The Orchard Garden

I’ve never really described each of the gardens that we have here in our yard, so today we are going to explore what’s up in the orchard garden. Last weekend, one of my goals was to put in at least five wheelbarrows full of mulch somewhere in the yard. It didn’t matter where. Just somewhere. So, I decided to focus on the orchard garden.

Looking northwest into the “orchard” garden and, behind that, into a tree plantation. The tree in the front is a Golden Russet, one of the best apples of all time.

View of apple orchard garden from the east
Evidence of my hand watering (hose) and mulching (wheelbarrow) efforts

The apples will be ripe soon. Tart, with intense flavor. I’m already nibbling on the ones that have fallen off prematurely. Still a bit astringent.

Nearly ripe apples on our Golden Russet tree
Better than any apple from the store. Apples are surprisingly drought tolerant.

This is a fairly new garden, mainly installed over the last 3-4 years. My focus has been to use drought-tolerant plants that I won’t have to water once they are established.

Starting on the eastern edge and moving west, this area gets a lot of hot sun and none of it was watered this year. In the middle is a ‘Greensphere’ manzanita, to the left is a lavender plant (Lavandula sp.) that seeded in from somewhere. That ugly, brown-leaved thing in the background is a narrow leaf mule’s ears (Wyethia angustifolia). It’s actually a really nice native plant that is going dormant for the year, which is why it doesn’t look its best right now. To the right, that unkempt green mat is the oddly named Ceanothus ‘Rodeo Lagoon’.

Greensphere manzanita, narrowleaf mule's ears, and a lavender plant
Fresh mulch is on the way

I actually like this ceanothus quite a bit. Here is a close-up of the leaves. This one seems to be longer lived than most of the other groundcover ceanothus that I have tried.

Small, round green leaves of Ceanothus 'Rodeo Lagoon'
Oddly satisfying little green leaves. Why am I a sucker for these?

Poking up in between those leaves, you probably spied our native strawberry, Fragaria virginiana. I like its small (for a strawberry) blue-green leaves and have let it run around in the garden. Rather than finding the leaf spots annoying, I was trying to tell myself provide added visual interest…

I’ve never seen fruit on these. I don’t know if the chipmunks and robins get them first, or if they just don’t ever form. Sadly, I’ve never paid enough attention. Maybe next year I will remember to cage up a few to keep the hordes of hungry animals away and see if I can score a thimbleful or two.

Leaf spots on our native strawberry, Fragaria virginiana
Not all of them are spotted, but this particular plant was. Usually much better looking than this!

This blue-green shawl of a plant is a selection of shore juniper that I got from Xera Plants, Juniperus conferta ‘Blue Pacific’. It meanders hither and yon, wherever it pleases. Looks good year round.

A sprawling blue-green shaw of Blue Pacific juniper, Juniperus conferta 'Blue Pacific;
Juniperus conferta 'Blue Pacific'
Bluish needles of a shore juniper

Santolina ‘Little Nicky’ looks like a blue-green juniper from a distance, but without rash-inducing prickles. It begins to look more bonsai-like as it ages and gains character. The yellowy green thing off to the right is a bloomed out Veronica (Parahebe) cattaractae ‘Miss Wilmott’ that I didn’t clean up in time to regrow fresh and new before fall arrives.

Dwarf lavender-cotton, Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Little Nicky'
Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Little Nicky'

Another favorite, Baccharis magellanica, from southern Chile and Argentina. Called the Christmas bush for some reason I can’t fathom. Another plant that I like because it’s flat and has cute, tiny leaves.

Green mat of the Magellanic baccharis.
Baccharis magellanica
Cute, tiny green leaves of Baccharis magellanica
Tiny leaves

Heading underneath the apple trees into the dry, dry shade (partial) is this California buckthorn (Rhamnus californica ‘Mound San Bruno’). It’s an okay, but not terribly exciting plant so far. At least the leaves are clean (no leaf spots!). I wish it would fruit. Maybe I will spray paint it black for Christmas.

Evergreen bush of California buckthorn, Rhamnus californica
No fruit yet. Maybe next year. No, I won't really spray paint it black.

I’ve divided and spread this Rosenwichtel aster (featured in the September bloom day post) to several other spots around the yard, including here. One of the few spots of color besides green (and brown). That’s a Purple Emperor sedum right next to it. Future idea: chartreuse (from the fallen apples) and purple seems like a good color combination. Bonus points if you spy the blue leaves of Veronica (Hebe!) pimeleoides ‘Quicksilver’.

Rosy-pink flowers of the Rosenwichtel New York aster, Symphyotrichum novi-belgii 'Rosenwichtel'
Not green, not brown.

One of my favorite broadleaf evergreen shrubs, the dwarf tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus var. echinoides). I’m starting to think that I describe everything as “one of my favorites”. I need some new descriptive terminology. The reigning champion of the orchard garden, the creme de la creme, the ooh ah ah sensational dwarf tanoak. I do honestly like this plant probably more than any other in the backyard. Why? Because I saw a whole hillside covered with these in northern California and I would love to recreate that look back here.

A grey-green shrub tanoak
I wish it was one with bluer foliage though. Those ones are gor-gee-us.

Moving right along to the center part of the bed.


Not much happening here yet. This section is fairly new. Underneath the tree in the middle left is a new cast iron plant (Aspidistra minutiflora ‘Spangled Ribbons’) that I put in last year. It got winter burn after the snow in December and sulked through most of this year. It’s finally starting to perk up just in time for winter to make it look ugly again. Creeping around in front of the bed is our native hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula), which seeded in and I decided to keep it. It’s never bloomed, useless thing. And, now, I’ve covered most of it up under a layer of fresh mulch. I am guessing it will grow back up through the mulch eventually. It was too much work to lift it up and shove mulch underneath the leaves. I guess perfectionists can be lazy too. The large leaves in the background are from an early-flowering borage (Trachystemon orientalis) from Dancing Oaks Nursery.

Leaves of a cast iron plant, Aspidistra minutiflora 'Spangled Ribbons'
Orange tag helps me keep track of a new plant to water - you'll see it again later

Bought on the basis of a Xera Plants tag that said “very dry shade when established” is this variegated woodland sedge (Luzula sylvatica ‘Marginata’). So far so good. This is its second year. Its not been watered once and it looks excellent. In the background (left corner) is a little Ruscus x microglossus from Windcliff Plants. Stupid little weevils keep chewing holes in the leaves, though it looks pretty decent in this photo. You can sort of see the little flower buds on the cladodes, though there is a better picture here and here

…I could have sworn I had posted an even better picture of the flowers. But nope, doesn’t look like I did. I’ve got them stored in my archives somewhere. Maybe they were low quality? Put that on my to-do list for a future post.

Variegated leaves of a wood rush, Luzula sylvatica 'Marginata'
Luzula sylvatica 'Marginata'

At this point, it suddenly became very apparent to me that I have a lot of green in this garden in late summer. Where are the color (and to some extent, textural) contrasts? Whoops, forgot to plan for that aspect. Green, green, and more green. But, still better that is much better than the crispy brown lawn that was here previously. From left to right, Paxistima canbyi (from cuttings in 2021), Epimedium x rubrum (much better color in the spring), and Whipplea modesta (also from cuttings in 2021). The cool thing about the Whipplea is that it is a native west coast plant in the hydrangea family.

Evergreen leaves of a Canby paxistima
Cute little holly-esque leaves
Green leaves of Epimedium x rubrum
Clean and green Epimedium
A plant of Whipplea that I started from a cutting
Looking stressed - Water me!

In the I-didn’t-expect-that-to-survive category is this sweet myrtle (Myrtus communis ‘Tarentina’). Another purchase based on a tag saying it takes heat, drought, and was hardy to zone 7. But, then I got home and searched for it online. Most websites said zone 8-9, so I was sure it would die over the winter. But, nope, it’s still with us – sailed right through.

Green bush of sweet myrtle
Myrtus communis 'Tarentina'

Clay soil can be such a drama queen. As soon as it starts drying out, these huge cracks open up and swallow everything but the annoying rabbits. Sand and loam soils get thirsty, but they don’t scream for attention like this.

Cracks in the clay
Clay - drama queen

This one I am keeping an close eye on. It’s a dwarf fernleaf bamboo (Pleioblastus distichus). Potentially a vigorous spreader, but maybe my stinginess with water during the summer has kept it in check. It’s barely spread a few inches since I planted it back in 2019. Bamboo scare me.

Green dwarf fernleaf bamboo
Scary scientific name too - Pleioblastus distichus

This year’s very wet spring meant that we have a lot of apple scab developing on our little red apple tree that was here when we bought the place. We also get lots of codling moth damage. I don’t mind eating the scabby part of the apple, but would prefer not to eat moth larvae. The dude that built our house said that this apple was Red Delicious. It’s definitely not that though. Much, much better.

Red apple with severe scab and codling moth
Just eat around it. It won't kill you.

Moving on to the westernmost portion of the orchard.

View of apple orchard garden from the west
View of apple orchard garden from the west

Below is a boxleaf hebe (Veronica buxifolia).

Evergreen shrub of boxleaf hebe

The sweetfern is holding up quite well, even without being watered. Unfortunately, so too is the horsetail in front of it. No matter where we go on this property, horsetail pops up. At least its not as vigorous up here, further away from the creek. I wonder if grew sweetfern up on a tree stump, whether I could fool anyone into thinking it was a coppiced Catalina ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus)?

A sweetfern bush
Sweetfern, a (dwarf) Catalina ironwood substitute. Hardier too.

We have a total of five apple trees. The unnamed red and an unnamed yellow variety came with the house, the other three I planted: two Golden Russet and one Ashmead’s Kernel. Two years ago, we decided we really didn’t need that many Golden Russet apples (it was a lot) and the Ashmead’s Kernel was gross – always mealy and tasteless. We decided to give grafting a try and bought some scionwood of Belle de Boskoop, Piñata, Karmijn de Sonnaville, and Blue Pearmain. To our surprise, every single one of the grafts took. No apples from them yet though.

I always had a dream of owning my own heritage apple orchard one day, and it isn’t going to happen with land prices the way they are. But, this way I can have a little mini orchard with a few different varieties. Who knows what kind of grotesque grafted apple monstrosities we will end up with. It’s obvious that each variety has different vigor, with some growing more slowly and others growing extremely fast. Going to make for some odd looking apple trees in the yard. The graft unions also don’t look that great at the moment, sort of like the new branch was just glued on. Hopefully, they will merge and smooth out with the understock over time.

2-year-old grafted apple
The smallest grafted tree
2-year-old apple graft
Our graft unions look weird
2-year-old apple graft
Looks glued on, but vigorous

I just received an email indicating that this was potentially the last year that  Queener Farms would be selling scionwood. In a moment of panic, we decided to order three more varieties to graft next year: Honeycrisp, Gold Rush, and Queener Donut. Not that we have any more room on the trees for more grafts, but I’ll cram them in somewhere. Hope I can keep track of what’s what!

Well, here is the apple orchard all freshly mulched. I ended up using nine wheelbarrows total. Glad it’s done. Not too bad looking for an almost completely no-water garden. The only things watered this year were about ten new plants started from cuttings or seeds.

Off to the right, in the background, you’ll spy an ugly middle section that I need to fix somehow, and beyond that (further north) is the new rock garden I’ve been working on. Maybe I will focus on that shameful ugly section next time. Maybe not.

Orchard garden with fresh mulch

8/27/2022 to 9/23/2022: No rain. Temperatures have finally cooled off to more reasonable 70s during the day. Nice. But another “heat wave” in the upper 80s is coming up. Gross.

Notes: Anna’s hummingbirds are content and chittering away up in the fir trees. Chickadees and nuthatches have been busy (preparing for fall?) and I just saw my first Douglas squirrel of the season. It’s been busy dropping unripe grand fir and Douglas-fir cones down on the garden. Messy little jerks. Cute jerks though.

Garden chores accomplished: Mulching and watering. Ordered seeds from Plants of the Southwest (going out of the mail order business – sigh) and a good chunkage of bulbs from Brent and Beckys.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Kris P

    Everything looks better with mulch! I’m planning to bring in a truckload as soon as we get done with replacing the water pipe on one side of our property – I can only cope with so much upheaval at one time. There was a young apple tree here when we moved in but it didn’t hold up – we really don’t get enough winter chill in zone 11a (Sunset 24) for apples, or stone fruit. Our persimmons are very happy, although I don’t care much for the fruit. I don’t like many junipers (perhaps because they were too common where I grew up and always seemed to harbor rats) but I like your ‘Blue Pacific’ -Monrovia claims my USDA zone is too hot for it and doesn’t ship the plants to my area but Sunset claims it’s okay based on its criteria so I’ll have to look around for it. I have what I believe is the same Ruscus as yours. Mine’s been virtually enveloped by Acacia ‘Cousin Itt’ so I usually forget about – I should try propagating it.

    I hope your heat doesn’t soar. We briefly hit 90 today but it didn’t stay there too long; however, tomorrow through Tuesday is supposed to be worse.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      I agree with you totally. It’s too difficult to cope with more than one major upheaval on the home front at a time. And, I probably wouldn’t like junipers much either if they just housed a bunch of rats. It’s often easy for me to see the benefits of moving to someplace that is a few zones warmer – I could grow more cacti, succulents, etc., but I often forget what I would lose too – such as the apples and other plant species that need winter chilling. I’m not a big fan of persimmons either, just not very much flavor in the three or so varieties I’ve tasted.

      Weather improved quite a bit this week. After a few days in the low 80s, we got almost an inch of rain. Now, we are in for a few more weeks in the lower 80s, which is incredibly warm for October up here.

  2. LL Garden

    Your Ceanothus looks lovely. I’m a sucker for plants with small, evergreen leaves, too. Put some texture, spikes or something on them and I will have to put in my garden. Like the Baccharis. I would love to grow that, but I don’t have the space for a groundcover that needs full sun, unfortunately.
    Fruiting with Rhamnus is a bit tricky in my experience. I had two plants from two different species that always flowered profusely and got visited by plenty of pollinators, but never once set fruit. My guess is you need probably another cultivar, another genetically different plant from the same species to get fruit.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      I am definitely going to have to look for more texture, spikes, and such in this garden. A lot of it depends on the time of year. We’ve now got a lot of colchicums coming up in that same garden, blooming their faces off and adding a lot of color. There is also a lot more color in spring. But, I do need to remember other parts of the year, including summer and winter.

      Thanks for sharing your experience with Rhamnus. I sort of wondered if I would need another variety. On the plus side, I guess it won’t seed all over.

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