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

July 14, 2010 |  8:25 am

Roxanne-Sotelo-raised-beds-low

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

RELATED:

Master Gardener: Why some seedlings mysteriously die

Master Gardener: Why a mantis may be your best friend

Master Gardener: The minutia of mulch

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