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Wild for California Native Wildflowers!

15 Mar

By Earl Nickel
Special contributor

As some parts of the California desert are enjoying once-in-a-decade “super blooms”, it reminds me of the joys of our own native wildflowers here in the Bay Area. From “Baby Blue Eyes”, Clarkias and Gilias to “Tidy Tips” and Lupines, our local hillsides and meadows are a veritable carpet of colorful wildflowers starting in early Spring.

Native wildflowers play a valuable role in the life of pollinators, too – especially native bees and butterflies attuned to the timing of their nectar-rich flowers. This is also true when we add native annuals to our gardens. These sun-loving plants not only beautify our urban and suburban landscapes, but collectively provide a widespread source of nectar and larval foods for a bounty of native fauna.

It’s easy to fold native wildflowers into your garden. Here in the Bay Area, gardeners who got a jump on the Spring season by planting in Fall may already be enjoying the earliest blooms, but there is still plenty of time to plant and fill in bare spots with colorful, spontaneous additions. I always leave some space open as Spring approaches, knowing I’ll be adding my favorite wildflowers. Most of these plants have a 3-5 month season, so you can use that space later for another colorful annual or perhaps an exciting new perennial. Many of our native wildflowers self-sow, too, so you’ll enjoy them year after year.

I also decide ahead of time that some of my annuals will reside in pots. I put nearly all of my perennials (native and otherwise) in beds, so they can get established and spread out. Planting annuals in containers not only saves valuable ground space, but it also gives you the flexibility to move your containers around for the greatest visual appeal.

Layia glandulosa and Nemophila menziesii “Baby Blue Eyes” grow beautifully in containers and can be moved around to best effect.

Maximizing Space

To maximize space you can plant early blooming Spring natives in front of deciduous shrubs like Philadelphus, Hibiscus, Oakleaf Hydrangea or Sambucus. One other space-saving tip is to plant annuals over bulbs, especially Summer bloomers like Dahlias, Lilies and Gladiolas. You’ll enjoy a burst of color in Spring, then as the flowers fade, the Summer bulbs will push through and offer their own delights.

Fast-growing natives like Lupinus succulentus ‘Rodeo Rose’ and Eschscholzia caespitosa “Tufted California Poppy” are great planted in front of larger perennials or as a Summer bulb cover.

Going for the gold 

With their wealth of yellow and blue flowers, Spring wildflowers offer two contrasting colors that look fantastic together. “Tidy Tips” (Layia platyglossa) boasts fragrant, lemon-yellow flowers tipped in white that are the epitome of cheerfulness.

If there were garden awards for “Most Cheerful CA Native” surely Layia platyglossa “Tidy Tips” would win.

Keep an eye out for the Checkerspot butterfly, which loves this flower’s nectar. There’s also “Woodland Tidy Tips” (Layia gaillardioides), valued for its solid mass of #2 pencil yellow flowers that spill over a favorite container or a low rock wall.

I like to think of Limnanthes douglasii as a kissing cousin to “Tidy Tips”. Featuring a never-ending fountain of open-faced, yellow flowers generously rimmed with white atop a dense, shiny, groundcovery mound, this aptly named “Meadow Foam” blends beautifully with all manner of blue flowers.

Lemon yellow Limnanthes douglasii is sweetly scented.

“Cream Cups” (Platystemon californicus) produce smaller, butter-yellow flowers with a central boss of flattened stamen filaments that make them look like water lilies that washed ashore. Charming and fragrant!

Fragrant Platystemon californicus sports zillions of 1″ flowers atop silver, grey-green leaves. Self-sows when happy! Looks great here with red perennial pincushion Knautia macedonica and annual Papaver rhoeas ‘Falling in Love’.

Cheerful “Cream Cups” make the cutest cut flowers ever.

Speaking of fragrant, check out Madia elegans. This hardy, drought tolerant and long-blooming sun lover is fashionably late, blooming mid-Summer to Fall. The large, daisy-like yellow flowers and the foliage have a delicious pineapple fragrance, all the more noticeable when the weather is warm.

Pineapple scented Madia elegans blooms later than most native wildflowers, bringing sunshine to the Summer garden. Shown here brightening up native perennial Eriogonums and Ribes.

Do the blues make you happy?

They will if you’re adding any of the exciting true blue wildflowers available this time of year. Start with Phacelias, a group that should be every bit as well-known as Nemophilas “Baby Blue Eyes”. Their blue tones are darker and richer, especially stately P. viscida. Showcasing 2”, electric-blue flowers with patterned centers, this 2’ tall, multi-branching native puts on quite a show.

Electric blue Phacelia viscida will have all the bumblebees going wild!

Want cascading blue? Phacelia campanularia, known as “Desert Bluebell” (but grows just fine in regular garden soil), offers an endless display of gentian-blue inch+ flowers that tumble forward like the prettiest skirt. The distinctive leaves add a dark blush to their veined green form. Their motto might well be: ‘I spill, therefore I am.’

“Blue Thimble Flower” may seem like an odd common name but one look at the wealth of inch-wide round flowers of Gilia capitata and you’ll say “Oh, yes.” This annual forms a dense, small bush comprised of lacy, ferny foliage topped by a sea of purple-blue heads. Irresistible.

Gilia capitata “Blue Thimble Flower” boasts an extra long bloom season – and couldn’t be easier to grow.

And lastly there is the justly famous “Baby Blue Eyes” (Nemophila menziesii). No need to go looking for this Nemo, the masses of robin’s egg blue blooms will be one of the first things you and passersby spot in your garden. Another terrific spiller, it combines well with just about any Spring flower (especially any of the colorful selections of Eschscholzia californica), bringing a bit of sky into the earthly delights of your garden.

Heck Yeah Hellebores!

13 Oct

By Earl Nickel
Special contributor

We gardeners are always looking for something tough and beautiful for shade. But in the never-ending search for the “latest and greatest” we sometimes lose track of the tried-and-true classics – like beautiful, dependable, shade-loving Hellebores. Fall is an excellent time to plant these long-lived beauties, giving them time to establish for their Winter and Spring bloom season.


Helleborus ‘Peppermint Ice’


Helleborus ‘Peppermint Ice’

Mega-tough and tolerant of neglect, Hellebores can handle quite a bit of shade but they’ll be happy in dappled light up to full morning sun. No need to hide these beauties away in a dark corner – but if a dark corner is what you have, they’ll handle it with aplomb (if fewer flowers). I find that bright, indirect light or a bit of morning or late afternoon sun is ideal for these nearly evergreen perennials.

Infinitely useful, Hellebores shine in a variety of settings. They make great understory plants in a part shade bed, planted around Camellias, Azaleas or smaller conifers. They complement part shade bulbs such as the native Iris douglasiana or late Winter blooming Snowdrops. Massing them makes for a sophisticated and virtually effortless late Winter show.


Helleborus ‘Yellow Lady’


Helleborus ‘Yellow Lady’

Tender, mint green shoots in late December or early January develop into a handsome mound of dark green palmate foliage, followed by the first flower buds. Blooms appear late Winter through Spring – hence their common name “Lenten Roses” – looking for all the world like dew-sparkled jewels when few other plants are up, much less in bloom. Most varieties open into 2-3” five-petaled, saucer-shaped flowers that persist for weeks – making an extended late Winter show. As plants mature, they’ll gradually colonize to fill about a 2’ foot diameter area.

The world of “Lenten Roses” has expanded greatly over the last decade, thanks to breeders who have developed a fabulous selection of colors and forms. In addition to a kaleidoscope of pinks, reds, burgundies, apricots, yellows, whites and even blacks, gardeners can choose from a host of alluringly spotted singles and frilly doubles. Blossoms generally nod, to keep the pollen from getting wet in extreme Winter weather, but some new varieties sport outward facing blooms.


Helleborus ‘Onyx Odyssey’

Three of my favorites are the brilliant pure red H. ‘Red Lady,’ looking almost so inviting you want to eat its flowers, and H. ‘Yellow Lady,’ a  shade brightening, vivid yellow orientalis hybrid whose flowers are especially large. And the double forms of ‘Peppermint Ice’ (featuring prominently pink-veined white flowers) and breathtakingly deepest wine-black ‘Onyx Odyssey’ are simply gorgeous.


Helleborus ‘Red Lady’


Helleborus ‘Red Lady’

Resistant to both deer and drought, these long-lived perennials are far from a flash in the pan. Once established, they use little water and in milder zones like ours here in the Bay Area, hold on to their foliage well into Fall. I suggest cutting them to the ground in November. This removes the less attractive older leaves, allowing plants to sprout fresh new growth in a month’s time.

Problem-solving Plants for Neglected Areas and Hot and Dry Hillsides

7 Jul
By Earl Nickel
Special contributor 

As a nurseryman of over 30 years, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard just about every garden problem you can imagine. Two of the most common problems gardeners face, especially here in the drought conscious West, are choosing tough plants for neglected areas and hillsides. These are usually areas in the garden, let’s say where the hose won’t reach and/or places you just don’t want to fuss over. Often, these folks have already tried planting several things in these difficult areas with little or no success.

Seldom Attended Areas

Before sharing some great selections, I have some very important advice: Anything you plant is going to need some water to get established and some occasional moisture during the first year as it puts out new roots. Just because a plant is drought tolerant, doesn’t mean you don’t have to water it. Secondly, you’ll want to do some soil preparation and make sure the drainage is adequate (as opposed to hard-pan clay).

For a sunny, dry area, I always recommend these two EASY, neglect-proof shrubs – California native Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’ and Mediterranean perennial Echium fastuosum ‘Pride of Madeira’.

ceanothus joyce coulter

Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’ is perfect for dry slopes and anywhere you want a tough, evergreen groundcover.

This Ceanothus aka “California Lilac” is a fantastic, long-lived, large-scale groundcover, growing up to 2’ tall and 8’ across. It takes up a good amount of space with almost no care. Covered in fragrant vibrant blue blooms in Spring, it’s especially attractive to bees, butterflies and hummers. Evergreen, clay tolerant and fire-resistant, it also boasts good deer resistance.


Echium fastuosum “Pride of Madeira” – just one of several Echiums that thrive in poor, dry, well-drained soil. Photo courtesy James Gaither.

Echiums have a well-earned reputation for being incredibly tough and resilient. Whether it’s the bushy purple-flowering Echium fastuosum, the conical spires of sparkling pink Echium wildprettii, with its gorgeous rosette of silvery leaves or the electric blue flowers of Echium webbii, these plants get high-marks for thriving where other plants bite the dust. Unparalleled bee and hummingbird magnets, they’re deer resistant, too.


Need a large almost ever-blooming shrub for a HOT, DRY, DEER INFESTED location? Phlomis purpurea is your plant! Photo courtesy James Gaither.

Salvias are always a good choice but here’s an even easier, lower care alternative – Phlomis purpurea. Known as “Jerusalem Sage”, it creates a large, low clump of big, felted, textured leaves with curving, lipped lavender flowers on upright branches over a surprisingly long period – at least Summer to Fall.


Goof-proof, evergreen Eriogonums thrive on neglect and prefer dry, clay soil.

Consider another California native: Eriogonum. Known as “California Buckwheat”, these plants define resilience. Most are low and spreading, with flower colors ranging from sunny yellow ‘Ella Nelson’s Yellow’ to the pink shades of Eriogonum grande rubescens and Eriogonum latifolium or the white of Eriogonum parvifolium. One of the absolute BEST plants for local pollinators.



Easy-going Lychnis coronaria tolerates hot sun to dry shade, poor soil, clay soil AND it’s deer resistant.

Highly drought tolerant and a cottage garden classic, Lychnis coronaria, better known as “Rose Campion”, is tough as nails and produces gorgeous deep fuchsia-colored flowers in Summer, offset nicely by silvery-gray foliage. Self-sows reliably.


CA native Heuchera maxima is happy under oaks.

For shady areas, CA native Heuchera maxima is a durable and long-lived choice. If you’ve ever had problems with the colorful hybrid Heucheras (and many people have), they can’t hold a candle to the toughness of this species. Attractive upright blooms over a much longer period in Spring, too.


Easy, tough choices for hillsides

Here, the main challenge is that you’re usually dealing with a larger area. Ideally, you want each plant to cover up to a three-foot diameter, especially if you’re concerned with erosion control.

fragaria_carole_ann_flower_2016 fragaria_chiloensis_carole_anne

Strawberries may seem like an odd choice for the job but Fragaria chiloensis, a California native often known as “Beach Strawberry”, is one tough, low growing customer. The fruits may not be that edible but it’s a great plant for erosion control.


Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’ – fast, tough and EASY, it won’t fade away if you forget to water.

Same goes for Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallace’. Fast-growing to 18” across, it blooms over a long period with a mass of single, purple flowers and self-sows reliably to fill in any empty spaces.


Among the many handsome heat and drought tolerant groundcover Manzanitas, Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Carmel Sur’.

Three more of my favorite plants to recommend for hillsides include low growing Arctostaphylus (Manzanita) – a tough and popular choice by knowledgeable landscapers (always a good sign). Its only drawback is that it’s slower than other choices. 


Rubus calycinoides – tough and dependable, weed suppressing, but not invasive.

How about a bramble? No, not the bramble that Brer Rabbit dove into but a low growing species called Rubus calycinoides. It sports lovely dark green crinkled leaves and even if it doesn’t flower readily, it makes a handsome, dense, spreading mat to 4” tall by at least 4’ wide. Tough doesn’t even begin to describe this guy and it can handle a shady location, too.


Plectranthus neochilus – a smart choice for carefree edging in sun or shade and dry, difficult spots.

Another shade lover is Plectranthus neochilus. Plectranthus have a well-earned reputation for toughness and adaptability and this one doesn’t get too tall.


Carex pansa – mowable lawn substitute is tolerant of traffic and diverse soil types including both sand and clay.

Grasses aren’t always the best choice for a dry garden but the California native Carex pansa is the exception. Staying low (4-6”), it spreads by rhizomes to cover a good-sized area over time. With year-round good looks, it’s evergreen and an excellent, mowable choice for dog yards.


Photo courtesy Stan Shebs.

If you’re looking for something to provide color over a long-season, consider Convolvulus sabatius, better known as “Ground Morning Glory”. Sporting pretty single lavender flowers almost year-round along the coast, this fast-growing evergreen mounder/trailer is tenacious and stays low, to just 1’ tall by 3’ around.

Earl Nickel is a professional nurseryman, gardening writer and photographer living in Oakland CA. He’s writes a regular column for the SF Chronicle and Pacific Horticulture magazine.

Help our Mighty Monarchs Make A Comeback!

23 Jun

GOOD NEWS DEAR GARDENERS! Things are looking a bit brighter for Monarch Butterflies this year! The latest count of Monarchs overwintering in Mexico increased to 150 million this year over last year’s 42 million. And the latest report from the Xerces Society Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count is showing more positive indicators – 15 sites (out of 187), which have been continuously monitored since the late 1990’s, show Monarchs turning up in numbers unseen for decades! What’s more, this past year they were seen overwintering in brand new sites such as Berkeley’s Aquatic Park and Muir Woods in Marin County.

Now, this is pretty great news for us gardeners, and so many of us who care about the myriad threats to our pollinator friends, especially our iconic Monarch Butterfly.


Monarchs overwintering near Pacific Grove, CA. Photo courtesy Agunther

But as most of you know, there is still a long way to go to ensure a healthy population of Monarchs. Here are some sobering numbers: Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count volunteers counted a total of 1.2 million butterflies in the late 90’s. This year’s count was 271,924. 

We are so grateful to the many folks putting so much effort into studying and supporting our Monarchs and other pollinators and sharing their information with us.

So now, let me introduce you to a lady I am in awe of. Local hero and pollinator powerhouse Tora Rocha, Oakland Public Works Park Supervisor, who is responsible for single-handedly supervising over 75 parks and public spaces in Oakland. But we know her as the guardian goddess of downtown Oakland’s The Gardens at Lake Merritt. Promoting the idea that people – especially gardeners – “should become hands-on stewards of their local ecosystems”, Tora practices what she preaches.


Pollinator powerhouse Tora Rocha.

Unlike anyone or anything I’ve seen in the world of Monarch research, Tora is operating a multi-faceted Monarch lab. Using the gardens as a testing ground, she is constantly trialing which plants are helpful to Monarchs and other butterflies. In her daily work in the garden she can easily see which plants are the most popular for nectar sipping and for egg laying, sharing her sometimes surprising info with us.


What’s more, Tora is also helping increase butterfly survival rates. Since only one out of 300 eggs will survive and transform into adult caterpillars, Tora and her small but mighty crew go about the garden collecting butterfly eggs and caterpillars (as well as taking in those brought in by local gardeners), raising them in butterfly nurseries to protect them from predators and diseases. The first year they started this project, they raised and released 30 Monarchs, the second year 300 and in 2015, 900. So far in 2016, they’ve raised and released over 2000 Monarchs! There were so many caterpillars, she had to recruit families, friends and volunteers to take them home to feed, nurture, watch and wait while they went through the positively miraculous stages of metamorphosis – shape shifting magically from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Many of these wonderful folks bring their butterflies back to Tora, to release back into the garden.

Here is a link to our friend Tansy Mattingly’s kitchen table video of this incredible process.


Here in California, Western Monarchs do not travel to Mexico but overwinter in over 200 groves along the California coast. In earliest Spring, they start to fly – madly mating,  laying eggs and dispersing across California and western states searching for Milkweed as it appears.


Spring and Fall Monarch Migration. Graphic courtesy Xerces Society.

Milkweed, of course, or Asclepias species is the only plant on which Monarchs will lay their eggs. After 3-5 days, out pops a little caterpillar

Immediately, the tiny caterpillar becomes a voracious eating machine, the leaves of Milkweed foliage imparting important cardenolide toxins. By the time they are adult butterflies, this accumulation of toxins makes them poisonous and bad tasting to birds. Growing very fast, the caterpillar will increase 3000 times its size in the next 14-18 days! This would be like a human baby growing into a blue whale in that amount of time! After 18 days, the caterpillar starts shedding its outer skin or exoskeleton to reveal the stunningly beautiful chrysalis inside.

After 3 or 4 generations, the last generation or “Super Monarchs” begin arriving in our gardens in September to overwinter and cluster in a state of suspended reproduction or “sexual diapause”. Come February the cycle starts once again.

As “Big Ag” and its herbicides and urban/suburban sprawl destroy habitat and Milkweed feeding grounds, what can we home gardeners do to be better “stewards of our little garden eco-systems” as Tora asks? How can we support our pollinator friends especially since we’ve reached the point where butterflies passing through urban areas are almost entirely dependent on city gardens?


Tora’s favorite Milkweeds in order of beauty and pollinator action are:

Asclepias speciosa ‘Davis’, Asclepias speciosa, Asclepias fascicularis, Asclepias physocarpa and Asclepias curassavica.


Superstar Asclepias speciosa ‘Davis’

Plant in groups or even in masses. Planting in groups of 5 or more host or nectar plants is far more effective for attracting Monarchs to your garden than singles of each variety. So if you have a small garden you might just choose one Milkweed variety and plant it in abundance. The same goes for nectar plants ­­– choose just a handful of Monarch favorites and plant a swath of them.

Monarchs need NECTAR PLANTS, too! You must have nectar plants as well as host Milkweed in your garden so Monarchs will have a source of nutrition for their long travels. In fact, Tora recommends planting an equal number of host plants and nectar plants with at least one variety blooming at all times.

Here are Tora’s favorites:

  • Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’ – Tora’s # 1 favorite Spring blooming California native nectar plant – especially since its hardy to USDA zone 7 and blooms year around in mild climates. Remember, Monarchs are searching out nectar sources in September and October in much of California – just when many folks are cutting back plants and cleaning up their gardens. Tora recommends leaving a little “Monarch Corner” with some of their favorite treats. Tora has noticed that some Monarchs stay year-round in her gardens and has even observed butterflies nectaring in December on days when the temperatures go above 70 degrees.


    Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’, pollinator magnet and Monarch favorite.

  • Anisodontea sp. ‘Strybing Beauty’ is a beautiful shrub in the Mallow family. It’s easy, fast-growing and blooms its heart out year-round in coastal California.


    Anisodontea sp. ‘Strybing Beauty’.

  • Tagetes lemonii Blooms off and on for most of the year, peaking in Fall to mid-Winter. Deer resistant, too!

Home Gardeners are NOT the Problem!

23 Apr

© Art by Lisa Crowther

Gardeners! Are you as confused as I was over whether we should just completely stop watering our gardens because of California’s “worst drought in history?” Even as I was seeing the greenest grass, the most wildflowers and more vernal pools filled to the brim than I had seen in at least 5 years on my morning hikes in the East Bay Hills, everyone was telling me how scary the drought was. Folks visiting our nursery would apologize for buying a few plants and for even watering their small urban gardens at all. I was away from the nursery one day when the final straw happened. I was taking a shower in the communal shower room after a swim at my local swimming pool. Picture me naked (lol, no don’t!), showering with 3 other ladies, when I bent over to pick up my shampoo bottle off the floor. This took me no more than 3 seconds. The lady showering across from me gave me the stink eye and said in her most disdainful voice “Looks like you forgot to turn off the water when you did that …” Really? I thought to myself “Are people just getting ruder these days or is this a new thing? Naked Water Police?”


© Art by Lisa Crowther

On my drive home, I thought about all I had heard about California’s drought while talking with random folks around town. I thought about all the fear-inducing news reports I had seen while watching network news shows with my TV-loving 82-year-old mom when she was in town last Fall. You’ve probably seen these headlines too: “Worst California Drought in History”, “Empty Reservoirs Everywhere!” and the scariest, “ONLY ONE YEAR OF WATER LEFT IN CALIFORNIA!” Whoa! Was this true?

I’m a flower-loving gardener and my business involves sharing my love and enthusiasm for all the joys and benefits of gardening. But now? I was getting a panicky feeling that any water I use on my garden was threatening the future survival of California residents. Was I really supposed to use water only for essential needs and let my garden die as my eye doctor told me he was doing, during my annual eye check-up? Should I stop gardening forever? I don’t want to hurt anyone or the environment!


Read more about how to attract bees to your backyard HERE

Then I thought about all the good my garden provides my neighborhood, my environment – and me! Bees. Lots of organically grown flowers feed lots of bees and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s not only a joyful, beautiful thing, it’s important, too. Under a slew of threats, including habitat loss, flowerful urban gardens provide essential support for dwindling bee diversity and populations. Some say that bees are doing better nowadays in urban spaces as compared to rural areas. Then there are the butterflies; we all know they are in serious trouble. I’ve walked for many years in Pt. Pinole Regional Park, near the nursery, which also happens to be an overwintering site for Monarch Butterflies and I have watched their numbers shrink until this year … nothing. Short of our local civic leaders funding acres and acres of native Milkweed plants for our Monarch friends to lay their eggs on and whose leaves their caterpillars must eat to grow, our backyard Milkweed plantings offer islands of survival for these wondrous creatures. Add in a multitude of other pollinators and all manner of birds and I started think, where is the media interest, where are the conversations, defending gardens in all this? And who wants to live in an ecological desert?


Monarch Butterflies May Join Endangered Species List. Read more HERE

So I spent the next few days doing some research, and after all I had heard, I was shocked to discover that residential water use is a mere 5%-8% of total water use in California and roughly half of that is going to watering lawns. 75%-80% of our water goes to agribusiness and another 15% goes to industry. Fracking in California currently uses 2 million gallons of water a day. A month later I was chatting with a visitor to our nursery who works for the Sacramento Water District. He scoffed at the media reports and confided in me, “Annie, if every domestic household in California stopped using water completely it would barely make a difference at all.” I tried to convince him to share his insider info with us by giving a talk at the nursery but he just laughed, “Public speaking gives me the willies” and was off with his carload of plants.

Next I called Scott Sommerfeld, EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Water District) water conservation representative and irrigation specialist. Scott gave a jam-packed talk here at the nursery in February on drought and the resilient garden and had some surprising things to say about managing water use. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, in fact, he’s a champion of beautiful, sustainable gardens and doesn’t believe for one minute that gardens have to suffer from lack of water. He works with cities, counties, developers and EBMUD customers to evaluate irrigation systems and provide efficiency recommendations AND he helped develop EBMUDs Lawn Conversion and Irrigation Rebate program.


© Art by Lisa Crowther

Though concerned over our recent less-than-desirable rain pattern, Scott certainly did not seem panicked. When we asked him about the headlines that claim California only has one year of water left, he put it into perspective for me. In a normal year, EBMUD has only two years worth of water stored in its primary reservoir and doesn’t have the capacity to store more than that. One year of storage was not an anomaly. Drought is nothing new to California, Scott said. “There are more dry years than wet years in California,” he said. “37% of the last 80 or 90 years have been dry or critically dry.”

Scott’s main concern isn’t the headlines – it’s lawns. Lawns are a high water use groundcover that don’t fit into a sustainable landscape, especially now. His mission is to promote sensible water use – and discourage the watering of large residential lawns, especially in hotter areas.

“It is an immense challenge to change the way people think about lawns,” Scott said. “If the only time you walk on your lawn is to mow it, you probably shouldn’t grow it.

“Most people overwater their landscape [read: mostly lawns] a lot – especially when they have a drip irrigation timer. Auto-timers can be your best friend of your worst enemy. They water their landscape whether it needs it or not.”

Whether you have a lawn or not, and you’re using an irrigation timer, Scott says it’s essential to water deeply. Look for a “cycle and soak” function on your water timer – it promotes deep rooting by watering for a couple of minutes, then pausing to let the water soak into the ground. It will maximize deep root watering, minimize runoff and reduce how much water you’ll use. Or, you can always hand water, which allows you to water only when the garden needs it, which varies depending on the weather and time of year.

Finally, here was first hand, true information about water usage for home gardeners. This is what I learned from Scott: If you don’t have a large lawn in a hot Summer area, YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. If you’re growing a sensible mix of low and average water use plants YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. Home gardeners who are growing healthful fruits and vegetables or flowers for joy, beauty, and to support and enjoy our birds, butterflies and bees ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. You don’t have to stop watering your beautiful plantings – just be smart about it.



© Art by Lisa Crowther

“Our landscape is so important to our quality of life, so we’re not advocating no landscape,” Scott says. “If you’re doing everything you can do to conserve water, then you shouldn’t feel guilty about gardening. There’s enough to use, just none to waste.”

So folks, let’s do our best to sustain and support California’s natural resources including our wildlife as well as our water. I think organic gardening is a terribly important part of the whole picture. To alter an old hippy motto: “Gardening is Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” And finally, let’s hope for more activity on the part of gardeners, politicians and hey, even the media, to advocate better long-term, sustainable water resource management in California; to create and promote more small to mega-scale ways to recapture the rain that does fall. To protect the Delta and California’s waterways and eliminate destructive industrial and agribusiness practices that threaten the future of this beautiful place we call home.


© Art by Lisa Crowther

Be healthy and excellent to each other,


More links:

True Romance!

25 Jul

Introducing John Barrington’s Deliciously Fragrant Heirloom Carnations


Glowing in the garden, Dianthus ‘Queen of Hearts.‘  Thank you John Barrington!

If any of you follow my ramblings over the past several decades, you know that I am enamored with the genus Dianthus. Now, not those silly, boinky, dwarfed, sadly scentless and die-really-fast ones you get at the box stores and garden centers, but the cottagey-perennial, divinely fragrant and long lived prolific bloomers of my gardens here at the nursery.

Interestingly, our most popular Dianthus has been the strange and fantastical (but not intensely scented) Carnation type Dianthus ‘Chomely Farran.’ As far as I can tell, it is the last remaining (at least in the US) of a huge group of Carnation types called “Bizarres” that were very popular prior to 1830. Looking for any information on “Bizarres” and another category of lost Dianthus called “Flakes’ I came across a reprint of Thomas Hogg’s 1839 book, “A Practical Treatise,” which lists well over 200 named varieties of ‘Bizarres.’ How exciting!

Dianthus 'Chomley Farran' in hand

Nearly perfect and oh-so-psychedelic ‘Chomley Farran’, why can’t you be more fragrant?

Wondering if there could be any of these heirloom Dianthus still alive somewhere in the world led me to Google every named variety listed in Hogg’s book until ding-ding! A hit!
Vintage plane blue sky

Off I flew to the UK – to the house and nursery of Carnation fanatic and devotee John Barrington in Somerset, England. Tucked away on a 200-acre farm in the middle of what seems like nowhere, John is passionate about recapturing the long stemmed, ever-blooming Carnations of old and has devoted his life to bringing romance – and most importantly FRAGRANCE – back to this heirloom favorite.

Walking through John’s greenhouses, packed with hundreds of varieties in tidy rows, was like waking up on Christmas morning! So welcoming and kind-hearted, John was delighted to share the delicious scents we had only dreamed of! It was like I had found the Holy Grail of Carnation-kind!

John_Barrington's_ greenhouse

Row upon row of heirloom Carnation inspiration!!

As I thrilled to each new scent, he excitedly bounced around taking cuttings of all the varieties I liked the best. To meet someone so obsessed with one particular plant – and so dedicated to saving and recapturing an important piece of horticultural history – made this my favorite plant hunting experience ever! If you ever find yourself in the UK, you must visit him. I guarantee you will love him as much as I did!

Now, after two years of increasing our stock, we are thrilled to be able to finally share these enchanting heirlooms with you! Almost non-stop blooming (year-round here in our mild climate), strongly perennial and vigorous – we’re offering the prettiest and most fragrant of the bunch. Among them is a legendary “Flake.”

dianthus JB #12 'Cheshire Cat'

The purrrr-fect “Flake”- introducing ‘Cheshire Cat!’

dianthus JB #33 'White Rabbit'

‘White Rabbit’ boasts the most fragrance of all!

dianthus JB #29 'Queen of Hearts'

Off with its head! ‘Queen of Hearts’ makes a fabulous cut flower.

Check out all our Perpetual Carnations HERE!

Our obsession with all things Dianthus runs deep – check out all of the wonderful and heirloom varieties we offer!

Combination Nation!

21 Mar

A garden is more than just the sum of its parts. It’s about getting some of the sum to party together at the same time!

Over the years, we’ve come across some pretty dependable – and dependably pretty – bloom-at-the-same-time plant combinations. And each year, it seems we discover new ones! For us, that’s a huge part of the fun of gardening – and of course, we love to share our tried-and-true, can’t-go-wrong favorites with you!

Our Springtime gardens wouldn’t be the same without our  favorite California wildflower and #1 stunner , Nemophila menziesii “Baby Blue Eyes.” Once you’ve edged your Spring garden in this little slice of sky-blue heaven, you’ll be hooked! Which is fine because it looks great with everything, especially other natives that bloom at the same time. Here it looking perfectly perky with Malcolmia maritima and  fellow natives Platystemon californicusNemophila menziesii ‘Snow White’ and Limnanthes douglasii “Meadow Foam.”

Nemophila menziesii scene

Yup, looks great with the fiery red of Eschscholzia californica ‘Red Chief,’ too!

Nemophila "Baby Blue Eyes" & Cal Poppy 'Red Chief'

“Baby Blue Eyes” looking extra fine with red hot Cal Poppy ‘Red Chief.’

Another knock-out and goof-proof duo we return to again and again is Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs’ and Eschscholzia californica ‘Apricot Chiffon.’ You just can’t beat the alchemy between the radiant Poppy and the luminous, almost turquoise Penstemon. Not shy in the bloom department, these two will go to town for months! Deer and drought resistant, they’re fine in low fertility soil and even more bodacious in regular garden soil with some compost!

Cal Poppy 'Apricot Chiffon' & Penstemon heterophyllus

Cal Poppy 'Apricot Chiffon' & Penstemon heterophyllus
Okay, so say pastels aren’t really your thing. We can work with that! One of our favorite combinations pits primary gentian blue Anagallis monellii against the solar flare sunshine of Ursinia anthemoides. Throw in the peachy-amber foliage of Heuchera ‘Marmalade’ and you’ve got a fantasically contrastic combo that does great in low water gardens.

Anagallis monellii & Ursinia anthemoides

From left to right: Heuchera ‘Marmalade’, Anagallis monellii and Ursinia anthemoides. BAM.

Ursinia anethoides & Anagallis monellii

Dreamiest spikes of creamiest apricot-blushed-rose blooms make this properly 3′ tall Snapdragon a perfect companion to so many other Spring (and Summer!) bloomers. Here it is canoodling with the long-blooming frothy lace caps of Orlaya grandiflora “Minoan Lace.”

Antirrhinum 'Chantilly Peach' and Orlaya grandiflora

Antirrhinum 'Chantilly Peach,' Orlaya  grandiflora & Nicotiana 'Lime Green'
If we handed out awards to our favorite bloomers, Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ would probably sweep the floor, winning “Most Congenial,” Most Stylish” AND “Most Versatile.” Easy and exceptionally long blooming, it gets along with EVERYBODY and looks chic and fabulous doing it.  Plant it in containers or in the garden, it’ll thrive in sun (along the coast) or shade, its lime green flowers providing the perfect foil for more vibrant bloomers like Agrostemma githago ‘Milas.’

Nicotiana 'Lime Green' & Agrostemma g. 'Milas'

Agrostemma githago 'Milas'

So there you have it, folks – some simple and stunning combos you can try at home. AND, since so many of these luscious lovelies self-sow, you’ll enjoy future generations of combinations next Spring and beyond!

The Majorcan Peony Cometh!

28 Feb

They say patience is the art of hoping, and even if we aren’t very disciplined in the former, we here at Annie’s are experts at the latter. Such is the case with our very FIRST seed grown crop of this unspeakably gorgeous creature!

Paeonia cambessedesii

Drumroll please … Paeonia cambessedesii!

Our adventure began in 1998, when Paeonia cambessedesii was only a twinkle in Annie’s eye. She was on the hunt for a Peony we could grow here in our mild Mediterranean climate – one that needed no Winter chill. To her delight, she found what she was looking for in an English seed catalog and promptly sent off for a small packet of seed.

Paeonia cambessedesii

You are getting very sleeeeepy …

From that first handful of seed, we were able to grow perhaps three or four plants just for fun, one of which resided in a container at propagator Anni Jensen’s home in Richmond, the others in containers here at the nursery. It took five more years before those plants set seed and when they did, we didn’t let a single seed roll away.

Pantyhose on Peony seed

Paeonia cambessedesii wearing its seed-collecting support hose. (We see you little seed nestled in the foliage. You can’t hide from us.)

Paeonia seed

Our pioneering plants thrived in regular, well-drained soil with average to low water and didn’t mind an occasional top-dressing of compost. They went dormant in Summer and faithfully returned – bigger and better – each January.


A flame red bud emerges in February.

Each February, as our seed-mothers in the nursery came into their full and bloomiferous glory, anyone who wandered close enough to see their mesmerizing deep rose blooms and smell their hypnotic cinnamon-allspice fragrance wanted this plant. Ahem, NEEDED this plant. In fact, if we had a dollar for every time we chirped “Put it on a WISH LIST,” we could probably afford to fly to the Balearic Islands to see this endangered beauty in the wild for ourselves.

And so, patient and intrepid gardening friends – if you too are an expert in the art of hoping, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is upon us! We have finally made enough of these heart-rattling beauties to share. We hope you pick one up fast – because they are sure to sell out, and who knows? It may be another three years before the next crop is ready.

UPDATE: Even though we made a record number of these plants for sale, we are now sold out! If you didn’t get one and desperately NEEEEED one, ahem, put it on a WISH LIST and we’ll send you an email when the next crop is ready – hopefully in February 2014!

Which Papaver Are You?

20 Feb

Here at Annie’s , we love our giant Papavers and we grow over 30 different varieties. Call us crazy, but we have a theory that there’s a Papaver for every personality and every garden!

Papaver ‘Drama Queen’


Crazy colorful and wild at heart, Papaver ‘Drama Queen’ isn’t afraid to say: “Don’t mess with me fellas! This isn’t my first time at the rodeo!” Beautiful, brazen and so far over-the-top, the garden falls into silence the minute one of its buds pops open. All of its Poppy friends hide their wire hangers when it comes over.

Papaver ‘Cupcake’

Papaver 'Cupcake'

So sweet and sunny and perfectly princess pink, pretty Papaver ‘Cupcake’ always sees the compost pile as half full. So dang upbeat, it’s infectious – it can even make people who hate pink spontaneously burst out into song.

Papaver ‘Venus’

Papaver 'Venus'

Like a gift from the Poppy gods, ‘Venus’ is a cross between a neo-classical goddess and a cheerleader on steroids. When it lifts its massive salmon-pink pom-poms skyward and shouts: “Give me a P!” the crowd goes wild. 

Papaver ‘Single Black’

Papaver 'Single Black'
Like Stevie Nicks in her witchy phase, Papaver ‘Single Black’ swirls around the garden in a cloak of deepest maroony-black petals. People rely on it to add a touch of danger and intrigue wherever it’s planted and it never disappoints. Naughty and nice planted with frothy white “Venus’ Navelwort” for maximum rock and roll!

Papaver ‘Falling in Love’

Romantic Papaver rhoeas 'Falling in Love'

Walking around with its head in the clouds, every day is Valentine’s Day for ‘Falling in Love’. Soft and bubbly, it loves surprises and rewards admirers with a loveable mix of bicolored pink and white, scarlet-orange, rose, pink or peach blooms. Sure, some of its less showy and more bitter garden rivals call it “Flailing in Love” but it doesn’t care. It knows life is too short to give your heart to just one suitor.

Papaver ‘Queen’s Poppy’

Papaver 'Queen's Poppy'

Do you like to wear capes? Do you keep your family jewels in a tower? Then most certainly ‘Queen’s Poppy’ is for you! Positively regal – and immense! – 5″ cherry pink blooms, conferred with a white Maltese cross at the base rise up and rule the garden in late Spring. Reseeds reliably so that successive generations can ascend the throne.

Check out all of the different varieties we grow! 

Watch a SLIDESHOW of all our favorite Poppies!

Gone! Poof! Another beauty DISAPPEARED!

15 Jun
Antirrhinum Double Azalea Apricot garden

So sad! One of these beauties is going bye-bye.

You know that feeling you get when you go to your regular grocery store to pick up the essential things that you buy RELIGIOUSLY and that thing, that THING you have come to love and trust and expect is just … GONE? Say, a certain kind of tea; the one that lives on aisle 8 on the third tea shelf in the round canister between the one with the green label and that other one in the orange box. Well, it’s not there. You ask a clerk if they’ve seen it and they say, “….oh… I haven’t seen that in a while. Let me check with my manager.” And they walk off, and you wait, and you wait, and then the clerk comes back and tells you the one thing you don’t want to hear, hoping you won’t be upset: it’s been discontinued. Gone! Not gone for today, but gone from the world. Poof! Disappeared.

Sorry folks, but that exact thing just happened to us. And we’re trying to figure out how to break it to you. One of the hazards of working with plants grown from seed is that sometimes a plant goes away and it never comes back. It is a less tragic thing than extinction, but still seriously sad, and we wanted to let you know gently, and then we might need a hug, because this is one of the biggest bummers we’ve ever encountered in terms of being left out in the cold by a seed company. Ready? Brace yourselves: The Double Azalea Snapdragons? Those fruity smelling ones that look like a bizarre confection from candyland? They’re going bye-bye.


Inhale deeply. That’s the fragrant tutti-fruity scent of obsolescence. 😦


BFF’s like Nigella hispanica ‘Curiosity’ are bummed, too.

Believe us, we know. It’s a tragedy. Every day one’s in bloom at the nursery their fan base expands. Their long, tall stems of sunset hued pink and apricot double frilled blooms smell sweetly spicy, make super fabulous bouquets, and grow and rebloom yearlong in milder climes. They’re fancy but still simple to grow and really very successful for even beginning gardeners. They’re easy in pots and in the ground and undemanding. Could someone please tell the powers that be that discontinuing this fine strain is a terrible mistake?

Antirrhinum majus 'Double Azaelea Apricot' with Celosia

But why?! ‘Double Azalea Apricot’ makes friends with everybody! Like Celosia argentea cristata ‘Cramer’s Burgundy’ for example.

Sure, we could still get the mixed color strain, but that’s playing Russian Roulette with your color scheme, and we’ve learned that’s the sort of adventure not everyone wants in their life.


We won’t forget your ruffly charm and upstanding character ‘Double Azalea Pink’. You were always there for us when we needed a dose of over-the-top girliness.

Because these are F1 hybrids, if we collect our own seed the results could vary wildly and land us in a pickle of confused forms. If people are up for it, we just might try it, but more likely we’ll start growing small batches from cuttings, which is a way less convenient and desirable way to propagate this plant. But we do what we must (within reason!) to keep the plants we really love out in the world.


I guess this is adieu ‘Double Azalea Apricot.’ *Sniff* We’ll always have Paris.

Change! It’s hard for everyone, but hey, Flower Floozies, we’ll do our best. Stay tuned, and if you find a bucket of Double Azalea Apricot seeds just sitting around, CALL US!