Posts Tagged ‘tips’

by Charlene Burgi

Rumor has it that we are in for an El Niño winter. I am not certain what that means since every report comes up with various predictions that span from getting drenched to mild inclement weather to continued drought.

Predictions are something to approach with a discerning ear. The fall/winter season would be better met with preparedness. Preparedness comes with paying attention to the indicators that surround us and acting prior to an event.

For example, a friend reported attending the Ready Marin program. When the earthquake struck in the wee hours this past Sunday, she was prepared with flashlights and necessary tools at hand (if needed) to turn off gas and water supplies. Yet others reported they woke up in a half stupor and attempted to collect their thoughts as to where they would even find a flashlight.

This week the news reported a water main break in San Francisco. One gentleman was capturing this precious commodity by the bucketful before it disappeared into the cavernous storm drain. He was prepared with whatever collection method he could find and conserved as much as he could.

Conserving water is more than turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth and exchanging high-water-use for high-efficiency fixtures in the house. It is more than switching to a smart controller or adjusting your controller to reflect the current ET loss for the week. These steps are extremely important for saving the water in our reservoirs, but by being prepared and making the best use of the water sources at hand we can conserve even more.

Each winter we anticipate rainfall, but are we prepared to utilize the falling rain? If we live on any kind of slope, we can create multiple bioswales running across the length of the slope to slow down the runoff. A bioswale requires some trenching, compacting the lower edge of the bioswale for erosion, and backfilling with porous material, such as bark. Planting two of my favorite deep-rooted shrubs—Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)—will help penetrate the clay soils above the swale and move the water deeper than the trenched bioswale.

Aster novae-angliae

Aster novae-angliae

Another idea is to collect the water from the downspout into trenches to carry water to a rain garden or meadow at least 10 feet away from the house foundation. Choose plant material that will thrive on the abundant rainwater that will collect there in the winter. Use rain garden plants such as Aster novae-anglaie or Lobelia cardinalis that attract butterflies and bees and provide nectar in the summer months.

Try designing a dry creek bed to capture the precious liquid from our rains. Wind the bed through the garden to deliver water to your trees or shrubs along the way. Tuck native grasses and wildflowers along the edges or plant some color into the dry creek bed. This task requires preparing now for winter.

These suggestions will take more than a shovel and wheel barrow. It will take planning and a list of equipment as follows:

Flowers in dry creek bed

Dry creek bed color (photo courtesy of Marie Shepard)

    • Soil, sand, clay, organic mulch
    • Building materials and construction (if built)
    • Organic compost
    • Tools (tractor, rakes, shovels, gloves, etc.)
    • Vegetation (seeds, plants, trees)
    • Gravel, rocks (large and small)

Are you prepared for the task at hand or will you watch the precious wet stuff disappear into the local storm drain this winter?

It is Labor Day weekend. Why not take a ride to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed and glean ideas for imitating nature in your own garden?

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by Charlene Burgi

Over the years, many questions have popped up regarding the best way to irrigate. Some customers asked if it was best to irrigate a little every day, or every two days, etc. Others asked if it was best to irrigate in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Some wanted to know what irrigation method is best for hillside planting.

Overspray, an irrigation don't

Overspray: an irrigation don’t

And, over the years, many of you have heard me say to irrigate effectively as well as efficiently. To irrigate efficiently is to apply water to the root zone of the plant and replace just the amount of water lost due to evapotranspiration (ET). ET is the loss of water through transpiration from plants (we perspire, plants transpire) and through evaporation from soil. MMWD uses data from its weather stations to calculate the rate of ET and generate the Weekly Watering Schedule. Replacing just the amount of water lost keeps the plant and surrounding areas in balance, but this alone is not necessarily effective.

For example, suppose the ET loss for the week is one inch. A person could water a tiny bit daily, replacing just 1/7th inch of water each day to total one inch for the week. However, that tiny bit of water would barely wet the surface of the ground and evaporate quickly. Much better would be to apply a half inch twice a week or one inch of water weekly to get down to the root system of the plant. Water at that depth will take longer to evaporate—especially if there is a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil. That would be effective as well as efficient.

Another means of being more effective is to avoid irrigating when it’s windy or during the heat of the day. Typically, there is little wind during the evenings or early morning. If you set your controller to turn on after sunset or before sunrise, you’ll save water and comply with MMWD’s new daytime irrigation prohibition. Since your irrigation system will be in action while you sleep, do a quick monthly system check—running each station for a minute—to look for blown emitters or misaligned nozzles. During the month between system checks, simply look around in the morning. Do you see a puddle? Are the sidewalks wet? Are you finding dry spots or wilting plants? These are signs that adjustments or repairs may be needed.

Watering hillside plantings is a challenge in anyone’s book. There are steps that can be taken to make this irrigation challenge both effective and efficient. First, use very low-flow methods of irrigating such as drip emitters or MP rotators for overhead irrigation. Next, use multiple start and stop times on your controller. Some controllers call this the cycle/ soak program. Water for a brief time before you see any sign of runoff. At that time, program the controller to turn off. Let that water soak into the hillside for 20-30 minutes before setting the controller to start again. Continue the cycle/ soak until the water penetrates to the depth of the root system—but not until you find water run down the street!

Be water smart. A few moments to adjust your controller will yield water savings and happy plants. And please take a few minutes to become familiar with the current water conservation regulations.

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by Charlene Burgi

Bald Mountain Fire

Bald Mountain Fire

The dense smoke finally lifted from the valley floor where we live here in Lassen. The hundreds of firefighters, trucks, and fire equipment have done their job well. The lightning fires are finally extinguished in this neck of California. While friends were evacuated from their homes—some moving their horses at two o’clock in the morning—firefighters worked diligently around the clock and saved homes from the wildland fires.

A recent ride to the tiny town of Day, where one of the many fires started, spoke to me of fire danger. While homes showed good fire clearance, the open unattended properties told a different story. “Ladder” fuel was thick: Dry grass and shrubs choked the pine forest floor along the one-and-only 10-mile road into town. Fortunately for those living there, the lightning struck on the hilltops and the wind carried the fire north, away from the town and homes nestled below.

Seeing the area brought me back several years to before my employment with MMWD. A portion of my work at that time was to educate homeowners about the danger of wildland fires in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties and what people could do to mitigate that threat. The road into Day made me think of the one-way roads in Fairfax, Corte Madera, and Mill Valley where fire engines require special clearances just to get around the tight switchback roads leading to the top of many tree-studded hills. Creating clearances often required removing privacy trees and shrubs, as well as plants known to contain oils that feed fire. Some homeowners embraced that education while others resisted, thinking a fire could never happen where they live.

Horse grazing

Mission accomplished: Cash at work clearing weeds

Fire safety becomes critical in your thinking process when you live in “brush country” as the insurance companies label this area, otherwise known as SRA (State Responsibility Area). Our home and surrounding land is inspected annually by CalFire to make certain the ground is clear and trees are limbed up to at least 10 feet. It is an inspection that I welcome and appreciate. I can honestly thank the donkeys and horses for their work clearing the ground and Jack’s manpower and chainsaws for limbing up the trees. We designed the landscaped areas with trees and shrubs chosen for their low water use and high tolerance to fire. Plant choices are good, but maintenance—including removing dry vegetation—is imperative. Additional insurance is keeping the landscaping well-irrigated, which is a challenge during the drought we are experiencing.

What can you do to protect your home from fire? First, remove all dead and dying debris from your property. Remove tree limbs that are less than 10 feet from the ground or that overhang your home. Keep wood piles away from your home. Add a stone retaining wall if your home was built within a natural “chimney” such as a canyon or ravine. Create a large “green” zone around your home to make it difficult for ground fire to encroach. This area can include patios, stone walls, low-growing groundcovers as suggested by CalFire, swimming pools, and the like. For the next zone further away from the house, choose fire-resistant species and leave space between plants to prevent the spread of fire.

Lastly, have a list handy of all your important paperwork, pictures, and valuables. Friends here scanned pictures and paperwork and saved them to a cloud file before they were asked to evacuate.

Are you fire safe? This is a good weekend to investigate how you can protect your property better.

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by Dan Carney, Water Conservation Manager

Small grass area for children's play yard

Children’s play yard (photo and design by Michelle Derviss)

If you are looking for an ideal landscape area to have a picnic, play games with your kids, or rough and tumble with the family dog, a lawn may be a good choice.

When properly cared for, lawns have many environmental benefits: They clean and cool the air, filter storm water, produce oxygen, and require much less water than you might think—lawns are commonly overwatered by as much as five-times! As a rule of thumb, unless it’s the middle of summer and the lawn is in full sun all day long, a healthy lawn only needs to be watered one day per week if it’s not raining. If it needs more, chances are your lawn needs some help.

Common environmental problems with lawns occur when people overwater, use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, do not compost clippings, mow too often, and have a larger lawn than they actually use. This article focuses on the essential things you need to know in order to successfully grow healthy lawn grass in an environmentally responsible, Marin-friendly manner.

But first, ask yourself this question: Do you really need a traditional lawn at all? If your answer is no, then please consider planting a no-mow meadow of native grasses, low-water groundcover, or other drought-adapted plants. Even when perfectly maintained, lawns require more water than any other landscape plant and are best reserved for landscape areas where they will be actively used rather than just a pretty green surface to look at. If you have a lawn area you want to convert into a low-water using garden, check out this video to learn how to sheet mulch. Then, browse our conservation coupons to find discounts on mulch and other supplies from local retailers.

If you still choose to have a lawn on your property, here are the basics of Marin-friendly lawn care:

  • Incorporate a generous amount of organic compost into the soil (1-2 cubic yards per 100 square feet).
  • Select a drought-tolerant grass species.
  • Apply enough organic fertilizer to maintain plant health but not to stimulate fast growth.
  • Irrigate with a high-efficiency irrigation system, and adjust watering times frequently to match seasonal plant demand. Never water between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., the time when 97% of evapotranspiration occurs.
  • Mow infrequently, use a manual or electric mower, leave the grass blades 2-4 inches tall, and compost the clippings.
  • Use graywater, rainwater, or recycled water whenever it is available.

By following these basic steps, you will be training your lawn grass to develop a deep and extensive root system—the key to growing a drought-tolerant lawn with the most environmental benefits and the fewest problems. MMWD offers a number of free services to help you make your landscape Marin-friendly. Visit our Conservation page today to schedule a free water use survey through our Conservation Assistance Program (CAP), sign up for a Marin Master Gardener Garden Walk, and take advantage of great rebate offers for smart irrigation controllers. And, be sure to sign up for MMWD’s Weekly Watering Schedule to get updated watering information for your climate zone delivered to your email box each week.


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To the North

by Charlene Burgi

(This is part four of our garden expert Charlene’s trip to Italy. Read the previous installment here.)

Rain clouds over Lake Como in Italy

At Lake Como: Here comes the rain

The clock was ticking. We had one short week left to explore the part of Italy where my grandparents grew up many years ago. We said our goodbyes to Cinque Terre and headed to explore the Piedmont and Lombardy regions far to the north as Lake Como was our destination for our next exciting adventure.

And exciting it was. The weather at Lake Como provided us with a phenomenal thunder and lightning show that volleyed back and forth across the lake into the wee hours. Though shutters rattled and rain pounded, we found an awesome retreat under a covered portion of the house just above lake level where we took in the surrounding beauty of the Alps peeking through the storm clouds and highlighted by flashing bolts of lightning.

Water saving feature

Water-saving feature

Our day trips found us in nearby Bellagio where we once again traipsed over hill and dale to explore the many shops found in this quaint little town. While there, Lynette and I visited a public restroom and were perplexed when we needed to turn on the sink faucet. Looking around for any indicator of something to turn on, we found a black rubber dome on the floor and were pleasantly surprised that water came out of the faucet when we stepped on the dome. What a delightful idea to eliminate water wasters in public buildings! The practice of conserving water and energy extended to the home as well. Each place where we stayed provided front-load washing machines, but no dryers. Clothes hung out to dry in every hamlet, town, and city that we drove through. I must admit, we were a bit challenged during the rain storm to find locations to hang our laundry!

Ficus repens winding around historic buildings

Ficus repens

One day while at Lake Como we took a boat ride to Villa del Balbianello, a 16th-century estate originally established as a Franciscan monastery for Cardinal Durini’s need to get away from it all. And what a concept since the only access to the estate was by boat. The estate gardens were spectacular. The main living structure sat high on top of the hill with pathways winding up from the boat dock through lawn-studded landscapes. Fountains, garden art, and glorious flowers representing the colors of the Italian flag captured my attention. I studied the severity of the slopes where the lawns grew and noted that Liriope was the ground cover at the steepest areas. Hydrangeas graced planting areas and Ficus repens wound decoratively over the ancient buildings. I could understand why this place of beauty was chosen as a shooting location for feature films such as Star Wars Episode Il: Attack of the Clones and the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale.

Simple landscaping

Simple landscaping

Each evening we found comfort in returning to the downstairs of our home away from home. While the landscaped area between us and the lake was sparse, it reminded me that our landscapes should reflect their surroundings. At this location, an elaborate landscape could detract from the beauty of the lake surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges. A day trip to Switzerland drove that point home—sometimes less is more. More on that side trip next week.

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atrium watered with graywaterThe 50 or so plants in Maya M.’s beautiful atrium have never tasted pure drinking water. Instead, she keeps them happy and hydrated with buckets of lightly used water.

Though people often associate graywater with laundry-to-landscape or more elaborate, professionally installed systems, getting started with graywater can be as simple as buying a few good buckets. Graywater collected in a shower or bathroom sink bucket works well for toilet flushing and is fine for watering landscape plants and fruit trees. (Just be sure to choose a biodegradable soap, make sure graywater infiltrates into the soil and doesn’t pool or run off, and avoid letting graywater come into contact with any plant parts you plan to eat.)

In addition to being a proud member of the “bucket brigade,” Maya also is a big advocate of “stop the disposal” containers; since running the disposal uses a lot of water and energy, diverting fruit and vegetable trimmings to a handy juice container, lidded bowl, or basket and then to the compost pile is a simple way to save.

Maya learned the value of water growing up in the Netherlands during the war. When the bomb sirens sounded, the water and gas companies would at times turn off the utilities. Her job was to fill the bathtub so her family would have water during and after the air raids.

She still views water as most precious. She hand waters her garden to ensure plants get just what they need and is a proponent of saying goodbye to unwanted lawns. “To be green we have to love beige and let our lawns go dormant,” she says.

As her experience shows, being green also means loving gray.

Are you an MMWD customer with a conservation success story to share? Tell us in the comments below, or email us and we may share your story on our blog.

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by Charlene Burgi

(This is part three of our garden expert Charlene’s trip to Italy. Read the first and second installments.)

A day exploring Florence and visiting the leaning tower of Pisa completed our stay in Tuscany. Liguria was our next destination, where we found the five picturesque fishing villages along the Italian Mediterranean otherwise known as Cinque Terre. We were pleasantly surprised as we headed out of the Tuscan region as we drove under an unmarked, ancient aqueduct still carrying water to regions that I imagined to be nearby.

To the north loomed mountain ranges that I thought to be covered in snow. We soon realized the glistening white of the mountains near Carrara were quarries of marble that Michelangelo once traversed searching for the perfect piece to create artwork such as his sculpture of David.

As we continued north, the roads wound like a lazy snake through the wildflower-covered hills. Below lay the clear waters of the Mediterranean. We soon found the time allotted to explore this region was too short. We only had two nights and a full day to see all that we could. Transportation to these little fishing villages required taking a train, a boat, or hiking, so we opted to take in only two of the five villages. We were thankful for the ability to reach the jeweled towns, for it was only in 1926 that roads were cut into the hillside to reach them. Otherwise, they could only be reached by boat!

Randy at the public grotto

Randy at the public grotto

We arrived during the weekend and the tiny communities were mobbed with tourists. We walked along the busy, narrow streets where I noticed people milling about a grotto. Upon closer inspection, we saw the grotto featured an open spigot where the drinking water flowed freely. People clamored to the precious liquid to refill their water bottles, wash their hands, or cool their brow.

The sight of water freely flowing unnerved the water conservationist in me. It was an assault to my senses! The paradox is, while the water escaped into the basin below, every restaurant in Italy charged for a bottle of drinking water—asking with or without “gas” (known to us as sparkling water). I wondered why the restaurants in Marin don’t exercise this practice with water being such a precious commodity—after all, I now understand that it is so European! Would that practice ever catch on?



After recovering from the grotto, we traversed the breadth and width of the beautiful beaches and tiny streets that were covered with magnificent flora. Bougainvillea, lantana, ivy geraniums, and so much more filled the grounds of exquisite estates that faced the Mediterranean.

As we walked along one path, Lynette asked me to identify a plant. I had never seen it before but fell in love with the delicate flower. Guido and Paulo, friends of Lynette who live in Italy and met us at Cinque Terre, quickly pulled out their smart phones to identify the plant as Capparis spinosa, otherwise known as capers—the very accoutrement that we use in cooking! I couldn’t wait to find out more about this plant. It was, in fact, one of the first things I investigated upon my return. To my surprise, Capparis will grow in Marin! Why has this beauty eluded me, and would the nurseries be able to find this deciduous perennial bush also known as Flinder’s rose? True to its Mediterranean origin, it needs very little water, requires fast draining soil, but tolerates poor soil. This all made perfect sense as the plant we saw was growing in a rock wall. It can act as a groundcover or trail over walls. What a treasure!

Caper (Capparis spinosa)

Caper (Capparis spinosa)

May I encourage you to also explore using this plant in your landscape? The buds can be pickled if you use capers in your recipes. Just taking in the beauty of the delicate flowers from late spring through summer would bring enough joy as you watch the flowers open in the morning and close as evening approaches.

I fell asleep that night wondering if capers could survive in our little greenhouse in Lassen and missing the Mediterranean climate of Marin where I knew this plant could thrive and enhance any garden.

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