Monday, October 6, 2014

RIP Avocado

A couple of months ago the bee hive in our avocado went silent. The hive, located in a cavity, was there when we moved into this house in 1998. We made a few attempts to rid the tree of the hive, fearing that people might get stung coming to the front door. I called companies that moved hives but no one would take this on. We sprayed the hive with poison several times and covered the entrance first with plastic screen, which the bees ate through, and then metal screen, which the bees ate through. Finally, we called detente, and the bees came and went freely, while I enjoyed watching their activity from my upstairs office window.

Bee hive in avocado is covered with metal screen that bees ate through to create a front door.
One day this summer the bees disappeared. I didn't see them go, they were just gone. The tree was quiet for a short while, and then the next tenants moved in, ants. Thousands of ants crawled up and down the tree munching away at the wood. Piles of frass (insect poop) accumulated at the base of the tree. We could no longer ignore the condition this tree was in.

Frass from ants chewing up wood in rotted cavity in avocado tree.
I don't think that the bees kept the tree healthy. They did, however, keep the decomposers at bay. The tree had lost much of its canopy during the windstorm of 2011. And before that, the old avocado had a significant amount of rot. Nevertheless, the storm's effect on the tree was clearly very detrimental. And had we removed it following the storm, instead of trying to save it, we would have saved ourselves lots of money and aggravation with the city. You see, the city lifted all tree pruning and removal regulations at that time: no permits, no inspections, no tree replacements. But we tried to save the tree and that very act cost us, both financially and emotionally as we tried to navigate through the city rules.

Large branches fell in windstorm of Nov 30 - Dec 1, 2011.
Tree damage during 2011 windstorm.
Rather than taking the tree down we tried to save it, only to be penalized
later for our efforts! (Dec. 2011)
May 2009, tree is not great, but has a decent canopy.
Significant loss of canopy following 2011 storm (March 2012).
Two weeks ago we had the tree inspected by an arborist who specializes in heritage (OLD) trees. The news wasn't good. The tree was not just declining, it was a hazard and had to come down, and so last week it was removed. Although losing an old tree is sad, the skill of those who took it down was amazing to watch.

The tree is gone and a new opportunity has opened up. When I give classes on gardening with native plants I try to encourage those attending to have courage and dive right in. Now, I feel their uncertainty. It is daunting, but the front yard will change, as gardens always do.

The avocado is gone. This weekend the temps reached nearly 100 degrees and we could feel the loss of the tree in the upstairs bedrooms.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Natives, great. Edibles, eh.

It is officially autumn. Yes, it reached the upper 80s here in beautiful Southern California, but I know that it is autumn because most of my tomato plants are brown skeletons that could have (should have) been removed weeks ago. A few are still producing cherry tomatoes but the basil has all bolted and withered. Wish I had harvested more of the leaves for pesto before our week-long, triple digit heatwave. Regardless of the temperature, summer is definitely over.

Usually at the end of a vegetable season I am a bit disappointed that my veggies weren't bigger, more plentiful, tastier. I feel distinctly inadequate. My native plants were great; my veggies, eh. As the days pass I start to look forward to the upcoming season with new resolve to be a better gardener. 

This week I emptied some large pots that had held herbs and other plants that didn't make it through the hot spell.

Emptied pots, old soil piled nearby, bolted basil in back right.
I dug up some nice loamy soil, added a wheelbarrow of oak leaf mold (taken from just beneath the leaf mulch under our 70 year old oak), and another bit of compost from the bottom of the compost bin, and some worm castings from the worm bin. I mixed them up and sprayed them repeatedly with water until the pile was evenly damp. 

Worm castings in black bin in front, large pots, leaf mold in wheelbarrow. Here we go again!
Today I filled a large pot and sowed seeds of black seeded Simpson lettuce. I am determined to move the pot to a place in the yard with the perfect amount of sun, meaning full sun as the weather cools, part shade during hot spells. Will keep you posted on my results. And if any of you wizard gardeners out there have suggestions, please, please, please share them!

Lettuce, cilantro, Italian parsley, Swiss chard, snow peas, sugar snaps
First pot completed with lettuce seeds sown. 

Monday, September 15, 2014


Summer was too short and way too busy. I spent most of it driving. Drove from LA to NYC, and back again. Then flew back east for another family gathering. This was followed by a backpacking trip in the Hoover Wilderness. Finally home, feeling exceedingly guilty about my carbon footprint. At home I ride my bicycle to the video store instead of taking the car, but overall I am not there. The word hypocrite keeps popping into my head.

Nevertheless, I will keep moving on, trying to do what I can. In case anyone out there is unaware, we are experiencing a rather serious drought. While backpacking in the Hoover Wilderness west of Bridgeport, CA, we really saw no evidence of it. The lakes were, for the most part, nearly full, and streams were flowing.

Lane Lake near Leavitt Meadow
Lane Lake on morning we hiked out of back country.
This was in contrast to our trip last year that started at Mono Creek Trailhead near Lake Thomas A. Edison.
Dust blows from dry lake bottom of Lake Thomas A. Edison in September 2013.
Not much need for the boats. (Sept. 2013)
Furthermore, it is hard to believe that there is a serious drought when driving past farmland that is being irrigated with overhead sprinklers mid-day in very hot, windy conditions. Does 30% of that water even reach the roots of our precious food crops? Still, I believe the Governor, our city officials, and Metropolitan Water District. We are in trouble and we can ignore it if we choose, but it will be at a cost.

This Saturday I will be speaking at the 2014 Native Plant Symposium, Saving Water, Creating Beauty with California Native Plants, of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of California Native Plant Society. I will be presenting a slideshow with pictures of native plant gardens, including the good and the bad, peak flower season and the dry, hot, sleepy days of the rest of the year. Other symposium topics include drip irrigation, designing garden meadows, soil and compost, native sages, and permaculture techniques for drought conditions.

If Santa Clara Valley is too far away for you Southern Californians, don't miss the Autumn Garden Party at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden's Grow Native Nursery at Veteran's Garden on LA's westside. Carol Bornstein, Director of the Natural History Museum's Nature Gardens and co-author of California Native Plants for the Garden and Reimagining the California Lawn "will discuss ideas on replacing your lawn with beautiful, resilient California native plants." Later, Nicholas Hummingbird will share his knowledge of traditional and medicinal uses of native plants. There will be music, hard-to-find plants, and lots of people who share your passion for California native plants.

It's dry out there! Turn your water-sucking lawn into a wild suburbia.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Milo and the chairs

Hello! Been a very long time. Not sure anyone is still out there in Wild Suburbia cyberspace. Are you there? If you are out there, I have a lot to report.

This summer my garden mostly had to fend for itself while I was driving cross-country from west to east and then back again, logging over 9,000 miles. It was a great trip. When I got home, after being gone for over a month, the garden was looking pretty good. My daughter watched it for a couple of weeks and then my husband took over. Nevertheless, I don't think they were over worked, and like I said it did okay. More on that another time.

 The big (and sad) news is that Milo, my garden buddy for many years, is no longer with us. A couple of weeks ago, at the ripe age of 16 years, 8 months, he was unable to stand when he woke up. He is missed. He has been gone for a couple of weeks and I am now ready to write about him.
Milo and the chairs
When Milo was a pup I decided to take him for a walk into town to chill out at a coffee shop. I'd seen other dogs patiently sitting with their people, enjoying the pleasant downtown scene, and I thought, why not Milo?

I got through a fairly quick cup of coffee when it seemed Milo was out of patience. The server, however, was nowhere to be found. I looked around for a place to tie Milo's leash so I could go in and pay the bill but couldn't find anything appropriate. The outdoor seating for the coffee shop was on a fairly busy corner in town. Finally I decided to tie Milo to three plastic chairs that were stacked up near the building. I knew if nothing disturbed him, he would be fine for a few minutes.

I darted inside glancing out the door to make sure Milo was okay, when a woman entering the store inquired whether that was my dog out there. I threw down a five-dollar bill and ran outside only to see Milo running at break-neck speed down the street with the three chairs bouncing close behind. An elderly man tried to stop him and nearly got taken down for his trouble. A woman pushing a stroller averted disaster by mere inches. Milo kept running with me charging after him - and I think, though I don't really remember - yelling out his name. Next thing I know he is headed for the street, between parked cars, no less. The volume of my frantic screams increased, as did my speed. I lunged and reached his leash just as he entered the lane of traffic.

We got back on the sidewalk. I was shaking. Milo was shaking. Luckily we were both young or one of us would have had a heart attack. I detached the cracked chairs and just held Milo. As we slowly walked back to the coffee shop I heard someone call my name. It was a neighbor. All I could think was, did she see that spectacular scene? I made small talk but couldn't ask. Then I replaced the chairs and sheepishly took Milo home, feeling guilty that I didn't leave money for the damage. I just couldn't manage it.

Though gentle and sweet, Milo was always a nervous dog. We never tried the coffee shop again, but for years and years he sat patiently in our yard watching me garden. He rarely needed a leash since he rarely wandered off. When he did, he always obeyed my command to come back. To this day I wonder what freaked him out at the coffee shop to make him take off like he did. I miss you buddy.