A berry good time of year

This time of year, the bling in our southern California landscape is often coming from seasonal decorations—the red bows, the shine from the holiday lights, the texture of evergreens, real or not, hung from doors and draped around mailboxes.  But there’s another source of (to borrow What Not to Wear‘s mantra) color, texture, pattern and shine that’s longer-lasting, and which doesn’t have to be put up or taken down at an already busy time of year:  berries.

I love berries; I love all the fruits and drupes and hips and haws that manifest themselves this time of year; it’s wonderful how much interest they add to our outdoor surroundings.  And if you plant them in your own landscape, that’s not all they’ll add; you’ll have a whole new level of color and texture in the wildlife that shows up to eat your berries.

There are many colors and varieties to consider; right now pyracantha is making its vivid display everywhere you look. IMG_1301 It’s a cast-iron plant—pay attention and you’ll see how often the really big, showy ones are on a neglected bank or are part of the edges of yards where nobody looks (or waters).  Pyracantha doesn’t care.  It just keeps on putting on its spectacular show from November till late spring or longer.  It’s also one of the shrubs Neighborhood Watch experts advise you to plant beneath windows to keep people out; it’s spiny, hence the common name “firethorn.”  The spines also mean birds love to use it for cover.

If you’d like to add one to your yard or your own neglected bank, this is a great time of year to make your selection, as the shade varies–below, a very orange variety on an untended slope near us.

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If pyracantha doesn’t send you, or you aren’t feeling the thorns, ha ha, you might like the Chinese pistache’s kind of otherworldly pink berries, plus the pistache has that amazing fall foliage:

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Thanks to Mike, our neighbor and plant expert, for the positive ID on this pistache!

Or the nandina (heavenly bamboo), one of the few fruit-bearing stalwarts that performs in shade:

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There are lots of other tough plants that will give beautiful, wildlife-attracting berries all fall and winter.  One of my favorites, the tough, totally-taken-for-granted raphiolepsis or India hawthorne, has beautiful berries; I took the picture below in a medical complex parking lot.  Notice this one’s fruiting and flowering at the same time!

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The sweetshade tree (Hymenosporum flavum)  is a no-maintenance selection that’s been overlooked in landscaping for too long and is due for a comeback.  I will wax eloquently about its fragrance in the spring, but for now, check out its fall berries!

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Another plant whose fruit is beloved by birds, and which  is almost too much fun to be real, because the berries are not one, but two colors,  is the strawberry arbutus–the arbutus unedo.  They say you can make jam from the fruit, but you can’t prove it by me.  I can, however, vouch for its toughness; the photograph is taken from a neighbor who has apparently decided to stop watering every single bit of land he owns.  A lot of his plants are now dead, but not this one.  Well, maybe that one branch, but I think it’s broken:

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Okay, I could go on . . . but I hope I’ve convinced you to notice and enjoy the berries around you—once you start looking, you’ll see they’re everywhere.  This seems to be a very berry-ful year, which is strange considering just how little rain we got last year, but perhaps the plants are putting their last-ditch survival mechanisms into play.  At any rate, enjoy the literal fruits of their labor, and consider which ones you might like to add to your own garden environment.

And let me know any favorites of yours that I’ve missed!

Succulents–because to forgive is divine

Succulents are having a moment.  A fairly extended moment, which means garden designers writers are really reaching for ways to use them.  October’s pumpkin-as-succulent-container craze was a perfect example of this; I personally am gobsmacked that anyone has the discretionary time, especially at this time of the year, to fiddle with floral pins and sphagnum moss.  Though they do look pretty cool, and if anyone wants to make me one, I’m up for it.succulent-pumpkin-instructions-collage1But it is certainly great proof of how succulents will adapt to all kinds of creative situations; they’re a great artist’s tool.   Too, succulents will adjust to just about any container, which means if you’re the kind of person who can’t say no to a thrift-store find of a rusty Dutch oven or delicate teacup, you’re in luck.

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Now you can justify your habit because you can stuff succulent trimmings into your treasures; they’ll take root and flow down the sides, and people will admire your panache.  If you want more crafty ideas for using succulents, set yourself up a Pintrest board and prepare to be amazed.

In addition to these qualities, of course, succulents are also becoming more widely used both in landscapes and containers because of their relatively modest needs (good drainage; occasional water).  They’re really like the perfect dinner party guest—they quickly make themselves at home, they get along with just about everyone, and they’re not high maintenance.  But here’s the real reason I like succulents, and invite many to live with me:  They’re forgiving.  Really, really forgiving.  I like that in a relationship.

You see, just because I write a gardening blog doesn’t mean I can always spend a lot of time gardening.  In fact, in the whole month of October I am not sure I saw my own backyard more than twice, due to work demands and the usual shot-from-cannons pace of 21st-century life.   So succulents, which overlook my lapses of memory and failures to carry out my own good intentions, are the perfect garden partner for me.

If you haven’t had a lot of experience with succulents, let me show you what I mean.  Here’s one of my patio pots planted with aeonium “Schwarzkopf.”  Because it’s in full sun, on a stone wall and inconveniently far from a spigot, this pot often suffers from a double whammy of heat and neglect.  So when I did wander out a couple of weeks ago to see if the backyard was still there, the aeonium looked like this:  IMG_5933I was not alarmed; I just whisked by it on my way to something else.  And normally I would go right on ignoring it, because I know it can wait, and other things in the garden needed my attention, but it occurred to me that I could use this to dramatically demonstrate the Lazarus-like qualities of succulents.  So I took the picture above, and then went and got the dog’s water bucket.  I dumped the water over the pot, and came back the next day.

IMG_6425As Emeril says, “Bam!”

I don’t mean to suggest that succulents can be ignored with no consequences.  Drought and heat will alter their appearance.  But here’s the thing—I can live with that.  Sometimes the stressed look is actually cooler than the healthy look.  As soon as they’re watered again, either by rainfall (what does that look like again?  I’ve forgotten) or via the occasional dog bowl, all is forgiven.  The past is forgotten, and you’re moving forward.  And you can do this over and over again, and the succulent will never hold a grudge.  If only all relationships were so elastic.

So if your life includes long stretches of chaos, intense activity, or any other distractions which divert you from your gardening, consider succulents.  Adaptable, self-sufficient, easy to ignore, and always forgiving—they’re the perfect partner in a gardening relationship.

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The L-bomb

“Lawn” is not a four-letter word.

Okay, maybe technically it is a four-letter word.  But it’s a four-letter word you don’t want to mention in conversation with eco-purists and sustainability warriors.  Mention “lawn” to the True Believer and you’ll get the same horrified reaction as if you’d dropped an f-bomb at a tea.

The thing is, while broad, estate-style sweeps of lawn are going the way of the dinosaur, there are good reasons why you might not want to eliminate your lawn entirely:  Kids and pets appreciate a spot to roll and play;  there’s the cooling effect; maybe you hail from an area which is lush and green, and home is not home to you without your small patch of grass.  Maybe it’s now a smaller patch of grass, but darn it, you still want it.

When we were first trying to figure out what should anchor our big, front-yard beds of perennial shrubs, we considered, and vetoed, many ideas—more shrubs, decomposed granite, gravel, ground covers like dymondia and myporoum.  Each one of these, though, while water-wise, had drawbacks.  I wanted to be able to walk across it barefoot (you can take the girl out of the country . . . ); we wanted a flat area so neighbors and visitors didn’t have to wade through knee-high shrubs; I’d seen a lot of lawn substitutes in my walks that just didn’t quite work.  So I was pretty sure that little circular area surrounded by shrubs was going to be occupied by grass.

Spending the amount of time we did in the company of sustainably-minded people, we were pretty cowed about even asking how we might go about this.  We knew we wouldn’t be using Marathon sod; even a small patch of the supposedly more drought-tolerant Marathon II is extremely demanding when it comes to water.  But just try to move on from there, to see what else might work.  We consulted with the usually-friendly Theodore Payne folks, and got the suspicious reply “Why d’ya want a lawn?”  (No one who asks you this is really interested in your response, by the way.  They just want to tell you why you’re wrong.)

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Buffalo grass

The TP people finally allowed as how we might use buffalo grass “If you have to have a lawn.”  Other professionals concurred that buffalo grass was the new turf substitute.   We really clung to that gleam of hope for a short while, but then our local Armstrong nursery made the mistake of actually bringing in a demo flat of it.  Yikes.  It’s a prairie grass, and after seeing it up close and personal, I decided that’s where it belongs.  (I should mention in the interests of fairness that it apparently behaves more like lawn in northern California.)

So after a lot of resource- and soul-searching, we took the step (which was advised against at almost every turn) of buying two $8 flats of St. Augustine plugs at Home Depot.  St. Augustine has a bad reputation, some of which is deserved:  It spreads by stolons (runners), which can get away from you.  It goes dormant in the winter, which offends some homeowners’ personal design aesthetic.

But it seemed our best option, so Ian spent an afternoon on his knees—Ian planting St. Augustine

two months later our little circle was completely filled.

St. Augustinei green and lush

Two years later, the lawn (Yes!  I said it!  Lawn lawn lawn!) does send out runners, which we alternately weedwhack or pull to keep within its borders.  It does go dormant, though it turns kind of a drab green, rather than the winter-white of Bermuda grass.  Which doesn’t bother me—coming from a four-season climate as I do, I expect grass to go dormant in winter.  And, the best part—it requires about 75% less water than the previous Marathon lawn.

So don’t be cowed by eco-purists.  You can be sustainable and have a lawn.  You can make it quite a bit smaller; you can replace parts of it with other things; you can use a different type of grass or even a ground cover.  Sustainability doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach; we can find some middle ground, and—who knows?—it might even be green.

Piecework

Often when we think about going sustainable, we picture tearing out everything we have and starting all over again.  The prospect can be so exhausting that the project simply never begins, and so we just keep watering our lawns and cursing the water district.

We imagine that changing our landscape will be like organizing our closets, another large chore that no one leaps to do because it seems so monumental, so overwhelming, such a Hercules-cleaning-out-the-Augean-stables undertaking.  For this myth, I blame the shelter magazines and their photo spreads featuring makeover magic—the spaces utterly, and sometimes unrecognizably, transformed in the final reveal.

The truth is that you don’t have to take a closet or an outdoor space down to the studs; doing so is enormously time-consuming and expensive.  You can instead take it one corner, one bed, one patch of ground at a time.  You can chip away at the lawn without the chaos and rumpled look of a work in progress.

One way is to consider putting in big things (plants, pots, hardscape) where once there were thousands of little things (blades of grass).   Taking out a few feet of lawn and replacing it with a bed of larger, waterwise plants can be strikingly beautiful and will reap benefits almost immediately (do keep in mind that plants have to establish first).  If you have money and the inclination for hardscape, it’s another way to take up large amounts of space that won’t require water.  Covering an area with bark, mulch, or gravel is another option.

One of our neighbors is taking the little-bit-a-time approach by cutting big curved beds into what used to be lawn, and planting the new spaces with New Zealand flax (phormium), grasses, and succulents.  You can see by the photo that the owners really have a good eye for what works; as a person who doesn’t necessarily have that same gift, I look, and remember, and try to incorporate the principles into my own little-at-a-time planning.

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Beds of flax and grasses occupy space that was formerly lawn,
and soften the front of the house

These artistic neighbors, Matt and Denise, very generously let me take pictures and told me how they’ve gradually gone more sustainable over time.  Matt says the reduced lawn requires almost 50% less water, and the beds of flax and grasses (obtained for free from a friend—my favorite kind of plant shopping!) get no supplemental water at all.  Water-wise, money-wise, and still beautiful–that’s the best kind of sustainable.

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New Zealand Flax, fountain grasses, myoporum (ground cover) and strategically placed rocks require little to no supplemental water (especially the rocks).

The benefits of walking your neighborhood really can’t be overstated.  You get ideas of what to do (and the occasional insight on what not to do); you see for yourself what really works in your immediate location, and you realize you can change to a more sustainable gardening style a little bit at a time.  And best of all, you meet the nicest people.

Consider the bottlebrush

Bottlebrush blossom

An important insight early in my re-education in “plants we take for granted” came from Beverley Nichols, an English writer whose works have recently been revived by Timber Press.  Nichols was a man of his age (early 20th century), complaining about his manservant lying a-bed too late of a morning, employing gardeners to tend his conservatory, and so on.  He is frightfully opinionated–and completely addictive.  You won’t read him for garden advice–at least unless you have an English estate–but I do recommend you read him for his take on people, cats, and plants, and his use of the King’s English.

Now that I’m done with that plug for his estate, let me move on to the moment of revelation.  Our neighborhood has a number of old bottlebrushes (callistemon) stuck here and there in the landscape.  Untended, unwatered, they’re mostly gnarled and scrubby, and if I noticed them at all, I mostly noticed how untidy they were.  And then one day my husband was reading Nichols’ Garden Open Tomorrow, and read out loud (as he is wont to do even though he can clearly see I’M READING, TOO) the author’s description of seeing a bottlebrush for the first time in Kew Gardens’ Australian greenhouse:  “It is a flamboyant, extravagant, and altogether unlikely creation; the arrogant scarlet flowers are like fantasies of spun glass tied to the branches by a modern decorator.”

On my next walk I stopped to consider the bottlebrush that hung over the sidewalk, asking for nothing—not water, not fertilizer; maybe only some attention—and decided, by God, that was an accurate description.  It was truly spectacular.  And we already had a previously-unappreciated one on our bank, surrounded by ivy.  So we cleared the ivy, and planted three more.  The bees and hummingbirds could not be happier, and when the sun shines on the blossoms, they do indeed look like spun glass.  And look at it (above) after a rain!  It looks like a Chihuly piece!

So in your plant selection, do consider the bottlebrush.  They attract hummingbirds and bees, come in a number of cultivars to fit a variety of situations, from patio tree to hedge to foundation plantings; Callistemon viminalis, the weeping bottlebrush, can stand in for people nostalgic for the weeping willows of their youth, and the smaller-sized Callistemon “Little John is a wonderful compact, blue-green shrub that, in Bob Perry’s words, is “highly tolerant of heat, aridity, and cold termperatures below 20 degrees.”  Can’t get much more versatile than that.

Considerations of going native

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Ceanothus “Concha”

I have nothing against California natives; in fact, some of my best friends are natives.  Some, like the sturdy, glossy, and un-temperamental Yankee Point can be easily adapted to the home landscape, and perform beautifully in a range of soils and conditions.  And it’s green year-round, so what’s not to love?  Planting California natives will attract a whole new population of wildlife and butterflies to your yard, and over time, they can lower your water bill.  Over time.  See below.

But keep in mind that natives will, on average, have a 30-40% failure rate, which is a polite way of saying that 4 of every 10 you plant may die; slowly or inexorably, or seemingly overnight.  Natives tend to carry a higher cost owing to their slower growth rate and difficulty of cultivation (see:  failure rate).  So figure an average of $8 per 1-gallon plant, and figure replacing 3-4 at each go, and you begin to see just how expensive a proposition tearing out your lawn and putting in natives might be.

If you’re an impatient gardener and want to go native, you’ll either have to take up meditation or look out some other window after you’ve planted, because Theodore Payne Nursery’s mantra are the truest words ever spoken on the subject:  The first year they sleep, the second, they creep, the third, they leap.  The first year, TP neglects to mention (but which we learned through bitter failure and advice from Las Pilitas Nursery), you must water like you would any other plant.  The second year, less so; the third, probably less, and so on till you reach equilibrium or all your plants die.

So my advice (not that you asked) is to educate yourself a little and again, take a walk through your neighborhood.  Using natives is very mainstream now; what’s surviving?  What natives have made it to the big nurseries?  This is how we glommed onto the Yankee Point, which forms the foundation plantings of our front yard.

Yankee Point ceanothus in spring

Yankee Point ceanothus in spring

Ask yourself how much dormancy you are willing to tolerate; you may be able to tuck plants with a long dormant season in and around other plantings, similar to the way you might treat bulbs.  Just remember a great many natives do have a long dormant season, usually summer; there’s a reason the Theodore Payne Foundation Garden Tour is in April.

Having new eyes

“The real voyage of discovery lies not in new landscapes, but having new eyes with which to see.”–Marcel Proust

If you’ve read my two “About” paragraphs, you know I’ve been through a lot of gardening phases and crazes.  The current phase began nine years ago, when we moved to a house with a big (for southern California) lot.  The front and back yards consisted mostly of lawn and concrete paths, built on what seemed to be a bottomless layer of shale–no actual soil is evident no matter how deep we dig.  It was the worst possible combination of factors for water conservation, and after the second summer of the lawn expensively gasping out its last in the middle of June, we decided we had to do something.

We spent more money than we are accustomed to, hiring a landscape architect to draw up a plan for the back yard; said plan involved a meadow and big swaths of drought-tolerant plants forming the bulk of the landscape.  We implemented the plan, incorporating a lot of California natives.  We had been busily steeping ourselves in waterwise landscape information; we absorbed the Doctrine of No-Lawn, which was refreshed annually at the April Theodore Payne Garden Tour; we made pilgrimages to native nurseries within driving distances, we attended lectures, we met True Believers.  In the end, the backyard works, mostly.  Parts of it are messy (I prefer “rustic”), and like any gardening effort, it’s always being subjected to tweaks due to unexpected growth, death, and the occasional burst of insight.  It takes less water to look presentable than the previous arrangement.

Ian reflects picturesquely in the backyard meadow.

Ian reflects picturesquely in the backyard meadow.

But when it came time to redo our front yard (mostly lawn), I knew we were going to take a different approach.  I didn’t want to spend money on outside advice this time, and I didn’t want to go native, because keeping natives front-yard-worthy year-round takes darn near as much water as a lawn.  An all-native yard in the summer can be a sad, sad, sight, and kind of jarring to the viewer when sandwiched between houses with expanses of green extending right up to the sidewalk.

We dithered for a while, looking through landscape books, talking to nursery staff, trying to decide what drought-tolerant plants could work in our front yard, and really not hitting on a plan.  Then one day I was out for my morning walk, and it hit me–the answer was literally all around us.

We live in a “starter-home” neighborhood–that is, the residents are about 1/3 original owners and 2/3 first-time owners.  Since the houses were built in 1961, it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that the original homeowners are getting up there in age, and may not be able to care for the yard as they once could.  Some of the first-time owners are strapped for cash, working long hours, and/or raising families.  All in all, it adds up to some less-tended home landscapes.  This turned out to be a gold mine for me.  I started noticing what thrived–what continued to grow in spite of haphazard or no watering, amateur or no pruning, and just general benign neglect.

With my new mental framework, I roamed the neighborhood, taking mental notes, asking people about their plantings, getting to know my neighborhood landscape and my neighbors.   I started noticing that the plants that survived were the very same ones I was seeing planted in gas station strips, in Target parking lots, in planter beds by the now-defunct Blockbuster.  We overlook them because they’re generally sheared into submissive lumps, or full of roadside debris.  But even so, they flower, they add green, they host bees and other beneficials–and when I took the time to consider them individually, each one was a knockout, full of color and texture and interest.  And once established, they were water-wise; just as important, they conserved other resources, like energy and money.

So I decided my approach to the front yard would favor the tried-and-true:  standard landscaping favorites that are so common our eyes don’t even register them anymore.  Shrubs and trees and perennials (annuals and I broke up a looong time ago) that, while I might not buy them at a big-box store, would nevertheless be available at the big-box stores.  No exotics, no special trips to the native nurseries, no hand-holding.  What these old faithfuls would do for me is be reliable, once planted.  What I would do for them is try to group them in unexpected ways, allow them to flower rather than hedge them into stiff clipped attention, and to view them with new eyes–for their true, long-taken for granted beauty.