Magazine

Color blooms: Local drought-resistant garden celebrates whimsy



Garden art mixes whimsically with daffodils and other bulbs that rebloom every year. Tanya Kucak/ Special to the Town Crier

Liz Calhoon loves flowers.

When she moved to her Los Altos home several decades ago, she grew fuchsias and even served as head of the fuchsia society.

One day, she said, she heard on the news that California has a semiarid climate and realized that "it didn’t make sense to pour all that water into plants." Some potted fuchsias needed water twice a day in the summer.

So she began learning about Mediterranean and California native plants, and now she grows mostly drought-tolerant ornamentals. One entire area of her garden boasts natives and other low-maintenance plants that she said "thrive on neglect" and get no irrigation. Ceanothus and manzanita look good year-round, Calhoon noted, and "surprise you in the spring with flowers." Three native purple sage shrubs have grown at least 10 feet wide each in four years, covering a steep, sunny area.

Toyons, which thrive with no added water, delight Calhoon when their berries attract robins and cedar waxwings. Hummingbirds visit a non-native abutilon in her backyard, which blooms a long time - and which she grew from a cutting.

Whimsy is in every corner of Calhoon’s backyard: garden art in the form of butterflies and other critters, as well as small signs and quirky plants. Garden art "doesn’t take any work," she said. She chose to grow some plants because she liked their names: eyelash grass, love in a mist and pine tree crassulas, for instance.

Easy bloomers

Continuing the theme of plants that bloom a long time or don’t require much care, some of Calhoon’s favorite plants are bulbs and succulents.

Bulbs "grow themselves," according to Calhoon, and keep coming up year after year.

"Daffodils make me happy," she said. "Plant them once and that’s it."

They’re easy to grow, Calhoon likes the color and they don’t need to be protected from gophers (because gophers don’t like them).

"Daffodils give back," she said.

Gophers have made themselves at home in the small red fescue lawn in the backyard.

"Because I’m not mowing and going for the meadow look, the mounds of soil the gophers push up go undetected until they are big and numerous," Calhoon said. "Now my lawn’s kinda lumpy."

It does need water at least once a week in summer to stay green.

Bill Wallis geranium, a subshrub with sprawling stems and deep blue-purple flowers less than an inch wide, "plants itself," Calhoon said. Each plant can reach over a foot high and almost two feet wide. It "intermingles with whatever" and "goes with the yellow flowers I like," she added.

Succulents are easy to propagate, don’t need much care or water and "appeal to my frugality," Calhoon said. She cultivates a large assortment, arranged in containers to highlight the wealth of shapes and colors.

In 2009, Calhoon joined the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners, a University of California program that trains volunteers to share science-based information on home horticulture. She said she learned that "healthy soils give you healthy plants" and that "one-third of our food requires pollination," so it’s important to encourage beneficial insects in the garden and avoid using pesticides.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. n

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