Thursday, October 23, 2014

Make room for the young

The avocado tree is gone. Fortunately, the heat wave is over. Nevertheless, my office located upstairs in the front of our south-facing house, gets very hot in the afternoon. Anyone who ever doubted the cooling effect of properly placed trees should come to our house. That old avocado tree made the house far more comfortable than the air conditioner ever did.

My office window is in the middle. The bedroom windows on the left bring in lots of afternoon light, even with the new opaque window shades. 
I have started moving my containers of veggies into the front to take advantage of the sunniest garden I have ever had. Yes, the lettuce and Swiss chard do not need full sun, but they need more than they were getting in the back. Furthermore, the front is not full sun, just baking afternoon sun and if it is too hot for the lettuce I can easily move the pots.

Pots of edibles: French tarragon, thyme, mint, lettuce, Swiss chard, Italian parsley, cilantro.
I made a yummy salad with the thinning I did to the pot of lettuce seedlings. (see below)
Before the ailing avocado was removed I planted a couple of Engelmann oak acorn sprouts that were given to me by a friend. The enormity of the tree removal dwarfed the little sprouts and I decided not to try to dig them out and replant them. Alas, I was too stressed out to think about them. What would happen would happen. I am happy to report, they made it. I had thought they were buried beneath the mulch and debris, stepped on by the arborists, lost in the chaos of chain saws and machinery. But no! I found them and they are fine.

One of two Engelmann acorn sprouts that are just getting started in my yard. (Thank you, Rachel.)
The city requires replacement trees whenever a tree is removed from a yard. Whether the tree was diseased, damaged, or dead, replacement trees are mandatory. If a tree is being chopped down because a developer wants to cement over the ground for a parking lot, the same tree replacements are called for. The rule is the rule. Not only that, the replacements must come in the form of 24-inch boxes. Although it has been known for years that younger, smaller transplants do better than these larger specimens that frequently have suffered from being pot bound some time during their nursery stay, the rule is the rule. These tiny Engelmann sprouts, coming from acorns of our own local, but diminishing, population, are not adequate replacements.

Enough complaining. The city will be satisfied - money always works - and I will nurture these little babies. They belong here!

Tomatoes, bitty lettuce, meyer lemon, and mint all from my garden. Honey courtesy of the bees who work for Bill.

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.