Garden grasses are for more than lawns

ornamental grass design

Mixed grasses offer textural and colorful effects that move gracefully in the breeze.

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Gardens love grasses!

The number of garden grasses is awesome. They are more than lawns. We tend to think of grass as the accepted way to grow a lawn, but although most lawns are comprised of low-growing grass types of plants, not all lawns have to be grass based.

Lawns

You can have a lawn of other green groundcovers, like Dichondra or even thyme or mint. Tough grass lawns have been cultivated for resistance to heavy foot traffic and different mixes are adapted to a wide range of climates and uses. All require a fair amount of water to grow well. Lack of rain and the need to supplement water have encouraged the development of new drought-tolerant mixes. Look for brands like Pearl’s Premium Lawn Seed and EcoLawn. Less formal varieties have also found their place in lawns like Blue Grama, Buffalo and Black Gamma that have afforded a resilient lawn with less irrigation, even if they are less neat and low-growing.

Ornamentals

In addition to low-growing lawn grasses there are all kinds of ornamental kinds available. You can use them in flower gardens, in like-kind gardens, wild lawn effects or even as focal points in the landscape. Ornamental varieties look perfect near rocks, dry riverbeds, water features and fountains. They can be lined up like soldiers to define the edge. Or use them to outline a formal garden. They can also ramble over the landscape creating a completely natural look.

Although they do not have colorful flowers, some have dramatic inflorescences (arrangements of insignificant-looking blooms). Some inflorescences fluff out decoratively and make splendid 10-second cat toys! Pampas grass is probably one of the best known ornamental favorites. But as it self-seeds so readily in some parts of the country that it has been declared a garden pest.

Use for interesting foliage

There are, however, many other garden grasses with better manners that you can try.  Try Miscanthus for tall colorful foliage that comes in varieties with a great selection of marvelous patterns and colors. Fountain grasses come in reds, greens, and even black-flowered, as well as large and small sizes. (Watch out for the large green ones: they self-seed like crazy!)  Blue tints are available in fescues, oat and lyme grasses. And the Carix family offers plants with blades fine as hair, thick as a finger, curly, straight and in almost every color.

Consider adding garden grasses to your landscape. They are easy-care plants that sway gracefully with breezes, adding motion to your landscape design. Look for decorative grasses that will grow well in your climate and exposure. Some stay small, others grow wide or tall. There are so many interesting types, you are likely to find the vertical growth habit will be an asset to your landscape, no matter what design you have. Enjoy the possibilities of grasses, for lawns and for much more!

Summer gardening in the Santa Clarita Valley area

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burnt cannas  Sunburn can brown leaves when temperatures suddenly spike

Summer gardening in the Santa Clarita Valley area can be a challenge. There is an astonishingly wide range of microclimates in and around the city. Soils, humidity, sun intensity and even rainfall can vary considerably from one place to the next – sometimes even from one part of your property to another! But being inland chaparral, there are commonalities that make gardening in this part of Los Angeles County harder in the summertime than the rest of the year. Yet, if you love gardening, you don’t have to hide indoors all summer. Just plan around summer challenges. Keeping active in the garden will be good for you, your home, your garden and the environment. Here are some things to keep in mind.

garden hat holder

These garden hats are ready to go on their tree ‘hook’!

It gets hot!

The sun is intense in the inland chaparral. And we experience wide temperatures ranges that allow cooling at night. Too much sun has been proven dangerous to our skin, and overheating can cause sun stroke. That can make summer gardening less inviting than at other times of the year.

What you can do

This is one of the easier issues gardeners can handle. Simply take advantage of our nighttime temperature drops by working during the cooler hours of early morning and late afternoon. And to make working safer and more comfortable, wear protection. Add a hat, gloves and loosely fitting long-sleeved and leg-covering clothes. These will not only help protect from sun, but from scratches and insect bites. Wear a good sunscreen with a high pH. Closed-toe shoes will protect your feet from injury and absorbent socks will keep them more comfortable in the heat. Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.

Wildfire view

A landscape view no one wants in their garden. So design your garden to be wildfire resistant!

We live in the land of wildfires!*

We were again reminded of our vulnerability, how easily fires start, how much fuel there is out there despite the drought, how quickly they spread, how greedily and cruelly they will consume anything they can, and how willingly they will invade even areas we might have thought safe. We are also learning there is no reliable fire season anymore, so don’t wait around for the autumn Santa Ana winds before you consider making your home safe.

What you can do

Clear any brush surrounding your home. Keep gutters, eaves, areas around your house – especially corners where we tend to pile things up – and gardens cleaned up. Remove wood piles near your house. Design your landscape for beauty, efficiency, productivity and safety. That includes fire breaks in your design, choose your materials and their placement carefully, use low profile plants, avoid highly flammable trees and position irrigation and water sources wisely.

wild rabbit

Rabbits are cute, but they can become very destructive in the summer garden.

Wildlife invasions

Temperatures have been gradually warming during the past half dozen years. Many insects that used to avoid our frosty winters have expanded their territory into our gardens. We are seeing mealy bugs, thrips, scale insects and more aphids than ever.

Snails are invading northern and eastern Santa Clarita Valley landscapes. And raccoons, not all that common twenty years ago, are now seen everywhere up through Acton. Coyotes and rabbits, mice and rats, tree and ground squirrels, gophers and more are exploding in population and feeding off of our lush gardens as their natural resources are vanishing under housing construction and drought.

Now, diseases that threaten the human and pet population are finding vectors to endanger our health. Mosquitoes are carrying an assortment of diseases rarely seen a decade ago, ticks are doing the same, and bats are bringing rabies into a city previously disease free.

What you can do

Planting, pruning and other garden work will clean your garden and take away homes where pests multiply. Using chemicals will encourage pests to build up resistance and those same chemicals can filter into our edibles, drinking water, entering our food chain and that of friendly wildlife. Whenever possible, use physical barriers to deter pests. Try sticky traps, sound and odor deterrents and if necessary, enclose your most delectable edible and decorative plants in half-inch hardware cloth. Block entry holes into your house where rodents will happily move in and multiply.

Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs invite you or your guests to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Enjoy summer gardening and using your garden

Despite summer gardening challenges, the garden still has a lot to offer. Make time to use your garden. Grow edibles, relax in the shade to reduce stress. Play with the children and pets. Use your pool if you have one. Entertain friends during balmy evenings. And keep your body active and your mind at peace working in the garden. There are plenty of jobs that can be done even during the hot summer months.

What you can do in the garden

Keeping spent flowers cut off of plants before they set seed will redirect that seed-setting energy into more flowering. Pulling weeds while they are small will make the job easy. It will also avoid the big job of brush clearance to keep your home safe if a wildfire should threaten.

New plants can be planted at this time of year, especially California natives, cacti and succulents. They will need to be regularly watered (including the drought-tolerant natives) to help roots settle in, and more delicate plants will appreciate some shading for the first few weeks. Most cacti and succulents love being planted during the dry season of summer gardening, but some may still be burnt when exposed to sudden hot sun. Keep dead leaves, sticks and branches cleaned up to discourage pests as well as eliminating fire fuel.

WIldfire view

Destructive, fast-moving wildfires endanger life, homes and gardens

*An extra note regarding wildfires and fallout

If you have ash on your property from the Sand Fire (or any other), sweep or blow it from traffic areas so it won’t be inhaled or tracked into your house. You can then quickly wash the remaining soot into the soil. Areas directly impacted by high heat will experience deeper effects from fire, but landscapes with ash and soot fallout, will benefit from potassium, phosphorus and magnesium and a number of trace elements, as well as calcium (raising the already high pH of our soils).

Adding compost or soil sulfur will acidify the soil and help neutralize the effect of the calcium if your soil is already high in lime. For the most part, the rise in alkalinity will not be a problem and the rest of the additions will actually help enrich your soil. If your house or garden was directly reddened by Foscheck foam, lightly water the surface, then wash it away with a gentle spray. It is water soluble.

When it is hot outdoors, work inside. It’s a perfect opportunity to list what you want to plant when the weather cools in the autumn. You can also use the time to design/redesign your garden with tough plants, lawn replacements and non-living materials (like colored gravel, decomposed granite, or something more imaginative like shale pieces, recycled tumbled glass and more).

After all, it will be hot again next summer. If the trend keeps up, it may be even hotter and drier than this year. But rather than losing out on one of the most beneficial outdoor activities, summer gardening, adapt to the changes and turn your landscape into a comfortable, productive, fun, sustainable and just plain beautiful place to be – all year around!

Water-wise gardens bloom with nonliving materials

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mixed garden flooring

This geometric design shows a range of nonliving garden materials to mix artistically with succulent plants. Water-wise gardens can double as living areas.

Although we tend to think of a garden as a gathering of plant materials, much of the landscape is taken up with noniving materials. This is helpful space in the water-wise garden. There is the soil between one area and the next, a front pathway, and probably a driveway in the front of your home. But even these prosaic members of the landscape need not be dull. Permeable paving has become popular in recent years. It allows water to sink into the garden rather than sheeting off flat surfaces, gouging out erosion gullies and wasting water. More than simply creating flat surfaces for foot traffic or for setting things on, consider that non-living areas can add more color and texture .

Unlike a few decades ago when everything was covered with cement or brick, the choices for paving areas have exploded – both for flooring and vertically. Now there are colorful types of stone in a wide range of designs and finishes as well as woods, vinyls, metals, glass and more, all perfect for integrating into the new landscape.

Becoming creative about landscaping offers a chance to think about more than the usual ground surfaces for non-living garden décor. Any space is now a place to have fun with.

With the cost of materials rising and landfills overflowing, this is the time to put to work all that stuff in your home, garage and yard that is just taking up space.

recycled sculpture

Recycled old auto parts make a decorative garden sculpture

Recycle!

Recycling has donned the elite title of ‘up-cycling’ when you re-use old items for new purposes. Look for all those pieces of left-over building materials: pieces of wood, pipe, PVC, screening, odd tiles or latticework hanging around your yard, garage or home. These can be formed into safe-houses for growing vegetables to keep out pests, fashioned into trellises or cobbled into artistic fencing. Old concrete chunks stack into fine retaining walls.

Battered car parts, sinks, toilets, tubs or cracked fountain bases make unique container gardens. Broken dishware and pots can add color and texture as mulch over small garden areas where no one will be digging or walking. (These can have sharp edges.) Repurpose young tree stakes or poles into low fences, an archway or a series of pee posts over a washable gravel area for male dogs you don’t want marking your favorite plants. (Paint them bright colors for fun.) Hey, one designer even used bowling balls from an alley that closed down to cover open soil areas. This was one material guaranteed not to float or blow away even in the most aggressive winds!

metal landscape effects

Corrugated metal makes an interesting addition to this nonliving part of a landscape.

Mulch!

Even mulch offers more interest and color in the water-wise garden than ever before. Bark pieces come in colors, gorilla hair (shredded bark) clings to hillsides, gravel and decomposed granite can come in a wide range of colors – even greens and purples – or mix your own blends. Find durable colored shredded, recycled tire chips. They are bouncy for running, sitting and playing as well as just covering exposed soil. Go glittery with colored tumbled glass. Invite imaginative materials into water-wise gardens.

unusual stepping stones

Have fun with cast critters as stepping stones.

Form paths, edgings or designs with bricks, stepping stones, flagstone or a wealth of precast concrete blocks.

water-wise gardens

Gravel and stone in gray hues make for an artistic combination of living and nonliving materials in this water-wise cactus garden.

Flooring

Floor a patio with slices of tree trunks for a rustic look. Check out some of your local industrial plants. You can find extruded waste materials in vinyl, metal, plastic and glass that may be ideal for decorating surfaces of your landscape. (Just make sure the material is not toxic, sharp or anything that could degrade into an undesirable form.)

Get creative or hire a designer or artist to help you make your space special. Decorate walls, furniture and even cement areas with murals or paint them with your favorite colors or designs. Hang outdoor curtains. Spread around colorful outdoor pillows or create gardens of metal or colorful pots.

Add a trellis, pergola or a screen. Lay down outdoor rugs.  Or paint your own yellow brick road on recycled materials to lead you on a winding path that tours your garden. Place sculptures. Dangle wind chimes. Post colorful fabrics to be spun by the wind. Mix living and nonliving materials for the widest range of effects and for a healthy, eco-friendly, easy-care landscape.

Assorted stone floor

Assorted nonliving stone shapes create their own floor design

As you can see, there is an endless supply of nonliving materials you can use to make your landscape into a work of art. Partner your creations with drought-tolerant plants, some comfortable furniture and turn your yard into a water-wise garden/work of art that invites you to live in it.

Gardening is a living thing

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growing world

The Earth is a growing place!

Gardening is a living thing and as with all living things, nothing stays the same. We tend to perceive life through our experiences and often think what is now will always be – even if our logic tells us it isn’t so. But still we plant a garden and expect all the good parts to stay the same while we focus our attention on the parts we want to change. Now that we are beginning to accept even the weather patterns may be moving away from the expected, our view on gardening – like many other parts of our lives – has to become more flexible, too.

Also, because gardening is a living thing, to have a successful landscape means to expect a fair amount of trial and error. Every plant and every planning space is unique. Although a friend, neighbor – or even a trusted plant expert – may assure you that what has grown easily for him/her will do fine in your garden, it is never guaranteed. Experience has shown that one particular kind of plant that grows well in the same garden can languish in another, even though conditions appear to be the same. As if that’s not enough to rock our sense of security in the landscape, we have to deal with the fact that each plant, just like each person, is a little different. So it is entirely possible that an individual plant will be stronger, weaker or grow a little differently than others of the same type. Then there is the fact that even if the plants behave as expected, their surroundings may not. Pests can suddenly discover even long-time residents. It took years before the gophers in my garden area discovered (and destroyed) a group of roses and all the agaves on the hill (all untouched for over a dozen years). And once the ground squirrels happened by my outdoor vegetable patch that grew unmolested for over five years, no amount of protection could save the edibles from decimation. Sun exposures change, too, as surrounding trees grow or structures are added or removed.

If you love gardening, then the quirkiness of designing and maintaining a garden is half the fun. Nothing is entirely predictable. Some of the most exciting events happen when a plant that isn’t supposed to grow well thrives anyway, or a favorite plant seeds itself into perfect locations you’d never considered.

Part of acknowledging that gardening is a living thing is realizing that even the best areas will die or be overgrown in parts. Weather or pests can make a mess of well-controlled gardens. Trees or large shrubs are likely to grow in ways you didn’t count on. And most of all, no matter how long it took you to put your garden together, it will take no time at all for it to look awful if neglected!

When bigger issues impact our gardens – like the climate change we seem to be experiencing, being flexible can seem more daunting. Many people have given up on their gardens and lawns feeling overwhelmed by the impact of drought, flooding and temperature changes.

But we gardeners can be flexible and allowing our property to die off and become dust bowls will not only cheat us out of the joys of gardening, but will actually exacerbate the problem. Clearing land or leaving dead lawns then covering the surface with seas of gravel, cement or nothing at all will create heat sinks (or heat islands).

bad gravel landscaping

Poorly designed oceans of gravel create ugly landscapes that are bad for the home and bad for the environment.

Heat sinks reflect sun and raise temperatures around and in your home as well as in the outdoor environment. These lifeless areas do not help balance the oxygen and CO2 in the air (as plants do), lower humidity by denying the moisture provided by leaf transpiration, and encourage increasing winds to whip through uncontested. With heavy rain, such areas quickly erode away. If human beings are going to survive in high numbers on this planet, we need to take responsibility for the space we occupy. Ironically, this means gardening is a good thing so long as we make provisions for our needs, our aesthetic desires and the environment. This is not hard to do, but it does mean we have to look at a larger picture, design landscapes we can love – and so can the wildlife, our neighbors and Mother Earth.

There are millions of designs possible to create a dream garden that can improve our living conditions and help maintain nature’s balance. Start looking into all the possibilities a harmonious garden can offer. Ask for advice or hire labor when you need it. It is no longer “gardening-as-usual”. Start with the little things you already have. Don’t give up. Gardening is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself, your family, pets, and property. Design something new and exciting. Or start by just working with what you currently have. Either way, there are rewards for gardening with respect for living changes; your landscape will look better, be more productive, require less labor, save you money and be more fun to enjoy.

Romantic pool

A romantic swimming pool blends with the look and climate of this landscape.

Hot dry garden

Hot, dry climates can be homes to beautiful gardens, too.

Try to schedule regular upkeep in your landscape. Do the small things as an excuse to get out of the house or take a break from work. Gardening is a wonder-drug for the mind and body. It will also keep the little problems in the garden from becoming big ones. Call in regular help so maintenance doesn’t get away from you. Calling in a good gardener, landscaper, tree trimmer or other expert at least annually will keep the garden healthy and keep big issues from becoming even bigger. And expect to review your garden every few years to decide what areas are working and which ones are not. Climate changes happen, events occur, and even your lifestyle will likely be different as time goes on. Again, gardening is a living thing! Keep adjusting your garden so it works for you, not against you. We human beings have something in common with our landscapes: we are both alive and constantly changing. Adjusting for those changes makes for a better quality of life. And, for better or worse, it sure keeps things from getting boring!

Three popular garden plants are back

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Check out what’s new in plant cultivars and varieties. Some old favorite popular plants are back. And they’re better than ever!

popular callistemon

Callistemon flowers are more showy than ever on these favorite popular plants.

Gardening goes through fashion changes much like our clothing. Some plants become so overused that they become boring and fall out of favor. But just like clothes, fashions tend to return after a number of years, only with an updated look.

Callistemons, known as the bottlebrushes due to their flower forms, have been favorites in warmer winter climates. Most species come from Australia and were very popular for years. In fact, they became so popular that landscapes became cluttered with these small trees. You could find them dangling sloppily over fences, squished between walls and buzz-trimmed into sizes and shapes that were embarrassing. Over time, they became used less as other small tree options came into style. The bottlebrush trees have always been brightly-flowering, well-behaved handy-sized trees that could handle heat, wind and a fair amount of drought. The bottlebrush flower form is eye-catching and showy in brilliant red, with the occasional find of a white or pink variety. Callistemon varieties were grown as large shrubs or trees.

Callistemon tree in bloom

A healthy Bottlebrush tree in flower

Plant breeders decided to give these deserving trees and shrubs another chance. The same showy flowers have been bred into neater, more glamorous forms that are much smaller and adaptable to the garden itself. There are purple-reds and mauves and even a variety called C. ‘Austraflora Firebrand’ that is semi-prostrate shrub.

small Bottlebrush

This is the small growing ‘Long John’ with all the beauty of the larger tree, but sized for use in the border.

One of the earlier small cultivars C. citrinus ‘Long John’ grows 3 – 4 feet tall and about 5 feet wide. There are handsome trees back to claim their rightful place in front yards. And now there are smaller varieties to grace garden beds or form hedges. You can find some with yellow and green blooms, too. And they all have the decency to be evergreen.

I am currently testing out a new cultivar, Callistemon ‘Slim’ that should grow up to 10 feet high and 4 feet in width. It has been bred to be an outstanding, flowering hedge.  in my garden. So far it’s a handsome little red devil that has put up with dreadful soil and erratic and unkind weather conditions from frosts to triple-digit heat.

Check into some of these showy plants to find the perfect variety for your garden. These offer more flexibility in growth habit than ever before.

 

Osteospermum

Soft colored daisies

Freeway Daisies are popular plants showing up with new colors each year.

Osteospermum is another plant that wore out its welcome by being splattered all over the sides of freeways (which is how it acquired its common name, Freeway Daisy) and open areas. Because of its easy care, groundcover growth habit and continuous flowering properties it has a lot to offer low maintenance gardens in warm climates. When originally used by cities to cover tough areas of full sun, fast-draining water and exposure to pollutants, wind and dust, the available colors were white and pink. But today growers have produced a full rainbow of colors and plants that are thicker, bushier and altogether showier. They are still low maintenance, tough and adaptable, but glamorous enough to grace the most fussy garden. And they are appearing in even some of the snobbiest of landscape designs.

Colorful freeway daisies

Freeway Daisies come in a wide assortment of colors these days

 

Ornamental edible cabbages

Popular plants like cabbages are more than just edibles these days!

Look what’s happening to our simple, old-fashioned cabbages and their cousins from the Brassica family. We’re talking about going frilly, becoming celebrities and dressing in outrageous colors. Suddenly, the lowly kale is taking over as a super-food. Cabbages blend from yellow greens to hot pinks, icy whites, frosty blues and luxurious lavenders. Some had already escaped the vegetable patch and insinuated themselves into the annual flower garden as ornamental cabbages. Now the lines are blurred. Cauliflower glows in pure white, orange or lime green. Broccoli grows on plants from dwarves to giants. Many of these now come in varieties less likely to bolt even when weather is unpredictable. There’s no limit to the brazen performances these vitamin-packed vegetables are willing to do in our gardens. They have no shame nor should we gardeners – in showing them off anywhere in the garden!

 

These are only three of the old fashioned favorites that have fallen out of favor only to return with more pomp and circumstance than a valedictorian at graduation. Check out some of the popular plants that are back from the past. They’ve kept all the good qualities of their past, but have added new skills and are likely to be just gorgeous in your garden.

Why water wise gardens need plants

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mix plants and nonliving materials for a balanced water wise garden

Water wise gardens need plants for good health, balance, usefulness and beauty.

In areas suffering from drought, homeowners and businesses are allowing lawns to die and open areas are being covered with gravel. The attempt to waste less water on landscaping is laudable. But sometimes taking the cheapest and easiest route to being water wise – like keeping a dead lawn or paving over everything with gravel – can create additional serious problems.

weeds in dead lawn

Weeds are the only beneficiaries of dead lawns.

There is a reason why experts encourage drought-tolerant gardens. Water wise gardens need plants. Green is good — not just meaning it’s good to be eco-friendly. But green growth is also good. Life and non-life are balanced on this planet. The systems can be quite complex, but simply put, all life needs water and most life naturally adapts to its environment. We humans have taken a path of our own by changing our surroundings to fit our needs. Sometimes we do what we like without considering the consequences. But since most people prefer their homes surrounded by plant life and Mother Nature concurs, we should be able to create landscapes both we and the ecology can love. We can find balance. Landscape is not an “all or nothing” proposition.

Open areas with no plant life become big absorbing grounds for solar heating. These spaces then radiate back heat into the air, further drying it. Low humidity makes it harder for anything to grow. So when dead lawns remain in place or spaces are covered with nothing but stone or gravel, heat islands are formed. This heat will raise the temperature not only of ambient air, but of the house itself, adding to your discomfort and air conditioning bills. This is not water wise, it is unwise.

Another problem with turning lawn or garden areas into dead zones is the dust that is created and pollutes the air when windy (often triggering allergies). Also, these spaces are uncomfortable on the feet, glaring and ugly to the eye and are an anathema to wildlife.

wildlife loves a well planted garden

This little hummingbird loves succulent flowers.

Dead lawn is depressing to look at and will fill with noxious weeds as soon as rain can germinate them. Gravel and stone can be gorgeous when designed by someone with an artistic eye and installed correctly. But when dumped and spread flat over open areas, it becomes dreary and a waste of resources – as well as creating heat islands. (Gravel and stone may be abundant on this planet, but it is still a non-renewable resource and if too large a human population demands it, we can create price gouging and damage to the environment as we have done with so many other natural resources.)

So what to do?

colorful drought tolerant plants

Plants add color and texture to the drought-tolerant landscape

Think of all the interesting useful spaces you can create in your landscape — like extending your living space, playing games, entertaining, growing edibles, building a relaxing retreat or watching wildlife in a colorful native garden. Create a garden that uses lawn only where it is useful. Replace the rest with adaptable plant life and well-designed non-living materials. When well designed, non-living materials, practical spaces and greenery (that can bloom in a rainbow of colors) can all work together to complement each other. Use non-living materials swirled and punctuated with water wise or native plantings that harmonize visually and practically. A mixed landscape is not only more functional, it is comfortable for living, works sustainably with the surrounding environment and it can be decorative — and even downright gorgeous.