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Fall Color, Santa Barbara Style
updated: Nov 29, 2014, 11:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

If you’re thinking that shorter days and colder nights means your garden is going to sleep until spring, think again. Santa Barbara’s version of fall color is in its full, raging glory right now, and I’m not talking about golden aspen leaves or smoldering red maple trees. I’m talking about bouquets of flowers and berries that are lighting up gardens all over town.

With my trusty camera in hand and an hour to kill before an early consultation in Ellwood, I loaded up my memory card with some memorable pics of what’s in bloom this season. And since there’s still time to get a few plants in the ground before guests arrive for the holidays, have a look at what’s putting on the big show and make a shopping list. Oddly enough, most of the show-offs come in summery, saturated hot colors ranging from yellow and gold to fiery orange and blazing red.

Bird of Paradise / Strelitzia reginae: Yes, these South African drama queens are everywhere. But there’s a good reason Birds are ubiquitous – they’re easy, virtually pest free and they perform like nobody’s business. The plant is classified as an herbaceous perennial, meaning it doesn’t develop woody stems or bark and it persists for years. If ever there was a plant that said, “We’re not in Kansas anymore”, this is the one. But give them plenty of space, because at maturity, they’ll easily fill a 5-foot wide planter and top out just as high. They’re not fussy about soil, love full sun or part shade and do fine with an occasional deep soak once established. Bonus: They make great cut flowers that last at least two weeks when harvested just before they bloom and allowed to open slowly. 

Mexican Marigold / Tagetes lemmonii: You might want to have your sunglasses handy when shopping for this brilliantly colored shrub. It’s related to those cute little pom-pom marigolds we grow as summer annuals, but this low-water-using, 4-ft tall by 6 to 8-ft wide shrub will hang around for years. Remarkably, it flowers in full sun to fairly low light conditions where its cheery flowers help to light up dark corners in the garden. The flowers start to appear in early fall and persist for months. A light shearing after the flowering season is that’s needed to keep those flowers coming back. But you’ll want to make sure it passes the sniff test before you invite it home. Mexican Marigold has very aromatic foliage that some folks love and others (including deer) find repellant. [Designer’s note: I used this plant in a client’s garden years ago, perched at the top of a canyon where late afternoon back-lighting made it glow like a 1000-watt bulb.]

Cape Honeysuckle / Tecomaria capensis: This vigorously vining shrub should be planted with caution, where it can either be turned loose to develop into a massive thicket, supported to achieve a height of up to 20-ft, or as an 8-ft hedge that you don’t mind showing it who’s boss once in a while. But the payoff for an occasional hard pruning is bushels of cheery orange, tubular flowers (hummingbirds love them!) that peak in fall and winter. Another gift from South Africa, it uses very little water, withstands winter temperatures down to about 25 deg F. and also come in salmon or yellow.

Cape Daisy / Osteospermum hyoseroides: Can’t beat this low-growing, trailing ground cover for quick, sunny bursts of color along the leading edge of a flower bed or spilling from a container. These guys like full sun -- or at least a half-day of direct sun – and persist for quite a few years before needing replanting. Their gold, yellow, or orange blooms appear on and off all year, attracting birds, bees and butterflies and don’t have any serious pests.

Shrub Daisy / Euryops pectinatus ‘Viridis’: I’ll finish up with the hot colored flowers by introducing you to this very common, hard working shrubby perennial. Its two best features are that it blooms all year and doesn’t get out of hand, topping off at about 4-ft. wide and high. It’s another sun-loving, plant-me-in-any-soil, easy-on-the-water plant that also tolerates seaside conditions. Each flower lasts only a day or two, but new ones are always appearing. An occasional tip pruning encourages more flowering growth. Its cousin, Euryops pectinatus, has grey foliage, which adds another level of brightness to the garden.

Sasanqua and Japanese Camellia / Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica: Camellias have a bad rap for being uber thirsty, but I’ve seen some venerable, old Japanese camellias in neglected, under-watered gardens and they still kick serious butt. True, it takes them a while to develop a deep, self-sustaining root system, but they’re not as delicate as their luscious flowers might suggest. The sasanqua are less well known, but very available. They’re able to grow in a wider range of conditions than the japonicas. These plants tend to be smaller and wirier. Sasanqua flowers have fewer petals and a simpler form than their big relatives. Japonicas have been around forever and have been a source of fascination for hybridizers who have created hundreds of different flower forms and colors. You’ll find both varieties in colors ranging for virginal white to soft or intense pinks, lavender and deep red. They’re both reliable, cool weather bloomers and will take full sun in the morning or filtered shade throughout the day. Water deeply for the first few years and apply an acid-based camellia/azalea fertilizer for best blooms. The only down side is that once the blooms fade, it’s just a dark green plant without a lot to say for itself the rest of the year.


Evergreen Fountain Grass / Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’: One of my newer go-to grasses, this form of fountain grass DOES NOT reseed, is green all year, flowers in spring and summer, and in fall, the graceful wands turn a soft, tawny color and move on the breeze. (I think it looks like a Midwest wheat field when planted en masse.) I’ve used it in partial shade, where it tends to be a little more open and lax than when grown in sun. It’s great in a mixed meadow of other ornamental grasses, with its blades standing about 3 feet high and flowers dancing a foot or two higher. Plant it in full or half-day sun, water occasionally, and it benefits from being cut all the way to the ground every 4 or 5 years.


Scarlet Firethorn / Pyracantha coccinea and Toyon / Heteromeles arbutifolia: Looking for some holly-like berries to festoon the holiday wreath or mantle? Plant either of these rose-family relatives in the back of a bed and you’ll have brilliant red fruits for years to come. Toyon is a California native, so the habitat value for local wildlife is superb. It thrives on neglect, grows to 10-ft high (eventually, it can take on tree-like proportions) and loves sun or adapts well to shade. Firethorn has been bred to achieve a large range of sizes, from ground covers to mid-size and more massive shrubs, so shop around to find the one that suits your spaces. Each has small, simple, white flowers that put on a subtle show in spring and they’re not the least bit fussy about soil, as long as they’re not over-watered.

That kinda does it for me. Just wanted to share a few plants you might have overlooked. As always, do your homework to make sure you can match your growing conditions to the needs of each plant, and be sure to nurture them for a few years until they become established. If you need personalized advice, you know where to find me.

Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.

Author of "Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space into the Garden of Your Dreams

Contributing Editor and National Award Winning Blogger at Fine Gardening Magazine

Covering the region at 805Living Magazine

Pontificating at Edhat

Landscape Coaching and Design billygoodnick.com

Drumming at King Bee

Sharing my world at Facebook

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 ROGER DODGER agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-29 03:28 PM

I just looked at the pictures I always found the Bird of Paradise to be cool kinda went along with my nice name when I was a youngin.


 COMMENT 573044 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-29 03:50 PM

How is that Evergreen Fountain Grass / Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’, which according to the article "does not re-seed", is now volunteering all over on Santa Barbara road sides ??


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-29 05:00 PM

044 -- It's a different plant. The one that reseeds is Pennisetum setaceum and goes dormant. This is a well-behaved cousin. Read about it here. http://www.smgrowers.com/products/plants/plantdisp


 COMMENT 573094 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-29 07:19 PM

Did you notice the candidate for Crimes Against Horticulture-how not to prune species roses in front of the new Hideaway condos? Looks like rows of crooked rose headstones. They trimmed all four sides and the tops and removed the suckers. Oops guess the gardeners did not know they were not boxwood shrubs


 COMMENT 573126P agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-29 10:45 PM

Yard maintenance guys. Not gardeners.


 COMMENT 573194 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-30 10:57 AM

My dad had a Bird of Paradise planted in our front garden. He found a dead stray cat in the planter one weekend and decided to "plant" it under the Bird of Paradise... the blooms after that were huge and beautiful. Waste-not want-not...


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2014-11-30 12:10 PM

573126P - I call them "plant janitors." Good at keeping the yard neat and tidy. But that's not what I'm looking for in a garden. Given how many of them get paid for such work, I guess there are lots of people willing to pay the low bidder for that "look."


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