Gardening is a living thing


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!

Growing the ‘New Climate’ garden


rain clouds

A well designed garden will thrive with rain or drought.

As the weather becomes more extreme all over the world, polar ice caps melt, technology shrinks distance with instant communications and the biggest population of human beings ever to walk the earth are now traveling from one place to the next transporting lifeforms of all types planet-wide, Mother Nature is finding her own ways to adapt to a changing world. We can individually reclaim harmony and sanity with a sustainable garden to adapt to nature’s changes.

mixed vegetables

A crop of mixed vegetables from a small garden

We need to look at the bigger picture. Gardening, something too many people are ignoring in the frantic demands of everyday scheduling, is quietly becoming one of humanity’s greatest tools for survival. Food production is changing. Profitability has thus far triumphed over sustainability and long term human health. So avoiding chemical and hormonal additives as well as eating nourishing fruits and vegetables is now a project for each individual. Chemical pollution (plenty of which is added by the home gardener) threatens water resources – again something we individuals can impact. And so many diseases are being traced back to the stress we impose on ourselves – another area where our gardens can help us heal.

Whether your local area is experiencing cold, heat, dry or wet weather, you can grow a garden that will help you and your family to grow a ‘New Climate’ garden that can make a difference to your quality of life. You can deal with extreme weather by designing good drainage and places to trap and store water.

rain barrel

Rain barrels can blend with attractive landscapes.

You can build in protected areas to shelter your favorite plants from too much cold or heat and even recycle old tubs and glass shower doors, turning them into protective vegetable gardens or cloches to extend your food growing season. (Recycling will save you from having to buy new materials while increasing trash in your home or in landfills.) Add decorative umbrellas or overhangs to provide shade from hot sun. Or plant in pots (or creative recycled containers like old sinks, broken fountains or even old toilets for a bit of humor) in sunny spots in gardens that have too much shade.


Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs beckon visitors to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Look to your garden to extend your living space, add a place for rest and relaxation, meditation, play, hobbies, entertainment, outdoor rooms, sports and whatever else can give your mind and body a chance to heal from daily stress. There is always some nook you can fill with herbs, a dwarf fruit tree in a pot, a favorite vegetable – or a whole vegetable garden for fresh, healthy food. Surround yourself with beauty. In our fast-paced techno-society we are losing the magic of fine arts, replacing them with quick, cheap forms of immediate gratification and we seem to be finding ourselves more impatient, angry and frustrated than ever. Surround yourself with the shapes and colors of nature’s garden and in will fly birds to supply natural music and butterflies to brighten your heart. We are learning how very important ‘mindfulness’ is to our mental and physical health. Ironically, we have everything we need provided for us naturally. We can then add our human ingenuity to create works of art, spaces for fun and activity and centers for delicious food, rest and relaxation and places to share our ideas, laughter and love.

backyard entertaining

Design your yard to entertain.

Yes, the ‘New Climate’ may be changing the weather, but it’s larger than that: it is a loss of being grounded to the bigger picture of life. There are so many great ideas to help you create a thriving garden despite changes in weather. You don’t have to look far to enrich your life by balancing the speed and demands of the changing technology and social climate with the secrets of wisdom mankind has known for thousands of years. Look to your own garden. You may find you can thrive better with your own version of a new climate to grow in!

Flower and Garden Shows: a magical world of color, creativity and knowledge

UCanGrowThat 2



Hyacinth blooms

Blue and white hyacinths welcome spring at the NWFGS

When I was young, I remember my mother wandering around the house burbling “Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is”. Well, spring is springing and the grass is rising. Some gardens across the country are budding out with flower color. But do you know where the best flowers can be found? Check out the flower and garden shows. These are blossoming all over the country in late winter and early spring. There are local shows and big national shows. If you want to get your imagination revved up for the spring, this is where to get the very best ideas for what you can grow and how to grow it in your own garden.

NWFGS contemporary patio

A contemporary patio design



I had the honor of doing a couple of seminars at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show — the third largest show in the world — at the end of February. The demo gardens were breath-taking. (Those are the photos I’m including in this article.) There were hundreds of booths with products and information brimming into the labyrinth of isles. And, yes, there were plenty of bargains to be found, too. You could find art for garden or walls, rare and fun plants, imaginative decor and furniture, the latest in ecological garden innovations, and a plethora of handy tools, foods and other items to make your garden thrive. Most of all there was an endless stream of information about anything you could ever want to know about gardening and landscaping. And creative ideas galore.

seating design at NWFGS

Let’s get artsy

I know the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show is coming up at the San Mateo Event Center on March 20th – 24th, and the Southern California Spring Flower and Garden Show at the South Coast Plaza in Orange County on April 25th to 28th. (Okay, admittedly I’m speaking at these, too.) There are also shows large and small in the East, the Midwest and all over the country this spring. If you really want to know how ‘You Can Grow That’ and spend a delightful day wandering through a magical world of all the garden can offer, check out the flower and garden shows in your area. Most are well publicized and all can be found quickly online.

tulips at the NWFGS

Colorful species tulips

If you love gardening, you simply can’t miss checking out whatever shows are in your area. Chances are you’ll have a fun-filled day and leave with an armful of plants, trinkets and treasures and a head brimming with new ideas for your home garden.

artistic patio design

A bit of sunshine in this garden design

Professional landscape, design and garden help

Who’re you gonna call for landscape help?

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who you need to call for help with your landscape. Some people want to have everything done for them, others want create their garden as a do-it-yourself project – maybe with just an occasional bit of advice to avoid expensive mistakes, and still others want a combination expert help mixed in with their own efforts. Here is a brief, general list to help you shop for professional landscape, design and garden help.

Call a horticultural or garden designer/consultant if:

*You want to do some or all of the job yourself and could use some extra knowledge in design, which plants are appropriate where, or want creative ideas in construction, materials, plant selection, problem solving or artistic approaches.

*You need plans on paper drawn to show to others (such as associations, gardeners, or contractors).

*You are concerned about ‘custom’ issues: specific styles, child or pet safety, edibles, ecology, fire resistance, native plantings, etc.

*You want creative or unique design ideas and/or out-of-the-ordinary plants (for example, native plants or plants to create a special theme). Or you want something really artistic, environmental, cutting edge or unusual. (Make sure your designer/consultant has an artistic or appropriately creative background.)

Call a garden coach if:

*You want to do things yourself, but you can use some expertise and direction in design, gardening or technical gardening or hardscape (permanent feature) issues.

*You want private gardening lessons.

Call a landscape architect if:

*You need major construction done or you need highly technical design/building advice.

*You have an elaborate and/or extensive design requiring specific construction details and drawings.

*You want official ‘blue print’ designing.

*You want a highly creative full design for your property. (Again, check the credentials and the work of the person you want to use to see if the style and capability is a match to your expectations.)

Call a nursery if:

*You need plants. Some can provide interesting and unusual choices as well as the regular fare. There are even specialist nurseries that will let you sort through various cultivars of your favorite types of plants.

*You want a simple, standard design with readily available plants. For nurseries that provide this service, these will be your least expensive quotes. Be aware that few nurseries employ artistic designers and many know more about selling plants than they do about designing or installing a garden. There are nurseries that have fine services to offer outside of the nursery and there are nurseries owned by hobbyists who know they can’t pass contractor or master gardener exams but always wanted to plant gardens. Again, do your research if you want to use a nursery for more than just buying plants. A poorly designed or planted landscape can become a disaster and a huge expense in the future.

*You need someone to install your plants/trees/gardens or (if this service is provided) to install your sprinkler systems. Expect labor help, not design input. Most nurseries will only install their own plants.

Call a landscaping company if:

*You want a basic design done and installed. The same cautions apply as for nurseries. Low and high bids are not enough to make judgment calls. Find out what you are getting for your money. Only a few companies keep talented designers on staff.  Some outsource good designers.  Some use generic designs adapted to your space.  Some have little to no sense of design but want to be designers (the same with some nursery owners) and should be avoided for purposes of design. If you already have your design done, then check the installation work quality of the landscape company you are considering by visiting some of their completed jobs.

Call a pool company if:

*You need a pool or Jacuzzi constructed. For any permanent structure, you need someone with the appropriate contractors’ license and knowledge of state and local construction codes and permits.

*You want water gardening. Some pool companies also specialize in building ponds, waterfalls and other water features.

Call a specialist if:

*You need masonry (stone, brick or cement work), carpentry (wood and other material construction), electrical, or special features such as waterfalls and ponds, or murals and sculptures. For tree issues, it is always worthwhile to get in a certified arborist.

Call a landscape contractor if:

*You need any of the above services coordinated or overseen.
*You need to know about state and local codes and permits.

*You want a person who may be able to provide you with a combination of some of the specific skills listed above. Individual contractors vary in their abilities, so ask lots of questions before deciding how best to use a specific landscape contractor.

Call a garden service if:

*You basically need a lawn mower/blower. Don’t expect most garden services to carefully trim, transplant, divide or clip your plants.  Be careful with weeding since a lot of service employees do not know the difference between your favorite plants when small and a weed. Do not use these folks for designing. Most have no artistic sense whatsoever. Do check out who you hire if you need some genuine gardening help. There are some treasures hidden among the masses that really know and love gardening. Expect to pay more for knowledgeable people. Like everything else in live, you usually get what you pay for!

Legislating Residential Gardens


The Yucca Whipplei is a chaparral native plant that dots the hills with spikes of huge white blooms in spring.It is drought-tolerant and Eco-friendly — except when it helps spread wildfires by rolling downhill like a flaming fireball. Photo by Jane Gates

Rather than a technical article, I just wanted to add a blog about the combination of politics and gardening. In my opinion they just don’t mix. Now, in your area, you may find the rules and regulations being passed on landscaping and gardening are perfectly legitimate. But here in Southern California, I am at a loss who or why some restrictions have been legislated with what seems to be very little concern for the overall effects — both short term and long. I suppose there are people with “a  little bit of knowledge” who think they are doing good.

For some reason city, county and state organizations all too often don’t realize they could be spending their (our) money wisely by actually hiring knowledgeable people to advise them on residential landscaping and gardening codes and legislation. But instead of hiring people who are experts in the subject, they tend to appoint researchers who grab books that may or may not be appropriate to the topic in question then pass sweeping legislation about what can and can’t happen in our gardens. I have no doubt that if some residential garden enthusiasts are left to their own resources, some may indeed make bad choices that are neither wise nor safe. Legislating controls certainly does have a place in our society. But when I see lists of supposed wildfire prevention regulations that accomplish the exact opposite of making a landscape fire safe and laws to stop all water features in an effort to reduce water usage when huge, water-guzzling lawns are acceptable in drought-afflicted areas and smart-built recycled water features that help wildlife survive are banned, well, I really begin to wonder.

All too often I have found home owners who want to go ecologically-friendly actually thwarted by landscape legislation. I’ve had to nix excellent garden plans or plants because the fire department has erroneously placed them on the fire-danger list or the county has placed what appear to be arbitrary building restrictions that won’t allow truly useful designs. The water department that is supposed to be helping in water conservation seems to be sorely lacking in anyone able to give home-owners any really helpful advice beyond the same trite phrases. Why should any public department be allowed to legislate rules and regulations if they can’t first hire real, knowledgeable, helpful people who know what they’re talking about from first-hand experience?

I understand controls, but broad legislation that bans recycling safe, useful material instead of differentiating between the acceptable and non-acceptable, stops the planting of plants that should be good choices because they are a problem in an entirely different geographic area, or makes it too difficult to actually implement wise ecological choices by making improvements too exacting — well, somebody should call in some REAL experts for a change. Leave the politics to the politicians and let the local experts make the decisions behind the legislating instead of the pencil-pushers!

Okay. This is my blog, so I’m allowed to vent my frustration at the idiocy I see all over the place when it comes to legislating residential gardens. Maybe if we tried doing things because they WORK rather than because this is the way they’re SUPPOSED to be done, we’d actually get efficient and productive! And everyone could be happy — except, perhaps, the inept people who are used to reaping healthy salaries for making decisions they simple aren’t competent to make. With a little luck they’d be spending their working time doing something they are better at doing.

Plant Profiles: Acacia redolens

flowering acacia

Clusters of fuzzy yellow flowers bloom on the Acacia redolens in late winter or early spring.



Acacias are attractive trees and shrubs that are mostly native to Australia. The low-growing shrub, Acacia redolens, has become an ideal ground-cover plant for open spaces in hot-summer climates. The Acacia redolens is not only an attractive evergreen that covers itself with hundreds of fuzzy little flowers in late winter or early spring, but it is a perfect shrub for covering large areas since it can easily spread twelve feet in diameter while reaching only two to four feet in height.These same attributes make it ideal for hillsides where fewer plants with a larger spread will make maintenance easier.

An early bloomer, branches studded with tiny little yellow puff-like flowers that will turn the whole plant into a mounding carpet of soft color. Other times of the year the leaves will stay green. This plant accepts dry, fast-draining, poor soil and is a fine choice for wildfire resistant landscaping, particularly the A.‘Low Boy’ and A.‘Desert Carpet’ varieties, with their low profile habit of growth. It can take hot desert-like sun and requires remarkably low water. As a result, this Acacia is becoming a popular choice for carpeting hillsides in California and other inland, dry-summer climates.Acacia redolens on hillside

The yellow-flowering Acacia redolens ‘Low Boy’ blends with green to make a decorative patchwork effect on this hillside.