Wednesday, October 6, 2010

IRRIGATION. The life blood of flora.

This is a subject that is completely irrelevant to my countrymen of old Caledonia and all those wet climate dwellers of Earth. But here in Southern California it matters a great deal. It is the single most important element in the success of a lush garden. The Southland receives a few inches of rain in the winter which is only adequate for the wild flowers in Spring, indigenous chaparral, and trees like the Live Oak.

As we all learnt in the story "China Town," L.A. gets it's water from far away via aqueducts. It is an expensive commodity and it is not something we take for granted the way the Scots do. I have sweet memories of the abundance of water in Scotland. There is relentless rain and streams everywhere. We would drink from these streams whenever we were thirsty and I recall the delightful extravagance of latrines flushing automatically every 20 minutes, morning, noon and night regardless of whether they were being used! In Southern California this is unheard of.

I have adapted to the environment and the ways of the "desert." I have embraced the world of irrigation. I enjoy all the fancy sprinkler equipment. I am fond of machines, devices and systems. I am a bit of a technician and I love making life easier through the use of modern technology.

Back in the late eighties I was mastering the art of installing sprinkler systems as an apprentice with a landscape company. I quickly learnt that it is a very unforgiving trade. If the water does not cover every square inch of  a lawn you'll be getting a call back within a few days. New fescue turf needs generous daily water when first laid, and a reliable system to deliver that water is essential. 

I was young and eager to impress my employer. I worked hard trying to glue everything together correctly and swiftly. I was trying to make money for my boss, Mike Baron. He was a smart man who had the sense not to name his company "Baron Landscape"! Instead, he chose the name Western Pacific Landscape, and specialized in new lawns and sprinkler systems. He had no qualms about turning the desert into lush verdant squares that were greener than Ireland.

 While I was hurriedly gluing PVC pipe together to accomplish wall to wall lavish water for thirsty sod, a fellow Scotsman, Alasdair Coyne, was carefully connecting polypropylene hose in an elaborate and exacting drip system. He immigrated around the same time and settled in the charming, but blisteringly hot, town of Ojai in Ventura County. Alasdair is an environmentalist and an organic gardener. I got a tour of his place and was very intrigued with the precious little drought tolerant seedlings that he was nurturing. They were receiving about a thimble of water a day! He was very proud of what he was accomplishing. I think the challenge appealed to his Scottish sense of frugality, and aligned with his Pictish self deprivation!

I actually can relate to Alasdair. I am also a canny Scot with a sensible British attitude and an impulse towards conservation. However, my main focus is on giving clients what they want which is usually lush calming gardens that deceive their owner into thinking that they have not chosen to live in a dry arid hell on earth.

I have personally come to terms with this environment, and assert that it is the opportunities, the people,  the groups and the freedom of self expression that are senior to raw aesthetics. I accept that there is a dry burnt lunar landscape beyond the extremities of the city. In fact, I pander to the homeowner who wants to create an oasis in the "desert." There is really no problem concerning this until there has been several years of minimal rain, and then murmurings of conservation start. It is times like these that I wonder if I should take a leaf out of Alasdair Coyne's book, and get into natives and xeriscapes, and exploit the crisis. Mind you, it's a hard sell to persuade people to pay me so that they can have less.

Although I have never tried it, I love the idea of creating an attractive garden using only Californian natives and plants from other dry arid parts of the world. There has never really been this opportunity for me to date. I spend most of my time trying to please my clients who mostly want a cool and colorful garden. Many of them have come from cooler wetter climates and miss the weather that they grew up with. They want to recreate the conditions of their youth for nostalgic reasons.

But of late it seems like it's time to get on the sustainable band wagon. It seems like everyone is hip to drought tolerance. The government is limiting the number of days we can water, and giving rebates for the removal of lawns. They want to see drought tolerant ground cover in its place or some non living substitute.

Some of the ideas are merely symbolic gestures with lack of practicality. I love the idea of having a handsome rain barrel to collect water from the roof, but is it a meaningful help to save 40 gallons of water after the 3 rain storms that we have a year?  I have recently been asked to install a grey water system, but there are regulations and restrictions and who really wants tanks and pipes and a bog in their garden and one more thing to maintain? And drip irrigation? It is also a bit high on the maintenance. They can be fragile and fall prey to rough gardeners, squirrels and dogs that like to chew.

There are some wonderful ways of doing your part to avoid wasting water and keep your bill down:

Rain sensors are one brilliant invention. There is nothing more comical and ridiculous than seeing somebody's sprinklers running during a rain shower. It is the epitome of negligence and ineptitude (at least it is to an irrigation technician.) But so easily solved. For a nominal fee I can install a device that will turn off the system shortly after rain falls and will keep it off for several days after the rain stops. You could be away on vacation and enjoy the comfort of knowing that back home the neighbors are not sneering at you for watering in the rain.

Modern controllers are also fabulous. They have all kinds of nifty features.  For example there is a + and a - key that allows you to increase and reduce the watering time for all stations. This is useful if there is unseasonal weather. For example, increase to 150% if there is a heat wave or reduce to 75% if there are clouds as in the case of "June Gloom." Or if this is too hands-on there is a sensor that will make automatic adjustment based on temperature and sun or cloud.

Simply having an efficient system with good even coverage is an immense help. This would include stations dedicated to the shade areas and stations dedicated to the sunny areas, lack of run-off, the absence of overshooting and blockage, and needless to say a leak free system. Also a program that encourages the water to penetrate deep and minimizes evaporation is smart, as it promotes less frequent watering.

In the defense of drip irrigation or a micro sprinkler system, they do create the deep watering that we want. The typical drip system will provide each plant with its own personal sprinkler and keep the soil between plants dry which discourages the germination of seeds and the growth of weeds. In these situations one would only have to deal with weeds after winter rains.

Besides controllers, another part of the sprinkler system that often needs to be upgraded is the sprinkler heads. Many houses still have the old style brass pop up made by Champion and other companies. Truth be known, they are not champion! they are problematic. They do not have filters which results in clogging and they only pop up 1 1/2 inches which does not work for today's popular fescue turf which grows to 3 inches. So I would encourage the use of a modern plastic 4 inch pop up.

The government is giving rebates for the use of rotors. I presume they mean a modern replacement for the beloved old impulse sprinklers often referred to as "Rainbirds". The ones that go "chick chick chick chick chick chick chick. . . . . . . . d r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r. . . . . . . . chick chick chick chick chick chick chick. . . . . . .  .d r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r. . . . . . . . . ." ( If you can't rroll your "r"s while reading that, then find a Scotsman or a Latino to read it for you!). I know that many of you will miss that iconic sound that is a symbol of Californian summer good times, and memories of running through the sprinklers as children. I am sure they have recordings of that sound that you can play if the absence of the sound is unbearable to you!

My favorite brand of rotor is Hunter. They are silent and highly adjustable, and certainly don't do that wasteful side spray that the old Rainbirds do.

I would be very pleased to come and assess your sprinkler system and make recommendation for upgrades. Water is very expensive and I know that many of you fear the water bill. If you are sensible and careful everything is fine and the bill is affordable, but if you are careless and unlucky and the complex system of  calculating the bill somehow puts you in the much feared "2nd Tier" billing range, then you are in trouble. It is brutally punitive, and will cost you a fortune.

The money would be better spent modernizing your system and enabling you to stay in range.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


A couple or three years ago, I enjoyed the privilege of developing an extensive plot of land in Old Topanga. It is set in the Santa Monica Mountains, and it really is quite an escape from Los Angeles. The property had been formerly owned by a couple who were dedicated to choosing rare and interesting plants that would survive with little irrigation. Between owners, the house was vacant and the drought tolerant flora was truly put to the test. Many of the trees looked god awful. It had been eight months since the last rain. But for the most part, everything survived.

The most lush and prevalent plants were these huge, light green rosettes. They were growing everywhere beneath the beautiful California Peppers. I was impressed with them, and coveted them. During the course of the work, we transplanted many of them to more prominent places. I used the same method, so successful with jade, which consists of simply sticking a cutting in the ground. I made a promise to myself to take some cuttings back to L.A. I didn't particularly feel the need to ask permission of George and Rebbecca. They were a lovely, romantic couple, who fell in love in art class. George was the teacher, and Rebbecca the student. Their bohemian temperaments suited this environment. They remodeled the house and hired us to create a handsome, Proven├žal terraced perennial garden. They loved the adventure, other than George's dislike for building inspectors, and Rebbecca's fear of snakes.

It was two years later that I found the opportunity to be true to my goal of harvesting some of these fascinating succulents. I was not sure how possessive George would be of his happiest plant, but that didn't really matter, because he wasn't around, and I was in authority as the landscape designer! I would decide what plants should be thinned. Nobody likes it when plants crowd each other out. So, with a casual, but deliberate and thoughtful manner, I snipped off these lovely green rosettes, never once glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching.

I could only think of how successful and lovely they would be in my own garden. I was sure I would be able to impress my new bride. She has little tolerance for things that don't work, so I was sure I was safe with these indestructible plants; aeoniums by name, which comes from a Greek word meaning "immortal."

I showed them to my wife, and she was most intrigued.  So I proudly proceeded to plant them.  She seemed skeptical when I plugged them into the ground, but true to form, they grew and made a handsome addition to our distinctive modern-industrial home in Sherman Oaks.

My wife, Jenny, became very fond of these pristine, light green, magical plants, and was inspired to try her hand at creating a succulent garden all by herself.  She had tried her hand with "snaps" and pansies and Icelandic poppies, but they had always seemed a bit fickle and transitory.  Conversely, these succulents were highly cooperative, and tenacious.

The front walk was overwhelmed by Heavenly Bamboo.  To me, a nice enough plant, but to Jennifer, all wrong for this application.  She had actually become rather disgruntled with them, and on occasion refer to them as "un-Heavenly Bamboo."  So she banished it, and over the course of the year, created a succulent garden which was quite an art installation.  She had put together what we call a "jewel box" garden.  It is actually more like a hundred treasure chests!  She went mad!  Like anyone who has success with something, she just wanted to do more, and more, and more...

There has been many a visitor who has been arriving, or trying to leave, and has been trapped in an unsolicited tour of her succulent garden.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard the words "Alastair showed up with some Aeoniums which he nicked from an unsuspecting client, and he just stuck them in the ground, and they grew and grew".  In fairness to Jenny, people are most impressed, and express interest in her creation.

Much of her gardening endeavors she considers an experiment, and she's given me free reign to experiment with interesting plants.  Her experiments have been a great success, partly due to the nature of succulents.  They have all been growing and producing young.  Each of the rosette type succulents quickly become surrounded by babies.  And the popular common name, "hen and chicks," seems so perfect.

She would spend many hours lovingly caring for the succulents, and redistributing the chicks to other parts of the garden.

Beside my wife's own interest in succulents, I have had many requests from clients for them.  They are a very suitable plant for dry, shady places.  So I selected aeoniums for a Griffith Park hillside home, with Oak trees. I was loathe to buy 100 aeoniums after my success with the Old Topanga harvesting raid, so I scoured my memory for where I had seen them.  Jenny mentioned that her bagpipe teacher, the Scotsman, John McLean Allan, had a whole "forest" of them.  So I traded some plumbing for a bushel of the beauties, and a few other varieties to boot.  With these lovely, large, aeoniums, I was able to impress my client for a very nominal cost.

One of my other memorable associations with blessed Crassulaceae (Cra-sula-see-eye), was at the garden of a dear client, Nancy McCook.  She enjoyed all kinds of cacti and succulents, that we had planted,  including Blue Agave, Aloe, Prickly Pear, Autumn Joy Sedum, Senecio (commonly known as Blue Chalk Fingers), and Hen and Chicks in a lovely bluish green color as shown above.

These cacti and crassulaceae were combined with Sages, Ornamental Grasses, Lantana, Rosemary, and other drought-tolerant plants.  In her lovely way, she expressed her appreciation so warmly for the garden we had created.

The garden thrived, and the plants propagated.  The Hens and Chicks developed into dramatic mounds of crowded rosettes.  The Star Jasmine and the Purple-Leaf Acacia tree grew beyond her roof.  Sadly, Nancy became ill and spent less time in the garden.  Because of Nancy's desire to be of no trouble to anyone, she never mentioned anything about her health. I knocked on her door to discuss some final details of the work and she appeared, frighteningly short of breath and had to sit on the porch. Although I was not finished my work, she was determined to pay me. I learnt why through my immediate inquiries. Friend and neighbor, Dan Conroy, informed me of the severity of her condition. She had little time left. This was three weeks before Nancy passed away from lung cancer.

She had been determined to complete the stone patio in an attempt to leave things in order after she was gone.  The Arizona Flagstone was laid on top of an old concrete slab that Nancy played on as a child. She recalled the day it was poured fifty some years prior and knew that a few corners were cut explaining the gaping crack across the middle that we were able to hide with the new layer of stone. The finished product was beautiful. She had us trim up the garden as always, and she encouraged me to thin the Hen and Chicks.  So again, I was faced with the redistribution of this unstoppable plant.  I had the perfect place for them. In preparation for my wedding I filled the cracks in the ruined walls of the garden I had created specifically for such events. The handsome and striking blue green Echeveria are ideal for the places where plants struggle due to lack of water.  So I planted them everywhere and gave the garden's owner, Susann, a wonderful introduction to this family of plants. She saw them thrive in spite of her fitful gardening style and ultimately created some beautiful succulent pots to replace more perishable plant choices that had gone before.

Every time I visit this garden these plantings serve as a sweet reminder of a truly dear woman. Although Nancy is gone now, I feel that much of her warmth and goodness remains and endures in the form of fond memories kept alive by the sight of those clusters of ever multiplying aqua plants with distinctive pale lining to every petal.

Southern California does not have an easy environment for many of the plants that we love and desire. The soil is alkaline the water is scarce and we plant trees that cast shade everywhere. There are many  disappointed Los Angeles homeowners who live with gardens suffering from high PH, too much shade and punitive water rationing by the Department of Water and Power. Succulents do not need acidic soil, do not need much water and many do perfectly well in shade. They thrive with benign neglect.

I would encourage everyone to consider introducing succulents. They are all the rage. Beyond the aforementioned key merits, they also provide continuous striking but tasteful colors that are very complimentary of each other.  They have the visual strength of cacti without the hostile spines. The dramatic strong structure of succulents goes well with modern and industrial architecture in particular, but this radical and intriguing family of plants, Crassulaceae, can be a great addition to any garden. Whether it is a crack dwelling minute Sedum, which survives under a month of Scottish snow, or a big green Agave Attenuata that likes climates similar to Central Mexico, or anything from the myriad of variations in between, GET INVOLVED WITH SUCCULENTS.      

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sequoia Trees

Over the last twenty years I have acquired a great respect for trees. During my childhood in the West Highlands of Scotland, trees were associated with four things: something to climb, something to tie a rope swing to, something to burn, and something to avoid hitting when one's car veers off the road. Trees I can recall from my childhood consisted of Conifer, Beech, Elm, Alder, Willow, and the smaller Hazel and Rhododendron. I am sure I am forgetting a few important ones. I had a scant awareness of tree names when I was young, unlike the generations before who took a great interest in botany. In fact my father had a degree in botany and zoology from Cambridge University. Only a little of this botanical knowledge rubbed off on me.

In the British Isles there are examples of most of the world's interesting and impressive trees, especially in the botanical gardens or stately homes. Although I do not recall seeing a giant Sequoia in Scotland, undoubtedly they exist, due to the similarity of climates. In the county of Argyll at sea level there is little concern of frost damage, which allows a very diverse range of trees to do well. In fact, there is a Yucca tree in my village of Ardfern. We thought of it as a palm. It does great and enjoys the warm cross-Atlantic drift that blows up from the gulf of Mexico.

The logging industry (which is referred to as the Forestry Commission in the British Isles) covers otherwise useless land with Fir, Spruce, Larch, etc. My father was friends with one of the supervisors and got us brothers piece work planting trees on a portion of the lairds estate. It was a waste though because we were still childish and spoilt and understood nothing of what it takes to hold a job. We abused this privilege that my father had given us. A privilege that enabled us to work our own hours without any boss overseeing us and the sense of freedom one feels with only heather, moss, and space on the side of a Scottish hill. But we hated the work and ended up betraying those that had trusted us to plant every seedling correctly and with love. We buried bundles of 100 seedling trees in a shallow grave and took credit for having planted them properly. We consequently ended up hating the job even more. And hating ourselves. But we took the good wages and spent them on beer, whiskey and cigarettes, and tried to forget our deceit, and our crimes that had made us an enemy to our father, the Forestry Commission and to mother Earth's greatest plant.

Later in life I confronted my transgression and took a career in landscaping. I found a true respect for trees, and today I consider my self to be very close to a tree hugger. There have been moments when I have been overcome with emotion and with a swell of affection I have taken trees in my arms. It is very good for one's ego to find a tree that is willing to be warmly embraced. Sadly, so many trees are uncomfortable with the physical contact, and the experience is stiff and awkward!

In the summer of 2009, I married a blessed, good, salt-of-the-earth woman with a keen spirit of adventure, and we agreed to spend our honey moon in The Redwoods. It really is something that everyone should do, especially if one is already in the region. I have personally been involved with Coast Redwoods which are not as big as the Giant Redwood, but do well in the gardens of Los Angeles. I planted a row of eight for privacy in The San Fernando Valley, and a grove of six in the Hollywood Hills at the home of the actor Eric Lutes, and an unwieldy 36 inch box specimen for privacy outside a client's second story master bedroom in Deep Canyon. Sequoias are not a fussy tree. The only point of note is, they appreciate a good drink when the are being established. Their favorite is a manure tea . . . and a Rich Tea biscuit, because after all "a cup of tea is too wet without one"!

These magnificent trees are recommended for a formal hedge. On a Beverly Hills job I witnessed this very thing. These trees had been clipped and topped at eighteen feet. I thought it was a bloody, sacrilegious shame. But not as great a shame as the Sequoia that had to be chopped down. It was a lovely mature and healthy tree. It was really no danger to anyone, but it had been planted in a bad spot. It was close to the garage of a house in Coldwater Canyon. The suckered-up crow of the tree had swollen to a considerable girth, and the side gate was barely passable. It had a twin that was left, thankfully. I didn't do the dirty work myself. The tree was removed by Leonardo Mauricio Vargas. I did agreed to take the rounds for firewood, some of which went to Conroy's Irish Pub. I felt this was better than having it turned into mulch or wood chips.

We made our pilgrimage up north, and it was truly heart warming to see the Sequoia Forests of Northern California. God bless the National Parks for protecting and preserving this amazing treasure. It is fascinating the way the roads weave through the woods. The road builders seem to have been on a quest to get the road through without removing one more tree than they absolutely had to. Talk about trying not to hit trees! The county council just stick a reflector on the tree and hope motorists see them. Many of the trees that hug the road have gashes from inattentive drivers.

We drove on the highway called "The Avenue of Giants" and ventured into the forest on foot. The rain came gently down and rays of sun illuminated the lush verdant moss on every limb.

We played duets on our bagpipes and pleasantly surprised some walkers. In fact we chose the same grove as a man and his wife who had long since been denied the sound of the pipes that had been dear to them. The man's father had played the pipes and he had tried them himself. They said that the occasion had been made a hundred times more memorable by our playing. They had been deep in the ancient quiet secluded forest when in the distance they heard the distinctive and unforgettable sound of the Great Highland Bagpipes. As they hurried towards us we experienced the usual uncertainty over whether we had pleased or displeased our unsuspecting audience. Fortunately it was the former.

Upon the return to my ordinary life, I mused over this romantic foray into the world of vineyards, ocean cliffs and giant trees, and felt I had enriched my life. I have a greater love for trees and a heightened desire to plant and care for trees. I vow to exploit every resource I have in the world of trees. I have strong ties with Robert Wallace, a much respected old time arborist, who referred me many times, including a shot at the Warren Beatty Estate. Dane Shota formerly of Orange County Nursery and Robert Hansen are also great resources for consultation and esoteric tree knowledge. I have two in-house tree trimming experts who consistently produce very pretty results, and for the "heavy lifting" I have L. M. Vargas Tree Care. Mauricio's family-run business was founded when their old employer, Patrick McCullough, well known arborist and founder of the tree care company of the same name, passed away. It was with Patrick that Mauricio and his relatives perfected their skill climbing without noisy ladders or damaging spurs. And learnt the merits of avoiding the use of obnoxious and polluting chainsaws.

It has been many years since those childhood days of climbing trees and chopping wood. To me trees have become much, more. They cast cool shade on hot L.A. gardens. They soften the stark modern architecture of the city. They screen neighbors and create the illusion of seclusion. But, the wonderful diverse trees in our gardens do even more than that. They warm our hearts with breathtaking color in spring blossoms, and autumn leaves. They inhale pollution, and emit oxygen.

Trees do all this for me, and I still enjoy the beloved smell of wood smoke on the odd day that it is cold enough to justify a fire. That sweet aroma was so much a part of my life in the cold wet Old Country all those years ago. I am grateful for trees. More than ever, since I visited the Giant Redwoods of Northern California.