Designing a Drought-tolerant Landscape

When planning your garden for the long term, today’s important considerations include drought tolerance. Gardeners should be open to changing their gardens from time to time, as ideas change, new plants attract attention and—let’s face it—some older plants move to the compost heap in the sky.

Still, when we must anticipate prospects for long-term drought, it makes sense to base your landscape design on plants that can thrive without lots of water, or even regular irrigation.

Landscape design can be a challenging enterprise, but also could be quite approachable, given planning ahead and narrowing your focus. Assuming that you wish to change your current landscape from thirsty to drought-tolerant, or from boring to interesting, here is one path for a short distance between your present and future gardens.

First, select your target area. This might be all of a smaller yard or a high priority, not-too-large section. The front garden might be a good candidate.

Then, study the area’s characteristics: exposure to sun and wind, soil texture (sand, clay, loam), and topography (flat, sloped, hilly). This will determine which plants would be appropriate for your garden’s conditions.

Very important: choose a theme to guide plant selections for your new landscape. A theme of well-defined, limited theme will lead to study of plants that meet your criterion and add to the character of the landscape.

Plenty of plants are drought-tolerant, particularly plants from the five Mediterranean (or summer-dry) regions of the world, and succulents. For this model approach to design, we focus on California native plants; an even better theme would be plants that are native to your local plant community. California’s native plants have evolved to succeed in the soils and climates of their native growing grounds, and to enjoy symbiotic relationships with the local flora and fauna.

Secure ready access to at least one good reference book. Several good choices are available, but here is my short list:

  • The New Sunset Western Garden Book, 9th Edition (2012), edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel;
  • The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-care Plantings (2015), edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel;
  • Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (2007), by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook; and
  • Growing California Native Plants, 2nd Edition (2012), by Marjorie Schmidt and Katherine Greenberg, with illustrations by Beth Merrick.

Select a small number of plants, for development of clusters or swaths of the same plant for optimum visual appeal and design coherence. Most gardener designers favor landscapes with plant groups or repeats, and avoid collections of isolated single specimens.

Check out local garden centers and nurseries to locate good inventories for your thematic design. Just about any plant is available by mail order, but the more common California native plants should be readily available from local sources.

Brodiaea, California Cluster Lily

click to enlarge

 

The plant in the photo is the California native bulb, Brodiaea californica, which has the common name, California Cluster Lily. Brodiaea plants once Triteleia plants, which have been identified as a separate (but related) genus.

Here are the botanical and common names of short lists of well-liked California native plants for a drought-tolerant landscape that has good exposure to the sun.

Trees: Arbutus (Madrone), Aesculus (California Buckeye), Quercus (Oak)

Taller Shrubs: Ceanothus (California Lilac), Rhamnus (California Coffeeberry), Rhus (Lemonade Berry)

Shorter Shrubs: Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), Artemesia (California Sagebrush), Baccharis (Dwarf Chapparal)

Perennials: Dudleya (Live Forever), Penstemon (Beardtongue), Salvia (Sage)

Bulbs: Allium (Onion), Brodiaea (Triteleia), Calochortus (Mariposa Tulip)

Groundcovers: Epilobium or Zauschneria (California Fuchsia), Eriogonum (Island Buckwheat)

All of these plants require watering after planting and until they are established. Such variables as soil texture, air temperature, and rainfall will determine the amount and frequency of watering, but the objective is to maintain soil moisture until there any danger of wilt has passed. Once the plants are well rooted, they will benefit from being watered during seasonal growth periods, but will survive nicely on their own during our future drought.

More

To learn more about the plants suggested above, check any of the books listed, or other general reference garden books. Most good books will provide important information such as mature size of the plant (always important in planning a landscape).

Another approach is to enter the botanical name in a search engine, e.g., Google.com, and click on “Images.” This will yield numerous photos of the plant, often showing considerable variation within the genus.

Gardening during Drought

Californians are agonizing over our severe drought and its probable future. Those going through the greatest stress are homeowners maintaining verdant lawns and gardens in southern California’s deserts, farmers using 80% of the state’s surface water, and policy makers working to move the state’s burgeoning population toward life styles and businesses that use our limited water wisely.

This will be a lengthy slog.

The good news for Monterey Bay area residents is that we have already made excellent progress in reducing water usage to the target level, which is 25% below the usage of February of 2013.

We all need to conserve more to reach that target, but not nearly as much as people in southern California, especially in desert areas, where water usage is double the state average.

Growing grass and common perennial plants in sand unavoidably requires unusual cultivation methods, including lots of water. Such gardening ignores the first rule of gardening: right plant in the right place.

The primary strategy for drought-tolerant gardening, then, is to grow plants that are native to your own patch of land. The corollary strategy is to grow plants that are similar to plants that are native to your site. For the Monterey Bay area, this means plants from the world’s regions with a summer-dry climate. These include (if you need yet another review) the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, Chile’s central coast, Australia’s southwestern coast, and of course, much of California, especially the central coast region.

Keep in mind that each of these regions includes a range of microclimates, so it is still wise to know the particular conditions within your garden, and to favor plants that thrive in those conditions. That is the crucial method for low-maintenance gardening.

I have just received Sunset’s latest book, which addresses this point in a timely, effective and attractive manner. The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings has chapters on Gardens, Beds and Borders, Succulents, Groundcovers, and Containers. Other sections provide an overall introduction and seasonal tips.

Sunset Book Cover

Click to Open

 

Kathleen Brenzel edited this book, and has edited several earlier books that merit a prominent place on California gardeners’ bookshelves. This new book includes advice from such experts as John Greenlee and Robin Stockwell, who know all there is to know about grasses and succulents, respectively, and who have shared their knowledge with gardeners often over the years. During Robin’s 2014 Succulent Extravaganza, for example, I enjoyed John’s presentation of a companion planting of grasses and succulents.

California’s drought results from the combination of several factors: cyclical weather patterns, climate change, population growth, and agribusiness expansion. It is a complex picture, to be sure, and avid gardeners need to adapt to changing conditions.

My initial scan of The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings impresses me as a good source of guidance and inspiration for that adaptation. I welcome the opportunity for learning from each chapter, and anticipate enjoying the experience, which surely will motivate even more sustainable gardening.

The New Normal for Gardens—Lose the Lawn

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order mandating water use restrictions. This order requires California’s 400 water supply agencies to restrict water uses to achieve an overall 25% reduction, and monitor compliance with those restrictions..

The restrictions will have many impacts. Here, we consider only the impacts on small-scale gardening at residences and businesses. At another time, we’ll get to commercial agriculture’s water usage, which equals 80% of California’s developed water.

Studies have shown that 30-50% of residential water use occurs outdoors. Uses include washing cars and filling pools and fountains, but most outdoor water usage is intended to maintain the growth of plants, particularly lawn grasses.

If the current four-year drought continues for ten years or longer, as weather scientists have projected, gardeners should plan for the “new normal” for their gardens.

This is not the time to install artificial turf, learn to love the parched look, or pave your yard. There are better options.

The first step would be to remove the water hogs in your garden. These might include plants from tropical climes. For example, I have a long fascination with the Chilean Rhubard (Gunnera tinctoria), a riparian plant with enormous leaves. My garden once had one of these plants, but it dried out.

Here is a fine example of a clump of Chilean Rhubarb near a pond in a large garden in Santa Cruz.

Gunneras

Click to Enlarge

 

The next step would be to lose the lawn. A well-kept lawn consumes a lot of water, fertilizers and pesticides, plus the lawn owner’s time and money. Two-cycle lawnmowers also generate noise and air pollution.

In return, most lawns provide a green vista—or at least a resting spot for the eye—but receive very little actual use. Lawns used to symbolize status, but that was when only the wealthy could afford groundskeepers wielding scythes. The 1830 invention of the lawnmower transformed the lawn from status symbol to an easy option for many homeowners and an obsession for a few.

Now, our governor has said, “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

The plan for losing the lawn will vary with the size of your greensward. A small patch could be converted to a new reality in one go. A larger area might better be reduced incrementally, to spread the effort and the design issues over two or three years.

The first step should be to plan for replacing the lawn grass with another ground cover that would require much less water. It is all about the strategic selection of plants. This individual design decision could focus on meadow grasses, wildflowers, or drought-tolerant plants, e.g., California natives or Mediterranean climate plants. Some people have opted for cacti and succulents, which can be very interesting, but that’s a challenging move, design-wise.

There are many very attractive possibilities for a drought-tolerant landscape. Visit ongardening.com for resources to help with this planning.

Then, remove the grass. This can be done with solarization: over several weeks, a plastic cover uses the summer sun to heat the grass to extinction.

The operation of a sod cutter, probably rented, is much faster, but this method could remove enough soil to require importing topsoil.

In any event, avoid killing the grass with chemicals, which are not good for gardens. Also, avoid rototilling the soil, because that will bring buried weed seeds to the surface. A rake would be the preferred tool to smooth the soil.

Once the grass is gone, install the landscape you have designed. After a couple years of planting, watering and inevitable weeding, you will have a landscape that will survive during the coming drought years with minimal care, and look great.

More

Once you have made the decision to replace a traditional lawn with a drought-tolerant alternative, you can consider several options. Here are resources to explore:

Full disclosure, the Lose the Lawn website was created by a friend, Alrie Middlebrook, owner of Middlebrook Gardens. It has been available for quite a while, and is more relevant than ever today.

Sunset Magazine web resources includes 24 Inspiring Lawn-free Yards.

An excellent book on this subject is The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn, by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt (2009).

An eloquent call for California native plants is found in Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices and Designs, by Carol Bornstein and David Fross (2011).

A best selling book, Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, by Pam Penick (2013), provides a new look in book title punctuation.

A search of Amazon.com for “lawn alternatives” or “drought-tolerant landscaping” will yield several additional titles for books that you might find in a local library or bookstore. There’s no shortage of ideas!

Finally, you might have heard that southern California residents so far this year have a poor record for reducing their water usage, compared to people on the central California coast. Here’s an image that provides a clue for that failure to cut back on landscape irrigation. This shows a part of Rancho Mirage, which is between Palm Springs and Palm Desert.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 10.29.01 AM

The grey areas are sand! If you believe the drought is a hoax, you might be interested in living on this human-created oasis. Contact Magnesia Falls Real Estate, which has this photo on its website. (An even more dramatic aerial photo of this community is in the current issue of Time magazine.

 

The Bees Need Our Help

Gardeners can enjoy gardening at many levels. We can experience the Zen of Weeding, as I did this afternoon, and then shift to enjoy one of gardening’s many other dimensions.

Gardening often turns up in the wonderful world of public policy, a dimension that can resemble a house of mirrors.

The Case of Colony Collapse Disorder, an example of gardening in public policy, is in the current news with a flurry of contradictions.

Bee on Purple Flower

Colony Collapse Disorder refers to the widespread, sudden mysterious deaths of entire bee colonies. We deplore the premature demise of these colonies, and sympathize with the industrious victims, and fear the potential threat to our own wellbeing: bees pollinate about one-third of all the fruits and vegetables we eat.

Scientists studying the causes of CCD suspect a combination of factors, and environmentalists focus on neonicontinoids, a category of very effective and widely used systemic pesticides. Both commercial crops and garden center plants and seeds are often treated with “neonics” (as they are called). Several European nations have banned neonics, but the United States currently permits their uses.

Manufacturers of neonics have insisted that CCD results from several other factors, e.g., Varroa mites, Nosema fungus, viruses, drought, and loss of habitat. Others have speculated that bee colonies are traumatized by the practice of trucking hundreds of beehives to large-scale agricultural sites, such as California’s almond trees groves.

In May of 2014, Harvard University reported an environmental scientist’s research that “strengthens the link between neonics and CCDs. The head of the National Academy of Sciences’ earlier study of the problem dismissed that research, and called it “effectively worthless,” because it was based on bees’ exposure to pesticides at doses far above typical levels.

On June 20, 2014, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum calling for the creation of a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. This call to action included an order for the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on pollinator health. The Task Force, including multiple federal departments, was to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy within 180 days, so its report was due around Christmas time last year. Presumably, it has been subjected to internal review since that target date.

On March 20, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that honey production in 2014 was up 19 percent from 2013, leading some to conclude that the CCD problem was over. Beekeepers had imported Australian honeybees to replace hives lost to CCD, so that conclusion might require another look.

These events provide a glimpse of the process of creating public policies, which are influenced by environmental, economic and political forces, and which eventually impact our interests as individuals.

No one has suggested that neonics are good for the honeybees. The goal is to balance the undeniably negative effects of agricultural chemicals with the anticipated positive long-term effects on our food supplies, recreational gardening and quality of life.

Gardeners can help the bees in small ways.

  • Plant bee-friendly gardens.
  • Do not use garden chemicals containing neonics.
  • When buying plants or seeds, ask the retailer if those items are free of neonics.

Organic gardening methods would be best for gardeners…and bees!

More

A friend at Suncrest Nurseries, Inc., a large wholesale company in Watsonville, responded to this column by saying, “Suncrest does not use neonicotinoid pesticides at all, in any way, shape or form on any of it’s plants !  I think we are the only non-organic nursery to do so !”

The Internet offers much information on bees and threats to their health.  deaths. Here are some interesting websites:

UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab

Genetic Literacy Project: The USDA Study on Bee Deaths

The Genetic Literacy Project supports GMOs, dismisses neonics’ role in bee deaths, and doesn’t like organic foods. The project seems friendly to the chemical industry.

Environmental Protection Agency to Limit Use of Neonics

USDA Release on Honey Production

An increase in honey production is welcome, but it doesn’t mean that bees and other pollinators are safe from pesticides.

Presidential Memorandum Calling for Pollinator Health Strategy

This task force was to report in 180 days. That would have been around  Christmas, 2014. Let’s watch for the report.

List of Pesticides Containing Neonics

Friends of the Earth: Bee-Toxic Pesticides in Garden Center Plants

This paper is a couple years old, but still relevant.

 

More Interesting Than Dirt

Gardeners should refer correctly to the essence of our gardens, which is soil, and avoid calling it “dirt.”

Most soils consist of three groups of particles: sand (the largest in size), (clay (the smallest in size) and silt. The percentages of sand, clay and silt determine the texture of the soil. The best soil for gardening, called loam, has nearly equal parts of sand, silt and clay. Soil with this texture has good balance between retaining and draining moisture.

St another level, garden soil is a living environment, an ecological system, with microorganisms, decaying organic matter, earthworms and other insects. Each of these components contributes to the soil’s habitat for flora and fauna. Living soil involves a vast number of interdependent activities, which combine to create a complex and dynamic environment. These functions are enough to keep soil scientists studying for their lifetimes and motivate gardeners to at least appreciate what is going on under the surface of their gardens.

Kids Pat Down Soil Image

Kids pat down soil around a navel orange tree they planted

By comparison, dirt might contain a good mix of sand, silt and clay, but lacks any of the organic components of good garden soil. Dirt can be regarded as raw material for conversion to garden soil by adding organic matter (compost); this process will provide food for beneficial microorganisms and support the eventual development of the ecological system.

Dirt with a less than ideal mix of sand, silt and clay often can be improved by adding compost. Adding sand to a clayey soil, or clay to a sandy soil, might seem like a good idea, but it very difficult to create a good mix and usually results in something like concrete. Just add compost.

When we think of things that we cannot live without, many people will list sunlight, air and water, but not include soil, which is the essential fourth contributor to life on earth.

With this in mind, soil scientists from around the world have joined to name 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with the goals to educate the public about the importance of healthy soils. The Global Soils Partnership, which includes the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, The Soil Science Society of America, and many other groups, is spearheading these efforts. We are pleased to support this educational initiative.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.44.53 PM

The Partnership has identified a theme for the educational activities of each month during 2015. The theme for April is “Soils Clean and Capture Water,” which is timely during California’s current severe drought conditions. As a group, the monthly themes provide an overview of the many ways in which soils support the quality of life on Plant Earth.

  • January – Soils Sustain Life
  • July – Soils are Living
  • February – Soils Support Urban Life
  • August – Soils Support Health
  • March – Soils Support Agriculture
  • September – Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  • April – Soils Clean and Capture Water
  • October – Soils and the Products We Use
  • May – Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  • November – Soils and Climate
  • June – Soils Support Recreation
  • December – Soils, Culture, and People

Each gardener can support the International Year of Soils, in these ways:

All plants respond to good soil!

More Interesting Than Dirt

Gardeners should refer correctly to the essence of our gardens, which is soil, and avoid calling it “dirt.”

Most soils consist of three groups of particles: sand (the largest in size), (clay (the smallest in size) and silt. The percentages of sand, clay and silt determine the texture of the soil. The best soil for gardening, called loam, has nearly equal parts of sand, silt and clay. Soil with this texture has good balance between retaining and draining moisture.

St another level, garden soil is a living environment, an ecological system, with microorganisms, decaying organic matter, earthworms and other insects. Each of these components contributes to the soil’s habitat for flora and fauna. Living soil involves a vast number of interdependent activities, which combine to create a complex and dynamic environment. These functions are enough to keep soil scientists studying for their lifetimes and motivate gardeners to at least appreciate what is going on under the surface of their gardens.

By comparison, dirt might contain a good mix of sand, silt and clay, but lacks any of the organic components of good garden soil. Dirt can be regarded as raw material for conversion to garden soil by adding organic matter (compost); this process will provide food for beneficial microorganisms and support the eventual development of the ecological system.

Dirt with a less than ideal mix of sand, silt and clay often can be improved by adding compost. Adding sand to a clayey soil, or clay to a sandy soil, might seem like a good idea, but it very difficult to create a good mix and usually results in something like concrete. Just add compost.

When we think of things that we cannot live without, many people will list sunlight, air and water, but not include soil, which is the essential fourth contributor to life on earth.

With this in mind, soil scientists from around the world have joined to name 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with the goals to educate the public about the importance of healthy soils. The Global Soils Partnership, which includes the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization <http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/>, The Soil Science Society of America <www.soils.org/iys>, and many other groups, is spearheading these efforts. We are pleased to support this educational initiative.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.44.53 PM

The Partnership has identified a theme for the educational activities of each month during 2015. The theme for April is “Soils Clean and Capture Water,” which is timely during California’s current severe drought conditions. As a group, the monthly themes provide an overview of the many ways in which soils support the quality of life on Plant Earth.

  • January – Soils Sustain Life
  • July – Soils are Living
  • February – Soils Support Urban Life
  • August – Soils Support Health
  • March – Soils Support Agriculture
  • September – Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  • April – Soils Clean and Capture Water
  • October – Soils and the Products We Use
  • May – Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  • November – Soils and Climate
  • June – Soils Support Recreation
  • December – Soils, Culture, and People

Each gardener can support the International Year of Soils, in these ways:

All plants respond to good soil!

Gardening Close Up

 

We garden on different perspectives: specific when studying individual plants, and general when designing a landscape. We can regard gardening as a continuum with many points between its ends. This range of possible perspectives deepens our interest in gardening.

With all that in mind, where does the survey of a genus belong on this continuum? That thought came to mind during a recent talk by Brian Kemble, Curator of The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, specializing in succulent plants.

Ruth Bancroft established this extraordinary garden in 1972 as her private collection. It was the first garden supported by the Garden Conservancy, and in fact inspired the formation of that nation-wide organization. The garden was opened to the public in the early 1990s and soon became managed by a non-profit corporation.

Brian Kemble 3-2015

Brian Kemble, Cactus & Succulent Horticulturist

Kemble has been involved with the garden continuously since 1980, and has brought his considerable knowledge of horticulture and his expertise in succulent plants to the cultivation and development of the garden. Ms. Bancroft, now 106 years of age, maintains her interest in the collection.

Kemble spoke to the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society, in Watsonville. His talk focused on the genus Gasteria, a South African member of the Aloaceae plant family, which includes other popular genera: Aloe, Bulbine, Haworthia and others.

The name of the genus Gasteria reflects its flowers, which to some observers are stomach-shaped (“gaster” is Latin for “stomach). The flowers hang from inclined long racemes, which can includes clusters of 100 or more flowers. The flowers range in color from pink to vermillion with yellow-green tips.

The genus includes 22 species, with rosettes ranging in size from the diameter of a nickel coin, to those with leaves a meter long.

Gasteria acinacifolia

This is a Scimitar-leaved Gasteria (G. acinacifolia), displayed at the meeting of the Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, as part of the monthly mini-show. (It won a prize in its category!)  This is the tallest of the Gasteria species, native to the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Kemble showed examples of several Gasteria species, each of which is native to a specific area of South Africa. He also showed several hybrid forms, including at least one that he developed himself.

Gasterias are relatively easy to propagate from seeds, divisions or leaf sections. They are also readily crossed with other plants in the Aloaceae family, so we have cultivars called xGasteraloe or xGasterhaworthia.

Kemble provided an expert overview of this interesting genus Gasteria. Some members of his audience might have been inspired to collect different species of the genus, but others most likely learned about how any given Gasteria fits into the larger botanical context. This knowledge adds in subtle ways to the enjoyment of gardening.

To learn more about Gasterias and other succulent plants, visit the web site of the Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, and click on
Specific Resources. Gasterias, as you will recall, are in the plant family Aloaceae.

 

Pruning Salvias Hard

We want our gardens to look good, pleasing to eye, whenever possible, but occasions arise when our gardens need tough love.

Right now, in late winter, is one such occasion, particularly for salvias.

Salvias, also called sage, are excellent garden plants in a large and varied family. There are almost 1,000 species of salvias, almost all of which are native to one of three distinct regions: Central and South America, Central Asia and the Mediterranean Basin, and Eastern Asia. A few species are native to the United States.

Salvias are popular garden plants because the genus includes many forms, sizes and blossom colors to choose from, the plants are easy to grow, with few problems with pests and diseases, and drought tolerant. Many salvia blossoms are various shades of red. Here is an example the relatively uncommon Forsythia Sage (Salvia madrensis), native to Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, with yellow blossoms.

Salvia madrensis

Click to Enlarge

Salvias do require pruning, which is done best on an annual schedule. If your garden includes a lot of salvias, as does my garden, it is easy to skip a pruning session or two. As often happens, procrastination only postpones the task and does not eliminate the need.

When salvias are not maintained with regular pruning, they grow rangy and produce fewer blossoms. It is worth the effort regular pruning to control the size and shape of the plant, and stimulate blossoming.

There are two broad categories of salvias: perennial woody plants and deciduous soft-stem plants. Popular species in the woody group include Culinary or Purple Sage (S. officinalis), Autumn Sage (S. greggii), Germander Sage (S. chamaedryoides), Texas Sage (S. coccinea), and Baby Sage (S. microphylla). The best times to prune woody salvias, it is said, are lightly after the blooms fade (late spring or early fall, usually), and more heavily just as new growth appears at the base of the plant (late winter or early spring).

Popular plants in the category of soft-stem plants include Mexican Bush Sage (S. leucantha), Pineapple Sage (S. elegans), Brazilian Sage (S. guaranitica), Waverly Sage (S. waverly), and Gentian Sage (S. patens). These plants, which bloom on new growth, should be cut “to the ground” after the flowers have faded, or as new growth appears in the early spring.

When salvias have grown for two or three years without regular pruning, as just might have happened in my own garden, right now is time for rejuvenation pruning, also called catch-up time.

According to some advisors, pruning salvias involves careful planning and time-consuming snipping of individual stems, but when managing forty or fifty overgrown plants, the most practical tool is an electric trimmer, wielded with tough love.

We also shovel-pruned plants that had sprawled to form a large clump, moved larger plants that were encroaching into the pathway, and repositioned several low-growing, blue-flowered Germander Sages to form a border for this large collection of salvias.

Time will tell, but I expect that these plants will recover quickly from this hard pruning, , and respond with a fine new season of growth and blossoming. They are already producing new shoots.

Salvia corrugata, hard-pruned

Salvia corrugata, hard-pruned

If you are managing only a few salvias, you could prune individual stems and produce a more attractive result, but your plants are also likely to respond with a new season of growth and a profusion of flowers. Try a little tough love!

Learning More About Salvias

B. Clebsch. The New Book of Salvias: Sages for Every Garden. Timber Press, 2003.

J. Sutton. The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Salvias. Timber Press, 2004.

Basic Introduction to the Genus, on Wikipedia

Species of the Genus Salvia, from The Plant Encyclopedia

Cabrillo College’s Salvia Chart

Garden Photography

We photograph our gardens for many reasons: remembering and sharing our successes, documenting the history of the landscape or particular plants, or artistic expression. For any of these objectives, digital cameras enable us to take pictures that are in focus and well exposed, even when we work with little preparation.

Still, our photographs often fail to satisfy. Many of my pictures, to be quite frank, stink.

A few have turned out well, but I don’t always know why, or how to produce good pictures consistently.

Help is on the way!

The best garden photographer I know, Saxon Holt, has published his work in some 21 high-quality books on gardening. He is often listed as the author or co-author, always recognized for his photographic contributions, and frequently given awards for his work.

Holt also teaches garden photography, sharing his expertise through public talks and workshops, websites, social media, and now electronic publication. He has begun publishing ebooks in a series titled PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, and has released the first ebook in the series, “Good Garden Photography.” I wasted no time in buying a copy and learning from it.

ebook-01-good-garden-phtography-720x720

Click to Enlarge

The book has six lessons:

  • Composition 101: Fill the Frame;
  • Composition and Balance;
  • Finding the Light;
  • Garden Appreciation;
  • Provocation and Intrigue; and
  • Telling Stories.

Holt presents these lessons informally, without technical jargon. His love of gardening comes through clearly, as does his deep knowledge of photography and enthusiasm for helping gardeners to succeed in their photographic adventures.

He takes advantage of digital publication by including links to his related essays on the Internet, to expand upon the lessons of the ebook. He illustrates his lessons with selections of his photographs that are in the ebook and the linked essays.

To gain maximum benefit from Good Garden Photography, your computer should have a color display and a connection to the Internet. Holt recommends taking a break after completing each of the six lessons; that would create good opportunities to reflect on the lesson’s content, and take your camera into the garden to apply what you have learned.

In his lessons, Holt emphasizes that “the photo should suggest an underlying story, which might involve no more than an illustration of a good garden technique or the celebration of a spectacular plant. Or it might tell us something of the garden’s creator or the site’s history. Make sure you have something to say before you click the shutter.”

I agree fully with the sense of this core concept, which can elevate a photograph from a forgettable snapshot to a communication with artistic quality. I will quibble, however, with his call that each photo should have a “story.” To me, a story is a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, which would be difficult to present with a single still photograph. My word choice preference for Holt’s concept would be that for each photograph the photographer should have in mind the picture’s “message.” That would be a sufficient challenge.

The forthcoming books in the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop are as follows:

  • Think Like a Camera (due February 1 2015)
  • Think Like a Gardener (due March 1, 2015)
  • The Camera and The Computer (April 1, 2015)

Useful Links

Saxon Holt Photography Includes an enjoyable and inspiring gallery of Holt’s photographs.

The Garden Library of Saxon Holt includes Holt’s Learning Center, store for books and prints, and photo gallery.

Celebrate Plants in Summer-Dry Gardens: About plants and landscapes for climates like that of the Monterey Bay area.

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The classic question: “How does one get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” The same is true for any art form, including garden photography. Read Good Garden Photography and then reach for your camera!

 

 

Gardeners’ Groups

There are two kinds of gardeners: those who grow ornamentals and those who grow edibles.

Of course, many gardeners do both, tilting one way or the other.

I definitely favor ornamentals, but my garden includes four dwarf apple trees, a dwarf lemon tree, a rampant fig tree, a weeping mulberry, an elderberry (that I intend to remove), two small Chilean Guavas (Myrtus ugni), a California Grape (Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’, which needs pruning urgently), and a current (Ribes sanguineum ‘Barrie Coate’). I could be overlooking other edibles.

The wonderful universe of gardeners also could be dichotomized in many other ways: specialist/generalist; avid/indifferent; green thumb/brown thumb; creative/unimaginative; propagator/plant buyer; installer/designer; scheduler/procrastinator.

I will not ask, “Which one are you?” because in all likelihood the typical home gardener shows most or all of those traits at one time or another.

In fact, someone who claims to adhere to just one approach to gardening would lack credibility. We like to focus on our successes with plants and forget the failures, but a honest gardener will admit to having killed his or her share of plants, often by either over- or under-watering. One who delights in dirty hands will be found visualizing an attractive new flowerbed or landscape vignette. And one who declares affection for all plants might be unmasked as a rose aficionado, or another sort of specialist.

The plant world offers enormous ranges of opportunities and challenges, and can easily overwhelm and frustrate the gardener who attempts to embrace it all. Valuable advice is implicit in the existence of plant societies, many of which offer members the comfort of focusing on a single genus. Examples include the American Iris Society, the American Rose Society, the American Dahlia Society, etc.

For a complete list, visit the website of the American Horticultural Association.

Most national societies’ websites will include links to local chapters, so it should be possible to find a nearby group of gardeners with shared interests.

Some organizations are interested in a fairly large category of plants, e.g., the California Native Plant Society, the Pacific Bulb Society, the California Rare Fruit Growers, the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Then, there are a few umbrella groups: the National Garden Clubs, Inc.; The Garden Club of America; and The Gardeners of America/Men’s Garden Clubs of America.

Some groups include edible gardening among their interests, but interestingly there is no sign of an American Tomato Society or a Lettuce Growers of America oriented to home gardeners.

Whatever most appeals to you in gardening, you probably could find a group that shares your interest. There might not be a nearby chapter, but the organization might at least have a useful website. Check it out!