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Needlegrass versus Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass

I often pass by a spot in Lafayette where two neighboring buildings have ornamental grass plantings that almost feel like they are in dialogue with each other. One features the beautiful-but-frowned-upon Mexican Feather Grass, Nasella tenuissima, while the other sports the beloved-by-the-native-plant-community Purple Needlegrass, Nasella pulchra. It’s a distinctive side by side comparison. The plants are related but their overall effect is different and their usage shows different priorities. The Feathergrass is prettier, but the Needlegrass has deeper connections with the natural environment.

Purple Needlegrass

Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass is beautiful but it’s a nuisance plant, reseeding all over people’s gardens and spreading into wild areas where it supplants native species. Environmental groups and plant societies promote alternatives for it, and at one point there was an effort to raise money to buy out and destroy all of the nursery stock in the state so that it wouldn’t be planted any more. I’m not sure how successful that effort was. It hasn’t disappeared from nurseries and I still see it in landscapes fairly often, but its heyday seems to have passed. Clients sometimes request it but less often than in the past and only if they have never grown it; if they have grown it they usually want to get rid of it.

African Daisy and Feather Grass

California Poppies and Needlegrass

Needlegrass often features on lists of substitute plants to use. Objectively, it is not as pretty and refined, but it has advantages that go beyond the merely visual. Famously, its roots can extend as deep as twenty feet underground, and that fact also reflects its deeper connections with the larger California landscape. It’s the official state grass, it evolved here in this place, it’s one of the key plants of our native grasslands and it’s a good habitat plant, attracting small birds and butterflies to the garden. This might be slightly early for it to look its most ornamental — the plants are only just starting to send up their golden flower stalks — but the California Poppies are blooming, and one of the best reasons to grow Needlegrass is as a companion for native wildflowers. This planting doesn’t look dramatically different from the mix of Lupine and weed grasses that naturally happen around my house, and for me that’s the point. The Needlegrass makes me feel like the planting is a part of the wider landscape around it; it suggests that the building was inserted into the existing natural landscape and, rather than everything getting redone with a bulldozer, that there is a connection between what is here now and what was here in the past.

Needlegrass

The biggest difference is how Needlegrass fits into the landscape. For some people that’s a disadvantage; they want everyone to recognize that their landscape is cultivated and maintained. Mexican Feather Grass and this nice patch of Osteospermum look like plants purchased from a nursery, while the Needlegrass could have easily spread by seed from the surrounding hills. But for me t

Foothill Wildflowers

Last week was peak wildflower time in our neighborhood. Most of the April bloomers are still going and the May ones have started up. I counted over a dozen species while I went for a run last weekend: Baby Blue Eyes in a few rather sparse patches (Nemophila menziesii), something I think is a white Nemophila (No Spot) Globe Lily (Calochortus albus), Mules Ears (Wyethia), two kinds of Lupine, scattered Brodiaea, two kinds of Dichelostemma, Ranunculus, some lovely thick patches of Mountain Phlox (Linanthus grandiflorus), a few Penstemon heterophyllus, Phacelia, Mimulus guttatus in the and a couple of little white flowers that I haven’t identified. It’s probably the most abundant that the flowers will be, but, more importantly, the annual grasses around them have started to dry out and the neighbors have begun to weed-wack everything.

Though, here I think the weed-wacking has an interesting effect, making it feel like the Lupine has been put into the penalty box or is in a cage match with the grasses. This used to be a vegetable garden, I remember seeing tomatoes when we first moved to the area. Now it’s a refuge for Lupine to shelter from the weed-wacking carnage of the outside world. Beautiful flower, unbeautiful fence. Built elements in our neighborhood tend to combine the forlorn with a certain rural charm.

It’s been a good year for Globe Lilies.

The most interesting wildflower in the area is Twining Snakelily, Dichelostemma volubile, a bulb that twines up other plants. I’m not sure why it surprises me so much to see a bulb that twines, but I find it fascinating. A very cool wildflower.

Update — On Memorial day I saw white Yarrow in full bloom, two kinds of Clarkia, a fair bit of Penstemon heterophyllus, Mimulus guttatus in full bloom in the ditches, some Mimulus aurantiacus, and the Buckeyes are about at peak. The April bloomers are done.
Update — June 20 everything is basically done. The Toyons are blooming, the occasional Penstemon or Clarkia has a flower, but everything else is done.

The (Not Entirely) Native Green Wall Revisited Again

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I stopped by the Drew School green wall again recently. Planted with California natives by the world’s foremost green waller Patrick Blanc, it’s the most interesting green wall in the Bay Area and I’ve been checking in on it periodically. Helpfully, it’s a few blocks from one of my ongoing projects.

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I was impressed the first time I saw it in 2011 and again when I visited in May 2015. This time not as much; there’s a lot of bare felt and dead foliage. November is not its month to shine, so maybe I’m being a little unfair, but photos of green walls seem to always show them either looking brand new and gorgeous or completely dead and failure-soaked. This one is somewhere in between those two extremes, but probably more towards the dead side of the spectrum at the moment. I didn’t see anything wrong with the overall system, just that it could use maintenance and replanting; I’m sure it will be better looking in the spring. At this point, I still think it compares reasonably with a conventional garden — more ambitious, more expensive, requiring more maintenance, and more thrilling when it hits its peak. Even with the bare patches and dead foliage, it’s still an exciting thing to see on the side of a building.

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One disappointment, though, is the use of non-natives where many of the California plants failed to establish themselves long term. The wall now sports some New Zealand Tree Ferns and a lot of European Geranium. Penstemon heteropyllus and Mimulus bloomed prettily at first but were short-lived. Heuchera, a plant which often grows on cliffs, thrived in the first few years but is now almost gone. Oxalis and Asarum have faded away, and the long runners of Beach Strawberry, which draped over several sections of the wall when I first saw it, must not have managed to attach roots to the felt and have now withered away. None of that is entirely atypical for a native planting in such an urban area. This was Patrick Blanc’s first time using California natives, and he always acknowledged that it was somewhat experimental. I wonder what he would say about it. It’s no longer the tapestry he first planted but it has begun to approximate a recognizable native habitat, the type of fern-covered slope I showed in a post about the Bouverie Preserve. With deciduous ferns lower down and scruffy shrubs higher up, that particular habitat is gorgeous and green in spring, less delightful in its off-season, and then gorgeous and green again.

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Update — May 2017 — Even in the heart of spring it looked pretty dismal.

Erigeron glaucus

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After the Meadowfoam has finished, the other wildflower display in our front garden comes from Seaside Daisy, Erigeron glaucus. I wasn’t originally a fan of it, and in fact I only have it in my garden because I bought a dozen for a project but got cold feet and brought them home instead. I didn’t know what to do with them so I planted them, and since then, I’ve come to appreciate them, a good habitat plant with a long bloom season. I’ve gone on to use it in a few different plantings, with pretty good results.

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I’ve used a few of the different cultivars as well as the regular species, but I’m still figuring them out. I thought I knew which ones I was growing here, but I remember them having pink flowers and these don’t look pink. Occasionally on overcast days they take on a pinkish cast, but most of the time they are whitish with a blue tinge. Maybe I got rid of the pink ones and that’s why I like them now?

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There’s two different ones, one that hugs the ground with smaller flowers, another that sprawls a bit, with larger flowers held on longer stems.

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The sprawling, larger flowers are maybe a little pink or lavender, but not as pink as I remember.

ErigeronglaucusCampanula

In any case, the color works with the Campanula, as well as the white Philadelphus microphyllus, blue Brodiaea, and the faded pink Allium unifolium. More harmonious than I was expecting. It’s one of my least deliberate plantings, but I’m enjoying it.

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Meadowfoam Path

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Springtime is Meadowfoam time in our garden. It has been blooming since we got back from Baja. I love this plant. It is such a cheerful yellow to greet me when I get home. This path, leading from the top of our steps to the potting area, is the most convenient place to stash leftover materials from our jobs so it tends to get covered up, but when the Meadowfoam is blooming I make a point of keeping it clear.

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I made the path with leftover stone from several projects. There are four different types of stone; a few pieces are flagstone, but much of it is wall stone and extends quite deep into the ground. The path was dirt, then mulch, then halfway paved for about a year, and finally completed last winter.

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There is beach and woodland strawberry growing with the Meadowfoam, but this is the thickest the Meadowfoam has grown in, and I am curious to see how the other plants have held up beneath it.

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The Meadowfoam is blooming well around our birdbath also, but not as full or as dramatic as in the front. It gets less sun here and has less space to spread and the plants look a little more leggy, a little more messy, as a result. Judith Larner Lowry at Larner Seeds, where I originally bought the seed, recommends giving it a space at least three feet wide for best effect. The plants are getting pushed out of the raised gray water bed by the Scarlet Monkeyflower and the Juncus, and I think it will only come back at ground level next year unless I actively make space and resow it in the raised bed.

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The rest of that planting has filled in pretty well and I don’t think it will need the Meadowfoam next year. These plants are one of my goto combinations, I think of it as ‘green native mix’ or ‘native woodland mix’ and use it fairly often. Iris, Mahonia, Sidalcea, Tellima, Asarum, a few other plants such as Heuchera come and go with essentially the same effect.

I have more photos of the Meadowfoam below. (more…)

A Bit of Super Bloom

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Anita and I have been in Baja for the last month. On our way back we swung through Death Valley to see the ‘super bloom.’ It had waned by the time we got there — apparently a combination of hot weather followed by high winds had finished the thickest patches, and quite a few of the plants had spent flower heads mixed in with the fresh blooms — but there were still some impressive areas.

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Desert Gold was the most prolific. It made bands of color in the distance but up close it was politely spaced so we could wander around without stepping on any flowers. An impressive number of other species were mixed in with it. My personal count came to over 20 different species inside the park, including a number of flowers I’d never seen before.

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The yellow Camissonia was my favorite of the wildflowers. Such a clear, crisp yellow. Gravel Ghost was another favorite, with the white flowers high over a ground-hugging rosette.

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I’ll have some posts about Baja, the main focus of our trip. There is more wildflower photo bling at this Death Valley Wildflower Report.

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