Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Plants Are Not Furniture

As I watch people plotting the gardens that will replace their water-guzzling lawns (and the authorities who advise them) I do wonder sometimes... do they realize that plants are not furniture?
The Spring Garden Show at South Coast Plaza was a furniture show this year. Home decor was more prominent that landscape design in the demonstration "gardens." Many gardeners were sad about this. This is the Room and Board/Back to Natives display. (Photo used by permission from www.peaceloveandgardening.com

It may be possible, in my experience, to execute your carefully crafted landscape design for the first season or two. Then, living things doing what they do, the improvisation inevitably starts.
The grasses in this San Diego CNPS Garden Tour yard are so symmetrical! They were obviously installed and watered very evenly.  And they're only two years old. I wonder what they'll look like in another year or two. Left: 'Canyon Prince' Giant Wild Rye (Elymus condensatus) Right: Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens.) In my experience, Deer Grass, while a wonderful native, is very unpredictable in its growth habits. 

The non-native plants in common use by commercial landscapers are about as close to furniture as you can find. With no genetic diversity, these cultivars (clones, actually) behave one like another. Most of them have been selected for their predictable growth and durability in a wide variety of conditions (except dry California summers without copious supplemental water).

Most native plants can't pretend to be furniture. They do not do well planted full size. They take a while to get established. They grow slowly, or in fits and starts as water is available. And their size is variable with water and growing conditions.
The darker ferny plant on the left is supposed to be a tree: Fernleaf Catalina Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius). The tall bush on the right was trying to be a tree: Island Bush Snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa). 

Some of the most interesting natives are perennials. Like most perennials, they may look radically different at different times of year, and they may grow large, or small, or drop dead. I have yet to figure out why one grows large, and another drops dead. Or grows large and then drops dead, as in the case of the Snapdragon above.
This pint-size White Sage (Salvia apiana) in Tomaz' garden looks like a ground cover, overshadowed by the succulent Dudleya above it.

While this White Sage 50 feet away sent up flower stalks that towered over the garden.

All this is part of working with living entities. They will surprise you.  They may allow the plan to be executed, or they may subvert the plan. They may take things in an entirely different direction.   They may demand your care at certain times of the year.   They may glory for a few weeks or months, then fade away.  Living things do that.  They are far more interesting than a yard full of furniture.
Bush Anemone (Carpenteria californica) can be an awkward and scruffy evergreen shrub, so best not to put it in the front of the yard.  But oh, when it blooms... 

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Parking Strip Makeovers

What do you call that strip of ground between the sidewalk and the street?   "Parkway" is the official title in the western U.S., though that could mean a street instead. Also, verge (the British designation), boulevard, city grass, hellstrip, berm, planting strip, sidewalk buffer, besidewalk, tree belt, skirt, and more“Hellstrip” seems a fitting term when the diligent gardener is trying to keep it presentable.  I’ll call it “parking strip” because Californians seem to understand that term best.
Of the few native parking strips I've seen, a favorite is Dori's in Huntington Beach.  The feathery grass is Purple Three-Awn (Aristida purpurea), a somewhat aggressive reseeder.  You've been warned.  The front ground cover is a creeping native Sage.  Lovely, and unpredictable in its growth habits.
Parking strips can be big water wasters.  They are surrounded by hot hardscape and are almost impossible to water without runoff.  Many folks in Southern California are letting the grass in their parking strips die, and replacing it with low water landscaping.
All the parking strips in my neighborhood are planted and maintained by the homeowners' association.  They seldom venture beyond grass. Here is one exception that has proven durable, using Daylilies (right) and Purple Fountain Grass (left).  (Never plant regular Fountain Grass– it seeds freely and destroys native habitats.)

I hope folks are planning carefully, because plenty of the parking strip "afters" I've seen are uglier than the "before."  See the post "Turf Terminators Beware" for some important cautions.  This is a tough location for any plant.  Weed suppression is key.  Those of you whose lawns contains Bermuda or St. Augustine grasses will want to do your homework.  Your grass can re-sprout from roots up to six feet deep. Ron Vanderhoff at Rogers Gardens tells you how.
Dymondia is a trending lawn replacement.  While it can be hardy, it does not play well with others.  Shown here smothering native Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens.)   And it is watered the same amount as the remaining (bright green) Bermuda Grass section of this Costa Mesa parking strip: once a week after getting established.
Many of the strips I see require as much or MORE water than grass to look good (including plants on "water wise" websites !?!)  Do your homework– stay tuned for links to online water-use info.
A few natives, like buckwheats and this stunning but too-big-for-the-space Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa, from the 2015 San Diego CNPS garden tour), would be happy with no summer water at all.  
Parking strips exist to collect snow when clearing the street and sidewalk.  So why do we even have them in SoCal?  Planners were on autopilot, or consciously copying a style that is pointless and out of place in this land of small lots and limited water.  I suppose if they give it any thought, planners want them to add artistry to our yards.  So...why not go all the way?
If I had a parking strip I'd want it to have some artsy hardscape like this. (Not my photo; I don't have a proper attribution since it was forwarded to me.)
Your parking strip may be subject to a variety of city or county regulations as to what size and type of plants and/or hardscape you can use.  L.A.’s regulations are the most restrictive.
Tall plants in a parking strip could be a strategy to prevent neighbors from parking in front of your house.  But not in L.A.
Whatever regulations you face, common sense suggests choosing rugged plants that can withstand neglect, as well as the application of the occasional foot or car door.  Common courtesy requires you avoid overgrown plants, thorns, slippery rocks, and variations in ground level.
I love any Dudleya, but this one in a parking strip is too likely to be crushed underfoot.  And the ersatz streambed is a trip hazard.  From the 2015 San Diego CNPS garden tour.
I prefer alternating permeable hardscape (rocks, pebbles, slate or pavers) and patches of green, featuring tough ground covers, dwarf bushes, and succulents, native or not.
Not native, but pleasant and practical.
I don't mind a little whimsey either.
Here are links to some other parking strip resources. (I have passed on a few whose plant lists I don't recommend!)

An article from the L.A. Times: "Don't Make These Mistakes When Transforming Your Water-Wasting Parkway"

Thanks to my friend Lynne for getting me going on this topic.
Lynne gave me a tour of her neighborhood parking strips (I spared you the ugly ones). This is a shady spot in her gardens.
Here is her front garden. She dialed it down, and it still looks lush.   I can't wait to see her parking strip makeover.  

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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dial it Down

Are you one of possibly 1.8 million Southern Californians considering redoing your yard with low-water landscaping?  If so, do your homework!  Begin with this much-cited article on pitfalls to avoid.  
No gravel or cactus in this low-water native garden!
And then take your time.  A quality low water garden is an undertaking to install, and usually takes some real attention the first year or two while it's getting established.  Better to study up and wait till next year than to do it badly this year.  So will it be another year of watering the lawn three times a week (or more) in SoCal?  Or you could do (and invite your friends and neighbors to do) something real simple, today, to reduce water use?
This cheery evergreen ground cover used to be lawn.  Dwarf Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis 'Pigeon Point.' )  My association planted the same plant.  Then killed it (apparently by overwatering.)
Watering three times a week.  (Except our association lawn, which is watered six times a week.)  This is so weird to me.  I have lived in Minnesota and in Connecticut.  It did not rain three times a week in those places.  Often once a week, sometimes not.  Nobody watered their lawn.  It got a bit brown in the middle of the summer.  No big deal.  Minnesota's summer climate is not so different from coastal California-- a bit more humid, not much, warmer at night, no dew (which does hydrate plants.)
This section of the garden is basically never watered.
So here's an idea.  Dial it down.  Wean your lawn down to being watered twice a week, or even every four or five days, and see how it goes.  If it gets a few brown spots, who has a right to complain?  To help the lawn cope with less water, dial down the fertilizer.  Then you get to dial down the mowing too! The technical aspects of how long to run each zone depend on your setup– but in general reduce number of watering days before reducing time of watering, unless you're obviously getting runoff.  And while night watering conserves water, it seems wise to water at a time you will notice if you are getting excess runoff or a sprinkler has broken! (Note for those who engage paid gardeners: expect your gardener will reset the sprinklers back to their previous settings. Repeatedly.)
Most native wildflowers want to be summer dormant.  They can sometimes be coaxed to bloom longer with copious water, only to drop dead before the next year.  Even this relatively late-blooming Monardella antonina (photographed at the end of June) is now dormant.
Are you watering your shrubs and roses as frequently as your lawn? Most established foundation plants can get by with (and many prefer) less frequent water than lawns.  I dialed down my non-native garden section to once every four days through these hot summers.  The Pomegranate loved less water; the Gardenias were a little out of sorts.  The Roses have less disease.  And I see far fewer snails!
Variegated Mockorange, Pittosporum tobira, back left, comes in dwarf and tall sizes, and takes pruning very well.  Also takes full sun, deep shade, swamps, little water... pretty much impossible to kill.  Just prune this non-native staple nicely please.
Austin Brown, of Coastkeeper Garden, notes that one of my favorite foundation non-natives, variegated Mockorange (Pittosporum tobira) does just fine with once-a-week watering and no fertilizer.  In conditions of low water and basically no fertilizer it seldom needs trimming.  It could be a staple in a once-a-week watered garden complete with Australian and Mediterranean reliables, and native beauties like Coffeeberry, Howard McMinn Manzanita, and Catalina Perfume.  Did you know established Bird of Paradise requires almost no summer water?  (Apparently the distinguished gardeners who compiled WUCOLS didn't.)
This two-year-old Catalina Perfume (Ribes vibernifolium) from the San Diego CNPS Garden Tour needs a haircut but fills a shady spot with enthusiasm.
The typical gardening approach in coastal Southern California has been: when in doubt, overwater.  This has the advantage of convenience, but is so, so wasteful.  Uneven sprinklers are set to run profusely to cover dry spots, the excess running into streets or drains.  They are seldom adjusted for even coverage, or, God forbid, allowed a dry spot or two.  Plants that die of overwater die quickly and are replaced with swamp-tolerant varieties.  This approach has been preferred to allowing a little natural summer browning, or replacing a few droopy water hogs with lower-water plants.  Further, overfertilizing will kill plants unless you flush most of the fertilizer away.  This is how Newport Beach, with its modest-size yards, uses water at the profligate rate of distant inland town with multi-acre properties, and creates polluting runoff to boot.
Happy Pomegranate:  In 15 years we never got more than a handful of pithy fruits from this little tree.  After I dialed my sprinklers down, it went nuts! 
Dialing it down is part of a landscaping approach and aesthetic that is humane, ecological, and ethical.  Southern California has been known for a surface "perfection" in its landscaping, that ignores hidden ugliness (fast plant growth, brilliant greens, no tolerance of dormancy or pests or disease...at the cost of draining lakes and aquifers, creating voluminous waste, runoff of fertilizer and pesticide into watersheds, and poisoning and starvation of wildlife.)  I admit I love the look, but I can see it at Disneyland if I like.  
What is acceptable?  Take spittle bugs.  They are harmless, and they love my California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica).  Their offerings can be hosed off, but often come back the next day.  So I have learned to accept their little white decorations.  I do hope some clever bird can make dinner out of them.
Consider making your garden more real and more beautiful below the surface.  Dialing it down allows the imperfection of a brown spot and a nibbled leaf, by allowing natural seasonal dormancy, natural slow growth, natural wildlife use (i.e. eating, digging...), a root-rot-free soil agreeable to natives, and less impact on water sources and waste streams.  We can accept imperfection.  (I admit the rabbit hole by my kitchen window was hard to accept!)  We can share our discoveries: which plants languish and which prosper, and then plant more of the latter. (The rabbits are gone now– probably fed a neighborhood bobcat, and they only mowed down the 'Paprika' Yarrow.)
Native gardeners accept that little blooms in September.  So we fuss over a lone bloom.  Here is California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum), which is just flowering in my yard. 
I finish with this reflection from a commercial organic fruit grower who has dialed it down.
So, what's the natural use of water?  If these peaches are naturally small, I don't need to water them as much. Let me just grow them naturally.  I realized, I don't think these peaches want to be big.  What's the matter with that?  That's my breakthrough: Oh, my god, I may have been over-watering all these years.  Why?  Because we had access [to water].  It was cheap.  It was supposedly free.  And it's not now.  (David Matsumoto, organic fruit grower, LA Times 6/4/2015)

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