My Ever-Changing Garden

One of the simple pleasures of gardening is the ever-changing landscape. No two plants are alike and no two seasons are quite the same. There are happy accidents everywhere, helping balance the ever-present and predictable weeds.  San Jose summers are hot and long, but occasionally nature serves us a reprieve. I relish those days when the stars align and I have both the time and the weather to spend outdoors getting things done.

Of all the things you can grow in a small garden, pumpkins are among the most spectacular. It seems you can witness the change every day. Within 90 to 100 days, one healthy seed can sprout, grow, flower and fruit, trailing across the landscape at amazing speed.

Self-seeded pumpkin vine

Self-seeded pumpkin vine growing along the side yard

A couple of pumpkin seeds took root in our narrow and shady side yard, with one of those two vines traveling the length of the house and eventually rounding the corner. That vine is now winding its way across the patio.  With leaves the size of a platter and flowers as broad as your hand, watching pumpkin plants grow evokes a certain optimism and joy.

pumpkin vine on patio

The pumpkin vine emerging from the side yard and crossing the patio

Years of drought brought about many changes to our garden. It started with the removal of the “grass strip” between our sidewalk and the street. My husband grew up with spacious, green lawns. His reluctance to remove the lawn took some time to overcome, but in the end we replaced all of our lawn with native plants.

In preparation, I sheet-mulched half of the back yard for close to a year. The process destroyed the lawn, amended the soil, and prepared the area for native plants, all at the same time.

sheet mulching

The process of sheet mulching: cardboard, dried leaves and other organic material

We replanted the entire area with California native and drought tolerant plants. They use far less water than a lawn, attract beneficial insects and birds, and are healthier than the monoculture of a lawn.

sheet mulched back garden

Healthy soil, several months after sheet mulching

back garden patio and native plants

Back garden replanted with natives (Mouse and Lindy on the chairs)

Back Garden: Half of the dried out lawn and half sheet-mulched lawn

Back Garden: Half of the dried out lawn and half sheet-mulched lawn

native plants back garden

Back garden replanted with natives about a year later

Removing the front lawn also brought about interesting changes. The act of turning the soil for native plants invigorated dormant seeds. The year after the lawn came out, we not only had native plants but sweet peas, cornflowers, California poppies and Nigella.

When the  garden looked bare after the sweet peas went to seed, I hit upon the idea of planting pumpkin vines in their place.

front garden pumpkin vines

I planted a few pumpkins in the front garden (the only plants that are not self-seeded this year)

I’m enjoying the variety of successive planting.  I smile when I see a neighbor through my kitchen window slowing down to look at the garden. Tending a healthy garden means others can passively enjoy it too.

Learning to love succulents has been another big change for me. One by one though, I’ve been replacing potted annuals with succulents.

Succulents are well suited to our dry, arid climate. They get along well sitting in sandy soil. I water them sparingly, perhaps once a month, and in turn they reward me with color change and tiny blooms.

I planted a miniature peace garden earlier this year, only to see it collapse during a heat wave. The baby tears baked in the sun, even under the eaves of our house. I slipped out a few times to water the plants, but that tiny garden didn’t survive in  the shallow bowl and the pounding sun.

miniature peace garden fizzle

Peace garden fizzle: triple digit temperatures were too much

miniature peace garden

Replanted miniature peace garden, sheltered by a coleus

Since I refuse to embrace any metaphors about a dead or dying peace garden, I composted the dried plants and started over. This time I changed out the annual baby tears for succulents and added chamomile, which can go almost dry between watering. I shaded the entire mini garden with a coleus, my one concession this summer to a water-loving plant. I find the color variations irresistible.

There is a twinkle of autumn in the air today, a reminder of the seasons ahead. My garden is a wonderful teacher, regularly reminding me that change is good.

Are there interesting changes going on in your life?

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73 thoughts on “My Ever-Changing Garden

  1. I’m in love with your succulents and the coleus is magnificent! I have an interesting succulent project planned that I hope i can make work. I wish I had access to some of the varieties you have; interesting succulents are difficult to find here.

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    • Succulents weren’t that varied here either until the prolonged drought. Then the nurseries wised up and realized that if they were going to keep selling greenery, they needed to get with the times. I wonder, too, if part of your limited selection is your planting zone. Even here with our mild winters, I cover several of the more exposed pots. I’m looking forward to your succulent project.

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  2. What an appropriate title. A garden, like life is ever changing. Nothing ever stays the same nor should it. I’ve loved watching the changes you made so lovingly to the yard. Your heart was always about what was best for the earth. No wonder everything works so hard to thrive there though some just expresses a need for a different climate. 🙂 I love the changes so far and know that the plants will keep evolving and showing you how they want to go. You are such a good listener for them. Along with being an animal whisperer. Giant hugs.

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  3. I love seeing your before and after photos! You’ve done a wonderful job. With the heatwave that’s due to hit and apparently stick around for a while, I’m glad we’ve been gradually moving more and more drought tolerant and adding natives to the landscape. I do love succulents and have for many years. I’m so glad I have been collecting so long, because with the recent popularity the prices have increased, as I’m sure you’ve seen! When I was collecting they were very inexpensive and not all that popular. I love the way you’ve incorporated the pumpkin vines into your garden. They add so much interest already, and I’m sure once those pumpkins get larger and brighter in color you’re going to have so much fun! 🙂

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    • Thank you, Debra! These heat waves really take it out of me. They’re exhausting, aren’t they? It’s been nice having a mid-August reprieve. I will have to pay more attention to the succulent pricing. Individually, plants seem so affordable, but then when you get to the register with a cart full, it can be a bit of a shock. What I love about many of the succulents is the easy way they self-propagate. Do you find that to be true as well? Since you’ve been collecting for awhile, do you have a few favorites?

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      • Yep! Here we go again with the heat, right? I’m ready for a break, but with the terrible conditions in Texas right now, I guess we won’t complain! I do a lot of dividing the succulents and you’re right, with that in mind, they’re a tremendous bargain. My current favorites are two that I’ve only recently tuned into. One, is Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire.” It is so colorful and grows quickly, making quite a statement. I first saw it used in new landscaping down the center median of a major street, and I had to research a bit to find it. In the end, I bought a tiny piece from an Etsy store and now have it in several prominent spots. It grows quickly and is more common in the nurseries than it was a few years ago. And the other one that I’ve had for a long time, but only recently discovered how much I love it, is a really unique plant, Stapelia grandiflora. I’m just now learning more about the Stapelia family and plan to invest in some additional varieties. I recommend you Google them if you aren’t familiar. I don’t even know a common name. If you ever want a start of either of these I’m very happy to share! Like I said, I’ve even bought pieces on-line. It’s all so much fun. 🙂

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  4. Such a beautiful transformation. Good on you for thinking outside the box and making lemonade from the lemons or should I say succulents out of sucky climate change issues.
    Love that old seeds found rebirth and that you have pumpkins taking over. No wonder the neighbours slow down to enjoy your wonderful work. 😍

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    • Thank you, Wilma! Your “succulents out of sucky climate change” made me laugh out loud. You are wonderful with a turn of phrase. Another plus, now that the natives are filling in: the tiny lizards have more shelter from the cat. They love to sun themselves, but now can also hide under the deep foliage.

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  5. I’m with you on the benefits of removing lawn. The Husband is not interested in gardening, and at our last house, I came to a barren waste of terrible soil and patch grass, with the odd aggressive clump of lomandra. I personally dug up every square inch of ratty, tragic grass and composted it. I covered the soil with organic compost for several weeks, watered it once, and then turned the soil. Parts were covered with weed matting and river rock, other parts were planted with drought tolerant survivors which wouldn’t mind the occasional drenching in our tropical climate. Round the back of the house, in the very shady back yard, I planted the big lush stuff, monstera, bananas, taro, strelitzia, passionfruit vines on the fence and a gorgeous white brugmansia, around a central paved area. It was a little oasis in the heart of the city. It’s all doing brilliantly well, and I can visit it whenever I go to see the Dowager (my MIL), since she moved into our old house!

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    • Kate, how fabulous that your MIL lives in your former house. You poured so much work into your garden. It all sounds lovely. In my younger years I spent hours digging and removing bits of lawn, shifting roses out of the path of sprinklers, and removing a huge section of ground ivy that was in danger of choking the orange tree. The house was a rental for many years, so the garden was probably an afterthought. You sound like a true garden-lover.

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      • I am… Sadly in recent years, my back has prevented me spending the time out there I’d have liked. Hard to garden if you can’t bend, dig or pull hard on things! The Husband isn’t a gardener in any sense other than keeping the grass short, so I have to be very modest in my requests for help there… Never mind.

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        • I think I was just joining your blog as you recovered from back surgery. Is that correct? I have chronic back and neck pain, so like you I can no longer do the big digging projects. What’s nice is that the raised beds in front and back are full of soft, crumbly soil making them easy to work. I manage the pruning in smaller doses (I used to spend six to eight hours on a weekend sometimes and those days are gone, too). We manage what we manage, eh? Mike calls himself my “hole digger”. He’s not inclined to gardening either, but he takes care of the broken irrigation lines as needed, and the bulbs in the outdoor lights.

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          • I need lots of holes dug and help clearing and chopping up fallen palm fronds at this time of year, but somehow there’s always something more interesting going on down in the man cave… I’d like to get some nice lush jungles going, but without a hole digger, it’s not happening. Never mind…

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  6. You are one tenacious, hard working gardener. I used to think of California as a place where gardening would be a breeze and effortless. Plenty of year round sunshine! Palm trees and the like. A tropical paradise as it were. Boy was I wrong! I actually think it’s easier here. Given our short season, there’s usually no need to replant and most years we get generous amounts of rain, even when it’s hot. I’m not sure how this year compares to others, it does seem a bit dryer because the temps have been warmer. Some plants don’t mind, as long as you can water twice a day.
    We drove through an older neighbourhood the other day and I mentioned to Jim that the big front lawns seemed like such a waste of space. Jim said, “all I see is work”. It’s funny about big front lawns, they’re unusuable space really. Sometimes it’s a 1/4 of the property which monetarily makes little sense. There’s lot’s of rules here too about what you can do with a ‘front’ yard, so you’re very limitied to make good use of it.
    Everything looks great at your place. I’m looking forward to autumn 😀 I bought a potted mum today and will look for pumpkins soon. xo K

    Liked by 1 person

    • We definitely have a longer growing season in California and with moderate temps, can probably grow a wider variety of plants. The long, dry summer presents its challenges though. I’m grateful for the drip irrigation we have in place and for the extra rain water tanks which we use almost exclusively to fill the fountain. It takes about three gallons, and needs refilling often in this hot weather. It’s wonderful watching the hummingbirds take turns in the bubbler. I love watching the other birds take turns in there as well and occassioanlly see a squirrel having a drink.

      You and Jim have the perfect amount of lawn in your place. I agree with you on space, too. Why have a huge swath of lawn which does take a lot of work. Gardens are infinitely more interesting and fun.

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  7. Such a journey you and your little patch of earth have been on – I guess it will change and evolve and grow just like people do and as you are so committed to it how can it not prosper? My thoughts have also been turning more towards succulents as a possible answer for my tiny potted courtyard – though nothing much will happen this year I am gathering ideas and thoughts for the future. Your coleus plants are also beautiful – like you I must turn my thoughts away from high maintenance flowers and towards plants that will cope with the situation. I shall consult you when you visit 🙂

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  8. Alys, your garden is a delight. So full of variety and interest. I was interested to see your baskets of succulents. I planted one basket with succulents earlier in the year and it is doing well. Your post encourages me to try more baskets of succulents.

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  9. You are a miracle worker, Alys! I loved absolutely everything about this post (including your refusal to accept the metaphor of a dying peace garden) and it’s fascinating to see all the exotic species you can grow in San Diego. It almost makes me glad to live up here in Zone 4, where our choices are inherently narrowed down by the climate. 🙂 But on this particular day the lesson that most spoke to me was, “My garden is a wonderful teacher, regularly reminding me that change is good.” xo

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  10. I would find it hard not to have a small patch of green lawn but no doubt would do the same if we ever had such long hot summers. I like your adaptability and willingness to change. I am amazed at the Pumpkins – have never grown one – are they somehow related to the Nasturtium family – they travel in a similar way I grow them in Scotland and they reach 20 feet in length at times.

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    • I don’t think nasturtiums and pumpkins are related but I was just thinking today how the two are behaving in a remarkably similar way in my back garden right now!!

      Alys, I did smile when you described the movement of your pumpkin vine round the house… my squash are climbing all over the tomato vines 😊.

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      • Helen, I hope you’ll snap a photo of your squash co-mingling with the tomatoes. They have amazingly strong tendrils and will grab anything nearby. Interestingly, growing nasturtiums help discourage pests that harm pumpkins so having them together works a treat. That said, my nasturtiums die off at the first sign of heat, and come back in the fall when it cools. They’re not around during pumpkin growing season here! I’m just now seeing white flies on the back of some of the leaves, but they don’t harm the pumpkins the way the squash bugs do.

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    • Interestingly, nasturtiums are grown as companion plants to pumpkins, as the peppery scent helps keep the dreaded squash bugs at bay. They’re part of the genus brassicales whereas pumpkins are part of the cucurbita genus.

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  11. Your pumpkin vines look great in the front garden and alongside the house too! Definitely a good choice of planting as you get the extra reward of the pumpkins as well as the flowers and greenery. It looks pretty green in your garden altogether, so you seem to have made wise planting choices all round. The sweet peas were lovely too!

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    • Thank you, Cathy. Can you grow pumpkins there? Perhaps no interest, but I sure have fun. Your garden is breathtaking year round. Next season, I’ll thin the sweet peas a bit so that they can grow without choking the newer natives. They get by on the rain we had, then fold up shop when it’s hot and dry. Since the pumpkins like hot conditions, I may have finally hit on the perfect balance. Isn’t this gardening gig fun?

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      • Hi Alys! Yes, I have grown pumpkins, well butternut squash actually, in the past. But they do need a lot of care as the mice, slugs and mildew all get to them. Maybe next year I will try again. I love pumpkin soup and pie! 😉

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  12. Like everyone, I admire the way you have been listening to your plants and your garden, and yourself, and channelling your Dad. Your succulents are wonderful and they are great workers in a garden. I got rid of my lawn when I had the house renovated 20 years ago, and have never missed it. The Fella has the naturestrips along the street to mow, and that keeps him happy! My back yard is in a dreadful state at the moment; it is in transition, but to what is still the puzzle. The front yard needs work to get ready for the spring veggie planting.

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    • Thank you, Anne. I remember your wonderful veg garden last year. You have a terrific space to work with and it sounds like the perfect summer weather as well. I’m glad your fella finds happiness with the mower in your naturestrip. The garden transitions are a challenge for those of us who like to see things growing all the time. When I took out the last of the dead sweet peas, the garden looked so bare. Some of the natives didn’t survive the first year. We ended up replanting a few different native varities, and I’m happy to report they are doing better. What’s fun about the pumpkins is that they travel through the open spaces, weaving a wonderful green path as they go. I have four large green pumpkins now in the front garden and two in the back. It’s so much fun! You’ll be traveling now on your wonderful adventure. What an exciting trip. See you on the other side. xo

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  13. Succulents are always the answer! I do think they are the perfect solution to your weather issues and they are so endlessly interesting. I agree, too, about the need for coleuses. We were just admiring ours last night–we buy a flat every year and put a few here and there in big pots. By this time of the year they are HUGE, and lush and as colorful as any blossoms!

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    • Kerry, what fun to hear that you are growing both succulents and coleus in your garden this summer as well. I had a few bad years with coleus becoming infested with bugs, but after avoiding them for a few years, they’re back and doing well. I let my flower, as the blooms are pretty too, but I recently read that pinching the flowers back encourages even more expansive leaves. No matter. I’ll let nature take it’s course as the leaves are just as spectacular and varied.

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  14. The succulents I got from my parents are doing very well. Where they live the rainfall is possibly not much better than where you are, Alys. It isn’t as warm but still a good climate for succulents.

    To be honest, most of the Eastern side of England is unsuitable for lawns. In the past, I seem to remember people let them turn brown in the summer but nowadays they seem perpetually green. Perhaps social mores have changed!

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    • I’m fascinating that they grow well where you live, Helen. I learn so much from you. I think of the UK as damp and cool, but it sounds like you have many micro-climates that support succulents (and not lawns). I’ve been stunned myself to see green lawns going back into homes here and lush green lawns all summer long. It makes me sad. One year of heavy rains, and people are back to old habits.

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  15. We definitely have a longer growing season in California and with moderate temps, can probably grow a wider variety of plants. The long, dry summer presents its challenges though. I’m grateful for the drip irrigation we have in place and for the extra rain water tanks which we use almost exclusively to fill the fountain. It takes about three gallons, and needs refilling often in this hot weather. It’s wonderful watching the hummingbirds take turns in the bubbler. I love watching the other birds take turns in there as well and occassioanlly see a squirrel having a drink.

    You and Jim have the perfect amount of lawn in your place. I agree with you on space, too. Why have a huge swath of lawn which does take a lot of work. Gardens are infinitely more interesting and fun.

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  16. Your garden looks so beautiful and refreshing. I love the different heights of the plants.
    I plant birdhouse gourd seeds one year, and I have had volunteer plants coming up ever since. They spread like your pumpkins! Fortunately I was able to get one to grow up and over my chicken coop this year to provide lots of shade for the birds. I do well with those and with zinnias — everything else just succumbs to the weeds and I don’t want to go out and pull weeds in the heat. Much easier to enjoy your garden virtually! 🙂

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  17. Alys, I’ve had you on my mind and am so glad to have found some time to visit.
    Even though I knew about all of the changes in your garden, I liked seeing them summarized ion one post. Those succulents are beautiful. I love that purple and green one that looks like a star. Wow!
    My garden? 6 ft tall weeds 🙂
    Seriously, how sad is that!
    Sometime soon, I’ll be emailing about our trip. XOXO

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    • Hi Laurie! I’m glad you got a few moments to stop by. You’re feet are barely touching the ground these days. I know you’re doing good work. Let’s reframe your garden’s imagine: it’s naturalized for the season, providing seeds and cover for beneficial insects and small critters. There. Sound better? Thanks for your kind words.

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