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News and Features
August 16-23, 2006

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peaceful paradise

Peaceful Paradise: A backyard pond with natural filtration system, ornamental grass, a recycled concrete bench, a mushroom log and thou.

Green Grow Their Gardens

Environmental and aesthetic considerations come together in the art of ecological landscaping

By Rachel Stern

When Ken Foster, owner of Santa Cruz's Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, looks at his neighbor's flowery and fruitful garden, he sees more than a pampered paradise.

What Foster sees is a polluted mess of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, wasteful water usage and raucous gas-guzzling lawn mowers--or what he likes to call the conventional "mow, blow and go" version of landscaping.

"People have a romantic idea of what gardening and landscaping is," says Foster. "In reality, it's more of a SWAT team approach. Conventional landscaping permits us to abuse the environment in the name of the environment."

Foster follows a different course to gardening and landscaping, aiming to work with the earth instead of against it. His company uses methods of design, installation and maintenance that he is proud to live by and--as he can attest to with his own "beautiful sanctuary"--live in.

Foster was inspired to start Terra Nova in 1985 after earning a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the UC-Santa Cruz Extension Farm and Garden Program.

"The hardest part of the program is to leave when it's over," says Foster, who applied his newfound appreciation of organic and environmentally sensitive practices to his business, which he co-founded in 1988.

Now Terra Nova has 12 employees, and four locations in the greater Santa Cruz area. According to Foster, the company is installing a half-dozen gardens at any given time. But instead of using traditional trucks to transport their supplies, the Terra Nova staff members are well known for practicing the environmentally sound philosophy they preach, carrying their loads on bicycles with detachable trailers-- and an occasional biodiesel-powered truck.

To further reduce the company's "carbon footprint," Foster and his crew try to minimize the use of equipment that contributes to air and noise pollution. Instead of electric hedge trimmers and mowers, they use hand sheers, rakes and brooms--and a battery-powered lawn mower when necessary.

Sandra Samford, a West Side resident, has been relying on Terra Nova to pay weekly upkeep visits to her garden for the past 15 years.

"They've always been very respectful about whatever uniqueness there is about the garden," says Samford. "They do everything with the environment in mind and I can always trust their processes."

When the company begins to refurbish a garden, it doesn't just toss the materials of the old one aside. Foster reutilizes mosaics of brick, rock and urbanite--his term for reused concrete that can be enriched by staining it with iron sulfate- for pathways, patios, garden benches and stepping stones.

"[The term] 'ecological' refers to design as well," says Foster, who also adds sawdust from a local cabinetmaker to his pathways. "We can serve a lot of problems by designing correctly."

When Foster discovered that SunChai--a local tea factory--was trashing a dumpster worth of waste everyday, he worked with owner Cary Sunberg to transform the nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and loam into a sweet-smelling soil fertilizer. Due to the partnership, SunChai was able to reduce its waste by 95 percent.

This "Chai Mulch," which has an aroma that lasts one to three months, has a neutral pH balance, and hence is not acidic toward plants. After it breaks down, it turns into a compost that improves soil quality, retains moisture and prevents weeds. And cat lovers don't have to worry about their pets digging up the garden; the mulch has also been known to repel feline friends.

Golden sunset

Golden Sunset: Sunset magazine gave Terra Nova a gold medal for this green labyrinth of edible salad greens.

Terra Nova never uses pesticides or herbicides. Rather, it recommends a variety of biological controls and organic methods to keep a garden pest-free, without the help of harsh chemicals:

* Diatomaceous earth and wood ashes serve as good barriers to keep snails from valued plants, and there's always the good old-fashioned slug trap--a plastic covered container baited with fresh beer or a solution of sugar water and yeast.

* Ladybugs eat aphids, which often nest on garden plants for nourishment.

* Mosquito fish, which are tiny minnows, control mosquitoes in and near ponds by eating their larvae, and Bacillus thuringiensis--a bacterium also known as Bt that kills mosquitoes and some biting flies--can also be applied to these tiny bodies of water.

* Vermicompost tea--tea brewed from worm castings--can be distributed throughout a garden to increase fruit production, boost soil, plant and lawn health, and prevent diseases.

* Compost bins also help keep the production of a garden high. Constructed of salvaged or recycled materials, they aim to return large amounts of organic material to the soil through a natural process of heating and decomposition.

Common irrigation, according to Foster, is extremely wasteful. His methods, such as using "gray water"--or wastewater left over from processes such as bathing, laundry and washing dishes--along with a low-flow drip system and lots of perennial and native plants, reduce normal water consumption by 50 percent. Gray water--which comprises 50 percent to 80 percent of residential wastewater--is a highly effective treatment for topsoil and plant growth. Samford began using a low-flow drip system to distribute gray water to her native plants during the draught of the early 1990s and found that--unlike her withering neighbor's lawns--her garden remained green as ever.

Terra Nova founder Ken Foster

Man on a Mission: Terra Nova founder Ken Foster, along with his employees, uses bicycles for maintenance runs.

Through functional garden art, Foster believes landscapes can bring aesthetic and environmental principles together.

"In this world, we need as much nutrition and joy and healing as possible," says Foster. "If landscapes can't provide that, what good are they?"

Terra Nova recommends birdbaths, which increase fertilization and help naturally control pests. Trellises--made from bamboo and recycled wood materials--help support the growth of edible, native and ornamental vines as well as espaliered fruit trees, which grow in a flat plane against a wall. For further food fun, old logs, placed in shaded areas of a garden and sprayed with mycelium, can sprout various types of exotic and edible mushrooms. A cob oven--made of earthen materials such as straw, soil and rice stalks--can be used to cook pizza, bread and other rising edibles. The ovens are long-lasting, and have natural insulation from extremes of hot and cold.

In addition to financial success, Foster believes that his--and every other--business should rely on the two other bottom lines that often escape the entrepreneur's eye: community and social equity, and ecological sustainability.

"We're always looking at the financial bottom line, but what about taking care of people and the environment?" asked Foster. "The community that we have in Santa Cruz is remarkable. We can create a heaven on earth--that's what landscaping is all about."

Terra Nova's practical idealism was recognized in 2004, when it won Sunset magazine's Western Living Award gold medal for experimental building. Foster soon plans to start a Western chapter of the Ecological Landscaping Association, which was started in Concord, Mass., seven years ago.

Foster plans to continue to find "bold and uncommon" ways to garden sustainably--and apply his everything-in-nature-is-interwoven philosophy to even more yards.

"A real landscape is about opening up perceptions, and finding beauty in the natural world," says Foster. "And seeing that we're all a part of it. It's a landscape that can connect--rather than separate--us."

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