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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Look for My Garden on Santa Barbara City TV


Amy Ramos talks about her water-conserving garden.

A water-wise garden that I designed last year will be featured on Santa Barbara’s City TV in July.

A camera crew shot the garden and interviewed my client, Amy Ramos, this week for an episode of “Inside Santa Barbara.”

Amy explained how we ripped out the sod lawn in her front yard and replaced it with colorful, water-conserving shrubs, perennials and ground covers.

Another look at Amy’s garden.

She reduced her water bill and her maintenance, and got a beautiful, fragrant garden in keeping with the cottage style of her home in return.

Amy also received a $1,000 rebate from the city’s Smart Landscape Rebate Program. Check with me or visit to see if you might qualify for a $1,000 rebate, too.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

What’s That Tree?


What's That Tree?

Have you always wondered what that purple-flowering tree was, down the street? Or the one by the post office that turns bright yellow in fall?

Turn to a new book by Matt Ritter, a botany professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and you should have the answer in short order.

“A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us” features 150 of the most common trees growing in urban and suburban areas across the state.

“Ninety-five percent of the trees are covered,” Ritter said, noting that these are trees that have been planted in neighborhoods, gardens, parks and along streets. There are a handful of California natives. But most of the trees living in what arborists call our “urban forest” are from Australia, East Asia and other temperate and subtropical regions of the world.

A Unique Approach

Valley oak (Quercus lobata)

Plenty of books have been written about trees. However, what makes Ritter’s distinct is the approach he offers to identify trees.

Readers can take two paths: flip through the pages until they find a photo that resembles what they’re trying to figure out. That’s generally an easy route, as each of the 150 trees gets a full page treatment, with more than 500 photos and illustrations of mature specimens and close-ups of leaves, bark, cones, flowers, seeds and other pertinent details.

Or the more scientifically inclined might follow Ritter’s keys.

Keys are well-known in botany. Books about native plants — the encyclopedic Jepson Manual in particular — go to great lengths to “key” individual species by posing a series of either/or questions that narrow the choices until an identification is made.

But according to Ritter, no book about commonly planted trees has ever done that.

“There are no keys for regular trees,” he said. “It’s difficult to do (create the keys) because you have to first of all know what you would see. .. It’s training as a botanist that got me the ability to do that.”

Female cone of a Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris).

Ritter’s keys include such deceptively simple either/or questions as “Are the leaves lighter green on the lower surfaces?” or “Are the leaves the same color on the upper and lower surfaces; fruit smooth?” Based on the answers, he identifies the species or refers the reader to increasingly specific keys, where the identification is ultimately made.

When you reach that moment for a particular eucalyptus, for example, he said, “Now all of a sudden, you know it’s a sugar gum, with smooth bark, orange blotches and a lighter color on the leaf. You can be confident you are looking at the same thing, because on page 57 you can see it.”

To make the process easier for novices, he suggests first keying a tree whose identity you already know. He even provides a ruler along the edge of the back cover to measure various attributes of mystery trees.

“I wanted the book to be readable and interesting for the beginner, people who are just starting to look at trees, all the way to a person who’s a curator of an herbarium who wants to know esoteric differences between acacias. I was trying to strike the balance,” Ritter said.

A Light-Hearted Touch

The many shades of sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

As a professor, Ritter knows his way around thick, technical botanic tomes. He’s also editor-in-chief of Madroño, an academic quarterly journal published by the California Botanical Society, a group comprised of university professors and researchers.

Yet he has taken a decidedly light — but sincere — tone with this book. Early on, Ritter writes, “This is a book about trees, made from the bodies of dead trees, and reading it is a poor substitute at best for experiencing these wonderful organisms directly and personally. Take it with you and walk out among the trees in your neighborhood.”

He tucks in tidbits about natural history, quotes and tongue-in-cheek lists.

For instance, “Magnolias are an ancient and primitive group of flowering plants that evolved at a time when Earth was covered primarily with ferns and conifers… These flowers evolved prior to butterflies and bees and were originally pollinated by beetles and other ancient insects.”

The many quotes include this one from humorist Jack Handy, “I think people tend to forget that trees are living creatures. They’re sort of like dogs. Huge, quiet, motionless dogs, with bark instead of fur.”

And this from French historian and educator Charles Rollin: “The highest and most lofty trees have the most reason to dread the thunder.”

Ritter has fun with his lists, too, such as “Hobo Trees: Common Trees along California’s Roadways and Railroad Tracks” and “The Ten Trees Most Likely to Trip You on the Sidewalk.”

Then there’s “California’s ‘Old-Timey’ Trees: Trees planted in California long ago and now regularly found near old home sites and missions.” The old-timers include such imposing giants as tree of heaven, bunya bunya tree, blue gum and Monterey cypress.

“Another whole goal is to look at things in a different way,” Ritter said. “That’s a plant palette that existed then that doesn’t exist anymore… Now, when you see an area on the side of a hill with an old blue gum and a Monterey pine, even though any evidence of a structure is long gone, you’ll know that an old house existed there because old timey trees are still there.”

What Else is Inside

Ginkgo or maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Each plant entry starts with the tree’s botanic name and common name, along with its Latin translation, pronunciation, plant family, native location, leaf type, habit, shape, sex and height.

“The thing there on every page, the plant morphology, that came from a lot of observation,” Ritter said.

The descriptions benefit from his observations as well. For example, about the tulip tree, which grows more than 80 feet tall, he writes, “A long pole trimmer, brave climb, jet pack, or view from a three-story building may be necessary to observe these majestic blooms closely, but they are well worth the effort.”

What you won’t find, though, are planting instructions or pest and disease diagnoses. Ritter said he didn’t want to duplicate information readily available from other sources.

“As a botanist, the two questions are, ‘What is that thing in my yard?’ and ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Many other books address the second question. This book addresses that first question.”

He added, “My audience is people in urban and suburban environments in California who will pick up the book, flip through it, instantly recognize something around them… Then they’ll get sucked in. A lay person who has a burgeoning curiosity about trees. I want them to become more interested in trees, I want them to become defenders of trees, I want them to plant trees, I want them ultimately to be more interested in general about organisms and conservation and diversity.”

About Matt Ritter

Author Matt Ritter ensnared in the massive, above-ground roots of the Moreton Bay fig tree that sits near the Santa Barbara Amtrak station.

Author of “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us,” Matt Ritter is a botany professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is editor-in-chief of the California Botanic Society’s quarterly journal. He writes about lesser-known but worthy trees for Pacific Horticulture Magazine; has written natural history and field trip guides about San Luis Obispo, and numerous scientific papers; and contributed to botanical references, including the upcoming second edition of the “Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California” and the “Flora of North America Project.”

He is also chair of the City of San Luis Obispo Tree Committee.

Ritter shot all of the photographs for this new book. He is particularly proud that while he featured many street trees, not a single automobile is pictured.

Ritter is a lively speaker. His next appearance on the Central Coast will be February 20 at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History.

In addition to his work as a botanist, Ritter describes himself as “a woodworker, athlete, musician, gardener, and all-around likable guy.”

Seeds of Wisdom

“A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us”, by Matt Ritter, 2011, costs $18.95. It is available at most independent bookstores, including The Book Loft in Solvang, and online at

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Reimagining the California Lawn


Is your garden one of the many thousands across the state that is covered mostly in turf?

If so, and if you’re not actively using it, three California horticulturists would like you to consider making a change.

In their new book, “Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs,” Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien tackle water-guzzling lawns straight on.

They describe half a dozen garden styles that require less water and are easier to take care of, and offer hands-on techniques for better managing existing lawns or reducing their size.

The book is filled with 300 inspiring photos to illustrate the concepts. Altogether, “Reimagining” provides a comprehensive set of tools to reinterpret your garden. It’s an excellent resource, whether you’re planning to replace your lawn, or just make it more efficient. The design ideas are also worth a look if you’re landscaping a property for the first time.

By Way of Background

Creeping red fescue

In the Introduction, the authors provide a brief history of lawns in America. They cite the unintended consequences of routine application of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers — including a study that concludes that turfgrass practices actually contribute to greenhouse gases.

In addition, they note that a modest-sized front and backyard suburban lawn consumes 45,000 gallons of water per year. Altogether, the authors say that the estimated 300,000 acres of residential lawns across California consume as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year.

“I’m not suggesting there’s not a place for lawns in our communities,” said Fross, founder and president of Native Sons wholesale nursery in Arroyo Grande. “But how many of us can drive around and see a patch of lawn that has absolutely no purpose? It’s being irrigated, mowed, fertilized and repeated over and over and over again. It’s just consuming water and fertilizer and energy and maintenance time.

“My message is to look at the space and to think of whether you’re using it or not. Then reimagine it. There are a lot of interesting, innovative, creative things you can do with that space that are much less consumptive of resources.”

One Giant Step



Chapter One is for folks who are ready to reinvent their landscape by replacing all of their turf with something else. But first, the authors encourage readers to take a step back and settle on a design style.

Here’s where your imagination can really take over. Photos illustrate seven lawn-substitute styles, including greenswards, meadows, rock gardens, succulent gardens, carpet and tapestry gardens, and kitchen gardens. There’s also a section on green roofs, which is a particular favorite of Fross. While it’s not likely that a Central Coast gardener would already have turf on a roof that would then be replaced, the section provides an interesting look at a niche gardening technique.

Along with describing the various design styles, the authors provide a history and examples of each, along with comments about design and installation, maintenance and special issues, and a selected plant palette.

A transformation

Fross said that it’s important to note that while a lawn stays essentially the same over time — as a flat, two-dimensional, green surface — replacement gardens continue to grow and change.

As an example, he cites a photograph on the cover of the book, which shows his daughter Blair at age 8, in 1989, skipping across flat boulders scattered among an informal planting of deer grass and native wildflowers.

“The meadow is still there. It hasn’t been replanted. It’s just evolved into a different-looking thing,” Fross said. “Think about that image, with a lawn there. Think about the number of years, the amount of times your lawn would have been mowed, fertilized and watered, relative to that one, and I think it speaks volumes.”

Piece-Meal Progress


However, if you’d rather chip away at your turf than daydream about its demise and wholesale replacement, skip to Chapter Two, which kicks off with methods to tune up existing lawns.

The authors cite overwatering as the number one problem. They dispense advice on ways to avoid applying too much, such as matching irrigation techniques to various soil types, figuring out how long to run each sprinkler cycle and mowing at the proper height. They also discuss solutions to weeds, insect pests and diseases.

Next is a section about removing lawn beneath established trees, followed by a discussion of replacing lawn with hardscape, such as flagstone, brick, concrete or decking.

Then comes what may be the heart of the book for many readers — descriptions of hands-on techniques to eliminate lawn. These methods include mechanical removal, solarization, sheet mulching, lasagna bed method and herbicides.

The chapter closes with a few paragraphs explaining why the authors oppose artificial turf.

Plant Profiles

Autumn moor grass

A plant encyclopedia comprises much of the remaining half of the book. The authors, with decades of experience between them, describe the various characteristics of the plants and their optimal growing conditions. Each entry encompasses plant type, climate zones, light, soil, water, origin and garden uses, along with detailed, conversational descriptions.

The garden uses category is especially helpful, as it links the particular plant with whichever of the seven design styles that it’s best suited. For example, bougainvillea is listed for carpet and tapestry gardens only, while oregano is suitable for six styles, including meadow, rock, succulent, carpet and tapestry, kitchen and green roof.

Local Roots

Beach strawberry

“Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs” has its roots in the Central Coast.

Two of its three authors — David Fross and Carol Bornstein — live here, as do the publishers, John Evarts and Marjorie Popper, who own Cachuma Press, a 20-year-old publishing company based in Solvang. Many of the gardens pictured in the book were photographed by Evarts on the Central Coast as well.

Fross is founder and president of Native Sons wholesale nursery in Arroyo Grande, while Bornstein is a former Director of Horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The third author, Bart O’Brien, is Director of Special Projects at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

The three teamed up several years ago to write “California Native Plants for the Garden,” also published by Cachuma Press and now in its sixth printing.

“We wanted to reach out to a broader audience than the native plant enthusiast,” said Evarts, in explaining the decision to publish “Reimagining the California Lawn.”

“If you’re really interested in a garden that reduces water use, where do you begin? For most gardeners, that begins with the lawn…. (The book) offers options from water conservation to reducing the lawn to completely replacing it. The idea is, sooner or later, Californians are going to have to contend with reduced amounts of residential water or considerably higher prices.”

“Reimagining the California Lawn” is available at bookstores, online and directly from Cachuma Press at A calendar of talks and book signings by the authors is also on the website.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Desperation Gifts for Gardeners


Atlas nitrile gloves

With Christmas just three days away, what’s a desperate shopper to do?

Head for the garden gifts, of course.

While the mall is likely sold out of the latest electronic gizmos and toys, most garden centers and home improvement stores still have plenty of loot. The following items are sure to delight anyone who loves digging in the dirt, from beginners to experts, from youngsters to seniors.

These items are affordable, too, ranging in price from less than $5 to upwards of $100, with a few pricey suggestions thrown in.


Gloves are always a treat because they inevitably wear out. And because it’s annoying to toss a pair when only one glove is shot, many gardeners wear gloves well past their useful lives, or mix and match odd gloves.

Lovely in lavender

My favorite, day-to-day gloves are made of skin-tight nitrile. Nitrile is a synthetic latex, slides on easily and is so form-fitting that I can easily pull the smallest of weeds. Interestingly, folks in medicine are switching from latex gloves to nitrile gloves to cut down on allergic reactions to latex. For the garden, Atlas makes durable, lightweight nitrile gloves that sell for $6 to $7 a pair and are widely available.

With rose pruning coming up in January, gauntlet gloves that reach all the way to the elbows are a timely gift. While gauntlets don’t provide the same dexterity as nitrile, they offer heavy-duty protection from thorns.

Original Mud Gloves are too bulky for every-day gardening, but they’re perfect for the rainy season. The thick, cotton gloves are waterproofed with a coating of latex on their outsides, and they really do keep your hands dry. They’re machine washable and cost $7.


Fiskars bypass pruner

Who can resist a set of super-sharp pruners? Corona and Fiskars make good, long-lasting bypass and anvil pruners that range in price from $20 to $40. A nice, premium (dare I say heirloom?) Felco pruner will set you back $45 to $65.

Kitchen scissors are often easier to use than pruners for snipping salad greens and dead-heading delicate flowers. Skip the cheap ones at the supermarket and go straight to take-apart scissors from the likes of Chicago Cutlery, Henckels or Wusthof. The scissors will cost $16 to $35 but last much longer and make far cleaner cuts.

Or splurge on long-handled loppers or hedge shears. A good set will cost $50 or more. The extra cutting capacity will handle branches up to 3 inches in diameter.

Weeding is the most tedious task in my garden, and I spend a lot of time on my knees. I’ve never been fond of strap-on knee pads, which tend to be stiff, uncomfortable and bunch up the legs of my jeans. Instead, I double up on low-end kneeling pads that cost a few dollars apiece. Orthopedic versions cost $30 or more.

Easy on the knees

My mother swears by her garden kneeler, which is an upscale kneeling pad with arms at each end. In the down position, she can lower herself onto the pad, do some weeding or planting, then push on the arms to stand back up. When the kneeler is flipped to the up position, she can sit on it like a bench. A basic model sells for $35.

As for weeders: $2.99 “pokers” are decent, and inexpensive crevice tools work well between bricks and along sidewalks. But my favorite hand tool is a Winged Weeder, which has a sharp, flared-wing triangular head that slides right into my heavy clay soil and either slices through the roots below-ground, or lifts them out, depending on what I’m trying to do. It sells for $25. I don’t ever expect to replace it.


All gardeners will appreciate a nicely balanced watering bucket that can withstand being left out in the garden year-round. Expect to spend at least $25 for a durable plastic bucket with a 3-gallon capacity. Galvanized metal watering cans can cost $100 or more, but are expected to last a lifetime.

Colormark Rain wands

When they work well, watering wands are a wondrous thing. The cheap plastic ones may have fancy spray patterns, but they leak almost from the get-go and rarely last more than a year. Instead, splurge for one with brass fittings. My favorite is the Dramm Colormark, which comes in half a dozen rainbow colors, has a brass shut-off valve and costs $35.

Or go for a non-nonsense, brass hose nozzle, which works well and sells for $10.

For mucking around in the garden in winter, nothing beats a pair of garden clogs or rain boots that your giftee can hose off afterward — perhaps with their brand-new brass hose nozzle. Plain rubber clogs start at $20, while rain boots in cute patterns like ladybugs and zebra stripes that appeal to kids and grownups may run $75 or more.


Bob Perry's weighty tome

Bob Perry’s encyclopedic “Landscape Plants for California Gardens” would be at the top of my list if I hadn’t bought it earlier this year. The landmark book features 3,100 color photos and detailed descriptions, irrigation requirements and growing tips for 2,100 plants. The book weighs nearly 8 pounds and retails for $87.50.

The Sunset Western Garden book continues to be a good reference, especially for novice gardeners. Unfortunately, however, the latest version, published in 2007, has no plant index. It retails for $35 in paperback.

For folks who save plant tags, shoot photos of their garden or record their horticultural experiences, consider a garden journal. The scripted albums are most commonly available at craft or scrapbook stores, and may cost $25 to $35.

Big Ticket Items

Large garden ornaments, like bird baths, fountains, trellises, benches and outdoor lighting, can set you back several hundred dollars or more. Styles and colors can be quite personal as well. You may be better off giving a gift certificate, accompanied by photos of what you have in mind and an offer to do the installation.

Smaller-scale sun dials, bird houses, pretty pots and the like are easier on the budget and are more likely to work into any size or style of garden. Expect to spend $15 on up.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Long-handled version of the Winged Weeder

Just how cold is it? Even if there’s no gardener on your list, most people like to know what the temperature is — or what it was earlier in the day or the previous night.

A simple outdoor bulb thermometer may cost a few dollars, while complex digital weather stations with remote sensors that record temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind speed and more may be $50 and up.

In between are min-max thermometers, which are a fun, low-tech alternative to the digitals and are often found in hardware stores.

These been-around-forever thermometers are composed of a U-shaped channel containing a temperature-sensitive liquid sandwiched between two magnets. When temperatures drop, the liquid swings up the left side of the U, pushing one of the magnets ahead of it. When temperatures warm and the liquid swings down and back up the right side, the magnet stays behind, marking the low. The other magnet, on the right side of the U, measures high temperatures the same way, but in reverse. The thermometers range in price from $20 to $30.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Summer Reading: Bob Perry’s Landscape Plants for California Gardens


When is a picture book more than a picture book?

When it’s Bob Perry’s “Landscape Plants for California Gardens.”

The new, encyclopedic book features 3,100 color photos, along with detailed descriptions and growing tips for 2,100 plants. Perry includes the usual suspects, such as roses, lantana and agapanthus, along with scores of interesting natives and other Mediterranean plants.

What’s more — and what truly sets this book apart — is the extent to which Perry identifies the irrigation needs of those 2,100 plants.

“I wanted to produce a resource that could be useful for many garden and landscape situations, while at the same time continuing to advocate the need to conserve water,” Perry said.

Orchid rockrose

Indeed, whether you’re installing a new landscape, adding a few plants or just applying the information to your existing garden, Perry provides exactly what you need to know, including methodically systematizing the seasonal watering requirements of each and every plant.

Altogether, the color photos and detailed information make the book far more comprehensive than any other California gardening book I’ve read, including the venerable Sunset Western Garden Book. Thanks to all those glossy photos, it also weighs in at nearly 8 pounds. It will be the mainstay of my garden library for years to come.

A Few Easy Steps

Now plenty of writers and gardeners — myself included — emphasize that many California natives and Mediterranean plants are ideally suited to grow here on the Central Coast because they’re naturally adapted to our moist, cool winters and dry, warm summers.

But Perry is the first author to organize such a broad spectrum of landscape plants into a deceptively simple system.

First, he sets out two irrigation groups.

Group 1 plants, such as Japanese maples, hibiscus and roses, need to be watered on a regular basis all year.

Group 2 plants, such as many succulents and native plants, grow well with dryer conditions during summer.

“That was done with the specific intent to bring attention to plants that are California natives and Mediterranean and arid climate adaptations that would thrive with regular to normal winter rainfall in winter months, and would perform well and look good with reduced amounts of supplemental water in summer months,” Perry said. “And not just simply ratchet up the irrigation for all plants during the summer months when turf grass needs the most supplemental moisture.”

Within those two irrigation groups, Perry assigns “plant factors,” which describe each plant’s year-round watering needs.

Group 1 plants need consistently high (H), moderate (M) or low (L) irrigation throughout the year.

Group 2 plants need high/moderate (H/M), moderate/low (M/L) or low/very low (L/VL) irrigation, depending on the season.

Otto Quast Spanish lavender

For instance, Perry lists ivy geranium (Pelargonium peltatum) as M – 1, which means it needs moderate irrigation year-round, while Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is M/L – 2, which means it grows well with moderate water in the winter and low water in the summer.

“We make sure that people are sensitive to the seasonal distribution of water,” Perry said. “Organize plants into two plant groups. Those that need regular water so they don’t get moisture stress, and those that are very nicely adapted to moisture stress… Then be mindful that within those groups, you have low, moderate and high preferences for moisture.”

To simplify further, Perry lists the plant factor and irrigation group at the top of each plant entry, along with a chart that notes in which of California’s 24 plant climate zones that particular plant will thrive.

He also provides a master checklist, along with 33 plant lists based on such attributes as woodland garden plants, flowering trees, and fragrant flowers and foliage.

Diving Into the Details

Hot Lips sage

Perry said he’d be happy if most homeowners get that far in organizing their gardens.

And you can easily stop there. But for folks and professionals who want to push further, Perry dives into the science of evapotranspiration (ET), which describes how much water a plant loses to evaporation and transpiration.

By comparing a plant’s ET to a region’s annual rainfall, the thinking goes, you can come up with a rough idea of how much irrigation is necessary, and on what kind of cycle.

Farmers have a long history of doing just that with any number of crops. About 30 years ago, Perry said, UC Cooperative Extension took the idea and tagged just one crop — cool-season, tall fescue grown 4 to 7 inches tall — as a reference plant by which the watering needs of other ornamental plants could be assessed.

“Cool-season, tall fescue has been deemed to be consistent in its water needs and very responsive to lack of moisture,” Perry said. “It became the reference crop, setting the high-water bar as to what it would need.”

The actual rate (ETo) then varies by where you live.

For instance, Perry presents charts showing ETo rates in 13 California cities. Cool, coastal San Francisco has the lowest ETo: cool-season, tall fescue needs 35.1 inches of water a year to thrive there. Meanwhile, in blazing hot Needles, the same fescue’s ETo is a whopping 92.1 inches of water a year.

After ETo comes rainfall. The difference between the two numbers will help you figure out how much you’ll need to irrigate.
Numbers from several Central Coast weather stations are online at

In Nipomo, the ETo from July 2009 through June 2010 was 43.6 inches of water. Precipitation during the same period was 17.65 inches, which resulted in a shortfall of 25.95 inches.

In Santa Ynez, the ETo was 50.69 inches; precipitation was 23.4 inches of precipitation and the difference was 27.29 inches; in the Goleta Foothills, 50.71 inches vs. 26.61 inches, a difference of 24.10 inches; and in Santa Barbara, 44.80 inches vs. 13.89 inches, a difference of 30.91 inches.

New Gold lantana

Fortunately, most plants don’t need — or even want — as much water as is necessary to maintain that cool-season, tall fescue at a height of 4 to 7 inches.

That’s where Perry’s plant factors become important again, since most plants need only high, moderate or low amounts of water, comparatively speaking.

But what complicates matters is that you still have to account for soil type, wind and how much moisture moves in off the ocean, as well as the efficiency of your irrigation system.

Throw in a few more calculations and you can get really confused.

However, Perry illustrates the concepts with such easy-to-read charts that it all becomes clear.

Plus, he constantly reinforces that you’re mostly there if you simply group your plants according to one of the two irrigation groups, then within the three different plant factors.

Perry takes out even more guesswork by presenting palettes of plants that are compatible with 27 common landscape trees, such as crape myrtle, jacaranda, coast live oak and California fan palm. For each palette, he lists companion trees, shrubs, vines and perennials. In addition, he notes horticultural preferences, aesthetic character, seasonal moisture and irrigation schedules.

About Bob

Seaside daisy with sulfur buckwheat.

Bob Perry has been urging home gardeners and professionals to attune their designs to the natural environment for more than 30 years.

He has been a licensed landscape architect since 1972, and is a long-time landscape architecture professor at Cal Poly Pomona, UCLA Extension and USC. He has designed demonstration gardens for a number of communities, including Pasadena, Malibu, West Hollywood and at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also been a member of the WUCOLS committee since its inception, a group that has been charged under the state’s model water efficient landscape ordinance with categorizing landscape plants according to their watering needs.

Perry’s two previous books were also about plants and water conservation: Trees and Shrubs for Dry California Landscapes, 1980; and Landscape Plants for Western Regions, 1992.

Perry’s new Landscape Plants for California Gardens retails for $87.50. It’s available online at both his website,, and, at a discounted rate of $78.75, which includes sales tax and shipping.

Seeds of Wisdom

Rather than a one-season-fits-all approach, Bob Perry’s “Landscape Plants for California Gardens” introduces a new, ground-breaking way to design and irrigate California gardens.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

New Gardening Books


With each spring comes a procession of new gardening books, ready to inspire gardeners everywhere.

Too often, the pickings are slim for those of us who tend plants on the Central Coast.

But this year is a happy exception, with the following books offering wisdom that’s suitable for gardening in our mild, Mediterranean climate.

Water-Wise Plants for the Southwest
Nan Sterman, Mary Irish, Judith Phillips and Joe Lamp’l, Cool Springs Press

The cover photo may feature a grouping of cactus and succulents that is likely to be more comfortable in the desert. But a good number of the 150 water-thrifty plants described inside will grow well on the Central Coast. And with water becoming increasingly precious throughout our state, the book provides a good introduction to water-conserving gardens.

The first section is set up in a round-table format with three of the authors offering advice from their geographic perspectives: Nan Sterman on Mediterranean climates; Mary Irish on low deserts; and Judith Phillips on high-desert and dry mountainous regions.

Their advice overlaps, and includes such common-sense tips as grouping plants according to their watering needs and paying attention to the soil.

A plant encyclopedia is next, and organized by type. Trees for establishing the framework of the garden are first, followed by shrubs for structure and perennials for seasonal color. Ground covers, lawns, succulents and the like come later.

Each plant gets a full page. There’s the usual description, noting form, growth, mature size, uses, soil and pests, along with a nice photograph. Particularly useful are two additional categories: “Shared Spaces” and “Cultivation.”

“Shared Spaces” refers to both the surrounding hardscape and neighboring plants. For instance, “Australian willow generates minimal litter, so it can be planted near a deck or patio.” Or this, about blue oat grass, “The winter contrast with the rust seedheads of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum is striking.”

“Cultivation” provides the most detailed, specific planting instructions I’ve seen. For dainty Dianthus, there’s this: “Before transplanting dianthus, add 1 cubic yard of compost per 100 square feet of bed area. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Topdress with organic mulch or fine gravel. Water dianthus to a depth of 18 inches once a week when temperatures are 85 F or above; water every two weeks when temperatures are 65 to 85 F, and monthly during cooler weather, but not at all if the plants are dormant. Fertilizing is usually not necessary if the soil is organically amended. Apply an iron-and-sulfur fertilizer if foliage yellows in summer. Trim off spent flowers to stimulate continuous blooming. Trim the cushion of foliage down a few inches from the soil in spring.”

Rounding out the book is a chapter on irrigation, penned by Joe Lamp’l. He runs through the pros and cons of sprinklers and various drip irrigation systems, and provides the basics for installation.

Succulent Container Gardens
Design Eye-Catching Displays with 350 Easy-Care Plants
Debra Lee Baldwin, Timber Press

This lovely picture book is a follow-up to Baldwin’s “Designing with Succulents,” which came out three years ago and covered growing the water-conserving plants in the ground.

This new book is especially appealing to folks who would rather grow a few interesting succulents in pots on their patio, rather than fill their entire garden with them.

Baldwin opens with beauty shots of perfectly shaped succulents in an assortment of containers. Most are close-ups, so you can see the exquisite flowers and foliage textures in full detail.

The “Plant Palette” and “Companion Plants” chapters cover several hundred plants. Useful information includes this about Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, which Baldwin dubs “supermarket kalanchoe:” “Retailers do the plants a disservice by encasing the pots in foil sleeves that allow water to puddle — these should be removed soon after purchase.” Or this about sedums: “Tiny-leaved sedums can visually disappear in a garden but when grow in diminutive pots and displayed so they can be seen close-up, their foliage is enchanting.”

Also valuable are chapters on the practical aspects of planting, caring for and propagating succulents. There are photos illustrating how to plant succulents in containers without drain holes, and recipes for potting mixes. There’s even advice on what do if a spine (glochid) gets stuck in your skin. “Paint the affected area with rubber cement; let it dry, peel it off, and the glochids should go with it.”

Baldwin concludes the book with a series of plant lists that suggest succulents of varying heights, succulents to serve as fillers and cascaders, and succulents that bear different colored leaves or produce brilliant flowers.

What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?)
A Visual Guide to Easy Diagnosis and Organic Remedies
David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth. Timber Press

The title says it all. Follow a series of flow charts, each with a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and you are on your way to figuring out what’s ailing your plant — and how to solve the complaint.

The great thing about the setup is that you don’t have to know the name of your plant in order to figure out its problem. Just follow the clues.

Deardorff told me that’s why he and Wadsworth intentionally used line drawings instead of photographs to illustrate symptoms during the diagnosis process. They didn’t want readers to get bogged down with whether their troubled plant was an identical match. Instead, the line drawings depict universal woes on universal plants.

Section I is organized by plant part: leaves, flowers, fruit, stems, roots and seeds. The authors explain the function of each, then describe symptoms, such as “the flower has holes or chewed edges, or you see pests,” or “the whole stem is discolored, dying or dead.” The reader then follows a trail of “yes” and “no” answers to reach a diagnosis, such as, for carrots, “Is the root forked? If yes, rocky, lumpy or compacted soil. For solution, see page 238; for photo, see page 409.”

Section II covers “How Do I Fix It?” and provides natural solutions. Deardorff and Wadsworth discuss soil, light conditions, managing water and selecting appropriate plants. They also address weeds, fungi, insects, mites, bacteria, viruses, nematodes and other pests.

Section III is where the photos come in, and the glossy images such nasty problems as transplant shock, over watering, powdery mildew, leafhoppers and scale.

There’s also an appendix, “What’s Wrong With My Lawn?” Here, Deardorff and Wadsworth seem conflicted, noting that “Oddly enough the first step in lawn care may well be to get rid of it entirely.” Yet they still run through techniques to properly tend turf.

Planting Design Illustrated
Gang Chen, Outskirts Press

This guide comes with an ambitious subtitle: “A Must-Have for Landscape Architecture: A Holistic Garden Design Guide with Architectural and Horticultural Insight, and Ideas from Famous Gardens in Major Civilizations.”

Whew! This book is an ambitious attempt to apply the concepts of planting design from former times to the creating of gardens of today.

Chen kicks off by comparing formal gardens with naturalistic gardens. He then discusses determining the purpose of a particular garden, followed by its scale. Next, he considers plants based on their silhouette, overall color (of leaves and flowers) and texture, rather than in terms of specific species.

Then comes what’s probably most interesting to home gardeners: a series of chapters and illustrations that depict planting swaths of plants in interesting patterns that emphasize rhythm and repetition.

Only after you’ve set up your pattern do you then plug in the appropriate plants, whether they be tall, weeping trees; red-blooming shrubs; an ornamental perennial, grass or ground cover, or some other plant that displays a set of characteristics that you’ve chosen.

It’s an interesting way to view the planting and design process, and probably very different from the way that most gardeners proceed, which is that they see a plant that they like, they buy it, and they plunk it in their garden.

The remaining chapters dive into the origins of Chinese, Japanese and European gardens, and are likely to be most compelling to folks interested in garden history.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

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