Saturday, February 14, 2015


The first method of lawn removal listed on the Lawn Removal Methods: Pros and Cons sheet is neglect. I have used this method more than any other in reducing the turf-covering in my yard. And yes it does work, but as noted in the con category, it takes time, requiring a good bit of patience. The following pictures show the progression from lawn to mulch under a beautiful and highly valued coast live oak.

Small patch of grass beneath coast live oak. We moved into our house in July 1998. The first
landscape change I made was to turn off the sprinkler head that sprayed water on the base of the oak. (Feb. 1999)
Gradually I reduced the summer water under the oak tree and allowed oak leaves to accumulate. I never dug up
or  in any way disturbed the soil beneath the oak. (Dec. 2005)
The old garage, held up by termites, was demolished in December 2006. This is the cement floor that was
easily removed with a jack-hammer from beneath the oak tree. Interestingly, although the oak grew as a
volunteer right next to the garage, its roots did not lift the garage floor. (Dec. 2006)
View of oak with garage gone. (Dec. 2006)
The avocado was liberated from the choke-hold of the deck in preparation for a backyard wedding.
It had been installed by the previous owners for the backyard wedding of their daughter. Now it was being
removed for our son's wedding because over the years it had started to rot and was no longer sound. (Oct. 2009)
A small patio of flagstones (generously given to us by our neighbors to the west) is being laid on
a bed of sand. The oak tree is to the left in the picture. (Oct. 2011)
A view of the back yard from the garage. (Mar. 2012)
The oak is doing well,  liberated from both lawn and summer water. The collapsing garage has been replaced with
a new one, relocated in the corner of the lot, and the informal flagstone patio is between the oak and the garage.
(Feb. 2015)
The avocado (on the right) is no longer bound by a deck (removed in 10/2009), and the lawn in the far back has
shrunk quite a bit as trees and shrubs have grown and encroached on it. (Feb 2015)
This evolution of the backyard began in 1998 when we moved in and continues to this day as the last patch of lawn continues to shrink. The garden has developed organically and gradually over the years. Other parts of the yard have changed more quickly. In the parkways, for example, the lawn was dug out and replaced with native plants over fewer years. The front yard lawn disappeared under a think coat of wood chips generated from tree limbs that were violently blown off the trees in the windstorm of 2011. Further posts will follow the progression of these gardens from lawn to no-lawn.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My tips on growing natives in containers

I want to start this post by stating the obvious: the following tips are things that I do to grow plants in containers. Some of my suggestions are not conventional, in fact, some plant people may strongly disagree with me. The main reason for this is that I do not purchase potting mix, amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, organic soap, horticultural oil... and the list goes on. I use what I have on hand, except for the plants, containers, and water and parts for the temporary drip irrigation system. If a plant gets sick, I make little effort to heal it. If a plant needs supplemental nutrients, I either repot it with additional compost, top-dress it with worm castings (from my worm bin) or throw it out. All in all, I do well with containers, unless we are traveling a lot and they are neglected. Remember, container plants require careful attention more than anything else.

Potting soil/fertilizer
I use a homemade potting mix consisting of oak leaf mold, compost, and garden soil. For plants requiring excellent drainage I add coarse sand or coarse perlite (one of the few amendments I sometimes purchase). Minimize fertilizer to keep the growth rate low, but use a dilute application if plant seems nutrient-deficient (yellowed leaves). Rather than fertilizing most container plants, I repot them since the soil can be deficient in many macro- and micronutrients. However, heavy feeders (like vegetables) may need supplemental fertilizers. I start with a fairly rich soil (high in organics like compost and leaf mold) and top-dress the soil with compost and/or worm castings. Many native plants do best with lower nitrogen levels since excess nitrogen promotes rampant growth that is unsustainable in our hot and dry climate.

Oak leaf mold taken from layer below fallen leaves of coast live oak. So nice!
Mix leaf mold with garden soil, add compost and/or worm castings for heavy feeders (vegetables, eg.), coarse sand
or perlite for plants requiring excellent drainage. I don't put anything in the bottom of the pot.
Water when the soil is dry and the plant appears to need water – slight flagging of stems, or other signs. Check the soil at the surface and a few inches down. You can also lift the pot to see if it feels heavy or light. Sometimes the surface dries out, while the soil below remains wet - the pot will feel heavy in this case. Do not water plants that are dormant. Wait until they resume growth and then water regularly. Water thoroughly until the water drips through the holes. This prevents the accumulation of salts since they are carried out with the water that drains through the pot. It also depletes the soil of nutrients (see above regarding fertilizers). Don't water too often. For most plants, other than those adapted to continuous moisture, it is best to let soil dry out before watering again.

One of the most important things to look for in a good container is the number and size of drainage holes. Many commercial containers have inadequate drainage, resulting in plant loss due to root rot. Unglazed pots dry out more quickly than glazed or plastic ones, however, if kept moist the pot surface stays cooler. Dark colored plastic pots can get very hot, scorching roots that are growing near the edge of the container. Plant at least an inch below the top of the pot so that water can penetrate the soil without running off. Repurpose household and other objects – boots, cans, wine barrels, wire baskets, old sinks, etc. - as garden containers. Make sure they hold the soil, don't overheat, and drain easily. Colorful containers can add year around interest to a garden.

It is best to keep pots up off the ground, unless they are sitting on a thick layer of gravel or sand. The roots of potted plants growing on soil will eventually grow through the hole into the soil below. If this happens, drill holes in side of pot so it doesn't get water logged. Once a plant's roots have established in the soil below, it usually stresses the plant greatly to sever its roots, so be prepared to enjoy the permanently-situated container. Plants are also more susceptible to earwigs and other pests if located on the ground. And finally, soil, insects and debris can easily clog the drainage holes of plants sitting on ground leading to root rot. Periodically check the drainage holes to make sure they are clear. Most container plants do best with some shade, especially in the afternoon. It is very important to make sure that the roots don't cook from a solar-heated pot and soil. Move plants to a sheltered spot when extreme weather is predicted (heat-wave, frost or high winds).

One of several holes drilled through the side of the pot along the bottom to aid drainage since the roots of this
plant have grown through the bottom drainage hole into the soil below. The plant is now immovable, but it
looks too good to destroy. 
See what I mean? It is soooo pretty and just keeps blooming!
I rarely succeed in controlling pests and disease so I first move the infected plant away from other plants to limit the damage. Aphids usually occur only in spring, disappearing in the heat of summer. Cut and remove young stems infested with aphids and hose off the plant. Pick out or dab mealy bugs with alcohol. I usually dispose of a plant with mealy bugs because I am rarely able to fully remove these nasty bugs. In dudleyas and coral bells, and other plants susceptible to them, the mealy bugs snuggle into tiny, inaccessible spaces. Other common pests include red spider mites scale and thrips. These, along with mealy bugs, often hitch a ride into your the garden from the nursery where you got them, so consider quarantining new plants until you are sure they are pest-free.

Just as the only way to know when to water is to watch the plant, your plant will usually give indications when it needs to be repotted. Repot when roots are growing through the drainage holes. If allowed to continue, they may grow into the soil below (if they are on the ground). Furthermore, the roots can plug the drainage holes so water stagnates in the pot, leading to root rot and nearly certain death. If the plant needs water more frequently than usual, and the weather is not to blame, it is likely that the roots are filling the pot and there is little potting mix left to hold water. Repot immediately. Sudden growth spurt and vigor may indicate that the plant's roots have extended into the soil below the pot. Repot the plant into a larger container before it becomes a permanent, immobile garden character. If this happens - and you are okay with it - be sure to drill holes into the side of the pot near the ground so water can drain from the pot (see picture above).

Should have taken care of this earlier! Still after dividing it up (and getting torn to pieces, even wearing garden gloves),
it looks like it will pull through just fine. It is a non-native, can't-kill-it-for-anything agave.
Here's one of the rosettes several weeks after transplanting. Its central core is firm and growing. The
outer leaves will fall off and it will once again thrive, ready to tear apart with its amazing leaf spines
anyone who dares to approach. 
Be adventurous
Many plants are easily propagated from cuttings or seed. Monkeyflowers, for example, root readily from cuttings, and bloom when young. They are beautiful container plants that can be transplanted into your garden when they outgrow the pot. Sprinkle seeds or plant bulbs in containers for a beautiful springtime wildflower display. For bulbs, once they have gone dormant move the pot to a protected spot and do not water it again until they start to grow. Some bulbs will perform for years this way. Manzanitas look absolutely fabulous as container plants and I have tried them several times. Unfortunately, they die abruptly as soon as the root tips reach the pot's edge. Nevertheless, I have seen these plants used to great advantage in containers; so if they appeal to you, give them a try, but consider using pots with well-insulated walls. The list of native plants for containers is just a start; there are many native plants that will do well in containers, some for a short-while, others for many, many years.

Pot full of baby blue eyes. Isn't it cute?
Final words of caution
Most container plants require careful attention. If you travel a lot, you may want to restrict your containers to succulents or cacti that can survive neglect, especially in the summer.

This slideshow includes many examples of unusual container plant arrangements. Be sure to check out the captions for additional information. 

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.