Category Archives: green design

Gardens Change with Time

quiet_path.1280Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her deer_grass.1280property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each Calif_buckwheat.1280area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.

Landscape Design Tips You Can Use

When do art and science come together to make your life more beautiful? If you thought of garden design you'd be right. Recently I was treated to a garden tour by fellow designer and good friend, Joy Albright-Souza, who has combined her love of art as a hobby with her degree in science and her passion for the environment to create beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. "It was natural to combine the two interests into garden design", Joy says.

Last fall several of her design ideas were featured in a DYI book called 'Landscape Ideas You Can Use'. Understanding garden design is the goal of this book and offers specific information on plants and hardscaping options. Fountains, rock gardens and landscaping for play are three of the categories that Albright-Souza Garden Design provided examples.

I have been to Joy's garden many times enjoying a game on the petanque court during a barbeque. petanque_court2Petanque is a game similar to bocce but can be played in a smaller backyard. It's a great way to get the whole family involved in a game together. I've heard Joy laugh that she'd like a petanque court in every yard- it's that fun.

Located on the outskirts of Scotts Valley we visited one of the gardens she designed that features a petanque court. Replacing a lawn with drainage problems, the court recently served as a dance floor for a wedding. The property is located on the site of an old quarry and the granite walls conveniently provide crushed gravel to top dress the petanque court.

As we walked around this garden at sunset the back-lit grasses sparkled like jewels. Locating plants to achieve this effect was no accident on this designer's part. She carefully thought out every aspect from the deer resistant plant palette to the water fall prominent from the dining area inside the house. Even the fenced veggie garden is on a grand scale to protect the owner's roses and hydrangeas from the deer.

Some of plants that are not bothered by deer in this garden include the lavender flowering prosanthera or Variegated Mint Bush. Both beautiful and fragrant this small shrub makes a good hedge or accent plant in deer country. Another blooming plant and favorite of mine, Petite Butterfly Sweet Pea shrub, looked great paired with a helianthemum called Mesa Wine Sun Rose.  The Pink Muhly grasses will bloom in the fall. The new, fresh Japanese Blood grass glowed in the late afternoon sun.

We talked about the accent boulders in the garden as we walked around. Joy explained that when the accent_boulder2rocks were delivered she ear marked the largest and most interesting for particular spots. One is at the corner of the petanque court and looks to be an invitation to sit a while. Another flat topped boulder marks a junction of two walkways and begs one to try it out, too. Others were placed reminiscent of Japanese garden design.

A large dolphin sculpture was moved from a driveway location where few could enjoy to a spot in the upper garden where it serves as the focal point in a widening of the cobblestone paver path and can be viewed up close. Placing garden art in prominent places that can be seen from different parts of the garden is part of a good garden design.

dolphin_fountain2If you are ready to transform your own space, consider some of these ideas. Understanding landscape styles, materials, structures, lighting and plants is part of the fun. Joy writes a blog as part of Albright-Souza Garden Design called per joy that is informative and entertaining. This spring get inspired to transform your own garden.

The Hillbilly Gardener of Scotts Valley

anemone_clematis_vineThe self -described "Hillbilly Gardener" lives In the banana belt above Scotts Valley Civic Center. Technically, Richard Hencke says he is 1/4 German, 1/4 irish, and 1/2 hillbilly from his childhood in Texas and Oklahoma. A true gardener at heart, Richard spends much of his time as an emergency room doctor at a local hospital and the rest of his time tending his garden. With trees and plants collected in his early  days as a Boy Scout in Port Arthur, Texas, as well as plants acquired from the far corners of the earth he has created a spectacular landscape surrounding his home. "They'll carry me out of this property in a pine box", Richard says. He clearly loves his personal arboretum.

On a clear spring day recently, Richard gave me the royal tour. I visited this garden 2 years ago and I couldn't help but be impressed with incredible growth he has coaxed from his many blooming trees, conifers and vines.
The Pride of Madeira spikes glowed in the sun, some cobalt blue, others vivid purple. Early spring blooming shrubs and perennials offered color at every turn.

One of his passions is allowing flowering vines that grow up into the canopy of his trees which adds one more dimension to his landscaping. A Blood Red trumpet vine is happily inching up a redwood trunk while a butter yellow rosa banksia scrambles into an oak. On a fence along a walk a spectacular blooming double white pandorea vine has found a home in a Butternut tree he got in Pennsylvania. A rose colored anemone clematis nearly covered the trunk and branches of a dormant catalpa.

Fragrance and color as well as good "bones" or structure make Richard's garden breathtaking. He nurtures each seedling with the same care he gives to the large trees. I laughed as he pointed out a 15 ft tall aralia elata that was transplanted from a tiny dish garden received many years ago as a gift. One of his favorite trees is a white pine gleaned from his grandmother's place in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. A black cottonwood he picked up in New England, 2 maples hail from New Orleans and the sisal agave grew from tiny pups he found at a rest stop on Hwy 280 in case he ever wants to make rope or twine.

Richard likes to naturalize Hawaiian native plants starting them mostly from seed collected while on vacation. He has several Sacred Koa or A'ali'i growing on the property. Since this dodonaea species grows at 5000 ft elevation up Moana Loa they have adapted nicely to his Scotts Valley climate. I wouldn't be surprised if Richard goes into the canoe or lei making business when his trees grow up.

A small portion of Richard's garden is fenced but most is open to the deer. So far the branches growing eutaxia_obovatathrough the fence of his bright golden pea-like Eutaxia obovata have not attracted them. Also known as Egg and Bacon shrub this plant is a compact shrub originating from Western Australia. It's graceful fountain shape really shows off the thousands of flowers adorning the branches.

Like all devoted gardeners, Richard likes to share plants with others. A couple of years ago he sent me home with one of his F-2 hybrid Douglas iris and this year a dendrobium orchid. I'm hoping more of his cuttings of the Sacred Flower of the Andes ( Cantua ) take and maybe I'll be lucky to get one of these, too. A day in Richard's garden is always a magical experience.

Native Plants for Winter Birds in the Santa Cruz Mts.

berberis aquifolium
There's no way around it. January may signal the start of the new year but most of our plants still have the day off. I need inspiration on these cold mornings when most of my plants are asleep. This is the time of year when it's doubly important to include plants in your garden that can take a licking, keep on ticking and provide some much needed food for our feathered friends.

During the winter small songbirds and hummingbirds face big challenges, too. Just like us, they need to keep warm.  Our fuel might be a comfort food like hot stew, theirs are foods rich in antioxidants and fats or high octane nectar. Native shrubs with berries or nectar at this time of year will benefit them as well as providing hardy winter color in your garden.

Small flocks of Chestnut-backed chickadees frequent my garden regularly. I can hear their familiar chattering from quite a distance. I read in Audubon magazine that they weigh about as much as a dozen paperclips but their bodies are large for their mass. They have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day's fuel to keep from freezing.

Other birds that I enjoy in my garden at this time of year are Lesser goldfinches, Townsend warblers, Ruby-Crowned kinglets, robins, brown creepers, Hutton's vireo, Dark-eyed juncos and Anna's hummingbirds.  These native plants will make both of you happy and it's not too late to plant.

Mahonia (Berberis aquifolium) is one of my favorites for winter color and spring berries. Fat cluster of golden yellow flowers light up the Douglas fir woodland understory. In the garden it has a surprising level of adaptability to tough conditions including low water, not-so-great soil and shade or partial sun. In the barberry family, they have gorgeous prickly foliage and powdery-blue, then black berries that the birds devour in late winter and early spring. Hummingbirds rely on the flowers as a source of nectar-rich food in wintertime when there isn't much else around. I saw them visiting these beautiful flower spikes in Seattle recently at Chihuly Glass Exhibit (got the spelling right this time). There are many cultivars of mahonia now available and they are all great.

Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) is a native that starts its show in fall. It thrives in a woodland garden or in the dry shade under oak trees. A background plant most of the year, the white berries on thie 4-foot shrub stand out when the leaves drop.  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.

Hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) can  provide both berries and nectar for local birds. Large, pink nectar-rich blossoms give way to red juicy berries in the fall and often hang on the vines during the winter. They are relished by birds. By pruning them a bit to get more branching they'll be denser and flower more. It's as deer proof as they come. They do well in clay soil in full sun and also shade. Snowberry, Hummingbird sage, toyon and coffeeberry are other natives that complement them.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is the official shrub of the State of California. Also called the Christmas berry shrub it's common in chaparral and open wooded forest. Many birds enjoy their bright red berries throughout the winter including cedar waxwing, bushtit, warblers, robins, flickers, finches and sparrows.  Toyon make a good screen as well as a beautiful specimen plant. They are drought tolerant when established but tolerate some water in the garden if drainage is good. They are relatively fire resistant, like full sun but will tolerate shade. They adapt to sand, clay or serpentine soils. Butterflies also are attracted to the flowers in the summer.

These are just a few great natives to plant in your garden. Other native plants for the winter garden are Pacific wax myrtle, Strawberry tree and Red-twig dogwood.  

By choosing plants that are native to our region birds spend less energy and time foraging for food as they more easily recognize them as a food source. You can have your beautiful berries and color and the birds can eat them, too.

Down the Garden Path

Arbor path

You can be led down the garden path, get off the beaten path or take the path less traveled. Everywhere are references to paths in literature and philosophy. Paths make a garden more interesting, too. Simply by changing the shape of your path or the materials underfoot or adding a focal point at a bend, yours can change the look of your whole garden. Consider some of these ideas to update your path.

On my recent excursions to Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park, Filoli Garden in Woodside and our own Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon, I fell in love with some of the wonderful paths that I found underfoot.

Every garden path begs you to wonder where does it lead? It's the journey as well as the destination that makes it so alluring. As you walk, the garden should slowly reveal surprises, maybe architectural accent plants appear, a wonderful scent greets you, a distant view opens up or drifts of colorful flowers at the edge beckons you to stop and enjoy the scene.

In the front yard you want a solid path directing visitors from a parking area to the front door. It should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side with interesting views along the way like low walls or plant materials to create a sense of enclosure. You want a person to feel they are walking through a defined space and although you may alter the direction of the entry walk to make it more interesting the purpose of the path is to find the front entry area.

But what about all those other paths that wind around the house and in the back garden? Here's where you can get creative.

Paths can be designed to slow people down. Plan pauses along the way- a widening here, a sitting bench nestled beside a bird feeder there,  a beautiful piece of garden art next to a tree with interesting bark or a view of distant mountains. You can route them in ways that direct your sight toward beautiful things and away from compost piles and trash cans. Good paths have entries easy to see and pull you in.
When I design a path in a garden I think about how it will fit into the rest of the landscape and the look of the house. Flagstone, brick or pavers are great for paths you're likely to travel on barefoot. You can soften the path's look by planting low groundcovers between pavers. Allow at least 2" of soil between flagstone or pavers and amend the soil so it won't pack down with foot traffic before planting.  

Bark or gravel looks great for natural looking paths and a gently curving path invites you to stroll among the plants. If it leads you to a small circular patio all the better.

How wide should you make an informal path? If you want to soften the edge with low plants, allow 3 1/2 to 4 feet. Small grasses, aromatic herbs, fragrant flowers and colorful foliage plants look natural beside a path.

I've seen articles about creating a garden path in a weekend if you're starting from scratch. You can update one of your existing paths easily, too, in about the same time.

An interesting path I encountered once was created from materials found onsite. Old untreated redwood timbers were cut and installed at an angle every 6 ft or so along a packed decomposed granite path. In between were small pieces of flagstone connected with bands of 2" Mexican black pebbles. The look was interesting and inexpensive to achieve.

Look around your own yard for found items that would give your path that personal touch. Old bricks and broken concrete will find new life and you'll save the expense of having to haul it away.

Terra Sole Nursery Trials New Plants

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to start your own little nursery on your property? What would you grow? How would you decide?  Over the years, I've been asked by home owners with a bit of extra property what would be good to grow. What is there a market for? So I decided to ask some friends who trial plants on their Watsonville property and operate a small nursery there how it all works.

Terra Sole Nurseries was founded in 2004 by John and Sherry Hall with the goal of experimenting and growing native, unusual and drought tolerant plants that are adapted to our dry summer climate. "We push the limits on water use in our test garden until we fall too much in love with a plant and can't bear to see it die with our tough love approach", Sherry said as we talked about the their operation.

Just back from attending the California Spring Trials,  Sherry and John were excited to share how they decide what to grow In their nursery. Their focus is to grow a large variety of native and unusual plants, some of which are old-fashioned, some are hot new introductions. What treasures did they find this year?

During the course of a week at the Spring Trials,  the world's prominent plant breeders, propagation specialists, growers, marketing professionals and plant enthusiasts share the latest and greatest at several open houses throughout California. The robust plant varieties of today are a direct result of the countless hours and decades of study from the dedicated professionals spending their time observing, testing and experimenting the new varieties that are more disease resistant, more floriferous, the best performers and are easy to grow in ordinary landscapes and gardens.  

How does a plant get from an idea in a breeder's mind to your local nursery? It all starts with the breeders who might cross pollinate thousands of plants to select maybe a hundred of the best ones. Then the growers buy an unrooted cutting or the seed or plugs of rooted plants and grow them onto a larger size. This is where the finish growers buy the plugs and liners to put into bigger pots growing them to retail or sellable size. Terra Sole Nurseries bought some of the newest plants on the market this year themselves.

What are some of the newest trends that we might see in our neighborhood nursery this year? The breeders of impatiens have developed a variety that appears to have a gingerbread man in the center. Called Patchwork this  impatien has a bigger flower and comes in six bi-colors.

Grafted vegetables, higher in antioxidants, are being developed. Non GMO vegetable varieties are grafted onto vigorous rootstalks to produce a plant disease resistant higher in nutrients. Tomatoes, basil, cucumbers. peppers and lettuce are just some of the vegetables being grown.

Biodegradable pots made from wheat are another of the new trends being offered for sale at the Spring Trials. The pots look like plastic yet breakdown after being used and can be recycled in your compost system. They hold up to the normal environmental pressures of heat, water and cold.

Sunset Western Gardening and HGTV are both offering their own branded plants that are available this year. Patented varieties coming out include a compact hardenbergia called Meena, two upright. compact nandinas- Flirt and Obsessive with bright red winter color and a compact mahonia called Soft Caress with non-prickly foliage. A cold hardy salvia named Amistad that has a very long bloom time will also be coming out soon.

To simplify choices for gardeners, better dahlias, calibrachoa, petunias and pansies are coming on the market this season. Several types are grown in the same pot so the buyer need only to plant one of these in a basket or container to get a combination that will look good and grow happily all season.

With so many plant choices which ones do Terra Sole Nurseries trial in their own garden and grow in their nursery? Next week I'll talk about what Sherry and John have their eye on, which plants they grow and the results of their own plant trials. You can find out more about the nursery at

San Francisco Flower & Garden Show 2012

Every year after attending the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show I'm exhilarated by the creativity of the display gardens  and the fresh use of familiar plants. Don't even get me started on the new plant introductions

Water feature at SF FGS
I want to use in my next landscape design. This year the world-class show celebrated its 25th anniversary.

A Flower and Garden Show is a huge and complex production. Creating the 20 display gardens is a demanding task and planning for them begins many months before the show opens. By the night before the show opens 1,200 cubic yards of sawdust and mulch ( that's about 150 dump truck loads ) have been spread and 280,000 pounds of rock stacked in undulating walls and water features.

The flowers and plants for the garden come from all up and down the West Coast. Many plants are forced into early bloom for the show as Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. Even flowering trees are sometimes kept in greenhouses so that their buds can be timed to open the week of the show. It's not a perfect science. One display garden creator who garnered 5 awards told me that hundreds of daffodils she had planned to use in her garden bloomed a week early due to warm weather. 

This year the theme of the show was "Gardens for a Green Earth". There were tips for edible gardening at home including containers for herbs and veggies on the patio and small space gardening, too. One of my favorite gardens combined tomato and flowering vines cascading over the edge of a stone vaneer wall.  Raised vegetable boxes bordered the deck for easy access and a stone water fall splashed into a huge half oak barrel.

Another interesting garden was the Low Impact Bay Friendly Garden. Modern in design, this low water-use garden featured tall raised beds surrounding a pervious concrete stepping stone patio set in a gravel base. Pervious concrete is said to be able to take in storm water a a rapid rate of over 5 gallons per minute per square foot of surface area. That far exceeds the flow rate needed to prevent runoff in even the most severe rain events.
The rainwater is temporarily stored in the course gravel layer underneath while it is allowed to naturally percolate into the underlying soil. This could be a good solution to solve site drainage problems.

Most of the display gardens featured water in them. Some were large affairs with cascading boulders while others were small and understated. In one, a length of copper tubing delivered a shower of drops in front of an aged corrugated iron panel. Another consisted of a simple stacked flagstone ledger waterfall flowing into a flagstone pond- a DIY project?  Even used tires were used as the base for the flagstone edging around a pond although frankly, I couldn't picture this water feature in anybody's backyard. One I did like was a simple flume of water pouring into a small metal rectangle lined with Mexican black pebbles. A little feature with lots of impact.

Fire pits were prevalent, too. From ornate fireplaces to glass filled affairs to simple metal rounds filled with cobbles outdoor living is enhanced with fire and water.

I had to laugh when a man asked me at one of the gardens what I was taking a picture of.  Well, I explained, I take photos of paths and steps and how they're put together and the materials they're made of for future reference. "Oh, that's a good idea" he said, and started taking pictures, too. All in a day at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.

New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Last year I was brave and published my New Year’s resolutions– at least those that pertain to the garden. It’s now the day of reckoning. Let’s see how I did and which ones I’ll  keep for 2011.   In the garden, as in life, simple changes can make a big difference over a long time. I’m adding a couple new ones that are important, too.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m starting to learn about local mushrooms. They come up in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January.
Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.  Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Of the 16 gardener’s resolutions I made last year I can honestly say I achieved half of them.

I did pay more attention to the size that plants grow and believed the tag when it said "spreading habit". But I also found that pruning shears are life savers  when you just have to have that new foliage plant that just came out.

I started making garden journal entries in February instead of January as I resolved. But then I tried to make up for it in March, May, June, October, November and December.  I missed 5 out of 12 months. I get a "C-".

I added more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects which kept the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like.  ( That counts as two resolutions )

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it, not jumping up to rearrange containers. (This one was easy)

I applied to get my little garden certified as a wildlife habitat  with the National Wildlife Federation by making sure I provided food sources, water, cover, places to raise young and used sustainable gardening techniques.

I fertilized my perennials a couple of times this year with organic compost and fertilizer instead of just once and boy were they happy. The trees and larger shrubs really only need a light dose once a year so I was good there.

I wore sunscreen everyday. (My doctor wants a hat, too. Maybe this year I’ll wear one.)

The other half of last year’s resolutions are being recycled as they’re still good ones:

I will not buy a new flower, shrub or tree until I have a plan for it in the garden.

I will sharpen and clean my garden tools so they look spiffy and work better.

I will start a worm bin with my kitchen scraps and a compost pile for leaves and plant debris. (I have so many raccoons it’s like a party out there at night but I’m going to come up with a critter-proof solution.)

I will weed regularly- not waiting until they’re so tall they swallow up my gardening tools when I lay them down.

I will accept a few holes in my plants but tour the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and I need to break out an organic pesticide.

I will prune my maples, transplant my overgrown containers and divide my perennials when I’m supposed to.

I will plant more things to eat. Edibles anywhere in the garden feed the body and the soul. (This summer was so cold I didn’t have much luck in my partial shade.)

I will stop rationalizing my plant habit is better than gambling, clothes shopping or smoking.

I will do better to practice what I preach in this column.

Happy New Year in 2011 from The Mountain Gardener

Backyard Wildlife Certification

One of my New Year resolutions is to get my garden certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It will be fun for me and would also be a good school project for your kids. They can keep track of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, insects, mammals, lizards and frogs that come to visit your yard. Once your backyard is certified by NWF, you can order and display an attractive Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to convey your commitment to wildlife conservation and the environment and help spread the word to your neighbors.

All species of wildlife need the basics of food, water, cover and places to raise young. We can help conserve our natural resources like soil, water, air and habitat for native wildlife by gardening in an environmentally friendly way.  Here are some of the simple steps I’m doing in my small garden garden to reach this goal.

To provide food in my shady garden I plan to include Ca. native snowberry, pink flowering currant and mahonia for berries that attract birds.  Hummingbirds will find nectar from coral bells, western columbine and fuchsia-flowering currants. I also keep my feeders up year round for them.

Butterflies will like like Santa Barbara daisy, sweet alyssum and columbine. Plants that will attract beneficial insects are Ca. rose, coast live oak and ceanothus. Although I try to plant natives for their beauty and toughness, I believe that finding the right balance by mixing natives with non natives can enhance benefits to wildlife.

Next, I provide clean water for drinking, bathing and reproduction. I don’t have room for a pond but I do have bird baths that I keep filled year round. I’m also planning to make a puddling area for butterflies.

Wildlife need places to find shelter from the weather and predators. I keep some areas of my garden orderly but leave some less manicured. I plant in layers providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides a large range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites. Keep in mind, wildlife need to feel safe in their surroundings. They tend to steer clear of large, open spaces. I find most of the wildlife that visit my yard start at the wooded area in the back and work their way up through dense shrubs, wild berries, a dead tree and a small log pile.

Evergreens and deciduous trees provide nesting areas for birds. The rock wall and leaf pile are favorite spots for mice, sakes and salamander to lay their eggs or raise young. Butterfly larvae find food on host ceanothus, huckleberry, oaks, bleeding hearts, foxglove, sweet alyssum, ornamental strawberry, dogwood, viburnum, crabapple and red flowering currant. I’d plant a wisteria for them if I had more sun.

I conserve our valuable resources by doing simple measures like mulching, using drip and soaker hoses, planting low-water use plants like natives suited to this area, using organic pesticides only when necessary and using organic fertilizers.

In my little corner of the world, I’ve created a beautiful wildlife garden. Visit the National Wildlife Federation at to get started on your own certification.

Grapevine “Christmas Tree”, late Bulbs & Rosemary

 It’s great to see so many magazines and TV shows showcasing quick, inexpensive Christmas gifts and decorations to make from simple objects.  As we all try to reduce, reuse and recycle , here’s  an idea that you can use to decorate your deck or front porch with items you already have.

What’s more "green" than recycling your own garden cuttings?  You probably have a large pot where the plants are just about through for the season.   Pull out the spent plants but keep the soil.  You’ll be making a Christmas "tree" from a tomato cage turned upside down and secured with large U-shaped staples poked into the pot’s soil. Tie the wire prongs that are normally sunk into the ground with twine to make a pointed top. 

 Once the cage is anchored in place you can weave prunings from grapevines or honeysuckle in and around it.  Any vine will work as well as  long flexible branches from shrubs like cotoneaster, willow or abutilon.
If you have an electrical outlet nearby you can weave small lights throughout the tree.  If you want to get fancy, poke dried hydrangea flowers or berry sprigs or rosemary cuttings into the "tree".    After the holidays, you can plant primroses in the container and store the tomato cages for next summer. 

 It’s not too late to plant bulbs.  We get enough cold around here for many more months so the bulbs will get enough chilling even though you’re getting a late start.  The worst that can happen is the blooms may be slightly smaller and bloom on shorter stems.   I always start my bulbs about now as the squirrels have buried most of their acorns for the season and tend to leave my pots alone.  If they do discover them, I put gravel over the the surface and that seems to stop the party.   I plant lots of pots because the color will be so welcome in early spring. 

A simple ( read lazy ) way to plant that I’ve always had success with is to reuse the soil in a pot that just finished up like impatiens or other annuals.  Some I plant with cool season color but many, especially the glazed ones, I take out half of the soil, layer some bulbs, and pack the top with the rest of the soil.  Voila !  Instant spring bouquet in less than two minutes.  If you haven’t planted any bulbs yet,  do go out and get some now.  You’ll be very glad you did.

A word to the wise:  protect against killing frosts that often hit this month.   Watch out for still, starry nights and be prepared to protect tender plants with frost blankets.   Even a sheet, tarp, cardboard box, or regular blanket will help. If you do use plastic, make sure it is supported by poles and not draped right on top of the plant.  Better yet,  sink four 1×1 stakes to make a frame around tender plants,  then you’ll be ready  to throw something over quickly on a cold night.  Plants must be watered adequately to survive a freeze.  Drought stressed plants are more susceptible to damage. 

A plant that’s hardy, drought tolerant, blooms in the winter and makes a nice wreath, too, is the rugged rosemary.  One of the most versatile of all herbs, rosemary can be used in a variety of ways in both the garden and kitchen.  You can use an upright version like for a deer resistant screen.  Low. prostrate types make great ground covers.  And they do well in pots on the deck or outside the kitchen door.  Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions from hot sun to partial shade  and survives down to around 15 degrees.   It will accept regular watering as long as there is good drainage.  You can add it to a mixed perennial bed or delegate it to the back forty.  Rosemary will flourish for decades in your garden but too much fertilizer will result in a shorter-lived plant.

 Harvest leaves for cooking anytime.  Plant some by the barbeque so you can toss plant sprigs over the coals to flavor food as it cooks.  Or use rosemary branches dipped in sauce to baste grilled food.   Mmm… yummy.

Sustainable gardening tips

Blazing hot weather one day, foggy the next – our summer is turning out to be a particularly hot one.  The last two winters saw more than the usual freezing weather.   If weather tells us what clothes to wear, then climate tells us what clothes to buy.  Is all this proof of climate change?

Our planet has always experienced heating and cooling cycles.  A warm period from 300-1300 AD allowed the Vikings to fish and farm Greenland.  They were frozen out after 1300 when the Little Ice Age changed Greenland’s climate.  A 20 year drought starting in 1276 probably drove out the cliff dwellers in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and the Mayan culture collapsed about the same time as an extended drought occurred in Mexico and Central America. 

People who cultivate plants have always taken climate change more seriously than most.  Many tomatoes stop setting fruit when daytime temps stay above 90 degrees.  Higher levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, have been accelerating weed growth.  Our best defense as gardeners is to choose wisely what we plant in the garden and how we water. 

  • Start with smart design by evaluating how the space will be used and what plants will thrive with minimum of care and pruning.  Select the best trees and place them to shade the south side of the house to reduce  cooling costs.
  • Supplement the soil by making soil health a priority.
  • Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste.
  • Reduce, recycle and reuse whenever possible.  Simple ways include reusing plant containers and composting  organic waste and fall leaves.  

  We can all become stewards of the land by using these sustainable landscaping tips.

Affordable design trends

We spend more time relaxing, playing and entertaining outdoors at this time of year. Your wish list might include a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen and a pool with built-in spa but with todays gas and food prices those additions may be on hold for the time being. So what landscape design features can you implement on a budget to make your time outdoors really count?

Affordable design trends

  1. Water features – relaxing self-contained fountains are easy to set up. Some styles incorporate child-safe pond-less fountains. What about a simple outdoor shower with a Mexican pebble floor and vine covered lattice for privacy?
  2. Fire pits – you can warm your family and guests around a simple fire pit while you wait to install the pizza oven and outdoor fire place next year. Fire pits can be purchased ready-made or you can construct you own with fieldstone or concrete blocks. Either way they’re a fun addition to your patio or sitting area.
  3. Outdoor lighting – you’ll be amazed at how beautiful your garden looks when you add some lighting and how much you’ll want to stay outdoors after dark. Light a path or uplight the trunk of one of your trees. Back light a plant with interesting foliage or wash a wall with light. Todays solar lights are getting better and better and low voltage lights are more affordable, too.
  4. Stone in the garden – whether you want a seat wall to surround your patio or a permeable flagstone patio, stone lends a sense of permanence and elegance to your property.

Consider adding some new elements to your garden so that you can spend more time outdoors both in the evening and throughout the year.

Rana Creek

Sisyrincium bellum
Sisyrincium bellum
Recently I had the opportunity to tour Rana Creek Nursery in Carmel Valley that grows native plants for restoration projects, green roofs and bioponds. They designed and installed the green roof at the California Academy of Science Museum in Golden Gate park in San Francisco. Over 1 million native plants were grown for this roof scheduled to open Oct. 2008.