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…

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.

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.

Elements of design in nature | elements of nature in design

Line, form, color, texture, contrast, pattern, repetition, movement. All elements of design to consider when creating a built landscape. Finding and studying them in nature helps us recreate them in gardens and understand natural relationships of elements of a harmonious concept.

These scenes juxtapose chaos (willow branches), pattern (grasses, water plants), direction (some willow branches, grasses), color (willow branches, water, grasses, water plants), texture (water, grasses, vetch). Some scenes are worth painting; others not. Much depends on one’s point of view.

Of course, a painter can paint what she imagines instead of brute reality, arranging the elements as she sees fit to create a stronger painting. We do much the same thing designing landscapes: lining up views, overlapping elements here, contrasting them there, putting light against dark or bold against soft.

For dynamism, contrast in color, form and pattern work well: soft against bold, dark against light, movement against stability.

For harmony, subtle changes of pattern, harmonious colors, low contrast and sweeping horizontal lines make calm spaces.

In built landscapes, we can juxtapose bold hardscape with soft, harmonious plants – or do the opposite. Large sculptures emerging from billowy grasses in different hues for the first; stong, architectural plants such as agaves with simple gravel paving for the latter. We can also do both – mix the agaves and the sculpture or the grasses with the gravel.

All schemes can work, as long as there’s a hierarchy where main focal points cede to secondary, to background, to what artists call negative space. This is the calm between features that helps them stand out, easily discerned where they hold they gaze before the secondary items detail pulls you in. Ideally, the design will draw the eye through it in a repeating cycle, only to be redefined as the visitor moves through the garden.


Design for time

Landscapes, unlike buildings, aren’t really complete until many years have passed. They go in the ground only as potential, the design something that will complete itself with time. The plants will grow, surfaces will acquire patinas, unexpected things might happen.

lots of lawn!

These photos were shot around January of 1999. It’s now January 2016, seventeen years later. Very few gardens look their best in January, so they’re usually shot in spring when everything is green and blooming. Shooting in January gives a more realistic view of seasonal changes, and helps build stronger year-round designs.

Too often, landscape renovations take for granted that existing elements work, without looking at how the garden should be laid out. Here, a too-small path linked the driveway to the porch, but did not allow adequate planting space between the path and the house. It didn’t lead to the front door, either. We’ve watched the neighbors replace their paths, and the typical solution is to rip out the old path, pour new concrete in the same space and consider it “new”. We thought about where we walk from the driveway to the door, and watched the mailman. That’s where the new path went, and it gave us enough space for a new mound between the path and the house to boot.

Although the “blob tree” screened the street, it worked too well. There was no way to watch friends arrive or check to see the UPS delivery until they got to the front door. Replacing the tree with a planted mound improved drainage and screened the street, but still let us see out and  more light into the north side of the house, too.

There was no direct path from the door to the street. Again, watching the mailman – and anyone willing to arrive via the lawn – showed the logical path of travel. This path, being the main route to the door is paved in concrete. The other – a side route parallel to the street – was paved in urbanite to create a hierarchy of travel.

Watching plants grow
Some plants might sulk, never growing to their full size. Others may exceed expectations and require judicious pruning. Some may not look as good as that brochure at the nursery and will be yanked out of the design in favor of something else more likely to fit the requirements.

Only the river birch remains from the original design, along with a holly bush that we keep for the mockingbirds, who like its berries.

The lawn went away, along with all that mowing, aerating and feeding. There’s now a direct path to the street, and the original too-short, too narrow path is something that follows actual circulation patterns. The boulevard cypress died and needed to be removed. Low voltage lighting washes parts of the landscape with pools of light.

Mounds now screen the street so views from the house focus on plants instead of asphalt. They’re still low enough to see over – the intent was only to hide the street, not totally block views to the house.

Some plants have spread, others muddle on. There’s a bit of Mexican lobelia that throws out a few flowers each year, a coyote bush that was supposed to spread but never got beyond two feet wide, a lavatera that wasn’t so drought tolerant and perished.

Scrub jays planted a native oak in a non-irrigated section of the garden, promising more shade and future changes. For now, we’ve added to the area with native wildflowers, a redbud and a ceanothus. There is some lavender for the bees and a Jerusalem sage for a bit of yellow to complement the blue ceanothus.

Other plants – rosemary, manzanita, rushes, Santa Barbara daisies, agapanthus and the officially invasive feather grass have thrived. A couple of Tasred dianellas have taken years to grow to about a foot tall. A native rose is being tested among the rushes.

The river birch has hosted multiple families of mourning doves, but has yet to have a tenant in its nesting box. Black phoebes built mud nests under the eaves, but never laid eggs.

Before and After: more depth, more interest, more color in season, more usable space

The garden before transformation to something more interesting
Front yard, 1999
Front yard, 2016
Front yard, 2016


The deck wasn't well placed, and large parts of the back yard were inaccessible or unusable.
Back yard, 1999
Back yard, 2016
Back yard, 1999 (before February maintenance)


The paths didn't make sense and there was entirely too much mowing required.
Back yard, 1999
Back yard, 2016
Back yard, 2016



Autumn in the Central Valley

Did autumn come late this year, just as everything else arrived in advance? It’s been a warm year, and cooler temperatures were late to arrive, waiting until mid-November to put on the chill. With low temperatures finally hitting the high 30’s (high fives in celsius, more fun to say) the leaves flipped their color switches and blasted into color. 

These trees are mostly maples, not especially drought tolerant, but for some reason it seems that fall color and drought tolerance are a rare combination. Chinese pistache and staghorn sumac aren’t thirsty, but the maples appreciate regular water. Still, as trees they’re less demanding of frequent drinks than lawn and more tolerant if they have to go without, within reason.

The best time to photograph these colors? Just after a rosy sunset. The sky color intensifies the leaves and since there’s no direct sun, there’s no contrast. This creates a glowing effect, almost surreal. Any wind makes the leaves blur, sometimes artistically (so does twisting the camera during the shot, as was done for one of the red maple photos).


Flaming fall color

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is interesting all year, but in fall it’s flame on! Its color rivals Chinese pistache, in a smaller, faster-growing multi-trunk tree with a more dramatic form and strange spiky red seed heads as a bonus.

The name staghorn sumac is appropriate. Not only do the branches spread like antlers, they’re even covered in velvet like young antlers. Branches grow until they produce a seed head, then branch out the next year.

From some quick research on the web, it seems this variety of sumac is not toxic, unlike some of its cousins. The web being what it is (funny, considering where you’re reading this), I even found a note saying it’s native to the Middle East (it’s not – this species is from the Midwest United States). The note goes on to say that you can grind the red berries and sprinkle them over your saffron rice, kabobs, koobideh, grilled chicken, whatever. Personally, I prefer to buy my ground sumac from our local Middle Eastern market – since my guess is that the ground spice comes from Sicilian sumac, Rhus coriaria or a Middle Eastern species, not R. typhina. Consider the plant strictly an ornamental unless you want to play guinea pig, since some of its cousins are rather nasty things to put in your mouth.

The good

Incredible fall color
In places like California’s Central Valley, this is an absolute top tree (shrub?) for fall color. It reliably turns various shades of flame, sequencing its leaves through the color palette before dropping them, for a long color period.

Relatively small (for a tree) 
The plant – I still can’t decide if it’s a shrub, tree or a bit of both – stays relatively compact. Although in this case that doesn’t mean the same thing as low maintenance, at least it should not need topping to stay in scale with one story homes or offices.

Hardy & heat-resistant
Staghorn sumac resists temperatures cold enough to freeze most California ornamentals, and heat doesn’t bother it either.

Low water use
It’s indifferent as to water, even if some nurseries say it needs moderate water, others say it prefers a dry site. From our experience, it seems happier with a little water. Cutting off the tap seems to slow it down rather than harming it, at least in our water-retaining clay soil.

Multiple varieties
There are numerous varieties, some with finely dissected leaves. Some varieties have lime green leaves in addition to dissected leaves and all have spectacular fall color.

Tough plant
It’s tough, good for difficult places in hot sun and poor soil as long as there’s decent drainage. It supposedly does well in pots, a good way to contain its aggressive spreading – so perhaps a large pot in hot sun would make a good home for one of these trees.

The bad

Tough plant
It’s tough, so once it’s got a foothold it will resist all attempts to remove it. Left on their own, these plants want to form thickets. They’re always shooting up suckers somewhere, and if you ever plant one and decide to move it, you’ll have a lot of new plants poking up from the old location in springtime. Be prepared to regularly cut and pull suckers around the main plant, even ten feet away from the main trunk.

Needs pruning
This is a plant that needs some lopping, or you won’t have that open trunk any more. Branches need to be selectively removed in late spring or early summer to maintain the tree’s structure. Since they grow fast, you may need to make several passes before things calm down in midsummer and you can sit back, grill some kabobs and enjoy your tree.

If you were looking for something evergreen, this isn’t it. The tree however stands as an interesting silhouette in winter, retaining its seed heads at the tips of its branches.

Not much wildlife value
Birds don’t seem to go after the seeds, and it doesn’t seem to be a major wildlife plant. Its structure is too open for birds to feel hidden while roosting, and the flowers don’t seem especially attractive to our local insects.

Note: I’ve found the plant’s name spelled “Typhina” and “Typina” at one nursery. Typhina is the correct spelling, as far as I know – it’s what Annette and I both learned in plant identification (it grows well in France, too).

Lawn gone? These plants will spice up your new landscape!

We’ve been visiting Mountain States Nursery’s booths at conferences around the Southwest, everywhere but Sacramento, dreaming about exotic plant shapes, colorful flowers of all shapes and sizes to try back home… 

After concluding that getting their plants in Sacramento was basically Mission Impossible, we walked into our local landscape trade show to see a Mountain States booth. Is it true? They’re here? Apparently, thanks to the drought people are finally getting interested in their plants, enough for the nursery to bring them here for us to create intriguing new landscapes.

Although they blamed the drought for the increased interest, you shouldn’t need a drought to fall in love with these plants. They’re interesting in many ways: form, color, ecological benefits… As designers, we like having a new range of accent and massing plants to play with – especially when we know they won’t look horrible after one of those 110° heat waves.

As new introductions arrive, the choices other than rocks and cactus for coping with the drought expand. We can create exotic floral displays, plant textures from fine to bold, new-age spiky for silhouetting against a wall or classically mounded forms that play well with the neighbors.

The best thing about high desert plants from higher elevations is that they take heat and cold. They can be fussy about drainage, but planting them on mounds generally suffices. No matter how hot it gets in Sacramento these things won’t fry. Not even in reflected heat and blazing sun.

If used with other Mediterranean plants with similar water requirements, you can create a colorful landscape that says, “exotic” more than “desert”. Use ornamental grasses, Calliandra, sundrops and desert willow for a soft look with seasonal color. Or mix palo verde, manzanita, bulbine and matiljia poppies (if you’ve got the space) for a bit more contrast of form. Use California fuchsia, white sage, Agave ‘Blue Glow’, blue gramma grass and Marguerita BOP penstemons to take it up a notch… Or create something architectural based on Agave ‘Blue Glow’, pink hesperaloe, Salvia chamaedryoides, ‘Emerald Carpet’ manzanita and Euphorbia antisyphilitica.

Although there were more plants than I remember, these are the ones I’d like to play with in the future. Some are new varieties of familiar friends; others are new and exciting things for experimenting.

Hesperaloe flowers used to come in coral. That was pretty much it, as shown in the photo. It’s a good color, but people like choices. Now, you can get compact red (H. ‘Brakelights’), yellow (H. parviflora ‘Yellow’) and pink (H. ‘Pink Parade’) – or keep the coral flowers. The yellow plants are clones – like in your favorite science fiction movie, only not as dangerous. The benefit is that the plants have close to identical growth rates, all else being equal, so you can mass them and get all geometric in your planting design, perhaps for a modern landscape.

Desert willows – Chilopsis
These small trees put on quite a show during their flowering season. The original species had long, drooping seed pods that people weren’t as fond of, especially in leafless winter. Producing seed pods also shortens the blooming season, since the plant’s efforts move from flowers to seeds. New varieties produce fewer seed pods for more blooms, and you can choose between the typical burgundy/pink/lilac flowers, deep burgundy, lilac pink and deep crape myrtle like pinks. Mature plants run from around 20 to 30 feet tall and equally wide. They tend to grow as multi-trunked trees and are well suited for patios in sunny locations, especially where reflected heat would stress other choices like Japanese maples.

A new hybrid calliandra – feather duster – was on display at the show. It did look a bit finer and more compact than either of its parents, but the real bonus was that it should survive in Sacramento. These plants may attract hummingbirds, although it’s not clear if our local hummingbirds would know what to do with the fuzzy things. Calliandras make a great semi-transparent shrub to combine for a layered effect with deer grass, emerald carpet manzanita and bulbine.

If you really feel this drought deserves some cactus, there’s a new cold hardy spineless gray prickly pear (Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’) that can be used as a background plant – it gets about six feet tall. I’m not a fan of pure cactus gardens because when I walk around the desert I don’t just see cactus: there are shrubs and other plants growing among the cacti. So, if I were to yield to my cactus desires, I’d 86 the hard to remove gravel and surround the cactus with native narrow-leaf milkweed, California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and Howard McMinn manzanita if I had the space.  Maybe I’d throw in some naked lady bulbs for deep pink amaryllis flowers backed by blue-gray cactus. Maybe I’d a bit of autumn sage, for extended color and happier hummingbirds. Then I’d throw in a bit of blue grama grass for extra fuzziness to contrast with the bold pads of the cactus.

Palo Verde
Desert Museum palo verde trees do seem to be catching on in Sacramento. We’ve used them in two projects so far. They don’t do as well as in Arizona or Southern California, but they still produce a nice show of bright yellow flowers floating over a translucent light green tree with green bark. The benefits of this variety are no spines, larger flowers and better cold tolerance than most varieties of palo verde.

They carry some hardy agaves, even smaller species – but it looks like Monterey Bay Nursery has a better selection for our area. Between the two nurseries, you should be able to enjoy Weber agave (the source of Tequila), A. parryi, A. blue glow, A. sharkskin and others. If you’re looking for some giant A. salmiana, let me know: I have a lot of pups coming off the mother plant that would be happy to move in with you and grow, grow grow. None of these is huggable; soft, spineless varieties can’t take much cold and won’t survive in the Sacramento area.

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.