Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fire and Rain (sure, but in the same forecast?)

Is it just me or did anyone notice the oxymoronic weather report we received on New Years day? During one weather broadcast, we heard about a “Red Flag Fire Warning” for the Ventura and Santa Barbara County areas, followed by admonitions to stock up on sand bags for an unusually heavy winter storm coming down the Pacific Coast. [If I had a better grasp on technology, I’d have a clickable link here that would make the Scooby Doo sound when he’s really confused. Oh well, use your imagination.]

Can things really change that fast? Red flag followed by flood? The answer, in weather terms, is a resounding “yes!” High pressure systems (hot and dry) are commonly followed by low pressure episodes (cool and wet). January 1 was the peak of high pressure, and now there’s low pressure steaming down the coast to take its place.

A quick amateur weather lesson: When there’s high pressure inland (say, northern Nevada, Utah, etc.), the pressure creates winds that spin out in a clock-wise direction, so winds move from dry inland areas, swoop around toward the west, then squeeze over the coastal range to bring low humidity and gusts up to 70 mph on the mountain tops (Laguna Peak near Point Mugu). All you need is a spark and it’s Red Flag Alert time.

Yes, it’s January, which even on the Left Coast should pass for winter. We don’t get to make snow angels along the coast, but it’s still winter. And we really can have brushfire season while there are still ornaments on the tree.

But today’s forecast is calling for a good drenching, with rain falling on and off for four days. Estimates vary from a high of 6” over the next few days to as little as 2”. Anything is welcome. So, if you still haven’t cleaned the Zaca dust from the last wind storm, it’s Momma Nature to the rescue.

Now for my main point. If the rain is going to fall (not just this weekend, but with good fortune, there are more storms to come) doesn’t it make sense to capture and retain all the free, clean, mineral-free water we can before it reaches the ocean? Yep, I knew you’d agree. I did a full-page article for Coastal Woman Magazine in November on this topic. I’m their new garden columnist. If you want the full story, find one in a free news rack (or Spudnuts!) or download it from the web site. There’s also lots of other great info in the mag, so it’s worth the read. You’ll also get a cute picture of me sitting under an umbrella surrounded by rubber duckies. Precious!

In a nutshell, here are a few things you can do…

1) Consider that irrigation-dependent lawn. If you don’t actually use it for some recreational purpose, maybe it could be converted to a rich bed of native plants or put into food production. If you can’t do away with it completely, maybe downsize? This will reduce your water consumption throughout the year and put that rain to work on a higher purpose.

2) Grading – it might be too late to pull off this winter, but how about creating some low areas in the garden that trap and allow water to seep back into the soil? Of course, you wouldn’t do this right in front of your patio where a giant puddle might find its way into the living room. But there are likely places around your home where you can hold some water until it soaks in.

3) As soon as the soil is dry enough to cultivate again, do a little work with a cultivator or hoe to break up the crusty surface. This will allow more water to soak in rather than run off. Then mulch the bejeebers out of it with some rich organic material. That will keep it from crusting up again and will prevent evaporation later.

4) Where you can, create a berm of soil around the edges of beds, especially on the downhill side. That was every drop gets trapped for your plants.

5) And if you want to be really ambitious, there are rain catchment and storage systems and a few contractors in town who can help you create a way to store all that free stuff. The up-front cost isn’t cheap, but it pays for itself over time.

Okay, I’m spent. Gotta get my rubber boots on and take my rubber duckies for a paddle.

Later, skaters.


Barbara said...

I made a "little" journey (via Ewa's blog in Poland) to find your very interesting blog. I see that I have to read a lot here. Great! I'm sure I'll be back again for other visits. Besides when travelling along the beautiful Western coast some years ago, we also visited Santa Barbara.
Have a good time in your garden now (here it is too cold and everything is frozen)!
Regards from Switzerland

Weeping Sore said...

Isn't it nice to wake up to the sound of rain? Farther south, in inland San Diego, we're not getting as much rain as they promised - about an inch by Saturday morning - but it's still nice.
Here's a nice place to see some appropriate landscaping in our part of California. Check out the Water Conservation Garden at

abclin said...

great ideas, I've decided to forget raised bed gardening. I believe in trench gardening. I plant things in little trenchs and the water all stays there and mulch like crazy.
love your blog,
helen from your neck of the woods, ie SB

il parra said...

Hi Billy:
Weather forecasts are wrong a fair amount of time. We're having a hard winter in Northern Italy but newspapers don't report anything about this facts. Meteorologists have insistently said that also this winter would have been mild due to the global warming and it is not like that. They are wrong.
It is very cold. Last week it snowed in Milan. Temperature falls about -2° at night.
I'll read your full page article on the Coastal Woman Magazine.

Yolanda Elizabet said...

Nice post Billy! In my garden I have lots of flowers and shrubs and very little grass. The hard landscaping consists mainly of gravel so that the rain can sink in instead of running off. And I have a few rain buts to catch the rain that falls on the roof of my greenhouse and garden cottage. Planning to buy more water buts but they are a bit pricey.

Fun pic of you and your rubber duckies!!! :-)

Garden Wise Guy said...

Hello to everyone who left your comments:

Barbara - Although computers and the internet are now just another appliance in our daily lives, I'm still thrilled when I hear that someone on Switzerland was reading something posted in Poland that referred to someone in Santa Barbara, California, USA! In some ways I think I might like the "down time" that snow-covered gardens bring, so there's nothing to do but dream, sketch and plan for the rebirth of the garden.

W.S. - I'm guessing that by now, San Diego has had more than its share of rain. I hope your garden benefitted and that the effects on the burn areas isn't too devastating. I looked at the web site for the water conservation garden at Cuyumaca College (great name!) and it's quite an ambitious project. You're fortunate to have a resource like that in your area. A few years ago I designed a similar garden for the Goleta Water District and was honored to be chosen. Now, they've pretty much abandoned it and decreased the maintenance budget. I'm embarrassed to take my classes there.

abclin - Great that you've discovered how easy it is to hold onto all that free water. And the mulching will only make it better. One bit of advice - don't let the mulch touch the bark of woody trees and shrubs. It will bring water mold and other problems to the plant, so hold it back at least 6" to 12" away from the surface of the plant.

il parra: Weather forecasting is only part science, and there are so many variable conditions that can change things. It's especially difficult where I live because we have a series of islands about 25 miles from shore that modify the weather coming in off the Pacific. Probably similar to Croatia and the Dalmatian coast around your way. I guess our gardens will have to be prepared for everything. Last year a lot of plants that usually do fine in the winter suffered a lot of cold damage. We didn't get much rain, but we had cold, cloudless nights for many days in a row. Most gardens recovered but it made me rethink some plants I always thought were safe in any garden.

Yolanda: I love using gravel in gardens, but it seems like around here, many of my clients feel that gravel is the "cheap" alternative and it doesn't make their garden look professionally designed. It doesn't matter how many great pictures I show them of fabulous estates and historic gardens. So I try to find another way to have as many permeable surfaces as I can anyway, but still have the garden look more "opulent."

thanks again to everyone who stopped by.