Home & Garden

Water-wise garden success starts in fall

Wayne Roderick seaside daisies  have loads of beautiful pink flowers and require little water. It’s another UC Davis Arboretum All-Star.
Wayne Roderick seaside daisies have loads of beautiful pink flowers and require little water. It’s another UC Davis Arboretum All-Star. Special to The Bee

It’s transformation time for that dead brown lawn. Want a beautiful water-wise landscape next spring instead of more needy turf? Plant now.

It may seem counterintuitive to gardeners who equate spring with new beginnings, but fall planting is the secret to successful landscape changes, big or small. Not only will the new plants have a better chance of survival, they’ll get “established” with less irrigation. You’ll save water while they’re taking root as well as for years to come.

“I always tell people now is the time to plant,” said Taylor Lewis, manager of the Arboretum Teaching Nursery at UC Davis. “Getting plants established this time of year is really easy. You have a much higher success rate with new plants. And your plants get free water – once it starts coming out of the sky.”

That, of course, is the dilemma that’s prompting many Californians to re-evaluate their home landscapes – particularly their lawns. In recent years, those winter rains didn’t show up the way they should have, leaving the state perilously dry. The fourth consecutive year of drought – along with cash-for-grass rebate programs – have many homeowners pulling out their thirsty turf and replacing it with water-wise alternatives.

With its recommendations of drought-tolerant plants, the UC Davis Arboretum has been on the leading edge of our region’s water-wise makeover. Saturday, Oct. 10, the arboretum celebrates the 10th anniversary of its highly successful Arboretum All-Star collection of can’t-fail, drought-busting plants for Sacramento gardens with the first of three fall plant sales.

Featuring 100 easy-care selections such as Palmer’s sedum, Cascade Creek goldenrod and Lynn’s Legacy leucophyllum, the Arboretum All-Stars have become workhorses in low-water landscapes throughout the state. Many of these less-thirsty alternatives to traditional landscape staples were little known before the arboretum’s efforts.

“When we launched this program in 2005, the idea was to promote low water-use plants,” said Ellen Zagory, the arboretum’s longtime horticulture director. “The great thing: We did this before this current extended drought. We were way ahead of the curve.”

Now, the arboretum nursery supplies thousands of water-wise plants to local gardeners as well as the university’s own landscape needs. UC Davis is in the midst of a campus-wide retooling of its public areas to low-water plants.

The arboretum’s efforts have made such All-Stars as Goodwin Creek Grey lavender, Wayne Roderick seaside daisies and Purple Dome asters familiar fall flowers in local gardens.

Zagory grows many of the All-Stars in her own Davis backyard.

“I’ve been torturing my own yard, experimenting with how low I can go (with irrigation),” she said. “It’s amazing how low some of these plants can go. We may be watering just because we think they need it, but they don’t.”

Zagory’s home experiments came on top of more formal trials on campus. The biggest low-water standouts among these All-Stars: Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens), a little evergreen perennial with bright yellow spikes of flowers; and Valley Violet ceanothus (Ceanothus maritimus), a compact variety of California native lilac.

“I only watered the bulbine twice all summer, even with the heat, and it never stopped blooming,” Zagory said. “The Valley Violet ceanothus is still blooming and looks just fine; it got watered only once. I’m sure both could have gotten through the summer with no added irrigation. These are exceptional low-water plants.”

In the arboretum’s search for more low-water stars, dwarf buckwheat has become a staff favorite.

“I love butterfly gardens, so I really like the dwarf buckwheat,” Zagory said. “It stays small. It can be hedged like boxwood; it’s very adaptable. It’s planted along Interstate 80 (on the edge of campus) with no irrigation. I’m fully convinced that it could go the whole summer without water in the home garden.”

Last week’s light rain got Lewis in the planting mode. At the arboretum nursery, he’s been monitoring the growth and health of thousands of plants through the summer to prepare them for the fall sales.

“It just feels perfect for gardening,” Lewis said of the overcast skies and damp ground. “Once it’s rained a couple of times, the ground is nice and soft and easy to work. It’s much easier to get things done.”

Fall planting particularly benefits perennials, ground covers, shrubs and trees because conditions are ideal for deep root growth, which will help those plants survive drought.

Before turning off the garden tap, however, plants must get “established,” a term that can be confusing. It means that plant has grown roots deep enough to gather water and can withstand extended periods of no irrigation.

“What’s really important is to remember, during the first year of establishment, you really need to water them,” Zagory said. “They’re not drought-tolerant that first season. You need to make sure you irrigate them regularly (such as once a week) – but deeply – so you can train those roots to go deep. The second year, you back off irrigation slowly, so by the end of that season, they’re well established and deep rooted.”

And get ready for future drought years.

Getting plants through that establishment period can be tricky, Zagory added. “A lot of it is observing and experimenting; most people don’t do that enough. You’ve got to pay attention to your plants.”

Lewis also has experimented with how little water some plants need to still keep blooming and looking good. A large bed of rosemary, yarrow, asters and California white sage has stayed in flower all summer without irrigation.

“That sage hasn’t been watered this year,” he said. “I think it looks better without water than with weekly irrigation.”

In addition to now-familiar All-Stars, the nursery has expanded its selection to accommodate gardeners’ needs and requests.

“We’re always dabbling with new plants,” he said. “Every sale features something different that gardeners haven’t seen before. We’ve got a whole rainbow of salvias, at least 30 varieties in apricot, peach, pink, rose, as well as more common colors. We have a whole table full of penstemons. We have all sorts of plants for dry shade. I’m loving the Australian fuchsia; it’s a shade shrub that actually blooms.”

Among his other current favorites: pineapple guava (“drought doesn’t bother it one bit”); dwarf butterfly bush (“it stays under three feet instead of 10; it’s a rock star for most gardens”); and Vivid Violet scabiosa (“instead of pale blue like most pincushion flowers, it’s a rosy magenta and gorgeous”).

Plant them in October or November and they’ll bloom next year because they’ll get the best start possible, he added. The combination of warm soil, still retaining some of its leftover summer heat, and cooler days makes plants happy and want to put down strong roots.

“Fall planting is best because you don’t have to baby your new plants like you do during the summertime,” Lewis explained. “When you plant in May or June, you have to nurse those plants all summer and they may still not make it. They’re always under stress. Plant them now and you have far fewer worries.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Arboretum plant sales

Where: Arboretum Teaching Nursery, Garrod Drive, UC Davis

When: Saturday, Oct. 10; members only, 9-11 a.m. (members can join at the gate); public sale, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Admission: Free

Details: arboretum.ucdavis.edu

Additional public sales: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 24 and Nov. 14

All-Star gallery: See all the Arboretum All-Stars, sacb.ee/1EfV