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Garden Variety: Generic Gardening Only Makes Things Worse By RON SULLIVAN

Friday March 24, 2006

We just returned from an excursion to a friend’s new townhouse in Vacaville. I won’t riff on her lament that she can’t find bulk olives or a decent farmers’ market or bookstore there, but I will say that the landscaping scares me a bit. Scared her, too, and then some: The week before closing on the new place, Alamo Creek and its local tributaries flooded her first floor and most of her neighbors’. She got off lightly though and the seller replaced the carpet with the tile she prefers. The block still rings with repair and construction noises, and piles of ruined wallboard and household stuff persist.  

There’s a shallow lawn-covered drainage swale running through the complex, but it didn’t do the job. Most of the creeks up there, as far as I could see, are channelized even if the banks are still green. And there’s more and more paving—streets, parking lots—replacing more absorbent soil and plants upstream and such mass-produced plants as are allowed in the new housing sprawls clearly are maintained by the mow-n-blow guys with motorized clippers. Everything that’s not a rectangle is a ball.  

It’s part of the weird lockstep that I’ll call Generic Gardening. Tidy it up; cut it off at waist height regardless of where its main branches run or how dead-brown the result is; when in doubt, pave it. It’s not even as amusing as topiary. And all this tidiness, straightening, covering-up, and general ignorance in action leave people puzzled when the worst storm in 10 years sends water over the ditch-creek’s banks: What? There’s lots of nature here! Look at all the greenery! Nature’s a bitch, that’s all; we need more paving and control! 

Here in Berkeley some of us are paying for the sins of our forebears, as the culverts they ran creeks through to get them out of the way collapse under our houses and gardens. No matter how much we love creeks, fish, birds, nature, we can’t afford to throw away our lives’ savings or the huge investment that any land, let alone building, here represents.  

And what about property rights? Can a city regulate what we do on our own land? There’s the rub: When it concerns creeks, rivers, water in general, nothing we do on our own land stays there. Building close to a creek’s banks is just asking for subsidence; paving more ground, adding roof area all increase runoff, especially in big storms, and make big trouble for anyone—plant, bird, fish, or human—living downstream. Dirt, plants, and meanders all help blunt the force of floods, and that’s what we remove when we build. 

The Creeks Task Force is, as I write this, wrangling and setting public hearings, trying to make sense and even justice out of this mess we’ve been handed. You might know about buildings—after all, we all live in them—but most of us know little about creeks and water’s behavior. There are local groups working to make creeks work better for us as well as wildlife, removing invasives that choke the channels and turn floating debris into dams, cleaning out that trash, planting natives that function with the land, getting muddy and educated at the same time. Check some out. 



Friends of Five Creeks 




Urban Creeks Council 


1250 Addison Street, # 107C,  

Berkeley, 94702