Apr 17, 2015

A Native Son's Complaint

It's come to my attention that I complain a lot about the place I live: Palo Alto, the Bay Area, California. Actually, I love it here. I was born here — Stanford Hospital, that is. Yep, that makes me a “California native,” just like Eschscholzia californica. It also makes me a “Native Son of the Golden West,” even though I’ve never really considered joining that club.

I was moved from our Portola Valley home at the ripe age of 3 and raised in a desert. No, really, a real desert. Las Vegas. A real real desert, both culturally and environmentally. (Ironically, California hit a drought shortly thereafter, and the grove of Monterey pines hugging our old back yard dried up like so much tumbleweed.)

Being a smart child, as soon as I was old enough I moved back here — Stanford University, that is. I can’t quite say I sucked the marrow out of my time there, but I do still bleed Cardinal red. I fell in love with the palm trees, the redwood trees, the eucalyptus trees; the vernal sunlight glinting off of Lake Lagunita (yes, children, once upon a time this lake contained water!); the morning fog, and the evening breeze that rolled in reliably enough to make the 4pm windsurfing class legendary. 

When it was time to leave The Farm and ply my trade in advertising, I was advised to "move to New York." "Or Chicago." But California poppies don’t do well in urban jungles or subzero gales. So I moved to San Francisco. I learned a little more about fog there; but all my complaints about Winter in July were forgotten once October rolled around, with its miraculous Indian Summer that lured me — and the rest of The City — out to stroll and dine and people-watch and generally do what young urban professionals do on balmy autumn evenings. 

SF was perfect for me: diverse but not overwhelming. Class without mass. And, a seemingly infinite reach with virtually no sprawl. Just 49 square miles, if you believe the guidebooks, yet just outside my door I discovered unbelievable food and wine… unreal beaches, forests, parks and islands… and unimaginable art, architecture, and artifacts from a very young state’s very rich history. I surfed the tidal wave of the dot-com boom with one foot in the past and another in the future. My journey had taken me from the desert to an oasis.

I was married in Sonoma, amidst grape vines and blue oaks and cattle, the scent of sage scrub blending with the sea air. Later, the urge to spawn brought a salmon-like pull back to my own birthplace, and I became a homeowner right back in, yes, Palo Alto. One and a half blocks from Stanford, in fact; close enough to hear The Band rally Branner or stroll over to Sunken Diamond for an evening game. And here in Palo Alto I’ve not only made my homes and raised my children, but also built my landscape design business, which connects me intimately with all the natural wonders of the place I live. 

I tell you about my history and love affair with the Bay Area for no other reason than to help you understand why I am so cranky about living in the Bay Area. It is precisely because I love it here that my heart breaks to see companies along California Avenue overwatering their oversized lawns in the midst of our worst drought ever, threatening to turn us into the desert I thought I left. My soul aches as old buildings — not glamorous, perhaps, but undeniably full of character — are ripped down and replaced with yet more glass and steel shoeboxes. My old office was in one such building, with a violin teacher for a neighbor. The building is gone, as is Larry. Tech offices. We — the people who live here, who love it here — are losing our home. Foreign investors pay ungodly amounts for properties they don’t live in and couldn’t care less for. Our Golden State is shriveling and browning just like the raisins so famous in my advertising days.

Lake Oroville, pre-drought and now (credit: Getty Images)
And the worst part? The worst part is that we are doing it to ourselves. We remain silent while our city officials permit the so-called “development” of generic office buildings even as existing structures sit vacant. We plant sprawling, gratuitous lawns no child will ever play on. We hire garden janitors who blow away all the nutritious organic matter our plants drop, then scatter fertilizer on the naked ground, then irrigate until water and fertilizer run off the soil and down the gutters. We drive too much, spend too much, use too much and think too little. We are making our Bay Area — the one we love, the reason we moved here, the only one we’ve got — extinct.

In younger years I happened to visit Los Angeles — okay, Santa Monica, but really, it’s all L.A., right? — on a day the winds were blowing just right and you could see the  mountains risen against a blue sky while standing on the beach. I was stunned. And I realized, this is what the earliest generation of Angelenos saw; in fact, it’s probably why they moved here. I would have. But then they brought their cars; and their neighbors brought more; and soon, the very thing that drew the crowds became shrouded in smog, almost a myth: the thing everyone believed was there but had never seen, except on those rare days when the winds blow just right.

And so, it’s precisely because I love the Bay Area that I am scared that if we don’t change our ways, we will become Las Vegas, or more likely Los Angeles. A place that people speak of in the past tense, with a certain reverence but also resignation: “Remember when we could see the foothills from here?” “Once upon a time, this lake used to contain water.” 

But we don’t have to live out that fate. We can change our ways. And I love my home enough that I’m going to continue complaining when we don’t.

Apr 1, 2015

Massive Water Discovery Ends California Drought

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - April 1, 2015 - Governor Jerry Brown and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today lifted the state's drought State of Emergency on the news that an enormous water reservoir has been discovered along California's western border.

Although the exact size of the aquifer has yet to be determined, reports indicate it may be hundreds of miles across and more than 10,000 feet deep, billions of gallons in total. "We are delighted to say, the drought is over," Brown proclaimed at a beachfront press conference, a gleaming drinking glass on his podium. "This discovery will provide enough water for every man, woman, child, farmer, rancher, business, school and park in our great state to live the California lifestyle without ever again worrying whether there is enough water to waste."

California's $36 billion agriculture industry applauded the announcement. "Our crops, orchards and ranches have been in decline for well over a decade now," said Andrew Morse of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). "This [discovery] means we will be able to get back to our business of feeding the world."

Indeed, the state's farmers may be able to not only regain lost ground, but even expand into new markets: low lending rates, coupled with property foreclosures throughout the state, are fueling a new era of agricultural expansion as farmers buy entire subdivisions and convert them to arable land. "We're processing a record number of loan applications," said banker Toiya Dobrov, whose clientele includes family farms throughout the Central Valley. "Water is going to be the new gold."

The newly discovered reservoir
Gov. Brown said the state will petition the federal government for funds to develop filtration, conveyance and distribution systems throughout the state, a further boon to California's economy. "Investing in our infrastructure will produce exponential returns when we give people jobs and deliver water to where they work and where they live." The state already is in discussion with neighboring Nevada and Arizona to export its newfound bounty to those parched regions, and plans are under study for a "main vein" pipeline to route water from California east through the entire country. "This could be the next transcontinental railroad," said Brown, announcing that project bids will be solicited within weeks.

The California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) and state chapters of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) and American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) also welcomed the news. In a joint statement, the groups say they "look forward to creating landscapes that can gulp rather than sip, that evoke Shangri-La rather than the Sahara. For too long we and our clientele have endured the constraints of a Mediterranean climate; now, with our abundance of sunshine matched only by our access to water, we can live in any garden we desire." No comment was available from the Synthetic Turf Council, one of the few industries analysts expect will not profit from the discovery.

Ironically, the aquifer was discovered by two recently unemployed construction workers, Eric Lucas and Dante Sievers, both of Palo Alto, Calif. Although neither has a background in hydrology or environmental science, both knew immediately they were on to something big last month while visiting the nearby coastal town of Pescadero. "We were just chilling on the beach," said Mr. Lucas. "The next thing I know, Dante is shouting 'Water! Water!' First I called 911," he said, "but we got disconnected, so I called the newspaper" who in turn called the state water agency. Neither man is aware of any plans to name the body of water in their honor.

The sheer size of the reservoir has made mapping of its boundaries tedious, which in turn has inflamed long-simmmering tensions between California and its neighbors. The states of Oregon, to the north, and Hawai'i, to the east, both claim the water reaches into their territories. And in what could turn a domestic dispute into an international incident, Mexico also contends that a portion of the water is theirs, a claim Gov. Brown downplayed. "The proud nation of Mexico and the great state of California have a long and rich history of sharing resources," he said, "and we certainly will work together to ensure an equitable distribution of this resource as well."

The discovery has raised almost as many questions as hopes. One story circulating the Internet claims the volume of water actually could increase over time due to factors related to climate change, to which a DWR spokesman responded "we can only hope." Other critics have noted the water's purity is unproven, and it may be polluted by vegetation and animal waste.

The DWR spokesman refused comment on another allegation, that extreme salinity in the water makes it unfit for drinking or irrigation. "This is a proud day for our state and our nation" said the spokesman. "Let's not let irresponsible rumor-mongering dry up our celebration."

Sep 25, 2014

It's Raining! (Now What?)

A reprise of a post from a few years ago seems appropriate given today's welcome visitor… I originally wrote this on January 18, 2010; and while some names and statistics may have changed since then, the core message remains the same.—JB

It's been hard to miss the message over the past year that we're in a drought. And Californians have responded remarkably well: residential water use was reduced by 9.4% in Santa Clara County, 12% in Los Angeles County, and up to 25% in San Diego County from previous periods. I still see far too many gratuitous lawns, thirsty "exotic" plants and wasteful irrigation systems. But on the whole, we're at least trying to handle our water.

So the next place to look is, naturally, increasing our supply. And on the cusp of a major El Niño week like the one currently forecast for the Bay Area, the opportunities seem abundant. So why isn't everyone harvesting rainwater? To understand why it's not quite that simple, let's do a little math:

    First, let's assume we're in for nine inches of rain — that's 3/4 foot — over the next week or so.

    Second, let's assume we can harvest that rain from the roof of our detached 2-car garage, which has a roof area (equals footprint) of about 20 feet by 20 feet.

    So if we catch every drop that falls on our roof, we would harvest 20' * 20' * 3/4' = 300 cubic feet.

    Using a handy-dandy volume converter, we find that 300 cubic feet equals 2,244.156 gallons.

Holy crap! Seriously?! More than two thousand gallons? That can't be right.

    Well, actually, it isn't right. Because we won't catch every drop. Some will splash away, some will get trapped in the gutters, some will leak out. So a capture rate of 60% is usually considered reasonable, and our potential volume actually is 2,244.156 * 60% = 1,346.494 gallons.

Holy crap! Seriously?! More than thirteen hundred gallons?

Yep. And unfortunately, that huge number is less than 5% of the annual water needs of a 1,000 square foot lawn. Never mind that if you're serious about water conservation, you don't have a 1,000 square foot lawn; are you getting a sense of the quantity of water we're talking about? Say you did have a 20'x50' patch of grass: 1,346 gallons of rainwater would irrigate it for all of about two weeks. For the year you'd need twenty times that, or around 27,000 gallons.

Which raises another issue, specific to Mediterranean climates like ours where most of the rain comes in one season, as opposed to throughout the year: storage.

We get most of our rain during the winter, when plants are dormant and evapotranspiration rates are low. We don't need the captured rainwater now. We need it six to nine months from now, when skies are sunny and the ground is parched. Even if you have no lawn and your xeric garden only needs 1,300 gallons, where do you store what you've saved?

Rain BarrelRainwater PillowRain BoxRainwater HogThere are in-ground cisterns, which may be large enough but are pricey and complicated to install. There are classic, above-ground rain barrels, which are bulky and difficult to link together for additional capacity. There are interesting systems like the Rainwater Pillow which can efficiently store 1,000 gallons or more, but may not be ideal for exposed outdoor locations. And there are modern above-ground tanks such as the Rain Box and Rainwater Hog, which link together with slim rectilinear profiles that use space efficiently but can become pricey.

How pricey? The Rainwater Hog sells in the neighborhood of $500 per 50-gallon tank. To catch 1,346 gallons requires 27 tanks, or $13,500. The Rain Box is more economical, at about $250 per 75-gallon box. But that's still 18 boxes, or $4,500.

Even if cost isn't a consideration, space may be. The Rainwater Hog has such a slim profile — just 20" wide by 10" deep — that it can be mounted not only vertically against walls, but also horizontally, e.g. beneath a deck. But no matter how you set them up, 27 tanks would take a lot of room: far more than the 20' wide wall of our two-car garage. The Rain Box is bigger, about 24" wide by 20" deep, and not designed to mount horizontally; so 18 boxes would need at least 36', or almost two full walls of the garage.

I don't mean to discourage anyone from catching and reusing every drop possible. Even if your "rain barrel" is a garbage can, that's 20 or 30 gallons you don't need to draw from a reservoir. But it won't be your only solution, and in fact might raise more questions, e.g. what do you do with the overflow? We all can install green roofs, detention basins and porous paving, which will help the rain get into the groundwater where it actually can do some good. But these solutions aren't the same as storage; and they're not cheap, either.

I guess my point is that it ain't easy to save the world. It's probably not economical, and you probably won't get your money back. Serious rainwater harvesting requires some serious commitment, and we're not all there just yet. But even if you're not ready to shell out thousands of dollars to store thousands of gallons, you have plenty of other options. Maybe you can swap out your lawn for a delightful garden of unthirsty plants. Maybe you can mulch those plants with 3" of compost instead of leaving the soil bare. Maybe you can redo your driveway with pervious pavers instead of asphalt. Maybe you can take shorter showers or make other changes that reduce your water footprint.

Maybe you can't do much; but you can do something. And what better time to start than now — while there's a break in the weather?

Sep 19, 2014

Inside the Designer's Mind: Selecting Plants

A visitor to my Houzz.com page recently asked about one of my early, and still favorite, garden designs:
Palo Alto landscape design by Verdance Fine Garden Design
Cupressus 'Tiny Tower' behind
white spring annuals along a brick
and bluestone walk in Palo Alto

"I like [the] look of Italian thin trees… I have smaller house, would that look odd for privacy? Bamboo trees other option in my mind."

And it occurred to me that landscape designers have a very methodical way of determining the best plant for a given spot, which we take for granted but may not be understood by everyone. I answered:

"Well, 'odd' is in the eye of the beholder — for the classical style of this home, in my opinion bamboo would have looked odd. But your tastes and opinions may be different, and that's OK too! 

"There may be many different options to choose from to create privacy screening. A landscape designer would consider the specific conditions of your site before considering looks: sun/shade exposure, damp/dry soil, narrow/wide planting area, to name a few. Then within the set of plants that will thrive in those conditions, I would consider the functional attributes of the plants themselves: evergreen/deciduous, clumping/spreading, toxic/nontoxic, short/tall, fast/slow growth, high/low water needs, and so on. Finally, within that subset of plants that have appropriate features, I would choose the plants that fit the aesthetic look you prefer: the Italian Cypress used here work well with a formal, classic style, while bamboo species (and there are many!) may convey a more tropical or Asian feeling. Even the same plant could be used different ways: Pittosporum tenuifolium can be clipped tightly to create a formal hedge, or left loose for a natural, shrubby look. 

"While the aesthetic choice is purely personal, the site conditions and plant attributes are non-negotiable. Figure those out first, and you may find that your plant choice is made for you. Good luck!"

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