Tag Archives: sustainable gardening

How to Handle Excess Water in the Landscape

We had enough rain to bring those soggy areas of the garden you’ve been vowing for years to do something about to the top of the to-do list. Whether they’re caused by excess rain on your property, from the neighbor or from poor soil drainage, they can be a challenge or an opportunity when designing the garden.

One way to handle runoff is to intercept the water and drain it way with an open ditch, French drain or underground pispe. Better still- develop an on-site collection system. Dry river beds can be designed to aid in rain water harvesting. Above ground water tanks and submerged collection tanks are becoming common to save excess water flowing off the impervious surfaces of your roof, patio, walkways and driveway. Another method of retaining water on your own property is to channel it into a dry-well, a hole filled with drain rock. From here, the water can disperse slowly into the surrounding soil.

Soggy spots can also . Sometimes the same property can have a complex pattern of soils that vary sharply from one area to another. Or soil can become compacted from heavy equipment and need to be broken up with a backhoe, excavator or by hand with a pick.

In some cases, natural topsoil may have been scraped away as is sometimes the case after septic work leaving the hardpan underneath exposed. This can be broken up and lots of compost dug in to keep it loose. New topsoil may need to be added to increase fertility and drainage.

If you still have a naturally wet area, you may choose to live with it and select plants that thrive in damp conditions. A rain garden, one type of on-site collection system, is a depression made in the soil and planted with wet tolerant plants. It can be as small as 100 square feet. To create one, dig a shallow bowl or build a berm to hold the water. Run-off water diverted to a rain garden is slowed so is can seep into the soil. They also filter out pollutants than run off from buildings and driveways.

Choose plants that will thrive in in wet winter and dry summer conditions. Native plants that will do well include trees like alder, sycamore and Calif. fan palm. 

Native shrubs that tolerate these conditions are spicebush, pacific wax myrtle, western mock orange and sambucus.  While native perennials to try are western columbine, wild ginger, carex pansa, deergrass, red fescue and wild grape.

Ornamentals that don’t mind having their feet wet include bee balm, New England aster, ligularia, lobelia cardinalis, hosta, calla lily, lysimachia and Japanese iris. Grasses and grass-like plants that work in this situation are acorus, chondropetalum, fiber optic grass, cyperus and equisetum.

Think of all that rain and moisture as an opportunity in your garden.

Citrus & Avocado for the Santa Cruz mts

Late September and you can feel autumn in the air. While our days are still beautiful and warm, nights are getting cooler with less daylight hours. Perfect weather for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden.

Why is this a good time? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage and soil temperatures are still warm, which creates an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees ( even broadleaf evergreens ) are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the roots system should be well established.

So take advantage of fall planting weather. Decide what changes or additions you want to make in your garden.
Perhaps it’s time to remove lawn from banks or slopes where water runs off instead of soaking in. Replant with more drought tolerant ornamental grasses or perennials.  Picture hummingbirds feeding on beautiful variegated autumn sage, their creamy white and green leaves topped with brilliant red flowers from summer until frost.

If you have a small lawn on flat land and want to improve water absorption and reduce water waste, rake out the thatch that accumulates at the base. Then aerated your lawn in a hollow-tine aerator or power aerator from a rental yard.  This brings plugs of soil to the surface, then rake compost over the hoes and water well.

Now is a good time to plant citrus and avocado. They will fair better during the cold winter months if roots are established.  Remember to give older citrus a good soak every week or so or the fruit will be dry.

If you’ve always wanted an avocado tree there are several varieties that do well here.  The Bacon avocado is hardy to 24 degrees. You can harvest medium sized fruit from November-March. They even produce at a young age and grow to 30 feet tall. Fuerte avocado have excellent flavor. This tree is large and spreading, hardy to 28 degrees and the fruit ripens from November-June. Zutano is another good variety for this area. Mexicola varieties are also very good.
These avocados are self fertile for the home gardener. You can expect your tree to live for about which is a lot of guacamole.

If you receive frost of consecutive night during the winter you can easily protect a young avocado or citrus by erecting a simple frame of 1×1" stakes that extends above the height of your tree.  Then drape with a frost blanket or beach blanket on cold night. Don’t use plastic- the cold will go right through it.

Take advantage of this great fall planting weather. Bon appetit !

Summer pruning for Fruit trees

Here’s some advice for those of you growing fruit trees. August is the best time to do summer pruning. If you haven’t already done so, thin out shoots and crossing branches. This allows more air and light into the tree, reduces disease and promotes earlier ripening of the fruit. Remove most water sprouts. These are the soft, fast growing shoots usually growing straight up. Cut them back to a main branch. If you need to fill in a spot in the tree and there’s a water sprout growing there, cut that one back to about 2" and it will promote a fruiting spur.

Pruning fruit trees this month controls the size of the tree and can also prevent rampant sprout growth next spring. That’s because pruning removes many of the little food factories ( leaves ) that supply energy to the plant  and store it,  to be used for growth in the spring.

Prune to maintain a vase shape. By promoting upright limbs high in the tree and pruning hardest in upper and outer portions, fruiting wood is maintained throughout the tree. Also eliminate limbs growing inward. Remember never to prune more that 1/4 of the total mass of your tree at any one time and no more than 1/3 per year. Better to space out corrective pruning over 4 years if your tree has gone too long since the last pruning.

One last thing, fertilize your trees one more time. Most established fruit trees need their first application when the tree begins to emerge from dormancy in the spring, another after fruit set and the third immediately after harvest. For young trees in the first, second or third growing season, apply at half the rate.

Feed your trees and they’ll feed you.

Help Bees Help You

Bees are getting a lot of press lately, Most fruits and vegetables, except crops like corn, wheat, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans and beets, need bees to pollinate them. Of the 3 million hives in this country about 600,000 have disappeared. Our bees are at risk and research has not found the smoking gun for colony collapse disorder ( where bees leave the hive and mysteriously never return ). In the 1980’s a mite caused a huge die off but now researchers are looking to a virus from Israel that might causing a decline in the bee’s immune system, like AIDS for bees. Pesticide are also contributing to the decline. Maybe these interfere with the bees ability to find their way home. It may be that there are several reasons that are causing our bees to be at risk.

What can we do to help?  For one, we can attract native bees to the garden. Native bees are solitary, meaning they do not make a hive but make nests underground, one female per nesting hole, where she lays her eggs. Some of the things we do in our gardens, such as mulching, is good for the soil and deterring weeds but not helpful for ground nesting bees.  The key is to leave some unmulched sections near your flowering plants for them to burrow.

Native bees won’t sting you. It’s not that they don’t have a stinger, they just don’t use them on people. Also most of our 1,600 species of native bees are too small to be able to sting.  Native bees are solely responsible for keeping many native plants pollinated. To help bees and other pollinator insects—like butterflies—you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, and thus, through the whole growing season. Choose several colors and shapes of flowers, plant flowers in clumps and plant where bees will visit- in sunny spots sheltered from strong winds.

Native bees love Ray Hartman ceanothus and toyon, for instance. Also ribes, sambucus, penstemon, echinacea, sedum, salvia, Ca. poppy, buckwheat, willow, sunflowers, lavender, basil, agastache, marjorum, rosemary, erysimum, zinnia and aster.

All species of bees will benefit from these tips.  Let’s lend a helping hand to these vital pollinators.

Permaculture and You

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.

Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides ( when necessary ) you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like beautiful fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.

You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and siting plants. Deep rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought tolerant trees creates shade which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.

Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. You might install a rain garden in an areas like this. A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawn ares. The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.

Plant dry climate plants like lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and drought tolerant ground covers like oregano and thyme to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible.

Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.

For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds; ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.

To , plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large leaf plants for a living mulch. Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like a weed patch. With a little planning your garden can be beautiful and productive.

Planning the Garden

As you plan this year’s garden, whether it’s a new vegetable bed, un-thirsty perennials,  shade trees , or anything in between, think of how they will affect your surroundings. Will they take up less of the earth’s resources and not too much of your own time and energy? Changing weather patterns make it smart to find new, more sustainable ways to garden.  Downsize your garden’s neediness without sacrificing beauty or productivity.

Start with a smart design.

  • Does your garden utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers that help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water?
  • Have you considered installing a rain garden or small, planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite?
  • Have you grouped plants in your garden according to their water needs? Do you have some plantings that can survive on rainfall alone after their second season? Have you chosen plants that are locally grown and adapted to our climate?
  • Do you have an irrigation system that is efficient without being wasteful?  Do you water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff? Do you water in the early morning or evening to maximize absorption?
  • Do you have deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter? Do you have trees and shrubs to clean the air of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide? Trees also breathe in carbon dioxide ( a major greenhouse gas) , use the carbon to build mass, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.
  • Does your garden feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife? Do you have perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds? Have you planted flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects? Do you use organic pesticides?
  • Do you make your soil a priority by adding compost each year? Do you mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water?  Do you use natural fertilizers like manures or fish emulsion that feed the soil? Do you compost the green and brown waste your garden produces-fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables?
  • Do you stay ahead of weeds , pulling them before they set seed and spread?

Take steps to make your corner of the world contribute to the larger landscape around you.