Apr 27, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor

Especially when you're trying to increase your home's curb appeal, it pays to pay some attention to what's happening next door. Let's consider some of our typical neighbors, and how you might take a cue from them:

  • The Yawner Lawner. A square of grass, a few annual flowers, a couple of shrubs anchoring the front entryway… woo hoo, party time in suburbia. You have a couple of choices here: match your neighbor's lawn right up to the property line and co-host the neighborhood Thanksgiving football game; or show off your good taste with a stylish yet sensible mix of evergreen and deciduous shrubs that — unlike that slab of green next door — shift colors and shapes to show off a different asset every season of the year.

  • The Fortress. Whether it's a fence or a wall, this one makes a clear statement: "Keep Out." Assuming you're not interested in consolidating your properties into a compound, your best strategy may be to be as open as your neighbor is closed. If you must have screening, try a split-rail wood fence; or better still, use only softscape (plants), perhaps a loose hedge clipped low — Cornus alba has nice winter interest even when the leaves fall — with a structural feature such as a freestanding arbor to actually invite your guests up the front walk, not stop them short at the sidewalk.

  • The Palace. Its tiered fountains, Baroque statuary, and manicured boxwood attempt to recreate Versailles — albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Just what point the homeowner is striving to make may be a mystery, but your counterpoint can be more clear: simplify. Be authentic. Go native, even. Just as Versailles was designed to celebrate man's mastery over nature, your garden can celebrate the uncertainty, the maddening unpredictability, of a natural system. Sure, the very idea makes you nervous. But with a little professional help you'll pull it off, and your front yard — not your neighbor's — will be the talk of the block.

    There are other neighbors we could analyze: The Museum. The Orchard. The Junkyard. (Although if you live next door to Great Dixter… well, there's really no point in doing much more than setting up a lemonade stand.) The point is, whether you want to distinguish your home to raise your property value or just to make it yours, sometimes the nearest inspiration lives next door.

    Who lives next door to you?
  • Apr 22, 2008

    (Happy) Earth Day

    Hooray. It's "Earth Day." One day, 24 hours, for us to be more aware and appreciative of the Earth's environment.

    Woo hoo.

    Never mind that the other 364 days of the year we're driving our SUV around town, alone and comfy in our captain's chair.

    Or that we still leave the water running while we wash our hands with antibacterial soap.

    Or that our salmon are now in as much trouble as our tuna.

    I put honey in my tea today and was confronted by two unwelcome thoughts:
  • If this isn't "organic" honey, what crap pesticide residue am I drinking now?
  • When the bees go extinct, how will I put honey in my tea?

    Across the street, the neighbor's sprinklers spray well beyond the curbside planting strip, flooding the gutter and soaking the cars parked there. Then the gardener fires up his gas-powered leaf blower, creating great clouds of dust and grass clippings and pollen that immediately adhere to the wet cars. I am not making this up.

    It seems to me that we, as a society, have gone mad. We are pathological, behaving in ways that clearly harm others, if not directly ourselves. We are compulsive, unable or unwilling to modify our behaviors even when it's made clear that they are destructive. And we are delusional, somehow believing — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that our actions either don't have consequences or will be mitigated by someone else.

    It's been about two years since Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth made us all wince just a little bit. And yet the troubles have been on people's lips for more than 15 years — I caught Batman Returns on TV over the weekend, and even in 1992 the Penguin referenced "global warming." I understand that sometimes Hollywood can seem out of touch, but major studio releases don't make their money referencing arcane phenomena advanced only by the intelligentsia.

    I was going to write today about a few things we all can do to help our planet, our neighbors, our children. Little things, things you might actually do, like converting your lawn to low-water plantings, not like converting your SUV to biodiesel. But honestly, we've known we're in trouble for, let's conservatively say, a decade. What have you changed in that time? Have you converted your lawn to low-water plantings? Have you stopped buying products whose manufacture kills the environment? Do you recycle and/or compost most, if not all, of your waste?

    If you have, great. I applaud you. Tell us all about it, if for no other reason than to help us sustain our delusion that someone somewhere is fixing the problem we're creating. But when my clients still demand lawns that no child will ever play on… when "my" contractors still install spray irrigation because drip is too difficult… when I myself still drive my SUV around town, solo… I think perhaps the problem is outpacing the fix.

    So, seriously: what are we going to do about it?
  • Apr 21, 2008

    A Little Cold For April

    If you're thinking the last few days have been a little cold for April, you're right. In fact, yesterday San Francisco tied its record low for the date and Oakland set a new record, according to NBC11.

    By itself the cold snap wouldn't be a problem; but with the weather so deliciously warm for the past few weeks, just about every last plant that had been holding on to dormancy has decided it's finally time to bust out the buds... which leaves them vulnerable to these frosty conditions.

    Making the problem worse is the wind, which can chill us down another 10 degrees or more and, even worse, increases the rate at which plants transpire (i.e. lose) water. So the biggest danger isn't actually freezing: it's dehydration.

    Ironically, the best defense is the same practice you would use on the hottest days of summer: water your plants, slow and steady, at least once if not twice a day. Make sure the irrigation arrives right onto the soil around the plant's dripline — ideally you have a low-flow system so there's little or no loss, but if you do have spray heads make sure they're not wasting water up into the air. The breeze is often calmest in the pre-dawn hours, so that's a good time to irrigate with little fear of the wind carrying the water away.

    (On a side note, if your system is "misting" clouds of water up into the air, your system may be operating with too much water pressure — usually a result of improperly sized pipes. If you can, choke down or manually reduce the flow to your irrigation mainline to see if the misting stops.)

    Also, make sure your mulch is adequate: I like to recommend a 2- to 3-inch deep layer of redwood bark or coco hulls, but I've also taken to using the coffee grounds my local java joint bundles up and sets aside. (By the way, they smell awesome for a day, then they just smell like stale Folger's.) Mulch helps the soil retain water, and it also creates the cool, aerated conditions that beneficial mycorrhizae love. No doubt the weather will warm up again soon, and your plants and soil will be prepared for their next challenge: our Mediterranean summer.

    Apr 12, 2008

    Green Building Comes Home

    If you're planning a construction project here in Palo Alto later this year, odds are you're going to be held to a higher standard than ever. As reported in the Palo Alto Weekly, a proposed building ordinance will require that residential construction ultimately comply with the "GreenPoint Rated" checklist developed by California's Build It Green initiative; and that commercial projects meet national LEED standards.

    On the home front, here are some of the items Build It Green includes on their landscaping checklist:
  • Construct Resource-Efficient Landscapes
  • Use Fire-Safe Landscaping Techniques
  • Minimize Turf Areas
  • Plant Shade Trees
  • Group Plants by Water Needs (Hydrozoning)
  • Install High-Efficiency Irrigation Systems
  • Add Compost to Promote Healthy Topsoil
  • Mulch All Planting Beds
  • Use Salvaged or Recycled-Content Materials for Landscape Elements
  • Reduce Light Pollution
  • Collect and Retain Rainwater for Irrigation

    The proposed ordinance is likely to take effect in July, with a phased implementation (e.g. home builders will only have to earn 75% of the necessary points within the first two years) to allow time to master the new requirements. But whether you're a local homeowner, a builder or a contractor working in Palo Alto, the political landscape is about to dictate major changes to your project's landscaping. If you have questions about what's ahead, I'd be happy to be your local green guide.
  • Apr 11, 2008

    Seriously? The Worst Tree Ever?!

    OK, I admit I was having some fun with my April 1 post. But Jane over at Garden Design Online alerted us to a feud (in my own community, no less! what kind of investigative journalist am I, anyway?!) (oh, yeah, I'm not) that really does demonize the venerable redwood: Basically, as reported back in February in the Los Angeles Times and more recently in the New York Times, a half-dozen existing redwoods are shading a neighbor's new solar panels and therefore running afoul of a 1978 state law.

    Our local state senator, Joe Simitian, has introduced a bill to inject a little sanity into the issue; the bill would give existing trees legal precedence and priority over more-recently added solar panels.

    Now if someone would only do something about those damn poppies.

    Apr 7, 2008

    Spring in the Garden(s)

    Photo by Vanessa RoachIf you haven't already signed up for the Gamble Garden Spring Tour, don't wait another day. Not only do you get exclusive access to five of Palo Alto's most beautiful private gardens, Gamble's own grounds will be buzzing with a plant sale, helpful master gardeners, a home and garden vendor fair, and chocolates, tea and cookies. This is the premier event from one of the peninsula's finest garden societies, so register now while advance ticket discounts are still available.

    Apr 1, 2008

    The Worst Tree Ever

    You know that beautiful, majestic, mature redwood tree in your neighborhood — maybe even in your yard? The one that's the pride of your community?

    Kill it.
    Cut it down.
    Do it now.

    "What?!" He's gone mad, you're saying. There's no — how could — what??!!

    But the disturbing fact is, a grown redwood sucks up more water each and every day — 500 gallons or more! — than any other garden plant, including the oft-demonized lawn. Even the most water-unthrifty among us, spraying the lawn (and sidewalk and gutter) 10 minutes every day at 25 gallons per minute, might spend 250 gallons a day… but not 500 per plant.

    And that's not even to mention that redwoods, like wolves, are hardly solitary creatures. They grow in groves, and if you've ever been to Muir Woods, you've seen it: as soon as one tree dies, a "fairy ring" sprouts up around its base. One down, five take its place. So now instead of 500 gallons per day, we're talking 2500 gallons. Do you want that water bill? I don't.

    Will your garden be next?But it's not just water. The fairy ring is a perfect example: is there any better definition of a noxious weed? I mean, we curse the fluorescent yellow oxalis this time of year, but in a few months it's gone. We lament the smothering of our native hillsides by scraggly Scotch broom, but at least we can still see the hillside. A fairy ring gets going in your next door neighbor's lot, you may as well get yourself an old Underwood and start composing manifestos.

    Plus, redwoods create fire danger. Their copious duff and bark are rich in tannins, which suppress not only weeds but also fire, which would be all well and good except that, as the wise people in our government who are paid to think these things all the way through know, the West's wildfires are becoming more catastrophic because there are fewer small fires occurring, so that when a fire does get going, it's got more and larger trees (i.e. more fuel) and spirals out of control much faster.

    El Palo not-so-Alto-anymore
    Quite honestly, redwoods are such a menace it's difficult to understand why they're the state tree of otherwise enlightened California — or why my own fair city not only hasn't cut down its decrepit namesake and renamed itself South Menlo or Steve's Town or something actually worthy of its citizenry, but actually has accorded these monsters "heritage tree" status; and so protected, they'll continue to grow and consume even more water — leaving even less available for the rest of us in these near-drought times.

    Look: I appreciate the spirit of well-meaning groups like Save The Redwoods and Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, who valiantly endeavor to preserve the few remaining places that are so pristine it's almost a transcendent experience to visit. It just breaks my heart they so willingly ignore no less than Time magazine's reporting that "redwoods create their own microclimate" (which explains why gardening around them is an ambitious affair at best) to lionize the legendary Sequoia as if its utter domination of the landscape is somehow a good thing. "Drippy, dark and closed in," says one of California's foremost native plantsmen of a Sequoia habitat. "Cut the forest down and you usually get Northern Coastal Scrub."

    Sequoia-free = tabula rasaThe irony is that once a redwood is removed, instantly it becomes apparent how much light and air are available to the gardener and the garden. Roses can grow where only ferns dared try; moss and musty odors disappear overnight; our dream of a water-wise garden actually has a chance of becoming a reality.

    Still want a tree in that spot? Now you're free to choose. Plant a mighty oak! (Uh, well, except that oaks can drink 250 gallons a day and still become overbearing monstrosities that can never be cut down. Nevermind.) OK, plant a… willow! Or a birch! (Um, wait, those are both riparian species, so they'll suck up all your water and invade your sewer line.) A jacaranda, then! (Actually, it gets a little cold here for those to really thrive.) Jeez, a magnolia! (Yeaahhhhhh… despite their ubiquity, they actually heave hardscape like crazy and look pretty bad without constant moisture and humidity. Not a good choice for our summers.)

    Look, what's wrong with you?! Why are you so hung up on specifics?! Once that damn redwood is gone, you can do whatever you want! Okay, I'll take the initiative: so that we can write the last chapter of this nightmare, I'll personally contact every city council on the peninsula, as well as the California EPA, and implore them to rescind the redwoods' heritage tree status.

    Just… not today.