| | By Linnea Due, Ramona d'Viola, and Anne Weinberger
Living in the East Bay has its charms—and challenges. Hills dwellers, for instance, often can't have yards, with their homes perched on lots too steep for organized cultivation. There are garden enthusiasts whose yards sport patches of ground suitable for urban gardening, but starting this time of year—with the growing season—they curse the fog and the Bay Area's complicated microclimates that wreak havoc on their tomatoes, squash, and perennials.
But East Bayites are a resilient bunch and find ways to capitalize on outdoor living, raising vegetables, planting flowers, and working wonders through landscape design in all sorts of unusual situations. Their personal ethos embraces the indoor-outdoor lifestyle, and they overcome obstacles like vertical properties, shaded plots, and flowers repeatedly grazed down to nubs by deer.
This Home & Garden section explores how cliff-side homes benefit from quality decks and what elevated decks entail, from suitable materials to cost; provides tips for planting bulbs successfully; gives advice on growing vegetables and starting seeds; and introduces a new movement that is expected to change the way Californians landscape and garden.
An Elevated State
By Ramona d'Viola
When your house is built into a 45-degree slope, the only yard you can hope for is a deck.
The East Bay hills are home to some of California's finest architecture and equally astounding feats of engineering. However, building, or replacing, a deck in these precipitous locations presents a unique set of challenges for Bay Area building professionals.
"Many of our projects are 10 to 30 feet up, on downslopes from 30 to 55 degrees, so preparations are extensive, and safety is a major concern," said Rudi Schafer, president and CEO of San Leandro's Schafer Construction.
Stacked, or "double-decker" decks are increasingly in demand throughout the region, especially for homes with near-vertical footprints. Moreover, high quality wooden decks consistently provide the best return on investment over other home improvement projects like bathroom or kitchen upgrades. Adding or replacing an aging deck maximizes a homeowner's investment while extending a home's living space.
"Our philosophy is an elevated deck is a 'once-in-a-lifetime' investment," said Schafer. "By lifetime, we mean, with proper care, a deck should last anywhere from 30 to 50 years, depending on materials and the environment.
"We use the highest grades of lumber for an elevated deck project, ensuring quality construction and environmental longevity," added Schafer. "And, although pressure-treated lumber is less expensive, the chemicals used to treat the wood can wreak havoc on a decks' metal fasteners."
Natural redwood and cedar are still the top choices for decking, along with tropical woods like ipe (pronounced ee-pay) and tigerwood, all of which are resistant to warping, cracking, and pest damage.
For the traditionalist, wood lends itself to the majority of early 20th-century homes built in the Bay Area. However, the profusion of composite and recycled decking products is giving wood a run for its money. Just like lumber, composites offer a variety of grades to choose from; however, the higher-grade products truly mimic wood and come in a variety of textures and colors.
Made from a combination of wood, plastic, or completely recycled materials, composite decking is not necessarily less expensive than wood. The added cost is recouped in durability and easy care.
According to Schafer, a wooden deck will need to be stained and refinished about every two years, depending on the environment; railings, every five to seven years, again depending on exposure. A composite deck can be cleaned with soap and water whenever needed.
"Homes in the hills are subject to a lot of moisture," said Schafer. "Natural wood decks require significant upkeep in these environments since they stay wet a lot of time. Rot and mold can significantly degrade a wooden deck if left unchecked. Composites that also contain wood as an ingredient, can contract mold, so they're not entirely maintenance free."
For the modernist, or owner of a contemporary home, metal decks with cabled railings are becoming increasingly popular. Along with metals' weather- and fire-resistance properties, metal decks offer an affordable and low-maintenance choice, with a strength-to-weight ratio that make it an efficient material. However, metal decking is not without its caveats. They can be slippery when wet and hot in direct sunlight and are best suited to shaded or covered locations.
Once you've selected your materials, building the actual deck—whether a single or double—requires extensive preparations, especially in hilly environments.
"Safety is a huge concern, both for our workers and the homeowners," said Schafer. "We start an elevated deck project by erecting scaffolding, which typically takes three to five days. This is the platform that supports the workers, their tools and materials, and allows them to move freely—and safely—while building the structure. Occasionally, we'll also use a crane or other heavy equipment to move metal beams and large timbers."
As one might imagine, the cost of adding an elevated deck to your home can reach nosebleed heights as well.
"A high-rise deck in Montclair can cost anywhere from $60K to $150K," added Schafer. "Scaffolding can add $10 to $30K to the price of a deck.
"Some people are stunned at the construction costs of these structures, and others are more realistic. However, the added value and tangible benefits of extending a home's livable outdoor space with a deck gives a property great curb appeal when you're ready to sell."
By Linnea Due
Want a May miracle? Bulb catalogues promise redemption: your weedy backyard littered with toys, your dry front yard with its 60-year-old juniper bushes, remarkably transformed into the most astonishing display of floral splendor. Lost in this Shangri-la vision is that your little corner of paradise must wait 11 months for the miracle to manifest. No matter—bulb catalogues appeal to our sense of hope, envy, and regret as we marvel at seas of daffodils and crocus spilling across spring hillsides: "Now why didn't I do that?"
Luckily, planting bulbs is a great deal more certain than wishing you'd invested like Warren Buffet. The Bay Area is a wonderland for plants that do well in temperate zones. Some bulbs do great here while others struggle. If you have your heart set on a meadow of stunning yellow-and-white double early tulips, expect to pay a pretty penny year after year because they will not rebloom. And you might spend extra time eating out 'cause your fridge will be stacked with bulbs. In the East Bay, tulips need three weeks in the refrigerator before planting. That gives them enough cold to bloom spectacularly that first year—if the squirrels, raccoons, and deer don't get them. Animals love tulips as much as we do.
Daffodils, on the other hand, will rebloom without a cold spell, needn't take a winter siesta alongside your leftovers, and are poisonous so elude deer and the rest. Narcissus (the Latin name) are remarkably easy, often will re-bloom the following year and onward, and some varieties will even increase if they like the spot you've chosen for them. They don't just come in yellow—try pink (plant in partial shade for the darkest hue), white (classic "Mount Hood" is a giant, almost ethereally beautiful 'dil), and some have red noses, like Rudolph. Some are even double (double in the daffodil realm resemble intricately folded origami), and these, astoundingly, are often the best come-backers. Their only downside is that in heavy rainfalls, their heads tilt towards the mud, and you might (sob) have to bring them inside. (Warning: don't put daffs in with other cut flowers—the daffodils will cause the others to wilt quickly.)
In the East Bay, the many varieties of flowering onion—allium—are garden winners. Perhaps you've noticed masses of 3-foot-high plants topped by white, purple, or searing blue globes as big as the spinning planet Earth in your elementary school classroom. Those are alliums, and they, too, resist disease and deer. They bloom later than most daffodils, and when planted together do a fantastic job hiding the daffs' fading leaves (let the leaves die back naturally, as the bulbs need the energy for reblooming). There are many alliums, and most are true spectacles, deserving a big stage. Another in the showy realm is eremurus, with its giant spires of bold orange or yellow.
Don't forget tiny: Tuck in crocus, often the first flower to bloom, California native Brodiaea, with its stars or tubes in vivid colors, and the blues of muscari, which look like a bit like smaller and thankfully droopy hyacinths. Muscari, too, are resistant to most herbivores, and they will spread.
Try South African bulbs. In fact, you may have some in your yard—according to the delightful website Telos Rare Bulbs, in Humboldt County's Ferndale, Amaryllis belladonna (or Naked Lady to us lovers of the colloquial) is native to South Africa's Cape Province in spite of its appearance almost everywhere. When a plant is that persistent in the face of complete neglect, embrace it!
While creating nirvana in your outside domains, force some paperwhites for indoors. All you need is a shallow dish and gravel or rocks. Put the paperwhites into the dish (three or more is good), scatter gravel two-thirds up the bulb, and then water about halfway up. Put them in a dark closet but remember to check. When the leaves start to peek out the top of the bulb, bring them into the light. Once they bloom, they perfume an entire room and are magnificent at Thanksgiving and beyond.
Where to get your bulbs? The most garish catalogue is often not your friend. Van Engelen is the wholesale arm of John Scheepers—if the quantities are too large, check out Scheepers. McClure & Zimmerman's catalogue has illustrations and good descriptions. Both carry quality bulbs. And do use California purveyors such as Telos and Richmond's Annie's Annuals. Often the best quality is found right at home.
Six Degrees of Separation
By Linnea Due
Planning your garden is like writing to Santa—you want a pony and a kitten, you get a video game and a sweater. Let's look at your list. You have six different kinds of tomatoes (who could resist Wild Boar Farms' "Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye"?), cutting lettuce mix, Asian cukes, pole beans, corn, extra-hot peppers, chard, spinach, and one ganja plant (as practice for the six allowed next year).
Now let's get real. We're all in zone 9, but that tells us little beyond the lowest average winter temperature. Are you in an East Oakland sun pocket that lasts most of the day? If you are, try that corn and tie-dyed tomato. A Berkeley hills fog bank that burns off by 11 and rolls back in at 4? Better stick to lettuce, chard, and spinach. In fact, you might want to add snap peas and bok choy to your slice of heaven.
We are talking microclimates here—and yours is as tiny as your front and backyard. Let's say that your house faces west. Your front yard is hotter than your backyard, which, because of your house, is in partial shade during the afternoon. But you get nice morning sun back there, so if you create a raised bed toward the rear of your property, you have a decent chance of growing scrumptious keepers. In your drier front yard, do something different—plant beans on trellises with a couple of squash plants underneath. Both bean and squash flowers are pretty, and the plants will give you a nice screen from the street.
During the winter months, shade/sun differences are maximized, because the sun is much lower in the sky (in the summer, the sun crosses more nearly overhead). The north side of your yard may be in constant shade. It helps to go outside and visualize where the sun will be in different parts of the year. For vegetables of any sort, you want sun for part of the day. You can grow lettuce and spinach in as little as five hours of sun, while tomatoes need eight to taste good. Increase exposure by trellising, growing against a south- or west-facing wall, and the like. Lettuce and spinach can get away with shade as long as they have some sun during the day.
Once you understand your own microclimates, you can strategize your seed-starting. Let's assume that we have a sunny May and a gloomy June and July. Start lettuce, spinach, and other shady customers in May, when they'll get a great start, and put them out to thrive in the overcast skies of early summer.
Think about starting a couple of indeterminate tomatoes in June. Normally that would be too late—but for us, Indian summer is the sunniest time of year. Check out the days to harvest on the tomato package (add about three weeks, as those are days from transplant) to end up with plants going like gangbusters in late August. In a normal summer, that will give you good-tasting tomatoes all through September and October. (Cherry tomatoes are more forgiving.) Why indeterminate? In the East Bay, indeterminate tomatoes, which keep on keepin' on 'til they collapse from frost or mildew, have a better chance of finding our variable windows of opportunity.
If you have a sunny roof, you can create a minigarden up top, eliminating deer, slugs, snails, and shade from trees. Get a few storage tote containers and a roll of hydration matting. Install the mats about an inch above the bottom of the tote (screens or grills work to raise the mats—experiment!). This creates a water well so that you need to water less. Fill the totes to an inch below the top with excellent quality garden soil. I've managed to grow cantaloupes in that system! (OK, they were called 'Collective Farm Woman.')
That ganja plant? You must start seeds in February or March for tall plants—but you're not going for an 8-foot tree. Unlike tomatoes, once daylight begins to lessen (after June 21), you're headed towards flowering. Starting seeds late will give you small plants and perhaps no buds. Instead, head to your dispensary and get a clone or two. Examine them carefully for bugs and/or droopiness. The trouble with clones (as opposed to seeds) is that you have no idea which iteration you're getting—first generation (super strong) or 16th (not so much). Some will "gift" you with spider mites, powdery mildew, or russet mites. Plus, given the mold factor, if you are in a true fog bank, stick to mushrooms.
The main point here is to go out into your yard with your wish list and nail down spots, thinking ahead a few months. Consider when to start the seeds to take advantage of the best sun. You'll succeed some years and not others. But at least you won't plant tomatoes on the north side of your house—even if it's the only space you have.
Every Garden Counts
By Anne Weinberger
After five years of drought in California, residents have finally gotten the drenching of their dreams—and then some. The hillsides are emerald green. Neighborhood creeks have carved out dramatic waterfalls. Gardens have sprung back to life.
But Californians have also watched helplessly as torrents of precious rainwater raced down the streets, roads became riddled with potholes, and homes succumbed to mudslides. In much less than a decade, the state has now set records for both drought and rainfall.
Many Bay Area gardeners are perplexed. For years now, they've responded to the drought by proudly cutting back on landscape irrigation, often letting their gardens go brown. But is brown really the new green? And what can they do to save some of the water that's being lost down storm drains?
According to a broad range of landscape-industry professionals, local agencies, and even some politicians, the answers lie in the "watershed approach" to landscaping. By treating individual gardens as microcosms of the greater ecosystem, this approach to garden design, installation, and maintenance makes the best use of the rainwater that falls in any given year.
"Homeowners are eager for creative ways to conserve water," said landscape contractor Guillermo Yanes of San Leandro's AY Sustainable Landscape Design, "so we teach them about allowing water to percolate into the soil to encourage deep rooting of trees and plants." Yanes achieves this permeability in the garden using a variety of solutions. "We plant ground covers between stepping stones, use gravel for paths and patios, and contour the soil into rain gardens with plants that like wet feet in the winter," he said.
According to Kelly Schoonmaker, program manager at StopWaste, an Alameda County agency with educational resources for sustainable gardening, the practice of building healthy soil is essential to the watershed approach. "Taking care of the soil is a critical step to gardening success and maximizing environmental benefits," said Schoonmaker, who noted that using compost increases plants' uptake of nutrients, suppresses disease, and sequesters carbon, while applying 3 inches to 4 inches of mulch reduces water use by 40 to 70 percent and reduces runoff by 70 to 80 percent.
Selecting climate-appropriate plants spaced properly for their ultimate size and according to their needs for sun or shade is another tenet of the watershed approach. At most East Bay nurseries, gardeners can find labels and signage indicating low water use and native plants.
"After the wettest year ever, this will be the summer of decision for our customers," said Chris Dundon, water use efficiency supervisor for the Contra Costa Water District. "Homeowners with weedy yards are deciding what to do, and we want them to make informed decisions," he said.
Customers have been taking advantage of the district's rebates for converting lawns to water-wise gardens, but Dundon pointed out that more than 50 percent of his customers' water use is still going into landscape irrigation. "We're educating our customers about the concept of seeing their property as a watershed, directing the rainwater from the gutters into a place in the landscape where it soaks into the soil so that trees and shrubs will pull from it the following summer." The district reinforces this concept with workshops and a public Facebook group—Maintaining Your Water-Wise Landscape—with over 750 members.
Watershed-based landscape practices are also on the agenda at the state level, where state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, recently introduced Senate Bill 780 (Designing More Sustainable and Water-Efficient Landscaping and Lawns). In recent years, the state has been working to define guidelines for California landscapes that can be used on a voluntary basis in any garden. The legislation is in committee hearings.
"Watershed-wise landscaping is a way to successfully make gardens that are not just pretty on the outside, but workhorses on the inside," said Maureen Decombe, sustainability chair for the California chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. "While nurturing beautiful habitats for pollinators and birds, these gardens also quietly maximize the benefits of our rainwater and clean our air, making us all a part of the solution to climate change and weather extremes."
A watershed approach treats individual homes and their gardens as miniwatersheds within the greater watersheds that surround them. From the roof to the low point of the garden—that's a watershed. The more impermeable the surfaces, the more water will run off, carrying with it the pollutants and sediment that eventually reach the bay.
These four key watershed-based landscape practices minimize runoff by slowing, spreading, and retaining rainwater:
• Build a healthy, living-soil sponge to soak up rainwater and sustain plants. Mix compost into the soil and apply mulch atop the soil.
• Capture, retain, and infiltrate rainwater by gently contouring the garden with dry creek beds, rain gardens, or simple mulched retention basins.
• Select climate-appropriate plants, including natives.
• Use highly efficient irrigation only when necessary.
The benefits are many, including improving soil biology; reducing, or eliminating the need for fertilizer, and improving plant health and disease resistance; reducing runoff, greatly cutting irrigation requirements as plants tap into water stored in soil; capturing pollutants; pulling carbon from the air and locking it up in the soil, reducing greenhouse gas; cooling the soil; reducing weed growth; and attracting wildlife.
Watershed: A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that falls on it and drains off of it goes to a common outlet.
Watershed-Based Landscape Practices: a natural approach to landscape design, construction, and maintenance that transcends water-use efficiency to address related benefits such as rainwater capture; reduction of pollution; energy and cost savings; and human and wildlife habitat improvements.
Want to learn how to transform your patch of ground into a watershed-wise garden? These organizations can help.
StopWaste.org, an Alameda County public agency offering techniques for sustainable gardening.
Watershed Wise Professional Landscape Training, an EPA-Watersense-approved program of G3 or Green Gardens Group, presenters of a Watershed Approach to Landscapes class, a unique workshop educating landscape professionals and home gardeners together.
ReScape California, tools for sustainable landscaping, including Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening program with training for design and maintenance professionals.
WaterSmart Gardener, a program of East Bay Municipal Utility District.
Lawn to Garden Rebate Program, a program of Contra Costa Water District.
Basins of Relations Watershed Restoration and Training, one of several workforce development programs of Urban Tilth, based in Richmond.
Friends of Five Creeks offers work parties, walks, and Bay Currents talks.
The Watershed Project offers education, coordination, and demonstration projects.
From the top: Major updating to deck is one of the best improvements a homeowner can make to his or her property (photo by Ramona d'Viola, courtesy Blue Dog Construction & Renovation). Allium giganteum, a variety of flowering onion, are Bay Area garden winners (photo CC Chris Gladis). A sunny garden may rewarded you with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes (photo by Iakov Filimonov). This Oakland hills creek bed captures and retains rainwater, a good practice (garden design and photo by Anne Weinberger Garden Design).