Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

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

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The front of my new place is awash with purple Lantana (Lantana montevidensis).  It is lovely stuff if you are both color blind (unless you’re into this sort of purple, nothing wrong with that!) and an admirer of wildlife.  There are butterflies, bees, spiders, and lizards all over it.  It is absolutely marvelous for year-round blooming and needs no supplemental water once established (at least not here, I turned the irrigation off last fall).

lantana HQ 043

The flowers are the pepto bismol of purples – not my favorite, though maybe someday I will find a companion plant with a color that mitigates the pepto purple hue.  Meh, maybe not.  A dear friend of mine said that the overwhelming amount of purple Lantana in my garden made my place look like a retirement home.

lantana HQ 044

As much as I’d like to be able to retire (I’d still spend my time designing gardens – I love it that much), I am not ready to live in a dadgum retirement home!  Talk about death by association; I can’t look at it anymore without thinking about retirement homes.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, my lovely boyfriend thinks the foliage smells like poo (the flowers smell nice at night).  Charming: a poo scented retirement home.

lantana HQ 039Here’s my vexation:  as much as I intend to remove the Lantana and put in other stuff, it is happy, healthy, requires no water, and supports oodles of critters.  So for now it stays…. providing food and shelter for all those bugs and lizards, but lookout, Lantana!  You’re living on borrowed time.  Wanna know what I think might fill the space above?  I’m considering a collection of spineless Opuntia that my friend Melinda sent me from Texas along with a few I’ve collected on my own here.  The ones from Texas are rooting in the shed right now – cross your fingers that they all take!

IMG_3647So there’s my dilemma – removing the Lantana removes habitat, but goodness gracious, there’s so danged much of it, I don’t really like it, and the new design/plants aren’t ready yet.  Patience….

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I started a blog post mumble-mumble months (years) ago about the humming birds that were nesting in my apartment patio (I think they’re Anna’s Hummingbirds)

Hummingbird eggs in podocarpusI was going to say all sorts of lovely things about the environment and gardening without chemicals, stuff like that.  But then I stopped blogging, and I focused on pretty much everything else…. and then I moved.  Now I have a place only 30 minutes from the old apartment, and hummingbirds abound.  I think I have Rufous, Anna’s, and Allens, but I’m not sure so don’t go betting any money on it.

hummingbird babies in redwood at 2028 2012What I am obsessed with now is the incredible diversity of tiny critters that inhabit my suburban garden.  I must apologize in advance for not having the sense to take photos of all of the species that have come forth so far (northern rubber boa, aroboreal salamander, slender salamander, the neighbor’s cats, and countless birds).  I have only photos of this very patient little dude… here’s our story:

I was cutting (digging/swearing/chopping) out one of the dreaded Lantana in the front yard.  While I was whacking and wheezing and pulling at the stubborn Lantana stump, a teensy tiny baby lizard jumped on my hand.  I screamed like a little girl right there in my front yard where everyone on the block would be able to tell who the big baby was.  I ASSUMED that the intrepid little lizard had bounced off and gone about its business, since it quickly vacated my hand.

I know you’re anticipating its return already, clearly it did NOT leave me and go about its business!  That dad gum lizard showed up FOUR HOURS later… on the front of my t-shirt, after I had come inside, grabbed a snack, changed some of my clothes (ha ha, little lizard, very clever!) and… get this…. climbed into bed to read a novel.  There I am, plate of cheese and crackers, no shoes, hands and face washed, beverage with ice, feet under the covers, and ta-da!  the same  teensy lizard bounces smack on the front of my t-shirt between my murder mystery and my face.

little lizzie 019little lizzie 024I am very proud to inform you that I managed not to scream like a bitch this time.  In a very grown-up and mature way, I put down the book, slid off the bed, opened the curtains and the sliding glass door, and bent over ever so gracefully so my little friend could relocate to the railing just outside.

little lizzie 022

It is still out there, hanging in the back yard and waiting for me to come out.  I see it from the kitchen window almost daily, and pretty much every time I go out to water, there it is.  I can’t be sure that I’m not looking at a ton of look-a-likes, but who cares when they’re this cute!?

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It seems that everyone is aware that gardens can require some effort to maintain.  Professionals in the landscape design and construction industry understand that the success of any outdoor space depends on thoughtful design, quality installation, and ongoing, intelligent maintenance.   Not one of these three items can deliver the desired result without the other two.  Nearly every client I’ve ever known has brought “low maintenance” up as part of their wish list, often right at the beginning of the first meeting.  Let’s consider:

Thoughtful Design – the design process should take into account the needs and life-cycles of both living plant materials and non-living hardscape materials.  Naturally derived hardscape materials may not be “alive”, but they do change over time.   Metals oxidize, woods weather, and stone materials can do both…

Quality Installation – poor installation can cause good design ideas to fail miserably.  Bad planting practices will kill your plants and trees, poorly installed paving will sink and shift, retaining walls can fail, and irrigation systems can be mal-adjusted in so many ways.

Ongoing, Intelligent Maintenance – taking care of your investment is critical.  There’s no way to design around bad gardening practices or neglect.  Understanding your plant and hardscape materials is half the battle to having a garden that doesn’t require more of your (or your gardener’s) time than is reasonable.   Understanding is the key to this.  For example, I firmly believe that you could grow roses (considered by many to be high maintenance) without much fuss if roses that are suitable for your area have been selected and you understand how to care for them.

So if we keep the focus on maintenance, what are we talking about?

  • Pruning, shearing, dead-heading, weeding and mowing.
  • Fertilizing, spraying against disease or insects, watering.
  • Cleaning (water features, stains on hardscape), sealing (deck wood, stone, etc), repairing broken items, etc.

There are countless books and internet resources on low maintenance gardening.  Not one of them can take the place of using good common sense.  Below are a few quick thoughts:


  • They must be big enough to support the plants grown in them.
  • Smaller containers dry out faster, and don’t have as much room for roots as larger containers.
  • Some plants are more tolerant of container culture than others.  Shallow planters are better for some things than deep planters and vice versa.
  • Containers need a hole for drainage.
  • Dark containers heat up more and can cook the plants’ root system (and dry out fastest).
  • Containers (or raised beds) of different materials create different environments for your plants: metal, wood, ceramic, terracotta, and plastic all have unique qualities that should be considered.


  • Each different kind of plant has different needs.
  • Individual plants of the same kind are individuals and may not look exactly the same as the same kind of plant nearby.  Healthy plants are better looking than plants that are struggling.
  • Lots of different plants are harder to care for than a simpler plant palette.
  • Plants grow.  Trying to keep a naturally large tree small to fit a small space is … less clever than planting a smaller growing tree in the first place.
  • Lawns are a lot of work, period.  They don’t have to be so bad, but the appearance that people typically demand of their lawns requires work and chemicals.
  • Plants have annual life cycles.  Some go dormant, others look pretty much the same year-round.  For example, Bulbs need their fading foliage to store up energy for the next season, and lavender starts to look ratty after about two years without annual pruning.  Honor your plant’s needs.  Some plants re-seed themselves, others don’t.  How does that fit with your design intent?


  • Stone is a natural material and is meant to oxidize and weather naturally.  I wholeheartedly disagree with sealants on stone to “keep it looking new”.  My feeling is that this is like applying clear nail polish, and that the true beauty of stone is expressed with age and patina.  Choose surface finishes carefully for the out of doors as smooth stone can be slippery when wet.
  • Tiles 1/4″ thick are not meant for paving.  Materials this thin are usually meant for vertical applications or indoors.
  • Wood is a natural material that weathers and rots.  My personal preference is not to use sealants on wood decks unless you really enjoy sanding them down and re-sealing them annually.  Containers and other sources of consistent moisture will accelerate the decomposition of the wood on your deck, so be careful.  Different woods degrade in different ways and at different rates.  They also have very different costs associated with them.  The most vulnerable part of lumber is the end cut.  Working with the characteristics of wood can produce wonderful results, but ignoring its natural tendencies is fool-hearty.
  • Bricks are a man-made construct from natural materials.  They can age beautifully like a soft stone or be chosen for their resistance to weathering.

Consider that Filoli in Woodside, CA has 12oo volunteers plus a paid staff to maintain it.  I think it is totally worth it for such an impressive estate and extensive gardens.  Oh, and make no mistake – those people know what they’re doing, too.  So what is low enough maintenance for you?  One hour a week?  Three?  Do you need to hire someone, or are you going to do everything yourself, and do you really enjoy doing it, or will the work ruin your enjoyment of your outdoor space?

Truly high maintenance:  bonsai, String Garden, topiary, zonal denial (growing stuff that isn’t really suited to where your garden is), and trying to cram in too many amenities so that the feel of the space suffers.

Please add your thoughts in the comments!

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I am sorry to say that despite the incredible amount of coverage that water use gets these days, almost none discusses some of the long-term effects of inappropriate watering practices.  I am not going to start counting how many gallons you can save by switching to drip irrigation, or the fact that spray irrigation can lose 50% to the wind and evaporation before your plants get any of it….nope, I’m not.  I do want to mention a few things that I’ve learned through being a Landscape Architect and a gardening enthusiast:

Roots: I read a letter to the editor in our glorious Alameda Journal (23 october 2009) in which a woman complains about street tree roots buckling her walkway.  I have not seen her property, but I would bet a whole lot of donuts that the problem can be traced back to shallow irrigation.   Roots know what they’re doing, they take up water and nutrients for the plant (tree, shrub, whatever).  They will go where the water is, and if the good stuff is to be found in the top layer of the soil, that is where you will find the roots.  This goes for a tree, a shrub, all plants including a lawn.  So when your sprinkler system is on for 10 minutes and soaks in maybe 3″, or you stand outside with a hose for half an hour, you can expect the majority of roots to gravitate to that topmost layer, including those of walkway-bucking trees.

Here’s the part I wish those water-wise articles would mention:  IF you water your plants deeply and less frequently, their root systems learn to dive deep to find it.  Even a lawn can have roots that are a couple of feet deep!  Water deeply, and the water lasts longer, is available to the roots of your plants, and then when there is a drought, those plants have a better survival rate thanks to their deep, probing root structure!!

Containers: I prefer terracotta pots for the numerous ways in which they have been a good home to my plants over time (oh yeah, this is about water, not pots… I’m getting back on track now).  Whatever containers you use, when the root ball dries out, it shrinks and pulls away from the sides.  The next time water is poured into that container, the water runs around the rootball (not through) and out the bottom, doing the roots of your plants no good.  There are goofy weird products on the market that claim to hold moisture in the soil, or add water over time, blah blah.  I’ve tried many and never liked one.  In my garden, I have a 1/8″ thick wire stake of forgotten origin that I use to poke holes into the rootballs of neglected container plants when I water.  The holes allow air to escape, water to penetrate, and roots to get what they need.  If I have been particularly rotten to my container plants, I fill a bucket or my wheelbarrow with water and I soak them in it to allow them to really soak it up.  A note:  I don’t think self-watering containers work well.  The photo below shows a lovely display from the Los Angeles Getty Museum gardens several years ago – I wonder, though, are they hand-watered?  is the water allowed to drain out?  Was I just lucky enough to see this display before that water stained the paving?  Container plants need water and drainage in order to stay nice for more than a short time.

succulents at the Getty

Watering Practices:  I love walking around in the evening, winding down after my day.  I see a lot of irrigation at night, though, and wish that more people understood the benefits of watering in the early am instead.  Plants lose most of their moisture during the heat of the day as a byproduct of photosynthesis (evapotranspiration from photosynthesis is where plant-released oxygen comes from), so watering before plants need it is ideal (but if you have wilting, dry plants at noon, they need it asap!).  If you have good drainage, so much the better because the (assuming we’re not growing aquatic plants) roots won’t be left to wallow in suffocating muck.  Leaving plant roots in cool, damp soil as the temperature drops (evening watering) can promote the growth of undesirable mold, fungus, and plant disease.  Please also pay attention to the drainage of your soils!  The water here is pooling due to being both trapped by the edging and also because the soil in this area is so over watered, it has developed a scummy skin that keeps their irrigation efforts on the surface for hours after each watering.

Please know that there are evapotranspiration (ET) irrigation systems that can adjust automatically (with the help of a weather station) to turn the water off when it is raining, adjust for seasons, soils, slopes, and planting types!  You do NOT have to rely on remembering to run out in the rain to turn the thing off or waiting for your maintenance service to do it for you.

bad drainage suffocating muck

Runoff: Okay, so we’ve talked about water and your vegetation, and we know that we don’t want to water the sidewalk, but what about all that flooding that we get in a good storm?  Permeable paving products hope to help solve the problem, see this report adopted by the California Coastal Commission in March, 2007.  I would point out, however, that permeable paving solutions are dependent on proper maintenance, and that even compacted soil can resist water penetration as well as any hard paving material.  So, not to get into a discussion of style or design, I would encourage everyone to consider where a permeable solution can be used.  It is far nicer to have all that lovely rainwater seep into the soil than to run off our urban and suburban surfaces, filling up the storm drains instead.  I was given this book on Rain Gardens as a gift about a year ago, it is worth reading.  I bring up runoff, because I’ve noticed several water-saving lists recommending adding non-planted areas to cut down on the amount of water needed to irrigate.  I think that suggesting this is misleading and not necessarily an environmentally friendly practice.

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I admit, this post is not exactly exciting.   It is important, though.  All property owners should understand at least the basic concepts of landscape water use.  The issues are multiple and varied and it is not reasonable to expect that I can smoosh it all into one thrilling, must-read post.  I am sorry to see (I’ve been online for several hours at a time over a few days) that though there are TONS of websites with water saving tips, few address the multitude of issues very well.

Guess what?!  In January 2010, California will require certain landscapes to be more water efficient.  The state adopted ordinance AB 1881 in March and it will go into effect January 2010.  Unless the governing city or county where your project is has already adopted stricter ordinances regarding water use, AB 1881 is the new rule.  As of November 2009, I have not found anything in the city of Alameda or Alameda county websites that restricts water use more than AB 1881, so I am assuming for now that it is our new rule, too.

Suzanne Palmer of David Neault Associates in Temecula wrote a post back in February that outlines the history of California’s water problems and discusses both the genesis and some of the aspects of AB 1881 – no need to re-invent that wheel, she covered the issue well.

Emily Green, a columnist for the LA Times posted a bullet point list on ordinance AB 1881.  Her list does an excellent job of illustrating which projects that will be affected by this ordinance, including private residences.

WUCOLS:  A Guide to Estimating Irrigation Water Needs of Landscape Plantings in California.  This publication is industry standard.

The Save Our Water website is a statewide public education site with lots of fun links, tips, calculators, etc for both indoor and outdoor water use including kid-friendly challenges.  Of course, there is also the Bay Friendly site that covers a variety of Bay Area specific environmental topics.

Residents of the East Bay who are customers of EBMUD may benefit greatly from their Residential Landscape Rebate Program.   EBMUD also published a book a few years ago that I have and love.  The book illustrates better than any others I’ve seen that a water-wise landscape doesn’t have to look like a cactus garden.  I like cactus gardens as much as the next guy, but I do feel that the word “xeriscape” earned a bad reputation and misunderstanding from too many gardens looking alike.  Using water smart practices and appropriate plants does not necessarily dictate the style of a garden! EBMUD also has a WaterSmart Center on their website with links to rebate programs, free stuff, and even free on-site water use surveys.

I encourage all my clients to invest in a self-adjusting irrigation controller.  It doesn’t cost much, can work with an existing irrigation system (we’re just talking about the controller and a weather station, here) and usually does a better job than your gardener will.  That brings me to this evapotranspiration web page and the benefits of self-adjusting irrigation controllers from Urban Farmer.  At the top is a link to a comparison chart for the top five brands.  Urban Farmer is absolutely the go-to place for irrigation products, all the contractors I know get their supplies (and tech. support) there.

If you have read anything online, or watched the news, or read a paper in the last decade, you already know that water use and conservation is an issue in our state.  Things that can save water include:

  • mulching
  • grouping plants into water-use zones, and using drought tolerant plants that are adapted to your area
  • switching from a typical sprinkler system to drip irrigation or sub-grade irrigation
  • Watering in the early am (not late at night, please!!!  that actually promotes pathogens) so the plants can take up the water in time for the warm day ahead.
  • cleaning sidewalks and driveways with a broom instead of a hose (well, duh)
  • adjust your irrigation system so there is no over spray onto paved surfaces
  • look for leaks in your watering system, pool, spa, etc and watch your water bill for changes
  • replacing lawn with water-wise plants

Above, I think I’ve compiled a decent overview of the basic water issue, but I am still bugged by the correlating issues not mentioned.  Please stay tuned for a future post focusing on these corresponding not-so-often discussed side-issues.  They’re just as important for the sustainability and long term success of any landscape.


drought tolerant grasses and perennials

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Lawn daisies

Anyone who read this blog post on turfgrass lawns probably understands the arguments against turfgrass lawns.   So now what?  Do we all need to tear out or grassy swathes and put in wildflowers?  Not necessarily – there are TONS of turfgrass lawn alternatives, and so much documentation that it would be insanity to try to catalog everything without actually considering a career in publishing….go ahead, google it.

But this morning I was thinking about a mid-way point between eliminating an existing turfgrass lawn in favor of other groundcovers, perennials, or the extreme artificial lawns that seem to be gaining in popularity at the moment (due to extensive television advertising?).

I came upon the mixed lawn as a compromise / move in the right direction.  When I was little, the local library had tons of tiny daisies in the lawn which I thought were completely charming.  At our home, there was clover in the front lawn that I would sit in, pluck at the flowers, and hang out with the cat or bunny.  Even if you don’t go to the expense and trouble of removing an existing lawn regardless of its condition, simply overseeding with white clover can start a remarkable transformation.  Adding clover to your turfgrass lawn can begins the transformation of adding little flowers, benefits from nitrogen fixing, and gaining a more textured, greener appearance.   What can be a better solution in having a lawn than having one that eliminating the need and expense of chemical fertilizers, needs less mowing, uses less water, and it is prettier and greener as well?!  Sign me up.

Oh!  and by the way – an added benefit of intentionally mixing other plants in with your turfgrass is supporting bees in your area (they like clover very much) – and please don’t get me started on the crisis facing the bees in California!

It seems that Oregonians are embracing mixed lawns already, something I have yet to notice much here in California.  Hobbs and Hopkins in Oregon offers some clever seed mixes for more interesting and environmentally friendly lawns.  They include all sorts of things from clover to lawn daisies and dwarf yarrow.  Isn’t that so much more fun than plain ole turfgrass?!  Am I the only one who loves this!? Their photos look like exotic salads – not dull, flat green carpets.

As soon as it is released, I will have a copy of The American Meadow, a book that John Greenlee has been promising for a couple of years now.  It isn’t quite the same concept as mixed lawns, but maybe he will cover that in the book?  We’ll see when my copy arrives….oh, I am so excited!

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