Tag Archives: drought tolerant plants

Knee High by the Fourth of July

A black-tailed deer celebrating the Fourth of July.

Who doesn’t love corn on the cob fresh either from the garden or farmer’s market? But this column isn’t about growing corn or about patriotic deer, it’s about climate smart plants that hold up to the heat. So let’s get started.

All this talk about “drought tolerant” plants or “water smart” plants is misleading in some ways. What really matters for the success of a plant in your garden is that they are climate smart. You can call the new California garden climate tolerant or climate adapted but it all comes down to the same thing. The plants you choose to grow in your garden should be able to naturally tolerate periods of lower than average water. This doesn’t mean no water during extremely long dry periods. No plant can live without water.

I have two books that I look to for plant ideas when called upon to design a garden in our area. This first was published by East Bay MUD in 2004 and is called ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates’. The other book I refer to regularly for ideas and information is ‘California Native Plants for the Garden’. Both are invaluable in these times of water conservation. One of the best tips each of them offer is to garden where you live.

All of us live in a summer-dry climate. Summer-dry gardens are naturally dry for long periods. Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and failure in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place whether it’s a California native from an area with similar soil and exposure or a plant from another Mediterranean-like climate with growing conditions like yours.

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest, redwood forest, chaparral and sandhills.

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak. Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, giant feather grass, rosemary and rockrose do well here. California natives such as western mock orange (philadelphus lewisii), wild ginger and western sword ferns grow here also.

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where big leaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow. Most plant here grow lush in this deep soil. If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider giant chain fern, aquilegia, dicentra, Pacific Coast iris and fuchsia-flowering gooseberry.

Found in the sandhills, silverleaf manzanita is perfectly suited to its environment.

Chaparral areas are the hottest, driest slopes of these mountains. Dense thickets of manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, coffeeberry, ceanothus, monkey flower and sage are native here. These plants are adapted to little water and often have tiny, thick, waxy, light green or grayish leaves. Soils tend to be rocky and shallow with overlaying rock or a subsoil that is mostly clay. Plants here need to have an extensive root system that reaches widely and deeply for water. If you live here a classic combination would be the spring blooming western redbud and Julia Phelps or Dark Star ceanothus. The combination of magenta and electric blue flowers is unforgettable.

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants like silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here. Buckwheat and sticky monkey flower do well here. You might also try growing Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8″ tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red. Mulch them with gravel or crushed stone.

Remember right plant-right place. Don’t try to force nature although most gardens do look better with some summer water. Closer to the house we expect a fuller look. Combinations I’m going to try this season include leucospermum paired with blue echium or grey-leafed westringia planted with red-flowering callistemon ‘Little John’.

Autumnal Equinox

The autumnal equinox will arrive on Monday, September 23rd this year. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator – like where we live. Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

With the changing of the season, take advantage of fall planting weather. It was a hot summer and I’m ready for fall. This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage while soil temperatures are still warm creating an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new root systems should be well established.

I had hoped to spend some time at the UCSC Arboretum earlier this year when the showy pincushion and leucospermum protea were flowering but I never made it. Because anytime’s a good time to visit the arboretum I dropped by recently. There is always something in bloom there and the hummingbirds know it. Here are just a few of the spectacular fall blooming plants that you might want to add to your own garden.

Leaucadendron Jester

The Leaucadendron ‘Jester’ (Sunshine Conebush), another type of protea, were loaded with brilliant deep wine-red bracts. This evergreen shrub grows to 5 feet tall and is very pest and disease resistant. Deer aren’t interested in the showy bright pink, cream and green foliage and it’s quite drought tolerant once established. You can cut the branches as they are prized for use in floral arrangement. People think that protea are hard to grow but really it’s a plant-it-and almost-forget-it kind of plant. They need good drainage and don’t like phosphorus fertilizer preferring poor soils with minimal care. Sounds like a winner to me.

Epilobium ‘Mattole Select’

A little further down the trail I came across another easy to care for plant. California fuchsia have undergone several name changes over the years but whether you call them epilobium or zauchneria they are in bloom now. The ‘Mattole Select’ cultivar forms tidy 6 inch high mats of beautiful silver foliage. Late summer through fall brings orangey-red tubular flowers which attract hummingbirds. Spreading by underground rhizomes, this epilobium increases size a little less vigorously than the others. It’s more shade tolerant than most California fuchsias and needs just a bit more water but it’s still quite drought tolerant. Pruning plants down to a few inches in late autumn helps rejuvenate them for the following year.

Grevillea junipera ‘Monoglo’

As I followed the hummingbirds around the arboretum I came across another groundcover that both the birds and the bees favored. Grevillea juniperina ‘Molonglo’ (Juniper Leafed Grevillea) blooms with a soft yellow flower unlike most grevillea. This fast growing evergreen forms a mass of dark green soft needle-like leaves and bears an extremely profuse show of light golden yellow flowers from late spring to winter. This tough hardy drought tolerant plants is the perfect groundcover for large areas and will cascade down slopes and walls.

I’m looking forward to another visit to the arboretum this winter as the Australian garden will be in full bloom then.

Watering Plants in the Summertime

All plants need water– even those that are tolerant of our summer dry conditions. Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests.

What happens to a plant when the thermometer tops 100 degrees? Are there some plants that can survive tough times more easily?

Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

Photosynthesis is one of the most remarkable biochemical processes on earth and allows plants to use sunlight to make food from water and carbon dioxide. At temperatures about 104 degrees, however, the enzymes that carry out photosynthesis lose their shape and functionality. A garden that provides optimum light and water but gets too hot will be less vigorous. Tomatoes, for example, will drop blossoms and not set fruit if temperatures are over 90 degrees. Plants that do endure hight heat may be stunted and weakened attracting pests and diseases even if water is available.

Plants have natural systems that respond to heat problems. Plants can cool themselves by pumping water out through the leaves for a kind of swamp cooler effect. They can also make “heat-shock” proteins which reduces problems from over heating. All these strategies can take resources away from a plants other needs like growth, flowering and fruiting.

California fuchsia

It’s no surprise that many California natives are adapted to high temperatures. Some California native plants that can handle the heat with little water include salvia, mimulus, California fuchsia, eriogonum, manzanita, artemisia, California milkweed, ceanothus, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, bush lupine, native penstemon, monardella, mahonia nevinii, fremontodendron and holly-leafed cherry.

Other well adapted plants that are known to be more tolerant of heat include butterfly bush, germander, rosemary, smoke tree, rudbeckia, coreopsis, lantana, plumbago, gaillardia, lilac, sedums, oregano and verbena.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

Be sure that you water trees and shrubs deeply checking soil moisture first with a trowel. Established small to medium shrubs should be watered when the top 3-6″ is dry, large shrubs and trees when the top 6-12″ is dry.

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent irrigation. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots grow 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Bush Poppy

Apply water with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water district’s restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod that’s 1/4 inch – 3/8 inch in diameter into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.

The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly waterings to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on type.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy

Ceanothus: The Most Valuable Plant in your Garden

Those of you who read my column regularly might have noticed I often write about plants that are valuable to the birds and the bees as well as butterflies and wildlife in the general. I have 10 bird feeders around my house. Four for the hummingbirds and the other six have black oil sunflower seed and hulled chips. At this time of year when there are so many young the extra food is much appreciated. I provide water and nectar plants for the bees and butterflies as well. If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all the critters it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.

Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’

Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas.

One of the upright types I grow is ceanothus thysiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.

A new variety I’ve recently learned about from my friend and fellow Press Banner columnist, Colly Gruczelak, is called Celestial Blue. She planted several 2 years ago from 4″ mail order sleeves and they are now 3 ft tall and 4 ft wide. In her sandy garden, home to her personal deer population, the flowers look like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it makes a good screen or accent. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.

A great variety I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most and tolerates clay soil more than other species.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant blue three-inch flower spikes.

Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 10-15 years although some live longer.

Diamond Heights ceanothus

Several members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended. Adding fertilizer mights kill off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.

Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.

Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.

April in the Garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Spring might have officially started mid-March but judging from the wonky weather it’s hard to tell. We did experience a “Miracle March”  with a pretty good dose of needed rainfall along with some very cold weather. You never know what to expect in March around here.

Sherman, my Welsh springer spanial, enjoying a spring day in Scotts Valley

But now we’ve turned the corner on spring with flowers bursting open within hours on these nice days. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned to my yard for the breeding season. Like clockwork they show up on almost the exact day each year. It’s my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

Looking forward to the rest of spring, here’s what I’ll be doing around here in April.

Hopefully we’ll have plenty of April showers. This latest rainfall is surely  welcomed. One of the perks of a cool, rainy spring is that shrubs and perennials have longer to establish a good root system before hot weather arrives, ground covers have time to spread and shade the soil, conserving moisture come summer. What strategies can you follow that will make your garden low maintenance this summer and give you extra time to enjoy it?

Plant in masses. When designing or reworking your garden, make it

ajuga reptans, a groundcover for shady spots

easy on yourself by planting fewer varieties but in greater numbers. Planting this way will reduce the number of different maintenance tasks for that area. For example, if you have a large hillside that you want to cover, plant it with a groundcover like ceanothus gloriosus which fans out 6-15 feet. Some manzanitas like arctotaphylos uva-ursi eventually spread to15 feet each. Sage leaf rockrose and germander are also good for sunny areas. A shady spot could be planted with ajuga, creeping mahonia or Walkabout Sunset lysimachia.

Another time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no brainer but if you have just one prima donna in a bed of more drought tolerant plants, you’ll be dragging the hose over to that bed for just one plant or having to run your irrigation system more for it. If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low water as you’d like, move those to their own spot. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster while drought tolerant plants typically have one of more of the following characteristics: deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.

ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’ – A low maintenance, low water groundcover for sunny spots

Avoid putting thirsty plants in hard-to-reach places. If the irrigation system doesn’t reach that far, keep it simple by planting drought tolerant woody shrubs or perennials there.

Pluck weeds when the soil is moist and before they have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. I’m still battling hedge parsley with it’s sticky seed balls that will cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed.

Plant edibles among your other plants near the kitchen. Tricolor sage looks great alongside other plants with pink and violet leaves. Purple basil planted below the silver foliage of an artichoke is another great combination. Lemon thyme growing next to a burgundy colored dwarf New Zealand flax would look spectacular, too. And don’t forget to plant decorative and delicious Bright Lights swiss chard with its stalks of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, green and white throughout your beds. It’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

So get the lemonade ready to enjoy all your free time later this season.

California Natives for Erosion Control

Who knows what the weather will be like this winter but what we do know is that some of our rain events will come with a vengeance. It’s not that unusual for our area to get 8 inches of rainfall during a storm and that can create havoc on an unprotected hillside. Fortunately, October is a good time to do something about it.

Pink Flowering Currant

Fall is the perfect time to plant in our area. The soil is still warm encouraging root growth and the weather is mild. Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow and spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are well suited to this job.

Common native shrubs include ceanothus and manzanita of all

Calycanthus occidentalis

types. Calycanthus or Spicebush has fragrant flowers in late spring blooming well into summer with a spicy fragrance. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. All these plants have deep roots and control erosion.

Ribes s. King Edward VII

Ribes sanguinem or Flowering Currant is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. Choose from white flowering ‘White Icicle’ or ”Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ with spectacular deep red flower clusters. ‘Spring Showers’ has 8 inch long pink clusters. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, matilija poppy and western elderberry. ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and baccharis. Ceanothus maritimus, ‘Heart’s Desire’ and ‘Anchor Bay’ are all good groundcover selections and are not attractive to deer.

Symphoricarpos – Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry – can hold the soil on steep banks. This native tolerates poor soil, lower light and general neglect.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy -dendromecon rigid- is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one – not around the stem – to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.