The Loma Prietan - May/June 2008

Gardening Green

Combining Edibles with Natives

Practicing sustainability in a Mountain View garden

story and photos by Arvind Kumar

Most of us aspire to do the right thing for the earth and the environment, but chapter member Alan Whitaker actually walks the sustainability talk, growing a variety of edibles along with California native plants in his Mountain View garden.

The salient feature of the front yard is a mature Valencia orange tree which looks charming in winter, laden with bright fruit. Around it, California native shrubs, groundcovers, and perennials cover undulating berms and beds. Broken concrete blocks salvaged from the site are stacked attractively to make a raised bed. In the backyard, a raised bed sports a heavy crop of fava beans, onions, and mustard.

The combination of edibles and natives provides food for the human residents as well as the critters that inhabit the yard and neighborhood. The garden conserves water, minimizes maintenance, and generates zero waste. What's not to like? Did I mention it looks nice?

Alan has been gardening since he was a child at his mother's side. That childhood activity has become a lifelong interest in gardening.

In the 11 years that he has lived in his current home, the yard has had three makeovers. When he first moved in, "it was the worst house on the block," Alan recalls. The front yard was unkempt and overgrown. Alan redid the landscaping entirely, replacing it with a water-loving, drip-irrigated, "eternally blooming yard." The yard looked terrific, but it also taught Alan an important lesson: a garden that blooms all the time must also be pruned and deadheaded all the time.

After a couple of years, tiring of the maintenance, he switched to a drought-tolerant garden, installing plants from the Mediterranean climates of the world. Looking back at this period, he now reflects, "I had the whole world in my front yard, but not California."

As his education on environmental issues continued through the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society, he learned that native plants have unmatched habitat value for wildlife, even for small critters like insects.

His plant palette gradually evolved to include North American natives such as Mexican sage, and later California natives. He began to appreciate "the things that were here before you or me were here." Today, he calls his garden "a garden in transition," where the percentage of California native plants is increasing all the time.

Alan's native plants are watered once a week in the first year. In successive years, the watering schedule is reduced to every other week. Within 3-5 years, the native plants are fully established. Experience has taught him that the best time to plant or transplant is during the winter, when the temperatures are low and moisture is abundant.

Sustainable gardening practices are evident throughout the yard. Woodchip mulch controls weeds, prevents water loss, and enriches the soil. A compost bin converts kitchen and yard waste to rich organic fertilizer.

"This is an organic house," he says with evident pride. "No pesticides and no fertilizers for over 5 years." The yard is pest and ant free.

In some ways, his yard has come full circle. "Now I realize that when I first moved in, I was taking out the natives. I then came to understand that natives belonged, that I'd have more success with them, that they would support the bees and butterflies.

"People want to attract monarchs using milkweeds from Georgia," he observes, "but we have this plentiful supply of native plants in our area—you can't turn that down."

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar has been growing native plants in his Evergreen garden since 2001. Write him at chhaprahiya@yahoo.com.