Thinking about conservation broadly

By Lauren Lewis

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Local Nature Walk in the Inner Sunset’s Green Hairstreak Corridor, a project of Nature in the City. The corridor is a series of nearby small green spaces that are carefully planted and managed specifically to support the presence of the Green Hairstreak butterfly, a nickel-sized, quick green butterfly that’s native to coastal SF. On this particular walk at the end of March, the big crew of butterfly enthusiasts was on the lookout for the first Green Hairstreaks of the season, and we were lucky to spot 2 or 3 while I was there. The spotting moments were full of wonderful nerdy excitement from the group, and very joyous, and it made me feel grateful for this seemingly niche work going on in the urban nature community.

If you pay attention to any sciencey news outlets, and increasingly mainstream news, you’ll notice that the news on insects is dire. The New York Times Magazine recently published a feature piece titled “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.” The article describes how much insect biomass the earth seems to have lost recently, the challenges of tracking the changes, and humanity’s poor ability to understand the scale and the implications of the losses. Changes are slow and therefore hard to see, and insects are small and seemingly everywhere. In California, the main long term dataset comes from UC Davis professor Arthur Shapiro, whose team has walked transects of central California for nearly 50 years, counting butterflies. His most recent annual summary is dismal.

With these trends in mind, the successes of the Green Hairstreak Corridor and similar projects feels very meaningful. In the Presidio, naturalists recently discovered a bustling colony of silver digger bees, a species that was last seen in SF in any significant numbers nearly 100 years ago. This and other species rejuvenations are attributed to nearly 30 years of habitat restoration work happening in the Presidio- careful removal of non-native plant species and replanting of plants that support a ecosystem more like the one that existed before humans used the land for buildings and roads.

I also recently read “Rambunctious Garden” by Emma Marris, and while it’s now nearly a decade old, the book is still very worth a read if you’re thinking about restoration projects like these. Marris encourages the reader to view conservation not simply as bringing pieces of land back to some old “wild” state (what we think of as “wild” is often wildly inaccurate), but rather something that depends entirely on our goals. Humans have impacted literally every inch of the planet in some way, so when we work to conserve the environment, we must know our specific goal in that instance and work toward it, rather than just reaching for some ill-defined and probably unattainable “wild” state.

For Nature in the City and the Presidio Trust it’s about preventing the loss of once-thriving species, but even within that, you have to ask: why? The answer could be ecological, aesthetic, moral, something else, some of each. No reason is necessarily better than the others, but the key is that we go about the work with thought and intention. The joy of spotting the years’ first tiny butterfly with fellow appreciators might be precisely the goal, and maybe that’s just fine.

 

Mimicking local plant communities in the garden

By Lauren Lewis

In the past I’ve written about the types of plant communities that are local to SF and the benefits we at SSG see in knowing and recognizing our native ecosystems. To connect with those ideas more deeply we can seek to mimic Bay Area plant communities when designing and updating our own personal outdoor spaces. Not only does this approach bring satisfying regional context to our gardens, tying us to our particular place in the world, but it can also result in lower input requirements for the garden- less water, less soil amendment, etc, because the plants we use are well suited to the space.

rtm6yubtsme0koxnmrpcw.jpgTo take this design approach, the critical step is to carefully observe the garden space, or the smaller space within the garden. Regarding sun exposure: which direction does it face? Does it have a slope? Does it have shading elements nearby, like buildings or big trees? Does the space have existing features that will stay, like a tree or large rock? Is the soil sandy, clay, or in between? These factors combine to suggest certain plant communities.

For a space with direct sun and some slope, chaparral or coastal scrub communities make sense. Chaparral is characterized by woody, hardy shrubs like manzanita, ceanothus and toyon, and the color combinations you can get from these shrubs are beautiful. Chaparral is characterized mainly by approximately waist-high plants, with very little low understory. If the garden gets direct sun exposure but is also often foggy then you can veer toward coastal scrub plant choices, which tend to be daintier: coyote brush, lupines, buckwheat. Add in very sandy soil to these characteristics and this suggests a sand dune community, where the plants are shorter still. Beach strawberry, bbej4hsqrqk4kj6rnfm7wg-e1551826450750.jpg
dune sagewort (a variety of artemisia), yellow sand verbena- these plants tend to create a carpet of succulent leaves and bright flowers.

Any fairly sunny spot, but especially a flatter one, would likely support a coastal prairie community, and we love these for their textural diversity and the way we can plant densely. Fescues, needlegrass, lupines, buckwheat (you’ll notice some overlap with the coastal scrub community), and douglas iris all work well here.

For a shady spot, whether shaded from buildings, existing trees, or trees you’ve chosen, you can take advantage of the shade to create a more woodland-leaning feel. Ferns are classic understory plants and they make a garden feel lush. We love native huckleberry and juncus for the mid-height, and for color in the low understory we use flowering shade plants like coral bells, hedgenettle, and yerba buena.

 

Updated Bay Delta Plan and what it means for SF gardens

By Lauren Lewis

In December 2018 the California State Water Resources Control Board voted to update the Bay Delta Plan in an effort to restore habitat for endangered aquatic animals in the delta. The City of San Francisco is now suing the state over the new plan, ostensibly to buy time to work out an alternate plan that is more favorable to water supply in SF but still satisfies the need for more environmental flow. So what exactly is the fight about and what does it mean for water use in San Francisco?

The shortest possible version of the story: San Francisco’s water comes primarily from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on the Tuolumne River, a tributary of the San Joaquin River, which in turn feeds the San Francisco Bay Delta. So much water gets diverted from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, for agriculture, cities, etc, that very little is left for “environmental” uses like fish habitat. Scientists argue that 60% of the unimpaired flow (meaning 60% of the water that would flow through the delta if there were no dams and diversions) is needed to support fish populations and their valuable fisheries. The new Plan requires that 40% of the unimpaired flow be restored during Feb-Jun, when it would naturally be flowing, and that will likely mean water restrictions in San Francisco, especially during dry years.

The plan is not yet final due to the lawsuits against it, but however it shakes out there is certain to be a smaller amount of water making its way from Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco. San Francisco is going to have to get more serious about various conservation strategies, like water recycling. If we want to continue being able to grow ornamental plants, there is going to be even more need to take full advantage of the rains when we have them, which means (1) maximizing water infiltration rather than losing water to the drains and (2) planting the right plants in the right places.

For the city, water infiltration efforts means installing permeable paving when possible, and building rain gardens, which you’ll see popping up around the city. For individuals with some outdoor space it means going for soil and plants over hard surfaces whenever possible, and planting the right plants densely. (If pure water conservation was the goal then of course zero plants is better than any plants, but if we’re trying to balance water conservation with our desire to live among plants, then there are ways to do it thoughtfully. Summer-dry adapted plants are key.)

To start taking really good advantage of the rain water we receive, now is the time to be observing in your outdoor space. When it rains hard, watch the way the water moves and collects. You can have a diverse summer-dry garden and still minimize irrigation needs by planting thirstier plants in those places where the rain infiltrates most: the small depressions and low points.

 

What a garden can provide for good mental health

By Lauren Lewis

Scientists have long recognized the mental and physical health benefits that come from interacting with nature. These various benefits were reviewed comprehensively in a recent article, viewed together as an ecosystem service of nature just like carbon sequestration or water filtration. And as we gain understanding of the negative impacts of pervasive screen time, there’s more and more traction for the argument that interaction with nature is actually necessary for strong mental health rather than just a nice-to-have. Here’s a look at some of the bolstering experiences a garden can offer that are elusive in our typical day-to-days (our subjective list).

Physical Work: If your occupation requires a lot of your brain but not a lot of your body, tending the garden is a novel source of physical work. In other words, it’s exercise but with the added satisfaction of accomplishing something external simultaneously. Plus, the external motivation that something needs to get done (the ever-active ivy plant isn’t going to keep itself in check) is powerful for forcing physicality.

Visual Accomplishment: On a related note, garden tasks give us the rare gift of accomplishing something you can see very clearly. Unlike computer tasks, which exist on a finite screen of unchanging size, the garden is full of tangible, changeable elements and the work you put in is clear to see. A weedy tangle transformed by hand into a smooth space is immediate, obvious evidence of your efforts, and there’s unavoidable satisfaction in that.

Feeling of Fascination: Part of the joy of a nature-based excursion is the awe and fascination you can get from an incredible vista or a wildlife sighting. If you live in the city, finding that feeling often means traveling elsewhere (our coasts being a notable exception), but the transformations happening in a garden are fascinating if you pay close attention: the amount of new plant material being created from seemingly nothing, the velvety color intensity of a poppy petal. Our day-to-day lives, almost by definition, lack in fascination and the garden can fill that void if you allow it.

 

Protecting mycorrhizae to promote perennials

By Lauren LewisIMG_9047

In California, where pretty much all gardening is done with water requirements front of mind, the wise approach is to aim for a garden that is dominated by perennial plants- those that live and thrive for many years, rather than a single season or year. (A lot of edibles would be the exception to this trend, but we’ll set those aside.) The reason is that perennials typically need less water as they grow and get established; their roots grow deep and wide and can reach more underground water than those of a very young perennial or an annual. In essence, our gardens aim to mimic a late successional plant community, and to do that successfully, we have to think about the soil.

Ecosystem succession is the process by which an ecosystem changes, after a disturbance, from being dominated by fast-growing, prolifically-reproducing species (among plants this means weeds) to being dominated by longer-lived species that use reproductive strategies of quality over quantity. And the soil — specifically the mycorrhizal fungi in soil that forms a symbiotic relationship with plant roots — supports this process. Recent research has shown that late successional prairie plants (i.e. perennials), grow better in more fungal soil, and also that presence of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil can suppress weed growth. In other words, mycorrhizae have the potential to accelerate the shift toward a perennial plant community in two ways: by suppressing annuals and by promoting perennials.

What this means in the garden is: protect and promote the mycorrhizae. A common approach when creating a new garden is to test the soil for nutrients, salt, minerals, etc, and then amend the soil to fix whatever problems are identified. But this approach can actually wreak havoc on the mycorrhizae and the soil structure. So instead, more-or-less accept your soil for what it is, and choose your plants based on your soil. If you plant perennials that you think have the best chance of thriving in your particular soil and location, the presence of the mycorrhizae will further support those plants.

A celebration of the color brown

By Lauren Lewis

IMG_9063At Small Spot Gardens we are working to eliminate the need for ongoing irrigation in the gardens we design. In California. Where yesterday we had our first little sprinkling of rain in over 6 months. It’s certainly a challenge to create verdant, lush-feeling urban oases when the rainfall is so sparse and sporadic and unpredictable, but it can be done. A lot can be done using desert-adapted plants like succulents of all sizes (there’s a lot to love!), but for the diversity and textures and density we aim for, we’re taking another approach too: embracing the dry, the brown, the unsung sculptural elements of the garden.

The seasons are a little harder to notice in California than elsewhere, but we do have them, and that gives our gardens the potential for interesting variability over the course of a year. Rather than using irrigation to create consistency, we argue that visual variation is an asset and to maximize it we have to incorporate and embrace a wide color palette; one that goes well beyond green and into shades of brown. Brown is often the visual cue for what should be trimmed and removed from the garden, but especially in our climate we can boost the visual interest of our gardens by using the shades of brown that plants give us, rather than shying away from them.

We draw some inspiration for this approach from the New Perennialist movement, made most famous by Piet Oudolf. This gardening movement has been around a long time, but gained wider recognition from its use in New York’s High Line Park and Chicago’s Lurie Garden. The look is characterized most often by closely-packed swaths of perennials and grasses that create an effortless prairie vibe. At Small Spot Gardens we are big fans of dense plantings as opposed to plants spread out in a sea of mulch, as well as the interesting colors and textures that you get from grasses and prairie flowers. You can achieve a lush, soft feel in a mainly brown palette using this approach.

So this month on Instagram we’re doing our part to give brown and other underappreciated garden colors their moment in the spotlight. In our gardens we’re finding the plants that are visually interesting at various moments in the year, and we’re aiming to do that with boldness and confidence. A left-over unpruned flower is one thing, but a whole shrub of purposefully retained browned leaves makes a statement.

 

Using native Californian land management in current California

By Lauren Lewis

Last year I wrote a post describing the work of M. Kat Anderson, who has delved deep into the ways that native Californians managed the land for their survival, and I suggested that the land management practices of native Californian tribes should be used to address contemporary problems. So now I want to look at whether that’s actually happening, and how. In what ways is modern California using or relearning native land management techniques?

The main issue that comes to mind is fire. Due to decreased precipitation and hotter weather, wildfire season in California has essentially lengthened to be year-round as opposed to concentrated in the summer and early fall. And the fires are bigger, and therefore more destructive, and likely to stay that way as the climate changes and as more people move into fire-prone regions (almost all fires in California are started by human activity). But before the Spanish settled in California, fire was arguably the most important land management practice used by native people. They used regular burns to increase soil fertility, maintain grassland for the plant and animal life it supported, promote growth of important basketry plants along riparian corridors, deter pests, and more. Can we use fire now, like native Californians did, to protect against the highly destructive fires we’re battling?

The idea of using prescribed burns to prepare the land for wildfires is indeed gaining traction, but slowly. Ecologists have begun doing prescribed burns on land preserves, such as the Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County, a nonprofit which uses a Native Advisory Council to bring native land management techniques into their natural land protection work. Recent research has shown that using prescribed burns can decrease the destructiveness of wildfires and also may decrease the toxicity of the smoke from wildfires. But the practice faces significant hurdles: forests often need underbrush management first to prevent burns from getting too hot, conditions have to be just right for safety, and wildlands are more and more populated by people who could be put in harm’s way.

As for other kinds of native land management, of which there were many, those techniques have been made unnecessary from a survival perspective by modern farming and manufacturing, but they still hold great value from the perspectives of cultural heritage and species preservation. The reemergence of these plant-focused techniques could be an antidote to the problems of nature deficit disorder and insufficient community connection. The Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden is working to build traditional ecological knowledge and test traditional plants and techniques for modern uses. In a much more informal way, we at Small Spot Gardens love to learn about the life-sustaining uses for plants that we now use purely for beauty in the gardens we design. It’s one way we place our gardens in the much greater context of time in the Bay Area.