Authors: Christiane Holmquist & Gordon J.
Photography: Emma Almendarez
A recent project amazed me in its rapid flourishing and the joy it brought me and the homeowner. Planting started in early January of this year, and by May the garden was awash in butterflies, birds, and bloom, surprising and delighting us all. The homeowner was so excited that he volunteered to give me his view of our collaboration, and I gladly reprint here his words, with my picture comments:
A Story of a Bench
“As a homeowner, I always thought that the best project outcomes occurred when there was a strong collaboration between the design professional and the homeowner. To illustrate, here’s the tale of a bench and how it came to be.
Me– an elderly gentleman, AKA “the client.”
Christiane Holmquist–AKA Christiane Holmquist Landscape Design
My wife and I bought our home in 1980, which was 3 years old, but totally lacked landscaping. Using design professionals, we landscaped our property–pool, spa, patios, trees, gardens, etc. We planted a wide variety of trees, including a gingko, macadamia nut, bronze loquats, citrus, Chinese fringe trees, paper barks, magnolias, cassias, etc.
As the decades rolled by, the trees became lovely and mature and, correspondingly, we became mature (80+ and counting) (but lovely would be a real stretch). Therefore, with age, we focused on landscape seniorization–how to enjoy and work in the gardens while also minimizing the risk of falls.
One small seniorization action was to install large stone steps between a concrete walkway and a dry streambed. It gave access to the area and with the solid steps, the risk of tripping or falling was minimized.
Enter Christiane. She observed that the garden had “good bones,” meaning that the mature trees and shrubs anchored the new more modern usage of low water plants and native plant material. However, when it came to the stone steps she said, “You can’t have a walkway without a destination! It needs a bench to sit on across from the streambed.” I noted that the spot she was talking about was just beyond a major branch of the macadamia nut tree that I was likely to bump my head on and the bench would be in deep shade. I nixed the idea.
Christiane and I moved onto other elements of the design project — plant species, availability, etc.
Weeks later, Christiane came back to the idea of a bench. She suggested that it be placed in front of the streambed, but still under the canopy of the macadamia nut tree. This time I was able to picture it–a big stone slab resting on two stone pillars that fit two people comfortably. By now I have lots of confidence in Christiane’s judgment and design strength. Also, the masonry people had done a great job building a new wall. So, let’s do it!! In goes the bench. It made the nearby birdbath look out-of-place. So, in goes a large stone birdbath in harmony with the bench.
Fast Forward a Few Months
The stone bench and birdbath are the feature attractions of the center of the gardens. The bench is my favorite spot. One can watch the butterflies–monarchs, swallowtails, sulphurs–fluttering in the sunlight and the birds– sometimes chirping away, sometimes silent, sometimes bathing–enjoying the yard. The bench is a great place for conversations with others. It’s a great place for visitors to enjoy the gardens. A great place for memories.
Thank you, Christiane, for your insight and your persistence.
Sincerely, Gordon.” (End of quote).
Heartfelt thanks to you, Gordon; I much enjoyed working with you!
Gordon’s comments reinforce my love of helping homeowners see the strengths and weaknesses of their existing gardens, and of developing landscape design plans for their improvement, while keeping the client preferences in mind. With Gordon’s detailed involvement we found exceptional plants that bring life to “good bones” and produce enjoyment year round while keeping the upkeep to a minimum. A project like this teaches me a lot about gardens and how to make them better; it fuels my work and propels me on … to the next garden.
Hooray – the sun is back again! And perhaps the drought cycle is broken now! Pictures on the news were showing the effects of the recent deluges, and some of them were quite dramatic. Stepping into a puddle outside the front door is annoying but nothing compared to the destruction that water can wreak when not channeled properly. Some of the damage that a deluge can create in our landscapes is beyond our control, such as rising rivers or breaking dams. But rain water washing out driveways, entering patios or – heaven forbid – eroding your slopes can be guarded against.
Here are some vital strategies:
Most homes are constructed with drainage in mind, but you should make sure that the landscaping slopes away from your home so that excess water can flow away from it (research the guidelines that may differ depending on surface material). Drainage intakes, grates, swales, trenches, and ditches should be clear and free of any obstructions; so should gutters and downspouts, making sure they channel water down, out and away from your property. You’d be surprised at how much water damage could be averted by simply having fully functional gutters.
Raised Beds, Berms, Trenches, Soil Amendments
When your soil is clayish, it will hold onto water longer, and each additional rain shower will take time to drain away. “Soil prep” (amending your soil with organic matter or sand) to possibly as 6-12 inches deep will increase the clay’s absorption rate and prevent from water clogging the soil pores, thus providing air to the plant roots.
If soil amendments are not possible everywhere and occasional flooding can’t be avoided, you can move plants onto higher ground, either by putting them in containers, raised beds or berms. “Berming up”, i.e. creating artificial mounds will aid in keeping your plants on the dryer side. Incidentally, creating an undulating landscape with raised areas will make your landscape more visually interesting.
Additionally, creating trenches for the surplus water might be needed to direct the water away from the garden.
Re-direct Stormwater Runoff
Swales, French Drains, Catch Basins, Channel Drains
Filtering the stormwater runoff before it moves downhill is advantageous to neighbor properties and the health of rivers and streams. To do this, create broad, shallow swales. If water is moving at a faster speed and erosion is a problem, install a French drain below the surface.
Consider installing channel drains in patios and driveways to properly handle any water buildup that may occur. Channel drains are installed within the concrete itself, with access vents to catch the water before it presents a threat.
Reduce Impermeable Surfaces
A good deal of the water in our gardens can be traced to impermeable surfaces. “The next time it rains.. trace the water flowing along ditches and gutters back to the points where it leaves your yard. Chances are, it’s cascading off of a solid surface, like a roof or driveway, which prevents rain from soaking into the ground. [These] “impermeable surfaces” are a major cause of storm water runoff, particularly in urban areas.
One way to curb runoff is to reduce the number of impermeable surfaces in your landscape. That allows water to stand long enough for the ground to absorb it. Start by taking stock of the surfaces in your landscape. Which ones are impermeable, and which of those can be replaced with a more permeable alternative? (Source: gardenclub.homedepot.com)
Protecting Newly Prepped Planter Beds
At one of my projects, the crew had just finished removing the old plants and prepping the beds with amendments. When the work needed to be stopped because of the approaching storm, here are the precautions that the contractor took to protect his work from storm damage.
Natural fibers, biodegradable fibers in erosion control
He fastened Coconut fiber coir to the edges of the newly prepped planter bed to protect it from run-off and erosion. These coirs or wattles are derived from the husks of coconuts; jute netting (not “poly jute” which is synthetic) and sisal fibers are also used to make semi-permanent netting, mats, blocks, and wattles, all with various usages in bank stabilization and erosion control. They are the strongest and most robust erosion control options available. (Note that natural-fiber netting might be environmentally preferable).
He also protected the drains with pebbles so that the soil, not yet protected by mulch and plants, would not get clogged up.
Slopes can cause the greatest anxiety because if unstable they can cause major damage to your home and landscape. The appropriate plants, proper mulching, and the right irrigation system have the greatest chances of success. Unless the nature of the slope is such to requires also cross-drains, terracing and/or retaining walls. A qualified, licensed landscape contractor can help you assess the best approach to stabilizing your hillside, and in more serious cases I’d call upon the expertise of a geotechnical engineer and/or hydraulics engineer.
Irrigation Systems and Slopes
Of course, the wrong irrigation system on your slope can make all this work worthless. Rotors that apply water “fast and furiously” will throw water on the slope that will run off before it can soak into the plant roots. Also, a water jet that hits plant foliage rather than the small plants behind the obstacle will also cause run-off. In some cases, i.e. with low-growing plants, you can be successful with spray irrigation. Although drip irrigation is often the best way to apply irrigation water. Be careful not to soak the soil too deeply as this may cause more problems that no water at all.
Looking around at nature, the most successful and attractive slopes seem to be those with substantial plant life on them! This is because plant roots have soil stabilization functions, as well as softening the impact from rain, and various other benefits that plants provide here. There are numerous articles written about slope stabilization. I want to quote from one that is posted on the website of Las Pilitas Nursery, a grower of California native plants.
“Most hillsides can be made relatively stable with plants. A planting can stop nearly all erosion and hillside movement in a landscape. Almost. The only way of stabilizing a slope better than plants is a reinforced retaining wall “. Even if you don’t want to use California natives on your slope, you’ll find ideas here that you can transfer to your own slope”
Around Your House
Keep your gutters clean, and prevent clogging by installing gutter guards. Gutter guards are the device used to protect the clogging of the roof gutter so that the water from the roof may flow easily and accumulation of water does not take place on the roof but away from the house.
Turn off irrigation
Don’t forget to turn off any automatic irrigation systems until your garden has dried out to a depth of 3-4 inches on the surface. Turning it on again might not be needed until March or April. How do you know that the soil has dried out that deep? Use a soil tube! It’s one of my best tools in the gardening kit.
Water is an “un-precise element” (that’s what the engineer explained to me when I asked him about the brow ditch that the crews were building to divert water from the newly cut slope) and its force and actions not entirely predictable. We can only prepare for it as best as we know. Let’s hope for a safe rainy season and more rain – but of the gentle kind.
I hope spring has revived your gardening interests to rediscover your connection with nature, and that you have been well. My spring clean-up is not done yet; I’m still finishing bird netting over my strawberries, refreshing mulch, and getting my irrigation in shape.
In my last two posts, I was considering how hardscape has come to dominate many of our landscapes, and how the beauty, intimacy and romance has gone out of them. Today I want to show how well-selected plants can balance out the hard structures making our gardens softer and more welcoming.
[I’ll be speaking about this topic at the Water Conservation Garden on June 11, from 10-12 a.m. Come and join me and see more in-depth information and examples. I’d love to see you there!]
This design looks like many prized landscapes that boast a lot of flawless architecture; an artful pool, perfect stucco’ed retaining walls, a big deck with BBQ and Palapa dominate this backyard. Naturally we are proud of the beautiful materials used in these designs, but to me these landscapes look overdesigned and lifeless; I feel that they miss the opportunity to provide a true connection to the land, our family, even ourselves.
However, our gardens can be ideal vehicles to give our lives greater depth when we give plants greater importance and let them enchant us, when we let them make our gardens softer and more welcoming. Here is a list of plants that have presence in the garden, have in their combined use strong emotional impact and fulfill many of the functions that we have handed over to the “hardscapes”. Most of these are very drought-conscious or drought tolerant, so not only do they serve our immediate needs, they also help conserve water…
Most gardens, even the smallest ones, need at least one or two trees. Trees shelter a garden space; anchor a home to its site by giving it the right proportions; they can frame a view, impart age and “wisdom” and provide needed shade and well-being. As architectural elements, they provide a “vertical element”; give a sense of place.
The following lists are by no means exhaustive; they only give a glimpse of what’s possible.
Obviously, a good choice unites the site conditions with the tree’s character as well as the likes and dislikes of the person who will live with the tree.
Also, consider that a tree that naturally suckers can be trained into a “multi-trunked” tree that offers the opportunity to enjoy its trunks better, show off its shape and create an open, airy screen. A multi-trunk Crape Myrtle comes to mind…
Medium to large deciduous trees: canopies for shelter and shade
Chinaberry Melia azederach
White Empress Tree Paulownia fortune
Chinese Pistache Pistachia chinensis
Chinese Flame Tree Koelreuteria bipinnata
Mesquite Propopis spp.
Mimosa or Silk Tree Albizia julibrissin
Strawberry Tree Arbutus ‘Marina’
Texas Olive Cordia boissieri
Sweet Bay Laurus nobilis
Phoenix Date Palm Phoenix
Oak (many species) Quercus spp.
Acacia & Wattle (many) Acacia spp.
Primrose Tree Lagunaria patersonii
Small deciduous, attention-grabbing speminen trees
Paperbark Marple Acer griseu
Chinese Fringe Tree Chionanthus retus
Crape Myrtle Lagerstroemia indica & Lagerstroemia hybrids
Palo Verde Parkinsonia aculeata
California Buckeye, Horse Chestnut Aesculus californica
Trees with distinctive foliage and/or attractive fall foliage; or with great winter silhouette
Crape Myrtle Lagerstroemia spp.
‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud Cercis Canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’
Locust Robinia pseudoacacia
Mesquite Prosopis spp.
California Buckeye Aesculus californicus
Cork Oak Quercus suber
ENCLOSURES & SCREENING (TREES & SHRUBS)
Let plants do the screening and enclosing (or at least hide the hard materials). The enclosure responds to an ancient desire for protection, and screening out an unwanted view or our neighbors’ homes and windows creates the best environment in which we can feel completely at ease, relax and connect with ourselves.
Camouflaging the boundaries to our private “universe” creates the sense that we are surrounded by nature which can make our gardens feel larger. Hedges of mixed plantings can provide a good screen or enclosure that requires only minimal pruning and shows off a variety of textures and colors.
Screening Plants (some might need gentle pruning to integrate into the hedge)
Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia (a California native)
Yew Pine Podocarpus macrophylus and P. macrophyllus maki Shrubby Yew Pine
Oleander Nerium oleander
Bamboo Bambusa spp.
Lemon Bottle Brush Callistemon citrinus
Bay Laurus nobilis
Boxwood Buxus sempervirens (when left unclipped as it is rarely seen, it develops a form that is sensuous and curvaceuous)
Exclamation points & Beacons; “Power Plants”, & columnar/fastigiated plants
These are plants with strong presence that replace gate columns or other devices of directing traffic; they also impart a very personal character to the garden.
Cedar Cedrus spp.
Boxwood Buxus sempervirens
Greenlee’s Blue Rocket Cupressus guadalupensis ‘Greenlee’s Blue Rocket’
Tecate Cypress Cupressus forebesii
Italian Cypress Cupressus sempervirens
Bottlebrush ‘Sim’ Callistemon vimiminalis ‘Slim’
Icee Blue Yellow-Wood Podocarpus ‘Icee Blue’
Kohuhu Pittosporum tenuifolium (various)
Some form of pavement might be welcome for certain activities in the garden, such as dining, lounging or hanging around a pool. However, many plants can be employed to soften the edges of pavement, to connect spaces, and to break up large expanses of pavement.
They can also guide our paces and allow rich encounters in the garden. Their closeness to the visitor demands a variety of textures and colors.
Low-growing, softening perennials
Trailing Buttercups, Sundrops Calylophus drummondii (or Calylophus hartwegii)
Little One Verbena Verbena bonariensis ‘Little One’
Stalked Bulbine Bulbine frutescens
Ground Morning Glory Convolvulus mauritanicus (C. sabatius)
Woodland Strawberry Fragaria vesca F. vesca californica (fruit bearing, excellent groundcover for shady situations)
Pink Spice Cranesbill Pelargonium ionidiflorum
THE MID GROUND
Mid ground shrubs anchor the design, provide longevity and structure; they serve as also fillers; some can do double duty as accents. For these, I like to use shrubs with woody character; they are needed to “ground” the soft and inherently ephemeral perennials. In most designs, I prefer evergreen shrubs; they need not be shrubs with attractive bloom.
In landscapes with more succulents, I like to use shrubby succulents that keep their form and their ‘leafy’ or fleshy foliage (Senecio, Aeonium haworthii).
Dwarf variegated Myrtle Myrtle Myrtus communis ‘Variegata’ compacta
Creeping Barberry Berberis repens
Hummingbird Sage Salvia spathaceae (California native plant)
Rockrose ‘Sunset’ Cistus ‘Sunset’ 2-3 x 6-8 ft; evergreen, magenta flowers
Geraldton Waxflower ‘Purple Gem’ and ‘Purple Pride’ Chamaelaucium uncinatum
Blue Bells Eremophila hygrophana
Grevillea rosmarinifolius ‘Scarlet Sprite’ , foundation shrub, 4-5 ft,
Cacti, succulents, yucca-like plants: Plants with striking foliage and/or form
Century Plant Agave spp.
Candelabra Cactus Cereus peruvianus
Sotol Dasylirion spp.
Dragon Tree Dracaena draco
Barrel Cactus Echinocactus spp.
Beargrass Nolina spp.
Prickly Pear Opuntia
Clumping Bamboo Bambusa spp.
Sago Palm Cycas revoluta
Chamal Dioon spp.
THE LARGE STUFF: Accents & “signature”
Sometimes it’s useful to employ shrubs that draw the eye, perhaps in order to distract from an unwanted sight behind it… These shrubs can be “signature” plants that enhance or underline the character of the garden: Subtropical, or Mediterranean, or California native, or Urban/modern.
Tecoma ‘Solar Flare’
Texas Ranger Leucophyllum frutescens
Baja Fairy Duster Calliandra californica
Brazilian Copper Tree Euphorbia cotinifolia
Arabian Lilac Vitex trifolia ‘Purpurea’
Large backround shrubs
Some shrubs are needed to simply give the illusion of being surrounded by endless nature, as back ground plants.
Griselinia Griselinia littoralis
Sweet Olive Osmanthus fragrans
Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia
Bay Laurus nobilis
EMOTIONAL IMPACT, NOT ARCHITECTURE
I believe a garden, in order to enhance our connection with nature, to nurture us and to be memorable, needs to appeal to our emotions, whether is has a modern geometric design or is more free-form, naturalistic in character. I’d do this by making the garden look “grown” and casual, not forced, like in this example: When creating a southwest garden and imitating the desert floor, consider a mix of several sizes and textures of that hard material: A desert floor is made up of fine textured sand, coarser gravel, and small and large pebbles interspersed with rocks. A groundcover therefore made of a uniform cover of gravel would look unnatural.
Placement and size of plants: When placing a bold grouping of, say, Barrel Cacti, make sure the placement is asymmetrical, in order to achieve a nature-made effect. Introduce these plants in different sizes, not all the same which would look contrived.
Mix textures: Avoid making a garden with only strong textured plants; in nature, those plants are always surrounded by more ephemeral, fine textured plants.
In other words, study how plants and landscapes grow… disguise the hand that is designing the garden, and aim for the emotional impact that a naturalistic garden can impart, even when it is a geometrically organized, modern design.
Look to my next post for more on how plants can help us create living designs.
Don’t allow the hardscape to dominate the planting
In my last post I endeavored to put plants in the forefront of our gardens in order to make them softer and more welcoming: Under our southern sun pavements, structures and other built structures create glare and very deep shadows. How can we reduce the harshness of this bright white light in residential landscape design?
I think the primordial quality of a well-designed garden is its ability to let our eyes and minds rest. To that effect, I want to employ shade, light-absorbing textures, coolness, perhaps even the sound of water. I try to balance out the hard structures with drought resistant landscaping and let the plants play an equal if not greater role in the organization and feel of the design. Here are a few tricks how to employ plants to that effect:
Plants have many roles: They create the visual pleasure that changes through the seasons because of the seasonal bloom, and they offer a juxtaposition of delicate textures with the outlines of strict architecture or rugged boulders. Plants can repeat the dynamic contrast between horizontal and vertical lines already present in the architecture of a house. Leaning pine branches intersect with vertical grass blades, while vertical flower stems stand at a right angle to a boulder’s edge.
Here, the stone flower beds will start to look less heavy when the vines start to take over the arbor and the perennials and shrubs gain their mature height, cascading over the sides to soften them. While distinctly dividing the side of the house into different areas, each area becomes its own secret garden.
Soon, the three Podocarpus trees along the back wall will be tall enough to screen out the neighbor’s house and all boundaries will be obscured, thus creating total privacy in a natural setting.
This design also creates the illusion of distance, giving the front yard a larger feel. The small deciduous shrub will provide more shade and privacy as it matures, and give an excellent opportunity to use creative landscape lighting to add drama at night by revealing its beautiful branch structure.
Getting away from hardscapes is a challenge; there are sexy materials that don’t need watering or maintenance, and will last close to forever. Stone, wood, glass, metal, and even fiberglass or plastic are very versatile and lend themselves to a variety of different uses. Be it fencing or furniture, these materials can help us give places to ‘hang’ our plants, much like in a big wardrobe.
Many landscape architects and landscape designers in San Diego (and elsewhere) have been trained to use these materials as the back-bones and foundations to build around – and upon – with plants in secondary filler roles. But plants can also serve this purpose; let yourself fall in love with the texture and structure of a plant, or your favorite tree, or a color, and design around that.
Tell your designer that this is the plant you want to showcase or use. Say you want a great big hedge of something to serve as a fence. Think about using our native Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia, or a Silverberry Eleagnus pungens. Both are tough shrubs with attractive foliage, colorful berries (Toyon) and fragrant flowers (Silverberry) that are very undemanding in soil, water or light and that can be sheered, pruned or trained into small trees or an evergreen screen. If you prefer beautiful craftsmanship, think about how a simple perfect circle carved from stone, laid in brick, or made of wood can’t help but stand out best when surrounded by the chaos and asymmetry of plants.
Right now is a great time to look for California natives, drought-tolerant succulents and waterwise perennials, shrubs and trees at your local nurseries!
I believe this is a topic that will interest many gardeners, and I’ll talk about it in greater detail and colorful examples in a presentation at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon on June 11, at 9:30 a.m., in a class entitled “Balancing hardscapes with plants”. Look for a detailed description in the coming weeks at the Garden’s website. I’d be happy to greet you there!
When leafing through a landscape trade magazine recently, I noticed how much emphasis was placed on the “hard stuff”: Large patios and terraces paved with interlocking pavers and seat-walls around them in either stone or concrete block; sweeping staircases, luxurious zero-edge pools, massive built-in outdoor kitchens with the latest in outdoor cooking technology…
Obviously, the homeowners had invested a small fortune into their landscape and I imagined them rightly proud of their yard improvements.
Yet it struck me how little inviting I found these spaces; the hardscape seemed to overwhelm the warmth of nature, which had been defeated.
Clarification: The layout and organization of a garden into ‘rooms’, or the ‘bones’ of a successful garden, is tantamount, but NOT dependent on hardscaping.
When I ask my clients to describe their home landscape design goals, one of the first things they mention is their dream of beautiful, lush plants that draw them out into the garden; they blame the garden’s unattractiveness on the lack of beautiful plants, and this may be quite true!
But I usually respond by pointing to other facts that make their garden uninviting: It is in most cases the poor organization of their spaces that doesn’t allow for smooth circulation. There may not be sufficient room for a comfortable dining table and a clear, logical way to serve food here…perhaps there’s no shade for the homeowner who wants to spend time outside without being roasted.
Frequently also, there’s not enough privacy for a family that likes to take their breakfast or dinner outside, in their PJs or swim wear (or naked, God forbid!)
So I do pay much attention to the layout of a garden and devise outdoor spaces that can be used in comfort, preferably with the most beautiful materials. However, while hardscaping can be used in all aforementioned circumstances, so can “plantscaping”.
Plants should be used more often to solve these problems. I begin envisioning their garden coming to life with plants, color, textures; I see the wildlife drawn by them and begin feeling the mood of the garden.
And I know that these plants will be substantially more than ‘the icing on the cake,’ but will also serve to organize the garden.
So what makes an outdoor space successful and inviting? What is it that draws us into them?
I can think of several groundbreaking ideas in the last 50 or so years that shook the gardening and design world. They called for a new, sustainable appreciation of plants and their function in our gardens.
They use such words as “enchantment”, “romance”, and “plant personalities”…and they describe the variety of their sculptural, dramatic, and attention-getting forms that we should consider in our designs and substitute for hardscaping.
Also, it is important that we consider plants at the very beginning of the design process, so that their softness and drama can be the leading elements of the design, and let the hardscaping once again provide a supporting role.
Hedges can be clipped into formal green ‘walls’ to delineate areas, provide privacy, or simply act as a backdrop. Trees with interesting shapes can give not only shade but supply the columns where we need strong vertical movement.
Trellises covered with vines can also provide privacy or decoration, and plants of different structures, textures, sizes, and colors can let the eye bounce around, lead it through a garden, and provide interest and momentum.
Hardscaping then is scaled back to its more appropriate role, and plants can once again frame a scene or blur boundaries with nature.
Numerous books and beautiful articles have been written about landscapes that make you dream and want to be in them.
Some advice that I’ve learned is to allow for change and growth in plants as well as in people’s responses, and to avoid creating “landscapes that demand that their plants stay in near suspended animation to fulfill the designer’s vision (and impose an unrealistic burden on their owners for upkeep)”. Let’s remind ourselves instead that, “At its heart a garden is a relationship, an ongoing dialog between people, plants and the place in which they both live and grow.” It is this relation with them that builds a garden.
-(“Plant-Driven Design,” pgs. 18 + 19, by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden)
In my next post, I’ll give a few examples of the power of plants and examine how they can be used where we traditionally imagine hardscapes:
- How big a pool deck do you really need?
- How do you create boundaries or privacy with plants if not with walls and fences?
- Will you need a retaining wall, or could plants do a better job?
These are some of the questions I look forward to examining, to help you create balance in your home landscape design.
Integrate your garden into the larger xeriscape that is our San Diego County.
(It could spell more fun and savings than you expected.)
With approaching retirement and more time to travel, Jeanie and Jim realized that their traditional garden didn’t seem to allow them much time away; it just didn’t respond well to weeks of absence. When they called me, I found that they begun to add to their traditional home landscape design many new-found loves: Various Aloes and Sticks on Fire Euphorbia, Organ Pipe and Barrel Cactus, ‘Bells of Fire’ Tecoma, Crown of Thorns and other xeriscape plants.
With their list of collected plants I was handed a clear mandate: Remove the old lawn, the worn-out shrubs and even the Queen Palms; create a drought resistant landscape, lively and evoking our local Anza Borrego desert, yet not too spiky and withered looking, that would be easy to maintain and allow them weeks of absence without needing human intervention.
Here’s their testimony about our adventure together:
What was the biggest motivator to transform your garden?
“We have always enjoyed succulents and the desert landscape, so we wanted both our front and backyards to look like the desert that we love. Also, due to our continuing drought situation, it made sense to convert to a low water landscape to save water. Additionally, the biggest motivator was to reduce our work in the yard: mowing would no longer be necessary. As we travel and are gone for extended periods of time, we wanted a landscape that was virtually maintenance-free during our absence.”
So where do I begin a landscape design renovation?
I imagined the entire garden as ‘playground’ for all the exotic drought resistant plants that Jim and Jeanie dreamt of. To display these plants to their fullest, the tilted surface of a mound would be useful; also, the mildly undulating terrain would bring some movement into the “flat” scene.
During our brainstorming the desire for ‘more entertainment’ were mentioned, so for the backyard I designed an extension of their patio, surrounded by seat-walls for casual overflow seating. Behind these walls, the terrain was also be mounded to give the planter bed here greater movement. Many of their desert plants were put here to which I added a few well-tested perennials and grasses: Sundrops Calylophus, Verbena ‘De la Mina’, California Fuchsia Epilobium and Angelita Daisy Hymenoxis. While the textures and forms of the desert plants are more permanent, the perennials and grasses would add a notion of seasonal decline and re-growth.
To these I added various Agaves, Rushes, grasses and Red Yuccas; also fluffier and softer foliage plants, such as Emu Bush Valentine Eremophila, and Texas Ranger Lynn’s Legacy’ Leucophyllum, chosen for its silvery foliage and light purple flowers that would offset well against the yellow and orange flowers of Senna, Tecoma and Palo Verde. I used creeping Elephant’s Food Portulacaria as an attractive groundcover and the grass-like Bulbine because of its flowers that attract bees year-round.
For me, Jim and Jeanie’s project was very satisfying; having clients who so clearly appreciate where they are, love region-appropriate plants and are open to a professional landscape designer’s suggestions makes always my job most pleasurable.
Here’s how Jeanie and Jim think about the experience:
What was your biggest and best-appreciated result?
“With careful plant selection, hardscape, lighting and other elements of the garden, we feel it was a success and we’re proud of having a really great yard. An unexpected bonus is the many compliments received from neighbors.”
To this I would add: With the boulders and the mounds as top dressing Jeanie and Jim have expressed their appreciation for our dry environment, but foremost they linked their garden with the rugged hills of Mission Trails Park across the canyon. The plants they love and the chip seal (a coarse DG) do another to give their garden a strong regional and authentic character.
What is your greatest pleasure now, or the thought or feeling most often felt when walking through your garden?
“We really enjoy the variety of our plant selection with the many colors, textures and shapes. Using DG (decomposed granite) as topdressing mulch allows the plants to really “pop out.” Over the last year we have witnessed the growth and color changes of the plants realizing that the landscape feels more alive and ever-changing than just a static lawn. We also appreciate the hummingbirds and bees that visit regularly.”
Any lesson learned or any other thought that you care to share with the readers?
“We learned: In drought situations, drip irrigation is the best way to conserve water. Landscape lighting is extremely important. Anyone undertaking this type of project should get the best lighting they can afford since it makes the project exceptional as the landscape is not only admired during the day, but it is just as impressive in the evening. (We highly recommend Volt LED lighting (available on the internet.) Also, it cost us twice as much as we originally thought during the early planning stages. Hardscape, lighting and other changes made during construction drove our costs up, but we are so pleased with the results that we would do it again. “
Looking back at this project and considering the short time in which this garden has continued to grow, another idea comes to mind:
In southern California, it is sometimes hard to remember what time of year it is, but it is especially important to do so now: days are getting shorter and cooler: we need to remember how our bodies respond by storing more food, by changing sleep patterns and energy levels, by changing moods. A garden should be a natural environment, one that changes with the seasons and reminds us of our place in the web of life and of its cyclical nature. Those clipped lawns and shrubs surrounding our office buildings may provide us with a glimpse of green, if we are fortunate enough to have a window to the outside, but they leave us with little comfort and warmth when our lives change. If we get married, or divorced, have an accident, grow old, start a new career, buy a house, lose a friend etc., a static landscape may feel even more alien and uninviting if it mocks our changing natures.
What we seek in a garden is a reconnecting with the relish we relive every year, in the first days of spring when plants are just beginning to flower again, or on a warm day in fall, out at the edge of a clearing in the forest, that fills us with peace and amazement at how beautiful even small things can be: it can be a great comfort in times of change. Building a drought tolerant landscape is an opportunity to connect with the beautiful natural environment of San Diego County, and to let the seasons and change back into our lives.
With my latest edition of “Garden Design” in hand and another beautiful spring just begun, I thought I’d let you know about this exciting magazine and share some ideas and finds that I hope will energize and enthuse us for many months to come.
(Pitcher Sage in full glory at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden)
After a break of several years, Garden Design has been re-launched in a much improved version. The sheer volume of the latest and hottest plants, examples of contemporary outdoor furniture and amazing garden art, must-reads about design- or plant-related literature, fascinating interviews with design experts and beautiful photography makes me enthusiastic about my profession, and many ideas in this magazine can be applied in the garden or spring landscape. Here are a few that I picked up this time:
(A working concept drawing)
Landscape designer Rob Steiner muses about the “Rules of the Game” of garden design. He makes the point that although we all have very individual ideas of what our dream garden should look like, and that although one could assume that garden design is too much a personal expression of one’s likes and dislikes, there are fundamental rules of how to organize the space, enclose it, find the right proportions, determine the right size of plants, and take into consideration that gardens evolve.
Although I myself was taught these rules, it is easy to treat them in a theoretical way, or assuming that we can tweak or ignore them, and so it’s helpful to reflect on them again once in a while. His first rule is “Obey the ‘law’ of significant enclosure”, and he calls it not only a rule, but a law: It “is absolutely critical in creating a sense of refuge and of feeling oneself within nature’s embrace”.
(A working concept drawing, in colored version)
For me, this rule is very important as it’s rooted in my personal experience: It was in the tall hedged seclusion and privacy of my parents’ garden that I fostered the deepest emotional connection with nature that allowed complete abandon to a fantasy world.
Rob goes on to postulate that “we feel enclosed when the vertical height of an elements is at least one third the length of the horizontal space”. He then describes how he applies this rule to a patio that needs screening from a play area: As the patio is 17 ft wide, he determines that the screening hedge needs to be at least 6 ft high.
Another few pages that I flagged in the latest edition showcase “Great Gardens Across America”. Here I find plenty of examples of contemporary design style: Outdoor spaces used as extensions of the home and seamlessly connecting them; “simple and refined” spaces; emphasis on beautiful accents and details, in materials and garden art; distinctive and unfussy furniture and accessories, and successfully blending different styles.
(Great flowering meadow at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden)
For those shopping for exceptional, modern, perhaps whimsical furniture, there are plenty pictured here: The almost retro-looking /mid-century modern chaises by William Haines Designs; also Hive Modern; or Design Within Reach.
I also enjoy the “unfussy”, succinct interviews with designers from different parts of the country who talk about their design inspirations and share their favorite new things, what to read, or what’s going on in their part of the gardening world.
There’s an Earth Day at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge on April 25; there’s the Butterfly Festival at the Water Conservation Garden El Cajon on May 9; also the Spring Garden Festival on April 25 at Cuyamaca College across the street.
Over 40,000 blooming bulbs will be on display including Allium, Camassia, Cardiocrinum, Cyclamen, Muscari and more at the Blooms and Bulbs Festival in Salt Lake City, UT, April 10-26. These are only a few picks from a much longer list of fascinating events in the design and gardening world.
To me, most thought-provoking in this edition was the article, “Professor of Biodiversity; Doug Tallamy teaches America how to restore habitat for wildlife – start in your garden”. The main photo shows a sun-lit pond where the surrounding trees and wildflowers at the water’s edge are reflected. This is a scene in Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, where Doug Tallamy has created a habitat for wildlife.
Trees of varying heights create a protective, delightful canopy under which chairs have been placed, in viewing distance of the shore, where water tumbles, through a stone bed, into the lake, past stands of wildflowers and patches of meadow. The hand of the designer is definitely visible, but the setting is so carefully created that is feels like each design element has been carefully investigated before execution to assure the least interference with nature.
(Beetles on California native milkweed)
Here, Mr. Tallamy has restored several acres to their natural beauty, by removing all “aggressive alien plants” and replacing them with local, native trees, shrubs and wildflowers that, within a decade, have lured back a thriving population of graceful, boldly striped swallowtails and native birds, their songful predators that in our traditional gardens, filled with many exotic and nonnative ornamentals, provide neither food nor shelter for animals.
(A bird perched on a branch of Rhamnus Redberry)
The message is clear, and Mr. Tallamy repeats it on lectures and even in his writing: You can do a lot to conserve and restore biodiversity in your own garden.” The secret is the recognition that it is the native plants that are eaten by the local native insects, and once their food sources have been restored, the birds will follow!”
Mr. Tallamy’s current research focuses on the “impact of non-native plants on the terrestrial food chain”, quantifying how much alien plant species are reducing populations of native insects and the creatures that depend on them. “Grow the native plants that insects in your area depend on”. (See also his book ‘The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden’, Timber Press 2014, co-written by Rick Darke).
(Bee on Live Oak flower tassel)
(Monarch Butterfly on host plant)
His ideas make complete sense, and I feel motivated to make my message about designing with California natives stronger and more convincing. But that’s food for another article.
In this post I continue to examine how to protect your garden’s beauty and value and how to avoid maintenance headaches.
Communication with the maintenance service
Things to review with the supervisor:
- Let the supervisors know of your preferences (see above).
- Can they explain the irrigation system to you so that you can run the timer yourself if you so choose? (In fact, it is absolutely essential that you understand your irrigation system and do periodic check-ups on timing. This way you remain aware of the seasonal changes in your landscape’s water demands or determine the irrigation cycles yourself in an emergency.)
- Do they plan regular walk-throughs with you?
- How easy is it to reach the supervisor, and how promptly do they respond to an emergency?
- How often is the supervisor on the site? If not regularly, how trained are the maintenance workers?
Soil and Irrigation
Many of the gardens that I see suffer more from over-watering than from too little water (the symptoms = wilting and tip die back look pretty much alike initially). It seems particularly tricky to water “infrequently but deeply” and then letting the top 3-4 inches dry out between irrigation cycles…
This Aeonium Cabernet is showing signs of summer dormancy with leaves dropping along the stems; if it gets overwatered now, the stems will get ‘mushy’ and wilt, and the plant will die from the center out.
I’d ask the maintenance professional about their familiarity with modern irrigation technology: Are they open to contemporary components such as a “smart” irrigation controller that helps you calculate water needs?
Also: Taking a soil tests with an auger or ‘soil tube’ should happen at regular intervals on a job site; it helps determine the moisture content of the soil as well as possible rot or pests.
Interfacing with Other Specialty Service Providers
Will the maintenance integrate their services with other specialty providers, such as arborists, irrigation specialists, or plant pathologists as the case may require? (Do they perhaps have their own certification in arboriculture?)
Can they also repair outdoor lighting? Perhaps even install it as a retro-fit?
(Photo courtesy Watersedge Landscape)
Do they know the value of proper mulching, and will they vouch to keep it at the height specified in the design?
Here, two different mulches were used as organic groundcover between the plants and as pavement for the walkway, outlined with black aluminum.
Weeds and Invasives
Do they know their weeds? Will they pull a Mexican Feather Grass before it goes to seed?
Stipa tenuissima Mexican Feather Grass is a popular ornamental grass that has been recognized as very invasive.
Will they recognize an Oak seedling, or some other invasive plant species, such as Salt Cedar?
A Salt Cedar can be an attractive shrub that is highly invasive with many attributes that are harmful to our natural environment.
Plant Expertise, Training and Certification
Of the many local landscape maintenance service providers that I checked online some mention their training in pest control and fertilizer applications; few however list training in horticulture (which would include knowledge of new plant introductions for Southern California’s limited water resources), irrigation or arboriculture.
Here, in its 2nd summer after installation, plants are beginning to fill in, and the textures and forms are taking shape.
As our understanding of xeriscapes deepens and our appetite for exciting low water-use plants from South Africa, South America, Australia or our own south-western states grows, more and more nurseries and growers offer these, and what was exotic five years ago is becoming common-place in our new gardens.
Here are some important questions for the maintenance candidates:
- Is their knowledge of standard and new introductions of low-water use plants up to speed?
- Are they aware of current trends and tools of the industry?
- Do they have any training in ornamental horticulture principles and maintenance standards (“specialty” pruning of trees and shrubs included)?
This training is locally available, through many community colleges or organizations in the landscape industry: The California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) and the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) are two of the leading professional associations that test and certify members of the green industry. Landscape Industry Certified Technicians have proven their know-how to do the job right. They have passed a series of written and hands-on tests covering safety and technical aspects of the job.
If you need seasonal or special occasion “color splashes” into your garden, ask the service provider if they could be counted on providing these services.
References & Licenses
Before you entrust this maintenance company with your property,
- Ask for several reference addresses and visit these;
- Ask whether they have a training program for their employees, and what it consists of;
- Do they have any type of certification from an accredited learning institute in the horticultural industry?
- Talk to at least two if not three of their clients to get a good sense of the responsiveness and quality of this candidate.
- At a minimum, ask for letters of appreciation from their previous work.
- Your maintenance company should be licensed and insured; without it, you might be liable for any damages or injuries that they sustain on your property (and your homeowner’s insurance won’t cover you here).
- All these qualifiers exclude the “mow-and-blow” crews… It’s unfortunate that they haven’t done much to not deserve this name.
The Long Haul
A garden will never be ‘finished’, yet that it will grow and evolve. In order to protect the investment that you made into your landscape, much consideration goes into the selection of your maintenance service. Will they commit to helping reach a beautiful goal over time and to not let short-term interests ruin it? And will they continue to loyally support you with honest professionalism as your garden grows and matures?
These are surely questions worth asking. Read part 1 of Help! The Gardener is Ruining My Garden.