Category Archives: Plants

Our Favorite Japanese Maples

Japanese Maples are one of our most used small scale trees and accent for good reason. They are easy to grow, have great texture and fall color, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They range from 5′ to 30′ in size. There are four basic leaf types of these pretty trees:

-Palmate Leaf: These have a broad maple leaf like a palm, much like the Canadian flag.
-Dissect Leaf: These have a finely cut leaf, which is more intricate
-Red Leafed: Different hues of red and purple in both palmate and dissect varieties
-Green Leafed: These can often take a bit more direct sun than their red leafed counterparts

Japanese Maples are versatile, and make a great eye catching accent in the garden, especially in the fall. Many have sculptural or colored bark in the winter, so even when dormant, they still have a unique presence. These trees are usually in the moderate water use category for our climate in the Bay Area, but they don’t need to be over used, a few can make a statement. Many prefer a little shade especially in the hot afternoons, but many will adapt to even full sun, although their leaves may burn.

Here are 8 of our favorite easy to find maple species from our awesome Plantmaster Database. You can see more of these in the Plantmaster Interactive View.


Questioning Lawns

A thing of the past?

Dan Zak, writing in the Washington Post had a great article this week about America’s love of lawns. Still in drought parched California we get clients unaware of current drought restrictions and turf installation bans. Many folks want a lush patch of grass where their dogs and kids can play. The reality is one decent sized lawn can use the same amount of water as an entire household. My dad’s gardens (on well water) are a great example- just one lawn zone used 10,000 gallons of water a month in the central valley heat, in excess of my home’s (with pool) total usage.

Here’s a good quote from Dan Zak’s article:

Lawns, still, somehow.

The planet has accelerated its revolt against us and still we tend our lawns, one part of Earth we can control. Society falters, resources dwindle and, still, lawns.

Lawns: burned out, blond and dead, in the air fryer of August. Lawns: emerald green — no, alien green — and kept that way by maniacal vigilance and an elaborate system of pipes and potions, organic and otherwise, in defiance of ecology. And for what? To have, in this chaos, dominion over something? (Lawn and order?) To drape a veil of verdancy over a world gone to seed? To feel equal or superior to Ron, across the street, whose lawn always looks like the 18th at Pebble Beach?

We’ve been sweeping our anxieties under these green comfort blankets for quite some time. A “smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home,” wrote Frank J. Scott in 1870, around the time of the first lawn mower patent, in a book titled “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent” (Chapter XIII: The Lawn).

In California, a mediterranean climate, things will be ever drier. Stately Oaks and timeless Bristle-cone Pine are dying at increasing rates.

Low water use plants with a few accents of vegetables or a Japanese maple here or there are the new reality. And still, in Petaluma, we see lush green front lawns with stage 4 water restrictions mandating two days per week watering. Eventually things will change, if only because we have no choice.

Taking Stock of the Drought and Water Restrictions    

A View of the Mt. Tam Watershed

As the drought stretches into another year, water restrictions remain in place for Marin and Sonoma County. Despite a promising start to the rainy season in the fall, a historic dry January and February leave many water supplies severely constrained. Here is a look at some of the current water restrictions and their impact on new landscape projects.

Sonoma County

Petaluma: The City gets its water from Sonoma County Water Agency, and has set up restrictions on outdoor watering. With the city’s stage 4 restrictions currently irrigation is only allowed Tuesday and Saturday evenings with an objective to reduce water use by 30%. Additionally, and important for new landscape installs, no planting is allowed for those customers that use municipal water supplies. We had several projects where we needed to defer plantings until the restrictions were lifted. Read more on the City of Petaluma Drought Page 

Santa Rosa: Has also established a 20% use reduction goal. There are no restrictions on watering days, other than night time watering is required. There are no restrictions on new plantings. More at the City of Santa Rosa Drought Page

Marin County

Novato: Novato is separate from Southern Marin County and is served by North Marin Water District. Current restrictions were established in October. Watering is only allowed 3 days per week, with a conservation goal of 20% reduction. Hand watering and drip irrigation is currently exempt. There is no specific prohibition on new plantings. However new plantings would need to establish under the required restrictions and any future conservation requirements, which are likely. Read more at North Marin Water District. NMWD also has surcharges in place to encourage conservation- more here

Southern Marin: San Rafael to Sausalito are served by Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD). MMWD is an interesting case, as it’s reservoirs empty first and fill first, with high rainfall events in the Mt. Tamalpais watershed. Restrictions were loosened after the districts reservoirs filled to near capacity. Watering is allowed two days per week (not assigned). More information at MMWD

Unless we have a miracle end of March and April, storage conditions will only get worse and restrictions will increase. Adaptive strategies like removing turf, high water use plants, overhead irrigation, and other higher water use elements are critical to meeting the required water conservation measures. A water audit of use per irrigation zone in a great way to get an idea of how much water each area of your garden uses. Updating your controller to a weather adaptive smart controller that you can review, turn on, and edit via smart phone and computer is another great tool. Synthetic turf, very low and low water use plants, and native plants are key to creating successful landscape installations in what will be a drier and hotter California.

Our Favorite Fire Safe Plants

We were recently contacted by Marin Living Magazine for a story they are putting together on innovative ways to incorporate fire safe landscape practices. With the drought this year and California’s ever increasing fire danger, it’s an important subject.

A good fire safe landscape scheme is one that mitigates risk by using appropriate plantings, defensible space, smart design (especially next to buildings), and appropriate construction materials. One great resource  is Fire Safe Marin and their list of fire resistant plantings.

Here are some our favorite choices for fire safe plantings from the Marin list via our awesome Plantmaster database online software.

See this in the interactive Plantmaster Presentation View

Fire Safe Plants

Botanical Common
Arbutus unedo Strawberry Tree
Cercis occidentalis Western Redbud
Feijoa sellowiana Pineapple Guava
Pistacia chinensis Chinese Pistache
Prunus laurocerasus English Laurel
Punica granatum Pomegranate
Rhus lancea African Sumac
Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ Dwarf Strawberry Tree
Berberis thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea Nana’ Dwarf Deep Red Barberry
Buxus ‘Green Beauty’ Green Beauty Boxwood
Camellia japonica Japanese Camellia
Camellia sasanqua Sasanqua Camellia
Coleonema pulchellum ‘Sunset Gold’ Golden Breath Of Heaven
Coprosma x kirkii Creeping Mirror Plant
Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ Bowles Mauve Wallflower
Euonymus japonicus Japanese Euonymus
Lantana montevidensis ‘White’ White Trailing Lantana
Liriope gigantea Giant Lily Turf
Punica granatum ‘Nana’ Dwarf Pomegranate
Ground cover
Achillea hybrids Yarrow Hybrids
Coreopsis auriculata Eared Coreopsis
Epilobium canum ‘Calistoga’ Calistoga California Fuchsia
Erigeron glaucus Blue Beach Aster, Seaside Daisy
Heuchera maxima Island Alum Root
Iberis sempervirens ‘Little Gem’ Little Gem Evergreen Candytuft
Lantana montevidensis Trailing Lantana
Trachelospermum jasminoides Star Jasmine
Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’ Lily of the Nile, Storm cloud
Agapanthus ‘Tinkerbell’ Dwarf Blue Lily of the Nile
Epilobium canum ‘Bert’s Bluff’ Bert’s Bluff California Fuchsia
Hemerocallis hybrids Daylily hybrids
Kniphofia ‘Poco Red’ Poco Red Hot Poker
Lavandula species Lavender varieties
Thymus praecox arcticus ‘Elfin’ Elfin Creeping Thyme
Tulbaghia violacea Society Garlic
Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ Silver Lace Society Garlic
Festuca rubra Creeping Red Fescue, Red Fescue
Broadleaf Evergreen
Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ Emerald Gaiety Euonymus
Podocarpus gracilior Fern Pine
Podocarpus henkelii Long- Leafed Yellowwood
Polystichum munitum Western Sword Fern

Fire Safe Plants- All Images by Plantmaster



Good Hedging Options

Hedges are traditional yet versatile components of planting design. They are great for screening, to act as a fence, to provide borders, and to lend a formal or modern element to a planting scheme. Here are some of our favorite plants for hedging from our great Plantmaster database. You’ll notice that some hedges are classified as small trees, which can be maintained at a smaller size with regular pruning.

Plantmaster Interactive View

Hedge Options

Botanical Common
Callistemon citrinus Lemon Bottlebrush
Feijoa sellowiana Pineapple Guava
Laurus nobilis Grecian Laurel
Ligustrum japonicum ‘Texanum’ Waxleaf Privet
Prunus caroliniana Carolina Laurel Cherry
Prunus laurocerasus English Laurel
Abelia X gra. ‘Confetti’ Variegated Glossy Abelia
Buxus ‘Green Beauty’ Green Beauty Boxwood
Coprosma ‘Pacific Sunrise™’ Pacific Sunrise Coprosma
Coprosma repens ‘Marble Queen’ Dwarf Variegated Mirror Plant
Escallonia X exoniensis ‘Frades’ Frades Compact Escallonia
Nerium ‘Petite Salmon’ Petite Salmon Oleander
Photinia X fraseri Fraser Photinia
Pittosporum ten. ‘Marjorie Channon’ Marjorie Channon’ Pittosporum
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ Golf Ball Kohuhu
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegata’ Blackstem Pittosporum, Tawhiwhi
Prunus caroliniana ‘Compacta’ Dwarf Carolina Laurel Cherry
Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ Luykens Laurel
Rhaphiolepis indica ‘Pink Lady’ Pink Lady Rhaph or Indian Hawthorn
Westringia fruticosa Coast Rosemary
Broadleaf Evergreen
Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ Variegated English Boxwood
Euonymus japonicus ‘Silver Queen’ White Variegated Euonymus


Lemon Bottlebrush

Callistemon citrinus | Lemon Bottlebrush

Pineapple Guava

Feijoa sellowiana | Pineapple Guava

Grecian Laurel

Laurus nobilis | Grecian Laurel

Waxleaf Privet

Ligustrum japonicum ‘Texanum’ | Waxleaf Privet

Carolina Laurel Cherry

Prunus caroliniana | Carolina Laurel Cherry

English Laurel

Prunus laurocerasus | English Laurel


Variegated Glossy Abelia

Abelia X gra. ‘Confetti’ | Variegated Glossy Abelia

Green Beauty Boxwood

Buxus ‘Green Beauty’ | Green Beauty Boxwood

Pacific Sunrise Coprosma

Coprosma ‘Pacific Sunrise™’ | Pacific Sunrise Coprosma

Dwarf Variegated Mirror Plant

Coprosma repens ‘Marble Queen’ | Dwarf Variegated Mirror Plant

Frades Compact Escallonia

Escallonia X exoniensis ‘Frades’ | Frades Compact Escallonia

Petite Salmon Oleander

Nerium ‘Petite Salmon’ | Petite Salmon Oleander

Fraser Photinia

Photinia X fraseri | Fraser Photinia

Marjorie Channon' Pittosporum

Pittosporum ten. ‘Marjorie Channon’ | Marjorie Channon’ Pittosporum

Golf Ball Kohuhu

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ | Golf Ball Kohuhu

Blackstem Pittosporum, Tawhiwhi

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegata’ | Blackstem Pittosporum, Tawhiwhi

Dwarf Carolina Laurel Cherry

Prunus caroliniana ‘Compacta’ | Dwarf Carolina Laurel Cherry

Luykens Laurel

Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ | Luykens Laurel

Pink Lady Rhaph or Indian Hawthorn

Rhaphiolepis indica ‘Pink Lady’ | Pink Lady Rhaph or Indian Hawthorn

Coast Rosemary

Westringia fruticosa | Coast Rosemary

Broadleaf Evergreen

Variegated English Boxwood

Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ | Variegated English Boxwood

White Variegated Euonymus

Euonymus japonicus ‘Silver Queen’ | White Variegated Euonymus

Our Favorite Deciduous Small Scale Trees

Recently we featured our favorite evergreen small trees. Here are their compliments in all their fall foliage and spring bloom beauty- trees that make nice accents and don’t get huge. All images come from our Plantmaster database.

Plantmaster Interactive View

Small Scale Deciduous Trees

Botanical Common
Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’ Crimson Queen Japanese Maple
Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Viridis’ Laceleaf Japanese Maple
Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ Coral Bark Japanese Maple
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ Forest Pansy Redbud
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood
Lagerstroemia ‘Muskogee’ Muskogee Lavender Crape Myrtle
Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’ Natchez Crape Myrtle
Magnolia ‘Yellow Bird’ Yellow Bird Magnolia
Pistacia chinensis Chinese Pistache
Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ Chanticleer Columnar Callery Pear
Crimson Queen Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’ | Crimson Queen Japanese Maple

Laceleaf Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Viridis’ | Laceleaf Japanese Maple

Coral Bark Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ | Coral Bark Japanese Maple

Forest Pansy Redbud

Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ | Forest Pansy Redbud

Flowering Dogwood

Cornus florida | Flowering Dogwood

Muskogee Lavender Crape Myrtle

Lagerstroemia ‘Muskogee’ | Muskogee Lavender Crape Myrtle

Natchez Crape Myrtle

Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’ | Natchez Crape Myrtle

Yellow Bird Magnolia

Magnolia ‘Yellow Bird’ | Yellow Bird Magnolia

Chinese Pistache

Pistacia chinensis | Chinese Pistache

Chanticleer Columnar Callery Pear

Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ | Chanticleer Columnar Callery Pear

Our Favorite Ornamental Grasses

In our last post we highlighted our favorite Small Scale Evergreen Trees, using our awesome Plantmaster Database. This time we wanted to share some favorite grasses. Truth be told, these selections include “grass like” plants, such as sedges and reeds, as well as true grasses. Many of these grasses are evergreen (indicated with – (EG), providing year round appeal. Grasses are a great component of any planting design, providing a break in texture, form, and color. They range in size from the small Mondo Grass (less than a foot), to towering Miscanthus which may be 6′ or more. These plant genera also host many other interesting and nice cultivars to explore.

Plantmaster interactive view

Favorite Ornamental Grasses

Botanical Common
Chondropetalum tectorum Cape Rush (EG)
Calamagrostis X acu. ‘Karl Foerster’ Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass
Carex divulsa Berkeley Sedge (EG)
Deschampsia ces. ‘Northern Lights’ Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass (EG)
Festuca ‘Siskyou Blue’ Siskyou Blue Fescue (EG)
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ Japanese Forest Grass, Hakone Grass
Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ Platinum Beauty™ Lomandra (EG)
Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’ Dwarf Mat Rush (EG)
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ Morning Light Silver Grass
Miscanthus transmorrisonensis Evergreen Miscanthus (EG)
Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Pink Flamingo’ Pink Flamingo Muhly Grass (EG)
Muhlenbergia rigens Deer Grass (EG)
Ophiopogon japonicus Mondo Grass, Lily Grass (EG)
Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ Black Mondo Grass (EG)
Pennisetum alo. ‘Hamelin’ Hamelin Dwarf Fountain Grass
Sesleria autumnalis Autumn Moor Grass (EG)
Stipa ichu Peruvian Feather Grass (EG)


Cape Rush

Chondropetalum tectorum | Cape Rush


Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass

Calamagrostis X acu. ‘Karl Foerster’ | Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass

Berkeley Sedge

Carex divulsa | Berkeley Sedge

Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass

Deschampsia ces. ‘Northern Lights’ | Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass

Siskyou Blue Fescue

Festuca ‘Siskyou Blue’ | Siskyou Blue Fescue

Japanese Forest Grass, Hakone Grass

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ | Japanese Forest Grass, Hakone Grass

Platinum Beauty™ Lomandra

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ | Platinum Beauty™ Lomandra

Dwarf Mat Rush

Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’ | Dwarf Mat Rush

Morning Light Silver Grass

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ | Morning Light Silver Grass

Evergreen Eulalia

Miscanthus transmorrisonensis | Evergreen Eulalia

Pink Flamingo Muhly Grass

Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Pink Flamingo’ | Pink Flamingo Muhly Grass

Deer Grass

Muhlenbergia rigens | Deer Grass

Mondo Grass, Lily Grass

Ophiopogon japonicus | Mondo Grass, Lily Grass

Black Mondo Grass

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ | Black Mondo Grass

Hamelin Dwarf Fountain Grass

Pennisetum alo. ‘Hamelin’ | Hamelin Dwarf Fountain Grass

Autumn Moor Grass

Sesleria autumnalis | Autumn Moor Grass

Peruvian Feather Grass

Stipa ichu | Peruvian Feather Grass

The Beautiful Natives of Salt Point SP

Nestled into the Northern end of the Sonoma Coast, Salt Point State Park is showcase of unique geology and stunning native plants. On a winding trail above bluffs of Franciscan melange and wind and salt pocked rock outcrops, are beautiful showcases of Buckwheats, native Plantains, and icy colored silver-blue California Poppies. Each bend in the trail reveals a new treat, from plains of false Dandelion to Dudleyas clinging to the jutting boulders in host of vertical gardens. While the coastal walk is the main draw this time of year, there a multiple areas to be explored, with the Pigmy Forrest, open grassland and Rhododendron  Preserve offering nice hikes on the other side of highway.

Pick an early weekend morning to head-up the coast and beat the traffic on Hwy 1 and you won’t be disappointed. See more photos in our Facebook gallery of our recent trip.



Pruning Ornamental Grasses

We use a lot of ornamental grasses in our landscapes. They fit very well in a number of design styles and are  fairly low maintenance and low water use. We typically prefer evergreen grasses for their year round appeal, but even those grasses that don’t go deciduous can benefit from a pruning (haircut) every year or two. This article from the Sonoma County Master Gardeners gives a good overview on pruning some common grasses.

Some of our Favorite Grasses

Evergreen: Blue Fescue, Deer Grass, Evergreen Miscanthus, Autumn Moor Grass, Berkeley Sedge
Deciduous: Purple Fountain Grass, Little Bunny Fountain Grass, Miscanthus
Grass-like: New Zealand Flax: Yellow Wave, Jack Spratt, and Tom Thumb among other more compact grass like varieties

Bad News on Sudden Oak Death

The Chronicle had an article today about the continued virulence of Sudden Oak Death in the Bay Area’s Oak Woodlands. In Marin, 53% of samples taken tested positive for the pathogen, a spike attributed to high rainfall the past couple years that helps SOD spread.

“We found that the number of positives were double and in some cases triple what they were last year,” said Matteo Garbelotto, the UC Berkeley forest pathologist who organizes the annual surveys. “We were surprised. That was a big jump.”

The findings are part of a major effort over the past four years to involve citizens in the battle against the mysterious pathogen, which has killed hundreds of thousands of oak trees from Big Sur to southern Oregon.

There are dire predictions of mass die offs of Coast and Black Oaks around the state. The Chronicle article suggests the following prevention measures:

— Remove bay trees near oaks; this increases the survival rate of oaks tenfold.

— Use phosphonate spray, which has proved to be effective against the disease.

— Avoid doing large-scale projects such as grading, soil removal or tree pruning in infected areas during the rainy season.

Another good preventative measure is to not plant host plants, such as Rhodys and Camellias in and around sensitive Oak areas.

Cold Weather Preparation

As temperatures are going to get cold this week, there are a couple of easy steps you can take to help protect young or frost tender plants. If plants show frost damage you can spray Cloudcover, a polymer that provides 3-5 degrees of additional frost protection by forming a barrier on the leaves to help protect plants. Another good technique to help protect plants like citrus is to cover with sheets, or a frost blanket like this one from DuPont.

Image from Dupont Website

The Apple- Tracing a Plant’s Origin

There was an interesting book review in the Financial Times today about a common plant and iconic fruit, the apple.  The Story of the Apple, by a pair of botanists, Oxford’s Barrie Juniper and the University of Washington’s David Mabberley, chronicles their search through cultural, historical, and DNA evidence to trace the apple’s origins. Their best evidence points to the forests of Kazakhstan. This is removed from the biblical areas of the middle east and fertile crescent, where temperatures do not get cold enough to help apples properly germinate. It is fascinating to ponder the rich past of such a commonly cultivated plant and leads to curiosity about the sources of other plants we take for granted.


Thinking Out Tree Placement

As with any planting, location can be a key factor to the plant’s success. As I was walking by an office building today, I noticed a stand of Redwoods planted within feet of an office building’s foundation. The trees themselves looked great, and helped to screen the building, but functionally it was clear the trees were misplaced. Half of the tree had to be pruned against the building, leaving them misshapen. Large scale trees may work well in confined spaces when young, but as they grow taller and as their root systems grow more pronounced they can cause significant problems. We have seen this time and again on projects where tree roots are disturbing foundations, and sewer or utility lines.

Practically it makes sense to think about what the tree is being planted to do (screen, provide shade, visual presence etc.) and to take into account its mature size and the needed buffer distance to help prevent problems. Selecting the wrong tree for a particular application can be just as bad. Just ask those with high rooted Birch trees planted in lawns or Liquid Ambar trees planted along sidewalks.

Here Come the Weeds


I posted an entry a while back about a restoration planting that we had done for a personal project in the Sacramento Valley. On a recent site visit it is interesting to see how the native plants are progressing. Surprisingly, most are doing quite well, and continued survival rates are good so far. One major impact has been the grasses and weeds that have grown in the last month. This combined with lower than normal rainfall has taken its toll.

One interesting specimine was a California Black Walnut sapling that was dead above ground. When pulled up, there was still living material at the top of the tap root, which had grown a few inches in the past few months.

Pictured: Foxtail, Rye Grass and Other Grasses and Weeds Compete for Moisture and Often Crowd Out Native Plantings.

It’s a Bloom Year

There has been quite a show this spring as fruit trees and other blooming trees are really blooming this year. This may have something to do with a fairly mild winter and not a lot of late winter rain. On a trip up I-5 the almonds and other fruit trees where ablaze with blooms.

A Beautiful Saucer Magnolia in Bloom

Taken in Larkspur, which seems to have great magnolias

A spectacular tree just leafing out

The Transformational Power of Sod

We are finishing up on a project in Sonoma and putting in a large sod lawn. No matter how many projects we do, it is always amazing the impact of a sod lawn. Clients almost always react once the sod is installed- this turf is a dwarf tall fescue, bluegrass blend.

During Grading

After installation

After installation

Native Plants That Are Tough

Currently we are working on a personal project to upgrade vegetation for stream corridors and create hedgerows for wildlife on a site in the Sacramento Valley. The installation consisted of Cottonwood, Buckeye, and Black Walnut trees, with Toyon and Creeping Rye grass planted as well. Taking a look at the site again recently after the cold winter weather, most of the plants are doing quite well. Retention on plantings of this type is typically pretty poor- most of the plants are not irrigated, and they are being planted from liner containers (just sprouted from cuttings).

While it is nice to see that the plantings have done well, with a 80-90% retention rate, the real test will be when the summer comes and the plants are exposed to 100+ degree temperatures without water. Fortunately, the plants were all chosen because they are native to the area and have adapted to such extremes of heat and cold. All the deciduous trees fared better than the Toyon, which was quite small and in some cases was frozen back in areas where it had less protection.

A California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) just leafing out

A dead Buckeye with Brown stem

A live Buckeye with green layer under bark. The scratch test is a simple way to test the condition of most plants.

Losing Plants to the Cold

We are spoiled here in the Bay Area with a great climate that allows us to plant a wide range of plantings. These range from sub-tropicals, to more temperate plants and even bulbs. Occasionally however, temperatures will drop down below freezing, killing borderline plants. Frequent casualties are Bougainvillea, Lantana, Heathers and soft stem perennials. When it gets down into the low 20’s other plants such as Eucalyptus can also be in danger. This is just a part of dealing with climate changes from season to season. On plantings that grow quickly the best solution is just to replant after a freeze. For other specialized plants or plants that aren’t must haves, better to replant with something more hardy. Sunset garden book is the best resources for finding your plant zone in California. Keep in mind that micro-climates such as cold sinks and other phenomenon can make certain areas colder or warmer.

Planting Natives in Winter

There was an interesting article in the latest Sierra Club Yodeler newsletter for Marin on planting native plants in winter time. Planting in late fall or early winter helps plants get established and ready for spring growth. New plants can also take advantage of winter rains.

Native Plant Nursery Listings:
Marin Chapter California Native Plant Society
Yerba Buena Chapter Nursery/Plant Listing


Unique Fall Color- Ginkgo

Ginkgo’s are in full show this time of year- changing from their hearty green foliage to the golden coat of autumn. These trees are unique botanically among showy fall trees, being among the most ancient know tree specimens and belonging to their own division classification with no direct relatives. Other unique qualities include insect and disease resistance, and a specially veined leaf, which does not display the typical palmate and pinnate veination of most other broad-leaf trees. There are a number of interesting cultivars available- with the most commonly used variety in Northern California being ‘Autumn Gold.’


For More:
Article from Wikipedia
List of Cultivars (.pdf)

Watering Roses in Shady Areas

We received this question regarding watering roses in more shady areas from a client recently:

Q: We have several varieties of Rose Bushes in our garden. The sun is indirect there and there are trees doing their best to take over. We have been watering these roses every day … in what seems like hours the water has been running.

What would be your recommendation. The soil is rather sandy and tight, but moist.
A: Here is some advice from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery on ‘Growing Roses in the Bay Area:’ “Watering – in the ground: Water established plants deeply at least once a week) more often in hot or windy weather, less often during cool foggy spells). Soaker hoses snaked between the plants will make watering less of a chore and they can be hidden with mulch. Adding 2 in. or more of mulch around roses will reduce the need for water by preventing evaporation.”

Or, Sunset Garden Book recommends basin flooding if you don’t have drip irrigation and are watering by hand — in other words, creating a thick walled basin via a soil berm around the rose bush, about 3 – 4 ft. in diameter, then adding water by the hose to fill the basin. The idea is to deep water with enough water to wet the entire root zone of the rose. In hot weather, you might be filling the basin every other day. In general, by any method of watering, the object is not to get water on the leaves of the rose because it can contribute to mildew.

Beautiful White Viburnum in Bloom

I was fooled last week by a deciduous Viburnum that has leaves and foliage similar to a Dogwood. These Viburnum make a nice accent. Other beautiful Viburnum this time of year is Snowball, with their large clusters of flowers

White Viburnum plicatum from a project installed in Larkspur after a couple years of growth

A Guide to Container Sizes- Tree Sizes for Instant Impact

Box trees are a great way to create an instant effect for landscape projects. While their long term benefit is gradually lost over time (typically trees growing from small containers catch up in the long run) the impact in the first 3-5 years is dramatic, giving an immediate presence and maturity to a newly installed landscape.

Here is a breakdown of common tree sizes:

5 Gallon: Most trees are installed in larger sizes, some small trees (including multi-stem trees) and specimen trees like Japanese Maple are often found in this size. Height is typically 2-5′.

15 Gallon: One of the most common tree sizes installed, this size balances the desire for a tree that may be 6-12′ in height, depending on species, with budget considerations (box trees because they have spent anywhere from 1-5 additional years in the nursery are much more expensive). Callipers (diameter of the tree
trunk) on 15 gallons are typically .5″ to 1.0″ depending on variety.

15 Gallon Arbutus marina (Strawberry Tree) surrounded by 1 Gallon shrubs

24″ Box: Smallest common box size (the box size represents a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ box), the 24″ box is more mature than 15 gallons with heights of 8-15′ and callipers of 1″-2.5″ depending on species.

24″ Chinese Pistache with flowering fruit trees in the background

36″ Box: This tends to be more mature than the smaller sizes. Heights vary 10-20′.
36″ Box Arbutus marina, Strawberry Tree, compare to the 15 gallon or 48″ box size below

48″ Box: Typically fairly mature trees with 3-7 years of growth at the nursery. Heights vary 10-30′, costs for these trees can be up to several thousand dollars.

48 Arbutus.JPG
48″ Box Arbutus marina, these trees make a significant visual impact

A beautiful 48″ box green Japanese Maple

48″ Box Chinese Elms

Large Boxes 60″ and up: These are for almost full grown specimens of smaller trees, and very well established specimens of larger trees. Of course trees can be used that are larger than standard container sizes. Full size mature trees (full grown Oaks and others) are moved with giant hydraulic spades, cranes, and trucks by specialty tree moving companies.
One of the largest wholesale tree and shrub nurseries we use frequently for tree orders is Boething Treeland Farms, with nurseries in Northern and Southern California (Box tree photos from their Portola Valley Nursery).
For More:
Senna Tree– Specimen Tree Movers
Valley Crest Tree Company: Valley Crest’s tree nursery division with specialty moving services. guide to wholesale nurseries for California

A Good Deer Repellent

We got a recommendation for an organic deer repellent for plants from a client recently. Plantskydd, developed in Sweden, is a non-toxic blend of blood meal and vegetable oils. Supposedly the material last 4-6 months after application, although we have not tried it on a project yet. The spray deters deer, rabbits, and elk from eating garden plants or vegetables.

Yet another weapon in the fight to protect plants against deer.

Alternatives to Lawns

The lawn is archetypal to the American landscape, it is one of the elements central to the planning of most residential gardens and commercial landscapes. According to the Sierra Club, Americans spend 8.4 billion a year on their lawns. This reflects how the lawn is one of the most maintenance intensive portions of any landscape- with mowing, watering, fertilization, weed control, aeration and dethatching required to keep a lawn looking its best.

Yet, despite all the maintenance and cost we still love our lawns. Typically lawns are desired for two reasons. Principally, lawns create a wonderful aesthetic. The lush green manicured appearance fits well with a number of design styles. The lawn’s low uniform appearance also creates an illusion of space. And, despite the maintenance requirements, lawn maintenance is a sector of gardening much catered to, with mowers, fertilizers and training (kids mowing lawns on Saturdays growing up). The lawn if properly cared for is often easier to keep look pristine than some lawn alternatives.

Some designers and environmentalists espouse removing the lawn from landscapes, replacing it either with groundcovers that grow in a similar habit to a lawn, general groundcover plants, or with a meadow of taller grasses.

There are a couple of ways of considering alternative lawns. From an environmental standpoint, while using lawn alternatives on a residential scale would have some beneficial effect on water use and fertilizer and pesticide runoff, especially if aggregated on a large scale. However, a residential project here and there is not going to have a large effect. The commercial sector is where lawn alternatives make the most sense. Typically large tracts of lawn in apartment complexes, office parks and other commercial settings serve little functional purpose other than providing a familiar aesthetic. These landscapes also typically incorporate thousands of square feet of lawn, compared to the typical residential lawn of 500-1500 square feet.

So should a homeowner consider lawn alternatives for their residential project? It depends on what the lawn is used for and its place in the design and the environment where the lawn is installed. If the kids play football in the backyard a lawn is hard to beat. But if the lawn is just filling space of a traditional design aesthetic, there are alternatives worth considering. In arid areas, alternatives start to make more sense. The new Wynn Casino in Las Vegas for example, installed synthetic turf instead of traditional lawn.

For more on these alternatives visit the following sites that outline other types of plantings that can take the place of the lawn:

Sierra Club- Alternative Lawns
Clover Alternatives to Lawn Grass
Eartheasy Lawn Alternatives– Includes many groundcovers– The name says it
Organic Lawn Management- From Wikipedia
Alternatives from Oregon State University
Wildflower Alternatives
SynLawn- Synthetic Lawn Alternatives

Shrub Roses Equal Easier Roses

Sunset had a good article in this months edition on floribunda roses, otherwise referred to as shrub or bush roses.

The article underscored an important point, traditional hybrid tea roses (those with the large long canes and traditional flowers) can be a challenge to grow if afflicted with a number of ailments (aphids, black spot, mildew, rust, deer and others). Shrub roses give the same quality of roses without the work of traditional roses. One of our favorites is Coral Seas, which seems to bloom all year with beautiful and dense blooms.

For more on Rose care visit’s informative articles.
Black Spot

This is a great time for bare root planting, visit Petaluma Rose Company for a great selection of roses

Great Books on California Native Plants and Ceanothus

Continuing on a book theme from yesterday I wanted to highly recommend a pair of books on Native California plants for horticultural use. Both are co-written by David Fross of Native Sons Nursery out of Arroyo Grande on the Central Coast. I have had the great opportunity to take classes from Dave, who has a passion and expertise for native flora that is unmatched in the state. In addition, he runs a great wholesale nursery operation, and you can find Native Sons plants in many retail garden centers.

The first title, California Native Plants for the Garden (which you can buy direct from Native Sons), features,
“more than 500 plants and illustrated with 450 color photos, California Native Plants for the Garden is a comprehensive resource that will appeal to every gardener who has an interest in California’s unique flora.”
Fross co-authored the book along with a second being released for 2006, Ceanothus, which promises to be the authoritative title on a wonderfully varied native shrub and groundcover.

Both these titles will no doubt make great additions to any gardener’s library.

Image Courtesy of Amazon

For More:
Article on Fross from San Diego Union-Tribune
A True Blue Californian – LA Times Article on Ceanothus and the upcoming book

Japanese Maples- Great Fall Color

Of all the plants we use in our landscapes, Japanese Maples (Acer japonica) are one of the most recognized and loved by our clients. From avid gardeners, to those with no horticultural bent, Japanese Maples are typically one of the first requested plantings when drawing up the planting design. The beautiful fall foliage is one of their main attractions. In addition they feature beautiful bark, foliage and branch form. Also, because of such a great number of cultivars, Japanese Maples come in a great variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Sunset has a great overview in this months issue of some of the best cultivars available.

One thing to keep in mind, Japanese Maples are specialty plants which command a specialty price, especially for hard to find varieties. We typically use them as accent pieces in gardens to offset other plantings. They can be used in Asian themed gardens (as found in traditional Japanese Gardens), but they also integrate well with almost any garden style.

Suppliers mentioned in the Sunset Article:

Mendocino Maples
Mountain Maples
Whitney Gardens
Wildwood Farm

Native Plants on the Pacific Slopes of Mt. Tam

With its extensive open space Marin is a great place to view native plants. On a hike this weekend on the pacific facing slopes of Mt. Tam, which fall down to the pacific and Stinson Beach, I had a chance to see striking examples of native vegetation. Fir, Madrone, Bay, and Live Oak trees cover the slopes, in sections creating dense woods. Driving at sunset back through the reservoirs of the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), dense stands of Redwoods, with an occasional turning Big Leaf Maple, cast a deep shade. In sections along the roadway and trails, the thin inflorescence of native grass can be seen. Seeps and shady grottoes provide refuge for Juncus reeds and ferns. What makes it all more remarkable is to look to the south and see the densely packed buildings of San Francisco, and realize the great accomplishment of preservation Mt. Tamalpais State park and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area represent.

For More:
Mt. Tamalpais State Park
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Stinson Hike from Bay Area Hiker
Marin Trails
Marin County Open Space District
MMWD Recreation Areas
Article on Mt. Tam Grasslands

Under the Oaks

Madrone Bark



Mediterranean Climates- The Mediterranean Basin

The final part in our series on mediterranean climates:

This is largest mediterranean climate region in the world, as indicated by the climate’s name. It stretches almost around the entirety of the Mediterranean sea and inland a good deal in places. It includes almost all of Italy and Spain and covers parts of western Asia. The basin has unique areas for developement of plants due to its large and varied geography.

Native Genera:

Cistus– Is an evergreen shrub commonly found in Spain, Portugal, and Morocco although it is also found in other parts of the world as well. It has dark green foliage and its flower colora typically white, purple, or pink. Flowers are saucer-shaped and rather simple in character. Most are five-petaled and bloom for most of the year. They do best in warm areas. Growth is often best on rather dry soils. Some are frost hearty, and all are extremely drought tolerant.


Narcissus– Over 50 species are native to the Mediterranean, they are part of the Amarylidaceae family and grow from bulbs. Narcissus are native to the eastern Mediterranean Basin area and found in hills, mountains, and valleys favoring a northern exposure. They often grow in large collective meadows. Narcissus multiply freely by bulbs and bloom yearly. They require cold weather to bloom well. Spring blooming is typical with fragrant flowers ranging from white to yellow in color. They are also quite frost hearty; down to -30°F.

Olea– This genus of 20 species is native to Europe, and parts of Asia. It is a prototypical mediterranean plant found throughout the mediterranean region. It has stiff leathery gray green leaves. Flowers are small and off-white in color, and fruits are a major economic crop throughout Europe and in the United States as well. Uses of the fruits are mainly for olive oil and for the olives themselves. These plants like a mild climate and winter sufficiently cool to induce flowering. They are tough and highly tolerant plants.


O'Connell Landscape Blog