Category Archives: landscape 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.

Great Grasses for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Sawtooth Mtns
Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Recently I took a road trip to see some of our great country. The Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming have been on my bucket list for a long time. In addition to the amazing places I visited and the buffalo, elk and bald eagles I got to see up close and personal I was able to take a look at passing gardens of people who live in harsh climates and get some tips on plants that survive and thrive in these conditions. If you are looking for tougher plants for your own garden to add this fall planting season here are some ideas.

Some of these plants are old favorites and some are new. There’s a reason a plant is used over and over again. It’s reliable and trouble free. Plants that are have low water requirements are a must, too.

Throughout the small towns I passed through as well as larger ones like Jackson Hole, Wyoming I again and again

rudbeckia hirta
rudbeckia hirta

saw Karl Foerster feather reed grass planted in landscapes along with the Black-eyed Susan variety Goldsturm.

Feather reed grass tolerates heavy clay soil unlike many of the other ornamental grasses. Forming a clump only 2 feet wide it can fit in a smaller garden without overwhelming other plants. Even in light shade it blooms early in June with tight, vertical flower stalks of feathery, purplish-green flowers which turn golden as the sterile seeds mature in summer. Feather reed grass looks good throughout most of the winter providing interest until cut to the ground just before the new shoots appear.

Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of Red Fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Eaton Canyon is a dwarf variety that is root hardy down to 20-25 degrees. Plant it in full sun and irrigate little to occasionally. Be sure to cut this grass back in late winter even if it hasn’t suffered much from frost. The new growth will look so much better for this treatment.

Another grass I’m hearing a lot of good things about is called Pink Crystals or Ruby grass. Melinis nerviglumis has pretty blue-green foliage that forms a one foot tall clump turning puplish-red in the fall. Very showy pink flowers rise above the foliage in the spring and summer. This grass will tolerate considerable dryness.

Pheasant Tail grass

Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.


Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw and lomandra ‘Breeze’.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare and they are not attractive to deer. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Great Plants for a California Garden

Leucospermum with chondropetalum

Our local UCSC Arboretum is a place everyone can enjoy. You can marvel at the dozens of jewel-tone hummingbirds darting about feeding on nectar of colorful flowers while strolling the gardens for new plant ideas.

There are still lots of dramatic leucospermum in bloom as well as California native plants that flower mid to late summer. The rainfall last December helped many of the drought tolerant plants grow more foliage and put on a better show this year. The hummingbirds couldn’t get enough of the erica blooming in shades of pink, orange and red. There must have been a dozen darting about feeding and chirping between the shrubs.

If you are looking for some inspiration for new low water-use plants you haven’t tried the nursery at the Arboretum has a good selection. They replenish the stock from their growing area on a regular basis so there’s always something to catch your eye. Here are some that I plan to grow myself or recommend to others.

Hemiandra pungens

Color in the garden is something we all relish. One of the plants that caught my eye is called Hemiandra pungens. Pretty lavender-magenta flower clusters cover this small one foot plant. It’s drought tolerant although it looks better with occasional summer water.

This bright little shrub is another of the plants from Australia being trialed at the Arboretum. The Koala Blooms plant introduction program is a joint venture which include growers here and in Australia. Plants are evaluated for their beauty, durability and sturdiness with regard to drought, weather extremes and variations in soil types. Out of the trailing process new plants are selected and offered for sale to the public. Visit the Arboretum website for info on other great plants you might want to try in your garden.

Pimalea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’

Another showy perennial that’s sure to make it’s way into the next appropriate garden I design is Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’. Bright pink umbel blossoms cover this small plant for many months starting in the spring. It’s hardy down to 25 degrees and requires little water once established. Also originating in Australia it looks great in a native low water-use cottage garden.

The common name for this plant is pink rice flower. The pot in the arboretum nursery happened to be placed near a red mimulus but it looked great even though you might think the color combination would be all wrong. Nature has a way of making things work despite the rules of the color wheel.

Several varieties of correa – also called Australian fuchsia – caught my eye. Although the flowers of this plant resemble fuchsias they are not related. Some do best with regular watering during the summer but the lovely correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’ is drought tolerant once established. Grow this three foot compact evergreen shrub in partial sun where it will bloom from fall through springtime and provide nectar for hummingbirds during the wintertime.

Salvia guarantica

I was also drawn to the brilliant cobalt blue flowers of salvia guarantica. This plant is worth growing – in sun or partial shade – even though you might need to cut it down to ground level after each winter like Mexican bush sage. Growing four to five feet tall it starts blooming in early summer and continues till frost. They also do well in containers and are a favorite of hummingbirds.

Prostanthera was well represented with three varieties – ‘Poorinda Bride’, ’Purple Haze’ and my personal favorite, the Variegated Mint Bush. They are all good choices for colorful, easy to grow, hardy shrubs that require only occasional irrigation.

Among other choices at the Arboretum nursery were stand-by’s such as lion’s tail, Mexican marigold, Germander sage, Copper Glow New Zealand tea tree and giant buckwheat. This local resource offers a cornucopia of inspiration.

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.