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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

MANY more evergreen perennials are detailed and illustrated in Deer in My Garden, Vol.2: Groundcovers & Edgers!
There is even a special appendix listing plants perfect for southern and western exposures.

by Carolyn Singer

When HGTV was looking for a site to film a segment on gardening with rocky soil, it is no surprise that the local producers came up with several hundred potential sites in the Sierra foothills. My garden was probably chosen not only for the rocky soil but also for the large collection of plants thriving in it.

In October of 2003, the film crew arrived. A backhoe dug a "truth window" (just as a straw bale builder will incorporate one to show the truth of what is inside the walls). This "window" into the soil near my rock garden was intended to illustrate to viewers the rocky subsoil I had to work with for my rock garden. Soon after Paul James' "Gardening by the Yard" show aired, I was receiving e-mails from gardeners all over the United States who had similar challenges.

My rock garden was created in 1993, a mound with many microclimates and exposures. Once plants were established, I watered it only every three weeks even in the heat of the summer. Plants had to be low-irrigation and deer-resistant. When an irrigation system was installed in this garden last year, watering was changed to once every two weeks because that's what the irrigation clock allowed. The green-leaved thymes actually preferred this more frequent watering, and fortunately those plants preferring a dryer soil did not object to the new schedule.

I have been particularly interested in those plants which seem to thrive in full sun on the south-facing slopes. This is a landscape situation I see repeatedly in the foothills. And a slope in full sun can feel very hot on a summer day! I recently discussed this with a customer at Prospector's Nursery who said that he and his wife want only green plants for a "cooling effect." He had thought of Vinca, but this is not a good choice in full sun, especially on a slope. This article is for him.

There are several beautiful species of creeping Thymus (thyme) in many shades of green foliage. This plant is also effective spilling over walls. Flowers may be pink, lavender, purple, or white. After bloom the new foliage soon covers the faded flowers. All thymes have been deer-resistant in my garden and all are evergreen in winter.

Creeping dwarf oregano is tough, edible (though the deer don't think so) and evergreen. It does not spread aggressively, but will make a dense mat about 3 feet wide from a single plant.

The evergreen creeping manzanita (Arctostaphylos) is not as reliably deer-resistant. The ones that have been are Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (a CA native), and a cultivar called Arctostaphylos 'Pt. Reyes' which is very tolerant of full sun and low irrigation. If deer are not a problem, there are several creeping manzanitas excellent for covering a slope in full sun or part shade.

While the deer will eat many of the cotoneasters, a dwarf cultivar called Cotoneaster 'Tom Thumb' has been deer-resistant. It spreads to about 4 feet, and is quite striking draped over a wall. This plant is not evergreen, but it has excellent fall color and structure of the plant is attractive even when there are no leaves. A small, soft-red berry adds winter interest.

Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is an outstanding choice for another evergreen plant to cool a hot sunny site. Its bright pink, blue, or white flowers in early spring herald a new garden season. Spilling over rocks or creeping along the ground, phlox seems to thrive on neglect. Watering should be once every two weeks for best appearance.

Finally, creeping rosemary is a perfect choice for that hot, sunny slope. Both evergreen and deer-resistant, its beautiful blue flowers add to the late winter and early spring landscape. And of course it's great for cooking. While not all the cultivars are hardy below 15 in winter, Rosmarinus officinalis 'Lockwood de Forest' has done very well in my cold garden site where winter temperatures have dipped to 8. Once established it needs no water.

These green choices should help cool you down. And with so many varieties, a slope could be quite an interesting garden. Remember to wind a path through it for the children, and for you to access plants for occasional maintenance. In my next article, I will introduce you to a selection of silver and gray-leafed plants that really thrive on hot, sunny slopes with limited irrigation.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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