Eight Tips for Sustainable Landscapes on the Central Coast

Eight Tips for Sustainable Landscapes on the Central Coast

Our Californian Central Coast climate is unique and particular, shaped by drought-tolerant native plants and dry but beautiful weather. As professional landscapers, we understand the importance of planting flora that can live sustainably in our soils. Here, sustainability means many things—keeping water bills down, plants alive without fuss and unnecessary labor, the native landscape uninterrupted by any invasive species, and more—and does not undermine the beautification of your outdoor spaces.

This timeless video is just as relevant for central coast landscapes today as it was when it was filmed in 2009. Created by the Templeton Community Services District in cooperation with the SLO County Partners in Water Conservation, this ten-minute video walks through eight topics you should consider when creating a sustainable landscape. Hosted by Kate Dore and our own Rick Mathews. 

Eight factors to consider when creating a sustainable landscape:

  1. Planning and Design—know your site inside and out to ensure you start off on the right foot
  2. Soil Type—before deciding on your perfect plant palette, make sure you know what your soil can sustain
  3. Plant Selection—set your heart on the beautiful variety of native and Mediterranean plants that grow best in our area
  4. Limited Turf Areas—a costly and management-heavy asset, it’s best to design for only as much turf as you need for your practical enjoyment
  5. Mulching—organic mulch is the perfect solution for topsoil protection, temperature regulation, and weed prevention
  6. Efficient Irrigation—an essential component to preventing time-intensive care and water waste, make sure your irrigation system is efficient
  7. Hardscape Areas—these can be designed with sustainable and water-wise materials as well as potted plants and container gardens to beautify your walls and walkways
  8. Maintenance—reduce maintenance time and costs by considering the speed of your plants’ growth, the cost of any new maintenance tools, replanting needs, and any possibility for your plants damaging your landscape if left unchecked
Landscape Maintenance and the 20/80 Ratio

Landscape Maintenance and the 20/80 Ratio

If you’ve read about our landscape maintenance services, you know that we assert that “It has been estimated that 80% of the total cost of a garden over a 20-year lifespan is for maintenance. That means 20% for design and construction. Sustainable maintenance practices help to greatly reduce maintenance costs.”

Some folks are surprised by that number. Here’s how we break it down.

Obviously, the cost of maintenance is different for every property, based on the scopes of the landscape, the type of tasks involved, and the level of detail for the work. Add the variable cost of labor and any renovations and other changes needed over the 20-year lifespan and you have a complicated equation.

The 80% number we use (20/80 ratio) comes specifically from the popular DIY book, “Sustainable Landscaping For Dummies,” by visionary landscape architect, Owen Dell. Despite the goofy series title, it is an excellent source of information on sustainable landscape issues and solutions.

Although that book was published in 2009, the 20% construction vs. 80% maintenance figure has been used at least since the early 1990s when our owner and founder, Rick Mathews, first heard it. Is the ratio still valid? Roughly/generally/approximately, yes. Based on our experience and using numbers from landscape projects we constructed as well as maintain, we found that the 20/80 ratio was the low end of the maintenance cost range.

What should be stressed is that landscapes that use a sustainable approach are, by definition, less expensive over time. Whether it’s less gas (and noise!) for power garden equipment and less polluting chemicals for fertilizing and pest control, a sustainable approach reduces those costs and environmental impacts. Sustainability is a major goal of good landscape design and construction, and hopefully means less time is spent tending to more needy garden elements like large lawns, high-maintenance and low-durability hardscape elements, and poorly chosen and out-of-scale trees, shrubs, and ground covers.

Want to learn more about sustainable landscape maintenance? Give us a call! (805) 466-6263

On the Boards: Shell Beach Oasis

On the Boards: Shell Beach Oasis

As part of this Shell Beach Residence’s major remodel, we are designing an outdoor sanctuary by creating a beautifully contemporary, tropical California landscape.

A unique space that requires plenty of communication and creativity, this design is the epitome of an oasis. It is both striking and practical, formed by three differentiated spaces within one cohesive whole and designed to be split in half by a roll-out gate. This gate, strategically placed within the patio and complemented by the yard’s single-palette planted border, allows guests a feeling of privacy while creating a manageable visiting space for the owners.

From raised garden beds to a built-in spa, this coastal residential landscape harmoniously blends multi-functional features with a stunning, tropical California aesthetic. A bit different from the North County plant palette, the well-drained, irrigated, and thoughtfully-placed materials emote the feeling of a tropical vacation—truly a paradise!

Bunch Grass Cutbacks

Bunch Grass Cutbacks

How, Why, and When to Cut Bunch Grasses: California’s Central Coast

In the Central Coast California Landscape, bunchgrasses are a common landscape element. In some cases, huge swaths of showy grasses can be a bold botanic display of texture, movement, and glowing color. A bunch grass is a perennial grass that forms clumps as it grows. They can be as small as six inches or as large as eight feet tall, usually selected for their foliage and seed head plumage. On the central coast, most species are maintained by a significant yearly haircut to prepare for the next year’s growth.

When to Cut Bunch Grasses

Most bunch grasses are cut back so they look green and fresh for the next growing season, as well as clear out dead foliage and debris for plant health. While some grasses won’t need to be cut back every year, some benefit from being cut back twice or more per year. For yearly cutbacks, the rule of thumb is to cut them back after the last hard frost. Winter foliage can be attractive even if it is brown, and it protects the plant crown from frost damage. If the grass is particularly frost sensitive, the timing should be as late in the winter as possible. In San Luis Obispo County, we tend to be split our grass cut-back timeframes between the beaches (Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Los Osos, etc.), the coastal valleys (San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Edna, Nipomo, etc.) and North County (Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Santa Margarita).

Grass cutbacks can start earliest on the beach zones because they have almost no frost and grasses start to grow even in the winter. December-January is good for most grasses along our beach towns. With the lack of frost, many more species of grass can be grown, such as Pennisetum setaceum rubrum, a beautiful Purple Fountain Grass. “Some grasses won’t show as much winter browning, so skipping their yearly cutbacks from time to time is acceptable. Because the growing season is so long, the window to cut back grasses is also more forgiving. Cutting browning grasses as late as March or April is better than not cutting them at all.”
In the coastal valleys, February is a great month to cut back grasses, but it can happen anytime between January and March. There is limited frost, so grasses such as the Purple Fountain Grass may want to wait until March, but most grasses are completely safe for a February cut. This zone is very similar to the beaches, but it may take a little longer for the grasses to green back up, hence the later cut.

North County of San Luis Obispo County is much different than the rest of the county. The Santa Lucia Mountain Range separates it from ocean influence, making it much colder in the winter. For that reason, the cutbacks occur later to wait for the hard frosts to subside. In addition, most grasses in north county don’t start pushing new growth until April. February through April is the window for north county grass cutbacks, with March being an ideal month. While April is okay, cutting back the grasses after the spring flush should be avoided. While grass species are more limited in North County due to the cold, the explosive growth of the hot summer and the seasonal look of brown winter plumage can be stunning.

The bottom line for timing of grass cutbacks is to maximize the aesthetics and health of the plants. Try to minimize the downtime of a cut back bunch grass stump by waiting until the plant is just about to push new growth. Fine-tune the specific timing for your zone and grasses over the years to maximize your enjoyment of these versatile plants.

How to Cut Back Bunch Grasses

  1. Use sharp shears, pruners, hedgers, or bladed weed whackers to cut all blades and chutes as close to the ground as possible without damaging the crown of the plant.
  2. Hand pull any loose debris or dead plant material to prevent crown rot and allow for more air circulation.
  3. Pull back any mulch or debris at least 2” from the crown of the grass.

Recommended Pruning Heights for Various Species

LOW: 2-4” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Festuca spp., Carex spp., Sesleria spp., Acoris spp., Juncus spp., Nassella spp., Melica spp., Bouteloua spp., Aristida spp., Calamagrostis spp., Muhlenbergia cappilaris, Ophiopogon spp., Stipa spp., Helictotrichon spp., Anemanthele spp., Pennisetum spp. (smaller varieties).
Non-Grass Species: Achillea spp., Zauschneria (Epilobium) spp., Nepeta spp., Teucrium spp., Coreopsis spp., Thymus spp., Erigeron spp., Salvia spathacea.

MEDIUM: 4-8” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Muhlenbergia rigens, Muhlenbergia dubia, Miscanthus spp. (small to medium varieties), Pennisetum spp. (larger varieties), Leymus spp.,
Non-Grass Species: Penstemon spp. (smaller varieties), Artemisia spp., Origanum spp.,

HIGH: 8-12” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Miscanthus spp. (larger varieties), Muhlenbergia dumosa, Cortaderia spp., Kniphofia spp.
Non-Grass Species: Penstemon spp. (larger varieties), Salvia spp. (some smaller varieties), Gaura spp., Lavandula (smaller varieties), Ribes spp., Perovskia spp., Eriogonum (smaller varieties).

Carex divulsa (LOW)

Muhlenbergia rigens (MEDIUM)

 

 

Meet the Team: Mike Molina

Meet the Team: Mike Molina

It’s a wonderful day to Meet the Team! For August, we are putting a spotlight on our Maintenance Foreman, Mike Molina.  This April was Mike’s 6th year with us and we can’t imagine our team without him!

1. What’s your favorite thing about working at Madrone?

Marone has a great work environment. I work with great people and spend my days working in lovely landscapes.

2. What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on and why?

My favorite project is Ligon, located with its rolling hills and diverse animal population.

3. What’s your favorite or least favorite plant, and why?

My favorite plant is Moonshine Yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’). It’s bright yellow flowers and green foliage are beautiful. 

My least favorite is ground cover roses – too many thorns!

4. What are some of your favorite hobbies outside of work?

I enjoy spending time outside pressure washing around my house and relaxing by just watching the trees sway in the wind.  

5. Share a fun fact about yourself.

I love the outdoors and will never work indoors again!

Mulch Madness – A Guide to Mulch

Mulch Madness – A Guide to Mulch

Key Benefits, Types, and Methods of Using Mulch in California Landscapes

It’s almost insane how many ways mulching adds to the success of California landscapes. It is easily one of the most useful practices one can do in the garden. Mulching is a great way to control weeds, retain moisture and protect your soil. It also hides and protects drip lines, keeps dust down, provides a safe, relatively clean walking surface, and looks better than bare ground. Mulches can prevent erosion on slopes, and organic mulches improve soil structure.

Saves Time and Money

One of the most important benefits of mulching is it saves time and money! By reducing weeds, especially annuals, by up to 90%, landscaping labor costs are reduced significantly. Mulching can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly and toxic herbicides. And mulch can significantly conserve soil moisture, reducing the cost of irrigation. Many California Coast gardens use surface-mounted drip irrigation and mulching serves to visually cover up and protect drip lines, which are vulnerable to damage and weathering, thus saving on costs to repair or replace.

Promotes Healthy Landscapes

Mulching promotes healthy plants and garden areas by reducing competition from weeds by preventing their germination. The decomposition of mulch also adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down, improving soil by adding organic matter that feeds beneficial organisms. Mulching reduces soil compaction and insulates plants against temperature extremes. A 2-inch mulch layer can cut summer soil evaporation by 20% and lower temperatures in the top 4 inches of soil by 10 degrees. There is a notable improvement in establishing young plants and trees when mulch is used.

Reduces Soil Erosion

Another benefit of mulch is how it reduces soil erosion. Covering the soil simply helps keep soil in place when exposed to rain and wind. This is especially true on slopes, by deflecting the impact of raindrops, which in turn reduces storm water runoff and creek erosion.

It Just Looks Good

Mulch is often the finishing touch for planting areas. In addition to the functional benefits, it just looks good! A clean, uniform mulch layer helps to really tie the garden together.

Mulching with a Multitude of Materials

There are a wide variety of materials that can be used for mulching. The style and design of your individual garden or landscape will inform as to which types might be best for you. Bark and wood products are the most common types of mulches on the Central Coast. But there are many others, such as stone – from colorful rocks and boulders down to a wide variety of gravel and even decomposed granite. An under-layer of sheet mulching can be employed using newspapers, cardboard and even plastic sheeting. Living mulches (e.g. Dutch white clover) are cover crops planted around crops or between crop rows, adding nitrogen to the soil while discouraging noxious weeds.

We want to call attention to Recycled Organic Mulches. These can include chipped or shredded wood chips, compost, simple fallen leaves or pine needles, or even grass clippings. We also favor chipper mulch from local tree trimming operations. Our endorsement of these recycled materials stems from the fact that these materials are not only potentially an attractive ground cover and mulch, but they are by-products which don’t have to be shipped long distances, and mulching with them contributes to maintaining their usefulness in another form (good for sustainability).

How Much Mulch?

Planting areas should be mulched as needed to maintain a 2- to 4-inch layer. Plan on refreshing your mulched areas periodically. An annual inspection usually keeps you apprised of how often additional mulching is needed. Keep mulch at least two to three inches away from the stems and trunks of plants to avoid moisture-related fungus and bacteria problems. When mulching individual trees planted in lawns, create a circle of mulch about 2 feet in diameter for each inch of trunk diameter, even out to the edge of the canopy of mature trees if possible. If irrigating mulched areas with overhead irrigation, make sure that the water penetrates the mulch layer. Mulch can absorb the water and prevent its ever reaching soil.

We Love Mulch!

Mulching covers and cools the soil, conserves moisture, suppresses weed growth, slows erosion and adds nutrients as it decomposes. It also hides and protects drip lines. Plus, it looks good. What’s not to love?