DIG THIS! SLO Landscape Strategies

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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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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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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“Mowing” The Drought-Tolerant Lawn

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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

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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!

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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.

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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

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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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When Aphids Attack!

David Spatafora: Insect Assassin

You’ve seen this guy hefting rocks, demoing concrete, and pruning, stacking, and planting away. Like all landscapers, David also spends a good deal of time fighting pests and plant predators. Gardens by Gabriel works to be as organic as possible, and that includes pest control. You may have heard of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), but if you haven’t, it’s a system we employ from start to finish (and beyond!) in our gardens that focuses on prevention and the least amount of intervention required.

David follows IPM when dealing with creepy crawly plant eaters, and none more often than the teeny-tiny aphid! Aphids  come in a rainbow of colors, are indiscriminate about their meals, and flock by the dozens to munch your plants. But because aphids swarm en masse, they can be easy to eliminate in large batches.

When dealing with aphids, it’s tempting, and it works short-term, to simply blast them off with a hose, but they often see that as a challenge to return! In terms of intervention, IPM means using the most benign products first in order to deal with pests. We like vegetable-based Horticultural Oil for pests like aphids. It’s a fungicide, a miticide, and an insecticide all in one. And according to Colorado State University Extension School, “Oils pose few risks to people and to beneficial insects.”

THE SCOOP

WHAT: Vegetable-based Horticultural Oil

WHY: IPM is safer for the environment, homeowners, and our crew. It leaves no residual effect on the soil.

HOW: Apply it with a small tank sprayer or spray bottle. Be careful of spraying the oil in full sun because the plant can burn, just a like a human being!

AND ACCORDING TO DAVID: “The key to controlling aphid infestation is persistance! Horticultural Oil may be used year-round during both dormant and growing seasons and may be used for organic production as well. Like rinsing plants with water, repeat application frequently!”

 

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