Works in Progress

One of gardening’s countless sayings is that all gardens are works in progress. That is true of my own garden. Long-time readers of this column will recall that I have been developing a drought-tolerant garden with beds representing the world’s five major dry-summer regions: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, Chile’s central coast, southwestern coast of Australia, and California’s coast.

This project involves converting an existing a nondescript landscape into a thematic garden. In addition to the five summer-dry regions, the garden includes beds devoted to roses, irises and salvias.

Despite the progressive nature of gardening, there are occasional moments to celebrate reaching certain accomplishments. After many weekends of diligent work, I can report that my helpers and I have cleared a daunting accumulation of weeds, upgraded the irrigation controllers and valves, installed drip tubing and emitters, and mulched every square foot of bare soil.

During this time-consuming process, several good plants died. Hand watering has never been my strong suit!

We have the continuing adventure of finding plants from these far-flung regions, putting them in the ground, and documenting the collections with paper records and plot diagrams.

This approach to landscaping has yielded two important realizations. First, collecting plants by dry-summer region tends to abandon all but very basic design concepts. By definition, all dry-summer plants are suitable candidates for the Monterey Bay climate. Also, the gardener can still select and place plants that have mature sizes that are right for the space. Finally, the gardener can still position the smaller plants in front and the larger plants in back.

The finer points of landscape design generally are beyond reach. This garden does not include subtly artful contrasts of leaf textures; complementary, analogous or triadic combinations of blossom colors; or a year-round schedule of blooms. It also does not include plant communities (clusters of plants that grow together in nature). Instead, each bed offers an essentially random collection of plants from a climatic region, some of which seem puzzled by their strange bedfellows.

In my view, it is interesting nevertheless.

As I gradually convert the garden to a “botanical zoo,” I have to decide the fate of plants that were included in the previous landscape but do not belong in the new landscape. I could just relocate smaller plants. Most Monterey Bay area gardens already include plants from dry-summer climates because they are good choices for the local climate.

Larger shrubs and trees are another story. I have callously removed some smaller trees, donated two huge salvias to a friend who maintains a more spacious garden, and given away many smaller perennials. Currently, I am agonizing over a thirty-foot elderberry (Sambucus cerulea?) that is shading the Australian garden.

Enjoy your own work in progress!


Here are photos of the elderberry tree in the Australian garden, and a Blue Hibiscus, one of the plants that isn’t getting all the hours of sun that they prefer.

Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) and Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii ‘Santa Cruz’)

A Plant so Rare

James Russell Lowell’s poem, “What is So Rare as a Day in June,” offers a lyrical perspective on nature, and suggests the rare (or perhaps just uncommon) plants that avid gardeners find appealing.

At the recent annual plant sale by Cabrillo College’s Horticulture Department, I picked up two that qualify as uncommon.

One is a crested iris, Iris gracilipes, the slender woodland iris from China and Japan, which is where most crested iris species grow.

The crested iris gets its name from a yellow or white crest (like the beard on a bearded iris) along the sepals (like petals). Typically, they are dwarfs, growing about eight inches tall, with violet blossoms about one or two inches across. They prefer a shady, moist spot in soil that is slightly acid. Now I need to find such a place for it in my garden.

My other uncommon treasure from the sale is a Puya venusta, which is called “Chagualillo” in Chile. I already have P. berteroniana and P. coerulea, so I could claim to be a small-scale collector of these Chilean plants. The puyas are bromeliads (pineapple family members) with spectacular blossoms. P. berteroniana, for example, has “6- to 10-foot flowering spikes of metallic, deep bluish-green flowers highlighted by vivid orange stamens.”

Who would —or another gardener—want to own a Japanese crested iris or a Chilean puya?

The obvious explanation might rest on the pleasure of dazzling garden visitors with plants they are unlikely to have seen elsewhere. In fact, one could see puyas at the Huntington Garden or the U.C. Berkeley Botanic Garden, but probably not at a garden center or most residential gardens.

Another, less vainglorious reason for growing uncommon plants is to enjoy them privately for their own sake, and to learn their cultivation.

A truly selfless motivation would be to conserve a plant genus or species that is in danger of extinction. According to California’s Department of Fish and Game (DFG), this state is home to over 6,500 species, subspecies, and varieties of native plants. Of these, 223 are designated under California law as rare, threatened, or endangered. The threat of a plant’s extinction is often based on human encroachment or destruction of the plant’s habitat.

In 1968, the California Native Plant Society began its Rare Plant Program in coordination with the DFG, to develop current and accurate information on “the distribution, ecology, and conservation status of California’s rare and endangered plants.” The CNPS generally wants such plants to thrive in their natural setting, but also endorses “conservation gardens,” as a substitute home for plants that lose their natural habitats to the relentless march of progress.


The concept of a “rare” plant could be interpreted in different ways, depending on the interpreter. California’s Department of Fish and Game does not have an official definition for a “rare” plant. California’s Fish and Game Code, however, includes definitions of “endangered” and “threatened” species, as follows:

"Endangered species" means a native species or subspecies of
a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant which is in
serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all, or a significant
portion, of its range due to one or more causes, including loss of
habitat, change in habitat, overexploitation, predation, competition,
or disease.
"Threatened species" means a native species or subspecies of
a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant that, although not
presently threatened with extinction, is likely to become an
endangered species in the foreseeable future in the absence of the
special protection and management efforts required by this chapter.

The Fish & Game Code also defines a “candidate” species:

"Candidate species" means a native species or subspecies of a
bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant that the commission
has formally noticed as being under review by the department for
addition to either the list of endangered species or the list of
threatened species, or a species for which the commission has
published a notice of proposed regulation to add the species to
either list.

Some commercial firms that sell plants will specialize in, or feature, plants that they call “rare.” Several such plant purveyors can be located by searching the Internet for “rare plants,” but whether their plants are actually rare in the sense of “not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value,” is a matter of personal opinion.

These sellers may be expected to employ a relatively inclusive definition of rarity, to avoid a situation in which their livelihood depends on many customers seeking a very small number of plants.

If a plant meets your personal definition of rareness, you can enjoy it even if it could be found in great numbers somewhere else in the world.

Example: At the San Francisco Flower & Garden a few years ago, I bought an enormous bulb of the Giant White Squill, which I had never seen. The bulb was larger than any other bulb I had encountered (they can be as large as a soccer ball, and 8-to-10 pounds), and I had no idea what a Giant White Squill might be, so it certainly qualified as rare in my lexicon.

I soon learned that the Giant White Squill is Urginea martitima, a plant that is native to the Mediterranean Basin and fairly common as a roadside volunteer. No matter: it is still a rarity in my garden.

Snails relish the plant’s large fleshy strap-like leaves, so it has had a tough time in my garden, but I am still expecting to see a flower stalk in August. It could be six feet tall!

Fondness for Foliage

At this time of the year, gardeners often become bemused by blossoms, which beautify our gardens, garden centers and garden magazines. The seasonal burst of colorful petals surely ranks among the finest rewards of gardening.

These flowers, however delightful visually and olfactorily (if that is a word), can tempt us to overlook another important element of the landscape: foliage.

One of history’s great gardeners, Christopher Lloyd, wrote, “Certain groups of plants have particularly dull and dreary foliage and depend 100 percent on their flowers to disguise the fact.” There are many examples: the entire very large Daisy family (the Compositae), dahlias, chrysanthemums, and many more.

“Dull and dreary” is a matter of opinion, of course, and Lloyd was never reticent in expressing his opinions, but when we contrast “ordinary” foliage with the alternatives we discover that the leaves of plants offer great variety and appeal, rivaling that of the flowers.

Foliage has been categorized often, with varying degrees of success. Leaves occur in so many subtly different ways that grouping them succeeds only if we accept compromises.

With that caution, foliage has been described principally in terms of two important variables: color and texture.

The principal foliage color group is green. The briefest survey of a plant collection reveals that green leaves come in many different hues of green.

Other major color groups include gold (yellow, bronze, brown, etc.); dark colors (red, purple, black); the silver, gray and blue cluster, and multicolored leaves.

Texture, the other important variable, might refer to the overall size of the leaf: bold or large, medium, fine, or lacy.

Texture might refer to leaf shape: spiky or sword-shaped, round, oval, palmate, and many other shapes.

Texture might also refer to leaf surface, which could be glossy, dull or fuzzy, smooth or crinkled. A complete description of any given leaf involves multiple characteristics that botanists have defined and that the home gardener can safely reduce to a favored few.

For the gardener, the many colors and textures of foliage represent opportunities for adding interest and beauty to landscapes, container gardens and floral arrangements.

Books and articles on gardening and floral arrangements often feature combinations that the writer finds particularly appealing. Given the variability of both flowers and foliage, an immense number of good combinations could be described. Ultimately, the best combinations reflect individual preferences.

The gardener’s practical approach to designing an aesthetically pleasing combination of flowers and foliage involves study available plants, and imagining them together with a creative eye. This also involves moving potted plants around, to see them beside potential companions. This strategy works best in garden centers, where all plants are movable.

More about foliage plants and ideas for their many uses:

Look for these books in your local bookstore or library, or search online.

The Foliage Garden: Creating Beauty Beyond Bloom, written by Angela Overy, with photographs by Rob Proctor (Harmony Books, 1993).

This book is full of good ideas for the garden. It’s a welcome alternative to the many books that lists descriptions of plants within the author’s category of interest.

Foliage, written by Harold Feinstein (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 2001).

A “coffee table” book of dramatic full-page photographs of foliage, with plain black backgrounds, plus brief essays by the author and contributors, introducing a series of topical photos.

Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture Beyond Flowers, written by Nancy J. Ondra, with photographs by Rob Cardillo.

This book provides the familiar list of plant descriptions within a category. In this case, sub-categories organize foliage plants in three color groups (gold; red to black; and silver, gray and blue) plus “Marvelous Multicolors.” This approach is quite helpful to the gardener in planning a bed.

Foliage Plants, written by Christopher Lloyd (Random House, 1985)

Christopher Lloyd (d. 2006), creator of the highly regarded estate garden, “Great Dixter,” (today, a popular public garden), was one of gardening’s gurus and a prolific writer of authoritative books on many aspects of gardening. His sharp opinions, generously offered, make reading his books amusing as well as instructive.

I am just now reading this book, so I will refer interested persons to a brief review on the website, Good Reads.

Cut Flowers, Three Ways

People, like bees, are attracted to flowers, always for beauty (and occasionally for food).

We enjoy flowers in our gardens, but we want them indoors, as well. Americans buy some ten million cut flowers a day. About eighty percent are grown outside of the United States and brought in by air, in a stunningly efficient transition from field to vase.

Amy Stewart told the story of the global flower industry in Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful (Algonquin Books, 2008). Her fascinating book explores “the startling intersection of nature and technology, or sentiment and commerce.” According to one reviewer, Flower Confidential reveals so much about the technology and chemistry of the flower biz that it “may compel us to return to something purer, more local.”

Stewart’s fellow garden writer, Debra Prinzing, responds to that vision in The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012).

Prinzing clearly favors emerging alternatives to the $40 billion dollar floriculture industry, which focuses on uniformity and durability. In her view, “factory flowers” may seem close to perfect, but they offer little or no scent, a maximum of preservatives and pesticides, and by the time they reach your vase, a relatively short life. She writes that they “have lost the fleeting, ephemeral quality of an old-fashioned, just-picked bouquet.”

The alternative she applauds is the nascent industry for producing cut flowers that are sustainably grown and locally sold. The 50 Mile Bouquet profiles a series of small-scale organic flower businesses, mostly on the west coast, and operated mostly by couples that are inspired by nature and particularly by flowers.

Prinzing explores floral design, featuring imaginative individuals who advocate “green” floral design. Their arranging supplies do not include green foam, the main ingredient of which is a known carcinogen, formaldehyde.

A chapter on “The DIY Bouquet” explores flower arranging by amateurs who love flowers, including some who prefer their flowers in the garden, arranged by nature.

The final chapters address the role of florals in celebrations & festivities, and resources for flower growers and arrangers.

The book is a feast for all who enjoy having flowers in their lives and in their gardens. It is the product of a flower lover and gifted writer (and president of the Garden Writers of America, no less). This beautiful book also includes fine photographs by David E. Perry, whose pictures capture the book’s spirit and the commitment of many flower growers and floral designers that we come to know.

My third perspective involves designing and cultivating personal cutting gardens, and “The Gardener’s Dilemma.” Read on!

One of a gardener’s dilemmas (there are several) is whether to enjoy flowers in their natural state, in the garden, or to cut them for indoor display.

George Bernard Shaw said, “I like flowers, I also like children, but I do not chop their heads and keep them in bowls of water around the house.”

He was one who prefers to enjoy flowers in the garden!

There is a solution to this dilemma: the cutting garden.

By definition, a cutting garden functions as a bloom producer. By comparison, a tropical flowerbed has the very different purpose of providing an attractive vista.
In planning a cutting garden, the gardener’s priority is to prepare an efficient growing ground, one that can be used to produce a large number of blooms with a minimum of effort.

This perspective leads the gardener firstly to selecting a site that receives at least six hours of sunlight each day, because plants that produce a lot of blossoms need full exposure to the sun.

The size of the site depends on how many flowers the gardener wishes to grow. A bed of just twenty square feet could accommodate a couple dozen plants.

An important consideration is that the bed will be fully accessible by the gardener, for preparing the soil, planting seeds or seedlings, mulching, weeding, and harvesting blooms. For good access, the bed should be no deeper than four feet, and accessible from both sides. A larger bed should have a path every four feet to provide equivalent access.

Because the cutting is intended to be productive rather than beautiful at all times, it could be located in a less prominent area of the garden.

Secondly, the soil in the cutting garden should be have soil that is not mostly sand, so it will hold moisture, and not mostly clay, so it will drain well. Stated differently, the soil should be good garden loam, with a balance of sand, clay and organic material. If your soil is less than ideal, dig in a generous measure of compost, or, for extremely poor soil conditions, consider installing raised beds and filling them with amended soil from a landscape supply outlet.

The third consideration is that the site should have easy access to water. A automatic irrigation system would be most convenient, but at least hose watering should be readily available.

Then, select plants that produce the flowers you want. A great many flowering annuals and perennials would be suitable for a cutting garden, so the selection is a personal matter. If you need suggestions, consider the nominations of Roger Cook, landscape contractor, visit the This Old House website and search for “cutting garden.”

Buy either seeds or seedlings, again depending on your preference. Seeds are less expensive; seedlings are easier and faster to grow.

Read the seed packages or plant tags to learn how large the plants will grow, how to space them, when they will bloom, and other useful information. You might want to select plants that bloom at different times, to provide cut flowers over a long period.

Place taller plants where they will not block your access or the sun’s access to the smaller plants. This might be in the middle, or on the north side of the bed.

Other placement issues to consider include grouping plants with similar sun, water and drainage needs.

After watering in the plants, plan on mulching the bed, providing regular water and weeding as needed. When the plants begin to bloom, deadhead the blossoms to enjoy them indoors and promote more blooms.

Enjoy your cutting garden.