Category Archives: California Native Plants

My White Sage (salvia apiana)

White sage has become a favorite plant of mine. It is elegant and grows well in my yard. I have wanted to focus some posts on specific plants for a while. So, this post will be looking at white sage and my experience with them.

One of my white sages; this one is two years old.

I have chosen a number of sage plants to go in my native plant garden mostly due to reports of their fragrance and easiness to grow. Both seem true at this point. As the picture above shows, I have a couple of white sage plants in my yard. Bees and hummingbirds love them. And, when they are doing well, they produce tall flower “wands” that shoot up over five feet tall. This one pictured is at least six feet tall in the highest stalks.

They have dealt with extreme heat. We regularly get temperatures over 100 degrees in August. And, last year was extremely dry. As it was the first year, I supplemented its water supply heavily. For the first year, I watered daily during the summer. I dropped the frequency down during the fall and stopped watering once the rainy season began this last October, unless it was still dry out. This summer I am watering about once per week, or so.

I have two other white sages that were pretty small for a while there. In fact, they still aren’t as big as the one above. But, I started watering them more and they got much bigger. So, early on, I would say that white sage enjoys a good amount of water. But, I have read that watering them less after the first year or two is a good idea. That seems true. But, I haven’t had the trouble with them being stressed from too much water like I have with my ceonothus plants.

Close up on white sage blooms from my back yard.

When white sage is in bloom it is a beautiful, very stately plant. The stalks of white flowers seem somehow heroic to me, rising skyward in defiance of gravity and serving as a beacon to birds and bees. I’m of the understanding that the stalks can be harvested and dried to make smudging sticks for Native American rituals, but I have not done so myself. I may give it a shot this year.

My soil is mostly loam but very rocky and layered. The first six inches, or so, is loamy sand. Below that is a lot of rock, majority granite, in potato-sized chunks, but there are some much larger rocks, too. I’ve pulled out quite a few that are over a foot wide and weigh what feels like over thirty pounds or more. That layer goes on for about a foot or two. Sometimes there are pockets of clay or sand. After the rock layer, there usually is a layer that is sandy and rocky. I’ve never dug down further than about 3 feet, so I’m unable to attest to more from my own experience.

I planted these sages from pots I bought at Grow Native Nursery in Claremont, CA (at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens). They were all quite small, most in gallon or smaller pots. I dug holes that about twice as wide and deep as the pots themselves. I filled the holes with water twice before installing the plants. Then, I made sure the base of the plant was about one inch or so higher than the surrounding  dirt. I buried the roots and packed the dirt slightly, just to get rid of air pockets, but not so much to avoid inhibiting root growth. I watered almost daily in the beginning. No fertilizer. Mulch is good, though.

Overall, I recommend this plant. I currently have eight of them. I just planted four this fall. Two of those already produced flower stalks! They are already significantly larger than when I planted them. So, this plant grows pretty fast. And, it can easily spread to 5 or 6 feet wide, so keep that in mind. The leaves are a light-green, near to silver. They offer a nice contrast to darker foliage. One of my white sages died, I think from a gopher. Another got a pretty bad bug infestation that seemed to kill a lot of leaves. The plant itself is still alive and producing new leaves and stalks so I’m keeping an eye on it. Not much I can do for it, though. I’m trying not to use anything stronger than Neem oil on my plants. I am going to try raising some from seeds if I can figure out how to harvest them. 

I’d be interested to hear from readers if they have questions about the white sages or experience with them. Thanks for reading!

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Progress Update June 2017

My stream area. Foreground: Cleveland Sage. Also, Bee’s Bliss Sage, Eldarica pine, some succulents I don’t know.
California Buckwheat in the foreground with some penstemons. My sages dominate the landscape right now.

The heat is upon us. Not the full-blast, oppressive, scorch of the Inland Summer, but still very warm and very dry weather. We have been averaging the high 80’s and low 90’s this last week. I have to force myself not to water. My instincts tell me to water the plants. But my experience says that will stress the plants and turn their leaves yellow.

And it attracts gophers. I hate gophers.

A good gopher. Good and dead.

I am sure that gophers play some important role in the food chain and environment. But they have no place in my yard. Let’s review what kind of damage gophers do in my yard:

  • Eat plants I am trying to keep alive
  • Eat the roots of plants I’m trying to keep alive
  • Shear off baby trees and shrubs at their bases
  • Dig holes throughout the yard
  • Throw dirt up on plants I’m trying to keep alive
  • Undermine my retaining wall
  • Kill plants I paid for and spent time trying to grow

Here is a list of the benefits of gophers in my yard:

  • I haven’t seen any benefit

I will walk past a black widow and let it live in my yard. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why a black widow can be a potential problem. But at least they eat other bugs. I’ve moved centipedes, the big yellow scary-looking kind, so I didn’t hurt them. I’ve gone out of my way to attract birds to my yard. Those poop on my chairs and patio. Their seeds drop and grow in my yard where I don’t want them. But they eat bad bugs and they are pretty.

But I will drop everything to put a trap in a gopher hole and kill it.

I know it sounds bloodthirsty and barbaric. I get it. But I’ve seen a healthy, blooming, growing manzanita turn brown and die within days because a gopher ate its roots and burrowed so much in its root system that it dries out. I’ve seen my baby pine tree pulled into a hole and its trunk gnawed by gopher teeth. That’s the kind of stuff that brings me to a lethal frame of mind toward small furry creatures.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. There is a whole yard of plants and flowers to look at and enjoy.

The sun and heat are still bringing out the poppy blooms. I’m very pleased with my decision to sow poppy seeds around the garden. I think next October I will but several more packets and scatter them, too. It’s fun to see the little yellow and red flowers amid the rest of the plants.

My Gambel oak (a non-native species from the Colorado/Utah areas) is finally putting on some height. Already this season it has sprouted a full foot higher. But my other two oaks remain short. The Wislenzenii seems to be growing slowly. But my Cryselopsis (Canyon Live Oak) looks like it’s the same size as when I planted it in 2015. The Buckwheat next to it is already higher! I know it takes a while to develop the roots for the tree to grow. But this seems extreme.

My vegetable garden is running rampant and growing wildly.

Pumpkin vines climbing my trellis.

I hope to have some good pumpkins for Jack O’lanterns by October. Judging by these vines, I will have that. The square foot gardening experiment is going well. I’ve got tomatoes for days and we’ve eaten broccoli, zucchini,and kale from the garden.

Progress March 2017: Waiting Game

Wide shot of the yard, March 2017
Just a quick post with some pictures of the yard. Some of the spots are filling in well, and others are making me wait longer. When I started this in 2015, I understood intellectually that plants take time to grow. But, I underestimated exactly what that felt like in real time. There are eleven trees and probably four more large shrubs in my yard that, in time, will all be over 15 feet tall. I have two oaks that, after ten years ought to top 30 feet. And, those trees are all in my mind when I look at the garden. All of the manzanitas and ceanothuses are supposed to be at least 6 feet tall, some of them over ten! And I can see them, too, in those spaces, in my mind.

That makes it hard to look at the garden sometimes. I see what’s not there. Yet. I imagine the plants filling in  and covering the areas now dominated by the red mulch. Here’s a shot of my stream and bench area. But, look at the Bee’s Bliss sage in the center, in front of the bench. That’s three plants! But, they filled in that whole long area, about 15 feet long. Honestly, I am surprised at how well they actually did that. I expected plants to be about 4 feet wide. But, they are probably pushing six or eight feet! Most of my yard will, eventually, look similar to that, I hope. Maybe I will regret that, I don’t know.

Bee’s Bliss in front of the bench has filled the entire western border of my stream.

I actually have “banned” my gardener from my backyard. He pruned a couple of my California Buckwheats that I was enjoying spreading out. It was probably the right thing to do. But, I want to have a full, “wild” garden. Maybe in time I wlll need to remove some of these plants. But, I can deal with that later. The only things that I really can’t move, easily at least, are my trees. So I was much more deliberate in placing them. I think I made good choices. But I won’t be shocked if it turns out I underestimated their sizes, too.

I’ve had to water more now. I’m really only watering the really young plants. Not the ceanothuses, though. Nope. Those plants seriously hate water unless it’s cold and the soil is cold. And even then they seem to prefer little water. With our Toddler-in-Chief rolling back environmental protections so he can pretend he’s helping the working man, I suggest everyone buy ceanothuses. They love heat and dry soil which will likely the prevailing conditions in our future.

Waiting is hard to do. Every plant was bought from a nursery and were tiny when I planted them. Obviously, they are growing, some of them are thriving! But, still. I wish I could skip a few years and have bigger plants already.

Native Garden: Catching Up Is Hard To Do

It’s March, nearly April. Spring is well-sprung and the temperatures have been between 95 degrees on one extreme on March 13, to 34 degrees back on February 25. Average temperature is probably right around 50 degrees or so. There has even been some rainfall, about 1/2 an inch in the last 30 days. We are well over the average rainfall for the year here. And, flowers are blooming in the garden.

Some garlic and onions and carrots in my square foot garden.

Square foot garden seedlings growing.

The vegetable garden is coming along. The only plants that I didn’t get to sprout was my eggplant. Yesterday I put out new Eggplant seeds, along with some Jalapeño, Serrano, and Bullnose sweet peppers. They said to surface sow. Let’s see how that goes.

I’m going to have to go in and remove some of the plants where they grew better than I thought they would. I have a large amount of seeds still left over. Baker Creek, at this point, has lived up to the reputation and produced some great seeds to work with, but the true proof will be in how the vegetables taste.

On the other side of the garden, the California natives…

Penstemon flowers getting sprinkled in a last Southern California rain?
Fiesta sticky monkey flower and grinnelli penstemon contrasting flowers.
Bee’s bliss here hosting both bees and an awful lot of aphids.
A multitude of blooms brings all the bees to the yard. Milkshakes are for boys. I have milkweed, but not, yeah.
In the foreground, California Poppy baby plants, and in the background a Ray Hartman ceanothus.

Apparently it’s well-known gardening adage that “the first year they sleep, the second they creep, the third year they leap” in reference to perennials. This kind of seems to be what’s going on here, too. Some of my shrubs and trees are supposed to be 15 to 20 feet tall, others 6 to 10 feet. And, yet, the tallest I have right now is one of my desert willows is around 5 feet. But, my oaks seem to finally be making a lot of new leaves after spending the last year (or two in the case of my chryselopsis) just kind of sitting there. Many of my plants do really seem to be taking off this spring. It also wouldn’t surprise me that having so many plants in the ground, that their roots are helping the microorganisms in the soil to develop the kind of system that California natives want.

Two large Ray Hartman ceanothus are swarming with lilac blue flowers.

I have managed to kill a few of these ceanothus. I didn’t mean to kill them. It was my inexperience with watering them. I’ve planted whirly blue curls next to these Ray Hartman ceanothuses since I’m under the impression that they hate water during the summer, too. These mountain lilacs are said to get huge and I believe it. In one year they’ve tripled in size at least. They are about four feet wide and three feet tall, well below the 20 foot full-grown size. But, they have beautiful glossy green leaves all year and the blue flowers are striking.

If I can avoid watering these plants to death, these Ceanothus will be one of my favorite plants. I love the blue flowers all over!
California sagebrush dusted with rain drops in one of our last rain events… probably.
Firecracker penstemon gets drizzle in front of California buckwheat.
Grinnelli penstemon flowers collecting droplets of rain.

I’m loving how the plant, many of them, are finally filling in and looking good. Spring is fun!

Wind! Good God, Y’all! What Is It Good For?

My least favorite weather event by far. Wind. I hate it. I’m not talking about a breeze, a gentle stirring of the leaves. Nor do I refer to wind that is good for kite-flying and refreshes the atmospheric conditions. No, I speak here of gusting, tearing wind. Wind that blows and batters and blasts the land, the trees, and all that stands in its path.

Here in the sun-kissed Inland Empire, we get a hefty helping of this wind. I know, it’s my fault for buying a house below the Cajón Pass. Said geographical feature acts as a wind tunnel, it seems providing a natural easement between the great Mojave Desert that abuts the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains and the Inland Region that leads to the California Coast. This easement is the path of least resistance when there is a pressure difference between those areas. If an area of low pressure sets up off the coast, and high pressure is situated in the desert, then wind will rush through the Pass and eventually over my yard on its way to freedom over the ocean.

Like a young child let out of school for the summer, the wind breaks headlong toward, with speed and heedless of anything between it and its desired destination. This rough passage has an impact of no small import on my landscape.

As I walked around my yard, I find that where I used to have 1-3 inches of mulch (red bark, mostly), there is now bare ground. The aforementioned mulch is gathered in places I wish it was not, such as the base of my young Cleveland sage, which now has 4-6 inches surrounding it. The wind breaks some of the branches of my plants. A couple were entirely snapped off of their main trunk, effectively killing the plant. I believe I lost today a penstemon, a milkweed, and a monkey flower. I saw one of my Chickering Cleveland sage lost a major branch, too.

Bare ground showing after wind blew the mulch away.
Allen Chickering Cleveland sage with broken branches courtesy the @&$#%! wind!
Poor baby milkweed plant desiccated and thrashed by the wind.

Besides doing physical damage thusly, the wind is also dry. Very dry. The humidity today is currently 15% and dropped as low as 12% yesterday. My understanding is that this dry air has a desiccating effect on the plants, in some cases wicking moisture from the leaves and branches, not to mention from the ground. Ideally, mulch should mitigate this, but not if the wind manages to blow that mulch aside.

So, even though we just got weeks of rain and that brought 11 inches to the ground, I still had to go out and water my plants. Dry, young plants are less supple and weaker, more prone to breaking off. Their leaves shrivel as the dry air blows across them. Some of the plants, like manzanita, have leaves that don’t lose as much water. But, for the younger plants just installed this last season, I have to water them, too.

Rain, at least, will give us much needed moisture. Cold and hot temperatures give the plants a sense of season, reminding them to grow, to sleep, to flower, etc. But, wind? Wind doesn’t offer me anything. It makes a mess. It blows trash into my yard, moves furniture, knocks over containers and as I mentioned before, scatters my mulch.

And, listen, lest you, dear reader, get the misconception that I’m airing a grievience over a brief event, an occurrence that is evanescent in nature and I ought to simply hush. Well, please find it in your heart to understand that this wind has been blowing since Thursday. That’s four straight days of wind averaging 13 mph. That’s the average. And, I just checked, we’ve averaged 13 mph for the entire month! We had wind like this in the middle of the month, too. My weather station recorded a high wind speed of 20 mph January 14th. Yesterday, we had a gusting wind that hit 22 mph. Imagine getting the plants in your yard, putting them in pots, then strapping them to the roof of your car and driving around for four days around the streets of your neighborhood. You drive the whole time, too. Vary your speed if you like, but average about 15 mph and that’s what is going on with the plants in my yard.

Four days. This wind is forecasted to blow through the night and into tomorrow morning, but it is supposed to, at least, begin to subside and be a much more manageable 5-10mph. Still, I hate this wind. There’s just no good from it, to me.

Dry no longer: drought broken, or just at bay?

My region of Southern California is often dry. Total days of rain are usually few, less than 30, I’d say. Additionally, inches of rain average between 10 and 15. But, in the last several years, California, and here specifically, has been in the grip of severe drought. I estimate that we got something like 6 inches of rain all year last year (by which, I mean, the “rainfall year” which typically is said to begin in October. This month alone we have doubled that. In January, my weather station (which is probably fairly acurate but not necessarily precise) has received nearly 12 inches, and will most likely exceed that today.


I’ve become much more aware of the weather and rainfall since starting my garden/yard. The majority of my plants are drought tolerant. They still need water and in times of drought, they need supplementary irrigation. But, I think I may not be watering much this Spring. In fact, more than half of my plants have been in the yard over a year. My understanding is that after a year, California native plants are “established” and need significantly less water. For some, that means none. There’s a great site, Las Pilitas, that is primarily a nursery but is also a treasure trove of information about California native plants. On that site, they specifically state that most truly drought tolerant California native plants hate water after the first season or two. For example, I have a few different Ceonothus species. These are also known as California Lilacs.


Ceonothus plants, as far as I can tell, hate water, especially when it’s warm. They will accept water when it’s cold, like right now, but that’s it. What I have read is that there are microorganisms in the soil that live when it is either cool and moist or warm and dry. Warm and moist soil kill these microorganisms. They are what provide nutrients to the roots of many native plants! This is why, by the way, you also should not amend California soils when planting natives, and do not add fertilizer. Apparently these mycorrhizae feed the plants are vital for their growth and survival. You might say that if you are a gardener of California natives, you aren’t growing the plants so much as these mycorrhizae!

So, I have killed at least two Ceonothus plants by watering them too much. I’m doing better with the ones I have right now. I have four that have been in my garden over a year now. Two others were growing and looking good but they were eaten by gophers. Speaking of, I just read as I was getting links for this post, that gophers tend not to eat plants that aren’t being watered!!! Oh yeah! So, maybe this year will be better if I’m not watering so much, then maybe the gophers won’t eat so many.

That doesn’t mean my hose will be idle. About once per week, I will go out and “wash” the dust off the plants by spraying the leaves. This won’t really water them but it will keep them from getting covered in dust, something else they hate. That will be nice to just go spray my plants down and not worry about watering deeply. Let’s be clear, though, this only applies to established plants. For the plants that are still young and in the first season, I will definitely be watering those plants (and keeping an eye out for gophers!).

The rain coming down right now as I write this means I will probably not water any of these established plants at all this Spring. We’re having a good year for rain, even by California’s standards. It looks like we will at least meet the “normal” averages for rain and that should make my garden very happy.

A couple Black sages, and a California Buckhwheat in the foreground. Behind it is my baby Live Oak. 01-22-2017
The garden on January 22, 2017

Turned the corner on the path. Literally.

Turning the literal corner in the path.
I mentioned yesterday that I got to the corner of my pathway. This is one of the curviest parts of the path, with the inside corner being probably the sharpest turn. Like I mentioned before: wow, there are a lot of stones to cut.

Those in my family have been very supportive, telling me how great it looks. It’s very kind. I am well aware that there are mistakes and things I am doing that a true professional wouldn’t do. I get that. And, I’m also probably saving a thousand bucks or more by doing it myself. I like the way it looks, though. And, since I’m the client as well, I believe that mine is the only opinion that matters. Okay, my wife’s opinion matters, too. And she’s happy with it, too.

Path sanded and ready for stones.

Yesterday I also got a good amount of sand leveled into the path. This morning I laid out some more blocks. Tomorrow I will be doing a lot of cutting to get this section done. I think I can finish this in a couple days. Then, I will sweep in the sand and probably compact it and be done. I am really looking forward to being done.

Paver Patio and Path

I’ve been working on a huge project. This is, in many ways, the final phase of my backyard rehabilitation. Of course, the backyard will never be “done.” A garden is, hopefully, alive, and ever changing. Gophers, weeds, and wind will no doubt ensure I always have more work to do back there. And, plants need tending. But, in terms of the shape of the space and making it useful, this patio and path are the final piece, and largest, which is why it was last, probably.

Or maybe I put it off because I was took a long time deciding what to do and how to do it.

The north walkway from our covered patio. Blocks are laid but unsanded.
Paver stone patio area for a fire pit or other recreation. Unfinished, but the stones are laid down at least.

I originally wanted to have a decomposed granite walkway. It was inexpensive, comparatively, and looked natural. I new I could manage the construction. Concrete seemed better for permanency and neatness, but it was expensive and I wasn’t sure I could do it right. Concrete seems simple, to me, but at the same time, you have to know what you’re doing because you have a time frame to get it right. There’s no do-overs in concrete. So, pavers seemed like a good idea. After a while, anyway. They are not cheap. Each block costs about $1.20 and there are, well, hundreds of them. And, they are heavy so they needed to be shipped to me. And you have to cut them to make a curve.

So, honestly, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to work with pavers. I went back and forth for a long time over it. Finally, though, I realized that the pavers would, in theory, be more permanent. And, they would be easier to clean than decomposed granite. We get pretty bad winds sometimes and my mulch often gets blown around. Being able to sweep, or even use a leaf blower, to clean the patio and path seemed good. I also always thought the patio area with the fire pit was best as a hardscape.

That finally convinced me to use pavers. I chose some that looked similar to my existing retaining wall. It’s not the same color, but my wife pointed out that the blocks are gray and brown at times and that they kind of make a middle between the gray concrete of our covered patio and the sandstone color of the retaining wall.

Installing a paver patio and walkway is not easy work. You’ve got to prep the area. Honestly, most places I looked said to dig down about six to eight inches. I did not do that. Why? First, most places say to do that because you need a mixture of sand and gravel as a base. They said to use what is called “stone dust.” Or crushed gravel. That sort of thing. Well, my soil is, no kidding, at least 25% rock, probably more. It cannot be overstated how much rock is in my soil. I don’t dig holes as much as I remove rock. Think I’m exaggerating?

See all those rocks? I didn’t buy any of them. They are all from the yard. And there’s more where they came from.

If you look at the pictures of my garden, any of them, you are bound to see rocks as part of the landscape. I made a stream bed out of the rocks. There is probably 30 square feet of my yard that has rock as a ground cover. I didn’t buy any of it. All the rocks you see were removed from the ground.

So, the idea of digging six to eight inches down, removing all of that rock, just to add rock I bought, sounded ridiculous. Additionally, the way I understand it, this is largely to deal with the issue of the ground freezing. In Southern California, the ground doesn’t freeze. So, again, not necessary. I skipped it. I also skipped landscape fabric. I realize I may eventually regret these decisions, but we shall see. I’m planning on using polymeric sand to fill in between the pavers. This sand is chemically treated to solidly after it gets wet, kinda like cement. I don’t think weeds will grow through it. But, if it does, dealing with some weeds is less work and money than landscape fabric.

I leveled my areas and then I used a heavy tamper to compact the ground. I did this over several days, got blisters, and was very sore after. But, I did it. I watered when it was dry, and compacted. So, the base is my natural ground leveled and compacted. Now, when I say I leveled it, don’t get too serious. The yard isn’t level. But, I made the patio mostly level and the transitions between elevations gradual. I then put in edging and sand. And then pavers.

Edging and base for pathway in progress
One last piece of edging needed…
Sand and edging ready. Just need to level and place pavers.

When I originally designed my backyard garden, I chose curves for the areas because I liked the flowing look and our concrete patio has curves. I wanted an informal look. So, curves made sense. But, that was before pavers. Now, I have a lot of cutting to do. Curves mean cuts.

Curves mean cuts.

As you can see, I use a “soldier row” on each side of the square blocks. Then, the pattern is in the middle. Ha ha! Pattern! Get it?

There’s no pattern. But, I tried.

But, wherever the “pattern” overlaps the soldier row, I had to cut the paver. This, I’m told, helps the pavers be more firm or strong or something. Anyway, that’s why I’m doing it. Tomorrow, I will show how I turned the corner in that last picture. I actually got that done today but I didn’t get pictures before it got dark.

This is hard work. I’m tired.