Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Edible Landscaping Your Front Yard - Start Now

Striking ornamental kale can be planted among edible kale

Fall is just ahead and it’s the perfect time for bold action: adding edibles to your suburban front yard. If you have a conventionally landscaped front yard and you aren’t sure how to begin, here are some ideas to help you get started.

Getting Started
For the front yard there is still an aesthetic norm to overcome in lawn-centric suburbia, but that convention has been shifting steadily.  Growing vegetables, herbs, and fruit boldly in plain sight needn’t be the eyesore of the neighborhood if you give some thought to how they will fit into your garden design. In my opinion, both edible and ornamental plants coexist in a beautifully in a garden. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

America spinach with violets

To start, you'll have to consider the exposure to direct sunlight, at least 4-6 hours per day, and the condition of the soil. Check with your local UC Master Gardeners for more details on planting and soil prep for your region. They will also have seasonal planting charts. Sign up for their excellent monthly newsletter that reminds you about seasonal garden tasks, including planting edibles.

Below are some simple ideas for small additions with the potential for a big impact.

Where to Add Edibles Now
Flower Beds and Borders:
If you have existing flowerbeds, that’s a great place to begin. If not, you might consider removing a strip or patch of lawn to make a combined flower and edibles bed. This would be nice as border along a walkway or fence, or even in the center of a lawn (remove and prepare a square or round shaped patch). Small shrubby herbs such as thyme (choose from lemon or lime thyme) or sage (add a trio of culinary sage with blue-gray leaves, tri-color sage edged with purple, cream and green, and yellow sage) fit well among flowers, and they hold up to the mild frosts in our San Francisco Bay Area. Rosemary is a popular, large landscaping plant that is covered with sweet blue-lavender or purplish flowers for months of the year. 


Trailing rosemary is attractive, fragrant, and great for cooking

You can easily slip in vegetable seedlings when planting out flowering annuals or among bulbs.  Spinach, lettuces, kale (including ornamental kale), and Asian greens, can be grown in fall since they prefer cooler temperatures and can be grown during winter in our region. These leafy green veggies will add attractive foliage to a bed of flowers, and if you really want to be on your game, plant edible and beneficial flowers, such as calendulas, and add nasturtiums and marigolds for summer.

The viola family, which includes violets and pansies, are good cool weather choices for fall and are high impact for their varied colors. This group is semi-perennial in mild winter climates and provides lots of blooms fall through spring, going dormant in hot summer weather (some will reseed). For annuals such as nasturtiums, which are frost tender, wait until spring. But beware: if you buy nursery seedlings make sure they were grown without pesticides and herbicides, otherwise, don't eat the flowers!

Artichokes have spectacular foliage, but need space

Go Big and Bold with Artichokes
If you have the space for them, artichokes are a spectacular addition to the garden. Their bold foliage is striking, and in spring they'll reward you with edible artichoke heads. I particularly love the violet ones, such as Violetto and Purple of Romagna. Romanesco is a tightly rounded variety that is tinged with purple. The green globe types have equally beautiful foliage. Fall through early summer is the best time for artichokes. They tend to go dormant with the heat of summer, at this point you can cut them back and keep them mulched. Mine are shaded in the later part of the afternoon for the hot sun so they begin to sprout new growth if I water them occasionally during summer. Towards fall they really start to bulk up.

All of them will eventually yield huge flowers with purple stamens if you leave the heads on the plants. I always leave a few to flower, then watch the bees enjoy them!

Artichokes will eventually explode with purple flowers if they aren't harvested

Containers:
Planting into containers is another great way to experiment with edibles since containers can be moved around, grouped in different locations or used as a welcoming feature on a porch. Numerous colors, sizes, shapes and textures are available to match or brighten up your existing landscape. Containers filled with flowers and lettuce are sure to be a conversation piece. For the coming cool months you could pair lettuce, kale, or spinach, in containers with edible flowers for a beautiful display. Mix with ornamental kale for an extra showy focal piece.

Showy heirlooms: Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas date back to 1892

Trellises:
I also love growing snap peas and snow peas over winter and early spring. They are beautiful on a trellis, and you can plant flowers and leafy greens around them. I have several different trellises in the front yard of different types and sizes for climbing edibles. Lovely bicolored Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas resemble sweet pea flowers (which are NOT edible) and would be a winning combination with cool season flowers in your front yard.

Start Small, But Start Now
Eating sweet crisp pea pods with fresh salad greens and herbs, plus edible flowers from your own front yard may inspire you to expand your edible landscape into a beautiful productive kitchen garden by the time spring rolls around. A good approach is to start gradually. You can start this fall by adding these varieties that will overwinter well, then plan to add warm season edibles in spring and summer. Enjoy learning as you grow, gather ideas about what you enjoy growing and eating, and design features you’d like to add. If you are new to growing vegetables and herbs, getting some experience first will help shape your overall landscaping goals.

Note: during our cool and rainy months in California you will have to have a plan for slug and snail control. Handpicking in the early morning or evenings is effective if you keep at it. You can supplement handpicking with a sprinkle of  a non-toxic product such as Sluggo.

A earlier version of this post was published in March 1, 2012 at Eat Drink Better

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke


Friday, July 22, 2016

My Three Elements of Garden Design

A concept sketch for a client 
There is an awful lot to consider when designing a garden, besides the aesthetic design part.

I sat down a while back to organize my thoughts for a presentation at Foothill College's Environmental Horticulture and Design program, about how I approach a garden design project. There are numerous things to consider, but I was able to condense it down to three categories with basic points for each.

An edible garden I designed where the landscaper built beautiful raised beds

My categories below are all equally important, but sometimes one or another becomes the dominating constraint:
  • PRACTICAL ELEMENTS 
  • CLIENT PREFERENCES
  • AESTHETIC & DESIGN ELEMENTS

I. PRACTICAL ELEMENTS
  • The site: climate zone, exposure (sun/shade, wind), topography, current condition of soil &; existing plant material, etc.
  • Type of garden maintenance desired for upkeep
  • Use sustainable practices and climate appropriate plants
  • Budget 

II. CLIENT PREFERENCES
  • Plant likes and dislikes, style of garden desired, color preferences
  • Allergies, other concerns (example- poisonous plants)
  • Kids, pets
  • What will the garden be used for? 

Besides listening carefully to our clients, a designer's job is to come up with interesting and exciting possibilities that fit their lifestyle. I try to come up with at least one or two ideas that are "out of the box" to nudge my clients into thinking creatively about using their new garden space for maximum quality of life. 

In addition to select native and ornamental plants, many succulents are "climate appropriate" for our area

III. AESTHETIC & DESIGN ELEMENTS
  • Style of house (architecture), style of existing garden (things that will stay)
  • Views (desirable & not), what can be leveraged to advantage?
  • Dominant existing features (walls, large trees, colors) elements adjacent to the property
  • Creating a beautiful planting design and suggesting enhancements (complimentary containers, water features, hardscape, etc.)

A DESIGNER'S CHALLENGE

After gathering and considering all of the elements above I ask, "how can I create a beautiful and satisfying garden for this client that is in harmony with the environment?"

As daunting as this task may seem, I find it helpful to remind myself what I was taught in my design classes: 
A “Problem” (or constraint) Is An Opportunity
For example: California's drought has created a myriad of opportunities for creatively rethinking what we plant in our gardens, and how we use them. I think this topic would be a great blog post! Stayed tuned...

Echeveria cante is a lovely succulent that adds style and beauty without a lot of fuss
Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Assess Your Garden and Save Water

My sketchnote for planning a water-wise garden 

Preparing Your Garden for Spring and Summer in California
The rains will not last much longer in California, and we are already breaking records (again) in 2016 for the hottest December through February (yikes). This simple four point assessment will help you understand the steps to take in order to save water, as we head into spring and summer. By taking stock of the microclimates in your garden (front and backyards) and making appropriate changes, you can make a huge difference in water savings by making sure you aren't wasting it. Huge amounts of water are wasted by irrigating plants that are either not suited to our summer dry climate (especially traditional lawns), or have been planted in the wrong exposure (sun-wise).  

First, an explanation: I recently explored "sketchnoting" as a way to organize my thoughts for writing about planning a water-wise garden. When I finished the piece above, I realized that it's way too busy as is! So I've derived a four-point written version for this blog post: see the assessment points below, then read how to apply the information you've collected in the following section. 
Someday I hope to condense this information into a readable sketchnote...

Four Point Garden Assessment  

  1. Notice the patterns of sun and shade in your yards (think back to summer when the sun is higher in the sky) and estimate the daily hours of each (example: 4 hours morning sun on east side of house). 
  2. Make note of planted areas with reflected heat: near or next to a sunny wall, or next to hardscape (concrete, flagstone, tile, sidewalks, the street, etc.).
  3. Are your current plants doing well with minimal irrigation? Look for scorched leaf tips, wilting, failure to grow and thrive.
  4. If you have areas with bare soil, is it mulched? If yes, does it need to be replenished?

Applying the Information You've Gathered

1. Sun and shade patterns
Many plants do best with morning sun only, and struggle with afternoon sun, especially when the other factors in the assessment above aren't optimal either. A plant that is getting lots of sun and heat may do okay if it gets extra water to help it cope. Save water by moving such plants where they'll be protected from the harshest sun so that they can thrive on minimal water. Plants that are rated for "full sun" do best with all day sun exposure, or more afternoon sun than the gentler morning sun. Plant them accordingly.


Most agaves thrive in full sun

2. Reflected heat from hardscape
Reflected heat puts extra stress on plants, especially during a drought when they're getting limited water. Often, they are also in direct sun. Plants that are supposed to do well in "full sun" may not tolerate reflected heat. If you are putting in new plants make sure to check that they are tough enough for those conditions . Move plants that are struggling in those extra hot spots. Native plants adapted to hot dry areas would be a good choice, or agaves and cacti for the hottest, driest areas.

3. Struggling Plants 
If you've noticed any plants that appear to be struggling due to minimal water, move them if they are getting too much sun, and reassess your irrigation practices. Watering the root zone deeply and less often is better than giving small amounts of water more often. Get help from professionals if you suspect your irrigation schedule needs optimizing, and see below:

4. Protecting bare soil
Mulch is one of our key tools for saving water and for maintaining healthy soil, which results in healthy plants. If you don't mulch around your plants and leave the soil bare and exposed to the elements, you are definitely wasting water- lots of it. Moisture evaporates very quickly from soil in hot weather. Keeping a protective layer of mulch on top of your soil holds in moisture so that roots have a chance to absorb it, and importantly, it enables soil organisms to thrive. Soils are living ecosystems; plant roots are a part of that system and derive numerous benefits from healthy soils. Mulch that breaks down (decomposes) is made from organic matter, such as wood chips or bark, straw, leaves, etc. and as it decomposes it adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil, which gives soil more capacity to hold water, much like a sponge. Gravel, pebbles, and rocks are also considered mulch, as they prevent moisture from evaporating, but they don't have the extra benefit of building soil health by adding organic matter. In addition, be aware that rock material heats up with exposure to sun, especially dark colored rock material.  

California native Ceanothus, aka California Lilac, doesn't tolerate summer watering

Climate Appropriate Gardening
Making do with less water for our gardens in California is a reality we must embrace- I don't welcome it, but I have to accept the geographic truth of where I live- it's always been a "summer dry" climate, with periodic droughts. This has been driven home by our record breaking drought of the past four years, bringing our reserves of water to record lows, even with a boost from El NiƱo-driven rains, depletion of ground water is a huge concern.

It's hard to summon the discipline needed to resist planting anything that needs more water than we should be using in our gardens. But with the smart selection and placement of plants you can have a beautiful and enjoyable garden- I reject the slogan "brown is the new green"!


Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke