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.