In the works

Summer has just begun, and I'm already preparing for fall projects. The mercifully-cool start to July has given me a chance to sneak a few more plants in the ground, and give my recently-planted Arctostaphylos and other summer-dry plantings a much needed soaking, as they aren't established enough to withhold water completely. Most of my pot ghetto, however, is waiting until fall. It's simply easier to keep them alive, even the ones in tiny pots, when they're all kept in one shaded location close to a hose, as opposed to scattered across a large yard. (Actually, I think they're almost as likely to die from overwatering in their pots as they are from underwatering them out in the landscape.)

So instead of planting, yesterday I started preparing several areas for planting this fall. I've had these projects in mind for some time now, and it feels wonderful to break ground on them, even if I won't be planting anything until late September. 

The largest area is a triangle on the far side of the dry creek bed, east of the house. Much of this area is barely worth mowing, the grass is so thin, and is so dry that even the toughest of the various dandelion-type weeds go dormant at the height of summer. It receives no morning sun, but is fully exposed to the south and west. The soil is extremely lean and, although it's a clay loam, it drains well and slopes slightly toward the creek bed, which expedites drainage further. All these factors make it a very tough location for most things to grow in, but an excellent opportunity to create a summer-dry garden full of Arctostaphylos, Ceanothus, Cistus, and a plethora of others. The only Mediterranean-climate plants I won't be able to grow in this spot are those that require sandy soil, which really doesn't limit my choices that much. Oh, and cold-hardiness is a consideration, too.

I decided to prepare the area by tilling it to tear up the thin sod and weeds. This process will be repeated several times over the summer, to knock things back as they start growing again. Tilling is much easier than trying to remove the sod by hand (it's too thin for a power sod-cutter) and the space is simply too big for me to try covering it all with cardboard and compost or mulch. At the end of summer, when the weeds and grass are thoroughly dead from repeated tilling, we'll have to add some sort of mulch to reduce soil compaction and prevent weed seeds in the soil from germinating. Probably the same lean mix of composted bark/sand/gravel that I've used to cover the cardboard in the other new beds I've made this spring.

The photo below shows the area post-tilling, at least, what I got done yesterday. The straggly ginkgo at the far right, beyond the tilled area, is slated for removal, and I already have a fantastic Arctostaphylos glauca selection from Cistus picked out to replace it. It's only about 6" tall now, but it will grow fast once it's in the ground. The poor ginkgo, which I've talked about before, just isn't doing well enough in that location and is too big to dig and relocate. That's how tough this area is, though admittedly a healthy new ginkgo might stand a chance. Getting back on track, I'm still considering taking the tilled area out just past where the ginkgo is, as it doesn't make sense to me to leave that little island stranded out there. Same with the bed containing the Cotinus 'Grace' and a couple grevilleas, which I cut out of this photo but is visible in the previous one.

The photo above makes the tilled area look deceptively smaller than it is. Roughly triangular in shape, it stretches about 75 feet along the creek bed. The side on the right goes back at least that far, giving the bed an area of over 2,500 square feet. I have a lot of plants to fill this area already, but most of them are shrubs. I'll be needing a lot of lower plants for ground cover, though I also plan on sowing seed from my California poppies, yarrow, and other plants to help fill the area. I almost decided not to start this project, but I've been gathering plants for it for months and I'm too stubborn to write it off now. If I manage to move by this time next year as planned, I'll just have to offer my parents advice from afar on how to finish it, and help during the occasional visit.

Another area I intend to clear for this fall is the mound in this photo, behind the deodar cedar. Made from the soil scraped up from when the area around the house was regraded and the creek bed was put in, the landscapers originally placed several large rhododendrons on top. Rhododendrons. On a mound. In full sun. What were they thinking? At the time, it was also hundreds of feet from the nearest water source. My parents and I came together earlier this spring to relocate the Rhododendrons to better locations. The mound is also riddled with Canadian thistle, which is a challenge to eradicate.

Enter two large sheets of black plastic. Normally I hate black plastic in the landscape, but using it to smother and bake the weeds on this mound is the least labor-intensive and most environmentally-friendly option at hand. The other option would be to repeatedly douse it with herbicide, which I'd really rather not do. Hopefully a summer under the black plastic will be enough to kill off the thistles, and then the plastic can be removed. I'm also planning to till around the mound, connecting the cedar, cork oak (in front of the mound, to the right of the cedar), and a few smaller beds into one large area that will be much easier to mow around. On top of the mound, I'm planning to sow Arbutus menziesii seeds that I'll collect this fall, and I may plant a Fremontodendron on the mound, too. They should both love the great drainage. Madrones can be tricky to plant, even as small plants, but they grow quickly from seed and the resulting trees establish much better. Between the cedar and the mound is a lower, slightly more moist spot that will be home to several of the Calycanthus occidentalis seedlings I've got in the pot ghetto. Other plants that will fill this area are Rhamnus californica, kinnikinnick, and low-growing ceanothus.

I had some plastic left over, so I decided to cover this area, which I'm also planning to sow madrone seeds in to create a grove. It's another spot with tough soil where hardly anything grows, but the madrones should love it. I hadn't planned on clearing this area, but I think it will be better to have it weed free, rather than having to snake through any resulting madrone seedlings with the mower. I can plant more drought-tolerant ground covers instead.

And that's the latest news from my garden. Now I need to tackle all those back issues...


  1. That's hard work, especially without the incentive of any near-term gratification in the form of fresh plantings, but it'll definitely be of benefit when fall comes around. I'm already counting the days until that event too.

    1. It is a wait, but I'm looking forward too much to planting that wide, open space to feel impatient. It will be so much nicer than carving out little pieces here and there.

  2. That huge triangle clearing is a back breaking chore. I thing it is so exciting to plan for fall. Frankly, that is the only thing summer good for, aside for enjoying the fruit of my labor when everything is in bloom. We are lucky this summer isn't as hot as last year or you would't have started such a tasking challenge. I will have to read on "low-growing ceanothus": I always figured they get quite large.

    1. Most of the ground cover type ceanothus do spread quite a bit. I think there are a few that only get 3-5 feet wide.

  3. The pull of this garden you are working so hard to create will bring you back for frequent visits even after you move on...much to your parents' delight, I'm sure.


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