Saturday, December 19, 2009

Natives are still restless... waiting for another rain!

Last Saturday, I attended another class at Theodore Payne Foundation. This one, taught by Bob Galbreath, was titled Waterwise Irrigation for Native Plants. It was very well presented with fun graphics appearing as cut paper images on the slides. Was a nice albeit ironic way to spend a rainy December afternoon. The weather conditions highlighted how amazingly adapted many native plants are to almost boggy winter conditions contrasted with hot-parched, dry summers. Go natives!

Bob began his presentation by saying that irrigation for drought-adapted native plants should be thought of as a temporary system to use during plant establishment. However, he did spend some time on the subject of Smart Controllers and the admittedly “coarse” data upon which they are based. He touched on a variety of drip systems that will be covered in more detail in his Drip Irrigation class at TPF in January.

My conclusion is if a garden has mostly or exclusively drought-adapted native plants, it seems a Smart Controller may have very limited use. For my money, I’d rather use a simple “dumb” controller and a digital (finger) probe!

Learning about native plants, but little of my experience is yet in the garden. Haven’t yet installed a Smart Controller. Being very hands-on, I do a lot of poking around and hand watering, but that is probably not going to work for many clients of my garden design business. Hope to put out some of these plants soon, between rains!

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Kitchen Favorite and "Healthy Cookies"

Baking has always been my favorite thing to do in the kitchen. Trying to make up for past sins in the dietary department, I’d nearly quit baking for several years, other than the odd pie or cake for family gatherings.

Perhaps a couple of decades ago, my mother, who was not one to frivolously part with prized possessions, sold her 1950 Sunbeam Mixmaster at a garage sale, keeping only the large bowl, in which she served popcorn. Several months or years later when I discovered this, I was so disappointed. If I’d realized she wasn’t using it any longer, I’d have liberated it from her kitchen, just as I’d liberated her 1950 Singer Featherweight sewing machine decades earlier when my father bought her one of those machines with all the fancy stitches.

Wanting to encourage me to bake and having a healthy fascination with vintage industrial design, a few years ago my friend, Noel, bought me a 1947 Sunbeam Mixmaster on eBay. Interestingly, the fellow who had it for sale had bought it a few years earlier for his mother. It replaced hers, which he’d “inadvertently” sold at a garage sale, thinking she was done with it. It makes me so happy, to know I have been able to keep this fine piece of machinery from being discarded. I am positive it has no plastic parts!

What we call cookies, my friend, Mary, calls biscuits. Here, we generally think of biscuits as something that goes with savory dishes. However, when I bake what some friends call my “healthy cookies”, I think of them as a bit more like a biscuit, or a low-fat scone, if there is such a thing.

This evening, I am experimenting with “Aunt Kimmie’s Pumpkin Cookies”, a recipe emailed to me by a coworker several years ago. They were plenty moist, with a cup of butter and a cup of pumpkin in the batter, and topped with a generous dab of buttery icing. Mine are made with half the butter and twice the pumpkin. Checking my ingredients, I realized that all (except the sea salt and baking soda) are organic. Does that make them a healthful indulgence? Speaking of indulgence, did I mention they include a cup of 65% cacao organic dark chocolate chips?

They likely will not pass muster with Noel, a conventional guy, with a very sweet tooth and a penchant for rich desserts. I’ve saved for him part of a recently baked batch of Grandma Margaret’s Sprits Cookies. (That is where went the rest of the pound and nearly another of butter – organic, of course.)

Okay, not all of my recent baking is entirely healthful or sustainable. In the butter department, I cannot help myself from being a little Scandi-hoovian, especially this time of year! When mixing the Sprits last week, though, I walked to the market when I realized I’d read the recipe wrong and didn’t have enough butter. Offsetting a few calories by walking, entitled me to an extra sample! And, does walking for butter qualify them as having a lower carbon footprint?

Natives restless...

A few weeks ago I attended Native Plant Garden Maintenance class at Theodore Payne, taught by Barbara Eisenstein. Always sharing a wealth of knowledge, Barbara delighted with her slide presentation and walk about the TPF gardens, snipping, clipping, and sharing tidbits of information along the way. It was a lovely morning! Looking forward to when my little specimens purchased at the Fall Sale are big enough to need such care!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fall has been just too beautiful here to be inside behind my computer keyboard, and I haven’t yet gone wireless! We only had one severe wind event, and we’ve had some lovely rains. Been catching up on outside projects (irrigation, electrical, and tidying the garden.) Studying quite a bit, too. That is my excuse for lack of blog entries. This morning, I am inside waiting for a contractor to arrive.

Fall color in my garden…

Above is a Crape Myrtle tree (Lagerstroemia indica) in my front yard. For a Crape Myrtle, it is quite a large specimen that I estimate to be 50 to 60 years old. Perhaps the original owner planted it. In any season, it never fails to provide a lovely show. Even in winter, its stately form, mottled bark and fluted branches boldly anchor the garden. Frankly, it was not perfectly placed. A little too close to the house, it drops litter onto two driveways. However, in addition to its show-worthiness, it provides light summer shade. Additionally, it draws the eye away from nearby rather boring two-car-garage door and storage along the side yard. To me, its benefits far outweigh its faults. As long as it wants to live in my garden, I am happy it shares the space.

As street trees, Crape Myrtles tend to have a bad reputation here, mainly because the city has planted them in the tiniest of tree wells, surrounded by miles of concrete and asphalt. While moderately drought-tolerant in maturity, the street trees along Ventura Boulevard are shamefully neglected, struggling lollipops that annoy shop owners by dropping blooms, leaves, and seedpods without providing a worthy show or canopy.

Last month, Councilman Dennis Zine held a meeting to kick off the Woodland Hills Community Coalition, working toward improvements along Ventura Boulevard (from Lindley to Valley Circle.) During a brainstorming session, the trees took significant criticism. The facilitator stepped in and mentioned it would be helpful when considering tree placement, also to look at developing an overall plan, including other plant materials. Lucky for me, he then went on to ask if there was a Landscape Designer in the audience. I was the only one, and raised my hand. I was there representing the recently formed Costanso Neighborhood Watch. Others included store owners, city representatives, or leaders in business or homeowners' groups. Later, I exchanged contact information with a couple of key people involved with the Coalition. Very excited to have the opportunity to help plan climate-appropriate (tree and other) plant selection along nearby section of Ventura Boulevard. You can bet I’ll not be shy about sharing how they need to be cared for, too!

Have in mind a vision of quiet beauty along a boulevard lined with permeable, multi-use pathways, that are intermittently shaded by a collection of mature trees of a variety of species, alternating with swathes of native grasses and sages. Okay, maybe a quite far-fetched dream, but sure excites me more than the existing band of gray asphalt lined with stucco-encrusted crates, punctuated by parched pops!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Birds, bugs and other garden visitors...

Add-on to yesterday’s post… Thankfully, my now-extinct lawns were smaller than typical to begin with!

Love all (well, most) of the fauna attracted to my new flora! Trying to convince myself there are no bad bugs, just ones I’d rather see dead than alive, like grasshoppers! They all enrich the soil, right? Don't have any furry, domestic companions of my own, but my neighbor's cat is always hanging out hunting hummingbirds (thankfully, no known successes, yet!), lizards, and grasshoppers. She can have all the g-hoppers she can get her paws on!

As the weather is cooling, I’ll try to get out there with my camera, and see what is lurking about. (Next task – to learn how to post photos directly onto blog.) Meanwhile, here is “Wheels” the great garden hunter!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How do (should) I define sustainability in the garden? – Part II – My Own Gardening Practices

For the record and in the spirit of disclosure, here is what has happened in my own very tiny garden, beginning Autumn 2006. A flagstone patio replaced St. Augustine lawn in the front garden. The following year, raised beds for vegetable garden replaced Common Bermuda with Fescue sod lawn in the rear garden.

By Summer 2007 I eliminated all traces of turf grass or mown lawn, hiring a few strong guys with mattocks, shovels and my own plus one borrowed wheelbarrow. (Okay, for a year or so, maybe a few traces of turf remained. Have not seen any this season!) This was happily accomplished without using chemical herbicide. However, there were clearly sustainable trade-offs.

On a very small plot, there was no room to store decomposing sod, and I feared the dreaded Common Bermuda would survive to reseed and stolonize itself from its latent state. Therefore, swallowing hard, I hired a very large bin plus a couple of small truckloads and sent over 30 cubic yards of soil/sod to the landfill. Although it contained viable invasive Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses, and fossil fuel was burned in its transport, I consoled myself with the knowledge it was not chemically tainted. It was “clean” otherwise. I hope it was handled at the dump so it would not invade the surrounding hillside environment.

Trading off as “credit” against the transport fuel consumption, I am happy to report my garden has not engaged the use of any power tools in over two years. Under a canopy of Eucalypts, for fire-safety and tidiness, I use a leaf rake and push broom to minimize fuel build up from fallen leaves. This material goes into the city-provided green refuse barrel. (For health reasons, I am unable to handle all my own composting.)

To backfill lost soil and fill new, raised beds, I scavenged the neighborhood for available clean dirt. I also purchased decomposed granite to use as top-dressing/mulch in the front garden, and walkway paving in the rear garden. Latter is still work in progress. Gradually and carefully, over the past year, I dug a swale along the drip-line of citrus trees. My digging mantra is “it’s cheaper than joining a gym!” Excavated soil was used in the raised bed vegetable garden.

You can see the results of my garden redesign in photographs under Projects (San Miguel Street Residence and Woodland Hills Rear Garden) at

Monday, September 28, 2009

How do (should) I define sustainability in the garden? – Part I – My Garden Design Business

Taking this opportunity to extend a dialog opened by Barbara Eisenstein in… “I Used to Have a Lawn But Now I Have Less”, posted 24 September, 2009 and continued in “The Quest for a Superlawn”, posted 27 September, 2009 on her blog, Wildsuburbia. Barbara also shared a wealth of information about many garden-friendly California native grasses in earlier posts.

It is a delicate case and an interesting journey, identifying the lesser of evils, choosing battles, deciding what is to be sustained, balancing environmental and human needs. Feel there are no pat answers. Believe it is for each of us to examine our own conscience, ways and means. My hope, though, is that many more will come to own their garden and their own destiny, resisting big corporate marketing of wolves in sheep’s clothing. One challenge is to trade in blowers in favor of rakes and brooms, and to shun chemicals in favor of beneficial bugs and organisms. Remember, the exercise is free – certainly cheaper than joining a gym!

In my own garden, I am “top dog.” If something is healthful for me, I opine it is healthful for the environment. I look to sustain myself first, other creatures next. And, I happen to be much more squeamish about chemical exposure than I am about encounters with four, six or eight-legged garden creatures! More on this tomorrow… Today, I am focused on my business.

As a designer of enduring gardens, I prefer to encourage lawn alternatives rather than alternative lawns. Nonetheless, deferring to clients' wishes, I try gentle persuasion. (It's that flies-honey-vinegar connection!) This is how I work to achieve sustainable balance in lawn-inclusive design under a variety of scenarios:

v Functional lawn: Client A insists on mown turf. Suggest it be minimized to that which serves a functional purpose, as defined by client. Leaves room for dialog about selecting a lower-impact turf grass, improving irrigation efficiency and using beneficial horticultural practices to enhance underlying soil structure and minimize polluting run-off. If I were to decline to design for client A, I expect they would find someone else, and that traditional practices would continue. My only accomplishment would be loss of a client.

v Alternative lawn/meadow: Client B appears to want mown turf for lack of other inspiration or budget. Again, draw out a discussion of functionality, and help them explore alternatives. For example, boulders in a meadow can lead to more creative, imaginative family fun than a small patch of mown lawn too small for a soccer game. Isn’t it beneficial to a young person’s health (with age-appropriate supervision) to pick up and get to know tiny garden creatures? There is a growing body of research pointing out that most kids today grow up nature-deprived. Conversely, I know of no health benefit from a nice tumble on a turf lawn, laced with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers the gardener spread, and which are waiting for the proper irrigation day to be watered in!

v Retain lawn in front, consistent with community plan; rear lawn replacement: Client C seeks lawn alternatives. Suggest reducing front lawn to minimum consistent with community guidelines*, while replacing species with lower-impact turf grass, etc., as noted in A, above. Also, if existing lawn is edged by hardscape, suggest a planted border, or at least permeable surface or containment/transition to avoid run-off to street, sidewalks and other impermeable surfaces. (Note: length, severity of drought may make front lawn replacement decision for us!) Employ the functional dialog to repurpose rear lawn area to client-desired function. Examples: (1) Children’s play equipment placed over surface of play bark – later this can become an edibles garden or a casual dining court once the play equipment is outgrown, depending on solar exposure and needs. Or, (2) Outdoor room for entertaining. Or, (3) Tapestry garden, featuring meandering paths through native and compatible planting, casual seating, and perhaps a few bits of sculpture or other focal objects.

* Hope to be invited to speak to local Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) to help them find new, improved visions of enduring beauty in their planned, community landscapes, what I call “creating a new heritage in Southern California gardens.” Meanwhile, homeowners in such communities are reticent to go against the grain of lawn-based landscapes “dictated” by covenants, codes and restrictions (CC and Rs) even when such guidelines fly in the face of legally enforceable water restrictions.

Barbara, I appreciate your wisdom and insights. I hope you don’t mind my following on the lead you’ve taken on the subject of lawns, alternatives and sustainability, and connecting that here with my business focus and passion.

My knowledge of environmental concerns is growing, and I try to respond accordingly in my life and work. In addition to saving money, saving water reduces fossil fuel consumption and reduces pollution of natural waterways. Did you know, here in Southern California, pumping water from its source and/or to/from its treatment uses a great deal of non-renewable energy? I am attending classes in Sustainable Landscape for Professionals offered by the City of Santa Monica. In addition, I received water management training toward Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA.) My irrigation certification is pending qualified work experience. See begarden listed here by the City of Santa Monica as Sustainable Landscape Professional. I have a Certificate in Landscape Design from California State University, Northridge (CSUN.) My business website is

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Improving Eco-Awareness

Roz Savage, an eco-blogger I follow, recently posed a question asking whether or not those following her blog perceive that more people are becoming aware of and care about impacts on the environment, specifically, climate change.

Here is what I wrote in response:

I choose optimism -- to believe more are becoming aware, adopting more sustaining behaviors, with positive changes being made each day.

Thought just came to me, and I already acted on it... sent this via a website to an association of food retailers/wholesalers:

"Would like to see you encourage your retailer-membership to track and post a cumulative number representing a count of each time a customer shops/purchases goods but refuses a disposable plastic carryout bag. This could even be set up as some sort of contest [among retailer sites]. Hope you are interested!

Would love to see this sort of pro-activity obviate the need for legislative action in terms of a bag ban!

Just a consumer concerned about the health of our environment, especially the world's oceans..."

Roz, in my mind, this goes beyond the typical bag refund or consumer contest, putting up a very prominent display -- a take-off on the "number of customers served" type of display! Believe that could quickly grow to a very impressive number!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Begin: garden clean-up, day 1

Today, I am launching my blog. Briefly, I will share what my friend, Gwen, recently called my "new improved life." I am developing habits and making choices that help me sustain myself and the world around me. Happy to share a few glimpses of the joy of the journey!

Thought for today: Rake and sweep up leaves and debris in garden and street front. In my small garden, this takes just about the amount of time for a gym workout, and it is free! (Well, I procrastinated, and the street sweeper came by. Now, I just need to clean up what is left behind!) Great to be out in the fresh air!