Category Archives: flowering shrubs

What’s Old is New Again in Garden Plants

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’.

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.

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.

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.

Spring Garden Madness & the Lessons Learned

Tower of Jewels echium- a favorite of bees

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

Filoli flower arrangement

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

Filoli Sunken Garden

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

Filoli solarium

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

No mow red fescue lawn

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

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

Rustic fence

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

low water combination- Olive, Iceberg rose and rosemary

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Richard_and_the_giant_ China_Doll
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.

Edible Plants for Birds, Bees and People

rain gauge Nov1With every rain forecast I hope for enough precipitation to give my garden a good soak. Last Monday I was not disappointed. I heard the pitter patter of rain on leaves and jumped up in the morning to check the rain gauge. To my delight the last storm dropped 1.67 inches of the wet stuff on my garden in Bonny Doon. The prior three October showers had barely totaled a tenth of an inch. Last year, the hills and meadows were already greening up with 3” of the wet stuff. After this much needed precipitation the deer are happy, the forest is happy, our gardens are happy, everybody is happy.

Some weather forecasters are predicting a drier than normal November for our area while a recent NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) report predicted El Nino rains starting this November. I’m going with the folks at NOAA. A November 1st rain event qualifies them as the best forecasters so far.

I’m enjoying the vibrant colors of the fall garden. Everything is brighter after a rain. I’ll also be looking for some new plants with berries for the birds, more shrubs with fall and winter interest and a couple new grasses. With water conservation in mind here are some of the plants I’m considering. Some put on their best show at the end of the season.

PIneapple guava edible flowers

I can’t get enough of delicious pineapple guava fruit thanks to my best friend, Karen. Her plant is loaded with fruit this year. Pineapple guava has been on my wish list for a while because of its versatility and this fall I’m going to plant one. Easy to grow Feijoa sellowiana needs only occasional watering. An established plant can survive without any supplemental water but If you want to enjoy more flowers and delicious fruit give them a little extra water especially during flowering and fruiting periods. Mulch the soil around the plants to protect the shallow roots and conserve moisture.

The early summer flowers are showy, contrast nicely with the gray green foliage and are completely edible. You can eat them right off the plant, toss them into a salad, add them to iced tea or make jelly. They have a fruity flavor and bees, butterflies and birds also appreciate them. The pineapple-flavored 2 inch oval fruit is produced three to four months after the flowers. It’s easy to cut the little fruits in half and scoop out the fleshy inside with a spoon.

Pineapple guava grow at a medium rate to about 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. You can easily train one as an espalier, hedge or small specimen tree. They do well in containers, too, so if you’re like a lot of people with limited space or time this is a good plant to grow. Did I mention they’re deer resistant? This is one unfussy plant.

Toyon berries

Another plant that is definitely going to be planted in my landscape this fall is a California native. Each year when I see a toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) covered in red berries I vow to get one for myself. They have very low water needs even in the summer and make a good addition for the back of the garden. Irrigate them occasionally during spring and summer to promote fire resistance. Although they often take a few years to establish, their deep roots are good for soil erosion and slope stabilization.

Also known as the Christmas berry, no berry is more sought after when is season. Robins love them. Waxwings and purple finches also rip open the fruits to eat in great numbers. Unlike pyracantha berries birds do not get drunk on toyon berries. Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.

Toyon is one of the classic shrubs of the California chaparral. Except for an extension into Baja, the shrub only occurs in California. Its resemblance to European holly and abundance in Southern California’s Holly Canyon were the origin of the name Hollywood. The name toyon was given by the Ohlone tribe and is the only California native plant that continues to be commonly known by a Native American name.

Toyon make good container specimens and the berries can be used in place of English holly for Christmas decorating.

Screen the Neighbors with Low Water-Use Plants

ribes sanguineum

We all enjoy privacy around our homes. Even if you’re best friends with your neighbor you don’t always want to wave at them each morning in your robe. Whether you have a property tucked way back in the forest with a next door neighbor that looks right down on your deck or a postage stamp size lot that could be an jewel if you just had a screen between you and the next property, there are techniques designers use to make your home a private oasis.

azara microphylla

Narrow spaces can be challenging when you need to screen the house next door. There’s not room for a big, evergreen tree or hedge to solve the problem. One way is to use plants that can be espaliered against a fence or trellis. Some plants like azara microphylla naturally grow flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great.

Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.

A dwarf tree that also works nicely in this situation is a Southern magnolia called Little Gem. Naturally a very compact narrow tree it grows to 20-30 ft tall but only 10-15 ft wide. It can be trained as an espalier against a wall or fence and the sweetly scented flowers will fill your garden with fragrance.

Other small trees that make a good screen are purple hopseed, and leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’. Both have beautiful burgundy foliage. California natives that can be espaliered against a fence include Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Western redbud, mountain mahogany, toyon, pink flowering currant, Oregon grape and spicebush.

If you have a wider space to grow screening plants, one of my favorites is Pacific wax myrtle. This California native grows quickly to 30 ft tall with glossy, rich forest green leaves. Its dense branches make a nice visual and noise screen for just about anything or anybody. I’ve never used the subtle spicy leaves for flavoring sauces but I might try it next time a recipe calls for bay leaves. Best of all the fragrant waxy purplish brown fruits attract many kinds of birds.

Italian buckthorn is another evergreen screening shrub to consider. It reaches about 15 feet tall by 6-8 ft wide and has low water needs. It can grow 2-3 feet in its first few years making a quick screen. There’s a variegated version with stunning foliage that looks awesome mixed with the green variety in a hedge.

Another favorite hedge plant, the California coffeeberry grows 6-8 feet tall and gets by with very little summer water once established. Birds love the berries.

I also like osmanthus fragrans for a screen with a sweet scent and pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ or ‘Silver Sheen’ with their showy variegated foliage.

If it’s just not practical to screen the perimeter of your property redirect your line of sight to keep attention focused on the garden instead of on the landscape beyond. A recirculating fountain as simple as an urn spilling onto cobbles at the base can disguise noise and become the focal point. There are lots of ways to add privacy to your home.

Garden Planning for the Drought

helleborus orientalis

In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.

The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.

salvia ‘Bees Bliss’

In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

salvia clevelandii

Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

California fuchsia

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.

Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.