Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Urban Garden: Merry Berries

The Urban Garden: December's Merry Berries
As we creep deeper into winter and find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, I hear people begin to “buzz” about the beautiful “hollies” that adorn our neighborhoods and hillsides.  As beautiful as these bright-berried specimens may be, 9 times out of 10, you are probably laying your eyes on another species entirely. Along with holly (Ilex sp.), winter reveals the ravishing red berries of Toyon (Heteromeles sp.) and the Firethorn (Pyracantha sp.). Though similar at a glance, a closer look will reveal the truly unique qualities that make each of these species an attractive winter wonder-shrub!

A San Diego native, Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) also goes by the names Christmas Berry or California Holly.  This hardy shrub usually grows five to 10 feet tall and slightly less wide.  In it’s native setting, though, Toyon has been known to reach 25 feet! It’s dark evergreen lanceolate leaves are thick and glossy, with a serrated margin.  In early summer, Toyon boasts crisp white terminal clusters.  As autumn takes over, bright cherry red oval berries develop and persist through late January.  Like most berry producing plants, Toyon provides a valuable source of native food for birds in winter.

Originating in southern Europe and western Asia, Scarlett Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) tends to be an invasive species in optimal conditions like our fair San Diego climate.    This bristly evergreen shrub ranges from six to 18 feet tall and has an equal spread.  Contrary to Toyon, Scarlett Firethorn’s leaves are linear and oblong in shape, with a rounded tip.  In addition, it lacks the serrated edges of Toyon.  In late spring, small clusters of white flowers often completely cover the stiff stems.  In early fall, the prolific flowers are replaced by orange-red, pea-sized berries.  Though not as valuable as the native Toyon berries, Scarlett Firethorn’s berries persist throughout winter, providing essential food to a variety of species.  Its strong stems provide small animals a place to perch, while long sharp thorns keep predators at bay.

The ever popular evergreen hollies are synonymous with winter beauty.  One particularly hardy and handsome cultivar used in San Diego is Blue Girl Holly (Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Girl’.)  Once Blue Girl Holly is finished blooming, this brilliantly festive species displays a profusion of bright red clustered berries throughout fall and winter.  Since only female specimens bare the famous holly berry, make sure you have a Blue Boy Holly planted nearby.  Its characteristic glossy dark green leaf is lanceolate with a margin that is perforated with oppositely arranged sharp spines.  At six to eight feet tall and three to six feet wide, this medium-sized shrub tends to be compact, especially in a garden setting where maintenance regiments include the almighty hedge trim.  This dense form provides protection for small birds, while they nest and feed on Blue Girl Holly's delectable fruit. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Urban Garden V6: Super Succulents

As a Xeriscape Designer, I am constantly hearing from clients “I don’t want a desert garden”.  There is mass confusion regarding Succulents, Cactus and Euphorbias, and although American Cacti do very well here in San Diego, we do not live in a desert.  San Diego’s Sunset Zone 24 is known as a Coastal Sage, while the thermal belts of Sunset Zones 21 and 23 are really Chaparrals. In all cases, Succulents thrive here in San Diego’s limited hydro-climates and blend with ease into a Xeriscape planting plan. Xeri comes from the Greek word Xeros meaning dry.  Xeriscaping is a creative landscaping art that combines water-efficient plants to produce a sustainable garden.

Debra Lee Baldwin, is an expert in the world of succulents and has  written Designing With Succulents and Succulent Container Gardensdefines succulents as “any plant that survives drought by storing water in its leaves, stems, or roots”.  By definition it would include Cacti, Euphorbias and other drought tolerant plants, combining those from Australia, South Africa, and California Natives. While a succulent garden is not the same as a cactus garden, all cacti are succulents but all succulents are not cacti.  Many cacti live in extreme, hot, sunny conditions with long dry periods in poor sandy soils. In contrast, succulents need a sun break, and require soils rich in organic matter, holding moisture.  Euphorbias are known for containing a white milky substance that irritates human skin are excellent additions to the succulent garden. They vary from shrubs to trees and even plants that look exactly like cacti.

The trick to a very successful succulent planting plan is to mix all these genera of plants. Combining different blooming periods with deciduous Euphorbias will create year around interest.  By mixing plant textures and colors with hardscape features such as, boulders, stucco walls, and water features, will keep the eye moving through your landscape, while bringing a sense of balance and harmony.

Some of my favorite succulents are Aeonium ‘Cyclops’, ‘Kiwi’, ‘Zwartkop’; Agave attenuata, Aloe ‘Blue Elf’, Bulbine frutescens, Calandrina grandiflora, Kalanchoe luciae, Portulacaria afra, Dudleya brittonii, the genus Echeveria and Sempervivum.  Most of these work well in combination with Phormiums (New Zealand Flax), Anigozanthos flavidus (Kangaroo Paw), Yacca, Salvias and ornimental grasses such as Muhlenbergia capillaries (Pink Muhly) and Pennisetum setaceum ‘Eaton Canyon’ (Dwarf Purple Fountain Grass).

The Urban Garden will bring you the newest technologies to green, gardening and landscaping.  It is my hope through this series of articles; you will be inspired to look at new directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices.  The face of San Diego is changing as water diminishes and urban sprawl continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change.