Jan 31, 2007

How Dry We Are

From San Francisco Chronicle writer Glen Martin:

This season's scant rainfall doesn't yet mean we're in a drought -- but it's starting to feel that way. San Francisco is on track to post its fifth-driest January since 1850.

So far, San Francisco has recorded only 0.65 inches of rain compared to a normal rainfall of 4.72 inches. … And California as a whole is just as parched. Most crucially, the Sierra snowpack -- which provides Californians with most of their drinking and irrigation water -- has only 45 to 60 percent of its normal water content, depending on location. And it's not improving.

"The snowpack is declining," said Dan Gudgel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "Every day that goes by with no precipitation puts us further behind with less prospect of catching up."

That's because California typically gets most of its precipitation in January, February and March, Gudgel said. Worse, no significant storms are headed this way.

Martin goes on to note that, while comparisons to the reservoir-draining droughts of the 1980s and 1990s may be premature, "The state's population is much larger now and would be harder-hit by a severe drought."

I was struck just a couple of weeks ago by how low the Lexington Reservoir, near Los Gatos, still was; and couldn't help but wonder what a drought might do to my business. Would homeowners clamor for water-wise makeovers? Or sit on their hands while their pretty flowerbeds and lush lawns became withered and crisp? Should I be in the business of green lawn paint?

Mostly, though, I was reminded of the wisdom of designing with "unthirsty" plants and low-flow irrigation systems, and the necessity of educating my clientele that we are, after all, a Mediterranean climate—meaning the next drought has every right to manifest this year (no matter what El NiƱo says). Are you ready?

Jan 19, 2007

Global Freezing

Ahh, January, when citrus trees all over town suddenly sprout baby blankets and plastic tarps in (misguided) efforts to keep from freezing.

A covering simply draped over the plant won't protect the plant: the covering will quickly reach the same temperature as the ambient air (i.e. freezing) and in turn freeze whatever it's contacting (i.e. the plant). Propping the cover up a few inches above the foliage, on bamboo poles or broom handles or steel spears, will, on the other hand, create an insulating cushion of air between frost and plant. A string of holiday lights draped over the plants will further warm the plants.

It's more or less a rule of thumb that crops can be damaged when temperatures fall below 28 degrees for about five hours. This particular cold spell may in fact bring those conditions to Palo Alto; but in general, we just don't get that cold. Don't bother blanketing the babies until Wunderground is predicting 30°F or lower.

And finally, leaving those coverings in place all day may be just as bad as not having them on the coldest nights. Despite how cold it's been, we're also having daytime temps in the 50s and 60s. Which means that a plant left wrapped in plastic during these clear sunny days may, in fact, be sweltering! If you just can't bear taking the tarps off every morning and replacing them every evening, at least make sure there's a significant amount of open area near the ground for air to circulate.

There's no shortage of advice on protecting tender plants, so I'll leave that to others. I'll just end with this: much of California is, intrinsically, a desert, with hot arid summers and cold winters. If you're losing sleep worrying about your Brugmansia and cherimoya specimens, perhaps it's time to ask whether you might be in zone denial? Not that even the best among us aren't… but as the climate continues to remind us who's boss, we might want to start planting a little more appropriately.

Jan 17, 2007

What's Next?

According to a recent ASLA study:

"Home owners will be adding firepits and fireplaces for outdoor entertaining in 2007. And they, along with commercial building owners, will be paying a lot more attention to environmentally-friendly landscape options, such as adding native plants and managing stormwater more effectively, according to a new survey of ASLA award recipients from recent years.

"The informal survey conducted in December, identified the most popular requests from homeowners and commercial clients for 2007. For homeowners, firepits and outdoor fireplaces top the list. Also popular are requests for sustainable solutions, such as using native plants that require less watering and maintenance.

"Homeowners are requesting landscape architects design complete outdoor rooms, such as kitchens and bars, for entertaining. Water features such as koi ponds, pools, and fountains continue to be popular. Incorporating rain gardens and green roofs in home landscapes will add a different – and more sustainable - flavor to 2007 homes.

Steve Martino, FASLA, of Phoenix—recipient of both the ASLA Design Medal and the ASLA Residential Design Award of Excellence in 2006—cites private living spaces, outdoor rooms, and water features as top homeowner requests. He also says that clients are coming to him for 'green solutions' for their homes."

For my part, I find it interesting that the same folks who want "sustainable" solutions also want environmentally un-friendly features such as fireplaces and firepits. After all, wood-burning fires contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming; and gas-burning fireplaces deplete natural resources as well. I'm one to talk: I've included firepits in designs, and plan to build a fireplace for my own back yard. I suspect the greater issue here is of people (landscape architects included) not really understanding what "sustainability" really means. I'll explore this idea and offer a few resources in future posts.

Jan 13, 2007

Landscaping On A Budget

Even (especially!) when we're designing for ourselves, the budget is never big enough. But there are tangible ways to make what you've got go farther. Wish I'd been the first to write up these ten ways to save money when installing your new garden landscape.

Jan 2, 2007

Happy New Garden!

Cold and blustery as it may be, there's no shortage of seed catalogs arriving, brimming with mouthwatering optimism. As usual, I want one of just about everything; I'm especially enamored with High Country Gardens' new pink and orange Agastache, which I can imagine pairing with a blue Agave attenuata, and Burpee's new tricolor basil, a perfect partner for a striped tomato.

What do you want in your garden this year? Or, more accurately, what do you want your garden to do for you this year? Do you want it to save you time? Save you money? Do you want to help save the planet? Or save your soul?

Gardens can do all of these things, and more. If you're into new year's resolutions, make this one: that you will enlist the services of a great garden designer ("great" being subjective, as in, "great fit for you") to make even a small improvement to your yard. I guarantee you, the effects will be anything but small.