Our sixty degree weather here in Fallbrook, CA , gave us the opportunity to work in our garden. A year ago – 2014 – it snowed on New Year’s Eve. This year the nights are frosty, the days mercifully warmer, and the rain frustratingly rare. Our promised El Nino rains are expected to hit in force within the next couple of months. Weather they do or not, focusing on catching every precious drop in the soil, and protecting the ground from erosion and compaction, is paramount.
The last day of 2015 Miranda and I spent working one of our vegetable garden beds, and reshaping our kitchen garden. When we redesigned this garden by removing (and burying) the raised beds, hugelkulturing and planting, we made a lovely Celtic design.
However the plants just won’t respect the design, so we’ve opted to lessen the pathways, turning the beds into keyhole designs for more planting space. I’ll blog more about that in the future. Because the pathways have been covered in cardboard and woodchips (sheet mulched), the soil below them is in very good shape, not dry and compacted.
This bed has been home to sweet potatoes and various other plants, so although I try to practice the no-dig method, where you have root vegetables you must gently probe the soil for goodies. We left some of the roots, so sweet potatoes will again rise in this bed.
We planted in rows. Usually I mix up seeds, but this time I wanted to demonstrate polyculture in row form. We planted three rows of organic potatoes (purchased from Peaceful Valley Organics), with a row of shallots between them. Between the root vegetable rows we planted a row of fava beans, and a row of sugar pod peas. Around the edges Miranda planted rows of bull’s blood beets, Parisienne carrots, and maybe some parsnips. This combination of plants will work together in the soil, following the template of a plant guild. We left the struggling eggplant, which came up late in the year after the very hot summer and has so far survived the light frost.
On top of the bed we strew dead pond plants harvested from our small pond near our house, which will be receiving an overhaul soon (hopefully before the Pacific chorus frogs start their mating season in force). We didn’t water the seeds in, as there is rain predicted in a few days. The mulch on top will help protect the seeds from hungry birds.
A good way to spend the last day of the year: setting seeds for food in the spring.
Then on January 1 I decided it was a good opportunity to clear out the excess pickerel that had taken over our lower small pond. With the well off for the winter, and very light rainfall, this pond has gone dry. A perfect opportunity for me to get in there with a shovel, especially knowing that I already had a chiropractor’s appointment set for Monday (!).
The mud was slick and spongy, but not unsafe, and not nearly as smelly as I had anticipated. Pickerel is not a native to San Diego, but it is a good habitat pond plant and it has edible parts. I wasn’t tempted, however. Its roots are thick and form a mat several inches thick hiding rhizomes that are up to an inch in diameter. I’d cut into the mass from several sides, pull the mass out with my gloved hands and throw the heavy thing out of the pond. Its good to be in contact with the earth, in all its forms. I couldn’t think of a better way to use the holiday afternoon.
I moved at least a ton of material in four hours. Just before sunset I decided that I was done. About an hour before that, my body had decided that I was done, but I overrode its vote to finish. I left some pickerel for habitat and looks, and will try to contain it by putting some sort of a physical barrier along the roots, such as urbanite.
We also might harvest some of the silty clay for use in the upper pond, although the prospect of carting heavy wet mud uphill isn’t as appealing as it might sound. That needs to happen today or tomorrow, as the aforementioned rain is expected, and I want to fill this pond again for the frogs.
One good thing about the pond going dry is that there are no more mosquito fish (gambuzia) in it. Mosquito fish are very invasive, and love to eat frog’s eggs and tadpoles far better than they do mosquito larvae. When the pond fills with non-chemically treated water (rain and well water), some of the microscopic aquatic creatures will repopulate the water. I’ll add some water from the big pond as well to make sure there are daphnia and other natural water friends in it, which will do a much better job at mosquito control without sacrificing our native frogs. I can’t get all the gambuzia out of our big pond, but at least they are out of the other two. Once dragonflies start in again, their young will gladly eat mosquito larvae.
So here on the morning of the second day of 2016, I lay in my warm bed prior to rising to start the chores of the day, stiff as an old stiff thing as my body adjusts to strenuous manual labor again, looking forward to more gardening duties to prepare Finch Frolic Garden for the reopening March 1, and for the rains.
The best part of heavy gardening duties is that I can finish off the Christmas cookies guilt-free!
Two podcasts with me talking about permaculture, Finch Frolic Garden, and how you can save money and the world through gardening! 🙂 Please let me know what you think:
This is a podcast with Sheri Menelli of earthfriendlyhomeowner.com, where I talk pretty much without a pause for breath for about the first ten minutes. Recorded in May, 2015.
This is a podcast with Greg Peterson of Urban Farm Podcasts, released Jan. 7, 2016, and you can listen to it several ways:
Urban Farm U:
You can sign up for free to hear all their great podcasts here.
What is the first of the three chemicals in bagged NPK fertilizer? Nitrogen. Nitrogen is so important for the health of plants that isolated into a chemical, along with phosphorus and potassium, it can keep plants alive and active. But as the human body becomes ill when it is just fed junk food each and every day, so will your plants when they can’t assimilate the other nutrients in the soil.
Again, in permaculture it is all about the microorganisms in the soil. We provide food, water and shelter for them, and they open up the nutrients that are already in the soil on which the plants feed. When you dump a lot of anything on the soil, its going to kill microbes. Dumping bagged NPK fertilizer on the soil burns the creatures in the soil, just as if you poured acid on them. They die, and it will be awhile before the irrigation and rains delutes those chunks of fertilizer enough so that microbes can again live in the soil surface, but by then its time to dump more chemicals on the ground. The plant gets a high, but will never be able to adequately draw out the trace minerals it really needs to complete its diet, which soil microbes provide to it, because they are burned out of existence by the chemicals.
It would be pompous for us the believe that plants, which began about 450 million years ago on Earth, just fiddled around until their true keepers (humans) came along and evolved enough to produce chemical nitrogen to dump onto their roots.
In fact, there are many ways that nature gets nitrogen into the soil. Lightning strikes, rainfall, cut greens, fresh poop, fallen ripe fruit, all help. Most of all, there are soil bacteria which can transform atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen: inorganic compounds that are usable by plants. More than 90% of nitrogen harvesting is done by these organisms. There are non-symbiotic (free-living) bacteria called cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae), and there are symbiotic bacteria that form relationships with particular plants. These symbiotic bacteria, namely rhizobium and Frankia, invade the root hairs of select plants and create enlargements on the roots called nitrogen nodules. This process sounds and looks similar to wasps stinging oak branches and creating galls; however, the frankia are helping the plant; symbiotic rather than parasitical. Atmospheric nitrogen is inert, therefore unusable by the plant. When the bacteria get their little hands into it, by changing it into ammonia and nitrogen dioxide the nitrogen is freed up to be used as the plant and the bacteria needs. When the plant roots die, the nitrogen is released into the soil. So, the plant, with the help of the bacteria, is sucking nitrogen out of the air, breaking it down and releasing it as a usable nutrient source in the soil. Who needs chemical fertilizer?
Only certain plants still have the capability to join in this symbiotic relationships; some families have just a few species that can do it, and it is unknown if they developed the talent, or if the rest of the family eventually lost the talent. Legumes and all members of the Fabaceae family is the most commonly known and used nitrogen fixing family. Peas, beans, cowpeas, and clover are all commonly used cover crops. When mowed they produce both green mulch and release nitrogen into the soil. However, there are many shrubs and trees that are also nitrogen fixers. California Redbud tree, mesquite, mountain mahoganies, alders, ceanothus (California lilac), sea buckthorn, bayberries, cassia, acacias, lupines, and many more. There are also riparian plants such as azola, gunnera, some lichen and cycads which fix nitrogen with cyanobacteria.
In fact, 40-60% of native plants are nitrogen fixers. When you are planning your garden, your vegetable beds, your native Zone 5, and especially your orchards, you should be incorporating that percentage of nitrogen fixers into your design. Many of these can be mowed as cover crops, or used as quick-growing nursery plants, as canopy, or as chop-and-drop.
Chop-and-drop is when you grow your own fertilizer around your crop plants, and instead of purchasing and distributing fertilizer, a couple of times a year you take out a hand scythe and quickly cut back the nitrogen-fixing plants, scattering the tops around your food plants as mulch. When the top of the nitrogen-fixing plant is severely cut, the plant doesn’t need as much root base so it allows some to die, which distributes nitrogen into the soil. A double-whammy for your soil, and a small, easy and satisfying workout for you. Shazam.
Very important: when planting nitrogen-fixing plants there has to be the compatible bacterium in your soil for the whole thing to work. Purchasing inoculated seed for the first sowing on new planting areas is very important. As different bacteria react with different plants, study up some to make sure you are buying the right stuff if you are going to inoculate seed yourself. Then make sure that you are providing those tender bacteria with food, water and shelter – habitat – so that they can live and prosper. And what is the best habitat for soil microbes around food producing plants? Yep, mulch. Sheet mulch especially, and several inches of chopped leaves best of all.
You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines, Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries, Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.
Smaller trees are ‘nurseried’ in with the help of faster-growing canopy trees; in other words, the upper canopy helps shade and protect the sub-canopy from scorching sun, high winds, pounding hard rain and hail, etc. However, sub-canopy trees can also be made of the slower, longer-lived canopy trees that will eventually dominate the plant guild/forest. You can try these guys for tree falling. I’ve talked about how, if an area of forest was wiped clear and roped off, in a hundred years the beginnings of a hardwood forest will have begun. This is due to succession plants making the soil ready for the next. Each plant has a purpose. This phrase is an essential mantra in permaculture because it lets you understand what the plants are doing and then you can let them do it. So if you planted a fast-growing soft wood canopy tree, maybe even one that is a nitrogen-fixer, such as ice cream bean, or acacia, with a sub-canopy trees that include both something that is going to stay relatively small such as a semi-dwarf fruit tree, along with a slower growing, hardwood tree such as an oak which will eventually become the true canopy tree years down the line, then the original softwood tree would eventually be sacrificed and used as mulch and hugelkultur after the hardwood tree had gained enough height. Wow, that was a long sentence. At first that hardwood tree would be part of the sub-canopy until it grows up. Meanwhile there are other true sub-canopy trees that stay in that height zone for their life.
Remember, too, that plant guilds are relative in size. If you have a small backyard you may not have room for a tall canopy tree, especially if it is detrimental to the rest of the property. So scale the whole guild down. Canopy for you could be a dwarf fruit tree, and sub-canopy could be blueberry bushes. In a vegetable setting the canopy could be corn or Jerusalem artichokes, where you either leave the dead canes up overwinter (a great idea to help the birds), or chop and drop them to protect the soil, which mimics the heavy leaf drop from a deciduous tree. The plant guild template is the same; the dimensions change with your needs and circumstance. Get more details on how to take good care of the trees with the help of experts.
So sub-canopy buffers sunlight coming in from an angle.
It receives rain from the upper canopy further slowing it down and shattering the droplets so that it doesn’t pound the earth. The lower branches also help catch more fog, allowing it to precipitate and drip down as irrigation. Leaves act as drip irrigation, gathering ambient moisture, condensing it, helping clean it, and dripping it down around the ‘drip line’ of the trees, just where the tree needs it.
With its sheltering canopy it holds humidity closer to the ground. In the previous post I talked about the importance of humidity in dry climates for keeping pollen hydrated and viable.
It further helps calm and cool winds, and buffers frost and snow damage. Sub-canopy gives a wide variety of animals the conditions for habitat: food, water, shelter and a place to breed. While the larger birds, mostly raptors, occupy the upper canopy, the mid-sized birds occupy the sub-canopy. Depending upon where you live, a whole host of other animals live here too: monkeys, big snakes, leopards, a whole host of butterflies and other insects using the leaves as food and to form chrysalis, tree squirrels, etc. Although many of these also can use canopy, it is the sub-canopy that provides better shelter, better materials for nesting, and most of the food supply. And again, the more animals, the more organic materials (poop, fur, feathers, dinner remains) will fall to fertilize the soil.
Sub-canopy gives us humans a lot of food as well, for in a backyard plant guild this can be the smaller fruit trees and bushes.
Sub-canopy also provides more vertical space for vines to grow. More vines mean more food supply that is off the ground. A famous example of companion planting is the ‘three sisters’ Native American method… what tribe and where I’m not sure of… where corn is planted with climbing beans and vining squash. The corn, as mentioned before, is the canopy, the beans use the corn as vertical space while also fixing nitrogen in the soil (we’ll discuss nitrogen fixers in another post), and the squash is a groundcover (also will be covered in another post). There is more to the three sisters than you think. Raccoons can take down a corn crop in a night; however, they don’t like to walk where they can’t see the ground, i.e. heavy vines, so the squash acts as a raccoon deterrent. To stray even further off-topic, there is also a fourth sister which isn’t talked about much, and that is a plant that will attract insects.
Back to sub-canopy, while some of it can be long term food production trees or plants, it too can also have shorter chop-and-drop trees. Chop-and-drop is a rather violent term given to the process of growing your own fertilizer. Most of these trees and plants are also nitrogen fixers. These fast-growing plants are regularly cut, and here is where the difference between pruning and chopping comes to bear, because you aren’t shaping and coddling these trees with pruning, you are quickly harvesting their soft branches and leaves to drop on the ground around your plant guild as mulch and long term fertilizer. If these trees are also nitrogen fixers, then when you severely prune them the nitrogen nodules on the roots will be released in the soil as those roots die; the tree will adjust the extent of its roots to the size of its canopy because with less canopy it cannot provide enough nutrients for that many roots, and it doesn’t need that many roots to provide food for a smaller canopy. Wow, another huge sentence. In this system you are growing your own fertilizer, which is quickly harvested maybe only a couple of times a year. Chemical-free. So, by planting sub-canopy that is long term food producing trees such as apricots or apples, along with smaller trees and shrubs that are also sub-canopy but are sacrificial to be used as fertilizer such as senna or acacia or whatever grows well in your region, you have the most active and productive part of your plant guild.
Sub-canopy, therefore, provides shelter for hardwoods, provides a lot of food for humans as well as habitat for so many animals, it provides fertilizer both because of its natural leaf drop and because of those same animals living in it, but also as materials for chopping and dropping, it buffers sun, wind and rain, holds humidity, offers vertical space for food producing vines which will then be in reach for easier harvesting, and much more that I haven’t even observed yet but maybe you already have.
The next part of the series will focus on nitrogen-fixers! Stay tuned. You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines, Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries, Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.
Whether you are planting small plants in pots, ornamentals in your yard or a food forest, you need plants that will provide an upper canopy for others. If you have small plants, then you will have a short canopy. Maybe your canopy is a tomato plant. Maybe its an oak. Whatever it is, canopy has many functions.
Upper canopy provides shade so that other plants can grow. It drops leaves, bark, flowers and seeds and/or fruit to provide compost and food for all levels of animals down to soil microbes. Canopy provides protective shelter for many kinds of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects as they hide under the leaves. A mature oak is home to over 300 species. Old scarred canopy full of holes is the natural home for honeybees, and many types of bird and other animal. It is a storage unit for acorns gathered by woodpeckers. Where you have animals, you have droppings. All the poo, feathers, regurgitated pellets, fur, scales and other organic waste that falls from canopy is vitally important for the health of the soil below.
Canopy provides a perch for raptors and larger birds that help with rodent control.
Canopy helps slow the wind; the fewer trees we have the harder the winds. Canopy also filters the wind, blocking dust and other debris. Canopy helps cool and moisturize the wind. The leaves of canopy trees help buffer the rain. Rain on bare ground is as compacting as driving over the dirt with a tractor. If rain hits leaves it bounces, rolls or shatters. Rain can then hit other layers below the canopy, finally rolling through leaf mulch to percolate into the soil without compacting it.
Canopy catches moisture as well. Here in Southern California we may not receive a lot of rain, but we do have moisture during the night. Often I’ve walked through Finch Frolic Garden of a morning to feed the hens, and the garden sounded as if it had its own special rain cloud over it. That is because moisture condenses on the leaves and rolls off. The more canopy and the higher the canopy, the more water we can collect. In that same way, canopy begins to hold humidity on the property, which the rest of the guild contributes to. Pollen dries out. With longer, hotter, drier summers there is worse pollination even if the pollinators are active, because the pollen isn’t viable. Less humidity equals fewer fruits, nuts and vegetables. Therefore, the more canopy, and other parts of a guild, the moister the air and the better the harvest.
Canopy is in connection with all other plants in its community, linked via webs called mycorrhizal fungi. Through these webs the canopy sends chemical messages and nutrients to other plants. Every plant in the community benefits from the strong communications from the canopy trees.
Canopy builds soil. Canopy trees are large on top and equally large underground. Tree root growth can mirror the height and width of the above-ground part, and it can be larger. Therefore canopy trees and plants break through hard soil with their roots, opening oxygen, nutrient and moisture pathways that allow the roots of other plants passage, as well as for worms and other decomposers. As the roots die they become organic material deep in the soil – effortless hugelkultur; canopy is composting above and below the ground. Plants produce exudates through their roots – sugars, proteins and carbohydrates that attract and feed microbes. Plants change their exudates to attract and repel specific microbes, which make available different nutrients for the plant to take up. A soil sample taken in the same spot within a month’s time may be different due to the plant manipulating the microbes with exudates. Not only are these sticky substances organic materials that improve the soil, but they also help to bind loose soil together, repairing sandy soils or those of decomposed granite. The taller the canopy, the deeper and more extensive are the roots working to build break open or pull together dirt, add nutrients, feed and manage microbes, open oxygen and water channels, provide access for worms and other creatures that love to live near roots.
Canopy roots have different needs and therefore behave differently depending upon the species. Riparian plants search for water. If you have a standing water issue on your property, plant thirsty plants such as willow, fig, sycamore, elderberry or cottonwood. In nature, riparian trees help hold the rain in place, storing it in their massive trunks, blocking the current to slow flooding and erosion, spreading the water out across fields to slowly percolate into the ground, and turning the water into humidity through transpiration. The roots of thirsty plants are often invasive, so be sure they aren’t near structures, water lines, wells, septic systems or hardscape. Some canopy trees can’t survive with a lot of water, so the roots of those species won’t be destructive; they will flourish in dry and/or well-draining areas building soil and allowing water to collect underground.
In large agricultural tracts such as the Midwest and California’s Central Valley, the land is dropping dramatically as the aquifers are pumped dry. Right now in California the drop is about 2 inches a month. If the soil is sandy, it will again be able to hold rainwater, but without organic materials in the soil to keep it there the water will quickly flow away. If the soil is clay, those spaces that collapse are gone and no longer will act as aquifers… unless canopy trees are grown and allowed to age. Their root systems will again open up the ground and allow the soil to be receptive to water storage. Again, roots produce exudates, and roots swell up and die underground leaving wonderful food for beneficial fungi, microbes, worms and all those soil builders. The solution is the same for both clay and sandy soils – any soil, for that matter. Organic material needs to be established deep underground, and how best to do that than by growing trees?
In permaculture design, the largest canopy is often found in Zone 5, which is the native strip. In Zone 5 you can study what canopy provides, and use that information in the design of your garden.
How do you achieve canopy in your garden? If your canopy is something that grows slowly, then you will need to nursery it in with a fast-growing, shorter-lived tree that can be cut and used as mulch when the desired canopy tree becomes well established. Some trees need to be sacrificial to insure the success of your target trees. For instance, we have a flame tree that was part of the original plantings of the garden. It is being shaded out by other trees and plants, and all things considered it doesn’t do enough for the garden to be occupying that space (everything in your garden should have at least three purposes). However a loquat seeded itself behind the flame tree, and the flame tree helped nursery it in. We love loquats, so the flame tree may come down and become buried mulch (hugelkultur), allowing that sunlight and nutrient load to become available for the loquat which is showing signs of stress due to lack of light. With our hotter, drier, longer summers, many fruit trees need canopy and nurse trees to help filter that intense heat and scorching sunlight. Plan your garden with canopy as the mainstay of your guild.
Therefore a canopy plant isn’t in stasis. It is working above and below ground constantly repairing and improving. By planting canopy – especially canopy that is native to your area – you are installing a worker that is improving the earth, the air, the water, the diversity of wildlife and the success of your harvest.
Canopy is improving the water storage of the soil and increasing potential for aquifers. The more site-appropriate, native canopy we can provide in Zone 5, and the more useful a canopy tree as the center of a food guild, the better off everything is. All canopy asks for in payment is mulch to get it started.
Next week we’ll explore sub-canopy! Stay tuned! You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines, Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries, Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.
October is one of my favorite months, even when we’re on fire here in Southern California. This year we’ve been saved, and October is moderate in temperature and lovely.
Summer has lost her vicious grip and we have time until the holiday rush and winter cold. Finch Frolic Garden has withstood the heat, the dry, the inundations, the snow and the changes, all without chemicals or much human intervention.
We’ve lost some trees and shrubs this year, but that is mostly due to the faulty irrigation system which delivers too much or too little, and is out of sight underground.
Permaculture methods in sheet mulching, plant guilds, swales, rain catchment basins, and the use of canopy have pulled this garden through.
The birds, butterflies and other insects and reptiles are out in full force enjoying a safety zone. A few days ago on an overcast morning, Miranda identified birds that were around us: nuthatches, crows, song sparrows, a Lincoln sparrow, spotted towhees, California towhees, a kingfisher, a pair of mallards, a raven, white crowned sparrows, a thrush, lesser goldfinches, house finches, waxwings, robin, scrub jays, mockingbird, house wren, yellow rumped warbler, ruby crowned kinglet, and more that I can’t remember or didn’t see.
Birds have identified our property as a migratory safe zone. No poisons, no traps. Clean chemical-free pond water to drink. Safety.
You can provide this, too, even in just a portion of your property. The permaculture Zone 5.
I’m indulging in showing you photos from that overcast October morning, and I hope that you enjoy them.
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.
You can have a lawn and not use as much water, and not add any chemicals to it, by understanding how grass grows. You can starting learning everything about lawn caring at ngturf.com/area-calculator/.
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 and with a strong weed killer it can be stopped. 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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com. You’ll love what you learn!