Rethinking the American front yard: a workshop

Photo of Levittown, with front yards
It is high time we rethought the front yard space

If you are interested in both the history and evolution of the American front yard and rethinking how we design and use this historically purely aesthetic space, please join us for an interactive and collaborative workshop on April 20 @ 1:00 p.m. at the machinaloci space in South Berkeley. Co-led by James Rojas of Place It!, Trena Noval and Ann Wettrich of Fieldworks Collaborative, and Carol Mancke of machinaloci.

To RSVP, click here.

Our western waterways

The Arroyo Seco in South Pasadena
The Arroyo Seco in South Pasadena in early April 2019

As you move further west in the country, water becomes all the more scarce, and thus its sources become all the more precious. Yet the relationship between water’s preciousness and how it has been treated through our infrastructure is really an inverse one – especially in California. While water is gold here, its sources, and the rivers and streams that carry it, have been treated like nothing more than garbage – the above photo a case in point, which we snapped while taking a hike through Nature Park in South Pasadena. While there are indeed many efforts to improve our stormwater retention, daylight channelized rivers, and expand rainwater harvesting efforts, we cannot stop there. It behooves us as a state to treat water as the precious giver of life that it ultimately is, on all levels and in all ways.

John Kamp

Long-term learning from a landscape

What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.

Surviving irrigation-free

Coleonema pulchrum, a commonly irrigated landscape plant,  growing irrigation-free in Oakland
Coleonema pulchrum, a commonly irrigated landscape plant, growing irrigation-free in Oakland

There are so many plants of the landscape that we assume are water-loving because they are never given a chance to prove otherwise, and because we don’t look into their native growing conditions to see just how little water they need to grow and thrive. Coleonema pulchrum is just such a plant. With its chartreuse leaves and pink flowers, it’s a much-loved plant in Northern California, offering a bright spot within what could be a washed-out landscape of dull greens and grays. Yet what folks probably don’t know is that this plant is native to a summer-dry, winter-wet region of South Africa and thus for many months out of the year has to tough it out with no water.

Indeed, even a drought-tolerant plant will need water up front in order to get established, but once established, the watering can be phased out, and the plant will thank you for it. Plants that are native to regions where drought is simply part of the climate oftentimes simply cannot absorb enough water from irrigation if they are watered during their period of dormancy as their root systems go into a sort of slumber during this time. In a worst-case scenario, their roots will rot, or the plant will grow much larger and faster than it should, ultimately opening out on itself and taking on a leggy appearance that no one particularly likes.

In our inveterate efforts to show that irrigation-free is all around us, we hope that folks will start to open their eyes to other plants they’ve seen growing irrigation-free and doing just fine.

The great water harvest

It is little news that the desert Southwest is running low on water these days. More and more people moving in, shrinking aquifers, and a drier Colorado River – all of these factors have lead to real concerns about the future of water in the region. As a response, the City of Tucson has adopted one of the more progressive laws with regards to water conservation, or, in their case, to water harvesting. As of June 1, 2010, all new commercial development plans submitted to the City must include a water harvesting plan, which must outline how the site will harvest rainwater to supply 50% of the site’s irrigation needs.

Target has gotten a head start on the whole affair and has retrofitted its Super Target on Oracle Boulevard with water cachement areas (shown above), swales, and a plethora of desert-friendly plants and trees. Not a swath of turf grass is to be seen on the site.


The asphalt parking lot slopes towards permeable planting areas instead of towards storm drains

We are of course still left with the perennial problem of the big box store and the enormous amount of urban surface area and asphalt it requires to begin with – not to mention a whole host of problematic urban design and pedestrian issues this building type creates. . . but that, I am afraid, would open up a whole other can of worms and is perhaps better left for another post, for another day. In the meantime, let us bask in one small baby step towards a mildly greener tomorrow.