Category Archives: low maintenance gardening

Sheet Mulch Away that Old Lawn

Replacing that water guzzling lawn or dramatically reducing the size is a good place to start conserving water and is easier than you think. If you’ve been paralyzed with the thought of digging out and hauling away hundreds of square feet of heavy sod or using dangerous grass-killing chemicals, sheet mulching is the method for you.

sheet_mulching_in_progressSheet mulching in progress

This simple technique eliminates the lawn by smothering it with layers of compost and renewable materials. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Mow the lawn down to 1-2”, leave the clippings in place and soak with a hose.
  2. Flag the locations of sprinkler heads you will be keeping for your new plantings and cap off the ones you won’t need.
  3. Add an inch of compost to speed up the decay of the grass. If your lawn borders a driveway, path or sidewalk you’ll have to remove about 3” inches deep of soil along these edges and back 8-12” so that the new mulch doesn’t slide off into the sidewalk.
  4. Put down 2-3 layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard overlapping the edges by 6-8” to prevent regrowth at the edges. You can buy recycled cardboard in rolls for larger projects or find your own at appliance or bicycle stores. Wet the cardboard or newspapers to keep them in place as you go along. It’s best to use cardboard or newspaper thatwill break down quicker. Don’t use plastic sheeting because water and air cannot penetrate it.
  5. Add a 3” layer of mulch such as bark chips from a tree trimming company. You can use compost, straw or shredded plant material. If you have Bermuda grass or other weeds like oxalis you will need to layer about 8” of mulch to smother them.
  6. Water thoroughly.

sheet_mulch_installPlants installed immediately after sheet mulching

If you can wait a month or more to let the decomposition process get going so much the better. If you just can’t wait you can begin planting now by scraping away the mulch and poking a hole in the cardboard or newspaper where the plant is to go. Then add some compost to help the new plant become established. Be sure to plant high enough to prevent crown rot and keep the mulch a couple inches away from the stem. The top of the root ball should be 1-2” above the soil and just below the mulch.

Modify the sprinkler to drip and remember to adjust your irrigation system run times to accommodate your new plantings.

This is a basic “lasagna” method for lawn removal. If you are planning to replant with water smart grasses you would choose finer composted mulch instead of bark chips. Either way the process works on the same concept as a compost pile. As the lawn dies from lack of light, it decomposes with the activity of beneficial worms, insects and microorganisms coming up from the soil and doing their job to break down the nitrogen and carbon in the sheet-mulch layers. It’s a win-win situation for the environment and your water bill.

sheet_mulching_one_year_afterOne year after lawn removal by sheet mulching

Water conservation starts with losing or reducing the thirsty traditional lawn and reducing irrigation. Transform your landscape into a resilient garden that not only saves water but acts to build the earth into a living sponge that harnesses rainwater and replenishes the aquifer at the same time. Attracting wildlife to your new beautiful garden is a bonus.

Be sure to apply for your rebates and have your lawn inspected, even if it’s dead, before you start.

What is a Sustainable Landscape?

I have a bat house on my property although the bats haven’t taken to it yet. I understand the importance of bats and bat conservation in the environment. I incorporate many California native plants in my own landscape and continue to add them to gardens I design. I encourage bees and other pollinators by creating a sustainable habitat for them in my garden. I use my water wisely conserving our finite water supply. I use organic pest control only if necessary to protect our watersheds from chemical contamination. I feel I am on the right track of sustainability and stewardship of the environment. But can I do more?

IMG_8399Organic plant starts at Garden Faire

Last week I attended The Garden Faire held at Sky Park in Scotts Valley. As I walked around the exhibits and listened to interesting speakers all the while serenaded by world music I thought to myself how can one person put all this valuable information to use in their own lives and gardens? How can I live more in harmony with nature?

IMG_8390Apple tree display at Garden Faire

How can I sequester more carbon by my plants to store in the soil? How can I protect the biodiversity already in place in my mixed redwood forest environment? Even though I don’t have the right conditions to grow my own organic food can I buy from growers who use ecological process on their farms? What native plants around my own house can I eat?

You hear the word sustainability used to describe everything from flooring to roofing to landscaping but what exactly is a sustainable landscape?

Sustainable landscapes are so well adapted to their environment that they require little in maintenance. Choosing plants adapted to your garden size, type of soil and climate keeps watering and fertilizing to a sensible level and reduces pruning as plants grow to the size needed and stay there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUrbanite retaining wall

Sustainable landscapes use recycled, salvaged, durable building materials whenever possible. They use mainly materials that are harvested locally and use imported stone as an accent. Sustainable landscapes try to reuse what you already have laying it out differently to look like a totally new landscape.

Sustainable landscapes clean the air and water. They increase on-site infiltration of rain water to reduce runoff and minimize the amount of contaminants washed into the watershed and the bay. By keeping water onsite it can move into the soil where organisms breakdown pollutants and naturally filter them out before the water reaches groundwater or our waterways.

Sustainable landscapes conserve water by installing and

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASwallowtail feeding on butterfly bush

maintaining high efficiency watering systems making every drop of irrigation water count. They create drought resistant soils by adding compost and mulch. They group plants by watering needs to irrigate them more efficiently.

Sustainable landscapes restore habitats by attracting native pollinators, beneficial insects and other organisms that reduce the need for pesticides. A sustainable landscape restores natural areas on the outskirts of your landscape to diversify your plant community.

Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, energy efficient and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities.

What’s Old is New Again in Garden Plants

pittosporum_tobira_blossomPittosporum tobira fragrant flowers

I remember walking with the main horticulturalist at Filoli Garden many years ago and hearing her extol the virtues of the established plantings that have survived drought and neglect with no pest problems for a very long time and are still growing beautifully in the garden. It’s not always the latest cultivars that have staying power. Some of the newer varieties are better but some are not as vigorous, some of those lovely variegated, striped or dark foliage plants revert over the years, some are prone to pests and diseases. Don’t overlook using been-around-for-ages workhorse plants in your garden.

Some of the survivors at Filoli Gardens over the years are California natives and others are just tough plants from other parts of the world. Take the common pittosporum you see in most every old garden. This plant makes a fine hedge, focal point or ground cover depending on the genus with a sweet fragrance in the spring while providing the bones or structure to your garden.

All of the various types of pittosporum are hardy in winter, grow in sun or shade and have low water needs. Pittosporum tobira flowers are scented like orange blossoms. Pittosporum eugenoides and tenuifolium – commonly grown as a hedge or small tree – have highly fragrant blossoms as does the ground cover ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’.

lithodora_Grace_WardLithodora ‘Grace Ward’

On a recent trip to the Gig Harbor, Washington area, lithodora ‘Grace Ward’ caught my attention in many gardens. With those electric blue flowers covering this ground cover it’s quite the show stopper. Lithodora is used more extensively than creeping rosemary in the Pacific Northwest as it can survive temps down to 0 degree or less. Growing with only moderate to occasional irrigation give this plant a try in your own garden.

agapanthus.2048Agapanthus africanus

Next plant on my bring-back-the-old-favorites list is the lowly agapanthus or Lily of the Nile.  Sure you see it at every fast food restaurant and hotel you pass but the reason is that it grows and blooms so reliably with little care. This is one plant where the new cultivars are proving to be just a tough as the standard agapanthus africanus.

agapathus_Storm_CloudAgapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’

Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’ produces luxurious green foliage that tinges purple-red in the winter months. In summer large umbels of very deep blue flowers rise above the foliage on tall blackish stems. This variety takes a couple years to establish but blooms reliably from then on.

Two smaller types of agapanthus are ‘Queen Anne’, a semi-dwarf variety and the dwarf ’Peter Pan’. Both are available with blue or white flowers. There is also a variegated dwarf called ‘Tinkerbell’ which grows well also. All agapanthus tolerate frost and neglect and require only moderate watering.

So in addition to all the ceanothus- a California native- that grow so reliably don’t overlook some of these other workhorses. There’s a reason these plants have been grown successfully for such a long time. Be sure you include these old favorites in your garden along with those new cultivars that you just have to try out.

Great Plants for a California Garden

leucospermum_orange-chondropetalum.1600Leucospermum with chondropetalum

Our local UCSC Arboretum is a place everyone can enjoy. You can marvel at the dozens of jewel-tone hummingbirds darting about feeding on nectar of colorful flowers while strolling the gardens for new plant ideas.

There are still lots of dramatic leucospermum in bloom as well as California native plants that flower mid to late summer. The rainfall last December helped many of the drought tolerant plants grow more foliage and put on a better show this year. The hummingbirds couldn’t get enough of the erica blooming in shades of pink, orange and red. There must have been a dozen darting about feeding and chirping between the shrubs.

If you are looking for some inspiration for new low water-use plants you haven’t tried the nursery at the Arboretum has a good selection. They replenish the stock from their growing area on a regular basis so there’s always something to catch your eye. Here are some that I plan to grow myself or recommend to others.

Hemiandra pungens

Color in the garden is something we all relish. One of the plants that caught my eye is called Hemiandra pungens. Pretty lavender-magenta flower clusters cover this small one foot plant. It’s drought tolerant although it looks better with occasional summer water.

This bright little shrub is another of the plants from Australia being trialed at the Arboretum. The Koala Blooms plant introduction program is a joint venture which include growers here and in Australia. Plants are evaluated for their beauty, durability and sturdiness with regard to drought, weather extremes and variations in soil types. Out of the trailing process new plants are selected and offered for sale to the public. Visit the Arboretum website for info on other great plants you might want to try in your garden. www.arboretum.ucsc.edu/koala-blooms

Pimalea_ferruginea-Bon_Petite.1600Pimalea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’

Another showy perennial that’s sure to make it’s way into the next appropriate garden I design is Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bon Petite’. Bright pink umbel blossoms cover this small plant for many months starting in the spring. It’s hardy down to 25 degrees and requires little water once established. Also originating in Australia it looks great in a native low water-use cottage garden.

The common name for this plant is pink rice flower. The pot in the arboretum nursery happened to be placed near a red mimulus but it looked great even though you might think the color combination would be all wrong. Nature has a way of making things work despite the rules of the color wheel.

Several varieties of correa – also called Australian fuchsia – caught my eye. Although the flowers of this plant resemble fuchsias they are not related. Some do best with regular watering during the summer but the lovely correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’ is drought tolerant once established. Grow this three foot compact evergreen shrub in partial sun where it will bloom from fall through springtime and provide nectar for hummingbirds during the wintertime.

Salvia_guarantica.1600Salvia guarantica

I was also drawn to the brilliant cobalt blue flowers of salvia guarantica. This plant is worth growing – in sun or partial shade – even though you might need to cut it down to ground level after each winter like Mexican bush sage. Growing four to five feet tall it starts blooming in early summer and continues till frost. They also do well in containers and are a favorite of hummingbirds.

Prostanthera was well represented with three varieties – ‘Poorinda Bride’, ’Purple Haze’ and my personal favorite, the Variegated Mint Bush. They are all good choices for colorful, easy to grow, hardy shrubs that require only occasional irrigation.

Among other choices at the Arboretum nursery were stand-by’s such as lion’s tail, Mexican marigold, Germander sage, Copper Glow New Zealand tea tree and giant buckwheat. This local resource offers a cornucopia of inspiration.

Tips for New Landscaping after Replacing a Lawn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsantonlina, euphorbia, phormiun – low water use plant grouping

Tired of looking at that brown patch of lawn and trying to convince yourself it’s a badge of honor in these times of drought? You tell yourself “It greens up in the winter so I’ll water just enough to keep it from totally dying now”. But wouldn’t a beautiful, sustainable, low water use garden be a more inviting place to spend your free time?

Replacing a lawn that is not used anymore can be the first step in a whole new kind of landscaping-a landscape that looks like it belongs where you live. Here are some very good reasons to lose the lawn and benefit the planet at the same time.

Even in years where we have normal winter rainfall we always have a seasonal drought. It’s called summer. Without our usual winter and spring rains, though, even native trees and shrubs are struggling. All the more reason that plant selection now is even more critical than before.

libertia2.1600libertia peregrinans

You’ve see pictures of some not-so-great looking lawn replacement projects. A drought tolerant plant here, another there, add an accent rock and that’s supposed to thrill you when you come home for the day? What’s missing is a garden designed to enhance our natural environment. When you remove your lawn, it’s a wonderful opportunity to not only create a garden than conserves water but also provides habitat for wildlife including birds and butterflies and improves the soil.

A living landscape does as much for our own pleasure as it does for the environment. It increases biodiversity of plant, animal and insect populations. It fosters healthy soil which can hold more moisture by supporting microbes and insects. Healthy soil can filter pollutants and improve water quality.

Think of using native and well-adapted, non-natives that connect with the natural landscape. Use tough plants on the edges and group greener, low water use plants closer to the house. Here are some good plants to use in a lawn-less landscape that won’t break your water budget.

When planting time rolls around this fall consider a green carpet of blue grama grass. This native sedge can provide a green carpet on much less water and can be mowed or not. It’s on the list of approved water-wise grasses eligible for rebates from our local water districts.

dymondia_path2.1600dymondia groundcover between flagstones

Another ground cover eligible for lawn replacement rebate is dymondia. I love the grey foliage of this low ground cover. It fills in nicely between stepping stones or can take light foot traffic in larger areas.

For a taller look that you don’t need to be able to walk on, the ground cover forms of ceanothus, manzanita or creeping rosemary are good very low water alternatives to a lawn. I have a very low Hearts Desire ceanothus that hasn’t been watered yet this year and it still looks green and lush.

Native yarrow, penstemon and salvia are the work horses of the garden needing little water once established and attracting all sorts of insects and birds. Other natives on the 800+ Approved Low Water Use Plant list include Pacific Coast iris, helianthemum, libertia, santolina, California fuchsia, rockrose, lavender, myoporum, coffeeberry, teucrium, verbena and kangaroo paw to name just a few. You can download the list from www.sv.org or www.slvwd.com.

I am not a big fan of artificial lawns. They do not provide habitat for wildlife, beautify our environment or improve the soil. They get significantly hotter than the surrounding air temperature contributing to the heat island effect by increasing air temperatures. Also artificial turf is a synthetic material with a relatively short lifespan ranging from 10-20 years and will eventually end up in a landfill. They can not be recycled. There are many other beautiful, low water use options that result in more sustainable and beneficial landscapes.

Water and soil management as well as plant selection are key to water conservation in the landscape.

Planning for the Dry Season – Step One: Lose the Lawn

low water use plantings2Front and center in the news and in your garden is the drought and what you can do about it in your own landscape. If you’ve dabbled before with replacing thirsty plants with climate-appropriate low water use California native plants or those from areas similar to ours this is the year to step up your efforts.

Gov. Brown’s mandate for water conservation state wide is a call to action to transform our landscapes into resilient gardens that not only save water but act to build the earth into a living sponge that harnesses rainwater and replenishes the aquifer.

Replacing that water guzzling lawn now that the kids have grown or dramatically reducing it’s size is a good place to start and is easier than you think. If you’ve been paralyzed with the thought of digging out and hauling away hundreds of square feet of heavy sod or using dangerous grass-killing chemicals, sheet mulching is the method for you.

This simple technique eliminates the lawn by smothering it with layers of recycled, compost and renewable materials. Here’s how to do it:

1. Mow the lawn down to 1-2”, leave the clippings in place and soak with a hose. Don’t worry. This soaking is nothing compared to what you’ll soon be saving by removing your lawn.
2. Flag the locations of sprinkler heads you will be keeping for your new plantings and cap off the ones you won’t need.
3. Add an inch of compost to speed up the decay of the grass. If your lawn borders a driveway, path or sidewalk you’ll have to remove about 3” inches deep of soil along these edges and back 8-12” so that the new mulch doesn’t slide off into the sidewalk.
4. Put down 2-3 layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard overlapping the edges by 6-8” to prevent regrowth at the edges. You can buy recycled cardboard in rolls for larger projects or find your own at appliance or bicycle stores. Wet the cardboard or newspapers to keep them in place as you go along. It’s best to use cardboard or newspaper that will break down quicker. Weed fabric is not recommended as it takes much longer to break down. Don’t use plastic sheeting because water and air cannot penetrate it.
5. Add a 3” layer of mulch such as bark chips from a tree trimming company. You can use compost, straw or shredded plant matelow water use plantingsrial. If you have Bermuda grass or other weeds like oxalis you will need to layer about 8”of mulch to smother them.
6. Water thoroughly.

If you can wait a month or more to let the decomposition process get going so much the better. If you just can’t wait you can begin planting now by scraping away the mulch and poking a hole in the cardboard or newspaper where the plant is to go. Then add some compost to help the new plant become established. Be sure to plant high enough to prevent crown rot and keep the mulch a couple inches away from the stem. The top of the root ball should be 1-2” above the soil and just below the mulch.

Modify the sprinkler to drip and remember to adjust your irrigation system run times to accommodate your new plantings.

This is a basic “lasagna” method for lawn removal. If you are planning to replant with water smart grasses you would choose finer composted mulch instead of bark chips. Either way the process works on the same concept as a compost pile. As the lawn dies from lack of light, it decomposes with the activity of beneficial worms, insects and microorganisms coming up from the soil and doing their job to break down the nitrogen and carbon in the sheet-mulch layers. It’s a win-win situation for the environment and your water bill.