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

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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

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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!

Top Ten Tasks for Fall

Our gardens have had some rain—and a promise for more this season—so we can now pursue “regular” gardening and think other good thoughts!

There are no exciting new developments or flights of imagination in this week’s column. Instead, here’s a review of steps to take in the fall to ensure gardening success in the spring.

  1. Feed your soil. As plants grow, they consume the soil’s nutrients, so the gardener should restore the soil by adding partially decomposed organic material. For an inactive bed, dig in a three-to-four inch layer of compost; for an active bed, provide the same layer as a top dressing.
  2. Mulch your beds. Cover any bare soil in the garden with organic or inorganic mulch to conserve moisture and discourage weed growth. For large areas, call your local tree service for a load of coarse wood chips, which break down slowly and are typically free.
  3. Plant spring flowering bulbs. There’s still time to create a delightful display. Online sources and garden centers are running low, but look for bargains. Even second-choice bulbs produce fine spring flowers.
  4. Wait to do clean up until spring. Leave faded perennials and grasses in place for now to decorate the garden and provide habitats for beneficial insects. Cut them back when you see signs of new growth in the spring.
  5. Plant perennials. Continue adding plants to the garden any time before frost. To avoid compacting the soil, let any rain soak in well before working or walking on the soil .
  6. Sow wildflower seeds. If you have enough garden space for even a patch of wildflowers, sow a small packet of mixed wildflower seeds. If you have a larger space, sow more seeds! This project is easy, inexpensive and very satisfying for the gardener, and great for the wildlife.
  7. Make notes on planting for fall color next spring. A little planning during the quiet days of the fall could support next spring’s installation of plants that will provide fall color and seed heads for the birds. A beautiful garden in the late summer and early fall requires a bit of study to identify and locate plants that will fit well into the landscape and put on a pleasing show.
  8. Control slugs and snails. The fall presents time for defensive action against the brown snail (Cantareus asperses), a significant pest in many gardens. Snails can reproduce on a year-round schedule, so the fall is a good opportunity for control only because other tasks are less pressing, and we want to give the new spring growth a chance to flourish. A reliable approach is picking snails by hand and dropping them into water with a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol. Other methods: lure them into shallow pools of cheap beer, or send your pet duck after them.
  9. Compost your tree leaves. Leaves that fall from your trees are not trash, but “gardener’s gold,” an excellent and free source of pre-compost. You might feel the need to rake your leaves into a pile (not everyone does), so the next steps will define your gardening priorities. One option is to wrestle them into trash bags, which is not a simple step on the way to the landfill. The preferred option is to shred the leaves to speed decomposition and add them to your compost pile. To shred the leaves, use a bagging lawn mower or a purchased or rented leaf shredder.
  10. Collect seeds. Watch for seed heads to form on your favored plants, cut the flowering stems at the base, drop them into a paper grocery sack that you have carefully saved, and let them dry for a week. They are then ready to sow in the garden, with or without the stems. If desired, separate the seeds from the chaff for storage or sharing.

You might know additional tasks that would ready your garden for winter, but these ten steps would be good preparation for a glorious spring season. Gardening is about the future.

Small Gardening

The gardening world has been buzzing about small gardens. Interest in this topic might reflect a trend toward a preference for smaller properties or a growing desire among gardeners to limit the time and energy they commit to gardening.

A small garden could be the entirety of a small property or an area within a large property. A large property might include several small gardens (sometimes called “rooms”) or one small garden plus undeveloped space, or something between those extremes.

In either case, the goal for small gardening should be quality gardening.

“We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives—do less, and do it better.” — Dale E. Turner

(I don’t recognize the person who said that, but I agree with the sentiment.)

When developing a small garden, all the usual criteria for plant selection and cultivation apply: ensure that the soil is fertile, friable and well drained, and choose plants that are appropriate for the garden’s climate, sun exposure and prevailing winds.

Basic landscaping design ideas are important in a smaller garden.

  • Repeat a limited number of plant varieties, and just two or three flower colors. A random collection of plants and a rainbow of blossoms can be confusing, in a design sense, while repetition provides a coherent an ultimately more pleasing effect. Carefully planned combinations of foliage colors also can work well, especially when planting succulents, which are available in many interesting colors.
  • Place the taller plants in back. This is my favorite — and simplest —landscaping design concept. Following it requires care in plant selection. The first level of research is to read the label, which should indicate the plant’s mature height and width. If necessary, use the plant’s botanical name to look it up on the Internet, or in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, or another plant reference book.

If a plant grows beyond your expectations, move it to a more appropriate location. If it’s too big to move, it may be time for “shovel pruning.” Replace that overgrown treasure with a better choice.

  • Use curves and different elevations to add interest. If your small garden space is basically an uninteresting flat rectangle, consider introducing a curved path around a naturalistic mound.

In addition, three broad guidelines come to mind.

First, specify a theme beyond “small size.” The garden might focus on a genus (rose, iris, clematis, etc.), a category of plants (succulents, white blossoms, herbs), a plant community (California natives, South African bulbs, aquatic plants) or any other theme of interest. A theme provides coherence to the garden and a systematic approach to plant selection.

Second, provide a story line for visitors. The garden planner could guide a visitor’s attention by establishing a focal point: a well-placed, exceptional plant, a piece of garden art, or a water feature, etc. After that initial impression, the gardener or discrete signs might encourage a visitor to examine a series of specimen plants. A rose garden, for example, might showcase several hybrid teas or species roses for comparison.

Finally, plan the maintenance of the small garden for close inspection. No garden looks good when unkempt, but a neglected small garden can be particularly unsatisfying to both the gardener and the visitor. While fallen leaves, a forgotten watering hose and a few weeds can be tolerated in a large, sprawling garden, a small garden should be raked and pruned and tidied regularly. By virtue of being small, it should also be manageable.

The small garden is to a large garden as a sonnet is to free verse.

A small garden can yield big enjoyment!

Low Maintenance Gardening

There are two ways to achieve a low-maintenance landscape.

In the Anti-gardening Approach, the garden owner covers the soil with an inorganic material. Concrete has been widely used for this purpose; permeable concrete, which allows water to seep through into the ground, is gaining popularity. Other possibilities include asphalt concrete (“blacktop”), brick, flagstones, and other materials that provide a firm surface. Pebbles or lava rock over landscape fabric might be used for a loose surface.

But to enjoy a display of living plants, it is necessary to engage in actual gardening.

The Low-maintenance Approach describes a living garden that requires less time for repetitive tasks like watering, mowing, edging, weeding, replacing failed plants, etc. Here are four important steps toward low-maintenance gardening.

  1. Know your garden’s soil

Soil chemistry. An important measure of soil chemistry is pH, which indicates the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Soil pH influences the solubility of nutrients. It also affects the activity of microorganisms responsible for breaking down organic matter and most chemical transformations in the soil. Soil pH thus affects the availability of several plant nutrients.”

Soil pH is measured on a range from 0 to 14. The highest acidity earns the lowest rating. In the Monterey Bay area, most soils test around 6.5 to 7, a neutral rating that is best for most plants. Some plants, e.g., rhododendrons, prefer a slightly acidic soil and would need special fertilizers and soil amendments to thrive. Changing soil chemistry even a little can be difficult, so a low-maintenance plan for neutral soil simply would not include “acid-loving” plants.

A laboratory test could reveal a garden’s other soil chemistry issues, like a lack of important nutrients, but in this area the soil chemistry usually will be within a neutral range and not a problem.

Soil Composition. The inorganic part of an ideal garden soil, or loam, would be about 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay. This composition balances water drainage and water retention, and supports the development of plant roots.

In addition, this ideal soil will have organic material, i.e., decomposed animal and vegetable matter, amounting to 3 to 5% of the total volume.

If your soil has a higher percentage of any of the inorganic components, try digging in generous amounts of organic material, i.e., your choice of compost. Avoid adding sand or clay! If adding compost doesn’t help, consider building raised beds or creating mounds and importing topsoil.

Some plants will thrive in relatively poor soils. Coastal plants, for example, often will do well in sandy soils, so a low-maintenance response to less-than-ideal garden soil would be to select plants that are adapted to the soil that is native to the garden.

  1. Know your garden’s climate and microclimates.

A typical garden could have shady areas and sunny areas, low areas that are often soggy, and spots that seem to catch whatever winds might be blowing. The gardener should become familiar with each of the garden’s planting beds. These microclimates will vary predictably with the time of the day and the time of the year, and contribute greatly to plant development. The gardener cannot modify these conditions, so the low-maintenance strategy is to select plants that are adapted to the conditions that exist in a given planting bed. This is the essence of the “right plant in the right place.”

  1. Know your area’s seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns.

Gardeners who have lived through the Monterey Bay area’s seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall might note variations from normal patterns (like this year’s rain deficit), but still need to coordinate their gardening plans with those cycles.

The early spring, when plants produce fresh green growth and colorful blossoms might motivate trips to the local garden center to collect new annuals and perennials and a surge of planting activity. While spring can be a delightful time in the garden, low-maintenance gardening has two other seasons of greater importance.

The summer months are important because central California has a “summer-dry” climate, which has also been called a Mediterranean climate. During the summer, plants that are adapted to this climate will become dormant and survive the dry spell naturally, but plants from many other climatic areas will need supplementary irrigation. The low-maintenance approach for this area is to favor plants from summer-dry climates.

The most readily available and ecologically appropriate plants in this category are those that are native to coastal California, but many more good choices are plants from other summer-dry climates: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, the southwestern coast of Australia and the central coast of Chile.

An alternative collection of, for example, tropical plants would necessitate a high-maintenance approach to gardening. Some gardeners might be willing to take on additional work to enjoy exotic plants.

The rainy months are the second season of importance to the low-maintenance gardener. In the Monterey Bay area, this season normally runs from mid-October to mid-April. The low-maintenance strategy is to install new plants just before the onset of the rainy season so that Nature will keep them irrigated as they establish roots and prepare for above ground growth when the temperatures rise.

  1. Know your plants

Good familiarity with the planting bed’s soil and microclimate, and the garden’s annual precipitation and temperature cycles helps the gardener to select and install plants that will succeed in a specific location with minimum of effort.

There are more strategies in low-maintenance gardening, of course. Effective control of weeds, for example, can reduce significantly the gardening workload. The four strategies in this column can help you to make good progress in that direction.

Enjoy your garden!

Sidebar

Most local garden centers and nurseries offer a selection of California native plants. For a helpful list, visit the Water Awareness website.

On the web, visit Native Again Landscape and scroll down to the link for California Native Plant Nurseries.

The California Native Plant Society is a great resource for gardeners. Clink on “Local Chapters” for links to the Monterey and Santa Cruz chapters.

Garden Plants on the Move (Moving Trees & Shrubs)

Autumn in the garden is a good time to prepare for relocating shrubs or trees that would look or grow better in a different location.

If the thought of moving a shrub or tree troubles you, recognize that even good plants need not be permanent. Here are some reasons for moving a healthy shrub or tree.

  • The tree or shrub has grown so large it’s crowding a walkway or other plants.
  • Other nearby plants have grown so large that they are shading a plant that needs sun.
  • Other nearby plants are now gone, exposing a plant that needs shade.
  • The tree or shrub is needed elsewhere in the landscape.
  • The gardener wishes to install a new feature, and the tree or shrub is in the way.
  • The gardener has wishes to establish a thematic plant bed where an off-theme tree or shrub is growing.

When preparing to relocate a plant, first decide on where it will go. Examine the new location to ensure that it is the right place for this particular plant. Confirm that the soil is suitable, the drainage is good, and the exposure it right for the plant. Finally, make certain that the new spot could accommodate the plant when it is fully grown. Then, dig a hole twice the width of the intended root ball.

Ideally, prune the roots to protect against transplant shock. This involves digging a trench around the plant, outside the intended root ball, refilling the trench and watering to settle the soil. Root-prune in March for plants to be moved in October, and in October for plants to be moved in March.

Then, plan how to move the plant, taking its size into consideration.

Small Shrubs and Trees

For a shrub less than three feet tall, or a tree with a trunk is less than one inch wide, you could move it bareroot, i.e., without digging up a root ball. To move such a smaller plant bareroot, dig a trench around it, cutting the longer roots, wash the soil off the lateral roots, and use a flat shovel to remove the soil under the plant. Keep the roots moist until you are ready to transplant.

Not-so-small Shrubs and Trees

If you are preparing to move a plant that is between three and five feet high, decide how large a root ball to provide. For industry standards for transplanting different plants of various sizes, visit the website, americanhort.org and search for “root ball.” For example, moving a five-foot tree or shrub requires an eighteen-inch wide root ball. A root ball of that size could weigh 250 pounds, so plan for the appropriate equipment and helpers.

Larger Shrubs and Trees

Most gardeners will hire a tree service to move a tree or shrub that is larger than five feet high. If you prefer to do such work yourself, I will say “best wishes,” and predict that you will have professionals do your next transplant.

Really Large Trees

Even very large trees—up to forty-five feet high—can be moved successfully, if not cheaply. The widely available tree spade uses an array of large shovels to dig a conical divot to pluck a plant from the ground, and deposit it in a matching hole. For video clips of tree spades in various sizes, browse to YouTube.com and search for “tree spade.” To see an interesting DIY device, search YouTube for “Tree Toad 24 inch Tree Transplanter.”

Tree Spade

A mechanized tree spade makes transplanting large bushes and small or medium trees a much easier proposition. Photo: Dutchman Industries

 

A newer technology for moving larger plants is the “air tool,” which uses compressed air to blow soil away from a tree’s roots. This bareroot method avoids pruning or breaking the roots, so the plant experiences little trauma and quickly resumes its usual growth cycle. To see a brief video demo of the air tool, visit growingwisdom.com, click on “Trees & Shrubs” and scroll to the link, “How to Move Large Trees Using an Air Tool.”

After moving a tree or shrub, transplanting herbaceous perennials is easy!