Malibu Garden Column

Mexican sage and cannas are included in the insectary at Lotusland, a garden designed to attract beneficial insects. Photos by Peggy Harris

Gardeners: Stewards of the land/By Peggy Harris

Each June, college and high school graduation speakers profess lofty goals for improving the planet. Those of us who garden know what it takes keep the environment around our homes thriving. Gardeners know that when they amend their gardens with organic materials the plants respond. When the soil is enriched properly, with long-term benefits in mind, the homeowner is taking his responsibility for stewardship of the land seriously. Think of the future generations who will garden your property while you battle the day-to-day problems of weed abatement and pest control. Also, think of the implications of your planting schemes for future generations who will inhabit the generally dry climate of Malibu.

It wasn’t a graduation speech, but Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet Secretary, Terry Tamminen, recently delivered a powerful address to the Wilderness Society. Tamminen headed the Santa Monica Baykeeper before his appointment as environmental protection secretary of California last year.

Speaking to the already committed members of the Wilderness Society, Tamminen emphasized stewardship of the land. He also emphasized the need to wean ourselves of our dependency on oil, starting with better driving practices and more fuel-efficient cars. He also applauded the efforts of the Wilderness Society and committed his administration to further preservation of coastal and mountain areas of California.

In our own gardens, we are the stewards of the available resources.

Gardeners who have worked their land for many years know the value of a healthy balance of mature fruit trees and plants, which host and attract beneficial pollinating insects. We have enjoyed an exceptionally wet winter, but we live in a dry climate almost 10 months out of most years. We have to respect the dry conditions and plant natives, succulents and trees, which will thrive on little water and give us the shade and visual beauty we need. Balancing the plants, which attract beneficial insects and birds, will help control the pests and diseases that can threaten the health of plants.

This June, many plants have grown exceptionally well from the wet winter and it’s time to prune. How one prunes is crucial to the life and health of the plants. Generally, pruning time is after the flowers or fruits and before the buds are set for the next season’s growth. For trees, don’t remove more than 20 percent of the total growth and use caution at this time of year because the warm months are ahead. Trees will provide the necessary shade canopy. I recommended two excellent books on pruning: Eric Johnson’s “Pruning, Planting & Care: Johnson’s Guide to Gardening Plants for the Arid West” gives advice from the prospective of a specialist on desert conditions, though his advice is useful for the Los Angeles area gardener. Johnson gives details on when and how to prune most of the trees used in our climate. His background includes having been desert editor for Sunset Magazine and he knows how to make gardens look lush while using natives. The second book is a basic reliable guide, which I have mentioned in a previous column, “How to Prune,” by R. Sanford Martin. Available at Armstrong’s Nursery, this basic, pictorial guide shows fruit tree maintenance.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting out and inspecting your own garden situation regularly as an important factor in keeping it healthy. The process of deciding which plants to prune and which to remove or replace is a landscape design process the interested homeowner can do or direct himself. The garden becomes a personal laboratory for experimentation, as well as a place for creative expression

Too often the June garden looks a little spent after a glorious spring show of flowers. Consider adding a colorful favorite native, the penstemon. A large perennial shrub with spikes radiating trumpet-like flowers, this bright addition to borders or large areas attracts lots of insects and adds color. Penstemon becomes a three- to five -foot shrub, which adapts well to soil conditions and grows well in mild coastal climates as well as hot desert areas.

When choosing your garden colors, in addition to the overall color schemes, consider the insects. A garden with a healthy balance of pollinating bees, aphid-consuming birds and attractive butterflies will thrive as a healthy balanced ecosystem. At Lotusland in Montecito, the insectary is a special garden devoted to breeding beneficial ladybugs, lacewings and bees, which help to control populations of aphids and to pollinate gardens throughout the property. Generally we think of bright yellow marigold-like flowers, and indeed Lotusland devotes space to the Tagetes lemonii, a large bush of not particularly showy yellow flowers, but with great fragrance. California poppies are prominent in this garden, as well as large cannas. The sages are present and the very reliable Mexican sage is used. Insects from this garden are swept into a large, vacuum cleaner-like apparatus and taken to parts of the large estate, which need the insect pest control.

Some excellent Web sites are available related to choosing native plants and attracting beneficial wildlife to the nursery. Try; the Theodore Payne society site:; and the San Marcos Growers Website:

When researching plants to add, be sure to visit the local garden centers. Malibu has a wealth of great nurseries and informed staff waiting to answer questions and keep the garden looking good through the summer months.

A few suggestions for annual color include dahlias, nicotiana, marigolds, petunias, portulaca, salvia (now available with purple leaves, all kinds of new hybrids to add to garden beds) and zinnia.

The vegetable gardeners are already eating homegrown tomatoes. It’s time to stake them up more securely and to plant cucumbers, eggplant (try Japanese varieties and hybrids), melons, peppers, summer squash and zucchini. Start the summer pumpkins by June 15 for use at Halloween.

Succulents meet the needs of the Malibu garden for low water requirements in summer and provide smart protection during fall fire season. Generally, succulents are grouped together due to their tolerance for little or no water through the summer months. They can of course be mixed creatively with perennials or annuals. The colors, shapes and flowering patterns of succulents are spectacular.

The Malibu Garden Club is sponsoring a bus trip to Lotusland in Montecito, Santa Barbara, on July 23. The bus will leave Malibu Bluff’s Park at 11 a.m. and return by 5 p.m. Included for the $45 reservation fee is entrance to the docent-guided Lotusland tour from 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. and a box lunch en route. Reservations must be received by June 3 at P.O. Box 825, Topanga, CA 90290. Checks should be made out to the Malibu Garden Club. Further information can be obtained by calling 455.1558

Peggy Harris of P. M. Harris Landscape Design can be reached at