Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Honoring the memory and legacy of Bert Wilson, founder of Las Pilitas Nursery

My sincere condolences to the family of Bert Wilson, who passed away on March 4, 2014. Owner of Las Pilitas Nursery, with locations in Escondido and Santa Margarita, California, he was a fine man with a great sense of humor and a passion for the natural world. He was supremely generous with photographic images of California native plants and information on how to grow them, where to grow them, their adaptations, and what benefits they provide.

The display garden at his nursery site in Escondido, California is what inspired me to design this garden. His knowledgeable staff helped me select plants.

Mr. Wilson, your memory will live on in the heart of loved ones as well as those of us further out in the network of native plant gardeners. Your legacy will live on not only in the business and website you created, but in the gardens where thousands of plants you adeptly propagated, selected, and nurtured have ultimately been planted, and will continue to be planted for generations to come. Thank you, and may God bless.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Gardening Passion: How a suburbanite beach chick grew to love her garden

In the beginning, there was a girl, a grandma, a dad, and a rose…

Notice the carefully placed rocks on the edge of the patio. Thinking that was to keep said girl from rollerskating into the rose bed, or worse, the wall. She still nearly knocked out her front teeth, but that is not how it happened. The actual rose at lower right is from a bush that Dad transplanted from Grandma's garden -- still going strong after 40 plus years.

… and a mom, some marigolds (planted while the girl was recovering from tonsillectomy), and California poppies...

There was also an older sister, but her significant contribution to the story comes later.

There were nearly weekly visits to Grandma's garden…
"Lessons" from Dad in how a 9-year-old should push a wheelbarrow -- that is how some of the adobe soil got moved from from front to back yards to level a playing field for family badminton games…
Original wheelbarrow 50 years later is missing a wheel and has seen better days, but it is still in use for mixing and catching excess potting soil.

Oh, and remember that the girl loved going to the beach?

She eventually realized she could plant it in her garden… well, sort of…

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Swapping Your Grass for Cash, Plant Natives Rather than Plasti-turf

Pardon the interruption from the post series I've recently undertaken, but this topic is too timely not to address. What follows is the text of a letter I hope to share with local Water District and Watershed Management leadership.

On all counts -- aesthetic, functional, environmental (including water use), practical, and personal safety -- I am opposed to the notion of encouraging use of artificial turf in residential and commercial landscapes, especially in hot, fire-prone climates of Southern California. 

After having discussed the pros and cons with many colleagues in the landscape industry, I gave the topic considerable thought. My remaining unanswered concerns include:

  • How can one expose so much surface area such as on artificial turf to harsh sunlight and not be concerned about environmental consequences of photo-degradation?*
  • As the product ages and it is subject to normal wear and tear, how might small released particles and toxic chemicals released therefrom affect watersheds and our ocean**? What about impact on air quality?
  • Although there are alternatives using natural gravel, underlayment containing ground up used tires is a popular subsurface for artificial turf. It is known that toxic chemicals are used in the manufacture of tires. As these bits of old tires break down over time, what is the expected impact on underlying soil, groundwater and watersheds in terms of toxicity?***
  • How to mitigate contribution to landfills of non-recyclable portions of artificial turf. (Even for the ones claiming to be fully recyclable, will they be? What would be the mechanism to ensure recycling takes place? Do we even yet have an effective mechanism for recycling carpeting?)
  • How does artificial turf address urban/suburban heat island effects? global climate change?
  • How will artificial turf behave during a firestorm? How will it affect a resident and their home's chance of survival? (How) will it affect air quality?

 * Believe independent studies are needed. Manufacturer studies seem to focus on product useful life, and do not address environmental impacts. We already know about human health impacts and environmental consequences of other plastic products. Why should we replace plastic bags in the environment with bits of artificial turf? 

** Article about study on plastic pollution in the ocean:

In terms of aesthetics, I feel it is always better to use a material in a way that it is not trying to look like something it is not. Have not yet found a fake grass that comes close to looking or feeling like the real thing, and I have been to a lot of trade shows and events where vendors showcase their products. Manufacturing companies' salespeople and marketing departments might be doing a very successful job of promoting their products -- convincing a lot of people that artificial turf is attractive. While it might look good on television and on websites, up-close, in person is a different matter.

Functionally and practically, it depends what one's primary use is for the surface. Frankly, I see so many superior alternatives to artificial turf that I would not even consider installing it. There are low-water-using turf species, native grasses and grass blends, playground bark mulches, and other play surfaces, to name a few. Flame or embers will melt it, so if one uses a backyard fire pit or cooking device it should not be located nearby. Where pet waste is a concern, natural surfaces (even good old dirt) seem much easier to maintain than artificial turf. If I were a mother, I would much rather my children play in dirt (better yet, a native meadow) than on artificial turf.

Aesthetics and function are of course matters of personal preference. However, whether we are landscapers, product manufacturers or suppliers, watershed managers, or managers of water districts, we are in a position to affect how people and their activities relate to the world around us. My hope is that we can work together to find ways to help people live comfortably and beautifully, in harmony with nature.

A residential garden designer, my work focuses on using principles of sustainability to create landscapes of enduring beauty. 

Thank you for this opportunity to provide input on the topic of artificial turf, especially its potential use in residential settings. If you have any questions or concerns and would like to further discuss, my contact information follows.



Janis Hatlestad
Better Earth Garden Design
Woodland Hills, CA

Monday, February 24, 2014

Seeking a Sustaining Path: Evolution of a Small (Sub)Urban Garden, Part 1

In less than two weeks, it will be 35 years since escrow closed and I embarked on garden and home ownership.

My "inherited" garden consisted of a small patch of lawn out front, surrounded by "freeway daises" near the front porch and juniper tams toward the street; bermuda grass lawn in back almost to the fence; several large rose bushes; reseeding annuals, such as johnny-jump-ups and California poppies; tulips planted in a "cold spot" that pushed through heavy soil to rebloom each year; a cluster of bearded iris*; three ubiquitous clumps of bird-of-paradise; three multi-trunked flowering pomegranates stuffed into one corner, underplanted with white belladonna or "naked lady" lilies; one for-the-birds-fruit-bearing tiny 'Nana' pomegranate*; a small flowering plum; one gumdrop-shaped privet; and hedge-trimmed algerian ivy in the narrow parking strip. Other than two towering street trees, the only real tree was a rather large crape myrtle* near one corner of the garage, underplanted with creeping vinca.

*All that remains of the original garden, bearded iris having been dug up, divided, moved and replanted numerous times.

In the first several years, I was in a career that found me working long hours, commuting 27 miles, van-pooling when schedules allowed, then transferring out-of-state. Consequently, other than weekend raking, sweeping, weeding, watering with various hose-end contraptions, and pushing either a me-powered or later an electric-powered lawnmower around, my "garden" received little attention. However, I do recall those activities taking me on average about 7 precious daylight hours per week to accomplish. A few big jobs were saved for my dear father, such as removing the pathetic "gum-drop tree" that quickly became even more unsightly because I refused even to trim it. I never did play a round of croquet, which is what I had thought you were supposed to do with a lawn.

While I lived out-of-state, my sister, Faith and her family moved into my home and garden. The four of them made much better use of it, especially the backyard.

For a few years when her twin girls were small, Faith did not work outside the home. Her husband, Tom, however did take on a second job during that time. On weekends, Tom built or assembled play equipment. A cabinet-maker by trade, he was quite handy. Faith put in a small vegetable garden, did the weekly gardening chores, and mulched around the rose beds. Between the two of them, they turned my pitiful "yard" into a perfect playland for preschoolers. At least that is the way it looked when I would come home a couple of times a year to visit. And especially at their garden party when my nieces, Kari and Sarah, turned 3!

Far right above, is the result of my later having hired a gardener to install new sod and an irrigation system -- greener lawn, but run-off onto patio and not sustainable, especially in drought years. Still, I must admit to having been taken in by the lure of green envy.

As the years -- both drought and wet ones -- came and went, I became interested in growing food. Initially, fruit trees -- thinking, why not gain at least three benefits from planting a tree? Food, privacy, and shade in one package. The first we planted was a grapefruit tree, which my father had started from seed about 12 years prior. It is the only citrus I believe that will produce good fruit without being grafted. Of course, because I also wanted shade and privacy, much of the fruit is now out of reach for easy picking. One of many lessons learned the hard way. Still, to me the rewards outweigh.

While my father was alive, I had a ready "market" for the grapefruit. Also, help with picking! And, I swapped grapefruit with my neighbor's brother who lived a couple of miles away, for fresh figs from his five trees.

Lately, I have chosen to give the fruit I cannot use to a couple of local food pantries. They are always happy to receive fresh produce.

Through the 1990s, still not having a lot of time to devote to gardening but wanting to learn more about it, I planted small beds of flowers around the lawn. Roses were popular. Eventually, there were way too many of them!

And, there were gerbera daisies…

And day lilies, too!

One rose I plan to always keep, because it came from my grandmother's garden...

I loaded up a little raised planter with daffodil bulbs. (In the background -- a dwarf valencia orange.)

Then, when blooms were spent and waning leaves became an unsightly mess, I did to them what I did to my hair when it was unruly. I braided them!
One day in the early years, I had the not-so-bright idea to plant a couple of what turned out to be Monterey pine trees. My dear daddy had obliged me with the two cute, fluffy little saplings, and helped me plant them, too! One, right under the power lines in back met its demise shortly after the Department of Water and Power whacked the top off. The other finally dwarfed my house and had been planted so the trunk eventually grew to less than two feet from my roof. Branches extended dangerously close to my neighbor's chimney.

Above photo (taken the day before tree removal): Rick Ranney.

That sums up the first two decades in my garden. Stay tuned for what has evolved since the turn of this century!

Above "teaser" photo: Barbara Eisenstein, All other photos (unless noted): Janis Hatlestad, Better Earth Garden Design,

Friday, January 31, 2014

Deeply Irrigating in Response to Drought Emergency -- am I mad or glad?

Our Governor recently declared the State of California to be in a "Drought State of Emergency". So yesterday, I gave begarden's becoming-drought-adapted home garden a good soaking. 

Does that sound like a bad thing to do in light of the drought emergency? Actually, no. It is a good thing to do. If you haven't watered your drought-adapted garden lately and you are in Southern California, do it this weekend, and not when weather is warm. Just be sure the air temperature is above 40F when you water. Morning is best. Also, better when air is still.

Yesterday, with lower temperatures, cloud cover, and slightly more humid air, evapotranspiration rate (rate of the combination of evaporation and plant up-take of water) was relatively low. That means, gravity will naturally pull more irrigation water deeply into the soil, because not so much will be "lost" to evaporation. Trees and shrubs will take up what they need, leaving the rest for later and for others. This way, we are also recharging local groundwater, which in part helps support the root system of large, local trees we rely on for summer shade in our hot climate. In general, shrubs and trees will extend their roots more deeply with deep, infrequent irrigation, helping them through periods of drought.

The intent of seasonal, deep and infrequent irrigation is to replicate what nature provides during winter in a theoretically "average" year. Actually, we rarely if ever get an "average" year's rainfall in Southern California. Our average is an average of wetter years and drier years. We tend to have one or the other extreme, sometimes for years at a time. That is why our locally native plants, and secondly, those of similar climates are most well-adapted to this pattern.

If you work on getting your plants well-hydrated and ready for summer now, you can relax in summer while they assume whatever is their drought adaptation response. Some plants, like sages, lose large leaves, retaining smaller leaves. Others, like manzanitas and jojoba, turn leaves with the sun's rays so that little surface area is exposed to the harshest light and heat. (How cool is that?!) In both cases, plants do not die, but rather they slow down their cycle of transpiration and photosynthesis. However, even the most drought adapted plants can die during an extended drought if not sufficiently hydrated. 

The more recently planted is your garden, the more you will need to continue to irrigate. Just be as efficient about it as you possibly can be. Water only within the root zone of plants.

Look first to maintain plants that provide the greatest benefit and in which you have the largest investment of time, money and resources. Generally, those are your established shade trees and fruit trees. Trees grown in a lawn, if you still have one, need to be more deeply watered than they likely have been. Concentrate the most water within a few feet of the drip line of established, large trees. Of course, avoid wetting impenetrable surfaces like concrete or asphalt paving.

Finally, mulch, mulch, mulch… It is nature's way. Keep organic mulch (chipped bark, twigs, leaves, etc.) and any added inorganic mulch (gravel, decomposed granite, etc.) at least 2 feet away from the trunk flare of trees. Mulching conserves moisture, protects soil from compaction, may gradually add nutrients (some of which may be contained in rainfall but generally not in treated irrigation water), and moderates soil temperature. 

For more information on watering established trees, check out this post on Also, follow the blog and Facebook page of

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Top 10 reasons I do NOT use a gas-powered leaf blower (or any blower for that matter)

10) They burn non-renewable fossil fuel
9) They are noisy
8) They get EVERYTHING dirty
Neighbor's gardener used to blow leaves and dirt well beyond property line (never mind how dirty my windows got before he was fired):

7) They do not provide exercise benefits (as do raking and sweeping)
6) They are unhealthful to the operator
5) They blow away all the benefits of mulch and topsoil in the garden
View through a cloud of dust of a guy blowing leaves off lawn and sidewalk:

On close inspection, this does not seem to be helping the lawn:

4) They are unhealthful to plants (by covering plants in a layer of dust and by transferring to plants soil-borne pathogens)
3) They make neighbors angry
2) They make me crazy
1) Being told "[because you don't] you have the prettiest [garden] on the block"… ahhh

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sustainable Landscaping with Passive Stormwater Management in a Residential Garden: Three Case Studies

Discussed and pictured here are three small residential gardens in dry climates that receive infrequent but sometimes quite heavy rainfall and accumulation of stormwater. Each of these gardens meets multiple needs and receives intensive use, while passively accepting rain and encouraging infiltration, solving problems and creating opportunities within significantly different budgets.

Case Study 1:  This contemporary courtyard garden located in a mid-century development on coastal floodplain in Torrance, CA was designed for dog-loving, active grandparents of teens and a toddler, who are also engaged as artisan/art student and entrepreneur. They desired relief from battling seasonal flooding, a place for dogs to play, equipment storage, view-screening and privacy for relaxation on weekends, and an elegant entertainment space all within a mere 1,200 square feet. Patio and walkway paving consists of pervious concrete pavers bordered by large-scale Narrow Modular Pavers, all manufactured by Stepstone, Inc. a company located in nearby Gardena, CA. This surface is stable under feet or wheels.

Lawn was reduced to little "area rugs", totaling a mere 182 square feet. The lawn material, a hybrid of Seashore Paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum 'Aloha') developed by and trademarked to Environmental Turf Inc., was selected for its lower water use, ability to withstand inundation of water, deep color, trim appearance, and ability to repair itself from pet soiling/spots and active use. Lawn is professionally maintained using dedicated, hand-powered mower kept on site.

Pavers are laid over a base/sub-base of aggregate rock material kept separate from native soil by a layer of geotextile. This system allows stormwater to filter through pore spaces of pavers and aggregate material, gradually infiltrating the soil beneath.

In this case, significant ponding following rain events was eliminated, and the clients now have an outdoor entertainment area they can use year round. As is probably apparent from these images, the type of landscaping in Case Study 1 requires professional installation as well as professional design.

In-progress photo shows within the walkway -- lower center of photograph -- the compacted base layer within mortar-set narrow modular pavers (also by Stepstone) prior to installation of pervious pavers. Mortared pavers also form the mow strip around lawn sections.

Close-up of pervious paver (Stepstone, Inc.) Clients favored this aesthetic for its rugged texture as well as the way it contrasts with the smooth-sandblasted surface of mortared pavers shown alongside. This combination was not only a great solution to a significant functional problem in their garden, it very strongly states their industrial modern preferences.

"King" and "Queen" of the garden, Jasper and Juba, checking out their new digs.

Case Study 2: On the other end of the spectrum in aesthetics and budget is this simple "woodland cottage" garden. Located in Woodland Hills, CA on foothill drainage to north slope of the Santa Monica mountains in a quaint neighborhood of artists, artisans, and professionals this garden features a pathway surfaced in decomposed granite and steps formed with recycled lumber. Soil sculpting on the gradual slope mitigates run-off in both wet and dry (irrigation) weather. The steps and pathway evoke a mountain stream flowing down a gradual course, ending with large scale, round exposed aggregate pavers zig-zagging to form a stylized "alluvial wash" across the parkway.

The type of landscaping in Case Study 2 benefitted from professional installation as well as professional design. However, for homeowners willing and able to do heavy physical work and who are interested to learn aesthetic placement of plants, rocks and other materials, proper plant spacing, and plant selection to fit site conditions, it may well be within reach to "DIY". In this case, and owing to its urban, streetside location, drip irrigation, two stations only, was installed to be operated by automatic low-flow valves of brass construction and a secured and programmed, wired irrigation clock. Alternatively, irrigation system could be connected to hose-end adapters and set to run by battery operated timers. Or, with enough time on one's hands, irrigation could be done by hand only.

Path and parkway detail.

In progress image showing gentle soil sculpting and layout of in-line drip tubing to be disguised under mulch.

Generous layer of shredded mulch spread over drip tubing and after planting acts as wicking material to further improve soil retention and stormwater infiltration.

Case Study 3: This rear garden in an area of cold air drain at the base of north-facing foothills to the Santa Monica Mountains in Woodland Hills, CA utilizes every square foot for growing food, passive rain collection, testing plant material and landscape techniques, propagating plants, designing and creating container gardens, and entertaining. Compacted but un-stabilized decomposed granite over landscape cloth provides a porous surface for pathways and rain garden beyond. This surface is reasonably stable in dry weather. However, foot depressions and ruts from wheels can occur in wet weather.

Flagstone "landings" reduce migration of loose material to concrete patio at right in photo. Raised beds help amended soil within to remain loose and well-draining, while concrete-walled planters increase soil temperature for year round fruit and vegetable gardening.

The garden shown in Case Study 3 was professionally designed. The type of landscaping used benefitted from a combination of professional installation along with much of the work being done by the designer/owner (myself). While essentially complete, as with any "gardener's garden" it will always remain a work-in-progress. Citrus trees (top left) are mature. The balance is recent planting. What is shown here is the culmination of my experimentation, hands-on self-education in sustainable landscape design, and many project phases, spanning a 6-year period. Some of the features may be within reach of an ambitious "DIY" homeowner. However, it would take a fair amount of study and much more than a few weekends of heavy work to install!

Rain garden with planting selected for adaptation to both drought and saturated soil conditions, features volcanic lava rock reclaimed from a neighbor's landscape demolition.

Herb garden in Spring:

Herb garden in early Autumn:

This section of the herb garden with young dwarf citrus borders a patio along the west side of my home. It is mostly out of frame in the overview shot of Case Study 3. Here it is shown in closer view.

Herb garden -- foreground right -- with rain garden from center toward rear. (This photo was shot through a south-facing window.) In the background to right is my work "pavilion" with potting table, garden valve and grounded, covered electric outlet. Lattice above fence boards screen out unwanted neighboring views. The raised bed to the right center is where I am experimenting with a collection of succulent plants resembling coral and other undersea creatures. It will be the subject of a later post. Stay tuned!

Thank you for viewing my work. I welcome your questions and comments. For professional garden design services and consultations, I can be reached via my website:

All designs and photos: Janis Hatlestad, Better Earth Garden Design (