October 9, 2010
One of the best ways to get ideas for your own yard is to visit and learn from other local gardens and gardeners. The nice thing about visiting downtown San Rafael’s Falkirk gardens is that you can see a huge variety of species not grown anywhere else in Marin. Marin Master Gardeners have designed these gardens to showcase some of the planet’s most unusual specimens. Simply put, there’s a plant for everyone at Falkirk.
Walking through the Falkirk gardens is a bit like being introduced to new friends at a party. Here you will meet an eclectic group of plants whose personalities seem so radically different that it’s almost comical to see them growing side-by-side. Giddy Australians, hard working South Africans, demure California natives, playful succulents: for Marin gardeners, it’s an opportunity to see, smell, and touch truly extraordinary plants that are exotic yet appropriate for our climate. It’s also an opportunity to learn which plants have the personality that suits you and your garden.
Take Falkirk’s Oak Tree Garden, tucked in behind the garden gate next to the greenhouse. Gardening under an oak presents unique risks and challenges because the ground beneath the tree’s canopy must remain bone dry all summer. Plants that grow under oaks are tough, blooming exuberantly without a drop of summer water. They are quiet heroes, stalwarts, guardians of the giant above. They ask for little and give a lot.
For a bulletproof under-oak evergreen ground hugger, have a look at the Rubus pentalobus, which loves this environment so much that it can be a bit tricky to get rid of, if you plant it and then chang your mind. For a splash of color, try the Geranium macrorrhizum “Bevan’s Variety.” Both of these plants enjoy the dry shade created by an oak tree and neither is tasty to deer.
The Succulent Garden is stylish and trendy. These are the artists, one minute clutching the ground with blue tentacle-like fleshy spikes and the next rising up like Dr. Seuss characters. Succulents are smiley and whimsical, but don’t let their lightheartedness fool you. They’re undemanding and easy to grow and propagate. They like it warm and dry and when planted around a home’s perimeter they can actually provide some fire protection.
Succulents offer significant texture and outrageous foliage color to the garden.
Check out the garden’s Chitalpa trees, which require very little water and produce peppery pink flowers for months on end. For a low and large accent with stand-out architectural appeal, have a look at the large Agave attenuate on the back side of the rock garden.
Then there are the drama queens: the Australians, South Africans, Chileans and a smattering of Baja natives. If you’re looking for one accent plant, something to greet you from outside your kitchen window every morning, this is your area. The Australian plants are practically roaring with laughter. If plants could hold cocktails, these would be belling up to the bar. Like their South African and Chilean cohorts, they like it hot and dry but can often take a little shade. They are fast and loud. Like wild children they appreciate boundaries: you may have to prune them to keep them in line. They’re outstanding for cut flowers and foliage, often adding just the right punch to mixed bouquets.
This garden provides the visitor the opportunity to witness rare and endangered specimens such as South Africa’s short-lived Leucadendron argenteum , a small evergreen tree with distinctive silvery foliage. For those who (literally) sneeze at Acacias, or who think they’re “junk” trees, have a look at the Australian garden’s Acacia covenyl , or Blue Bush. This small tree is tidy, fast-growing, and its multi-trunked bark offers not only interesting structure but a unique greenish cast as well.
In contrast, the California natives seem to be purposefully staying out of the limelight. These are the quiet, shy types – durable, but temperamental. One would think you’d see native Californians everywhere, but sadly they are often forgotten. Even in the Falkirk garden, the natives are the last garden to be developed, and the current garden is in progress. But take a moment to visualize the intent: California before all the wild exotics entered the scene, rolling golden hills of grasses I summer and acres of wild flowers in spring.
The native garden’s cousin lies directly behind the garden gate. This habitat sanctuary is specifically planned to entice birds, bees, and butterflies to zip in for a drink. The critical habitat requirements – food, water, and shelter – are all displayed in abundance. These are the exhibitionists, flashing neon signs that shout, “pick me!” Consequently this garden pulsates with the whir and flutter of wings.
Which is not to say that the rest of the garden isn’t humming with activity. On the contrary, there’s always something going on in the Falkirk gardens, whether it’s a hummingbird zooming to the next flower, a family stopping for a picnic, or a Master Gardener preparing plant labels for the next community work party. We hope to see you there.