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.