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Why so grey?



A lot of my clients ask me if there is a way to tell whether or not a plant is drought tolerant just by looking at it. They want to be able to impulse purchase plants at their local nursery and know that they will work in their low water use gardens. It isn’t always possible to tell, but the following can at least be helpful.

Drought tolerant plants, or plants that will work in a xeriscape garden (which comes from the word xeric, which just means dry, not from zero, as many people think), are going to have a few simple characteristics that they evolved to help them live in dry climates. If you look for the characteristics, they can be the give-away for what the plant might want.

1) Xeriscape plants often have a grey-green color to their leaves, not a green-green. This is because they are from places where light is abundant but water is scarce. They want save their water but can afford to loose a few chlorophyll cells. Plants that live in places like rainforests have the opposite problem. They get plenty of water but are probably shaded by a tree canopy, so they want all the chlorophyll they can get in their leaves so that they can absorb what little light comes their way. So rule #1 is: Grey-green is probably drought tolerant. Green-green is probably not.

2) Dry climate plants may be fuzzy. This layer of fuzz helps them to lose less water from evaporation. Wet climate plants will almost never be fuzzy- they will be waxy instead, like a Philodendron. So rule #2: fuzzy probably indicates drought tolerant and waxy probably indicates water loving.

3) Xeriscape plants tend to have small leaves. This also helps them conserve water because the pores in leaves are where most plants lose water from. Since they probably get all the light they need, having small leaves doesn’t stop them from doing plenty of photosynthesizing. Wet climate plants tend to have big leaves so that they can soak up more light (think deep forrests, rainforests, shady glens). So rule #3: xeriscape plants have small leaves and wet climate plants have big leaves.



So, which is which?

The first photo, Philodendron evansii, has big waxy green leaves (and yep, it likes its water) and the second photo, Acacia redolens, has grey-green, small leaves. It is very drought tolerant.

Sage Outdoor Designs is a San Diego landscape design firm. Kate
Wiseman, the Principal, has been a San Diego landscape designer
for the past ten years. Find out more at www.sageoutdoordesigns.com

Everything is coming up roses

Roses have a reputation for being high maintenance- and in my opinion it is a reputation that is fairly earned. In San Diego, we are spoiled enough to think that our gardens should be attractive all year round, and winter time bare branch roses are just not very attractive. However, there are a few varieties that I use often and think of as “easy” roses.

My favorites by far are the Flower Carpet roses. These low groundcover roses are usually about two feet tall and two to three feet wide. They come in about a dozen colors now, and they are unique in that they can produce new growth from their roots, not just from their canes. That means that pruning can be done with loppers. Here are a few of the Flower Carpet series (just to warn you- these usually go for about $20 for a 5 gallon, so you pay a premium for them):

One of the standard low maintenance roses is Rosa floribunda ‘Iceberg’. It is a rose you see often, and for good reason. It is one of the simplest roses to grow and has a classic look.

I also think that the Lady Banks roses are worth a try. These are climbing or sprawling roses, great for hanging over the edge of a tall wall or scrambling up and over a short fence.

And for the last of my easy care roses: a great smelling climbing rose that is really a classic. Cecil Brunner is a soft pink with a precious flower and amazing scent. It can be trained up and over larger arbors because its canes cane be 20 feet long. This one is a must have for a country cottage garden.

In coastal San Diego, keep an eye out for powdery mildew. It is common on roses that are getting wet from irrigation overspray or damp air from our June gloom.

Sage Outdoor Designs is a San Diego landscape design firm. Kate
Wiseman, the Principal, has been a San Diego landscape designer
for the past ten years. Find out more at www.sageoutdoordesigns.com

Fabulous fruits

I get a lot of questions about which fruit trees grow well in San Diego, so I thought I would list a few favorites that are proven producers.

The fruit tree that I recommend more often than any other is the apple called ‘Anna’. It has delicious crispy green/yellow apples with a delicate sweet taste and a reliably un-mushy texture. Because it was developed for growing in Israel, it can handle the low number of chill hours in coastal and semi-coastal San Diego. It also doesn’t take a horticulturist to grow this apple successfully, however, it does need another apple tree nearby to pollinate, so if there are not other apple trees close by, consider planting two. The fruit is wonderful for eating raw or for cooking.

I also don’t think any garden is complete without some citrus. I love to have at least a lemon and a lime on hand for cooking. There are two popular lemons in San Diego: Meyer lemons and Eureka lemons. Meyers are a little better suited to our climate but have a different flavor than the supermarket lemons, so you should try them first to make sure it is a flavor you like. I think it makes the best home made lemonade. Eureka lemons are closer to the flavor of supermarket lemons. Bearrs limes grow well here and have a great flavor. Make sure to fertilize your citrus with a high nitrogen citrus/avocado fertilizer. Consider buying dwarfs or semi-dwarfs. A full sized citrus gets to be 20′ tall – much too tall to pick easily. A semi-dwarf can get about 9-10′ and a dwarf will be 5-6′.

A few others that I’d like to note quickly:

– Satsumas are delicious small tangerines packed with flavor. They are easy to grow and prolific.
– There are a few good peaches and nectarines that grow and produce here. Read the label and try for 250 chill hours if you live near the coast and 500 or fewer chill hours if you live a little further inland. I like ‘Babcock’ but there are at least a half dozen well suited varieties.
– We can grow a lot of figs here. ‘Black Mission’ is the most common. Figs are very prolific but they can self seed here, so I don’t recommend them if you live on a canyon or open space. They can also attract rodents. Because of these issues, I like to grow figs in a very large pot instead to keep them more in control. If you have never tried it, a ripe fig split in half and drizzled with honey and creme fraiche makes an elegant simple dessert!
– Pomegranates are very easy to grow. Try Punica ‘Wonderful’. Pomegranates have large thorns, so don’t plant them near patios or walkways.
– Ripe plums are just something you can’t get in the store any more. Try growing ‘Santa Rosa’ for a delicious sweet, explode-in-your-mouth plum.

Sage Outdoor Designs is a San Diego landscape design firm. Kate
Wiseman, the Principal, has been a San Diego landscape designer
for the past ten years. Find out more at www.sageoutdoordesigns.com

Get rid of your lawn!

As water starts to become more expensive, a lot of people are turning to getting rid of all or part of their lawn as a great way to cut down on water use in their landscape. Because lawn is so water hungry, this is a great tactic, but a lot of people are unsure how to begin and what to replace their lawn with, especially in their front yard. At my house, we recently pulled out our boring front yard and replaced it with a fun terraced patio surrounded by drought tolerant plantings. Here is an image of the newly planted front yard:

We added a new low decorative fence to add a perception of privacy from the street without cutting ourselves off from our neighbors. The larger of the two patios will eventually be for a table and chairs.

A few things to pay special attention to if you decide to remove your lawn:

1) Unless you want to be fighting grass that springs up everywhere you add water, you will need to properly kill your grass, not just physically dig it out. Roots left in the soil can and will germinate if you try to do it the easy way. Instead, get your lawn as healthy as possible and then spray it with roundup once a week for three weeks. Roundup is drawn into the plant as it photosynthesizes, so spraying a dead lawn won’t work.

2) Try to avoid the temptation of artificial turf. Really, even the best artificial turf is still a carpet of plastic in your yard. It uses fossil fuel based resources, often isn’t recyclable, and can become quite hot in the sun (adding to the urban heat island effect). Instead, consider other lawn alternatives such as yarrow, dymondia, or thyme. All of them are drought tolerant, quick growing, and attractive, but none can take as much foot traffic as lawn, so think about adding a walkway through a high traffic area.

3) Consider switching the focus to outdoor living. Instead of a lawn, focus your garden around a patio with a table and chairs, a bench, a birdbath/feeder, or a small fountain. Think about being in the space, not just looking at it. Use it as an excuse to enjoy our beautiful San Diego weather.

4) Think about edibles. Plenty of edible plants and herbs are drought tolerant. A great low water use herb garden could have rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, bay, yarrow, and savory.

Sage Outdoor Designs is a San Diego landscape design firm. Kate
Wiseman, the Principal, has been a San Diego landscape designer
for the past ten years. Find out more at www.sageoutdoordesigns.com

Cost Saving Water Saving techniques

I have started to get a lot of questions (finally!) about how people can save water in their yards. Now my favorite recommendation is, of course, to hire a landscape designer to help you rework the plants in your garden so that they are better suited to our climate, soils, and water bills. However, for people who are looking for low cost and do-it-yourself advice, there are still a few great options.

Compost and mulch: I am a big fan of mulch. A heavy top layer of mulch gives your garden a beautiful finished look but it does so many other wonderful things as well. Good mulch cuts down on weeds, nurtures your soil, and helps drastically reduce the amount of water lost from the soil to evaporation. Aesthetically, my favorite mulch is A-1 soils 1/4 “walk-on” fir bark mulch. It goes for about $60 a yard and is made of small bits of fir bark. The color is great and the texture is fine so the overall look is very clean and consistent. Expect to replace it once every year or two because it will break down over time. This is a good thing, because it adds to the organic nutrients in your soil.

$60 a yard may be more than you are prepared to spend, however. If that is the case, the San Diego dump has a wonderful compost and mulch center. They offer a decent selection (about a half dozen types and colors) and the price is great. If you load it yourself, it is free! If you want them to load it, bring a truck and they’ll dump two yards into it for you for $6-$20 depending on which mulch you chose. I have heard some concerns about the mulch having weed seeds that could germinate once you put it on your garden. I use the natural wood chips at my own home and haven’t had that problem, but I would say you should expect some minor germination of weeds.

Irrigation: Especially at this time of year, our weather is so varied that it is important to constantly monitor any irrigation system. If you have a spray system (sprinklers), try cutting down on the watering time by one minute a week until the plants show signs of being under-watered such as yellowing and wilting of the leaves. Then add 1-2 minutes back on and remember you might need to add more if the weather becomes very hot or dry. Try to water in the early morning so that you reduce evaporation.

If you don’t have an irrigation system, my favorite low cost do-it-yourself system is a combo of soaker hoses, splitters, and battery operated timers. This only works for relatively small yards. Attach a splitter to your hose bib (that is the official term for your hose spicket) so that you can have a soaker hose and a normal hose. On the soaker hose side, attach a timer (you get these next to the hoses at Home Depot for about $25) and then the soaker hose. Wind the soaker hose through your planting bed and cover it well with a thick layer of mulch. If you like, they sell stakes to hold the hose in place. I typically set the timer to go for about 5 minutes a day for a drought tolerant garden, but experiment to see what works for your garden!

Sage Outdoor Designs is a San Diego landscape design firm. Kate
Wiseman, the Principal, has been a San Diego landscape designer
for the past ten years. Find out more at www.sageoutdoordesigns.com