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!

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.

Color your garden with drought-tolerant succulents

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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

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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.

Garden advice even the experts get wrong

 

 

thinking cartoon

Nobody knows everything!

We like to believe that the experts who write the books we buy, direct us with what we should do on television or on the internet, and write knowledgeable articles will always give us correct information. But there’s plenty of garden advice even the experts get wrong. We forget that these people are only human and can make mistakes, too.

So what is some of the garden advice that even the experts get wrong? Here are some misconceptions or poor advice I’ve run into.

“What has grown well for the experts will grow well for you.” Or maybe not. I know some of the top garden book writers who are positive which plants will grow well and which won’t. Yet after gardening for many decades, I can say for certain that just because a plant flourishes in one area does NOT guarantee it will be happy even in an area that appears to be similar. I’ve found this true particularly in Southern California where soils, humidity and temperatures vary widely – sometimes even within the same piece of property. One expert – with several top-selling garden books — assured me that a plant I know will not grow well inland in northern Los Angeles County MUST thrive because it does so well in the inland San Diego area. The person is highly respected in professional gardening circles – and wrong!

“Famous landscape designers and architects don’t make big mistakes.” Most of us who design gardens work hard not to make mistakes. A good designer or professional gardener will stand by his or her work and make right any errors. But all are human. There are a few designers who are highly esteemed (and extremely well paid) who prefer to keep up the illusion they know everything. I have been called in twice to fix mistakes made by two of these. I do not know if they genuinely believe themselves to be perfect or that is part of their effort of branding themselves. Just don’t buy into the illusion. Nobody’s perfect!

edible front yard

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

 

yellow aphids

Yellow aphids infest milkweed

Aphids have spindly legs and cannot climb back up stems once washed off with water.” I have been guilty of giving out this advice myself since it has been spouted by garden gurus forever. While washing off some aphids in my greenhouse a friend pointed out several of the little insects boldly trundling straight up her arm. “Those legs don’t act spindly or weak on me,” she observed. I have to agree.

“Ladybugs will solve all your aphid problems.” I was directly assured this by arguably the best known television garden celebrity. Ladybugs (and their immature forms) are excellent control for eating pests like aphids. They have ravenous appetites for aphids and will be an enormous help in the garden. But not only do they tend to miss insects hidden in tight folds of leaves, they will fly away to other feeding areas, often before the job is fully done. Enough pests can be left behind to spawn a new infestation in no time. This is also true for other natural predators like the praying mantis. These are excellent Eco-friendly tools for the garden. Please do use these natural pest fighters! Just don’t expect miracles.

cutting tree limb

Major pruning of tree limbs is best done in the autumn and winter months, but different trees require different pruning techniques

“Most tree trimmers know what they are doing.” Certainly all the butchered trees I see daily deny this belief. Trees are large and special organisms. Proper treatment and pruning is a science. If you want yours to grow strong and healthy, lasting for many decades, spend the extra to hire a good arborist. There is a reason these people spend years in their specialty. It may look easy to just chop off limbs, but trees take a long time to mature and their growth can impact your whole property. Just because someone knows a few of the “tricks of the trade” does not make him or her into a tree expert.

“Nurseries know all about the plants available.” Most nurseries do know about the plants they stock, but even experts in specific areas – such as fruit trees – are sometimes unaware of what other growers or nurseries are developing and selling. A very fine tree grower recently assured me that the ultra-dwarf fruit tree variety I have doesn’t exist. Happily, ignorant of this misinformation, my fruit tree is thriving and growing nicely into the tree it really is.

“If you follow the rules, your garden will always look great.” First of all, rules are always changing. Secondly, all living things go through periods when they don’t look great. Even plants need to take a rest every now and then. Nature makes her own rules and will always send the unexpected – and often uncontrollable — bit of weather, genetic weakness, pest attack or plain old serendipity to interrupt your plans. Love your garden for the amazing, constantly-changing beauty it has to offer. Nature doesn’t do “perfect”!

The moral of this story is you need to do your homework. With the internet, you have a tool to research your questions. Experts are people who have put much of their life into learning their trade. But they are still only human and they, too, can make mistakes. So get multiple answers when you have questions and accept that much of the fun of gardening is in the experimentation and the lessons you can learn with your own experience. You can figure out how ‘you can grow that’  with your own trial and error experiments. Use advice from others for guidance (most of it is very helpful) , then focus on your own learning journey as a gardener.