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Mtn. View neighbors seek attractive, drought-tolerant front gardens

Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
The lush foliage and red flowers of a native gooseberry hide the long, sharp spines that make it a great plant for wildlife cover, protecting them from predators.

“Drought” is the gardening theme for 2014. I recently attended a meeting with Mountain View residents who are exploring waterwise gardening and considering removing their lawns.

Gardener Alan Whitaker was invited to share what he’d learned about waterwise and native plantings with his neighbors.

Whitaker has lived in and around the Bay Area all his life, and he has been gardening with natives since 2005. His sunbaked Monta Loma front yard is in its fourth incarnation. His grandmother introduced him to plants, and 20 years ago his water-hungry plants were a reflection of his grandmother’s garden. To reduce water use, he transitioned to succulents, and then to Australian and South African plants, but he missed the birds and bees he’d had before. Finally, in 2005, he planted drought-tolerant natives and has been hooked on them ever since.

His front yard gets no water except winter rainfall, and he hand-waters it this season of drought.

The neighbor who called the meeting was motivated to seek do-it-yourself alternatives after receiving an estimate of nearly $5,000 to replace 250 square feet of lawn with natives.

“You can spend $2,000 on mistakes of your own and feel better about it than writing a check,” Whitaker said.

He learned from experience – by losing $600 worth of plants – that natives don’t like soggy roots. To promote good drainage, he suggested, raise the roots a foot or two using berms. Mound the soil excavated from other projects to create berms.

Whitaker also recommended using urbanite to displace soil in berms or dry streambeds. Urbanite, a plentiful material available for free, is simply chunks of concrete from demolished sidewalks or driveways. It can also be used to make low walls. A dry streambed is often featured in drought-tolerant gardens for channeling rainwater where you want it. If you dig an extra-deep channel for the streambed, you can line it with urbanite and buy cobbles to top-dress it. The deeper channel can handle a larger volume of water, and using urbanite means you can spend less on purchased rock.

Rather than planting single plants, as he did, Whitaker said a more designed look results from choosing fewer varieties. Plant groups of three, five or seven plants of a single variety.

Whitaker advised waiting until September or October before planting natives. It takes soaking rains over one to three rainy seasons, plus some supplemental water their first year or two, to help natives grow the roots that make them drought-tolerant.

This summer, he suggested, you can pay neighborhood kids to dig dry streambeds, make mounds, move earth or sheet-mulch so that you’ll be ready to plant in the fall.

For the rest of the yard, Whitaker said, “know what your neighbors are doing on the other side of the fence.” Because his neighbors water a lot, he never has to water his fruit trees along the fence.

For more ideas, visit the Facebook page created by Erin Brownfield, “Mountain View Water-wise Gardens.”

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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