Under the huge, leaning Monterey pines, we stumbled over a tangled mat of weedy vines. Juicy snails slumbered under broken clay flowerpots. Agapanthus flower stems stood headless above the tight clumps of strapping leaves; little piles of deer droppings told tattletale nearby. Ancient, treelike camellias grew in the dry shade beneath the pines, blooming red and pink, their double flowers browning with petal blight. This was my big backyard in Oakland Hills (Sunset zone 16) the project I had wanted for so long. I saw a perfect native plant garden in-the-making. My spouse foresaw sunburn, sweat, and big chiropractor bills ahead.
I began to pencil out my ideas. I measured the yard and sketched it out on graph paper. I examined maps on the county website to get the correct shape and angles (my yard is oddly shaped, like a narrow slice of pie with a blunt point and crooked sides). I found north, and I estimated the sloped areas, marking these on the diagram as clearly as I could. I read design books, finding book after book of pretty photos, but little real guidance. Still, there were nuggets I could use. Divide the yard into a series of garden “rooms” to break up the long spaces. Plan ahead for the mature sizes of young plants. Provide hardscape, but use a limited selection of hardscape materials. Place plants in groups, often groups of the same plant in drifts or clusters
I found an agreeable garden laborer; I liked to work alongside him. We set to work pulling, digging, and chopping back the Algerian ivy, red trumpet vines, and Himalayan blackberry. It’s hard to describe how difficult this is: leaves hide stems, so you can’t see where to cut, and the stems are deeply rooted at many nodes. When we attempted to clear small areas to plant, the vines grew back fast, outpacing the transplant, competing for sun and moisture. If I was not vigilant, I would lose track of my new plants and they would be drowned in the rampant tide. Gradually I realized that my usual “Swiss cheese” method of attacking life’s challenges would not work for this situation. Nor would my do-it-yourself impulse carry the day. I needed serious help… and an aggressive plan.
My coordinated attack began with hiring a tree removal company. Down came the monstrous camellias and the overgrown, treelike laurel shrubs. Away went the gigantic, aphid-infested pussy willow. Out went the weed trees planted by birds. I let the tallest young coast live oak remain, a skinny, leaning specimen.
My strategy for the vine tangle- a simple, low-tech idea: sheet mulch. Deny sunlight to the whole mess, and it would die. We bought several rolls of corrugated recycled cardboard, four feet wide, and unrolled them on top of my nemesis vines, stomping as we went. We carefully overlapped the rows of cardboard to exclude all light, pounded landscape pins through the edges to hold it all down, and spread a truckload of wood chips on top. It took some months, but it worked: everything under the sheet mulch, perennial and annual, disappeared. And soon, the cardboard and wood chips disappeared too, leaving the naked, native clay. Quick! Re-mulch before the next crop of weed seeds germinate! In some places I did not keep up with the re-growth, and more weeds sprouted and raced to set seed, but overall I had won the war.
With the trees and weeds gone, it was much easier for me to imagine what I wanted in the space. I filled my diagram with shapes, noting sunny and shady areas, existing plants, hose bibs, drip irrigation. I began to mark the yard with rows of little landscape flags. Here behind the old shed I would build a compost pile, further hidden by a big spice bush Calycanthus occidentalis. Two neglected potted pear trees, spindly, tall, and leaning toward the sun, would be planted facing each other to become a living arch. The pear arch would divide one garden “room” from the next. (I am a native plant enthusiast, but not so strict as to give up having fruit trees. The mature fig and persimmon trees would stay, as well.) A winding path would be punctuated with big old terracotta tiles we had around. A deer fence was needed there in the rear corner.
Next, we arranged for a bit of earth-moving. I wanted a small pond, and near it I planned a level meadow. Moving a cubic yard of clay is heavy work, and it had to be done by hand, since the back yard had no access for vehicles. Laborers wielding shovels was the only way. Soon I had an 8′ wide meadow, and a dreadful-looking hole that was to become my dreamed-of pond.
This article is part one in a series about the development of the garden. Look for more articles on this topic soon, including a screen share.
Liz Katz is a recently retired environmental health scientist. She fell in love with native California plants by way of a class at Merritt College. Current pursuits include Nonviolent Communication, creative writing, and volunteering at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. She lives in Oakland with her husband and their geriatric cat.