Category 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.

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.

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.

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.

Gardening for the Birds with Cats

My garden is alive with birds. Butterflies and bees also seem to find it an interesting place to visit. When I first moved up to this house in Bonny Doon the prior owners had hung a couple of small hummingbird feeders which attracted only a few hummers. Their plantings consisted of manzanita and ceanothus varieties. Both great plants to attract birds but not much diversity. It felt like I was living in a void without the sound of song birds or the whir of hummingbird wings. It’s taken me a season or two but between the new plants I’ve added and the seed, suet and nectar feeders I’ve hung throughout the garden I attract dozens and dozens of my winged friends.

Sam Spade with his Birdsbsafe collar

How is this all possible sharing the garden with two cats? I knew right away that I couldn’t live with myself if I attracted birds only to have them endangered by Sam and Archer. As natural predators they couldn’t help getting into trouble. The problem was solved by the brightly colored, clown-like collar from Birdsbesafe they each wear that makes them more visible to birds. Neither wore a collar previously but they don’t seem to mind or notice they look like court jesters.

The birds in the garden are safe now or very nearly so and I’m happy too. It’s the height of breeding season and the birds are going nuts in the garden. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures. Fortunately there are many that have low water requirements which is a prerequisite these days.

Purple_finch copy
Purple finch

Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and the hybrid of the two- Eddie’s White Wonder- are all very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries of dogwood are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.

Lesser goldfinch

In every garden possible I try to include low water use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds.

Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. I always can find space for another variety of salvia.
Galvezia, mimulus, monardella, California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for birds in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.

Everybody loves winged creatures in the garden. Adding plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies is at the top of the list of requests for nearly every garden that I design.

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.

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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

Aztec Sun
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.

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.

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.

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’

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.

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.