Living in tune with the natural world is fundamental in Portola Valley, a town with an ethos of sustainability, Mayor Ann Wengert noted in recent remarks upon being passed the gavel. While the town is not exactly Eden for the plants that dwell there – they do have pathogens to contend with – the yards of the winners of the 2018 Backyard Habitat awards are surely among the friendlier confines on the Peninsula.
The winners this year are Delle Maxwell and Pat Hanrahan from the Westridge neighborhood, Loren and Erika Walden from Portola Valley Ranch, and Marge DeStaebler from Woodside Highlands. They join the other 15 winners evaluated and chosen by the town's Conservation Committee since the program began in 2013.
Residents apply for the award and a team from the committee makes an evaluation, according to the program brochure. If asked, they will visit the property to make suggestions on how to "create an optimal habitat."
The visible component of the award is an intentionally rusted sheet-metal frontispiece about 3 feet long by 6- to 8-inches wide, topped with a silhouette of an oak tree. It attaches to a redwood post to be placed on the property.
"All three properties (this year) have many elements in common, including a predominance of native plants, features that support wildlife, and elements aimed at reducing risk of fire," committee chair Nona Chiariello said in an email. "In addition, their owners are ardent about nature and sustainable environments."
The yard at the DeStaebler household, according to an evaluation sheet describing the property, is notable in that 95 percent of its plant species are native, its pest management is done with mechanical traps and hand weeding, and it has no lawn.
Her home is "forested," Chiariello said, sitting amid redwoods, bay trees and big-leaf maples. "With patience and persistence over many years," DeStaebler has removed invasive species and encouraged natives, including "stunning spreads" of trillium, Chiariello said. A native geranium, uncommon in Portola Valley, exists there, she said.
Fences can deter wildlife and the habitat program discourages them. The only fence on the DeStaebler property surrounds the garden, and it's near the house, according to the evaluation sheet. A bath is available for the birds there, but the pests, including weeds, are in for a tough time. It's got to be hard for a plant to defend against a foe who pulls you up by your roots, as DeStaebler does.
Her award is "especially fitting," Chiariello said, "as she has been a stalwart of the Portola Valley Conservation Committee for many years and has chaired the Backyard Habitat Award program."
No pest management
There are no invasive species in the landscaped areas of the Waldens' property, according to their evaluation. Fences are absent, as are lawns. A pool is made use of by wild animals and birds, who also nest there seasonally. Bees have quarters, as do bats, but the bats don't use them. They apparently prefer nesting next to their box rather than in it.
The Waldens' success "is a function not only of what they have done, but of what they haven't done," Chiariello said, referring to the absence of irrigation, fertilizers and even biologically based pesticides. Other than rain, the plants are watered with the gray water from the Waldens' shower.
Some of their shrubs have fallen prey to a parasite, according to the evaluation sheet, which includes a suggestion that they seek out plants resistant to this parasite.
A sod roof
Maxwell and Hanrahan live in close proximity to the 89 acres of open space known as the Stanford Wedge, along Alpine Road between Westridge and Golden Oak drives. On their property are blue oaks, manzanita, native wildflowers, succulents and other features of drought-resistant landscaping, Chiariello said. The couple put in manzanitas to replace poorly faring redwood trees, Chiariello said.
In a statement provided to The Almanac by Chiariello, Maxwell summarizes their efforts: "We have birdhouses, brush and rock piles," she said. "We harvest rainwater, have a grey water system and use no pesticides. We're trying to conserve resources as well as provide a pleasant spot for critters and people." A portion of their house has a sod roof.
"We encourage habitat so that we can host more wildlife and keep the property in a more natural state," Maxwell said. "We are happy to participate in a program that may encourage others in town to do the same thing. Also, I like to demonstrate that native plants can create a very beautiful year-round garden."