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…)
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Lawn 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 not edible and are poisonous – so we think of toadstools as bad but mushrooms as food. These members of the fungus family pop up when we get a little moisture, so they are a common sight once a little rain appears, as it just did last week. They are not harmful 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.
These fungi thrive on decomposing plant matter, whether it’s old roots, sawdust, animal droppings, or a fallen log. Some of the suggested treatments involve getting rid of what they are feeding on. (Remove scat or pet poop.) If that’s not practical, for instance if there’s loads of sawdust under your lawn, neutralizing it with soapy water after aerating the area or apply nitrogen fertilizer or something similar to help.
Do wear gloves when handling them directly Do rake or mow the toadstools to remove them. Want more info? Here are a few articles to help:
Mushrooms and Other Nuisance Fungi in Lawns (University of California)
For 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The 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:
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).
The State of California is in the 3rd year of a serious drought. There are areas in CA where there is no water going to homes at all unless it’s being trucked in (at a very high cost). We are all being asked to conserve as much as possible, with 20% being targeted not just in Silicon Valley but in all areas of California. How are your conservation efforts coming? Do you know how to check your water usage as compared to a year ago?
If you have San Jose Water, you won’t need to dig into your 2013 water bills to see how you’re progressing with water savings. The San Jose Water statement comes with a great breakdown so you can see if you’re cutting back as much as you think. Here’s an example:
What’s nice is that the gallons per day is shown, so that even if the number of days varies, you can get a pretty solid sense of use.
In this case, year over year, the family is saving an average of about 137 gallons per day, which is about a 25% savings from the same period a year ago. A lot of it’s coming from more careful use of sprinklers in the yard. Not bad, but they are trying to improve it more.
What about you? How much have you been able to cut back as compared to last year? We can all pitch in!
Most home owners know that staging a home will help to improve the selling price and give a good “bang for the buck” or return. This is even more true for staging the front yard, because usually the first impression comes online with the view of the front of the house. If the photos on the MLS (multiple listing service) and portals such as Realtor.com, Zillow and Trulia do not display a welcoming and appealing exterior from the street, many visitors to those sites often will not bother to check the inside of the house. (When we real estate agents do virtual tours of our listings with TourFactory, that site sends us traffic reports weekly. The front image always has the largest amount of traffic by far.)
Anyone living in the Los Gatos, San Jose or Silicon Valley area for the last decade knows that we get droughts – and we’re in a serious one now. Many lawns look less than green. What can you do to make the front look desirable when everything is so parched? Here are a few tips:
- use automatic sprinklers and set them to go at 4 or 5am, when the watering will do the most good
- tidy the front yard: coil up hoses, dust or paint the front, sweep the porch and walkways, repair any lifted concrete which could be a tripping hazard, remove any non-essentials from view such as watering cans, toys, projects “to do”
- consider painting the front door something colorful such as blue or red – talk to your stager about the color choice first!
- possibly add mulch or tanbark in the planter areas (they will help to keep the moisture in when you water your plants)
- trim back hedges which are covering any of the windows so that they are below them
- if you have palm trees, consider trimming the dead “skirt” for a cleaner look
- if there’s a porch, create a seating arrangement using chairs and a table
- put colorful flowers near the front door, either along the walkway or in pots near the door (just remember that potted flowers will need frequent watering, so they are not a good choice for vacant property) – if you have enough lead time, plant bushes which flower but are not too “thirsty” – talk with someone at the garden store or research which plants will thrive in your home’s particular micro-climate and which will not require much watering
Get more tips on staging the home and making it look its best in photos here:
Selling Your Silicon Valley Home? Photo Tips for Better Marketing