Lessons from the 2018 Theodore Payne Garden Tour

The gardening equivalent of Beyoncé’s triumphant 2018 Coachella performance took place on the very same weekend. Theodore Payne’s annual garden tour reunited pollinator friendly plantings, low water use and great design in a sort of horticultural equivalent of the return of Destiny’s Child. Lush and traditional garden design even made a Jay-Z like cameo appearance at the stunning stunning Wilson/Leach garden in Altadena (seen above). Native plants gardens in Southern California don’t have to look like a desert!

An ad in the back of the tour brochure neatly summed up the vibe:

In: Architecture-Enhancing Designs Out: Boring Expanses of Lawn
In: Vibrant Climate-Compatible Blooms Out: Stuffy Rows of Annuals
In: Lush, Leafy Native Foliage Out: Heat-Amplifying Gravelscape
In: Materials that Go with the Flow Out: Stiff, Straight Patios/Drives
In: Taking Design Appeal to the Curb Out: Conformist Parkways
In: Enjoying your garden

The big takeaway for me from the garden tour this year was that sometimes you’ve got to call in a garden design professional unless you have a knack for design (and I don’t). Our ticket contest winner (who gave us the most beautiful basket of home grown fruits and preserves ever–thank you Donna!) came to the same conclusion.

We’ve hired a designer, which is why our backyard looks like a strip mine:

A crew took out an ugly concrete patio last week and has been digging down to lower the level of the new patio they will install. The old patio was above the level of the sill plate and was causing the back part of the house to rot. I’ll post more in-progress photos over the next few months. We’re also working on the inside of the house. When all is done we hope to have some events here and open up the house for idling and entertaining.

If you can’t afford a crew to do the work you can, at the very least, hire a designer to do a consultation and offer some suggestions. I really wish we had done this 20 years ago when we bought this place!

Last Chance to Win Theodore Payne Garden Tour Tickets, A Note on Our Backyard and a Mini-Rant


A reminder that you have until 5pm today to enter our Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour ticket giveaway.

We have slowly introduced more and more native plants into our garden for a few reasons: to reduce water use, to sustain wildlife and to reduce maintenance. On that last point I’ll note that there is no such thing as a zero maintenance garden, but I will say that California natives are, generally, a lot less fussy than annuals.

This year we’ve also decided to hire a professional to come up with a design for our troublesome backyard. The first order of business is to jackhammer out an ugly concrete patio and deal with some possible foundation issues. I’m hoping, with our designer’s permission, to share the work in progress. I’ll just say at this point that it’s really helpful to have an outside set of eyes especially if you’ve been living with a space for so many years that you’ve lost perspective and openness to new ideas.

Lastly, I must toot my digital horn and note the excellent timing of my February 28th anti-Facebook rant. It’s time to #DeleteFacebook and #StartGardening with #NativePlants.

Win Two Tickets to the 15th Annual Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour

If you’re a Southern California local we’re giving away two tickets to the 15th annual Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour that will take place on April 14th and 15th. It’s a self-guided trip through 40 gardens in the region and includes 19 new locations (including our neighbor Lora’s house!). If you’re thinking of including native plants in your garden or pondering a garden re-design, the Theodore Payne Garden Tour is a great way to get ideas.

To enter our contest leave a comment on this post naming your favorite native plant. Please make sure to enter your email in the comment form (your email will not be published nor used for anything else other than contacting you to send the tickets). We’ll choose a lucky winner at random and the contest will close on Friday March 23rd at 5pm.

California native plants are beautiful and sustain our wildlife companions.  They also help you reduce your water consumption in a climate that is rapidly changing. In addition to the use of plants, the Theodore Payne Garden Tour has a lot of great examples of hardscaping and ways to make the best of small and challenging spaces.

Kelly and I plan on going and we hope to meet the winner of this contest on the tour!

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.