Archive for low water plants

Drought Tolerant Ground Cover Plant for Portland

Garden Designer Loves Low Maintenance Plant Sempervivum Tectorum – Hens & Chicks

Boulder with low maintenance drought tolerant groundcovers in NW Portland Oregon front yard

Low Maintenance Plant for Portland has Versatility

I love to use these plants hens and chicks -Sempervivum in my low maintenance landscape designs. The name Sempervivum means ‘always alive’ so even new gardeners will be successful with this plant. Hens and chicks are everyone’s darling because the modern landscape aficionados think they were invented for them, people with black thumbs can be successful and those looking for a nostalgic cottage garden plant will all be happy.

Hen & Chicks is a beautiful drought tolerant plant for Portland.They add fascinating texture and leaf color that lasts throughout the year. Plus I love the way they add the finishing touch to a planting area. The fact that they are low maintenance, low water to drought tolerant and suppress weeds is a huge bonus.

The Original Roof Garden Plant

From medieval times hens and chicks were planted in stone or tiled roofs and also in thatched roofs. It was thought when used on a thatch roof that it would protect from fire caused by lightening. The plants also provided some insulation for homes and helped to moderate heat. They can extract water from dew and fog and thrive. Many would go dormant in summer and return in the fall with the rains. Native to the Mediterranean region these plants were also used for roofs all over Europe. Planting roof leek (hens and chicks) on your roof was thought to cause good health and good fortune.

So what’s so great about these plants for groundcover in Portland?

Drought Tolerant Ground Cover

Sempervivum are a low water to fully drought tolerant plant here in the PNW. I feel some water is required if siting in full day sun (8 to 10 hours) and many varieties of Sempervivum will scorch at least initially in full hot sun the first year. I don’t plant mine right next to a concrete walk or blacktop driveway if full day sun. That is too hot and some plants will shrivel and die or look so bad you will wish they just up and did so. Not fussing about watering is my idea of low maintenance but proper placement is part of how we get there.

This groundcover suppresses weeds and adds fascinating cobweb textures for visual interest.Low Maintenance Plant Suppresses Weeds

Low maintenance groundcovers create a tapestry of color for planting bed

Groundcovers cuddle up

I have some nice sized colonies of hens and chicks at my vacation property. Perhaps 24” x 4’. They may get watered once a month in the summer. They suppress weeds by growing so thickly, (which is an excellent attribute for a low maintenance plant) but they are also attractive in the winter. Their colorful rosettes are a cheery sight in our drizzle and foggy mornings. I especially like when they spread to form a colony.  And I like it even better when other ground covers “cuddle up” next to them making interesting vignettes of leaf color, texture and proportional diversity.

Care and Maintenance of  Sempervivum – Hens and Chicks

Important Tips for Establishing Sempervivum in Portland, Oregon

Plant them in a well draining soil. They will tolerate our clay top soil as long as it is not in a low spot where water collects. I find adding a half inch of a tiny gravel on top of the soil between the plants every year is very beneficial and may speed getting the plants to multiply into a colony. Don’t bother planting them in heavy compacted clay. They will rot. Don’t put the tiny gravel at the bottom of the hole. They will rot.

Water them once a week the first summer until they are established and a little extra water during very hot weather is a good idea. Be sure to reach down, press and feel the soil, don’t guess, so you don’t over water and rot them. Their 2nd summer you can water them less. After several years they typically survive without much or any irrigation.

Prevent Flowering Until Plants Mature and Have Lots of Chicks

Sempervivum with the center hen and many offsets called Chicks fill a nursery pot in Portland Oregon

It’s better to buy with chicks already in the pot but they are rarely available like this.

It is important to cut the flowering stalk off the first year or two.  The hen will send up a flowering shoot and then produce seeds. This exhausts the hen (the center rosette) and it will die, which you cannot afford until the plant has created offshoots e.g. the chicks! This problem is made worse because what you buy is typically a 4” pot with a single hen in it and no chicks.

Prevent flowering by cutting the flower shoot down low in the leaf rosettes until you have lots of offsets to carry on the work of spreading to create a ground cover. This takes  two to three years before you have enough offsets or chicks to carry on. The shoots can be quite insistent so you may have to cut that flowering stalk off more than once in a summer. Hens and Chicks add an interesting texture to contrast with the Portland, Oregon concrete sidewalk

If the hen flowers without giving you any chicks you will not have a plant at all come the next spring. In other words…you will not have any plant there come spring if you lost the hen.
You may remove the center plant, also called the hen, if it is declining once the chicks are actually rooted.  Then you can gently cut out the center plant. I do this primarily for looks. The colony looks better without the dead foliage of a declining hen. Here’s a fun link for propagating hens and chicks.

Lavander, Sempervivum, and Spirea feed the bees in this Portland parking strip planting

Pink flower clusters are what you get when a sempervivum flowers.

Support Pollinators

Once your colony is established you can let your hens and chicks flower to support pollinators. You will have to tidy up by removing the dead center rosette so the chicks can grow over the hole the next year. I used to cut all of my flowering stalks out of the rosette (or hen) but once I have enough of them… I let them flower to feed bees.

Low Maintenance Plant for Portland

Here is your takeaway – Sempervivum Hens and Chicks is an easy low maintenance plant that takes lots of sun and little water is needed for it to thrive. It looks great in the winter because it is evergreen and has fantastic texture to contrast with other low non aggressive plantings. If you are new….It’s more fun to play with plants when they don’t die. If you already love plants you will love playing around with Sempervivum so it’s a great plant for everyone.

Contact Us

Sempervivum, Hens and Chicks, House Leek? Whatever you want to call them, they are an easy and low maintenance plant for our new warmer climate. We love to create landscape plans that are low maintenance and can support our environment. All jokes about paving it over or covering your landscape with gravel aside…..those landscapes are very unattractive and do not support any of our bees, butterflies or birds. Nor do they process carbon which is something plants can do!  Contact us if you want a low maintenance landscape design that is interesting, colorful and can be an asset to your home and neighborhood.

 

Tips to succeeding with Manzanita in Portland Residential Landscapes 

Tips to succeeding with Manzanita in Portland Residential Landscapes 

Arctostaphylos in container at Xera Plants S.E. Portland

Drought tolerant landscaping in Southeast Portland

Manzanita (called Arctostaplylos – Arc toe staff eye loss) is the new cool darling plant here in Portland. The reasons why are numerous, unique “new” plant, drought tolerance, attractive in winter and all year, and there are now many diverse shapes and sizes to work with that will survive here. Years ago I only used this plant for a plant collector garden because they knew it was a crap shoot as to whether it would survive at all.   

As a Portland landscape designer I want plants that will serve many purposes in my designs. For people who are done with the overuse of Rhododendrons and Azalea and want drought tolerant plants, Manzanita is the perfect plant. Before you fall in love, I want to give you some tips for succeeding with Manzanita in Portland. They have requirements that must be met if you want them to thrive. 

Please see my previous blog “Portland Landscape Designer Advocates use of Manzanita in Xericscapes”.

Tips for succeeding with Manzanita in Portland 

Select the right site, conditions and plant companions 

Most are intolerant of summer water….clients must understand that they cannot coddle these plants, they cannot plant annuals with them for summer color, they cannot fertilize, they cannot water these plants after they are established or they will die.

Plant on a berm 

Kinnikinnick is a form of Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) often used in Portland as a groundcover.

Ground cover Manzanita in Raleigh Hills

In many Portland landscapes planting on a berm will be necessary to avoid root rot. You will see bermed soil areas here even in parking strips. Portland parking strips (the 4’ wide ones) are a popular place for many of the new smaller types of Manzanita and for drought tolera

nt or xeric styled plantings. Most of the Manzanita I am using are too wide for a 30” parking strip. 

Planting companions

Planting companions must have the same no water requirements because it’s hard to remember not to water one plant and that you must water the one next to it. If any kind of auto irrigation is used the first summer it must be disconnected, dismantled, hell-dismembered so no one accidentally waters that second summer.   

I select companions from Mediterranean or NW native plant palettes. Some mid west native prairie plants also work well with Manzanita. Herbs, ornamental grasses and xeric perennials like Penstemon or ice plant are easy companions and Heather (Calluna Vulgaris types) are one of my favorite for texture contrast.  

Irrigation solution for drought tolerant manzanita in NE Portland landscape design.

Irrigation drip tube is replaced with solid black pipe to protect manzanita from irrigation water.

Buy small plants 

It’s best to buy small plants and they will establish faster

Manzanita has well formed leaves and most flower in winter.

Drought tolerant landscape design, Manzanita shrub in North Portland

than a larger plant with a higher survival rate. Large sizes of these plants are not available anyway. Many of these plants will be available in a 4” pot or perhaps a quart sized pot. Smaller plants make more sense in this case but don’t expect them to be inexpensive. You are paying for all the research and extensive work to create these new plants. 

Select the right Manzanita 

The trial and error approach for picking which one to buy and where to plant it is going to be very frustrating. There are quite a few new plant types to pick from and some grow very fast, some slow. Some may be pruned hard because they have a burl (what’s a burl?) and others would be ruined with such treatment. Your Portland landscape designer needs to be an expert or have access to one. If you are on your own, buying from Cistus Nursery or the retail store Xera Plants, Inc. is the best way to get the expertise you need from their very knowledgeable staff.   

I talked to Alana Chau at Cistus Nursery. Here is her list of plants that will be available that I especially liked. 

 Arctostaphylos hookeri ‘Green on Black’  18” high and can handle some clay soil. 

Arctostaphylos × media ‘Martha Ewan’ is a nice size maturing at three feet tall and it can be tip pruned. It gets wide so give it room to be 4 or 5 feet wide. 

Arctostaphylos Stanfordiana ‘Mills’ or A x ‘White Lanterns’ both at 4’ tall 

Arctostaphylos Dr Hurd’ is a curvaceous 8′ to 10’ tall small tree and is planted at the entrance to Cistus Nursery 

Arctostaphylos  mewukka or Arctostaphylos patula can be pruned heavily. (They have a burl and once established they can be pruned back to the burl, for non horticultural nerds just know this means you could plant one of these closer to your walkway than many of the other varieties because the size could be controlled without ruining the appearance of your plant.) 

(We designers get excited about plants who fit into a small landscapes so we might be more excited that this burling option than you are). 

 My manzanita guru, Paul Bonine explains about burls in his article in Pacific Horticulture, Arctostaphylos for Pacific Northwest Gardens “Some Arctostaphylos species develop an enlarged area called a burl at soil level; new shoots emerge from the burl following fire or extreme drought, or from extensive pruning to rejuvenate a plant in the garden.”

North Portland Residential Landscape Design for Shade

North Portland Residential Landscape Design for Shade

Chris and Jennifer of North Portland contacted me for help with their large shady back yard.

Problems

They were overwhelmed with the high maintenance of lawn under huge trees. They wanted a back yard for entertaining a large family (with lots of adult kids and future grand kids).  They wanted to DIY and had a strict budget, so spending 20 grand on a concrete patio was not realistic.Cedar chip patio makes affordable landscaping for North Portland home. Views over the fence included other neglected yards and they had a large (evil) tree of heaven that had to go. Many plants had died or looked leggy and sun starved.

The back yard was longer than deep and made creating a design on their own more difficult.

Solutions

My best contributions were getting the shapes of the new rooms to work with their long but shallow yard. Introducing them to the concept of using cedar chips as their primary surface for entertaining and paths was a perfect fit also. It looks great with their NW Natural style landscape, it’s affordable and it’s very easy to care for. If you get the right kind of chips you can even use a leaf blower on them and they don’t blow away.

We tucked different outdoor rooms into the perimeter of the landscape and kept the existing small concrete patio as a spacious entry to the house and the BBQ center. No more trying to fit a dining table on it as they had done before the design.

Crushed rock firepit patio makes for affordable landscaping in this N. Portland backyard.Selecting low water plants

Sword fern works well for the woodsy nature of this North Portland garden design.

Sword fern works well for the woodsy nature of this North Portland garden design.

The plant selection was also critical.  Shade plants had to survive on the water the big trees would let them have so our palette needed to be all low water plants. We used a lot of sword ferns and kept native plants wherever possible.

On the south end we used one of my favorite little evergreen trees, Boxleaf Azara – Azara Microphylla. They planted them up on a berm which made them taller and helped do a faster job of screening out the neighbors garage wall.  Planting Azaras up on a berm prevents root rot since these plants do not tolerate poor drainage.

DIY installed

Their DIY install of the landscape turned out fantastic. They loved their back yard. When change came along, and they had to put their house on the market, the yard was another major asset and selling point. These photos, which they took, are from their marketing page.

I especially love the hammock room. The fire pit patio is clearly the largest entertaining area and is used for lounging with or without a fire. Their fire pit patio is a crushed rock surface, not cedar chips.

low maintenance evergreen screens tall wall in Raliegh Hills garden design

Azara Microphylla has fine evergreen leaves that add texture to this wall in SW Portland.

The chips continue around to the side yard gate and match the rest of the now low maintenance landscape.

“Carol understood us and got our style for a NW Natural landscape design for our North Portland yard.  We were very happy that she surpassed our expectations for low maintenance, no lawn, great textured plantings, backyard design.  She understood that we wanted to do some of the work ourselves and helped us make a beautiful-yard-on-a-budget a reality.”