Archive for May, 2010
For a while now I’ve been meaning to post about converting lawns to low-water plants. We do it 2 or 3 times a year, and Anita and I have both taught workshops on the process. We convert the lawns with the use of sheet-mulch: a smothering layer of newspaper or cardboard covered by compost and mulch. It’s really easy and it works well, one of the few cases in life where the easiest way to do something is also the most effective.
Yesterday after the rain eased I did an irrigation checkup at a lawn we converted to plants two years ago. It was looking pretty good. There’s some bermuda grass in one area and some other weeds in a few places, but the lawn is long gone. Here are some photos of that project:
We first had the client stop watering the lawn for a month. EBMUD has a rebate program that gives $.50 for every square foot of lawn taken out and replaced with low-water plants and drip irrigation. If you’re going get a rebate, make sure you get them out for the pre-inspection before you stop watering; they only give rebates for removal of green lawns.
We covered the lawn with newspaper (cardboard also works) and a layer of compost or planting mix. We also cut away the sod at the edges next to the sidewalk and put those pieces of sod in a couple of piles covered with compost. Lawns tend to be flat and geometric, so we like to form a low mound or two for visual interest. The mound does not have be high — even 4 or 6 inches is enough — and it really helps banish the ghost of the flat lawn underneath.
We put out the plants and planted them through the soil and newspaper. The neighbors always think we’re crazy when we start covering everything with newspaper, but the arrival of the plants starts to restore their confidence.
Another way to do it is to put a layer of compost on the lawn, plant, put out the layer of newspaper, and then cover it with mulch. The newspaper is more likely to show if it’s on top of the compost, but you don’t have to deal with the newspaper while you are planting. We usually do the newspaper about 12 sheets thick and we try to make sure it overlaps by several inches. We soak the newspaper in a bucket of water before we lay it down so that it sticks together, like paper-mache for your yard. Compost or mulch needs to go on top of it as soon as possible to hold it down and keep it from blowing away. Thicker layers are better, but a lot of time we’re working close to a sidewalk where it’s not practical to make a thick layer.
These two photos are from soon after planting.
The next photo is from last year, when the planting was a year old.
Between the compost, the decaying lawn, and the remnant fertilizers from the lawn, the plants usually grow really quickly. The Luma apiculata (Chilean Myrtle) planted as a 1 gallon is already more than 8 feet tall after only 2 years.
StopWaste has a great step by step breakdown of the process and page with tips. Sheet-mulching is a little like cooking, everyone does it with their own slight variation, but StopWaste has a solid recipe.
So this video doesn’t have much garden or stone content (I can’t picture the Jesus and Mary Chain pruning a shrubbery), but my motto this spring is that ‘I’m Happy When It Rains.’ I don’t know any of the lyrics other than the title and I’m sure the singer is really singing about a girl instead of precipitation, but I think of this song every time it rains. Partly because I can’t work when it rains (sort of a good thing, sort of a bad thing), but also of course because rain is good for the plants. Even when it messes with my schedule, it gives me a chance to catch up on office work, billing, banking, blogging, and all of the other things I can’t do while I’m on site in someone’s yard. Tuesday seemed like an unusually heavy rain for this late in the month, .32 inches in one day, and today has been even heavier. Historically, Richmond averages .54 inches in May; we’ve had .63 so far, which isn’t so high, but today will take us well past 150% of normal. I know someone whose birthday was on Tuesday, and she says it had never rained on her birthday in fifty years of living in California.
Here’s another view of the woodland strawberry planting I showed on bloom day. The strawberries have been rather mealy this year. Two years ago they were good, last year they were okay, but this year they aren’t much good at all. I’m guessing that might be because of all these April and May rains. Also, the leaves are looking somewhat chlorotic up close, so they might need to be thinned out to refresh them. We originally put these in as a cheap, low-water groundcover, but after a big harvest of berries the second year we started to think of them as an edible deserving of more attention and respect. If anyone has a suggestion for getting fruit production back up, please let me know.
This planting started with three 2″ stubbies and had full coverage within two years. Normally, I’d be afraid of a groundcover that can spread this fast, but it’s pretty easy to control because it does all its running above ground. California Native Plants for the Garden uses a photo of it to illustrate the potential ‘weediness’ of some natives, but personally I like the look of the strawberry with the irises and alliums rising out of it. Any drought-tolerant, evergreen, native groundcover that produces berries is okay with me.
The sidalceas disappeared into the strawberry patch a couple of years ago, with only their flowers showing unless you hunt for the leaves. I like its ‘What plant are those flowers coming from?’ effect.
We put in a single Beach Strawberry, too, which is now the dominant plant in its own corner of the planting. It has sent out runners through the rest of the planting that send leaves up for a bit of textual contrast. Before growing the two strawberries, I used to get them confused, but side by side it’s not hard to tell the difference. The beach strawberry has a harder, darker, thicker, glossier leaf. Flowers are bigger and often set deeper within the foliage. I’ve never seen a berry on it. Woodland strawberry unsurprisingly prefers part shade, while beach strawberry is happiest, again unsurprisingly, in coastal full sun, but both plants have worked in pretty much every situation we’ve tried them.
We have a fair bit going on for bloom day. The woodland strawberry bed has campanula and Allium unifolium and the last of the bearded irises.
There is something about A. ‘Black Barlow’ that’s so black, it’s like how much blacker could it be, and the answer is none. None more black.
Aquilegia chrysantha is my favorite columbine. I even like it better than the native one.
These flowers were new and purple for February bloom day, invited back into the bloom day mix because they still look pretty good three months later. Gotta like a flower that can age so gracefully.
I also like how the Beach Primrose flowers age.
We have a spot by the front steps where we rotate in whatever we have blooming in a container, like a display at the nursery. This month is Allium unifolium, in March we had Daffodils, in April Freesias. Next month should be the Lilies which are now budding. I’m not sure what we’ll have after that, but it’s starting to become a thing, to have something blooming in that spot every month if possible.
Click over to MayDreamsGardens for the growing collection of links to all of the other bloggers posting for bloom day. My thanks to Carol for hosting.
I’ve been keeping a list of everything in bloom each month for bloom day. I should have the list up soon.
— Update — And now it’s up, below the fold.
Here are the rest of my Ruth Bancroft Garden photos, mostly from my second visit to the garden, after the cold frames were taken down. Most of the plants outside of the cold frames are fairly common in Bay Area dry gardens these days, but I didn’t know a lot of the cactus species that had been under the frames. It was definitely worth the second visit to see them out of their plastic winter wrappers.
This photo and the next three are plants that don’t need winter protection in the Walnut Creek, so they were outside of the cold frames my first visit.
Even without the frames, there’s still a funky desert aesthetic created by some of the homemade staking.
The garden has some cool big yuccas.
This tree aloe was in the cold frame on stilts. Someone told me that in a single year they once lost 5 or 6 tons of aloes from a frost, hauling away whole dumpster loads of them.
— The San Jose Mercury News has an article about some new work going on at the garden, with photos of the garden throughout the years.
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