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GARDENING

Backyard growers still hungry for edibles and drought-tolerant plants

September 26, 2009|Nan Sterman

The recent recession-fueled explosion of backyard vegetable gardens caught the nursery industry somewhat by surprise. Everyone, it seems, wants to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants, even those folks who have never before picked up a shovel.

Starting this fall, however, nurseries and garden centers will be filling aisles with more than plants that feed us. Growers and store buyers say consumers can expect to see more lovely textures coming to market and, best of all, more plants that require less water. A sampling of trends shaping the marketplace in the months to come:

More edibles

This trend isn't ebbing. Look for fruiting trees and shrubs that do double duty, producing food and making the garden beautiful.

"The hottest plants are blueberries," says Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia Growers. Though Monrovia grew its largest crop of these nearly evergreen shrubs for the 2009-10 season, Staddon says, "If we'd had thousands more plants, we could have sold them too."

Staddon recommends the Sunshine Blue, O'Neal and Jubilee blueberry plants, which will deliver a crop from mid-April to early July in Southern California. These southern "highbush" blueberries are varieties that have been bred to fruit with little winter chill, but they still prefer acidic soil -- something few Southern California gardens have. Grow them in a container with a potting mix that contains plenty of peat moss.

Other plants that fall into the edible-ornamental category are figs, pomegranates and pineapple guava. Even artichokes can be grown as flowering perennials. Leave the buds on the plants, and they turn into huge, brushy indigo and violet flowers. With the exception of blueberries, all of these plants are drought tolerant.

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Less water

The scarcity of water remains a driving force. Although succulents remain a low-water mainstay, the demand for drought-tolerant gardens that are attractive, colorful and distinctive are prompting growers and stores to bring to market other kinds of plants from Australia, South Africa, Chile and the Mediterranean. These areas are linked to Southern California by their rainfall pattern. Precipitation is limited to winter months, and the hot, long days of summer are dry, dry, dry. Plants from these areas, along with our own California natives, are evolved to cope with dry summers and lean soils.

Among shrubs, the South African cone bushes have the most fantastic colored leaves. They are increasingly available in stores, and the cone bush Safari Sunshine (also sold as Jester) thrills gardeners with its yellow-, rose- and green-striped leaves. It's topped by what looks like red blush flowers.

Also, watch for Adenanthos cuneatus Coral Drift, a beautiful Australian shrub that can reach 4 feet tall with silvery blue, wedge-shaped leaves edged in a reddish pink. Even with no flowers, the plant is colorful.

For delicate sprays of pink flowers, try Chamelaucium ciliatum Scaddan. The shrub grows 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide, and according to Randy Baldwin, general manager of the San Marcos Growers wholesale nursery in Santa Barbara, it is always covered in blooms.

All of these Australian shrubs come through a program called Koala Blooms, which imports Australian plants into the California nursery trade through a coalition of nurseries and the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, where the plants are tested.

If you like plants with multicolored leaves, you also can look for new versions of old standbys. For a notable rosemary, one of the ultimate edible-ornamental plants, try Gold Dust, whose chartreuse leaves have a dark green stripe down the center. Flowers are a deep, deep blue.

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Extra texture

New Zealand flax and cordylines have been the predominant choices for large-scale, low-water, strappy-leafed texture for years. Although they continue to dominate the large selections, lots of smaller accompaniments are appearing on the market.

The newer wave of Dianella, the flax lilies, include some with intense blue leaves (Cassa Blue, Baby Bliss) or striped leaves (Yellow Stripe). All are very upright, with broad blades from 1 1/2 to 2 feet high, and stalks of blue-to-violet flowers in spring followed by shockingly blue or purple berries.

Lomandras are another group of smaller strappy-leaved plants. They form 12- to 24-inch fountains in shades of green. Varieties such as Breeze and Little Con have leaves as fine as blades of grass. These drought-tolerant plants form masses of fibrous surface roots that are thought to stem erosion on slopes.

Plants in the genus Carex are as strappy as Lomandras. A particularly intriguing new variety is the broad-leafed, variegated Carex trifida Rekohu Sunrise. It makes a weeping mound, 20 inches tall by 30 inches wide, and has stunning leaves striped green and gold.

If this plant is grown on a low water diet, the blades take on a bluish blush, says Nanci Allen, plant projects manager for PlantHaven, a company that assists breeders in bringing new varieties such as Rekohu Sunrise to market. She suggests giving the plant sun or part shade but little irrigation, making it a good pick for the gardener who forgets to water.

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Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II."

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