by Stacey Pogorzelski

Pool

The now-filled-in backyard pool. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

The yard conversion of a multi-generational family home came with many challenges. The removal of a pool and old deck freed space for edibles and native bunchgrasses near the house.The now-filled-in backyard pool. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski Thirsty fruit trees and invasive broom transitioned to native trees, shrubs, and grasses, creating a framework for wildlife habitat. Other factors were reducing fire risk, planting during a drought, and balancing career and family obligations. However, Julie Wittmann and her family are committed to creating an increasingly diverse, yet still locally appropriate, plant community within their yard that complements the surrounding native landscape.

Julie Wittmann, her husband Bret and their 7-year old son Luke moved into Bret’s family home in Marin County in October 2020 to help care for Bret’s elderly disabled father. The home is in the Marin Highlands, a hilly oak woodland/grassland ecological community in northeast Novato. In front of the two-story home is a huge Quercus agrifolia that Bret’s father planted as an acorn in 1973 when Bret was born.

Luke shovel

Luke and Julie adding soil to planting beds. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

Soil in pool

Backyard being graded in (defunct) pool area. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

Backyard being graded in (defunct) pool area. Photo by Stacey PogorzelskiAfter some debate, in 2021 the family decided to demolish and fill in the defunct pool in the backyard rather than repair it. They also removed the surrounding cement pool walkways and a large, decaying redwood deck with huge concrete pillars. The pool area was filled in, and new hardscaping and planting zones were created. Julie, with some help from their young son, has been restoring the former pool area and the surrounding oak woodland and grassland on the property by removing invasive species and planting a diversity of native plants.Luke and Julie adding soil to planting beds. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

History of the site

Luke in large grandmother oak tree in backyard

Luke in large grandmother oak tree in backyard – Photo by Julie Wittmann

Photos of fruit tree in tire 1

Fruit tree growing within tire. Photo by Julie Wittmann

Bret’s father was the first owner of the home in 1969 and planted numerous fruit trees in the 1970s on the southwest-facing slope in the backyard; he even used old tires as planters to support them on the slope.Fruit tree growing within tire. Photo by Julie Wittmann Many of these fruit trees have died in recent years due to lack of watering. Fortunately, many native plant species still thrive in their yard and neighboring areas. The Wittmanns have numerous live oak trees, including one very huge, beautiful 4-foot diameter “grandmother” oak, mid-sized buckeyes (Aesculus californica),Luke in large grandmother oak tree in backyard – Photo by Julie Wittmann two toyon, (Heteromeles arbutifolia) a young black oak (Quercus kelloggii) and some junior madrones (Arbutus menziesii). The grassland area sports sun cups (Taraxia ovata), soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).  Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is growing in the front on a shaded north-facing side of the yard.

A New Passion and Supporting Wildlife

Julie’s background is in wildlife biology (she’s a Naturalist Education Specialist for the Center For Environmental Inquiry at Sonoma State University) so plants are a new passion for her. She was inspired by the removal of the pool and by some native seeds which a neighbor shared with her. Julie’s graduate research focused on citizen science and detecting amphibians using coverboards– thin, flat pieces of wood or other hard material (e.g., plywood) that are used by a diversity of terrestrial amphibians and reptiles. Julie has set these boards up where high-density invasive plant species could easily come back (e.g., her French broom, Italian thistle and Himalayan blackberry areas). They will keep invasive plant species at bay for a while, and in the meantime, support amphibians and other native small animals.

 Invasive Removal

The yard had its share of invasive plants including a 1000 square-foot area of French broom. The broom along the fence line was high and lanky, over 15 feet tall. Other broom plants were so large that theywere barely able to be removed using a large, 2.5-inch jaw weed wrench. Still remaining are some larger broom plants that unfortunately have a difficult-to-reach taproot due to fallen trees. These remaining broom plants will need extra removal effort since they will require chainsaw and log-rolling effort to access the roots with the weed wrench. Happily, the weed wrench easily removed the Himalayan blackberry plants growing sporadically throughout the yard. The Wittmanns purchased the weed wrench and a chain-saw as part of Novato Fire District’s Wildfire Mitigation and Vegetation Management Rebate Program. Julie also used the weed wrench to begin removing cotoneaster which is abundant throughout the backyard. Julie was also thrilled to have the chainsaw for the removal of six tall (10- to 30-feet) Italian Cypress trees surrounding the house. Non-native vetch and annual grasses run rampant on the slope below the house, but she’s leaving those for now. It’s a lot to tackle.

Other Challenges

One challenge is time, as Julie is juggling a career and family obligations. Another challenge is this extremely dry year. Julie explains: it’s “extra effort with a shift in phenology (the timing of plant life cycle events), the window for seed starting, planting, as well as weed removal has been so abbreviated.” She had planned to plant numerous other native annual flowers from seed but now it’s too late in the year, as she doesn’t want to take on so much watering without winter rains. Julie was also hoping to remove more French broom while the soil was still moist but is concerned that opportunity may have passed this season.

Vision

Seedlings

Swath of California fescue plants with edible planters in background. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

Julie’s garden vision is for some edibles, and natives that are “proportionally correct.” Julie says: “I don’t want the natives to look like they were installed.” To this end, she has planted swaths of California fescue, (Festuca californica) under existing live oaks, a combination of soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) and wild rye (Elymus glaucus) throughout the slope and another swath of purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra) in the more open sunny areas of the slope. Julie started most of these plants from seed, and, initially, she “set out seed trays but birds, mainly dark-eyed juncos, kept coming down and pecking away at the seeds in the trays; also, during the few rains we had, the seed trays would get waterlogged.” So, she purchased a greenhouse kit online. Julie estimates she has grown and planted the following number of seedlings as of mid-February 2022:Swath of California fescue plants with edible planters in background. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

Latin name Common name Seedlings grown Percent seedlings planted Seed Source
Stipa pulchra Purple needlegrass 150 40% Larner’s Seeds
Elymus glaucus Blue wild rye 70 15% Larner’s Seeds
Festuca californica California fescue 200 80% Larner’s Seeds & neighbor’s garden
Mimulus auranticus Sticky monkey-

flower

50 0% Larner’s Seeds
Chlorogalum pomeridianum Soap plant 70 50% Neighbor’s “wildland”
Aquilegia formosa Western columbine 50 20% Neighbor’s garden

Julie used seed starting potting mix in the seedling trays and added approximately three seeds per “cup,” then put them in the greenhouse on cheap, lightweight, buildable racks, typically used for shoes.

seedlings in greenhouse

Seedlings and trays in greenhouse. Photo by Julie Wittmann

Seeds

Crimson columbine in pot. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski

Seedlings and trays in greenhouse. Photo by Julie WittmannShe has planted a buckeye in the front yard (and caged it against voracious deer), and penstemon, sage and California fuchsia in between the abundant patches of Miner’s lettuce in the front and side yards. In the future, Julie would like to add other forbs and shrubs native to the area such as yarrow, buttercup, iris, and snowberry. She is committed to complementing the existing native plant residents with an increasingly diverse, yet still locally appropriate, plant community.Crimson columbine in pot. Photo by Stacey Pogorzelski