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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Jun 23

The Joy of Sharing: Celebrating Pollinators

Posted on June 23, 2017 at 10:55 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

pollinatorsSharing seems to be a common thread among gardeners. They share their knowledge, tricks of their trade, slips or seeds from their garden, photos of their prize roses and especially the over-abundance produced in their gardens.

This week was no exception for sharing in the world of gardening. Keith Bancroft, one of my co-workers at MMWD before I retired, emailed to remind me it is National Pollinators Week. This special week would have slipped right by me had he not shared this knowledge. After all, my focus was on Summer Solstice and trying to determine what is devouring the leaves on the zucchini I just planted.

Keith, however, remembered that one of my favorite subjects is planting for pollinators. There is something magical about working in the garden to the hum of bees gathering pollen about you—or noting the various butterflies flitting to and fro sipping moisture from flowers. It’s fascinating to watch syrphid flies hover about the veggies like mini helicopters, or to witness colorful lady bugs and praying mantises demonstrate their ability to rid the garden of unwanted pests.

Over the years, I have found that designing and planting for pollinators goes hand-in-hand with other Marin-Friendly gardening practices. Not only does one need to consider the types of plants to go into the garden, but also how best to manage weeds and pests. Controlling pests with chemicals is a little like me turning the donkeys out into the garden to weed: Like grazing donkeys, insecticides are not very selective. They risk harming the beneficial insects you want to attract. And if you are a statistics kind of person: Did you know only about 5% of the insect world is bad for our gardens? 

What is the solution? Look for ways to work with nature rather than against it. For example, I needed a solution for the pesky flies that breed in the horse and donkey manure. Yesterday I scattered tiny, just-hatched fly predators. These little gnat-like creatures will lay their eggs on the pupae of the pesky flies they find in the manure, which in turn will kill the immature flies. 

What might you do to celebrate National Pollinator Week? Start with choosing plants to attract beneficial insects. Native plants are great choices. Plant successively to provide these garden guests a long-term food supply. Encourage bats and mason bees by providing for their special housing. Avoid herbicides and insecticides. (If you must use them, apply at dusk when most pollinators are not working in the garden.) Instead, focus on natural biological methods for managing pests. There are too many to mention here, but you’ll find lots of ideas online for attracting beneficial insects to do the job for you. Lastly, share your knowledge with others. Another common thread among gardeners is we love to learn!

Jun 16

Room with a View

Posted on June 16, 2017 at 10:04 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Have you ever experienced the sensation that someone is watching you? The other night I was working out in the living room when that feeling came over me. I looked out the window toward the front garden, and there stood the most magnificent buck, his antlers still in velvet, peering in the window at me. As our eyes made contact, neither of us moving, my two golden retrievers dozed peacefully, despite the beat of workout music in the background and our unusual visitor.

It's been some time since deer have wandered up this close to the house. It made me wonder why this beauty would wade through the geraniums, lavender, sage, iris, yarrow and peonies—all deer-tolerant shrubs and groundcover—to reach the fortress of my mighty watchdogs, Sassy and Misty. I noted that the blueberry bush was at his nose level, and a hydrangea cradled around his forelegs. Perhaps these delicacies led him to tempt fate.

Living with deer is a challenge, as many of you well know. They do not read all those books or articles with lists of plants they supposedly find less palatable. But in my experience, they do tend to be less interested in plants that are herbal to the taste and smell. Fortunately for us, these same plants are often water-wise. The physiology of their leaves—which are generally fuzzy, waxy or silver-colored—helps them hold onto water. In addition, many have roots that grow deep into the soil, making them less dependent on irrigation. 

deer-tolerant garden
 'May Night' sage and iris
As an added bonus, many of these plants provide beautiful, long-lasting color in the garden. As I peer out into the garden, my eyes flit from the purples of ‘May Night’ Salvia to the pink flowers of Salvia greggii 'Cold Hardy Pink.' Deep bronze leaves of the ninebark make a perfect backdrop for the white peonies and reblooming iris. The lavender and Agastache have yet to bloom, but the silver foliage of the lavender draws bees hoping that the flowers will soon emerge. The bees are not disappointed as they find their way to the Nepeta (catmint) displaying delicate shades of lavender flowers. Though the garden looks like a colorful salad, it doesn’t seem to interest the deer.

A word of advice if you are troubled by deer: Before buying a dozen plants of one type, set out just one sacrificial plant for a week to see if the deer will nibble on it. If they don't, it might be an indicator you are safe planting more. Again, just remember deer don't read books and if they are hungry enough, they will eat anything—even at the risk of peering through the window to see if you are paying attention to their antics!

Jun 09

Reaping Rewards

Posted on June 9, 2017 at 9:54 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

After a long, wet winter, June is here providing us with ample rewards for enduring what felt at times like marathon rain. Flowers—both wild and ornamental—are showcasing a bounty of blooms. Fruit trees are laden with cherries, plums, peaches, apples or whatever fruit-of-choice you or your neighbor may grow. Those vegetables planted in the fall are ripe for the picking this spring. Bumper crops of chard, asparagus, garlic, parsley, onions and lettuce have graced the dinner table here for several months.

But there can be a downside to the marathon winter as well. If your garden drainage is poor, plants may have drowned, puddles may have prevented access to parts of your yard, or soils may have eroded. Let this week’s rain be a little nudge to start planning ahead for next winter. The good news is there are things you can do now to improve garden drainage issues in advance of next winter’s rains. Here are a few solutions that may not be as daunting as imagined. The bottom line: Follow the adage to “slow it down, spread it out, sink it in.”

  • Start by amending clay soils with rich organic material to allow water to percolate through more easily. This is especially important for those plants that don't like to have their feet wet for extended periods of time. 
  • Prevent erosion by looking for ways to slow down and spread out rain runoff from downspouts. A curving dry creek bed or series of boulders can serve to slow the flow, while adding beauty and interest to the landscape. Bioswales, or ditches filled with bark, are another way to guide water through the garden while giving it space to slow, spread and sink. 
  • Consider designing and installing rain gardens to collect excess rain water during the winter. Planted with a colorful assortment of plants that thrive in wetter soil conditions, rain gardens can also be havens for wildlife. 
  • A French drain may be an option to move ground and subsurface water away from an area where it tends to collect. 
  • A rain barrel or cistern can also be one part of your plan for managing how rainwater travels through your garden—and for harvesting a portion of this water for later use. Just 1 inch of rain on a 1,000 square-foot roof produces about 600 gallons of runoff. As an added bonus, MMWD is offering a rain barrel rebate up to $50.
The final reward we can reap from one of the wettest winters in MMWD’s records? The impetus to solve any garden drainage challenges before next time!