From Northeast to Northwest: Revelations in a Garden

By: Mary Wilbur

Mary Wilbur, a native of Wales, worked in the field of psychiatric care, and has gardened in England and New…

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Crocosmia 5 crocosmiiflora with a yellow calla (Zantedeschia)

Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora with a yellow calla (Zantedeschia). Photographs by Doug Ploehn

There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

John Ruskin

I was appalled. How could I possibly make a garden in a few thousand square feet after years gardening on seven acres?

We had moved to the northern California coast, from the Hudson Valley in New York State. My husband and I had retired and chose this area for a mixture of health, family, and climatic reasons. Here we were, after the rigors of New York winters and summers, in a mild climate where the difference between seasons was mostly wetness. From a rural farming area near Warwick, just getting discovered by New York commuters, we were now 300 miles north of San Francisco in the coastal village of Trinidad, where the two main industries—fishing and logging—were dying out. From a house we had just built on one level (suited to our declining years), we had moved to a house twenty years old on three levels. Instead of a view of the Waywayanda Creek, we now had a view of the harbor and of the Pacific Ocean beyond.

Old habits die hard: for the first few years, we still trundled off to enjoy the mild winter climate in Arizona. One rare winter it snowed in Trinidad while we were away and was cold enough to kill off the established New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum scoparium) and the newly planted hopseed bushes (Dodonaea viscosa) and princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana). Some six years later people still talk about this winter. It was the last winter we went away to the desert.

A New Climate

I’m slow to recognize climate differences. My present garden is in a region with a “cool Mediterranean” character—one with winter rains and summer drought—and where microclimates abound in what Sunset calls zone 17. I came originally from England whose west coast has a similarly mild climate; here in Trinidad, however, our rainfall is not evenly distributed as it is in England. Here we expect no rain from May to November, but from November to May our rainfall averages about forty inches. Temperatures rarely dip to freezing, hovering around 50˚F most of the winter. In the summer a heat wave will see temperatures reaching the upper 70s. This was a big change from New York where winter temperatures plummet well below freezing and summers sizzle in the 80s and 90s.

In March of that first winter, when we returned from Arizona to Trinidad, I was amazed to find everything in the garden as I had left it. Nothing had died back and so everything had to be cut back. I resented a chore it seemed to me nature should be handling. There were compensations, however; poet’s jasmine (Jasminum officinale) was in full bloom and scented the doorway, and early azaleas and rhododendrons were out along with daffodils. It seems churlish to carp, but I have never been entirely happy with daffodils and other spring bulbs in this climate. I feel one needs to suffer through a severe winter to deserve the bulbs or to properly rejoice when they appear. To me, at least, they look out of place, though I know fields of daffodils were successfully grown here during the second World War, when no bulbs were available from Holland.

Our house in Trinidad is only two hundred feet from the ocean, commanding a fabulous view with rocks and stacks that only the most experienced fishermen dare to navigate. The garden, fortunately, is sheltered on the west by a tall hedge of Escallonia bifida, and by sloping land and the house itself on the north. As our prevailing winds are from the northwest, we are effectively protected from the worst of the weather. In winter, storms tend to come from the south but winter is a time when little is flowering and the garden is less vulnerable to damage from wind and rain. Facing south and west, the deck provides overhead shelter for streptocarpus, begonia, and cyclamen, as well as hosta and other less delicate plants.

My new garden had an interesting layout with a curving flower border and a brick path and patio. There were lots of ferns which grow wild here and are difficult to get out. Himalayan blackberry was rampant, its branches coming through the kitchen window when we bought the house. To my prejudiced gardener’s mind there was too much lawn and too many large trees and rhododendrons for the size of the garden. A deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), usually a large, graceful conifer, had been badly pruned and had lost its plume-like leader; it was not a pretty sight and had to go. Most of the rhododendrons went as well. This part of the country is famous for its rhododendrons with a rhododendron festival staged every May. I like them in expansive woodland settings but few fit easily into small gardens. Frankly, I don’t think they have a lot to offer beyond their short season of bloom. Their evergreen leaves seem less valuable where most of the other woody plants are also evergreen. (I usually keep this heretical opinion to myself when talking with other local gardeners.)

Having thinned out the trees, rhododendrons, and ferns, cut back the blackberries, and dug up half the lawn for more planting space, I joined the local garden club prepared to learn about gardening here and what I should plant. This was not as easy as I had expected. I learned to look for plants that can withstand wind and salt, do not require hot summers and/or cold winters, and can live happily with summer fog. I learned, sadly, that herbaceous peonies won’t grow, nor cleome, but that fuchsias thrive. At the same time, because of our myriad microclimates, I can grow many more things than my next door neighbor simply because my garden is more sheltered. (Sadly, it is still not wind-free enough for Japanese maples.) I can also leave in the ground all winter such tender plants as camellias, fuchsias, callas (Zantedeschia) and the brilliant orange clock vine (Thunbergia gregorii).

Leptospermum scoparium ‘Helene Strybing’ with a ubiquitous Monterey cypress in the distance

Leptospermum scoparium ‘Helene Strybing’ with a ubiquitous Monterey cypress in the distance

New Favorites

I quickly fell in love with tea trees, so called because Captain Cook on his trips to New Zealand and Australia had their leaves brewed into a tea to prevent scurvy among his crew. The Australian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum), has finely textured foliage weeping to the ground and an abundance of single white flowers set off by a twisted gray-brown trunk. The New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium) has more needle-like leaves and flowers resembling tiny roses strung along the branches. Beautiful, soft, and casual, these evergreen trees and shrubs are an asset to the landscape year round. Usually spring bloomers, they flowered this past year in December and January. ‘Ruby Glow’, a deep red, and ‘Helene Strybing’, an intense pink, are my favorite selections.

The apothecary rose (Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’)

The apothecary rose (Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’)

I love roses but have had to be very selective. Black spot is a constant concern because of the high humidity; because it never gets really hot, many-petalled roses often rot in the bud. The old roses do best. My most successful are the apothecary rose (Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’), ‘Austrian Copper’, ‘Penelope’, ‘Kathleen’, and R. chinensis ‘Mutabilis’. The single-flowered climber, ‘Altissima’, flowers well but is plagued by black spot.

Salvias do well in our dry summers but many sulk in the wetness of winter, often declining to flower the following year despite our sandy, well-drained soils. I am especially partial to clematis and have twenty-six kinds climbing on, clambering through, or crawling over my small garden. Some of them seem sensitive to wind, their leaves becoming discolored and crisp.

The terms “annual” and “perennial” are almost meaningless here. So many annuals reseed themselves that one tends to forget their basic nature. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella), nasturtiums, toadflax (Linaria) and cranesbill (Geranium) spring up everywhere and give new meaning to the explanation that a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place.

Our major garden pests are slugs, sow bugs, and gophers. I don’t like to use chemical controls; although diatomaceous earth is quite effective for slugs and sow bugs, it needs to be constantly replaced in this damp climate. Copper stripping and handpicking by flashlight seem to work best. These methods, helped along by flocks of quail that descend on the lawn now and then for a feast, keep the pest population within manageable limits. Sow bugs are far too numerous to handpick and do more damage than is usually acknowledged; I am impressed by their temerity when I find nests of baby sow bugs in the fruits of strawberries and raspberries. The gophers are indestructible, causing havoc especially when they have their young. I have had an eight-foot tall lavatera fall over because its roots had been eaten up to the trunk. It is an astonishing sight to watch a plant (invariably one of my favorites) disappear as it is pulled underground by a gopher for its lunch. These are all pests I am learning to live with, however, and comfort myself with the fact that I rarely see an aphid. Too much wind perhaps?

The mid-summer border with grasses, lilies, Gladiolus callianthus, and Verbena bonariensis

The mid-summer border with grasses, lilies, Gladiolus callianthus, and Verbena bonariensis

Flowers Year-Round

There is a big plus to gardening in this climate: iris and other flowers stay in bloom a long time. Plants often flower here at unexpected times: this year my princess flower did not put out a flower until December at which time the tea trees decided to bloom in full force, along with a mistimed Mexican mock orange (Choisya ternata) that put out a few tentative blossoms, as did the azaleas. Rosemary is everywhere and succulents spread like wildfire, both offering a long season of bloom. The tea trees like our slightly acid soil and good drainage and thrive without summer water. So does the fremontia (Fremontodendron) that I recently discovered; it grows elsewhere in the West—usually where it is hotter in the summer—and requires good drainage and full sun. I have two outside my kitchen window and enjoy their rich yellow blossoms most of the year. Also new for me is the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)—a dramatic shrubby perennial, which if cut to the ground in winter, grows to six feet in height by mid-summer. Its huge white flowers have petals like crepe paper and a center of deep yellow stamens. Irreverent locals call it the fried egg plant. Its one annoying habit is an unwillingness to grow where you want it, preferring the middle of the driveway or some other unsuitable place.

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)

Who could help but be seduced by a climate where ceanothus, blue lupine, trillium, and the Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii) are native, and escaped callas, rockroses, and Rosa rugosa grow by the roadside? With all this largesse, and with much of it state land I do not have to tend, why should I regret my seven Eastern acres? The natural beauty around my new home is an inspiration and may be why I see more gardens here on the West Coast than I have seen since leaving England.