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.

How’s It Growing?

Now that my Dad’s garden has been in the ground for 10 months, it’s time to take a look at how things are growing. 

We installed the plants in late August last year.  I would have preferred to wait another month or two, but, well, the temptation to make use of my burly brother for digging while he was visiting was just too great.  Most of the plants survived the end of summer heat waves and then spent the fall and winter establishing themselves.  Our long, wet spring delayed the burst of growth a bit, but when it hit, it was exciting. 

Colorful native perennials and annuals line the front walk

By early May, the grasses and perennials were growing with gusto and radiant with color.  We enjoyed watching native bees, butterflies, and honey bees buzz the poppies, penstemon, and mint bush.

The native bunch grass, California Fescue, being a cool season grass, began filling in when the rains started last fall.  In April, it lent the garden nice movement when it sent up its 4′ tall flower spikes. 

California Fescue, a native bunch grass, adds movement to the garden with it's 4' tall flower stalks.

The deer grass, a warm season grass, waited until late spring to start growing.  When it’s full sized, it will anchor the front of the garden which right now looks kind of sparse.

The shrubs will fill in over the next couple of years.  They are planted to create a dense backdrop behind the perennials and grasses and provide from the neighbor’s garage.  Coffeeberry, currants, dwarf manzanita, and mock orange are all sending out lots of new grow. 

Just starting or getting ready to bloom now, in July, are two species of buckwheat and some narrow-leafed milkweed.  With the ample moisture this spring, the buckwheats exceeded my expectations for height.  In fact, the Naked Buckwheat’s flower stalks grew so tall and succulent that they flopped over in a wind storm and then continued growing up from the ground like cobra heads.  Weird.  I trimmed them back and the new stalks are straighter, sturdier and just about ready to flower at a more typical 2-3′ height.

Sequencing Garden Construction to Avoid Conflict

What to do with all that creative garden energy while you wait for fall to plant?  Get the rest of the landscape ready!  Plants should be the finishing touch on a garden to protect them from damage during other gardening projects.

Once you’ve completed your garden master plan, decide whether you want to tackle the whole garden or divide it into smaller projects to be completed individually.  Which ever approach you take, there may still be infrastructure projects that should be done first to avoid conflict later on.  The key concept:  Don’t paint yourself into a corner!

At the top of the list is grading your site to ensure drainage away from your house and other structures.  Water is the enemy of buildings.  Take the time now to evaluate and correct any problems you have with drainage.  At the least, make sure that all earth and paving slopes away from your house for a minimum of 5′.  If you have dampness or puddling near or under your house or smell mold or mildew during wet seasons, you may need to install drainage structures such as drain inlets/piping or french drains to carry water away from your house.

Consider where you may need to use heavy equipment and make sure that your current phase of construction doesn’t block access routes.

Placing Boulders with a Loader

If you are adding an automatic irrigation system, electric lighting, or gas for a barbecue, consider the needs of the entire garden and where your piping or wiring will need to go. Trench and install piping or sleeves (larger diameter piping through which the actual  pipes can be run) in areas that will be constructed during your current phase to service future phases.  If  piping or sleeves must run through paved areas, make sure it is installed well below grade to allow for excavations for base rock, sand, and paving materials.

Do you want to replace your lawn with drought tolerant native plants?  Summer is the time to let the sun do the work of killing your lawn using a technique researched by UC Davis called Solarizing.

Once your infrastructure projects are finished, you can start adding the fun stuff.  Construct your hardscapes such as paving, decks, walls, shade structures, boulders, etc., now.  Keep referring to your master plan; sequence construction to avoid future conflicts.  For example, if you want a pergola over your stone patio, get footings and post bases in before you pave.

Install Pergola and Fencing Footings Before Paving

After construction is complete, prepare your soil for planting.  Loosen compaction caused by construction.  If you are planting edibles or ‘traditional’ landscape plants (i.e., not natives), amend the soil as necessary.

And, finally, when fall arrives, you are ready to install your plants.  They’ll put their energy into root development and reward you with vigorous growth and vitality next spring.

Urging Restraint

Winter is finally releasing its strangle-hold on the landscape, buds are bursting, the hillsides are glowing chartreuse, and I really feel like digging holes in my garden.  Which is fine, if I want to plant things that like to be watered.  Fruits, veggies, ‘normal’ landscape plants, stream-bank

Coffee berry is a Butte County native that can tolerate some summer water

plants, shade lovers . . . these guys all enjoy being released from the confines of their containers into real dirt when spring is springing.  I’ll water them during planting and keep doing so as they need it through spring, summer, and fall until the rains begin.


But . . . and I hate to say this because I don’t want to convey anything but complete enthusiasm for native gardening . . .  I’m trying not to plant super drought tolerant California native plants now. Excellent dryland plants such as Ceanothus, White Manzanita, Foothill Penstemon, and Canyon Live Oak deserve to be in the garden, but will reward you with their best vitality if you wait until fall to plant them.

Here’s why.  The natives that grow on hot, dry sites have evolved to thrive in our summers without supplemental water.  To do this, they require well developed root systems.  Their root systems do not like to be watered in the summers; the most drought tolerant species are actually prone to dying if they receive summer water.  So, the best way to ensure their health is to water them well at planting and then leave them alone.  No water, no fertilizer.

If I try to plant super drought tolerant natives now, with summer just around the corner, chances are much lower that they will be able to grow enough roots to allow them to survive unwatered until the rains come.  If I just can’t help myself and irrigate them, they might survive.

Foothill penstemon will do best without summer water

Or,  the combination of water and warm soil may cause them to develop  fungal root disease.


I’d prefer to wait until fall to plant these beauties.  If I get them in the ground in October or November, before the rains start in earnest, they will have all winter and spring to grow those essential roots.  By next summer, they’ll be ready for drought.  If it’s a dry spring, I’ll water them before the weather starts heating up to help them establish  and ‘charge’ the soil.  But, once it gets hot, I’ll turn the water off .  And the success rate will be much higher than it would have been if I’d given in to the temptation to plant right now, in this beautiful spring weather.  The beauty and satisfaction of using the most appropriate plants for our environment is worth waiting for the right planting time.

Plants should be the last thing to go into a landscape, whether they are our wonderful drought tolerant natives or not.  Next post, I’ll share ideas on sequencing the installation of a new landscape.


The Beauty of a Master Plan

A page of planning is worth a book of re-doing.  Or something like that.  A garden is a long term investment that takes years to realize it’s potential.  Taking the time to create a master plan before planting the first tree will save time, labor, and money and result in a more cohesive, beautiful, functional, and easily maintained garden.  A master plan does not lock you into a rigid design but rather helps keep the big picture clear.

A master plan can be as simple a diagram, drawn to scale, that shows the location, size, and relationship between the various elements that you want in your garden.  Kind of like the floor plan for a home design.  It may indicate the overall concept of the garden and indicate material selections such as stone, fencing, and plant types to create the desired look.

To create a master plan, first consider how the space will be used.  Who and how many will use it on a regular basis?  For special events?  What will they be doing?  When?  What are the most pleasant parts of the existing garden?  The least?  This information will help you understand the types of amenities that may be useful, how big different areas should be, and whether protection from the elements may be needed.  ‘Hardscape’ elements like decks, patios, pools, shade structures are the bones of the plan.  All other elements attach and relate to them, and embellish them.  They cost more effort and money to install so it’s critical to make sure they are built to meet long term needs.

Once you understand how the garden is to be used, think about how you would like it to look and feel.  Beauty is a judgment call and a garden is very personal.   Take photos of garden elements that you like and peruse garden books and magazines to help clarify your tastes.

And then, there is reality.  What is your budget?  Who will be doing the construction?  What is the time line for construction?  Who will be doing the maintenance and how much time do they want to spent doing it?  Nuts and bolts questions like these will help you select appropriate materials and amenities.

With this thought process and information, you are ready to start drawing up a master plan that will guide you from start to completion of your personal garden.  Have fun!

Incredible Edibles

When designing with edible plants, my goal is to create a beautiful garden that doesn’t look like a ‘vegetable patch.’  I use edible plants in the same ways that I use ‘regular’ garden plants.  By incorporating a mix of edible trees, shrubs, and groundcovers I can create a sequence of spaces and frame hardscape areas like patios, pavilions, decks, meditation nooks.

I rely on deciduous and evergreen perennial edibles that live for years or decades.  Many deciduous fruit and nut trees thrive in the North Valley.  They can provide the shade, screening, blossoms, and fall colors of typical deciduous landscape trees such as magnolias with the added bonus of fresh fruit.   Evergreen trees such as citrus and olives provide year-round green, fragrant blossoms, and, of course, fruit.

Edible perennials, including persimmon, daylilies, herbs, roses, and strawberries, enhance this courtyard

Edibles that serve as shrubs include evergreen types such as bamboo (roots are edible), tall rosemaries, and dwarf citrus and deciduous types such as blueberries, rhubarb, and roses (the petals

make a lovely addition to salads!).  I use shrubs to define spaces within a garden, provide screening, and as a backdrop for art.

Herbs like creeping rosemaries, thyme, oregano, and chamomile and perennials such as daylilies and strawberries can be used as groundcovers in place of standard plants like ivy or junipers to soften the edges of walkways, spill over walls, help suppress weeds, cool ground temperatures, and prevent erosion.

By using perennial plants in the place of traditional landscape plants, I can create a garden that looks good all year and functions on many levels with places to relax, play, and entertain.  It can even include a vegetable patch!  But it won’t remind you of a farm.

Part of the fun is being able to graze on your home grown delicacies as you wander through your personal Eden.

The Difference Between Native Grasses and the Brown Stuff

When  I’m raving about the beauty of native landscapes, I’m not talking about the vast expanses of  brown grass that dominate our hills and valleys.   Nope.   That weedy stuff is NOT native.  Its a mix of exotic invasive plants, mostly annual grasses with some notable perennials mixed in.  The Spanish missionaries brought the first invaders over and the assault has continued since.   We’re left with a such a pervasively different look that many people think that our ‘Golden State’ nickname refers to the brown.

What used to be there?   Tall perennial bunch grasses that stayed green all summer interspersed with smaller flowering plants that combined to make a spring display so spectacular, John Muir stopped dead in his tracks when he first saw it.   Many of our spring flowers still bloom, but the grasses are mostly gone from the wild.  Fortunately, there are nurseries that offer many of the native grasses from seed or in containers so that we can enjoy them in our gardens.  Floral Native Nursery in Chico is an excellent source.

What do the native grasses offer in the garden?  They retain a soft green blush through the summer, thrive on minimal care,  and support beneficial wildlife.  Their upright habits give them a structural quality that plays well with more amorphously shaped plants and ground covers.

Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Courtesy Gerhard Bock.

One beauty, Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) naturally occurs in oak savannas and near seeps throughout much of Butte County.  It forms a 2-3′ tall by 4-5′ wide clump of softly arching grass blades with 4-5′ tall flower spikes (inflorescence) in the summer and fall.  Looks great when back lit by afternoon sun.  Deer Grass is easy to grow in full sun to part shade.  If you treat it right – plant it in the fall, little to no summer water, no fertilizer, don’t mess with it much – it will live for a decade or two.