Rethink your rain-soaked shrubs and perennials

By Rebecca Jepsen
for the Mercury News
February 5, 2010

With what feels like 40 days and 40 nights of continuous rain, your plants, shrubs and lawn may appear a little waterlogged. Does the landscaping at your neighbors' homes look similarly under the weather, or are their plants fresh and vibrant?

The difference may lie in plant selection. According to landscape designer Sue Bell, a veteran Master Gardener, several commonly planted shrubs and perennials don't do all that well in our Northern California climate.

Azaleas, rhododendrons and many types of ferns are examples. Many homeowners plant them because they offer showy flowers, remind them of other parts of the country and are readily available at our local nurseries. However, they generally don't survive in most average Bay Area backyard environments without lots of effort. They thrive, instead, in woodland forests where continual leaf litter keeps them mulched and moist.

Do you really want to spend your time constantly watering and your money continually feeding a particular shrub when you can choose other gorgeous, flowering plants that thrive with little to no input on your part? Choosing appropriate native or Mediterranean plants such as Ceanothus, manzanita, Australian fuchsias, New Zealand tea trees, salvias and yarrow. These will not only provide you with year-round beauty and interest, they will also provide very necessary habitat for our birds, bees and bugs.

Another reason for rain-weary plants: Bell says many people make the common mistake of planting too low or too deep. Most plants do best in well-draining soil. Amending soil with compost and/or mulch and creating mounds of at least 12 inches provides a plant with proper drainage and keeps its root ball from rotting in low areas that pool with winter rains or improper irrigation.

Bell shared a few a of her favorite tricks of the trade:

  • Bell likes to under-plant most deciduous trees with hundreds of daffodils. "As we start to emerge from the dreary, wet winter, 'King Alfred' provides liquid sunshine to any yard," she says.
  • Because many roses go mostly dormant with intense heat from the summer sun, she surrounds them day lilies, pansies, primrose, garlic and onions to provide flowers and food for both humans and habitat.
  • If you inherited roses when you purchased your home and want to replace them, try correa (Australian fuchsia). A few favorite varietals include "Wyn's Wonder," which grows to 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall, and its showy olive-green leaves sport flowers of cream, rose and green; "Sister Dawn" is a spreading variety with furry grayish stems and inch-long coral flowers with light yellow tips; "Ray's Tangerine" is a slow grower that offers beautiful variegated leaves and vibrant orange flowers.

Janet Hamma, another seasoned Master Gardener, recently created a photo journal of the abundant native, water-wise flowering shrubs, trees and ground covers that are in full of bloom right now in her backyard.

  • Hamma likes to use verbena in place of junipers and boxwood. "Cedros Islands" is a fast-growing variety (3 feet high by 3 feet wide) that blooms virtually all year-round. It needs very little water and tolerates most garden conditions. Its showy lavender flowers are a favorite for butterflies.
  • White yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a great perennial flowering plant that can be used as a ground cover or in a meadow lawn. Once its flowers fade, the seeds provide food for many small birds.
  • With its showy, bright-red flowers. "Boca Rosa" Island snapdragon (Galvezia speciosa) is a hummingbird favorite that grows to 5 feet wide by 4 feet high. It can take full sun to part shade and is extremely drought-tolerant once established.

Once the sun comes out and the chance for frost has passed, take a stroll in your garden, look at what fared well and, more importantly, not so well. It might be time to replace those plants, shrubs and perennials that are no longer thriving in their current environment. Take a tour in the native, water-wise section at your local nursery; you'll be surprised at the beauty and variety that is available.

Master Gardeners Sue Bell and Janet Hamma contributed to this column by Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen.

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