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Gail's Gardens - August 2015

Gail's Gardens - August 2015

by Gail Fanning

Be sure to check out the Hall of Flowers at the County Fair: it’s still open until Sunday the August 9: I always enjoy seeing the imaginative creations of our local landscapers. And don’t miss the children’s gardens: it’s amazing all the hard work that the youngsters have put into their exhibits: a new generation of gardeners in the bud!

Hiking the Tomales Bay Trail just north of Point Reyes Station on Highway 1 is delightful at any time of year: the views are spectacular in all directions. A pleasant stroll reveals a riot of native plant color and scents: last weekend we spotted coffeeberry, western poison oak (yes, it is a native!), red twig dogwood, Rosa californica, willows, oaks, and of course poppies, Indian paintbrush, and lupine in the meadows.

Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica: recently reclassified as Frangula californica) is one of my favorite low maintenance, low water use garden shrubs. Its shiny evergreen leaves are attractive year round, and the berries are excellent food for the birds (and the deer). Deer do not normally eat the leaves: although in severe drought years they will. The coffeeberry is a long-lived plant that is resistant to pests, and it will resprout quickly from the root crown after fire damage. The native peoples of California ate the fruit fresh or dried, and used other parts of the plant as medicines.

This shrub grows in many types of habitat, including California chaparral and woodlands, coastal sage scrub, and California oak woodlands. It also grows in redwood forests, and mountain coniferous forests. In the garden, I like it planted with similarly low care natives like toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), Ceanothus, and Manzanita. In my garden’s coastal climate it does fine in the full sun, but inland it will be happy with part shade.

There are a number of Rhamnus (Frangula) californica cultivars commonly available for gardeners:

‘Eve Case’ is smaller and more compact (3-6’ H x 3-4’ W), with denser foliage and larger berries than the species.

‘Leatherleaf’ has very dark black-green foliage.

‘Mound San Bruno’ has smaller leaves, is dense and compact, and is particularly tolerant of garden conditions: very attractive!

‘Seaview’ is a good ground cover variety, growing only 18” high.

So, put coffeeberry on your list for drought tolerant planting this year: but wait until the rainy season to put any new plants in the ground! And if you are interested in adding some California wildflowers to your garden, check out the fascinating collections available at Larner Seeds: the Beginner’s Wildflower Collection sounds great.

August is the month when grasses come into their glory: if you don’t have any in your garden, I’m sure you will be looking around now and wishing for some of these gorgeous garden plants for your own space. But the choices are so many! I was recently introduced to Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’) by a client: what a beauty! This tall perennial bunchgrass is native to the Great Plains: the leaves are a gorgeous blue-green and the inflorescences are golden yellow-brown: an amazing color combination. I’m thinking it would look great on the hill above my house where the wind will keep it in constant motion. 

If you are interested in researching ornamental grasses to add to your garden, I suggest the website: you can search the plant catalog based on your preferences in size, color, water use, sun or shade, etc. Most of the Monrovia plants can be purchased at local nurseries including King’s in Santa Rosa and Cottage Gardens in Petaluma. Do remember that many grasses are dormant in the wintertime, and must be cut back hard each year at that time. If you want less work, and year-round presence in the garden, be sure to opt for an evergreen variety.