Splendor versus grass

Patrick Ranch Demonstration Garden showcases sustainable landscapes

Master gardener Kay Perkins showcases the woolly bluecurls thriving at Demonstration Garden established at Patrick Ranch in 2013.

Master gardener Kay Perkins showcases the woolly bluecurls thriving at Demonstration Garden established at Patrick Ranch in 2013.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Get growing:
Butte County has more than 100 master gardeners actively hosting workshops and providing advice. For more information, visit ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/ or call 538-7201.

On a warm May afternoon at PatrickRanch, a bird perched on the edge of a rock fountain, dipping its beak into fresh water. Bees the size of grapes buzzed about nearby, dancing on cloud-like bunches of yarrow flowers; and a lizard, startled by sudden human presence, scurried to the safety of its garden home under the Seussian poufs of a woolly bluecurls shrub.

Kay Perkins was guiding a personalized tour around the Demonstration Garden, a 1-acre spot that has grown over the past five years from a patch of weeds and Johnson grass to a lush area with several plots, potting sheds and an outdoor classroom. It has been a labor of love for Perkins and her fellow volunteers with the UC Master Gardeners of Butte County, about 120 members strong.

Their mission is straightforward, but far from simple: teaching homeowners and small farmers how to garden sustainably, protecting wildlife and the environment, and conserving vital resources like water.

“There’s nothing like having a garden to teach in,” Perkins said. “We let people put their hands on the plants and in the dirt.”

Last week, the same day as the tour, a class of elementary-school children visited the garden for a field trip, and adults learned how to prune fruit trees during a workshop. From the cauliflower-like swells of milkweed to the wayward tufts of deer grass to the popular hummingbird treat of the purple penstemon, there’s a lot to take in at the garden.

And it isn’t even finished yet.

Perkins gazed at bare expanses the way an artist looks at a canvas she’s eager to paint, masterpiece already in mind. A succulent garden is still to come, and lavender will be planted near the pathway, kissing people’s heels. In one section, she told the CN&R, there will be an entirely edible and ornamental food garden, and in another, a plot dedicated to noninvasive, climate-compatible Australian plants.

The plan is to have this all in place by the end of the year, with a final project taking a bit longer due to funding constraints: a garden for youth geared toward fostering an interest in botany by providing hands-on experience.

“We’re going to make it look like somebody’s real backyard,” Perkins said.

There’s a misconception that sustainable gardening means no variety, texture or color when, in fact, it’s the opposite, Perkins said.

“Most people think if they have to take out their lawn and go low-water or native, it’ll be just rock or cactus.”

Another counterintuitive notion is that every grass yard is bad.

“If you have five kids who play on the lawn, keep it. If you don’t, think about something else,” she said.

Jennifer Jewell, host of the gardening program “Cultivating Place” on North State Public Radio, shares a similar perspective. She grew up in the mountains of Colorado, where her passion for gardening was instilled by her mother, an avid gardener and florist, and father, a wildlife biologist.

Her family used resources judiciously out of necessity, cultivating a thriving sustainable garden.

For this reason, Jewell said, she cringes when she looks down a street and sees 90 percent of homes maintaining lawns—“There’s no habitat there, and there’s a huge amount of resources [being used] in the way of water, the people who come to mow and blow it, and the fertilizer that goes to that color green.”

And, when she sees people replacing their lawns, it’s often with a “strange conglomeration of plants that look good” at big-box retail stores but will struggle in the Butte County climate.

Perkins said those interested in redesigning or starting their own sustainable gardens need to start by recognizing what is important to them: namely, how they plan to use their outdoor space and how much maintenance they can manage.

“There are so many more wonderful things that can be done with [grass yards]that are better for the environment,” she added, “and that’s what we try to teach.”

When it comes to keeping a beautiful, sustainable garden, Perkins offers some key steps: build and maintain healthy soil with compost and mulch (avoiding over-fertilizing); choose plants that are well-adapted to the climate, noninvasive and attract wildlife like birds and butterflies; use proper irrigation to conserve water and maintain its quality; and practice integrated pest management, avoiding pesticides as much as possible.

The Demonstration Garden is a prime example of these techniques in action, and Jewell encourages people to visit.

“It’s a wonderful resource in our area, and it’s free,” she said. “Go ask questions, look, see what you like.”

Congruently, Jewell suggests finding homes with admirable gardens, knocking on the door and asking about them; additionally, gathering advice at independent local nurseries and on garden tours. Gardening societies and clubs are inexpensive to join and “full of amazing, intelligent people.” In fact, that’s how Perkins and Jewell met.

The master gardeners are busy doing their part to teach as many people as possible. Perkins said the workshops they host—about 16 to 18 per year, on subjects from seed-starting and propagation to compost-building and drip irrigation—are so much fun because she can see the revelations people experience.

“If you want to be inspired, you can be,” she said. “We get ourselves in these cycles of ruining nature and putting in store-bought things.

“It’s a discipline. You have to learn to be patient because nature is slower than the chemical solutions, but it’s sustainable long-term, and the other solutions are not.”