Front Yard Re-do

Last April, we sheet-mulched the 'grass' in our front yard (it was a mixture of grass and a lot of weedy things that looked a bit like grass). Our front yard is dominated by a huge Brazilian pepper tree and is dappled shade. In the winter, the front yard is often soggy, as it is on a very slight downhill from the rest of our property. I really liked the idea of making a seasonal creek bed; in my fantasy, the creek would fill up in the winter, and go dry in the summer, just like the creeks in the open space. But in reality, I wasn't sure how to do this. Liner? No liner? Rocks? No rocks? And how do we keep the raccoons from washing food in it? And would it get super weedy? and honestly, how would it even fit, given the long, thin dimensions of our front yard?

So, creek bed out. Next fantasy, a woodland garden. This one seemed much more doable. Since it's been six months since we did the sheet- mulch, I figured everything would be decomposed; hopefully, rain will be coming soon; therefore, the timing is good for planting. Plus, I was tired of looking at a front yard of bark.

I started researching native plants that do well in part shade. Yes, our front yard is dappled shade, but there are times in the day when the sun is so low that it gets direct sun, and also, it's often quite hot. So from time and experience in my yard, if I go to a nursery in, say, Alameda, and they have something marked as 'full sun', it will not do well in my Walnut Creek valley full sun. It will do well in my part shade. So I chose plants for part shade rather than full shade. (Our 'zone' is tricky; not only do we regularly get temps over 100 in the summer, often for weeks at a time, in the winter, we get quite frosty nights and mornings. Last winter, we had a full month of hard frost every night.)

I love the website for Las Pilitas Nursery, I have learned so much from exploring it! I did a search there for California natives that like part shade, and got a lot of info. However, they are based in Southern CA, so some of those plants aren't available nor wise for this area. As I was searching around, I came across a nursery in Richmond, CA, that I had never visited - The Watershed Nursery. Wow! What an excellent place! Not only are they experts in native plants, they know in which watershed they are local! I was smitten. I started looking at their plant lists and came up with a checklist of things I wanted to buy. I figured I would need about 50 plants, so it would be a serious trip. I contacted my good friend Barbara, who is always up for a plant adventure, and off we went yesterday to this wonderful place.

What a trip! I ended up buying about 60 plants, most native to my watershed. Someone greeted us right away and explained how things were organized - they categorize plants by habitat, which is so smart and different.

Browsing through the plants, each one was marked with the origin of the seed - that is, which county it came from, which watershed. Some were of an unknown origin. It was like a treasure hunt! The nursery itself is in an industrial area, and no frills - but we were helped quite a bit by the employees and enjoyed shopping in relative solitude. There were only a few other people there, which I hope was because of the season only, because this place was really neat and I want it to stay around. As we walked in, they had us step in some disinfectant so we wouldn't bring in any seeds or contaminants from our environment.

This morning, I started working on my front yard at 7 am. We are in the middle of a heat wave (it was 97 today) and I knew I needed to get going while it was still cool. Turns out, the project took me 12 hours. I was out there from 7 to 7, barring one quick trip to get more supplemental compost, and a couple quick breaks for cooking (I chose this day to volunteer to make dinner for Adam's Odyssey of the Mind team, what was I thinking?). I put the last plant in as it was getting dark, just after seven, and I couldn't even take a picture because the light was so bad. But here is one in progress:

You can see all the plants laid out, ready for planting. Figuring out where I wanted to put everything took a good hour. There is another side of the garden, which you can't see very well, but you can see the path. I decided to leave the path project for another time, so for now, the mulch path is lined with logs from our tree trimming projects.

The plants in the foreground are from other plantings, and they are doing great here - coral bells, butterfly bush, fuchsias, and a hydrangea vine that my mother-in-law gave Adam when he finished chemo.

Well, the project is finished, and I'm exhausted. It turned out to be a much harder day than I expected. Because we sheet-mulched, I thought I'd be able to just move aside the mulch, dig into the compost, and put in a plant. Ta-da! But no, it wasn't at all like that. It was easy to move the mulch, easy to dig through the compost layer and the decomposed cardboard, but the ground underneath? The ground the grass had been in? It was hard as a rock. Our East Bay clay soil was in rare form, creating the hardest barrier I have ever dug in, in our garden. I needed a pick; I didn't have one. So it was me, my trusty shovel, and whatever muscles I could muster. It took forever. Kate helped me for a bit, but she wasn't strong enough to dig here. Tom helped me for a bit, and that was great. But mostly it was me. And I'm going to be hurting tomorrow. Sheet mulching works to get rid of the grass, but it doesn't necessarily improve the soil UNDER that grass immediately, or at least not in six months; or maybe it needs repeated application. Lesson learned! There are two more areas in the yard we want to sheet mulch, so I'll keep all this in mind.

Another disappointing thing was that I used a LOT of supplemental compost and I wasn't anticipating having to do that. And I hated the way the nursery packs their plants. All those long thin containers! I had to cut them open, which was a step I could have done without.

One amazing benefit that I DID see, however, and which made the day much better, was worms! HUGE worms! Worms everywhere! Tons of worms! I was so so pleased.

A list of plants, you want? Well I'd love to give it to you, but I threw it out. What a dingbat! Near the fence, I planted big stuff - or, what will eventually GET big, like Ribes (Flowing Currant) and Thimbleberry. Cow parsnip. One coffeeberry bush. Medium plants included scarlet monkey flower, gumplant, fleabane, gray rush, artemesia, california sunflowers. Smaller plants included asters, columbines, yarrows, and huecheras. There are others, but I've forgotten what they are. Oh, more California honeysuckle for against the porch railing... I can't wait to see how they all grow up and fill in and make my woodland garden. They are all pollinator and bird friendly, drought-tolerant, and hopefully uninteresting to deer. Pictures to come!

While Barbara and I were in Richmond yesterday, we visited an artisan glass blower that was having a different kind of pumpkin patch. They blow glass pumpkins, then place them all over their garden. It was spectacular. I wanted to buy them all, but let's just say I'll have to go back when I win the lottery. I love things that are handmade, and I love seeing folks practice crafts that are disappearing, and these pumpkins were worth every penny. I wanted to support this place, so I will go back for their Christmas open house and buy an ornament (smaller and affordable!). Here's one of the pumpkins in the garden - like a mini-Chihuly:

And here's a giant robin's nest with eggs:

I can't say enough about how beautiful the pieces are. Please visit if you're in the area!

Ok, off to eat some dinner and replenish the muscles. I hope I can move tomorrow!