Monday, September 1, 2014

Plant of the Month (September) : California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)
 in Mother Nature's Backyard

By September, the garden is awash with tan, pale gold and rust-orange as grasses dry, buckwheats go to seed and many plants enjoy their fall dormant season.  In this symphony of browns, members of the sunflower family add a note of pure golden yellow.  One of our personal favorites is the California goldenrod, Solidago velutina ssp. californica.

California goldenrod is among several goldenrods native to western Los Angeles county.  Solidago confinis  (Solidago spectabilis var. confinis), the Southern goldenrod, once flourished from the coast to the San Gabriel and Verdugo Mountains.  The Western flat-topped goldenrod (Euthamia occidentalis) covered seasonally moist areas throughout California, including at the Dominguez Slough (currently the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve). 

The California goldenrod itself is still widespread throughout California.  Locally it can be found in the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountains, in Griffith Park and on Santa Catalina Island.   It grows in a number of California plant communities including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands and riparian forests/woodlands at elevations less than about 8000 ft.    Generally, the areas are at least seasonally moist, although they may be quite dry in summer.

For many years California goldenrod was known as Solidago californica.  In fact, most of us still think of it by that name.  The Goldenrods, like other native plant species, have recently been re-evaluated by genetic taxonomists.   Similarities at the DNA level suggest that many local variants, including the Arizona, Nevada and California goldenrods, belong together in the species Solidago velutina.   So we’ll just have to get used to a new name for an old favorite.  

While we’re on the topic of names, the name Solidago is derived from the Latin ‘solido’ – to heal or make whole – referring to the medicinal qualities of this genus.  In fact, California goldenrod is useful in several ways, including as a medicinal.  We hope its many properties will make you want to include it in your garden.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)
 in Garden of Dreams, CSU Dominguez Hills, Carson CA

California goldenrod is a spreading perennial that dies back after blooming (late fall/winter) and re-grows again in spring.  A mature plant produces many upright stems, 2-4 ft tall and crowned with clusters of flowers.  In general, plants that receive more light and water – and those in clay soils -  tend to grow taller and more robust.    

California goldenrod leaves are alternate and become smaller and more elliptical the further one moves up the stem.  The lower leaves are oblong, often toothed and clustered at the base of stems.  The foliage varies from a medium green to gray-green; some plants have leaves that are densely fuzzy.   The stems often have a tinge of red or purple.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica) against a fall sky

California goldenrod blooms in fall, from late August through October in our area. The name ‘goldenrod’ well describes the arrangement of the flowers.   The small flowers are arranged in a wand-like arrangement at the ends of the stems, creating a wall of golden yellow in a good year (above).   On closer observation, the flowers are actually small sunflower heads, complete with flat ray flowers and yellow central disc flowers.  There are literally hundreds of small flower heads on each flowering stalk.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)  - flowers
California goldenrod with Fig-eater Beetle and European Honey Bee

If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll note several common insect visitors.  The large green Figeater beetle is likely eating the flowers or pollen.  For more on this interesting local beetle see:       The European Honey Bee is among the many types of bees attracted to California goldenrod.   In fact, the goldenrods are excellent pollinator habitat plants.   They bloom in fall, when food can be scarce.  Their abundant flowers, with their tasty nectar and pollen, provide an important source of food for adult pollinators and their offspring.

California goldenrod can be a great educational resource for children and adults.  Pull up a chair on a sunny day and you’ll likely see an amazing array of insects.   You’ll first observe the fall flying butterflies like Skippers and Blues – perhaps even a hummingbird or two.  But sit quietly and notice all the tiny insects, including numerous species of native bees, flower flies, beetles and other insects.  You may even find a spider waiting patiently for insect prey.  In fall, the California goldenrod is its own little ecosystem, teeming with life.
Phidippus californicus – Jumping spider on California goldenrod

In late fall, California goldenrod produces copious fluffy seeds that spread by wind.  The seeds are eaten by finches and other seed-eating birds, so we leave them on the plants awhile.  When it’s time to tidy up in late fall or early winter, cut your goldenrods back to just a few inches.  They will sprout back revived and healthy in the spring.

California goldenrod - ready for pruning back in late fall

California goldenrod is fairly easy to grow.  It likes full sun (and flowers best under these conditions) but tolerates light shade and even works as a groundcover under tall trees.   It does fine in most local soils and is particularly well adapted to clay soils.  While quite drought tolerant, it stays green and blooms longer if given occasional summer water.  We grow California goldenrod around our bubbler fountain, where it gets an occasional splash.  We’ve watered it three times since May in our clay soils.   The lower leaves are beginning to turn brown in late August - but this has been a very dry year indeed.

California goldenrod is a spreader.  The goldenrod ‘patch’ will increase in size each year, as the plant spreads via underground stems (rhizomes).  In our experience,  plants given only occasional summer water spread rather slowly; they are easily contained by removing unwanted stems in spring/summer.  That being said, this plant is an opportunist; like many local riparian plants it will take advantage of available water and grow vigorously with regular irrigation.  If worried by its propensity to spread, grow California goldenrod in a contained area: a planter, small contained area or even a large container.

Goldenrods are used too infrequently in local gardens, perhaps because they are sometimes viewed as weeds.  They have an undeserved reputation as allergens; in fact, the culprit is usually ragweed, a species that blooms concurrently with the goldenrods.   At any rate, goldenrods are unequalled in their ability to brighten up a fall garden.  Given their size, they are best used contained or mid-bed in a mixed planting with Yarrow, Erigerons, Asters, milkweeds, native grasses and shrubs. 

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica) at base
 of solar fountain - Mother nature's Backyard

Goldenrods are a must for habitat gardens.  They are among the few fall-blooming native perennials, making them essential in gardens too small for the larger shrub Sunflowers.   In addition, California goldenrod is a very useful plant.  Very young leaves & shoots can be used as cooked greens in spring.  Leaves can be dried and used as a soothing tea. 

Goldenrods have been used medicinally where ever they grow.  Native Californians use powdered, dried leaves as a disinfecting powder for skin sores, wounds, burns and rashes.  A decoction (tea) made from leaves was traditionally used for feminine hygiene, as a wash for skin sores and to prevent hair loss.  

Yarn dyed with California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)

Crafters also find good use for goldenrods.  The flowering stems make good dried (pressed) flowers that retain their color for years.   Flowering stems and leaves can be used to make lovely soft yellow dyes that can be used to color wool, silk or cotton yarn or cloth. 

In summary, California goldenrod is a lovely plant that attracts many insect visitors in fall.  It has many useful properties and is a joy to behold in the fall garden.  We hope you’ll consider this plant when you visit the fall native plant sales!

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Plant of the Month (August) : Catalina silverlace – Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii

Catalina silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii; yellow flowers)
Mother Nature's Backyard

Last month we featured one of our loveliest silvery foliage plants – Perityle incana.  This month the whitest of them all, Catalina silverlace (Nevin's Wooly Sunflower), is blooming for the first time.  It simply begged us to be featured as our Plant of the Month.

 Like Perityle incana, Constancea nevinii is a member of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae), one of the largest plant families in California.  It was originally named  Eriophyllum nevinii (in the genus containing other native Wooly Sunflowers) and can still be found by that name at some nurseries.  Studies of plant DNA revealed that Catalina silverlace shares no common ancestor with the other Wooly sunflowers – in fact, it’s a more distant cousin.  In 2000 it was renamed in honor of Lincoln Constance, a well-known plant taxonomist, university administrator and former director of the UC Berkeley Herbarium.  The genus Constancea is monotypic; it contains a single species, Constancea nevinii.   For more about Lincoln Constance see:

As with other Wooly sunflowers, Constancea nevinii has an extremely limited natural range, being found only on the Southern Channel Islands (San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands) and the Northern Santa Barbara Island.  The Channel Islands, located just off the coast of central and southern California, are places of great biologic interest.  Like most islands, they contain unique species due to  their separation from mainland populations.  But the Channel Islands have several other unique features. 

Located at the edge of a tectonic plate, the Channel Islands have experienced extensive movement over millions of years, resulting in unique geologic and soil profiles.   As sea levels rose and fell, they were joined and separated from the mainland several times, allowing for species exchange.   Their close proximity has facilitated human visitation/habitation for at least thousands of years, resulting in further exchange of seeds/plants between islands and the mainland.  

The combination of these factors makes the California Channel Islands unique in their flora, fauna and geology; they are currently the subject of great scientific interest.   Unfortunately, many of the endemic species are now extremely rare, often due to human actions like hunting, farming and grazing.  Feral goats have played a particularly destructive role on several islands; their removal has been an important step in preserving native plants.   Interestingly, several island plant species (including Constancea nevinii) are well suited to gardens and are now used extensively in Southern California mainland gardens.

Catalina silverlace, a sub-shrub with woody stem, stands 2-5 ft. tall and at least as wide.  It closely resembles the ‘Dusty Miller’ (Jacobaea maritima/Senecio cineraria), a plant long favored for its white foliage and drought tolerance.  While Jacobaea maritima hails from the western/central Mediterranean region, it shares more than a superficial resemblance with Catalina silverlace.   Both grow in coastal areas, often on rocky coastal bluffs, in areas with a mediterranean climate.   Not surprisingly, both are known for their heat, salt and drought tolerance.   The two plants represent similar solutions to a shared set of environmental conditions.

Foliage of Catalina silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii)
For comparison with Perityle incana see July, 2014

Catalina silverlace has a mounded, slowly spreading growth habit.  Its long leaves are finely dissected (see above) giving them a delicate fern-like appearance.  The foliage is covered with dense, wooly white hairs, making the foliage appear almost white.   These features help plants survive hot dry summers and are shared with species from other dry climates.  The low, mounded growth habit is often found among plants growing right on the coast.   This form is particularly suited to the wind and salt spray that dominate coastal landscapes.

Catalina silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii) in bloom

California has native ‘sunflowers’ that bloom from early spring to late fall; Constancea nevinii is a mid-season bloomer.  It may flower anytime from April to August depending on weather conditions.   In our experience, adequate winter moisture is required for a good bloom season. 
Flowers, Catalina silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii)

The flowers are bright yellow, adding a cheerful note to the summer garden.  On closer inspection, the flowers reveal their sunflower nature.  Flowers have central disk flowers surrounded by a few, very short yellow ray flowers (look like petals).  The individual flowers are small, but the heads are arranged in clusters of 20 to 50 on stalks above the foliage.  The entire effect is showy as seen in the photo above.

Catalina silverlace is a good habitat plant.  Pollinator insects are attracted by the flower’s sweet nectar and pollen.  Expect to see European Honey Bees, native bees, flower flies, butterflies and others visiting the flowers.   Seed-eating birds enjoy the seeds and small animals like lizards will shelter beneath the foliage.

Like the native bluckwheats, Catalina silverlace retains its beauty long after the flowering season has ended.  The flowering stalks, bracts and seeds turn a lovely dark brown that contrasts exquisitely with the white foliage.  In fact, many gardeners consider fall to be the prettiest season for this shrub.  The seeds are dry achenes that spread by wind. 

Catalina silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii) in fall.

The ‘Island Silver’ cultivar is often available in local native plant nurseries.  A natural variant from Santa Barbara Island, ‘Island Silver’ was introduced by the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and has grown there since the early 1980’s.   It has very white foliage and all the other characteristics that make this species so attractive.  It does well in local gardens and is a good alternative to the straight species.

Catalina silverlace is fairly undemanding in its requirements.   It prefers full sun along the coast, but is best with a little afternoon shade in hotter inland gardens. It is not frost hardy and can be damaged – even killed – by frost.  If you garden inland where frosts occur be sure to read our discussion last month:

Although preferring a well-drained soil, Constancea nevinii can be grown in clays.  If your soil is dense and compacted, try growing it on a slope or berm.   Once established, it needs very little supplemental water except in dry winters/springs. In Mother Nature’s Backyard we water it once or twice from May to August.     Plants will become leggy if not pruned back regularly in late fall or winter.  For fall pruning, remove spend flowering stalks and prune back the leafy stems, leaving 2-3 sets of new leaves.  This will result in a nice, mounded habit.

Catalina silverlace (Constancea (Eriophyllum) nevinii) against a backdrop of Littleleaf
 Mountain Mahogany.   Native Plant Garden, Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA.

Gardeners from wetter climates often envy our native foliage plants – particularly those with very light-colored leaves.  Use Catalina silverlace to best advantage by growing it against an evergreen background of Toyon, Coffeeberry, Lemonadeberry, Sugarbush or Ceanothus (see above).   We also like to highlight spring annuals by growing them against a background of Constancea nevinii.  

The size and shape of Catalina silverlace make it a natural choice as an informal hedge or path border; it also functions well as a low foundation plant or in planters. It is relatively deer-tolerant and is good in fire-prone areas.   Consider planting it with California fuschia (Epilobium canum), Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), native buckwheats (Eriogonum species) and native grasses.   It provides a touch white in a silver garden and is an elegant addition to a habitat garden.     And it is a constant reminder of the special – and rare -  plants native to our coastal islands.

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

California Invasive Species Action Week - Aug. 2-9, 2014

Removing English Ivy (Hedera helix) an important invasive species in S. California. 
Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, Gardena.

This week marks the very first California Invasive Species Action Week (ISAW).  A bit like Earth Day, the Invasive Species Action Week focuses on an environmental problem - invasive species.  And like Earth Day, its purpose is to educate Californians about the problem and inspire us to take individual and collective action.  You can read more about ASAW at:

What can you do to celebrate Invasive Species Action Week all year long?  Here are a few ideas:

§Volunteer for invasive species removal/restoration projects.   Many local preserves & wild areas have regular restoration days and would appreciate your help.

§Find out which species threaten California. 

§Remove invasive plants from your property.

§Select native or non-invasive plants for your garden.  - see also the Native Plant Gallery page on this blog

§Download the ‘Wicked Weeds’ posters and post them where appropriate -

§Use certified “weed-free” hay, seed, mulch, soil and gravel.

§Buy it where you burn it: Don’t spread forest pests by moving campfire wood from one place to another.

§Learn which invaders are in your local area. 

§Eat them. Yes, really.

§Monitor plants and trees for infestation symptoms.

§Share your knowledge

§ Report a Sighting - have you spotted an invader? Tell us where! Visit the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Invasive Species Program web page (  to fill out a sighting report!


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Designing Your New California Garden: 11. Creating a Design Plan, part 2

By this point you may have decided to design the garden yourself – or to get some help.  We discussed several good options last month.   You may also have chosen a theme for your garden. If not, we suggest re-reading that section of last month’s posting (June, 2014). We find that having a theme is a great way for beginning garden designers to limit their choices and produce a unified design.
Last month we cautiously approached the topic of garden design, discussing color, garden themes, the concept of ‘garden rooms’ and the power of simple designs.   This month we consider additional design elements and begin to define the characteristics of plants we’ll use for different parts of the design.   If you didn’t read last month’s post, take the time to read it now:

If you’re just joining the ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ series, we suggest starting at the beginning (July 2013 - and working forward.  The monthly activities will help you design an attractive, functional, sustainable and water-wise garden.


Designing an attractive garden: the creative process in action

Garden design is a creative process.  It requires focus, knowledge of plants, time and plain old tinkering.   The creative process is the same, whether you’re creating a painting, solving a scientific problem or designing a garden.  You begin with an idea, problem or question (basic focus) that gives some order to your work.   You next define the guidelines or parameters that give structure to the basic problem.  This stage is often a circular process: trying out possible guidelines, learning more, revising the guidelines and so on.  You’ve actually been involved in this stage all along, as you’ve worked through the activities.  The site physical characteristics and your wishes help define the parameters for your design.

The third stage is gestation.  This stage is akin to biologic gestation; there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, but the final product is not yet fully formed.  You may feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, while your mind is filled with too many conflicting ideas.  This can be a frustrating time for some people; but it’s an absolutely necessary and normal stage in the creative process.  
Once this stage is over (and you’ll know when it is) you’ll emerge with a ‘eureka moment’ – when everything seems to come together as if by magic.  Of course it’s not magic at all; you’ve spent plenty of time and effort preparing for this stage.  But the last stage is when you can literally put the entire Garden Plan together.

The design process may seem like a lot of effort – and it is.  For some, the time and effort will seem like play; for others it’s more like torture.  If you’re one of the latter, consider hiring a professional landscape designer to complete the Garden Plan (see our June 2014 posting).  Designers go through the creative process all the time – it’s what they do.  They can take your preparatory work and create a plan that reflects your needs, desires and history.  Just be sure to choose a designer who specializes in California (or other local) native plants and who is sensitive to your desires.  

If you want to design the garden yourself, we’ve a few more ideas to help you along the way.  Using these time-tested artistic tools is an excellent way to design a garden that is attractive as well as functional.   You’ll want to review the design principles several times as you create – and revise – your garden design.


Artistic Principles (Elements of Design)

The artistic principles underlying a good design are the same for a painting or a garden.   Discovered over time, often by trial and error, these principles are  passed down from teacher to student.  They are the ‘tricks of the trade’ that make a design work.

To demonstrate how helpful they are, we will apply the design elements to the garden at 122 Willow Street.   But first, an introduction.  Some of the Elements of Design are easier to understand than others.  We’ll start with the more intuitive Elements this month and follow up with more holistic (and elusive) Elements next month.  Here are the first eight Elements:

Enclosure – refers to the sense of being in a defined (enclosed) area.  Much as a picture frame defines the ‘space’ of a painting, walls, fences, screens, hedges and other features can be used to define the ‘space’ of a garden.   Many people, particularly in crowded urban/suburban neighborhoods, feel more at ease if their garden gives a sense of enclosure (privacy).  

You can also use enclosure to set off separate garden ‘rooms’ – much like rooms in a house.   Even a small garden can benefit from division into several rooms.  Garden rooms create a sense of mystery; the viewer wants to see what’s around the corner or behind the hedge.  Surprisingly, they make a garden appear larger than it actually is.  To be effective, garden rooms must demonstrate the Principle of Enclosure.

Proportion and Scale – refers to the idea that parts of a design should relate well together in terms of their sizes, amounts or numbers.  This Principle is hard to describe; but we all can think of examples of gardens that are ‘out of proportion’. 

Take for example, a small front yard with a huge pine tree.  The pine is out of scale for the small yard.  The designers didn’t consider the final size of the tree; the design suffers from the lack of foresight.  Similarly, a very small sculpture, meant to be a focal point, is lost in a large open garden.  The same sculpture would be perfect in a smaller garden ‘room’, where it would serve as a key element of the design.  

The principle of proportion and scale applies to all elements of a garden design, from layout to hardscape and plants.     You may have seen an over- large gazebo or planter in a small yard – it looks odd because it’s out of scale.  Similarly, oversized rustic log garden furniture is ‘too massive’ for a small seating area.  More appropriate would be smaller scale furniture such as bistro chairs, retro metal lawn chairs, etc.

Proportion and scale also refer to the numbers of parts.  Once again, you can likely conjure up gardens in which ‘too many’ pots or lawn ornaments detracted from a design that was otherwise pleasant.   At the other extreme, a single narrow tree in very large garden might appear as an orphan;  additional trees would make the scale ‘look right’.   

 Emphasis - refers to using parts of a design to catch the viewer’s attention.  Emphasis directs the viewer to an object or portion of a composition.   Emphasis makes a garden more interesting by providing focal points or accents – places where the viewer’s eye naturally gravitates.  

Emphasis must be used sparingly.  Creating too many focal points defeats their purpose, much as a red dress disappears in a roomful of red dresses. But a design lacking focal points can be confusing – even disconcerting - because the eye doesn’t know where to look first.   Gardens without focal points often seem unplanned, jumbled, even chaotic – not what is usually desired.

Emphasis can be created in several ways.  All involve making one area stand out by contrasting it with other areas. The area could be different in size, color, texture, shape, etc.  Vertical elements in open areas of the garden can  create interesting – even dramatic - focal points.  Garden art or ‘accent plants’ with unusual features are often used as focal points; they are unexpected/different and therefore attract the eye.

The placement of accents requires some thought.  We suggest spending  time in your future garden, observing the vistas.   Where does your eye travel when you sit on the patio?  Walk out your back door?    Do you want to direct the eye to a nice vista?    Make the garden appear longer by emphasizing the longest vista?   Emphasis directs the eye – use it to best advantage.

Repetition (Rhythm) – refers to the use of multiples of the same or similar elements.  In a garden, repetition is achieved by massing or grouping individual plants or repeating hardscape elements.  Using the same pavers/path materials throughout the garden is a good example of repetition; so is using multiples of the same shrub to create a hedge or background planting.   Repetition can also be achieved by using plants of similar size, foliage color or other characteristic.   All involve repeating some element.

Repetition can be used to do several things.  Repetition creates unity within a design.  Repeated elements remind the viewer that the garden should be viewed as a whole.  We use the same principle when we paint all of a house’s trim the same color; or use the same style of windows throughout the house. Repetition signifies a unified whole. 

Repetition can also be used to reflect or amplify architectural geometry.  For example, the horizontal lines of a house can be echoed by horizontal lines of hedges or groundcover.  Or the columns of a porch can be repeated in a fence, arbor or other garden hardscape.  This repetition underscores the house’s design and can emphasize the connection between indoor and outdoor space.  

Repetition of flowering plants – massed plantings – can be used effectively as a means of emphasis.    There’s something magical about a mass of blooms – repetitions of the same – that draws the eye like a magnet.  It’s one reason why spring wildflowers are so appealing in nature.   Repetition is magical!

Use the principle of repetition in your garden by limiting your choice of plants and planting like plants together.   For a garden design featuring massed plantings see:

Variety - is created by introducing different forms or types of elements to a design.  Variety is the opposite of repetition.   Too little variety (too much repetition)  leads to monotony.  A garden composed of shrubs, all of the same size and color, would certainly be boring.  As they say, ‘variety is the spice of life’.

On the other hand, introducing too many elements can create a chaotic, unmanageable design; that’s why creating a successful cottage garden (which features lots of variety) is such a difficult design challenge.  A fine balance between the extremes produces a pleasant sense of unity in a landscape design.  

Contrast – refers to the diversity of adjacent elements in terms of color, texture, or tone.  Contrast is very important for the overall appearance of the garden; it is one of the chief means to add year-round variety.    A garden composed solely of medium-green shrubs is boring due to a lack of contrast between adjacent shrubs.   

The good designer integrates plants with distinctly different foliage color, texture, or form in such a way as to highlight and draw attention to individual plants.  Plants are placed so that the contrasts emphasize the unique characteristics of each plant. For example, a plant with light foliage or bright flowers is placed in front of a plant with darker foliage.   The contrast serves to emphasize the characteristics of both plants.

Native plants from mediterranean climates (like California) provide a vast array of foliage characteristics from which to choose.   Leaf size ranges from miniscule to large and foliage colors from deep green to gray-green, blue-green – even white.   Mediterranean and California plants are particularly valued in landscape designs for their contrast value.   Be sure to use them if you live in an appropriate climate.

Line – In garden design, lines can be expressed in many ways: through paths, walls, fences, edges of beds/planters and the placement of plants.  Landscape lines should be pleasing, proportionate and appropriate for the formality of the design.  We suggest that you lay out the lines of paths and beds, using rope or a garden hose, before deciding on their final placement. Sometimes seeing a line in place can show you instantly if you’ve got it right. Don’t hesitate to play around until you’re satisfied.

Landscape lines direct the movement or sight to a particular area of interest.  They can be used to direct the eye to a focal point – for example a line of shrubs leading to a garden sculpture or accent plant.  Lines can also be used to set the tone of a garden; formal, geometric lines make a design appear formal, while curved or winding lines are more informal.

Scent – refers to the use of aromatic qualities of plants.  While unique to garden design, the use of scent in a garden adds another dimension.    Well chosen garden scents add a layer of interest that cannot be achieved by other means.

Many gardeners consider floral scents when choosing plants.  But plants from mediterranean climates can also provide aromatic foliage.  In fact, many mediterranean plants (sages; mints; rosemary; etc.) are used as cooking spices, in potpourri and other scented crafts. 

As with all elements of design, scent must be chosen carefully.  Scent preference is very personal – people literally experience a given scent differently.    Visit a nursery and discretely smell the flowers or foliage.  Scented foliage is best evaluated on a warm summer day, when plants are producing their volatile chemicals.  You will find that different Sages (even cultivars) have very different aromas.   Choose scents that make you feel good and will add to your enjoyment of the garden.


Creating the Garden Design – a plan of action

Creating a plan for the entire garden may seem overwhelming.  We suggest taking it a step at a time.  Different parts of the design must work together in the end.  But there’s no reason why you can’t break the task into manageable pieces. 

Consider designing the functional areas individually.  This allows you to focus on a unified set of functions and physical characteristics.  Begin with a functional area containing few/no plants.  This will ease you into the design process and increase your confidence.  In fact, you’ll be surprised how quickly such areas come together, as you’ve already done much of the work. 

The first step is to create a Summary of Characteristics for the functional area. This summary lists the important characteristics of the physical site and design. It summarizes the hardscape elements.  It also lists the characteristics of the plant materials to be used (if any).   Let’s take an example from the garden at 112 Willow Street.


As you recall from previous posts, the gardeners at 112 Willow Street combined a number of utilitarian functions into a ‘Maintenance’ functional area.    Located in a side yard, the area will contain a storage shed, the trash and recycling bins, and room for other utilitarian tasks.   As currently envisioned, the Maintenance Area has the following characteristics:

Summary of Characteristics
Name of area: Maintenance functional area
Physical characteristics: sunny; dry; afternoon breezes; kitchen window looks out on
Notes on overall look/design:   Area largely hidden from view.   Functionality key – must be able to do tasks like managing waste, storing tools, potting plants, drying clothes.  
Mulch/groundcover:  crushed rock – warm gray color – easy to walk/roll trash bins on; good drainage
1.      Storage shed – 2-3 ft deep; 6-7 ft long
2.      Trash bin – 2.5 x 2.5 ft
3.      Recycle bin - 2.5 x 2.5 ft
4.      Green waste bin - 2.5 x 2.5 ft
5.      Arch at entry from backyard – will also serve as downspout/gutter extension for water from roof
Plants:    none

The ‘Maintenance’ area is already largely planned, thanks to the work we did when designing the hardscape.     But looking at the design with fresh eyes can be helpful.   The gardeners haven’t included some important features that will increase the functionality to the Maintenance Area.   These are added to the summary list (below).  
Summary of Characteristics
Name of area: Maintenance functional area
Physical characteristics: sunny; dry; afternoon breezes; kitchen window looks out on
Notes on overall look/design:   Area largely hidden from view.   Functionality key – must be able to efficiently do tasks like managing waste, storing tools, potting plants, drying clothes.  
Mulch/groundcover:  crushed rock – warm gray color – easy to walk/roll trash bins on; good drainage
1.      Storage shed – 2-3 ft deep; 6-7 ft long
2.      Trash bin – 2.5 x 2.5 ft
3.      Recycle bin - 2.5 x 2.5 ft
4.      Green waste bin - 2.5 x 2.5 ft
5.      Arch at entry from backyard – will also serve as downspout/gutter extension for water from roof
6.      Standing-height work surface (used as potting bench, place to sort waste, etc.)
7.      Place to store potting soil – convenient to the work surface
8.      Clothesline (retractable or folding)
Plants:    none
The Maintenance Area is roughly 12 ft. by 14 ft.    The gardeners can fit the additional hardscape into the area - if they plan well.   They free up some space by  moving the compost bin to the garden area.  Since compost will mostly be used in the Vegetable Garden – and much of the green waste will come from there – moving the compost bin makes sense.   The Vegetable Garden can accommodate a 2 ½ ft. wide, tall compost bin – adequate for the gardener’s needs. 


Adding a work surface requires some creativity.  Fortunately, the recycling bin is  short enough to fit under a work surface. A potting soil bin can also be located under the work surface, making good use of limited space.


There still is plenty of room in the Maintenance Area for a clothesline.   A retractable or a folding clothesline will provide plenty of drying space; either will allow the gardeners to retract the apparatus when not in use. 


The Maintenance Area, as currently designed, has much to recommend it.  It concentrates maintenance functions in single area and is conveniently located. The gardeners can easily envision its daily use.  But what of the Elements of Design? 

A purely functional area, largely out of sight, has less strict aesthetic requirements than other functional areas.   Like the interior of a garage or tool shed, functionality trumps design (although a Maintenance area can be quite attractive, if desired).   But several Design Elements do play a role in the Maintenance Area at 122 Willow St.   

First,  note that the area is Enclosed creating a separate maintenance ‘room’ apart from the rest of the garden.  The Vegetable Garden is another obvious candidate as a separate room.   A low fence, hedge or herb border between the ‘Natural Lawn’ and Vegetable Garden adds to the sense of Enclosure.

When designing the arch between the Maintenance Area and the garden, our gardeners will need to consider Proportion and Scale.  The arch must be sturdy enough to convey water from downspout to water storage containers in the Vegetable Garden.  But it must also be of appropriate scale to blend with the rest of the small backyard garden.   The Lines created by the arch should be simple and clean, in keeping with the gardener’s wish for a garden with a slightly formal look.

At this point you can likely see the advantage of beginning with an area composed entirely of hardscape.  It’s easy to summarize the characteristics of the area.  And the area is composed of hardscape elements, most of which you’ve already considered.   The design process is a bit more complex in areas that include plants.

Another functional area defined by its location is the ‘Quiet/Meditation Area’ at 112 Willow St.  Located in the opposite side yard, this long (40 ft) narrow (8 ft wide) area is contained by the house and perimeter fence.   The gardeners have already made several decisions for this area.  They begin their Summary of Characteristics:
Summary of Characteristics
Name of area: Quiet/Meditation functional area
Physical characteristics:  Area is shady much of the day.  Area will be watered only once a month.
Notes on overall look/design:   Area largely hidden from view of rest of garden.   Design needs to be simple, peaceful, ‘different’ from rest of garden.   Perhaps a feeling of ‘being out in the woods’. 
            Mulch/groundcover:  chipped bark mulch
1.      Paths:  large (2’ x 2’ or larger) pavers set in mulch, perhaps with low plants growing between
2.      Seating area:  same or similar pavers as path
3.      Seating: 2 simple wood garden chairs; must be weather-resistant and small scale
4.      Water cistern: to 500 gal. – installed later.
5.      Front fence: 5 ft fence, similar to existing perimeter fence; install after cistern is in place

The gardeners have a good start on their design.  In fact, they already have mapped out some of the elements of this functional area (below).


The gardeners lay out the path and seating areas with rope to see how they will look. They like the slight meander to the path – it will add to the ‘woodsy’ character of the area.  They bring out some chairs and examine the vistas afforded to someone sitting in the Quiet/Meditation Area. One change is immediately apparent – the seating area should be placed closer to the house.  That will allow the gardeners two potential focal points – one towards the backyard and a second facing the front yard.

The side of the neighbor’s garage truly is an eyesore.  The gardener’s confirm their need for a trellis to block the view.  After considering their options, they have chosen to add a 4 ft. lattice addition to the top of the existing fence.  As they sit, they realize that a more attractive option would be to extend the lattice addition beyond the garage.  The 4 ft. addition will be fine for blocking the view of the garage.  They will taper the lattice down in increments on either side – 3 ft, 2 ft and one ft.    The new lattice addition will add an interesting design element to an otherwise bland fence (use of Line).  It will also allow a vine/climber plenty of room to grow.

The gardeners find it extremely useful to sit in their future Quiet/Meditation Garden.   They even sit and read their books, glancing up occasionally to take in imaginary views.  Slowly a garden design begins to take shape. 

Visitors will enter the area via pavers surrounded by a low groundcover or grass.  The grass/groundcover theme will continue on the other side of the seating area, a good use of Repetition.  The grass/groundcover will be evergreen or mostly so, providing the feel of a cool oasis, even in summer.   The groundcover/grass will be surrounded by small shrubs and perennials which will provide Variety.  The choice of these plants will be done to maximize Scent and Contrast.   They will limit their choices to a small number of plants, massed to provide the peaceful feel they want to create.    Their final Summary of Characteristics looks like this:

Summary of Characteristics
Name of area: Quiet/Meditation functional area
Physical characteristics:  Area is shady much of the day.  Area will be watered only once a month.
Notes on overall look/design:   Area largely hidden from view of rest of garden.   Design needs to be simple, peaceful, ‘different’ from rest of garden.   Perhaps a feeling of ‘being out in the woods’. 
            Mulch/groundcover:  chipped bark mulch
·        Paths:  large (2’ x 2’ or larger) pavers set in mulch, perhaps with low plants growing between
·        Seating area:  same or similar pavers as path
·        Seating: 2 simple wood garden chairs; must be weather-resistant and small scale
·        Water cistern: to 500 gal. – installed later.
·        Front fence: 5 ft fence, similar to existing perimeter fence; install after cistern is in place
·        Trellis: ? lattice with vine
·        ? small sculpture or inspirational natural object(s)
               All plants
·        Must meet theme requirements: ‘food for all’
·        Must be proper scale for narrow area
·        Shade-loving
·        Drought tolerant – occasional water (monthly or less)
·        Evergreen or pleasant appearance when dry
·        ‘woodsy’ feel
·        CA native if possible; highest priority to S. CA natives
Low/groundcover plants
·        Evergreen if possible
·        No higher than 18 inches; even lower for around pavers
·        Could be a mix of grasses/grass-like plants and others
·        ? scented – nice when step on/brush by when entering garden
·        Evergreen or winter deciduous
·        Can be trained to grow on trellis – less than 18 inches depth
·        Dense foliage
·        Flowering
·        Aromatic if possible
Other shrubs/perennials
·        Small size – 3 ft x 3 ft or smaller
·        Interesting shape, foliage characteristics
·        Contrast with groundcover
·        Flowering
·        Aromatic flowers or foliage a plus
·        Fruits/seeds a plus


In reviewing their final design (above) the gardeners realize that they will either need to choose a very attractive water cistern, or plant a taller shrub in front of it to block the view from the seating area.   An evergreen shrub, with a small statue, ornamental stump or other focal point might be just the ticket!

Note that at this stage, the gardeners have blocked out major planting areas.  They have also defined the basic characteristics of plants they want to include.  It’s usually premature at this point to select individual plants (create a plant list) or create a planting plan (map with all the plants in their proper positions).   You need to take time to think, imagine and reconsider. 

Sometimes a designer will have a particular plant they want to use.  That’s fine.  Some of the best gardens are designed around a single fabulous plant that the gardener adores.  But don’t feel you need to choose your plants at this stage.  What you’re creating now is a sketch of the final plan.  We’ll take our design further next month, when it’s had a little ‘gestation time’.




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