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Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

  Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning. Late fall and early winter are important prun...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Designing Your New California Garden: 6. Discovering Your Garden’s History


Each garden comes to the present moment with its own unique history.  Part of that history is ancient – bound up in the rocks that form its soils, the rivers and volcanoes that shaped its topography and the effects of other natural forces.  In the more recent past, the land where your neighborhood lies was host to a number of plant and animal species, as well as the human inhabitants that subsisted on them. 

 In the even more recent past, your garden has a history that includes the development of your property, past gardens/gardening practices and even the current conditions.   Learning more about your garden’s past is an important part of designing your landscape plan.  

Perhaps you have remnant native plant species, such as an oak or Toyon,  already growing in your yard.  These can form the basis for your landscape plan.  As you look around your neighborhood you may find other native relicts that can provide inspiration – perhaps even seeds or cuttings – for your garden.   There is nothing more exciting than knowing that you’re providing a home for plants that are native to your immediate location!

Even if your neighborhood currently includes no native plants, learning about the plants that once occupied your land can suggest species that may thrive in your garden.    Learning about the plant communities that existed in your local area can also suggest palettes of plants that ‘go together’ – both in terms of their requirements as well as in how they look.   Some good resources for learning about California’s Plant communities include:

·        Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens  (paperback) - by Glenn Keator, Alrie Middlebrook and Phyllis M. Faber
   We also have very useful plant lists available for several local plant communities - see the 'Native Plant Gallery' page on right of screen.


You may become fascinated by the ecology of the plants and animals of your area and want to explore further.    Learning more about the Native Californians who live in your area can suggest ways to properly manage your native plants.  After all, the Native peoples were the first stewards of our native plants!

How your property was developed – and when – can also influence the design of your landscape plan.  Were your soils compacted?   Was fill brought in?  These and other factors may influence the plants you choose and the preparations needed to produce a thriving landscape.  Perhaps your garden was once the site of an orchard, a cattle pasture or an oil field.   This sort of history comes with its own set of challenges. Knowing about your site’s history will help you to plan for them.   Can you find any old pictures of your home/home site or neighborhood?   These can often be helpful

Finally, considering the gardening history of your yard may suggest additional factors to consider when developing your garden plan.  Knowing whether fertilizers, pesticides and soil amendments were used, and when, can be useful.  Some landscape plants change the pH or other soil characteristics.  Knowing the gardening history of your site can help you avoid costly mistakes.

Learning about your site’s history can take time and research.  Some information will be unavailable.   Just do the best you can in filling out the History Worksheet (http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/your-gardens-history-worksheet    ). File it and old pictures, articles etc. that you discover in your Garden Notebook.   Any knowledge of your site’s history will be useful when you – or a designer you hire – designs you New California Garden.



We value your comments (below).    You can also contact us directly at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Designing Your ‘New California Garden’: 5. Mapping Use Areas: Creating a Bubble/Concept Plan

If you’ve followed this series from the beginning (July 2013), you’ve come a long way towards designing your New California Garden.   If you haven’t seen the previous postings, we suggest you begin with the July posting: Designing Your New California Garden: 1. Why Plan?

Last month you developed a ‘Needs & Dreams’ list that contains all the features and functions your family wants in your ‘New California Garden’.   You also defined water goals for your garden.  Now the creative part begins – you get to play around with different ways to fit the functional clusters into the space you’ve got.   One of the easiest ways is to create a Bubble Plan (also known as a Concept Plan or Bubble Map).

A bubble plan is simply a map with functional clusters roughly located by outlines (bubbles) of the areas they will occupy. You can draw your bubble plan(s) on copies of your Base Plan 2 (see July, 2013 posting).  You’ll need several copies as you’ll likely go through several iterations of your bubble plan.  Alternatively, take a sheet of tracing paper and overlay onto a copy of your Base Plan 2.    

Draw bubble outlines in pencil to suggest where the different use areas might be placed.  Be sure to include all the functional clusters you defined last month.   Bubble size should correspond to the approximate size of each functional area.  For example, if you want a play area for children that is 20’ by 20’, draw your ‘play area bubble’  approximately 20’ x 20’.   Below is a first attempt at a bubble plan for our example garden at 112 Willow Street.


Step back from your bubble plan and look at it critically.  The outdoor areas should have a strong relationship with the areas and activities within your home. For example, outdoor cooking areas should be located adjacent to indoor kitchen or dining facilities. Service and storage areas should be located away from main use areas and views from the home – and provide easy access from backyard and front yard if that’s important. Patios and decks should directly tie into main circulation areas from the home.

Your bubble plan also needs to reflect the physical characteristics of the garden site (your site’s ‘assets’).  If you haven’t yet completed a site physical assessment, now’s the time to do so.  We walk you through the process in our August 2013 posting (Planning Your New California Garden: Site Physical Assessment).


When we compare the first bubble plan with our site’s light/shade patterns and other characteristics (see above) we note a few problems.  First, the Maintenance Area will be readily visible from the house and garden seating areas.  It might be better to move it to the area just south of the garage.  This area is less visible and provides access from both front and backyard.  We’ll have to build a smaller shed – and sell the old one on Craig’s list – but that’s a much better spot for the maintenance area.  

There are also some challenges for the Lawn Area. Note the slope on the South side – that will be difficult for a lawn.  If we move the Butterfly Garden Area to the sunny slope, it will provide flowers visible from lawn, patio and house.  Since butterflies – and their host plants - like sun, this is a better location than the shady east side.  If we move the Vegetable Garden to the sunny southwest corner, it will be pretty, functional and also attract butterflies.   You can already see the lovely flowers and interesting foliage surrounding the seating areas.

The lawn can fill the space between the Shady Seating Area and the Butterfly/Vegetable Garden Areas.   As seen above, this area has a low spot and an area of poor drainage.  We’ll have to choose a lawn grass (or grass-like plants)  that can handle these conditions.   Below is our revised bubble plan.

The revised plan has much to recommend it.  The maintenance and vegetable garden areas are close to each other – and right out the kitchen door.  We’ve got areas of sunny and shady seating.  We’ve located our butterfly garden where the butterflies will come and we can watch them.  If we need more butterfly plants, we can also plant the showier ones in sunny areas in the front yard.

As seen above, the views looking south will be lovely;  lawn, a flowery slope and attractive views in the distance.  We’ll also get good air circulation with the afternoon breezes.   We do have a visual eyesore (the side of the neighbor’s garage) to the east of the quiet/meditation area.  We’ll need to do something creative to turn that view into something attractive. 

Now is a good time to look at gardening books and magazines for some inspiration.  You don’t need to spend a lot of money; your local public library likely has lots of resources.  Also visit botanic gardens, demonstration gardens and native plant gardens for good ideas.  Get out in nature to see how Mother Nature gardens. Take lots of pictures and notes. You’re going to be glad you did this (fun) background work when we get to next few month’s  activities.

There are likely a number of workable layouts that will accommodate your functional areas.  Some will make better use of space and the physical features of your site.  And some will simply appeal to you more than others.     We suggest  you try several different schemes until the best layout becomes evident.   You’ll probably want to work on this over a few  weeks, as new ideas may come to you as you work and see other garden ideas.    

Once you’re satisfied with your bubble diagram, take a copy of your Base Map 2 and create a final Use Areas Map.  File the map behind your Functional Analysis Worksheet for reference.  Don’t have a garden notebook yet?   It’s time to start a binder/notebook for your maps, plans, pictures and notes.    We will use these materials in the later sections of this series.



We value your comments (below).    You can also contact us directly at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Garden Crafts: Making Potpourri from Scented Garden Trimmings

Southern California is blessed with a climate that’s perfect for plants with scented foliage.  Our native sages (Salvias), mints, roses, California Sagebrush and other Artemisias make our gardens a treat for the nose as well as the eye.  Add scented plants from other mediterranean climates – rosemary, thyme, lavender and others – and you’ve got a nice smelling garden.   Consider a plant’s aroma when choosing new plants for your garden.  You’ll be glad you did!

Fall is the best time to prune many scented plants; and pruning can produce lots of trimmings, even in a small garden.  Consider using your scented trimmings for garden crafts that produce products unique to your garden.  One of the easiest – and fun - is making potpourri.  It’s a good activity to do with children (in small groups).  You might even want to host a ‘potpourri party’, where guests bring scented materials from their gardens to share.   Making potpourri brings out the creative side in all of us.

A potpourri is simply a mixture of scented plant materials.  Most people think of natural room fresheners when they hear the word potpourri.  But people in times past – and thrifty gardeners now – use potpourri for much more.  Fill a small cloth bag with potpourri to make a sachet to scent a closet or clothes drawer.  Use a pretty fabric, tie the sachet with a ribbon and you’ve got a unique, inexpensive gift.   A cloth bag filled with potpourri can also be used to scent a bath or shower (just hang the bag under the running water).  You can use a cloth re-useable tea bag to hold the potpourri.  Potpourri can even be used under your pillowcase to scent your pillow.  Use a soothing sage, lavender or mint for a restful sleep

Making potpourri is easy.  But like anything involving scent, it allows lots of room for creative expression.  No two people smell a scent exactly the same.  We all have memories associated with particular scents.  And some scents just make us feel relaxed or energized.  So have fun combining scents to get just the right combination.

Here’s how to make your own unique blend of garden potpourri:

  1. Choose your plant materials.  A number of plant materials that can be used as a base for potpourri.  Choose any scented plant you like as long as it is not toxic.  Here are a few possibilities:
    • Native plants (leaves/stems): Sages (Salvias) all have slightly different scents (we particularly like Black, Purple, Cleveland and ‘Winifred Gilman’ Sages) ; California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and Mugwort (Artemisia douglasii); plants in the Mint family (Wild Mint – Mentha arvensis; Hummingbird Sage - Salvia spathacea; Fragrant Pitchersage -Lepechinia fragrans)
    • Other scented shrubs/herbs: Leaves/stems of Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Verbena, Lavender, scented Geraniums, Mints, etc.; flowers like scented Rose petals, Carnations, Orange blossoms, etc.
    • Citrus fruits or apples: use thinly sliced citrus peel, or cut entire fruit in very thin slices before drying
  2. Dry the plant materials.  It’s very important that plant materials are completely dry, otherwise the potpourri may mildew.  Lay larger materials out to dry outdoors.  Turn them every few days until they are dry.  Or bundle the stems, tie and hang up to dry on a patio or porch.   Flowers, apple and citrus slices can be sun dried, dried on cookie sheets in a warm (less than 130°F) oven or dried in a food dehydrator.  Check flowers often – they can dry quickly.
  3. Prepare the plant materials.   Wearing leather gloves, strip leaves off woody stems of Salvias and shrubby Mediterranean herbs. Place each type of material in a separate plastic bag, seal & label with plant name and date.  For California Sagebrush, it’s easiest to just cut the ends of stems into pieces. Other materials need no additional preparation after drying.  The leaves simply drop off some dried materials.  Dried flowers and fruits are ready to be bagged as is.   It’s important to bag your materials as soon as they are dry to retain their fragrance.
  4. Choose a primary scent: Now the real fun begins.  Making a good potpourri is a bit like making a perfume.  You begin by choosing your primary scent.  This should be an aroma that you really enjoy.  It can be a strong/spicy scent (native California and Mediterranean herbs) or something more mild, but with a fairly strong scent: rose petals, mint, and other garden herbs.  This is going to be the primary scent for your potpourri, so take a good handful or two and place it in a plastic bag.   We suggest that you write down the names of your ingredients on a piece of paper.  You may even want to weigh/measure your ingredients so you can duplicate your ‘signature potpourri’ in the future.
  5. Choose 1 to 2 secondary scents:   The secondary scents should complement your primary scent.   If your primary scent is mild, choose mild secondaries so you don’t overpower the primary scent.  Some good secondaries include any of the primaries (in smaller amounts), the dried fruits, dried flowers, mints and perennial garden herbs.  If you have scented oils or single-scent perfumes (lavender; rose; gardenia; etc.) you can also use these as secondary scents.  Just place a little bit on a cotton ball or cotton pad – a little goes a long way – and place it in your bag of potpourri. Remember to write the materials on your ‘ingredients list’.
  6. Close the potpourri bag, shake it well, and let it sit for a half hour or more.  This will let the flavors mingle. 
  7. Open the bag and smell your potpourri.   You may decide that your potpourri is just right.  If so, it’s ready to use – and you can create another blend.  If you decide that your potpourri still needs a little something, smell the secondary scents again; one or more of them may be just what you need.  You can also use a little bit of dried spices from your kitchen cupboard.   You can add up to 4 additional (tertiary) scents.
  8. Once you’re happy with your blend, it’s ready to use.   

Don’t be afraid to experiment – sometimes unusual combinations are the most successful.  If you end up with a truly awful combination, just throw it in the compost bin and try again.  


We welcome your comments, below.  If you have questions, please e- mail us at: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Plant of the Month (November) : California Sagebrush - Artemisia californica

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) in Mother Nature's Backyard

It’s fall pruning time and our garden is perfumed by plants recently pruned.  Among our favorites is the California Sagebrush, Artemisia californica.  More than any other, the scent of California Sagebrush spells ‘California’ for many local residents.  You can grow this plant – and have trimmings for garden crafts and cooking – if you’re fortunate enough to live in the lowlands of Central and Southern California.

California Sagebrush is endemic (limited in range) to California from Contra Costa County to northern Baja California, Mexico, its range being limited by low winter temperatures.   It also grows on the Channel Islands, located just off the California Coast.   A plant of lower elevations (less that 2000 ft; more often less than 1000 ft elevation) Artemisia californica is an important member of California’s  Coastal Sage Scrub plant community.   It is also found in the Coastal Strand and lower elevation Chaparral communities, but it’s an indicator species for Coastal Sage Scrub (CSS).

California Sagebrush is best categorized as a sub-shrub – a plant with stems that are woody at the base and herbaceous near the tips.   A number of ‘shrubs’ of the CSS are, like Sagebrush, sub-shrubs.  They grow quickly, becoming established in a year or two at most.   Establishing quickly is advantageous in our climate, which is unpredictable at best. 

At maturity, Artemisia californica  can be as much as 4-5 ft. tall and 4-6 ft. wide.   Like many fast-growing native shrubs, it’s not particularly long-lived; even in nature, 25-30 years is ‘old’ for this species.    In the wilds, fire plays an important role in the growth and development of Sagebrush communities.  Some scientists believe this species needs regular fires, at intervals of perhaps 20-30 years, to ‘clear out the old brush’ and allow it to re-establish.  The fire interval is likely important; areas with more frequent fires do not seem to support Artemisia regeneration.
Young California Sagebrush in the Native Plant Garden at
Madrona Marsh Nature Center

Sagebrush plants have many stems from a woody central root crown (see above).  The stems are slender and wand-like – an attractive addition to the water-wise garden.   In nature, plants may look rounded – almost manicured – due to being ‘pruned’ by wild animals like deer and rabbits.  The plants aren’t the tastiest thing around – but they’re better than nothing!

Many features equip California Sagebrush for life in our mediterranean climate.  They have relatively shallow and fibrous roots, allowing them to utilize  soil moisture efficiently.  The roots also help bind the soil, a characteristic useful in hilly gardens and restoration sites.   California Sagebrush produces two sets of leaves each year: a larger, greener set in winter/spring and a smaller, grayer set on side branches in summer (see photo below).   This is also a common adaptation in plants from mediterranean climates.   The summer leaves are very drought tolerant.  They may appear shriveled and dead, but rehydrate and green up quickly with a summer moisture.
Wet-season (l) and dry-season foliage, Artemisia californica
Flower 'heads' of Artemisia californica (California Sagebrush)
The flowers of California Sagebrush are understated (see photo above).  They are small, green-gold and resemble little bells along the ends of branches.  If you look closely, you will realize that the ‘flowers’ are actually flower heads, typical of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).  Plants can flower at any time, but summer through fall is typical in local gardens.   Flowers are primarily wind pollinated, so they don’t need to be particularly showy.  They produce many seeds, which also are wind-distributed (if not eaten first by birds).

California Sagebrush is easy to grow in just about any local soil.  It thrives in full sun to light shade and is very drought tolerant.  It is moderately salt-tolerant, but freezing winters will kill it.   It gets by fine with no summer water, but looks better if watered occasionally, when the soil becomes dry.  You don’t need to worry about fertilizing your California Sagebrush – it’ll do fine without any soil amendments.   
Two-year old Artemisia californica after fall pruning

Plants look better if pruned in the fall (remember the deer and other browsers).  We like to prune when plants are beginning to leaf out in October.  At that time you can clip with confidence, knowing you won’t harm the plant.   You can prune  Sagebrush fairly heavily – just be sure to leave 4-5 sets of new leaves/branches on each stem (see photo above).   It’s  important to prune young plants – even in the year after planting.  A well-pruned plant will be lush and full; you will need to prune it less as the years go by.   You can also tip-prune (pinch off) the growing branches in spring to achieve greater fullness.
California Sagebrush propagated by cuttings


California Sagebrush can be propagated from cuttings.  We’ve had best success in June or July, with semi-softwood cuttings 6-8 inches long (see photo above).

Some gardeners use Artemisia californica as a temporary filler plant, providing cover while slower-growing shrubs mature.  This is a good use, but there’s so much more to recommend this plant.  It’s a wonderful habitat shrub, providing cover and even nest sites for birds, lizards and other small creatures.  Many of these same creatures also eat the seeds.   It’s an excellent choice on slopes and other ‘hard to water’ areas, where it provides hardy habitat.    The only drawback is that this species is not fire-retardant – particular if left un-watered.  If you live in fire prone areas, plant it away from structures and give it some summer water.  Gardeners will also find that few plants grow beneath Sagebrush.  Whether because of shade or chemicals produced by the plant, the reason is unclear.
California Sagebrush in Spring

California Sagebrush in Fall (feathery wands at the back)
We love the look of its feathery foliage, which adds a touch of filmy mystery to spring and fall gardens (see above).  It’s color and shape provide just the right contrast to other local plants like Buckwheats and Sages (Salvias).  It is a ‘must have’ in any garden that features our beautiful locally native plants.   If you like the plant, but would prefer a lower growing or smaller form, the cultivars ‘Montara’ and ‘Canyon Gray’ provide nice alternatives.  ‘Montara’ is smaller than the species; ‘Canyon Gray’ is a low-growing form that makes a great groundcover (see below).

Artemisia californica 'Canyon Gray'

But one of the best reasons to plant Artemisia californica is its aroma.  The scent is like no other – pungent, clean and oh so California.  We’ve heard it called ‘Cowboy Cologne’ and ‘Cowboy Deodorant’, harking back to days when cowboys encountered this aromatic shrub.    You smell it on a warm day, and when you brush against it.   And you can use it to make potpourri, seasoned vinegars and as a seasoning, adding zing to stews, soups and more.    Both sets of leaves are aromatic, and can be used (fresh or dried) for cooking and crafts.  A wand of Artemisia adds a special touch to flower arrangements; a bundle of dried stems makes a good natural room freshener (we suggest putting it in a cloth bag to prevent a mess).   More on making potpourri later this month (November 2013). 

The unique scent of California Sagebrush is due to a whole palette of plant chemicals.  While produced to discourage herbivores, protect against infection and help the plant burn better, these chemicals produce the signature fragrance that we think of as ‘Artemisia californica scent’.  Native Californians used this plant extensively as a ceremonial and medicinal plant.   The plant was often used in ceremonies for life transitions – and for ritual purification.   Leaves were rubbed on the bodies of hunters to disguise their scent.  Tea made from leaves was used to treat colds, fevers and to wash wounds.   Pounded leaves were used to disinfect cuts and were also chewed or smoked for cold symptoms.   And branches were hung up to freshen the air.    The leaves are also purported to drive away fleas (early settlers put them in their beds for this purpose).   What an amazing plant!

For a gardening information sheet and more pictures of this plant see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants.html


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