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The Art and Science of Controlling Water

By Alrie Middlebrook, President and Founder of Middlebrook Gardens




Images courtesy of Middlebrook Gardens


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Keeping water on the site helps calm and soothe people, preserves the local watershed and maintains the aquifer. Alrie Middlebrook, of Middlebrook Gardens advises, "Keep water at a trickle. Slow it down. As a designer, contractor or landscape architect, if you can achieve an element that's beautiful, relaxing, produces nice sounds, is fragrant and attracts pollinators, you're ahead of the game."




"When we go back to natural systems," states Middlebrook, "then our level of work to maintain them is very low and that is what sustainability is. 'Regenerative' is also 'sustainability.' If you want to plant a site with natives, remember that you're dealing with a disturbed site which has been exposed to invasives, the sun and introduced soils. Once the plants are in the ground, the site starts to recycle and become a native habitat.

The primary thing Middlebrook Gardens prides itself on doing is keeping all the rainfall that falls on a site on that site. To accomplish this, it is necessary to use different design solutions such as tying in the downspouts. "We are keeping all that water away from the storm drains or preventing it from flowing down the driveway," says Middlebrook.

She continues, "Visit a site when it's raining and actually see what's happening to the water and how you can influence the patterns of the water heading for the aquifer as well as the aesthetic appeal to the people who live there. Slow it down and retain it."




Break concrete on site into large, stepping stone-sized pieces and relay it on a bed of decomposed granite. You can back-fill the spaces with soil for planting or pea gravel, which allows water to percolate through the hardscape.


"When we go back to natural systems," states Middlebrook, "then our level of work to maintain them is very low and that is what sustainability is. 'Regenerative' is also 'sustainability.' If you want to plant a site with natives, remember that you're dealing with a disturbed site which has been exposed to invasives, the sun and introduced soils. Once the plants are in the ground, the site starts to recycle and become a native habitat. After three or four years, native plants will naturally move in that you didn't plant yourself. When that happens, you've reached a regenerative landscape that will regenerate itself without help from humans. The humans have become stewards of the land."




It's important to keep water at a trickle. Slow it down. As a designer, contractor or landscape architect, if you can achieve a site that's beautiful, relaxing, produces nice sounds, is fragrant and attracts pollinators, you're ahead of the game. People may be wary about natives, but you can see the diversity and style of these beautiful innovative gardens.


Organic wine maker, Volker Eisley, was asked how he could possibly grow these huge expanses of wine crops and not spray pesticides. He told Middlebrook, "I am blessed with this river creek that runs through the property. When I started 30 years ago doing organic vines, the creek had invasive species. Over the last 35 years I kept taking out the invasives and when they were removed the natives returned. As my creek bed riparian corridor became more and more diverse with more plants and insects, the predators did such a great job, I didn't have to use any pesticides on the vines."




If there isn't enough water to build capture systems, we attach perforated flexible pipe to the downspouts or tie into an active natural feature such as an arroyo or a creek bed that can be expected to fill up with water during the rainy season.
Images courtesy of Middlebrook Gardens


"Most people live in alluvial floodplains, flats, or grasslands cut through with riparian corridors," according to Middlebrook. "It's important to find out what plants are normally found growing in the area where you will be working. (In California, you can Google CNPS.) If the area is unique, then get a plant list for that region and work with those plants. When you do, you can create incredibly beautiful designs and return the soil to it's native state."




By doing everything we can to capture water and have it return to the underground aquifers, we develop the root systems of the new plants. If clients want a native meadow rather than a lawn, we run the pipes down about 12 to 18 inches under the top of the soil at a two percent grade. That enables dispersal of the water over large areas and slows down the flow of the water.


It is important to create the site according to ecological plant communities, and those depend on micro climates of each part of the plot. "Parts of the site may need summer water, some could get very hot because of a southwest slope exposure, with others being chaparral areas which need a diversity of chaparral species," states Middlebrook. "In a sunny area plant the vegetables and fruit trees that will get five to eight hours of sun, and intersperse those with understory natives. Then there won't be any need to use chemicals on the food crops because you've established an intact ecosystem."




The reason grasses thrived for millions of years and were able to tolerate long periods without water is because they have very intensive root systems. Native bunch grasses have fibrous roots that grab water and allow it to trickle into tiny crevices in the grass' root systems. These grasses grow very quickly and in a few months begin to change the composition of the soils.


Middlebrook continues, "The way many houses are laid out include narrow side yards that open up to large front and back yards. Those side yards are great places for vertical gardens. They also have very specific micro climates. One side may be hot, while the other side is in the shade. Set up a micro climate there because there's a lot you can do with vines."

"Green roofs are able to keep the existing home warmer or cooler. However, you have to have at least 4-inches of soil medium, and a roof capable of supporting that soil when wet," states Middlebrook.




Capturing run-off by mimicking how nature solves the problem is usually the most effective solution as well as the most economical. Depending on the slope, sometimes the solution may be a retention basin. Other times it may be a seasonal creek. In most cases, finished grade, including subtle and slight changes in topography, will create ways to disperse water over a greater area at a slower rate.

"The mediums we're using are light weight soil-less mediums. They now have the technology for vegetated roofs down real well, using waterproof membranes. But don't use grasses. They need at least 6 inches of soil medium. Fescues may go down as far as two feet. That would raise maintenance issues. Use plants that require less water such as succulents, which hold water in their leaves so you have a backup if the irrigation shuts off."

"For living walls, you need to understand what the natural habitat of that plant is and what the basic soil composition and chemistry should be," states Middlebrook. "If you put that plant in a matrix, will it be able to thrive with minimal care? We're trained to design things that look beautiful, but so many designers don't understand ecologically-based communities. Take native grasses, for example. Every one of these native plants has an 80 to 100-million-year history. If you put a native plant in an artificial environment in order for it to have a low maintenance existence, you have to know what the soil chemistry of that plant is based on where it originally thrived."




It is important to accommodate water flow yet keep it off roads. Disturbed sites need to be covered with organic material, then restoratively planted with natives and mulch. Otherwise, you're inviting invasive species to come in and colonize.


She continues, "The soil chemistry and the beneficial soil microbes along with their function is altered when invasives are introduced. It's not just on the surface. The invasives are affecting the relationship of the microbes in the soil. That needs to be addressed, as well as how to correct the imbalance of the disturbed soil."

"Evaporation, transpiration and percolation has always gone on," Middlebrook points out, "but we should understand it and protect it. The soil matrix is alive and affects everything we eat and do. If we don't address large disturbed areas, we continue to negatively impact the soil's ability to filter out pollutants, maintain watershed protection and be recycled. That is going to affect the air and water quality."




We encourage people to grow vegetables, fruit trees, vines and berries such as these elderberries (Milnes Sambuccus) as well. Not only does it mean you include an edible component in the native garden, if you have a riparian system and plant it with a diversity of riparian species, you get diversified insect populations that include both predators and pollinators. Those same predator insects will also manage the food crop monoculture.


Middlebrook Gardens also does pro bono work through the California Native Garden Foundation, which provides pro bono services for schools and community non-profit organizations. It's a public benefit foundation for educating the public by giving garden tours and setting up workshops which builds credibility. "Despite the economic downturn, I have to generate $200 thousand a month to support the 12 people I have working for me," says Middlebrook. "But I notice that the more I practice my craft, the better I get at it. One learns by doing, and I haven't had to let anybody go. A client who would have normally spent $80 thousand, may only be able to spend $40 thousand this year. They may also need to phase the installation over a longer period of time. We have to come up with innovative solutions to cut our costs and still keep the non-profit portion of our business going."




"As a designer, I am inspired by nature and re-interpreting it in the garden setting," said Alrie Middlebrook. "It is the collaboration of science and art that creates a garden that is, firstly, beautiful, culturally rich and ecologically sustainable."


"As far as dealing with the present economy," says Middlebrook, "I find that you get more clever with your solutions when you've got your back to the wall," Middlebrook continues. "Tough times bring out the best in us human beings. Americans have the gene for it. We thrive during periods of adversity."


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November 22, 2019, 12:02 pm PDT

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