Master Gardeners: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you build your garden?
Linda: When my husband and I first built our home in 2007 in west Petaluma, we had the garden in mind from the very start. The house was dug into a hillside and we had the contractor move the excavated topsoil up the hill so we could use it to terrace the slope for an orchard, a food garden, and areas for entertaining. The garden is a little bit like a home—it’s laid out in a series of “rooms,” each one telling its own story of color and texture. We have benches tucked away all over.
MG: I notice that each space seems to have its own theme. Is that intentional?
Linda: I’m actually attracted more to foliar color and texture than to flowers. With the exception of my rose garden, I generally grow flowering plants mainly to provide food sources for the beneficial insects I want to attract. Much of the garden is arranged using leaf and stem color and texture to create combinations that provide interest all year round. You can create a story by putting complementary plants together. For example, in one bed, I’ve combined a Euonymus japonicus ‘Aureomarginatus’, with its yellow and green variegated leaves, with a Juniperus chinensis ‘Daub’s Frosted’, with its dusting of yellow foliage on green. I added a Shasta daisy that has white flowers with a yellow center, and a Phlomis fruiticosa with its large pom poms of bright yellow flowers that bloom all summer. In another area, I’ve planted a Safari Conebush (Leucodendron ‘Safari Sunset’) with red, burgundy, yellow and orange foliage, alongside a burgundy-leafed Loropetalum chinense ‘Purple Haze’ and some Nandina domestica ‘Gulfstream’ whose colors mirror the conebush. Nearby, some lime-foliaged Golden Feverfew reflect the colors in the conebush and the nandina.
MG: How did you decide what to plant?
Linda: I don’t have the patience for a fussy garden. Our garden is almost entirely drought tolerant plants from the five Mediterranean climate areas around the globe (the Mediterranean itself, South Africa, Australia/New Zealand, Chile and California). It includes lots of native California plants which support the local fauna. The exception is my rose garden; I do love roses. But I’ve put them all together in one area so they can be watered separately. This way, I’m not overwatering all the drought tolerant plants in the rest of my garden or underwatering the roses.
I also love Manzanitas. They’re native to California chaparral so are very drought tolerant, and they are quite difficult to kill unless you give them too much water! A favorite is the Pt. Reyes Manzanita ground cover, which is very drought tolerant. It has pink blossoms in early spring when the bees are desperate for nectar. I use ground covers to cut down on weeding and to stabilize the hillside. They also help shade the soil so you get less evaporation.
Another favorite is Lomandra, a great grass substitute that, once established, needs almost no water in the summer. And, because they’re evergreen, you don’t have to cut them back every year, so you don’t get the mess you do with traditional grasses. Salvias are one of my favorite flowering perennials. They come in so many different colors, and they attract beneficial insects to my vegetable garden and orchard.
MG: How do you maintain your garden? Is it a lot of work?
Linda: Our whole garden is on a drip system. The controller is connected wirelessly to its own weather sensor, so it automatically shuts off in the rain. It also automatically adjusts the amount of time the garden is watered. It will use longer or shorter periods based on the time of year and historical rainfall averages. I recommend this type of controller for every garden. We saved enough water in one year to pay the difference between a regular controller and this one.
We do have to weed the garden; there’s just no way around it. Unfortunately, there is bindweed in the garden that I need to control. In general, though, the garden is planted quite densely so most of the ground is shaded in spring and summer. Once the initial weeding is done in early spring, we don’t need to spend too much time on it.
Probably the most important thing we do is to add a layer of mulch every year or two. This helps in a number of ways: to control the weeds, to keep moisture in the soil, and to provide a constant source of nutrients for the soil and plants as it breaks down. I don’t use any fertilizer other than mulch and compost, which I add to my roses and to the raised beds where we grow our food garden.
MG: What advice do you have for other gardeners?
Linda: Have a plan and don’t overplant. I know we’d all like to see a garden mature quickly, but be patient. When the tag says a plant will get to be eight feet tall, it really will reach eight feet tall! You can end up having to pull plants out or fight to keep them pruned, but it’s so much easier to put the right plant in the right place in the first place. Some people are intimidated by the idea of planting a garden, but I recommend starting with a plan and tackling it in small pieces, working on it over time. If you make a mistake, or if you don’t like a plant, pull it out and plant something else.
MG: What drives you crazy in your garden?
Linda: Gophers are a problem, but I may have found a solution. Our neighbor put in an owl box a couple of years ago, and our gopher population is way down. I think it’s so much better to find a natural solution, and trapping gophers is not a lot of fun.
MG: I notice your neighborhood is at the edge of the Petaluma city limits. We’ve had devastating fires over the last two years. Can a garden help protect your property?
Linda: Yes and no. There may be no way to stop a fire like the one in Paradise, but we have done a lot to create barriers on our property. Our house is stucco, even under the eaves, which is of course more fire resistant than wood. We have replaced a wooden fence adjacent to the house with one made of metal and Hardie board, a cement-based product that is fire resistant. We also took out an overgrown woody hedge that was up against the house and put in a succulent garden with decorative rock….and it looks even better!
MG: What inspires you about your garden?
Linda: I love to garden. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment, and I find the time in amongst my plants is a chance for reflection and recharging my batteries. This time of year, it’s lovely to see the birds coming back, and to see the bees foraging among the early blooms on the manzanita. The weather is getting a little milder, so it’s time to get to work. Spring is just around the corner.