Ecological landscaping

Growing tarweed from seed

Annuals are not generally thought of as landscaping plants. The conventional approach to landscaping, even native landscaping, is to use perennials sparsely placed among a mulch matrix. This is convenient for landscaping companies, since the process is relatively simple (cover weeds with plastic, cover plastic with mulch, add occasional plants).

But annuals have a lot to offer, too. They produce immense amounts of biomass, which of course is the foundation of life: this plant biomass turns into insect biomass, which turns into bird biomass, and so on. Plants are the foundation of ecosystems, and biomass is the building block.

Annuals can be established in massive quantities at low costs when planted by seed. This makes sense, since plants ready for transplant cost about $5-10, while seeds are in the small cents or fraction of a cent. Some care is needed to establish the seeds, but if implemented properly you can produce immense amounts of plants for cheap, whether you want DIY transplants or a thick meadow of wildflowers (as a lawn replacement or a beneficial insectary).

Tarweed, despite its lackluster name, can be a great (as well as cost-effective) addition to your native garden. It provides habitat and food for many specially adapted beneficial insects, and can be a valuable part of your pest-control strategy.

Some seeds are very easy to establish. Poppy and lupine are some of the easiest natives, and since they germinate quickly they can outcompete some weeds when sewn at the right time. Others, like tarweed, are a bit trickier. Still, with the right timing and soil preparation, anyone can get them to grow.

One of the largest benefits of establishing native plants from seed is that they actually require no water. None. Not even drip. It can take a few seasons of re-seeding to establish a native seed bank that can outcompete common urban weeds, but once this seed bank establishes, the annuals are there to stay.

How to grow tarweed from seed

Tarweed seeds ( Madia elegans ).

Tarweed seeds (Madia elegans).

There are two basic ways to do this: seed directly in the soil, or germinate indoors then transplant the seedlings. Both are simple but must be done properly. From here on out I am going to focus on a species of tarweed dear to my heart, Madia elegans, called common madia and showy madia – but I’ll just refer to it as tarweed for the sake of simplicity. Besides, getting seeds from the other tarweed species to establish is virtually the same (for the record, the tarweeds are fascinating as a taxonomic group in their immense adaptability: they are the ancestors of the Hawaiians silverswords, which look nothing like them and exist in the wettest and driest parts of the world).

If you want to establish tarweed directly from seed (this is what I would recommend in general), keep in mind that it’s more of a disturbance colonizer than a great competitor. If there are other plants growing where you sew the seeds, your chances aren’t great. So remove everything else first, and don’t mix in other seeds where you want to establish tarweed. Or sew the seeds in gravel, sides of paths or in cracks in pavers or cement - they will thrive there will out any preparation.

Increase the drainage of the soil too.  I like to mix in 1 part sand to 3 parts soil, plus about 1 part gravel. Tarweed will do incredibly well in cracks in cement, gravel, places you walk a lot, patios, etc, but has a harder time sometimes in dirt that looks more friendly. So prep it first.

Or just let your dog dig in the soil right after sewing the seeds.

Once the seeds germinate, you should get pretty decent survival – the tough part is getting them to go from seed to seedling in the soil. Snails will eat the young plants, but stop once they become sticky.

A great place to put tarweed is on the perimeter of your vegetable garden. The small insects that get stuck in tarweed’s sticky secretions feed a variety of beneficial insects which will build up on these native plants then move into your garden to suppress pests. Establishing a border of native plants like tarweed (that support native predators) will give you permanent, self-sustaining pest control. No more aphid outbreaks.

Tarweed provides protein-rich food (in the form of dead insects stuck to its sticky hairs) for beneficial insects, providing effective and natural pest control.

Tarweed provides protein-rich food (in the form of dead insects stuck to its sticky hairs) for beneficial insects, providing effective and natural pest control.

If you’d rather grow tarweeds one by one, there’s a way to do that, too. Take the seeds and wrap them in a wet paper towel. I usually soak a paper towel, wring it out, then put seeds in it. Put the paper towel in a plastic bag and put it all in the fridge. After a few weeks the seeds will germinate. Then, place them one-by-one by hand into small pots with a mixture of 1 part sand to 3 parts potting soil. It’s best to water from below – if possible, put the pots on a tray where you can soak them in an inch or so of water until it’s absorbed by the soil. Don’t overwater. You want the soil to be moist but not wet. Let the very top layer of soil be dry or moist, but water more if the plants wilt. If the leaf tips become pale, water less (this strategy can be applied to any plant).

Keep the sprouts in the shade until they put on a few true leaves, Once the seedlings put on a dozen or so leaves, and the roots reach all corners of the pots, they’re ready to transplant into the soil like any plant. They will need water at first, and you might lose some leaves (but that’s fine).

Tarweed seedlings with 2-4 true leaves

Tarweed seedlings with 2-4 true leaves

Tarweed has been valued by wildlife for millions of years. It was a staple to the Pomo Indians, who ate its seeds for protein. Tarweeds are immensely drought-tolerant, beautiful, smell lovely, provide natural, chemical-free pest control, feed birds, protect pollinators, and much more. And yet, thanks to an unfortunate name, they get no respect. Restoration Landscaping Co. intends to change that. Get in touch to find out more!

RESTORATION LANDSCAPING: THE FUTURE OF URBAN ECOSYSTEMS

Anyone curious about the natural world would accept that everything in nature is interconnected. And yet, chances are that you have never really thought of your home, garden, or backyard as part of your region's natural system.

Adding native flowers around your garden creates habitat for beneficial insects. These insects naturally control populations of pests like aphids - not just in your yard, but in your entire urban environment.

Adding native flowers around your garden creates habitat for beneficial insects. These insects naturally control populations of pests like aphids - not just in your yard, but in your entire urban environment.

Restoration Landscaping is addressing this disconnect by bringing California’s native plants and beneficial insects to urban areas where they no longer exist. We are transforming properties into functional wildlife sanctuaries. Our work is informed by both design and science. We provide a unique design/build landscaping service that balances our need for beautiful outdoor space with an understanding that our urban environment is a part of the natural environment. Our yards, together, are an important place.

Our team is comprised of experts in ecology and environmental sciences. We see your landscaping project as an opportunity to address ongoing critical challenges: the impact of drought on plants and soils, species extinction, and collapse of pollinator populations. Working at the property scale with consideration of regional processes and conditions, our mission is to provide mindful aesthetic solutions that will reconnect your home to the broader natural system through a growing network of restored/landscaped sites, designed to harbor flora and fauna that were once common in the region.

 

The big picture

Humans are part of nature and so are our homes. Around the world, we have altered natural landscapes, causing major ecological disruptions that can only be reversed by the reformulation of urban environments. Contemporary urbanization is now changing the way in which we influence ecosystem functions. For example, urban and suburban landscapes play a significant role in sustaining native plants, birds, and insects, providing benefits that reverberate across multiple levels of the ecological organization. Indeed, the sustainability of natural systems at broader scales is influenced by small-scale restoration/landscaping projects. In areas dominated by agricultural fields - such as the Sacramento area and Northern California in general - small properties effectively function as refuge/habitat for species that otherwise no longer exist in the region.

Our goal is to advance the environmental impact of urban and suburban environments in the region, by providing a series of improvements and landscaping services at the property level with consideration of regional challenges. Of particularly importance in California, the effects of drought on plants and soils, and the extinction of key species (e.g., native bees and other pollinators), are central in our restoration and landscape design. Our approach addresses these challenges, while enhancing the beauty of your immediate surroundings, and reconnecting your property to the broader natural system. By taking simple steps like replacing invasive ornamental plants with natives, replacing lawns with native wildflowers that are already adapted to the environment, and replacing pesticides with established populations of beneficial insects,  we are taking the impact that your yard already has on the natural environment, and redirecting it toward sustainability.

A lawn replaced with native wildflowers by Restoration Landscaping Co., Davis, CA. This ecosystem requires only a tiny fraction of the water of a turf lawn; at the same time, it provides habitat for beneficial insects, reducing the need for harmful pesticides. 

 Furthermore, we are committed to following each individual project through periodic surveys, maintenance, and data acquisition, which will be part of a long-term restoration network. As an integral part of this network your landscaping project will contribute to a sustainability plan, pioneered by our team of expert ecologists and environmental sciences at the University of California Davis, who see your landscaping project as an opportunity to address regional environmental challenges.

We have the knowledge to start restoring our landscape; your yard is the missing piece of this puzzle.

Scope of work

For restoration and landscaping to facilitate urban sustainability, it is important to understand that cities are highly dynamic and currently exhibit new forms and relations with natural environments. The nature and variety of recent urban changes go well beyond the experience of individual properties. We believe that combining a scientific framework in a planned restoration/landscaping design will stimulate urban changes in a direction that will foster sustainable development and improve the ecological significance of your property. We define urban systems as mosaics that encompass developed centers, but which are also connected with agricultural and unmanaged lands. In this inclusive sense, the term urban system stands for extensive areas of human influence.

There is also a temporal component of urban systems. This component takes into account that the system can be described with respect to their trajectory, from their segmented origin, through continuous resource inputs needed for developing an interconnected sustainable outcome. Every urban system has institutions for managing the flows of resources, the production of goods, finances, and social interactions. They are also associated with well-established architecture and urban layout. However, the life of urban systems clearly does not end with an ideal, persistent, stable state. For example, many former industrial powerhouse cities lost much of their environmental and economic base, along with large portions of their populations. Therefore, temporal trajectories that characterize the long-term sustainability of urban systems require continuous innovation in order to ensure adjustments in the face of new challenges.

 

One clear trend in modern urban areas is that they have become less dense at their cores, spreading into their vicinities and suburbs. Urban areas are increasingly more connected to the larger global context and to neighboring cities. In the United States, large urban systems are no longer fueled primarily by industry. Instead, today's cities have a more regionally diffuse structure, typically governed by a patchwork of chartered cities, villages, and towns, or counties and regional authorities, along with civil society organizations. The global context calling for improvement of the urban change models is paralleled by novelty of urban patterns around the world. Such new models of urban change and processes may be more useful in charting sustainable urban futures than the declining industrial/urbanization model. For this reason, we have adopted the novel concept of “continuum of urbanity”, which describes the context for applying ecological science toward the sustainable city (Pickett and Zhou 2015). This concept, which is the basis of our framework, emphasizes the biological, physical, and infrastructural processes that integrate the lands and systems within and between urban regions. The continuum of urbanity does not attempt to reinforce and redefine the contrast between urban and rural to fit contemporary reality. Rather it summarizes evolving concepts and insights from a variety of scientific disciplines. This conceptual continuum describes our region as porous, multi-dimensional, differentially connected mosaics in which ecological connectivity is the key aspect of sustainable modern life.

A key ingredient in the successful contribution of ecology to urban sustainability is the recognition of the ripeness of our urban areas for transformation. This recognition guides how ideas of sustainability intersect with the concepts of the urban planning and how, in turn, the urbanity continuum advances sustainability. Specifically, the sustainability worldview increasingly applied to urban areas does not mean that a city will be entirely self-sufficient. Rather, it suggests shaping a trajectory that increases sustainability, which can be most effectively achieved by the restoration landscaping of small but interconnected urban areas to foster broad scale beneficial interactions between regional ecosystems and our communities.

 

Moving forward

Utilizing rainwater, this seasonal stream in North Davis is lush, without using any external water. 

Utilizing rainwater, this seasonal stream in North Davis is lush, without using any external water. 

In our view the best way to move urban systems toward sustainability is to employ design strategies and approaches validated by successful frameworks proposed by ecological urbanism. Ecological urbanism takes into account natural organisms, structures, and processes, incorporating knowledge of ecology and environmental sciences into urban restoration design, summarized by the following principles:

  • cities are part of the natural world;

  • cities are habitats;

  • cities are ecosystems;

  • urban ecosystems are dynamic and interconnected;

  • every city has a deep, enduring context; and

  • urban design is a tool of human adaptation.

These principles, which are based on well-established scientific literature (Pickett et al. 2013), suggest that designing urban systems without explicit consideration of the ecological context will leave cities incomplete and vulnerable. In other words, they will remain unsustainable. Our goal is to use scientific knowledge and the principles of ecological urbanism to reconnect your home's design to the sustainability of our region.


A new network for sustainable change

Combined, the notions of continuum and ecological urbanism are expressed through superlative improvements in our livelihood, lifestyle, and connectivity with nature. Thus, the two concepts together provide the framework in which can make measurable improvements to our urban experience. Our framework does not replace, but rather gives a home to other familiar urban developments dealing with watershed processes, land cover mapping, and land use classification, among others.

This is a huge project - but it starts with small steps. Restoring a small portion of an urban area can have a large effect on the wildlife that entire area supports. This is the future of landscape design. Let's get started.


References

Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, McGrath B (2013) Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design: Linking Theory and Practice for Sustainable Cities. Springer, New York

Pickett STA, Zhou W (2015) Global urbanization as a shifting context for applying ecological science toward the sustainable city. Ecosyst Heal Sustain