Carolyn and Mike Arthur created a drought tolerant garden in Tarzana that not only saves water but serves as a comforting and tranquil respite from the storm of city life. No matter how sprawling or suburbanized it may be, Los Angeles is still a city, yet it is possible to remove yourself from it through a backyard beautification process.
I say process because a garden is never static. This is important for people to understand before embarking on a garden makeover. Makeovers that involve living things, whether plants or people, are never permanent, as much as face lifters and tummy tuckers might wish to think otherwise.
Yet the Arthurs have a good chance of going another decade, at least, without having to redo much of anything thanks to their garden choices. Barrel cacti dominate a large central planter which serves as the focal point of their backyard oasis. These signature spherical cacti expand at the rate of one inch per year. At a diameter of around 15 inches, when they are 15 or more years of age, they begin to produce an annual display of translucent yellow flowers.
Many of the barrel cacti here are placed next to boulders, a sensible design decision since, as they age, barrel cacti begin to lean south or southwest. That’s why these cacti have thorns, whose function is to protect them from scorching sun, especially when young. In any event, the boulders distract the eye sufficiently to minimize the leaning effect. Furthermore, use of smooth, buff colored river rock as a mulch makes for a pleasant contrast to the main cacti subjects, which are rough textured, thorny and green.
Queen Victoria agave
Queen Victoria agave (Agave reginae-victoriae), another Arthur garden selection, grows even more slowly than a barrel cactus. Its name alludes to its resemblance to Queen Victoria’s crown. In the manner of all agaves, Queen Victoria agave dies after it flowers, at 10-15 years of age. However, by this time, pups or clonal offspring will have grown up around it, from its roots, so that it’s presence in the Arthur garden will endure.
Palo verde (Parkinsonia sp.) trees have been chosen as arboreal specimens. Their puny foliage and overall wispy mien is set off against a collection of thick leafed aloes planted below. Palo Verdes grow ever so slowly to around thirty feet, producing some shade for surrounding plants, but they are of strictly ornamental value where people are concerned. You will never be able to picnic under a palo verde tree.
Big bend or beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata) is a mesmerizing plant and the Arthur garden is showing off one of its prime specimens. Starting from a soft, chalky blue, sea urchin like clump, it eventually develops a straight, squat, pole-like trunk that may eventually reach fifteen feet in height, with that same sidereal clump affixed to the top of the pole.
This prized yucca is complemented from afar by one of its close relatives, which is slowly naturalizing the slope at the rear of the Arthur backyard. Spanish bayonet (Hesperoyucca whipplei) is sprouting up all over the slope, with most of its young plants at the slope base since this is where runoff from winter rain collects. Other California natives also thrive on the Arthur back slope including laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), California incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia).
Senecio vitalis with Sedum Nussbaumerianum
The Arthurs have succeeded in growing picture perfect succulents in containers. Crassula ‘Campfire’ has orange-red foliage and combines wonderfully with succulent green and leafy blue companions in the same terra cotta pot. In a nearby terra cotta pot, the vertically oriented, blue green Senecio vitalis is flourishing side by side with the more earthbound coppertone stonecrop (Sedum nussbaumerianum).
Navel orange with gravel mulch
The Arthurs have planted a dwarf navel orange and a pomegranate in the middle of large circles of pebbles. These pebbles serve as a wonderful mulch, minimize soil moisture fluctuation, and will go a long way towards preventing fruit split, which is a frequently occurring event where Valley oranges and pomegranates are concerned.
The Arthurs have brought in several whimsical ornaments that make a sojourn in their garden that much more delightful. Prominent among
windmill weather vane, barrel cactus, beaked yucca
peacock ornament in succulent garden
primitivist glass sunflower
these ornaments is an old fashioned windmill weather vane, bringing a homestead vibe into a minimalist concept evoked by the surrounding barrel cacti. A bronze peacock, whose tail feathers gyrate in the breeze, is another pleasant diversion. Finally, a multi-colored, dangling glass sunflower, painted in primitivist mode, transfixes the eye, a pleasing contrast to the greens and beiges and chalky blues of the garden.
Tip of the Week: The Arthurs have planted several dwarf germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) in their backyard haven. Germander is a member of the mint family and an excellent candidate, despite its delicate look, for water thrifty herb gardens. It has tiny, 1/2″ sized leaves that are densely packed, giving germander an extremely lush appearance. It blends well with the foliage of other drought tolerant plants which, more often than not, have grey, dull to medium green, or pale blue foliage. A compact common myrtle (Myrtus communis ‘Compacta’) is also thriving, despite a near total lack of irrigation during this past summer.