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Reimagining the California Lawn

This weekend, I went to a talk at Annie’s Annuals by Bart O’Brien, co-author with Carol Bornstein and David Fross of Reimagining the California Lawn. I bought a copy when it first came out, as their previous book California Native Plants for the Garden is pretty much the gold-standard book about California natives and one which I use all the time. I haven’t really read the new one yet. I looked through it enough to look make sure that I wanted to keep it, but that’s it so far. I’m teaching our Lawn Begone class at Heather Farms again this year, October 22, so I’ll go through it more carefully when I’m prepping for the class.

In the meantime I was interested to hear one of the authors give a talk on the subject, and I was also just generally interested in what he had to say as he’s one of the prominent figures in the native plant movement and a director at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which I’ve been wanting to see for a long time now. I haven’t been to any of the other talks at Annie’s, but it was pleasant sitting there in their demo garden, listening.

He started with some info about California’s mediterranean climate and then talked about the Garden/Garden project in Santa Monica, pretty much the best comparison of a traditional front yard and a sustainable one. Basically, the city of Santa Monica had two side by side properties and decided to install a lawn/mow-and-blow yard for one and a native garden for the other. They’ve been tracking the results for 6 years now, and it’s of course unfavorable to the mow and blow yard. The native garden uses one fifth of the water, generates less than half as much green waste, and requires much less time and money to maintain. Plus the traditional garden looks like a relic from the 1970’s. I linked to a Sustainable Sites Initiative report on it back in the early months of this blog, but he said the city’s website was really good, and he’s right, it gives a lot more details, including plant lists and construction photos. Worth checking out if you haven’t seen this project before.

He listed 7 design possibilities for replacing a lawn:

Greensward — His term for a no-mow lawn. He liked Carex praegracilis as a no-mow lawn substitute. He said Carex pansa and Carex divulsa were fine, too, he just happened to have the most experience with C. praegracilis. Interestingly, he said that high-elevation carex varieties tend to rarely bloom at lower elevations.

Meadow — An open expanses of grasses, sedges, annual and perennial wildflowers, and bulbs

Rock Garden — Traditionally made of alpine plants but in California just a planting with rocks and low plants

Succulent Garden — Self-explanatory

Carpet and Tapestry Garden — A broad category meant to include most plantings of mixed perennials, grasses, succulents, and shrubs

Kitchen Gardens –Edibles! More relevant for backyard lawns around here.

Green Roof — He joked that this got included because his co-author David Fross is a green roof expert.

He listed 4 ways of eliminating the lawn:

Sod cutter — A lot of work and it doesn’t get rid of the problem weeds of the Bay Area: Bermuda Grass, Oxalis, and Bindweed

Sheet-mulch/Lasagna method — He was rather neutral about it. Not skeptical or dismissive, but not as enthusiastic as I am. (I think it’s far and away the easiest and best way to remove a lawn.) The book says to cover the layer of newspaper with at least 12 to 24 inches of organic matter, which is excessive. The general consensus is that 4-6 inches of organic matter is the right amount, and I’ve done it successfully with just two or three inches of mulch when it wasn’t practical to mound any higher because of grading issues. He didn’t discuss the process in depth during his talk.

Solarization — He says it takes three months to solarize the soil for the wildflower meadow at Rancho Santa Ana. It’s most effective at combatting annual grasses, actually increases germination with some things like lupines, and is not likely to work well in cooler parts of the Bay Area.

Judiciously applied chemicals — He removed his own lawn years ago by letting it go brown, then watering it to stimulate growth of the Bermuda grass, and then spot-spraying the growth. He repeated this cycle for three years to completely eradicate his deeply-rooted Bermuda grass. Personally, I don’t have that kind of patience, but I admire someone who does.

He said that he let his garden go completely dormant once, as an experiment, one year when Southern California had only 2.7 inches of rain all winter. Almost all of his plants survived but they looked dead and he was cited by the city for having such a brown unattractive landscape. The city backed off when he told them about his credentials and what he was doing.

He finished by talking about individual plants that he liked and he gave out a list of recommendations which was rather varied, ranging from Dudleyas to Sedums to Buckwheats to Wild Grapes. His focus was on native plants, though I like that the new book gives info on a lot of non-natives too. There were a lot of questions from the audience and he said other things I’m not remembering at this moment and by the end everyone seemed gung ho to go right ahead and remove their lawns. Good stuff.

The Green City Index

A study came out last month ranking the sustainability of 27 cities in North America, and San Francisco did the Bay Area proud, topping the list. It was first in Waste (recycling over 75% of its waste), second in Buildings, Transportation and Air Quality, third in Energy, fifth in Water (average consumption is 142 gallons per person per day, compared to the average of 155 gallons), and eighth in CO2 Emissions, Land Use and Environmental Governance. Second place overall was Vancouver, followed by New York, Seattle, and Denver. Los Angeles was 7th (187 gallons of water per person), which was a surprise to me, though I guess I formed my low opinion of LA during the 90’s before a lot of recent efforts to make the city greener. Sacramento was 15th without scoring especially high at anything (20th in water, with 207 gallons per person, damn those lawns). I’m not used to seeing Sacramento included in a national study; it just barely beat the Texas cities. Neither Oakland nor Portland were included in the index, which is kind of a shame. It would be interesting to see them compared to SF; Portland is the leader in a lot of areas of sustainability, and Oakland has set many of the same goals and policies as San Francisco. These kinds of studies are always pretty broad-brush, but this one is pretty good and worth reading, especially if you live in one of the 27 cities.

Green Fire, an Aldo Leopold Documentary

Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time from Jeannine Richards on Vimeo.

‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Aldo Leopold

Last week in Berkeley, there was a showing of Green Fire, a documentary about Aldo Leopold that is making the rounds. The trailer embedded above is a bit slow, but the full length film is engrossing and well worth a viewing. A Sand County Almanac made a big impression on me years ago, but there’s more to Leopold’s story than just that, and the film conveys that same sense of a Leopold as a great conservation thinker. It can’t be overstated how far ahead of his time he was.

Among other highlights, the film has footage of the shack and farm — now a national historic landmark — where he wrote A Sand County Almanac. I remember reading the book, reading about his efforts to rehabilitate the land, and wondering how his conservation efforts there endured after his death. Quite well, apparently, no doubt in part because his children were conservationists too. The photo above is from Wikimedia, this blog has a few more photos of the shack and land, and there’s a slideshow of black and whites at the Aldo Leopold Foundation website for contrast. But you get the best sense of the place by watching the film. The KQED climate blog, reviewing the film, says it will probably be shown on PBS in about a year.

El Cerrito Rain Gardens

Rain Garden Perspective Drawing by Gates and Associates

As part of the stimulus program and various water quality initiatives, El Cerrito got funding to add some rain gardens along San Pablo Avenue, the main commercial street in my neighborhood. A huge percentage of the area is covered with concrete, so when it rains the water has nowhere to go and the streets can look like this photo I took in May; sometimes I feel like I should get out a kayak. To help mediate that, the city redid two sections of sidewalkswith plantings set below the grade of the street. Instead of draining straight to the bay, stormwater will now flow from the streets and sidewalks into planting areas where sediment will drop out of the water and pollutants and trash will be filtered by the plants. There are 600 total linear feet of basins in the two separate areas, calculated to treat 1.23 acres of paved surface; the San Francsico Estuary Institute is going to monitor water quality to see how big of an effect the gardens have. There’s a podcast about the project here. It’s a nice use of plants to address an infrastructure issue.

San Pablo And Eureka Ave

The plantings are all natives. Juncus, leymus, and a grass that looks like a melica are the main species, peppered with some yarrows, two monkey flowers, two California fuchsias, two Ribes speciosa, several Verbena lilacina, two wild roses, a redtiwg dogwood, and a Doug Iris. There are one or two blooming plants in each planter right now, not a big impact, but just enough to focus the eye as you walk past each one.

Mimulus and Leymus

Monkey Flower and Leymus

The El Cerrito Patch says the cost of the project was $350,000 for the two sections of rain gardens.

San Pablo and Eureka

Island Pink Yarrow, Achillea millefolium rosea

There’s a meme about public plantings, Out on the Streets, hosted by Veg Plotting. Click through to see other posts about public plantings. I have a few more photos of the planters below the fold. (more…)

PlantSF

Farewell to Spring and Blessed Calendula

Farewell to Spring and Blessed Calendula

Happy Solstice everyone. Gotta say, it snuck up on me. I’ll still be in spring mode for a couple of more weeks, though the plants seem to know what time it is. A few days ago, the first Clarkias opened. Farewell to Spring.

Somewhat unrelated (though I see that clarkias are blooming in the relevant photos from last year) Landscape Architecture Magazine has an article, From Gray to Green, about PlantSF.org, a non-profit that works to take out pavement in San Francisco and replace it with permeable and planted surfaces. Basically, too much of San Francisco is covered with buildings and concrete — between 60 and 90% according to the article — so the sewer system often gets overloaded, dumping dirty runoff and raw sewage into the bay. Yuck. Richmond has the same problem, clearly visible every time it rains. The solution is to replace concrete with surfaces that allow stormwater to infiltrate into the soil. Enter PlantSF. The article tells a good story about how one architect/designer/gardener can have an impact on a citywide scale.

Plantsf.org Planting

We went to a PlantSF planting party last year (according to the article, that particular project was called ‘Mission Roots,’ who knew?). These photos are from two PlantSF plantings, taken several months later, sometime around June to judge from the blooming clarkias. I can’t remember which street we worked on, but it was somewhere in the Mission a few blocks from Humphry Slocombe (Oolong or Guinness Gingerbread ice cream anyone?). It’s not too often I use an ice cream shop as a landmark, but that’s how I found the sites when I went by afterwards to see the finished plantings, and I’m sure I could never find them again without having a cone first.

Malcolm Wells…

Underground Architecture by Malcolm Wells

Underground Architecture by Malcolm Wells

‘In 1964, after 10 years spent spreading corporate asphalt on America in the name of architecture, I woke up one day to the fact that the earth’s surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants. I’ve been an underground architect ever since.’ Malcolm Wells

I didn’t notice until I saw mention at veg.itecture, but Malcolm Wells passed away last month at 83. Wells was the author of Underground Designs, one of the earliest books to advocate for underground buildings, green roofs, and what he called “gentle architecture,” architecture that would leave the land no worse than the architect found it. It was probably the first book I ever saw on green building, and one of the first, I’m sure, for many other people. As happens so often, his passing got me looking at his work again, and there’s a lot there, including some great water colors, drawings, cartoons, and quotes on his website. Highlights are an illustrated glossary of passive solar concepts and suggestions on how to celebrate the holiday he created, Underground America Day (think about moles, eat a parsnip or a radish, stay home from work and put some dirt on the roof…).

The Wells website has links to over a dozen obituaries, including the one he wrote himself. He clearly had a good time writing it, showing off a black eye in the photo and mostly talking about the people in his life. He ends with instructions that his last words should ‘tail off into a string of dots.’

‘But wait: don’t cut me off here. I haven’t told you about my two years in the Marine Corps – World War II – studying engineering at Georgia Tech and carrying a wooden rifle, of working with the Seneca’s, or doing a World’s Fair building, or designing a quilt, or never having touched a computer or a cell phone, or having done dozens, probably hundreds, of incredible designs and…

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