Dec 29, 2008

A Very Wood Day

Look, Ma, no stubs!
Yesterday I spent a lot of time in the company of wood, from pruning my scarlet oak to (finally) stacking up the firewood that used to be our old and decrepit acacia tree.

The stacking was a particularly tedious exercise, puzzling out the best match between the voids in the pile and the weird sizes and shapes of the logs. But somehow it seemed appropriate that the process should be so slow: after all, that tree took probably 30 years to grow. And it occurred to me that gardens are not for the impatient, no matter how "finished" we ever believe they are.

One of the first questions I ask a new client is, "How soon do you want the garden to be grown in?" This is a question of budget as much as time, because there's an exponential relationship between plant size and cost. But even beyond the individual plants, the garden as a whole is a dynamic system, and may not come into its own for five years or more after planting. The new trees and shrubs will create shade where none existed before; flowers can reseed; rhizomes will spread, annuals will come and go, and patterns of water and fertility will change.

All this chaos isn't for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of faith to allow a landscape to do its thing, season after season. Those with something to prove insist on perpetuating an illusion of control, with tightly clipped hedges and perfectly timed blooms. Keeping up appearances makes for a great business; just ask the Stanford Shopping Center, who keeps designer nonpareil Jackie Gray and three full-time gardeners employed to make its environment as lush as it is luxe. But for those of us who are of lesser means, or perhaps more comfortable with nature actually looking and feeling natural, we don't mind the beautiful mess — or the time it takes to evolve.

Nov 27, 2008

Truly Thankful

For rain, and sun
For daffodil tips poking through the clay
For fluorescent autumn foliage
For an abundance of work I enjoy
For a warm, dry place to sleep
For two young roosters
For a patient and lovely partner
For the mutual enrichment of friends
For the capacity to create
For another night
For another day

For my clients, my friends, my colleagues, my readers, my family… Thank you.

Nov 6, 2008

After the Rains

The recent rains were exactly what the Bay Area needed, and not a moment too soon. The billabong started to fill, but drained out just as quickly since the soil isn't anywhere near saturated. Amazing how a long drink springs the landscape to life: my sullen Arctostaphylos suddenly greened up again, and today I noticed the first Narcissus tips poking out of the soil. (Of course, the weeds and winged termites germinated too.) My timing in planting spinach and lettuces just days before the rains was impeccable, and the well-watered sprouts are now basking in the autumn sun. The local Lepidopterae wasted no time in depositing eggs on the broccoli transplants, so we're checking daily for little green worms. As the nights get colder and longer, our tomatoes will slow and finally stop ripening, so I'd guess we're about two weeks from ripping those out before they look nasty... a few extra fruits isn't worth the unsightly tangle of necrotic vines. Other "to do" items before the rainy season really sets in: clean out the rain gutters; install rain barrels; check drains for blocks or leaks; reduce irrigation schedules; clean, oil and shelter garden tools; stack and cover firewood. Those colorful, seductive seed catalogs are about to start arriving in droves; just remember, it's fine to make a wish list, but don't order a thing until you know where it will go in the garden! (Check with me next spring to see whether I've taken my own advice.) I'm sure there's more, much more, to be done... what's your favorite fall-to-winter garden routine?

Oct 27, 2008

Getting the Picture

One of the most important aspects of my work isn't a knowledge of plants, or construction techniques, or materials costs: it's communication. After all, if my clientele or my contractors can't understand what I have in mind, then my horticultural prowess doesn't matter much.

A hand-drafted design conceptTo translate my vision, I rely on clear, detailed design plans. There are any number of ways to create plans, from quick sketches to detailed hand-drafting to the precision of computer-aided design (CAD), and every designer has their favorite set of planning tools.

For better or worse, recent years have seen a burgeoning of "do-it-yourself" garden design software; it's aimed at homeowners, but some landscape designers and contractors use these programs as well to streamline their processes. On the other end of the spectrum are high-powered CAD programs such as AutoCAD and VectorWorks, which can lay out a semiconductor chip or a 200-story office tower as handily as a flagstone patio. And somewhere in between are apps like Google SketchUp, powerful enough for pros to rely on but easy enough for almost anyone to learn and use at some level.

SketchUp and hand-sketching over a photo

In my studio, I find the clearest way to communicate my ideas is with a suite of SketchUp, VectorWorks and hand-drafting. I do love me some tech: VectorWorks lets me precisely plot site dimensions, features and structures, and quickly calculate areas and quantities, while SketchUp helps me reality-check my ideas, often helping me recognize their impracticality (or impossibility) before I get too wedded to them.

But there's a dark side to all this power and convenience: we can easily become dependent on it, and begin to design within its limitations. In other words, we might have a great idea — but if we don't know how to execute it with AutoCAD, that idea never makes it to the design. Or if we persist, and invest the time to learn how to execute that idea with AutoCAD, we have less time to explore other, possibly better ideas. Drafting by hand gives me the speed and flexibility to churn out a dozen very different concepts in a day if necessary; even in a program as friendly as SketchUp, such dexterity is virtually impossible.

The ASLA has recently published a piece on what technology can do for landscape architects. It's an interesting read from an insider's point of view. And, it doesn't miss the bigger picture: that there are some things technology just can't do.

Oct 19, 2008

Save the Planet (?)

Dining this afternoon at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose "Save The Planet" slogan is everywhere... Especially all over their kids' activity book (5 pages of 30% recycled paper), plastic cups, and cellophane-packaged aspen tree seeds with paper insert. How many people will actually plant those? Will aspen trees even grow in your climate zone? (They will survive, but certainly not thrive, in mine.) Would another species be more appropriate? Is the whole gimmick crap, a net environmental loss rather than gain?

Oct 14, 2008

Don't Do This To Your Tree

One to file under "poor planning": this tree and patio heater likely were installed at the same time, so there's no excuse for them to be located so close together--about 2 feet apart, to the obvious detriment of the tree.

Working with a professional garden designer, who knows how big a tree will get (and how much clearance to give furnishings like tables, chairs and heaters), can help you avoid problems like this before your plans ever get off the ground.

Oct 9, 2008

Sustainablility in Our Industry

In light of my recent concerns about how much paper my industry consumes, I was intrigued by the idea of this conference on increasing the sustainability (as well as the profitability) of our communications, in part by reducing paper use.

I was amused to see they gave away posters.

Oct 4, 2008

Sweet, Sweet Succulents

I'm fortunate enough to be married to an artist, whose current body of work just happens to encompass a genre of plants I'm not particularly knowledgeable on: succulents.

Saturday night she'll be debuting this series at Modernbook Gallery in Palo Alto; and so we figured it might be a good idea to be prepared for the inevitable questions with a few answers on what, exactly, she's photographed. No problem! says her landscape designer husband. Even though we didn't save all the tags on all the plants we bought for her project, I do know a few of them and I'm sure we can figure out the rest easily enough.

Seven hours, two bookstores and innumerable web sites later, I've got it. I mean, I got the names. I also got an education, and a new appreciation for this wild and weird genre of plants. I'm not quite ready to mimic an undersea scene in your front yard, but at least my planting palette now includes a lot more than just aloes and agaves. If you're at all interested in succulents, I can highly recommend these sites simply for their usefulness and beauty:
    Desert Tropicals is aimed at the Arizona gardener, but their online directory and companion CDs are exhaustive and well produced. is an online nursery whose selection is matched only by the beauty of their photos.

    Cultivar wins the "Most Random" award, as an "e-Magazine about exotic forms of Cactaceae", published in both English and Russian. Spasiba for saving my ass in identifying my most troublesome subject. is another online nursery with an exhaustive catalog and tons of cultural details.

    California Cactus Center has a nice selection and also grows for contracts, which might prove useful if I ever decide to attempt that undersea theme.

    Finally, I want to give huge props to A Trip Down Succulent Lane, who blogs with a freshness and consistent relevance that I can only aspire to. Her blogroll was an invaluable clearinghouse for me.

My mission complete, I'm off to bed now. I think I'll be dreaming of succulents... sweet dreams indeed!

Sep 27, 2008

Et Tu, Palo Alto?

I was feeling a little righteous when I castigated Carlsbad for the gross mismanagement of water there, but my own town is no better. Here's the scene at a corporate site at Foothill/Hillview at 2:50pm today.


Sep 26, 2008

Live from West Coast Green

Anyone remotely connected with anything remotely connected to green building is at the West Coast Green conference and showcase this weekend in San Jose. In case you can't be there in person — or, even if you can, in case you can't be everywhere at once there — you have an intrepid proxy in Green To-Do, who is live-blogging from the conference with their usual panache. Check it out, one way or another, and let me know what you think!

Sep 25, 2008

Right on Cue

Fraxinus americana 'Autumn Purple'In case you missed it, autumn is officially here. Some tree species seem to get the memo sooner than others; Callery pear, Liquidambar, Chinese pistachio and one of my favorites, American ash (the aptly named 'Autumn Purple' cultivar is pictured here) are already showing their true colors.

Among shrubs, you'll start seeing autumn colors soon on heavenly bamboo and viburnums; and some grasses such as 'Haense Herms' switchgrass are equally brilliant.

I'm not saying these are necessarily the best plants for fall color, just some of the earliest. If you like autumn to be a season in your garden, not just a page in your calendar, they're worth a look.

What are some of your fall favorites?

Sep 6, 2008

Drought? What Drought?

From the desert of Carslbad, Calif., which is worse:
A) The pointless fountain that cools and refreshes no one
B) The expanse of lawn upon which only gardeners set foot
C) The incessant runoff of said fountain into city sewers
D) The city government that allows A, B and C
E) All of the above

Sep 4, 2008

Drafting Green

Dramatization by professional actor on closed set.I've been known to use a few pencils in my line of work, and Slate has a nice analysis of whether mechanical or old-fashioned wooden ("manual"?) pencils are more sustainable. (Note that the article is written with a bent toward forgetful 12-year-olds; although I am slightly older, I am no less forgetful.)

Pencils are one thing; but what really disturbs me is the volume of paper my industry consumes. From the drafting vellum (aka "trace," "flimsy," and "bumwad") we begin our concepts on, to the infinite number of preliminary designs and construction plan documents we ultimately print for our clientele and contractors, to the orders we fax back and forth with our plant nurseries, to the proposals and invoices and business cards and other administratia that are an integral part of our work, we murder an obscene number of trees for folks who supposedly value trees.

(Automatic A+ to anyone who calculates, including proofs, how many trees must die for a 24" x 36" sheet of bond paper.)

Sure, I try to do my part: I've migrated, reluctantly, to CAD drafting and 3D modeling; I render my drawings at smaller sizes and enlarge them digitally, thereby using less paper (and less marker); I spec recycled paper for my plan documents; and I email PDFs whenever I can instead of printing hard copies of proofs, prints, proposals and the like. But the fact remains, we're a paper-intensive business. Any suggestions for how I can reduce my use?

Aug 30, 2008

Water in the Landscape

California is officially in a drought (although personally I suspect this is our normal climate and those other years were just extra wet). Some water districts have implemented mandatory rationing, while others are still able to request voluntary cutbacks… for now. But it behooves all of us to be conscious of our water use, and water-wise landscaping is an easy first step.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District has created a very nice booklet on landscape planning, from layout to planting and of course irrigation practices. Their site also offers a list of water-wise plants, not exhaustive but certainly robust enough for most of us. And, if you needed any more incentive, the district is offering a landscaping rebate of up to $1,000 to replace your thirsty turf lawn with more efficient plantings, or an irrigation rebate of up to $1,000 to install drip systems, rain sensors and other "smart" irrigation products.

The Association of Professional Landscape Designers also has issued guidelines to keep its members cognizant of practices that not only reduce irrigation needs, but also respect natural cycles by encouraging stormwater detention and holistic ecological planning. The American Society of Landscape Architects has also issued some pointers on conserving water as well as greening your home overall. And the California Landscape Contractors Association offers not only tips on how to "reduce your use," but also resources for finding certified water managers to install or optimize your low-water landscape.

The threat of a serious and prolonged drought is an abrupt wake-up call for all of us, and the options for adapting to it can be overwhelming. Start by speaking with your landscape professional — designer, architect, or contractor — and you'll get both reassurance and real solutions to save water and save money.

Aug 15, 2008

The Rude Garden

In the grocery store today, I overheard a mother say sternly to her young, spirited child who was enjoying the store's music as only young, spirited children can: "Spencer, stop dancing. This isn't dance class. You don't see anyone else dancing, do you?"

How often do you hear that same voice in your own head? Does it keep you from having a garden that's truly yours? Does your front yard not sing or dance because none of your neighbors' does? Or maybe you had an idea for a feature you'd really enjoy in your back yard, but abandoned the thought because you've never seen it anywhere else before?

As a living system, the garden is one big experiment, and it will evolve regardless of how much or how little we're involved. Our landscape is "ours" for a relatively fleeting moment in time. So why not make the most of our short visit? Go ahead, wield your hand — try colors, combinations, specimens, and features that truly delight you. The worst that can happen, really, is that others might think your garden dramatic, eccentric, or even downright rude. Can you imagine? You could be "that garden" of whispers and legend. The "dangerous" one. The one that says to your neighborhood, "I live here."

If the very idea thrills you a little bit, you've got some work to do. I'm no therapist but there's no question that gardens, and gardening, can be therapeutic. Wouldn't it be great to dance again, like a young, spirited child?

Jul 15, 2008

The Passionate Gardener

Don't you just love it when people are passionate about what they do?

Here, a love affair with strawberries:

Jul 14, 2008

Where All the Gardens are Above Average

Lately I've been playing the Gas Mileage Game: with my car's feature that tells me my current average MPG, I see how much I can goose my fuel efficiency by, say, accelerating on downhill grades and coasting as far as I can on the uphills. It's a great trick to play on yourself to begin the game just before hopping onto the freeway, where even an SUV like mine can exceed 25 or even 28 miles per gallon. But after just one day driving around San Francisco, my average plummeted to 16; and even a week of highway driving couldn't lift my average MPG back up above 17.

It occurs to me that landscaping is subject to the same law of averages, in terms of both functionality and aesthetics. If you have, as I do, a very water thrifty yard but even a small patch of lawn, the lawn is an insurmountable drag on your irrigation efficiency. Likewise, if 90% of your yard is gorgeous, breathtaking even, but 10% looks — well, less than breathtaking — perhaps due to outdated materials or past-their-prime plants you couldn't bring yourself to remove — that minority will bring down the appeal and allure of your entire landscape.

A few of my first-time clients have been shocked when I recommend removing an established tree or shrub that, while not particularly right for their landscape, is a fixture in the yard nonetheless. But the more "average" yards I see, the less sentimental I've become: now I'll counsel that the sooner you remove an ill-fitting or underperforming plant, the sooner you can begin establishing the right plant in the right place.

Similarly, I've met with home owners who have actually told me, "well, we want to upgrade the yard, but we don't want to make it too nice or anything." Which is a little shocking for me: I mean, why wouldn't you want the best space you can afford? A space designed precisely for your tastes and lifestyle, that you love coming home to or spending time in?

A professionally designed garden, well maintained and thoughtfully updated over time, is what will lift the landscaping above average — and keep it there.

Jul 10, 2008

Water the Plants, Feed the Soil

My youngest assistant, seen here, hasn't quite got the concept down, but you can: the most efficient way to irrigate (especially in these hot dusty times) is to put just as much water as needed as close to the plant's root zone as possible. This is the principle behind drip irrigation, and it can work equally well with attentive hand watering (for which 4-year-olds are not known).

The other half of the equation is the nutrition your plants are getting. It's tempting to toss a handful of Osmocote or Miracle-Gro (did you know they're both made by the same company?) at the bases of your plants. But this only supports root development at the base, where the roots already are; it does nothing to encourage them to spread out into new ground, which in turn increases the plant's ability to take up water (especially in these hot dusty times).

A great way to enrich the soil on a broad scale is with consistent and generous applications of compost mulch; aim for 2-3" every 6 months. Added bonus: a healthy layer of mulch also helps prevent your precious water from evaporating, which keeps your efficient irrigation practices efficient.

(By the way, you'll notice the mulch is conspicuously lacking in my photo. Just do as I say, not as I do.)

Jun 21, 2008

Geez, It's Hot.

Geez, it's hot. It's been hot all week, even in San Francisco, even with overcast skies and a westerly breeze that normally chills things to a level that Kenmore should aspire to. Nope, it's been hot, 80 degrees at 5pm in The City, the same at 10pm down on the peninsula.

There's a sort of ritual among old-timers here: when it gets hot like this, open the doors and windows all night to flood the house with cool air, then shut 'em up tight and draw the blinds all day to keep the heat out. It's a pretty good system, and we used it quite effectively in the 1936 bungalow we lived in until recently. The attic trapped and isolated the hottest air, and the crawl space was a permanent reservoir of coolness. The system takes a bit of getting used to, but it works.

Then a couple of years ago we moved into a brand-new house, built to the latest standards and undoubtedly more energy efficient than last century's technology.

Except it's not.

This house is terribly inefficient. Instead of a full attic, the bedrooms have high peaked ceilings that conduct heat in from the roof and hold it in the room all night (compounded by the fact that the bedrooms are upstairs to begin with). Big skylights provide tons of light... and also transmit tons of heat, without opening to vent any of it out. The crawl space is minimal, so even the ground floor heats up relatively quickly and cools down slowly.

Why would someone build a house this way? Because they also plumbed it for air conditioning. I suppose the thinking was, "as long as we've offered a solution, there's not a problem." Heaven forbid they should have spent more time or money building a smarter house; just throw natural resources at it instead.

Unfortunately, I see this kind of short-term thinking all the time in garden-making as well. Gratuitous lawns are the classic case — fast, cheap, attractive, so what if it takes 100 gallons of water a day? Same with trees that have no business growing >100 yards from a river, yet get plunked down in the middle of town: don't change your planting scheme to include water-wise plants — just increase the irrigation! Then there's hardscaping: impermeable asphalt driveways are replaced with impermeable concrete driveways. Existing concrete paths and pads are broken up and carted off, with new concrete masonry units carted in to make new patios and retaining walls. Dining patios get sited in full sun, demanding that a shade pergola be built, rather than in the shade of existing trees.

A few decades ago pioneering landscape architect Ian McHarg wrote his seminal work "Design With Nature". He challenged land planners to analyze, understand, and work with natural systems rather than bulldozing through them. His advice still holds today — no matter what the scale of the project.

What are you doing to design with nature, or to overcome the problems created by those who didn't?

May 28, 2008

4 Degrees of Separation

What a difference four degrees makes.

That's the difference in latitude between my office in Palo Alto, Calif. (37.4 degrees, just south of San Francisco) and my current vacation spot in Carlsbad, Calif. (33.1 degrees, just north of San Diego).

Up north, we can't grow Jacaranda mimosifolia very successfully due to our typically frosty and occasionally freezing winters. Down here, the tree's vibrant lavender blooms are pretty much ubiquitous this time of year.

Up north, our soil is heavily influenced by at least four local ancient volcanoes — mounts Diablo, Hamilton, Tamalpais and Sonoma — with a resultant fertility that made today's Silicon Valley the original "Valley of Heart's Delight." Down here, with the nearest volcanoes some 4–5 hours away, the local soils are much more estuarine, sandy and lacking the minerals and clays that nourish "exotic" plants.

Up north, Palo Alto averages about 15" of rain annually, contributing to a mostly foothill woodland native plant habitat bordering on evergreen forest. Down here, Carlsbad averages about 7" of rain annually, creating a predominantly coastal sage scrub community.

Up north, our average summertime high temperature is above 78° Fahrenheit. Down here, the average summertime high temp is just under 74°F. However, thanks to the famous San Francisco fog, at night we can drop 22°F — while closer to the equator, Carlsbad drops only 10°F.

Obviously there are pros and cons to each latitude, but you can see how just a few degrees of separation can significantly affect environments and lifestyles. Where would you rather live? And if prognostications of global warming expanding the equatorial zones are correct, and Palo Alto comes to resemble Carlsbad and Carlsbad comes to resemble Puerto Lobos, how would your lifestyle change?

May 21, 2008

Never Do This To Your Tree

The interface between "developed" spaces and "protected" ones is an increasingly hot topic. Lots of properties around here abut open space harboring coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) trees; I recently came across one of these California natives living on county land just across someone's property line, and growing at such a tilt to push against the residential wall that post-dates it by probably 20 years.

Now, these trees are only slightly more precious than gold around here, and this tree in particular is under county care; so in such a case usually the wall would be sacrificed to the cause. However, in this case someone has decided to adjust the tree instead. But by cutting through the protective bark and into the cambium and even heartwood of the tree, they've severely interrupted the flow of water and nutrients from the roots up the trunk to the foliage. And this is major surgery: deep and rough cuts which are unlikely to heal well (if the tree can muster the energy to heal them at all before it dies).

I'm sure I gasped audibly when I saw this, and the homeowner was equally shocked to learn about it. No one seems to know who made the cut, or when, although it certainly looks fresh. Trees are remarkably resilient, with the ability to compartmentalize wounds and adapt to adversity. But with about one third of this tree's vascular system removed, I would guess it has a very, very poor prognosis indeed.

May 16, 2008

A Tale Of Two Roses

So your rose bush is blooming magnificently. Bright, big flowers… glossy green leaves… gosh, it's doing so well it's actually blooming in two colors this year!

Uh… not actually.

In fact, if your rose bush is blooming in two colors, I'll wager that one of them is a deep maroon, a little smaller than the other, a little lower on the bush. Probably a little something like this:

If so, you don't have one rose flowering in two colors: you have two roses.

See, most roses sold and planted in California are hybrids — genetic crosses between two different varieties. Not at all Frankenflowers, they're bred this way to give us distinct joy: brighter flowers, glossier leaves, repeat flowering, greater resistance to disease. You can't have it all, though, and what makes them beautiful upstairs makes them weak downstairs.

Enter that miracle of modern ancient technology, grafting. By splicing that gorgeous body onto robust roots that can handle frost, rot, nematodes, fungus, drought, etc., humans figured out that we can have it all.

The only problem, and it's really just a minor one, is that those roots are — by definition — more robust than the body. And just like the body, their prime directive is to grow. Which means you get robust growth… just from the rootstock, not the body.

So those smaller, maroon flowers are "suckers" growing from the rootstock, most likely a variety named "Dr. Huey" (named after a prominent early-1900s rosarian) that is used for almost all California-grown hybrid tea roses because it can handle poor soils, shade, cold, and disease (although it has shown some susceptibility to nematodes in Florida).

Unfortunately, although "Dr. Huey" is beautiful in its own right, if left unchecked its vigor will sap the plant's energy from the more desirable body, the one you presumably bought the plant for in the first place. To prevent this fate, prune the suckers back as close to the primary cane as possible. This directs all that vigor back into the body of the bush… so it can bloom magnificently after all.

May 15, 2008

It's The Lawn, Silly

As my colleague Andrew over at land8lounge reports, New Mexico is finally discovering the benefits of grasscycling. For some anecdotal support: I've been using a mulching mower for about 10 years at my home, and have only needed to supplement with fertilizer three times in that period (and have never had to contend with weeds). As for watering, I recommend the guidelines provided by UC Davis; if you need help determining your irrigation system's application rates, ask a landscape contractor who works in your area.

May 13, 2008

Baby, It's Hot Outside

Even as East Bay MUD proposes its first water-rationing measure in two decades, this week temperatures are expected to soar toward the century mark.

For your garden, this means get a head start (i.e., now) on keeping your plants hydrated. If you're irrigating with a spray system, see whether your controller can be programmed to repeat cycles — so that rather than watering once for ten minutes, which may deliver more water than the soil can absorb at once — your system waters each zone once for five minutes, then repeats the cycle for another five — so Zone A is absorbing while Zone B is receiving. If you're not sure how much water your plants should be getting, get to know your local Master Gardener; you can also extrapolate some good information from publications developed for commercial growers.

If you're irrigating with a low-flow (drip) system, you will want to increase the length of each cycle and/or add a "syringe" cycle in the middle of the day, effectively giving the plants a drink when their transpiration rates are highest.

You'll also want to make sure all that precious water stays in the soil, where the plants can actually get it, rather than evaporating into thin air. The most effective way to do this is with a generous layer of mulch. Most often we think of mulch as fir bark, which is ground to various consistencies (or shredded into "gorilla hair").

However, there's more than one way to mulch: compost is wonderful, adding nutrients to the soil even as it holds water in; and even pea gravel is effective (although pricey and doesn't decompose like organic matter). Some municipalities even give away free compost to residents. The key with mulch is to apply it generously (I prefer a depth of least 3 inches) and regularly. Remember, organic matter like bark and compost break down over time; so plan to reapply an inch or so at least a couple of times a year.

There are plenty of other considerations in creating "water-wise" gardens. The California Water Service has some good resources, including a list of drought-resistant plants; if you've got good tips for getting your garden through the heat, please let me know!

May 9, 2008

Q&A: Doing It Yourself

Does-It-Himself Greg in San Carlos took a break from remodeling his home to write:

    "Here's the problem: I'm a cheap bastard. More specifically, I like a nice yard with blooming vines, healthy hydrangeas and lush, jungle-green ferns. And if there's any way I can plant them and care for them myself, I will.

    "After our remodel we're going to need to do some substantial landscaping to the front and back. Me being me, I'm thinking I can do it myself. With that in mind, I have dug up and saved hydrangeas and ferns and roses that had been in the line of fire, and I even had the crew dig up and replant a very mature camilia (so far, so good). The crew also cleared out a rotting hot tub and old deck so that we will have much more room in the backyard, where I'd like to put in a small lawn and use plants that thrive under two large Monterey pines.

    "So my question is, what the hell do I do now? Am I in way over my head? Which aspects of he project should I pay the pros to do, and which could I realistically do myself?"

Greg, your, um, frugality means you need to work extra hard to define two things: (1) your budget, and (2) your priorities. On the first count, you've got to do your homework and figure out exactly how cheap you really are. How much can you spend without losing sleep over it? Remember that remodels have a funny way of costing a bit more than expected; do you want to sock any money away in a special "landscaping" bank account before it's all spent? Don't worry right now how the money will be used—just be honest, pick a finite number, and make it inviolable. (Hint: involve your wife in this exercise.)

On the second count, take stock of what will really bring joy to you and your family. How much lawn will you and your kids really use? Will you need a spot to grill steaks? A shady place to sit and relax while the kids romp? I'm guessing you're the gardener—how much time will you really have each week to keep the yard looking its best? What yard chores will you enjoy, or dread? Is it important to you that your yard look "mature" soon, or can you wait a few years for things to fill in? Make a list of every quality you'll want. Dream out loud. (Hint: involve your wife in this exercise.) Then rank them from highest priority ("absolutely must have") to lowest ("icing on the cake"). This will tell you where your finite number, see above, should be spent.

But let's back up a step or two, Greg. I get that you're, um, economical. My dad was, um, thrifty too: he'd drive across town to fill up at the gas station that was 2 cents cheaper than the others. But what did he actually save? Nothing. Worst of all, he didn't take any real joy in the process or pride in the outcome. So back to you: what's your aversion to hiring a pro to come up with something that's beautiful, within your budget, and facilitates the life you want to live?

Of course you could do it yourself. You could glean tips from garden design books and blogs, copy planting plans from magazines, learn how to design and install irrigation and lighting systems, rent a pickup and a Ditch Witch and a Rototiller, lay your own sod and install your own shrubs. It's not quite rocket science, even the irrigation part, and if you're really a cheapskate, you can do all of this. You'll save a bunch of money. But you'll also be out a bunch of time — time with your wife who adores you, your sons who revere you, your friends who enjoy you, your avocations which enrich you, and probably even your work — which presumably affords you the possibility of not having to spend all your free time on this.

So that's where I would draw the line: What aspects of the project would you truly enjoy? If you aspire to design green spaces, if you love learning about plants and experimenting with what you've learned, then take that on. If you love getting your hands dirty and putting small parts together to create complex yet rational systems, then take on the irrigation/lighting installation. If you love getting your hands really dirty while getting a fair amount of exercise, then take on the soil work and planting. Take on what you'll love… and hire a pro for the rest of it. The money you spend will come back to you in well-designed spaces that enhance your precious time with your family; in well-selected and well-installed plants that thrive under those pines; and in well-designed systems that perform efficiently every day.

I feel like we're just getting started, so tell you what: in a couple of posts, I'll write about how you can keep your costs down when you do choose to hire a pro. Just remember: my advice is worth exactly what you pay for it.

Apr 27, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

    (Happy) Earth Day

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

    Woo hoo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A Little Cold For April

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Apr 12, 2008

    Green Building Comes Home

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

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

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

    Seriously? The Worst Tree Ever?!

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

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

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

    Apr 7, 2008

    Spring in the Garden(s)

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

    Apr 1, 2008

    The Worst Tree Ever

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

    Kill it.
    Cut it down.
    Do it now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Just… not today.

    Mar 31, 2008

    My Favorite New Gadget

    I'm on the road visiting job sites a lot, which can make keeping a schedule challenging and keeping track of my notes downright maddening. But I've recently begun using a terrific service called, which lets me phone in and leave voice messages for myself or anyone in my Jott network — messages that then are transcribed and emailed, or posted here on my blog or another service like Twitter, or sent as a text message to my phone.

    It's great for quick notes (such as a plant combination I want to remember), or timed reminders (for instance, when I set up a client meeting) to be sent at a specific date and time. What makes the service so remarkable, though, is its accuracy. Click on this image to see a transcript Jott emailed me: with absolutely no "training" to my voice patterns or cadence, Jott got this note exactly right — right down to the bullet points and question mark:

    And while it isn't always perfect — remember, a lot of my job involves weird, Latin-based plant names — I've gotta give Jott props for trying. Here's another emailed transcript:

    First, I'm amazed it got — and capitalized — "Hydrangea." And really: can I expect Jott to know Carpenteria, chartreuse, and variegated? Its attempts are actually kind of sweet. And at least it has the decency to tell me, "Dude, I'm just not sure on this one."

    The only other thing I'm wishing for right now is the ability to integrate my camera-phone with Jott messages; perfect for when I'm at the nursery, say, and see a specimen that I want to both take a picture of and add my idea for using it. But that's OK... I can wait a little longer for that utopia.

    Mar 29, 2008

    Native Plant Sales Next Month

    Mark your calendar… it's time to start loading up on California native plants from the folks who know 'em and grow 'em.

    I keep a current schedule of sales on our main site. If you need a nudge to understand why growing natives makes sense in any garden, start with the California Native Plant Society. There's also the Going Native Garden Tour, on April 20. And of course, these books are always worth reading… or re-reading:

    Complete Garden Guide to Native Shrubs of California (1990) by Glenn Keator

    Complete Garden Guide to the Native Perennials of California (1990) by Glenn Keator

    Growing Native, a collection of guide books by Louise Lacey, P.O. Box 489, Berkeley, CA 94701,, (510) 232-9865.

    Mar 11, 2008

    Next Stop, Spring

    Winter reveals the garden's bones.With only a forecast of showers next weekend standing between us and Spring, now's your last best chance to take care of those winter to-do items and get your garden ready for peak season.

    First, cut back grasses to about 6" above ground level, to make room for the coming flush of growth. If perennials such Mexican sage are beginning to regrow from their base, cut those back as well. Woody shrubs such as Salvia greggii, hydrangeas, viburnums and dogwoods may also be showing new growth along their old branches; I trim these back to just above a new growth node about 1/2 or even 2/3 back from the ends.

    Second, clear out anything that's obviously dead. Give serious thought to also removing any specimens that struggled last year: it wasn't a particularly brutal year, so anything that didn't thrive probably is in the wrong location (or receiving the wrong care) and won't do much better this year. With this riffraff gone, step back and evaluate the "bones," or basic structure, of your garden. Are there gaping holes? Overly (or underly) vigorous specimens? Poorly shaped trees or large shrubs that are blocking light, views or paths? "Dead end" views with no payoff? Make a list; I use a map of the garden with numbered items in place.

    Third, revisit your garden wish list. Is there anything you wish for more of: color, fragrance, movement, wildlife? Anything you've seen in your travels -- whether plants or pots, furniture, lighting, or other ornaments -- that you'd like to try replicating at home? Again, make a list, collect pictures, and start (or update) an idea file. If possible, also identify a budget and prioritize your list into "must have," "nice to have," and "if I win the lottery" levels of importance.

    Fourth, give your "tools of the trade" a checkup. Run your irrigation systems and check coverage and pressure; test hoses for leaks; check lighting systems for burned out bulbs or broken fixtures; and sharpen your shovel, spade, hoe, pruning shears, loppers, and lawnmower blades (many local hardware stores offer sharpening services). Also make sure your gloves, knee pads, hat and other gear are in good shape.

    Finally, make sure your team of garden experts is at the ready. This might include a landscape designer, landscape contractor, fine gardener, arborist, irrigation specialist, and/or nursery. And if you'll be doing the work yourself, schedule a massage (or chiropractor visit) for the next day. After all, there's no reason all this work can't have its rewards.

    Mar 6, 2008

    It's About Time

    Right on time with the arrival of some warmer, sunnier weather, it's time to "spring forward" and set your clocks ahead one hour at 2:00 a.m. this Sunday, March 9. (Effectively making 2 a.m. into 3 a.m., and depriving you of an hour of precious sleep.)

    Daylight saving time (DST, or "summer time") has a twofold purpose: the first, as realized by good old Ben Franklin, is to save energy. According to, "Studies done by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that Daylight Saving Time trims the entire country's electricity usage by… about one percent each day, because less electricity is used for lighting and appliances. Similarly, in New Zealand, power companies have found that power usage decreases 3.5 percent when daylight saving starts. In the first week, peak evening consumption commonly drops around five percent."

    But DST's other purpose has become even more valuable: that extra hour of daylight, just as the days are lengthening anyhow, gives us all more time to play outside in the evenings. You could say, it's what makes summer summer: more time for those backyard barbeques, leisurely games of Beamo with the family, or just enough time to actually relax in a hammock. And to me, there's no better way to catch up on that lost hour of sleep.