All climates have their gardening challenges, but if someone were to describe Santa Monica’s, most garden lovers would be verdant green with envy. Here, the ocean rules, moderating temperatures and seasons and moistening the air with light humidity. The extremes that can make gardening difficult elsewhere simply don’t exist here — sticky humidity (lots of bugs and diseases), dry winds and extreme heat.
There are three signature signs that Santa Monica is a gardening paradise: year-round harvests of edibles, tropical houseplants used as landscape plants, and tender perennials that are rarely without vibrant color.
Southern California is a Mediterranean climate (there are only five in the world: the others are the Mediterranean area itself, the cape of South Africa, western Australia, and coastal Chile). Santa Monica is more Cap Ferrat than Siena, meaning that we have a warm-summer Mediterranean climate rather than a hot-summer one such as the San Fernando Valley.
This distinction opens exciting possibilities and reduces challenges. Gardening in Santa Monica is a joy for everyone and an exceptionally good area for beginning gardeners. You’re certain to be rewarded for every effort.
The coming fall season (considered the “first season” or “spring” in Mediterranean climates), is the very best season to install permanent plants. The warm, post-summer ground and cooler air combine to create optimal growing conditions. Roots grow fast and top growth slows, preparing plants for an “ahead of the game” response come next spring: lots of new growth and optimal flowering or fruiting. You’ve gained a year.
Following are some underused and lovely trees, shrubs and perennials that will thrive in Santa Monica gardens, even on the coastline with its salty ocean winds.
Holly oak (Quercus ilex) is ideal for many things: it’s a shade provider, great for hedges and even formal shapes. Melaleuca quinquenervia, or Cajeput tree, is a stunner: gorgeous gnarled trunks and finely-cut evergreen foliage. California laurel, a native, is a beautiful evergreen tree that’s extremely adaptable to soils and moisture. It will thrive in shade but will also provide shade as it grows to its usual small garden size, about 25 feet tall. Avoid planting near native oaks, as it is a carrier of a fungus that can kill them (but won’t harm the laurel.)
Dusky bells and ivory bells Australian fuchsias (Correa hybrids) are lovely spreading, grey-leaved shrubs with fuchsia-like bell flowers in deep red or cream over an extremely long period. Rugosa roses are once-bloomers with beautiful quilted foliage and incredible fragrance. But don’t deadhead them (remove the old flowers) because they’ll provide you with spectacular red fall hips, or berries.
Coprosma, a New Zealand native, is becoming hugely popular with garden designers in Santa Monica. The reason? Beautiful, very shiny, evergreen leaves in wonderful colors. Coppery-red and gold foliage turns bright copper and orange-red during fall and winter, depending on the variety. Protea compacta is a florist favorite and rarely grown in the U.S. It’s an erect grower, 6- to 10-feet tall, with exotic, rose-pink flower heads that are 4-inches in size.
Common thrift (Armeria maritima) is an easy, no-care, almost all-year bloomer in Santa Monica. Grass-like mounds of foliage sport thin stems with a tight cluster of rose, white and pink flowers. Cape rush (Chondropetalum) is a stunning, architectural, reed-like plant that forms a clump 5-feet tall and wide. It provides mesmerizing movement in ocean breezes.
There are many beautiful new euphorbia hybrids that grow well in Santa Monica. The leaves of Efanthia turn burgundy in autumn. Blackbird has dark, velvety purple foliage and chartreuse flowers. The flower color of Ascot rainbow consists of cream, lime, and green while the foliage displays tones of cream, green/blue with stunning red-pink coloring throughout cooler months.
Arnulfo Bahena, CCNP, is the manager for Armstrong Garden Centers located at 3226 Wilshire Blvd., in Santa Monica. E-mail him your gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 829-6766. Visit Armstrong Garden Centers online at armstronggarden.com.