Embracing Change: Countering Drought Depression

A simple planting of Berkeley sedge requires less water and maintenance than a traditional lawn

A drive through town these days is often marked by brown landscapes, dying trees, and a certain sadness we must set aside to carry on the day’s business. Whether experienced as an irritating nag or an anxiety-inducing shriek, “drought depression” is on the rise, especially with climate change clouding predictions for a possible end. Each individual has their own reaction, but a common thread is feeling the loss of something fundamental to our existence, beyond the loss of a job or a loved one: the very ability of the earth to provide sustenance for human life.

Dark and dreary stuff, right?

If you made it through that first paragraph without skipping over to a YouTube cat video, you are to be commended. Drought-related catastrophes have become so commonplace they should have their own section in the newspaper between “Money” and “Obituaries”, but the pervasiveness of our water troubles only underscores how important it is to recognize that change is upon us.

A relationship that was defined by our supposed control over nature is capsizing: nature mandates our existence, not the other way around. We must come to terms with this truth, and based on the struggles we see happening everyday, it has not been smooth sailing. We still cling to a time when we didn’t have to give conscious thought to our landscapes as living ecosystems, instead trying to force plants into the role of inanimate outdoor decoration. Like the Five Stages of Grief, letting go of the good ol’ days causes a variety of reactions:

Denial: “When the drought is over I can go back to watering the sidewalk with run-off from my lawn sprinklers.”

Anger/Blame: “This is ____’s fault! Why doesn’t someone do something? If someone did something, I could still water the sidewalk.”

Bargaining: “I’ll do anything to keep my lawn; I’ll paint it green, if necessary!” (grass paint is a real thing, by the way)

Depression: “My sidewalk will die without run-off, the world is ending, #droughtdepression” (not a real hashtag…yet)

The fifth stage, acceptance, will help us move forward; clinging to the ideal of a perpetually lush landscape in a dry climate will only hurt us when what we see is in constant conflict with what we want. The past is dragging us down, both emotionally and physically, and prevents acknowledgment of the natural life cycle of plants in a place with only 13 inches of rain a year (if we are lucky).

Although not everyone loves to garden, we can all gain something from a deeper understanding of the ecosystem and our place in it, not to mention the positives resulting from a proactive response to crises: stronger community, a broader perspective, the opportunity and driving force for creative solutions, and the best part for those who love to garden, a whole new palette of plants to choose from.

The new paradigm will mean a great change, so dry those tears and let go of that lush lawn and sidewalk, put down that green paint and go find low-water plants to feed our beloved birds and bees. Wherever you are in the Five Stages of Grief, open yourself to the possibility of acceptance; our best chance for the future is to embrace the concept of California as a dry state, and to express this in our landscapes.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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Color in the Late Summer Garden

A mixed fall flower show of Lavender, Sulfur buckwheat, and California fuchsia

Although fall is now considered the best time to plant in our Mediterranean climate, those still opting for spring planting may find the instant gratification of putting a blooming plant in the ground too tempting to resist; but what happens as the seasons progress and those early eye-candy plants fade?

To mitigate the late summer “dead zone”, think beyond the first few weeks of spring when selecting plants. With fall planting season around the corner, now is the perfect time to research plants to provide much needed color and pollinator forage at a difficult time of year.

Starting with evergreen species will help keep the garden filled in for much of the year. Some late-bloomers with year-round foliage are listed below; all prefer full sun unless otherwise noted:

Bottlebrush ‘Violaceous’ (Callistemon citrinus)
True to its name, this large shrub has violet flowers resembling bottlebrush bristles, blooming heavily in spring and fall. Very attractive to bees and hummingbirds.

Saint Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
A large shrub native to California with large clusters of white flowers on umbels atop a basal mound of rounded, silvery foliage. A great accent that requires only an occasional deep watering. Butterflies love the flowers; birds eat the seeds. Blooms late summer into fall.

Germander sage (Salvia chamaedryoides)
A low mounding shrub with fragrant, silvery foliage and violet-blue flowers attracting myriad bee species. Blooms sporadically throughout the growing season.

Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens)
A ground cover with fleshy, blade-like foliage and a spray of yellow-orange flowers from spring until frost. Great for honeybees and full sun to part shade.

Other evergreens that bloom now include Sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and Lavender (Lavandula spp, ‘Goodwin Creek’, L. x intermedia). Although the flowers of Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) are not showy, they are excellent for pollinators.

Herbaceous perennials (i.e. plants that die to the ground during dormancy) offer some of the greatest flower displays in the garden, so try some of these water-wise species in between your foundation plants for even more fall color:

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Russian sage has aromatic leaves and woody growth that make it seem evergreen, but requires cutting to the ground each spring for best appearance. Upright stems are topped with purple flowers in spring and again in fall if flower stems are cut back after the first round of blooms.

California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
California fuchsia emerges in spring as thin, woody stalks, waiting until the hottest part of the summer to put forth red trumpet-shaped flowers to attract hummingbirds and bees. A great low-water plant for full sun to part shade.

Blanketflower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)
A small, mounding perennial with 2”-3” red and yellow flowers from spring until frost. Easy to find in nurseries and great for a hot, sunny spot; protect spring growth from slugs and snails.

Long-lasting dried flower heads of Showy stonecrop add unique element to the fall garden

Showy stonecrop (Sedum spectabile)
A unique succulent with 5” umbels of clustered pink flowers atop fleshy stalks. Showy stonecrop blooms in late summer and tolerates part shade; attractive to butterflies and bees. The dried flower heads add an interesting element to the garden as well, especially in mass plantings, which can be created by divisions of the mother plant(s).

Other herbaceous perennials flowering in late summer and fall include Lilac verbena (Glandularia lilacina), California goldenrod (Solidago californica), Great Valley gumplant (Grindelia camporum), Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), and Sundrops (Calylophus drummondianus).

Some of the above plants can be found on the UC Davis Arboretum All-Star’s website: arboretum.ucdavis.edu/arboretum_all_stars.aspx
If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.




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For peace of mind; garden organically Part 1.

Recently, one of our Master Gardeners said she wants to learn to garden more organically. What do we mean by organic?  Living or dead organisms contain carbon and that is organic, so what is the big deal?  Well let’s use a definition of organic in the gardening or farming sense from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.”

Can’t be done you say?  Well, yes it can be done and lots of folks have been doing it. My mother gardened using organic methods 70 years ago and the Romans did so for hundreds of years. In fact most of the world has farmed and gardened organically until the 20th century. There was a time not long ago when synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers were unknown.

After WWI, the Haber–Bosch method, used for making explosives during the war, became an artificial nitrogen fixation process for the production of ammonia for fertilizer. The mining of nitrates like guano and sodium nitrate deposits in Chile was not keeping up with increased demand for nitrogen fertilizers. Hence this process eventually earned scientists Haber and Bosch Nobel Prizes. After WWII there were poison gases and compounds around that were developed for warfare. Naturally these chemical companies wanted to find a use for them, so why not for pest control? I don’t know if this earned anyone a Nobel Prize.

After a few years of applying persistent pesticides, the result was Silent Spring, a book by Rachael Carson about the unintended consequences to our environment by the widespread use of DDT, Dieldren, Chlordane and other persistent pesticides also known as biocides because they can be toxic to life in general. The environmental movement was launched as people became concerned about what we were doing to our environment, other species and ourselves.

When farming or gardening organically, naturally occurring materials can be used for pest control such as sulfur which is used as a fungicide. Naturally occurring substances are generally, but not always, less harmful to humans and the environment. You don’t want to get sulfur in your eyes—it burns! For fertilizing soil, compost, feather meal, fish emulsion, manures, and other materials will work and there is less chance of salts building up in soils as can occur with chemically formulated fertilizers.

However, it is much easier to apply chemicals compared to compost or manures which are bulky and that is one reason that organic food is more expensive, because it requires more labor and care in growing food. The organic farmer/gardener feeds the life in the soil and that in turn feeds the plants. Unfortunately, industrial agriculture tends to deplete soils of organic matter and soil life while relying on fertilizer for plant growth.

One reason to garden and eat organically grown food is to keep chemicals out of our bodies that might not be good for our health. New formulations of chemical pesticides are less persistent and there are rigid standards established to minimize residues on our food and we hope they are enforced consistently. However, some residues do get into our bodies. There is no way of knowing all the synergistic effects of putting myriad foreign toxins into our bodies and pesticides are only one set of many chemicals we are exposed to.

Noted columnist, Bill Moyers, had his blood and urine tested for presence of alien chemicals and the list was 84 items long. That is not a reassuring result though he has lived past the normal male lifetime. Probably most of us have a similar suite of alien chemicals in our bodies.

Gardening organically is a challenge to outsmart those pests that make gardening difficult, but it can be done. More on how to garden organically to follow in part 2.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found at: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/.

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Garden Gold: Changing Waste Into Resource

This time of year finds us cleaning up the garden and throwing away the trimmings without ceremony or thought. This predilection we humans have of creating waste and then wanting it to “going away” has had dire consequences for our planet. Everything comes from and goes somewhere; the trick is to use this fact to our advantage.

Defining waste is tricky, but you could think of it the same way as weeds, which are basically plants where you don’t want them; like weed management, reducing garden waste comes down to re-thinking and altering your cultural practices:

Plan ahead: Shopping at a nursery without a plan is like going to the grocery store hungry; impulse buys are inevitable! Measure your space, research climate-appropriate plants, and call nurseries for availability. Try to favor evergreen (non-deciduous) species, limit herbaceous perennials and annuals, and provide all plants adequate space for their natural size and shape. Constant shearing is a waste of time, and planting too densely often means you are tearing out plants within a couple of years, a waste of the water and other resources that went into growing those plants.

Irrigate and fertilize appropriately to avoid the feedback loop of wasteful inputs: too much water and high N-P-K fertilizers create lush growth, which is more attractive to pests, requiring herbicides and more irrigation to keep up with all that growth. Potent fertilizers often leach below the root zone or out of the soil via irrigation run-off, polluting rivers and groundwater, and wasting your money. Organic fertilizers with low N-P-K numbers provide a slow release of nutrients, which can be taken up more effectively by soil microbes and plants.

Composting is the best way to recycle myriad forms of plant matter, both from your yard and the kitchen, into a source of bio-available nutrients. Compost also helps improve soil structure (a definite plus for those of plagued with adobe) and increases the biodiversity of your soil, a way of protecting your plants from pathogens.

Grasscycling: Recycling grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn reduces fertilizer needs by 20% and returns valuable organic matter to the soil. It’s easier on your back, too! Problems associated with grasscycling often result from improper practices; see the resource section below for help.

Avoid invasive species: Some plants have aggressive growth and produce a lot of waste when they need trimming. Examples of invasive species include English ivy and Vinca major. Some invasives can re-root in a compost bin, so they end up in the landfill. for examples of invasive plants and alternatives, see the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal IPC) website.

Fertilizing:   sjmastergardeners.ucdavis.edu/files/154369.pdf
Composting and Grasscycling:   sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Composting_/
Cal IPC:  www.cal-ipc.org/landscaping/dpp/

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.


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So many tomato seeds— So little time

Master Gardener's tomato tasting event. Lee MillerCourtesy photo.

Tomato picking season is here and I love to grow lots of them, although I have cut back from 100 plants to only 78.  Unfortunately, where I live, thrips carry a virus causing Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus and I lose several plants each year to this nasty disease. Lots of plants is insurance that I will eat some tomatoes. There are a few resistant varieties to this disease, but they don’t taste great.

A friend of mine liked to visit bars in Hawaii in search of the perfect Mai Tai. I have a similar, quest searching for the best tasting, perfect tomato. Of course the search is nearly endless as named tomatoes are almost as numerous as named roses. Wikipedia says there are 7500 varieties of tomato and the Seed Saver’s Exchange Yearbook lists over 5000 varieties. I grow a few new ones each year and it adds some excitement to the gardening experience to try new varieties. I also grow favorites every year that are good producers and good tasting.

Everyone seems to like Sun Gold, a yellow cherry tomato that is very sweet. It has been the top pick at our Master Gardener Tomato tasting for the past 2 or 3 years. The human’s sweet tooth is at work and cherry tomatoes, like Sun Gold and Sun Sugar are—well—sugary. When it comes to sweet tomatoes, Early Girl, a hybrid, is also high on my list and I think if I had only one tomato to grow this would be the one. It is an early bearer and keeps on producing all season, and the tomatoes are sweet and delicious. I once made tomato juice using only Early Girl and it was the sweetest, best tomato juice I ever tasted.

I am amazed how the tomato went from the new world after 1492 to Europe, Asia and then came back again with so many varieties. It is truly an international fruit. There are many with good taste and I am always willing to try those that score high in tomato tastings. The Cherokee Purple is noted for taste as is Brandywine, both winning many tomato tastings, but not noted for great yields. For good productions and good tastes, the heirlooms Ace 55, Druzba, Crème Brule, Italian Heirloom, Soldacki, Paul Robeson, Thessaloniki, Bulgarian #7, Mortgage Lifter and Henderson’s Winsell all fill the bill. For beautiful colorful tomatoes on the platter, I like bicolors like Big Rainbow, Marizol Gold, Hillbilly, Gold Medal and Pineapple.  Then there are the pure yellow and orange tomatoes: Persimmon, Golden Queen and Golden Jubilee and orange slicers, Amana Orange and Kellogg’s Breakfast.

Tomatoes that don’t perform well or taste good go off my list and don’t get replanted.  This year, I am giving Mamie Brown’s Pink, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, Dester, Verlon, Blue Berries, Trophy and Jaune Flamme a chance to make my favorites list. Because I have a greenhouse, heat mats and light stand, starting tomatoes is easier for me than for gardeners with only a warm windowsill. Hence, I started growing tomatoes and peppers for the Linden Garden Club’s Annual Plant Sale about 5 or 6 years ago and it has been interesting to introduce new varieties to our clientele each year.

What to do with all those tomatoes?  I take samples to our August Master Gardener’s meeting for an annual tomato tasting. It is often disappointing, because I fail to cut back on the water as tomatoes ripen which enhances their flavor and sweetness.  A more practical use is to can whole tomatoes or process them for sauce or tomato juice.

Tomatoes were once erroneously considered poisonous, but now are a health food. Tomatoes contain lycopene which gives them the red color. It is a powerful anti-oxidant that improves cell membranes and fends off free-radicals that can cause cancers.  Tomatoes are a source of vitamins A and C and folic acid. Tomatoes contain a wide array of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants in addition to lycopene, including alpha-lipoic acid, choline, beta-carotene and lutein. For information on health benefits see: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/273031.php. Of course yellow tomatoes don’t have lycopene, but have more of other nutrients, so take your pick of what is important; see: http://www.prevention.com/content/which-healthier-red-tomatoes-vs-yellow-tomatoes.

The tomato is really a fruit, but it is the most popularly grown vegetable in the U.S, so if you are limited in garden space take out some lawn and try a few tomatoes next year. Give them full sun, deep watering once or twice a week and enjoy for taste, health and the satisfaction of growing your own.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found at: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/

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Ants: Annoying But Essential


Ant feeding from extrafloral nectary

Ants are a common sight both in the garden and, much to our chagrin, inside the house. These much-maligned, yet misunderstood creatures may not be your favorite form of wildlife, but they have important work to do. Before the sight of them sends you screaming for that spray can of death, take a moment to consider when they are a nuisance to be managed, and when you can leave well enough alone.

The living habits and lifestyles of ants varies by species, but all are social, living in colonies numbering from thousands to millions of workers. Each colony has one or more queens, who are responsible for laying eggs, and several males whose only purpose is to mate with queens from other colonies. Called a “mating flight,” this is when you might see winged ants, which are sometimes mistaken for termites.

Worker ants are responsible for tending the young, maintaining the nest, and foraging. Their activities provide many critical services to our ecosystem:

  •  Decomposition: Ants feed on dead insect and animal tissue, an important way of recycling this organic matter back into the environment (yes, animals are considered “organic matter”!)
  • Weed seed predation: Seeds are a source of protein for ants; “squirreling” seeds away in their nests means fewer weeds for the gardener to yank out
  • Insect predation: Ants are the top predators of termites; other favorite snacks are caterpillars and fleas
  • Soil aeration: The nest-building activities of ants create air channels for air and water to move through, which is great for plant roots
  • Plant guardians: Certain plants and ants have a fascinating relationship wherein the plant provides delicious nectar via extrafloral nectaries (nectar located on the plant outside of the flowering structure) to attract ants, who repay the plant by fending off herbivores

As wonderful as these services are, not everything is rosy in ant-human relationships. Besides fending off herbivores, ants also place and protect aphids, scale, mealybugs, and other sucking insects on plants to collect the sweet honeydew secreted by these pests as they feed. Certain species, such as the carpenter ant, can cause structural damage to buildings, as they like to nest in wood; and let’s not forget the disgust of discovering a trail of ants roving across your kitchen counter!

As far as the outdoors is concerned, attempting to exclude ants from your property is both impossible and undesirable for the beneficial reasons listed above. If ants are bringing aphids and scale to your plants, either use bait stations around perennials, or try Tanglefoot to keep ants out of trees. Aphids can be sprayed off plants with water; avoid using pesticides, which often kill their natural enemies (e.g. ladybugs, solider beetles).

Ants usually only enter buildings to escape extreme heat or cold, when searching for water in dry weather, or if they smell food laying about. If you see ants in your house, spraying should be your last resort; this short-term solution fails to address the underlying causes. The following steps are less toxic and more effective in the long term:

  1. Follow the ant trail and find what they are attracted to
  2. Clean up any spilled food (including pet food), and water; place stored food in sealed containers, and take out the garbage
  3. Wipe up ant trails with soapy water to wash away their scent to prevent more ants from following in the footsteps of previous foragers
  4. Locate and seal cracks that serve as ant entrances
  5. Try to ID the ant species using the tool found on the UC Integrated Pest Management website: www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/ANTKEY/
  6. Select the appropriate bait and management strategy listed on the webpage for each of the common household ants: www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7411.html#LIFE

Bait stations are preferred over sprays because ants can take the poisoned food back to their nest, killing other ants in the colony. You can purchase bait stations or make your own (see the website above for more information). Do not use a stronger concentration than suggested, thinking that “if a little is good, a lot must be better”, or the ants will die before reaching their colonies, making the bait station less effective.

One species of ant deserves special attention because of their painful bites and stings. The imported red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), hailing from South America, is infamous for its aggressive attacks when defending their nest. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has a red fire ant eradication program; if you discover them on your property, call the CDFA fire ant hotline at 1.888.434.7326 before attempting to deal with them yourself.

Most ants you find in the garden are not looking to invade your home unless you give them the opportunity. Taking simple steps in proper food storage and sealing up your home goes a long way toward keeping them out in the garden where they can be of most benefit to everyone.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.



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Mulching for Soil Health and Water Conservation


Mulch adds aesthetic appeal while helping to conserve water

Of the many tools we use in the garden, one of the most effective multi-taskers is mulch. This water-saving, soil-empowering material will amaze you with its miraculous qualities, making  your garden both beautiful and sustainable.

Mulch, a material loosely defined  as anything applied to the soil surface for protection and improvement, comes in two basic forms. Organic materials are carbon-based (i.e. used to be alive) and biodegradable. Nonorganic mulches are synthetics (e.g. plastic or rubber), or natural materials that decompose too slowly to benefit the soil in our lifetime (e.g. rocks). Organic mulches are generally considered to be the most beneficial for garden health, as they provide many services:

  • Improved soil tilth: Tilth refers to how suitable the soil is for growing plants. Mulch provides both food and protection from Delta winds, the hot valley sun, and frosty winters for micro- and macro- organisms living in the soil. This stabilized environment allows them to go about their business, contributing nutrient availability, aeration, and soil structure.
  • Erosion control: With better soil structure comes better water absorption. Mulch also slows heavy rains so water has a chance to percolate into the soil; in summer, mulched soils are less likely to form a crust, allowing for better percolation when irrigating.
  • Weed control: Mulch prevents annual weeds from germinating by blocking sunlight from hitting the soil surface.
  • Water conservation: Mulch helps retain soil moisture by reducing evaporation, which usually translates into reduced irrigation needs.
  • Healthy roots: Fine roots are highly susceptible to drought stress and high temperatures; mulch helps keep the soil cool and hydrated, enhancing plant establishment and overall vigor. Healthy plants are more resistant to pest damage, requiring fewer chemicals and less maintenance.

The home gardener has many types of mulches to choose from; selecting the best for your situation depends on what and where it will be used, your budget, and availability. In beds where the ground will be worked every year (e.g. annual and vegetable beds), use short-lived materials such as straw or compost that can be incorporated into the soil if desired.

Long-lasting materials such as bark nuggets are best for perennial beds where a slow release of food over time is desired. Soil organisms use up nitrogen as they decompose the bark, so it should only be used on the surface to avoid nutrient deficiencies (nitrogen eventually returns to the soil as organisms die). 

Synthetic mulches such as black plastic are good where warming the soil is desired (e.g. for vegetable beds) or to eradicate soil-born pathogens. However, it is not the best choice for perennial beds in the home garden. Plastic restricts air flow and water penetration, creates a mess as it breaks down, is not completely biodegradable, and weeds can grow through holes and tears. Drip irrigation must be used underneath, which can be difficult to inspect and maintain when covered with plastic sheets.

Gravel has more aesthetic appeal than plastic and lasts a long time. Some plants, such as succulents, are much better off with gravel mulch. However, a huge disadvantage is it’s high thermal mass, meaning it absorbs and radiates a lot of heat. This might be a bonus in some parts of the world, but not in a sweltering city like Stockton. Although some gravel is fine, avoid graveling your entire landscape to keep your air conditioning bills and the city’s heat index down.

Correctly applying mulch is just as important as knowing what kind to use. For ornamental perennial beds, a  3” – 4” layer of coarse bark or 2” of small bark is recommended. Keep mulch 6” away from trunks to prevent root rot. Mulching techniques for vegetables and annuals varies greatly, depending on the crop and type of mulch being used. Newspaper, straw and grass clippings are common and readily available; make sure the last two are weed-free to avoid a bed full of undesirables!

More information on mulches can be found at the following websites:

No talk of mulch would be complete without a discussion of where not to use it. Besides the obvious impracticality of mulching “the back 40”, approximately 70% of North American native bees are solitary ground-nesters. If you have a well-drained, sunny spot (preferably on a slope), leave it open for our native bees, whose habitat is rapidly disappearing. For best results, avoid cultivating or walking on this sacred ground. See the Xerces Society webpage for more information:

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.




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Fragrant Plants for the Water-Wise Garden


Spanish lavender

A fragrant garden often draws us in to explore further and engage our other senses, to see, touch, and hear what has caught our attention. It’s romantic to think plants waft out lovely aromas for our benefit alone, but the scents we enjoy are part of a plant’s daily grind. Plants produce many compounds during their normal metabolic activities, some of which serve to attract beneficial insects, or protect against herbivores and disease. One type of compound, called “essential oil”, is responsible for the fragrance in foliage and flowers.

Plants use one of two basic methods for storing essential oils. The first is on the surface of the leaf in hairy structures called glandular trichomes. These plants need only be brushed against to release their aroma, and are often quite fuzzy in texture. The second storage method utilizes specialized structures inside the leaf. These plants need to be crushed or bruised to release their aroma and may or may not be fuzzy (fuzz does not always mean a plant has essential oils). 

One of the most fragrant plant families is the mint family (Lamiaceae). This group has glandular trichomes, so simply rubbing the foliage will give you nice whiff. Some hardy, water-wise perennials in the mint family include:

  • Lavender (Lavandula spp): With fragrant flowers and foliage, it’s hard to pass by lavender without stopping to appreciate the lovely aroma. There are plenty of varieties to choose from, but all prefer well-drained soil, which should be allowed to dry slightly between waterings to avoid the common problem of falling outwardfrom the middle.More information on lavender selection and care can be found at: anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/pdf/8135.pdf
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): A great culinary herb with evergreen foliage and pretty bluish flowers requiring little maintenance. A nice shrubby variety is ‘Mozart’; ‘Prostratus’ is a low-growing variety for retaining walls.
  • Sage (Salvia spp): Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) is quite popular, but there are more drought-tolerant species to be had. Two intensely aromatic species are White sage (Salvia apiana) and Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), which your nose will find from a great distance. More subtle are Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Germander sage (Salvia chamaedryoides), and Hummingbird sage (Saliva spathacea).
  • Other great water-wise plants in the mint family include Catmint (Nepeta x faasenii), Coyote mint (Monardella villosa), Pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, not a true sage). Even more can be found at: ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/files/196286.pdf

Plants that need to be bruised to release their fragrance are many; some good ones for the Central Valley include:

  • Lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus): A bright, silvery plant with cute yellow buttons for flowers and frond-like foliage with an aromatic, pungent fragrance. Attractive to pollinators, low-growing, and appreciative of well-drained soil.
  • Spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis): A large, deciduous shrub with lovely red flowers in spring. The foliage emits a clean, spicy fragrance when crushed. Spicebush is less fussy about soil and summer water than some of the species listed here, but does OK in water-wise gardens as well with a few deep watering a month in the dry season.
  • Yarrow (Achillea spp): Although the wild species is quite aggressive, the cultivars are better behaved, while still offering up a nice scent. Yarrow comes in many colors, from yellow-orange to pinkish lavenders and reds. Some of my favorites include Woolly yarrow (Achillea tomentosa), and the many cultivars of our native yarrow (Achillea millefolium), including ‘Island Pink’, ‘Paprika, and ’Terracotta’.

Plants tend to go about their business, and the essential oils they produce may not be for our benefit alone, but their addition to the garden experience has endeared them to us. The lovely fragrances possible for the water-wise garden provide just one more reason to try them out!

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.




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Native Succulents for Water-Wise Gardens

Coast dudleya (Dudleya caespitosa)

Some California native plants, such as our brilliant orange poppies, bring instant recognition. Less well-known are our native succulents, the Dudleyas. Mostly found on coastal bluffs and rocky outcroppings throughout California, these highly drought-tolerant plants offer great hummingbird forage with their little bell-shaped flowers atop tall, fleshy stalks.

Like most succulents, Dudleyas have fleshy, swollen foliage that stores water. Another key trait is their farinose coating, which is made up of loose wax particles that come off when rubbed, giving many Dudleya species a blue-gray tinge. Do not try to remove this coating, as it provides UV protection. When seen on fruits such as blueberries or plums, this wax is known as a “bloom.”

Dudleyas come in two forms: branching and unbranching. Branching dudleyas tend to form spreading colonies and are best used as ground covers in the garden. Unbranching types form large rosettes and are great as focal points. Both kinds like containers and have a long life span, living 50-100 years, given the right conditions. They are perfect for rock retaining wall crevices, as this is how they naturally grow.

The species listed below are frost tolerant but need afternoon shade in the San Joaquin Valley heat:

Coast dudleya (Dudleya caespitosa): 4”-6” high, spreading (not invasive)
Liveforever (Dudleya cymosa): 6”, spreading (not invasive); hardiest to heat and cold of the species listed here

Cliff lettuce (Dudleya farinosa): 12” rosette
Chalk liveforever (Dudleya pulverulenta): 12” – 24” rosette with a thick, farinose coating.

Cultural requirements
Although most succulents require little irrigation, many come from desert climates where there is a winter and summer “wet” season. Unlike the desert succulents you typically find in nurseries, native Dudleyas evolved in our summer-dry Mediterranean climate, and often lack resistance to pathogens associated with summer moisture. This is is why Dudleyas are best combined with other plants that also dislike summer irrigation, such as Coyote mint (Monardella villosa), St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum), Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra), or Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum).

Dudleyas are easy to care for, given the right conditions. Flower stalks can be removed when bloom is over. Either wait until they are dry enough to pull away easily or cut with pruning shears to avoid accidentally uprooting the entire plant. Resist removing all of the old, dry leaves, as these help stabilize larger single-rosette types (a long, exposed stem is easy to knock over).

Soggy soil can be a problem for Dudleyas, so provide good drainage and plant so that they are tilted sideways, allowing water to run off. If planted in clay soil, avoid watering in the summer; in sandy soils, some summer water is OK. They will naturally die back at the end of summer without irrigation, often turing red as the foliage desiccates, before regenerating when fall and winter rains begin. Avoid trying to circumvent this natural cycle with extra irrigation, as it may shorten their life span by increasing their susceptibility to root rots. You can also prevent root rots and fungus problems by mulching with gravel and avoiding organic materials such as bark.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.


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Save Water with Drip Irrigation

With the drought and mandatory water conservation many homeowners are looking for ways to save water. When you were a kid, did you like playing with tinker toys or Legos? If so, you can likely handle putting together the various components of a drip irrigation system. Drip irrigation systems put water right where it is needed—at the plant’s roots. This discourages weeds, and saves lot of precious water by using it efficiently.  When used with battery-powered controllers, you can get just the right amount of water right where you want it at the right time without waste.


Four years ago, my wife completed work on a new studio which was originally a carriage shed built in the horse and buggy days, about 1895 for housing carriages and harness. Years ago it was termite material and so I had it jacked up and installed a foundation (it was sitting on wooden blocks) and a new roof. I spent about $5,000 on it and, being a bit of a pack-rat, used it for several years to store about $5 worth of junk.

My wife wanted a place to do textile arts and soap making. I offered up the junk-filled carriage shed and she cleaned it out and had it made it into a beautiful, comfortable studio for, knitting, spinning, weaving, soap making and relaxing. It was so nice that I couldn’t resist landscaping around it. In retrospect, if we had been so deep into drought then, I might have not done it. However, being a transplanted Easterner, I have always been conscious of California’s precariousness with respect to water. Hence this new landscape was installed using drip irrigation.

I had a lot of experience with drip irrigation. I first used drip lines and emitters for tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash and melons in an early vegetable garden in 1978. The first garden in 1977 was a weed patch because I used sprinklers to irrigate. Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so stupid.  Anyway, the polyethylene tubing lines I used in 1978 are still in use 37 years later, although I have replaced the original, antiquated 1 gallon per hour emitters, which tended to clog, with 2 gph emitters.

I have several drip set-ups, one for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants that irrigates about 105 plants and one for melons and squash with about 50 emitters. I roll them up each fall, store them and reinstall in the spring in a new area of the garden to rotate crops. I have also added drip tape for flowers, beans, strawberries, chard and brassicas and other vegetables. With drip tape there are more issues to deal with than poly tubing and emitters. Drip tape has built in emitters and there is no way to unclog or replace them and too much pressure is not good either. Therefore a filter and a pressure regulator valve are required to use either drip tape or polyethylene tubing with built in emitters.

Drip tape comes in various thicknesses. I started with 8 mil tape with emitters at 12 inch intervals. Life expectancy is only about 2 or 3 years if handled very carefully. I had to keep a lot of extra couplings handy to repair leaks with this light weight tape. I now use heavier 15 mil tape which will last longer with care and the emitter’s intervals at 8 inches are better suited to row crops.

I used polyethylene tubing with built in emitters with emitters spaced at 18 inches for part of the new landscape that was for perennials. For shrubs and roses, I used poly tubing with emitters punched in at appropriate intervals for those plants. One thing to think about if you live in the city is that you will need a vacuum breaker so that water does not go back into the water system and cause contamination.

This kind of irrigation is great for raised beds, community and school gardens or for turning your front lawn into beautiful native or Mediterranean plant beds. For information on converting sprinklers to drip, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeLLIhcv8Cc. DripWorks, located in Willetts CA, also has online videos and as well as drip product for sale. For setting up a drip in a raised bed go to: http://www.dripworks.com/category/driptape1. Other sources of drip information are: Peaceful Valley Farm Supply at: http://www.groworganic.com/ . A good book for the homeowner on drip irrigation is Robert Kourik’s Drip Irrigation for Every Landscape and All Climates – 2nd Edition 2009; See: http://www.robertkourik.com/.  Happy drip gardening!

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  • Blog Authors

    Lee Miller

    Lee Miller is a University of Delaware graduate and retired fisheries biologist, he gardens on 10 acres and makes wine each year with the help of a cadre of friends. However, his first love is gardening and he grows various fruit trees, heirloom ... Read Full

    Marcy Sousa

    Marcy Sousa is the San Joaquin County UC Master Gardener Program Coordinator. She is a Stockton native and enjoys teaching others about gardening. She has her bachelors from Stanislaus State in Permaculture. She has been with the program since 2007. Read Full

    Nadia Zane

    Nadia Zane is a UC Master Gardener, a landscape designer and Stockton native. She has a fondness for California native plants and sustainable landscaping, which she utilizes in her work for Native Beauty Garden Design. She is a member of the CA ... Read Full
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