Valenciaga Garden Couture
I borrowed this title from my Flickr Photostream so I could yak about our yard here. 😀 Seems the right time to do it, since our warm ‘winter’ has just melted into a hot spring.
You will probably remember that, as a transplanted NYer, I have been struggling for over a decade to turn my high desert yard into a garden oasis and wildlife refuge of sorts. It hasn’t been easy, because when we first moved here we didn’t understand the climate and terrain at all, and made a lot of expensive landscaping mistakes.
I grew up in a straightforward four-seasons environment. Autumn was cool, crisp and sunny, winters were very cold and it rarely rained but often snowed, and the snow would stick around for weeks even under clear skies. We rarely had an overcast day until the spring, when it would become humid and warm with light showers — just as the saying goes, April showers were common. Then came the very hot, very humid summers with frequent sultry days that climaxed in thunderstorms and late August hurricanes. These hurricanes were the kind that, unless you lived right at the water, were completely benign. You bring in your lawn furniture and ride it out.
In that environment we grew vegetables without any problem, had flowers three seasons — all kinds. There were insects, natch, including annoying mosquitoes and gnats and flies but only in late spring and summer. There was a full array of birds and rabbits and friendly yard creatures. You planted a tree and it shot up, thriving. No one chopped them down, stupid pruning was almost never seen — certainly not the ignorant butchery one sees here in SoCal nowadays.
This is the mindset we applied to Valencia. Uh, nope, no-go.
I picked our current house because not only is Valencia a sort of high desert wilderness with huge rolling foothills — the outcroppings of the San Gabriel and Santa Susana mountain ranges, but it also has, still to this day despite being developed, vast areas of arroyo. Technically, an arroyo refers to a river bed, dry or otherwise and is typically associated with various types of desert lands. The arroyos in Southern California tend to be full of wildlife: trees, bushes, wildflowers and other types of wild plants and vines. They are also home to all sorts of creatures including rabbits, rodents, coyotes, snakes, birds, insects and other naturally occurring life.
The arroyos that intersperse our neighborhood are semi-wild hiking areas and stunningly beautiful, all year long. They are home to the protected Live Oak tree. I have posted pictures of them in the past, as the paseos that run throughout Santa Clarita for miles and miles, wind around and next to our house and neighborhood and drop down into these fluvial hollows enabling residents to enjoy their natural beauty rather seamlessly, by just stepping onto them and wandering.
If I had been smart, I would have studied those arroyos when I first came and noted what grows effortlessly in our conditions. Instead I planted annuals and trees that didn’t survive. Then, we stumbled on a class given by a local certified horticulturalist/arborist and learned all about our Sunset Zone 18. He told the class (and we took four more classes with him) that we should only plant the trees, flowers, vines, bushes, shrubs and vegetables for our zone and nothing else. Luckily, we found out that there were a lot of beautiful plants of all kinds that work well here and that is what we added from that time to today. We also have him come twice a year to walk around the yard and garden with us and assess what needs to be done so things continue to thrive.
I won’t torture you with details on all our mistakes but fast forward to the point where we finally understood what we were dealing with. We now have over a dozen fruit trees, dozens of flowering plants, and an area where we raise vegetables in planters. We have found that the best system for this is a tall cylindrical column that allows roots to grow deep instead of spread out. In that system you can raise tomatoes and all kinds of beans, squash, and of course herbs. We have just gotten heirloom seeds to put in baby lima beans and snow peas in a week or so. As all of you who garden know, some plants prefer to be started in the Spring and others in Autumn. Since actual ground space is at a premium in Southern California, with few people having more than a quarter of an acre, vertical planting of this type is a good solution.
Our main challenge with our fruit and vegetables is the slap-fight the local squirrels engage us in every single summer, as they teem up out of the nearby arroyo and set up shop at our place. Not only do they eat our fruit and seedlings, but flowers as well, stripping our Pineapple Guava and Camelias. As I have mentioned before, at one time we used to escort them to another location a few miles away, but the count reached almost 50 one month, so we gave up. The only solution to pests of this type is spraying plants with natural products that they don’t like the taste of, but that has only had limited success and can take a lot of time and money. Deanna and Al, who have a large piece of property back East, have had luck with tenting their raised bed ‘square foot’ garden. Luckily they are also in a temperate, four-season location where plants thrive and so their pests (rabbits, which Annabelle delights in having live on the property, naturally) have plenty of other places to dine.
Unlike at least half our neighbors, if not more, we have created a virtual paradise for local creatures of all kinds. The only ones we have not seen on our own property are coyotes, which do come into the neighborhood occasionally. Everything else makes its way to us from huge snowy owls to peregrine falcons, to praying mantis and ladybugs. There are many people here who live in what appear to be expensive penitentiaries, completely devoid of any plants, other than grass (more on this below). They just don’t know how to or don’t want to struggle to maintain a garden.
Not all of Southern California and Los Angeles County have inhospitable climates like ours. Pasadena and Beverly Hills, for example, have milder, slightly moister weather all year long, which makes it easier to grow a wide variety of plants.
Our one advantage in having hotter heat and colder cold, if that doesn’t sound like a truism, is that we can grow apple trees in the same yard with Middle Eastern citruses, like Buddha’s Hand, an Israel citron that is very rare (and we have struggled to keep alive and bearing its unique fruit) and our latest acquisition, the Kaffir Lime, the leaves of which are used in Thai food. I also have a treasured Pomelo. If you have any chance to try a Pomelo, you will savor one of nature’s truly exotic treasures. It looks like a grapefruit but the fruit and rind are completely sweet, aromatic and almost perfume-like. To me, when I think of the caravan treasures being carried along the ancient silk routes, the Pomelo comes to mind.
The Kaffir is a very delicate tree that we will have to tent or build a cover for to shelter it from our occasional frosts on winter nights (should we ever again be so lucky to have them, despite the damage they inflict — we need them for our apple tree). We got the Kaffir, after a one year wait and application to have it in California, because Deanna and Al are into Asian cooking and want the leaves for their use. See how nice we are to our family and friends? Now we baby that thing as if it were a child.
So, the Kaffir, the roses and now for our newest challenge. You who think there is no such thing as proven, man-made climate change are clearly not living in one of the areas impacted. Although, despite the deliberate attempts by industries impacted by EPA rules resulting from the attempts to stave off impending disaster, low lying coastal regions are experiencing rising sea levels that will swallow up wetlands and places like the Florida Keys and some islands off the coasts in South Carolina, for example. Equally indicative of what is happening are the increased number and ferocity of storms, including blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes.
But for us, the alteration means aridity and heat as never before experienced — everyone is talking about it. It is criminal for anyone to lie to the American people about what is transpiring. Here in Valencia, we have had higher temperatures every summer and that season has been swallowing autumn and spring, increasingly. To boot, we have had virtually no rain for a decade. There are parts of California where tap water consumption has been severely restricted. No showers? No flushing the toilet? OMG.
So, late last summer we received a notice from the local water authority that we had to restrict our automatic sprinkler systems to two days per week from that day forward. This had never before happened in the history of the Santa Clarita Valley. Never. What this meant was, of course, that grass lawns, which suck up a disproportionate share of outdoor watering, would wither and die. And that is what happened. By December 15, when temperatures were still 15 degrees above normal and not a drop of rain had fallen, everyone in our expensive, highly managed, model community had a dead, ugly, brown yard wherever that putting-green surface that was so mandated and regulated by the HOAs had been.
Geoffrey and I decided to favor our trees and plants, increase the percentage of xerigraphic/drought tolerant blooming ground covers, like Gazanias, and gradually eliminate all lawn areas. So we got two flats of bright Africans that we hope will take over the entire front lawn. And we are going to keep planting roses all over, especially the unusual ones that Weeks Roses offers. We lost a couple last year to grubs, so I have to compensate. I want a garden full of flowers and fruit all year long, as a way to make up for the climate.
If I were to summarize what we should all be doing, regardless of where we live, right now in our yards it would be this short list:
- Stop all pruning, trimming and transplanting until December 21;
- Plant spring flowers, fruiting trees, bushes and vines, plant spring vegetables;
- If you want birds, provide low, middle, and high shelter;
- Fertilize, preferably with organic products, avoiding at all costs anything like Miracle Gro, which is a destructive steroid;
- Spray organic solutions like Neem oil or Australian Red Worm ‘tea’, diluted 1:6 in water, to prevent ovipositing by pests like moths;
- Mulch around all plants except citrus trees with yard clippings (everything except thorns; nothing else should leave the yard);
- If you haven’t done it, start composting, either in unused corners of your yard or in bins. The only organic material that cannot be composted is anything composed of proteins: eggs (the shells are fine); nuts; meat; fish or oils (except avocados and untreated olives);
- Let natural friendly garden creatures control undesirable insects, so don’t spray outside to kill spiders and ants – we encourage both outside. Ants aerate the soil and recycle debris. Spiders catch flies, mosquitoes, ticks and all kinds of parasites. You should only call an organically aware exterminator in dire circumstances to get rid of rodents. If there is a honey bee infestation, see if the hive could be relocated safely first, before doing anything that might kill them, if at all possible.
- Small lizards, geckos, salamanders are actually helpful in the yard as they will rid your yard of harmful insects and small vermin. We do remove grasshoppers, and their relatives and release them in the arroyo. We have had a few small, harmless snakes from time to time and leave them alone. Naturally, if you are lucky enough to have frogs — treasure and protect them. Butterflies like sun and to be left alone and admired from afar, touching them kills them slowly.
That’s it except for watering and perhaps monthly fertilizing with the product meant for that plant, i.e., roses, beans, orange trees all require different fertilizers and foods. It matters!
Images: Beth Byrnes archives, our yard and its ornamental gardens