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April 01, 2005

The front yard

I spent much of the day today pulling weeds in the backyard. (This was interesting as the Claritin has not quite kicked in yet.) I remembered a request from Dave Roycroft for a photo showing the whole garden right about when I was ready to quit weeding for a minute, so I went in and got the camera.

But I decided the light was better in the front yard, so that's where I headed. The first photo here is of the front yard: oddly enough, only about five percent of that biomass is weeds. (For a bit of perspective, here's what the place looked like three years ago.) The thing in front is a ceanothus that's just ending bloom, and there are giant sages and buddleias and a yellow and green striped agave I have been carrying from house to house for almost 20 years. The tiny white flowers are Erigeron karvinskianus aka Santa Barbara daisies, a little pernicious landscape perennial used by landscapers around here when they can't think of anything else to put in a sunny spot. I was looking to control weeds with the stuff. It kind of works.

That dirt scar along the sidewalk is where the new retaining wall will end, if we ever get a new retaining wall.

Of chief interest in the front garden these days - aside from the chiranthofremontia, the giant flowering tree to the right of the porch that has resisted my efforts to take a good photo of its blossoms - are the Douglas iris and closely related Pacific coast hybrids.

Douglas iris (like these, the purple flowers in mid-shot here) are native to the California coast, and they're one of the best native perennials you can plant in your dry California garden. For one thing, they really sulk if you water them in summer, so they encourage wise planting of other droughty plants, thus saving you a small bundle on your water bill and reducing the need to block salmon streams with giant dams to nourish a billion useless putting green lawns.

Also they're pretty, a cut woodland-seeming flower that can actually take just about whatever the climate can dish out - other than heavy summer rain.

Just behind the iris in this photo is a slate blue agave I got from someone's backyard. She was moving, and put an ad in the paper reading "free cactuses!" and I think only one of the forty plants she was giving away was a cactus. I took them all off her hands anyway, and most of them are still alive. In the lower right hand corner you can see an oakleaf hydrange, which on a branch just outside this photo is just struggling into bloom. The hydrangea was groing in the backyard when we bought the place: I carefully extracted it from the ground by the expedient of sticking a 4 by 4 timber under its stem and prying it out of the ground on a wet day. It survived, though I had to prune it back pretty hard. In the lower left hand corner is some Penstemon eatonii, which I believe I mentioned grows all over the place in Sedona. In about three months it will have four-foot spikes of red flowers.

Here's a closer look at a neaby clump of Douglas iris. They just sit there like little, unassuming tufts of broad-leaved grass for eleven months out of the year, and then bam: your canonical blaze of color.

In an article I wrote about three years ago, I extolled the sturdiness of the plants:

Delicate form aside, [Douglas irises] are California native plants that are considered invasive. This evaluation is generally offered by ranchers and their ilk: the irises are mildly poisonous to livestock, and thrive on trampling; put enough cows in a field with a handful of western blue flag, and soon you have wall to wall irises. Looking through range management literature, one sees descriptions of coastal pastures and alpine fields as "infested" by native iris, with control methods recommended.

Along the top margin of the photo is an echeveria that was at that same "cactus" giveaway, and an actual column cactus - a Trichocereus spachianus - that I got from somewhere else..

Douglas irises lent their genes - mixed with those of a few other local species - to creat the Pacific coast hybrid group of irises, which are basically identical to Douglas iris in growing culture. Some of the hybrids can take a little bit of summer water, though none of mine seem to like it much. Here's a yellow one, nicely matched by a pot of gray succulent Senecio. Poking in from the right side of the photo: the leaves of a Yucca rostrata, a slow-growing arborescent yucca that is not particularly closely related to the Joshua tree.

Posted by Chris Clarke at April 1, 2005 04:20 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Several unrelated thoughts.

It's strange to see so much color when the ground here, perhaps 10 miles east of the Idaho border and 6 miles south of British Columbia, is still sleeping. Poised, perhaps, for awakening, but still sleeping. Not that I'd ever trade this land, with its wolves, griz, lynx and huge, fire-blackened larch, for a dollop of suburbia amidst the California sprawl. But I must admit to being a little envious of all that color.

It also amazes me that anyone actually knows the scientific names of so many plants. Not that I find such knowledge strange - the mayflies our trout eat bear titles like ephemerella inermis and e. infrequens, and I can certainly wax poetic about the little buggers when I'm in the mood - but not being a plant person, I guess I'm always befuddled that this type of information appeals to so many folks.

Finally, on the off chance that this may be of interest to anyone passing through, the following website - - gives access to a more personal (if still foreign, at least to me) type of plant lore. I've had the privledge of listening to Karen Sherwood lecture on plants, and if you're willing to make the leap from talking to your garden to listening to it, then you'd be hard pressed to find a better teacher.

Posted by: tost at April 1, 2005 06:23 PM
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Nothing has made me feel homesick for California like these photos do. The Douglas Iris looks like home to me. We have color up here on the Olympic Peninsula-- the daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips are blooming, but the familiar beauty of drought resistant flora is not to be found.
Chris, we could do before and after shots of our Santa Cruz house and it would look so much like yours, it is funny. The front lawn gave way to rock and flower gardens, raised beds, fig, and lemon trees, and a mulberry bush. Your house looks great.

Posted by: Rexroths Daughter at April 1, 2005 07:25 PM
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You should see it when it is REALLY in full bloom.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at April 1, 2005 08:26 PM
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you certainly did improve the look of your house. did you remove the grass? is there some way to overwhelm (kill) it with other plants? the lawn that RD mentions above gave way grudgingly. i would love to see a picture showing your house and also several neighbors'.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at April 2, 2005 08:19 AM
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We are waiting for pics of the back yard.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at April 2, 2005 09:05 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

WOW, I am impressed with the change to your property over only three years. That took a LOT of work. I really like what you did with it, too, it's gorgeous. By the way, what do the neighbors think, or do you have close neighbors?

Posted by: GrrlScientist at April 2, 2005 10:30 AM
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Beautiful, thanks so much. Amazing transformation (of the property), love the way everything fits together, well thought out.

Question, the text runs over on the screen from the center to the side links when I view the blog, do I have something set up wrong on my computer?

Posted by: dr at April 3, 2005 10:06 AM
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GrrlSci, our neighbors don't seem to mind. We're actually still coasting on the goodwill engendered when we bought the house and started fixing it up, though I think people have mainly forgotten the fact that the lawn was about four feet tall for a few years before we came along.

One neighbor objected to the paint color, but then she died.

OK, that's crass. It was sad when she died, despite the fact that one of her last acts in life was to scream at Becky until Becky burst into tears. And she did allow as how she liked the color better once the landscaping started to grow in.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at April 3, 2005 11:44 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs