Blue in the Garden

Make your garden feel larger with blue flowers.

Recently I designed a garden for someone who asked for lots of blue in her landscape. “Good choice”, I said. I did have to chuckle when she also requested lavender plants that were blue and not lavender. I admit I was stumped there but with lots of other choices she was happy with her new garden.

With the heat of summertime upon us I’m drawn to those areas in my garden that have blue, white and lavender flowers. A hot day just seems cooler there.

Washed out magenta is nature’s favorite go-to color and the shade that hybrids will revert to it if allowed to go to seed. Among gardeners, red is a favorite color. Orange and yellow come next, then pink and purple with blue and white both comparatively rare in nature last on the list.

So naturally, most of us gardeners want the elusive blue flower in our gardens. Knowing that cool colors recede, place them around the edges or at the back of a garden to make your space appear wider or deeper.

Agapanthus are loved by hummingbirds

True blue flowers are rare. We use words like cerulean, azure, cobalt, sapphire, turquoise, electric blue or steel blue when describing blue flowers. Hybridizers have tried for years to produce a true blue rose or blue daylily. Blue plant pigment is hard to manipulate. It occurs in the daylily as a sap-soluble pigment and is difficult to segregate. Lilacs, purples, orchids and mauves we have and working with them hybridizers may eventually get near blue, but pure blue probably never. Recently, some companies have found a way to insert some blue in the center of their daylily flowers but a totally blue daylily has never been produced.

Rose hybridizers striving for true blue have come close by crossbreeding lavender hybrid teas in order to produce offspring having optimum amount of cyanidin, the pigment that imparts purple or magenta tones and flavone, the pigment that gives light yellow tones.The results have been more of a silvery lilac or mauve. A blue rose is still in the future although labs in Australia and Japan are genetically modifying the pigments from petunias to produce a blue rose. Their results are not yet perfected and these roses are more of a lilac in color and can not survive conditions outside the lab. It is apparently very difficult to isolate the pigment cyanadin. Delphiniums have a monopoly on it.

Geranium ‘Orion’

The color blue is calming and tranquil. It is the color of serenity and peace and is said to slow down the metabolism and reduce the appetite. When brightened with white or combined with yellow or orange in a complementary color scheme the results of blue in the garden are breathtaking. The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll used plants with golden leaves or clear yellow flowers to spice up blue gardens. Just remember that blues and purples are the first flowers to fade as darkness falls so be sure to have those whites and yellows to carry your garden into evening.

There are many blue perennials as handsome as they are durable that we can enjoy in our gardens today.


Some of my favorites are old fashioned hydrangeas, violas and campanulas. Both are valuable in the shade garden along with omphaloides and brunnera. The blue spikes of a long blooming peach-leaf campanula just go together with the white and green variegated foliage of Jack Frost Siberian bugloss.

In early spring we are dazzled by our native ceanothus which bloom with deep blue, sky blue or electric blue flowers. Emerald Blue phlox subulata carpets the ground in spring with clear blue flowers that top creeping stems. Penstemon Blue Springs, a California native hybrid, carries dense spikes of bright blue, bell-shaped blossoms.

Make sure your garden has a blue section to cool you on a hot day.

Native Plants that are Toxic

August already. Plants are growing like there’s no tomorrow. The hummingbirds are my constant companions in the garden and the resident deer population is afoot. I see their tell tale droppings. The young yearlings sample what the older deer are nibbling. There are native plants that are poisonous for us but only some of them are avoided by deer. It got me thinking. How do deer eat poisonous plants without apparent ill affect?

Deer are browsers. They thrive on a mixed diet. You’ve seen them eat a few roses then saunter over to the abutilon and then on to the daylily flowers. Deer will eat almost anything, even plants with a strong scent like catmint, lavender or thyme when they are hungry or need water. They can even eat a few bites of various toxic plants.

According to Tom Hanley, a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, “There seems to be threshold levels for the toxicity of different plants and as long as deer eat below that threshold, they’re okay.” Plant toxicity varies with the time of year also and flowers may be less toxic than leaves or roots. They just mix it up.

That explains the eating habits of deer but what about us?

Western azalea – all parts poisonous

Many of us are including native plants in our landscapes to attract wildlife and save water and resources. Here are some common native plants that you should be aware of if you have small children. This list comes from
Borstein, Foss and O’Brian- California Native plants for the Garden.

Coffeeberry- leaves, berries and bark
California buckeye- all parts (poisonous to bees also)
Western azalea- all parts
Elderberry- all parts except ripe berries and fruit
Solanum-all parts
California buttercup- juice of the plant
Berberis- roots and leaves
Prunus ( cherry )- seeds
California poppy- all parts
Lupine (annual)- seeds, fresh leaves and stems.

Mostly though, native plants make great additions to the garden. They tend to be well behaved and are rarely invasive. Birds and butterflies rely on them for food, shelter and nesting. And best of all they are beautiful.

When I’m designing with native plants I find the following plants are fairly safe around deer. They are not perfectly safe at all times of the year but they are usually avoided.

Douglas iris are safe natives around children

Artemisia also called Ca. sagebrush
Asarum – Wild ginger
Baccharis – Dwf coyote brush
Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’
Eriogonum – Ca. buckwheat
Douglas iris
Mimulus auritanicus – Sticky monkey flower
Monardella – Coyote mint
Ribes speciosum – Fuchsia-flowering gooseberry

Enjoy your garden. Let the deer browse elsewhere and be aware of plants that may be toxic to children.

Kids in the Garden

My sidekick Grace feeding the scrub jays peanuts.

My 4 year old neighbor, Grace, helps me in my garden. She tells me her favorite activity is transplanting. A pro now at loosening roots, she adds just the right amount of soil and waters the new plant in to settle the soil. Watering from the watering can is her favorite part. She knows the names of many of the birds that frequent my suet feeder including the chickadee and junco. And she’s quite the expert at putting peanuts on the railing for the jays, then sitting quietly to watch them find the treat. The swallowtails visit the butterfly bush regularly and she knows them by name, too. She’s a naturalist in the making.

Collecting seeds

Today we identified the ripe seeds on annual cosmos and noted how the zinnia flowers that we started from seed earlier in the summer are just about the open. The swallowtail butterflies will love them. Also on the agenda was reviewing the wildlife camera footage to see what animals visited the garden during the night.

School has begun for many students. And now would be the perfect time to encourage your child to grow something, keeping track of the progress by pictures and notes. Maybe what they learn could even be used for a school project.

Collecting edible petals

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.
Whatever you grow, include the kids in the garden. It’s a free and fun activity.

Besides flowers, fragrant foliage plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden.

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears which are soft and furry, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

Butterfly bush are sure to attract Swallowtail butterflies

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies. Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.

Whatever you grow, include the kids in the garden. It’s a free and fun activity.

Making your Garden more Sustainable

You know you have a sustainable landscape when the tree frogs come to visit.

Summers are getting hotter and hotter. Our winters are colder. Climate change is affecting our gardens, too. You might be on the right track of sustainability and stewardship of the environment but can you do more?
How can we live more in harmony with nature? Here are some tips to make it more sustainable.

Incorporate as many California native plants as you can. It really does help. Encourage bees and other pollinators by creating a sustainable habitat for them in your garden. Water wisely to conserve our finite water supply. Use organic pest control only if necessary to protect our watersheds from chemical contamination.

How can I sequester more carbon by my plants to store in the soil? How can I protect the biodiversity already in place in my mixed redwood forest environment? Even though I don’t have the right conditions to grow my own organic food I can buy from growers who use ecological process on their farms. What native plants around my own house can I eat? Miner’s lettuce comes to mind but you probably have many more growing in your garden.

You hear the word sustainability used to describe everything from flooring to roofing to landscaping but what exactly is a sustainable landscape?

Sustainable landscapes are so well adapted to their environment that they require little in maintenance. Choosing plants adapted to your garden size, type of soil and climate keeps watering and fertilizing to a sensible level and reduces pruning as plants grow to the size needed and stay there.

Sustainable landscapes use recycled, salvaged, durable building materials whenever possible. They use mainly materials that are harvested locally and use imported stone as an accent. Sustainable landscapes try to reuse what you already have laying it out differently to look like a totally new landscape.

Sustainable landscapes clean the air and water. They increase on-site infiltration of rain water to reduce runoff and minimize the amount of contaminants washed into the watershed and the bay. By keeping water onsite it can move into the soil where organisms breakdown pollutants and naturally filter them out before the water reaches groundwater or our waterways.

Sustainable landscapes conserve water by installing and maintaining high efficiency watering systems making every drop of irrigation water count. They create drought resistant soils by adding compost and mulch. They group plants by watering needs to irrigate them more efficiently.

Banana slug

Sustainable landscapes restore habitats by attracting native pollinators, beneficial insects and other organisms that reduce the need for pesticides. A sustainable landscape restores natural areas on the outskirts of your landscape to diversity the plant community.

Embrace the smaller garden. You can create an instant meditation garden that encourages you to stop and sit for a couple minutes by placing a small bench where you can view something interesting in your garden. Small gardens are not only compact they are easier to care for. Containers on the patio or deck allow you to grow plants for food as well as for the birds and the bees. There are more new dwarf vegetable, herb and flower varieties being introduced every year.

Combine ornamental plants with edibles. Your veggies don’t have to be in a special raised bed or plot but can be planted throughout the garden. Think tomatoes, pole beans and other vining veggies trained on a metal obelisk within a perennial bed. Or compact versions of beans, eggplant, chard, hot peppers, tomatoes or edible flowers like nasturtiums planted among your other plants or along path borders.

Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, energy efficient and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities.