Liquidambar specializes in transforming ordinary or difficult sites into gardens that blend function with aesthetics. We use subtainable landscape practices that nurture the soil, conserve water and energy, and recycle or repurpose your materials. Transforming small challenging urban spaces is our specialty.

09 July 2011


Recycle - Reuse - Repurpose:  words we’re all familiar with these days. Repurpose is to find a useful purpose for something you were going to discard. Better still is to Upcycle – the practice of using something disposable as an object with greater use or value. Typical example is the use of containers as homes, offices, or shelters for the homeless. See examples here:

For San Francisco Bay Area residents, here are some local sources to help you reduce waste, divert tons of materials from landfills and pick up some practical or whimsical items.

The ReUse People -
2100 Ferry Point, No. 150, Alameda; 510.522.0767
This nonprofit does whole house deconstruction and maintains an extensive warehouse of used building supplies.

Building Resources - 
701 Amador St, San Francisco;  415.285.7814
Part old-fashion junk yard, part art installation, Building REsources has lots of funky materials at great prices if you search among the rubble.  Also sells tumbled recycled glass in all colors.

Scrap -  
801 Toland St, San Francisco; 415.647.1746;
A non-profit, Scrap breathes new life into old objects by reusing materials such as textiles, buttons, paper, craft and office supplies, plastics and wood collected from businesses, institutions and individuals. Teachers, parents, artists and organizations depend on SCRAP as the place to find all manner of materials for projects and classrooms.

Ohmega Salvage -; 
2407 & 2400 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley;  510.204.0767
Restoration materials and furniture from older, mostly pre-1950s buildings.

900 Murray St, Berkeley;  510.841.7283;
Everything and lots of it. Also a showcase for sustainable building materials and design features.

Whole House Building Supply - 
1955 Pulgas Rd, East Palo Alto;  650.328.8731;
Sign up for pre-demolition sale e-mails or call the hot line at 650.328.8732.
Wood, doors, windows, also some tubs, cabinets, mantels, sinks and appliances.

Caldwell’s Building Salvage - 
195 Bayshore Blvd, San Francisco;  415.550.6777
Mostly lumber, windows, doors – with a great affordable door shop to build frames for old doors. Also windows, hardwood, the occasional claw-foot tub – plus a showroom with new flooring, bathrooms, etc.

25 March 2011

Water Water

Conserve Water is the 4th of 7 Bay Friendly practices. Even with the wonderful winter rains, water is and will always be a scarce and valuable resource in California. Of all urban water use, landscapes consume 1/3 and most residential properties are over-watered by 30-40%. By 2020, the state will require all residents to reduce water consumption by 20%.

Water-wise landscaping includes more than water recycling and conservation. We also need to improve the water retention capacity of the soil, in addition to installing the latest irrigation technology.

To begin, follow procedures below for nurturing the soil - the 3rd Bay Friendly principle. Then continue to build on these principles to create a thriving, living soil with enough organic content to hold water and increase permeability.

Soil: first, know your soil texture – clay, silt, sandy.
o Incorporate 2-4” compost into top 6-12” of soil to reach a soil organic matter of 3.5% under turf and 5% in planting beds.
o In spring and fall, top-dress with compost around shrubs and trees and on turf/lawn;
o Regularly apply mulch as needed to all exposed surfaces to reduce evaporation.

Plants: install drought-tolerant California natives, Mediterranean plants and succulents:
o Not all native plants are drought-tolerant so be wary and match plant requirements with your soil type and microclimate;
o Select plants from Mediterranean climates; these are Chile, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand and of course Mediterranean countries that share our long dry summer seasons;
o Minimize high water use plants.
o Plant in fall to take advantage of winter rains that help roots become established;
o When planting, remember to leave enough space to allow plants to grow to their natural size… and adjust the irrigation as plants mature.

Minimize the Lawn:
During the long dry summer season, lawns require frequent watering, cutting with machinery, pesticides to remove weeds, etc. So where lawn is desirable for kids or pets, minimize its size and/or plant low ground-covers…
o Replace lawns with water conserving native groundcovers or perennial ornamental grasses;
o Avoid turf in areas less than 8 ft. wide to accommodate efficient irrigation;
o Avoid planting turf on slopes greater than 10% or in irregular shapes.

Hydrozone your Plants - Group Plants by Water Needs:
Basically this means grouping plants by their low, medium or high water requirements and sun/shade needs;
o Locate thirsty plants in smaller, more visible areas and where possible, in spots that naturally collect water;
o Plant drought tolerant species in larger planting beds;
o Discontinue irrigation for California natives once they’re established, and be sure to continue irrigating those that need ongoing water;
o Use separate irrigation valves and circuits for each hydrozone; lawn should have its own valve.

Harvest Rainwater, Recycle Water & Graywater:
Harvesting: redirect rainwater from your downspouts and gutters into a storage barrel to use for irrigation.
Recycling: refers to water treated at a regional facility that can be used for irrigation – but not for consumption.
Graywater (not suitable for drinking): wastewater from sinks, showers, bathtubs and washing machines can be reused for subsurface irrigation of roots of trees and shrubs (as it’s not contaminated by human waste).

The simplest way to get started is to harvest rainwater from your roof. For other means, check your local building codes.

Install High-Efficiency Irrigation System:
Irrigation systems are becoming more efficient and sophisticated. Weather-based self-adjusting controllers now have soil moisture and rain sensor shutoffs. For all your irrigation needs and materials, an excellent resource is If you plan to install the system yourself, bring them your planting plan and they can design it for you. Otherwise, to optimize water conservation, best to have a professional to it.

Once your system is up and running, be sure to maintain it properly; have a landscape professional check it once a year for leaks, broken tubes, blocked sprinkler heads, etc. For mature systems, check whether your local water district or utility company will provide a free irrigation audit.

04 March 2011

How to Prepare for Spring Growing Season

Time to put on the gloves and get outside in the sun; or if, like me, you prefer to have someone else do the 'heavy lifting,' e-mail me for referrals to good maintenance gardeners.

BULBS: plant your summer blooming bulbs now, before the garden center runs out of the best varieties; or shop on-line to include some of the more exotic lilies… one source is

PERENNIALS: Add fragrance to your garden with Artemesias such as ‘Powis Castle;’ oreganos and salvias; almost all sages are scented and most are well suited to the Bay Area climate. This is a good time also to install Coreopsis, Gaillardia, Gaura, penstemons, santa Barbara daisies… these are available in economical 6-packs, 4” pots, or 1 gallon sizes for more punch.

EDIBLES: being planning for your berries, strawberries, blueberries and fruit trees. See below for composting and slug prevention.

VEGGIES: lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower can be planted now. Select some potato tubers in the more exotic varieties and flavors now available. And ensure a continuous veggie crop by successively planting beets, carrots, radishes, spinach and turnips every 2 weeks apart.

LAWN: lawns like to be richly fed so top-dress now with a good organic compost, available at most garden centers. Follow directions on the bag. Top-dressing simply means to lay compost on top of the lawn and let the organisms do the work of incorporating it into the soil. This works also for your planting beds.

IRRIGATION: turn on the water and check that all emitters are dripping water; clean or replace any clogged emitters you find. Watch for leaks and repair broken tubes. If this sounds like too much technical labor, contact Urban Farmer Store where you’ll get expert advice as well as any supplies you need:

SLUGS, BUGS & APHIDS: lots of slugs around now due to the rain. To control slugs and snails, spread Sluggo around the perimeter of your planting areas after you’ve removed all visible intruders; as extra protection, spread around vegetable, flower and berry plots; and to minimize future invasions, spread around the perimeter of your garden.

Check new growth on plants for aphids; spray first with water, under the leaves as well, every 7-10 days or so. If aphids persist, try spraying with horticulture oil, available at garden centers.

25 February 2011

Weather Alert... February 25 - 28

A freeze warning has been issued for the San Francisco Bay Area, starting tonight through the weekend. If you have any new young tender plants, here’s how you can protect them; these include succulents, citrus, bougainvillea, and most tropical-style plants

  • Cover trees and plants with burlap or similar fabric or plastic
  • Bring tender potted plants indoors;
  • Insulate the plant roots with lots of mulch;
Wait until new growth begins in spring before removing dead or damaged material. Cutting frost-damaged plants too soon could stimulate new growth that could be damaged with later frosts.

11 October 2010

Tips for the Lazy (and Smart) Gardener

If you're about to prep your garden for fall, either to plant your veggies or to retard weed growth, this New York Times article shows you how. Here's a brief excerpt:

First, pluck the weeds; next, lay 4 sheets of newspaper and wet the paper; top off with compost or mulch. If you're installing plants, compost is best;  to suppress weeds, lay mulch at least 2" deep.

If you’re starting a new garden the no-till way - which basically means using newspapers to smother the grass and weeds without resorting to herbicides - just add a few inches of compost and plant right through it.

The advantages of not tilling are many. Weed seeds are not brought to the surface of the soil, where they readily sprout and grow. You don’t churn up earthworms and countless other organisms that will aerate and enrich the soil just fine if you feed them compost and leave them alone. And since gas-powered tillers not only pour hydrocarbons into the air, they also release CO2 when they churn up the soil, leaving them in the garage is a good way to minimize your carbon footprint.

When weeds do grow — as they inevitably will, blowing in on the wind, or sprouting from less-than-perfect compost — the article suggests spritzing them, while they are still sprouts, with a homemade solution: a gallon of vinegar mixed with 2 tablespoons canola oil (other oils will gum up) and 1 tablespoon liquid Ivory dish detergent. Spray on a regular basis:  'You have to starve out the roots, so don’t wait and let the weeds get big.' Read article here:

01 October 2010

WATER in the garden

Gardens in the old days typically contained a water source from which gardeners could draw water to irrigate plants. Farmers also captured rainwater for this and other domestic uses. In classic Japanese gardens water often is simulated with raking techniques in patterns that suggest waves and rippling water. Other features also evoke water… dry streams of smooth river rock or tumbled glass create the impression of imminent cascading water.

Ponds or pools that reflect the sky and surrounding landscape visually expand a garden far beyond its physical boundaries. The tiniest stone basin or dish adds great mystery and dimension while also attracting birds to feed and bathe. Even the smallest gardens benefit from a water source.

Many inexpensive features are available today readymade and as long as the water is flowing, moved by low-voltage pumps, mosquitoes will not breed. When considering a water element, select a feature that will compliment the style, character and scale of your landscape … here are some examples:

pavers appear to float across the pond

babbling brook rambles through English-style country garden

beautiful Italian ceramic pot recycles gurgling water

cranes quench their thirst in Asian-style garden

framed by robust arbor, wall fountain screens imposing wall

Quan Yin soothes the senses
existing hillside provides perfect backdrop

industrial size & strength metal compliments contemporary style

water bowl nestles in Zen space

rippling water from polished granite fountain is replicated in surrounding plants

23 September 2010

Speedy New Service

Speedy Garden Make-Over... some samples included at:;

This is suitable for small, simple spaces such as typical urban front or back gardens measuring approx. 25 x 30 feet or similar that don’t require complex or multi-level retaining elements or other major structures. Appropriate also for curb appeal upgrades, intimate spaces within large gardens, replacing thirsty lawns with drought-tolerant plants, installing water feature to buffer street noises and more. Here’s how it works:

 Your complete a questionnaire, describing your needs and how you wish to use the space

 Based on your needs we develop your design concept on site or in our studio during 1 or 2 design consultations;

 Includes layout plan drawn to scale indicating location of built elements such as patios, walls, decks, arbors, etc;

 Locates primary plants and planting beds along with list of plants and materials;

 Provides referrals to reputable landscape contractors, gardeners and suppliers

Once completed, you can then decide whether to coordinate the installation yourself or engage us to implement it for you. (The size & location of the garden determines exact hours & cost)

Of course we still provide our
Fully Developed, Documented Design Concepts … suitable for large, challenging or complex Bay Area sites that often require retaining walls, terracing, multi-level patios or decks, custom water features and more. Consequently, design development may involve more thorough site investigation and design consideration, take longer and cost more.

To discuss your garden contact;

For more information, see;

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