Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)

Western tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) nectaring on Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla)

Nothing is more enchanting than the appearance of large butterflies in our gardens. July is typically a busy butterfly month, but we’ve been watching the Western Tiger Swallowtails since spring.  If you live in the western United States you may be enjoying them as well.   To learn more about attracting butterflies to your garden see our June 2012 posting (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/butterfly-gardens.html ).

The Western Tiger Swallowtail ranges through much of western North America from N. Dakota south to New Mexico; west from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico. The species is similar to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) of eastern N. America and is found mostly between sea level and 5000 ft. (1500 m.).  The tiger swallowtails were formerly included in the genus Pterourus. 

Many westerners recognize this butterfly on sight - it’s large, distinctively colored and relative common. While actually at home in riparian woodlands and stream sides, it’s not unusual to see these butterflies in gardens and city parks.  One thing is certain: you’re more likely to see them in places that have food for their larva (caterpillars): Willows, Cottonwoods, California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) and ash (Fraxinus spp.).  That’s why we have so many Tiger Swallowtails in Mother Nature’s Backyard.

Two other swallowtail species visit western Los Angeles county gardens (see above).  The Giant Swallowtail is a large black butterfly with a prominent yellow triangle on its open wings.  The Anise Swallowtail, common in some neighborhoods,  looks like a large yellow butterfly wearing a set of heavy black shoulder-pads with 3 short yellow stripes.  The Pale Swallowtail, which has similar markings to the western tiger swallowtail, is black and white (rather than black and yellow) and is rare in gardens.

Western Tiger Swallowtails are large butterflies.  Their wingspan can be as much as 2 ¾ to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm), making them one of the largest butterflies in many western gardens. Females are larger than males, but otherwise similar in appearance.  They are brightly colored, predominantly yellow and black, with spots of blue and red/orange.  The wings are striped like a tiger – four black stripes on yellow - on both the upper and under surface.  The margins of both fore- and hind wings are edged in black with yellow dashes.
Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)
The hind-wings have ‘tails’ reminiscent of the tail of a swallow – hence the common name ‘Swallowtail’. The lower inner margins of the hind-wings have a dot of blue and orange (some individuals may have additional blue spots, particularly on the underside of wings). The head and body (thorax and abdomen) are striped yellow and black. The antennae are knobbed (not hooked) at the tip. You can get a good look/photo of these butterflies as they sun or nectar, often with their wings spread.      More excellent photos are available  at: http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Papilio-rutulus and http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/lepidopt/papilio/tiger.htm .
While limited to summer in colder climates,  Tiger Swallowtails fly from January through September/October (even all year) in warm S. California sites.  You may note that spring-flying individuals are slightly smaller and paler than their summer counterparts.  But they still are distinctively Tiger Swallowtails.
It’s not uncommon to see males patrolling back and forth through the garden, searching for receptive females.  In the wild, males congregate at shallow pools or damp ground to drink and obtain dissolved minerals. This behavior (termed ‘puddling’) is not often observed in gardens, in large part due to a lack of suitable damp ground.  Males also feed on carrion and dung.  And both male and female adults visit a wide range of flowers to obtain nectar (food). 
Females lay eggs on the leaves of host plants (plants that provide larval food).  The eggs, which are shiny, round and deep green, are laid singly on the undersides of leaves. A female produces approximately 100 eggs in her lifetime.   If you are fortunate, you may witness a female laying eggs.  She curves her abdomen down, releases a sticky egg and deposits it on the leaf. The tiny caterpillar (larva) emerges 4-5 days later.  Ah, the miracle of life!
Tiger Swallowtail larvae go through five life stages (instars) before they pupate (form a chrysalis or cocoon).  They molt between each stage, growing an entirely new exoskeleton to fit the growing, changing caterpillar.  During the early stages, when the larvae are small, they look like a bird dropping – a deterrent to birds and others that might want to eat them.  For pictures of Western Tiger Swallowtail larvae see: http://butterfliesofamerica.com/papilio_rutulus_immatures.htm and http://www.wildutah.us/html/butterflies_moths/papilionidae/h_b_papilio_rutulus_immatures.html
Later stage instars are bright green with a pair of large eyespots, resembling eyes, at the tail end.   This protective coloring also serves to camouflage and fool  predators.  The larvae also possess another potent weapon.  They can raise a brightly colored (and foul smelling) forked organ called the osmeterium (‘stink horn’) from behind the head. The sight and smell of a raised osmeterium are enough to frighten off many potential predators.  
Tiger Swallowtail larvae eat leaves, grow and poop – that’s what caterpillars do!  The larval food plants vary somewhat from place to place but always include willows (Salix species), Cottonwoods and Aspen (Populus species) and Ash (Fraxinus species).  In California, additional native plant sources include the California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa), plants in the Cherry Family (Prunus species), Birches (Betula species) and Alders (Alnus species).  The larvae usually live high in trees and shrubs and are seldom seen by humans.
Western Tiger Swallowtails have 2-3 broods in warm coastal S. California (only one in colder areas).  Summer larvae progress through their development rapidly – sometimes as quickly as 15-20 days from egg to butterfly. Summer broods tend to be the largest.  Late (fall) broods over-winter in the chrysalis in many areas.  As an aid to camouflage, the summer chrysalids are bright green while the fall/winter ones are brown to blend in with surrounding wood.   Butterflies emerge from the winter chrysalids from January through spring, depending on the ambient temperature.
Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) sunning on Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia)
Watching butterflies in the garden is a fascinating hobby.  It’s inexpensive, you don’t have to travel and you can learn a great deal about the natural world. You may even discover something new about insect behavior!  All you really need are patience and a comfortable place to sit; a camera and binoculars are also useful tools. 
Here are some simple things you can do to make a home for Western Tiger Swallowtails

  1. Plant their favored plants. 

Adult (nectar) plants (relatively simple to provide)

·        California native plants: California buckeye (Aesculus californica); native dogbanes (Apocynum species); native Milkweeds (Asclepias fascicularis; A. eriocarpa; A. speciosa); native Milkvetches (Astragalus species); Cobwebby thistle (Cirsium occidentale); Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon spp.);    Dunn’s Lobelia (Lobelia dunnii  var. serrata); perennial Mints (Monardella lanceolata ; M. linoides; M. macrantha; M.  villosa); Penstemons; Salvias (especially Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylla, in our garden); Wooly blue-curls (Trichostema lanatum)

·        Other garden plants:   abelia, agastache, butterfly bush (Buddleia), lilac, lillies, mints, zinnia

Larval (host) plants (require a little planning)

·       California native plants: cottonwoods, poplars and willows are too big and invasive for most yards.  Try instead native White alder (Alnus rhombifolia), native Prunus species like Hollyleaf & Catalina Island cherries (Prunus ilicifolia), Desert Peach (Prunus andersonii), Desert Almond (Prunus fasciculata), Desert Apricot (Prunus fremontii), native plums and Western chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. demissa) and California ash (Fraxinus dipetala).

·        Other garden plants: anything in Prunus family (cherries; plums; peaches; nectarines; apricots)

  1. Use pesticides sparingly – or not at all.  Practicing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a safer, greener approach to managing garden pests.  Keep plants healthy, use simple preventive measures and use chemical pesticides only as a last resort.   To protect pollinators, never apply pesticides to blooming plants.  For more see: http://www.xerces.org/pesticides/ 
  2. Provide a source of water.  This doesn’t need to be large or sophisticated.  We use glazed clay saucers (like you put under pots) filled with garden soil, gravel and water.  You’ll need to add water daily in warm weather.  If you’re clever, you could probably adapt a hose-fed birdbath dripper to provide water during the day.
  3. Provide sunny, safe places for sunning.  Butterflies need warm, safe places to perch and warm themselves.  Tiger Swallowtails prefer to perch on leaves -  most shrubs with medium to large leaves are fine.  The area should be sunny and out of wind if possible.
  4. Encourage your neighbors to follow butterfly-friendly practices in their yards. 
    Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) nectaring on Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla)
We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about Western Tiger Swallowtail or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Plant of the Month (July) : Guadalupe Island rock daisy - Perityle incana

Guadalupe Island rock daisy (Perityle incana; yellow)
in Mother Nature's Backyard

The between-season periods can be a challenge for those who love color.  That’s why season spanners like Perityle incana, with their long bloom period, are so appreciated by local native plant gardeners.  While Perityle incana technically doesn’t hail from California, it’s a water-wise sunflower (family Asteraceae) that’s often included among the California natives.

Guadalupe Island rock daisy is endemic to Isla Guadalupe, an island off the northern coast of Baja California.  The Baja Channel Islands (including Isla Guadalupe) have an interesting relationship with California.  In fact, they share a complex geologic history, full of movement, volcanic eruptions and more.  To learn about the geology of the California coast we recommend: http://www.nps.gov/chis/photosmultimedia/models-of-change-geology.htm

Northern Baja California (including the northern Baja Channel Islands) represents the southernmost extent of the California Floristic Province, an important biodiversity hotspot.  The coastal islands themselves are home to many unique species and sub-species, in large part due to their long separation from the mainland.    For more on the California Floristic Province see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Floristic_Province and http://www.calacademy.org/exhibits/california_hotspot/overview.htm.

Guadalupe Island rock daisy grows in the washes, canyons and bluffs of Guadalupe Island.   Guadalupe is a 100 square mile volcanic island located approximately 150 miles from the Baja coast.  It’s home to 34 unique plant species as well as endemic birds and invertebrates.  Among the plants are unique pines, cypress and oak in addition to smaller plants.  Severely degraded by goats, Isla Guadalupe is the current focus of conservation efforts by several organizations.  For more see: http://iws.org/CISProceedings/6th_CIS_Proceedings/Oberbauer.pdf

Growth form: Guadalupe Island rock daisy (Perityle incana)

Guadalupe Island rock daisy is a shrubby perennial or half-woody sub-shrub.  It grows to 2-3 ft. (< 1 m) tall and 3-5 ft wide, making it an excellent size for the garden. Mature plants are irregularly mounded in shape (see above).  The plant is adaptable, filling in around other shrubs.  

Like another island endemic, the Catalina Silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii from California’s Santa Catalina Island), Perityle incana is probably best known for its light colored foliage.  While Catalina Silverlace is truly white, Perityle incana is more often a silvery green in the garden setting. 

The two species share several other characteristics, making them confusing to the beginning gardener.  They both have a mounded shape (though the Silverlace is more spreading) and have superficially similar leaves.  As shown in the photo below,  Perityle incana is best described as ‘feathery’ (deeply incised), while Constancea foliage is truly ‘fern-like’ or ‘lacy’ (bipinnately divided).  Once you see the two together, the differences become more apparent.

Foliage of Perityle incana (left) and Catalina Silverlace (Constancea/Eriophyllum nevinii) (right)

The flowers of Guadalupe Island rock daisy brighten any garden.  Blooming off and on throughout the year, the main bloom season is spring-summer.  We’ve seen blooms as early as April and as late as the end of July in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  The flowers are clustered in sunflower ‘heads’ that lack conspicuous ray flowers (the ‘petals’ of sunflower heads).  In fact, the flower heads are similar to the male Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia), but a bright golden yellow.  The flowering heads occur in clusters above the foliage – very decorative indeed!

Flowers: Guadalupe Island rock daisy (Perityle incana)

Guadalupe Island rock daisy tolerates full sun along the coast.  But give it some afternoon shade further inland – it’s adapted to slightly cooler temperatures.  It naturally grows in well-drained rocky/sandy soils, but will tolerate clay-loams or even clay with judicious watering.  

Along the immediate coast, Perityle incana may get by with no summer irrigation. But remember that its native climate is more humid than the S. California mainland.  In most areas it will need occasional summer water.  In Mother Nature’s Backyard (summer temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s F.; clay soil) we treat it as Water Zone 1-2, watering every 4-6 weeks in summer.

Frost damage to Perityle incana. Note new growth after ~ 5 weeks.

In local gardens, Perityle incana is sometimes exposed to moderately low temperatures.  The species is frost-tender, affected by temperatures in the mid- to low 30’s F.; this is not a plant for areas with regular winter frosts.  If frost is predicted, you can water the day before and/or cover the plant with an old sheet to protect it.  If frost damage occurs, resist the urge to prune immediately.   For more on frost damage see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/02/frost-damage-dont-prune-yet.html.
Other than the frost sensitively, Guadalupe Island rock daisy is easy to garden with.  It’s best neglected except for removing unsightly spent flower stalks (after the birds have eaten the seeds) and pruning back by 1/3 in the fall to keep it youthful and shapely.   Given the right sun and water conditions this is a dependable garden plant that blooms like clockwork in spring.

Use Perityle incana where its light foliage contrasts with other shrubs; it’s a great substitute for the non-native ‘Dusty Miller’ (Senecio cineraria).   Guadalupe Island rock daisy is often grown with native sages (Salvia species) and buckwheats (Eriogonum species) which have similar cultural requirements; it is particularly lovely with the Red Buckwheat (for more see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/07/plant-of-month-july-red-buckwheat.html).   

Perityle incana (yellow flowers) with Red buckwheat (Eriogonum grade var. rubescens)
 in Mother Nature's Backyard

Guadalupe Island rock daisy would also look nice paired with evergreen Toyon, Lemonadeberry, Ceanothus species, manzanitas and other water-wise green shrubs.  Its yellow flowers work well with many color schemes: yellow-blue; warm colors (red, oranges, yellows); pastels.  We grow annual spring wildflowers around it to provide off-season color.

Guadalupe Island rock daisy (Perityle incana): mature plant

Some gardeners grow Perityle incana in a rock garden or dry stone wall – or at least next to a decorative garden boulder.  This is similar to conditions in the wild.  It is recommended for dry slopes. The plants also do fine in large pots/containers.  In fact, gardeners in colder climates have been known to bring containerized plants indoors during cold periods. 

Another good reason to plant Perityle incana is for its habitat value.  Many pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds, visit this plant for pollen and nectar. In the fall, songbirds eat the seeds.   So you get a long season of wildlife viewing.   If you enjoy watching/photographing wildlife you’ll want to place this plant in a convenient viewing location.   Your summer vegetable garden will also benefit from the additional pollinators.

In summary, Perityle incana is a lovely and interesting plant that almost disappeared in the wilds.  Its light foliage adds interest to the garden; and the yellow flowers provide welcome color from spring into summer.   We hope you’ll consider adding this plant to your water-wise – and life-friendly – S. California garden.

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Monday, June 30, 2014

Designing Your New California Garden: 11. Creating a Design Plan, part 1

In the next few months you’ll be creating a design plan for your new garden.  This month we provide background information and apply some design basics to selecting hardscape elements.  Next month we’ll discuss some additional design principles and use them to create a planting design.   If you’re just joining the ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ series, we suggest starting at the beginning (July 2013 - http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/07/designing-your-new-california-garden-1.html) and working forward.  The monthly activities will help you design an attractive, functional, sustainable and water-wise garden.




The idea of designing a beautiful and interesting garden may intimidate you.  Don’t worry – that scary feeling will diminish as you work on your Garden Design Plan.  If you’re designing the garden yourself, realize that garden design is a creative process that takes time.   We’ll walk you through the steps, but give yourself plenty of time to plan – and revise your plans.  Good garden designs have usually gone through several months of revisions and reality checks.

Fortunately, it’s actually easier to design a New CA Garden than it is to design the old variety of California garden.  What gives a New CA Garden its foundation is the use local native plants and materials.  In fact, selecting a plant palette from your local Native Plant Community(s) is the easiest way to design a garden that meets many of the elements of good garden design (discussed next month).

Hiring a Landscape Designer (optional)

You don’t have to hire a landscape designer – trust us, you can design your own garden.  In some ways, you are the most qualified; you intimately know the site, the climate, the family preferences and garden requirements.  You have done the background work that allows you to place functional areas appropriately.  You’ve  collected examples that you can adapt to your garden.   So yes, you can design your own garden.  You’ll have the fun and satisfaction of doing so, and save money as well.

If you want to do the design yourself – but would like a little help – consider taking a garden design workshop through your local native plant nursery or native plant garden.  Many native plant nurseries offer short (several sessions) workshops specifically for homeowners.  Taught by experienced native plant designers, these workshops can be a tremendous value.  The teacher helps students design their own gardens – in fact, most students ‘graduate’ with at least a rough design.  Participants benefit from learning about other gardens and interacting with like-minded gardeners.   Many have found these workshops invaluable, fun and well worth the cost.

Design workshops are available locally through the Theodore Payne Foundation, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and the Madrona Marsh Preserve (310-782-3989).   Madrona Marsh’s ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ workshop requires that you to complete the exercises in this series (sessions 1 though 10) before you take the workshop.  The workshop itself focuses on design aspects, plant/hardscape choices, creating a design plan and installation.

Some native plant nurseries offer another option - a short consultation with an experienced native plant designer.  The Tree of Life Nursery’s ‘Designers in Residence Program’ offers a 30 minute design consultation at a reasonable price.  Clients are required to bring photographs, their Base Plan (site map), physical assessment and other materials to facilitate their time with the designer.  Information about this program is available at: http://www.californianativeplants.com/index.php/retail/designer-in-residence-program

After considering the options, you may decide to hire a landscape or garden designer to help bring your ideas to fruition.  Landscape designers are professionals with education and experience in both horticulture and design. Many have degrees or professional certification in addition to practical experience.   To learn more about landscape designers see: http://www.apld.org/.

Some landscape/garden designers are designers only; others offer additional services.  Some are licensed landscape contractors, capable of designing and installing hardscape and plants.  Some who specialize in California native plants will even design, install and maintain your garden – for a price.

The advantages of using a landscape/garden designer are several. First, they have a background in design. They are trained to use the design elements we’ll discuss next month and can suggest design solutions you may not have considered.  They are experienced at integrating landscapes into a functional whole that looks like it was planned. 

A second advantage is that a good landscape/garden designer is well versed in hardscape.  S/he understands if a hardscape idea is feasible and knows the relevant building codes.  S/he will be familiar with available materials – including brand new ones – and be able to suggest appropriate choices.

A third advantage is that good landscape/garden designers know their plants.  They  have used a variety of plants in local landscapes.  They understand how the plants mature and know which plants work well with your local conditions.  This ‘on the ground’ knowledge can be an invaluable supplement to information obtained from books or the internet.

These advantages being said, all landscape/garden designers are not the same. If you want to create a sustainable landscape, using local native plants, you need to be particularly careful in your choice of designer.  Some are willing to work with you, using the background materials you’ve collected, to design a New California Garden.  Others, quite simply, will want to impose their own ideas, regardless of your desires and the actual conditions of your site.

Landscape/Garden designers are expected to ‘keep current’ with new ideas, materials and plants.  In fact, licensed/certified designers may be required to take continuing education courses.  As water-wise, sustainable gardening becomes more popular, designers are learning about the relevant topics.  But some continue to use old ways.   You’ll need to search out a designer who will work with you to design a New California Garden.

One of the best ways to locate a good designer is to find a garden you like. Notice the wildlife visiting the garden – and how people react to and use the garden. If you like what you see, find out who designed it (most homeowners will be happy to recommend their designer). You can also ask for recommendations at local native plant gardens, native plant nurseries, preserves, arboretums or colleges/universities (try the Botany or Biology department).   When considering a designer, ask to see samples of the gardens s/he has designed.  If possible, visit the gardens and talk to the owners about their experience working with the designer.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a designer:

1)   Cost.  Be sure that you can afford the designer’s services.   If not, consider one of the lower-cost options discussed above.

2)   Willingness to work with you.  If you’ve completed the exercises in this series you know a great deal about your site and your family’s preferences.  You likely have pictures of gardens and plants that you like.  A good designer will be happy to work with a client who already knows so much about their site, their needs and preferences.

3)   Willingness to design based on existing conditions.  A good designer takes the time to assess a site, then creates a plan based on soil, water, micro-climate and other conditions.  You’ve already done much of the leg work.  When interviewing a potential designer, emphasize that you want to work with the existing conditions of your site – to work with Mother Nature, rather than modifying the site to suit the plants.  A designer who recommends extensive soil amendments and tropical plants is likely not the designer you want.

4)   Experience in designing gardens that are both water-wise and life-friendly. Many California designers have gotten the message about water-wise gardens; fewer have experience in designing gardens that are also life-friendly.  Explain to a potential designer that you want a garden that is people-friendly and also provides habitat for butterflies, native pollinators and birds.  Ask about his/her experience designing habitat gardens.   A designer who understands habitat – and the importance of native plants for creating habitat – is your kind of designer.   Alas, not all designers have this orientation and experience.

5)   Knowledge/experience with CA native plants. Many designers began their careers when native plants were not readily available.  They have added water-wise plants to their palette, but these are often plants from other places with a mediterranean climate (primarily Australia and South Africa).  Some garden designers work only with California native plants; others are just starting to use them.  If possible, choose a designer who has at least 5 year’s experience using native plants.  S/he will understand how to use them in the garden setting.  If possible, select a native plant designer who has created successful gardens in your local area.

Once you’ve selected a garden/landscape designer, you begin the fascinating journey of working with him/her to design your garden.  Here are a few tips for getting the most from the relationship:

  1. Discuss what services the designer will provide – and the costs – right away. Get a contract in writing.

  1. Send background materials to the designer prior to your first on-site visit.  Include pictures of existing conditions, your summary of the site physical assessment, functional analysis and bubble map, and water management plan.  Include also a copy of the ‘Gardening Life-style’,  ‘Overall Look’ and ‘Garden Style’ questionnaires.  These help the designer understand the site and your needs/desires. Your first meeting will be much more productive if your designer reviews these materials ahead of time.  

  1.  Be open to new ideas.  Your designer may suggest novel options you haven’t considered – that’s one of the reasons you hired him/her.  Be open – but don’t agree immediately to anything that ‘seems unusual’.  If you feel uncomfortable about a suggestion, give yourself time to think about it before giving your designer the go-ahead.

  1. Stand firm on things you feel strongly about.   You have thought hard about what you want for your garden.  The designer is working for you – don’t let him/her talk you out of the important things.

 Garden Design Software (optional)

You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to design your garden – paper, colored pencils, a ruler and some plastic templates are all you really need.   Professional designers mostly use design software these days, but many a lovely garden has been designed using pencil and paper.  In fact, you’re following a long tradition if you use these simple, inexpensive tools.

If you like and feel comfortable using computers, you may want to consider using a garden design program.   There are many to choose from, including some that are free and others that are on-line.  More new programs are released each year.  We suggest that you read a recent on-line review to see what the experts (and users like you) think before you decide to use a program.


Even PowerPoint can be used for simple garden design work. In fact, we’ve designed several gardens using PowerPoint and have converted our rough hardscape plan for 112 Willow Street into a PowerPoint image (above).  The easiest way is to scan your Base Map (or other maps) and import the scanned image.  You can then use the shapes available in the ‘drawing tools’ to add hardscape and plants. We’ll show you how below.  It’s easy to move the shapes around and try different arrangements, sizes, colors etc.  And the program is readily available and easy to use.    

Some garden design programs – even those under $100 - are quite sophisticated, allowing you to upload pictures of the existing house/garden, paste pictures of plants into the landscape, take virtual ‘walk-throughs’, etc.   One limitation is the lack of California native plants in most the plant databases.  The plants tend to be common landscape plants; many are appropriate for climates other than S. California.    You’ll have to use plants with a similar appearance your native  plant selections if you want to use the virtual image features. 


Design Basics


By this point you may be feeling somewhat over-whelmed with all the ideas you’ve collected.   Like many beginning designers, you’re tempted to include everything you like in your garden.   This is not a good idea.  Unless you have a large estate you’re going to have to prioritize, limit, prune, simplify.

The best garden designs are often simple.  They include a limited number of elements, plant species and colors.  One of the best tips we can give is to simplify: it’s hard to simplify a design too much.   

A Few Words About Garden Themes

One good way to simplify is to choose a theme for your garden.  Effective garden designs often start with an over-arching theme. The theme guides everything in the landscape plan; it’s the underlying melody that echoes throughout the garden, tying everything together.  The theme makes the garden look like it was planned rather than something that just happened.

You can choose just about anything for a theme.  Several famous gardens have color-based themes: ‘white/silvery foliage’ or ‘purple flowers’.  Other effective garden themes have their origin in gardening traditions from other parts of the world – for example a Japanese garden or English cottage garden.  Other themes focus on functionality: for example an ‘edibles garden’, ‘bird habitat garden’, ‘scented garden’ or ‘sculpture garden’.   One of the easiest themes is your local Native Plant Community(s).

The gardeners at 112 Willow Street, our example garden, chose ‘food for all’ as their theme.  They interpret the theme as follows: the plants must provide food for the family and/or for birds, butterflies and insect pollinators; hardscape elements must enhance habitat to support the theme.

 You can see how a theme guides/limits plant choices.    Some of this is straight-forward - the vegetable garden plants and apple tree are clearly appropriate for the ‘food for all’ theme.    But plants in the ‘Butterfly Garden’ and ‘Meditation Area’ – even the front yard - will also be chosen based on the theme.   In fact, a plant that provides food for family, birds and insects will receive the highest priority score.  Fortunately, many California native and edible plants are in that category.
 The hardscape must also support the theme.  Our gardeners have already chosen some hardscape elements that do just that; for example, the raised beds and rainwater storage in the vegetable garden and the tool shed.   But the theme suggests other features not yet considered.  A simple sink with running water for washing fruits and vegetables would enhance the garden; it could drain back into the garden, conserving water.  So would a compost bin for kitchen green waste.  See how helpful a theme is?


The gardeners must also consider the needs of birds, butterflies and pollinators.   What else do these creatures need?  What will encourage them to stay longer in the garden?   Would additional hardscape elements ‘enhance habitat’ as defined by the theme?

All living things need a source of drinking water.  The garden at 112 Willow Street currently has none - a lack that becomes apparent when the gardeners compare their hardscape choices to the garden theme.  They decide to add a simple birdbath, which they locate near the ‘Butterfly Garden’ but within easy reach for filling and cleaning (see above).  They may also place a few shallow clay saucers, filled with gravel, mud and water, for butterflies to drink.

The gardeners also realize, after reading up on local birds, that their garden may not provide enough year-round food.  They will consider adding a bird feeder – and maybe a hummingbird feeder – once the garden is installed.   Because cats visit the yard, the bird feeders and birdbath must be tall enough (and strategically located) to provide safe access for the birds.

Overall Design: the Concept of ‘Garden Rooms’

Many conventional gardens are designed so that the entire front or back yard can be seen at the same time.  This is analogous to an ‘open floor plan’ in a house.     An open plan may be a good choice for your garden, but it’s not the only option.

Indoors or out, some people love open floor plans; different functional areas are easily accessible and activities benefit from the large open area.  Open plans can facilitate interaction between family members, even if they’re involved in different activities.  And an open plan can have a contemporary, life-friendly, California feel.

But even in open floor plans, some functional areas (bathroom; utility room; closet; bedroom) are usually housed in separate rooms, with walls and doors to insure privacy or hide a less-than-attractive view.    Some activities best done in private; and some activities add little to a home’s charm.

Garden designs are a bit like house plans; they can be entirely open plan or they can include outdoor ‘rooms’.  An outdoor room need not be ‘furnished’ in a conventional sense.  But it does need to be set apart, in some way, from the rest of the garden.  To learn more about garden rooms see: http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,220399,00.html

Consider your functional areas as potential garden rooms.  As indoor, two types of functional areas lend themselves readily to treatment as separate garden rooms: utility areas (or other areas that are unattractive) and areas designated for quiet pursuits (such as the ‘Meditation Area’).

Garden rooms are set apart from the rest of the garden – at least somewhat.  A common method is to use a fence or free-standing trellis/screen (for example to hide the vegetable garden or trash barrels).    Another common method is to use a hedge for the same purpose.  But these are not the only options.  Placement of functional areas can help define rooms.   For example, the ‘Utility Area’ and ‘Meditation Area’ at 112 Willow St. are located in the side yards – away from main activity areas in the front and back yard.   Their location alone makes them seem like separate rooms.

Outdoor rooms need not be blocked entirely from view.   For example, the gardeners at 112 Willow want a glimpse of the vegetable garden from the patio.  But they’d also like a transition between the formal ‘Lawn’ and the more informal ‘Vegetable Garden’.  They could use a low, open fence but decide a border of kitchen herbs would be more efficient (see below).  The herbs will be pretty, attract pollinators to the vegetable garden and serve as a transition.  Now that’s smart planning!


The ‘Utility Area’ at 112 Willow St. will be entirely functional and not particularly attractive.  Locating it in the side yard is a great idea.  The gardeners can also use a simple arch between the ‘Lawn’ and ‘Utility Area’ as a transition.  That will have the additional advantage of allowing roof runoff to be directed to the garden storage tank via a pipe hidden in the arch.   Judicious use of shrubs might further hide the utilitarian features of the ‘Utility Area’ from view.   The gardeners add the arch to their hardscape plan (above). 

The ‘Meditation Area’ is already well-placed, hidden from the rest of the yard in a shady area.  The pavers form a path into the area, creating a sense of entering another world.  A perfect setting for quiet activities like reading, meditation, etc.

In reviewing their design, the gardeners realize that they aren’t happy with how the ‘Lawn’ and ‘Butterfly Garden’ run together.  They decide to provide a low border of rectangular stones or blocks, chosen to complement the crushed rock and pavers.  This will provide an edging for the lawn (helpful for mowing) and the garden.  The look is neat but not too formal.  That seems just right for the 112 Willow St. garden.

Formal vs. Informal Designs

More than almost anything, hardscape defines the ‘look’ of the garden.  It is often the first thing we notice.  The walls, walkways – even the mulch – give the garden an appearance that is pleasant or not.  Hardscape is literally the skeleton of the garden design.  A well-designed garden plan helps us choose hardscape and plants appropriate for the ‘look’ we wish to achieve. One of the first decisions is how formal the garden should be. 

Your family likely has opinions – perhaps even strong opinions – on how a ‘nice’ garden should look.  As these opinions often revolve around how formal or informal the garden appears, it’s important to determine your preferences from the start. We provided some tools for determining your garden style in January, 2014.  If you haven’t done so, we recommend you determine your Garden Style preferences now: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/01/designing-your-new-california-garden-8.html

If your preferences are strongly formal or strongly informal, then you’ll need to choose your hardscape carefully to achieve your desired result. Formal gardens require formal hardscape elements.   For example, you’ll want to choose formal seating (for example, classical or simple modern furniture) rather than stump seats or rustic lawn furniture.  Stump seats, nice and sustainable as they may be, usually don’t ‘look right’ in a very formal garden.   The table below gives some guidelines for formal and informal landscapes.

Formal landscapes
·       Appropriate with ‘formal’ house designs (including modern)
·       Straight lines
·       Simple, geometric shapes
·       Neat, tidy appearance
·       Restrained 
·       Calm, static appearance
·       Brick, gravel and stone paths/patios (regularly shaped/cut stone), concrete
·       Gravel or fine grade mulches
·       Classical fountains, pots, sundials, sculpture as accents
·       Classical/simple garden furniture
·       Enclosures: hedges, formal fences around garden
·       Lawns
·       Plants with ‘old fashioned’ appearance
·       Clipped/pruned hedges
·       Shrubs in large pots
·       ‘tidy’ appearance
·       Evergreen shrubs
·       Limited plant palette (species and/or color)
·       Massed plantings
·       Plants planted in regular/ geometric patterns
·       Repetition/symmetry in plantings
Informal landscapes
·       Appropriate with cottage, bungalow, ‘ranch’  or modern homes
·       Curved lines
·       Complex, irregular shapes
·       Relaxed, informal feel
·       Lively, changing appearance
·       Organic; natural
·       Decomposed granite, ‘urbanite’, irregularly shaped stone, cinder block, concrete
·       Most types of mulch
·       Informal fountains (made from stone, pots, etc.)
·       Hardscape materials appropriate for local landscape
·       Plain, rustic or eclectic garden furniture
·       Rustic fences if any
·       ‘natural’ lawn, prairie or meadow if any
·       Informally pruned hedges (less regular)
·       Leaf mulch; leaf litter may be allowed to remain
·       May include summer/fall dormant plants
·       May be more varied plant palette (more species/colors)
·       Plants planted in irregular patterns (more like in nature)
·       Plants appropriate for local landscape (incl. CA natives)

If your preference is ‘somewhat formal’, we suggest using hardscape elements a bit more formal than you might ordinarily consider.  Plants, particularly California natives and edibles, tend to increase the informal appearance of a garden.  The plants will ‘soften’ the formal look, while the hardscape provides a tidy appearance.  You’ll likely be delighted with the result.

If a garden planted by Mother Nature herself suits your taste, you’ll usually want to choose informal hardscape designs and materials.  The table above gives some suggestions.     In general, informal designs feature hardscape that tend to ‘blend in’ with the natural landscape.  Local stones, decomposed granite, wood, recycled materials are all appropriate for informal landscapes. 

Unless you have a very good design reason for including a very formal feature in an informal garden, don’t do it.   Nothing is more jarring to the eye than a garden that mixes formal and informal elements higgledy-piggledy.   Talented garden designers can get away with it – most of us should stick with the tried and true. 

Our gardeners at 112 Willow Street have an Overall Look score of 17 – in the middle of the formal-informal continuum.   They like gardens that look relaxed but somewhat tidy.   A good way to achieve this is to select hardscape that’s on the formal side.   The plants they plan to use – herbs, vegetables and California native plants – have an informal appearance and will ‘soften’ the hard edges of the hardscape.  The overall look should be right on target – relaxed but somewhat tidy. 

Let’s look at the hardscape plan for 112 Willow Street and see how an Overall Look score of 17 influences specific hardscape choices.   If you missed the last posting (10. Walkways, Seating Areas and Other Hardscape – May, 2014) you might want to review it now.

The overall layout of the garden looks pretty good in terms of formality.  The backyard will have a clipped grass lawn which makes it look more formal.  The shapes are simple and geometric; even the vegetable garden has a formal layout. 

 Our gardeners are considering fences/gates to separate the front yard from the side yards.  The backyard already has a five ft. wood perimeter fence.   It’s of simple design, neither formal or informal, and perfectly appropriate for their tastes.  They choose a similar design for the two side fences/gates. 

 The garden plan contains two new seating areas.   The “Shady Seating Area” under the apple tree will serve as an informal seating area.  After some consideration, the gardeners realize that the chairs should be light-weight, so they can be moved from sun to shade as needed.      Most readily available patio/yard furniture is slightly formal in appearance, appropriate for most garden styles.  Fortunately there are lots of options in wood, metal and plastic; chairs that are light-weight, simple, comfortable and durable will do.  They will need to consider color, but more on that later.

The ‘Meditation Area’ presents another set of circumstances.  The seating needn’t be portable and room for two is all that’s required.  Two small-scale garden chairs or a small garden bench, either simple/contemporary or more traditional, would work well.  There are many options in wood or metal or they could construct a simple bench themselves.   They will choose one that has a back and can accommodate a pad for comfort.  They will avoid outdoor furniture described as ‘rustic’; rustic furniture is too informal and of a larger scale than is appropriate.

The ‘Vegetable Garden’ will be visible from the porch, seating area and house.  The area will be partially screened by the shrubby herbs.  But the raised beds will be an important design element in the landscape, so the appearance is important.  The gardeners decide that they’d like the beds to ‘fade into the landscape’ rather than stand out.  This is helpful as it limits their options; brick would be too prominent and cinder block too informal.  They decide to build simple raised beds of wood (using a design from the internet). 

The gardeners plan to cover the vegetable garden paths with chipped wood mulch.   This is a practical, inexpensive option that is well suited to the application.  The same mulch will be used around plants in the ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Meditation’ areas, providing visual continuity.    The mulch will be medium brown, aging to a lighter gray-brown.  If possible, the color of the other main paving material – crushed rock – should be chosen to complement the mulch.

The gardeners have chosen to cover the ‘Utility Area’ and around the driveway with crushed rock.  Crushed rock creates a somewhat formal look – it is used extensively in formal gardens in Mediterranean countries and will be perfect for 112 Willow St.  It can be used for the ‘Shady Seating Area’ if the gardeners so choose.    Using the same crushed rock in several areas helps to tie the garden together. 

Crushed rock is available in colors ranging from dark blue-gray to tan, gold, even red-brown (colors vary by area and vendor).  Color choice becomes very important when it will be used in large areas.  The homeowners will want to be sure that the crushed rock’s color complements the house, other path materials, mulch and other hardscape.  After some consideration, they realize that they want their paths/mulch to look natural and blend in.   They choose a crushed rock color that is a warm, tan-gray.

A Few Words About Color

Color is an important design element.  While we tend to think of flower and foliage color, in fact the color of the house, fences, walkways and containers are at least as important.   Colors are warm (make one feel excited, warm, lively) or cool (make you feel calm, cool, relaxed).  The color wheel below shows warm and cool colors.  Choose flower and hardscape colors that convey the feeling you want to create.

Beginning garden designers are tempted to use too many colors; this is another example of the ‘simplify’ principle.  When choosing a color scheme, it’s often best to stick to a few main colors.  Several easy but attractive color schemes work well in gardens.   Gardens that feature colors that are either opposite (complementary colors) or adjacent on the color wheel (analogous colors) look well-planned.   These are tried and true color schemes that always work.

Complementary colors provide maximal contrast; when paired, they make each color appear more lively and vibrant. For example, pair a purple wall and bright yellow pots or flowers to get the maximum color impact.  Analogous colors appear calm, restful and neat.  For example, you might pair a set of bright blue pots with plants with pale blue, purple and red-purple flowers. The result will be calm and restful.  For more good combinations search ‘color theory’ on the internet.

Colors that are bright (saturated) or light (pastels or ‘tints’) appear to advance while colors that are dark or grayed (‘tones’) appear to recede.   This can be very helpful when choosing the color for a wall, fence, pathway or piece of garden art.  If you want the fence to stand out or appear closer, choose white or a light or bright color.  If you want the fence or wall to disappear, choose a medium to dark grayed green or grayed brown.  Once you plant in front of it, the fence will appear to vanish into the distance.

Color preference is a very individual matter.  Choose colors that you like, keeping in mind the advice above.   Remember that color will have a strong impact, so choose carefully.   Bring home samples of paint and hardscape colors.  See how they look in your garden and under different light conditions.  Take your time choosing colors; live with the samples a while.  You’ll find this is time well spent.

Let’s see how the gardeners at 112 Willow deal with color in their hardscape.  The house is painted a warm white with warm gray trim.  This will be easy to work with.  The perimeter fence is stained a light brown and the fence is an obvious feature in the back yard.  Since the yard is small, the owners would like the fence to recede or ‘disappear’. Staining it a darker gray brown, then planting in front of it will achieve their aim.

Likewise, the gardeners would like their paving/mulch to blend in.  One good idea would be to choose materials that are as similar as possible in design and color.  Their choice of warm gray is a good one; it is neutral, readily available and looks natural.  They will want to choose a shade that’s a medium tone – not too pale.  If you’re having trouble visualizing  search  ‘medium warm gray paint’ on the internet. They will use variations of this color in their mulch, crushed rock, pavers and edging.

At this point, the garden is fairly neutral appearing.  Plants will provide much of the color and interest.  But other hardscape elements could also be used.  For example, brightly colored chairs, cushions, containers or garden art could be used as accents. The gardeners won’t know what’s needed until they’ve developed their planting plan.

That’s enough for this session.  The 112 Willow gardeners – and you – should be thinking about your flower color preferences for when we return next month (July 2014).



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