DIG THIS! Green Musings from GBG inc.

Keeping The Bees

A honey bee at work on a sunflower in Morro Bay

A honey bee at work on a sunflower in Morro Bay

In 2006, conservation biologists at the University of Goettingen in Germany teamed up with scientists at UC Berkeley to test the widely-accepted horticultural maxim that one out of three bites of food we eat depends on a pollinator such as bees (1). Surprisingly, or not, it turned out to be true.

By studying 115 of the most common food crops, researchers calculated that 87 depend to some degree upon animal pollination, accounting for one-third of global crop production. In fact, many crops rely on the hardworking honeybee for more than 90% of their pollination. In other words, we need bees.

As with other aspects of our natural world that we take for granted, bees have gained a lot of attention due to their threatened status. Bee populations have been declining at an alarming rate during these first decades of the 21st century. Scientists coined the term “colony collapse disorder” in 2006 when reports of unprecedented colony losses began piling up from various locations across the US and in Europe. The suspected culprits included habitat degradation, viruses, parasites, pests, air pollution, electromagnetic fields and herbicides and pesticides.

The most puzzling part of this phenomenon was that thriving colonies – tens of thousands of bees – would seemingly disappear overnight. To make matters worse, beekeepers were not finding any dead bees in and around the hive. After many years of sleuthing, scientists believe they have identified the neonicotinoid class of pesticides as the key driver behind colony collapse disorder (2). Unfortunately, these chemicals are widely used to treat crops, which then spread their pesticides with neighboring foliage via runoff (3). Even more unfortunately, it appears that even tiny amounts of neonicotinoids eventually interfere with bees’ ability to orient themselves and navigate away from the hive and back. This may account for the sudden emptying of the hives.

Europe has led global efforts to protect bee colonies and we hope the ideas are catching. As of April of 2018, the E.U. extended their moratorium on some uses of neonicotinoids (4), a boon for environmentalists and bees alike. A bill introduced in the US Congress during 2013, the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, would have directed the EPA to take similar measures. Unfortunately, it never came to a vote. Efforts continue around the country and the globe to save this essential element of our natural world.

 

  1. https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2006/10/25_pollinator.shtml
  2. https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/180228
  3. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/neonicotinoid-pesticides-slowly-killing-bees
  4. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/european-union-expands-ban-three-neonicotinoid-pesticides
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Landscape Design In San Luis Obispo County – Why Do We Do This??

Landscaping As Design

It can come as a surprise to clients that cultivated landscapes require a drafted plan. Isn’t a garden just some dirt and plants?? Maybe throw in some landscape rock (that’s a thing, right?). Why the extra time, why the holdup? This is a question I enjoy clarifying because anything that helps you understand our process can ease the anxiety around it.

First And Foremost, The Design Process Is About Your Needs.

My co-designer and I visit your site to understand important elements like microclimate, soil type, slope or grade, and so on. But we also want to know how you’d like to use your future garden and what features you envision. We combine the nitty gritty  with the fanciful to create an initial Concept Plan and we walk you through the placement of patio, pavers, plants, etc. At this point, you take the time to mull over the project for as long as you want before we finalize it. With your feedback we make adjustments and create the Final Plan. A garden design is not a rush job; the goal is to make sure you feel confident about the layout before we move along to install.

A Plan Is Also About Our Needs

A design is as much to clarify things for you as it is a game plan for our install team. We’re often creating an entirely new outdoor environment with walls, fences, patios, and so forth — more than just planting a few plants. A design articulates all the necessary materials and pinpointed locations of a layered installation project. A design keeps everyone on the same page.

A Plan Helps Us Stay On Budget

Our design is scaled so we can accurately budget the cost. We want to know as near to exactly as possible how much mulch, soil, irrigation parts, etc, we need. I don’t like budget surprises during a project, so I want you to know the full costs of everything broken down before we start. If you want to make a change during the design or install process, then we can do that, and we can track changes because we have a plan to reference.
 There are always going to be unknowns and decisions to be made on the fly, but with more preparation than less we can move as seamlessly as possible from site evaluation to design to installation and enjoyment!
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How To Be A Weekend Water Warrior

The record-breaking drought California experienced reminds us of how dependent we are on the natural world and its resources. Whether you’ve had your garden in the ground for years or you’re in the market for a new one, it’s never too late to dust off your conservation boots and save water. As we move into our Central Coast summer and reflect on winters gone by, consider these easy water-saving/money-saving ideas:

 

  1. Add water recycling like a “laundry to landscape” greywater system.

Laundry is a fact of life, you might as well recoup some of the resources you’re expending. (We can’t help you get your time waiting for the dryer to buzz back unfortunately!)

A line of talk cuts through a mulched back yard, identifying where the downspouted rainwater will be directed

Caution: Downspout rainwater harvesting in progress!

2. Add a rainwater catchment like downspouts channeling seasonal rains directly into the soil where plants can use it.

It may seem like a moot point since the water is already falling from the sky, but any water that’s rushing down the street would be better used sinking into the ground. Large-scale rainwater catchment via cisterns is great, but the low-fi version of routing it into the soil in French drains is also beneficial (and easier on both the wallet and calendar).

3. Keep up on your mulching; don’t let bare lot syndrome happen to you!

Exposed earth contributes to water run-off during our rainy winter months and also erodes your soil. A healthy mulch layer slows rainfall as it reaches the earth; sinks it into the ground at a rate the earth can handle; and spreads it throughout the area, replenishing groundwater reserves. A triple win!

By mimicking natural cycles, sinking water into the ground, and reestablishing aquifers and groundwater saturation we can take advantage of this drought’s silver lining: To learn from patterns that create scarcity and change our habits to create abundance.

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The Sheet-Mulching Legacy

Lava LampWhile we may roll our eyes at some of the regrettable fads of the 70s, one lasting legacy from that era is a heightened environmental awareness. It was during the 1970’s that a pioneering figure in the sustainability movement, Bill Mollison, began teaching the principles the movement that became known as Permaculture. Mollison, in collaboration with David Holmgren, drew on observations of nature and indigenous cultures to formulate an environmental ethic that placed care of natural systems at its center. Their goal became to design ecologically-sound and productive landscapes that would transform the global environment as well as the local community.

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(photo credit: Pinterest)

One mainstay of Permaculture is a process called sheet-mulching. Sheet-mulching mimics the natural processes of soil formation, which depend on the accumulation and decomposition of organic matter over time. Think forests and woodlands: Under the thick layer of decaying leaves, twigs, and branches lies that earthy, sweet-smelling humus built to feed the trees and plants above.

If time permits in a home garden installation, rather than digging out weeds and disturbing the symbiotic relationship between the soil surface and the underlying micro-organisms, we use sheet-mulching to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and increase the soil’s nutrient base–simultaneously. We stack thick layers of compost, organic matter, and cardboard over dead grass, water-hungry lawns, and bare patches of neglected earth to create an earthy sandwich, of sorts, that decomposes and becomes a field of healthy soil fit for planting. Humus in the forest takes decades to perfect, but sheet-mulching shortens those years to months. But don’t wait for us! This process is easy to research and can be your own first step in replacing a thirsty lawn with a drought-tolerant landscape.

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Making The Most Of The Rain

morro bay rain gaugeWe’re happy to say that our rain gauge was overwhelmed by our recent storms! No matter what the amount of rain we get this winter, we don’t want a single drop to go to waste. In order to replenish our precious underground aquifers, the rainwater must percolate through the soil rather than running off the surface. And while we cannot make it rain, we can make a difference in the amount of run-off.

Under natural conditions, soil acts like a sponge, soaking up and absorbing much of the rainfall. Vegetation and leaf litter break the momentum of falling raindrops, allowing the water to filter gently through the air spaces between individual bits of soil. When the earth is exposed, parched, and compacted, it’s as if the soil sponge has been squeezed dry. The pores and pockets shrink and close off, and it is more difficult for water to penetrate.

As much as possible, then, we work to direct rainwater into the ground. Mulching in the fall will protect the soil from eroding during our winter rainy period. The mulch slows the velocity and allows the maximum amount of water to collect and soak into the ground. Landscaping with swales and berms also helps intercept run-off and channel water back into the garden instead of into the street. Lengthening the time that the water remains on the land allows it to slowly seep into the ground, rehydrate the soil, and recharge our depleted groundwater basins.

Making the best use of any rain that does fall turns that water into a resource – one that we sorely need.

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Buggin’ Out

OK, we’ll admit it. Some bugs are hard to love. We’re not talking about butterflies, dragonflies, or even bees. We mean those pesky, annoying mosquitoes that force you inside on balmy summer evenings. Or creepy, repulsive Jerusalem crickets, which are so unnerving. Not to mention flies, maggots, and grubs. We may not be able to convince you that these critters are particularly lovable, but perhaps it is possible to appreciate the value of even the most loathsome insects to a flourishing garden and to the natural ecosystem.

mosquito_insect_schnakeInsects are incredibly adaptable and have inhabited the planet for hundreds of millions of years. Consequently, they have co-evolved with many other animal species and have distinct relationships with them. First up: Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes and mosquito larvae, for instance, are prey for fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, lizards, bats and birds. The larvae are filter feeders and detritus feeders, helping to recycle energy within aquatic ecosystems. Mosquitoes are incredibly diverse and can be found in just about every region of the globe—including the icy Arctic tundra, the deserts of the Southwest, and the humid tropics of Africa, Asia, and South America.

jerusalem_cricket_02_12_11_tiffanyNext on the list of nasties: Jerusalem crickets. Jerusalem crickets, or potato bugs, are especially common in Los Osos. Although their appearance is alarming, they pose no threat to you or to your garden. In fact, their burrowing helps aerate the soil and recycle nutrients. They often eat smaller insects that damage gardens, like aphids. Solitary, slow moving, and nocturnal, Jerusalem crickets are a food source for owls, bats, foxes, skunks, and coyotes. Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

 

 

Flies? Surprise! They are important pollinators as well as scavengers and recyclers.

maggot-therapy-1Maggots? By accelerating natural decomposition processes, they make more nutrients available in the soil.

 

In 2006, a pair of conservation researchers estimated a dollar value for the services insects provide to the US economy. They arrived at the figure of $60 billion. Restricting themselves to those processes for which hard data was available and which can be directly attributable to wild insects, John Losey and Mace Vaughn analyzed four primary activities: disposal of dung; control of crop pests; pollination; and nutrition for wildlife. Their conclusion? If all of the services insects provide were actually taken into account, the value would easily be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In their words, “Ecosystems and the life they support (including humans) could not function without the services insects provide.” That’s something to think about the next time you swat a fly!

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A Place To Grow

A Place to Grow San Luis ObispoA Place to Grow: A Tale of Serendipity and Sustainability

One definition of serendipity is making desirable discoveries by accident, which is just what happened when we chanced upon the recycled garden structures designed and built by Dana O’Brien of A Place to Grow. The genesis of Dana’s business was serendipitous, as well: It began in 2004 when Dana convinced her brother-in-law to buy a home because she’d fallen in love with the backyard greenhouse built with wood sash windows salvaged during the home’s remodel. A few months later, that same greenhouse ended up in Dana’s backyard as her 40th birthday present–Dana’s husband had cut the greenhouse apart with a skill saw, loaded it on a trailer, and set it up in their yard. This synergistic series of events was the inspiration for A Place to Grow.

In the most literal sense, Dana designs custom places “to grow” in whatever way best matches the client’s wishes and aspirations. Her passion is creating greenhouses, meditation retreats, artist studios, 3-sided structures for outdoor dining rooms, 2-sided structures for hot tub enclosures, as well as arbors and potting tables for the garden. Dana finds it particularly gratifying to be able to incorporate special pieces from her clients, such as stained glass windows or doors.

Using primarily reclaimed and re-purposed materials, A Place to Grow helps keep architectural salvage out of the landfill and turns it into “functional art.” Dana has donated a recycled greenhouse to the Montessori Children’s School of San Luis Obispo and is in the process of designing a greenhouse for Bellevue Santa Fe School in Avila Valley. Donations are very welcome and help fund the charitable component of Dana’s business. She is most in need of reclaimed wood, glass doors, and wood frame windows, but she also appreciates redwood decking material and fence boards (as long as they are in decent shape), corrugated metal, and wine flavor sticks.


“Mowing” The Drought-Tolerant Lawn

carex pruning

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Lawnmowing services exist to give homeowners a break from the tedium of hauling out the mower each week. The hassle, the sweat, the repetition–it seems worth it to shell out a few bucks to skip the mess of grass clippings and go right to the backyard barbecue. But even more convenient than paying someone to deal with your water-hungry lawn could be the brief task of clipping a native crop of Carex grass just once a quarter. 
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Gardens by Gabriel’s demonstration garden features a meadow of two types of Carex: Carex pansa (green) and Carex flacca (blue). Both were planted at the same time and have grown in happily with the help of low-flow drip irrigation. Six months later it was time for their first haircut. While we enjoy the look of a lush, flowering meadow, we like to clip younger grass clumps to encourage them to expand laterally and form a denser carpet. There are choices for how to cut grass, and we landed on hand pruning with a hedge shear because it avoids the need for a gas-powered machine as well as the burned edge left by weed-eating or weed-whipping.photo 2 copy 3photo 4 copy 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As with mowing a lawn, mulching with the clippings is a healthy protocol (and a lot easier than gathering them into the greenwaste bin). We spread ours over the mulch and grasses alike with a metal rake and called it a day.

 

Tools: Shears, rake, funny hat.
Total elapsed time: 20 peaceful minutes on a Spring afternoon.

 

 

 

 

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Waterworks in the Garden

“If there is magic on this planet,” wrote naturalist Loren Eiseley, “it is contained in water.”

slo_fountain

Our Earth is known as the “blue planet” because of the abundance of liquid water on its surface. For centuries people have gravitated to ponds, streams, creeks and falls for water’s celebrated healing properties. Today, people continue this tradition in a personalized way, incorporating water features into their home landscapes. gbg_bowl

Fountains and water features invite the dimension of the delicately untamed to a garden. Birds of all types, dragon and damselflies, butterflies and lacewings, frogs and toads are all drawn to its glittering edge. In the San Luis Obispo garden pictured above, tiers of stone create sloping crystalline sheets bring splashes and dance to the shade. Contrastingly, water can also add Zen-like serenity. In our own Morro Bay garden (right), we included a softly curved concrete water bowl by Wells Concrete Works. Simple and clean in shape and line, its endless upwelling of gentle waves create a softly hypnotic place for the eye to rest.

Listening to the gentle gurgle of water splashing in a fountain enhances the sensory pleasure of an outdoor environment, bringing us the same peace as sitting by a spring-fed brook. The humble water feature, tucked into a mass of grasses or perched atop pebbles, reminds us to breathe and reflect on the sound of softly falling water, the shimmer of sunlight on a pond, the dart of a damselfly or the flit of the butterfly as it pauses on a puddle.

 

 

 

 

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The Dirt on Dirt

Before_and_After_Anholm

It’s easy to be seduced by those inspiring before-and-after photos of a garden transformation. The juxtaposition of the expectant “before” and the dazzling “after” images persuades us that change can be effortless and instantaneous. But, in reality, landscaping takes time and the process entails . . . well, DIRT.

Constructing a landscape often involves digging up the ground, removing unwanted plants, trenching in irrigation, and bringing in mountains of new materials. Even if there isn’t demolition, the first third of a project looks like a disaster: soil is upturned, new piles of dirt and supplies arrive and appear to be stacked all over, and the site seems to be in chaos.

IMG_4700Victor Felix

rock_dropIMG_4709

Not to mention the temporary inconvenience for the homeowner that is unavoidable whenever a work crew is on your property. What began as a dream can start to look like a nightmare.  Nevertheless – banish those second thoughts and resist the urge to panic!

Building a sustainable garden depends on addressing grading, irrigation, and drainage issues before anything else. It is equally vital to the success of your garden that the soil be prepared thoroughly. Its texture, structure, and fertility will impact the plants’ ability to extract water and nutrients. Making a hospitable environment for your plants requires turning the soil, incorporating organic matter, and laying a thick layer of wood-chip mulch once plants are in the ground. Inevitably, the process of attending to these fundamentals produces a bit of a dusty mess. Rest assured, we finish every installation with a tidy cleanup and pressure washing the areas that were soiled in the process. Ultimately, your patience will be rewarded, and you will be the one enjoying the beautiful “after” result for years to come!

Up on the patio 4.1

 

 

 

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