Archive for drought tolerant plantings

Ornamental Grass in the Landscape

Ornamental Grass in the Landscape – Bad Grass Good Grass

Xeriscape Planting Landscape Design in a Day

Good grass like Pennisetum Alocuroides ‘Little Bunny’ – Dwarf Fountain Grass is drought tolerant along with Stepable Thymus Pracox ‘Elfin Pink’,  a nearly flat Thyme groundcover.

Designers love to use ornamental grasses to add structure and seasonal interest. They have instant appeal and we designers are suckers for plants that soften pathways and make a dramatic statement.  They are a staple in modern landscape style. However, grasses have a bad reputation.

Hate Weeding?

I’ve had to reassure more than one new client the grasses I use don’t spread or reseed. My years of experience with plants means I’m slow to use the untested new plants, including grasses.  I’ve seen too many new industry introductions (plants) that looked like a good thing turn into thugs after a few years in a garden. Most of my clients say they dislike weeding over all outdoor chores so I shun plants with potential for adding weeding to the maintenance list.

Researching New Plant Material

Edited Salvia-Raspberry-Delight-Bouteloua-Blonde-Ambition-web

Salvia ‘Raspberry Delight’ with Good Grass Bouteloua Gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ Photo credit High Country Gardens

I’m writing this blog during my winter break when I research new plants and prepare for another busy year designing Portland gardens. I confess to being a teeny bit bored with my tried and true grasses.

I was quizzing a couple of my landscape designer buddies about new ornamental grasses.  I discovered they are sticking to the tried and true grasses and not using any new risky plants in their designs either. Here I was thinking they might be experimenting with new plants and that I was getting behind! Nope they are nervous nellies about using an unknown too.  We see what happens when a client buys some new cute plant only to have it take up a forever place all over the property…

Beautiful Bad Grass – Mexican Feather Grass

Edited Mexican Feather Grass

Beautiful bad grass – Mexican Feather Grass Stippa Tenuissima. Photo credit Proven Winners

Designers are concerned about grasses that seed and make weed problems for our clients.  The Mexican Feather (Stippa Tenuissima) Grasses are highly desirable because they are so finely textured the slightest breeze sends them into graceful sway. They are over the top beautiful! They can seed some or a lot and they are the darlings for xeriscape or low water gardens.  This grass is perfect for many dry and hot natural areas in California and (so naturally enough) it is on their noxious weed list.

This Bad Grass is so good in Modern Design

I don’t use Mexican Feather Grass but I have wanted to…they are unique, beautifully blowzy and are a stunner for modern minimalist designs.   I have a local gardener pal who has them in her large Portland modern garden design to fantastic effect. People who are gardeners with a capital G may keep up with weeding out the unwanted grass seedlings. Still, all it would take is a distraction, health problem, or too much over time, and this grass would be seeding into a new planting bed at your property and then your neighbors! Part of hiring an experienced designer is the safety margin we bring to the design process.

Beautiful Good Grass Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’ 

Edited blonde ambition

Bouteloua Gracilis or Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ moves in the breeze like living art.

Bouteloua Gracilis or Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ relieves my boredom in a flash and is a great substitute for the wildly popular Mexican Feather Grass. Discovered by David Salman of High Country Gardens, this plant has all the drama of Mexican Feather Grass but won’t seed around.   It’s very dramatic looking with a flower head that juts to one side like an eyebrow.  It’s evergreen and moves beautifully in the breeze so it’s not just a plant, it’s living art.

Low Maintenance

Cut it down in February to two inches tall, scuff the crown of the plant and pull away any loose grass stalks from the crown.  It will thrive in a lighter soil mix with lots of sun.  It prefers no fertilizer, low water and can be fully drought tolerant after established.  To kill Blue Grama Grass, plant it in heavy clay and over water it.  I’m excited about adding this good grass to xeriscaping planting plans in the coming year.

4 Drought-Resistant Landscaping Ideas for Increasing Your Property’s Eye Appeal

 

Drought tolerant low maintenance front yard

Drought tolerant Portland landscape design example. This front yard shown in winter is gravel, stone and plants.

4 Drought-Resistant Landscaping Ideas for Increasing Your Property’s Eye Appeal

In recent years, droughts have made it harder to maintain your property’s landscaping, especially with water restrictions that make it almost impossible to maintain lush, green natural grass. While it may be tempting to throw up your hands and just let it go brown, you do have many other options for increasing your property’s eye appeal. Knowing about these four drought resistant landscaping ideas gives you the perfect starting point for transforming the look and usability of your lawn.

Gravel and Stone

This landscaping option requires no watering, and it can last for years. However, too much gravel and stone can look stark. There is also the risk of gravel and stone being displaced during times of heavy foot traffic or inclement weather. For this reason, it is best to limit the use of this ground covering to smaller accent areas. Filling in the area around a fire pit or lining a walkway with stones and pavers reduces the amount of grass you need to create a lovely outdoor space. Yet, you will still need to consider other options if you prefer some green in your landscaping plan.

Garden path with stone stairs in Portland Oregon

The new stairs are complemented by easy care artificial grass.

Artificial Grass

Gravel and stone may do the trick, but they still lack the soothing quality of staring out at a lush, green space. Artificial grass is a great option when you prefer the look of natural blades since it has a similar appearance and texture, and it offers additional benefits for drought conditions such as requiring no water to maintain its look. You will also find that installing artificial grass eliminates the need for other forms of energy wasting such as mowing and weeding, and it lasts for years with little more than an occasional wash down with the hose.

Succulents

These hardy plants require very little watering to achieve gorgeous growth. While succulents are low-maintenance, it does take some know how for selecting the types that will work best in your climate. Therefore, you will want to do some research before planting to find the right mix of colors, textures and hardiness for your outdoor area.  Hen and Chicks – Sempervivum and Sedum Spath ‘Voodoo’  are two popular options for adding succulents to drought-prone areas.

Edited Salvia-Raspberry-Delight-Bouteloua-Blonde-Ambition-web

Salvia ‘Raspberry Delight’ with Good Grass Bouteloua Gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ Photo credit High Country Gardens

Perennial Flowers

Life in a drought state is hard for flower loving home owners. However, there are some options for brightening up your outdoor space even when the rain has yet to fall. Consider adding low-water blooms such as Russian sage and lavender to your garden. Ideally, you should choose flowers that can be planted in pots so that you can keep them out of the heavy sun and put them out anytime that you need a splash of color for your décor. This option is a great way to add a touch of life by combining it with other ground coverings such as artificial grass.

Keeping your landscaping in top condition may seem harder when you are dealing with drought conditions. However, water restrictions may be the impetus you need to explore other options that offer far greater benefits than natural grass. For best results, consider mixing it up a bit by adding a few succulents as accents to your artificial grass, or define a small space with gravel. By being willing to experiment, you will find the perfect design for transforming your lawn into a gorgeous oasis that frees you from the dreaded parts of regular lawn maintenance.

 

Controlling Erosion on Hillsides – A Portland Landscape Designer’s Perspective

Preventing erosion

My vacation home is above a steep slope. It’s smart to learn about preventing erosion

Controlling Erosion on Hillsides

As a Portland landscape designer I often work with hillside properties.

I also own a vacation home on Harstine Island in Mason County, Washington. We built our house about 10 years ago. The house is 30 feet from a steep hill overlooking the beach. The things I’ve learned about controlling erosion are useful to anyone who has a sloped property.

When we built the house we made some smart choices, we went with a natural landscape instead of lawn, ran our water from downspouts down the hill in pipes rather than spilling it out at the top of the hill.  Nor did we disconnect our downspouts to let water pool and perc down into the soil near the house.  That can be a fine practice for flat properties but not hilly ones.

I have a majestic fir tree on my slope and neighbors have suggested I cut it down for fear that it will remove a lot of my bank someday when it fails.  I want to support this tree for as long as possible so I was inspired to make an appointment with Karin Strelioff with Mason County Conservation District.  Karin is a technician with their Marine Waterfront Assistance Program.  She knows about the slopes and cliffs that make the shoreline of the South Puget Sound and many methods of erosion control.  She gave me some important signs to watch for regarding my tree and the name of a local arborist who is astute in the science of trees on slopes.

Well planted slope controls erosion

My slope is well planted with salal, sword fern and other erosion controlling native plants.

My Tree    

Karin gave me these basic things to watch for with regards to my beautiful huge fir tree.

Pay attention to the surface soil and the plantings around the trees trunk. Know what the ground and general area looks like typically and watch for any changes in that area.  On the uphill side of my tree trunk I’ll look for an area of disturbance, an area of soil higher than it was when I saw it last.  This could mean my trees roots are pushing toward the surface.  On the downhill side of my trunk I will be looking for soil that may have fallen away making a new steeper area.  Either one of these disturbances will have me on the phone to an experienced certified arborist that I trust.  I love knowing what to look for.  It will help me with my anxiety when the wind blows and my tree’s branches whistle like a Hitchcock movie sound track.

I recognize that my tree is supposed to fail at some point, falling down the hill along with a portion of my slope to bring more sand to the beach and add to the natural beachhead.  Given that I would like to keep every square inch of my backyard, when the tree is starting to fail, the arborist will probably recommend it be removed.  Hopefully by that time I will have enough plant material well established to offset its loss to my erosion control plantings.

Erosion Prevention

Blackberry Fruit

How can anything so sweet, be so evil?

I learned important things about my property.  For one thing my various slopes and banks have either a lot of trees or ground covering plants or both so I can take the information from Karin and apply it as a preventative rather than having to rush into a mitigation process. We also have very few invasive plants on the property. I have one Himalayan blackberry plant that we will work on getting rid of.  Lucky me.

Karin says the most important thing that I can do is to learn about the water load on my property and how best to control where it goes.  The biggest water load source is water from the roof of the house.  The county had good rules in place when we built the house so we are also ahead here.  We took our water down the hill in pipes.  The old practice of disconnecting our downspouts and letting the water perc down a slope has caused erosion problems for many properties.  That’s a fine practice for people with flat lots in Portland, in fact Portland encourages disconnecting downspouts and building rain gardens. Karin says be sure to inspect your pipe.  If we had a crack or damage to a pipe that allowed water out in the wrong place, it could create a heavy water load and cause big problems.  We can start inspecting pretty easily because our pipes are not buried.

Other sources of water are as simple as rain water. The way to control rain water is with plants.  Think of it this way………..Gravy and bread.  We use bread to sop up the gravy, well we did until they said it was bad for us and now they are saying animal fats are good for us…….  I love gravy which is a diversion from this article, must be dinner time.  We will use the right plants in the right places to sop up the rain water.

Evergreen trees are most effective on slopes and yet a lot of people cut down evergreen trees because they spoil the view.  It turns out evergreen needled trees (coniferous) perform brilliantly to protect slopes from erosion.  I had no idea. Here’s why:

Coastal feeder slope

This cliff is feeding sand to the beach.

Large evergreen coniferous trees like our Western Red Cedar or our Douglas Fir have needled foliage.  The needles break the impact of hard pelting winter rain into tiny droplets. The surface soil is protected from the impact of the hard rain. That’s helpful, but even better the trees roots take up a tremendous amount of water and utilize a process called transpiration which releases the water from the needles as a fine mist. So water under the soil surface is absorbed by the roots instead of spilling out of the side of the cliff.  Deciduous large trees such as Oregon Bigleaf Maple, or alders have no leaves in the winter, and they are dormant and so their roots do not take up as much water as the needled trees do in winter or any other time of the year.  The conifir reigns as the top water catcher on the slope.  There is also what seems to me to be a rather magical thing fir trees do.  It’s called thigmomorphogenesis.  This word refers to the way trees and plants respond to mechanical stimuli that influences how they can  grow in really unusual ways. Basically, they are responding to the situation on the slope and growing their roots in ways to protect that slope. They may grow a larger branch to balance their mass.  Somehow they know to do this.  It’s seriously cool science stuff here.

Here’s what I’m going to do to help protect my slope.

New plantings that include evergreen coniferous trees.

First I am going to enhance the soil above my big tree to help the native plants spread and grow.  I’ll add compost near my top of slope plantings to try to cajole them into growing toward the house.  The top of this hill was graded flat by the developer to build the house so there isn’t a drop of top soil in my flat yard.  The native plants stop growing and you can see the straight line across the edge of my yard at the top of the steep downhill slope.

Pacific Madrone

Pacific Madrone – Arbutus menziesii
has recently been approved for City of Portland street trees. It’s a NW native plant.

I am going to plant 3 more (tiny sized) Pacific Madrone below my big fir tree and also 5 dwarf Western Red Cedar. I’ll use willow stakes in areas with more sun.  They are easy to plant.  I’m using a modified native tree to try to protect my view.  The Excelsor Western Red Cedar matures at about 20′ tall, not 70’.  Will I be here to see them at 20’ tall?  Hard to say, I better keep eating lots of grass fed butter and Kale.

I got so much from my appointment with Karin that I have another blog that will explain what plants I am planting where.  Stay tuned for part two.

 

Dwarf Mugo Pine – Get the Right Plant!

Pinus Mugo 'Sherwoods Compact'

Textured trio of ‘Sherwoods Compact’ dwarf pine, Sempervivum (hen and chick), Arabis (rock cress)

For success in the landscape (which I define as “right plant right place”), it’s important to get the exact plant specified by your designer.

Early in my career I specified three dwarf Mugo Pine.  I wanted a uniform pin cushion shape to contrast with ornamental grasses and succulents.  I wanted the pines to stay small, and contrast with the grasses that would be two thirds bigger. This was my vision.  What happened instead was three dwarf Mugo Pine ‘Nana’ grew into three different shapes and heights!  None of them stayed small.  The fact is plants grown from seeds can be as variable as your siblings.  My brother and I have blue eyes, my sister has green eyes, I’m a redhead my brother a brunette and my sister’s a blonde.

I learned that seed grown dwarf pines are variable, only plants grown from cuttings of a named cultivar could be trusted.  I knew this in theory but the industry was deceptive in labeling.  I now knew to avoid any dwarf conifer called ‘Nana’!  That was a secret code word for seed propagated.

Pinus Mugo 'Slowmound' is another favorite trusted dwarf pine

Pinus Mugo ‘Slowmound’ is another favorite trusted dwarf pine

Then I was told that ‘Pumilo’ was a named variety and it stayed low.  I was tricked again.  The industry was also using seeds from ‘Pumilo’, not cuttings to produce a more affordable and (profitable) dwarf Mugo Pine. For many years I did not use any Mugo Pine at all, mainly because I was disgusted.

When specific size and shape uniformity are needed always select plants grown from cuttings or tissue culture.  People who work at retail nurseries are sometimes ignorant of these finer points.

These days I need dwarf evergreens, particularly pines, for my clients because they are true low maintenance.  They are low water, no pruning or candling required, they take hot full sun even next to concrete, and they look great year round.  These true dwarf pines won’t get too tall in 10  years.  So I had to find sources and growers I could trust.

The varieties I use and where I get them:

Oregon Small Trees is a private wholesale nursery/grower.  The owner, Dave Leckey and his daughter, grow all of their plant material from cuttings.  It takes many years to grow dwarf plants to a good size for the landscape.  I also specify plants grown by Iseli Nursery and another resource is Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery.  None of these resources are retail, you have to buy their plants through a plant broker or in the case of Iseli, those plants can be found at Portland Nursery, Cornell Farms and Farmington Gardens.

Notice the fine texture of this needled pine.

Notice the fine texture of this needled pine.

Pinus Mugo ‘Sherwoods Compact’ is a favorite of my clients, they love the texture of the needles.  I like Pinus Mugo ‘SlowMound’ a bit better for some designs.  It’s a darker green.  My favorite miniature Mugo Pine is called ‘Donna’s Mini’ and I’ll spend more money to get a larger tiny plant when I use ‘Donna’s Mini’.  It grows less than 1 inch a year in ideal circumstances.

 

New Shrubs Expand Designer’s Palette

Ceanothus G. 'Hearts Desire' Picture from Xera

California Lilac Ceanothus Griseus ‘Hearts Desire’   Picture from Xera Plants

I’m excited about these new plants for Portland gardens.

Many of us are familiar with California Lilac and its blue flowers.  Beloved by bees, including our endangered native bumble bees, it’s  also a host plant for Swallow Tail butterflies.  However, it has its problems in a home landscape.  Many varieties are short lived because they receive summer irrigation along with your other plantings.  They need infrequent or no summer water to be a long term plant.  Most of all keeping them a manageable size is difficult for many gardeners. Ceanothus Griseus ‘Hearts Desire’ is different.  It can handle some summer irrigation and unlike all the other varieties of ground cover type California Lilac, it grows to only 4 inches tall and grows slowly to 24 inches wide.  It is easy to tip prune so can be confined.  These new habits make it a very useful plant for smaller landscapes.  It can take a lot of dry so we can plant it in the xeriscape dry tolerant gardens that have no irrigation or it can receive some summer irrigation.   I see this  plant as a major improvement over old varieties like ‘Anchor Bay’ or ‘Points Rey’.  Xera Plants is growing ‘Hearts Desire’ but expect other growers to jump on the plant wagon soon.  I’d use ‘Hearts Desire’ under limbed up fir trees, on SW facing banks or in “hellstrips”.  I will be trialing this new variety of California Lilac in my xeriscape garden.

Manzanita is a shrub or large tree known for its colorful bark and picturesque windswept shapes on the northern California coast. Here in Portland it’s too wet or too cold for most Manzanitas.  News flash!  Some of the California Manzanita species have been hybridized (designed by humans) into cold hardy evergreen ground covers and shrubs.  I love the leaves and the bark color and will be using these two specific varieties of Manzanita in my designs more frequently.   My favorite is ‘St. Helena’ which grows to 24 inches, and can take irrigation if it must.

Hummingbird sitting on manzanita plant

Hummingbird sitting on Manzanita plant

For success with Manzanita don’t feed the soil with compost or fertilizer at all, not even when doing initial soil preparation.  Work with the existing soil.  It needs to be watered through its first summer and then little to no irrigation is best.  This year (2015) my clients will be instructed to water it through its first winter as well since we are expecting a very dry winter but most years this would not be necessary.  Note: hummingbirds love Manzanita flowers.  Pacific Horticulture Society has an in depth article about Manzanita/Arctostaphlylos for the NW; by our revered plants man Paul Bonine.

Callistemon viridiflorus 'Xera Compact' Picture from Xera

Callistemon viridiflorus ‘Xera Compact’ Picture from Xera Plants

Callestemon or Bottle Brush is well known to Californians.  They have many varieties with hot red flowers and they  attract hummingbirds like crazy.  Their loose needles have a tropical feel to them and they can look wild or messy depending on your point of view!  While talking with Greg Shepard at Xera Plants, I got good news about the varieties of this plant that we can grow here in Portland.  A few of these make very attractive  tidy evergreen shrubs.  I’m always looking for soft textured evergreen shrubs with winter good looks that don’t get too big.  Hummingbirds are attracted to all of the Bottle Brush plants but deer are not.  Pretty great huh?

Here are 2 varieties I am most interested in for my clients:

1.  Callistemon Pityoides ‘Corvallis’.  Yes found in Corvallis, Oregon the original plant withstood 20 years of cold and everything an Oregon winter can throw at a plant.  It grows 5’ tall and 3’ wide in ten years.  It can take regular water or can be trained into drought tolerance easily.  It flowers twice in a season with soft yellow bottle brush flowers that remind people of baby ducks.  Deer usually leave it alone unless they are desperate.

2.  Callistemon viridiflorus ‘Xera Compact’ grows to 4 ½’ feet tall.  It is  VERY heavy blooming for 6 weeks.  The flowers are chartreuse and yellow brushes 3 inches long, the leaves are deep green in summer and take on hints of red in winter.