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How to choose boulders for any garden

Choosing and placing boulders for your landscape job is an art.  The Japanese have several years of study on just rock placement.  But you can do a great job with just some sensitivity and a good eye.  Here are the basic tips.

I usually suggest choosing local or fairly local boulders.  This keeps your costs down and usually blends in better with your yard.  For instance, Sonoma Fieldstone in California costs approximately $125/ton vs. beautiful 3 Rivers rock, an Idaho import to California, at over $450/ton.

But sometimes you just fall in love with a type of rock and must have it.  In that case accept you’ll be paying for it.  Or maybe your area has junky looking local boulders.  I suggest then to pass on them and spend the money for the nicer boulders.

In order not to hide the view, plants and rocks aren’t too tall

So how do you choose and what is a nice boulder? First, no potato boulders!  Second, look for lichen.  Lichen grows extremely slow, something like 1″ every 10 years.  Lots of lichen is good.  Moss is easy to establish with a little water and buttermilk, so don’t necessarily choose boulders for the moss.

Every boulder came out of the ground and has a bottom and a top, a front and a back.  The bottom won’t have any moss or lichen on it. Check as many sides as you can.  Have the yard manager turn them over for you so you can see what each boulder looks like.

.That’s their job.  Choose boulders that have a lot of interests such as pockets, unusual shapes (watch out for boulders that were broken during transport.

That is not an unusual shape), and usually I try to find a few boulders that have a natural water bowl that I can use for birds.  I’ll put a hidden irrigation emitter behind the bowl so it stays full with each watering. Fourth, go for medium to large boulders.

The mistake everyone makes is putting in dinky rocks that disappear once the plants grow in.  Remember, in order to look natural, you’ll be burying part of the boulder.  Bigger is better, but unless you want to use a crane, make sure you have boulders that a crew of 4 or 5 guys can move.

That would be about 250-350 pounds/boulder in general.  If your landscape is vast, you might need much larger boulders.  If so, usually the yard rents a forklift with a driver for about $75-$100/hour which is worth it.

Large plants behind low boulders

I usually choose a landscape yard that will deliver these boulders with a forklift no extra charge.  Most of them do and for the price included in the delivery they will lift each boulder off their delivery truck, one by one, and place them near where you want them.  That saves a lot of time for your crew.

Placing the boulders:  First, consider your entire design and where you need to cluster boulders.  Boulders should be placed in 3’s, 5’s, 7’s, etc.  NEVER place boulders so they are in a row.  This can happen inadvertently when you have a cluster in one location and one in another, then you’ll notice that three have been placed in a row.  Move them in that case to offset the row.

As said before, boulders have a front and back.  Consider where you’ll be seeing the boulder from.  I usually like to place boulders of varying sizes together and I tend to triangulate the 3some’s and continue that style with larger groups.  You NEVER want a LONELY boulder!

Boulders looking bare before the plants have matured

Your client, or if you are a homeowner, will look at all these boulders on bare ground and think they look huge or stand out too much.  They don’t and they won’t once the plant material is in.

Succulents with boulders; look for lichen, not moss, on rocks as this one has

Placing the plants around the boulders:  Of course, here you will consider your size of plants.  I love for plants to peek out behind boulders, or have ground cover crawling over and in front of boulders.  Usually your larger plants will be behind your boulders or alongside them.

Stone edging along sidewalk. small boulders with succulents

Rock seat

Rock Seats: Finally, a few things to know about boulders for seating.  First, boulders used as seating around a patio or in the garden are a wonderful addition to the garden.  The natural height for a seat is somewhere between 16″-20″ tall.

Your desk chair usually runs 16″.  The top must be flat with a good base that will be buried some in the ground.  To place boulders in concrete around a pour, the boulder seat area must run 22″-25″, depending upon your final desired height.  This is because at least 4-6″ will be embedded in the concrete.

Boulder seat

Occasionally you’ll run across a boulder so fantastic, so unique, that you just have to have it and show it off.  In that case, why not light it up.  this jasper was just too delicious to pass up.  It is imbedded in the concrete pour and you can see a light at its base that displays it.

The Jasper is on the far left of photo with a light imbedded at its base

I am a Tree Hugger!

I can proudly state that ‘I’m a tree hugger’.  In Wyoming, that can be considered name calling and a put down.  But why?  I love trees and really, everyone else should.  Without them, there would be no shade, no cover for wildlife, no food nor shelter for so many animals.  Our trees high up near tree line provide protection from massive erosion and mudslides in the spring when the snow melts.  Limber, Pinyon, and White Bark provide nuts that we can eat too.  Trees impress and awe us.  Stand in an old growth Redwood forest or amongst ancient Cedars and feel their Presence.  Its is a humbling and quieting experience.

The future of our forests, in general, is in question with warming temperatures.  Yet I attempt to be an optimist when it comes to conifers.  Conifers were around before flowering plants evolved.  That’s a long long time.  Even with the planet warming, I suspect they’ll find places to retreat to and survive.  But for now, I’m doing my little part on my little patch of land,  planting trees for, hopefully, future wildlife.

This year the CCD (Cody Conservation District) had no Limber Pines (the species indigenous to my property) so I went ahead and ordered Pinyon Pines (Pinus edulis).  Its a gamble.  My forester friend says that they are out of their latitude and if they live, won’t produce nuts.  The University of Colorado says that they are reliable to 7500′, and maybe even to 9000′.  I’m at 6800′ but a higher latitude than Colorado. We don’t get the cold temperatures we used to so I’m counting on global warming to help them along.  It will be at least 20 years or more before they produce nuts, if they do.  Its a long term experiment!

Pinyon pines and Douglas fir seedlings--can you tell which is which?

I worried when I was planting them and wished the CCD had Limber Pines.  Its so rocky up there.  Probably 2/3 rock to a tiny bit of soil for each hole (these are small holes too just the size of tree liners).  And although I’ve seen Pinyons many times, I haven’t noticed them in granitic and limestone soils. But the UofC said they can take lean, dry soil on sunny slopes.

After I remove the rocks from the hole, I don’t have any soil to put back in. That’s why this year, in addition to my moisture crystals, I purchased some top soil to add in.

This is top soil? Very poor quality though its all that's available here

Yet I discovered another wonderful place to get soil, especially since we’ve had so much moisture this year–pocket gopher tunnels!  These wonderful little creatures tunneled under the snow and left nice rock-free dirt for me to use in my holes.  They are the rototillers of the Rockies!

Pocket gophers make these tunnels, not moles

Another thing I learned from last years planting is that the Limber Pines especially want a little shade.  Tree seedlings like the cover of nurse trees.  Since I’m trying to plant in the open where I had to cut trees down, I’ll use a bit of shade cloth on my pines.  The Douglas firs, for some reason, were a lot hardier.

I did good last year.  I figured if I had 50% loss then I was beating the odds, but after reviewing my seedlings today, I’d say I had more like 25%-30% loss.  That’s great!  I watered every 2 weeks last summer, but skipped a lot toward the end.  There’s no water up there and I was carting it up by hand.  That’s probably when I lost some, although a few were nibbled.

cages and moisture crystals

This year I’ve caged every tree (to prevent nibbling), and last years’ trees I’ll water maybe once/month.  Then, after that, on their third year, they are on their own!  I’m also going to feed last year’s trees with some nitrogen this spring.  I really like Maxsea 15-15-15.  Its a natural fertilizer that will never burn, but it’s not available around here.  So Miracle-Gro will have to do.

Into the fold–working with Mother Nature’s garden

I’ve got big planting plans–at least for me, up here.  When I moved here, I was happy to NOT have a garden.  Don’t get me wrong, I love plants, designing with them and caring for them, but you know, it is work.  I grew hundreds of species of plants in my California yard for pleasure and to learn about them.  All professional gardeners, at least the good ones, need their laboratory.  I always said, it you haven’t killed dozens of plants and moved plants dozens of times, then you’re not yet initiated into the fold.

That being said, when I moved here, wild nature was my self-tending garden and Oh, what enjoyment.  It still is and forever will be.  But the itch remains, and I do believe we humans can be caretakers and tenders in a good way.  So this year, not only am I continuing the ritual of planting tree liners, but I’m adding a few things to my plant order.

First, the liners.  My elevation and environment is chock full of Limber Pines.  Douglas firs move in naturally in a process called succession as the pines die off.  Higher up on the ridges are the favorite nuts of the bears–White Bark Pine nuts.  White Bark Pines in the GYE are functionally extinct.  I think its about 70% are dead and the others are dying…first weakened and dying from Blister Rust and then the final blow is coming from the beetle infestations rampaging the West.  But the bears will resort to Limber Pine nuts (a favorite food for the Indians that lived around here as well) in poor White Bark nut years.  Limber pines are smaller, and more difficult to extract, but they’ll do to fatten the bears up.  But Limber Pines are also in the Whitebark Pine family and susceptible to the rust (a European import from the 20’s; we’ll say that’s NOT good tending and caretaking).  The beetles are killing the Limber Pines as well.

A beautiful windswept Limber Pine in the Clarks Fork Canyon

My understanding of White Bark Pines is that it takes 50 years before they make seeds!  Wow.  Probably Limber pines are similar.  So I’m trying to replant seedlings now for later with the hopes of them being around when I am not and helping future bears.

One note of worth is that my two oldest limber pines on the property, probably 200-300 years old, were riddled with beetles last summer and I wept.  Beetles like older trees.  Neither are red-needled yet so I’m dancing with prayers around them metaphorically.  One is questionable as 1/2 of it is dying, but the other, the very oldest, so far is good.  I put up a painted elk skull on it last spring to ward off evil spirits and evil beetles.  Maybe it worked.

I order my ‘liners’, essentially seedling trees about 2″ tall, from the local conservation service in town–30 in a bundle.

Last years liners Douglas firs and Limber pines

Last year they told me they didn’t have my Limber Pines in stock, but at the last minute they found some.  This year they definitely don’t have any.  So I am trying a BIG experiment.  I ordered 30 Pinyon Pines.  They say they can make it at this altitude (for sure I’ve seen them higher up in lower latitudes in Nevada), and since our winters are not as cold as they used to be, I’m giving it a shot.  Good nuts for bears in the future.

Polymer crystals are an essential when planting in dry areas without irrigation

But my old gardening bug seems to be itching, and I’m purchasing 5 bare-root elderberries from the nursery, as well as, get this, 2 plum trees.  The plums are a big experiment in Bear country.  I am not crazy enough to plant apples, but my neighbor has a pear tree and not only gets pears but the bears don’t touch it.  So I’ll try two plums and see how it goes.

As for the Elderberries, they are native to around here, both black and red.  When you see them in moist locations, the deer keep them munched all summer to around 2-3′!  Elderberries can grow 10′ tall.  We have a riparian area, and I’m going to plant and cage these from the deer.  Supposedly the variety can get 10’x10′, so after 5′ I won’t have to worry.  Good food for me, the birds and the bears.

More great, reliable plants for California landscapes

Here are a few more of my favorite plants, easy, reliable, and striking, and different than the usuals out there.

Tree Dahlia

Tree Dahlias grow 10′ tall in one season and bloom late in the fall.  Sometimes an October storm will knock off the blossoms.  But you don’t have to grow this Dahlia for the flowers.  The exotic tropical looking foliage will be a show stopper.  Cut to the ground in winter, it grows fast as soon as the earth begins to warm in the spring.  Comes in white, and rarely as a double flower.  Takes full sun and low water.  Forms a fantastically large tuber.

Heuchera 'Wendy'

My favorites of plants.  Heuchera ‘Wendy’ was pioneered by Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, a cross between our native Heuchera maxima and Heuchera sanguinea.  I feel that ‘Wendy’ is the most spectacular of the cultivars (there are several out there).  Flowers are light pink-peach, very tall, and bloom endlessly and profusely.  The plant is tough like our native Heuchera, taking low water, dappled shade.  Put this in one of your more difficult dry shade spots and let it sing.

Anthriscus Ravenswing

This plant is actually a Chervil.  A low plant for shade and average water, it provides striking contrast in your combinations.  Difficult to find but very easy to grow.


Wow, I love this plant.  Obviously drought tolerant, people will gawk.  Its large, bold leaves offset pinks and purples for contrast.  The thistle purple flowers in the late summer I feel take away from what I grow this for–the leaf structure.  If you let it, it will reseed generously and you will have these as long as you want.  Just transplant the seedlings where you want them and give away the extras to friends.

Crocosmia hybrids

Crocosmias are such underused bulbs.  They are heat loving, low water, summer blooming stunning flowers.  ‘Emily McKenzie’ is one of my favorites, with the double advantage of smoky foliage.  And they multiply, like bulbs do, easily.  They bloom late summer for a long time.

Epilobium californica and hybrids

These are still Zauschnerias to me, but the splitters long ago put them into the Genus Epilobium.  A wonderful California native, they bloom in the fall and are either no water or low water.  They come in different heights (6″ to 36″), some have grey foliage, and are a magnet for hummingbirds.  Can’t be beat.

A few great (and reliable) plants for California landscapes

I’m done with my California winter installations and hoping for some spring Wyoming weather.  But right now it’s the last vestiges of planting time in California before the summer heat so get going and order up some of these fantastic plants.  These are a few of the reliable, unusual, and color interesting plants I love to use in my designs.  I have two places I mail order from.  I’ve tried many mail order companies and these are three of the best.  One is Digging Dog Nursery and another is Cistus Nursery.  They have a great selection, and best of all their plants are nice and big.  One plant I get from them that I can’t get anywhere else is Acaena purpurea.

Acaena purpurea groundcover

Acaena purpurea needs average water and sun to bring out the color.  But it also comes in a grey form which is attractive as well, but usually with slightly bigger leaves.  The grey form takes heat much better and less water.  Cercis Forest Pansy is a fantastically colored Redbud.  Average water and sun again brings out the colors.  It is a small tree.  Below with the Acaena.

Here is the acaena with Cercis Forest Pansy

Let’s continue with the purple theme.  We all know Loropetalums, but if you can find it, I highly recommend Loropetalum ‘Pippin Red’.  It is a small Loropetalum, growing only to about 4-5′ (some grow 15′ so be cautious on your choices), but has a narrower leaf and retains its color year round.

Loropetalum ‘Pippin Red’

Loropetalums usually sulk for a year or two before they take off.  If you can’t find Pippin Red, there is now a dwarf red variety.

Another mail order nursery I recommend is Plants Delight.  They have fabulous plants you can’t find anywhere else, but beware, their plants are small for the price.  I used to order in the fall or winter and pot them up for spring, or grow them in pots for a year before placing in the garden.  The one plant I always get from them that I can not find anywhere else is Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.  It is BY FAR the BEST Dahlia ever with dark red single flowers and dark purple leaves, growing 2-3′ tall.  It will ‘wow’ everyone who comes into your garden.  Don’t be without it.  Order it once and soon you’ll be able to divide it over and over.  Just remember when you divide Dahlias, you MUST have part of the root attached, not just a bulbous end.

Another couple fantastic groundcovers, reliable and neat, that I use over and over especially to accent large plants are Dymondia and Senecio serpens.

Senecio serpens in front of young succulents and bamboo

I like the smaller serpens variety as it doesn’t get large and gross but it is a bit more tender so check your zone.  Its a great blue accent and since its a succulent, low water.

Dymondia again is a workhorse.  Its a steppable that works where others will not.  Drought tolerant, likes full sun, it accents plants like this Chrondopetalum tectorum , another fantastic plant, or Phormiums.

Dymondia highlights Chrondopetalums (in background) and Libertia grandifloras (foreground)

While we are on the subject of blue, a new Podocarpus is on the market called ‘Icee Blue’.  Its a MUST HAVE.  Podocarpus are great for narrow spots, for shade, and are drought tolerant once established.

Podocarpus (in corner) with dymondia and Hellebore

Helleborus argutifolius is another drought tolerant, sun tolerant, plant I use extensively.  It is an evergreen Hellebore with chartreuse flowers in the spring which are a knockout when massed.  Also the above plants in the photo are deer proof.

Centradenia grandiflora is a new plant on the market.  It has flowers like a Bouganvillea but grows only 2′ tall.  Great tall groundcover or accent, it is evergreen and its leaves are reddish in the winter.  Here it is with another fantastic plant Cordyline ‘Festival’.

Centradenia with Cordyline ‘Festival’

Scutellaria ‘Texas Rose’ is another unusual groundcover available from Digging Dog. Also Saponaria ‘Max Frei’ is a workhorse flowering ground cover that is actually a very old cultivar but not carried by many anymore.  Digging Dog has it.

Agave ‘sharkskin’ with armerias and succulents

I, of course, could go on and on, but one more is an agave.  It is an eyestopper because it is so neat and unusual.  Agave ‘Sharkskin’, is well worth its price.  Slow so buy it in 15 gallons.

Another view of Agave Sharkskin. WOW

If you like this post of great, unusual and reliable plants, let me know and I can post some more.  If you are interested in low water gardens that still look lush and interesting, see my new eBook on Gardening for a Dry California Future.  Good Gardening!

A Sense of Place or A Sensibility of Place

In my work I can always tell where a person is from. No, not from their accent but from what kind of landscape they desire.  Usually, this is a memory deep in their subconscious from their childhood–their initial Sense of Place.

Most city people will tell you they have no idea what a ‘Sense of Place’ is, nor do they have one.  But I’d have to disagree having dealt with hundreds of clients.  It’s there, they just don’t identify it.

I grew up in the West.  Granted, it was California West, and Los Angeles, yet I spent all my summers in the high mountains of San Bernadino.  I also grew up next door to the largest municipal park in the world–Griffith Park.  Most of Griffith Park is still undeveloped chaparral.  During the 60’s when I was growing up, I probably spent all my free time roaming the hills of the Park.  My father was an avid and very good gardener.  He loved to bring home plants from around the world and see if he could grow them.  That spurred my interest in gardening.  Along with the exotic landscape of my childhood, the dry desert environments and the mountains are my sense of Place.

That sense of environmental familiarity is like comfort food when you’re sick.  I believe that it’s hard-wired into us.  For most of our time as humans on this earth, we stayed in one area.  Even if we were nomadic, we were familiar with the environments we wandered and these environments were not too dissimilar.  But now we are on the move all the time.  Most of us are ‘not from here’, and probably grew up in a completely different landscape, with different weather patterns, plants, temperatures, and cultural elements.  All that moving around, as well as living in concrete jungles, misinforms our innate senses and leaves us Bereft of Place.

With the influx of people to California from the mid-west and East Coast in the 80’s and 90’s, these people brought their sense of Place with them.  Those clients want a landscape with plants like birches, lawns, hostas, or daffodils. One client I consulted showed me a fairly steep front yard and told me he wanted lawn.  I had to educate him on why that was not possible, nor desirable in Northern California.  He was, of course, from back East.

CA Madrones--Arbutus menziesii

Garrya elliptica-Silk Tassle bush...a beautiful CA native

Even though each of us, subconsciously, desires the psychological comfort of our childhood home, I would advocate that we have to become adaptive to where we are, casting out our old sense of Place for a new one.  In our modern world where we are going ‘nowhere’ and from ‘nowhere’, in a world where our role as caretakers of the Earth is becoming increasingly critical, this is essential.

What I am suggesting is that we take a look at where we are living now, and live there for a time before changing things around.  Understand the weather patterns, where the winds come from, how much snow or rainfall you get. Look around at what is growing there naturally; consider what the birds are eating, the kind of cover they might need; see what is invasive, not-native and intruding on the landscape; notice your drainage patterns, or snowfall drifts; understand how the animals are moving in your landscape, their corridors.  Research the history of the area.  Search for those clues.  Understand historically what took place that co-existed and what occurred that altered.  Once you get a feeling for all that, then consider how you want to ‘improve’ your property, nudging it into a more harmonic existence with the natural landscape, removing the old scars of someone else’s Sense of Place.

Earliest city in Montana. Homesteaders sense of Place

Scars of people confusing their own sense of Place with the existing landscape are everywhere and all pervasive no matter where you live.  Where I live, it began with the homesteaders coming to get their free 160 acres at the turn of the 20th century, to work this rocky barren soil, or run sheep and cattle.  In order for these farmers and ranchers to work this land, they had to first move the native Indians onto reservations, then exterminate the Bison which would ruin their crops, build dams, kill natural predators, unearth mountains of rocks, build barbed wire fences, and plant non-native crops.  They did all this not because they were terrible people, but because this was their comfort zone, their Sense of Place which they tried to impose upon this foreign landscape.

What Lewis & Clark saw in Montana

Today people are still altering this area by building homes on windy bluffs for the view (when the smart thing to do is to build down in the bottoms for protection), or using cheap, non-native building materials, over-building such as Mc-Mansions, building on wildlife corridors and habitat, planting invasive species, irrigating in wasteful ways, building fences not friendly to wildlife, over-grazing, and other acts of insensitivity to this Place called the West.

People have a short cultural memory, a few generations at best.  Long ago our cultures of Place were passed on verbally, through story and song.  Today its’ what you see when you got there, or how long you’ve lived in a place, or maybe the story of just one past generation.  That lack of continuity of Story makes us fragmented people without true History of Place.

I guided school children in Muir Woods/Muir Beach for many years.  Muir Woods is a National Monument, and a very much altered, although breathtaking, environment.  There are asphalt pathways with railings to keep you from wandering among the trees and damaging them.  But no one remembers that in the 1930’s, the landscape was altered even more, as people picnicked by the stream, trampling the understory and planting lawns.  A railway actually went through the Park till 1929.  And before that it was a well traveled route of trade for the Miwok Indians.  What we remember though, is what we’ve seen in our lifetime.

Ancient sense of Place and Wonder

In the Greater Yellowstone Area, outfitters who came here 20 years ago remember many more elk than today.  They use that memory as a marker against which to gauge what they think the reintroduction of native wolves are doing to the population.  But with the 1988 fires, the number of elk exploded due to increased habitat.  Locals will tell you that there used to be 5000 head of elk here every winter; now there are only 1500.  But if you ask my 86 year old neighbor who grew up here, he’ll tell you that there were no overwintering elk here when he grew up.  And if you go back further, you’ll be hard-pressed to find evidence of much use of elk by the native americans who lived here. They mostly dined on deer, sheep and some bison.

What we need today is to develop a Sensibility of Present Place–the ability to appreciate and respond to all the emotional, aesthetic, scientific, historical, and environmental complexities and influences of where we are living.

Limber Pine and Doug Fir seedling trees–reforesting my property

I finally got my tree seedling order.  I almost didn’t get my Limber Pines, but at the last minute the CCD found at least 1/2 my order.  Today was a frigid day, hovering around 35 degrees with a chilling wind–perfect for planting.  I gathered up my pick, several containers of left-over chippings from splitting wood last fall, a can of polymer crystals, and the plants and off I went to the back forty of the property.

What I used for mulch...leftovers from splitting wood

Since the trees were in tubes, just little things, I thought it would be no problem planting the 60 that I had.  But the ground is all rock, so planting just 15 today was enough.   I dug all the holes first, excavating about twice as wide as deep.  The depth should be no more than the plant itself.  Remove all the rocks, but save them for later.

For a long time now I’ve noticed and wondered why the limber pines seemed to congregate next to large boulders, sometimes even growing in a boulder pocket.  Today I solved the mystery.  Believe it or not, it was way easier to dig a hole next to a boulder—even next to one that had a tree by it that I had to cut down because of beetle kill (meaning there would be roots nearby).  That was because between the wind and snow, over years and years soil tended to pile up against the rocks.  Elsewhere, in the open, there was so little soil, mostly rock, that when I went to plant the tiny tree I had a hard time finding enough actual soil to refill the hole.

I learned fast and started digging next to rocks.  I also know that Limber Pines regenerate nicely after fires.  Although the pines themselves are not specifically fire adapted, after a fire when the birds cache their seeds, the seeds grow quickly in a newly burnt area.  With that in mind, I planted in the areas where I burnt brush piles this winter.  Those areas were also really easy to dig in.  Why?  Although there were still rocks there, there were NO roots to contend with from grasses.  The soil was thick and loose there.

Mystery solved!

One interesting thing that happened…I saw a nice start for a hole by a rock and thought to put a tree there.  I dug the hole around a bit deeper and uncovered a cache of meat!  Some animal this winter (the meat smelled fresh still) had cached several fistfuls of what looked to me like deer meat.  The meat was not chewed or regurgitated, but in slabs.  Koda immediately grabbed the chunks and re-cached them elsewhere.

Where the cache was.

In planting each tree, I added a small amount of polymer crystals.

This stuff is a good moisure keeper

I used these before and highly recommend them where it will be difficult to water and in order to give plants a start.  Since there is no irrigation nor water available where I’m planting, these crystals will absorb a great amount of water and expand about 5 times their size.  Then they slowly release the moisture.  Another but much more expensive alternative used on oaks in California is a product called Dri-Water.  But watch out with the crystals. Newcomers to the product tend to think they’re not putting hardly enough in the hole.  If you go over the recommended amount, the crystals ‘bubble’ out of the soil like an alien.

I filled the hole, being careful to keep the roots straight and deep, putting some crystals on the bottom of the hole, some in the middle after filling.  Tamped the soil down around the tree, making sure I didn’t plant the tree too deeply.  Never plant a tree deeper than its crown.  In this case, with the seedling so small, basically don’t plant it lower than it is in the pot.  Then I mulched the tree with my wood chips.  If you use a tight mulch, like from a store bought bag, then you have to be careful again about smothering the crown.  I’ve planted a lot of California natives and the one thing they are all sensitive to is crown rot.  Its better to plant too high on a mound so moisture runs off.  But in this case, in a state where it snows but rarely rains, planting on a mound seemed like overkill.  The chips are natural and loose, allowing air to pass through.

Burn areas were easy to dig in

Remember we saved all the rocks.  I took those rocks and placed them around the tree and over the mulch.  I’ve found that rocks can be one of the best mulches as they keep the moisture in underneath.

Lastly, I put a seedling tree guard around each tree.  Unfortunately they only had a few left of these at CCD from last year.  I’m used to using these in California on native trees in outlying areas.  They give the seedling a chance for protection against browsing.  I cut these in half because I’m having a difficult time finding them for sale around Cody.  None of the stores even know what I’m talking about.

Can you tell which are the Pines and which are the Douglas Firs?

The reason I like these is because they’re easy and also yellow, making it easy for me to find the seedlings to water them over the summer.  Of course, I can use homemade chicken wire ones; or take coat hanger wire, make an umbrella and throw netting over it.  Just make sure each year to raise the height to accommodate the tree growth.  But I prefer these simple plastic tubes.  I hope I can find more.

I’ll have to hand water these guys about every 2 weeks for the first year, even with the polymers.  If I succeed in a 50% viability I’ll be happy.  Natives are hard to start.  Probably the 2nd year it would be good to water them 1 time/month.  By the third year they should be on their own.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Edible Low Water Landscapes

The no-brainer of edible landscapes are fruit trees and vegetable boxes.  But there is more, much more, especially for gardeners in temperate climates.  Those are the climates I know and here are some great landscape plants that have edible parts, usually fruits, for your garden design process.

One of my most all-time favorites is Ugni molinae, a Chilean plant that was imported to England in the 1800’s, grown ‘under glass’ and became a favorite food of Queen Victoria.  Hardy to around 10 degrees, its a handsome small leafed evergreen shrub.  Its fruit ripens in the late fall, tiny sweet berries that can be picked and eaten or made into jams.

Ugni molinae…yum yum

The fruit

I’ve already mentioned Ribes sp. in previous posts.  These are edible, though kind of tasteless berries.  Make them into pies, jams, and jellies.

The Genus Prunus, Cherry, has lots of landscape plants with edible fruits.  They are considered landscape plants because the seeds are big, yielding less pulp, but edible they are still and birds love them.  I’ll cover just one here, Prunus lyonii, a native to the Catalina Islands so technically this is a California native.  Its a large shrub or small tree growing 15-20′, drought tolerant once established and hardy to around 15 degrees.  Evergreen, large leaves, this is a very attractive functional shrub that can be used effectively as a screen. The fruits were an important source of food to California Indians.

Prunus lyonii fruit

Another great landscape shrub used for screening that has delicious fruit is the Pineapple guava or Feijoa sellowiana. My guatemalean crew is always collecting the tasty fruit that none of my clients seem to know is edible.  Not only is the fruit edible, but frankly I like the taste of the flowers even more.

Arbutus unedo makes a fine shrub or smallish tree.  It is evergreen with reddish peeling bark.  The tasty fruit makes a nice snack.

Some other low water landscape plants to incorporate are Thornless Blackberries, Citrus of all types, Gingko biloba tree, Italian Stone Pine, Sambucus (Elderberry), Figs and other types of drought tolerant fruit trees that work for your climate.

And don’t forget many ‘weeds’ are edible such as Dandelions (when you pull them in the spring the young ones are delicious), miner’s lettuce, and nettle (must be cooked but better tasting than spinach and highly nutritious).

Veggie gardens are a great addition to gardens but they require water every day.  Why not incorporate plants into your landscape that require little water yet give produce.

For more information on low water edibles as well as low water gardening tips, see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future available at Amazon.

Decomposed Granite Patios

I’ve done 100’s of decomposed granite patios and walkways in northern California and learned a few things as I went along. 

When I first began, the industry didn’t have a ‘hardener’ that you could add.  That made for a semi-successful installation, because in the winter your walkway was mushy at best.  With the advent of hardeners, the DG comes out quite nice, with minimal mush.

Get the DG pre-mixed with the hardener (some landscape outfits will deliver like this) or mix on your own in a wheelbarrow per the proportion instructions. 

Prepare a bed that’s about 5″ deep.  Use an attractive edging.  I am totally committed to Ryerson header, which is a thin hard steel that’s bendable.  That’s because it disappears.  It is expensive though, comes in 16′ lengths with its own stake.

The other plastic headers are ugly.  An alternative are the many colors and types of Trek, which is a recycled plastic material.  Use the 1/2″ wide size.  The advantage is that its more bendable than the steel, but it doesn’t disappear, so its part of your project design.

How to Build a Decomposed Granite Patio

Lay down several inches of road base and use a compacter to compact it very hard and tight.  Order enough DG to lay down 2″ on top, compacted.  Then here’s the secret:  apply the DG (with the hardener mixed in good) at the rate of 1/2″ at a time. 

Then compact.  If you apply too thickly, the stuff won’t harden well.  The DG has to be moist when putting it down, but not sloppy.  Compact 1/2″ at a time till you have your desired height.  Sprinkle with water.

Another method I’ve used quite successfully was told to me by the contractor at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco.  All their paths are done this way, and they get tons of traffic. 

For this method, DON’T use hardener.  Apply a good road base foundation of several inches, maybe 3 or 4″.  Then apply only 1/2″-3/4″ of compacted DG.  Essentially this is a dusting. 

You will have to reapply every few years depending on your traffic.  I used this method for a patio over 4 years ago and still have not reapplied.  I think this is a superior method because you completely eliminate any winter mushiness.  Even with a hardener there will be some mushiness.

Some warnings:  DO NOT try to apply a hardener after the fact.  I once went to a potential job where the gardener had installed a walkway, then put the hardener in after he was done. Oh my God!  What a mess.  The whole thing had to be removed and redone.

Decomposed granite path

Local fines used as Decomposed Granite

Closeup of local fines and 3 Rivers Paver inserted for effect

Closeup of local fines and 3 Rivers Paver inserted for effect

Next warning:-  Do not install DG directly  next to an indoor situation.  DG tracks.  It’s granite and granite gets on your shoes and gets in the house.  You need at least a few steps (not many) before you go inside. 

My son’s elementary school built a new gym for millions of dollars.  The landscape architect speced DG as the hardscape all around the gym.  That was a disaster.  All those kids tracked that DG into the new hardwood floor and ruined it!  They finally installed concrete as a spacer.

Decomposed Granite grey

Decomposed granite patios

Next, the materials.  Of course, every area is different.  DG in the Bay Area came in gray, gold, or dirt brown.  I’ve mixed them for different colors.  Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit. 

A new rock came out on the market from a local quarry that was cheaper (DG is expensive.  Last I looked it was around $80/yard!).  I was able to get ‘fines’ and used that successfully with the hardener for a coral color.

Anoter view of sunken DG patio

Decomposed Granite patio with edging

Decomposed granite ryerson header edging

Decomposed granite patio and ryerson header edging

For patios, (see my complete post on patios)I usually don’t like to have a visible drain, so I put the drain(s) on the outside in the shrub area.  The exceptions are like the previous post with the photo of the sunken patio.  Of course, I had no choice.  But really, always remember your drainage.

One neat new alternative to DG is permeable concrete.  Its more expensive than ordinary concrete, but it is nicer, much nicer, on the environment.  Its fairly new and my understanding is that a good powerwash in the spring opens the pores and keeps it permeable.

Permeable concrete

Permeable concrete

Permeable concrete closeup

Permeable concrete closeup

If you found this short entry useful, but need more information, click on this link for my full downloadable eBook on patios and walkways, priced at only $2.99.  I’ve collected hundreds of real-life questions from do-it-yourselfers and all those questions will be answered in this short pamphlet.

I’ve also included information on DG  pricing, colors, how to customize colors, and drainage.  If you are not sure if you should use DG or another material.

I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of concrete patios and their preparation, mortared flagstone, flagstone on sand vs. flagstone with DG, as well as how to prepare gravel paths and patios.

Chock full of information in just 46 pages with additional color photos.  If you like the eBook, please comment in the Amazon section.  I appreciate all my readers and thank you all very much.

Decomposed granite patios Getty museum LA

Calstone pavers

Calstone Pavers using Slate squares as the ‘edging’

Read More Information about Decomposed Granite Stabilizer

California gardens are only a Slice of Paradise

The formality of 17th and 18th century European gardens is a reflection of people’s desire to control their environment and the natural forces around them.  They were still surrounded by wildness.  The comfort of a garden with lines, hedges, and geometric shapes was their safety.

Today people yearn for the natural.  We are surrounded by non-nature, non-wildness.  We all want contact with what we cannot control.

That is why my clients, as a general rule, all say they want a ‘natural’ looking garden.

Having lived in northern California for so long, gardening was my salvation.  I spent my childhood summers in the San Bernadino mountains and backpacked the Sierras and Rockies in my teens.  I always yearned for that feeling of being ‘lost in nature’.  I understood my clients deepest longings.

This week visiting some clients and potential clients, I was pleasantly surprised with some of my installations from last spring.  As a general rule, I need to wait at least 3 seasons to take photos.  But here are a few photos from last years installations with comments below.  Besides, I bought a Nikon P90 and I’m loving it and excited to post some of the photos.  Its really lightweight too so I can carry it in my daypack.

For more information on how you can design your own dream garden see my ebook on Design.

This yard began as a flat rectangle.

This yard began as a flat rectangle.

This is a gravel garden.  See Beth Chatto's gravel garden.  Arbor/fence existing

This is a gravel garden. See Beth Chatto’s book on gravel gardens. Arbor/fence existing

Very small patio with grand view

Very small patio with grand view

Decomposed Granite sunken patio edged with stone and Ryerson's header.

Decomposed Granite sunken patio edged with stone and Ryerson’s header.

Decomposed granite patio using a creative mix of fines to achieve our color

Decomposed granite patio using a creative mix of fines to achieve our color

Decomposed Granite patio with Lots of natives with view

Decomposed Granite patio with Lots of natives with view

Decomposed granite patio with flagstone shower

Decomposed granite patio with flagstone shower

The view from all patios.  These are drought tolerant plants, mostly natives, on an Oak woodland interface

Decomposed Granite steps with headers. The view from all patios. These are drought tolerant plants, mostly natives, on an Oak woodland interface

This is a different property with a great view of SF bay

This is a different property with a great view of SF bay

Plants as Sculpture.  Each pot has a different architectural plant

Plants as Sculpture. Each pot has a different architectural plant

New plantings, the owner choose the chess set.

New plantings, the owner choose the chess set.

Except the small lawn, the beds are all low water, mostly succulents/natives

Except the small lawn, the beds are all low water, mostly succulents/natives