Low-Maintenance Garden Themes

Designing a garden bed around a theme yields practical and aesthetic benefits.

The aesthetic benefit of thematic garden design rests on the relationships among the plants: they are linked by being members of the class defined by the theme. In that respect, a thematic group is more coherent, aesthetically, than the ever-popular “grab-bag” approach to plant selection.

The practical benefit is a plan for selecting plants from the hundreds of thousands of available varieties. Once the gardener has chosen a theme, he or she has reduced the universe of possible plants to consider. This one action narrows the selection task and supports close evaluation of options.

A garden design theme is simply a concept to which plants relate. This definition embraces a very wide range of possible themes, which could be a single color or combination of blossom colors; a plant genus, e.g., rose, iris, daffodil; size, e.g., miniatures; bee-friendly, etc.

For today’s topic, consider a progression of four themes for low-maintenance gardening.

Theme #1: Zone-appropriate Plants. Every gardener should know the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone in which his or her garden exists. The Monterey Bay area is in USDA Zone 9b, where minimum temperatures are in the 25–30 degree range; plants marked for Zone 9 should survive cold spells in that range. A great many plants are that hardy, so this theme excludes only plants that are vulnerable to cold and therefore high-maintenance. Nurseries also use UCDA zones to indicate the preferred zone for given plants. Plants that are rated for Zones 10 or 11 usually will thrive best in very warm climates, not in Zone 9.

Theme #2: Mediterranean Climate Plants. These are plants that have evolved to grow well in the world’s areas that have dry summers and moderate winters. These areas (again) are native to the central coast of California, the central coast of Chile, the southwestern coast of Australia, South Africa and the Mediterranean basin. A large number of plants are suitable for this theme, but this category still is significantly smaller that Theme #1.

Theme #3: California Native Plants. This theme is within Theme #2, of course, but it stands apart from the others because includes plants that are both suitable for the Mediterranean climate and the soils and fauna of this state. Soil chemistry and symbiotic relationships with birds, mammals, insects and microbial life contribute significantly to the growth of plants, and, ultimately, the success of the gardener.

Theme #4: Native Plant Communities. A great variety of plants are native to California, and many have evolved to grow best in specific environments within the state, and in communities with specific other plants. An oak woodland plant community is certainly different from one that occurs naturally on coastal bluffs and cliffs. For the ultimate in low-maintenance gardening, adopt a thematic design for a California native plant community that would be appropriate for your garden setting.

Consider a thematic design for each garden bed or each large area of your garden. Plant selection will transform a random process to a purposeful activity.

Books for Thematic Designs

Zone-appropriate Plants
The New Western Garden Book (Sunset, 2012)

Mediterranean Plants
Plant Life in the World’s Mediterranean Climates (Dalman & Ornduff, 1998)

California Native Plants
California Native Plants for the Garden (Bornstein, Fross & O’Brien, 2005)

Native Plant Communities
Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (Keator, Middlebrook & Faber, 2007)

 

Gardening with Exotics

Many of the plants we enjoy in our gardens produce flowers. We also enjoy many plants for their foliage, but the flowering plants, called angiosperms, are the ones that attract our attention.

The angiosperms, which first developed about 245 million years ago, have grown to dominate the terrestrial ecosystems, exceeded only by the coniferous forests.

There are about 260,000 species of angiosperms, and the growers of the most popular garden species have produced countless selections, hybrids and cultivars. When we visit our local garden centers or flip through catalogs of mail order plants, we see most often those variations of the most familiar plants.

Some avid gardeners eagerly seek the latest introductions of roses, irises, petunias and other and take pleasure in being among the first in their communities to have the hybridizers’ newest achievements. Each year, when we might think that new versions of popular plants are not possible, we find unexpected colors, new color combinations, more vigorous or more floriferous producers, and plants that have been bred to be more resistant to pests and diseases.

These new introductions are often the most costly plants offered, reflecting both their appeal to consumers and the costs of development and introduction. The most enthusiastic collectors of the best and latest do not flinch and gladly pay the premium prices.

Gardeners who appreciate unfamiliar and interesting plants have alternatives to each year’s new crop of high-priced new introductions. The vast array of angiosperms includes many exotic, garden-worthy plants with gorgeous blossoms that are rarely seen in garden centers or catalogs, and are very much worth the time and attention of gardeners.

The local gardener’s search for exotic flowers will be most successful when focused on plants that are well suited for the special growing conditions of the Monterey Bay area. These include plants from the world’s “summer-dry” climate regions, including coastal California, the central coast of Chile, the southwestern coast of Australia, South Africa and of course the Mediterranean basin.

A wide selection of interesting plants is native to these areas, and will succeed in the Monterey Bay area with routine care.

One example of an interesting exotic from a summer-dry climate is the Giant White Squill (Urginea maritima), which is a member of the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae). This plant, which is from the Mediterranean basin, has an enormous bulb (perhaps the largest of any plant), and an unusual annual cycle. It grows in the winter: large leaves appear from November to about May, when they yellow and dry, and the plant goes dormant. Then, in late July, it sends up a dramatic flower spike, up to five feet high. Each spike has a raceme of hundreds of tiny white or pinkish-red flowers.

Click to enlarge. Giant White SquillClick to Enlarge Giant White Squill - CU Unusual plants that will grow w ell in your climate, can add a good measure of interest to your garden. Watch for exotic selections in your garden center or garden catalogs.

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The Giant White Squill has interesting characteristics.

  • All parts of the plant are toxic.
  • The flower stalks will continue to blossom after being cut, so you could bring a stalk indoors to watch the progressive opening of the blossoms.

For information about “uncommon and astonishing” plants, visit the website of Louis the Plant Geek. His website has information on many exotic plants, and includes photos of the Giant White Squill in leaf.

Gardeners oriented to reading could look for the book, Bizarre Botanicals, by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross (Timber Press, 2010). It could be in your local public library or book store, and is currently available on Amazon.com.

Wherever you find exotic plants for your garden, always favor plants that are suitable for your garden’s growing conditions. For most gardeners in the Monterey Bay area, remember that such plants are native to the Mediterranean climate region.

Be horticulturally adventuresome while increasing your chances for success!

Planning Garden Stairways

My garden includes a slight slope with a few stairs, made with 8” x 8” x 48” wooden highway ties. Earlier, garden stairs might have been made with railroad ties, which were often soaked in creosote as a preservative. Today, highway ties are pressure-treated with chemical preservatives, many of which are too toxic to be used near edible plants.

Happily, my short flight of aging stairs was not treated with a preservative, but consequently it is deteriorating and needs replacement. Wood is suitable for stairs that do contact soil, but in this case I will avoid rot by using flagstones or other natural stone. There are manufactured stone-like materials that also are available for such a project.

When planning garden stairs, first determine your preferred dimensions for the risers and treads. A six-inch riser with a fifteen-inch tread is a recommended combination, but other combinations also can work well. A steep flight of stairs might have seven-inch risers and eleven-inch treads, while a gentle flight might have four-inch risers and twenty eight-inch treads. See on gardening.com for the range of other good combinations.

Then, use a straight board and a carpenter’s level to measure the change in level from the bottom to the top of the slope. For a longer slope, use a garden hose, taking advantage of the fact that water seeks it own level. Hold the hose in a U-shape, with one end near the top of the slope and the other end near the bottom. Fill the hose with water, and adjust it so water is at the opening of each end. When this condition has been met, the two ends will be at the same elevation, and the distance of the lower end to the ground, minus the distance of the upper end to the ground equals the change in level. See ongardening.com for an illustration of this method.

Divide the change in level by your preferred height for the riser to determine the number of steps needed for that particular slope.

Then, measure the horizontal distance from the bottom of the slope to the top. Your preferred dimension for the tread times the number of stairs should equal that distance. If it does not, modify the riser and tread dimensions (using one of the good combinations) or include a curve in the flight of stairs or reshape the slope.

The width of the stairs is the next design issue to be addressed. The narrowest width could be two feet, which might be sufficient for a utility stairway. A one-person stairway should be four feet wide, which is generally considered the minimum for a garden path. A two-person stairway should be five feet wide.

Wider stairways, in scale with the landscape, can provide a visually striking appearance. This stairway at Les Quatre Vents, an estate near Quebec, is designed for grand entrances. (Click to enlarge)

Grand Staircase

Staircase at Les Quatre Vents, near Quebec, Canada

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Gardening in July

During this hot and dry month, the avid gardener should pursue seasonal tasks to keep the garden looking good and prepare for the change of seasons.

Irrigation should be a high priority to sustain plants that must have a ration of water during the drought. Pass by Mediterranean climate plants, which are accustomed to dry summers. A little moisture will perk up even these rugged individuals and extend their best days, but a better use of scarce water resources would target the garden’s thirstier specimens.

Roses, for example, could produce another bloom cycle during July if treated to a balanced fertilizer and watered deeply. Other candidates for regular watering are plants in containers, which can dry out fast.  First confirm that your water usage is within current restrictions.

If your garden consists mostly of Mediterranean climate and succulent plants, this year’s drought should not cause alarm. On the other hand, if you have a thirsty lawn, consider replacing it with plants of the summer-dry persuasion. The same strategy would be appropriate for plants from tropical, riparian or boggy areas.

Blossoms to enjoy in July include gladiolus, agapanthus and fuchsia, and fragrant Oriental hybrid lilies, e.g., pure white ‘Casablanca’.

Casablanca Lily

I am also enjoying blossoms of Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’ trees, which are crosses of catalpa and desert willow. They put on a show reliably around Independence Day, but opened a little earlier this year.

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The Corsican hellebores (H. argutifolius) have finished their winter-to-spring display, and leaned down their bloom stalks to drop seeds all around. The seasonal task is to cut stalks to their bases to make room for the new growth, which has already started.

The tall bearded irises also have finished blooming for this year. They will look best after the flower stalks are cut down, the leaves fade, and the rhizomes enter dormancy. Every four years, during the period from mid-July to mid-September, dig and divide the rhizomes to promote blooming for net spring.

In July and August, plant autumn-blooming blubs, e.g., autumn crocus (C. speciosus and C. sativus), meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), and spider lilies: Lycoris squamigera with lilac or rose pink blooms and L. radiata with orange-red blooms.

Control cool-season annual weeds, currently going to seed: bindweed, chickweed, crab grass, knotweed, lambs-quarters, mallow, pigweed, purple deadnettle, groundsel, nettle, purslane, speedwell and spurge, as well as field grasses. Dispose of seeds in the green waste not in the compost bin! The invasive cheery yellow Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae) has already faded, leaving clusters of bulbs to sprout next spring.

Gardens as Tools

Following recent surgery, I felt too fatigued and sore for even light gardening. Those limitations lasted about one week, after which I could again put in several hours on easy—and overdue— tasks: weeding, installing small plants, pruning, all of which helped a lot in my recovery.

This episode stimulated thoughts of the garden’s many functions beyond pleasing the eye, feeding the stomach and providing regular light exercise.

Without minimizing the direct benefits of ornamental and edible gardening, consider the types of therapeutic gardens: healing, meditation, contemplation, and restorative.

“Healing” means helping individuals to overcome physical, mental, emotional or spiritual challenges.

“Meditation” involves deepening personal knowledge and attaining inner peace.

“Contemplation” involves thoughtfully examining issues larger than oneself, perhaps in a religious or mystical manner.

“Restoration” refers to returning to an ideal or normal state from a stressed or agitated state, or from boredom or difficulty in focusing.

A garden designed to help individuals to overcome physical challenges is described as an accessible garden. The design typically emphasizes raised beds, tall enough to provide easy access to the gardener who cannot kneel, or finds it difficult to do so. (Rising from kneeling could be just as challenging.) There are also convenient tools, e.g., rolling seats, tools with long handles, telescoping pruners, for gardeners who have grown to be less than spry.

Other kinds of accessible gardens are designed for gardeners with partial or complete loss of sight, emphasizing blossom fragrance or plant texture over appearance, to favor smell or touch.

No garden, however accessible or well intentioned actually effects any healing or restoration. Only the gardener who desires to be healed or restored can achieve such outcomes. In this perspective, the garden is not the cure, only the gardener’s tool.

The focus on the gardener is the same for meditation and contemplation gardens, which offer only nature’s calm environment to invite the gardener to forget for the moment personal stresses and the busy world’s demands, and to consider issues greater than “why snails?”

There’s one more type of therapeutic garden: the motivational garden, which helps those who may be bored or having difficulty in focusing.  Once we have begun gardening, and experienced the satisfaction of seeing plants grow under our hands, even a brief visit to the garden stimulates the urge to pull a weed, deadhead a faded blossom, or move a misplaced specimen to a better spot.

Gardens are valuable tools for many special purposes; many gardeners find them therapeutic on all occasions.

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The American Horticultural Therapy Association provides its definitions and positions regarding therapeutic gardening.

The American Society of Landscape Architects offers an interesting essay, “The Therapeutic Garden— A Definition.”

Pinterest (which collects photos on various topics from many sources has several unorganized groups on topics related to therapeutic gardens. A search on “horticultural therapy ideas” yields this collection, which demonstrates the wide range of ideas that people associate with “horticultural therapy.”

 

Plants for Rock Gardens

Many different plants could be included in a rock garden. The usual design approach limits plant selection to low-growing varieties, but this is not a necessary constraint.

A brief study of the vegetation on a naturally occurring rocky landscape would help in designing a realistic rock garden for a residential landscape.

Some travel could be required to locate one or more good examples; this could be a pleasant weekend excursion with a clear purpose, especially if one knows where to find rocky landscapes. Ask around!

Once found, rocky landscapes might include one or more trees of various sizes, as well as shrubs and smaller plants. Clearly, proximity to rocks does not limit the size of plants.

A rock Garden in July

A late July scene in the rock garden of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden; photo by Todd Boland.

The assumption that rock garden plants should be low-growing specimens probably relates to alpine gardens, which have inspired many rock gardens. Alpine gardens feature plants that grow naturally in high-altitude, mountainous areas, which typically have large stones and much gravel, low temperatures, low moisture, and poor soil nutrition. Plants that survive under such conditions might very well be small in overall size and low growing.

Developing an authentic alpine garden, however, involves reproducing the challenging conditions in which alpine plants are found. There are alpine varieties of some familiar garden varieties, e.g., Campanula, Dianthus, Geranium, Phlox, Primula, Ranunculus, Sedum, Sisyrinchium, Thyme. If such plants were to be grown in a moderate climate, in rich soil and with ample moisture, they would respond with more lush growth and greater size than they would in a true alpine garden.

Rock gardens should not be confused with alpine gardens. In fact, rocky landscapes can and do occur in a wide range of climates, with the only common characteristic being exposed rocks. So, in planting a rock garden, the gardener should first select plants that will thrive in the local environment. The Monterey Bay area’s climate supports a wide range of choices.

The rock garden designer still might want to emphasize low growing plants to keep the vegetation in scale with the surrounding landscape and the rock garden itself, and to keep the rocks visible (they might have required a significant investment).

Another consideration is the relationship of the plants to each other. This perspective might lead to developing a plant community, i.e., a grouping of plants that grow together in nature. Other possibilities include a thematic approach, e.g., a white garden or an analogous or complementary color scheme. In our moderate local climate, the designer also might plan for year-round seasonal color, or for interesting contrasts of foliage or structure.

There are many possibilities, but the most successful and satisfying landscape plans always are based on a plan of some description, rather than a series of impulsive decisions.

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Alpine Garden Society – Plants –This is a thoroughly amazing website, a vast treasure trove of images and information about alpine plants. At the site, click on “AGS Encyclopedia” then on either “Families,” “Genera,” Species,” or “Authors” for encyclopedic information. (I found “Genera” most useful.)

sizedClass-1-second_SAXIFRAGA PANICULATA_Class1-1_ MANNLICHEN, BERNESE OBERLAND, SWITZERLAND JUNE 201228882

 

The image above came from Images/Photographic Competition/Previous Winners/AGS Photographic Competition, 2012 – Winners

The website invites—and requires—exploration to discover its many riches.

North American Rock Garden Society – Another good source of plant images and descriptions. Not as extensive as the Alpine Garden Society’s website, but helpful as an introduction to rock garden plants. At the site, click on “Plants” for the entry to lists and images.

Rock Gardens & Ground Covers A page of unorganized photos submitted to Pinterest. Interesting to scroll through, to see some very good plant pictures, some attractive designs (more or less naturalistic) and some truly bad designs (but that’s one person’s opinion).

Scottish Rock Garden Club – This website provides free access to many back issues of The International Rock Gardener, an excellent publication.

Rock Gardening

Garden renovation projects might include mounds to add visual interest in an otherwise flat terrain, and also to provide drainage and other benefits of raised beds. A particular form of the garden mound is the rock garden, based on a natural or simulated outcrop of rocks.

An outcrop could occur in a flat area, but are most common—and look most realistic when created—on a slope, where erosion over time would have exposed the underling rock formation. If your property includes an area that has a slope of ten degrees or more, and full exposure to the sun, you have a good site for a rock garden. Never mind if it lacks rocks: they can be trucked in from a stone yard.

Lacking a sloped area, the gardener could develop a rock garden on a mound, and should not be reluctant to do so, but should avoid the look of “a dog’s grave,” which results when an isolated bump is placed in a lawn. A mounded rock garden will have a naturalistic appearance when is has substantial size appropriate to the setting, and a backdrop of shrubs, trees, wall or hills.

Another contributor to a natural look is a scree boundary. The base of a natural rock outcrop often will have a loose accumulation of smaller stones and rock chips, called “scree.” So, where sufficient space is available, include a scree bed about two feet wide between the rock garden and the adjacent lawn or pathway. The scree bed should have a foundation of about eight inches of scree compost (1 part topsoil, 1 part compost, 3 parts gravel). An edging would help to contain the stones.

Acquiring and placing rocks will be the most expensive, strenuous and aesthetically challenging part of the project. Here are recommended guidelines:

  • Use one kind of stone, preferably one that occurs naturally in the area. Traditionally, rock gardens use limestone or sandstone, but in the Monterey Bay area Sonoma fieldstone, an igneous rock (basalt or rhyolite), is widely available and popular.
  • Commit to the project. Include boulders (stones too large for one person to move) even though they can be difficult to place in desired positions.
  • Contract with the stone yard deliver materials to as close as possible to their eventual location.
  • Position stones for a natural appearance: larger stones will be uphill of smaller stones; some stones might be close to other stones.
  • Bury stones one-third to one-half of their vertical dimension. Stones rarely are found atop the soil.

A rock garden is just one use of stones in garden design. Stones are also used for walls, borders of beds, walkways or patios. All such uses can be attractive in the garden, partly because of the contrast between the surfaces of stones and plants. Recognize, however, the differences between naturalistic rock gardens and these other uses, in which stones are used as building materials.

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20 Fabulous Rock Garden Design Ideas —from Decoist.com. These images show fine designs that demonstrate a variety of uses of rocks in the landscape. Not all designs could be called naturalistic.

 

Rock Garden Ideas — 112 images of rock gardens, ranging from naturalistic designs to “whimsical” ideas. Test yourself on whether these designs follow or violate the five design guidelines listed in this article.

Alpine Garden Society – This society is based in the British Isles, where rock gardens first became popular. Gardeners in the United States have developed many rock gardens, but not with the enthusiastic commitment evident in England.

The Rock Garden – Very good how-to article by Alan Grainger, with sufficient information to guide a novice project.  Visit the website, The Alpine Garden for many related garden and plant photos, book reviews and other resources.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens A large and varied place, designed for visits (not so much for web browsing). This could be the most highly developed public rock garden in the United States.

How to Build Rock Gardens From About.com – This website illustrates a “rockery,” a garden design that is based on rocks, but which does not pretend to a natural look. This might also be called a “dog’s grave.”

Poisoning the Pollinators

It’s about time for National Pollinator Week, June 16–23. Check it out at Polllintaor Partnership.

Big agriculture uses many synthetic chemicals. Consumers are concerned by neonicotinoids (“neonics”), which are sprayed on nearly all cornfields, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects this year will cover an area equal nearly the size of California.  Neonics also are sprayed on many garden center plants, and are used on seeds used to grow soy, wheat, cotton, sorghum, peanuts and other crops.

These chemicals persist in soils, travel through plants and poison nectar and pollen. USDA scientists found an average of nine pesticides and fungicides in a sample of plants. The contaminated pollen is eaten by hive bees, which pollinate many of the plants we eat, and many wild bees, which pollinate 90% of all flowering plants.

Neonics do not to kill bees, but seem to reduce the bees’ ability to resist infection by a parasitic fungus and could make bees more susceptible to the parasitic Varroa mite. Researchers at Harvard University also suspect that neonics impair honeybee’s memory, cognition or behavior, and damage their ability to navigate back to their hive.

Increasingly, research indicates that neonics contribute to “Colony Collapse Disorder,” which refers to the sudden decline of entire beehives. During the past five years, some 30% of bees in the United States have simply disappeared. This is about 50% greater than the expected rate.

The Environmental Protection Agency now requires that neonic product labels include a bee hazard icon and directions to minimize use where bees and other pollinators could forage, or where sprays could drift to hives or “pollinator attractive habitats.” Sadly, the EPA’s labels do not address neonic-treated seeds, which also affect bees.

In July of 2013, the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R 2692) was introduced. This bill would suspend the use of neonics until proven safe, and harmless to pollinators. Observers give the bill a zero chance to become law.

Meanwhile, the principal producers of neonics, Bayer and Syngenta, insist that CCD is not caused by their pesticides, but by parasites, pathogens, loss of habitat and other factors. Monsanto, which treats its seeds with neonics, joins in these arguments.

As private and public interests clash, home gardeners can help to protect our pollinators:

  • Buy only certified-organic seeds and plant starts.
  • Eliminate synthetic chemical pesticides from your garden.
  • Plant wildflowers to attract and feed bees.
  • Leave part of your landscape natural for solitary-living native bees.
  • Ask your congressman to support the Saving America’s Pollinators Act.

A world without bees means a world without flowers!

Mote

Several organizations have posted formation about problems for honeybees.. Interested readers can conduct their own search for “Colony Collapse Disorder” or related search terms.  Here are some websites that I have found to be informative.

For more information for residential gardeners, see the brochure, “Bee Safe Gardening Tips,” by Bee Action and Friends of the Earth.

For a n analysis of the position taken by producers of neonics, see Michele Simon’s well-research report, “Follow the Honey: 7 was pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis tg protect profits.” This report also is distributed by Bee Action and Friends of the Earth.

Another interesting and useful paper from Friends of the Earth, for home gardeners, is
Gardeners Beware: Bee-Toxic Pesticides Found in “Bee-Friendly” Plants Sold at Garden Centers Nationwide. It should not be surprising that garden centers, especially the big box stores, want to eliminate insects on the plants they sell, and use insecticides for that purpose, but it might be surprising to learn that about half the time those insecticides are toxic to honeybees.

Other websites to check out include the following:

Beyond Pesticides This site is about all pollinators, not just honeybees. In particular, see th recent article “Not Longer a BIG Mystery,” which concludes that there is no longer any ambiguity about the impact of synthetic chemicals on bees and other pollinators.

Melissa Garden A great source of information about Plants for Pollinators and information about bees.  (“Melissa” is a Greek word meaning honeybee.)

The Xerces Society An authoritative —and interesting—site for invertebrate conservation, with a focus on bees and butterflies and other threatened invertebrates,

 

What GE food labeling means for consumers, growers

Bill goes to state Senate next week as part of slow approval process that could end with decision in hands of governor

Almost two months ago, I traced the progress of California legislation that would require labels on grocery items that contain genetically engineered (GE) food ingredients. Today’s column provides an update of the status of that legislation, and asks what it means to gardeners and grocery shoppers.

First, the Health, Agriculture and Judiciary Committees each have approved Senate Bill 1381, so the full Senate will consider it next week. If the Senate approves the bill, the Assembly will consider it. Then, assuming both houses pass the bill, it will go to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, which would make GE labeling California law.

This methodical sequence exemplifies the democratic process: thorough but not always fast.

The process of course includes lots of lobbying by both consumer groups who insist that the public has a right to know what is in their food, and corporate groups who prefer a cloak of darkness. Have I revealed my bias? I hope so.

What does this legislation mean for gardeners and grocery shoppers?

First, it would become effective January 1, 2016, so the legal impact wouldn’t be immediate. The practical impact, however, would be felt soon. Food providers would quickly re-design their labeling (a common occurrence, actually, not an unusual expense).

Another short-term impact would be that twenty other states (at last count) would advance similar legislation. According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the state’s agriculture industry revenues totaled $44.7 billion in 2012, making it one of the nation’s largest food producers. California’s action would establish the national standard for GE food labeling.

Another outcome: grocery shoppers would see the new labels, and very possibly would increase their purchases of non-GE foods, i.e., organic foods, which by federal regulation cannot include GE ingredients. This would substantially boost in the market for organically grown produce, and a statistically small but meaningful loss of demand for products with GE ingredients.

In the longer view, because GE technology typically makes crops immune to weed killers and has encouraged vast increases in uses of synthetic chemical pesticides, GE food labeling would reduce those uses and the accumulation of those chemicals in our environment.

Another longer-term impact, based on weeds’ natural adaptation to synthetic chemical pesticides, would be to slow the growth of pesticide-resistant “super weeds.” Scientists have for years predicted the emergence of such weeds, which are beginning to appear. The corporate perspective on super weeds does not foresee the loss of business for GE seeds and the related synthetic pesticides, but rather the introduction of even more toxic synthetic pesticides, such as the defoliant Agent Orange.

Home gardeners surely would benefit from a more natural environment with less contamination from synthetic chemicals. Fortunately, the evolutionary development of super weeds, which seriously impacts commercial farmers, won’t bother the home gardener because they can pull even super weeds by their roots.

Gardening helps us to avoid the usual daily stresses but politics still intrude.

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This issue will stay in the state and national news for the foreseeable future, whether or not the California Senate approves the current legislation. Those who want to follow the issue have ample information sources on-line, and on both sides of the issue.

A good place to start would be to read California’s Senate Bill 1381, which is only nine pages long. Search the Internet for “California SB 1381.”

The arguments of opponents to label genetically engineered (GE) foods are represented well by The Atlantic magazine. The most recent article, by Molly Ball, appeared on May 14, 2014, with the title “Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified?” At last count, it had 2,103 comments by readers.

An August 20, 2013 article in Scientific American,  “Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea,” also has inspired hundreds of comments (a recent response was gated May 19, 2014).

For the full picture, read these articles and at least a sample of the readers’ comments.

The advocates of labeling are well represented on consumer-oriented websites, particularly the following:

Organic Consumers Association

Center for Food Safety

Beyond Pesticides

 

Gardening on Slopes

Last week, we explored ways to accomplish elevation changes to add visual interest to a flat garden. When we begin with a very different topography, one with significant ups and downs, a surplus of visual interest could challenge the gardener.

A gentle slope could present minimal problems. It could in fact enhance drainage and sight lines, so that the viewer could see more of the landscape at once. A property that slopes away from the residence would be preferred, however, to one that slopes toward the residence and could directs rainwater to places where is unwanted.

A significantly sloping garden site could raise problems in two areas: navigation and water erosion. Both problems could be addressed with a single strategy, in some cases, but we will first consider them separately.

Water erosion in a garden will lead eventually to the loss of plants, topsoil and desirable organic material, so it must be controlled. There are two strategies for controlling erosion in landscaping: slowing the flow of water to promote percolation and growing plants to hold the soil in place (and also to help slow the flow of water).

The primary method for slowing the flow of water is to install baffles. For a gentle slope, baffles could be landscape timbers or stones. Steeper slopes could require a series of terraces. Terraces could be created by digging steps into the slope, and reinforcing the risers with wood, stone, bricks or concrete. The materials could be more or less natural in appearance: for example, a wooden reinforcement could be logs or milled lumber, a concrete wall could be poured in place or made with concrete blocks.

Terraces, like steps, have treads and risers, but these elements can differ greatly in their dimensions. For steps, treads should be no less than eleven inches, and risers should be no greater than six inches. For terraces, however, treads should be much deeper, enough for both a planting bed and an access path for maintenance. Terrace risers can be of any height needed to control erosion. Note that a permit could be required for a riser high enough that the local building code defines as a wall (four feet, often).

Terraces could slow the flow of water without vegetation, but they would be more effective when the addition of plants. For a moderately steep slope, a combination of terraces and steps could be a substantial challenge for both engineering and garden design. This example shows the combination of terraces and steps. Notice, also, that a grassed pathway provides access to the upper planting bed. 37b26aa74349cf431f12649af9a74864 Some slopes are simply too steep for terracing. In such situations, the slope should be planted to hold the soil in place. When starting with bare soil, as with new construction, temporary installation of landscape netting, coir logs or biodegradable wattles could help the plants to establish their roots.

The next image illustrates the temporary use of biodegradable wattles to minimize water erosion while new plants establish their roots. It is not clear from this distant view if seeds or seedlings have yet been installed, but that action generally would follow the placement of wattles.

Management of large, steep slopes like this one should include soil testing and engineering study to ensure that the planned actions will be effective and the slope will have been stabilized.

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Gardening on a slope involves some challenges, but the end result can be elevating!