DIG THIS! SLO Landscape Strategies

Fall Planting on the Central Coast

Anyone planning to take advantage of the abundant moisture and cool weather by planting a few of your favorite perennials this winter? Well, we’ve got some thoughts! The fascinating thing about plant growth is that while you may not see booming blooming in the leafy portions of plants, there’s a subterranean party in the root zone. As energy shifts from the leaves and stems, root production becomes the focus–for a whole season! Roots systems grow as long as the soil temperature is at least 50 degrees, which means most of the winter on the Central Coast is an ideal time for establishing new plants.

Cool season planting is not only good for the plants, it’s good for the gardeners too! Springtime can be overwhelmingly busy with all the tasks of getting the garden looking its best. Fall time is more reflective, and allows us some time to evaluate the garden and make a priority list of improvements. Take a few minutes this month to stroll through your garden and jot down some notes about the successes and challenges of your landscape this year. Imagine where you would like to include more color, where you’d like to place a fountain, a fruit tree or a comfortable place to sit. We invite you to get a jump on spring and develop your vision for the new year this fall.


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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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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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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“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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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

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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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California Native Plants and the Approach of Summer

san luis obispo native garden California native plants are known for their vibrant winter blooms, but also for their summer dormant season and for this reason are sometimes overlooked for Mediterranean gardens. It is possible to maintain a beautiful and water-wise garden year-round that includes California natives; all it takes is some strategy.

Planning:
When they’re young, California natives can be treated like other plants in a cultivated garden: They need regular watering to establish a healthy root system. As natives grow to maturity at 5-10 years, you have two choices.

1. Embrace Dormancy:
If you water them less and let them go dormant, your plants won’t be as stressed by root rot and fungal outbreaks, and in general will live longer. With that in mind, combine grasses, succulents, shrubs, and trees whose color and texture vary throughout the year. Design your garden with a plant palette diverse enough to feature the seasonal peaks of certain plants while covering for those that take a break.Mediterranean Meadow

2. Irrigate:
Many Mediterranean and California native cultivars are now adapted to well-placed and well-timed summer irrigation. In order to not stress the plants, however (because too much water or nutrition is just as stressful as not having enough), it is important to carefully place and test every drip emitter. Making sure emmiters are spaced out from the plant crown will encourage wide root growth into the native soil, and discourage rot due to stagnant water. With the consistent encouragement of drip irrigation, most native trees and shrubs will dig their roots deep into the soil, find water, and thrive year-round.

Templeton_mediterranean_stonework

As we embark on our passage through Spring and the last months of our unique growing season, enjoy your thriving garden and the natural landscape around us. Take in the lushness of the grasses, enjoy the vibrant colors in the succulents, watch the poppies and other annual flowers express their beautiful colors–and get ready to dial in your irrigation timers!

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Filling In The Holes

gardens_by_gabriel_soil_layers

The hostess approached tentatively as I put on my coat to leave the party. “I’m going to start a new veggie bed!” she said excitedly, and then her face fell. “But I don’t know what to do with the old soil. Is it okay to use it?”

It never fails: Once someone finds out I’m a landscaper the list of earthy questions they’ve been harboring comes tumbling out. It’s one of the parts of my job I enjoy the most–filling in the missing ingredient to the home gardener’s plans in order to empower them to take the next step.

No matter our enthusiasm, it’s easy to become stymied by uncertainties and unknowns in a project whose territory is unfamiliar. Searching online often provides too many solutions, rather than one sure path. But cultivating a garden space is about testing boundaries and making mistakes just as much as it’s about successful growth–and really there’s no separation of positive and negative in the garden. There’s a lot of death in the soil, and in fact healthy soil relies on the destructive process for nutrients. Gardening is about establishing a relationship of exploration, understanding, and compromise with the earth and plants. This relationship takes bravery as well as time to forge, and it’s natural that both garden and gardener will experience setbacks in the process. So ask those questions–and then get going.

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Designing For Success With Succulents

With their reputation for hardiness, it’s easy to think that succulents need only blazing sun, rocky soil and the occasional raindrop to survive. Fortunately for our earthy endeavors, that’s not the case! In fact, across the diversity of our coastally-influenced Mediterranean zone, from Cambria to Arroyo Grande to San Luis Obispo itself, San Luis Obispo County is home to many thriving succulent gardens.

It’s important to keep in mind that succulent gardens immediately on the coast will have different requirements than those just a few miles inland, which experience more sun and higher temperatures year round. With their warmer temperatures, succulents in San Luis Obispo will love the warmth but need a shady break from the intensity of the afternoon sun. These gardens will yield plants with rich color and bountiful blooms. Immediately on the coast, the same plants will have less intense coloration and a smaller stature, but be just as stately and beautiful.

Succulent Design Tips:

  • Inland, in San Luis Obispo, your succulents will benefit from some shade to provide relief from the hot afternoon sun.
  • The plants that want full sun on the immediate coast/want afternoon shade in San Luis Obispo include these species: Echeveria, aeonium, crassula, and kalanchoe.
  • Hardier varieties that can take full sun all day are the aloes, agaves, dyckias,  dudleyas, and sedums. (They’re adaptable to both a little shade and the full brunt of the sun’s heat.)
  • In the more extreme North County climates with hard freezes and days in the 100s,  your plant palette is limited to the hardiest of agaves, aloes, and dudleyas.
  • Succulents are even more dazzling backed by the texture of grasses, reeds, or striking Red Hot Pokers (kniphofias). They are brought to life by the echoing colors of neighboring perennials, or by the vibrant foliage of leucodendrons and the other-worldly flowers of pincushions (leucaspermum). We suggest blending in your other favorite water-wise plants with your succulent design for the greatest effect!
  • Above all, remember that succulents are highly adaptable, so have fun experimenting with them in different conditions!!

 

 

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