Sunday, October 29, 2017


I’m home, so now I can fuss over my native garden.  Yippee! 
Diligent gardeners “dead-head” roses and other repeat-flowering ornamentals— removing spent flowers before plants use energy setting seed instead of making more flowers, and making the garden look more manicured.  I do deadhead, but usually only the empty seedpods that have already fed the birds.  
Woe to my poor gardener friend who promptly deadheaded his Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) in May, leaving a sparse, homely bush for six months instead of these cool flying saucers…

In early fall I “dead-foot” some of my shrubby native plants.  I just made up that term, “dead-foot.”  Maybe you prefer “pedicure.”  I simply run a gloved hand down the stems to remove dead and dried leaves that give the bush in question a shaggy appearance.  This is an approved, though unnamed, technique in the wonderful Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens by Bart O'Brien, Betsey Landis, and Ellen Mackey, regretfully out of print.

Plants from sage scrub and chaparral habitats can lose most or all of their leaves each summer.  Watering them to try to keep them in full leaf can lead to untimely death due to root rot.  Repeat after me: no summer soaking. Ever.  Sparingly watered, stress-deciduous native shrubs are no more sickly than Eastern deciduous plants that lose their leaves in cold weather.  But we non-natives don’t expect to see dead leaves in August; we think the gardener has killed the poor dears.  And they can look, well, motley.  Wind and winter rains may eventually knock off most of these leaves, but I am not willing to wait.   

California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is amusingly stress-deciduous.  No water and full sun for a month or two and it looks dead. Sprinkle it just a bit, and a week later it's covered with fine new leaves.  It can be cut back hard occasionally, or left shaggy.  But since I can’t resist putting it in the front of the garden, I find dead-footing particularly effective for the species and ‘Montara’ cultivar.   The ground-hugging ‘Canyon Grey’ cultivar looks quite ropy when dead-footed, and should just be cut hard every couple of years. A little water and Sagebrush grows back, usually even from a very hard cutting.
The rare Island Sagebrush, Artemisia nesiotica, has long lacy foliage on twisted stems that want to be revealed by dead-footing. It's a personal favorite.

While stunning in spring bloom, California anemone (Carpenteria californica) insists on looking unkempt the rest of the year by hanging tightly onto old brown leaves.  Force is required to part those unsightly leaves from their stem!  Or just whack off the whole stem. It will grow back soon enough.
This Catalina silverlace has been in a pot for four years and needs an occasional dead-footing.

The rare and elegant Catalina Silverlace (Constancea nevinii), after a bout of drought, can look truly hideous, with fat mats of dried rosettes evoking the thick cobwebs of a horror movie.  Wait till they’re good and dry, then they will strip off to present an elegant stem from which the growing tip can bush out again.

Dead-footing doesn’t work well on most California Buckwheats.  Their stems look as motley as their dead leaves, only more bare and spindly. The exception is St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum.)  Its sparse stems look smooth and elegant when stripped of dried leaves.
I keep my St. Catherine's Lace in a pot so it doesn't take over my whole pocket garden.  And I dead-foot it of course.

Coyote bush (the tall species, not the stubby dwarf cultivars) can be dead-footed, and totally bare branches can be removed.  Do this cautiously, though; you may go from a well-filled out bush to something pretty spare or asymmetric.  Like Sagebrush, Coyotes can be trimmed almost to the ground, and they will usually regenerate, sometimes a better option.  Coyote is an opportunistic filler-in of bare spots in the wild and for the gardener; I planted one to quickly screen the kitchen window from the house. Too deep in shade, it may be ready to yield its place to a Coffeeberry.

Dead-footing is part of the pruning regimen of a native garden that is more manicured rather than wild.  Early fall is the time for pruning most natives.  Sterilize your shears: I prefer using rubbing alcohol; it's easier on clothes than bleach.  Consider the effect before embarking on wholesale fall pruning of a native garden.  (And avoid pruning bushes that want to display blooms or berries in winter-- toyon, ceanothus, manzanita.)  You want to prune back bushes and perennials that will otherwise overgrow paths and other plants in their winter-to-spring growing season.  But removing every dead stem or leaf may leave your garden unnaturally bare; proceed cautiously.  Whatever you do, don't invite your garden-variety gardener to prune.  He will butcher your natives, trimming them bare up to three feet so the nonexistent sprinklers can work well. Or pull them up altogether, thinking stress-deciduous means dead.  If you know of a gardener for hire who trims natives right, regard that person as a living treasure.  While I'm able, I'd rather fuss over my natives myself.

Gotta go deadhead the sage now!  

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Plants for Summer Hummers

Thanks to Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica), hummingbirds are a daily delight in my California native garden.  They entertain me outside my kitchen window during breakfast.  Alas, I have not managed to photograph them, just the Fairy Duster.  Those little suckers are fast!

While hummingbirds will visit almost any blooming native plant, they prefer red flowers like the Fairy Duster. 

Summer and early fall are the dormant time for most California natives, but Baja Fairy Duster, a native of central to southern Baja, blooms almost all year round without supplemental water.  It is a wonderful addition to a dryer spot in a traditional garden, as it will tolerate a little summer water better than many natives.  It's hard to kill.  So what are you waiting for?  Plant one!
After many trimmings, my Fairy Duster is as wide as it is tall.
Baja Fairy Duster has lacy grey-green leaves, like mimosa.  It can be easily trimmed and trained to a more dense and round hedge. Yours will probably come from the nursery with three upright stems and nothing else. Lop those long vertical stems short, repeatedly if necessary, till you convince it not to shoot for the sky.  No special precautions required.  It would like at least a half day of full sun.
For small gardens, the upright shape is handy, but can look gawky.

Its relative Calliandra eriophylla is found north to San Diego.  Eriophylla has abundant but pale pink flowers, a shorter bloom season, and, sorry to say, just doesn't make the same statement.

Another summer/fall-flowering hummingbird treat is California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum).  This little gem (not a true fuchsia) grows all over California. It presents a variety of sizes and shapes (formerly listed as several different species), but virtually all have the long-necked red flower hummers prefer.
California Fuchsia was in full bloom at UC Santa Cruz Botanic Garden at the end of September.  

These are unpredictable in their growing habit; their silver foliage is often sparse, and not evergreen.  So, not a centerpiece.  I have taken to planting them among evergreen natives.  Their foliage is almost invisible, but even a few blooms peeking out make a vivid impression. And if they fail to thrive, they don't leave a hole. For a few months in summer or early fall, their accent catches the eye in the grey-green of a summer-dormant native garden.
California Fuchsia (a tall Epilobium 'Catalina', or a hybrid thereof) grows through California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) in my front yard.

Hummingbirds also love Lobelia laxiflora, a Mexico/Arizona native compatible with the California native summer-dry garden.  This Lobelia is another good transition plant for the low-water garden in progress, as it tolerates moderate water or zero summer water.  Mine received no supplemental water this year, no problem (though fewer blooms).  Its floppy habit fills in under a Lemonadeberry.
Thanks to Sandrine Biziaux Scherson for catching this little hummer drinking up the Lobelia nectar,  head covered with pollen. 

You can have hummers in your garden all summer, without the hassle or nutritional issues of hummingbird feeders, with the crowd-pleasing Baja Fairy Duster.  The more finicky California Fuchsia and the indestructible Lobelia laxiflora could round out your collection, and a tree(toyon in my case) for high perches will allow very territorial hummers to guard their ruby treasures.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Monkeyflower Puzzles

Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurianticus)  and its hybrids/variants (formerly Diplacus) are widespread bloomers through California. That odd name always charmed me as a budding teen naturalist, as did the cheerful little orange flowers I saw peeking out of the brush on Montebello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Hills.
Does the flower look like a monkey face?  That's what I was told.  This is the color of my childhood Sticky Monkey Flowers.

Sticky Monkey Flowers are abundant in Crystal Cove a few miles from my house too.  They are one of our longer-blooming perennials.  You will see them in sun and shade, hilltop and streamside, from Baja to Oregon.
Enthusiastic Monkey Flower bush on a high plain in Crystal Cove State Park.  Tolerating a wide range of soils and sunlight, they are also found intergrowing with the usual Coastal Sage Scrub suspects in shadier spots, and blooming at various times.
The leaves really are sticky, as you'll experience if you run your finger across the underside.  Water-loving Scarlet Monkeyflowers and Seep (yellow) Monkey Flowers have similar shaped flowers, but wider leaves that are not sticky.  In my garden, perennial Sticky Monkey Flowers have put on a good show for a season, then often expired, despite being perennials in theory.
This San Diego area Monkey Flower from Moosa Creek Nursery looks like the pale orange sherbet blooms of Monkey Flowers of my childhood.  I planted it in a clayish dry spot among the roses, where it bloomed well, but died in the fall.
What are they missing that would help them survive?  That is puzzle number one.  I suspect they need a finicky balance of enough water to establish a good root system but not too much to promote rot.  (Do you know the secret to long-lived garden Monkey Flowers?  Feel free to enlighten me in the comment section.) Until I figure out how to keep them longer, I'm willing to replant them each year.
Monkey Flowers that do survive through the fall get long in the tooth.  I am trying the strategy of tucking Monkey Flowers under other plants, as they are often found in the wild. This 'Jelly Bean Orange' bloomed well with only morning sun and some of that filtered. And survived at least one summer and fall! The other plant here is California Fuchsia, which blooms later in the summer.
The only color Monkey Flowers I ever saw in the Santa Cruz Hills were a pale sherbet orange color.  Here in Orange County they vary from that color to brick red and everything in between.  On the Orange Coast, red flowers tend to be found at the tops of ridges, light orange in shady canyons... but there are frequent exceptions.  In San Diego County, according to this source, the reds are close to the coast and the yellows inland.
Sometimes red and orange are found on the same plant! Usually if I see different shades of Monkey Flowers growing together I can make out the separate plants.  This plant at Crystal Cove State Park clearly had blooms that changed color as they got older (the dark orange blooms are further down but on the same stem as the pale blooms).
How many species of Monkey Flowers are there?  That is puzzle number two.  Sticky Monkey Flower is one of those plants that keeps getting its Latin name changed.  Our local experts (Fred Roberts and Robert Allen, who published the wonderful Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains) call the red ones 'puniceus' and the yellow ones 'auranticus' and claim they hybridize freely.  Personally, I suspect they are as different as red and yellow tomatoes.
Here is the reddest Monkey Flower I've found in the wild, overlooking Lake Elsinore in the Santa Ana Mountains. (With thanks to an OCCNPS field trip led by Ron Vanderhoff for leading me to them.)
Jepson Herbarium, the authority in these matters, ducks the issue by naming puniceus a variation of auranticus or alternatively a species.  Huh?  A DNA study claims... well, that they really are different populations at least, that have intermixed.  A study of pollinators suggests hummingbirds prefer red and hawk moths prefer yellow, but not by a lot. (Hawk moths are moths that act like hummingbirds!)
Some Monkey Flowers are in-between shades of orange that you could call muddy.  Not 'Jelly Bean Lemon'!
Then there are the plethora of hybrids or cultivars for sale.  Hybrids of what, when the species identities are not really clear?  The term comes from the time when there were eight species, since downgraded to subspecies or populations (depending on who you talk to.) Anyway, there are lots of named varieties to choose from; read more at San Marcos Growers.  I have not found reliable information on different growing requirements; I use them all interchangeably.  Despite the puzzles, Monkey Flowers are beautiful additions to the native garden.
While I don't usually like the white Monkey Flowers, I fell for these beauties (from the far north of California) at Tilden Park's native garden
Be sure to disclose all your secrets for getting Sticky Monkey Flowers to survive the summer and fall in the comments section...  But plant them even as annuals!

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

No Place Like Home

My California native garden is almost four years old.  For the past two years, Scott and I have lived in Arlington Virginia, a few miles outside of Washington D.C., 80% of the time.  My garden has been patiently waiting for my return... thriving, for the most part, though it has a few bare spots.  
The effect I wanted: of coastal sage scrub and chaparral. Smells so good!

Occasional pruning is required, at least if I want to see out of my windows.  The garden has gone up to six or eight weeks at a time with no water.  I looked into automated watering, but decided to stick with an occasional application of Israeli mini-sprinklers to supplement the rainy season (unnecessary this year!) and Beer Watering in the summer and fall.  
Darwinian gardening.  The manzanitas, 'Howard McMinn' (left) and 'Lester Rowntree' (right) are duking it out in front of our bedroom,  while the part-wild hybrid grape 'Roger's Red' threatens to cover all.

The front required a fair amount of weeding in this very wet spring.  Students were hired for one bout.  I could have mulched.  The backyard resists most weeds, while still managing to germinate abundant almost-native Suncups (Calylophus hartwegii, below.)  I am guessing overspray from the overwatered Association lawn germinates the weed seeds.
Backyard: sage rules!  Two different Cleveland sage cultivars at left add their hummingbird-pleasing purple balls, while white sage sends ten-foot flower stalks up and around the drought-dwarfed citrus.

Mixing fruits and sages in the backyard was not a great success.  White sage goes nuts with even a little extra water.  Pineapple guava and Satsuma mandarin are barely hanging on, though Meyer lemon is doing OK.  
Toyon doing its job, hiding utility doors and screening the kitchen from the street.  Dwarf coyote bush 'Pozo Surf' takes to trimming in a ball shape just fine.  The air conditioner is new.  Shall we build a screen for it?

Some of the trees and tall shrubs are starting to show their stuff.  The successes:  Lemonade berry (finally hiding the compost bin), Toyon, and California Bay Laurel.   My Catalina Ironwood just stays a shrub.  And a few bare walls remain. 
In addition to being a yummy dark green, California Bay Laurel (behind the birdbath) smells amazing.  Don't put more than half a leaf into your soup or it's overpowering.

Out our kitchen window we are treated to hummingbirds on the Baja Fairy Duster, as well as a screen of lacy shades of green, hiding our pajamas from street view.  A few untimely and mysterious deaths  have left bare spots, including the death of a rather widespread dwarf sage in the front of the mound above.  The culprit may be fungus, but who knows. 
A hodgepodge of natives, borrowing some water from the lawn, creates a lush border.

Tomaz, the next door neighbor who got me started with natives, moved to New Jersey.  My new neighbor Seema is still adjusting to natives, but does like this border between our yards.  We will have fun together filling the holes in our yards this fall.  Native plant nursery, here we come!
I don't have a lot of blooms right now, but pink buckwheat is a nice accent.

I have grown to appreciate Virginia forests and wildflowers during my sojourn there.  After all, I've been living across the street from a Nature Conservancy garden.  But when it comes to gardens, there's no place like home.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Contemplating a Native Garden?

**Note: This is my first blog post in... um... a long time.  The garden is doing fine, and I will soon be moving back to California.  More to come...
Not my garden... goldfields in the UCI preserve.
It rained this year!  But drought will come again.  If you are thinking about going native, now is a good time to plan, and to learn about the unique requirements and habits of California native plants.  You have missed the low-water planting season, so you have time (till October...) to catch your breath and learn.  You might want to visit native gardens in the summer to see how they hold up during summer dormancy.  Some California natives are evergreen, some disappear in the dry season, and some get a bit scruffy.  Best to know in advance what you can put up with. 

Natives are different.  They don’t want soil amendments; in fact most will happily grow on a mound of decomposed granite.  They don’t want fertilizer.  They never need pesticides.  They don’t want watering more than once or twice a month, but they do want deep watering.  Most of all, THEY DON’T WANT SUMMER WATER.  Natives evolved in a climate where it almost never rains six months of the year, and they have no protection from root rot in warm damp soil.  If you must water in summer, just hose off the foliage every week or two.  Planting natives is different too.  And no practical native ‘lawn’ exists; we have to think outside that lawn box to avoid not only the water use, but the pesticide and fertilizer runoff that pollutes our bays and oceans.  (lush weed-free lawns are one of our biggest sources of water waste and pollution!)

My garden, back in the drought years, at the end of summer.  With just a little beer watering!
Buyer Beware. Know what you are planting and what it requires to thrive.  Few staff of regular nurseries understand how to grow natives.  Some even think ‘native’ is the same as ‘low water.’  Turf Terminators don’t have a clue.  Sadly, neither do most commercial landscapers or gardeners.  If you are shelling out for professional help (design or upkeep), make sure you see a 3-5 year old native garden that person has created and/or maintained.

Get to know the natives.  Las Pilitas Nursery’s extensive website will tell you more about these eco-friendy plants, as will my blog,  Orange County residents can visit Tree of Life Nursery, or the friendly volunteers at Golden West College’s Native Garden. Here are some of my favorite natives for coastal Southern California.
Hedges and Shrubs: Coffeeberry, Manzanita Howard McMinn, Ceanothus ‘Concha’.
Perennials: (all great for butterflies and hummingbirds!) Cleveland Sage, Baja Fairy Duster, Island Bush Snapdragon, Lilac Verbena.
Ground covers for sun: Dwarf Coyote Bush, Dwarf Sages (Dara’s Choice, Bees’ Bliss)
Ground covers for shade: Hummingbird Sage, Catalina Perfume.
Trees:  California Bay Laurel, Toyon, Catalina Cherry, ‘Mexican’ Elderberry.
And don't forget California's cutest succulents: Dudleyas!
(These are Dudley Farinosa, at Tilden Native Garden in Berkeley.)
Be patient.  Natives root deep, and take a while to express their potential.  They go dormant in the summer.  They feed native birds and animals.  On a minimum of water and no fertilizer or pesticide, their subtle beauty offers a deep connection with the rhythms of nature that feed the soul. 

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