Rain Garden Design in the shade

Drainage low spot provides opportunity

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Red arrow marks the outfall of the drainage pipe.
First rain shows how the area fills with water.
Plant concept for wet feet.
Side view of the plant concept.
Planting day.
Plants after heavy winter rains 6 months later.
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A landscape plan must bend to the conditions found at the site. In this garden there were numerous challenges beginning with influence of both the shade and roots of Monterey pines, the cool summer climate of Pebble Beach and the clay soils with poor drainage.

The site also had a few natural seeps that added additional moisture year round. A drainage pipe directed water away from the house and down the slope to the low part of the property where standing water could be observed during the rainy season. Could this be a great place to put a rain garden?

The plan objective included
  • removing the invasive Bermuda grass that was fueled by year round groundwater
  • native and ornamental plants that could take a wet foot year round
  • plants that deer would not be attracted to
  • plants tolerant of shade conditions—light to deep
  • plants that could be submerged during heavier rain events
  • plants that would be able to naturalize to the conditions of the area

Removing the Bermuda grass required muscle. Solarization is generally a great way to burn away persistent weeds in warmer climates. If you have warm summers and weedy patches, do a little web search on how best to apply this process.

An early attempt to solarize the grass by covering with clear plastic during the “summer” proved ineffective in this climate for the most part. The season never got enough warm days with direct sun to burn the grass and roots. If anything the grass grew lush with the increased warmth under the plastic. So it was back to tedious mechanical removal by hand using shovels. This took more than several man hours to clear the area for the fall planting. Special shout out to Julio and his uncle from Valdez Gardening for their tireless and professional services!

Bermuda grass had taken over the lower drainage field due to the abundant groundwater.
Area prepared for solarization but there was not enough sun and heat to kill the grass.

Around the outer rim—where the slope was higher—plants were chosen for tolerance to seasonal moist soils but not complete submersion.

The Plant list

This list included:

  • Arctostaphylos ‘Carmel Sur’ manzanita
  • Pacific Coast Iris
  • Ribes speciosum
  • Salvia spathecea
  • Senecio ‘Angels Wings’
  • Shasta ‘Crazy Daizy’
  • Vaccinium ovatum

Within the deepest part of the drainage area plants were chosen for their ability to be submerged during the wet winter season. This turned out to be prophetic as the 2022-23 winter season was one of the wettest in California written history!

This list included:

  • Chondrapetalum  elephantinum
  • Juncus patens  ‘Blue Elk’
  • Muhlenbergia rigens

Cages were used to cover the larger shrubs to minimize tugging and tasting by deer until the new roots got established. The deer left this planting area alone and there has been little evidence of browsing since installation.

A year later

With a very wet winter most of the drainage basin became filled with water; about 2 feet deep after a down pour! The plants that were chosen for underwater submersion came through with flying colors and looked great months after their 2022-23 baptism.

The plants chosen for seasonal soggy feet also did well with the exception of the ‘Angel Wings’ Senecio. For the ‘Angel Wings’ the combination of shade and poor drainage caused them to struggle even though they endured. These plants have since been moved to a mound in the sun that provides better drainage and they look much happier. We planted white yarrow in its place and that plant has been spreading out rapidly. The yarrow has the added bonus of out-competing the returning persistent Bermuda grass that threatens to grow back into the area.

With this success I am contemplating adding California wild rose and some Woodwardia fimbriata below the oak tree. This would be a good niche for these plants to take advantage of the free ground water.

Sheet Mulching knocks down the weeds

Got a weedy lot? A dying lawn that needs replacing? Want to improve soil for a new landscape project? Then it is time to consider the benefits of sheet mulching.

What is sheet mulching?

Imagine laying out a magic carpet that improved the soil but decreased the need to weed and water too. That magic carpet is a layering technique that utilizes recycled cardboard, compost and wood chips. It’s really very low tech and simple to do in most any garden application.

Here are the basic steps:

  • Remove or cut back any tall or thick stemmed plant materials that will poke up under the cardboard. Low lying weeds or weed whacked grasses can just be covered up with cardboard because they will just breakdown and add to the soil.
Oxalis and Calla lily are very persistent in this area of the garden. This is where sheet mulching can really help knock back unwanted plants.
Collect LOTS of cardboard for a sheet mulching session. It is okay to do in stages if it is hard to find or store materials too.

Collect lots of cardboard!

  • There will need to be some cardboard collecting in advance of the sheet mulching event. Look for non-waxed large boxes that can be broken down flat. Smaller pieces can be used to fill in and around gaps in the cardboard so get a range of sizes. It is okay to double up cardboard in problem areas to really squelch the weeds.
  • Remove any staples, tape or packing slips in sleeves so that the cardboard has no plastic and metal bits attached to it. You do not want to be finding long pieces of packing tape floating up through the chips over time!
  • There is cardboard that can be purchased in big rolls which may be more convenient but most scavenged cardboard is free.
  • Newspapers can be used to if put down thickly.
Take out any staples, tape or packing labels before laying down cardboard. If there is bright printing on the cardboard; face that to the ground so it is not visible.

Get all surfaces wet

  • Wet down the soil that the cardboard will be covering.
  • The cardboard should be made damp as well. This will help keep the the cardboard in place and keep edges from curling up through the mulch.
Get the ground damp! Here there were already older wood chips in place. The cardboard was laid out on top of the existing wood chips.
Cardboard should be soggy!

Laying down the cardboard

  • Cardboard should be laid down to cover the soil surface. All sheets should overlap by at least 4 inches so not surviving weeds can grow through. The cardboard stops light from reaching seeds and the plants that were covered. This generally kills most of the weeds with a few notable exceptions (oxalis, Bermuda grass, ivy, poison oak, convolvulus, and a few more very hard to kill plants).
  • Wood chips are spread over the wetted cardboard at about 4-6 inches deep. Don’t skimp here or the cardboard will dry out and become visible. Not a good look!
  • Wood chips from the thickest part of the tree last the longest, but chips that have lots of leaves, needles and small branches contain more nutrients. Very green chips will break down faster and will need to be replenished sooner.
These were some very nice coastal oak and Monterey cypress chips that looked great for a very long time.

Final details

  • Make any adjustments to the chips and cardboard to get best coverage. You want at least 3-4″ of chips with no cardboard showing through.
  • If the the cardboard abuts walkways or edgings, dig out along the edge and push the cardboard down a bit. Cover with the soil removed from the edge so the cardboard does not poke up later.
Here the cardboard has been overlapped and smaller pieces used to fit around the guava that was already in place. Keep the cardboard at least 6″ from the trunk to prevent future bacterial or fungal rot issues.

Drip system considerations

  • If you are installing a drip system – lay out the tubing over the cardboard, mark where the plants will go in with emitters and then hide the 1/2″ and drip tubing with the chips.
  • If the drip is already down, cover with the cardboard but keep the emitters visible where they water existing plants. The cardboard will break down in about a year and add organic matter to the soil.
This drywall saw will easily rip through wet card board and your fingers so use caution with this tool.

When adding plants after sheet mulching

  • On a new plant installation I use a drywall keyhole saw to cut through the wet cardboard to open an area to pop plants into the ground. A box cutter (often recommended with sheet mulching) is not equal to the task in my opinion.
  • When planting through the chips with new plants it is best to position the plant a little higher than the soil as the chips will break down and fill in around the root zone—possibly covering the crown and causing the plant to fail.
All the weeds have been covered and deprived of light.

El Bosque Garden

This garden held many challenges with shade and roots of mature Monterey Pines, and the browsing of free-ranging deer. Past plantings had not been entirely site appropriate nor deer resistant.

How to build a garden with shade and deer

Our gardener initially wanted to refresh plantings for color that would resist deer and grow well under the pines around the front of the house. Further discussion defined a need for privacy, light blocking from a neighboring property, an enclosed area to stop deer traffic and provide a dog run close to the house.

The neighbors outdoor lighting leaked through the grape stake fence on one side of the property and there was a desire to plant some sort of hedge to block out the unwanted glare. This was another challenge as the large Monterey Pines would not allow planting in the root zone where hedging would work best to solve the bright lights from next door.

The solution for this part of the garden was to build a mound that would allow for direct planting without disturbing the roots of the pines. The plants chosen were the most deer resistant that research could determine! There are NO ABSOLUTELY DEER PROOF PLANTS! Most (but not all) were native varieties that would thrive under the pines and dappled light.

Initial concept for position of mound and required height of shrubs to block lights. No plant selections yet.

So began Phase 1

A length of rope is the quickest way to visually define where the mound would be developed

We marked out the area where a mound would be built during the day using a long piece of rope. In the evening, the client placed flags on the mound where a shrub would best block the lights. This information helped refine the final shape and position of the mound before the soil was ordered. A second benefit of using a rope is using the length to calculate the final area to order soil. We got a topsoil mix with extra compost added to make the mound.

Flags were used to mark where plants would be best positioned to block the neighbors lights
This is the view of the open deer passage past the house where the future fence and gate would be built

Mounds are a great way to provide drainage for heavy soils and many native plants are not keen on soggy feet such as ceanothus. No holes were dug into the root zone of the pine trees and the mound was kept well away from the trunk of the trees. Cardboard was laid down in preparation of the soil and would keep hungry tree roots at bay for the first year while shrubs became established.

Mound in place before irrigation was added by the crew

Another bonus of the mound is that it raises the plants up by 12″-18″ and increases the height of the growing shrubs from the very beginning. The raised contour will help direct rain towards the end of the property and adds visual interest to an otherwise very flat area.

Planting day! Super easy with no roots in the way.

All of the plants were covered with mesh or cages to prevent snacking by deer before the roots got established. All of the plants were planted with gopher baskets as there were gopher mounds noted in the back area. This was just simple insurance that everything would get the best start possible for the first year.

We covered all of the new plantings with mesh and cages in case deer tugged plants out of the ground before roots grew. Oh yeah… and gopher baskets!

It was a gift that the regular garden service (that the client employs for general maintenance) was willing to work with the new plan to build a mound and install drip for the new plants. They put down the spaghetti tubing with emitters after all was planted. The gorilla hair mulch capper hid all of the hardware underneath.

Looking back towards the house were the deer often cut through to the road out front

I did get feedback from the crew that they don’t like the gorilla hair for maintenance because it holds on to the pine needle drop and make the use of a blower problematic. I have a preference for using—especially around ferns—as it really holds moisture, weeds can’t get into as easily and it sticks to the mound. We will see what the long term results are about using this over wood chips on the mound.

Is anything Deer Proof?

We selected Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica californica) for the main light blocking section of the mound with a ‘Julia Phelps’ ceanothus on one end for color, and, a California Silk Tassel (Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’) for show on the other end. A low growing manzanita (Arctostaphyllos ‘John Dourley’) was chosen for the central section to blot out light below the Pacific Wax Myrtles. Artemesia ‘David’s Choice’, Salvia ‘Dara’s Choice’, Salvia spathecea, and Santa Barbara Daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) were chosen as they are generally unpalatable to deer. Verbena Lilacina ‘Paseo Rancho’, is a California native that is becoming very popular in the trade and has a long bloom period. There is some evidence that deer are less likely to eat, as well as the smaller leaved ceanothus varieties (‘Julia Phelps’ in this case).

This is several months after planting and the ‘Dara’s Choice’ really took off

There were a few snips missing from the Lilacina last time I visited so there was a tasting after we took the netting off in May. Time will tell about desirability, as hungry deer will try anything once, and, well watered plants are especially attractive to deer during a drought.

Another salvia—S. spathacea or hummingbird sage—spread out quickly

Just to recap, the mound building and early planting happened in January and February catching the end of the very poor rains this year. Most California natives should be installed by November and into winter to gain root growth before the dry season hits. This was a classic year in which having a drip really helped get everything off to a good start. Hand watering would have been more work with perhaps not as good results (depending on dedication to watering).

The new fence and gate are visible in the background that now prevents the deer from walking past the house. The deer have not jumped this fence as they cannot see where they will land. And the owner has a dog.

So did the mound solve the lighting problem? Yes and no. Although the height of the mound and the rapid growth have done some good in minimizing the light it will be another year before the Pacific Wax Myrtles get wide and thick enough to really block the light. They can potentially grow 3 feet a year in good culture conditions (which looks like they will). We talked about hanging cloth to block light on the backs of the cages in the interim but patience may be the key here.

Small Project Sheet Mulching

Recently I removed a lot of bamboo in the front of the house. It was not getting the water it needed and the invasive yellow oxalis was beginning to move in. After clearing the bamboo and much of the oxalis, I planted a guava against the fence. Of course, as soon as the guava was watered the oxalis returned. This was a perfect opportunity to lay down some cardboard to suppress the oxalis before it set up camp in the new planting.

Collected cardboard for sheet mulching
Gathered cardboard for covering the oxalis

Usually sheet mulching is large scale and recommended for removing a lawn or preparing a new garden plot. But sheet mulching can be done a little at a time as materials are collected and time is available. It’s less of a time commitment to do small patches, but just as satisfying to put together.

Collecting cardboard is easier because only a few pieces are required – not the mass volume needed to kill a lawn. This is true of the wood chips or mulch too. A few bags will get the job done. This is a low exertion solo job; no crew required.

Here are the basic steps:

  • Prepare the area that will be sheet mulched by removing tall plants, stems, clods or other objects that will prevent the cardboard from laying flat
  • Remove tape, labels and staples from the cardboard – collapse box to lay flat
  • Wet the soil of the area where the cardboard will be installed
  • Pre-wet the cardboard – it will conform to the soil better when soggy
  • Arrange the cardboard around the planting leaving room around the base of the plant – about 6″
  • Make sure and overlap any cardboard pieces at least 4″ so that the weeds don’t grow up through the spaces in between
  • Give the cardboard another spritz of water to make sure it is laying flat
  • Cover all the cardboard with wood chips to a depth of 4″ (depending on wood chip materials – more if mostly composed of greens like leaves and pine needles)
Cardboard should have tape removed
Remove all the tape or labels from the cardboard before using
Staples should be taken out of the cardboard before use
Remove the staples with pliers – easier done when the cardboard is wet

Any labels, tape or staples should be considered contaminants and be removed in advance of installation. The tape or labels will resurface as the cardboard and wood chips break down. It is not a good look.

Two bags of wood chips were easy to pop in the trunk to bring home for this project

Wood chips can vary greatly depending on the tree source. Sometimes the chips have lots of ground up branches and leaves and it is quite light and fluffy. Branches are described as the ramial portion of the tree and carry most of the nutrients from the growing tips. Chips from branches will break down very fast and lose volume quickly. This type of wood chip should be applied with a greater depth with this loss in mind—say 4′-6″

Wood chips from the heavier trunk portions of trees are made up of woody lignins. Lignin tissue takes much longer to break down—sometimes years if sourced from hardwood. Wood chips from these sources can be applied at 4″ or less (but enough to completely cover the cardboard).

Pre-wet the ground so that the cardboard will lay flat
Pre wet the cardboard on both sides

Pre-wetting the ground and the cardboard is the defining step that makes for an aesthetically pleasing installation. Skipping the pre-wetting will create curling cardboard that pokes up rudely and ruining the installation. Wetting all after spreading is not the same effect. Don’t skip pre-wetting!

A dry wall knife is a great tool for cutting cardboard—even when wet

Most sheet mulching how-to’s recommend using a utility knife to cut the cardboard, but I find that they are inadequate for double thickness or wet cardboard. My favorite tool has been a dry wall knife that can really punch through the cardboard even when wet. Be mindful that this blade can give a wicked cut if handled carelessly!

Arrange the cardboard with 4″ overlap and cut back cardboard from the trunk 6″

Make sure that there is about 6″ of open soil around the trunk with the cardboard AND after putting down the chips. Pilling up wood chips around the trunk in a “wood chip volcano” just promotes bacterial rots and fungus by holding moisture close to the trunk and preventing air flow. Avoid causing long term problems for your trees and shrubs!

Keep wood chips 6″ away from the trunk to prevent pathogens from moving in

That is all there is to small scale sheet mulching. It is easy to extend the sheet mulching at a later time by adding new card board overlapping the old the cardboard edges. Just move the wood chips off a bit at the edge and start a new course of cardboard. More chips are added to the new areas of cardboard.

The cardboard should last about a year before breaking down into nutrients for the soil. During that time the cardboard will effectively block the light to weed seeds and prevent sprouting growth. Unlike polyester weed cloth, rain will be able to percolate into the soil through the cardboard adding seasonal moisture. It is amazing how many worms show up in a sheet mulched area!

All the cardboard is covered and creating a good barrier for weeds and seeds

In the case of oxalis, it takes several years of repeated applications of sheet mulching to really control this invasive South African bulb. Oxalis has a deep bulb that can survive years of drought. If reapplying sheet mulch and chips DO NOT RAKE BACK THE OLD WOOD CHIPS TO REUSE! This can transfer seeds from the oxalis into the new layer of wood chips. Instead, just cover the old wood chips with new cardboard and then add the new chips over the top.

Happy sheet mulching!

Maximizing crop in a Keyhole Garden

Even the smallest space can offer bounty! It just takes a little planning and forethought about the placement and choices of crops.

In this video below I explain how to use succession to plant vegetables close together knowing their days to maturity. For example when planting a long days to maturity crop such as broccoli a shorter crop such as radishes are planted right next to it. The intention is that the radishes will be eaten and long gone by the time the broccoli has grown large and covered the space.

In a nutshell, rows will be interspersed with long season next to a short season crop and then another longer season crop. Sowing lettuce next to carrots followed by radishes gives the lettuce and radish the room to grow, and adds a bit of cover for tender carrot seedlings as they get some size. Lettuce can be sown thickly and harvesting as baby greens can begin a few weeks after planting as lettuce matures after 30-45 days.

The same strategy can be used for the radishes, depending on the variety, as radishes can be thinned and harvested while small and tender and continuously until a larger size. French radishes can begin to be harvested at 2 weeks! If growing Asian daikon style radish (as mentioned in the video) it can take 50-60 days for full size and some large radish varieties can take 120 days. So keep that in mind when calculating succession growth as carrots take about 100-120 days to maturity.

Carrot seedling with radishes
Radishes are fast approaching harvest size and the carrots planted underneath will fill in the vacancies

Maximize the growing space as plants are growing. Don’t plant 3 adjacent rows of long season vegetables at the same time. There will be so much crowding that some of the plants will fail to thrive from lack of light and root room. And there will be more issues with mildew, aphids and other pests by crowding. Stagger planting times so that Broccoli is finishing as a new row is just beginning to replace. Plant frequently – eat frequently!

When using succession planting, it is important to add lots of compost and/or use liquid fertilizers (such as fish emulsion) to keep nutrients available at all times. Side dressing with compost during the season really works as does adding compost every time new plants are added. I like to start most seeds in six pack and transplant in as there is more control on the spacing over sowing in place.

Also, ROTATE THE CROPS! There will be less issues with pests if vegetables like onions and beets are not continuously grown in any one area. For example, onions are susceptible to onion root maggots that live in the soil. Planting onions in the same spot would give such a pest an a huge advantage. Leaf miners are another pest that love beets and Swiss chard. The life cycle is dependent on the ability of the destructive tunneling maggots to drop off the plant into the soil and then hatch into little flies that then lay eggs on the leaves. Good to know!

Beets grown in keyhole garden
This bed has leaf miners that have been tunneling in the beet leaves. I am using Spinosad and checking the leaves everyday to remove the eggs to break this pernicious cycle.

Strawberry Barrel 2020

After a rough start the strawberry barrel has hit its productive stride. I am very happy with the results. It took a while for the soil chemistry to readjust from the epic overload of compost initially. Now there are happy worms in the compost tube and harmony has been restored.

Although there is only one remaining strawberry plant from the original set up, the success of growing greens has been a happy trade off. The barrel has grown Bok Choy, Tatsoi, lettuces, parsley, celery, tomatoes— and in the top portion—multicolored carrots & potatoes.

Replanting the barrel

Here is a little video I put together to show how I plant into the pockets when refreshing with new greens.


Every gardener I know has a story about gophers. The destruction to choice plants, the frustration of limited deterrents, the wiliness of avoiding traps… it goes on. Only hungry ground squirrels can top these rodents for causing so much garden angst.

The annoying thing is, gophers are very important to gardens and the food web. They aerate soils by tunneling and bring up sub soils that mix with topsoil that – over time – create better soil. They add manure underground right where plants can utilize. Gophers are food for many raptors, herons, egrets, owls, bobcats, cougars, coyotes, badgers, and snakes. Our pets find them tasty too.

That said, most do not want to share their gardens with gophers. So what should one do about this unwelcome resident?

The first line of defense is use of barriers. Raised beds with gopher wire bottoms will keep most gophers out of edibles. A gopher is not likely to get into a potted plant. Using gopher baskets with newly planted trees and shrubs can keep gophers off as roots get established. I lay down bird wire when setting up new straw bales for straw bale gardening. Concrete footings of good depth will keep gophers out. All of these methods must be done BEFORE planting.

There are many too-good-to-be-true solutions on the market and some are down right ludicrous. Deterrents such as ground pulsing rods and toxic plants are neatly avoided by gophers. Gases and smokers such as Gopher flares and flame throwers might kill a gopher on occasion, but wreak chemical damages to the soil and microbial food web. Nitrogen dioxide gas is effective but should only be applied by licensed pest control. There are horror stories about those that do not follow this wisdom and employ creative and dangerous DIY solutions.

Poison has too many unintended consequences and there is growing evidence that even the newer class of poisons are delivering sub lethal doses to non-target animals such as hawks, owls, coyotes, neighbor dogs and cats. There is evidence of chemical persistence in soils that impacts the microbes and the rest of the food chain and ultimately – people. I do not recommend using poisons. Read this article about bird deaths caused from rodenticides by the Audobon Society.

The University of California Integrated Pest Management website has great information about gopher biology, behavior, control and provides solid information about the many options in the market that work. I recommend spending a little time to read through this website. Pocket Gophers – Management

As for my garden, I use lethal Macabee and cinch traps. They are a tried and true method that works. The Black Hole and the Victor Black Box are also very effective but need a much larger hole which can be a problem when the gopher is in the vegetable bed. Some gardeners may not be keen on killing the gopher, but there are not too many scenarios where the gopher lives and the garden remains unscathed. Keep that in mind when wrestling with your choices.

The cinch traps will provide a very quick and accurate kill

Bewick’s Wren

Inviting the Small Folk

Once upon a time there was California coastal chaparral habitat that extended from the end of the Marina Beach dunes to what was once Fort Ord. It was a paradise for chaparral birds. The housing tracts built in the 60’s quickly erased coyote brush, coast live oaks, manzanita, black sage, coffeeberry, toyon, poison oak and many other native plants that once prevailed. The little birds had to work harder to find habitat. Perhaps they moved away to better feeding grounds.

In the 20 plus years I have embraced restoring native species to the backyard, the birds have returned. They returned with a vengeance. This tiny plot with its native plantings now offered cover, protection, food and prime nesting spots. Every spring offered incredible bird watching opportunities as the birds vied for food in the intensive search to feed hungry brood. This is no joke. Last year this garden supported Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, California Towhees, Hooded Orioles, Hummingbirds, and the Bewick’s wrens. This is not an exaggeration – all of these birds had nests in the garden or within striking distance. There were several other birds that visited as well, but I could never confirm that they had nests locally.

Bewick’s wren nest box
Here the Cornell birdhouse plan was modified to incorporate an interesting piece of curved eucalyptus bark for the roof

Wildness had returned to the suburban cul-de-sac. The arrival of the Bewick’s Wren sanctioned my efforts in restoring habitat. If you are not familiar with this wren; they are very small with nondescript gray coloring and a very large voice. I spent weeks trying to identify the owner of the trilling early morning song that notified dawn. Could this enchanting tiny bird really be the source?

So I did some reading and found that this bird thrives in chaparral/coast oak woodlands. Bewick’s wrens are very shy (vigilant!) and nervous birds with expressively twitchy tails. They have a distinct scolding voice that is often the only clue to their whereabouts. They can raise 1-2 clutches in the spring. They do not migrate on the Central Coast and eat LOTS OF INSECTS. Motivated by this information I found the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. This is an amazing resource for bird identification, song recordings, and plans for birdhouses.

Bewick's Wren comes in for an inspection of this nest box
This inquisitive Bewick’s Wren came in for a closer look after the nest box was left on the deck. Time to mount this box in its final safe location!

Here is the birdhouse plan link for the Berwick’s Wren. https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/birds/bewicks-wren/

The key features on this birdhouse includes a moveable side panel for cleaning and a sized hole that is too small for pesky house sparrows to move in. There are further instructions on hole sizing to accommodate other small birds that you may want to attract into the garden.

This Berwick’s wren takes a early evening sand bath after the chickens have headed for the roost

Last year the wrens built 3 nests and raised 2 broods. One nest was quickly abandoned after they determined that the mailbox was too busy a place for a nest. One nest was in a home made birdhouse and the last nest was on top of the motion detector light on the front walk. This year will have 3 nest boxes ready for occupation and it will be interesting to see if any chickadees, titmice or other small birds move in too.

Replacing Mexican Feather Grass

Recently, a gardener asked what kind of ornamental grass would be good to replace her Mexican feather grass. She had just found out that it was on the California invasive species list and was alarmed that it was freely reseeding in her neighbors yard.

Mexican feather grass – Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima,  is a beautiful ornamental grass that is easy to grow. As a landscape grass, it has a fine movement in the gentlest breezes. But, it reseeds easily and abundantly, sprouting out of every crack in driveways, sidewalks and paths. For such an angelic wispy form, it is a true botanical thug in the garden!

Mexican Feather Grass
Mexican Feather Grass exhibits its tenacious side – this has sprouted from seed blown down the street a block away!

Why do the garden centers still sell this plant? Because it is popular and there are no laws to stop them. Mexican Feather grass is native to the south-western United States, northern Mexico and Argentina.

For this gardener, it was important that the replacement grasses have the same easy care and drought tolerance, and, have movement and upright form. We came up with this list that best suited the criteria and growing conditions of her garden as well as being non-invasive. As an added bonus several of these selections provide deep roots to stabilize slopes, create seeds for birds and food for insects.

‘Karl Foerster’ is tall and stately in a planting

Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed Grass

‘Karl Forster’ is a striking, formal upright grass that turns golden as the season progresses. Like the Mexican Feather grass, it has that lovely motion in the breeze that can be so delightful in the garden. It has a distinct sound from other grasses when the seed stalks rattle together. Feather Reed Grass has been on the “It’s It” plant lists for a few years for good reason. As a natural hybrid of of C. arundinacea, and C. epigejos it can claim heritage to both natives of Asia and Europe. The seeded heads are sterile so there is little chance of unleashing another invasive grass in to the landscape.

On the Central Coast, this Calamagrostis is only semi-deciduous and can remain green through most of the year if it gets some dry season water. A little late fall – early winter trim of old growth can get it off to a good fresh start for the spring. As a grass, it does like a bit of fertilizer during the growing season. It will tolerate both clay and sandy soils, and, can become drought tolerant after establishing. Just an FYI – this grass will get up to 5 feet tall when it blooms unlike the Mexican Feather Grass!

Pink Muhly drought tolerant grass selection
Pink Muhly adds a burst of cloud pink to the garden when the seed stalks form

Muhlenbergia capilaris ‘Pink Muhly’

The ornamental value of this ‘Pink Muhly’ cannot be understated. It is a showstopper when in full pink cloud bloom. This grass has been featured in many garden spreads and does not disappoint. The pink heads fade to a tawny brown through the season at about 3 feet high. There is also a white cultivar – ‘White Cloud.’

This grass is semi-deciduous and can be given a haircut in the early winter unless the winter grayed color is desired. Pink Muhly requires good drainage so not a choice for heavier clay soils. As for drought tolerance, in the sandy soils a little summer water can go a long way to extend the show.

Drought tolerant tough Muhlenbergia rigens
Muhlenbergia rigens has great texture when planted in clumps

Muhlenbergia rigens Deer Grass

Deer Grass is a California Native (but not to all areas of California). That said it is extremely adaptive to most soils and conditions and can even take a bit of shade. It can easily grow under oak trees in dappled shade. This is a tough plant that can grow to 4 feet tall. The roots grow very deep and give this grass a great toe hold for drought conditions after establishment. A battery of Deer Grass can stabilize a soil bank equal to any large shrub! As another bonus, this grass feeds many birds and beneficial insects. Deer Grass deserves to be in more California-style gardens for its fountain like structure and shaggy evergreen form.

Still looking for something else?

Using native California grasses in the landscape can offer a unique fit to specific soils and growing conditions. There are many other native California grasses that have a place in the garden.

Here is a partial list that is worth a little research:

  • Bouteloua gracillis
  • Festuca californica
  • Festuca idahoensis
  • Carex – several species
  • Deschampsia caepitosa
  • Leymus triticoides
  • Nasella pulchra