Don’t Forget to Notice the Natives

California white sage close-up (Salvia apiana)

California white sage close-up (Salvia apiana)

succulent garden and mosaic wall of Ray Elder, Woodland   Hills

succulent garden and mosaic wall of Ray Elder, Woodland Hills

castor bean (Ricinus communis)

castor bean (Ricinus communis)

kangaroo paw, orange hybrid

kangaroo paw, orange hybrid

orange cannas  (7 feet tall)

orange cannas (7 feet tall)

lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

You know you’re getting old when time worn clichés begin to ring true.  One of those clichés admonishes us: “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” to which I would add, “and don’t forget to stop and notice the natives.”
Just the other day, for example, in Valley Village, I suddenly found myself zooming in on a California white sage (Salvia apiana).  Each whorl of leaves had a shape and a brilliance of astral significance. Keen observers of the natural world point out that the universe contains patterns and shapes that repeat themselves in a wide variety of living and non-living forms and starry configurations would be at the top of this list.
While examining this same sidereal white sage, I was startled by a group of flower stems, several feet in length, that exploded dramatically from the body of the plant.  At first glance, from a distance, I thought this sage must be an agave or dudleya of some sort on account of its star-shaped foliar rosettes and flower stems whose length was much greater than the height of the plant itself.  But no, this was truly a white sage which, unlike an agave, will not die after flowering and will continue to put out its elongated flower stems, covered with white blooms, for years to come.
Speaking of startled, at another Valley Village house not far from the white sage, I came upon a planting the likes of which I had never seen before.  The front yard of this particular home, at least the portion of it facing the street, was covered end to end with castor bean plants.  Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is a dazzling ornamental, especially its dark burgundy version, with sharply cut foliage reminiscent of what you see on burgundy Japanese maple trees.  Here, the castor bean collection featured plants of varying heights, leading to the conclusion that the smaller ones had sprouted from seeds dropped in place. 
Castor bean plants are memorable not only for their beauty but for their drought tolerance, too. Frequently, you will see them flourishing in empty lots, where they never see a drop of water except for winter rain.  But one caveat about growing them must be stated, namely, that castor bean is considered to be among the most poisonous plants on earth.  The toxin known as ricin, which has been used in biological warfare and is 6,000 times more potent, per gram, than cyanide, is made from castor bean seed. 
If you are looking for an appropriate complement to your burgundy-leafed plant, consider species with orange flowers.  You can actually find this combination in a single plant, namely, in a canna lily with bronzish-burgundy, banana type foliage and orange, iris-like flowers.  As far as plants in the drought tolerant pantheon are concerned, hybrid orange kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos spp.) are worth serious consideration.
Ray Elder, a semi-retired graphic designer who lives in Woodland Hills, recently completed a mosaic wall that serves as a colorful backdrop to his succulent garden, which has been ten years in the making.  “I designed my garden with two things in mind,” Elder wrote, “to reduce our water bills and to have color and growth all year around without the summer brown that so often occurs with other types of drought resistant plants.  Our water bill was immediately reduced by 50%.  The plants require once a week watering in summer and less than that in winter.  My start up costs were approximately $1000 and I have relied on transplanting ever since, which involves cutting off a piece of a succulent and sticking it in the ground.  We are very happy with our garden as are, I might brag, our neighbors, who stop by to look all the time.”
“My grandfather reads your aritcles about plants and would like to know if using sink water for plants is good or bad.  Due to the drought in California, we try to be resourceful.”  — Jen Maldonado, Woodland Hills
It depends on the type of sink water to which you refer.  Kitchen sink water should not be recycled for watering plants.  Some water experts even classify water after it has gone down the kitchen sink as black water, on par with water that is flushed down the toilet.  On the other hand, bathroom sink water, as well as water from the shower, bathtub, and laundry washing machine – which are known collectively as grey water – are appropriate for garden use.  Currently, in the city of Los Angeles, re-using washing machine water does not require a permit as long as the recycled water enters your garden bed at least two inches below the soil line or two inches below a layer of mulch.  Re-using gray water from the bathroom, on the other hand, will require a permit, albeit of the simple, over the City Hall counter variety.  Any serious plumbing changes, where installation of tanks or pumps is involved, will require city and county inspections.
Tip of the Week:  “We have several lilac bushes in front of our condo and they didn’t have but one or two flowers on them this spring.  The bushes are tall and the leaves look healthy but no flowers!!  The complex gardener does not know the proper time to trim the bushes, so should they be trimmed now or wait to see if any flowers will come out?  I want to make sure to help the plants to flower next spring.” Marlene Snow, Valencia
Your lilacs should have flowered by now.  Lilacs require a certain amount of winter cold in order to bloom.  If winter temperatures are not sufficiently cold, few flower buds will open.   It could also be the case, however, that the flower buds for this year’s flowers, which were formed not long after last spring’s flowers faded, were pruned some time last year.  The best time to prune is immediately after flowering before buds for next year’s flower crop can form, so I would not prune these lilac bushes until they flower next year.

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