- Author: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
Are you looking for a showy, drought tolerant plant that blooms profusely and attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators? You might like to try Aloes! They range in size from six-inch houseplants to tall trees. In the past, people mostly grew small aloes indoors for their medicinal properties. Now there are more than 500 popular species and cultivars to choose from, many of which grow wonderfully in our mild coastal winters.
Aloes should be planted in containers or in fast-draining soils. You can use a ready-made succulent mix from a garden center or else mix two parts sand, two parts gardening soil, and one part pumice. Be careful with watering. Aloes store water in their leaves, stems, or roots and therefore need very little water to survive. Too much can harm them.
Some people think succulents don't need fertilizer, but to keep them healthy, strong, and beautiful, provide nutrients in the fall (before it rains) and in the spring (before new growth). Appropriate fertilizing includes a light feeding of compost tea, diluted fish emulsion, or a balanced fertilizer (15-15-15). Be sure to dilute concentrated liquid fertilizers half and half with water.
Great Aloes for the Coast
The Fan Aloe (Aloe plicatilis) blooms in winter with bright orange tubular flowers held on unbranched purple flower stems rising above its distinctive fan-shaped leaves. Plant it in full sun on the coast either in the ground or a large container. It's a slow grower, reaching 4-8 feet tall and wide. The foliage falls off with age revealing its smooth gray bark and stout contorted truck.
Beautiful spikes of the Torch Aloe (Aloe arborescens) light up our neighborhoods, parks, and highways. They grow quickly in the sun and are identified by their orange to bright red winter blooms. Thick clusters of this sturdy Aloe can reach to 8 feet tall and wide. Its lightly-toothed leaves are narrow and dark green. After it has established its roots, it thrives on natural rainfall. Best yet, this beauty is known for its superior medicinal qualities.
Also known for medicinal qualities is Aloe Vera (Aloe Barbadensis), an aloe that grows like a bush without a central trunk. Although it can reach 3 feet tall and wide, indoor plants are much smaller. This aloe prefers bright, indirect sunlight. Its light-green leaves will turn yellow if exposed to the sun. A spring bloomer, its inflorescence can blossom into yellow, orange, pink, or red flowers. Aloe Vera gel is used topically but should not be ingested.
The Tree Aloe (Aloe barberae or Aloe bainesii) is a fast-growing and long-lived 20–30-foot tree. It sports a massive trunk, multiple thick branches, and a high rounded crown that forms an interesting variety of shapes and sizes. Winter blooms in varying shades of pink are held high above the dark-green foliage. It enjoys full sun and is becoming popular in drought-tolerant landscaping.
I have to mention my favorite, the rare and sought-after Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla). Its gray-green leaves radiate in a perfect spiral, and its summer inflorescence grows about one foot high with orange or salmon flowers. This Aloe does not create offshoots so only regenerates by seed. Make sure it has good drainage, more water than other Aloes, and sun/part shade on the coast.
Aloes thrive in our area and are appreciated for their patterns, textured leaves, and amazing silhouettes in the garden. Have fun discovering the many species and cultivars available for your garden!
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener who has several species of Aloes in her garden. Susan Kornfeld is a UC Master Gardener who enjoys working as a fine gardener in the Bay Area.
- Author: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
Boxwood. You see it all over – and for good reason. They are oh so versatile, easy to prune and shape, and a lovely bright green. They've been a mainstay of residential and commercial landscapes for as long as I can remember. They are, however, slow-growing, rather fussy about soil, and are susceptible to root rot, branch cankers, and blight. They also need regular water. Let me propose Coyote bush, Baccharis pilularis as a great alternative. Although this sturdy native is typically overlooked, savvy gardeners are discovering it can do most anything boxwood can do and with none of its drawbacks.
First, its landscape usefulness: Coyote bush comes in a variety of sizes, from low and sprawling to rounded to an imposingly large shrub. And while it might look rangy in the wild, it responds well to pruning – like boxwood. A small variety forms an undulating carpet, another can be shaped as a specimen – even topiary, and others placed as privacy screens and hedges. A bit of shearing keeps coyote bush lush and full. If need be, you can hack it to the ground and it will grow back beautifully.
Best of all, it provides terrific habitat in your garden. It's an important and popular source of nectar for bees and butterflies, but even more importantly, it provides food for over a hundred native insect species – which are very important for nesting birds. Many of these insects prey on the aphids, mites and whiteflies that damage other plants in the garden. Coyote bush blooms in fall, making it a critical source of nutrients for over-wintering insects.
Second, Coyote bush doesn't need to be babied. Once established, it needs no supplemental water. It can, however, tolerate moderate summer water so no need to reconfigure your irrigation. Nor is it picky about where you plant it, growing happily in loose, sandy soil or slow-draining clay; in full sun or in partial or light shade.
Third, it's a resistant survivor. Waxy coating on its leaves retards water loss, while resinous oils on the leaves repel deer. The leaves also contain a high concentration of fire-retardant organic compounds, so low-growing coyote bush can be a good choice in fire-safe landscaping. If it does burn, coyote
bush will often re-sprout from the root crown.
The most popular coyote bush in our area is B. pilularis 'Pigeon Point' – a dwarf clone cultivar whose progenitor was reportedly discovered just south of Half Moon Bay. It mounds from one to three feet and quickly spreads out eight to ten feet wide. It only takes a couple of years to fill in, much faster than the prostrate ceanothus or Manzanita varieties that might otherwise be selected.
Another popular subspecies is B. pilularis consanguinea which grows three to six feet tall and is attractive along fence lines or pruned as a hedge or verdant specimen plant. As a specimen, its rounded form should be periodically pruned to keep it full and not leggy. Consanguinea matures in a year or two, so are great plants to begin site restoration.
Whichever coyote bush you choose, hosing it off every couple of weeks in the summer will keep it looking its green and shiny best.
Male coyote plants are typically used in landscaping (Pigeon Point plants are all males), as the fluffy white flowers on the female can create unwanted volunteers. Some people like the fluffy flowers, others find them rather boring but, if you want to grow your own bird seed, plant females.
So, if you have some boxwood you're looking to swap out or a bare spot with a half-day or more of sun that needs some cheery green, plant Coyote!
Susan Kornfeld is a UC Master Gardener who works as a fine gardener in the Bay Area. The article was edited by Cynthia Nations, a UC Master Gardener.
- Author: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
We're spending a lot of time indoors so it's more important than ever to create comfortable and inviting spaces in which to live, work, and play. It's crucial to our mental and physical wellbeing! Many people are using houseplants to bring a bit of nature indoors. Once you bring them in, though, you need to know how to care for them.
What does it take to keep a houseplant healthy, safe, and happy? It's fairly simple: good growing medium, water, light, and nutrients. Begin by keeping a simple database of each houseplant with its name, date purchased, size, and its light, water, and nutrient needs.
Growing Medium: Make your own! Use 1 part coconut coir (pre-soak and separate), 2 parts sieved compost (adds essential nutrients), 1 part pumice or dry stall (adds aeration), and 1-1/2 cup worm castings (for extra nutrients and beneficial microorganisms), or simply buy your potting mix at a garden center.
Water: Houseplants should never stand in water; they prefer being slightly dry. Watering once a week is good for most houseplants (refer to your houseplant database). Keep a saucer beneath the container to catch excess water.
Light: While all plants need light for photosynthesis, they have different daily requirements: high light (6 or more hours); medium light (4-6 hours); and low light (3 hours or fewer). If your plant stops producing new growth, it isn't getting the light it needs.
Nutrients: While there are many chemical fertilizers available on the market, there are also many naturally occurring nutrients you can use. The key is to feed the soil, not the plant. Container plants use up nutrients in the potting mix, and it is up to you to replace them. Using organic material improves soil structure and enhances its ability to hold nutrients and moisture. It also increases aeration and promotes beneficial microbial activity. Common organic liquid ingredients include fish emulsion, worm tea, compost tea, plant extracts, and liquid kelp.
Five easy houseplants (with database information):
1) ZZ Plant (Zamioculcus zamifolia). Growth: H/W 2-3'; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water when fully dry; Light Needs: Low to bright indirect light; Nutrient Requirements: Every 3 months during growing season; Notes: Wide, dark and attractive shiny green leaves, resistant to disease and insects, tolerates neglect.
2) Snake Plant/Mother-in-Law Tongue (Sansevieriatrifasciata); Growth: 6”-12'; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water when fully dry; Light Needs: Indirect steady light; Nutrient Requirements: Every 3 months during growing season; Notes: Nearly indestructible, thrives in dark corners or bright light, adds height to plant groupings.
3) Marble Queen Pothos (Epipremnum aureum); Growth: 5' vine length; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Slightly moist; Light Needs: Low; Nutrient Requirements: Monthly during growing season; Notes: Heart-shaped leaves, quick-growing hanging vines.
4) Chinese Money Plant (Pilea Pepermoides); Growth: H-12" (leaves grow larger with less light); Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water every 1-2 weeks or when leaves look droopy; Light Needs: Bright, indirect; Nutrient Requirements: Monthly; Notes: Unusual round leaves, self-propagator, rotate plant so stem will grow straight.
5) Zebra Plant (Haworthia fasciata); Growth: H-3”; W-5-6”; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water when fully dry; Light Needs: Low, indirect light; Nutrient Requirements: Every 3 months; Notes: Easy-care indoor succulent, rarely affected by common succulent pests, soil needs extra pumice or coarse sand, slow grower.
Using these and so many other houseplants, your pandemic shelter can be an indoor garden of delights.
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener who loves gardening indoors and out. The article was edited by Susan Kornfeld, UC Master Gardener.
- Author: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
In times of drought and fire, gardeners can truly be heroes. What we plant, where we plant, and how we tend the plantings can individually and collectively impact our water supply, fire resistance, and stressed bird, bee, and insect populations. With all of that in mind, I'd like to encourage planting natives, especially, buckwheats.
The densely-packed flower heads on these attractive and completely admirable plants provide masses of color that gradually fade to coppery brown. They are among the best nectar plants, nourishing butterflies, bees, and garden insects – most of which are beneficials. Their seeds provide important food for birds (as do the insects).
Tuck buckwheat into rock gardens and perennial beds or plant in drifts through native bunchgrasses. Use on slopes and banks for erosion control and in fire-stalling rock and pebble mulches. They generally prefer thin soil and want only occasional summer water, although coast side gardeners can generally get by without watering them at all. As an added bonus, deer and gophers usually don't like them!
There are many varieties of buckwheats to choose from, but I want to mention a few that evolved and thrive in coastal conditions and that are also easy to find and easy to grow.
Coastal buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) is the buckwheat we enjoy when walking our coastal bluffs. A small, mounding plant, E.latifolium's natural companions include yarrow, sage, seaside daisies, and lupines. The lollipop-round flower head blends tones of white, cream, and pink that mature into coppery brown. This particular buckwheat is important to the Acmon Blue and Hairstreak butterflies that need our help.
The Red-Flowered or Rosy Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) is smaller and more delicate than E. latifolium. A charming feature is its small rosy-red flower heads. Native to the Channel Islands, this buckwheat adapts well to coastside gardens. It does better than other buckwheats in clay soil as long as the soil doesn't stay soggy. Plant it as a filler in sun to partial shade, amid rocks or in drifts. It blends well with most anything. Although it has a short life (3-5 years), it reseeds easily. If it gets leggy, simply prune back to lateral buds, or just pull it up and let seedlings take its place.
The Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) is a larger size - three feet tall and as wide; although larger ones are not uncommon. Plant it in a mass on a steep slope for erosion control, or use it as a specimen plant. The red, peeling, bark of older specimens add interest to the dusty gray-green narrow leaves and the flat clusters of pink flowers. Think of this buckwheat as a substitute for lavender or rosemary, a plant that benefits our native butterflies and insects. Companion plants would include Salvia clevelandii and Ceanothus varieties, along with California fuchsia and other dry-summer plants.
Saint Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum) is the only buckwheat to have earned a place in the UC Davis "Arboretum All-Star" list. The largest of our native buckwheats, 4-6 feet tall and wide, E. giganteum is a great background plant that will attract wildlife to your garden. In addition to the birds, pollinators, and insects, it provides shelter for a variety of small animals. The flower stalks have lacy pinkish flower heads emerging in May and warming to "buckwheat brown" over the summer. Prune it each fall to keep a compact shape, but don't cut into the wood.
Happy planting – and watch your garden come alive!
Susan Kornfeld gardens professionally in San Mateo County. She is a UC Master Gardener and can currently be found answering plant questions via Zoom with the San Mateo Arboretum the first Sunday of most months. The article was edited by Cynthia Nations, UC Master Gardener.
- Author: Stephanie Erskine
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
Finding plants for coastal gardens can be challenging. While many California natives do well, others need the inland heat to look their best, but whether inland or coastal, natives need at least two years of summer water to get established before you cut their water off. Planting them in the fall helps as the winter rains jumpstart their root balls for the spring/summer growing season. No matter when planted, though, most natives need additional summer water during drought years.
Thinking about which natives to plant? I've found the following five to be sure-fire foundation plants that I grow in my own coastal garden.
1. Cupressus macrocarpa 'Citriodora' – Golden Monterey Cypress
A smaller form of Monterey Cypress, Citriodora's glowing yellow foliage is striking. With a mature height of 30' and a narrow, conical form, it is perfectly suited to smaller gardens. Enjoy it as a specimen, as a large hedge or screener, or planted in rows as a good wind break..
2. Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman' – Wild Lilac
This large evergreen beauty can be trained as a small tree and can grow 18 feet high and wide. Famous for profuse, beautiful sky blue flowers from January to March, it occasionally flowers seasonally. Bumblebees love the flowers. It wants full sun on the coast and is a fast grower once established.
Summer water is rarely needed after two years except in an extreme drought. Don't plantit near an irrigated lawn. Ceanothus will self-mulch. Distribute the fallen leaves evenly, not allowing them to pile around the root crown. Soon a thick bed of leaves will discourage weeds, keep the roots cool, and feed the soil as they decompose.
3. Rhamnus californica 'Eve Case' – Coffeeberry
This go-to shrub tolerates both sun and shade. While drought tolerant, it looks better with occasional water during hot summers. Don't plant it where it might get more frequent waterings. Reaching about 8 feet high and wide, Coffeeberry is a good screen and specimen plant. It attracts butterflies, and its late-summer berries are a good food source for songbirds. It needs little attention and its dropped leaves make a great mulch.
4. Galvezia speciosa 'Firecracker' – Island Snapdragon
This Channel Island native thrives here, tolerating our coastal conditions and a variety of soils. Hummingbirds love its red trumpet flowers. Grow it in sun or part shade, but more sun produces more flowers. You can use it as a taller ground cover, even on gentle slopes. The graceful vine-like branches grow about three feet long. When pruning them, don't cut too far into the wood or flower production will be reduced.
5. Zauschneria species – California Fuchsias
When other native plants are starting to go into late summer dormancy, these cheery darlings are starting to bloom. They have feathery, blue green foliage with bright red/orange flowers, another popular hummingbird choice. You might see bees hollowing out the base of the flower to take the nectar, without pollinating the plant!
Some horticulturists believe California fuchsias are invasive. They spread by rhizomes and also reseed, so they can pop up in different parts of your garden. It is a slow process, though. Their late summer/fall beauty is worth it, and they are a wonderful habitat plant. Plus, unwanted plants are as easily removed as poppies. With their colorful blossoms above the lovely, feathery foliage, California fuchsias make a real statement planted in a mass. After the fall bloom, simply shear them down to keep them neat and not leggy.
Happy planting and enjoy your natives!
Stephanie Erskine is a UC Master Gardener, horticulturist, garden designer, and artist. The article was edited by UC Master Gardeners Susan Kornfeld and Cynthia Nations