Mediterranean Gardens

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.


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.

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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.

American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Fall has a way of sneaking up on our Central Coast gardens. It doesn’t arrive in one fell swoop like so many places. There’s not a single cold snap or deep freeze to announce that the seasons have changed.

Instead, we get a mish-mash of conditions for a month or two, with temperatures bouncing around from the 40s and 50s at night to the low 60s to the low 80s during the day.

But the trend is still toward shorter days and crisper nights. And then suddenly — indeed, sometimes it seems overnight — our deciduous trees erupt into glorious fall color.

Granted, you’re not likely to see the postcard-perfect images that you’ll find in New England, where vast stands display impossible shades of brilliance.

Hachiya persimmon (Diospyros kaki 'Hachiya')

Much of that is because we have a greater diversity of trees, with many different tropicals, subtropicals and evergreens mixed in with our deciduous trees.

We also have a slower progression of color. Rather than busting loose all at once, followed by a quick fade, our leaves typically take their sweet time to shift color, then drop.

As a result, we may see the first hints of color in September, with Japanese maples starting to turn, followed by persimmons and maidenhair trees. Others, such as birches and sycamores, often come late to the party, not fully coloring up until November or even early December.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how fast our trees turn, or whether they’re planted in masses or as single specimens. They’re all beautiful this time of year, especially at sunup and sundown, with the low rays of sunlight shimmering through their tissue-thin leaves of red, yellow, purple and orange.

The following are among the best.

American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

American sweet gum, up close.

This robust tree bears maple-shaped leaves that turn gold, red and burgundy in fall. It has a nice, upright shape, and grows moderately fast to 60 feet tall and 20 to 25 feet wide. Although American sweet gum is a popular street tree in older neighborhoods, its beefy surface roots can lift pavement. So plant yours at least 10 to 15 feet away from sidewalks, patios, driveways and the foundation of your home. That will also help you to avoid having to constantly sweep the golfball-sized sticker balls that drop much of the year.

But all is forgiven when those leaves turn color and light up the neighborhood.

California sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

California sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

This statuesque native produces giant, leathery, maple-like leave that turn the richest orangey-gold in the coldest spots on the Central Coast.

Just south of Buellton, California sycamores that line the stream corridor along the east side of Highway 101 yield brilliant hues every year.

In milder areas, you’ll generally see a mix of rustic brown and gold, and even a few pale green leaves that never really turn.

After the leaves drop, the solid trunks reveal zig-zagging branches and beautiful, mottled, peeling bark in shades of white, tan, cinnamon and dark brown.

California sycamore grows fast to 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide. It is not for the faint of heart — or for small gardens.

Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

If you plant only one tree for fall color, let it be Chinese pistache.

Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

Neat and well-mannered, with roots that stay within bounds, it nonetheless trumpets its presence in fall as a raucous fireball of orange and red. On close inspection, some leaves turn yellow and pink as well. Adding to the explosive effect are dangling leaflets that dance in the breeze.

Chinese pistache grows 30 to 60 feet tall and wide. A relative newcomer to many neighborhoods, it will be interesting to watch as the various trees take on size over the next 10 to 15 years. As with many trees, it performs best with good drainage and deep, infrequent watering.

European white birch (Betula pendula)

A European white birch swirls in the wind.

This traditional front yard tree grows narrow and tall, and is often planted in groups.

The arrowhead-shaped leaves, hanging from weeping branches, turn to liquid gold in the fall.

Those leaves offer a beautiful, stark contrast to the white and black furrowed bark.

Mature trees reach 40 feet tall, 20 feet wide and form a surprisingly broad trunk a foot wide or wider.

If you plant several, vary their initial sizes so that they don’t grow into three equally stout trees in 15 to 20 years.

Also know that greedy surface roots will crowd out any underplantings, including lawn, over time.

I’m planning to replace a swath of declining fairy fan flower (Scaevola ‘Mauve Clusters’) beneath my European white birch with an underlayment of landscape fabric topped by dark, polished pebbles, come spring.

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)

Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku')

This dainty tree produces some of the earliest and most spectacular fall color, although its delicate leaves drop relatively fast. It grows to about 20 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety.

More than a dozen Japanese maples are commonly available, ranging from Bloodgood, which bears scarlet leaves in fall, to coral bark maple, which turns an ethereal yellow.

Protect your Japanese maple from the harshest elements. It will be at its best tucked into a sheltered corner or beneath a taller, evergreen tree, where wind and heat won’t tatter its leaves and turn them crispy.

Japanese or oriental persimmon (Diospyros kaki)

Fuyu persimmon (Diospyros kaki 'Fuyu')

Often overlooked until it sports fall color, this fruit tree bears round, nearly heart-shaped leaves that shift from green to yellow to deep, glowing orange. Plump, orange fruits that hang on long after the leaves have dropped are a bonus.

As a shade tree, persimmon has a nice, rounded silhouette and grows 30 feet tall and wide. As a fruit tree, it’s generally grafted to yield Fuyu, a nonastringent fruit that’s sweet when picked; or Hachiya, an astringent fruit that softens and sweetens after picking.

Maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba)

Maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba)

Year in and year out, this showstopper yields what may be the most vibrant yellow of any Central Coast tree.

It’s also among the most reliable for turning color, even with the mildest of temperatures.

The drooping, fan-shaped leaves then fall nearly all at once, gifting the earth with a golden glow.

Maidenhair tree is one of the oldest flowering plants on earth, dating back some 200 million years. Male trees bear small, inconspicuous flowers, while females produce large, fleshy seeds in late fall that smell positively hideous. Fortunately, nurseries seldom offer female trees for sale.

Maidenhair tree often starts out slow, then speeds up, eventually reaching up to 50 tall and about half as wide.

Purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera)

The already dark leaves of this fruitless plum turn nearly inky black in fall.

Purple Pony purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Purple Pony')

It is especially beautiful when offset by the golden tones of a European white birch or brilliant yellow gingko.

Purple-leaf plum sheds its leaves from the top down, so can look a little awkward just before the last leaves drop.

This tough tree withstands wind, poor soil and street pollution, and is found in neighborhoods everywhere. It generally grows upright, to 30 feet tall.

A dozen or so named varieties, such as Krauter Vesuvius and Purple Pony, may have slightly different forms, and be more rounded or not quite as tall.

Why Leaves Change Color

Fall color is the result of deciduous plants preparing for winter.

Yet another beautiful American sweet gum.

Before dropping their leaves, the plants convert the starch in their foliage to sugars to store in their branches, stems and trunks to sustain themselves until they leaf out the following spring.

But cold temperatures can hinder the process, preventing the sugars from reaching their destinations. That buildup of sugars often appears as red pigment.

Meanwhile, the green chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, revealing any other pigments that might have been masked, such as red, yellow, purple or orange.

The mashup of stalled sugars and pigments results in what we see as fall color.

Colder temperatures often heighten the hues, while mild temperatures can dull them. Strong, afternoon sun can intensify colors as well, sometimes to the point that the southwest side of a tree may sport more vivid color than its other sides.

Seeds of Wisdom

Fall color is not limited to trees. Deciduous shrubs, grape vines and some fruit trees, including peaches, plums and pluots, can produce dazzling foliage as well.

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What's That Tree?

Have you always wondered what that purple-flowering tree was, down the street? Or the one by the post office that turns bright yellow in fall?

Turn to a new book by Matt Ritter, a botany professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and you should have the answer in short order.

“A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us” features 150 of the most common trees growing in urban and suburban areas across the state.

“Ninety-five percent of the trees are covered,” Ritter said, noting that these are trees that have been planted in neighborhoods, gardens, parks and along streets. There are a handful of California natives. But most of the trees living in what arborists call our “urban forest” are from Australia, East Asia and other temperate and subtropical regions of the world.

A Unique Approach

Valley oak (Quercus lobata)

Plenty of books have been written about trees. However, what makes Ritter’s distinct is the approach he offers to identify trees.

Readers can take two paths: flip through the pages until they find a photo that resembles what they’re trying to figure out. That’s generally an easy route, as each of the 150 trees gets a full page treatment, with more than 500 photos and illustrations of mature specimens and close-ups of leaves, bark, cones, flowers, seeds and other pertinent details.

Or the more scientifically inclined might follow Ritter’s keys.

Keys are well-known in botany. Books about native plants — the encyclopedic Jepson Manual in particular — go to great lengths to “key” individual species by posing a series of either/or questions that narrow the choices until an identification is made.

But according to Ritter, no book about commonly planted trees has ever done that.

“There are no keys for regular trees,” he said. “It’s difficult to do (create the keys) because you have to first of all know what you would see. .. It’s training as a botanist that got me the ability to do that.”

Female cone of a Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris).

Ritter’s keys include such deceptively simple either/or questions as “Are the leaves lighter green on the lower surfaces?” or “Are the leaves the same color on the upper and lower surfaces; fruit smooth?” Based on the answers, he identifies the species or refers the reader to increasingly specific keys, where the identification is ultimately made.

When you reach that moment for a particular eucalyptus, for example, he said, “Now all of a sudden, you know it’s a sugar gum, with smooth bark, orange blotches and a lighter color on the leaf. You can be confident you are looking at the same thing, because on page 57 you can see it.”

To make the process easier for novices, he suggests first keying a tree whose identity you already know. He even provides a ruler along the edge of the back cover to measure various attributes of mystery trees.

“I wanted the book to be readable and interesting for the beginner, people who are just starting to look at trees, all the way to a person who’s a curator of an herbarium who wants to know esoteric differences between acacias. I was trying to strike the balance,” Ritter said.

A Light-Hearted Touch

The many shades of sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

As a professor, Ritter knows his way around thick, technical botanic tomes. He’s also editor-in-chief of Madroño, an academic quarterly journal published by the California Botanical Society, a group comprised of university professors and researchers.

Yet he has taken a decidedly light — but sincere — tone with this book. Early on, Ritter writes, “This is a book about trees, made from the bodies of dead trees, and reading it is a poor substitute at best for experiencing these wonderful organisms directly and personally. Take it with you and walk out among the trees in your neighborhood.”

He tucks in tidbits about natural history, quotes and tongue-in-cheek lists.

For instance, “Magnolias are an ancient and primitive group of flowering plants that evolved at a time when Earth was covered primarily with ferns and conifers… These flowers evolved prior to butterflies and bees and were originally pollinated by beetles and other ancient insects.”

The many quotes include this one from humorist Jack Handy, “I think people tend to forget that trees are living creatures. They’re sort of like dogs. Huge, quiet, motionless dogs, with bark instead of fur.”

And this from French historian and educator Charles Rollin: “The highest and most lofty trees have the most reason to dread the thunder.”

Ritter has fun with his lists, too, such as “Hobo Trees: Common Trees along California’s Roadways and Railroad Tracks” and “The Ten Trees Most Likely to Trip You on the Sidewalk.”

Then there’s “California’s ‘Old-Timey’ Trees: Trees planted in California long ago and now regularly found near old home sites and missions.” The old-timers include such imposing giants as tree of heaven, bunya bunya tree, blue gum and Monterey cypress.

“Another whole goal is to look at things in a different way,” Ritter said. “That’s a plant palette that existed then that doesn’t exist anymore… Now, when you see an area on the side of a hill with an old blue gum and a Monterey pine, even though any evidence of a structure is long gone, you’ll know that an old house existed there because old timey trees are still there.”

What Else is Inside

Ginkgo or maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Each plant entry starts with the tree’s botanic name and common name, along with its Latin translation, pronunciation, plant family, native location, leaf type, habit, shape, sex and height.

“The thing there on every page, the plant morphology, that came from a lot of observation,” Ritter said.

The descriptions benefit from his observations as well. For example, about the tulip tree, which grows more than 80 feet tall, he writes, “A long pole trimmer, brave climb, jet pack, or view from a three-story building may be necessary to observe these majestic blooms closely, but they are well worth the effort.”

What you won’t find, though, are planting instructions or pest and disease diagnoses. Ritter said he didn’t want to duplicate information readily available from other sources.

“As a botanist, the two questions are, ‘What is that thing in my yard?’ and ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Many other books address the second question. This book addresses that first question.”

He added, “My audience is people in urban and suburban environments in California who will pick up the book, flip through it, instantly recognize something around them… Then they’ll get sucked in. A lay person who has a burgeoning curiosity about trees. I want them to become more interested in trees, I want them to become defenders of trees, I want them to plant trees, I want them ultimately to be more interested in general about organisms and conservation and diversity.”

About Matt Ritter

Author Matt Ritter ensnared in the massive, above-ground roots of the Moreton Bay fig tree that sits near the Santa Barbara Amtrak station.

Author of “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us,” Matt Ritter is a botany professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is editor-in-chief of the California Botanic Society’s quarterly journal. He writes about lesser-known but worthy trees for Pacific Horticulture Magazine; has written natural history and field trip guides about San Luis Obispo, and numerous scientific papers; and contributed to botanical references, including the upcoming second edition of the “Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California” and the “Flora of North America Project.”

He is also chair of the City of San Luis Obispo Tree Committee.

Ritter shot all of the photographs for this new book. He is particularly proud that while he featured many street trees, not a single automobile is pictured.

Ritter is a lively speaker. His next appearance on the Central Coast will be February 20 at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History.

In addition to his work as a botanist, Ritter describes himself as “a woodworker, athlete, musician, gardener, and all-around likable guy.”

Seeds of Wisdom

“A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us”, by Matt Ritter, 2011, costs $18.95. It is available at most independent bookstores, including The Book Loft in Solvang, and online at

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

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.

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.

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