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mjsee_gw

NC gardener trying to advise sis in Palo Alto..HELP!

mjsee
14 years ago

I'm the family gardener...all my siblings call me with gardening questions. Now, that works with my Ohio Sister (I grew up there) and my Virginia Brother (pretty similar climates)...but my middle Sis just moved to Palo Alto. I know NOTHING about gardening in CA.

She called to day because they are having their fugly junipers removed, but aren't ready to plant just yet. (And I do mean fugly. Take up the entire front yard...probably original to the house--which means they were planted in 1952.) I told her if she were in NC I'd advise newspaper covered in several inches of soil conditioner (finely chopped pine bark) but I don't know if that'll work in Palo Alto. Suggested she find a good, independent nursery and ask them...but then I remembered this forum.

She just wants to hold the soil in place and suppress weeds until they can get the front yard sorted. Suggestions? (I did a search before I posted...but got overwhelmed on page three...if this has been discussed recently, mea culpa!)

melanie

Comments (10)

  • bahia
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    If the whole front garden was densely planted with junipers, there may not be any weed problem to deal with, and you could suggest that she simply have the entire front area mulched with ground up tree trimmings, and skip the newspaper. You can often get such tree trimmings delivered for free by contacting local arborists in the area, they would be happy to skip having to haul it away to landfill and pay for the privilege. The concern I would have is to determine if there are any noxious perennial weeds such as Himalayan Blackberry, Algerian or English Ivy, or other persistant weeds such as Bermuda Grass or similar that could take over any future plantings. If there are, then some weed treatment will be necessary to give your sis a clean slate.

    I'd also have your sister send you lots of good digital photos of the cleaned up yard, so you can help her with the redesign. It certainly would help you have a better feel for the possibilities if you could come out and visit before you helped with the design, but if you are doing this without the benefit of seeing the site, I would also recommend that you look into some good general purpose books that address landscape design for SF Bay Area gardens from a water conserving viewpoint, as it looks likely we may be going into water rationing next spring if we have another dry winter with less than average rainfall.

    I can't seem to locate my copy of the most recent Landscaping book published by the EBMUD(East Bay Municipal Utility District), which is the local water supply agency for the east bay, nor remember the exact title, but this has some excellent pointers on setting up a new garden in a more rational, energy and water conserving way, without being overly preachy about it. Sunset Magazine and the Sunset Western Garden Encyclopedia with its planting information and plant lists is also a great general purpose reference. Sunset's regional headquarters and demonstration gardens are right nearby in Menlo Park, and open to the general public for tours, your sister,(and/or both of you), might get some good ideas from a visit.

    Palo Alto is a very nice place to garden, and has some beautiful, (if also incredibly expensive), neighborhoods, and is generally very full of large mature shade trees and dedicated gardeners. It also gets just enough winter chill to say that many common subtropicals are a bit too tender to be reliable choices, such as bougainvillea, as it regularly gets freezes each winter.

    Has your sister gardened already in California, or does she have any ideas of what they want to do? Lots of choices, almost too many plants to choose from, and no real traditions out here for the most part, so the choice of style and types of plantings is pretty wide open.

    If they are looking to plant under ideal conditions, it actually makes sense to get things started in the late fall here, to take advantage of the rains and cooler weather. Late October into February can be prime planting season, if the soil isn't too wet to be worked.

  • mjsee
    Original Author
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Bahia--I've actually been out. Got a few pictures of the backyard, but not enough. Failed to get pics of the front yard. (I thought they were starting in the back...but they've decided to start in the front.) Good to know they may not need the newspaper. The front yard is, essentially, on big planting of juniper, with an enormous cedar tree...and some agapanthus. They are going to do an addition to the front, so are really looking for a place holder until that is finished. I'm pushing for them to hire a designer to co-ordinate with their architect...but they spent a fortune on their "fixer" and I think money is pretty tight.

    The yard was extensively landscaped at one point--the backyard has great bones and plants. Many I recognized-- camelias, osmanthus, gaura, lots of amazing sedums and sempervirens--one of the original owners was a gardener. (Sis and her husband bought from the estate of the original owners.) It all needs to be re-vamped and renewed, but there isn't much I'd change about the structure/hardscape in the backyard. The hardscape has a great vintage Eichler feel---though the redwood strips between the concrete squares are starting to rot. I told her a good fix for that might be to remove the wood and plant mini-mondo in between...or perhaps just replace the redwood.

    I spent a bit of time working in the backyard the five days I was there, but it was the second week in July and it was 100 every day, so my work was limited. Pulled some achillea that had gotten out of control--that sort of thing. At least I've convinced them that they don't need to remove the awesome japanese maple in their backyard. They thought it was too close to the house.
    {{gwi:552296}}

    I told them to have a good arborist out to cloud prune it and give it a general check up. I was astonished at how healthy it was, given the concrete covering the roots. One assumes it was planted in that little hole when the house was built in 1951 ('52?)

    Thanks for the advice--I'll be sharing it all with my sister.

    melanie

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  • jakkom
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    The book Bahia is referring to is: "Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates".

    The other book she refers to is the "Sunset Western Garden Book." Don't be confused by other books of similar titles put out by Sunset Publishing - they are all good, but the WGB is THE reference book for us Western gardeners.

    The biggest differences in gardening here and back East are two-fold:

    1) our dry summer, wet winter climate. Many plants are much more drought resistant than given credit for - for example, roses, cannas and pelargoniums. Soaker hoses waste the least water of any irrigation system. Mulching is a necessity; it improves our generally poor soil and conserves precious water.

    2) the garden can and should look beautiful year-round. There is no "off" season for gardening here. When folks back East are leisurely perusing gardening catalogs, we Western gardeners are in the midst of serious planting, weeding, slug-killing, pruning/clean-up chores. The only really dreary time in my garden is January, and even then I can pick a few flowers for the vase.

    Also, because of the competition from excellent independent nurseries, many of the big box stores actually have decent gardening departments. There's a really wide variety of plant sources available to you.

    Bahia is correct (as always!) - a good thick layer of mulch should be all that is needed now. Weeds will try to grow once the rains start - airborne seeds are the curse of our area. She needs to deal with them as soon as possible. Let them get a foothold, and they'll be ten-fold increased inside a year's time! Some are extremely tenacious if they get established, so show them no mercy (but skip the Ortho stuff, please - there's easier ways to kill weeds organically without harming our watershed).

    Your sister is lucky to have you help! You'll enjoy the incredible variety of plants available

    Here is a link that might be useful: Plants for Dry Summer Climates

  • deep___roots
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Some real nice houses & gardens in Palo Alto. Some gardens & properties were designed by landscaping giants like Thomas Church and the like. Your sis should ride her bike around the neighborhood and see what she likes and copy it or use pieces of several.
    For the moment, as soon as those junipers are out, I'd rototill, maybe add some soil conditioners, and then I'd just chuck wildflower seeds out there in late September. Rains would do all the work and you'd have a nice display in Spring that could easily be done over with some permanent plans.

  • bahia
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I've worked on a few gardens in nearby Menlo Park, and also on houses of similar style, although they weren't Eichler built. I can appreciate how it would have been a chore to work in that mid-July heat wave we had, but on the other hand, it must have made for some nice comfortable evenings out on the back patio. I should have been able to remember the title of the EBMUD book, as the photographer included several of my client's gardens in the book, and I'll second the opinion that it is a classic treatise on appropriate design for northern California gardens and plantings.

    Your sister will no doubt be dealing with sticker shock from the initial purchase, real estate in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Woodside/Portola Valley is some of the most expensive in the inner Bay Area. A lot of the existing landscaping around Eichler designed homes is typically pretty boring, however, as the same old plants such as Tam Junipers, Agapanthus, Nandina and Indian Hawthorn were used predominantly, and the concrete squares with redwood header dividers, usually with exposed aggregate concrete were the predominant paving of choice.

    If the irrigation system is also original to the house, it will also need updating by now to replace the corroded galvanized steel piping. Heavy clay soils are the predominant soils, which does help to retain water in summer, but can mean a lot more work to plant.

    I am guessing that the Cedar tree is probably either Cedrus deodora or C. atlantica var glauca, and either one will mean that you are dealing with lots of shade and root competition, so the front will be a dry shade planting situation, although either tree will accept additional irrigation. If you do any removal of concrete paving, you will in fact find that the roots tend to concentrate under concrete because it helps retain soil moisture in the dry season, and is typically porous enough that it does not prevent root growth.

    You might suggest to your sister that she consider making the front yard a private, fenced courtyard/entry as part of the addition, to capture more usable private area on their lot, this is done quite frequently with homes in the area.

    Also, not that it really matters, but I'm a he, not a she, and the name is a play on words, and is spanish or portuguese for Bay, the predominant feature of our northern California location, and also contributes greatly to our local climate and daily weather. The word Bahia also resonates with me because it is the state and also city name for my favorite part of Brazil, where I also lived for several years after college.

  • mjsee
    Original Author
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I dunno what kind of cedar it is...but it's GINORMOUS. I've looked up pictures of both the deodar and glaucus...could be either one. I'll attempt to get better pictures the next time I'm out. Sis and her hubby ARE considering some sort of private courtyard...their current courtyard is going to be subsumed in the addition. I'l pass the word along about the books and the mulch. Right now Sis is just trying to get three little boys adjusted to The Big Move. My nephews are two, not-quite-four, and seven. She works full-time from a home office (she's a journalist--bio-pharma)...luckily she's already found an AWESOME nanny.

    The Three Boys in Question (at the beach in NC last week):
    {{gwi:552298}}

    I told her whatever she planned for the backyard...she needed a good sandpit!

    melanie

  • mlevie
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I tore out a couple of huge juniper hedges at our old house...the issue might not be so much suppressing the weeds, but rather dealing with the roots of the junipers. If they've been there for decades, then the front yard is probably nothing but a huge tangle of arm-thick roots.

    I don't believe junipers will resprout from dead wood, but there won't be much topsoil to speak of. I found that even planting a 4" liner was kind of a challenge. So if they're not really ready to landscape until the addition is done, then maybe it makes sense to just mulch it and give the roots some time to rot anyway?

    Matt

  • bahia
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Matt is definitely right about the huge amount of roots that junipers will leave behind, but if they are going to be doing construction anyway, it would be very easy to use a backhoe to rip the roots out when they first start construction, otherwise it is a lot of handwork with an axe and a mattock...

    It would take years for those roots to rot out on their own.

  • mjsee
    Original Author
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I'm certain a backhoe will be invovled...that's one of the reasons they've decided not to PLANT anything right away.

    melanie

  • catkim
    14 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Hey ya Mel, nice to see you here on the California Forum! I have nothing constructive to add, you are already getting top of the line pro advice from the locals. : ) Love your sister's house, those clearstory windows at the roofline are classic! And the trio of boys -- wow! -- totally cute!!

    Last month I took photos in my neighborhood that included exteriors of a number of walled front gardens, that seems to be a growing trend. Some are better than others. I will try to scratch out some time tonight to post some pix, maybe they will help inspire?

    Your sister is so lucky to have your help!

    Cheers,
    Kim