Rain Gardens – Advanced Water Conservation

Most gardeners have learned that large percentages of residential water usage occur outdoors, mostly as a result of irrigating lawn grass and other plants, and have adopted water-saving practices: replacing thirsty lawn grass with naturally drought resistant perennial plants, especially California native plants, using efficient drip irrigation, and mulch. These strategies involve relatively low expense, depending on implementation.

Some gardeners have gone to the next stage of water conservation, which includes water catchment and grey water recycling. These strategies require equipment, and its installation, both of which could lead to some initial expenses. A 5,000-gallon water tank, for example, would be a substantial investment, but one pays off through long-term water savings or even fire protection.

Today’s column introduces percolation ponds as another stage of water conservation.

When we are fortunate enough to have rain, much of the water from roofs and paved areas runs to storm drains, which in the Monterey Bay area lead eventually to the sea. An efficient storm drain system avoids flooding, but often delivers pollutants into the ocean. A better approach is to direct the runoff to the soil, which filters the pollutants and leads the water into the aquifer.

This approach involves the development of a percolation pond, which is simply a low area that collects and holds runoff so that it percolates into the ground.

The principal objectives for percolation ponds are to filter runoff to minimize pollution, recharge local groundwater, and conserve water.

To include a percolation pond in your garden, find a naturally occurring low area (or create one) that is at least ten feet away from your home and any existing septic field. This separation is needed to avoid having water migrate towards your foundation, or to interfere with any utilities close to the house.

Rain Garden - Sentinel

A rain garden by a driveway in Pacific Grove. Credit Dona Johnsen Landscape Archietcture

 

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A rain garden away from the (east coast?) residence. Credit: EPA:gov

 

The percolation pond should have good drainage, so that it holds water for no more than forty-eight hours. A retention pond, by contrast, holds water for longer periods, and could be designed as a water garden or bog garden.

Determine the surface area of the percolation pond to reflect the surface area of the capture area and the soil type. For example, multiple the surface area of your roof by 20% for sandy soil, 33& for loamy soil, and 45-60% for clayey soil. If you are creating a percolation pond, the bottom layer ideally should consist of about 60% sand, 20% compost and 20% topsoil. This composition would provide effective filtering of the runoff.

Then, adjust downspouts or a sump pump outlet to direct the water into the percolation pond. Depending on the situation, a bioswale could be used to direct the runoff to the percolation pond. A bioswale is a drainage course with gently sloped sides (less than six percent) and filled with vegetation, compost and/or riprap.

In areas that receive regular rainfall, the upper layer of the percolation pond can be planted with deep-rooted perennials, which can flourish under occasional deep soaking, followed by relatively dry periods. These features are called “rain gardens.”

In California, where we need to protect and restore our aquifers, and have current drought conditions, the upper layer might emphasize decorative stones, which can slow the flow of water that might otherwise overflow, and promote percolation. California native plants, once established, would do well in a percolation pond, and also provide both an attractive appearance and environmental benefits. Continue reading

GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”

Echeverias: Mexico’s Gift to Gardeners

After a recent silent auction of succulent plants, I brought home a fine specimen of Echeveria agavoides, which is one of the most popular species of the genus Echeveria, which includes 130 species. Plant hunters are finding and identifying additional species in Mexico’s mountainous terrain, where the plants are difficult to access and study.

The generic name honors Mexican botanical artist Atanasio Echeverria, who made some of the first drawings of the plant around 1787. My plant’s specific name, agavoides, means “looking like an agave.” The common name for this plant is Molded Wax Agave. Note that agaves are members of an entirely different botanical family.

Echeveria agavoides

Echeveria agavoides

 

The fleshy, succulent leaves of all Echeverias form rosettes, but the genus includes plants of many different sizes, leaf and blossom colors and special characteristics, e.g., frilly or bumpy leaves. The plants grow during the summer months, and are dormant from November through February. Plants may be evergreen or deciduous, and all are polycarpic, meaning they may flower and set seed many times during their lifetimes. (Monocarpic plants die after flowering.)

Many gardeners’ first contact with this genus is with “hens and chicks,” which is a common name for E. elegans, E. secunda and other plants.

Echeveria species are generally easy to propagate by separating offsets, rooting leaves, or planting seeds. The species also can be crossed easily with each other and even with species from some other genera, e.g., Graptopetalum, Pachyphytum and Sedum.

Growers have created many hundreds of generic and intergeneric hybrids. Hybridizers have named and formally introduced the more attractive cultivars, but have also released many of the less successful cultivars into the market. Hybrid plants are not propagated from seeds, but only by asexual methods, i.e., rooting offsets and detached leaves.

Selected variants within a species also can be cultivars. E. agavoides, for example, includes two popular cultivars: ‘Lipstick’, which has a rosettes in clumps that are 6 inches tall by 8 to 12 inches wide with apple-green leaves with vivid red-pink edges, and ‘Ebony’, which is similar in size, with gray-green leaves that have vivid red edges that, when grown in bright sun, blend in a dark red terminal spine.

‘Ebony’ is a natural hybrid that can be difficult to grow and propagate. In the silent auction ‘Ebony’ attracted more and higher bids than my choice, which looks to me to be ‘Lipstick’.

Excellent books about Echeverias include “The Genus Echeveria” (2008) by John Pilbeam and “Echeveria Cultivars” (2005) by Lorraine Schulz and Attila Kapitany. Another good source of information is the website of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society. The Society is the local affiliate of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Echeverias are available in a variety of forms, and all are easy to maintain and propagate, drought-tolerant, and interesting in color and form. They can be a fine addition to the garden, where they will develop the best colors, or an indoor container. Look for them in your local garden center or online.

Protecting the Pollinators

The next time you are in your garden, tell the bees a national strategy now exists to protect their health.

The document, dated May 19, 2015, responds to President Obama’s memorandum of June 19, 2014, establishing the Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and including representatives of fourteen other federal agencies. The president asked for a report in six months, but it required eleven months.

Monarch Butterly

Monarch Butterly

Several federal studies on pollinator health had already been conducted, and most observers recognized that the decline of honeybee and butterfly populations was resulting from several factors:

Loss of Habitat. The use of Roundup to kill weeds in crop fields also has been eliminating milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) that Monarch larvae eat.

Exposure to Chemical Pesticides. The use of neonicotinoid pesticides (“neonics”) also has been killing honeybees and leading to Colony Collapse Disorder, and perhaps killing birds as well.

Attacks from Pests. The Varroa destructor is a tiny parasitic mite that first appeared in the United States in 1987. It infests bee colonies and feeds on bee blood.

Other threats to pollinator health include loss of nutritional forage, diseases, and even stresses related to trucking beehives to pollinate agricultural crops.

The Task Force report addresses four themes: research on pollinator losses, public education and outreach, improving pollinator habitat, and developing public-private partnerships to carry out these activities.

The Task Force also identified three target outcomes:

  • Reduce honeybee colony losses by to no more than 15% within ten years;
  • Increase the Eastern population of Monarch butterflies to 225 million butterflies by 2020;
  • Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

The Task Force, working with numerous federal agencies, has developed a series of action plans and resources to pursue these intended outcomes. It also has committed to annual assessments of progress toward these goals.

Another bureaucracy has been created!

Bee-friendly organizations have been less than enthusiastic about these plans. For example, the Xerces Society said, “The national strategy includes valuable long-term plans that could, over time, strengthen the pesticide regulatory system. But it fails to offer pesticide mitigation to address issues currently facing pollinators.”

Similarly, the Center for Food Safety said, “the plan is unfortunately too weak to actually accomplish these goals.” The Center called for speedy action to reduce uses of chemical pesticides and herbicides that have been identified as threats to pollinator health.

We’ll watch for the results of these action plans. We would like to tell the bees that the federal strategy is working.

Meanwhile, help to protect our hardworking pollinators by keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using the less-toxic alternatives. For more ideas, the Pollinator Partnership has provided,  “7 Things You Can Do For Pollinators.”

More

Another bee-friendly group that advocates reduced uses of neonics is Beyond Pesticides.

California Master Gardener Handbook, 2nd Edition

The California Master Gardener program has released a major revision of its handbook for gardeners.

MG Handbook

In this column, we look between the covers to see if this book would be helpful to you.

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension program has been training Master Gardeners since 1980, and has produced many useful publications. UC Cooperative Extension “brings practical, unbiased, science-based answers to problems across California.” It serves California’s agricultural industry, mostly, but the Master Gardener program works with home gardeners, providing information and training in gardening, land and water management, and healthy living.

Many UC Cooperative Extension publications are rather technical, and oriented to farming on a large scale, but the California Master Gardener Handbook has been designed for both master gardeners in training and other serious home gardeners.

The first edition of the Handbook, which was published in 2002, struck me as a compilation of publications that were intended originally for farmers. That’s OK, because the advice for farmers is valid for home gardeners as well, if they skip sentences like this one from the Berries chapter: “Set heavy posts at least 2 feet into the ground at each end of the row. Set lighter posts about 20 to 30 feet apart in the row.”

The new second edition (2015) has some similar content, but a significant amount of new material is clearly aimed at home gardeners. All of the content is easy to understand, and well supported with clear photos and illustrations.

Dennis Pittenger, a veteran of the Master Gardener Program, edited the Handbook and also contributed several chapters; an additional 25 educators are acknowledged as authors of specific chapters. Much expertise is represented between the covers of this book.

The Handbook includes 756 pages, which can be categorized as follows:

  • General Horticulture (30% of the pages): Chapters include Introduction to Horticulture, Soil and Fertilizer Management, Water Management, Plant Pathology, Insects, Weeds, Pests, and Diagnosing Plant Problems.
  • Ornamentals (22%): Plant Propagation, House Plants, Lawns, Woody Landscape Plants, Landscape and Garden Design, and Poisonous Plants.
  • Edibles (40%): Home Vegetable Gardening, Grapes, Berries, Temperate Tree Fruit and Nut Crops, Citrus, Avocados.
  • Additional chapters: Overview of the California Master Gardener Program, Useful Conversions, Glossary, and Index (39 detailed pages!).

The Handbook complements UC Cooperative Extension’s online publications (http://ucanr.edu/Publications_524/) and Sunset’s Western Garden Book, which the Handbook mentions respectfully.

I’ve always thought of a “handbook” as a publication that fits in the hand, and is suitable for ready reference in the field. Indeed, such books have been called vade mecum (which is Latin for “go with me”). This 4.5-pound tome might be called, more appropriately, a gardening encyclopedia, but by any other name it would still be a valuable reference for a serious gardener’s library.

More

Both books are available on Amazon.com:

California Master Gardener Handbook, 2nd Edition

The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide

 

Choosing Plant Containers

When choosing a container for an indoor plant, consider both practical and aesthetic factors.

The challenge to successfully match a pot and a plant could arise in two ways: you want an exceptional pot for a fine plant, or you want a find plant for an exceptional pot. In either case, the objective is a prominent display and you want the pot and plant to complement each other.

If you have a large number of plants in containers, the individual specimens tend to be lost in the crowd, and the containers might all be the same.

Rather than taking an abstract view of such decisions, let’s examine a case study of finding the right pot for a particular plant.

This is not fictional scenario, but a real-life challenge to select the right pot for a particular plant.

The challenge originated when a friend persuaded me that a freshly planted wall in my home should have an Amazon Lily (Eucharis amazonica), from central and South America. The generic name combines two Greek words meaning “good, true” and “loveliness.” The plant has impressive features: glossy, dark green evergreen leaves; plentiful white, daffodil-like blossoms; sweet and spicy fragrance; and no serious problems from pests and diseases. Because it prefers indirect light, it’s well suited as a houseplant.

Eucharis amazonica

Click to Enlarge

 

 

Here is an example of the Amazon Lily, from aJanuary 2011 article in the Shreveport Times.

 

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.58.34 AM

The Amazon Lily will grow to 18-24 inches high and wide in maturity and can remain in its pot, root-bound and happy, for many years.

This suggests a pot just large enough to accommodate the root ball and provide stability for the plant, while not requiring much soil to fill the space.

In addition to its capacity, the height of the pot should be considered. While there are no firm rules for pot height, a good starting point would be one-third to one-half of the plant’s mature height. In this case, we should choose a pot that is nine or ten inches high.

Pots suitable for houseplants are available in various materials: terra cotta, glazed clay, plastic, metal, etc. Many favor terra cotta pots, which are are widely available and inexpensive. Their porosity allows oxygen to reach the roots of plants, but also allows the soil to dry out quickly. Other materials are better for retaining moisture.

Both glazed clay and plastic pots offer many options of color and decoration. My preference is for glazed clay because it has more weight to stabilize the plant. Plastics in any form have negative impacts on the environment.

Notice that we are not considering black plastic nursery cans for houseplants!

Color is another consideration for the choice of container. Here are some options.

  • Monochromatic scheme: Given the plant’s striking, ever-present leaves, one or more shades of green would be ok. A simple dark green would provide a visual match.
  • Analogous scheme: This approach uses colors that are side by side on a color wheel. Starting with green (to go with the leaves), other colors might be blue and yellow.
  • Contrast Scheme: Create vivid contrast with three colors that are far from each other on the color wheel, e.g., blue-green, red-violet and yellow-orange.
  • Complementary scheme: The most dynamic combination uses two colors that are opposites on the color wheel, e.g., green and red.

When displaying a plant, it is generally best for the plant rather than the container to be the focus on attention. A pot that deserves to be featured should not contain a plant!

My choice is narrowing down to a dark green glazed clay pot that is no more than ten inches high. There are many possible choices with those features.

Very quickly, I found a pot that meets this objective. That was a surprise, because I had been looking off and on for a couple weeks, without success. Soon, I’ll post a photo of that pot (but I’m off to a garden tour right now).

Designing a Drought-tolerant Landscape

When planning your garden for the long term, today’s important considerations include drought tolerance. Gardeners should be open to changing their gardens from time to time, as ideas change, new plants attract attention and—let’s face it—some older plants move to the compost heap in the sky.

Still, when we must anticipate prospects for long-term drought, it makes sense to base your landscape design on plants that can thrive without lots of water, or even regular irrigation.

Landscape design can be a challenging enterprise, but also could be quite approachable, given planning ahead and narrowing your focus. Assuming that you wish to change your current landscape from thirsty to drought-tolerant, or from boring to interesting, here is one path for a short distance between your present and future gardens.

First, select your target area. This might be all of a smaller yard or a high priority, not-too-large section. The front garden might be a good candidate.

Then, study the area’s characteristics: exposure to sun and wind, soil texture (sand, clay, loam), and topography (flat, sloped, hilly). This will determine which plants would be appropriate for your garden’s conditions.

Very important: choose a theme to guide plant selections for your new landscape. A theme of well-defined, limited theme will lead to study of plants that meet your criterion and add to the character of the landscape.

Plenty of plants are drought-tolerant, particularly plants from the five Mediterranean (or summer-dry) regions of the world, and succulents. For this model approach to design, we focus on California native plants; an even better theme would be plants that are native to your local plant community. California’s native plants have evolved to succeed in the soils and climates of their native growing grounds, and to enjoy symbiotic relationships with the local flora and fauna.

Secure ready access to at least one good reference book. Several good choices are available, but here is my short list:

  • The New Sunset Western Garden Book, 9th Edition (2012), edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel;
  • The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-care Plantings (2015), edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel;
  • Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (2007), by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook; and
  • Growing California Native Plants, 2nd Edition (2012), by Marjorie Schmidt and Katherine Greenberg, with illustrations by Beth Merrick.

Select a small number of plants, for development of clusters or swaths of the same plant for optimum visual appeal and design coherence. Most gardener designers favor landscapes with plant groups or repeats, and avoid collections of isolated single specimens.

Check out local garden centers and nurseries to locate good inventories for your thematic design. Just about any plant is available by mail order, but the more common California native plants should be readily available from local sources.

Brodiaea, California Cluster Lily

click to enlarge

 

The plant in the photo is the California native bulb, Brodiaea californica, which has the common name, California Cluster Lily. Brodiaea plants once Triteleia plants, which have been identified as a separate (but related) genus.

Here are the botanical and common names of short lists of well-liked California native plants for a drought-tolerant landscape that has good exposure to the sun.

Trees: Arbutus (Madrone), Aesculus (California Buckeye), Quercus (Oak)

Taller Shrubs: Ceanothus (California Lilac), Rhamnus (California Coffeeberry), Rhus (Lemonade Berry)

Shorter Shrubs: Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), Artemesia (California Sagebrush), Baccharis (Dwarf Chapparal)

Perennials: Dudleya (Live Forever), Penstemon (Beardtongue), Salvia (Sage)

Bulbs: Allium (Onion), Brodiaea (Triteleia), Calochortus (Mariposa Tulip)

Groundcovers: Epilobium or Zauschneria (California Fuchsia), Eriogonum (Island Buckwheat)

All of these plants require watering after planting and until they are established. Such variables as soil texture, air temperature, and rainfall will determine the amount and frequency of watering, but the objective is to maintain soil moisture until there any danger of wilt has passed. Once the plants are well rooted, they will benefit from being watered during seasonal growth periods, but will survive nicely on their own during our future drought.

More

To learn more about the plants suggested above, check any of the books listed, or other general reference garden books. Most good books will provide important information such as mature size of the plant (always important in planning a landscape).

Another approach is to enter the botanical name in a search engine, e.g., Google.com, and click on “Images.” This will yield numerous photos of the plant, often showing considerable variation within the genus.

Gardening during Drought

Californians are agonizing over our severe drought and its probable future. Those going through the greatest stress are homeowners maintaining verdant lawns and gardens in southern California’s deserts, farmers using 80% of the state’s surface water, and policy makers working to move the state’s burgeoning population toward life styles and businesses that use our limited water wisely.

This will be a lengthy slog.

The good news for Monterey Bay area residents is that we have already made excellent progress in reducing water usage to the target level, which is 25% below the usage of February of 2013.

We all need to conserve more to reach that target, but not nearly as much as people in southern California, especially in desert areas, where water usage is double the state average.

Growing grass and common perennial plants in sand unavoidably requires unusual cultivation methods, including lots of water. Such gardening ignores the first rule of gardening: right plant in the right place.

The primary strategy for drought-tolerant gardening, then, is to grow plants that are native to your own patch of land. The corollary strategy is to grow plants that are similar to plants that are native to your site. For the Monterey Bay area, this means plants from the world’s regions with a summer-dry climate. These include (if you need yet another review) the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, Chile’s central coast, Australia’s southwestern coast, and of course, much of California, especially the central coast region.

Keep in mind that each of these regions includes a range of microclimates, so it is still wise to know the particular conditions within your garden, and to favor plants that thrive in those conditions. That is the crucial method for low-maintenance gardening.

I have just received Sunset’s latest book, which addresses this point in a timely, effective and attractive manner. The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings has chapters on Gardens, Beds and Borders, Succulents, Groundcovers, and Containers. Other sections provide an overall introduction and seasonal tips.

Sunset Book Cover

Click to Open

 

Kathleen Brenzel edited this book, and has edited several earlier books that merit a prominent place on California gardeners’ bookshelves. This new book includes advice from such experts as John Greenlee and Robin Stockwell, who know all there is to know about grasses and succulents, respectively, and who have shared their knowledge with gardeners often over the years. During Robin’s 2014 Succulent Extravaganza, for example, I enjoyed John’s presentation of a companion planting of grasses and succulents.

California’s drought results from the combination of several factors: cyclical weather patterns, climate change, population growth, and agribusiness expansion. It is a complex picture, to be sure, and avid gardeners need to adapt to changing conditions.

My initial scan of The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings impresses me as a good source of guidance and inspiration for that adaptation. I welcome the opportunity for learning from each chapter, and anticipate enjoying the experience, which surely will motivate even more sustainable gardening.

The New Normal for Gardens—Lose the Lawn

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order mandating water use restrictions. This order requires California’s 400 water supply agencies to restrict water uses to achieve an overall 25% reduction, and monitor compliance with those restrictions..

The restrictions will have many impacts. Here, we consider only the impacts on small-scale gardening at residences and businesses. At another time, we’ll get to commercial agriculture’s water usage, which equals 80% of California’s developed water.

Studies have shown that 30-50% of residential water use occurs outdoors. Uses include washing cars and filling pools and fountains, but most outdoor water usage is intended to maintain the growth of plants, particularly lawn grasses.

If the current four-year drought continues for ten years or longer, as weather scientists have projected, gardeners should plan for the “new normal” for their gardens.

This is not the time to install artificial turf, learn to love the parched look, or pave your yard. There are better options.

The first step would be to remove the water hogs in your garden. These might include plants from tropical climes. For example, I have a long fascination with the Chilean Rhubard (Gunnera tinctoria), a riparian plant with enormous leaves. My garden once had one of these plants, but it dried out.

Here is a fine example of a clump of Chilean Rhubarb near a pond in a large garden in Santa Cruz.

Gunneras

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The next step would be to lose the lawn. A well-kept lawn consumes a lot of water, fertilizers and pesticides, plus the lawn owner’s time and money. Two-cycle lawnmowers also generate noise and air pollution.

In return, most lawns provide a green vista—or at least a resting spot for the eye—but receive very little actual use. Lawns used to symbolize status, but that was when only the wealthy could afford groundskeepers wielding scythes. The 1830 invention of the lawnmower transformed the lawn from status symbol to an easy option for many homeowners and an obsession for a few.

Now, our governor has said, “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

The plan for losing the lawn will vary with the size of your greensward. A small patch could be converted to a new reality in one go. A larger area might better be reduced incrementally, to spread the effort and the design issues over two or three years.

The first step should be to plan for replacing the lawn grass with another ground cover that would require much less water. It is all about the strategic selection of plants. This individual design decision could focus on meadow grasses, wildflowers, or drought-tolerant plants, e.g., California natives or Mediterranean climate plants. Some people have opted for cacti and succulents, which can be very interesting, but that’s a challenging move, design-wise.

There are many very attractive possibilities for a drought-tolerant landscape. Visit ongardening.com for resources to help with this planning.

Then, remove the grass. This can be done with solarization: over several weeks, a plastic cover uses the summer sun to heat the grass to extinction.

The operation of a sod cutter, probably rented, is much faster, but this method could remove enough soil to require importing topsoil.

In any event, avoid killing the grass with chemicals, which are not good for gardens. Also, avoid rototilling the soil, because that will bring buried weed seeds to the surface. A rake would be the preferred tool to smooth the soil.

Once the grass is gone, install the landscape you have designed. After a couple years of planting, watering and inevitable weeding, you will have a landscape that will survive during the coming drought years with minimal care, and look great.

More

Once you have made the decision to replace a traditional lawn with a drought-tolerant alternative, you can consider several options. Here are resources to explore:

Full disclosure, the Lose the Lawn website was created by a friend, Alrie Middlebrook, owner of Middlebrook Gardens. It has been available for quite a while, and is more relevant than ever today.

Sunset Magazine web resources includes 24 Inspiring Lawn-free Yards.

An excellent book on this subject is The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn, by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt (2009).

An eloquent call for California native plants is found in Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices and Designs, by Carol Bornstein and David Fross (2011).

A best selling book, Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, by Pam Penick (2013), provides a new look in book title punctuation.

A search of Amazon.com for “lawn alternatives” or “drought-tolerant landscaping” will yield several additional titles for books that you might find in a local library or bookstore. There’s no shortage of ideas!

Finally, you might have heard that southern California residents so far this year have a poor record for reducing their water usage, compared to people on the central California coast. Here’s an image that provides a clue for that failure to cut back on landscape irrigation. This shows a part of Rancho Mirage, which is between Palm Springs and Palm Desert.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 10.29.01 AM

The grey areas are sand! If you believe the drought is a hoax, you might be interested in living on this human-created oasis. Contact Magnesia Falls Real Estate, which has this photo on its website. (An even more dramatic aerial photo of this community is in the current issue of Time magazine.

 

The Bees Need Our Help

Gardeners can enjoy gardening at many levels. We can experience the Zen of Weeding, as I did this afternoon, and then shift to enjoy one of gardening’s many other dimensions.

Gardening often turns up in the wonderful world of public policy, a dimension that can resemble a house of mirrors.

The Case of Colony Collapse Disorder, an example of gardening in public policy, is in the current news with a flurry of contradictions.

Bee on Purple Flower

Colony Collapse Disorder refers to the widespread, sudden mysterious deaths of entire bee colonies. We deplore the premature demise of these colonies, and sympathize with the industrious victims, and fear the potential threat to our own wellbeing: bees pollinate about one-third of all the fruits and vegetables we eat.

Scientists studying the causes of CCD suspect a combination of factors, and environmentalists focus on neonicontinoids, a category of very effective and widely used systemic pesticides. Both commercial crops and garden center plants and seeds are often treated with “neonics” (as they are called). Several European nations have banned neonics, but the United States currently permits their uses.

Manufacturers of neonics have insisted that CCD results from several other factors, e.g., Varroa mites, Nosema fungus, viruses, drought, and loss of habitat. Others have speculated that bee colonies are traumatized by the practice of trucking hundreds of beehives to large-scale agricultural sites, such as California’s almond trees groves.

In May of 2014, Harvard University reported an environmental scientist’s research that “strengthens the link between neonics and CCDs. The head of the National Academy of Sciences’ earlier study of the problem dismissed that research, and called it “effectively worthless,” because it was based on bees’ exposure to pesticides at doses far above typical levels.

On June 20, 2014, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum calling for the creation of a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. This call to action included an order for the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on pollinator health. The Task Force, including multiple federal departments, was to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy within 180 days, so its report was due around Christmas time last year. Presumably, it has been subjected to internal review since that target date.

On March 20, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that honey production in 2014 was up 19 percent from 2013, leading some to conclude that the CCD problem was over. Beekeepers had imported Australian honeybees to replace hives lost to CCD, so that conclusion might require another look.

These events provide a glimpse of the process of creating public policies, which are influenced by environmental, economic and political forces, and which eventually impact our interests as individuals.

No one has suggested that neonics are good for the honeybees. The goal is to balance the undeniably negative effects of agricultural chemicals with the anticipated positive long-term effects on our food supplies, recreational gardening and quality of life.

Gardeners can help the bees in small ways.

  • Plant bee-friendly gardens.
  • Do not use garden chemicals containing neonics.
  • When buying plants or seeds, ask the retailer if those items are free of neonics.

Organic gardening methods would be best for gardeners…and bees!

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A friend at Suncrest Nurseries, Inc., a large wholesale company in Watsonville, responded to this column by saying, “Suncrest does not use neonicotinoid pesticides at all, in any way, shape or form on any of it’s plants !  I think we are the only non-organic nursery to do so !”

The Internet offers much information on bees and threats to their health.  deaths. Here are some interesting websites:

UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab

Genetic Literacy Project: The USDA Study on Bee Deaths

The Genetic Literacy Project supports GMOs, dismisses neonics’ role in bee deaths, and doesn’t like organic foods. The project seems friendly to the chemical industry.

Environmental Protection Agency to Limit Use of Neonics

USDA Release on Honey Production

An increase in honey production is welcome, but it doesn’t mean that bees and other pollinators are safe from pesticides.

Presidential Memorandum Calling for Pollinator Health Strategy

This task force was to report in 180 days. That would have been around  Christmas, 2014. Let’s watch for the report.

List of Pesticides Containing Neonics

Friends of the Earth: Bee-Toxic Pesticides in Garden Center Plants

This paper is a couple years old, but still relevant.