If you want to enjoy the pleasure of viewing a large variety of lesser known plants arranged in distinctive garden designs, without having to visit a botanical garden, I suggest you take a walk up and down the streets of Santa Monica, especially in the neighborhoods bordered by San Vicente Boulevard to the north, Montana Avenue to the south, 26th Street to the east and Ocean Boulevard to the west. Many of the residents in this area have removed their lawns in favor of sumptuous perennials, succulents, and drought tolerant species from all over the globe, but especially from Australia, South Africa, and tropical America. You will see a fair share of ornamental grasses and California natives, too. Such a tour gives you an appreciation for the many front yard beautification options that exist.
To be fair, Santa Monica gardens have an advantage over Valley gardens due to the ocean proximity of the former. Bodies of water have a modifying influence on temperature and thus Santa Monica summer days may be 5 to 10 degrees cooler than Valley summer days and Santa Monica winters, which almost never include a freeze, are milder than Valley winters, too. The milder the weather, the more experimental and wide-ranging you can be in making your plant selections, especially when it comes to tropical and sub-tropical species.
It so happens that there is a group in Santa Monica called the Garden Rakes who wanted to share two of their neighborhood gardens with me. Several of the plants I saw were a revelation. In Phyllis Bernard’s front yard, there is a New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium) that stands around twenty-five feet tall. I had never seen this species more than a few feet tall. I had always considered New Zealand tea tree a garden weakling since it typically dies within a few years of being planted. I realize now that the species sold in nurseries are dwarf cultivars such as ‘Ruby Glow’ with a weaker constitution than that of the wild and tougher species that lives for many years as long as it is not over watered. Incidentally, New Zealand tea tree got its name when Captain Cook, who chanced upon it in the course of his Pacific voyages, made a salubrious tea from its leaves.
Bernard is growing a tall variety of floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum). Customarily grown as an edging or bedding plant that reaches no more than six inches tall, there are a number of varieties that grow up to two feet tall. Taller varieties, as opposed to common bedding floss flower, also self-sow which means they will establish a permanent presence in the garden.
Bernard has also allowed ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) to grow freely between flagstones in a front walkway and as a ground cover in a partially shaded garden bed. Ground ivy is actually in the mint family. It spreads by underground rhizomes and is called a weed when it pops up in fescue lawns. Still, ground ivy has won praise as a lawn substitute. When planted in the sun, it grows upright and produces purple flowers. Its fragrant foliage emits a pleasing fragrance when it is mown as a lawn.
Speaking of alternatives to a conventional lawn, Tina Beebe has a lush expanse of Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum) in her back yard. She has let it grow long and it looks somewhat like red fescue (Festuca rubra), that mounding grass utilized on slopes for erosion control, except that Bahia grass grows thicker and is a much richer green than red fescue. Bahia is tolerant of salt and drought, requires little fertilizer, and can grow in the shade. Let it grow shaggy or mow it down, but do not cut it shorter than 2 and ½ inches. For a clean cut, yet still plush, cushiony appearance, mow no lower than 4 inches.
Beebe has also planted golden feverfew (Tanacetum / Chrysanthemum parthenium ‘Aureum’) next to her front door. I had never seen this feverfew cultivar and, since it was recently cut back and its leaves were only a few inches above ground level, I mistook it for a low-growing fern. Feverfews are famous for self-sowing and also make a tea which, as its name suggests, has been used medicinally, specifically for reducing fever and preventing migraine headaches. Foliage has extremely fine textured.
In Beebe’s front yard, the tropical peach sage (Salvia dorisiana), from Honduras, is thriving. This plant has distinctively scented foliage and deep pink flowers but is frost sensitive and is most wisely planted in coastal, as opposed to inland, gardens. Beebe also has some camellias with miniature flowers and leaves that have a cascading growth habit and are frequently grown on trellises. In truth, all camellias make excellent trellised specimens.
Camellia japonica ‘Silver Waves’ is an outstanding cultivar that graces the gardens of both Bernard and Beebe. Each flower consists of a wedding gown white corolla surrounding a dense, raised central cylinder of burnished gold stamens. Foliage is a flawless and shimmering deep sea green.
Tip of the Week: If you are seeking a plant whose flowers contrast brilliantly with its foliage, consider black rose aeonium (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’). The rosettes of this succulent plant are the darkest burgundy, if not truly black. Inflorescences are massive bright yellow cones and offer a breathtaking contrast to the foliage during bloom.