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Tips for Low Water Gardens

As a landscape designer, I had a large library of reference gardening books, yet there were a few that I used over and over again.  When I moved my home to Wyoming, I pared down my gardening library, taking with me what I considered the best and most essential books.

If you are looking for a low water garden, here are some of the best reference books out there.  For a good guide to help you start planning your low water garden, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future  I also give you step-by-step instructions for a native lawn or meadow, edible low water plants, as well as tips on how to irrigate and zone for reduced watering.

Rock with succulents

Below are my top recommendations:

1.  Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region by East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD).  I might consider this book a good primer for those who are beginning gardeners or homeowners.  The oversized format has wonderful glossy photos and it is of course put out by the water district.

2.  The New Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch.  This book has been around for some time and is still considered the best book on the subject.  Salvias are such a great addition to one’s low water garden. There are ones for sun and shade, small and gigantic.  Clebsch has grown them all and gives you growing tips galore.

3. ¨Designing California Native Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.  Keator is considered one of the leading botanists in California, an expert on oaks and California natives. Need I say more.

4. Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden.  Drought Resistant Planting through the Year by Beth Chatto.  Although Chatto is from England and her gravel gardens were an experiment there, she is right on the mark for California. This is probably the book I used the most in designing low water attractive gardens.  You’ll droll at the photos and her wonderful plant combinations.  And gravel is the quintessential mulch to retain water.

5.  Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish.  If you are planning a succulent garden, this is one of the best reference books out there for the larger plants and how to use them in a design.

6. California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Burt O’Brien.  These are the top people in the plant world.  Bornstein was the horticulturist for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden for 30 years.  Fross owns Native Sons nursery.  A must have to understand California natives and their culture.  Fross also wrote the comprehensive book Ceanothus, but that book is probably too horticulturally geeky for the average gardener.

7. Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach and Gardening the Mediterranean Way: How to Create a Waterwise Drought-Tolerant Garden both by Heidi Gildemeister.  Mediterranean is what we have in California climate.  You will get good tips and photos from these books.

8.  Native Treasure: Gardening with the Plants of California by M. Nevin Smith.  Smith is the Director of Horticulture at Suncrest Nursery in Northern California.  For years I coveted a hard-to-get in-house printing that described all of Suncrests plants and their culture, written by Smith.  Hard to find a person more experienced in plant material than this man.  Suncrest is one of the top nurseries in California, growing and introducing new plants all the time.

9. Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for every Garden by Joann Gardner and Karen Bussolini.  I include this book because all plants silver are low water plants.  Plus silver is a good foil and contrast against other plants in the garden.  Good photos and information.

Dry CA


Decomposed Granite Stabilizer!

Decomposed Granite Stabilizer Crushed Stone are the most widely used natural alternatives to asphalt and concrete pathways. An expensive but new product is out on the market that creates a hard surface for Decomposed Granite pathways and patios.

This product, called TerraKoat, is sprayed on with the instructions below.

Decomposed Granite Stabilizer

One note:  There are other liquid stabilizers out there that DO NOT work. This is because the solids content of these other products (like G3) is lower than the TerraKoat.

What that really means is the company that makes the G3 waters it down. Another difference is that the TerraKoat contains a proprietary admixture that increases the longevity of the surface. Wheeler Zamaroni has compared both products in real life applications and they found that with TerraKoat you end up with a stronger more durable surface.

Therefore, if you are NOT using TerreKoat, then use a powdered stabilizer.  TerreKoat costs about $15 gallon.  A gallon will do about 20 sq. ft.

Here are the instructions from their application sheet.  You will notice that they recommend preparing the surface just as I do in detail in my eBook Decomposed Granite and Other Materials for Walkways

TerraKoat EX Industrial Strength Stabilizer

1. AGGREGATE SELECTION FOR FINAL SURFACE: Select an aggregate that contains a variety of sizes. For instance, crushed stone mixes such as 3/8 minus, 1/4 minus or 3/16 minus work well with TERRAKOAT STABILIZER, where as single size aggregates like 3/8 rock or pea gravel are not suitable.

Screenings with extremely high fine content are not suitable either. To ensure compatibility of selected aggregate with TERRAKOAT STABILIZER, prepare a test area.

2. STRUCTURAL STONE BASE PREPARATION: Before starting the actual project, factors such as climate, native soil type, amount of use, should be taken into consideration. As a rule of thumb, “The better the base preparation, the better the results.”

For optimum performance, install 4 to 6 in. of 3/4 minus crushed stone, then compact using a vibratory plate compactor.In restricted areas where a compactor will not fit, use a hand tamper.

3. SURFACE AGGREGATE: Spread surface aggregate over the compacted structural stone base. Rake or screed to the desired level, and slope to allow water run off. Do not compact until after TERRAKOAT STABILIZER has been applied.

4. APPLY THE TERRAKOAT STABILIZER: Using a watering can or pump sprayer, apply the TERRAKOAT STABILIZER to the surface at the rate of 20 ft2 per gallon for residential pedestrian use, or 15 ft2 per gallon for commercial pedestrian use. Allow TERRAKOAT STABILIZER to fully penetrate through the material

5. COMPACTION: While surface is still damp but not saturated, compact the surface with a vibratory plate compactor; 2 or 3 passes are recommended. In restricted areas where a compactor will not fit, use a hand tamper. The better the compaction, the better the results.

6. Seal Coat: After compaction spray TERRAKOAT STABILIZER over the area at the rate of 60 sqft per gallon.

Additional instructions include repairing cracks or using this product on an existing surface that was ill-prepared. For the complete instructions and additional information on TerraKoat, see my updated eBook on Decomposed Granite.

I have many readers who tell me their installer did not apply the DG correctly.  Depending upon the circumstance, this stabilizer might be very useful.

Decomposed Granite sunken patio edged with stone and Ryerson's header.
Decomposed Granite sunken patio edged with stone and Ryerson’s header.

Instructions for rebuilding AN EXISTING SURFACE

1. Scarify or rototill 1 inch of the surface, break up any clumps, making any necessary repairs, and add new surface aggregate as needed.

2. Apply TERRAKOAT STABILIZER at the rate of 15 ft2 per gallon; allow liquid to penetrate.

3. Compact using a vibratory plate compactor. In restricted areas where a compactor will not fit, use a hand tamper.

Instructions for maintaining AN EXISTING SURFACE:

1. Apply TERRAKOAT STABILIZER at the rate of 20 to 45 ft2 per gallon. Some judgement will be needed, as consideration for absorption and desired results should be taken into account.

Decomposed Granite path at the Getty Museum L.A.
Decomposed Granite path at the Getty Museum L.A.

2. Compact any loose areas.

As in my eBookTERRAKOAT recommends 3-6″ compacted Base Rock with a vibration compactor and a 2″ surface of DG.  If you are using the Strybing Arboretum method because of poor drainage etc., then only 3/4″ of DG is needed.

For complete instructions on how to install a Decomposed Granite patio or walkway, see my eBook

Smart Urban Planning and Wildlands–an interconnection

As a horticulturist and wildlands advocate, I heard a story on yesterdays Science Friday that got me pondering.

The essential jest of the story is that trees, like all plants, emit different chemicals, many of them considered toxic.  Plants do this for a variety of reasons.  Some might attract pollinators, others to ward off predators.  Of course we’ve all known this for years.  That is why some plants have medicinal uses, while other plants might give you a terrible reaction.  But we have never considered that trees might be doing the same thing and those chemicals could be reacting in negative ways with pollutants in our cities air.Japanese Maple

In this short segment Biologist Todd Rosenstiel explains some of the studies being done at Portland State University–that we only know a few of the emitted chemicals–like turpenes–and there are many more we are still investigating.  He explains how these chemicals can react with ozone in polluted atmospheres to create more pollutants.  Some trees make more of these toxic chemicals than others; and also chemicals might begin as toxins yet then combine with ozone in such a way as to actually scrub pollutants out of the atmosphere.

As a horticulturist, I’ve planted thousands of trees in suburbs and cities.  I’ve thought of problems like soil, sun, wind, climate, insect resistant, etc.  But this is an entirely new area of study.  For instance, Rosenstiel points out that Oaks are big emitters of these toxins, while Maple not so much.  But we can’t just plant Maples; we also need a diversity of trees in cities.

That got me thinking again about livable cities and how proper city/suburb planning is an important tool for saving our wildlands and wildlife.  Proper planning so cities become more self-contained–growing their own foods [using rooftop year round gardens], solar power that is concentrated within the immediate area [rather than generated from massive wind/solar farms in fragile desert habitat or energy trucked from far away], green spaces for recreation, smart transportation, clustered housing, and other techniques will make the need to ‘escape’ less, and preserve lands for wildlife.

Rooftop garden

Cities/suburbs in general should be planned with wildlife in mind.  Although cities won’t be having elk or wolves running around, there are ways to plan for wildlife corridors.  Los Angeles as well as Santa Cruz’s Highway 17 are good examples of needed cougar corridors.  While there is good habitat around the edges, freeways block corridors cougars use.  And living with wildlife that has learned to exploit urban centers, such as mesopredators and their prey, –coyotes, foxes, raccoons, deer, possums, fishers–will enhance city living.

Urban coyote rests mid-day in local cemetary
Urban coyote rests mid-day in local cemetary

Smart city planning for liveable cities, which seems to now include taking into the account the chemical biology of trees–is a necessity if we want to inhibit the sprawl that now threatens some of last remaining wildest lands in the United States.

Jade Lake near Bonneville pass in the Dunoir
Jade Lake near Bonneville pass in the Dunoir

Some Patio Notes

I recently visited some old clients and got a chance to see how their gardens had filled in.  I want to comment on just two gardens with interesting patios.

The first was an idea I cooked up.  It involved using pavers set in concrete around the edges of the patio.  Executing it was a contractors’ nightmare I suppose.  I wanted the pavers to be included in the final pour so the patio flowed together.  First we did a hand pour and set the pavers in around the edges.  You’ll notice those white things in the photo.  That’s where the planted edging around the lawn goes and we had to have a backstop for the concrete, so it wouldn’t pour into the dirt.  We used some styrofoam that could later be taken out.

The pour

The boulders to the right of the above photo are set so no concrete flows beyond them.  That area was a planted pocket.

As we poured the patio, we had to hand work the concrete into the spaces between the pavers and wipe the pavers off of the concrete.  We had to work fast and it was tedious.  Like I said, a contractors nightmare!

Carex lawn with small plants as edging

I didn’t want the concrete to butt up to the lawn.  I wanted a softer edge so I used a mixed planting of grasses and Stachys ‘Hummelo’, a small flowering Stachys which isn’t flowering in this photo, but flowers all summer long.  The lawn itself is Carex pansa.  The owner has two children who were around 10 and 8 at the time.  They were able to play ball on the lawn.

Pavers set in concrete

Originally I’d picked out a dark purple colored paver, but that was too wild for the client so we went with a more subdued look.

The client asked for a small patio/sitting area in the corner of her garden.  Instead of using more concrete, I chose decomposed granite with the addition of a few pavers in it to match.  A path of the same pavers set in soil with ground cover leads to the patio.

Decomposed granite small patio with pavers; Pavers set in Dymondia groundcover
Decomposed granite small patio with pavers; Pavers set in Dymondia groundcover

I say that a yard takes about 6 or 7 years to mature.  This yard is about 4 years old, still growing in, but I was pleased at its progress.

I also visited a garden that used the DG dusting method described in a previous post.  This garden was installed five years ago.  The DG still looked excellent, but in a few spots you could see exposed baserock.  After five years it’s time for another dusting of DG.  In making a decomposed granite patio, the major expense in materials is the DG.  At over $80/yard, doing a dusting instead of 2″ saves quite a bit of money.

Decomposed Granite patio dusting method after 5 years needs new 1/2" DG application
Decomposed Granite patio dusting method after 5 years needs new 1/2″ DG application

Decomposed Granite patio

The paver patio set in concrete looked good, although the client never had it sealed.  Sealing is really not necessary with a hard stone, but it does bring out the wonderful colors of the stone.  Here is a photo of some of the detail work we did with her patio.  My client is an artist and fun to work with.  She’s willing to take risks and stretch the boundaries.  She wanted the edges to have a ‘river’ like look.  She personally went and hand picked all the river cobbles as well as placed them herself.

Placing the edging cobbles
River rocks edge patio for an artistic look
cobble edging detail around natural stone seat

And to leave all you readers with a final funny thought:  While driving around nearby Belvedere, the most upscale and expensive neighborhood in Marin County, my son and I saw a police car parked at a prominent corner with a stop sign.  When we looked inside, there was a dummy policeman, complete with a donut and coffee mug on the dash.  I guess the wealthy citizens of Belvedere can’t afford a real policeman to deter criminals.

Belvedere ‘fake’ cop. Dummy with coffee and donut on dashboard

Patios hard and soft

I received a question from someone on using concrete pads underneath a DG patio, instead of prepping the subsurface with baserock material.  That got me thinking about doing a post on patios in general and what, from a designer and installers perspective I know and understand.

First a few words in general regarding different types of patios.  There are lots of different materials out there, some nice, some not, that can be used, and of course, different areas of the country will have different requirements.  As far as drier climates goes, here are the basics:

1.  Use materials like DG (decomposed granite) or concrete pavers (set in sand) when you need a permeable surface.  Many counties are now requiring with new installations a minimum of permeable surfaces to prevent massive run-off problems.  DG is useful as a patio some distance from the house in order to wipe off small bits of granite attached to shoes.  Concrete pavers are set on a sand base and come in all types, from ugly to handsome.

Calstone pavers set in sand

2. For leisure patios with furniture lots of do-it-yourselfers or people on tight budgets like to put pavers and DG together.  This works fine but keep in mind that high heels and furniture will get caught in the cracks of DG.  There are ways to minimize this.  Refer to my DG Patio book for spacing on pavers and proper installation.  You will have to convince your contractor to use my methods because it is more time intensive, but it works.

A proper installation using Arizona flagstone with decomposed granite in between. You will rarely see it done properly like this.
A proper installation using Arizona flagstone with decomposed granite in between. You will rarely see it done properly like this.

3.  For a long lasting patio that will have furniture on it, I prefer to pour a concrete base and put mortared pavers on.  Another alternative is concrete.  There have been lots of advances in concrete in the past few years.  Meaning there are lots of types of decorative concrete looks, with stains and stamps and 2 or 3 dust on colors; finishes with broom, or salt pitting, or hard trowel.  Just keep in mind that concrete is not a controllable substance and colors vary, fade, and cracks will develop no matter what.

This Decomposed Granite with flagstone patio is not done correctly.  Spaces are too big and will catch high heels and chairs
This Decomposed Granite with flagstone patio is not done correctly. Spaces are too big and will catch high heels and chairs
Indian pavers with decorative rock set on concrete base
Interesting walkway that incorporates brick, stone and boulders
Interesting walkway that incorporates brick, stone and boulders

A WORD ABOUT PAVERS:  If you decide to go for real stone pavers, I salute you.  Although concrete is cheaper, stone is beautiful and will give you lasting pleasure.  So how do you choose amongst all the choices at the yard.  First, go to a large landscape supply yard and pick out the stones you like.  Get samples and bring them home and live with the samples for a week or more.

Two types of concrete are in this walkway
Two types of concrete are in this walkway

You must map out your design exactly.  Usually the stone yard will have some basic design patterns for you to work with, or simply obtain some grid paper and go to work.  Indian pavers have flooded the market in recent times.  There are some incredibly beautiful stone and colors amongst the choices, but the stones are not all exactly to size.  You’ll have to work with this when you or your contractor lays it down, which means some of the spacing will be off.

No joints in the perfect paver

Next you must decide on the size of your joints.  Be exact in your communications to your contractor.  If you have uniform stone, you can lay them down with no mortar in between.  If you want joints, or if your stone isn’t perfect as in the Indian pavers pictured below, you must have mortar showing in the joints.

Decomposed Granite patio under willow.
Decomposed Granite patio under willow.

As far as flagstones go, there are many types, some of which I do NOT recommend because you will develop moss in the wet season and you MUST seal these types every year to prevent mold.  I discuss this more in depth in my eBook.

In general choose flagstones that are hard with small pores.  These would be stones that come from places like Montana.  Flagstones come in many names, and what’s called one name in one yard will be named something else in another, even if its the same material.  Just make sure the flagstone is dense.

Another thing you want to watch for in flagstone is how slick it is.  Slate, though gorgeous, is really slippery when wet.  I’ve heard that a little bit of sand in your sealer can help this problem.  Better to avoid it from the start.

For a more in-depth discussion on these topics, see my DG patio book.  In it I discuss all the pros and cons of different materials, as well as give exact instructions for the installation of the different mediums, whether your contractor installs it or you do.

I’ve tried to keep the price to a bare minimum and it includes all the tips I’ve learned from years of experience.  Good luck and do it right from the beginning.  Hardscape, unlike plant material, cannot be picked up and moved, and is expensive!

Also Read:-

Pollinators in trouble. What a city dweller can do.

I was disturbed to see yet more articles in the NY Times about bees and colony collapse.  I was a home beekeeper in CA since the mid-90’s.  When I moved to Wyoming, I gave that up in favor of not having lots of grizzlies in my yard. Being a horticulturist and amateur botanist, I was also interested in the general decline of pollinators and wrote an article in 1998 entitled Pollinators under Siege that I posted on my web page.

one of my hives

Honeybees are non-natives.  They are relied upon to pollinate our crops. Native bees and insects, in general, just can’t do as good a job on monocrops.  But honeybees also push out non-native bees.  They are up earlier and go out in mass.  When my honeybees were not doing  well due to mites, I’d always see more native bees move in to take up the space.

And although we need the honeybees, we also desperately need our native pollinators.  What many people don’t realize is that there are a myriad variety of insects that pollinate natives.  When I asked my botany teacher who specialized in California natives about their pollinators, he said that they don’t know what pollinates many California natives.  It’s very difficult to observe.

Death Valley flowering plant

One thing I learned in my profession is that the majority of people don’t even understand the basics of what pollination is.  Insects and flowering plants evolved together. Even some mammals and birds are important pollinators.  Entire ecosystems are built around these relationships.  Pollinators declining world wide means trouble for our planet’s health in ways just as impossible to calculate as climate change.

Frankly, it’s another overwhelming and make-one-feel-powerless problem, once you begin to dig into the complexity of the issue (see my article link or read The Forgotten Pollinators).  I’ve been passionate about this issue for a long time.   Here are my thoughts on what can be done individually and collectively.

1.  Rail against development!  Lack of community planning, lack of empty lots, and cookie cutter housing developments consumes habitat for native plant species and therefore specific pollinators.  Development should be:

a.  clustered

b.  planned so there are ‘hedgerows’ or a continuity of native species weaving in and around the development.  Lack of fencing allows for wildlife to wander about.  Lawns should be eliminated or kept to a minimum or replaced with native bunch grasses and native meadows.

Native Salvia

2.  Ban home vineyards!  I’m sorry, but this is so unnecessary.  Does everyone really need to have their own little home label.  People are cutting down native Oaks, clearing native trees and shrubs to put a monoculture in their backyard.

3.  Encourage large swaths of native trees and shrubs.  You can plant non-native gardens, but include natives.

4.  DO NOT use pesticides.  There is absolutely no need to use pesticides in the home garden.  This includes hiring a pest control service.  When you spray for spiders, you will be eliminating butterflies as well.  If you have a rat problem, encourage your neighborhood to use natural controls such as owl boxes and the old fashioned methods of traps.  Using a pesticide free method for controlling rodents helps the bobcat and mountain lion population as well.

5.  Put a bell on your cat or keep them indoors.  Too many birds are killed by cats yearly.  Hummingbirds are important pollinators.  Songbirds are dispersers of seeds.

6.  Realize that native pollinators cannot work in isolated ‘islands’ of plant communities.  How far can an insect travel to find another plant of the same species?  If plant communities are too spread out because of the concrete jungle, or suburbs full of pristine lawns and non-native species, these plants can’t be sufficiently pollinated to reproduce enough to continue the species.  We must have large enough habitat and/or corridors of habitat for plants and animals to travel through and sustain the ecosystem.  Work to protect large tracts of open space in your community for your own health and sanity, your children and their future enjoyment, and our ecosystems.  This open space should be undeveloped, not browsed by cattle nor full of lawns or athletic fields.

California poppies in bloom

What do the above recommendations have in common?  Working together as a community.  Its a good first step.

Entrance gardens Part 3–The Finished Product

Front entrance view

The small entrance garden is now finished.  (See Posts 1 and 2)   I moved around several existing plants.  I used the existing Mondo grass as fillers and bought 20 more one gallon plants, which we divided to fill even more space.  The garden look good even though it was just installed.  Within a few years the Yuletide Camellia by the front door view will grow upright and hide the fence but not block the beautiful Sangu Kaku maple.

Looking towards the owners side

View from front door. Maple will leaf out; Camellia will grow upright to cover the fence

The trick with the side above was not to have plants look like they are marching in a line against the fence.  There is not much depth there, but enough.  The Daphne at the base of the tree is set forward to the Camellia, as are the red-leafed azaleas.  The art features also help break it up.  Its hard to see, but there are some dabs here and there of different textural low plants to break up the monotony of the mondo grass groundcover.  Some of these are variegated white, other are red leafed oaxalis.  But don’t get too busy or you risk just a confusing mass that the eye doesn’t know how to integrate.

The tenants side next to the fence is more constraining as its very narrow.  I used a Camellia s. that has more flexible branches and is easily espaliered.  We’ll guide that over time to grow against the fence and outward.  One way to achieve that is to use eye screws with thin wire into the fence (more invisible) so you have something to tie the branches to rather than a loud visible trellis.  Over time the branches thicken up and will hold their position naturally.Tenants side by fence is extremely narrow

Tree to the front right will eventually be taken out when shrubbery grows up
Tree to the front right will eventually be removed

Fountain interrupts small wall for an artistic break

Always scope around, use what you can on the property, be creative.   You might find some old garden art you can use, good looking boulders, or useable plants.   Here’s how we used a rotten stump.  Eventually the plants in front will spill over and a 3′ variegated Ligularia is planting in a pocket behind that will peek around.  A Japanese Felt Fern at the base (Pyrrosia) will enjoy climbing up the tree ferns stump.  Tree ferns like their trunk wet so we’ll spray this area.

We moved the mature tree fern into this existing rotting stump

California natives Part 3 Groundcovers…Manzanitas and Ceanothus

In this small series of posts on California natives for the garden, remember I’m trying to keep it simple and successful for the home gardener.  Most of the time when a homeowner asks for a low or no-water garden and I give them what they want, they always over water regardless.  Therefore, in general, unless you know what you’re doing, its better to incorporate natives that will tolerate or even thrive with occasional additional watering.

One of the main tips for growing any kind of native, and most Mediterranean plants in general, is good drainage. California natives are adapted to cool wet winters and dry summers.  When planting natives in general, especially Manzanitas and Ceanothus, the main thing you want to watch for is planting the crown of the plant too low.   A brilliant idea for helping drainage along is to plant that crown on a little hump, maybe 6″ high.  When the crown of these plants stays constantly damp, then rot sets in.  Planting on a slight mound insures some run-off.  Also, don’t put your drip emitter right on top of the crown, and move that emitter every year farther and farther out to encourage roots to grow outward.  Eventually, you may be able to eliminate watering once established.

Both Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.) and Ceanothus are sensitive to over watering, especially true with Ceanothus.  Many Manzanitas on the market have been cultivated to be more forgiving and accept landscape watering.  Two groundcovers I like are Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Woods Compact’ and Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Carmel Sur’.  From my personal experience, I have found that the uva-ursi sp., though touted to be more acceptable of hotter weather, are more sensitive than the edmundsii.  I find the Carmel Sur variety to be easy and forgiving.Arctostaphylos 'Woods Compact' right after install

This was an example of a small front yard right after installation.  I did very little soil amending on the thick clay soil.  Instead I brought in about 10 yards of no animal manures (these harbor fungus as they break down as well as heat) composted soil and planted directly in that.  Manzanitas are very susceptible to fungus dieback, and especially the groundcover varieties.  I don’t recommend over head watering for that reason in the summer.  I also don’t recommend a bark or natural mulch as any splashing water can cause fungus on the stems to grow.  So instead here I experimented with a decorative rock mulch.One year laterHere is the yard one year later.  Unfortunately, several years later, this Arctostaphylos ‘Woods Compact’ did experience some major fungal dieback, probably after an El Nino year, and needed some new plants to fill in.

Seeing that I was having more than usual dieback with uva-ursi plants, I switched to ‘Carmel Sur’ and have had more success, although these plants are about 10″ instead of 6″ high.  But the Carmel Sur can take a bit of shade as well as sun, and some summer watering if desired.

I think the larger Manzanitas are easier to grow with less problems than the ground covers. I have had occasional deaths with no warnings, but planted on a hillside, they can take sun or dappled shade with no problem.

Word to the wise:  Don’t forget Manzanitas are browsed by deer!

Ceanothus is the quintessential California native.  There are many beautiful Ceanothus, or California Lilacs, from tiny to tree-like, able to be grown as ground covers or espaliered against a wall.  In general, they are all sensitive to excessive water and crown rot.  Whole books have been written on Ceanothus and I couldn’t begin to cover them here.

Below is Ceanothus g. ‘Hearts Desire’, a gloriosus variety.  Planted 3′ on center, this low growing Ceanothus is deer proof and very attractive.  I’d used in on a small scale with success, but decided to take my chances on a very large hillside installation.  After two winters, the Ceanothus is filling in quickly and nicely.

See how large and steep is this hillside, yet poor drainage
See how large and steep this hillside yet poor drainage. Ceanothus filling in nicely

Below is Ceanothus Hearts Desire in a small yard

Here is another hillside example I used with mixed perennials.  This slope filled in quickly as well and is large scale.

Ceanothus 'Diamond Heights' is right of the fountain.  It has now covered the pebbles
Ceanothus Diamond Hts. right of fountain. Now it has covered pebbles

Below is an unusual newer Ceanothus horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’.  Use it for accent or in pots and not in the hottest of areas.  This area is irrigated with good drainage.  The Ceanothus is the yellow in front, although now it has filled in completely.

For more information on gardening with California natives, as well as a list of month-by-month native blooming plants, see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.  In it I cover what is a true native, planting natives, more types of reliable natives for gardens, and using mediterraneans in combination with natives.  Also tips on low water vegetable and fruit tree gardens, how to irrigate for low water use, and making the most of your microclimates.

Entrance Gardens Part 2

The demo is completed.  The new soil has been worked in and the area is clean and ready for designing.  Most important, all my plants have arrived.  I always gather all my plants on site before I begin.  You wouldn’t want to paint a picture without all your colors to chose from?

First I must have my anchors in place in order to work my design.  In addition, I am going to use boulders in the beds, so they are all laid out, ready to select from.

My first anchor is obviously my tree.  The guys plant that first.  I also have them plant my backdrop, which are the plants I’ve selected for the well.  These are 15 gallon Azara dentata, a shade tolerant large leafed fast growing plant that is upright–perfect for this location.  Remember, I will keep the Maytens tree for now, with the intention of removing it when the Azaras fill in.

I place my edging of basalt bricks and then begin placing the boulders, as they will determine how and where I place my larger plants. 

This photo shows my basalt bricks of two different sizes (randomly placed) and my boulders.  Ignore the irrigation hose as we have not yet reworked the irrigation.  There was existing irrigation which, at the very end, we will rework.

Here is my Sangu Kaku Maple.  I am standing at the doorway and looking out.  This area is not at all finished, but you can see how much cleaner it looks already, with the Maple, a Daphne at its base, and a wonderful Yuletide Camellia to the right.  The Camellia is an upright variety that will fill that fence wall without obstructing the view of the maple from down the walkway.  It also blooms in the winter around Christmas.

With the tree anchored, I need to move that Tree Fern (see photos previous post) or it will be in the way of the view of my Maple.  We dig it up carefully, and I have an idea it might just fit in an old tree stump with enough room to walk underneath. If it works it will frame our front doorway nicely.  Let’s try it.

It works great.  Now I have a framework to the left and the right of the entrance to the front door.  And I have anchors for my new design on both sides.  Remember, we’re just beginning the design process on this side of the walk.  We’ll plant ferns and other spillers below the tree fern later.  We’re just getting our large plants laid out and our framework in for now.

Now for the entrance gate.  I needed something to frame the other side.  I had a Podocarpus that wasn’t pruned too badly on the one side, but the left side was empty.  I am not an advocate of same thing both sides, but I am an advocate for balance.  The doorway to the duplex needed framing and needed balance.  Below was my solution with color that popped the plants out.

The ‘Icee Blue’ Podocarpus will eventually grow up and frame the doorway.  While the Pieris is much slower growing and will simply cover the fence.  Remember, I haven’t added any ground cover or finished this bed yet.

On the other side, the tenants’ side, the guys have finished installing the Azaras and we’ve planted the bed.

This is a small bed so designing was quicker.  Also, remember, it was completely demo’d so we didn’t have to move plants around.  The Azaras hide the foundation immediately; I placed the boulders than filled in with variegated Daphne, a purple dwarf Rhododendron and some evergreen Hellebores, with ferns and vinca for accent.  Right away it looks cleaner.  Ignore the hose in the background.  Since the irrigation is not yet connected, we will hand water till the installation is completed.  It is important to keep these new plants irrigated for the first few weeks till they are established.

One last photo will show the line of basalt stones. 

At first I was going to use this edging only part way.  But now I decided to pick up some more stones and continue the edging.  A small Japanese stone fountain will interrupt the line, like it is part of the edging.  I’ll complete this next week. When finished, the stone water basin will have a tiny drip line going into it so it will stay filled with fresh water for birds.  The new White Camellia will be espaliered over time by the gardener–a new gardener that understands plant material.  The variegated Abelia at its base will recover from its balled haircut and form a low umbrella-like edging.  The Preziosa Hydrangea beyond will grow taller and provide that red accent.

Small gardens–Reviving an entrance garden step by step Part 1

I thought I’d do a series of posts as I work to revive a tired garden in Sausalito.  Portions of this entrance I’d worked on over 10 years ago, but because the owner’s gardener had no idea had to do real maintenance, the garden had disintegrated into disrepair.  Portions of the design were still intact, much of the original plant material still useful, but a total rehaul was necessary.

A word to the wise:  I find the most common mistake is a homeowner who’s willing to pay between $20K and $100K to install a garden, yet they’re cheap on the maintenance.  Gardens are not kitchens–you don’t install them and then they stay exactly the same.  Gardens are alive, and a design slowly grows to maturity.  If your maintenance gardener doesn’t 1. have any idea how to care for specific plants i.e. water, fertilizers, 2.  know how a plant grows i.e. prunes everything into a ball and 3. has no artistic sensibility–then don’t hire them.  Spend the extra money on maintenance and your garden will grow into what the designer imagined.  In addition, my best gardens either have me come back every so often or hire my skilled and personally trained maintenance crew.

This entrance garden is a duplex.  I did the owners’ side a dozen years ago and left the tenants side alone.  Now I am re-designing both sides.  Redos are different than blank slate installations.  I usually consider the plant material I want with only an idea of where it will go, then I purchase my plants with the intention of them being like a painters’ palette.  Because there are existing plants that I can move around and reuse, I am ‘designing on the fly’.  So here’s how you can do this at home.  Here are the before photos.

This is the tenants side which hasn’t been touched in years.  Spider plants dominate (they are really an indoor plant and very invasive in warmer climates such as here).  The top photo has some plants in pots, a tired Nandina that will be removed, and two Podocarpus side by side.  We’ll remove one of them and leave the other to frame the doorway.  In the second photo you can see there is a deep well behind the planting bed where the foundation of the house is visible.  That needs to be covered and used as a backdrop for the planted material in the beds.  These are very small beds and, since they are in an entranceway, they can take detail plant material and focal points.

Not easily visible here, there is an old ornamental pear on the other side of this gate.  We’ll remove that.  Once removed there will be additional light, and also the ugly backdrop disappears.  Sky is better than old tree limbs that are dying.Here’s another view of the well behind the spider plants.  We will clean up down below.  There are two different kinds of trees.  The one on the right is a Maytens.  It is stunted, not correctly pruned, and doesn’t fit the space.  The one on the left is an ornamental Evergreen Pear.  Allowed to grow up and correctly pruned, this fits our Japanese look better.  I’ll plant this area with the intention of removing the Maytens as soon as the new plant cover grows up.  Not visible is a very large Monterey Pine and a Live Oak.  These provide a canopy of dappled shade for our new plants.

As you can see by the above view, its crowded.  Your eye doesn’t know where to go, so everything just becomes a ‘mush’.  We’ll create an intimate and more focused space, with more ‘room’ in between the plant material.

This is the owners side that I worked on a dozen years ago.  A large existing tree used to be in the corner behind the fern.  That was taken out several years ago by the owner.  The variegated Pittosporums I installed were never pruned and are now too large and leggy.  We’ll have to remove them completely now.  Much of the finer ground cover like the Luzula aurea in the foreground has been allowed to take over, and the Rhododendrons were not properly pruned and are now large and leggy.  We’ll discard some of the material and use others.

My first consideration in choosing plant material is texture and color of leaf.  In a shady garden, there won’t be a lot of color in the blooms, so I’m going to make choices in leaf color.  I have learned not to mix yellow and white variegation, so choose one or the other.  I’m going to go for white here, with red in places to pop things out.

In looking at the last photo of the owners side, I want to place something at the very end to pop things out, so I chose a Sangu Kaku Japanese Maple, or Coral Bark Maple.  This maple has a red bark year round and is highly attractive in leaf.  But in order to see the maple, I’m going to have to move that large tree fern.  I know this, but haven’t yet figured out where it will go.  That will happen on site, during the design process.

On the tenants’ side, I’ll remove all the plants, except the white flowering Azalea and one of the Podocarpus’.  Since this is a contained bed, here’s our chance to totally revamp the soil.  We’ll remove up to 8″ of soil and replace it with a good Rhododendron/acid mix.  In addition, if you notice in photo 1, the tenant’s side of the fence has a very small bed, much smaller than the owners’ side.  The soil is rocky there with a lot of roots from trees.  We’ll give ourselves extra room by shoring up the bed with some Japanese looking basalt ‘bricks’.

I chose a palette of Daphnes, variegate Pieris, ‘Icee Blue’ Podocarpus, Ophiopogons, Rhodies, red leafed Kurume azaleas, Preziosa Hydrangea (they have red leaves), variegated Abelia, variegated Vinca minor, some Rubus, purple-leafed Oaxalis, Japanese painted ferns and native Blechnum spicant ferns.

In my next post I will show you the installation in progress.