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The headlines proclaim, “The Worst California Drought In Recent History!” At the same time, thousands of gardens across the Bay Area still feature green lawns watered every day by pop-up, high pressure sprinklers, releasing a flood of water to keep them green, along with copious mist that evaporates into the air. What’s wrong with this picture?

In our semi-arid climate with frequent, prolonged droughts, any kind of lawn that needs regular water is wasteful of one of our most precious resources. More people are choosing to reduce or eliminate their lawn irrigation. You might have a golden-brown lawn or an inert, sun-baked gravel- or dirt-scape. There are even dead, dry lawns that have been spray-painted green.

Some people might choose to replace their lawn with a succulent garden, or with a heavily mulched space with super-drought tolerant plants (often California natives) watered by tiny little drip heads.

There is certainly nothing wrong with these water-wise lawn replacements. Every one of them reduces water usage and helps us better manage our resources. Congratulations to all gardeners who choose these and other xeriscaping options.

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At deep nature gardens we have developed another water-wise alternative for ecologically conscious gardeners.

If you value beauty, diversity, and abundance but you don’t like drip-watered mulch-scapes, slow-growing succulent gardens or spray-painted lawns, consider creating an ultra-drought-tolerant deep nature garden.

Here in the Bay Area we are surrounded by hills covered with some of the lushest, most diverse and abundant ecosystems in any dry climate on the planet. Our beautiful chapparal hillsides are supremely drought tolerant and yet they are densely clothed with rich, diverse vegetation. How do they do it?

We have studied the evolution of drought-tolerance in garden spaces, especially the kind of “managed nature” that is present in a deep nature garden.

You can have a garden of exceptional beauty, diversity, and abundance that is able to survive even times of extended dryness. Even when it is dry, such a garden can feature green leaves and an assortment of open flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and many other critters.

Any time is a great time to get started. We’ll remove that thirsty grass. We’ll move some soil around, making high and low places, and add some beautiful natural looking rocks with moss and lichen. We’ll plant a few starters and scatter a layer of eco-mix seeding blend. There will be a carefully managed watering scheme that will encourage just the right blend of plants. As everything grows in we’ll remove anything that does not fit.

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Within a few months you’ll see the beginnings of something extraordinary: a natural looking garden that is equally healthy whether it is in the middle of a wet rainy season or an extended California drought. Not only is it resilient to wet and dry, it is also beautiful. Deep nature gardens are living works of art.

If this sounds interesting please get in touch. Let’s have a free visit to your garden and talk about what is possible.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Did you miss the previous episode of this series? You can also jump back to the beginning.

 
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We rejoin our story of the transformation of our flagship site, little yellow house in Menlo Park, a short five days after the removal of the giant old silk tree.

It is November 14, 2012. The front garden, now fully exposed to sun, is about to begin a long-term shift toward something much more lush and interesting. But right now it still looks bare in many places. The front wall of the house bears a bright white scar where a huge old jasmine was removed.

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On the left side of the front walk the garden was less affected by the tree removal. From left to right above, a healthy mugo pine occupies the far corner near the neighbor’s driveway; in the near corner there are three daisy bushes; in front of those, a little patch of violets and decorative strawberries; filling the background, a big old wisteria “tree-vine” that has been neglected for years; and in front of the wisteria there are two silvery French lavender bushes. The ground has been prepared and covered with leaves scattered outward from beneath the wisteria.

The front edges of this zone have been slightly excavated, so that the soil at the edge is lower than the sidewalk. That way, any watering or rain overflow will not wash soil out across the walk.

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The right side of the walkway looks much more bare. A lot of invasive violets have been removed along with a large amount of other common plants such as grasses that were occupying most of the space. At the left is a dense pittosporum bush that we will try to preserve. In front of it are some butterfly irises running toward a large patch of bearded irises in the far background. Just behind the left-most two rocks is a single stand of agapanthus, which will also be kept. It is the only full-size agapanthus that will be allowed to remain. The low patches of green in the foreground are mostly violets and various other fairly invasive plants, including the dreaded buttercup oxalis, destined to be one of the most frequently-thinned plants in this garden.

What is not visible here are the tremendous number of tiny seeds already present in the soil. As we will see in future episodes of this story, this garden still bears many traces of its former history.

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In 2012 we actually had some early winter rain. Here in a bare patch in front of the pittosporum bush there are hundreds of small seedlings. These include many grasses (soon to be removed!) and a bunch of fast growing pioneers we will allow to stay just long enough to do their good work of opening the soil and attracting some beneficial insects. These small ecosystem-builders include petty spurge, groundsel, cut-leaf geranium, chickweed, and more of the still-ubiquitous English violets. Also present, tons of buttercup oxalis coming up from their deep bulbs.

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Also in the same area, some naked lady bulbs sprout vigorously. These will now do extremely well in the newly sunny space!

Meanwhile, over in the driveway are stacked some of the limbs taken from the big old silk tree that was removed in the previous episode. They are covered with a truly amazing ecosystem of lichens and some small mosses. Some of these made lovely holiday decorations inside of little yellow house:

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Next: A new tree goes in, and a closer look at more of the interesting plants already present in little yellow house front garden.

You may know that we just had a rather large and exciting storm here in the Bay Area. We usually get one or two like this between Thanksgiving and New Year. This one included a vast amount of rain, some of it applied in huge downpours. Fun!

The deep nature gardens took it all in stride, mostly. There were a few small injuries and other changes.

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Above: This red clover in the upstairs container garden looks a bit beaten down, but it will recover quickly. This container is one of the “old style” boxes that dries out rather fast because it lacks a proper moisture barrier. The clover will do great over the winter now that its deep roots are finally getting enough water from the rains.

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Above: The main garden downstairs is looking very crisp and green. The bright orange flowers of the leonotis bush (at right center) have finally finished, and now they droop all brown and wilted from its branches. Still, they remain noble and beautiful. One of the leaves of a Swiss chard plant (front center) has been knocked down by the heavy rain. You can’t see it in the picture, but recent frosts have killed off the above-ground growth of a lush patch of purslane that was growing near the sidewalk at lower right.

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Above: A favorite wild strawberry plant soaks up some late afternoon sun after nearly a week of dark skies. It opens a cheerful white flower or two and offers its bright fruit. Sweet and delicious!

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Above: This bluish-white lichen on a rock has expanded and soaked up the rain. Right now it is soft and flexible, clearly alive. It grows in these times, when its tissues are moist and vibrant.

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Above: the most obvious damage in the garden is this cherished avocado sapling, which tilts at a windblown angle. Stepping into the center of the garden, keeping my feet on the stepping rocks, I was able to set it back mostly upright with a careful foot down onto its roots. I think it will be fine.

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Above: Another bit of wind damage is this fallen branch. It belonged to a medium size bush, which might be some kind of heath or heather (Calluna or Erica). The fallen branch will hardly be noticed by the vigorous bush from which it fell.

Maybe you can help me identify the shrub. Below, a close look at some of its flowers, along with a little visitor, a hover fly in the family Syrphidae:

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I wonder where the little fly took shelter during the storm?

This sheltered little nook, surrounded by rocks, is in full shade most of the time. During one of the rare times when the sun reaches this corner, the camera caught these sweet little liverworts in the process of covering the damp ground.

Liverworts are among the most primitive land plants on the planet. They first grew on land some 472 million years ago, during the mid-Ordovician, before the first animals crawled out of the water. The Wikipedia article has lots of fascinating details.

Little more than flat sheets of cells, these ground-hugging, bright green shapes are not actually leaves, although they may look like them. Each “leaf” is called a thallus, a word for a more or less undifferentiated plant body. Together, they are called thalli.

In the above close-up, you might be able to make out the fine, stippled texture of the surface of the thalli. The tiny raised dots are the reproductive structures. When there is liquid water, the plants release motile male cells, which swim through the water to the waiting female ova. The liverworts also reproduce prolifically by vegetative division and growth, rapidly covering the ground in good conditions.

A nearby rock has some patches of nice green moss and some light gray lichen thalli. Both are also quite primitive. The moss is more advanced than the liverwort, bearing leaflike bracts on tiny stems, while the lichen is a symbiotic combination of algae and fungus.

Look around in sheltered, moist undisturbed parts of your garden. Are there any liverworts? They are a sign of a healthy micro-ecosystem.