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The five elements of conservation landscaping

I have created a garden around every home I have owned – two in southern California and one in Florida. But when I moved to a two-acre wooded property in Grass Valley, I knew that this landscape would be unlike any of the others. Water was the biggest factor. In my previous urban life, water didn’t cost much and was in limitless supply – or so I thought at the time. But here, my water comes from a well – a deep, low-producing well. And the electricity costs of pumping that water up from 600 feet below the surface are enormous.

In the city, the risk of wildfires burning through your neighborhood is relatively low compared to when you live in close proximity or within forested lands as we do here in the Sierra foothills. The house I bought here was surrounded by an acre of highly flammable manzanita. I knew that had to change.

Another factor that influenced me was the abundant wildlife here. Deer, rabbits, lizards, snakes, numerous birds, bats, and butterflies are flourishing in my neighborhood. I had to go to the zoo if I wanted to see this many animals in my former neighborhood in Orange County.



So I decided to create a sustainable, resource-efficient landscape around my home. It took a few years, but the garden path is finished and many of the California native plants I installed are starting to mature.

One of the pleasures of sustainable landscaping is watching the garden go through its seasonal changes. A few early-blooming plants begin flowering in late February, but the real show comes with the peak of bloom in May. After that, the garden takes a summer siesta when most of the plants go into a semi-dormant state in response to the heat.




Although flowers are scarce during summer, wildlife is abundant, especially since I added a small pond this spring. In the fall, many plants develop ripe berries, which attracts more hungry birds, and the leaves of mountain dogwoods turn bright colors.

I don’t think a garden is ever really finished. I will always be tinkering with mine – adding new plants, garden art and other enhancements. Last year, I decided I wanted to use my garden in a new way, as a venue for sharing what I have learned about sustainable landscaping.

Working with a group of volunteers from Wildflowers Forever, I helped to create a new education program called Sierra Smart Gardening Workshops and Conservation Garden Tours that teaches residents of the Grass Valley/Nevada City how to use California native plants to create landscapes around their homes that are drought-tolerant, fire-safe and wildlife-friendly.

Sierra Smart Gardening Workshops and Conservation Garden Tours consist of five full-day workshops. Each workshop starts with a morning of indoor learning followed by an afternoon garden tour or similar field exercise.

Next spring, I will teach the May 15 workshop on vegetation. During the afternoon garden tour we will visit my garden at the peak of its spring bloom.

A theme that runs throughout Sierra Smart Gardening is the five elements of conservation landscaping: water, soil, vegetation, wildlife and wildfire. These natural elements provide an intellectual framework for understanding how nature affects, and is affected by your sustainable landscape project.

During the coming months I will be writing a series of short articles for The Union exploring the five elements of conservation landscaping. The first of these, Welcoming Wildlife Into Your Garden, was published on November 14, 2009. The next will explore the subject of water, including how to infiltrate storm water runoff on your property so that erosion is minimized and how to use less water in irrigation of your landscape.


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