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!

A Fennel Drinking Straw

I don’t get the straw thing. Why do all drinks served in restaurants have to come with a plastic straw? Don’t we have enough plastic trash swirling around our oceans?

While the drinking straw dates back to ancient times, the modern straw renaissance arises alongside the 19th century popularity of juleps and cobblers. Nineteenth century gentleman needed a straw to keep the mint out of their beards and they took to using humble stalks of rye grass. As rye breaks down quickly, some enterprising genius figured out how to make straws out of paper. In the 20th century straws evolved into the bendy plastic horror we’re all so familiar with. Ecological guilt led to a glass and stainless steel drinking straw trend during a brief period in the late aughts.

Our front and back yard have what I like to think of as fennel gyres that, just like those ocean plastic votices, just can’t be stopped. Having hollow stems, it occurred to me that fennel stalks might just be the ideal replacement to the ubiquitous plastic straw and could just spark the latest hipster trend. I vowed to give it a try.

As one might expect, a fennel stalk imparts a licorice taste to your beverage. Some might find this objectionable, like drinking toothpaste, but others might sense a cocktail opportunity. Dr. Google informs me that I’m not the first with this fennel stalk cocktail idea. Emily Han, a guest on episode 67 of the Root Simple Podcast, outscooped me back in 2013.

But perhaps, via crowd-sourced knowledge, we might make a vegetative drinking straw breakthrough. What other plant stalks could we replace all those plastic straws with?

Water your Trees with Greywater

Ludwig’s Laundry to Landscape plans.

Root Simple reader MJ pointed out that I neglected to mention greywater as a way to deal with our drought challenged trees here in California. So, on this greywater Monday, I thought I’d round up some previous posts and links on the subject.

Laundry to Landscape
International greywater guru Art Ludwig has a set of free plans on his website Oasis Designs for a laundry to landscape system. I’ve built this system at our house and at a neighbors’ and can attest to its ease of construction and functionality. Make sure you read through Ludwig’s directions in their entirety or else you’ll blow out your machine’s water pump. And note that some California cities such as Pasadena have classes and rebates for greyater parts.

The Confusing World of Detergents
The combination of a dry climate and alkaline soils means that we have to be very careful about the sorts of detergents we use with greywater. Regular soaps and detergents will raise the pH of your soil. Your trees will look great for a few years and then suddenly die. Unfortunately, finding a soil-friendly detergent or soap is more complex than it should be. You can’t trust manufacturer’s claims of greywater compatibility. Here’s what Kelly concluded in a 2015 post:

As of today, we are still only able back three products without reservation for use in greywater:

• Oasis Liquid Laundry Detergent
• Bio-Pac Laundry Detergent
• soap nuts

ETA 8/14: Also, it looks like Fit Organic Laundry Detergent is safe as well. Thanks, Judy!

Sorry folks, I know that’s not a lot in terms of choice.

The following eco-friendly detergents are often listed as greywater compatible, but we have reservations about them. We recommend you research these products more on your own, and consider your own greywater system as well as the specific plants and soil you are irrigating before deciding whether these should be used or not.

Ecos: Contains sodium coco sulfate

Vaska: Has a D+ rating on the Environmental Working Group’s product safety database.

Lifetree: Has a pH level of 7

Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap: Fine for greywater use in general, but it simply is not a laundry detergent–it’s castile soap. You can wash your clothes with it, but the results won’t be spectacular.

The bottom line is that we only trust the detergents and soaps that Ludwig himself designed: Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent and Dishwash soap.

Here are Brad Landcaster’s thoughts on soaps and detergents. Let me also note the utility of Landcaster’s books and website when it comes to all things water conservation related, especially how to grade and configure tree plantings to optimize rainwater irrigation.

One last and rarely mentioned issue, is if “greywater” should be one word or two or, in the neologistic spirit of “apisoir,” perhaps we need to invent a sexier word for reusing our water. Greenwater? Freewater? Leave a comment!