Fallen Leaves – A Nuisance or Treasure?

Fall is here – look at that beautiful foliage!

 

Leaves 2

While we love to appreciate the wonderful colors of the fall foliage, the one thing that often accompany it – the fallen leaves, is another story. “What a nuisance!” – we might think.  With the thought we might just pick up the rake and bloom, sweep them together, pile them up, then dump them away as garbage. We have been doing this for so long we never thought second time about it.

But is this right?

Actually, the best place for those leaves to go is not garbage, but where they fall on – the earth, or soil, to be more precise.  This is what nature has been doing for millions of years.  It is the nature’s way of keeping everything alive and well.

Learn from nature

If we go to a forest, when we set our sight on its floor, we might see a thick layer of leaves, accumulated over many years.  Nobody cleans them away; the leaves just keep falling and sitting on the older leaves, year after year.  Over the time, those leaves at the bottom will be absorbed into the soil.

Fallen leaves are an excellent source of organic matter for the soil.  With the help of all the living things in the soil, including macro (worms etc.) and micro organisms (bacteria, etc.) in the soil, they will be broken down and transformed into nutrients for the plants.  The soil with the abundance of such nutrients is called black gold.  These kind of soil is:

  • very fertile and great for plants growth.  They are full of the nutrients, moisture, minerals and other matters that plants need for their growth; plants grow faster, taller and healthier with such soil;
  • holds more water.  this kind of soil is a great environment for all kinds of macro and micro organisms.  They improve the soil structure and make the soil like a sponge with many tiny holes.  This kind of soil can retain a large amount of water, making it more drought resistant.  If we have such soil in our garden, watering can be reduced by quite a bit.

In California, where drought is a constant threat, while all kinds of solutions are being explored, healthy soil, with its water holding capacity and implication for water usage reduction, can be an important part of the overall solutions.

  • can absorb more carbon.  In addition to water, soil also holds air, with a big part of that is carbon.  Plants take in carbon dioxide and water, and transform into sugars and oxygen in the photosynthesis function.

Healthy soil can also hold more carbon.  As we are facing the  climate change, which the carbon dioxide is the culprit, it turns out, soil can also play an important role for fighting climate change.   According to Nature Conservancy, “Healthy soils can help reduce the impact of climate change by storing (or sequestering) up to 10 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. But, if soils are managed poorly or cultivated through unsustainable agricultural practices, soil carbon can be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which can contribute to climate change.”

From the above, we can see how important healthy soil is for us, and fallen leaves can be one of the keys to achieving it!  Fallen leaves is something that healthy soil needs and badly craves.  In stead of dumping the leaves away, we can try following.

Use fallen leaves the right way

These are the great ways to use the fallen leaves in your home:

  • Mulch your yard with leaves.  This can provide two benefits at the same time: give soil the organic matter, and suppress the growth of weeds.  No need to shred the leaves – they can be worked into the soil fine.  If you prefer, you can shred them before mulching.

fallen leaves

  • Compost.  Leaves are an excellent source of compost materials.  Put them into a compost bin, add food scraps and others (water, etc) with the right ratio, and let the compost process begin.  After about two months, you can get good compost soil that you can apply to the plants.
  • Put them in a yard waste bin.  If your city has a yard waste collection program, put them in the specific bin.  The leaves in the bin will be sent to a compost facility instead of  a landfill.  This way you can help avoid the pollution in a landfill, and turned them into compost – something good for us.
  • Avoid using the leaf blower.  They make noise and carbon dioxide, something we don’t need more of!  If the leaves can’t be left on where they are (remember they make excellent mulch and contribute to great soil) and must be collected, just use a rake or bloom.  Enjoy the foliage while you rake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Run for Water – My Journey to the New York Marathon

The New York Marathon finished last Sunday on Nov 5, 2017.  While several days have passed, the excitement of seeing so many runners, the cheering crowd, and crossing the finish line in one of the most iconic races in the world is still so fresh on the mind.  It has been such an extraordinary experience.

marathon

Determined to Run

Though I have run marathons a couple times before, I have never run a New York Marathon. In the last 2 years, I registered for the lottery, but never won.  This year, with the high hope that “3 is the charm”, I was very sure that I would be able to make it. But the email came yet again telling me otherwise.

Hugely disappointed, I started to consider the only option, which I never looked at before – fundraising for charity. When I scrolled down the long list of organizations, came upon “Water for People”, and read through its description, right then I knew – this is it, I will fundraise to run my New York Marathon, and I will fundraise for Water for People.

Water is something that I have been working on for the last 2 years.  Run for water – there is nothing more fitting to describe my mission for this marathon.

The Drought, and WaterEfficientGarden.com

From 2011-2016, California experienced an epic drought.  At its worst, the water content in California’s snowpack was only 5% the normal level.  Suddenly, everyone realized how valuable the water resource is, and how we must do everything possible to conserve water.

From “STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032”:

“Achieving a 25 percent reduction in use will require even greater conservation efforts across the state. In particular, many communities must dramatically reduce their outdoor water use;

“In many areas, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping. Outdoor water use is generally discretionary, and many irrigated landscapes will survive while receiving a decreased amount of water;”

To convert a lawn to a water efficient garden is the most effective way to conserve water.   For a lawn of 500 square feet, it can take as much as 4000 gallons of water in a month; if it is replaced with a water efficient garden, 30% to 80% of water can be conserved.  Suppose the original household water usage is 8000 gallons a month, and the garden saves 50% of water, the total water usage will reduce to 6000 gallons, a 25% saving versus the original.

It was during the drought, WaterEfficientGarden.com was created to help more people build water efficient gardens, conserving more water.

Water for People

According to its website, “Water For People is an international nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to creating reliable, safe drinking water resources, improved sanitation facilities, and hygiene education programs in the developing world; it currently operates in 10 countries: Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, India, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia & Peru. ”

“The organization’s unique business-oriented approach works to establish partnerships between local and national government institutions, nongovernment organizations, private enterprise, and entrepreneurs to enable local communities, districts, and municipalities to plan, build, finance, maintain, and operate their own safe water and sanitation services. Water For People puts long-lasting solutions and 100% coverage of a region with safe water access for everyone at the forefront of its strategy. It fosters innovative solutions to water and sanitation problems that are adaptable worldwide, and through monitoring and evaluation of its program impact for at least 10 years post-implementation, Water For People ensures that its work is sustained by local partners.”

Water for People is rated 4 star  by Charity Navigator, the highest of the ratings.

While the angles to work on the water issue are very different, we both try to address the same root – water.  At Water for People, it aims to create more clean water resources for people; at WaterEfficientGarden.com, we want to help people conserve more water with water efficient landscaping.

Water for People

It is Global

At the New York Marathon opening ceremony, runners from every country walked in a parade, a scene that strongly reminds you of the opening ceremony of Olympics.  Yes, running is truly global today.  In the more than 50000 finishers of the New York Marathon this year, 139 countries were represented.

Brazil

Water is a critical resource for all human.  The water crisis we may be facing tomorrow is equally global.    United Nations predicts that in 2050, the number of urban dwellers living with seasonal water shortages will reach 1.9 billion, or more than a quarter of the world’s population.  A global issue takes a global effort.  We will need efforts like those of Water for People, and the energy behind the global running phenomenon to tackle the challenges together.

At WaterEfficientGarden.com, we aim to make it easier for people to build water efficient gardens, so more water can be conserved.  As STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032 indicated: “Water conservation is the easiest, most efficient and most cost-effective way to quickly reduce water demand and extend supplies into the next year, providing flexibility for all California communities. ”  One of the easiest and effective ways is to replace a lawn with water efficient garden.  Not only will it conserve water, but it can provide a beautiful view for the house, and give food to pollinators.

Water Efficient Garden

To solve the water issue globally is not unlike a marathon – it takes effort from everyone, and over a long period of time.  Just like that in a marathon though, when everyone puts their mind, sweat and work into it, the finish line can be reached ultimately.  Run for water – and we will win at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rain Garden – Turn Rain Into Beauty In Your Garden

When it rains, we enjoy hearing the sound of raindrops on our roof.  After a drought of so long in California, those drops sound more like music to our ears. While enjoying the music, have you thought about where the stormwater goes to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.  What if that water is not sent away, but reused, such as, turned into beauty in your garden?

beauty in garden
Storm water: waste or asset

In the past, stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out to waterways in nature as soon possible.   As people realize now, there are several issues of this.

First, a big chunk of water is lost.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances. It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away.

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year. Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said, ‘Stormwater could make a difference, it could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.’”

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into the waterways untreated, the toxic substances can pollute the water and harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life that live there.

One more issue is the loss of deep water infiltration.  As the water that falls on impervious surfaces such as roof and concrete is sent right away,  water that would otherwise have gone into soil, percolated and recharged the ground water is lost.

It has become clear that rainwater is not a waste, but an asset, a valuable resource of water supply, something that we should capture and reuse.  While a common way to do so is using a rain barrel, there is another more direct way – build a rain garden.

What is a rain garden?

According to Wikipedia, “a rain garden is a planted depression or a hole that allows rainwater runoff from impervious urban areas, like roofs, driveways, walkways, parking lots, and compacted lawn areas, the opportunity to be absorbed. This reduces rain runoff by allowing stormwater to soak into the ground (as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters which causes erosion, water pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater).”

“The purpose of a rain garden is to improve water quality in nearby bodies of water and to ensure that rainwater becomes available for plants as groundwater rather than being sent through stormwater drains straight out to sea. Rain gardens can cut down on the amount of pollution reaching creeks and streams by up to 30%.”

So exactly what is a rain garden? To understand, we just need to turn our eyes to nature.

Imitate the nature

In spring time, when we go to a nature reserve or park, chances are we can see fields and fields of wild flowers.  No one ever installs an irrigation system or waters these plants; they just live and keep turning out splendid blossom, year after year.  How do they do it?

The answer is, after tens of thousands years, the native plants have adapted to the environment.  In California where it rains in winter and gets dry in summer, another area in the world that has Mediterranean climate, plants take in all the water they can get in winter, grow rapidly, and bloom in spring.  When summer comes and it becomes dry, they slow their growth or simply go dormant.  They stay this way until winter, when the rains come again.  As the raindrops come down, they “wake up” from the dormancy, drink up all that water and start to grow and bloom again.

They don’t need any additional watering; they just take all the water there is and live throughout a year.  This is what plants in a rain garden will do.

At a rain garden, the depression or ditch will collect the rainwater runoff from a roof.  When it rains, water will be collected there.  The plants in the garden will absorb the rain water, and grow; When the rain season ends, they can just live on their own.  Very little or no additional watering is needed for these plants in most cases.  Just like their brothers and sisters in the nature, they can live with just the rainwater.

Compared with water supplied to each household, which is treated with chemicals to comply with the sanitary standards, guess which water the plants like better?  Plants watered with rain water can usually grow faster, bigger, and have brighter blossom.

Designing a rain garden

Like so many lawns in California, Larry’s (not his real name) lawn turned brown during the historic drought. Though the drought ended and last winter was one of the wettest on record, the lawn did not come back . The brown lawn had been bothering Larry for a long time, but he was not sure what to do about it, until he heard that his lawn can be built into a beautiful garden; not just any new garden, but a rain garden!

One of the downspouts (the one on the left) is right next to the front yard. When it rains, the rainwater will just flow into the garden. The lawn is on a very slight slope from the house to the sidewalk, so the runoff will go outwards naturally. If a shallow basin is built close to the side of sidewalk, the rainwater can reach there and be stored in it.

That is exactly the design proposed to Larry. A small winding ditch will take the rainwater from downspout, and send it to this shallow basin. Some plants will be planted.  After they absorb the rainwater in winter, they may only need a little watering in the remainder of the year, saving a remarkable amount of water.

In addition, since the garden would meet all the requirements of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebates program, the garden can apply for the rebate.

Larry liked the proposal. It was a “Go” for the rain garden!

Installing a rain garden
  • First, the shape of the garden needs to be defined.

For the safety of the foundation, the rain garden should be some distance away. Usually it is advised that at least 10 feet of space should be left between the basin and the house.

Distance

  • Next, the shape of the rain garden is outlined.

How big should the garden be?  It depends on how much runoff the roof can produce, and design an area that can take much of that runoff.

Suppose the area of the roof is 1000 square feet, with one inch of rain, it can produce about 600 gallons of runoff.  If the rain garden is 1 foot deep, to absorb this much water, it needs an area of about 80 square feet.  If the roof area is bigger, the rain garden should be larger too.

What shape can a rain garden be?  It can be of anything  – a circle, a bean, or a peanut.  The smooth, curvy lines of these shape not only look appealing, but also reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

  • Soil preparation

The bottom of a rain garden needs to be covered with a special type of soil, to help with water infiltration. It is a mixture of organic materials and coarse sand.  The bottom of the whole area that water flows by and stays should be covered with the mix.

  • Plant selection

Plants in a rain garden should be able to stand both conditions well: wet and dry. Their roots should be able to take moisture for a long time, yet also survive in hot dry summer.

One plant that fits this very well is the Douglas Iris.  A tough California native, it can be found close to beaches along the west coast.  Hardy, drought tolerant, yet tolerant of wet soil,  this is great choice for a rain garden.

The beauty of a rain garden

The garden is done!  This is before

and after

The rain garden

Rain Garden

When it rains, with a garden like this, the rainwater will be captured, and reused.  Something that was sent away before can be turned into so much beauty in our own garden!

Rethink stormwater – waste or asset?

When it rains and all the raindrops fall on our roofs, have you thought about where the stormwater go to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.

stormwater

Stormwater – a waste?

Stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out as soon as possible.  A complete infrastructure is in place to get this done: gutters and downspouts to collect rains that fall on the rooftops, drains and catchbasins to gather runoffs from downspouts, streets and parking lots, underground storm sewers will then convey all the runoffs and discharge them to a natural water system such as a creek, river and ocean.

There are a couple issues with this.  First, a big chunk of rainwater is lost to runoff.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances, which can be used directly for outdoor purposes, as well as indoor with proper filtering and cleaning.  It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away, requiring another huge set of infrastructure to deliver the water we need.

stormwater runoff

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into nature untreated, it pollutes the water system discharged into. Toxic substances from cars and pesticides can harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life.  Nutrients from the fertilizers can cause the overgrowth of algae, depleting oxygen in waterways and aquatic habitats.

The third issue is insufficient water infiltration for the soil under the impervious cover and in general.  As we can see in the illustration below, in a natural environment (left), 25% of water is infiltrated in shallow surface, and another 25% will percolate deep into the soil.  In a city environment (right), those figures drop down to 10% and 5% respectively, so the water that goes into soil reduces from 50% of total to a mere 15%, a 70% reduction.  The lack of deep infiltration is a big problem.  Without proper recharge, the groundwater is seriously depleted in many places.  As we rely on ground water as part of our water supply, this has a big impact for our water safety.

stormwater comparison

Lastly, waterway erosion and threat of flood.  As a huge amount of water is gathered and discharged into waterway, the volume and speed it packs can erode the banks of the stream or river; when the volume is too heavy, it can flood surrounding areas.

stormwater

Benefits of capturing and reusing rainwater

People’s thinking about rainwater has completely changed.  Now, rain water is no longer thought as waste; instead, it is viewed as an asset, something we need to capture and reuse.

  • A source of water supply

From 2013-2017, California experienced a historic drought.   At its worst point, the water content in the snowpack was only 5% of normal.  The drought was so severe, it was one of the worst in the state’s history.

California drought

After the drought, everyone realized we could no longer take the water supply as we knew it for granted. With climate change, drought might become more frequent and serious; on another hand, with economic expansion and population growth, our demand for water will just grow.  How can we build the reliable water supply that can meet our needs?

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. While the potential is still unknown in the Bay Area, Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year, said Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board. This may sound trivial compared to the 33 million acre-feet people use statewide each year, but it’s not. “Stormwater could make a difference,” Moore said. “It could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.”

From a cost perspective, local stormwater capture is one of the cheapest methods for water supply.  It is only more costly than urban water conservation, but much cheaper than others like recycling and ocean water desalination.

  • Reducing pollution and recharging groundwater

As the importance of rainwater is more thoroughly understood, people have been taking all kinds of steps to keep rainwater instead of letting it flow away.  In the cities, permeable surfaces are replacing the impervious ones, and more and more rain gardens have been built, in the streets, around offices and in our gardens.

When it rains, the rainwater can infiltrate the soil from the permeable surfaces and rain gardens.  In the process, harmful pollutants in the water can be filtered out; the cleaned water can percolate deep in the soil, replenishing groundwater.

Here is a storm drain at a street corner.  The catch basin around it was built into a rain garden, allowing the rain water to sink into the soil.

a rain garden at a street corner
a storm drain at a street corner
  • Reducing the threat of erosion and flood

Since water is directed away from the runoff, the total runoff volume will reduce, and the speed and energy that it packs up will lessen.  As a result, the force to erode will be smaller, and threat of flood lower.

SB231

On Oct 6 2017, SB231 was signed into law in California, making it much easier to fund and build rainwater capture projects. The key is the clarification about whether stormwater projects are subject to the exemption of prop 218:

Excerpts from SB231:

The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:

(a) The ongoing, historic drought has made clear that California must invest in a 21st century water management system capable of effectively meeting the economic, social, and environmental needs of the state.

(b) Sufficient and reliable funding to pay for local water projects is necessary to improve the state’s water infrastructure.

(c) Proposition 218 was approved by the voters at the November 5, 1996, statewide general election. Some court interpretations of the law have constrained important tools that local governments need to manage storm water and drainage runoff.

(d) Storm waters are carried off in storm sewers, and careful management is necessary to ensure adequate state water supplies, especially during drought, and to reduce pollution. But a court decision has found storm water subject to the voter-approval provisions of Proposition 218 that apply to property-related fees, preventing many important projects from being built.

….

(h) Proposition 218 exempts sewer and water services from the voter-approval requirement. Sewer and water services are commonly considered to have a broad reach, encompassing the provision of clean water and then addressing the conveyance and treatment of dirty water, whether that water is rendered unclean by coming into contact with sewage or by flowing over the built-out human environment and becoming urban runoff.

(l) The Legislature reaffirms and reiterates that the definition found in Section 230.5 of the Public Utilities Code is the definition of “sewer” or “sewer service” that should be used in the Proposition 218 Omnibus Implementation Act.

With SB231, it is clear that rainwater capture projects do qualify for the Prop 218 exempts, making them much easier to fund and build.

To summarize, facing the ever increasing demand for water and a future with possibly longer and more frequent drought, we now look at stormwater with a completely new perspective.  Gone are the days when we think of it as a waste; instead we know it is a great asset, and will try to capture and reuse it in a way that will benefit us, and the environment the best.

Fall is a great time to install a water efficient garden

As the leaves on the trees have started to turn yellow, we know that fall is here.  Here in the Silicon Valley in California, quite some  lawns are also brown.  Though California’s historic drought already ended in spring, many people keep the habit of water conservation and continue to let the lawns go brown.  While this shows we have all been doing our part to conserve water which we can be proud of, the lawn, well, can look a little bit nicer……here comes the good news:  fall is a very good time to remove the lawn, plant water efficient plants and have a beautiful garden! Not only is the time great for plants, thanks to landscape conversion rebate programs such as the one offered by Santa Clara Water District, by doing it now, you may also receive some rebates.

Brown Lawn

Fall is one of the best times for planting

Fall is one of the best times in the year for planting. There are several reasons for this.

  • Temperature.  Very cold winter and very hot summer days can be harsh for young plants.  Fall offers the optimal temperature.
  • In time for the rainy season.  After plants are placed in soil, to establish and grow in the new place, they need the soil to be wet enough so the roots can stabilize and grow.  With California’s Mediterranean climate, the rainy season comes in winter and early spring.   When planted in fall, the plants have the right amount of time to settle in the new environment, and take the full advantage of rains when they come in winter.
  • Great for spring bloomers.  A lot of plants bloom in spring.  If they are planted in fall, by next spring some of them may grow enough to bloom. Blossom in spring – what a lovely view!
  • Good for pollinators.  Most of the plants in a water efficient garden can provide food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, which are so important for us.  However, their population have been on a decline.  Bees need more plants that they can feed on.  By growing plants in fall, come spring time bees will have much more places to go to have their meal.
Many beautiful plants to choose from

There are a large collection of plants that are both water efficient and beautiful.  If the lawn is replaced with plants that are on the Qualifying Plant List of Santa Clara Water District Landscape Rebate Program, it is eligible to receive the rebate of $1 per square feet.  Browse some of these water efficient plants here.

Flower

Planted in fall, bloom in spring

These two gardens were planted in last fall, after just a winter, they all grew phenomenally and bloomed in spring this year.   Last winter was one of the wettest on record, which definitely helped.

This California native garden was installed last October.  How long did it take to bloom?  Less than half year!  And it lasted all the way through summer.

Fall
Oct
Spring
May
Flower in spring
May

This garden was installed in late last fall.  It also bloomed in early spring, just several months after the installation.

Garden in Dec
Dec
Flower in spring
May
Conserve water, enjoy the garden

A beautiful garden is not only something you can enjoy everyday, but will also go a long way to conserve water.  Although California’s drought already ended, as Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement, “This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner.  Conservation must remain a way of life.”

Outdoor watering for a lawn typically accounts for half or more of an household’s total water use; to convert a lawn to a water efficient garden, the water consumption for outdoor watering can be reduced by 30 to 60%, for total household 15 -40%.

You may receive rebate by removing the lawn and putting in water efficient plants now ($1 per square feet if all requirements are met).  Find out more about the Santa Clara Landscape Conversion Rebate Program here.

Water saving by water efficient garden Why wait?  Now is the great time to plan and build that lovely water efficient garden!  Find out more information at WaterEfficientGarden.com.

water efficient garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apple Park – a Spaceship and 9000 Trees

On Sept 12, Apple announced the launch of iPhone 8 and other products at its new Steve Jobs theater, which is part of the brand new campus Apple Park.  While the world finally got to see the next generation of iPhone and other hotly-anticipated products, it also got a glimpse of the near complete Apple park, a project that has been in the works since 2014.

Apple Park

Apple Park sits on a 150 acres lot , 1 mile from its current headquater in Cupetino, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It  is the brainchild of the legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, a legacy project of his.  “I want to leave a signature campus that expresses the values of the company for generations.”   (Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p.535).  Everyone were curious to find out: how would this be achieved?

Spaceship, and 9000 trees

The most famous part of the Apple Park, of course, is the unique shape of its office building.  As Steve Jobs said, “It’s like a spaceship has landed.” Creative, high tech, cutting-edge, futuristic… a very fitting image for the world’s most valuable high tech company.

Spaceship

Is the spaceship the only major feature of the Apple Park?  No.  If one takes a walk around Apple Park, he will see lots and lots of green – the campus is fully surrounded by trees and plants, not just inside, but also outside of the fence that separates the campus from the rest of the city.

Apple Park 2

Apple Park 3

Why all this green?  Two obvious answers will jump to one’s mind: beautifying the campus, and privacy.  Sure.  However, there are some deeper reasons.

According to “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, “One of his (Steve’s)  lingering memories was of the orchards that had once dominated the area, so he hired a senior arborist from Stanford and decreed that 80% of the property would be landscaped in a natural manner, with six thousand trees.   ‘I asked him (the arborist) to make sure to include a new set of apricot orchards, you used to see them everywhere, even on the corners, and they’re pare of the legacy of this valley. ‘’’  (p.536)

So the trees and plants here are not just to to green up the space, but to serve two other very important purposes: to honor the legacy of the area, and create an environment that will look like the natural landscape around here.

Steve Jobs liked to walk at Stanford Dish, a trail around a large satellite dish with views of rolling hills that make up the valley.  He admired the hundreds of live oaks there so much that he asked his people to track down the arborist who planted them, and hired him to be the senior arborist of the new Apple Park.  As Steven Levy of Backchannel said,  Jobs “wanted to create a microcosm of Silicon Valley, a landscape reenactment of the days when the cradle of digital disruption had more fruit trees than engineers. In one sense, the building would be an ecological preservation project; in another sense, it’d be a roman a clef written in soil, bark, and blossom.”

Dish
A view on Stanford Dish; the dish can be seen on the left

The result is a 150 acre campus that is 80% landscaped, with fruit trees, Califonia natives, and drought tolerant plants from other regions.  The campus now has 9000 trees, 50% more than Jobs’ original number.

Bring back the “Old Valley” with California native plants

Just from the outside, one can see how Jobs’ vision is being realized.

Here, you can see lots of oak trees.  Per Re-Oaking Silicon Valley, “In Silicon Valley, oak ecosystems were the defining feature of the landscape before large-scale transformation. Oak savannas and woodlands were so extensive that the valley was christened the Llano de los Robles, or Plain of the Oaks, by early explorers.”  While we are far away from that now, these oak trees and others can bring us one step closer to it.

Oak

Here, you can see oak, strawberry tree, and perenials of yarrow and Douglas iris, all “big” California natives.  All of them adpat well to California’s mediterrian climate, very drought tolerant and hardy.

Douglas Iris is a beautiful plant native to California coast.  They bloom in spring, with purple blue flowers amid long green leaves.

Apple Park 4

Manzanita, another big California native

manzanita

Seaside Daisy.  You can find them at many coastal locations.  They thrive in windy, cold and dry environments, with all the pretty purple blossom.

Seaside Daisy

California Lilac

All these California native plants not only render the campus a beautiful place, but help bring back an old valley that existed before the transformation.  What is more, since they are all drought tolerant, much less water is needed, helping to conserve  a large amount of water .

When we are planning our own gardens, we can borrow a page from Apple, to build very water efficient yet pretty gardens with mostly native and drought tolerant plants.  If you replace your lawn with a water efficient garden, you may receive rebate by removing the lawn and putting in water efficient plants now ($1 per square feet if all requirements are met).  Find out more about the Santa Clara Landscape Conversion Rebate Program here.

Irrigate trees with recycled water

While most plants are native and only need a little water once established, when they were just planted, they still need quite some water to settle.  As we can see, all the trees and planting areas are equipped with automatic irrigation, receiving regular watering.

9000 trees on the campus need a lot of water.  To address this need, Apple planned something well ahead.  It partly funded a project to lay pipes and bring recyled water to the campus.   Per Jordan Kahn of 9to5mac.com, “Apple catalyzed talks among the various water stakeholders in the area, making plain its desire to use recycled water on its new campus, said Katherine Oven, deputy operating officer of the water district… ”Apple drove this project,” she said. ‘It really is a true partnership of both public and private agencies.’”  The project finished in late 2016, in time for most of the trees and plants’ arrival.

By using recycled water, Apple can further reduce its net water usage, conserving more water.  In a world where water the resource just keeps getting more scarce relative to our demand, recycled water has become a bigger and bigger part of the overall water strategy.  How Apple waters its vast campus sets a good example.

Benefits of Trees

Trees can provide many benefits in addition to honoring a place’s legacy.  They can

  • Improve air quality by reducing pollution and filtering out a big portion of the fine particle pollutants, and noises.  In places with many trees, the air just feels more fresh and the environment quieter.  In a city like Tokyo, although it has a population of over 9 million people and heavy car traffic, abundance of trees and vegetation must have played a big role in making it very clean (air) and quiet.
  • Reduce stress.  Last year a study found that simply looking at trees can reduce your stress.  If one gets more active by taking a walk or jog in the trees, the health benefit can be more significant.
  • Cool down the environment during hot summer days and reduce air conditioning energy and cost.  While we are having more and more heat waves and extreme hot weathers in summer, the cooling effect of the trees have become ever more important.  By reducing the energy required for air conditioning, we can further cut down the green house gas and its warming effect.
  • Increase biodiversity.  A big tree like an oak can support a big ecosystem, with all kinds of insets, birds, small animals such as mouses and squirrels, as well as the plants that have been living close to it for tens of thousands of years.  Each ecosystem can contribute to the health and richness of the much bigger ecosystem of the whole area.
  • Manage storm water and reduce the hazard of a flood.  During storms trees can absorb a large amount of water, reduce runoff, reduce the speed and power of the rainfall, thus reduce the hazard of a flood in the city.

With all these benefits and more, it is easy to see why we should plant more trees.  At office parks, at our own gardens, in the streets and parks.  Include a tree or two when planning a water efficient garden.

Office and Trees: Yin and Yang of an Office Park

When Steve Jobs presented Apple Park’s plan to the Cupertino city council, he said, “I think we have a shot at building the best office building in the world.”

On the one hand, the Apple Park has a building in the very bold and creative shape of a spaceship; on the other, 9000 trees that take up 80% of the space.  One is for innovation, technology, and products; another is for environment, nature, beauty, and inspiration; one eyes the future, the other ties to the place where we come from.

The building and trees are like Yin and Yang for Apple Park.  Together they make this environment where people want to absorb the best the nature offers, and create the best technology and products in return.

 

 

Birds At an Aquatic Habitat: What Changes Could You See After Storms?

In Santa Clara county where the Silicon Valley is located, Los Gatos Creek is one of the few urban streams that remains relatively intact throughout countless developments in the area during the last 200 years.  The stream originates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, flows into the Vasona Reservoir, winds through a small valley, and clears into the Guadalupe river that finally empties into the San Francisco Bay.  It is one of the many steams and creeks in the vast Guadalupe River watershed, and a habitat for many wetland species.

Los Gatos Creek Map

Watersheds are critical habitats for birds, fishes and other animals that live a wetland environment.  200 years ago, before any of the modern developments, the creek must have been a heaven for the birds and fishes.  At the time, all kinds of birds could be seen flying in the sky and resting in the creek; fishes swimming through the creek in massive numbers.

Unfortunately, in the 200 years since, “about 90% of California’s original aquatic habitat has been altered or destroyed through human activities”, more than any other states in the nation.  What we see in Los Gatos Creek today is one of the 10% that remains.

Los Gatos Creek

Today many of the parks like Los Gatos Creek often provides the only refuge in urban areas for native wetland species.  They have been living here for tens of  thousands of years.   During migration season some species of birds will also come and use the place as a resting area, critical for their survival.  If the park no longer exists, or its environment dramatically changes, it can be devastating for all the birds that have been depending on it for so many years.

Bird sightings at normal time

The birds that can be seen most often are Canadian goose.

Los Gatos Creek

Canada Goose

Great egret and snowy egret can also be seen from time to time.

snowy egret

This was in the migration season of November.  These birds were taking a rest before they flew out to their next destination.

Bird sightings after storms in 2016 winter

After an epic, historic 5 year drought, starting from late fall of 2016, California went from extremely dry to extremely wet, with record breaking rainfalls.   Heavy rains pummeled from late fall all the way  into spring, in some places floods and mudslides occurred.  At Los Gatos creek, parts of the trail were also flooded several times.

Flood

The new “stream” in the previous trail was quickly discovered by some lovely “guests”.  They came in swiftly, playing in this new playground of theirs, relaxing, fishing and enjoying a good meal!

Feeding

Same as these ducks, quite some birds found out the new water and came right in.  Here is normally what you would see when you cross a bridge to enter the trail and look down at the water .  The right side of the creek bed is completely dry.  On the morning after several heavy storms in January, though, the whole span of the creek bed was fully filled with flood water.  On the muddy yellow water you could see these two little birds, guests that were not seen here before.

Creek

Two Birds

They are hooded mergansers.

After you walked a bit more along the trail, there was another surprise waiting.  A Double Crested Cormorant was “relaxing” on a tree, which was never seen here either.  She streatched her wings, turning her head from left to right, right to left, then left to right….with the kind of excitement of a baby.  In the second photo, the two small birds could also be seen swimming in the same place.

Bird

Bird 2

The cormorant really liked it here. In the next 2-3 weeks you can see her swimming, resting and relaxing in this particular spot.

Bird

Bird

Bird

Even more surprises ahead.  After you went further down the creek and came to this spot – Look!  literally a bird’s paradise.  So many birds, of different species, gathered here, rested in this comfy patch made from branches and grasses brought by the flood water.  The patch was right in the middle of the creek, providing the birds all they needed: food, shelter, and a fun place to hang out.  After just one  day, though, the patch was gone, so went all the birds.  Such a view was not seen again.

birds after storm

A great blue heron, and a great egret:

Birds

In the next 2-3 weeks when it continued to rain hard, more birds usually unseen could be found at the creek.

Bird

Bird

2 couples of the mallard duck.  Look at that beautiful blue stripe.

A big group of the American coot, on the flooded trail.  While coots can be seen often, such a big group was only seen during this time.

birds

A big bird was seen here at the tree right beside the trail, towards the end of the rainy season. She really enjoyed the tree and stayed on it for hours, ignoring all the people who passed by on the trail.  She was seen only once.  This is a black-crowned night-heron.

Bird on a tree

Birds, habitat, and water

The heavy rains at Los Gatos Creek gave us a valuable opportunity to observe how a sudden increased level of water would mean for the creek habitat, and the ecosystem.  If we just look at the birds, the answer is clear: they loved all that water.  While we don’t have a count for the birds’ numbers during the storm time, the number of species, and the size of the bird groups we saw, increased quite significantly.  This happened with just 2 months of storms, one could only imagine how it would turn out if the same rains continued for a longer time.

In the last 5 years, when California experienced the epic drought, the birds, and the whole ecosystem at the aquatic habitats must have been very stressed.  They lost a big chunk of their habitat; at the habitats that did remain, water was way more scarce than usual.  As Professor Peter Moyle from University of California, Davis pointed out, “Drought is hard enough on us, and on farmers, and cities, and so forth.  It’s really hard on the fish, really hard on the aquatic and riparian systems.”

Continue with water conservation

Water will just become more scare in the future, relative to our demand for it, with population growth, economic expansion, and climate change.  How can we manage and use it , so that we not only will have enough for ourselves, but also for the birds and fishes in the aquatic and reparian habitats?

While all kinds of solutions are being explored, one thing is clear: we must continue to conserve water,  which is the easiest and cheapest solution among all.  In California, we use half of our water in outdoor landscaping.  If we can all switch to water efficient gardening, we can surely save a significant amount of water.  As we see in the picture, when we save water with drought tolerant plants like these Mexican bush sages, we no only save for us, but also those birds in the creek.

Lake

 

A Purple Dream – From Start to Bloom

When this garden was transformed from a weedy turf to a water efficient garden, not only would it save water, but a seed of a purple dream was also planted.  When the garden was being planned, the idea was to have this dream place with the purple splendor.  Lavenders lined two complete sides of the garden, as well as the parking strip.  When the garden was finished, everyone was eager to find out: when will the purple walk come into life?

weedy turf

a garden with lavender

a walk with lavenders on both sides

Growth in Spring

Spring 2017 was a season blessed with heavy rains.  After the garden was done in early spring, in two months of time, the plants had grown a lot.

lavenders grew up

While the lavenders had not bloomed, rockroses put on their pretty pink flowers, giving the garden that “pop”, just in time when the pink and red blossom from camillas receded.

Rockroses are drought tolerant, require only little water once established. Planted in early spring, the blossom broke out after just 2 months.  Tough yet pretty, this is a great choice for a water efficient garden.

rockrose

 

These other plants also grew a lot and bloomed.

Yellow Bloom

Purple Blossom in Summer

With waves of heat the summer arrived.  How are the lavenders?  The purple that everyone have been waiting is here!

purple blossom

Most lavenders had their first bloom, just couple months after they were planted.  Not a full blown purple walk yet, but very clearly heading there.

purple walk

Walking on the sidewalk, you can smell that strong aroma of lavender’s. They remind you of those wildflower meadows out in the country under the blue sky. Meanwhile, you can see dozens of bees flying in the bushes, making the buzz sound everywhere they go.

Great for Bees

Like many other native and drought tolerant plants, lavender is a bee’s magnet. Bees love to feed on them, better yet, they bloom for a long time, usually from summer to early fall, which means they can provide food to the bees for a rather long period.  As bees are on on a decline, planting more bee friendly plants like lavender has become more important.

bees on lavender

Lavenders are drought tolerant.  As a matter of fact, they don’t like to stay in wet soils.  Over-watering is one of the most common reasons that lavenders die.  Using drip irrigation, just provide enough water when first planted, then water it occasionally once established – they can grow fast and well.

drip irrigation

A Purple Dream With Less Water

When the garden was built, it was designed to be water efficient: drought tolerant plants, drip irrigation, automatic controller with rain sensor.  The garden complied with all the requirements of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebate program and received the rebate upon finish.

In just several months, this garden grew from a collection of small plants into one filled with purple splendor and color.  It adds this nice view to the house, realize the “purple dream”, filled the air with the pleasant lavender aroma.  Better yet, all these were achieved with much less water than what were required for the lawn before.  Although California is no longer in a drought,  one big lessen we learned was that water is valuable, and we must cherish and conserve it to the best we can.

As Gov. Jerry Brown said, “Water conservation must remain our way of life.”  As ourdoor watering typically accounts for half or more of a household’s water use in California, building a water efficient garden can save us a significant amount of water and go a long way towards that goal.

 

 

 

 

How Does Tokyo Make Its Space Green

We all know how important it is to have trees and plants in the cities.  They absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, filter harmful particles from the air, lower temperatures – just to name a few.  With population growth and climate change, it is more important than ever to have more trees and greenery in the city.  Tokyo, with a population of over 9 million, is one of the most populous cities in the world.  How does Tokyo make its city green?  Some observations from a recent visit provides some interesting lessons.

Create more space for plants

In big cities, every inch of land is valuable.  Everyone wants more trees and green, but where to plant them?  Well, turns out, if you can’t do it on the ground, you can do it elsewhere.  Take a look…

In an office building

In this building, you don’t see a glass wall at second and third floors, instead you see…trees!  Yes, trees, tall and dense as they block out most of the outer spaces at these floors.   Only from the 4th floor up will you see the glass walls .  This is a green building, literately.

a green building 1

 

a green building 2

On the wall

This is a big train station, with a bullet train station inside.  The foot traffic can be heavy.  Look at this stair – the wall is completely covered by plants.

a green wall under a stair

Opposite the station entrance, is another wall, also covered by plants. Over the wall is a busy boulevard with heavy traffic, but you almost can not feel it, as here on this side all you feel is quiet and comfort.

a green wall

On the base of a flower bed

Not just a flower bed, but one with a green “skirt”?  Nice.  Planting at the base of the flowered bed adds more plants and green to the space, enhance the view, make the air fresher and environment quieter.

a green flower bed

A space of trees doubles as…

In Tokyo, trees don’t simply line the streets, they are used in quite some other ways.  Here a space with trees and plants is used as…

A rest station

This space is in front of a shopping plaza, just off a busy boulevard in Ginza, Tokyo.  Here the colorful sitting blocks in the trees and plants provide a perfect rest area for shoppers and people who walk by.

a rest station

A part of art

You will find this beautiful view at a street corner right across an entrance of the Imperial Palace and the moat surrounding the palace. Here, the tree is the centerpiece of this very elegant piece of art. According to the information bulletin, “These camphor trees (ones shown in the photo) have been on the site since the 1970s, long pre-dating the construction of the building.  During construction they were planted elsewhere, and then replanted…as a symbol of the building.” The 2 jade boats on the water is a throwback to the days when “Tokyo was once a city where boats piled the moat as a waterway”.  Trees here have become an integral part of the environment, and history.

a tree as the centerpiece

At the train station shown above, the green wall is like a piece of art too. Look at the all the greens of different shades, heights and textures.

a green wall 3

Bicycle Friendliness

Tokyo is a city quite friendly for bicycles.  In some parts of the city, the bicycle lane is not in the streets, but on sidewalks.  The bicycle and pedestrians lanes are distinguished by the different colors on the floor – red for pedestrians and grey for bicycles.  It is safe and easy to ride a bicycle here.

bike lane on sidewalk

There are parking areas for bicycles on the sidewalks, near a train station, etc.

bikes in Tokyp street

Using bicycles, instead of cars in a city can reduce carbon emissions, help with the air quality and reduce the heat island effect.  Facilities like these make it easy for bicycling to be a way of life.

In summary, while Tokyo is a big metropolitan city of over 9 million people, aboundance of trees and greenary makes it a much cleaner (air) and quieter city than you would imagine for such a big population.  Trees are critically important for a city’s environment, we can plant more of them in the place we live in too – in the streets, parks, and our gardens.

 

A California Native Garden: How Long Does It Take to Bloom?

When a garden is installed, naturally, everyone hope all the plants will establish and grow. Specifically, everyone wonder: how long will it take to bloom?  Last fall, in the blog post “From Brown to California Native Charm” we talked about how a brown lawn was transformed into a charming garden with many California native plants.  It looked great when finished, but when will it become a garden full of flowers?

A water efficient garden just installed

Winter Time

2016 was an unusually wet winter, with copious amount of heavy rains. At night, the frost was quite brutal to the new plants.  Luckily, with the exception of two to three plants, all were live and well.  The plants did not grow too much during the whole winter time, about 5 months after they were planted.

a water efficient garden 2 months after install
Winter, in the rain
Spring Time

When spring came, it surely looked different!  Colors started popping up, became bigger and denser later in spring.

a water efficient garden in spring
April
a water efficient garden in spring
May

There are 3 prominent California native plants in the garden : Matilija Poppy, California Golden Poppy,  and Monkey Flower, which all bloomed at this time.  Others like Hot Lip Sage, Blanket Flower, and Primrose also bloomed wonderfully.

CA native plants in bloom

Summer Time

As summer approached, temperatures rose sharply.  Several heat waves hit the San Francisco bay area, with temperature going up to as high as over 90F.  How did the plants hold up?  Did they fizzle?

Not a chance!  With the hot weather all the plants remain strong.  As if spurred by the heat, the California native Red Buckwheat exploded into this splendid blossom, like a dancer in hot pink bursting onto the stage. The blanket flower also expanded its early colors into full blown spectacle.  A garden full of colors finally came, just 8 months after the plants were first planted!

a water efficient garden in summer

From First Planted to Bloom

As this garden illustrates, for a water efficient garden with mostly native and drought tolerant plants, it only takes 7- 8 months to go from newly planted to full bloom.  In this case, if you install a garden in fall, you can see the first blossom next spring.  Isn’t that nice?

The plants can really grow during this period of time.  In winter they did not seem to grow much, when they might just be storing the energy; when spring arrived, that energy came out in full force and propelled the rapid growth like magic.

Look at this native plant Red Buckwheat.  When it was first planted in October, it was this tiny plant.  After 6 months in May, it grew quite a bit, but there was no flower yet.  Then, in the next 2-3 weeks, all of a sudden, the bush expanded by two times in size and the hot pink blossom broke out from nowhere.  It is quite a view.

CA native plant growing process

The blanket flower also went through the same magic.

CA native plant growing process

Benefits of a Water Efficient Garden

Before this garden was installed, it was a lawn (turned brown from saving water during the drought).  Now that the new garden is fully grown, we can do a comparison.  How do they stack up?  What are the benefits of a water efficient garden?

a lawn in CA drought

Saving water

To keep the lawn lush and green, it needs about 600 gallons of water a week, and even more in the extremely hot days like the ones over 90F couple weeks ago.  The garden that was installed, on the other hand, only needs about 1/6 – 1/4 as much.  This means some 1500 gallons of water can be saved in a month, enough for 3 months of indoor use for an average family in California.  The secret to this much water saving?  the plants – all are drought tolerant, and  drip irrigation system.

A Beautiful View for the House

With all the vibrant colors the garden adds a beautiful view for the house. Better yet, it changes with different seasons.  In May, it was yellow with the California Golden Poppy; in June, the hot pink from Red Buckwheat and red from blanket flower splashed the space.

Provide Food to Bees

Bees and other pollinators like the native plants, as they have been feeding on them for hundreds of thousands of years.  Look at these bees on this Golden Poppy – they just like it, even when most its flowers already faded and they can find other plants in the same garden.  Bees are hugely important for us, yet they have been on a decline.  Plant more native plants in our garden,  bees surely will appreciate it!

a bee on a Golden Poppy

Santa Clara Rebate Program Open

The Santa Clara Landscape Conversion Rebate Program is still open, and you can apply for its rebate.  Take advantage of the program and plan for converting your lawn to a water efficient garden.  Find out details here.

Act today, and see a water efficient garden in bloom tomorrow!

a water efficient garden in bloom