Garden Trends

One of the beautiful gardens I'll feature during my talk.

One of the beautiful gardens I’ll feature during my talk.

On Wednesday, August 7, 2013, I’ll be the featured speaker for the monthly meeting of the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society.

My talk will be: “Digging the Good Life: Creating Colorful, Water-Conserving Gardens.”

I’ll describe how to create gardens in a number of different styles by using the wide range of colorful and interesting low-water plants that thrive in our mild, wonderful climate. I’ll also note which plants attract beneficial insects and sustain wildlife, and touch on integrating edibles into the landscape.

I’m looking forward to sharing what I know with kindred spirits, and encourage anyone who loves gardening to attend the meeting, which is free and open to the public.

The meeting will start at 7 p.m. on August 7 at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the corner of Foothill and La Cumbre Roads, Santa Barbara.


Casa del Herrero

Got spring fever? Itchy feet? How about playing hooky and getting out to visit a community garden?

This Friday, May 11, is National Public Gardens Day.

The fourth annual event, each year set for the Friday before Mother’s Day, is a “national day of celebration that invites communities to explore the beauty of their local green spaces while raising awareness of the important role public gardens play in promoting conservation, education and environmental preservation,” according to organizers.

But cut to the chase. Locally, a host of public and nonprofit gardens that ordinarily charge admission are throwing open their doors to visitors or reducing their rates.

Where to Go

Dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) spills over a trail at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

In Santa Barbara, you can visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for free on Friday by clicking on this link and printing the coupon. The botanic garden is one of the nation’s oldest, and focuses exclusively on native plants.

Casa del Herrero is discounting its docent-led tours in May and June by 20%. Call 805/565-5653 for reservations. The 1925 Montecito estate, designed by George Washington Smith, is a National Historic Landmark. The garden is a rare, remaining example of the elaborate estate gardens that were designed during what historians call the Golden Age of American Gardens, 1895 – 1940.

Pacific Coast iris at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Lotusland is offering a 20% discount on tours on May 16 and 17. Call 805 969-9990 for reservations. The 37-acre botanical estate garden showcases Madam Ganna Walska’s extravagant ideas of outdoor beauty, lavishly illustrated by subtropical and tropical plants from around the world.

The Huerta Garden at the Old Mission Santa Barbara is cutting its admission price on May 12 and May 19. Call 805 682-4713, x 166 for reservations. As part of the California mission system, the garden has a strong historical bent. It features plants introduced to California during the Mission Era, 1769 – 1836, along with many California native plants.

Completely Free

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), sage (Salvia) and California lilac (Ceanothus) at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Master Gardeners of Santa Barbara County are leading free tours at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. at the following locations: Mission Historical Park and the A.C. Postel Rose Garden, Los Olivos and Laguna Streets; Alice Keck Memorial Gardens, 1500 Santa Barbara Street; and Chase Palm Park, 323 E. Cabrillo Street. You can also pick up tickets for free rides on the 1917 Allan Herschell Carousel at Chase Palm Park at the Carrillo Recreation Center, 100 E. Carrillo Street.

In addition, courthouse docents will lead tours of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens, Anapamu and Anacapa Streets. And the Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, will be offering a Horticultural Highlights Tour, free with paid zoo admission.

Further Afield

Another look at Casa del Herrero.

A dozen other public gardens in California, including the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, are participating in Friday’s events.

Across the nation, more than 150 botanical gardens, arboretums and preserves are offering freebies. Visit for more information.

So call in sick with a case of spring fever, and enjoy!

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.

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.

Left to grow naturally, native bentgrass (Agrostis pallens), creates a graceful meadow.

A new product — California native sod — may be the answer to a conflict that I often face: pleasing folks who want a water-conserving landscape yet aren’t willing to give up their lawns.

No one disputes that turfgrass represents a hefty chunk of most residential water bills, or that water is a dwindling resource in the west.

But those are not always compelling enough reasons to convince people to chuck their grass.

After all, lawns provide a soft, safe space for kids to play, and a comfortable place for pets to roam and do their business.

And despite our best efforts to turn clients toward colorful, water-conserving landscapes, many people find an expanse of turf to be refreshing and beautiful.

How to Satisfy Everyone

Until now, we’re struggled with planting reasonable lawn alternatives. I’ve tried meadow sedge (Carex praegracilis). But while it’s a beautiful, fine-textured grass, it’s invasive as all get out, sending opportunistic, underground runners that overtake nearby planting beds.

Other folks tout UC Verde buffalograss. A warm-season grass native to North American plains, it looks terrific during summer and is soft as can be on bare feet. But here on the Central Coast, few clients are willing to gaze upon a swath of straw-colored turf when it goes dormant over winter.

Beyond those concerns, establishing the sedges or UC Verde is a time-consuming process. They’re typically available only as seed, plugs or 4-inch plants. You may have to wait a year or longer for them to fill in, and mount an aggressive weeding campaign in the meantime.

They’re a tough sell compared with the ease — and instant gratification — of conventional sod.

The Holy Grail of Turf?

Clipped and mowed, native bentgrass (Agrostis pallens) stands up to traffic along Sunset Boulevard in San Francisco.

But that could all change with what I found at a landscape expo sponsored by All Around Landscape Supply in Santa Barbara last week.

This new native sod, Agrostis pallens, has fabulous potential. It’s a cool-season bentgrass, a rich, deep green, and it withstands foot traffic. It requires half the water of traditional turf and half the mowing and maintenance. Or it can be left to flop, creating the look of a natural, informal meadow.

It’s even native right here. According to Clifton F. Smith’s “A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region, California,” Agrostis pallens is found “as dense colonies commonly scattered on cool, well-drained woodland/chaparral slopes in Santa Ynez Mtns., west to San Julian area; Vandenberg AFB, Bishop Pine forest north of Lompoc and Point Sal. Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa islands.”

And I repeat: it’s available as sod. You can lay down the 2′ x 5′ strips just like any other turf. What’s more, the netting is biodegradable.

Delta Bluegrass Company grows the sod in Stockton. S&S Seeds, a long-time wholesale purveyor of wildflower, grass and California native plant seeds in Carpinteria, is the distributor for the Central Coast and southern California. The sod is cut to order, then shipped overnight in a refrigerated truck, to be installed the next day.

S&S Seeds distributes five additional California native grass sods from Delta as well. However, the others appear to be better suited for meadow plantings and restoration work. The Native Bentgrass is the best bet for swapping out a conventional lawn.

So instead of grimacing the next time a client requests turf, boy will I have a great solution. And if you would like to be among the first to grow a native lawn that promises to require only half the water and half the effort, plus treads lightly on the earth, please let me know.

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.

May Pride peach blossoms.

Bare-root season is not just for roses.

Deciduous fruit trees go dormant, too, and are equally accepting of being dug up, having the soil removed from their roots and then being transported to nurseries where they’re available now.

Remarkably, within a few years these stick-like plants will grow rapidly, bud out and produce delicious, tree-ripened fruit. Your choices include apple, apricot, cherry, fig, mulberry, nectarine, nectaplum, peach, pear, persimmon, plum, pluot and pomegranate trees as well as almond, pistachio and walnut trees.

But first, as with roses, you’ll find nondescript, tan or gray bundles of trunks, branches and twigs stuck in bins filled with moist sand or sawdust to protect their dormant, stringy roots. As with roses, you’ll likely see enticing photos posted above each. And as with roses, it’s critical to read the descriptions to make sure that whatever you take home can be expected to thrive in your garden.

Consider the Chill

May Pride peaches only require 150 to 200 chill hours to set fruit properly.

Your most important factor at the nursery is how much cold a particular tree needs to properly set fruit. Cold is calculated by measuring chill hours, which are the number of hours the temperature drops below 45 degrees between November 1 and February 28.

That number is key because many pome and stone fruit trees require more chill hours than certain Central Coast neighborhoods offer.

For example, some apples, cherries and pears require 1,100 to 1,500 chill hours, yet our mildest, coastal areas rarely get more than 300 chill hours. You have far more options if you live in the Santa Ynez Valley, which accumulates at least 1,000 chill hours most years.

UC Davis compiles the numbers, and this season has proved chilly so far. As of February 2, Santa Maria reported 593 chill hours; Lompoc, 832; Santa Ynez, 1,035; Nipomo, 630; and Santa Barbara, 312.

Selecting Stock

After narrowing your choices, gently tug a tree out of its bin and check for the following:

The roots should be plump, hairy and evenly spaced, not shriveled or lopsided.

The bud union, where the root stock is grafted to the bearing wood, should appear smooth and strong.

The trunk should measure 1/2 to 5/8ths of an inch in diameter. Smaller than that may result in poor growth; any larger, and it may not be in balance with the roots.

Any limbs should flex easily. If they snap, they’re probably dead.

The branching structure — unless it’s entirely out of whack — is not as important. You’ll be trimming the top and side shoots after planting.

Selecting the Site

Anna apples require 200 chill hours.

Sunlight, good drainage, wind protection and the coldest spot in your garden are all key.

Fruit trees need at least six hours of direct sunlight to stimulate buds and develop mature fruit. That direct light is most important during the growing season. It’s not a problem if the sun swings low in the dead of winter.

However, good drainage is important year-round. If water puddles where you plan to plant, shape a mound at least a foot tall or build a raised bed.

Fruit trees don’t like wind, especially when they’re budding out in late winter and early spring, and again when the fruit is beginning to mature. Fierce winds can literally blow off buds and rip off ripening fruit.

As for that all-important chill: avoid planting your bare-root fruit trees up against your house, driveway or patio, as all three can radiate considerable warmth. Instead, seek a low spot where cold collects.

Planting Time

Anna apple trees bear heavy crops, especially when cross-pollinated by Dorsett Golden or Einshemer apples.

Dig a hole as deep as your tree’s roots and at least three times as wide.

It’s fine to work in compost over the general planting area. But don’t worry about amending the hole. Instead, just break up any clods, line the hole with quarter-inch aviary wire if gophers are a problem, then form a dirt cone on the bottom of the hole to support the roots.

Pack down the cone and set the tree on top. Orient the bud union so that the flat notch faces the north or northeast, to prevent sun damage. Start filling the hole.

If you’re not sure how deep to plant the tree, lay a shovel across the hole. Look for the faint soil line on the trunk, then hold the tree over the hole to see how that soil line matches with the existing soil.

Plant your tree an inch or two high, to allow for settling. Ideally, the bud union will end up sitting 3 to 5 inches above the soil line, while the uppermost of the largest, thickest roots will be buried several inches below.

Shape a watering basin about a foot away from the trunk. Apply an inch or two of mulch, avoiding direct contact with the trunk. Then soak the tree.

Don’t fertilize. The tree possesses sufficient energy in its tissues to break dormancy, and any salt in the fertilizer may burn emerging roots.

Shape Up Your Tree

May Pride peaches are early bearing and produce sweet, smooth-textured, medium-size fruit. They're easy to peel and have freestone pits inside. Yum!

Once your tree is in the ground, it’s time to prune.

Most likely, your tree is composed of a whip and possibly a few side branches. Despite its paltry size, you still need to trim it in order to initiate good branching. Cut off the top about a quarter inch above a bud that’s 30 to 36 inches above the ground.

Then trim any side branches to 3-inch stubs bearing two or three buds.

In no time, it should start sending out whips and shoots in every direction. Toward the end of summer, prune your developing tree with an eye toward its future framework. Cut back new growth by up to a half in order to encourage evenly spaced, strong, balanced branches and to maintain plenty of air flow through the tree.

Some folks advocate keeping fruit trees compact and bush-like so that they’re easier to care for and harvest. If you’d like to adopt that technique, often referred to as Backyard Orchard Culture, trim your tree to 18 to 24 inches at planting time, to force lower, bushier branching. Then cut it back twice — by half in late spring, and by half again in late summer.

Watering Your Fruit Trees

While you should keep the soil moist if winter rains don’t oblige, new, bare-root fruit trees don’t require a lot of supplemental water until temperatures warm up and new growth takes off.

According to UC Cooperative Extension, a healthy, first-year fruit tree that’s not mulched needs 5 to 10 gallons of water a week during the summer, and much less water if it is mulched.

Obviously the amount of water that a new fruit tree in your own garden needs depends greatly on your soil type, air temperature, sun exposure and overall conditions.

It’s okay to let the top couple of inches of soil dry out between waterings. But the soil further down in the root zone should stay moist. Use a soil moisture probe or dig down 4 to 6 inches with a screwdriver or hand weeder occasionally to check.

When you do irrigate, use drip irrigation, attach a bubbler to your hose or set your faucet to a trickle so that the water flows out slowly and gives your tree a deep soak, rather than a quick blast solely to the surface.

Seeds of Wisdom

If recent rains have made your soil too wet to dig, put your bare-root tree in a bucket filled with moist sand, sawdust or even shredded newspapers. Set the tree in a shady spot out of the wind and keep the temporary mix damp but not soggy.

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.

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.

Joel Hoak agave

Tough as nails.

All across the desert southwest and Mexico, agaves stand up to just about anything: punishing heat, severe drought and poor, gritty soil.

While the ability to defy those extreme conditions isn’t necessary for survival in Central Coast gardens, agaves do make for some very resilient plant choices.

And choices there are, ranging from little tykes the size of cupcakes to statuesque specimens 10 feet tall.

So Many Uses

Agave celsii hybrids in a sea of spiky succulents.

Some agaves work well in masses; others as elegant focal points.

All form rosettes of thick, succulent leaves that store water, allowing them to endure long periods of drought. Many bear leaves that are tinged blue or gray; others are striped, in various shades of yellow, pink, ivory, red and gold. Skin-piercing spines line the edges of all but a few.

Altogether, there are more than 100 species of agaves. Most are native to hot, dry areas in the southwest US and Mexico, along with Central America and the West Indies. Here, they shrug off pests, attract hummingbirds when they bloom, and thrive on just a little more than our annual rainfall.

Choosing An Agave

White-striped century plant

Not long ago, agaves were most often available only in tiny pots from specialty growers.

But the current craze for succulents means the supply of agaves has grown much larger. The plants themselves are larger as well.

Instead of wee, little 2-inch and 4-inch specimens that could take 10 years to gain any substantial size, agaves are now offered in everything from one-gallon containers to 36-inch boxes.

But be sure to check the tag, as the size of the agave in its nursery container may have little to do with its size at maturity.

That sweet, unassuming white-striped century plant (Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’) in a one-gallon pot will swiftly grow into a sculptural accent more than 4 feet tall and wide.

Century plant

The straight species, century plant (Agave americana) grows rapidly as well, and tops out at 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide.

Yet that dainty, white-tipped Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae reginae), offered in a one-gallon container, may take a decade to reach only 18 inches wide.

Getting Started

Quick drainage, dry soil and plenty of sunshine are all key to successfully growing agaves. On the coast, look for a spot that gets full sun all day. Inland, provide a little protection from the afternoon sun.

Slopes and mounds are best, where gravity can help drain away water. Avoid low spots, wet spots and anywhere that is regularly irrigated or within range of lawn sprinklers.

Agave guiengola surrounded by orange African daisies.

Agaves are also susceptible to cold, with the fleshiest types, such as the ever-popular foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) and the plump, gray Agave guiengola turning to mush when temperatures drop to 25 degrees.

If that’s a real threat, select varieties that bear stiffer leaves, stouter spines and waxy coatings on their leaves, such as the small, gray and white King of the agaves (Agave ferdinandi-regis) or the mid-size, wavy-leaved Mr. Ripple (Agave ‘Mr. Ripple). Both are hardy to about 10 degrees.

Another trick is to plant your agaves close to a wall of your house or in a courtyard, where the plants can capture radiant heat released from the structure at night. Or simply plan to cover your agaves with a bed sheet on nights that temperatures drop too low.

Planting Time

An Agave celsii hybrid with golden jade and Mexican marigold.

Do not enrich the soil. I repeat. Do not enrich the soil.

Too fertile of soil, coupled with too much water, can lead to an early death.

If you have sandy soil, leave it alone. If you have clay soil, mix in perlite or crushed gravel to improve the drainage. Even better, mix in that coarse material, then mound the soil at least 6 to 12 inches high.

Weed the area thoroughly. Then, if you’re planting a larger specimen with bull-goring spines, lay down weed cloth — not black plastic — in the planting area. Otherwise, you won’t have a lot of fun negotiating those spines in order to pull weeds later on.

Blue Glow agave mulched with California Gold gravel.

Cut open slits in the weed fabric to dig the hole. Move the agave into place with heavy-duty fireplace gloves or by wrapping it in layers of plastic bubble wrap or newspaper.

Use wood-based mulch sparingly, or not at all. Agaves, like many succulents, do not like the extra moisture right up against their leaves.

Instead, lay down 1 to 2 inches of gravel, crushed rock, decomposed granite or even decorative, glass pebbles.


Artichoke agave

Soak your agaves when they first go into the ground.

If you plant this month, water them every week for so for several weeks. By September, let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings. Stop entirely when the winter rains begin. By next year, your agaves may need watering only a few times a month during the hottest days of summer.

If you’ve planted your agaves within a sea of other low-water plants that are already on drip irrigation, then you may add the agaves to the system.

Octopus agave

But if the agaves are going it alone, consider hand-watering. If the planting area has much of a slope, be sure to shape basins on the downhill sides of the agaves so that the water doesn’t roll down instead of soaking in.

Agaves can also withstand the overhead spray from sprinklers. But they don’t like to get soggy. And generally sprinklers are used to irrigate lawns, so come on too frequently.

Regardless of your method, do not over water. Unless you see your agaves’ fleshy leaves start to shrivel, they are getting all the moisture they need.

Pups and Flowers

A clump of foxtail agave beginning to elongate, in preparation for blooming.

Most agaves send out offshoots of little plants, or pups, around their perimeters. That enables them to produce future generations, because most agaves die after blooming.

Agaves generally live seven to 15 years, depending on the species, with the process taking several months or longer.

For some agaves, including the foxtail agave, the first sign may be an elongating of the trunk.

The agave then typically sends up a single, extremely tall stalk loaded with long-lasting, often cream-colored flowers. Hummingbirds from every corner in the county will zoom in to sip the nectar. As the blossoms slowly drop, the stalk will begin to wither. The leaves then follow, until all that’s left is a desiccated shell of the agave’s former self.

Meanwhile, the pups at the base will have already begun to fill in, continuing the cycle.

Companion Plants

An Agave celsii hybrid, surrounded by low-growing dymondia, blue oat grass, orange African daisies, curly top sedge, golden jade tree and price of Madeira.

Agaves have traditionally been planted in desert gardens.

However, they grow equally well with other low-water plants, including:

• spiky plants, such as kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos) and New Zealand flax (Phormium)

• blooming Mediterranean plants, such as bougainvillea, lavender and sage;

• ornamental grasses, such as blue fescue (Festuca glauca) and fountain grass (Pennisetum);

• low-growing succulents, such as Kleinia, (Senecio mandraliscae), red apple (Aptenia cordifolia) and ice plant (Delosperma, Drosanthemum, Malephora or Lampranthus).

Seeds of Wisdom

Plant spiny agaves away from paths, sidewalks, driveways and patios. They are much better as barrier plants around the edges of your garden, or sited well within a planting bed. Also avoid planting agaves beneath any messy or deciduous trees, as cleaning out the leaves will be difficult.

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