Client:  the irrigation is going to be expensive and I just want it done, so I’m going to hand water.  I don’t mind watering the garden myself.

Me:  I strongly recommend that you install the system, here’s why: (see the rest of this post)

But my brain is screaming:  dear Lord, this again?!

Yes.  In California, you really do want to pay for that irrigation system… and no, I do not recommend you design it yourself with components from Home Depot.  My own father, on hearing that I had attended several classes and installation workshops on drip irrigation asked me ‘why?  drip irrigation doesn’t even work, the pipes always blow apart.’

uh, dad?  That’s ’cause you did it wrong.  Sorry, man.

160816 water ring 002

a very temporary & embarrassing situation in the author’s garden

Below are a couple of reasons to install that system:

  • Regular irrigation is sorta like regular nutrition.  Everyone (plants, animals, you) does better and stays healthier on a regular diet – you wouldn’t eat only 2,000 calorie breakfasts and nothing the rest of the week, right?  (right?!)  – well, your plants want water they can count on, too.  Not 3x a day like you, no, but consistently? yes.
  • It isn’t going to get cheaper if you wait….
  • It is MUCH harder to install the infrastructure (valves, sleeves, etc) once your plants have been growing a while.
  • You are probably not as reliable as you think.  In my own garden, I’m planning for an irrigation system (I’d hoped this summer, but I don’t think I’ll make it) because even though I know a lot about plants and watch my garden very closely, constantly moving the hose around… I’m always battling unhappy plants!  I miss one, it wilts.  I forget, they die.
  • You’ll eventually get old or busy or forgetful or go on a vacation.  Your plants don’t negotiate; they’ll resent the neglect and look like hell… and if you think your neighbor is truly happy to water them while you are away, you’ve either been lied to or have an actual saint living nearby.
  • Dead plants are a terrible investment (same goes for unhappy, wilted, sick or stressed plants)
  • Healthy landscaping adds to property value (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post) and the value added will far exceed what it cost you to install the irrigation!
  • You can always save a little money by getting smaller plants.
  • You save nothing and risk your investment by scrimping on the irrigation.  Invest in your investment – your property, your plants, and they’ll pay you back.
  • Stressed plants get diseases and pests that the exact same plant (in the exact same place, etc) would not get if it were happy.
  • Irrigation “ET” (evapotranspiration) controllers these days can shut off if they detect rain – there are oodles of technological advances in these mini computers so one that was properly specified and programmed will out-perform even an excellent gardener’s seasonal adjustments or your carefully considered efforts.  They can be programmed for different soils and a myriad of conditions.  Get one!  See here from Hunter on their line-up of ET controllers.
  • WELO – California state law that requires water efficient irrigation be installed on new and renovated landscapes 500 sf or larger as of 1 December 2015 (those that are involved in a permit process will learn).

Listen, it isn’t sexy or exciting to pay for the invisible stuff – the best irrigation systems are the ones you don’t notice – there’s no bling here except for total weirdos like me (and my colleagues!) who geek out on it.  However, to impress your dinner guests, a healthy and happy landscape speaks volumes and will provide years of happy bling-y green.

At the time of this writing, I am finalizing a slide deck for the “Lose Your Lawn” talk that I am giving in 4 days.  If you found yourself here thanks to that talk, then I want you to know I appreciate your reading this, I wrote it for you!

My blog posts come from real conversations with real clients, students, and trainees, so don’t be surprised if you ask a question and find it answered in my blog later!

In the Bay Area, I highly recommend asking the Urban Farmer Store for irrigation designer referrals or to get clarification on irrigation questions.

I’ve had a few conversations recently that revealed to me what a dumb thing it is to call a plant “drought tolerant”.  Wikipedia gets this right technically, but leaves us without enough to apply the information: “Drought tolerance refers to the degree to which a plant is adapted to arid or drought conditions.”

Well, okay – so when we say a plant is drought tolerant, what the heck does that mean?  It means that plant has some degree of adaptability to drought.  But here’s the thing – how much adaptability?  How do I use this information?  What does this plant do in response?

2014 mid march 040

Iris douglasiana

Saying a plant is “drought tolerant” is like saying there is a temperature outside.  Is it cold, warm or hot?   See what I am getting at?  “drought tolerant” only means that there is some degree to which the plant may tolerate (not die immediately) a shortage of water.

More information is needed: enter WUCOLS.  I won’t bore you with the details and technical stuff behind WUCOLS, they do well enough – read through their website.  Not bored yet?  Good!  Now read through the rules on WELO, the California ordinance for water efficiency in the landscape.  Bet you’re bored now.

The deal is that these classifications in WUCOLS mean something.  They quantify how much water a plant wants in a particular region of California.  This does not take into account sun/shade exposure, sun orientation, wind, soil type, or any of the other factors involved in meeting a plant’s water needs.  It is not a perfect tool, but it is the best thing we have going.  WUCOLS isn’t the only resource, you can get information from nurseries and books also, but it is the most helpful hydrozoning tool I use.

In WUCOLS, the classifications are “very low”, “low”, “moderate”, “high”, or it may say “inappropriate” or “unknown”.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but what is most interesting here is that ETo is a reference point – a baseline of sorts.  So a “high” water use classification means 70-90% of the water needed to keep a 4″ tall cool season turf VERY well watered and super lush, or to put it another way, the “high” water classification is 70-90% of a whole lot of water.

I indulged online – I pulled up an article on “drought tolerant” plants from Sunset magazine.  Of their 12 plants in my home town of Oakland, one was classified by WUCOLS as “very low”, one was “moderate”, and the rest were “low”.  Nassella tenuissima / Mexican Feathergrass is listed as an invasive plant by PlantRight and should not be used at all, but WUCOLS isn’t about invasiveness, it is about water, so shame on Sunset!

It is bad juju to mix water use classifications.  If you absolutely must, then the classifications should be next door neighbors – so “low” and “moderate” is kinda okay (provided you irrigate at the higher amount), but “moderate” and “very low” is no bueno.

Next I went to the “drought tolerant” poster child:  succulents.  Low water use, right?  Drought tolerant?!  erm…. no.  Again, WUCOLS demonstrates my point.  In the plants WUCOLS lists as succulents, the same 3 classifications are included – very low, low, and moderate (screen shot is just of the alphabetical early birds, I didn’t pick favorites here).  So much for that assumption.

succulents wucols

So really, drought tolerant is anything that will grow with less than 70% of a boatload of water.  That could still an incredible amount of water, folks.  Granted, the lower classifications are pretty good and some plants truly do have a relatively dry footprint, but all plants need extra water during their establishment period, that is a post for another day.

Oh – and about those drought tolerance adaptations emphasized in the first paragraph:  a drought tolerant plant might go dormant, drop all or some of its leaves, wilt, or shrink in size in times of stress (the drought they’re tolerating) as a way of coping …. and if not watered in time, drought tolerant plants die.  Tolerance is about not being dead yet – it has nothing to do with living well, being healthy, or looking good, it is about living to drink another day.

Thanks for listening!





You know the stand-by sitcom joke that when dating someone new, you should let the crazy out only a little bit at a time?  Well, I’ve been writing this blog a while, so here’s a little piece of my crazy made just for you!

Sometimes I get something stuck in my head like a bad craving and MUST have it.  You know what I mean, yes?  Ever want chocolate really Really REALLY badly?  So much so that it felt like a biological need?  Yeah, like that, but for colors, color palettes, plants, and so forth.

150424 North Country Daylilies 1Today, my mail brought me a daylily I’ve been coveting for years and could never obtain (darn you, Martha Stewart Magazine!).  But, thankfully I now have Hemerocallis ‘Milk Chocolate’.  I’ve planted it in the garden and hope to grow it up big and fat.  I bought it from the generous folks at North Country Daylilies in Buskirk, NY.  Hemerocallis ‘Milk Chocolate’ is the little guy all the way on the left in the photo above.

See, the growers here in California who grow daylilies don’t seem to grow this particular cultivar (or at least not list it online).  Some growers list it but didn’t actually have any or wouldn’t return my calls and emails – after looking for this thing  for years, I was thrilled when North Country said they had one.  ONE.  Not only that, they were willing to ship it to California – another stumbling block I’ve run into before.  BUT, they sent me a 3 fan plant, more than most mail order companies would send.

I bought ‘Milk Chocolate’, ‘Third Witch’ and ‘Vatican City’ to make the most of the shipping.  I stole the images below from the American Hemerocallis Society (AHS) webpage:

Milk Chocolate:

Milk_ChocolateThird Witch:

Third_WitchVatican City:

VATICAN CITYNorth Country sent me the biggest danged plants, I am completely delighted.  In NY where they are, the snow has just melted away and the dormant daylilies are beginning to stick their heads up.  Out here in Northern California, it is warm and spring is old news.

One of the ways I hone my professional knowledge is to order plants from mail order companies and see what happens – I look at accuracy, plant quality, packaging, and customer service (bonus: an excuse to buy plants).  I’ve had some wonderful surprises as in this daylily order.  I’ve also had some really unfortunate and problematic orders (I won’t be ordering from Wayside or Easy to Grow Bulbs again) that surprised me the wrong way.

I’ve found that generally the growers who love their plants and specialize in certain kinds of plants have the best stock.  The big business companies send the smallest, least healthy plants, the most poorly packaged, and have the most errors in order accuracy.  I once got a box of dead plants from Wayside and they never did return my inquiries.  So, when something goes right like this, I like to crow about it.

Do you see these roots on H. ‘Vatican City’ and the extra fans on ‘Third Witch’?!  Mail order plant droolworthiness:

150424 vatican city huge roots150424 third witch several fansI have a few other daylilies that I will tell you about another time – that will be fun – there’s more crazy to share there.

Thanks for reading!

My Theory on Roots

You’ve heard that you should water trees deeply and infrequently, right?  I take that approach a bit further and use it for everything – trees, perennials, roses, everything.  I’m careful with my water anyway having grown up in Los Angeles during the 70’s drought when we let our yellows mellow, removed or reduced lawns, and collected shower water.

See, we’re in for some serious growing pains while we struggle to understand and adjust to mandatory water restrictions now in 2015 – I don’t need to repeat the advice, you already know it (ditch the lawn, add compost and mulch, etc).  But what we need to be doing is more than just using less water, we need to use water more wisely – to help our plants fend for themselves better.  I see water as a training tool and my plants as smart, but slow.  They can’t fetch and training them to do much of anything takes years.

As of my last water bill, I’m down to 36 GPD (gallons per day) including landscaping.  Before you bow in awe to this amazing feat, you should know that I irrigate my garden a little differently than most and I’m not watering anything I don’t want to keep.  Let the rest die, they’re out of here anyway.  april 2014 Magnolia installedHere’s where I water differently:  I bought a 15 gal. Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’ (that baby green tree in the background left-side).  It is rated as having “moderate” water needs in Oakland by WUCOLS.  Moderate isn’t exactly water-wise, but I’ve got a theory…..  and so far, so good.  I planted the tree a year ago this month.  At the same exact time, my client in Mill Valley had three planted (guess whose idea that was).  Their landscape contractor did exactly what they usually do – they amended, fertilized, and watered the hell out of those trees.  My client’s trees bloomed and grew and leafed out beautifully, gained stature nicely.  Mine didn’t.  Luckily for them, theirs are next to a lawn that I’m sure they’ll keep as long as they can, where I have no lawn.  Below is a better shot of mine last May (1 month after planting).

may 2014 MagnoliaI planted mine with a bit of compost, watered it in well that first day, and walked away.  It looked fine for a while, then it got all stressed out and started dropping leaves.  I watered it again, a nice soaking, and it threw out some new leaves.  We did this all summer:  I kept an eye on it, watering only when I found signs of stress in the leaves, but then not again until I saw more stress.  It was nerve-wracking.  The tree did not visibly thrive, and it sure as heck didn’t get much bigger.  I’m pretty sure it would slap me if it could…. but it survived.  While it was dormant over winter and I held my breath to see how it would do come spring.  This spring when it started blooming, I was delighted with how many (albeit smallish) flowers there were on my young tree, and now it is leafed-out for the season.   I’ll be doing the same this summer, soaking the presumably larger root-zone, but as seldom as possible.  I’ll also be adding more compost on top (not working it in, that’s the worms’ job) and maintaining a good layer of mulch over that.

I believe that what I am doing will be better for my tree’s long-term durability.  I believe that I gave it reason to throw energy into its root system in search of water, and that I rewarded deep root growth instead of fast, exciting foliage and gains in stature.  Over the winter, its root system likely continued to dive and while I watered, soaking further and further down but less and less often, we’re working together to train this “moderate” water needs tree to survive more like a drought tolerant tree.   Here it is today, not much bigger, but doing just fine:

150413 magnolia tree 015I don’t water fast enough that it trickles off, doing by hand what irrigation designers call “cycle and soak”, making sure that the water goes into the soil and nowhere else.  I’m also taking advantage of the few light rains we had to water further than the rain itself went = deep watering every time.

I can’t tell others to do this, the tree looked like hell that first year of establishment and I think most people wouldn’t watch closely enough nor would they enjoy the experience (even I was a bit nervous).  We’ll see how things go this summer, but I can tell you that I don’t water much, maybe once a month?  I avoid watering if it is overcast or cool outside.  I look closely at my plants in the most stressful times – when it is blazing hot, sunny, and/or dry and windy.  If I see stress, I’ll water.  If not, forget it.  I’ll keep you posted on how things go this summer.

150413 roses and MagnoliaThe most impressive thing, though, is what I noticed in putting together this post – look how much my roses LOVE this treatment – they get watered only when the tree gets watered and I have yet to see them look even a little stressed.  You can see the change best between the second photo and the one above.  They’re the hybrid tea ‘Stainless Steel’ (my favorite).  Here’s the original one (now on the right in the photo above) blooming in my old garden in Alameda in 2010 and again in 2012:rose 'stainless steel' jun 2010Rose 'Stainless Steel' full on 2012


feb 2015 trip from curbI’ve been keeping busy in what feels like a perfect storm of absolutely inexcusable (insert many cuss words) BAD “gardening”.  I don’t know what the heck happened, but the stars aligned and I’ve been doing nothing but evaluating problems, recommending that gardeners get fired, and interviewing new gardeners.  I have three current projects dealing with this at the same time, and today a project I haven’t even started working on yet became the fourth.

This morning’s text from my new client brought such sad news.  She had the most charming Hong Kong Orchid (Bauhinia blakeana) tree and came home from work to find that it was absolutely butchered by the “gardeners”.  They were not directed to prune the tree, and I have to tell you – this has happened to more than one client where someone has butchered a tree without approval or permission!  My client loves this tree and I’m working on finding someone to help us in directing its recovery from the abuse.

Below you’ll see the few photos I have of the tree – I was so charmed by it, I can’t figure out why I didn’t get better photos.

feb 2015 trip bauhinia overhang feb 2015 trip front feb 2015 trip Bauhinia at front porchIt used to overhang the front patio that the living room looks out on – is focused on – but now I’m told that you can’t even see the tree from inside anymore.  If you are sensitive to gorey pictures, now is the time to avert your eyes:

150306 bauhinia butcheredI warned you, don’t say I didn’t.

SO – what the hell?  Thing is, any idiot can call him/herself a gardener.  There’s no training required, and most people are happy enough to have someone else do the mowing that they don’t worry about it – how hard can it be?   But what many don’t think about until it is too late is that those specimen plants can be responsible for a good up-tick in your property’s valuation.  New trees don’t add value, but healthy, mature ones totally do!

I will post again soon about some of the other issues with gardeners – but for now, may I just list these few things that every property owner should know:

An Arborist is an educated, certified person who is held to certain standards of care and who can be reported for not upholding those standards.  Hiring a tree service company does not mean an Arborist will be involved in your project, nor does it mean you’ll get qualified advice.  If you have an important tree, make sure you protect it with advice and evaluations from someone qualified to give them.

A Consulting Arborist can help you diagnose problems or evaluate a tree, the American Society of Consulting Arborists has a great web page that lets you search for one near you:  ASCA.  They aren’t the folks with the clippers, but they can tell you if a tree is in good health and stuff like that.

There is no specific qualification for someone to do pruning.  However, some arborists do work in hands-on ways or work for companies that do.  To find these kinds of people, check out the International Society of Arboriculture, or ISA.  The difference being arboriCULTURE as opposed to arborIST.

The moral of this story is that everyone who hires or works with a gardener or a landscape maintenance company should have the conversation about doing unauthorized work.  This is a huge no-no, and I’d like to make a law about it, but until that happens, we’ve got to look out for the trees ourselves.  Well, us and the Lorax anyway.

d 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateI am so excited to tell you that I’ve been asked to serve on an advisory board for the Dunsmuir Estate!  I’m told that this is the first advisory board since the City of Oakland took over care of the property, so I feel truly honored.

I was just over there last Friday because I made an effort to remember to visit during their insanely restricted hours (it is an effort, even bank employees would drool over these hours!).  I work from home not very far from this place and even still, I can’t seem to get over there while they’re actually open…. never-mind the times they should be open (imho) but aren’t, like weekdays squeezed between major holidays and weekends (I tried to go last Black Friday for example).  BUT, that’s not the point I’m here to make.

a 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateThis place is a gem in the rough.  Anyone who has read my blog before knows how much I enjoy visiting historic estates and gardens, but this one eluded me until a few months ago.  SO, without further delay – a few photos from last Friday to celebrate my budding relationship with the folks who are working so hard to keep the place up and promote it.  I’m plain ole thrilled about it.

b 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estatec 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateSo above you see the Main House and the entry, ducks, fountain, and gazebo (drought?  what drought?)….

f 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate e 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… and two benches with gobs of personality…

i 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estatej 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate h 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… a couple of shots that I think exemplify the magic of the character of the place….

g 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… but I’ll leave you with a shot of my favorite thing, the pool and pool house.  I could do a whole post just on this one item, and I probably will, but it is such a magical, beautifully proportioned thing, I wish I had drawings of it to study, find out what it is about the space that is so magical, apply those ratios to my own work (even though I don’t design by mathematical formula, I just want to “get” it and be able to replicate it).   I dearly hope that this can someday be restored, but in the meantime, I’ll stare at it and imagine what it must have been like.


If I can make it…

1 Lemon tree after harvestMy Meyer lemon tree produced a harvest this year that was truly more than I could deal with.  I have given away five (5!!) grocery store bags full of lemons, and it still has more fruit on it than I am prepared to use!  The photo above was taken after I harvested those 5 bags I gave away.  I am sorry I didn’t think to take a photo before, I was so overwhelmed with the insanity of it all. One of the friends I gave lemons to has a serious talent for cooking and making preserves, so I was glad to unload a bunch with her.  She’s made marmalade, curd, and preserved lemons (which I’d never heard of).  When I saw the preserved lemons last week, all gorgeous and perky in sexy tall jars, I was so envious!  Why haven’t I seen this before?  I learned this morning…. I was at Berkeley Bowl West for spices and I saw a jar, about 8 oz of preserved Meyer lemons for $13.  GAWD, that’s insane. 3 lemon harvestI asked her for her advice on making my own, and today I did it.  Here’s why that is noteworthy:  I dislike cooking.  I mean it, I honestly don’t enjoy it.  I’d rather eat a head of lettuce than make a salad.  It’s the same thing, but with less effort and fewer dishes.  I’ve joked for a long time that I eat ingredients or I nuke food, but I don’t make it.  However, stuffing lemons in a jar is something I can do, and it was nice to make something so pretty that I hope will help me fake having cooked real food someday.

4 clean perfect lemonsSo, following is what I did based on her advice and also review of other recipes online:

I washed the lemons with a little dish soap and the scrubby side of a sponge.  I started out using a veggie scrubber based on one blog’s advice, but it released so much lemon smell into the air, I figured I was releasing too many oils and damaging the peel so I switched to the gentler sponge.  Next, I separated out the beauties (above, aren’t they gorgeous!?) from the fuglies.  I preserved the beauts in the juice of the not-so-pretty ones.  They were beautiful on the inside, and that’s all that matters!

6 making preserved lemonsNext, I made a huge mess.  I took pint and a half size Ball jars, sterilized them with the lids (not the rings you screw on, just the lids with that sealant around the edge) in the oven on a cookie sheet at 220 degrees for 10 minutes.  I sliced the stems off the tops of the perfect lemons, flipped them over and quartered them but not cutting all the way through.

5 sliced lemons for preservingI put 1 tbsp kosher salt in each, and smashed them into jars as densely as I could with some lemon wedges to fill in extra space.  As I filled each jar, I added black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves in various amounts and combinations.  I juiced the ugly lemons and poured the juice over the top, taking care to add enough juice to cover all the fruit….. which started to float and made me mad, because I was told to cover the fruit with the juice, and they were bobbing up out of it …. then I added a skim of olive oil over the top, slapped on a lid and the screw-top ring thingy, and took pictures.

7 preserved lemonsMy friends’ preserved lemons didn’t have salt sitting on the bottom like I do, I don’t know how she managed that…. but whatever.

9 Preserved lemons and orangesOn the right there, you’ll see some preserved oranges.  That is an experiment and I’ll let you know how it goes.  I’ve been told I can crack one of these open in a month and dice the fruit into ice cream, over fish, roast it with chicken, into a salad (hahaha!!), pretty much anything I want.  A word of caution I will repeat from another site is not to add salt if you’re using salt preserved lemons in your cooking as they’ll bring enough with them.

Stay tuned to see if the danged things are edible in about a month!