Sonoma County's green gardens
Published: Friday, May 4, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 2:15 p.m.
For years Arthur Slater was a bug rustler. His job? Roust out all the unwelcome insects and other uninvited inhabitants of the buildings at UC Berkeley.
ECO-FRIENDLY GARDEN TOUR
Sponsor: Sonoma County Water Agency
When: May 19
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Highlights: A chance to ask questions of homeowners and professional landscapers about their garden's design, installation and maintenance. See graywater irrigation and rainwater catchment systems, permeable surfaces, living walls, edibles, native and drought-tolerant plants, swales, chicken coops, lizard habitats, cob furniture and more.
Cost: Free, but registraton is required at savingwaterpartnership.org.
An entomologist and researcher at the university, he was recruited in 1973 to apply his science smarts to eradicating indoor pests, including rodents, using the least toxic means possible. Now he is using some of the same techniques in his own garden, a retirement magnum opus that is a case study in how to create a landscape that is practical and pleasing to both humans and wildlife.
Five man-made waterfalls, designed and installed by Sweetwater Landscape of Forestville, cascade down a sloping hillside behind his rural Hessel Road home, spilling into a rushing creek that disappears into a basin where the water, drawn from a well, is recycled back uphill with five solar-powered pumps. Frogs croak in the stream and birds splash in the waters framed by native lupine, feathery asparagus ferns and masses of verbena.
Barn owls patrol for gophers from three different owl boxes placed strategically throughout his 4.2-acre property, certified as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
Some 35 additional bird boxes support an integrated population of everything from titmice to swallows. Openings are small and the boxes have no perches, just the way birds like them to feel safe from predators while nesting.
Slater likes nothing more than to share his garden and what he has learned through trial and error. That's why he's volunteered to welcome visitors during the upcoming “Eco-Friendly Garden Tour” on May 19 put on by the Sonoma County Water Agency.
The self-guided tour is a chance for other homeowners to see sustainable gardening practices in action, including features that demonstrate water-saving techniques. At least a dozen gardens in all parts of the county, including Cotati, Santa Rosa, Sonoma Valley, Windsor, Petaluma and West County, are participating. People can visit as many gardens as they wish for no charge, although registration is required at savingwaterpartnership.org.
“This is really to showcase natural gardening techniques and to conserve resources, reduce waste, provide benefits for families and use water efficiently,” said Ali Davidson, an expert in water-efficient landscapes with the Sonoma County Water Agency. “And it's also a way to celebrate people taking their own plot of land and using it to the best of their ability. It's really just amazing what you can do with bioswales or berms or just contouring your property. Even a small plot of land can capture rainwater and reuse graywater.”
Slater's landscape, with 1,300 feet of pathway, is like a demonstration garden for smart practices. Aside from the giant, blue, dragon's head affixed to the side of a garden shed like a faux big-game trophy, little here is random or just for show — although the sight and sound of all that falling water surrounded by native plants popping out for spring is its own show. Slater took great care in choosing plants for erosion control, filtration and animal habitat.
This landscape of mostly native plants needs no formal irrigation system. Natural beauty comes from bright blue Ceanothus “Skylark,” mixed in with California coffeeberry bushes, manzanita, Pacific waxberry and summer holly. There are wild irises, wild strawberry and violas.
A large section of the garden is dedicated to quail habitat, planned with the help of Marin wildflower expert Judith Lowry of Larner's Seeds. Here there is more Ceanothus, coyote bush, milkweed and cobweb thistle. All are good wildlife plants, providing density for cover as well as food.
Slater does not remove debris beneath butterfly host plants, like the California aster, favored by crescent butterflies. Caterpillars and pupae hide in what some gardeners might see as messy waste. He's identified 14 different varieties of butterflies that have visited, from painted ladies to Western tiger swallowtails.
Slater's house sits at the base of a slope, putting him in the path of storm runoff. To slow and filter that drainage he planted mounds of spiky California bunchgrass uphill, along his upper property line.
“It makes a marvelous natural catchment, sieve and screen,” he explains. “I took me two years to figure that out.”
With roots as deep as 18 feet, this trusty native will slow down the water flow as well as capture particles of manure and weed seeds from the pasture above.
Mother Nature had created a thin stream in winter that sent water rushing down. But with the help and advice of Wade Belew, president of the California Native Grassland Society, Slater enhanced the waterway with seven tons of rock as well as reeds, sedges and grasses. Now the creek is an attractive water feature and functioning bioswale that captures silt and pollutants and helps replenish the water table.
Slater has opened his property for the tour but also welcomes visitors by appointment. Call 829-2961.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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