Creating a Southern California Garden—Slowly

By: Nan Sterman

Nan Sterman, a garden communicator, designer, and coach, lives in Encinitas, California. Her television show, “A Growing Passion,” newspaper and…

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Recycled broken concrete creates the terrace walls of the perennial garden between the lawn, below, and the patio, above. Author’s photographs

Recycled broken concrete creates the terrace walls of the perennial garden between the lawn, below, and the patio, above. Author’s photographs

Because of the mild, dry weather, people live outdoors in a mediterranean climate more than in other regions….Over the thousands of years since the gardens of Egypt and Mesopotamia, solutions have evolved, been lost and then rediscovered, and even perfected. These solutions are the models for the modern gardens we see today.

Jan Smithen, Sundrenched Gardens

After the “oohs” and “aahs,” the comment I hear most often from garden visitors is “I bet this is just how you dreamed it would look!” I chuckle to myself before responding. I’m not sure I had an image of how it would look, but it is how I dreamed my garden would feel.

It was difficult to develop a vision for this garden when we started it nearly ten years ago. Our half-acre corner lot in northern San Diego County was almost a blank canvas. About 3,000 square feet were taken up by a neglected, thirty-year-old home, accompanying oversized garage, and guesthouse. But the lot, itself, was virtually undeveloped.

The front yard was filled with a too-large circular asphalt drive beneath three terrible black acacias (Acacia melanoxylon) floating in a choppy sea of ice plant; planted dangerously close to the house, they had to go. In the back were a dreadful flowering mulberry (Morus alba ‘Fruitless’), a couple of overgrown pomegranate bushes (Punica granatum), and an elderly peach tree badly butchered by ill-advised pruning. The garden’s saving grace was an enormous Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) that filled an entire corner of the property. Beyond that, there were no fences, no shrubs-just lots of weeds.

At that time, we had an almost-toddler and a second child on the way, so our early gardening efforts consisted largely of mowing the weeds nearest the house, while we dreamed of what was to come. We had landscaped our previous home ourselves, but the thought of planning this much space was overwhelming.

Del Mar landscape designer Linda Chisari came to our rescue with a conceptual plan and garden layout. I was already flexing my horticultural muscles and wanted to select the plants. Funds were limited, so we planned to install the irrigation and hardscape ourselves. Unlike other designers we spoke with, Linda was tremendously supportive of our do-it-yourself plans. Actually, I think she got a kick out of our youthful enthusiasm. Over the years, Linda has become a good friend and a horticultural mentor.

We focused first in the backyard, as that was where we spent most of our time. Besides, our neighbors had tolerated the ugly front yard for so many years that a few more would not make much difference.

A Philosophy

As a young person, I had interned at the Integral Urban House in Berkeley, California. The House demonstrated what we now call sustainable living. It was an old wood-frame structure outfitted with features such as solar heating, a wood/gas stove, and a composting toilet; surrounding the house was an edible landscape, with a huge vegetable garden, fish pond, bee hives, chickens, and rabbits-the last two providing meat and fertilizer. While working as garden caretaker, I acquired a tremendous education; the notion of sustainability became my basic philosophy, both horticulturally and otherwise. Now, so many years later, I wanted our new garden to reflect that philosophy.

While I focused on the sustainability of our garden, Linda guided us through the process of evaluating needs based on our lifestyle. Our young family needed lots of play area and outdoor living space. We needed a perimeter fence, not just for privacy but to keep out bunnies and keep in balls and babies. Linda designed a big patio room outside the new french doors from the kitchen. Below the patio, she placed a freeform lawn surrounded by a series of decomposed granite pathways. My husband laid the “DG” to make solid but natural looking, porous paths that, in the early days, served as a freeway for tricycles and big wheels.

My highest priority was a vegetable garden in raised beds. I needed a compost area near the veggies and an herb garden near the kitchen. For the rest of the space, I wanted a series of garden rooms where I could experiment with different kinds of plantings.

My husband and a helper dug trenches for irrigation pipes and set popup sprinklers for the lawn. In the meantime, I created the framework for what would become miles and miles of drip irrigation throughout the garden. My preferred technology is quarter-inch line with embedded pressure-compensating emitters. Everything from the driest desert plant to the most moisture-loving veggie is irrigated using the same kind of line. What differs is the number of emitters and the frequency of irrigation.

We wanted flagstone for garden walls and patios but found it to be way beyond our budget. Instead, we used tons of broken concrete, which was almost free for the asking; as long as our house was closer to the demolition site than the dump was, most truckers were happy to deliver their loads to us. Once installed, the concrete resembles flagstone. We are delighted to have used such a low-cost, recycled material.

The berm shelters a comfortable gravel garden at the entry, with pathways of broken concrete and clumps of colorful hybrid kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos)

The berm shelters a comfortable gravel garden at the entry, with pathways of broken concrete and clumps of colorful hybrid kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos)

Taking Our Time

It would take several years to create the garden, but we were in no hurry. Great gardens do not appear instantly, though some landscape professionals like to suggest otherwise. Instead, they evolve from testing and editing, replanting, and careful observation. I like to refer to the process as “slow gardening.”

A thickly planted berm screens the street from the front entry garden

A thickly planted berm screens the street from the front entry garden

Over time, I have planted the different areas of the garden-some of them several times. A berm along the back of the lot is home to a tall, leafy velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), coral flowering desert mallows (Sphaeralcea ambigua ‘Louis Hamilton’), desert lavenders (Hyptis emoryi), white-flowering, annual prickly poppies (Argemone sp.), and other desert plants gathered from nurseries in the deserts of California and Arizona. Adjacent to the desert garden is a California native garden with a developing canopy of sycamore (Platanus racemosa), live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and Engleman oak (Q. englemanii). The understory includes several Ceanothus, from a fifteen-foot-tall ‘Ray Hartman’ to the ground-covering ‘Joyce Coulter.’ Golden yellow blossoms of fremontia (Fremontodendron californicum) blossoms entwine with the deepest blue flowers of what I believe to be C. ‘Dark Star’ (the label is long lost).

The summer-dormant California buckeye (Aesculus californica) and western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) are uncommon in southern California landscapes, but both do beautifully in my garden. Spring brings the flowers of penstemon, mimulus, native iris, and Cleveland and hummingbird sages (Salvia clevelandii and S. spathacea).

I love to tell people about watering my desert and native gardens. These two gardens make up about a third of the yard. Yet, they are watered only in the hottest months of the year-and only once during each of those months!

The more water-intensive garden beds are closer to the house. Between the patio and the lawn is about a twelve-foot drop. To accommodate the change in elevation, Linda designed a series of tiers where I planted a mixture of perennials. When I first planted the perennial beds, I filled them with plants in four-inch pots, ordered from nurseries in the Sierra Nevada foothills. They grew and flowered wonderfully, but, after a couple of years, the beds devolved into a horticultural jumble with no shape or form. Plants that were supposed to grow to three feet tall made it to six feet. Five-foot plants grew eight feet tall and as wide.

Learning through Mistakes

I had made the classic beginner’s mistakes. First of all, my climate (Sunset puts us in zone 23) is far different from the Sierra foothills (Sunset zone 7), so plants grew much larger than expected. But, more significantly, I had chosen plants solely on the basis of their pretty flowers, giving no thought to the overall structure of the garden beds, the texture of the foliage, or any kind of color scheme. I realized that creating a garden with the casual, free-flowing look I wanted actually takes careful orchestration.

Three years ago, I tore out ninety percent of the perennials in those tiers. My husband was aghast when he saw the empty beds, but I relished the opportunity to start over and do it better. More slow gardening…

I’ve had other failures in the garden. The courtyard between the main house and the guesthouse/garage appeared to be the perfect site for tender, subtropical plants with bold foliage and brightly colored flowers. It took several years of burnt banana leaves before I accepted the fact that the courtyard sits in a cold air “sink.” I’ve recorded winter nights in the low 20s F in that part of the garden, as cold air flows in from the higher surrounding neighborhood.

The grape arbor sheltering bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) if full bloom, dramatic foliage of a ginger (Hedychium), and masses of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

The grape arbor sheltering bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) if full bloom, dramatic foliage of a ginger (Hedychium), and masses of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Now, an extensive grape arbor offers its protective cover over the courtyard. Out went the banana and, in its place, went tropical-looking but hardier plants, such as a strawberry guava (Psidium littorale var. longipes), African linden (Sparmannia africana), some of the hardier gingers (Hedychium spp.), Brugmansia sanguinea ‘Inca Queen’ from the high elevations of the Andes, hardy cannas, and tons of orange and yellow butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

I planted the butterfly weed just outside a window that looks out into the garden. When my children were small, we spent many hours sitting in the window, watching monarchs transform from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. As the butterfly weed population increased, so did the monarch population. Hardly a week goes by now that I don’t see several newly emerged butterflies drying their wings in the garden.

There are many more planting areas in our rear garden. They include at least three dozen fruit trees and shrubs, not to mention a collection of salvias. At any one time, there are forty or fifty different salvias in my garden beds. I have low, dry-growing, bright blue-flowered Salvia chamaedryoides in the desert garden and a huge Salvia gesneriiflora ‘Mole Poblano’, with lime green leaves, black bracts, and bright red flowers, in the subtropical garden. In the perennial beds, Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) and S. confertiflora (several of each) grow to enormous proportions (at least nine feet by nine feet) and color the fall garden with purples and reds.

Moving Frontward

After nearly ten years and several rounds of home remodel, we turned our attention to the front yard. By that time, we had re-stuccoed our home in a warm terra cotta color and added a dark green metal roof. The colors were inspired by the adobe homes we had admired in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, plantings are sparse, but plants shine like jewels against the deep colors of the earth-tone walls.

I was determined to make our front garden a showcase for low-water planting. It was to be a place where South Africa met Australia in Southern California. Towards that end, I amassed a collection of aloes, grevillea, and other beautiful, but uncommon, low-water plants. The question was, where to begin?

The answer came from my good friend, designer Scott Spencer, whose gardens I have written about extensively. I called Scott for a refresher in garden design but soon realized that what I really needed was to hire him.

Scott and I have spent the last three years working on this garden (more slow gardening). The bulk of Scott’s work came early on when he did the earthwork, followed by the major layout and installation. A superb plantsman, Scott is also an artist when it comes to garden design-a master at directing views and creating focal points in a garden. So, whereas I chose plants by how alluring they are, he chose them primarily for their shape and form. Scott is another of my mentors.

There have been many successes in the front garden as well as a few hard-learned lessons. As much as I love proteas, I have given up on them; they simply refuse to thrive in my soils. Grevilleas can be touchy-I’ve tried some selections in three our four locations before finding the right spot. The aloes suffer when our ubiquitous ants farm them with aphids, so I must watch them carefully.

Tall floral spikes of Manfreda undulata sparkle in the sun

Tall floral spikes of Manfreda undulata sparkle in the sun

On the other hand, Salvia africana-lutea has formed a delightful privacy hedge, and a palo verde (Cercidium ‘Desert Museum’) is coming along nicely. Manfreda undulata is spectacular when its burgundy flower spikes emerge in springtime, and our many agaves serve as stellar garden art. We do well with spring blooming Mediterranean and South African bulbs, such as Homeria, Gladiolus tristis, and G. communis subsp. byzantinus. Scott calls these beauties “ephemerals.”

Colors echo serendipitously in the window trim and the flowers of honey bush (Melianthus major)

Colors echo serendipitously in the window trim and the flowers of honey bush (Melianthus major)

Enjoying the Garden

During this past spring’s garden tours, visitors marveled over a nine-foot-tall Grevillea ‘Long John’ and the brushy red inflorescences of Calothamnus quadrifidus, both in the front garden. One of my personal favorites is the South African honey bush (Melianthus major), whose huge, pale, gray green leaves shimmer against the terra cotta stucco; amazingly, its wine red flowers are the exact color of the trim around our windows.

Passersby often stop to examine the garden. If they are frequent visitors, they know to look for the labels that I set next to each plant. I suspect they think I do it for them, but, in truth, I do it so that I will remember the names. I love the idea that I am challenging my community’s concept of what makes a beautiful landscape.

In fact, this past spring, I received the ultimate compliment. Our newest neighbors had laid out nearly a half-acre of sod when they moved in not long ago. After watching our garden develop, they hired my friend Scott, who planted a new garden for them-much like mine.

My gardens are not done yet, though the planting spaces are becoming fewer and farther between. I find myself doing a good deal of editing, based on years of learning and observing. I remove plants that have proven too large for their assigned location, add trees and shrubs to strengthen the structure of the garden, and remove common plants to make way for the odd gems I am constantly acquiring. It is all part of the process.

I like to think of our gardens, both front and rear, as living art. The garden is the canvas, and the plants are the dynamic paints. I begin the painting by choosing and arranging the plants, and then sit back to watch as the plants weave themselves into their own composition-with just a bit of my help.