R.I.P. big manzanita

Our Dr. Hurd manzanita has been in decline for three years, after growing vigorously from a small five gallon plant to a four foot tall shrub. 

Leaves in some stems began to look thin and dry. I started a bit of water in summer, just hand watering on cooler days. This seemed to help, for a while. Leaves began to blecken, entire branches died. This year, we found major cracks at the base of the trunk. The remaining green leaves faded to black, and it doesn’t look like our big manzanita is ever coming back.

Why did it die after flourishing so long? Wetter weather? Soil problems? Disease? Whatever it was, once the plant started to decline, there was no bringing it back.

At this point, we’re not recommending this plant as a major focal point, beautiful as it may be when alive. Focal point shrubs need to be reliable and live long enough to grow to their full size.

The question now is what to do with a hole in a deck designed for a twisting, sculptural manzanita? We could stick a sculpture in there, but that’s not really the same effect. We certainly won’t try another Dr. Hurd manzanita! Maybe we should give up, hold our noses and plant one of the fifteen favorite gas station plants. Maybe a pindo palm, at least we’d get some edible fruit out of the deal – but a palm would not fit in that well with the garden’s design. We could probably use a cousin of the manzanita, a strawberry tree. It would only take 15 years to get large enough to be interesting…

Oenothera Hookeri: a wonderful “weed”

It reseeds, it’s tall, it’s got more leaves than flowers. Its flowers fall off as soon as the day warms. But it’s also a fantastic thing to watch as night deepens.

After sunset, the buds begin to swell. The sepals crack apart, then flip open. The petals emerge like popcorn, their motion apparent as you watch, although not as fast as popcorn. By night, the flowers are fully open, awaiting the heat of tomorrow to drop their petals and await the next night’s new flowers. As summer progresses, the plants grow taller and taller, their floewers moving ever skyward.

Hooker’s Evening Primrose is easy to grow in a spot with a bit of moisture. It’s a California native so it doesn’t need much moisture, just enough to keep the plant growing and the flowers coming. If things get too dry, it will simply stop growing and switch to seed production. The plants only live a couple of years, so seeds are how they maintain a presence in your garden.

Bringing the ‘burbs to life

When we started, there were plants, a bird bath and bird feeders. The plants for the most part did nothing to feed the birds. Native insects likewise did not come here for fine dining.

With this makeover, that’s all changed. The bird bath is now a recirculating fountain. The bird feeders remain, but now there’s a veritable smorgasbord for visiting birds, with insects buzzing around a host of new native flowers.

We didn’t touch the concrete paths, other than to add a looping access path of flagstones set in sand and gravel to service the fountain and resupply the bird feeders. To make the design look as though it were done at once, gravel mulch strips align to the existing steps, flowing back into the plantings.

Perimeter plants were left in place for screening, the white birches remained for shade and habitat, but most of the other plants were ripped out. If a plant didn’t feed pollinators, help restore butterfly populations or provide nectar it got chopped. The result is a seasonal display of successive blooms that support local bee populations and feed migrating hummingbirds. As plants go to seed, they’ll support seed-eating birds. Some plants, like the milkweed, may even supply downy nesting materials.

We did not choose a purely native plant list, since some of the best plants for honeybees are not native (neither are these bees, for that matter). As long as all the plants in each group used the same amount of water and sunlight, the design would work.

Indian paintbrush, unlike most plants, does not get everything it needs from sunlight, soil and water. It needs a host plant: bush monkeyflower. Growing paintbrush alone is unlikely to be successful, but once paired with monkeyflowers there’s a good chance you can grow this native wildflower in your garden.

Partial plant list

Although the plants had to provide some function, that didn’t mean that they were thrown together haphazardly. They’re massed to form swaths of color, partially screen one area of the garden from another, and make the garden seem more private near the house.

  • Milkweed: restore monarch butterfly populations
  • Indian paintbrush: hummingbird food
  • Bush monkeyflower: host plant for paintbrush, hummingbird food
  • Annual wildflowers: food for native solitary bees
  • Mexican lobelia: hummingbird food
  • California fuchsia: hummingbird food
  • Lavender: honeybee food
  • Red yucca (Hesperaloe): hummingbird food
  • Penstemon: hummingbird food
  • Russian sage: honeybee food
  • Woolly sunflower: bee food
  • Coyote mint: butterfly food
  • Mugwort: background plant, interesting fragrance (leaves)
  • Grasses: keep some green while natives are dormant, add texture.
  • Sundrops: great color, and feeds bees, too.

It was also accepted by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Garden for Wildlife, meeting the criteria for food (pollen, nectar, seeds), water (fountain), cover (perimeter shrubs), places to raise young (perimeter shrubs and birch tree) and sustainable practices (no pesticides or nasty chemicals).

Although the style of this garden differs a bit from the surrounding homes, it seems to be accepted by the neighbors. It was certainly accepted by the birds and insects! It will probably need to grow in a few more years before the milkweeds get large enough to attract monarch butterflies, but other benefits were immediate. Ground-nesting bees moved in, probably taking advantage of nearby abundant food. Hummingbirds zip through the flowers, searching for nutritious nectar and probably insects to eat. Then there’s the impressive palette of color to delight passing people.




Using irises in the garden

Our last post was about enjoying your irises; this article is about how to use them to best effect in your landscape design.

Pacific Coast irises can be a bit fussy if they’re not in their preferred coastal climate, depending on which species were used to breed them. Some species come from the foothills, and are a bit more adaptable inland – although you never know how the plants will fare until you test them in your garden.

Generally, irises do better on mounds if you have heavy soil. If your soil drains well, you can place them anywhere. Rich soil isn’t a necessity, and they seem to thrive in poor, gravelly soils where drainage is excellent.

If you’re lucky enough to live where native California species of iris grow naturally, you can pretty much plant them and forget about them other than enjoying the flowers every spring.

You can divide plants in fall, giving the plants time to re-establish themselves through winter and early spring. If you’re really in a native iris area, they may even reseed.

German iris are stars of spring, but virtually disappear in summer and fall during the dry season. It’s their way of adapting to their native Mediterranean climate – and what makes them so easy to grow in California. This makes using dwarf iris at the front of a border problematic, since the plants will fade away and need to be combined with something that lets the planting area look fuller in the drier seasons. The alternative is to have a spring garden full of a rainbow of irises of all colors and sizes that lives in a corner of the garden and simply goes dormant in summer to await the next season’s rains.

Other irises may or may not be Mediterranean. Dutch iris are bulbs and thrive here. Japanese and Siberian iris need constant water and prefer cool temperatures with higher humidity, so they may suffer through long, hot summers – or guzzle water.

Many species live in shallow water, so forget about using them in water conserving landscapes. One, yellow flag, is considered an invasive species in our waterways, so please don’t plant it in your pond.

Irises: lush in spring, water saving in summer

Bearded iris – Iris germanica – originated somewhere in a Mediterranean climate, not Northern Europe. That means that they grow with little or no care here in California, as long as the soil has adequate drainage.

If someone asks you which is better adapted in Northern California, an agave or a bearded iris you would answer…. the iris! Agaves are water conserving desert plants, but most come from places that get summer rain and are dry during our typically wet, cold winters.

As Mediterranean plants, irises flourish when they have rain, then go dormant over summer – just like our native plants. Since they have the same cultural requirements as many natives, you can even grow them together if you’re not too much of a purist about plant origins (they’ll grow with your agaves, too). Most of the time, natural (non-drought) rainfall is enough to keep your irises happy.

The best time to photograph irises is after a storm in soft, diffuse light. A macro lens doesn’t hurt, either – it lets you zoom in on the details and discover the flowers as objects of abstract art.

The yellow irises are native to California, so they don’t have beards. The don’t seem to need them. Native irises are much lower and more compact than bearded iris, and are more suited to the front of the planting area, near a path.

Bearded iris can be dwarf or giant, so you need to know what your plants will do before you stick them in the ground. Our experience with dwarf varieties has been mixed, some being fussy, some blooming later than the taller varieties. There are many, many varieties of irises available from specialty nurseries with all the colors of the iris rainbow: indigo, midnight blue, ultramarine, cerulean, yellow, white, brown, chocolate, mocha (the colors get more creative when the flowers are in fact some shade of brown)…


The wildflowers are here!

With all the rains come lots of wildflowers. These are typical early spring wildflowers growing over much of Northern California. Most can be grown in gardens from seed, bulbs or plants… well, maybe not the poison oak…

I don’t know which species all of these plants belong to. Maybe that’s good, since I can just appreciate them as they are.

Wildflowers are typically best photographed early in the morning or on overcast days. This gives more saturated colors and eliminates shadows. The exception to this is California poppies; they close if they’re not in full sun. The workaround is to shade them for the photograph or shoot in HDR if there’s no choice.

It’s also good to shoot multiple shots using different apertures (f/stops): a small aperture (large f/stop) will add detail to the flower at the expense of cluttering up the background. Shooting with your lens wide open throws most of the flower out of focus for a softer, dreamier effect.

If you plan on doing this kind of thing a lot, invest in a camera with a good macro lens, and save your phone for selfies. The dynamic range on a serious camera gives much better quality images than cell phones, although this may change as phones get more sophisticated (dynamic range is how many levels of brightness the camera can capture).

Here come the butterflies!

Each year brings a new group of butterflies to the California asters. Some species vary, other times the ratio of one species to another changes. This year, we had a new visitor: a monarch.

In past years, we’ve had checkered skippers, American ladies, sulfurs… this year seems to be veering toward skippers, and hairstreaks, along with several dedicated honeybees. With luck, we’ll have more and more monarchs and friends as the asters come into full bloom.

Growing California asters (Symphyotrichum chilense) is easy. Maybe too easy, since the plants thrive with or without water, and spread both by runners and seed. We control them by simply pulling out plants that aren’t where we want them. Since they’re native to our part of California, they’re only invasive in a garden sense, not biologically. 

The plants grow in our meadow, along with some milkweed (the monarch’s food plant). The asters feed the adults, while the milkweed feeds the caterpillars, helping the butterflies rebuild their population. This butterfly could even be heading to the coast to pass the winter before laying eggs and starting the cycle anew (you can tell she’s female by the vein pattern on her hindwings).

Prickly Pear Cactus Pruning: an update

It’s been two years since we visited this cactus and did some fairly major structural pruning. We removed trunks to simplify the plant’s shape to let its structure come through. This time, the goal was to keep the cactus’ size in check, removing peripheral pads to again show the branch structure.

prickly pear view1 prickly pear 2080Prickly pear limbs tend to sag as they grow outward, since the pads are full of water and thus heavy. This kind of pruning keeps things more vertical as well as clearing spiny pads from the path of travel (and the pool!).

This time, a gardener did the work under supervision from the owner. The typical process is to stand back and think of the plant as a sculpture. See what forms and lines should be enhanced and which detract from the plants ideal shape.

After that, it’s a process of incremental removal, backing up, studying, removing and evaluating. When you’re done, you’ll have a pleasing, dramatic shape that looks full yet does not threaten you as you walk by.

Yes, this is subjective – you need to have good taste in cactus shapes!

Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron sp.)

These California native shrubs create quite a show when in bloom, but they require a lot of room to spread. The benefit? They’ll grow without summer water, and actually don’t want any.

These flannel bushes are growing in a field without irrigation, and this year they really seemed to appreciate all the rain they received. There’s no irrigation, they’re in full sun through the hot summer yet that’s what they want to thrive. Giving them water in summer will dramatically shorten their lifespan. They grow relatively quickly, putting on growth in spring and basically going dormant through Sacramento’s hot, dry summers.

There’s no such thing as a small flannel bush, but if you have the room and a place that you don’t want to irrigate, they could be a good choice. Don’t put them near paths, since they have irritating hairs on their leaves and stems.

The Daffodils are Coming!

Although daffodils (Narcissus) aren’t native to California, they’re certainly well adapted here, most needing no supplemental watering in a normal year. Sometimes well adapted means invasive, but luckily these plants play well with the environment.

These are just simple daffodils we’ve planted over the years. The miniature daffodils were in a gift pot; the others went in the ground in fall as bulbs, the “normal” way of putting these plants in the ground.

We plant the bulbs among ornamental grasses, giving the bulbs maximum time to develop in spring and store energy (and increase flower production) for the coming year. The grasses get cut back just before the daffodils emerge, then grow up to hide the bulbs’ leaves as they age and brown in late spring.

Here in Sacramento, narcissus are often the first bulbs to bloom – but they’re typically paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) with small, delicate looking white flowers. They don’t count. Daffodils are bigger, bolder and more colorful, putting on a show that gets noticed.

Ravenous snails or slugs tend to transform the flowers in our garden into lace – ecologically friendly snail bait just doesn’t adequately protect the flowers, so we rush out to admire them as they open, knowing their time of beauty will be short, especially in wetter years.