Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Flip This Lawn - Don't Water, Be Happy

A newly installed front yard garden with gravel paths and a bocce court

If the California drought convinced you to replace your lawn (front or back yards) with plants that have lower water needs, you will want to take advantage of the rebates offered through the Santa Clara Valley Water District.  The rebate periods have been extend yet again in response to our extended drought.  Applications will be accepted if postmarked by December 31 (extended from October 31).

The rebate program is an incentive to convert water guzzling lawns or swimming pools into gardens that feature plants appropriate for our Mediterranean climate. Under this program plants are chosen from an extensive approved list. Rebates rates are $2 per square foot for most cities in Santa Clara County, and a whopping $4 per square foot in Palo Alto for qualifying lawns. Even lawns that have been let go dry may qualify.

Many California native plants are drought tolerant, like this Matilija poppy

Life Without a Lawn- Don't Water, Be Happy
What does a garden look like if there is no lawn? Letting go of the lawn aesthetic opens up many possibilities that can add to our quality of life. Now there is room for a butterfly and hummingbird garden, perhaps with a quiet place to sit with your morning coffee before starting a busy day.  A birdbath placed in view of a window amid greenery and flowers becomes a welcome refuge for neighborhood birds, and you get to enjoy the show. Concerned about the decline in bees and other pollinators? Choose from a long list of flowering perennials that provide food for them and beauty for you. Add simple paths with stepping-stones or a rock garden with succulents to provide interest and structure.

I find it extremely satisfying to include a kitchen herb garden in my lawn replacement projects. Several of our essential culinary herbs are approved low-water needs plants, including: rosemary, sage, thymes, and French tarragon. Once established they need only occasional watering.

Several culinary herbs qualify as low-water lawn replacements

Challenge yourself to brainstorm creatively about garden features that fit your lifestyle and interests.

Recently, I redesigned a front yard to include a bocce ball court at the client’s request.  They now enjoy this traditional family game together, surrounded by a mix of attractive flowering shrubs, gravel paths, and seating areas for visiting together. It was satisfying to watch the visiting grandkids playing in the court together. I don’t think they miss the old lawn.

How to Apply
First, make an appointment to get a pre-inspection survey. Water district representatives will visit your garden to determine if you qualify. They’ll take measurements of the lawn or pool, check irrigation, and let you know if you qualify. They will fill out a request for application form, and you will be sent the application package. Follow the instructions in the application package, which typically requires photos, a plant list and simple diagram (or description) of the garden design.

You can do this yourself or hire a garden designer to design the space and also take care of submitting the application for you. Or hire a designer on a consulting basis, if you’d rather do some of the work yourself.  A designer can help you find a landscaper too.

Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation Hotline at (408) 630-2554

Santa Clara Valley Water District Landscape Rebate Program

A version of this article appeared in the Los Altos Town Crier

Photo credits: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke
Bocce court garden installed by Jackie Marsey, Paradise Landscape and Garden

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Filling My Hands and Heart with Seeds

My Visit to Heritage Farm in Pictures
The few precious days I spent recently at Seed Savers Exchange's (SSE) Heritage Farm in Decorah Iowa will stay with me for a long time.  If you're interested in true heirloom and heritage edibles then a visit here is a must.  And even better, go during SSE's annual conference and campout held in July, and get an in depth tour of the operations on member's day.

Holly Hocks in co-founder Diane Whealy's garden
I'm so impressed by the incredible effort of this organization and their staff- they are all truly dedicated and enthusiastic about their sacred mission to preserve agricultural biodiversity, and along with it, the stories imbedded in seeds that are our cultural histories. 

I was also energized by meeting my fellow seed saving gardeners and farmers. We shared mealtimes and camaraderie, and I look forward to keeping in touch. 

Members were treated to special in depth tours with SSE staff
SSE staff member Tor Janson demonstrated seed cleaning equipment

The Dedicated Effort of Seed Stewardship
There is so much for a gardener to see at Heritage Farm: test gardens, the historic apple orchard, facilities for seed processing, storage, and even the machine that fills seed packets sold through the SSE catalog (yes, it's only one machine, below!). 

SSE's seed packaging machine

Saving seeds on this scale is a multifaceted effort that involves trial gardens, growing under isolation to ensure pure seed, evaluation of growth and culinary uses and characteristics, research and verification of origins, and long term storage, to name a few!

Strikingly beautiful Blue Podded Peas
Crimson Flowered Fava available through the members exchange
Geneva apples in the Heritage Orchard

The Seeds of Inspiration
Besides tours of the grounds and facilities there were several interesting talks and workshops, including one by Chris Schmidt of Native Seeds/SEARCH, another non-profit seed conservation effort. Their focus is on traditional native american varieties and those adapted to arid climates of the southwest. With the impacts of climate change these varieties are becoming especially important (just ask Californians currently in year three of a recording making drought).

As Chris put it
"No part of the country is self-reliant with respect to biodiversity."
We need to share and help each other, especially in the challenging times ahead for agriculture.

Chris Schmidt (right) Interim Executive Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH

When I was considering whether to attend the conference I was trying to weigh the pros and cons of flying out to Iowa from California- the expense of flying and renting a car, driving out to the farm, finding lodging, and all of this on my own. Was it extremely self-indulgent of me, just for a conference on seeds? 

The wildlife-rich restored meadow near our camping area on the farm

I can say without hesitation that at no time did I feel that I shouldn't have made the trip.  Every minute was meaningful, rich, and memorable. I returned home with renewed determination and a deepened understanding of the task at hand.
                             Saving seeds fills my hands as well as my heart.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Saving Seeds with Our Hands and Our Hearts

"Institutions do not save seeds- humans with hearts do."
- Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, 2013 Annual Conference and Campout, Seed Savers Exchange

Recently I re-read the transcripts of speeches given by some of the keynote speakers from the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Annual Conference. I admit to getting particularly misty-eyed by Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan's speech.  It hit home how important it is to sow our seeds, save them, and pass them on to our family, friends, and neighbors, and to keep them safe for the next generation.  As he explained, it's not some retro, quaint activity and a hanging on to the past, saving seeds is about the future. And beyond the seeds themselves it's about our connections to our culture and our links as a community, and to the earth. 

Why We Should Care
The loss of biodiversity of many types is a hot topic these days, and it certainly applies to seeds from our favorite edibles. As for me, I'm not willing to depend solely on seed companies as a source for the edibles I've come to love and count on and look forward to each season. And more urgently, our changing climate and other environmental pressures demand that we keep a pool of diverse food sources ready to meet changing growing conditions.

We don't have to settle for less, and we do have the ability to shape our futures.

The strikingly colored Christmas Lima, available from SSE

Seed Savers Exchange 34th Annual Conference and Campout
Pumped with these energizing thoughts, I'm really excited that I'm finally going to make the trip out to Iowa this year for the Seed Savers Exchange 34th Annual Conference and Campout in Decorah, Iowa.  The conference is July 18 to 20th, with a members only day on Friday. I can't wait to see the test gardens and the seed saving operations at Heritage Farm after reading about them for several years!

Maybe the best part is that I'll be spending hours and days with my people: like minded gardeners, farmers, and dedicated seed conservationists. No chance of boring anyone with lengthy conversations about seeds and their stories, or the nuances of various bean varieties, or the ideal isolation distances for lettuce, etc.

Flower: Little Lady Bird Cosmos; bean: Rattlesnake, a pole bean

We Can do Nothing or We Can do What We Can
Check out this nice graphic from National Geographic. It's sobering and even frightening. It illustrates the findings from a study done in 1983 that found a 93% loss of crop varieties since 1903 (of 66 crop types). 

They became extinct.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke