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One of our flagship deep nature gardens is called “birch corner.” It has been taking shape since late summer of 2013. With the help of some good tree work from our licensed friends and some power tools wielded by the client, we took out a dead old lawn under a big pistache tree, pruned the tree back to let in more light, and drastically limited a birch (the garden’s namesake tree) that was also stealing light from the garden area below.

The ground under the pistache was shaped into hills and valleys, and a lot of beautiful rocks were added to create a walking path and many step-able access points.

In the past year the garden has grown a wide variety of interesting plants. Some, like several varieties of blueberries, spreading patches of bidens, and yellow lantanas were deliberately planted. But many more, like the fluorescent orange zinnias, burgeoning arums, and drifts of small tree saplings emerged on their own from seeds already present in the soil.

Let’s have a look around!

 

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Above: Viewed from the street, the right (west) side of the garden includes the namesake birch tree at the far right. At the extreme right side of the picture is a wooden fence shading that side, with a climbing rose on it. In the spring and summer this fence is also covered by sweet pea vines, deliberately planted and just now sprouting back up from last year’s dropped seeds.

In the middle of the picture are two large clumps of yellow-flowering bidens, which will soon be limited back before they take over even more space. A clump of hair grass stands at the top of a low berm, and in the back against the fence is a young apricot tree. Also visible are a few rocks and some logs slowly decaying into the ground (trimmed from the pistache tree above).

Below: A closer look at a spreading patch of bidens, with an orange zinnia peeking in at the right.

 

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Below, a patch of cyclamen that was planted last winter near the shady base of the back fence is still thriving and blooming. The base of the apricot tree is at left. A closer look shows many little sprouts of new cyclamen. It looks like it is naturalizing nicely.

 

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In this first year at birch corner we are still encountering a variety of vigorous volunteers that will need to be either limited or removed completely. Among these are the many sprouts of variegated arum, almost all of which will have to go.

There are two (non-chemical) ways of removing arums. The first requires patience – simply pull out all the leaves as they appear, until the tubers below run out of steam. But that method takes some persistence. In coming weeks and months we’ll use the faster approach which is to dig down and actually remove the tubers.

Below, a sampling of the arums at birch corner. Each one has its own particular pattern of leaf variegation. We’ll save a few of the most interesting ones, but they will be kept under control. Some may be moved into containers, where their invasive nature will be tamed and we can enjoy their beautiful leaves, flowers, and the seed heads with their bright red seeds.

 

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Birch corner is a forest floor ecosystem, heavily influenced by a dense drop of leaves from the pistache tree every autumn. Those leaves contribute to a gently acidic soil type, which favors plants like the blueberry showing its fall colors in the picture below.

 

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Here in California, autumn marks the beginning of the winter growing season. At birch corner, one sign of the coming winter is thousands of tiny sprouts of petty spurge and a few other low growing annuals. These will fill in, forming a beautiful green carpet that competes with leaves falling from above.

 

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We leave you with a few more of the many interesting new kinds of plants coming in. How many of these can you identify?

 

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Large bunch grasses can be among the most challenging plants to prune. Every year they send up dozens of flowering stalks, which quickly turn into seed-heads shedding vast numbers of tiny potential grass sprouts all over the nearby landscape. Many gardeners resort to heavy weaponry to simply shear them right down to the ground, leaving behind an ugly, unhealthy, flat-topped “tuffet” of cut stems and leaves. Definitely not naturalistic!

I was recently faced with just such a challenge. Large clumps of perennial grass had gone to seed and grown out into unruly pompoms with long leaves (blades) trailing out across nearby plants. The client agreed that another annual shearing was not wanted, but could these grasses be limited back without sacrificing a natural look?

Of course they could! But it involved three different pruning methods, two of which were invented on the spot. Let’s start in the back garden, where a large grass looked like this in the “before” picture:

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First, the seed stems. They all had to come off. I reached in and clipped the seed stems way down among last year’s sheared-off stems. That worked to invisibly remove them, but there was a problem: I was also removing a lot of the green blades clinging to the stems. This was not good because those leaves made up about a third of the overall density. I was thinning too much!

I invented a new method just for this kind of grassy seed heads, clipping about half way up each stem, just a tiny bit above the node where the largest live blade was attached. Most of those blades were left in place, and the overall density was preserved. I call this new style of pruning “partial grass deadheading” because it leaves the lower half of the seed stalks in place while removing the business ends.

The second kind of pruning was also brand new. Unlike the leaves of broadleaf plants, grass blades elongate as they grow. This is an adaptation to herbivores that bite off the ends of the blades. Such shortened blades can still grow longer. But there are no grass-eating herbivores in most suburban gardens, and the blades of the bunch grasses tend to grow longer and longer. I realized that for these grasses to be trimmed in a healthy way I had to become that herbivore.

Having recently experienced a haircut, I realized that I could use a method similar to what my friend Janice had done to my head. I swept my hand across the ends of the over-long blades, scooping up a manageable handful and gently tugging outward. Then I clipped off the ends of all the blades in that handful, depositing the cut off bits into the debris bin. By repeating this operation all around the outer parts of the clump, I was able to reduce the lengths of the blades without creating a sheared off look. I call this pruning method “bunch grass haircut pruning.”

With the seed heads gone and the blades shortened all around, the bunch already looked much better. But the overall size of the bunch was too large and there were lots of old blades and stems around the base. It needed to be smaller without sacrificing the naturalistic look. I used a variant of undercut pruning. Reaching deep under at the base, I grabbed a small tuft and clipped it right at ground level, repeating and carefully observing the results all around the base of the plant. The density near the base was reduced, creating more of a fountain appearance and less of a pop-pom.

Here is the result on the bunch grass in the “before” picture above. Notice how much more visible are the small silvery plants near the base:

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Out in front of the house at the base of a tree, there are three more clumps of the same grass. Applying the same three pruning methods, these clumps were rapidly tamed. There is a “before” picture at the top of this post; here is another:

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Let’s have a closer look at the rightmost clump before pruning. See how dense are the seed stems, and how long the blades:

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This is how these grasses looked after the pruning. What do you think?

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I love pruning as much as I love creating deep nature gardens. I am available to prune almost anything in your garden (except mature trees, for which we bring in a licensed tree surgeon). If you are not near us, I am also available through online media (email or real-time video) to coach you on how to prune your plants.

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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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It’s November 19, 2012, and the garden at little yellow house is now as blank as it will be. The big square section on the right of the front walk is about 50% bare ground. The biggest plant is the pittosporum bush  near the house on the left. To its right (near the truck) is the bare space where the giant silk tree came out.

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On the left side the big wisteria looms over three just-pruned daisy bushes. On the right are some grayish French lavender bushes, and on the left a butterfly iris and a low Santa Barbara daisy. Directly in front are some decorative strawberries and English violets.

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The right side street strip contains purple-blooming lantanas, still unpruned and just recovering from the damage done during the great big silk tree removal. Also present here, buttercup oxalis and some annual grasses pushing up between the step stones at the street edge. At the upper right, the street strip is temporarily shaded by a street-side recycling bin.

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In the left side street strip the blue mailbox post rises near a massive clump of red-flowering stonecrop, also known as sedum, currently not blooming. Beyond, a wild-looking mix of white flowering sweet alyssum, creeping oxalis, California poppies, and much more. This small section of the garden is already one of the most diverse, ecologically healthy areas.

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Between the big pittosporum bush and the front of the house an old flagstone walkway is being deconstructed. These stones will be reassembled into a more eco-friendly mortar-free patio where mosses and other small plants can establish their own kind of ecosystem between the stones. Beyond the remains of the walk way is the blank space where the silk tree was removed. This is where the next major action will take place. Let’s fast forward a couple of weeks to December 5…

140510-0917Here in Menlo Park we are very tree-aware. When a large old tree comes out (a “heritage tree”) the law says you have to plant a new tree that can grow as big.

At right, two trusty garden experts from Roger Reynold’s Nursery put in in a strapping young red maple. Sadly, Roger Reynold’s has since gone out of business.

We chose a large-leafed deciduous tree to replace the old silk tree. While this maple will drop its big crinkly leaves all over the garden, they will be easy to remove from the tops of bushes and smaller plants, and easy to redistribute under the bushes and in other deserving parts of the garden. Unlike the old silk tree, it will not drop tons of fine debris, smothering everything beneath. It will also experience a wonderful annual cycle, being beautiful in different ways around the year. A big improvement!

For now, the new garden citizen is small and bare. In coming episodes of this series of posts you’ll be able to watch as it leafs out, grows a bit, drops its leaves, then leafs out and grows some more. We’ll prune it now and then as its branches reach out into the air. It will be quite a few years before it reaches the garden-shading extent of the old silk tree!

Below: On December 10, 2012 the garden at little yellow house basks in the slanting winter sun. Even now, it is mostly a blank slate. Its deep nature evolution has only just begun!

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Next: the garden greens up with massive diversity, and the first frost of the winter.

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.

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Way out back behind the abandoned car lot, out by the train tracks, deep nature is returning. Watched over by graffiti and boarded up windows, the pavement cracks slowly yield to invading plants and critters.

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090614-25Above, a triangular nano-garden of spotted spurge and annual grasses. Both are superbly adapted to this harsh environment. Each of the spurge plants can release thousands of nearly microscopic seeds that can remain viable for decades until they fall into a suitable place. The grass seeds carry tiny back-facing spines that help them lodge deeply into the cracks.

At right, a healthy looking plant with slightly fuzzy, slightly sticky leaves (is it some kind of cudweed?) pushes up through some tiny, reddish unknown plants, which might be thyme-leaf sandwort

Below, longer views of some more grown-in areas. These completely untended nano-gardens feature more cudweed, grasses, and some stands of tall prickly lettuce.

Also present are dead leaves dropped by nearby oak and eucalyptus trees, adding their shelter and nutrients to the tiny ecosystems forming at the bases of the pioneer plants.

We stroll around a bit more, enjoying the completely unpruned, totally natural shapes of the plants pushing up through the cracks.

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Below: bright sunlight shines through yellow-green leaves of prickly lettuce.

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Below: Around the corner there is a whole different kind of nature garden, where young eucalyptus saplings drop their chemically acrid, slow-decaying leaves to form an ever-deepening layer over the pavement.

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Below: A small eucalyptus has sprouted at the base of a paint-peeling garage door.

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Postscript: This area was photographed in June of 2009. Today, it has been repeatedly cleared of plants, and there is talk of tearing down the old buildings and putting in condos and “light retail.”

Oh well…

If butterflies were cars, skippers might be tiny little sports cars. They are very distinctive, with their unique resting pose and hook-tipped antennae.

Skippers are common, flicking around among the flowers almost too quickly to follow. There are many kinds of them, and they can be hard to identify down to species. This one poses on a Swiss chard leaf.

As larvae, many skippers eat grasses, perhaps explaining why they are so common – their food is everywhere! But because their larvae are usually nocturnal, hiding in the grass root zone during the day, they are seldom noticed.

This first one is an unusual variety, not often seen in this garden. I like its dark brown background with yellow dots in a row on each forewing. Like most skippers it perches with its wings open. Does it do this to catch the sun?

Doesn’t it just look fast and active, like it is crouching to flit away?

The second skipper is a much more common variety, very likely the same kind as this one previously featured. It poses for us on a clump of white flowers, probably Bouvardia.

At left, the dark edges of the hindwings show up clearly. Look how streamlined this critter is!

Maybe they aren’t really sports cars.

Maybe they are actually little jets.