Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dinosaurs Get Thirsty Too

Most paleontologists agree that those feathered creatures that flit around our gardens and occasionally compromise visibility through our windshields are descendents of ancient dinosaurs. So I’ll just take it on faith that they’re correct.

With the exception of some neighborhood crows that wake me up, I’m pretty chill with boids in the ‘hood. I’m not a binocular-toting birder, but from a purely functional garden point of view, they’re a bonus. They eat insects--the big raptors will even dispense gophers and other pests. Hurray, I say!

I’m all about having our landscapes appeal to as many senses as possible, so let’s add their color, movement, and songs. So what’s not to like?

My favorite landscape design is lovingly tended by a couple of avid birders. The small garden is a veritable airport terminal for guests who fly in from who knows where. A custom iron “tree” of feeders is dead center off the patio. All forms of hummingbird feeders hang from fences.

But my favorite feature is the custom fountain crafted from an old Maytag washer. The white enameled exterior was crafted into giant flat stair-stepped leaves where water trickles from one to the next. Birds of all sorts alight on the edges of the leaves, take a gulp, splash around in the lower pool, towel off, dust on some talcum powder and off they go. And you can see it from inside the house as well.

The point is (I know, the suspense was killing you) these guys need some help this summer. Santa Barbara had super-low rainfall, so there are fewer natural fresh watering holes. Please do your part. If there’s somewhere in your garden you can provide fresh water (not algae-ridden primordial soup) that would be great. And you don’t have to be in a drought-stricken area to look out for our buddies either. It’s just a good thing to do.

One more thang. Plant diverse gardens with lots of local native plants ‘coz them little dinos gotta eat too!

More info? Check with your local Audobon folks.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

WWZD? What Would Zappa Do?

This says it all for me! Check this shot from the Santa Barbara Mission. Dasylirion longissima with a Euphorbia resinifera. This composition was just sitting there in a grouping of large pots, minding it's own business, paying no attention to me. The perfection of the juxtaposition of the dark green needle-like leaves and the ghostly stout vertical architecture of the euphorbs say it all.

For me, it was like entering a sacred temple where a master had been, and feeling the presence of wisdom. Have you ever looked at a Japanese sumi-e scroll? A few gestural lines, seemingly unconscious, but capturing the essence of its subject in just a few strokes of the brush. That's what masterful, zen-like plant composition does for me.

I've been math phobic since 8th grade when I was put in an accelerated algebra class, so I can't say I completely get it when I hear about mathematicians who see beauty in equations. But when I look at a simple yet brilliant plant composition, for me it's all about ratios and proportions and rhythm.

In the composition above, how much dark green does it take to balance 'X' amount of pale gray-green? The central upright clump of dark green repeats the rigid vertical of the foreground, but then, to create the contrast that any fine work of art needs, gravity pulls the outer leaves into a soft arch, then lays them nearly horizontal.

If this composition were music, it would be about variations on a theme, in this case cylindrical forms in varying scales. And just to complicate things slightly, there are those tiny magenta flower buds topping the euphorb, sort of like random notes borrowed from a Frank Zappa musing.

No disrespect intended, but keep your pink and lavender and yellow and mauve Martha Stewart flower beds. Your cone flowers and roses and brown-eyed susans and glads. Gimme plants used as sculpture, as unresolved conflict, as an expression of the vast varieties of form and texture and foliage color that will keep me designing for the next century. Nuff for now.

Summer's here and I'm not so thrilled

Those of you who’ve taken my classes or heard me wax poetical about life, the universe and everything (including gardens) know that I’m a slug. Not in the lazy sense, but like the mollusk. I divide people's climate preferences into lizards (who find a south-facing rock and climb up on top of it to toast in peace) and slugs who “glide” to the north side of the rock and try to get under it. Think Tucson vs Seattle.

So imagine the sinking feeling this morning when instead of waking to the June Gloom of gray skies and droplets on the ground, there was that yellow gas ball some 93 million miles way shouting “It’s the first day of summer, rejoice!” Bah, humbug.

For our gardens, it’s a mixed blessing. I know that my new buddies at the Rose Society, where I spoke last week, are jumping backflips. Sunshine chases away mildew, makes buds burst, and cranks the photosynthesis machine into overdrive. It’s great for your t’maters and p’taters, too!

But the solar Scrooge in me knows that the plants in our parks and backyards will be consuming more agua, wildfires are more likely, we have to slather on more sunscreen, and be more alert about our personal hygiene (so as not to offend). We'll be watering our lawns more, even if we're not actually sure they need it.

So, I hope you enjoy the Solstice Parade downtown. Don’t want to take that away from ANYONE. But PLEASE, monitor your irrigation this summer so as not to waste a precious drop--Santa Barbara has special concrete sidewalks that don't need irrigation. Water in the coolest times of the day. Check the automatic controller if you have one, or turn on the kitchen timer if you’re setting up a hose, just to make sure you’re not overdoing it.

Last thing—a few hours after you’ve watered dig down with a trowel or a soil probe (free from your water agency) and see how far the water really went down; then adjust your timing.

So, I’ll be crawling back under my rock while y’all play in the sun. See ya when the gloom rolls back in.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sexy Sumptuous Color / Water-Wise Plants

We drool when we see those garden photos on the mags at the dentist’s office. Sensuous burgundy leaves, fragrant gray-leaf lavendar, delicate pink flowering shrubs. Looks like it belongs in front of Muffin Mouse's little cottage in merry old Newark. Ya just wanna take a bite out of it!

But much of the stuff we lust after in garden books doesn’t make sense in our semi-desert Santa Barbara / SoCal climate. We just can't shake that temperate climate aesthetic. So do we resign ourselves to a life of sensual deprivation or do we waste one of the most precious resources we have coaxing lush growth in a climate that’s supposed to be sporting sagebrush?

Have I got a deal for you! Call now and you can have the best of both worlds! Operators are standing by.

The key is understanding what makes a plant composition attractive to you, and “reverse engineering” it to its basic components. If your bippy gets all aroused from the combination of sky-rocketing yellow blooms framed by dark green weeping foliage, find something in your own neck of the woods that gives you that effect. Don't try to import something from another climate that needs a life-support system we can't afford!

The photo above gives the look of a lush English garden, but all the plants would survive with a monthly deep soak in the summer and no supplemental water for the rest of the year.

That dark burgundy foliage is a flowering plum with a deep root system that doesn’t need much pampering. The graceful pink flowers are bursting out of a tough-as-nails New Zealand Tea Tree. And Lavendar is a Mediterranean plant that needs no help from us, thank you very much!

So you can have it both ways—drop-dead-gorgeous garden and treading lightly on the planet. Pretty sexy, eh?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Who Needs Water, Anyway?

“Southwest Water Supply Dwindling” was the headline on the morning drivetime NPR story yesterday. You know the drill. Low rainfall, diminished snow pack, too many overdeveloped communities competing for the same Colorado River water. Lake Powell took 17 years to fill and 8 years to lose half of it’s supply. The “bath tub ring” indicating the “full” level is 100 feet higher than the current water level.

And just before I left the house and heard the NPR story, the LA Times was writing about that city’s need to impose stricter conservation measure NOW, not wait until there’s nothing to conserve. Another story discussed the drought on the East Coast, so this isn’t just about the usually arid West.

This isn’t the first low rainfall year, or if it is another real drought, the first of those. Is it global climate change or another natural cycle? In practical terms, does it matter? Maybe if I don't pay attention it will fix itself. And how does this affect our public and private landscapes?

So while this information bounced around my brain on the way to work, I passed 3 commercial gardeners (let’s make that “plant janitors”) hosing down their clients’ sidewalks. As best I could tell, they were using the same water that could be used to drink, cook, irrigate water-wise landscapes, wash ourselves.

Need I pose any solutions? I think we’re all sharp enough to understand that H2O is a precious, limited resource and there are appropriate uses and inappropriate uses. How about acting that way? I’ll save you some reading time and skip the stuff about the right tool for the job (think brooms), tolerance of leaves in the landscape, not using lawn as a decorative frill, etc.

We love our landscapes. But we need to move to a low-impact, low water-using model. How about now instead of after the water police come shut us down?

Monday, June 11, 2007

"Alice" is Santa Barbara's jewel

I was searching for some cool images of gardens in Santa Barbara and ran across a great shot of the Sensory Garden at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden (above). “Alice” as we like to call the park, is truly the gem of Santa Barbara's park system. It’s a botanical collection filling a full city block with diverse plantings from around the world, and a delightful pond filled with koi carp so big you’d be tempted to strap on your water skis and hitch a ride.

The garden, designed by Grant Castleberg and Sydney Baumgartner, opened in 1980. As City Landscape Architect for Santa Barbara, I have the distinct honor of lending a hand in the continued evolution of “Alice” as plantings are redesigned and new amenities are gently fitted in.

My favorite project was my collaboration with Grant, the Braille Institute and a number of their “clients” who are visually impaired. Little did I realize that my dad, Irv, would one day find his own vision compromised by macular degeneration and would benefit from our work.

In a nutshell, we designed a garden that fit seamlessly into the rest of the park, using high contrast plant combinations (visually impaired doesn’t mean completely sightless—that’s only about 10% of the Braille Institute’s clientele), fragrance, texture, and auditory posts that have recorded messages about the plants in the vicinity of each “station.”

It’s still my favorite place for an urban walk, is well loved by the community and a great site to take horticulture classes. If you’re in the ‘hood, find your way over to the intersection of Santa Barbara St. and Micheltorena. And check out "Alice's Garden" a great book and stunning photo collection about the park by Ann-Marie Castleberg.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Playing in the Sprinklers

It's Sunday and Owen (other Garden Wise Guy) and I are getting ready to shoot a new segment for Episode 7 of our show. We've discussed water-wise irrigation from many angles, but it always assumes that people have automatic irrigation controllers, underground piping and pop-up sprinkler heads. But what about everyone else--the folks who never invested in a professional sprinkler system, or renters who just have a hose and a thumb?

There's no reason that some of the common-sense principles of irrigation can't be adapted to a low-tech, Fred Flintsone system. There are a lot of gizmos in the gardening section you can buy. Here are a few rules to get you started.

1. Use the right tool for the job: If you have heavy soil or a slope, get a sprinkler that puts water on the soil gradually, so it has a chance to soak in before it runs off. Sprinklers that water an area, then move away and return would be the oscillating fan sprays and impact heads (those are the ones that look like the head of a bird and go "tsch, tsch, tsch"). If you need to slow soak under your fruit trees or rose beds, how about a leaky hose that lets water trickle out. You can snake it around the bed and let it gradually seep for a few hours.

2. Water to the correct depth: Lawns have relatively shallow roots, so it doesn't take long to get the soil moist, but large shrubs and trees have deeper roots. The best thing to do is dig down or get a soil probe (a hollow tube with a "T" handle) and see how deep the water really went. If you're watering deeper than the roots, you're wasting water.

3. Control how long you water: A kitchen timer or a watch with a timer with a loud signal will remind you that the water is running. Start with short increments (10 minutes) and check the results. Dig down or use the soil probe and see how close your guess was. If you need more, set the timer again. There are even electronic timers you can install between the hose bibb and the hose!

We all know the meditative benefits of standing with your thumb over the end of the hose, sipping on something cool and watering the lawn. Two problems with that: A) Your thumb will give out before you actually apply enough water to soak in, and B) the impact of the water hitting the soil compacts the top, turns it into crust, and keeps the water from soaking in. Kinda defeats the purpose.

So invest in the right tools, pay attention, use your water efficiently and you'll have time to strip down to your skivvies and play with the kids in the sprinklers! Who cares what the neighbors say?