Sep 25, 2014

It's Raining! (Now What?)

A reprise of a post from a few years ago seems appropriate given today's welcome visitor… I originally wrote this on January 18, 2010; and while some names and statistics may have changed since then, the core message remains the same.—JB

It's been hard to miss the message over the past year that we're in a drought. And Californians have responded remarkably well: residential water use was reduced by 9.4% in Santa Clara County, 12% in Los Angeles County, and up to 25% in San Diego County from previous periods. I still see far too many gratuitous lawns, thirsty "exotic" plants and wasteful irrigation systems. But on the whole, we're at least trying to handle our water.

So the next place to look is, naturally, increasing our supply. And on the cusp of a major El NiƱo week like the one currently forecast for the Bay Area, the opportunities seem abundant. So why isn't everyone harvesting rainwater? To understand why it's not quite that simple, let's do a little math:

    First, let's assume we're in for nine inches of rain — that's 3/4 foot — over the next week or so.

    Second, let's assume we can harvest that rain from the roof of our detached 2-car garage, which has a roof area (equals footprint) of about 20 feet by 20 feet.

    So if we catch every drop that falls on our roof, we would harvest 20' * 20' * 3/4' = 300 cubic feet.

    Using a handy-dandy volume converter, we find that 300 cubic feet equals 2,244.156 gallons.

Holy crap! Seriously?! More than two thousand gallons? That can't be right.

    Well, actually, it isn't right. Because we won't catch every drop. Some will splash away, some will get trapped in the gutters, some will leak out. So a capture rate of 60% is usually considered reasonable, and our potential volume actually is 2,244.156 * 60% = 1,346.494 gallons.

Holy crap! Seriously?! More than thirteen hundred gallons?

Yep. And unfortunately, that huge number is less than 5% of the annual water needs of a 1,000 square foot lawn. Never mind that if you're serious about water conservation, you don't have a 1,000 square foot lawn; are you getting a sense of the quantity of water we're talking about? Say you did have a 20'x50' patch of grass: 1,346 gallons of rainwater would irrigate it for all of about two weeks. For the year you'd need twenty times that, or around 27,000 gallons.

Which raises another issue, specific to Mediterranean climates like ours where most of the rain comes in one season, as opposed to throughout the year: storage.

We get most of our rain during the winter, when plants are dormant and evapotranspiration rates are low. We don't need the captured rainwater now. We need it six to nine months from now, when skies are sunny and the ground is parched. Even if you have no lawn and your xeric garden only needs 1,300 gallons, where do you store what you've saved?

Rain BarrelRainwater PillowRain BoxRainwater HogThere are in-ground cisterns, which may be large enough but are pricey and complicated to install. There are classic, above-ground rain barrels, which are bulky and difficult to link together for additional capacity. There are interesting systems like the Rainwater Pillow which can efficiently store 1,000 gallons or more, but may not be ideal for exposed outdoor locations. And there are modern above-ground tanks such as the Rain Box and Rainwater Hog, which link together with slim rectilinear profiles that use space efficiently but can become pricey.

How pricey? The Rainwater Hog sells in the neighborhood of $500 per 50-gallon tank. To catch 1,346 gallons requires 27 tanks, or $13,500. The Rain Box is more economical, at about $250 per 75-gallon box. But that's still 18 boxes, or $4,500.

Even if cost isn't a consideration, space may be. The Rainwater Hog has such a slim profile — just 20" wide by 10" deep — that it can be mounted not only vertically against walls, but also horizontally, e.g. beneath a deck. But no matter how you set them up, 27 tanks would take a lot of room: far more than the 20' wide wall of our two-car garage. The Rain Box is bigger, about 24" wide by 20" deep, and not designed to mount horizontally; so 18 boxes would need at least 36', or almost two full walls of the garage.

I don't mean to discourage anyone from catching and reusing every drop possible. Even if your "rain barrel" is a garbage can, that's 20 or 30 gallons you don't need to draw from a reservoir. But it won't be your only solution, and in fact might raise more questions, e.g. what do you do with the overflow? We all can install green roofs, detention basins and porous paving, which will help the rain get into the groundwater where it actually can do some good. But these solutions aren't the same as storage; and they're not cheap, either.

I guess my point is that it ain't easy to save the world. It's probably not economical, and you probably won't get your money back. Serious rainwater harvesting requires some serious commitment, and we're not all there just yet. But even if you're not ready to shell out thousands of dollars to store thousands of gallons, you have plenty of other options. Maybe you can swap out your lawn for a delightful garden of unthirsty plants. Maybe you can mulch those plants with 3" of compost instead of leaving the soil bare. Maybe you can redo your driveway with pervious pavers instead of asphalt. Maybe you can take shorter showers or make other changes that reduce your water footprint.

Maybe you can't do much; but you can do something. And what better time to start than now — while there's a break in the weather?

Sep 19, 2014

Inside the Designer's Mind: Selecting Plants

A visitor to my page recently asked about one of my early, and still favorite, garden designs:
Palo Alto landscape design by Verdance Fine Garden Design
Cupressus 'Tiny Tower' behind
white spring annuals along a brick
and bluestone walk in Palo Alto

"I like [the] look of Italian thin trees… I have smaller house, would that look odd for privacy? Bamboo trees other option in my mind."

And it occurred to me that landscape designers have a very methodical way of determining the best plant for a given spot, which we take for granted but may not be understood by everyone. I answered:

"Well, 'odd' is in the eye of the beholder — for the classical style of this home, in my opinion bamboo would have looked odd. But your tastes and opinions may be different, and that's OK too! 

"There may be many different options to choose from to create privacy screening. A landscape designer would consider the specific conditions of your site before considering looks: sun/shade exposure, damp/dry soil, narrow/wide planting area, to name a few. Then within the set of plants that will thrive in those conditions, I would consider the functional attributes of the plants themselves: evergreen/deciduous, clumping/spreading, toxic/nontoxic, short/tall, fast/slow growth, high/low water needs, and so on. Finally, within that subset of plants that have appropriate features, I would choose the plants that fit the aesthetic look you prefer: the Italian Cypress used here work well with a formal, classic style, while bamboo species (and there are many!) may convey a more tropical or Asian feeling. Even the same plant could be used different ways: Pittosporum tenuifolium can be clipped tightly to create a formal hedge, or left loose for a natural, shrubby look. 

"While the aesthetic choice is purely personal, the site conditions and plant attributes are non-negotiable. Figure those out first, and you may find that your plant choice is made for you. Good luck!"

Jul 14, 2014

Summertime at the Home Office

At the heart of it, my job is about improving quality of life: whether it's "just" a garden that's pretty to look at, or a landscape that invites — or even compels — us to spend more time out in the fresh air and sunshine. And while spring and fall are particularly easy on the eyes, summer can't be beat for truly living outdoors.

Kitchen island with gas grill and Big Green Egg © Verdance Landscape DesignIronically, though, summers tend to be my busiest time of year, with work following me around like a hungry (but sooo cute!) dog six or even seven days a week. So I particularly cherish the days that I get to live in my own landscape; and today I'm looking forward to enjoying one of my outdoor kitchen's custom features: my built-in Big Green Egg smoker.

My BGE sits in a well I designed into the island. (Hey, at over 250 lbs the thing isn't going anywhere anyhow, right?) This gave my granite fabricator fits, but it's a great look and complements the fast-but-clinical cooking of my gas grill with the Egg's slow-n-soulful flavors.

Today's project: a couple of racks of St. Louis pork ribs snagged on sale from Whole Paycheck a few days ago, cooked in the "3-2-1" method that's popular among Big Green Egg enthusiasts ("Eggheads"). Last night I rubbed each rack down with a different rub: one with Bruce Aidells' "Spice Rub for Pork or Beef" from The Complete Meat Cookbook:

  • 2 tablespoons paprika, preferably Hungarian 
  • 2 teaspoons chile powder, preferably Gebhardt 
  • 1-2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar [I use dark for its deeper flavor]
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard, preferably Colman's
  • 1 teaspoon ground sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup salt [I use Diamond Crystal kosher]
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

  • I like this mix because it's low in sugar. The second rub isn't: this is the "Fullback BBQ Ribs" recipe I tore out of a "special advertising section" in an issue of Food and Wine (I think — I managed to leave behind all the credits, and can't find it online):

  • 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 1/2 cup paprika
  • 1/2 cup cumin
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder [this got left out because I didn't have any]
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil [this got left out because it just seemed unnecessary]

  • After their little spice massage and an overnight nap in the fridge, the ribs came up to room temperature this morning while I fired up the BGE. For some reason, today that became a Thing: the lump charcoal got too hot when I wasn't paying attention, and I just couldn't get it back down even with the Egg's vents closed up tight; ultimately I had to kill the fire with wet paper towels and relight it.

    Big Green Egg lower vent 225 © Verdance Landscape DesignBig Green Egg daisy wheel vent 225 © Verdance Landscape DesignThe second time, now an hour behind schedule, I watched the temp the way the toy store owner watches my kids, and pinned it solid at 225°F, where it would hold for the next three hours with each vent open just a sliver.

    bourbon whisky macerated apples © Verdance Landscape DesignThe Egg uses a ceramic "platesetter" to create indirect heat, and I put the ribs bone-side-down on the cooking grate on top of the platesetter and said au revoir for a few hours. In the meantime, I prepared a little braising liquid for the next phase of the cook: a few unripe Pink Lady apples fallen out of my mini-grove, mashed up and macerated in bourbon.

    Since the ribs had such a slow start, I left them on the grill naked for an extra hour (making this a "4-2-1" cook). Then I took them out, put them on a pan atop the macerated apples, wrapped the whole mess up in a foil tent, and put it back on the grill for two more hours to steam the ribs to a fall-off-the-bone consistency.

    ribs after cooking 2 hours wrapped in foil © Verdance Landscape DesignAt this point the chef may be receiving queries from the other diners in the household, underscoring why we must plan ahead for these sorts of projects: no one actually enjoys waiting for dinner, no matter how promising the results or how lovely the evening.

    However, a glass of wine or two later I unwrap this beautiful scene: The meat is pulling back from the ends of the bones, and the racks are getting floppy, so I goose the BGE temp up to 250°F and put the ribs back directly on the grate for the last hour of cooking. This, I'm told, will create a lovely crust or "bark" on the ribs. In the meantime, I return to my wine and compose a little blog post.

    my backyard office © Verdance Landscape Design
    By the way, here's my office today. My soundtrack is the mockingbird next door along with the occasional whirr of hummingbird wings as they sneak sips from the Galvezia blooms behind me. My view is my apple grove, golden yarrow mingling with purple heliotrope, the setting sun washing the treetops around me in gold. The scent of those ribs wafts over on the evening breeze. And with another sip of wine I feel… joy.

    And this is the heart of what I do: I create joy. Not only for me, and for the family and friends who get to spend time out here too and get to dine on the meats of my labors, but also for that hummingbird; for the honeybees hard at work on my lavender; for the squirrels waiting for more apples to fall; even for the oak tree that gets to grow in a naturalistic ecosystem rather than being drowned in a sea of lawn. This joy, this life is what landscapes facilitate that no other design discipline does.

    Not bad for a day's work.

    platter o' ribs © Verdance Landscape Design

    Feb 2, 2014

    A Thing of Beauty

    The most beautiful thing in my front garden this morning? That wet thing in the upper right.

    Jan 29, 2014

    How to Reduce Your Water by 20%

    On Friday, Governor Brown declared a drought emergency, and asked Californians "to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent". 

    So how do you do that? It sounds intimidating — especially when you're already pretty water-conscious and already harvesting low-hanging fruit like fixing leaky faucets and using a broom rather than a hose to clean off your driveway. But it's actually not that bad when you remember a little math: namely, 20% of a big scary number is the same as 20% of all the little numbers that comprise it.

    In other words, I don't have to know how many gallons my irrigation system uses every day. I just need to set my irrigation timer to run at 80% of normal (a 20% cut). Or, if I can't make that adjustment, then program it to run 4 days a week instead of 5 (a 1/5, or 20%, cut). (Or 3 days a week instead of 4: a 25% cut.)

    If I normally shower for 15 minutes, shower for 12 (a 1/5 cut).

    If I normally run the faucet for 30 seconds while I brush my teeth, run it for 24 (a 1/5 cut). 

    I could go on, but you get it. Twenty percent is not impossible. It's not even hard. 

    We can do this.