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.




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).

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.

Trimming the meadow

The goal is to remove last year’s vegetation before it starts to grow back. The asters’ seeds have long since been picked over by the finches, and the sedges have not yet begun their spring growth spurt. Likewise, the grasses and other plants are just beginning to think about emerging from dormancy. It’s trim back now or risk damaging new growth!

Lots of thatch, old aster stems shading new growth, other plants buried beneath grass leaves... time to "graze" the meadow and set things up for a spring renewal.
BEFORE: Lots of thatch, old aster stems shading new growth, other plants buried beneath grass leaves… time to “graze” the meadow and set things up for a spring renewal.
Next year's asters are just peeking above the soil level.
AFTER: Thatch removed, light hits the ground to aid new growth. Next year’s asters are just peeking above the soil level, so they’re not damaged by trimming.
Cutting early spares the camassia leaves from trimming, giving them more energy for future bulbs and flowers.
Cutting early spares the Camassia leaves from trimming, giving them more energy for future bulbs and flowers.

The cuttings are generally mulched in place, although some to make it to the compost heap. This year, the rain garden section of the meadow is flooded from El Niño rains so we have to wait until the water recedes (or we feel like donning boots) to finish trimming back some of the California asters.

Some plants – like sticky cinquefoil and dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) – seem to really enjoy the flooding. Since they’re both native here, it’s normal for seasonal rains to put them temporarily underwater. Other plants in the low area include rushes (Juncus) and sedges (Carex). Camassia bulbs also like wet spring conditions with dry summers.

Most of the upper part of the meadow is planted with California field sedge (Carex praegracillis), mixed with some milkweed and California goldenrod. Trimming it back lets things grow in fresh and neat over spring. All these plants are still either partially dormant (the Carex) or completely dormant.

It’s pipevine time again!

You have to love a flower that looks like it could be singing. Or quacking. Creating some kind of floral music, at least. California Dutchman’s Pipe’s flowers appear when their vine is but bare stems, looking like someone hung bulbous little ornamental flowers all over a stack of twigs. 

Later in the year, the plant will present its leaves to the sun, possibly feeding a host of pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) caterpillars in the process. It will develop interesting seed pods to hang among the leaves, becoming a rambling green vine until fall, when it will once again drop its leaves and prepare for a January surprise.

Our plant gets no water from us, although its roots could be filching a water supply from a neighbor. It started in between the house and the fence where it only got direct sun at noon, then grew up the fence where it could get more sun. It seems to be exploring another direction where it might find another sunny spot to its liking.

California Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia californica) is available sporadically at native plant nurseries. You can contact your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to see if anyone has plants or knows a good source. It has become much more available than in the past, and it’s definitely worth planting where it can ramble along as it likes.

The meadow at it’s messiest: butterfly paradise

After summer’s growth, the asters have come into flower, bringing clouds of hungry butterflies. This is when the meadow is tallest, where it starts looking wild and unkempt. Asters arc in all directions, visited by multiple species of butterflies: skippers, buckeyes, blues, sulfurs… Beneath the asters, native goldenrod blooms following earlier waves of flowers now matured into fuzzy brown seeds.

Soon, the flowers will fade, the stalks will bleach to browns and tans and the plants begin to release seeds, hopefully for goldfinches to dine upon. The meadow’s summer yellows and greens will transform to light tans, muted greens and rusty browns as it prepares itself for winter.

Next year, we’ll mow the straw-colored stalks to the ground, and begin an aster thinning regime to ensure that they don’t completely dominate the meadow, leaving more room for grasses, goldenrod, Indian hemp, sedges and milkweeds.

With spring rains, the sedges will shoot from the ground, greening the meadow. Grasses will grow and flower and the cycle will begin anew.

Five things to consider when removing your lawn

Removing lawn is a good thing if you live in an area where water is limited. You’ll save on your water bill, avoid breathing dust and smog from a mower and gain more color and interest. Here are some things to consider when removing your lawn to conserve water and create a more sustainable landscape.

transformed lawn
This space – except for the patio – used to be lawn. A new Bocce court, fountain and flowering shrubs transform it into something exciting and useable, with pollinators for bees and nectar for hummingbirds.

Five things to consider when transforming your lawn:

1. Irrigation System. You’ll need to update your irrigation system to work with the new plants. You can switch to drip irrigation, but you’ll need to install filters (Wye strainers) and in-line pressure reducers at the valves so the drip components don’t clog or have problems with excessive pressure. If you’re using broadcast irrigation, you’ll likely have to move and change heads and probably nozzles as well. The lawn might have used 4″ pop-up heads – too short for shrubs. You’ll need to change the pop-up bodies to at least 12″ and put irrigation nozzles on risers where they’re  in shrub areas so that the plants don’t block the water. Stream sprays are more efficient than spray nozzles and can be retrofitted onto your pop-up bodies (check that the threads are compatible first). They do need longer run times, however.

2. Keep sight lines open. If your lawn is in the front yard and you replace it with tall shrubs, you’re creating a hazard every time you pull out of your driveway. You need to see what’s coming, and approaching cars need to see you backing out. The solution is to keep plants low where views are needed, and keep the taller stuff at the back.

3. Light. Don’t plant things that will grow up and cover your windows. If you want to screen views to a room, plant your shrubs far enough away from the house that you’ll still get light in the room. Planting shrubs farther out also gives you a nice private garden view instead of a mass of green leaves pressed against a window when the plant grows.

4. Maintenance. Just because you’re not mowing does not mean you’re not doing maintenance. Your new garden will need periodic trimming, initial weeding and periodic general cleanup. You may want to check on more natural ways of pruning and trimming than the mow-and-blow standard of shearing everything into a ball.

5. Think new opportunities. Ideally, you’re not just removing lawn; you’re transforming your landscape into something more interesting. You can use mounds to create a bit more privacy, perhaps to create a small patio for visual interest or chatting with neighbors – the new space does not have to be entirely dedicated to plants! If you add mounds, you’ll improve drainage – and the mounds can envelop the patio area for more separation from the street. In the back yard, your former lawn can become a Bocce court, dining space, a lounge, herb garden, grove of trees for sitting in the shade, a sculpture garden with flowing ornamental grasses, a hummingbird garden…

Of course, if it’s design ideas you need, we can help! Check our ideas section for some transformations, get in touch and create some wonderful spaces for yourself!