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Basic Planting Design, Part 3 of 4

Site map and analysis completed, per Part One?  Check!  Garden style selected, per Part Two?  Check!  Welcome to Part Three of Basic Planting Design, where the focus is: What plant jobs need to be filled in my garden?  Plants jobs can be functional, aesthetic, or both! 

Functional jobs affect the use of the garden. The metaphor for the functional uses of plants is

garden design with trees

Trees are the Roof of the Garden

architectural: Trees act as the “roof” of the garden, providing shade and large-scale screens, framing views, creating micro-climates, and providing food for humans and wildlife alike.  Shrubs are the garden’s “walls” that define spaces, add lower level privacy screening and structural elements, and provide a background for focal points. Ground covers are the garden “floor” that stabilizes the soil against erosion, reduces soil temperatures, and slows evaporation rates.

Aesthetic jobs affect the sensory aspects of a garden.  These are primarily visual influences but also include scent, sound, and touch.  Pleasing plant designs take into consideration the attributes of texture, form, and color and the use of the principles of rhythm, line, balance, contrast, and unity to apply these attributes.

  • A plant’s texture describes the size of its foliage and flowers and ranges from coarse to fine. Drifts of fine-textured plants tend to make the spaces in which they are planted seem larger. Bold textured plants add flair to a garden.
  • When referring to an entire plant, form describes its overall shape and stature. Plants with bold horizontal or vertical lines or strong visible branching are highly structural.  They visually anchor a garden and add drama.  Plants with rounded or billowy shapes contrast with and soften structural plants.  Form also describes the varied shapes of individual flowers, including spires, balls, umbels, spires, plumes, daisy-like, and curtains. Drifts of
    perennials with contrasting color and texture

    Textural and Color Contrasts

    contrasting flower forms add interest to a garden.  

  • Infinite color palettes that can be created with foliage and flower color. Foliage offers long term color, while flowers provide their hues in shorter bursts. Plant color palettes can be generally categorized as “cool” or “warm.” Cool palettes mingle purples, blues, grays, pinks that have blue undertones, and pure- or greenish-yellows. Reds, bronzes, and oranges create a warm palette. Pinks with red undertones and orangey yellows also go with a warm palette. 

Color palettes can also be monochromatic, combining plants with foliage and flower colors in a single color such as red, yellow or blue/gray.  Plant red, yellow, and blue together, and you have a garden in “primary” colors!  And remember, green, in all of its various shades, is a color.

  • Repetition of any or all of the three attributes (texture, form, and color) creates rhythm in a garden. Gentle contrasts between texture and form and a monochromatic color palette make for subtle rhythm.  For pizzazz, bump up the contrast between form and texture or use vivid colors.
  • Line is used to emphasize garden style and create directional cues. Plantings and hardscape can be used to create lines that lead the eye through a garden. For example, the line of a path or converging lines of plantings draw the eye to a focal point while curving paths, with
    Path 'Line' Leads the Eye

    Path ‘Line’ Draws Visitors to the Front Door

    destinations that are hidden by plants, invite the curious to explore a garden.  

  • In design, Balance is the principle of distributing visual weight equally. Plant mass and color both affect balance. In a symmetrically balanced garden, opposing areas are mirror images of each other with similar plantings used on either side.  In an asymmetrically balanced garden, unlike elements can balance each other.  For example, a single strongly structural plant can be balanced with a  boldly colored mass of filler plants.
  • Contrast and unity are partners in well-designed gardens. Interesting gardens require contrast while unity ties it all together.  To achieve unified contrast, follow the 2:1 guideline: Select any two of the plant attributes (texture, form and color) to create either unity or contrast.  The third attribute will oppose the other two.  For instance, contrast texture and form while using color to unify the overall scheme. Such a garden could feature bold and fine textured plants, highly structural plants and blowsey filler plants, and a monochromatic color palette.  Applying the principles of rhythm, line, and balance will further unify the design.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board: time to develop your preliminary planting plan!  To stay on track, refer to your site analysis (per Part One), and stick to your style preferences (per Part Two). Start loose and tighten up the plan as you progress.

Preliminary Planting Plan

For this phase, think about plant functions rather than individual plants.  Start by loosely bubbling (outlining) the shape and location of structural plant masses.  Then bubble in the location and shape of filler plant masses. Within each bubble, note the plant function (shade tree, screen plant, accent), the cultural conditions, and whether the plant(s) are to be evergreen or deciduous.  Next, think about which plant attributes you want to use to provide contrast and which you want to provide unity.  Assign texture and form attributes to each of the bubbles, keeping in mind the 2:1 guideline.  Double check to see that you have arranged the plant attributes to provide rhythm, line, and balance in a way that reinforces your garden style.

Your completed preliminary planting plan will show separate bubbles labeled with plant form, function, cultural conditions, foliage type (evergreen or deciduous) and plant attributes. 

Stay tuned for our final and fourth guiding question: Is my yard ready to plant? Happy Gardening!

Thank you to Master Gardener Laura Lukes for her invaluable assistance in preparing this article!


Basic Planting Design, Part 2 of 4

This article is Part 2 in a series of four articles addressing planting design.  In Part One, What Can I Give My Plants, we covered how to analyze your planting site to understand the cultural and existing conditions. The fun continues as we explore the second guiding question, What garden style do I want?  

There are many garden styles to choose from so you’ll want to research: on the internet, in

Plantings to Complement House Colors

neighborhoods, and in books or magazines. Note what you love as well as what you don’t like. Create an on-line idea book through available apps (Houzz, Pinterest), keeping in mind the opportunities and restrictions you’ve discovered in your analysis per question one.

A simple approach is to use the style of your home as an organizing principle. Plantings that complement a home’s architecture create a cohesive feeling.  For example, the clean lines of Mid-century Modern architecture feel at home with simple plantings emphasizing foliage over flowers.  Pairing a cute bungalow with an informal or fanciful garden harmonizes with the home’s charm and stature.  You can also unify your house and garden by selecting plants that repeat or contrast with the home’s distinctive color scheme.

Some of the many garden styles include:

Drought Tolerant Planting that’s Pollinator Friendly

Drought Tolerant: A drought tolerant garden, featuring plants that require occasional to no summer water, respects California’s on-going water limitations. These gardens can sit on anywhere on the continuum from formal to informal but often lean toward a naturalistic look.  Many of the plants that are drought tolerant in California will be native to areas with a “Mediterranean” climate like ours: cool, wet winters and dry, hot summers.

Pollinator: Your garden design can emphasize plants that nurture our native bees, butterflies, and birds.  Altacal, the Northern California chapter of the Audubon society, offers a Neighborhood Habitat certification program and guidelines for creating pollinator gardens. In this type of garden, plantings are layered in height (low plants, medium shrubs, and taller trees) to offer varied habitat while staggered bloom times provide year-round nectar and pollen sources. Pollinators gardens tend to be whimsical, billowy informal affairs.

Cottage: Also attractive to pollinators is the exuberant, free-flowing, and busy cottage garden. Many varieties of plants rub shoulders in a tangle of flowers and vines, and paths are winding and overgrown.  Informal, indeed.  

Formal: The antithesis of the cottage garden is one that contains shrubs coaxed into symmetrical geometric designs.  Often incorporating dense evergreen shrubs and plots of lawn, the formal garden is high-maintenance and low on food for pollinators. The gardens of Versailles set the standard for formality in an intentional display of the power of man over nature and King over the rabble.

Naturalistic: This garden takes its cues from the plants that grow naturally in the undeveloped landscape. Plants are arranged to invoke a natural flow, as opposed to revealing decisions made by the gardener.

Artsy:  Display your creative nature!  For this type of garden, think outside the box for construction materials and methods.  Broken concrete pieces, old pottery shards, and rusted drainage pipes can make appearances in paving and planting areas.  Arrange your garden with focal points for art and other surprises.

The Modern Garden features asymmetrical geometry; industrial materials such as corrugated steel, wire mesh, and plain concrete; and simple, often horizontal, lines to create a clean aesthetic.  Plants can soften the geometry or repeat it and usually lean toward foliage over flowers.

If you are in Butte County, CA, visit the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at Patrick Ranch in Durham to see thriving examples of native, Mediterranean, and pollinator plants to use with any garden style.

Start your research!  Appreciate gardens with new eyes to identify the elements discussed above.  In coming articles, we’ll address question three: What Plant Jobs Need To Be Filled In My Yard; and question four: Is My Yard Ready To Plant. Happy Gardening!

Many thanks to Butte County Master Gardner Laura Lukes for her invaluable help in this article!

Basic Planting Design, Part 1 of 4

Planting design is the art of arranging plants in a garden.  There are many ways to approach it, but I find that exploring four basic questions leads to great planting design:

  1. What can I give my plants?
  2. What garden style do I want?
  3. What plant ‘jobs’ need to be filled in my yard?
  4. Is my yard ready to plant?

This article focuses on question one.

What can I give my plants?  Matching plants to your aesthetic and functional needs and your site’s cultural conditions leads to a healthy and beautiful garden with reduced maintenance and water use.  To gain a solid understanding of what you can offer plants, perform a simple site analysis.

Start by drawing a base map, to scale, of the site.  Include the house footprint, the location of doors and windows, existing plants that you want to keep, hard scape areas such as paving and fencing, and utilities.  Note the architectural style of your home.  Make several copies of your base map.

A base map of a front yard showing property lines, house foot print, and existing paving.

A base map of a front yard showing property lines, house foot print, and existing paving.

Observe and record onto your base map information that you want to consider when designing your garden.  First, note your yard’s relationship to your home.  This could include locations of features that you want to screen or highlight when viewed from within your house, points of access, and rooms within your house that relate to activities that you plan to do outside of the house.

Next, note slope and drainage issues including areas that puddle easily or slopes that cause water run-off.   Finally, consider the relationship to neighboring properties; record features such as large trees or buildings that cast shade on your yard, unattractive items that need to be screened or beautiful elements that you want to ‘borrow’ for  your scenery.

Next, determine cultural conditions – solar exposure, soil texture, water, and maintenance – that will affect plant growth.  Knowing your cultural conditions will lead you to select appropriate plant species.

Solar exposure is the amount and angle of the sunlight.  Create a solar exposure map on a copy of your base map by recording shade patterns over the course of a single summer day.  Every two hours, use a different colored pencil to sketch in the approximate shape and location of shadows.  Use cool colors such as blue, green, and purple in the morning, warm colors such as red and orange in the afternoon.  Note the time of each recording.

Solar analysis on a base map.

Solar analysis on a base map.

Soil texture refers to the proportions of different sizes of mineral (sand, silt, and clay) and organic particles in soil. Sandy soils have a large percentage of coarser particles.  These soils drain fast, lose nutrients quickly, and are easily eroded.  On the other end of the soil texture spectrum, clay soils have finer particles, hold water, retain nutrients, and are easily compacted.  Most soils are composed of a mix of sand, soil, and clay soils with varying amounts of organic matter.  Look up online how to use the soil texture “ribbon test” to quickly estimate your soil type.

For water analysis, know your average annual rainfall, and decide how much fake rain you are willing to provide through supplemental irrigation. Choose your irrigation methods (drip, spray, hand watering), and check if you need to replace or update any existing irrigation systems.

Maintenance means the weeding, deadheading, pruning, raking, etc. required to keep a garden looking good. All gardens require some level of maintenance but plant choice and design style greatly affect the level of maintenance.  Who will be maintaining your garden?  What is their level of experience?  How much time will be spent maintaining your garden?  Your planting design should reflect your maintenance abilities.  Formal gardens with many plants that are poorly adapted will require skilled care and much more maintenance than naturalistic gardens with plants that have evolved to thrive under your cultural conditions.

Once you have created a base map and performed a site analysis you will know the growing conditions that you can offer your plants.

Thank you to Laura Lukes, Butte County Master Gardener, who co-wrote this article.

Planning Hardscapes

Hardscapes are the constructed features such as patios and pergolas that make a landscape human-friendly. Their permanent and relatively costly nature calls for careful planning before construction. Here are some questions and suggestions to help in planning:

How you want to use the space? Today’s home landscapes reflect individual lifestyles. Features such as shaded dining areas, private nooks for relaxing, outdoor games, fire pits, BBQ or cooking areas, and areas for children’s play can create a space that enhances household life. Peruse magazines and websites (, Pinterest) for inspiration.

Consider how many people will commonly use the different features. This will help you determine the size of gathering areas like patios and pergolas. Measure rooms in your house to help envision what can fit into a space.

A small patio makes an inviting entry.

A small patio makes an inviting entry.

Study your existing yard. Where are the sunny and shady areas? Are there areas that are a logical fit for a particular use? Do existing rooms in your house relate to items on your wish list? How will the new features relate to each other? Strive to create a sequence of features that relate to each other, to your existing conditions, and to rooms within your home.

Once you know what you want to build, how big it will be, and where it will go, consider materials. Your selections will be influenced by budget, maintenance goals, intended use, and aesthetics.

In general, the more steps it takes to construct something, the more it will cost to install and the more durable it will be. Labor costs often exceed the cost of materials. For paving, loose materials such as decomposed granite are inexpensive and easier to install but harder to maintain. Concrete paving is moderately expensive and requires skill to install but requires little maintenance. Unit pavers such as brick or natural stone are very expensive and durable when installed over a concrete base. Installing them over a flexible base such as base rock is less expensive, less durable, and requires more maintenance.

Consider how surfaces will be used and by whom when selecting materials. Smoother surfaces are easier to maintain and are a good choice for areas used by running children or people with limited motility.

Finally, consider aesthetics. The materials and the shape of hardscaped areas affect the look of a landscape. Landscapes can fall on a continuum from formal to natural. Formal designs lean toward symmetry, geometric shapes, hard edges, and solid construction. Asymmetry, curvilinear lines, irregular edges, and soft materials support a rustic feel. For maximum cohesion, let your home’s style guide your aesthetic choices. Look for ways to repeat architectural details and materials in your landscape.

Bring home samples of potential materials to ensure a coordinated look between new and existing features. Are the colors complementary? Is there a balance of highly textured and less textured materials? Do the materials fit with the intended style?

A well-planned hardscape looks and functions best.

Replace Your Lawn with CA Natives

Looking for a way to reduce your water consumption?  A garden of native plants offers color, texture, pollinator and bird habitat, seasonal interest, and the single biggest opportunity for water savings for most homeowners.

No argument: lawns make an unbeatable playing surface.  But many lawns, especially front yard lawns, are rarely tread upon.  Too often, they are grown by default for their reliable greenery.  But that greenery comes at a high cost.  Landscape irrigation accounts for 75% of residential water use in Butte County.  Replacing lawn with drought tolerant native plants can cut landscape water use by over 80%, resulting in potential savings of around 750 gallons per week during the peak of summer for every 1000 square feet.

A Native Rich Garden Save A lot of Water

A Native Rich Garden Saves A lot of Water

Keeping lawns lush and healthy expends resources in addition to water.  Pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides applied to lawns can pose health risks to humans and leach into waterways.  Gas-powered lawn mowers produce as much as 5% of the nation’s air pollution each year.  Native gardens, in contrast, provide beauty that is truly green.

The following three steps can guide you in successfully converting your lawn into a native garden.

First, observe.  What existing trees and plants, besides your lawn, do you want to keep or remove?  What are the sun and shade patterns?   What types of grass grow in your lawn?  Do you have an existing irrigation system that can be used for your new plantings?

Next, kill your lawn. Homeowners can use either of two eco-friendly methods to kill their lawns.  Solarizing is done in full sun during summer and takes 4-6 weeks.  It works best on fescue, ryegrass, and bluegrass, with limited success on Bermuda grass.  Sheet mulching can be started any time of the year.  It takes 6-12 months, works in sun or shade, and is effective on all grasses, including Bermuda grass.  See my earlier posts for step by step instructions for solarizing and sheet mulching.

Finally, replant.  Whichever method you choose, time implementation so that you are ready to replant in the fall through early spring when cool temperatures and moist allow native plants to develop the healthy roots they need to thrive with little water during the heat of summer.

Sticky Monkey Flower: great for pollinators and your water bill.

Sticky Monkey Flower: great for pollinators and your water bill.

Select a mix of trees, grasses, perennials, and shrubs for your native garden.  Trees such as Western Redbud and Desert Willow add shade, privacy, and colorful blossoms.  Dramatic bunch grasses like Deer Grass, California Fescue, and Blue Gramma grass enliven with texture and movement.  The flowering evergreen shrubs Ceanothus ‘Concha,’ Cleveland Sage, Coffeeberry, and California Buckwheat provide definition and screening.  Perennials such as yarrow, BOP Penstemon, Naked Buckwheat, and California Fuchsia bring pizazz and pollinators into the garden.  Sticky Monkey-flower and Hummingbird Sage brighten part-shade areas beneath existing trees. And, for those who miss the year-round green of their former lawn, there are evergreen groundcover manzanitas such as ‘Emerald Carpet’ and ‘Green Supreme.’

It’s a fine balance: a native garden can add so much to your garden while subtracting a chunk from your water bill.

Drought in the Landscape: What To Do Now

I’m getting lot’s of calls from people asking how to decrease landscape water use.  Here in Butte County, 75% of residential water use goes to landscaping.  ‘Droughtifying’ your landscape is a simple way to exceed Governor Brown’s request to reduce residential water use by 25%.  Get started with the following steps:

Sheet Mulching: Brown is the New Green

Sheet Mulching: Brown is the New Green

  1. Get rid of unneeded or under-used lawn.  Use solarizing or sheet mulching to kill your lawn – see my earlier posts for step by step instructions for these effective, non-toxic methods.  Starting now will set you up for replanting this fall.  Yes, your yard will look funky this summer.
  2. Water remaining lawn (do you really need it?) deeply and less frequently.  Your lawn will actually be better off being watered twice a week rather than daily.  Deep irrigation encourages deep root growth, which results in better drought resistance and reduced fungal diseases.
  3. Also, mow less and set your mower to cut at a minimum 4″ height. Less stimulation of new, thirsty growth and decreased evaporation means lower water use.
  4. Replace spray irrigation with drip irrigation.  Less water use, less loss to evaporation, reduced weeds, water applied right to the root zone; what ‘s not to love?
  5. Water in the wee hours of the morning.  For lawns, water between 2 and 5 am.  For drip irrigated plants, water before 9 am.
  6. Apply a 4″ to 6″ thick layer of wood chip mulch to all planting beds.  See my earlier post for many great reasons to become a mulch fanatic.  Make sure you keep the mulch about 8″ away from plants stems.
  7. Beautiful Foothill Penstemon

    Beautiful, Drought Tolerant Foothill Penstemon

    Phase out thirsty landscape plants.  Water-loving Chico favorites such a azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, Japanese Maples, annual flowers, and roses are dangerous beauties.  They are simply not appropriate for our dry summer conditions.

  8. Next fall, after the rains start, replant with drought tolerant native and well-adapted non-native species.  For a sunny garden that uses very little added water, even in our extreme

    Deer Grass, Cleveland Sage, CA Fuchsai, and CA Buckwheat make a lovely, dry garden

    heat, turn to CA Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum Nudum), Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica ‘Eve Case’), Foothill Penstemon (Penstemon h. ‘Margarita BOP’), Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), CA Fescue (Festuca californica), CA Poppies (Eschscholtzia californica), Moonshine Yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’), Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Blue Gramma Grass (Bouteloua gracilis), Scarlet Mallow (Spheralcea munroana), Rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.), Black or Cleveland Sage (Salvia mellifera or clevelandii), CA Fuchsia (Epilobium californica), Autumn Sage (Salvia gregii), and Russian Sage (Perovskia ‘Little Spire’).

  9. Check out Chico’s own native CA plant grower, Floral Native Nursery, for many other drought tolerant plants.
  10. Limit pruning.  Pruning stimulates new growth which increases a plant’s water needs.

Drought tolerant landscapes are beautiful down deep.  Start creating your own today!

Make Room for Hedgerows!

I just spent a lovely morning at a field trip to Hedgerow Farms, in Winters, CA.  Strolling amid the tawny hues of late summer, we learned about hedgerows – wide, densely planted swaths of trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses traditionally used to define the boundaries of farms.  Experts from Hedgerow Farm, UC Davis, and UC Cooperative Extension took turns sharing their research and observations.

Pollinator-friendly hedgerow

Mini hedgerow with CA Buckwheat, Cleveland Sage, and CA Fuchsia defines a suburban garden.

In recent decades, hedgerows have largely been replaced in California by mown, cultivated, or weedy edges as farmers seek to maximize the portion of their land that is in production. But, as scientists document the many benefits that they offer to farmers and the environment, hedgerows are coming back into agricultural favor.  Some interesting tidbits that we learned today:

  • Hedgerows can perform several distinct functions.  Depending on the plants selected, they can provide wildlife habitat, dust control, wind breaks, biofiltration, pest control, crop pollination, and natural beauty.
  • California native plants make effective hedgerows.  The natives bloom and set seed later than weedy invasive plants.  The timing of their blooming and seeding is just right for many beneficial pollinators and too late for many pests.
  • Hedgerows can help control insect pests.  UC studies have shown that hedgerows have 90% fewer crop pests and 60% more beneficial parasitoid wasps (tiny, non-stinging wasps that prey on stinkbugs, aphids, scale, and many other harmful pests) than conventionally managed edges.  And, cropland adjacent to hedgerows were found to have 10% more parasitoid wasps than conventionally edged fields.
  • Hedgerows support insectivorous birds that eat the larvae of coddling moth.
  • Populations of potentially harmful animals, such as field mice and gophers, were the same or lower in hedgerows than in conventionally managed edges.
  • Populations of predatory animals, such as raptors, that prey on potentially harmful animals are much higher in hedgerows.
  • Hedgerows support native bees by providing undisturbed habitat, pollen, and nectar.  Some species of native bees, such as Mason bees, are more effective at pollinating flowers than are honey bees.

Although the talk focused on benefits to farmers, the hedgerow concept can be of use to homeowners, too.  A mini hedgerow, planted along a property boundary, will attract many pollinators, pest predators,  and birds to your yard.  Landscape-friendly CA native plants that are of a scale suitable for a suburban yard while providing habitat, shelter, pollen, and nectar include CA Redbud, Ceanothus, Buckwheat, Coffeeberry, Manzanitas, Coyotebrush, Deergrass, CA Fuchsia, Milkweed, Cleveland and White Sage, Yarrow, and Penstemon.

Looking for a way to screen views or define your edges?  Consider planting a mini hedgerow!


Sheet Mulch Your Lawn to Death

Okay, you’re convinced.  You want a lovely, low maintenance garden overflowing with native plants.  But, standing between you and the sweet sound of hummingbirds buzzing your California fuchsia is a large patch of water-sucking green.  It’s time to kill your lawn. Consider sheet mulching.  Also known as sheet composting, this non-toxic soil building  method can be used to kill fescue, rye, bluegrass, and even the dreaded Bermuda grass*.  Sheet composting kills weeds by starving them of light.  It takes at least 6-8 months to work.  Dead plant material will break down into compost to enrich the soil.  New weeds are reduced because it is difficult for them to anchor their roots in deep mulch.  The sheeting and the mulch will break down over time, forming compost.   Sheet mulching should be placed before new plants are installed if being used to kill lawn or weeds.  It can be placed after plants are installed if other weed removal techniques such as solarizing have been completed first. Here’s how to do it.

Newspaper and wood chip mulch are layered over the lawn.

Newspaper and wood chip mulch are layered over the lawn.


  1. Newspaper or plain cardboard.  Don’t use glossy colored pages as they may contain metal pigments.
  2. Water from a hose with a spray attachment.
  3. Compost in a 1-2” layer for gardens that will include edible plants or traditional landscape plants.  Compost is not necessary for native plant gardens.  Quantity calculation for mulch is: (Area in square feet) x .08 to .15 ÷ 27 = cubic yards of compost required.
  4. Wood chip mulch in a 4”-6” layer.  ‘Walk-on’ bark, available from landscape material suppliers, has longish strips of wood and barks that knit together to help it stay in place.  You can also get shredded wood/bark from tree companies for much less cost; verify with the supplier that it is disease free.  Quantity calculation for mulch is: (Area in square feet x .33 to .5) ÷ 27 = cubic yards of mulch required.


  1. Scalp your lawn or weedy area with mower set at lowest setting.  Remove grass/weed clippings.
  2. If the soil is compacted and/or dry, water thoroughly.  To prevent runoff, you may have to apply water for a short period, wait for it to soak in, then repeat as needed.

    Dig a beveled trench where lawn abuts paving to help keep mulch in place.

    Dig a beveled trench where lawn abuts paving to help keep mulch in place.

  3. To reduce spillage of mulch onto adjacent paving, dig a narrow, shallow trench at the perimeter the area to be sheet.
  4. For edible or traditional landscape gardens, place 1-2” depth of compost or worm castings over entire area.  Omit this step for native plant gardens.
  5. On a windless day, place newspaper (about 5-8 sheets thickness) or cardboard over grass to be killed, overlapping like shingles.  Make sure there or no gaps or holes.  Lightly sprinkle newspaper with water as you go to prevent it from blowing away.  Once wet, the paper will easily tear; be careful when walking on it.  If it tears, place additional newspaper over the hole.
  6. If you are laying the sheeting around existing plants, keep the paper a foot from the plant stem, further for plants that spread by underground stems.
  7. As you are laying the paper, place wood mulch over the top of the paper to a 4”-6” depth.  Place the mulch as you lay the paper so you don’t have to walk on/tear the wet paper.  If you are placing the mulch when the plants are already in the ground, keep the mulch a foot from the plant stem.
  8. To plant after the sheet mulching is installed, push back the mulch and cut away newspaper in a circle wide enough to dig your hole.  Dig the planting hole 2x the width and 1x the depth of the plant root ball.  Loosen coiled roots and place the plant in the soil so that the top of the root ball is slightly above the adjacent soil.  Back fill with soil from hole, forming a slight rim at the edge of the planting hole.  Replace mulch but keep it from contacting the plant stems.

*Nothing will completely kill Bermuda grass in one go.  Not Round up, not digging it out with a backhoe.  With sheet mulching, expect excellent results and plan on keeping an eye out for the occasional persistent runner.

On Living Within Our Means

Live within your means.  Stick to a budget.  Live sustainably.  Spend prudently.  So many catch phrases urging us to keep our consumption within the limits of our resources.   For Californians, to ‘live within our means’ requires adjusting our lifestyles to reflect the reality of water scarcity.


Water Conserving Beauty

Here in the Sacramento Valley, we just finished the driest year in recorded history. The source of virtually all of our water, the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains, contains a paltry  1/5 of the average amount of water.  In January, typically the wettest month of the year, we’ve seen no measurable precipitation.

We always have a tenuous relationship with precipitation here.  Our California standard of living depends on an ingenious water storage and delivery system of dams, reservoirs, and canals that has turned what would be a near-desert into an oasis.   In ‘normal’ rain years, it takes scrupulous planning and coordination to  balance human, industrial, agricultural, and environmental demands for water.  In drought years, there is simply not enough water to go around.

A profound change that we, as individuals, can make to move toward prudent spending of this precious resource, is to reject the landscape aesthetic of summer verdancy.   The English countryside, the source of our American lawn-based version of landscape ideal, is summer green because . . . it rains in summer.  The native California landscape is adapted to thrive with no rain from June through September.  It features a sequence of colors: the vibrant purples, yellows, and oranges of the spring wildflower show; the soft summer green of deer grass; the tawny tones of redbud in autumn, and winter’s flush of new green on the buckeye.  It is looser, maybe messier, than the mown tidiness of a lawn-based garden.

When we tweak our brains to accept this subtle native beauty as the ideal aesthetic for our own yards, we can move beyond contrivance of the lawn ideal.  And start living within our water means.




Much Ado About Mulching

Sheet mulch with newspaper and wood chips to kill a lawn

What, you may ask, is this fabulous mulch of which I speak?  Broadly speaking, its a layer of material placed over soil.  My preferred mulch is made from chipped or shredded bark and wood. It can be also be gravel, lawn clippings, shredded leaves, black plastic, carpet scraps, cardboard, etc.

Oh, thick layer of wood chip mulch, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . . .

  1. Weed eradication.  Prior to installing new gardens, I often use sheet mulching to kill existing weeds.  This simple method works by blocking sunlight to prevent germination of weed seeds, by starving existing weeds by preventing them from reaching sunlight, and by creating an environment that encourages growth of beneficial microbes to speed decomposition of weeds.
  2. Weed prevention.  A nice, 4″ to 6″ thick layer of wood chips placed over bare dirt will greatly reduce weed growth in established and new gardens.
  3. Water conservation.  Mulch reduces evaporation; your plants will be happy with less irrigation.
  4. Soil improvement.  Organic mulches break down into compost, replenishing the soil with nutrients and organic material.
  5. Soil protection.  Mulches reduce damage to soil structure caused by compaction and erosion.
  6. Reduced soil temperatures.  A thick layer of mulch shades soil from the sun, keeping temperatures lower in the root zone of plants.
  7. A finished look.  A newly planted garden just looks neater with an even layer of mulch.
  8. Practically free!  Many arborists will deliver their excess wood chips for a small fee.
  9. Easy to place.  Organic mulch is light and easy to rake.
  10. It’s easy to figure out how much you need.  Just measure the area you want to cover in square feet, multiply by .33 and divide by 27.  That will give you the amount you need in cubic yards.

So much to love about mulch!  Get some for your garden today!

Love Your Pollinators

CA Buckwheat and CA Fuchsia

Pollinators are the buzzing, flying critters responsible for the formation of many of the fruits and veggies that we humans love to eat.  Planting for pollinators is a colorful way to attract interesting and beautiful birds, butterflies, bees, and insects to your garden while increasing the productivity of your edible plants.  The following native plants will do the trick with little to no supplemental water after the first year.

Pollen is found in the flowers of plants and different pollinators prefer different shaped flowers to accommodate their personal anatomy.  Hummingbirds, for example, reach into tubular flowers with their long, thin beaks while hovering.  California Fuchsia, Zauschneria canum, a deciduous ground cover native to the foothills of Butte County, is covered with hummer-magnetic brilliant orange-red flowers tubes from mid-summer through fall.  Plant in part to full sun areas of your garden.

To attract a miniature zoo over a long period, match summer blooming Salvia ‘Winnifred Gilman,’ (Cleveland Sage), with late summer blooming Eriogonum nudum, (Naked Buckwheat)

Foothill Penstemon

or Eriogum fasciculatum (California Buckwheat).  Sit quietly and watch numerous species of tiny (non-stinging) native bees and wasps harvest nectar from the ball-like flower clusters of these beautiful plants.  See if you can spot 1/4″ long metallic green sweat bees among the crowd.

Carpenter bees, known in my family as ‘Beezilla’ due to their Reubenesque proportions, relish the electric purple flowers of Penstemon heterophyllus (Foothill Penstemon).  Paired with California Poppies in full sun, you’ll get that classic California orange-purple color combo each spring and enjoy watching the big guys dive bomb your garden.

Stickey Monkey Flower

Stickey Monkey Flower, Diplacus aurianticus, offers deep, wide tubular flowers that provide a helpful ‘landing pad’ for several species of butterflies and bees.  Hummers love them, too.  The soft orangey yellow blossoms light up part shade gardens in the spring.

Planting for pollinators is an easy and fun way to add a new dimension of interest to your native garden!



My Own (Demo) Garden

Look at all of that doomed lawn!

Summer is cooking along and I’ve been mulling over my own garden.  I moved into my new home last winter.  Its a darling vintage bungalow on a corner lot in the Avenues. Pistache and Hackberry trees planted in the parkway strips grace the front yard with dappled shade.  The back yard gets the most sun (great for the veggies) and has a shaded patio to keep me cool.  The dirt is deep and fertile.  And, the house came with a LOT of beautiful, green lawn.  Such potential!  I’m starting with the front yard: it has everything I need to create my own artsy-funky, highly visible native/edible demonstration garden.

First step: scare the neighbors.  Nothing catches the attention of passersby quite so quickly as burying a thriving front lawn under six inches of wood chips.  I had to stifle a chuckle when Pam, who walks her two pups by my house daily, summed up our post-burial conversation with a sigh of relief.

“Ohhhhhh . . . so you are going to put some plants in again.”

Yes, I am.  The brown look is just a means toward the goal.  The wood chips, and the sturdy layer of newspapers beneath them, are a low-tech way to kill lawn known as sheet mulching.  Sheet mulching works in gardens that receive partial to full shade.  In the fall, when the grass is composted, I’ll start rebuilding my yard.  I’ll add fun stuff like a low fence to

Sheet mulching: 5-8 sheet thick layer of newspapers topped with 6″ of wood chips.

define my space, an arbor over the front walk, a small patio of recycled concrete in the shadiest corner, and lots and lots of plants.  The parkway strip will be all natives.  The sunny side yard will have edibles like grapes and fruit trees.  In the front yard, natives will reign again except for the sliver right up against the north side of the house where shade loving shrubs, survivors from my home’s previous life, will remain where they’ve been growing happily for years.  Sometime next year, the neighbors will be smiling again.

Summer is for Watching

The heat just turned on here in Chico with the temperature hitting 90 degrees for the first time this year.   We are closing in on the end of our optimum planting period.  Once the full-time heat is upon us, I prefer to put a hold on planting, especially in sunny gardens.  What to do instead?  The hot part of the year is the perfect time to observe, think, and plan.  The more you know about your garden before you start digging, the happier your plants will be.

Because our sun is so intense here in the Sacramento Valley, knowing when and where the sun and shade land on your yard is critical to plant success.  A spot that is in shade most of the day, but receives an hour of full sun at 3 pm, will be a death trap for shade loving plants.  Charting the patterns of shade and sun is a great way to prepare yourself for successful gardening.

Start with a simple plan of your yard that shows your property or fence line, the buildings, big trees, paving, and other landmarks.  Your goal will be to show how shade moves through your garden over the course of a single day.  Starting in the morning, walk your property and sketch in an outline of the shady areas on your plan.  Note the time of day along the outline.  You can also note the source of the shade if you like.  Repeat this every 2 hours until evening.  It helps to use different line types (short dashes, long dashes, dot/dash patterns) for each successive outline.  Be sure to note the date of your diagram.  When you are done, you’ll have an accurate sun/shade diagram to guide your planning decisions.   If you have fun doing this, make a diagram for each season!

Match Your Plants to Your Conditions

Last week, as I was waxing on about our super drought tolerant native plants during a talk to a local gardening club, an attendee raised an interesting question.  Which of the ‘no summer water required’ chaparral natives that I’d been raving about would I recommend for a low lying area that stays soggy much of the year?  Hmmmm.

There are two answers to that question.  The first answer:  I wouldn’t put those particular plants in that spot.  If you want to create a garden that is healthy, low maintenance, and has a low environmental impact, you just have to respect the cultural requirements of the plants that you are considering.

For chaparral natives such as Ceanothus cuneatus (Buckbrush), Arctostaphylos viscida (White’s Manzanita), Eriogonum californica (California Buckwheat), and Penstemon heterophyllus (Foothill Penstemon), the requirements are straight forward.  They like full sun, cool to cold winters, hot and dry summers, and well draining soil.  If you plant them in a spot that satisfies their cultural requirements, for very little effort and water you will be rewarded with healthy growth and lovely flowers.

On the other hand, if the idea of a a super low maintenance, no water garden gets you so excited that you just close your eyes and plant a truckload of chaparral natives in your little bog, get ready to be disappointed.  Its kind of like making a hairless Chihuahua live in the high Sierras, except without the hand knit doggy-sweater.  Plants can’t alter their environment to align it with their needs.  Stick them where they don’t belong and they will most likely die.

That doesn’t mean that, if you have a wet area in your garden, you are stuck with high maintenance gardening.  When selecting natives for an area like that, consider plants that evolved in conditions similar to what you are providing. Think of the plants that grow in the low lying areas of Bidwell Park, – elderberry, spice bush, and deer grass, for starters.

Or, and this is the second answer to the original question, you might be able to turn your low spot into a high and dry spot with mounding or raised planters.  Then, go ahead and plant chaparral knowing that you have done your part to match your plants to your conditions.

Why I Love Buckwheats

I know they are kind of, well, quirky looking, but I just love buckwheats.  Both of the species I put in my Dad’s garden bloomed for three months from late summer into fall.  The Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum) displays it’s white pom-poms at the top of 2′ tall stalks, a minimalist display with a Dr. Suessian edge.  The airy quality of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliosum), with its hundreds of 1″ white blooms, reminds me of baby’s breath on steroids.

California Buckwheat showing off its prolific flowering.

I realize that they aren’t to everyone’s taste; buckwheats tend to be a little disheveled looking.   Native right here in Chico – drive through Upper Bidwell Park to see them in the wild – they haven’t been refined by years of breeding to exacting standards of tidiness.  They give a garden a free-wheeling character.

Their beauty goes beyond their appearance.  Both of these buckwheats are extremely drought tolerant, able to survive our long, hot, dry summers without supplemental water once they are established.  And, they are both magnets to beneficial insects.  I’ve counted five different kinds of native and honey bees at a time on a single plant.  Tiny predatory wasps, the kind that protect gardens from harmful organisms, love the flowers, too.  Watching the miniature wildlife flourishing on the buckwheats just plain makes me happy.

Then, consider that these guys are virtually maintenance free.  If you want, you can trim down the flower stalks after the blooms are spent in the late fall to tidy up your garden. Time required?  A few minutes per plant.

Use the California Buckwheat as a 3′ height background for smaller perennials or evergreen groundcovers.  It’s fine texture will also contrast nicely with course-textured taller plants such as Eve Case Coffeeberry or McMinn Manzanita.

The Naked Buckwheat’s verticality looks good in drifts behind shorter plants such as California Fuchsia and Bearberry Manzanita.

If you judge the garden-worthiness of plants by more than whether they fit a traditional definition of beauty, you may find yourself loving buckwheats, too.