San Diego Xeriscape Arbors and Dividers
A recent visit to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden brought me much delight and revived my old love for a landscape type that we rarely see here in Southern California: An urban haven entirely dedicated to the cultivation and exhibition of a California native-scape.
This is a jewel of a garden situated south of the San Gabriel foothills which offers a great example of xeriscape landscaping. The 86 acres are beautifully designed and entirely planted with cultivars and wild species of native plants, whose exploration leads you through various habitats and a mosaic of vegetation patterns, such as desert, chaparral, grasslands, forest, and riparian (areas on the banks of fresh water).
I had come to the Garden with several designer friends who, like me, were interested in refreshing our knowledge of California natives and finding inspiration for new landscape design ideas. And those we found! Conifers and oaks, Manzanita and Buck eye… Sage and Monkey flower, Anemone and Woolly Blue Curls, and on and on…
After wandering through the gardens the entire day, I was convinced that here are the drought resistant plants that can thrive in all of our gardens, no matter how tricky the situation. With these I can create any type of home landscape design, whether formal Mediterranean or California “eclectic”, whether modern restrained or flowery-cottage-y or romantic country, and create a feeling in them of satisfaction and being ‘at home’.
Here’s a selection of the Natives that I noted for their beauty, versatility and design interest:
California Buckeye Aesculus Californica
Type: Deciduous tree. Mature trees can reach 15 to 45 ft with greater spread. Sun. Soil: Adaptable.
Water: Drought tolerant to regular.
Natural habitat: Woodland mostly away from the coast and below 4,000 ft.
This tree responds to heat or drought stress by dropping its leaves which reveals the pretty trunk structure and silvery smooth bark. In spring, branches clad with bright apple green foliage carry bottle-brush flower white (rarely pink) clusters, 4-12 inch long. The heavy round fruit ripens in late fall and splits to reveal shiny, 1-3 inch chestnut-brown seeds that gave the tree its name.
Design interest and uses: One of the showiest flowering trees: Grown as single or multi-trunked tree or large shrub with rounded crown which makes a complement or counterpoint to coast live oak, foothill pine and California Bay. It is an excellent choice to shade south or west side of a house.
Hummingbird Sage Salvia Spathacea
This herbaceous allergenic perennial is a pretty work-horse. It is chiefly noticed for its whorls of showy bracts and flowers with hairy, softly sticky pointed leaves that all exude a spicey and fruity fragrance.
Water: drought tolerant to occasional.
Goundcover: Only 10 to 30 inches tall, it spreads in a dense colony and is easily controlled by pulling up the new plants at the end of the rhizomes. In the warm season it flowers almost continuously with pagoda-like stalks bearing several dense whorls of dark maroon or ruby red bracts that offset the 1 to 1 ½ inch long magenta to salmon flowers. Deadheading the dried flower stalks keeps this plant tidy if desired (and the bloom coming).
Design interest/uses: Successful in the sun or shade, as groundcover or erosion control on banks or under the canopy of oaks and other trees where it contends with root competition and lack of direct sunlight. It draws bees, other insects and hummingbirds and works also as container plant. It mixes well with plants that won’t be smothered by its large leaves, such as bunch grasses, irises, manzanitas and coffeeberries.
Salvia Clevelandii ‘Bee’s Bliss’
Water: Drought tolerant to occasional.
When in bloom with lovely periwinkle blue flowers on 1-foot-long stalks, Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ (hybrid of Cleveland Sage and purple Sage) draws insects and birds. This cultivar (hybrid between Cleveland and purple sage) reaches 1 to 2 ft tall and spreads quickly to 8 feet wide. It is subject to powdery mildew during cool weather, but the mildew disappears as temps heat up.
There are a couple of hybrids available in nurseries. Other cultivars are ‘Allen Chickering’ ; ‘Pozo Blue’, ‘Aromas’, ‘Mrs. Beard’ has masses of plae blue flowers and a similar form, and more reliable than ‘Dara’s Choice’ which grows in partial shade.
Design interest: Low, sturdy and attractive groundcover for sunny slopes where it is used as erosion control; rarely browsed by deer.
To plant or not to plant (now) – that’s the question
Working with California native plants, I’ve learned that in some ways they are not that different from non-native species. Find the right plants for the garden’s soil, sun, and water, and they are easy to grow and maintain. The further you stretch out of a plant’s comfort zone, the higher maintenance it will require.
Here’s what the experts at Las Pilitas Nursery say:
“In years like 2013, if you have the water, plant from about December to February in the hot interior, plant all year in the rest of the state, particularly if you’re replacing a lawn or something else that needs a lot of water. If you’re replacing the lawn you’re going to save a lot of water in just a few months so do not feel guilty about using that water for change. New plantings need to be watered once a week for the first season in a dry year like 2013. So as long as you can do that, you can replace that dead looking non-native landscape.”
We are lucky that several local nurseries not only grow California Natives, but that they offer help with diy landscape design offering expert instructions and workshops. At Tree of Life Nursery, you can find many clear and useful planting and maintenance guidelines. Moosa Creek Nursery also makes guidelines available. Recon Native Plants grow California native plants for the landscape and the habitat restoration industry.
Back in the Garden, as I was soaking in the sunshine that was bathing a large stand of Matilija Poppy, my eyes were drawn to the brilliant color splashes of yellow Palo Verde bloom, deep pink of Desert Willow trumpets and vibrant-orange blossoms of Desert Cholla. It struck me how harmonious the composition was, in color, texture and form, and I marveled at how appealing this scene was to me.
What is then the essence of this landscape that so draws me? Is it the idea that this landscape has thrived without our pruning, watering and fussing, for millions of years? Is it because of this California flora providing such a rich source of beautiful, diverse and durable garden plants? Or is it that it is the only sustainable landscape design that feels “right” in our bright light, growing out of our rustling leaf litter under oaks or Sycamore, or in the fragrant shade of pine trees, or the between the crunchy leaf litter of our chaparral? For me, it is the only landscape type that I feel nurtured with, and that gives me the strongest ‘sense of place’.
Photos courtesy Koby’s Garden Alchemy and Christiane Holmquist
In my previous post, San Diego … Drought Proof Your Landscape, Part 1, I explained the term “xeriscape” and outlined several water-smart landscaping ideas and the first steps towards a water-wise landscape that is beautiful and yet sustainable. Here are the remaining steps a well as valuable resources.
5. Now that you are making voids in your garden (by eliminating certain unsustainable plants), perhaps it’s time to splurge on a few new hardscape elements (patios, walkways, shade pergolas)?
In my mind a garden is only a place worth caring for when it comes to life with plants. However, our landscapes need structure and good organization if they are to be enjoyable. And to enjoy them usually means entertainment, relaxation, rejuvenation, and also play and reconnecting with nature in the privacy of our home.
Patios, decks or terraces:
They have an immensely popular and well-deserved status in our landscape. If comfort and peace eludes you on your patio there’s no incentive to be out in the garden much…
- it needs to be big enough to be comfortable;
- it needs to be paved with safe and appealing materials;
- it needs to be sheltered from sun, wind or the curiosity of our neighbors;
- it needs to be comfortably accessible from the kitchen when food is carried outside to the dining or lounging table.
If you find that any of these elements is missing from your entertainment/relaxation space, now might be the time to remedy these shortcomings and create a comfortable outdoor entertainment space design. Perhaps a new pavement is needed, or a shade device? This could be a pergola, an umbrella or shade sails, or (most practical perhaps or economical) a shade tree!
And new pathways? Imagine going on a discovery tour in your garden and enjoying your creativity, admiring what all the beautiful drought tolerant plants are showing off through the seasons. A discovery path that winds around your new planter beds, or a strolling path leading to a bench or comfortable seat at the rear end of your garden could be a long lasting addition that will pay off many-fold.
6. Mulch – too often overlooked
A thick layer of mulch, spread around all plants is so important! It should be 2-3 inches thick, or the kind that includes also small pieces (not the nuggets or the shredded lumber), and not smothering the root crown (the part where the roots converge into the stems just at/above soil level) to avoid fatal fungus disease.
A layer like this is attractive, makes your plants stand out, cools and enriches the soil, prevents erosion from rain or hard irrigation, and slows down evaporation. It’s a big water saver, and whatever has decomposed during the year, needs to be replenished in the following spring.
Some landscape are well served with an inorganic layer of mulch, made from decomposed granite or crushed rock. These materials are well suited to Southwest landscape designs or “desert-scapes”, and this type of mulch, although not enriching the soil, can help reduce evaporation and gives a finished look.
7. Know your soil
Knowing whether you have sandy, loamy or high clay soil lets you determine whether to “condition” your soil (by adding compost, organic matter, or other ingredients such as gypsum), which irrigation system to use, how fast water drains into the sub soil and when to irrigate again. It also helps you determine which plants are best for your location. In my mind it’s not as necessary to add nutrients — most of the drought tolerant plants come from areas with nutrient-poor soil — as it is to have organic matter in your soil as this organic matter, as it decomposes, feeds more micro-organisms and creates a healthier environment for plants. So adding compost for example helps you improve your soil.
This Homeowner’s Guide to a WaterSmart Landscape Flipbook helps you determine this question.
8. Hand-watering; still a smart irrigation technique?
If you have a mature tree in your landscape that “never gets any (irrigation) water”, you might think you don’t need to water this specimen.
However, it’s important to consider that our winter was very dry, and that “established plants” can get by without extra water – only if they can tap into a reservoir of soil that was re-hydrated in the winter. With our meager rainfall this winter, there’s nothing much to tap into… I’d get a hose-end sprinkler device , one that you can set on the ground, at the end of your garden hose, and a simple kitchen timer, and give this so important asset in your garden a few deep soakings. It’s important to note that a tree that is stressed doesn’t show its stress right away; it might take a couple to a few years until the stress invites insect attack, tip dying, and eventual demise.
What’s deep soaking? Only a soil moisture measuring device, such as auger or soil tube, can prove that your water has sunk in deeply. For a tree that means 18 to 24 inches because in this layer of soil trees usually have about 90 % of their roots.
9. Investigate where your irrigation system might be wasting water.
It has been shown in numerous studies that the traditional sprinkler heads and rotors have a mere 50% efficiency rate, and you can observe in your neighborhood (if not in your own garden), how much of runs off before it can get to the plants (such on compacted turf for example, or on slopes); or how much gets blown away by the wind, or how much of lands on driveways or sidewalks.
The modern low-volume spray systems or drip are much more efficient, and water used these systems go much farther.
10. Irrigate wisely – not miserly.
The word is “deep watering”, not frequent… This has to do with your plants root systems: For trees about 90% of their roots are in the top 1-2 feet; for larger shrubs a bit less, and for perennials about 6 inches. (These are very rough generalizations and can be fine-tuned depending on the plants that you want to water.)
To water a drought tolerant plant, you might think you don’t need to water much. That’s ultimately the goal, but it’s important to visualize the root system of this plant:
At planting time all the roots of this plant are in a small confined space – a 1 gal or a 5 gal pot, or larger – and if this plant is not allowed to stretch its roots out far and deep, it will never be ‘drought tolerant’! The establishment phase therefore is crucial: During this phase the water needs to be applied regularly and deeply.
To determine how long then your irrigation system needs to run, you will need to a percolation test.
Not only is low-volume irrigation more efficient at watering your landscape and therefore wastes less water, it can be combined with a “smart irrigation controller”. This device is tied into weather stations (the better ones even have local sensors) that measure your local temperatures, even relative humidity, solar radiation, and water loss due to evaporation. Combined with your input of the type of plants that you want to water, your soil type and your type of irrigation system it calculates how much and when to water.
If this process is over your head, there are many local companies that offer help with this smart system. (check out the CLCA website for qualified landscape companies. Also the Irrigation Association and American Society of Irrigation Consultants)
Lastly, it’s very useful to locate any leaks or breaks that your system might have, and to do a pressure test: Pressure that’s too high can cause more wind-born water and runoff than you want to pay for…A pressure regulator can achieve valuable water savings.
Water Conservation Resources
Here an EPA overview of ‘smart sense controllers’: www.EPA.gov/WaterSense
To see how beautiful water-conserving plants can be, the The Water Conservation Garden’s water-wise demonstration garden is a must-visit.
The Landscape Watering Calculator computes individualized watering requirements.
The California Friendly Garden Guide searchable plant database and other useful features.
San Diego County Water Authority 20-Gallon Challenge information.
On this website you’ll also find more educational resources for students and teachers.
Here’s what you can do to protect your landscape during San Diego’s drought and to do it in style, incidentally.
Yesterday morning I stepped outside with my breakfast cereal to soak in the warm sunshine and see what’s going on in my garden. Following the buzz of the bees drawn by the sweet scent of Orange blossoms wafting through the garden, I found the Orange tree covered with flowers – what a joy to see!
Taking a deep breath, my eyes scanned the garden, and it struck me that the Plum tree also had started to bloom, and the first Cleveland Sages, and then, coming around my deck, I saw that the Wisteria, pruned barely a few weeks ago, had pushed out big buds ready to open at any moment! But winter is hardly over officially, or is it?
With all the delight over warmth and gorgeous spring bloom, I can’t help feeling concern about how soon summer will be here, and how my garden will fare with the watering restrictions that are sure to come?
If you, too, can’t help looking anxiously skywards waiting for rain, and wondering how you can protect your landscape from the effects of drought, read on: Here I’ll outline important ideas and tips to help you protect your garden investment and “drought proof” it through the months to come.
Xeriscape – the technique to garden sustainably and colorfully in a dry climate
Like it or not, you’ll get to hear this word more and more often as people are discussing ways to create and safe-guard a home landscape design that is attractive and sustainable with limited or no extra applications of water. (BTW: People in consistently hot and dry climates such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada are already well familiar with these design parameters.)
As Wikipedia describes it: “Xeriscaping is landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation. “ It most definitely does not mean ‘zero – scaping’ although it’s easy to pronounce the word that way.
So where does this process of transforming and protecting your landscape as a sustainable xeriscape start?
The following steps are very important and will help you preserve your landscape and safeguard it against drought.
1. Decide what to water and what not.
Water is scarce, and watering all of your landscape will be very costly and difficult if not impossible if San Diego goes back to specific days for irrigation. Also, if you have a traditional irrigation system, your irrigation cycles will be even more restricted.
It’s therefore wise to only water what’s really valuable in your landscape. It helps to be cold-hearted and examine each plant for its benefits and assets, as well it’s cost in maintenance, water, fertilizer. This is one of the most important steps on your way to water conservation. So how do you put a value on the plants in your landscape?
I always start “from the top down”, that is with the largest specimen, the trees. A young tree that has already been in the ground for a few years and that is showing promise is definitely worthy of special watering. A mature tree is hard to replace, and it has taken many years and much care to get it to that stage so deserves saving.
But here, too, I recommend checking whether it really does what it’s supposed to do: Does is shade your house or patio, saving energy in hot weather? Does it provide fruit? Does it provide privacy or screen a bad view? Don’t forget also that if placed right, a tree is a design element that “anchors” your home to its environment and adds an important vertical element and a focal point to your landscape.
Now if your tree doesn’t do much of the before listed jobs; if instead it dwarfs your house, sheds needles on your roof or spiky seeds on your patio… If it threatens to drop its branches on your car or the neighbor’s yard… Perhaps it’s the first on your let-go-list?
2. And so you continue with the shrubs, and then the other smaller plants, and then perhaps the lawn.
In reality, we often put up with shrubs that are too big for their space and need to be pruned regularly; that easily get infested with white flies (such as hibiscus), need lots of water, and some of them are plain boring (imagine our ubiquitous Indian Hawthorne hedges).
If your shrubs have this problem or don’t do much screening or don’t provide privacy… Nor provide food for your family and don’t show a real asset to your landscape, perhaps they are next on the to-lose-list?
3. Can you imagine? (removing the lawn)
Many of our urban lawns don’t deserve having: Nobody is using them really as the children have grown and need much larger spaces. Our pets don’t mind using the mulched areas for their ‘business’…
Turf needs frequent water and maintenance. It dominates the garden scene without ever being visited by hummingbirds, butterflies or other wildlife except for rabbits and the occasional mocking bird.
If you select to let go of the lawn also, and decide to create a more sustainable landscape, the rewards are plenty, as there many options for a more colorful, more interesting landscape with fascinating, drought resistant plants that will excite you year-round.
Tip: Many local water agencies offer rebates for the removal of lawn and the installation of low volume and smart irrigation systems. Check here: TurfReplacement.WaterSmartSD.org
4. Start dreaming
Aren’t you getting excited yet about the new opportunities for a DIY landscape design that brings year-round fun and color in your garden (and incidentally substantial water savings)?
There are so many xeriscape plants that stay attractive year round even with very little extra water, that are colorful even when not in bloom, that entertain with fantastic shapes and textures, and that bring life and nature to your garden. These plants inspire landscape design ideas that could include a strolling garden instead of a lawn; or, fancy a discovery garden with exotics that only need a fraction of what you applied until now, whether California natives or from other Mediterranean climates.
This is the promise that drought tolerant plants hold. They alone, when chosen for your site and for your soil and microclimate, will not need no or only insignificant amounts of supplemental water.
The following links take you to plant and design discussions, all centered on how-to case studies, or exceptional plant suggestions. Here are a few suggestions of how to go about your design:
You can browse the UC Davis publication “Arboretum All Star Plants” that lists beautiful low-water plants by type and gives names, space and water needs, required exposure, and photos.
Read up on how to use the quiet winter months to prepare for this and next year’s success
The joys of winter – preparing for next year’s success and enjoyment of our drought
In this post I show ways to breathe new life into your landscape design while keeping water conservation in mind. DIY Landscape Design: Breathe New Life into Your Garden
Or read up on the case-study of a transformation of a very traditional, lawn-centered landscape. Sustainable landscape design – celebrating California at its best
If you are looking for exceptional drought resistant / drought tolerant plants following this link. My Favorite Drought-Resistant Plants for Southern California
If you can’t get enough of exotic looking plants that fit well into the xeriscape landscape read this post. The eye-catching bromeliad – No tenderfoot in the drought resistant landscape
In this post I write about more tropical looking plants with exuberant color and tropical appearance without the typical water needs of a tropical plants. Xeriscape Design: Hot and lush yet waterwise – Tropical look-alikes for an arid land (Part II)
How to bring your irrigation system up to the task; the importance of mulching and knowing your soil, selection of materials – all these issues are crucial elements in your efforts towards protecting your landscape from the drought and enjoying it, too. Look for these and more Resources to help you in your work in the second half of this post to be published next month.
January is a perfect time for winter clean up and fresh home landscape design ideas. This post shows you how to breathe new life into your garden.
Coral Tree (Erythrina bidwillii) A Coral Tree in full bloom is a gorgeous sight, and seeing it you might have felt a stir of desire for such a punch of color in your garden? And did you realize that you haven’t enjoyed it much lately, that it is stale, and that much about it bothers you? But how do you breathe life into it?
January, for us Southern Californios, is a perfect time for winter clean up and fresh landscape design ideas: Although this winter is warmer than usual, it is still a better season to plant than summer. So should you start your refresher with plants?
The Power of Structure
It’s easy to be seduced by the gorgeous plants at a specialty nursery or in a magazine, and many gardeners have the impression that introducing new exotics or the latest hybrid would be the solution to a satisfying outdoor living space. However, in my consultations at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon I meet many homeowners who, much more urgently than with plants, accents or atmosphere, need help with the basic “bones”. That is, with the structures that give shape and form to a garden: As the original meaning of the word ‘garden’ implies, it’s the ‘enclosure’ , the pathways and edgers, gates and transitions, pergolas and fences, patios and shelters that create the garden. Only when they can fulfill their functions of giving definition, protection and organization to the garden would I be ready to flesh it out with plants, accents, personal style.
Thus, starting with the structure(s) can remedy the underlying defects or shortcomings of any landscape. But should you begin in the front yard, or rather the backyard?
In practical life, it’s only you who can answer this questions: If your front yard is not inviting any longer and you get upset every time you come home, it’s time to invest here.
However, if you can accept the idea that the front yard isn’t perfect but it’s really your backyard that bothers you most because you don’t find the peace and comfort here that you dream of, it’s wiser and more satisfying to create that sanctuary first. From the enjoyment of that space it will be the easier to tolerate the imperfect front yard!
Elements to consider
If it’s the front yard that needs refreshing, ask yourself: What’s there to invite a visitor to walk up to my front door? Could the trash cans be hidden behind their own enclosure? Are the irrigation valves out of sight? Is it safe for walking; are the steps even, the lighting sufficient, the path wide enough?
Is there a genuine walkway, or do your visitors walk up to your front door on your driveway? If so, now is the time to give your walkway the “weight” it deserves: To approach a front door on a driveway that’s just wide enough for the owner’s cars feels to me as though visitors aren’t really expected. Creating a walkway allows you to show off your landscape and to create a ‘discovery’ path makes the journey more memorable: Let the visitor get a feel for your personal touch and appreciate your love for details, by planting attractive plants, setting out yard art perhaps, or displaying an attractive container.
The garden underfoot
Don’t forget also to look at your pavement: Is it comfortable, safe and in harmony with the style of your house?
The options for the pavement materials are numerous: Prefabricated concrete pavers; porcelain or stone tile; brick or flagstones on concrete or placed directly on sand; DG or concrete…Even decking material (as in wood/timber or synthetic lumber) can work and give a beautifully warm and naturalistic touch to the landscape.
Flagstones “sand-set” with inter-planting lend naturalism to a landscape
As a response perhaps to the stress of urban life and our isolation from nature, I get a lot of requests for flagstone and DG as pavement material because they are perceived as more naturalistic, and flagstone is very “in” these days. A flagstone path with green plants between the flat stones can look very attractive. The reality, unfortunately, is that these “inter-plantings” are rarely successful: As these plants need to be watered, this kind of pavement doesn’t contribute exactly to water savings, and it’s advisable to apply the irrigation at times when any puddles on the irregular surfaces of the stones can evaporate before the morning use.
More of a nuisance are the weeds that invade these inter-spaces often and that are difficult to eliminate; most often they need to be pulled by hand. Leaving sand, DG (decomposed granite), or coarser gravel between the stones would be the easiest solutions.
DG is made from weathered granite. In the landscape industry it is most often used in pavement as a naturalistic material that, if not “stabilized” by additives, is permeable. It is mixed with color and sold in several earth tones,and when compacted it is a material widely used in landscaping. Unfortunately, despite of the compaction and binding agents used in it, the surface grains sit loosely on top and therefore the DG should only be used on a flat area; in my opinion it’s not suitable for any ramped area as one could easily slip and fall.
As material used for a path leading to a front door I myself don’t use it much; I find it too ‘loose’ and relaxed for most front yards, and hesitate to recommend it when it is likely that feet and shoes carry the coarse sandy grains into the house.
Flagstone, firmly set in concrete in a walkway, is costly in comparison to interlocking pavers, or colored concrete, or laid “on grade” (on sand/without concrete base). With inter-spaces, and sand between the flags, it is not as foot-friendly and trip-safe as I would want it to be, in a space that’s accessible to the public.
Concrete pavers (“interlocking”) are a very popular paving material
Interlocking (or segmental) pavers are much in demand these days because versatile and attractive. (Actually, pavers made from stone, concrete or brick have been in use for thousands of years.) The varying degrees of tumbling of the paving stones that define the texture, and the pattern and size define the character of the paved areas, and you can achieve effects from an elegant smooth pavement to a historic-looking ancient cobble stone effect.
The pavers are easy to remove if necessary (for instance when you want to add a footing for a shade structure or other features later); cracking can never occur (as would be possible with concrete pavement).
Colored concrete is also used; I find the sandy “sand finish” or “acid wash” on colored concrete very attractive and fitting into a contemporary as well as a classic look.
Whether colored acid-wash concrete, concrete pavers or cut stone pavers laid directly “on grade” (directly on native soil or sand), you’d benefit from the help from an experienced craftsman/mason.
Click here to read more about DIY Landscape Design …
One that you want to spend every free minute in?
For a successful home landscape design that brings you enjoyment, peace and comfort, take these ingredients:
- Dream it (and now’s the time to pull all the stops)
- Determine your needs (i.e. what you can realistically do); assign required space dimensions to each element
- Define your style
- Draw a plan (or get landscape design help)
- Remove and keep only what’s desirable (f. ex. a shade tree) and put it all together
It’ll work for you, too, with this recipe! Here’s how we did it for Rachel’s garden:
1. Dream it
When I first met Rachel she had come with her garden club to visit a garden that I had designed. She complimented me on the beauty of the design and asked if I’d be interested in helping her with her yard: She didn’t think much could be made of it since it was so small, but could I come to see it anyways?
Rachel, at her wonderful age of 83, is a very active member in a few different clubs, and as we talked it was apparent that she had a clear idea of what she dreamt of:
- Have more friends over and entertain them in her garden.
She hoped for a space in her garden in which to serve some light foods and drinks, surrounded by color and beauty. The lawn wasn’t comfortable anymore to walk on, and over the years the shrubs had been disfigured and pruned into boring blobs; many had just disappeared and had never been replaced.
- Where would I create this entertainment space, since the yard was so small?
- And would there perhaps be room for a lounge chair in a reading nook?
- And could she have a fountain, or other water feature?
- And would we have enough room still for many flowers and interesting textures?
- The entire yard was enclosed by a 5 ft wall not high enough to block out the neighbor’s window. Could we make the garden more private without blocking her view of the ocean?
2. Determine your needs (i.e. what you can realistically do); assign required space dimensions to each element
The first thing I asked Rachel was to define and tell me about how she planned to entertain her friends:
- Would she want to sit down at a table and serve food there?
- And how many people would she like to seat?
- And where would the food be served from, since the main kitchen was upstairs, on the first floor?
We determined that she wasn’t going to serve hot food but only salads and finger foods prepared in the smaller downstairs kitchen in her guest apartment. This way she wouldn’t need any tables to sit down as most people (mostly groups of up to 10 to 15 people) would be standing or strolling through the garden; some seating could be provided with benches.
(Note: To seat 4 people around a table we would have needed at least 10 sq ft ; this seems to be the bare minimum, and if you need circulation space around it or your chairs are a bit oversized, 14 sq ft for this dining area would be needed.)
However, to accommodate these groups, two “entertainment” areas would be best, and I suggested to allow for each about 12 x 12 ft : This would allow room for benches, some additional (temporary) seating if necessary, and still have enough planting space around them to soften all. Also, these spaces would need to be connected with easy pathways. (Inviting people to stroll from one area to the other would be a perfect way to display plants to be discovered on the way.)
Since most of her friends are elderly, the pavement under foot needed to be safe, which in my mind excluded any materials with uneven surface such as flagstones or gravel.
This left stabilized/compacted DG (decomposed granite), concrete, tiles and interlocking pavers; which one would we be using?
Examining her house and garden for elements that would help define the style of this new backyard landscape design, I noted these clues:
- The main assets of the existing garden were a mature Pine tree in the corner that provided lovely shade (unfortunately pruned very unprofessionally but not beyond repair); also two mature fruit trees in the other corner, and a beautiful view of the ocean, in between a couple of roofs in the neighborhood. We would try to keep the mature trees.
- Enclosing the garden was a 5 ft wall that had the potential of making it more private if it could be raised in a few critical areas?
- Architectural style: Her house is a Southwest/Perceived Spanish 2-story building with white stucco and red tile roof, and an upstairs balcony from which she views her garden and the ocean.
- There was an existing, albeit small patio paved with grey concrete; any new pavement would need to harmonize with it since we there was no budget to remove this pavement.
- About Rachel’s preferred style: The strongest clues as to Rachel’s taste were, as with so many design clients, visible inside the home: She loves Mexican and Southwestern art, as displayed everywhere in terracotta tile floors, furniture, colorful cushions, glazed ceramics, paintings and souvenirs from the Southwest. Red tile was used everywhere, and the walls surrounding her garden are reminiscent of a Spanish courtyard whose surrounding walls allowed a beautiful view of the ocean.
We have now assembled the first ingredients of this recipe . For how to put them together for your dream garden, please read my follow-up post.
Searching for unique and exceptional plants that could be worthy complements to the striking and curvilinear architecture of a client’s home in Carlsbad, I visited Rancho Soledad Nursery in rural Rancho Santa Fe/CA. This grower specializes in unusual specimens and is responsible for many exciting plant innovations in the plant world.
The plants that I was after would also need to fit other important requirements: They needed to be non-fussy plants, fitting into a home landscape design, and be low water landscape plants.
After describing to Eric, one of the sales managers there, what I was after, he led me to a group of plants that grabbed my fantasy immediately: All had a round form of fleshy, almost leathery leave rosettes reminiscent of a pineapple plant; some had dreamy marbling and textures on their leaves while others stood out by their foliage color. Some would bloom repeatedly, and others would develop majestic flower “inflorescences” that would stand out in any garden for months. What were these, I inquired, and what were their growing requirements?
Eric explained to me that these subtropical plants were terrestrial bromeliads, relatives of the Pineapple family (Bromeliaceae), native to the Americas from the southern United States all the way to the tip of Argentina, and growing from near sea level up to 14,000 feet. The ones that grow in the open on rocks or in soil are very drought resistant plants. (Other ones called epiphytes grow on trees, and then there’s a genus of bromeliads called Cryptanthus that is not drought tolerant.)
Because of their striking, sometimes spectacular form these bromeliads would make great additions to any modern garden design with their forms ranging from small prickly agave-like plants, to spectacular basal rosettes open to the sky; some have narrow pointy, spiny-toothed leaves, others grow strappy ones like a New Zealand Flax, only with a softer, more arching and less stern appearance.
Some produce drooping clusters of showy bracts and tubular flowers; others send out an upright stalk decorated with the most striking and brightly colored inflorescence that makes a giant focal point in the landscape. All are easy to grow, requiring well-drained soil and only average watering; it is important for water to collect in the cups or center of the rosettes.
As the Cactus and Succulents Society of America recommends, “Division of rosettes is the standard method of propagation, though of course new hybrids must be started from seed-it’s fun to plant seeds and see what develops. Some plants cluster very quickly and can give the grower a real problem when it comes time to divide or re-pot them. I recommend a pair of long leather gloves (sometimes sold as “rose-pickers”) and a sharp knife plus some sort of pry-bar. Weeding around them is best done with the “cactus-grabber” (actually a fishhook-disgorger) that most of us who grow spiny plants have bought in self-defense. The plants do not seem to be subject to many pests or diseases, though some from Brazil, as mentioned above, may be sensitive to low temperatures. Many are really beautiful and a great asset in the plant collection. “
Bromeliads have great color, ranging from grey to bronze to almost black; other ones sport blades or straps from chartreuse-green to orange to flaming red. Some of them can tolerate bright hot sun (that actually brings out their flaming color) while others ones prefer the shade, perhaps under a canopy of a tree, or even on the northside of a house, under the eaves.
These xeriscape plants are entirely compatible with succulents and other drought resistant plants in low water landscaping. In the design that I was preoccupied with they would make exceptional companions to the other architectural plants, such as the exotic looking Silk Floss Tree Ceiba speciosa and the bold Small Cape Rush Chondropetalum tectorum…
Since I have a penchant for extravagance and am always on the look-out for unusual plants, I’m happy that with these Bromeliads I have found a group of plants that will grab anybody’s attention. With their resilience in hot sun or dry shade and their low maintenance or water needs, they seem to fit the sustainable landscape design needs. And with their strong form, their intriguing coloring and exciting textures they make upstanding elements of any landscape design that wants to stand out and hold your attention for a long time.
I’m happy that these plants seem to fit the needs of any lover of plant exotics AND plant lover the bill of any sustainable landscape design and since I have a penchant for extravagance, I’m sure I’ll be using these whenever They fit into my , are tough and beautiful, and that integrate well into the sustainable landscape design. Since they perform so well in tough spaces, hot sun or dry shade, I’m sure to see more of these in my designs and expect them to perform well in difficult places, whether tough hot spots or dry shade.
I’ll describe some of these in the 2nd part of my post “The eye-catching bromeliad – No tenderfoot in the drought resistant landscape”.
You can admire many beautiful terrestrial bromeliads at these locations:
The Botanical Building (or Lath House) at Balboa Park, San Diego, features many shade loving bromeliads.
Here’s where I photographed most of these bromeliads:
Rancho Soledad Nursery, Rancho Santa Fe, CA
A Glorious Garden Garden and Design Center, Encinitas
In my previous post, I described the first 3 ingredients to creating your most inviting outdoor living space:
1. Dream it; 2. determine your needs and assign physical space requirements to each element; 3. define your style.
Here now are the remaining three steps to make this happen:
4. Draw up a plan for your home landscape design (or get professional landscape design help)
- I pictured a low water landscape breathing peace and beauty, brimming with color and plant life. The garden would be laid out around two main paved areas reminiscent of Spanish/Mexican courtyards.
- Benches would offer seating to take a drink or finger food, to enjoy the many colors or to feel the comfortable atmosphere and peaceful mood of the garden.
- One area would invite more for quiet sitting and contemplation of a fountain ;
- The other area, closest to Rachel’s kitchen, would be the main food serving area. Here two benches would form a square for people to mingle, with room for side tables that Rachel could bring in if she had more trays than she wanted to place directly on the benches.
- A walkway would be connecting these spaces, and their layout would be following the shape of the house (its walls were slightly curved outwards); the new pavement would be placed directly adjacent to the existing patio to allow people comfortable access to all areas of the garden.
- Doing this suggested either a similar or a completely different pavement…
- The benches would allow me to introduce more colors into the garden: They would be in complementary colors to each other, to the perimeter walls that I’d also paint, and to an additional, purely ornamental wall that I would use as “room divider”, “weight” and upright element in the garden.
- This wall, in the shape of an undulating wave, would complement and contrast a water feature that would be the focal point of the quieter sitting area.
Rachel was very excited about the first draft of this backyard landscape design and approved all of it.
She was most thrilled about the idea of applying paint to all of the walls, the perimeter wall included.
And she loved the fountain idea which consisted of two stone slabs, mounted one on top of the other at differing angles, with a central core from which water would run over both stones.
For the new pavement we opted for grey concrete with an acid wash finish (which brings out the sand aggregate in the mix). This seemed the most elegant and cost-effective material that would harmonize with the existing grey concrete. (In the photo outlines of the future design elements are drawn onto the ground to help fine-tune their shape and dimensions, and to help the homeowner visualize the future look of the garden. It also shows how all plants have been removed except for the fruit trees and the Pine Tree in the opposite corner.)
And so the final design came together very quickly. After a soil test we chose a mix of some “Southwestern” plants with some other ones that like it here in Leucadia, too: Rock Purslane Calandrinia spectabilis, Aloe ‘Red Hot Chili Pepper’, Red Yucca Hesperaloe parviflora, Aeonium ‘Cabernet’ and Crassula ‘Campfire, to name a few’; more drought resistant plants such as Sundrops Calylophus drummondii and Penstemon Margarita BoP; the “bones” and structure of this low water landscape would be provided by the shrubs ‘Goldstar’ Yellow Bells Tecoma stans stans ‘Goldstar’ and Dwarf Variegated Myrtle Myrtus communis variegata compacta, to which Rachel added a favorite of hers, a Yellow Mexican Bird of Paradise Caesalpinia gilliesii. We placed another shade tree to shade the reading nook (Crape Myrtle “Centennial Spirit” Lagerstroemia x hybrids), over at the other end of the garden; its orange-red color will be a nice color teaser when in bloom. Ornamental grasses add a light and airy, even dreamy character to the plantings. Here we used Hairy Awn Mulhly Muhlenbergia capillaris, Golden Variegated Sweet Flag Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’, and Blue Oat Grass Helictotrichon sempervirens.
Purple Bougainvilleas drape a post-and-wire-trellis in two critical places to raise the privacy screen around the perimeter but leave a window to view the ocean.
To the colors of the plants those of the walls would be a permanent contrast, stimulus and harmonious “compliment” . We chose Orange for the perimeter wall; “Violet Majesty” purple for the seatwalls; and Chartreuse/lime for the curved wall across from the fountain.
Sitting in the sun with Rachel recently on one of the colorful benches, and enjoying a sweet breakfast Danish (a “prop” left-over from staging her garden for the photo shoot), she remarked on how much she loves her garden now, and how she marvels at discovering, every morning when she comes outside to visit it, another plant in bloom or just colorful on its own.
At that moment a bee was visiting a rock purslane flower right behind her shoulder, and as I was pointing the bee out to her she hardly moved away and said she loved how so many of them are now visiting her garden. This is what she had dreamt of, and she’s learning to take care of the plants and delight in them any moment she can.
This backyard landscape design was faithfully executed by San Diego Landscaper Mark Sterk/Columbine Landscape Inc.
Recently, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I noticed a curious thing: On a comfortable chaise-lounge in the shade of my Tipu tree, I was reading a good book when I felt drops of water or some other liquid falling on me. Was it raining? The drops were so tiny that I couldn’t even see them on my skin, but there was no doubt about what I was sensing. Wondering if I was experiencing aphid droplets falling out of the tree canopy, I examined the surrounding furniture on my deck, but there was nothing of that sticky substance that aphids exude and that is known as honeydew. What could these droplets be?
Knowing about how trees cool themselves, I imagine that it was the tree itself that sprayed on me: Evaporation (“transpiration”) of water from its foliage in the hot afternoon was extra fast and generous to form the minutest droplets that ‘rained’ on me.
A gentle spray to cool me off – how awesome!
Have you ever noticed how wonderful the shade under a tree feels, especially on a hot day? The lovely sensation on my skin made me think again about how important trees are in the sustainable landscape design, no matter which climate you live in. Consider the most obvious at this time of year: Beauty from bloom and form; shade and reduced energy cost, and an emotional connection that we all have to trees.
As I was lounging in the shade, I was wondering how big the temperature difference was that I felt there: In the full sun it was close to 100° F that afternoon; in the shade by contrast a comfortable 85° F! And the air that I was breathing under it was fresh and cool – the tiny droplets were just an added pleasure.
Numerous authors and organizations have made a valuable contribution to this subject and demonstrated to homeowners and planners alike, with hard numbers, the measurable payback of trees, even the increase in real estate value! There are many fun facts about the social, environmental, economic and communal benefits of trees at sites like these:
“Trees are Good”, by the International Society of Arboriculture; “Canopy”, a publication by a volunteer organization in Palo Alto that cares for trees; “Why Shade Streets? The Unexpected Benefit” by the Center of Urban Forest Research.
As gardener and landscape designer San Diego passionate about sustainable landscape design another benefit comes to mind that many gardeners have certainly noticed, too:
The canopy of an evergreen tree provides a perfect microclimate for cold-sensitive plants as well as for those that prefer the dappled shade over a sun-baked situation. This is particularly true of inland valley or desert situations where many plants, even the desert plant species, that tolerate full sun closer to the coast appreciate the reprieve that a tree canopy provides as too much sunlight creates problems with the plant’s ability to regulate photosynthesis (this is the chemical process by which plants convert water and carbon dioxide from the air into carbohydrates).
The shade also translates into lower water needs for everything growing beneath as well as prolonged growth and flowering: While many plants, even drought resistant plants, go limp or floppy in the mid-day heat of summer, the ones in the shade show more intense color and firmer foliage. (Some plants respond to the heat and drought by going dormant and dropping their leaves, such as California Buckeye, a California native plant.)
Drought resistant plants that actually prefer the dappled shade (or afternoon shade from a building) are many succulents, such as Aeoniums, Sedums and Echeverias, even Foxtail Agave Agave attenuata prefers this situation. Also many flowering perennials and soft-leaved plants such as Sundrops Calylophus drummondii, Copper Canyon Daisy (Mexican Marigold) Tagetes lemmonii, and Purple Sage Salvia leucophylla come to mind.
And then there are the strictly aesthetic-driven aspects of designing with trees, and I can’t even begin to consider a home landscape design without them, or any landscape design for that matter. (I wrote about it already in a previous post “Trees in my garden? No trees, please!”). They are a garden’s upright support and beams; they are the main structural elements around which all other plants are arranged. They feel to me like the “ceiling” and walls in the garden; shrubs and flowers are the furniture so to speak…
Trees also give a garden its mood: Compare the feel that a palm tree creates in a garden, with that of a deciduous Sycamore; or picture the branches of a pine tree and the “whoosh” of a breeze going through it, and compare it with the burning orange fall-foliage of a Crape Myrtle or Western Redbud!
Trees can mark a spot as focal point; they can denote a boundary; they can frame and enhance a view or screen out an unsightly one. Most important perhaps is the comforting, protected feeling that we experience: There’s something primordial about sitting under the canopy of a tree: It connects us with ancient, genetically anchored memories of our cave days, I imagine, and sitting in an open field has a very different, un-sheltered feel. A landscape without them is feels lifeless to me, depressing even; there’s not much shelter for birds so they stay away, and it doesn’t feel nurturing.
If all this makes you want to design your landscape and select the best tree for it, here are a few more resources specifically for San Diego homeowners:
San Diego Tree/Palm/Plant Pictures at http://www.geographylists.com/sandiegoplants.html
And perhaps the tree down the street that you have been interested in has already been identified and listed in our own San Diego Tree map?
This fun interactive map lets you search for a particular tree by neighborhood: Just locate your street, zero in on it and see whether the tree you are interested in has already been identified. Conversely, if you have identified a tree in your neighborhood and want to contribute to this database, just upload a photo and the information, and you’ll help your neighbors learn about it. This great resource also shows you some of those ‘hard numbers’ that I mentioned above as the trees’ “Yearly Eco Impact”.
To get a feel for the physical presence and characteristics of a tree, especially at maturity, nothing suits this better than a visit to any of the resources that we have here in San Diego: There’s the San Diego Zoo of which its founder, Dr. Harry Wegeforth said, “A luxuriant growth of trees and foliage was one of the chief features of the Zoo as I planned it in my mind’s eye.” (Read also “San Diego Zoo Gardens”).
Then there’s the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, and the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon. Or the San Diego Safari Park that is home to 4 ac of California nativescapes, with more than 1500 individual plants representing 500 species, all of which historically call SoCal home. And then there’s their conifer forest with more than 1,000 plants representing 400 species of conifers..
And don’t forget San Diego’s Balboa Park!
Take a stroll one of these summer days and marvel at the beauty and cool comfort that the shade of the trees provide. Send me photos of our finds, share your landscape design ideas with me and let me know if there’s a resource that I didn’t think of!
Realizing that the competition among landscaping companies San Diego is strong, landscape designers vie for the homeowner’s choice with their best photo of their most artful work because to do so is accepted theory practiced and taught by marketing experts.
This puts me into a bind of sorts: What is my best work? I thought I knew that, but when I show my portfolio to potential clients I get the most divergent comments on my work that make me question this assumption. Take this example:
This landscape design appeals to me, and I feel it is one of my more successful ones. I love how the grasses capture the light, and how the pinks and purples in the foreground harmonize with the greens. It’s a romantic and successful arrangement of textures and shapes, evoking an idealistic and earthy mountain scene, and many people who see it exclaim “How beautiful this is!” and “I love this”.
You can perhaps imagine my amazement when I experienced for the first time a client who, with a crinkle in her eyebrow, said “Nah… This looks too weedy for me”. Other comments have been “too crowded” and “too jumbled”.
Or take this example of a DIY landscape design: Here I helped a homeowner fine-tune her front yard landscape design ideas, advised on her selection of drought resistant plants and assisted with the plant layout (this was in order to qualify for the City of San Diego’s Lawn Replacement Rebate Program.)
The application for the rebate was successful; the homeowner received a partial reimbursement of the turf removal/installation cost. Better still, her front yard captures the admiration of her neighbors who admit that “there’s now so much more going on” in her yard and that “it is so alive”! My client loves it and is very happy with the design.
(The project is shown here right after planting; nothing has grown in.)
Would you say that the photo of this garden deserves a place in my portfolio as my “best work”? Is this design artful? Would you like it?
Contrast this project now with this:
I just love this arrangement of two classy chairs, the glimpse of an elegant pavement and a pretty table décor, against a green plant screen that evokes privacy and peace. The vase and flowers on the table add beautiful, warm colors to the scene and give it a lively spark. Who wouldn’t want to sit here? Don’t all elements combine to make you relaxed as you imagine yourself sitting here?
Without doubt this is a very inviting scene, and I have yet to hear an indifferent comment about it, but is it artful?
In the end I think this is a fairly irrelevant question. I have found that what counts to my clients is the style they prefer, that speaks to their aesthetics.
Since I have realized this, I find my work much more satisfying. Of course there’s the tough project once in a while: Designing a garden that excludes anything attractive to bees is “unnatural” to me, even though I understand the client’s fear of bee stings… …(This design incorporated lots of grasses and plants that don’t flower very often, such as Agaves, and wind-pollinated plants, as much as I could determine this.)
Equally, creating a landscape that categorically excluded trees was a challenge. But I tried my best and gave him what he wanted – he wouldn’t have felt at ease in a landscape with trees. So even this was in the end a good experience, and the homeowner was very comfortable with the design.
When I help my clients turn their landscape design ideas into a project that works for them, I’m successful, and they enjoy the beauty they see. And although I have my personal preference as to how I want to use plants to give life to a space, I try to temper it and put my client’s glasses on, so to speak. (That’s why designing a garden without trees or flowers is harder to do). Sometimes the happy circumstance puts me together with a homeowner who loves my own style, and those designs are most inspiring to me. But whether those designs or any other ones that I do are artful only you, the user, can say.