How we prep for planted areas at Mariposa
Minimize the weed pressure!
The Mariposa Team does it all for your garden; Design, Installation and Maintenance (or what we like to call 'Garden Care'). After the garden is in, we don't want our Garden Care team to be doing excessive weeding. So, over the years, we have perfected our approach to prepping your soil so that when our garden care team comes to care for your plants, the weed pressure is minimal. We do this through a series of steps, the first of which is to hand weed. In the garden we are featuring here, we did an initial weeding and then after about a week, when the crabgrass started to sprout again, we did an even deeper weeding to make sure we got as many of the roots out as possible. (Keep an eye on the red barn storage shed, this will help keep the perspective, as the garden changes).
How to mitigate a weedy "lawn"
When we arrived, the crabgrass and ehrharta were everywhere They were tall and well established. In addition, oxalis has infected many areas of the garden. We only noticed the oxalis after we had started our weeding this past October as oxalis only grows when temperatures are below 70 degrees. This can keep it hidden if we are designing a garden during the warmer months. However, once we start the clearing process, the tell tale bulblets will reveal themselves, so we know to take care of them too. When we initially come in and assess a new garden that is infected with weeds that are especially tenacious, we take note. We do not want to be dealing with them after the garden is finished. We want our clients to be happy with the results and to have a garden who's plants are thriving and not competing with the weeds. Crabgrass,ehrharta and oxalis are some of the most difficult weeds to deal with. Between the three, we had deep roots, easily spreading seeds and bulblets that can imbed themselves deeply into the soil and regrow quickly.
Once we remove all the weeds, we will flame weed. Flame weeding involves a special flame weeding torch that attaches to a typical grilling gas tank. The blue hot flame is quickly moved over the soil, effectively eliminating any existing weed seeds that are on top of the soil and desiccating any remaining roots that we may have missed. This is a very good way to prevent weeds from sprouting after we plant the new garden.
Its all about the cardboard!
At Mariposa, we believe in doing all that we can to protect the planet. One of the things that we do, which always feels like a win win is to lay down 2 layers of cardboard after the flame weeding is done. If we have discovered oxalis, we lay down 4 layers of cardboard. Cardboard is a great way to protect the soil and keep the weed pressure down. It is just enough of a barrier to discourage any weeds from coming up right after planting. However, it will decompose over a short period of time, allowing the soil to breathe. Typically, the plants we want to grow will have a bit of a head start with the cardboard in place suppressing the weeds. Once the cardboard breaks down, the desirable plants have filled in and the weeds are outcompeted. At Mariposa, one of our standards of practice is to collect cardboard that others are throwing away. One can purchase rolls of cardboard from box stores that sell building materials, but our aim is to make use of what is otherwise a waste source. We will find our cardboard in recycling bins, at the recycling center and our staff will bring cardboard from our own homes. If you have extra cardboard to discard of, please let us know! We will happily come pick it up and put it to use in one of our many gardens.
Another thing we do before we plant is to put in a grid of netafim irrigation. The netafim is a 1/2" line of irrigation tubing that has emitters spaced every 12." This allows the soil to be evenly saturated, like a damp sponge. When we keep the soil saturated at this level, every drop of water that hits the soil is wicked into it evenly. This level of saturation is good for nearly all plants, whether they prefer slightly drier or slightly moister soil. Even saturation keeps all plants healthy and thriving. Soil with even saturation is able to support a wide diversity of micro and macro organisms in the soil. Bioactivity in the soil keeps the soil healthy and your plants thriving. Our favorite place to purchase all of our irrigation supplies, including netafim, is Urban Farmer, a Bay Area legendary irrigation supply store.
Once the irrigation lines are all laid out, we add 3" of organic compost. Our favorite is a product called "Wondergrow." It can be purchased by the bag or by the yard from American Soil and Stone in Richmond, CA. The netafim lines are intended to be buried 3" under soil or compost. The beauty of this is that the water you are using to irrigate your garden does not evaporate the way it does with overhead sprayers.
As the drought lingers in California, and concerns about how to save water are at the forefront of our minds, many of us are thinking about how we can best conserve water in the garden.
Where do we get our water?
Water conservation is of utmost importance these days. Our rivers and lakes are depleted, and the water sources for our major cities and agricultural areas are running dry. But where does the water from our tap come from, and why is it running low? In the East Bay, our water supply comes from captured snowmelt from undeveloped public and private watershed lands of the Mokelumne River. It is collected at the Pardee Reservoir which is 90 miles east of the Bay Area.
“In a year of normal precipitation, EBMUD uses an average of 21 million gallons per day (MGD) of water from local watershed runoff.”
In drought years, most, if not all, of the snowmelt runoff is evaporating from the reservoir, so what we have historically counted on to replenish the water supply in the reservoir is disappearing. Without the annual replenishment of water to make up for what is used, the water stores become depleted. This is why there are alarm bells raised for us to conserve water in our homes by up to 30%. As the planet gets hotter and drier, our water stores are going to continue to diminish more over time.
There are many ways we can work together to bring down our water usage. Here are a few tips on how to save water in the home from the State Water Resources Control Board. Many of these tips, such as take 5 minute showers and turning off the water when you brush your teeth or shave can save a significant amount of water.
Even today, the overall square footage of most gardens are made up of a conventional lawn. Due to the high water usage of lawns, and because lawns are typically irrigated with sprayers that lose up to 75% of the water they put out in evaporation, they are water guzzlers, and need to go. One of the main ways our municipalities are asking us to conserve water is by restricting the amount of water we use in the garden. Currently, in the East Bay, we are limited to watering our gardens 3 times per week. For many of our established Mariposa Gardens, this works out fine. We have conditioned the soil, installed a Netafim drip irrigation system, a subterranean line that loses no water to evaporation. However, under watering a healthy native low use garden can have more damaging effects on climate change than it would cost to give that garden the right amount of water to thrive.
It's all about the soil
The Mariposa garden care team consistently checks the soil to make sure that the soils in our gardens have a very consistent saturation level to that of a wrung out sponge. When soils dry out due to heat spells, or after our long dry summers, they can become hydrophobic. Hydrophobic soils are like a dried out sponge. Water will be dripped into the soil and will bead off and roll down, not allowing its life giving sustenance to the plant roots. This can happen, even in an established garden under high heat conditions, especially on sunny and exposed slopes. Once the soils become hydrophobic, it takes a lot more water to rehydrate the soil so that it gets to the saturation point of a wrung out sponge. This saturation point in the soil acts just like a sponge does. It will take that drop of water, and wick it through the soil, thereby keeping your plant roots well hydrated. Well hydrated plants are healthier, are better able to resist disease and pests and also contribute to transpiration. It is the transpiration of plants that creates clouds, and rain. Therefore, we are under an ecological obligation to keep our gardens hydrated.
It’s important to understand that green, growing things (plants) provide a critical role in supporting the earth’s water cycle. Reducing water use by allowing our gardens to dry out and die back will only escalate our drought problems.
Transpiration is the movement of water through plant leaves, stems, and flowers into the atmosphere where moisture condenses and contributes to precipitation that falls from the sky and back into the soil. And then the cycle repeats. Less rain means less access to naturally clean water. And in the absence of a thriving layer of plants, any water captured in the soil moves further down into the ground, where it can be stored for thousands of years. Without plant cover, transpiration is reduced, in effect robbing the water cycle of potential moisture. A loss of green plants will increasingly heat up the planet and dry it out.
How do we Conserve Water?
At Mariposa, we have worked hard to find ways that we can both conserve water and keep our gardens lush and full of plant life that will contribute to the cooling of the planet. Sometimes this means that during hot spells, we may need to water our gardens in areas that are more exposed to the sun and heat more than 3 days per week. This does not mean the gardens need to over consume water, but allowing the soil to become hydrophobic is a bigger contributor to global warming than adding more water to the garden. We want to help our clients to find the balance between water conservation and keeping the gardens green.
One of the ways that we do this is through water harvesting. In all of our garden designs, we are incorporating ways to keep the water that falls on your property there. We will take your downspout and direct the water that falls onto the roof and slow it, sink it and spread it out into the garden. This helps to raise the groundwater table on your property, which can help larger plants such as trees and shrubs have better access to water during drought periods.
Another way we do this is by tapping into your graywater, and developing a greywater system that will keep your plants green. There are many ways to design a greywater system. One of our specialties at Mariposa is our Living Fountain. The Living Fountain cycles your graywater through a mini constructed wetland system. The water is filtered through plant roots and soil, nature's way of cleaning water, which is superior to any constructed water filtration systems. In addition to cleaning the water, it is also bio-activated with beneficial nutrients and bacteria which act to help your plants thrive, and become more drought tolerant.
Kari and Allison have been working as co-leaders on The Garden Care Team since last fall. Mirza joined on this summer to help us keep up with all of the garden care work we do at Mariposa. The team is committed to implementing Mariposa's philosophy of “Find your home in nature.” Meaning, they are working with nature, rather than against natural systems, to care for all of our gardens.
When we asked Allison, who is an experienced gardener, how she thought we stand out from the rest, she said, “At Mariposa, we are much more concerned with the functionality of plants and role of plants. Not just what looks good but how they can provide habitat. How they provide year round nectar sources rather than just the aesthetics of year round color, yet we still accomplish the same level of beauty as any high end garden when we focus on pollinator and wildlife needs.”
From left to right: Kari, Mirza and Allison loving a Mariposa garden
How we do it
To make sure our client’s garden habitats stay in balance, we practice an ecologically based way of designing and caring for our gardens. This requires planting a diverse array of pollinator friendly plants and grasses, as well as providing water, food and shelter for any beneficial insects that may want to visit your garden. Some of the things we do during our garden care visits are:
* fertilizing with organic fertilizer,
* checking and adjusting irrigation seasonally,
* hand picking weeds,
* employing non-toxic and organic methods of pest management, such as hand picking or spraying with water
* planting cover crops in vegetable beds in the winter to boost the soil fertility and
* annually apply compost and mulch to the entire garden for soil health.
An assortment of native and pollinator friendly plants in all of our gardens promotes a medley of native bees, wasps and other pest predators that keep down pest pressure. The variance of plants and beneficial insects ensures that your garden stays in balance as an ecosystem, which makes it very low maintenance. When we install our gardens, we implement methods such as flame weeding and sheet mulching to control weed pressure. We work to build up the health and texture of your soil so that it will hold water longer, and make it available to your plants, even during a drought.
Allison in one of our beautiful lush and drought tolerant gardens
Find your home in nature
We have a unique approach that is distinct from other landscaping companies. “We work with our clients to get them their dream garden but we are first and foremost gardening as advocates for wildlife habitat and climate friendly practices” says Kari.
Kari in her natural setting
Kari with a cabbage white caterpillar
Growing Food for Your Family
Our edible gardens, which we call Fruit Tree Guilds, are attentive to building natural systems as well. Our distinct practice of designing and caring for gardens means that we plant a well thought out array of edible plants from herbs and edible flowers to berries and fruit trees, in addition to vegetables, both annual and perennial. This ensures a healthy balance in the garden, keeping pest and disease issues to a minimum and making your edible garden healthy and resilient. Mariposa’s gardens are always striving to build life both above and below the soil.
Food and herbs growing together under fruit trees
Gardens are Life
Allison’s favorite thing about gardening with Mariposa is visiting gardens over time, seeing how things she’s planted grow and how the garden looks throughout the seasons.
Kari’s favorite thing, discovering all the tiny life happening between the leaves.
Mirza’s favorite thing is meeting all the plants and critters, and learning about how to be in right relationship with them.
We look forward to working with you **in your garden. Please let us know if you would like to discuss how we can help you care for your garden and care for the earth at the same time.
Swallowtail butterfly sipping nectar on a milkweed
Special Offer 50% off of your next garden care for each new client that you refer who signs on for our services! email us!
Mariposa Gardening & Design Cooperative, Inc.
We are living through interesting times
Covid-19, the coronavirus, has us all in a new situation, but we are living through it together. Sheltering in place means a large proportion of our communities are home a whole lot more than we used to be. Sheltering in place disrupts our normal schedules, distances us from our family, friends and co-workers. This isolation and finding new ways to adapt to it, forces us to refocus and realign our lives.
Some of us are still working, albeit at home, which means we probably have jobs that require us to spend a lot of time in front of a screen. Some of us in service industries considered “non-essential,” such as landscaping, are sitting at home too - but with a bit of time on our hands.
All of us have questions and anxieties. When will this end? How will I continue to pay bills and feed my family safely? What if the supply chain breaks and I can’t get things my family needs? All of us at Mariposa share in these feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. Particularly when it comes to food.
That’s why we’ve chosen to use our collective skills to help our community grow food. As a cooperative, serving our community is one of our bedrock principles, and it’s at the heart of our decision to launch a new service. We’re expanding our business -- historically focused on creating garden sanctuaries for humans that support and regenerate the natural environment -- to now also provide more food security for our community.
Introducing Round the Block Farms
Have you ever wanted to have a vegetable garden? Many of us are so busy, even now, that the wish to grow vegetables doesn’t sync up with the time it takes to actually do it. Never mind the time it takes to learn how to be a successful grower of vegetables!
To make it possible, even for those who are still working (whether at home, or in a service industry, and/or trying to manage home-schooling their children at the same time), Mariposa's Round the Block Farms will provide everything you need to grow your own food.
We'll use our proven, award-winning ecological design-build processes to create a space where you’ll grow vegetables, fruits, kitchen and medicinal herbs, and companion plants that help bring pollinators and discourage pests so your garden will thrive. We’ll take care of weeding, fertilizing, harvesting too - or you can have the pleasure of doing those things yourself if you prefer.
We want to give our customers the chance to share with the community as well. Our vision is to provide opportunities for those who have extra to share their harvest with others who may not have access to land for growing, or even to fresh vegetables and fruits at all. We’ll also make it possible to sponsor all or part of a planting bed installation and maintenance for people who need to receive the aid.
In short, Round the Block Farms is all about:
If not now, when? If not us, who?
Mariposa's worker-owner team brings years of experience as farmers, garden designers, and teachers to this new venture. And we’ve always grown food for clients who want it - it just hasn't been our primary focus. That means we know how to do this, and do it successfully.
The idea to create Round the Block Farms came out of our reaction to the sudden shutdown of our normal landscaping business. But as we’ve dreamed and thought and worked out the details, it’s become more and more clear to us that this project is central to who we are as an organization and a cooperative dedicated to caring for our team, our customers, and our community. It fits perfectly with who we are, and who we want to be.
Even more importantly, we think this is a service that's needed in the world today - for now, and even beyond this time of pandemic. As we launch, the time is NOW for planting spring food gardens - we can't delay another minute. If you’d like to learn more about how it works, visit our Round the Block Farms page here.
This post was crafted by our South Bay Manager and Crew Leader Elizabeth Sarmiento. Her life has been an unbroken string of social justice and environmental activism. You can learn more about her work Here.
World Water Day provides us with the opportunity to focus our attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. In 2010, the United Nations recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. However, 2.1 billion of people today are still living without safe drinking water. This happens even in our own country - 70 million people in the USA may be affected by health-based contamination of water, including lead, copper, arsenic, and other contaminants.
At Mariposa Gardening & Design we honor World Water Day year round with the work we do. We do this by harvesting rainwater and replacing lawns with thriving ecological gardens. “U.S. lawn maintenance annually consumes about 800 million gallons of gasoline, $5.2 billion of fossil-fuel derived fertilizers, and $700 million in pesticides. Up to two thirds of the drinking water consumed in municipalities goes to watering lawns.” Roaming Ecologist writes: “no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage. In fact, lawns, by acreage, are the nation’s largest irrigated crop, surpassing corn." Because water is a finite resource in all areas of the world, it is important to recognize what we can do locally, especially in our semi arid region of California and by transforming our own yards we can make a big difference.
We all agree that water is precious—so instead of moving it off our properties we can "Slow it, Spread it, Sink it", a basic Permaculture principle that we at Mariposa are proud to practice and incorporate in our projects. We capture storm rain in barrels to water our veggie gardens or trees during summer time and build permeable driveways to recharge the groundwater. Our rain gardens are created with bio-swales, and basins that direct, detain, and filter water to invigorate our soil ecology, enhance our yard's aesthetic, encourage habitat, filter pollutants to keep them out of The Bay, and assist in the relief of over-tasked city storm drains. These practices support the UN's initiative of safe, clean drinking water, and sanitation as a human right.
If you're interested in the work of Mariposa and in working with us to make a difference in honoring World Water Day year round visit us Here. You can learn more about our Water Wise Practices through visiting the blog posts listed below.
Adding Shelter and Water for Pollinators to the GardenSecret Sources of Free Water
Secret Sources of Free Water
At Mariposa, we have a particular way of working with plants that is geared toward understanding and honoring the nature of each species. It can take a long time to learn each plant, but a few tips on ways to “listen to plants” can help all gardeners become more skilled in the art of pruning. When we say “listen” what we mean is to observe them and the way they grow closely. This practice means you don’t necessarily have to read a book on how to prune each plant (though that is also very helpful and highly recommended--especially for fruit); instead, you can find patterns in the way certain plants grow that can be applied to a number of species.
There are some general rules of pruning, however, and this post covers the basics that you can use to get started on pruning most of the trees, shrubs and perennials in your garden.
The Rules of Pruning
To prune properly, when you cut a plant’s branches or stems, always cut a little bit above a growth node, where the bark tends to get squishy or shows a bit of a ring. Just above that bark change is where the cells on the bark can generate a healthy cover to the wound. Growth nodes are the points on the stem where buds, leaves and branching twigs originate. They usually look like little brown, green or reddish nubs just poking out from the stem. Cuts should be made at a 45 degree angle and angled away from the node or bud, so that water can shed away from the plant. The drawings below show you how to cut depending on whether the plant has buds that alternate on the stem, or are opposite to each other.
The first rule of pruning is to look for the 3Ds: dead, diseased or damaged. Depending on the health of the tree or shrub to be pruned, this work can range from a small amount of clean up, to taking out a lot of material, especially if the tree or shrub has been improperly pruned in the past. If you have a tree or shrub that is congested with dead growth, that may be your main pruning task.
If your tree or shrub has minimal 3Ds, you can move onto the next phase, keeping in mind the second rule of pruning: Never take off more than ⅓ of the tree or shrub. If you take off more you can damage or even kill your plant.
Once you have taken control of the 3D’s, and you have some live plant left to work with, you can start removing crossing branches. This is particularly important for fruiting varieties, roses, and other trees and shrubs that need good air circulation. You want to focus on the branches that cross, especially in the middle of the plant, because they can invite pest and disease issues in the spot where the branches touch. This spot tends to decay, as if it is damaged or dead, which opens up an environment for pests and disease to move in.
If you have a lot of crossing branches in the middle of your plant, you will need to take the branches down to the Point of Origin (or the POO). Sometimes, the POO is at the base; sometimes the branch comes into the trunk or a to a main branch, stemming from the base. Either way, taking branches back to the POO discourages the build up of more branching in the middle of the tree or shrub, which is how plants get congested and how extreme dieback occurs.
If all of the 3D’s are taken care of, and there are no crossing branches, it’s time to start shaping. This is a more complicated aspect of pruning, and requires some experience in the cause and effect of cuts. A typical shaping issue involves a branch or branches sticking out into an entrance or a walkway. Our instinct is to cut the overreaching branch back to where we want it to be. However, said branch is likely to sprout several other branches on the nodes directly below the cut, creating an even more congested feel once those branches start to mature. Again, the POO is the rule. Taking the branch that is overreaching back down to its POO eliminates the threat of branches emerging from the lower nodes. It also gives the tree or shrub an opportunity to put more energy into branches that are growing at a more desirable height. So, when shaping, consider the entire branch, and the effect the cut will have on the future growth of the plant. Every cut has a consequence.
Basic botany: how pruning works to stimulate plant growth
Just like most living organisms, plants have hormones that determine their growth patterns. We can control how a plant grows by understanding how to stimulate plant hormones with careful pruning.
Cutting back lower branches or stems stimulates the hormones that control the upward growth and the height of the plant. If you want a plant to grow taller, or to produce more main stems from the base, remove the lower branches or branches at the base and the remaining stems or branches will grow taller, rather than bushier.
If you want a plant to grow in fuller, use tip pruning, which means cut back the tips of branches or stems. Tip pruning stimulates growth on the nodes that are just below the cut. Some plants will grow heavily in the 2-3 nodes below the cut, some plants will show stimulation down the whole branch. Either way, a tip prune promotes bushy growth.
Where you cut will be determined by where you want the growth to be concentrated. For example, if you have a “lopsided” tree or shrub with uneven bushiness on one side, you might be tempted to cut back the full side, in order to give the thin side a growth advantage. However, a hard prune like that on the bushier side is only going to promote more branching and more growth. In this case, we need to take a very counter-intuitive approach and do a harder prune on the thin side, knowing that each cut will increase the branching below the cut. The heavy side may get a few select cuts on branches that are large, or on branches that are smaller but grow too close or in the wrong direction. These cuts are taken back to the POO so they won’t create side shoots.
Pruning fruit trees
At this time of year, we focus on pruning fruit trees. Fruiting trees can also be summer pruned, but the most popular time of year for pruning fruit trees is winter, before the buds break. Here in the Bay Area, because of our wet rainy winters, we like to wait to prune until as late in the season as possible (the exact timing depends on the fruit). Rain and moisture on a fresh cut can increase the possibility of fungal diseases. That said, waiting too long, after the buds have begun to break can also be hard on fruit trees.
The important thing to know, when pruning fruit trees, is whether they are tip bearing or spur bearing. Some trees produce their flower buds and fruit on the tips of branches, right at the end, instead of on fruiting spurs situated along the branch. Some fruit trees, such as apples, have both tip bearing and spur bearing varieties. Most fruit trees found in local nurseries are spur-bearing, as shown in the picture below, but it is important to be able to tell the difference, because the pruning techniques are quite different. Pruning a tip bearing tree in the wrong places will reduce its fruiting capacity.
In a spur bearing tree, cut the branch leaders by one quarter of the year’s growth, to an outward facing bud. In addition, prune strong lateral branches down to just 4-6 buds, to encourage fruiting spurs.
In tip bearing trees, cut the branch leaders by one quarter only, also to an outward facing bud. The remaining side shoots should stay unpruned, unless badly damaged, as they will bear the fruit for the coming year.
Now is the time
February is a great month to prune your trees and shrubs so they'll be ready to grow vigorously in the spring and summer months ahead. It's a good time to add organic amendments such as compost, mulch, and worm castings to the soil, too, to feed your garden's green inhabitants as they get ready for the latest cycle of growing, flowering, and creating fruit and seeds.
With the onset of global warming, weather patterns have become erratic. According to Time magazine, July of 2019 was one of the hottest on record across the globe. Here in the Bay Area, our past winter rainy season was wet and long, but it still did not pull our region completely out of the long drought we’ve experienced over the last decade. As a result, our annual fire season is becoming more extreme each year.
In spite of the rainfall we received last winter, in general the entire West Coast is experiencing longer, warmer dry seasons, with significantly less precipitation during the rainy season. While we need to be concerned about drought, we should also be concerned about heat, and about the drying out of the landscape. Low winter rainfall and high summer temperatures combine to lower the groundwater table and create dry conditions in the soil. Once soils become dry, they not only cannot provide water for plants, but they also cannot provide nutrients because microbial activity, which is what feeds the plants, is also dying or dead. Water is essential to build life and fertility in the soil.
During these years of drought, one of the primary targets of water use reduction efforts has been for our local municipalities to advocate for reducing or eliminating garden watering. Homeowners are being asked to conserve water by letting their lawns die out; “Brown is the New Green” has become a catchy but simplistic slogan used by said municipalities.
But green is the color of nature.
The Movement of Water
Green, growing things play a critical role in supporting the earth’s water cycle. Reducing water use by allowing our gardens to brown and dry out will only escalate our drought and escalating fire problems.
Transpiration, the release of water through plant leaves, stems, and flowers into the atmosphere, is crucial to the health of the planet. During transpiration, moisture condenses and contributes to the formation of clouds, which carry precipitation. Rain falls from the sky to the earth and this moisture keeps soils healthy and capable of supporting plant life. The water cycle needs to be able to repeat itself in order to keep our planet green and therefore cooler.
Without adequate plant cover, transpiration is reduced, in effect robbing the water cycle of potential moisture and leading to less rain. Less rain means less access to naturally clean water. In the absence of a thriving layer of plants, any water captured in the soil moves further down into the ground, where it may be stored for thousands of years but won’t be available to the plants and other living things above.
Not watering our gardens results in the loss of green plants. This reduction in lush green plant life contributes to the warming and drying of the planet. We can see the effect of this loss at a large scale in our forests in California, where long years of drought have contributed to deadly firestorms that feed on the build-up of dry plant matter and dying trees that go up like matches when a PG&E power line sparks.
The water cycle is an amazing recycling system. Water is cleaned and purified when it passes through plant roots and soil. Encouraging the natural water cycle in our gardens offers us a far more effective response to drought conditions than simply reducing water use and letting our lawns dry up.
Encouraging the Water Cycle in the Garden
With this in mind, responsible gardeners should look to nature as a guide when designing, building and maintaining landscapes and managing water. Growing and watering green plants in our gardens—especially in urban areas—helps to cool the environment and prevent our suburbs and cities from becoming “heat sinks” that only make the problem worse.
Harvesting rainwater and installing greywater (sometimes spelled graywater) systems are two excellent ways to keep our gardens green without using additional potable water. Directing water into swales or habitat depressions, using permeable surfaces, and collecting rain from rooftops are a few of the methods used to keep rainwater on site and make it available for plants. Contouring the land to capture water as well as switching from non-permeable surfaces, such as concrete, to surfaces like decorative gravel and soft-set stone pavers that absorb water, also help to accomplish this goal.
Greywater is water that has been used in your home for bathing or washing. Greywater is considered safe to use in the garden as long as it is handled properly. Rerouting water from washing machines, bathroom sinks, and showers into the landscape instead of the city sewer is good for the garden and lessens the load on the municipal system.
There are several innovative ways to capture and use greywater. Washing machine water is the most accessible, and routing it to your garden is a simple DIY project that most homeowners can do. Online resources and irrigation vendors, such as The Urban Farmer in the Bay Area, provide information and instructions. Many public utilities have developed rainwater and greywater harvesting guidelines for consumers. San Francisco’s water and sewer utility has published a comprehensive instruction manual that will guide you through the process of building a greywater system of your own; you’ll find a link to these and more in the resources at the end of this post.
There are many ways of designing a greywater system for your garden, and they vary in complexity. Applying water from your washing machine directly at the base of well-mulched fruit trees is the simplest way to do it. A more complex action is to filter greywater through a constructed wetland where soil and plant roots clean the water like they would in nature. At Mariposa, we call this a Living Fountain.
After plant roots and soil have cleaned the water, it’s routed into a drip irrigation system in your garden. The living fountain has the additional benefit of “bio-invigorating” water by removing soap, salts, and other chemicals and adding beneficial microbes that improve the health of your soil. Water from a Living Fountain builds life both above and below the soil, causing plants to become healthier and more resistant to pests, disease, and drought.
Living fountains increase the overall health of your garden by supporting a diverse plant palette in the garden, including those that thrive in wet conditions. In turn, plant diversity attracts a more varied array of beneficial insects and contributes to the development of a garden ecosystem that helps control pests and diseases.
These are just a few of the ways to rethink the way we source and use water in our gardens. As our climate continues to warm, I encourage all gardeners to learn more and to start using water recycling practices in the garden.
Yes, it’s time to reduce how much water we use - but it will never be time to contribute to the drying out of our planet. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. We hope it never happens to anyone, but as the danger of deadly wildfires increases, a healthy garden with green, well-watered plants provides a buffer zone helping slow or even stop fires from reaching your home. And by finding a way to collect and recycle water, we’re on the path to balancing the water cycle, one garden at a time.
If you want to learn more or start implementing some of these practices in your own garden, there are many non-profit agencies and for-profit businesses that are ready to help you, including Mariposa. As a bonus, many bay area county water districts offer incentives and rebates for implementing greywater systems in your garden.
Mariposa Gardening & Design Cooperative, Inc. is an award-winning design-build landscaping company with a strong commitment to creating beautiful, ecologically minded gardens. Founder Andrea Hurd and her team promote water conservation with their innovative approach to replicating natural systems.
The Urban Farmer Store has locations in San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Richmond Annex. Check out their online library of resources, including information on greywater and rainwater harvesting.
Greywater Action is a collaborative of educators who teach residents and tradespeople about affordable and simple household water systems that dramatically reduce water use and foster sustainable cultures of water. On a policy level, they work with water districts to develop codes and incentives for greywater, rainwater harvesting, and composting toilets.
EBMUD offers its East Bay customers information and support for being “watersmart” in the garden, including how to replace your lawn with plants that thrive in our climate, rainwater harvesting, firescaping, and more.
Valley Water in Santa Clara County offers a wealth of greywater resources including how-to videos, resources on finding equipment and installers, maintenance tips, soap and plant health, workshops, and more.
Access the Graywater Design Manual and other valuable information from San Francisco Water Power Sewer at www.sfwater.org, search: Graywater.
Secret Sources of Free Water
Do you want to know how you can protect the earth and your community at the same time? Become a steward of the land by planting an ecologically and biologically diverse habitat garden. While this may sound very complicated or technical, it can really be quite easy and even fun. The following steps will help you on your way.
Build life below the soil and above the soil
A garden thrives when we encourage biological diversity both above and below the ground. At Mariposa, we choose plants and combine them in a way that maximizes biological diversity in our garden. So too we feed the soil with compost and organic matter such as turned in cover crops and organic fertilizers including bone meal, feather meal, blood meal, worm castings and manure, to maximize biological diversity below the ground.
These additions break down because they are food to a myriad of microorganisms that live in the soil. The “digestion” of this material causes the microorganisms to release enzymes that feed plant roots. The greater the diversity of organic amendments, the greater the diversity of microbial activity. In turn the microbial diversity feeds the larger decomposers such as beetles and earthworms. With proper care, this environment helps the plants in your garden become healthier and more resistant to drought and pests. In other words, biologically diverse soil is the foundation for a resilient garden.
In addition to organic amendments, it is important to keep soil evenly moist. If your soil is dry it will need to be reconditioned to support life again. “Hydrophobic” soil actually repels water and can no longer absorb it, much like a dry sponge that repels a cup of water. It takes a lot of water to rescue soil from this condition. There are a few signs you can look for to know if you have hydrophobic soil:
Just like a sponge, soil can be reconditioned to absorb water. Healthy soil, with plenty of organic matter such as compost and a thriving microbial environment, will wick a drop of water evenly, rather than repelling it, as it falls. To encourage microbes, supplement your soil seasonally (3-4x per year) with organic amendments such as compost or manure, and monthly with fish emulsion or compost tea.
Building up a healthy ecosystem in your soil supports a healthy ecosystem in your garden.
More diversity means more resiliency
Ecologists consider the number of species in an ecosystem the best way to measure its health. The more different types of plant and animal species exist in an ecological system, the stronger and healthier it becomes. When a network of species develops together, they learn to depend on each other for survival. In a biodiverse system, there are many producers, consumers, and decomposers that all work together to mutually benefit the success of all species in the system. When species diversity starts to decline in an ecosystem, the system becomes unbalanced. That is when pests and diseases can come in and wreak havoc.
Human societies are not so different. In a community or a nation, when one individual or ideology dominates, others who are not part of the ruling group may suffer from oppression or lack of opportunity, or worse. When there’s a diversity of voices within any organization, the tendency for egalitarianism increases.
Similarly, the less diversity of plants in a garden, the more the chance a “bully” will take over. In an idealized version of the 1950’s suburban backyard, there might be a concrete patio, a large expanse of lawn, and possibly a border of shrubs along the fenceline with a few flowering perennials or annuals mixed in. This landscape is uniform and controlled. The atmosphere around the yard is neat, orderly and tight. But there’s no welcome or place for butterflies, songbirds or pollinators to flourish.
This clean and minimal landscape provides little food, water or shelter for pollinators, and does not allow for a diversity of species. What you see in this type of garden are yellowjackets, wasps, and other garden pests. These “bully” species are scavengers: they feed on the waste of humans, and can find shelter in human structures. They will also rob honeybee hives and will feed on other beneficial pollinator species.
By bringing in a diverse array of plants, in the right combinations, we can attract the desirable insects that prey on the “bullies” and keep their numbers under control. When the garden is opened up to a diversity of plant species growing together and mixed in a way that supports a diversity of insects, garden pests such as yellowjackets are not able to crowd out other species.
Create habitat for birds, butterflies, and pollinators by providing food, water and shelter.
Earlier this year we wrote two posts covering this topic. Follow the links to read about:
Adding Food for Pollinators to the Garden
Adding Shelter and Water for Pollinators to the Garden
If you follow these simple principles, you’ll have a healthy, thriving garden. Then you can enjoy watching the diversity of bird and insect species that visit your garden grow!
"The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration." – Claude Monet
For centuries, people have been designing gardens for residences and public spaces. As a result, the field of garden design offers us a wealth of styles and information to turn to, keeping gardeners busy learning how to create the perfect outdoor paradise.
Gardens give us pleasure, they calm our senses and they help us to slow down and relax. Gardens provide beauty and inspiration and can help heal the sick. Gardens provide sanctuary, solace and a peaceful place to return to our connection to the natural world. It is this final perspective, helping our clients find their connection to nature, that we embrace in our designs. In order to foster those connections, we are intimately focused on how nature works from both an ecological and an artistic perspective.
The beauty of nature can be felt and it can also be interpreted. Nature in and of itself can seem chaotic, but within the seeming-chaos lies a tremendous amount of mathematical order. Studying natural systems has allowed designers over the ages to discover certain mathematically-based patterns. Once the order within the chaos is understood, a whole world of design potential opens up. Playing with the idea that there is order within the chaos of a garden gives the gardens we design a sense of harmony. Within the spectrum between wild and tame lies the sweet spot in our designs. Mariposa’s gardens and our designs gain strength from observing the patterns of nature and then replicating those patterns in the garden during design and construction.
Some of the patterns we use in our designs include symmetries, fractals and spirals. Repeating these patterns when laying out hardscapes or placing plants is one of the ways we replicate natural systems in our designs.
Symmetries: There are several kinds of symmetry. In nature, bilateral and radial symmetry are common. Bilateral symmetry means an object has a left side and a right side that are mirror images of each other - most animals and insects demonstrate bilateral symmetry.
Radial symmetry, like the form of a daisy, is common in flowers even when the rest of the plant exhibits little or no symmetry.
Here’s an example of how we used radial symmetry in the design of a stone wall:
Fractals: A fractal, according to Merriam Webster, is “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size.” If you look closely at the picture of romanesco broccoli below, you’ll notice that the same shapes and curves are repeated over and over in smaller and smaller sizes.
Fractals occur in many places in nature. They are essentially repeating patterns that course through an organism. For example, fern branching patterns start with the leaflet pattern as it goes down the stem. Then, the leaflet itself matches the pattern of the branching form.
Trees also repeat their branching pattern from the trunk out to the newest branches. The branches grow out from the trunk and then fan out in a similar pattern throughout the tree. Each tree has its own sort of fractal pattern.
One of the ways we use fractals in our designs is by repeating patterns within our stonework or in our patios. We also use repeats in our planting layouts. For example, we may repeat the same groupings of plants throughout a bed.
Spirals: A spiral is defined by Merriam Webster as “the path of a point in a plane moving around a central point while continuously receding from or approaching it.” Spirals are all around us: the center of a sunflower is a complex spiral, as are the plates of a pineapple. Vine tendrils spiral around the objects they cling to, helping the vine to climb. The DNA double-helix is a spiral; our Milky Way galaxy is a spiral; hurricanes, water going down a drain, nautilus shells, snail shells - even your fingerprints - all spirals.
This post by blogger Sam Woolfe offers a fascinating look at why spirals are so common in nature, and why they have been seen as a mystical and sacred form by so many civilizations over the centuries. Mr. Woolfe’s blog offers an introduction to “Fibonacci spirals,” which are logarithmic spirals based on the Fibonacci Sequence, and which adhere very closely to “the Golden Mean.”
The Golden Mean, also known as the Golden Ratio, is a mathematical concept that is expressed in nature’s patterns. It is another way we use the mathematical order found in nature to complement how we lay out our garden designs. Otherwise known as the Golden Ratio a+b is to a as a is to b. This mathematical ratio is found in the way that ferns unfurl, roses bloom, seashells form, petals are arranged on a flower, pineapples grow and on and on. The wave in the picture below demonstrates the Golden Mean proportions.
Examples of the Golden Mean are endless in nature, and mathematicians have given us the tools to understand natural proportions so that we may recreate them in our work. The ancients used this ratio when building some of the great works of architecture. Artists often use the ratio to create pleasing proportions in their art. In the garden, we can lay out hardscapes and other elements within the garden using the Golden Mean to great effect. At Mariposa, we design our lines in the landscape, the shape of planting beds, the proportion of planted area to hardscapes to this mathematical this proportion. Our “Seed” sculptures and fountains are designed using the Golden Ratio of 1:1.61. Our “Seeds” are often seen as “eggs” or “beehives” or various other forms seen in nature that follow this same proportion. Using the Golden Mean in design is a way of bringing order to the chaos.
The Golden Mean is closely associated with the Fibonacci Sequence. This sequence of numbers is useful when thinking of how to pattern stonework and other hardscapes. It can also be useful in plant layout. For example, when we want to add an element to a stone seed sculpture, we use the Fibonacci Sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 to determine where to add the decorative element. In the sculpture shown below we created the pattern of light and dark layers using the Fibonacci Sequence.
Using rhythms and repeats in plant layout is a good way to engage the garden visitor. Laying out repeats with the sequence in mind is a way of creating order within the chaos that may not be consciously perceived, but is felt. It is the element that makes the garden sing. We use the sequence to determine how much space to leave between plantings too. If we have five very colorful red flowers that we want to incorporate into a garden area, we lay them out with the amount of space between each plant coordinating to the Fibonacci Sequence: two at 1 foot apart, the next at 2 feet apart, the next 3 feet apart, the next 5 feet apart, and so on. This spacing provides a rhythm that creates a feeling of order, even though it may look random. Because this mathematical sequence is seen all over nature, it is familiar, even when we are not consciously aware of it.
Next time you visit a public garden or landscaped parkland, whether the garden is formal or informal, spend some time observing how the design uses rhythm and pattern to bring order and beauty into the space. Or when you take a walk in a forest or on the beach and look for symmetry, fractals, and spirals. We think you’ll be amazed at what you see. If you try this exercise, please share what you find in the comments!
At Mariposa Gardening & Design Cooperative, our philosophy of garden design, creation, and maintenance is based on what we call the Mariposa Method. When we think of gardens at Mariposa, we think of dynamic ecological systems that encourage life on the planet, both above and below the soil. We take our design cues from nature, following her patterns, her rhythms and aesthetic and blending that with our human desire for order. This sweet spot, between the chaos of life and the order of the mind, is where our designs flourish and grow.
For example: all gardeners know that gardens need water to look good. However, the past several years of on again and off again drought in California have encouraged, even required, cutting back on the amount of water we use in our gardens. Many cities and counties have incentive-based programs to encourage homeowners to water less. Those of us in the landscaping field here are all too aware that we may soon be facing water restrictions. As a result, many gardeners are coming up with ways to cut back on watering. However, even in drought, we still need to irrigate our gardens. Gardens contribute to the cooling of the planet, and the transpiration of plants produces clouds. (A new study shows that “...lack of water vapor in the atmosphere has caused a global decline in plant growth over the past two decades, resulting in a 59 per cent decline in vegetated areas worldwide.”) In addition, more plants create cleaner air, and reduce the amount of toxic carbon in the air Plants that are the most beneficial to our environment because they provide food or shelter or both to our native pollinators, need water to survive. Limiting our plant choices, creating arid gardens, and taking away the elements that create life in the garden are not good ways to improve the health of the environment, or of ourselves.
Our approach is different. The key to building a really beautiful garden that conserves water, and does not require the addition of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides is in using an ecosystems approach to design. In other words, the Mariposa Method does not work with single-focus simplistic solutions such as using drought tolerant plants; instead we look at how we plant and what we plant with an eye toward creating a thriving garden ecosystem. We consider whether the plants we choose provide food or shelter for pollinators, and how they co-exist with other plants to increase the diversity of flora and fauna in your garden. The overall design and planting plan support the larger cycles and systems of nature - especially the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle.
When each element in a garden ecosystem is working with all the other elements, complex associations begin to form. The garden becomes healthier and more able to resist pest and disease problems. The soil teems with life and provides nutrients and healthy interconnections between plants and plant roots, so less water is needed to keep plants healthy and resilient to pests and diseases.
We focus on following the natural forms and rhythms of nature, designing with an eye toward creating both beauty and ecological diversity. This framework that allows us to bring together all of the separate factors that go into creating a garden and weave them together into a garden that will thrive in our area and provide habitat value to the birds, bees, and butterflies who live among us. That way, when the garden is finished and we are relaxing with our friends and family outside, we can feel more connected to the natural world around us.
Andrea Hurd, founder of Mariposa Gardening & Design.