Friday, November 27, 2015

Hack and Slash

It's pruning time in the coastal native garden. After summer/fall dormancy, it's time to prepare for a flush of winter growth.  In other areas of my life I strive for calm gentleness, but I relish wading into the thickets for some satisfying hacking and slashing.  In a measured way, for a cause.  I appreciate a well-pruned garden.

This Bush Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii, adaptable non-CA southwest native) is off the schedule.  It got hacked to the ground in August, and provides needed November color. Bush Marigold needs regular hard pruning or it gets leggy and ugly.
I have had my rant about bad pruning (or lack thereof) in a previous post.  I like to snip on a regular basis, but I was away from the garden for nine weeks, so could not snip.  Not much grew in the hot early fall anyway: most of the plants were dormant or near.
Toyon, Coyote Bush and Bay Laurel screen the kitchen nook from the street. (Yes! Took almost three years.)  They need no pruning now, not having been overwatered in summer. (Photo from kitchen.)
In the backyard where the garden has received only the odd rain and a few brief brief beer waterings since May, pruning is little work.  First, deadhead the sages.  Their dried flower stalks are austerely beautiful to the lover of natives, if not to the HOA vigilantes.  But these stalks are weathered and grey by fall, and the bushes need to be trimmed back to allow new growth to be shapely and well supported.  For White Sage this can look pretty extreme: eight-foot flower stalks lopped almost to the ground; all that remain are little florets of silver leaves at the base of the former tower.
This pruned White Sage looks scraggly.  It will fill in.
A few judicious snips for the Manzanitas: 'Howard McMinn' can take random chopping but a 'Paradise' Manzanita dropped dead last winter after I trimmed a wayward stem. For these delicate fellows, I am careful to sanitize my clippers by dipping them in a jar of rubbing alcohol.  I also apologize, and pray.  Can't hurt, right?  Yes, I planted things too close. And I want them to be shapely.  Don't prune (also delicate) California Lilacs (Ceanothus) now; you'll lose blooms.
'Paradise' Manzanita is worth fussing over. These flower-like leaf rosettes will show up after the winter rains.
The dwarf Coyote Bush ('Pigeon Point') needs trimming about twice a year despite the lack of water; I planted these bulletproof pools of green more densely than needed.  But a pair of shears makes quick work.  Likewise the non-native variegated Mockorange (Pittosporum tobira), a great low-water background plant.  Lemonadeberry gets a light clipping.  Southwest native Bush Marigolds got coppiced (trimmed down to a few inches from the ground) in summer and are ready to bloom now.  I've coppiced one twice a year for almost twenty years.
The overgrown section.
In front, I deadhead the buckwheats, trim the coyote, and get ready for the Great Hacking.  Part of the front garden gets considerable overspray, seepage, and probably underground flow, from the overwatered Association lawn just across the sidewalk.  California Sagebrush, Southwest native Baby Sage (Salvia microphylla) and Lilac Verbena grow like crazy, and have to be cut way back at least semiannually or they'd block the windows.  For this I pull out the power hedge cutter.  Looks naked, but within a month it will appear dignified.
After the hedge trimmers.
I find it much easier to prune a rampant grower than to try to revive an invalid plant.  Many plants have no middle ground.  Coyote, Sagebrush, Coffeeberry, and Lilac Verbena can be pruned to your heart's content, and at almost any time of year.  Frequent need for trimming suggests you are overwatering... How much pruning will I do in the spring?  It depends on how much rain we get.  Stay tuned.

Want to know about pruning individual plants?  Here are some guides.

From Las Pilitas:  Short version: trim everything in late summer, with a few exceptions.

Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens by Bart O'Brien, Betsey Landis, and Ellen Mackey is the most detailed guide. This book is out of print, and very pricey on Amazon, but can still be found at some gardens and bookstores.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This is a garden (San Joachin Wildlife Sanctuary)

If you want to take out-of-town visitors on a tame yet spectacular wildlife walk, bring them to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) in Irvine.
SJWS contrast: verdant native plant and bird life set against artificial waterways and high rises.
Wide, level trails are accessible to old, young, even wheelchairs, and the Sea and Sage Audubon House and comfy restrooms make SJWS inviting for less-than-outdoorsy folks.  SJWS is a spectacular birding area, as well as an award-winning water purifier for the urban runoff from San Diego Creek.  It is also an easy place to see native plants in a nearly wild setting.
While Coastal Sage Scrub endures with no nearby water source, it seems to love to be within sipping distance of ponds.  This is Chapparal Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus).
Ornamental native gardens surround some of the buildings.  The rest of the natives look wild.  But make no mistake: SJWS is not wild.  It is a garden.  Five full time gardeners maintain the plant life here.  Non-native (i.e. weed) removal is a never-ending job.  You will see fewer weeds at SJWS than in any truly wild area in the county (sadly.)
Mule Fat, a relative of my favorite Coyote Plant, in bloom.
The dominant plant at SJWS seems to be Mule Fat (Baccharis salicifolia.)  Its favorite habitat, the edge of a pond, is in great abundance here.  Mule Fat is a great wildlife plant, feeding everything from insects to deer.  Water-loving and rather shaggy, it is not first choice on my garden list. Its curious name apparently arose when Spaniards' mules who ate it got bloated.
A silvery Coastal Sage Scrub border: Elderberry in the background, blooming Bladderpod, and California Sagebrush up front. The density and verticality say "garden, not wild."
Aside from riparian (waterside) plants, Coastal Sage Scrub is the dominant habitat at SJWS.  Stands of wild roses (Rosa californica) are a particular delight.
Roses don't grow this thick and happy in the wild.  Enjoy!
SJWS is part of a "mitigation project" by the Irvine Company.  In my best understanding, the legal term "mitigation" means restoring an area to a passable resemblance of wild habitat in compensation for destroying a comparably-sized existing wild habitat by commercial development (i.e. subdivisions.)  This project cost over 12 million dollars, was a wonder of intergroup cooperation and, I suspect, has kept some wildlife biologists and native plant nurseries solvent.  They know what they're doing, or else they keep redoing it till it works.  One wonders what could happen if the big bucks were a little more evenly distributed among native restoration efforts.
The Sea and Sage Audubon House contains friendly staff, a great bookstore, news of classes and events, and a photo guide to native plants in the SJWS.
The Sea and Sage Audubon Society, quartered in the SJWS, offers a visitor center and variety of nature programs for children and adults.  Check here for more information, including classes and schedules.

Are you curious about native area restoration?  Check out this guide from Las Pilitas Nursery.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coastkeeper: A Demonstration Garden, and an Enthusiastic Gardener

I took advantage of some cool weather way back in early July to visit the Coastkeeper Garden at Santiago Canyon College in the Orange foothills.  To my delight, garden director Austin Brown and his dog Nala were in residence, as they often are.
Nala greets vistors to the Coastkeeper Garden.
Coastkeeper Garden showcases different styles of low-water, ecologically sound gardens. It features California natives and desert and Mediterranean-climate favorites.  The five different areas are each designed and hardscaped like a classy suburban yard, all surrounded by a border of less manicured (mostly native) garden.  I focus on the native plants, of course.
This mixed border features Deergrass, a favorite of Austin's, and Sticky Monkeyflower, one of our bloomingest natives.
The Garden had an ambitious start in 2008.  The Great Recession set back development considerably.  Austin got the call in 2010 to turn it around, and discovered a 2.5 acre plot of six-foot-tall weeds.
Now a tour of the garden shows pleasing combinations of natives and low-water ornamentals.  A non-native favorite of mine, variegated Mockorange (Pittosporum tobira, the light colored plant), grows happily alongside Coffeeberry (Frangula californica, far right) and Catalina Perfume (Ribes viburnifolium top and near right), all with once-a-week watering.
Austin is the kind of gardener you want to consult when planning your low water garden. He was an unlikely candidate to become a low-water gardening expert: in 2010 he was all about ocean sports and hadn't a clue about gardening.  But he was game to try, and after five years of hard work and experimentation he has made Coastkeeper Garden shine.  He has also gained some knowledge  through plant death.  He is straight up about explaining what worked and what didn't, and he has been both flexible and determined about finding ecological ways to craft gorgeous gardens.  
A microspray emitter– preferable to drip irrigation for most natives.
Although the Garden was initially designed with all drip irrigation, this has not held up well.  Austin prefers microspray emitters on drip hose (which distribute the water more evenly, and you can tell if they are not working) or better yet, rotator sprinkler heads on 12-inch risers.  (Each emitter covers a very small area, and can clog easily.)  Nobody told him that natives don't like summer water; about the time he figured that out,  runoff from the adjacent over-irrigated soccer field was finishing off the last of his Flannelbushes. He now has a section of mixed Buckwheats that are not watered at all, because they were on the same sprinkler zone as plants needing significant summer water: design fail!  Once again, sprinkler capping saves the natives.
Look Ma, no water! A hillside of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) with St Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum, past its peak) in back. 
The purpose of the Coastkeeper Garden is to empower people to create ecologically sound gardens in their own yards.  To this end, Austin loves giving tours and answering questions about the garden.  The organization provides a contact number to aid anyone wishing to convert to a low-water landscape. I'm still waiting to hear back; talking with Austin is the way to go.
Austin explaining "How to Kill Your Lawn." (From Coastkeeper's Facebook page)
In addition to sparing water, the Coastkeeper Garden uses no pesticides and little or no fertilizer, and has abundant strategies for collecting rainwater and allowing it to percolate into the earth. These practices reduce urban runoff that pollutes bays and beaches.  It's all connected!
Deergrass is Austin's favorite lawn substitute.  Large swaths of it decorate the garden, providing a wild meadow vibe.  Nala loves to roll in Deergrass, which doesn't hurt it at all.  Austin has horror stories about some of the other lawn substitutes routinely recommended by "low water gardening experts."
Coastkeeper Garden is inland enough to get serious heat in the summer, and the occasional frost as well.  Austin gave up on coastal staples like Seaside Daisy and native Artemisias.  Instead, Buckwheats and Deergrass predominate.  As trees grow, the garden will evolve. Austin has expansion plans too.
Professional signage and hardscape help make the Garden a class act.  But Austin's dedication is the most important factor.
The most delightful part of the Garden is the Natural Play Garden.  Natives there are allowed to come and go as they please, not an arrangement that your neighbors would thank you for reproducing in your front yard.  Free Range Kids (well almost– the area is fenced in) can get dirty and modify the landscape, a no-no in most of suburbia.  Boulders and logs to clamber over and under, brush to bushwhack, sticks and stones to glean and pile... This review will give you more details. If you don't have kids to take with you to Coastkeeper, borrow some!
Nala is waiting for us to play.
The Garden hosts classes every first Saturday and family events every third Saturday.  Check the website or call for details.  If you are contemplating creating a low water garden in Southern California, Coastkeeper Garden is worth a trip.  If you visit between 8 and 4, Tuesday through Saturday, you can likely quiz Austin in person about his gardening strategies, and find Nala frisking in the Deergrass.
Nala approves of Deergrass.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Suburban Redwoods

Coast Redwoods make the San Francisco Bay Area landscape unique.  If you have never seen them in the wild, check out preserves like Muir Woods National Monument or Big Basin State Park.  But you need not find a preserve to enjoy lacy arching branches reaching to the heavens.  Just look up.  Way up.  Redwoods decorate highways, shopping centers, and suburban yards all over the Bay Area.
These Redwoods at UC Berkeley are not taller than the Campanile, but they're tall.
Redwoods (not very old!) adorn a parking lot in Los Gatos.
Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest trees on earth, so scale is an issue in suburban plantings. Very upright, Redwoods are a great choice for screening parking lots and high rises.  My dad insisted on planting them in our suburban front yard, a sketchier choice.
Forty-five year old redwoods in front of the Sunnyvale house where I grew up.  For perspective: a 2400 square foot house with 2.5 car garage is hiding behind those two giants. That's one way to handle a western exposure.
Their natural range extends along the fog belt of the west coast from Oregon to a few canyons in Big Sur.  While they thrive in the north coastal rain forest, they are also adept at harvesting moisture from fog in areas with low rainfall.  With some supplemental water, they can survive in coastal Southern California (though they don't like salt.) Given their scale, I won't be planting any in my yard.   They might do well in low spots in our neighborhood common area though.  Wouldn't that be nice?
Redwoods, ocean, and fog can make driving in the Santa Cruz Mountains a visionary experience. (From
Driving in the Santa Cruz mountains only miles from Silicon Valley, the Redwood canopy draped in fog creates a fairyland forest, where it seems your car could be sucked into an alternate reality.
Expect the elves to appear any moment. (From total
In Southern California, you will have to find small groves in gardens like the Golden West College native garden and my favorite southern grove at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.  RSABG has named cultivars showing different growth habits– all gorgeous.  But Bay Area Redwoods around every bend say "home" to me.
Redwoods lining Highway 280 in San Jose.  Receiving no special care, they are uneven but have hung on for decades.
Look up!  (From

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