Monday, June 29, 2015

Art and Nature in Turtle Rock (Beverly's Garden)

Beverly's garden looks superficially like other manicured yards in the Turtle Rock neighborhood of Irvine.  Closer inspection reveals whimsical ceramic art installations all over her yard, and native plants masquerading as suburban staples.
Natives camouflaged against a backdrop of Association run-of-the-mills.
The garden, six years old, was designed by Diane Bonanno, who has since moved to northern California.  She and Beverly invested much time debating plant choices.  Beverly laughs at it now; native plants have a way of sorting themselves out, coming and going as they please.

Beverly has a large variety of plants, harmoniously blending in a pattern that has evolved over the years.  A gardener weeds and trims under Beverly's close supervision, so she has more time for her ceramic studio.
Colorful damp-and shade-loving natives include Scarlet Monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis), and Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa.) Those violets might be native Viola adunca.
She keeps a firm hand on the sprinkler controller: most zones will be watered once every eleven days.  She did not redo the irrigation when she went native, a decision that she now regrets.  Areas that were shared with a few higher-water vegetables or ornamentals now get watered once every five days, and contain damp-loving natives only.  As many of these are ephemerals that reseed or spread by stolons, the composition of those beds is ever-evolving.
Beverly showed me up on plant labeling for the CNPS Garden Tour.  Mine are laminated; hers are ceramic.  This Artemisia prospers; another ten feet away died.  Maybe poor drainage?  (It is after all a beach plant.) So it goes with natives.  
I was struck by how her natives so closely mimic the tightly trimmed style one sees in her neighborhood.  But not closely enough, it seems.  A couple of years back she received an ominous letter from her Homeowner's Association architectural committee demanding that she "remove her dead flowers!" (She thinks they were talking about the decorative seed pods of her sages.) God forbid that a seed pod should be allowed to ripen sufficiently to provide food for birds, or to reseed for another season.  She did submit to the Neatness Police.
One of the tidiest native gardens I've seen.  I can't believe the Neatness Police went after it.  The center shrub is faithful 'Howard McMinn' Manzanita, the yellow flowers are nearly native Sundrops (Calyophus hartwegii), and the tall bush is Desert Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua). 
Beverly's is the only "native lawn" I have seen that looks much like a lawn.  She chronicled her struggles to create a viable lawn that is watered infrequently, and neither seedy nor choking out the rest of the garden (still some weeding required...)
The lawn is far right, low and smooth, but a golden color that would outrage the neighborhood busybodies if it were in the front.  The hedge is a great example of Lemonadeberry's potential.  The art is ubiquitous.
The moral I take is this: beware of people claiming you can have a "native" or "low water" lawn without far more diligence that I can muster, and it still won't pass inspection with the Neatness Police.  This lawn lies low in the backyard.  It is currently a mixture of cool-season Red Fescue bunch grass (mowed so the seed doesn't disperse) and warm-season UC Verde Buffalo Grass.  Her daughter loves to sunbathe in it, because it is very soft and itch-free.
Beverly's not sure which ground covers grow amid the art; they have wandered, disappeared, and reappeared too many times.  I covet that pot.
I adore Beverly's ceramic pieces scattered through the garden.  They include butterfly stepping stones, incredibly textured urns, richly detailed larger-than-life pomegranates, and totemic poles with evocative abstract shapes and colors.  You can visit her website at Despite her labors and setbacks, Beverly is glad she went native, and believes that the garden is a fabulous backdrop for her art. I agree on both counts.
At the entry, a totem is anchored by (non-native) Pink Evening Primrose and an Island Morning Glory vine (Calystegia macrostegia) on the left, and Maidenhair Fern behind.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Turf Terminators Beware

Thousands of people in California are considering doing away with their lawns.  But what will replace all those lawns?  Give this serious thought before installing something you'll regret.  I recommend native plants, of course.  Here are ten caveats to prevent frustration when replacing turf.

1. Beware of restrictions that will invalidate your rebate for removing lawn.  Typically you must document your existing lawn and get a landscape plan approved BEFORE you kill the turf.  Then you have a short time span to re-landscape and document the result. Study the website carefully before starting.
The association lawn bordering my and Tomaz's front gardens will remain another year.  Neither of us has the energy to replace it this year, and it is watered with reclaimed water.  Tomaz's riparian (streamside) natives (right) love getting its excess water.
2. Beware of grass reinvasion.  While fescue turf is easy to physically remove, cold-dormant St. Augustine grass and Bermuda grass are impossible to remove completely by digging.  All lawns are hard to really kill in place.  Picture weeding your low-water landscape of grass for the next ten years.  Or, be SURE you kill it completely the first time.  Here is advice from Ron Vanderhoff at Roger's Gardens.  Expect some weeding will be required in any case.
Beverly in Turtle Rock has a lovely native-ish lawn of prairie Buffalo Grass and Red Fescue (a bunch grass), watered once a week.  It was hard to establish, and stays a golden green.  She mows it occasionally.  The fescue also springs up all over the garden– she regrets that choice. Buffalo Grass is very soft and doesn't itch.
3. Beware of "native turf" and "drought-friendly lawn."   There is no such thing in California.  Native bunch grasses and midwestern prairie grasses don't look and act like a typical lawn unless they get a whole lot of water, fertilizer, and coddling (installing plugs, waiting, weeding, changing watering regimens, weeding volunteers from the rest of your garden...)  Way more work and worry, and not much less water, than regular why bother?  Do your research before installing non-native "lawn substitutes" like Dymondia and Zoysia.  They don't look or act like lawn.  While eventually low(ish) water, they take time, care, water, and weeding to establish.  Consider breaking away from the whole lawn concept by using robust ground covers and shrubs, paths and clearings of porous hardscape, and planting trees– the real climate changers.
Dymondia needs edging.  It does well with weekly water, and dies back in frost.  It takes a little work to establish weed-free.
4. Beware of Turf Terminators and other quick-change artists.  You get what you pay for. A scan of Yelp will alert you to their common shortcomings.

You think you need a lawn for your kids.  But maybe they would rather have a setup like this one seen on the San Diego CNPS Garden Tour.  This is a side yard with decomposed granite play space, sand, mulch, tree stumps, and OLD FASHIONED TOYS!
5. Beware of inexpert landscapers who claim knowledge of low-water and native plants.  Ask to see gardens (in your same climate) they have installed three or more years ago, and find out how the owners are watering and maintaining those gardens.  Sadly, I see a lot of weedy, half dead, or motley attempts at low-water gardens.
This spectacular garden from the San Diego CNPS Garden Tour is over 20 years old, and has been maintained by the garden designer the whole time.
6. Beware of inexpert gardeners who do not know how to care for low-water gardens.  It's a big paradigm shift!  Robert at Tree of Life Nursery reports that his mom's gardener always rips out the natives come midsummer. (Because they're dormant, he thinks they're dying.)  My neighbors'  gardeners keep resetting the sprinklers to water three times a week.

7. Beware of inappropriate sprinkler setups. Your lawn sprinklers are probably not going to properly water anything that isn't flat.   And make sure all the plants in the same sprinkler zone have the same water needs.  Take sun and shade into account.  Losing half your lawn and using the same three-times-a-week watering regime on the new plants as the remaining half won't save you a drop of water, but it may kill your new drought-tolerant plants.
This was lawn just over two years ago.  It is hand watered about every other week.  Dwarf Coyote Bush 'Pigeon Point' provides cheery green pools all year long, but does not thrive when watered once a week.
8. Beware of drip watering.  While it is the lowest-water option, drip watering is an unnatural way for drought-tolerant plants to get their water, that promotes root rot.  And drip systems are vulnerable to failure from clogging and from critter damage.   Find me a ten-year-old drip system.  I dare you.

9. Beware of shortages.  Native plant stocks and quality landscapers will be spread very thin for the next year or so.  Don't be disappointed if you can't get yours.
Want a real low maintenance lawn? This lush lawn in the Beer Garden at Stone Brewing Company in Escondido is synthetic.  It replaced a mostly dead lawn on high-traffic compacted clay. It works for me; in shade a more pleasant choice than gravel for high-traffic areas. 
10. Beware of mindless gardening.  Any lawn replacement is going to take at least modest time, money, and attention.  If you don't have those things to spare, you might want to just cut back on watering your lawn.  It won't die.  (But the Homeowner's Association may come after you.)

Whew!  I'm really not trying to talk you out of losing your lawn.   I want to support you in doing it right the first time.  Stay tuned to get tips for successful lawn replacement, and inspiration to help you invest in a garden that will bring you joy.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Solace in the Garden

I beg pardon, gentle reader, for so long a gap in my blogging.  A family health crisis took up my time, and left me lacking for words.  (Not my usual challenge, as those who know me can attest.)
A patch of Red Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) anchored by annual Clarkia cheers the heart.
Meanwhile the garden has been doing its thing, and giving me solace.  A happy Artemesia 'David's Choice' cheers me outside the bedroom where we set up camp close to the oxygen generator.  A happily shaggy Deer Grass greets me as I drive to errands and back home again.
This is what a happy Artemisia 'David's Choice" looks like.  Reminds me of Ursula from Disney's Little Mermaid. 
When I need to release a little nervous energy, I can always deadhead the Island Morning Glory or the Lilac Verbena.  They don't really need it, but when life defies ordering, it's nice to put something in order.
Island Morning Glory (Calystegia macrostegia) is still blooming, though its big flush is over.  I don't know if my deadheading helps or not.
The garden had its own drama recently.  Two favorite plants dropped dead untimely.  One was a not-so-happy Artemisia 'David's Choice' that had been overwatered– damp soil and rotted roots– in a patch adjacent to lawn that I share with Tomaz.  I guess we should talk about who's watering what when.  The other casualty, a Catalina Silverlace, is a mystery for Sherlock.  (In these cases, we native gardeners say to ourselves, "I guess it got a fungus.") Fortunately the large bare spot it left is not entirely bare due to a sprawling Bush Snapdragon.

Papa Quail was vigilant, but raptors move fast.
The garden's burgeoning wildlife-in-residence (which currently includes crows, rabbits, lizards, and assorted perching birds) were recently augmented by a family of quail with tiny fuzzball chicks.  Unfortunately for them, the first I saw of them was when one chick became dinner.

Three of the five (remaining) tiny quail chicks.
Raptors in the backyard are spectacular, but hard on the other wildlife.
Feathers still ruffled after his snack.  A kestrel, I believe. Bird photos are courtesy of Scott.
Important topics remain to be tackled.  Losing your lawn!  And what the heck to replace it with! Vetting landscapers! Quizzing gardeners on their tips and tricks with native plants! Rotating sprinkler heads and other water saving measures!  How to get Monkeyflowers to persist after the first year! Sigh.
 This species Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurianticus) from Moosa Creek Nursery was an impulse purchase in San Diego in April. I tucked it in a dry spot between the roses. Even if it dies this summer, I'm glad I planted it.  
Alas, dear reader, those topics will wait for another day. Scott has been given the green light for air travel (with portable oxygen)– progress but more preoccupation.  For today I will just crank open the umbrella (it's hot!) and take solace in the garden.

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