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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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Oct 06

Fall Color with Low-Water and California Native Plants

Posted on October 6, 2016 at 10:10 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

It's October and fall is in the air. Cool nights and shortened daylight hours remind us of this change in season, as do all the leaves revealing their true colors. Reds, yellows and oranges are appearing on trees, shrubs and even some perennials to accentuate the season. 

Chemung mine color pattern of rabbitbrush
Yellow-flowering rabbitbrush draws the eye through the landscape at abandoned Chemung Mine in the Eastern Sierras (visited on a recent trip). Aim for a similar effect in your garden.
Despite these leafy hues, this is a time in the garden when we often lack the colorful flower displays we find in spring and summer. But this does not need to be, as native and low-water-use plants can help cheer us with their color on drab fall days. The trick is knowing which plants to couple together for that autumn punch of vibrancy. As you think about placement, follow the tips in last week's blog. One of the keys to good design is to carry a color, texture or shape throughout the garden so the eye travels easily across the landscape. 

Of course it also helps to know which low-water and native plants can provide fall interest. Some of my favorite fall-flowering perennials are in the genus Salvia--the sages. Sage comes in a host of colors. Spring often finds the blue and purple sages most intense, but fall welcomes the red sages. Salvia greggii, commonly known as autumn sage, comes into bloom toward the end of summer and continues through the fall months. This sage grows about 3 feet tall and spreads to 4 feet, sporting bright red flowers. Some cultivars of S. greggii come in white ('Alba'), red ('Furman's Red'), salmon ('Salmon') and hot pink ('Sierra Linda'). Salvia leucantha is another heavy fall bloomer; however, it bears purple calyces and white flowers. The attraction with this salvia is the handsome, white fuzzy underside of the olive-colored leaves. I would be remiss if I did not include 'Hot Lips,' a red and white fall-blooming Salvia microphylla that grows to the same size as the Salvia greggii and wears those flowers well into autumn.

Sticky monkeyflower
Sticky monkeyflower in bloom at San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge
How could I not discuss Mimulus, or sticky monkeyflower to many gardeners? There are over 180 varieties of this perennial, including many indigenous to California. This small plant blooms at a time when the rest of the garden is ready for dormancy. It does not like its feet wet, and it gratefully accepts a good pruning to keep its shape when its bloom season is complete.

Some of my Agastache (hummingbird mint) is blooming up a storm right now and providing nectar to the few brave little late hummers migrating through. The hummingbirds also enjoy feasting on Epilobium canum, otherwise known as California fuchsia. Epilobium 'Everett's Choice' makes an excellent groundcover, growing a mere 3-4 inches tall and highlighting the garden with its orange-red flowers. The fuchsia-like flowers are a treat for the eye, and this plant does not like water. 

These fall flower colors can be carried through the landscape and even up into the trees. For example, the red flowers I've focused on could be good complements for a western redbud. Cercis occidentalis leaves are a magnificent scarlet burst dotting the hills in the wild right now. This small-scale tree is perfect for that tight spot in the garden that needs color both spring and fall.

With so many plants to choose from, fall color can be yours. The plants listed above are all low- to very-low-water users during the time of year when the reservoirs are still waiting to be replenished with rain. The folks at the California Native Plant Society can help you find the right plants for the right places to carry the autumn theme through your garden. Check out their annual fall sale on October 15.


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