Landscaping with tanbark or mulch? Use caution!

Some Silicon Valley homeowners spruce up their yards and gardens in spring and summer with tanbark or mulch. While this is a very common practice, and often encouraged as a drought-friendly gardening option, it can be a bad idea if it is too close to the structure, especially the home’s foundation.

Tanbark is simply small bits of wood, and most common mulch is often no more than shredded wood. Why is that bad? Wood is food for termites and piles of tanbark or mulch can invite and hide them as well!

 

Tanbark or Mulch?

Beware Tanbark or Mulch by the foundation!Mulch is the more widely used term and it can cover a broad scope of materials, but the most common type you will find in stores (and in Bay Area gardens) is the woodchip mulch. If you ask for mulch at a hardware store, this is most likely what they will show you. In the local vernacular, we often refer to mulch as the fine, thin, or decomposed stuff – we have a different name for the larger bark and wood chips.

I learned only recently that tanbark is something of a local term that people from other parts of the state or country may not be familiar with. Here in the Bay Area we call the stuff you commonly see underfoot at playgrounds or piled thick on the planted berms around a shopping mall parking lot by the name of tanbark. Some people may reserve the name for the large chunky bark chips while others will call just about any wood chip substrate by that name. So tanbark is, in fact, a mulch.

Homeowners and sellers wanting their home to make a good first impression are often tempted to apply mulch or tanbark in otherwise bare patches around their yard, but you can wind up with far bigger (and more costly) problems if it’s too close to the foundation!

What Was That About Termites & tanbark or mulch?

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Fire Season and Silicon Valley: Caution Needed to Prevent Disaster

Edit: this post was originally published July 17, 2010, but the concerns are still as real as ever. Broken links have been updated, but the body of this article is, for the most part, left as it originally was over a decade ago.

 Danger!

Fire sign at main entrance to Belgatos SmallerSince early July, fire danger signs have been out at Belgatos Park in Los Gatos (and I suspect at other parks throughout Santa Clara County too). To the right is the sign at the park’s main entrance.  It admonishes the visitors:

High Fire Danger  No Smoking No BBQs

To anyone who’s lived in Silicon Valley long, this is understood – the fire danger is quite high here in summer.  Unlike most of the east coast, it does not rain here in summer (at least not often and not much), and our green grasses and plants of spring turn to kindling very quickly.  One stray match, hot cigarette butt or one illegal firework can smolder into a flame which grows fast with the smallest amount of wind to destroy property, animal life and potentially human life, make breathing bad for days and leave a scar on the land.

Fire Danger at Belgatos side entrance smallerThis sign at the entrance may not feel very compelling to some as the lush green grass in the background would seem to contraindicate restraint.  But venture to the park’s side entrance on Bacigalupi Drive (or hike up the trails) and you’ll understand immediately why this is nothing to take lightly.

Except for one little tuft of partially green grass, “cardboard hill” is entirely dry. So is the rest of this beautiful open space.

Preventatative Action

If you live close to or have open space in San Jose’s Alum Rock, Almaden, or other east foothill areas or the west valley places like Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Sartoga, Cupertino or anywhere the foothills, your property is likely considered to be in a high risk fire hazard zone. If so, each year you are mailed information from Cal Fire reminding you of your obligation to provide clearance around your home and to cut down the dead brush.

 

 

Just outside of the main entrance to the park there’s a large and open lot which has a few trees, some prickly pear, and a lot of grasses and weeds in winter and spring.  (It also had a rattlesnake it in by the prickly pear when my daughter walked past with our dog one day a month or two ago.) Below is a pan of two pics I took with my Blackberry and later stitched together – the park entrance is out of sight but is a little to the left of this photo.

 

Lot at Westhill and Belgatos Lane next to entrance to Belgatos Park in Los Gatos July 2010

 

These owners have done as needed and disked the field to help prevent fires or the spread of fires.

There are things you can do to “harden” your own home and create defensible space if you live near open space to make it more resistant to fire. Check out the whole list on the Cal Fire site, “Prepare for Wildfire“.

 

 

 

Lawn mushrooms or toadstools

Toadstools or lawn mushroomsLawn mushrooms are the bane of gardeners everywhere; we usually refer to these unwanted pests as toadstools.  Toadstools are really the same thing as mushrooms but are often poisonous.

These members of the fungus family pop up when we get a little moisture, so they are a common sight once rain appears, as it has been doing a lot lately.   They are not harmful to the lawn if left alone, but people with pets and children may be concerned about these unwanted visitors being ingested, causing sickness or death – so for that reason, it may be advisable to rid your yard of them.

Tips for removing lawn mushrooms

These fungi thrive on decomposing plant matter, whether it’s old roots, sawdust, animal droppings, or a fallen log. They also thrive in dark, wet areas. Some of the suggested treatments involve these steps:

  1. Remove what they are feeding on, such as pet waste, a buildup of mulch or leaves, etc.
  2. Wearing gloves, carefully cut or remove the lawn mushrooms and put them into a plastic bag that you seal so that it cannot reproduce.
  3. Aerate or de-thatch your lawn.
  4. Add soapy water to the area where you have removed the lawn mushroom.
  5. Another option, perhaps not the best first choice, is to apply a fungicide.

Do wear gloves when handling them directly.   Want more info?  Here are a few articles to help:

Bob Villa: mushrooms in the lawn

Mushrooms and Other Nuisance Fungi in Lawns (University of California)

 

 

 

Silicon Valley is rife with rats. Is your landscaping attracting them?

Garden scene with the words Landscaping and rat harboragePet rats – the kind you buy at the pet store – can make the most adorable friends. Our daughter had one as a pet and she was a very beloved family member.

But rats in the roof, attic, crawl space, walls and landscaping are not so adorable. They wreck havoc and can cause damage to home and health. Wild rats gnaw on wood and wires, and they carry fleas that can spread disease. Further, their droppings can be unhealthful, too. There are many reasons to make sure that rats aren’t at home in your home, garage, or yard.

What kind of rats exist here?

In Silicon Valley, the predominant type of wild rat is the Roof rat (also known as the Black Rat, Shop Rat, or Tree Rat).  They are identifiable because their tail is longer than the head and body together. They are dark brown or black in color. They do not live only on roofs or in attics, but do appear to prefer higher places, like branches in trees.

A lesser seen rat in the San Jose area is the Norway rat (also called the Wharf Rat, the Sewer Rat, or the Brown Rat). This rat has a shorter tai; and larger, heftier body with light brown or gray coloring, and may be seen in more rural or less developed areas.

A few years ago, a neighbor of ours found a dead rat in his yard, and he called The Santa Clara County Vector Control District office to come out and help him identify if there was a problem with rats getting into his home or not, and to shed light on the issue of why this critter recently appeared in his home. The officer came out and performed this service for free, enlightening my neighbor as to access points and providing a helpful brochure about rats and what attracts them.

Landscaping and rat harborage

I’d heard that Italian Cypress trees, juniper and ivy were all bad – that is, that they attracted rats and create a nice setting for them, or rat harborage. What I did not realize is how many other things do too.
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Mulches and Fire Danger

Tanbark or mulch in front of a San Jose home

Tanbark wood mulch separated by a dry creek bed, cement path, & brick retaining wall in a low-water San Jose yard.

May Day is a celebration of spring, but “April showers” were few and far between and it’s already starting to feel like summer! With another record-breaking hot year and the Bay Area in severe to extreme drought conditions homeowners concerned about water use and fire prevention are turning to gardening and landscaping for the solution. But a word of warning! Since updating my surprisingly popular post on mulch vs tanbark and the risk of termite infestation, I came across another reason to be cautious when applying it to your perimeter: fire.

Organic Mulches and Fire Hazard

Mulch can work wonders in a garden – it helps soil retain moisture, protects roots, reduces weeds, insulates the ground, can add nutrients and enrich the earth, adds visual appeal, and it’s affordable. It’s on every guide for landscaping water conservation (including Valley Water’s recommendations and San Jose Water’s tips)! Do a search and you’ll find it comes in a broad variety of materials. These can be divided into two groups: organic and inorganic. And organic matter can burn.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has published their (easy to read) findings from a study comparing the combustibility of various organic landscape mulches. I recommend reading the booklet, but here are some of the key points I found most interesting: (more…)

Ever See a Black Widow Spider? We Do Have Them in San Jose!

A few years back I attended a property inspection in San Jose and we found an unwanted resident in the garage: a black widow spider. Needless to say, did not stick around after she was found!

In case you haven’t seen one, I thought I’d share the pic here (click to see more below). Sadly she wasn’t my last encounter with these spooky locals. In fact, I’ve been seeing all too much of them over the last three years! At least this time, we always found her outside.

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Creek behind the house?

Creek behind a house

Example of a Santa Clara Valley home with a creek behind the house. Not every waterway is scenic.

Silicon Valley has a bad case of “urban sprawl”, unfortunately, but there are places in San Jose and nearby where creeks meander through neighborhoods, offering a little extra space between back neighbors.  This extra breathing room is valued by homeowners with a creek behind the house.  They often cite the pleasantly rural sounds of frogs and birds as an added bonus.

But some home buyers are a little spooked.  Are there risks with buying real estate next to a waterway?  Would the home flood in heavy rains?  Is there an excess of unpleasant wildlife to worry about?  One of my buyer clients was concerned that burglers would use the creek’s access path to steal things and get away unseen.   Another was afraid of cougars or bobcats or other unwelcome visitors coming in from a creek or tributary.

When Jim and I were newlyweds, we lived in a townhouse on Neary’s Lagoon in Santa Cruz (a bird sanctuary) and I have sold several homes along creeks or ponds, so will make some comments based on my experience.

Creek behind the house: scenic or not?

In general, I would say that being next to or near a creek most often will improve the value of the home because creeks are scenic and also provide a space buffer between rear neighbors.  They frequently have beautiful old trees framing their banks and are slightly curved, too, so these are usually quite pretty.   I won’t say that living next to a waterway which looks like a Los Angeles flood control channel would be beautiful or enhance a home’s value much, though the space between neighbors would still be appreciated.  Each case must be judged on its own merits.

Wildlife at the water’s edge

It is true that there will be more wildlife near water, whether it’s a creek, river, reservoir, pond, or percolation pond.  Birds, reptiles and animals need water and will seek it out.  If you love nature, you may welcome the sound of frogs and geese, and perhaps secretly hope to see a wayward deer!  If you decide to live near water, it is very important to make sure that wildlife cannot enter your home (chimney, attic and crawlspace included) and it will require some ongoing diligence to keep them out because they will be drawn to the water over and over again.  I’ve known people adjacent to water to have some challenges with birds, bats, mice, rats, and other creatures trying to make their way in.  But that can happen anywhere.  At our current home, which is not next to or near a creek, we had a squirrel try to claw its way through flashing on our roof to get into the attic. Another time we had a possum or raccoon get into the attic. Be clear that being away from the water doesn’t mean “no wildlife issues” – but if you are next to water, you will probably face them a little more often.

Floods and flood plains – what is the risk if there’s a creek behind the house?

Creekside locations do not all flood; this is perhaps the biggest misconception.  When buying a home, you can check the flood plain status via the Natural Hazards Disclosure Report, which the seller provides. You can also check online at the CAL My Hazards Awareness site. And please know that there are different types and levels of flood plains – they are not all the same!  The one which requires flood insurance is called a 100 Year Flood Plain and in those locations, water of up to 1 foot may be expected once every 100 years (so not that often).  There are 500 year flood plains and areas which are “dam failure inundation” zones (if a dam were to break, water downhill would flood, of course).

Protected species that depend on the waterways

We have a number of protected species in California, including certain frogs and salamanders.  If your home (or the one you want to buy) is in the habitat area of those animals, birds, or reptiles, you may have some constraints on landscaping near the creek or water.  Most of the time it involves not placing a fence within so many feet of the creek and using only native landscaping in that area close to the creek too. Just know that having a creek behind the house may carry extra responsibilities and restrictions.

Crime?

As for crime, I would have to say that you want to always check a site like CityProtect.com or similar sources to know what’s happening.  We do have crime everywhere, and all kinds, to varying degrees.  Most creeks do not have easy access to people’s homes or yards, and often the service road along the creek is a rough gravel, so I have a hard time picturing burglers trying to get in and walk their stolen loot a ways down that path.  But check the reports.  Realtors are not crime experts and we cannot make promises about any area or location.

 

Cracked Foundations, Adobe Clay Soils and Water in Silicon Valley

In Santa Clara County, as in much of California, we have adobe clay soil and it’s expansive.  That is, when the dirt gets wet, it expands, and when it dries out, it contracts. Hence it’s sometimes referred to as “shrink-swell” soils.  (Every state in the union has areas with this problem – a color-coded map on geology.com shows areas with more and less expansive soils.)

Why is expansive soil an issue for homeowners and would-be homeowners in Silicon Valley?

The trouble is that the expanding and contracting soil is far stronger than concrete and the foundations upon which a home sits. A well written and illustrated six page paper can be found online explaining the mechanics involved for those interested in more detail on the hows and whys of expansive soils. (It states that the ground can life as much as 5,500 pounds per square inch!)

What I’d like to focus on here is mitigating the risks and preventing the problems associated with expansive soils.

The trouble is not so much that the soil is wet or dry.  The problem is in the back and forth, the movement. When the soil is kept at an even amount of moisture, it does not expand and contract.

Obviously, rain is seasonal and we cannot control all moisture on or near the house. We can, though, work to move water away from the house and away from the foundation.

Keep rain away from foundations on adobe clay soil!

Winter storms can bring an enormous amount of water onto a home’s roof, and when it channels down gutters and downspouts, there can be a large amount of water exiting in just a few places.  Where does that water go?

 

downspout no extender near foundation

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Is your home ready for the heavy rains of an El Niño winter?

waterfallFor four years we have worried about the lack of rain and increased our conservation efforts.  Today lawns everywhere are dead, or hanging on by a thread.

Weather experts now say that there’s a 90% chance of an El Niño winter ahead.  Not only that, but they expect it to be a doozy.

My suspicion is that most of us are not really ready for all that water and the flooding that may ensue, so I wanted to suggest a little preparation for the rainy season (and the deepest hopes that it will refill our reservoirs and aquafers).   Here are a few suggestions from me, based on decades of attending home inspections:

  1. If it’s been more than 3 years since your roof was inspected, get a roof inspection done now, during the dry season. (Use a licensed roofing contractor to do it, not a handyman.) It’s better to do it before you discover a leak, and it’s better to do it before the roofers are booked out a few weeks!  The cost is probably going to be around $100 – $150.  Most homes need “tune up” work every few years, and that’s normal, so have the inspection understanding that some of your vent pipes may need resealing, a few shingles may need replacing, or other small items may require adjustment or repair.  If the roof is younger, that’s all it should be.  The old adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies here.
  2. Make sure that the grading around your house or townhouse is correct and that the land slopes toward the yard & away from your home.  Grading is incorrect a lot of the time – I probably see my home inspector write that up more than half the time.  It matters because the water that comes down will follow the slope of the soil and you do not want it aimed at your structure.  You want the water to go away from your home.
  3. Your downspouts should direct the water away from the house, ideally 6′ or more.  This is super important, as the entire surface of your roof collects water and pushes it off through just a few openings, and in heavy rains this is a ton of water!  You do not want it lingering near your foundation because our clay soils are expansive when wet and that puts unfriendly pressure on foundations and may cause cracking and the exposure of the rebar inside to moisture.  That rebar is important for the foundation’s strength, and if it rusts, the integrity of the foundation is at risk.  So protect the whole system by getting the water away from the home.
  4. If you have a drainage system, make sure that the grates over it are cleared of leaves to allow the water to filter into it.
  5. If you have a sump pump, consider upgrading from the standard type that operates on electricity only to one that works with a battery backup.  In really big storms, we can lose power and then the regular sump pump won’t work, just when you need it most!  If you already have a battery backup, consider keeping a replacement battery on hand.
  6. Most Silicon Valley homes have power lines rather than underground utilities.  Have a look at yours, if applicable, and see if there are tree branches too close to the lines.  Often P, G & E will trim them for free if you spot a problem and let them know.
  7. Do keep spare batteries, water, food, medicines, and other essentials on hand in case of a prolonged power outage.  I recommend getting cell phone or other electronic device battery backups.  Again, if you’re out of power for 3 days, you may need something to juice up your mobile phone!  I have a couple of these “bricks” but my favorite is called a PowerStrip and it has a solar charger.
  8. If you are in an area which is heavily wooded, or the access to your home is heavily wooded, consider purchasing power tools to clear trees that may fall on your route.  Being able to get in and out is crucial in case of an emergency.

Due to an avalanche of spam comments, I have had to turn off comments on this blog, but if you think I have missed anything, please email me and I will edit this article to help others be better prepared for the rains that we hope and pray are coming soon.

 

 

 

Santa Clara Valley Water District – rebates for conservation measures

Waste no waterThe drought is ongoing, and the state and the Santa Clara Valley Water District are both pressing all of us for greater conservation.  Silicon Valley residents will be tempted by local water agencies (and PG & E) offering some pretty tempting rebates, some of which have been recently and temporarily increased, for improvements made to your home and yard which lessen the amount of wasted water. For instance, changing toilets and faucets to “low flow” models will net consumers a little cash back. But it’s much more than that.  How about getting your washing machine’s gray water to a second use in the yard?

Some of these updates may not be optional in the future, so consider getting them while the rebates are still available.

Please click on the link below to view the available programs:

http://www.valleywater.org/programs/rebates.aspx

San Jose Water Company’s rebate page: https://www.sjwater.com/for_your_information/save_water_money/rebates_incentives

Also, view the SCVWD “Fact Sheet” for more info on what’s happening with our water. (This is a pdf on the Town of Los Gatos website).