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My Southern California Garden

Copyright © 1997-2000, 2003-2012 by David E. Ross

Where a feature of my garden described in these page is illustrated by a photograph on the Flickr Web site, I placed a camera icon camera icon that is a link to that photograph. The link will open a new window or tab in your Web browser. Viewing the photo requires that your browser display all images without blocking images from other domains.


On this Web page:

On separate Web pages:

A "volunteer" plant is merely a weed that is interesting.

The Locale

Oak Park is a community in Ventura County, California, between the cities of Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Westlake Village, and Agoura Hills. On the lower slope of the south face of Simi Peak within the Santa Monica Mountains, the climate is Mediterranean.

Simi Peak is about 2,700 feet above sea level. Oak Park High School (in the middle of the community) is about 1,700 feet. The hills surrounding Oak Park are public park lands, owned either by the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District (an independent local government agency) or by the National Park Service. These hills have been left substantially in a natural state. Wildlife includes mountain lions, raccoons, coyotes, skunks, rabbits, squirrels, deer, owls, hawks, golden eagles, snakes, frogs, and many song birds. Oaks, sycamores, willows, and cottonwoods grow in a chaparral environment. From these open spaces, snakes, frogs, rodents, and weeds find easy access into our gardens. Squirrels have proven to be a very serious pest, sometimes getting more fruit from my garden than I do.

The soils tend to be adobe (heavy clay). When dry, it may be impossible to dig into adobe with a spade. When wet, adobe will not let go of a spade. As it goes from dry to wet, the soil swells like bread dough rising, wreaking havoc with paving and foundations. As it goes from wet to dry, the soil shrinks but not necessarily lowering into their original places those structures it raised when wet. Soils, local water, and imported water (by aqueduct from northern California or the Colorado River) all tend to be alkaline. According to the 1997 annual water-quality report from the Oak Park Water Service, the average pH is 7.9; the alkalinity is equivalent to 0.1 g/L of CaCO3. (Sometimes, we might even look on acid rain as a benefit to our gardens.)

Overview, Approach, and Philosophy

When I lived with my parents, I would rather trip on a weed than pull it. About a month after I bought my first house (a year after I was married), my wife complained about how unpleasant bare dirt looked in front. I started reading about gardening. It has become a hobby that absorbs so much of my attention that today (more than 45 years later) she wonders why she ever said anything.

Our house sits on a standard suburban residential lot. (In California, the zoning code is R1.) The lot is about 90 feet deep. Since it is on the outside of a broad curve in the street, it tapers from about 75 feet wide in front (south) to 85 feet in back (north). In the back is a steep slope up to the lots on the next street to the north; I can stand at the top of My Hill and inspect the roof of my two-story house (but only in the winter when The Tree is dormant). Including the slope and the "footprint" of my house, I have not quite a quarter-acre.

Most of my gardening is guided by Sunset's Western Garden Book, which I normally keep by my computer so it will be handy when browsing the gardening newsgroup. My favorite tools are a hook-and-blade pruning shears, a three-gallon galvanized pail, and a paring knife. The shears are obvious. The pail is used to mix potting soil, for collecting weeds, for soaking flower pots, and for carrying other tools. The knife is great for weeding (cutting the roots before pulling the tops) and making cuttings (and then making the holes in the potting mix where I insert the cuttings).

I selected perennials, shrubs, and trees for my garden. I also have naturalizing bulbs and bulb-like plants (i.e., bulbs that come back year after year without having to be replanted). Except for a couple of herbs and an occasional vegetable, I do not use annuals. I even have perennial vegetables: artichoke and asparagus. Yes, perennials take as much effort to grow as annuals. However, annuals require the effort to be expended in very short bursts while it appears to me that the effort for perennials is spread out across the year.

Like domestic animals, our food plants have changed through the centuries because of selection and hybridizing. Although many botanists and archaeologists believe the wild ancestor of corn still survives in the wilds of Mexico or Central America, they have trouble recognizing it because the corn we eat is now so different. Likewise, our ornamental plants no longer resemble their natural relatives. Even many old "heritage" roses are unlike wild roses. If I am to grow unnatural plants in my garden, I cannot succeed if I dogmatically use only natural methods.

Compounding the situation, the native plants of this area — chaparral — are suited for an environment of periodic wildfire; and they contribute readily to that environment by having almost flammable growth above ground. Planting chaparral close to a house is illegal here. I do have many plants native to a Mediterranean climate — hot (at least warm), dry summers and mild, wet winters — but they seem to expect more rainfall than our arid climate provides. Thus, I must artificially irrigate my garden, growing unnatural plants in an unnatural environment.

No, I do not reject the entire approach of organic gardening. Neither do I reject the products of the modern American chemical industry. When my plants need nitrogen, I may use either blood meal or ammonium sulfate, depending on the plant, time of the year, and location in my garden. I also use both bone meal and super-phosphate. My compost is really closer to leaf mold, based primarily on leaves from my oak, ash, and zelkova; I add urea or ammonium sulfate to speed the composting process. While I hang unwanted CDs (mostly AOL) from my peach tree and grape vines to discourage birds, I also use chemical pesticides on those fruits to keep wasps and ants from destroying my crop. Yes, I spray my garden … but very selectively and only for very specific reasons. I strongly disapprove of indiscriminate spraying just because some advertisement said their poison was so great. What works works.

My Trees

Several places in these Web pages, I mention my trees. Here is an inventory.

Misnomers and Malaprops

I often see misnomers (the wrong name) applied to a plant and malaprops (an inappropriate word) used in on-line discussions about gardening. Sometimes, the message contains a complaint that the writer could not find a particular plant after an exhaustive search. Of course, searching is generally more productive if the right name is used.

When responding to a message with one of these errors in the Subject line, it is very easy to correct it. If you make that correction without explicitly calling it to the attention of the originator, you will show both intelligence (you know the correct term) and courtesy (you did not tell the rest of the world what a dumb error the originator made).

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