When I retired three years ago this month, I naively assumed that my garden would look better than ever because I would have more time to work on it. Unfortunately, my three years of retirement have coincided with a severe drought in California. I also didn't allow for the natural decline of strength and energy at retirement age or for my seriously diminished income, which precludes the hiring of garden helpers. In short, more time could not compensate for less energy, strength, money, and water.
One of my winter tasks therefore will be the unpleasant job of revising my plant list to reflect the change in status of hundreds of plants from "have" to "used to have." Many of my plants succumbed to the drought. Most of my tropical plants were given away because I just can't continue bringing dozens and dozens of large and heavy containers into the house for winter and moving them back outside in summer. The tropical hibiscuses and plumerias are gone. I'll keep the clivias and I might keep the mandevillas because I have only six that have to be brought inside (one's hardy enough to live outside in winter), but the other tropicals are too much trouble to keep moving in and out. Besides, they never grew to their full potential in containers and it was impossible to grow them in the ground.
The same lack of energy has consigned most of my alpine plants to oblivion. I had to dump trays of ice cubes on them in winter to keep them happy in zone 9, and it no longer seems worth the trouble, so I've given most of them away. Now that I have no help in the garden, I have to spend most of my time weeding, and there's little time left to coddle plants that shouldn't even be growing here. My zone-pushing days are over.
My plant list will also be affected by a project that should be coming up this fall. I have an easement along my back fence for a utility pipeline. The utility company is planning to replace an old natural gas pipe that runs the full length of the easement -- about 150 feet. The shady portion of the easement is taken up by dogwoods, weigelas, rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, kerrias, and a myriad of groundcover plants. The sunny portion is taken up mostly by roses -- at least 47 of them, and perhaps more if the easement is wider than expected. I'm going with the property map saying it's 3 feet wide, but my real estate documents say it's 6 feet wide. All of those plants will have to be removed. I'll move some of the smaller ones if I find spaces for them in the rest of the garden, but some are too big to move.
Anyway, for all of these reasons, 2016 will be a year of big changes in my garden. It's nothing new. Gardens aren't static. There have been big changes here before, mainly when one neighbor took down a long row of Monterey Pines and my shade plants suddenly were in full sun, when another neighbor allowed oak saplings to grow into massive trees that cast shade on my "full-sun" garden beds, and when I added rooms and decks onto the house and had to move all of the plants that had been growing in those spots.
So, the garden resolutions for 2016 are: 1) No more zone-pushing; 2) No more plants requiring too much extra care.
After three years of drought here in California, combined with my efforts to conserve water (both because it's an important civic responsibility and because I can't face another $400 water bill). I've learned some lessons.
1. Camellias are my new best friends. I have a couple of dozen camellias, mostly unidentified. A few came with the house when I bought it, others were given to me by neighbors thinning out their own gardens, and some were purchased by me. Most of them are planted in the shade, but some are in full sun. All of them, without exception, look as good after three years of drought as they did before. This applies to every single camellia in my garden, whether they're in full shade, dappled shade, or full sun. They're watered only once a week, and they are the only plants that still show no ill traces of these years of drought and my extremely stingy watering practices.
2. I should never buy another own-root rose. My roses displayed mixed reactions to the drought. The established grafted roses look the best, but then they always did. The grafted roses I bought last year and the year before show some signs of stress, but they'll recover when the rains start in winter. The own-root roses that always took extra loving care have almost disappeared. I've dug some of them up, reassigning the valuable real estate they were occupying, and I'll probably dig more of them up. As long as some nurseries are still carrying grafted roses, there's no point in trying to coax an own-root hybrid tea or grandiflora to produce more than a few isolated blooms each year. Each year I tell myself: "No more own-root roses!" Then I'm charmed by the beautiful blooms on some own-root nursery's website, and I relent. This year I think I finally will follow my own advice.
3. Some supposedly drought-tolerant plants obviously aren't. Last year I invested heavily in salvias, for instance, but more than half of them melted away as soon as I stopped watering them daily and switched to a twice-weekly regimen. The dozens of heucheras I bought last year are almost gone, and so are the ones that had been growing happily in the shade for years. I don't have a single "drought-tolerant" coreopsis left either. I won't be buying any more of these plants..
4. I have to change my buying habits. Even if this winter ends the current drought, there will be more. California is never going to get as much precipitation as some plants need. My rhododendrons and azaleas, many of which I've had for 25-30 years, have suffered irreversible damage from the drought. I'll be replacing many of them and the heucheras in the shady parts of my garden with camellias, hydrangeas, and epimediums, all of which require less water. The salvias and other water hogs in the sunny spots will be replaced by pelargoniums, euphorbias, and various wildflowers.
5. Drought reduces the insect population dramatically. I didn't see a single aphid this year, and I saw very few sowbugs and earwigs. This was great news for the roses and clematises. Other pests were also less evident. There weren't many slugs or snails, so the irises and primroses were happy. Oddly, although there were hardly any wasps this year, there seemed to be more honeybees than ever. My garden is usually full of orb spiders and other garden spiders in late summer and fall, but I haven't seen a single spider this year. I know that the sudden absence of any species is not a good sign, but it's such a pleasure to stride fearlessly into any part of the garden with no fear of walking face-first into a big cobweb.
I received an order from this nursery on December 4th and promptly forgot about posting my review of it until I had to recharge my camera battery and discovered the photos I had taken.
I was inspired by LarryR's beautiful photo, which he entered in the ATP Photo Contest, to search for this plant on line.
In keeping with ATP's "Celebration" theme this year, I'll have more fun in the garden. I won't get stressed by the sight of all the weeds I haven't pulled yet or the flowers I haven't deadheaded yet. I'll look past them to the beauty of the garden and take unqualified delight in my time outside.
I'll take time to pet the cats instead of wondering why they all have to cluster around the very plant I'm working on.
I have so many chairs and benches in the garden that never get used (except by the cats). I'll sit down and relax outside instead of coming back inside for a break.
I'll keep extra mosquito repellent in the garage so that I don't have to get bitten 10 times before I give up and go back inside.
I'll strive for a more casual look in the garden. The garden used to look much more romantic, but I pulled many plants out to make room for new roses, and it's starting to look too formal. I've bought lots of wildflower seeds to plant this year, and I'm going to look for some of the plants that used to be my favorites. Digging Dog, Edelweiss, and Joy Creek have good selections of the perennials I used to grow between the roses, so I'll order plants from those nurseries this year.
I'll get rid of the plants that are too frustrating to grow, whether because they're too finicky or because they get cut down by frost just as they're starting to bloom. I can use those spaces for hardier or less temperamental plants.
It appears that my babbling has been confined to tree-mails and the forums this year. It has been almost a year since my last blog entry.
I usually love September and October because I have almost as many rose blooms in those two months as I do in April and May, but this year I just want to skip straight to November, when we might get some rain, even if the drought continues. We had severe drought this year, but there was at least some rain last November. Lately, the weather has been hot and windy -- the worst combination possible for a parched garden. It precludes the use of sprinklers and virtually demands the hand-watering of each plant, but there just aren't enough hours in the day to hand-water half an acre of flower beds.
Starting early on my resolutions for the next gardening year, I pledge to stop trying to grow tropical hibiscuses as perennials. I'll buy them and enjoy them as annuals, but it's too much of a chore to bring all of the pots in for the winter and keep them happy all winter until they can be carried outside again. In most cases, they don't even develop enough to bloom before they have to be brought back inside for the winter. My time and energy certainly are worth more than $6, which is the usual price of a large potted hibiscus I can grow as an annual and replace each year.
Here are a few photos I won't add to the database, but they're too nice not to post somewhere.
Two unidentified hydrangeas:
The one on the left is an unidentified Gerbera. I love these because they come back year after year. The one on the right is an unidentified crocus. I suppose it's an autumn crocus, but it comes up in lots of my containers every August. The foliage is misleading because it belongs to an impatiens planted nearby.