Dec 30, 2007
There were also a few achievements, mostly personal, that didn't quite get achieved. My vernal pool is still being formed; my narcissus bulbs still aren't in the ground; my back yard is little more than turf and a wall. But, I'm told, it's normal for the shoemaker's children to run barefoot (how cruel does that sound this time of year?!), and while my neighbors who told me they wanted to replace their lawns with water-wise plantings have installed… more lawns, I'm reducing or even eliminating the lawn in my own yard and my clients'. Score one small moral victory.
I've also had lots of opportunities to think and talk about why I do the work I do. And it's been gratifying to know that in the end, it's all about the moral victories. Every square foot of lawn I don't spec saves a little bit of water for the rest of the planet. Every child-friendly garden I design inspires another generation to get involved with the natural world. Every time I get to include a little bit of art in a garden, or make it a unique reflection of its unique owners, I help create happiness. Not a bad way to make a living.
So here's wishing you a new year that's filled with joys small and large. May nature surprise and delight you, and may we all make this planet just a little bit nicer, for our children if not for ourselves.
Dec 20, 2007
The gorgeous displays of reds, oranges and golds is especially striking this year because [a] it's been a very cold and dry season, both of which stress trees into withdrawing their green chlorophyll earlier and more quickly (thereby revealing the natural anthocyanins and carotene colors), and [b] the lack of rain and wind has left those vibrant leaves on the trees longer. Now that the storms are arriving, we're getting more of what we're used to:
Autumn gardens are among my favorites, not only for their foliage colors but because of the way the winter light plays on details such as leaf margins and seed heads, such as the tall Miscanthus and Calamagrostis grass plumes that look splendid all golden and backlit. Other specimens, such as the coral-bark Japanese maple and the river birch, start showing some of their best assets that are hidden, or at least overshadowed, most of the year. But there's no denying that colorful foliage is the star of the season, especially when set against a backdrop of dark evergreens such as pines, redwoods or even magnolias. Some of my favorites include:
As you're out and about over the next few days, I hope you'll make it a point to notice and appreciate the colors before they're brought back to earth by the rain and winds. If you see something particularly stunning, feel free to send it in. And if you have favorite autumn plants of your own, please share!
Dec 15, 2007
I'm proud to announce Verdance now offers design modeling as one of our premium services. In the last two years I've transitioned from hand-drawn plans to the enhanced precision and visualization of CAD and SketchUp-rendered designs. Now, I'm also able to replicate our designs to scale, whether to show the look and feel of an entire site or create a prototype of a specific feature. Of course I offer this service to my clientele; and I'm available as well to consult for other landscape designers and architects in bringing their design ideas to life.
Back in the virtual world, my series on Christmas trees, real or fake or organic or toxic, is due for a new chapter; the G Living Network was kind enough to do the heavy lifting for me.
After ordering about 1,000 narcissus and tulip species from Brent and Becky's, I've been hurriedly preparing my front yard to receive them and ultimately have concluded I'll have to plant them in shallow graves and unearth them for a proper replanting next fall. That's efficient.
The time for getting native plants into the ground has come and is going... and have I gotten my own vernal pool (aka billabong) prepared? Nooooo..... but I will at least have some "in process" photos here soon.
I've certainly missed having the time to write here; of course there's also some wondering whether anyone is reading (or not reading) what I do write. If there's anything you'd like to hear me wax on about in the coming months, I hope you'll let me know.
Oct 18, 2007
...The plants get happy
...I get featured in the media
Tune in to HGTV this Sunday, 10/21, at 9:30 a.m. to see yours truly on my first episode of "Landscapers' Challenge". Did I pop the champagne corks in victory? Did I cry all the way home in defeat? You'll just have to tune in to see.
What I can tell you is, the yard recently (although too late for filming) was named an official Certified Wildlife Habitat™ by the National Wildlife Federation, because it nourishes and shelters birds, butterflies, and other desirable species. This is a neat program because it encourages designers and homeowners to think beyond just how a yard looks and consider what it does. So I can take comfort knowing that this yard will still be helping its environment long after my ephemeral fame has dried up like yesterday's rain.
Oct 12, 2007
For another angle on the same topic, you can also see my thoughts in a recent MarketWatch article.
But don't stop there: sign up today to attend the class, because I've got a LOT more to share!
Sep 18, 2007
If you've been wondering how to start planning your own home garden, or what types of landscaping elements are best for kids, or how to attract butterflies and "good bugs," then please register for the class I'll be leading at Gamble Garden in Palo Alto next month.
In a 3-session series, you'll learn how to analyze your property and assess your needs; how to determine what structural features will be useful, beautiful, and safe for your entire family; and how to determine what plants will be best suited for your family's garden. We'll also explore plants that are toxic for children and pets, review different types of swings and play structures, and lay the foundation for creating your own landscape plan.
Once you're registered for the class, please feel free to contact me with advance questions or topic requests. Whether you're already working with a landscape designer or contractor, or thinking of planning and installing the garden yourself, I guarantee you'll learn something useful (and have fun in the process!). There are only 25 seats per session, so sign up now! I hope I'll see you there...
Sep 17, 2007
This sort of re-naming, while confusing, isn't uncommon: Stipa tenuissima is now Nassella, Diosma pulchrum is now Coleonema, Atriplex spinosa is now Grayia, Laurentia fluviatilis is synonymous with Isotoma fluviatilis is synonymous with Pratia pedunculata, and so on. Which begs the question, if these supposedly sacrosanct botanical names can be so fluid, why do they matter?
It helps to understand the difference between botanical, or "scientific," names and common, or "vernacular," ones. While common names such as "pineapple guava," "breath of heaven," and "blue star creeper" roll easily off the tongue (and offer ample opportunity for seductive descriptions in mail-order catalogs) they are imprecise, usually relying on associations not obvious to everyone. What is a "lily of the valley" to you? An herbaceous perennial, or an evergreen shrub? For some real entertainment, peruse Wikipedia's list of plants by common name: not only can you see why ordering a "white birch" could get you into trouble, but you'll also see that a brown daisy, yellow daisy, black-eyed Susan, and brown-eyed Susan are all the same plant, depending somewhat arbitrarily on where in the U.S. you live.
Botanical names, on the other hand, are determined systematically rather than arbitrarily, and are consistent throughout the world. Every species has one, and only one, botanical name; and that name describes not only its unique characteristics but also its relation to other species. This system was developed by the premier 18th-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who classified all living things hierarchically by their common characteristics rather than, say, geographic origin. In botany, we are usually most concerned with the genus and species names; less frequently with the larger family or the smaller subspecies and/or varietal names. So our old favorite the black-eyed Susan can most accurately be described as Rudbeckia hirta — that's genus Rudbeckia, species hirta, which tells us it's related to yet different from Rudbeckia fulgida and Rudbeckia laciniata. (Now we only need to decide whether we mean the variety R. hirta var. angustifolia, or R. hirta var. pulcherrima.)
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, not quite. In a future post, I'll talk a bit about the "Deep Green" project spearheaded by Brent Mishler at Berkeley, which aims to trace plants' evolutionary paths and reclassify them in a cladistic, not Linnaean, manner — meaning that the venerable Zea mays would be renamed Mays Zea Gramineae Monocots Angiosperms Eukaryota Life. Not quite as poetic, perhaps, but technically more accurate… and definitely more precise than "corn."
Sep 10, 2007
I recently had a couple of experiences, wholly unrelated to landscaping, that reminded me of the most important skill any landscape designer can possess.
In the first instance, I phoned a large chain retailer (whose name rhymes with Blarget) to see whether they had a certain item in stock. Naturally, my call was intercepted by a computerized menu of options: "Press 1 for store hours, press 2 for directions," etc. etc. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I expected from a large chain retailer. But when I finally rang through to customer service, something wonderful happened: the human at the other end of the line cheerfully answered, "Thank you for calling, may I help you find something?"
I was elated. Her question couldn't have been more precise or appropriate. After all, why else do we bother calling large chain retailers? (Unless we need store hours or directions, but that would have been solved earlier in the call.) It wasn't just a lazy "how can I help you?" (oh, let me count the ways) — and it allowed me to quickly, efficiently get the information that was important to me.
In the second instance, my family and I were at a large chain restaurant (whose name rhymes with Schmilli's) for the second time in seven days — first outbound and now homebound on a long road trip. As chance would have it, the same server was working that had helped us on our first visit (which, by the way, was entirely uneventful). And damned if she didn't remember, without missing a beat, exactly what each of us had ordered seven days before, and would we like the same again? (Ironically, she said her boyfriend thought that with a memory like hers, she could be doing so much better than waitressing. I tipped generously in hopes of suggesting otherwise.)
So what do these scenarios have do to with landscape design? Everything. Because to create gardens that are personal, we need to (1) ask the right questions and (2) remember the details. It's not enough to ask, "What's your favorite season" or "List your favorite plants" or "What's your favorite color?" Those questions won't yield the important answers. What's important is why you like that season, or what those plants or colors mean to you. That's how I get to know you. And with that understanding, I can interpret you in all the details of your garden — not just the plants I select but their placement and combinations; not just the color of materials but their texture and type; not just the location of a water feature but the quality of its sound. These are the details that make your garden yours — and they'll bring you joy every day you come home to them.
Aug 29, 2007
And that transports me to another thought I've had recently: the "ad man" character, so prominent from the 1980s (thirtysomething, Melrose Place, Crazy People, Nothing in Common) through about 2000 (Bounce, What Women Want) seems to be giving way to the "young architect" character (Click, The Lake House, The Last Kiss) and, now, the "landscape architect" character (Just Like Heaven, Breaking and Entering). (On the other hand, this seems to mirror my own career trajectory. So maybe it's just me?)
I might venture that it has something to do with our global consciousness: as television matured in the '70s advertising messages evolved to be more subtle and pervasive than ever before, perhaps reaching their zenith with the marketing of a certain actor-turned-president. Sure, "Bewitched" had given us the goofy ad man decades before, but in the "greed is good" decade advertising took on a new allure… and we loved it.
Now, our thoughts are on the environment and our nests within it. Again, the architect isn't a new character; but in an affluent society living in a post-9/11 world, his role is paramount as he creates (or re-creates) our cities (pride, honor) and our homes (refuge, ego). And the landscape architect, well, he represents nothing less than the savior of our planet — not a warrior, though (that would be too scary), but an approachable, "outdoorsy, artsy" type. That's comforting, isn't it? Break out the wool sweater and fire up the Prius, we're going into the hills to visit Al Gore.
I don't mind the stereotype, really I don't; I just hope the media will treat the profession a little more accurately than they ever did advertising. I never did set foot in an agency where the creatives were playing paintball in the halls or binge drinking before deadline (although maybe I just never worked at the right shop). Dare we show the paying public that landscape architects spend more time bleary-eyed in front of a monitor than strolling through forests? Mostly, I hope the media will reflect the growing trend in my industry toward making things right — restoring wetlands, increasing green open space, correcting decades of environmental mismanagement — and not just making things pretty.
Aug 22, 2007
What caught my eye here was how much attention has been paid to the details: the lamp post and building trim match (or at least coordinate with) the blooms of the Lagerstroemia (crepe myrtle). And for good measure, the "garlic bulb" rides to the left are also streaked with violet, just like a real garlic bulb.
Is there a color in your garden that inspires you? Bring a bloom to a good paint store — they can match the color, or at least get this close. Now: did you also notice the Stachys, Lavandula and Helictotrichon down at ground level? These cool silvery tones are a terrific complement to the warm violet. On a color wheel, these two colors aren't quite opposites (think of blue and orange, purple and yellow, red and green) but neither are they adjacent (such as a violet-red-orange combination). Rather, the red-violet and blue-green are two legs in a triadic combination. The third leg of the triad would be yellow-orange; the closest we'll get is the exfoliating cinnamon-tan bark of the Lagerstroemia.
Perhaps because one of my favorite childhood toys was a set of translucent color paddles, I'm able to visualize color combinations pretty readily. But if you're not, pick up a color wheel and keep it on your desktop… pretty soon you, too, will see these subtle (or not so) color combinations that are all around you.
Aug 14, 2007
Pistacia chinensis is the first tree to show autumn color this year... since there hasn't been a real cold snap yet, I would guess it is responding to the shorter days, which I've noticed too. Funny how sensitive we are to these seasonal shifts… if we're paying attention.
Aug 13, 2007
In the case of this memorial, no signage announces the site, just subtle engravings of the statements made by the accused as well as their names, method of execution, and dates of death. Those engravings are on twenty granite benches which levitate on the face of a wall, creating tombstones for the deceased, whose ignominious executions precluded any tombstones of their own. According to the site's designer, James Cutler, the black locust trees planted in the courtyard were chosen as "the tree from which these innocents were hung." And I would say it's not irony but careful planning that sites the memorial adjacent to Old Burying Point, the graveyard in which lies the grave of Judge John Hathorn, whose witchcraft verdict led to the deaths of the accused.
These and numerous other details would have no significance outside of this site. And if more obvious means of communication had been chosen — say, a large plaque announcing the memorial, or upright "tombstone" pillars instead of the horizontal granite slabs — the visitor would be less intrigued, less inspired to contemplate rather than spectate.
In the garden, we generally seek to symbolize less grisly memories, but the lessons are the same: use a soft brush to illustrate with contrast, color and texture; find clues that are specific to the site, and its residents; and don't state the obvious — often a whisper is louder than a shout.
Aug 9, 2007
Jul 30, 2007
We all know Stanford University is the pinnacle of knowledge west of the Atlantic Ocean. But while we might expect binary trees, expression trees and one particularly silly mascot, did you know the University's founder also planned a great arboretum that would be a veritable "zoo for trees," taking advantage of the region's moderate climate to grow rare and notable species from every corner of the globe?
Unfortunately, what remains in the original arboretum space planned by Frederick Law Olmsted are mostly eucalyptus and oak species as well as the palms on eponymous Palm Drive and elsewhere. The oaks are native, explicitly protected by Senator Stanford; the eucalypts were planted as fast-growing "nurse trees" to offer shade to tender exotic transplants while they established, then be removed.
As the Stanford News Service reports, in the financial crisis following the Senator's untimely death "the arboretum was neglected. Most specimen trees failed, while the heartier eucalypts flourished." When backers revived plans for the arboretum, they "upheld Stanford's vision for maintaining wooded open space, but departed from his notion of trees from around the world in favor of species native to California."
Nevertheless, today Stanford hosts a remarkable diversity of not only trees but also shrubs, vines, grasses and native plants, catalogued and annotated online in a tremendous resource. Horticultural notes, leaf silhouettes, tree walk maps, and more await you. Whether or not you've seen it on campus, this is a quick and gorgeous go-to guide for identifying, or selecting, that perfect specimen.
Jul 16, 2007
The map shows how common lawns are across the country, despite a wide variability of climate and soils. Indeed, the scientists who produced the map estimate that more surface area is devoted to lawns than to any other single irrigated crop in the country. For example, lawns appear to cover more than three times the number of acres that irrigated corn covers.
Just take a look at, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or any other "desert" town to get a sense of just how important we perceive lawn to be to our way of life. Books such as American Green explore our obsession (albeit a bit pithily, says the New York Times), and magazines such as Forbes estimate that we "Americans spent $25.9 billion on lawn-care and landscape maintenance in 2006, a figure which includes, among other things, professional services and water bills."
That article goes on to mention xeriscaping -- technically, landscaping with plants that can withstand bone-dry conditions, such as the lovely specimens offered by High Country Gardens -- but also notes that local ordinances may actually override common sense, dictating plants of a certain type or lawns of a certain size.
My clients know I believe lawn is good for children and dogs, and not much else. My neighbors despise me because I've let the gratuitous patches of lawn in our front yard die ("it's not brown, it's golden," I remind them) as I await the fall planting season. My readers know I've wrestled with the dilemma of natural vs. artificial turf for my back yard (natural won, in a split and ambiguously ethical decision involving invertebrates). But I still find that most people I talk to for the first time can't let go of their vision of a lush, green lawn. Never mind that we Americans use as much as 19 trillion gallons of water and 2.4 million metric tons of nitrogen-based fertilizer annually to care for our lawns... you've got yours, and I want mine.
Jul 5, 2007
So says Laura Crockett in the current issue of Fine Gardening, distinguishing plants that have "personality" -- the "demeanor portrayed through their weepy forms or jagged leaves" -- and illustrates with a truly weepy Hakenochloa and a truly jagged Agave.
I mostly agree. But we humans anthropomorphize plants (and everything else) so extensively, is it truly fair for garden designers like Ms Crockett or me to decide for our clients what plant embodies what personality? That weepy Hakone grass, for example, may be comforting to me but evoke a sadness in you.
More properly, I think it's unfair to evaluate plants on just one aspect (in this case, their form: weepy or jagged). I might find the flowing shape of the Hakenochloa relaxing, but you might find its yellow variegation and violet winter tones invigorating! And the Agave may be just plain scary to me, but oddly reassuring to someone with a more Gothic sensibility.
So I would conclude that a plant's "personality" is a fiction projected by those of us who have emotions (in the human sense). It's not an objective attribute, and should not be the basis for a design the way form, color and texture are. On the other hand, if you're designing your own garden (as Ms Crockett's readers probably are), why not fill it with plants who evoke emotion and meaning for you? Just don't take my word for what that meaning is.
Jun 21, 2007
After all, no landscape designer worth their soil is so inflexible they can't work with more than one kind of client or architecture. And a really good designer will be part researcher, part psychologist and part psychic as well, so that we know our client really well -- so well that we can deliver unique ideas and solutions that may be unexpected but are never unwelcome.
So how can you know whether a given landscape designer is a good fit for your property?
1. Don't pick an "English country" designer just because you have a Tudor-style home. Even if there were designers who specialized exclusively in one genre like this, you'd probably get the same palette of plants and cookie-cutter look as their last customer. (The notable exception may be designers such as Indig Design who specialize in native plant communities... not an aesthetic style as much as an ecological one.)
2. Unless you give very clear-cut and detailed direction, don't put too much stock in the designer who, on first sight, knows "exactly how" they would design your garden. Intuition and vision are wonderful, and certainly first impressions last. But anyone who weds themselves to a single idea without doing a bit of reconaissance on your property and developing alternative designs is missing the details that will make your garden truly yours over the long term.
(2b. If you do have very clear-cut and detailed direction, you may want to simply hire a contractor and skip the design phase. You'll have more money to allocate to construction, and you'll be able to move forward with your project faster.)
3. Don't pick the designer with the biggest ad in the phone book or at the top of the search engine ads. That's only an indicator of how much advertising they need to do; it tells you nothing about the process or quality of their work.
4. Do retain the designer that your friends, neighbors, or trusted associates are raving about. Even if their home looks nothing like yours, the raves probably are for how the designer handled the project -- process, fees, attention to detail, communication -- as much as for the finished look. Websites like Yelp can be helpful here as well.
5. Do retain the designer who asks about and understands your budget -- and agrees to work with you anyway. If you have $100,000 - $250,000 to spend on your landscaping, you'll want to make sure you interview designers who are accustomed to budgets (or properties) that size. On the other hand, if you have 1/10 that amount to spend, you'll want to talk with the designer who knows how to make $25,000 look like a million bucks.
6. Do retain the designer who "feels right" to you, regardless of budget or style. You'll be working closely with this person on myriad details, and s/he will need to interpret your wishes, dislikes and personality. If their references check out, if they have creative and practical ideas to offer while respecting your own, if they know their stuff and can communicate it clearly in pictures and/or words, and most importantly if you feel comfortable talking and exchanging ideas with them, that designer will probably be a joy to work with... and your new garden will be a joy to live in.
Jun 14, 2007
Just as the new Ballard Designs catalog arrives touting "Outdoor Living: Living without Walls (TM)", June Fletcher at the Wall Street Journal writes about the anti-trend, Giving Up on the Outdoors. "Outdoor rooms," she writes, "one of the decade's most visible symbols of excess, have been a bonanza for manufacturers of everything from $3,700 waterproof pool tables to $130 patio umbrellas that emit a cooling mist. ... But some homeowners say they're falling out of love with their expensively furnished backyards, which require hours of upkeep and costly repair. Others are abandoning the rooms altogether."
Ms. Fletcher's story drips with anecdotes of fire ants, squirrels, pollen and pigeons conspiring to deprive us of our quality of backyard life. High-end retailers such as Smith & Hawken and Restoration Hardware are slashing prices to move inventories, and pest-control and electronics-repair companies are raking in the profits as rats move into outdoor kitchens and plasma TVs bake in the sun.
It all sounds so dramatic, doesn't it?! But really, I don't have a lot of sympathy for anyone who needs to watch TV outside, or for the guy who "has to take out his blower or power washer every day to clean off his new brick fireplace, gazebo and patio set" (italics mine). I mean, hasn't he ever heard of "weathering"? Or "patina"? Or, for that matter, "dust"? These things are a fact of outdoor life, and it's just folly to design any kind of outdoor feature that can't stand up to the elements. Frontgate offers a selection of outdoor wall art; if you want a view of red tulips, why not just plant the real thing?
I don't mean to sound grouchy about all of this. Certainly, homeowners have been oversold on the concept of "outdoor rooms" -- there is, truly, only so much living one can do outdoors. But there also is no such thing as a maintenance-free yard, no matter how expensively you appoint it. Every space, indoors or out, requires some investment of effort to look, feel and function its best. I ask my clients up front how much time they have each week to spend maintaining their garden -- and "0 hours" is a perfectly acceptable answer. At some point, self-knowledge and common sense are the best accessories of all.
Jun 4, 2007
Oh, yeah, and there's fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish, too. Frankly, I wanted to give this market 4 stars on Yelp just because it feels less like a true local-organic-food confab than a slick marketing gimmick. But I've bumped it back up to 5 stars because it's promised to be here year-round (the downtown market is dormant in winter), the hours are long enough to actually get breakfast OR lunch, and frankly the quality of the fresh fish and fresh oysters left my mouth watering.
Because it's only been open once so far, we'll have to see whether the vendor lineup changes, or the ratio of farmers to entertainment increases, but for now I'm just damn happy they're here. Definitely check it out if you're looking for a relaxed, sumptuous way to spend a Sunday morning.
May 24, 2007
It's official: Palo Alto will get our second farmers' market, opening Sunday, June 3 just steps from my office on California Avenue. It may be slightly more slickly produced than the Saturday downtown market, but can you really have too much?
My three favorite reasons why farmers' markets are great -- apart from the camaraderie and the quality of the food:
1) When else do you get the opportunity to actually talk with the people who grow the food you eat? The corn doesn't come from some faceless Nebraska corporation, the bread isn't shrink-wrapped. Wondering how to know when a persimmon is ripe? Ask the grower. These people are genuinely excited about what they have produced. Somehow, that makes their food taste even better.
2) They are a wonderful way to get in touch with the seasons. No plums, Pluots® or Apriums® in March, please -- not even organic ones. The bad news is, this will shake you out of your comfort zone when you can't buy asparagus in August. The good news is, this will shake you out of your comfort zone when you get to try cardoon in August.
3) What's more exciting than trying new food? By definition, small local farmers have small local farms. And they're not going to waste their resources trying to compete with the big farms that grow big quantities of the most common fruits and vegetables you'll find shrink-wrapped in Safeway. Thus, cardoon. And homemade marmalade. And heirloom eggplants. And purple cauliflower.
(By the way, kids often enjoy this kind of diversity -- give 'em a few dollars and let them choose their new favorite vegetable for tonight's dinner -- and it's nice to learn that food comes from the Earth, not the aisle.)
I hope I'll see you on California Ave. on June 3!
May 16, 2007
When you were a child, was there a favorite place in nature you loved to play? A seminal, memorable moment spent outdoors? Did some way of being in contact with nature help make you the person you are today? Without that contact, who will today's children be tomorrow?
Richard Louv's fabulous article from Orion magazine raises big and important questions regarding our children and nature. It's not a "how to" piece. It's why to. And after reading the article, you'll agree it's not even a question.
May 14, 2007
As we approach the summer solstice, it can become difficult to design to your yard's patterns of sun and shade: more specifically, it's very easy to over-estimate just how much sun a given site receives. I've certainly planted vegetable beds in "full sun" locations this time of year, only to find them in permashade as the equinox rolls on by.
If you're only planting tomatoes or other summer annuals, such an impending lack of sunlight may not be a big deal. But if you're designing a comprehensive landscape -- and particularly if you haven't lived at the site for a full year to see the change of light and seasons first-hand -- it pays to figure out when, and where, the light will retreat.
To the rescue comes the U.S. Navy, which kindly publishes a calculator to determine the altitude (angle above horizon) and azimuth (angle east of true north) of the sun at any minute of any given day. Combined with a shadow length calculator, this data should help you determine the boundaries of your shady areas throughout the year.
Thus, if you know that you live in a 20-foot tall house in Palo Alto, CA, you can calculate that on June 21 of this year (the summer solstice), your home will cast a 5-foot deep shadow at solar noon. However, on the winter solstice six months later, that shadow will extend about 36 feet!
It's most useful to calculate shadow points for the most massive things on your property -- usually structures like houses and detached garages, but also evergreen trees, fences, and neighboring buildings -- on the two solstice and two equinox dates. If you're really persnickety, you can forecast shadows not only at high noon, but also three or four hours on either side of noon, since "full sun" plants typically want 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day (don't forget to shift the shadow angle to the west or east appropriately).
If you map all these points onto your site plan (I find using different color pencils for the different dates helps), you can get a pretty clear picture of where to plant what (or where to site that winter sun-pocket bench). Plus, you'll have a sense of what you might need in the way of lighting or heating throughout the year, and create separately-switched circuits based on what the darkest/coldest zones will be during the times of year you plan to be outside.
I know, it's all very geeky... yet somehow strangely exciting, no?
Apr 26, 2007
We're under quarantine again, this time courtesy of the light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana), an invasive species native to Australia. This innocent looking little guy (maybe it's the nail through his neck) destroys, stunts or deforms young seedlings; spoils the appearance of ornamental plants; and injures deciduous fruit-tree crops, citrus and grapes. All in all, the LBAM (can we call him Bam-Bam?) has a taste for some 250 species of plants.
The quarantine was implemented on March 22, about a month after a retired entomologist found a couple of LBAMs in his backyard. Bam-Bam has been established in Hawaii for a while now, but this is his first appearance on the mainland. Santa Clara county was added to the quarantine zone on April 20, after being detected in Palo Alto and Los Altos a week earlier.
Because Bam-Bam doesn't have a very long flight range, he's mastered the art of hitchhiking. The California Department of Food and Agriculture was quick to develop this brochure to explain how you can thwart his travels. The good news is, Bam-Bam is also vulnerable to organic controls, including pheremone disruption, Bacillus thuringiensis and parasitic wasps.
While the state rushes to keep LBAM from spreading (which would be, um, BAD for our sizable agricultural exports), the rest of us can keep a lid on our green waste, not bring host plants (i.e. plants, period) to non-quarantined areas, and call CDFA if we see Bam-Bam.
After, of course, giving him a one-way ticket ¡STRAIGHT TO HELL! with a nail through the neck.
(Thanks to Ron and Joe for their reporting at SFGate.com.)
Apr 24, 2007
By the way, it's worth mentioning that this isn't Pollan's first trip down the anti-Big-Corn aisle... his 2003 essay Is Corn Making Us Fat? is well worth the download.
Apr 21, 2007
"If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth...."
--Anousheh Ansari, Iranian-American space tourist who flew last year to the international space station.
Apr 13, 2007
Obviously you don't want it to degrade in a day, but couldn't the lifespan be about a year if just enough insoluble fiber or milk proteins or something is added? Or some marginally stable organic compound that doesn't decompose in the presence of water, but rather hydrogen peroxide? And for that matter, couldn't you imbue it with microbiology to keep some semblance of soil food web going down beneath the drain rock?
Boy, the syn-turf companies are really missing the boat on this one. Annual maintenance or infill replacement be damned -- just sign up for the scheduled annual replacement! And they wouldn't have to mess with all those 5- and 10-year warranties... I can see the marketing now: "place your order now to have your brand-new BioLawn(TM) delivered just in time for spring training!" Installation would be a cinch, just staple the new one down on top of the old.
Seriously, is plastic really the only thing we can make grass out of?
Apr 12, 2007
Which brings me back to the ultimate water hog, lawn. Brian of Mauby All Natural was kind enough to suggest he could "improve soil condition to a point where water use can drop by 75%." Brian's primary product seems to be compost tea, which is an excellent amendment and one whose regular use I regularly recommend for my clientele who are serious about improving the overall health of their soil. But turfgrass being turfgrass, I'm hard pressed to understand how it could thrive on 5,000 gallons of water a year instead of 20,000.
So what's better: spending 12,000 gallons (I'll give Brian partial credit) of our precious Sierra snowpack on irrigation each year, or tossing 750 square feet of plastic into the landfill each decade? I honestly don't know the answer. If you do, please share with the class.
Apr 4, 2007
Among the highlights of last year's expo was Daniel Michalik's Cortica, a 72" chaise longue made entirely of renewable and recyclable cork. (Which I suppose would have the added benefit of floating should it fall into the pool.) I'll be interested to see whether there are any truly cradle to cradle solutions, or just more marginally recycled/recyclable crap none of us really needs to buy. I am, however, encouraged by the curators' criteria for evaluating sustainability:
Submissions must address one or more of the following.
OK, I'll write one in. My product is sustainable because it consumed no resources in production or, for that matter, conception. Its raw materials are infinitely available and durable. Its transport is nonexistent, or rather, it is omnipresent, yet so completely unobtrusive as to render disposal completely unnecessary. It is open-source, freely available and customizable, accruing profits to no one but the consumer; although it is not really consumed at all. Demand for my product is universal, and it is available immediately without so much as a mouse click. Without further expenditure of electrons: my product is… nothing.
I mean, really — I appreciate the spirit of HauteGREEN, but do we really need more stuff?
Apr 3, 2007
Actually, we should be so lucky as to enjoy some rain this month. Despite a few late storms, the National Weather Service records that San Francisco has gotten about 73% of its usual precipitation this season, and San Jose, 60% (and Los Angeles, 18%… wowch). Whether or not it's truly global warming, it's at least a reminder that the Golden State truly has a mediterranean climate, whose bone-dry summers begin about now and can last well into November.
To make sure your plants have the water they need — no more, no less — set your automatic irrigation system on a regular schedule. Unfortunately, your utility bill is about to become a two-pronged source of pain: you will see a spike not only in water usage but also in electricity, the power your irrigation valves need to open up and let that water through. (Ironically, water-thrifty low-flow systems need longer operating times, further increasing your electric bill.)
Short of replacing your new landscape with rocks, there are a few things you can do to stretch your water budget a little farther. First, waste as little as possible: water before sunrise, when the air is cool and calm, and adjust any spray heads to prevent overspray onto hardscaping or structures.
Second, encourage deep, drought-resistant plant roots by watering less often — only every three to five days — but for longer times. And help keep that water from evaporating by mulching with fir bark or compost, two to four inches deep.
Finally, and this is the big one, consider using plants that require less water to begin with. You don't need a "California native" garden to save water: plenty of gorgeous, non-native trees, shrubs, and perennials can get by with much less water than you might imagine. (If you would like suggestions for some un-thirsty plants that would be perfect in your garden, just let me know.) Lawns are a different story: they are, by nature, resource hogs. But unless you truly need a turfgrass lawn — for kids to play on, or for polo competitions — I can recommend some great alternatives that will be just as easy on your eyes as they are on your water bill.
Surviving our hot, dry, long summers actually is not difficult; but since only 2% of the world shares our climate, it does require some creativity. Start thinking now about how you might reduce your water needs and usage — and keep your fingers crossed for a few April showers to prolong the inevitable.
Mar 29, 2007
As reported over on TreeHugger, the sap of Acer saccharum actually might be useful in the development of biodegradable bioplastics. Not quite a sustainable solution, but perhaps a step up from petroleum-based technologies.
Plus, it goes better with pancakes.
Mar 21, 2007
If you've read my work over at Yelp, you know I'm a fan of Edgewood Park & Natural Preserve. And today there's great news for the park and its friends: as reported by the San Mateo Daily Journal, "The checkerspot butterfly is flying back from the brink of extinction and making its home once again in Edgewood Park — a decade after it disappeared from the San Mateo County natural preserve."
Part of the reason I'm so excited over something so small is that the return of this native species is due pretty much entirely to the efforts of volunteers, who spent years removing invasive ryegrass and other weeds and replacing them with native plants the checkerspot needs for food. That people can — and would — change the world without the motivation of money gives me hope.
Again — am I beating this drum too much? — here is an illustration of the importance of native plants. In our case, the checkerspot mommies lay their eggs on California plantain, an unassuming little thing notable for two reasons: one, it is a primary food for checkerspot larvae; and two, it has adapted to the austere, even toxic, soil created by serpentine stone — with which Edgewood Park is rife. When the ryegrass moved in, it forced the plantain out… and the butterflies followed.
You'll find the long story of the checkerspot, and plant species that tolerate serpentine, elsewhere. But for now, take advantage of these beautiful days and go butterfly watching! I know just the place…
Mar 19, 2007
The recent debate over at GardenRant about the virtues and vices of artificial turf has kicked into high gear a project I take very personally: developing my own yard.
I've taken my own advice and lived with the place as-is for a full year now: observed the way the seasons play with the land, taken my time developing a design, and wonder of wonders, not adopted too many orphan plants without digging the holes first. But of all the decisions I've had to make, the play lawn is the hardest.
One point conspicuously absent from the GR discussion is the suitability of artificial (or for that matter natural) turf as a play surface for children. Glib comments such as "If you can't grow a real lawn, give it up and move to a condo!", "I say ditch the whole lawn thing and plant lettuce," and "I'd rather have no lawn than a fake one" obviously were written by folks who don't have active children.
Much more sensible are the perspectives of Bay Area designer Michelle Derviss and avid plantsman Max W, who deftly points out that "What most people from summer rainfall areas fail to realize is that a lawn is a priori artificial in the rest of the country. Of course, all lawns are by definition artificial whatever the local rainfall patterns because they only exist by human intervention -- artifice."
But I digress, which is emblematic of exactly what I've been doing with our own yard: doing everything except pulling the trigger on natural or artificial. A biosystem and water bills? Or conservation and petrochemical manufacturing? According to the Irvine Ranch Water District down south, a typical installation of about 750 square feet of synthetic turf — yep, that's me — "can conserve approximately 22,000 gallons of water per year." Holy worm castings! The UC Davis Lawn Watering Guide confirms it, and at my current utility rates, that's about $1350 a year.
Probably because artificial turf is a newer invention, there tend to be lots of these sort of statistics available touting its advantages. I figured the Turfgrass Producers International would be equally biased in the other direction; but unfortunately, the strongest doubts they can cast on their competition run along the lines of, "What gases would be released into the atmosphere in the event of a fire on the artificial surface?" and "What are the health concerns related to the ingestion of ground rubber particles that takes place from sliding face-first on the surface or dropping and re-inserting a particle-covered mouth-piece onto the field?"
OK, I'm being a little rough on the TPI guys. But seriously, why aren't there any objective comparisons out there? Perhaps it's because neither product is objectively better than the other, only better for you. Assuming you need a turf area, is the only suitable location in shade? Is the artifical turf you're considering made with recycled materials or new? Does it require crumb infill? What kind? How much water will living grass require in the same location (and don't forget the electricity for holding those irrigation valves open, and gas or electricity for the mower, and fertilizer)? And so on, ad infinitum.
Obviously I'm not as well informed on this issue as I should be. So as I continue my education, you'll be the beneficiary. Of course, if you can shed any light on this whole damn quandary, please (please!) feel free.
Mar 15, 2007
It sounds funny, even if it isn't.
The New York Times reports today that earthworms — usually thought of as the garden's helpers — are overpopulating and overfeeding, threatening woodland trees, forests and shade plants in the Northeast and Midwest U.S.
"The worms are also breaking down organic matter so quickly that the nutrient overload is injuring plants and running off into streams and lakes. Invasive plant species, like stiltgrass and garlic mustard, which thrive on heavy nitrogen, then move in."
Damn. It's always something, ain't it?
Mar 14, 2007
Over at The Daily Dirt, Heleigh Bostwick advises gardeners that one way to get native plant species into your garden is to "take charge of your landscape. Instead of letting the contractor or designer decide which plants use, you be the one to decide what gets planted. Taking charge can be as simple as asking whether a plant is native or exotic and opting for the native plant, or as complex as researching and compiling your own list of native plants for the landscape designer or contractor to use."
Granted, I've got a bit of a bias here. But with all due respect, the whole reason to hire a designer is because our expertise and experience allows us to develop the plant palette that is uniquely suited to your unique wishes and site conditions. If the average homeowner just went to the nursery and grabbed a bunch of native plants because they're native, well, I doubt the results will be spectacular. Will your soil support a native community? Are the plants you've selected even members of the same community? As I've mentioned before, natives are native because they've evolved to a very specific set of conditions. Woe to the gardener who tries combining a Fremontodendron with a Sisyrinchium.
Heleigh is right: taking charge of creating the plant list is one solution. But it's not the best one. The best solution is to interview landscape designers (or contractors) extensively. Get references to projects that are comparable to yours. Ask to view sites first-hand. If you're afraid they might just be recycling the same plant palette over and over again, ask whether they have a "favorite set of plants" they like to use -- any answer other than "it depends on your unique situation" probably is not a good answer. If natives are important to you, make that one of your defining criteria for hiring a professional. But do hire a professional.
Sometimes the best way to take charge is to delegate.
This is no small undertaking, and because regular folks like you and I can post photos and stories about our own trees and map them online, it's a great example of how a wiki can help us live not in a collection of gardens, but in a true landscape. Thinking of planting an apple tree and wondering whether there's a pollinator nearby? Check the map. Need to know what that monster down the street is that reseeds itself so prolifically? Check the map.
The map is still in the development stages, but already it encompasses something like 140,000 trees. Check it out yourself: look up your favorite neighborhood or favorite tree... or better still, plant one yourself and add it to the database!
Mar 9, 2007
"We’re willing to be generous in order to 'save the world' but not before we’ve insured our own survival in the reigning system."
So writes Curtis White in the current issue of Orion magazine. I take his point painfully well: I'm becoming increasingly aware of my unique position to "aid the environment," to design not just gardens but environments that help put things right rather than add to the problems. Yet I'm driving around in an SUV that gets 18 mpg. If estimates are correct, I've sent about 20,000 disposable diapers to the landfill so far (and counting). And I can't help it: I really think landscape lighting is an important element in your yard, even though it does increase your carbon footprint.
I would like to think I can help change the reigning, unsustainable, system. My job, unlike many others described by White's essay, probably has net environmental benefits. But I'm nowhere near being able to live sustainably in my own home, much less overhaul the lifestyles of my clientele who still believe they need massive lawns and impermeable paving everywhere.
I wish White would provide examples of people, companies or roles that he feels are breaking the system. But even so, the larger context of our society and culture places an unfortunate emphasis on "the convenience of money"; so the statement I feel most sympathetic with is White's closing:
"We are not ready. Not yet, at least."
Postscript 3/26/07: Alex Steffen writes a provocative piece on "strategic consumption":
You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it's essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won't get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won't get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend -- from your local roads to your nation's army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill -- are still profoundly unsustainable. You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint. The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction.
Yeah. What he said.
Mar 7, 2007
I keep a current schedule of sales on our main site. If you need a nudge to understand why growing natives makes sense in any garden, start with the California Native Plant Society. And of course, these books are always worth reading… or re-reading:
Complete Garden Guide to Native Shrubs of California (1990) by Glenn Keator
Complete Garden Guide to the Native Perennials of California (1990) by Glenn Keator
Growing Native, a bi-monthly newsletter by Louise Lacey, P.O. Box 489, Berkeley, CA 94701, www.growingnative.com, (510) 232-9865.
Mar 2, 2007
Then again, one myth that gets buried is that if it's published, it must be true — et tu, Linda?
Feb 22, 2007
Gray skies, chilly winds, the relentless onslaught of snails and slugs… this is the time of year when most of us begin to feel like squirmy six-year-olds strapped into the backseat for a few miles too many.
But wait! Up ahead… is that a mirage, or… no! It's the Vernal Equinox, when daylight finally gains the advantage over darkness, on March 21. Humans probably have celebrated this moment as long as we've been able to mark time: ancient Egyptians even built the Great Sphinx to point directly toward the rising sun on this day.
Nature is also in a celebratory mood, and March is a great month to view California's native plants in bloom, from Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) to varieties of Ceanothus, California poppies, pink flowering currant and trillium. And, if there's something you've just got to have, this is a fine time to plant without fear of frost.
But try not to fall victim to Spring Fever: don't go to the nursery without a plan. (And no, "something cheery" isn't a plan.) Analyze what under-performed in your garden last year; what demanded too much attention, or too much water; what else you've seen around town that you like better. How could your garden could bring you more joy?
At the nursery, shopping list in hand, resist with all your power the irresistable temptation to buy all those other cute little plants. (My rule is to not shop until I've dug the hole.) You'll not only save money, you'll also avoid dooming some poor thing to a life of homelessness and neglect. Better still, call ahead to make sure your selections are available, or order with a plant broker to get exactly what you want — no less, no more — in optimal condition.
Speaking of restraint (or lack thereof), if your orange tree has produced its usual avalanche, organizations such as Village Harvest make it easy for you to donate excess produce to feed people in need. Keep them in mind throughout the season; you could even start one extra summer vegetable now to benefit them. It's a great gardening project for kids — especially squirmy six-year-olds like us.
My best wishes for a verdant and joyful month!