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.

Picture Sundays: Toyon in Bloom

Our young Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) had its first bloom this year. What’s so great about Toyon?

Get one for your food forest! 

Salvia Means Salvation: White Sage

Salvia apiana, photo by Stan Shebs

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Today I was lucky enough to be able to take part one of a two part class taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, Jr., authors of Healing with Western Plants at the Theodore Payne Foundation. I’ve blogged about their book before, and was thrilled to be able to see them in person.

Cecilia is a Chumash healer. James is a professor of pharmacology and a botanist. In both the book and in person they do a wonderful tag-team act, delivering both the Chumash message and the Western scientific take on various plants. Not that they’re doing a Scully and Mulder. James is very taken with the gentleness and efficacy of these plants and repeatedly said he wished western medicine would reconsider their value.

I thought I’d give you a taste of today’s lessons by telling you a bit of what I learned about white sage, Salivia apiana, we’wey (waykway) in Chumash. The most fragrant and beautiful of all Salvias.

Flower of Salvia apiana, photo by Stan Shebs

White sage is a native Californian plant which is grown in many places, as long as it can grown in dry conditions (overwatering will kill it quick) and the winter temps aren’t too cold. See Plants for a Future Database for details. It has beautiful soft silvery foliage and white to pale purple flowers that bees adore. We’ve got two planted and are looking forward to having our own homegrown supply. After today, I want to find a place for another plant.

Even if you think you don’t know this plant, you do. This is the stuff that New Age types like to burn in their smudge sticks–because it smells good, and has a sort of fuzzy reputation as being sacred or protective or cleansing. This, unfortunately, has led to over-harvesting in the wild to meet the demand. Cecilia had a long, funny rant about smudge sticks. Suffice it to say she does not like them, because, at very least, they are wasteful. They’ve been getting larger and larger, as if bigger = more mojo. All a big smudge stick does is keep more precious white sage leaves unavailable for any purpose other than burning.

She said that if you felt the need for the smoke, you should burn a single leaf, and pray while you do it. She said that white sage should never be burned thoughtlessly, like incense, because it is their most sacred plant.

A better use for white sage is in your water bottle. 

Cecilia recommended that we (the class, aka people with interest in plant healing) drop a single white sage leaf (dry or fresh) into our water bottles and so drink a bit of its essence every day. She uses does this herself and takes it further, keeping a leaf in the 1 gallon bottles she uses for cooking, as well as in her water bottle, so she is ingesting a tiny bit of her most sacred plant on a daily basis.

Why? To keep you calm, to repair your soul.  As she says in the book:

It is our everyday plant. It is a spirit plant. If you don’t have it, everything is going to bother you. You drink it by putting a leaf in cool water every day. You are going to be calm enough to be rational. It will enhance any medicine you take and protect you from the toxicity of medicines. It tickles your spirit, your conscience, and helps you keep your integrity. If you drink it every day, you won’t’ get as many colds.

 Does it work? Well, I’m willing to try it, because I love sages and have a deep affinity for them, and trust my experience with garden sage and colds enough to believe in the medicinal qualities of any Salvia. I’ve been sipping my sage enhanced water bottle all day.  Don’t know if it’s making me calmer, but it does lend a pleasant taste to the water.

As to the mental/spiritual effects, I cannot speak with any authority. James does note that it contains a compound called miltirone which may act like Valium to relieve anxiety. My purpose here is not to convince skeptics, nor to get all “woo-woo” on you, but to present traditional wisdom as it has been told to me.

White sage has a multitude of medicinal uses*, which you can read about in their book, or elsewhere. But I will share with you is Cecilia’s advice on using it as a hot tea, as her instructions were quite specific. White sage is very powerful, so if you wish to brew a hot cup of tea to address a cold or other illness, you should prepare it this way:

Put one leaf in one cup of cold water. Bring the water (and the leaf) to a gentle simmer.

• Do not let it reach a full boil.
• Do not sweeten the tea with anything.
• Only drink this tea at night, before bed, never during the day.
• Do not drink more than one cup a night.

Oh, one last note of interest. She firmly believes that essential oil of white sage is dangerous and discourages its use strongly–not only for internal use, but external use as well, even mixed into massage oil. This is holds for any of the native plants. They are powerful on their own–their properties do not need to be consolidated. As she and James say, for her, the standard dosage is 1 leaf per day. Think about how essential oil is made: a huge armload of foliage (or more) will yield a teeny tiny bottle of oil. Each drop of that stuff equals god knows how many leaves. She made this point many times during the class, so I’m passing it on.

—-

* ETA: After some comments have come in, I’m thinking I should clarify something here. Salvia apiana is very powerful stuff. Many sources say it should not be used medicinally. Obviously the Chumash disagree. But you can see from the very strict guidelines around the tea recipe that Cecilia takes its strength seriously.

All salvias have medicinal qualities. Plain old culinary sage can make fantastic medicine and is much safer to play with, especially if you’re just starting out with herbs. If you have access to white sage, I’d encourage you to try the white sage leaf in the water bottle–just to experience where that sort of relationship with a plant might lead you. But for other purposes I’d recommend you stick to culinary sage, unless you’ve studied this plant, maybe have Cecilia and James’ book, and are clear on what you’re doing.

Here’s a quick overview of the medicinal properties of regular sage from herbalist Susun Weed: http://www.susunweed.com/Article_Sage-the-Savior.htm

A Bustle In Your Hedgerow: California Natives for your Vegetable Garden

Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) photo by Art Shapiro

I’ve always been suspicious of some of the popular companion planting advice of the sort dispensed in old books like Carrots Love Tomatoes. From what I understand research just hasn’t proven a lot of the relationships these sorts of books tout. What makes intuitive sense to me, however, is that biodiversity in in a garden can create habitat for beneficial insects and birds that can help keep our edibles free of pests. For thousands of years in Northern Europe that biodiversity was maintained through the use of hedgerows.

Now, thanks to a study conducted by UC Santa Cruz researchers Tara Pisani Gareau and Carol Shennan, we’ve got some solid advice on what sorts of plants can create habitat for beneficials. The study, “Can Hedgerows Attract Beneficial Insects and Improve Pest Control? A Study of Hedgerows on Central Coast Farms” looks at a set of specific plants used in hedgerows in California: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), California lilac (Ceanothus griseus and C. ‘Ray Hartman’), perennial buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), and coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica).

In their conclusion Gareau and Shennan note,

Planting a diversity of plants that have different floral architectures should increase the likelihood of conserving a diverse community of insect natural enemies. Coyote brush and yarrow would be especially important foundational plants in hedgerows. In addition . . . combining hedgerows with in-field floral plantings (in strips or randomly throughout) may increase the dispersal of small-bodied insect natural enemies through the fields.

Scott Kleinrock, who is in charge of the new Ranch project at the Huntington, tipped me off to this research and is making use of a lot of California natives to create the urban residential equivalent of a hedgerow. In short, a hedgerow in our yards and urban spaces means making sure to include lots of natives and flowering plants that can provide habitat for the types of critters we want. Hopefully this important research will be duplicated in other regions and climates with different sets of plants.

Now, I’ve got to get me some Baccharis pilularis!

ETA: Apologies for being California-centric here, but we don’t know of any research studies on native plant hedgerows in other places. However, be sure to check out this Mother Earth News article about living fences, which we’ve posted about before.

ETA 2: From our comments: check out the region-specific guidelines for plants which support pollinating insects, put together by the good folks at the Xerces Society.

Native Plant Workshop

Vitus californica covering our ugly chain link fence

There’s a couple of common misconceptions amongst novice gardeners about native plants:

1. If you use native plants the whole garden has to be natives.
In fact, it’s great to mix natives with non-native plants. The natives bring in beneficial wildlife, are hardy and are efficient in terms of water use. Flexibility is key here–go ahead and mix natives with vegetables, fruit trees and other climate-appropriate plantings.

2. Natives aren’t edible.
Many natives yield edible and medicinal crops. In North America the best way to delve into this topic is to figure out the plants that Native Americans in your area used.

3. Southern California is a desert and native plants are desert plants.
Coastal Southern California has a Mediterranean climate not a desert climate and native plants adapted to this region do not look like desert plants. Coastal natives can be very lush and attractive.

Note: the workshop listed below has been postponed due to rain. See the Green Beacon Foundation website for more information.

In order to dispel these myths and offer practical advice, a new non-profit organization, the Green Beacon Foundation is hosting a native plant talk and demonstration conducted by Lisa Novick of the Theodore Payne Foundation. Theodore Payne is a great resource for finding native plants and seeds and, in Southern California, now is the time to get those natives in the ground. Here’s the 411 on the workshop:

“The Green Beacon Foundation (GBF) located in historic Elysian Heights serves as a community resource for the public to have tactile experiences of “going green,” through on-going workshops, lectures, and tours.

The Green Beacon Foundation is hosting Lisa Novick of the Theodore Payne Foundation who will present the lecture entitled, “Why Plant Natives?”on Saturday, February 7th. at 2pm. If you have always wanted to learn more about California Native plants and how to incorporate them into your garden, this is the event you’ve been waiting for!

Native plants not only save water, they save species. Learn about crucial native plant-animal relationships and gardening to attract birds, butterflies and hummingbirds.

With only 4% of our wild lands left, urban and suburban native plant gardens will be the “make or break” difference to the support and preservation of bio-diversity.

Lisa will show and tell you about several varieties of native plants as well as provide samples for sale.

Immediately after the lecture in the garden we will be conducting a tour of the house to show and tell you about green products and renovation processes that will help save money while caring for the earth.

Suggested donation for the lecture and the tour: $10 each

Please RSVP for address to Julie Solomon:

[email protected]

or call 323.717.9636″