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Landscaping locally – Work with nature, rather than against it

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“Landscape Locally” means creating a landscape that collaborates with, rather than working against, nature — resulting in plants that stay healthy and beautiful using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. This is done by identifying the site characteristics listed below and using that information to select plants that will thrive on the site.

1.  Evaluate your site’s climate, exposure, and topography

The first step to landscaping locally is to determine the characteristics of the site, so that landscape plants can be chosen that can naturally thrive on the site.
Begin by determining the Sunset Climate Zone for your site. Then make note of the site’s micro-climates by identifying the following:

  • Sun exposure — which areas are sunny, shady, partly shady?
  • Hot spots along south facing walls and fences
  • Which areas are particularly wet or dry?
  • Are there windy or exposed areas? If so, what is the direction of prevailing winds?
  • Slopes
  • Frost pockets
  • How does rain water flow onto and/or through the site?
  • Location of neighbors’ trees
  • Are there potential hazards such as flooding or fire?

2.  Get to know your soil

Determine what type of soil you have and how well it drains. Check the soil for texture, organic matter, and fertility and identify problems such as compaction layers, poor drainage, or contamination.

  • Soil texture — is it mostly clay, silt, or sand? Here is a simple test: Slowly add water to a small sample of soil, kneading with your hands until moist. Try to form the sample into a ball. Gently stretch the soil out between your thumb and forefinger and try and make a ribbon. Note the feel of the soil as you are working it and use the table below to determine its texture:
  • Take soil samples from different areas in the landscape. Send them to a professional lab for a full analysis of the pH, organic matter, nutrients, and potential contaminants; or use a home soil test kit to determine pH and nutrients.
  • Check for compaction zones with probes, augers or shovels. Test drainage in several spots.

3.  Survey and protect flora & fauna

Existing flora and fauna provide insight into the ecosystem health and the landscape possibilities. Native vegetation, wildlife habitat, and sensitive areas such as wetlands may need protection. Invasive species will need active control.

  • Identify plant species and communities, especially California natives, invasive or endangered species and wetlands.
  • Learn what wildlife inhabit or move through the site or have historically inhabited the site. Consider what they used for food and shelter. Plan for restoration.
  • Become familiar with local tree ordinances and wetland or endangered species regulations.
  • Develop a plan for preserving existing trees and shrubs or engage the services of a certified arborist to help you create the plan.

4. Consider the potential for fire

Consider the topography, fuel, and local weather in designing and maintaining a landscape that reduces the potential for loss to fire. For sites adjacent to fire-sensitive open space or wildland — Identify exposure to prevailing winds during the dry season, steep slopes, and vegetation type (particularly species that burn readily). Mitigate fire hazards by creating a “defensible zone” immediately surrounding the structure, using one or more strategies for firescaping, such as:

  • Emphasize plants with low fuel volume and/or high moisture content.
  • Avoid plants with high oil content or that tend to accumulate excessive dead wood or debris (pyrophites).
  • Assure that trees are well-spaced and pruned to 6 feet minimum above ground, and that dense shrub plantings are separate from trees, to minimize fuel ladders.
  • Assure that trees and tall shrubs are planted where limbs and branches will not reach the building or grow under overhangs as they mature.
  • Avoid fine shredded bark mulch.
  • Face and construct decks out of fire-resistant materials. Contact the local fire department for assistance in understanding the fire risk at a particular site and for additional guidance in reducing that risk, particularly for sites at the urban-wildland interface.

5. Use local, natural plant communities as models

Plant communities are relatively distinct regional patterns of vegetation. The Sacramento area has five local plant communities: valley grassland, riparian woodland, foothill woodland, chaparral, and freshwater marsh. Using these local, natural plant communities as a model allows you to work with nature to create spectacular landscapes that can help replace what’s so often been degraded or lost.

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By Elissa Sanci

Elissa Sanci, the owner of the website, graduated from Santa Barbara City College – a famous public school in California with many diverse training professions, and she majored in horticulture.

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