Have you ever wanted to do something good for the world?  What if you could help to reverse global warming, reduce your water usage and positively affect the water tables in your neighborhood, increase and improve habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife and influence others to do the same? This was the motivation for the changes that occured at Casa Dos Rios.   The inspiration was a childrens’ book that I used to read to my daughter called Miss Rumphius (story and pictures by Barbara Cooney). An old lady tells her life story to her grand-niece who is visiting her.  She tells of the world she has traveled and the wonderful sights she has seen and of how she has now retired to a small cottage by the sea.   In her spare time, and as her health has allowed, she has spread lupine seeds along the coast near her home.  After years, the lupine has spread and is now enjoyed by many people who travel to the area just to see the brilliant lupine in bloom.  In the end, she asks her niece what she will do to make the world a better place.  The realist in me wonders whether these were lupines that were native to the area and whether or not she had permits to seed so freely along the highway!   However, the child in me loves the optimism and simplicity of the concept.  I vowed to myself that if I could think of a way, I would try to make the world a better place. 

Deciding how to make the world a better place was tricky and took many years, but it finally came down to what my interests were.  I am a birdwatcher and I love the hikes, camaraderie and excitement of finding and photographing birds.  As I’m sure you know, many birds migrate.  Without the habitat necessary, a hungry or tired bird may starve, freeze to death or fall victim to predators on their migratory route.  Birds that don’t migrate fall victim to the same types of dangers.  The loss of habitat has led to the severe decline of many species and an overall reduction in the total number of bird species, not to mention other species.  As a birdwatcher (aka birder), I decided that if ever given the chance, I would replace a non-native garden with a native garden, increasing the total habitat available for my feathered friends, and others who might enjoy the habitat.  This also feel into place with another hobby of mine which (as you probably suspect) is gardening.

Life took its twists and turns, but as it turned out, my husband and I came to a point in our lives where we were able to move to a more rural area.  Over a period of several years, we searched for a property which suited us both.  When we found the property that is now Casa Dos Rios, we knew that we had found our dream home.  From my perspective, it was perfect because there was valuable riparian habitat and potential for a large (acre-sized) native garden around the house and other areas around the perimeter of the pre-existing cabernet sauvignon vineyard (totaling another acre) which could increase the habitat value by adding a greater variety of habitats in the area.  I envisioned upper riparian, grassland, chaparral, oak woodland and redwood forest habitats added to the existing riparian habitat.  And better yet, with the available land, I could really make a showplace out of it and attract others to come see my garden, perhaps influencing others to increase their use of native plants.  However, there was another incentive for us, the existing landscaping, beautiful as it was, required lots of water to keep the 1/2 acre lawn and other non-native planting beds green.  Being on well-water in the country means that during drought times, there may not be enough water for all, so this was a major incentive. I was excited by the prospect but nervous about the amount of work necessary to achieve my goals, never having had more than about 1/16 acre of garden space in the past, and much of that landscaped with large pre-existing non-native trees.

Michael Thilgen in Newly Planted Garden

Michael Thilgen in Newly Planted Garden

Bringing this vision into fruition took lots of planning, time and hard work.  The planning began prior to the purchase of Casa Dos Rios, when Jean found an ad in Bay Nature magazine (they have a great new website – see the resources section for the info.) for landscape architect, Michael Thilgen of Four Dimensions Landscaping in Oakland, CA. When Jean contacted Michael, he suggested we visit some native plant gardens at shows sponsored by the California Native Plant Society, so Greg and I attended the Going Native Garden Tour in Santa Clara County and its’ sister show in the East Bay, the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, where we saw many plants and habitats that interested us as well as several of Michael’s gardens.  Later, we toured more of Michael’s gardens on a private tour.  I also toured the California Native Plant Garden at the San Francisco Arboretum.  At each location, I took pictures and made notes of my favorite plants and combinations of plants.  Michael was finally selected to be the Landscape Architect because Michael specializes in native and low water-usage gardens and we liked the gardens he had designed.  Even though he was unable to bid on the installation of the garden because of the distance from his Oakland office, he was excited to work on the design of our project.   

In June, 2004 we bought the approximately 14 acre property southwest of Gilroy, California near the base of Mount Madonna in the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains.  It had an existing estate home which we thoroughly remodeled inside (read about the eco-friendly remodel we did in the Gardens and House section of the website).  The remodel took about almost 2 years and we moved in in April, 2006.  At the same time, we began the native garden planning.  A list of plants and desired hardscaping features was given to Micheal and we commissioned him to do a set of preliminary drawings with rough estimates of cost.  Of course, the initial estimate was more expensive than we wanted, so we pared down our expectations and began again.  After several passes, we had a preliminary list of what we would have in the garden.

While we worked on the remodel of the house, Michael worked on the plans.  Due to the magnitude of the job, Michael suggested we split the work into two contracts, a hardscaping and a softscaping phase.  This would allow us to move forward with the hardscaping phase while he finalized the plans for the softscaping phase.  Finally, we were presented with a final set of plans for a hardscaping phase.  The plans were sent out to four potential bidders and we received three bids by the September 2, 2005 due date.  After careful analysis, we decided to work with Jensen Landscaping.  Landscape construction began in December, 2005 with the complete removal of all plants and existing structures.  All arbors, pots, tiles, and other landscaping products were disassembled and donated to others.  A casual red rock wall was disassembled and moved to the Upper Riparian Garden and reassembled as a large rock pile to provide habitat for lizards and skinks, which can be seen lazily basking in the warmth of a sunny day.   

In future articles, the garden hardscaping phase will be discussed in detail.  A third article will detail the softscaping phase of the garden installation.