Garden Projects

Crimson clover is an excellent source of nitrogen, provides forage for beneficial insects and helps control erosion.

If you’re planning to grow only a few vegetables this winter — or even none at all — don’t leave your garden beds bare. Instead, consider sowing a cover crop to rejuvenate your soil.

Sometimes called compost crops or green manure, cover crops have been used for centuries to replenish nutrients, loosen up compacted soil, control erosion, inhibit weeds and provide habitat for beneficial insects.

The technique faded away in the 1950s when the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides became widespread. But with recent interest in organic and sustainable growing techniques, cover crops are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

Getting Started

Ryegrass helps to break up heavy soil and  control erosion, while fava beans fix nitrogen and attract beneficial insects.

Cover crops come in two flavors: warm-season and cool-season. In all but the largest home gardens, the cool-season types are more practical. That’s because our warm-season summer vegetables tend to take up a lot of room. Think sprawling melon vines, robust rustling cornstalks and bushy, full-bodied tomatoes. Every last square inch of soil is generally consumed by one edible or another.

Come the cool season, many of our crops, including leafy greens, carrots and radishes, can be planted more intensively. Growing these smaller edibles often leaves a fair amount of bare earth, which is perfect for sowing a cover crop.

As for what to grow: consider what you’d like to achieve. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil by grabbing it from the atmosphere and “fixing” it in nodules on their roots. Cool-season annual legumes include clover, vetch, field peas, alfalfa and bell or fava beans.

Grasses and cereal grains help to build the soil and boost fertility by adding organic material. They also improve tilth and fight erosion. While they can look a little straggly themselves, they help to crowd out weeds. Look for annual ryegrass, barley and oats.

Grow a mix if you’d like your cover crop to accomplish more than one of the above. For example, Bountiful Gardens, a mail-order nursery in Willits, California, offers a Compost Crop Mix containing wheat, vetch, rye and fava beans, while Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, also mail-order, has a Premium Soil Builder Mix composed of bell beans, BioMaster peas, yellow peas, purple vetch, hairy vetch and Cayuse oats.

In the Garden

Planting a blend of wheat, purple vetch and white-blooming fava beans adds nutrients, fixes nitrogen and improves the overall structure of the soil. It’s also pretty enough to harvest for a bouquet.

Cover crops are grown from seed. It’s important to sow the cool-season annual types in September or October while daytime temperatures and soil temperatures are still warm, which boosts germination and gets the seedlings off to a  strong start.

Here’s what to do:

  • Rough up the soil with a stiff rake, garden fork or shovel.
  • Smack any dirt clods to break them apart.
  • Apply a specialized bacteria inoculant to any legume seeds.
  • Scatter the seed at the rate suggested on the packet.
  • Lightly rake in the seed to the recommended depth.
  • Gently water the area.
  • Mulch with a light layer of straw or shredded leaves, then water again.
  • Keep the surface visibly moist for the first week.

Once the seeds sprout, start backing off on the water. As the seedlings begin to shade their own roots, ease off to once a week or so. When winter rains appear, stop watering entirely, unless a dry spell occurs.

Cool-season cover crops typically take five to six months to do their work and should be ready to be knocked down in March or April. But the weather ultimately governs their tenure. They may stall out during several weeks of cooler temperatures and rain, or speed up dramatically with a series of unseasonably warm, dry days.

Harvest Time

Below ground, alfalfa fixes nitrogen. Above ground, it provides excellent habitat for bees.

Regardless of the calendar, your cover crop’s time is up when it begins flowering and its roots are still fresh and pliable.

That point is critical. I once made the mistake of letting fava beans complete their life cycle, including setting seed and withering away. Then, digging into the soil, I discovered thick, fibrous roots. While it’s best to wait three to six weeks between harvesting a cover crop and planting new vegetable seeds or seedlings, no way were those tough ropes of roots going to decompose within a reasonable period of time. To plant new vegetables, I had to yank out the roots, which included their nitrogen nodes. Doing so defeated the purpose of planting the favas. Plus, it was extra work.

To harvest your cover crop, mow it, weed whack it or hack it to the ground. If you’ve grown vetch, trailing peas or any thick-stemmed plants, cut them up so they’ll break down faster. Let the spent pieces dry out for a week or two, then till them into the soil. Or rake up the dried top growth and add it to your compost pile. Later on, you can mix the finished compost into your garden soil, returning all those nutrients and goodness to the earth.

This article was first published in the Fall 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.


A series of weathered redwood beds allows for intensive planting of summer vegetables, including Serrano peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, red bell peppers and two dozen tomatoes. These beds are spaced 3 feet apart to allow crops to spill over the sides, and to provide room for pushing a wheelbarrow in between.

Do your summer vegetables need a lift?

Raised beds are an excellent way to amp up your harvests.

Few of us have naturally occurring vegetable quality soil. It can be tough to create the rich, loamy stuff in the ground. Instead, start fresh, by building up.

An elevated growing space makes it easier to improve your soil’s fertility and tilth, and to water, weed and harvest crops.

With a few modifications, raised beds protect against rabbits and rodents. You won’t step on productive soil or waste it between rows. You can garden more intensively. And you’ll quickly find that raised beds are easy on the back.

The Basics

UC 157 asparagus, a perennial crop, will flourish for up to 20 years in a raised bed.

A traditional, stripped-down version is a rectangular wood frame with four posts.

The wood is typically redwood or cedar, although you can get creative with materials. For instance, stone beds are beautiful. But they’re pricey and their thick sides require more space.

Also beware of old, pressure-treated timbers or railroad ties that might leach nasty chemicals.

Given a standard board length of 8 feet, 4 x 8-foot beds are a common size. That width is great for larger, perennial crops, such as asparagus, blueberries and raspberries.

But I think it’s too wide for seasonal edibles, including tomatoes, beans and peppers. You’ll be tempted to plant three rows. But the middle row will be nearly impossible to reach once the veggies gain size. Beds that are 3 x 8, with two rows each, are easier to manage.

The ends are nearly complete.

As for height: the boards should be at least 1 foot tall and 1 to 2 inches thick. A single, foot-wide board for each side is the simplest approach.

However, to save money, you can stack several narrower boards.

Just be sure the boards are straight and flush, so that soil and water don’t leak out between them.

Just one side to go!

Use sturdy 4 x 4-inch posts. Cut them 1 foot taller than the height of the bed, to allow for 1 foot to be buried in the ground. If you build a 1-foot tall bed, you’ll need four 2-foot lengths, or one 8-foot post.

Use long wood screws, rather than nails, to connect the boards and attach the posts. Angle brackets at each corner will provide extra stability.

Build your frame upside down on a flat space, such as a driveway or patio, with the posts in the air.

Prepping the Space

Carrots love crumbly soil.

Summer vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, while winter vegetables need at least four to six hours.

Mark where the raised bed will go, then excavate a foot of soil. Set the frame in place and level it.

The wood should rest on the finished soil level, rather than be buried, which will hasten deterioration.

Line the cavity with quarter-inch or half-inch aviary wire or chicken wire to thwart gophers, moles and other tunneling varmints. Bend the wire up against the interior sides of the frame, then secure the edges with a staple gun.

Also break up any dirt clods in the excavated soil.

The finer the texture, the more easily your edibles can gain a toe-hold in the bed.

The Soil

The beauty of a raised bed is that you have total control. The soil should be deep, fertile, hold moisture and drain well. It should smell fresh and sift easily through your fingers.

All done, and filled with a rich, sift-through-your fingers mix of topsoil, existing soil and redwood compost.

How much? A 3 x 8 bed, 1 foot tall and filled to the brim, requires 24 cubic feet of material. But your soil won’t go all the way to the top. Eighteen to 20 cubic feet is sufficient.

If your garden soil is free of weeds and reasonably loose and fertile, go ahead and “harvest” some.

But at least two-thirds of what goes into your raised bed should be high-quality soil builder, compost and/or topsoil.

Specialty products, like chicken manure and kelp, should be one-third or less. Do not use potting soil. It’s expensive and settles significantly.

Packman broccoli and green onions are flanked by orange calendulas in this raised redwood bed. After harvest, I’ll reinvigorate the soil by mixing in several inches of compost.

If you’re planning to grow your edibles organically, start with the soil. Kellogg’s sells a soil-enriching compost that’s certified organic. E.B. Stone offers an organic flower and vegetable planting mix as well.

Home-made compost, loaded with beneficial microorganisms, is fabulous. But not many of us have 20 cubic feet of the good stuff on hand. Yet even if you only have a bucketful, use it.

Start filling your foot-deep pit with 4 to 6 inches of the excavated soil. Add an equal amount of new material. Mix it thoroughly with a rake or by hand. Try not to tangle with the aviary wire below.

Add another 4 to 6 inches of excavated soil. Mix it in. Add the new material and mix it in.

Continue layering and mixing until you’ve filled the bed to within a few inches of the top.

Run your fingers through it one last time, and you’re ready to plant.

This article was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Amy Ramos talks about her water-conserving garden.

A water-wise garden that I designed last year will be featured on Santa Barbara’s City TV in July.

A camera crew shot the garden and interviewed my client, Amy Ramos, this week for an episode of “Inside Santa Barbara.”

Amy explained how we ripped out the sod lawn in her front yard and replaced it with colorful, water-conserving shrubs, perennials and ground covers.

Another look at Amy’s garden.

She reduced her water bill and her maintenance, and got a beautiful, fragrant garden in keeping with the cottage style of her home in return.

Amy also received a $1,000 rebate from the city’s Smart Landscape Rebate Program. Check with me or visit to see if you might qualify for a $1,000 rebate, too.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

If you don't already, learn to appreciate gopher snakes.

Earth Day festivities are set for this week throughout the county and the country.

But you can celebrate the occasion year-round in the garden by following a few simple techniques.

The following ideas are easy on the natural world. Some require a little effort. Others might be considered downright lazy.

What they all share is the goal of conserving resources while creating a healthy environment for your plants and the creatures that inhabit your garden.

You can call it ecological, environmental, sustainable or green gardening. But by whatever measure, also please call it common sense.

Fix Those Drips

Stop that drip!

Sooner or later, it seems that most outdoor faucets leak. Aside from the wasted water, a mucky wet spot right up against your house is not good.

Depending on your skills, you can fix the leak yourself or call a plumber.

If the faucet handle spurts only when you turn on the water, the lazy way out is to place a bucket beneath and use the water to irrigate potted plants.

Sometimes it’s not the faucet, but the hose connector. Rather than tossing the hose, replace the connector.

If repairs aren’t in the offing, plant a bog plant under the faucet so that the leak isn’t a complete waste.

Depending on the size of the seep, pretty California native perennials to consider include western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea), scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis) and Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata).


Taller pop-up sprinklers water this swath of California meadow sedge (Carex praegracilis).

Watering by hand, hauling hoses and moving portable lawn sprinklers gets old quickly. It’s tedious, inefficient and has the potential to waste an incredible amount of water.

Instead, install drip irrigation in your flower beds and around shrubs and trees; and pop-up sprinklers for your ground covers and lawn.

Then install an irrigation controller to automate the system. If you have water-conserving plants that need water every two to three weeks, make sure your timer can accommodate that long of an interval. Some inexpensive controllers only allow intervals of up to a week.

Just because you have a controller doesn’t mean you can ignore it. For instance, if May and June are damp and foggy, your plants won’t need much water. But if clear, windy days persist, they’ll want more.

Regardless of whether you automate or stay manual, water early in the morning, before the wind kicks up. This minimizes evaporation, gives your plants a fresh start and helps reduce fungal diseases that can take hold if the foliage is wet at night.

Fight Bugs Naturally

They may foul your eaves, but cliff swallows eat mosquitoes, too.

Avoid using bug spray as your first line of defense.

If aphids are a problem, hose them off with a blast from your hose. Or release lady bugs or green lacewings to gobble them up. If aphids are infiltrating your late-season broccoli, plant green onions nearby.

Marigolds, calendulas and nasturtiums are also excellent companions. In the vegetable garden, they’ll help to deter bean beetles, cabbage pests, nematodes, tomato hornworms, asparagus beetles and squash bugs.

If giant white fly is a problem, try mulching with cocoa hulls and spraying the undersides of the affected plants with horticultural oil or a mild dilution of powdered dish soap.

Cliff swallows will make a mess as they build their mud nests in your eaves. But they eat mosquitoes by the thousands.

Gopher snakes may appear alarming. But leave them alone. They’ll help keep underground rodents from tearing up your garden. And unlike gopher gas and other poisons, they won’t hurt the environment.

Start a Compost Bin

Yum! Kitchen scraps and a few rose leaves destined for my compost pile.

Compost does wonderful things in the garden. It provides nutrients in an easily accessible form to plants and promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

You can buy bags of compost or create your own.

Three things go into my compost bins: kitchen scraps, yard waste and leftover potting soil.

Kitchen scraps are fruit and vegetable waste — apple cores, onion peels, celery stalks, leafy greens and the like. Don’t use meat and dairy scraps. They’ll go rancid. I collect the scraps in a stainless pot with a tight-fitting lid, then mix the contents into my outdoor compost bins once or twice a week.

Yard waste is a combination of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) material. The green is mostly grass clippings, while the brown is crumpled leaves, plus debris swept off the driveway and patio.

I occasionally add water, which seems to help speed the decomposition. Be sure your bins are in a sunny spot. The pile needs to build up heat to break down the various materials. Relegated to the shade, the process can literally take years.

Mulch Clippings

A light layer of both fresh and dried glass clippings is a healthy mulch for these variegated iris (Iris pallida 'Variegata'), bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) and soon-to-bloom yellow Coreopsis.

Don’t throw away your lawn clippings. They contain valuable nutrients. Instead, put them to work in your garden.

You can use a mulching mower, which chops the grass blades even finer than a regular mower, then deposits the cuttings back on the lawn.

If your lawn is purely for show, that’s great. But if you have kids or animals romping across with wet feet, they’ll track those little blades everywhere.

Instead, mulch your flower beds with a thin layer. if the clippings are too thick, the blades will mat together and begin to smell.

Or dump the clippings in your compost pile. Mix them well with the other contents, so that they don’t bind together and form an impenetrable block.

Freshen Mulch

A thick layer of gorilla hair mulch softens the angular effect of these foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata).

Two to 3 inches of grass clippings can make a slimy mess. But several inches thick of loose, organic material, such as walk-on bark, will conserve moisture, moderate the soil temperature and help reduce weeds.

Plus, it looks nice, smells good and provides a consistent look to the landscape.

I’ve had a few clients complain that mulch is a waste, because it disappears. But that’s actually a good thing. That “disappearance” means the mulch is breaking down, releasing nutrients to the plants and improving the texture of the soil.

Weed By Hand

A bulky layer of mulch will inhibit weed seeds that need light to germinate. But other opportunistic weeds will still come through.

Rather than killing the weeds with chemical sprays, set aside time to pull the weeds by hand. Try to get the weeds before they set seed. If I see flowers forming and am short on time, I’ll use kitchen scissors to snip off the heads, then go back later to dig out the leafy parts and their roots.

Use caution if you resort to using a “weed and feed” product on your lawn. The “weed” portion of the equation contains chemicals that may be harmful to kids or animals that play too soon in the area.

Fertilize Naturally

Bu's Blend Biodynamic Compost.

Whether it’s in liquid or granular form, or slowly released from fluffy compost or humus, use natural or organic fertilizer as much as possible.

It’s much kinder to the soil, as well as to earthworms, birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Look for products that contain beneficial soil bacteria such as mycorrhizae, compost, guano, humic acid or humus (compost that has broken down past the fibrous state).

With increasing interest in “green” products, mainstream lawn and garden chemical companies are now offering natural products, too.

Also look for organics that are OMRI listed. The Organic Materials Review Institute tests products intended for use in certified organic production, handling and processing. The OMRI seal means that what you’re buying complies with USDA organic standards.

Choose Your Battles

A striped monarch butterfly caterpillar begins to devour the tasty leaves of a butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica).

Sometimes a few defoliated plants are worth the effort to attract wildlife.

In my garden, I willingly sacrifice butterflyweed (Asclepias curassavica) in order to fortify the fat, yellow-striped monarch butterfly caterpillars that somehow know to appear just when the yellow, orange and red flowers are beginning to bloom.

A few years back, little cottontail bunnies nibbled away all my seedling melons. Rather than fighting the gray fluffballs, I planted another round in a raised bed that they couldn’t reach.

But even I have my limits. When slugs and snails begin to defoliate my roses, I draw my line in the sand with Sluggo, a natural granular product containing iron phosphate, which is safe to use around pets and wildlife. This year I’m also planning to try a new foliar spray from Gro-Power called Snail & Slug Away. It’s nontoxic, organic and lists cinnamon oil as its active ingredient. Maybe it even smells good.

Seeds of Wisdom

If you’re encouraging birds, butterflies and other wildlife to visit your garden, go pesticide free. Otherwise you risk administering a dose of toxic chemicals when the critters forage among your flowers.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor do I have any control over its content.

Torbay Dazzler cordyline with California poppies and El Dorado ceanothus.

Have you noticed the changes? Our evenings are cooling off. The light is at increasingly sharp angles at sunrise and sunset. And just a week or so ago, it became official. Yes, fall is here.

From a trivia standpoint, it might be useful to know that the autumnal equinox marks the midpoint between the longest and shortest days of the year.

Far more important to gardeners, however, is that fall is the best time of year to plant just about everything.

With shorter days and cooler temperatures, there’s scant chance of new, small plants wilting or drying out. The ground is still warm and inviting for roots. And for us humans, the air is clear, crisp and comfortable for working outdoors.

What to Plant

Raspberry Ripple sunrose

Most landscape trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers, bulbs and cool-season vegetables can go in the ground now.

The only exceptions are tropical and subtropical plants, such as begonias, bougainvillea, fuchsias, hibiscus and palms, as well as avocado, citrus and exotic fruit trees. Fleshy succulents, too, may suffer if they start out by sitting in cold, rain-soaked soil for several months.

Other than those frost-tender types, now is an especially good time to plant plants that are native to our Mediterranean climate, which is marked by dry, warm summers and wet, cool winters.

Dark red monkeyflower

Plants native to this regime often slow down during summer when moisture is scarce, then ramp up growth during the rainy season. This is in marked contrast to plants native to areas where year-round rain supports a lush, summertime green.

Altogether, four other regions share our distinctive climate: the basin surrounding the Mediterranean Ocean, which includes the coasts of France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the northern tip of Africa; southwestern and southern Australia; the cape of South Africa; and central Chile.

Our common ground starts with rainy winters and summer drought. We are generally within 30° to 45° latitude north or south of the equator. And we’re mostly coastal, sandwiched between cool, ocean currents and dry, inland deserts.

A wide range of beautiful, water-conserving plants thrives within these confines. The following are just a sampling of what you might find.

The Mediterranean Basin

Variegated spurge

Many of our best plants come from this region, including lavender, rosemary and thyme. All three are nearly ever-blooming, fragrant, edible and grow in myriad forms, from sturdy shrubs to trailing ground covers. They thrive in full sun and fast-draining soil.

Other shrubs include rockrose (Cistus), which bears large, flat flowers in pink, purple or white in spring; pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), which sends up plump cones of blue-purple flowers in early summer; and tree mallow (Lavatera maritima), which envelopes itself in bi-colored lavender and white, hibiscus-like flowers most of the year.

One of my newest favorites is variegated spurge (Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’), a bold, rounded succulent perennial. Its upright branches, which bear cream-striped leaves, emerge from a clump at its base.

Majorcan teucrium

Blue oat grass

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) is a shapely ornamental grass.

At 2 feet tall and wide, it’s twice the size, but nearly a carbon copy of ankle-high Elijah blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’).

Closer to the ground, look for sunrose (Helianthemum mummularium), which greets the sun each morning by opening dozens of cup-shaped flowers in burgundy, red, purple, orange, yellow, pink or white.

Other ground-huggers include Majorcan teucrium (Teucrium cossonii), which bears bright pink flowers atop wispy, blue-gray leaves; and ground morning glory (Convolvulus sabatius), which blooms in a lovely shade of purplish-blue.


Yellow kangaroo paw

Spiky kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos), with its fuzzy, chenille pipe cleaner-like bloom stalks, may be the favorite Aussie of the moment. And Big Red, which stands 5 feet tall, is likely the most widespread. But other varieties, blooming in orange, yellow and pink, can be found as well.

Australia also offers a number of terrific foundation shrubs.

Little John callistemon (Callistemon ‘Little John’) is medium in size. It’s neat, tidy and bears bottle-brush-like puffs of dark-red flowers year round.

Coast rosemary (Westringia) has a larger silhouette, with gray, green or variegated foliage, and lavender, pink or white flowers.

And the many grevilleas range from tall, billowy shrubs to low ramblers similar to ground cover rosemary. Most bear unusual, curly flowers in shades of coral, red or soft yellow during winter, when that punch of color can be very much appreciated.

South Africa

Here’s an astounding statistic. The Cape of South Africa is said to compose only 3 percent of the land mass of the world’s Mediterranean climate regions, yet is home to more than 80 percent of all Mediterranean plant species.

A number of those species are tiny, obscure bulbs and wildflowers. But they also include the long-used gazania, which, with a number of new hybrids, is undergoing a resurgence in popularity.

Pink African daisy

Somewhat similar are new varieties of South African daisy. In particular, Pink African daisy (Arctotis acaulis ‘Big Magenta’) is especially appealing, with big, bright-pink flowers blooming much of the year above spreading, grayish-green leaves.

On a larger scale, two delicate, yet hardy shrubs are cape mallow (Anisidontea), which bears tiny, pink, hibiscus-like flowers; and breath of heaven (Coleonema), which blooms in pink or white and produces soft, needle-like leaves that smell like mint when crushed.

Far more outspoken — and gaining in popularity — are pincushion shrubs (Leucospermum). These, and the related proteas, have been favorites with florists for years. They are difficult to grow, requiring just the right gritty, acidic soil and the world’s best drainage. But newer varieties have been bred to tolerate more general garden conditions. I recently planted an orange hybrid, Sunrise, and am hoping to see my first blooms this winter.


Rock purslane

While only a smattering of drought-tolerant plants from Chile have made it into mainstream nurseries, there is a spectacular exception: rock purslane, also known as calandrinia (Cistanthe grandiflora).

One of the hottest new plants, this succulent sends up tall, leafless stems that bear a series of electric pink flowers from spring through fall. Give it full sun or part shade, good drainage and a drink of water now and then, and you’ll have everyone in the neighborhood asking to snap off a piece.

Several bromeliads from Chile are conversation pieces as well, including the sun-loving sapphire tower (Puya alpestris), which forms a grassy-like clump, then sends up a fat, 5-feet-tall stalk of metallic turquoise-blue flowers.

Don’t Forget Our Natives

Sugar bush

Taking a vicarious tour around the world in search of Mediterranean plants is fun. But don’t overlook plants native to our patch of earth.

If nothing else, sow a packet of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) for a bright spring. The cheery orange flowers are a great foil at the base of our native California lilacs (Ceanothus), which bloom in pale to dark blue and vary from low ground covers to large shrubs or even small trees.

Other big, easy-to-grow natives include sugar bush (Rhus ovata), lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). All reach at least 10 feet tall and wide.
Of slightly smaller stature are a number of manzanitas (Arctostaphylos). Many bear beautiful, smooth, dark-red bark. Howard McMinn is among the most widely grown.

Much smaller are knee-high coral bells (Heuchera) and the many new monkeyflower (Mimulus) hybrids. Both bloom most of the year, require little irrigation or care, and work well in traditional flower beds.

Seeds of Wisdom

Mulch around your new Mediterranean plants at planting time, then give them a good soak. Continue watering until winter rains take over.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

A monarch butterfly sips nectar from a bog sage (Salvia uliginosa).

In a grand sense, we all know that birds, butterflies and other wildlife need food and shelter to flourish. But what may not be as well known is the extent to which our own, individual gardens can contribute to wildlife’s general well-being.

The National Wildlife Federation is seeking to change that, by encouraging both home gardeners and communities worldwide to create a network of mini-refuges for wildlife through its Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

While the name may sound intimidating, the process for creating a certified garden is not. And size doesn’t matter: your habitat garden may be as small as a patio, or cover several acres or more.

All that’s required is that you supply four components — food, water, cover and a place to raise young — for at least one type of wildlife. Then incorporate sustainable gardening techniques to maintain the space.

The Basic Four

Another monarch, this one snacking on the tiny blossoms of a yellow butterfly bush (Buddleia).

“Your plants are going to be the things you should really focus on, for food, shelter and places to raise young,” said David Mizejewski, a NWF naturalist.

Indeed, plants are a primary source of food for many wildlife, providing berries, seeds, nuts, pollen, sap and nectar. As a secondary food source, they sustain insects that are part of the food chain as well.

Native plants, in particular, are a good choice because they’re already part of the natural ecosystem. They’ve adapted to the climate and soils. They’re not usually fussy or require much care. And local wildlife already depends on them for survival.

In addition, brushy, grassy and thorny plants provide shelter from the elements and predators.

“Planting dense patches of shrubs, keeping mature trees on your property, and planting a prairie or meadow or some kind of grassland environment are great ways to create shelter,” Mizejewski said.

Often overlooked, Mizejewski added, is providing a place for animals to raise their young.

“We want people to realize that wildlife has different needs at different parts of their life cycle,” he said. “For example, butterflies need specific host plants where they can lay their eggs. If they don’t have them, they’re not being supported at that time in their life cycle.”

As for water, Mizejewski suggests, “Go with what’s most natural for your area. No way is better than another. It could be a shallow dish on the ground, a birdbath on a pedestal, or a puddling area for butterflies.”

What to Attract

What's not to love about this Pacific tree frog?

It’s not necessary to try to lure every last living, breathing creature into your garden.

Instead, Mizejewski said, “You can say, ‘I’m doing a butterfly garden.’ That’s one way to meet those four components. Or you could have a frog pond, for amphibians. You’re not putting in nesting boxes for birds, or a rock piles for animals to go into, to bear babies.”

At spartan times of year, Mizejewski said it’s fine to supplement food produced by native plants with bird, squirrel or butterfly feeders.

However, he cautions against setting out people food that might bring in larger animals, such as raccoons, coyotes or even bears.

“There’s a difference in creating a wildlife friendly garden, versus attracting mammals,” he said. “A lot of people think they’re helping wildlife by putting out giant bowls of cat food to attract raccoons. But that doesn’t end well.”

Ongoing Care

Going green is fundamental.

Western scrub-jays are large, inquisitive and have a loud squawk.

Pesticides and other chemicals are out, because of their potential to harm wildlife.

Mulching, shrinking lawns and installing drought-tolerant, native plants are in, because they help to conserve water and reduce the effort and resources needed to maintain them.

That’s not to say that your habitat garden will inevitably look like a tousled mess.

“It’s one thing to be a garden vigilante and create this wilderness habitat,” said Mizejewski. “It might be fabulous for wildlife, but if you’ve alienated all your neighbors and they associate wildlife gardening with breaking rules and bringing down values… We encourage people to work within the aesthetic of their neighborhood. Push the envelope, but do it in a positive way.”

Certifying Your Garden

Steps to gaining recognition as an official certified wildlife habitat are easy to follow on the NWF’s website.

Log onto Click on the sage green box on the right, “Learn How to Certify Your Garden as a Wildlife Habitat.” Then either click the middle green button, “Certify Now,” if you’re ready to get started. Or click the blue “Create” button on the upper left to learn more.

Here’s what your garden should offer:

• Food sources (at least three): food provided naturally by plants, such as seeds, nuts, berries, fruits, nectar, sap, foliage/twigs or pollen; or supplemental seed, suet, hummingbird, squirrel or butterfly feeders.

• Cover (at least two): a wooded area, dense shrubs or thicket, meadow or prairie, evergreens, ground cover, roosting box, water garden or pond, bramble patch, burrow, cave, brush or log pile, or rock pile or wall.

• Water (at least one): a bird bath, butterfly puddling area, water garden or pond, rain garden, lake, river or stream, seasonal pool, ocean, spring or shallow dish.

• A place for wildlife to raise their young (at least two): mature trees, dense shrubs or thicket, meadow or prairie, host plants for caterpillars, dead trees or snags, or water garden or pond.

While Pacific tree frogs can change colors under different conditions, the dark stripe across their faces remains a consistent feature.

If your garden doesn’t yet offer the required elements, the website provides plenty of information about how to achieve them.

“A lot of people walk through the process and discover that they already have things,” Mizejewski said. “We hear from people who say, ‘I thought I had to rip up my yard. But I went through the checklist and have half of this stuff. Now I know what I’m missing.’ A lot of times, it may be something simple, like a bird bath, or host plants for butterflies.”

Pay a $20 fee and Voila! You’ll receive a certificate, an official spot on NWF’s registry, become a member of NWF and receive a year’s subscription to National Wildlife Magazine.

Your garden will also be part of a network of more than 10,000 certified wildlife habitat gardens in California, including 100 in Santa Barbara County and 145 in San Luis Obispo County.

While it may sound silly, there’s a certain personal satisfaction that comes with registering, and joining a broader community of like-minded gardeners. I signed up several weeks and have already received our certificate, which lists my husband Tom’s and my garden as number 151,190. While most certified habitats are in the US, there about 500 in other countries, including Canada and Guam.

Connect with Nature

Yet another beautiful monarch.

Who doesn’t enjoy watching a monarch butterfly flutter from one blossom to the next? Or admire the madcap determination of dueling hummingbirds jockeying for position on a feeder?

Setting up a habitat garden clearly helps wildlife.

It also provides an ongoing push to send us outdoors.

“This is about giving people that connection with nature. It’s so important, on physical, emotional and spiritual levels,” said David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.

“Creating a wildlife garden is a fun way to give yourself the opportunity to get outside, and experience and observe nature. You’re going to see it and enjoy it if you create a wildlife habitat, rather than a typical lawn.”

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Silver Sheen pittosporum

“Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.”
–George Herbert, 1593-1633, English poet and Anglican priest

Truth be told, most of us appreciate some sort of separation between our private lives and the outside world. In the garden, a hedge may be your best bet for drawing that line.

Taller hedges create privacy, shield views and muffle sound. They also dress up blank walls and chain link fences, and even block intruders, provided they bear thorns.

Shorter hedges may organize space by enclosing a lawn, vegetable garden or utility area.

And the shortest of hedges can frame other plantings. Think how artfully the Europeans use knee-high boxwood hedges to edge flower beds and create knot gardens.

Yet your hedges do not have to be rigid, clipped strips of green. While the best hedge shrubs will quickly rebound from a fairly severe trim two or three times a year, they can also be pruned with a light hand, to present a more natural appearance.

Native Hedges

Lemonade berry

Some of the most natural-looking hedges are composed of native plants.

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) is among the tallest, growing to 20 feet tall and wide in the wild, while bearing thick, leathery green leaves and sticky, edible berries. In the garden, lemonade berry can be easily trimmed to 10 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.

Likewise, hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) and Catalina cherry (Prunus lyonii) will form beefy hedges up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide on their own, but can be kept considerably smaller.


Julia Phelps wild lilac

Wild lilac (Ceanothus) grows fast, and needs no irrigation after its first year in the ground. Taller varieties, such as Ray Hartman and Sierra Blue, grow at least 15 feet tall, while Julia Phelps reaches about 8 feet. All can be limited to a strip 4 to 5 feet wide.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) naturally approaches 8 to 15 feet tall and wide. But as a hedge, it can top out at 10 feet, with sides trimmed 3 feet wide.

In the garden, Howard McMinn manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’) and Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) can be maintained at 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

Prune Lightly


Some hedge plants require only an occasional trim. These shrubs prefer selective pruning, rather than indiscriminate shearing, which can shred their leaves.

In the shade or in a spot that receives only direct morning light, plant a row of camellias (Camellia japonica), which bear clean, glossy green leaves. Be sure to choose an upright grower, rather than one that weeps or cascades. For a camellia that blooms In red, look for Kramer’s Supreme or Tom Knudsen; in pink, Debutante or Pearl Maxwell; and in white, Nuccio’s Gem.

Indian hawthorn

In partial shade to full sun, try sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), yew pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus), Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis) or Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus).

In full sun, photinia (Photinia fraseri), with its flush of new, red growth, makes a showy hedge. Use hand clippers to tip prune the branches to keep the shrubs nice and full.

A Heavy Trim

Other hedges don’t flinch under even the most severe shearing and pruning.

Boxwood, the traditional go-to hedge shrub, has been clipped, nipped and tucked for ages, yet keeps right on living. Its biggest drawback may be the pace of its growth, which is excruciatingly slow.


English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), with glossy, oval leaves, eventually reaches 15 to 20 feet. Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphylla japonica) grows 4 to 6 feet high, but can be kept much shorter.

Escallonia, euonymus and African boxwood (Myrsine africana) are fast-growing alternatives. All three are clean, lustrous-leaved shrubs, with upright varieties conveniently growing twice as tall as wide. But if you still must shape them, they’ll take to it well.

Privet (Ligustrum) and myrtle (Myrtus communis) can be sheared or trimmed into just about any shape — from squares to globes to twisting spirals. But both produce prodigious pollen that can induce allergy attacks.

Several pittosporums take to shearing and shaping. Silver Sheen (Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Sheen’) bears small, shimmery leaves on wine-red stems. Left alone, it may reach 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. But it can be easily maintained at 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

Eugenia or brush cherry

Other adaptable hedges include Italian buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus), which grows fast to 20 feet tall and wide, and eugenia (Syzygium paniculatum), which, unpruned, can reach an astounding 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide.

Yet both behave beautifully under just about anyone’s pruning style, thrive with no water to regular irrigation, and will grow in full sun or filtered shade.

Flowers and Fruit

Glossy abelia

Glossy abelia

Not all hedges are a solid wall of green.

Hold off shearing glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora), and you’ll be rewarded with a thicket of tall, arching stems bearing dainty white and pink bell-shaped flowers much of the year.

Sky flower (Duranta) is an upright grower that bears dangling strings of small white, blue or navy flowers trimmed in white. Two variegated-leaf varieties, Golden Edge and Variegata, don’t bloom as heavily, but make up for it with beautiful patterns on their foliage.

Wynynabbie Gem

Coast rosemary

Coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) gets its common name from the look of its stubby, rosemary-like leaves, rather than any scent or culinary value. As a hedge, it forms a billowy screen of fine-textured gray-gray leaves about 5 feet tall and up to 8 feet wide. Wynyabbie Gem bears lavender flowers and grows in a wide, upright “V.”

Dwarf strawberry tree

For fruiting hedges, look for pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), which can be pruned to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Pretty red and white striped flowers appear in spring, followed by edible, tropical fruits.

Dwarf strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo ‘Elf King’) is an adorable — albeit messy — shrub that bears soft, pompom fruits in orange, yellow and red most of the year. The fruits are edible, but not particularly tasty. It grows relatively slowly to 5 feet tall.



For these hedge shrubs, you’ll want to wear heavy gloves and use loppers — not hand pruners — to shape them.

The aptly named firethorn (Pyracantha) bears bright red berries in fall and winter that will invite scores of birds into your garden.

Nasty thorns line the branches of holly (Ilex) and natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa).

A line of shrub roses can thwart intruders as well.

Growing Tips

Choose shrubs that respond well to ongoing shaping and pruning, then space them 3 to 4 feet apart, so that their side branches will knit together.

If you’re planting against a fence or wall, plan for a gap 1 to 2 feet wide on the back side so that you can squeeze in to prune.

Camellia japonica

On the front side, leave a gap as well. Trimming the backs and fronts will stimulate that sideways growth that turns the individual shrubs into a wall of greenery.

Plant knee-high perennials or shrubs just beyond the gap in front, to hide any scraggly foliage that might form just off the ground.

Early on, deep soak your hedge every week or two to encourage vigorous roots. Also mulch the ground beneath to maintain moisture, moderate the soil temperature and help prevent weeds.

After the first year, most hedge plants will thrive with a deep soak about once a month. However, many natives, including ceanothus, toyon and lemonade berry, can be weaned off irrigation entirely.

Seeds of Wisdom

To encourage your hedge shrubs to remain thick from top to bottom, trim your hedge into a slight pyramid, with the top narrower than the base. That way adequate sunlight reaches the lower leaves, which promotes more vigorous growth.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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