Archive for the ‘Plants’ Category

The Last Harvest of Summer

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Pumpkins, just in time for Thanksgiving

Sorta sweet, sorta sad… the last harvest of summer.

Expressive beauties: Peruvian lilies are low-maintenance flowers with a lot of personality

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

I remember clearly when I saw my first Peruvian lily. It was the early 1980s, and I was in graduate school in Santa Barbara studying the tiny plankton that swim in our oceans. At the end of another weeks-long research cruise, my then boyfriend (now husband) met me at the dock with a huge hug and an equally huge bouquet of Alstroemeria, the Peruvian lilies.

I was thrilled to be back on terra firma (I get horrendously seasick) and equally thrilled by the beautiful bouquet. We both marveled at the delicate, trumpet shaped flowers with the most amazing color patterns. The flowers were the palest yellow, as I recall, with spots and dashes of deep burgundy all through their throats. Somehow, the patterns made the blooms look almost like they were smiling.

Illustration by Cristina Martinez Byvik

I’d been at sea for a long time, but honestly, the flowers had expressions.

Now, more than 20 years later, I still think Peruvian lilies have expressions. I grow four or five varieties in our garden, and I plant them in all the gardens I design. They are easy to grow, full of blooms, make excellent cut flowers, and are incredibly drought tolerant. Exactly my type of plant!

Peruvian lilies are perennials that form upright green stems from 3 feet tall all the way down to 8-inch dwarfs. Each stem is lined with delicate green leaves and topped in a cluster of up to a dozen lily-shaped trumpets, each about 3 inches long.

While my first Peruvian lilies were soft yellow and burgundy, garden hybrids range from nearly white, soft pink and soft yellow to brilliant gold, bright red and intense magenta, coral, even purple. Most are multicolored with yellow throats and those burgundy/black speckles and streaks.

Peruvian lilies are native to Chile and Argentina (ironically, not Peru).

The varieties commonly available are nearly all hybrids. The wild species live a true Mediterranean life. They sprout new stems in fall, bloom through spring, then retreat back into the ground to avoid the heat of summer. The new hybrids are “everblooming,” meaning they are bred to shorten the dormancy cycle so plants bloom nearly year-round.

If you have a Peruvian lily that goes dormant through most of the summer, chances are its an older hybrid. Nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t bloom for quite as long as the newer ones.

Dig up a clump of Peruvian lilies and you’ll see how they survive dry times. Stems arise from fleshy, white, pinky-sized tubers that store water underground. As plants mature, they make more and more tubers. So, allow enough space (at least 4 or 5 feet across) for them to spread. If the patch gets too large, it’s easy to share those tubers. See one you love in a neighbor’s garden? Ask for some tubers to take home.

Peruvian lilies prefer well-draining soil, in the ground or in a pot. Plants need very little water once established.

They bloom best in full sun but tolerate part shade. If blooms are sparse, transplant to a sunnier location and/or increase water a bit. For maximum bloom, fertilize once in early spring and once in early fall with all-purpose, organic fertilizer.

Some older hybrids reseed aggressively. Newer ones, though, are bred for sterile flowers so they don’t reseed.

If you want cut flowers, do not cut the stems. Instead, grab a stem just a few inches below the flowers and yank (yes, YANK) the entire stem out of the ground. As stems finish blooming, yank those out, too. Somehow, yanking stimulates the tubers to sprout more flowering stems. So, the more you yank, the more flowers you get.

Some Favorite Varieties:

I’ve yet to meet a Peruvian lily I didn’t love. Here are some to start with.

‘Casa Blanca’ has white petals, each with a soft pink streak and pale yellow throat. Burgundy brown dots and dashes. Three-foot-tall stems.

‘Third Harmonic’ petals are golden orange and coral pink with burgundy dots and dashes. Three- to 4-foot-tall stems.

‘Kyty’ has butter-yellow petals with deep red dots and dashes on 3-foot-tall stems.

The ‘Princess’ series dwarf Alstroemeria have multicolored pink, orange, magenta or coral flowers with burgundy/deep brown dots and dashes. Most are under a foot tall.


While most nurseries offer a few varieties of Alstroemeria, you’ll find the largest selection at Garden Glories in Vista. This small nursery is open by appointment, so call first (858) 449-5342 or email

(This entry first appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, Saturday November 5, 2011)

Blades of Glory: Whether catching morning dew or in your morning brew, lemon grass has it covered

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.

This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.

Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.

Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.

Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).

If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.

To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.

East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.

That one perfect moment

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

A clouldess giant sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae) stops to sip nectar from Salvia madrensis, forsythia sage

Show your colors: Many-hued native bulb flowers are built to survive our hot, dry climate

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Many people are amazed to learn that there are bulbs native to California. “Bulbs” conjures images of gladioluses, tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, even snowdrops — all of which are native to other parts of the world. But, bulbs native to California? Really?

Yes, really.

Nearly all the bulbs offered in nurseries are bold, fancy versions hybridized from far more modest bulbs found in nature. Our native bulbs are on that “nature” scale. While they are not “in your face” the way a fancy glad might be, that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful. In fact, in many respects, they are even more remarkable looking.

Yellow Mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus), for example, is native to coastal, valley and foothill areas from the Mexican border, almost to Oregon. All mariposas (there are many kinds) are true lilies. Yellow Mariposa lily’s narrow, grasslike leaves stand only 4 to 8 inches tall. From late spring into summer, foot-tall stalks are topped with cup-shaped flowers of bright yellow (hence the name, “luteus”) with burgundy markings. ‘Golden Orb’ is one of the varieties most widely available to gardeners.

The cup-shaped flowers of Calochortus venustus, butterfly Mariposa lily, look very similar to yellow mariposa. Their flowers, though, can range from white to pink, yellow to purple, even reddish brown, often with reddish markings in the center. These are petite bulbs, only a foot or two tall, native to mountains and foothills from the Sierras to the San Gabriels, so they are quite cold hardy. Springtime is bloom time. Plant in full or part sun.

Early onion, Allium praecox, is an onion, but probably not an onion you’d choose to eat. It is one you might choose to grow in your garden, especially since it is one of the earliest blooming native bulbs. Flower stalks emerge from foot-tall clumps of slender, grasslike leaves starting in late winter. Through early spring, stalks are topped in clusters of tiny white to pink to purplish flowers. These bulbs do very well in dry shade.

Tube-shaped springtime flowers of Dichelostemma ida-maia, firecracker flower, are an odd combination of crimson red and chartreuse. Foot-tall flower stalks are topped with a handful of dangling blooms, best seen close up. Since these are higher-elevation bulbs from the edges of forests in north coastal California, they perform best planted in shade or part sun.

Dichelostemma capitatum, known as blue dicks, is similar to firecracker flower, but its flower clusters are upright and purply blue/lavender on taller flower stalks.

Soap bulb, Chlorogalum parviflorum is native to the dry, coastal sage scrub widely found throughout coastal San Diego County. Soap bulb’s slender green leaves grow only about 8 inches tall. In late spring and into summer, tiny, white flowers line stalks 1 to 3 feet tall. Each of the star-shaped blooms has six prominent yellow pollen sacks around a swollen, green center. The bulb part of this plant contains a chemical called saponin. If you wet your hands and rub a bulb between them, you’ll get a handful of soapy foam, hence their use by American Indians. Don’t drink the foam, though, as saponin is toxic. Plant in full sun, where bulbs can go dry in summer.

All of these bulbs live through hot, dry summers with no irrigation. As summer approaches, their foliage withers to the ground. The bulbs are dormant, then, until fall rains, when new foliage appears. They do best under conditions that emulate nature, so plant them in unirrigated areas. They are longest lived in well-draining soils.

Bulb sources

Recon Native Plants: 619.423.2284

Easy to Grow Bulbs

• Telos Rare Bulbs

Theodore Payne Foundation: 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, CA, 91352

Tree of Life Nursery: 33201 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Yarrow Can Color Your World

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011


Evergreen blooms come in many shades and aren’t too picky about sun or water

From the San Diego Union Tribune, July 2, 2011

Illustration by Cristina Martinez Byvik


According to “A Modern Herbal,” yarrow has a long tradition of being used to heal wounds. Yarrow’s botanical name, Achillea, is after Achilles, who was said to have used yarrow to treat his soldiers’ bleeding wounds. In ancient times, yarrow was called Herba Militaris, the military herb, most likely for that reason.

Today, we appreciate yarrow for other reasons. Our native yarrow, Achillea millefolium, along with European and Asian native yarrows, are mostly low-profile, fast-spreading evergreens that thrive in full to part sun.

Yarrows take little water once established but grow more lush and “flowerful” with a bit more. They aren’t picky about soil; they even tolerate clay. These versatile little perennials make nectar that attracts butterflies and pollen that attracts beneficial bees.

Perennial beds and grassy meadows are both brightened by yarrow’s broad, flat clusters of tiny flowers in white, yellow, pink, pale lavender or red. Native yarrow grows densely enough to serve as a lawn replacement in areas that get light foot traffic.

Yarrows require little care: plant, mulch, water occasionally once established. Remove spent flowers to prolong yarrow’s bloom. If you have a meadow or a lawn of yarrow, you might use a push mower or line-trimmer to cut back flowers and foliage once plants finish flowering.

You’ll find many yarrows in the nursery. Here are a few to get you started:

•Native Achillea millefolium has ferny green foliage. In spring and summer, native yarrow sports large flower clusters atop 2-foot-tall stalks. ‘Calistoga’ flowers white, ‘Island Pink’ flowers pink, ‘Cerise Queen’ flowers deep rose, ‘Lavender Beauty’ has soft purple flowers, ‘Paprika’ has deep red flowers with tiny yellow centers.

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ is a hybrid of European and Asian native yarrows. ‘Moonshine’ is a larger plant with wider, ghostly gray leaves. Flower clusters are broader than the natives’ and bright, buttery yellow. Flowering is in spring and early summer.

Achillea tomentosa, woolly yarrow, is a more petite yarrow that grows as a mat of tight clumps only a few inches tall. Its leaves are shorter than other yarrows, cylindrical and covered in fine hairs that make the leaves look silvery green (the word “tomentosa” means woolly). This yarrow’s leaves look so fuzzy that your impulse will be to reach out and pet them. Bright yellow flowers make small clusters, just a few inches above the leaves.

Garden Serendipity

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

This amazing combination caught my eye this morning as I arrived home from running errands….

Spring morning color tapestry
Spring morning color tapestry

Chartreuse blooming Euphorbia wulfenii, deep purple bearded iris, and  Arctotis ‘Big Magenta’ make an amazing display.  They were originally planted in different locations but somehow, magically, they’ve drifted together.   Another lovely example of garden serendipity…

Natives, naturally

Monday, December 13th, 2010

If you live in a mild winter areas, especially along the west coast, this is the perfect season to plant natives; the air has cooled, the soil is still warm, and the rains are about to start.

Some people have the mistaken idea that native plants are not “real” garden plants.  It’s a foolish idea of course as every plant is native somewhere.

Every garden should include at least some native plants.  Natives provide food and shelter to native animals.   Natives are low, or even no, maintenance  – after all, there are no gardeners in native habitats.

Native plants create a sense of place.  If your garden is filled with plants from China or Hawaii, then your garden will look like China or Hawaii.  But if you live in San Jose, your garden should look like San Jose.

And sometimes, growing native plants is the way to save them from extinction.  Recently, I had dinner with Gary Lyons, curator of the famous desert garden at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, not far from Los Angeles.  We were discussing the fabulous specimens in Lyon’s garden, many of which were collected from the wilds of Baja California, just over the border in Mexico. “You can’t go out and collect those plants today,” Lyons told me, “they don’t allow it anymore.”  The plants were overcollected to the point that few still exist in their native habitats.  Today, they are protected.

At the same time, Lyons said, gardeners play a role in conserving threatened plants.  By including nursery grown descendants of the wild collected plants, we can help prevent them from going extinct.  This concept applies to native plants as much as to exotics.  (read more….)

California lilac (Ceanothus) is not a true lilac but rather a native that blooms blue in the spring

California lilac (Ceanothus) is not a true lilac but rather a native that blooms blue in the spring

The lovely indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri)

The lovely indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri)

A simple urn is the perfect complement for this majestic native oak

A simple urn is the perfect complement for this majestic native oak

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) blooms in spring

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) blooms in spring

Pot Medic to the Rescue

Monday, September 6th, 2010

This time of year, its pretty hot in my garden – too hot to for new plants to go into the ground and too hot for me to be out in the garden all day. Instead, I turn my attention to my container plants. I have dozens of them, so several are always in need of attention. I walk the garden looking for pots in need of help:

Problem: Potting soil disappears from the pot to the point where the pot is only half filled!

Poor quality potting soil used in this pot has sunk by about six inches in less than two years

Poor quality potting soil used in this pot has sunk by about six inches in less than two years


Hot Colors, Dry Garden #1

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

For months I’ve wanted to start this series, “Hot Colors, Dry Garden” so consider this the first installment.   And what better way to start out than with a pair of mind blowing images taken just a few weeks ago in my front garden?

Hot Colors, Dry Garden is an invitation to people who are afraid that low water gardens are brown, drab gardens.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Check out the colors and textures in these scenes.

It takes some planning and lots of trial-and-error to create moments like these.  It also takes some willingness to challenge your biases.  Long ago, I swore I would never plant a Bougainvillea. They are in my “way too overused” category and frankly, I’m sick of them.

But then,  one  caught my eye.  ‘Orange Ice’ is a smaller boug with cream and green variegated leaves and the most amazing colored bracts (they’re not really petals) in coral pink, blush orange.  The color glows in the sunlight.

Will it look the same next year?  Only time will tell!

'Orange Ice' Bougainvillea, Agave bracteosa, Agave guiengola, Senecio mandraliscae, and hunnemannia fumariifolia - a heavenly combination!

'Orange Ice' Bougainvillea, Agave bracteosa, Senecio mandraliscae, and Hunnemannia fumariifolia - a heavenly combination!

Main plants:

  • Bougainvillea ‘Orange Ice’ with variegated leaves and pink flowers blush orange
  • Agave bracteosa, a small, solitary agave with twisty, turny blades
  • Senecio mandraliscae also called blue chalk fingers for obvious reasons
  • Calylophus, a low growing shrublet with yellow flowers that fills in the empty spaces
  • Hunnemannia fumariifolia, Mexican tulip poppy, also with yellow flowers and creeping perennial stems that pop up here and there.
  • An  Aloe whose name has been lost to time
  • Palo verde ‘Desert Museum,’ the best of the palo verdes
  • Schinus molle, the cursed California pepper tree that is neither Californian, nor pepper.  I’d never plant it again but I admit to loving it!

Here’s a detail

A bit closer view shows the touches of bronze from Aeonium 'Zwartkopf' and one of the bronze leaved cordylines

A bit closer view shows the touches of bronze from Aeonium 'Zwartkopf' and one of the bronze leaved cordylines