Planting Design

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.

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.

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.

Orange miniature petunia (Calibrachoa 'Aloha Tiki Orange')

They’re here.

Springtime launches the debut of a new crop of brightly blooming perennials.

Visit any nursery now, and you’ll find row upon row of fresh, colorful beauties in 4-inch round or square pots.

Less expensive than a one-gallon plant and bearing a larger root mass than a seedling plucked from a pony pack, these 4-inchers are a perfect size to plant during the first days of spring.

In the garden, they’ll fill in quickly. Depending on what you choose, they’ll also bloom nonstop for as long as 12 to 24 months. However, it’s worth noting that while technically these prolific bloomers are perennials, because they expend so much energy to produce all those flowers, they may eventually collapse and never recover.

So at the end of however long their flowering might be, I give mine a good pruning. If they don’t respond within a few weeks, I yank them and start anew.

That said, the following short-lived perennials are among my favorites for quick, continuous color.

Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia)

Angelface Blue summer snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia 'Angelface Blue')

Picture a snapdragon for flower shape; a blue, pink, purple or white delphinium for flower color, and any kind of penstemon for slender, pointed leaves.

Combine those traits and you’ll have an Angelonia, which bears those plump flowers on upright spikes that grow 18 to 24 inches tall.

Angelonia blooms most heavily in heat, and prefers full sun and moderate to regular watering.

The plants are said to be deer resistant, although I haven’t tested them. The flowers are self-cleaning, meaning they’ll fall off neatly. Or harvest the spikes early and bring them indoors for a long-lasting bouquet.

Dresden Blue bears medium blue flowers and is among the most popular. Darker blues and darker purples are excellent as well.


Goldie bidens (Bidens 'Goldie')

Bidens may look delicate, with its lush, ferny foliage and bright yellow daisy flowers. But this native of Mexico, Guatemala and the southern United States is surprisingly tough, blooming everywhere from cultivated gardens to more difficult conditions.

But provide full sun. My plants thrive in dry, clay soil and are nice, self-cleaning companions to lavender and Mexican sage.

Also check the plant tag for the growth habit. Some Bidens, such as Goldilocks Rocks, form neat mounds about a foot tall and wide, while others, such as Goldie, have a looser habit and trail 2 feet or more.

Swan River Daisy (Brachyscome)

Blue Zephyr Swan River daisy (Brachyscome 'Blue Zephyr')

This fluffy perennial bears petite, daisy-like flowers in pastel shades of purple, pink, yellow or white, all with greenish-yellow centers.

Swan River daisy is a good filler between other plants, although it can be fussy about drainage, living longer in sandy soil than clay. I have grown mine next to a lawn, where its flexible stems and thready flowers have tolerated overspray from the sprinklers.

Provide full sun and regular water. Shear back the flowers occasionally to encourage more blooming.

Miniature Petunia or Million Bells (Calibrachoa)

Yellow miniature petunia (Calibrachoa 'Spring Fling Lemon')

Is there a color this native of Brazil does not bloom in?

Perhaps because it’s such a popular and dependably prolific bloomer, hybridizers have spent much time on this spreading perennial, creating flowers in both pastel and bright shades of pink, rose, red, violet, orange, yellow and white.

The quarter-sized flowers look like small petunias. But the flowers drop off on their own, and the stems and leaves are not sticky. Some varieties grow flat, reaching only 6 inches tall, while others form clumpy mounds. Check to see which type you’re buying.

Provide full sun to light shade, good drainage and let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings.

Twinspur (Diascia)

Twinspur (Diascia hybrid)

This offering from South Africa bears scores of pink, salmon, lavender or white flowers that open one after the next, up twisty, twirly stems. On the backsides of each flower are two curved “spurs” that are said to bear oil that attracts pollinating bees.

Trailing varieties of twinspur are good filler plants and spread at least 2 feet wide. Clumping types grow only a foot or so wide, and grouped together make nice masses of color. The plants are self-cleaning, so once again, no dead-heading is necessary.

Provide full sun to partial shade and moderate water. In the hottest inland areas, blooming may slow down or stop if night-time temperatures hover in the upper 70s or above. Go ahead and trim your plants if that happens. Doing so will encourage branching, which will produce even more flowers once the temps cool down.


Lavender and white Nemesia

This South African native is fragrant, with a scent reminiscent of cloves. Upright spikes of flowers appear in purple, pink, blue, white and yellow.

Blue Bird is among the most widely planted, while varieties in the new Angelart series bloom in even more shades, with fruit names like pear, mango and raspberry.

Nemesia is best with full sun in the morning, then shade in the afternoon.

It also likes good drainage and regular water.

Like twinspur, it may stop blooming if night-time temperatures stay in the high 70s.

Again, snip back the foliage to promote more prolific blooming once the night-time temps drop.

Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa columbaria)

Giant Blue pincushion flower (SCabiosa 'Giant Blue')

This short-lived perennial attracts butterflies with its pretty pink, lavender or blue flowers that look a little like flattened pompoms atop wiry stems. Individual stamens rise above the flowers, like straight pins stuck into sewing pincushions.

Provide full sun and moderate to regular water. In clay soil, pincushion flower may decline after a year or two; in sandy soil or loam, it should live longer.

This is one of the few 4-inchers that you’ll have to dead head. But doing so will encourage more ample flowering.

Fairy Fan Flower (Scaevola)

Mauve Clusters fairy fan flower (Scaevola 'Mauve Clusters')

This native of Australia is longer lived than most, and forms a dense ground cover of unusual flowers that look only half formed, with nearly rectangular petals arranged like a fan.

Mauve Clusters is the flattest variety, growing only a few inches tall while trailing 3 feet wide. The Whirlwind and Top Pot series, in lavender, pink and white, bear larger flowers and grow up to 1 foot tall while spreading 3 feet wide.

Provide full sun and moderate to regular water. The flowers are self-cleaning.

Bacopa (Sutera)

Nano White bacopa (Sutera 'Nano White')

This popular perennial is widely planted in containers, with its tiny green leaves and bright white flowers spilling gracefully over the edges.

But bacopa does just as well in the ground, provided it receives full morning sun, afternoon shade and consistent, frequent watering. It is one of the thirstiest short-lived perennials. If yours starts dropping buds — even though the leaves are not wilting — it’s time to water.

Also provide enough room, as bacopa tends to roam far and wide. For instance, Giant Snowflake can spread 3 to 4 feet by the end of its first summer, while remaining only 6 to 8 inches tall.

The traditional white-on-green is my favorite. Newer varieties bloom in pink or lavender, and there’s even one called Gold ‘n Pearls, which bears variegated lime and green leaves.

Garden Verbena (Verbena x hybrida)

Lavender verbena (Verbena 'Superbena Royale Chambray')

Rounded clusters of tiny flowers in purple, pink, red, white and nearly blue bloom on top of foot-tall plants that spread up to 3 feet wide. The little flower clusters make great landing pads for swallowtail butterflies to then sup the nectar.

Garden verbena is self-cleaning, tough and tolerates heat and marginal soils. It’s fine with moderate to regular water. But do not use overhead sprayers, which can cause mildew on the leaves and flowers.

Planting Tips

Pink verbena (Verbena 'Superbena Pink Parfait')

Your 4-inch perennials may be blooming heavily before their toes touch the ground.

In the garden, you’ll need to provide tip-top soil for most, to sustain the show.

Work in lots of well-rotted compost or other fine, organic material into the bed before planting. While the soil does not have to be as rich and loamy as for vegetables, it should still be fertile, loose and drain well.

For maximum impact, follow the spacing recommendations on the labels. For some short-lived perennials, that may be only a foot apart.

Some of these flashy bloomers tolerate overhead watering. But most will topple beneath the weight of waterlogged flowers or even mildew.

For best results, use soaker hose, drip irrigation or rim the area with a basin, then flood it whenever the top half inch to inch of soil dries out. A thick layer of mulch will stretch the time between watering.

Seeds of Wisdom

Many showy, short-lived perennials bear dainty flowers that are best appreciated up close, planted as edgings along paths or patios, in masses or at the front of a border.

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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.

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.

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

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

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