Australian plants for dry Southern California

Australian plants

These plants come in all sizes, shapes and colors as seen in this low-growing, pink Grevillea

As sustainability in garden design grows in popularity, gardeners and designers alike search to expand the palette of plants and visual effects. Despite the rainy beginning of this year’s rainfall season we are now falling behind with no serious rain for over a month in most areas of Southern California. This will not bode well with the already existing shortage of rain and natural groundwater. Maybe we will still get in some heavy rain, but the long range forecast over coming years is for dryer times. We really need to make sure we design our landscapes for our dry climate.

Drought-tolerant plantings offer an opportunity to grow eco-friendly, drought-resistant and visually beautiful gardens. There are many drought tolerant plants from tropical areas that can’t handle our winter cold or our desiccating Santa Ana winds. But we can expand our choice by looking at some of the beauties available from other chaparral-like areas of the world. Some highly decorative plants have evolved in Australia that will grow nicely in different garden areas from inland to the coast. Many of these plants have unusual, ornamental flowers.

Although conditions in different parts of the world will vary, many Australian plants will thrive well alongside other drought-tolerant and chaparral plants from the Mediterranean, California, South Africa, Texas, Arizona and other low rainfall climates. With some very showy flowers, leaves and growth forms, the plants from ‘Down Under’ can offer exciting new selections to make the successful water-wise garden as glamorous as water-hungry traditional ones. Take a look as some of the decorative plants that grow naturally in Australia, plants like the Bottlebrush (Calistemmon), the dramatic Proteas, the handsome Hakeas and the floriferous Emu Bushes (Erimophyla) to name just a few. You’re likely to be impressed!

Also see: A Selection of Australian Plants for Dry Climates

Lawns in the chaparral landscape: Southern California gardening



Just how much lawn is the right amount?

Last year provided us with a generous rainy season. The temperatures bounced all over the place so wildflowers and the production of edibles were disappointing for many despite the rainfall. But water tables rose enough to help out with the previous drought and the state officially declared the drought was over. Before we rejoice and conclude the water worries for our area and Southern California in general are a thing of the past, we need to be realistic.Lawns in the chaparral landscape are water guzzlers.

Water will always be an issue where we live. This is the inland chaparral and summers are hot and dry. Even with the setbacks of the recession, people are drawn to the climate of Southern California where there are few natural water resources. That means those of us on city water are dependent on a lot of imported water. And that means we are governed by the bottom line profits and availability of supplies to the businesses that supply that water. Those of us who live independently on our own well water are vulnerable to the whims of nature – when it gifts or withholds rain or decides to nudge an underground stream into another course – and the possibility that someone up-line of the water source of your well could tap in and reduce your supply.

Water is nothing we can take for granted and with the economic changes, population shifts and erratic weather patterns, we seriously need to rethink how we landscape. Happily, water-guzzling gardens are going out of fashion and permeable paving, drought-resistant plants and smaller lawns are becoming the basis of decorative and Eco-friendly landscaping.

The habit of filling in spaces with blank expanses of lawn is not only expensive and impractical with our climate and soil, but they look ridiculous. We are so programmed to expect the emerald green sward that we have become blind to how silly it looks stamped like some geometric disease on the brown hills of the chaparral. Taste and “beauty” are frequently just a reflection of habit and programming. If we challenge our automatic judgments and open our minds to larger visions of creativity and aesthetic sensitivity, we will see those limitations fall away. We can find beauty in more practical, ecologically responsible solutions to garden design.

There are an infinite number of possibilities of how to create beauty in our gardens, lawns being only one small element. Lawns do have up sides as peaceful foils to busy garden planters, color contrasts to paved areas, practical areas for active use and even oxygen suppliers for the environment. I’m not saying the lawn should be done away with entirely. It simply should be designed into the landscape where it works aesthetically and practically in our part of the world, not just plastered all over the place as a default like a wall-to-wall carpet.

Another aspect of your landscape is maintenance. The larger the lawn you have, the more irrigation valves and sprinklers you will need. Any irrigation system needs regular care and inspection. Broken lines and sprinklers can waste huge amounts of water while turning a green lawn brown in just a few hot summer days. In the winter, areas that experience freezes can suffer cracked or broken pipe lines and sprinkler heads. So caring for a lawn can become expensive and high maintenance even without considering all the time that goes into regular mowing, edge trimming and blowing.

Maintenance can be reduced by using a good, drought-tolerant type of grass like Bermuda grass, but expect that same grass to turn brown when it goes dormant in the winter (or you can go to the effort and expense of over-seeding your turf with cool-weather grass that will need watering and mowing all winter). In the spring, expect the creeping stolons (roots) of Bermuda grass to invade your garden beds, smother cement or stepping stone edges and become weed-like just about everywhere. If you have the money and the patience, you can plant a less invasive, drought-resistant variety of grass like Buffalo grass that needs to be set in as single, tiny plugs. There are also new seed mixes available like EcoLawn. And you can save more money by investing in a smart irrigation controller that will use a sensor to adjust your watering daily. But supposing you do want some lawn and don’t like any of these choices? There are certainly benefits to having grass to play sports on, for children and pets, or even for a picnic blanket. You can’t build a putting green in your yard without lawn. Or can you?

What about artificial lawns? When fake or synthetic lawns were first being produced, they looked very phony. As the demand for more impressive artificial turf increased, the looks improved. Over the past few years, more improvements have been made to create synthetic lawns that look great and function better than ever.

The down side of a synthetic lawn is that it does not help oxygenate the air like a real lawn, it does not feel the same, and it is not completely maintenance free. On the other hand, artificial lawns require much less care, do not die or wear out into brown bald spots, are not attacked by insects, do not get muddy and will save on water use.

Expect to pay a little more for a nice look. Synthetic lawns should be installed right – ideally by a professional – to ensure long life. But they will pay back for themselves over time with savings on utility and upkeep. Fake lawns do need to be washed every now and then. They can be hosed down easily.

The most practical way to use artificial lawn is for specific areas like golf putting greens, sports, play and pet areas. Large areas of lawn are impractical unless you are covering an athletic area like a football field – not too many people have these in their backyards! Keep your real lawn where the feel of growing grass is appreciated. But consider the synthetic lawn for heavy or special use areas. You might be surprised just how good these coverings can look.

Shop around to see the different looks available in artificial lawn products. Now that the market has opened up, most garden and even the big box stores sell it. And consider all the useful or more colorful ways you can convert unnecessary lawn areas into productive or decorative spaces like vegetable or herb gardens, drought-resistant and ornamental grass gardens, or open utility spaces paved with decorative permeable paving. You can do yourself and the environment a favor at the same time with a sustainable chaparral landscape.

Southern California landscape design for hills and slopes

Slope landscape

Use plantings, paths, steps and retaining walls to make a hillside garden exciting.

Southern California has plenty of hillsides and slopes. Although they can be a challenge to design, they can also become your landscape’s greatest asset. Even if your hillside is not exceptionally steep, water will roll down the hill without sinking in as deeply as it would on flat land. Soil and stones will also roll downhill. The idea of designing a hillside successfully is to keep soil in place while making the area as attractive as possible. Making slopes stable is half of the job. Making them into something beautiful to look at is the fun part. There are many ways to do both at the same time with creative landscape design for hills.

Keep soils in place by anchoring the surface with living roots. Choose plants that are drought-tolerant and will grow well with water that may not always seep deeply into the soil. You can plant a low-growing carpet of ground cover plants or you can design in trees, shrubs, bulbs or other plantings to make your hillside exciting. You can even use materials that are not living – like stone, shredded bark (go for the shredded rather than bark chips: they stay in place better), gravel contained with edging materials or patterns of block work, pavers, stepping stones, bricks or other interesting materials.

Another way to handle designing slopes is to terrace them. The concept of terracing is to make the hillside into flat steps that will allow for planting attractive gardens or ground cover. Not only is terracing a good way to stop erosion problems on a hillside, but it turns otherwise non-productive space into something decorative and useful.

To terrace a hillside, you will want to cut out very wide step-like areas. Usually this is done starting at the base. Create the bottom step like a stairway, but carved into your hill. Flatten out the top of a raised area, butting the front against some form of retaining wall. When the soil starts to pile up behind the flat area, build another retaining wall and start flattening out the second tier. This will continue up to the top. Depending on the grade of your slope, the terraced beds can be deep or narrow.

The barrier to keep soil from tumbling forward in the front of each ‘step’ needs to be solid and firm enough to keep the soil behind it in place. A retaining wall can be built of rocks, bricks, cemented blocks, interlocking blocks, railroad ties or many other materials. The more weight behind it, the more stable the structure needs to be. Any wall more than three feet tall will likely require a permit.

Since water washes down with gravity, provisions need to be made for any water that may build up behind the wall structure – especially if you are building solid walls that will fully block the downward flow of water. It’s a good idea to add a drainage pipe and gravel — or at least a buffer zone 10″ thick of gravel behind the back of each retaining wall. This will allow water to drain out from behind the retaining wall rather than press against it.

Hillsides can become areas for vegetable gardens, planted color patterns, or individual garden scenes. Design in effects that will enhance your whole garden. If your garden is formal, consider using a single ground cover type of plant or create symmetrical plantings that can be geometric or controlled. If you want a natural look, blend in natives or sprawling plants in drifts the way nature would. You can also use non-living materials to make a textural statement to fill in between plantings.

Add provisions for maintenance or to get to areas in or behind the hillside itself. This is a perfect opportunity to design in stairways. Stairs can be part of the aesthetic layout of your hillside as well as being a practical passageway. You can lay out steps in straight lines or curve them artistically up the hill. Re-use broken concrete, natural materials or permeable paving to create informal designs. Or pour concrete, carved stone or cast blocks to build a crafted set of steps. Use straight lines or geometric forms to create a contemporary or formal look. You can get as simple or creative as you want when it comes to materials for railings.

If you want to design an artistic feel you can include stepping stones that are painted, sculpted or inlaid. Or you can put together different paving blocks, bricks, cast cement forms, stones, colored gravel or other materials to create your own mosaic design. Another way to create effects is to outline one material with another or fill the flat part of the step with one building material and the rises in another, contrasting material.

You can naturalize your steps by setting large stones or chunks of wood into the ground. Or you could use formal, hewn rock, cast blocks or neatly designed wooden stairs to create other effects or designs. Edges can be hardened with straight borders or softened with plantings.

Landscaping hillsides can actually be an asset to your garden and offer opportunities you’d miss if you didn’t have slopes. So rather than seeing our Southern California canyon slopes as a challenge to the landscape, look at them as opportunities to expand your garden. Hills can be anything but wasted space. Use them for planting orchards, vegetable gardens, seating areas or just make them scenic.



Go native in your Southern California Landscape

Romneya couleri

The huge white and yellow flowers of the California native Romneya coulteri (Matilija Poppy)

Growing native plants may be the latest trend in fashionable gardening, but there are there are many other reasons to go native like easy maintenance, attracting birds and butterflies and, well, just plain beauty. Both garden addicts and low-maintenance enthusiasts can enjoy the benefits of native gardening. There is a remarkable diversity in native plants, enough to suit most tastes and styles. With careful designing, you can use these plants to create the feel of tropical, Mediterranean, English, or anything from wild to formal gardens. Native plants come in all sizes and colors. Not all plants are easy to locate. Fortunately, local nurseries are becoming savvier and stocking more of them all the time. Even the big box stores are beginning to offer more California native plants. Mail order catalogs can supplement availability, and there are specialist sellers, like The Theodore Payne Institute in Sun Valley (Los Angeles), Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano and Greenbelt Growers in Riverside that offer impressive selections. It’s getting easier than ever to go native!

Not all California native plants are appropriate to all parts of Southern California. The term ‘native’ usually means they are indigenous to California. Of course, you can’t expect a plant that thrives by the coast in southern San Diego or Northern California to do particularly well inland, for example, without arranging very special provisions. There are plenty of frost free areas in California that yield up plants too delicate for our higher elevations. Many others grow stream-side natives that will need shade and an impractical amount of water to grow in hot, dry areas. But there is still quite an impressive assortment of natives that do well in the various areas of Southern California. And don’t forget to use native annuals, too.

Buying local-adapted plants means that you will have to fuss very little with them. In fact, if you give them too plush a home, they are likely to grow too fast, expend all their energy and die early. You do not want to amend your soil – a nice way to save on your landscape budget – since these plants evolved in fast-draining low-organic soil. You do want to water them like common garden plants for the first year or so until they become established. Once they settle in and create a full root system, they will look happier with just an occasional watering. But most will be able to go the whole, dry summer without supplement if necessary.

There are bulbs, ground covers, trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials – allCalifornia natives. Some of the bulbs, like the Mariposa Lily (Chalochortus) and the Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma) are available in bulb catalogs. Savvy horticulturists are breeding versions of our natives that are prettier and bloom longer than the originals yet retain their hardiness and adaptability. Two ground cover salvias, ‘Terra Secca’ and ‘Bees Bliss’ are great examples. Sometimes you can find one family that comes in all sizes. Try out the manzanita (Arctostaphylos) for a wide range of heights. You can find neat ground-cover-like low spreaders like Arctostaphylos ‘Point Reyes’, shrubs like A.‘Vandenberg’ or small trees like A.‘Dr. Hurd’. And if you want a choice of color, just try a Penstemon. Penstemons come in just about any color you could desire. They are very colorful and look as showy as any hybridized garden flower. (In fact, there are many hybrid varieties of Penstemon now being offered as decorative perennials in retail markets.) There are dwarf varieties and tall growers. And they’re tough! (…Although the hybrids are not as resilient as the true native types.)

There are a number of lovely oaks that grow from shrub size to stately magnificence. Some are evergreen, others deciduous. Elderberry, Buckeye and Ironwood are smaller trees. Jojoba trees are native trees (from north of the Mojave) that offer a delicious fruit. There are also all kinds of colorful ornamental grasses. The Muhlenbergia family of grasses offers the very drought-tolerant M. rigens or ‘deer grass’. In short, there is no shortage of planting material available in the form of California natives.

Be aware that most native plants take their dormant snooze in the summer. The majority of decorative garden plants come from climates where winters are the harshest season and usually go dormant in that season. Since our winters are comparatively mild and our summers are more inhospitable with their lack of water and scorching heat, local natives usually take a summer break from growth. As a result, many of these plants, even the evergreens, take on a dreary appearance when resting. You might want to mix in some more distant chaparral-like plants from Texas, Arizona — or even Chile or Australia — as well as the more familiar Mediterranean adaptees. By mixing in plants that bloom in the summer or keep a more bright green leaf, you can cheer up native plantings during their most dull, dormant, summer period.  And you can go native with your landscaping while still having a perfectly beautiful garden!