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5 Sustainable Features for your Garden

If we had to come up with Campion Walker studio trademarks, they wouldn’t be features or plants-- they would be philosophies. Our designs are informed by many things: the site, client needs, aesthetic ideas. But the point of view we bring to our many and varied projects always orbits around the ideas of simplicity and sustainability.

We like to see that we listen to the land, and what this translates to is how we recognize the need to interact with the native environment. In short, that is the definition of sustainability. The most natural thing we, as garden designers and stewards of the land, can do is to simplify how we tread on the earth, and lean on sustainable practices to work with nature to create beautiful spaces.

Some of our favorite elements of sustainable design:

Watershed

In a garden setting, we refer to rocky swales and/or rain gardens as watersheds. These features are tools for retaining rain water on-site, which has significant impact on both groundwater supply and stormwater management-- both of which have far-reaching effects on the ecological health of our world. A watershed is a low point of a garden, designed to have rainwater drain to it, and designed with rocks and/or riparian plants that thrive in dry conditions with occasional flooding. On top of their function, watersheds are a dramatic and stunning feature in gardens, especially in rustic modern or xeriscaped designs.

Greywater

If a project allows, or a homeowner is willing to invest in some plumbing adjustments, we advocate installation of greywater systems. These systems allow clean used water, called greywater, from bathroom sinks, showers, and laundry, to drain into a garden, either irrigating plants or percolating down into the earth if channeled to a watershed. It might seem unusual to reuse water in this way, but greywater is 100% safe to recycle in this manner. As a bonus, using phosphate-free soap/detergent and epsom salt is actually a fertilizer-- which is even more reason to recommend using greywater to water your landscape plants.

Composting

The subject of composting can raise an eyebrow from less than enthusiastic gardeners, but in truth, its practice is spectacularly simple. Setting aside organic waste from your kitchen (trimmings from fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grinds) and your garden (grass trimmings, fallen leaves) can reduce as much as 60% of landfill waste-- that makes composting more green than recycling! You can compost in your own yard, either in a tumbler, or a bin, or a simple hole dug in the soil in a dark, secluded corner of your garden. Keep your kitchen waste in a pail under your sink, and bring it out every 3 days, and then layering in your green garden waste instead of throwing them away in your green waste trashcan. Allow the compost layers to sit, turning once a month or so to aerate, and in about 3 months, that compost will become rich organic matter, perfect as a natural fertilizer for your garden plants. For more information on how to start composting, we recommend this article.

Firewise Gardens

As longtime residents of LA’s Topanga Canyon, we’re no strangers to wildfires. When naturally-occurring, they are a part of the earth cycles, but containment is key to limiting their devastation. Because many of our projects are in the Santa Monica mountains and are close to areas where fire danger is high, we design firewise gardens: plantings chosen specifically for their ability to mitigate the spread of flames. Firewise knowledge can be as simple as tree choices: native oaks are slow to burn and fast to recover from flames, while many other tree choices incinerate fast and feed a fire. Other tactics we recommend are choosing high water content plants, such as succulents, and designing them in wide swaths to act as moisture barriers should a fire approach.

Plant Communities

The practice of designing communities of plants is one of our favorite strategies for a healthy, beautiful garden. Our horticultural background has taught us that placing symbiotic organisms next to each other takes a lot of the guesswork out of maintenance because it creates self-sustaining ecologies. We like to educate our clients about the importance of choosing such complimentary plant palettes, such as planting low-water, chaparral natives like Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon) with Erigonium fasciculatum (California buckwhat) and salvias, in order to create a happy landscape.

The Elements of Garden Design

At Campion Walker Landscapes, we believe that design does not exist in a vacuum. The landscapes and gardens we’re privileged to design and install are opportunities for us to connect people to nature, and we draw inspiration for this from the simplest forms of the earth: elements. Simple but thoughtful, here is a look at how we think about these building blocks of our natural world, and how we bring them into our considered designs.

Water

A serene reflecting pond with tropical water lilies installed in our client’s home in Santa Monica Canyon

A serene reflecting pond with tropical water lilies installed in our client’s home in Santa Monica Canyon

This precious resource is our favorite element: in fact, you can find water in almost every Campion Walker Landscapes installation. We celebrate water by designing understated features that incorporate it gracefully into gardens large and small. Although we love it in any form, our personal interpretation of it is less of a dramatic cascade and more about water’s subtlety; a meditative reflecting pool, a naturalistic pond, a narrow rill or runnel as an accent in a planted landscape. We see water as a delicate sound screen, a quiet destination, and always an opportunity to anchor a design with a soothing homage to the element.


Fire

A small fire bowl brings warmth to a patio in our client’s home in Rustic Canyon.

A small fire bowl brings warmth to a patio in our client’s home in Rustic Canyon.

The most volatile of elements, and the one that must be captured and contained with the most care, fire has the power to create community in outdoor spaces. Fire pits provide designated gathering areas by appealing to a longstanding human respect and dependence on the element-- for thousands of years, we’ve congregated around flames. In the present day, a fire feature can make an outdoor space come alive after sunset, making it enjoyable and usable in a significant way. From outdoor fireplaces to minimalist cor-ten steel rings, we often incorporate fire into our designs.


Air

Soft grasses create a meadow to showcase soft breezes at our client’s Topanga Canyon home.

Soft grasses create a meadow to showcase soft breezes at our client’s Topanga Canyon home.

Subtle yet ever present, graceful but sometimes fearsome, air is everywhere and nowhere in a garden. Campion Walker Landscapes recognizes the invisible element by designing opportunities for it to make itself known. Most often, this is seen in our planting designing. Swaths of grasses will move with a breeze, delicate tree foliage will rustle with it-- wind makes air known, and soft-featured plantings are a blank canvas for air to play on, bringing life and dimension to a landscape tableau.

Earth

Natural, cut stones integrate into the landscape in an organic way in a way that poured concrete can’t match.

Natural, cut stones integrate into the landscape in an organic way in a way that poured concrete can’t match.

It’s no surprise that a landscape design studio should wax poetic about the beauty of earth, the element that everything we celebrate grows from. But the way in which Campion Walker Landscapes commemorates this particular element is humble: we advocate and educate about the health of soil and its importance in a beautiful garden. By planning palettes of sustainable plant communities whose life cycles  enrich the soil they are planted in, we are able to be stewards of the earth element in a deeply appreciative way. Of course, this is not visible on the surface, except in the vitality of a garden, so we bring in a visual representation of the Earth element through incorporating natural stone where possible. Split face boulders are our signature, which are beautiful re-uses of massive rocks, split on site to create steps, and paths-- symbols of how this element makes a garden possible.


Wood

The bark of a Quercus suber tree is a beautiful texture, almost a still life of nature in progress.

The bark of a Quercus suber tree is a beautiful texture, almost a still life of nature in progress.

Wood receives an honorary place on our list-- it’s not regarded as one of the four cardinal elements, but as designers that use nature’s palette, we would be remiss to not celebrate it. More than any other element, wood reveals cycles. Those cycles can be seasonal, like a deciduous tree dropping its leaves in late Fall, or related to a life cycle, such as an unfinished wood bench aging in a rustic-modern garden setting. Wood, and the trees it comes from, represent the simplest building material man has to make his place in nature.

Fire Wise Succulents

With the 2017 fire season shaping up to be what looks like one of the worst in history we thought we would touch on the topic by stressing how important it is to be fire wise around the home from a landscaping point of view.

The ideal fire wise landscape consists of low-growing shrubs, ground covers and fleshy succulents. To help retain soil moisture and minimize erosion and weeds, cover bare ground with redwood mulch or gravel. Keep plants well watered, especially during fall’s depleting Santa Ana winds. Avoid any fire ladders, fuel-rich plantings that enable fire to climb up to your home. In addition to plants that have a high moisture content, include one or more of these landscape enhancements: hard scape, a rock garden, a dry stream bed and/or a swimming pool. All make excellent firebreaks.

By removing flammable vegetation and debris and by getting rid of weeds, dead or dying plants, and anything dry and twiggy you are reducing potential kindling.

Avoid planting trees and shrubs that drop quantities of leaves, contain volatile oils or resins, and/or copiously shed bark. Notoriously flammable (and unfortunately quite common) trees include blue gum, eucalyptus, acacias, junipers and pines.

Be aware that some California native plants are pyrophytic, “fire loving”. These highly flammable plants depend on seasonal wildfires for regeneration or seed germination. Common ones include greasewood (chamise), sumac (sugar bush), creosote bush and California sagebrush. Many California natives, including manzanita, coffee berry, ceanothus and oaks, are not pyrophytic and actually are slow to burn.

Here is a list of a few fire wise succulents:

Opuntia (paddle cactus), the thicker the better. The rounded, upright pads make a nice counterpoint to more finely textured plants, succulent and otherwise.

Aloes. Mound-forming Aloe arborescens, sends up orange-red, torch like flower spikes in midwinter.

Aeoniums. There are numerous varieties of these rosette succulents. The best ones for fire resistance are multi-branching.

Crassulas. Plain old green jade, these don’t burn but rather it cook, and like the aloes, its leaves turn putty-colored and they collapse. If you think jade is boring, you may not be aware of its many cultivars. Some are striped cream-and-green; turn yellow-orange-red when grown in full sun; have silvery-gray leaves rimmed with red; or have intriguing tubular or wavy leaves.

Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food) is shrub-like, and yes, elephants really do eat it in South Africa. In fact, the plant benefits from being stomped on because pieces root readily. The variegated variety is less vigorous and more ornamental than the common green species.

Fire season is here, we all need to take every precaution available to keep our selves and our homes safe.

 

Snakes, breathe deep... they are good for your garden!

Although snakes could be very frightening for some people (and we understand the fear) snakes can be very helpful in the garden, to the point that we may even want to welcome them in!

It is actually pretty simple, in the garden snakes are of great benefit.  They eat insects and rodents primarily, which are likely to benefit the garden.  For example, small snakes can do severe damage to a grasshopper population in a confined area in just one summer.

Most commonly found in North America is the Garter snake, often called the Gardener Snake. These guys get their name from the resemblance of their stripes to old-fashioned sock garters (who knew?). The Garter snake is harmless to humans and animals and an all around super tenant in a garden!

What is so great is that snakes do their handiwork without damaging the environment one bit.  They don’t dig holes as they use holes already dug by rodents and other burrowers and they don’t chew or damage the landscape in any way.  They do not cause any harm plants, from being eaten or from their physical presence moving through them.  They don’t contribute to noise pollution one single bit and they leave very little in the way of droppings (excellent fertilizer since their prey is so well digested).  They also avoid the gardener at all costs. Garters are non-aggressive creature’s and don’t ever attack people (at least none in the US) and will never bite unless stepped on, picked up or forced into a corner or threatened with eminent injury.  Even then, all snakes would much rather get away than risk a fight.

The sight of a snake in your garden could very well be alarming, but there are so many benefits, and after all… they play an important role, just as mother nature intended.

Below are some of the most common of the Garter family.

 

Wildlife in the Garden

A garden can be many things, it is pleasing on the eye, fulfilling for the soul and can bring so much joy to those who nurture and spend time within one. Another incredible function of a garden is to create a welcoming environment that is not just for people but one that supports wildlife.  

Attracting things like hummingbirds, butterflies, lizards, and other creatures into your garden can be very simple if you start with the four basic ingredients:  food, water, shelter, and space to raise their young.

Food includes flowers, fruits, and even seeds. Do this year-round and it will support the year-round resident wildlife as well as the migrating species.

Providing water to drink and bathe in is also important and sometimes overlooked. There are a few things you can do to optimize water availability in the garden. Situate the water in an open spot, which will deter predators. Birds are more likely to drink water if it is elevated and off the ground whereas butterflies get water and nutrients by sipping moisture from muddy spots on the ground. Keeping birdbaths clean is very important as it can help to avoid spreading diseases and also to eliminate mosquito larvae.

Plants that are native to your local area are more likely to thrive because they are better adapted to the local soils and microclimates and natives offer the greatest potential for attracting native insects, which are essential in any habitat.  Here is a surprising fact, roughly 90% of all insect species that eat plants can eat only native plants and native insects attract other animals that eat them, particularly birds. Aim for high diversity in plant species as this will attract and support a wide array of animals.

Decreasing or removing your lawn altogether can be very helpful as it offers little in terms of habitat for wildlife. If you decide removing your lawn is not an option there are some suggestions for improvement and care: Punctuate it with native ornamental bunch grasses they will provide food and nesting material for animals. Mowing and watering less will also aid in this.

If you create continuous layers of foliage from the ground up to the treetops different creatures will use each zone.

Allow leaf litter to pile up, this wonderful natural mulch provides a habitat for insects and a place for seeds to accumulate. There are many benefits of this organic mulch layer that includes: conserving water, controlling weeds, reducing erosion, reducing dust, moderating extremes in soil temperature, and recycling organic material that will improve soil texture as it breaks down.

Leave dead trees or branches in place if they don’t pose a safety hazard as dead wood provides a habitat for cavity-nesting birds, mammals, and insects and the wood is a food source for insects and decomposing fungi.

Avoid pruning trees during nesting season—late winter to early summer for most bird species.

It is actually important to reduce grooming overall, brown is one of nature’s colors after all! You can use clippings to create brush piles, which provide cover, places to perch, and nesting material and allow some fruits and seeds to ripen provides food for many kinds of animals, some seeds may even germinate, adding a new generation of “free” plants for the next season. 

Eliminating toxic pesticides is extremely important, birds, bats, lizards, frogs, and toads help control insects naturally. Let the critters help you achieve a balanced ecosystem in your garden… as it should be.