade under oak trees. Seldom troubled by pests this small shrub can be used to control erosion and is deer resistant. Beautiful ornamental white fruits cover the plant at this time of year and are valued by varied thrush, robins and quail.

Creeping snowberry is similar and makes an excellent groundcover. Few shrubs work as well as creeping snowberry when situated under the dense canopy of a coast live oak. When combined with Hummingbird sage, Fuchsia Flowering gooseberry and coffeeberry they create  a woodland garden that provides nesting cover for birds as well as protective shelter for other wildlife.

I'm also working on some garden and nature inspired crafts but if I tell you I'd have to…well, you know.

Good Shrubs for Erosion Control in the Santa Cruz Mtns

You know fall is just around the corner when you hear thunder. Seems like summer just started but now plants like lilac, rhododendron and dogwood have already set flower buds for next year. We don't know exactly what winter will bring. Will we receive lots of rain or a meager amount?

The latest from the Climate Prediction Center for the San Francisco Bay Area 2012-13 rainy season is that a mild El Nino event may be setting up. There has been a  weakening of the positive sea surface temperature in the Pacific. El Nino has been known to come with plenty of rain for our area. We are still in a wait and watch mode.

Long range outlooks for the fall from the CPC run from equal chances for above or below normal rainfall to a slight tendency toward below normal. For the November through January period the probabilities start to shift and a slight chance of above normal rainfall creeps up along the coast from the south.  By the time we get to the December through February period, the outlook is for above normal precipitation for the whole state with significant above normal chances for the Bay Area.

This is not a forecast but an outlook for the probabilities of above or below normal precipitation. If we do get heavy rains in January or February you should be prepared. Do you have a slope that might have an erosion problem?  Now is the time to start planning and planting. The nights are cooler, the days shorter, the soil still warm. Everything that a new plant needs to get a good start.

What plants are good for controlling erosion in our area? When choosing plants to cover a bank for erosion control, assess the conditions of the area you want to plant.  Is it in the sun or shade?  Is it a naturally moist area or dry?  Do you intend to water it or go with our natural cycle of wet in the winter and dry in the summer? Matching the plant to the site conditions will ensure success.

When designing a plant layout I consider whether I want a sweep of the same plant or a tapestry effect with a variety of plants.  Using more than one type of plant allows me to work with contrasting foliage adding pattern to my composition.  To create a stunning combination choose 5 or 6 styles and repeat them in small drifts to carry the eye through the composition. Add grasses for linear texture.

If the area you need to stabilize is large and mostly shade, consider Ribes viburnifolium aka Evergreen Currant which grows 3-6 ft tall spreading to 12 ft wide. It needs no irrigation when established. Another plant that tolerates shade and needs no irrigation after 3 years is Mahonia repens aka Creeping Mahonia. It grows 1 ft tall by 3 feet wide spreading by underground stems that stabilize the soil.

Symphoricarpos aka Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry can hold the soil on steep banks. They tolerate poor soil, lower light and general neglect. Philadelphus lewisii aka Wild Mock Orange tolerates some aridity and partial shade. This beautiful, fountain shaped, fragrant flowering shrub grows about 8 ft tall by 8 ft wide and is not fussy about soil.

A bank in the sun would contain a different plant palette. Some of my favorite plants to control erosion in this situation include Ceanothus in all its forms. Groundcover types like Centennial, Anchor Bay and Maritimus are not attractive to deer like the larger leaved varieties. Rockrose such as Cistus purpureus also provide large-scale cover for expansive sunny areas.  Their dense strong root systems helps prevent soil erosion. Choose from white, pink or magenta flowers on plants varying from 1-5 ft. high depending on which variety you choose. This Mediterranean native is fast growing, drought tolerant and deer resistant.

Smaller plants for color that control erosion are lavender, California buckwheat, salvia leucophylla, California fuchsia, deer grass, needle grass, mimulus, yarrow, Pacific Coast iris, bush poppy, penstemon and artemisia.

These suggestions are just a few of the plants that control erosion. Every area is different and every situation unique. Email me if you would like help with your area.

Zauchneria & other Favorite Plants for the Santa Cruz Mountains

I don't have room for any new plants. Really I don't, but come spring I just can't help myself. Every pretty plant I see in a nursery or at a friend's house, I want. Admiring from afar just won't do. I rationalize that if I choose from plants that will do well in my specific environment then it's OK to add something new to the garden. If you want to be armed with a check list of possible new plants that are almost guaranteed to do well in your own neck of the woods and without a lot of water, here are some good choices.

For those who live in the sun, consider a brilliant red California fuchsia. Hummingbirds and butterflies are both attracted to zauschneria which starts blooming in summer and continues through fall. They provide a principle nectar source for hummingbirds though the hottest, driest season. Deer aren't interested in them, either.

Ghostly Red is one of my favorites for sunny slopes although it will grow in some shade and is tolerant of many soils including alkaline, sand, clay and serpentine. The foliage is grey-green and shows off the intensely red flowers. It grows about 1-2 feet tall which is tall enough to attract the hummingbirds but low enough to be neat and tidy. Each plant can spread to 5 feet wide.

Another good variety of California fuchsia is Everett's Choice. This fast growing groundcover has dark orange-red flowers on a low, spreading plant. Furry grey foliage creeps along the ground and looks beautiful next to a path or rock wall. It's drought tolerant but will look fuller with an occasional drink after it's established. As with all California fuchsia a hard winter pruning will produce a denser plant the following year.

Consider combining either of these grey-leaved California fuchsias with the new Black Adder phormium to make a dramatic statement in your garden. Black Adder was bred from the deep, deep brown Platt's Black phormium but its color is even more striking. Deep, burgundy-black leaves have a high gloss overlay which eliminates sun fading. Black Adder is a strong and healthy grower with an upright but not stiff architectural form. When mature it reaches 3 ft tall by 3 ft wide so fits nicely into the garden.

Originally native to New Zealand, phormiums are also known as flax and their hemp-like plant fibers were traditionally used by New Zealand's Maori people to make rope, baskets and cloth.

Other good companion plants for California fuchsia are Bee's Bliss salvia, Western redbud, rockrose, buckwheat, armeria maritima, deer grass and ground morning glory. Ceanothus, rosemary and manzanita also look good with California fuchsias.

Shady gardeners ( no, I'm not making a moral judgement here ) or should I say gardeners who live in the shade or have portions of their gardens in the shade, have lots of plants to tempt them. Favorite plants for dry shade include flowering currant which is so spectacular at this time of year. This shrub blooms with huge clusters of pink, rose or white flowers. Other plants that attract hummingbirds in bright shade are Western columbine, bleeding heart, heuchera and mimulus. You can find these in a rainbow of beautiful colors these days.  Humminbirds love salvia spathacea so much they're called Hummingbird flower. Also suitable for planting under oaks are Douglas iris. I love the white Pacific Coast hybrid variety, Canyon Snow. Their white flowers make an area under tall trees come alive.

A couple of new additions to the garden would be fun especially if they don't use up your water budget. With a little planning you can have color, attract wildlife and have water for the vegetable garden, too.

Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Recently I went to the moon. At least it seemed like it. Walking through a portion of the 600 acres of burned out  vegetation from the , I couldn’t help but think of it as a moonscape. The misty fog was lifting after a night of rain and milky sun warmed us as we walked through the burned out trees. It was surreal and made even more so by nature’s valiant effort to regrow and fill the void left by the fire. At ground level the earth was bursting with life. Every inch of sandy soil was growing or sprouting something alive. You could almost hear it if you listened closely.

The fire destroyed 3 homes and severely damaged another. About 60% of the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve burned. It’s amazing to see the recovery already taking place. The bracken ferns came first, followed by the endangered Bonny Doon manzanita some of which have sprouted from their bases while 6" tall starts from seed are everywhere. The burned gnarled trunks rendered the landscape otherworldly and magical. Pockets of manzanitas that were spared by the fire were in full bloom dripping with clusters of delicate, white urn-shaped flowers. This manzanita is endemic to the Santa Cruz sandhills and does not occur anywhere else on the planet. Did you know that manzanita leaves are still used in Russia in the tanning industry due to their high tannic acid content?

Golden chinquapin sprouted from the bottom of their mother tree and around the base are scattered the burr-like spiny bracts that contained a sweet tasting nut. California broom, so unlike the invasive Scotch broom, blanket the ground. They are one of the first plants to colonize an area after a fire and their quick growth can aid in erosion control as well as soil enrichment, through their relationship with the nitrogen producing bacteria, Rhizobium, in their roots.

Large stands of Bush poppies were growing in between the huge manzanita trunks. Bush poppies are common in sandy or rocky soils, often in burned out areas. These plants were taller than I’ve seen elsewhere in this area reaching 4-5 ft  Come spring they are going to be spectacular when they bloom in April-July but they also flower a bit in all seasons.

Silver-leafed lupine were doing their part to help the soil both by stabilizing with their deep roots and building up the nitrogen supply with the bacteria in its root nodules. Warty-Leaved ceanothus grew in large patches and were getting ready to bloom with their deep purple flowers.

Yerba santa were plentiful being an opportunist in the area and finding lots of open areas. They easily sprout from  from the roots after the fire as well as seeding themselves.

This area is a fire ecology and will come back just fine. It’s an extraordinary maritime chaparral habitat with a dense concentration of unique endemics that have emerged here in response to tens of thousands of years of periodic fires.