May 2, 2012

Backyard Solutions

I'm pretty excited to have my work featured on the current cover of Backyard Solutions!

Several more of my gardens are featured inside this issue as well. It's nice recognition, and nice confirmation that some other folks think my "babies" are beautiful, too.

May 1, 2012

The Garden in May

Spring in the Palo Alto garden
It's been an interesting Spring, filled with April showers and mini-heat waves. We should be past the coldest nights here in Palo Alto, though, so I finally felt safe pruning my grapes and hydrangeas. (Although I was a bit late cutting down the grasses, so I won't be expecting great things from them this year.)

Those late rains gave us a nice extension on getting woody perennials, shrubs and trees into the ground; the soil moisture is still good but not so mucky that it's difficult to dig. But don't get complacent! Check now to be sure your irrigation system is functioning optimally — the soil dries out quickly and you don't want it to go hydrophobic while your new plants are establishing.

I failed to keep pace with the weeds this Spring. I'll be hoeing out as much as I can over the next couple of weeks, but I think my negligence has earned me seven years of weedlings. It's incredible how long those seeds can stay dormant in the ground, then pop! as soon as they get a bit of sunlight.

This is a great time to get all sorts of color planted: annuals such as impatiens and marigolds, long-blooming perennials such as Achillea, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Gaillardia, Limonium, Rudbeckia and Scabiosa, and even fall bulbs like Crocus speciosus and Colchicum autumnale. For the former, you simply can't go wrong with seeds from Renee's Garden, or young plants from Annie's Annuals; and for the latter, I have never had anything less than extraordinary results from Brent and Becky's Bulbs (who seem to be offering an early order discount at the moment!). 

It's also the season when the landscape designer's phone begins to ring again, with optimistic voices on the other end hoping for a deck by spring, a pool by summer. And somehow, with the sun shining on our faces again and last year's perennials resurging at our feet, somehow it all seems possible.

Apr 6, 2012

Water is Money. So is Time.

If you're considering updating your landscaping in Palo Alto, Los Altos, or for that matter any other town down through San José, you should know about the water conservation rebates available (up to $3,000!) from the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

I won't go into all the details here, except to note two extremely important qualifiers:

  • Applicants must attain pre-approval by participating in a qualifying pre-inspection and submit a Request for Application Form to the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
  • Projects that have been started, landscape that has died, or projects that have already been completed prior to the Notice to Proceed are not eligible.
In other words, don't do anything — don't even shut off your irrigation! — until you've requested an inspection from the County. Otherwise, even if you do the sensible thing and stop watering your lawn because you're just going to replace it with a lovely field of lavender and sage anyhow, you may be ineligible for the rebate. To schedule that all-important pre-inspection, call (800) 548-1882 or sign up online

Oh, yes, one other important asterisk: "Rebates are available until funds are depleted.In other words, don't wait to get started.

The list of criteria and approved water-wise plants and equipment is a bit mind-bending, so if you'd like any help navigating it all, call your friendly local landscape designer

    Feb 14, 2012

    Birth of a Landscape Designer

    Over the weekend I stumbled across what I'm pretty sure is my earliest landscape design. This actually was a plan for my model railroad and dates back 30 years or so, long before I knew what a landscape architect was; and while it's not quite the rendering quality I strive for today, I'm pleased to see it includes several fundamentals: a drawing scale, dimensions, and a symbol legend.

    Why do those matter? Well, because the purpose of a landscape design is to communicate an idea; and if you can't interpret the plan you can't get the idea.

    A drawing scale, for instance, tells you whether what you're looking at is straight out of Stonehenge, or Spinal Tap. On my railroad plan, I noted 1"=1' : one inch (on paper) represents one foot (in real life). This scale worked because I was designing such a small area (9' x 4'), but it would be more typical for a detail drawing—for instance, to show the end cut pattern for an arbor beam, or a close-up view of an intricate tiling pattern on a patio.

    For a full residential landscape, a typical scale might "zoom out" to be more like one inch represents four feet. This is too far away to show precise details like the end cuts on an arbor, but still close enough to show the overall idea with some specificity. By convention, you'll usually see this written as 1/4 inch equals one foot, or 1/4"=1'-0". Purists would call this "48 scale," because 1/4"=1' is the same ratio as 1"=48", or 1:48. Other common architectural scales include 1/8"=1' (96 scale) and 1/2"=1' (24 scale).
    At 1:48 scale we can identify the table, plants,
    seatwall, boulders, and paving patterns (here, 2' x 2')

    For larger sites, the scale might zoom out farther, to an engineering scale such as 1"=10', 1"=20', 1"=100' or more. This shows more of our site in every square inch, which allows the full site to be documented on one sheet of paper, but at the expense of including detail. At 1"=100' you would know that an area is paved, but you would not see a 2' x 2' paving pattern.

    A typical "bar scale" at 1:48
    In the past 30 years I've also learned it's not enough to only write the scale: we should show it graphically as well. This usually takes the form of a checkered bar or a zigzag line, and it's included so that if the plan falls into the hands of someone who doesn't have a scale ruler—or if the plan gets reproduced at a larger or smaller size—the reader can still see how big a foot, or four or eight, should be, and interpret the design properly.

    There's actually a lot more to say about scales: how to pick the best scale for your drawing, which scales to avoid and why, and how to switch gracefully between different scales. If you'd like me to write more about any of it, please chime in. And if you have a scale ruler of your own, check out this handy tutorial by FEMA.

    I'll write more next time about dimensioning and legends. Or maybe legends of dimensioning…

    Jan 3, 2012

    Gardening in the New Year

    I recently caught up with a friend from Maine, where the ground regularly freezes to 6' deep and footings for walls need to be poured 8' deep to get below the frost line. Makes our winters here in Palo Alto seem positively tropical, and even though the recent frosts are sending lots of things rushing into dormancy, there's still plenty to do in the garden.

    Your roses may still look like they're ready to party, but it's really time for them to rest a while. Stop feeding and watering them in advance of pruning them next month.

    Ditto your ornamental grasses, which will hold the frost and morning dew beautifully if you leave the seed plumes on just a bit longer. When you see them putting out new growth, that's your cue to cut them back "hard" — about 6" above the ground (till they resemble hedgehogs or sea urchins).

    Your fruit trees should have lost most of their leaves by now. Once they're bare, it's time to prune them, remembering to leave plenty of fruiting spurs. If you're growing peaches, nectarines or apricots, spray with a "dormant season" spray while the weather is dry to prevent leaf curl and discourage insects.

    Hopefully you got all your daffodil and narcissus bulbs in a couple of months ago; now it's time to pull the THC (tulips, hyacinths and crocuses) out of the fridge and plunk them into the soil as well. Because the Bay Area isn't Maine, these bulbs don't go into deep dormancy, so I like to treat them as annuals and pack them into pots.

    Speaking of annuals, nurseries are brimming now with cool-season annuals such as nemesia, ornamental kale, and winter veggies. Now that the Christmas trees are gone, you'll also find a nice selection of camellias in bloom, and bareroot roses will be making an appearance shortly. For all of these I really like Regan Nursery, over in Fremont; Roger Reynolds (in Atherton) and Redwood City Nursery also feature excellent selections.

    Finally, it's a prime time to lay down an inch or two of organic compost throughout the garden. I don't bother tilling it in, mostly because I'm lazy but also because I have faith that the coming rains will percolate all the good stuff down without my help.

    Getting back to normal after the holidays can leave us a little time-challenged, but try to steal a few quiet, cool, sunny afternoons to spend in your garden before winter rains turn it into a muddy mess. Your landscape will thank you for it!