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where we can share about designing native plant gardens, attracting wildlife, native plant communities, sustainability, the rhythms of the seasons, and all sorts of topics of the heart – native heart that is! 

Debbie Ballentine

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Creating drama in your California native plant garden

All the Garden’s a Stage

Fall and winter are the seasons for planting. Here are some of my simple design tips to inspire you…

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) — Photo by Debbie Ballentine

As I think about designing a native plant garden, I often think about the things I enjoy in my home garden: the different textures of rock and mulch; the sculpted mounds that add dimension; the shooting spikes of firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii); the joyful exuberance of blue bicolored lupines and yellow beach evening primroses (Lupinus bicolor, Camissonia cheiranthifolia); the surprise of red California fuchsia (Epilobium canum, aka Zauschneria californica) in the summer; the pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var.glutinosum) tassels emerging from the bare branches in winter; the California grape’s (Vitis californica) colorful foliage signaling autumn; the riot in spring of mountain garland clarkias, California poppies and blue-eyed grass (Clarkia unguiculata, Eschscholzia californica, Sisyrinchium bellum).

Each of these has one thing in common… drama.

Many of us want our gardens to be calm, soothing, and a place for rejuvenation. For a peaceful landscape we include the quieter colors of white, blue, and soft pink. We design our paths with curving sinuous lines, and design our view with horizontal lines. Yet for me this isn’t enough. To fully rejuvenate I need to be reawakened and energized. For this I need a little drama.

One of the last steps in a new landscape design is choosing the specific plants and materials for the garden. This is when you consider where and how you want to add drama. If you already have a garden, then adding drama can be as simple as replacing an area of wood mulch with cobble and pebble stones, or planting some light tawny deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) between your existing dark green Howard McMinn manzanitas (Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’).

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp)

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp) — Photo by Debbie Ballentine


Contrast, Contrast, Contrast

Drama is all about contrast. There are a number of elements that can add drama to your garden. Here’s a quick list organized from the easy to the more challenging:

  1. Garden art and water features
  2. Contrasting shades of light and dark
  3. Contrasting color
  4. Energizing vertical lines
  5. Other interesting plants
  6. Surprises
  7. Contrasting textures
  8. Three dimensional mounds and berms

Let’s talk about some of these in detail.

Lesser Goldfinches and Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida). Photo by Barbara Eding.

Lesser Goldfinches and Channel Islands Bush Poppy (Dendromecon harfordii, corrected from original post) — Photo by Barbara Eding

Water Features

Certainly this is easiest way to add drama. Choose something you like that works with your overall theme and install it. You’ll be entertained for hours by the antics of all the wildlife.

Light colored Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) against a dark mounding Ceanothus. The blue in the grasses also compliments the blue flowers of the Ceanothus creating a rich color palette and contrasting shades.

Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) against a dark mounding Ceanothus — Photo by Debbie Ballentine


This one is so simple you are probably already doing it. Put light foliage plants in front of dark foliage plants or vice versa, like the light blue grasses against the dark ceanothus above.

Remember that silhouettes can also play a role, as with this naked Buckeye tree (Aesculus californica) and it’s large fruit-shaped seeds.

Buckeye tree (Aesculus californica) — Photo by Debbie Ballentine

Remember that silhouettes can also play a role as with a naked California buckeye tree (Aesculus californica) and its large fruit-shaped seeds against the sky.

Clockwise from top left: Coast Sunflower (Encelia californica), Western Blue Flax (Linum lewisii), California fuchsia not in bloom (Epilobium canum), Sulfur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum polyanthum 'Shasta Sulfur'), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), Sunflakes (Camissonia bistorta), Margarita BOP Penstemon

My home garden, clockwise from top left: Coast Sunflower (Encelia californica), Western Blue Flax (Linum lewisii), California fuchsia not in bloom (Epilobium canum), Sulfur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum polyanthum ‘Shasta Sulfur’), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), Sunflakes (Camissonia bistorta), Margarita BOP Penstemon — Photo by Debbie Ballentine


We instinctively put opposite colors together like yellow and purple to create pop. And we put together colors like blue and white for a calming effect. Sizzling colors are red, orange, hot pink, and yellow — while blue, white, soft pinks, and many purples are cool and serene.

Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) is one of many plant species that have vertical lines

Vertical lines of Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) in my home garden — Photo by Debbie Ballentine

Vertical Lines 

Ornamental grasses and grass-like plants exuberantly shoot toward the sky or flow like a fountain. This upward “movement” is energizing. Many grasses, like purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra), also sway tranquilly in the breeze. These grasses are both stimulating and calming.

Nearly a foot across, the large triad of leaves and shooting burgundy flowers of Trilliums are dramatic with nothing else needed. Photo by David Clarke Benner.

These Trilliums are as big as a foot across — Photo by David Clarke Benner

Interesting Plants

Certain plants create their own drama without any other help. Some of these are irises and monkeyflowers (Mimulus and Diplacus spp.) that come in a huge array of spectacular colors. Pink-flowering currants play out their own drama in the winter with their splendid long tassels. Bush poppies (Dendromecon harfordii) stun our eyes nearly all year with sparkling yellow flowers. Trilliums (Trillium chloropetalum) have a distinctive triad of broad leaves and elegant burgundy flowers that touch our spirit. And California Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia californica) makes us chuckle with its little green pipes.


There are so many ways to create surprises. One type of surprise is the well-known “secret garden.” Design a curving path going out of view to hint at something special just around the corner. Then for a touch of the theatrical, place a spectacular specimen — like a Ray Hartman ceanothus (Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’) or a silk tassel (Garrya elliptica) — in this hidden area.

Another type of surprise can from the plants themselves, such as the reawakening of forgotten mariposa lily bulbs (Calochortus spp.) or the rising of mountain garland clarkia annuals (Clarkia unguiculatacreating a living drama day after day.

Allen Chickering Sage (Salvia ‘Allen Chickering’) adds an interesting texture to a summer garden.

Allen Chickering Sage (Salvia ‘Allen Chickering’) adds an interesting texture to my summer garden — Photo by Debbie Ballentine


This can be foliage, flowers, bark, rocks, just about anything. It’s easy to see the difference in foliage textures: Choose plants that have the same cultural needs yet contrasting textures. The dried seed heads of sages alone can be a dramatic touch after the bloom.

Cobbles and pebbles contrast to the mulch, succulents and groundcover Manzanita (Arctostaphylos hookeri ‘Buxifolia’).

Cobbles and pebbles contrast to the mulch, succulents and groundcover Manzanita (Arctostaphylos hookeri ‘Buxifolia’) — Photo by Debbie Ballentine

But we often forget about the ground itself. I like to design the garden so different plant communities are defined by the texture of the ground. In my garden, I chose small angular golden rock for the sunny chaparral community. Then I chose arborist’s mulch, which is rough and inconsistent, for the oak woodland community. Just this week I decided to add refined mulch in the redwood community. Each of these mulch textures contrasts with the next and gives each area its own unique feel.

Mounds and Berms

Most drought tolerant plants need excellent drainage. The best way to accomplish this is to build mounds and berms. But don’t put each plant on its own mound, creating a backyard full of bumps. Instead create interesting multidimensional berms with sleek slopes and curving lines. It’s surprising how much the change in elevation and different slopes and curves affect the overall dynamic of the garden.

Enjoy the process

Think of your garden as a life-long, three dimensional, living project. It’s ever changing. So go ahead, play with ideas. Whatever you do, take the time to enjoy the process. It’s worth it.

This article by Debbie Ballentine has been reprinted from Regional Parks Botanic Garden e-Newsletter, published April 2014

Categories: California native plants, Designing a garden | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Encelia Californica for habitat gardens

Highly attractive to native bees, butterflies and other pollinators, California brittlebush adds informal beauty to habitat gardens

California brittlebush, Coast sunflower (Encelia californica) in my home garden

California brittlebush, Coast sunflower (Encelia californica) in my home garden

California brittlebush (Encelia californica) is a must for low-water habitat gardens. This vigorous and dependable subshrub shows off its exuberant mass of large daisy-like flowers in spring and fall. Its long, bountiful bloom periods, combined with its food offerings of both pollen and nectar, make Encelia highly attractive to native bees and other pollinators.

Read more…

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

NatureServe’s recommendations for the White House pollinator initiative

The June 20th White House memorandum reads, “Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels.”

Most people are aware of the plight of honeybees and monarch butterflies, important insect pollinators. But fewer are aware of concerns about pollinators across the globe. Learn more about pollinators and NatureServe’s recommendations to the White House pollinator initiative.


Honeybees pollinate nearly a third of agricultural crops.

Categories: Wildlife conservation | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Berry Manzanita Nourishes and Delights

Make big berry manzanita a center-stage specimen and watch the evergreen feed wildlife through the seasons


As with many manzanitas, big berry (Arctostaphylos glauca) has an architectural structure with dark red seasonally peeling bark and sinuous branches that add a sculptural sensibility to a rugged or natural garden.

Its extra-large namesake berries are up to ½-inch across and are the largest of all manzanita berries. From summer to fall, the berries decorate the foliage and are food for mammals and birds. Some people even use the berries to make yummy manzanita cider.

The evergreen leaves vary from white-gray to blue-gray and look fresh year-round. Big berry manzanita has urn-shaped pink to white flowers that put on a striking show from winter to spring and feed butterflies, pollinators and migrant hummingbirds, when most gardens are sleeping. Read more…

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden, Winter bloom | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Entertaining ‘Bee-haviors’ of Native Bees

The parade of pollinator antics is another reason to create a garden that nurtures native bees.


What I relish most about my pollinator garden is the three-ring circus of clowns, acrobats, contortionists and other performers. While nurturing a garden habitat that gives native bees a place in which to live,

Female digger bees on Delta sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Female digger bees on Delta sunflower (Helianthus annuus) in my home garden

eat and raise their young, we also get to watch the wacky show. With over 1,600 species of native bees in California alone, here is a tiny sampling of bee species and their most delightful and downright silly “bee-haviors.”

Read more…

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Rain, Rain Stay Today… Butterflies Could Come Our Way

The basics of butterfly gardening

Buckeye butterfly on Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens)

Buckeye butterfly on Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) in my home garden

I’ve honed my knowledge in recent months with help from my gardening friends and from consultant Jeffrey Caldwell, a local biologist and habitat restoration specialist in Santa Clara Valley. Jeffrey is very knowledgeable about wildlife gardens and gave me good advice. The most important advice…

Read more…

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

How to Design a Garden for Native Bees

Create a garden that not only looks beautiful but also nurtures native bees — and helps other wildlife in the process

Carpenter Bee & Bumblebee with Arroyo Lupine

Spring in my garden is filled with pollinators like this Carpenter Bee & Bumblebee with Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)


Most people are aware of the honeybee crisis, but honeybees aren’t the only ones in trouble. Other pollinators are also in decline. Since becoming aware of the honeybee crisis, researchers have put more emphasis into studying all pollinators. They have learned that native bees not only pollinate crops alongside honeybees, but also improve the efficiency of honeybee pollination. And some native bee species are even more efficient at pollinating than honeybees.

Nurturing a garden habitat for native bees gives them a place in which to live, eat and raise their young. Creating a habitat for bees is creating a wildlife habitat for all, because it attracts other wildlife, such as butterflies, birds, hummingbirds and other insects.

Learn more…

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Rain Gardens – Why they are important during a drought

Pervious paving at native demo garden,  Taylor & Walnut, San Jose

Pervious paving at native demo garden at Taylor & Walnut in San Jose

We’re in the middle of a drought crisis… why the heck should I care about rain gardens? It’s a simple answer… since nearly half of the water we use comes from groundwater, the less rain we have the more important it is to protect and preserve that groundwater. Learn more…

I’ve provided plant lists and data sheets here about rain gardens and related subjects that you can download. They are located in the right column, at the very bottom, in the flash_widget. The following documents are available for download:

  1. Plant List, SCVURPPP
  2. Plant List, Master Gardeners
  3. Rain Gardens, BASMAA
  4. Rain Barrels, BASMAA
  5. Pervious Paving, BASMAA
  6. Stormwater Control for Small Projects, BASMAA
  7. Ten Top Tips for Creeks, SCVWD

Happy gardening!


Categories: California native plants, Sustainablity in your garden, Water conservation | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Happy New Year!

Encelia californica

Coast Sunflower (Encelia californica) December 2013

Although the Encelia in the photo is long gone, there are still flowers in my garden. A few Darkstar Ceanothus buds have opened in early anticipation of spring, the Currants (Ribes spp) are either in bloom or have buds, and my Wayne Roderick Daisies (Erigeron glaucus x) continue to bloom again and again and again. The frost hit the Encelia pretty bad, but I’ll simply prune it hard at the end of winter. It will spring back with the warm weather and be 6-8 feet wide in a couple of months. Sometimes the enthusiasm of this plant is overwhelming! All the native bees and lady bugs love Encelia.

It’s happy news that I started a new job in September. Unfortunately there will be a delay with the kickoff of the 12-part series “Year of the Butterfly”. While I’m getting accustom to my new schedule, you can read back-issues and new publications of my “Sustainable Landscapes” column in My Out And About Magazine. The column runs March through September. Also, in early April I’ll have an article in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden Newsletter – so I haven’t disappeared. Let’s hope I’m back to blogging long before April!

What’s happening in your garden this winter?

Native Hearts Garden Blog

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden, Winter bloom | Leave a comment

COMING SOON… The Year of the Butterfly

I’m all aflutter to announce The Year of the Butterfly will soon be published on this blog!

From October 2013 through September 2014 – in a 12-part series – we’ll talk about all kinds of butterfly related topics. As I learn more about butterfly gardening, I’ll share with you:

  • What other local butterfly gardeners are doing that works
  • Interviews with experts in the field
  • My personal butterfly gardening experiences
  • Specific info on local butterflies, including their larval hosts and adult nectar sources
  • Gems on butterfly gardening I’ve gleaned from books and websites
  • Resources where you can learn more

Subscribe and get each part as it’s published.

Happy gardening,
Debbie Ballentine

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)

Categories: California native plants, Wildlife in your garden | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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