Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Planting Seeds of Wisdom

I remember walking into the back yard when I was four and finding my dad there, toiling away in the heat of the sun, birds and bees abuzz 'round the flowers. I sat and watched through a small window of the dollhouse he made for me and my two sisters and wondered if he'd involve me in his days work.

He prepared a mix of sand, soil, peat, and composted manure in a wheelbarrow; a recipe for gardeners. He turned the soil on the ground and added his mixture down rows and rows of garden beds that he would soon plant seeds in.

He put up wooden stakes, made wire trellises and interwove the long beans up towards the sky, giving the vegetable garden a vertical life.

He rustled about in his box of seeds and pulled out sunflower seeds. Knowing I was watching him, he asked if I wanted to plant them. I hurried to be by his side and take direction in the proper technique of planting. One by one I planted the seeds until my row was completed.

As he watered them in, I ran back inside, covered with dirt and sweat, and reported to my mom the fun I had outside. Days later, all the seedlings emerged. Months later the sunflowers, in all their golden glory, were open-faced to the sun, bathing in the light. Bees were everywhere! Finally, the day came when the sunflowers were plump enough to harvest. Mom baked them in the oven with a shake of salt and dad said, "This is your work. You planted 10 seeds and now you're eating hundreds of them!"

To this day, I grow vegetables from seeds, study plants, practice organic horticulture, and help others to do likewise. I thank my dad for helping me evolve in this Universe, from a child with only fun and mischief in mind, to an adult with an appreciation for life and the environment that surrounds me.

Topaze McCaffery

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Eliminating Toxins, Maximizing Health in the Garden

"A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers."
- Plato

During a recent on site garden consultation we stumbled in conversation upon a very helpful metaphor. Being that we are striving for holistic application of health-based values in the landscapes we work & live in, and seeing that people are becoming increasingly more interested in poison-free, pesticide and herbicide-free organic vegetable gardens in the Northern California Bay Area, it didn't take much effort to extend this metaphorical "holistic" mind-space to food service.

Imagine if you will the most affordable (dare I say cheapest) food available. If you should happen to live in any large city, almost anywhere in the world, you will probably be acquainted with the fast-food drive through and the miraculous $1 meal. Save your exhilaration. While low-cost sustenance can certainly come in handy during a pinch, there are very good reasons people decide not to eat fast-food and almost all of these reasons are hinged on a simple, innate desire to stay healthy. In contrast, many people are willing to pay a bit more for fresh produce, just harvested fruits & vegetables, if it means that the food they are consuming will help keep them healthier and stronger. In the end there really is nothing more important than health and that is exactly our position in the landscape and in general.

In much the same way as comparative levels of food-service, taking the land itself as the primary beneficiary of all of these inputs, there are overtly unhealthy "fast-food" landscape and garden services. To save time & costs, many services will apply broad based (which means 'multiply-lethal' to various plants/weeds) herbicides instead of hand weeding. Many also use pesticides instead of simply washing or cleaning insects off plants by hand, let alone considering natural integrated pest management. Why? A lack of knowledge? For most, the push to offer the lowest costs takes precedent over any health-based values, applying to purely aesthetic considerations. What many professionals in this industry are finding is that up-front costs don't always correlate to long term positive returns for the client. While many "mow & blow" services can operate at a fraction of the costs of actual gardening services, the cheap price tag comes with potentially hazardous side-effects, which if clearly understood, would certainly change many peoples perspectives on what is and what isn't ok in their immedate environment.

Imagine a garden brimming with plant, insect and animal life, forming vital chains in the ecosystem by providing clean berry and nectar sources, ample canopy area, available clean water source - a veritable dream come true for any gardening or wildlife aficionado. Conversely, imagine an average urban garden sprayed with toxic herbicides and pesticides, but to be complete in this vision don't forget to leave out the insects and animals, who will instinctively avoid poisonous and unhealthy areas for the very same reasons intelligent people avoid unhealthy food. A quick visual test can create a helpful context. Look around at the local landscape or environment. Do you see animal and insect life? Naturalized plant & shrub growth? If not, the environment may be poison-heavy and anything that is toxic for an animal is potentially toxic for a human. As an added consideration, as if it is needed, the copious usage of pesticides and herbicides in our urban landscapes can wash directly into our public estuaries (see 'storm drain runoff'), filtering right back to our environment. More, it has been found that many "organically safe" and "biodegradable" herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not actually safe or biodegradable and do not actually dissipate or break down after application as advertised. Many fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are in their raw, solid and undiluted form for up to 90 days after application. What this means in reality is that the next person to run out to the lawn for playtime is going to be unconsciously ingesting some very unhealthy substances as they get kicked into the air and make direct skin contact.

Thankfully, a simple approach to completely eliminate the usage of harsh chemical fertilizers and dangerous, unhealthy pesticides and herbicides - DON'T USE THEM! Find services which refuse to save money by using powerful poisons and hazardous quick fixes. Many find that after eliminating these toxic chemicals, insect and wildlife return like a blooming spring. To wax poetic, this rejuvenation is at once ecological and physical - even spiritual if you're so moved, changing the way in which we ourselves view, engage and interact with our living landscapes and gardens. People are returning to a sense of healthy coexistence based on responsible value-returns and a holistic appreciation for life itself in all its thriving forms. Very quickly the small amount of expense spared by using cheap and potentially harmful quick fix solutions turns out to come with its own very hefty price tag, one that can never be quantified or reduced into simple number systems.

Deer Resistant Plants for Los Altos Hills, California

Have deer? Residents in the Los Altos Hills area of California have found that deer are constant visitors to their gardens and can devour most of a day's work in one scrumptious night. After setting the late night buffet several times, and very successfully (ask our rotund deer-friends) using many plants labeled as Deer Resistant, we've whittled down our list of truly deer resistant perennials and shrubs (listed below) for use in the Los Altos Hills area with no browsing, even at a just-installed 1 gallon size!

As a caveat with any plant; although deer and other foraging animals may not be naturally attracted to browse on specific plants, if you place any plants in the deer's natural path, they will kindly gnash and trample them as a sign that you've made a bad choice in placement which could hold up evening traffic. Deers and other night feeding animals are more or less consistent in using well worn pathways and are not likely to change for convenience.

As well as being almost indestructible, with the plants listed below, we turned off the drip irrigation 6 months after installation and only hand watered once every month/as needed. The plants performed very well in summer and winter alike, decisively exceeding our expectations in growth & durability and lacked any of the common water-related diseases.

List as follows:

Achillea sp. (Yarrow)
Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)
Lavandula sp. (Lavender)
Mimulus sp. (Shrubby Monkeyflower)
Myrica californica (Pacific Wax Myrtle)
Penstemon sp. (Penstemon)
Pyracantha sp. (Firethorn)
Rosmarinus sp. (Rosemary)
Salvia apiana (White Sage)
Salvia clevelandii (Cleveland Sage)

We suggest continuous experimentation as every garden, every micro-climate and every midnight browser has different...tastes!