Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Let's visit the back slope!

In the spirit of the "Coronavirus Tourism" posters created by Jennifer Baer, I'm providing another virtual tour of my garden, this time focused on my often-neglected and very steep back slope.  (You can view my prior tour of my lath house here.)

Despite its size, my back slope, situated on the eastern side of our half-acre lot, is easy to ignore.  When in our back garden, your eye stops at the Xylosma congestum hedge that runs the entire length of the back border.  On the other side, the property drops down dramatically and nothing planted there shows above the top of the hedge.  In fact, until the day of our final inspection prior to closing our purchase of the property, I didn't even realize it was there.

So let's pay a visit, shall we?  We access the back slope through the dry garden on the north side of the house.

From this angle, the gravel path I added after we moved in appears to end at the fence marking the property line between us and our neighbor on the north side

But, if you proceed as far as the grape arbor support my husband built, you can see signs that the path continues to the right

Rounding that corner, marked by a decaying tree trunk and a friendly Green Man, you see the first of the concrete blocks my husband installed as a stairway a year or so after we moved in

There was a slippery dirt path here when we moved in and, after I'd repeatedly fallen on my back side traversing it,  my husband laboriously dug these 50lb concrete blocks into the slope, working around numerous large rocks that studded the area.  I should mention that our entire neighborhood was the site of a large rock quarry in the 1940s.


Once we pass the hedge's northernmost edge, the back slope opens up to full view.

This area is bordered by the Xylosma hedge on the upper level (right) and a bay laurel on the lower level (left).  Our neighbor has a vegetable garden on the other side of that bay hedge, bordered on her side by a chain link fence.  When clouds aren't in the way you can see the harbor beyond those tall pine trees.


Those concrete blocks my husband installed are more widely spaced than they look and, without handrails, the trip to the bottom is usually made relatively quickly watching your feet as you go, without much attention to the plants on either side.

The stairway turns and ends with 4 more narrowly spaced concrete blocks


Once you turn the corner shown in the last photo, you reach a relatively flat area.  Here's what you might notice first:

A humongous crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), with a mammoth trunk, sits against the neighbor's chain link fence on our side of the property line.  My understanding is that the neighbor planted the vine decades ago when the property line was less well-defined.  The vine is trained along her fence but spills over in all directions, including the ivy-covered area belonging to our neighbor on the south side..  The vine is pretty but almost unmanageable in our climate, as I learned in my former garden.  I'd take it out except that this would impact my neighbors on both sides.

This is a view of our south property line looking in the other direction.  The wine barrels you see belong to the neighbors on our south side.  There was a huge Yucca elephantipes here when we moved in, which my husband lobbied to remove because it was also completely out of control.  We installed 3 Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Magic' here to provide some of the privacy lost when the Yucca was removed.  There's a Ceanothus arboreum here too, which will eventually become a small tree.

I transplanted a few Centranthus ruber seedlings here years ago and they've gone crazy.  I tried sowing wildflower seeds here too but rampant alyssum (Lobularia maritima) choked most of those out.

Of course, we can't ignore the lemon tree planted here as it's the areas's dominant feature.  It's been so much happier since the Yucca came out.  It produces lemons year-round except when a severe heatwave hits and knocks it out of commission for several months.


On closer examination, you might notice a few other things.

Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) appear every spring following our winter rainy season.  They disappear when summer's heat hits.  After last week's early heatwave, most of those you see in this photo are now gone.

A purple Osteospermum (left) has planted itself down here.  I foolishly planted the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri, right), which grows too big for the area.  I'd planned to take it out this past winter and somehow never got around to it.  I'll take it out after it finishes blooming this season.

A week ago, too late to take constructive action to stem its impact, I discovered that the peach tree planted at the edge of the slope had been severely impacted by peach curl disease.  It looks hideous at the moment.


I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do about the peach tree.  It was planted by a prior owner and, while it often sets a little fruit, that fruit never has never survived long enough to ripen.  It may not help that it's irrigated by a gray-water system fed by our washing machine waste.  I could thin it's twiggy growth and spray it thoroughly in the fall in an effort to stop the fungal disease that causes the foliage to blister and curl but cleaning up the area below the tree, which is covered in a thicket of ivy, would be harder to accomplish, much less maintain.  I may end up taking it out entirely but I'll probably give spraying a try to see if it makes any significant difference first.

But let's forget about the ugly peach tree and focus on the more attractive features of the back slope.

The back slope is at its most colorful in spring


Moving to the other side of the lemon tree at the base of the lower tier of concrete steps, here's what we see:

I planted the foxtail agaves (Agave attentuata) here several years ago from pups taken from another plant in my front garden.  I added various Aeoniums at intervals since.  I moved the bearded Iris down here from other areas and, to my complete surprise, they've done better here than anywhere else in my garden.

This unknown dwarf Iris may be 'Darth Vader'.  It's wonderfully fragrant.

If you look up from this spot, above the Xylosma hedge you can see the mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin, left), just beginning to leaf out now.  Shifting your eyes to the right, you can see 2 Arbutus 'Marina' in the upper level of the garden.


But let's take a look at the plants on either side of the concrete block stairway as we proceed more slowly back up the way we came.

Going up these stairs carrying anything heavy isn't fun and I almost always take the trip up slowly

The steep upper area on your left is covered with a dense layer of ivy and honeysuckle, punctuated by weeds.  I pull out what I can but, as you can see in the photo on the lower left, there's a patch of grass weeds I haven't managed to tackle along the southern property line.  Geranium incanum (lower right) is also a weed here.

But looking to right of the concrete stairway, we see a lovely Echium webbii I planted a couple of years ago.  In bloom now, it's a magnet for bees and butterflies.

I planted Euphorbia 'Dean's Hybrid' (left) and Pelargonium 'White Lady' (right) down here years ago and both move themselves around the area willy-nilly

The pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) planted itself here after I cleared the area of the weeds that formerly covered this part of the slope

I planted seedlings of Centranthus ruber here too and it continues to spread on its own

Lampranthus 'Pink Kaboom' (left) is fading while gray Santolina chamaecyparissus (right) is just getting ready to bloom

Artichokes have done exceptionally well on this dry slope.  There are 2 varieties growing here but I can't name either.

The prior owner we bought the house from put a fig tree in here.  It wasn't pruned well at the outset and my attempts to manage it since haven't improved things much.  The small amount of fruit it produces each year is snatched by critters before it ever ripens.


A dozen more steps beyond the fig and artichokes, we arrive back at the main level of the back garden.

Eventually I hope the centerpiece of this area will be the Callistemon viridiflorus you see in the middle of this shot.  I looked for this plant locally for years without success.  In October 2018, Tamara of Chickadee Gardens in Oregon sent me a one-gallon plant.  It's still small but it's just produced its first bloom and I'm thrilled.

Thank you Tamara!!!


So that's the back slope.  It offers opportunities that I find simultaneously tantalizing and daunting.  Terracing the upper level of the slope has been a dream of mine but access to the back area with heavy equipment is virtually impossible.  I've tried clearing small sections of the ivy and honeysuckle myself, working from the concrete block path but, given how steep it is, all I've managed to do is to crawl up on hands and knees 4-5 feet from its edge.  And the ivy and honeysuckle comes back quickly so the results of my efforts in one area are mostly erased by the time I clear the next small section.  Working down there during the hot summer months can be unpleasant too.  And then there are the fire ants, which I've run into on three occasions now...Thus far, I've decided to focus on the upper, more visible areas of my garden.

I hope you enjoyed today's tour.  Best wishes navigating the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic in your own backyard!  Take care.


All material © 2012-2020 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party


22 comments:

  1. As a fellow slope gardener I was fascinated by this post and, my goodness, there is far more going on down there than I ever imagined. You’ve got your work cut out though Kris, that I do know. Please be careful, especially in the summer heat. I am totally envious of the lemon tree and the callistemon is just gorgeous!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've concluded I need more than a good pair of cleats to tackle the upper slope, Jessica - something on the order of a safety harness and an on-site spotter perhaps. Focusing on the more accessible lower section of the slope and the other areas of my garden probably makes more sense. If I happen to win the lottery at some point maybe I could pay someone to come in and terrace that upper area but they'd have to manage without heavy equipment, unless perhaps they have a very large crane...

      Delete
  2. Dang - that IS steep... I don't envy you one bit, even though I sometimes wish I had a little more natural topography. There can definitely be too much of a good thing. Be careful out there. Fire ants - yikes!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The fire ants were a very unhappy discovery, Anna. I've yet to determine exactly where their nest was/is but, as all the mass stings I've received trace back to work in that area, I've become very hesitant about stepping into any foliage thickets. I did buy myself a pair of boots to wear when working down there, though.

      Delete
  3. Looks good. You have a lot of good plants back there despite the ivy/honeysuckle mass. I would just get rid of the peach and fig. Why feed rats? Peach trees are only good for about a decade anyway.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the peach tree's never even produced edible fruit so its only real value is that it provides a partial screen between us and the neighbor on the south side. I'm also inclined to take out the fig - that would give the artichokes more room and we do eat those.

      Delete
  4. What a slope! One would get a great workout on that slope. Despite it being hard to maintain, I think it looks wonderful. And . . . I love that lemon tree!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The lemon tree, and the 3 other citrus trees that came with the house and garden, were a real boon. I usually give friends lemons (and the other citrus when in season) but, as we're all stuck at home, some fruit is literally rotting on the tree. Earlier this week, I did my second give-a-way to neighbors, leaving lemons, limes, navel oranges and mandarins for anyone that wanted them. It all went quickly!

      Delete
  5. Absolutely gorgeous pictures. You've done great, but back-breaking work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm still looking for new ways to use more of the space in that area, Beth - ideally, without breaking my neck!

      Delete
  6. Great tour Kris, of course I understand it all so much better having been there myself! BTW it just struck me that this section of your garden is probably bigger than my entire garden...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you consider the upper slope, maybe, Loree. Your space is all usable, though!

      Delete
  7. Wow, it is looking good! I remember when much of it was burnt out from the heatwave. There is a lot of variety here in your 'secret garden.' :) I'm envious of your artichokes and lemons - they look so good!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The back slope really has only one good season, Eliza, and that's spring. The addition of some large succulents adds a bit of year-round structural interest but the floral color is purely a spring phenomenon. And, yes, a severe heatwave has relatively long-term impact on its appearance.

      Delete
  8. OMG 50# steps on that steep incline. You must have an Iron Man for a husband.
    I like the way the gravel path fools the eye. I always admire your lemon tree. I know you live in the perfect place for them. I think they are so wonderful. I can imagine how nice it smells when it gets a bunch of blooms on it. The Calla Lilies look good near the lemon tree with the yellow spadix showing up with the lemons. Even in a most difficult space you have plenty of beautiful plants to look at...and tend. I would faint if I thought I had to deal with all that ivy etc. Thanks for the tour.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The citrus trees and the lemon tree in particular were a major bonus that came with the property, Lisa. SoCal used to be a big citrus growing region. However, recently our trees have come under serious threat from what's called citrus greening disease, a bacterial condition introduced by an insect.

      Delete
  9. It was great to see an update on your back slope. I remember it as being much more barren, but I visited in December--not the best time of year for any garden.

    Could you replace the ivy with something more exotic, maybe a groundcover grevillea or acacia? Or is better to leave well enough alone?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Introducing more interesting plants was my plan, even as I let go of the terracing idea, but removing that ivy and honeysuckle, and keeping it from coming back, is a major hurdle. It can be done - for a price. Our neighbors removed ivy from an even larger slope and planted it entirely in prostrate rosemary but their slope gets more sun and they water it (and their entire garden) more freely. Also, while I love rosemary, I don't really want any more of it than I already have. I thought about planting it with Bougainvillea but the area faces east and doesn't get as much sun as that plant wants - and my husband hates Bougainvillea.

      Delete
    2. No point in planting bougainvillea then. It doesn't flower well in too much shade anyway.

      What about California natives? There are prostrate forms of manzanita, ceanothus and flannel bush. They would need (or want) no additional water after the first year.

      Delete
    3. All good ideas to consider if I pony up the money to have the ivy and honeysuckle removed.

      Delete
  10. Love the Calla lily vignette!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for visiting my back slope! Sadly, the calla lilies are giving into the rising temperatures here. There are only a few presentable flowers left and the foliage is quickly yellowing. They had a good run this season, though.

      Delete

I enjoy receiving your comments and suggestions!