Tips for Creating a Lush, Sustainable Landscape

Tips for Creating a Lush, Sustainable Landscape

A Guide for Central Coast Homeowners

“Imagine a garden that rarely needs pruning, watering or fertilizing. One where natural controls usually take care of pest problems before the gardener even becomes aware of them. A peaceful garden where the sound of blowers, power mowers, or chain saws never intrudes. Imagine a garden that also serves as a climate control for the house, keeping it cool in summer and warm in winter; a garden that traps rainwater in an attractive streambed to deeply irrigate the trees and recharge the groundwater; one that provides habitat for wildlife and food for people. Imagine a garden that truly works. This is the sustainable garden—not barren or sacrificial, but as lush and beautiful as any other without all the struggle and waste.” – Author and landscape architect Owen Dell

If Dell’s description fills your heart with delight and your mind’s eye with images of your ideal oasis, a sustainable landscape is probably for you. Here are three vital components in creating a lush, sustainable landscape:

Central Coast ranch site plan

Good Planning

In considering your sustainable landscape, good planning is vital. Creating a design can save you time and money by sourcing an expert to help make the most of your space, time, and budget.

Your designer will ask, “What are the uses you’d like to incorporate?” Hardscape areas like patios, play areas and structures, or water features can all make your property work for you. When contemplating how you’ll be using the areas, think about the materials. Are they sustainably produced and sourced? Consider the Embodied Energy impacts, which include everything it takes to have a material available for your use.

Irrigation Systems

Any discussion of California landscaping will include irrigation. Irrigation systems need to be accurate, low-flow and timed appropriately to keep plants healthy and thriving. A well-designed system ensures your plants receive an appropriate amount of water.

California fuchsia

Plants

When thinking about the plants—whether shrubs, trees, veggies or turf—think about conserving resources, especially over time. California Native Plants is an excellent resource for finding plants that will fit your goals and your design. Local native plants are often the most climate compatible and lowest maintenance choices.

These are just a few of the sustainable principles you can use as guidelines to maximize your landscape efforts. And in doing so, take advantage of living in the incredible region of California’s Central Coast. Make time to get out and enjoy yourselves in your gardens. They offer unique opportunities to unwind and relieve stress. Reconnect with things natural, beautiful and up close. Even in our own gardens we are connected in a very real way to the larger landscape, and how we have a responsibility to sustain the health and beauty of our beloved Central Coast. Let’s make it work for the long run.

Want more information on Central Coast resource-friendly landscapes? Here’s a short video hosted by our own Rick Mathews. Contact our landscape designers at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.

 

The Secret to Creating a Beautiful Outdoor Space

The Secret to Creating a Beautiful Outdoor Space

By Jill Bleher, Landscape Designer. Originally published in Living Lavishly VOLUME 14 Spring/Summer 2022.

As humans we seek habitats in which to dwell. This can be seen inside our homes as well as in our gardens. There are probably special things in your house that you cherish and enjoy. Maybe it is the family heirloom china displayed in a cabinet or the flat-screen TV that you use daily. These features help create an inviting space with their beauty, placement, and functionality. The approach is similar for designing an outdoor dwelling space. Have you ever visited a beautiful garden and wondered why it is so inviting? The answer is good design involving landscape features.

Landscape features are generally items that draw the eye, such as colorful pottery, a striking sculpture, or a beautiful tree. Features can also engage other senses, such as the sound of a fountain or the warmth of a firepit. Whether you have a small or a large yard, there are plenty of options for features to enhance your landscape experience. Here is an exploration of how to integrate features into your landscape retreat for the greatest effect.

Art as a Focal Point

One way to personalize and add dimension to a garden is to add artistic features. Artful focal points can be as simple as a beautiful ceramic pot or as complex as a large-scale wind sculpture. Good placement for an art feature is at the divergence of pathways, in a nook to the side of a patio, or in a space viewed from above. Uplight your art feature so you can appreciate it after dark.

When selecting art features, consider the theme of the setting. Pick a modern art piece for a contemporary landscape, place vibrant Talavera pottery in a cactus garden, or choose a stone lantern for your traditional Japanese garden. Additionally, art focal points may have sentimental value, such as a souvenir plaque from a trip or a garden statue that belonged to a family member. Ultimately, the purpose of garden art is to add meaning and beauty to the landscape.

Water and Fire Elements

Ambiance is a fundamental part of the garden setting. A well-designed landscape invites the visitor to linger and appreciate the space. Two elements that are especially good at adding ambiance to any garden are water and fire features. Consider the welcoming glow of a fire or the peaceful sound of water. It’s no wonder that both are common aspects of an inviting landscape sanctuary.

Deciding where to place a fire or water feature in the landscape is significant. Locate a fireplace or fire pit in a space where people can gather. If designing a new space, consider building a fireplace wall to partially enclose and warm a seating area. Moveable fire tables can be added to existing patios for an inviting element. Whether for roasting marshmallows or just adding light and warmth, fire features are ideal for inviting people to gather.

Since water features are sought out mainly for their sound, they can be tucked against walls or into nooks. Alternatively, they can be placed out in the center of a large space as a focal point. With so many options to choose from, it is best to match the style of your landscape. Select a steel water wall for a modern look, choose a core-drilled boulder fountain for a natural setting, or pick a tiered fountain for an Italian garden. Whatever the style, a well-placed water or fire feature will add dimension to the garden space.

Plant Selections that Pop

Perhaps the most obvious garden feature is plants. However, by their very nature plants are dynamic and not as easy to highlight as a static fountain or statue – they grow and change throughout the seasons. For this reason, picking the right plants to showcase can take some thought.

Trees and large shrubs make excellent features due to their size and often interesting forms. Some of the best trees to draw attention to are olives and oaks as they have beautiful branch structures and grow more majestic with age. A favorite large shrub to feature is the Western Redbud which bursts into bright pink blooms in early spring. Large Manzanitas or Arbutus trees are also excellent selections to choose with their red bark and gnarled forms. Accent trees at night with either uplights or hanging moonlights.

If you don’t have space for large trees, consider plants with striking architectural form such as Agaves or grasses to feature against a wall or along a pathway. Perennial blooming plants will delight seasonally. Try interplanting bulbs between other plants to add extra pops of color in spring!

Borrowed Views

One powerful tool for creating a beautiful landscape is to incorporate views. A “borrowed view” is when a distant landscape is included in the garden design. For instance, build an arbor to frame a view of neighboring vineyards or leave space between trees to view the mountains beyond. It might be years before your newly planted oak trees can be considered features, but you can highlight the view of a magnificent oak tree in the field beyond your property.

Ultimately, borrowed views are a great way to make your immediate yard feel larger and grander. It’s similar to adding a mirror on the wall in an interior room. Even a small yard will feel less enclosed if there is a view of the world beyond. Don’t lose sight of the greater landscape!

This exploration of landscape features and their applications applies to every person and every garden setting. Include one or many elements in your yard, but do it purposefully and make it personal! Seek out art features that catch your eye, add a fire or water feature to create ambiance, select plants to delight the senses, and borrow views when possible. In the end, don’t hurry the journey but enjoy the process. In so doing, turn your landscape into a dwelling space that is an expression of yourself.  After all, genuinely superb gardens are dwellings that evolve with the time and ponderous consideration of a magnificent tree.

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Jill Bleher is a landscape designer and Cal Poly Landscape Architecture alumnus. She is passionate about designing unique landscape sanctuaries for others. When not designing yards for other people, she can most often be found in her own garden or inside creating crafts. For more information, visit Madrone Landscapes or call (805) 466-6263.

Designing a Gathering Space for the Central Coast Landscape

Designing a Gathering Space for the Central Coast Landscape

We enjoy the outdoors year-round on the Central Coast. Sunny winters and mild summer evenings are almost the expectation, so our landscapes aren’t just a beautiful space to look at; they’re a beautiful space in which to live. Whether you’re hosting dinner with friends or looking to enjoy an evening outdoors with the family, you want to get the most out of your outdoor living space. 

Here are a few good points to think about as you begin to envision a new outdoor gathering space.

 

Take note of special existing features. Good designs take cues from context; on the Central Coast, oaks often define landscape features. Or, maybe there’s a slope that can be used to create a sweeping seat wall or a rock outcrop that can play into the form of the hardscape edge. How will the gathering space relate to gates and fences, doors, and perhaps most importantly, the kitchen? Do you already have a special spot in your yard, and will converting it to a gathering space enhance its distinctive character? Outdoor gathering spaces are often situated in a specific context, providing strong clues to answering design questions.

Consider various options. You may already have a vision for how the space will look, and it may be the best solution. Think through all the options before you begin. What if the space were tucked into a different corner, on a raised redwood deck, as a sunken rock-studded fire zone, with a custom pergola integrated, or with a soft, sweeping vegetated edge. 

Consider the potential for built-in features such as fire pits, barbecues, fountains, refrigerators, coolers, sinks, seating variations, screening, and more. Planting, which often provides the smooth transition or soft edge from hardscape (such as concrete or pavers) into the larger landscape, plays a vital role in defining and elevating a space.

Design for your best use of the space. Consider how exactly how you envision the space being used over time. Be realistic, and think long-term. Here are six questions to get you started.

  • Do you need space for a cafe table for two or three, or a dining table for all the kids and grandkids? 
  • How likely are you to need shade over the space? 
  • Will you be using it primarily in the morning or the evening? 
  • How accessible does your gathering space need to be from the kitchen, indoor living spaces, or the primary bedroom? 
  • Who will use it most frequently, and will they be reading a book in the evening shade or soaking in the midafternoon sun? 
  • Does a pool deck or bocce court also fit nearby, and how does the gathering space fit into other long-term landscape goals?

Of course, if all these questions seem a bit overwhelming to tackle, you might consider hiring a landscape designer. Gathering inspiration online definitely helps to lay out a vision. Still, a professional landscape designer will help turn solid ideas into plans on paper, the first step toward an installed landscape. The more complex a project, the more potential for a designer to help streamline the process.

Interested in talking to us about your gathering space? Contact our landscape designers at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.

Rainwater Harvesting for California’s Central Coast

Rainwater Harvesting for California’s Central Coast

Although we’ve seen a bit of rain this year, as Californians we know that every drop we get is precious. It seems as though drought years are becoming more common, and wet winters are few and far between. Capturing and using rainwater has many benefits. Rainwater is very healthy for plants because it is 100% soft, free of salts, minerals, and chemicals, slightly acidic and a natural source of nitrogen. When it comes to the landscape, there are several techniques that can be used to harvest and utilize rainwater.

Bioswales and Detention Basins

You can beautifully maximize the effect of rainfall with passive techniques, using it to water deep-rooted plants such as trees. It is common to direct roof water and stormwater to bioswales or detention basins to allow for deeper infiltration in specific zones of the landscape. Keeping water on site reduces runoff and erosion downstream from your property.

Bioswales can be beautiful additions to the landscape if made to look like a natural creek or pond with rocks and plants. Concealed detention basins can be created by with underground gravel leach fields around tree groves.

For the 3,000 square foot home, you can get almost 500 gallons from downspouts with a light ¼” rainstorm. Even in a drought winter, your trees can get some good deep watering.

Rainwater Cisterns

The most efficient way to harvest rainwater is to collect it from roof surfaces by piping downspouts into a cistern system. With a properly designed rainwater harvesting system, you can essentially transfer 100% of the rainwater that hits your roof into storage.

For every 1” of rainfall, you can capture 0.62 gallons of water per square foot. This means that a home with a 3,000 square foot roof will collect 1,870 gallons from 1” of rain. With an average annual rainfall of 19” in San Luis Obispo and 13” in Paso Robles, that same home has the potential to collect between 24,000 and 37,000 gallons over one winter. Once stored, the rainwater can be filtered and pumped into an irrigation system to supplement the water supply during the dry season.

Options and Costs

One major constraint for rainwater harvesting systems is the cost. In California, most of the rain comes during our short winter season, with little need for irrigation between storms. To maximize the harvest, you need to have a lot of storage for the water. Most commonly, above-ground tanks are used to store collected rainwater. There are a lot of options for above or underground storage tanks, with plastic being the least expensive material. Collected water can also be stored in a holding pond, but this method allows for water loss to evaporation.

To have a system installed with a storage capacity between 5,000 and 40,000 gallons, you can expect to pay between $2 and $5 per gallon for overall cost installed by a qualified contractor. If a full system isn’t in the budget, you can certainly keep costs low and use simple rain barrels to harvest water from downspouts. You can use collected water for indoor plants or landscape areas that don’t get direct rainfall.

When to Plan

With all of the different ways to think about harvesting rainwater, planning is key. It is advantageous to think about your system now, during the wet season. That way, you can have your system designed and installed during the dry season to get ready for the following year’s rain. We recommend 3-8 months to allow for design and installation without rushing decisions. When June comes around, rain may be the last thing on your mind – just remember watching that precious rainwater running down the drain and plan, plan, plan!

At any time of the year, consult with your landscape designer. If you are already working on a landscape plan, be sure to consider your rainwater harvesting system. It can be designed alongside planting and irrigation designs to allow your contractor to take care of everything at once.

Want to learn more about including bioswales or dry creeks in your landscape design? Contact our team at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.

Six Bird-Friendly Natives for San Luis Obispo County

Six Bird-Friendly Natives for San Luis Obispo County

Plants to Help Create a Bird-Friendly Habitat

​We often think of bees and butterflies when we’re landscaping—as well as drought-tolerant and native planting—but what of birds? Native, bird-friendly landscaping brings impactful benefits to more than just a residential landscape, they also support San Luis Obispo County region’s ecosystem and create protection and food.

By visiting California’s Audubon site, you can plug in your email and zip code to receive a long list of plants that are both native and bird friendly. You might also use the California Native Plant Society’s Calscape plant search, where you can put your location and check the boxes on what you’re looking for in order to find just the right plants for you.

Among all the bird-friendly plants in the Central California region, here are six of our favorites:

Eastwood Manzanita

Arctostaphylos glandulosa

We are big fans of manzanita! It also made our list of top plants for the Central Coast winter garden. There are several varieties of manzanita, from shrubs to trees. This species is best planted in sun or part shade, this Manzanita variety is found all along the western coast – from Baja to Oregon. It is drought tolerant, with white to pink flowers and reddish-brown berries. It may attract mockingbirds, jays, vireos, thrushes, and wrens.

Toyon

Heteromeles arbutifolia

No bird-friendly list would be complete without this perennial shrub. Native through the western part of California and the Sierra Foothills, Toyon is well known in the coastal sage scrub plant community. Toyon produces bright red berries and is also known as Christmas Berry and Christmas Holly. It is very attractive to butterflies, birds, and mammals alike. Mockingbirds, robins, and cedar waxwings are particularly drawn to this evergreen.

Cardinal Catchfly

Silene laciniata

A bright, perennial herb that vines through surrounding plants to show off its colors, the Cardinal Catchfly flourishes in partial shade and may attract orioles, waxwings, warblers, and certainly hummingbirds and butterflies. Drought-tolerant and easy to care for, its small splashes of vibrancy are a charming addition to any landscape.

Cream Bush

Holodiscus discolor

Cream bush is a shaggy, deciduous shrub called “ocean spray” for a reason. Bursting with cascading white clusters of flowers from early spring to late summer, its blooms then develop a tan that lasts them through the winter. With a faint, sugary scent and thick growth, cream bush provides cover for birds as well as fruit and nuts, attracting cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, and finches, among others.

Deergrass

Muhlenbergia rigens

The volume and character of deergrass makes it a popular plant for height and charm, with tufted, silver-green to purple foliage that makes it one of the most beautiful bunchgrasses for our region. Its summer seeds attract birds like finches, nuthatches, grosbeaks, and sparrows.

Silver Lupine

Lupinus albifrons

A gorgeous, prominent flowering shrub, Silver Lupine thrives in dry environments and attracts everything from bees to vireos. Silky and evergreen, it flowers in every season save fall. Its nectar is loved by hummingbirds, warblers, mockingbirds, orioles, and others.

Interested in a bird-friendly landscape design? Contact our landscape designers at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.

How, Why, and When to Cut Bunch Grasses

How, Why, and When to Cut Bunch Grasses

Tips for Bunch Grass Cutbacks on California’s Central Coast

In the Central Coast California Landscape, bunch grasses 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 to clear out dead foliage and debris for plant health. While some grasses don’t need to be cut back every year, others benefit from being cut back twice or more per year. For yearly cutbacks, the rule of thumb is to cut 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).

Ryan maintains decorative grass
San Luis Obispo County Grass Cutbacks by Region

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 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.

Ryan maintains decorative grass

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. You want 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.
Ryan maintains decorative 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)

Muhlengergia Rigens (MEDIUM)

Interested in landscape maintenance, including bunch grass cutbacks? We are currently taking maintenance projects with a $400/month minimum. Fill out our Maintenance Request Form or contact us at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.