Allergies and oak pollen

If you have seasonal allergies to oak pollen, I would suggest you avoid central California, my yard or stay inside. I know this happens every spring but the coating of pollen seems extra thick this year.

Just a mere week or so ago we had rain and freezing temperatures. Then the temperature shot up to the 80’s the last few days and in the photos below you can see what coats my backyard bricks, tables and chairs. What’s even scarier is I cleaned the yard yesterday and wiped the tables down.

My pet hens are very happy to gobble up the pollen which is highly nutritious and will help color their yolks an even deeper orange.

How I replaced 3,000 square feet of lawn for FREE!

How did I removed 3,000 square feet of lawn, replace it with California native plants, expand my brick patio, add a fire pit area, convert a play structure to a grape arbor and add gravel paths and a creek bed all for FREE?

I had been thinking about removing my backyard lawn in 2013. California had now gone through a 3rd consecutive year of low rainfall. Water rationing was being discussed, again!  This was the third time since we’ve lived on this lot that California has had a “severe” drought and the water provider has either requested customers, “voluntarily”, drastically cut back on their water consumption (which translates as “let your lawn die”) or they’d implemented water rationing and increase rates. (Which would happen in 2015).

Pre-lawn removal and patio expansion.
Pre-lawn removal and patio expansion. Food forest garden anyone?

Before this most recent multi-year drought, I had been thinking of converting the yard into a food forest. Now that my children are adults and out of the home, why were we keeping a lawn and play structure? A  lawn that had become mostly Bermuda grass. I could make better use of my small plot of land by growing more food on it.

As I age I won’t want a garden that is as labor intensive as a lawn. Currently, I don’t have a gardener. I’m the gardener for this quarter acre lot. I hated the weekly work of mowing, edging, weeding and watering.  I disliked the need to be spending money on fertilizer and water. Essentially throwing money away to keep something looking nice because that’s what is expected. Having a big lawn that we didn’t have children playing on anymore just seemed stupid.

Narrow patio made it hard to entertain.

I still want a garden that I could enjoy when I would no longer be able to get up into the hills and hike to my favorite meadows, streams, chaparral and woodlands. Slowly the idea began to evolved that I should reduce my lawn, increase the hardscape for entertaining and put in plants that would still be of value yet require less maintenance. I could make my backyard my own campsite. My goal would be to provide a place for natives bees.

Some of the eclectic bricks found around are property.
Some of the eclectic bricks found around our property.


I wanted to use drought tolerant native California plants. I would include several sitting areas for enjoying the garden.  I wanted a slightly bigger patio and an area for a fire pit. I wanted to include some paths for garden access and interest.  I wanted to use up a collection of eclectic bricks that we’d collected over the years.  I wanted to reuse and recycle as much material as possible.

Preparing to solarize lawn area. Mowed, watered then covered with plastic.
Preparing to solarize lawn area. Mowed, watered then covered with plastic.

I had already started by mowing the lawn super short in the fall of 2013 (Ok, wrong time of year, but I didn’t want to wait until spring of 2014 to get started).

I used thick paint tarps to solarize lawn area.
I used thick paint tarps to solarize lawn area.





I watered it well, then covered it in plastic to solarize the soil. I was hoping we’d still have enough warm days to start the process. I wanted to do this step because I suspected there may be lots of weed seeds in the soil and this is a chemical free way of killing some of those seeds before germination without using pre-emergents which can be harmful to the natural soil biota.

Lush, water loving expanse of front lawn.
Lush, water loving expanse of front lawn.

By 2014 our water district offered a rebate based on square footage of lawn removed. We were now in the 4th year of this “great drought”.  The time was right.  Get rid of the entire lawn.  I was going to do this! Though I wasn’t sure I’d apply for the rebate.

Armed with a tape measure, some graph paper and a can of spray paint, I started planning out my lawn-less garden.

I would need to start on the hardscape first.  In the spring of 2014 I hired a friend of a  friend who did stone and mason work.  He was willing to work with my ideas and use the material that I had on hand.  We expanded the brick patio by just 3 feet and incorporated a 13 foot circular area for our old fire pit.

Installation of circular fire pit area
Installation of circular fire pit area

Incredibly, with a creative design, we could move and use existing patio bricks and my collection of old bricks and not have to buy any new bricks for the expanded patio.  I would buy bricks for the fir pit area.  That brickwork hardscape was completed late spring 2014.

Old brick accent, new fire pit area, expanded patio.
Old brick accent, new fire pit area, expanded patio.

By summer of 2014 I had researched sheet mulching and attended a seminar on the topic.  More and more people were starting to think along the same lines of how to reduce long term water needs.  It was mentioned at this seminar that the local water utility still had funding for lawn removal projects but would run out of funds by the end of the year.

I decided to apply for the rebate program early fall of 2014. My site would be evaluated before and after work was done.  Uh, oh! I had already started my work of removing the lawn and had completed the hardscape. My proposal and graph paper plans were accepted and approved. Now for my first inspection.  Turned out they were so overwhelmed with people applying for the rebates that they wouldn’t be able to get out for several weeks to verify that my lawn existed.  I was going to go forward with this project regardless.  I communicated to them that I was sheet mulching in September and had already completed the brick work. I had to get started so that I could get my native plants in by winter.  They didn’t have the staffing to get out to my site and ended up relying on satellite images and Google Street View from the previous spring to verify that I did indeed have 3,000 square feet of lawn at that time. I qualified for funding.

Front lawn area covered in purchased rolls of cardboard.

In September of 2014, I did sheet mulch the front and back lawns.  I had saved and collected as much free cardboard as I could. Clearly, it was going to take way more cardboard then I could acquire. In the seminar a supplier was mentioned for purchasing huge rolls of cardboard. I drove to Richmond with my van and filled it with these giant rolls of cardboard.

FREE mulch (I would get multiple deliveries of free mulch.)




I contacted local tree services and found several that would deliver shredded mulch for free.  It was fall and they were busy pruning customers trees in the area. It saves them time and gas to dump a load of fresh mulch locally in someones driveway.

Backyard sheet mulching
Backyard sheet mulching

By the first of October both the front and back lawns had been completely covered by sheet mulching.   I had already purchased my first set of plants from the UC Botanical Garden fall plant sale and I desperately wanted to get them in.

Bee (Bee'r) Garden Coming Soon
Bee (Bee’r) Garden Coming Soon

In the meantime, I put a sign in the front to explain to my neighbors that a “Bee Garden” would be coming soon. My husband had some different ideas.

By the end of the year, I had gotten my first foundation plants in. I started with tiny plants, most came in 1”-2” diameter tubes, some in 4” pots and a few in 1 gallon size pots.

California native plants purchased.
California native plants purchased.


Nothing larger then 1 gallon size was purchased. This kept the cost down. Small plants take to transplanting better then larger ones.

I did most of the labor myself. I had hired the mason for the brick work and had some helpers to work with me to lay the cardboard and move the mulch.

Front sheet mulched and ready for native plants.

I had done it. The lawn was gone! Now it was time to wait for spring. My rebate came in around early 2015. It more then covered all my receipts and labor for the project. Which could only mean one thing, come fall of 2015, I could buy more plants.

Spring 2016 is now around the corner. Most of the plants have had a year to establish their root systems. Most, though not all of the plants, survived another dry year. I hand watered the natives about twice a month to carry them through the hot, dry summer of 2015. We’ve had to date, an almost normal winter rainfall. A welcomed relief after 5 dry years. But, we’ve now had a VERY dry February. The drought is far from over. We’ll need several normal rainfall years or above normal rainfalls to recover from this drought if we do recover at all. This maybe the new normal for California. Regardless, I think I made the right decision to remove 3,000 square feet of lawn.

I’m excited to see how the garden does this spring. I was amazed and please by how much these itty bitty natives plants did grow in that first spring. I even began to see an unexpected diversity of critters of all kinds visiting the garden. But, this will be the year I think my garden will really bloom.

What 3 feet buys. 5 months - May 2015
What 3 feet buys. 5 months – May 2015
Backyard - 6 months after planting. June 2015
Backyard – 6 months after planting. June 2015


What’s happening in my garden on this warm February day?

In this northern California urban garden there is a flurry of activity.

Pajaro Manzanita
Pajaro Manzanita

Winter is not a time of rest for this native plant gardener. It is a time to get into the garden daily to witness the changes which come quickly at this time of year. The variety of flora blooming and the fauna visiting are changing daily. (Note: We don’t really have winter in most of California, we have a transition period to and from summer)

The floral, honey and spice scent of the paper white narcissus compete with the memory

Paper white Narcissus
Paper white Narcissus

evoking chaparral smells of the native California sage.  The sage oils are being released by the heat of the winter sun and permeate the fresh winter air mixing with the narcissus fragrance.

The baby lizard’s activity increases as the day warms.

Garden Lizard
Garden Lizard

I see them darting under the rocks on my porch.  I’m glad to see that they have survived the winter and have decided to stay in my garden. They must be growing.  On the front brick walkway I find the dry skin that one lizard must have wiggled free from and left behind.

The bustle for this February day is unreal.

Bee Plant Flower
Bee Plant Flower

There are so many different species of song birds.  I don’t know all the species but recognize a few as sparrows, house finches, goldfinches, hummers and robins.  My chickens chase the sparrows out of their free range area of the yard.  I chuckle as I watch them.  They also chase the squirrel’s, but the sparrow chasing is new.

B-Color Daffodile
Bi-Color Daffodile

I’ll be watching to see what blooms next.  I can tell that the California lilacs, sages and poppies are forming flower buds. Buds are swelling on my many small tree’s indicating that the light apple green of new leaves isn’t far away.

Frost kissed Jelly Bean plant
Frost kissed Jelly Bean plant

Other plants blooming today are my

Hellebores, vinca, apple tree, daffodilis, rosemary

Rosemary flower
Rosemary flower

and an unnamed bulb bloom.  Okay, so I still have several plant species that are not native California species.  If they can survive not being watered, I guess they get to stay.  I make one exception though and that is my few rose bushes.  They’re not native and they are water hogs but they have been in my garden for decades now and I don’t yet have the heart to take them out.

Buttercup bud
Buttercup bud

if you live in California, I hope you are noticing all the flowering trees that have started to bloom. I call these popcorn trees, they look like they pop into bloom almost overnight. Hope you’ve enjoyed today’s photos. Soon I’ll blog about some resources for purchasing native plants and how to sheet mulch your lawn.  Stay tuned.

Doffodile cup fringe
Doffodile cup fringe

Hopefull for rain tonight

Today the skies are a cloudy matte grey, short bursts of wind blow through the naked valley

Flowering Tansy brighten a dark sky.
Flowering Tansy brightens a dark sky.

oak tree branches as the squirrels busy themselves, running to and fro frantically digging here and there. My garden is filled with an ever increasing number of pockmarks as three resident squirrels try to reclaim long lost acorns, buried away last fall. In the process several young plants are uprooted.  I reset in the soil a California Current (Ribes sanguineum) that had been carelessly dug and tossed to the side.  Roots still attached, I have hope it will survive.  The fate of a newly planted White Sage (Salvia apiana) did not have such a positive ending.  I suspect a squirrel broke it off at ground level. I don’t know what it did with the root ball. Such is the life of a garden.

The squirrels munch their acorns like ears of corn, chewing rapidly from side to side and spinning the nut in their tiny front paws.  As soon as it finishes one nut, it’s back to poking its head under the mulch, seeking another nut and leaving another pockmark in my garden.

Mushrooms continue to burst from the wet mMushroomsulch in multitudes.  They seem to be thriving this year with what rain we have received.  I might appreciate the squirrels if they ate up those mushrooms.

Season to date we have received almost 8 inches of rain in this urban garden.  Still way better then the past 5 years, yet lags behind our annual average to date which should be closer to 10 inches by now.

I note rose branches stripped of the last of their leaves. Fresh deer droppings confirm there have been rose bush eating visitors in the night.

Several Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon) scratch in the mulch near my grape arbor.

A Black Phoebe perches on a crabapple branch and darts quickly from it’s perch to the ground and back again seeking flying bugs. Click to learn more about this local bird:

A pesky Western Scrub Jay lands in the roofs gutter, flicking through muddy leaves, flinging decaying leaves to the ground.  Thank you Jay for cleaning my rain gutters. More about this bird here:

Several other species of song birds flit quickly through the garden. No season is quiet and still in this California urban garden.

As the evening’s rain system approaches, the skies are void of the usual sightings of American black crows, red tailed hawks and turkey vultures.  I don’t miss the incessant “cawing” of the crows.  I find these birds to be rather annoying.  Though, I should appreciate them more as they are rather intelligent for a bird.