Rethinking landscape design when facing long-term drought conditions

Everywhere I go, people want to talk about our current drought in California.  As I write this, it has been raining all day, but this is the first real rain we’ve seen in months and it’s February.  Regardless of this rainfall, Northern California is still 50% under what is normal. Water conservation has become one of the first and main components of planning a new landscape and improving on an existing one.  Here are some ways we can conserve water in the landscape:

1. Reduce the size of your lawn (or better yet, remove it)

I know, everyone loves their lawn.  It is a great place for kids to play and fall on a soft surface.  Many of us have fond memories of large, lush lawns from our childhood.  But lawns require sprinkler irrigation, a broad spray system that uses a lot of water and is only necessary on turfs, like lawns, that have shallow roots running along the surface.  Reducing your lawn area means you can cap much of your sprinklers and reduce that broad spray water output.  Removing your lawns altogether is even better, but then what?  (see #2)

Here are front yards where we reduced the lawn and added drought tolerant perennials and a patio:

Down to Earth Landscaping, Inc

DSC00102

2. Convert sprinklers to drip irrigation

Drip irrigation is very important in conserving water.   Why is drip better than sprinklers? Because it is not broad spraying.  It deeply waters just the roots of the plants and when combined with soil amending, which allows for quick water absorption, and mulching (see #4), it uses very little water while keeping the plants healthy.  Can you just plant native plants and not water at all?  No.  We don’t get enough rain to sustain the plants without any watering.  Is it better to just water with a hose?  No, this is not efficient and uses more water than drip irrigation.  With regards to lawns, can you just use drip irrigation on a lawn?  Well, I haven’t seen that work very well.  There was an irrigation design popular for a short time that involved lining the soil under the lawn with a zigzag of drip tubing and laying new sod on top of that.  It was popular only for a short time because it wasn’t very effective for keeping the lawn looking evenly green and lush.   So, what to plant instead of grass? (see #3)

Here’s what a drought tolerant planting area looks like with drip irrigation before we spread mulch over the soil.  See how efficient the watering is?  We use 6″ and 12″ emitting line off a 1/2″ solid feeding tube:

IMG_1120

3. Plant drought tolerant plants

The plants that do very well here in the Bay Area, in addition to many CA natives, are plants native to Mediterranean climates, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Thinking about other like climates is more refined than just CA natives, many of which require more sun than much of our coastal areas get here.  Alameda County has established a program and certification called “Bay Friendly” landscaping to identify this emphasis on drought tolerant, low maintenance plants and landscape design.  These plants are labeled in many local nurseries Bay Friendly and may be a good choice for your drought tolerant planting plan.  Remember that you can plant ground cover in the joints of flagstone paths and patios to get a turf-like feel in rethinking lawn-space (see path below).

Here’s some gardens where we removed the lawn and replaced with a drought tolerant landscape:

IMG_1054

Down to Earth Landscaping, Inc

photo (34) - Copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Amend the soil and spread mulch

Amending the soil is a fancy way to say break it up so water can absorb into it.  When breaking it up, we “amend” with a dark soil, like compost, to revive our native clay soil.  Clay soil is not bad, as many believe.  It is difficult to work in and gets compacted if not amended or broken up.  Have you ever seen someone’s sprinklers on and the water just runs off the surface and into the street?  That’s because the soil is so compacted, the water has no way to penetrate it.  That’s why it’s good to amend.

Mulch comes in a few varieties and choices.  Most are some sort of wood cut up into different grades, either shredded or chipped.  It is very important to retain the moisture of the soil and to hide the drip tubing.  Have you ever seen a garden where there is no mulch and it looks very dry, maybe with tree roots exposed and a dull brown color to the soil, almost like sand?  That dry, eroding soil needs a good soaking and a layer of mulch (about 3″) to come back to life.  One detail to be careful of when spreading mulch is to keep it off the base of trees.  It could cause fungus to grow because it doesn’t allow the wood of the tree to dry out which could lead to diseases in the tree.

Here’s a few examples of mulch types we often use, the first is fir bark minus, then shredded cedar and third is forest floor:

Posted in Landscape Design | Leave a comment

Rethinking landscape design when facing long-term drought conditions-orig

Everywhere I go, people want to talk about our current drought in California.  As I write this, it has been raining all day, but this is the first real rain we’ve seen in months and it’s February.  Regardless of this rainfall, Northern California is still 50% under what is normal. Water conservation has become one of the first and main components of planning a new landscape and improving on an existing one.  Here are some ways we can conserve water in the landscape:

1. Reduce the size of your lawn (or better yet, remove it)

I know, everyone loves their lawn.  It is a great place for kids to play and fall on a soft surface.  Many of us have fond memories of large, lush lawns from our childhood.  But lawns require sprinkler irrigation, a broad spray system that uses a lot of water and is only necessary on turfs, like lawns, that have shallow roots running along the surface.  Reducing your lawn area means you can cap much of your sprinklers and reduce that broad spray water output.  Removing your lawns altogether is even better, but then what?  (see #2)

Here are front yards where we reduced the lawn and added drought tolerant perennials and a patio:

Down to Earth Landscaping, Inc

DSC00102

2. Convert sprinklers to drip irrigation

Drip irrigation is very important in conserving water.   Why is drip better than sprinklers? Because it is not broad spraying.  It deeply waters just the roots of the plants and when combined with soil amending, which allows for quick water absorption, and mulching (see #4), it uses very little water while keeping the plants healthy.  Can you just plant native plants and not water at all?  No.  We don’t get enough rain to sustain the plants without any watering.  Is it better to just water with a hose?  No, this is not efficient and uses more water than drip irrigation.  With regards to lawns, can you just use drip irrigation on a lawn?  Well, I haven’t seen that work very well.  There was an irrigation design popular for a short time that involved lining the soil under the lawn with a zigzag of drip tubing and laying new sod on top of that.  It was popular only for a short time because it wasn’t very effective for keeping the lawn looking evenly green and lush.   So, what to plant instead of grass? (see #3)

Here’s what a drought tolerant planting area looks like with drip irrigation before we spread mulch over the soil.  See how efficient the watering is?  We use 6″ and 12″ emitting line off a 1/2″ solid feeding tube:

IMG_1120

3. Plant drought tolerant plants

The plants that do very well here in the Bay Area, in addition to many CA natives, are plants native to Mediterranean climates, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Thinking about other like climates is more refined than just CA natives, many of which require more sun than much of our coastal areas get here.  Alameda County has established a program and certification called “Bay Friendly” landscaping to identify this emphasis on drought tolerant, low maintenance plants and landscape design.  These plants are labeled in many local nurseries Bay Friendly and may be a good choice for your drought tolerant planting plan.  Remember that you can plant ground cover in the joints of flagstone paths and patios to get a turf-like feel in rethinking lawn-space (see path below).

Here’s some gardens where we removed the lawn and replaced with a drought tolerant landscape:

IMG_1054

Down to Earth Landscaping, Inc

photo (34) - Copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Amend the soil and spread mulch

Amending the soil is a fancy way to say break it up so water can absorb into it.  When breaking it up, we “amend” with a dark soil, like compost, to revive our native clay soil.  Clay soil is not bad, as many believe.  It is difficult to work in and gets compacted if not amended or broken up.  Have you ever seen someone’s sprinklers on and the water just runs off the surface and into the street?  That’s because the soil is so compacted, the water has no way to penetrate it.  That’s why it’s good to amend.

Mulch comes in a few varieties and choices.  Most are some sort of wood cut up into different grades, either shredded or chipped.  It is very important to retain the moisture of the soil and to hide the drip tubing.  Have you ever seen a garden where there is no mulch and it looks very dry, maybe with tree roots exposed and a dull brown color to the soil, almost like sand?  That dry, eroding soil needs a good soaking and a layer of mulch (about 3″) to come back to life.  One detail to be careful of when spreading mulch is to keep it off the base of trees.  It could cause fungus to grow because it doesn’t allow the wood of the tree to dry out which could lead to diseases in the tree.

Here’s a few examples of mulch types we often use, the first is fir bark minus, then shredded cedar and third is forest floor:

Posted in Landscape Design | Leave a comment

Some autumn favorites

The colors of autumn are particularly amazing right now.  Below are some of my favorite trees for their autumn color, some of which continue into the winter with a change of bark color and a couple even fill their bare branches with flowers before leaves return in the spring.  This winter, try staring at a tree bare of its leaves for a while.  You may appreciate this raw structure even more than when there are leaves (as I do).

Cornus (Dogwood tree and shrub)

Dogwoods are exciting and so lovely.  Their leaves turn a beautiful red in the autumn, the bark on the shrub varieties then glow red all winter and many trees fill with flowers in the late winter before new leaves form.  They give so much color and beauty at a time that often feels dormant.

 

Acer Palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ (Japanese maple)

This is another tree that gives bright autumn color and then its bark glows red all winter.  It’s a great tree to practice pruning on in the winter.  It’s bare limbs resemble veins in a leaf.  I have a new one in my front yard this year.  I placed an accent light shining up into it and the sinewy structure reflects at night onto our house adding a lot of interest and beauty.

Magnolia

Here’s another tree that gives brilliant autumn color on the leaves and then in the late winter, the bare branches fill with amazing flowers. There are evergreen magnolias, but I’m referring specifically to the deciduous varieties.  There are some varieties that remain fairly vertical that are great for the residencial landscape.

Persimmon

These trees are totally exquisite in the autumn and give back a wonderful fruit that we enjoy here in the Bay Area.  While in Japan during the harvest season, I saw them hanging everywhere to dry.

 

 

 

 There are two types of persimmon fruit, fuyu and hachiya.  This a fuyu here on the left.  They are round, sort of like an apple and are eaten raw while still hard.

 Hachiya, here on the right, is more oval shaped and best used when soft and cooked.  If you’ve ever mistakenly bit into a raw hachiya, it may have been like licking a chalkboard, not fun!  But cooked into breads and puddings at the holidays, it’s a great alternative to squash.

Posted in Landscape Design | Leave a comment

When spring is here

Spring has sprung

The first thing that indicates to me that spring is here are the flowering plum trees.  These trees flower pink and white on bare wood before the leaves fill in:

plum tree

This year the magnolia trees began to flower even earlier than the plums which was unusual:

Magnolia flowers

Now that spring is here, we have a lot of work to do.  We are repairing irrigation systems that may have been turned off during winter, fertilizing plants that are about to flower, checking for insects and diseases that settled in while the plants are dormant and now that the temperature is up a bit, planting a lot.

Many clients enjoy flowering bulbs this season that they planted during the fall, these include daffodils, tulips and ranunculus, to name a few.  It’s such a busy time for gardeners, the good news is we have lots of time here in the Bay Area to plant and care for the gardens because our climate is so mild throughout the year.

Ranunculus

Posted in Maintenance | Leave a comment

Tips for late autumn

December is the time we generally stop planting, turn off irrigation systems, amend with compost, spread mulch and begin the more serious pruning we’re not able to do during the growing season.  A good layer of mulch and compost help keep the ground moist and the roots warm.  You can save money by ordering compost and mulch by the yard and have it delivered.

Here are some questions I get asked most this time of year:

“Is this tree dying or just losing its leaves?”

If a plant, shrub or tree is “deciduous,” it will drop most or all of its leaves by the end of winter and grow new ones in the spring.  If it holds onto its leaves year after year, it’s called “evergreen.”  People fear that when the leaves begin to brown and dry, the plant is dying.  If that is happening now, it probably means it is deciduous.   This type of plant and tree provides the most beautiful color in the fall, structure to admire in the winter and fruit to eat in the summer.

Many people don’t like the messy factor with fallen leaves, but consider that evergreen plants don’t give much back with regards to color and fruit.

 

“Can I still plant now?

It depends on how warm it is in the day and how cold it dips down at night.  We generally don’t plant during the threat of a freeze which may happen around Jan or Feb, but each year is different.

“Can the irrigation system be shut off now?”

Maybe.  Do you have a good layer of mulch throughout the garden and how warm is it during the day?  This determines whether the soil will remain moist and the system can be shut off.  Once it becomes cool in the day, the plants and lawns go into dormancy and stop growing at the foliage level.  Once you determine it’s time to shut off the watering, be sure to keep an eye out for plants that are sheltered from rain water (under eaves), they may need additional watering.

It’s important to know how much watering your garden needs because overwatering now causes problems such as mold, ants, weeds and swampy conditions that breed flies and mosquitoes, not to mention it’s a waste of water use.

“Why can the system be shut off and the plants won’t die?”

Remember learning about photosynthesis in jr high school?  It is helpful in understanding the transition in the garden this time of year.  Because there is less light now, plants hibernate or go dormant to minimize energy consumption until the spring when more light is available.  They probably won’t root or grow until the spring.  Also, this lack of light reduces the heat on the ground so the soil doesn’t dry out as fast as other times of the year (especially if there’s a layer of mulch or compost).

Posted in Maintenance | Leave a comment

Winter tasks

People often ask if there’s anything to do in the garden and landscape during the winter months.  Actually, there’s so much to do, we easily fall behind because of the rains that prevent the work from getting done.

Here’s some of the tasks to focus on:

1. Soil health

Plants go dormant during the winter, meaning they don’t grow at the foliage level. But within the soil, the roots are drinking up all that rain water and strengthen so it’s important to aerate the soil, making sure the water can be absorbed.  Amending with a little dark compost will help feed the roots and spreading a few inches of mulch around the soil will keep down weeds and preserve moisture.  Be sure to remove fallen leaves and any dirt or mulch off the base of shrubs and trees.  Soggy leaves around the wood causes mold to grow, compromising the plant’s health.

2. Tree pruning

This is your chance to prune everything that is deciduous.  A tree is much happier being heavily pruned when it’s dormant.  It will not react with weird aggressive growth or sticky saps that some trees leak out when pruned at the wrong time of the year. Again, feed the soil with compost and gently aerate.

3. Lawn maintenance

(this is a photo of a dethatching rake, available at most hardware stores)

Aerate and dethatch lawns so they can form new growth and spread once spring comes.  Thatch (dead grass) prevents new growth in lawns by forming a thick barrier.

4. Repair everything

From the irrigation system, to the rotted retaining wall, this is the time to build, repair and do all the hardscape and erosion control projects as long as the weather permits.  It’s not a great time to stain or paint because of rain and cold, but that can happen in the spring.  Now is a great time to build a fence and wall, hang a gate and do any general repair you’ve been putting off.

5. Clear the gutters

This is important to do about twice annually to assure a good flow of water through your gutters and away from your house and foundation.  While you’re up there, you may also hang or remove Christmas lights.

6. Plant bare root

Many fruit trees and roses will be sold “bare root” in January in a dormant state.  It will require a bit of skill to properly plant but it’s the healthiest way to plant these particular items and they are often sold cheaper this way.

 

 

Posted in Maintenance | Leave a comment

How will we use the space?

How will you use the space is the single most important question in planning a new landscape.  It’s the first question we put on the table in the design phase and we come back to it throughout the process.  Here’s a few dream ideas I commonly hear from clients.  I hope they inspire you to make your outdoor space more functional and usable:

Remove some of that lawn now that the kids are grown and plant a butterfly habitat

 

 

 

 

 

Build an outdoor kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

Turn that slope into a usable patio with simple flagstone and thyme

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plant a small vineyard and follow the harvest schedule of local wineries

 

 

 

 

 

Plant a small and manageable but productive edible garden

Posted in Landscape Design | Leave a comment

What time of the day should you water the garden?

Whether you have a drip system on plants, sprinklers on a lawn or are hand-watering, a good question to answer is what time of the day to water and why?

It’s usually best to water in the early morning (between 4-6am) for a few reasons.  The first is watering at night can cause a powdery mildew to grow on the wet foliage and flowers that would be avoided if watering takes place in the early morning.

Secondly, the wind tends to be the least in the early morning, so with regards to sprinklerspray, more water gets on the ground rather than dissipates into the air.

And thirdly, foliage-munching snails and slugs tend to be nocturnal and need moisture to move around so if the environment is kept dry at night, that means less pest activity on the plants.

On the other hand, here’s a couple of reasons why the watering would need to take place at another time other than the early morning: if your irrigation valves wake people up when they go off and on and if they reduce the shower pressure.  If this is the case, you would want to schedule the watering at a convenient time for your household.

Posted in Maintenance | Leave a comment

Will deer be visiting your landscape?

Don’t underestimate the damage that deer can do in the landscape.  They are a major concern in many areas here in the East Bay. They will destroy a new landscape in a matter of days if the right plants aren’t used.  So how do you know if deer will eat a plant or not?

Generally, they don’t like plants with a strong odor like lavender or rosemary.

However, this strong odor rule doesn’t apply to roses, as deer will devour roses, thorns and all.

Deer seem to stay away from grasses and plants with spikey foliage like Phormiums. Here’s a few photos of grasses and spikey plants we have used with success in sunny deer territory.  I’ll post later about deer resistant plants for the shade.

Calamagrosits foliosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phormium (aka New Zealand Flax)- this plant comes in many colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carex divulsa (aka Berkeley sedge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carex Testacea

Posted in Landscape Design | Leave a comment

Time to pick fruit

Trees are filling up with fruit right now.  Two things important to think about is how to get the best tasting and sized fruit and how to get up there and pick them before the squirrels get to them or they fall to the ground.

If your fruit are not fully mature like in this photo, you would ideally prune half the fruit off a limb to promote the half remaining.  It’s the same idea with rose pruning.  If you know every fruit on your tree is always perfect, there’s no need to do this, only if you have had some disappointing years.

 

 

 

 

The second thing to do is pick the fruit as they become ripe or before and let them ripen off the tree.  I like using a combination of a ladder and this fruit picker, available at most garden centers.  It’s grips fairly well, the trick is to figure out how to just pick the fruit and not tear the thin limb it’s hanging from.

Posted in Maintenance | Leave a comment