the dappled life

ah, the sun lovers, which include this self-sowing annual, Orlaya grandiflora, the Minoan lace from Crete

So you’re planting and planting your little garden and having the best time, but because your undisciplined and eclectic taste runs to every kind and type of green life, from ground hugging to tree size, inevitably you wake up one morning and wonder:

Where did the sunlight go?

sun lover: I brought back a bad case of Rocky Mountain Penstemon Fever from the trip to Denver last year. This is Penstemon superbus in its first summer, so the big test will be how much water it needs to survive to autumn

Full sun, half sun, part sun, morning sun, mid-day sun, afternoon sun, bright sun, reflected sun, harsh sun, cool sun — the latter is probably what best describes dappled light. Like the number of words Eskimos have for snow, zone 10 gardens care deeply about degrees of sunlight.

sun lover: the last dyckia in the garden is potted, just one rosette of the wide-leaved D. platyphylla, with orange flowers so delectable I could nibble them. But truthfully, with dyckias, it’s more their body-piercing armor, ankle-biting ways, and rapidly colonizing propensities that banished them to containers, not a lack of available sun
sun lovers: the ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia insinuates itself in the garden and around pots in a way I doubt I could duplicate by design — some plants in the garden work out these interesting arrangements without any assistance from the gardener at all

About that loss of full-day sun. There’s no need to panic, especially in Southern California, where at our latitude summer sun can be especially punishing. And I still have plenty of full sun for the plants that can handle it. But for a good quarter of the garden at least, it’s a dappled life now.

the dappled life: I planted a few Kniphofia thomsonii but only one managed to push a bloom through the dense planting of sesleria, agapanthus, tulbaghia, all interwoven with tetrapanax roots. The other kniphofia clumps are still visible and thickening up, so maybe they’ll figure it out. The grass is Stipa ichu, the Peruvian Feather Grass, mild-mannered relative of the weedy Mexican Feather Grass and slightly taller. But they both sway and dance and ham it up when backlit. I’ve grown it before but now have given it more sun, because it will flop in too much shade. The twisted arms like it’s been harpooned belong to a tormented Aloe ferox hybrid (‘Lavaflame’?). I vacillate over yanking it but it’s developing an interesting presence and become quite the character.

And it turns out this gentler version of Southern Californian sunlight suits a lot of plants just fine. It’s not exactly shade gardening though, because full sun does break in throughout the day.

In my back garden, the biggest reduction in sunlight starts at the east fence, where the lemon cypresses (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’) now soar over 25 feet and Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ holds the corner. Morning light does filter through in varying intensities. Aloes still bloom here if planted where the morning sun is strongest and where the afternoon sun can slide in too. Amicia zygomeris loves it here, as does Plectranthus argentatus, bromeliads, sesleria. The new ‘Indian Summer’ alstroemeria have been tucked in here, so we’ll see if they get enough sun to bloom well. It’s dawned on me rather late in life that herbaceous stuff, grassy stuff, not sculptural evergreen succulents, are preferable for conditions under trees that rain down a steady stream of debris. And whether the tree is evergreen or deciduous, they all drop something.

The back corner of the east fence gets full morning light and can grow sun lovers like alstroemeria, agave, castor bean, even the Coulter bush — the problem is more one of shallow soil from tree roots. But there are deep pockets to plant in if you dig around for them. There’s a young African spear lily, Doryanthes palmeri, in the far corner getting plenty of sun to grow too.
the stock tank hides the legs of the lemon cypresses and provides enough root run for the astelia and bromeliads that handle this dappled light so well. Root-crowded soil is one of the trickier aspects of gardening near trees, but there are ways around that too (containers!)
Variegated agaves appreciate something less than full-day sun too.
A strong blast of afternoon sun does sneak in here, and Piper auritum was recently moved to avoid the daily wilting
Hoya Santa, Piper auritum, a little beat up just after the move under the Chinese Fringe Tree, Chionanthus retusus. Fatsia japonica ‘Camouflage’ was also moved here.

I think I mentioned recently how I would never never underplant the Chinese fringe tree again. It’s a debris monster, so I’ve opted to sweep its flowers, berries, leaves and twiggy bits back under its canopy, letting it sheet compost in place, with nothing planted to obstruct the relentless cleanup. But then this potted Hoya Santa (Piper auritum) was wilting dreadfully in the afternoon sun hitting the base of the lemon cypresses, and I couldn’t face another summer keeping it hydrated. I wasn’t ready to part with it, because I love the big coarse leaves that resemble a brunnera on steroids. Studying my options, it dawned on me that big-leaved plants with leafy skirts that could be swept under wouldn’t have the same issues as small, low-growing plants constantly getting their crowns smothered in debris. Once the realization hit, I planted the Hoya Santa pronto into this gentler light and loved the results so much that I also released a Fatsia japonica ‘Camouflage’ from its container to grow here as well.

The Chinese fringe tree accommodates and shelters quite a range of plants, hanging from its branches and now at its base, letting enough light through for them to flourish but not get scalded by summer sun. Epiphyllum guatamalense monstrosa arrived via mail order last week and has been tucked into a Dustin Gimbel funnel planter hung from a branch.
the Coastal Woollybush, Adenanthos sericeus, deserves mention for hoisting itself over 10 feet high and transforming into a shimmering column of silver, with a thick horizontal branch at ground level filling out and balancing the weight. The purple leaf acacia has a high and light canopy that allows in plenty of sunlight. But if the woollybush hadn’t obtained a head start before the tree grew to size, I doubt it would have been able to reach the sun like it has.
potted Hedychium ‘Tara’ moved in at the base of Sonchus palmensis. Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ has been combed in this odd way to give some budding Brodiaea ‘Babylon’ enough light to bloom

So many plants I love and grow, like the sow thistles from the Canary Islands and melianthus to name a couple that quickly come to mind, dislike full afternoon sun and complain by wilting when they get it.

Tree-size Euphorbia tirucalli with its head in all-day sun is a handy trellis for a clambering fatshedera that prefers shadier digs. The pencil cactus is great in a large container because it can stand some neglect, and the fatshedera works really well in dry shade, as does the Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ on the right and assorted foxtail agaves, Tradescantia sillamontana, and other odds and ends

Mediating sunlight opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities and allows for growing a really wide range of plants.

Although fuzzy and silver, Tradescantia sillamontana prefers a little protection from afternoon sun
Two days and no bathers yet. Patience! It takes a while for birds to build trust with a bird bath and its placement

And the shrubs and trees that tame the sun also bring one of the most amazing garden features of all — birds. It is astonishing to see what wings in throughout the day. Just like us, birds crave both an open prospect and refuge, with some cover nearby if a hawk should scan the garden, and placing a bird bath in proximity to both shelter and a view is key to success. I’ve been beating myself up for dawdling in choosing a birdbath, but I don’t want to bring in a clunky, oversized monolithic white elephant I’ll regret in a couple months then not be able to move and keep clean (then in despair plant up in a dog’s breakfast assortment of succulents, etc etc.) I saw this sleek bird bath by CB2, and nearly pulled the trigger, but ultimately opted to use the little side table for now.

Playing with the light is one of the most absorbing aspects of making a garden. And this little garden, now over 30 years old, really keeps planting interesting as it evolves, bringing increasing complexities of light to exploit.

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4 Responses to the dappled life

  1. Elaine says:

    Your own personal jungle but I bet it’s a lovely cool respite during the heat of summer. Unfortunately, increasing shade is what happens when you have a Growing (plant) Obsession. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  2. Denise says:

    @Elaine — touché!

  3. Kris P says:

    My old garden turned into a shady jungle but that’s yet to happen in my current garden, which could do with a lot more of that dappled sun you have, especially during the inevitable heatwaves. I admire the Piper auritum, and the Adenanthos, which I managed to kill twice if I recall correctly.

  4. hb says:

    With summers (and springs) getting hotter and hotter more plants seem content in shadier conditions. Gardeners, too.

    Your Woolly Bush looks wonderful. Mine in hot all day sun went kaput. Saw spear lilys in San Diego the size of a car…

    My oak tree is growing like a weed. Shade on the way for me, too.

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