087 Foraging Controversy with Lisa Novick

goldfinches

Goldfinches on Hooker’s Evening Primrose. Photo: Lisa Novick.

On the podcast this week we talk to Lisa Novick Director of Outreach and K-12 Education of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants. We contacted her after seeing her blog in the Huffington Post, Forage in the Garden, Not in What’s Left of the Wild. In that post Lisa expresses her concern about foraging and suggests that people grow native plants in their yards and in public spaces. While our conversation is California-centric, I think, the principles we discuss apply to other regions. During the podcast Lisa mentions:

Hooker's Evening Primrose in bloom. Photo: Lisa Novick.

Hooker’s Evening Primrose in bloom. Photo: Lisa Novick.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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The Manzanita Miracle, or, why you should love native plants if you live in a dry climate

manzanita forest

A beautiful stand of big old manzanitas, photo taken last March after an alarmingly dry winter. They don’t need your water, thank you very much.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a class called Watershed Wise Landscape Training, taught by the fantastic Pamela Berstler of G3 (Green Gardens Group), hosted in the lovely TreePeople facility, and offered at a low price thanks to the LADWP. For two days I had my mind blown with water math and plant facts, and I wanted to share this story with you. I call it the Manzanita Miracle.

We learned how to calculate how much water plants need, and how often you need to water them. It’s not easy–but it is possible. This really is like the holy grail to a gardener who has been guessing about watering all her life.

For practice, we ran the calculations for a manzanita. Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) are handsome native California plants–native to the West in general– known especially for their glossy red bark and twisting limbs. They appear as both ground cover and shrubs, and some of the happier shrubs can get big enough to resemble small trees.

As a class we ran the calculations needed to figure out how much water a particular manzanita would need in a particular place. These calculations are never general–they are always very specific to plant, soil and place. I’m not going to go through the math here—for this post specifics of the calculations are not as important here as the results.

The manzanita in question was a three year old plant with a 36″ root depth. Root depth is not guessed, but measured by using a soil probe. Manzanitas are categorized a low water use plants. The location was in Los Angeles, and the soil type was a sandy clay.

Using this information, we were able to calculate how much water the soil held, and how much the plant used daily, leading us to figure out how long this particular plant can go between waterings–safely. Not pushing it to the edge of death, you understand, just calculating its normal water needs. This figure is called the “irrigation interval” and the answer was 225 days.

Let me repeat that. This particular plant expects to go 225 consecutive days without water every year, and can do so without stress.

And this number is just based on the evapotranspiration rate of the plant. It doesn’t account for healthy soil biology. A thriving population of fungi and bacteria around the plant’s root zone might make it even more resilient–that is, able to last longer without water.

But anyway, 225 days translates to about 7 months between waterings–which just so happens to be a reflection of our annual dry season in Southern California.

And when that watering deadline rolls around, how much water does this particular manzanita need to recharge its water reserves?

4 inches.

Even in our desperate drought, we’re getting that much rain annually.

The moral here is that nature has provided us with everything we need. We have beautiful native plants which can thrive with no supplemental water whatsoever, even in drought, provided we plant them correctly, and treat them well. (That last part is actually a huge caveat, since we don’t do either very often.)

Here in Los Angeles we seem to be trapped between two competing and unhealthy ideologies. One is “You’ll pry my lawn out of my cold dead hands” and the other is “Los Angeles is a desert, so I’m planting cactus.”

Neither is appropriate. In Los Angeles, a lawn needs about 50 inches of water a year to stay green–and it usually gets twice that much–up to 100 inches. Compare that to manzanita’s 4 inches.

Cactus doesn’t need much water, true, but we are not a desert–yet. We are in the process of desertification, yes, which is not a good thing. At the end of this road, we don’t end up in a dreamy Georgia O’Keefe style desert, we just end up in a hot, polluted city surrounded by a dead landscape. Gravel and cactus landscapes simply hurry this process along, because they don’t cool the city, and they don’t build soil which can capture and hold water.

We need to settle down in a comfortable in-between spot. This is not Ireland and this is not Sonora. This is Southern California and we have a whole palette of amazing, largely misunderstood plants which are ready willing and able to green this place up even in the heart of a drought.

All we have to do is treat these plants right. Native plants have a reputation for being tricky, and it’s true, in that they don’t act like typical imported landscape plants–the lawns and the boxwood hedges. They don’t need even a fraction of the water as exotics do, so they are almost always overwatered, and die as a result.

I think it is hard for us to even imagine that plants can be so profoundly unthirsty, because we are so accustomed to babying along lawns and other needy plants. We might water our hypothetical manzanitas every two to three weeks, thinking that is what “low water use plant” means. The math shows us how wrong that is–and why manzanitas often die in home landscapes.

Imagine a yard which doesn’t need water at all, even in a drought year. Imagine yourself, free from the chore of watering, free to just not worry about it, because the plants are taking care of themselves. Wouldn’t that make it worth the trouble to learn how to host native plants?

225 days.

Decomposed Granite as Mulch: A very bad idea

Decomposed Granite

There’s a well defined architectural vocabulary house flippers use in our neighborhood. Flippers buy a crumbling 1920s bungalow, paint the front door orange, add a horizontal fence, redo the interior in a Home Depot meets Dwell Magazine style and then turn around and sell it for a million bucks.

When house flippers tackle a yard they tend towards the “low-maintenance” landscape (in quotes because there’s no such thing as a low-maintenance garden). One of the favorite tools in the flipper landscaping toolbox is decomposed granite (DG) used as a mulch. Put some plastic landscape fabric down (blocks rainwater in our climate, fyi) and top that plastic with DG. They then punch some holes in the DG/plastic and pop in succulents and maybe a rosemary bush or two. By the time the yard becomes a sad, desertified tangle of unhappy succulents and crabgrass, the flippers are long gone.

I’ve got a big issue with DG as mulch. In order for DG to look good, it’s got to be compacted and soil compaction is really bad for plants, including hardy natives and succulents. It stifles the life of the soil, and does not build new soil. And eventually, the plastic will fail, and the weeds will come through (some come through even when the plastic is new), and whoever is left holding the bag a couple of years down the road will be pulling decaying bits of plastic out of their garden for evermore.

What’s a better approach? Wood chips. Pile it on thick. Skip the plastic liner. Eventually your new plantings will cover any bare areas if you space them correctly. It looks good,  and the mulch breaks down and turns into soil. You will still need to weed but that’s called gardening. Save the DG for walkways. Or use mulch on your walkways too. Mulch is free or low cost. Just ask your local arborist to drop off a load.

White Sage and Bees and our other sage friends

bee in sage

One of my favorite plants in the garden (I’ve posted about it before) is in bloom right now: the white sage, Salvia apianaSalvia apiana means “bee sage” and boy howdy did they get that one right. This sage puts up tall spikes covered with small white flowers that bees can’t resist. Unfortunately, our white sage is situated right by the garden path. So these days, every time I go into the garden I have to squeeze past the leaning spires, praying I won’t be stung, because the plant is thick with bees. Covered. It hums.

Now, these workers are so busy that they don’t have time to be aggressive. For instance, they let me stand around taking blurry pictures of them working, until I got the one above. But stings happen by unfortunate mischance in crowded conditions. I suppose I could cut back the spikes, but whom am I to interrupt this passionate sage & bee love affair?

Besides, it’s really pretty. The spikes are about six feet high, but delicate, like fairy lances.

white sage spires

Here is a pic of the white sage as seen from our back door. I decided to leave in the wheelbarrow and some buckets of who knows what, and The Germinator ™ for scale.  Right now this salvia is the star of the garden.

white sage off our patio

All the sages are blooming now, actually.  The ability to fill the yard with huge, wildly fragrant sages is, to my mind, one of the principle inducements toward living in Southern California. I enjoy the aromatics of our Mediterranean and native chaparral plants as much as the bees do. Here’s what we’ve got going right now–and I think I’m going to add more this fall.

Below is our native black sage, Salvia mellifera, just coming into flower. The bees like this sage, too. (They like all sages). This one arranges its flowers in little sipping cups for them. It has dark green leaves, which is less common than greyish foliage in the native sages. It brings reliable dark green foliage into the garden, and the foliage is powerfully fragrant. If you want to mellow out or soothe sore muscles, you could try throwing a a branch of this in the bath.

black sage blossom

Our other native sage, Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandi, lives a harsh existence out in the front of our house, occupying a formerly barren strip of sun baked clay above the black roof of our subterranean garage. The heat out there has moved its time clock along at a faster pace than the mellifera in the shady back yard. The blossoms are almost spent on the Cleveland. I’m not sure what else could live in that spot, except for prickly pear, so I’m very happy it’s been so sporting about growing there. And of course, bees like it.

sage garage

We also have an expanding patch of clary sage, Salvia sclarea in our back yard. This sage is native to the Mediterranean. I planted this one on a whim, to fill a temporarily empty spot, but since then it has spread and really established itself as a player in the garden and now I find I’m just going to have to keep it and work around it. Most of the year clary sage is about knee high, with big, thick, fuzzy green leaves. But in the spring it sends up flower spikes to compete with the Salvia apiana. They are really gorgeous.

clary sage flower

The flowers are structured like the white sage flowers, but bigger. This particular shape seems to make bees giddy with happiness.

clary sage leaf

Above are the big fuzzy leaves and a flower that has yet to open. And below is the shape of the flower spikes. The spikes stand chest high, but like to fall over, like this one:

clary sage

Clary sage has medicinal uses, but I’ve not tried it for anything myself. I’ve also heard you can make fritters of the leaves….which is interesting. Of course, I’d eat just about anything if it was made into a fritter.

And last but not least is my culinary sage, tucked in with some thyme and mint, and beleaguered by the nasturtium. It’s not flashy, but its strong and knows what it’s about. It’s also indispensable in the bean pot.

culinary sage

Do you have a favorite sage? Do you have any recommendations for my next round of planting? I’m thinking about adding at least two more to the grounds of our estate.

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