West Marin Master Gardener makes peace with the coast

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Gardening on the coast has its own unique challenges. For one, you may have to give up your dreams of growing blue ribbon tomatoes. But living in the cool, frequently foggy areas near the ocean, doesn’t mean you are consigned to a drab, monochromatic landscape.

After 19 years gardening in West Marin near Tomales Bay, Julie Monson has learned the joys of gardening near the sea.

When she first moved up from the San Garbriel Valley she was a bit bewildered by the daunting task of rethinking everything she knew about gardening.

“I had to learn about a whole new palette of plant material, things that grew well here. I knew I wouldn’t be growing orange trees and hibiscus, things I grew in Southern California,” said the Marin County Master Gardener.

Making the learning curve even steeper was the fact that there was nothing in the yard to work with, no clues, no blueprint, left behind.

“There was nothing here but dirt and rock. I was beginning from scratch. I was not taking over and revising a garden that had been there before,” she said.

But what she came to embrace was the lush array of plants that not only grow well, but thrive near the coast with its wet winters and foggy summer nights that linger into the morning — the Japanese maple trees, the azaleas and the multitude of ferns.

Monson shares what she’s learned, both in her own garden and through her travels, in a book, “Gardening on California’s Coast,” a guide for anyone intent on growing a great garden near the Pacific. While not a how-to book, it does suggest many coast-worthy plants and is sprinkled with advice on gardening techniques.

“You have to think through the plant material that would thrive here. For instance, unless you have a very warm and sunny place you’re not going to be successful growing tomatoes, because they require a certain temperature in the summer and hours of sunliight. Instead of trying to tell you how you can fight to grow tomatoes on the coast, i focus on the things that really do well here, like a great many of the native plants from our native forests — the huckleberries, the buckeyes, the hazelnuts and sword ferns.”

Monson herself has created a Japanese-inspired garden, a style that lends itself to the coastal zones.

“One of my themes is using Japanese gardens as a kind of influence,” she said. “Because we’ve been in Japan and I’m very familiar with some of the Japanese gardens in Kyoto, I can’t recreate a real Japanese garden because I don’t have the budget or the time to do that. But I’ve incorporated a lot of the ideas of a Japanese garden and use maple trees to create shade and bamboo in places where it’s not going to spread out of its contained place,” she said.

She has also planted plenty of fast growing Nandina, yarrow, ceanothus and western sword ferns.

And while her garden isn’t a truly authentic Japanese garden, it contains three essential plants. First is the flowering plum.

“It’s a symbol of surviving a cold winter. It’s the first thing to bloom in the spring. I have one on our patio and indeed, it’s a harbinger of spring, with its gorgeous pink flowers,” she said.

She also has bamboo, a symbol of flexibility and strength, and a Japanese pine.

Back in the late 1990s the Monsons commissioned architect Alex Riley to design a house with an enclosed courtyard where Julie could create a garden evocative of the “shady, quiet calm” gardens found in ancient Kyoto. The courtyard would serve to protect the plants from deer that roam the area.

The rest of the garden would be open to wildlife.

She began her garden by scouring the western Sonoma and Marin in her Toyota truck, seeking out specialty nurseries, where she collected coastal-loving plants like coffeeberry, coast live oaks and heuchera. Stashing them in the courtyard for safekeeping, she added hardscaping, from a pond, fences and Japanese-style gate, to stepping stones, retaining walls and a complex irrigation system.

Rather than dwelling on what she can’t grow, Monson embraces what she can. With fall just around the corner, the Japanese maples will be flaming with color. But they are really showy all year, beginning with light pink and green when they start leafing out, and then deepening into bronzes, reds and yellows.

Coastal gardens can rock with color. Rhododendrons thrive and Monson said deer won’t eat them. Spring brings a magnificent display of multi-color rhodies, azaleas , fuchsias and camellias, sparkling like gemstones set amid the ferns.

Monson has also found that rosemary does well along the coast. She also grows pots of thyme, oregano and sage and has found one really warm sunny spot on her south-facing patio where she grows Meyer lemons.

Trial and error has taught her that reliable favorites that are easy to grow while still being attractive calla lilies, agapanthus and choisya — make a statement when planted is masses. Choisya, commonly known as Mexican orange, is one of her favorites. An evergreen shrub, it produces striking flowers in spring.

Living on the shady side of the Inverness Ridge, Monson has learned to appreciate what is possible.

“The main thing is adjusting to our climate.” she said. “Do it in a way that you make the gardening easier for yourself by planting plants that do well here.”

For more on Monson, to read her blog or order the book, visit maplesandmoss.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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