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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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May 13

Work with It

Posted on May 13, 2016 at 10:47 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Let's face it: No garden has perfect conditions. You may have too much sun, too much shade, hillsides too steep, areas where water collects, too much clay in the soil, deer problems, and the list goes on ad nauseam.

The question, when facing a dilemma, is what to do with the problem at hand? My suggestion is to work with it. Oft times, the answer boils down to selecting plants that can withstand the existing conditions. For example, the winters at my home in Lassen County can cause a buildup of snow on the roof. The snow often slides off, mounding up on garden beds and playing havoc with any plant growing in that area. The solution? Planting perennials that go completely dormant in the snowy months and reemerge from the soil in the spring. I now have the snow-bound area solved for a glorious flower garden during the warm months, knowing the plants will not be crushed or broken in the winter.

Though Marin doesn't have a snow problem, it does have heavy rains that can drown plants in low-lying areas. Again, a simple solution lies in plant selection. A water-logged area can be turned into a rain garden by choosing plants that like their feet wet, like Siberian iris or canna.

Bleeding heart
 Shade-lover bleeding heart
The same holds true for too much sun or shade. Forcing a shade-lover to grow in the sun or a sun-lover to grow in the shade is a recipe for disaster. Pick the proper plants to thrive with your sun exposure. Another simple but long-term solution for an area with too much sun is to plant a tree. It might take a few years to get the effective shade you are trying to achieve, but it is a start. Choose a tree that provides a spreading canopy to ensure plenty of shade. If you welcome the sun in that area in winter, pick a tree that will lose its leaves and allow sunlight to filter into the space.

Deer are another challenge. An author can recommend plants they won't eat, but the bottom line is deer don't read books or blogs! My suggestion is to walk around your neighborhood to see what survives deer browsing and go with that selection. Back in my design days, if there was a question about deer browsing I would set out a one-gallon can size plant in the area to be landscaped for a week. Sacrificing one plant to this nibble test was better than losing a hillside of destroyed plants!

California poppies
Colorful California poppies and other wildflowers
And speaking of hillside gardening, this is one of the most difficult types of landscaped areas to work with. Choose plants that are known to thrive in steep, rocky areas with minimal irrigation. Native creepers on hillsides will assist with erosion control while using little water. For example, try trailing manzanita (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi or 'Emerald Carpet'), Ceanothus griseus horizontalis 'Carmel Creeper', and intermix with Eriogonum fasciculatum 'Warriner Lytle' buckwheat. Note that all of these plants thrive in the same hydrozone conditions and are all California natives. Poppy seeds scattered throughout can offer the color often missing on hillside plantings.

Working with difficult areas can often lead to stellar results if you are willing to stick with it and ferret out the plants that will thrive in such conditions! Have fun with it!

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