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150511-0626

Dear friends,

The time has come for a big change!

If you are close to me you know that the continuing and deepening California drought has taken a big bite out of my work as a nature gardening consultant. Here in the Bay Area the climate has shifted, and I’m not just talking about the weather. People are pulling back on all kinds of gardening, letting their lawns turn brown and planting slow-growing xeriscapes with vast expanses of dry mulch.

No matter the cause, be it global warming or simply long-term climate cycles, the Bay Area’s climate is passing into a semi-arid phase. Even if we get a big fat El Niño this winter the chances are the drought will resume soon after.

As beautiful as the dry, brown hillsides may be, I am a creature of the rain.

That is why I am moving to Corvallis, Oregon. I will be leaving the Bay Area on June 20, 2015.

Creating deep nature gardens in the Bay Area has been a wonderful, fun, educational project. Now I am moving on, to a place where it rains in every month of the year (usually!) and sometimes in the winter there is snow.

To Bay Area clients, my deepest thanks for the opportunities to work in your beautiful gardens.

To future new clients in Corvallis, I look forward to meeting you!

Many good wishes to all garden lovers!

Nick Turner

 

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.

Summer is here and my small patch of managed wilderness is bursting with life. Nestled between two apartment buildings, this little chunk of land has evolved a lot in recent months.

The biggest recent changes were the removals of two large sources of shade, exposing the garden to full sun during most of the day.

First, an old magnolia tree came out because the property owner did not like how its roots were rucking up the driveway. He had a good point, actually. Even though the tree was a noble and beautiful being, its sudden removal has changed the garden for the better, allowing many new plants to thrive in the greater light.

Above: The second removal was the large old cape honeysuckle that used to fully own a large section of the space. In this view from the balcony above the garden you can see the empty space it left behind, covered with a mixture of old magnolia leaves and seeded eco-compost. It was cut down to a stump because it was having a lot of trouble adapting to the new, sunny conditions. By cutting it down I pressed reset, and now the new growth will be properly shaped and adapted for the current conditions.

Above: In the center of the empty space, the stump of the cape honeysuckle sends up a mound of new green shoots. I’ll let it grow into a decent size bush, but it will not be allowed to take over the space the way it did before I chopped it down. I want to keep it, even though it is considered an invasive alien, because of how much the local hummingbirds love its orange-red flowers. Once it gets bigger, it will bloom again.

Meanwhile, the layer of magnolia leaves and seeded compost has begun to evolve into a new ecosystem. The leaves were there because of the old magnolia tree that was removed. Rather than scrape down to bare dirt, I decided to keep the leaves, letting them decompose naturally, mixed with the compost. Some people have told me “Magnolia leaves never decompose!” Watch and see, it’s already happening.

Although the summer sun on the thin layer of compost has prevented many sprouts from coming up, beneath the leaves are countless sheltered nooks and crannies where critters like sowbugs, snails, crickets, centipedes, and earwigs have taken up residence.

As the leaves decay, this open space will gradually fill in. Below: at the edges, various plants encroach by sending up shoots from underground runners.

Above: The main feature of the larger east section of the garden is this dense thicket, dominated by a purple flowering Salvia. It also contains trailing Nasturtium, several other species of smaller Salvia plants, and a large patch of rosemary (visible peeking out at the right). In the foreground, an avocado seedling pokes up.

At the base of the avocado seedling, a critter shelter has just been added. It’s just a few bricks and a paving stone, but it’s a dry place where snails, spiders, and others can find protection.

Critter shelters can also be made of wood, especially if the wood is old and rotting. In fact, an old rotting log is such a great critter house that one should be a part of every ecogarden. If it gets interesting mushrooms after the rain, so much the better!

Another great critter house can be made from a simple pile of rough, natural rocks.

Let’s look inside. There are a few snails in there and a couple of sowbugs, but not much else today. I have seen earwigs, centipedes, millipedes, and crickets. Last week there were four big female wolf spiders carrying egg sacs, but they ran away before I could photograph them.

If an ecogarden is located in contact with a natural area, the critter shelters could contain much more interesting creatures like frogs, toads, or newts. I doubt there will be any frogs in this one, but a newt might happen by.

Critter shelters are also located in several other places in this garden, some in the sun and some in the shade. They are important! Try to leave them undisturbed as much as possible.

All through the garden are many delightful little scenes, like this wild strawberry, mint and a rock in front of the bearded irises. Those sweet little berries were consumed by me immediately after this picture was taken. Yum!

Above: At the north end of the garden is the vine wall (a fence, actually) where many kinds of climbers compete for space. Right now the morning glory vines are blooming in this section. Because of the lush, dense foliage this vine wall is also a fantastic critter shelter.

Maybe this space is small, and maybe it looks like just another suburban garden that has been allowed to grow a bit wild, but for me this humble mini-landscape is nothing less than a small treasure, attracting butterflies, birds, and countless other wonderful visitors and inhabitants.

Watch these pages as my little ecogarden continues to grow and evolve!

Did you see the previous state of the ecogarden report? It happened after the magnolia was taken out, but while the big honeysuckle bush was still in place.

The old, classic post “what is an ecogarden?“has pictures of the garden before the magnolia tree was removed. At that time, there were still some large bushes owning much of the north half of the garden.

There’s also an upstairs container garden, whose state will be reported in a future blog post.

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These intricate altocumulus clouds appeared around dawn on May 3 over Menlo Park.

Looking into the east, lower clouds reflected a blaze of orange while barely visible dark virga descended from the altocumulus deck:

Meanwhile in the southwest, early yellow sunlight illuminated soft, lenticular stratus, pouring over the coastal mountains:

Even though it looked like rain was imminent, the moisture just wasn’t enough to get to the ground.

Still, not long after the first pictures were taken, these dark, low scud clouds crossed the sky. On the whole, it was a satisfyingly dramatic morning:

 

Morning light reveals a freshly rain-washed world. As the clouds begin to part, the eye is delighted by happy leaves and petals spangled with brilliant rain jewels. Words cannot describe how lovely it all is, so there are few words in this post.

Enjoy!

 

While I was over at the new ecogarden project this morning, something special happened back in the home garden. Remember those promising iris buds? Today they popped!

It’s been three years since these babies last blew, and I had forgotten what lovely pastels they show. Yow!

And the scent… I bring my nose close enough to tickle the petals, and inhale. Mmmm. Iris perfume is psychoactive, I swear.

Irises (Wikipedia article) come in two main groups, the rhizome irises, and the bulb irises. I like the rhizome irises because of their huge, showy, delightfully scented flowers.

Rhizome irises grow extremely well in this California climate, as long as they get enough sun. It seems like they actually prefer to be neglected.

There’s another interesting bloomer in the garden right now, one that many people might choose to pull right out. It’s this magnificent sowthistle:

Isn’t that a big old ugly weed? No! Not in this garden.

Look how lovely is the form of the plant, the strong stalk and the amazing wrap-around leaves. Look at the forms of the flower buds, flowers, and the puffy white seed head.

Sowthistle (Wikipedia article) belongs to the genus Sonchus, but identifying individual species can be difficult. This one is probably annual sowthistle (S. oleraceus). It has sturdy, hollow stems and milky sap.

The leaves frequently show the tunnels of leaf-miners, tiny caterpillars that live between the leaf layers. The tips of the stems often bear colonies of aphids.

The flower heads show buds, flowers, and seed heads in all stages of maturity:

For our parting shot, a close-up (below). A winged aphid has just landed – see her at the upper right? She’ll plunge her sucking beak into the plant and enjoy the milky sap, popping out a near-constant stream of tiny wingless daughters, each one already pregnant with more daughters. Within a few days, it is likely that this flower head will be crowded with hundreds of happy aphids:

Of course, it’s always possible that a lady beetle might find the mother aphid and her progeny, in which case all bets are off.

I arrived in the morning, when most of the yard was still in shade. As you can see, the owner of the property has spread a lot of hay on the ground, which has started to decompose in many areas. In some places it’s ankle deep.

Those white boxes are beehives, two of them with active colonies. In the distance at the rear of the yard is a chicken run with four very happy chickens.

The owner has requested a top-to-bottom ecosystem transformation for this space, with  just a few special requests. This will be fun, but also a LOT of work. It’s definitely a big project.

In this post we’ll do a general tour with some comments about possible directions to take. In future posts we’ll look at some more specific elements of the project.

As we enter the yard, on the left is an herb collection, the most maintained part of the garden at present. Owner kept stooping to pull “weeds” – I told her the first rule is “no more pulling of plants!” She acknowledged this might be a challenge for her.

The rectangular stepping stones will probably be replaced by something less linear, maybe wooden rounds or irregular flagstones.

This small bed features mint, salvia, and miscellaneous garbage. Minus the garbage and with some work, this will become a sweet little kitchen herb gardenette.

Looking back to the main yard, there is a bee bath and a huge mound of French lavender, behind which are several large catnip bushes and the beehives. Between the beehive in the front and the two in back are some raised beds, currently hosting a variety of volunteers – what some might call “weeds.”

At the right, against the fence, are piles of wood, rusty shelves of garden junk and some containers of toxic chemicals. Under the thick hay are wooden boards and more scattered junk. All of that stuff will be removed.

Looking to the left, there is a small patio area in the foreground. This will be cleaned up and surfaced with some kind of stones or bricks, made ready for happy garden parties.

On the small table are some veggie starts that the owner wants planted. She wants me to decide where to put them. There are tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, some herbs, and a struggling artichoke.

Behind the table are two more raised beds. These will be moved to the front of the yard, where they will get full sun for almost the whole day, rather than the morning shade they get here.

Down the path through the arched metal trellis, the chicken run is visible.

The other raised beds, to the right side of the path. Kind of a mess. Hay and catnip bushes will be removed, and new (purchased) growing mix added. Some of the veggies will be planted here. The two beehives will eventually be moved to a slightly better location near the front fence, where they will get morning wake-up sunlight and partial shade for those hot summer days.

Eventually these two raised beds will also be moved to the front for the full sun there.

Turning around to look toward the front of the yard, one can see the area where the veggie beds will be, already brightly sunlit even at this early hour. Beehives will be near the fence at the picture’s left side.

One of the challenges of this project is that the entire rear of the yard is shaded until midday by tall trees.

While the shade is great for the chicken run, it is a little too much. Some of the tree branches will be artfully removed, resulting in more dappled light for the rear of the property.

The trees include two figs, several majestic pines, and some other broadleaf trees. All of them need serious pruning and shaping.

There is also a struggling rose bush that might do better with more light.

I am imagining a lovely forest floor type ecosystem under the trees in the back. May apples, anyone?

So… off we go! I could not resist getting started right away.

First, I cleared away the junk and catnip from the area around the raised beds by the beehives. We let the chickens out, who happily scratched around finding grubs and beetles in the newly disturbed soil. You go, girls!

There was enough time to partly plant two of the raised beds. I would definitely call this an emergency planting. As you can see, the tomatoes are looking a bit wilted. But this is good soil and they should perk up with proper attention. In the interest of expediency, the veggie plantings here are being done in a  fairly traditional non-ecofarm style, just dropped into the raised beds.

In future posts we’ll take a look at some of the resident interesting plants and critters, and begin to see some more serious cleanup.

Here are updates on this new ecogarden project:

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway

in the company of chickens

Thanks for following this project! Your comments are welcome.