The Earthworm’s Lair


This is Owen’s blog. It’s a mix of serious articles on matters relating to sustainable landscaping and a look into Owen’s irreverent side. Why “The Earthworm’s Lair?” The earthworm works beneath the surface of the soil to convert minerals and other elements into a form that is usable to plants. It then delivers this material, in the form of “castings,” to the rootzone where it can be absorbed by roots. Here are the castings, hopefully nourishing, of Owen’s subterranean peregrinations. Enjoy!

Great New Service from Owen Dell and Associates!

Old Phone


April 1, 2014

Owen Dell and Associates, LLC is pleased to announce our new PlantTechSupport™ program for plants. Unlike anything else in the industry, we will now offer complete on-line support for troubleshooting problems with trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, grasses, and ground covers. Thanks to new developments in GIS, GPS, NSA monitoring, and satellite-based remote phototelemetry technology, we are now able to remotely assess pest and disease problems on any plant, including root and soil problems, even for plants under the cover of overhanging trees and shrubs. Our highly trained PlantTechSupport™ technical staff is ready to help you with your plant problems, on any species, anywhere in the world. Because our service is performed remotely, costs are much less than conventional on-site services. PlantTechSupport™ is available on a one-time basis, or as an annual subscription that will cover all your needs without additional fees. Please use the link at the end of this document to contact us for further information.

So that you better understand our PlantTechSupport™ service, here is an actual sample report:

Dear Client,

Thank you for contacting PlantTechSupport™ regarding problems with your peach tree. We hope the following information is helpful to you. If not, please feel free to contact us.

Your case number is 10478∞¢236//uytr234πmm99Ò9.3 (please hold down the option, tilde, sound volume, and page down keys while typing the third to the last digit of your case number).

Best Regards,
PlantTechSupport Staff

Re: Peach Tree at [redacted]

PEACH TREE: Your version of Peach™ is no longer compatible with your operating system. We recommend that you upgrade to Peach™ 4.0, which is available at most nurseries. The regular price is $89.50, but as a registered user you can buy the upgrade for just $44.95, shipping not included (NOTE: In order to qualify for the upgrade, you must have the serial number and/or the original operating manual for your current version of Peach™). The upgrade does not include Roots™ but you can easily graft Peach™ 4.0 onto your existing Roots™.

Peach™ 4.0 includes a number of improvements over your old version, including auto-bloom, self-shedding foliage and full upward compatibility with all the older versions of Aphid™, Mealybug™ and Curlyleaf™ (except for Curlyleaf Express™, which is no longer supported). We think you’ll love the new Peach™, and you won’t miss the old one at all.

When you upgrade, you’ll also have to get the latest version of Soil™ 4.1.1b. (We don’t recommend Soil™ versions 3.0 through 4.1.0, as they were buggy.) You’ll need to do a full upgrade on your Soil™ platform; this involves heavy equipment and you may want us to do this for you. While you’re upgrading Soil™, you might as well get the latest versions of Subsoil™ and Bedrock™. If you uncover any earthquake faults while doing this upgrade (this is not uncommon), you will need to install a copy of Engineering Geologist™ 3.7.2 and possibly God™ 1.0.

To take full advantage of all the features of Peach™ 4.0, we recommend that you change from Water™ 1.0, which you seem to presently be using, to Evian™ Water™, which was great back when you bought your property, is no longer as reliable as it once was and most people are switching over to Evian™, which seems to be stable so far. It will cost you more, but Peach™ really rocks when it’s teamed up with Evian™. You’ll be thrilled! All you need to do is install 400 2-litre bottles of Evian™ around the tree once a week (twice a week if you’re using Heat Wave™ 98.6 or higher; none at all when using any version of Rain™ (except Rain Lite™)).

Finally, we would love to be able to advise you to upgrade to Clean Air™ 7.5.2a, but it’s no longer being made and the company has been acquired by the developers of Smog™, Ozone™, and Crud™. The best approach is to clean up your system by using Ocean Breeze™ once a week or so, if it is available in your area.

Peach™ 4.0 comes with great support. Just call our support technician Jason on his cell phone at (555) 777-1217. The average wait time is 3 growing seasons. Your first call is free except for service and airtime charges; these will be billed to your credit card (no need to give us the number, we already have it).

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS: The property you’re working with is very old and we are surprised that you are still able to use it as successfully as you do. You’re going to find that support for Earth™ 1.0 will get harder and harder to obtain, and it won’t be long before it will have to be taken out of service. You may want to save yourself a lot of trouble and get much better performance by making the leap to an entirely new platform. We know you’ve been happy with Earth™, but times have changed. Look into Mars™, Venus™, or even one of the new, super-fast versions of Asteroid™. Visit their great websites for more information. We will be happy to help you make the change whenever you’re ready.

Thank you for letting us assist you with this matter. Please let us know when you’re ready to upgrade.
Continue reading Great New Service from Owen Dell and Associates!

New Product Highlight: Planting Holes

As any gardener is well aware, one of the most labor-intensive and difficult jobs in landscaping is digging holes. Now, after years of research and testing at the legendary Etaoin Shrdlu Sustainable Landscaping Institute in southern Israel, a revolutionary new product is available that will forever eliminate the need to dig in hard, heavy soils.

Shalom Voidus, Chief Developer of Nova Lacuna
Shalom Voidus, Chief Developer of Nova Lacuna

Today, Institute scientists have introduced the first-of-its-kind “Nova Lacuna Prefabricated Planting Hole™.” Originally developed for agriculture, the Nova Lacuna is just as useful for professional landscapers and home gardeners. By using these special holes, it’s possible to save time, labor, and money. Installation is simple, and the holes are durable, lightweight, and made from fair trade recycled (and recyclable) material derived from pruning waste generated in the vast organic Açai-berry plantations of Kenya. The Nova Lacuna is presently available in 3 sizes: 1 gallon, 5 gallon and 15 gallon. More sizes, along with prefab trenches, ditches, and swales, will be on the market soon, bringing the installation of eco-friendly rain gardens and bioswales within reach even for gardeners with physical or financial limitations. Nova Lacuna products are sturdily constructed to last a lifetime. Tapered sides allow stacking for compact shipping and easy storage. In addition to use in planting operations, Nova Lacuna products may also be used as postholes, holes for footings, holes to bury dog droppings, and other applications.

I think this is a truly great milestone in sustainable landscaping. Imagine no more laborious digging or wasteful piles of leftover soil. I recommend that readers keep a stock of Nova Lacuna products at hand, especially during spring and fall planting seasons.

For more information, click here.

A Sustainable Alternative to Power Leaf Blowers

My dear friend and colleague, landscape contractor Ken Foster of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping in Santa Cruz, California, has been one of the few brave landscape professionals to speak out against that sacred cow of the garden maintenance industry, the gasoline-powered leaf blower. And he speaks out well, having marshaled the many troublesome impacts of blowers into his definitive blog post of January, 2012. He has even founded a Leaf Blower Task Force in his community in order to bring some sanity to the unfortunate and widespread deployment of what he calls “Polluting Noise Bazookas” (also known in some circles as “Lucifer’s Trumpet”). Others too have decried the folly of the leaf blower, and there is even good data showing that there is no actual efficiency to be gained by their use.

But what are the alternatives? Well, of course brooms and rakes still work as well as ever, and there is much to be said for their revival. They are fossil-fuel-free, they always start right up, don’t make a racket, and are dirt cheap to purchase and maintain. But there are those whose dispositions seem to require a more elaborate technology in order to feel good about their gardening chores. To help meet their needs, I recently set out on a quest for an ideal, pollution-free alternative blower, and I believe I’ve found something that really works. It has taken no small amount of research, but I’m proud to say that I’ve come up with a great little device that’s human-powered, recycled, and, believe it or not, that also eliminates a completely unrelated but quite troublesome problem.

A little background: Not long ago I attended a concert of Celtic music. Things were going along pleasantly enough until they brought out the bagpipers. As you probably know, bagpipes were developed to use when sending armies off to battle. Medieval military strategists discovered that the sound of only two or three of the instruments was sufficient to stimulate the murderous impulses of up to a thousand soldiers. Bagpipes work fast, as I was reminded at this concert. After just a few seconds of exposure to the awful droning I was more than ready to slay a few of my neighboring audience members. As I gripped the arms of my seat, I realized that a great deal of wind was being blown about to no apparent purpose. That’s when it dawned on me that the bagpipe, properly modified, would be a wonderful eco-friendly substitute for the leaf blower. I envisioned teams of kilted gardeners roaming suburban streets, pumping the distended bladders of their instruments and happily whooshing litter into tidy piles.

Back at my laboratory, I put on my best tartan coveralls and began to tinker with a set of bagpipes, working out the details of its transformation into a fine gardening implement. (Tip: Used and reclaimed bagpipes are easy and inexpensive to come by. Neighbors of bagpipe players are often happy to break in and steal them for you, usually at no charge.)

I discovered that a few minor alterations (easily accomplished by any reasonably handy person using a power drain auger and a ball peen hammer) can quickly render the typical bagpipe mute, while retaining and even enhancing its Aeolian properties, sort of like de-scenting a skunk. This results in improved conditions in two entirely separate realms, in the manner of Will Rogers’ observation about the Dust Bowl migration: that it raised the collective IQs in both Oklahoma and California. Without bothering you with the technical details, I can tell you that a properly transformed set of pipes and a strong pair of lungs can equal or exceed the 200 mile per hour streams of air touted by power blower manufacturers.

Using the Scottish Leaf Blower™ is easy. Just mount the device under your arm in the traditional position, exhale into the blowstick to fill the bag, point the drones at the ground, and pump away at the bag to achieve maximum velocity. You’ll find that using the SLB, as I’ve come to call it, is quiet, easy, and enjoyable, and every bit as effective as that gas hog you’ve been using.

For detailed instructions on converting a set of bagpipes into a Scottish Leaf Blower, please contact me. I am making this information available as a public service to gardeners and music lovers everywhere.

In my next post I’ll show you how to turn a vuvuzela into an eco-friendly bulb planter. For now, happy puffing.

Beyond Sustainable Landscapes


My March, 2011 post on rain barrels has generated a great deal of discussion both here on the blog and elsewhere. It seems to have gone viral and has been showing up all over the place. Prevailing opinion is favorable to my position that rain barrels are not useful and not sustainable. There are, of course, some dissenting opinions and nuances. If you missed the conversation or haven’t checked in to see all the comments, you may be interested in revisiting the article.

As interesting as all this is, it misses the real point. There is a meta-question that needs to be answered, and a proper answer will render moot much of the discussion about conservation and sustainability. I’ll cut to the chase: Why are we creating landscapes that do not survive on rainfall and natural soil fertility, and that for the most part do not offer up ecological services in excess of their negative impacts? Why should we waste our time and intelligence on trying to adapt to a paradigm that accepts landscapes requiring more resources than nature delivers, and to one that doesn’t ask anything of the landscape other than that it be pretty?

Yet much if not all of the activities generated by the sustainable landscaping movement (and indeed by the green building movement as well) assume a continued, if abated, consumption of resources, and rely more on novel technologies often of dubious merit (smart controllers, synthetic lawns, etc.) than on creating place-adapted natural ecosystems. This blindness to reality is going to kill us, more slowly than the old ways, but just as surely. We are evolving systems that destroy the planet but at a more languid pace, and there is an unspoken assumption that in our unquestioned strivings for luxury and comfort we will use everything up sooner or later. This is the elephant on the lawn that nobody wants to talk about.


Anyway, sustainability is not the issue. Defining sustainable as the standard sets the bar too low. Sustainability is about being “less bad,” in the words of sustainability’s Number One Guru William McDonough. I don’t agree with McDonough about everything, but I shall be forever grateful to him for calling out any approach that means only to reduce the negative impacts of an activity or structure. A so-called “green” building that merely cuts energy use or substitutes a less damaging material for a conventional one, or that hews to any or even all of the accepted standards for sustainable construction as codified in LEED or other standards, isn’t a good-enough building. It still has tremendous negative impacts both on and off site.

And landscaping is no different. Until we free ourselves from the conceit that a couple of rain barrels or some native plants and a drip system are an adequate response to the challenge of creating a living ecosystem that delivers more services than it demands, we will be forever creating sub-optimal projects.

Sustainability is not the issue. Adaptive productivity is the issue. Being less bad is not good enough. Being useful, beneficial, worth the costs is what we need to strive for, and nothing less will do. After all, everything is at stake, isn’t it?

Local Man Reconnects With Nature on Facebook

[Friends: I know this doesn’t have a lot to do with landscaping, but it’s such a moving story that I thought I should share it with you. Enjoy and be inspired. OD]

A Santa Barbara resident credits Facebook with rekindling his love affair with nature after decades of estrangement. Self-employed SEO consultant James “Rico” Innes says that the pressures of a busy life drew him away from his relationship with the natural world, but Facebook brought him back. “When I was younger, nature experiences were a major part of my life,” reports Innes, “I used to spend hours watching National Geographic specials on television, and I would really enjoy going to those old Nature Company stores and playing with all the cool gadgets. And of course I loved to watch sunsets from the balcony of my condo, but I just don’t have time to look at them anymore.”

The pressures of career, family, and heavy smart phone use had pretty much eliminated Innes’ contact with the natural world. But this past spring, the old yearnings called to him, and he sought a way to get back to his roots. “One day, I was looking for Katy Perry’s Facebook page, thinking maybe I would friend her, or at least check out her profile. I mistakenly typed ‘Kath’ instead of ‘Katy’ and this page on Kathmandu came up. I spent half an hour looking at these great images of mountains, and one thing led to another and pretty soon I had friended all the major peaks of the world: Mt. Whitney, Mt. Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna, the works. It was so exhilarating that I realized I had to spend more time in nature.”

Since then, Innes has friended spirit bears, monarch butterflies, Bactrian and dromedary camels, sea anemones, the Gobi Desert, redwood trees, mycorrhizal fungi, seventeen species of nutria, forty-seven kinds of metamorphic rock, Shamu the whale, E. coli O104:H4, and an orphaned manatee in south Florida.

Innes says, “My life is really back on track. I’m looking forward to so much more. Celebrities are great, but there’s nothing like nature.” Innes says he might even check out some YouTube videos of local beaches if he can find the time.

Water Budget Busting

Here’s an important bit of advice that you will not see anywhere else. It could make all the difference in the success of your landscaping and in your water conservation efforts.

Conventional wisdom in the landscaping profession is that when the weather changes, you should adjust the amount of time that you water your plants, putting down more water when the weather is hot, dry, or windy, and less water when it’s cool, damp, or rainy. Nothing could be more wrongheaded. Here’s why:

First, watch this one and a half-minute video, then come back and I’ll explain why the information in the video, and all similar information that is commonly available, is foolish and dangerous. Here’s the link for the video:

OK, that seems helpful, right? Well, it’s not only not helpful, it’s downright reckless. The water budget feature adjusts the watering time by a percentage, up in hot weather and down in cool weather. It sounds perfectly logical. But…by adjusting the watering time, the depth of watering changes, so that sometimes the water will go twice as deep as usual and other times it might only go half as deep as usual. The roots, and therefore the plants, don’t get what they need. And because the system won’t come on until the next regularly scheduled watering day, which is NOT changed by the water budget feature, the plants have to endure perhaps DAYS of parching weather when they really need a drink this very minute. Water is wasted and the landscape suffers. This is really stupid, don’t you think?

So what SHOULD you be changing to account for the difference in demand caused by variations in the weather? You should be changing the FREQUENCY of irrigations, going from, for instance, two days a week in normal weather to three days a week in hot weather or one day a week in cool weather. After all, isn’t that what you would do if you were watering by hand? You would say to yourself, “Oh, it’s hot and things have dried out more quickly than usual. I’d better get out there and water!” You wouldn’t wait until your “regular” watering day and then apply twice as much water as usual. So if you know better, instinctually, then how come the people who make irrigation controllers, the people who install them, and the people who teach other people how to use them, don’t get it? Beats me. It’s just one of those things that seemed like a bright idea to some engineer who didn’t know squat about horticulture, and nobody – nobody – has ever bothered to question it. And we’re talking about tens of thousands of knowledgeable professionals here. By the way, there may be a controller out there that allows you to easily change the frequency of watering, but I haven’t found it yet.

OK, so now you’re smarter than virtually every landscape professional on the planet. What are you going to do about it? That’s right. You’re going to trot out to the garage and stick a piece of duct tape over that “Water Budget” button on your timer and never, ever change it from 100%. It is set at 100% isn’t it?

Next, you’ll need a way to vary the frequency of watering. This is where things get a little sticky, because you’ll have to go into each program on your controller and add or remove days. For instance, suppose your lawns on Program One are set to water two times a week during “normal” weather. If the weather heats up, then add another day, going from, say, Monday and Friday to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And when the weather cools down? You guessed it: Cut it back to once a week. That’s not hard to do, but it’s a good idea to plan it out in advance to be sure you don’t create overlaps that would cause two valves to come on at the same time, overtaxing the ability of the water supply to operate the system at adequate pressure. That’s no big deal either; just be sure each program has enough open time during the week to do what it needs to do.

Next you have to keep an eye on things to be sure your new settings are actually delivering the water at the point when the plants actually need it. If you see signs of drought or oversaturation, tweak your schedule as needed. It’s really not that hard, just a matter of observing your garden as any good gardener will do. You see, those controllers aren’t very useful without the wisdom and watchful eye of the gardener to make them do the right thing. Automating the system is not the same as optimizing the system. The former is handled very well by the controller; the latter is up to you.

The rewards for better water management are lower water bills, more money in your pocket, healthier plants, and lower negative impacts on the environment. A little effort pays you back generously. Give it a try!


Roll Out the Rain Barrels?

Rain barrels are the de rigueur item for urban eco-hipsters these days. They’re sold in every garden catalog, subsidized or given away by water districts, and touted by virtually every garden expert in creation as a way to reduce garden water use and be more “green.” There are rain barrel community workshops, rain barrel seminars, Web sites devoted to the emerging rain barrel culture, rain barrel discussion groups, rain barrel tweets, and, for all I know, rain barrel users dating services. Progressive gardeners who haven’t yet bought their barrel are made to feel wasteful and negligent for failing to acquire the latest in an endless series of products designed to save the planet. Thanks to relentless marketing, rain barrels are enjoying a potent dose of moral buzz that is fast turning them into a 21st Century version of the Great Tulip Mania.


Photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer. Used by permission.

HOW RAIN BARRELS WORK. The rain barrel idea is simple: Stick a drum under your downspout to catch rainwater and store it for later use. This is supposed to help the environment, lower your water bill, and make your garden thrive in dry times. And to be sure, there’s no point in throwing away rainwater if you can make use of it. After all, once rainwater hits the street, thanks to the highly efficient drainage systems that landscapers put in, it causes urban flooding and washes all kinds of nasty pollutants into the storm drains and thence into our creeks and finally to the ocean. Using rain is smart; whisking it off the property is stupid. So there’s a good idea behind this, but how does it play out?

In the name of water harvesting, intrepid companies have developed a truly impressive array of rain barrels, some of them repurposed from previously-used containers, and most of them made new from fresh, modern plastic. They parade across the pages of garden catalogs and Web sites in a happy fashion show of forms: Spartan repurposed, faux Grecian Urn, faux wood, faux stone, faux ceramic, concealed plant stand, bogus whiskey barrel, real whiskey barrel, collapsible, roll-away, pop-up, knock-down, “mega” rain barrels, “eco” rain barrels, rain barrel “systems.” They come in various shades of green, earth tones, terracotta, robin’s egg blue (seriously), and basic black. alone delivers 897 listings for rain barrels and rain barrel-related items. By and large they’re a homely bunch: Fanciful shapes and ersatz wood grain concealing the humdrum function of holding 50 to 65 gallons of rainwater. But if they really would help save the Earth, then who cares what they look like? After all, we’re in dire straits and can’t be troubling ourselves over matters of aesthetics, right?

YES, BUT DO THEY MAKE SENSE? Rain barrel proponents claim that barrels conserve water, reduce urban runoff, and save money. But is it true? Suspecting that a small flagon of rain wouldn’t begin to meet the water needs of the garden, and wondering if there was even a net positive outcome when the environmental impacts of making and shipping the product are balanced against the value of the water saved, I set out to get to the bottom of the barrel business.

Let’s begin with how much water is needed to run a typical garden. It’s a number that shocks most people, even experienced gardeners. According to the Metropolitan Water District, the average Southern California family uses about 234,000 gallons of water each year. Sixty percent of that, over 140,000 gallons, is used to water the yard. Using commonly available data on evapotranspiration rates in coastal Southern California, the Green Gardens Group calculated that a typical 1,500 square foot front yard on the South Coast with a lawn and some foundation plantings requires around 43,000 gallons of water per year. Looking further into the matter they found that, thanks to poor water management practices, typical water use is 2 to 3 times what is needed, with actual applied water often clocking in at over 100,000 gallons for the same small front yard.

So here’s a question: Which is better, to save 60 gallons of rain water by installing a rain barrel or to save over 1,000 times that amount simply by dialing back the watering to a reasonable level? Keep in mind that changing watering behavior costs nothing and delivers immediate and long-lasting results. In this instance, the mid-tier price of water in Santa Barbara is $4.90 per hundred cubic feet (HCF, equal to 748 gallons), which means that saving 60,000 gallons of water will reduce the water bill by $393 per year. By comparison, that smidgeon of water in the rain barrel is worth just over 39 cents.

What about the practicalities of watering your garden with rain barrels? It’s easy to see that it would take a heck of a lot of barrels to meet the water needs of a typical garden. Going back to that 140,000 gallons of water used by the average suburban landscape, one barrel will supply .00043 of the annual water need, or as landscape professionals say, a drop in the bucket. It would take 2,333 60-gallon barrels of water to meet the annual needs for irrigation. Each barrel takes up about 12 cubic feet, so 2,333 barrels require 28,000 cubic feet of space. The interior space of a 2,000 square foot house with 8 foot ceilings measures around 16,000 cubic feet. If you were to stack your rain barrels to the ceiling, you would need a volume equal to 1.75 additional houses to store this much water.

If you were to place the barrels on the ground one layer deep, they would require 9,332 sq. ft. of land, which is just under a quarter of an acre. Since the average suburban lot size in our area is around .17 acre, you would need 1.47 more lots just to store the water. Oh-oh, it’s time to buy out the neighbors and tear down their houses so you can water your garden. This must be the reason that none of the respected experts on rain water harvesting advocate or even mention rain barrels in their books and publications.

BULLYRAGGING THE BARREL BARONS. Just for fun, I submitted the following good-natured inquiry to a couple of Internet rain barrel vendors:


I have a 7,500 square foot lot, and I use about 140,000 gallons of water per year for landscape irrigation. A single 60-gallon rain barrel will supply 0.00043 of my annual water needs, making it necessary for me to have 2,333 barrels to meet those needs. They will fill almost a quarter of an acre of land if placed side-by-side. My lot is only about .17 acres, and the house and garden take it all up. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you.

Rodger C. “Rod” Buck, Customer Care Variety Specialist at Hayneedle wrote back, “Unfortunately, we are strictly a retail on-line web site that does not get into anything as heavy-duty as you are describing. May I suggest that you check with a local company that specializes in wells and/or in rural cistern tanks?” I guess the point was kind of lost on Rod. The folks at Gardener’s Supply did a little better, and even played along with me: “Thank you for writing.  Our rain barrels are a great way to collect the free water from the sky, but as you have so eloquently pointed out, will not be a complete watering source for your garden. For small gardens, when rain is intermittent, they can be very helpful in aiding your watering needs.  They are intended to augment your watering, not take it over completely…we’d like to offer you a 10% discount. This is valid even if you want to order 2,333 barrels.” Sweet. I’ll keep that in mind if I ever take leave of my senses.

OTHER CONCERNS. Even if you had a one square-foot garden, which is what a barrel full of water will serve for the year, there are some additional issues that have to be looked at.

Suppose there isn’t enough rain to fill up the barrel? Just when you really need water most, your barrel is busy collecting dust and spiders. Not helpful. Not helpful at all.

If the barrel is located in the sun, you’ll be delivering potentially damaging hot water to your plants. Unless you like to cook your carrots while they’re still in the ground, this could very well be a problem.

How clean is the water? The first element in a real water harvesting system is what’s called a “first flush filter” that keeps contaminated water out of the system. You see, all sorts of guck collects on rooftops during our months-long dry season, and the first storm dissolves it all into a toxic soup that’s best sent down the drain. It’s not something you’d want to put on your plants. But the typical rain barrel, lacking a first flush filter, collects and stores the very most contaminated first part of the first flush. Please don’t invite me over for a taste of your rain barrel-irrigated spinach, OK?

Most barrels come with fine-mesh screens to keep mosquitoes from breeding in the water and prevent errant vermin from drowning in it. But of course the fragile screen will be the first part of the system to fail, and few owners will bother to replace it. How environmental is dead rat soup?

Is there a reasonable financial payback for the investment in a rain barrel? If the barrel fills 5 times a year, the annual value of the captured water is a little under two dollars. The cheapest available rain barrels cost around a hundred bucks, which means that the payback time for Santa Barbarans is at least half a century. It’s even longer where water rates are cheaper. In most cases, neither the barrel nor its owner can reasonably be expected to last long enough to see a return on the investment.

And what about the environmental impacts of making and disposing of the barrel itself? How much embodied energy is there in a rain barrel? Where do the materials come from? Is it recyclable at the end of its useful life? And how long could a barrel be expected to last anyway? Unfortunately, hard answers to these questions are not so easy to come by. Plastic is made from oil; we know that much. Although it’s often not spelled out, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) seems to be the material that most rain barrels are made from. HDPE is one of the least toxic plastics on the market, it will probably last at least ten years and possibly much longer, and it’s a #2 recyclable material. Beyond that, not much can be ascertained without fairly strenuous research beyond the capabilities of this poor writer.

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL. Is it possible to do a full life-cycle analysis on a rain barrel, to determine in hard numbers whether it’s a net environmental good or bad thing? Not easily, given the difficulty of obtaining some of the key data such as embodied energy, lifespan, and the impacts of oil drilling, and then putting it all together in a definitive bottom-line formula. But it should be pretty obvious that whatever the other variables, rain barrels don’t solve the problem of water conservation.

All in all, rain barrels are a washout, another delusional, greenwashed, pernicious consumer scam. Maybe the next rain barrel group should be Rain Barrel Abusers Anonymous. “Hi, I’m Darlene and I have 2,333 rain barrels.” “Hi Darlene!”

REAL SOLUTIONS. What’s a better use of resources? How can you really save water? Well, rainwater harvesting, done properly, is an essential element in a sustainable landscape. And yes, the amount of water you can capture can be impressive. A typical roof will deliver 600 gallons per 1,000 square feet of surface area per inch of rain falling on it. In real-world terms that means that an average Santa Barbara rainfall year’s 18 inches of rain landing on a 2,000 square feet roof will generate 21,600 gallons of water, which (in case you were wondering) is worth $141.00. In a nutshell, there are two basic approaches to water harvesting, both involving the canny capture of roof water.


A03112_071NON-STORAGE STRATEGIES. One is to let rainfall flow across and sink into the soil, deep watering plants as it goes. This can be accomplished by changing the contours of your land to create low spots, soak zones, dry streambeds, and other concavities that will allow the water to pool and seep into the soil. (IMPORTANT ADVICE: Don’t try this on hillsides or where there is any potential for landslides, flooding of structures, or other untoward outcomes. And keep the water at least five feet away from the house. In fact, check with a geologist, landscape architect, water harvesting professional or other qualified expert before changing the grade on your property.) Concave, water-slurping landscapes are now required in some progressive communities, and properly done they make a lot of sense. Water stays on the land where it belongs, and the larger environment doesn’t suffer from the effects of dumping excess quantities of rainfall into the street. Creating a concave landscape is relatively easy and inexpensive if done at the time the landscape is created, but even an established landscape can often accommodate a swale, dry streambed, rain garden, or other absorbent zone. These are also very attractive additions to the landscape.


Photo by Bloomsberries. Used by permission.
Photo by Bloomsberries. Used by permission.

STORAGE STRATEGIES. Of course just moving and slowing water only works during the rainy season. Summer is another matter, and the rain barrel idea is a stab at addressing the issue of how to get access to water during the dry months of the year. Storing water does work, but only if you have the space and capital to create a fully-fledged system of one or more cisterns, which are above-ground or buried tanks. Do keep in mind, though, that rainwater takes up just as much room in a big tank as it does in hundreds of small barrels, so one of the big questions is where do you put the stuff? Unlike dry streambeds, cisterns are usually ugly, and they’re expensive, running between fifty cents and two dollars per gallon of storage capacity. That means that storing even 10,000 gallons of rainwater, a small fraction of what your garden probably needs, could easily run you ten or twenty grand. You can buy a lot of water for that amount of money. Back to the question of where to put the cistern, well, you can tuck a lot of water under a deck, or put a tank out on the back forty (if you’re lucky enough to have a back forty), or dig a giant hole and bury the thing. Still, this is clearly not for everybody. But if you have the resources, a big slug of water on site is like money in the bank, keeping you soothed and safe. By the way, with the addition of a pump, a cistern can be used to fight wildfires too, which is never a bad idea in our flammable communities.

For more information on water harvesting, turn to the real experts. Brad Lancaster and our own local genius Art Ludwig both offer great, detailed advice on this surprisingly complex subject. Check out their Web sites for information, books, and other resources.

Oh, by the way, if you know of anyone who’s in the market for a couple thousand barrels, cheap, have them give me a call.


Kobe Mulch: Artisanal, Local, Sustainable

Kobe Mulch Pack
Kobe Mulch Pack

Kobe Mulch: Artisanal, Local, Sustainable

The refined estates of the Santa Barbara area are set to become the latest beneficiary of the Kobe Mulch craze that’s suddenly sweeping America. Modeled on Japan’s famed Kobe Beef, Kobe Mulch is an artisanal mulch that’s produced from specially selected wood chips and subjected to a series of complex, labor-intensive treatments that make it both the most sought-after and the most costly mulch in the world. And Kobe Mulch is also revolutionizing local farming practices as well as helping to save the environment.

MULCH PRIMER. For the benefit of the non-gardener, it will help to know that mulch is a layer of organic material, usually some type of wood chips or bark, that is spread on the surface of the soil to conserve moisture, discourage the growth of weeds, and protect the soil from erosion and extremes of temperature. Mulch is in common use in modern sustainable gardens, and in fact is considered a basic element of the contemporary sustainable landscape. Conventional mulch is often derived from wood chips created during tree trimming operations, or from minimally processed bark that is a by-product of the lumber industry.

THE KOBE DIFFERENCE. Kobe Mulch differs from conventional mulch in several ways. It comes from special feedstock, the chipped wood of the once-rare Hoki Pine (Pinus retrofractus Dougl.), a native of southern Japan. The wood of the Hoki Pine offers several advantages over the random materials used to produce ordinary mulch. Hoki wood is more durable, has a more open grain structure which provides better insulation (“loft” in the terminology of mulching science), and it has superior marbling and color. But that’s just the beginning. It’s the special treatment that turns Hoki wood into the sought-after Kobe Mulch. More on that later.

THE HOKI REVOLUTION. The Hoki Pine, an endangered species in its native habitat, grows with astonishing speed in Southern California, and is drought tolerant, pest-free, and very easy to grow. It has been the source of garden mulch in Japan at least since the reign of Emperor Jimmu (585-503 BCE). But until very recently the Hoki pine was unknown in the Western world. A consortium of horticultural professionals quietly began to import it to California in the early 2000s. Extensive plantations of Hoki, as the growers refer to it, quickly took hold in the remote Santa Ynez and Cuyama Valleys, replacing failed ostrich farms with a zero-impact crop that has turned out to be a big moneymaker for the growers. In fact, some ag experts anticipate that by 2020 Hoki production will surpass that of strawberries, Santa Barbara County’s leading crop. Hoki is also resistant to the increased summer heat that is expected to occur as a result of global warming. Currently, growers are developing localized cultivars of Hoki that are even faster growing and better adapted to local climates. Because of its speedy metabolism, a Hoki Pine seedling can grow to 40 feet tall and be ready for harvest in 2 to 3 years, a growth rate unheard of in tree crops until now. And this can be done with no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no supplemental irrigation beyond normal rainfall. In fact, the Hoki requires virtually no care at all between the time is it planted and when it’s harvested. A boon to labor-challenged farmers and a genuine benefit to the environment, the Hoki has quietly become the darling of local agriculture.

Steve Claymore, third-generation landowner in the Buellton area of the Santa Ynez Valley, has been growing 1,200 acres of Hoki for nearly 10 years now. “We’ve been blown away by this plant.” says Claymore. “After struggling with Pinot Noir and other wine grapes, row crops, buffalo, corn mazes, and those disastrous ostriches, we feel we’ve finally come up with a way to make our land profitable while helping to save the environment at the same time.” Claymore is not the only one who’s wild about Hoki. In fact, last year local Hoki growers formed the SBHPA, the Santa Barbara Hoki Producers Association, to promote and further develop the crop. Environmentalists like the Hoki too, citing its drought tolerance, friendliness to wildlife, and resemblance to local native vegetation. All in all, Hoki is poised to transform agricultural practices in Santa Barbara County and beyond.

ANCIENT MULCH CRAFT. But that’s only the beginning of the story. Once the wood from the Hoki Pine is harvested, the real work of crafting Kobe Mulch begins. Turning Hoki into Kobe is a labor-intensive 2- to 3-year process that calls on the best skills of highly trained artisans. Santa Barbara’s Kobe Mulch producers underwent a rigorous 2-year long traditional training regimen in Japan, living in a mountaintop hermitage in the remote Kanagawa Prefecture and studying under the aging masters of the craft. There are currently only 7 certified Kobe Mulch artisans in the United States, and 3 of them are based in Santa Barbara County. Artisans adopt traditional Japanese names, giving up their American ones. (For security reasons, they must remain anonymous.)

Much of the process of Kobe Mulch making is never divulged to outsiders, and the craftsmen who come through the Kanagawa training are sworn to secrecy on penalty of death. But this much is known: the harvested Hoki wood is first chipped by hand, using special Japanese santoku knives made from high carbon steel in the venerated Honyaki knife-making tradition. Chipping a Hoki tree for Kobe production can require the work of 3 or more artisans over a 4-month period. Before moving on to the other steps in Kobe Mulch production and eventually becoming an “honored adept” Kobe maker, the trainee must spend a full year just chipping wood. The angle of the cuts, the speed at which they are made, and even the clothing worn by the artisans, everything is considered critical to the eventual quality of the product.

The chipped wood is then soaked for six weeks in a bath of sake lees, vegan rennet, and the specially-aged urine of the Hokkaido mountain goat (Altonantus reflexus Fujuki) This raises the grain and imparts certain qualities to the wood. At this critical stage, timing and temperature are closely monitored. Once the soaking process is completed, the wood is sun-dried on a southeast-facing sandy loam slope of 12 to 18 degrees pitch; this must be done between the vernal equinox and Labor Day when weather conditions are favorable.

Next comes the most critical, and most laborious, phase of production. The chips are individually hand-rubbed five times per day, seven days a week, to stimulate the production of lignins and develop the unique grain structure that is the hallmark of genuine Kobe Mulch. Two of the rubbings must be done in the middle of the night, resulting in little sleep for the craftsmen during this critical period. In the traditional method, wheat-free tamari sauce and organic wasabi powder are massaged into the chips at this stage. But the safety risks involved with such intensive contact with the potent wasabi as well as concerns about the high sodium content of the end product have led local producers to modify the process for the American market. They use a proprietary compound that reportedly includes Alma Rosa Chardonnay, fermented cherimoya skins, and toasted walnut oil.

After 9 weeks of massaging and ageing, the Kobe Mulch is ready for the final stage of production: the seasoning period that will take up the remainder of the long process of making Kobe Mulch. Not much is known about this phase, and it is done under tight security.

The finished mulch is hand-packaged in small bags of 400-thread count hemp batiste and stacked on pallets for eventual delivery to customers. Because of its high value, the location of the stored mulch is a closely guarded secret, and delivery is done in unmarked vehicles.

THE SANTA BARBARA ANGLE. It wasn’t by chance that the Kobe Mulch industry came to the Santa Barbara area. Early on, growers and producers saw a potential market for their pricey product in the rambling estates of Montecito, Hope Ranch, and other local enclaves of wealthy gardening enthusiasts. At a stunning $500 per square foot (including professional installation), Kobe Mulch isn’t for the ordinary gardener. “We looked at potential markets up and down the West Coast, and concluded that Santa Barbara was THE place for this product,” says Cuyama Valley farmer and SBHPA President Tom Chipman, “And of course we’re happy to be part of the growing re-localization movement. We’d rather ship to East Valley Road than to the East Coast or elsewhere. We love making the product available to our neighbors, the wealthy celebrities and disgraced corporate CEOs of the local area.” Local author and amateur gardener T.C. Boyle is rumored to be a big customer, and truckloads of Kobe Mulch have been spotted entering the palatial estate of Oprah Winfrey in recent months.

IMITATORS. As with any popular product, genuine Kobe Mulch has its imitators. Non-certified producers have been known to use commercially available stainless steel knives to chip the Hoki wood, to substitute cheap soy, palm, or other oils for the walnut oil that is essential to the rubbing process, and even to skip the critical midnight massages. Each nugget of genuine Kobe Mulch is stamped with the ancient seal of the traditional Japanese producers, which can only be applied to material that is produced by trained masters.

Sample of Kobe Mulch
Sample of Kobe Mulch

USER RESPONSE. Local users are delighted with Kobe Mulch. They report larger flower production, fewer pest problems, and better feng shui among the benefits of using the pricey ground covering. Kobe aficionados reportedly become virtual addicts of the product and have been known to take out lawns, fill in swimming pools, and even demolish guest houses and outbuildings to create more space for their beloved mulch.

USING KOBE MULCH. Kobe is hand-applied like any other mulch: three to four inches thick over the entire planted area. Once it’s in place, there’s no care needed, other than maintaining an even cover. The mulch will last for a year or longer, depending on the amount of watering and rainfall the area receives.

WHERE TO GET KOBE MULCH. Kobe Mulch is currently only available direct from the producers. For more information, go to

The Attack of the Designosaurs

Speaking of monsters (see “Garden Wise Guys” below), the time has come to talk of some of the design practices that ought to go the way of the Stegosaurus. Just as this ancient dinosaur became extinct when conditions changed around it, the changing conditions of our present world are making lots of formerly accepted gardening practices obsolete. And those who continue to design landscapes that follow the old, wasteful rules are slowly changing or going the way of all effete creatures. Here at Owen Dell & Associates we call them “Designosaurs.”

It’s simple. Water wasting plants are out; climate-adapted plants are in. Chemicals are out; natural controls are in. High-impact hardscape materials are…you guessed it…out; biotechnical, reclaimed, recycled, and natural materials are waaaay in. Dumb irrigation controllers? Ouuuut! Efficient smart controllers? In. Lawns out; meadows in. Bare soil…you know; mulch in.

These changes matter to you because they are not only good for the environment, they make your gardening life easier, make the garden look and work better, and can save you heaps of money. Who could argue with that? Shoot, even if you hate the environment, you should do these things because they’re good for YOU!

Yet there are plenty of people still stuck in the past. Why do homeowners continue to do things the old way, and why are some designers still lawn-and-thirsty-plants-centric? Well, mainly because of habit, ignorance, and oftentimes a misunderstanding about sustainable landscaping that leads them to believe it’s an arcane practice that results in grim, parched, ugly places and agonizing sacrifices. Nothing could be further from the truth. A sustainable landscape could look like most anything — a Japanese garden, a perennial garden, a forest, whatever — and sustainable landscapes can be GORGEOUS!

Want to know more? Hey, you need a copy of my book, Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Have a look at it and order your own autographed copy right here. Don’t be a Designosaur!