With Spring officially upon us, many people are ready for planting in their gardens. Time to go outside with some of the pent-up energy we’ve been harboring and take it out on the dirt. The rewards can be beautiful!
While in many parts of California our gardens can have blooming plants virtually year-round, springtime is, of course, always particularly associated with floral displays in our gardens. This holds true with the surrounding wild landscapes too, and at Madrone Landscapes, we routinely sing the praises of our California native flora.
Other regions across the world share similarities with our California climates. They are known as Mediterranean-type ecosystems or “MTEs.” MTEs, with their characteristic climatic regimes of mild wet winters and warm and dry summers, they occur in just five regions of the world: California; Central Chile; the Mediterranean Basin; the Cape Region of South Africa; and Southwestern and South Australia. There are abundant examples of plants suitable for our Central Coast gardens that are native to these other regions. Let’s consider Five of these plants that may not be that well-known but might be great for your garden:
Starting close to home, there is the often-overlooked California Native Cornus sericea (Cornus stolonifèra), or Creek Dogwood. It is a deciduous shrub also known as Redtwig for its distinctive red stems, keeping it interesting through the winter. Creek Dogwoods can grow 8–12’ high and wide, and have clusters of creamy white flowers, spring to summer. The form is open, and leaves are 1.5–2.5 inches long and light green—brilliant red in fall. It is hardy to well below freezing and prefers partial shade. Branches will root if allowed to touch ground, and roots will spread. Redtwigs love moisture, are fire-resistive, and require medium irrigation in the dry months.
Mediterranean Basin, Europe
When one thinks of aromatic leaves, used in cooking, Laurus nobilis, or Sweet Bay, is often the first to come up. Also called Bay Laurel or Grecian Laurel, this small tree is also a versatile evergreen tree for Central Coast landscapes. Growing 20–30 ft. tall to 20 ft. wide, Sweet Bays produce small yellow flowers in Spring, followed by deep purple berries. Best known for their fragrance, they are deer-resistant, fire resistive, and attract birds. Preferring fertile, well-drained soils, they are low water users once established. The variety “Saratoga” is best for use as a tree, but the species can also be used as a background or for screen shrubs.
South Africa Aloe striata, or Coral Aloe, is one of many aloes native to South Africa. This beautiful succulent has found home in many a garden in the milder micro-climates (hardy to 25 degrees Fahrenheit) of North San Luis Obispo County, and throughout the Coastal climates. It grows to be a 2 ft. wide rosette with broad, pale green, nearly toothless, flat leaves. The brilliant coral-pink-to-orange flowers occur in spring on branched clusters up to 3 ft. tall. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. Coral Aloes are fire- and deer-resistive, require minimal water, and attract hummingbirds.
Known for its graceful, weeping form and light green, evergreen foliage, Maytenus boaria, or Maytens Tree, is a unique and small specimen tree for much of the Central Coast. Hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the Mayten Tree grows to over 30 ft. and has long, pendulous branchlets hanging down from its branches. The tiny spring flowers are pretty inconspicuous, and the leaves are 1–2 inches long. They are fire- and deer-resistive and want full sun and ample summer water. They tend to branch on the side and may need guidance through pruning. Suckers are discouraged through deep watering, and Maytens Trees can produce beautiful lighting effects in the landscape.
People native to Australia have have made good use of Grevilleas since time immemorial. With over 350 species of Grevilleas—from virtually flat ground covers to soaring trees—their uses range from building furniture to making drinks from the nectar. One favorite landscape plant is Grevillea “Canberra Gem,” also known as Spider Flower. This shrub has a graceful, open form from about 8 ft. tall to 12 ft. wide. The bright green leaves are needlelike and prickly, making for a good barrier plant. Flowers are red clusters from early spring and intermittently at other times. Not only deer-resistive, this and other Grevilleas attract butterflies and birds with their nectar and seeds. Canberra Gem grows in a variety of soils from clay to sandy loam and is quite rough tolerant, preferring occasional deep soakings and good drainage. Hardy to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our Californian Central Coast climate is unique and particular, shaped by drought-tolerant native plants and dry but beautiful weather. As professional landscapers, we understand the importance of planting flora that can live sustainably in our soils. Here, sustainability means many things—keeping water bills down, plants alive without fuss and unnecessary labor, the native landscape uninterrupted by any invasive species, and more—and does not undermine the beautification of your outdoor spaces.
This timeless video is just as relevant for central coast landscapes today as it was when it was filmed in 2009. Created by the Templeton Community Services District in cooperation with the SLO County Partners in Water Conservation, this ten-minute video walks through eight topics you should consider when creating a sustainable landscape. Hosted by Kate Dore and our own Rick Mathews.
Eight factors to consider when creating a sustainable landscape:
Planning and Design—know your site inside and out to ensure you start off on the right foot
Soil Type—before deciding on your perfect plant palette, make sure you know what your soil can sustain
Plant Selection—set your heart on the beautiful variety of native and Mediterranean plants that grow best in our area
Limited Turf Areas—a costly and management-heavy asset, it’s best to design for only as much turf as you need for your practical enjoyment
Mulching—organic mulch is the perfect solution for topsoil protection, temperature regulation, and weed prevention
Efficient Irrigation—an essential component to preventing time-intensive care and water waste, make sure your irrigation system is efficient
Hardscape Areas—these can be designed with sustainable and water-wise materials as well as potted plants and container gardens to beautify your walls and walkways
Maintenance—reduce maintenance time and costs by considering the speed of your plants’ growth, the cost of any new maintenance tools, replanting needs, and any possibility for your plants damaging your landscape if left unchecked
If you’ve read about our landscape maintenance services, you know that we assert that “It has been estimated that 80% of the total cost of a garden over a 20-year lifespan is for maintenance. That means 20% for design and construction. Sustainable maintenance practices help to greatly reduce maintenance costs.”
Some folks are surprised by that number. Here’s how we break it down.
Obviously, the cost of maintenance is different for every property, based on the scopes of the landscape, the type of tasks involved, and the level of detail for the work. Add the variable cost of labor and any renovations and other changes needed over the 20-year lifespan and you have a complicated equation.
The 80% number we use (20/80 ratio) comes specifically from the popular DIY book, “Sustainable Landscaping For Dummies,” by visionary landscape architect, Owen Dell. Despite the goofy series title, it is an excellent source of information on sustainable landscape issues and solutions.
Although that book was published in 2009, the 20% construction vs. 80% maintenance figure has been used at least since the early 1990s when our owner and founder, Rick Mathews, first heard it. Is the ratio still valid? Roughly/generally/approximately, yes. Based on our experience and using numbers from landscape projects we constructed as well as maintain, we found that the 20/80 ratio was the low end of the maintenance cost range.
What should be stressed is that landscapes that use a sustainable approach are, by definition, less expensive over time. Whether it’s less gas (and noise!) for power garden equipment and less polluting chemicals for fertilizing and pest control, a sustainable approach reduces those costs and environmental impacts. Sustainability is a major goal of good landscape design and construction, and hopefully means less time is spent tending to more needy garden elements like large lawns, high-maintenance and low-durability hardscape elements, and poorly chosen and out-of-scale trees, shrubs, and ground covers.
Want to learn more about sustainable landscape maintenance? Give us a call! (805) 466-6263
Our mission is to create inspirational landscapes that cultivate the natural beauty of California’s Central Coast
Create in our mission statement refers to the entire design/build process. Design is often the first phase of Madrone’s services. Our initial consultations begin the process that will produce a plan. We work closely with our clients through give-and-take interactions to refine their original concepts and solidify the scope of work.
Create also refers to our work on site. Whether through planting, irrigation, or construction, all phases can be approached and implemented creatively and with innovation, artistic elements, and inspiration.
Inspiration originates from a personal state of mind and is unique, based on perspectives and influences. As a company of green professionals, we’re grateful for the daily inspiration we find in being able to promote and enhance the beauty and health of the Central Coast—culturally as well as biologically. It is an honor to help cultivate one of the best places on Earth to live.
We prioritize inspired creation in our approach to design/build landscaping. Madrone designers and field crews alike tap into inspiration by asking the following question about every single project we contract: What is the “stoke factor” of this job? Every project and client has them, and it’s our job to find and maximize that “stoke”—or inspirational factor—for and with our clients.
Landscapes enhance the effects of the sites they beautify, inspiring those who visit or inhabit them. One of the most common ways is through memorials to loved ones. Whether it is a tree planted in someone’s name, small, personalized elements, or dedicated gardens, these memorials can keep us in touch with our loved ones in the most beautiful and gratifying ways. Memorials can contribute to a sense of home or place and help create an Outdoor Sanctuary. Now more than ever, it’s important to create a personal sense of safety and comfort. Let your garden give you inspiration.
Cultivate helps emphasize both the physical nature of our work and our goals of promoting, protecting, and enhancing the natural beauty of the Central Coast. Development done incorrectly, whether commercial or residential, can impact and damage the environment. Our approach to landscaping seeks to recognize and understand development impacts and mitigate or avoid negative effects as much as possible.
California’s Central Coast provides one of the best climates for humans to live and thrive. As community members, we include a social component in our cultivation of life here. We strive to give back and have made doing so a practice. From building and dedicating gardens to contributing support for addressing social and cultural concerns, we believe it is incumbent on us to continue to earn our place as positive members of our community. Free enterprise includes the responsibility to give as well as the privilege to take.
It is with gratitude and determination that at Madrone Landscapes, we are continuing our mission into a new year and beyond.
How, Why, and When to Cut Bunch Grasses: California’s Central Coast
In the Central Coast California Landscape, bunchgrasses are a common landscape element. In some cases, huge swaths of showy grasses can be a bold botanic display of texture, movement, and glowing color. A bunch grass is a perennial grass that forms clumps as it grows. They can be as small as six inches or as large as eight feet tall, usually selected for their foliage and seed head plumage. On the central coast, most species are maintained by a significant yearly haircut to prepare for the next year’s growth.
When to Cut Bunch Grasses
Most bunch grasses are cut back so they look green and fresh for the next growing season, as well as clear out dead foliage and debris for plant health. While some grasses won’t need to be cut back every year, some benefit from being cut back twice or more per year. For yearly cutbacks, the rule of thumb is to cut them back after the last hard frost. Winter foliage can be attractive even if it is brown, and it protects the plant crown from frost damage. If the grass is particularly frost sensitive, the timing should be as late in the winter as possible. In San Luis Obispo County, we tend to be split our grass cut-back timeframes between the beaches (Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Los Osos, etc.), the coastal valleys (San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Edna, Nipomo, etc.) and North County (Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Santa Margarita).
Grass cutbacks can start earliest on the beach zones because they have almost no frost and grasses start to grow even in the winter. December-January is good for most grasses along our beach towns. With the lack of frost, many more species of grass can be grown, such as Pennisetum setaceum rubrum, a beautiful Purple Fountain Grass. “Some grasses won’t show as much winter browning, so skipping their yearly cutbacks from time to time is acceptable. Because the growing season is so long, the window to cut back grasses is also more forgiving. Cutting browning grasses as late as March or April is better than not cutting them at all.”
In the coastal valleys, February is a great month to cut back grasses, but it can happen anytime between January and March. There is limited frost, so grasses such as the Purple Fountain Grass may want to wait until March, but most grasses are completely safe for a February cut. This zone is very similar to the beaches, but it may take a little longer for the grasses to green back up, hence the later cut.
North County of San Luis Obispo County is much different than the rest of the county. The Santa Lucia Mountain Range separates it from ocean influence, making it much colder in the winter. For that reason, the cutbacks occur later to wait for the hard frosts to subside. In addition, most grasses in north county don’t start pushing new growth until April. February through April is the window for north county grass cutbacks, with March being an ideal month. While April is okay, cutting back the grasses after the spring flush should be avoided. While grass species are more limited in North County due to the cold, the explosive growth of the hot summer and the seasonal look of brown winter plumage can be stunning.
The bottom line for timing of grass cutbacks is to maximize the aesthetics and health of the plants. Try to minimize the downtime of a cut back bunch grass stump by waiting until the plant is just about to push new growth. Fine-tune the specific timing for your zone and grasses over the years to maximize your enjoyment of these versatile plants.
How to Cut Back Bunch Grasses
Use sharp shears, pruners, hedgers, or bladed weed whackers to cut all blades and chutes as close to the ground as possible without damaging the crown of the plant.
Hand pull any loose debris or dead plant material to prevent crown rot and allow for more air circulation.
Pull back any mulch or debris at least 2” from the crown of the grass.
Here on the central coast, we don’t typically have freezing temperatures, and we have fewer plants that die back or go dormant during these colder, wetter months. During the winter months when nothing else in the garden is showing its colors, here are four of our favorite plants to steal the show.
Sempervivum (Hens and Chicks) This cold-hardy succulent comes in a variety of colors and can be planted in rocky places with very little soil. We love the look it creates when you stick them in cracks and crevices of stone walls or walkways.
Nandina ‘Fire Power’ is a great evergreen shrub that has year-round interest. It is especially beautiful in the fall and winter: the leaves turn a deep red with cold weather.
Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’ is a low-maintenance, low water-use shrub. Manzanitas are striking year-round thanks to their evergreen leaves and gorgeous red bark, but their dainty winter blooms really give them another dimension.
Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Irene’ like Manzanitas, Trailing Rosemary is low-maintenance and low water use. When planted on top of retaining walls and allowed to drape over, they add drama to your garden, while their scent and seasonal flowers give them an added edge over some of the other trailing plant materials.