Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

Yes, We Do the Pinterest Thing

trellis

What do I use Pinterest for? To gather design ideas for home and garden. I just built this trellis to grow vegetables vertically. It’s part of a plan I have to deck over an ugly concrete patio. The inspiration for the trellis came in part from an image I pinned off the interwebs:

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Not having a natural design sense, I gather images and synthesize them to come up with plans I can build. Google image search and Pinterest are great inspirational tools.

But I have not made good use of Pinterest’s social features. Towards that end, follow us on Pintrest and we’ll follow back. Let’s exchange ideas!

Straw Bale Garden Update: Success!

straw bale garden

Ladies and gentleman, straw bale gardening works. I left town for a week earlier this month and, during my absence, the vegetables in the straw bale garden exploded in size. The Tromboncino squash on the left, is threatening to envelop the entire yard.  The tomatoes are equally vigorous and covered in ripening fruit.

straw bale garden zucchini

Zucchini is on the menu.

While it takes an input of outside resources in the form of straw and fertilizer, straw bale gardening is a great solution for beginning gardeners or for those cursed with bad soil. And the skunks that have decimated my previous vegetable gardens are unable to get up on the bales.

I’m considering trying another straw bale garden during our winter season. And I’m also pondering building boxes to put the bales in to make the garden look a bit neater.

Compare the straw bale garden to the depleted raised beds in our front yard:

depleted vegetable bed

I’ve talked to a lot of people about straw bale gardens since we started ours. Some things I’ve heard from other gardeners:

  • Some straw bales may be contaminated with herbicides. Do a bioassay before planting. Here’s some instructions (scroll down to the end of the article).
  • One gardener I met did not know that the bales need to be prepared by adding nitrogen–you can’t just plant straight in the bales.
  • Once the bales have been prepared you need to add fertilizer periodically. I’ve been adding fish emulsion every two weeks.

How is your straw bale garden?

And thanks again to Michael Tortorello whose article “Grasping at Straw” inspired us to try straw bale gardening.

Pierce Disease Resistant Grape Vines for Southern California

Pearl River Grape

Pearl River Grape–slightly critter chewed, but still tasty.

At the risk of counting our chickens before they’ve hatched, I think we finally have grape vines that are immune to Pierce’s disease. Pierce’s disease is a fatal condition spread by sucking (and sucky) insects known as sharpshooters. Once a vine get it there is no cure. Pierce’s is why your glass of California wine may one day be genetically modified.

Over the years we’ve lost too many vines to Pierce’s to count, so I’m relieved to say that the ones we have seem to be immune or at least very resistant to Pierce’s and are now producing fruit.

LA County’s plant pathologist spent a half hour on the phone with me a few years ago telling me about how Pierce’s disease works. He told me not to even think about planting a vine in Southern California that is not immune to Pierce’s. After so many failures I decided to follow his advice. Here’s the vines we ended up with:

Vitus Californica
This monster has completely covered an ugly chain link fence. One of my garden duties at this time of year is beating it back, otherwise it would swallow our house and the neighbor’s. For some reason it has never produced any fruit (I think it may be male). From the Las Pilitas Nursery website:

California grape is a deciduous vine to 30′. If this grape has no support it will make a nice groundcover and can cover a large greenhouse in 4-5 years. It has clusters of small edible grapes. Bees love flowers. It grows along streams and in seeps throughout much of central and northern Ca. We’ve seen it in the Sacramento River bed, along the Sierra foothills and on I-5 at the Grapevine. It has done fine here and in coastal gardens. It likes regular moisture but not to be wet and full sun or a way for it to get to full sun.
Vitis californica tolerates sand, clay and seasonal flooding.

Vitus Californica ‘Roger’s Red’
We picked up this vine from the Theodore Payne Nursery to cover the arbor in our backyard. Roger’s Red puts on a showy display of red leaves every fall. And it has produced abundant fruit this year. One source I found noted that this vine is “highly resistant” to Pierce’s. From the Theodore Payne website:

Jerry Dangl at U.C. Davis has recently conducted DNA analysis of Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ and has determined that it is a first generation hybrid (F1) between the native V. californica and a wine grape (Vitis vinifera) cultivar known as ‘Alicante Bouschet’. This grape, ‘Alicante Bouchet’, is unusual in that it has both red skin and red flesh – most red grapes and red wine gets its color from the skin only.

Pearl River
This mysterious vine came from the equally mysterious Papaya Tree Nursery. The talkative and knowledgeable owner of Papaya Tree said that this vine is immune to Pierce Disease, and it appears that he is correct. We’ve had it for several years now and there are no signs of disease. We got our first delicious grapes from this vine this year. From the Papaya Tree Nursery website:

‘Pearl River’ is a very vigorous producer of first quality grapes that reach up to 24% Brix(Sugar). They are seeded but the flavor and aroma is so strong that most prefer it to seedless varieties. A unique advantage the ‘Pearl River’ grape has over most other varieties is it’s immunity against Pierce disease . . . Although technically classified as a table grape, top quality award winning specialty wines have been made with this variety.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you live in sharpshooter country (warm parts of the US and Northern Mexico) consult your local extension service and find a list of Pierce Disease immune varieties that will work for your area.

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

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The artist Sandow Birk once did a show depicting a fictitious war between Northern and Southern California. If that war were to be fought by plant nurseries, the forces of Northern California would have us, down here in the Southland, badly beat. There’s a few good native plant nurseries here, but that’s about it. There’s nothing quite as spectacular as Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, located in Richmond on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay.

Entrance display. Photo: Annie's Annuals and Perennials.

Entrance display at Annie’s. Photo: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials.

Annie’s was one of the stops on the Garden Blogger’s Fling, where we got to hear Annie Hayes herself talk about her business. She noted that most retail nurseries get their stock from distant, centralized wholesale nurseries. An outbreak of late blight disease in tomatoes back in 2009 demonstrates that centralized nurseries are a great way to spread plant diseases over wide areas.

Annie’s specializes in riotous color. Many of the spectacular gardens we visited on the Fling sourced their plants from Annie’s. And in addition to unusual and rare ornamental plants, Annie’s has a great selection of edibles. It’s first time I’ve ever seen Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) outside of a book.

I had to keep a tight grip on my credit card to prevent myself from buying plants I had no way of getting home on my bike. The good news is that Annie’s does mail order. And she’s got a bunch of tutorial videos covering topics such as container planting and plant combinations. As we begin version 4.0 of our back yard garden, I have a feeling we’ll be ordering plants from Annie’s.

Disclosure: we’re always happy to write about businesses we like and support. We did not get any compensation or free items from Annie’s.