by Dave Waltzer
If you live in any of the rural areas of Santa Cruz county, there is a very high likelihood that you will be faced with the problem of what to grow in the shade. If you live in an oak woodland, there are more plant options, but you have to be careful about watering. If you dwell in the redwood forest, your options are far fewer because so little of the suns energy reaches the forest floor.
Shade gardening is a challenge for several reasons. The forest canopy limits the light available to the plants below and many trees drop leaves that exude toxins during the process of decay. One such toxin is tannin, which is found in the leaves and bark of many trees and acts as an inhibitor to the growth of young plants.
Another problem lies in the inability of young plants to compete with tree roots that suck water and nutrients from the soil. Some trees also have allelopathic tendencies, meaning that the tree or plant exudes chemicals from its roots or leaves that inhibit the growth of other plants. .
Our own native Monterey Cypress, for example, is extremely allelopathic. It has been my experience that there are practically no plants that will survive more than a couple of years within the root zone of a cypress. Furthermore, being a coastal tree that relies primarily on fog for its moisture, the Cypress creates a dense mat of tiny roots just under the soil surface that suck every bit of water available. Even after weeks of soaking rain, if one digs 6 inches down into the soil under a tree, they will frequently find that the ground is bone dry.
There are certain measures to be take to alleviate some of these problems. Cleaning up fallen leaves will prevent them from smothering young plants. The best tool for this is a small rake that can be maneuvered between plants, or perhaps (if you can bear it) a leaf blower. Keeping your trees pruned will allow more light to reach your garden as well as reducing the quantity of leaf fall. Planting in raised mounds will enable your plants to develop roots without having to compete with the roots of existing trees, although after a period of time you can probably expect that the tree will expand its root system too.
In rural forested areas one also has to consider other forest dwellers that will view your garden as a supplement to their diet. One deer can make quick work of all your plants, so it is usually advisable to stick with natives that they find less appetizing. The plants mentioned below which are natives can be assumed to be more deer resistant.
Though many plant species enjoy a partial shade environment, those that will thrive in the deep shade are far fewer. Oak woodland areas often provide dappled sunlight, whereas the redwood forest is primarily deep shade
Native to this area Wild ginger (asarum) makes for a nice verdant green groundcover, but it requires moist soil to thrive. As with many other forest natives it is summer-dormant, meaning that unless irrigated it will die back in the summer unless irrigated.
Five fingered maidenhair fern (adiantum aleuticum), another native to our locale, can reach up to three feet in height and will also go dormant if not irrigated.
Giant Chain Fern (woodwardia fimbriata) can grow to nine feet and makes for an excellent backdrop to your shade garden. Though it is not usually considered to be drought tolerant, once well established it will survive with very little supplemental water in the deep shade.This plant should be given plenty of room as it can get enormous.
Bleeding Heart (dicentra Formosa) is one of those rare gems of the forest that have a particularly showy flower and thrives in deep shade. It spreads along the ground wherever there is moisture and grows about one foot high. Once established , it is easy to dig up a section to transplant. I have seen an entire hillside in Bonny doon covered with bleeding hearts, though it will die back in the summer.
Alum Root (heuchara micrantha) can be found in our mountains, usually growing along the edge of stream or seep. It has a large green leaf and sends up multiple stalks bearing white flowers. If you want a variety of different colored leaves and flowers, heuchara has numerous cultivars. Most often called Coral Bells, these cultivars are valued primarily for their splendidly colored foliage, ranging from purple to lime green, as well as several variegated varieties.
Other good bets for the shade garden
Bears Breech (acanthus mollis) I have had a good deal of success growing acanthus under the redwood canopy. Even in deep shade areas, this plant produces a showy flower stalk and has large lush shiny leaves. Moderately deer resistant, it will survive without water though the leaves will wilt and shrivel. This is another plant that gets fairly large, and will spread throughout your garden. It is most prudently used as a backdrop, kept well away from other plants. Once established, it can be very difficult to eradicate.
Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquafolium) I have only of late gained an appreciation for this plant. While the foliage is a bit holly-like (shiny with little spiky leaves) for my taste, it more than compensates with its bright yellow flowers that turn to clusters of purple fruit. Valued medicinally as an antioxidant and antibacterial, it is also evergreen and is tolerant to drought and cold.
Dead Nettle (Lamium) Though its name doesn’t sound very attractive, there are some cultivars that will do wonders to brighten up areas of deep shade. Primarily a low growing groundcover, it comes in several colors, including in almost luminescent silver. The flowers range from purple to yellow and it will spread wherever it finds water, creating a shimmering carpet. Very deer resistant, but it needs regular irrigation.
Hellebore (helleborus) This plant seems to thrive in many conditions where others falter. It can take deep shade to full sun, is tolerant of salt air along the coast, and even seems resistant to allelopathic roots (one of the very few plants that will grow under cypress). The hellebore has several cultivars which vary in height from one to three feet and bears striking hanging clusters of lantern-like flowers which range in color from creamy white, to yellow and purple.
by Dave Waltzer
There are many things to consider when designing a garden. Color is what immediately comes to mind, scale and plant size. However, it is texture that creates the overall feeling . Much of the emotive impact of a garden is gained through contrasts in texture. Some plants are spiky, some are shaggy, and some are very soft. Grasses are an effective way of softening your garden and provide a needed contrast in texture. They are also colorful and come in many sizes, so they serve a multiple purpose. They can be used as a ground cover, or an accent, or as a backdrop,
The world of grasses is vast… naming just the different genus would take up most of this article. To keep it simple, I have chosen a few really notable and readily available varieties, and that I have developed a relationship with over the years. If you think that the idea of developing a relationship with a grass sounds funny, then you probably have not experienced their beauty, or the heartbreak of losing one.
As a general rule grasses require well drained soil and I am a firm believer in planting the smaller varieties in groupings of a minimum of 5 feet, otherwise they will get lost in a mature garden.
I have listed the grasses below according to size, starting with the shortest.
Fescue is the most common of the grasses and we all see it every day. It is the grass that grows in meadows and most lawns. Red fescue is the thick, coarse- bladed variety used in parks and high use areas where a hardy grass is necessary.
If you really desire a patch of green lawn in your yard and you want the instant gratification of sod, there are new “designer” blends of fescues that require almost no mowing and significantly less water. Greenfieds Turf is a local sod farm that provides a sod especially designed for shade (of which there is an abundance of in this area) ,which grows to between 6 and 12 inches long. While not really conducive to being a play area in the traditional sense, it makes for a nice green patch.
My favorite fescue (also one of my favorite plants), is Festuca Glauca, One cultivar in particular ,‘Elijah Blue’, has a blue-silver tint and maintains its color year round. Requiring little water and almost no maintenance (also chokes out weeds), this as close to the perfect groundcover as they get. It’s one drawback is that it seems to have a lifespan of about 5 years.
Acorus and Hakonechloa
I have included these two grasses because they both thrive in deep shade and maintain their bright colors year round.
If you reside in the forest and are frustrated by your inability to use flowering plants for color, these grasses provide a nice alternative and come in various shades of green, silver and yellow.
Acorus is a rather small grass that spreads slowly, so in order to make an impact it is necessary to plant several in a grouping. It requires more water than most other grasses, but it is worth it.
Hakonechloa, “Japanese Forest Grass”, is a beautiful clumping grass that maintains its color best in part shade but can also take full sun.
One of the simplest, but most beautiful gardens that I have seen consists of several large boulders nestled in amongst groupings of Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’. Carex is a genus of grasses called sedges which also includes Acorus (mentioned above) and requires moist soil or part shade. I have had success planting carex at the bottom of a slope where they benefit from hill runoff without having to give them supplemental water.
C. comans ‘Frosted Curls’ has a green-silver color that is unique in the plant world. If planted in a grouping, it looks like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss illustration and one almost expects to find a Sneech or a Lorax residing in their midst.
This genus consists of about 80 species, but the most popular would be P. setaceum, commonly known as Fountain Grass. There are numerous cultivars within this species, but by far the most popular is ‘Rubrum’, the tall red grass with the bronze flowers. There is also the standard green leafed variety, which has a graceful wispy golden appearance, but has an annoying tendency to spread throughout your garden on its own accord. This species, like certain species of Euphorbia and feverfew, is a gift that keeps on giving until it ends up not being a gift, but a curse. If you plant it, plan on spending the rest of your days digging up its little babies from every nook and cranny of your garden..
Pennisetum is what I would consider a midsize grass, neither a foreground nor a background, and can be placed at various spots throughout your garden; P. ‘Rubrum’ (very popular) makes for a nice splash of red. My personal favorite is P. orientale, which at first appears to be rather ordinary, but when it flowers its beauty shines through. For maximum effect, I like to plant orientale in groupings of 3. When the first morning light catches the flowers, they seem like pink clouds hanging over the garden .
This striking grass can reach 8’ in height, and should be used as a backdrop since it will certainly block the view of anything behind, short of a full sized tree. M. sinensis is one of the most popular species. Its leaves are often striped and vary in color. Miscanthus has an effect which is so imposing that planting it in a grouping seems just a little too much. Miscanthus Zebrinus (Zebra Grass) has horizontal stripes of lemon and green on the leaves and silvery seed heads in the winter. “Morning Light”
This is a remarkable group of grasses that have graceful sweeping branches and some varieties have striped stems. There are two species that I have used with great success, Rhodocoma capensis and Elegia capensis. These grasses need to be given a wide berth as they can get to be 8 feet wide and as tall. Do not make the mistake of planting them in the front of your garden! Beautiful specimens of Restios can be viewed at our local plant lovers Mecca, the UCSC Arboretum.
Got questions? Give us a call at (831) 252-0121 or contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.
by Dave Waltzer
I believe that there is more to a nice garden than just an assortment of pretty flowers. Contour, color, shape, and texture are all important components to gardens as well.
Succulents fit that bill quite nicely. Their foliage provides a splash of color wherever they are placed and they also provide a wide variety of textures and shapes. Many succulents have rather unusual, even bizarre forms and can add that little extra bit of pizzazz to your garden.
What is a succulent? To be brief, succulents are plants that store water in their leaves, stems, or roots, and can survive for an extended period of time without being watered. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
Succulents stand up very well in hot, windy areas and also hold up to a great deal of neglect. For almost twenty years I have been landscaping houses along the seashore just south of Moss landing. One of the problems I have encountered there over the years is that the wind and the salt air acts as a desiccant, drying out the leaves of many plants and causing them to wilt and die. (That “windswept” look that one sees on Monterey cypress is actually the result of that windy salt air killing all the needles on the windward side of the tree.) Over the years of working along the coast I have observed that succulents have thrived and flourished in spots where even the hardiest plants have languished. This can be attributed to succulents’ fleshy, thick leaves, which resist the travails of heat, wind and salt air.
Succulents are very low maintenance. Once established, they need little watering and there is almost no trimming or pruning that needs to be done, except for cutting off the spent flower stalks.
by Dave Waltzer
If you are a resident living in one of the many local water districts that impose water restrictions, or are on a well that is decreasing its water output, you are probably wondering what you can do to keep your garden.
Drought is an inevitability in California. With an increasing population and a finite amount of water, there are always going to be years when we face water restrictions in the Santa Cruz area. We are currently in Stage 2 of the City of Santa Cruz contingency plan, which calls for restricted watering on certain days of the week. These restrictions apply primarily to watering with standard sprinklers and do not affect those who water using drip irrigation. As things stand, the water restrictions are not severe, lawns can be kept green within the parameters set by the water districts.
However, if the drought continues, a redesign of our thinking and our gardens will be in order. Stage 3 of the Santa Cruz water contingency plan calls for instituting water rationing for residential customers, and Stage 4 calls for a prohibition on turf watering. What this means is that if our drought continues, your verdant green lawn may soon be reduced to a dismal brown mat of dead thatch.
While lawns may be picturesque and great play areas, they are extraordinary consumers of water. With water rates on the rise, they will soon be very expensive. According to Roy Sikes of the Soquel Creek Water District, a 1,000 sq. ft. lawn soaks up about 25,000 gallons a year. In fact, The Soquel Creek Water District is so concerned about the amount of water that people are using to water their lawns that they instituted a rebate program to compensate people who removed their lawns and installed drought tolerant plants and drip systems. The program was so popular that eventually the water district ran out of funding.
When you finally decide to get rid of your lawn, you will probably want to consider a xeriscape. Simply put, a xeriscape is a drought-tolerant landscape often incorporating boulders, dramatic mounds and perhaps even a dry creek-bed to add contrast.
There are literally thousands of drought-tolerant plants to choose from when creating your xeriscape. If you live in a coastal zone (Sunset zone 17) and rarely experience severe frost, you should give serious consideration to a garden incorporating cacti and succulents. By storing water in their “leaves”, succulents require very infrequent watering, especially once established.
Another plant group that make up a good xeriscape are California natives. Having adapted to our climate where they get almost no water 5 months out of the year, they thrive with little or no irrigation. It has been my experience that California natives are best planted in the fall and winter months when they are naturally watered in by the rains. Transplanting them in the late spring or summer months when they are not accustomed to getting any water can lead to root funguses and death.
The “Mediterranean garden” is another great water saving alternative to lawns. Splashy displays of flowers and fragrant foliage are common features to these gardens. A Mediterranean garden not only incorporates plants that are indigenous to this area, but also includes plants from all over the world that share our climate. Common elements to these gardens are culinary and medicinal plants such as yarrow, sages, lavenders and rosemary. Another advantage to the Mediterranean garden is that, unlike a lawn, they are fairly low maintenance, only requiring occasional pruning and weeding.
Drip systems Once you have installed your xeriscape, it is fairly simple to adapt your former lawn sprinklers to a drip system, which will save thousands of gallons of water. Drip systems are far more efficient as they only put water right at the plant where it is needed. Not only do standard sprinklers waste water by spraying water where it isn’t needed, but they cause a lot more weeds to come up as they are often watering bare ground. Furthermore, unless you run your sprinklers for long periods of time, they only get the top three inches of the ground wet. In contrast, a drip system, because it runs for a long time and drips the water slowly, soaks your plants to the deepest roots and leads to a much healthier plant.
To adapt your lawn sprinklers to a drip system, you need only to cap all your sprinklers save one. On one of your sprinkler risers you install a pressure reducer and then run your drip hose from that. Then you weave the hose throughout your garden running it by all your plants. At each plant you punch in a drip emitter which lets out the water at rates varying between ½ to four gallons an hour, depending on the needs and size of the plant. For areas of groundcover, you punch in a little “microjet” sprinkler which comes in all sorts of different spray patterns and gallonages.
Fall is one of the best times of the year for planting, so if you are thinking of replacing your lawn, start planning now!
Have questions or need help? Call us at (831) 252-0121 or contact us on the web.
by Dave Waltzer
Azaleas are sometimes called “the royalty of the garden” and can be a great choice for your garden, particularly in a shady or sun dappled area.
Azaleas, which belong to the genus Rhododendron, are divided into two different types, deciduous and evergreen. There is a species that grows wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Rhododendron occidentale. These native azaleas are considered to be deciduous and have fragrant blossoms.
An established azalea in full bloom can be one of the most spectacular features in the garden but require some special attention when planting. Soil composition, pH, and appropriate light are all key components to be considered when growing azaleas.
Azalea roots like to be moist, but not soaking wet. In other words they like well draining soil that is rich in organic matter. If your soil is particularly hard and does not drain well it is recommended that you mound up some rich, well-drained soil and plant in the raised areas. The amount of organic matter in your soil is crucial to the health of your azalea because organic matter retains moisture much better than sand or mineral soil. Those who live in the sand hills of Scotts Valley, Ben Lomond or Felton should take note… you will need to use a great deal of soil amendments if you want to grow azaleas. Commonly used soil amendments that help retain moisture are coarse sphagnum peat moss, fir bark, sawdust, gorilla hair or composted garden scraps.
Soil pH is also important. Proper pH is essential to a plants’ ability to utilize essential minerals within the soil. Simple inexpensive soil test kits can be purchased at most nurseries. The optimum soil pH for azaleas is between 4.5 and 5.5. Soil ph ranges from acid to alkaline. The lower the pH number, the higher the acidity of the soil. If one wishes to “raise” the pH of the soil, the acidity of the soil is increased and the actual number becomes lower. I realize that this may be a little confusing.
If the pH of the soil is incorrect, important minerals become insoluble and consequently unavailable to the plant. Yellowing leaves are a common ailment found in unhealthy azaleas and this is usually an indicator of an iron deficiency. Since iron is crucial to the production of chlorophyll (which causes leaves to turn green) a good way to green up your plant is to add some liquid iron. Another solution is to add sulphur to the soil. Both of these ingredients can be readily purchased at many nurseries. It is important to follow the directions on the bottle because indiscriminate applications can result in overdose, and possibly death to the plant.
Many areas in and around Santa Cruz contain large quantities of limestone in the soil and limestone is highly alkaline, which azaleas do not like. The solution to this problem is the same as that given above to improve moisture retention and improve drainage. Mound up soil rich in compost or organic matter, and plant in those mounds.
The most frequently encountered azaleas are those found in the supermarket wrapped in pretty aluminum foil-paper with lustrous dark leaves and plump pink buds. Husbands hurrying home to their wives, who are mad at them, often purchase these azaleas as last-minute gifts. These azaleas commonly live indoors for a couple of weeks until they are finished blooming, then are moved outside where they frequently perish from over-watering, under-watering, or improper soil pH. Azaleas purchased from supermarkets and/or florists have been subjected to heavy fertilization, which causes the plant to become more sensitive to improper soil pH. Therefore, if you are the recipient of one of these florist azaleas from a loved one, you will need to be especially diligent if you want to ensure its long-term survival.
Light is an important factor to consider when choosing a good location in your garden to plant azaleas. Generally one can grow azaleas in full sun along the coastal areas of Santa Cruz, but up in the mountains where the temperature is a good deal warmer, it is best to keep azaleas out of the afternoon sun. Areas of dappled sunlight are also good locations. If you live in a redwood forest with a dense canopy, do not be surprised if your azaleas don’t set many blooms. Most varieties need at least some sunlight to set buds. Deciduous azaleas seem to be better at taking full sun even in inland areas as long as they have adequate moisture.
Even if you are not into growing azaleas, you can still enjoy their splendor in the wild. Rhododendron occidentale, the deciduous native azalea, can be found growing in the Santa Cruz mountains and throughout California, Oregon and Washington. Interestingly, in his great novel, East of Eden, John Steinbeck describes an excursion into the hills to see the native azaleas in bloom.
Recently at a meeting of the Monterey Bay Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, Mike McCullough gave a slide show about native azaleas. Mike has traveled throughout California, hiking up and down mountains to seek out, map and identify hundreds of different variations of the native azalea. The colors, shape, and size of the flowers vary significantly within this species. Native azaleas are usually found growing in areas where there is year round moisture, near springs and seeps. They bloom in May and June. Native azaleas can most easily be spotted growing around the visitors’ center at Big Basin Sate Park, or along the Eagle Creek trail in Henry Cowell.
Native azaleas are difficult to find in nurseries, but several deciduous species, most of which are deliciously fragrant, can be purchased either locally,online through mail order.
David Walzer is a landscape contractor and designer in the Santa Cruz area and can reached at (831) 252-0121.
by Dave Waltzer
Anyone who has planted a garden in an area frequented by deer will agree that the experience can be mildly frustrating, expensive and, at times, demoralizing.
I have been landscaping in deer-inhabited areas for 18 years, and my knowledge of deer-proof plants has been acquired in the crucible of experience. In my first year as a landscape contractor, I worked for a developer in the Marin Hills where herds of deer ran free, ranging through gardens like hoofed locusts.
The deer were so brazen and aggressive that they would eat plants sitting in the bed of my truck, fresh from the nursery. To add insult to injury, they would chase my dog up and down the hill and try to stomp him to death.
I quickly discovered that relying on published "lists" of deer-proof plants, or on the knowledge of landscape architects most of whom rely on those aforementioned "lists", was no recipe for success.
I remember working off an architect's plan that called for 100-plus Ceanothus Griseus, "yankee point." Thinking that the architect was familiar with the area, and the ceanothus were native to parts of California, I figured that this was a safe bet. The next morning, I returned to find every one of the ceanothus munched down to the stem, with many of the plants yanked out of the ground as well.
Just because a plant is a native does not mean the deer won't eat it. After all, what do they live on out in the wild? Native plants, of course!
The best way to keep deer out of your garden is, of course, with a fence. The next best way is a dog or a mountain lion. We shall assume, in this article, that neither fences nor dogs, and certainly not mountain lions, are an option for you.
There are various potions and pills on the market that either make your plants smell or taste bad to deer. One popular product is called "liquid fence," and it makes your plant smell like it hasn't bathed in a year.
It works fairly well, until rain or sprinklers wash it off. Its chief drawback is that it causes your garden to smell like a gas station restroom. And believe me, you'll be sorry if you accidentally spray some on your shoes. Another drawback is that it leaves a scent that repels deer but tends to attract neighborhood animals that would otherwise choose a fire hydrant but now find your plant a preferable place to mark their territory.
There is also a pill that one can bury around the roots of a plant that works systemically to give the plant a very bad taste. Do not handle this pill with your bare hands, it will do that same to you.
Your best bet is to choose plants that deer do not like to eat. I have found that a good rule of thumb is to use plants that have very aromatic leaves. Crush a leaf between your fingers; if it gives off a strong smell, the deer won't eat it.
Interestingly, most plants that have a medicinal use are also deer resistant. Mullein, yarrow, feverfew, sage, chamomile and thyme are a few examples. Want a deer-proof garden? Buy a copy of Culpepper's "Complete Herbal" and use it as a reference as to what plants the deer won't eat.
Since there is not enough room in this article to give a comprehensive list of deer-proof plants, I have chosen to focus on four specific families whose plants are deer resistant: