Tag Archives: drought-tolerant landscaping

october coffeeberries

Octo­ber can be the cru­elest month. The first cou­ple of days saw a return visit from Satan’s HVAC guy. Freak­ing hot. And same goes for Wednes­day of this week. Octo­ber was the month of the big wild­fires in 2003 and 2007.

This Octo­ber also brought the first mea­sur­able rain since May, when the month saw 0.02 inches of rain. Accord­ing to San Diego weather enthu­si­ast John S. Stokes III, “[t]his is the 19th time in the last 163 years June, July, August and Sep­tem­ber have been zero/trace.” But after a dry sum­mer we got some rain, and change is in the air.

One of the Cal­i­for­nia native plants that weath­ers the dry spell best is the cof­fee­berry, Fran­gula cal­i­for­nia or more com­monly known and sold by its old name of Rham­nus cal­i­for­nica. With only occa­sional sup­ple­men­tal water the plants stay look­ing green. Give them a lit­tle more water and they can look absolutely lush.

You can buy dif­fer­ent clones of cof­fee­berry, and they do do slightly dif­fer­ent things. The most “nor­mal” look­ing plant, from a non-native hor­ti­cul­tural stand­point might be the clone Tran­quil Margerita that’s sold by Las Pil­i­tas. If you read any British gar­den writ­ing you’ll encounter the word “gar­de­nesque,” and this clone could be used to define the word. Neat, dense and well-behaved, with long, some­what glossy leaves, it would fit seam­lessly into cot­tage gar­den landscape.

Eve Case is a clone that goes back to its intro­duc­tion in 1975 by the Saratoga Hor­ti­cul­tural Research Foun­da­tion, a group that was founded in 1952 through the vision of hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist Ray Hart­man to give Cal­i­for­ni­ans more climate-appropriate choices for their gar­dens. Com­pared to Mar­garita, Eve is a wild woman. This clone’s leaves are coarser, a lit­tle reflexed, and come fewer to the stem than with Tran­quil Mar­garita. If Mar­garita was gar­de­nesque, Eve might be called “woodsy.” Here’s one of my plants of it–probably not the best exam­ples of what this clone can look like. But it’s a real-life exam­ple of what gophers can do in a gar­den to retard the growth of plants, with this plant going into the ground after the pre­vi­ous one.

Mound San Bruno is some­where between the pre­vi­ous two clones. The leaves tend to be a lit­tle smaller, and not so recurved like in Eve Case. My plant of it is a really bad exam­ple. I put in the ground and assumed that the lit­tle drip emit­ter would keep it happy. But some evil critter–gophers again–buried the emit­ter so that the plant got next to no water for sev­eral months. If the plant had a chance to get estab­lished it would have weather the dry spell just fine, but this plant didn’t fare so well. But as soon as I fixed the emit­ter it came back, and should look ter­rific after it gets a moist win­ter to get it established.

Peo­ple grow cof­fee­ber­ries for the reli­able green foliage. But they also grow this plant for its berries. True to its name the berries mature to a dark shade like dark-roast espresso beans. I men­tioned change ear­lier, and this seems to be the month when you see the berries mak­ing their tran­si­tion in a big way.

Some plants have a mul­ti­color mix of fruits at this point in the season.

For me Eve Case is just start­ing the tran­si­tion, show­ing col­or­ful spots on the orig­i­nal green berries.

Next in the cof­fee­berry spec­trum are warm oranges…

…quickly fol­lowed by pink-inspired reds.

The final color stage is this name­sake cof­fee bean color. The birds are sure to show up once they find out cof­fee­berry is served…

a decade of neglect

When my par­ents retired they moved out of their house of almost twenty-five years in the Los Ange­les area. Not want­ing to pick favorites between their two chil­dren they decided on a mod­est house in a new devel­op­ment in Ocean­side, halfway between my sis­ter and me.

Like many new homes the land­scap­ing that came with the place was bare-bones: lawn, with a sin­gle podocar­pus sapling next to the front curb. The blank slate excited my mother, who was look­ing for­ward to putting her stamp on a new piece of prop­erty. I helped her plan the yard, con­struct the raised beds, move dirt and do some of the plant­ing. In the end, though, almost all the plant selec­tions were hers: ole­an­ders, pit­tospo­rum, gera­ni­ums, roses, aza­leas, aga­pan­thus, bird of par­adise, Japan­ese maple, cit­rus, stone fruit trees, plus selec­tions from the other plants that were being pro­moted twenty years ago.

When my mother died in the late 90s it left my father with a yard that wasn’t exactly what you’d call low-maintenance. And Ocean­side wasn’t a quick drive up for me so that I could help tend it. Sev­eral years later he moved out, leav­ing the gardener’s gar­den in the hands of renters, many of whom never watered or tended it.

One cor­ner of the back yard, with some sur­vivor plants and oth­ers that hadn’t fared so well.

Last sum­mer I had a chance to stop by the house for what will prob­a­bly be my last visit. Many plants were still alive, thanks in part to what had been a mod­er­ately moist win­ter and spring, with more thanks prob­a­bly going to the neigh­bors who watered their lawns and unknow­ingly kept the ground moist for thirsty roots from next door to sneak under the side fence.

A detail of the pre­ced­ing pho­tos, show­ing a bright green native Bac­cha­rus, coy­ote brush, that had col­o­nized the bed. It looks much hap­pier than most of the non-natives.

Laven­der, crape myr­tle and cit­rus are still hang­ing on. The lawn is long gone, however.


The side yard, with over­grown hon­ey­suckle and pittosporum.

A rose and weeds in the front yard, prob­a­bly sur­viv­ing from over­spray from the neighbor’s sprinklers.


I’d always thought Japan­ese maples were water hogs. This one didn’t seem to mind the abuse, though I sus­pect its roots wan­dered far next door look­ing for water. To the left behind it is aspara­gus fern, a plant that will sur­vive long after the next zom­bie apocalypse.

Shef­fle­ria, the fairly inde­struc­table house­plant, turns into a fairly inde­struc­table sub­trop­i­cal screen out­doors when planted next to the neighbor’s well watered lawn. The adja­cent aza­leas weren’t so resource­ful and were pretty crispy-brown.



My mother liked her gera­ni­ums. This sur­vivor was just about the only thing bloom­ing that day.

A steep and weedy slope drops to the back prop­erty line. A nar­row ripar­ian cor­ri­dor behind the house was thick with untrimmed wil­lows, doing a ter­rific job of screen­ing out con­dos and a Home Depot that have gone up beyond the fence.


The house is in the hands of new own­ers now. They’ll prob­a­bly look at the ragged plant­i­ngs and decide to start fresh, remov­ing most of the scrappy plants and mak­ing the yard their own.

If I hadn’t seen the yard in its cur­rent state I might have felt pro­tec­tive or ter­ri­to­r­ial. But this visit allowed me to let go. This was once a com­fort­able and beau­ti­fully main­tained gar­den that gave my par­ents joy. I have those mem­o­ries, but I real­ize that’s not what the gar­den is anymore.

I now feel at peace with what­ever the new own­ers will want to do with the yard. I wish them well.

landscaping horror: where diy meets wtf

One of my friends recently turned me on to Regretsy, a blog that gath­ers together some of the more unfor­tu­nate objects that earnest DIY­ers have made and posted for sale at the Etsy craft site.

I really like Regretsy’s tag line, “where DIY meets WTF,” and I’ve bor­rowed it for the sub­ti­tle of this quick post on a new gar­den space that went up in my neigh­bor­hood, a bit of land­scap­ing hor­ri­ble­ness that seemed per­fect for Halloween.

I thank John for notic­ing it first and point­ing it out to me, know­ing how well I’d appre­ci­ate it. “It’s on the right as you head down the hill. You can’t miss it.”

Ah, what a won­der: plas­tic grass-colored indoor-outdoor car­pet­ing, one of my per­sonal favs…placed nat­u­ral­is­ti­cally between the side­walk and the side fence…

But it gets bet­ter! Ever six feet or so, next to the fence, the designer has planted big red silk roses. I’m sure they were meant to coor­di­nate with the red curb.

A gar­den made out of dead things emu­lat­ing live ones. Zom­bies. Plas­tic roses. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

One of the dan­gers of hav­ing lovely flow­ers next to a pub­lic walk­way is that some­one might want to pick them.

One of the roses planted in this plas­tic lawn. Note the price tag still attached.


Could this be the lat­est avant-garde gar­den designed by Martha Schwartz, who’s incor­po­rated plas­tic plants into her designs, as in her [ Splice Gar­den, at Cambridge’s White­head Insti­tute ]?

No, sadly, prob­a­bly not. But I will force myself to say some­thing nice about it: At least it doesn’t require water­ing, except maybe to hose off the dust.

our gardens after we’re gone

Ever won­der what your gar­den would look like if the human care­tak­ers just vanished?

Maybe I’ve been inspired by all the dis­as­ter flicks like 2012 or the His­tory Channel’s Life After Peo­ple series. But envi­sion­ing gar­dens after gar­den­ers is an inter­est­ing intel­lec­tual exer­cise that might help us answer that pesky ques­tion: What is a garden?

Would all the inva­sive species take over? Would the native plants reclaim their turf? For how long would you still be able to tell that a gar­den existed in a spot in the first place?

I looked at parts of my back yard and tried to imag­ine what would happen.

Within the first month, in South­ern California’s dry cli­mate, most of the pot­ted plants would per­ish for lack of water. Some of the suc­cu­lents might hang on longer, but with­out an exten­sive root sys­tem in the ground, they’d be doomed.

This lit­tle frog would be star­ing at a bog gar­den where all the bog plants have died back, once again for lack of water.

Within two or three months the fish­ponds would be dry: no waterlilies, no cat­tails, no sedges, no water for the local birds.

This pathetic patch of grass would go through boom and bust cycles, turn­ing green with the rains, dying back to brown other times of year. Seeds of other plants bet­ter adapted to the con­di­tions would even­tu­ally take hold. Maybe some plants from the local canyon. Maybe some hardy exotic or inva­sive species.

Behind the back fence of the house is this slope dom­i­nated by ram­pant ice­plant. The the neigh­bor behind me and I haven’t been able agree on what to do with the space. I’ve planted a small col­lec­tion of native plants to help sta­bi­lize the slope. These are species that with only once excep­tion can be found within a five mile radius of the house, and include plants like this night­shade, Solanum parishii

…and Del Mar Man­zanita, Arc­tostaphy­los glan­du­losa ssp. cras­si­fo­lia, an extremely rare plant that’s on the Fed­eral endan­gered species list. The neigh­bor, how­ever, loves their ice­plant and can’t imag­ine of a slope with­out this gaw­daw­ful inva­sive species clam­or­ing all over it. The local chap­ter of the Cal­i­for­nia Native Plant Soci­ety has pre­pared a great pam­phlet on get­ting rid of ice­plant that you can view [ here ]. It goes into some great rea­sons to get rid of the stuff:

Planted on hill­sides of thou­sands of homes in San Diego, it has since crawled off the orig­i­nal site and into neigh­bor­ing Open Space parks, endan­ger­ing unique plants by smoth­er­ing them. Ice­plant pro­vides lit­tle habi­tat value com­pared to the plant com­mu­nity that it is replac­ing. Com­pared to the native shrubs, ice­plant has very shal­low roots that do not hold soil well; close inspec­tion often reveals gul­lies under­neath the twisted mat of vines. After rain, Ice­plant engorges with water, sub­stan­tially increas­ing its weight. As a result, ice­plant can cause the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of steep hill­sides by encour­ag­ing slump­ing – poten­tially endan­ger­ing the house above.

For peo­ple in sub­ur­bia, “habi­tat value” might mean plants that har­bor scary wild ani­mals and bugs, so that’s not always the most com­pelling rea­son to go native. The fact that ice­plant might endan­ger their prop­erty val­ues could be more persuasive.

So, return­ing to my main topic, the ice­plant would prob­a­bly over­run most of the native plants in a very few years and form a deep pile. Once we neglected the slope for a few years and found that the mat of ice­plant was start­ing to push the back fence over. Within ten years the fence would begin to fail and the ice­plant would begin its descent into the lower garden.

These plants along the back fence would stand a chance of sur­viv­ing with­out water. The yucca, palm, pro­tea would be tall enough to sur­vive an onslaught of maraud­ing ice­plant from behind. They’re plants that don’t require much main­te­nance, and this wall of foliage would prob­a­bly look unchanged for a num­ber of years. But the lower aloes and other suc­cu­lents would likely be smoth­ered by the iceplant.

This apri­cot against the back fence never looks great with­out sum­mer water­ing, but it sur­vives. It’s tall enough that it would prob­a­bly sur­vive the ice­plant inva­sion. Some of the adja­cent native plants do great with the nat­ural con­di­tions. They might not cope so well with the maraud­ing iceplant.

The neigh­bor on the side has Alger­ian ivy that requires con­stant clip­ping to keep it next door. Within two years it would begin to estab­lish itself in the back yard. Taller plants that might sur­vive the ice­plant inva­sion might have ivy crawl­ing up and smoth­er­ing them.

This raised bed near the house is where veg­gies and irri­gated plants live. Most of the exotic plants wouldn’t make it with­out water. The Dr. Hurd man­zanita, the bougainvil­lea vine and maybe the Gar­rya ellip­tica would prob­a­bly hang in there, how­ever, maybe for decades, maybe for much longer.

Fifty to seventy-five years out the house would start to fail. Plants might begin to move in. The sur­round­ing gar­den space would be over­grown with the hardi­est drought-adapted species. I almost never plant in rows, but the mixed ori­gins of the species–South Africa, South Amer­ica, Europe, as well as from all over Cal­i­for­nia, not just local species–would clue an inves­ti­ga­tor into the fact that a gar­den existed on the site. The rela­tion­ships between the plants would be dic­tated by nature, not a gar­dener pre­serv­ing order between plants with mis­matched lev­els of vigor.

Chances are excel­lent that one hun­dred years out, maybe two hun­dred or more, the most per­sis­tent inva­sive species would still be here. Ice­plant and ivy, plus fen­nel and black mus­tard that have invaded the local canyons, would fea­ture in the neigh­bor­hood land­scape. But while many inva­sives bask in the newly dis­turbed earth of a gar­den or the re-engineered grades around roads, they don’t always do so well long-term. Biol­o­gists have sug­gested that many native plants would return to a place where they’re not being pulled out or con­stantly mowed. My yard might be col­o­nized by the local Mex­i­can elder­berry, or toyon, or lemon­ade berry, or prickly pear. And maybe some of the plants I’ve already intro­duced to the yard will per­sist and repro­duce. The restora­tion of nature might spread from my house and from the wild edges of nature just a few houses away.

Even after nature returns, the occa­sional hardy exotic plant sur­viv­ing amidst the natives, along with some of the neighborhood’s plant­i­ngs of trees and shrubs in rows will make it obvi­ous: There used to be gar­dens here.