Heat-loving ground cover provides beauty, saves water

9-groundNo doubt you have seen a “Baby on Board” sign in the rear window of a car at one time or another. This sign, it would appear, is meant to alert other drivers to the possibility of unpredictable behind-the-wheel behavior on the part of the driver in front of them.

Sometimes I wish there were “Plant Watcher on Board” signs available. If there were, I would immediately place one in my car’s rear window. But I would add another sign, the same one you see on the back of school buses: “Caution: This Vehicle Makes Sudden Stops.”

It is the fate of an inveterate plant watcher to stop suddenly upon witnessing any sort of heart-stopping horticultural spectacle. It has happened to me numerous times. I remember being dazzled by a front yard that was nothing but orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), and by a front yard that was nothing but yellow Bermuda buttercups (Oxalis pes-caprae), and by a long fence that showed nothing but the pink buds and white blooms of pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), and by the clear yellow flowers and silvery blue foliage of an island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii), and by a ‘Happy Days’ azalea that was covered top to bottom with purple flowers.

These sights were so compelling, that I had no choice but to quickly move my car to the nearest available place to park on the side of the road and take a closer look.

Just the other day, I was mundanely driving down Burbank Boulevard, on the border of Valley Village and Valley Glen, when I saw an inspirational carpet of white that made me stop the car. This was no small swatch of white carpet but an area that must have been close to a half acre in size. Located between Bellaire and Coldwater Canyon avenues, you might have driven by it yourself without quite knowing what to make of it. Large towers dominate the uninhabited site, consisting of several acres of brown stubble surrounding this half acre of noteworthy ground cover.

The carpet of white in question, it turns out, is a plant known as Myoporum parvifolium. The fact that it can grow in an open field in the middle of the Valley distinguishes it as a tough horticultural hombre. It is being irrigated by Hunter rotary sprinklers but, even so, it has clearly been growing for years in this location and, given current watering restrictions, cannot be watered more than three days a week. Valley tall fescue lawns, by contrast, require watering six or seven days a week during summer to prevent die out.

A personal note on Myoporum parvifolium concerns its attribute as a heat-loving ground cover. I once saw it growing in full sun, watered through drip irrigation tubing, outside a restaurant facing the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea, located in Israel’s Jordan Valley, experiences average daily summer temperatures of 100 degrees. In Israel, where water resources are scarce, all landscape and garden irrigation is delivered through drip tubing since water usage is reduced by as much as 75 percent as compared to conventional sprinkler irrigation.

Meet Kikuyu

With three-day-a-week watering restrictions in place, it is no wonder that lawns are gradually vanishing in Los Angeles. When was the last time you saw a flatbed truck loaded with sod going down the freeway? Still, the demise of lawns in Southern California is not inevitable. Although tall fescue, the traditional grass of choice for lawns in our area, needs almost daily watering, Kikuyu grass will grow fine with three weekly waterings and is resistant to dog urine, too. A quick Internet search revealed that there is at least one Kikuyu sod farm in Southern California. It goes by the name of Emerald Sod (emeraldkikuyu.com) and may be contacted by phone at 760-987-1383.

I spoke with Gene Wood, who, with his wife Pam, operates Emerald Sod in the high desert, in Apple Valley. I asked him how business was going, and he said “fantastic.” He sells out the sod he grows every year. He is about to bring an additional 40 acres into production.

“Twelve years ago when I started growing Kikuyu, everyone laughed at me,” he said.

I don’t think they’re laughing anymore. Ninety percent of his sod is sold to golf courses, where it is used on fairways. Kikuyu is popular primarily because of its modest water requirement yet lush appearance. Being an evergreen subtropical grass, it may experience winter dormancy. However, “Kikuyu will often stay green through the winter,” Wood wanted me to know. “It has greater cold tolerance than Bermuda (another subtropical grass that experiences winter dormancy) and so another advantage of Kikuyu is that it does not necessarily require over-seeding with another type of grass during the winter months.”

A final bonus is Kikuyu’s tolerance of low-quality water. “Our well produces salty water,” Wood confided, “but this does not affect Kikuyu growth. Kikuyu can also grow in recycled effluent water.”

Sage ‘Hot Lips’

In researching anecdotal information on Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips,’ I stumbled upon this pithy testimonial from GreeneLady, courtesy of davesgarden.com: “This plant loves to be forgotten.” No truer words were ever spoken. ‘Hot Lips’ can grow in full or partial sun, with lots or little water. I have seen it develop into a shapely globe, measuring several feet across. It seems to be almost constantly in bloom. Don’t even think of pruning it. Just let it grow and flower “¦ and flower “¦ and flower some more. When it gets tired of flowering, it will simply expire, at which point you can continue to grow its clonal offspring — six-inch terminal shoot pieces stuck in fast draining soil mix — from the mother plant which, as a forward-thinking gardener, you would have rooted long before in order to have an ongoing supply of ‘Hot Lips’ for your garden.

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