By Calvin Craig (Originally Published in the Valley Sentinel, April 2012)
“Low maintenance” is the criteria most requested when people approach me for a new or revised landscape. How much maintenance your property will need is largely a result of its design. If carefully planned, landscapes can be designed to be lower maintenance Design can affect how much water and electricity you will use as well as reducing your home utilitiy costs by placement of trees. As well as increasing your enjoyment, a well designed a landscape you can save costs to you and the environment.
Plant choice and placement is a number one concern when planning for maintenance. It is amazing to me how often I see properties designed by landscape architects with shrubs that want to be 18 feet tall being kept at 3’ tall. This requires constant shearing most of the year which means increased labor, gasoline, and carting off of debris. In addition to the environmental costs, someone has to pay for all of this additional maintenance. A plant that grows naturally to 3 feet could have been used, requiring minimal care. These sorts of problems happen far to often, owing to the arrogance of some landscape professionals, who value architecture or construction over horticulture, and fail to consider the owner’s long range needs.
The first thing a landscape design professional should do is a customer interview and site analysis to find out what the client needs, and what will be appropriate for the site. Choosing plants that are well adapted to your setting and ones that require minimal human input can make a huge difference, although the tradeoff for a higher maintenance plant like tea roses or lawns may be worth it in some cases. Generally I recommend that, if the client wants some higher maintenance and water needing plants, that they be placed close to your home where they can be enjoyed and receive more attention.
Lawns take a great deal of resources in terms or water, labor and negative environmental impact, thought they are an important space children of all ages to play, as well as a resale value feature. Most informed designers now recommend only as much turf area as you actually need, instead of using lawn as a default to fill space. Lawns can be made more water efficient and sustainable through intelligent irrigation management, and the use of organic fertilizers.
Privacy is often a large concern, and is usually best achieved with a combination of small to medium trees, large shrubs and informal hedges that require minimal pruning. Hardscape solutions include walls, planted walls, arbors, and fences. Homeowners often go overboard by planting what will become a 90 foot tall redwood tree in their small backyard to screen off the neighbors’ two story house, when all they needed was that shrub that would grow to 18’ tall and stop. Eventually the redwood will lose its lower leaves and you will need that tall shrub anyway.
Weeds are also a major problem for many gardeners. Good design and installation practices can greatly reduce many weed problems. By applying a layer of cardboard under 3 inches of mulch at planting and designing a landscape where the plants fill in within the first few years to cover the soil, will minimize any weed growth. Permanent plastic weed barriers cause more problems than they solve, except in non-planted gravel areas.
Leaves: It is surprising to my associates and I that we went into landscaping after being forced into child labor of raking leaves every fall—those were called chores and that they were! Even doing this professionally with a gas blower was not much fun, and rather noisy and smoky. We try to use good design practices to minimize that now. By designing with smaller leaved trees or small large leaved trees the job is a lot easier, and if the leaves can fall in between the plants, they are creating mulch and eventually improving the soil and feeding the plants and trees—how they sustain themselves in nature. . Many people are now getting used to seeing oak leaves under their oak trees forming a natural mulch instead of insisting of the scorched earth aesthetic of past decades. Now we try to use the leaves as mulch in the landscape or on the lawn where a mulching mower, which cuts everything into small pieces so it can fall between the blades of grass enriching the soil as the leaves are quickly eaten by earthworms or beneficial bacteria, fungi. So, leave the leaves if you can.
In addition to well-designed planting, the design of hardscape elements can effect maintenance by using long lasting materials that do not need constant cleaning, sealing and repainting. Good hardscape design can also reduce maintenance demands, by planning paths for access, ramps for mowers, edging to retain invasive groundcovers, and situating patios, pools, water features in such as way as not to impede long-term maintenance
Ok, so there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden (unless you live in open space and don’t want anything more). A well-planned landscape can be relatively low maintenance, yet high on visual impact, and easier on your wallet and the earth.
By Jonathan Espalin (Originally Published for Valley Sentinel Newspaper)
Plenty of gardeners and landscape designers, both amateurs and professionals, claim to be interested in sustainable landscaping, but what does it really mean for a garden to be sustainable? What gardening and landscape practices actually contribute to that goal, and which are just a green veneer? In this upcoming series of articles, we hope to sort out some of the confusion around these ideas, and offer suggestions about ideas and techniques that can contribute to making your garden more ecologically sound. We hope that this can make your gardening process not only better for your health, and for the health of the world, but a lot more fun, interesting, and rewarding as well.
Sustainable landscape gardening begins with ideas, with attitudes. It means thinking about your garden as a system, and being aware of how this system fits into the larger system of nature. Many standard gardening practices simply take from the world, without giving anything back. Every garden is an ecosystem, whether we want it to be or not. We need to make sure that our gardens are healthy ecosystems.
First, sustainable landscaping means being fully aware of function. Viewed as a system, every piece of the garden needs to serve a need or achieve a goal. The homeowner or landscape designer needs to ask, of every feature in a landscape “what function or goal does it accomplish?” “Is that goal worthy of the resources needed to build and maintain it?”
Second, sustainable design means to create gardens with an awareness of the future: of how a garden will function over time, and how it will contribute to the future. Does how we live now, how we garden now, leave a better or worse future for our grandchildren? At the scale of the garden, it can also mean considering the future of the garden itself: designing, building, and planting for the long term. Some aspects of our gardens should provide instant gratification, but some should be considered a long-term investment. The sustainably designed garden should be a garden whose ecology grows richer every year, getting better over time, rather than declining.
Third, sustainable landscaping means working in harmony with Where You Are: having respect for the realities of the site: its history, and its future possibilities. Get to know your native climate, plants, soil, and wildlife, and the human history of your land. If your garden is in harmony with its place, it will be much easier and less expensive to maintain, much more rewarding, and much better for the world.
In our previous article, we addressed some core ideas of sustainable landscaping: to consider the function of all parts of your garden ecosystem, to be aware of the relationship of your garden to the future: both the future of the garden and the future of the planet, and to work in harmony with place: both the site of the garden, and the climate and ecosystem that surrounds it. What are some practical ways that a gardener or homeowner can apply them in the real world?
Waste not, want not: Plan, build, and maintain your garden so that you minimize waste. This will save you money and be immensely better for the world. This is where considering function comes in: much waste comes from garden features that don’t actually serve any of the homeowner’s needs. In additional to eliminating the dysfunctional, there are many other ways to minimize waste: from using recycled or local materials for construction, to installing and programming your irrigation correctly, to choosing site-appropriate plants that don’t need constant babying or hacking.
Nurture your soil biology. Soil is the foundation of a healthy, environmentally sound, low-maintenance garden Most plants need a lot less water, fertilizer, and coddling than we think, but they need good soil to perform well. What is good soil? Most gardens have far too little organic matter and biological activity in their soil. The construction of homes and roads, as well as many outdated gardening practices, leave the soil lifeless and unproductive. Organic matter, in a natural ecosystem, holds water and nutrients in the soil, maintains an open texture that makes root growth easier, and stabilizes soil temperatures and chemistry. Proper soil preparation is essential when installing or renovating a garden. Repairing lifeless soil with the addition of compost and mulch is the foundation of long-term soil and plant health. In a healthy garden, soil grows. Plants help build the soil as they grow, stabilize the soil with their roots, and shed leaves and flowers, earthworms and other beneficial animals prosper and give back to the plants. For most plants, synthetic fertilizers do more harm than good. Spraying salt-based fertilizers on lifeless clay soil does not make it any better, in fact, it does harm by killing the biology needed to keep plants healthy. As important as soil is, in a mature garden, you shouldn’t see the soil. Any bare areas are a place for weeds to grow, for roots to overheat, for water to evaporate wastefully.
A sustainably planned and managed garden will increase in stability every year, becoming easier to maintain and more rewarding to live in. Take time to enjoy your garden, to pause and see what you have achieved, and see what you are giving back to the world.
But How’s It Going to Look? Framing Your Garden Ecosystem.
In the last two articles, we discussed the basics of sustainable landscaping: considering the function of all parts of your garden ecosystem, awareness of the relationship of your garden to the future, and working in harmony with place, both the site of the garden, and the climate and ecosystem that surrounds it. We then talked about practical applications such as how to minimize waste, and ways to nurture your soil so it can function as the healthy base for your garden ecosystem.
All this talk about ideas and functional concerns laves aside a key part of garden making: beauty. How is a garden that is treated as an ecosystem going to look? Does it have to look a certain way? Contrary to popular belief, there is no ‘Ecological Look’. This misconception is widely held even by many professional designers and gardeners, who should know better. Your sustainable garden can be as formal or as wild as you want, as bright or subdued, as open or intimate as your needs dictate. Certain features might be smaller, larger or located differently, so that they function more efficiently and less wastefully, but there is no particular style required. The only visual characteristics common to ecological, sustainable gardens are that they look healthy. We can’t see any reason to object to that.
Gardening sustainably does not have to mean accepting a messy or wild appearance. Neat frames, either of hardscape features like decking, pergolas, and paving, or a clear, deliberate order to the planting, can allow ecological processes to go on within these bounds. Even those gardens that are meant to look natural can benefit from careful consideration of order and framing. The sustainable garden might be one that celebrates natural processes, reveling in seasonal changes, bringing attractive birds and butterflies, celebrating plants that are native or historically important to the area, or finding clever and artistic uses of recycled materials.
The sustainable-low water, garden does not look barren. The denser planting needed for ecological landscapes to work can, in fact, make the garden look neater and lusher with much less water use, as well as making maintenance easier. A lot of ecological processes that benefit your garden and the world can even go on behind the scenes, hidden under plants and soil. The only reason you know they are happening is the health of your plants, and the slimness of your water bill.
It takes smarter planning to create a sustainable garden, but the results can have a beauty that exceeds more traditional clichéd gardens, because the sustainable garden works with the site and with natural processes, rather than struggling to force outdated and ill-informed methods on the site.
By Jonathan Espalin (Originally Published for the New Year's Edition of The Valley Sentinel)
The New Year in the garden can be a time to celebrate renewal, to revel in the change and fluctuation that is inherent in natural processes, to experience the drama of nature in our own home, rather than something ‘out there’ far away.
At its best, gardening is, an inherently hopeful practice. We perform actions now with the hope of future reward, and much of the gardener’s joy comes from the sweet anticipation of future changes: the emergence of new growth, the display of autumn leaves or spring flowers, or the gardens seasonal animal visitors. The fulfillment of the anticipation for these joys can be like Christmas morning to the gardener.
In our climate, more than any other, January really can be a time of renewal. Our seasons here may not fit the stereotype built into American mass culture by the eastern US or northern Europe, but they have at least as much drama and change. For us, the New Year really can look like a new year. Maybe it's no coincidence that the Roman calendar, invented in a climate like ours, would put the New Year around this time.
Our region’s seasons are especially complex. Because of our Mediterranean climate,“winter” here is a time of both death and of rebirth. Plants from here have such a wide variety of survival strategies to cope with both cold and drought, which means that some sleep the summer away, and emerge in our mild (usually) damp winter, and others follow the more expected pattern of growing through the spring and summer, and going dormant in the winter. For gardeners, this means that there can be active interest at all times of year, always something different to look forward to. Every season has its own plants and animals in the foreground, and gardeners should do their best to create gardens to allow for this.
So, if the appreciation of change and renewal are so essential to the experience of the garden, why do so many gardens fight against these processes? Gardens, particularly in climates with notable seasonal change, are best designed to celebrate the patterns of life and death and regrowth, to celebrate seasonality, highlight the dramas of nature, rather than pretend change doesn’t happen.
Too many designed gardens of the past have fought against the garden as a place for life's complexities to play out. The focus on evergreens, on gravel and stone, and on permanently verdant lawns, can make the garden like a plastic toy, minimizing life and change. There can be a place for these stable points of rest within the garden, but they should complement those parts of the garden where complex life is allowed to play out. Gardens should embrace and enhance our experience of natural processes. Where better than a garden to experience daily the rhythms of nature: of growth, fluctuation, decay and rebirth.
Gardens are a four-dimensional art form, which work not just in space, but in time. We should create gardens that celebrate this, rather than fighting time and change. For the New Year, we should try to make our gardens a place for renewal.
Copyright 2012 Calvin Craig Landscaping. All rights reserved.