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The Dry Garden: Coyote mint, a late bloomer

June 25, 2010 |  9:00 am
Coyote-mint-1

Paradise is at once so attainable and so far away.

This column was going to be about how the most immediate and affordable thing that Southern California homeowners could do to reduce our collective dependency on fossil fuel would be to rip out lawn. But events in the Gulf of Mexico are too crazy-making to be sure that it wouldn’t be the garden-writing equivalent of picking a fight at the dinner table. So this column is about coyote mint.

It is sheer serendipity that coyote mint is one of the most seductive late-June bloomers to win converts to sustainable gardening.

As taxonomists have it, Monardella villosa has a native range that descends from the Oregon border to Santa Barbara. But as the 1-foot-tall-by-3-foot-wide tufts of coyote mint that soldier it out in my midcity Los Angeles garden can attest, these plants do just fine farther south. You must excuse them if, by August, with little more than weekly watering, they shed their leaves.

Oh, those leaves! We all think that we know mint, with flavors so sharp and intriguingly base that we pay for the same flavor in toothpaste as in ice cream. That is, of course, a prelude to “but” -- and it’s a big one.

Coyote-mint-2 As coyote mint proves, not every mint begs devouring, not every brushed leaf signals delectability. Coyote mint excites the nose but warns the palate. Its high, blameless notes defy rumination. Even deer leave it standing long enough to carry the perfume on their hooves rather than their muzzles.

The point of this aromatic diversion? If you put coyote mint in your garden, plant it where anyone who approaches your home brushes up against it. Its architecture allows artful staging of this encounter. Though coyote mint is a perennial, it is not of the towering variety. In a dry garden, it may surpass a foot, after which you can expect its stems to lean or flop over.

The flowers, which are lavender, start coming in June and persist through mid-July, occasionally later, by which time native red buckwheat will have relieved them of almost incessant butterfly traffic.

Returning briefly to the subject of lawn, it bears noting that the Los Angeles City Council may vote soon on a revision of its lawn watering ordinance. If, as is all but inevitable, this vote confirms recommendations of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commissioners, the new law will adjust the present restrictions on lawn watering. To allay stress on old water mains, odd-numbered addresses would be allowed to water on Mondays and Thursdays, even-numbered addresses on Tuesdays and Fridays.

No matter on which side of the street you may reside, there is a better way. To find it, follow your nose.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears every Friday.

Photo credit: Emily Green

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