Sunday, March 31, 2013

Chaparral in the Garden

Chaparral is the term applied to the most common type of native vegetation in California. It consists primarily of evergreen shrubs. The photo above (courtesy of shows the slopes above Pasadena, California. There is a lot to be said about chaparral and I'm not going to try to repeat what others have already covered. For more info on chaparral, see the California Chaparral Institute (

What I want to talk about today is the use of chaparral shrubs in the garden. These shrubs make great garden plants, even in a garden that is mostly non-native. They provide large scale structure around which can be planted any number of annuals or smaller perennials. They are highly drought tolerant, pest resistant and valuable for wildlife. The following photos show one of the chaparral shrubs that I have in my garden.

Above is a Fremontodendron "Pacific Sunset", a cultivated variety of the wild F. californicum which grows throughout the state. In the Spring it is covered by a profusion of yellow-gold flowers, each about 3 inches wide.

Pacific Sunset grows to about 12 ft. high and 15-20 ft. wider. There are other varieties that do not get as large. I made the mistake of planting this one very close to a path. Below is what it looked like in 2009, a year or two after I planted it.

When it started getting bigger, I had to do some major pruning to keep it from blocking the path. It tolerated the pruning well and is now shaped so that it won't be an obstacle (see below). The right side  of the plant is rather sparse but new growth is starting to fill it in. It has room underneath it for some smaller, shade tolerant plants which I am now starting to put in. But if I was doing it over again I would get one of the more compact varieties so I wouldn't have to prune it.

Fremontodendrons have nicely shaped, dark green leaves that are attractive when the plant is not in flower. However, they also have fine, bristly hairs that cover the leaves and smaller stems. Some people have a dermatitis reaction to the hairs, so again use caution where you plant it.

Fremontodendrons do not like too much water, especially summer water. Mine lives on just rainfall, no supplemental water, and it seems perfectly happy that way. Overall, it is a great plant for any garden. In Spring it is a real eye catcher. Your neighbors will ask you "what is that bush with the huge yellow flowers?"

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Resources for Native Plant Gardening

Gardening with native California plants isn't any more difficult than gardening with other (exotic or non-native) plants, but it does involve a knowledge set that is new to many people. To be successful, you need to know about where these plants grow in the wild and what kinds of conditions they prefer. One of the best places to start getting this information is the California Native Plant Society,

Since I am in the San Diego region, I also follow the local chapter at They have a blog called California Native Plants...San Diego Style. They also have plant profiles that give a lot of info about individual species and other useful information about gardening. In 2012 they put together a terrific garden tour. I hope they will do it again.

Below is one of my new favorite plants, Papaver (Stylomecon) heterophylla, commonly known as Wind Poppies. It grows in the understory of oak woodlands, so I have it planted under my oak tree. The color is identical to California poppy which it is closely related to, but the flower is flatter and more open.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Coast Live Oak

This blog is about my native plant garden in Encinitas, CA. Encinitas is located in north San Diego County. By "native plants" I mean primarily those that grow wild in this region, but also other parts of the state of California as well as Baja, Mexico. I started this garden about 20 years ago, so some of my plants are mature while others are recent additions.

In 2011 we did a major remodel of our house and that necessitated removing a lot of plants in the front yard. After that I did a lot of replanting which turned out to be a big improvement. In 2012 I entered my new front yard in a competition called California Friendly Landscape Contest and won first place in the San Dieguito Water District (Encinitas).

What I want to talk about today is my Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) that I've had in my front yard for about 15 years. I planted it as a tiny 1 gal. seedling. It has grown slowly and is still far from full size, but it is the perfect tree for my front yard.

The above photo was taken while we were still in the midst of remodeling. A few weeks later we had to trim back some branches on the left side of the tree to make room for a trellis. Below is how the oak looks now, after about 2 years of regrowth.

It is still a little sparse on the side that I had to trim, but it's coming back now. At this time of year (March) there is a lot of new growth coming out. The new growth is initially red in color because chlorophyll has not yet developed in the new leaf tissues. Gradually, the chlorophyll begins to show and the leaf buds turn green. Here is what they look like at that stage.

They also produce flower tassels at this time, as shown below. If pollinated, the flowers will produce acorns.

In addition to being a great garden tree, oaks are very important for wildlife. Many birds, reptiles, insects, deer, and other animals rely on oak woodlands for food or shelter. My oak tree attracts scrub jays, brown towhees, bushtits, hummingbirds, and many other birds. Perhaps the most interesting and unusual species that lives in my yard is the Silvery legless lizard (Aniella pulchra). I'll write more about that another time.