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  Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning. Late fall and early winter are important prun...

Sunday, May 25, 2014

How Water-wise and Life-friendly is Your Garden?

In California and throughout the U.S. Southwest the word is out: water is becoming scarce and our gardens must adapt.  We must take drought seriously; we must become water-wise.

But water-wise is only half the picture.  To be productive and sustainable, our gardens must also become more life-friendly.  They must provide beauty, food and places to enjoy our outdoor life. And they must become an inviting home for the plants, birds, insects and other creatures we humans have displaced.

Summer is a great time to reassess our gardens – to see what’s working well and what we might improve.  In short, it’s a good time to plan how to make our gardens more water-wise and life-friendly.  Take this questionnaire to see how you’re doing.  Then pledge to do at least one thing to make your garden more water-wise and life friendly this year.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Designing Your New California Garden: 10. Walkways, Seating Areas and Other Hardscape

This month and next we discuss hardscape – the non-living elements of the garden design. If you’re just joining the ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ series, we suggest you start at the beginning (July 2013 - http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/07/designing-your-new-california-garden-1.html) and work forward.  The monthly activities will help you design an attractive, functional, sustainable and water-wise garden.

Technically, the water management system is included in the hardscape plan.  Because the ‘New California Garden’ emphasizes water sustainability, we considered the management of rainwater (February 2014) and irrigation water (March 2014) separately.  You might want to review these posts before continuing.



‘Hardscape’ includes all the non-plant parts of the garden design, from walls/fences, walkways and seating areas to water features and garden art.  Hardscape elements are often added to a garden over time, without an over-arching plan guiding their selection.  Designing a new garden – or remaking an old one – provides an opportunity to rethink the hardscape.  And that can have important implications for the overall appearance and functionality of the garden.

Next month (June 2014) we’ll consider garden design; this month we focus on the functional aspects of hardscape.  But it’s nearly impossible to divorce functionality from aesthetics.  As you consider hardscape options, look at examples in your neighborhood, in books and on the internet.  Visit the local building supply store and nursery to see what options are available.   Take pictures and notes about hardscape solutions you like.  These will be invaluable when you finalize the hardscape plans next month

You’ll notice that some materials and items appear formal while others have an informal or casual appearance.  Garden designs run the gamut from extremely formal to very informal; choosing the right hardscape depends in part on knowing where your garden falls along the continuum. Preference for formal or informal style is highly personal.  If you haven’t determined your family’s preference yet, now would be a good time to do so: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/01/designing-your-new-california-garden-8.html

This month we’ll just develop a rough map of hardscape features and their approximate locations in the garden.  Next month we’ll develop a final map and hardscape plan.  Don’t be surprised if it takes you several months to complete your hardscape plan.  Hardscape encompasses a number of elements – and there are functional and aesthetic considerations for each.  Take as long as you need to develop a plan that ‘feels right’. Remember, you are designing the framework for your garden and that takes time.   

This month’s exercise will involve a lot of thought and research.  So get out your Garden Notebook, several clean copies of your site map and a pencil to sketch in possible locations and make notations.  


Fences, Walls, Screens and Gates

Homes in Western Los Angeles County tend to have small yards.  Close neighbors, pets and less-than-optimal views mean that many local gardens use walls, fences, screens and hedges to keep living things in/out – or block objectionable views.  Your yard may already have a perimeter wall or fence (located on/near the boundary between two properties).  If so, you may need only to inspect and complete necessary repairs.

If you don’t have a perimeter wall/fence – or if you detest the current one – first determine whether you need one at all.  Perhaps your front yard no longer needs to be fenced for children or pets; or an aged hedge is past being functional or attractive.  If so, mark them for removal.   If a fence/wall is required, several functional issues should be considered:

·       How strong/durable will it need to be?

·       How long will it need to last?   Do you need a permanent fence, or just a temporary screen until shrubbery/hedge has grown to size?
·       Does it need to be solid or could it allow for air circulation (for example a hedge, lattice-work or other open-work fence)?

·       What municipal or county codes regulate height, setbacks and construction?

·       How much do you want to spend on the project?

·       What type of materials work best with your house design?  Your neighborhood?

·       Do you want to install it yourself or have it installed professionally?
·       How much maintenance will it require?  Costs?
·       Do you want your fence/wall to be hardscape only,   a planted hedge or some combination (shrubs in front of a fence or vines on a lattice fence)
·       Do you want your fence/wall to stand out or blend into the distance?    We’ll discuss how you can accomplish either goal, by using color, in next month’s installment.


In addition to the garden perimeter, walls/fences and hedges are useful as screens to block unsightly views.  For example, a screen of shrubs might be placed to hide views of a garden shed, trash barrels or the side of a neighbor’s garage.  

Hedges and screens can also be used to create outdoor rooms or to guide one through the garden.  As we’ll learn next month,  breaking a yard up into smaller ‘rooms’ can make even a small garden appear larger.  Look at your “Physical Features Map’ and ‘Use Areas Map’.   Are there areas that would benefit from a screen/hedge?    If so, pencil them in.


 Shown above are the final ‘Use Area/Bubble’ Map and the ‘Physical Features’ Maps for 112 Willow Street.   The yard has a 5 ft. tall perimeter fence in the backyard – in good condition – and 2 ft. tall block walls on either side of the front yard.  The homeowner is happy with these and chooses to retain them.

Because the ‘Maintenance’ and ‘Quiet Meditation’ areas are located near the front yard, the homeowners consider adding short fence/gates between the house/garage and the front walls for privacy and access.   They pencil them in, with a note to think about them over the next month.



Sheds, Storage Buildings and Containers

Many gardens require outdoor storage.  Here are some things you’ll want to consider when choosing a shed/storage building:

  • How big will it need to be?  If you have the space, consider going a little bit larger than current needs require

  • How tall?  Will it need to contain long-handled garden tools? Other tall equipment like umbrellas, ladders, etc.)?
  • What materials should it be made of?  Wood looks nice but will need painting; metal is durable (in our climate); sturdy plastic sheds are inexpensive and low maintenance.
  • Location: should be handy, but not where it’s an eyesore or impedes traffic flow

  • Will it be custom-built or pre-fabricated/ready-to-assemble?
  • Will you build/assemble it or will you hire a professional?

  • Cost constraints?

The gardeners at 112 Willow St. are scaling back, replacing an old 8 x 10 ft metal shed with something smaller.  They’ve cleaned out the old shed, but  still need space for a reel mower (to cut the new lawn) long-handled garden tools (rakes/shovels, etc.), potting supplies (pots; soil), irrigation supplies, fertilizers, limited pesticides and the patio seat cushions (during the rainy season). 

Placement of the storage shed(s) is easy – it belongs in the Maintenance Area.  The best place appears to be along the back of the garage.   This area can accommodate a shed(s) up to 10 ft long (total), as wide as 3 ft and as tall as needed.  The gardeners do need to consider where the trash cans will go in the Maintenance Area.  There are three (garbage, recyclables and green waste – each 2.5 ft x 2.5 ft) and they may impact how much space is available for the shed(s).


After careful consideration, the homeowners realize that the green waste and trash containers could be stored along the perimeter wall near the garden; this would be handy for daily use and for trash day.  The recycle container could fit next to the new shed(s), leaving space for a 6-7 ft x 3 ft shed.  The gardeners also realize that the patio seat cushions might be stored on the patio – perhaps in a low storage container that doubles as a table.    They pencil in the rough location of containers and shed(s).

The storage sheds won’t need to be particularly attractive; for the most part they’re hidden from view.  The homeowners will need to decide how much they want to spend, the size needed and whether they want a pre-fab/ready-to-assemble or not.   They explore the possibilities on-line and at the local building supply stores.


Patios and Seating Areas

In S. California we’re fortunate to be able to ‘live outdoors’ much of the year.  As the climate becomes hotter, shady outdoor living areas will become more important.  We’ll likely be doing even more outdoor living.

112 Willow Street is fortunate to have a screened patio with a roof and concrete floor.  It’s shaded in summer and protected from rain in winter.  The family uses it for sitting, playing, parties and outdoor dining.  They won’t need to do anything to the patio.

If you don’t have a patio/seating area, you may want to build or create one.  In fact, it may already appear on your ‘Functional Area/Bubble’ map.   Here are some things to consider:

  • What activities do you want to do there?  Placement, construction and furnishings will be different for a routinely-used al fresco dining area vs. an area used for occasional seating.

  • What is the most convenient placement?  This is particularly important for regularly used areas.  An outdoor dining/entertaining area should be near the kitchen and living room if possible.  A sauna/hot tub area might be located off the master bedroom or bath.

  • Will you need outdoor cooking facilities? electricity?  heaters for winter?  access to drinking or irrigation water?

  • How will you provide shade?  A roof, ramada, retractable awning or a well-placed tree are all possibilities. More attractive shade options are coming on the market all the time. You can see an number of these on the internet.  Remember, it’s going to be hotter in the future – shade will be a must!

  • How flat and firm must the surface be?   Dining areas and those with heavy foot travel usually require a hard, flat surface; other areas are fine with grass, crushed rock, decomposed granite or even mulch.



The new garden at 112 Willow St. has two informal seating areas: one designated the ‘Shady Seating Area’ under the tree and other in the ‘Quiet/Meditation’ area.  Neither of these are high foot travel areas; mulch, a low walk-on ground cover or crushed rock could be used in these places.  Both areas are already shady – that was part of the logic in locating them where they are.  The homeowners will think about the type of seating appropriate for each area and explore options on-line and at local public gardens.  


Planters, Raised Beds and Containers

Planters, raised beds and containers (pots; window boxes; etc.) can make a garden more attractive and emphasize a garden’s theme.  They can also improve functionality.  For example, planters can be used to create a level planting surface on gentle slopes or to provide better drainage.  Raised beds make garden tasks easier for young gardeners or those with physical limitations.

Most California gardeners are well acquainted with planters; they are common in local gardens.  Traditional planters made of brick or concrete are found in many older gardens and can still be a good idea.  In more natural gardens rocks, cut stone, ‘urbanite’ (chunks of concrete paving) or fabricated ‘stones’ make natural-looking planters and raised beds.  Planters – or even slightly raised, edged beds – can also provide a formal look if that is desired.

Raised beds make excellent sense in a vegetable garden.  They concentrate water and nutrients, keep vegetables clean and help dissuade slugs and snails.  They also make it easier to plant, weed, provide plant support and harvest the crops.  Raised beds can be made to a convenient height – even allow the gardener to work from a seat or wheelchair.   Raised beds are becoming popular in many parts of the country, including California.   You might want to consider them for vegetables or flowers.

The garden at 112 Willow St. will have a vegetable garden with raised beds. The area is 14 ft. by 24 ft.  In March we considered several layouts for the vegetable garden; the gardeners have settled on the one below. 


The gardeners explore plans for raised beds on-line and learn that 3 ft. is the best width to provide easy access.   There is room for four beds, each 3 ft. x 8 ft., with 2 ½ ft. walkways; there’s still space for water storage container(s) at the north end of the garden as planned.  

The gardeners have many choices of design and materials, ranging from fairly inexpensive, home-made models to more expensive purchased kits or custom-built raised beds.  Some kits are available locally – others will have to be ordered from gardener’s supply companies.  To learn more, there are extensive resources on-line.  Good how-to books are available at building supply stores and your local library.


Walkways, Paths and Driveways

Once the big hardscape elements (above) are located, the next step is planning the walkways, paths and driveways.  Most S. California homes already have a driveway, so you’ll likely not be changing its location.  However, you may want to consider making it more permeable.

 Walkways and paths are often updated when a garden is re-designed.  Whether you’re starting new or re-modeling an established garden, consider motor and foot traffic carefully.  In most small yards, motor vehicle traffic is confined to the driveway.  However families with boats or other parked vehicles – or jobs/hobbies needing vehicular access – require careful planning. 

Foot traffic also requires thoughtful deliberation.   Walkways in the wrong place, areas that are inaccessible and paths poorly constructed are not just annoying, they can be dangerous!   Look closely at your hardscape map.  What areas will receive the most foot traffic?  What is the easiest route?  Will you need to wheel garden equipment or trash cans from one place to another?  Will you need occasional access into planted areas for garden maintenance?   Do you want to direct foot traffic away from delicate plants or to a water feature or statue?

We suggest getting out in the garden and walking the possible pathways.  You can even locate major hardscape areas with string to make the exercise more real.  Remember, if you’re converting lawn areas to something planted, you’ll now need to provide access across those areas.  We sometimes forget how often we walk across our lawns!

Municipal or county codes usually cover the size and construction of major walkways, such as the walkway to the front door.  They may also specify requirements for other walkways and paths.  Neighborhood covenants sometimes also limit the materials and colors permissible.  Be sure that you – or your contractor – know and follow the regulations.

We’ve posted an article on ‘Harvesting Rain: Permeable Paths, Patios and Driveways’ (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/06/harvesting-rain-permeable-paths-patios.html ).   You might want to read it before you continue.

The garden at 112 Willow St. won’t need much in the way of new pathways.  The vegetable garden, utility area and driveway area will be covered in either mulch (vegetable garden) or crushed rock.  The crushed rock is a better choice than gravel for the Utility Area and driveway.  It can be compacted to provides a hard level surface for walking and rolling trash bins across.   The ‘New Lawn’ provides access to most of the backyard and the ‘Butterfly Garden’ is a narrow bed that can be accessed easily.


The area leading to the ‘Quiet/meditation Area’ will be planted, so some sort of pathway is needed.  This is will not be a highly traveled path, but the area may be damp in winter.  The gardeners plan to use large (2 or 2 ½ ft) pavers to create a semi-formal path.  They will visit their building or landscape supply store to see what options are available.


Arbors, Arches and Pergolas
Arches, arbors and pergolas are sometimes employed in S. California gardens.  They are not for every garden, but can be effective in certain situations.  An arch can be used as an entrance to the garden or to areas that are treated as separate garden ‘rooms’.  Arbors and pergolas provide shade and are a good place to grow grapes, native Honeysuckles and other fragrant vines.   They often include seating areas.

There are dozens of designs, plans and pictures of arbors, arches and pergolas on the internet.  If interested, we suggest you start there. These are strong design elements.  They may dominate the garden landscape and are often used to make a large garden seem smaller.  If you have a small yard – and still want to include these elements - we suggest you keep them small, darker colored and in proper scale for the size of your yard.



Trellises are often used to provide support for vines and trailers, although lattice and other trellises are being used alone in contemporary gardens.  They can be used to create shade, cover a wall/fence or provide a visual screen.    They are particularly useful in narrow spaces or as stand-alone elements in the interior of the garden.   Things to consider when choosing a trellis:

  • Strength: is it strong enough to provide support for a mature vine?
  • Attachment: where/how will you attach it?  Will the attachment be strong enough
  • Design : trellises can be a strong design element.  Choose design, materials and color to complement the garden design
  • Materials : there are many choices; consider appearance, cost and maintenance

As discussed in previous episodes, the side of the neighbor’s garage is an eyesore in the 112 Willow garden.  It presents a design challenge for the Quiet/Meditation area, which is narrow and fairly shady.  After considering several options, the gardeners decide to grow a vine screen to block the view.  They can either erect a free-standing trellis or attach one to the existing wall.  Local building code specifies that fences/walls can be no taller than 6 ft.   But an open lattice trellis could be taller – perhaps 7-8 ft – and nicely block the view.  They pencil in a trellis that will conceal the neighbor’s garage.



For more inspiration on trellises, search the internet and visit well-stocked local garden stores.   Trellises can be beautiful and functional.  They have come back in style for a reason – they are useful in contemporary gardens.


Mulch and Non-living Groundcovers
A mulch is simply a protective layer of materials placed over the soil, primarily to modify the effects of the local climate.  Mulching is an integral part of water-wise gardening; but mulches are used for a number of other purposes including heat regulation and aesthetics.

Like all other types of hardscape, mulch should be suited to the garden conditions.  These conditions certainly include the types of plants you plan to grow.  But the conditions also include aesthetic and even cultural considerations.  For example, many mulches are available in different colors and textures.  You need to consider which is best for the look of your garden.  For example, if your garden design has a Mediterranean/Italian influence, you may want to use an appropriate crushed gravel mulch – at least in part of the garden.  You may even want to use mulches in areas of your garden that have no plants at all!     On the other hand, a ‘natural’ garden with Coastal Sage Scrub plants will look best – and thrive with – a thin mulch of wood chippings.

We have written an extensive post on mulches in S. California gardens.  It describes the use of mulch, types of mulch and other considerations.  It discusses the use of mulch for different types of California native plants.  We suggest you read Understanding Mulches - http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/07/understanding-mulches_23.html

The best advice when considering mulches is to look at various materials on-line, then go to a local building supply source and see the materials first hand.  You may be able to take small samples of the materials how to see how you like them in the garden.

Water Features
Water features are decorative hardscape elements that feature the sight, sound and sometimes the feel of water.  Included in the category are decorative ponds and pools, waterfalls, constructed ‘streams’ with re-circulating water and fountains of all sizes and types.    Water features are treasured in hot climates because they give the illusion of coolness.   As our climate heats up, you may want to consider a small, water-wise water feature.

Solar-powered bubbler fountain - Mother Nature's Backyard
As with arches and pergolas, scale is important.  A large, ornate fountain or massive waterfall will look out of place in a small garden.  But even the tiniest garden can include a small fountain – even a miniature waterfall – to give as sense of cool.  In Mother Nature’s Backyard, we constructed a simple bubbler fountain from two large glazed pots.  The scale is right, the pump is solar powered, and the fountain is quite water-wise (requires re-filling with 1 gallon a week during the hottest weather).  People are instinctively drawn to the fountain.  Birds love to drink and bath in the splash; some even fly through the water in hot weather!

In S. California, large gardening/home improvement stores carry a selection of ready-made fountains;  most are ready to place, fill and plug in the pump.  Most re-circulating fountains require an electrical outlet; but solar-powered pumps and fountains are available on-line.  Local nurseries also stock fountains and can suggest local businesses that will create custom fountains, pools and other water features.   


Garden Art
Garden art is very personal.  Art is an important part of some gardens – in fact some gardens are built to house a treasured sculpture, mosaic or other piece of art.  Other gardens have no art at all.   The best gardens follow the old adage – less is more. 

Included in ‘garden art’ are statues, other sculpture, sundials, decorative birdbaths, mosaics and decorative tiles, pebble mosaics, decorative signage or light fixtures and more.  Garden art should reflect your taste; it may also reflect your cultural or family heritage.  Garden art can provide just the right accent to make a garden appear authentic, alive, unique.

Garden ‘art’ can include artful objects from nature: an attractive boulder, interestingly shaped log or branch, shells or pebbles, other found objects.  Japanese gardens are well known for their use of natural objects in gardens.

Garden art can be invaluable for difficult parts of the garden, such as areas of deep shade where nothing will grow.  A light-colored statue can be just the ticket – lovely, water-wise and low maintenance.

You needn’t have a specific piece in mind when you design the garden.  In fact, sometimes it’s best to wait and see what the garden itself requires.  Leave room for a sundial or small statue if you wish.  You’ll ultimately come across the perfect piece for the space.





We value your comments (below).    You can also contact us directly at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.