Jul 14, 2014

Summertime at the Home Office

At the heart of it, my job is about improving quality of life: whether it's "just" a garden that's pretty to look at, or a landscape that invites — or even compels — us to spend more time out in the fresh air and sunshine. And while spring and fall are particularly easy on the eyes, summer can't be beat for truly living outdoors.

Kitchen island with gas grill and Big Green Egg © Verdance Landscape DesignIronically, though, summers tend to be my busiest time of year, with work following me around like a hungry (but sooo cute!) dog six or even seven days a week. So I particularly cherish the days that I get to live in my own landscape; and today I'm looking forward to enjoying one of my outdoor kitchen's custom features: my built-in Big Green Egg smoker.

My BGE sits in a well I designed into the island. (Hey, at over 250 lbs the thing isn't going anywhere anyhow, right?) This gave my granite fabricator fits, but it's a great look and complements the fast-but-clinical cooking of my gas grill with the Egg's slow-n-soulful flavors.

Today's project: a couple of racks of St. Louis pork ribs snagged on sale from Whole Paycheck a few days ago, cooked in the "3-2-1" method that's popular among Big Green Egg enthusiasts ("Eggheads"). Last night I rubbed each rack down with a different rub: one with Bruce Aidells' "Spice Rub for Pork or Beef" from The Complete Meat Cookbook:

  • 2 tablespoons paprika, preferably Hungarian 
  • 2 teaspoons chile powder, preferably Gebhardt 
  • 1-2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar [I use dark for its deeper flavor]
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard, preferably Colman's
  • 1 teaspoon ground sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup salt [I use Diamond Crystal kosher]
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

  • I like this mix because it's low in sugar. The second rub isn't: this is the "Fullback BBQ Ribs" recipe I tore out of a "special advertising section" in an issue of Food and Wine (I think — I managed to leave behind all the credits, and can't find it online):

  • 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 1/2 cup paprika
  • 1/2 cup cumin
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder [this got left out because I didn't have any]
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil [this got left out because it just seemed unnecessary]

  • After their little spice massage and an overnight nap in the fridge, the ribs came up to room temperature this morning while I fired up the BGE. For some reason, today that became a Thing: the lump charcoal got too hot when I wasn't paying attention, and I just couldn't get it back down even with the Egg's vents closed up tight; ultimately I had to kill the fire with wet paper towels and relight it.

    Big Green Egg lower vent 225 © Verdance Landscape DesignBig Green Egg daisy wheel vent 225 © Verdance Landscape DesignThe second time, now an hour behind schedule, I watched the temp the way the toy store owner watches my kids, and pinned it solid at 225°F, where it would hold for the next three hours with each vent open just a sliver.

    bourbon whisky macerated apples © Verdance Landscape DesignThe Egg uses a ceramic "platesetter" to create indirect heat, and I put the ribs bone-side-down on the cooking grate on top of the platesetter and said au revoir for a few hours. In the meantime, I prepared a little braising liquid for the next phase of the cook: a few unripe Pink Lady apples fallen out of my mini-grove, mashed up and macerated in bourbon.

    Since the ribs had such a slow start, I left them on the grill naked for an extra hour (making this a "4-2-1" cook). Then I took them out, put them on a pan atop the macerated apples, wrapped the whole mess up in a foil tent, and put it back on the grill for two more hours to steam the ribs to a fall-off-the-bone consistency.

    ribs after cooking 2 hours wrapped in foil © Verdance Landscape DesignAt this point the chef may be receiving queries from the other diners in the household, underscoring why we must plan ahead for these sorts of projects: no one actually enjoys waiting for dinner, no matter how promising the results or how lovely the evening.

    However, a glass of wine or two later I unwrap this beautiful scene: The meat is pulling back from the ends of the bones, and the racks are getting floppy, so I goose the BGE temp up to 250°F and put the ribs back directly on the grate for the last hour of cooking. This, I'm told, will create a lovely crust or "bark" on the ribs. In the meantime, I return to my wine and compose a little blog post.

    my backyard office © Verdance Landscape Design
    By the way, here's my office today. My soundtrack is the mockingbird next door along with the occasional whirr of hummingbird wings as they sneak sips from the Galvezia blooms behind me. My view is my apple grove, golden yarrow mingling with purple heliotrope, the setting sun washing the treetops around me in gold. The scent of those ribs wafts over on the evening breeze. And with another sip of wine I feel… joy.

    And this is the heart of what I do: I create joy. Not only for me, and for the family and friends who get to spend time out here too and get to dine on the meats of my labors, but also for that hummingbird; for the honeybees hard at work on my lavender; for the squirrels waiting for more apples to fall; even for the oak tree that gets to grow in a naturalistic ecosystem rather than being drowned in a sea of lawn. This joy, this life is what landscapes facilitate that no other design discipline does.

    Not bad for a day's work.

    platter o' ribs © Verdance Landscape Design

    Feb 2, 2014

    A Thing of Beauty

    The most beautiful thing in my front garden this morning? That wet thing in the upper right.

    Jan 29, 2014

    How to Reduce Your Water by 20%

    On Friday, Governor Brown declared a drought emergency, and asked Californians "to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent". 

    So how do you do that? It sounds intimidating — especially when you're already pretty water-conscious and already harvesting low-hanging fruit like fixing leaky faucets and using a broom rather than a hose to clean off your driveway. But it's actually not that bad when you remember a little math: namely, 20% of a big scary number is the same as 20% of all the little numbers that comprise it.

    In other words, I don't have to know how many gallons my irrigation system uses every day. I just need to set my irrigation timer to run at 80% of normal (a 20% cut). Or, if I can't make that adjustment, then program it to run 4 days a week instead of 5 (a 1/5, or 20%, cut). (Or 3 days a week instead of 4: a 25% cut.)

    If I normally shower for 15 minutes, shower for 12 (a 1/5 cut).

    If I normally run the faucet for 30 seconds while I brush my teeth, run it for 24 (a 1/5 cut). 

    I could go on, but you get it. Twenty percent is not impossible. It's not even hard. 

    We can do this.

    Aug 22, 2013

    Climate Zones 101

    Sandy soils, dry winters—we're not in Palo Alto any more!
    This week I was down at the San Diego Botanic Garden, where the differences between the Encinitas climate and the Palo Alto one I live in were on full display. For landscape designers like me who grew up reading the Sunset Western Garden Book, the concept of climate zones is second nature. But for plenty of other folks, it's about as foreign as, well, another land.

    Horticulturally speaking, a climate zone is simply an area where the growing conditions are consistently unique from any other area. Back in 1960, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defined 10 "plant hardiness zones" throughout the country, based mainly on winter low temperatures to help growers understand where crops would, and would not, survive the winter. Over time those definitions have been refined and the zones subdivided, and today there are 26 USDA zones. You can see a map online here.

    Here in the West, Sunset Magazine took the idea a step further, defining "Sunset climate zones" that take into account not only winter low temperatures but also summer highs, wind, rainfall, humidity, elevation, latitude and ocean influence. The result is a finely detailed picture of where plants will not only survive, but thrive. From its original 13 zones in the western states, Sunset now has identified more than 50 unique climate zones throughout the U.S. and Canada. These climate maps have become indispensable tools for garden designers, landscape architects, builders, and of course homeowners. Plant growers, who want gardeners to have success with their products, routinely label their plants with the USDA and/or Sunset zones those plants are best suited to.

    But why do zones matter, anyway? Because — whether for a budding home gardeners or a professional landscape architect — the first rule of planting design is "right plant, right place." So if you're designing a garden in San Diego, you can know that here in Sunset Zone 24, winters just won't get cold enough for most cherry trees to bear fruit. On the other hand, if you're designing for Palo Alto, you can assume that the Agave attenuata that thrives down here in the mild coastal desert will turn to mush during our freezing Zone 15 winters.
    Subtropical trees thrive in a subtropical climate zone

    Sure, plenty of people are in what I call "zonal denial" — gardening on the edge of reality, insistently planting frost-tender plants in cold-winter areas (and high-water turf grass in what's really a desert). They may skirt outright failure enough to be emboldened in their efforts, but their gardens aren't really thriving. And plants draped with flannel sheets and holiday lights probably aren't the curb appeal most people want.

    So don't live in that state called denial. Know your zone and plant accordingly. Your garden, and your neighbors, will thank you!
    Agave 'Blue Flame', hardy to 25°F — just on the edge of Palo Alto's climate

    Feb 15, 2013

    California's New(ish) Irrigation Laws

    Although California has legislated landscape irrigation for a few years now, most of us haven't noticed it… until now.

    But suddenly, homeowners applying for construction permits are getting the unpleasant surprise that a whole package of landscape documentation, including irrigation and planting plans and a slew of math, may be required as part of the permit submittal. What the…?!?

    A brief history: way back in 1990 the state determined (wisely) that water is a finite and precious resource in this Mediterranean climate, and 16 years later managed to enact Assembly Bill 1881 to promote the conservation of water in the man-made landscape. (A much better history is here.)

    As part of AB 1881, California drafted a Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), which defines maximum applied-water allowances and requires estimates of total landscape water usage based on calculations of plants' evapotranspiration rates and a few other factors. If that sounds complicated, it is; and a cottage industry of designers and auditors versed in not only horticulture but also irrigation principles and documentation has grown in response.

    AB 1881 also mandated that by 2010, local governments adopt either the state's Model Ordinance, or a local landscape ordinance that is at least as effective as the state's in conserving water. Now, most local governments are not known for either their foresight or their ability to respond nimbly to a bureaucratic requirement. So, unsurprisingly, in 2010 quite a few cities opted to simply adopt the state's ordinance as-is; and because enforcement would require staff which would require money and perhaps cost (or at least delay) permit revenue, most were less than stringent in enforcing the new law.

    The tide has turned, however, and now towns from Agoura Hills to Yucaipa have adopted local ordinances, and figured out how to enforce the requirements within their zoning permit process. As a result, many more garden designers and landscape architects have become conversant in acronyms like MAWA, ETWU, WUCOLS, ETAF, and ETo, and begun offering landscape documentation packages as part of our services. It's a lot of work — here's the MWELO submittal requirement:

    § 492.3  Elements of the Landscape Documentation Package.
    (a) The Landscape Documentation Package shall include the following six (6) elements:
    (1) project information;
    (A) date
    (B) project applicant
    (C) project address (if available, parcel and/or lot number(s))
    (D) total landscape area (square feet)
    (E) project type (e.g., new, rehabilitated, public, private, cemetery, homeowner-installed)
    (F) water supply type (e.g., potable, recycled, well) and identify the local retail water purveyor if the
    applicant is not served by a private well
    (G) checklist of all documents in Landscape Documentation Package
    (H) project contacts to include contact information for the project applicant and property owner
    (I) applicant signature and date with statement, “I agree to comply with the requirements of the water
    efficient landscape ordinance and submit a complete Landscape Documentation Package”.
    (2) Water Efficient Landscape Worksheet;
    (A) hydrozone information table
    (B) water budget calculations
    1. Maximum Applied Water Allowance (MAWA)
    2. Estimated Total Water Use (ETWU)
    (3) soil management report;
    (4) landscape design plan;
    (5) irrigation design plan; and
    (6) grading design plan. 

    Additionally, the Landscape Documentation Package is usually required to be signed by a licensed landscape architect, licensed landscape contractor, or certified irrigation auditor. Which means that in addition to being a lot of work, it's not cheap.

    Fortunately, WELO requirements do not apply to every project. If a permit isn't required, for instance, or if the total affected landscape area is less than 5,000 square feet, the state MWELO wouldn't apply. But since most cities have their own ordinances now, the only way to know for sure is to call your local building department and ask for a copy of the local WELO.

    There are a couple of pieces of good news in all this. First, if you're clear on your WELO requirements at the outset of your construction project (i.e. at the beginning of design, not the day before you plan to submit your plans), there's no reason a qualified professional can't prepare your documentation well in time for permitting.

    Second, the fact is that WELO requirements—although a bureaucratic tar pit—are saving water. They are forcing all of us to reconsider gratuitous lawns, to learn our water-thrifty plants, and to group those plants into sensible hydrozones, which is just good horticultural practice. As landowners and designers and stewards of the earth, we all are getting a little bit better in our roles.

    Imagine that.