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As part of the landscape design class, we visited the San Francisco Botanical Garden to examine the role that water, stone, and plants play as part of the overall design. The gardens feature a diversity of plants from the Mediterranean climates of the world, cloud forests of Central America and Southeast Asia, and temperate zones of mostly Asia, Europe, and North America.

The design of the gardens is a cooperative effort between many different peoples over time. This includes supervisors and managers that stretch back to superintendent John McLaren and more recently folks like Walter Whalen and Matthew Stephens. Notable designers and architects such as Thomas Church, Ron Lutsko, Bernard Trainor, and Roger Raiche have all left their footprints here. Past curators and collectors who have develop the plant palette include Don Mahoney, Bian Tan, Tony Morosco, David Kruse Pickler, and on up to the present day curator Ryan Guillou. Contractors of course play a part in actually placing stones, moving soil, and installing boardwalks. Of late, that has included Rock and Rose and Goodscapes. Lastly, and most importantly, it is the gardeners day to day activities that help to shape the true design of a garden over time.

We will take a counter clockwise tour of the botanical gardens, and check out individual vignettes and specific gardens. Put your critical thinking cap on, and be ready to apply the basic principles we have discussed in class – balance, rhythm, scale, and unity. We may touch upon issues of public and private space, native versus non natives, function and aesthetics, people and wildlife, safety and maintenance. In short, you are called upon to use your skills as a designer to bring it all together.

At the entrance, this is a piece by Guillou. While most of the plants have grown in, and its become a bit harder to discern the pattern, the number of objects is always in odd numbers. Threes, fives, and more. So there is that tension or asymmetry we discussed with regards to repetition of plants and the counter balancing of softscape with hardscape. Count em.

As we traverse the northern edge of the great meadow of lawn, take a look at the planting beds on the right side. The plants are grouped not by geography or rarity or ecology, but by color. All the plants are of the cool blue yellow and white wavelength. In the first picture there is the rhizomatous running grass Leymus condensatus, the yellow feet of kangaroo paws Anigozanthus, yellow flowered Phlomis fruiticosa, and the shrub sticking up is Melaleuca incana the grey honey myrtle. Further on there is blue Ceanothus, gray greenish Echium, and a Griselinia hedge with the variegated yellow borders. All super cooooool.

Go in to the new garden that has been designed by Lutsko and Guillou, it is called the Celebration Garden, a garden meant to be used as an outdoor venue for events. It replaced the demonstration garden; the only remnant of the past here is the pavilion designed by Thomas Church. This garden is also planted primarily based on color – whites, silvers, blues, greens. Elevation wise it is mostly flat and low. The tallest plants planted here are the large fishtail palms Caryota. In time, they are to be overtaken deliberately by the wax palms Ceroxylon. In maybe 40 or 50 years according to the staff.

This garden is defined by wide expanses of turf, followed by silvery Convovulus and low spreading silver Dichondra; tree ferns, silver spear Astelia; blue succulent Senecio madraliscae; blue fescue. You get the idea – color is cool, and the plants range from full sun to shade. The most challenging aspect is likely the litter under the tall Eucalyptus trees, the open and windy exposure, the meticulous nature that is crucial to a rental space, and the safety of 2-4 year olds playing near sharp agaves.

Water is central to a garden. In the old European style it is commonly a fountain in the middle, or in the Moorish style it might run along a trough through the center. San Francisco Botanical Garden is no exception. At the end of the great meadow is this beauty. It is temporarily not running due to construction or repairs. The cinder blocks with the wires on top is a bird deterrent that resembles a daddy long legs spider. It is meant to keep geese and other critters from going in the fountain and pooping there.

Walking over towards the Primitive Garden and you will notice the water trough that conveys water from the Japanese Tea Garden across the street to the large pond known as McBean waterfowl pond. The trough is made recycled materials – specifically it is concrete, aka urbanite. It is lined with a white clay that is called bentonite. A nice thick layer of bentonite will make it water tight and minimize leaks. It is a commonly used material for pond building, an alternative to the thick EPDM rubber liner.

Big ol carp always come by for a hand out at the pond. They are not the fancy pretty koi, they are all gray brown colored. But they are the same fish – a chunky scaly fish with barbels around the mouth that thrives in freshwater that has low oxygen content. It likes a similar habitat as catfish. In many parts of the country the carp is considered an invasive species.

The Australia garden next to the Primitive Garden has a water feature that runs down the middle of it. It is a dry creek bed. This first picture is the end of the dry creek. Over the past ten or fifteen years, all the plants have grown up around this design feature, to the point that it is almost completely obscured by erosion and leafy debris and tall shrubs. But it is still there, the defining cohesive element of the whole design.

Besides water, stone and rock bring character to a garden. Mr Trainor had a neat idea here while making the retaining wall benches and seating. Rather than a smooth level gray concrete of a form, he utilized crumpled up aluminum foil and concrete colorants to create texture and geological age. Yup Australia is a really old continent and so the hardscape seeks to reflect this. I like how as it ages, the grooves and cracks and unevenness picks up the moss and stains of time.

We cruised through the Chilean garden and saw these Andean Wax palms, the tallest palms in the world. Imagine the Celebration Garden when the palms grow up tall! Well I’ll probably be dead by then but it is worth dreaming about…

The Zellerbach Garden is a formal garden that is high maintenance. To look good the perennials need a lot of attention. Luckily it has some help from a group of volunteers who have been coming for over thirty years weekly. Deadheading, pruning, weeding, and so on. It is another garden that is not focused on diversity and ecology, its palette is based around the pinks and purples, with a smattering of red white and blue. So it is warmer in temperature and wavelength. There is a little bit of symmetry – the matching structures and trees – but it also has that English perennial border feel of happy exuberance and abundance. Notice how the perennials are for the most part herbaceous, not woody. Hence over time you get nice clumps of blooms, and not huge shrubs trying to take over and shade out everybody else.

When you line yourself up under the gazebo, and look back at the expanse of the botanical garden, you will see the axis of view that defines the formal gardens inspired by European royalty. Ideally, you would be able to see clear across to the other side of the garden, with the water feature in the middle. Can you see the white rim of the fountain?

Back to water – the water trickling down the stones of the Moon viewing Garden. This water feature is constructed in an old fashioned manner – lined with concrete, with round river rocks pressed into it. It is the same method of construction as the ponds in the Japanese Tea Garden. On this day, the upper waterfall had water, but the lower troughs leading to the moon viewing pond was dry.

The deck and view of the pond was closed for a wedding. So sorry – could not get in to show you the sights. The pond there is shallow, and there are no fish in it. It is a raccoon hunting ground. What is a neat feature there is a small island in the pond that is in the shape of a turtle. And the overhanging Coriaria tree is quite a specimen too.

There was more closed area by the Conifer Lawn. Signs explain that a coyote had been sighted and perhaps threatening a garden visitor. This was the area that it was last seen in. What a drag. Between Covid and now the coyote.

Finally at the top of the hill is the succulent and cactus garden. The placement of this garden took into account the ecological needs of this group of plants. They like it hot, with good drainage. The monastery stones used for the retaining walls have great thermal mass, and radiate the heat they have stored during the day, at night. There is a diversity of forms and colors here, they are united by the predominantly dry and desert like conditions of their native habitats – whether that be Africa or the Americas.

Back to water again as we go down the hill through the grove of coastal redwoods. It is running dry here as well, whereas in the recent past stands of skunk cabbage wet their roots here under the Sequoia canopies alongside ground covers of redwood ginger and redwood sorrel.

Water always descends to a low point. The lowest point in the botanical garden is by the Arthur Menzies Native plant garden and the old greenhouse. The water ends up in a big reservoir where a pump in a pump house, staffed by a stationary engineer, pushes the water back up the hill.

The main body of the California native plant garden is in the shape of a large oval, with a small pond and a bridge at the head of it, and a dry creek that runs through the garden. (This is a common motif, no?). Here we are looking from the end, or the base of the garden, up at the head. The asphalt road that cuts across it is a new addition – meant for easier access for supplies to the to-be-built new nursery. At the end of the dry creek is a tiny tule and cattail lined pond and an Alder tree, which is commonly found close to water in nature.

Alongside the new road are new plantings. On the far side are woody shrubs – sticky monkey flower, toyon, coyote bush, coffee berry. The dominant shrubs of the coastal sage scrub. On the side closer to the rest of the garden are low plants more commonly found on the beaches and sand dunes – beach sage and beach strawberry, plus some coyote mint of the clay rocky uplands too.

The original design plan of the native plant garden was to showcase the vegetation communities of California. The palette is an ecological one. There was the native bunch grass meadow that was common in central valley. There was the coastal scrub and chaparral of woody shrubs all knit together. There was the oak studded foothills and woodlands full of acorns. There was the serpentine outcrops of rocks and gravel and strange endemics. And there was the riparian riverine plants alongside small drainages and lakes. There was no desert biome represented, neither the low Anza Borrego desert flora nor the high Mojave desert flora.

The bunchgrass meadow has been painstakingly planted. Heres Purple needle grass Nasella pulchra, tufted hairgrass Deschampsia cespitosa, and California oat grass Danthonia californica. You can still find these plants occurring naturally in San Francisco. Nasella and Danthonia form small stands at McLaren Park in the grasslands by Gleneagles Golf Course. They are periodically burned around the Fourth of July. The only place you will find wild tufted hairgrass in San Francisco is on Bayview Hill by Candlestick. It is in a few patches where it is wet and close to the groundwater seeps near the top of the hill. It is scattered and does not form dense masses.

The chaparral is often dominated by manzanitas, yerba santas, chamise, and sagebrush. In the native plant garden the manzanitas have been heavily pruned to accentuate their branches and open up the views.

Okay. We are still following water, up the hill, past the California natives, up into the temperate Asia section of magnolias and dwarf conifers. There are four distinct ponds, all connected to one another by pipes and gravity. Simple and elegant design. The bottommost pond was dry, a pond that originally housed carnivorous plants. The rest had water. These ponds are also lined with bentonite clay. Occasionally leaks will occur at the edges where raccoon and coyote and skunk hunt for crayfish. Then the gardener has to fix the leaks… The ponds have names like bamboo pond, dwarf conifer pond, and Annelli Pond.

At the end of the tour we ended up back at the entrance, by the library courtyard garden, a garden enclosed by the Spanish monastery stones. With, you guessed it, a small fountain in the middle. There is a good history of the stones here:

Unlike a regular building material you go and buy at the store, the stones came in irregular sizes and shapes. So as a designer, there really is no way you can draw a plan and say make it look exactly like this. You can come up with a preliminary idea/structure, and then just let the stone workers run with it. It is in a sense off the books, improvised, and built in an organic manner. This is the same approach we use when building with recycled materials like granite curbstones or granite scraps from the cemetery dumpster.

Not sure about who did the work on this wall, but for a similar structure by the rhododendrons, they had to bring in four or five old time stone cutters from Oaxaca Mexico to put it together. This is not a common trade around these parts anymore, more like traditional artesanal craft. Pretty neat results.

The fountain was dry. And the plantings? They are new. Another design by the current curator all in purple with a touch of orange from the Alstroemerias. A plant palette based around, for the most part, one color.

Well we will end the tour with a picture of plants wild collected from southern Spain – snapdragons, red poppies, yellow rockrose, esparto grass, and asparagus. A plant palette that come from a place, a community, an ecological niche, and a climate similar to our own. Well, enjoy, and see you in the gardens!

Water management addendum:


As gardeners and horticulturists, we talk about salts the way the chemists do
we are talking about a crystalline solid formed by a positive and a negative ion

table salt is sodium chloride, nice clear white crystals sitting in a shaker jar
pour that salt into water and the bonds split
the salt dissolves into solution
sodium and chloride become ions swishing and swashing around,
tucked within the H2O
sodium ion is charge positive +
chloride ion is charge negative –

an ion, by the way, is an electrically charged particle
the particle can consist of just one atom,
or it can consist of a group of atoms – polyatomic, a molecule
for example, sodium chloride is one atom of sodium to one atom of chloride
if the salt was ammonium nitrate, that would be one ion of ammonium and one ion of nitrate
ammonium is NH4 (one nitrogen and four hydrogens)
while nitrate is NO3 (one nitrogen and 3 oxygens)

we can now call that water solution full of ions an electrolyte,
meaning it conducts electricity
kinda the same concept as a car battery
or the special vitamin water or sports drink that says it replenishes your electrolytes
or the cells in your body with sodium and potassium coming in and out all the time
we are all skin bags of water, filled with bits of charged ions

now go look on any fertilizer or potting mix label

ammonium nitrate salt
ammonium ion is positive, nitrate is negative, easy

potassium phosphate salt
Potassium is positive, phosphate is negative, easy

calcium nitrate salt
calcium is positive, nitrate is negative, easy

potassium sulfate salt
potassium is positive, sulfate is negative, easy

all those -ates: sulfate nitrate phosphate
theres gotta be a pattern
yeah it just means theres some oxygen in there cause oxygen loves to bind with others
sulfur and oxygen – sulfate
nitrogen and oxygen – nitrate
phosphorus and oxygen – phosphate

if you are ground water running through limestone channels or quarries
for sure you will pick up some of that calcium and magnesium in the limestone
then that water is called ‘hard’, and it forms deposits on the kettles and things called ‘scale’

if you are ground water running through sodium rich soils
then you will pick that up too
and become sodic or saline or salty
maybe somebody will put you in a pond, and evaporate the water
then bag that salt and sell it to passerbys and traveling caravans

if you are rain water, that is pretty pure stuff for the most part
unless you picked up some burnt stuff particles on the way down from the clouds
some bits of sulfur or nitrogen from the volcano or the power plant…

in general
as a gardener and nursery person, you want minimize the salt buildup in the soil
a little bit of salts (fertilizers) is good right?
yes, but you want a balance, you want just enough, not too much of a good thing
which becomes a bad thing

imagine you have the soil chock full of sodium ions
and the plant stops absorbing the other ions altogether
no more magnesium and calcium and iron and copper and potassium and zinc
all it gets is sodium
not good, gonna get sick
plant goes caput, and your career as a grower goes down down down

time to time you may have to leach the soil, or add other things to compensate & balance for
the distribution and quantity of ions
the amount of salts

last thing
just to be technical and make the high school chemistry teachers happy
a negative ion is called an anion
and a positive ion is called a cation, a ca+ion

We had a nice draw freehand style draw at the Sunnyside Conservatory

talked about different ways to shade a tree

and how freehand requires a loose throw it all out there approach

in contrast to the more accurate but rigid to-scale type drawings

Lets take the basic plan we had from our one point perspective

and develop it into an isometric drawing

where that nice 90 degree angle is now 120 degrees

and much of the drawing is done with the help of the 30-60-90 triangle

it is all to scale – so that is pretty easy

but to be fair – it is not really a perspective

in the sense that things far away are small, and things close up are big

still, it does convey the three dimensional imagery,

and helps the viewer to understand what you are visualizing

for the outdoor space

Remember to use the 30 degree angles!!!

And measure correctly! Start with pencil…

Okay that about does it! So instead of a rectangular patio in the middle, thought it would fun to pop it up into some kinda structure. And the thing in the back of the garden, not sure what that is either?! Practicing the basics of an isometric drawing – YES! Good planning? – Maybe not… But I got my Italian cypress trees ready to screen the neighbors! Lets go to ink.

Now wait a second. What are you doing?! What is this strange mess of a garden?!? Stop this nonsense! Go back! Go back!

Are you serious at all!? Who would want to have such a place in their backyard? Well, at least you get the idea – an isometric drawing. Now it is your turn. Let’s go!!!

So frame your picture first. The edge of the paper is the frame. But when you are outside framing, stay focussed. Do not get distracted by the blurriness at the periphery, stay in the frame.

By the way, all drawings here are done in thick black marker or thin black pen for easy visibility and contrast. In your drawings use the black pen for final, and pencil for the guidelines or converging lines so that you can erase them later.

Then you figure that in the distance is the horizon. Somewhere way out there is a flat line. You looking straight at it.

On that horizon, set your sight on one point. The point of infinity so to speak. Stay on that point. It is way out there. All lines are going to converge at the point far far away.

Now draw in all the lines that are converging. You can be exact and draw every line five degrees apart. Or you can be a little sloppy like I was.

Now we are going to draw in our rectangular backyard. You are looking from your house out the back. Depending on how you draw it, the yard is going to be narrow and long, or wide and short, or something in between. You’ll be standing way inside it, or a little outside of the yard.

Let’s move that point of infinity a little higher, a little above the horizon line, and see what happens. Maybe a better angle?

Okay, lets draw a yard full of things using these lines and the point. First time out so lets draw a generic plan that is symmetrical geometric and sorta formal. We will all draw from the same plan view. What is it? I’m not sure. A couple rows of trees. A couple of square things in the middle, and maybe a water wall fountain or a cow watering trough in the back? You have artistic and designer liberty.

Lets give it a few tries. First one a little lopsided and awkward… But arent we all?

That was horrible! Well I did see a little bit of improvement. Some shading. Feeling some comfort. Alright try again! Another set!

What was that!? Palm trees? And what’s that triangular texture in the middle square? I don’t know… little pyramids? Just playing with textures and designs. Take it easy! Sketches only! Now go practice your perspectives, everywhere!

Addendum to Insects chapter 7 of CMGH:

Words and concepts to know, in order of appearance:
Invertebrates; ecto and endothermic; ptera; beneficial insects; butterfly host plants; parthenogenesis; integrated pest management; proper pest identification.

This for me is one of the best chapters. The chapter is well written, so I will simply add a few details and stories. We could go on for infinite pages with regards to the study of bugs. A more broad term that covers all of the creatures in this chapter is invertebrates – creatures without backbones. This includes the insects, the arthropods with the hard shell and jointed legs like spiders centipedes and pill bugs, as well as the slimy things like snails and slugs. That would actually be a better title for this chapter – Invertebrates.

In the olden times we were taught cold blooded and warm blooded. The warm blooded was all the good cute noble animals like dogs and people and lions. Whereas the cold blooded was the creepy snakes and salamanders and bugs and stinky fishes. So if a person behaved in a real clandestine non emotional and despicable manner, we would call them ‘cold blooded’. We associate this trait with the ‘lower’ animals called reptilians and crawly things.

The whole idea is that warm blooded creatures can regulate their own body temperature so that it is above the ambient outside temperature; it is 50 degrees outside but your internal temperature is around 98 degrees. Whereas cold blooded creatures are dependent on the sun to heat things up and get them moving. When it is cold they just sit still. They crave the heat. That is why we find the rattlesnake sun bathing on the asphalt roadway, and the blue belly lizard doing pushups on the rocks.

Well nature is of course a bit more complicated than our boxy dichotomies. Tunas and white sharks have heat exchangers that make them warmer than the surrounding water and so they are extra speedy. That is good for chasing down anchovies and salmon and leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals. Bumble bees can also buzz themselves warm on a cold morning so that they can go harvest nectar for their babies, grasshoppers warm up their throats before singing. If you are a snake or a turtle that lives in the tropics, it is likely that you are warm blooded all year round, cause it is hot outside. The more proper terms we use these days for creatures with regards to regulating their metabolism and temperature is ecto and endo thermic, poikilotherm and homeotherm.

In addition to chewing and sucking mouth parts there is also the sponging mouth parts common to flies.

There are so many bugs in the world that we will make some generalizations as we discuss their structures and characteristics. Know that there are numerous exceptions as well as millions of bugs we have not yet named and probably know very little about. To start with, the names of the insect orders is indicative of their wings. ptera meaning wing in ancient Greek.

So Coleo ptera (the beetles) means sheath wing. Many have a cool shield of a pair of harder wings on top we call elytra, with the clear membranous flying wings below. If you have ever held a lady bird beetle and watched it open the upper flaps and fly away then you know what I am talking about. Like a car with doors that open up ‘scissor’ or ‘butterfly’ style.

Lepido ptera (butterflies and moths) means scale wing. If you have caught a butterfly and had it leave little pieces of its wing scales on you that is the ticket. Scales that rub and flake off.

Di ptera is the flies. Di is two winged so they have two wings, one pair. But actually they do have four wings, but two are reduced to a funny weird structure that resembles a pair of dumbbells or small clubs called halteres. Used for balance. They fly with amazing agility so that when you are about to swat them they angle away super fast. Well, all those eyes help too.

Hymeno ptera is membrane wing. In this group are the bees and wasps with four wings, all membranous but often with hooks that clip them together for extra flight control. In this group are also ants, which most of the time do not have wings except for when they are breeding, swarming, and dispersing.

Hemi ptera is half wing. For the most part the hemipterans have half a wing looking solid, the other half looking membranous. The backs of them have a distinct criss cross X. If you have bedbugs I am sorry, they are a Hemipteran parasite that feeds with a pierce and suck stylet of a beak of a mouth part. A little confusing is that there is a group tucked within the Hemiptera called the Homoptera. Homo ptera meaning same wing. They used to be their own Order but are now subsumed within the half wings. This is a huge group full of plant feeders that you as a gardener will get to know well as time passes. And not in a good way.

Silver fish and firebrats are the order Thysanura. Thysan ura is tassel tail. For those funny looking appendages that stick out at the tail end. Every I am sitting at the computer writing they always scurry across my paper notes and I get distracted to squash them.

And so on with regards to names and ancient Greek and Latin… A little bit more local color:

Scary looking bugs that you want around the garden:
One is the devil’s coach horse beetle you often come across in the compost pile. They are really scary looking and your first reaction will probably be ‘kill it’. But they are ’good’ in that they feed on baby slugs. So let them be. Another one is the larvae of the syrphid fly that loves to eat aphids. Aphids are not your friends in the garden, the larvae of the syrphid fly is your friend. Again, just cause something looks like a sluggy wormy inching-along-thing does not make it ‘bad’. Lastly check out the larvae of the lady bug beetle. Yes we know the ladybugs are good, but its juvenile stages are good as well. But they look nothing like the adult, and some people even call them ugly. All the bugs in the garden that help the gardener with their duties we call beneficials. They are the ones we inadvertently kill if we spray a broad spectrum non selective insecticide.

Bugs that saved an entire ecosystem:
A little south of San Francisco is a large and wild park called San Bruno Mountain State and County Park. It is pretty nondescript and most of the time it looks like a dried out hunk o rock smack in the way of a bustling and hustling urban metropolis we call the Bay Area. Most people have driven by it thousands of times as they cruise on highway 101 up and down the peninsula without ever wanting to go up there. At one point at the base of the mountain was the dump where all the garbage went. At another point folks who owned it wanted to scalp off the whole top of the mountain to use the rock as fill – to fill in the bay for development and real estate. These days it is protected thanks to the efforts of local peoples like David Schooley and also because of the endangered species like the San Bruno Elfin butterfly and the Mission Blue butterfly who make their home there. Both butterflies have specific host plants the caterpillars feed on in order to complete their life cycle. The Elfin larvae eat stonecrop Sedum, and the Mission Blue larvae eat lupines Lupinus.

If you have never been to this park it is worth a walkabout to the summit or any of its trails. Hopefully on a clear day with no fog so that you can see the surrounding areas from a high ground. It is a neat reminder of how things have looked for the past three five or maybe even ten thousand years. It is the oldest part of the tip of this peninsula that remains relatively unchanged. Not paved, not built on, not dredged, not dug up. Just still plants, rocks, bugs, and some animals. Same as it always ever was. Back in the day fellow from UC Davis Dr Ward recorded about thirty species of ants from the mountain. 30 species! In the city, probably just the one species of ant – the little black ant that comes a wandering in your house, the argentine ant.

Bugs with noteworthy reproductive habits:
There are numerous kinds of aphids – little round soft bodied bugs that suck plant juices. As they feed they often act as vectors for plant diseases. They are known for this trait called parthenogenesis whereby they reproduce asexually at an extremely rapid rate. Did you read the stat from the book? 1,560,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 aphids per female for the April to October season. All clones of the mother. Except that the mom makes both male as well as female clones of herself. One heptillion, 560 hexillion. Nuts. Parthenogenesis is also used by some bees, flies, ants…So you either find a mate or go at it alone. Total dominance.

Bug control:
Like we have discussed all along. Integrated Pest Management is the key. The first step is always proper identification of the pest, as well as the host plant it is feeding on. Then, you can start to monitor regularly, and consider your options to keep the pests’ population levels under control.

‘We also base wise plant choice on the prevalent diseases in an area and the susceptibility of the plant to that disease. Growth rate and spacing is another consideration. As is diversity and ecology as relates to birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and the like.”

Prevalent disease:
Sometime around the 1950’s and 60’s there was an ornamental hedge plant named Eugenia that was planted extensively throughout California. It was a plant in the myrtle family from Australia that had white flowers and pink edible fruits. It took shearing well and grew to be a large shrub to a tree. Real pretty thing. Then a bug named psyllid, aka the jumping plant lice, took a liking to the Eugenia and went around sucking on its plant juices. In the process the Eugenia leaves became malformed and distorted with little bumps and pits. Plus the sugary excrement (frass) of the psyllid on the leaves would bring in the sooty mold fungus. The plant turned into a sick yucky mess. For a while people would use chemicals to treat the plant and kill the bugs, but that got expensive real quick. And some of those toxic chemicals got banned. In the end, many landscapers decided to just chop em down. These days, you can buy psyllid resistant Eugenias, and who knows? They might make a come back in popularity. One more thing – botanists working on this group determined that it actually belonged with the genus Syzygium, so that is where it is now. So old time gardeners will call it Eugenia. Smart up to date kids will call it Syzigium. Same plant though.

Another plant that has gone through a similar trajectory is the Fuchsia plant. Thirty forty years ago they were all the rage. For sure somebody you know had a hanging basket of them. In the 1980’s a mite made its way here and began feeding on the Fuchsias. The leaves became
all mangled and distorted and lost their value as an ornamental. Like the Eugenia, chemical and biological control work, but at some point you are like ‘at what cost’? Since then, for the past twenty years or so, we have continued planting fuchsias – the ones that are resistant to the mite, not the old fashioned ones. This has been a concerted effort by breeders who do not want to see the abandonment of such a great plant with fantastic flowers.

The latest plant victim of insect feeding and destruction is the Myoporum laetum tree from New Zealand. Myoporum is a common street tree and sometimes hedge that was adaptable, somewhat drought resistant, and tolerant of town pollution. It served for many years in this capacity. Then about ten years back, it got a bug called thrips. Same sad story of curled stunted and gnarled leaves. A couple of insecticides seem to work okay – the bacterial based Spinosad and the systemic poison known as Imidacloprid. With imidacloprid the dilemma is – how much is that plant worth to you? If using the pesticide causes further harm to local honey bees, is it still worth it?

As a designer you would want to know these things. The nurseries are often helpful with advice about disease resistant plants, as are groups of gardeners who meet and discuss such issues regularly such as the San Francisco Professional Gardeners Association. If you make plant choices and decisions solely based on color and texture and online mags and what they say on the internet then it is likely that you will miss out on local conditions and essential field knowledge.

Growth rate and spacing:
Some plants grow fast, others slow. Here, Buddleja butterfly bush is fast, Lavatera is fast, fragrant Daphne and its close relative Dirca are slow. If you place a fast grower next to slow growers, all too soon the speedy one will be towering over the others, casting shade, pushing their roots outa the way, making their life miserable. Ideally you plan for this and give everybody enough room, and make a note to the homeowner to prune regularly.

This here is a row of four or so butterfly bushes at a local park. Back five seven years ago, they looked neat and orderly on a landscape plan. Now, having grown woody and tall quickly, they have ‘taken over’…

The whole thing with spacing is so tricky to nail down. On the one hand you want the garden to grow in relatively quickly, so that your plan manifests itself and the clients are pleased. On the other hand you wish the plants would stop growing at some point and stay in that perfect and mature and precise size and form forever. (When is that, by the way?) Of course the plants do not listen to you as they have their own agendas. So really just do you best on this criteria, and be careful of how many fast growing woody plants you draw in your design.

What are they, what are their plant names? The woody fast growers I got to be careful with? Sigh. I’ll make a list another day. But recognize that nothing is a sure thing in the garden – even if we are talking about the same exact clone of a plant, its growth rate will vary and be dependent on the site’s soil, water, light, wind and air, nutrients, microclimate, etc etc etc. I could give you a list, but better and more specific than a list is you, gardening in your neighborhood, and figuring it out with all of your gardener friends.

Diversity and ecology:
Making a garden along these lines is difficult for many people to enjoy visually because it sometimes runs contrary to a garden being clean and neat and not bug ridden. I include this design criteria because some gardens are deliberate ‘butterfly gardens’ or ‘habitat gardens’ or ‘endangered species habitat’. If you go into the designing of native plant restoration sites then it is extra important to know what you are getting into, and what would define success.

In general, I too like the wide open vistas and prefer them over shaded woods. Must be some kind of an ancestral instinct of hunting on the plains and feeling safe. As a gardener, I also appreciate the feeling of weeding a plot of land, or pruning plants so that they are separated distinctly, not all jumbled continuously into one another. When I go to see a fancy private garden like Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, I am impressed that there is one gardener per acre keeping the whole place meticulous and neat, not a weed outa place.

That said, there is another feeling altogether when you are in a mega rich and diverse place, filled with a cornucopia and abundance of life. There is a blurry messiness, right at that edge where people insist on it being clean and sharp.

A diverse place showcases strong, independent and yet connected, life. Strong and independent in that human management is not totally necessary to maintain order. Humans are contributors, but not the main design element that is ‘in charge’. The place and the beings are connected in that they are feeding on one another, but there also exists layers and layers of cooperation and even, dare I say it, harmony. Harmony not in the sense that hunger and death do not exist, but in the sense that they are part of the scene. Stuff turning brown, fruits dropping messy seeds, logs decaying, worms, birds scratching through the weedy ground covers. In a garden aiming for diversity, these are not aspects of the garden to hide and sweep under the rug and ‘make disappear’ and cover up. Such a nature place hums in an altogether different manner. So as a gardener trying to mimic this ‘style’, you have to explore such places and figure out how they tick together.

The old growth amazon jungle is one such wonderland. A few details I remember are the colors of hundreds of butterflies of dozens of species landing on our sweaty backpacks as we lay them down for a rest. Like in those indoor butterfly exhibits times 10,000. It is nuts, like a sky full of flittering glowing wings. All descending for a few drops of sweaty salts and minerals. In designing a garden of complexity, leave some food for the butterflies and the bees and the birds too. Or plant some food for them. Check.

Or the number of trees of varying kinds in the wet humid jungle, that was pretty crazy. That is what they are always talking about with the old growth rainforests right? The sheer number and types of trees – somewhere in the range of three hundred different species of trees per acre. But when you are there walking through the shaded trails, you are tree blind and they all look the same. You dont know a single one of them, so they all look the same. A stick going up. Bunch of sticks. What my friend Mr Kutches calls dog hairs and pecker wood. Just a puzzle of green with all these liana vines stretching to the canopies. So ignorance confers comfort in a way – easy to lump stuff and put it in a corner of your mind. Dismiss it, forget about it. But then you never get to see or to know or to understand. Some kind of profound poverty of the senses if you have in all your life never talked to and befriended the common earthly denizen known as a tree. The lesson: get to know every tree. Check.

Diverse places are rare these days, as a result many or most people have not experienced them or lived with them. If anything probably fear them. We have been actively pushing them away, further and further away from human consciousness. Therefore, I will describe another example of diversity and ecology to try to get you a ticket on the train. Talking about fishin’.

You take your kid fishing to a trout farm. Pay an entry fee. Its a pond filled with trout, all the same species, all more or less the same size. You know you are going to catch something, like 100% sure. You hook up and are super happy. You then weigh the fish and pay for the fish. They even gut it for you. Go home and eat it. Its pretty fun. But not that diverse. Like buying all your plants at a big box store from a nursery that makes billions of cans of the same plants from cuttings. Plants are naturally beautiful so plants are not the problem. Its the sameness of the patterns that is not an element of the ‘wild’ garden.

Next time, you go fishing to one of these human made reservoirs that are stocked with catfish and trout. Again, pay a day use fee, a parking fee, a boat launch fee for that rubber dingy kayak thing. You are floating around the reservoir, the reservoir that has a clean edge with no vegetation, except for a tiny clump of tule reeds on the southern edge. A big bowl of a reservoir that was carved out of the hills without much up down contours and elevation underwater, or in out in out shorelines, just a big round bowl that you can see all the way across. Not much underwater structures for fish to congregate around, few hiding places for schools of little bait fish. The water is trapped, impounded, and hardly moves. Basically the place is a good water source for people, but not much happening if you are a fish trying to raise a family. So you fish and fish and fish, some people are catching em, but not many. They say you gotta come on the day when the hatchery truck comes and be right there. Then for sure you are going to catch a fish. Oh, thats how it is? You are a little frustrated, thinking that you could have spent all that money just buying some filets at the grocery store. There was no feeling of inspired transcendence or unity with nature – just another failed transaction. And got a sunburn besides. Reflecting back on the design of the garden of ‘abundance’, the lesson is to accentuate the jagged outlines and serrate lobed crenate edges and highs and lows, and to gain comfort with that aesthetic – for the sake of all the creatures who would make it their home. If you garden is based on a weed whipped straight edge once every two weeks, or weed free flower beds mulched and sprayed once a month, its gonna be a clean, but quiet garden. The hospital operating room and the military barracks are clean. An old peoples’s home or the library are usually quiet. A diverse garden is really really loud with the sounds of cicadas and frogs and tweety birds and grasshopper strums and mushrooms sneezing spores. A diverse garden is a little bit messy cause theres things living and dying and living and dying and everybody is always eating leftovers.

You still want to go fishing. A friend says I will take you and your kid to Three Mile Reef or Hopkins landing or the submarine canyon. You are really scared of the open ocean but you agree to go because you want to experience a place that drops you to your knees. A place that overwhelms you with awe and totally wrecks you out of the dream of ultimate control and dominance. And you want to catch a fish. The friend says be ready at 4 am. With great reluctance and trepidation you agree, and tell your kid to go to sleep early, no more videos and senseless fingering. Tomorrow is the day. Then morning is here and it is still dark when you push off the sandy beach in a boat and make your way out past the two to three foot waves into the depths of the blue sea. Your friend explains. For one, there is a variety of substrates – sand mud rock gravel shale… Two, there is up down shelves and sea mounts and canyons and shoals and bars and caves and trenches and ridges… Three, there are plants named eelgrass and macrocystis kelp and ulva sea lettuce… Then your friend starts going on about currents and temperatures and upwelling and swell and tides and invertebrates and plankton and you are like ‘Can you shut up already? I only care about the fishing!’. No sooner said then done, you are surprised by a whale breaching. Looking down into the water, you see millions of shining silver specks gliding by all headed north. And the rod bends, and its fish on! Your first fish is an alien looking sculpin. But with time, you meet sand dab and sole and halibut and blue rockfish and brown lingcod and spanish mackerel and coho salmon and on and on and on. Stop. What does this have to do with garden design? Well, it is the same thing in the garden, and we as people can play an active role in activating this love of the planet. It starts with the land and the plants and how we cultivate this relationship. Except on land, in the garden, instead of mussels and scallops and monkey face eels and albacore, we are talking about isopods and springtails and creeper birds and allen’s hummingbird and andrenid bees and red legged frogs and gopher snakes and everybody else. And your kid? Jabbering on in the boat, I almost forgot about the kids. They are why we are designing and growing a diverse and ecologically healthy garden. Because the process is fun, is challenging, is exciting and unpredictable. And in the words of the new generation, it is SICK!!!

By leaving logs as path liners and sculptures and erosion control, you will feed saprophytic pill bugs and beetles and turkeys tails and create a habitat for slender salamanders and millipedes. And on and on up the chain of beings.

By having selective groundcovers and self sowing annuals, either ones that you plant, or ones that come in on their own, you will provide food and shelter for creatures of all kinds. Nectar, pollen, seed, foliage, fibers for a nest – its all great stuff. A bunch of mulch all the time looks good for a shopping mall landscape, and that herbicide sure works wonders in the parking lot. But to play in tune with mother nature’s garden, you gotta emphasize the positive, not negative space.

Instead of deadheading and trimming everything, and treating the gardener as a custodian, leave the ripened seed pods and some brown leaves alone. Not only are they ingredients for someones dinner and home, they will enable you to start a seed company or seed exchange. Its that flow and interaction that is gonna make you as a garden designer really pop.

Find out what the host plants for local butterfly caterpillars are, and plant those species along with some nectar plants for the adults. And when the leaves of the host plants are all curled up and tented and full of holes, don’t reach for the bug spray. Let them be. Later, when you see the butterflies in the sky, lighting it up, you might go ‘hey theres my buddy!’. Ditto with encouraging the preferred habitats of damselflies, solitary bees, dragonflies, and so on. And the yellow jacket wasps streaming out of the ground – sorry, take em out.

All in all it is a balance. Some of y’all might think I am advocating for lazy gardeners who neglect their beats and call the weeds habitat. Or that I am anti-power tool anti-pesticide anti-human growth and anti-progress. Or that I am encouraging habitat and wildlife which to you means uncontrolled populations of rats and raccoons and pigeons and coyotes eating pets. No. The design principle here is that we want the kids to know our world as a magical and fantastic place. The garden is a great portal into that world. If you manicure it and sterilize it and try to deny all the joy that is a part of a garden, then the kids are going to miss out altogether. They will be thoroughly disconnected and find themselves in an ugly labyrinth of the mind. You gonna rob em of wonder and force them to live in a sad dull poor lonely miserable world of a garden and that is a no no no. Cannot. Let. That. Happen.

Field propagation

As a maintenance gardener there are some opportunities to do field propagation. If you understand the forces at work then you can keep plants alive and multiply them to make greater abundance. Plus it is a lot of fun.

Maybe the plant grew too big for its space, or it was planted in the shade and not the sun. Or, the new owner of the garden wants a brand new landscape. You are tasked with digging up the plant and either moving it or getting rid of it. You can do it.

Most plants will survive a move. Ideally you want to keep as much of the root as possible, and make sure the roots do not dry out once it is out of the ground. You will want to keep it out of the direct sun for a while ( a few days to a couple of months, depending on the time of the year). Cutting back some leaves (say 30-40-50-60% of the foliage) will keep water loss to a minimum and increase the survival rate.

So use your round point shovel or spade and dig around the plant. The bigger the plant the wider you go. Go straight down, not slanted in, if possible. Get as much as the root as you can. All the way around. Go deep. At some point, rock it back and forth, pull it up and out. If it is still attached somewhere, cut that roots with your spade, with an old saw you don’t mind putting in the dirt, with an ax, or with a reciprocating saw. While you are digging and moving it, wear that eye protection. It is easy to approach in close and have a stray and itinerant little stick of the plant poke your eye out.

Put the plant in a tarp or big bucket to move it. Try not to get dirt everywhere. If the dirt is really too heavy then shake and bat some of it off. If you can plant it in the ground somewhere right away then do it! Unless that spot is in the hot hot sun with drying wind and hydrophobic soil. In that case you really should have waited until the rainy season to do the transplanting.

If you are not planting it, heel it in. This is laying the plant down with the roots in some wet soil in a shady semi shady spot. “I’m too busy to get to it right now, but the plant is okay for a bit like that, and I’ll deal with it as soon as I can.”

Then you can sell that magnolia tree or camellia bush to another client for 50 80 100 dollars. Eventually you are thinking about owning a small nursery…

Many grasses or plants with grassy looking forms are candidates for easy propagation. The plants I am thinking of have names like Juncus, Hemerocallis, Festuca, Dietes, Aristea, Nerine. Dig them up. split em in sections using that old hand saw again. Plant them. Beware of too small sections that cant handle the process, that dry up and die. Be careful with some of the african rushes in the restios group because in the process of division they dont take it too well. They may die back further and take two three months to return to a semblance of normality rather than just keep trucking along.

Sowing and planting annuals:
If you have a yard with bare dirt or open sands that is not mulched and weed clothed and filled with weeds then you may have a spring time flower show with annuals. Lightly cultivate with a hard rake (not a flex rake) in November or so, just after the first rain. Buy your pound or two of seed beforehand so you are ready to go. My favorites are Clarkia farewell to spring, Eschscholzia California poppy, Phacelia, lupines, and sunflowers Helianthus. Over sow to make sure the stuff pops come spring time. Sow and spread the seeds evenly as you press them into the soil with your shoes. Or cover lightly with available soils. If you are lucky, the plants like the spot, and drop their seeds. Pretty soon your hillside is all naturalized with wildflowers that persist year after year. The only things is… hope for rain. Pray for rain. Otherwise that 100 dollars you spent on seed is a bust. Well worth a try at least.

Making cuttings: Some of these tricks I learned on my own, others I picked up about twenty years ago watching my teacher General King Sip, park supervisor Andy Stone, and any number of kind and knowledgeable plant people who were happy to share.

Many succulents are easy to grow. Just take a piece and stick em in the ground. Especially true for aeoniums, crassulas, delosperma, and aloes. Ideally after cutting them, you would let them callus, sit around for a day, then plant them. But if you are sticking them into pure sand, and hold off the irrigation for a bit, that is the same idea. You just don’t want that rot to creep into the open cut of the stem.

One time they were rerouting the path in the garden and an angel’s trumpet tree brugmansia was in the way. And we did not want to lose the specimen and just junk it. So Andy cut some sticks of it and stuck em in the ground. Took off some leaves of it too, to cut down on the transpiration. This is on a north facing shaded and wet hillside that is pure sand. Sure enough, the cuttings took. Up higher, in a tiny bit more sun, beautiful ol lady Ora Walker had her bed of rose cuttings. Sounds like some fancy thing but it was just three short little wood boards with a the back of it a chain link fence. Filled with sand and little labels to indicate what plant was what. She would make five inch cuttings and stick them in the sands of Golden Gate Park. No leaves just sticks like a pencil. Sometime in the fall winter. Give them three four months, come back, pot em up! Super easy and fun too. Sand is pretty good as a cutting medium because it has large pores that are easy for roots to grow through and it drains well. That means rot is less likely.

Many plants may not be succulent succulents, but they have a woodyish stem that is juicy and chock full of nodes. Nodes which have the ability to send out roots quickly. If you happen to be hedging or cutting back Begonia fuchsioides, Impatiens sodenii, or Strobilanthes penstemonoides, then save those pieces. Take them home, put them in a vase with water. They will root easily sitting in water. Then you can plant them back out in another garden, and maybe even charge the client for the plants. If you do enough of this kind of thing, then you may be tempted to open a nursery…

I was transplanting some rhododendrons, Salvias, and Spiraeas the other day. Although they were irrigated often, the soil right below was dry dry dry bone dry. Right below meaning about 3 inches down. This is the kind of place where more compost and wetting agents would be helpful, as well as trying out different irrigation regimes and nozzles.

Please take the following quiz with your mates. Do not look up the answers. Ponder it, discuss it, and make your best educated guess. Afterwards, read the stories.

Addendum to plant pathology chapter

St Anthony’s Fire: Back in the middle ages farmers grew a lot of rye and barley for food, for alcohol, for fodder (animal food). Some years the rye seeds would get a browny black purple fungus growing on it. The fungus was called ergot Claviceps purpurea. If you were rich, you could afford the high end contaminant-free rye. If you were poor, you might be stuck eating it. If you ate it and was poisoned by this fungus-ridden rye, then you would get seizures and spasms, throw up, and go crazy. As the blood vessels tightened and narrowed and constricted you would get dry gangrene of the limbs, and hallucinate – feelin’ like all the demons of the world were tearing you apart. And sometimes you would die. From the 1500’s up to the 1800’s, ergot was also used as a medicine in a smaller dosage to induce labor and speed up childbirth.

Around the 1940’s, a plant chemist at Sandoz Labs in Switzerland was investigating ergot for other medicinal uses when he accidentally self experimented and ingested a form of the ergot alkaloid called lysergic acid. It was during WW II and automobile use was restricted so he rode his bike home with his assistant, the whole time tripping hard. The hills streamed by in distorted and curved shapes, rainbows of geometric colors drummed through his mind. The world became conscious, alive, and animated. Plus, he had a strong urge to faint. It was down right frightening for an educated man of science. Time became non existent or at a standstill in an infinity loop.

Well later this drug became known as acid for short. It was used as some kind of a truth serum and interrogation aid by the military and CIA; was sold at grateful dead concerts on blotter paper by folks yelling ‘family crest’; was stuck to the forehead of Jimi Hendrix as he played guitar, and become a ritual for folks like Timothy Leary or the Merry pranksters of sixties. It is still a schedule I drug here in the USA. Like its discoverer called it, it was his “problem child”.

Roquefort cheese: Old time story says a young french shepherd, playing his flute and herding his sheep, ducked into a cave to wait out a rain storm. Sitting there, hungry, he chowed down on the cheese and bread he had tucked in his pockets. Then the rain stopped, a rainbow shone bright in the sky, and he went running outa there all happy singing “alouette” and “frere Jacques” and “une souris verte”. He forgot his half a chunk of cheese and left his crumbs all over. He returned to the cave a few months later with his sheep, and found his cheese. By now that cheese was full of streaks of blue and had a stinky smell. Well the boy being a boy, a French boy endowed with natural curiosity and a fearless palette, took a nice big bite of that cheese. Um um good it was! There you go – Roquefort cheese. A union between the milk of ewes, and a mold of the caves.

Fly Agaric: The peoples who lived in the arctic, like people everywhere, would taste test plants animals lichens and fungi to see if it was edible. Or medicinal. Sometimes a person would die after chewing some white root with the purply splotches. The others would remember this, and pass on this knowledge to future generations. In addition, they might start experimenting with the particular plant, to see if maybe it would be useful as an arrow poison.

In ancient forests of the arctic there was big ol stands of birch trees alongside the spruces larches and firs. In the winter time next to the trees would pop up these red capped mushrooms with white button specks all over. Was this good to eat? What were its properties? So they ate it raw, ate it dried, threw it in the soup, smoked it, chewed it in quids, stuck it up their orifices, ground it to powder, etc. What they found was that with proper preparation, eating the red fungus turned them into super human beings. It gave them unheard of strength and vigor, and you would be laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing. Tromping through stomach deep snow with a hundred pounds of moose meat relaxed on your shoulders. All of this in the depth of winter when there was hardly any sun in the sky all day long, and you were mostly confined to a bark shack or a house of ice with your family herd of stinky human beings. Eating dried walrus guts, sucking on whale heart, and chewing chewing that seal blubber.

Even back then, there were rich folks and poor folks. The haves and the have nots. Only thing is, being in close proximity to one another, you had to get along, and there had to be ways to equalize this pressure and inequality. So they started drinking piss, each others piss. You like wait, pause, you are serious? Yes very serious business.

When the mushroom eaters would go outside to take a leak, the folks who didn’t have mushrooms would be there with a wood bowl, catching that yellow liquid. With a sparkling glee they would down it. So the funny thing about the so called magical properties of the red capped mushroom is that it is not metabolized (broken down) in the body, and so it passes through into the pee. Still with its potency. After a while of this, the whole sad and depressed village was all out playing in the snow. They got their arms around each others shoulders, singing songs and smiling telling jokes. This goes on all winter long…

Even the animals found the urine delightful. After the partying humans went to bed at who knows what hour cause it is the arctic in winter, the reindeer and squirrels would come for a lick and a slurp. Under that pulsating aurora borealis they would be on the ice, feeling like they too were of divine origin.

Eventually the tales of this mushroom and its power spread to other parts of the world. The vikings ate em before going into battle, the hindus venerated it as sacred, while some folks just soaked em in milk to kill flies out at the farm house. And Super Mario. Well you know about Super Mario. As the Russian explorers dog sledded across their territories, they recorded the strange and wild peoples and their mushroom rituals. Their journals document a reindeer charging across the floes, killing a man who was taking a piss, and then begin to slurp slurp slurp. Really, this was too much for civilized people to bear, and in time vodka replaced the mushroom as the inebriant of choice.

This change happened all over, as old sacraments gave way to new ones. Really, who would have dreamt up such a scenario?! So the mushroom went under cover, underground. Nature gods gave way to monotheistic God, and rivers and mountains became saints and symbols only. One particular Germanic saint, Saint Nicholas, was the bestower of winter gifts, light and joy. He was a chunky round figure clothed in red, specked with white buttons, and flew in the sky with prancing reindeer. These days we see him at Walmart or outside of Safeway around December, ringing bells and asking for milk and cookies or spare change. Santa Claus we call him. If you think about this for a little bit, you will understand the origin and tracks that flow from one era into another.

Just so you don’t get any weird ideas. The fly agaric grows in a mycorrhizal fashion with pine trees Pinus radiata in our area. If we get some good rains, and you are out hunting foraging, you may see them. For some one reason or another they are not ‘magical’ here. They will put you in a comatose sweaty state, or worse, and it is nothing to be happy about. Do not go down the rabbit hole! So the recommendation is: “Don’t try em, don’t eat em!” Simple. If you want to go flying in the sky and get ‘high’ there are any number of other legal substances. Or, try running or meditation or fishing or another access route to awaken that – divinity within.

Fungus. Wow. Gotta love em.

For full credit, please also read one of following stories about fungus, bacteria, or virus.

Biggest organism in the world from the BBC

Blue green fuzz at the US National Library of Medicine,findings%20in%201929%20(3).

Corn smut at NPR

Rhizobium from Wikipedia

E coli from the North Carolina Department of Public Health

West nile from Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District

Tetanus at Journal of Urgent Care Medicine about man who got tetanus from pruning bushes

small pox from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Drainage, erosion control, and mulches

These are massive topics which could probably each take a whole semester long of class in and of themselves. In general, as a maintenance gardener, you will probably not be installing drain tiles, earthmoving with a loader, or hydroseeding and juting a hillside. These are jobs in the construction phase of a project. However, you may inherit or take on the care of such a landscape when the contractors are done. It is nice to know the basic principles behind the tools and technology, and how you can be a good caretaker to such a usable space.

Basic terms and concepts to know, in order of appearance:
infiltrate, hydrophobic, hydrophilic, permeable, leach, sediment, berm, swale.


Nobody wants to be picnicking in a swampy pile of mud wallow, or have a hillside of a backyard of water gush into their living room during a winter storm. It is problematic when all of your plants die from being waterlogged too long, and definitely a bummer when the 100 feet of retaining walls all collapse on the brand new flagstone patio. Hence drainage and erosion control…

Water is a heavy and dense material. It comes out to be about 62 pounds per cubic foot. One cubic foot of about seven or eight gallons of milk. That much weight.

Water when traveling at high velocity, or when combined with abrasives, can cut through extremely hard substances. Watch a video of a waterjet cutter slicing through metal and thick stone, go on a walkabout of a riverine canyon, or feel the smooth granite as you are swimmin’ in a sierran stream.

Water goes where it wants to go. Usually this is in a serpentine swirling fashion from high to low elevation, from sky to cloud to mountain to sea. It travels atop the land in streams and rivers and lakes, and travels below the earth in groundwater and aquifers. It pops up occasionally as springs and geysers. It infiltrates easily materials with large pore spaces, like sand. It takes longer to infiltrate materials with tiny tight pores like clay. But then, gravity pulls the water quickly out of the sand, whereas it clings for longer time inside the clay. Water avoids places that it does not like, places called hydrophobic (water fear or tending to repel water). It prefers places called hydrophilic (water loving). This is related to the electrical charges of materials, and the clingy surface tension aspect of its liquid being.

As water moves, it picks stuff up and drops it off at intervals. Stuff becomes dissolved in the water, and when trapped, hidden stuff can emerge or precipitate or reveal itself once again.

Once you start to pay attention to drainage, you will see it everywhere. Many of our hard surfaces we build are not permeable. Just think of all the concrete sidewalks, asphalt roads and parking lots, houses and buildings. Water does not go through them and penetrate back into the earth, water sits on top of them. Not permeable. So to keep water from forming huge puddles everywhere there is a slope on that impermeable surface to keep water moving. We direct the water to a grate. Which leads sometimes to a catch basin, then to a drain pipe, and on down the line to the sewer treatment plant, or sometimes straight into the river or the lake or the bay or the ocean. We dont want that water cutting and dissolving and destroying our handiwork and flooding our homes.

Drains can be above ground easy to see, or underground. Page 272 -279 in your reader.

Erosion control

Erosion is how the land and wind and water interact with each other. Wind and water take hits on the earth, and the earth gives up bits of herself to tumble down down down. The combination punch of wetness then southerly or norwesters or hurricanes named Maria pulverize crush and set in motion the rocks and sands that make up mountain ranges and foothills. Some continents are ancient and been subject to eons of erosive forces; they have poor soils in terms of nutrients. The nutrients have all been washed away. Leached is the proper word. In flat lowlands where the river widens and water floods the earth, water deposits the stuff gathered on high and sprinkles it all over. You do this for a million years or two and you gonna have a pretty thick ol buildup of sediments and ‘soil’. So erosion is a natural process that we recognize and work with.

When we build roads in hilly areas, sometime we gotta dynamite through it to make that pass. This leaves a steep road cut, oftentimes easily susceptible to erosion. Rocks falling and hillsides collapsing into repose. Settling into their natural more comfortable posture. When I worked out at Indian Basin in southeast San Francisco, a wetland restoration project created a series of sloped channels next to the water. This was meant for the tides to come in and come out of. Without some sort of erosion control, water would have destroyed all our efforts. If you knit and weave together the bits of earth particles, then it is less likely to erode, and hold strong. This is done by covering the earth, as well as by planting it. The roots act like anchors holdfasts tentacles and webs. In the reader, page 280-285, then pages 286-288. Bare soil is always vulnerable to erosion and to colonization by any ol seed that is nearby. Specifically – weeds.

There are a variety of coverings blankets to choose from. The natural materials like jute don’t hold up as long as synthetics like polyethylene plastic. But perhaps that is a good thing. What is important is that your timing is good, and that plant roots which hold the soil are established before the rainy season arrives and threatens to wash it all away. Get that soil all bound up. And remember, with large swathes of land, you don’t want to make an impermeable covering. Its not like putting a rain suit on the earth. That would just create a sheet and volume of water you have to direct and channel to avoid more problems. You want to create a colossal sponge with porous tunnels bringing that water deep deep deep deep down.

People always ask – what is a good plant for erosion control? Ideally that would be a plant with somewhat deep and spreading roots, persistent over time. One adapted to local climate and soil conditions. Around here the weeds that seem to fit that bill are many, and if you wander around looking at all the steep neglected lots throughout the city you will see them. They are cotoneaster, algerian ivy, monterey pine, french broom, pampas grass, red valerian centranthus ruber. If you have an aversion to these plants, then yank em out and plant some ceanothus, california buckwheat, lupine, bunch grasses, and huckleberries. But don’t leave the soil all naked.

A somewhat more labor intensive but more well thought out approach contours the land before you start covering it and planting it. If you create berms and swales and terraces then the water and sediment does not just rush on down and away. It will pause and swirl and take a break. And in that time some of the water will have lost its go go go speed momentum and sink down into the earth. And in the process it will irrigate your plantings, or water the little white crown sparrow’s berry poop plantings.


Reader page 294-296
Your professor Gus Broucaret always gives out this somewhat funny handout in class. I will post it here as well at the end for its relevance to mulches.

The reader lists a whole bunch of materials used as mulch. Many of these are unusual as mulches and I have never encountered them in the field – fiberglass, crushed stone, sand, lawn clippings, sawdust, sphagnum, or bog(?). However the basic concept is clear, cover the earth. The blanket keeps the water moisture in the ground, and additionally can provide some bit of weed control and suppression. Plus it makes the yard look nice by tying the design altogether. Many times in our ornamental landscapes we will cover first with a layer of weed cloth (woven plastic), then put the mulch on top. For more natural gardeners the preferred first layer is cardboard, not plastic. This is called sheet mulching. The earthworms love to eat wet decaying cardboard cellulose. Again, the same idea. You are not trying to block nature’s activities permanently. Just block em long enough for your plants to take hold and thrive and be able to take care of themselves.

A few helpful hints for maintenance gardeners using specific materials as mulch:

gravel and pebbles: Small pebbles will roll everywhere, especially on a slope. Then the leaves and dirt and dust of the world get in there too. So just keep that in mind…

decomposed granite (d.g.): We never use d.g. as a mulch. We do use it hard packed on pathways and around trees in tree wells. It is permeable to water and tight hard enough that weeds do not grow well in it.

pumice: Red rock was fashionable for mulch back in the day, laid over plastic bags in a rose garden with those curved wave shaped concrete edgers. These days it has mostly fallen out of fashion, but it may come back. Its other use is mixing the smaller piece 1/8” or 3/16” size into the soil to help drainage and aeration and maybe keep gophers at bay.

wood chips and bark: You can buy neat bags of these at the nursery or get it for free from either the municipality green waste stream or from the local tree workers chipping the stuff into their trucks. It may sometimes carry pathogens, disease. It may become food for a number of local fungi that like to eat and colonize wood chips. In these parts, the common mushrooms on chips are poisonous Hypholoma aurantiaca common name is redlead roundhead, the smelly red cage stinkhorn Clathrus ruber of the penis family Phallaceae, and the super potent hallucinogenic wavy cap Psilocybe cyanescens which love the hardwoods pieces of eucalyptus.

straw and hay: Hay is the good and more expensive stuff used for fodder – livestock food. It is cut when it is green and chock full of nutrients. Straw is the left over stuff after grains have been cut and harvested. It is often used for bedding in the horse stalls or chicken coops. You can feed it to the herbivores too but it is not as high quality a food. Straw and hay are not the same thing, not interchangeable. But, both straw and hay get bundled into bales. They are commonly used as mulch in vegetable beds. Oftentimes you get wheat or barley coming up next to your planted swiss chard and tomatoes.