Tag Archives: sustainable 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.

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Sheet 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.
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Plants 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.

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One 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.

Save Water with a Dry Lush Landscape

In all the years I’ve been a landscape designer I’ve never heard anyone say to me “I want my garden to look like the desert.”  Using California native plants along with appropriate low water use plants from other Mediterranean dry climate areas can save water and look lush at the same time. We live in an area naturally rich with trees and shrubs and wildflowers that survive on seasonal rainfall. Here are some ideas to give your landscape a lush look while saving water.

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Succulent garden in progress

There’s no better place that showcases a dry lush landscape that my friend Richard Hencke’s garden in Scotts Valley.  Doc Hencke has been at this gardening business a long time starting when he was a kid in Texas and Oklahoma. I am always inspired whenever I visit his garden and come home with a car full of plant starts from his greenhouse. He’s a propagator extraordinaire who loves to share and is a good friend.

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Judy’s succulent garden

On this day I also wanted to see his new raccoon-proof pond and surrounding landscaping. There calandrina starts are settling in nicely. They haven’t started blooming yet but will soon with those neon-pink flowers that sway above the plant on long stems. This spectacular Chilean perennial is long blooming and perfect for a dry garden or difficult spot like a parking strip or hillside. It will suppress weeds as it grows, quickly spreading into a dense groundcover. Nearby is another bed filled with aeonium, sedums, kalanchoe, baby toes and other succulents designed by his wife, Judy.

Doc Hencke’s garden is comprised of a couple dozen different areas or garden rooms. He’s been enjoying discovering new succulents and adding to the new dry lush hillside. He’s growing several varieties of aloe, cordyline and yucca along with douglas iris which are doing fine given the same irrigation as the rest of the dry hillside. Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandralis border the path and their long bluish-green fleshy leaves look great near the red cordyline.

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Doc Hencke’s dry lush entry landscaping

The secret to a lush look is to group plants into a vignette of complimentary elements. A vignette is a brief but powerful scene. Garden vignettes can be more than just plants. Doc Hencke’s driveway garden is a good example. An array of textural plants is combined with a weathered teak bench, richly colored, glazed pots filled with the architectural strappy leaves of phormium and a recirculating water fountain to complete the scene. The blue stone retaining wall is the perfect compliment to the blue and gold succulents that grow in the nooks and crannies.

A dry lush plant palette could also include plants such as Little John bottlebrush, dietes ‘Katrina’, Festival Burgundy cordyline, Hot Lips salvia, Variegated dianella, Amazing Red phormium, Icee Blue podocarpus, phlomis, Southern Moon rhaphiolepis, Gulf Stream nandina and Cousin Itt acacia.

A visit to this amazing garden wouldn’t be complete without admiring Doc Hencke’s prized Sand plum which he swears is the tallest in the country. Also called Chickasaw plums they are found naturally on sandy prairies in Oklahoma and Texas where they are very effective in stopping blowing sand. Wikepedia states this early blooming plum grows to 20 feet tall and Richard’s is about 30 feet tall. Just another in his long line of horticultural successes.

Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

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Orin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

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Sunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

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Ginger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

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UCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

Bees- Pollinators for a Bountiful Harvest

Pollination or the transfer of pollen in and between flowers of the same species leads to fertilization and successful seed and fruit production in plants. Pollen can be carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, moths, beetles or by the wind but bees pollinate approximately 1000 plants worldwide including apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds and tequila. Clearly we need our bees- both native bees and honeybees.

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honey bee pollinating African blue basil- photo courtesy of Gaylon Morris

Honeybees aren’t native to the United States. The colonist brought them here in the 1600’s to pollinate apple trees and for their honey and wax for candles. They are loyal to the plants they feed on and that makes them valuable to farmers and orchard owners. It works this way. When a worker bee leaves a hive in search of food it will feed on on one type of flower- whichever type it tasted first on that trip. Unlike other insects that might go from a cucumber blossom to dandelion to squash flower the honeybee sticks to one thing. That way it picks up and deposits only one type of pollen making honeybees particularly efficient in pollinating crops.

We know that honeybees are having a hard time of it due to diseases, parasites and pesticides. Planting flowers that bees like can increase the chances of bees’ survival as will cultivating native plants, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for the ecological region of our California Coastal Chaparral, Forest and Shrub Province by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

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honey bee on echium wildpretii

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depends on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

We can all help honeybees and other pollinating animals by being more mindful of the way we tend our yards. Reduce the amount of lawn you have and plant natives and flowers that will attract them. Use organic pesticides carefully and only if absolutely necessary. Buy local honey and support beekeepers. Honeybees and other pollinators need help to survive and we’re the ones to provide it.

How to Save Water & Have a Beautiful Garden

There was enough rainfall over the winter season for the California State Water Resources Control Board to modify their Emergency Water Conservation Regulations. On May 18th, 2016 it was adopted to recognize persistent yet less severe drought conditions throughout California and require local agencies to develop and implement conservation standards based on their particular circumstances.

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My friend, Adelyn, helping to water container plants and edibles.

The new standard requires local water agencies to ensure a three-year supply of water assuming three more dry years in the future like the ones we experienced from 2012 to 2015. Water agencies that would face shortages under three additional dry years are required to meet a conservation standard equal to the amount of the shortage.

Makes sense to us who have long been on the band wagon to conserve water both indoors and out. Our local water districts have both kept their water conserving restrictions in place. Since up to 70% of summer water use comes from landscape irrigation it’s a good place to start.

Both San Lorenzo Valley Water District http://www.slvwd.com – and Scotts Valley Water Districts http://www.svwd.orgoffer many tips and incentives to conserve water. Using less water-intensive plants, there are lists on their websites of drought-tolerant plants and water smart grasses, as well as replacing lawns with drought tolerant or native plants and/or permeable landscape materials such as mulch, decomposed granite, permeable pavers are just some of the ways you can keep your yard looking beautiful and also be water efficient.

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Rainbird Smart Irrigation controller

Rebate programs from local water districts offer several landscaping credits including sprinkler to drip irrigation conversion credit, weather-based irrigation controller credit, replacement credit for converting an existing lawn to water-wise grasses, greywater laundry-to-landscape irrigation conversion, rainwater catchment and downspout diversion. Both districts have guidelines and procedures to apply for the rebates on their websites.

Additional rebates from the California State Department of Water Resources are available to single-family residences for lawn replacement. This rebate application is separate from the local water District’s and you need to go online and follow the state’s guidelines in order to be eligible for these additional funds. See www.SaveOurWaterRebates.com for the details.

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Plants with similar water needs = hydrozoning

The fun part begins when you redesign the area where you took out the lawn or modify the plantings in other beds to include same water use plants. It doesn’t make much sense if you have some plants that require more water than the others in the same bed. You have to water to the highest water use plant to keep everybody happy.

Hydrozoning is the practice of clustering together plants with similar water requirements to conserve water. A planting design where plants are grouped by water needs improves efficiency and plant health by avoiding overwatering or underwatering. As you move farther away from the water source your plantings should require less water.

Now is the time before it gets hot to look at your irrigation system, plant choices and rebate options to save water and money and recharge our aquifers.

Kurapia – The Perfect Groundcover

A groundcover is defined as any plant that grows over an area of ground. They are usually low-growing, spreading plants that help stop weeds from growing and prevent moisture loss. We gardener know that they do so much more in the landscape. Living ground covers add beauty to the garden filling in between plants while holding the soil in place and preventing erosion. They contribute to soil health by encouraging microorganisms. A garden wouldn’t thrive as well without ground covers.

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Kurapia groundcover growing in part shade

With this in mind I encourage many kinds of ground covers in my landscape. It’s a difficult place to find the best ones because of the lack of winter sun and only 5 hours of good summer sun. Still I’ve found a choice one that I’d like to share. It’s tough and reliable in many situations including hot summer gardens. If it will grow in my yard it will surely grow in yours.

Kurapia is ta deep rooted, low water use, low maintenance ground cover. It’s parent is in the Lippia genus and has naturalized worldwide. However, Kurapia has been bred to have sterile seeds and its growth habit is much more compact and tamed. Though it is sterile with respect to seed production, it does flower and is bee and butterfly friendly, blooming from May to October. This is a good groundcover if pollination of nearby fruit trees is needed or your want to encourage bees in your garden for general pollination. If bees are an issue for someone in your family Kurapia can be mowed once or twice a month to cut the blooms off. Mowing benefits this groundcover making it grow denser which naturally surpasses weeds once it fills in.

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Closeup of Kurapia flowers

Kurapia has been extensively studied at UC Davis and UC Riverside comparing it with No Mow as well as other drought tolerant cool and warm season grasses. Kurapia exceeded them all going 52 days without water and still maintained its green color. An extensive root system that goes as deep as four feet and a dense 2” to 3” tall mat-like top is the secret. The California sod grower recommends more frequent irrigation but it still requires just 60% of the water of a traditional lawn.

Kurapia does not require much fertilization either. One time in the spring for growth and flowering and once in the fall to keep the green color through the winter is sufficient. Mine looks great year round and I have to confess I’ve never fertilized it. Kurapia is evergreen and does not have a dormant period though growth stops or slows does in the winter. It spreads and self repairs by stolons. This groundcover grows in sun to partial shade requiring only three hours of sunlight. However it tends to stay more compact in full sun.

Kurapia will handle light to moderate foot traffic. It cannot take consistent high traffic though it is very walkable. My dog Sherman finds it great for his morning constitutional and I’ve never seen yellow spots as a traditional lawn will get.

Kurapia is hardy to 20 degrees though in tests it has survived temperatures as low as 12 degrees. It’s deep root system is unparalleled for erosion on slopes. Did I mention it takes 60% less water and how much you mow is up to you? Like I said, if it will grow in my garden under less than ideal conditions it will grow in yours.