Sunday, December 28, 2014

Life stages of a native plant garden

Gardens, like people, have life stages. In the beginning, they grow vigorously, even rampantly. Maybe the first year or two seems a bit slow for a new native plant garden. Some plants don't do much and losses are usually higher in this very early stage. The next few years (around years two to five), however, are often filled with rapid growth. It may be a time when you wonder what you were thinking when you placed that beargrass (Nolina parryi) on the six-foot wide parkway.

Beargrass (Nolina parryi), planted in 1999, still looks small enough in 2002 for a six ft. wide parkway... 
But by 2012 it requires vigilance to keep it from poking an unsuspecting passerby.
With its amazing flowering stalk, though, I can't even think of removing this beauty.
The garden then enters its middle age during years five to ten, when things slow down. Unless there are very extreme weather changes - eg. three years of drought and subsequently imposed water rationing - most plants should have settled in. It is my opinion that a garden should look its best during this time. If it looks perfect when you are writing the final check to your landscape contractor, then it may very well be too crowded and unruly long before the plants are full-sized. A good garden design and early landscape modifications should have this mid-life period in mind.

After about ten years, the garden may need significant rejuvenation. Some shrubs may start to look "less great." A Frosty Blue ceanothus in my parkway is a perfect example. As it aged, it remained healthy but it was less spectacular when in bloom. Furthermore, it was definitely an example of something too big for the space, and so it required ongoing pruning to keep it from attacking unsuspecting pedestrians.

Frosty Blue ceanothus is healthy, but its blooms are not as spectacular as they were a few years ago (see next picture)
and it requires a lot of pruning to contain this wide shrub within the six ft parkway.
In 2007 this plant was stunning in spring.
And so in 2012, with the help of a colleague, out it went. The neighboring coast live oak appreciates the extra room.
Although gardens are always changing, when a garden is middle-aged it is time to reassess the whole landscape to determine whether it is still fulfilling the goals you set for it. Sound familiar? Yes, we could call it a midlife crisis, and similarly it is a time to take stock of things. Interestingly, according to an article by National Association of Home Builders (2009), "... the average length of stay in a single family home is a little over 12 years for all home buyers..." . Apparently people are not only reassessing their gardens at this time, but they are doing the same for their homes.

Removing deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) from parkway
edges and base of oaks. These plants are being divided
and replanted.
My parkway garden (planted mostly from 1999-2002) has entered this middle age period and so I have spent lots of time thinking about what is working and what is not. The oak trees, planted in 2005, are still adolescents, but with their increasing height and bulk they are now beginning to dominate the parkway. Deergrass, some crowding the oaks and others impinging on the sidewalk and street, need to be thinned out. Most should be dug out, divided, and replanted in other parts of the yard. Not only will this reduce the crowding, but the divided plants will have a younger, greener look. Overall, however, I am pleased with the parkway. Walkers enjoy the spicy aroma of the sage and sagebrush as they pass under the shade of the trees and large shrubs. Butterflies and birds can be seen flittering around. Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, the amount of time required to maintain the garden perfectly matches the amount of time I choose to devote.

Parkway in spring of 2014.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Wildflower Gardening Calendar

Working on a wildflower gardening calendar for a powerpoint presentation (10 inches x 7.5 inches). What do you think? Which one do you think is more readable? Thanks for your input!

Monday, December 1, 2014

It rained - time to plant

Trying to catch the moment between the all day drizzle yesterday and the forecasted heavy rain tomorrow, I went to the nature park with the following ten new plants:

  • 1 - 1g white sage (Salvia apiana)
  • 1 - 1g buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum var. foliosum), collected from Verdugo Mts.
  • 1 - 1g monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus var. aurantiacus), from Verdugo Mts.
  • 1 - 1g chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei)
  • 1 - 1g golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum var. confertiflorum), Verdugos
  • 1 - 1g goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii var. menziesii)
  • 4 - 4" narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)
Expecting the ground to be moistened, I was surprised to find that only about the top inch or two was even slightly damp. Nothing really soaked into the heavy clay soil. And if you think this is only because the soil at the park is so compacted, I can assure you that even in my garden, with the on-and-off drizzle (amounting to only about .13 inches!), the soil stayed dry. Can't wait for some serious rain tomorrow and Wednesday.

See how dry to soil is? Probably should have waited for the next rain. 

We added water to the planting holes and waited... and waited... and waited. Finally we just put the plants in. Not perfect,
but hopefully good enough. We were very careful not to compact the heavy, wet-and-dry soil. 

Created a berm around the hole to retain water, and watered the new plant. The weather is cool and overcast so
at least they won't be stressed before the soaking rain comes. 
We have found that placing boulders next to the base of the plant protects it and keeps it from drying out too fast.
We check these plants often and remove the rocks as the plants get established.
The plants, grown by Theodore Payne Foundation and El Nativo Growers, looked good. None was too root bound. The only thing I would point out is that sometimes soil is added to containers, covering the crown of the plant. I always check for this and remove all soil covering the crown, so that none of the stem is covered. The yucca here shows what I mean.

My fingers show that about an inch of the blades were under soil. This plant will be fine,
but always make sure the crown is correctly identified so it isn't buried when planting.
I am always amazed at how many plants have made it in the park with heavy clay and no automatic irrigation. Nevertheless, we are making progress and it feels good. 

Bush sunflower (Encelia californica) has come out of dormancy and is blooming. Behind it a sagebrush
(Artemisia californica)is leafing out. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dividing Deergrass

The nature park anniversary celebration is over. Yay! The plant sale is over. Yay! And the weather is perfect for gardening, cool and overcast. YAY!

 As I walk around the yard thinking about what has worked and what hasn't, I have lots of ideas on what I want to do. It is so exciting that I now have a sunny front yard to landscape. The irises and juncuses (junci?) will have to be moved because they will never survive the full sun and scorching heat of the now avocado-free zone, and a new tree will take years before it casts much shade. The parkway is doing great, though I will be removing many of the deergrasses that crowd the strip and spill over into the street and sidewalk. If it doesn't fit without pruning, it should be moved. These will be dug out and divided. They will be replanted in the front and back yards, potted up for next year's plant sale, and shared with friends.

Friday, October 31, 2014

CNPS PLANT SALE, Nov. 8th at Eaton Canyon Nature Center

This year the plant sales were early. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which for years and years held its sale on the first weekend in November, jumped to the head of the line by holding a Fall Planting Festival a whole month earlier. The San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), however, is sticking to its own schedule, the second Saturday in November, falling this year on the 8th. And so, as I sit here writing this blog post about the sale, I am stuffing my face with Halloween candy (Reese's Peanut Butter Cups should be illegal like crack.)

I love our plant sale. Early November is the perfect time for it since here in the San Gabriel Valley, it is often too hot and too dry to plant in October, certainly the case this year. The sale is not too big and not too small. Lots of people wander into the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, enticed by the big plant sale banner posted on Altadena Drive. This means we get to talk to native plant experts, gardening beginners, and everyone in between. Chapter members stroll with shoppers through the rows of plants, discussing the merits and yes, the less than ideal traits of these unusual plants. The home-made plant information signs twist in the breeze as the plants leave the nature center patio with excited new owners.

This year I will be buying more than usual. The demise of the large, old avocado in the front has created a whole new gardening opportunity. The south-facing front yard has much more sun with the tree gone. The wiregrass, wild strawberry, and Pacific Coast Hybrid irises, planted in the shade of that tree, are going to struggle in the sunny location. Abhorring a garden vacuum,  I seeded large pots with edibles and moved them to the front. The lettuce has been delicious, and the herbs are loving it. (Won't the trick-or-treaters be surprised when I hand them some delicate lettuce leaves and parsley?) Clearly, this is not a long term landscape solution. Furthermore, the tiny Engelmann oak (sprouted from an acorn last year) isn't going to be a focal point for some years. Nor will it provide shade in the near future. I need both a plan and some plants.

Wild Suburbia has a few signature plants: coast live oak, deergrass, toyon, needlegrass, and wildflowers in spring. I plan to use a whole lot of deergrass, interspersed with white sage, buckwheat and flowering perennials in the front yard. This is a combination that I have long admired at Rancho. At the sale I will focus on the flowering perennials because...well, because they are flowering and I am weak (note the Reese's comment above). I usually advise people who are planning gardens to get the big structure items done first: hardscape, large shrubs and trees. However, I will succumb to my weakness and buy what strikes me. As I meander through the years, I am confident, the garden will come together.

Least you think I am totally clueless about gardening and landscaping, let me defend myself a bit. The tree was very recently removed, and I do need time to think about this new space. By purchasing a bunch of pretty flowering things I get to garden without committing myself to a permanent design.

So what strikes me this year? Margarita BOP penstemon, western columbine, goldenbush, narrow-leaf milkweed (for the monarch butterflies), sticky cinquefoil, evening primrose, California fuchsia, and maybe some encelia. Since I will be busy advising shoppers during the sale, it is likely I will adopt neglected, unclaimed plants, so who knows what goodies I will come home with.

Hope to see you at the sale!