tiesThere’s a lot more going on at the Sonoma rancho than our recent project to rebuild the mountain. Actually, that project was a diversion from a long-planned major landscaping project for what will be the front of the house we are building. Construction has only just reached the point where we can landscape this area, but, in truth, our multi-year drought has been a greater factor in our lack of landscaping so far. I’ve been reluctant to put in plantings anywhere if we weren’t going to get any rain. While I only landscape with drought-tolerant natives, young plants, even natives, still need healthy watering after planting to ensure their establishment. Usually that is accomplished by planting on the cusp of the normal rainy season and letting Mother Nature “water” the plants through the winter. By early spring, the plants are established and ready to face the long hot waterless summer. But, until we were assured we’d actually get some rain, we didn’t want to charge ahead with extensive plantings that we’d have to irrigate. So there’s been no significant planting for us for the last several years.

With El Niño rains, it's now all hands on deck -- even Ranch Guy Jonnie's two year old, Kayleigh, is lending a hand.

With El Niño rains, it’s now all hands on deck — even Ranch Guy Jonnie’s two year old, Kayleigh, is on the crew.

El Niño is changing all that. Three weeks, with one good rainstorm each week, has assured us that we can plant until we drop. However, it’s not as if I’ve been idle in all this time. I’ve been busy running through landscape designers, at a fast clip. Not one would believe me when I said I only wanted Native California plants, I wanted NO irrigation and I wanted something that would blend with the native oak and chaparral landscape that surrounds the house site. Toward the end, the firing got fairly easy. The minute I saw a Pride of Madeira or similar non-native plant going into the ground, the latest landscaper would be out the front gate with terriers snapping at her heels. In the meantime, watching Ranch Manager Louis restoring habitat around the property, convinced me that I was never going to find someone more in sympathy with my landscaping philosophy. So Louis was given a Landscape Designer hat. And we never looked back.

Here's the standard "Tuscan style garden". Yuck!

Here’s the standard “Tuscan style garden”. Yuck!

Just to give you a context, the house we are building is Tuscan in style. Well, it started out Tuscan in style. But Andy’s penchant for reclaimed wood and my plans for Native California landscaping are going to move it more toward “Tuscan Style California Mission If It Had Been Built by General Vallejo”. Still, anyone who has an opinion has been trying to move me toward the standard clichéd “California Tuscan Garden”. That garden style contains everything Ranch Manager Louis and I HATE:

  1. It’s formal instead of natural.
  2. It’s chock-full of non-native plants.
  3. It revolves around a lawn. NO! NO! NO!

Perhaps worst of all, this kind of garden in California creates a huge disconnect with the surrounding ecosystem. Suddenly the manicured green ends and the sage colored hardy California oak chaparral begins. I wanted something that would integrate seamlessly into the 40 acres of native landscape that surrounds our one acre of house.

For a clearer idea of why I hate the faux Tuscan, check out the obscenely overwatered grounds of these bozos and how they clash with a Native California landscape.

For a clearer idea of why I hate the faux Tuscan, check out the obscenely overwatered grounds of these bozos and how it clashes with a Native California landscape.

At this point, you’d think I would be running out and buying up every nursery’s stock of native plants. You would be wrong. When Ranch Manager Louis landscapes, it all starts with water. Specifically, determining where water will run when it rains, channeling and dispersing that water so it moves effectively and non-destructively, and creating erosion control systems that ensure water travel keeps happening the way we want it to. Here’s the challenge: we’ve built on top of a hill. So the flattened construction area becomes a big mud puddle in heavy rain. Then the runoff goes speeding down the slope gouging out channels as it travels. Whatever we bring to our landscape plan has to mitigate these two factors.

Actually, I need to back up here. Because even before addressing water, Ranch Manager Louis looks at the land, what it offers and what it says to him. One of the things I’ve always hated about formal landscaping is that it seems to be about mowing down what exists naturally to create squares, order, pattern. But nothing is more beautiful than the seemingly random patterns Nature creates, which make more and more sense if you only have the patience to look closely at them. Ranch Manager Louis has that patience. Before a spade or pick went into earth, an awful lot of time was spent with Louis pacing the area, squinting at the horizon, sifting dirt through his fingers and kicking at rocks underneath the soil.

One of the first things he saw was a large swath of rock that demarcated the left side of our area. With great effort and expense, that could be jack-hammered out, but why? The more the guys uncovered it, the more interesting it became. It was pocked with shallow bowl-like areas and marked with fissures.

What if we used bluish rocks to mimic the kind of seeps you see bubbling out of similar rocks in semi-arid landscapes? The rest of the natural holes can be used as natural planters.

What if we used bluish rocks to mimic the kind of seeps you see bubbling out of similar rocks in semi-arid landscapes? The rest of the holes can be used as natural planters.

Extend that “arroyo” down the hill and now you have an interesting feature.

And did I mention that this feature -- as well as the French drains and cachement pools Louis put beneath it and extending from it -- create an erosion-proof channel for even the heaviest El Niño deluges?

And did I mention that this feature — as well as the French drains and cachement pools Louis put beneath it and extending from it — create an erosion-proof channel for even the heaviest El Niño deluges?

Then, butting up to the arroyo and covering the area we spread a bed of small decorative rocks. More stable than mulch, this ground cover will effectively act as one huge disbursement area for rain.

This will be a great, erosion-proof anchor for feature rocks, steps, and plantings.

The rocks also keep down dust and provide a good anchor for feature rocks, steps, and plantings. No more mud puddles up here!

Among the many other things Louis noted, we have almost an infinity edge looking out over Sonoma Valley.

Let's lead your feet where you eye will naturally go.

Let’s lead your feet where you eye will naturally go.

And you knew those railroad ties would make another come-back. Among our shipment, we found some really old ones. Some with tags that dated them to 1865.

The perfect material for a viewing platform. We'll put a decorative bench here.

The perfect material for a viewing platform. We’ll put a decorative bench here.

I realize you are just seeing the bare bones of our project. We’ll add decorative rocks — hand chosen by Louis from among the rocks on our land — and, of course, dozens of native plants. So I’ll excuse you if you aren’t really getting our vision. A lot of people don’t get it. Our architect has already sent Andy frenzied emails indicating that he thinks we’ll “ruin” his design with our landscaping. He’s definitely in the faux Tuscan landscape camp. But, if you have an affinity and love for Western ecosystems and you’d prefer hiking through Yosemite or Death Valley than the Jardin des Tuileries, we think you’ll love our landscape plan more and more as we continue it and all is revealed.

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