Jan 30, 2010

Buck Everlasting

Our native buckwheats are reliable and appreciated for their ability to add floral color to semi-dormant, late summer California native gardens, and their endurance as cut flowers is well-known too. I didn’t appreciate either until experiencing it.

My native yard is still pretty young, and still developing, but one of the earliest things I planted was a couple Eriogonum fasciculatum. True to their reputation, they did punch out flowers through late summer and fall, but for some reason mine were very leggy and floppy and the flowers sort of cowered near the ground among other plants. Then around mid November I decided it was time for some fall cleaning and took a clipper to the garden. Even though the floppy little buckwheat blossoms were welcome little puffs of color, I decided to cut them back, hoping the plants would make a denser, less leggy comeback. But as I was taking my armload of green waste to the bin, I couldn’t bear to dump those sweet little pale pink powder puffs, so I gathered them up and put them in a little vase on the kitchen windowsill. (I would like to display garden cuttings more conspicuously, such as in the center of the kitchen table or a coffee table, but those places are too noticeable to the two cats’ Chomping Fangs of Doom.)

Well, seemingly a second later, November is December and I succumb to the yearly compulsion to replace anything in a vase with little pine boughs, so out go the powder puffs. But they were still too sweet to put in the bin, so I just set them in a little bucket (dry) by the door. When January came around and the pine boughs got booted, I looked in the bucket to find the Eriogonum powder puffs essentially unchanged. A little rusty, I guess, but still perfectly acceptable as a subtle winter vase occupant. So back in they are and showing no signs of changing.

I’m really looking forward to the expansion of my buckwheat population this year. I’ve added quite a few Eriogonum grande rubescens, and the ones that were in last year are now happily raising little seedling families. I’ve also added several Eriogonum nudum, which I’m hoping will reach for the sky a little and add height variation. I also added Eriogonum cinereum and parvifolium, which I haven’t seen in action yet. For sunny spring color I have some Eriogonum crocatum and umbellatum, which I adored last year. Hope they perform as admirably this year. The umbellatum has rust-burgundy leaves at the moment. It’s a delight when it flowers, because the blossoms start with an orange-red center that gradually turns lemon yellow.

Overall I find buckwheats to be one of the handiest, easiest options for long-term color, both outdoors and in. Would love to hear what buckwheats others grow and recommend.

Jan 26, 2010

Rainy Ruminations

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of rain collecting—though I’m not sure what to call it. Roof rainwater runoff catchment is a bit of a mouthful; rain harvesting reminds me too much of the moisture farmers back on Tatooine. (People reading this blog get Star Wars refs, right?) Whatever it’s called, I’ve opted to set the idea aside, at least for this year. There seems to be a spectrum of roof water collecting, with a huge property retrofit on one end, and a few strung-together barrels on the other. If we could go back in time and rebuild our houses with rain catching systems, and use the collected water for some indoor uses as well as irrigation, I’m sure we could more than put a dent in California’s water problems. Unfortunately, no time machines, and it seems to be up to each of us to weigh the costs and benefits and figure out what we can reasonably do .

I’m not in the market for any major remodeling jobs in the foreseeable future, so was looking more in terms of easy DIY. Say a string of barrels here, a big cube-shaped tank there. I ran into a few minor disincentives, one being that I just hate to take a hacksaw to parts of the house; if I screw up the sawing off of the downspout, then I’d have to replace it and repaint it. Hassle. I don’t want to actually create house problems when they seem to do a pretty good job of creating themselves.

Most barrels that go under downspouts seem to be in the 55 to 100 gallon range, and in a moderate rainstorm that would fill up in just, to borrow a quote form Mr. Chekov in the new Star Trek movie, “Meenuts sir! Meenuts!” Which would mean I’d need to have a chain of connected barrels. In which case they would fill up in, well, a few more minutes. But that’s okay, because they come with overflow valves that you can direct away from your house. But, you have to have room for this chain o’ barrels—and admittedly, at the northwest corner of the house, I do. I could comfortably have three 100 gallon barrels, maybe four depending on how much I was willing to be bugged by a semi-obstruction when opening the gate. I have some other downspouts that could potentially go into barrels, with some creativity, but it depends whether it’s worth a lot of work and money, when the main payoff, I’ve determined, is mostly just feeling good.

A salesperson at a local irrigation supply retailer was telling me that rain water catchment systems make the most sense in places like California, where we go half the year without rain, but I disagree with that. What makes sense in place like California is huge catchment tanks built into the house that are used for irrigation and some indoor uses. These systems are much more common in some (more enlightened and forward-thinking) parts of the world, like Australia. My aunt recently moved into a new house in Queensland and it came readymade with a sleek 3000 liter (almost 800 gallon) tank that collects and filters roof water for use outdoors and in (see photo). My mom (mum) grew up in a house with a rain collecting tank underneath, and that was in the 30s and 40s. We Californians have some catching up to do.

In terms of the little barrel daisy-chains that a DIYer can do, I think that actually makes more sense in the type of climates where it rains some all year—fill the barrels, use the barrels, refill the barrels, reuse the barrels…Granted, that actually is us in winter sometimes. But as far as getting through a six-month rainless stretch, seems to me the most feasible thing is just planting appropriate plants that expect to be dry half the year.

Dry winter spells probably shouldn’t be the problem I make them out to be either. I don’t seem to have the knack for growing winter veggies, so no winter water need there, and once all my natives are established (I so look forward to that time) I don’t think they’ll be too fazed by less-than-soaked winters. It’s mostly the bulbs and wildflower seedlings that I’ll probably always ring my hands over. If they get started but then dry out, I’m afraid they’ll die. So yes, using rain barrels at those times instead of the tap would be nice, but mostly because I find I just love the feeling of pouring rainwater on the ground. It’s like I’m heroically stepping in for Mother Nature or Rain Miser or the Jet Stream, or whoever it is that controls winter weather, on an as-needed basis, and instead of substituting with crappy chlorinated tap water, I’m using the real thing.

I got really into it when our miracle October rain filled up my wheelbarrow and some Rubbermaid bins I’d carelessly left sitting out. And at this point, that remains the extent of my rain catching system. They’re not under downspouts, but they are overflowing. I know it will give me joy to dip a bucket in there and offer it to plants when they start drying out.

In reality, though? I won’t be giving them any water they wouldn’t have got anyway. I’ll just be staggering its delivery, because all the water that falls on our property goes into the yard. The water that falls where the wheelbarrow and bins are flows to a drain, which empties into soil. (It used to flow through a PVC pipe that was hidden in the ivy, out onto the sidewalk, but when I chopped out the ivy I also sawed off the pipe—I wasn’t too scared of hacksaws to do that.) All the roof downspouts empty into drains that lead somewhere in the yard—I didn’t make it that way, it’s just the way it was. Maybe a builder would say it’s wrong. I was talking to a guy from the city building department about a downspout that was draining too close to the foundation, and he recommended piping it not to the sidewalk, but: to the street! So apparently a rain-collecting slot in the collective conscious isn’t quite in place just yet.

But the main deterrent, even for small systems, is cost, due to it will essentially never pay for itself in literal, monetary terms. I found retail barrels to average more than $100 for 100-gallon barrels, and 300-gallon tanks are upwards of $1000. (!) A cool $800 can get you a sleek, low-profile 130-gallon tank. I wondered how long it would take for the water bill savings to compensate, so even though bills make my eyes glaze over pretty bad, and I usually don’t do any actual math on them, this month I calculated the per-gallon cost on my water bill. About .65 cents per gallon. So saving money is not the incentive, which bums me out, because if it were, people would do it. Granted, there are cheaper barrels out there, typically blue food-grade barrels, but a yard has several functions, one of which is looking nice, and the blue barrels, well, they’re not garden art. Being good to the planet and the local community is an incentive, but a properly selected native garden doesn’t impact on those terribly. So the entire incentive for me to spring for a little barrel system would really be the feeling of satisfaction when dipping into the rain supply. For fun, basically. And I may yet do it another year. For this year, I’m keeping the wheelbarrow and Rubbermaid bins out in the rain. If I win the lottery, I promise to have a colossal tank installed under the house.

Jan 15, 2010

R.I.P. Ceanothus

I'm sad writing this post because I'm saying goodbye to a Ceanothus I was rather fond of. I haven't had a lot of plant casualties and this one came as a surprise and a blow. Unfortunately I can't say exactly what species this poor guy was because I put him in way before I ever discovered native gardening. I've only been into native gardening as a concept for about two years, and as a practice for less, but I should have discovered it much earlier, because I've been in love with Ceanothus since the first time I laid eyes on it, during my first spring in San Francisco, 1995. I noticed a thicket of it blooming while I was running in Buena Vista Park and I asked everyone I knew what it was until I found someone who could tell me, and I've worshiped at the altar of California Lilac ever since.

So when we first moved into our house in the suburbs in 2002, I planted several along the slope above the driveway. I didn't know what kind because I was still too much of a rube to understand that there are different kinds; I just went to a nursery and bought a bunch of plants in gallons that said "Ceanothus" on them. They all got devoured by deer the very first night they were in the ground. I cried. What can I say, I was new to the suburbs, I was new to deer. But eventually, one of the plants miraculously recovered and grew back. The deer nipped it back for a while, but eventually seemed to leave it alone and it flourished. I couldn't have been more pleased with it because it ended up being a low growing kind that cascaded over the retaining wall beautifully.

Then we built a shed in front of it. I viewed this decision as utterly tragic, because I knew it would completely block off the sun from my one heroic Ceanothus survivor, but we really needed the storage space, because my sweetie happens to have a hobby that takes up the entire garage. So I braced myself for losing my old Ceanothus buddy then, but again it proved determined and miraculous, and simply grew toward the sun. Its crown was still certainly in full shade, but it ended up sending branches to the edge of the shed and then, again, cascaded them beautifully down the retaining wall. I was amazed and delighted, and the retaining wall really did benefit from those lush, shiny leaves.

But then a while ago, I'm gonna say it was six or eight weeks ago, I was planting some bulbs and grasses in the area and I noticed the Ceanothus' crown appeared to be a little buried from soil that was slipping down the hill. I figured that wasn't healthy, so sort of dug around the crown to uncover it. As far as I could tell, I wasn't causing any major disturbance to the plant, and I assumed I was helping it. Well, I guess I wasn't, because a few weeks later, I noticed it ailing terribly. I had noticed some whitish stuff in the soil when I was digging around the crown, so maybe some sort of fungus or mildew had already taken hold. Or maybe I did manage to traumatize the poor plant--whatever it was, I feeling guilty. When I saw the branches ailing I cut them back, hoping to allow the plant to focus its energy and rebound, but I'm afraid it kept going downhill. It's toast now and time to remove it, which will give me a heavy heart. It survived two known major assualts--being eaten and being denied sun--and then it died for essentially no known reason. Dang it! Gardening is hard!

Farewell, sweet Ceanothus. And I'm sorry I didn't even bother to take this cruddy looking old bucket out of the shot the last time I photographed you. *Sigh*

Jan 8, 2010

Waiting for Wildflowers

At some point over the holidays I managed to throw a whole bunch of wildflower seeds around the yard, and I hope to have some pretty pictures to show by springtime. Sowing over the holidays seems a little late, given that volunteers have been growing since the first rain October 12 and are looking pretty strong now, but I kept waiting because I wasn’t confident enough through December that the weather would be wet enough, and I didn’t want to have to haul out the hose just to keep seedlings alive. Of course there are no guarantees that we won’t have any severe dry spells for the rest of the winter, but since January through March are typically the wettest months, I thought/hoped it would be safe to sow seeds near around New Year. Two years ago, my first year of gardening with a partially ivy-free yard, I put seeds out on March 2, and it didn’t rain again at all that spring. Nevertheless, I kept the seedlings alive via watering, and even though I didn’t get a stunning flower show, I got enough that they self-sowed prolifically, and I’ll probably have some volunteers in that region every year from now on. And now that the whole front and side yard is ivy-free, and the back yard is lawn-free, I have a lot more space to introduce wildflowers. I like to use them because they are so audaciously showy, and largely responsible for making California’s spring as spectacular as it is. Another fun thing about growing lots of wildflowers is being able to bring them in as cut flowers--last spring my kitchen windowsill was a delight for about a month. (A kitchen table centerpiece bouquet would have been preferable, but too cat-accessible!)

I also put a lot of seeds in patio pots that are either now empty (having had their residents transferred to ground) or sparse (permanent resident not yet filled in), but I’m a bit skeptical whether I’ll get any germination in the pots, because the pots seem to have suddenly sprouted a sturdy crop of sparrows, juncos and towhees. How those guys spot the miniscule dirt-colored seeds in the soil is a mystery to me, but clearly they do. For that matter, the birds carpet the ground daily, but I’m hoping I scattered enough flower seeds that some will survive the pecking beaks of doom. (By the way, I don’t really associate the birds with doom—I love the birds and consider the yard theirs as much as mine, so if they decide I’m not having wildflowers this year, I accept that.)

And now a bit of info about and pictures of my wildflower experience of the last couple years. I started two years ago with two purchased seed mixes, one for shade and one for sun. The shade one consisted of Collinsia heterophylla (chinese houses), Clarkia unguiculata (elegant clarkia), Clarkia amoena (farewell-to-spring), Nemophila menziesii (baby blue eyes) and Nemophila maculata (five-spot). Only the first two succeeded and in low numbers—I guess my shade is a little excessive. The sunny mix contained Clarkia unguiculata, Gilia capitata (bluehead gilia), Layia platyglossa (tidy-tips), Escholzia californica (California poppy), Lupinus succulentus (arroyo lupine), and Phacelia tanacetifolia (tansy-leaf phacelia). All of these did okay the first rainless, hand-irrigated spring, and came back in much, much, much greater numbers the next year. Turns out Clarkia unguiculata, which indeed does okay in shade, does a million times better in full sun. I suspect the same is true for the Nemophilas.

Last fall, I had a dense carpet of volunteer seedlings, but only where the Ivy War had not been raging. This year, they’ve volunteered more extensively and prolifically, especially the poppies. And the Clarkias. Well, and the Gilias. I’m finally starting to understand why some gardeners complain about these flowers being “invasive.” However, I don’t really look at them that way, because weeding is an inevitability, and right now in my yard I have way, way more wildflower seedlings than weed seedlings. So pretty much it’s just the difference between culling wildflowers or pulling weeds, and I’d rather be culling wildflowers that are out-competing weeds than just pulling pesky weeds.
Last year's volunteer crop:

I augmented the side yard last year with a smattering of nursery-grown Clarkias, Nemophila, Layia, Phacelia viscida (sticky phacelia) and P. campanularia (desert bluebell). I also placed a few nursery-grown Clarkia concinna (red ribbons) in a planter box in heavy shade, and they lit it up beautifully. I also had a few nursery-grown Clarkia amoena hybrids, but I tried to not let them go to seed, because they actually struck me as a little too over-the-top and not really native-looking.

But except for those hybrids, last spring I let everything go to seed, leaving some to self-sow, and collecting some to scatter in the back yard and in pots. This year I’m buying no nursery-grown annuals, and waiting to see what comes from my scatter-shot sowing.

I’m also introducing a few more species this year from purchased seed packets: Lupinus bicolor (miniature lupine) and L. nanus (sky lupine), and Gilia tricolor (bird’s eye gilia). Of all the wildflowers I’ve grown so far, Lupines have volunteered the least vigorously and are the most susceptible to being eaten by something—snail possibly, but I’m not too good at pest i.d. For this reason, I tossed out a ton of the new lupine seeds, hoping even a small percentage succeeds. I probably would have increased their chances by boiling them, or at least roughing them up with sand, but I didn’t.

Design-wise, you have to want a pretty wild-looking garden to sow annuals like this. My style runs toward the naturalistic, so all I really do is try to cull tall things that show up near perimeters, and short things that come up away from perimeters.

I’ll report on this again in spring when I can say what worked well and what didn’t!