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The Dry Garden: Flowering shrubs prove that hedges don't have to be boring walls of green

February 11, 2011 |  8:00 am

Hedge-Rhus-Claremont

If the view from your front window is a hedge so maimed by years of buzzing that the only option is to buzz it some more, and if you have better things to do with your money than pay yard crews to torture shrubbery, it may be time to dig out that green wall and start over.

But before sharpening the pickax, dream. Dream aloud. There is no better time than February to view California's native lilac, lemonade berry, coffeeberry, gooseberry and barberry plants, most of which are in full flower at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

A tour of Southern California's best native garden in midwinter reveals these shrubs dripping with gold, white, pink and blue flowers. Although the blossoms are admittedly fleeting accessories, they are succeeded by berries.

Hedge-mahonia-leaf-detail Apologies for language that sounds like red carpet commentary. It's unfair to the plants. Nothing draping the actresses at the Oscars can compare with the dusky elegance of the greens, mottled reds and purples of California's best native shrubs. The same goes for cut and form. Show me a gown with a stitch or flounce that can match the serration of a mahonia leaf, right.

These plants may seem formal because their leaves are stiff, but they perform workaday service in the garden. They deflect and diffuse sunlight to create a filtered understory fit for woodland flowers and picnics.

Hedge-collage
In other words, they're important. So is getting them right. If you can visit Rancho Santa Ana in Claremont and identify a hedge that you like, be it toyon or Catalina currant, staff can help you choose a cultivar that in adulthood will be proportionate to your home and will not need constant watering or pruning. (Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Catalina currant, California currant, a type of mahonia called Golden Abundance with its flowers just beginning to open, Golden Abundance in full flower, manzanita and a silk tassel bush.)

Once you find the right plants, you even can buy them at Rancho's nursery. But before filling the car, give yourself time to plan -- even wait until next fall, because you may come away tempted to do more than replace one ramrod-straight row of plants with a new one.

To make room for Rancho's spectacular sugar bush-lemonade berry hybrid called Claremont, pictured at the very top of this post, you may need to abandon the idea of a hedge altogether in favor of a copse, or collection of shrubs, that will round out a corner space and fill up with birds. Or you may want to define borders with meandering ribbons of mixed ceanothus, manzanita, mahonia, barberries and currants.

In other words, you may want to redesign your garden.

So, as our rainy season winds down, look at your existing hedge and ask yourself if it's worth what you now pay to water, prune and weed it. Do you love it?

Dream, plan, budget. Even take a course from the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildfowers and Native Plants, the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College or Tree of Life Nursery. Most of all, go to an established garden where you can see potential replacements in their full glory.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday.

Photos: Emily Green

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