Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
January, 2009
Regional Report

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Photinia and escallonia work in tandem as a sound barrier beside a busy road.

Working Plants

Plants have jobs too -- they just don't get weekends off like the rest of us, and the pay isn't great. A working plant lives for it's job. When a particular plant has been assigned a specific task, it is a lifelong commitment.

Plants that are on security detail may be living along borders or fence lines. Barberry, pyracantha, and even some particularly thorny cacti are commonly used as barriers. They look much more friendly than a chain link fence but will accomplish the same task.

If, for example, you have a pool in your yard and you don't want the neighbor kids sneaking in for an uninvited swim, plant Japanese Red Leaf barberry (Berberis thunergii). Berberis julianae not only has thorns, but the leaves have spiny serrations.

Dense hedges of pyracantha will keep out all but the most determined intruder. Long thorns make even pruning this plant hazardous to your health.

Traffic Control
Like the "Sleeping Policemen" in Jamaica (aka speed bumps), shrubby plants can work for traffic control. If you live on a corner lot and you want to prevent pedestrians from short-cutting across your yard, plant a barrier of colorful shrubs. Not only will the shrubs use less water than a lawn, they will provide a landscaped look to your garden.

Depending on the location, a barrier of azalea, oleander, pittosporoum or leptospermum will reroute traffic to a more desirable flow pattern.

Sound Barrier
Now suppose that same corner lot is on a busy street. You can substantially reduce the amount of traffic noise by planting tall-growing shrubs with dense foliage such as nandina, callistemon, buxus, ligustrum, photinia, or escallonia. These hardy shrubs will muffle the offending noise while beautifying your landscape at the same time. Plant near the property line rather than along house walls to allow light to enter.

Heating and Cooling
Deciduous trees can significantly reduce heating and cooling bills. Planted on the south and west sides of a home, trees such as pistache, sycamore, and alder will shade your home in the summer months. After they drop their leaves in the fall they're still at work, breaking the force of strong winter winds that would otherwise blast your home with icy arctic air.

Eucalyptus has been widely planted as wind barriers all over the state and was originally imported into California to be harvested for railroad ties. Unfortunately, the wood corkscrews as it dries, but the now-mature trees are still providing protection from prevailing winds.

If the windows of your home face your neighbors, build a trellis a few feet away from the window and plant a privacy screen of passion vine, evergreen clematis, clytostomia, or distictis. These are all evergreen vines that will provide flowers in addition to privacy.

You can see plants at work in traffic dividers, parking lots, and playgrounds. One of the most impressive collection of working plants are the oleander that grow down the center of highway 80 near Davis, CA. Oleander are very dense and springy. Their fibrous stems will prevent automobiles from crossing over into oncoming traffic. I'd rather hit an oleander than an oncoming truck any day! Talk about giving your life to your work!

So the next time you complain about going to work on Monday morning, think about all the plants that never get a day off.

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