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.

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.

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.


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!

Bare Root And Beautiful

As we button up our coats and wrap our scarves against the winds, Summer may seem like a distant memory--but try, for a moment, to recall last year’s array of sweet summery produce. Remember the delicious fruits: juicy plums, crisp apples, plump berries, and more? The way to get a head start on these summer crops is by planting your own fruiting trees now. How? With bare-root trees! Bare-root trees and berries are cultivated and nurtured throughout the year by growers around the country. Then, as the plants go dormant, workers gently remove dirt from the roots and wrap the root ball in sawdust, newspaper, or other insulating material, and prep it for shipping.

Now that you’ve acquired the taste for Summer, selecting the trees is the fun part! San Luis Obispo County residents have a huge diversity of trees available to them via local purveyors such as Bay Laurel Nursery and Farm Supply, and can easily plant themselves a kingly orchard. For the homeowner with less-than-ample growing space, consider multiple-budded trees, which have 3 or 4 varieties grafted onto them, meaning that one apple tree can provide you with early-, mid-, and late-season fruit.

Once you’ve picked out some favorites, it’s important to confirm that your choices will do well in your particular micro-climate. In much of the country, as air temperatures begin dropping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the Autumn, trees loose their leaves and enter a dormant period. Many fruit trees originate from these colder climates and need enough “winter chill hours” to send them fully dormant in the winter. The required number of hours that the tree spends at 45 degrees is considered its own personal “chill hours.” Fortunately for us, plant breeding has introduced trees that are “low chill” and do well with the reduced chill hours that our mild winter climate provides. Therefore, look for trees that are rated at 400 chill hours or less for best performance if your garden is in San Luis Obispo County.

Immediate coastal climates will require varieties with even fewer chill hours to do well (i.e. 1-200 hrs). Good selections for the foggier coast are figs, pomegranates, persimmons, kiwis, lemons, pineapple guavas and berries. If you’re gardening in North County, you have plenty of chill hours and need to be concerned more with winter hardy varieties that don't mind freezing temperatures.When your trees and brambles arrive, take extra care with their delicate roots since they won’t be protected by soil and will easily dry out or freeze. Have some good compost on hand to amend the soil, and give yourself time to plant the trees the same day you bring them home. If you can't plant them the same day, dig them partially into the ground or cover the root ball with layers of moist, insulating material. Come springtime, the plants’ well-established root system will provide you with happy, healthy fruit and flower production!


Barrel-Free Rainwater Harvesting in SLO County

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.”

Rainwater harvesting might not be for everyone, but there are still ways to lessen rainwater runoff. We routinely use and recommend Bioswales to remove silt and pollution and slow the water for better ground absorption. A bioswale is the use of mounded earth to create a drainage course, which slows the water's path and maximizes filtration. Thick layers of mulch and creative uses of earth also can be designed for the water to slowly sink back into the ground. (Ever rough up your nails before you apply that layer of glossy nail polish? Same thing!)

You may be wondering if rainwater harvesting is OK to do in San Luis Obispo County:

"City of San Luis Obispo 2010 Construction and Fire Code Amendments page 25: 1101.2.1 Rainwater Harvesting. Storm water drainage may be directed to an approved rainwater harvesting system and used an al alternate source of water for non-potable uses as approved by the building official and the San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health Department. The installation and use of such a system or systems must be designed to not interact with the potable water system, the building sanitary sewer or drainage systems that flow to any creek. Rainwater harvesting systems must be maintained in such a manner as to not cause damage to neighboring properties."


Rainwater Harvesting Around the World:

· Currently in China and Brazil, rooftop rainwater harvesting is being practiced for providing drinking water, domestic water, water for livestock, water for small irrigation and as a way to replenish ground water levels.

· In Tamil Nadu, India, rainwater harvesting was made compulsory for every building to avoid ground water depletion.

· In Bermuda, the law requires all new construction to include rainwater harvesting adequate for the residents.

· In Senegal, the houses of the Diola-people are frequently equipped with homebrew rainwater harvesters made from local, organic materials.

· In the United Kingdom, "water butts" (water casks) are often found in domestic gardens to collect rainwater which is then used to water the garden.

· Until 2009 in Colorado, water rights laws almost completely restricted rainwater harvesting; A property owner who captured rainwater was deemed to be stealing it from those who have rights to take water from the watershed. Now, residential well owners that meet certain criteria may obtain a permit to install a rooftop precipitation collection system.

· In Australia, rainwater harvesting is typically used to supplement the reticulated mains supply.


Beyond Rain Barrels

Remember Grandma telling you that washing your hair in rainwater made it softer? If we look back a generation or two to Grandma's time, almost everyone had a rain barrel. Despite the benefits of collecting the yearly downpour, however, rain barrels in our area often don’t collect enough water to last through our lengthy dry season. 
What to do?
If you have some extra space and are able to invest around $20,000 you can have your very own rainwater harvesting system that’s efficient to water your garden all year long. That's a lot of output up front, but the savings over time are many, and you'd be doing our water stores a great service! Generally a 5,000 gallon tank is needed to collect enough water for Central Coast climate. Your garden will love rainwater just as your hair would, because it’s free of salts and harmful minerals and doesn’t have to be treated. 

Slow it, Spread it, Sink it!

"We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one."
--Jacques Cousteau
Today we find sea levels rising, aquifers being depleted, snowpacks shrinking, and water supplies dwindling. We seem to be increasingly oscillating between periods of intense rain and drought. Many areas have been identified as places where surface and groundwater supplies won't be able to meet future demands. If only there were ways to harvest rainwater and save it for drier times or to make the ground better able to absorb the water when we get it...
Luckily, there are!
Traditional building and landscaping practices were designed to dispose of stormwater as quickly as possible. We now know this results in significant damage to land, structures, and our surrounding environment. Instead of rainwater disposal, we're advocates of the “slow it, sink it, spread it” approach. 
  • SLOW IT: Use land forms, berms, boulders, etc, to slow down rushing runoff
  • SPREAD IT: Reduce runoff volumes by distributing stormwater across gravel, swales, or permeable pavement
  • SINK IT: Increase retention of water by sinking it into the ground with thick mulch beds, earth basins, and more

Roots Equal Fruits!

Soon is the season for bare-root trees and brambles. Blueberry, blackberry, apple, pear, pomegranate and more--these edible yet beautiful woody plants do extremely well in our area as bare-root cultivated crops. Order them now for the best selection, and plant them in early January. Two of our favorite sources are Farm Supply (in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles) and Bay Laurel Nursery in Atascadero.

Bare-root trees and brambles are grown throughout the year and their roots nurtured and supported. Then, as the plants go dormant, the dirt is gently removed from the root ball, exposing robust and ready growers that are ready to be planted. Come springtime, the plants' well-established rootsystem will provide you with a happier, healthier fruit and flower production.

Compost: The Lifeblood of Your Central Coast Garden

Our mild climate here on the Central Coast makes it easy to overlook the changing of the seasons. With all the back-to-school commercials, however, it's clear that fall is right around the corner. One of the best parts of autumn is making use of all those leaves that Nature provides for us. Yes, we’re going to have to rake a little, but it's worth it for the leafy reward! Don’t put your pile in the yard waste container. Instead, add them to your compost pile and reuse them as nutritious supplement for your garden, lawn or houseplants.
No compost pile of your own? Do any of these lines sound familiar?
“I’ve been meaning to start composting, but I’m not sure how.”
“My neighbor composts and her house plants and garden are stunning.”
“I try to eat healthy and I’d like to save some money and not use fertilizers for my fruit trees and spring vegetable garden.” 
Not to worry, now is the perfect time to start your compost adventure! First, to talk about why. Simply put, compost is decomposing organic material. While that doesn’t sound too appetizing, think about it this way. Have you ever gone for a walk in the woods and enjoyed the soft, springy soil, or the way sounds seem muffled and softer? You've been surrounded by compost! As plants die, foragers of all sizes (from larger mammals, birds, and rodents to worms, insects, and microscopic organisms) consume them. The result of this natural cycle is compost, a combination of digested and undigested food that’s left on the forest floor to create rich, usually soft, sweet-smelling soil. Mother Nature knows her stuff!
We all have a variety of organic material that ends up at the local landfill. But if we compost our table scraps, lawn clippings, and fallen leaves, we avoid the messy garbage heaps of rotting food by choosing to manage--and reap the benefits of--the decomposition process. Compost also cuts down the need for fertilizers and potential chemical pollution.
Win, win, win!
Our local clay and sandy soil doesn’t always hold the right amounts of nutrients, air and moisture for healthy and productive plant growth.  Enter compost (imagine if Stan Lee had a garden comic strip hero)!  Compost improves the soils structure and gives virtually all the essential nutrients, and it releases those nutrients over time to give plants a steady, consistent amount essential for growth.  Compost will transform our sandy soil and grow stronger plants that are more resistant to diseases.
Soon to come, answers to: “How do I start?”  “Do I need worms?” “Can I compost everything??”

Just A Cup Of Rain For Me, Thanks!

For much of the year, gardeners in our Mediterranean climate gaze at the dusty, golden hills dreaming of the first shower that will bring verdance back to the parched earth. During the summer months, irrigation from our public water supply keeps our plants from drying out, but it's difficult to mimic all the benefits of natural rainwater.

Watering isolated areas of your garden's soil with drip irrigation and sprinklers is good, but often the root zone isn't thoroughly saturated. After a while what the plants really crave is a good, penetrating soak. Whether we get 9 inches or 29 inches, nothing fully recharges the soil or revitalizes the plants like a good, solid rain.


Our garden, composed mostly of succulents, gets watered quarterly—that’s only four times a year. Compare that with your average fine fescue lawn, or Kentucky blue grass, that need a drink at least twice a week. The trick is establishing your plants' roots properly, right off the bat. The way to do that is this:

  • Make sure you have plenty of mulch on your garden for trapping moisture, wherever it comes from.
  • Water for longer periods of time, not in short, frequent bursts
  • Water less often.

This trains your plant to extend their roots far down into the soil, making them more efficient water-seekers. Plants whose roots are too near the surface are high-maintenance complainers!

Why do leaves look so vibrant after a rain?

Rainwater is naturally distilled through evaporation prior to cloud formation, and is thus one of our purest sources of water. It also contains small doses of fertilizer and is considered ‘soft’ because of its lack of calcium and magnesium. Soft water is easier for plants to absorb the nutrients from, so after a rain everything from creeping grasses to towering redwoods takes on a healthy, vibrant glow.

This abundance of soft, nutrient-rich water, coupled with the cooler weather conditions, makes the rainy season an ideal time for planting. In the summertime plants undergo transplant shock once they're put in the ground. New roots dry out easily in the heat, and lack of water contributes to growth-stunting stress. The climate from late fall through spring, however, is a low-stress environment for new roots and shoots to take hold.