Updating the Landscape

August might not be the best time of the year to work in your garden.

Even the Monterey Bay area’s temperate climate can be uncomfortably hot for digging (if that is among your priorities).

The early morning hours can be a fine time to keep up the chores, but using that time presumes readiness for an early start and control over the day’s schedule, which is not everyone’s situation.

Still, the lazy days of summer include opportunities for creative advances in the garden.

A priority task that is too often neglected, and could be pursued now in a timely way, is the annual assessment and adjustment of the home landscape.

The assessment process can involve a slow inspection walk through the garden, but ideally includes choosing a vantage point where a comfortable seat and a cool drink will support appraising each significant plant, and envisioning the renewal of the landscape.

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Take a little time for this important task, which can guide progress during cooler days, which are not far off, and chart longer-term improvements.

Right now is also a good time for your review of the landscape because in about two months, with optimism, we will begin our rainy season. At that time, we should have new plants in the ground, because the rains will keep them watered as they become established.

This review presents a good opportunity to recruit a fellow gardener to provide a second opinion. Invite reciprocal visits with someone who both respects the current restraints on your time and resources, and brings a creative perspective to the process.

When appraising the landscape, look for…

  • Plants that have been neglected, and consequently are struggling, dying or already dead.
  • Plants that are overgrown, and have begun intruding on walkways or crowding other plants.
  • Plants that need dividing to perform well. (Dig and replant irises this month and next.)
  • Plants that were misplaced originally, and would look better in another spot.
  • Areas that would be improved by the addition of a new plant of a particular size, blossom color or form.

The last appraisal listed above will require study to identify the right plants for addition to the garden. This could involve visits to the local garden center, or reviews of printed catalogs or websites. A neighborhood stroll is always a practical approach to finding plants that would work well in your garden and flourish your local growing conditions. When you see a desirable plant, ask the homeowner to name the plant so you could search the web for its cultivation needs.

Summarize the findings of the appraisal in a task list with target dates for needed adjustments.

Regular reviews and adjustments of your landscape will keep it looking fresh and interesting. Such reviews could be done annually, as proposed here, or at the beginning of each season.

Our gardens please us because they are alive and always changing, so gardening succeeds best when gardeners interact with Nature.

Restoring Soil

Several people commented on last week’s column on the carbon cycle. All endorsed the concept of restoring garden soil, to support its natural ability to sequester carbon.

One reader had questions about how to go about restoring garden soil. This is a Big Topic and you, good reader, might have your own questions, but you also might share his interests. My brief responses are below. Visit gardening.com for more details, including plant suggestions.

Q. Plow the grass under?

A. Losing the thirsty lawn is a good first step, because such monocultures are not appealing to wildlife. Plowing, however, could both promote re-growth of the grass and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. A better approach is to kill the grass over several sunny weeks by covering it with clear plastic (solarization), or with newspaper or cardboard (smothering).

For information on Soil Solarization for Gardens & Landscapes, visit the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management webpage on the topic. The presentation emphasizes pest control; in this context, unwanted turf grass amounts to a pest.

The California Native Plant Society has Detailed lawn removal advice.

Q. Plant different grass?

A. Yes! California native grasses can provide the basis of an attractive meadow, which is more casual than a manicured carpet of turf grass. A meadow has unique aesthetic appeal; supports a variety of wildflowers and wildlife; requires little water, infrequent mowing, and no chemicals; and helps to restore the soil.

Kids on Native Grass Lawn
JACQUELINE RAMSEYER —
BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

Lily Baker’s front yard in San Jose
features a native grass lawn.
California native grasses help restore the soil.

For information on several California native grasses, visit the Tree of Life Nursery’s web page, “Masses of Grasses.”

A very good book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien is Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs (2011).

Q. Grow more trees?

A. Absolutely! Trees and large shrubs are attractive additions to the landscape, valuable participants in the carbon cycle, and welcomed by all forms of wildlife. Invest a little research to select trees will thrive in your climate, and grow to an appropriate size for your landscape. Again, California natives are good choices.

A good introduction to California native trees and larger shrubs is available from the non-profit Nipomo Native Garden, which has produced a web page, “Native Trees for Landscaping and Wildlife.”

Q. Eliminate ground cover in favor of something with deeper roots?

A. Ground covers are any plants that hug surface or rise to any height up to four feet. Most importantly, they protect soil and soil microbiota from baking in the sun, or eroding. During the fall and winter, plant seasonal cover crops that draw nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots. Examples of such “nitrogen-fixing” plants include peas, beans, and clover. In the spring, before your cover crop sets seed, till the plants under to decompose and release their nitrogen into the soil to support the growth of other plants.

Deeper roots mean better drought-tolerance: deep-rooted plant can find moisture far below the surface. Such plants are generally preferable in the landscape, all other factors being equal.

The depth of roots varies among plants, reflecting adaptation to the plant’s environment. Among weedy grasses, for example, Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua) has roots only about right inches deep, while Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) can grow to 60 inches deep in search of water.

Infrequent, deep irrigation encourages all plants to develop deep roots and drought tolerance. A common error with automatic irrigation systems is to schedule frequent, brief periods of watering. This practice encourages shallow roots, ultimately increases overall water usage and leaves plants vulnerable to dry periods.

Q. Shallower roots?

A. The advantage of shallower roots is that plants growing in arid climates have immediate access to occasional rains. Succulent plants have adapted to such conditions by developing shallow roots and the ability to store scarce moisture in their leaves, stems or roots. For this reason, gardeners often appreciate succulent plants for both drought tolerance and landscape appeal.

The New California Garden, which we envision here, features meadow grasses and succulent plants: a good time to start is now.

Rain Gardens – Advanced Water Conservation

Most gardeners have learned that large percentages of residential water usage occur outdoors, mostly as a result of irrigating lawn grass and other plants, and have adopted water-saving practices: replacing thirsty lawn grass with naturally drought resistant perennial plants, especially California native plants, using efficient drip irrigation, and mulch. These strategies involve relatively low expense, depending on implementation.

Some gardeners have gone to the next stage of water conservation, which includes water catchment and grey water recycling. These strategies require equipment, and its installation, both of which could lead to some initial expenses. A 5,000-gallon water tank, for example, would be a substantial investment, but one pays off through long-term water savings or even fire protection.

Today’s column introduces percolation ponds as another stage of water conservation.

When we are fortunate enough to have rain, much of the water from roofs and paved areas runs to storm drains, which in the Monterey Bay area lead eventually to the sea. An efficient storm drain system avoids flooding, but often delivers pollutants into the ocean. A better approach is to direct the runoff to the soil, which filters the pollutants and leads the water into the aquifer.

This approach involves the development of a percolation pond, which is simply a low area that collects and holds runoff so that it percolates into the ground.

The principal objectives for percolation ponds are to filter runoff to minimize pollution, recharge local groundwater, and conserve water.

To include a percolation pond in your garden, find a naturally occurring low area (or create one) that is at least ten feet away from your home and any existing septic field. This separation is needed to avoid having water migrate towards your foundation, or to interfere with any utilities close to the house.

Rain Garden - Sentinel

A rain garden by a driveway in Pacific Grove. Credit Dona Johnsen Landscape Archietcture

 

gi_raingarden

A rain garden away from the (east coast?) residence. Credit: EPA:gov

 

The percolation pond should have good drainage, so that it holds water for no more than forty-eight hours. A retention pond, by contrast, holds water for longer periods, and could be designed as a water garden or bog garden.

Determine the surface area of the percolation pond to reflect the surface area of the capture area and the soil type. For example, multiple the surface area of your roof by 20% for sandy soil, 33& for loamy soil, and 45-60% for clayey soil. If you are creating a percolation pond, the bottom layer ideally should consist of about 60% sand, 20% compost and 20% topsoil. This composition would provide effective filtering of the runoff.

Then, adjust downspouts or a sump pump outlet to direct the water into the percolation pond. Depending on the situation, a bioswale could be used to direct the runoff to the percolation pond. A bioswale is a drainage course with gently sloped sides (less than six percent) and filled with vegetation, compost and/or riprap.

In areas that receive regular rainfall, the upper layer of the percolation pond can be planted with deep-rooted perennials, which can flourish under occasional deep soaking, followed by relatively dry periods. These features are called “rain gardens.”

In California, where we need to protect and restore our aquifers, and have current drought conditions, the upper layer might emphasize decorative stones, which can slow the flow of water that might otherwise overflow, and promote percolation. California native plants, once established, would do well in a percolation pond, and also provide both an attractive appearance and environmental benefits. Continue reading

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.

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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.

 

Planting Soil

Q. Can you tell me where I might order good soil to put in raised beds I recently created?  I want to be sure to have good quality and no weed seeds, etc.  I put down weed block cloth and wire to try to keep out gophers. If you have any suggestions not only about where to get it but whether it should be top soil or whether I should add compost or anything else, I’d appreciate it.   I’ll need it delivered.  And, do you know a good source for pea gravel?  Where I used to live, some places had trucks with separate compartments so they could deliver soil, rock and bark at the same time.

 Thanks for any help you can offer.  I really enjoy your column, especially about good plants to grow locally that attract birds and wildlife but don’t take much water.  I’m gradually replacing the lawn with plants that can live with no or very little added water once they are established.  If you have any particularly good sources of information about such plants, I’d love to know that also.

A. To have top soil and pea gravel delivered to your garden, you should contact a landscape supply yard  directly. If you go through a landscaping service or garden center, you will likely pay more for the same service.

I assume your garden is in Monterey County. I found just one such service in Monterey County. Here it is with two others that will deliver to Monterey County.

Tri-County Landscape Supply  Location: Elkhorn (Monterey County) No personal experience.

Aptos Landscape Supply  Location: Aptos.  A few months ago, I bought rock mulch from this place, and was pleased with the service, but a friend recently complained that they delivered top soil that was much inferior to what she had selected at the business location. Weed seeds were not a problem, but the delivery resembled fill soil. A good practice would be to examine closely any supplier’s delivery before it is unloaded.

Central Home Supply  Location: Santa Cruz. I have use this service for years and always found them fairly priced and reliable.

You might call for phone bids from each supplier. It’s also helpful to walk around a yard to see what they have to offer. These places are good sources of ideas!

Delivery charges will be based on distance, as you might expect. These services have methods to keep separate different materials in the same load. Each delivery costs, so its most efficient to include all you need now (or could store) in the same delivery.

Best wishes

Q. Thanks very much Tom.  I live in the city of Monterey.  I gather that since you didn’t mention nurseries that either they don’t sell in bulk or that they are more expensive than the places you indicated?  Would you recommend that I also get some sort of compost to add to the top soil?  I don’t have a very big yard, so don’t compost myself.

A. My comment about garden centers also applies to nurseries (which grow plants to sell to garden centers). Most nurseries are wholesale operations that leave retail sales to garden centers and places like Home Depot. The retailers all sell garden soil in bags.

Depending on how much soil you need, buying bagged soil might be less expensive than a delivery from a landscape supply yard. Landscape supply yards offer material by the cubic yard. One cubic yard equals 27 cubic feet. Garden centers offer the same materials in bags that are typically 2 cubic feet. It’s worth comparing bids.

You should ask about the content of the soil that’s available. Ideally, it would be 4-5% organic material, which is typical of good natural garden soil. If the product doesn’t include about that much organic material, it would be good to ad compost to your raised beds. Again, the best price between bagged and bulk compost will depend on the amount that you need.

Hellebores for Winter Color

One of my favorite plants for this time of the year is the hellebore, which decorates the garden with fascinating blossoms just when the spring bloomers are dormant.

The hellebore thrives and blossoms in partial shade, making it a welcome complement to ferns and other plants that we value only for their foliage.

The genus Helleborus includes about twenty species, the great majority of which are native to the Balkan Peninsula (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia) or the Mediterranean region. The generic name comes from Greek words for “to injure” and “food,” indicating that ll parts of the plant are poisonous to humans. It also has medicinal uses.

Hellebores typically have dark, shiny evergreen leaves with finely serrated edges. The blossoms have been compared to roses, and some popular names for the plant include “rose,” but the hellebore is not related to the rose.

The most highly regarded and poplar species are Corsican Hellebore (H. argutifolius), Stinking Hellebore (H. foetidus), Christmas Rose (H. niger), Livid Lenten Rose (H. lividus), and the original Lenten Rose (H. orientalis).

A large and growing number of hybrids offer many pleasing blossom colors, color combinations and forms. The hybrid forms in the H. x sternii ‘Blackthorn Group’, which combines H. argutifolius and H. lividus, are particularly valued.

Local nurseries often offer at least a few different hellebores at this time of the year, when they are in bloom. Gardeners looking for particular blossom colors are well advised to buy plants in bloom, as some hybrids will produce unexpected colors.

Hellebores typically have downward-facing blossoms, which encourage some gardeners to plant hellebores in an elevated situation, so the viewer can peer into the blossom. In response to gardeners desire to see the blossom’s interior, hybridizers have developed cultivars with more upward-facing blossoms. Ernie and Marietta O’Bryne, of Northwest Garden Nursery, have developed highly regarded hybrid hellebores, including the Winter Jewels series. Their work was featured in the November/December issue of The American Gardener.

A good retail source of these hybrid hellebores is Plant Delights Nursery, in North Carolina. Browse to www.plantdelights.com and search for “Helleborus.” Other mail order sources for these plants include Gossler Farms Nursery and Joy Creek Nursery, both in Oregon.

Most hellebores grow to about fifteen inches high and wide. A few are in the nine-to-twelve inch high category. My garden includes a large swath of the Corsican Hellebore, the largest species, growing to four feet tall and wide. It is just coming into bloom now, with greenish blossoms.

Corsican Hellebore buds

Corsican Hellebore (click to enlarge)

The Corsican Hellebore is one of just four caulescent species of Helleborus, meaning plants that have leaves on flowering stems. The acaulescent species develop basal leaves, and flower stalks without leaves.

In the late winter or early spring, the Corsican Hellebore’s long-lasting flowers fade and the stems lean to the ground to drop their seeds away from the base of the plant. (I get a lot of seedlings each year!) The gardener’s task at that time is to cut the flowering stems to the ground, to make room for the new growth, which has already begun.

I have been adding additional hellebore cultivars to my garden, and enjoying the smaller varieties and the range of blossom colors they provide.

If you have a partially shaded area in your garden, perhaps under a large tree, and would appreciate seeing interesting blossoms during the late fall and early winter, try a few hellebores.

Lose the Lawn

One the best gardening strategies to prepare for future droughts—and achieve additional benefits—is to replace your lawn with any of several landscape designs.

Lawns, and especially front yard lawns, began as a mark of affluence, because mowing a lawn was once a labor-intensive (and therefore costly) session with a scythe. A skilled scythe-wielding worker can be impressively efficient, but for most workers, including the homeowner with an up-to-date lawnmower, mowing a lawn is a tedious and repetitious task. The homeowner’s reward for a well-maintained lawn can include pride of ownership.

A lawn does more than display the homeowner’s wealth. It also serves as the base for widely accepted front-yard designs, the principal one of which has been called the Contractor’s Landscape. This consists of a shallow bed of reliable small shrubs next to the house, followed by turf grass to the curb. This design is quick and cheap to install, and inoffensive.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, the lawn provides a resting place for the eye as the viewer focuses on individual trees, shrubs and blossoms. The lawn is a neutral swatch of greenery, contrasting carpet-like with the relatively busy landscape.

But consider the negative aspects of the lawn.

  • Maintaining a good-looking lawn requires much more effort, water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides than alternative landscapes.
  • Two-cycle lawnmowers pollute the air about ten times as much as a car, and add noise pollution as well. Electric mowers are better, but they also impact the environment. Push mowers are best for the environment, the lawn and the homeowner.
  • Lawns are the homeowner’s version of monoculture, growing just one crop over an area. This practice might seem efficient, but to the wildlife, it’s a wasteland with very little food or water and no shelter at all.
  • Lawns might be valued for recreation, but in reality often have minimal use (except for maintenance). Other landscape designs could be more inviting and supportive of outdoor activities.

If these factors encourage you to consider losing your lawn, it’s time to look into the many possible alternatives. Begin with Sunset magazine’s “21 Inspiring Lawn-free Yards” <www.sunset.com/garden/earth-friendly/lose-the-lawn-low-water-landscaping>. This webpage offers a slideshow of attractive options to contemplate.

For more in-depth information, visit Evelyn J. Hadden’s extensive website, “Less Lawn, More Life,” or look for her book, “Beautiful No-Mow Lawns: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives’ (Timber Press, 2012).

Another fine resource on this topic is book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien: Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices andDesigns (

Another helpful resource is the Lawn Reform Coalition, which is “all about reducing or replacing lawn, water-wise lawn species and eco-friendly care for all lawns.” Visit the Coalition’s website for information on all aspects of lawn alternatives.

“Lose the lawn” emphasizes the loss of a familiar element of the landscape. “Lawn alternatives” suggests a more appealing idea, one that opens our thinking about creative approaches to the landscape and new resources in the home environment.

Think of the possibilities!