Communal Sweet Peas

My bountiful sweet peas are enjoying a bit of celebrity. They continue to grow taller, fuller, and more fragrant by the day, attracting comments from neighbors and friends.  I had a chuckle the other day when my petite neighbor passed the house on the sidewalk, momentarily disappearing behind the tall vines.  When she reemerged on the other side I smiled. Who knew that a garden overflowing with delicate and fragrant flowers could be so uplifting?

Sweet peas embrace the Chinese Pistache

If I were still ten-years-old I would build a fort in the middle of the sweet peas. There would be a secret entrance and everything.  As it is, I can no longer reach the center of the garden, where a few tall weeds are thumbing their nose at me.

A tangle of sweet peas, Nigella, and cornflowers with a few of the natives peaking through

Since returning from my travels, I’ve cut sweet peas for a friend’s birthday and as a thinking-of-you posy. Today I took small jars of flowers to my Pilates classmates. I’ve filled bottles and jars with the sweet blooms, accompanied by cornflowers and Nigella buds for a bit of greenery.

This is the first time I’ve used my “From the Garden Of” stamp. It came in a small box with a green stamp pad and a small, green pencil.

A close-up of my gardening stamp

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, so a neighbor asked if she could cut some flowers for her son’s teacher. It’s wonderful sharing the bounty.

I chased a bee with my camera, but to no avail. He had places to go, flowers to pollinate.

A blush of pink: a new color this season

The original starter seeds were a gift from my friend Kelly. She thoughtfully included purple so that my sister Sharon could also enjoy them when she came for a visit. I’d never planted sweet peas before so I made a novice move and planted them in the spring. The plants fizzled, so Kelly and I surmised that they didn’t like the conditions in San Jose. Eventually we let the front lawn die off and replaced the area with native and drought tolerant plants.

As far as I can tell, the process of turning the soil in the fall, followed by a generous helping of rain awakened the seeds. They spread all over the garden, jumping the sidewalk and making a run for the street. It’s hard to convey the joy I get from this garden.

The sweet peas won’t last through the summer. One major heat wave will be their undoing. My Canadian friends can keep them going for the summer, but in semi-arid San Jose, the flowers wilt in the heat like me. Knowing this makes them all the more sweet.

The last two days have been insufferably hot in the Bay Area. We’re within three degrees of breaking a heat record for this time of year with 87 F (31C) predicted in San Jose. Fortunately the weather is cooling off by the weekend so we can sleep comfortably once again.

I hope this week’s heat won’t send my sweet peas packing. Last year’s crop lasted through June. I’m working hard at living in the moment, remaining mindful, while enjoying that subtle fragrance wafting through the evening air.

Jars of sweet peas decorated with vintage seam binding and my new “From the Garden” stamp

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The Economics of Going Native

California Native Plants Replace the Lawn

California Native Plants Replace the Lawn

There are a number of things to consider when converting lawn to native plants. Economics is one of them. Up front costs are costly if you are unable to do the work yourself. If you live in the Bay Area/Silicon Valley as we do, labor is expensive.

When we bought this house in our thirties, my husband and I did most of the work ourselves. We spent hours removing ivy, digging a faux creek, planting and hauling stones from a quarry in the back of my hatchback. I mowed the lawn with a push-mower, and reluctantly got down on my hands and knees every few weeks to trim the blades of grass away from the curb.

Then life became more complex. I had two boys, three years apart, one requiring a number of early interventions. My husband traveled for one or two weeks each month and often worked long hours beyond a typical day. It made more sense to pay for big jobs then to attempt to do them ourselves. We’re both pretty handy, but we knew our limits.

Now that life is simpler again, I turned my back for five minutes and  I’m now in my fifties.

What?

So while we now have more time, we lack the strength and the energy. Between the two of us we have problems with our backs, feet and knees. We used some of our savings instead.

Here’s the math:

Professional landscape design and installation: $7,658

This included labor for hauling of old sod and other debris, site prep, laying of irrigation, planting and mulch. A crew of three worked for five days to complete the project.

collage native plant installation

RJ Landscape Crew Installation

Material costs included irrigation pipe and emitters, edging, pea gravel, paving stones for the swing area and plants.

The Santa Clara Water District offered a handsome rebate incentive for converting your lawn. After submitting all the paper work, I received a $2,530 rebate.

landscape rebate application

Santa Clara Valley Water District Landscape Rebate Program

This reduced the overall cost by a third, bringing the price down to $5,128.

I am no longer paying a lawn service, saving $1,800 a year in maintenance alone this year or $3,600 over the next 24 months. There will be additional savings in our water bill as well.

Between the rebate and the savings on lawn maintenance, the overall out-of-pocket cost of the conversion is about $1,528. In three years, the project will have paid for itself.

Why replace your lawn? Here’s a handy list published by Green Town Los Altos:

1. Healthier Creeks. Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are top polluters in our creeks, killing aquatic life and spreading disease.

2. Less Storm Water Runoff. Deep roots of native plants and trees surrounded by mulch retain more water on site.

3. More Free Time. Native plants don’t require fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and benefit only from annual or semiannual pruning.

4. Save Water. Lawns require more water than our climate can provide.  Reducing our draw of water from the Delta and the Sierras helps maintain their ecosystems.

5. Save Money. All the mowing, fertilizer, herbicides and irrigation of lawns cost a lot of money. Native plants need substantially less effort and money to maintain.

6. Cash for Grass. Santa Clara Valley Water District will pay you up to $2000 to replace your lawn. Note: Sadly, this program is currently out of money, but  local citizens can put their name on the waiting list.

7. Good Bugs, Not Bad Bugs. Mosquitoes in our dry summer? There must be a lawn nearby. Frequent watering creates tiny pools just right for mosquitoes to breed. Native plants attract good bugs and birds, ones that eat mosquitoes and other pests.

8. Biodiversity. Other than hardscape, there isn’t a more inhospitable surface to biodiversity than the mono-culture of lawns.

9. Less Greenhouse Gases. Manufacture and transportation of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and mowers has a substantial carbon footprint. Transportation, pumping and treatment of water requires energy. When you save water, you also save energy!

10. Smart Choice. Landscaping with plants that are native to our climate is a smart choice. If you want soft areas for kiddies to roll in, native grasses come in all three flavors: seeds, plugs and sod.

You can read the full article at Green Town Los Altos.

One last thing: An amazing thing has happened since removing the lawn. Now that I’m taking care of the entire garden once again, I feel more connected to my little patch of earth. It’s been a welcome and unexpected gift.

To Prune or Not to Prune?

pink roses
There are different theories on the proper time to prune a plant.  When we bought this house twenty years ago there were dozens of rose bushes, front and back. I “hard” pruned them once a year in January, removing crossing branches and dead limbs and leaving little more that a few inches of stem. My neighbor looked on aghast, but I assured him all was well. Sure enough, the flowers bloomed year after year.

I’m not a big fan of roses, so we gradually replaced them with other plants. One of our neighbors took all of the pink roses and transplanted them in the garden of her rental property. It was nice to see them go to a good home.

rose bushes 2010

2010: Rose bushes on their way out.

About five years ago we added some hydrangeas in a few shady garden spots. The first year I pruned the plants in the fall after the blooms turned to a crumbly brown. A few of them came back looking good, but some of the others looked so-so. When I researched the proper time to prune them I got mixed answers. Some of the articles said to prune in the fall if the flowers bloomed on new wood. Others suggested pruning in the spring. I got up close to each plant and honestly couldn’t tell which was which

Last fall I decided to split the difference. I left a few of the plants untouched, while pruning the others just above the buds.

Now I know.

All of the hydrangeas are showing new growth, but the ones I left untouched look healthier. The growth appeared just below last year’s spent bloom. It was a wonderful experience cutting off the dead blooms and exposing the lovely lime green of new growth below. Don’t you just love that color?

Hydrangea: Spent blooms and new growth

Hydrangea: Spent blooms and new growth

hydrangea new growth

Hydrangea: New growth on old wood?

pink hydrangea

Hydrangea: A small bloom…in February.

hydrangea leaves

Hydrangea: New life underway

According to this first article in Fine Gardening, “knowing if your shrub blooms on old or new wood will help you make timely cuts.”

The same site shared this video, saying it depends on when your hydrangea blooms, spring or fall. Since ours bloom in the spring but continue to bloom through the fall, it seems that I should have pruned last fall after all.

I’m back to being confused.

I’ll report back in a few months when the plants are in bloom. Life in the garden is never dull.

Ho, hum, hot!

I’m a seventies gal. That is to say that I prefer temperatures hovering around 72 degrees with a slight breeze. I have British Aisle genes and a California address. Now that we’re approaching the hottest months of the year I must hide from the heat and sun. Tomorrow’s forecast: 101°F (38°C).

Gardening used to happen at the end of the day when I could safely venture back outdoors. As we settle uncomfortably into year four of the California drought, not much gardening is happening at all.

Planting pots with annuals on the deck and porch has long been a favorite ritual. This year I emptied all but a few pots, and planted what remained with succulents. They don’t need much watering, perhaps just once a month, but they don’t need much care either. Part of the joy of gardening is watching new growth, pinching back leaves, dead-heading flowers and making tiny bouquets. It’s fun to see an annual double in size over the course of the summer. This year I’m forgoing that tradition.

What remains of the lawn resembles a bed of straw. I’m happy to see the lawn go, but had hoped that by now we would have our native plants in place. I met with a designer in April who promised a two-week turnaround, but as we approach July we remain in limbo. I’ve completed the landscape rebate program application but I can’t submit it until I have both the list of plants and the specific irrigation components for the rebate.

drying grass

Drying grass, dead sweet peas

DSC_0189

The Statice likes the dry conditions and attracts butterflies. The sweet peas are a different story.

In the back garden, I sheet mulched half of the lawn thinking I would replant this spring. That too is in limbo, awaiting plans. For now that area is a patch of brown, albeit fertile soil.

drought garden

Half lawn, half dry patch, and an all-volunteer tomato crop

I didn’t plan a vegetable garden this year either, other than the raspberry vines that come back time and again without fuss. With no effort on my part, three tomato varieties self seeded: one grew under the Acer, several in the gravel surrounding the rotating compost bin and a few in the actual planting boxes. Mike added a drip line, so we could eek out some drops at the roots.

three tomato collage

Self-seeded tomatoes

A few weeks ago more tomatoes popped up in the patch of former lawn. They seem to be surviving without any water, something that doesn’t seem possible. I scratched the surface of the soil and it remains dry at least an inch down. The plants must be getting by on morning dew and perhaps some ground water. Amazing.

In the same sea of dirt stands a single pumpkin, ringed by several tomatoes. The plant’s leaves droop in exhaustion at the end of each day, and I whisper my understanding. I head to the swing and enjoy the green that remains while longing for a refreshing downpour.

self planted pumpkin and tomatoes

A pumpkin or squash surrounded by tomato plants

It’s survival of the fittest out there under the hot, dry early summer sky. Indoors this seventies gal needs to improve her attitude.

Nature vs. Nurture: A Garden in Flux

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea (Water just once a week)

I’m gradually turning our garden into a more sustainable oasis. Instead of nurturing the English garden of my dreams, I’m letting nature do the talking. I’ve learned a lot from four years of drought.

We’re no longer watering our lawn, allowing nature to takes its course. I met with a landscape designer a few weeks ago and he’s putting together a design for native perennials. I’m envisioning a small meadow that attracts native birds and insects.

Last week I submitted an application to the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Water Conservation Unit. It will take five to seven weeks to process a one page request, but so it goes with many government agencies. That in turn will generate a lengthy packet of materials to complete, and only then can we proceed (if we want to receive a rebate). As the drought drags on, the rebates increased. Original rebates offered seventy-five cents per square foot. They’ve now increased to $2 per square foot for:

converting high water using landscape (i.e. irrigated turf or functional swimming pool) to low water using landscape. These increases are temporary, through December 31, 2015, and certain restrictions apply

Our back lawn is 370 square feet. If approved we’ll receive a $740 rebate. The front lawn is a bit larger so all told, getting this approval will put a nice dent in the conversion costs. With or without the rebate, we’re going forward with the plans.

In addition to converting the lawn into native landscaping, I’m no longer filling pots with annuals. We have three large pots on the deck that receive irrigation from a drip line. Everything that was hand-watered is gone or replaced with succulents that get by on virtually no water at all.

red succulent

Potted Succulents

Welcome to the Garden

Late yesterday, just before sitting down to write my fairy garden post, I received an out-of-the-blue package from my friend Kristi. Along with her lovely note she sent these charming fairy garden treasures.  I wasted no time adding them to the garden. I adore that little sign!

fairy garden welcome to the garden sign

New Welcome to the Garden Sign

I tucked the new hammock among the soft greenery. It’s the perfect napping place and makes me wish I was Thumbelina. Thank you, Kristi!

fairy garden hammock

The napping place

fairy garden sign and hammock

Fairy Garden Vignette

Garden Snapshot

Busy, busy, busy.

Did I mention I was busy?

I’m having fun in the garden in between appointments, exercise and carpool duties. Here are a couple of snapshots as I go about my day.

garden snapshot potatoes, watering can, geranium

Patio corner springs with life

There are two steps leading from our back door to the garden patio. They form an L shape, resting against the house and leading to the garden. The steps currently house a potted geranium, my new watering can and a ceramic bowl of water for the cats. I’m energized by all that color. The small fountain that the cats like to drink from is off-limits so that the birds can have a swim unmolested. The fountain is now surrounded by a small wire fence.

Staked inside the geranium are a pair of gardening tools, a gift from Talia and Belinda. They spotted them at a cat show and thought of me. Sweet, eh?

That small bowl of red potatoes grew in the center of my sheet mulch compost project. I’m looking forward to steaming them later this week. Red potatoes are one of my favorites.

bowl of red potatoes

Red Potato Compost Harvest

Here is a closeup of my garden fork and spade. Aren’t they cute?

garden tools meow

Charming gifts

And I’m off…

I hope you’re living life in the slow lane. I’ll catch up soon.

About That Rain

lexington bridge 2-3-2015 1-53-33 PM

A divided reservoir: bridge in the background, all that grass used to be under water

As year three of the California drought drew to a close, something amazing happened: two weeks of storms making it one of the wettest Decembers in recent history. There was plenty of talk about the end of the drought and everyone felt some relief. That series of storms dumped enough rain to put us well above average for the season.

Then there was January. Typically one of our wettest months, San Jose registered “a trace of rain” measuring 0.02 inches of rain. According to our local paper, January was the driest on record.

Lexington Reservoir

I drove over the bridge crossing Lexington Reservoir on my way home this afternoon.  The county built the reservoir in 1952. It serves as one of the primary sources of fresh water in Santa Clara County.  I made a detour so I could take a few pictures.

Lexington Reservoir 2-3-2015 1-58-22 PM

Lexington Reservoir currently at 32% capacity

Santa Clara County Water District captures water in the reservoirs during the wettest months, then they release it into the ground water basin during the dry months. It provides more than half the fresh water used in our county. The water levels continue to fall, compounded by the unseasonably warm temperatures.

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Lexington Reservoir: The exposed grassy area used to be under water

lexington reservoir and santa cruz mountains

Heavy smog brought us another spare-the-air day. No rain or wind lead to unhealthy air quality

Gardening During a Drought

It feels irresponsible at this stage to plan a summer garden. We’ve talked of adding a water catchment system to use for irrigation, but unless it rains, it won’t do us any good. I researched a grey water system last year, but they aren’t without there challenges. The other half of the household is not on board.

I’m currently sheet-mulching half of the lawn in the back garden. I’ll plant drought-tolerant natives when the soil is ready. What remains is a small patch of green near the patio.

These are ‘small garden’ problems. Communities in California that rely on well water have seen that source run dry. Farmers need water to raise crops, and everyone needs clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Gardening Nirvana

What is a gardening blogger to do? Should I rename this blog The Guilty Gardener? Should I abandon a garden blog altogether? I’m at a bit of a crossroads.

As we head into year four of this drought, we have a few bright spots on the horizon. Three days of storms are in the forecast this week. February and March still lie ahead. But it could be years before we recapture lost ground. Water is not mine to waste.

I would love to hear from you. What would you do in my shoes?

The Atlantic Photo: Dramatic Photos of California’s Historic Drought