Healthy Plants are Barely Watered

Texas Ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens)

Texas Ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens)

Five years ago, I visited Claire Martin’s garden in Winnetka and reported on several plants that were the picture of health despite minimal care on her part. A few days ago, I paid another visit to her garden only to observe that those same plants were as vigorous as ever, if not more so.
And here’s the thing: Martin barely waters her plants.
After years of Valley plant watching, I have come to the conclusion that automated sprinkler systems, left unchecked, shorten the lives of nearly everything you plant. Where watering is concerned, less is more.
It may be hard to accept but many, many plants benefit from being watered no more than once or twice a week, especially where plants that shade their own roots – such as in the case of ground covers and billowy perennials or shrubs with leafy shoots growing up from ground level – are concerned.
Martin’s Texas Ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens) has doubled in size since my last visit and is now 10 feet tall.
Texas Ranger belongs to that category of plants that thrives on being ignored. After its first year in the ground, Texas Ranger requires the tiniest bit of water (if any), no fertilizer and no pruning. No pests, except for soil fungi that proliferate in moist soil, bother it.
The reason for Texas Ranger’s virtual absence from our gardens is due to imperfect soil drainage and/or overwatering. It is a shrub that demands a well-drained alkaline soil and, even then, should never need to be watered more than twice a month.
But even before watering comes into play, it is essential that Texas Ranger be planted in perfectly drained soil.
You can test the drainage of any soil by digging a hole 1 foot deep and filling it with water. If the soil drains within four hours, you have decent drainage. If the soil requires more than four hours to drain you have a drainage issue that could lead to soil fungus problems, and significant soil amelioration with organic amendments is recommended.
To more precisely determine your soil’s drainage quality, do this: After your 1-foot test hole has drained, fill it again. After 15 minutes, measure how many inches of water have drained. Multiply that number by four to determine your drainage rate per hour.
Soil that drains less than 1 inch per hour is problematic and will have to be heavily amended with compost and other organic materials to be appropriate for garden planting. Soil that drains at a rate of 1 to 6 inches per hour is acceptable for most plants, but amendments are still recommended. Soil that drains faster than 6 inches per hour is suitable for cacti and other water-thrifty plants such as many California natives and, as long as you plant only drought-tolerant species, no soil amendments are necessary.
Color can also be an indicator of soil quality. A dark soil is rich in organic matter and usually adequately drained, a light brown to red soil is typically well-drained, and a blue-green, grey or yellow soil is poorly drained.
And then there’s the simple shovel test: Is your soil easy or difficult to dig? If you have a hard time shoveling, you will need to incorporate as much soil amendment as your back will tolerate. Until soil is softened – and it may take several years of amending and mulching to do so – planting holes should be shallow, even at the expense of exposing an inch or two of the root ball. Place soft topsoil around the perimeter of the exposed root ball and cover it all with mulch.
Martin is especially proud of her Matilija, or fried egg poppy (Romneya coulteri). A single humble poppy she planted seven years ago has grown into an impressive 10-foot-by-10-poppy display.
Matilija poppy is a gangly and ungainly California native perennial that is somewhat difficult to establish. But once it gets going, it will spread without conscience throughout the garden. Its stems grow up to 8 feet in height and its flowers, resembling jumbo fried eggs with yellow centers and crepe white petals, reach 9 inches in diameter.
No plant is better suited for erosion control than the Matilija poppy. Its ropy, rhizomatous roots grow deep and spread rapidly. The more this poppy is watered, the longer it flowers and the faster it spreads. However, it can subsist on winter rain alone.
Because of its invasiveness, the Matilija poppy is more suited to industrial than residential sites unless, as in Martin’s garden, it’s the only plant you desire for a given area.
It has a mild fragrance and dusty, silver-blue, sharply cut leaves that stand up well in vase arrangements.
Although it is difficult to eradicate once established in the ground, the Matilija poppy is somewhat tricky to propagate. Seeds may be germinated by placing them under smoldering pine needles, but you will probably have better luck digging up rhizomes, with leaves attached. Plant the rhizomes in 1-gallon containers and leave them in the shade until new growth is evident, at which point you can transplant them into slope or garden with confidence.
Five years ago, Martin’s patch of catmint (Nepeta faassenii), started from a single plant, was going strong. Judging from its present appearance, its strength has not abated and may have possibly increased. A long brick planter in front of her house is covered with its aromatic foliage and lavender blue flowers.
Tomato troubles
“I planted three tomato plants. Only one has flowers. The plants get at least six hours or more of sun each day. I water them when I put my finger in the soil, to judge if they are in need. Do I need to water more or feed more?”
– Carlene McFarland
Lake Balboa
The plants with no flowers may have been over-fertilized. Too much fertilizer leads to rampant vegetative or leaf growth and minimal, if any, flower and fruit production.
Tomatoes, incidentally, are pollinated either by wind or the vibrations of bees. If you get little or no fruit – and I have no idea if this applies to you – it could be due to lack of a breeze and absence of bee activity where your tomatoes are planted. In such a case, simply shake the flowering stems for pollination and fruit formation to occur.
Tip of the week
An orange Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria) variety known as ‘The Third Harmonic’ may be the world champion when it comes to longevity of cut flowers. My vase bouquets last longer than two weeks. Some of the petals have dropped after two weeks, but at least half of them remain, having turned a golden yellow. In the garden, plants may reach 5 feet in height and grow rampantly. Pooh-poohed as a weed in some quarters, ‘The Third Harmonic’ will enhance your planting of orange roses and contrast well with anything pink or purple, from pink or lavender roses to pink or purple penstemons to Mexican evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) or Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha). In my humble opinion, ‘The Third Harmonic’ is one weed worth cultivating.

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