A guild is a Permaculture term used to describe plants that grow together harmoniously in natural communities or that cooperate or benefit one another in artificially designed ones. Think of it as a group of plant friends who share tips, tricks and meals with one another to make life in the rugged wilderness a little easier.
While driving up to big bear with "Edible and Useful Plants of California" in satchel this winter, I was struck by just how rich the guilds of our local SoCal mountains are.
Checkout the edible bounty of one of Southern California's most common native plant communities (found in foothills and remaining oak stands):
**PLEASE NOTE Any consumption of wild or found species is at-your-own-risk. The following information is not meant to be instructional, nutritional or medical advise***
Live Oak Trees - acorns a staple for flour, rich protein filled nuts offered native americans (first nations) peoples an enduring staple
Pinyon Pine - the native pinyon pines of Southern California produce true pine nuts ! Pine nuts are another excellent enduring staple crop that can be stored or consumed in a variety of dishes. They provide protein precious oils and all kinds of wonderful flavor. PESTO! Need I say more?
Sugar Bush - This sumac varietal (a similar relative, lemonade berry is more common closer to coasts) produces small berries that infuse water or beverages with a vitamin-C rich pink lemonade type flavor.
Manzanita - Big berry manzanita is one of the more common Arctostaphylos species you'll find growing in the San Bernardino mountains. They produce a wonderful small tart berry, great for preserving or mixing with nut flours for homemade protein bars.
And these are just edible trees! Factor in Mormon tea - an ephedra producing coffee alternative, Sage of every variety - a delicious seasoning and essential oil plant, Milkweed - a butterfly nectary species, whose new shoots can be cooked and eaten like bok choi and Wild Onions and hyacinth bulbs, California's native wild diet is looking pretty decent. And this is just the scrubby regions!
A quick referral to my small collection of pins of California's most awe-inspiring native, historic and just plain wild landscapes. There really is some dreamy [like South of France] ambiance here! Deserts in rare bloom cycles, coasts carpeted in sea-blue ceanothus and a few quick snapshots of the native grasses (and animals) that once covered most of the state...
Click the Image or widget below to check it out.
L.A. / OC River & Water History
Los Angeles' water landscape is a tricky subject, one wrought with both uncertainty and a history of grave destruction.
For anyone living or driving around Southern California today, vast empty dams and drainage channels are an all too common site - one that has even come to define our landscape in films and history. You may wonder why there is so much cement channeling often non-existent water flows when we are plunged deeply in drought crisis. Particularly when the Santa Ana river channel alone daily pushes enough fresh water out to sea to supply the entire city of Long Beach.
Southern California's unique weather and flooding cycle is to blame. Our water landscape has been substantially over-controlled in order to be on guard for large rain surges that visit our region every 40 years or so. Historically our 3 rivers - the Los Angeles, San Gabriel & Santa Ana - were wide and shallow watercourses that ran nearly perennially, though they often flowed down to only a trickle at the end of the dry season. Because they ran so shallow and the surrounding landscape was largely level, their courses changed often, causing problems for early developers and farmers suffering property damage.
This was particularly true when the 40 or [even larger] 100 year down pour cycles came to pass and entire settlements were wiped out (due to poor siting choices in this humble designer's opinion). Historically these 100-year rain events would even swell the rivers so large that all 3 would join and form one vast shallow lake across a great swath of today's North Orange County. Anyone whose ever driven in the region during a major downpour can relate as the streets quickly flood and - particularly in Anaheim & Buena Park - are turned to 2-3' deep rivers.
And so, we can begin to understand how massive military-industrial style infrastructure projects began to be dreamed up and installed all over Southern California. Farm land in the OC was good when it wasn't flooded and planners were tired of seeing their buildings wiped out. The 20th century saw dam after dam and drainage channel engineered and installed. The Los Angeles river was filled with some 750 million tons of cement and, in 2006, a final San Gabriel river dam was installed that boasted being able to handle the region's 100 year cycle storm surges making Southern California officially flood-risk free.
Luckily, as a lifetime of drought continues to plague SoCal, an understanding is slowly starting to build that paving may not be the best course for waterways. Though it protects us from bi-century rain surges, it seriously hampers our region's ability to harvest water from less substantial ones. While we suffer from low local water reserves, the rains that would historically fill our region's aquifers are diverted directly out to sea with no chance for catchment or landscape absorption thanks to the low soil surface area of industrially straightened and fully paved watercourses. Los Angeles is finally realizing that water and natural water features are valuable assets and has committed $1 billion to its river revitalization project, the re-development was recently awarded to "starchitect" Frank Gerry.
While we patiently wait for urban planning to re-visit and renovate it's single-minded water management policies, it's up to us local home owners to also play our own part in increasing local water catchment. This means directing rain fall and grey water into our gardens instead of into sewers. This can be done by increasing contouring in the landscape and planting deep rooted plants that help break up hard pan and allow water to infiltrate all the way down to aquifer level. Let's hope that 100 years from now all three of SoCal's rivers are re-naturalized and once again breathtaking sights (instead of eye sores) to be beheld.
Did you know?
It wasn't until 2013 that the Los Angeles river was actually officially labelled a river again and opened for recreation? Up until that point is was deemed to be exclusively a drainage channel by city planning and considered largely off-limits to the public.
Looking for how to replace lawn or grass on a budget? Many Southern California residents are struggling with how to replace their thirsty out-dated lawns. For decades large green lawns were considered an essential for any Los Angeles or SoCal landscape. Today we are faced with increasing water restrictions and sky-rocketing costs for lawn care making traditional lawns both impractical and unaffordable for the average home-owner.
Luckily, there are a variety of AMAZING Lawn Alternatives that can re-create the traditional lawn feel or re-imagine it completely. While many citizens rush to rampantly fill their former lawns in with gravel or Decomposed Granite I encourage you to research the variety of fabulous low-water no-mow plants that can add the romance of low-growing greenery as opposed to the desert of parched rockscapes. Keeping plants in the ground helps keep our air clean and retain water in the soil adding to biodiversity and ecological growth.
Removing a lawn is an exciting opportunity to create a green scape that works for your personal tastes and local environment. Drought tolerant ground cover and small grass options abound for those who want to keep usable green space for themselves, children or pets in the increasingly hot and dry climates of Southern California.
Get More Alternative Lawn Ideas
Here at Califia ECOdesigns we believe in creating gardens that are functional AND fashionable (preferably exceptionally beautiful). What do I mean by functional?
In this design for a large front yard in Altadena we have a mix of edible and useful plants as well as conventional ornamental landscape accents. Western sword fern and Chinese Mahogany (fragrant spring tree) provide edible shoots in the spring. Sedum ground cover makes a striking accent and also offers an emergency forage crop. Little river wattle (acacia cognata) and again sword fern serve to improve the soil by acting as dynamic accumulators of nutrients. Strawberry tree, blueberry and strawberry plants provide berries in the summer. The smaller more sensitive plants are located under heavy shade to reduce their water needs.
Finally we planted striking Japanese maples right in the foreground in the understory of larger trees to bring the garden's asian-inspired design to life.
This type of landscaping was inspired by extensive training in Permaculture and food forestry. We've developed a long list of native and beneficial plants for usage in Southern California to help convert landscapes into settings that are productive as well as ornamental. Hopefully their ecologically balanced too! For example the heavy usage of ornamental grasses in this design helps to provide habitat for beneficial insects. There are so many great ways we can re-imagine drought tolerant landscapes.
We're lucky enough to live less than a few miles from the Los Angeles Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Arcadia, California and I am proud to say it's one of the nicest botanical gardens I've ever seen! Divided into geographical and climatic reasons and handsomely interspersed with custom art, this spot will attract nature lovers for ages to come (though they may be few and far in LA!).
Sultry Summer Landscapes
These pictures were taken on 4th of July under a 90+ degree sun. As you can see many of the plants featured in the images above are relishing the heat. I was very excited to see the Grevillea hedge–a favorite and commonly used landscape design feature of mine–teaming with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. These low-water almost year-round flowering plants are near miracles for Southern California gardens. They provide a sweet nectar that can be made into a honey-like drink or left for the birds.
The Canary Islands garden was particularly fetching. A number of the most commonly used landscaping plants in Southern California hail from this tiny, biologically diverse haven. Plants like Canary island pine, sea lavender or statice, Echium (i.e. Star of Madeira), bougainvillea and many aloes climaxed in biodiversity on this unique African island habitat. Here in Southern California, they're right at home with the hot weather and dry conditions.
One last striking drought-tolerant garden border worth mentioning: the walkway to the art garden lined with fire poker (kniphofia), Mexican sage and yucca. The dramatic contrast of orange and purple flowers along with the complimentary lance-like foliage forms of the plants makes for a truly inspiring, incredibly low maintenance [and low-water] drought tolerant garden design.
Vegetable Gardening in Hot Climates
Growing vegetables in a hot climate (like our Los Angeles summer) is no small feat! Raising seedlings in extreme heat requires some strategy and forethought not required in moister or more Northerly climates.
How to be successful farming in the desert?
Here's a few tricks to help your harvest boom in a hot dry climate:
1. Garden in the Shade
While it may sound counter-intuitive, planting your vegetables in partial or dappled shade significantly improves their ability to retain moisture and handle intense sunlight. The power of a 100 degree sun rapidly evaporates and wilts most plants, but with the help of a supple tree canopy the heat becomes much more bearable. Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Climate routinely has success with this method in the deserts of Arizona. As you will see in our Youtube video, here in Los Angeles we are also seeing remarkable results!
2. Water from Below
Watering from beneath may sound unusual but it is one of the most effective methods for conserving water when growing food. A variety of companies are now producing "self-watering pots" or raised beds but having your water source elevated can also cause rapid evaporation in hot climates. Our solution? We built a sunken reservoir (using poly, landscape fabric and gravel) beneath our vegetable garden that we water through a french drain or weeping tile above. A thorough tutorial on this project is in the works.
Whatever your resources, adding a water basin below your vegetable garden is a surefire way to save on water and ensure your success. We only have to fill our reservoir about once a week, even in 100+ degree weather!
I've said it before and I'll say it again, MULCH MULCH MULCH!! The top layer of soil is some of the most crucial for plant root development. Mulching the surface of your soil with straw, wood chip, leaves, shredded paper, rocks or any other organic material is a must in hot climates. Especially if you are overhead watering.
Here's a quick video of our companion-planted vegetable garden:
The world's most rapidly depleting natural resource isn't fossil fuel and it's not fresh drinking water either... or coal or wood... Believe it or not our planet's most endangered natural resource is top soil!
What is Topsoil?
Topsoil is the soft fluffy clean-smelling layer that most plants prefer to grow in. Also called loam, it's very different from the fine, compact sand or clay that usually exists a foot below it. Overtime, the decomposition of natural materials (leaves, bark, wood etc.) by a variety of microscopic micro-organisms causes topsoil to be born.
On average, it takes around 500 years for nature to produce 1 inch of topsoil. Right now we are washing away this precious commodity anywhere from 10-40 times as fast as the planet is producing it! The biggest culprits? Erosion, tilling, and unnatural waterway management. In the last 4 decades we've lost around 1/3 of viable cropland on the planet due to topsoil loss.
Heavy tilling of fields and commercial farming causes topsoil to be degraded, pulverized and blown away by the wind. Poor drainage design on roads, pathways and building sites causes topsoil to be washed away by rains. The paving of drainages and waterways means that once it's washed away, instead of being caught in a meandering stream or river course and re-absorbed into the environment, topsoil goes straight out to sea.
AMAZING Qualities of Topsoil
In the book Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger, Ute Scheub and co-authors claim increasing the humus content of soils worldwide by 10 percent within the next 50 years could reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels. - David Suzuki
Topsoil is also AMAZING at retaining moisture. Cultivating topsoil in the desert (or anywhere) can lead to a 100x the retention of rain water or manual watering, just in a flat field or garden.
We've put together a short and inspiring video on one of the fastest ways to help generate topsoil. The solution? MULCH
Straw mulch, bark mulch, paper, leaf, bark or even stick mulch will all help to stimulate the topsoil generation process. Leaf blowers beware, you're not wanted here!
Without further ado....
Dealing with Drought Differently
From the time I was a very small child, growing up within the vast expanse of Los Angeles County, I have been told to take shorter showers. Even at 8 years old, I remember our water district representatives explaining how important turning the tap off while brushing your teeth was. Similarly to the “recycle your paper” lectures of the early 1990’s, I recall finding these campaigns vague and pointless. How was putting my spent homework into a different colored wastebasket going to stop the rainforests from being cut down?
Even then I sensed these purported “green planet/water-saving” techniques were nothing more than flimsy Band-Aids the powers-that-be had handed down so that they could pretend they were doing something meaningful about clearly catastrophic environmental trends.
Growing up in Southern California, natural ‘disasters’ were a regular part of my life. Droughts, floods, fires, earthquakes and landslides were general background noise in the seasonal cycle. They got a lot of splashy pictures in the news but seemed uneventful to me. NOW after a decade of living abroad in one of the most pristine remaining wilderness regions on earth (British Columbia) I have found myself living in Southern California yet again, just as California continues to renew its first ever state-wide mandatory water cutbacks (caused by the exceedingly minimal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada).
Lawn owners beware! Giant green swathes are suddenly suspiciously eyed by all those sacrificing their shower lengths. The fountains still running in Beverly Hills are already under attack by the liberal media. Being a writer and Eco-designer I have more than a few great ideas for replacing lawns with lush low-water landscaping, but even if we ripped out every lawn in the entire state of California (yes, golf courses too!) we would still – sooner or later – find drought heavily knocking at our doors once more.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think our state (and the entire Southwest of North America) would benefit from at least 75% less lawn space BUT lawns are not the only water-wasting criminal on the block. Actually, as much as I find lawns boring and incredibly wasteful, lawns aren’t really the culprit at all.
So who are the bad guys?
The main culprit has been the long-term imposition of simplified human design systems on highly complex natural ones: paved and straightened river ways, heavily eroded hillsides, diversion of water from flood plains causing a lack of re-infiltration, draining of aquifers, lack of grey water systems.
Our current water systems, transportation systems and resource extraction methods are based on highly polished industrial efficiency. It has wiped out a huge arsenal of nature's regenerative capacities. By streamlining systems we have removed nature’s ability to renew herself. Our control of wild fire causes us to strip landscapes of organic matter, depleting soil fertility and exacerbating drought problems. Our methods for controlling flooding have destroyed the lushest component of our ecosystem.
The problem is not our lawns or over-population (though these are still challenging). It is our fundamental errors in systematic design. Creating a fear state over water availability will help nothing. What we have to do is address the root causes of drought: EROSION (yes! did you know we are loosing topsoil on the planet even faster than fresh water and fossil fuel?) deforestation, destruction of catchment plains and greenhouse gas emissions.
It's never too late to start correcting our landscapes! Let's remember what the biggest crimes agains the environment really are.
Hi! I'm Briana, Lead Designer and Founder of Califia ECOdesigns in Pasadena, CA. I've organic farmed all over Western North & Central America and love designing drought tolerant and sustainable landscapes. I earned my Permaculture Design Certification in 2011 from engineer Rob Avis.
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