Pick the perfect plants for a 'green' California garden

Pick the perfect plants for a 'green' California garden

by Nan Sterman

I recently consulted on a garden the owners wanted to make lower maintenance and more environmentally friendly. They were prepared to spend thousands of dollars to install a Sport Court, thinking it would require no care. But their children were grown and living elsewhere, they had no grandchildren, and they themselves played no sports. Huh?

I quickly realized they didn't understand what makes a garden "green" — drip irrigation, edible plants, composting, mulched beds, recycled materials — just to name a few. And in California, most important is our choice of plants.

Environmentally friendly plants survive on little more than rainfall, require no fertilizer, have few pests so as not to require spraying or treating, and grow slowly enough to need little, if any, pruning.

There are many plants that fulfill those requirements, such as native plants, those from deserts or from other regions of the world with Mediterranean climates like ours. Here's a sampling:

  • Trees make great structure in the garden and oaks are among our most majestic native trees. Scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia or Q. dumosa) is a 20-foot-tall and wide evergreen with twisty branches and leathery leaves.
  • Green, leafy Chitalpa (Catalpa x Chitalpa tashkentensis "Pink Dawn") has big lavender-pink flowers in spring, summer or fall. Plant one on the south side of your home where its leafy shade cools the house in summer and bare branches in winter let in the warming sun.
  • Weeping peppermint tree (Agonis flexuosa) is a smallish evergreen tree from Australia with deeply grooved bark and weepy branches. Its cousin, Agonis "After Dark" is similarly shaped, but smaller, with deep burgundy, almost purple leaves — very striking.
  • Shrubs can serve as background or foreground. For a background shrub, try evergreen, native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). This large shrub has leathery, deep green leaves and can screen out any unsightly neighbor. In winter, branches are covered in holly-like red berries. Birds love 'em!
  • If you love flowers, grow flowering shrubs. Australian grevillea range from the nearly two-story tall "Long John," to the 2-foot small prostrate woolly grevillea, Grevillea lanigera "Prostrate Form." Large clusters of small, curly flowers attract hummingbirds like crazy. Flowers can be yellow, orange, white, pink, burgundy or watermelon. These tough shrubs stand up to heat but croak if kept too wet.
  • Texas ranger (Leucophyllum sp.) is a 3- to 5-foot-tall and wide shrub from the Southwest deserts. Rounded green to silver-green leaves are lovely with lavender to white blooms in summer.
  • Succulents, including cacti, are the classic low water, low care plants. Still, to look their best, some succulents appreciate a deep watering during the long, hot days of summer. The sunset colored, round leaved flapjack plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) is one that appreciates a good drink. If its leaves start to shrink, that's a sure sign it's thirsty.
  • Succulent agaves seldom need water wherever they grow. The magnificent, blue-blade century plant (Agave americana) adds drama and structure to any garden. It has teeth and sharp spines, so keep it away from walkways.
  • Smaller, supple-leaved spider agave (Agave bracteosa) is spineless, toothless and is perfect for a good-sized terra cotta pot and a spot on the patio.

Nan Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She is a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her garden.


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