Category Archives: shade plants

The Changing Season of September

Japanese forest grass

You never know where new gardening ideas and inspiration can come from. The other day I stopped by to help a friend water a garden by the river in South Felton while the owners were out of town. We both enjoyed the unique combination of plants and garden art placed strategically though out the garden. It was clear that this soothing garden was created with love. If gardening keeps you sane, don’t stop because of the drought.

Covered with huge white, heavily ruffled flowers a Rose of Sharon ‘Helene’ anchored the entry to a small deck overlooking the San Lorenzo river. With a reddish-purple eye and handsome, leathery dark green leaves this attractive shrub will bloom nearly continuously over the summer and fall without setting seeds.

Other gems in this garden that caught my eye included a Japanese painted fern paired with a purple leaved coral bells. A foxtail fern and variegated hosta looked great nearby. Japanese forest grass, oakleaf hydrangea, liriope, helleborus and winter daphne grew among the ferns.

These are shade plants and most like a regular drink of water. They are combined with plants with similar water requirements in this garden but if your garden is in more sun remember that it doesn’t take a lot of water to make a garden beautiful. An garden_art.1920 Japanese_painted_fern-heuchera.1920unthirsty garden can fill you with joy.

Gardening makes us learn new things. If you water less frequently, some plants may decline or even die eventually. Remove those that do and replace them with plants that will thrive with less water.

Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’

Some to try as replacements are agastache or Hummingbird mint. Plant near your organic edible garden to provide nectar for pollinators as well as hummingbirds. The flowers are edible as a salad garnish, in baked goods and in cocktails while their foliage can be added to herb salads or in a cup of tea.

Other perennials that bloom now and into fall include asters, gaillardia and all the salvias. California fuchsia are just starting their long fall bloom cycle, too.

I like the bright flowers of gloriosa daisy, especially the longer lived Goldsturm variety. These perennials make good cut flowers and are tough and easy to grow. They are descended from wild plants native to the eastern U.S. but require only moderate water once established.

Need more late summer perennials to extend your season? Coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter. Now days there are many colors to choose from in addition to the traditional rosy purple daisies. They are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets. The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years. If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower. Echinacea purpurea and other varieties are used as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon. The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.

Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states. It was used to treat snake and insect bites because of its antiseptic properties and to bathe burns. They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache. It was also used for purification. The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.

Enjoy unthirsty color in your garden this fall.

Hydrangeas-Summer Drama for the Garden and How to Prune Them

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are some plants that are so showy in the garden they are worth budgeting a little extra summer water. They really get your attention.That plant for me is the hydrangea. Want instant drama in the garden? Plant one of the many hydrangea varieties. All have flowers so large they can’t help but steal the show. Easy to grow, they are pest and disease free. Here are some of my favorites and how and when to prune them.

Back in 2001 a new variety of hydrangea macrophylla was introduced. Called Endless Summer it has the unique ability to re-bloom throughout the spring and summer on both current and older season wood resulting in a much longer blooming season. This was great news for me because as sure as the sun rises, a heat wave would descend upon my garden in May and many of my traditional mopheads and lacecaps would crisp up and the show would be over way too soon. With Endless Summer I get continuous flowering through the summer. How do I prune this variety to get the most blooms?

When you read care instructions about pruning any hydrangea and they refer to new and old wood it’s really just another name for a stem they are talking about. New stems growing this growing season will be green. Old stems that grew last year are brown.

Prune Endless Summer hydrangeas as needed to keep them symmetrical. Remove dead stems you are sure will not be leafing out this year. To revitalize a mature plant-about 5 years old- remove about a third of the oldest canes in the spring by cutting them as close as possible to the ground. If your plant looks fine, leave it alone. You can prune off spent flowers in August but I prefer to leave the flower heads on the plant for winter interest.

Classic bigleaf hydrangeas -hydrangea macrophylla- mostly bloom on last years stems or old wood. The proper time to prune them is right after blossoming in July or August. Again I like to leave the dried flower heads on for fall and winter color so I prune lightly in late summer and again now lightly to shape. I may be cutting off some potential flower buds by pruning now but those stems usually flower by early fall and I’m not wacking back the whole plant.

If your bigleaf hydrangea doesn’t bloom well any more it may be time for more drastic measures. Cut back non-blooming stems to about 6 inches high. This will stimulate the growth of news productive stems.

hydrangea_paniculata_LimelightAnother showy hydrangea with huge pyramidal flowers is called hydrangea paniculata or Pee Gee hydrangea. With chartreuse blooms, Limelight is one of my favorites. They tolerate drought better than other hydrangeas which is another plus. Because they bloom on new wood in midsummer into fall, prune them in winter or early spring. Cut away old flowers and prune to open the plant to sunlight.

Hydrangea arborescens like ‘Annabelle’ produce enormous white flowers and also bloom on new wood during the summer prune during the winter or spring. This is the variety you see grown as hedges. I think I need one of these in my garden.

Vying for attention in my garden is the oakleaf hydrangea or hydrangea hydrangea_quercifolia_bloomquercifolia. I love this plant because it is so versatile. I often include it in a landscape design because it is easy to grow in a variety of situations from deep shade to mostly sun and it tolerates some drought. The stunning summer display of elongated, creamy white flower clusters age to pink by autumn and then papery, rusty brown in winter. But it’s the fall display of handsome leaves that resemble oaks that will get your attention. Mine turns the color of bright burgundy but I’ve seen bronze and crimson color on others. Prune them in early summer right after flowering.

Even in our coldest winters, hydrangeas in our area are easy to grow and don’t suffer winter damage to the flower buds as those in snow country do. Lucky us. I’m looking forward to my hydrangea show which will last most of the year.

Will Any Plants Thrive in Dry Shade?

daphne_odora_AureomarginataLooking out the window on a rainy day I forget that spot way back in the shade in the back of the garden will be bone dry come summer. It’s too far away to water conveniently very often with a hose and extending the irrigation for just that one area under the trees in the shade is not practical. I sympathize with clients when they ask me what will grow in a problem area like this. Believe me I know it’s a challenge to bring in some colorful foliage, texture or might I be so bold as to want flowers, too? Take a tip from one who lives in a similar area with the same problems. We’re in this together.

At this time of year when the plums are blooming and the flowering pears are clothed in white blossoms, I want something to extend this look out in the garden. There are several plants that bloom early in dry shade and fortunately they are also deer resistant. Later in the season when soil moisture all but disappears there are other plants that will take over center stage.

But first here are the candidates for early spring color and fragrance in shady gardens.

Fragrant Winter daphne is a handsome evergreen shrub and I especially like the variegated foliage of the variety ‘Aureomarginata’. This small, deer tolerant shrub is good looking year round and does well under the shade of small trees. Although many daphnes are tricky to grow, this one is adaptable and easy to please. During the summer water it as infrequently as the plant will allow. This is usually about once per month. Little or no water in summer will reward you with clusters of fragrant purple flowers that start opening at this time of year. Cut them to bring inside with hellebore for a pretty bouquet.

For fragrant May flowers try daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ which is also easy to grow and requires only occasional water as does daphne transatlantic ‘Summer ‘Ice’. Summer Ice produces sweetly scented flowers for an extraordinarily long time. Flowering begins in early April and can continue as late as November.

Another powerfully fragrant plant for dry shade is commonly known as sweetbox. Sarcococca may not be showy enough to give to your Valentine but the sweetly scented flowers attract hummingbirds and fill the winter garden with a delicious fragrance for weeks starting in January.

Sarcococca ruscifolia forms an upright bushy shrub about 4 feet tall. Another variety called sarcococca hookeriana humilus makes a great ground cover as it rarely exceeds 1 1/2 feet tall. Both plants have dark green leaves, attractive berries and are deer resistant.

helleborus_orientalisHellebores are another winter blooming plant with foliage that looks great, too. I have several varieties including orientalis, argutifolius and foetidus. My Golden Sunrise has large, canary yellow flowers. It’s been blooming for almost a month and will continue for several more weeks. Hellebores are often still flowering during the Christian season of Lent from which they get their common name, Lenten Rose. They are good plants for naturalizing under trees as they are low maintenance, survive with little water and are disease free.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Other plants that bloom at this time of year and require only moderate summer irrigation include Lily-of-the-Valley shrub, clivia, bergenia, mahonia and Pacific Coast iris.

As summer approaches other plants and shrubs will lend their color and texture to the dry shade garden.

Western Wild ginger and Pacific Coast Iris are great ground covers. Good shrubs include deer resistant Osmanthus fragrans or sweet olive. Their white flowers are tiny but powerfully fragrant. Bloom is heaviest in spring and early summer but plants flower sporadically throughout the year. This compact shrub grows at a moderate rate in full sun to partial shade and reaches 10 feet.

Heavenly bamboo are work horses in the shady garden. For a different look try growing nandina filamentosa or Thread-leaf nandina. This evergreen small shrub grows to 2-3 ft tall with very lacy, almost fern-like growth. New foliage is reddish in color and during the fall the leaves turn orange or purplish red. Pinkish-white flowers bloom in clusters in late spring and summer.

There are lots of other shrubs and plants that require only occasion summer water for those shady spots. Email me and I can share even more ideas and suggestions.

What to Do about Invasive Plants

bull_thistleWe can't control those pesky weed seeds that blow into our gardens and take hold. There are ways to keep them from taking over, however. But what about those invasive plants that are already in our gardens like ivy and vinca major? What's the best way to deal with them? Then there are plants we buy ourselves that can invade natural areas. Are there better plants to use that are just as attractive and useful? Here are some solutions to make your garden happy.

One invasive thug that can take over is bull thistle, a relative of the edible artichoke. The seeds of this vigorous exotic take hold in disturbed areas including your beautiful garden soil and if not controlled can become a solid mass of impenetrable thistles in just a few seasons. Bull thistle only reproduces by seed so removal of the flowering stalks at this time of year will prevent them from spreading. The flowering heads must be discarded in a plastic bag and destroyed to keep them from forming viable seed. Because this weed is biennial you also need to dig out the first year plants that have not formed stalks. You can also mow thistles close to the ground a couple of times before they form stalks to reduce the population over time.

As a landscape designer and consultant I'm often called upon for advice for an area covered with vinca major or ivy. Both of these invasive species are too successful for their own good, smothering native plants and harboring pests such as rats and snails. Vinca major also serves as a host to the bacteria that causes Pierce's disease in grapevines. For your information, vinca minor has not been found to be invasive in California so far

You can choose organic methods to control vinca and ivy rather than chemical herbicides. Hand vinca_majorremoval is labor intensive but the results are good if all the root nodes and stolons are removed. Work inward from the perimeter of the patch and pull the plants back. You will need to do this every 3 months during the first year to remove resprouts but native plants may recolonize the area and reduce the chance that other weeds will move into the area following the disturbance caused by the removal activities.

Replanting with another more desirable groundcover is another solution. For shady areas, try planting wild ginger  (Asarum caudatum), Catalina perfume ( Ribes viburnifolium), creeping snowberry ( Symphoricarpos mollis), yerba buena ( Satureja douglasii ), bear's foot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), winter saxifrage (Bergenia cordifolia), pachysandra, Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) or Asian jasmine.

Good substitutes for vinca or ivy in sunnier spots include groundcover types of manzanita and ceanothus. Also attractive are Taiwan raspberry (Rubus pentalobus), California fuchsia (Zauschneria), or beach strawberry (Fragraria chiloensis ).

Some plants even though purchased from a nursery can cause problems. You wouldn't buy a Scotch or French broom knowing how invasive they can be. Forsythia, Japanese kerria, golden currant and Jerusalem sage all provide that beautiful spring butter yellow color in the garden.

The licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) gained popularity for its deer resistance and foliage color many years ago. Unfortunately, it self sows wildly and the spreading branches will root at any point of contact with the ground. Try instead better behaved plants like California natives salvia leucophylla or eriogonum giganteum. Teucrium germander or Powis Castle artemisia also work well in the same area.

Another good plant gone wrong is cotonester  lacteus (parneyi).  The red fall berries are spread by cotoneaster_lacteus_Parneyibirds and with their rapid growth and competitive roots they can overtake the garden and wild areas. Fortunately there are many other plants to use instead that provide food for birds and are beautiful, too. Try planting toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) a California native with delicate white flowers and large clusters of brilliant red berries. Pineapple guava is another good substitute as is strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo).

These are just some of the suggested alternatives for invasive garden plants for this area. Don't give an invasive an inch, it can take over your garden, the neighbors and our wildlands.

Shade plants with Color

We wait all winter for the weather to warm up. At last it finally arrives and all we want to do is sit in the shady spot in the garden where it's cool. What plants can thrive in the shade? What plants can survive a location that is very dark during the winter and then gets only slightly brighter shade during the growing season? These are tough conditions for most plants but I have my favorites that have endured over the years and still bounce back each spring to bring color to my garden.

The sound of rustling leaves is soothing to our ears. But many of the ornamental grasses that sway in the breeze don't survive in shady locations. One that does is Japanese Forest Grass. There are several varieties of hakonechloa that can brighten a dark spot by your favorite lounging chair. Aureola has the classic bright gold and lime green striped leaves. Last year a friend gave me an All Gold variety that is equally beautiful. I love the way each graceful leaf tumbles toward the light reminding me of flowing water.

Japanese Forest Grass are not invasive. They are easily divided to increase your collection or share with fellow gardeners.  At season's end these grasses turn pinkish for about a month before taking on winter's tawny color. In January cut off last years growth and within a very few months new growth emerges fresh and bright.
A plant that makes a fine background or small accent tree for a partial shady spot is Double-File Viburnum. Related to the popular snowball plant, the Mariesii viburnum blooms in the spring. Creamy, white lacecap flowers form in a double file along each horizontal branch and is how this showy shrub got its name.

The white flowers look great in a moon garden and are attractive to butterflies during the day. After blooming bright red berries form providing food for many birds.  Truly a plant for all seasons, in the fall the foliage turns red or purplish.

For dry shade try growing Kaffir liy ( clivia miniata ).  I've got a bright orange blooming Belgian Hybrid and an intense, deep red-orange Flame variety. Actually, I have many clivia as they divide so easily and bloom in fairly  dark shade. Beautiful, robust green strappy leaves are handsome year round but the dozens of flowers clusters, some containing as many as 60 flowers each, brighten up any area. Drought tolerant once established they make a gorgeous accent, border or container specimen.
Chinese Ground Orchid ( Bletilla striata ) is another of my favorites plants for shade. A natural companion for ferns and wildflowers, this plant is tougher than it looks. Vivid, magenta blooms resembling small cattleya orchids emerge on long stalks for about 6 weeks in the spring. They like moist conditions and do well in pots.

Every spring I look forward to the unique flowers of my Queen's Tears billbergia. This pineapple relative makes a vigorous, deer resistant groundcover under trees without becoming invasive. Exotic looking rosy-red spikes are topped with drooping pink, blue and green flowers that look like dangling earrings. Insects never bother them. Give them a little water now and then and forget them. They're that easy to grow.

I use all of these tough plants in designs for shady gardens because I know they will thrive, look beautiful and provide color. If you have a garden that gets little winter light these are the plants for you.

Gift Plants for your Christmas List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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