Polyculture In A Veggie Bed

7-22-13 106Polyculture is, obviously, the opposite of monoculture, but in permaculture (a lot of -cultures here) it means more than that.  The best way to plant in polyculture is to follow the guidelines for a plant guild .  A plant guild is how plants arrange themselves in nature so that each fulfills a niche.  The variety of plants aren’t competing for the same nutrients and are delivering something other plants need; i.e. shade, nutrients, root exudates, leaf drop, soil in-roads via deep tap roots, etc.

By burying sticks in planting holes you are helping feed the soil and hold water.

By burying sticks in planting holes you are helping feed the soil and hold water.

 

When planting veggies here at Finch Frolic Garden I often mix up a handful of vegetable, herb and flower seeds that fulfill the plant guild guidelines and plant them all in one area.  They come up in a mix of heights, colors, shapes and scents to fool bugs.  The result is like a miniature forest.

A merry mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in a mature bed.

A merry mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in a mature bed.

However that sort of wild designed planting has its drawbacks.  Harvesting is more time consuming (although more fun, like a treasure-hunt).  Many people find peace in looking at rows of vegetables, and peace is valuable.

We disturb the soil as little as possible, and pull the soil back for potatoes.

We disturb the soil as little as possible, and pull the soil back for potatoes.

You can plant polyculture in rows as well.  Just plant each row with a different member of the plant guild, and you’ll achieve a similar effect with insect confusion, and with nutrient conservation.

In this small, slightly sunken bed (we are in drylands so we plant concave to catch water), we planted rows of three kinds of potatoes, two kinds of shallots, a row each of bush beans, fava beans, parsnips, radish and carrots.

Miranda planting potatoes and shallots before the smaller seeds go in.

Miranda planting potatoes and shallots before the smaller seeds go in.

We covered the bed with a light mulch made from dried dwarf cattail stems.  This sat lightly on the soil and yet allowed light and water penetration, giving the seedlings protection from birds and larger bugs.

This light, dry mulch worked perfectly. Since cattails are a water plant, there are no worries about it reseeding in the bed.

This light, dry mulch worked perfectly. Since cattails are a water plant, there are no worries about it reseeding in the bed.

The garden a couple months later.  Because we had a warm and rainless February (usually our wettest month), our brassicas headed up rather than produced roots and only a few parsnips and carrots germinated.  However our nitrogen-fixing favas and beans are great, our ‘mining’ potatoes are doing beautifully and the shallots are filling out well.IMG_8621

Every plant accumulates nutrition from the air and soil, and when that plant dies it delivers that nutrition to the topsoil.  In the case of roots, when they die it is immediate hugelkultur. Without humans, plants drop leaves, fruit and seeds on the ground, where animals will nibble on them or haul them away but leave juice, shells and poo behind.  When the plant dies, it dies in place and gives back to the topsoil. When we harvest from a plant we are removing that much nutrition from the soil.  So when the plants are through producing, we cut the plants at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground, and add the tops back to the soil.  By burying kitchen scraps in vegetable beds you are adding back the sugars and other nutrients you’ve taken away with the harvest.  It becomes a worm feast.  Depending upon your climate and how warm your soil is, the scraps will take different lengths of time to decompose.  Here in San Diego, a handful of food scraps buried in January is just about gone by February.  No fertilizer needed!

 

Lawn Care and Lawn Alternatives for Drylands

Drought restrictions have caused many people to turn the water off of their lawns; many have already taken that leap years ago.  One of the main questions I field now is what to do with that nasty patch that once was a lawn.  There are many low-water-use alternatives.

First, please don’t use artificial turf or gravel.  Read about why by following the links to past blogposts.

You can have a lawn and not use as much water, and not add any chemicals to it, by understanding how grass grows.

If you want and/or need a lawn space, make it as minimal as possible.  If you are going to reseed, choose a California native seed that withstands the drought and our alkaline soil.  Creeping red fescue is a good choice that grows tall and floppy unmowed, but is a walkable/playable lawn if mowed.

A grass plant spreads at its base, not its tip. Grass needs its blades to produce food. Common mowing techniques recommend mowing low, but that is doing your lawn harm and resulting in the need for aeration and chemical fertilizers. When you mow low, the stressed grass plant needs to push lots of energy into quickly growing more blades to feed its roots. Most weeds have a growing point at their tip.  Mow as high as your mower allows – 4 inches if possible.  High mowing allows the grass plant to keep its blades for food making, and to put energy into deep root growth and into spreading.  Mowing high cuts the tops off the weeds, and the height of the grass shades out weed seeds so they can’t germinate.

Water deeply, and less frequently.  Catch an inch of water in a cup set under your lawn irrigation and shut the water off.  Don’t water again until the grass shows that it needs it.  Constant irrigation, especially on short grass where the soil is exposed, and rainwater on bare earth is as compacting as running a tractor over the ground.  When the earth is compacted water just won’t penetrate.  You pour water onto the grass which runs off or evaporates.  Your grass can’t grow deep tap roots and is slowly starved to death.

Use a mulching mower and allow the grass clippings to return to the lawn.  Stop using chemical fertilizers.  Completely.  In permaculture we feed the soil and not the plants.  Healthy soil has billions of fungi, bacteria, nematodes, amoebas, and other creatures in every teaspoon.  This zoo of soft-bodied creatures break down organic matter and make nutrients in the soil available for roots to feed from.  The better the soil health, which means the more microbial activity and population, the loamier the soil and therefore the better water penetration as well.  Instead of dumping high nitrogen fertilizer on your lawn, use compost, actively aerated compost tea , and chopped up leaves.  (If you don’t have a mulcher attachment on your mower, or a blower with a reverse vacuum attachment, then put leaves in a trash can and use a string mower to chop them up- while wearing eye protection of course!). Chopped up leaves are all you need to fertilize anything.  Best of all they don’t harm your pets or family, unlike chemical fertilizers.

If you don’t want a lawn, then figure out how you want to use the space.  Do you want to just see the area from your windows?  Do you want a meditation garden?  Room for kids and pets to play?  An outside BBQ spot?  Decide how best to use this space. If you aren’t using every square inch of your property, you are paying property taxes for nothing.

To get rid of your lawn you don’t need to dig it up.  Please save your money.  Sheet mulch it.  Sheet mulch is an inch of cardboard and/or newspaper topped with 4-6 inches of mulch.  Gorilla hair (shredded redwood) or shredded ceder bark spread well and sit lightly on the soil, and you get more for your money.  Sheet mulch will turn the grass into mulch and start activating the soil.  Best of all, it looks instantly great, to satisfy your neighbors and family.  If you have Bermuda or other very determined grass, you may need a thicker layer of cardboard.  Sheet mulch now and allow it to sit over the winter and absorb the rains.  In the spring you can cut through the cardboard and plant right in the ground.

If you want a low-effort garden, then please go native.  We need to replace habitat that has been destroyed and give the animals and insects the food and shelter that they need to survive.  Many California native gardens are not well done and look piecemeal and stark.  This doesn’t have to be.  Look around at the hills; unless you are well into the desert, there are plants of all types everywhere.  If you have sheet mulched a green lawn, then allow the grass to die completely before planting natives; they don’t like higher nitrogen from freshly decomposing grass, or the residual from high nitrogen fertilizer.  Sheet mulching over the winter and planting in the spring should be fine.  If your lawn is already dead, then you can sheet mulch and plant immediately.  Then allow the plants to fill out and you don’t need to mulch again.

See how the area looks from your windows.  Make pathways that are wide enough to accommodate whomever is going to use it (2 feet wide for one person, 3 feet for two or a bicycle, 4 feet for a wheelchair).  Don’t skimp on the pathway material.  An ugly or uneven pathway will draw all your attention and no matter what you do around it, it will look bad.  A good pathway well done and complementary to your house is important for your own satisfaction and for the resale value of your home as well.  Choose destination spots and focal points.  Benches, a bird bath, a specimen plant – these are all important.  Then choose plants.  I highly recommend the book California Native Landscapes by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren.  These are San Diegans so they know what works well in Southern California.

One inch of rain on one acre in one hour is 27,154 gallons of free, neutral pH rainwater.  Most lawns are slightly convex so that water runs off of them.  That is why there is a bald spot at the highest point where you just can’t keep anything alive.  You want to catch all the rainwater -and irrigation water – you can.  Catch it, sink it, spread it.  Do this with simple earthworks that you can do with a shovel.  Perpendicular to the water flow dig shallow swales (level-bottomed ditches).  They only need to be an inch deep, or you can go much deeper.  They can be filled with large mulch, and sheet-mulched over the top.  Rain will then sink into the ground rather than rolling off.  Sheet mulch – or any mulch – allows the rain to hit, bounce and then gently fall to earth.  Catch every drop that you can, and the best place to catch rain is in your soil.

To further add water retention and nutrition for your microbes, bury wood.  Old logs, old untreated building materials (nails and all), shrub cuttings, nasty spiky rose cuttings, palm fronds and trunks, they can all be buried and planted over in a process called hugelkultur.  Even old cotton clothing, straw hats, or anything made with natural fibers can be layered with dirt and buried.  Get the most from what you’ve already spent money on and let your trash fix your soil.

So, steps would be to decide what you want to do with your lawn area, design the pathways and special areas, determine what kind of plants you want to put there, dig in some earthworks, sheet mulch to kill the grass and weeds, then plant.  Natives will need supplemental water (not drip irrigation, but a long soak and then allowed to go dry) until they are established.  Then many of them don’t want any supplemental water; some go drought-deciduous, so do your research.  A good selection that is lovely and will invite birds and butterflies into your yard might include Cleveland sage (not Mexican bush sage, which becomes very woody), apricot mallow, desert mallow, fairy duster, and ceanothus.  Great retail native nurseries are  Theodore Payne nursery in Los Angeles and Tree of Life nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

If you don’t want to go native, then consider low-water-use plants such as many Mediterranean herbs. Rosemary, oregano, marjoram, lavender and others interspersed with drought tolerant plants such as bird of paradise, New Zealand flax, rockrose, Pride of Madeira, and a host of interesting succulents in between.  Aloe blooms are attractive to hummingbirds.

If you live in areas where there is a real winter, where you receive snowfall, your lawn care to prepare for the cold is quite different.  The folks at Yardday have excellent tips to help prepare for snow, and you can read about them here.  Keep in  mind that the ‘fertilizer’ should be actively aerated compost tea and/or compost, NOT bagged NPK or other chemical or condensed lawn care fertilizer.  These concentrated fertilizers kill microbes leaving your soil lifeless, water-repelling dirt.

There are lots of things to do with your lawn that are lovely, useful, interesting and beneficial to wildlife and to the earth.  Care for your soil by not poisoning the microbes with chemicals, use your leaves, sheet mulch, and design for low water use.  Its worth the effort.

Why Buy Rain Barrels if you Own a Pool? Pool Conversion Discount!

Why buy rain barrels if you own a pool?  You can collect about 20,000 gallons of rainwater in an average pool, and use it on your landscaping and for swimming if you don’t chlorinate it.  If you have a pool or pond and put chemicals into it, or have a saltwater pool or one that is treated with UV light, you really need to read about how toxic those systems really are and how to change your pool into a swimmable, clean pond on PuraVidaAquatic.com.  On that site is a host of great information about how bad mosquito fish are, how to make a truly healthy pond, why having a pond in a drought is a great idea and so very important, and so much more.  If you live in Southern California and have a pool, you’ll be interested in this Fall Special:

20 Percent Off Ad

Argentine Ants

Most of the annoying ants we suffer with in California, especially here in San Diego, are actually an invader called Argentine Ants.  They arrived via shipboard to Louisiana, and have spread throughout warmer climates.  Argentine ants are so successful because they have multiple queens per colony and therefore recognize all other Argentine ants as family.  They don’t fight among themselves.  There is a colony that stretches from San Diego to near San Francisco.

Argentine ants have nudged out many of our native ants, which isn’t a good thing.  We need our native ants for decomposition. Argentine ants harm arthropods and have a terrible effect on the ecosystem; here in Southern California their impact on horned lizards have been devastating.  The only way you can tell them apart (unless you have very tiny ants or black or red ants) from natives of similar size is by studying them with a microscope.  This blog post shows great photos of the difference between ants.

Argentine ants farm aphids on plants and trees, milking the bugs for their ‘honeydew’, a sweet excretion.  They will bring aphids to your plants and farm them there.  They will also farm scale underground around the trunks or stems of plants, especially natives such as California Lilac (ceanothus spp).  By the time the plant show stress and the ants begin to farm aphids above ground, much of the damage has already been done.

As much against annihilation as I am, this ant does terrible harm to our environment and should be happily living back in its native South American river area.  Not only is it directly harmful, but because it is everywhere it incites people to spray poisons that kill all the beneficial insects as well.

The best solution is a borax bait trap that you can make your own. Borax is a powerful killer and should not be used liberally.  Yes, it is sold as a fertilizer and as a laundry additive, and that borax kills insects and beneficial flora and fauna as it enters the watershed and soil. It is toxic to pets and children. However, just a little solution used wisely can really help control these ants.

I use old spice containers that have the plastic shaker ends on them for the bait traps.  The holes are small enough to prevent other insects or animals from entering the jar, but are big enough for the ants.  Otherwise you can use butter tubs with small holes punched in the top.  Put a cotton ball inside the containers.

It is recommended to make a 1% borax solution rather than a stronger one because you don’t want to kill the ants immediately.  You want them to bring the bait back to the nest and feed it to the queen.  I know that is horrible, but they would definitely do the same to us if they could.

This recipe is based on research done by entomologist John Klotz at UC Riverside.  Dissolve 1 tsp. boric acid (borax) and 6 tablespoons sugar in two cups of warm -preferably distilled or dechlorinated – water.  Soak cotton balls in the bait solution and place in spice shakers or plastic tubs with holes in the lid.  The containers will also keep the cotton ball from drying out quickly.  Place in a shady location in the path of Argentine ants.  Clean the container and replace the cotton ball weekly (it will become moldy).  At first the bait traps will attract more ants, which is fine because they are bringing the bait back to their nests.  If you want to kill the ants immediately, add more boric acid.  For long-term control, reduce the boric acid to 1/2% to allow worker ants to feed for a long time before they die and therefore bring more back to the nest.

Keep the excess boric acid solution capped and in the refrigerator well labeled, so no one drinks the sweet drink.

Be sure to keep an eye out for ant activity around the base of your native plants, and if you have aphids on the leaves of plants you no doubt have ants farming them there.  Argentine ants are pests we really can eliminate without fear, and allow our native ants to reclaim their territory.

Permaculture and Pollinators lecture

PP flier

Turn Your Pool Into a Pond, and Help Restore Wetlands!

An egret on the hunt.  Water birds now rely on flooded agricultural fields, which are saturated with herbicides and pesticides.

An egret on the hunt. Water birds now rely on flooded agricultural fields, which are saturated with herbicides and pesticides.

It is estimated that 97% of California’s wetlands are gone.  Gone.  About two-thirds of that remaining 3% is dysfunctional and polluted. In Los Angeles, only 1% of wetlands remain.  We have constructed our properties to drain precious rainwater and even irrigation water into culverts and out to the ocean, rather than collect it in our soil where it belongs.  All the riparian animals, from specialized aquatic microbes and fungi up to large mammals, have gradually all but disappeared.  What we have instead of wetlands are millions of  chlorinated swimming pools, lined ponds and bird baths.  Although we may believe that these help animals, the treated water is weakening and killing them with chemicals when they are desperate enough to drink from them, and offer no shelter or food source.

A young green heron visits a chemical-free pond.

A young green heron.

Dr. Bob Lloyd of Pura Vida Aquatics, a Southern California-based business, has spent the last 20 years maintaining ponds chemical-free.  “Algicide will kill aquatic microbes, and hurt hummingbirds and all the other creatures that drink it,” he says.  To help offset some of the loss of wetlands Dr. Lloyd converts swimming pools into swimming ponds that are cleaned with plants and fish rather than with chemicals.

You may see photos of some methods of pool conversions on the Internet that look fantastic, but really are expensive and drastic, and hard to maintain.  They require the draining (and waste) of the 22,000 gallons (more or less) of pool water, the altering of the pool itself by building a cement planting bed along the inside and the filling of that bed with a large amount of gravel.  Plants are set in the gravel and after refilling a pump sends water through this system to clean it. The gravel would need to be cleaned over time, which would mean draining water again and hauling out a ton of slimy gravel, and buying new.

Bluegill and koi buddies.

Bluegill and koi buddies.

Dr. Lloyd’s system is far less expensive, not invasive to the pool structure at all and is easily removable if years down the road the system is no longer desired.  His system is unique and is the product of his PhD in microbiology and his decades of experience working with natural ponds.  The plants that are installed are outside of the pool and  can have a look that goes with the surrounding vegetation.  Even aquatic edibles can be experimented with, such as watercress, water chestnuts and more.

Installing plants inside a pool can be done without changing the pool structure if the pool isn’t going to be used for swimming, or only for gentle laps.  The reason is that the splashing water and waves from vigorous swimming is very hard on plants.  Many plants die from having too much water on their leaves, and from being battered against the sides of the pool.  Using Dr. Lloyd’s method of external decorative plants the pool has the ambiance of a pond and the usability of a regular swimming pool.  And you can still swim with koi and other fish!  How cool is that?

IMG_0606Converting your pool or pond takes a little patience as the biology develops; do you remember the adage that you can’t rush Mother Nature? The evolution of a pool conversion lasts several months. Watching the evolution of a chemical pool to a swimming pond is exciting.  With the absence of chlorine, there is a natural algae bloom which turns the inside of the pool a bright, beautiful green.  The algae help clear the water of harmful chemicals. As the water is routed through plants, some of the aquatic creatures that balance a pond are added from a local source.  As the water clears, fish are added.  The fish eat the algae so there are no fuzzy green threads growing up from the bottom or floating on the surface.   Fish can be added within weeks of the start of the project. “Its like managing a 20,000 gallon fishtank,” Dr. Lloyd grins.

Immediately the changes to the environment are apparent.  Dragonflies, butterflies, hummingbirds and many more creatures desperate for truly clean (chemical-free) water are attracted to the water and the plants.

A hummingbird coming in for a drink in a chemical-free pond.

A hummingbird coming in for a drink in one of Dr. Lloyd’s newly chemical-free ponds.

“I have clients who tell me how excited they are to see so many birds, insects and lizards in their yards that they’d never seen before,” Dr. Lloyd relates about his converted ponds.  “Finding (native) Pacific chorus frogs around the ponds has been very fun.” Some of his clients have become active bird watchers as the wildlife come to ponds that he manages.

Best of all, you can swim with the fish and have no red eyes, green hair or other bad reactions to the harsh chemicals.  The plants phytoremediate the water as it is pumped through the planting beds.  Children can dangle their feet in the pond without fear of absorbing algicide and other harsh chemicals through their skin.

Pacific Chorus frogs are native and disappearing.  They live in your garden during the year and eat insects.

Pacific Chorus frogs are native and disappearing. They live in your garden during the year and eat insects.

Because we are in a drought, people believe that drying out their pond or pool is necessary. No! Pools evaporate far less water than irrigated lawns and landscapes.  What does evaporate helps hold humidity around your plants, something which our drying climate is eliminating.  Humidity keeps pollen viable and helps trees and plants survive the lack of rainfall.  If you convert your pool and/or pond to a chemical-free one, then it is now supplying habitat to creatures further taxed by dried-up water supplies.  What’s more, your pool which isn’t attractive and is rarely used,  which must be doctored with chemicals weekly, can be converted into something that benefits wildlife year-round, is interesting to watch all the time, and needs absolutely no chemicals.

Pools are also excellent catchment basins for rain.  Instead of buying a large water tank, divert your roof water to your pool and allow the plants to clean it.  Then you can use that water at any time during the year for watering plants – with chlorine- and chloramine-free water.  In permaculture, everything should have at least three purposes.  By converting your pool you can have a free rain-catchment system, a water cleaning system, a safe recreation area, a pleasing view, and some habitat, all while saving money and reducing your carbon footprint and reducing your water bill.  How can you not do it?

A converted pool does require weekly maintenance, but not the usual kind with chemicals and cleaners.  I remember having to clean the family’s pool when I was growing up and testing the pH, even though we didn’t swim very often.  It wasn’t fun. The maintenance on a chemical-free pond consists of checking on the pump, the caring for the plants and  fish, and insuring that the clarity of the water and the product is satisfying to the customer.   The ecosystem evolves and must be watched.  It also costs a fraction of what a pool cleaner charges.

If you have a pond or pool that is on a chemical system, consider a conversion.  You’ll spend far less money, have far more entertainment, decorative and educational value, have safe water for your family and wildlife to enjoy, will be helping the environment by not supporting harmful chemicals and by helping off-set the millions of acres of wetlands that are gone.

Dr. Lloyd estimates that he’ll need to convert 1.6 billion swimming pools to offset all the wetlands that have been drained and paved over in California alone.  How can it be done?

“One pool at a time,” he smiles.

You can find out about pool and pond conversions by contacting Dr. Bob Lloyd at Pura Vida Aquatics, 310- 429- 8477   http://www.PuraVidaAquatic.com.  He has accounts from San Diego through Los Angeles, and can consult elsewhere.

Water Harvesting With Simple Earthworks

Finch Frolic Garden’s Program In The Garden Series for June:

Shaping the land to harvest energy and water – easily!

With permaculturalist Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics and Landscaping

Jacob HatchSunday, June 28, 2015 2-4 pm.

Use 30% – 70% less water on your landscape!

Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics will show you how to catch free, precious, neutral pH rainwater using earthworks.  Whether you use a trowel or a tractor, you can harvest that free water. Each attendee will receive a plant!  We will, of course, offer homemade vegetarian refreshments.  Cost is $25 per person, mailed ahead of time.  Finch Frolic Garden is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook.  Please RSVP to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com.  You’ll love what you learn!

Artificial Turf? Big Mistake.

Want a green lawn that needs no irrigation or mowing?  That sounds ideal.  As with most products that sound too good to be true, so it is with artificial turf. Modern artificial turf is not much like the Astroturf of old.  Artificial grass blades are usually made of polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon, which create soft, harder or stiff blades respectively.  These are anchored in an infill material that is usually a mixture of sand and ground up recycled automobile tires among other things.  Utilizing recycled tires should give this product big bonus points; however, this material will leach heavy metals into the ground, contaminating the dirt for decades.  When heated, the plastic and rubber will release toxins into the air as well.

Heat is the biggest problem with artificial turf.  The infill made of plastic and rubber is a thermal mass: as it sits in the sun it absorbs and radiates heat.  For example, at 6 pm, an hour before the Women’s World Cup in Canada began at the end of a nice 75 degree day, the artificial turf on which they were to play measured 120F.  Where daytime temperatures rise to 100F, the turf could measure up to 180F.  Having turf where children or animals play can cause burns.

Radiating heat from thermal mass such as hardscape (usually cements and asphalt), expanses of gravel, and especially artificial turf will heat up homes and is a contributor to more energy usage for air conditioners and fans.  In arid areas there might not be much rainfall but there can be fog and ambient moisture that normally collects on leaves and drips as a form of irrigation.  Good pollenization partially depends upon moist, still air because pollen dries rapidly. Radiating heat and reflected light (the albeido effect) from these surfaces help to dry out moist air and cause air movement as the heat rises.  The more rising heat, the windier and drier the atmosphere becomes and the less fruit and vegetable set there is.  As artificial turf heats up to a third again of the atmospheric temperature and continues to radiate into the evening it is even more damaging to atmospheric moisture than bright cement.

The claim that artificial turf greatly reduces the amount of toxins in the air that would be released from lawnmowers, and save thousands of gallons of water otherwise used to irrigate lawns is using select ideas while ignoring others.  Artificial turf may not need mowing, but it needs leaf-vacuuming and hosing off, especially if there are animals using it.  On soil bird, reptile and pet feces are part of the fertilization process and are quickly decomposed by microbes.  On artificial turf the feces adhere to the plastic blades and are difficult to remove with even a power wash.  Urine seeps into the rubber matting and cannot be completely removed, smelling strongly of urine for the life of the turf.

Native plants and grasses improve the soil, hold rainwater, moderate heat and wind, and offer habitat for hundreds of birds, mammals and insects.  Areas that are covered in artificial turf are sterile, harmful to animals, people and the environment, and offer no educational value.  Planted areas are magnets for wildlife that are starved – literally – for decent food, water and shelter.

The life of some artificial turf products is estimated to be 10 – 15 years, with a warranty usually for 8.  If the grass is being heavily used the life is reduced.  The turf doesn’t look new up until the warranty expires; the blades break off and the plastic and rubber slowly break down further been compressed, dried out and imbued with heavy metals.

The cost of installing artificial turf is heavy.  It must be laid on scraped, level, rockless dirt, so there are earthworks involved.  There are many types of artificial turf and they have a broad price range.  A 12’ x 75’ strip of low-grade turf from a chain hardware store is currently over $1500.

What are the alternatives in this time of water scarcity?  For areas that must have grass, tough native grass mixtures are a great alternative. See the selection that S&S Seeds has of native Californian grasses; they even offer sod.  Lawns should be mowed higher and more frequently for best root growth, and the cuttings left to mulch in. For least evaporation and for pathogen control watering should be done between 3 AM and 9 AM. See this site for more lawn tips.

Stop using commercial fertilizers, which cause plants to need more water. Use actively aerated compost tea, which is easy and inexpensive to make, completely non-toxic and causes deeper root growth and therefore healthier, longer-lived and more resilient grass.  Please explore the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, soil microbiologist, who has perfected the use of AACT on properties worldwide.  Instructions for making AACT can be found here.

For those who don’t need a lawn at all, native landscapes can be lush and beautiful and after being established dislike summer water.  You can see what native and non-native plants are safe to plant near your house if you live in a fire zone with the County of San Diego’s Defensible Space Plant List.  Please see the books The California Native Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, and California Native Plants for The Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien.

The secret to water storage in the soil for both lawns and plants is to dig in as much organic matter into the soil that you can.  Artificial turf is also not permeable, so it channels rainwater rather than harvesting it.   Old wood is best, but cuttings, organic fabric and paper can all be used to hold rainwater.  One inch of rain on one acre in one hour is 27,154 gallons of water.  The best place to hold that water for your plants –or to hold precious irrigation water – is in the soil.  Wood in the soil along with top mulch will water and feed plants for months, as well as cleanse and build soil.  This practice is called hugelkultur.  Please research hugelkultur on the Internet for more information.

If you are considering purchasing artificial turf or gravel for your yard or common area, please think again.  It is adding to the problem of global warming, it is an elimination of even more habitat – even the scarce habitat that a lawn can offer –  and will become an expensive problem in a short time.

Pathways Can Help Your Garden!

A finished section.

A finished section.

Footpaths and/or vehicle access paths are absolutely necessary for any yard.  Unfortunately, weeds love growing in them.  Worse, the pressure from footfalls, wheelbarrows and vehicles compress and compact the soil, pressing the soil grains together so tightly that oxygen – and therefore life – can’t exist often up to several inches or more deep.  Any life, that is, except for the grasses and other weeds that nature sends in to help repair the soil.  Bare ground will be greatly compacted by rainfall, which will then erode paths as it runs, unable to soak through that spaceless ground. Once wet bare pathways are often unwalkable until they dry out, and have to be resmoothed. In our hot, dry areas, bare earth or graveled pathways reflect heat and light back up.  That reflected heat and light dries out the underside of plant leaves, where species such as Live Oaks have over the millennium developed leaves that curl to expose less surface to the hot sun and to gather moisture underneath.  Reflected heat and light dries out the air as well, and any hope of slight humidity to help water plants through months of dry heat is gone.  If you have open-pollinated vegetables that rely on breeze for pollination, all that open pathway actually decreases your germination because pollen – such as from corn – will dry out in arid conditions.  Humidity that you can keep in your garden will keep pollen more viable longer.

A wealth of freshly chipped wood - two dump-trucks full!  The challenge: to spread it all in a week before our first tour.  Yikes!

A wealth of freshly chipped wood – two dump-trucks full! The challenge: to spread it all in a week before our first tour. Yikes!

What to do?  Covering pathways with gravel is a common solution.  I hate gravel.  It heats up and becomes a thermal mass in the summer, further cooking your soil and air.  It doesn’t suppress weeds and weed-whipping becomes an exercise in avoiding shrapnel.  You can never get it out of the ground once you apply it, and chunks of gravel don’t do soil much good for planting.  If you trip and fall on gravel it does terrible things to your knees – I had a piece lodged in my kneecap after a stumble some years ago (sorry for that cringe-worthy item).

A 1/2 inch of cardboard or newspaper  with mulch on top.

A 1/2 inch of cardboard or newspaper with mulch on top.

Covering the soil is better, but not best. Bark will help rain bounce and then percolate, is dark so it won’t reflect light and heat as gravel does, and it decomposes.  It is also expensive to buy, and because it decomposes you have to re-buy it every couple of years.  Decomposing bark may be adding elements to your soil that you don’t want depending upon the source.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

I have experienced all the options above. The best method of countering all these issues that I have found also repurposes and recycles. Sheet mulch.  Yep.  You’ve heard it from me before and it proves itself every year.  There is more to it, though.

I disturbed a couple of nesting mice in one of  the unused Kenya bee  hives.

I disturbed a couple of nesting mice in one of the unused Kenya bee hives.

First of all, please, please, please never use plastic.  You can read about white pollution and the layers of plastic merging with topsoil in China and cringe.  Plastic will not last.  It will always be around in pieces. You will be poisoning your soil.IMG_6460

At the most basic, you can cover your pathways with 1/2″ of cardboard and newspaper, and top it with wood chips.  I obtain my wood chips  from arborists who save paying a dump fee by dumping it in my yard.  If you’d rather have a more uniform look then purchase your bark.  Either way the cardboard and newspaper will make the chips last years longer.  More importantly the cardboard and newspaper form a protective, absorbent layer that protects the soil from compaction.  Have you looked under a log or sheet of abandoned plywood in awhile?  All the white tendrils of fungus, insects, worms, lizards and roots are thriving there along with billions of soil microbes all because they have that protective layer that keeps moisture in and compaction out.  That microclimate is what you are forming with cardboard and mulch pathways. Since microbes free up the nutrients in the soil from which plants feed, you are creating more food sources for your plants. Tree and plant roots don’t end at the dripline, they reach out towards whatever source of water and nutrition they can find.  If you are top-watering rather than deep-watering, then roots are abundant closer to the topsoil.  By sheet mulching pathways you are extending food sources for your plants and trees, which now can stretch underneath the paths, link together with other roots through fungal networks, and become stronger and healthier.  You also are creating habitat which is a food source for the entire food chain.  Cooler, humid areas are better for bees and insects that pollinate, and the predators that feed upon them such as lizards, toads, frogs and birds.  Just by sheet-mulching your pathways you are improving your environment as a whole.  How can you NOT want to do this?

Sheet mulching around trees  is much the same, except you add a little manure or compost tea if you have it.

Sheet mulching around trees is much the same, except you add a little manure or compost tea if you have it.

Sheet mulched pathways hold moisture and create some humidity which allows for better pollination and helps keep your plants from scorching in arid areas.  If you live in a wet area or very humid area, use thicker layers of cardboard and mulch, which will help absorb moisture from the air and deliver it to the ground.  Decomposition is quicker in wet areas, so using several inches of cardboard with mulch will last much longer and will again keep  down compaction.  Compaction in rainy areas is just as bad as in arid areas because of the erosion and flooding it causes.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

To catch rainwater and allow it to percolate into the soil rather than erode away topsoil, you dig rain catchment basins or swales.  Swales are ditches with level bottoms, and can be a foot  long (fishscale swales) or the length of your property. Swales should be positioned perpendicular to the flow of water.  You can create swales across pathways, fill them with mulch, top them with cardboard or old plywood, and mulch on top to match the rest of the pathway.  Water will be caught in the swales and won’t wash out paths on hillsides.

MIranda working on a large pathway near our large hugelbed.

MIranda working on a large pathway near our large hugelbed.

Going a step farther, you can ‘hugel swale’.  Hugelkultur  is layering woody material with dirt. This introduces organic material, oxygen and nutrient pathways into the soil and holds moisture into the dry season.  You can dig deeply in your pathways, layer old wood (sticks, branches, logs, whatever you have) with the dirt, up to soil level, then sheet mulch.  Your pathways are now waterharvesting alleys that you can walk on, and which will really feed your plants.  And you just repurposed old woody cuttings.

This mulch will greatly help the Asian pears  and cherries which struggle with the dry heat of the summer.  The ground will be kept moist and reduce evaporation, holding in humidity.  We'll be planting more heavily in  this area, too.

This mulch will greatly help the Asian pears and cherries which struggle with the dry heat of the summer. The ground will be kept moist and reduce evaporation, holding in humidity. We’ll be planting more heavily in this area, too.

 

In very dry areas plants and trees do better in sunken beds, especially those that require a long chill time.  Cold settles in holes.  Moisture runs downhill, therefore dew will accumulate at the bottom of holes.  You can either plant in holes and have your pathways higher, or if you have an established garden (such as I do) you can build up your pathways so that they become slightly higher than your trees and planting areas.  We are working on that at Finch Frolic Garden, here in drought-stricken San Diego county.

So before I launch into yet another long lecture, the idea for pathways is simple: sheet mulch with cardboard and wood chips.  If you live in a wet area, use several inches of both.  If you live in a dry area, use no more than 1/2 inch of cardboard (or else it will absorb moisture from the soil) topped by at least an inch of mulch (no limit there!).  If you want make super pathways, bury woody material before you sheet mulch.  If you live in a dry area, raise your pathways above your planting beds.  If you live in a wet area, lower your pathways so water can drain away from your plants (unless they love wet feet).  Never use plastic, and please rethink gravel.

Then sit back and enjoy your yard and all the food and nutrients and abundance you have set the stage for, all using recycled materials that will last for years.  Congratulations!

Saving the Bees

The ponds at Finch Frolic Garden are cleaned by fish and plants, with no chemicals, algaecide, artificial aeration or filtration.  Well-balanced water allows wildlife to thrive.

The ponds at Finch Frolic Garden are cleaned by fish and plants, with no chemicals, algaecide, artificial aeration or filtration. Well-balanced water allows wildlife to thrive.

I should have more accurately called this post, Saving All the Insects, or even Saving the Wildlife, because the answer to saving one is the answer to saving them all. We’ve been inundated for years – my whole lifetime, in fact, – with pleas to save our environment, stop whale slaughter, stop polluting, etc.  I remember winning a poster contest in fifth grade on the subject of curtailing littering.  Since Rachel Carson’s books woke people up to the hazards of DDT and how chemicals have many deadly side effects there has been a grassroots effort to stop the pollution.  Since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out the push for environmentally friendly lights, cars, LEED-certified buildings and many more positive anti-climate-change actions have grown furiously.  Too bad no one listened to him decades before.  A drop in the economy and the radical change in weather patterns have people exploring organics, making their own clothes and foods, changing their shopping habits and thinking about what they are bringing into their homes.  However, this week the World Wildlife Fund released the staggering results of a study that states that between the years 1970 and 2010, 52% of the world’s animal populations are  gone.  Over half.  Gone.  On our watch.  In my lifetime. I am stunned with shame.  So what about the next 40 years?  Over 97% of California wetlands are already gone.  There are only 3% left in Los Angeles.  The Colorado River hasn’t met the ocean for decades, except briefly last year due to major earthworks.  We are pumping all that  water overland, open to the sun for evaporation,  to treatment plants that fill it with chlorine and other chemicals, then sell it to us to spray over lawns and flush down the toilet or let run down the drain while the water heats up.  It is madness.  All  the wildlife that depended upon the Colorado River along that stretch are gone.  All the insects, the frogs, lizards, birds, mammals, etc. that need a clean drink of water no longer have  access  to it.  The only water they can drink is usually chlorinated domestic water in ponds and bird baths.  Too often this water is treated with algaecide, which claims it doesn’t hurt frogs but it does kill what the frogs feed upon.  We are killing our animals with poisoned domestic water.dry_colorado_new[1]

One of the largest reasons we have extinctions in North America is mismanagement of rainwater in drylands (other than polluting the waters. Poaching, over-fishing, destruction of habitat and climate change are the main reasons).  We have cleared and flattened the ground, and channel rainwater off into the ocean.  Look around at your streets and houses.  Are they harvesting water or channeling it?  Any property that is slanted is channeling water away.  Any property that is level – like the bottom of swales – is harvesting water.  So many properties are inundated with annual rains because there is no water harvesting above them.  When you harvest water, it runs into rain catchment basins and swales instead of roaring down the hillside taking all the topsoil with it.  Water becomes passive and percolates down deeply into the soil.  That deep saturation draws tree roots down into the ground.  The roots break up hardpan, make oxygen and nutrient channels into the dirt and produce exudates  (sugars, carbohydrates and starches) through their roots to attract and feed the billions of microbes that turn your dirt into rain-holding soil.  That underground plume of rainwater then slowly passes through your soil, re-enervating subterranean waterways, refilling your wells and bringing long-dry streambeds back to life.  We must harvest rainwater to save our animals and plants, and consequently ourselves.  We must reestablish sources of clean, unpolluted chemical-free water for animals to eat and from which to drink.

Healthy pond water is off-color due to tannins, and is filled with tiny creatures.  Some such as daphnia are visible, but just like soil microbes, many aquatic creatures are microscopic.  Fish and frogs feast from this level of the food chain, and these creatures make the water balanced.  They eat mosquito eggs.  They clean up algae.  They are as vitally important as soil microbes.  Oh, and 83% of the frogs are gone.

I spoke with Quentin Alexander from  HiveSavers today; he performs humane bee rescue around the San Diego area and has been trying to re-queen Africanized hives with calmer European queens which will breed nicer behavior back into the bees rather  than having to kill the entire hive.  He has had no luck in the past two  years with European queens, even those bred in California.  With very little wetlands left, and those often sprayed with DEET by Vector Control, or polluted with chemical fertilizers and oils washed out of front yards, streets and driveways, these insects must resort to drinking from swimming pools and bird baths.  Again, these contain highly chlorinated water.  Animals are being forced to drink poison, or not drink at all.

We MUST stop using chemicals on our properties, and we MUST harvest rainwater.  We MUST stop spraying well water into the air but irrigate with it in dripper form under mulch so that it is cycled back into the ground rather than evaporated.  One inch of rain on one acre in one hour is 27,154 gallons of water!  It is so easy to harvest rainwater – dig level-bottomed swales!  Dig small ones with a trowel.  Fire up the tractor and turn road ways into swales, or cross-cut vertical paths with swales that have dedicated overflows.  Dig rain catchment basins to catch a flow of water.  Catch water as high up on your property as you can.  If you have level soil, fantastic!  You have it so easy!  Make gentle swales, rain gardens, rain catchment areas and sunken gardens to catch and percolate the water.  Bury old wood perpendicular to water flow – its called hugelkultur

Please watch this six-minute video by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Design Institute of Australia.  You need to type in your name and email, but they don’t sell your information nor do they bug you with lots of emails.  Here  is the link.  The title is Finding An Oasis in the American Desert, and it is about the Roosevelt swales dug during the dust bowl in the desert.  If nothing that I say, nor anyone else says can convince you, then please watch this and see the effectiveness of rain harvesting.  We MUST do this, and now before the rains come is the time.  Catch all the water that falls on your property in the soil, and try to catch the water that runs into it.  If there are flood waters channeled through your property, see if you can talk to the people who own land above you about harvesting water up there.  It will reduce the flooding, save topsoil and benefit everyone’s property.  Work towards keeping rainwater in your soil, reducing your domestic water, and making what streambeds are left come back to life.  Keep our old trees from dying by watering deeply through rain catchment.  If you have a pond or swimming pool and treat it with harsh chemicals and algaecides, seek out a natural pond professional.  In the San Diego – Los Angeles region there is Bob Lloyd of PuraVida Aquatics, or Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics.  Jacob builds natural ponds and maintains large natural waterways.  Bob maintains chemical-free backyard and display ponds that are full of wildlife.  He can convert your pool into a clean swimming pond where the water is filtered by plants and thus is lovely year-round, provides abundant habitat and doesn’t need chemical treatments.  No chlorine to burn your skin and eyes.  How great is that? He can also create a constructed wetland that cleans your greywater with plants.

There are so many simple and inexpensive ways to harvest rainwater rather than allow it to flow into the salty ocean without penetrating the soil.  Please, please, please do them, and if you already have THANK YOU and gently encourage your neighbors to do the same.  We must stop the habitat destruction and start to rebuild what is gone.