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!

Planning a Garden Staircase

The many pleasures of gardening include having multiple projects going at any given time. The projects typically are at different stages of development, ranging from vague interest to almost done.

The projects also differ in duration and immediacy. Some are time-sensitive, e.g., removing weed before they set seed, or installing plants before the onset of winter rains, or pruning apple trees before bud break.

Other projects can be pursued at any time, whenever the mood strikes and enough planning has been accomplished.

One such project now waiting for my attention is the replacement of a short flight of wooden steps that have begun to deteriorate. These were created some time back by the simple process of installing railroad ties on a slope. The wooden pieces we call “railroad ties” are not actual ties, which I believe are soaked in creosote and not really good for gardens. They are instead 6” x 6” lumber that is 36” or 48” long.

The slope at issue is neither long nor steep. I pulled a cord from the top of the slope, used string level to adjust the height of the cord above the bottom of the slope, and measured the drop at twenty-four inches. By the way, I used a non-stretchy cord (Mason’s twine) to minimize sagging along the length of the run.

Once the height of the stairway has been determined, the next decision concerns the rise of the steps and the depth of the treads. These measurements should relate to each other and should be consistent throughout the stairway (even a short one).

Garden steps might use basic dimensions: a rise of 5 1/2 to 7 inches and a tread of 12 to 18 inches. Or they might have a shorter rise and a longer tread to provide a slower walk up the slope. For a stairway that would be a comfortable walk for most people, the tread plus twice the height of the riser should equal 26 or 27 inches: Tread + (2 × Riser) = 26 or 27.

For a chart of several suitable combinations of tread and riser, visit www.gardengatemagazine.com/64stepchart/

My stairway project needs to elevate walkers just two feet over a distance of roughly ten feet, so I could use 4” risers with 18” treads. This would require six steps and risers, extending over a nine feet horizontal distance. I would level the lower part of the path beyond the nine-foot distance.

There would be a slight curve to this stairway, so I will keep the centerline of the treads to a consistent 18 inches.

The next phase of this project is to select the material for the steps. There are countless options, including cut stone, natural stone, cast concrete, salvaged concrete (“urbanite”), wood, and perhaps others. For design ideas and exemplary uses of various materials, visit www.pinterest.com and search for “garden steps.”

California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) lasts well when planted in soil, and is a good choice for garden steps. (Other rot-resistant woods include black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), teak (Tectona grandis), ipe (Tabebuia spp), and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), but these are more expensive materials for steps.)

Stone steps would be nice but might require more cost and more labor.

Mosses in the Garden

Learning about flowering plants (angiosperms) can be a lifelong study for a gardener. One report states that they include 416 families, approximately 13,164 known genera and about 295,383 known species. Angiosperms are within the group called vascular land plants, i.e., plants that have specialized tissues for conducting water and minerals throughout the plant, and for conducting the products of photosynthesis.

Other kinds of vascular land plants include clubmosses, horsetails, ferns, and gymnosperms (e.g., conifers). Seaweeds and other plants that grow in water (aquatics) are in a different group.

The scientific term for vascular land plants is Tracheophytes, a name with the same root as our own windpipes (trachea). The suffix “–phytes” means “plants.”

The complement to vascular land plants could be non–vascular land plants, which do not have the specialized tissues of vascular plants, and that have very different ways to grow and propagate. For example, instead of roots they have rhizoids, which are similar to the root hairs of vascular plants.

Non-vascular land plants, called Bryophytes (“moss plants”), have three divisions: mosses, liverworts and hornworts. There are some 18,400 species among the Bryophytes, including about 13,000 mosses, 5,200 liverworts and just 200 hornworts. This group is clearly much smaller in number than the Tracheophytes. The plants also are typically much smaller in size, even in some cases microscopic.

The current issue of Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society, includes an absorbing article on Bryophytes, and suggests that we should care about them because of their aesthetic charm, contributions to biodiversity, and ecological functions, which include hydrological buffering and nutrient cycling.

Because of such qualities, about two years ago interested persons formed the Bryophyte Chapter of the California Plant Society, to “increase understanding and appreciation of California’s mosses, liverworts, and hornworts—and to protect them where they grow.” For information on this CNPS chapter, visit its website.

The aesthetic aspect of Bryophytes, particularly for mosses, might be interesting to gardeners and landscapers. Moss gardening can be a fascinating pursuit for the adventurous gardener with sufficient time and patience.

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There are moss varieties for many different situations, including both sunny and shady settings as well as a wide range of soil types (except sand). Growing mosses for an unusual garden bed or between stepping stones or pavers can take a year or two and consistent irrigation. For information on such projects, search the Internet for “moss gardens” or visit the website of Moss & Stone Gardens.com for the useful paper, “How to Grow Moss.”

Bryophytes and especially mosses are an under-appreciated and fascinating part of the plant kingdom, and mosses could be a welcome addition to the home garden.

Plant Bulbs Now for Spring Bloom

One of the pleasures of gardening is the spring display of blossoms from hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other bulbous plants. These plants are unique and delightful harbingers of the end of winter, the imminent arrival of the warmer days of spring, the bursting buds of many plants, and many other aspects of life’s cycle.

With careful observation, we can also witness the offspring of birds, insects and—depending on where you live and where you wander— the beasts of the field and the forest.

We can set our digital calendars or timepieces to ensure that we enjoy the magical gift that we receive each spring, but a gardening strategy for marking the occasion is equally reliable, more natural and definitely more satisfying.

This gardening strategy imposes certain obligations on the gardener, mostly involving timely action. In particular, this means planting spring bulbs in the early fall, and that requires planning just about now.

If you are a past mail-order customer of spring bulbs, you should find a catalog or two in your mail soon. You might have already received such timely prompts. Take the time to look through the pages to imagine those blossoms in your garden in the spring, make your choices and order the bulbs right away, while you most likely to secure the selections you prefer.

If you are already a regular cultivator of spring bulbs you will have many ideas to consider. If you would like inspiration, the American Gardening Association has listed “The Top 50 Most Popular Spring Blooming Bulbs.” Find this list at the NGA website, garden.org.

If you particularly like tulips, which are available in a mind-boggling range of colors and forms. Plan to order your selected bulbs early enough to chill them for eight-to-ten weeks in vented paper bags in a refrigerator. Do not store fruit in the refrigerator at the same time, because ripening fruits (especially apples) releases ethylene gas that will damage the bulbs. In November or early December, move them directly from the refrigerator to a sunny planting site.

Alternatively, look for a supplier that offers pre-chilled bulbs and well send them to you at planting time. This is a convenient option but generally is available only with a limited selection of bulbs. You still need to order early.

There are a few wild tulips that are readily available and do not require chilling. They typically their blossoms are not as large and showy as those of the hybrid varieties, but they are nevertheless quite charming additions to the garden. Look for Tulip bakeri (native to Crete), T. clusiana (Middle East), T. saxatillis (Crete), T. sylvestris (Europe, Asia Minor), and T. tarda (Central Asia). One mail-order source of wild tulips is McClure & Zimmerman.

Many other spring-blooming bulbs do not require such chilling. The most popular of these are the daffodils, which include a wonderful range of hybrid colors and forms. Daffodils are fine choices for the Monterey Bar area because they will propagate easily with minimal care, and provide a growing annual display in your garden.

Plant your spring-blooming bulbs in a sunny location, with the top about three times as deep as the diameter of the bulb.

Spring-blooming bulbs are not expensive, so consider the purchase of enough bulbs to provide a dramatic display in the spring. Plant them in informal clusters either among other garden plants or in an open area.

The tried-and-true bulbs are always a good choice, but also consider bringing some of the less familiar plants to your garden. As you gain experience with spring-blooming bulbs, you can plant varieties that bloom in the early, middle or late season for a longer display, or color groupings that delight the eye, or container plantings that can be placed prominently when at their prime and moved later out of the way as they fade.

Start now to plan your display of spring-blooming bulbs!

The Healthy Soils Initiative for Home Gardens

A recent On Gardening column draw attention to California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, which is part of “California’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing carbon sequestration in and on natural and working lands. “ The Initiative is part of the state’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs, which include coordinated work on efficient water usage, conservation of farmlands, capture of methane emissions, and alternative practices for manure management.

California funds Climate Smart Agriculture and other Climate Change Strategies through its cap-and-trade program, a market-based regulation designed to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) from multiple sources. Cap-and-trade sets a firm limit or cap on GHGs and minimizes the compliance costs of achieving the state’s goals for reducing GFGs. The legislature and Governor Brown are working toward extending this program beyond 2020.

The Climate Change Strategies target large-scale operations in several industrial fields, but all could be implemented on an individual level. The Healthy Soils Initiative has particular relevance for individuals. It doesn’t offer public funding for home gardeners, but it aligns completely with the best practices for sustainable and more successful gardening.

The payoffs include improving plant health and yields, increasing water infiltration and retention, sequestering and reducing greenhouse gases, reducing sediment erosion and dust, improving water and air quality, and improving biological diversity and wildlife habitat.

Here is an overview of recommendations to develop healthy soils:

Protect the natural structure of the soil. This is easy because means avoiding or at least minimizing tilling of the soil. Some gardeners have adopted the practice of turning over the soil regularly, using a mechanical device or a shovel or garden fork. “Breaking up the soil” has been equated with improving it by mixing in amendments and facilitating the spread of plant roots. While these seem like desirable outcomes, tilling actually pulverizes soil aggregates which are groups of soil particles that bind to each other more strongly than to adjacent particles. Spaces between the aggregates provide pores for retention and exchange of air and water. Tilling, therefore, adds excess oxygen to the soil and increases respiration and carbon dioxide emission. It also disrupts fungal communities.

Increase soil fertility. For vegetable gardeners, this involves growing cover crops during periods after harvesting one crop and planting another, digging in the cover crop to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. The same practice is recommended when ornamental gardens are being renovated. Other methods for increasing soil fertility include adding compost and animal manures to restore the plant/soil microbiome. A three- or four-inch layer of such amendments will contribute nutrients without digging it in. This practice includes avoiding uses of synthetic fertilizers, which distort soil microbial communities, in addition to consuming energy for production and distribution, migrating into water resources and the atmosphere, and accelerating the decomposition of organic matter.

Build biological ecosystem diversity. For farmers, this practice includes rotating crops, avoiding mono-cropping, and planting borders to accommodate bees and other beneficial insects. For the home gardener, the parallel actions include losing the lawn (which is mono-cropping), providing foods, water and habitats for birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects and small animals. A helpful related resource is the National Wildlife Federation.

Manage grazing for soil regeneration. The parallel practice in this area for home gardeners applies only to those who grow chickens, ducks or rabbits, or perhaps other smaller creatures. The basic idea is to move them around the property for their own health and the production of healthy soil. For growers of commercial livestock, it’s a significant part of soil regeneration.

You can read more about these ideas on the websites of the California Department of Food and Agriculture or Regeneration International.