Great Makeover Story: From Barren to Beauty (1)

This story is about an amazing transformation from barren to beauty.

When the owners moved into the house, the first thing they wanted to change was the front and back yards.  It was barren, utterly unattractive.  The main part of the front yard was this hard surface covered with sand.  It had been used as a parking space for years.  The backyard had the similar hard sandy surface as the path, with a big bush of catti plants in the middle.  When it was windy, the sands from the surfaces would be blown up and hit everything around: people, dogs, kids.  It could be messy.

Barren old front yard

Old Back Yard

The owner wanted beautiful landscapes for their yards; meanwhile, they also wanted something that is environmentally friendly, that would not use a lot of water.  To be “good” to the environment was important for them.  They wanted to be efficient for all natural resources, keeping the footprint on environment as small as possible.

Addressing the challenges of building a garden

When one looked at the front yard, the challenges for building a garden was obvious.  A big lot.  Hard surface. No top soil.  And, on a slope.  For plants to grow well, at the minimum, they would need water and soil.  How would these be addressed?

Capture and reuse rain Water

When one checked on the site, they would see two downspouts, one on each side of the house, come right down to the lot.   They pointed to hard surface, which would just let the rainwater runoff.   That is quite a waste.   Rainwater is an excellent resource of water, which can be used to water plants.   To capture and reuse rain water, one can use a rain barrel, or build a rain garden.  As the the front yard is on a slope where rain water would flow down naturally, a rain garden built close to the bottom of the slope could capture the rain water and reuse it well.

Downspout 1
Downspout 1
Downspout 2
Downspout 2

When it doesn’t rain, plants still need water to establish and grow.  For irrigation of a water efficient garden, drip irrigation is the way to go.  It can point to the root area for each plant precisely, so water can get to where it is needed exactly, without mass runoff.  Compared with a sprinkler system, drip can save water by 30-60%.

Select hardy and drought tolerant plants

As the soil under the surface is very hard from years of being used as a parking lot, it was not the best soil for many plants.  Ideally, the soil could be improved with materials such as compost and organic matters over a longer period of time; however, the option was not  available due to the time limit of the project.  This made the selection of plants especially important.

Many native  and other plants are adapted to California’s soil system and can thrive in all kinds of soils.  They can be hardy for tough environments, and need little water once established.  They also have other benefits.  A lot of them produce blossom that are good food for pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds, supporting a vibrant Eco system.

California Native Plant

Repurpose of the existing plants

For the design of the back yard, it was decided that the bush of cactus plants would go; the space would be emptied for other uses.  The catti plants thrived well in the micro system around the house, making them a a good bet for the soil conditions in the front yard.  Instead of discarding them, the catti would be reused for front yard.

Catti Bush

Building the garden

After the design of the garden was finished, the project entered installment.

Installing a rain garden

There are several parts to this.  First, proper discharge of rain water from the down spout.  Instead of letting the rainwater just go down to the ground and run off, the water would be drained into the garden.  Ditches were dug, pipes were connected.   Two  channels were also dug from the end of the pipes to the rain garden.  When it rains, rain water would be discharged out of the pipes, into the channel, then flow into the rain garden.

Pipe 1

Pipe 2

Stream 1

Stream 2

Then an area was dug for the rain garden.   The shape of the rain garden usually is round or curvy, to reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

After that, plants were put into the rain garden.  There are some special requirements for such plants.  Specifically, they should be able to stand both wet and dry conditions well.  Better yet, they can add color and texture to the garden, making the garden look even more attractive.

Lastly, the whole area of the channels and rain garden were filled with pebble stones.  Once the stones were added, two “streams” and a “pond” came into life.  When it rains, all the roof’s rain water would flow into the stream,  out to the pond, seep through the pebbles, water the plants, then percolate deep down and recharge ground water, an act badly needed for our environment.

Rain Garden 1

Rain Garden 2

In big cities where surfaces like concrete is prevalent, only 5% of rain water can infiltrate deep into the soil, depriving groundwater the opportunity of being recharged.  Areas like rain garden can change that and let as much as 25% of rain water go deep under.  Recharging groundwater  is very important for keeping a healthy water system and providing backup when drought hits.

Impervious Cover

A lovely catti Area

Catti plants are favorites for many people!  They come in all kinds of shapes, colors and forms, some of them sporting splendid and beautiful flowers.  They are very drought tolerant, needing only very little water once they are established.  Catti plants can fill out a full garden, or can be integrated as part of a bigger garden, just like what was being done here.  Here they fill out the long stripe along the driveway, offering something wonderful to see and enjoy when one comes home.

Catti Plant 1

Catti Plant 2

A magnet for bees  and birds

Plants with splendid blossom provide the food that bees, birds and other pollinators depend on.  As bees’ population has been on a decline,  it is even more important that we provide places where these small creatures can feed on and take a good break.  Compared with a lawn which does not provide any food or shelter, gardens with drought tolerant and native plants can become a paradise for bees and birds.

Here, this plant was planted in a row along the pathway.  When it blooms, it has this bright beautiful blossom that is hard to miss.  It is not just us who love them,  bees and birds crave them too!

Plant for Bee

Bee

Parking Strip not to be ignored

Compared with the main garden, quite often, parking strips are “after thoughts” since they are a bit small.  However, in quite some cases they still have sizable spaces, and are an important part of the front space.  They can also be filled with the drought tolerant plants and native plants, adding to the curb appeal, and food for bees and birds.

Parking Strip 1

Adding Mulch

After the garden is finished, an important step is to cover the whole surface with mulch.  There are several benefits of this.  First, they can significantly slow down water evaporation, keep soil moist longer so reduce water required for the plants.  They can also suppress the growth of weeds, further reducing water usage.  Third, organic mulch like this made from bark can disintegrate into the soil over time, adding to the organic matters in the soil, improving soil quality and water retention capability.  Aesthetically, they provide this backdrop for all the foliage and blossom, making the space look even more appealing.

A brand new garden

Tieing all the elements together…the new garden was born!  The space has dramatically changed.  Here was how it was like:

Old Yard

And the new garden:

A rain garden doing well in rain

Shortly after the garden was finished, several storms hit the area.  How did the garden do in the rain?

All came out to be good!  Water flew into the stream and pond as designed; plants enjoyed the rain and grew well.

Off the garden, water that came down from impervious surfaces like driveway pooled into runoff, which would flow out to a sewer and empty into the streams and rivers.  There were lots of pollutants in the runoff which would hurt the animals living in the waters, and pollute the broader water system.  That is why we should limit the areas with impervious cover and try to build more rain gardens, like the one shown here.

With a design of native and drought tolerant plants, the front space of this residence has been completely transformed.  Not only has it gone from utterly unattractive to beautiful, but also become  a wonderful place for bees, birds and butterflies.   As the plants are drought tolerant, only a little water will be needed after the plants are established.  Low water use, beautiful, great for the bees – water efficient gardens can add so much charm for your space!

Bees love them, they are planted heavily around the Apple campus

Last year, 5 years after Apple’s legendary co-founder Steve Jobs unveiled the “spaceship” design for the new Apple campus, the project finally finished and the new campus started its use.  While the huge spaceship is undoubtedly the most striking element of the campus, there is another equally important yet less known feature.

It is this massive amount of plants planted on the campus, which fills out the 3 acre space – 9000 trees, and countless California native and other drought tolerant plants.

It is not something that just happened that way – it is by design.  When Steve Jobs was planning the campus, from the very beginning he was very adamant that it should just be like what Silicon Valley was  before the digital transformation.  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.”  Today the campus fulfills that vision.  Inside and outside, the space is fully filled with trees and shrubs, many of them California natives.

A plant that grow in abundance on the campus is California Lilac.  On an early morning in March, a stroll along the campus could find that some of the lilacs grew to be big bushes already in less than one year’s time.   They are blooming, with massive bright blue blossom.

Native plants around Apple campus

Native plants around Apple campus 2

Close up, you will see some small creatures busy at work.

A bee on a lilac

A bee on a lilac 2

Bees at work

The bees were busy collecting pollens, which is their food.  Look at the two small yellow balls – they sure have collected quite a bit of pollen!

When the bees flying from flowers to flowers collecting their pollens, they rub pollens from a flower onto another, pollinating the flowers, which enables fertilization and turns the flowers into fruits. As most flowers need pollination to grow into fruits, without these small creatures, we can’t enjoy a lot of the fruits we are so accustomed to having every day.

Look around us – from the apple we ate in the morning, to the jeans we wear (cotton), and blueberries we snacked on in the afternoon, they all have bees to thank for.  Bees pollinate 75% of world’s main crops.  According to USDA, bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion or more of American crops per year. It is hard to imagine a world without the bees pollinating all those crops!

A bee on a lilac 3

Bees on a decline

Unfortunately, in the last several decades, bees have been on a decline. According to a study by Center for Biological Diversity (author Kelsey Kopec, a pollinator researcher):

  • “Among native bee species with sufficient data to assess (1,437), more than half (749) are declining.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (347 native bee species) is imperiled and at increasing risk of extinction.”

For one of the wild bees, the rusty patched bumble bee, its population has declined by so much (almost 90%) since 1990s that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as an endangered species in early 2017.  The bee became first wild bee in the continental United States to be listed as endangered species.

Why such decline?  In the same study, the author indicated that “A primary driver of these declines is agricultural intensification, which includes habitat destruction and pesticide use. Other major threats are climate change and urbanization.”

Loss of habitat is one of the top reasons for loss of bees, which makes total sense.  The bees have been feeding on the plants in their native land for hundreds of thousands of years; when the habitats are lost to farming or industrialization, the plants are gone, so are the bees.

Native plants for bees

Bees need flowers’ nectar and pollen for their food; they especially like those from native plants, which is something that they have been feeding on for hundreds of thousands of years.  The California Lilac seen here at the Apple campus, is a big California native, and a favorite for bees with its dense blue blossom.  Lilac can bloom from late spring to summer, providing a good 4-5 months of food to the bees.

Another big native plant, the state flower, California Golden Poppy, also attract bees when they bloom.

Golden poppy on a field

Golden Poppy

Seaside Daisy, and Yarrow, heavily planted around the Apple campus, are two other natives that bees love.

Seaside Daisy

Apple Park 3

Plant more natives, restore the habitat

As bees play such a critical role for the ecosystem we live in, and for our food and agriculture business, we should do everything we can to provide them a good environment, putting them back onto a path for healthy growth. One critical step to achieve this is plant more native and other pollinator friendly plants.

Apple has done this by planting massive amounts of native plants on its campus; Many city parks and nature reserves also use their vast spaces for the purpose.  Here you can see California Lilac in a city park and a nature reserve in the San Francisco Bay area.  These are all great examples, but we can do more.

Lilac in a park
California Lilac in a city park
California Lilac in a nature reserve. See the bees on the blue blossom

In the last several decades, lawns have become the dominate landscapes for most single family residences in the country. People now realize, lawns not only consume a lot of water – over half of the water is used for outdoor watering in California, but also contribute to the loss of habitats for bees and other pollinators.  The stretch after stretch of green provides hardly any food or shelter for the bees.

By replacing lawns with native and other bee friendly plants, we can gradually put back the habitats that were lost, piece by piece.  We can help restore the habitats, starting from our own house.

The owner of this place wanted to replace their back yard with something much more attractive.  They decided to put in drought tolerant landscapes, and applied for Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebate Program.  During the project, when they saw a lilac, they wanted it for their garden right away.  The project was finished quickly and they received the rebate promptly.  Now, they can enjoy the lovely garden, and the striking beauty the lilac provides.  Bees surely will love the new lilac too!

This garden is filled with California natives.  It was installed in fall, by next spring the bloom was already full on, with bees busy feasting on the Golden Poppy, Buckwheat and Matilijia Poppy. On a day in summer, while the poppy was already near its end of the bloom, a bee could still be seen working on it.

A garden with native plants

By putting in a garden with lots of California natives and other drought tolerant plants, not only can you save a lot of water, but provide a habitat for the bees and other pollinators, which in turn can help build a more sustainable environment.   Spring is a great time for planting.  Start today, and see native plants’ bloom and bees tomorrow!

Grow Beautifiul Drought Tolerant Plants For Bees

Whenever you wander in a garden or wild flowers in nature, chances are, you will see bees working on the flowers.  It is a beautiful picture we are all familiar with since when we were little kids: the buzz, the black and yellow beeline, the flying, from one flower to another.

A bee on a flower

It is not just a picture to enjoy, those little bees actually create huge values for us when they are busy feeding on the flowers.

Huge Value Created by Bees

Bees visit flowers for their pollen and nectar, which are their food, just like bread and meat are our food.  In the process, bees transfer pollen, produced by the male part of a flower, to the female part, enabling fertilization to take place. With successful fertilization, seeds are produced, allowing the next generation of the plant to grow and reproduce.

For fruit trees, since the seeds are surrounded by fruit, the fertilization also will result in fruit.  Without pollination and subsequent fertilization, the trees will not bear fruits.

As you can see, bees are extremely important for so many things we use in daily life.  Wearing a pair of cotton jean?  Give thanks to bees, as they are the ones that pollinate the cotton crop.  Ate an apple today? Thanks to bees again for pollinating the tree.

Bees pollinate 75% of world’s main crops.  According to USDA, bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion or more of American crops per year. It is hard to imagine a world without the bees pollinating all those crops!

Bee on a Sunflower

Bee On the Decline

For something so important for us, unfortunately, the bee’s population has been on a decline.  While we are not sure of the main cause yet, the loss of the habitat, pesticides, disease,  and climate change (mismatch of the timing of flowers and when the bees need them)  may all have played some role.

Help Bees By Planting

One thing we can all do to help out the bees is grow plants in our garden that bees like and can visit all year round.  That can offset the loss of their habitat, and provide them the food when they need them.  If enough such plants are grown in our gardens, hopefully it can stem the bee’s decline and restore their population to close to previous levels.

These plants are the ones that bees like.  They are all magnets for bees. Good news is, not only do the bees love them, they are also very drought tolerant – they all qualify for Santa Clara Water District’s Rebate Program. By planting them, you will not only help the bees, but also conserve water! As we should continue to conserve water, and are encouraged to replace the lawn with drought tolerant plants, now is a good time to plant some of these beautiful plants.

Jerusalem Sage

A bee on a a flower

Lavender

Lavender
Bees on a Lavender

California Poppy

A bee on a California Golden Poppy

California Lilac

Bees on a California Lilac

Bottlebrush

Bottlebrush

Echium

Bees on an Echium

In summary, planting native plants will not only provide food to bees who badly need it, but also conserve water and add color and beauty to your yard.  Happy planting!