Advice about Plants & Gardening

Parent Q&A

Replace lush garden with more sustainable desert garden? Feb 22, 2020 (5 responses below)
Removal of Oleander on strip between sidewalk and street Jun 26, 2019 (4 responses below)
What is that garden plant that smells like weed? Oct 8, 2018 (10 responses below)
Seeking Bougainvillea Whisperer Jun 14, 2017 (1 responses below)
  • Hi everyone

    We have a large beautiful garden that requires a lot of water to maintain. We bought our house in Berkeley last year and don’t feel we can justify the water expense and waste in a time of drought.

    Has anyone else come to the same conclusion? We’re thinking of switching off the irrigation, letting it all die and slowly replacing with a more sustainable desert garden.

    I don’t know if this is actually a wise move. I’d love any advice or recommendations you may have.

    Many thanks!

    One idea that I strongly recommend is holding a "plant sale".  Of course the lawn may have to expire on natural terms this summer, but to the extent you have more water intensive plants that are in good shape, many people would be more than happy to come and buy them from you and/or dig them up for free.  If you go this route you can ask your local nursery if they have any old containers they plan to trash so that there are pots for people to use.  

    Lots of benefits to this approach - the plants go to good homes/aren't wasted, you get a head start on clearing the space for your succulent garden, and you don't have to live with dying plants (which can quickly become fire hazards).  Spring is the perfect time for this as plants usually look their best.

    Congratulations on your decision, it’s an extremely wise move!  There are many, many resources for reading and learning about California native plants; Berkeley (and the larger East Bay) have quite a few nurseries that specialize in CA natives.  There are a lot of books and websites to consult also.  Using plants that are perfectly adapted to our climate makes sense not just for your water bill, but for the larger ecology as well.  You will have a lot of fun learning about native plants!   Two things I would say: we do not live in a desert, so I wouldn’t necessarily be thinking of a “desert garden” since we (in good years!) get a fair amount of winter rains.  That being said, many cacti & succulents do fine here.  Secondly, after a little research maybe, I’d hire a landscaper who specializes in CA natives to either consult and draw you a plan, or (depending on how much you can do yourselves) install the garden.  It will require some regular watering at first, but as the plants take hold, the vast majority of our natives require little or no summer water (since we get little or no summer rain here...).  Great idea; enjoy!

    The SF Bay Area sometimes has lots of rain in the winter. Many desert plants would suffer with all that water. So I can't recommend a desert garden. You say that your garden requires a lot of water. Are you sure? Many deep rooted bushes and trees need little if any irrigation. Rhododendron, ceanothus, yarrow, daffodils, roses and many more lush-looking plants thrive in our summer-dry climate. You may be surprised by what lives if you turn off the irrigation. Or, if you may be able to keep it all even if you reduce the irrigation. A lawn or a veggie garden will need some summer water. You may want to hire a landscape designer or a garden coach to help you figure out your options. Or, talk to neighbors. Reduction in water usage has been a California theme for years now, and many gardeners have knowledge in this area. 

  • Hi parents!

    My husband and I  have a two year old daughter. The previous owners of our home planted Oleander on the strip between the sidewalk and the street. I am considering getting it removed because it is poisonous. 

    I am wondering

    1. if anyone knows how much this might cost or knows a good person or company to call for the removal 


    2. if anyone has a suggestion for another plant to put in that strip that requires little to no maintenance/ watering. 

    The Oleander has thrived with little attention and absolutely no watering. I'm trying to figure out if it's worth it to have it removed. 

    Is you child going to be out in front of your house unsupervised? I doubt it. By the time you let them out on their own, they will be old enough to understand that they shouldn't eat random plants. If the plants are doing well, just leave them. 

    Unless you plan to let your toddler play unattended near the street, I wouldn't bother.

    For one thing, there's Oleander everywhere, likely in your neighbors yards as well. Poisonous plants are not a problem if you don't go around eating them. LOTS of plants are poisonous and exist everywhere in our cities. I suggest leaving the (drought tolerant, well established and beautiful) plants alone and if you are worried just keep an eye on your child for now when they are playing outside, and as they get older have the conversations with them about plants that are poisonous (as most people do with their kids) and why we shouldn't eat them. 

    I wouldn't sweat the oleander.  We have an acre of land, and about 20 oleander bushes -- all the way down the steep driveway between us and the neighbors, and more along the back of the yard by the pool.  In the 25 years we have lived there we raised two kids, have had dozens of kids swimming and playing, and have had four dogs.  Our neighbor raised a child there and has cats.  No one ever ate the oleader, no one ever was poisoned.  The scooter rides down the steep driveway (one broken arm) were a way greater hazard.  

  • Isn't there a plant in some people's gardens that smells like marijuana but isn't? Or is it that several of my neighbors really are smoking weed all the time?

    Catnip (seriously) but the cats eat and roll in it

    I'm going to hazard a guess that it IS weed - which smells very strong when the buds are ripening. You don't have to be smoking it to smell it!

    Now that using cannabis is legal for adults, I'd say that yes, what you are smelling is weed. It's unfortunate that your neighbors are still actually smoking it; there are many other, less noxious ways to administer it. As someone who uses it for a legit medical reason, may I ask that you inquire of your neighbors before concluding that they are simply stoners? Without cannabis I'd be unable to walk. Thanks

  • Seeking Bougainvillea Whisperer

    (1 reply)

    My 19 year old Bougainvillea is gorgeous and thriving, but it has taken over my very, very small backyard.  And it's terribly difficult (and painful!) to prune.  I don't think I've ever done it properly, but clearly it does well despite that.  I'm seriously considering having it removed, but it's beautiful.  Perhaps if I can find someone who really knows bougainvillea, he or she can counsel me about whether it can be drastically cut back (and thus return my limited yard space to me) and even trained to grow differently.  Any suggestions appreciated.

    Suggest you call Bob Goss as he is a full time gardener and small tree trimmer. I use him for all our gardening needs including taking care of our bougainvillea. His number is 510-654-2324.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Want to plant something for privacy

March 2014

Hi ~ Our neighbors cut down a bunch of trees that provided privacy between our houses. I am wanting to plant something on our side of our fence to create privacy and am thinking that bamboo is a great choice. I'd love to the name of someone who could come over and give us some ideas and a bid for putting in bamboo or other privacy screening plants. Thanks. Cat

I know a person that does Interior and Exterior plant designs and he has in his own house very nice Bamboo trees, and also very nice bushes that divide his house from the the two neighbors from each side. His name is Alvaro Elneser, his company is Creative Greenery and you can locate him at 4155095057. You can tell him you were referred by Bibiana Barrera. Good luck with your landscaping.

You may want to rethink bamboo, it's quite invasive and hard to control once planted. Look at an alternative, like nandina, or camellias. Here are a few links: Lola

My house had the same dilemma and i planted dodonea bushes. They are weedy, grow fast, and have reached 10-12 feet tall. Not an impenetrable barrier, but more like a visual one. Lynn

Flylady for yard maintenance?

March 2011

Does anyone know of a website/book/resource that breaks down how to take care of your yard the way does for your house? I'm depressed and overwhelmed at the state of our yard, and haven't a clue where to begin. Would love some advice about breaking this down into manageable projects. Thanks! brown thumb

Flylady has a .pdf called something like 'Home Maintenance Control Journal' that you can use to inventory what needs to be done in the yard and for home maintenance. She herself would probably be delighted to answer your question specifically, but this might hold you over until you get her reply:

Here are some ideas: Create a 'zone map' of your yard. Front yard, back yard, and each side yard. Break those down into smaller zones for areas like patio, deck, shed, porch, driveway, maybe specific flower beds (don't get too picky - keep it simple). Now take a tour, think of it as if you were a potential buyer, and write down anything that would bug them.

Do 15 minutes of trash management, 1 zone at a time. Have your timer, gloves, laceup shoes, a trash container, and a green bin or container for compostables (whether they go in your home compost heap or are picked up curbside depends on your location and proclivities). Do a quick sweep and pick up any trash, toss it. Make a note of things that need pruning, weeding, or to be cut back. Find items like errant tools, empty flowerpots, etc., and put them in their home - whatever that is. Be sure you stick to one zone at a time though; don't take the rake out of the side yard while working that zone, then decide the whole tool shed needs a re-organization, then find your favorite clippers and decide to prune the aspidastra. Use the Kelly's Missions basic format to help you decide what to keep, to toss, or to give away: Is it beautiful? Is it useful? do you love it? If you can't answer any of these questions 'yes', let it go.

If you have something that doesn't work for you but someone else might want, Freecycle or donate it.In many larger cities, just putting a 'Free' sign on an item and setting it curbside on Saturday a.m. will cause it to evaporate into thin air by nightfall.

Take breaks at least every half hour. You don't want to burn out. Easy does it!

For another day, follow your weeding map around the house. If the job's too big or onerous, enlist the family to help, have a round robin 'gardening party' with friends (fun and satisfying) or hire someone to assist with the big, nasty jobs. Weeding and pruning are a lot more fun with company and a nice cold beverage. Make sure that, when you're done with your efforts, you take time to enjoy and appreciate the improvement!

As FL says, 'Rome wasn't built in a day. Take baby steps' ... flying

FlyLady principles work the same for out doors. I tell myself 100 square feet is all I ask of you today, and keep my vision on just that plot. Bless one space at a time. I know it's daunting. Get a partner, then it goes twice as fast. If you want we could start a 'Garden Groovy' Both of us in your garden one day, both of us in mine another. I noticed alot of garden posts this time. hmmmmmmmmm. I feel an idea brewing! Reenie

Native, drought-resistance flowering plants?

July 2007

I'm looking for some native, drought-resistant, low-maintenance flowering plants to plant around some fruit trees that will keep the weeds at bay. Currently there are a only a few sparse poppies and white Alyssum, and the weeds are taking over. The trees are in the front sidewalk and the area gets full sun most of the time. Perennials would be great. Ideally the flowers wouldn't attract a swarm of bees or wasps, as our daughter plays out there. Any gardeners have good recommendations? Trying to garden smart

I don't have specific plant recommendations, but you should definitely buy Sunset's Western Garden book. It has sections on drought-resistant natives and plants that do well under trees, so you can cross reference. And because the book is geared to the Western region, it breaks down the Bay Area microclimates into their own zones, unlike many national guides and books. It was my bible when I was learning to garden, and the drought-resistant native section has some great options that you don't see on every street median.

In addition to looking at the Western Garden book recommended in the last newsletter I have four more pieces of advice:

1) check out EBMUD's ''Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates''. This is an absolutely gorgeous and inspiring landscaping book with beautiful photos of the plants and lots of summer-dry gardening information. Not all the plants are native, but they're all drought tolerant and the book is very clear about which plants are native.

2) go to Berkeley Hort, browse their natives section, and ask for help.

3) mulch (''gorilla-hair'' mulch is nice because it stays put)

4) don't forget you'll have to water the first summer or wait until the fall rains to plant.

Happy flowering! low-maintenance and beautiful

Thinning out junipers on a slope

Dec 2006

We're located in the Lamorinda area and are looking for a landscaper or gardener who can artistically thin out and prune back our front yard slope of very old juniper bushes. I don't want a ''hack it back'' job, I would like someone who knows how to reduce the bulk of vegetation and still make it look natural. thanks for reading! Carolyn

Junipers (I think you probably mean the shrubby ones like Tam Junipers) can be pruned as you're imagining, I've done it, but there are some reasons that you might want to consider choosing a different plant for the space instead.

It's always best in the long run to have plants whose basic habit and size work for a given space- fighting a plant's nature is just that, a fight- and shrubby Junipers want to be dense and heavy and big. They get much bigger than many people realize when they plant them, and are commonly planted too close together and in spaces where their size is too much to begin with.

Thinning them out is very labor intensive- it's a nasty, prickly job getting into them and it's time consuming to sort out the tangle of branches, to figure out which branch is coming from which plant, and assess what to keep and what to cut.

Even when done with great skill, they will look horrible after they're pruned because the ratty old inside will be exposed by being opened up. Over time, if the plants are still basically healthy and vigorous, the inside wood will sprout and they'll fill back in, but they'll fill back in as thick, dense shrubs, so if you didn't like them in the first place you won't like them any better then! Cecelia

Oxalis is Taking Over!

Jan. 2004

Oxalis, the clover-like weed with yellow flowers, is taking over my garden. Does anyone have a clever way of gettign rid of it? I spent hours pulling it up last weekend, and I barely made a dent. I'll even consider hiring someone to get rid of it. Help! Overrun by Oxalis

As a horticulturist/landscaper I have much experience with Oxalis (Bermuda Buttercup, Sourgrass).

It's a winter weed, only shows itself when the weather is wet & cool, so that's the only time of year you can do anything about it.

It grows from clusters of little bulblets, & spreads itself by making new bulbs & by reseeding. Getting all the bulbs out is impossible- too small, too profuse- but you are reducing the population by digging out some of them. Like all bulbs (think of daffodils), the bulbs are fed by the foliage, so even just chopping the tops off as soon as they appear helps to exhaust the roots. Not all the bulbs will sprout at the same time, so this must be a continuous project all season. Don't let it go to flower, attack it ASAP!

Alternatively, you can use Roundup on the foliage, which is carried to the bulblets & kills them. Any herbicide rightly makes some people nervous, but Roundup is generally considered safe by knowledgeable professionals (it has a very low toxicity to people and animals in the first place, breaks down on contact with the soil into non-toxic compounds, & has been around a long time). On general principal, I only use it on a couple of types of weeds, Bermuda Buttercup among them (also Bermuda Grass). You need to continue to spray it on the foliage as new plants appear.

Whatever method you use, you will not get rid of it in one season, & you'll never get entirely rid of it, especially if your neighbors have it too. Roundup does work the best if you really keep after it- it takes longer to exhaust the bulbs significantly by pulling/chopping.

I recommend holding off on any dense plantings like perennials & groundcovers in the infested areas until after you have got it under reasonable control. It is even more of a pain to try & get it when it is mixed in with plantings. Cecelia

Kill oxalis and put in a lawn?

Feb. 2003

Ecological lawn installation?

Our back yard is 80 percent weeds and we are considering having it torn up and replacing it with a sod lawn. Friends who did this recently said their landscaper applied Roundup to kill the weeds before putting in the new sod. We are concerned about the environmental effects of Roundup. How toxic do people think it really is (to soil, groundwater, etc.)? Is it possible to do a successful lawn without using herbicides? Can anyone recommend an environmentally- friendly landscaper/lawn installer? And has anyone had success putting in a new lawn (and even a sprinkler system) themselves, rather than hiring a contractor? Tired of dandelions and oxalis

Roundup will *not* kill oxalis - because oxalis sends down mulitple bulbs, the roundup will simply kill any good bugs you have around, get into our water supply, etc. Roundup may wilt oxalis, but the bulb will stay happy.

The only way to elimnate oxalis is to dig it out. One option is to dig out as far down as you are willing to go/pay for (its costly) -- but at least 6 inches -- put in cardboard and fill in with new dirt. This will solve the problem for a while, not forever. Digging deeper helps.

Second, go with a native grass lawn. A great choice is Fescue Rubra - you can purchase seed or plugs from Rana Creek Habitat restoration in Carmel Valley. They are a wonderful resouce for native grasses. With this type of lawn you can mow if you want, wanter minimally and use minimal, organic fertilizers.

Good luck and even though Roundup has a reputation for ''not being so bad'', it is bad for our environment. And it won't do what you need. Good luck

Roundup's active component breaks down into harmless compounds- doesn't persist in the soil. It's an herbicide- won't affect insects or animals. Some people question if the inactive ingredients or breakdown compounds are harmful but that's not proven. It kills the bulbs of plants you spray. Multiple sprayings when the plants are actively growing are required- new ones appear on different schedules, it must be done when the temperature is 55+ degrees & when no rain for 24 hrs. It's carried to the bulbs & you don't see the result immediately.

The principal of Integrated Pest Management is use the least toxic approach first & use chemicals sparingly. It takes a few years to eradicate Oxalis by hand. Pull the plants as soon as they appear- over time you'll deplete the population. Trying to remove all the bulbs is hopeless! Laying sod rather than seeding will weaken some of the bulbs. There are a number of choices of native grasses for informal, meadow-like effect- none in sod. Bonsai Tall Fescue is a good (somewhat drought-tolerant) commercial grass. I'm a landscaper & horticulturist so know quite a bit about Round-up. Questions directly to me are welcome; please post disagreements in Digest

Oxalis - demon weed from hell

Dec 2002

Oxalis - demon weed from hell

We have an ongoing oxalis infestation - y'know, those shamrock-like plants with yellow flowers. A landscaper friend recommended Vapam (a soil fumigant) but we don't like that idea because of enviromental concerns and danger to our kids and pets (see I found some info on the spread of this pernicious pest from South Africa (I guess it takes one to know one ;- ) at but need some advice from someone who has successfully eradicated oxalis. So how do I get rid of it? --johnt

One of the links that JohnT lists is to Jake Sigg's comments on this 'demon weed'. I trust his methods and have used them successfully. Jake is one of the experts on natives and nonnative pest plants (See and The only other thing that I've had luck with is overlapping newspaper sections in the infested area, and then putting 3-4'' of bark mulch over that. ''Sheet mulching'' is most effective if done before the oxalis starts growing (in summer or fall), and if done right, will get about 85-90% of the oxalis in the first year. The remaining 10-15% of this pesky plant must then be pulled out by hand or sprayed with glyposate (Roundup).

If you're thinking of using Roundup, make sure to use it on a windless portion of the day, when there is no dew (moisture can dilute it, rendering it useless) and if there are prize plants adjacent to the oxalis, drip or ''paint'' it directly on the oxalis (don't use the sprayer). Good luck!
Christine Schneider, RLA
Native Sage Landscape Design

Die Oxalis, Die!:

Regarding Oxalis pes caprae (cernua); Good info from Mr. Sigg, whom I have met at California Exotic Plant Pest Council meetings at UC Botanical Garden, Berkeley. I have almost total control over this thug at my home after 2-3 years. I certainly can not support Monsanto (see Agent Orange, etc) but I must say that I HAD TO resort to ProRoundup to tackle Oxalis. Really, SPRAY and PULL and MULCH again and again if you wish to have anything resembling a landscaped yard that is under control. Organic controls would exclude the Roundup, and most have not had any long-term luck with those methods. You will have to concede with living with a certain level of infestation if you are not willing to use a glyphosate -based herbicide. Best of Luck... Anthony Garza, Supervisor of Horticulture & Grounds UCBG, Berkeley

Oxalis, demon weed from hell : As far as I know once you have oxalis in your garden it is impossible to get rid of it completely. The same goes for all weeds. First it is a lot of hard work, then you have to be persitant and keep on top of it. If you can afford it, hire a gardener to help out once in a while. Weeding is a constant given in any kind of garden. If you get too busy to garden and stop weeding for a while, they all come back...especially the oxalis. There is good information on controlling oxalis in a book called ''Golden Gate Gardening'' by Pam Peirce. It also has a section on weeding in general that is very helpful. She believes in only using herbicides as a last resort. Good luck! Laurey

Fruit & veggie varieties that grow well locally?

Feb 2002

My daughter and I are starting a garden and we would like to grow some vegetables and fruits such as tomatos, lettuce, strawberries, onions, ect Can anyone name us a good tomato or strawberry that grows well locally (we live in El Sobrante) And where could I get them? The books I am working through have a lot of good suggestions but often it is hard to find the particular kind they recommend in our local stores. So if you have any good suggestions for fruits or vegetables, please share your experience with us. Thank you, Martina and Ebony.

To Martina and Ebony, My husband has been growing tomatoes in our veggie garden for years and recommends cherry tomatoes (sweet 100?) and early girls. Very tasty! We live in the Oakland hills, south of the zoo so we get some fog in the mornings during the summer. Most tomato plants like a lot of sun however if it is quite foggy in your neck of the woods there is a type of tomato plant called San Francisco fog or something like that, that does well. We've purchased plants at many different places including Orchard Supply, Home Depot, Navelets, and East Bay Nursery. Also, we recommend waiting until at least April, and May if it is still chilly, before planting them. -Carol

Getting Rid of Weeds

May 2000

In my garden I have some crab grass, weeds, and in one spot -- blackberries, all of which I want to turn either into flower & vegetable beds, a lawn, or ground cover. Does anyone have any non-toxic ideas for how to eradicate these menaces? Thank you. kiwiroot

I loved the suggestion about using black plastic. I've experienced a similar killing effect even with clear plastic, as the green house effect raises the temperature and cooks everything including seeds. With the hot weather we're having right now it shouldn't take to long to kill it all. The berry bushes may not be possible though given the depth of the root system. I would try to roto-till the dead stuff back into the soil so you don't end up removing so much top soil. Roger

Auguts 2000

We bought a house in the Piedmont Pines part of Montclair with a good-sized yard featuring trash, overgrown weeds, trees that need trimming, etc. A friend says landscaping types would clean this up surprisingly cheaply. Sounds good to me. Any recommendations? And is it possible to use Round-up - type chemicals (which are relatively environmentally friendly) when it is this dry? Mary Ann

Please don't think that Roundup is environmentally benign! This is a fiction put out by Monsanto. In fact, Round-up is a highly toxic chemical. These paragraphs comes from an article in the Ecologist.

The Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) reviewed over 408 scientific studies on the effects of glyphosate [the active ingredient in Roundup], and of the polyoxyethylene amines used as a surfactant in Roundup, and concluded that the herbicide is far less benign than MonsantoFs advertising suggests tSymptoms of acute poisoning in humans following ingestion of Roundup include gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, swelling of the lungs, pneumonia, clouding of consciousness, and destruction of red blood cells... [see the Ecologist for continuation] Dashka

Plants full of ants

Jan 2005

Does anyone know of any plants/bushes/trees that ants don't like, or that at least don't attract ants? I want to replant a small area that is right next to my house because the ants seem to LOVE a lime-type tree that is growing there now. Whatever I plant has to tolerate full sun and lots of clay in the soil. Thanks for any suggestions.

It's not the plants that the ants are after, it's the insects living in them! Some insects (in this case since it's a citrus it would be Scale) emit a sweet substance called honeydew that the ants feed on. The ants have an interest in perpetuating their supply of honeydew, so they both protect the insects from natural predators, and help the baby crawlers to colonize new growth. To solve the problem, which takes time and persistence with an established problem, you have to deal with both the insects and the ants. There are non-toxic ways to do both. If you would like a consultation, I am a horticulturist. Cecelia

Bamboo Removal

Oct 1999

Does anyone have any experience/advice on how to remove bamboo from the yard? I have heard it is pretty difficult, and that you have to dig down about three feet to remove the roots. Also, does anyone have a recommendation for a person or company that does heavy yard work, and could do a good job removing bamboo? Thanks! Wendy

Ugh. This is not easy, but you can do it (without nasty chemical herbicides) if you are tenacious and stick with it.

If you are lucky, the bamboo is a clumping type rather than a running type. If it forms a huge clump of old culms, all you need to do is dig it up and out. The roots do not go deep; the problem is that the fibers are very tough to cut with a shovel. Ideally you can get all around the clump with the shovel, and pull the whole thing out in a mass. You can also try cutting it up with a power saw, particularly if it's in a confined space (next to a fence or patio).

If you are not lucky, the bamboo is running underneath your patio, your fence, and every part of your yard. If you see little sprouts of bamboo elsewhere in the yard (even 50-100 ft away; ours had crossed underneath a parking lot), you probably have a running kind. In this case, any little chunk of bamboo that you leave in the soil will sprout on its own after you have removed the main plant.

This is what encourages people to use chemicals. In my case, moving into a house that had perhaps 10-20 years of overgrown bamboo, but wanting to keep my garden organic, I took the elbow-grease route.

I cut down all the live culms; then cut up (with a power saw) the base clumps, and dug them out. I tried to follow every running root and dig it out. The ones I couldn't get (e.g., under a concrete patio), I watched for. A bamboo sprout can grow several inches in only a day or two. If the baby culm sprout gets to the point where it has unfurled or is 1 ft high, you've lost ground, because it feeds the underground plant. But if you can cut the sprout before then, you have taken another step towards starving out the survivors.

A year and a half of constant vigilance worked to eradicate the bamboo from my yard permanently. That may sound extreme (you're probably ready to buy some Roundup at this point), but it was worth it to me not to pour poison all over my yard. good luck! Virginia