Building a bungalow garden

May 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.

Bungalow gardens

Bungalow gardens

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.

Garden Plan

Garden Plan

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!


  1. I like your garden plan. I’m jealous of all the stuff that you can grow that I can’t – avocados and oranges and all that. We’d like to add a small greenhouse in the 40 year plan, but until then, the winter freeze is a serious problem.

    As for the flagstone issue, I may have a solution. It depends on what the sidewalks in your area are made of. Around here, in neighborhoods the age of yours, most of the sidewalks were made of sandstone. They’re getting to the point where, due to tree roots and time, they’ve broken up and have to be replaced. While the pieces may not be big enough for sidewalks any more, they’re still perfect for breaking down for pathways. It’s easy enough to find the broken pieces around here, either from people who are ripping out original installations or from concrete contractors looking for an extra buck or two. Craigslist hasn’t been so good – most of the people want far more than market value.

  2. Thanks—though I should note, before D. calls me on it, that this little avocado is attempt #3 at getting one started! (They do fine in this area once they get going, but are really vulnerable to root rot when they’re young—not a good combo with heavy clay soil and winter rains.) Sadly our neighbor reports that we had a huge mature avocado that the previous owner took out to expand the patio. *sigh* But yeah, having grown up in New England, I definitely appreciate the year-round growing season here.

    The sidewalk idea is especially intriguing, too—because as it happens, the sidewalk in front of our house is actually due to be replaced. (It’s hugely expensive so we’ve been avoiding it, but it’s only a matter of time before the city calls it as a code violation, and then we’ll have no choice.) I think it’s Portland cement, but I bet it could work—hadn’t even crossed my mind! Huh.

  3. Fair enough. But you could grow an avocado. Theoretically. Me, I’ll have to wait until we turn the tiny second floor porch (on top of the breezeway) into a greenhouse.

  4. Great looking plans.

    But…one person used 450 gallons a day?!? There must have been a lot of EBMUD’s water running down the street with her amount of watering.

  5. I know, our jaws dropped! The nice side benefit is that we’ve been entirely unaffected by the drought surcharges because we’re soooo far below our allotment (I think we used four units of the sixteen allocated for the last cycle??) But still—a little insane.

  6. That’s a beautiful looking plan – and a great idea for the paths from Christopher. A stretch of my sidewalk needs to be replaced too (and for those not from Oakland, the property owner here is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk) and reusing the material is an intriguing and eco-friendly option I had not thought of.

    Had to laugh about the water usage. Shortly after I first moved in, EBMUD called me and asked if something was wrong – I only average 2 (actually 1.3) units a month compared with the 23 (!) that I am alloted. As my yard is VERY small, the former owners must have been a mighty clean bunch.

  7. What was the garden plan book’s name and author? I have been looking for one to help me with my Bungalow Garden.

  8. Hi Laura—
    It’s called California Gardens of the Arts and Crafts Period by Eugene O. Murmann.

    Builders Booksource, an independent bookstore in Berkeley, currently has it in stock, and you can also order it online from them here.

  9. re soil lead contamination (the most common, but not only possible) from Alameda County Lead Prevention staff person. They’re very helpful.

    As a general rule of thumb lead levels in soils may be higher the closer to old houses that you are and the closer to heavily traveled roads. This would be from lead deposited from gasoline and from deteriorated paint on houses. So if planting a garden other areas than these should be considered first. Naturally occurring levels of lead in soil are from 10-15 parts per million (ppm). Studies suggest that very little lead is taken up by plants but what is taken up is taken up by crops grown in the ground more easily than by leafing crops and finally by crops grown above ground, in that order. Peel those crops grown in the ground and remove the outer leaves of the leafing crops. Wash the produce in a mild vinegar solution.

    If you’re testing for lead in soil for gardening you should consider testing to the depth of the root or roughly 6-8″ in depth. This is much different than testing soil where children play which is to a depth of 1″ to 2″. There are many labs which test for lead-in-soil and I’ll include some sources below. Most labs that test soil will be able to give results for other heavy metals as well. For gardening purposes I would suggest testing for soil pH as well. Soil acidity has been linked to lead uptake and a soil pH of 6.5 or above will help prevent lead uptake. A good organic mulch will also help prevent lead uptake.

    For gardeners who are also owners of pre-1978 residential properties in Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, or Oakland, we can provide a Home Lead Sampling Kit or an In-Home Consultation which also includes the test kit. We pay for the lab analysis for lead and the owner pays for the postage. The test kit does not include analysis for pH or other metals.

    We will come out to any house in any of these four cities and talk to the owner or we would also simply mail the kit to them. Instructions are included. Here is the website: http://www.aclppp.org. This is found under Reducing Lead Hazards (property owner services). You will also find a link at the website to SOIL and a study done by the University of Minnesota’s Cooperative Extension Service.

    Finally, again under the Reducing Lead Hazards on our website, there is a link to a list of laboratories which test for lead and may do other soils tests. Another source for labs and for further information is the University of California’s Cooperative Extension Service in Alameda County at (510) 639-1371.

    Also, we could look at doing a presentation or question and answer if there was a group of interested gardeners or neighbors. There are a lot of variables in every aspect of gardening as you know, so we won’t be able to provide definitive answers to say “This is safe and this is not safe,” but we can share the information we have found.

  10. Thanks, Len—this is very helpful! I actually bet there would be enough people interested in this to organize a presentation so I may follow up with them on that. (Our neighbors are in the process of testing right now too, and I know it’s come up with a number of friends—have to think there are others wondering too!)

  11. Thank you for the book source of bungalow garden information. I have ordered it from the builder’s source!

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