Thankful for the New Rain Garden

One day during a high school English class, here in Southern California where I grew up, it started raining. The entire class spontaneously got up and ran to the window to view the downpour. Our teacher, a transplant from the East Coast, having just lost control of her classroom, looked confused. A moment later I could see in her face that she realized she was dealing with a room full of kids to whom rain is a novelty, something worthy of news reports and, these days, hashtags. Regaining control of her classroom, she patiently explained to us that she came from a place where not only does rain fall from the sky more frequently but that there was something else called “snow.”

This past summer our landscaper, Laramee Haynes and crew installed a rain garden in our backyard and Kelly and I cant stop checking it now that the rainy season has returned. The garden takes the water from the back half of our roughly 1,000 square foot roof. Using this handy online rainfall harvesting calculator, in an average year we could send almost 6,000 gallons of water to our backyard.

We ran a pipe from the rain gutter way back into the yard along a fence. The pipe terminates at a simulated gravel filled stream bed that spills into the rain garden. Kelly has just started planting the wet lower part of the rain garden with native plants including water loving Douglas irises (Iris douglasiana). She planted the dry outer edges with desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), coyote mint (Monardella villosa) and assorted grasses.

Alas, my hopes of building a little boat in which to row back and forth across our new seasonal pond have been dashed by the fact that our soil drains quickly (which is a good thing). We’ll post periodic updates to let you know what worked and what we killed.

Beautifying the Home Grounds: Your Source for 1920s Outdoor Project Inspiration

I have a simple design process here at the Root Simple compound. I ask the house what it wants. The house, being a fuddy-duddy, vaguely colonial bungalow build in 1920, invariably tells me that it want something fuddy-duddy and vaguely colonial. It doesn’t want innovation or Starchitects or Pottery Barn or Ikea. The house doesn’t care what I want. My most successful outdoor and indoor projects have been ones that nobody notices, that look like they were always there.

If you have a fuddy-duddy 1920s house in need of some trellising, outdoor furniture or an arbor take a look at Beautifying the Home Grounds by the Southern Pine Association, part of the always useful Building Technology Heritage Library on archive.org.

I’m using Beautifying the Home Grounds as a design resource to replace the horrible flipper fence I installed a few years ago and the aging entrance arbor that fence is connected to. I’m thinking of going with arbor number 13.

I’ve already done the rendering in Sketchup. Boring, yes. But sometimes boring is just what your house wants.

Backyard in Progress

This morning I thought I’d update progress on the garden. A crew from Haynes Landscaping worked hard over the past week to clean up our backyard and install the hardscaping for a rain garden fed by the downspout from the back end of our house. The rain garden will fill out a problematic area we’ve struggled with over the years.

When we moved into this house in 1998 the spot was occupied by a dead tree. A few years ago we used the area to mine clay for our adobe oven. This left a shallow depression that I filled in with compost and routed the downspout towards via an unsightly pipe. Lacking definition and choked with weeds, the area never looked good.

Our landscaper Laramee proposed digging the depression out by about a foot and adding river rock and a little dry stream fed by the downspout. I made a bridge so that when it rains water will flow under the path that leads to our shed. This is why you hire an outsider expert: Kelly and I would never have thought of this rain garden or the idea of running the flow under the path.

Yes, one of these days I’ll remove the bar code from that pipe!

We plan on planting this area with native plants in the fall. Laramee and his crew also hauled up some rock to better define the paths in our yard that lead to the bees and the chicken coop.

Laramee also proposed something else we never would have thought of: 12-volt lighting. He placed the lights sparingly along the paths in our backyard. For the sake of wildlife, I don’t believe in having outdoor lighting on all the time, so I rigged up a remote control switch to turn the lighting on as needed, such as when heading to the shed in the evening.

On top of the importance of seeking outside advice, the other lesson is not to accumulate crap such as building materials or duplicate tools. I had a lot of “failed project” detritus hidden behind the shed and tucked into corners of the yard. It feels good to have that junk gone and have a space that brings solace rather than “I’ve-got-so-much-to-do” chore anxiety.

There is Something Beyond the Straw Bale

Fig tree off the front porch.

As usual, when I blog about our small vegetable garden as I did on Wednesday, I neglect to put that small part of the food growing efforts at the Root Simple compound in context. To correct this unfortunate tendency, I’m thinking of hanging a framed portrait of Jacques Derrida, the patron saint of 90s nerd boys like me, over my computer to remind me that nothing exists outside of a greater context. What applies to literature also applies to vegetable gardening. You can’t grow vegetables without also considering their relationship to other plants, creatures and human beings.

Bale, pomegranate tree and mess I need to clean up. Please note the raccoon poop zone on the slightly subterranean garage roof.

Our vegetable garden right now is just one straw bale in the process of conditioning and our philosophy has always been that vegetable gardens need to be surrounded by a native “hedge row” that supports beneficial wildlife. We’re also fans of hardy and climate appropriate perennial fruits and vegetables–beyond that solitary straw bale we have a lot of edible perennial plants and a bunch of work to do to straighten out the yard after years of other priorities.

Site of future seasonal rain garden.

Towards that end, our landscaper, Laramee Haynes and crew are coming next week to clean things up, install a kind of seasonal rain garden fed by a downspout, fix the paths in the backyard, and install some sprinklers and a few path lights. In short, to do all the things we couldn’t do when I was taking care of my mom and when Kelly was recovering from open heart surgery. The end goal is to have a yard consisting mostly of native plants, alongside our mature fruit trees and a tiny vegetable garden that will consist of either a small raised bed or a straw bale or an alternation of both bed and bale.

The fruit trees, for those keeping score, consist of a fig, pomegranate, avocado and olive as well as a few stone fruit trees that we will likely remove since the squirrels get every single fruit. In the perennial vegetable catagory, there’s also a few artichokes that pop up here and there, prickly pear cactus and an indestructible stand of New Zealand spinach. When Laramee is done we’ll install a bust of Derrida made out of pre-chewed termite infested wood that will slowly be colonized and deconstructed by Los Angeles’ endangered carpenter bees.

Lastly, please enjoy this completely gratuitous kitten photo that has nothing to do with this blog post, vegetable gardening or Derrida unless all internet cat photos do, in fact, have everything to do with Derrida. Let’s skip that speculation for now and note that this kitten, currently being fostered by our neighbor Lora, is up for adoption and looking for a home in which to snuggle next to you while you read impenetrable tomes in your reading socks. Email us if you want to bring this grey cutie home.

A Lemon Arbor

Consider this post one of those inspirational ideas we’ll never get around to but perhaps an ambitious Root Simple reader will tackle: a lemon arbor. You can find this particular lemon arbor at Lotusland inĀ Montecito, California.

We used to have a grape arbor that became a “stacking function fail” due to Los Angeles’ disruptive rat population. I suspect the rats would be less interested in the lemons but don’t hold me to that speculation. Our grape arbor came down to make way for a new patio and backyard designed by Haynes Landscape Design (I’ll post an update when the work is complete).