Making the Most of Your Outdoor Spaces

Making the Most of Your Outdoor Spaces

New Beautiful Website!

The time has come to establish a web presence that reflects the kind of work we’re doing.

Greetings Friends & Community,

When I started Cornerstone Landscapes in 2012, I was determined to build a company whose success is rooted in integrity and excellence. In the past five years, thanks to my incredible team, wonderful clients, and a whole lot of hard work, Cornerstone Landscapes has exceeded my expectations on every level.

The time has come to establish a web presence that reflects the kind of work we’re doing. We teamed up with Dharma Communications to build this beautiful new website that details our services, people, process, and some of the work we’ve done so far.

As well, you will find our new blog under the “Green Tips” tab. We plan to update the blog regularly with useful stories on saving water, design inspiration, and important things to know when considering your landscape.

I wish to extend a heartfelt thanks to all who have helped usher Cornerstone Landscapes to the place it is today, and I look forward to seeing where we go in the years to come.

With Gratitude,

Gregory Hyman
Founder and CIO (Chief Inspiration Officer), Cornerstone Landscapes

Green Practices for Your Home & Garden

Green Practices for Your Home & Garden Part 1

By now everyone on the west coast of California is aware of our historical drought, especially those of us in sunny and dry Southern California. There are an abundance of simple ways to reduce our water use and help our drought situation, but also that enhance plant and soil health and reduce landfill waste. I believe the simplest steps, if taken in numbers by tenants and homeowners, make the greatest impact. I also believe we are being called into greater stewardship of the plot of land we inhabit, by becoming personally responsible for its well-being and our relationship with it.

Wendell Berry,  in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, writes:

“The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”

So, roll up your sleeves, check your garden tool inventory, lace up them boots and lets get to work!

Reducing Water Use

If it seems I repeat myself on these points, know that they make such a huge impact on our water use. And I find so few households implement them.

You can see my previous two blogs on water saving strategies and lawn alternatives with native, Mediterranean and edible plants. Here I will cover the simplest, low or no cost strategies.

  • Turn off your irrigation controller before and after a rain event.
  • Install an on-site weather station which connects to your controller and automatically adjusts your irrigation programming depending on the weather.
  • Have your city, municipality or a landscape professional perform an irrigation audit. Most tenants and homeowners would be surprised how much water is being wasted, and how much they are spending, on over watering. In fact, if your drip irrigation system is over 5 years old there are most certainly always leaks. Once plants establish they tend to prefer deep infrequent watering, though many irrigation controllers remain with their original programs of frequent, excessive watering. The City of Santa Barbara offers a free water check-up. Check with your city as many offer a free consultation.

Enhancing Soil and Plant Health with Mulch

Mulch is the Master. I can’t say it more plainly. Take a look at soil in the wild. You almost never see it without natural leaf litter, which is nature’s mulch. Technically speaking mulch is anything that covers your soil in your planting beds. Gravel, straw, woods chips and green-waste are all mulches. For our purposes, I will be implying organic (plant based) material that can break down into soil eventually.

So what does mulch do?

Mulch provides a protective layer for your soil, preventing desiccation and hardening from solar radiation. A 2-4 inch blanket of mulch keeps the soil surface moist, where feeder roots can access water and soluble nutrients. Also it is one of the simplest, indirect ways to conserve water and reduce water costs.

Mulch facilitates decomposition, which is the life-blood of healthy soil. Within the mulch and upper soil layers are hundreds of insects, and hundreds of thousands of soil microbes, mostly all participating in soil decomposition. The constant cycling of leaf litter into humus (fully decomposed organic material) reinvigorates soil with nutrients broken down into their most basic, absorbable components. Research of the past decade has revealed that microbial life within the soil is the cornerstone of its health and stability, much like the microbial life in our own intestines.

And hey, it looks good! Mulch puts that finishing touch to the landscape, tying it all together.

The county of Santa Barbara offers free greenwaste, which is recycled, ground yard waste collected across the county. And did you know residents of the city of Goleta and Santa Barbara are entitled to two free mulch deliveries per year? Check out the free mulch delivery program. And if you’re not a resident of Santa Barbara County, check with your local county waste disposal program for what is offered.

Click here for our for our next article: “Green Practices for your Home, Landscape and Garden part 2” where we explore the practice of composting.

Green Practices for Your Home Landscape & Garden Part 2

Green Practices for Your Home & Garden Part 2: Composting

In part 2 of Green Practices, we study and encourage composting, a simple stewardship practice for your home and business.  First, some hopeful news: California issued its official declaration of statewide drought back in January, and the City of Santa Barbara followed suit and did so in February. Its neighboring City of Goleta did so in March.   Since the February declaration the City has achieved a 15% reduction in municipal water use.  Education and participation are key factors here. In other words, knowledge followed by action is making a difference.

A quick review…

In my former blogs Water Conservation Strategies and Lawn Alternatives,  we discussed water saving strategies that beautify your landscape. In Green Practices part 1 we discussed:

  • The benefits of a free irrigation audit
  • And the practice and benefits of mulching your garden beds and planters.

So what else can be done to reduce our impact and benefit the natural ecology where we live or work?


Americans produce approximately 157.7 million tons of waste per year – that’s about 3 pounds of trash per person each day! And a high percentage of that is food waste.  Moreover, it’s a myth that food decomposes in a landfill.  By design landfills are sealed containers, void of oxygen and moisture, attempting to prevent toxic leachate (the liquid byproduct) from contaminating groundwater.  In this environment, food and yard waste is mummified instead of decomposed, and this produces methane gas. If you want more information, you can read up on the science here.  There is a solution! Composting is a simple process that can be done in an urban setting, as well as out in the garden.

The recipe:

  • 3 parts brown waste, (dried leaves, hay, shredded cardboard) which is rich in carbon,
  • 2 parts green waste (kitchen scraps,  lawn clippings, green leaves), which is high in nitrogen,
  • Water and plenty of air.
  • I have also found adding a very fine layer of soil -a sprinkle- acts as an inoculant and accelerates the process.

Think of your compost pile like lasagna, layering brown and green, monitoring moisture, watering occasionally and turning the pile as often or infrequently as you want.  Turning the pile has shown to speed up the decomposition process, but I prefer the hands-off approach

Other helpful facts and resources:

  • Compost piles should be a minimum of 3x3x3 feet, for it takes a critical mass of organic material to ignite the decomposition process.  Piles can be right on the dirt, or in a variety of bins.
  • Santa Barbara County provides discounted Earth Machines @ $40, which retail for over $100.  Here is a list of facilities where they are available.  Check with your local City for similar programs.
  • For those who want more information and are ambitious to read more, this booklet provides valuable information from the County of Santa Barbara.

So what’s with all the buzz?

For those who need more motivation other than reducing landfill waste, realize composting turns your waste into gold.  Every day the average American wastes one of our most valuable resources.  Compost does wonders for vegetable gardens and landscaping.

  • The process of decomposition takes complex organic molecules and breaks them down into the simplest, water soluble and absorbable nutrients where they become available to plants.
  • In addition, it increases beneficial microbes and fungi in the soil, which are inextricably linked to soil health.

Composting is the way of our ancestors and indeed, the way of the future.  Synthetic fertilizers are salinizing our soils and polluting our groundwater.  With compost, it is unlikely that your landscape or garden will need fertilizer, unless it was formerly degraded and already deficient in nutrients. Composting means healthier plants and lower maintenance costs.

Please share your composting success stories and any questions you may have, and check out part 3 of our series ‘Green Practices for your Home, Landscape and Garden” where we explore home greywater systems.



Drought Tolerant and Edible Lawn Alternatives

Drought Tolerant and Edible Lawn Alternatives

In our last article, we detailed a few basic strategies for conserving water in our historical California drought, namely:

  • Turning off you irrigation controller before and after rain events,
  • Installing an on-site weather station, which automatically adjusts your irrigation scheduling,
  • Changing sprinkler nozzles from fixed spray to rotor nozzles,
  • And replacing water thirsty lawns with alternate plant choices.

 In this article we explore lawn alternatives in greater depth, discussing several options of equal beauty, yet more environmentally responsible and with greater benefit to you and your community.

Lawn Alternative Landscaping

First, there are several ways to eliminate your lawn and ensure that it doesn’t grow back through your new landscaping.  The most ecological method is sheet mulching, though it can be an involved project.  Consult your landscape professional regarding all your options.   Did you know that many municipalities including the Cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara have water rebate programs, where they will refund up to $1,000 in material costs for replacing lawns and water thirsty landscaping with drought tolerant alternatives? It’s worth investigating before you begin a new project.  Last year Cornerstone Landscapes successfully helped two clients to receive their rebate from the city after reducing their water consumption with drought tolerant landscaping.

Dymondia and other Drought Resistant Plants

If you want a flat, usable space for play and recreation, here’s an idea:  Dymondia is a hardy, drought tolerant ground cover that once established, needs about a quarter of the water required by a typical lawn.  Check out the description of Dymondia and several other water wise grasses from the City of Santa Barbara.

For those of you who don’t need a flat space, or are ready for a whole new look in your front or back yard, there are endless options.  With some design innovation and creativity, your space can become a lush landscape with contour and color, or an outdoor room well suited for relaxation in the afternoon.  For starters it’s a myth that California Native plants are the best and only choice when it comes to water wise plants.  More important is that the plants chosen are native to a climate similar to ours, which is considered one of the seven major global Mediterranean regions.

Plants from other bio-regions similar to our California climate include:  South American, Northern and South African, Australian, Southern European and Middle Eastern native plants. Many of such plants provide exotic flowers and foliage that appear sub-tropical, when in fact most are sub-desert plants.  Each one of these options can be incorporated into a variety of landscape design styles, complementary to your home or business’s architectural style.   The desert garden, unlike the previous choices, offers a specific look.  Often mixed with boulders and gravel mulch, these landscapes are considered the lowest or even zero water gardens.

Food Forests and Edible Landscaping

And finally, we come to my favorite topic: food forests and edible landscaping.  With a water crisis looming over most Californians, you may be asking yourself “why water at all?” Well, plants and vegetation of all types sequester carbon, enhance soil health and add beauty to the home and neighborhood.  However, if you are going to water, why not produce something that will benefit your health, your household and your community?

The following plants can be incorporated into already existing landscaping in a tasteful way to get the most from your water:

  • Kitchen herbs can be easily incorporated into landscaping and provide fresh, delicious enhancements to a meal.
  • Perennial vegetables like kale or collard greens provide ornamental beauty and a great food source.
  • Annual vegetables like tomatoes and corn can be planted, harvested and removed each year.  And they can be incorporated into your beds, planted alongside your existing landscaping.
  • Raised beds provide a neat and tidy well-defined area to grow your favorite vegetables.
  • Fruit trees often provide more bounty than one house can use, not to mention shade and spring blossoms.

If however you are ready to completely re-design your yard and significantly reduce your trips to the store for produce, consider a food forest.  The Lifescape Garden at Santa Barbara City College is a great example of a beautiful ornamental garden that incorporates multiple layers of edible fruits, vegetables and herbs.   Food forests can be just as attractive as non-food producing landscapes, and think of the benefits:  Water, fertilizer, mulch and maintenance costs produce food in addition to beauty; food that is usually of much higher quality than anything you can buy.   Food forests require significant attention to design and implementation, but I believe they are the way of the future as we become more self-reliant and connected to our own slice of paradise right in our own yards.

Water Conservation Strategies in Santa Barbara Drought

Water Conservation Strategies in the Santa Barbara Drought

We Californians are in the midst of a historical drought, the worst in fact since weather data was first collected and compiled in the mid 1800s. You may be asking “Why are we still watering lawns?”  I ask myself the same question. Recently Mother Jones published this article about the California drought and what we can do about it.

Scottish Lawn Tradition No Longer Applies

Santa Barbara landscaping serves the architectural tradition of our famously beautiful city – gorgeous architecture calls for equally stunning gardens and landscapes.   The only problem is that we modeled our idea of beauty from the old Scottish lawn tradition where it rains all the time.   Here in paradise, our average annual rainfall is somewhere around 18 inches per year, just 8 inches higher than an official desert.  With a state of emergency declared by Governor Brown, and most of the state experiencing extreme drought, there must be something that we can do. There is, and the place of greatest impact is at your own home.

For starters, have you ever seen sprinklers going off in the middle of a rain storm,? Or just before? Or right after?

 1) Turn off your irrigation controller a few days before a rain event and leave it off until the soil begins to dry.  This is often a few days to a week+ after the rain event depending on the amount of rainfall.   This is one of the most basic and commonly overlooked ways to conserve our water, the majority of which comes from Lake Cachuma as collected rainfall, as opposed to water bought from the sate.  The only problem here is the possibility for human error.  Are you going to remember to turn your water off? This brings us to #2.

2) Install an on-site weather station. If your irrigation controller (clock) is not more than 5 years old, it most likely is compatible with an on-site weather station.  For a modest investment, these stations measure temperature and precipitation and adjust your irrigation scheduling automatically, including shutting it off during and after rain events.  Consult your landscape professional whether your controller is compatible.  If not, it is safe to say you will break even on your investment on a new controller with a weather station in one to two years with savings on your water bill. On-site weather stations allow you to program your controller for each area of your property depending on shade and sun, slope, soil type, irrigation type, etc.  This is one of the best ways to maintain the health of your plants, as the station calibrates for the ideal amount of water for your particular micro-climate.

3) Change your sprinkler nozzles. The nozzle is the emitter on top of the sprinkler that controls how much water is released.  The newer rotor nozzles deliver much less water over a longer period of time, eliminating over watering, flooding and run-off all too common with the fixed spray nozzles.  If you are committed to your lawn, this simple measure has been shown to save water usage by 30%.

4) Replace your lawn with drought tolerant plants or food producing plants, or both!  There are so many plant choices in our forgiving Santa Barbara climate with nearly 300 sunny days per year.  Choosing between California Native plants, drought tolerant Mediterranean plants from around the world or desert plants and succulents is a matter of taste, matching existing landscaping and the home’s architectural style.  And try this one on: if you are going to water, why not grow something you or someone in the community can use?  Have you ever thought of replacing a lawn with a kitchen herb garden, vegetable garden, fruit trees or combination of the 3 in a food forest?  Food producing plants can be installed with just as much attention to beauty as ornamental plants, though you get more than beauty in return.  Experience the joy and health benefits of growing some of your own food, or donate it.

There are programs like Backyard Harvest that will harvest and put your bounty to good use within the community.

Tune into my next blog where we’ll go further into lawn alternative plant choices to reduce water use and enhance the beauty of your property.