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  • Writer's pictureJeff Robbins

Organic at Last – San Diego Union Tribune

Switching to sustainable landscape care brings a bumper crop of benefits

By Mary James • Special to the U-T Jan. 20, 2012

Fruit trees in the University City yard are thriving since the garden has been transformed into a sustainable and organic landscape. — K.C. Alfred

Make mine organic

Tips for a More Sustainable Landscape:

1. Be involved with landscape care. Take the time to ask your garden care professional about irrigation, pest control and fertilizer choices.

2. Mulch, mulch, mulch. A 3- to 4-inch layer holds in moisture, suppresses weeds and adds organic material to the soil. El Corazon Compost Facility in Oceanside and City Farmers Nursery in San Diego sell a variety of mulches and compost by the bag and in bulk.

3. For lawn care, switch to an organic fertilizer and rake in ½ inch of compost in spring and fall. When mowing, leave grass clippings on the lawn to decompose.

4. Learn about the insects in your garden, which are beneficial and which are harmful. A good guide is Use least-toxic controls like insecticidal soaps.

5. Make your landscape productive with the addition of edibles like fruit trees, herbs and vegetables. Reduce water consumption with waterwise California natives and plants from other Mediterranean-style climates.

Source: Revolution Landscape

While doctors Elaine Hanson and Bruce Robbins were busy with their practices and raising three children, landscape care around their University City home was a low priority, handed off to maintenance companies. But when Elaine retired, they decided to match the garden and its upkeep to their green lifestyle that includes solar on the roof and an electric car in the garage.

Help turned out to be close at hand. Their son Jeffrey Robbins and his childhood pal Ari Tenenbaum are partners in Revolution Landscape ( devoted to sustainable landscaping and organic garden care. Starting two years ago with a small side yard by the driveway, the duo has gradually transformed the ho-hum quarter-acre lot into a water-wise edible landscape weaned of chemicals and pesticides.

“Our approach is based on permaculture, where you look at a landscape as a whole system with a goal of keeping everything in balance,” Tenenbaum says. Switching to that mindset is “a lifestyle change. It requires patience, more observation in the garden and an investment of time and money. People have to become more involved, but hey, this is where they live.”

Today, the Hanson-Robbins garden blends a lawn and edited old foundation and perimeter plantings with new beds of California natives, fruit trees, edibles and herbs. “We’ve taken out some plants but left what they liked,” says Tenenbaum, who pruned the rose garden during last month’s unseasonably warm weather. “What’s left is now a lot healthier,” he adds, pointing to a fence fronted with fruit-laden orange, lemon, tangerine and lime trees.

Mulch, not fertilizers or pesticides, is the key to the garden’s gradual rejuvenation and its long-term health, Tenenbaum emphasizes. “Mulch feeds the soil, and a healthy soil feeds the plants. There is no bare dirt here now. Everywhere there is 3 to 4 inches of mulch — compost, wood chips, straw — it’s all good.”

Mounds of compost cradle vegetables and an orange tree thriving along the driveway, where Elaine struggled over the years to grow everything from “crummy junipers to sad potted fruit trees.” Next to the house, more thick mulch surrounds colorful lettuces, chives, broccoli, silvery artichokes, exotic Chinese red noodle beans, asparagus and a fig tree, protected from gophers with chicken wire. In the backyard, across a patio from the kitchen, is an herb garden Elaine snips daily.

Wherever possible, Tenenbaum has slipped edibles and herbs among existing plants. A thick sky flower vine was pruned up so new blackberry canes could cling to a wire trellis below them. At their feet, three kinds of strawberries are starting to blossom.

Under a kitchen window in a moist, shady spot behind a tree fern, Tenenbaum inoculated oak stumps with the spores of shiitake mushrooms. Across a patch of lawn, nasturtiums with their edible blossoms skirt lemon balm, scented geraniums and lavender, all magnets for butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects.

Revolution Landscape’s biggest challenge was the steep slope in the backyard, for years plagued by erosion, wasteful irrigation and unsightly ice plant. Now it gets no supplemental water, which suits the tapestry of native plants growing there under a blanket of slowly decomposing shredded redwood mulch.

The buckwheats, sages, California sunflowers (Encelia californica), manzanitas and California poppies reflect the company’s credo of appropriate plant selection. “Natives are suited to our climate and soils,” Tenenbaum says. “They are drought tolerant, and they’re great for wildlife. Too often, plants struggle because they are in the wrong place.”

At the top of the slope, reached by new stairs along one side, is what Tenenbaum calls the “fruit tree corridor.” On either side of the first 20 feet is the lush greenery of a passion fruit vine; further on are a half dozen semi-dwarf, low-chill apple trees and kiwi vines that will begin producing fruit in a few years.

All are on drip irrigation, as is most of the garden except for the lawn, which is watered by sprinklers. Even with the additional thirsty edibles, Elaine says the household’s water use has dropped. “That’s part of the return on an investment in sustainability,” Tenenbaum adds. “Over time, you get a garden that is more drought-tolerant, less susceptible to pests and diseases, and more productive.”

“It feels good, and it’s been huge fun,” Elaine says of the transformation. “Plus I love going out in the morning to pick blueberries for my cereal.”

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