Agile engineering in gardens

When I left the family farm behind for the big city University life, I swore a mighty oath that my hands would never touch dirt again. Fifteen years later, I had to reverse my stance after Michelle and I bought our first house together. We were doing the home renovation thing, and as part of that, we re-factored the gone-wild planting beds into something attractive. And we both fell in love with sculpting living things into art. Michelle’s the best color arrangement and plant placement of the two of us; I do more on the hardscaping, line of sight issues and usability analysis. Then we geek out in the middle on aesthetics. Sometimes I’ll enhance the look and feel, sometimes she’ll make a usability improvement that I hadn’t thought of.
The more I worked incrementally improving our garden, the more it reminded me of software engineering in a rapid prototype environment. Yes, I am that geeky! But most of all, it reminded me of trying to design and build a game. You have to have the full user experience available before you can immerse the user in it and evaluate their actions, likes and dislikes. So when you’re building something complicated that costs a lot of money, it’s really hard to come up with a schedule and a plan for something that is, by definition not truly understandable until it is already up and running!
Our Walnut Creek garden is the best of our efforts. A complete, Desolation of Smaug piece of crap when we started the overhaul. With a moderate amount of hard work, and a large amount of lazily lounging and evaluating potential design decisions in the comfort of our wonderful garden, we came up with some pretty nifty designs!

Here is the process we used, and before/after pictures:

There is always an interesting effect as we broke in new sections of the garden. Basically, our rule was is that whoever paid the price in time and sweat to recondition an area for a mini garden got to completely control the implementation. In other words, if you dig up the ground, you get to decide what to plant! We filled in the different mini garden areas, and an interesting secondary effect came up; what do you do about the seams between, say, a new Larry project area that borders a Michelle project with a different theme? This turned out to be perhaps the most exciting piece, where we got to riff a bit off of each other’s ideas, and incorporate the view of the different mini gardens into the overall line of sight plans. And even on my pieces, she’ll grok something I missed, leading to further bouncing delights 😉
We have, I think seven mini gardens? A mini garden I define as a reasonable sitting area that provides a different look and feel from the other areas, and different patterns of sun and shade. Across the aggregate, you could be outside in the sun or shade anytime of day, any season of the year, just by moving your chair to a different seating area. And to Chris Kosmakos’ unending delight, I grew tired of dragging chairs around, and simply pre-populated all the sitting areas with chairs. Chris and I did a lot of software design work for The Sims project in the garden, as well as just kicking back and having a lot of intriguing conversations on software, people and whatever else came up that day! Chris was also outrageously surprised one day when he commented on the number of fruit trees that we planted, saying that we clearly love fruit. Well, I explained, I actually don’t really like fruit at all. And Chris righteously squawked: “What! Then why do you have so many bloody fruit trees?”
I do make a lot of fruit juice themed drinks, but the primary purpose of the fruit trees is the citrus scent in the aroma therapy sections of the garden, with the secondary benefit of hummingbirds loving to dance in and out of the shapes. Also, there was an existing lemon tree, near death in the garden we took over. It had some gnarled twisty shapes that I was able to slowly reveal with pruning and training the tree as years went by. Essentially, imagine an eight foot high bonsai tree. I loved the crafting process, so I added more fruit trees to shape. The third purpose is privacy; their density of leaves, year-round, greatly contribute to our privacy screen. But the biggest reason was I guess just the sheer coolness of being a Canadian with fruit trees in your backyard and not freezing in the winter, plus if you consider them flowers, their unusually large color blossoms that stay on the tree for very long period of time, adding color and depth to the yard. So as it turns out, we do highly valued the fruit trees, just not on the same variables that Chris does 😉

Details and pictures of the processes:



Drought: full reform needed, across all water usage and export patterns

So this evil Drought problem is clearly getting to me. But for the first time, it is not just intellectual, it is personal. The mandate calls for a 25% reduction, for all urban users. But I went water-wise 15 years ago: I don’t have 25% to cut! Anything that uses a lot of water is gone (minus Michelle’s small cottage lawn out front); everything is on drip irrigation already; high sun areas are mulched to within an inch of their lives, half the beds are empty anyways and the showers are low flow. I even have a rainwater storage tank (useless without rain). So I’ll be cutting down trees, killing native plants and paving over paradise next week. So if you need any drought-tolerant plants, let me know: I’ve got too many of them, thanks to California’s stupidly brutal and shockingly inept water management policies. I would have been better off doing NOTHING about water management until now; then it would be easy to cut usage down!

Another view of the consequences of screwing around too much with your groundwater. If pumping lots of waste water into the ground caused the earthquakes in the relatively stable mid-west, I’m not liking the odds of pumping out a lot of water on the frigging San Andreas Fault either… See also:

An easy mapping of obscure water math to everyday math: “the water needed to grow two and a half pounds of beef, or ten 4oz hamburgers, is the same amount the average person uses to shower. For a year.” 25% reduction in city-water-use means nothing if cows drink it all!

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Stunningly, The California Water Doom mandate to restrict water usage does **not address at all** the massive water consumption of agriculture and livestock! 80% of CA water flows to the fields that only contribute 2% to CA’s GDP. Instead, Governor Brown asks California city residents to restrict water usage: cutting our 20% usage by 1/4. But prior droughts showed that little enforcement abilities exist. And until they finally tackle the arcane and heavily subsidized water rights, the biggest problems will continue to exist! Alfalfa is the single biggest crop grown in CA, and we frigging export most of it?!?! Fix or end water subsidies!

Add to that the depletion level of groundwater and increased earthquake risks, as seen in :…/groundwater-depletion…

And and the brighter side, other people have already been forced to work on the problems, so there is a lot of lessons learned data we can use in our reforms!

In the same way that we can learn from Cuba’s forced evolution on local food growth, there is some very nifty stuff in Singapore on water management. They were actually shipping in most of their water from Malaysia, but between rain catchment, water use reduction, desalinization and NEWater (recycled waste water) they hope to be water independent, soon’ish. It takes decades to get this stuff done; that’s why I’ve been harping so much on it of late.

And Cuba’s forced move to local agriculture looks very good too:

California water wars: please step up, extraction industries! Is sucking up low quality oil more important than food, farms and cities?