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Notable natives; these five shrubs from the California hills will thrive in dry gardens and put on a spring flower (and sometimes summer) flower show.

Notable natives

The biggest concern most gardeners have about starting a drought-tolerant garden is that all year it will look as drab and dry as the hills in summer. It doesn't have to.

Shown here are five California native shrubs that, with a fraction of the water and work, will bloom at least as long as a rhododendron and have foliage that looks just as good. Fall is prime time to plant all five. This month and next, you have the widest possible section, as regional native plant societies hold their annual sales; check this month's garden events column for any near you. Nurseries also carry an increasingly wide selection.

You can plant one or combine several as a good-looking backdrop for wildflowers or other drought-tolerant flowering plants. Use them as small-space trees, privacy screens, or individual showy specimens. For ground covers, choose low to mid-height wild lilacs. Since none needs much attention once established, they are especially valuable for slopes and other places that are difficult to water and maintain.

To give them the good drainage they need, plant them on slopes or mounds, or in raised beds. Plant with the trunk base raised several inches above ground level to be sure it stays dry.

Water, but not too much

Until shrubs are well rooted in surrounding soil, water often enough to keep the original rootball and some surrounding soil moist. The best way to water is with a drip system or slow-trickling hose.

As the plant grows, move soakers far enough away to keep the trunk dry. Soak soil several feet deep, then let the surface dry before watering again.

The first summer, water on and around the original rootball no more than twice a month. The second summer, cut back to every four to six weeks. By the third summer, unless winter has been exceptionally dry, plants can thrive on their own.

In dry years, you can help nature out with some supplemental soaking to keep foliage looking fresh and to prolong bloom. If rains are late, give plants one or two good drenchings in fall after weather cools; soak them again in spring after rains stop, as long as weather is cool.

In summer, watering becomes a trade-off. An occasional thorough soaking every four to six weeks during hot weather can keep foliage looking better. But wet soil near the trunk in warm weather can be fatal for these plants, so don't overdo it.

To help plants look their best, pinch or prune off branches that are poorly placed or unattractive; do it during dry weather. Mulch bare dirt between them to conserve water and minimize dust.

Showy shrubs for dry gardens

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica). Fragrant flowers cover the bush for a month in late spring; in cool climates and with occasional supplemental watering, you may get spotty bloom off and on all summer. The rest of the year, it's a dense, green mound 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. Bloom is heaviest in sun in the coastal fog belt, but foliage looks best with some mid-day shade in hot sites or climates.

Wild lilac (Ceanothus). Choose from ground huggers under a foot tall (but 8 or 9 feet across) to tree-like shrubs 15 feet high. Some bloom in compact balls, some in feathery plumes. Most are pale to mid-night blue; a few are white.

Peak bloom is in spring, but in coastal climates, by choosing several kinds, you can have some bloom from November into summer.

Inland, small-leafed varieties tend to perform best. Among the toughest choices are medium to tall "Concha', "Frosty Blue', and "Snow Flurry'. For ground cover, try Mount Vision ceanothus (C. gloriosus porrectus), C. hearstiorum, "Joyce Coulter', and "Snowball'.

The Sunset Western Garden Book can help you pick a variety to suit your site and climate.

Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis). Small pea-shaped spring flowers are followed by blue-green heart-shaped leaves. If you get a cold snap in fall, leaves turn yellow to red before they drop, exposing bare branches in winter. Flowers are usually magenta, though occasionally white-flowered forms are sold.

Slow-growing on dry hills, it's much faster in good soil with some water. Plant in full sun or bright partial shade. You can let it take its natural shape as a 12-foot-tall shrub, or prune off lower limbs to form a slightly taller, round-headed tree. Bloom is best with some winter temperatures below 28|. Eastern redbud (C. canadensis) blooms more heavily in cool coastal areas but needs more water.

Bush poppy (Dendromecon). Choose from two kinds, both sun lovers. D. harfordii (shown) has green to gray-green leaves and a scattering of silky yellow flowers all year, peaking April into July. This shrub quickly reaches 10 feet tall. Prune lightly after peak bloom to keep it well shaped, but avoid heavy pruning or it will unleash an explosion of suckers.

Less ever-blooming is D. rigida, with gray-green leaves on a 4- to 8-foot bush. Prune it back hard after bloom.

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron, formerly Fremontia). This open, spreading shrub or small tree grows quickly to 8 to 12 feet tall. For bloom February into June, plant F. mexicanum or showier named selections such as "San Gabriel' and "Pacific Sunset'; "California Glory' is equally showy but somewhat more temperamental. F. californicum is spectacular but blooms for a shorter time.

All kinds thrive best in hot, sunny sites with poor soil and no watering in warm weather. Plant back from walks--the fuzzy foliage is scratchy.

Photo: Rose-pink flowers of redbud stand out against the spring sky

Photo: Blue and gold: 3-inch yellow flowers of flannel bush (above and at rear, right) are a sparkling backdrop for blue "Concha' wild lilac (foreground). Its narrow leaves have less much appeal to deer than broad-leafed kinds such as "Ray Hartman' (below)

Photo: From March until frosts, 2 1/2-inch golden flowers shimmer at tips of island bush poppy on this never-watered slope in Berkeley

Photo: White petals with fluffy golden centers open in clusters, covering bush anemone for three weeks or longer in late May
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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