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: http://www.sjrecycles.org/business/cddd-certified-facilities.htm

"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. http://www.flyash.com/flyashenvironment.asp

"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. http://centralconcrete.com/pervious_concrete.html

"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. http://www.fieldturf.com/product/nikeGrind.cfm

"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 http://www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat/createhabitat.cfm). 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: http://www.villageharvest.org/

"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 http://www.RecycleWorks.org 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 http://www.interquix.com/organics/decmul.htm

"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.