Water could be scarce, costly for summer gardens


    One week you’re channeling storm runoff away from your house and clearing wind-damaged branches and the next week you’re counting the blossoms on bulbs planted last fall. It’s spring, and the wonder is everywhere.

    Crocus, daffodil and grape hyacinth carpet the slopes in yellow and violet beneath pink flowering plum and cherry. The serious fruit trees are sporting white, pink and red blossoms that will become pears, cherries and apples if they don’t get damaged by a late frost.

    Spring is also a time to marvel at what nature planted when you weren’t looking. Orange and yellow poppies and purple lupine push up among fields of deep green fileria. Horses will nose around the poppies and lupine to devour the fileria, one of the richest feeds found naturally in Southern and Central California. A vigorous grower that sends runners a foot or more from the main root, fileria will invade flower beds and lawns and can become a real nuisance. When the ground is soft after a rain, it can be lifted out with a weed fork, easily pulling up the entire root. But don’t wait too long, charmed by its tiny violet flowers, or it will become a daunting chore.

    Blue flowers also are big in spring, covering mounds of rosemary and drooping from wispy stems of flax. Rosemary is one of the most useful ground covers for steep and rocky banks. Each plant can spread as much as four feet during its first two seasons and will trail gracefully over rock walls. If there are bare spots between the plants after the second summer, consider filling in with a white flowering plant like snow-in-summer or alyssum, which reseeds like mad and will fill in all sorts of gaps at the base of rocks, along paths and under trees. In places where the ground isn’t too steep, try the new low-growing varieties of white roses. While not quite as drought tolerant as rosemary, these floribundas need much less care than hybrid teas and are being used to landscape public spaces.

    And speaking of the “D” word, many experts are warning that the price of water is bound to rise along with the cost of electricity needed to pump it over the mountains to our desert landscapes. Add that to a Sierra Nevada snow pack only about 65 percent of normal, which is cutting down on hydroelectric power generation, and you have the makings of significant water shortages this summer.

    This does not mean that Southland gardens will be limited to succulents. But a xeriscape philosophy is definitely in order. Some people think xeriscape is synonymous with cactus, yucca and dry ornamental grasses. But it’s really just a way of placing plants with similar water needs together, instead of scattering thirsty annuals among hardier flowering shrubs. This also allows for significant labor saving.

    The Theodore Payne Foundation has 21 acres of garden and nursery in Sun Valley. The nonprofit foundation, dedicated to the preservation and use of wildflowers and native plants, has demonstration gardens that show how to incorporate native plants and wildflowers into established gardens. While wildflower seeds are best sown in the fall, it’s not too late to transplant 6-inch and one-gallon size perennials and bush wildflowers.

    Many are blooming now in Topanga Canyon on the sides of the road: mimulus (bush monkeyflower) with many apricot flowers along trailing stems; Centranthus ruber (Jupiter’s beard) a more compact plant with reddish pink clusters; and several varieties of ceanothus (mountain lilac), large bushes with small dark green leaves and white, blue or purple flowers. Ceanothus concha adapts readily to heavy soil and can tolerate some summer watering. Frosty blue has a vivid color but is a bit more finicky. Carmel creeper (c. griseus horizontalis) is grown extensively on public lands along the Central Coast and tolerates salt air. Ceanothus is better planted on rocky banks or in the background beyond the reach of sprinklers.

    Many varieties of sage (salvia and artemisia) adapt to dry gardens: Russian sage is a large bush with clusters of purple flowers on long wavy branches; Mexican sage is a bit smaller, slightly less hardy; Salvia greggii, an upright, less vigorous shrub with tiny leaves, has bright red or deep pink flowers and is a favorite of hummingbirds. Buddleia (butterfly bush) is now available in several varieties with clusters of blue, violet to dark purple flowers on arching branches.

    Mexican evening primrose (oenothera), while not a California native, can survive on dry banks with little or no care. It spreads by runners and reseeds with growth that can become rampant. Some varieties are virtually ever blooming. Pink cup-shaped flowers grow along 10-inch stems that can be cut back after blooms fade to prevent going to seed. A useful ground cover, it can be contained in flower beds, borders and will trail over walls.

    For an undemanding and casual perennial flower garden, combine lavender (English, French and Spanish), yarrow (yellow, gold, cream and pale pink) and penstemon (several shades of red tubular flowers are commonly found in nurseries). Most varieties are perennial but a few, such as border penstemon (gloxinoides), are treated as annuals. Several annuals widely available in nurseries can be worked into native perennial gardens as they can get by with less water than cosmos or zinnias. Blue salvia, rudbeckia and some daisies and sunflowers can be set out now for color all summer.

    And don’t forget to put in some herbs if you don’t have a separate herb garden. Several varieties of thyme are useful in natural settings and flower profusely in late spring. Feverfew and camomile have dozens of tiny daisy-like flowers on small mounds of soft green foliage and will reseed themselves all over the place. Herbs you want to use in the kitchen — chives, basil, oregano and French sorrel — might be better planted in pots on a patio or close to the house where they are easier to pick for cooking.

    If you have a trellis, fence, deck supports or railings to cover, consider one of the many varieties of clematis. Evergreen clematis (C. armandii), a vigorous grower that’s almost indestructible, retains its large, glossy dark green leaves even in colder climates and has masses of glistening white, intensely fragrant flowers in early spring. While it’s happiest with its top in the sunshine, it wants its feet kept cool. If you plant it deep, where the ground is shaded by a deck, and cover the basin with medium bark to keep the root zone cool, it really won’t need that much water. Try to find plants that are only a few feet tall and already trained on a stake or you will have difficulty disentangling the branches. It can tolerate, even thrives on, ruthless pruning.

    It’s not too late to add color to the garden, but be water wise and choose plants whose thirst won’t demolish your budget.