Home & Garden

Organic oasis

Paula Lowe garden at Varian Ranch.
David Middlecamp
Paula Lowe garden at Varian Ranch. David Middlecamp 5-06-2010 The Tribune

Ten years ago, Paula Lowe and Richard Ferraro moved from Seattle to Varian Ranch. Their half-acre garden consisted of lawn and clipped hedges, which Paula considered inappropriate for the site, surrounded by cattle rangeland.

Paula, a poet and writer, was raised on an Iowa farm, where gardens were for growing food, and wildflowers — like Queen Anne’s lace — were considered weeds. Richard, a computer graphics consultant, inventor and photographer, has never gardened, but he appreciates Paula’s interest and accomplishments.

Although most of their garden plants are native to California, Paula doesn’t call it a native plant garden. She prefers the term “habitat garden,” because she views the plants “as homes” for “roadrunners picking out lizards; a badger and her young under the sycamore; a family of quail, babies scurrying like furry thimbles.”

It’s obvious that Paula finds poetic inspiration in her garden, which was created with the expert assistance of Mike Kilcoyne of Sustainable Organic Landscapes. She describes Mike as “an amazing native plant guru,” who “knows how to minimize site destruction while building soil and habitat.” And “he can show folks that it isn’t a big fussy expensive deal to incorporate native plants.”

Mike’s landscaping technique mimics nature by planting in overlapping layers to create many different textures and color combinations. He works with the “principle of succession,” whereby slow-growing trees are protected by the faster growing shrubs, grasses and groundcovers around them.

The project began by smothering the grass under degradable sheet cardboard, topped with six inches of mulch. It took a year for the mulch to decompose into soil before planting could begin. As each area was planted, another thick layer of mulch was applied.

Mike also established pathways and installed sandstone steps to the highest point of the property, where he laid a flagstone patio that overlooks the back yard and surrounding mountains in all directions.

Grass still grows by one patio. The tall blue mounds of a native rye grass provide cover for bunnies hiding from cats, and nesting material for birds. Self-seeded sunflowers and sun-bleached cattle bones that were discovered on walks around the surrounding rangeland provide contrasting accents.

Paula didn’t mind developing the garden over a long period, partially because the expense was spread out. But more significantly, doing so gave her time to learn more about California native plants. “I didn’t have the vision to do it all at once.”

Now, Paula’s and Mike’s efforts are paying off. She is gratified that the drip irrigation never runs more than twice a month. Mike has the pleasure of seeing the garden’s evolution on annual visits. “Paula’s garden has become a little oasis of biological diversity in the middle of desolate grazed grassland,” he said.

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