L.A. at Home

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Category: Dry Garden

The Dry Garden: The art of catching rain, Part 2

Gutter water catcherWhen my house was built without gutters in 1950, water that rolled off the roof was caught by graded pavement encircling the foundation. This directed rain away from the garden to paved paths and to the driveway for dispersal to the street and storm drain system. As a style, let’s call it Golden Age of Flood Control.

After watching 33 inches of rain run off the property last year, but then being forced to draw municipal potable water to irrigate the garden, it became a priority to gutter the house so as to capture and not waste future rain. Ultimately some sort of storage will be involved, but as a first measure, the challenge was to get rain from gutter drainage points to garden areas. Done right, the ground would then be well charged when our irrepressible California growing season takes off in February and March.

PART 1: Custom gutters, done just right

The first step was creating a diagram of the roof to see which sections would produce the most runoff, then poring over it with Ruben Ruiz. He is the sheet metal artist who, after installing the gutters, would be fabricating sculptures to push water away from where I didn’t want it, which was near the foundations of the house or street, to where I did want it, which was discharging into thirsty garden soil.

Using the map, it became clear that one of the biggest sections of roof produced so much water that it defied fanciful treatment. Only a conventional downspout and pipe would drain the north roof slope and convey the water behind a fence to where it would be discharged to irrigate fruit trees.

Beyond that, moving water would be done by sculpture. Every gutter would need a new brand of practical art to act as catchers and spreaders. After I asked if the catchers might be flower-shaped, Ruiz disappeared for several weeks into his studio.

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The Dry Garden: Custom gutters and the art of catching rain

Gutters with rain chainsTo harvest rain from your roof for the garden, first you have to catch it. This requires gutters. Gutters are by no means universal appurtenances. Some home styles, such as Craftsman, Spanish and Colonial lend themselves so happily to gutters that they usually come with them. The rolled metal amounts to jewelry around the eaves.

However, put the same gutters on a modern home and you have a problem. The handsomeness of the structure is often defined by the lines of the roof and eaves. Gutters look dumpy; downspouts amount to vandalism.

The upshot? To those of us who live in midcentury homes and want to practice water conservation, the question of whether or not to put up gutters can feel like a choice between looking good or being good.

The realization that a modern house could indeed be artfully guttered came accidentally, during an October visit to a 1952 Smith and Williams home in the San Rafael Hills. The place was mobbed during an estate sale, and I did not get the lamp that I had come for, but walking out I noticed a rain chain hanging from a portico. Above, a flat fascia had been fitted with custom gutters that were so discreet you had to stare hard to determine that they were even there.

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The Dry Garden: Storms make case for change around City Hall

City Hall lawn
As the days of Occupy L.A.’s tenancy around City Hall Park became numbered last month, I wrote in The Times' Op-Ed pages that the city should seize the opportunity to replace the trashed lawn with a model garden demonstrating state-of-the-art storm-water capture and drought-tolerant planting. The Mar Vista Community Council immediately began a campaign to support it. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, California Native Plant Society and Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants each wrote the Department of Recreation and Parks calling for the city to seize the opportunity. But the most forceful argument came in the one-two punch of the Nov. 30 windstorm followed by this week’s rain.

When hurricane-force winds tore through the Los Angeles foothills, few residents had the kind of green bin capacity needed to cope with the sheer quantity of leaves and wood that landed in their yards. In a brief moment of magical thinking, some local governments asked homeowners to haul the detritus to special drop-off points. “With the truck I don't have?” was one of the many responses on Facebook and various Patch sites.

Wind storm debrisIgnoring instructions, residents simply dumped huge quantities of leaves, branches, palm fronds and trees at the curb. Many cities had no choice but to send out crews, including some from prisons, to begin clearing curbsides. They worked with stunning speed but, by last Monday, rain was closing in. Even bionic chain gangs could not have coped with the sheer mass of downed leaves and wood lining the streets served by L.A. County’s massive storm-drain system. Flooding of streets would be an inevitable byproduct for some neighborhoods.

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The Dry Garden: Ornamental grasses, poetry in motion

Grasses Carex praegracilis
There is nothing lovelier than tall ornamental grasses, backlit and waving in a breeze. Even vacant lots can produce stands of car-crash-inducing beauty. So when gardeners hope to capture some of that lyrical action for their own homes, it’s logical to assume that all one need do is stop mowing the lawn. Alas, that would be wrong. Harnessing the tousled romance of ornamental grasses (and plants that look like these grasses) is so hard that even experienced horticulturists factor generous time and space for trial and error into their approaches before they have, in effect, allowed the right plant to do its stuff in the right place.

Among the challenges are discovering these meadow grasses' growing seasons, understanding which ones are invasive, watering them enough but not too much, deducing where they are happiest, out-competing unwanted turf grasses and remnants of lawn and, hardest of all, mastering scale. If you haven’t put a tall grass where a short one would be better, or big one where a small one should have gone, you haven’t been bitten by the meadow bug.

Grasses and their doppelganger cousins -- rushes and Grasses Paynesedges -- come in so many shapes, sizes and habits that they can serve as filler, accent or focal point in a garden. These ultimate functions are rarely clear when they are enigmatic little clumps sitting in flats or 1 gallon pots on nursery shelves. Repeating the mnemonic “sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses are hollow right up from the ground” will help take the edge off as you admit helplessness and look for a knowledgeable store clerk.

Given that knowledgeable staff in garden centers are almost as rare as hens teeth, the best place to go for help is the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, above right. Signage around an impressive and growing selection of grasses alerts shoppers to what might be Lesson No. 1 in landscaping with grasses: These plants divide into two distinct classes of cool and warm season growers. So if you want growth and color in fall, winter and early spring, go for cool season. If you want it in summer, choose warm season. Payne also has helpfully divided the grasses and sedges into separate areas for plants favoring wetter or drier conditions.

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The Dry Garden: Now that the high winds have departed...

After the storm, we have no coroners, no priests for big trees. There will no autopsies, no last rites for the shredded jacaranda and more than 50 damaged trees at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, the fallen oaks of Fair Oaks Avenue or mangled magnolia trees of Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena. Ceremony, if it can be called that, will involve gas-fired buzz saws and insurance adjusters.

So how do we mark what happened? For that matter, what did happen? And what, ultimately, will we make of the night the trees fell?

Winds-green-streetAfter the transformers began exploding about 9 p.m. Wednesday, casting what at first looked like dry lightning, the storm was largely heard but not seen. This was wind that didn’t so much howl as rumble, subside, then return madder, like a drunk not quite finished busting up a bar. One woman I heard on the news kept saying, “It sounded like a train.” It did. A drunk train out for an accident.

To Midwesterners familiar with tornadoes, or Gulf Coasters for whom hurricanes are so common they have a season, downed trees and flying deck chairs are nothing new. We call this a disaster? They have a point. The Facebook account of a friend noted that her brother missed being crushed by two eucalyptuses that fell on her guest house only because he got up to go to the bathroom. That's typical of the near-miss stories circulating.

Which brings us to the bottom line. There were mass casualties of trees. My friend’s brother lived. The eucalyptuses didn’t. We lived, and our urban canopy took the beating for us. My next door neighbor to the south lost three trees. His worker was out at dawn cutting up the trunk of what was a 75-foot-tall liquidambar. Asked if he was all right, he looked up blearily and said, “I’m from Georgia. This doesn’t happen in Georgia.”

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The Dry Garden: Holiday tidings, trimmed in recycled wood

Wood seedling
My hand aches. My back aches. There is no end of aching in sight. But as Thanksgiving approaches, gratitude runs deep. I am thankful for a remarkably generous rain year, for California poppies, for sunflowers, local horse-stable manure so good that the guy who composts it calls it “craptonite,” for the bare-root plum tree that turned out to be a quince, for lemon-soaked quince wedges in stir fries, for the inventor of ibuprofen. This year, above all, I’m thankful for the things that I used to throw away.

Wood fenceThe green bin system that picks up garden trimmings, processes them and then gives away finished compost is a wonder of efficiency. A California model developed to divert lawn clippings from landfill is now used across the country. Yet the very people who run it would be the first to agree that in the long arc that is learning how to garden, the ultimate goal is recycling without trucks. 

In a modern, urban context, this goal starts with keeping less lawn and composting the clippings you do have. Municipal haulers would love us to keep back fall leaves too.

My latest discipline has been to reuse small wood from pruning jobs. It’s been harder than expected. Dealing with sharp sticks is an order of magnitude more difficult than composting the soft stuff. Woody stalks, branches and vines do not break down anywhere near as readily as leaves or grass in compost. Carelessly tossed in a compost bin, they can turn the pile into a mixing bowl full of daggers. But their applications are so numerous and so useful, this year all I want from Santa is a sharpener for my hand pruners.

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The Dry Garden: Tips for the best persimmon tree

Persimmon treeOne of the first things that I wanted to do in my new garden last year was to cut down the persimmon tree at the center of the large backyard. As early rains stripped the last of the leaves from its limbs and crows pecked at a few fruit, it looked less like a tree and more like an accident scene. Had the person who pruned its tangle of stumped and crossed limbs been a maniac? A gaping crack where the main branches met the trunk looked like it had been smote from heaven.

Only catching sight of its last fall leaves at twilight stopped me. A year later, restoring that wounded tree has become one of my passions. After scant fruit last year, this fall the tree -- perhaps 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide -- has produced so much fruit that I’ve called in friends and told them to bring crates. Tending it has amounted to an education. Before talking about why, a couple of nods are in order to two must-read treatments on persimmons. The first is a fact sheet from the California Rare Fruit Growers. The second is a survey of the different persimmons grown commercially around California by Times contributor David Karp.

The fruit growers and Karp do a wonderful job explaining the differences between two distinct types of persimmons -- astringent and non-astringent -- including variations in size and flavor. This column seeks chiefly to explain how to care for the more popular of the two, the kind I inherited, the non-astringent Fuyu.

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The Dry Garden: Détente with the gopher

Mr. Gopher
Plant ecologist Paula Schiffman came to praise gophers when she packed a lecture last spring hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the California Native Plant Society. It was awkward for the Cal State Northridge professor, given that most of the audience filling a cold, no-frills Santa Monica meeting room had come to learn how to kill the animals.

The atmosphere only got colder as Schiffman’s live-and-let-live message began to sink in: Gophers were here before us, they are integral to our local ecology, and one of the most common ways that we kill them also can accidentally poison a whole host of other animals.

Anyone who gardens with gophers can imagine the crowd's aloof response. But even as fall planting season is in full swing, and we find seedlings and young plants either dug up and dragged under, it merits hearing Schiffman out.

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L.A. Arboretum survey reveals what visitors want: Everything

Arboretum aloes
Last winter the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden asked what we the public wanted from it. The arboretum held workshops and even hired a professional to run up an online questionnaire. Last month, it published a summary of our responses.

Arboretum aloeThis much can be said about us: We’re not picky. We want everything. According to the new strategic plan, we want a prettier entrance, better signs and more fabulous gift shop. We want to save water and to celebrate the existing water-glugging collection of plants, while perhaps “de-accessioning” a few old soldiers.

We want to emphasize food plants for kids and to preserve a lovely collection of native oaks up the knoll. We want a first-class library with the right kind of onramp to the information superhighway. Did we mention we want invasive plants contained? We do. We also want spiffo management and a fine-tuning of the relationship between the nonprofit foundation and the county officials who, in an occasionally uneasy partnership, run the place.

It’s easy to mock management-speak, so I’m going to do it. Please, may the person who wrote “Develop and implement a comprehensive plan for directional and informational signage and visitor way-finding” not be the one writing the clearer, better signs.

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The Dry Garden: Spacing plants so they have room to bloom

VerbenaThe single hardest thing to remember in fall planting season is restraint. After summer dormancy, everything looks so fresh. Salvias are pushing out their autumn blooms. We gardeners are full of pent-up expectation. Everything feels possible! Many things are. Keep that elation. Just resist the urge to crowd young plants during installation, a temptation so strong that almost everyone does it.

The problem may be that we treat young plants like babies, which in some ways they are. Like us, they start small and then grow. But we replace cribs with twin beds and twin beds with double beds and may even redo the basement so a 6-foot-tall baby can have a queen. With plants, you have to start out envisioning a queen-sized bed for the newborn or, in the case of many shrubs and woody perennials, you can easily end up with the horticultural equivalent of John Goodman in a crib.

Do not look to most newly installed civic gardens for a good example. Landscape architects are among the worst offenders when it comes to crowding. Most pack new installations with young plants to create an instant sense of fullness, leaving a client briefly pleased but facilities staff invariably resentful as they must dig their way out of a mess.

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