Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Low Water Garden Styles

I offered to help design native gardens for a couple of people. When we talked it through, they realized they wanted a low-water garden, not a CA native garden. They had already seen some showy low-water plants, and wanted to include those. They were not on board for the more limited palette, "counter-intuitive" water needs, and iffy availability of CA natives. Well, low water is a great goal! 

Some people just want to have fun with succulents and exotics.
Nothing here is native to California.
Non-native low(ish) water plants are easier to find and easier to grow (based on conventional gardening practice) than natives. Simply put, they tolerate summer water better. You can find great bloomers, striking foliage, and super-easy maintenance. Downside: they will probably not provide as much habitat and food for local wildlife, and they won't remind you of the native hills.  (You wouldn't plant anything downright invasive, would you? Check here for the worst offenders.)

Since this is a native garden blog, here are reasons to go native:
From the CA Native Plant Society     From a San Diego landscaper who specializes in natives

Many low water gardens (native or otherwise) are done badly.  The advice I followed for my native garden applies here: find a successfully growing garden in your neighborhood that uses many of the plants you want to use.  Find out how that gardener planted, weeds, and waters. Do the same.  Weed control is crucial in the first couple of years.  (If you are replacing Bermuda grass, my condolences.) Trimming, at minimum once or twice a year, is required.  And plants may not grow predictably; be prepared for a little removal and repair each year.  Here are some low-water gardens in my neighborhood.

When you think of a low water garden, you may envision a desert garden:

This desert-like garden is a favorite of mine.
(Click on the pictures once to expand.)
Cacti and succulents predominate in decomposed granite, with rocks and open space between.
When well-executed, this striking effect works through much of California.   The plant material is probably from all over.  Wild coastal California does not look like this (well, maybe the rocks.)

An effect more like our local Coastal Sage Scrub can be created using Southwestern, Mediterranean and/or Australian plants.  A few rocks and a decomposed granite path add to the effect.  It may require quite a bit of trimming to stay looking good.

I enjoy passing by Lis's garden.
Liz Guthrie's garden has tones and shapes from the local hills. (Designer probably unavailable, FYI.) It looks well-groomed, because it is. Somebody snips that creeping rosemary diligently. By hand.  It is watered once a week (as infrequently as most auto systems will allow, and twice as fervently as most natives like), system turned off when it rains.  The gardener wanted to water it three times a week.

Most people like some taller bushes and trees.  Fruit trees compatible with a low water garden includes citrus, pomegranate, and fig. Grapes work too.

This large, mature garden has effectively massed
groups of lower-water plants in different heights and textures,
and no longer needs much mulch. Citrus is around the corner.
Low maintenance, but still needs an occasional trim.
Native plants can also accomplish all these styles and more. Here are some examples all by one landscaper.  Be sure to choose a style, and plants, compatible with your yard's growing conditions (sun or shade, soil type, weather, and frost zone.)  My goal was to evoke the coastal hills, but with more flowers.

Sages and sagebrushes, intergrowing plants, and slopes
help me create a sense of coastal hills, with some extra flowers.
Which low water garden styles do you like, and why?  If you aspire to a low-water garden in Southern California, here is a great website to help you learn how: The BeWaterWise Garden Spot.  Elsewhere, your local water district may have similar resources.  If you want native too, try my favorite website: Las Pilitas nursery.  Good gardening!

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Free Native Plants

If you want a native garden yet have no cash to spare, do not despair.  You can procure free native plants.

This happy Hummingbird Sage is crowding CA fuchsia and red buckwheat.
It must be thinned.
Please do not collect in protected areas!   (You could collect in zones scheduled to be bulldozed, sigh.) Ask me or another native gardener for some of the following easy-to-propagate plants. We probably have some right now that we'd never miss, and even need to cut back.

*CA Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) - cute, and very aggressive spreader.

Hedge Nettle (Stachys bullata) - does not sting, and smells nice! Grows in deep shade.

Hooker's evening primrose.  A cheerfully chaotic shade bloomer.
*Hooker's Evening Primrose (Oenothera elate ssp. hookeri) -wacky long bloomer, great for the back of the yard.

Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) - Highly recommended shade bloomer.  Hummingbirds endorse heartily.

(nearly native) *Mexican Daisy/Fleabane, aka Santa Barbara Daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus)

San Miguel Savory and Yerba Buena (Clinopodium, formerly Satureja) -creeping native mints, not invasive, great herb tea.

These are all versatile (will survive on low or garden water) and bloom in shade or part shade.  Most can tolerate a cutting slapped into the ground in a shady spot and watered once a week. I can give away ten or twelve cuttings for some of these and not miss them.

The starred items may spread "vigorously" in your garden, by seed (strawberry by runner.)  Consider yourself warned.

The following plants are easily propagated if you are a little patient.

Small flowers on Island Bush Snapdragon are hummingbird pleasers.
This is a fun plant, easy to grow.
Photo from Las Pilitas, used by permission.
Island Bush Snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa, formerly Galvezia Speciosa) - another versatile hummingbird favorite. I have a couple potted cuttings coming along.
Artemisia 'David's Choice' (aka the starfish plant.)

Get your cuttings now. They won't grow in summer when the natives are dormant.

Gifted succulent cuttings made this arrangement.
If you want some fun non-native plants, many succulents also propagate with ease.  Tuck a cutting or a rosette in some dirt and water sparingly.  Ask your neighbor for a bit of succulent and enjoy the result. Take a photo and show me!

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Wild UCI

So many things are blooming at this time of year, or were, before the furnace that came through last week.  Her are some photos from wild areas of UC Irvine in the last couple weeks.

A field of Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum I believe)  Sadly, they are all baked in the heat.  Here's what they look like up close.

Wild cucumbers (Marah macrocarpa, not edible!) festooned across a prickly pear:

There are several varieties of Prickly Pear (Opuntia) along the coast.  UCI's has most delicate peach buds; the yellow flowers are not here yet:

A few Deerweed (Acmispon glaber, formerly Lotus scoparius) are blooming early.  It is a pretty plant; I wish it had a nicer common name:

Bladderpod was in full bloom the beginning of February (and many other times.)  It is a good garden candidate.  This five-foot-tall Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea, formerly Isomeris arborea) has quite a view going.

Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia) were blooming in little patches together.

Mule fat has kinda nice little white flowers and is green, but otherwise is not much to look at.

Mule fat flowers up close

Mule fat with a background of invasive tumbleweed (sigh).
Coast Sunflowers (Encelia californica) are all over UCI.  Most of them probably seeded from slope plantings facing Bonita Canyon Road, but I'm not complaining.  This one overlooks the UCI industrial park.

If there is a little patch of wild in your SoCal neighborhood, this is the season to check it out.

Sometimes the wild comes to us!
This bobcat family napped on our garden wall back in 2007.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bush Poppy Envy

Half a mile from my house are a couple of Bush Poppies, outside UCI's Anteater Recreation Center.  They are huge.  They appear to be the Channel Island species, Dendromecon harfordii. While at their best now, they bloom most of the year.  I wanted one in my garden.  No luck.

Bush Poppy outside UCI's Anteater Recreation Center, in a mixed low-water planting.
Every time I drive by I am jealous.
I had a Bush Poppy for almost two years.  It had twelve leaves total.  It just didn't grow.  Finally I replaced it with a Baja Fairy Duster, which has grown more in a month than that Poppy ever did.

Tomaz still has his Bush Poppy.  It's four years old.  He is more patient than I.
I didn't overwater; it would have dropped dead. It isn't that they need full sun; I have seen Bush Poppies (a cultivar of the mainland species rigidashorter bloom season but more cold tolerant) at Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden under the cover of trees, blooming like crazy.

Rich gold flowers are striking against olive-green leaves.
What is the difference?  Larger plant initially?  Bush poppies are said to have brittle roots.  Maybe a bigger pot size gives them more of a chance when planted?  Maybe it likes whatever arcane watering system they have.  Drip?  Alas, some mysteries remain unsolved.  So I remain gazing lustfully from a distance at these beauties. Try your luck; if you succeed, tell me your secret.

My sister in law Dawn is in the photo for scale. Hi Dawn!

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lilac Verbena

My garden is blooming up a storm in February, and it's due to one plant: Lilac Verbena.

Lilac Verbena, one of my longest bloomers, is native to Baja California. Its cousin Western Vervain (Verbena lasiostachys) is found all around CA and has a long blooming season but isn't much to look at.  LV used to be called Verbena lilacina, but in 1979, Umber renamed it Glandularia lilacina.  Not everyone got the memo.  So much for Latin names clarifying things.

A flock (?) of these beauties came by one day and sipped on the Lilac Verbenas all afternoon.
Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies love it.  Its flower stalks are long-lasting, though they can get a little shaggy toward the end of their lives.  It starts with a bang in late January, and will bloom through June or beyond. (This year with the heat, maybe not.)  Lilac Verbena has a subtle but pleasant perfume, spicy with a hint of cloves.  (In my garden, it is swamped out by the sages.)

I know Lilac Verbena is rugged because it's surviving in our neighborhood common area
(with Matilija Poppies.)
LV branches are brittle.   If you keep most of the plant as you bring it home from the nursery and plant it, you are doing well.  If you break it, don't feel bad.   It will grow back fast.  I planted my first LV on top of a mound.   In the first Santa Ana windstorm, I lost 2/3 of the plant.  I dug it up and placed it a bit downslope, and it has been happy ever since.

Among its other stellar qualities, LV is said to be deer and rabbit-proof.  It blooms well with a half-day or less of sun.  It is said to tolerate garden water.  But it can do with little summer water.  Reports vary on its frost-hardiness. 20 degrees?  If it looks dead, don't despair.  It may grow back.  It is grown from seed.  I have seen small sprouts under the parent, but it is not a prolific reseeder.

LV dies back in summer, at least with proper (i.e. little) watering. You can trim and thin it pretty extremely as it turns brown.  If you don't, it will look shabby up close.  Starting with the first Fall or Winter rains, it will start growing, seemingly expanding daily. In year three, almost all of my LV's are still going strong, and I keep planting more.  (One planted in late spring in clay did not prosper and was removed.)

Cultivar 'de la Miña' looking so symmetrical
The cultivar 'de la Miña' is most widely available. Carol Bornstein, then Director of Horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, collected it from Cañon de la Mina on Cedros Island.  'De la Miña' is a remarkably symmetric cultivar, a spherical green bush sporting a halo of long-stemmed lilac flowers. It would do credit to the most formal garden, and wants a bit of space around it to show off its symmetry.
With a little pinching, the species can look gorgeous alongside other natives.
It does not hold its flowers so high.
Can you see the butterfly and the lizard?
The species, presumably from the mainland, is harder to find, but Tree of Life Nursery usually has it. It blooms just as long.  Its foliage is more rambling, and it can get pretty gawky if you don't trim it, but with a little pinching back, it looks tidy enough.  It rambles well around, through, and over a bed of coastal sage scrub-type plants.  I am mixing it with CA Fuchsia (which also is good at filling in the cracks) for the longest blooming season.

Some facts about LV from Theodore Payne Foundation can be found here.

Lilac Verbena is a reliable and long blooming native perennial.  If you plant one now, it will give you a show this spring.  Give it a try!

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Point of View

From which vantage points do you sit around and enjoy a garden?  How does it look from the curb?  From the front door?  Maybe there is some official landscape architecture term, but I haven't found it yet.  So I call it "Point of View."  When planning and planting, I spend a little time contemplating point of view, since I will have to live with it.  I sit inside the house and stare out the appropriate window.  I stand at the entrance of the yard.  I sit on each of my yard chairs. I'm liking the points of view in my two-year-old garden.  But I have yanked a few things out and rearranged to get there.  And some challenges remain. I am not going to show you photos of the barbecue, or the air conditioner and utility doors that have yet to be successfully screened by plants.  Here are points of view for the front yard.

Come On In:  
The view of my yard from the street is dominated by a happy Deer Grass.
(click on the photos to expand)
A little further in and you see the semicircular sandstone paving that is very functional as well as pleasing to look on,
and a peek-a-boo view of the not-so-native section of the back yard.
The North Kitchen Window:  

This is the view I probably spend the most time facing.
It's a bit of a hodgepodge, but something's always in bloom.  Birds do use that birdbath: what fun! Perennials behind the birdbath have come and gone; a new White Sage, Silverlace, Laguna Bur Marigold, and Baja Fairy Duster will hopefully endure.  Yes, I pretty much ignored that wise landscaping advice of planting groupings of things and not single specimens on that mound.  We are waiting for Tomaz's trees to grow.  His part of the shared front yard is across the walk.

From inside, with the window mullion.  
We never used to leave the shutters open on this north window.  It was too ugly: the street, and languishing association plantings.  But now we leave them open all the time.  It helps that Toyon and Coyote Bush are blocking the street view. Yes, that's a palm in the right corner.  It's in a pot.  It needs a new home, but it's happy there and doesn't fit anywhere else! Sentiment gets in the way of design sometimes.

The East Kitchen Window:  

Nice "borrowed landscape"– meaning the parts that are not my yard.  I like the Mastnaks' redwood fence and gate.   That swamp in the middle is still maintained by the association, which watered it 6 days a week last summer.  The spikes in front are Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) in flower.  Score: hummingbirds with my morning coffee!

The Dining Room: 

Not bad.  The Silverlace and Deergrass are duking it out in front, though.

I love the stone paving, but the association's orange utility fence peeking through the trees needs to go.  The plot under the tree is pretty bare; I hope it makes progress this spring.  The association hedge of Raphiolepsis is a life saver.  The chair looks inviting, and I love the Island Morning Glory (Calystegia macrostegia) on the fence.

The Front Door

Tropical exotics lounge in the shade by the door. I put the color where it counts. I love dragon wing begonias! CA Woodland Strawberries and other creepers at the corner invite the visitor to look closely at the garden. The Deer Grass and Silverlace are still colliding on the right; something's got to give.

I remember when I had about fifty little gallon pots plopped all over the yard.  I squinted out the windows trying to figure out how they might look in a couple of years from various points of view.  It was worth the effort.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Where's the Coyote?

Adaptable Coyote
The Coyote is everywhere!  Except in native gardens, where it should be a staple.  Coyote Brush, or Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis), is a common roadside attraction from Oregon to Mexico, from the ocean to the Sierra foothills.  It is one of the first natives to reseed in damaged areas.  And it stays cheery grass-green even in the dead of summer.

This typical (untrimmed) Coyote Bush, about four feet tall, greets you
at the start of the boardwalk at Moonstone Beach in Cambria.
Coyote Bush is a fast grower. It makes good fill while slower growers are getting established. Upright forms (supposedly the most common subspecies, consanguinea,) are great tall screens or medium bushes, while prostrate forms (some cultivars derived from beach subspecies pilularis) are great ground covers.  Upright and rounded forms grow side by side in the wild, so I'm not sure whether nature or nurture determines their shape.

Tomaz' Coyote Bush is a small tree that greets me from my kitchen window.
 Obviously a consanguinea. It gets a good trimming annually.
Taming the Coyote
While coyote bush can look a bit gawky in the wild, it is entirely trimmable.  You can hack it to the ground and it will grow back.  You can turn it into a topiary if you like.  It grows in all types of soil, at the beach, and in chaparral.  It wants supplemental water its first summer, then it can get by without-- but to look its best, it wants hosing off every couple of weeks. It will tolerate moderate summer water, and even grow a little in summer.  If you have a bare spot with a half day or more of sun and need some cheery green, plant Coyote!  But if you are thinking to yourself that Coyote looks too unkempt for your garden, wait.  Here's the Coyote for you:

I got this 'Pigeon Point' cultivar as part of a flat at Tree of Life Nursery.
They took much longer to establish than the one-gallon size.
Their tiny roundish leaves look so tidy.
At two years old it is starting to need a regular trim.
If you want a bright green ground cover, choose Coyote Bush 'Pigeon Point,' named for the coastal area south of San Francisco where it was originally collected.  Once established, it acts like a privet.  A no-water privet.  You will have to shear it, like a privet.  It is by far the tidiest of the named Coyote Bush ground covers. I love it.  

I told you it looks like a privet.  This Coyote Bush 'Pigeon Point' is six years old
and has been allowed to grow a little taller, but is still trimmed once or twice a year.
Sadly, UCI (or its housing association) have planted big slopes full of some other dwarf coyote that is not doing very well. Big dead patches. Don't judge Coyote by the failure of commercial gardeners to maintain them.

The Sex Life of Coyotes
Coyote bush produces male and female flowers on separate plants. (Dioecious, if you want to get technical.) The summer/fall flowers are small and fluffy, white or tan, not a feature. Male flowers are inconspicuous, and produce no seed for the critters to eat. Female flowers are downright homely, yet produce seed in fall and winter, when critters need it most. Dwarf 'Pigeon Point' is all male, in fact, all clones of the same plant (from cuttings, no mad science required.) So it won't spread itself all over by seed or look messy, but neither will it feed the birds. Plant some consanguinea by your fence, on a slope, or other spot that needs some fast-growing filler, and the neighborhood birds will thank you.
Homely flowers. So you may not want to plant tall Coyote by your front door.
These leaves are the size of a fingernail.
This lush round Coyote is nestled among Coast Sunflowers (Encelia californica)
in a quasi-native slope planting at UCI that gets some supplemental water.
The sunflowers were planted; Coyote snuck in, I think.  Works for me!
Coyote Cousins
Baccharis salicifolia (formerly viminea) is commonly called Mule Fat (don't ask me.)  Mule Fat has willow-shaped leaves.  It is hardy, with a range wider than Coyote.  It, um, looks like a weed, though it has showier flowers.  B. sarothroides is an undistinguished desert plant.  Don't buy a wetlands species, B. emoryi, unless you live in a swamp.  I won't waste my time with ground covers beside 'Pigeon Point' in future. It prunes the nicest.  (If it's just labeled "Baccharis pilularis" it's probably the tall-growing consanguinea.)  And watch out for a hybrid called Baccharis 'Centennial.'  While a fine filler plant (about 4 feet tall) now trending with landscapers, I think its narrow leaves make it a less friendly presence in the garden.

Coyotes I have Known

This two-foot fellow on a cliff in Big Sur is hanging on.
Spindly, or interesting open structure? You decide.
Since this guy's in my backyard, I say "open."
I should have given him more water the first year.
This glorious fellow, 8' tall and 15' wide, greets visitors to Los Osos Elfin Forest.
How did they get him to do that?
This "windswept" Coyote lives in a pot
at the Back to Natives nursery in Santa Ana.
This handsome fellow on a UC Irvine vacant lot gets no water or trimming.
Ironic that this volunteer is thriving and the landscaped ones are shabby. 

There's a Coyote...
Here are some four-footed coyotes that lives in our neighborhood. Pets beware!
Neighborhood coyotes in the UCI Ecological Preserve.
The flowering bushes are California Buckwheat, not Coyotes.
Photo from Sandrine Biziaux Scherson, used by permission.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Winter Wonderland

Our coastal winter has not felt like winter at all, except for a brief nip in December.  Temperatures are in the seventies near the coast.  Plants are confused and blooming.  With the weather and some timely rains, the hiking is spectacular. I was healthy enough, finally, to join a group of hikers at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park This past Friday. The hills were lush and green after our rains, though the flowers required a careful hunt.

The only Ceanothus we saw was in the parking lot, but it was a nice one.
In my experience, white Ceanothus bloom earlier than blue.
The grass (mostly non-native) is green.
The sage scrub is growing, but so much dead brush remains from the drought, it still looks kind of grey.
The drought shows its effects by the many skeletons of shrubs and trees which were lost, partially or entirely.  But new life is popping up all around.

Sprouts at the center of a mostly-dead elderberry tree.
We were treated to a lush green, and a few tantalizing blooms.

Lemonadeberry is in flower (though not in my backyard.)
It is not usually a noteworthy flower.
Oddly, it seems to make a better show in shade.
This one was on a damp north bank on Laurel Canyon trail.
Meanwhile, on a ridge line, a few lemonadeberries were ripe already.  Go figure.
I had not met Ann and Shari, my hiking partners, before this.  Hiking is a great way to get to know people: their navigation skill, their energy level, but also, if we're not working too hard, all kinds of other things.  I supplied the plant identification, as I was able.

This little beauty along Willow Canyon Road appears to be Castilleja  affinis ssp. affinis
which Calflora lists as Wight's Indian Paintbrush, widely distributed through CA, blooming in June,
and Allen and Roberts list as Coastal Paintbrush, blooming March through May.
It has more slender petals than the Paintbrush of my youth in the Santa Cruz Hills.
The shine on this tiny California Buttercup is for real. 
In my yard, I am happy to see California Buttercups (Ranunculus californicus) growing from seed.  Unfortunately, so far they only have two leaves each.  On a north slope in Laurel Canyon, they were already blooming.  And a few more oddments were discovered.

One patch of lupine on a south-facing slope on Emerald Canyon Road.
Wild Cucumbers have the oddest fruit.
(They are the vines with small white flowers that blanket  bushes.)
I hope I get in lots more hikes this spring.  Let me know if you're going and I can tag along!

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