Ideas for an island bed?

Palmdale, CA

I have a small Albizia julibrissen 'Summer Chocolate' in my backyard and am interested in planting an island bed around it. Problem is that we have very harsh sunlight and heat (up to 110 for a week straight sometimes) so I'm concerned about whether plants that would do well now would suffer later and if anything that would do well once the tree fills out would simply die now. I'm hoping to plant soon to avoid problems with the trees roots. I believe it'll have a light filtered shade and I know we'd have a good amount of reflected lighting.

I've been considering Calandrinia spectabilis, English daisy, Nandina domestica (the dwarf versions like Moonbay), or Datura. My soil is alkaline and clay, drought tolerance is a must. Any opinions or suggestions?

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

If I were you I would mark out the size and shape of the bed you plan to plant up, dont just make a circle as it is quite boring, what I do is lay the garden hose on the soil / grass or wherever your going to site the bed, move it around to make the shape you plan, go indoors and look out to see your happy IF this area is viewed from a window, make a sausage shape, Oval, elongated circle or whatever, BUT, don't make curve sharp bends etc or it could be hard to mow around these curves / bends. You dont even need the tree to be in the middle of the shape, just keep moving the hose around till you like the shape and the tree is in the position you would be happy looking out onto.

Once your sure of the shape you want, you need to mark it out the shape by filling a juice plastic bottle with dry soft sand and follow the shape holding the bottle of sand close to the hose and allow the sand to trickle out marking the shape,, IF you go wrong, you just brush the sand away and redo.
You can do similar with baking flour BUT, when the flower is wet, it's a bit messy, you can go to the garden store and pay a fortune for spray in colours that is used for horticultural projects but the sand (horticultural) is a few dollars for a small bag, or use kids play sand, it the same as it wont harm plans, grass or garden.
After you have decided, you need to dig the bed, amend the soil by adding plenty of humus to the soil, I know you said you had clay soil but adding as much humus as possible, you will be breaking up the hard clay and allowing air into the soil also nutrients that clay cant hold onto, this will also help feed any plants that your thinking about, it will improve the soil by weight also when you did the soil the texture will help the roots of plants to get deeper and take up nutrients required for good healthy plants. the best stuff you can use is well rotted horse manure as this IF ready, should have NO smell like just dropped horse poo, when you hold it in your hand, the manure should crumble, and the colour should look like a nice dark colour soil, but believe me, gardeners call this stuff gardeners gold, and the good thing is, most places that have horses are glad to give it away for free, so find a trailer to go pick it up.
NEXT, take your plant list to the garden store, or where ever you buy your plants from, BUT don't plant out any plants till the heat of summer has passed or you will be watching them deteriorate then go searching for the plants you like, BUT be realistic, your never going to be able to grow plants that like damp moist conditions so search for plants that grow in your local and then you will have a garden to be proud of instead of one that you loved the plants BUT they perished after a few weeks of drought conditions, go to the book store and look at pictures in garden books for your climate, you will be surprised at how attractive a bed PROPERLY laid out and dressed with slate, stones or pebbled between the plant can be or even just a few different plants instead of loads of one off flowers that dont look natural.
Hope this helps get you started and you get everything sorted out for the planting se3ason end of summer .
Good luck. WeeNel.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Tons of great info as usual from WeeNel! I also have done the 'design by garden hose' method. Really helps!

How much water does this area get? Weekly? Once a month? Never (winter rains only).
Will you be able to water the new plants for their first summer? Planting in the fall and early winter is exactly right. The plants will grow a pretty good root system by next summer, but they will still need some careful attention to their water needs. Perhaps some in their second summer. But if you have chosen the right plants they may be able to go with greatly reduced water after that.

Albizia generally does not need very much water, perhaps once a month deep soaking, but will tolerate more (I have seen them near a lawn, though that is not ideal). Occasional deep soaking will encourage the roots to grow deep. Some plants that will compliment the deep leaf color would look nice. Perhaps a blend of greys and some red-purple.

The most drought tolerant plants are often silvery to grey in color, like Lavender, Artemisia 'Powis Castle', Zauschneria, and many others.
Nandina is not a good choice. It barely survives under dry conditions, does not thrive. It will look scruffy, sparse, ugly.
English Daisy (Bellis perennis) is not drought tolerant at all. It thrives in lawns and in part shade.

Albizia generally grows a light enough array of leaves that the area will be pretty close to full sun while the tree is young. If the tree is fairly mature, then you could say it is light shade under there. However reflected light from light colored buildings can add to that light. I think I would still go with plants for full sun or part sun. Have a look in local stores and find the oldest sales person there. (probably the most experienced). Explain exactly how much water you can give this area. Then write down the names of the plants he or she suggests. Take the list home and do some research. Post it here for more feedback.

I would add some interest with a boulder, some driftwood or garden statuary. A bird bath. Some lighting.

Palmdale, CA

Thank you both for the great advice, I'll try the garden hose idea, so far I've been using some large dirt clumps to mark it out and they're tricky to get a nice flowing shape with. I've been reading a lot about the various plants but it can be difficult finding accurate information for them (ex: Lilac, I've heard it can be 6-20 ft tall and 5-20 ft wide for just the Lavender Lady cultivar... I've checked about 10 websites and at least 5 or 6 books so far)

Thanks for the tip off about Nandina, I was planning to plant a hedge with it but I suppose I'm back to the drawing board again.

The area for the island bed is getting water every other day at the moment, my tree is about 6-7 ft tall with a 2-3 ft spread, it was just planted a few months ago. It started out in a different place but then I realized that my friendly neighborhood ants were trying to kill it, it lost nearly half it's foliage and a couple small branches before I found out it was them. Anyway, I moved it and it's recovering now, it's nearly the size it was before and is starting to bloom. I've been giving it a little extra tlc to help it establish. I'm hoping to reduce watering to every 3or 4 days then to once a week or so, with autumn coming up I figure that'll help too. Anyway, I'm hoping for plants that'll coexist with it nicely so I'll try looking into Artemisia and other gray/silver plants. Next time I'm at the gardening store I'll ask around.

Thanks again for the advice!

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

I would take a look around the neighbourhood while there is still flowering plants and shrubs showing colour and also go to book store where you will be getting more nfo on the layout of beds within the pictures, telling you the season and the soil / light conditions, so instead of asking the garden centre staff what to grow, it's your garden so maybe take the bull by the horns and go tell them what you want to grow and it's name, they will then give you advice on your own choices and you will learn more about the care of the plants that will be of even more help for you later on when the bed is maturing.

I would imagine that what you think is a lot of water, in your temp and conditions could be just a trickle reaching the roots bt again, test your soil after watering, stick your finger into the soil after watering and I can bet there will be very little water at the roots, or another tip given by Diana was to use aa longer stick / pencil that will change colour IF wet and that will also go deeper down than a finger.
Hope this gives you more food for thought.
Very best wishes.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Good that the tree is young, so the watering needs of the tree and the plants around it will be similar.

About how large an area are you laying out?

What is behind this area? Are you trying to hide something? Get taller plants. Are you trying to enhance a view? Get shorter plants, so you can see the view between the tops of the plants and the lower branches of the tree.

If the area is really small, then just a few plant species, and repeat them. Perhaps 2 of one thing and 3 of something else.
If the area is larger then think of about 3-5 plant species, and repeat them.
In neither case do a 'One of each' sort of thing, unless it is your intent to see what does the best, then get more of those, and remove the ones that do not do so well. Landscape by trial and error.

Think about different textures (coarse leaves and fine)
Different colors
Different flowering seasons.

Here are a few ideas:
Coreopsis 'Limerock Ruby', or the old fashioned yellow varieties.
Lavender- dwarfs about a foot high, many about 18-24" and a few get to 3-4' high. Long bloom season.
Echinacea- many cultivated forms.
California natives that are native to drier inland areas. Not the mild/foggy coast natives.
Ornamental grasses and grass-like plants. Something like Festuca californica 'Serpentine Blue', Leymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince' and certain of the Carex. (Be really careful! Carex run the gamut from pond plant to drought tolerant- look for C. barbarae or C. testacea)
Achillea- several species, sizes, colors.
Native Penstemon (not the cultivated Garden Penstemon)
Nepeta- various catmints
Thyme- several species
Salvias- there are a lot, not all are drought tolerant. Some that may freeze here might do just fine where you are- so ask the local experts.
Phlomis- several, especially P. lanata, but most of the others are good, too.
California has many native Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp). Most are fine for hot dry locations.
Rosemary- upright and trailing types. Some are great for cooking, others do not taste so good. For ground cover look for Huntington Carpet. For upright look for Tuscan Blue or Blue Spires. Rosemarys are not for small places.
Galvesia is a nice native, and there are dwarf forms that may fit better, even if the area is large.
Leptospermum scoparium or laevigatum are nice for a tough location, but get really big. Gotta look for the smaller ones.

Just the tip of the iceberg!

Go see what is available, what is suggested, then come on back with more questions!

Palmdale, CA

Sorry I'm a bit late responding. I finally got a chance to go to the garden center the other day, the sales person wasn't too helpful unfortunately, I'll have to try a different nursery next time. I went ahead and picked up some Gaura "Crimson Butterflies" and a Pentas, I've heard they both do well here, so far so good anyway. They didn't have any Artemisia, I'm trying to find the "Powis Castle" cultivar, maybe I'll get lucky at the next store.

WeeNel, thanks for the advice. I've already checked out nearly the whole section on gardening at my local library and a little over half from the next closest. I've tried a lot of books about native plants for California too, of course it's usually "there are a lot of plants that can grow in the Mojave desert areas, including some that can only be grown in that area. But those are beyond the scope of this book." I did look around town, it's a lot of annuals, lantana, roses, a few nandina, texas sage, pine and agave. I've found a decent amount of plants that have caught my eye but unfortunately they're either poisonous (I have a 2 year old son, so I'm trying to avoid those) or get far too large.

Diana_K, the whole yard is 66'8" by 50'9", plus a side yard 33'4" by 10'. There's a second side yard too but since it's about 5' wide and on the north side of the house plus being on the opposite side from the hose I've figured I'll reserve it for composting and tool storage. I'll add a graph of the general layout I'm thinking of. I need plants that'll serve as a wind break, shade, sound buffers, screens to block views and at least one that can block incoming balls from my neighbors basketball hoop, just in case. Right now there aren't any mature plants, I started with a yard full of weeds and am finally able to start planting.

Thanks again to both of you for the help :)

Palmdale, CA

Okay, just finished the graph.. positions are accurate to within a foot. After playing around with positions and checking the appearance of the garden hose, I thought joining the island bed to the border along the fence would look better. The original position would have been centered around the central tree.. I think the newer scheme gives more running space for my son too. The curving black line indicates the border of the bed. I'm considering St. Augustine grass for the open area in the center.. What do you think? Any opinions are welcome :)

Thumbnail by EverCurious
Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Most of the plants are more like average garden water to somewhat less, not really drought or dry garden plants.
It is good to unite all the planter areas in one curve like you have done, not make small islands here and there. Ties things together better.

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