Friday, April 24, 2015

Spring Rain

We got some very welcome rain last night and this morning. One authority said Encinitas received 0.28 inches. The rain is accompanied by normal Springtime conditions - cool, cloudy, breezy. Prior to this we had several weeks of very warm, dry Summer-like conditions. Plants were getting dried out too soon. So the return of Spring weather and rain should be helpful to all the plants. Plus, it put more water into my rain barrel.

More late bloomers are starting to show their stuff. Above is my Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius) against the cloudy sky, and below is a flower cluster almost ready to open.

Yesterday I was re-reading a book about the Channel Islands, The California Islands: Proceedings of a Multidisciplinary Symposium, published by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in 1980. The chapter on botany is of greatest interest to me. A paper by Ralph Philbrick states that fossils of L. floribundus have been found throughout California and even Nevada. So this was a tree that was previously much more widespread and only in the last several thousand years has retreated to a very small remnant population. The same is true of a number of other island species, as well as the more well known Torrey Pine.

In the understory of the Ironwood I have several examples of Santa Barbara Island Live-forever (Dudleya traskiae). Only one of these has decided to put up a flower stalk (below). According to Calflora the flower should be yellow-gold when it opens. One thing that puzzles me about my plants is the leaf color. Half of them are white like the one below, resulting from the typical powdery coating that many Dudleyas have. However, the other half of my D. traskiae are green with no coating. I got them from two different nurseries and I'm wondering if this is a natural color variation that is reflected in the original source plants of the two nurseries. Perhaps there is a white form and a green form as there is with D. brittonii. On the other hand, it may be just an aberration or misidentification.

In a container near the Dudleya are a couple of mainland species that are flowering now. First is Stream Orchid (Epepactis gigantea). Despite the gigantea name, it has dainty little nodding flowers (below).

In the same container there is also Yellow Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus).

Both the Epipactis and the Mimulus seem to do very well in a container where I can keep them extra wet, since they are bog plants. They also both go dormant and totally disappear in the winter, so it looks like I have an empty pot for about 6 months. Then it's a great relief when they start to appear again, and a sort of miracle when they bloom.

Another bog plant that is blooming now is Hedge Nettle (Stachys bullata). One should ignore the common name of Nettle - it doens't sting or irritate the skin at all, in my experience. A more appropriate name is the less commonly used Wood Mint, and it is in fact in the mint family. It's really quite a nice little plant for wet areas, more common in central California but also found in San Diego County is a few spots. I have this one planted in the larger bog area rather than in a container because it does not go dormant and can fend for itself among the other bog plants.

Moving away from the bog, a rare plant that is one of my all-time favorites is the Thread-leaf Brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia). The first of its flowers is out now (below). I think I have written about this plant before, but at the risk of repeating myself I'm going to do it again. It grows from a small corm that resembles those of Dichelostemma, but it is much more rare. Calflora says the habitat of B. filifolia is vernal pools, but I have only seen it in grasslands in Carlsbad where it typically grows among non-natives such as European oats, bromes, mustard and fennel. Luckily for the gardener, it is available for sale from Telos Rare Bulbs. They say theirs are grown from specimens at the Berkeley Botanical Garden

A late blooming chaparral plant that is in flower right now is Summer Holly (Comarostaphylis diversifolia ssp. diversifolia). As is evident from the flowers, it is a member of the Ericaceae family, along with the manzanitas, and it grows in similar areas. Mine is around 20 years old and 10 ft. tall. It's always been a bit sparsely leafed which may be due to its full sun exposure. My understanding is that they prefer north facing slopes and a little shade in the wild. Such exposure would also result in slightly higher soil moisture, so mine may be suffering from chronic dryness. Still, it's surviving and flowering, and it made it through last Summer's awful heat.

There are a few more plants that are not quite in flower yet but should be very soon. One of these is the Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri) which looks just about ready to pop. This is one of the most popular native California plants because of its extraordinarily large flower. It is also one of the most frequently mispronounced names. The British, who really like this plant, and probably many Americans pronounce it with a normal J sound, which is totally wrong. The name has a Spanish derivation, so the J should be pronounced like ha. actually has a good pronunciation guide and word origin for Matilija Poppy. It refers to Matilija Canyon in Ventura County, California. No matter how you say it, the flowers are spectacular.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Replanting A Bare Area

I had a area in the front yard that for many years was filled with Ribes thacherianum, Santa Cruz Island Gooseberry. It had very nice flowers in the Spring. The photo below is from the Winter/Spring of 2013. This species would always go dormant from Summer until the first rains, then it would wake up and leaf out.

However, after the Summer of 2014 it did not come out of dormancy. I think the Summer was just too hot and dry for it. Perhaps in a more protected location it would have survived. Anyway, I was not too upset because I am now organizing my garden into geographic zones, and this island species did not fit with the Chaparral species that I have in that part of the front yard. So, it's time to replant.

The first job was to clear out what remained of the Ribes.

Once the area was clear, I needed to decide what I wanted to put in there. Neighboring plants include Fremontodendron 'Pacific Sunset', Toyon, Buckwheat, Chaparral Mallow, Del Mar Manzanita, Summer Holly, and Baja Bush Snapdragon (which no longer fits in this section of the garden). I wanted to add shrubs that would be representative of the Chaparral of San Diego County but not repeating what I already have. I also want to leave room for some annuals.

Fortunately, Recon Native Plant Nursery had their Spring Sale on April 18. I looked over their list of available plants and found some good ones that fit my criteria. I normally don't like to plant at this time of year. I prefer to plant in the Fall when there is cooler weather ahead and maybe some rain. But I wanted to get these plants while they were available because other times I have waited until Fall and then the plants were not available. So here's what I bought.

The Rhamnus and Cercocarpus will eventually get pretty large, possibly 8 ft. or so. The Dendromecon will also get fairly tall and will get yellow poppy flowers. The Eriodictyon will be medium height, while the Cneoridium will stay fairly low and bushy. All of these should be more drought tolerant than the Ribes that was here before and will fit better with my Chaparral theme. In the space between the shrubs I plan to scatter seeds of poppy, lupine, phacelia, clarkia, and other annuals.

Below are the plants in the ground, with oak leaf mulch. I also plan to add more rocks when I can get them. I gave them a good amount of water to get them started and then I'll monitor daily to see how they are doing. I'll be watering from the rain barrel which I'm refilling from the shower warm-up water.

I put the Denromecon in a spot where it will have somewhat more shade while it is really small.

I put the Cneoridium and Eriodictyon together as companions, though I'm not really sure why. It just seemed like a good idea.

My experience with Yucca shidigera in the garden has been very good, so I expect this one will grow fairly rapidly and flower in a few years.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Few New Bloomers

Here are a few plants that have come into flower since my last post.

Calochortus venustus, Butterfly Mariposa Lily

This geophyte is most commonly found to the north of here from L.A. County to the Bay Area and in the Sierra foothills. However, Calflora also shows it occurring in two locations in the desert mountains of Anza-Borrego. The conditions in my garden (ocean breeze in the shade of an oak tree) are more similar to those farther north. Below is an enlargement showing the very spiky hairs in the throat and an unidentified insect working on the anthers.

Next is another bulb, Bloomeria crocea, Goldenstar. In a previous post I mentioned that I had bought several more bulbs and planted them in the Fall. They are up and blooming now putting on a very nice display.

The last one for today is Calliandra peninsularis, Peninsular Fairyduster. I know this looks very much like C. californica but it is a recognized, distinct species that is endemic to the southern Sierra La Giganta and the Cape region of Baja, according to Rebman and Roberts. I am excited about this one because I have had it several years and this is the first time it has bloomed. It's not in a great location, on the edge of the drip line of the oak tree, so it probably gets too much shade and leaf drop, but it's thriving and now blooming. It forms a sort of backdrop to a small area of Baja succulents.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A California Garden Aesthetic

WARNING - This is going to be a somewhat philosophical post. I'm going to stick photos between some of the paragraphs to illustrate my points, but it is going to be very wordy. I'm writing this on April 1, 2015. Today Gov. Brown announced 25% mandatory reductions in water usage throughout California in response to the drought. He said "It's a different world, we have to act differently." So how do we garden in this kind of world?

Recently I was talking with an acquaintance who said that because of the drought people were just going to have to get used to not being able have pretty gardens any more. She thought that was actually okay. I think her viewpoint is terrible, but I didn't argue with her.

I think it is terrible because it is both the wrong message to be sending out in response to the drought, and it is factually incorrect. However, if she had stated it differently I might have agreed with her. The way I think it could be accurately stated is that we Californians must develop a new gardening aesthetic that accepts our limited water resources. If done well, this kind of approach can be both realistic and beautiful. I know for a fact that that can be done because I have done it myself for over 20 years. And I know many other people who have done the same thing.

Generally those of us who have done this kind of gardening have done so under the banner of the California Native Plant Society or the more generic label of drought-tolerant gardening, but it is often hard to put a label on what we do. I think we need a catchy name for the type of gardening that I am describing, so I am suggesting that we call it the California Garden Aesthetic. That's my whole point right there. Now I'll spend the rest of this post and the next explaining what I mean and why it's important.

I didn't make this up entirely on my own. I have borrowed a bit from the description of Craftsman-era homes of roughly 1900-1929, and most specifically the description of the Gamble House in Pasadena, now an architectural museum. Their web site ( describes how the architects Charles and Henry Greene developed a new style which the Gamble House refers to as the New California Aesthetic. I won't go into the details, but it was a new blending of elements that had been around for some time. And it really was revolutionary. A quote from Charles Greene shows his thinking. “The style of the house should be as far as possible determined by four conditions: First, Climate; Second, Environment; Third, kinds of materials available; Fourth, habits and tastes — i.e., life of the owner." (Charles Sumner Greene, in The Western Architect, July 1908). Clearly, these principles are equally applicable to gardening today.

Note: this is the Rideout house, not the Gamble House
Gardeners of that period did not typically use native California plants or even drought-tolerant non-native plants in their gardens. However, their philosophy seems to fit very well with our present need for a gardening philosophy or aesthetic. There was an interest in finding the ideal California garden, with various ways of looking at it. Historian Kevin Starr in his book Americans and the California Dream briefly touched on this in one chapter, in which he described early attempts to fashion a cohesive approach to gardening in the state 

Many others since then have thought about this and described it, but not in the exactly the same way or same words. The effort to define an ideal garden for California has gained momentum in recent years, due largely to our water woes. For example, the East Bay Municipal Utility District has published a booklet that promotes Summer Dry Gardens ( The Surfrider Foundation has their own approach which they call Ocean Friendly Gardening. I think that name confuses some people, including me. And while the approach is strong on water conservation and rainwater retention, it seems weak in terms of plant selection. A Los Angeles based organization called Green Gardens Group (G3) appears to be linked with Surfrider and has similar strengths, plus a bit more emphasis on proper plant selection. I think they call theirs California Friendly Gardening.

Calochortus sp. among other plants

The closest I have seen to my approach is a blog called Mother Nature's Backyard by the Board of the Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve. They promote what they are calling Your New California Garden. It is essentially the same as what I am saying, but I like to include the word Aesthetic because I think we need to convey that this new approach to gardening is not just new but also beautiful. If we don't get across to people that it is beautiful then there will always be a reluctance to accept it, 

even when the situation (like now) demands it.

So, you may ask, what are the elements of my California Garden Aesthetic? I am still developing this, but  here is what I have so far:

1.     The garden is a mini ecosystem and should be managed as such. It is not merely a decorative addition to the exterior of the house. It functions as a place where not only plants but also animals (birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates) can find either a permanent home or temporary refuge, where there is food and water available to them, relatively free of unnecessary disturbance and hazards.

2.     No use of pesticides. The insect life of the garden is one of its key elements. Minimal or no use of herbicides to control weeds.

3.     Water conservation must be a consideration of every aspect of garden design. In my view the ideal is to have no automatic irrigation system. The alternative is to have a very high quality irrigation system that wastes no water and is programmable to recognize varying weather conditions. The point of watering is to keep plants alive and healthy without wasting water. It’s something we must think about constantly.

4.     Retain rainwater onsite. This principle is very well covered in the material from Surfrider, G3 and other organizations, so I won’t dwell on that here.

5.     Use primarily plant species that are native to the region of California in which you live. This is the one I want to spend more time on because I think it is the critical piece that gets left out of some other programs. It is critical because it ties back to point #1. At the same time it raises the question of Aesthetics, i.e. can a native plant garden with minimal irrigation actually be beautiful? I intend to answer that question in my next post.