Building a bungalow gardenMay 21, 2009
One of the big excitements of our out-of-the-blue May rain a few weeks back (for folks outside the Bay Area, rain in May is a rarity here!) was that it was a great opportunity to finish up the pulling-of-the-grass. Most of our grass died last summer when we stopped watering, and though we had a brief resurgence this winter, I’ve been slowly pulling what’s left out by hand. It’s an irritating mix of crabgrass, some sort of bluegrass that was probably intended to be the lawn originally, and a tall weedy grass that grows in clumps and gets to be two feet tall when D. doesn’t attack it with the mower. We also had an invasion of oxalis and some other low groundcovers once the initial batch of grass died last summer.
But—at long last!—we finally finished earlier this month, which means our lawn is ready for renovation.
Why take out the lawn in the first place?
Since we moved into the house, we’ve slowly been letting the lawn die, mainly by not watering it. (Luckily the sprinkler lines for the lawn are separate from the other circuits, which made this very easy to do.) It took a couple of seasons, because in California a lot of plants are used to droughts and bounce back as soon as the winter rains start. But because water is a huge issue in California, we knew we wanted something that would be green year-round without all that summer watering, so we stuck it out.
So just how much water does a lawn take? Well, we’re in the pretty interesting position of knowing exactly, at least for our house. Northern California is in a drought right now, and consequently our water has been rationed for the past year. To set the allotments for each house, East Bay MUD ran comparisons across the last three years and sent them out to us. So we got to contrast our summer water use directly with the previous owner’s.
Last July and August, we used an average of 125 gallons a day. The previous owner? 450 gallons a day. Yes, you read that right! Now, we probably have a much more efficient washing machine than she did, but otherwise, there are two of us and just one of her, so you’d figure we’d be about even, right? And it’s not as if we don’t water anything at all—we did run the sprinklers and drips for the front yard and all of the side gardens and veggies last summer, just not for the lawn itself. So, yeah. So at our current rates, having a traditional lawn would cost us somewhere in the vicinity of $30 a month. Once the new rates kick in this July, that’s headed up-up-up. And really? I have better things to spend thirty bucks a month on.
So we’re back to garden planning. As a refresher, our basic yard requirements are:
- Drought-tolerant/low water
- Doesn’t need regular mowing (defined here as four times a season or less, roughly)
- Dog- and kid-friendly/tolerates foot traffic
- Tolerates partial shade
- Somewhat appropriate to the house style and period
Arts and crafts gardens
On the last point, I was a little unsure where to begin. As luck would have it, though, my favorite local bookstore, Builders Booksource, has a beautiful book on bungalow gardens right now, complete with scaled plans for a whole series of 1914 lot sizes and homes.
A few interesting observations:
- Without fail, every plan included kitchen and vegetable gardens. (I’m not entirely sure what the distinction was—perhaps kitchen gardens had more in the way of herbs and such?) Most of the time, these were along the back of the lot or occasionally along the side yard. In our case, that’s not where our best sun is now that we have adjacent apartment buildings—but it makes me wonder if that’s where the gardens were once upon a time, since it would have been perfect back then. Ours will stay where they are, though eventually I need to turn the 6′ x 6′ box into a 4′ x 6′ box, since it’s proven to be rather unwieldy.
- Bungalow garden designers really liked paths. There were paths everywhere. This is actually pretty cool, because I’ve been wanting paths in our yard, too, so it’s a good excuse to move forward with that plan!
- Lots of gardens included ponds—which was especially interesting to see because the great-great-niece of the original owners of our house had left a comment on my house history post a few days earlier reminiscing about the fish pond that the house next-door had once upon a time. Did ours have one too?
- There was a strong Japanese influence, at least for the designers who put together the California gardens featured in the book. Again, this probably shouldn’t have been surprising given the huge Japanese community in California before World War II and the echoes of Japanese aesthetic in Arts and Crafts architecture, but it was still interesting to see.
Our bungalow garden
Anyway, here’s our current plan, in a rather messy conceptual stage. If I have time, I’ll hand draw it in plan form to clean it up a bit, but for planning purposes this works. It’s not 100 percent accurate (just realized I left off the feijoa tree, plus a few other smaller trees!) or exactly to scale, mostly because I’m lazy, but for now it’s enough. (I also left off the scale, which is bad bad bad, but the lot is 50 feet wide, and the backyard is around 60 feet deep.) Much of this exists already—particularly the beds that ring the yard—so we’re keeping them intact and swapping out the center lawn.
For the dog, I’m building a series of paths for him to run (and for us to walk on). This is mostly because we don’t have space for a real dog run anyway, but also because I recently read that dogs love to run circuits (which jibes with my own observations of the Labradane, who adopted the little veggie bed path as his route of choice almost as soon as I built it). Originally these were going to be flagstone with plantings in between, but when I went to buy the flagstone yesterday, I discovered that our little path would run in the neighborhood of $700—aaah! So that plan was out. Instead, I’m just going to dig out the paths this weekend and put down weedblock so we don’t lose all the hard work on clearing the grass, and then we’ll keep an eye on Craigslist for some interesting salvage materials that might make an interesting pathway.
In the center, we’ll add two more fruit trees—one, the avocado, is already in—and put in a small lawn below them. Originally we’d been considering several seed and sod options. At this point, I’ve abandoned carex pansa (the native grass plugs) because of the cost and difficulty of the installation; it’s also not exactly what we’re looking for as far as the look and feel. The tentative plan now is to use the Fleur de Lawn mix from Hobbs & Hopkins in Portland, in part because the lawn area has now shrunk below the 200 square foot minimum for sod delivery, and in part because the flower mix that they include helps attract bees and butterflies—an added bonus. It’s low mow but not no mow, so it will still need to be chopped back three or four times a year. I’m hoping that with the dry Bay Area summers, this may not be needed as often here as in the Pacific Northwest, though. I’m still a little nervous about the Achillea millefolium in the mix, since some variants of that can be invasives in the Bay Area and it doesn’t specify which this is. On the other hand, our garden is already crawling with sweet alyssum and nasturtiums, which are about as invasive as they come. (We planted both intentionally because they’re also rumored to attract beneficial insects and fend off whitefly, though it’s hard to say if that actually works. They are pretty as weeds go, though, and the bees love them!)
Finally, last on the list is to get our soil tested, which I haven’t bothered doing since we don’t grow directly in it, except for the fruit trees, which don’t retain heavy metals in the same way that vegetables do. But with our garden going gangbusters, I’d like to use some of the side beds for winter squash, strawberries, and perennial veggies like asparagus, so we need to find out just how bad the soil is, and whether we can safely grow in it. (The New York Times had a good piece recently on the challenges of soil contamination in urban gardening, and OakBook had a piece that specifically addressed the fruit trees aspect of this a while back.) A plus is that our lot has always been residential and our yard has likely been a garden for its entire life, but we are pretty close to Broadway Auto Row and we do have heavy clay soil, so who knows. We’ll see.
Sometime this weekend, I’ll take some photos of the site itself, which isn’t much more than a pile of dust at this point. The mulch arrives tomorrow morning, though, so there’s a long weekend of gardening ahead!