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Marin IJ Articles

Turn garden into sustainable landscape

  • Anne-Marie Walker
  • In Marin, our Mediterranean climate gives us mild, rainy winters, frequently wet springs, rainless summers and early falls. Fog comes to the Bay Area when cold ocean water and moist air are drawn in with the westerly breezes resulting in added precipitation.

    In what may be another dry year, just turning off the water to our landscapes is not enough. Changing patterns of rainfall and fog, longer periods of warm weather, dropping humidity and warmer nighttime temperatures, challenge us to develop sustainable alternatives to standard landscaping.

    As UC Master Gardeners, we counsel “right plant, right place.” The takeaway is drought-resistant and sustainable gardens that collaborate with local ecology and are filled with flowers and beneficial insects that keep pests and diseases at bay. A sustainable landscape achieves a balance of recycling nutrients, resisting disease and keeping pests in check while conserving water and attracting beneficial insects. Focusing on climate-appropriate annuals, perennials, ground covers, shrubs and trees that provide visual interest, habitat for wildlife, reduce green waste, and are water efficient stops the unsustainable formula of lawns, clipped hedges and patches of annuals.

    To make your garden a community of plants that coexist in a balanced composition, first recognize each plant’s growth characteristics, water needs, and maintenance requirements. John Muir observed California’s natural habitat in the late 1860s, noting in “The Mountains of California,” “wherever a bee might fly within the bounds of this virgin wilderness — through the redwood forests, along the banks of the rivers, along the bluffs and headlands fronting the sea, over valley and plain, park and grove, and deep leafy glen, or far up the piney slopes of the mountains — throughout every belt and section of climate up to the timber line, bee flowers bloomed in abundance.”

    Beginning in March and continuing through April and May, mints, gilias, nemophilas, castilleias, phacelias, penstemons and groups of salvias bloomed. In a pleasing contrast of forms, penstemons, wild fuschia and salvias are paired in the sustainable, award-winning garden planted in hedgerow style, under the direction of UC master gardener Harvey Rogers, on the Old Rail Trail in Tiburon. Researchers at UC Davis and UC Berkeley have found that hedgerows of native plants especially around farms do support beneficial insects, bees and hummingbirds.

    Remember to group plants according to water needs with sufficient room to grow in soil that is healthy and mulched appropriately. Managing rainwater with grading, swales, berms, basins and channels is essential to help water percolate into your garden soil concentrating water on the root zones of your plants and trees. The UC Berkeley and the San Francisco botanical gardens are informative places to observe plant strategies that fight drought. There, you will find drought-tolerant bulbing and rhizomatous plants such as Douglas iris, plants with leathery leaves like manzanita and others with resinous leaves, including salvias. Ground-hugging varieties of water wise plants, including mahonia, frangula, ceanothus, manzanita, symphorcarpos and baccharis, are being planted in a demonstration garden at the fire station on Butterfield Road in San Anselmo where the lawn has been removed. UC master gardeners Tony Mekisich and Leita Brown are using planting practices that demonstrate appropriate ways to establish “fire safe” zones around residences using only native plants on state and Marin Municipal Water District low-water-use lists.

    Beautiful drought-tolerant gardens transform our landscape expectations; as Rachel Carson observed, “those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”