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New garden at an Old Palo Alto landmark highlights sustainable practices

Gamble Garden's watershed garden is designed to conserve resources, attract wildlife and prevent stormwater runoff

The intersection of Embarcadero Road and Waverley Street in Palo Alto sees a lot of traffic every day, but a patch of lawn at one corner wasn't getting many visitors — or much notice — according to the staff at Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden. It was a sleepy, under-used spot on the historic home and garden's grounds, but now, with the installation of a new garden on this corner, they're hoping that will change. Gamble staff recently transformed the quarter acre into a little oasis of sustainability, if not quite tranquility.

Curving gravel paths and dramatic blue Mexican fan palms show the way into Gamble Garden's new watershed garden, which celebrates its official opening this weekend. The garden puts sustainable practices front and center, and also raises awareness of Gamble Garden along two busy streets.

"It's such a big difference," said Sarah Cornwell, Gamble Garden's executive director.

The "watershed approach" to landscaping considers each garden as part of the overall environment, according to Gamble Garden's garden director, Richard Hayden, who designed the new watershed garden. This approach to landscaping conserves resources, welcomes pollinators and other wildlife and even helps keep pollutants out of oceans by stopping stormwater runoff.

To that end, the garden's gravel pathways allow water to drain through to the soil underneath.

"That's designed to be permeable so that water can transfer through and then all of the trees can still get a drink when it rains," Hayden said. At the garden's lowest point, a small swale (trench) has been dug and filled with gravel, creating a mini rain garden, which helps collect water runoff and return it to the soil.

The watershed garden, which was finished in December, is still taking root and at the moment, features more foliage than flowers. In the spring, bright blooms in shades of pinks, purples and white will set off the gray-greens and chartreuse of the foliage.

The garden showcases an array of drought-tolerant plants — a mix of native plants and others suited to the local climate. The 100-year-old Canary Island palm tree that towers over the corner inspired Hayden to choose the short, spiky Mexican fan palms to complement it. Low-growing grasses and flowering plants like lavender, sage and yarrow spread below the palms. In time for the garden's opening, golden berries on native toyon shrubs add a cheerful spot of winter color, along with the violet-blue blooms on cool-season lavender plants.

"The plants we've chosen are what I like to call 'summer dry-adapted.' They're more Mediterranean climate plants, which means they're accustomed to having wet winters and drier summers, so that hopefully if we ever do get into a drought situation and had to turn the water off, for instance, the plants would survive," Hayden said.

A new, efficient MP rotator irrigation system, which applies water more directly to plants than traditional irrigation, ensures there's very little water lost to evaporation, unlike the previous sprayers along the street that it has replaced, Hayden noted.

Lawn has not been entirely banished from this corner, but in place of a thirsty, maintenance-intensive expanse of grass, the garden highlights around half a dozen turf alternatives that don't require much water or mowing (to reduce emissions from gas-powered mowers, which aren't regulated, Hayden said).

A lush plot of California native bent grass looks almost indistinguishable from traditional lawn, but there are also more unusual choices that will be grown in this area, such as a "lawn" made of a low-growing variety of yarrow — a plant better known for colorful flowers that attract pollinators.

"You can have that same idea (as a lawn) with different kinds of plants that stay low and require a lot less maintenance and a lot less water, fertilizer and things like that," Hayden said.

All the plants have small nameplates showing their botanical names, placed there in part with the aim of offering examples of what's possible for homeowners to achieve in their own yards, Hayden said.

"They can take a picture of (a plant) and go home and google it and get the information, but hopefully see how it grows here ... We wanted to be that resource for homeowners and design professionals to see a different style of landscaping," he said.

Even the garden's main decorative feature, a circle of large quartzite boulders, was chosen with a reduced carbon footprint in mind, Hayden said. While materials for such landscaping elements are sometimes shipped cross-country or further — he cited the example of a popular material like Pennsylvania bluestone — these boulders came from the Sierras, reducing the shipping distance, and therefore, the resulting emissions. Likewise, the gravel paths are made from crushed California granite.

Overall, that may seem a minor point, but it all adds up, Hayden noted, and supports the philosophy of a watershed garden.

"We are going to be putting in a panel of interpretive information that will talk about the watershed approach to landscaping ... and how we can all have an impact in our gardens to the greater good of the community in terms of saving resources — not having stormwater leave the property, thinking about the carbon footprint of all the materials that we're using.

"If everybody starts to think locally and feel like they're part of the greater watershed, they can really make an impact," he said.

If you're interested

Gamble Garden will hold a ribbon-cutting and opening celebration for its watershed garden on Saturday, Jan. 11, 9-10 a.m. Following the ribbon-cutting event, Gamble Garden will host its monthly Second Saturday, a family-friendly event. Admission is free but registration is required.

Gamble Garden is located at 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto. For more information, call 650-329-1356 or visit gamblegarden.org.

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