The Bones of the Garden in Summer-Dry Climates

On a recent hike, I clearly saw that summer has truly arrived. It wasn't even all that hot, but I found myself walking on a carpet of red and yellow Madrone leaves. A little further on, the beautiful view included stands of California buckeye (on the right in the photo), which had gone summer dormant.

"You've got to love brown," is supposedly a motto of the true Californa gardener. But I beg to differ. For me, a mix of (not very much) brown and (mostly) colors is essential in the garden. Gardens are meant to rest the eye, to delight the visitor, and dead-looking twigs just don't do it for me.

Summer is the best time to consider the design choices that were made in a garden. Summer shows off the bones of the garden; it's a great time to decide what to remove or replant in the fall.

Sure, many plants go summer dormant in the Town Mouse garden. My own Madrone skillfully ditched all the diseased leaves it had from an unusually wet winter.

On the sages and Lepichina fragans (pitcher sage) the large green leaves turn yellow and drop, and the smaller, hairier, greyer leaves appear.

Here's a close-up. I always think this is very cool. Wish I could shed the holiday pounds as easily as these plants shed their leaves...

Taking a wider view, I'm starting to have some questions. Clearly, planting the two Salvia mellifera 'Shirley's Creeper' along the walkway to the house and planting a monkeyflower in the middle wasn't a smart choice. Sure, it looked great in spring. But all three go summer dormant and it's just a sea of sickly-looking plants as you walk to the front door.

I'm thinking some Artemesias might be good choices to replace the Salvias. I have Artemesia pycnocephala 'David's Choice' in the back garden, and it looks pretty good year round. Some annuals might be a good choice for the spaces in between. I already have some bulbs in the space, adding Gilia and possibly Madia for summer might work.

A wider view toward the small sitting area reveals another brown spot.

For the most part, this arrangement of plants works. I like the Eriogonum fasciculatum, the locally native narrow-leaf buckwheat, showing off delicate white flowers (behind the chair). Bright green Baccharis pilularis (Coyote brush) in the foreground works well with the grayish leaves of Saliva apiana (white sage) in the background to the right. Wooly bluecurl, to the left of the white sage, is past its prime but the seedheads add some visual interest. To the left of that, we have another monkey flower and it stands out against the different shades of green. This is unfortunate because I really like that plant in that spot. I might try to plant Mimulus 'Eleonor', which seems to take afternoon sun better than most monkey flowers (for a great overview, see this Wild Suburbia post). 

The view down the dry streambed is pleasing, even in summer. 

Festuca californica looks great with minimal water, and another Salvia apiana and Wooly bluecurl look good in the background. I'm especially pleased that the Epilobium is blooming much more profusely than last year, inviting hummingbirds from all over the neighborhood.

The back garden looks quite beautiful stripped to the bones, with different shades of green and grey and different shapes of leaves and grasses providing visual interest. I did a post of photos of the garden just recently and won't repeat myself.

I did not show the back garden dry stream bed closer to the redwoods, but even here the grasses and iris are holding their own against the ceanothus, which is going semi-dormant and has quite a few yellow leaves. Mmmm, maybe I'll add something gray for next year....

But for now, I'll leave the garden alone. This is the time to rest, to observe, and to plan. Then, when fall comes, I'll have my shopping list ready!


I'll have to watch for the leaf changes on my pitcher sage. It was a new addition this year, so I haven't seen that in person yet. I'm fortunate that much of the 'bones' here is provided by the trees in the surrounding woodland, but I know what you mean about swathes of brown. Our monkeyflowers and deerweed are fading, which is making most of one area look a bit tired, and most of my Allen Chickering sages are fading. I don't regret planting Epilobiums like a crazy woman this year though, as they're just starting to bloom. I think I have 3 or 4 varieties planted now. I see yours look to be a little ahead of mine, but I've been excited to see the first blooms. Now I'm just waiting for our Anna's hummingbirds to find them!
Elephant's Eye said…
I'm enchanted by a plant with a winter and summer wardrobe. Is it unique? I've never come across this behaviour, except your plant.
ebw-pete said…
this is such a great and timely piece! thank you country/city mice. the gardens i've done w/ many, many annuals required LOTS of early summer maintenance this week. they seemed to have grown very large and beautiful for spring and then all pooped out at once over the past two weeks. fortunately, we do have a lot of great summer plants too - if you plan it right. there are many buckwheats which are just beginning to come into their glory now. most zauschnerias in my garden are just getting revved up and most of the goldenbushes [Ericameria linearifolia, arborescens, cuneata, etc...] haven't even begun their showy seasons yet. my wooly blue curls are also still going strong and the monkeyflowers which i water once per week and those in containers are into their second flowering now. this is a good time of year to wash the dust off all the plants in the garden. within a week or two, you get lots of fresh shades of green, yellow and a few more flowers. don't soak the soil around anything, but give everything a little sip and you'll be rewarded.
Kellim said…
I know this is an old post, but I'm so relieved I found it. My 2 year old mimulus 'eleanor' is looking very rough and I wasn't sure if it was dying or just going dormant. Somebody accidentally took off one of the branches in February with a power trimmer (ugh!). I don't remember it turning so brown and scraggly last summer, so I thought maybe it had taken all the abuse it could, but it looks like this is normal summer monkeyflower behavior.

I was very impressed though- I stuck the poor, cut off branch into the ground next to it's former body and it's still alive! It even flowered this year.

This is the first CA native I successfully planted, so I'm rather attached to it.