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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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Mar 24

The Tropical Garden

Posted on March 24, 2017 at 8:50 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Palm trees and tropical gardens appeal to many homeowners—especially after returning from a vacation in balmy ocean climates. Who wouldn’t want to recreate that sense of carefree ambiance right in our own backyards? The good news is that some of the plants found in tropical gardens will thrive in Marin, offering those illusions from distant shores. Yet there is a price one pays to achieve that type of environment.

Palm trees, for example, have some strong positives: They can withstand harsh winds and require minimal care. Some, such as the California fan palm, have low water needs. On the other hand, palms also have legitimate negatives: They may draw rats that live in the fronds, they don’t provide the shade and cooling effect that other trees do, and their prunings do not compost well, adding to landfills.

As with any garden, it’s important to take growing conditions into consideration before planting. Know the Plant Hardiness Zone where you live. Most tropical plants thrive in zones 10-11. Places in Southern Marin push very close to that number, so gardeners there can play with a much larger plant palette than those in Woodacre or north Marin.

Our soil types also are far different than those found in the tropical islands. For the most part our soils are clay-based, while palms thrive in the sandy soils of the tropics. Water moves through sandy soils quickly—ideal for the frequent year-round warm showers that provide adequate irrigation to these tropical natives. In Marin, our native plants are accustomed to the annual drought months from May through October and require very little, if any irrigation. However, many of the ornamental plants that mirror the tropical look do require irrigation and appreciate overhead spray mists to emulate humidity—not the classic low-water-user profile. But if you are looking for tropical plants for your water-wise garden there is hope. Some such as bougainvillea and bird of paradise thrive in my Novato home without any irrigation.

Travelers Palm
 Traveler's palm
In last week's blog, I spoke of the private garden walk I took with the head gardener of the resort where I vacationed in Jamaica. He spoke of many plants that are also found in temperate areas of Marin. A relative of the bird of paradise particularly captured my attention. The plant looked more like a palm tree and even carries the common name of traveler’s palm. This anomaly was located directly outside the door to my room. Its fronds were positioned in a singular pattern forming a large fan facing due east to west, thus supposedly helping travelers find their way. Besides its directional growth, this unique plant had an interesting water-conserving feature: It is capable of storing over a half gallon of water at the base of each frond. While it is not recommended the water be used for human consumption, rumor has it that it can provide sustenance for the parched traveler. Given the height of this plant, I would venture to guess the athletic ability of such traveler! 

Plants, no matter their origin, require that gardeners investigate the best growing conditions to provide for their health and our own sanity. Pushing a plant to grow in foreign climates requires more from the gardener to cater to those special needs. The outcome of that effort can be stunningly beautiful or a source of frustration. Just ask me about my beautiful Daphne odora that moved to Lassen County.

Mar 17

The Tropics

Posted on March 17, 2017 at 2:03 PM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi 

Earlier this week I returned from Jamaica to find birds chirping, daffodils showing off their bright yellow petals, sun shining and temperatures ranging close to 70 degrees. Quite the unexpected welcome home, since when I left Lassen, temperatures were dropping into the 30s and snow was on the ground while brisk winds were blowing.

Ixora coccinea
While home did its best to mimic the tropics, it was still a far cry from the white sandy beaches, lush tropical flowers and ocean filled with beautiful fish of brilliant colors, shapes and sizes. The people of Jamaica were equally amazing and went out of their way to make us feel at home. While walking through the resort gardens one day, I sought out one of the gardeners to ask the name of an unfamiliar plant. The gardener, Cher, stopped what she was doing, led me to several plants growing nearby and introduced me to the beautiful genus Ixora. She explained that it comes in different sizes and is used in various bordered areas throughout the resort. We then talked about other plants. When I mentioned my background, she asked if I had seen their nursery. She dropped what she was working on to walk some distance to the growing grounds and gave me a personal tour. I was truly touched by her outreach.

Several days later while attending a special dinner, I was seated next to the resort manager. I complimented him on his diving staff and also the gardener who so willingly gave of her time. At that point he asked if I had met the head gardener, Oshio, and arranged for me to take a private tour of the resort gardens the following day. Needless to say, this gardener couldn't have been more thrilled.

Oshio, the head gardener 
Oshio met me promptly at the appointed time and spent a few hours showing me around the grounds. He told me about various tropical plants that we temperate-climate dwellers know primarily as house plants, including various ficus, palms and orchids. As we walked, he snipped samples of tropical flowers including hibiscus, bougainvillea, datura, ginger, and the ever-so-sweet plumeria and night-blooming jasmine. He demonstrated palm tree pruning techniques and the importance of protecting the center frond—the heart of the plant—from damage. It was a lesson for me as I always managed to kill the Chamaedorea elegans that my grandmother grew in her home by inadvertently snipping out that dead-looking center frond. Little did I realize that that was the heart I was cutting away! After all these years, I'm still learning new lessons about pruning.

While in Jamaica, I also toured the Black River, named for the amount of peat that settles at the bottom giving the water a black appearance. Mangrove trees grew in abundance with roots extending from treetop down to the river to feed on the rich peat beneath. The trees also supported an abundance of captivating wildlife.

The tropics provide a perfect environment for lush plant growth. Daily rain showers keep the large leaves clean and allow the plants to accept maximum sunlight for optimal photosynthesis. Warm humid days and evenings supply just the right amount of heat and moisture without the need for irrigation. Here in Marin, our love of tropical plants is largely limited to houseplants, unless we are lucky to live in certain microclimates that support such beauty. Nonetheless, this gardener's passion for flowers was fulfilled.

Mar 09

The New Age of Irrigation

Posted on March 9, 2017 at 3:50 PM by Ann Vallee

by Christina Mountanos, Water Conservation Specialist

irrigation technologyOne thing that's fascinating about the irrigation world is that there's so much innovative technology out there, and it's constantly evolving, too. New weather-based controllers, for example, don't just vary their schedules based on the weather. Many have even more advanced and useful features now, like remote access to your controller over Wi-Fi and alerts for high flow rates (i.e., breaks or leaks in your irrigation system).

Another effective technology is the use of high-efficiency, multi-stream nozzles. Putting water out at a much slower rate than traditional spray nozzles (in thick streams versus finer water droplets), multi-stream nozzles can be a great way to reduce run-off, lessen the amount of water lost to wind and evaporation, help irrigate more irregularly shaped areas, and also help correct pressure problems that can result in poor coverage. 

So many products have been created to improve the efficiency of irrigation and to help people use less water. Even better news is that MMWD is currently offering an incentive to some of our commercial and multi-family customers to implement this new technology and make improvements to their current systems. Sites that have a dedicated landscape water service are eligible for the rebate, which is worth up to $1,500 per water meter. The rebate covers the cost of the above-mentioned equipment (smart controllers and high-efficiency nozzles), materials for converting spray areas to drip irrigation, hydrozoning, and the cost of other water-efficient appurtenances like check valves and flow sensors. 

I'm happy to report that many of the sites my co-workers and I have visited over the past year have taken advantage of efficient technologies like these. Since the program launched back in late 2015, we've already funded more than $55,000 in improvements at commercial sites, schools and HOAs. 

Making your irrigation more efficient doesn't have to be a huge undertaking. Smaller, simpler projects might include adding a rain sensor to your current controller (so it shuts off automatically in the rain without having to physically flip any switches), adding pressure-regulating equipment, or adding check valves to sprinkler heads in low places to stop water from seeping out after the system has finished running. We're here to help: As part of the rebate process, an MMWD Conservation Specialist will meet with you during a required "irrigation check-up" to determine your site's eligibility and work with you to best decide how to improve your current system. 

Check out our website at for the full details on the program, qualifying materials and the rebate process.