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?

(more…)

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.
(more…)

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…)

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.

 

Colorful flowers help to beautifully stage the front yard for better curb appeal

colorful flowersMost 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

 

 

 

Pool Removal and Cost: Photos and Process

Pool removal collageIf you are thinking of removing a pool, you may be wondering about the cost and process of doing it.  There are a few approaches to this task, but most people in Silicon Valley decide to have the edges removed, break up the gunnite or concrete bottom (for drainage) and then add compacted soil before re-landscaping.

A more expensive method is to remove all the pieces of rebar and concrete.

The least expensive is to simply leave all of the pool in place, just add soil and landscape.  With that last approach, anyone can view the backyard and see exactly where the pool once was (when seen in homes for sale, it lends itself to snickering – so not advised).

The typical method, partial removal, seems to cost between $10,000 and $20,000 in the San Jose area now (in 2014), depending largely upon what type of new landscaping goes in.  The removal only takes about 1-2 weeks, some of that related to weather conditions and how busy the contractors are at the time.

Pool removal process and pics

Next, please enjoy 12 photos of the pool removal process, care of my clients and friends, whose home is in Willow Glen. By the way, they used POOL IT OUT in Livermore for this job.

 

Pool full of water

Pool full of water

(more…)

Stunning custom Los Gatos view home, easy drive, gated property . . . a unique find & entertainer’s paradise!

Fabulous opportunity to purchase a spectacular view home with a close-in location on gated lot in Los Gatos!  Ideal for entertaining with oversized rooms, most with valley views.

Open Saturday June 15 & Sunday June 16, 2-4 pm – 110 Alerche Drive (off Harwood Road), Los Gatos
110 Alerche Drive, Los Gatos - view at twilight

110 Alerche Drive, Los Gatos – view at twilight

Unique find!  Very spacious, sunny home with open floor plan on gated lot in an easy-to-access location. Nearly all rooms enjoy expansive valley views! Ideal for entertaining!

• 4 bedrooms
• 4.5 baths
• Living space approx. 5,326 SF (per county)
• Lot size approx. 41,382 SF (.95 acre, per county)
• Year built: 1991
• 3 car garage + 2 car carport
• Gently sloping lot with room for pool

SEE VIRTUAL TOUR

Main floor includes
(more…)

Landscaping to attract butterflies in Silicon Valley

Butterfly GardensWhen improving yards for livability and enjoyment, one consideration may be attracting the desired types of birds and wildlife. How would you go about trying to lure more butterflies to your yard?  I found a couple of good articles online that I’d like to share with my readers today on this topic:

Plants for a California or Western Butterfly Garden – this is an extremely comprehensive resource with a lengthy list of which plants suit butterflies of varying types in their different stages of life.  Many links in each category provide further information.

TheButterflySite.com – Fabulous, intuitive to use site including a section for regions or areas and which butterflies are found there. I had never heard of a butterfly feeder before finding this website. Great information!

California Native Plant Society – Butterfly habitat gardening – more great info and links on the basics of butterfly gardening.

Do you have more local resources for San Jose area or Santa Clara County residents? I welcome the feedback to resources in the area, whether public gardens, nurseries or parks.

 

 

 

Corner lots, setbacks, landscaping and fences in Silicon Valley

Fence regulations in San Jose When you purchase a house on a corner lot, you may not realize that most likely there will be additional requirements of you regarding your landscaping compared to other properties which are not on the corner.  This is because corner lots need to provide a “line of sight” so drivers of cars can see what’s ahead should they round the corner.

In most parts of Silicon Valley (San Jose, Los Gatos and elsewhere), in the setback area of a corner lot you will not be allowed to have fences or landscaping that are more than 3′ tall – with the possible exception of a tree in which the branches really only fan out at a height of 7-8′ or more.

For properties which are not on a corner, drivers don’t really need to see through the property to get visibility on the road ahead, so the landscaping rules are much less restrictive.

These rules are not often or uniformly enforced from what I can tell, but you never know when a code compliance officer might show up with the requirement that you thin out or remove some landscaping or fencework, so keep that in mind if you buy a house on a corner lot that is heavily landscaped too close to the street.  Also, check with your own municipality (Campbell, Santa Clara, the county if not in an incorporated area, etc.) to see the residential real estate codes which apply in your specific property’s case.