Friday, September 21, 2018

Climate Appropriate Gardening and Design

Instead of "drought tolerant" I've adopted "climate appropriate" into my gardening vocabulary. Designing gardens that meet our needs in urban California involves a lot more than just saving on water use. When I'm designing a garden I always aim to create a visually richer, as well as more earth-friendly environment than what I started with. 

The word appropriate aligns especially well to our changing climate and growing conditions: this is the challenge we all face today and for the foreseeable future. And to me it implies that my climate appropriate approach to designing a garden, will adapt to meet the current needs. It's a good reminder to be flexible in my thinking, and to keep informed.

Replacing a lawn is an opportunity to add beauty and diversity
Among many inspirations, landscape architect Thomas Rainer stands out. He champions the cause for bringing more "wildness" into our urban spaces, urgently needed due to the rapid loss of wild spaces. See Rainer in this short video interview here (courtesy of the Pacific Horticulture Society).  

We have the perfect opportunity to add ecological value whenever we are replacing lawns or simply replacing and/or adding plants to our gardens. For example, plant flowering shrubs for your eyes and to feed pollinators- the gorgeous sage (salvia) below is 'Friendship Sage', also known by its original name 'Saliva Amistad'.

Sages (salvias) have lovely flowers in many colors
Hummingbirds love sages, as do bumblebees. This group of plants are generally happy with low to moderate water, even in warm climate zones such as our San Francisco Bay Area. 

In the photo below we designed a long berm with a mix of sages and other flowering plants to create a pollinator garden that would be pleasant to look at from the outdoor patio and from inside the house.  We included an herb garden for fragrance and its value in providing herbs for cooking year-round. 

This low-water garden replaced an unused pool
When replacing pools, lawns, or areas that were previously paved over, I love creating a space that enhances quality of life by being a place to relax and connect with nature. And it's a welcome bonus that adding more plants around homes results in not only beautiful, calming, environments but they mitigate the amount of heat produced by our over-paved urban spaces. Plants transpire water vapor into the local environment, especially trees. So not only do trees provide shade, they actively contribute to cooling. 

In California where the loss of trees due to drought and fires is staggering, we can do our part by planting trees with low and moderate water needs around our homes, as many as possible. 

A quiet seating area with flowering sages replaced bare soil
Below, wildflowers in a front yard meadow garden provide a spectacular seasonal display.

I'm also a big fan of growing seasonal edibles at home, and when we save water by replacing lawns or pools with a low water garden, we can feel good about using some water on our special heirloom vegetables. Growing our own food not only connects us to the seasons but can also remind us of our heritage and culture. Heirloom vegetable seeds are readily available from many sources. It's meaningful and satisfying to learn their stories and enjoy them with our families and friends by growing them.

Many fruit trees are perfect for low to moderate water gardens: avocado, plum, pluot, apple, persimmon, pomegranate and pineapple guava. Check my gardening index for more on edible landscaping.

'Four Corners Gold' bean in my front yard last summer
For more information and resources about climate appropriate landscaping go here.

Photo credit: Patricia Larenas

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rejuvenation Through Saving Seeds

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

This post was updated on July 22, 2017

This year I attended the 37th Annual EcoFarm Conference held at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California, as a gift to myself at the start of the new year. I greatly looked forward to spending quality time with organic growers and advocates. I always learn something, connect with interesting people, and return rejuvenated and inspired with a renewed commitment to my work with edibles and seed saving. The theme of this years' conference was 'Cultivating Diversity', as in people, as well as seeds. It's a theme close to my heart, as an immigrant and a seed steward.

So I got to thinking about seeds and my ancestral origins. And as I day-dreamed about the coming spring planting season, strong emotions were stirring within. I'm passionate about seeds- they truly stir up my emotional side. It's taken me a while to understand why and to be able to begin to express it words. Seeds, especially for edibles, have been saved by humans for many thousands of years. First Nation Peoples consider them as "living, breathing, ancestors" in a literal, not figurative sense. And in fact, viable seeds ARE alive, and they are handed down through families and communities to this day, although alarmingly, much less so. These are true heirloom varieties that are a crucial means by which we carry on our culture, whether it's rooted in Native American traditions or in a family group of immigrants, perhaps generations ago.

In my family, favas are a must-have spring food that I grow annually

We all have family food stories with origins in those who came before us, if we dig deep enough. For immigrants like me, those connections to my cultural foods are strong. I arrived in the USA with my parents and brother from Chile many years ago as an infant, but I grew up around an extended family and community of Chileans. It was years into adulthood before I realized that many of our favorite Chilean dishes originated with Native Peoples in the region, especially the Mapuche ("people of the earth"). In fact many of our words in Chilean Spanish have their roots in Mapuche language (Mapudungun).

Beans and fresh corn with basil is a typical Chilean food combination

So it's not surprising that my garden reflects my cultural roots, a mix of what the European conquistadors brought with them and Native foods: different types of common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), fava beans, salad greens, artichokes, squashes, and various perennial herbs are my staples, including two shrubs of Lemon Verbena for herbal tea (Aloysia triphylla), native to Chile and Argentina. 

Squash is another family favorite 

I recently received a precious gift of seeds from Chile: winter squash, beans, a sweet pimento pepper and a spicy pepper, plus corn seeds with which to make a favorite national dish, pastel de choclo (derived from the Mapuche word for corn). Through my research I discovered that some of the old seed varieties are stewarded by dedicated guadadores de semillas or seed savers, same as in the USA, but not accessible to me, (as far as I know). 

My harvest of beautiful runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus)

I have been conducting seed trials of heirloom seeds as a volunteer for Seed Savers Exchange for several years, and this work as been very satisfying. At the 2017 EcoFarm conference I was fortunate to meet Rowen White and participate in her 'Seed Seva' online training that weaves Native Peoples' traditional seed practices with western methods. She is indeed a knowledgeable and precious mentor.

My current focus is finding seeds of Native crops in a responsible manner, perhaps rare ones, and putting my effort into growing, eating, and respectfully maintaining these- what I believe to be a worthy cause. It is both tragic and traumatic that many tribes have lost the seeds specific to their People as an outcome of colonization- seeds that were essential to the continuation of their cultures. A good place to start is Native Seeds/Search in Arizona, specializing in seeds for crops suited to arid areas, as well as Indigenous in origin (quite relevant to our dry and warming climate in California).

My passion for saving seeds has been rejuvenated by doing my small part to ensure that these irreplaceable treasures are never lost again, and equally important, honoring my ancestors from the southern part of the continent.
Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

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

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

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