Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Urban Garden: Merry Berries

The Urban Garden: December's Merry Berries
As we creep deeper into winter and find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, I hear people begin to “buzz” about the beautiful “hollies” that adorn our neighborhoods and hillsides.  As beautiful as these bright-berried specimens may be, 9 times out of 10, you are probably laying your eyes on another species entirely. Along with holly (Ilex sp.), winter reveals the ravishing red berries of Toyon (Heteromeles sp.) and the Firethorn (Pyracantha sp.). Though similar at a glance, a closer look will reveal the truly unique qualities that make each of these species an attractive winter wonder-shrub!

A San Diego native, Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) also goes by the names Christmas Berry or California Holly.  This hardy shrub usually grows five to 10 feet tall and slightly less wide.  In it’s native setting, though, Toyon has been known to reach 25 feet! It’s dark evergreen lanceolate leaves are thick and glossy, with a serrated margin.  In early summer, Toyon boasts crisp white terminal clusters.  As autumn takes over, bright cherry red oval berries develop and persist through late January.  Like most berry producing plants, Toyon provides a valuable source of native food for birds in winter.

Originating in southern Europe and western Asia, Scarlett Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) tends to be an invasive species in optimal conditions like our fair San Diego climate.    This bristly evergreen shrub ranges from six to 18 feet tall and has an equal spread.  Contrary to Toyon, Scarlett Firethorn’s leaves are linear and oblong in shape, with a rounded tip.  In addition, it lacks the serrated edges of Toyon.  In late spring, small clusters of white flowers often completely cover the stiff stems.  In early fall, the prolific flowers are replaced by orange-red, pea-sized berries.  Though not as valuable as the native Toyon berries, Scarlett Firethorn’s berries persist throughout winter, providing essential food to a variety of species.  Its strong stems provide small animals a place to perch, while long sharp thorns keep predators at bay.

The ever popular evergreen hollies are synonymous with winter beauty.  One particularly hardy and handsome cultivar used in San Diego is Blue Girl Holly (Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Girl’.)  Once Blue Girl Holly is finished blooming, this brilliantly festive species displays a profusion of bright red clustered berries throughout fall and winter.  Since only female specimens bare the famous holly berry, make sure you have a Blue Boy Holly planted nearby.  Its characteristic glossy dark green leaf is lanceolate with a margin that is perforated with oppositely arranged sharp spines.  At six to eight feet tall and three to six feet wide, this medium-sized shrub tends to be compact, especially in a garden setting where maintenance regiments include the almighty hedge trim.  This dense form provides protection for small birds, while they nest and feed on Blue Girl Holly's delectable fruit. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Urban Garden V6: Super Succulents

As a Xeriscape Designer, I am constantly hearing from clients “I don’t want a desert garden”.  There is mass confusion regarding Succulents, Cactus and Euphorbias, and although American Cacti do very well here in San Diego, we do not live in a desert.  San Diego’s Sunset Zone 24 is known as a Coastal Sage, while the thermal belts of Sunset Zones 21 and 23 are really Chaparrals. In all cases, Succulents thrive here in San Diego’s limited hydro-climates and blend with ease into a Xeriscape planting plan. Xeri comes from the Greek word Xeros meaning dry.  Xeriscaping is a creative landscaping art that combines water-efficient plants to produce a sustainable garden.

Debra Lee Baldwin, is an expert in the world of succulents and has  written Designing With Succulents and Succulent Container Gardensdefines succulents as “any plant that survives drought by storing water in its leaves, stems, or roots”.  By definition it would include Cacti, Euphorbias and other drought tolerant plants, combining those from Australia, South Africa, and California Natives. While a succulent garden is not the same as a cactus garden, all cacti are succulents but all succulents are not cacti.  Many cacti live in extreme, hot, sunny conditions with long dry periods in poor sandy soils. In contrast, succulents need a sun break, and require soils rich in organic matter, holding moisture.  Euphorbias are known for containing a white milky substance that irritates human skin are excellent additions to the succulent garden. They vary from shrubs to trees and even plants that look exactly like cacti.

The trick to a very successful succulent planting plan is to mix all these genera of plants. Combining different blooming periods with deciduous Euphorbias will create year around interest.  By mixing plant textures and colors with hardscape features such as, boulders, stucco walls, and water features, will keep the eye moving through your landscape, while bringing a sense of balance and harmony.

Some of my favorite succulents are Aeonium ‘Cyclops’, ‘Kiwi’, ‘Zwartkop’; Agave attenuata, Aloe ‘Blue Elf’, Bulbine frutescens, Calandrina grandiflora, Kalanchoe luciae, Portulacaria afra, Dudleya brittonii, the genus Echeveria and Sempervivum.  Most of these work well in combination with Phormiums (New Zealand Flax), Anigozanthos flavidus (Kangaroo Paw), Yacca, Salvias and ornimental grasses such as Muhlenbergia capillaries (Pink Muhly) and Pennisetum setaceum ‘Eaton Canyon’ (Dwarf Purple Fountain Grass).

The Urban Garden will bring you the newest technologies to green, gardening and landscaping.  It is my hope through this series of articles; you will be inspired to look at new directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices.  The face of San Diego is changing as water diminishes and urban sprawl continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Urban Garden V5: Does Your Lawn Drink Responsibly?

Drinking responsibly is a term we often hear associated with our favorite Cosmo or Lite Beer, but not often associated with our lawns. 96% of Southern California lawns are using grasses that originated in wetter climates.  The average lawn of 650 square feet will cost you about $60.00 per month on your water bill and uses 316 gallons of water.  They are truly clunkers and “gas guzzlers”.  Like many of our new hybrid cars, there are lawn alternatives that can lower your bill by costing only $10.00 per month and use about 52 gallons of water.

Let’s look at these alternatives:

Buffalograss (Buchloe Dactyloides) My first choice as a lawn substitute, is the only turf grass that is native to the United States. UC Verde is the only buffalograss cultivar developed in California for our state's climates. Developed from a turf grass improvement program at the University of California Davis and Riverside campuses, a truly remarkable alternative lawn was born. The vegitatively propagated, seedless, warm-season grass called UC Verde is the only buffalo grass developed in southwest for the vast majority of our climates.
In trials UC Verde has done well along the California coast and claims to tolerate the intense heat in the lower valley of Arizona and California low desert. With a deep root system of 6-8 feet, it uses only 1/4 inch of water per week.
Known for its high turf density and soft bright green very fine leaf blades it has the best visual rating among the warm season grass group. With a slow vertical growth habit, peaking at 4" to 6" tall, UC Verde requires no set cutting schedule. For a manicured lawn, once a month is sufficient.

Carex praegracilis (California Field Sedge) - A short, rich green sedge selected by John Greenlee as an alternative to turf grass. Growing to 6-8 inches tall and spreading by rhizomes to form a carpet that tolerates moderate foot traffic. A good plant as a solid ground cover, between and around stepping stones or mixed with other bulbs, perennials and grasses to create a natural meadow look. It tolerates full sun to partial shade but has a period of summer dormancy in warmer, drier climates. Moderate water requirements make this plant not quite drought tolerant but certainly lower than most lawn grasses.

Carex pansa (California Dune Sedge) - pansa and praegracillis are often confused by horiculturalists and nurseries alike.  The confusion lays on how praegracillis was developed from pansa and then introduced as pansa.  The key difference is that pansa prefers sandier soils, while praegracillis is more adaptive to many soils.

Dymondia margaretae (Silver Carpet) - This is a slowly spreading, very flat (just a few inches tall at best) ground cover with 1-2 inch long narrow leaves that are green on top and white tomentosa beneath. Though flat to the ground the white undersides are exposed to view as the leaf margins edges roll up and inward, particularly when grown dry, giving the plant an appearance of being variegated. Small yellow daisy flowers bloom amongst the foliage in summer. Dymondia prefers full sun with some shade break and seems to tolerate very light traffic.  I have mostly used this plant between stepping stones, pavers or flagstones. Lately, I have spec.-ed it out for a full lawn replacement and looks best with boarder planting bed.

It is my hope through this series of articles that you will be inspired to look for new directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices. The face of San Diego is changing as water diminishes and urban sprawl continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Living Walls

The Urban Garden V1: Living Walls

Living Wall are becoming the latest gardening trend.  In the past, attempting to create your own living wall was a chore.  One had to make boxes for the plant material  or one had to use chicken wire stuffed with soil and wrapped with sphagnum moss. Then came the daunting task of hanging it on the wall.  This was tedious and often had futile results.

Today, companies like BrightGreen (if I cant write that use - innovative companies), have made it easy for living walls to be assembled, watered, and grow healthier plants. They are pushing Living Wall design boundaries by allowing any vertical surface to become a place for planting regardless of size or shape.  The 80% recycled plastic trays, clip onto a support rods for easy installation.  These trays which now have deeper pockets angled about 30 degrees, hold the soil effortlessly.  Each tray locks into position with the tray below. A simple 1/4 drip system feeds water to the top tray. The water then passes through the trays from top to bottom via a vascular water track dispersing the water evenly to each plant.  Any excess water just drips out the bottom. Should the wall be indoors, a collecting trough just clips right on.
Living Walls are becoming focal pieces in urban settings, small gardens and courtyards where actual planting space is prime real estate.  We are seeing them in boutique shops,restaurants, hotels, shopping malls and even on the walls of public schools. 
What is so exciting about these living walls is getting to paint with living plant material.  By grouping colors and textures together, many geometric and organic shapes are formed, creating a peaceful , serene and impressionistic painting. Indoors these vertical gardens can grow several popular house plants and tropicals, while the outdoor vertical gardens often use succulents and herbs.  The key is to use plants that have shallow root systems and the height of the plant is no greater than a foot.  This will keep pruning  and maintenance of your living, growing art piece down to a minimum
The benefits to these vertical gardens are not only the possibility of growing your own food, but they reduce the Urban Heat Island by absorbing solar energy, helping our planet stay cooler and greener. And any living wall will increase that wall’s “R factor” keeping your home cooler during the summer and warmer in the winter.
If you want to create an interesting, cool focal piece in your garden, look at your vertical wall spaces. Adding a Living Wall to your garden will definitely be the center of discussion at your next garden soiree. 
The Urban Garden will bring you the newest technologies to green, urban gardening and landscaping.  It is my hope through this series of articles, you will be inspired to look to new directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices.  The face of San Diego is changing as water diminishes and urban spall continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change.
Urban Garden V3: Nothing fishy about growing
protein at home

A backyard garden can turn into a science
lab when aquaculture and hydroponics are
used to grow plants and fish in a
complementary way without soil. 

Pan-seared Tilapia in a white wine, ginger chutney sauce; roasted red, yellow and orange bell
peppers, drizzled with olive oil and sea salt; steamed baby carrots sprinkled with fresh chopped dill.
Sounds like a delicious and healthy gourmet supper right? However, this dining experience could be
made in your very own kitchen, grown from your aquaponic urban garden.
It was thrilling to be an exhibitor this year at the San Diego County Fair as part of the Flower and
Garden Show. I am always looking for the next cutting-edge product or gardening system that is
green, sustainable and suitable for small, urban gardens.
I was so excited to meet Sue Spray, an expert in aquaponics, and I got the lowdown on this amazing
and completely organic way to grow your own food.
Aquaponics is a crossover term, combining aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing
plants without soil). Aboriginal tribes in Australia, and the Chinese and other Asian cultures, who have
combined planting crops with farming fish for centuries, understood this concept. This closed,
complete ecosystem allows you to grow vegetables and fruits using nutrient-rich water from fish such
as tilapia or catfish in a small space such as my balcony—which, by the way is about 3 feet by 7 feet.

Aquaculture and hydroponics each by themselves produce significant wastewater and by-products.
Combining these two into this hybrid system, the wastewater from the fish gives nutrients to the
plants and the waste from the plants gives nutrients to the fish. Every avid gardener knows how fish
emulation is a great way to fertilize plants. This is the same situation. An added benefit is that the
bacteria clean the water and complete the closed cycle. The enriched water from the fish is gravityfed
to the planting beds. These tubs are filled with Hydroton expanded clay pellets, a soilless growing
bed medium. This process continues from one tub to the next. A clever, gravity-fed vacuum flushing
device—an auto siphon—empties these growing tubs into a lower reservoir, where a pump returns
the water to the fish. One added plus is running the pump and air filter on a solar-operated battery.
Very green! Another benefit is water conservation. Aquaponics uses one-tenth of the water of a soilgrown
vegetable garden.

The Hydroton is a key component in aquaponics and is one of the best growing medium choices for
anchoring plants in hydroculture setups. These highest-quality pellets—manufactured in Germany—
are porous, retain moisture and transfer moisture to the roots by capillary action. They are
lightweight, inert, sterile, PH neutral, contain no nutrients and are completely reusable.
For me, the big wow factor is growing my own organic protein source. For demonstration purposes,
Sue set up her display using goldfish, which is an option. However, setting up the system with tilapia
would provide protein for the dinner plate. Besides, how can you be sure that store-bought fish is
organically grown? You would also be lowering your carbon footprint since it takes many trucks,
gasoline and other products to get food to your table. It is imperative to buy healthy tilapia or catfish if
you plan to harvest the fish—your search engine will provide several farms for these in the San Diego
Sue suggests you set up a 14-day “hospital” tank using a salt bath to kill all parasites. The bath is
harmless to the fish and guarantees the system stays free of disease. The time factor to run this
system is minimal—a few minutes each day to feed the fish and give your plants a look over is all it
takes. I also find the sound of the running water relaxing—it’s like having your own water feature that
grows food.

Sue is offering a DIY Workshop Aug. 27 and 28 at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center.
Come join me and bring a few friends to learn more about aquaponic gardens.

The Urban Garden will bring you the newest technologies to green, urban gardening and
landscaping. It is my hope through this series of articles that you will be inspired to look for new
directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices. The face of San Diego is changing as
water diminishes and urban sprawl continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change!

Rainwater Harvesting in San Diego

The Urban Garden V3: Rainwater Harvesting

“Is the heat on?”, It seems Summer final came to San Diego with all this heat we’ve had over the past few weeks.  It’s times like this we realize that water is a precious commodity here in Southern California.  And even though it seems that we had a lot of rain this past Winter, the reality is that we did not. San Diego hit it’s Normal Rain Fall number.  San Diego is going to continue to grow as new housing tracks are developed and built, which means the county will never be out of a drought and must continue water conservation measures and laws.  With this “Normal” rain fall amount here is San Diego this past Winter, not even 1% of this free water was collected. As a property owner you may ask “How do I harvest this precious, life giving water and use it to hydrate our gardens and landscapes?

Glad you asked. By adding gutters to your roof line and tying them into collection tanks, one inch of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot roof can harvest 600 gallons of rain.  By collecting rain water from your roof, not only will you treat your garden, plants, and lawn to clean free rainwater you will help save energy by reducing demand on our drinking water supply!  Three 600 gallon tanks Over the past few years these “Rain Barrel” collection tanks have evolved into complete landscape watering systems.  Many companies have designs now that are sleek and trim fitting along the narrow side of a house.  These tanks come in a variety of popular house colors allowing them to blend into your house exterior and disappear.  Other options include bladder reservoirs  that lay flat in the crawl space under your house.

Once these tanks and bladders are full and our rainy season has past, these systems use a pump to create pressure and push water to your landscape plants and garden. It is important to use a drip line system to water all your plants and even your lawn since  this will slow down your water use rate from the tank.  I will talk more about converting your sprinkler system into a drip system in a future article. 

Some of the other benefits of Rain Water Collection Systems is that they reduce water pollution as a result of rainwater runoff which carries pesticides, fertilizers, sediment, oil, and trash into local rivers and lakes. They also help in the reduction of of soil erosion and improve the ability of water to infiltrate the soil at a reduced intensity. 

For more information go to or use your browser to search for “rain water collection tanks”

The Urban Garden will bring you the newest technologies to green, urban gardening and landscaping.  It is my hope through this series of articles, you will be inspired to look to new directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices.  The face of San Diego is changing as water diminishes and urban spall continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change

Green Living Driveways

The Urban Garden V4: Green Driveways

Ever wondered what to do with your cracked, worn out concrete or black top driveway? Well instead of re-pouring concrete, why not look at turning that grey driveway into a living, green driveway.  In the past, only honeycomb cement blocks and other cement like materials were available, but today we can use recycled PVC cell pavers. Recently I designed a green driveway using Grass-Cel Pavers. Some of the other brand names are: PermaTurf, EcoGrid, Golpla, Flo Cell, GeoTurf BodPave 85, and many others. Your contractor can find these systems a local irrigation wholesaler. Grass-Cel Pavers are an exciting product that lends itself to many new techniques in landscape design. 

In my Xeriscape landscape design as seen above, I looked outside of the box, fore going grass as the planting medium and instead I use Dymondia margareitae, Carex comans 'Frosted Curls', Carex praegracilis California Meadow Sedge.  To make the drive more interesting, I highlighted the edges with taller plant material, and used more of the sedges in the center of the drive, keeping the wheel wear area only in dymondia.  Should you decide to use other plantings rather than grass for these paver cells, make sure your plants have sallow roots, and/or use rhizomes to proliferate. Also use plants that can take medium traffic. Another important note is that these driveways are not parking lots. Keeping a car parked over living material will prevent photosynthesis and the plants will parish.

There are many different products out there to help support your vehicle and allow turf to grow but recently I designed a green driveway using Grass-Cel Pavers. Some of the other brand names are: PermaTurf, EcoGrid, Golpla, Flo Cell, GeoTurf BodPave 85, and many others.  Grass-Cel Pavers are an exciting product that lends itself to many new techniques in landscape design. The honeycomb structure makes each piece strong and durable. Each honeycomb cell has a round opening at the base. Air, water and nutrients move through these holes to the soil below. Grass roots extend through these holes, binding the Grass-Cel Paving Blocks to the surface. The slot provided in the walls of each cell allows roots, stolons, and rhizomes to move freely from cell to cell. The longer time that this paving is down, the stronger the surface becomes. The vertical walls of the honeycomb cells are engineered to support all traffic, preventing the soil within the cell from compacting.

Each paver system may vary in price but usually a pallet of 340 pieces costs about $1000.00.  With road grade gravel, sand, soil and labor you are looking at $9.00 to $12.00 a square foot installed.  We found the Grass-Cel Pavers at a local irrigation wholesaler.  It is very important to follow installation instructions, which involves removing soil about 6" deep in your new green driveway area, then laying out about 2 to 3 inches of compacted road grade gravel, followed by 2 inches of sand before laying out the pavers.  Creating a stable and well-drained surface is key to the longevity of the green driveway. Again your contractor will make sure no steps are missed.

Grass-Cel Installation Information
NOTE: In all installations, the Grass-Cel Paving Structures will only be as stable as the base upon which it is placed. Some soils are unstable and special steps should be taken to stabilize the area before putting down Grass-Cel Paving. It is important that the base material firmly supports Grass-Cel Structures as well as provides good drainage and promotes grass root penetration.
In large installations of Grass-Cel Structures; such as fire lanes, access roads, parking areas, etc., a qualified soil engineer should be consulted. Soil profiles vary throughout the world. An engineer can recommend the size, type and quantity of base material to be used on the specific job situation. Local building codes should also be checked.
STEP 1: Soil Preparation
Average Area: Using a flat shovel or sod cutter, remove existing soil or sod to a depth of 1½". Soil should be loosened to provide a firm, porous base for the Grass-Cel Structures. Apply a good starter fertilizer, work in lightly and level the area. The base for the Grass-Cel Structures, after leveling and lightly firming, should be 1-½" below the adjoining soil surface.
Unstable Area: Soils that remain wet may need drainage to stabilize them. The superintendent in charge can easily determine the best way to stabilize these soils.
Important: Sand, heavy clay, or excess organic matter can create an unstable base for Grass-Cel paving and should not be used.
STEP 2: Grass-Cel Assembly
Each Grass-Cel Structure is 13" X 12½" X 1½". When pieces are locket together, they form a continuous grid of cells.
Observe that each section has two sides parallel to each other with uniform indentations ("A") these sides measure 13" in length. The other two sides ("B") have three projecting cells and measure 12½". (See Illustration).
When assembling the Structures, match and connect "A's" first. DO NOT OFFSET THE STRUCTURES. They must be assembled in uniform straight rows.
Connect the Structures by joining them together at about a 20° angle-tabs will slide into the receiving slots. Locking tabs and receiving slots will not match if not line up uniformly.
After completing the first row, assemble the second in the same manner. DO NOT CONNECT THE TWO ROWS UNTIL THE SECOND ROW IS COMPLETELY ASSEMBLED. Assembly of the second row should be done in front of the first row.
When the second row is completed, side B will be facing the first row. Lift the adjoining edges of both rows and snap together.
Grass-Cel Structures can be assembled only in STRAIGHT ROWS. When curves are encountered, continue laying Structures in straight lines. Move over one or more complete spaces on curves.
Fill in corners with cut pieces. Grass-Cel Structures can be cut with ordinary wood or steel saws. They can be shaped, drilled, nailed, and filed to fit any space.
STEP 3: Planting Methods
IMPORTANT: DO NOT OVERFILL THE CELLS. Since the walls of the structures support traffic, soil must be below these bearing surfaces. Do not install Grass-Cels on compacted soils. Loosen the soil so that roots can penetrate deeply.
Sodding Method: After Grass-Cell Structures are properly installed, sod can be laid on top of the Structures and pressed in.the most popular and quickest method of establishment.
Use only good quality, thatch-free sod. IMPORTANT: Soil thickness of the sod should be no more or less than one inch. Cells overfilled with soil will cause the sod to protrude above the cell walls and cause excessive wear.
Lay sod evenly over the empty cells. Press it into the structures with a power or hand roller, golf cart, or hand tamper. Do not top-dress or add soil to the top. Roots will begin to develop in the spaces below the soil. Keep moist until the sod is well rooted.
Seeding Method: After Grass-Cels are installed; properly fill with a good sandy loam soil. Back rake excess soil so the pattern of the cell walls are clearly visible. Soil will settle allowing space for the grass plants. After the turf is established, if the soil has settled too much, light top dressing can be applied. Again, do not overfill.
Turf can also be established in grass cells by filling with aerator cores, sprig and stolons mixed with the soil. When grasses with large seed are planted, mix soil and seed together and fill cells with the mix.

The Urban Garden will bring you the newest technologies to green, urban gardening and landscaping.  It is my hope through this series of articles; you will be inspired to look to new directions in sustainable gardening and landscaping practices.  The face of San Diego is changing as water diminishes and urban spall continues to grow. Be inspired and make a change