Editors note: This is the first in a series of sustainable gardening columns by Grass Valley horticulturist Brad Carter that will run every other week until June.
During the past 10 years, my partner Fred Hodgson and I have developed a one acre landscape of drought-tolerant California native plants that blooms from March to July, with the peak bloom in May.
Every year I hear visitors say, “Where are all the weeds, Brad?”
Weeding is in fact the biggest maintenance task in my garden. It takes some persistence, but there are a few tricks I’ve learned which reduce work and make it more manageable — if not enjoyable.
A thick layer of mulch is a great way to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Our landscape has a “backbone” of native shrubs such as toyon and California anemone. Get started on your weed-resistant landscape by developing a good landscape design. You need to know the mature size of each shrub in your design, so that you can avoid the common mistake of planting those little one gallon size shrubs too close to each other. For instance, mature toyon reaches 8-15 feet in height and diameter. So proper spacing when planting toyon is about 15 feet apart.
Plant as large an area as possible and do it in the fall, just before the winter rains begin. Hand water as soon as you plant because the ground will be dry after a summer without rain. Then, right away, install a temporary drip irrigation system that will be used for two years.
This system will irrigate your newly planted landscape until the winter rains set in, and also during the first two summers after planting.
After two years, your drought-tolerant native plants should be fully established and able to sustain themselves with winter rain only.
After you have finished planting and installing your drip system, you can apply the weed-suppressing mulch.
I suggest a 3-inch thick layer of pine needles, which will cover all the open ground and the unsightly plastic drip tubing between your newly planted shrubs. This need not be done immediately.
You can wait until temperatures drop in November to do this work. I collected needles from my neighbors who rake them up to burn.
Pine needles beak down very slowly. The mulched areas in our garden are still in tact after 10 years. Eventually weeds will colonize this mulch and grow right on top of it. I use a battery powered weed whacker to chop these invaders down. Eventually your shrubs will mature and fill up the open space in your landscape, crowding out the weeds and leaving them nowhere to grow.
Most of the maintenance work in our garden gets done between January and April. The landscape reaches peak bloom in late spring and then gets used a lot in May and June for entertaining friends and hosting a couple of events.
If you’d like to see the garden and learn more about sustainable, river-friendly landscaping, plan to come and join us for a new event called Art in the Garden Party June 1.
This all-day garden party is free to the public and features food and drink, numerous artists selling outdoor garden art, tours of the garden, sustainable gardening talks and more.
Twenty percent of art sale revenues from this event will be donated to Sierra Streams Institute to support their river conservation work.
Brad Carter is a horticulturist who lives in Grass Valley.