With the sudden arrival of unexpected rain in much of California, the four-year drought may be coming to an end, but for gardeners in most of the state, dryness is a natural state of affairs. The drought has brought home the need to rely less on irrigation and more on the natural hardiness of trees and shrubs to see them through the typical long, dry summer.
Although a long way from Europe, California shares one thing with southern Europe, in Italy, parts of Spain and the South of France. That is climate. The pattern of hot, dry summers and cooler but not cold winters, when most of the rain falls, is called a ‘Mediterranean Climate’ and it is also found in countries as far apart as Australia and South Africa. Wherever it is found this climate offers possibilities and problems in equal doses for gardeners. Those mild winters allow a wide range of plants to grow, but the dry summers present a challenge that when combined with long periods of drought can seem insurmountable. Nature always has an answer and that is to grow plants from similar climatic regions to bring into the garden plants with a good chance of surviving, despite the stresses of drought and heat.
Tough Trees from Around the World
A great place to start looking for suitable trees is of course the Mediterranean area of Europe. With such a similar climate we can be sure to find plenty of choices of plants suitable for California too.
A natural first choice from southern Europe is the Olive tree. These tough trees have a rugged but beautiful look, with dark, ridged bark and small grey-green evergreen leaves. The really thrives when the temperature rises, happy when the mercury passes 1100 and ripening their fruits in zones 8 and 9, just perfect for almost all of California. After a little watering following planting, the Arbequina Olive Tree will never need watering again and will produce a crop of fruit that yields aromatic and fruity oil. Preserving olives for eating is not especially difficult, so imagine starting a summer outdoor meal with your own olives. Suitable for any soil and the most exposed position, olive trees make great garden plants in California.
Another dramatic tree from the Mediterranean is the Italian Cypress. This evergreen tree will form a narrow column up to 40 feet tall and will stay dense and narrow without any clipping, although it can also be clipped for an even tighter form. Its pencil profile is seen throughout sunny Italy so it does just as well in California, needing no irrigation once it is established. It can also be planted to make a screen or hedge for a narrow space, giving privacy, beauty and drought-resistance all in one fast-growing package.
Junipers are another group of drought-resistant and heat-loving tree and the Chinese Juniper comes in an exotic form called the Hollywood Juniper, which is an extraordinary tree with angular branches and foliage that is crusted on the stems so it resembles coral. Left unclipped it will make a dramatic, irregular specimen perfect for a modern garden, or it can be clipped into pom-poms or spirals as striking decoration for any garden. It is extremely drought-resistant and thrives in hot, dry locations. This striking plant will fit perfectly into the L.A. scene or anywhere else in the state for that matter.
China also sends us a whole group of trees that are especially welcome in California because they bring vibrant color from July to October and take all the heat nature can deliver without so much as a wilting leaf. These are of course the crape myrtles, which today come in a wide range of both colors and sizes. Whether you choose the compact Pocomoke Crape Myrtle, growing about two feet tall and three across or the Natchez Crape Myrtle which will grow between 20 and 30 feet tall, there is a crape myrtle for every California garden. Indeed, why stop at one? Make a colorful privacy screen with a line of the bright-pink Sioux Crape Myrtle, which will grow 15 to 20 feet tall, or fill those gaps in the planting around your house with plants of the Enduring Summer White Crape Myrtle, which will fit in whatever the colors of your existing planting scheme are. It will also stay a compact four to five feet tall, so your windows won’t disappear behind a wall of leaves.
Mass planted in any sunny spot, the smaller varieties of crape myrtle will bring color just as the spring and early summer flowers are fading, and keep on delivering until the colder weather takes hold. For privacy screens, informal hedges, or specimen trees that bring shade and flowers to any smaller garden, it is impossible to garden in California without growing crape myrtles.
China has also sent a whole range of citrus trees to decorate the Californian garden. From the Eureka Lemon Tree for the warmest areas, to the hardy Nagami Kumquat that will take seven degrees of frost, citrus bring glossy evergreen foliage, scented flowers and fruit that is both decorative on the tree and tasty on the table. One of the great things about citrus trees is that the fruit ripens during winter, so the trees look at their best during that season when not much else is happening in the garden. Growing your own also allows you to have more exotic varieties like the famous Meyer Lemon, the tasty Blood Orange or even a Key Lime Tree if you are in the warmest areas.
For something completely different, Australia has sent the Rainbow Eucalyptus Tree, with a Joseph’s coat of color for bark. You will be amazed at the swirls of constantly changing colors in green, purple, red, blue and orange which decorate the trunk of this fast-growing tree and bring something completely different to your garden.
Of course America too has its Mediterranean trees and top of the list for the garden has to be the Western Redbud, a close relative of the European Judas tree. The spring has barely begun when this tree will burst into bloom with vibrant purple-pink blossoms clustered all along the bare stems. These are followed by attractive heart-shaped leaves which surprise us by turning vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow in fall, without needing much cold weather to make it happen. Thriving in hot and dry locations, the Western Redbud deserves a lot more attention from discerning gardeners in California and should be top of the list of desirable shrubs for every garden.
When You Really Must Water….
While your plants are young they will need some supplementary watering, so when you do it, let a hose trickle for a while directly on the roots, rather than wasting water with a sprinkler. Much of that water will evaporate into the hot air before it even reaches the soil, so the wise gardener conserves what is available. For watering the garden, don’t forget your gray water. Waste water from your washing machine or shower can be diverted into the garden and the soap actually works as a fertilizer for your plants too. In a drought nothing should go to waste.
Mulches are also a great way to conserve moisture, so keep your beds and trees well-mulched with bark, or even leaves from the garden that you rake from the lawn or terrace. Over time they will rot down and enrich the soil, while reducing water loss from your beds and saving you water too.
Here at the Tree Center we have trees and shrubs for every garden right across the country. We certainly haven’t forgotten the West, so browse our Crape Myrtles, Evergreens and Flowering Trees to find lots of drought-resistant plants ideal for the Californian climate.