Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Drought and Heat Tolerant Gardens

A blend of drought tolerant plants in the Coray Garden

Even though I am best known for my stone mosaic work, my first love in gardening is working with plants.  I aced my tests in Plant Materials in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon because I loved studying plants so much that the information just seemed to stick, which isn't the case with me for subjects like math.  Give me Nature, beautiful Art, Architecture and Music and I'll be a happy man.

In the past year I have worked on two gardens where I was able to create an entirely new planting scheme from a blank slate, one in Portland, and one in Los Angeles.  The Portland garden belongs to a good friend who bought a well built new row house in a large development in an inner city neighborhood.  Each row house came with a rectangular patch of blank earth, covered in a blanket of bark mulch surrounded by a wood fence.


The garden as a clean slate
As people moved in to their new homes, a number of landscape professionals built gardens for them, each with a different take on what a garden should be.  The simple rectangular fenced space for me was really just an outdoor room.  These modern row houses are mounted on top of single car garages that elevate them to a high position.  The development covers most of a city block and everybody has a view of everybody else.  So lots of trees went in to these small spaces, trees that are considered small, but when mature will not feel small at all in relation to the space they have been allotted.  It will be interesting to see the forest of Japanese Maples and Dogwoods filling in these modest outdoor boxes over time.
A view of the neighbor's gardens
The house I worked on has a south facing rear garden which I find the ideal exposure.  The back porch sits a full story above the garden giving it a birds eye view, as if you were looking at a plan.  Gardens are often rendered from plans but not seen from that perspective, a common failing of landscape design.  I worked to develop a garden that looks good from above and when you are down in it.  What I ended up building is a simple garden room, with a patio that acts as a carpet for moving around and placing furniture.  The plantings are a blend of complementary colors and textures that are meant to mature without overwhelming the space over time, with some editing.

The way we started out was funny, because my client had never gardened before, and now he had this patch of bark mulch with an air conditioning unit ceremoniously placed in a prominent position and a view of lots of other peoples homes.  The site is flat, with a dry stacked basalt retaining wall on one side raising the fence on the eastern property line to 10 feet above the ground plain.  We were out shopping for basic tools he would need to turn Tony in to a gardener, hoses, a shovel, a hoe, etc. when we wandered in to the garden section of a Home Depot.  Most of what we bought came from the local hardware store rather than the big box giant, but I had to introduce him to a corporate garden center for some reason.  The plants in one gallon pots at HD are usually cheap, and since there was nothing but bark in the garden we ended up buying some tough plants that would tolerate the crappy subsoil that had been dumped and spread behind his new house.  We bought two kinds of Cistus, and Osmanthus heterophyllus variegata, 3 Yucca aloifolia 'Variegata', 3 Berberis thunbergii 'Aurea', 3 dwarf Russian Sage; Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Little Spire', and a Spanish Lavender.  It was a starter garden for less than $100.  I had opened a can of worms by doing this because he was totally dependent on me for direction.  All of the plants were chosen for their ability to adapt to rising temperatures and dry summer conditions that are the result of a warming climate.

We could have just plunked these in to the existing soil but I was soon able to convince him that it was worth rising to the next level and preparing the soil.  I suggested an easy gravel patio, but in the end he decided to commission me to build him a Pennsylvania Bluestone Patio with some pebble mosaic inserts to give the garden an elegant structure that would be beautiful to view from above and be easy to maintain.  So I hired a couple of strong friends to cart in two cubic yards of yard debris compost up the steps and in to the back yard, which was mixed in to the existing soil around where the patio would be built.  This was enough organic matter to turn the marginal soil in to a rich planting mix.  Then they hauled in 2 yards of crushed 1/4 minus gravel for setting the bluestone slabs.  We went to a stone yard and found a couple of nice pallets of stone for me to work with and hauled all of that up from the street and spread it out.  So much of the process of building gardens is about hauling heavy things.  The pretty parts are a small part of the equation.

A crushed gravel base for setting a Bluestone patio, surrounded by amended soil and new plantings
Because of the exposed views and lack of shade we went to a large wholesale nursery  to buy the larger more expensive plants.  We came home with 4 Cupressus sempervirens 'Tiny Towers' and 3 Cupressus 'Swane's Golden' with the idea of planting a screening hedge along the back that would create vertical stripes of green and gold.  We also found a nice Lagerstroemia 'Natchez' Crepe Myrtle that would provide year round interest in an upright vase shaped small tree with white summer flowers.  I then planted what we had bought and set to work arranging the stone.
Add caption
This part is like working with a jigsaw puzzle, moving the stones around until I find the most pleasing placement.  Then I use a large angle grinder with a stone cutting blade to trim the stones to fit tightly together and improve their shapes.  I left gaps throughout the patio to make simple small striped pebble mosaics using black and gold bagged Mexican Beach Pebbles.  The patio is essentially rectangular with an arm connecting to a concrete threshold for the steps leading up to the back porch.  I set most of the stone on a thin bed of mortar but left small permeable gaps so that the patio would drain without having to be sloped.
Cutting the bluestone slabs to fit
Finished layout with holes for pebble mosaics
I used the rest of the stone slabs to create a long linear path down the side of the house to the tiny front garden.  These are awkward spaces that many homes have that are challenging to make attractive because they are so narrow and confined.
A stepping stone path leads from the patio to the front of the house
I planted two Parthenocissus henryana vines on the eastern fence that will eventually cover it in lush foliage.  This vine has tiny flowers that attract masses of bees in late summer, followed by beautiful bluish berries with red stems.  The leaves turn purple and drop revealing a tracery of tendrils in winter.  On the western fence I planted a climbing Hydrangea petiolaris 'Platt's Dwarf' that will have to be trimmed to stay tight against the fence.  It will be covered in lace cap flowers in summer when the patio is mostly in use.

The garden needed a focal point so I cast a stone mosaic fountain using a form I had built for other projects and scraps from trimming the stones for the patio.  I poured a concrete base to set the fountain on with a pond liner filled with beach pebbles surrounding a concrete pipe that makes a reservoir on which I placed a nice glazed Vietnamese plant saucer I bought at a friend's import store.  I covered the edge of the pond liner with beautiful quartzite boulders I bought from a local stone yard.  They came originally from Northern Idaho.

Installing a cast free standing fountain
An electrician installed buried wiring to supply outlets for lighting and the fountain, controlled by a switch so it would be easy to turn on and off.  The sound of the water splashing in to the bowl makes a pleasing sound that draws and holds your attention in the garden while drowning out the white noise of the city.  A niche in the fountain makes it an altar where we placed a small bronze statue of the Hindu God Shiva doing the Nataraj, the dance that creates the universe.  Hummingbirds can drink from the stream of water and birds can bathe in the bowl.

Installing the wiring

The fountain creates a focal point in the garden, centered on the end of the patio
I kept the plant pallet in the drought tolerant range and used ones that would appreciate the heat of the southern exposure.  This includes a lot of herbs for ground covers, Wooley Thyme and Golden Oregano, and Red Dragon Sedum and Acaena inermis purpurea to frame the patio and the stepping stones leading to it.  I bought several Salvia microphylla for its long bloom time and attraction to Hummingbirds. While trying to keep the plant pallet limited I ended up with a lot of variety, but repeated certain plants throughout the beds to give the design a cohesive look.  It was wonderful to see bees and birds discovering the plants in what was before a complete void with no benefit to nature.

Wooly Thyme and Golden Oregano soften the edges of the patio

The garden was able to establish a good root system over the winter in the well amended soil and the following year only required watering once a week, although it would survive on considerably less water than that.
Contrasting ground covers and shrubs with complementary colors of foliage tie the garden together
People have been amazed at the transformation of this little garden in the span of just one year.  A few small plants died in the intense cold spells of the first winter but the garden is thriving.  I will probably have to remove the Russian Sages as they are much too vigorous in the rich soil and are spreading by runners.  I cut them back to keep them contained but this will become an endless process. They aren't as dwarf as the name lead me to believe.  The Osmanthus will be trained as a small tree as it matures, screening the power pole that looms over the garden on that side.  Minor adjustments to keep the garden fine tuned as it grows are part of what makes a nice garden beautiful.  It is a pleasure to dine alfresco on the patio during the long summers here.
The garden at 14 months of age

I've been working on the Los Angeles garden of Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub in installments for 7 years.  Most of that work occurred in the large back garden while the front remained a traditional lawn with two messy Coral Trees and a thorny clipped Carissa hedge lining the wide front walkway, dividing the garden in to odd linear inaccessible sections.  I had been suggesting we remove the lawn for years but they resisted as it would be a radical departure from the traditional look of the neighborhood, where green grass and clipped hedges are the norm.  You would never know you are in a desert around here.

A typical Los Angeles Garden surrounding an expensive home
I had removed a narrow strip of grass along the sidewalk 4 years prior and planted it with a mixture of interesting drought tolerant plants.  It drew a lot of praise from passers by but was never well groomed. I learned a lot about plant performance and how big things get from doing that section.

The original narrow strip of lawn along the sidewalk

A dry garden replaces a strip of lawn
Because of the prolonged drought that has stricken the state, California is faced with a limited water supply that could reach disastrous levels unless dramatic changes in water conservation take place.  This is the most populous state in the U.S. and water shortages are happening now.  Some climate experts believe that the drought could be part of a cycle that could last for hundreds of years, like the one that caused the fall of the Mayan and Anasazi cultures over 1,000 years ago.  And it just keeps getting hotter.  So the city of Los Angeles has been offering a tax rebate incentive for the removal of grass.  There is a website you can go to at: http://dpw.lacounty.gov/wwd/web/Conservation/CashforGrass.aspx although the examples in their photo gallery are not what I would call beautiful.

An old photo of the lush green lawns, young Coral Trees, and Carissa hedges
So when my clients sent me a message saying it was time to remove the thirsty lawn because it was embarrassing to have it under these conditions, I flew down to the City of Angels in early October.  The Coral Trees the original designers had planted had grown in to thorny masses with a bed of snake like surface roots that threatened to heave the driveway and entry walk, so they were also removed.  They were beautiful in flower but required major annual pruning and were just too big for the garden.  The gardeners had scraped the grass off and done a superficial soil preparation by tilling the top 2 inches of the heavy clay soil, adding a little perlite but nothing else.  The ground under this thin layer was hard as cement.  The weather in October used to be pleasant but temperatures this year were still climbing over 100 degrees Farenheit.  Nobody wants to do hard labor when its that hot so my crew disappeared after a day under of working with me.  To inspire them I work like a mad man.  As Brooke said later, I do the work for four people.  My crew managed to do as little as possible and then didn't return until the last day of my 10 day work stint.  So I did most of the work on my own, chopping out basketball size chunks of clay, which I moistened and later broke in to smaller and smaller pieces, that I mixed with lots of perlite and compost.  It was brutal work that left me with blisters and a bad shoulder but I somehow managed to turn rock hard earth in to light, well drained soil.  Hopefully it won't return to its original state with time as the compost decomposes.
A clean slate
The house I'm working around is a stately stucco dwelling with a glazed white brick first floor and balustrades on the second level, and a glazed tile roof.  In order to make the brutality of working with such dreadful soil rewarding, I selected a dream fantasy collection of drought tolerant plants native to South Africa and Mexico and the Southwest, Cacti, Aloes, Agaves, Yuccas, Senecios, and Dymondia as a flat lawn replacement.  I planted 6 Dasylirion longissimum (Mexican Grass Tree) in the wide parking strip, and two Bismarkia nobilis palms.  These are dramatic sculptural plants of a fantastic nature.  I was inspired by a trip to Lotusland, the fantasy garden built for the eccentric Polish Opera singer Ganna Walska in Montecito near Santa Barbara.  Mass plantings there make for incredible drama.

The Aloe Garden at Lotusland.  Aloe bainsii is the tree in the photo
An image from the web of Bismarkia nobilis, two of which I planted in the wide parking strip
Dasylirion longissimum and Senecio madraliscae in the Parking Strip

An image of Dasylirion longissimum taken from the web.  I planted 6 of these in the wide parking strip
I was going for Dr. Seuss in my vision.  I found a nice specimen Aloe bainsii to use as the primary tree in the new planting, and 14 Aloe striata, which have orange margins on the wide fleshy leaves that illuminate in the late afternoon sunlight, as do the dozen small Golden Barrel Cacti I'm hoping will take to their new home.  It was important to make the soil as light and well drained as possible for these plants to survive.  I moved the big Aloe ferox plants that were too close to the sidewalk for comfort in my earlier planting.  In a wide bed along the driveway I layered Night blooming Cereus cactus with Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire', Aloe striata, Golden Barrel Cactus, and bluish Senecio serpens.

Night blooming Cereus Cacti, Firestick Euphorbia, Aloe striata, Senecio serpens, and Golden Barrel Cactus by the driveway
I clumped Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata' and Yucca rostrata, which will eventually develop trunks to bring height to the plantings.  The blue Senecio ground covers will tie all the sculptural forms together in a cohesive arrangement.
Yucca rostrata and Yucca gloriosa along the slope
People walking by are often confused by what is going on here.  At first they thought I must be replanting the lawn, because that is what is most familiar.  Awareness of the drought isn't all that apparent in Los Angeles, where diversionary entertainment is the main industry.  What I was doing finally resonated with a neighbor when he asked how often it needed to be watered and I told him once every two weeks once established.  Many of the plants can survive on that now, while others, like the tiny Dymondia ground covers need frequent supplemental water until they are established.

Aloe bainsii, the Tree Aloe, with Aloe ferox and Aloe vera
I found a nice half pallet of beautiful pink sandstone slabs at a local stone yard and laid out a path running through the garden from the driveway to the entry walk and on to a bench.  I trimmed the corners with a stone cutting saw so that they have soft pillowy shapes reminding me of paths from the Flintstone cartoons, and arranged them using intuitive Zen principals of placement.  Before, the garden was always inaccessible because of the Coral Trees and the spiny Carissa hedges that divided it in to linear sections.  Now you can stroll around the garden and take in the interesting variety of plants.  I surrounded the stepping stones with flat growing Dymondia, which is nice because it is durable, drought tolerant, and doesn't grow over the edges of the stones.

A new pink sandstone path runs through the garden from the driveway to a bench on the other side
I look forward to watching the garden grow in to a collection of fantastic specimens.  It is hard to tell at this stage in the planting what it will grow in to as many of the spreading plants are small dots.  The Senecio serpens grows more slowly than Senecio madraliscae which I started out using as the primary ground cover for its blue succulent stick like foliage.  S. serpens requires virtually no maintenance to stay neat looking while S. madraliscae needs trimming.  The Agave angustifolia 'Variegata' trio between the Tree Aloe and the path will form perfect round balls of sharp spines.  For the most part though I tried to use plants that are less vicious to the touch.  Round basalt stones help keep car tires in line with the driveway as people back down to the street.

Crushed ornamental grey gravel mulches the slopes which will eventually cover with spreading plants.
We graveled the slope down to the sidewalk to keep mulch from washing down to the pavement and hold the slope.  I thought about graveling the entire garden but time and budget and the fact that plants will eventually cover most of the ground made that seem unnecessary.  I hired and trained a new gardener to maintain all of this on a level that was never achieved by the mow and blow crew that showed little care for a refined garden, and now there isn't any lawn to mow.  Plus is will be one less noise filled hour when a crew doesn't have to do weekly lawn maintenance.  My drought tolerant Lotusland/Dr. Seuss fantasy garden is in place.  I'll add photos next year of its development.  May it inspire others to take advantage of the many wonderful plant species that can grow in Los Angeles's mild climate, without requiring whats left of the Colorado River to keep it alive.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

I haven't been back to see the garden in LA since completing it, but a friend sent me this picture.  The garden is 10 months old.
My clients recently sent me photos of the front garden in March, 2016, so this is how it looks 18 months later in Spring glory.

I fish eye view of the front 18 months later.  The Dymondia lawn has filled in and the Senecios are spreading


Aloe striata in bloom

Firesticks Euphorbia and Aloe striata along the driveway