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.


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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Creeping thyme

Gaps between stepping stones can be among the most awkward spaces in the garden. The same goes for those narrow channels of dirt between loosely set flagstones or large pavers that compose rustic patios.

Too often, the gaps are neglected and a catchall for weeds. But it’s just as easy to fill the cracks with creeping plants. These little guys will travel the gaps, don’t mind being stepped on and may even smell good in the process. They can also choke out weeds for good.

Full Sun

Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum or Thymus praecox) is a perfect fit for hot, sunny paths in Central Coast gardens. The petite perennial herb comes in many variations, all of which bear tiny, rounded fragrant leaves in shades of dark green, lime green, and even gold with a white edging. Creeping thyme is tough. It will grow in difficult soils, from sandy to heavy clay, and it tolerates inconsistent watering.

Elfin thyme on the right is flat as a pancake, compared with mother-of-thyme on the left.

A dwarf version is Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’), which bears leaves so small that one is hardly discernable from the next. Elfin’s foliage and occasional lavender flowers stay phenomenally flat.

That’s something to be aware of, with the various thymes. While most varieties form low-growing mats, some, such as Victor Reiter, bear summertime flower spikes that grow tall enough to stub toes. The taller spikes are pretty along the edges of paths or patios, but pose tripping hazards when planted in the midst of foot traffic.

Dymondia, flanked by gold coin and Silver Dragon grass.

Also, thyme’s rosy pink and lavender flowers attract honeybees. While that’s great for enhancing pollination in your garden, you might not want to plant it in within a primary patio or pathway next to your front door.

Dymondia (Dymondia margaretae) is a good alternative. It is extremely flat, and bears slender, oval leaves that are green on top and gray underneath. A slight upward curl on the edges of each leaf provides a frosted, two-tone look.

Dymondia occasionally bears tiny, flat yellow daisy flowers. But its best attributes are its tidy appearance, uniform height and low watering needs.

Sun or Some Shade

These creepers are content with full sun to partial shade along the coast. Inland, all prefer some protection from the hot, mid-day sun.

Many of the flattest stonecrops (Sedum) form prostrate mats of succulent stems, and will cooperatively traverse the gaps between stones.

Goldmoss sedum (Sedum acre) is a dainty succulent perennial that bears lime-green leaves and yellow, springtime flowers. Its trailing stems send out new roots as it ventures out. Pinch it back if it attempts to bust loose. Dragon’s Blood sedum (Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’) trails as well, with small, succulent leaves that are a dark, purple-red.

Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a fluffy, moderate-water perennial that presents a meadowy appearance. Its dime-sized, white and yellow daisy flowers rise above apple-green, ferny leaves that are soft to walk on. It’s reasonably fragrant, although the more intensely aromatic chamomile tea is made from the flowers of Matricaria recutita, an annual species that reaches 2 feet tall.

Pink cranesbill

Cranesbill (Erodium reichardii) grows in low, tidy clumps of dark-green, heart-shaped, overlapping leaves. Its cup-shaped flowers bloom in pink or white most of the year.

In clay soil, cranesbill starts to decline after a few years. In loam or sandy soil, it is much longer lived. Cranesbill requires regular water and is fine with overhead irrigation.

Jewel mint of Corsica (Mentha requienii) also requires regular water. It forms an inch-high mat of miniature green leaves that look like moss, yet are highly aromatic. Think toothpaste or ice cream when you step on it.

A number of other sun-to-shade creepers, including dichondra, green carpet, blue star creeper, Irish moss and baby’s tears, are far thirstier. While they tolerate full sun along the coast, they won’t dry out as fast in filtered shade.


Dichondra (Dichondra micrantha) bears lime-green leaves that look like a string of dainty lily pads. It was a popular lawn “grass” in the 1960s and 70s. But vast expanses require a huge investment in water, fertilizer and care.

Instead, it is better suited to slipping between stepping stones or edging a pond. Keep it barely wet enough to grow well and stay low. With too much water or fertilizer, it can become invasive.

Green carpet (Herniaria glabra) forms a fluffy, spring-green mass literally smothered in tiny leaves. It spreads via trailing stems as well, but it’s not difficult to control. Green carpet rarely blooms — and when it does, the flowers are so small that they’re easy to miss. Instead, it provides a punch of color in winter, when its leaves turn dark red with colder temperatures.

Blue star creeper

Blue star creeper (Pratia pedunculata, Isotoma or Laurentia) bears starry, pale-blue flowers atop a bed of very flat, light-green leaves. It blooms most heavily from spring through summer, with flowers appearing occasionally during the rest of the year.

Irish moss (Sagina subulata) is not a moss, technically speaking. But it sure looks like one, forming a dense carpet of miniature, velvety leaves.

It’s often sold in flats. Use kitchen scissors to cut it into strips or irregular shapes that you might need to fill between your stepping stones.


In full shade, Corsican sandwort (Arenaria balearica) forms a dense mat of slender, green leaves. Masses of simple, wildflower-like white flowers bloom from spring through summer. This sandwort grows best where the soil stays damp but not boggy. Good drainage is key.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) bears larger leaves than many creepers. Its fragrant leaves are also more distinct, appearing evenly spaced around square stems to form circular tiers of foliage. Small, white flowers bloom from late spring through the end of summer, then go to seed. An army of volunteers may follow. Pluck them early, to prevent them from spreading everywhere.

Planting Tips

Irish moss

Tiny, new plants tucked between stepping stones face challenges that plants romping through the garden don’t.

First, the little ones need room — and soil — to grow.

Stepping stones or loose flagstone patios are often set on compacted soil, compacted base or several inches of sand.

You’ll need to make sure there’s enough loose, fertile soil between the stones, preferably at least half a foot deep, for roots to grow.

Also, the gaps between the stones should be at least a few inches wide.

A dymondia patio.

Next, decide how you’ll irrigate the plants.

This might be by burying soaker hose a couple of inches below the surface; lining the path with pop-up micro-sprayers; adjusting nearby sprinklers so that their overspray covers the plants; or planning to water by hand.

If you’re planting from flats, pull or cut apart 2 to 3-inch wide chunks that contain several plants and their roots. Space the chunks 6 to 9 inches apart in the ground.

Cover the bare spots with topper or some other light, organic material that will help retain surface moisture until the plants fill in.

Seeds of Wisdom

Gaps between stepping stones should be at least 3 inches wide and up to 6 inches deep to provide sufficient room for creeping plants to take root.

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All of these succulents may be easily divided and transplanted.

More, please.

Expanding your garden is easy when it comes to succulents. The fleshy, thick-leafed plants are remarkably accommodating about replicating themselves.

Some succulents push out new little plants, called offsets or pups, all on their own. Others take to beheading — lop off their tops and those tops will obligingly root out. Cut the stems of others into pieces, and new roots and leaves will form.

Succulents are typically sluggish over winter. The time to start propagating is spring, when temperatures warm up and active growth begins. In cooler years, you might have to wait until late March. But this year’s early sunshine has already prompted the annual awakening.

By Way of Background

New aerial roots just begging to be planted.

Succulents have a canny ability to sprout new roots and leaves — in expected as well as unexpected places.

For instance, my Kiwi aeoniums send out aerial roots in the shady recesses beneath the leafy canopy created by clustering together a dozen or so.

Other succulents send out pups. For some, such as hen-and-chicks (Echeveria), there is a seemingly endless supply of newbies that can be harvested and transplanted.

For others, such as agaves, an increasing number of pups is a sign that the death of the mother plant is near. Those pups are a means of ensuring the survival of the species.

Getting Started

The variegated Anacampseros crowding this 6-inch container can be easily divided and separated into at least 20 new plants.

For succulents that form offsets or pups, such as aloe vera, snip what might be a tiny tether between the little ones and the mother, then gently pull out the pups and leave the mother in place.

For succulents that form rosettes or heads, such as aeoniums and taller hen-and-chicks, slice off the heads, along with about an inch of their stems.

For succulents that produce a series of leaves along long stems, such as jade (Crassula) and kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae), break off individual leaves at the stem, or cut off the tips of the stems into pieces that have at least two joints — one to send out roots and the other to send out leaves.

Regardless of how you harvest them, set the pieces in the shade for a few days to let calluses form over the cuts. The thin layers of cells will help protect the cuttings from rot.

A newly harvested cutting of Afterglow echeveria awaits planting in volcanic pumice.

Next, fill a shallow container with a light, fast-draining material. Some of the most popular mediums are pumice, perlite, and cactus and succulent potting mix. I prefer pumice — the lightweight, porous volcanic rock is easy to use, provides lots of air pockets and my succulents root out quickly in it.

Set your cuttings on top. There’s no need to bury them. If you’ve broken off leaves, lean them against the sides of the container so that their bases have contact with the material. Provide bright, indirect light and keep the mix moist but not wet. Once new roots have formed, transplant the succulents to their new homes.

That said, some succulents don’t need even that much help. I’ve left cuttings of three different aeoniums sitting on my potting bench and all three — Kiwi, Sunburst and large purple (Aeonium atropurpureum ‘Zwartkop’) — have rooted into thin air.

Ordinarily, a single, dark-purple rosette forms at the top of each stem of large purple aeonium. However, several small, new rosettes will emerge from the top of a stem that has been be-headed.

Likewise, you can stick a cutting straight into the ground. Still leave it out for a few days to let the cuts callus. And wait a week after planting before giving any water. A few tiny roots should form first. Otherwise, irrigated too early, the cutting may rot.

Also, the success rate of this method directly corresponds to your soil type. In heavy soil, your cuttings may be doomed, as they need lots of air to produce new roots. You’ll greatly increase the odds with loose, fast-draining soil. Even still, you may suffer a few casualties. But most of the cuttings should settle in, send out new roots and keep right on going.

In the meantime, if you’ve lopped off the rosettes of leggier succulents, leave the stems in place. It’s likely that the headless sticks will bear new tops. On the rebound, they often form multi-branched clusters of rosettes, rather than pushing up new, single-stem heads like the ones that they replaced.

Permanent Homes

Despite the diminutive size of the mother hen-and-chicks, offsets are already forming.

Most smaller succulents are perfectly content to live out their lives in pots. But if you rooted your cuttings in pure pumice or perlite, switch over to a mix that contains at least some lightweight soil to provide nutrients for the long haul.

Larger agaves and the like should go in the ground. Again, excellent drainage is key. Their toes like to dry out on a regular basis.

Mulch around your new plants to help conserve water. Light-colored rock, pea gravel and decomposed granite all provide a nice contrast and will highlight interesting leaves and textures.

Succulents have a tendency to get lost in wood mulch. But if you do use it, keep the wood a few inches away from each plant. The wood holds moisture and extended, above-ground moisture contact with a succulent’s stem or leaves can lead to rot.

Most succulents like at least 3 to 4 hours a day of direct sun during spring, summer and fall. In hotter inland valleys, you may need to provide some protection from the most intense sun during noon and early afternoon.

Over winter, heed frost and freeze warnings. Many succulents tolerate temperatures a few degrees below freezing. But readings of 20, 15 or 10 degrees can cause significant damage.

That risk may be yet another reason to bulk up your succulent numbers during warm weather. You’ll have reserves to fall back on should colder temperatures strike.

And if not, you’ll have plenty of free plants to fill your garden or pass along to others.

Succulent Companions

Angelina sedum nestled at the base of a spiky New Zealand flax.

As you build your collection of succulents, you may be tempted to tuck them everywhere there’s empty space in your garden. However, make sure that there’s ample sunlight, fast-draining soil and that the irrigation needs of neighboring plants match.

On the Central Coast, most succulents are happy with watering only two to three times a month during summer. Good companions include water-conserving California natives, Mediterranean plants and ornamental grasses.

Your succulents will be getting all the moisture they need as long as you don’t see their thick leaves shrivel. Even then, a quick soak can restore their health.

Seeds of Wisdom

All succulents prefer fast drainage. Even if you have sandy soil, it’s a good idea to plant your succulents on mounds at least 6 to 12 inches tall.

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

Time to enjoy!

It’s a new year. And with it comes an opportunity to approach your garden with a fresh eye.

Month by month, here’s what to expect on the Central Coast during the gardening year.


January kicks off bare-root season.

Roses, deciduous fruit trees and even a few perennial vegetables, including asparagus and artichokes, can be planted this month and next. Bare root plants are dormant: all you’ll see is a twiggy stick or two, attached to spidery roots.

For roses, select varieties that do well in cooler, coastal climates. For edibles, choose types that are low-chill, which means they don’t need more than a few hundred “chill hours” below 45 degrees between November and March to set fruit and grow properly.

An Anna apple, from bare root.

Be sure when planting bare-root that your soil is dry enough to work. That may be tricky with our recent, drenching rain. If you miss the window now, you’ll get a second chance in spring, after nurseries pot up their bare-root stock and sell the plants in traditional containers.

Existing roses and deciduous fruit trees need pruning, too. Clean up and clear out twiggy, broken or crossing branches to prepare for new growth, blooms and fruit in the coming year.

In the vegetable garden, there’s time to plant another few rounds of fast-growing lettuce, spinach and leafy greens. But it’s too late for broccoli, cabbage or other bigger, cool-season crops.

Camellias, azaleas and other hardy shrubs can go in now. But don’t plant if the soil is too wet. If you can’t resist a particular new plant, temporarily pot it up, then transplant it in spring.

If temperatures drop dramatically, protect any frost-sensitive plants by keeping them well watered. Also cover them with a bed sheet or lightweight plastic at night. Remove the cover in the morning to avoid trapping daytime heat, which can turn the space underneath into a hothouse.


Plant Dahlias at the end of the month.

If temperatures haven’t warmed, February in the garden is nearly a carbon copy of January, with bare-root planting and bare-root pruning continuing in earnest.

Don’t prune any plants other than those that are dormant, such as your roses and deciduous trees. Ignore any old, leggy growth on perennials, such as Mexican sage, lavender and the like. Even though it’s unsightly, that scraggly stuff will help insulate the plants if frost persists. You can trim them toward the end of the month, once the threat of frost has passed.

Also toward the end of the month, start planting summer-blooming bulbs, such as tuberous begonias, caladiums, calla lilies, dahlias, gladiolus and Mexican tuberose. Check that the soil is workable, as these bulbs don’t like to sit in chilly, wet dirt.


Plant succulents, such as rock purslane (Cistanthe grandiflora).

With March comes spring. The danger of frost ebbs, the soil warms up and dries out, and wriggly earthworms appear.

At the beginning of the month, plant annuals and hardy perennials, shrubs, vines and trees. By the end of the month, you can turn to citrus, tropicals and succulents, which need warmer days to get going.

Longer days and increasing temperatures will send weeds into high gear. Remove them as fast you can — or at least their tops, so they don’t set seed.

Adjust your irrigation controller, which should have been set to rain delay or dialed back to infrequent cycles over the cooler, wetter months.


By April 1, your first tomatoes can go in the ground. In fact, last year I planted my first tomatoes March 31, and those eight plants outperformed three later plantings by a landslide.
Start seed of other summer vegetables, such as peppers, eggplant and zucchini. But wait for warmer nighttime temperatures before transplanting them into the garden.

Celebrate Earth Day mid-month by setting up a compost pile, freshening mulch in your planting beds or taking a vow to reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides or pesticides in your garden.

Catch up on planting roses or deciduous fruit trees that you missed during bare-root season.


Despite any May gray, this is a glorious month for planting everything from bright summer color in patio containers and hanging baskets to sowing pumpkin seeds directly in the ground in your vegetable garden.

More structural plantings can go in as well. Plant foundation shrubs to plug gaps or serve as hedges. Plant shade trees on the south and west sides of your house to reduce cooling costs during summer.

California meadow sedge

May is also an excellent time — it’s not too cold and not too hot — to install a sod lawn. To conserve water and time tending the swath, don’t carpet your entire yard. Instead, lay down sod only where you truly need it for children or dogs to romp.

Or replace your existing, thirsty turf with a lumpy, no-mow grass, such as our native California meadow sedge (Carex praegracilis) or blue sedge (Carex flacca). Red fescue (Festuca rubra), which forms flattened drifts in the shade, requires a little more water. But it grows well on slopes that are difficult to mow.


Sow corn now.

Keep planting those vegetables. Sow big-seed veggies, such as corn, pumpkins and melons, directly in the ground. Even with any June gloom, night-time temperatures should be sufficient to move peppers and eggplant outdoors. Sow sunflowers, too. Look for the pollenless types if you plan to harvest the cheery flowers for indoor arrangements.

Plant annual herbs in pots or in the ground. Basil, borage, chamomile, parsley and summer savory are happy just about anywhere. Caraway, cilantro and dill should be grown in the ground only, as all three send down tap roots that aren’t content in shallow containers.

Check or revamp your irrigation system in advance of summer heat. If you have sprinklers in a planting bed of mixed heights, the taller plants may be blocking the spray. If so, retrofit the system with drip tubing and emitters that snake their way through the plants and apply water at ground level.


Moptop hydrangeas.

By July, any new plantings should be humming along and you can turn your attention to nipping and tucking around the edges.

Trim any wayward growth or crossing branches on trees and shrubs. Shear or dead-head spent flowers on perennials to encourage repeat blooming.

Tune up your summer roses by cutting them back by one-third to a half after they’ve finished their July bloom cycle. This will force new growth for bigger flowers in fall and again just before Christmas.

The June gloom is likely to be a distant memory, so increase the frequency of your irrigation — especially for hanging baskets and containers, which dry out faster than plants in the ground.


A new raised bed filled with a fluffy blend of existing soil and well-aged compost.

Other than keeping after errant weeds, harvesting summer edibles and making sure your plants are well-watered, there’s not a lot to do.

Indeed, this month may be our closest equivalent to the down time that eastern gardeners enjoy during snowy months. Although instead of curling up next to the fireplace with a warm beverage and a handful of gardening catalogs, we’re likely to be at the beach, on vacation or simply spending time outside, enjoying our gardens.

From that standpoint, August is a good time to re-think your outdoor space. If you’re so inclined, install a bench, water feature or outdoor lighting.

Or take on a construction project, such as building a raised bed, trellis or arbor.


Our native redbud (Cercis occidentalis) with French lavender and hairy canary flower (Dorycnium hirsutum).

September starts off slowly. But as the days become noticeably shorter toward the end of the month, my favorite time of the year in the garden begins.

Fall planting brings with it the potential to truly change the character of a garden, providing an opportunity to plant sweeps of ground covers, perennials, shrubs and trees — with the best choices being California natives or plants hailing from other Mediterranean climates that are naturally adapted to our cycle of warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters.

Even if you make only a few changes or additions, these plants will be off to their best start when planted in fall.


Or you can honor the season by slipping in a few South African bulbs, such as naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna), baboon flower (Babiana), Chasmanthe, Crinum, Freesia, wand flower (Ixia), chincherinchee (Ornithogalum thyrsoides) or Velthemia, which will bloom in late winter or spring.

As for watering: dial it back for everything except your newly planted plants.


Let the fall planting frenzy continue.

Also begin setting out cool-season vegetables, such as beets, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi, leafy greens, leeks, radishes and Swiss chard.


The nights are growing nippy and the days are even shorter. But there’s still time to squeeze in quick winter color by planting pansies, violas, cyclamen, primroses and sweet peas in beds or along walkways right around your house.

At the end of the month, harvest bright berries and colorful fallen leaves for holiday decorations.


Broad flagstone stepping stones keep feet out of the mud on rainy days.

With the advent of winter rains, the window for planting may be coming to an end. But you’ll likely be facing piles of leaves and other detritus. Put the remains to good use by setting up a compost pile. Use a store-bought bin, or construct one out of four 4″x4″ redwood posts, slats and a tarp.

Check your winter vegetables for slugs and snails. Use a non-toxic bait, such as Sluggo, to keep the pests under control.

If you have dirt walkways that dissolve into mud every winter, lay down flagstones or rough-textured mulch at least 3 to 4 inches deep to keep the muck off your shoes.

Set your irrigation controller to rain delay or turn it off entirely if we have another wet winter.

Seeds of Wisdom

While we can usually tackle specific tasks during specific months, much of what we accomplish in our gardens is ultimately dependent on the weather.

This past year, who would have expected such a cool summer, followed by a dash of record-breaking heat, then a thorough dousing of rain? That unpredictability requires a certain dose of flexibility when gardening from one season to the next.

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Rock purslane (Cistanthe grandiflora)

Succulents. They’re not just for dry, desert gardens anymore.

Maybe they never were. But they’re definitely exploding in popularity in gardens everywhere.

And they’re no longer relegated to the cactus sections at garden centers and specialty nurseries. Instead, you can find them alongside traditional shrubs, perennials and ground covers. Even at big box stores, the once hard-to-find plants are featured front and center.

At Home

Golden sedum (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina') beneath a spiky New Zealand flax.

In general, succulents are easy to grow, and even easier to ignore.

They’re not susceptible to most pests or diseases, and require watering only once or twice a month to keep their leaves plump. All they ask is that you provide relatively good drainage and a reasonable dose of sunshine, and not subject them to cold, clammy soil.

In the garden, certain single succulents make great sculptural accents, while others, tiny in size, are best in broad swaths or presented as jewels in up-close containers.

Regardless of their stature, many are grown for their colorful leaves, rather than for their flowers. Those leaves are typically thick and fleshy because they store moisture. Snap one between your fingers, and you’re likely to see a few droplets fall.

The following 10 are among the best.


Kiwi aeonium in full sun.

Aeonium leaves look like petals that form daisy-like “flowers.”

Copper pinwheel (Aeonium ‘Sunburst’) bears green, yellow and pink-striped leaves in rosettes the size of dinner plates.

Large purple aeonium (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’) bears slightly smaller, dark-purple rosettes atop bare, lanky stems up to 4 feet tall. In summer, older rosettes elongate and produce cones of hundreds of small, yellow flowers. After flowering, the stems die. But by then, plenty of younger rosettes will have taken their places.

Kiwi aeonium in full shade.

Kiwi aeonium (Aeonium ‘Kiwi’) rosettes are palm-sized, stay low to the ground and multiply rapidly. Kiwi grows well in sun or shade, and its color shift illustrates what often happens to succulents when they’re moved from one exposure to another.

In my garden in sun, Kiwi’s leaves are yellowish, lime-green, and edged in bronze. In my garden in shade, mature cuttings from the same plant are green, and edged in cream and pink.


Many agaves bear prickly spines. But the popular foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) does not. A fixture in older, coastal gardens, foxtail agave grows 4 feet wide and tall. As it ages, its stem elongates. A thick spike of greenish-yellow flowers emerges, rises 5 to 10 feet, then gracefully arches back toward earth, reminiscent, a wee bit, of a foxtail.

Agaves die after blooming. But by then, they will have produced pups to continue the cycle. Look for hybrids with solid and variegated leaves in shades of gray, blue, cream and green.


Aloes are among the most colorful, reliable and prolific winter and spring-blooming succulents. As such, they are hummingbird magnets.

Torch aloe (Aloe arborescens) forms a mass, 8 to 10 feet wide, of rosettes that bear long, spear-like leaves. Spikes of brilliant orange flowers extend several feet out and above. Along the coast, the plants require no supplemental irrigation.

Blue Elf (Aloe ‘Blue Elf’) grows in upright, knee-high clumps of bluish-gray leaves. Small, orange tubular flowers bloom atop short stems.

Coral aloe (Aloe striata) stays flat, with layers of broad, blue-yellow-gray triangular leaves appearing nearly horizontal in a single, 2-foot-wide clump. Stubby, dome-shaped clusters of orange flowers rise above.

The old standby skin salve, medicinal aloe (Aloe vera), grows well in a pot. Bumpy ridges line the edges of the upright, twisting leaves.


Cistanthe grandiflora

Count the brilliant, magenta flowers that bloom most of the year as the reason this native of Chile has skyrocketed up the popularity chart.

Looking much like large, open poppies, the flowers appear, one after the other, up tall, slender stems that stretch to 3 feet tall. Below, sit fairly tidy, foot-tall clusters of grayish-green leaves. The plants — also known as rock purslane or calandrinia — multiply rapidly, and do well in heavy soil.


Baby's necklace (Crassula rupestris subsp. marnieriana)

These succulents include the familiar jade plant (Crassula ovata), which makes a beautiful, glossy green, water-conserving hedge. Snowy white flowers blanket the thick, rounded leaves in early spring.

Smaller versions come in various shades of gray, gold, copper and red.

Also look for “stacked” crassulas, which have pairs of alternating leaves stacked one on top of the next. They tend to be quite small. One of my favorites is baby’s necklace (Crassula rupestris subsp. marnieriana). The plump, round green leaves look like candies strung on a string. Toward the tips and in sunnier exposures, the leaves turn red.


Hen-and-chicks (Echeveria) with many offsets already forming.

These cute little hen-and-chicks ankle-huggers come in many variations of green, red, blue, pink and gray. The smaller ones may be the size of a golf ball, while the larger sorts, such as the gray and pink Afterglow, may measure more than a foot across.

Echeverias like gritty soil, multiply fast and are great fillers along the edges of pathways and in containers.


Most folks know kalanchoes as small-leaved supermarket succulents (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) that bear sprays of tiny flowers in bright pink, yellow, orange or red.

Those are decent enough plants, indoors and out. But far more eye-catching is paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae). Big, round paddles of celery-green or bluish-gray leaves edged with a heavy dose of copper-red are packed against one another, in an upright clump. In early spring, a single, chalky gray flower spike emerges, rises 2 to 3 feet tall and bears clusters of yellow flowers.


Stonecrop (Sedum pachyphyllum

Many of the low-growing sedums are quick multipliers and make terrific, small-scale ground covers. Even the teeniest piece broken off a mother plant is likely to put down roots and travel the soil.

Two of my favorite ground-cruisers are golden sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’) and stonecrop (Sedum pachyphyllum). Both do well with watering that ranges from infrequent to regular. They will even tolerate overspray from lawn sprinklers.


Rita Jane sempervivum surrounded by many pups.

These dainty little plants, sometimes called houseleeks, are often confused with Echeverias, as they both bear ball-shaped rosettes composed of a multitude of small, overlapping leaves. Both also reproduce rapidly and come in green, gray, blue, pink and red.

However, Echeverias bear nodding, bell-shaped flowers, while sempervivums produce upright, star-shaped flowers. In addition, sempervivums tolerate greater cold. Most echeverias suffer when temperatures drop below 20 to 25 degrees. Many sempervivums can withstand temperatures down to zero degrees.


Kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae) with agaves and a blue Mexican palm.

This genus includes a host of perennials, shrubs and vines. But look no further than Kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae), for a large-scale, succulent groundcover in an other-worldly shade of green-gray-blue.

Sometimes called “dead man’s claw,” the leaves look like French fries curving up and out of a central stem. The plants grow about a foot tall and spread 2 to 3 feet wide. They’re a little rough-looking up close, and are better for broad expanses in the mid to distant areas of the garden.

Tending Your Succulents

Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'

The Central Coast presents nearly ideal conditions for growing succulents.

Summers are warm, but not too hot. Winters are cool, but not — generally — too cold, depending on where you garden.

However, do pay attention to frost and freezing temperatures.

A number of succulents are content with temperatures a few degrees below freezing. But drop to 20, 15 or 10 degrees, and you may have problems. When the moisture stored within a succulent’s leaves and stems freezes, it can expand so dramatically that it ruptures the tissues. The result is black mush and a dead plant.

A ruffled Echeveria.

On the other hand, it’s easy to propagate succulents to build up your supply and fill gaps in your garden.

In spring, summer or fall, break off a few leaves or snip off a few offsets or pups. Let the cuttings sit in the shade for a few days to allow time for calluses to form. Then set the cuttings on top of small containers filled with pumice or a light, fast-draining potting mix. Keep the mix moist.

Once new roots have formed, transplant the succulents to their new homes.

Seeds of Wisdom

Mulch your succulents with a light-colored gravel to set off their interesting leaves and form. Lay down weed cloth first, to prevent the soil and gravel from mixing and becoming a dusty or muddy mess.

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With each spring comes a procession of new gardening books, ready to inspire gardeners everywhere.

Too often, the pickings are slim for those of us who tend plants on the Central Coast.

But this year is a happy exception, with the following books offering wisdom that’s suitable for gardening in our mild, Mediterranean climate.

Water-Wise Plants for the Southwest
Nan Sterman, Mary Irish, Judith Phillips and Joe Lamp’l, Cool Springs Press

The cover photo may feature a grouping of cactus and succulents that is likely to be more comfortable in the desert. But a good number of the 150 water-thrifty plants described inside will grow well on the Central Coast. And with water becoming increasingly precious throughout our state, the book provides a good introduction to water-conserving gardens.

The first section is set up in a round-table format with three of the authors offering advice from their geographic perspectives: Nan Sterman on Mediterranean climates; Mary Irish on low deserts; and Judith Phillips on high-desert and dry mountainous regions.

Their advice overlaps, and includes such common-sense tips as grouping plants according to their watering needs and paying attention to the soil.

A plant encyclopedia is next, and organized by type. Trees for establishing the framework of the garden are first, followed by shrubs for structure and perennials for seasonal color. Ground covers, lawns, succulents and the like come later.

Each plant gets a full page. There’s the usual description, noting form, growth, mature size, uses, soil and pests, along with a nice photograph. Particularly useful are two additional categories: Shared Spaces and Cultivation.

Shared Spaces refers to both the surrounding hardscape and neighboring plants. For instance, “Australian willow generates minimal litter, so it can be planted near a deck or patio.” Or this, about blue oat grass, “The winter contrast with the rust seedheads of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum is striking.”

Cultivation provides the most detailed, specific planting instructions I’ve seen. For dainty Dianthus, there’s this: “Before transplanting dianthus, add 1 cubic yard of compost per 100 square feet of bed area. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Topdress with organic mulch or fine gravel. Water dianthus to a depth of 18 inches once a week when temperatures are 85 F or above; water every two weeks when temperatures are 65 to 85 F, and monthly during cooler weather, but not at all if the plants are dormant. Fertilizing is usually not necessary if the soil is organically amended. Apply an iron-and-sulfur fertilizer if foliage yellows in summer. Trim off spent flowers to stimulate continuous blooming. Trim the cushion of foliage down a few inches from the soil in spring.”

Rounding out the book is a chapter on irrigation, penned by Joe Lamp’l. He runs through the pros and cons of sprinklers and various drip irrigation systems, and provides the basics for installation.

Succulent Container Gardens
Design Eye-Catching Displays with 350 Easy-Care Plants
Debra Lee Baldwin, Timber Press

This lovely picture book is a follow-up to Baldwin’s Designing with Succulents, which came out three years ago and covered growing the water-conserving plants in the ground.

This new book is especially appealing to folks who would rather grow a few interesting succulents in pots on their patio, rather than fill their entire garden with them.

Baldwin opens with beauty shots of perfectly shaped succulents in an assortment of containers. Most are close-ups, so you can see the exquisite flowers and foliage textures in full detail.

The Plant Palette and Companion Plants chapters cover several hundred plants. Useful information includes this about Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, which Baldwin dubs “supermarket kalanchoe:” “Retailers do the plants a disservice by encasing the pots in foil sleeves that allow water to puddle — these should be removed soon after purchase.” Or this about sedums: “Tiny-leaved sedums can visually disappear in a garden but when grow in diminutive pots and displayed so they can be seen close-up, their foliage is enchanting.”

Also valuable are chapters on the practical aspects of planting, caring for and propagating succulents. There are photos illustrating how to plant succulents in containers without drain holes, and recipes for potting mixes. There’s even advice on what do if a spine (glochid) gets stuck in your skin. “Paint the affected area with rubber cement; let it dry, peel it off, and the glochids should go with it.”

Baldwin concludes the book with a series of plant lists that suggest succulents of varying heights, succulents to serve as fillers and cascaders, and succulents that bear different colored leaves or produce brilliant flowers.

What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?)
A Visual Guide to Easy Diagnosis and Organic Remedies
David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth. Timber Press

The title says it all. Follow a series of flow charts, each with a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and you are on your way to figuring out what’s ailing your plant — and how to solve the complaint.

The great thing about the setup is that you don’t have to know the name of your plant in order to figure out its problem. Just follow the clues.

Deardorff told me that’s why he and Wadsworth intentionally used line drawings instead of photographs to illustrate symptoms during the diagnosis process. They didn’t want readers to get bogged down with whether their troubled plant was an identical match. Instead, the line drawings depict universal woes on universal plants.

Section I is organized by plant part: leaves, flowers, fruit, stems, roots and seeds. The authors explain the function of each, then describe symptoms, such as “the flower has holes or chewed edges, or you see pests,” or “the whole stem is discolored, dying or dead.” The reader then follows a trail of “yes” and “no” answers to reach a diagnosis, such as, for carrots, “Is the root forked? If yes, rocky, lumpy or compacted soil. For solution, see page 238; for photo, see page 409.”

Section II covers “How Do I Fix It?” and provides natural solutions. Deardorff and Wadsworth discuss soil, light conditions, managing water and selecting appropriate plants. They also address weeds, fungi, insects, mites, bacteria, viruses, nematodes and other pests.

Section III is where the photos come in, and the glossy images such nasty problems as transplant shock, over watering, powdery mildew, leafhoppers and scale.

There’s also an appendix, What’s Wrong With My Lawn? Here, Deardorff and Wadsworth seem conflicted, noting that “Oddly enough the first step in lawn care may well be to get rid of it entirely.” Yet they still run through techniques to properly tend turf.

Planting Design Illustrated
Gang Chen, Outskirts Press

This guide comes with an ambitious subtitle: A Must-Have for Landscape Architecture: A Holistic Garden Design Guide with Architectural and Horticultural Insight, and Ideas from Famous Gardens in Major Civilizations.

Whew! This book is an ambitious attempt to apply the concepts of planting design from former times to the creating of gardens of today.

Chen kicks off by comparing formal gardens with naturalistic gardens. He then discusses determining the purpose of a particular garden, followed by its scale. Next, he considers plants based on their silhouette, overall color (of leaves and flowers) and texture, rather than in terms of specific species.

Then comes what’s probably most interesting to home gardeners: a series of chapters and illustrations that depict planting swaths of plants in interesting patterns that emphasize rhythm and repetition.

Only after you’ve set up your pattern do you then plug in the appropriate plants, whether they be tall, weeping trees; red-blooming shrubs; an ornamental perennial, grass or ground cover, or some other plant that displays a set of characteristics that you’ve chosen.

It’s an interesting way to view the planting and design process, and probably very different from the way that most gardeners proceed, which is that they see a plant that they like, they buy it, and they plunk it in their garden.

The remaining chapters dive into the origins of Chinese, Japanese and European gardens, and are likely to be most compelling to folks interested in garden history.

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