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:

  • 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 

  • 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

  • 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.)


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

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Grow Vegetables for All Seasons, a Lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 10

I hope to see you Wednesday night, Feb 10th, at 7:00pm in Los Altos for the next lecture in the series sponsored by the Western Horticultural Society, (WHS)!

Vegetables For All Seasons, a Talk by Drew Harwell

Drew Harwell has been eating out of local gardens everyday for the past 13 years. He recognizes (and champions) that living in the Bay Area, we have the luxury to grow food year-round. Drew will share ways to organize and plan your garden for year-round harvest. Topics will include diversified crop rotations, techniques such as biointensive gardening and permaculture, which maximize food production and maintain soil health and fertility.

Drew Harwell, Edible Garden and Permaculture Consultant, Palo Alto, CA  
Drew is an edible garden and permaculture consultant in Palo Alto, California. He is the manager of Chef Jesse Cool’s Seeds of Change Garden and a Stanford University lecturer. He has managed the Stanford Community Farm and the Common Ground Demonstration Gardens. A native of Palo Alto, he grew up gardening with his family in their community garden plot behind the main library.

Doors open at 7:00 pm & the meeting starts at 7:30 pm.

We meet at the Christ Episcopal Church, 1040 Border Road, Los Altos. Park in upper lot. For details go to: the WHS website. You can check our Newsletters on the website for direction and a map. We meet at the Christ Episcopal Church, 1040 Border Road, Los Altos. Park in upper lot. Founded in 1963, the Western

About WHS
Founded in 1963, the Western Horticultural Society is made up of horticulturists, botanists, landscape designers and architects, nursery people, students and avid gardeners & Master Gardeners.
Lectures are free to WHS members and students with current student ID, and $5 for non-members. The public is welcome to attend!