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).

Urban patio

An urban patio with fresh vegetables, a bit of sports and lots of seating

What it may lack in size, it makes up in usability. Seating choices surround the patio, a table tennis rematch awaits behind the screen, a table invites guests to linger over a meal, an integrated vegetable garden helps provide the food. There’s even an espaliered apple tree awaiting autumn harvests. The back gate leads to local restaurants in case nobody wants to cook.

What this garden needed was functionality, style and a sense of place. Tiled patios replaced dirt, an umbrella blossoms over a new dining area, seat walls wrap around spaces for larger gatherings. Snap peas climb a hog wire trellis separating the table tennis area from the dining table, where they will eventually create a green backdrop to the table.

The patio lies between the kitchen and a gate leading to a number of local restaurants, and maybe a market (it used to be a Whole Foods, but they closed, leaving a vacuum).

Front yard living

There wasn’t much space for a patio in the back, the neighbors are friendly, so why not create a living space in the front yard? Hello, everyone!

While adults dine on the deck, they can watch the kids play on swings under the tree.

The wood is unstained sustainable Fijian mahogany, left to go gray where it’s in the sun. Using the same wood in different widths for the screen wall, decking and planters creates a unified yet dynamic look.


New Front Yard

Sometimes it just takes a bit of structure to pull everything together. This front yard remodel created a seating space, enhanced curb appeal and incidentally removed unused lawn that just wasted water. Nobody will miss it.

this phone panorama, although distorted, gives an idea of where we started. 

One goal was to create a clear, inviting pedestrian entry separate from the driveway. The new route also happened to give visitors a choice to turn right and hang out with friends in a hidden seating area or proceed to the front door.

The design kept the mid-century modern aesthetics of the house, using simple geometric forms and subdued colors.

The plant palette veers a bit towards the Southwest with a Desert Museum palo verde, yuccas, agaves, bulbine and other drought tolerant plants. It’s still growing in, and will look more unified as time goes by and the plants hide the bark.

The hidden patio uses decomposed granite bordered by aluminum edging. The privacy fence is horizontal ironwood (ipe), and the white wall is plastered concrete blocks with metal numbers showing the address. Paths are salt finish, integral color concrete, and the steps are a darker color for contrast.

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.

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.