Achieving Resilience in the Garden

I have written enthusiastically about the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

To review my two recent columns about this book, visit “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes” and “Resilient Plant Communities.”

Regular readers will recall the “essential messages” of this book, as boldly summarized in this column:

  1. Good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.
  2. Combine plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities:
  • structural/framework plants (10-15% of the total)
  • seasonal theme plants (25-40%)
  • ground cover plants (50%)
  • filler plants (5-10%)

I wanted to overhaul my own garden right away along the lines recommended by the authors.

After a very brief period of planning the next steps, I realized that putting these ideas in place would involve a good deal of thought and study. I had already written, resilient plant communities “require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.”

I was not alone in this assessment. The others who have read the book also praised its ideas and observed that they would not be easy to apply. In fact, several reviewers concluded that Rainer and West were not writing for home gardeners but for professional landscapers, especially those with exceptional knowledge of plants.

Thomas Rainer replied: “The book clearly acknowledges the complexity of creating plantings that function more like a naturally occurring community. But it doesn’t look at this complexity with despair, but instead, attempts to systematically describe how to do this in practical steps.”

He does recommend planting the four layers in four steps and provides practical advice about site preparation, but the missing pieces are lists of plants for each of the layers for each of the archetypical landscapes, along with knowledge of how plants look and grow together.

These are not small matters for home gardeners, for landscapers, and almost all garden designers.

Emulating Nature, it turns out, is not a simple matter. But one should not be discouraged.

The aspiring creator of a resilient plant community has access to very useful books. I previously recommended Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Garden, by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook, and Thomas Rainer recommends Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, 2016).

Garden Revolution

For the next step, we have Rainer’s tip: “Real design happens in the field. Take time there to get the layout right. Arrange all plants first, then go back and adjust location and spacing.”

I will report overviews of my progress from time to time, without, as they say, “getting into the weeds.”

Resilient Plant Communities

In a recent column, I referred to a book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. Rainer and West present landscape design ideas that are worth applying in home gardens, and indeed in all kinds of gardens. Their ideas are intended to result in gardens that are “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

To review that recent column, visit ongardening.com, click on “Essays 2017” and then “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes.”

The ideas presented in this book ring true to nature and good sense, and require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.

This column cannot replace reading the authors’ thoughtful review of familiar landscaping practices and groundbreaking recommendations, but w can consider their essential messages.

Rainer and West indicate that good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.

The first of these relationships recalls the “right plant in the right place” axiom, which often refers to locating the plant where it will have the soil, exposure, and moisture that it needs to thrive. To these aspects of place the authors recommend locating plants in the grassland, woodland/shrubland, or forest environment that is their natural home. A garden, as a built environment, should look and function like a “distilled version” of one of those archetypical landscapes.

Consideration of the relationship of plants to people addresses the visual appeal of the landscape. The authors state that plant communities need not be limited to a naturalistic style and can exist within any other style. There are too many garden styles to list, but the basic idea is that the gardener can develop any preferred style and still maintain the plant’s relationships to place and other plants.

Rainer and West feature the relationship of plants to other plants and write about the “levels of sociability” of plants. In nature, some plants grow as individuals, or in groups of various sizes, or in large areas. For example, plants that tend to grow separately from other plants would be candidates for containers, and some plants propagate across vast numbers in large fields (see photographs of this year’s superbloom of wildflowers).

The authors recommend combining plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities. This approach allows plants to support each other, form a diverse and lush garden (as distinct from swaths of a single variety), and provide natural mulch that retains moisture and blocks entry of weeds and invasive plants. They categorize plants in four layers:

  • structural/framework plants — trees, shrubs, upright grasses and large leafed perennials that form the visual structure of the planting (10-15% of the total)
  • seasonal theme plants — mid-height plants that dominate the scene when in bloom, and provide supporting companions to the structural plants when not in bloom (25-40%)
  • ground cover plants — low, shade-tolerant plants that cover the soil, control erosion and provide nectar (50%)
  • filler plants — short-lived species, e.g., annuals, that fill gaps and add short seasonal displays (5-10%)

The authors describe this plant community approach collectively as resilient gardening. The benefits include growing healthy plants, minimizing maintenance (always a popular objective), and providing a systematic approach to developing an attractive, full grouping of plants.

I have been vaguely dissatisfied with a garden that separates plants from other plants by mulch. Developing layered plant communities will require reviewing plants already in place, searching for new plants for the needed layers, and allowing time for growth. The authors have not provided tidy “recipes” for plant communities because there are too many possible variations, including personal preferences, to put in a book. Instead, they have left the design process to each interested gardener.

Enjoy your garden, and consider learning about—and developing—resilient plant communities for your garden.

Communing with Nature

Good gardening practices almost always equal “working with Nature.” That is simply because natural processes have emerged after many eons as the Earth’s flora and fauna developed strategies for successful survival and propagation.

We write “almost always” from an excess of caution: it would be safe to say “always,” except for the use of the slippery term, “good.” The term “best” would also be debatable.

Still, all gardening practices that are beneficial for air, water, soil, plants and animals turn out to be time-honored, natural practices.

Not surprisingly, these practices are also beneficial to the gardeners, because we are also members of the animal kingdom, and tool-users as well.

Some of the gardener’s benefits are physical: everyone can gain health from exercise that is appropriate to one’s age and ability. Some are economic, providing either an inexpensive form of recreation or, for those with backyard nurseries, supplemental income.

Most benefits, however, are psychological, generating positive feelings, mental peace, and the release of “happy hormones,” e.g., serotonin and dopamine. Admittedly, the latter benefit could be called a physical benefit, but it affects the psyche.

Working with Nature, therefore, works best for gardeners and literally everything in their surroundings. This concept can and should guide the gardener’s response to questions that arise in the garden. “What would Nature do about [insert gardening issue here]?”

This concept also works in reverse. Many commercially motivated gardening practices might appear to save time or increase productivity, but they often create harm in the long run, and sometimes even in the short run.

The worst of these practices involves bringing synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides into the garden. Non-toxic, effective organic products are readily available and should always be preferred.

Another avoidable and unnatural practice is the use of power tools in the garden, with gas-powered devices being the most problematic. The most common of these are gas-powered leaf blowers, which contribute faster than cars to climate change and air pollution and disturb the peace that we value in our gardens and neighborhoods.

The usual arguments favoring leaf-blowers include (a) our desire for tidy surroundings and (b) the operator’s interest in making the surroundings tidy as quickly as possible.

We should acknowledge, firstly, that Nature is not tidy. When trees drop their leaves in natural surroundings, the leaves decompose in time and add nutrients to the soil. When trees drop their leaves on pavement, we perceive untidiness. This suggests that we should plant trees only where their leaf drops would be beneficial.

If that is unrealistic (many people like street trees and patio trees), we should use manual methods to remove dropped leaves. Rakes and brooms work quite well, and in capable hands can be as efficient as leaf-blowers, and certainly much easier on the environment and our psyches.

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

For these reasons, many communities have already banned gas-powered leaf blowers, including Carmel and Santa Barbara to our south, and Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Menlo Park to our north. The Santa Cruz Coalition for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE) has launched a petition favoring a local ordinance to ban these unnecessary and harmful tools. Check it out at http://preview.tinyurl.com/kvgws3d .

 

Cold, Rain, and Buttercups

We have had welcome rains, and apparently we should expect more around the time that this column appears. That’s good, but that weather prompts some salient observations.

First, although the drought has been broken for the present, we should regard the present period as a hiatus, rather than an end to dry times. Long-term projections still indicate below average rainfall in future years,

Most importantly, our aquifers were depleted significantly during the drought years, and replenishing them will require many years of at least normal rainfall. We will have to wait for encouraging reports on that front.

Meanwhile, examine your garden for possible negative impacts from the recent cold and rainy days. The plants in my garden are nearly all native to California or other summer-dry (Mediterranean) climates, so they managed well during the dry days.

One exception was a mature Chilean Myrtle (Luma apiculata) that succumbed to the drought, and had to be removed.

That experience recalls a thoughtful comment by Alexander Graham Bell: “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” In this case, the tree had grown larger than expected and closer to the house than wanted, so while I regretted its loss, its absence opened space for new plants.

Almost all my succulent plants shrugged off the cold spell, with the exception of a Foxtail Agave (Agave attenuata), which I had been growing in a large container. I planned to plant it in the ground eventually, to provide the space it will need to reach its full size of four feet high and eight feet wide. The plant’s rosette is quite attractive and dramatic, but its distinctiveness is based on its flower stalk, which grows five-to-ten feet, reflexes to the ground and then arches upward again. I learned too late that this plant is unusual among Mexican native succulents for its susceptibility to cold weather. I should have covered it, or brought it inside. It lost some leaves, but now appears to be coming back.

I have been taking advantage of the fine weather between rainstorms by catching up (with help!) on the seasonal weeding tasks. This work includes the annual battle with Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae), a South African native that thrives in California’s coastal gardens, and opens its bright yellow blossoms in late winter or early spring.

Bermuda Buttercups

Bermuda Buttercups

I have been puzzled by the relentless and random spread of this annoying plant. The explanation on UC’s Integrated Pest Management website (ipm.ucanr.edu/) has been incomplete:

“Viable seed never has been documented in California, and rarely has it been seen anywhere else in world. Foliage dies and the bulbs become dormant when temperatures rise in late spring and summer. Bermuda buttercup reproduces vegetatively by bulbs and spreads when plants are divided or soil containing the bulbs is moved to un-infested areas.”

I have learned that this plant is tristylous, an uncommon morphology meaning that it has three flower shapes (morphs). All the flowers on a given plant will have the same shape, but the pollen from a flower on one morph cannot fertilize another flower of the same morph.

Tristyly does not necessarily affect the propagation of the Bermuda buttercup, but it might explain its spread in gardens, and provide a clue to its management. The search goes on!

Meanwhile, we continue with weeding and mulching, and preparing to enjoy the garden in the spring.

Basics of Low Maintenance

For many gardeners, as they create or recreate their gardens, their objectives include minimizing maintenance. Let’s consider the “why” and “how” of low maintenance gardening.

The motivation for minimizing maintenance requirements begins with the press—or the appeal—of other priorities, and the perspective is that gardening is drudgery that steals time from higher priority pursuits, and should be avoided whenever possible.

Some of us have unavoidable demands on our time, it’s true, but in reality, maintaining a garden does not require large chunks of one’s schedule.

In addition, gardening has unique rewards to be appreciated and even sought after: time for meditating, exercising a bit, and absorbing vitamin D, as well as communing with Nature and making an individual contribution to ecological balance.

Avoiding drudgery and securing those rewards requires both a positive attitude and a well-designed garden.

With those elements in place, gardening can be easy not burdensome, and satisfying rather than frustrating. Here are basic guidelines for creating a low-maintenance garden.

Establish Realistic Goals

The size of your garden should be manageable within your available time, physical capacity and financial resources. In this assessment, consider your gardening partner or partners, including family, friends and contractors.

Your horticultural knowledge and skill are also important, but because you can increase them, they are not limitations. If you have a large property, define an appropriate size of your garden, and leave the rest to Nature. If you have less space than you would like, develop an interest in container gardening, or community gardening.

If your gardening plan includes regular “mow, blow and go” assistance, it’s likely that you are not really gardening, and not gaining those unique rewards. Take another look at the design of your landscape, with a focus on eliminating the lawn.

Work with Nature

This core idea reaches into all aspects of gardening. Gardening and landscaping amounts to imposing on Nature, which has powers that are not be denied. For this reason, gardening should be pursued in ways that are compatible with, and supportive of, Nature. Those who challenge Nature must commit to high-maintenance gardening., but will, in the long run, lose.

Gardeners could challenge Nature in many ways, beginning with the selection of non-native plants, especially those that have evolved under significantly different environments. Choose plants that have evolved under your garden’s conditions, including climate and precipitation, elevation, soil type, wildlife habitat, etc.

Another strategy for challenging Nature is the monocrop, i.e., limiting large sections of the landscape to a single kind of plant. In residential gardens, the most familiar monocrop is the lawn. Such landscapes do occur in Nature (think of Midwestern prairies) but lawns are inhospitable to wildlife, and costly to maintain in acceptable condition. Mixed plantings work better, can be very attractive, and are easier to maintain.

A related issue is the use of synthetic chemicals in garden maintenance. This practice might seem to mimic Nature, but truly natural ways to feed the soil and the plants are based on the growth and decomposition of organic materials. The use of synthetic chemicals leads to the accumulation of inorganic salts that eventually poison the soil. Short-term impacts from chemicals may be welcome, but organic compost yields the best results in the long term. In addition, the birds and the bees will thank you.

There are more ways to achieve low maintenance gardening. These two basic guidelines are a good start.

Enjoy your garden!

Dormant Season Projects

The dormant season does not have an official beginning to mark on a calendar, but depends on a combination of factors, beginning with the individual plant’s biological clock, with which the plant responds to day-lengths.

Another important environmental factor is temperature: lower temperatures trigger dormancy, and higher temperatures can stimulate growth. Climate change has modified the annual cycles and geographic distribution of many plants, and will continue such changes. Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events

Rather than delving into the science of dormancy, let’s consider seasonal projects for the gardener. There are many priorities to schedule over the next few months.

Pruning

As the leaves fall, and the “bones” of your trees and shrubs are exposed, look for ways to improve them through pruning. In general, use sharp tools, begin by removing branches that are broken or diseased, and don’t remove more than one-third of the canopy in one year. As is often true in gardening, there are exceptions: for some shrubs, severe or renewal pruning is appropriate. Extensive pruning of roses, for example, stimulates new growth and abundant blossoms. Several other multi-branched shrubs, e.g., salvias, can be cut to their primary structure or to near the ground before spring growth emerges.

Many gardeners are hesitant about pruning, concerned that they could hurt their plants. Pruning can be done badly so a little time with a pruning book would be instructive. The positive perspective is that pruning improves a plant’s form and stimulates new growth.

pruning fig 1

Pruning during the dormant season

The photo is from the University of California publication, Pruning Small Trees and Shrubs, which is available free online.

A good approach includes observing pruning’s effects during the early spring.

Other Projects

  • Walk through the garden with a critical eye, to spot opportunities for improvement.
  • Transplant or give away plants that have grown too large, or not working in the landscape.
  • Install new plants now, to let the rains irrigate them as they establish roots.
  • Add mulch to cover any bare ground between plants.
  • Plant a cover crop in any fallow planting area.
  • Force a bulbous plant to bloom indoors. Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are popular, but are so strongly fragrant that restraint can be prudent, i.e., don’t grow a lot.
  • Sharpen your garden tools, or have them sharpened professionally.

Mark your Calendar for the New Year

January 8, 9 & 10 — The 42nd Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, at Loudon Nelson Community Center, Santa Cruz

January 10 — Annual Scion Exchange, Monterey Bay Chapter, California Rare Fruit Growers, at Cabrillo College, Aptos

Late News: Broom versus Leaf Blower Challenge!

The broom versus leaf blower challenge between Ken Foster (on the broom) and Brent Adams (on the leaf blower) will take place Friday December 11th at high noon next to the Westside New Leaf Community Market, at the corner of Fair Avenue and Ingalls Street in Santa Cruz.

Gasoline-powered leaf blowers pollute our environment, disturb our peace, and change our climate. They might be justified for their seeming efficiency, but that too has been questioned. The Broom versus Leaf Blower Challenge, designed as a fair completion, is worth witnessing (sorry about the late announcement). I’ll report the results in next week’s column.

Leaf Blowers

In recent columns, I have addressed soil health as an emerging issue in global climate change, and described ways in which residential gardeners could participate in solutions to this high-level priority. The most important strategies for home gardeners in this connection include using mulches and cover crops to protect the soil from the elements; avoiding uses of synthetic chemicals, which attack the soil microbiome, and favoring regionally appropriate plants, including (for the Monterey Bay area) plants that are native to California and other dry-summer climate regions.

Today’s column focuses on uses of gasoline-powered garden equipment: leaf blowers, lawnmowers, lawn edgers and chain saws.

This equipment contributes to climate change and air pollution. The typical device uses a two-stroke engine, which, by design, does not burn the fuel efficiently, and instead emits large quantities of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. These emissions contribute to smog formation, climate change and acid rain, and hydrocarbons in particular can be carcinogenic.

Small trucks and passenger cars also produce worrisome emissions, but gasoline-powered garden equipment emit them at much greater rates. For example, leaf blowers produce 100 to 300 times as many hydrocarbons as does a small truck or passenger vehicle. Garden equipment with four-stroke engines perform significantly better, but still far worse than car engines.

In terms of environmental pollution, these are very dirty devices.

The California Air Resources Board has stated, “Potential health effects from exhaust emissions, fugitive dust, and noise range from mild to serious.”

Fugitive dust includes organic debris and “particulate matter,” which can include a variety of potentially nasty organic and chemical stuff that people should not breathe.

Noise pollution effects include annoyance, hearing loss (particularly by equipment operators), and a range of psychological impacts.

For more information, visit the website of Zero Air Pollution (www.zapla.org). This southern California organization details the range of health hazards associated with this garden equipment, wherever it is used.

Leaf blowers sometimes are used to clear organic materials, and leave bare soil. Making nature “tidy” in this way exposes the soil to the damaging effects of the sun and wind. The regeneration of healthy soil requires maintaining cover of vegetation or mulch materials.

Here are recommendations for ecologically appropriate uses of garden equipment.

  1. Minimize or eliminate the use of gasoline-powered devices in favor of manual equipment. Use rakes and brooms to clear leaves, a push lawnmower to cut grass, a long-handled edger to trim lawns, and a handsaw to prune limbs. These tools are consistent with a contemplative approach to gardening, and provide desirable exercise.
  2. When the task requires too much time and effort for manual equipment, use electrical devices. Battery technology is advancing to enable longer operation of small garden equipment; corded devices, although cumbersome, work quite well. (My corded leaf blower moves leaves nicely.)
  3. Negotiate with your “mow, blow & go” garden maintenance contractor to use manual equipment whenever possible. This might require a small rate increase, but everyone will be better for the effort.

Continue reading

Gardening with Succulents

The continuing popularity of succulent plants is based on several kinds of appeal, beginning with drought tolerance and including interesting shapes and an amazing range of colors.

This diversity occurs because plants in many genera have developed the capacity to store water in their roots, stems or leaves. Their common characteristic is that they live in areas where drought conditions happen often enough to make water storage essential to survival.

Succulent plants have a reputation for being easy to cultivate, relative to other perennial plants. In addition to needing water only occasionally and in small amounts, these plants are have few problems from pests and diseases.

The native environment of a succulent plant can be important to its cultivation. Most gardeners know that succulents need fast-draining soil to avoid root rot, and grow well, if slowly, in nutrient-poor soil. These plants have evolved under such conditions, and now depend upon them.

Another consideration is the elevation of the plant’s native environment. Succulent plants that have evolved on mountains are accustomed to those environmental conditions, and could have unique leaf anatomy and photosynthetic characteristics.

Good gardening practice often involves matching—or approximating—the plant’s native environment, but changing the elevation of one’s garden is not among the options. Happily, most succulent plants from high elevations can grow well at lower elevations.

Succulent plants grow in many areas of the world, and an important issue of native environment is the hemisphere in which the plant evolved. This determines the plant’s dormancy, which influences the gardener’s cultivation practices.

Succulent plants that have adapted to the northern hemisphere  are Winter Dormant:
they rest from November through February and grow from March through October.
Many plants also will rest for a few weeks of hot weather in the summer, and grow
again in September and October. Popular succulent genera that are Winter Dormant include Agave, Echeveria, Euphorbia, Lithops and Pachypodium.

Succulent plants that have adapted to the southern hemisphere are Summer Dormant, which also means that they are winter growers. Their rest period continues from May through August; they grow slowly during the winter months, and then grow actively during autumn and spring. Examples of Summer Dormant succulent plants include these popular genera: Aeonium, Aloe, Cotyledon, Crassula, Dudleya, Gasteria, Graptopetalum, Haworthia, Kalanchoe, Pelargonium, Sanseveria, Sedum and Senecio.

The gardener should avoid disturbing succulent plants during their dormant periods. So, repotting, pruning, or taking cuttings should be done in March for Winter Dormant plants and in August for Summer Dormant plants.

Watering succulent plants is another practice that is dormancy-related. When plants are dormant, they stop growing but continue to transpire, and therefore need replacement moisture. Not watering succulent plants while they dormant is the most common cause for failure.

The amount of moisture needed during dormancy depends on the dryness of the particular environment. Winter Dormant plants might need watering once or twice per week. Summer Dormian plants, which rest during the hottest time of the year, could need more frequent watering.

Also, remember to group plants with similar water needs. Such grouping can be important when combining succulent plants in containers: keeping Summer Dormant or Winter Dormant plants together will enable more convenient and more appropriate irrigation.

Mixed Succulents in Pot

Mixed Succulents in Container
(click to enlarge)

These guidelines could need adjustment for individual species; as always with the plant world, general rules are subject to variation.

Lose the Lawn

One the best gardening strategies to prepare for future droughts—and achieve additional benefits—is to replace your lawn with any of several landscape designs.

Lawns, and especially front yard lawns, began as a mark of affluence, because mowing a lawn was once a labor-intensive (and therefore costly) session with a scythe. A skilled scythe-wielding worker can be impressively efficient, but for most workers, including the homeowner with an up-to-date lawnmower, mowing a lawn is a tedious and repetitious task. The homeowner’s reward for a well-maintained lawn can include pride of ownership.

A lawn does more than display the homeowner’s wealth. It also serves as the base for widely accepted front-yard designs, the principal one of which has been called the Contractor’s Landscape. This consists of a shallow bed of reliable small shrubs next to the house, followed by turf grass to the curb. This design is quick and cheap to install, and inoffensive.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, the lawn provides a resting place for the eye as the viewer focuses on individual trees, shrubs and blossoms. The lawn is a neutral swatch of greenery, contrasting carpet-like with the relatively busy landscape.

But consider the negative aspects of the lawn.

  • Maintaining a good-looking lawn requires much more effort, water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides than alternative landscapes.
  • Two-cycle lawnmowers pollute the air about ten times as much as a car, and add noise pollution as well. Electric mowers are better, but they also impact the environment. Push mowers are best for the environment, the lawn and the homeowner.
  • Lawns are the homeowner’s version of monoculture, growing just one crop over an area. This practice might seem efficient, but to the wildlife, it’s a wasteland with very little food or water and no shelter at all.
  • Lawns might be valued for recreation, but in reality often have minimal use (except for maintenance). Other landscape designs could be more inviting and supportive of outdoor activities.

If these factors encourage you to consider losing your lawn, it’s time to look into the many possible alternatives. Begin with Sunset magazine’s “21 Inspiring Lawn-free Yards” <www.sunset.com/garden/earth-friendly/lose-the-lawn-low-water-landscaping>. This webpage offers a slideshow of attractive options to contemplate.

For more in-depth information, visit Evelyn J. Hadden’s extensive website, “Less Lawn, More Life,” or look for her book, “Beautiful No-Mow Lawns: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives’ (Timber Press, 2012).

Another fine resource on this topic is book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien: Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices andDesigns (

Another helpful resource is the Lawn Reform Coalition, which is “all about reducing or replacing lawn, water-wise lawn species and eco-friendly care for all lawns.” Visit the Coalition’s website for information on all aspects of lawn alternatives.

“Lose the lawn” emphasizes the loss of a familiar element of the landscape. “Lawn alternatives” suggests a more appealing idea, one that opens our thinking about creative approaches to the landscape and new resources in the home environment.

Think of the possibilities!

Rain at Last

As an impressionistic meteorologist, I’m very pleased with our recent rains and even more so with the promise of more rain in the near future. Some areas of northern and central California could actually reach normal levels of annual precipitation. The Santa Cruz area is during fairly well, but this happy future might not extend throughout the area: portions of Monterey County are receiving lighter precipitation.

What have we learned?

My first reaction to the overdue rain is that we can now anticipate fresh new stems and leaves and a great floral display in the spring. Our plants are responding to the moisture by extending their roots and drawing in nutrients, preparing for a new season of growth.

Then, I flashed on the idea that the drought is over for good, and we’re back to the Monterey Bay area’s historical weather pattern, with a dry summer and the onset of the rainy season around mid-October. This thought didn’t last long. Realistically, our climate is changing in ways that will change our gardening—and our lives—in significant ways.

This change is happening at a fast rate, not with the very slow arrival of the Ice Age (approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago or the Little Ice Age (1550 to 1850), which developed relatively more quickly, over a period of about 200 years.

Politicians are debating a range of responses to today’s emerging problem. Clearly this is a global issue that requires global action, but as individuals, we can respond in small ways. The most constructive action for individuals is to elect those who accept the reality of climate change and support long-term solutions.

As gardeners, we can pursue three basic strategies:

First, retire plants that require summer irrigation and that suffer under drought conditions. The single most widespread plant in this category is lawn grass, which achieves it aesthetic potential only with frequent irrigation, applications of nitrogen fertilizers and broadleaf herbicides, and regular cultivation, including mowing, aeration and pest control.

In a future column, I will describe alternatives to traditional turf grasses.

Tropical-climate plants compirse another category to avoid for drought-tolerant gardens. Examples include the hibiscus (H. syriacus is the most popular ornamental species) and the banana (Musa acuminata, M. balbisiana and others). In general, avoid plants with large glossy dark leaves, which tend to absorb more heat, require a lot of water and transpire a lot of water.

For the water needs of specific plants, Sunset’s Western Garden Book provides useful guidelines, with briefly descriptive terms from “ample water” to “little to moderate water.”

The second basic strategy is to favor plants that will survive in your garden under drought conditions. Generally, as often mentioned in the column, these are plants that are native to coastal California and other Mediterranean (or “summer-dry”) climates. These plants will do better with a little moisture during a prolonged drought, but they have evolved to withstand dry periods, using such methods as growing small leaves, that minimize water loss.

Succulents are another category of drought-tolerant plants, which have developed structures for storing water in their leaves, stems or roots.

The third strategy for drought-tolerant gardening is to use water wisely, through drip irrigation and regular mulching. These water-conservation methods complement the two preceding strategies for plant selection, and help the gardener to cope with water restrictions.

Use the next clear days to assess your garden for drought-tolerance. However much we enjoy the current rains, preparing for future droughts requires long-term planning..