Manzanita

Shrubby manzanitas develop sculptural stems with shiny cinnamon brown bark.

There are more than a hundred specie of Manzanita, Arctostaphylos spp., that range in size and form from creeping ground covers to small trees that can get almost twenty feet tall. (They are more commonly known by their cultivar names than by their specie names.) Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ is as the name implies a nice low groundcover for dry slopes. Arctostaphylos ‘Doctor Hurd’ is a shrubby small tree that is often pruned to expose strikingly sculptural trunks that are as smooth and rich brown as a chestnut.

Abundant trusses of tiny ‘urn’ shaped flowers bloom about now. Almost all are pale white. A few are pale pink. The subsequent red berries typically get eaten by birds before anyone else sees them. The evergreen foliage is quite dense. Individual leaves are rather small and disproportionately thick.

Manzanita should be planted while small, because larger plants are more susceptible to rot. New plants want to be watered to prevent desiccation until they disperse their roots. If planted in autumn, they get enough water from rain through winter (typically), so that they only want occasional watering through the following spring and summer. Once established, they do not want much water at all, and can be damaged by fertilizer. The happiest plants are satisfied with what they get from rain after they get established.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce

Dwarf Alberta spruce is densely conical.

Of all the live Christmas trees available, the dwarf Alberta spruce is perhaps the most practical. It is a shrubby little tree with a big name, Picea glauca ‘Albertiana’ ‘Conica’. (‘Albertiana’ is typically omitted.) It is a dwarf cultivar of white spruce that grows very slowly. It takes many years to potentially get eight feet tall and half as wide at the base. Wild white spruce can grow a hundred feet tall.

The main disadvantage of the dwarf Alberta spruce as a live Christmas tree is the very dense foliage. It almost seems to be artificial. The small needles are only slightly bristly, and finely textured. Otherwise, dwarf Alberta spruce can remain potted as a Christmas tree for several years. It stays sufficiently compact to return to the home annually. It just does not want to be indoors for too long.

The strictly conical form of dwarf Alberta spruce is a distinctive feature in the garden. A pair of trees elegantly flanks a doorway or walkway. A row of evenly spaced trees instills formality to a linear border of bedding plants. Although they do not get too broad, they should have enough room to grow naturally. Pruning for confinement or clearance compromises their naturally symmetrical form.

Mugo Pine

Mugo pine is more shrubby than tree like.

Most shrubs and many perennials get larger than the diminutive mugo pine, Pinus mugo. The most common type grows very slowly as a dense and rounded mound only a few feet tall and maybe twice as wide. Only a very old specimen might reach an eave. The paired dark green needles are about one or two inches long. The symmetrical brown cones are a bit shorter. Mugo pine is also known as Swiss mountain pine and because of a misprint in the eighteenth century, mugho pine. Although native to mountains in Europe, mugo pine is most popular in Japanese gardens and for bonsai. Because it grows so slowly, it can be happy in planters and large pots. In large urns of regularly changed flowering annuals, it can be a nice permanent and evergreen centerpiece.

Apricot

Apricot trees get planted in winter.

Apricot has major history in California. For a very long time, it was the main agricultural commodity is several regions, particularly the Santa Clara Valley. It remains a significant commodity within portions of the San Joaquin Valley. Urban sprawl replaced orchards in other regions. However, apricot trees now inhabit some urban gardens. The climate here is as ideal for them as it ever was.

Garden variety apricot trees are not quite like orchard trees. Dwarfing rootstock keeps them somewhat more compact. They might otherwise grow taller that twenty feet. Production is best during the first three decades or so, before they begin to slowly deteriorate. Orchard trees are already due for replacement by then. Many more cultivars are practical for home gardens than for orchards.

Apricot trees, which are mostly of the species Prunus armeniaca, are certainly not ‘low maintenance’. They require specialized pruning annually, while dormant for winter. Otherwise, they produce more fruit than they can support. New trees are unlikely to produce any fruit during their first season. The deciduous foliage falls neatly in autumn. White or slightly blushed spring bloom is striking.

Common or Soft Rush

Physiologically, common rush is more interesting than it looks.

There was nothing common or soft about Rush, the innovative hard rock band of the seventies and eighties. Juncus effusus is only known as soft rush because the spiky and sharply pointed ‘foliage’ appears to be stiff, but is actually quite soft. It is common because in has such a vast natural range, including North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. It does not like hard rock, but instead prefers rich and moist soil, and will even be happy in soil that is too damp for other plants. Common rush tolerates a bit of shade but prefers good exposure. Because winters are too mild to freeze it back to the ground naturally, overgrown or discolored common rush can be cut down and then left to regenerate as winter ends.

The distinctive ‘foliage’ is not actually foliage. The minute leaves are unimpressive brown scales that do not do much at the base of each of the many upright green stems that function like foliage. The top six inches or so of each of these spike like stems is actually a bract that extends above the dangling but uninteresting tan or dingy yellow flowers that hang to the side. Collectively, the stems and bracts form distinctively sculptural clumps that radiate upward and outward. Healthy clumps are not much more than three feet high and wide.

Plum

Plums are better fresh than dried.

Only recently, and only to be more marketable, dried prunes attained the status of dried plums. Prunes and plums are actually two different types of fruit. Prunes are European fruits that dry nicely, but are not popular as fresh fruits. Plums are Japanese fruits that are best while fresh, but do not dry well at all. Because plums have less of a sugar content, they are likely to mold before they dry.

Plum is of the genus Prunus, just like prune and the other stone fruits. Stone fruits all contain large seeds, which are known as stones. Plums are ‘clingstone’, because the flesh of the fruit clings to the stones within. Prunes are ‘freestone’. Their stones separate easily from the flesh. The most popular plums are purplish or burgundy red. Others are blueish purple, red, orange, yellow or green.

Plum trees grow fast while young, and require aggressive pruning while dormant through winter. Otherwise, they get overwhelmed with fruit, and too tall to facilitate harvest. Even semi-dwarf trees can get almost twenty feet tall. They are spectacular in prolific white bloom. Small bare root trees that are now becoming available adapt to a new garden more efficiently than larger canned trees.

Scotch Moss

Sctoch moss resembles Irish moss, but is lighter yellowish green rather than dark green.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as not enough. Too much direct sun exposure can likewise be as much of a problem as not enough sunlight. Scotch moss, Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’, wants regular but not excessive watering, and only a bit of shade without darkness. To propagate, pieces with roots can be torn from healthy plants and ‘plugged’ (planted) as new plants where more are desired in early spring or autumn.

The remarkably finely textured and dense foliage makes a nicely refined ground cover for confined spots, or fills in the spaces between stones in a wall or walkway. It gets only about an inch deep, with tiny and obscured stems that get no longer than four inches. Stems develop roots where they touch the ground to creep any farther. The tiny and narrow leaves do not get much longer than a quarter inch. Tiny white flowers that bloom late in spring may not get noticed. What distinguishes Scotch moss from richly deep green Irish moss is that it is instead yellow or almost chartreuse.

Flowering Dogwood

Bloom like this waits for spring.

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida has something in common with Poinsettia. The most colorful component of their bloom is not floral, but is instead foliar. What appears to be petals are colorful leaves known as bracts. Exactly four bracts surround each small cluster of tiny and unimpressive pale green real flowers. These bracts are most popularly white, but can be pink or rarely brick red.

The deciduous trees are bare now, but bloom spectacularly in early spring. Any necessary pruning should happen after bloom, and preferable after new foliage matures somewhat. Floral buds for next year are already prominent on the tips of bare twigs. Dormant pruning would eliminate some of the buds prior to bloom. For now, only minor grooming of unbudded interior growth is practical.

Mature flowering dogwood trees can be twenty feet tall, but typically stay lower. As understory trees, they prefer a bit of shelter from larger trees. Foliage can scorch if too exposed. Some cultivars have variegated foliage. All can develop vibrant orange and red foliar color for autumn, even with minimal chill. Floral debris resembles fallen leaves that fall just as new and real foliage develops.

Leopard Plant

Leopard plant looks like it would be at home in the garden of Kermit the Frog.

The differences between false ligularia (Farfugium spp.) and real ligularia (Ligularia spp.) are so vague that the the names are commonly interchangeable. Leopard plant happens to be a real Ligularia japonica. The round and very glossy leaves are dark green with random spots of sunny yellow. Mature plants form rather dense foliar mounds about a foot wide and nearly as high. Prominent floral trusses that bloom in late summer or early autumn are a pleasant surprise, even though the small and sometimes feeble daisy flowers are typically only dingy gold, and often have brownish centers. Both ligularia and false ligularia are understory plants that naturally prefer the shelter of larger plants, so they prefer partial shade. They also like relatively rich soil and regular watering, although once established, they can recover efficiently if they happen to briefly get dry enough to wilt.

Canary Island Pine

Canary Island pine displays fluffy foliage.

For spacious landscapes, Canary Island pine, Pinus canariensis, became more common than Monterey pine through the 1970s. New trees became less popular as old trees demonstrated how big they get! However, as seemingly docile live Christmas trees, they still often sneak into gardens that are not big enough for them. Their short blue juvenile needles suggest that they stay small.

They instead get quite tall. Old trees can get more than a hundred feet tall, even if their canopy gets no wider than twenty feet. Their rich brown bark is distinctively and coarsely textured. Their thin and long needles are somewhat pendulous, with a rather fluffy appearance. They are in bundles of three. Although individual trees are not very broad, their shade can get too dark for other plants.

Canary Island pine is a stately tree, but is not easy to accommodate. It produces copious foliar debris that can shade out lawn and ground cover, and accumulate on shrubbery. In unrefined areas, without other plants, foliar debris suppresses weeds. However, too much can be combustible. Such grand and resilient trees suit parks, and are ideal for freeway embankments and interchanges.