Gardening Means Freedom to Me

Even when I look through garden books and magazines, or even watch garden shows on television. I'm somehow transported somewhere else, a nirvana I suppose. When I'm gardening nothing bothers me, it seems like all my problems or anxieties work themselves out. I can do it for hours and it feels like only minutes. It can be sunny and hot or misty and cold but it doesn't matter I'm in my yard with my plants. When the day is done and it's time to clean up, I'm happy and exhausted but I stand back and look at the work I've completed and feel good. It's therapy for me and I love it, and I happily plot how I can get out there and do some more.

I love to garden, but I also love to cook. I can sit for hours thumbing through cookbooks planning the perfect meal and gathering ideas for future use, but somehow I never equate it with any type of freedom. It's enjoyable and I love doing it but it still feels like work and I always have an idea of how a little more salt would be better, or maybe a few more nuts for texture or even a few more spices would help. I always feel a bit critical and not quite satisfied, as if I haven't quite achieved perfection and I should be asking more of myself.

In the garden I'm free to not follow any particular "recipe." I can make them all up myself and feel confident doing so. It's not about the right amount of plants or equal parts of anything, and yet it all seems to work out. It's liberating just going by my own instincts and desires. The plants themselves are perfection so I never feel as if I haven't lived up to my best.

I used to work long hours in an office and couldn't wait for the week to end. My day was filled with computer software that wasn't working, customers with problems and columns that didn't want to balance. I was tired and cranky but I had a secret, I knew Saturday morning would come and I could refresh myself. Friday night would be spent in happy anticipation of what I needed to do in the yard. The evening would be spent pouring over garden books, searching for ideas I could use. I had just started my new garden and it needed lots of work, and I could easily be out there from sun up to sun down all weekend. Sounds like work? No, felt like freedom. My coworkers used to tease me that I had to come back to work to get some rest. But I smiled knowing that it wasn't true. I got to enjoy nature at it's finest with no restrictions, almost Zen-like. It wasn't that I didn't feel the aches and pains of the physical labor but it was all worth it because of what I got in return. It really is freedom for me.

Going Drought Tolerant

I found late in life that I was allergic to twelve items; all were different varieties of grass, surprisingly enough. Living in suburbia and like the rest of my neighbors, my front yard was filled with lawn. Living in practically a desert here in Southern California, this never really made sense to me. Trying to grow something so dependent on a commodity we don't have: water. With very little rain and our El Nino droughts, the logical thing to do was to tear out the lawn and put in something else. I've replaced it with a dry river rock bed surrounded by California Natives and many other drought tolerant plants. Instead of a flat sea of dead or dying grass, I get to look at a variety of colors, fragrances and heights. Some do better than others. Like the native salvia or sage called Dara's Choice. It billows out three feet wide and almost as tall with bluish-purple spikes of flowers on top of the grey-green foliage so typical of our native plants. It is very tolerant to our clay soil here and is attractive to the creatures who love my yard, the bees and hummingbirds. It has a pleasant almost minty fragrance that permeates the air. It is a happy plant, always filled with the sound of buzzing bees. A beautiful color and scent not many other front yards have. Evergreen, so my yard is never without it, it has been a good choice. It makes me happy just to see it. I guess my allergies turned out to be a good thing

My desire to rid my yard of its hideous high maintenance water sucking lawn led me down the path to the use of native plants and their benefits.

I find them to be colorful, beautiful and much easier to care for. When I tell people my yard is Xeriscape they stare at me blankly. Most don't understand what that means, but if they do, they assume it means a yard filled with cactus. It doesn't. My yard is gorgeous. I don't just think this, my neighbors do. They make a point of stopping by and letting us know. Strangers too tell me this. Xeriscape can be every bit as beautiful as any other garden style. It can be cool, green landscape full of beautiful plants maintained with water-efficient practices. It does not need to be cactus and rock-gardens only. I like to use as many California natives as possible. They require much less care and fussing over. Pruning for instance is almost non-existent since natives tend to grow to full size and stay that way. It's nice not to contribute to the already over used landfills. They are well adapted to our environment already. Native plants are leaner growing and rarely need fertilizer. They attract birds and butterflies in abundance. My yard is always filled with hummingbirds, bees and other beneficial insects. They grow in organic conditions with little need for pesticides. Earthworms thrive around them and mycorrhizae is restored. Grown grouped together in their natural order they also are weed resistant and help with erosion control.

Xeriscape Tips to Think About

So you've removed your lawn, excellent! Now it's time to think about the condition of the soil. For the life of your yard it has been feed tons of chemicals and pesticides in order to keep that lawn green and weed free. The chemical runoff is still there. More than likely there are isn't any good bacteria left and no earthworms. So first it's time to improve the mycorrhizae. Cottonseed meal, any of the sea kelps, worm castings, and actual bags of red wigglers need to be brought in along with some additional soil and mix-ins like peat moss and shredded barks. If you are unsure of what to get or the proportions, just go to your local nursery, or call the San Diego Master Gardeners hotline 858-694-2860, which is free. Ask for someone versed in native plantings, or succulents, or whatever your drought tolerant replacement choice is.

Also, don't think every inch of your yard needs to be plants. Think rocks, boulders and other hardscape. I have a dry riverbed filled with different size rocks, and I use pea gravel down the left hand side and in between the flagstone. Also think levels. Don't be boring and just go flat. Add some height and dimension. Some texture! Go slightly higher that you think is necessary because as the years go by and the soil compresses, what was high then, is not so much now.

I'm not a purist, but you might be. However, a word of caution; while my first love is of native plants, a 50 year old track housing plan where the earth was scraped back and made level, is not a natural environment for native plants. The native environment is long gone. Only the heartier ones will make it. Some are just too fragile for this type of landscape. My neighbor went completely native and lost most of what he put in. Try to find a balance between what you really want, and what you can live with. Try to remember the goal - the goal is less water and lower maintenance. In my yard, I use native plants, drought tolerant plants, Mediterranean plants and succulents. All of these bloom at different times of the year, which is a bonus. Be sure to include several tree choices. In the beginning it might not matter but as they grow and mature, a natural shade will develop and help save the smaller amount of water you will be using.

I know it's a pain but I hand water. It mimics Mother Nature, and prevents over watering. In nature the water comes from above, not at ground level. The plants will be healthier with this method, plus you will be less tempted to water since it requires more effort. Working with Mother Nature produces better results.

The biggest and most important tip is to apply mulch regularly. During the first 5 or so years I applied mulch and worm castings, and then hand turned over the soil to mix them in and aerate it. So each time the older and more disintegrating mulch would mix with the soil and help aerate it, and then I'd apply the new mulch on top. Now I've just been adding the mulch. I like to do it several times a year and even my husband notices the difference it makes. Mulch helps absorb water and keeps the moisture from evaporating from the soil, plus it really works well in keeping the weeds down. I'm not saying you won't have any, but I am saying there will be much, much less. Typically in the winter with even a little rain I pull weeds once in awhile but in summer never. When I'm in my yard, its usually by my own choice.

I've chosen a more organic approach to having a gorgeous landscape. One that has a reduced need for water, pesticides and of course no need for fertilizers.