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California Homestead: 2021 Permaculture – Landscaping Project

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Last year we took on a landscaping project to transform a large, uninspired space into a highly impactful, low-maintenance garden.

We’re proud to have finished this project and are now (impatiently) waiting to see all of the flora bloom this summer. This post details our experiences planning and delivering the project.

Planning & Preparation

The majority of the time we spent on the project was centered around design planning.

We’d long dreamed of making this area something visually impactful, but the required planning, preparation, and physical labor to do this project correctly kept us from giving this project our full attention.

California’s pandemic stay-at-home orders shifted our energy from travel to our homesteading and permaculture projects. After creating a lemon orchard, we went around the property, taking a critical eye to each space and considering how we might better create cohesion and uniformity.

We used our newfound weekend time to browse landscape architecture blog and Pinterest boards to determine what kinds of trees, plants and flowers encapsulated our style and flowed with existing elements.

From there we began formulating a plan: what would it take to execute this project?

Our starting point

Roadside: unkempt periwinkle ground cover
Driveway: barren dirt patch
Tiered slope: little coordination of plants

Research & Selection Criteria

Once we had a sense of our ideal aesthetic, we researched plants that would gorgeously come together during their bloom months, and remain evergreen during the fall and winter.

We included the following parameters in our selection criteria:

  • USDA Zone 9 Hardiness Growth Zone (plants that are most likely to thrive in this particular climate)
  • 50/50 sun-shade ratio
  • Perennial
  • Evergreen
  • Low water requirements, ideally xeriscape
  • Low overall maintenance requirements (deadheading, pruning, mulch, fertilizing etc.)
  • Variety of color and texture

With this criteria in mind, we talked to our local nurseries and referenced blogs for insider tips around ongoing care and maintenance for certain plant varietals. We decided to incorporate the following plants into our design:

  • Pink Mulhy Grass
  • Lirope Grass/ Royal Purple
  • Westringia / Wynyabbie Gem
  • Society Garlic
  • Agapanthus / Lily of the Nile
  • Sedum / “Brilliant” (Stonecrop)
  • Agastache (Hyssop)/ Blue Fortune Hummingbird
  • Jacaranda Tree
  • Crepe Myrtles / Twilight

Testing Our Plant Selections

We tested out our trees before we committed to making them a landscape feature.

We are first time Crape Myrtle owners, and thought it best to purchase two trees ahead of making them the feature of our design. We wanted to ensure we got the size, color and fullness of the trees right.

Once the trees went in, we also had to select what kind of plant life we wanted to place under the trees as those plants would serve to provide evergreen color for the months where the Crape Myrtles went dormant. We decided on Lirope as its grass-like flowering plants provide a textural and color contrast from the Crape Myrtles.

After two months of testing, we were happy to move ahead with the Crape Myrtles. We ordered the trees to run across the length of the 150 foot space. From there we removed the existing periwinkle ground cover, an idea that didn’t quite work out. A drastic improvement!

Design Uniformity

We spent time tying in elements from the property for uniformity

We incorporated elements found on different parts of the property to create a more uniform look and feel. We had river rocks on the front side of the house that we ran across the roadside. The river rocks served two functions :1) create a cleaner aesthetic than dirt, especially during the rainy months and; 2) quell weed growth. We’ve since discovered the warmth of the rocks serve as an ideal space for a lizard to sunbathe and the birds to hang out.

We added a retaining wall to expand the space

One of the less glamorous but necessary parts of this project was extending the retaining wall further across the space. The pervious owners were going for a Mediterranean terraced look but they truncated the wall halfway across the dirt expanse. This left the space feeling smaller than it actually is.

The California Wildfires Present Critical Project Delays

The project hit its stride with notable weekly progress. But halfway through the project, the California wildfires broke out. What were originally thought of as anticipated annual fires went from bad, to worse, to a statewide emergency.

Temperatures soared into the mid-90s and the heavy concentration of ash made it impossible to be outside for longer than a few moments. The forest department advised residents to stay inside because the air quality was so poor. Whereas our house normally sees air quality within a range of 5-30 pollution particulates (a “good” rating), every day we were somewhere in the 150-300 range (considered an “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” range).

We had already put in the purchase order for our plants, which happened to arrive to our home in the middle of all of the chaos. We had originally planned to mass plant and coordinate the drip system in parallel. This plan changed when California ordered residents to restrict their nonessential water consumption so they could use the water for fire management.

To keep the plants alive during the time, we used gray water from the house and manually watered until we got the go ahead to resume water consumption per usual. These poor, young plants barely survived; while they were wilted, sad messes, they survived! A small victory amidst so much destruction…

The California wild fires cause us to consider a long-term evacuation

As we reworked our plans, the fires began creeping closer to our house, jumping between hills and accelerating at a frightening pace. We packed our go-bags and began speaking in terms of “well, if the house goes up in flames, the plan is…”.

Friends of ours had their houses overrun with heavy smoke, that caused tear-down level damage. Others had to evacuate their horses and farm animals off ranches, saying goodbye to estates that had been in their families for generations. We bore witness to many towns coming together to provide resources and services to displaced people and their animals.

These couple of weeks were terrifying, serving as a humbling reminder of nature’s force and how beautiful community is when strangers look out for one another.

Project Is Finished

As the California Fire Department got a handle on the fires, we were able to resume the project. We planted, incorporated our drip water system, and figured out our quarterly and annual maintenance schedule.

We are eagerly waiting to see the next few years of growth reveal all of the color and blooms that we spent so much time thinking through when we first began the project. We’ll plan to share updates as time goes on.

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