Q&A with Hilda Weiss

Maintaining Tour-Worthy Public and Private Wildlife Habitat

In addition to maintaining 3900 square feet of native habitat and restaurant-worthy edible garden beds, Hilda Weiss partners with fellow Santa Monica Conservancy docent Lorraine Sanchez in the maintenance of the 500 square foot Shotgun House Coastal Garden. Both gardens are perennial features on local garden tours. We interviewed Hilda about how she keeps her tour-worthy gardens in tip-top shape – while still enjoying her time in them.
 
 
 

 

Do you mow your two IdealMow Meadows? If so, how often?

We rarely mow the yarrow lawns (one is on the parkway; the other is in our front garden). We like the natural uneven texture of the lawn with some parts bushy and some parts tight to the ground. Having the variety of height and size highlights the ferny nature of the foliage.

We love having the yarrow in bloom, and we love the seed heads, especially in the Fall when we get some tiny finches and bushtits enjoying them. Usually, we only cut the dead yarrow stalks when they fall over and start to smother the younger growth. I think we’ve only mowed the yarrow lawn once; it was quite a shock to have so much top growth removed at once, so we’ve always trimmed the old growth by hand since then. Along with clipping, we rake parts of the lawn occasionally to lift out some of the dead growth.

Our neighbors are pretty good about picking up after their dogs. But dog pee is not a favorite beverage for a yarrow lawn. Consequently, the lawn in our front garden where there are no dogs does better that the same plants on the parkway.
 

 
As for the UC Verde lawn in our backyard, I’m lenient about an overgrown, wild and mounding lawn, and Wayne likes a more finished look. Our gardener has figured out how to balance our preferences with how fast the grass grows; he mows it when it begins to look shaggy.
 
 

 

As an urban wildlife habitat, what fauna do you enjoy?

We enjoy a pair of owls calling to each other in the evenings as we’re reading after dinner. They nest in Woodlawn Cemetery where the Eternal Meadow is a generous native plant garden.

I often leave seed heads on the native plants for the birds to feast on, which means less deadheading and an abundance of birdsong. We once installed a large bird feeder just when the neighbor with cats moved away. The spilled birdseed brought rats. We gave the birdfeeder to my sister who has cats, dogs and chickens. Seed heads are better!

 
 

 

What was your most memorable moment in your garden?

We got a sudden whoosh of wings as we walked past the orange tree where a mockingbird family had nested. The dad was dive bombing us. We ran past with a cardboard lid for head protection. As soon as the chicks fledged (about 2 weeks), the dive bombing stopped.
 
 

 

Is there something hard to maintain?

Some branches of our beautiful 6-foot tall Ceanothus ‘Concha’ were beginning to thrust into the walkway, so I trimmed them back about 3 feet. The branches were ½ to ¾ inch in diameter where I cut them. It was a shock to the plant; ceanothus doesn’t like having branches cut if they are bigger than ¼ inch (the size of a pencil). The plant died, but I have replaced it and the new ceanothus is doing well.
 

What is your favorite gardening tool?

A narrow trowel with a red handle fading to pink. Easy to use to loosen soil, remove weeds, or transplant self-seeded natives. Easy to find because the handle is visible wherever I stuck the trowel after tending the garden. We have two of them.
 

How do you use rain barrel-captured water?

We use the water from the 4 rain barrels for potted plants and as extra water for dry spots. We have a 5-foot hose on the faucets, so we can easily fill a watering can.
 
 

 

What do you do to maintain the biological pond?)

Because there’s no chlorine in the rain runoff captured in our rainbarrels, it’s especially good for filling the biological fishpond. Tap water must be de- chlorinated with special medical drops otherwise it will kill the fish.

Our biological pond mostly maintains itself now that we have protected it from the raccoons! We tried to share the pond by leaving the ends uncovered where the potted water plants were placed, but the raccoons ate the native plants out of their pots (seep monkeyflower, mimulus guttatus, and a native dock) and they overturned the potted grasses. We have now covered the pond completely with netting. In addition to the potted grasses (now upright and growing through the netting), we have minnows and mosquito fish, and a bubbler to aerate the water.
 

 
We also have a bird bath in the front garden for ease of access to birds (including an occasional hawk) and squirrels. (We wish the hawk would help him/herself to one or more of the too many squirrels.)
 
 

How much time do you spend working in your garden? Enjoying your garden?

I could spend all day in the garden but there are so many other things I enjoy that I end up limiting my time. For me, gardening is a special treat. I especially like to have the California natives look as natural as possible, so I don’t do much trimming or deadheading. The natural look saves time, encourages more wildlife—birds, bees, insects, reptiles, etc.—to visit, and makes me feel like I live in the country even though our garden is half a block from the metro and cafes, shops, and business offices. Most of my gardening time is spent planting and harvesting from my vegetable beds. I do some spot watering for the natives often with water from the rain barrels, and I do a lot of checking on how beautiful everything looks.
 
 

 

How does maintaining the Shotgun House Coastal Garden differ from your own garden?

For maintaining the native plants garden at the Shotgun House, we (Lorraine Sanchez and I) have a slightly different philosophy. We are both volunteers with the Santa Monica Conservancy, and because it is a public garden, we are much more conscientious about shaping, trimming, deadheading and generally making the garden look so bright and colorful that visitors want to include it when they take a portrait of themselves at the historic house. We usually schedule a work date in the garden once or twice a month and spend 2-3 hours leisurely talking and trimming. The Shotgun House belongs to the City of Santa Monica, so our work is the frosting on top of the regular gardening service provided by the City.