Be water-wise and still have a beautiful garden.

Prior proper planning…

One of the words I seem to hear a lot these days is meta, defined as “something that refers to itself especially in a self parodying manner” For example, “I’m a landscape designer writing about designing my own garden… so meta” intoned with a smirk and an ironic tilt of the head.

I caught myself one evening pacing with a shovel muttering to myself words I’ve often delivered to clients… “Before you can build anything, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, what you hope to achieve, and how much can you afford to spend to make it happpen.” So now I’m getting my priorities straight. I want to spend my limited time and energy in a concerted fashion toward a landscape vision I’m excited about. I can’t simply shotgun an entire garden. I’m just getting started on the design. I did some sketching one evening as much for the exercise as anything, which was helpful for initial brainstorming, and in many ways fun. In order to get down to details however, I need a scaled base plan, measured and prepared on the computer for flexibility and reproducibility.

I did some planting immediately after we moved in order to establish some screening and to cover up an unattractive but useful chain link fence.  The planting of course will require revamping the irrigation system that provided uneven and inadequate coverage for the lawn, to an efficient and effective system to serve the new plantings. And of course there are the weeds; carpets of them springing forth with the recent abundant and nourishing rainfall..and the removal hundreds of square feet of soulless and reflective concrete and a vegetable garden, and a path system, and some garden lighting etc… but we have a somewhat restricted  budget. I want it all, but we’ll have to make some compromises.


Yes, I know it’s already February, but it’s not 2011 yet and resolutions are still percolating.

One of my resolutions is to post more frequently. I hope to entertain and edify those who keep up.

I realize some folks may not appreciate the increased volume of electronic traffic, but so far the postings have been sporadic at best, but just let me know and I can drop you from the list. Conversely, please forward this on to anyone who you think might be interested, and ask them to e-mail to be added to the list of folks who get a reminder when new content is posted.

On to other resolutions: I will attempt to intentionally design my own home garden rather than collecting and planting the hundreds of plants that catch my eye and fancy every week. If I manage to steer clear of The University of California Botanical Garden and the Quail (newly re-named San Diego) Botanical Garden, I stand a fighting chance at avoiding temptation. I’ll let you know how it goes. I have some doubts. I recall many a plant-lusty week at work in the UC Botanical Garden, where I had the pleasure of strolling with leaders of our Volunteer Propagation Program selecting, collecting and propagating from some of the most choice plants in the garden.

While I believe it’s possible to design a garden on the fly, I think that sitting down designing, studying and developing an overall plan leads to superior results. I’ve found that I can’t do it all in my head. I can visualize and imagine parts of the garden, but I can’t successfully imagine the whole thing in detail. The process of detailing out the concepts affords the designer the opportunity of analyzing their strengths and coming up with alternatives. I also know that some ideas and important revisions come while the work is actually in process.

More on the development of the home garden later…


IT’S RAINING! There is nothing quite so exciting in this state of Mediterranean extremes. I literally cannot remember the last time it rained (if you exclude the four giant raindrops that fell out of a thundercloud drifting over Leucadia two weeks ago). I know it has been at least six months. SIX MONTHS! One hundred eighty days since rain fell from the sky.

From my gardener’s perspective this is the beginning of spring. I know that some call this the beginning of winter, but I beg to differ. California’s summer drought has more of a winterizing effect on the plant world than winter’s cool temperatures. During the hot, dry Californian summer in the absence of abundant irrigation plant growth slows, perennials go dormant, trees drop their leaves and annual wildflowers go to seed. East coast residents would characterize such plant behavior a sign of the coming winter. The coming of winter has quite a different effect here. The first winter rains cause many California plants push forth new leaves and burst into bloom.

No sprinkler can reproduce the magic of rain. As the droplets fall from the sky they dissolve nitrogen from our atmosphere depositing it on the leaves and around the roots of our poor thirsty plants while gently washing them clean of months of dust and accumulated grime. Plants seem to respond differently to the rain. In the next few days put in your plant eyes and look around, they all look fresher, livelier, perkier like they’ve just been fertilized… which is exactly what’s happening.

In my years of work at botanical gardens I would often watch the forecast and do my planting immediately before the rain. The humidity softens the shock of transplant, and the water moistens and softens the earth. I think it’s almost subconscious at this point. Yesterday’s gray evening found me pacing about the front yard of our new home arranging plants and pushing a shovel through the dying thatch of our Bermuda grass “lawn”. I was compelled to do so. I probably should have been doing other work for my clients but I couldn’t resist, it’s instinctual, primal. Despite our modern comforts and conveniences, our highly modified and controlled environments, we are still creatures of nature, and respond to natural phenomena.

Yay for the rain! Keep your fingers crossed for a good rainy season. It’s not only good for the plants, it’s necessary for our continued survival and success on this arid edge of the continent.

Plants I like: Dioon (Dioon spinulosum)

The Cycads are a quirky group of plants. I’m always excited by their patterns of seasonal growth. They seem to sit in the garden unchanged through the year until conditions support a flush, and then everything seems to happen very rapidly. The caudex tip starts to swell and the beginnings of very hairy new leaves emerge and elongate rapidly. You can see depicted in the attached picture that the new growth almost looks like it’s glowing.  This picture was taken from a client’s garden without a flash or fancy photographic technique, it’s just a great looking plant. The Dioon spinulosum thrives coastally in sun to light shade, and lends a tropical feel to the garden without being excessively thirsty. They occur naturally in tropical Mexico, but they’re remarkably tough and tolerant of poor soils. So long as they have adequate drainage, supplemental summer water will  encourage new growth as does regular feeding, but they perform admirably with moderate amounts of both. In heavy clay or poorly drained areas they can suffer from rot. They grow to 4′ in diameter and will slowly grow a trunk given enough time to reach a terminal height of up to 12′ , but plants of that size are somewhat rare in cultivation. In my experience they have been pest free and tidy sculptural garden gems.

Chestnut Dioon

Dioon spinulosum

Irrigate efficiently and save water

Keep in mind the following statements as we work to make efficient use of our limited water resources.
1. It’s better to water deeply and infrequently than frequently and shallowly.
2. Runoff and waste are undesirable (obviously!).
It would seem that these two principles are at odds with one another, but if you have a reasonably current irrigation controller the solution is straightforward. Generally speaking sprinklers put out water at too great a rate for the soil to absorb, leading to runoff. This reality is reflected in the current water restrictions which prevent one from running a spray sprinkler system for more than 10 minutes at a time. If the site is less than level even 10 minutes could lead to runoff and waste.
One solution is to program multiple start times, so that the irrigation comes in pulses, allowing the water to absorb and penetrate between watering. Like the bone dry kitchen sponge, a bone dry soil takes time to soften up and absorb water. Try running your sprinklers for half the time you normally would, then program your controller to run again one hour later again for half the normal run time. By doing this you help minimize runoff while getting water deeper into the soil.


I’m visitng my brother in Connecticut and have admired the massive spreads of perfectly green lawns surrounding the homes in this neighborhood. Nearly every home has a lawn, but in marked contrast to California not a single one has an irrigation system. Lawns are so much happier in climates where it rains.

The Torrey Pine

Last night  I swore I heard a steady dripping, like a faucet, or a child throwing pebbles on the roof. I got up while the room was dark even though it felt late enough to be light.  Checking the clock I uttered  a special curse for our elected legislative officials who have decided that it saves electricity to torment all the people who don’t work banker’s hours. I don’t know a single working person that isn’t getting up in the darkness because of the delayed return to standard time.  I went outside full of hope to see if the dripping was the first rain of the season, but my patio was dry, the parched amalgamation of minerals that people call soil around here was dry, and the foliage of my potted plants was dry. So I was baffled as to where the drip, drip, drip was coming from. Then I remembered the Torrey Pine.

The Torrey Pine captures moisture out of the atmosphere with amazing efficiency. The long grooved needles dangle in the sky capturing tiny droplets of water which coalesce and run down the needles before drip, drip dripping on the ground beneath the tree, providing precious moisture during the lengthy dry season. We live beneath a truly majestic tree whose base is actually behind the building adjacent to us and whose canopy spreads to overhang the south side of our little cottage. Broad and stout the tree reaches its multiple massive trunks to the sky before they taper down to graceful jewel adorned fingers of foliage.  As the sky turned pink I could see the dewdrops alight and glistening in the dawn. Coming out of my reverie I became aware of a drip drip dripping INSIDE the house and discovered a pair of soaked patches on our living room carpet beneath the skylight which is, of course beneath the Torrey Pine. Now as I sit writing on what looks to be a perfectly clear morning the only sounds in the house are of my fingertips on the keyboard and the drip drip dripping from the skylight into the bowls I placed in the living room.

The Torrey Pine has a very limited natural range, occurring only on a portion of Santa Rosa Island in the northern Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, and here in San Diego county, notably in Torrey Pines State Park, which was created to protect that habitat. The Torrey Pines State Park is a fantastically beautiful spot worth visiting if you have the opportunity. Both sites are in the coastal zone and are often bathed in fog, and this is where the fog capturing adaptation the Torrey Pine of proves its worth. Precipitation in San Diego is limited to an average 10 inches a year. Here on this dry day in October before any rain has fallen we’re feeling a good dose of moisture from this tree whose grooved needles coagulate and deposit the moisture at its roots to enable it to survive.

We live in a rather dense, spreading, overbuilt modern city so modified from its natural state as to be unrecognizable, and yet within that environment shreds of the progeny of the natural flora continue to thrive and provide us with small reminders of the broader context of time and nature beyond that which our short human lives expire in. So as my living room floor gradually gets wet I feel grateful for the reminder and think about what our site might have looked like a mere 200 years ago. Somehow it’s comforting.

Garden Style

Sunny southern California; beaches, palm trees, where all late model cars are perfectly shiny, it never rains or snows, they don’t get dirty. The population is tanned and muscular. Image is important, the car you drive, the place you live, the way your body looks. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on image. Women sweat over stairmasters. Men lift heavy things just to put them back down again. Eyebrows are plucked, privates are waxed, cars detailed, housekeepers set to dusting obscure corners of houses. Folks go to great expense for furniture, rugs, windows, kitchen accessories and all the trappings that reflect taste and style.. But why do people settle for landscapes that have more in common with a supermarket parking lot than a garden refuge? Why spend top dollar for a quality exterior paint job then consider a weekly mow and blow by the low budget landscape crew an adequate complement to the house?

Perhaps folks haven’t been introduced to the wonderful diversity and character of the plant world. Landscapes come in a diversity of different styles and levels of quality. There is a correlation between price and quality, but in landscape somehow the calculation gets skewed. Very often a landscape can be very inexpensive to install, but due to poor planning, bad design and zonal denial, actually cost more over the long term. The costs of water, fertilizer and ongoing maintenance are often discounted in the budget for landscape modifications. The time and money spent in planning, design, plant selection, and soil preparation are investments that actually bring down the overall long term cost of landscape improvements.


Gophers have always been a problem, a few here, a few there, but a few years ago, for the first time the problem the problem reached comic proportions. It got so bad that the Garden docents would e-mail me with reports of brazen daylight gopher sightings. Such behavior had heretofore been unheard of, as reports of the murderous staff horticulturists going after them with the lawnmowers, and secateurs must surely have spread through the grapevine

I’d feel a rush of uncontrollable rage at discovering plants that had been in the collection for a quarter century disappearing overnight. Entire beds lay suspended above a super-highway of gopher tunnels. The gophers no longer felt the need to throw new piles of tunnel tailings above the surface. They could simply shift between different streets on their subterranean grid. The traps I set were much like Berkeley’s traffic calming concrete bollards…utterly ineffective.

Extreme measures came to mind, and yet my ecological conscience overcame my “forward leaning” gopher policy. My inner superpower wanted to nuke the whole coastal bed complex, but cooler heads prevailed. Considering the impacts the application gopher bait might eventually have on the fox kits, owls and other critters I enjoyed in the garden strengthened my resolve to solve the issue without the application of pesticides. Continued careful setting of traps, rubbed with snippets of favorite gopher foods like the roots of California poppies eventually did the job.

Gardens are good

You might think designing a garden is as easy as going to your local nursery, picking out some pretty flowers and planting them. There’s quite a bit more to it than that if you’re interested in a garden that provides views, protects privacy, has year round interest, is low maintenance, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and doesn’t escape to wreak havoc on natural landscapes.

An expressive, interesting garden enhances the streetscape, and is a contribution to the public good and well being. Gardens provide personal satisfaction, refuge, creative outlet, and it doesn’t need to cost a fortune. Starting with small specimens it’s possible with a small initial investment to have a garden that grows… indeed a “growing concern”. A garden is one of the few house improvements that doesn’t degrade over time. As gardens age, their value increases, so long as they’re well designed. Invest in skilled planning and remember that from a tiny acorn the mighty oak springs.