Regional Picks: Garden Staples – Northern California

Fine Gardening - Issue 142

1. Tall Purple Verbena

Name: Verbena bonariensis

USDA Hardiness Zones: 7 to 11

Size: 6 feet tall and 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Tall purple verbena fulfills all my cottage-garden fantasies without requiring me to take care of a succession of frothy annuals all summer. The flowers stand on stiff stems that don’t require staking. This plant never needs any extra water, and it’s a butterfly magnet. Perhaps my favorite trait of this plant is that it is ridiculously easy to propagate. You can take a stem, cut it into pieces, stick the pieces in the ground when it’s raining, then wait until they root over the next few days. This verbena is also that rare tall plant that can go in the front of the border because it’s see-through.


2. Large Cape Rush

Name: Chondropetalum elephantinum

Zones: 8 to 11

Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

This is such a sculptural, hip, modern­ist plant, it had to make my list of favorites. Large cape rush requires no care and looks perfect year-round. The catalogs indicate that it likes damp, boggy soil, but I didn’t know that when I planted mine in my south-facing front yard, which I almost never water. The plant apparently didn’t get the memo, either, because it thrives on my abuse and forces its way right past the nastiest weeds. If you want to fill a vase with something interesting but nothing is in bloom, this is the perfect plant.


3. Pheasant’s Tail Grass

Name: Stipa arundinacea

Zones: 8 to 11

Size: 3 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

I never thought a grass would be on my list of must-have plants—where are the flowers? But pheasant’s tail grass is amazing. It’s billed as a green-and-gold plant, but look closely and you’ll see pink, orange, amber—every color of the sunset. Nothing could be more beautiful blowing around on a winter day. And it’s a monster, too; I have a 6-foot-wide clump in my front yard. Best of all, this grass is low maintenance: no weeding, no watering, no anything. You supposedly should whack it back in winter, but I’ve never bothered—and it still looks incredible.


4. California Poppy

Name: Eschscholzia californica

Zones: 8 to 11

Size: 1 foot tall and 6 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, well-drained soil

It must be said: If you live in California and you don’t grow our state wildflower, then go back to Texas. It’s pretty much a required flower around here. Nothing cheers me up more than that brilliant orange color on one of our foggy summer days here on the coast. Some people don’t realize that the California poppy will act as a perennial, so here’s a tip: Treat it as a perennial. Cut it back in fall and it will return the following spring. If you don’t disturb the roots when you first plant this poppy, then it will establish itself quickly.


Amy Stewart is one of the cofounders of the blog Garden Rant, and she lives in Eureka, California.

Photos: courtesy of Scott Brown; Jennifer Benner; courtesy of San Marcos Growers; Jerry Pavia; Michelle Gervais

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