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The Tenderloin Garden

I have some photos from one of the gardens on this past weekend’s Garden Conservancy Open Days Tour. It’s the home garden of the Organic Mechanics, the guys who created the giant succulent Borg cube at last year’s flower and garden show. I like seeing designers’ home gardens. They’re usually funky and interesting, and this on’s no exception. Lots of salvaged urban materials, lots of eclectic plant choices, and a fair bit of benign neglect, all hidden away behind an apartment building in the Tenderloin on the kind of block that has transvestite hookers on the corners at night. Part of the experience of this garden is to first walk six blocks without seeing a single plant. You don’t forget that you’re in a city when you enter the garden, but you get a very different city experience.

I love the big brick wall on the neighboring building, with a 5 cent cigar ad painted over a 2 cent cigar ad. I don’t give brick enough credit as a material. This wall is phenomenal.

The other detail I really like is a short path made from repurposed materials. Their website has a photo of an entire patio made from the same stuff.

There’s a write-up at SF Gate telling some more about the garden and the designers. A fun garden to have seen.

The Bay Friendly Garden Tour

One of the gardens that we help maintain is on the Bay Friendly Garden Tour tomorrow. I’m a big fan of the tour and the whole concept of ‘Bay Friendly’. It’s such a clear way to focus on the ecological implications of gardening, and the tour has the feel of real gardens made by actual gardeners. This garden was originally installed by a designer (Roger Raiche, who’s known around the Bay Area from working at the UC Botanical Garden and for introducing a lot of well-known native plant varieties, Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red,’ California Wild Grape, being the first one that comes to mind but there are many many more) and we’ve been helping with the maintenance for several years, but it’s very much the owner’s own personal garden. Over the years, she has moved and added and subtracted a lot of the plants, and she’s the one who keeps it in a showcase state.

This section of the garden was designed by her along with a Buddhist monk who helped in the garden before our tenure. Virtually every plant in this area is a transplant from some other part of the garden, almost no new plants were bought for the space. Quite a few classic garden plants — roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, a peony — ended up in this area, I think after struggling or being overcrowded somewhere else. The fence was built with bamboo that the monk harvested from my garden. They instilled the space with a nice peaceful ambience, and it’s my favorite place to sit in the garden. Every garden should have a Buddhist monk work in it for a time.

I’ve posted photos from this garden a couple of times before, here and here. There is a post about the garden on the Bay Friendly blog and the garden got several paragraphs in a write-up of the tour at SF Gate. And Floradora has a number of nice photos from this garden and several others on the tour.

Some more photos are below. (more…)

Eichler Party

A couple of weekends back, we went to a party in one of the gardens we installed this spring. I realized that this doesn’t happen all that often, that we don’t often get to see people out using and enjoying the spaces that we create, and that we don’t often hang out in and enjoy those spaces ourselves, so it was really nice to be in one of our gardens in something other than a professional context.

It was also interesting because the project was at an Eichler house. Eichler was a developer in the 50’s and 60’s who built homes in the California modern style, mostly in the Bay Area. The homes are known for their vision of California indoor/outdoor living, often with floor-to-ceiling glass looking out on the backyards, and it was nice to see that in action. The house and garden really do have a seamless transition.

Allium unifolium in the no-mow blend this past spring

The plantings are still young, so the No-Mow fescue meadow is the most interesting horticultural element while everything else grows in. The no-mow blend is one of those things that we’re not always sure that people will like; it’s not manicured enough for some people, and the sod looks like a bad shag carpet when you first unroll it. This one has been a big success, though; everyone at the party seemed to like it and talk about it and to find it much more interesting than a regular lawn. Someone recently wrote into the Chronicle describing the no-mow blend as looking like ‘bear fur or yak fur or something, really beautiful.’ I wouldn’t have expected yak fur to be used as a compliment, but I guess I can see their point. I just think it looks more appropriate for California than mowed bluegrass. I have tended to think of the no-mow blend as a form of lawn, but this summer it sent up golden seedheads that glowed in the sun like a proper meadow.

We’re planning to add bulbs to it this fall and see what we can get to naturalize. It was too late in the year to do much this past spring, but we did put in a few starts of Allium unifolium and two kinds of Rain Lily, Zephyranthes candida and flavissima. Neither of them were in sufficient quantities to make a big show, but the rain lilies have taken and we’ll see if the alliums come back this fall. (update 10/20 — I just did the bulb planting and the alliums did indeed survive through the summer. A. unifolium really is the most moisture tolerant of the alliums in my experience.) We’re doing our bulb order soon, and if all goes according to plan I’ll have some photos with a bunch of flowers in the meadow next spring.

Connecticut Blue Flagstone and Concrete

Last week I helped a family member prep his house for sale (update 8/10 — it’s now sold). I had done some stonework there a few years ago, so to prep it now we just added some sod and mulch. The house is in Albany with one of those tiny East Bay backyards, really easy to work in; I think family members should all be encouraged to have really small yards.

The flagstone here is Connecticut Blue, a sandstone which is not always from Connecticut and only sometimes looks bluish. It gets sold in a lot of different shapes and thicknesses out here, popular for creating that East Coast bluestone look. We tend to use it when we want to blend in with existing concrete and not put that concrete to shame. In this case, we wanted to make the massive former hot tub slab look like an integrated part of the yard, rather than just a massive former hot tub slab. We also wanted to make the massive wall of ivy into something other than a massive wall of ivy, but that phase never happened, a project for the future owners, I guess.

When you factor in the embedded energy and the $500/ton price tag, I’m not sure Connecticut Blue is all that much better than just using recycled concrete/urbanite for a patio, but there’s no question the stacked flagstone makes a much nicer step.

I like the Connecticut Blue in the hellstrip with the gold path fines. We used blue path fines for the joints of the patio, and in retrospect it would have been better with the gold. The blue has a tendency to leave little gravelly bits on the stones, not nice for bare feet.

All of the stone is leftover from a much larger job; instead of throwing it away or selling it on Craigslist, I used it here. Some of the stone in the raised bed was too thin to dry-stack, so I mortared it with a hidden joint so it would look dry-stacked but still be solid. Other parts of the wall, using the larger stones, are actually dry-stacked, but no one can tell the difference.

Leptospermum Dark Shadows

Leptospermum Dark Shadows

All the stonework and most of the plants went in three years ago, so the main thing we did to get the yard ready was to add sod. I spend a lot more of my time taking out lawns instead of putting them in, but lawns do have their merits and sometimes you gotta just throw down some sod. The Leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’ were planted as 1 gallons three years ago. Pretty fast.

And just to compare with the Connecticut Blue in path fines, a photo of recycled concrete/urbanite in path fines from a different project, the closest comparison I have.

The Garden Now That We’re Gone

A while back, James at LostintheLandscape did a post titled Our Gardens After We’re Gone, musing about what might happen to his garden if or when he is no longer stewarding it. TownMouse and Bradzio at RootedinCalifornia and probably some other folks followed up with posts about what might happen to their own gardens. It makes sense that it was such a popular topic; gardening is largely about planning and envisioning the future. Anita and I have to do that pretty much all the time, and quite a few of the gardens we install are essentially a ‘garden with us gone’. After we design and plant, we usually return to do maintenance occasionally, but often times we just walk away. There are a few gardens out there that we installed and never saw again. It’s interesting to imagine what they look like.

One garden that we do see on a weekly basis is an example of some of the different things that can happen. We installed it four years ago and maintained it for about two, but then the client moved and took some of the plants with him. It was a shock the first time I saw the garden without them, but now I’m used to it and I find it interesting to see how the rest of the planting has endured.

The Intact Section (minus a couple of shrubs in the back right)

This section is still largely intact, with just a couple of shrubs missing. It looks like the new tenants might be weeding it and watering (the irrigation system was a casualty when the plants were transplanted, but someone might be hand-watering), though it’s hard to guess about the watering this early in the dry season. The weeds were pretty thoroughly eradicated by the time we stopped maintaining it, so the plants might be holding off interlopers.

Coyote Brush Pioneer

This section, with every plant moved to the new location, is a landscape designer’s memento mori. Coyote brush, one of the main pioneer plants in this area has already moved in. Without humans pulling the volunteers, I think coyote brush would pop up in almost every garden we’ve ever installed.

Ceanothus with weeds

Ceanothus with weeds

This Ceanothus and the Salvia clevelandii in the first photo are fighting the good fight against weeds. This section was never on irrigation and clearly doesn’t get any weeding. Salvia and ceanothus versus weeds, who will win? There’s probably some coyote brush in there somewhere getting ready to join the battle.

The Smokebush at its New Home

This smokebush is one of the plants that was transplanted to the new location. It’s easy to understand why the owner would want to take it with him.

Lawn Begone

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.

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