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Master gardener in training: Whittier woman crafts her own sustainable landscape


One of the primary messages of the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program I've been blogging about is sustainability, and one example of someone who transformed that sensibility into a lifestyle is Roxanne Sotelo, a 2001 Master Gardener graduate from Whittier. She catches rainwater, recycles much of her gray water and has five compost bins. When a 20-year-old avocado tree had a major pruning, nothing left the property. She composted everything.

“I could play with this all day,” says Sotelo, stuffing leaves down into the hopper of her 14-amp mulcher, a Valentine’s Day gift from her husband. “He knows what a gardener wants,” she says.

Well, he knows what this gardener wants.

The Sotelos live on a quiet street in a neighborhood where the lots are small and nearly everyone has the same front yard: a tidy square of manicured St. Augustine grass that fronts a sidewalk shaded by mature magnolias. The largest tree on the block towers over Sotelo’s front yard, where the lawn is partially covered with three raised beds, each 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. They are overflowing with flowering fennel, peppers, melons, eggplants, beans, chard, tomatoes -- an eruption of early summer vigor, mirrored across her driveway on a strip of dirt (technically belonging to her neighbor) that she has planted with the three sisters: corn, squash and beans. For more on Sotelo and her gardening strategies, keep reading ...

In her backyard and along the narrow walkways on either side, plants rise up in waves from raised beds and from the soil around the shrinking lawn. Grapes (Red Flame and Thompson) vine over a recycled wrought-iron gate. Garlic and parsley spring from the soil too.

The compost bins -- heavy-duty trash cans with specific blends in each -- are gradually being swallowed up by surrounding arugula and tomato volunteers. A section of an old chimney is now a planter for basil, and wire shelves from a refrigerator are used as borders. Guava, dwarf citrus, plum and apple trees grow in containers. An old apricot tree that Sotelo thought was dead -- she was using it as a sweet pea trellis -- sent out new shoots this year. You'll also see ornamental plants, freebies she scavenged from a demolition site years ago, and another patch of lawn, though it’s to be replaced by more edibles.

Roxanne-Sotelo-path-low Sotelo learned gardening basics as a child from her grandfather, who taught her lessons that seem like they could have come straight out of the Master Gardener program handbook: Grow enough for everybody -- yourself, your neighbors and your pests, so it's not the end of the world if bad bugs claim some of the harvest.

But it’s not bugs she’s worried so much about. It's  running afoul of city rules about garden design out front. She figures that her departure from the conventional lawn should be more palatable than neighbors' untended yards. “If they can grow weeds," she says, "I can grow vegetables.”

After three seasons, nobody has complained. For insurance, she gives away tomato seedlings as a goodwill gesture to people who stop and chat.

She painted the raised beds green to match the house’s trim, a halfhearted attempt at blending in. To take advantage of her limited space and full sun, she followed the tenets of square-foot gardening and began by filling her bed with a lasagna compost: cardboard followed by layers of newspapers, magnolia pods, compost (finished and partially finished), and peat moss. After adding a top layer of potting soil, she planted fennel and beans, then never looked back.

She harvests seed and keeps detailed records for what’s she’s planted and how plants have performed. Come January, when she starts her warm-weather crops, she’s organized.

She never fertilizes and rarely waters her remaining lawn, which gets trimmed by a push mower with the blade set high. Even with the raised beds and containers, her water bill is significantly less than her neighbors'. “It’s because I mulch and water far less,” she says.

It may also be because she actively recycles her house water, keeping a bucket beneath every sink. Soapy water goes onto ornamental plants or is used to flush the toilet. Shower water water goes onto the edibles. When she does use the hose outside, it’s just to spray off dust. “I don't baby things," she says. "I do water my edibles more because I do eat from the garden every day, but I don't care if my ornamentals make it or not.”

She says her water recycling is not time-consuming. “It just takes a few minutes, but physically you're carrying around buckets of water and not everyone wants do that. And I have a job. I'm not sitting around all day.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo credits: Ann Summa


Master Gardener: Why some seedlings mysteriously die

Master Gardener: Why a mantis may be your best friend

Master Gardener: The minutia of mulch

Comments () | Archives (13)

The comments to this entry are closed.

She is fabulous! She is my idol! Love it!

What mulcher is she using?

Atta girl! You are already my idol! Your husband can consider himself lucky!
See if you can get, and try, black- and red-currants and gooseberries (of several kinds)! They are very common in Sweden, but I have not seen them here. They are delicious, and very healthy!

Came to think about the gray water you mention, and carrying buckets. I rent from a dead-beat that is the exact opposite of you. The garden looks like a disaster and the man is only laying on the sofa watching WWII movies on TV... I have figured, if I ever manage to buy a house again (I probably will not as one cannot get a job at my age, 68) but I would divert the water from the shower and hand basins in the bathroom and collect it in a shallow (1-2 ft high) vessel. It cannot be higher than the sinks of course. Then I would use a draining pump from an old washing machine to pump it into a 55 gallon drum, or so, placed more centrally in the garden, and a bit higher. From there one could run small tubes or hoses with valves on so one can set a drip rate, or open and water for 10 minutes now and then. That way you would not have to carry buckets. The draining pump in a washer has a pretty good capacity and you should be able to get one more or less for free from someone fixing washers. Just oil the bearings by dripping some motor oil on them before you install it, and it should last a long time.

Fantastic article!

Across America thousands of homeowners CANNOT legally garden this way.

Why? Deed restrictions.

Are any neighborhoods, with deed restrictions against clothes lines & veggies in the front yard, taking legal steps to change their rules?

Wonderful, what Roxanne Sotelo is doing in her landscape. Wish she were my neighbor.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

If we were allowed to have a vegetable garden in our front yard we would. As it is our city managers give out warnings if anything is planted other than mostly lawn, which must be kept green and watered, and this during our current water shortage!
The way the economy is now I think we should be encouraged - not punished - for growing our own food, as much of it as we can, wherever we can. And cities or groups should have more programs to collect what we don't personally use to feed the hungry.
Growing a Victory Garden was once the patriotic thing to do. We should revive that concept again.
I say bravo for Roxanne and her garden, she is setting a wonderful example!

Food Not Lawns is happening in the IE. The Garden in Pomona is a touchpoint for this movement.

Ah, if only everyone did this in their front yards. So much more productive, fun, interesting and neighborly than plain grass, cut by "mow and blow" gardeners.

Of course this woman would be on the front web page of the la times, she is white. This article would be more interesting if someone of color was shown gardening. She still has a lawn in between her raised beds, which everyone know is a big water pit. Big deal lady. People have been vegetable gardening since the beginning of time, just because we are in a recession everyone is rediscovering what humans have been doing since our very existance.

Bravo Roxanne, great way to save the environment one home at a time. Your vegetable gardens and conservation methods are to be commended, if just 1 in 10 of our neighbors would do the same it would go along way in saving are natural resource, water. Great article, I'm interested in learning more about these sustainable methods.

On a separate note, whats your beef Booby Megee? It doesn't matter if Roxanne is white, black, or purple, what she is doing is commendable in our water glutenous state, instead of wasting water she is conserving it and feeding her family, she is a role model for the rest of us.

Great piece, so nice to see a story about someone being a steward of our environment, and living a healthy whole foods life style. I personally found the story quite interesting. I think Roxanne's initiative and neighborly ways are rather inspiring.

At booby mcgee: Firstly, her name is Roxanne Sotelo; just FYI Sotelo is a Mexican name. For all you know she is a first or second generation Mexican (you know there are blonde hair blue eyed Mexican people, and they are no less minority than those of us with a tan). Not that it should even matter. We can all learn a great deal from people, like Roxanne, who take the time and initiative to live healthy lifestyles in environmentally responsible ways. Maybe if you focused a little less on the color of her skin and a little more on the good she is trying to accomplish, you might have a nice garden too and might bring the world a little more than you take from it.

From Roxanne
Many thanks for the wonderful responses to the article about my sustainable gardening practices. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to share my garden, and the ways that I am trying to lessen my footprint on the planet that we all share.
To answer the question of which mulcher I use, it is a McCulloch 14.0 A, model # MCS1400. It isn’t a heavy duty model, but it does get the job done. I have learned, however, that the best way to mulch my “green” materials, which have a lot of moisture and can clog up the unit, is to alternate the greens with plenty of “brown” materials (dried leaves), which seem to help keep everything moving through.
If you’re interested in a good push reel mower, the Easun Classic HD is a good mower for St. Augustine lawns. Skip the catcher, it doesn’t work well. A good site to read about push reel mowers for other lawn types is peoplepoweredmachines.com. Leave the clippings on the lawn for a free fertilizer. You can learn more about grass recycling at smartgardening.com.
I loved the comments by Admirer regarding reusing shower water. I am always interested in ways to reclaim this water for use in ornamental landscaping as well as for flushing toilets (why do we need fresh water for that?). Hopefully the future holds more promise for this otherwise wasted resource.
I haven’t tried currants or gooseberries, but will definitely give them some consideration. I planted blueberries last year, and was quite surprised to find that they did well in our climate. Especially one called “Sunshine Blue” which is still producing a couple of berries here and there
As for Booby, did you read the article, or just stop at the pictures? Yes, I know that having a lawn is a “water pit”, which is why the raised vegetable beds currently sit on top of it, and also why all of it is on the chopping block. I don’t wish to waste my water on a “crop” that I can’t eat, and I don’t have pets or small children who would appreciate play time on it. Even then, I only water my lawn once a week during the summer, and I get away with much less than that during the cooler seasons. I don’t use any fertilizer other than the grass clippings, and no herbicides or pesticides. As you can see in the picture, my lawn is as green as anyone else’s, but it is important to note that I keep the lawn at a longer length. This shades the roots and prevents the suns heat from drying them out or burning them. I did not recently start gardening during the recession. I learned to garden as a child from my parents and grandparents who both had home gardens. I became a Master Gardener in 2001 to help teach the benefits of growing produce. I have read that there is an increase in the number of home gardens, and that many people are growing produce. Whether this is because of the economy, safety concerns (think recalled produce), wanting to eat locally and/or organically, or the wonderful taste and freshness of eating the fruits, vegetables and herbs that we grow ourselves, I think it’s wonderful! It’s a healthy past time with a wealth of benefits for our self, our families and the planet. Whatever one’s garden experience, race or economic situation every one of us can benefit from a home garden.
Our garden, like most, is a work in progress. Our plan this fall is to remove the lawn between the side walk and curb. While the city requires us to leave the Magnolia tree, we will be replacing the lawn with drought tolerant natives in January giving them a chance to establish themselves before the warmer temperatures hit. The front lawn will be removed next and replaced with pathways made of recycled materials. We will plant some of the semi dwarf trees that are currently in containers, and quite possibly add a “living fence” of grapes (maybe currents?) across the front of the lot. I would love to replace my cement driveway with one made of a permeable (water penetrating) material to keep our limited, precious rainwater on our property, but until I can do so in an eco friendly way, I will wait, and research.
Thanks again for taking the time to post your comments. As Tara so wonderfully said, Garden and Be Well!


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