UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County
University of California
UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County

Water-Efficient Landscape Gardens in December

Home » Fair Oaks Horticulture Center » WEL Gardens » December in the WEL

Open to the public seven days a week and wheelchair accessible, this garden features natives, commonly available perennials, trees and shrubs, and plants from other Mediterranean climates that do well with less water during our long, hot, dry summers and tolerate our chilly, damp Sacramento County winters. Most plants are labeled and many are UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars. The garden demonstrates how home gardeners can be smart about using the water we have to create beautiful year round landscapes. (For more information see Gardening with Limited Water.)

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Days are shorter, nights are cooler, the sun lower in the sky, leaves are falling and rain has washed off the garden leaving evergreens and dramatic bark, berries, grass stalks and twigs to glisten. Mocking birds and scrub jays are harvesting and caching berries and acorns. The garden is very peaceful. Take a break from holiday chores and come visit. While we have no further Gardening Events scheduled for 2016, the garden remains open to the public daily. Our next workshop will be January 14, 2017 from 9-noon and will feature pruning. The 2017 schedule will be posted shortly.

December is the time to appreciate and admire red and golden trunks, twigs, berries, and branches, as well as evergreen shrubs and trees that in other seasons provide background and structure. Especially lovely now are the the solitary berry clumps on the Chinese pistache, dried cloaking scarlet oak leaves (the scarlet oak leaves drop only when pushed off by young spring leaves), ripening strawberry tree berries (see below), dwarf pomegranates and toyon. Evergreen native manzanita, ceanothus and coffeeberry are starting to bud out in the native garden (another reason to plant natives...they shine in the winter!). The mock orange (Pittosporum tobira ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’) is sprouting fresh new yellow-green growth. Rosemary, the butterfly rose and many autumn sages continue to bloom attracting bees and other pollinators during the occasional warm, sunny day.

December is also a good time to review and correct drainage issues (using dry creek beds and or rain gardens, permeable paving, mulch, and raised beds), edit out overgrown and less hardy perennials and plan for the many pruning chores that arrive with the new year. Our irrigation has been turned off until spring and other than watching for downed limbs and sweeping the walks we take a break from garden chores in December.

Come check out the garden. In addition to the plants, pathways, patios, raised planters, drip irrigation, a dry creek bed and permeable pavement demonstrate water wise, sustainable alternatives for gardeners who are considering replacing or reducing their lawns. lawns. 

Arbutus unedo 'Compacta'

Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’
Dwarf Strawberry tree

Native to the coast of Ireland and along the Mediterranean coast as far as Israel, Arbutus unedo prefers dry summers. A versatile evergreen shrub or multi-trunked small tree, it tolerates a wide variety of soil types but must have good drainage to do well.  Slow growing to 6 feet high and wide, this shrub will award the patient gardener with concurrent fall white blossoms and lovely berries that change from golden yellows to bright red that are set off by glossy green foliage and attractive maroon bark. Birds and bees are entranced by the buds and berries. Very drought tolerant once established and tolerant of some shade, this plant benefits from pruning that brings emphasis to the branching stems and bark.  The berries are edible but tasteless.

Grevillea

Grevillea lanigera 'Coastal Gem'

Blooming as early as December and through winter into spring this low growing (1 foot tall by 4 feet wide), evergreen spreading shrub from Australia is extremely drought tolerant. It is also deer resistant. Sometimes known as “woolly” grevillea due to its soft, gray green leaves, it makes a good border, rock garden or ground cover plant. We have it planted on a slope (to improve drainage) at the entrance of our perennial path. Preferring full sun and neutral to slightly acidic fertile well drained soil, it can also handle some light shade in our climate.

blueOatGrass

Helictotrichon sempervirens
Blue oat grass

Blue oat grass sports spiky, steel-blue foliage. Native to the Western Mediterranean region, Helictotrichon sempervirens (hel-ik-toe-TRY-kon sem- per-VEER-enz) is a cool-season, evergreen grass that requires very little maintenance. Comb out unsightly foliage as needed and divide clumps every three years or so. Do not shear it back in late winter like you would other ornamental grasses.

Planted in the front perennial garden area at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, our blue oat grass isn’t easily spotted from the path. The best vantage point is through the fence from the parking lot. The fountain-shaped clumps reach 2 feet in height and spread as much. Blue oat grass sends up unremarkable, straw-colored flower heads in summer. Deadhead if you feel the flower heads detract from the showy foliage.

It prefers fertile, amended soil and full sun, but appreciates some late afternoon shade where summers are hottest. Good drainage is essential. Blue oat grass performs best with weekly water, but is drought tolerant and can survive on one deep watering every two weeks. For additional water conservation, adjust the irrigation schedule just enough to prevent browning during periods of extreme heat. Cater to its minimal needs and it will look fantastic year-around.

Blue oat grass is deer, pest and disease resistant and often planted in perennial borders, meadow-like areas and rock gardens. Mass plantings add a dramatic effect to gardens. Companion plants include barberry, smoke bush, lavender, penstemon, nepeta, artemisia, lamb’s ear or any silver or purple-leaf plants. Grouping plants with similar water needs is always recommended.  

Toyon

Heteromeles arbutifolia
Toyon

Found at the entrance of the Native garden, this evergreen native rose family large shrub (or small multi-trunked tree) carrying the name given by the Ohlone, toyon, bears gorgeous clusters of red berries on stems of glossy, leathery leaves just in time for the holiday season. Unpalatable until the berries have ripened and fermented many birds will have their own tipsy holiday feast on these brilliant berries.  Abundantly found in chaparral and woodlands from Humboldt County to Baja California and in the Sierras below 4000 feet it is also known as or Christmas berry or California holly. It is the namesake of the city of Hollywood.

Toyon is usually grown as a large accent shrub or small multi-trunked tree. Mature plants can be 8 to15 feet tall and wide. Adaptable to a wide range of soils, moisture conditions and exposure, it does best with good drainage and only light shade.  Hedging and hard pruning is not recommended and young specimens up to 2 years may be more vulnerable to pathogens but once established, toyons are long lived and low-maintenance.  Plants can harbor low levels of many pests, including aphids, scale, mealy bugs but usually they do not cause significant damage to established specimens. Clusters of small white blossoms mature to berries in winter. While we have planted our toyon as an accent plant with Spreading California aster, California fuchsia and Cleveland sages, it also can be combined in a shrub grouping with other California natives such as manzanitas and ceanothus.

A UC Davis Arboretum All-Star selection.

Dwarf Pomegranate

Punica granatum ‘Nana’
Dwarf Pomegranate

Pomegranates, which are natives of Northern Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas, have been in California since the 1770s. Featured at the entrance to our "Commonly Available" garden area, this dwarf variety bears fall ripening fruit that is primarily decorative. It is generally evergreen in Sacramento. Tolerant of many soil types, including alkaline soils, heat and cold, and drought tolerant, it makes a good foundation shrub, hedge, accent or small tree. ‘Nana’ grows to 3 feet high by 6 feet wide.

UC Davis Arboretum All-Star.

RoseMut
Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

Butterfly Rose

The Butterfly rose is a large shrub rose that's a UC Davis Arboretum All-Star for good reason. First noted by European botanists in 1896, it likely originated in China. It blooms nearly year round and attracts bees and other beneficial insects. It does well with less water, and tolerates our soils. Although this rose can tolerate some shade, it does not do well in windy sites.

Attractive blooms begin as scarlet buds and mutate progressively into light yellow, then pink, then crimson blossoms (that some have likened to butterflies).  Newly sprouted canes are deep red, complementing the flowers and the lush foliage. Nearly maintenance free, Mutabilis can be pruned in winter to keep the plant more compact.

UC Davis Arboretum All Star.

Rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Tuscan Blue’
Rosemary

When the conversation drifts to edible landscaping, how can you not lavish love on Rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ Tough, drought tolerant, and a dazzling, evergreen, ‘Tuscan Blue’ doubles as one of the best culinary herbs.   ‘Tuscan Blue’ is a versatile choice for the garden with its upright growth and showy, lavender-blue flowers.

It can be used as a foundation planting, a hedge, a screen, in containers or mixed borders, as a stand-alone stunner, a rock garden star and is a favorite for topiaries. It’s deer resistant and attracts butterflies, bees and birds. Blooms appear in spring, linger into summer and sporadic blooming can break out the remainder of the year. Growth is taller than its spread – 5 to 6 feet tall, if you allow it, and 3 to 5 feet in width – but it is easily shape-pruned. Prune after the main bloom period. Plant in full-sun and well-drained soil. If soil conditions aren’t conducive to ‘Tuscan Blue,’ plant in a large container. Water regularly the first year, until established. In winter, ‘Tuscan Blue’ can survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees. Common companion plantings include roses, Russian sage, thyme, yarrow, catmint and salvias.

Scarlet Oak

Quercus coccinea
Scarlet Oak

This attractive native of the United States east of the Mississippi River grows to 80 feet tall by 50 feet wide. The leaves turn a brilliant golden scarlet with cold autumn nights and hang on throughout winter until pushed off by spring buds. Adaptable to a wide variety of soils, and deep rooted, the scarlet oak is commonly used as a street, parkway and lawn shade tree. It is included in the Sacramento Tree Foundation's Shady Eighty - a guide for choosing the best tree for your yard. 

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