Will El Niño save California gardens?


Sustainable garden

How can we grow sustainable gardens that look good with rain or drought?

It seems to be an amusing quirk of human nature: we tend to believe that the way things are now is how they will always be. Even though we have brains that allow us to understand abstract thought like past and future and how nothing in the existing world stays the same, we conduct our lives conveniently forgetting to use this ability. Californians have been resisting the concept of our being in overall drought conditions for the past decade. We didn’t have time to worry about it, and there was at least one year of memorable high rainfall (yes, a moderate El Niño) several years ago. But with the last three years offering such dismal precipitation it’s becoming difficult not to notice dying trees, high water bills, drying wells and disappearing water storage levels – along with all the high profile media warnings.
California gardens are feeling the impact of the drought on landscapes, and, of course, the water boards have made everyone sit up and pay attention with escalating water bills and irrigation restrictions. Still, there are people who deny there is any climate change. There is no guarantee that they are wrong and things could turn around in the first of a series of rainy winters. With the expectation of a coming El Niño year, everyone wants to expect weather will return to normal (or within previous climate expectations) and everything will go back to the way it was. Magic. One year of rainfall and everything is all better.

But reality is that we don’t know what the future climate will be over extended years and some damage (like the permanent lowering of land where too much subterranean water has been extracted) cannot heal. Mother Nature always has some variety to offer each year so even if we are in a permanent or temporary cycle of drought, it is inevitable that some years will offer breaks in the pattern and offer rain – maybe even lots of it.

We need to look at the larger picture. For the last three years experts forecast El Niño rains in California that never materialized. The latest predictions seem pretty convincing. Only time will tell. But even if we have huge rains in a single season, much will run off of drought-hardened soil and wash into the ocean. If rain continues and starts to soak in, we could see mud, erosion, slipping hillsides and flooding. But those same experts also warn it would take several consecutive years of heavy rainfall to replace all the water that has been denied over the past decade. So if the winter of 2015- 2016 does offer heavy precipitation, it will still not be enough to return all our resources to normal storage limits – not with the demand of our large and ever-expanding population.

Whatever happens with coming rainy seasons, the best thing we can do is to be ready for…anything. Rather than discussing drought-tolerant gardening, I’d prefer calling it water-wise gardening. We need to be wise about how much water we use when there is a limited amount available and how we can store it when faced with excesses. A water-wise garden has excellent drainage to protect all structures from water damage in heavy rain, cisterns – like rain barrels, underground storage or other provisions for saving extra water, permeable paving to resist erosion, and plantings that drain well with rain yet remain firm in hot, sunny drought. We can build these landscapes. If design well they can be stunning to look at. With changeable weather they can be durable. Gardening with forethought of the bigger picture will avoid expensive disasters, create sustainably with the environment, offer outdoor spaces that not only look great but are useful and fun, and are easy to maintain. We can be victims of the weather or we can act now to turn our landscapes into gorgeous protectors of our homes, lifestyles and the environment. This is an opportunity to come up with better-than-ever gardens.

To landscape our properties wisely means we don’t have to hope for El Niño to rescue our gardens while fearing the damage from heavy rain. We don’t have to flinch at water use regulations. We can see the ‘new gardening’ as an excellent opportunity to rethink habitual gardening that has been stuck in the same place for a century. This is not a bad thing. Instead it is a chance to extend the renovations we’ve been doing on the interior of our houses to the outdoors and make our lives better and easier.

Everything changes. Even the long-term weather. Will we be in store for more drought or flooding? We can worry about it or hope that El Niño will rescue our gardens this coming year and put out of our minds what might follow in the next years. Or we can use those creative, abstract-thinking minds of ours and take this opportunity to use our outdoor property to improve our living conditions, surround our lives with beauty, and work with nature to get the best out of our land, our lives and our homes.

Color your garden with drought-tolerant succulents


drought tolerant color

Succulents can add color with leaves and foliage. They work well with other plants, grouped together or alone.

Drought-tolerant succulents are plants that retain water within specially adapted stems and leaves. It gives them a greater ability to survive changeable climates where periods of dry would be lethal to other types of plants. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. The adaptation for water storage has given many of these plants interesting and even sculptural shapes and forms.
Beavertail cactus

Beavertail cactus is a native Opuntia cactus in Southern California — perfect for an easy-care garden and lovely in bloom.

Some naturally have evolved to have decorative coloring or very showy flowers. With the uncertain climate wreaking havoc with so many gardens, succulents have not only proved to be useful to grow where so many other plants are failing, but they offer artistic shapes and color to the landscape. With more and more demand for drought-tolerance in the garden, plant breeders have produced more colorful varieties than ever before.

Because these plants usually have small root systems, (they don’t need to constantly gulp down as much water as other types of plants) they are ideal to use in small spaces like cracks in walls, between stepping stones, for green roofs in sunny climates, in vertical gardens or container gardens. They can also create impressive effects when tumbling down walls or carpeting hillsides.

Because the shapes are so varied – strings of colorful pearls, big felt leaves (Kalanchoe beharensis) mats of fine foliage (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’), or a crisscross of pencil-like branches (Euphorbia tirucalli), they are ideal to use for textural effects or even eye-catching focal points in the garden.

succulents in vertical decor

With their small size and ability to tolerate demanding conditions, succulents are perfect for creating living wall paintings.

Some succulents are more colorful than the average garden flower. The Echevaria family offers a rainbow of pink, purple and blue leaves on the “Afterglow’ variety, Aeonium comes in dark mahogany shades that contrast like black with other foliage, and many of the artichoke shaped Sempervivum plants are striped, spattered or netted with colors. You can find foliage that stays red, orange, yellow, green, bluish, purple, black or white – fuzzy, shiny, toothed or textured – all the time; no need to wait for blooms.

Giant cactus flower

Epiphyllum orchid cactus plants can display giant flowers in brilliant colors

Some offer exciting flower colors. Blooms can be found in almost any color, some large and exotic looking, some small but smothering the plants in huge numbers. Various plants known collectively as “Ice Plant” are well-known in warm climates for blanketing hillsides with brilliant hues in early spring.
Agave bud

This is the bud of what will be a tree-like bloom on a healthy agave.

The Century Plant (Agave) is impressive sending up two-story-high flower stems that branch into predominantly green flowers that look like trees and can be seen from long distances away. Brilliant red, yellow, orange and coral flowers bedeck many aloes while some cactus plants (all succulents) can produce flowers that dwarf the parent plant.

mixed succulent groundcover

A patchwork of multicolored low succulents form an artistic groundcover.

Use succulents to add color to hillsides, gardens (on their own or mixed in with other plants), or in container gardens. Their colors and interesting sculptural forms can create interest when nothing else is in flower.

colorful succulents

These are just some examples of the wide range of color you can find in succulent plants.

Most succulents can take periods of drought, sun and shade. Some can handle frost – even hard frosts. Double check the plants you buy to make sure they will thrive in your climate and where you want to grow them in your garden. There are so many different kinds of succulents; you are bound to find a number of them that are perfect for your landscape.

The Ultimate Edible Garden Solution

The Ultimate Edible Garden Solution


screenhouse view

View of the screenhouse

A screenhouse?

Got garden pests? Try a screenhouse! This is a decorative, practical and Eco-friendly way to grow safe and healthy edibles.

With bizarre weather in many areas wildlife is being forced to search more aggressively for food. If you are growing your own vegetable garden, this can mean that protecting your produce for yourself is getting harder.

In my case I’d tried just about everything from natural deterrents to electric netting and it still wasn’t enough. Once the local wildlife put the word out there was a marvelous feasting center in the area, my productive vegetable gardens were decimated. In the end, the only option left was to physically bar unwanted critters. But the most determined (rats and mice) found ways to invade any fencing, netting or other containment I tried. –Until I built my screenhouse. Here’s how I did it.

I had enjoyed cultivating and propagating interesting plants for years with my woven plastic covered, aluminum framed greenhouse. But not only had my priorities changed, I was tired of looking out of my back slider doors at the big white balloon-like structure. It was time to make that greenhouse useful again. And to make it an attractive part of the view from inside the house as well.

fabric greenhouse

The plastic fabric covered greenhouse in winter. Not every glamorous!

Building the screenhouse

Removing the plastic cover was easy, especially since it was already falling apart. The metal frame, anchored into the ground was 12’ x 16’. It wasn’t as large as I would have wished, but it fit well in the space and would serve my basic needs.

I built two large raised planters with wood (no preservatives). The bottoms were lined with ½” wire ‘hardware cloth’ to keep out gophers and moles. The insides were lined with waterproof leftover off-cuts of rubber sheeting from when I built my own pond several years ago. The outside wood was protected with water seal, screwed together, and painted. I leveled the ground and surrounded the base of the raised beds with 3/4” gravel, leaving a pathway down the middle of pea gravel (which is easier on the feet).

building raised vegetable beds

Building the raised beds. Lower beds would take less fill. The bottom halves of these were layered with compostable materials.

The metal greenhouse framework was covered with sheets of more ½” hardware cloth – spaced wide enough for pollinators to enter, but too small for even little field mice. (Sides were buried down into the ground to discourage diggers from tunneling under the bottom.)

screenhouse doors

Wooden framed double doors (open here) allow for easy entry.

I built double doors for easy entry and made sure there were multiple latches to keep out even the clever raccoons. Irrigation is provided by a drip system supplemented by some manual hosing in very dry, hot periods. Since I live where the summer sun is so strong it can burn tomatoes, I added a thin shade cloth for a roof and spray painted lines to suggest shingles. All materials were secured to the frame and each other by sewing with flexible metal wire.

Recycled creativity

I had a lot of old wood lattice left over from previous construction as well as pieces of wood from broken trellises. I laced on a fake façade of lattice  painted ( to match my house), tied together frames of recycled scrap wood for the illusion of window shapes, and added shutters (one pair cut in half for two small ‘windows’). This way the ugly white plastic balloon of a greenhouse was now a little cottage that housed my raised vegetable garden planters – the top half filled with aged compost from friends I knew who had horses and other stock animals. Adding light-weight flower boxes to the faux outside wall was the final touch.

facade for edible screenhouse

Screenhouse facade

For the first time in years, I am harvesting organic, tasty fresh vegetables again. The raised gardens are gentle on my back, use water efficiently and help me easily see any insect invasions so I can remove them before they become a real problem. The view from inside my house no longer shows an eyesore; instead I see a cute little cottage. You can adapt this idea by building your own frame or using any other strong skelleton like a greenhouse frame (without the expensive panels) or a do-it-yourself carport frame. Decorate yours any way you want, or just keep it simple.

The results

So far I am thrilled with the replacement of my old greenhouse. I don’t have to use poisons or harm wildlife to protect my fruits and vegetables, care is easy, efficient and low maintenance, and a previous eye-sore has now become the focal point of the back garden. Even the pets can’t wreak havoc with my growing area. It truly has become the ultimate edible garden solution — and I think I’ve tried just about everything else!

I am currently working on building a miniature picket fence for the garden of potted plants that populate the area outside the doorway of the screenhouse. This way the most tender plants can be fully protected inside the ‘house’ while I can expand my growing space into containers for the less bothered edibles.

Save your garden in the California drought!


Use pavers in patterns to form a pathway in a useful area that needs no water in a California drought landscape.

How to grow a spectacular garden despite the California drought

Changing weather patterns are making headlines all over the country. While gripping cold and smothering snow and ice may grab the headlines, a quieter and more insidious weather phenomenon is making dangerous inroads on the West Coast: the California drought.

Three years ago the winter rainy season was stingy in California. Last year many spots broke records for lack of rainfall. This year the whole state is water-deprived and the open lands remain barren of green. Snow packs are severely low and life-giving water is not falling from the skies.  In the normally wettest month of the year there was no measurable precipitation.

Life can survive most extreme weather, but it can’t exist without water. As homeowners continue to spray lawns and gardens with automatic sprinkler systems, starving wildlife has begun invading houses and gardens in search of food and drink. And the ‘dry season’ hasn’t yet arrived.

The first impact will be seen on our gardens. Water restrictions are likely and supply prices will soar. Maintaining the average California garden will become expensive and difficult. So far we are being asked to voluntarily cut back on water usage 20%. This is not enough.

Even now, farmers are unable to plant their usual crops and due to escalating feed prices stock herds are being culled — meaning less meat supplies in the future. This will inevitably push up food costs across the board all over the country. Yet with the large population on the West Coast, drinking water must be a priority.

Californians will finally take this seriously when they see their water bills triple and are subject to rationing. No one wants to see their groomed front yards go brown or watch their landscapes die. But the gardens are going to be the first victims of a severe drought.

So with this dire outlook, what can we do?

Happily, this is the time to reinvent your landscaping – now, before the heat of spring and summer arrives. Your garden can look spectacular no matter what Mother Nature sends your way. Yes, cactus gardens are a good solution and can be designed to look great. But if that isn’t your style, there are other alternatives. Here are some approaches you can use to turn your outdoor space into something you’ll love that won’t drain the precious water supply – and will still look wonderful should the rains come.

Give up the lawn! Lawns were never native to California and there are many other options that will be ornamental and/or productive. Replace them with artistic patterns of colored gravel, brick, stone, decomposed granite or even tumbled glass. Or use artificial grass where you really want an area of lawn. Synthetic lawns are safer and more realistic than ever before. There are also ground cover plants like Dymondia and some of the eco-lawn seed mixtures that will be less thirsty for areas that must be green.

cactus landscape

Slab rocks and cactus plants gives a contemporary look to this Southern California garden that will easily survive the California drought.

Plant California drought-tolerant plants or plants from other parts of the world with a similar climate. Group plantings to create lush effects and surround them with non-living materials.

Build raised garden beds for edibles so the water is focused where you need it and not spilled away elsewhere. These beds can be defended from hungry wildlife with fencing and wire.

edible front yard

Raised vegetable gardens can look lovely and be productive. This yard is grown by Rosalind Creasy

Carve out useful spaces like entertainment patios, seating and dining areas, sport courts, outdoor rooms, child or pet play areas or decorative dry river beds. They use no water and expand living space.

Make your garden magical with art. Add sculptures, build colorful shade structures or pop in a small fountain of recycled water to calm the mind with the illusion of bountiful moisture (while using very little).

Provide deep watering for your trees since these are the hardest to replace if you lose living material in your landscape. Dig in deep tube feeders and line moats with slow-delivery soaker hoses.

‘Redesign’, ‘prioritize’, and ‘get creative’ are the catch-words that will help you create an artistic and low-water garden.

Saving water in a California drought will not only make your garden withstand dry years but it will save you maintenance labor and money. Using wisely chosen plants where they will have the greatest visual impact, surrounding them with non-living materials and adding interesting décor will make your property safer from wildfires and less dusty from winds while creating a three-dimensional artistic landscape.

This is the real point of “sustainable” gardening. The extreme drought gives us an excuse to try out real water-wise gardening and allows us to flex our creative thinking muscles. If even half of the California residential homes converted their gardens to this kind of redesign, even our severely reduced water supply would be a much smaller threat to the population. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, 50% of residential water use goes to outdoor landscapes. The percentage increases with the drier inland communities. We can make a difference in our personal lives and the welfare of the whole state during this extreme drought – and even after – by designing our gardens wisely.

So take a moment: what improvements can you make in your own garden for the California drought? How can you make your property more spectacular, less water-dependent, easier to care for, and more sustainable? Why not take the first steps now, while the temperatures are cool and comfortable so you will be ready to sit back and enjoy your smart but beautiful garden when the heat sets in? You can grow that, enjoy it and reap the benefits. As the gardens of your neighbors succumb to dry and heat, yours can remain beautiful and you can be the envy of the neighborhood!

A Glass Gem Corn: the colorful harvest

UCanGrowThat 2

Colorful glass gem corn

Each cob has its own color palette!

One of the things I enjoy about being part of the greater community of garden enthusiasts is the opportunity to meet and interact with others across the country. Last March I attended the Spring Trials – an annual event in which all the new plant introductions are displayed for growers who come from all around the world to order and propagate for future production. At that time, I had a chance to bump into a friend, Dan Heims, president at Terra Nova Nurseries (a professional breeding nursery) located in Portland, Oregon. I was with my friend Shirley Bovshow (catch her as the gardening expert on the Home and Garden Show on the Hallmark Channel for lots of handy gardening tips) when he presented us with a dozen prized kernels of corn. He explained they were very expensive — $5 each – and were the “hottest new item in the edible plant industry”. He had acquired the seeds at a seed conservation group called the Native Seeds Trust and he wanted us to test them out.

Shirley and I divided our little treasure trove in half and parted ways. I have no idea if she ever grew them since her shooting schedule for the Home and Garden show production took much of her time. But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to check out these mysterious seeds – and find out why they were so special.

The problem was how to grow them. With the extreme lack of rain in the last few years, edibles in my area have become difficult to grow due to hoards of invading wildlife suffering from drought-induced starvation. I live in an area particularly hard hit, so I needed to find help growing the corn while my new enclosed growing space was still under construction. I turned to a friend, Lillian, who had safely enclosed cages already built and fully functional. Thus began my great Glass Gem Corn experiment.

I started the seeds at my place in one gallon containers and once they were two inches high, transferred them to fifteen gallon pots in Lillian’s safe enclosure. One of the seedlings grew without any chlorophyll and could not sustain itself for long, but the other five thrived.

In the caged garden, our five plants reached five feet tall despite their limited container space. They set cobs, unmolested by rodents that certainly would have adored the toothsome treats had they been in my exposed garden. The corn needed no special treatment and Lillian handled it the same as all her other vegetables. As the silks began to dry, she was concerned about the proper time to pick the ears. She tested a small cob, slipping it into the microwave to see how it would taste and was surprised when the kernels started to pop. At that time I was not aware that this was to be expected. I needed to learn a little more about these mysterious seeds.

I contacted Dan Heims and followed all the excitement on the Internet where he directed me. Once I understood these the Glass Gem Corn is not a sweet corn – the kind best for eating fresh and the most frequently grown corn in home gardens — I knew Lillian did not need to worry about harvesting at the right time. Indian corn, grown for grinding into flour, or popping corn is dried before use. Corn can be dried either on the stalks or off. In humid areas it can take a long time to dry unless harvested and kept in a special, dry place. In our chaparral the autumn air is drier than root cellars made especially for the purpose, so drying on the stalks is perfect – so long as rodents are denied access.

glass gem colors

This cob sports a whole rainbow of colors!

Glass Gem Corn is considered the most colorful corn ever bred. The multicolored kernels range through the entire rainbow and can look like glass beads – hence the name. Although this is not sweet corn, it is supposed to make a superior flower and exceptionally tasty popcorn. The startling colors make it stand out from other Indian corn varieties used for crafts and decor. In Oklahoma half century ago, a part-Cherokee farmer named Carl Barnes painstakingly cross bred only his most decorative plants until he came up with the Glass Gem line. The corn is a fully natural result of cross-pollination, grown organically and completely free of any engineering. Barnes passed on his seed collection to student and friend, Greg Schoen who continued the breeding. In 2010 Schoen requested the Native Seeds/SEARCH Trust in Arizona store seeds at their carefully controlled storage center. Bill McDorman, then a seedsman at the trust (and now the Executive Director) was curious about the name of these corn seeds and planted some in his own garden so see what would grow. He was amazed at the result and offered the first batch of seeds for sale in 2012. They were immediately snapped up. The seeds Dan had given me were from this first crop. Since then a second, larger crop has been planted and was just harvested. They should be available for purchase anytime now.

Some of the ears sport brilliant colors, others are more muted. Most of them have a wide range of coloring within each cob. There are more excellent photos at the Native Seeds/SEARCH site.

Lillian and I will be popping some of the corn. We didn’t grow enough to produce ample ground flour. But the most colorful ears will offer up some seasonal décor and seed material for next year’s crop. We won’t have enough to share, but — maybe next year? If our great Glass Gem Corn experiment has inspired you to try growing some of your own, check out the original source at http://www.nativeseeds.org/about-us/pressreleases/186-glass-gem-corn-now-available. I have seen seeds for sale on Amazon.com and a couple of other sites, but I cannot guarantee these are the pure Glass Gem variety.

Here’s a video showing the cropping of the corn as it dries on its stalks. There’s been some talk that the colorful claims are a hoax. As you see here, they are not! Peeling back the covering on each ear was as fun as unwrapping holiday presents!




What are the best palm trees?

palm trees

A group of assorted palms

Palms are very popular trees for landscaping, especially where the effect sought is a Mediterranean or Tropical look. Personally, I prefer to use plants that are native – or at least evolved reasonably close by. After years of designing for homeowners, however, I am aware that local natives don’t always offer the kind of effect wanted for the landscape design desired. Whether using local palms or not, it is important to use palm trees that are best for the area where they are being planted – both for appearance and for cultural needs. The best palm trees are those that will thrive and show off well in your landscape.

Two things to keep in mind are that unhappy and unhealthy trees will never look good, and young trees – including palms – can look very different than the mature specimens. It is important to choose the kind of palm that will grow well and look right when full-grown in the spot where it is to be planted.

Many palm trees handle a lot of heat but not all of them can tolerate the same degree of cold. Some are low growing whereas others tower high into the sky. Here is a quick reference list of the most commonly grown palm trees with their sizes and temperature preferences to help you select which palm trees are best for your landscape.

Smaller palms are best for limited space, to plant in groups or to mix into garden bedding areas.


  • Pigmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelinii): can grow up to 10 feet high, but does so slowly. Temperature range is about 25°– 105°F
  • Dwarf Saw Palmetto Palms (Serenoa repens) can handle cold temperatures down to 0° F and grow only to 10’ – 12′, but heat and cold tolerance seem to vary widely depending on soil and location.

There are plenty of medium-sized palms. They are the most frequently used trees used in residential landscapes.


  • Mexican Blue (Brahea armata): grows 20 feet tall with a head of about 10 wide. Prefered temperatures are from 20° – 120°F.
  • Guadalupe Palm (Brahea edulis) reaches 20 feet in height with a diameter of around 15 feet. Give it from 20°- 105°F.
  • The European or Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamerops humilus) reaches about 30’ tall and 15’ across. It can grow with multiple trunks. Give it temperatures between 20° – 120°F.
  • Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei): grows 15’ tall with a small head of only about 5’ across. This is an attractive palm that can branch into multiple trunks, too. Temperature range is 10° – 115°F.
  • Pindo Palm (Butia capitata) stretches 20’ high with a relatively wide head of 15’. This palm is found in single stem or multi-trunked forms. It does well in temperatures from 15°- 120°F.
  • Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) is a very popular palm planted in Southern California. It will grow to 30 feet tall and is best at temperatures between 25° – 115F°.

Use large, tall palms only where they have the space go grow an where they will look proportional with the rest of the landscape.


  • The California Fan Palm (Wahingtonia filifera) is a very tall palm topping out at 60’ to 90’ tall and dwarfing its own 15’ wide head. It will grow at temperatures from 10° -120°F.
  • Chinese Fan Palm (Livistona chinensis) is another palm with a wide head growing to 40’ high and 20’ wide. It will handle temperatures in the range of 20° – 110°F.
  • The Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta) is often seen towering along Los Angeles streets on its single trunk soaring up to and over 100’ high. It’s easy to grow  but often looks more like a sky-scraper telephone pole. It enjoys temperatures from 15° – 120°F. It self-seeds very easily and fruit/seeds are carried distances by birds, often germinating where not wanted.
  • A more graceful grower, the Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis) grows slowly to 60’ tall with a wide head of 35’. Not liking it really cold, give this clump forming palm a temperature range of 25° – 110°F.
  • Also attractive is the Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) which also reaches 60’ tall with a wide head of 25’. Like the Canary Island Date Palm, grow it in temperatures from 25 °– 110°F. This one can also form a multi-trunked clump.
  • The Senegal Date Palm (Phoenix reclinata) is one of the widest of the clump forming palms. It grows to a modest 40’ tall but fills a large space with a 30’ width. Not very frost tolerant, it needs temperatures between 30 °– 110°’F.

This is not a comprehensive list of palms for landscaping. There are many more, but these are some of the more popular, multi-use varieties. Use them in rows for living walls and fences, groups to create oasis clusters, individual specimens as a focal point, or spaced for shade. Keep palms cleaned of dead leaves for smooth trunks and to avoid attracting pests.