Friday, October 31, 2014

CNPS PLANT SALE, Nov. 8th at Eaton Canyon Nature Center

This year the plant sales were early. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which for years and years held its sale on the first weekend in November, jumped to the head of the line by holding a Fall Planting Festival a whole month earlier. The San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), however, is sticking to its own schedule, the second Saturday in November, falling this year on the 8th. And so, as I sit here writing this blog post about the sale, I am stuffing my face with Halloween candy (Reese's Peanut Butter Cups should be illegal like crack.)

I love our plant sale. Early November is the perfect time for it since here in the San Gabriel Valley, it is often too hot and too dry to plant in October, certainly the case this year. The sale is not too big and not too small. Lots of people wander into the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, enticed by the big plant sale banner posted on Altadena Drive. This means we get to talk to native plant experts, gardening beginners, and everyone in between. Chapter members stroll with shoppers through the rows of plants, discussing the merits and yes, the less than ideal traits of these unusual plants. The home-made plant information signs twist in the breeze as the plants leave the nature center patio with excited new owners.



This year I will be buying more than usual. The demise of the large, old avocado in the front has created a whole new gardening opportunity. The south-facing front yard has much more sun with the tree gone. The wiregrass, wild strawberry, and Pacific Coast Hybrid irises, planted in the shade of that tree, are going to struggle in the sunny location. Abhorring a garden vacuum,  I seeded large pots with edibles and moved them to the front. The lettuce has been delicious, and the herbs are loving it. (Won't the trick-or-treaters be surprised when I hand them some delicate lettuce leaves and parsley?) Clearly, this is not a long term landscape solution. Furthermore, the tiny Engelmann oak (sprouted from an acorn last year) isn't going to be a focal point for some years. Nor will it provide shade in the near future. I need both a plan and some plants.

Wild Suburbia has a few signature plants: coast live oak, deergrass, toyon, needlegrass, and wildflowers in spring. I plan to use a whole lot of deergrass, interspersed with white sage, buckwheat and flowering perennials in the front yard. This is a combination that I have long admired at Rancho. At the sale I will focus on the flowering perennials because...well, because they are flowering and I am weak (note the Reese's comment above). I usually advise people who are planning gardens to get the big structure items done first: hardscape, large shrubs and trees. However, I will succumb to my weakness and buy what strikes me. As I meander through the years, I am confident, the garden will come together.

Least you think I am totally clueless about gardening and landscaping, let me defend myself a bit. The tree was very recently removed, and I do need time to think about this new space. By purchasing a bunch of pretty flowering things I get to garden without committing myself to a permanent design.

So what strikes me this year? Margarita BOP penstemon, western columbine, goldenbush, narrow-leaf milkweed (for the monarch butterflies), sticky cinquefoil, evening primrose, California fuchsia, and maybe some encelia. Since I will be busy advising shoppers during the sale, it is likely I will adopt neglected, unclaimed plants, so who knows what goodies I will come home with.

Hope to see you at the sale!

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.