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Pollinators in trouble. What a city dweller can do.

I was disturbed to see yet more articles in the NY Times about bees and colony collapse.  I was a home beekeeper in CA since the mid-90’s.  When I moved to Wyoming, I gave that up in favor of not having lots of grizzlies in my yard. Being a horticulturist and amateur botanist, I was also interested in the general decline of pollinators and wrote an article in 1998 entitled Pollinators under Siege that I posted on my web page.

one of my hives

Honeybees are non-natives.  They are relied upon to pollinate our crops. Native bees and insects, in general, just can’t do as good a job on monocrops.  But honeybees also push out non-native bees.  They are up earlier and go out in mass.  When my honeybees were not doing  well due to mites, I’d always see more native bees move in to take up the space.

And although we need the honeybees, we also desperately need our native pollinators.  What many people don’t realize is that there are a myriad variety of insects that pollinate natives.  When I asked my botany teacher who specialized in California natives about their pollinators, he said that they don’t know what pollinates many California natives.  It’s very difficult to observe.

Death Valley flowering plant

One thing I learned in my profession is that the majority of people don’t even understand the basics of what pollination is.  Insects and flowering plants evolved together. Even some mammals and birds are important pollinators.  Entire ecosystems are built around these relationships.  Pollinators declining world wide means trouble for our planet’s health in ways just as impossible to calculate as climate change.

Frankly, it’s another overwhelming and make-one-feel-powerless problem, once you begin to dig into the complexity of the issue (see my article link or read The Forgotten Pollinators).  I’ve been passionate about this issue for a long time.   Here are my thoughts on what can be done individually and collectively.

1.  Rail against development!  Lack of community planning, lack of empty lots, and cookie cutter housing developments consumes habitat for native plant species and therefore specific pollinators.  Development should be:

a.  clustered

b.  planned so there are ‘hedgerows’ or a continuity of native species weaving in and around the development.  Lack of fencing allows for wildlife to wander about.  Lawns should be eliminated or kept to a minimum or replaced with native bunch grasses and native meadows.

Native Salvia

2.  Ban home vineyards!  I’m sorry, but this is so unnecessary.  Does everyone really need to have their own little home label.  People are cutting down native Oaks, clearing native trees and shrubs to put a monoculture in their backyard.

3.  Encourage large swaths of native trees and shrubs.  You can plant non-native gardens, but include natives.

4.  DO NOT use pesticides.  There is absolutely no need to use pesticides in the home garden.  This includes hiring a pest control service.  When you spray for spiders, you will be eliminating butterflies as well.  If you have a rat problem, encourage your neighborhood to use natural controls such as owl boxes and the old fashioned methods of traps.  Using a pesticide free method for controlling rodents helps the bobcat and mountain lion population as well.

5.  Put a bell on your cat or keep them indoors.  Too many birds are killed by cats yearly.  Hummingbirds are important pollinators.  Songbirds are dispersers of seeds.

6.  Realize that native pollinators cannot work in isolated ‘islands’ of plant communities.  How far can an insect travel to find another plant of the same species?  If plant communities are too spread out because of the concrete jungle, or suburbs full of pristine lawns and non-native species, these plants can’t be sufficiently pollinated to reproduce enough to continue the species.  We must have large enough habitat and/or corridors of habitat for plants and animals to travel through and sustain the ecosystem.  Work to protect large tracts of open space in your community for your own health and sanity, your children and their future enjoyment, and our ecosystems.  This open space should be undeveloped, not browsed by cattle nor full of lawns or athletic fields.

California poppies in bloom

What do the above recommendations have in common?  Working together as a community.  Its a good first step.

Entrance gardens Part 3–The Finished Product

Front entrance view

The small entrance garden is now finished.  (See Posts 1 and 2)   I moved around several existing plants.  I used the existing Mondo grass as fillers and bought 20 more one gallon plants, which we divided to fill even more space.  The garden look good even though it was just installed.  Within a few years the Yuletide Camellia by the front door view will grow upright and hide the fence but not block the beautiful Sangu Kaku maple.

Looking towards the owners side

View from front door. Maple will leaf out; Camellia will grow upright to cover the fence

The trick with the side above was not to have plants look like they are marching in a line against the fence.  There is not much depth there, but enough.  The Daphne at the base of the tree is set forward to the Camellia, as are the red-leafed azaleas.  The art features also help break it up.  Its hard to see, but there are some dabs here and there of different textural low plants to break up the monotony of the mondo grass groundcover.  Some of these are variegated white, other are red leafed oaxalis.  But don’t get too busy or you risk just a confusing mass that the eye doesn’t know how to integrate.

The tenants side next to the fence is more constraining as its very narrow.  I used a Camellia s. that has more flexible branches and is easily espaliered.  We’ll guide that over time to grow against the fence and outward.  One way to achieve that is to use eye screws with thin wire into the fence (more invisible) so you have something to tie the branches to rather than a loud visible trellis.  Over time the branches thicken up and will hold their position naturally.Tenants side by fence is extremely narrow

Tree to the front right will eventually be taken out when shrubbery grows up

Tree to the front right will eventually be removed

Fountain interrupts small wall for an artistic break

Always scope around, use what you can on the property, be creative.   You might find some old garden art you can use, good looking boulders, or useable plants.   Here’s how we used a rotten stump.  Eventually the plants in front will spill over and a 3′ variegated Ligularia is planting in a pocket behind that will peek around.  A Japanese Felt Fern at the base (Pyrrosia) will enjoy climbing up the tree ferns stump.  Tree ferns like their trunk wet so we’ll spray this area.

We moved the mature tree fern into this existing rotting stump

California natives Part 3 Groundcovers…Manzanitas and Ceanothus

In this small series of posts on California natives for the garden, remember I’m trying to keep it simple and successful for the home gardener.  Most of the time when a homeowner asks for a low or no-water garden and I give them what they want, they always over water regardless.  Therefore, in general, unless you know what you’re doing, its better to incorporate natives that will tolerate or even thrive with occasional additional watering.

One of the main tips for growing any kind of native, and most Mediterranean plants in general, is good drainage. California natives are adapted to cool wet winters and dry summers.  When planting natives in general, especially Manzanitas and Ceanothus, the main thing you want to watch for is planting the crown of the plant too low.   A brilliant idea for helping drainage along is to plant that crown on a little hump, maybe 6″ high.  When the crown of these plants stays constantly damp, then rot sets in.  Planting on a slight mound insures some run-off.  Also, don’t put your drip emitter right on top of the crown, and move that emitter every year farther and farther out to encourage roots to grow outward.  Eventually, you may be able to eliminate watering once established.

Both Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.) and Ceanothus are sensitive to over watering, especially true with Ceanothus.  Many Manzanitas on the market have been cultivated to be more forgiving and accept landscape watering.  Two groundcovers I like are Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Woods Compact’ and Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Carmel Sur’.  From my personal experience, I have found that the uva-ursi sp., though touted to be more acceptable of hotter weather, are more sensitive than the edmundsii.  I find the Carmel Sur variety to be easy and forgiving.Arctostaphylos 'Woods Compact' right after install

This was an example of a small front yard right after installation.  I did very little soil amending on the thick clay soil.  Instead I brought in about 10 yards of no animal manures (these harbor fungus as they break down as well as heat) composted soil and planted directly in that.  Manzanitas are very susceptible to fungus dieback, and especially the groundcover varieties.  I don’t recommend over head watering for that reason in the summer.  I also don’t recommend a bark or natural mulch as any splashing water can cause fungus on the stems to grow.  So instead here I experimented with a decorative rock mulch.One year laterHere is the yard one year later.  Unfortunately, several years later, this Arctostaphylos ‘Woods Compact’ did experience some major fungal dieback, probably after an El Nino year, and needed some new plants to fill in.

Seeing that I was having more than usual dieback with uva-ursi plants, I switched to ‘Carmel Sur’ and have had more success, although these plants are about 10″ instead of 6″ high.  But the Carmel Sur can take a bit of shade as well as sun, and some summer watering if desired.

I think the larger Manzanitas are easier to grow with less problems than the ground covers. I have had occasional deaths with no warnings, but planted on a hillside, they can take sun or dappled shade with no problem.

Word to the wise:  Don’t forget Manzanitas are browsed by deer!

Ceanothus is the quintessential California native.  There are many beautiful Ceanothus, or California Lilacs, from tiny to tree-like, able to be grown as ground covers or espaliered against a wall.  In general, they are all sensitive to excessive water and crown rot.  Whole books have been written on Ceanothus and I couldn’t begin to cover them here.

Below is Ceanothus g. ‘Hearts Desire’, a gloriosus variety.  Planted 3′ on center, this low growing Ceanothus is deer proof and very attractive.  I’d used in on a small scale with success, but decided to take my chances on a very large hillside installation.  After two winters, the Ceanothus is filling in quickly and nicely.

See how large and steep is this hillside, yet poor drainage

See how large and steep this hillside yet poor drainage. Ceanothus filling in nicely

Below is Ceanothus Hearts Desire in a small yard

Here is another hillside example I used with mixed perennials.  This slope filled in quickly as well and is large scale.

Ceanothus 'Diamond Heights' is right of the fountain.  It has now covered the pebbles

Ceanothus Diamond Hts. right of fountain. Now it has covered pebbles

Below is an unusual newer Ceanothus horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’.  Use it for accent or in pots and not in the hottest of areas.  This area is irrigated with good drainage.  The Ceanothus is the yellow in front, although now it has filled in completely.

For more information on gardening with California natives, as well as a list of month-by-month native blooming plants, see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.  In it I cover what is a true native, planting natives, more types of reliable natives for gardens, and using mediterraneans in combination with natives.  Also tips on low water vegetable and fruit tree gardens, how to irrigate for low water use, and making the most of your microclimates.

Entrance Gardens Part 2

The demo is completed.  The new soil has been worked in and the area is clean and ready for designing.  Most important, all my plants have arrived.  I always gather all my plants on site before I begin.  You wouldn’t want to paint a picture without all your colors to chose from?

First I must have my anchors in place in order to work my design.  In addition, I am going to use boulders in the beds, so they are all laid out, ready to select from.

My first anchor is obviously my tree.  The guys plant that first.  I also have them plant my backdrop, which are the plants I’ve selected for the well.  These are 15 gallon Azara dentata, a shade tolerant large leafed fast growing plant that is upright–perfect for this location.  Remember, I will keep the Maytens tree for now, with the intention of removing it when the Azaras fill in.

I place my edging of basalt bricks and then begin placing the boulders, as they will determine how and where I place my larger plants. 

This photo shows my basalt bricks of two different sizes (randomly placed) and my boulders.  Ignore the irrigation hose as we have not yet reworked the irrigation.  There was existing irrigation which, at the very end, we will rework.

Here is my Sangu Kaku Maple.  I am standing at the doorway and looking out.  This area is not at all finished, but you can see how much cleaner it looks already, with the Maple, a Daphne at its base, and a wonderful Yuletide Camellia to the right.  The Camellia is an upright variety that will fill that fence wall without obstructing the view of the maple from down the walkway.  It also blooms in the winter around Christmas.

With the tree anchored, I need to move that Tree Fern (see photos previous post) or it will be in the way of the view of my Maple.  We dig it up carefully, and I have an idea it might just fit in an old tree stump with enough room to walk underneath. If it works it will frame our front doorway nicely.  Let’s try it.

It works great.  Now I have a framework to the left and the right of the entrance to the front door.  And I have anchors for my new design on both sides.  Remember, we’re just beginning the design process on this side of the walk.  We’ll plant ferns and other spillers below the tree fern later.  We’re just getting our large plants laid out and our framework in for now.

Now for the entrance gate.  I needed something to frame the other side.  I had a Podocarpus that wasn’t pruned too badly on the one side, but the left side was empty.  I am not an advocate of same thing both sides, but I am an advocate for balance.  The doorway to the duplex needed framing and needed balance.  Below was my solution with color that popped the plants out.

The ‘Icee Blue’ Podocarpus will eventually grow up and frame the doorway.  While the Pieris is much slower growing and will simply cover the fence.  Remember, I haven’t added any ground cover or finished this bed yet.

On the other side, the tenants’ side, the guys have finished installing the Azaras and we’ve planted the bed.

This is a small bed so designing was quicker.  Also, remember, it was completely demo’d so we didn’t have to move plants around.  The Azaras hide the foundation immediately; I placed the boulders than filled in with variegated Daphne, a purple dwarf Rhododendron and some evergreen Hellebores, with ferns and vinca for accent.  Right away it looks cleaner.  Ignore the hose in the background.  Since the irrigation is not yet connected, we will hand water till the installation is completed.  It is important to keep these new plants irrigated for the first few weeks till they are established.

One last photo will show the line of basalt stones. 

At first I was going to use this edging only part way.  But now I decided to pick up some more stones and continue the edging.  A small Japanese stone fountain will interrupt the line, like it is part of the edging.  I’ll complete this next week. When finished, the stone water basin will have a tiny drip line going into it so it will stay filled with fresh water for birds.  The new White Camellia will be espaliered over time by the gardener–a new gardener that understands plant material.  The variegated Abelia at its base will recover from its balled haircut and form a low umbrella-like edging.  The Preziosa Hydrangea beyond will grow taller and provide that red accent.

Small gardens–Reviving an entrance garden step by step Part 1

I thought I’d do a series of posts as I work to revive a tired garden in Sausalito.  Portions of this entrance I’d worked on over 10 years ago, but because the owner’s gardener had no idea had to do real maintenance, the garden had disintegrated into disrepair.  Portions of the design were still intact, much of the original plant material still useful, but a total rehaul was necessary.

A word to the wise:  I find the most common mistake is a homeowner who’s willing to pay between $20K and $100K to install a garden, yet they’re cheap on the maintenance.  Gardens are not kitchens–you don’t install them and then they stay exactly the same.  Gardens are alive, and a design slowly grows to maturity.  If your maintenance gardener doesn’t 1. have any idea how to care for specific plants i.e. water, fertilizers, 2.  know how a plant grows i.e. prunes everything into a ball and 3. has no artistic sensibility–then don’t hire them.  Spend the extra money on maintenance and your garden will grow into what the designer imagined.  In addition, my best gardens either have me come back every so often or hire my skilled and personally trained maintenance crew.

This entrance garden is a duplex.  I did the owners’ side a dozen years ago and left the tenants side alone.  Now I am re-designing both sides.  Redos are different than blank slate installations.  I usually consider the plant material I want with only an idea of where it will go, then I purchase my plants with the intention of them being like a painters’ palette.  Because there are existing plants that I can move around and reuse, I am ‘designing on the fly’.  So here’s how you can do this at home.  Here are the before photos.

This is the tenants side which hasn’t been touched in years.  Spider plants dominate (they are really an indoor plant and very invasive in warmer climates such as here).  The top photo has some plants in pots, a tired Nandina that will be removed, and two Podocarpus side by side.  We’ll remove one of them and leave the other to frame the doorway.  In the second photo you can see there is a deep well behind the planting bed where the foundation of the house is visible.  That needs to be covered and used as a backdrop for the planted material in the beds.  These are very small beds and, since they are in an entranceway, they can take detail plant material and focal points.

Not easily visible here, there is an old ornamental pear on the other side of this gate.  We’ll remove that.  Once removed there will be additional light, and also the ugly backdrop disappears.  Sky is better than old tree limbs that are dying.Here’s another view of the well behind the spider plants.  We will clean up down below.  There are two different kinds of trees.  The one on the right is a Maytens.  It is stunted, not correctly pruned, and doesn’t fit the space.  The one on the left is an ornamental Evergreen Pear.  Allowed to grow up and correctly pruned, this fits our Japanese look better.  I’ll plant this area with the intention of removing the Maytens as soon as the new plant cover grows up.  Not visible is a very large Monterey Pine and a Live Oak.  These provide a canopy of dappled shade for our new plants.

As you can see by the above view, its crowded.  Your eye doesn’t know where to go, so everything just becomes a ‘mush’.  We’ll create an intimate and more focused space, with more ‘room’ in between the plant material.

This is the owners side that I worked on a dozen years ago.  A large existing tree used to be in the corner behind the fern.  That was taken out several years ago by the owner.  The variegated Pittosporums I installed were never pruned and are now too large and leggy.  We’ll have to remove them completely now.  Much of the finer ground cover like the Luzula aurea in the foreground has been allowed to take over, and the Rhododendrons were not properly pruned and are now large and leggy.  We’ll discard some of the material and use others.

My first consideration in choosing plant material is texture and color of leaf.  In a shady garden, there won’t be a lot of color in the blooms, so I’m going to make choices in leaf color.  I have learned not to mix yellow and white variegation, so choose one or the other.  I’m going to go for white here, with red in places to pop things out.

In looking at the last photo of the owners side, I want to place something at the very end to pop things out, so I chose a Sangu Kaku Japanese Maple, or Coral Bark Maple.  This maple has a red bark year round and is highly attractive in leaf.  But in order to see the maple, I’m going to have to move that large tree fern.  I know this, but haven’t yet figured out where it will go.  That will happen on site, during the design process.

On the tenants’ side, I’ll remove all the plants, except the white flowering Azalea and one of the Podocarpus’.  Since this is a contained bed, here’s our chance to totally revamp the soil.  We’ll remove up to 8″ of soil and replace it with a good Rhododendron/acid mix.  In addition, if you notice in photo 1, the tenant’s side of the fence has a very small bed, much smaller than the owners’ side.  The soil is rocky there with a lot of roots from trees.  We’ll give ourselves extra room by shoring up the bed with some Japanese looking basalt ‘bricks’.

I chose a palette of Daphnes, variegate Pieris, ‘Icee Blue’ Podocarpus, Ophiopogons, Rhodies, red leafed Kurume azaleas, Preziosa Hydrangea (they have red leaves), variegated Abelia, variegated Vinca minor, some Rubus, purple-leafed Oaxalis, Japanese painted ferns and native Blechnum spicant ferns.

In my next post I will show you the installation in progress.

California natives part 2- Ribes sp.

One of my favorite native flowering three season plant is Ribes or Gooseberry.  You may have read my post on White Blister Rust on our native white bark pines.  Ribes are a host for this European fungus.  Large scale attempts to eradicate western Ribes sp. in the early 20th century was the method of control, but luckily it failed.

Ribes sp. are very beautiful and diverse.  In general the berries are edible, although some species are better tasting than others.  Gooseberry fruits were extensively used by Native Americans.

There are three species of Ribes native to California that I use all the time.  The first is Ribes sanguineum.  There are many varieties out on the market, with colors ranging fro white to pink to red.  R. sanguineum needs a bit of water in the summer and does better in either a cool sunny location or, in hot areas, a little shade in the hottest time of the day.  Flowers in the spring, berries in the fall that the birds love, and beautiful fall color makes this plant have 3 season interest.  A shrub, it grows anywhere from 6′ to 10′, depending usually on the amount of water and the site.  Prune it after flowering.

When correctly sited, this plant is very tough and easy to grow.  One of my favorites in the garden.

Another Ribes rarely used is Ribes speciosum.  This unusual California native flowers in the dead of winter and goes dormant (leafless) in the summer, making it perfect for planting under oaks.  It likes shade or cool sun.  You can keep it green all year by watering it in the summer, but why bother.  One note is that it does have thorns so keep it away from walkways.  Many of my clients say this is one of their favorite plants because it flowers in the winter when there is little color.

Lastly is a Ribes that forms colonies and blooms yellow.

Ribes aureum is from the foothills of California.  It tends to sucker and form thickets, when happy.  It does best in shade with moderate water in the summer.

There are several other more obscure Ribes on the market, but these three are my favorites and all are reliable and attractive.  These are very easy native additions to your dry garden.

California natives. Part 1 Aesculus california, California Buckeye

Since I’m in Northern California for a few months, I thought I’d do a few posts on some of my favorite, most useful, and underused natives for the garden.

First, the debate about ‘What is a Native?’

I was asked to be in a garden tour a few years back centering around California natives.  The organizer asked me what natives were in my featured garden.  When I mentioned Prunus lyonii, Catalina Cherry, a shrub native to the Catalina Islands, she said “That’s not a native…to this area!”

True, it’s a native to the Catalina Islands off the coast of Southern California, but not to the bay area of northern California.  So where do we draw the line?  Is it the northern coast line, or the dry climate of the Western United States and those ‘natives’ that will grow in our climate zone?

Frankly, I feel that as long as the plant isn’t an invasive, it adapts to your Sunset zone, it doesn’t need additional water once established, and it is ‘native’ to the Western United States, it can be called a native.

The other misnomer is that all natives are drought tolerant.  California has a wide variety of climates, from Redwood forests receiving the equivalent of 100-150″ of rainfall a year in the form of fog drip, to deserts that receive less than a few inches.  When people say to me “I don’t want to water so plant natives”, they clearly don’t understand the diversity of natives we have.  Many of our natives need additional water, so choose carefully.

If I’m asked to design a drought tolerant yard, I use a mix of California natives and other Mediterraneans.  By definition, there are only five areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate, that is, mild wet winters and dry summers.  They are parts of Australia, Chile, South Africa, California and the Mediterranean.  On a world map it’s a very small area,  but there’s a wide diversity of plant material to choose from.  When sited and chosen properly, all these plants will mix happily together and require similar watering conditions.  In fact, since our deer eat natives (deer are taught what to eat by their mothers), growing plants from other Mediterranean zones many times escape being eaten.

With that introduction, my first underused plant in the series is the wonderful California Buckeye. 

Its a common sight here in the Bay Area.  It has a drought strategy of being the first tree to leaf out in the winter, and the first to loose its leaves, sometime around mid summer (August).  The long panicles of flowers are a sight, ranging in color from white to pinkish.  After its leaves fall, the large fruits hang on the tree ornamentally.

Here is the wonderful thing about the Buckeye:  with some water, the leaves can stay on till October.  At the Berkeley Botanic Native Garden, there’s a Buckeye planted in a lawn.  The tree keeps its leaves through fall and is one of the very few drought tolerant natives that responds well to watering; therefore you can mix it with your other plants with only more benefits.

This incredibly adaptable native is almost never used in garden designs.  It should be used more and will adapt to any of our changing water needs.  If you plant it in a lawn now, then change your mind about the lawn in years to come, the Buckeye will do just fine either way.

New ideas for lawn Part 2: Carex pansa, Carex texensis

As promised, here is the second of the two part series on meadow making in California.

The first of the entries covered fescue as a lawn substitute.  But I have come to prefer Carex pansa.

Carex pansa is a native sedge.  Sedges have edges, so to speak, while grasses don’t.  It is a clumper, like all the native grasses of the West, and spreads very nicely.  Once established, it requires watering only about every 3 weeks or more, depending on your site, and mowing no more than 4 times a year!  I do have clients that keep it very ‘lawn-like’ and mow it ever two weeks, but since it only grows 6″ high, that isn’t necessary.

Dry Gardening lawn

Carex pansa front yard lawn

Carex pansa can tolerate traffic.  I have clients with kids who play on the lawn.  But it isn’t for intensive traffic.

The planting/preparation method is simple.  Prepare your bed as if you were going to plant a conventional lawn, in other words, good soil, lots of compost, rake out the clods, bed should be to finished height.  I always install a conventional irrigation system–better safe than sorry and its so much easier for the homeowner.  In the beginning you will need to water the plugs till established and the first summer while filling in, water a few times a week.  So a watering system on a timer is essential.  This means the pvc should be installed prior to planting.  The sprinkler heads can be installed and then adjusted to correct height once the Carex is in.

Dry gardening lawn

Carex pansa in a large backyard situation

Carex pansa needs a good edging as it will spread beyond your beds without one.  Its not a weed nor really invasive, but, like grass, it will grow outside its borders if given water and good soil.  Depending on your design, you might even want to pour a concrete edging.

Carex pansa is great for full sun and its evergreen.  But if you have a shadier spot, I put in Carex texensis.  You can mix the two in a lawn if you have sun and shade, but the Carex texensis is deciduous.  On the other hand, I’ve had some tough spots where its too shady for a lawn and the C. texensis is a life saver.

C. Texensis under tree.  Can be deciduous but was not here in the Bay Area.  Good for dry shade

C. Texansis under tree. Can be deciduous but was not here in the Bay Area. Good for dry shade

For a full discussion on soil preparation, spacing, watering schedule, mowing,and where to order plugs, see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.

New ideas for lawns: Part 1 – Meadow-making with Red Fescue

Lawn replacements are hot!  We live in the West–a thirsty environment, so let’s adapt our plant material to our water and not the other way around.


An example of a natural bunch grass meadow--nature's perfection

An example of a natural bunch grass meadow--nature's perfection


Here is one recipe for making a meadow.  I no longer use Festuca rubra or Red Fescue as a lawn substitute in California.  I am now using, exclusively, a native Carex or sedge, which I’ll describe in Part 2, coming later.


High altitude meadow

Meadow at 9000 feet with wildflowers


As a side note, my native grass mix  that I put together here in Wyoming is coming up very nicely.  I ordered a mix of Blue Bunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum), Koeleria cristata, and Festuca–all natives to this area.  In early June, after I graded my new dirt road, I scattered the seed, raked it in, then watered it heavily for several days.  It rained every afternoon for several weeks and the new seed came up.  It’s still green and establishing nicely, and I haven’t watered it at all (now mid-July).  When the afternoon thunderstorms slow down, the grass might go dormant, then be covered with snow, but it will come up again thickly in the spring, and hold my steep road together.


Meadow of bunchgrasses and sage

Meadow of bunchgrasses and sage


Making a native lawn or meadow requires ridding the area of non-native weeds and annual grasses.  The Wests’ native grasses are bunch grasses.  Bunch grasses give to the soil, while European annuals taketh away from the soil.  But since the annuals reseed profusely and our perennial bunch grasses take more time to establish, the annuals overwhelm the natives.  That is why this is the ONLY situation in which I use an herbicide.  Native grasses need a leg-up to establish.  I use Round-up because it breaks down fairly fast.  You may need to Round-up, water for 6 weeks, then Round-up again if you are overwhelmed with weeds.  If you don’t do this, then the natives can not get established and the ‘weeds’ will take over quickly.

Preparation of Seedbed

1. Remove weeds and non-native exotics.  This can be done by hand, preferably during winter months.  Well-established introduced exotics, e.g. broom can be cut at the base.  Apply Round-up to the woody stems.  Leaving the roots in the ground may prevent erosion until the new meadow is established.
2. If the meadow is on a steep slope (50% or more), lay down jute netting on the steepest slope sections prior to seeding.  Hold in place with irrigation pins.
3. Soil bed should be loose and friable.  If not, cultivate and add rich composted material to a depth of 2-3”, well mixed with existing soils, to a depth of 6” if possible.  If erosion control is an issue, or a leach field, you might not choose to cultivate as deep as 6”


1. The entire meadow area should be irrigated with pop-up spray heads that provide 100% coverage of the area to be seeded.  If this is not possible, the meadow must be seeded in the late fall/early winter and hand watered on a weekly basis for the first year.  Water regime can be adjusted based on weather, site conditions and seed germination rates.  Rely on winter rains when possible.


1.  Festuca rubra, Red Fescue, is recommended for sun or shade.  This is a rhizomatous grass.  Allow at least 3 years to establish a thick, fully covered meadow.  Seed the first year with 5# per acre (43,00 sq. ft.  @t 400,000 seeds/lb.  Use 2 oz/1000 sq. ft. or use 3.7 oz/1000 sq. ft.)  Seed the following years as needed to fill in sparse areas.  If you want wild flowers, seed these heavily as well, 2 1/2 pounds per acre.  The grass will crowd the wildflower seeds out in subsequent years if not managed.  Grass and wildflower seeding should be done separately.  Seed grass first, taking care not to seed as heavily in areas where wildflowers are desired.  Go back and seed wildflowers, preferably by species in drifts for maximum aesthetic impact.
2. Another meadow grass seed to consider is Festuca idahoensis.  Rubra and idahoensis can be mixed.  Nasella pulchra and Melica californica can also be mixed in.  Mix Nasella at the rate of 20 lbs./acre (7.4oz. /1000sq.ft.) and Melica at 10-30lb./acre (7.4oz/1000sq.ft.) with the festuca at 3.7oz/1000sq.ft.
3. Bunch grasses can also be used such as festuca occidentalis, and festuca californica.  These can be mixed with the rhizomatous grasses to add more stabilization to a slope.
4. Seeds or seedlings of shrubby plants and/or perennials that are native can be also added.  For example, Baccharis is excellent for erosion control, as well as Toyon, Rhamnus, Artemesia, Mimulus, Lupine, Garrya, etc.  They should be seeded separately, by species, after grass and wildflowers are seeded.
5. For seeding over large areas, hydro seeding of grasses and wildflowers is recommended and hand seeding of woody shrubs and perennials.  Limit your wildflower selection to 2 or 3 species when hydro seeding.

1. After seeding, apply 1-2” of fine mulch (forest mulch etc.).  Seed must make firm contact with the soil.  The best way to do this is either by using a roller, or laying plywood and walking over it to establish firm contact.  This can be done both before and after mulch is applied.


1. Irrigate immediately with a fine mist (15 minutes).  Water daily in the a.m. for 5 to 8 minutes until grass blades are visible or allow winter rains to force germination.  This must be monitored and additional water applied if rains are not forthcoming, and maximum germination is desired.  Fertilization is optional.
2. Observe closely for signs of germination.  Depending on time of year and weather, once germination is complete (6 to 8 months) reduce water to twice or three times a week for 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Pull any visible weeds, taking care not to remove wild flowers.  Don’t leave this job to a novice.  You will be sorry.
4. Continue to remove weeds, reseed in sparse areas and add more wildflower seeds in subsequent years.  Mark the areas where you newly seed.
5. This process should continue for the first 3 seasons.  Thereafter, your meadow will require little maintenance
6. Cut the meadow back 1 to 2 times per year.  If you want a green meadow 12 months a year, summer water is required.
7. Remember, meadow making is a process.  Be patient and enjoy the journey.

Part 2 will come soon.  Part two will describe using alternatives to fescues for meadow making.  I prefer these because they require very low water and do not need cutting at all.

Decomposed Granite Patios

I’ve done 100’s of decomposed granite patios and walkways in northern California and learned a few things as I went along. 

When I first began, the industry didn’t have a ‘hardener’ that you could add.  That made for a semi-successful installation, because in the winter your walkway was mushy at best.  With the advent of hardeners, the DG comes out quite nice, with minimal mush.

Get the DG pre-mixed with the hardener (some landscape outfits will deliver like this) or mix on your own in a wheelbarrow per the proportion instructions. 

Prepare a bed that’s about 5″ deep.  Use an attractive edging.  I am totally committed to Ryerson header, which is a thin hard steel that’s bendable.  That’s because it disappears.  It is expensive though, comes in 16′ lengths with its own stake.

The other plastic headers are ugly.  An alternative are the many colors and types of Trek, which is a recycled plastic material.  Use the 1/2″ wide size.  The advantage is that its more bendable than the steel, but it doesn’t disappear, so its part of your project design.

How to Build a Decomposed Granite Patio

Lay down several inches of road base and use a compacter to compact it very hard and tight.  Order enough DG to lay down 2″ on top, compacted.  Then here’s the secret:  apply the DG (with the hardener mixed in good) at the rate of 1/2″ at a time. 

Then compact.  If you apply too thickly, the stuff won’t harden well.  The DG has to be moist when putting it down, but not sloppy.  Compact 1/2″ at a time till you have your desired height.  Sprinkle with water.

Another method I’ve used quite successfully was told to me by the contractor at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco.  All their paths are done this way, and they get tons of traffic. 

For this method, DON’T use hardener.  Apply a good road base foundation of several inches, maybe 3 or 4″.  Then apply only 1/2″-3/4″ of compacted DG.  Essentially this is a dusting. 

You will have to reapply every few years depending on your traffic.  I used this method for a patio over 4 years ago and still have not reapplied.  I think this is a superior method because you completely eliminate any winter mushiness.  Even with a hardener there will be some mushiness.

Some warnings:  DO NOT try to apply a hardener after the fact.  I once went to a potential job where the gardener had installed a walkway, then put the hardener in after he was done. Oh my God!  What a mess.  The whole thing had to be removed and redone.

Decomposed granite path

Local fines used as Decomposed Granite

Closeup of local fines and 3 Rivers Paver inserted for effect

Closeup of local fines and 3 Rivers Paver inserted for effect

Next warning:-  Do not install DG directly  next to an indoor situation.  DG tracks.  It’s granite and granite gets on your shoes and gets in the house.  You need at least a few steps (not many) before you go inside. 

My son’s elementary school built a new gym for millions of dollars.  The landscape architect speced DG as the hardscape all around the gym.  That was a disaster.  All those kids tracked that DG into the new hardwood floor and ruined it!  They finally installed concrete as a spacer.

Decomposed Granite grey

Decomposed granite patios

Next, the materials.  Of course, every area is different.  DG in the Bay Area came in gray, gold, or dirt brown.  I’ve mixed them for different colors.  Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit. 

A new rock came out on the market from a local quarry that was cheaper (DG is expensive.  Last I looked it was around $80/yard!).  I was able to get ‘fines’ and used that successfully with the hardener for a coral color.

Anoter view of sunken DG patio

Decomposed Granite patio with edging

Decomposed granite ryerson header edging

Decomposed granite patio and ryerson header edging

For patios, (see my complete post on patios)I usually don’t like to have a visible drain, so I put the drain(s) on the outside in the shrub area.  The exceptions are like the previous post with the photo of the sunken patio.  Of course, I had no choice.  But really, always remember your drainage.

One neat new alternative to DG is permeable concrete.  Its more expensive than ordinary concrete, but it is nicer, much nicer, on the environment.  Its fairly new and my understanding is that a good powerwash in the spring opens the pores and keeps it permeable.

Permeable concrete

Permeable concrete

Permeable concrete closeup

Permeable concrete closeup

If you found this short entry useful, but need more information, click on this link for my full downloadable eBook on patios and walkways, priced at only $2.99.  I’ve collected hundreds of real-life questions from do-it-yourselfers and all those questions will be answered in this short pamphlet.

I’ve also included information on DG  pricing, colors, how to customize colors, and drainage.  If you are not sure if you should use DG or another material.

I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of concrete patios and their preparation, mortared flagstone, flagstone on sand vs. flagstone with DG, as well as how to prepare gravel paths and patios.

Chock full of information in just 46 pages with additional color photos.  If you like the eBook, please comment in the Amazon section.  I appreciate all my readers and thank you all very much.

Decomposed granite patios Getty museum LA

Calstone pavers

Calstone Pavers using Slate squares as the ‘edging’

Read More Information about Decomposed Granite Stabilizer