Shopping for Help in the Garden

Eventually, your horticultural aspirations will exceed your time and energy. Mine have!

In such circumstances, it will be time to shop around for help in maintaining or improving your garden. This task is not unlike arranging for other services for keeping the home working or upgrading your living situation.

There are, however, factors that are peculiar to the provision of gardening services. Because some readers of this column have asked recently for recommendations for such services, this column offers guidelines for consideration.

Begin the process by being clear in your own mind about the scope of services for which you intend to contract. You might require a regular schedule of unskilled work, e.g., mowing a lawn, or a one-time or short-term task, e.g., removing a tree stump.

At another level, you might require ongoing services to maintain and improve the garden, including weeding, pruning, fertilizing, installing new plants, and all the myriad of activities involved in gardening.

The larger packages of garden services involve significant installations or renovations. Two residences within one block of my own home have contracted for such projects as preparation for the sale of the property.

You might need landscape design preliminary to maintenance and improvement services. We will consider design services in a future column.

The first of these three categories of services, which we refer to as unskilled garden work, is generally available for $15 – $20/hour. People who offer to provide such services might well have related experience and skills, but these contractors generally require explicit instructions and supervision. Workers can be found through services such as People Ready, informal labor pools, or personal contacts with neighbors. Some landscaping services can offer a maintenance crew within this price range but might charge more to cover overhead costs. The additional cost should provide reliable scheduling, appropriate tools, and other conveniences.

The second category of services, i.e., ongoing maintenance and improvement, will be available from several local businesses. Costs will approximate $45/hour; the efficiency of the service can only be made clear through practical experience.

Search the Internet for “landscaping services [your community]” to identify the available services. To narrow the options, ask friends for recommendations and check reviewers such as Yelp. Be aware, however, that businesses could exploit online review services by submitting multiple positive reviews.

The professional standards followed by a landscaping business should reflect your own priorities. The best landscapers are stewards of the environment: they do not ever use toxic synthetic chemicals and rarely (if at all) use gasoline-powered equipment, e.g., lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and edgers.

Exceptions: tree services almost always will use gasoline-powered chain saws, stump grinders, and green waste shredders. When tree work is needed, those noisy polluters are difficult to avoid.

To locate a landscape service that protects the environment, search for Certified Green Gardeners. These are individuals who have completed Green Gardener training offered by Monterey Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Gardening, which is “a collaborative effort between Ecology Action, CA Landscape Contractors Association (Central Coast Chapter), Ecological Landscaping Association, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, Surfrider Foundation, Resource Conservation Districts, and more than 20 public agencies representing water utilities, solid waste and recycling, stormwater management.”

While this training is very desirable, it sadly does not guarantee that the contractor will always follow environmentally friendly practices. An in-person, on-site interview with a service representative, followed by a detailed written bid, would be appropriate to ensure best practices.

The same standards of environmental protection are applicable to the third category of services, those involving significant installations or renovations. Many landscape businesses are qualified to conduct larger-scale projects and might provide related design services as well. Again, the costs will depend on the scope and circumstances of the specific project, might add up to five figures, could contribute greatly to the homeowner’s enjoyment of the property, and when a sale of the property is planned, could add disproportionate value to the sale price.

When larger-scale landscape services are required, the homeowner should work only with individuals who hold a C-27 Landscape Contractor license issued by the Contractors’ State License Board, which is part of California’s Department of Consumer Services. Check the status of a prospective contractor online by visiting the CSLB website clicking on “Check a License.”

While at this same CSLB website, click on “Guides and Publications” to download and read these excellent CSLB publications, “What You Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor;” “What Seniors Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor;” and “A Consumer Guide to Home Improvement Contracts – Terms of Agreement.”

If you are spending serious money on maintaining and improving your garden, it’s definitely worth serious time on your homework. Hopefully, your project will be enjoyable and successful in all respects. When you are working with a licensed contractor and a well-written contract, you will be on solid ground if anything doesn’t proceed as you intended.

There are many quotations about being well prepared. Here’s a landscaping related quote by Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Small-scale Landscaping

“Landscaping” involves efforts to enhance an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view. For the gardener, this term might refer to the front or the back of the property. Developing and realizing a landscape design includes numerous steps and decisions, and a good deal of work, mostly because of the scale of the task. Landscaping the front yard, the backyard, or even a side yard could be a formidable challenge.

To make landscaping more manageable and enjoyable, consider garden vignettes. These are compact horticultural settings that could be regarded as small-scale landscapes.

The garden vignette concept conveys great versatility: it encompasses any of a wide range of areas, themes or design ideas. A vignette might occupy a quite small space, but we’re not dealing here with miniature landscapes, as for a model railroad garden.

Here’s a broad definition of a garden vignette: “a compact combination of living plants in containers or in the ground, perhaps with selected objects, that present a cohesive and attractive appearance.”

A garden vignette in one or several containers could test the gardener’s horticultural artistry. There are many possibilities, e.g., one plant or several in each container, complementary or contrasting combinations, usage of decorative stones or art objects, and the like. The appeal of containerized garden vignettes includes space needs so limited that they could fit on a balcony or a small patio, and time and cost demands so minimal that they could be developed fairly quickly, even by gardeners with very full schedules.

My current vignette project involves digging up three miniature roses into matching terra cotta pots and grouping them on a low wall, where they can be enjoyed better than is possible when planted in the ground. This is a simple design that requires keeping the roses fertilized and irrigated consistently.

A garden vignette in the ground could be quite small or fairly large in scale, depending on the space available and the desired effect. To begin developing such a vignette, identify the intended space and the preferred view of that space. If a desirable tree or shrub is in the space, design the vignette to use that plant as a feature or focal point, and select additional elements.

For a space that is without a desirable tree or shrub—or boulder, for that matter—you are dealing with a blank “canvas” and have the freedom and challenge to design your vignette from the ground up. One approach to this task is to visit your local garden center, find a few plants that you like and bring them together in their nursery pots to see how they look in combination. Most garden centers would support that process, especially when you either buy the plants or return them to their original locations.

This approach doesn’t work as well with mail-order catalogs.

Another approach is to adopt a combination that you see in another garden or in a garden book or magazine. We can all benefit from adopting successful ideas generated by other gardeners.

Because of the wide range of possible designs for a vignette, a useful next step to identify a theme or concept as a guide for selecting additional plants, natural objects or artworks to provide a pleasant setting. Consider, for example, complementary or contrasting forms or colors, or a characteristic that would be common to all the elements.

Developing one or several vignettes for your garden can be a satisfying creative exercise as you work at a limited scale that is both manageable and low in cost.

Organize Plant Selection with Themes

Today’s column is about thematic gardening.

Let’s start by breaking down “landscaping” into its components.

Landscaping includes hardscapes (i.e., pathways, steps, walls, ponds, structures), but plants are enough to think about today. For our purposes, landscaping emphasizes plant selection and plant placement.

These two activities overlap in the development of landscape styles, which can be complicated and subjective. One approach defines styles in terms of décor, materials, plant palette, and fabrics.

Styles can be interesting and important, but for today let’s stay with the basics: plant selection and placement.

Plant placement involves the relationships among plants, e.g., combinations of color, height (tall plants in back) or form, swaths of plants vs. specimens.

We might explore plant placement issues on another occasion, but thematic gardening is about plant selection, so let’s stick with that.

When selecting new plants for the garden, consider the conditions for the plant’s health and growth: Specify the location for a new plant (available space, plant size) and satisfy cultivation issues (soil, exposure, moisture and drainage needs, climate, wind exposure, etc.), then…

…consider the universe of plants you can choose from. The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew concluded that there 391,000 vascular plants known to science. Add the large and growing number of recognized cultivars (hybrids and selected varieties). These creations of plant breeders are featured each year in plant catalogs and garden centers.

Given this enormous range of possible choices, how should the gardener proceed?

For many gardeners, the approach is to leaf through a mail-order catalog or stroll through the local garden center and choose plants that are striking or attractive or familiar.

This approach is not wrong, because there is no right or wrong, just personal preference. Still, a thematic approach is a more organized and ultimately more successful.

Thematic plant selection basically involves selecting plants to have a common characteristic, as a way to focus the selection process and adopt an organized approach to developing your garden.

This approach to plant selection could be used for an entire garden or sections of the garden, i.e., particular beds.

Some of the most popular themes are based on a single plant genus, e.g., Iris, Rose, Dahlia, Orchid, Hosta, Hellebore, Orchid, Fuchsia, Heuchera, Daffodil, Tulip, or another.

A variation of genus-oriented themes focuses on categories of plants within a genus. For example, there are several kinds of irises (tall bearded, intermediate, border, miniature), and the rose genus includes modern roses, old garden roses, and species roses. (My current projects include developing a bed of old garden roses.)

Other themes emphasize the botanical categories of plants, e.g., bulbous plants, succulents, edibles, conifers, variegated, blossom color, and others. There are many other possible categories.

Then, we have themes based on the native region of the plants. A California native plant theme is a popular choice, in the Monterey Bay area because these plants thrive in our climate and are hospitable to the regional fauna.

Thematic gardening can present challenges to identify plants within the theme, and then to hunt for sources of desired plants. Fortunately, the Internet is a powerful tool for success with these tasks. The thematic gardener needs to be an effective user of Google and other search engines. Once you have selected a theme to pursue, search the Internet for websites that offer useful information and ideas.

Thematic gardening offers several benefits.

  • Creates a purposeful approach to plant selection
  • Simplifies plant selection by focusing on a sub-section of available plants
  • Defines the related part of the garden, e.g., “the rose bed”
  • Adds to understanding and appreciation of the chosen part of the plant kingdom

At another level, thematic gardening brings harmony and calm to the garden landscape. By comparison, the all-too-common tendency to add plants with a random selection strategy can result in a botanical hodge-podge. The individual plants in such a garden might have gorgeous blossoms and foliage, but lack any relationship to adjacent plants. The effect could lack coherence, and could even be jarring.

If parts of your garden already follow a thematic approach, consider whether those parts please your eye more than other parts. If they do, develop a thematic approach for other parts of the garden.

Thematic gardening can be challenging and enjoyable.

In Bloom in April

Gardening at this time of the year includes at least two absorbing experiences: plants in bloom and plants on sale.

Several early bloomers are already decorating the garden. I’m enjoying a Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), also called the Hyacinth Orchid. It has been cultivated in China for 1,500 years for its medicinal properties, but it’s also garden-worthy for its blossoms.

Chinese Ground Orchid

This terrestrial orchid is very easy to maintain, especially after striving with limited success to grow other members of the enormous orchid family. It had been growing under other plants and seemed to be struggling despite its reported need for filtered shade. It was propagating, however, by producing many small bulbs. I moved the bulbs, which were already sprouting, into containers in sunny locations, and they are doing fine

 

 

 

Australian Bluebell Creeper

Another plant that brightens the garden now is the Australian Bluebell Creeper (Sollya heterophylla). The generic name refers to British botanist Richard Solly; the specific epithet means “different leaves” because the plant produces a few different leaf shapes. This is a three-foot shrub with small, bright blue flowers that are bell-shaped with some varieties; mine are more star-shaped.

 

 

 

 

Mediterranean Spurge

A third performer is the Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias wulfenii), which grows five feet high, with showy heads of chartreuse flowers and whorled blue-green leaves. This plant freely generates seedlings that are easy to pull or share.

Recent and upcoming plant sales are being listed elsewhere, so this column focuses on roaming through such sales to discover and acquire new and different specimens for the garden. I’ve been accumulating interesting additions and seeking time to install them.

 

 

Here are some of my recent additions, and their intended destinations.

At the Arboretum’s recent sale, I found a large Cape Arid Climber (Kennedia beckxiana ‘Flamboyant’), a native of Cape Arid which is in Western Australia. This vigorous, woody plant that climbs with tendrils is one of the Arboretum’s Koala Blooms selections. It produces two-inch long orange-red flowers with a showy large lime-green central spot on a reflexed petal. This plant might grow more robustly that I would prefer, but I’ve learned that it can be heavily cut back after flowering to prevent invasive growth.

This plant will replace a Canna Lily (Canna ‘Cleopatra’) that had overgrown its pocket bed, so I moved it into containers in a sunnier location. Interestingly, the canna has been described as “flamboyant,” which is also the name of this Kennedia cultivar.

I also came upon Aloe ‘Crosby’s Prolific’, which is a cross between A. nobilis and A. humilis, both of which are small aloes that succulent specialist Deborah Lee Baldwin recently highlighted as “growing tight and staying low.” I picked up three of these small plants to fill space in my South African succulent bed.

A third recent acquisition is Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandufolia). After the annual cutting back of a large collection of salvias, the need emerged for smaller plants along the bed’s border. These smaller species (one-foot high ad wide) are not widely available, so I was glad to pick up three specimens as fillers.

As stated on earlier occasions, plant hunting should be done with a specific and appropriate spots in the garden. Impulse purchases, inspired by a blossom portrait in a mail-order catalog or a real, fertilizer-dosed plant in a garden center leads to hodge-podge landscaping.

Removing Elements to Improve Your Landscape

The annual landscape review, which was our recent focus, amounts to keeping, improving or removing elements of the landscape. We suggested an approach to review categories of the landscape elements: hardscape, larger plants, smaller plants, and special facilities. Review that column here.

Today’s column addresses the removal of larger plants. The reasons for a removal of a tree or large shrub include not healthy, badly located, or poorly maintained. A large tree growing close to the home could present a fire hazard, or its roots could be lifting nearby pavement.

Taking out an established tree or large shrub could require substantial effort and cost, sometimes including commercial services. On the other hand, removal of a significant plant could yield a great aesthetic change in the landscape’s appearance and an opportunity to introduce one or more new plants in pursuit of landscape objectives.

In other words, replace a loss with an opportunity.

Removing a large plant could include resistance to change in addition to avoidance of related energy and expense. It can be a big decision. Once the homeowner has prioritized a removal, dwelling on the landscape benefits can be helpful to “getting to the root of the matter.”

Speaking of roots, the task of removing a plant should always include removing the roots. Leaving a stump in place might reduce the cost or effort of the project, but leave new problems. The obvious downside is that the stump continues to occupy space in the landscape, precluding a direct replacement. I often see an old stump that is an eyesore in a home’s parking strip.

Also, the stump of a healthy tree or shrub could sprout, even after months of apparent inactivity. Plants strive to survive!

Smaller stumps can be dug out with a shovel, an ax or a Sawzall, and perhaps a pickaxe. The objective is to remove the crown of the plant, plus major nearby roots. It’s not necessary or practical to chase the outreaching roots unless they are lifting pavement. This is likely to be time consuming and dirty work that might inspire hiring assistance. One helpful hint: when cutting down the plant, leave a long stump to provide leverage for loosening the roots.

When the stump is out of the ground, it’s time for a pat on the back and planning for good use of the reclaimed space.

Larger stumps require professional services. Commercial trees services often will include stump removal or provide references to local specialized services. In either case, ask if equipment of the appropriate size will be provided. An overly large stump grinder can disrupt areas adjacent to the target. A smaller unit (some are even hand-held) can provide a precise removal, which could be important when working close to pavement or desirable plants.

Stumps also could be moved with chemicals (potassium nitrate). This process accelerates rotting of the wood in a few weeks, after which it could be chopped out or burned out. For more information on this approach, visit www.familyhandyman.com and search for “stump removal.”

The final thought on this subject is that some trees or stumps should be removed, and the landscape can be much better as a result.

Annual Review of Your Landscape

An annual review of your home’s landscape helps in the long term to raise your level of satisfaction with your surroundings. You will either gain appreciation for that landscape’s good qualities, or establish goals for improvement. In many cases, the likely outcome would be a combination of these results.

You could conduct such a review at any time, but early spring (right now) presents a good opportunity because the seasonal arrival of warm weather stimulates both the plants’ budding and the gardener’s enthusiasm.

This column suggests an approach to landscape review, in search of an orderly and productive process. The approach outlined here is one of several possible ways to go about such a review. Feel free to modify it to accommodate your local situation and preferences.

Begin with an inventory of features of your landscape that you like. For example, these might include hardscape elements, e.g., a wall, patio, pool, stairway, pavement, or garden structure.

Another category for this inventory of Liked Features includes larger trees and shrubs that are healthy, well grown, maintained, and located.

Then, consider planting beds and lawn areas, with emphasis on good size, good placement, and interesting shapes. Are smaller plants, e.g., herbaceous perennials and grasses, in good condition?

Finally, list specialized features, e.g., play areas for children or adults, cooking facilities, and furnishings for dining or relaxing. Relevant criteria: are these features still needed and still used?

Next, using the same categories, identify the features that you don’t like. List the hardscape elements that need repair, maintenance, or, for those that are no longer needed or used, removal.

Identify trees and shrubs (and stumps) that do not meet the criteria listed above, i.e., not healthy, badly located, poorly maintained, etc.

Moving on: are planting beds and lawn areas too small or too large? Are they poorly shaped? Are smaller plants, including lawns, in poor condition?

Then, identify specialized features that are in poor condition, no longer needed, or not used.

Document your inventories of liked and not liked features. The record can be simple and informal, such as a handwritten list on a single piece of paper, and still provide a useful reference for planning purposes.

Develop an action plan. In most cases, the first priority should be the Not Liked Features. Using the inventory, flag each of them for Improvement or Removal.

Barriers to Removal actions might include an excess of nostalgia, a lack of time or energy, or significant expense. Lacking a magic wand, you must deal with such barriers in your own creative way. The removal of large hardscape items or trees could require professional help and related costs but could provide major steps toward landscape improvement.

Improvement actions might require time and energy, or even professional assistance. A good strategy is to prioritize these actions, working first on those that can be accomplished with the least time, energy and expense. The benefits gained from these improvements could motivate proceeding to the more challenging tasks.

The next priority is Replacement of Not Liked Features that have been removed. Every removal might not require direct replacement but might produce a gap that needs filling. This “one step at a time” approach should avoid any confusion that might result from concurrent efforts to improve, remove and replace.

A future column will deal with Additions to the landscape, after completion of the tasks outlined above.

A review of your landscape can be an interesting and creative exercise for you and your significant other, and perhaps an independent observer whose brings relevant skills and diplomatic honesty to the task. Enjoy!

Naturalistic Landscaping

Several months ago, wrote about a remarkable book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015).

In that book, Rainer and West present interesting, insightful and inspiring ideas for landscape design. Central concepts include interlocking layers of plants that grow compatibly in nature, while creating landscapes that are naturalistic but “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

Some of their concepts, in plainer language, are the following:

“Plants are social creatures” —This thought advocates close planting of natural companions, rather than isolating plants from each other, separated by areas of organic or inorganic mulch.

“Plants are the mulch” — This catchphrase points to the practical value of close planting as a strategy for blocking weed growth and thereby reducing time and effort.

The Rainer/West vision, while complex, is predominantly optimistic. Their book is certainly worth reading. My review, titled “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes,” is archived here.

A reader of this column who had previously read this Rainer and West book observed that the style they described emphasizes landscape uses of herbaceous perennials and annuals in a climate with year-round rainfall. By contrast, while California has “lots of shrubs and sub-shrubs with some annuals” and a summer-dry (Mediterranean) climate. The reader asked how to go about adapting the style presented in this book to our California climate, and where in California has such a garden been created.

These are worthwhile questions. The authors recommended drawing on locally relevant resources, e.g., the California Native Plant Society. Also, my column referenced a book by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).

There are more relevant resources available online, notably Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design website.

Gardeners also have access to many books on Mediterranean climate plants and especially California native plants, but such books typically describe individual plants in alphabetical order rather than in the “interlocking layers” envisioned by Rainer and West. We encounter the same organizational model in mail order plant nursery catalogs and in local garden centers, so many garden designs amount to scatters of single specimens.

The Rainer & West style was published fairly recently, so there are few California landscapes that are based on this style. The Keator & Middlebrook book cited above approaches that concept by grouping native plants within particular regions of California (e.g., coastal scrub, grasslands, deserts, oak woodlands), but leaves it to the garden planner to adopt fully the Rainer & West style.

One might seek exemplary designs in gardens included in annual garden tours that feature California native plants:

  • Bringing Back the Natives —Gardens in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, early May (http://bringingbackthenatives.net)
  • Going Native Garden Tour—Gardens in Santa Clara Valley & Peninsula, San Francisco Bay Area, early April (http://gngt.org/GNGT/HomeRO.php)

Although the Rainer & West style could take many different forms in California gardens, avid gardeners should keep watch for examples of this emerging approach to landscape design.

Renewing the Garden

Gardeners who accept the changing nature of plants have the most interesting and successful gardens.

Some plants can thrive—or just hang on—for many years. Plants with the shortest life spans are those we call annuals, which sprout, bloom, drop seeds, and fade away in a single season. Actually, these plants continue through multiple generations by going through seed phases each year. This life cycle differs from that of perennial plants, but it’s easy to perceive life continuing for these plants through their regular periods of “seed dormancy.”

Given favorable conditions of soil nutrients, moisture coupled with the desired degree of moisture retention, and the desired degree of exposure to sunlight, most plants will continue for many years.

We must acknowledge the importance of occasional attacks by insects or diseases, but healthy plants are generally capable of surviving such hazards.

The growing environment is most important. Some plants have evolved to thrive under specific conditions. We generally think of plants that grow best in good garden loam, with moderate moisture and six or more hours of sunlight each day, but there are many exceptions to this standard.

Some plants grow well in soil with greater proportions of clay or sand, or with minimal nutrients.

Then there are epiphytes: plants that grow upon another plant or object merely for physical support and live on airborne moisture and nutrients. Kinds of epiphytic plants include lithophytes, which grow on bare rock or stone; chasmophytes, which grow in the crevices of rocks, and cremnophytes, which can grow on cliff faces.

Some “aquatic” plants grow immersed in water. I have recently added an Erebus Canna (Canna glauca x generalis hybrid and an Anytus Japanese Iris (Iris ensata ‘Anytus’) to my pond. Conversely, “xeric” plants manage with very little water. Such plants include succulents, notably, e.g., cacti, aloes, agaves. There are many gradations within this wet/dry range.

Then, we have sun-loving plants and those that prefer very little sunlight and could even burn when placed in full sun. Again, plants have preferences for various levels of exposure.

Other habitat preferences of plants relate to wind intensity, site altitude, air salinity, etc.

All this variation raises the importance of the gardener’s research into a plant’s native environment. Plants have evolved for several generations to flourish under particular circumstances, so the gardener should select plants that could grow well under his/her specific garden conditions, or take reasonable steps to provide the plant’s preferred conditions. Fortunately, many plants can adapt to conditions that are not quite what may be best for them, but they will generally grow best in a spot that resembles their native habitat.

The gardener represents the greatest threat to a cultivated plant’s survival.

The dangers begin with the installation of a plant in a spot that lacks the conditions that the plant requires. This is “right plant, wrong place” problem. The eventual result is a plant that should be moved to a more compatible spot and perhaps replaced with a plant that would be better suited for that location.

At another level, we have plants that have outgrown their original location, so that they are crowding nearby plants, obstructing a garden walkway, or simply being out of scale for the landscape.

Whenever a plant has suffered under incompatible growing conditions or has grown beyond the intended or desired size, the gardener should recognize the problem and correct the situation decisively. A garden visitor might provide an independent yet diplomatic assessment of a particular plant’s misplacement. The gardener should avoid the view that plants are permanent assets or irreplaceable sentimental attachment, and instead accept the occasional need to transplant or recycle a plant, and welcome the concurrent opportunity to introduce a new botanical treasure into the garden.

Resolve to Become Fire-safe

California has a history of wildfires, and this year’s fires have been particularly fierce and damaging. Governor Brown has identified climate change as producer of fire dangers and described a future of more wildfires in the state.

Currently, Monterey Bay area residents are sympathizing with—and perhaps assisting—people in California’s northern and southern regions that are suffering significant losses from wildfires. They should also guard against the potential for wildfires in their own communities.

Good advice is available for protecting your home from external fire dangers.

Pre-fire management, which is the current jargon, includes reducing vulnerability to flying embers with tile roofs or roof sprinklers. Hardening your home in these and other steps is good practice when building, possible when renovating, and always less costly than having your home reduced to ashes.

Still, defensive landscaping is particularly important and cost-effective, and most relevant in this column on gardening. I have listed selected online publications at the end of this column. They describe more good ideas that could be summarized here, but here’s an overview of three basic concepts.

Provide Defensible Space

Landscaping that is close to the home should not support the movement of the fire. This includes spacing trees at least ten feet part when on level ground, and farther apart when the home is on elevated land.

Diagram of Defensible Space

Defensible Space Zones 1 and 2

The second level of defensive space extends to 100 feet around the residence. California’s Public Resources Code, Section 4291 requires these firebreak provisions for all properties that are near “any land which is covered with flammable material,” i.e., land covered by forest, brush or grass.

Current wildfires have demonstrated, however, that wind-driven embers can fly up to one mile during a wildland fire, so the practical need for defensible space applies to any residence within a mile of a wildfire.

Use Fire-resistant Plants

Within a home landscape’s defensible space, using fire-resistant plants adds to protection from fire. CalFire describes these characteristics of fire-resistant plants

  • Store water in leaves or stems
  • Produce very little dead or fine material
  • Possess extensive, deep root systems for controlling erosion
  • Maintain high moisture content with limited watering
  • Grow slowly and need little maintenance
  • Are low-growing in their form
  • Contain low levels of volatile oils or resins
  • Have an open, loose branching habit with a low volume of total vegetation

Succulent plants that several of these characteristics and can effectively slow or stop the spread of fire. Succulent plant specialist Debra Lee Baldwin recently described how succulents protected a southern California home that a wildfire threatened, as adjacent homes burned to the ground. Click here for her YouTube presentation.

There are many plants that resist fires to some degree. Large succulents are most effective. Baldwin recommends Paddle Cactus (Opuntia), Aloes, Aeoniums, Crassulas, and Sticks on Fire (Euphorbia tirucalli).

Avoid Flammable Plants

As the corollary to using fire-resistant plants, avoid flammable plants. These are plants that

  • retain large amounts of dead material within the plant,
  • produce a large volume of litter, or
  • contain volatile substances such as oils, resins, wax, or pitch.

The most common trees that have highly flammable content are Eucalyptus, conifers, and all brooms (which often invade open areas). These plants can grow close together, making them even more prone to burst into flame. Keep them at least 100 feet from your home.

If you have been searching for a timely and constructive resolution to pursue during the coming year, a good choice would be to make your landscape both beautiful and fire-safe.

On-line Resources

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire): Ready for Wildfire (2017)

Pacific Northwest Extension: Fire Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes (2006)

UC Cooperative Extension: Safe Landscapes (2009)

The University of California, Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources: Home Landscaping for Fire

Becoming a Model of Irrigation Efficiency

As the summer draws to a conclusion, gardeners should consider landscape installations in anticipation of the rainy season’s onset. Right now is the best time to plan new plants. The coming rains will keep them irrigated as they develop roots and prepare to bud out in the spring. The rainy season usually begins in mid-October, so we now have time to decide on new plants, find them in a garden center or online nursery, and acquire them.

Because half of California’s urban water use is for landscape irrigation, all gardeners should be conscious of their landscape’s water need and informed about the preferred ways to meet those needs. Last winter’s rains were pretty good and supported the growth of very satisfying gardens, but the long-term potential remains for water shortages.

For these reasons, this is also the right time to update your plans for water use efficiency.

California’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) “promote(s) the values and benefits of landscaping practices that integrate and go beyond the conservation and efficient use of water” and “establish(es) a structure for planning, designing, installing, maintaining and managing water efficient landscape in new construction and rehabilitated projects…”

This ordinance applies to new landscapes of 500 square feet or more and rehabilitated landscapes of 2,500 square feet or more when either project requires a permit.

Such large-scale projects require a detailed Landscape Documentation Package that must be signed by the responsible parties and an auditor. For detailed information, browse to the website of the California Department of Water Resources and search for “MWELO.”

Most landscape renovation projects are not extensive enough to have to meet the comprehensive requirements of this ordinance, but its thorough approach is worth informal consideration on a voluntary basis.

The key component of the Package is the appended Water Efficient Landscape Worksheet, which is used to estimate evapotranspiration, i.e., the water evaporated from adjacent soil and other surfaces, and transpired by plants, and to calculate the evapotranspiration adjustment factor (ETAF). The Worksheet guides the calculation of the ETAF which considers the major influences on the amount of water required by the landscape: plant factors and irrigation efficiency.

For residential areas, the ETAF should not exceed .55. This figure is then used to determine the Maximum Applied Water Allowance (MAWA) and the Estimated Total Water Use, which must be below the MAWA.

This explanation uses the minimum number of acronyms!

The simpler approach to efficient water use in the landscape involves two concepts. First, choose plants with lower water needs. The obvious choices are California native plants and succulent plants. Second, use drip irrigation to control the amount and location of water usage. The state provides a useful planning resource, “A Guide to Estimating Irrigation Water Needs of Landscape Plantings in California.” It’s available without cost from the California Department of Water Resources website. Search for “WUCOLS.” That one more acronym stands for “Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species.” The Guide document includes the water use needs of many garden plants, listed by both botanical and common names.

Planning for efficient irrigation helps to conserve the state’s limited water resources, and, for the gardener, minimizes the cost of water usage and supports effective plant growth.

This planning pays off!