Tag Archives: drought

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

As an update to this post: spread mulch where you would have put rock. Read along about how taking permanent action against a short term problem creates even more problems and stops permanent solutions. You can create something more, but it will only happen once you add to nature and accept her, rather than fight her. She is always just outside your door and she’s listening. Let her speak back to you, or at least let her try.

While we were in Colorado there was a trend to rip out anything that was growing and replace it with a gravel landscape. Every time I saw someone ripping out their grass to do this: I wanted to throttle them. Here is why: rock is not low maintenance. I understand those who don’t garden are looking for a low maintenance option for their yard. Please. I beg you. Do not put gravel across your property!

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

An example of what a rocked yard looks like after a few years.

Now it might seem counterintuitive to hear that rock is not low maintenance but rocks do not stop weeds. Sure: you might like the way it looks the first season you have it down, but gravel and rock are permanent. The problems associated with gravel and rock are permanent too.

Here are six very good reasons NOT to replace grass with gravel:

#1 You can’t rake up the leaves or other plant debris that drift into your gravel landscape.

Nature makes soil out of leaf litter. If you put rock down, the leaf litter will still come. It will create a layer of soil on top of your rock and in the end the rock layer and soil layer will be indistinguishable.

Nature makes soil out of leaf litter. If you put rock down, the leaf litter will still come. It will create a layer of soil on top of your rock. At some point the rock layer and soil layers will become a single unit.

Your gravel will look just like you want it to for about a season. However, as soon as you put it down: you will have things blow into your yard that you will need to pick up by hand. This will be an almost insurmountable task and delaying picking up organic matter will only create pockets of composted material (aka dirt) that weeds will take root in.

#2 Rock is expensive, it takes an enormous amount of effort to put it down. It is even harder (and way more expensive) to remove it.

Pea gravel runs a little over $4 a bag. If you are considering having a truck deliver a load from a local rock yard: you will also need to consider the delivery fee. You will need an enormous amount of rock to be successful.

Pea gravel runs a little over $4 a bag. If you are considering having a truck deliver a load from a local rock yard: you will also need to factor in the delivery fee into your quoted price. You will need an enormous amount of rock to be successful.

Digging out rock is a lot more labor than spreading it. It is backbreaking work to try and remove gravel because you have to do it shovel by shovel full. Gravel that has been down a while will settle into the soil below it. To get it up: it will need to be dug out. I was stuck with a strip of rock in our last yard. I had several contractors come out and bid to remove the strip. I couldn’t afford to remove the rock. We are talking $500 to remove it! It was way too heavy and too much work to do it ourselves…and if you know my blog: I am willing to do a lot. Once gravel is down: you are pretty much stuck with it. Even if you manage to get it all up, you will need to find a place that will take it, and there will be a disposal fee for it.

#3 Sooner or later you will end up with weeds.

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The weeds will find a small patch of soil between stones. All it takes is a few leaves drifting in and sticking in your gravel to give weeds something to grow in. The first plants to move into an area after it has been cleared are called pioneer plants. These plants will grow where nothing else will grow. They usually have deep tap roots and are a pain to remove (Dandelions are a common pioneer plant. Nobody enjoys removing dandelions. In my experience though, the worst pioneer plants to pull from gravel are tree seedlings.) Pioneer plants are natures answer to events like fires, mudslides, overgrazing and volcanic activity. They also move in after man-made activities like clear cutting, grading land for development and in our farms and gardens. They will show up all over your gravel yard and they will require constant removal.

#4 Weeding through gravel is really hard work.

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I love to garden, but I absolutely hate trying to weed through gravel and rock. Anyone who has done it will agree with me. You usually have to move gravel away from deep rooted plants to remove them (in the case of large rocks you will need to roll each one away from the weed to pull it.) The larger the size gravel or rock you are using the harder it will be to weed. Pea gravel is the easiest to weed through (outside of garden soil.)

If you have ever had to weed through gravel that has been down a few years: you know that weeding gets harder the more settled the rock gets. I lived in a home that had lava rock and crushed rock that had been down for decades. I absolutely hated it. It was down so long that it was like someone had just mixed the surrounding soil with a ton of rock. I couldn’t remove it, I couldn’t weed through it and I couldn’t get enough out with my shovel to plant through it. This experience showed me how permanent the choice to rock a yard becomes.

Rubbing your hands repeatedly on rocks while weeding will tear them up (and frequently bruise them) even with gloves. You will need to dig to remove most tree seedlings. The gravel will be in the way of the spade making for a frustrating experience.

Rock is way too much work!!!!

Herbicides aren’t the answer either. You can spray roundup all over your rock landscape but you are still going to have to pull the plant out after you kill it. Round up (or vinegar, boiling water, etc) doesn’t make the plant go away, it just makes it stop growing, turn brown and look ugly. You will still need to dispose of the plant. I don’t use spray in my beds, I prefer to hand pull weeds. Normally, in decent dirt, it’s quick work.  In gravel or between rock: it is a long and laborious process.

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Removing things like grass around rocks takes a while. It frequently means you need to move the rock to remove all of the weed.

My advice for weeds is: put on some gloves, grab a large screwdriver to dig out taproot plants (like dandelions) or get a hoe and remove the plant directly. Outside of use in maintaining a large grass lawn: I think herbicide is a waste of money. Spraying gravel with herbicide leaves the plant. You will still need to remove the plant, so why bother with the spray? You can use a pre-emergent herbicide across gravel if you already have some rock down. This will stop seeds from sprouting, but it is still a chemical and you’d be better off without the gravel in the first place. Weeding torches will remove the weed but they scorch rock. You also have to know what you are doing if you are going to use a torch. In a dry area you could easily start a fire that you can’t control.

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My beloved stirrup hoe!  (Like the one in this link. Some stores call it an action hoe.) I love it because it is super fast and I don’t have to bend over to get most weeds. You could use this in deep pea gravel but it would eventually ruin the blade on the hoe. Here is a good comparison of different weeding hoes: link They recommend a different kind of hoe. When my stirrup hoe dies I may try a different kind. Right now a stirrup hoe is my favorite way to weed.

As far as pushing for the idea of getting dirty in the first place: There are microbes in the soil that alleviate depression. This is an excellent reason to get dirty pulling weeds! That and natural vitamin D from the sun…what’s not to like about a little weeding? If you don’t enjoy weeding: don’t put something down like gravel and rock that will just make it harder. (It’s also been my personal experience that being inverted while weeding and planting seems to cause more blood flow to my brain and helps chase away the blues! Try it!)

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#5 Most people don’t read up on how to lay rock mulch correctly.

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Most recommendations I have seen say to use a minimum of 3 1/2 inches but 5-6 inches is ideal. At over 4 bucks a bag…pea gravel is an expensive option.

For a rock mulch to work it needs to be deep. To keep weeds out of the soil below you need to use a heavy duty landscape fabric underneath the rock. No matter what you do though: eventually you will end up with leaves and other organic matter over the top. These will eventually break down, fill in the spaces between rocks and support weeds.

#6 Rock does nothing to alleviate the heat island effect.

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Rock reflects and absorbs heat. Plants create shade. There is a phenomenon called a “heat island”: the more pavement, the more asphalt and the less natural shade: the higher the ambient temperature. Cities are especially affected by this because flat (often man-made) surfaces are much better at heat retention and absorption than natural surfaces that have variations in depth.

If you think your summer is too hot: look around and see if there is a way to create some shade. City temperatures are up to 10 ̊ F (5.6 ̊ C) higher than rural areas. Here’s a government site that explains this: http://www.epa.gov/heatisld/resources/pdf/HIRIbrochure.pdf People in cities frequently equate their personal experience in a heat island with global warming. These are two different things, but if you don’t understand the two you aren’t going to be able to create solutions. Cities wouldn’t be so damned hot if they were designed with heat in mind.

Examining satellite images is a simple way to visualize what causes the heat island effect. When we were looking for a home I searched areas by looking them up on Google maps using the satellite image setting. I was completely awestruck with the amount of asphalt and concrete housing developments create. Even within the same developed area you will easily see what causes the huge discrepancies in the ambient temperatures caused by heat reflective/absorbing surfaces.

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Here is a great example of an area that will contribute to a heat island effect. In this photo there is a huge parking lot with stores surrounding it. Everyone down here is aware of how concrete and asphalt absorb heat and then radiate it out until late in the evening. We can stay over 100 degrees after midnight in the summer. During those awfully hot times of the year: the concrete and asphalt stay hot to the touch until well after dark. A treed area does not absorb and radiate heat in the same way. (If you are interested in the technical side to this look up thermal radiation to see this effect in more detail.)

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This housing area has unshaded: grass lawns, streets and sidewalks. There are a few immature trees. There is almost no shade to relieve summer heat in this area.

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Here’s an example of what high density living does to the heat island effect. There is almost nothing but asphalt road, asphalt shingles and concrete. People who live in apartments and town homes don’t have yards to take care of, but they are completely surrounded by the worst of the heat offenders. I would imagine it is pretty miserable outside in the summer in this area.

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Here is a good shade example: These houses are benefiting from the shade of mature trees. This area has intense shade. The trees are so large that you can’t see the homes. You can tell the streets and sidewalks are shaded. These people probably can’t have a vegetable garden, but their homes are going to cost less to cool and their yards will be much more enjoyable.

All of these examples are choices. If the problem stems from having the original trees removed to develop land: the solution could involve homeowners who later choose to plant large shade trees. The choice of a resident in a high density home like an apartment could be: to show the managers and owners examples like what I have put in this article. See if there is room for more trees. If not: a balcony with a few plants can be a personal choice to add a little shade. Planters (of any size) around high heat areas can be an inexpensive way to start. Those who don’t want lawns can choose not to rock their yards and instead search for low maintenance perennials. There’s always room to apply solutions, no matter the size of the impact.

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My neighbor’s tree graciously offers shade as I wait for the school bus. Trees need water, but unlike rock: they offer a solution, not more problems.

If you see a problem and you know the answer: find a way to implement the solution. Solutions don’t need to be huge overhauls. Solutions start with one person who has the will to make a difference in what they have the authority to change. Make your personal changes while you share what you know with others.

Nature makes shade. Man makes reflective surfaces. Unfortunately, down here (and in most of the world) the habit is to tear down trees, clear brush, cover everything in man made surfacing that is heat absorbing or reflective and maybe add some grass. In comparison to the natural state of things, we create some ugly (and not especially intelligent, in regard to heat) structures and surfaces.

I’d never really noticed how different the satellite images are between the subdivisions and the country until we moved down here and I started looking at areas to buy a home. Miles of concrete and asphalt make heat islands possible. Trees can be a part of a larger solution. Rocking yards just contributes to the heat island affect.

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If you don’t want to take care of lawn grass: consider planting some trees, wildflowers and perennial ornamental grasses. Think about what the builders in your area had to remove to build your home. See if it makes sense to replace some of that original plant material.

If you live in the United States and are at a loss as to where to start with plants:

In your computer’s search bar: put the name of your county and “county extension”. This will pull up the county sponsored horticultural experts in your area. Hopefully you have access to local people who are Master Gardeners. Master Gardeners earn (and keep) that designation by volunteering hours educating the public. Don’t have anyone local? Find a university in your state. Most universities have an agriculture or botany expert. Use their expertise!!!! They should be able to point you towards people and groups that can help you. Extension advice is usually free. Most plant people are excited to share with new gardeners and want to encourage you to learn.

You will also find pages of information on your local extension office website directly relating to whatever planting questions you have. Most importantly: you won’t feel so overwhelmed that you want to give up and rock your yard.

To be successful: start slow and do your research. The tab at the top of this page called “Gardening Basics” will walk you through the process. If you choose to use the information provided: you will be able to make informed decisions and be happy with your property for years to come.

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If you are in a dry or hot climate you definitely need to create shade, so plant some shrubs and trees. Native plants are usually xeric (low water) and fairly low maintenance. It is a combination of the terms xeros ξήρος (Greek for “dry”) and landscaping.

Look up xeriscaping online. High Country Gardens is a great place to start: Xeric Zones. They have a ton of great information. Their site is a great place to see xeric plant variety examples. You can get an idea of what you are going to get with xeric plants.

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xeric plant choices under a tree.

Even if the native shrubs and trees for your area are some scraggly, funky looking varieties: it is so much better to add green and shade than go without! Native flowers are also better nectar sources than plants that have been bred for showy flowers. You will make the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds happy with native plants.

Nature will not allow you to keep her out. She will eventually win, and those who fight her, will end up with a yard full of tall weeds that have lots of seed and insignificant flowers. Something will grow. You get to decide what that will be.

Tickseed (coreopsis) A beautiful spreading perennial that is long blooming.

Tickseed (coreopsis) A beautiful spreading perennial that is long blooming.

Go out and plant something: It’s important!

If you enjoyed this article please make sure to share it with others (especially if you are involved with a Home Owner Association or other property governing system.)

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March showers bring April flowers…and the specter of summer drought.

Spring sprung a while back. I hate to rub it in, but I love where I live! Zone 8b is a spectacular place to call home…for the most part. There are benefits and problems in any location. We stuck our toes into spring, to test the water, almost a month ago. I am consumed by both joy and apprehension. Here are a few things I am thinking about as I wander through my yard:

The joys of spring are undeniable. It is almost as if a gardener holds their breath through winter. Just when we think we can’t do it a moment longer: the daffodils come up and their presence causes us to sputter and gasp, in what feels like our first breath in months.

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February brought daffodils. They have faded already, but are being replaced by the later joys of spring.

The sun comes out and our daily levels of home grown vitamin D begin to replenish themselves.

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The peach flowers are opening.

Depression is banished.

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The crepemyrtles are leafing out.

Cabin fever is thrown out the door.

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An orange blossom

The inner dream farmer- who will tend and harvest acres of abundance in our minds- has again possessed us with outlandish dreams for the season. We bound giddily outside to witness the miracle of the annual ceremony of the waking of the plants. Our collective memory of when humanity faced freezing bleak winters full of possible starvation and hardship (which is wound tightly around our DNA) sees a light at the end of the tunnel. The time of waiting to replenish our stores, the possibility of not having enough to feed ourselves and our families, the consumption of the last of the food put up in the summer and fall: All of the fear that is encoded into winter, is winding down and with it our collective stress levels.

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This is an Anigozanthos or Kangaroo paw.

It’s almost as if, we too, are slowly unrolling our leaves and emerging from our winter slumber.

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My antique outdoor/barn kitty: Newman. He’s over 20 years old.

It is a relationship that works to benefit both our tended plants and the soul that resides within each of us.

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Dianthus (Common name: Pinks. They are named for their petals: which look like they have been cut with pinking shears)

And then there is the specter of drought. An awareness that lack of rain may wipe out all of my efforts. Drought is one reason why I take such time with amending, researching and building. My big veggie beds are made to endure drought, this year may still prove too difficult.

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My peas are enjoying the rain. We haven’t had nearly enough. They’re saying because of the drought down here, that we are starting out at the lowest they’ve ever had our aquifer in spring. Some lakes are bone dry. For the rest of them: boat docks are high above any remaining water. We are expecting stage IV water restrictions to hit around July. A ban on watering our yard will definitely put stress on the trees and I expect to lose most of my smaller plants. Then there’s the possibility of foundation problems in our home as the soil moves as it dries out.  But maybe the drought will force me to finally appreciate our impossible to kill Bermuda grass?

There are always options, but this year is going to be tough for anything we don’t hand water with grey water or our rain barrels. I’ve been witnessing this drought for the last 3 years or so. I grew up all over the south (mostly Texas) but I’ve never seen drought like this.

All things cycle. Nothing is static. The last time drought was this bad down here was in the 50’s…definitely before my time. My granny grew up in Kansas during the Depression and the dirty thirties. It seems about time for another terrible drought.

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My family on a trip to Washington DC in 1924.

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My granny’s family literally had nothing. During the Great Depression they moved into an abandoned house. It was the same house she and other kids used to throw rocks at and break what was left of the windows. True hardship in this country is only a generation or two back for most of us.

My other grandparent’s old farm was spared in the great flood of ’93. They had already lost it to debt in the 80’s when so many farms went bust. It is hard to see your strong, proud grandparents as they watch their dreams auctioned off. The trucks they had named, the farmhouse they had restored, the fields they had lovingly tended: sold to attempt to pay for the accumulated, crushing debt. For farmers it always seems like nature is against them. Maybe that’s why they’re such an independent, stubborn lot?

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Luna is watching over me as I explore the garden.

Tree ring data across the west show we’ve been in an unusually wet period last few hundred years (the data is certainly not new: but the span of time that paleoclimatoligists have recently been able to document is truly astounding.) The pendulum has far to swing before we are at a historically neutral place.

Paleoclimatologists are warning of historical data that shows “Mega-droughts” in the United States, some of them spanning hundreds of years. Mega-droughts are something we as modern Americans can’t conceive. I certainly can’t imagine 200+ years of severe drought across California and the western states. That kind of situation is what drove people from the Midwest during the 30’s. The Dust Bowl only lasted 10 years. A Mega-drought out west would cause a reverse of that great westward migration. Man cannot be separated from a source of drinking water.

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Before you get “the big head” as they say in the Midwest: it’s important to remember our place in evolutionary history. I think we tend to think we are entirely more important than we actually are. We ultimately have the choice of being a brief blip on the timeline or we can figure out a way to hang on: defying chance and time. Nothing else has been able to win without evolving. If you look at history, mass extinctions are a probability not an exception.

No matter how we handle things: all of our accomplishments and failures will be erased by time. Our species lifespan will ultimately be affected by our choices. Time will tell if we will allow ourselves the ability to mature.

Drought happens, but the pressure to pump our aquifer is increasing yearly. Here’s to hoping there’s enough drinking water this year (and in the coming years) while still allowing family farms to flourish. At the moment: that’s a pretty big thing to ask for.

Think about the family farms as you hear about drought this year. Agriculture is THE big water user. But before you judge: they produce our food and are run by tons of wonderful families who choose to live a life that requires flying by the seat of their pants and who are always at the mercy of our weather patterns. “Salt of the Earth”…such a good descriptor for farmers! In the bread basket of North America: America’s farmers currently have an abundance that feeds much of the world.

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I saw this the other day and had to chuckle. This is a Texas Ag advertisement. I love anyone who is trying to make a difference and is following their heart, but a lot of people would do themselves good to slow down and learn about what life is actually like on small farms across America. It is a hardship to choose to be a farmer, but a time honored choice. There is no path to riches on a rural family farm. There are always an abundance of people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. It’s also usually people with more opinions than practical knowledge.

You also can’t beat that the current focus is on our over consumption.  Finding reasons to eat less in this country is so unique in the history of this planet. I doubt any of us would volunteer to go hungry. Although, there will be a day that this ability to create abundance will change. It’s part of the seasons of this planet. We are very, very lucky right now that all things are currently working in our favor.

For those of you outside of the drought: expect hay, beef and other livestock related prices to continue to go up. Texas grows a lot of cotton around Amarillo. That area is always arid, but it’s getting much worse with the drought. Middle Texas raises a huge amount of beef. As the dry days multiply, you will continue to see the prices reflect that at your local grocer.

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Down in south Texas we’ll continue to pray for some significant rain: less clear skies and a few more cloudy days that might require an umbrella. A prayer which will benefit our farming community and backyard gardeners, alike.

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