Dec 30, 2006

Going Straight

You're a romantic at heart, and you want your garden to feel soft and flowy, so you're absolutely positive you want curved beds, an undulating margin of lawn, and a gently meandering pathway. Nope, no straight lines or hard edges for you, right?!


Actually, straight edges may be the best way to make your garden complement your home. After all, isn't the biggest, most significant element on your property… your house? And no matter what style it is—rancher, Tudor, Eichler, Codder—it's got straight edges. So when your garden reflects and extends those lines out into the landscape, you visually anchor your house to its site.

Furthermore, straight lines are the essence of practicality in the garden. If you're working with small spaces, you can arrange elements far more efficiently using straight edges rather than curves (think of the contents of your refrigerator: do cylindrical bottles or rectangular items nest together better)? Even rectilinear furniture is more efficient: a 4' x 4' square table, for instance, allows 16 square feet of dining space, while a 4' diameter round table only offers 12-1/2 square feet of surface area within the same envelope. And when it comes to lawn, it's just plain easier to mow in straight lines than follow irregular curves.

All this isn't to say that your yard has to look like a checkerboard or feel like a prison cell. Even if you used nothing but straight lines, you still can install plants that drape and billow over the edges, and use irregular planting patterns and varying shapes. And if you're fortunate enough to have property that "goes wild" at the edges—whether adjoining a natural open space or a neighbor's naturalistic garden—it actually makes sense to loosen up your bed edges on that side, for a smooth transition that takes full advantage of borrowed views. And if your yard is asymmetrical or unbalanced, or has a particular trouble spot, curves can actually be used to advantage, to distract the eye past the offending area.

Don't get me wrong: I've designed plenty of gardens based on curved lines, including one that was almost nothing but curves. Even in a starkly modernist garden, arcs provide necessary counterpoints to all that rectilinearity. But even if your style is as far from straight as can be, don't make yourself a prisoner to curves. Often, going straight is the best way to go.

Dec 29, 2006

A Bug In The System

And we thought Y2K was going to be bad. In the last 24 hours I've lost my Mac due to an illogical logic board, and now my email due to a power outage wherever those email servers serve emails. Dammit, people, I'm workinghere!

Actually, it's ironic because I've recently moved away from hand drafting and begun doing most, if not all, my work using CAD. So the project I was going to finish up this week is now sitting in the hands of an Apple Genius somewhere, who undoubtedly doesn't appreciate the intricacies of my work. And the email notification from the aforementioned Apple Genius, informing me I may have my repaired computer back? It's sitting in limbo somewhere, feeling unloved.

Technology. Now helping you waste more time than ever.

Dec 28, 2006

Garden workout

We all know that spending some quality time in the garden, even if it's not quite power gardening, is good for the soul. But it can also be surprisingly good for the body.

For instance, a half-hour of digging and tilling can burn 200 calories. The same time spent trimming shrubs manually can burn about 180 calories, as can weeding a garden bed. Raking leaves for 30 minutes: 160 calories. Mowing with a push mower: 240 calories per half-hour. And my personal favorite, turning a compost pile, will burn about 250 calories in 30 minutes (although I simply can't imagine going at it for that long, myself).

It's worth mentioning, though, that it's all too easy to overexert yourself, because most of these activities are low-load/high repetition. So while the first few whacks with the hedge shears seem like nothing, after minute 30 you've probably earned a couple of Advil. Ease into it with these tips:

  • Start slowly, if you haven't been exercising regularly. Build up to longer times and heavier chores.

  • Warm up and stretch muscles before, during, and after gardening.

  • Take care of your back and knees by bending at the knees, not the waist, to keep your back straight when shoveling or lifting, and by using long-handled tools and knee pads.

    It's easy to forget, in this era of leaf blowers and power tillers and soil drills, how enjoyable the physical aspects of gardening can be. Take advantage of the next dry, clear day to get back in touch.
  • Dec 15, 2006

    Front Yard, Back Yard

    Why do we landscape? Sure, we love the color or scent of flowers, or the tickle of lawn between our toes. We want a place to sit and chat, or sit and rest, or run around and play. But deep down in our lizard brains, what really compels us to move the earth around and poke plants into it?

    The answer, I suspect, depends on where we landscape. The fact is, most of us landscape our front yard for our neighbors, and the back yard for ourselves. The front yard is the "curb appeal," the "first impression," the "look at me" statement. All of these are externally driven by the opinions of other people, and reflect our insecure little ego's need to either blend in or stand out. I've worked with home owners who wanted their front yards to have the same, boring patch of lawn with a flower bed border that their neighbors up and down the street have; "we don't want to be the weird yard on the street," they told me. I've also worked with people who didn't want their yard to be anything like their neighbors'; for these people the front is the chance to express their individuality to the world, presumably for the world's amazement and approval.

    If the front yard seeks the approval that will satisfy the ego, then the back yard is governed by the id's need for pleasure and immediate gratification. The current trend toward lavish outdoor rooms, replete with televisions and dishwashers, indicates a certain unwillingness to endure any discomfort or delay, as well as a wish to wring every drop of enjoyment out of the yard. I've noticed that more clients are willing to pay a premium for larger size plants (and more water to sustain them) to make the brand new landscape look established. And built-in grill centers certainly offer a sense of fulfillment that the humber Weber kettle doesn't.

    There are lots of gray areas here — the overdone outdoor room is as much a monument to the self (ego) as a pleasuredome, and those mature plants are being installed in the front yard as well as the back. And I'm not passing judgment on any of it: we all have our desires and needs — I think we may all be human — and there's no wrong answer when it comes to expressing ourselves. There are even online quizzes to tell us whether we're an "ego" or an "id," but I wouldn't depend on that to define the style of your garden.

    Nevertheless, it is fun to ponder: which matters more to you right now, your front yard or the back? Can you identify why? There's a field called design psychology that uses psychological insights as a tool for developing the design program (often to help home sellers discover the wishes of home buyers). But don't overlook that the landscape itself can be a place that drives, not just reflects, your mental state: therapeutic or healing gardens can provide sanctuary that helps you, not just your garden, grow. Either way, begin with an understanding of yourself… a truly unique and personal yard will result.

    Dec 14, 2006

    The Great American Desert

    "When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires, many of them started deliberately by Indians or cowboys trying to scare nesters off, took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on. Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish in dry years and wet. The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant. The short grass, buffalo and blue grama, had evolved as the perfect fit for the sandy loam of the arid zone. It could hold moisture a foot or more below ground level even during summer droughts, when hot winds robbed the surface of all water-bearing life. In turn, the grass nurtured pin-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, cranes, jackrabbits, snakes, and other creatures that got their water from foraging on the native turf. Through the driest years, the web of life held. When a farmer tore out the sod and then walked away, leaving the land naked, however, that barren patch posed a threat to neighbors. It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient."

    —Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

    Read this book.

    Dec 9, 2006

    O Tannenbaum, Part III

    I still haven't been able to definitively identify an organic christmas tree farm in the Bay Area, but did find a nifty summary of eco-friendly holiday decorating tips at The Green Guide. Perhaps my favorite lead is the pointer to, a brilliant database of farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food. Just plug in your ZIP code, and it will return listings and descriptions close to you. (And if you don't know why it's important to buy where you eat, you need to read Michael Pollan's new book.)

    By the way: my observation of the energy-efficient LED mini lights is that, while they last virtually forever and use at least 75% less electricity than incandescent mini lights, their light quality is still a little harsh, with the clear/white lamps in particular tending toward a cold blue light, as compared to the canary yellow light we're accustomed to. It would be nice if (a) manufacturers could get the light quality closer to what we're all used to, and/or (b) we can just get off of our stuck-in-time asses and embrace the technology.

    No one said saving the planet would be pretty…

    Private Musings on Public Spaces

    "Design jurors tend to be aesthetes looking for elitist eye candy, not populists who admire places that ordinary people love and flock to."

    So says Bill Thompson, FASLA, editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, in a recent article that questions whether functional public spaces are any less valued by our industry that pretty ones.

    Thompson compares Columbus Park in Manhattan's Lower East Side, which he found to be "virtually wall-to-wall people intensely socializing… chockablock with people enjoying every square foot of it," with Martha Schwartz’s award-winning swirling-bench design for Jacob Javits Federal Plaza, which Thompson found inhabited by "just a few users who, to my eye, looked a bit lost in the hundreds of linear feet of green bench. And this was during lunchtime on a pleasant day."

    The importance of public parks and plazas has been scrutinized for decades, most famously in William Whyte's treatise The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte documented a number of features that bring such places to life: benches, fountains, points of "triangulation" that encourage communal gatherings, and so on. It's not for me, or Thompson, to say whether pretty, cutting-edge designs such as Schwartz's are good. But I fully agree with Thompson that no public space can be evaluated without first and foremost considering its effectiveness—obviously measurable in its popularity.

    Dec 4, 2006

    O Tannenbaum, Part II

    Continuing the discussion, a little closer to home… this originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

    Choosing a Christmas tree can be an ethical quagmire for environmentalists

    - Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Thursday, December 15, 2005

    The cultural minefield of December has another politically loaded question to tiptoe around: Will you purchase a real tree or an artificial one?

    And then, what will you call it?

    Your answer will speak to your commitment to protecting American jobs, reducing the trade deficit, preventing environmental destruction, helping us breathe and, of course, showing where you stand on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's
    efforts to counter what he calls the anti-Christian "war on Christmas."

    The choice between real and not real is especially painful for some environmentalists. Either they desecrate the Earth and chop down a tree or buy a fake one that's full of landfill-clogging polyvinyl chloride, which is kryptonite to greenies.

    Salting a tree with pesticides, then chopping it down for a mere two weeks of display time isn't a great option. Ask San Francisco forest activist Kristi Chester Vance. When she invited friends to a party at her place this month, she
    warned her environmentalist pals on the guest list:

    There will be a tree here.

    "I'm a forest activist, and there's a dead tree in the middle of my house," she said. "Geez, if I have a tree, why not nail the last snow leopard to the wall, too?"

    She acknowledges, though, that most Christmas trees are farmed like an agricultural product. "It's kind of like corn," she said. "It would be best to get an organic one, of course."

    As an alternative, Sierra Magazine, a Sierra Club publication, suggests: "For a natural look, try making your own tree of trimmed evergreen boughs, a storm-felled branch, or a piece of driftwood."

    San Francisco's Department of the Environment began a program this year for those averse to stringing lights on driftwood. For $90, the city will bring a live, 7- to 9-foot potted tree to your home for you to decorate. After Christmas, the city will retrieve it and plant it in one of San Francisco's tree-starved neighborhoods, like Bayview-Hunters Point.

    But the city isn't offering pines. Officials said pines don't make the best street trees.

    Instead, they suggested hanging tinsel on a primrose, a Brisbane box tree or a fruitless olive tree. The program proved so popular that it sold out its stock of 100 trees in four days. It will return next year.

    Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, a field marshal for the conservative counter-campaign against the "war on Christmas," will be happy to know that San Francisco called this its "Dreaming of a Green Christmas" tree program. Not that there wasn't discussion about other names.

    "Some people wanted to call it a 'peace tree' or a 'holiday tree,' " said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. "But we figured that only people who would be celebrating Christmas would want one for the most part."

    Deciding between real and fake trees wasn't always an ethical nightmare. The decision used to be more about one's tolerance for cleaning up pine needles.

    But several years ago, America's tree growers started noticing that artificial trees were steadily gaining market share. In 1990, about half of U.S. tree-displaying homes were putting up artificial trees. In 2002, that number had grown to roughly 60 percent, say growers and fake-tree makers. Purchases of real trees declined from 32 million in 2002 to 23.4 million in 2004, according the National Christmas Tree Association.

    So Christmas tree growers got serious about telling their story. They hired a marketing firm that for decades had specialized in Republican political campaigns. The firm, Smith and Harroff, advocated reaching out to Generation Y (now there's an animated "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees" interactive game on the National Christmas Tree Association's Web site), Latinos (the association's materials are being translated into Spanish), first-time home-buyers and gays.

    Now, as possibly only a Douglas fir can do, Christmas trees have bridged a cultural divide. The firm that once consulted for the Republican National Committee was cooing about landing a pro-real-tree reference on TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" show last year.

    Farmers talk about how buying a real tree protects U.S. jobs. China -- the leading exporter of fake trees -- shipped $69 million worth of artificial pines to the United States from January through August of this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Overall, the artificial-tree trade deficit last year was $145 million, according to census statistics.

    More than 100,000 Americans are employed by the real Christmas tree industry, according to its trade association.

    "Do you want to keep your money in the state, or do you want it going to China?" said Sam Minturn, executive director of the 450-member California Christmas Tree Association. He has run a tree farm near Manteca since 1970, hiring students to help him out.

    Farmers say buying a Christmas tree is about protecting the environment. The National Christmas Tree Association takes it a step further, boasting that an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people. And it's trying to be a do-gooder, too, donating 4,000 trees this month to U.S. military personnel.

    The artificial-tree industry has taken notice. And the handful of U.S. manufacturers have started to swing back.

    "The tree farmers have definitely been more aggressive with their marketing the past couple of years," said Daniel Hanley, an administrator with Holiday Tree and Trim, which points out that it has been making artificial trees for 40 years with good ol' American workers in Bayonne, N.J. "But we're really on the same side as the tree farmers in terms of not wanting to see American jobs overseas."

    The artificial-tree builders boast a celebrity endorser to counter the tree farmer's new friends from "Queer Eye." They recently were the subject of a favorable profile on "Made in America," a Travel Channel program hosted by John Ratzenberger, best known for his work as Cliff on "Cheers."

    Hanley disputed the farmers' contention that fake trees generally end up in landfills after six to 10 years of use. "We offer a warranty for 50 years," he said. "We intend for them to be heirlooms, something that is passed down from one generation to another.

    "Plus, that means that a tree has not been cut down," Hanley said. "And think of all the pesticides and fertilizers that are used to keep that (real) tree going. And it's only going to be used for two weeks. Are they all recycled after that?"

    San Francisco curbside recyclers collect about 775 tons of Christmas trees each year and chip them into mulch, make them into compost or use them for biomass fuel to generate electricity, Westlund said.

    Hopelessly torn, with Christmas breathing down your neck? Eric Antebi, national secretary for the Sierra Club, offers an out:

    "Allow me to put in a plug for Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of a little bit of oil lasting eight days," he said.

    "You've got to love a holiday that's all about energy efficiency and eating potato pancakes," he said. "With only the finest organic potatoes, of course."


    Number of people who can live on the amount of oxygen produced by one acre of Christmas trees.


    Percentage of homes with trees that displayed faux fir in 2002.


    Number of Americans employed by the real Christmas tree industry.

    69 million

    Value, in dollars, of the fake Christmas trees imported from China this year.

    E-mail Joe Garofoli at

    Nov 25, 2006

    O Tannenbaum

    The following originally appeared in Chesapeake: The Sierra Club Maryland Chapter Newsletter Online and answers some of the questions I face every year at this time.

    O Tannenbaum: The Good, the Bad, and the Alternatives
    by Annie Rehill | December 2005

    Don’t fret about harming nature with your choice of a real Christmas tree, trade associations assure us. Christmas tree farms are good for the environment. They “improve the air we breathe, the water we drink and the sights and sounds of the world around us,” claim the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, chiming in with many others. “They help to control the effects of climatic conditions and provide a habitat for a variety of birds and small animals.”1

    In Maryland, Jarrettsville Nurseries, “specialists in Christmas trees since 1961,” features an environmental impact statement on its web site that states cheerfully: “The majority of Christmas tree growers have developed evergreen forests from what was once land planted in corn, wheat, hay, etc. Through these Christmas tree plantations, soil erosion has been substantially reduced and a habitat for wild life has been developed.”2

    Very reassuring. Plus they suck in carbon.

    A quick internet search yields 20 Christmas tree associations across the northern United States and in Canada, even in Ireland. Naturally, they are biased. But even environmental organizations don’t deny the benefits. “Purchase a tree from a tree farm rather than cutting one down in the wild,” urges the National Wildlife Federation. “For something a little different, use a living tree in your yard and decorate it with edible ornaments for birds and other wildlife.”3 (Of course it will get a tad chilly out there during your holiday nights—bonfire?)

    “We opt for a real tree,” agrees the Green Challenge, “a part of the holidays since the first decorated Christmas tree appeared in Riga, Latvia, in 1510. Nowadays trees cut for Christmas are grown on farms, often on land unsuitable for other crops.”4

    What’s more, the Ontario farmers observe: “Christmas trees often occupy corners and odd parcels of land which might otherwise lie fallow and be subject to erosion. . .Real Christmas trees are a natural, biodegradable, non-polluting and environmentally friendly product.”

    Okay then, over the fields to the Christmas tree farm we go.

    The Bad

    Hold it, not so fast: In 2002, Sierra Club member Dashka Slater wrote: “The big downside is the more than 40 different pesticides used in tree farming, including nasty ones like the herbicide atrazine, a hormone disrupter linked to prostate cancer.”5 Methyl bromide has since been phased out for widespread use, but insect eradication remains common practice.

    Yikes! What to do? Saw off a few branches and hang ornaments on those? I’ve seen this done beautifully in a friend’s home, with fir limbs suspended from the wall and twinkling with festivity.

    Or go the fake route? In her 2002 article, Slater continued: “If you use the same [plastic tree] each year, you’re only tapping our petroleum supply once, not burning up gas on every trip to the tree lot. (They’re pesticide-free, too.) For a natural look, try making your own tree of trimmed evergreen boughs, a storm-felled branch, or a piece of driftwood.”

    All very pretty perhaps, but, as the National Christmas Tree Association points out: “Artificial trees are a petroleum-based product manufactured in mostly Chinese factories. A burden to the environment, artificial trees aren’t biodegradable and will remain in landfills for centuries after disposal. The average number of years people use an artificial tree before throwing it away is only six to nine years.”6

    Oh dear, must we give up Christmas trees altogether?

    The Alternatives

    Maybe not. First of all, if you can locate one, a few farms advertise organic trees. I found one in southern New York, Blooming Hill Organic Farm (845-782-7310). In Maryland I found none—but with a little patience, you may have more success. To pursue the question, start with Maryland’s Cooperative Extension Program Department at If you don’t find anything through the links there, the next step is to call the organization and ask.

    Even if you discover that Maryland Christmas tree farmers are not going the organic route, you may opt to go ahead and buy from them anyway. Pesticide use does not automatically mean the groundwater is being poisoned, or that the toxins remain permanently in the tree’s bark or leaves.

    University agricultural extension agents promote integrated pest management (IPM), the responsible, targeted application of minimal effective pesticide doses on an as-needed basis only. Farmers who choose IPM—and increasing numbers do—may not be able to advertise organically grown trees, but their use of toxic substances has declined to the point that they often do not penetrate the soil. By the time your tree is cut down, the minimal pesticide has degraded and you could practically eat the tree yourself without harmful effects. (For more on the University of Maryland’s IPM Program, see

    Farmers’ IPM choice is often motivated by money. Most synthetic pesticides are made from oil, and prices are rising. Like other farmers, those growing Christmas trees don’t have a lot of room to make a profit. Thus they are turning to IPM, or at least to more judicious pesticide applications.

    Extension programs around the country are helping. “Before you decide to make a chemical application in the early Spring,” cautions Mark A. Metz of Illinois, “make sure you do not have a harmless visitor like the blackberry psylla [psyllid].” Metz describes this insect in detail, explaining its life cycle and the fact that all it’s doing during winter months is taking refuge in the conifers.

    “If you have any doubts as to their identity,” advises Metz, “send one to your local extension agent who should be able to quickly identify it for you. There is currently no more effective control of Christmas tree pests than chemical application,” he concedes, “however, the cost, in terms of product and time, dictates careful consideration prior to application. As a grower, you should limit exposure to pesticides as much as possible for the safety of your farm workers.” 7

    As for any other crop, if they are to make a living, farmers must guard constantly against drought, floods, pests, and disease. And there’s no shortage of people trying to make a living in this way. From Ireland to Oregon, from a few acres to thousands, farmers are growing trees that take from four to ten years to mature.

    Regardless of what your conclusions may be as to its benefits, the Christmas tree farming business isn’t going away. But Sierra members can help to improve it. Encourage growers to use eco-friendlier techniques. If you opt to buy a tree this year, find out where it was grown. Contact the person at the farm who’s in charge of publicity. Call or email, and voice your concerns. Ask about their pesticide use, whether they work with their local extension program to implement IPM, or why they haven’t considered going organic.

    When enough people call with the same questions, business owners pay attention. Even as they listen to the happy jingle of the season, the smartest farmers are always thinking ahead.


    1 Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, Earth One, Ecosystems, Groundwater, Global Warming. “Does having a real Christmas tree harm the ENVIRONMENT?”

    2 Jarrettsville Nurseries, Jarrettsville, MD, “Environmental Impact,”

    3 National Wildlife Federation, Get Green, “Buying the Right Tree,”

    4 The Green Challenge, Newsletter Holiday issue 2004, “Still More Trees, Christmas Trees That Is,”

    5 November-December 2002 Sierra Magazine, “The Hidden Life of the Holidays,”

    6 National Christmas Tree Association, Recycling, “Real Christmas Trees Are a Renewable, Recyclable Resource.”

    7 Mark A. Metz, Illinois Natural History Survey, Center for Biodiversity, supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association,

    For more information, see the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association web site, The Christmas Tree Scouting Report Pest Update for the 2005 Season includes an exhaustive list of pests, specifics on the damage they do, and how to deal with them, including how to use traps.

    Nov 13, 2006

    Land of the Midnight Sun

    For reasons I cannot divine, one of our neighbors has taken to leaving his back patio lights on at night.

    All night.

    Apparently he's oblivious to the fact that the fixtures are of a design that emits light up and out as well as down, or that the wattage of their bulbs is enough to brown a turkey at a distance of 300 feet.

    Since this is roughly the distance from his patio to our kitchen, this bodes well for our Thanksgiving. But any other day, this is the definition of "light trespass": the intrusion of light across geographic or property boundaries. And it's a classic case of light pollution, a growing problem which is devaluing our quality of life, harming wildlife, and destroying our environment.

    I bring this up because, if you haven't noticed, the nights have been lengthening for a couple of months now, and will continue until we reach the winter solstice on December 21 (at 4:22 pm local time, FYI). As a result, we humans are using artificial illumination more; which to me means we have a responsibility to use it more wisely.

    The most common reason to use outdoor lighting is, in a word, safety. We want to see where we're going, make it easier to ourselves to navigate around and into our home, and make it harder for unwelcome guests to do the same. But when we commit the error of my neighbor, we actually decrease our safety. Think about it: do you enjoy staring straight into the halo of a 75-watt bulb? Of course not, so you look away. Which means you don't see the fellow in the black ski mask jimmying the lock on the door next to that light.

    Even if you thought you saw something, it would be impossible to see much past the glare of that lamp. Is it your neighbor, or not? Hard to tell, and given that you want to keep neighborly relations, well, neighborly, you probably won't call 911 on him. Once again, the design of the fixture has compromised its effectiveness.

    Furthermore, because misdirected light is wasted light, and wasted light is wasted power, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and others calculate that poor lighting may the US $2 billion or more annually. Nor is the cost just economic: the US alone may consume at least six million tons of coal annually to produce excess light — creating long-term environmental consequences such as air and water pollution, carbon dioxide accumulation, and acid rain that affect every species of life on Earth.

    Whether you're planning your outdoor lighting from scratch, or retrofitting an existing system, there's a lot you can do to reduce these costs to yourself and your planet. I offer a free report on dark-sky issues and effective lighting solutions, so please do write me if you would like a copy.

    In the meantime, please turn down the lights… at least your neighbors will thank you for it.

    Nov 8, 2006

    The $64,000 Vegetable Bed

    Anyone who has ever tried to make their home garden yield more, better, or less expensive produce than the local grocery store offers knows the futility of that effort. But does it really cost $64 to grow a tomato?

    Well, given the costs of water, energy, materials, and labor (what's your weeding time worth?), that tomato certainly will cost more than the $2 or $3 you'll spend on seeds. If you're just growing for pleasure or taste, as I do, that's probably pretty easy to justify. However, if you're truly growing your food to conserve money, you'll need a more efficient system.

    Enter the communal garden, where neighbors, families, even complete strangers share the costs of water, land, and maintenance. As American Public Media's "Marketplace" reports, these economies of scale can cut the costs of produce to 25% of retail.

    If you would like to know more about community gardening, call your city manager's office to find out whether there currently is a public garden in your area. The garden coordinator can then tell you more about joining, including fees, rules, and whether there's a waiting list.

    Oct 31, 2006

    Thinking Green

    I love a good idea. I don't care where it comes from: me, you, other designers, the janitor. I'll gladly stand on the shoulders of people smarter than I am—which is a nice way of saying I'll steal their ideas. But I'll at least give them credit.

    So in that spirit, here is longtime sustainability advocate Arlie Middlebrook's contribution to our lively, and necessary, conversation about global warming. I've highlighted the ideas that I find particularly insightful, but the insights (and words) are hers:

    "Save Water and Have a Beautiful Natural Garden

    "1. Plant a California native garden utilizing plants that naturally occur at your site. Native plants thrive where they have evolved and are accustomed to, it can survive on annual rainfall. The establishment period is 2 years.

    "2. Protect your watershed. The less impervious surface you retain on your property, the more rainfall will stay on your property. When you create a garden, try to retain all of your rainfall on your property. If you have concrete on site, renew, reuse or recycle it in creative ways, such as breaking it up and re-laying it for a porous driveway or patio, stacking it for raised beds or planters, staining it and re-laying. It as attractive stepping stones or recycling it for future use by others. City recycling centers will accept your broken concrete:

    "These facilities will let you pick up recycled concrete as well.

    "3. Don’t use new concrete in garden construction. After the burning of fossil fuels, the manufacture of cement is the number two contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If you must use concrete, limit its use and request that ‘fly ash’ be used as an additive, or use porous concrete. Fly ash is a byproduct of burning coal and in addition to being a filler actually improves the concrete. Ask your contractor to add it to the mix.

    "Porous concrete is comprised of pea gravel and concrete. Water drains through it. Several local concrete companies now supply porous or ‘pervious’ concrete, e.g.

    "4. If you must irrigate, do not use spray/sprinkler systems. A sizable amount of the water is lost to evaporation. Use drip, soaker, bubbler, microspray or an underground irrigation system. The one exception is using overhead spray to establish a native bunch grass/wildflower meadow during the establishment period.

    "5. Lose your Lawn! Up to 60% of household water is used on lawns. And throw away your lawn mower. Two cycle engines are the most polluting engines in America. Replace your lawn with a native meadow, native ground cover or a turf substitute. FieldTurf makes a replicated grass product that looks just like grass and has a natural feel, yet is manufactured from recycled plastic and ground up recycled tennis shoes. It is guaranteed for 15 years.

    "6. Don’t use oil-derived pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Compost and keep worm bins. Break the chemical dependence cycle. If it has the word “kill” on the package, be very wary of buying it. Your soil is alive and these chemicals can kill your soil (yes, even the fertilizers). Iron-based slug killer and safer ‘organic’ pesticides on the market including pyrethrins, essential oils and soaps may work more slowly, but you will come out ahead in the end. Reminder: All pesticides should be handled with care. Read labels carefully.

    "7. Register your garden as a certified national wildlife habitat. (National Wildlife Federation Encourage children to visit your garden. Create places for frogs, birds, butterflies, toads and lizards. Create a small water feature. Leave detritus for animal cover and protection. Be a part of educating the next generation to feel connected to Mother Earth and learning the responsibilities of protecting Her.

    "8. Use solar power to operate fountains, gates, lighting and power in garden sheds and cottages.

    "9. Grow some of your own food organically. Plant fruit trees and vegetables as landscaping plants. If you can’t harvest your food, contribute it to those who need it. Work with local non-profit harvesting agencies such as Village Harvest:

    "10. Use recycled material and products and certified sustainable products in garden construction. Trex, for example, is made primarily with recycled plastic grocery bags, reclaimed pallet wrap and waste wood. Beware: not all composite woods use recycled products. Use ‘Forest Council Certified’ wood and other recycled materials existing on site. Check for materials you need.

    "11. Buy from local suppliers. Limit your driving. Order materials online. Have materials delivered to your site.

    "12. Use tree trimmings for mulch or recycled products like Pro-Chip, which is produced from curbside recycled garden waste. Apply generously to a depth of three inches minimum. It keeps your soil moist, reducing the need for irrigation. Many local tree service companies will give you mulch for free. Pro-Chip is available at local landscape supply companies, like South Bay Materials, as well as from BFI

    "13. Use weed cloth under mulch. This will allow the native plants to become established by repressing invasive weeds that can sneak through mulch. Four hours of weeding in the sun will having you wishing you had used weed cloth. Install it from the start and smile every time you walk by your weed-free garden beds."

    I know I've already touched on some of these issues in previous posts, but Arlie's words are a good reminder. Do the right thing. Do it in small doses. And before you know it, you will be the change we need to see in this world.

    Oct 23, 2006

    Who's On Your Team?

    Maybe it's just football season, but I've been thinking about teams a lot lately. If you've ever bought a home, you no doubt had an better time if you had a "team on your side" -- realtor, lender, inspector, locksmith, and so on. Same thinking applies when you open a bank or brokerage account: do you also have a financial planner? Estate planner? Accountant? For that matter, everyday life is a little easier when you have a team -- dentist, doctor, dry cleaner, coffee shop.

    So I'm always surprised when I talk with people who want to transform their yards into something really special, but haven't given much thought to just who should be part of that team. Sure, you want a good landscape designer or landscape architect. But who's going to install that design? Your neighborhood mow-n-blow guy? Hmm.

    Even if you do have a licensed landscape contractor in mind, who will they use for carpentry, masonry, even planting? For that matter, who's providing the plants? And for heaven's sake, who's going to keep the place looking amazing long after all the installers have gone home? Your neighborhood mow-n-blow guy?

    It's not enough to just name names, though. You also need to think dollars and cents: are you OK paying less for lesser quality plants? Is spending a few hundred dollars a month on a good fine gardener worth it, if it makes you feel proud (and/or your neighbors envious) of your garden? There's nothing wrong with either of these choices (although personally, I really would appreciate it if you would spring for a decent gardener to keep up my design) -- but you do have to make them, and preferably at the outset of the process so your designer can respond accordingly. That is to say, if you don't have the budget for a gardener, I'm not going to pack your garden full of annuals.

    One thing to look for in a landscape designer/architect is strong connections to these other members of your team. If you ever need references for contractors, suppliers, gardeners, or other "green" professionals, please let me know. Hey, I'm just happy to be part of the team.

    Oct 18, 2006

    Going Native

    "They're ugly." "They're fussy." "They'd never work in my garden." What good are California native plants, anyway?

    In fact, even though we can make almost anything grow here, only California natives have evolved to not only survive but actually thrive through our long dry summers, warm wet winters, and the occasional drought, wildfire, or freeze. And with more than 13,000 species and varieties endemic to the California Floristic Province, it's easy to find natives that will work well, and look great, in your garden.

    Many natives resist deer and gophers, and most need less water than your current plantings. But the greatest benefit natives offer is the staggering range of biodiversity they support: songbirds and hummingbirds, bumblebees and butterflies, lizards, frogs, and more. Want Monarchs in your garden? Plant native milkweed. Want bluebirds? Plant Mahonia nevinii. Best of all, as your native bird and insect populations increase, your numbers of mosquitos, aphids, and other garden pests will decrease -- so you'll need less pesticide, which in turn will invite more birds and insects. It's a potent cycle, ultimately benefitting a much larger ecosystem than just your yard.

    To choose natives well suited to your garden, you first need to know which plant community evolved in your area. Species in that community won't need a lot of special treatment (e.g. soil amendment, fertilizer, frost protection, or summer water) -- after all, they were here long before you were, so their maintenance is much less demanding than those exotic European and Asian imports we indulge. When you select and place native plants appropriately, maintenance generally comes down to just a few rules: mulch generously, water judiciously, weed diligently, and never, ever fertilize.

    The California Native Plant Society is a great resource for more information, including educational programs, plant sales, conservation and preservation efforts, and even activities to help kids develop an appreciation for natural ecosystems. They also maintain an extensive list of native plant nurseries and botanical gardens. Inventories are at their peak now, so take a field trip and see what you're missing. Who knows? You may decide that California natives are a good choice for your garden, after all.

    Oct 13, 2006

    To Autumn (John Keats)

    To Autumn
    – John Keats
    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
    To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
    Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
    And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

    Oct 10, 2006

    Private Gardens Tour this Weekend

    The Garden Conservancy annually persuades private garden owners to open up their wonderfully designed and maintained spaces for the public to admire, emulate, and envy. This weekend half a dozen gardens in the South Bay will be open on Saturday, with another pair in San Francisco will be open on Sunday. A highlight of Saturday's program will be Middlebrook Gardens, who are also showing “California Colors”, a celebration of California’s native rich natural heritage, featuring presentations as well as a native plant sale by Native Revival Nursery.

    Oct 2, 2006

    Potting Mix for Blueberries

    Just stumbled across this recipe for a potting mix for my beloved blueberries. The only thing I don't agree with is the use of peat moss as a moisture retainer—peat is a rapidly dwindling (and irreplaceable) natural resource, so I would rather use coco coir. I'll give this mix a try when repotting our berries this winter, and report the results.

    Sep 27, 2006

    Keeping us together, keeping us apart

    How do you use the space between your front door and the sidewalk? Probably the same as your neighbors do, especially if you're in a culturally homogenous area. Here, James Rojas observes Latino Urbanism in Los Angeles:

    "Fences: A Social Catalyst
    "Fences are a fixed prop. In many front yards across America one can find fences. Most people will build fences for security, exclusion, seclusion, etc. and Latinos build fences for these same reasons. Fences create easily defendable spaces and illustrate a simple, straightforward approach to procession: 'This is my space.' However it's the way Latinos use fences that becomes interesting.

    "Waist-high fences are ubiquitous throughout the residential landscape of Latino Los Angeles. The fences function as place to keep things out or in, provide a place hang wet laundry, sell items or just chat with a neighbor. Fences are a useful threshold between the household and public domain and bring residents together. Boundaries bring people together and the fences in Latino neighborhoods define boundaries between public and private space. However here the fences break down the social and physical barriers by creating a place where people can congregate. The middle class suburban neighborhood people rarely congregate in the front yard. This visible expanse of land acts as a psychological barrier that separates the private space of the home from the public space of the street. Collectively the enclosed front yards create a different urban landscape and transform the neighborhood.

    "Enclosed front yards help transform the street into a plaza. This new plaza is not the typical plaza we see in Latin American or Europe with strong defining street walls but has an unconventional form. Nevertheless the streets in Latino LA have all the social activity of a plaza. Residents and pedestrians can participate in the social dialog on the street from the comfort and security of their enclosed front yard. Fences clearly delineate their property between neighbors, which allows them to personalize their front yard without physically interfering with each other.

    "La Yarda: A Personal Expression
    Nowhere else in urban landscape of Latino Los Angeles is the use of space so illuminated and celebrated than in the front yard. Typical middle class front yard is an impersonal space in which no one sits there, no personal objects are left lying while the front yards in Latino LA are personal vignettes of the owner's life. Depending on the practical needs of the owners, the use and design of the front yard vary from elaborate courtyard gardens reminiscent of Mexico, a place for children, to working places. Middle class Americans put their daily habits in the backyard. Latinos bring the party, workspace and conversation to the front yard creating activity in the public space.

    "The front yard in middle class suburbs has become a space dedicated to showing that we are good citizens, and responsible members of the community. In Latino LA front yard is not measure by the cosmetics of the lawn but rather your participation in streets activities. The Latino front yards reflect the Latino cultural values applied to American suburb form."

    Living in one of the middle-class suburban neighborhoods Rojas describes, I can appreciate how little our front yards are used—which makes it all the more ironic that more often than not, they are comprised mostly of lawn, as though our children will be playing out front while we sip lemonade and chat with our neighbors.

    Which is the more human condition: to convene as the community we are, to talk and work and play together despite (or even because of) our fences; or to retreat behind those fences, escaping the masses of people and trite conversation we endure all day in public, pretending that we live apart from and immune to everyone else?

    Sep 23, 2006

    The High Cost of Nitrogen

    Inspired by Al Gore, House & Garden's garden guy Tom Christopher has written an eye-opener about "the cost in fossil fuels of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers we apply so lavishly to our yards and gardens":

    "After a bit of research and doing the math, I have found that [Gore] is right. The raw material for all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is anhydrous (water free) ammonia, which is manufactured by combining hydrogen from natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen. This is an extravagant process: to produce one ton of anhydrous ammonia requires the consumption of 33.5 million British Thermal Units (BTU's) of natural gas. According to a 2001 U.S. government estimate, that's almost exactly half the quantity of gas needed to heat the average home in one of our northeastern states for a whole year.

    "A farmer may need the fertilizer (though synthetic nitrogens are a relatively inefficient source of this nutrient because so much of what is applied simply leaches away through the soil to pollute groundwater and streams); what I can longer justify as a home gardener is my consumption of this costly stuff. Currently, I'm putting in a lawn as a fire-break and tick-free zone around our house in the country. If I were to plant a half acre of Kentucky bluegrass and fertilize according to the recommendations on the fertilizer bags, I'd apply a total of as much as 85 lbs. of synthetic nitrogen annually – consuming in that way more than 1.4 million BTU's of natural gas."


    Obviously, nitrogen is necessary for plant development; we just need to be a little more thoughtful about how we use it and where we source it. Nitrogen-fixing cover crops, "grasscycling" with a mulching mower, and dressing the soil with well-composted manure can all increase your nitrogen delivery organically, and in fact counter some of the damage done by the production, and application, of synthetic fertilizers.

    Sep 21, 2006

    Spinach Madness

    From Wednesday's Mercury News:
    Spinach fans, don't despair: Just grow it yourself
    By Holly Hayes

    "Popeye reached for canned spinach, but if you're craving the fresh stuff, you can always pick up your trowel and grow your own.

    "Cultivating spinach in the home garden -- whether in a traditional plot or containers -- is easy, say cool-season vegetable gardeners. And the bonus is that if you start your plants from seed, you can try some varieties that rarely show up at the market."

    (Plus, none of that E. coli nastiness.)

    Read the full story for sources and cultivation tips.

    Sep 16, 2006

    Bleeding Cardinal... Green?!

    While I couldn't argue (much) with the case made last year for the downsizing of Stanford Stadium, I was heartbroken at the announcement that the new stadium would have artificial turf. I mean, this was the field that Dan Fouts allegedly called "about the most perfect surface on which he ever played"—and it's certainly the most perfect surface for LSJUMB airplanes and other merry hijinks. (Even if they don't get to touch it for a while.) I was so bummed, I didn't even bother checking the stadium webcams or following any other news of the construction, other than glancing over every time I drove past to make sure the whole thing hadn't imploded.

    So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I turned on the Stanford-Navy debacle -- I mean, game -- tonight and saw… divots! Gorgeous, imperfect, messy chunks of sod sticking out every which way, flying nobly skyward in slo-mo with every replay. Somehow, I totally missed the announcement that real grass would be used in place of the synthetic stuff. And I am thrilled.

    Don't get me wrong: I'm not changing my attitude about lawn. Most of the time, it's the wrong plant in the wrong place, underused and overwatered. But as a play surfacing—especially for an omnidirectional sport such as football—it's a great choice. The expense and maintenance might be a bit much (especially for the 100,000 square feet of Bermuda grass in the new stadium), but it's worth it for the spirits and safety of the players.

    And, of course, the Band.

    Sep 14, 2006

    Now, THAT's Marketing!

    Apart from the fact that I find the whole concept of offshore drilling pretty gross, it's nevertheless amazing that someone had the foresight -- in 1966, even, well before our era of spin and hypermarketing -- to landscape drilling platforms. Heck, I'm tempted to fly down to L.A. just for this (but the boys are too young to get in). Tell you what: if you're the first person to send me a copy of your admission ticket, along with a reasonably thoughtful review of the project, I'll refund your admission. Bonus points if you can take a photo from the perspective shown here. Super bonus points if the towers are only sending up benign puffs of white steam like this.

    Sep 11, 2006

    Holey Pancreas, Batman!

    Weird, but scarily possible: On Aug. 29 a teenager was impaled by a 10-inch piece of metal thrown from his brother's lawnmower. The shard punctured the teen's pancreas and lodged in his abdominal aorta, which (and this is really weird) is fortunate because it helped staunch the bleeding that otherwise would have been fatal within minutes.

    I'm only bringing this up because who among us doesn't cut a few corners, so to speak, in our gardening practices? I'm no exception: I can't count the number of times I've reached a little farther than I should from a ladder, or thrown on open-toed sandals to mow the lawn, or taken down a tree limb using two cuts rather than three or more. What about you: do you don protective goggles every time you mow or edge the lawn? Wear a respirator, gloves, and body armor every time you apply pesticides or herbicides? For that matter, do you know whether any of the plants in your garden might be toxic?

    I can only imagine how the kid's brother feels, but then again, who the hell expects scraps of metal the size of drinking straws to be lying around in your lawn? Yet the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 16 percent of all lawnmower injuries -- some 12,000 per year -- come from objects such as nails and wire, thrown at about 200 mph.

    The story seems like it will have a happy ending, but it's still a good reminder to make a habit of looking for any debris that might be on your lawn before you start to mow. Hire a trained and licensed landscape contractor to handle the chemicals and tools. And sign yourself up for a class on pruning and/or landscape maintenance.

    The pancreas you save could be your own.

    Aug 19, 2006

    Indoors vs. Outdoors

    So I've moved into a new office, which has pretty much everything I could want: a big sunny window, a prestigious address, the aroma of fresh espresso wafting through the windows, even public art on the wall downstairs. However, it is lacking one thing:


    And I'm realizing that, as deftly as I can (sometimes) organize outdoor spaces, i don't have a clue when faced with this blank slate of a room. Where should the drafting table go, to get good light without glare or shadows? How do I want the computer desk to orient to the drafting table? Where should the peripherals go? The bookcases and materials library? And so on and so on.

    I am finding some interesting ideas on office design: analogies between neighborhoods and workplaces, thoughts on office utopias, even an essay on why cubicles are evil. But my problem is a little different: I don't have to coordinate workgroups, or facilitate interdepartmental flow; I just have to feel inspired and efficient in my space.

    Any suggestions or insights are welcome...

    Aug 11, 2006

    Everyone Loves Lawn

    In the recent article from Scientific American titled Landscape Influences Human Social Interaction, one study posits that we are more "neighborly" when our yards are covered with lush lawns, not waterwise plantings. But I'll add my own *asterisk to the findings. Because I can't tell you how often I have been out working in our own, non-lawn, garden and been engaged in conversation by neighbors and passers-by precisely because the garden isn't the typical suburban patch of green. Comments usually start along the lines of, "Looks good!" and evolve into "What is that (plant)?" or, quite presciently, "Are you a landscaper?"

    So I will say that yes, landscapes do influence socialization. But I'll wager that it's the quality of the garden, not the content, that impels us to be neighborly.

    Aug 1, 2006

    How Good's Your Gardener?

    One of the biggest challenges I face is keeping the beautiful gardens I design, beautiful. Once the plans have been installed, I'm no longer needed, and all I can do is watch from the curb as my so-carefully-considered perennials turn into shaggy messes... shrubs sprawl… and roses blow their brains out in the heat of summer. Even though I tend to emphasize waterwise, low-maintenance gardens, I just never know how much TLC they'll actually get.

    That's why one of the first questions I ask a client is, "how much do you intend to spend on a gardening service each month?" If their answer is "nothing, I'll take care of it all," I know we're in for a rough ride. On the other hand, if they say, "oh, a few hundred or more," then I know they're more realistic about their abilities and their garden's needs.

    The best recommendation I can make is to hire not just a lawn-mowing service (and if I'm designing your garden, you won't have much of a lawn to mow), but a fine gardener: someone who knows (or will learn about) your plants in detail, who will prune them when they should be pruned… feed them what they love to be fed… and even evolve the design over time with annual color and replacement plants that enhance the design.

    The best fine gardeners aren't cheap -- $75/hour is possible -- but they are so worth it when your garden blows away anyone else's in the neighborhood, every day of every season of the year. A good design with a great gardener? Priceless.

    Jul 27, 2006

    Well, Back to DDT...

    Maria Cone reports in the Los Angeles Times: "Alarmed that popular insecticides that end up in urban streams are killing tiny aquatic creatures, California's pesticide agency is conducting a review that is likely to lead to restrictions on many products used on lawns and gardens.

    "The chemicals, pyrethroids, are man-made versions of natural compounds in chrysanthemum flowers. ...last fall, a UC Berkeley scientist reported that pyrethroids are polluting streams in Northern California suburbs, wiping out crustaceans and insects vital to ecosystems. "

    Too much of a good thing, indeed. Pyrethroids have been popular because they are derived from natural sources: "safe enough to eat!" I remember some pitchman or other saying, as he chomped into a just-sprayed apple.

    (Never mind that the pitchman now resides in an asylum, under observation for paranoid homicidal episodes brought on by neurological dysfunction. Sheer coincidence.)

    Seriously, it's a tricky proposition. We value the beauty and diversity of nonnative species, but we upset the natural ecological balance when we import them. So as these plants prove a little too attractive to whiteflies, thrips , mealybugs and the lot, we turn to chemicals -- hopefully "benign" ones -- to control the bad guys, not considering that everything in nature has some connection to everything else. (Natural or not, chrysanthemum toxins were never intended to enter waterways en masse.)

    To further complicate matters, pyrethroids have also been a useful weapon in a more noble fight, the protection of European honeybee colonies from the predatory varroa mites that are decimating populations of these pollinators. (Plus -- how 'bout a big shout-out to evolution?! -- the mites are developing resistance to the pyrethroids.)

    In this case, the state expects to regulate or even abolish the use of pyrethroids. But our addiction to nonnative species isn't going to end -- municipalities aren't going to rip out their stands of Loropetalum and Magnolia to replace them with native plant communities. And you can be sure that the companies that make pyrethroid pesticides aren't going to roll over quietly; as the Times reported, "a spokesman for CropLife America, representing pesticide manufacturers, said Thursday that the companies were unaware of California's intentions but will cooperate with its requests. He said the industry does not agree that there are toxicity problems … 'The valuable contributions that pyrethroids make through agricultural and urban uses are many and these benefits need to be considered'."

    My guess is, the chemists will develop so-called "solutions," either cultivars or pesticides, engineered to be as "safe" as everyone's new favorite artificial sweetener. Of course these will open an entirely new can of worms -- assuming the worms haven't already been killed off by pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers -- and we'll be riding this merry-go-round again all too soon.

    Jul 21, 2006

    Ha! Told You So.

    Just in time to prove my point about landscaping adding value to a home, Kiplinger's Personal Finance writes that "creating an outdoor retreat can be a worthwhile but costly venture. So make sure your money is well spent on features that add the most value to your property." Top items on the list include a covered patio and an outdoor kitchen; but luxury additions such as an outdoor fireplace, television, and grand water feature may not yield you a return on your investment.

    Jul 11, 2006

    Dressing To The Nines

    As I wrote last time, a minimal investment in landscape staging can easily be assured of a 100% return, so there's no reason not to get a little dressed up when you're joining the home-sale dance.

    But if you really want to see some results, consider dressing to the nines.

    In 2003, Smart Money magazine reported that an investment of 5% of your home's value could return as much as 15%. So let's revisit our old listing : instead of 1%, you decide to bite the bullet and invest a whopping 5% of that $800,000 value -- or $40,000 -- into upgrading your landscape. Now we're talking about more than just a bit of greenery: this kind of money will buy you an arbor, new pathways, a deck, an outdoor kitchen, and/or a water feature... significant upgrades that really stick in the memories of potential buyers, and help them imagine themselves relaxing under the arbor or flipping steaks on the grill. If someone wants to pay a 7.5% premium -- certainly not unheard of in this market -- to call this oasis their own, you've just netted $20,000.

    Where to start? Consult a professional landscape designer, who will be able to evaluate your yard's potential and offer suggestions on improving the landscaping as well as overall curb appeal. Whatever rule of thumb you follow, you can be sure that any well-executed landscape design will more than pay for itself.

    Jun 30, 2006

    Dressing Up To Go To The Dance

    Considering selling your home? Don't join the dance without getting dressed up first.

    Joy Valentine of Coldwell Banker Realty wrote:
    "In discussions with colleagues and based on my own experiences with staging, I suspected that staged homes sell faster and for a higher price than those that are not staged. Wanting to test that theory, I analyzed 2,772 properties sold between March 1 and September 30, 1999, in eight cities: Atherton, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Portola Valley and Sunnyvale. Out of that group, I took a sample of 129 properties that had been staged, or 4.7 percent of the total. This sample represented condominiums, townhouses and single-family residences. They ranged in list price from $229,000 to $4.8 million. The following results show marked differences between the sample of staged homes and the total group, which consisted of both staged and unstaged properties. For the group of 2,772 properties, the average number of days on the market was 30.9, and the average difference in sales price over list price was 1.6 percent. For the sample of staged homes, the average number of days on the market was 13.9 -- about half of the time for houses in the general sample. The average difference in selling price over list price was 6.3 percent, nearly four times as much as for the other group of homes."

    So, class: let's say you want to enjoy that 6.3% increase, so you decide to stage your home. You do want to retain some of the profits, so you spend less than the full 6.3% -- let's say 4% -- on staging.

    Now if landscaping were, say, one-quarter of your staging budget, that would be .25 x 4% = 1% of the list price. Which means an $800,000 property -- the median home price in Silicon Valley in May-- could invest up to $8,000 in landscaping and be pretty confident of earning that investment back.

    Not too shabby, but wait! There's more!

    As I will write next time, dressing just a little fancier -- go ahead, bust out the pearl earrings or mother-of-pearl cufflinks -- can make your time at the dance significantly more enjoyable.

    Jun 19, 2006

    Hiring a Designer: Part 3

    A friend recently wrote me to ask:

    "My wife and I are thinking about changing around our backyard a bit... She has some grand ideas and wanted to see how this process works. If we wanted to work with you, what are the fees, how do we find a contractor to do the work... you know the usual stuff..."

    I recently shared my answers about selection criteria and fees for landscape design. Here, I'll briefly describe how the design process works:

    The process itself usually has 5 distinct phases:
    1) Discovery - interviewing you, measuring and documenting your site, researching municipal ordinances (e.g. drainage requirements) that can affect the design, etc.

    2) Functional Planning - abstractly determining how the various areas of your site should work and interact, e.g. where the BBQ should live relative to the swingset.

    3) Preliminary/Schematic Design - giving general form to the functions determined above; this is the color drawing that people drool over. See one example of mine -- notice that the circular deck (lower left) isn't described in any more detail than "Wood Deck"; this is typical generality for this phase. Start talking to contractors now.

    4) Final/Construction Plans - the "blueprints" that your site gets built from, including specific plants/locations, hardscape dimensions & finishes, irrigation & lighting recommendations, and other details; for instance, that "Wood Deck" might now be called out as "Redwood 2x4 flooring, countersink screws, stain Mahogany & seal". Contractors develop bids from this. Note that unless your professional is licensed (as an architect or contractor), they are legally prohibited from providing dimensions, grading or drainage specifications, or other construction details.

    5) Installation - The contractors' time to shine, but you might still want your designer around in a supporting role, e.g. inspecting and placing plants, checking that the finished work matches up with the intent of the design, making substitutions and judgment calls on the inevitable issues that arise.

    The first 4 phases usually take me at least 6-8 weeks, again depending on the complexity of it all. The installation can take weeks or months depending on the contractor. For best prices and availability, start your planning around December and your construction as soon as weather permits. Also, have a firm budget for design and construction, just as you would for buying a home. Don't hire someone to provide a design and then ask "how much will this cost?" You're wasting your money and everyone's time. Current thinking is to spend 5-10% of your home's value on landscaping, for a 1-3x ROI when you sell.

    Jun 12, 2006

    Hiring a Designer: Part 2

    A friend recently wrote me to ask:

    "My wife and I are thinking about changing around our backyard a bit... She has some grand ideas and wanted to see how this process works. If we wanted to work with you, what are the fees, how do we find a contractor to do the work, are you modern, do you get it... you know the usual stuff..."

    I recently shared my answer for determining the type of professional you need. Here, I'll discuss how much to budget for a landscape design:

    Fees are all over the place. Some people charge for time (hourly rate) + materials (usually purchased at a discount & marked up); others charge a flat fee; others use a combination of these. Personally I don't enjoy record-keeping, so I work for a flat fee that I determine based on the size and complexity of the project. I'm finding that $1 - $1.50 per designed square foot is a useful starting point, then scale up or down if your project is more or less involved.

    If someone wants to hire me for services that normally aren't covered by the flat fee (for instance, buying pots or plants or making a presentation to your neighbor), then I charge hourly + materials.

    Often "design-build" firms -- i.e. contractors that also provide design services -- will use the design fee as their loss-leader to make money off the installation. In other words, they'll discount their design work to reel you in… then take a handsome profit on their construction costs. Obviously, this depresses the market value of my work, and it also deprives you of reliable checks and balances on the quality of the installation. That's why I generally don't like d-b firms.

    Next up: The Process…

    Jun 5, 2006

    Hiring a Designer: Part 1

    A friend recently wrote me to ask:

    "My wife and I are thinking about changing around our backyard a bit... She has some grand ideas and wanted to see how this process works. If we wanted to work with you, what are the fees, how do we find a contractor to do the work, are you modern, do you get it... you know the usual stuff..."

    My answer is worth sharing:

    Depending on what you want to do, there are different areas of expertise to look into:
    -At the top of the food chain are landscape architects, who are licensed to design structures and complex systems that have health & safety implications, as well as plantings, irrigation, and lighting;
    -Landscape contractors are (well, should be) licensed to build structures and install hardscape and irrigation, and design anything they build;
    -Landscape designers (like me) legally can't do anything more than develop plans for planting, irrigation, & lighting; we can call out general hardscape locations and finishes, but can't specify how they should be built. Because there's no requirement for licensure or even education, any hack can call themselves a designer... obviously. ;-)

    You can check out the following industry associations' sites for more information on each:
    - Landscape architecture
    - Landscape contractors
    -Landscape designers

    Next up: Fees…

    May 12, 2006

    A Disaster in the Making

    Bill Thompson, FASLA -- editor of Landscape Architecture News Digest Online -- observes that a rash of new housing in California's Sacramento Delta region is inviting a "New Orleans-style disaster". (Notice that the homes in the photo are below the water level of the river?) Between the probabilities of an earthquake and/or Katrina-scale rains, an owner of one of these homes has a 26% chance of being inundated by a monster flood sometime during a 30-year mortgage. The larger story is at LANDonline; check it out... especially before you buy a home along the Delta.

    May 10, 2006

    Where Have All The Butterflies Gone?

    Just when we were preparing to celebrate the burgeoning population of painted ladies and other butterflies,
    "Wild fluctuations in California's winter and spring weather have hurt fragile butterfly populations, causing numbers to fall to the lowest in more than three decades and increasing the concerns of scientists about long-term declines linked to climate change and habitat loss."
    The full, depressing story is in the Chronicle.

    May 7, 2006

    The Emerald City

    From the San Francisco Chronicle:
    Wild San Francisco

    The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has released a final draft of a management plan that recommends ways to preserve and restore 1,105 acres as Significant Natural Resource Areas in nearly three dozen parks. The park commission is expected to hold public hearings this month, and vote on the plan, which can be found at

    1 Balboa Natural Area
    2 Bayview Park
    3 Bernal Hill
    4 Billy Goat Hill
    5 Brooks Park and Lakeview/Ashton Mini Park
    6 Buena Vista Park
    7 Corona Heights
    8 Dorothy Erskine
    9 Duncan-Castro
    10 Edgehill Mountain
    11 Fairmont Park
    12 Glen Canyon Park/O'Shaughnessy Hollow
    13 Golden Gate Heights, Grandview Park, Hawk Hill, Rock Outcrop
    14 Golden Gate Park
    15 India Basin Shoreline Park
    16 Interior Greenbelt
    17 Kite Hill
    18 Lake Merced
    19 McLaren Park
    20 Mount Davidson
    21 Palou-Phelps
    22 Pine Lake
    23 Sharp Park (Pacifica)
    24 Tank Hill
    25 Twin Peaks
    26 15th Avenue Steps

    Source: San Francisco Recreation and Park Department
    Gus D’Angelo / The Chronicle

    May 5, 2006

    Water Smart

    The Irrigation Association has proclaimed that July will be "Irrigation Month." Even though that's a couple months away, it's never too early to develop some good watering habits that will save money, benefit the environment, and create a healthy landscape. I don't know anyone who doesn't have an automatic irrigation system already, but the following tips from The Irrigation Association will make your system even more efficient:

    Adapt your watering schedule to the weather and the season. Familiarize yourself with the settings on your irrigation controller. Adjust the watering schedule regularly to conform with current weather conditions.

    Schedule each individual zone in your irrigation system. "Scheduling" accounts for the type of sprinkler, sun or shade exposure and the soil type for the specific area. The same watering schedule should almost never apply to all zones in the system.

    Inspect your system monthly. Check for leaks, broken or clogged heads, and other problems, or engage an irrigation professional to regularly check your system. Clean micro-irrigation filters as needed.

    Adjust sprinkler heads. Correct obstructions that prevent sprinklers from distributing water evenly. Keep water off pavement and structures.

    Get a professional system audit. Hire a professional to conduct an irrigation audit and uniformity test to make sure areas are being watered evenly. This can be especially helpful if you have areas being under-watered or brown spots. The Irrigation Association maintains an online list of IA Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditors.

    Consider "smart" technology. Climate- or soil moisture sensor-based controllers evaluate weather or soil moisture conditions and then calculate and automatically adjust the irrigation schedule to meet the specific needs of your landscape. Learn more at

    Install a rain shutoff switchInexpensive, effective, and required by law in many states, these money-saving sensors turn off your system in rainy weather and help to compensate for natural rainfall. The device can be retrofitted to almost any system.

    Consider low volume drip irrigation for plant beds. Install micro irrigation for gardens, trees and shrubs. Micro irrigation includes drip (also known as trickle), micro spray jets, micro-sprinklers, or bubbler irrigation to irrigate slowly and minimize evaporation, runoff and overspray.

    Water at the optimum time. Water when the sun is low or down, winds are calm and temperatures are cool - between the evening and early morning - to reduce evaporation. You can lose as much as 30% of water to evaporation by watering mid-day.

    Water only when needed. Saturate root zones and let the soil dry. Watering too much and too frequently results in shallow roots, weed growth, disease and fungus.

    Apr 26, 2006

    Liquefied Toads?!

    Oh yeah, I want to eat tree fruit that was fertilized with liquefied toads.

    From Landscape Online:
    "The cane toad, introduced to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to control two beetle species feasting on sugar cane have spread south and west across the continent in great numbers. The toad is an invasive species, attaining high population densities and consuming large numbers of invertebrates.

    "Cane toads have venom-secreting poison glands on each shoulder where poison is released when they are threatened. If ingested, this venom can cause rapid heartbeat, excessive salivation, convulsions and paralysis and can result in death for many native animals.

    "Frog Watch, a conservation group in the Northern Territory that seeks to greatly reduce the cane toad population, approached Moeco Pty Ltd. with the idea to produce a fertilizer from the unwanted pests. A preliminary batch of cane toad fertilizer was processed in February 2006 from 200 kilos of frozen toads. Greening Australia will test the fertilizer. The manufacturer asserts the liquefied toads, an organic goop blue in color, is a high potassium fertilizer good for all types of fruit trees and recommended for flowering plants to enhance their size and coloring."

    Apr 22, 2006

    Ahhh, Bernardus...

    I'm off relaxing at my favorite local getaway, Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley.

    Every time I come here--and it's approaching 10 visits in the last four years--I am awed and inspired by the landscape architecture. Designed by Jack Chandler, it is as timeless as it is tasteful... even as the plantings have been evolved over the years, it still retains a classic beauty. This is a testament to what a well-thought-out landscape should be: not so much a statement of ego as an evocation of place.

    As enamored as I am with the planting plan, perhaps my favorite piece of architecture here is the fireplace sited at the center of the social areas. Even when it's not in action, it's a gorgeous anchor; and at night, it is rarely enjoyed by fewer than half a dozen people.

    By some standards, the resort's design is conservative; but by mine, it's a perfect blending of ancient and contemporary--and most importantly, it is well liked and well used. Come down some time, and be inspired yourself!