Nov 22, 2010

Aster's Last Stand

Recently my sweetie went outside to get some rosemary for his kitchen endeavors, and he came back in trailing some feathery substance that proceeded to alight on the floor everywhere he walked.

He'd brushed against my huge 'Purple Haze' Aster chilensis, which is admittedly encroaching on the footpath, and the feathery substance was seeds. In terms of house cleaning enthusiasm, mine doesn't even register, so I found the seed intrusion to be quite a pain-in-the-aster, so to speak, and it nudged me to reach the decision to take the plant out. I'm not a big remover of plants that I've selected, because I have a sentimental streak 20 miles wide, but I've been ambivalent about this one all summer, due to the unexpected way it grew.  About this time last year it was getting a bit ragged looking, and I thought if I cut it way down it would grow back nice and fresh, but the cut-down part actually never did grow back. Instead, a ring of aster grew up around the perimeter of the old clump. Aster spreads by rhizomes (vigorously) so it just moved outward and came up to surround the old part.  It made for kind of an odd feature--a kind of aster vortex that swallowed up the cat a few times.

So what the heck, time to move on.  Another motivation to oust it is that way back in the early summer, I was possessed by a moment of summer fever and purchased a very non-native dwarf lime tree. I normally don't buy non-natives, but if it's something tasty that can go in my tummy, I sometimes make an exception, and I have a little pot of mint as well, so Mojito fairies must have been dancing in my head.

 But then I realized I didn't really have a very sunny spot for the lime, so it stayed in its 5 gallon nursery pot all season. Now I guess it will move in where the aster moves out.  It should be a good spot, because it's next to my outrageously heavy St. Francis birdbath that I manage to heave over daily in the summer in order to maintain a reputable towhee and finch spa, and that daily water-dump should suit that pesky non-native fruit. Now I just hope the little tree doesn't freeze during the winter.  It's always something was these fussy not-hardy-Californians!

I'll have to think of some pretty, lower-growing natives to underplant the lime with.  Also, I don't mean to paint the aster in a bad light. It was a lovely plant when it was blooming:

When I get out ol' Spod (Swinging Pick of Doom) and chop out all those rhizomes, I'll transplant them up on the still rather bare Hill of Doom, a sunny and out-of-hose-reach little slope I haven't really done much with yet. If I have blooming asters up there next spring, it'll be awesome--I'll report back if I do!

Nov 8, 2010

Rain, Rain Come and Stay, Go Away Another Day

This morning my news feed (i.e. newspaper over sleepy cup of coffee) had an article on whether our girl La Niῆa will bring wetter or drier conditions to the Bay Area. Conclusion: no one knows!  Which is a bit encouraging to me, actually, because I was under the impression that it meant drier for sure. But apparently we're right sort of on the cutoff between the wet and dry regions. The article says the last time we had La Niῆa was 2007-08. Oh icky, that's the year I scattered my first packet of wildflower seeds during a rain storm on the first weekend of March--and that was the last rain we ever got that year.

I'm crossing my fingers for another wet year--two in a row would be astounding, akin to say, winning the World Series or something--and that's what it seems to be shaping up as. My last post may be moot, because the weather gods may just keep all my seedlings alive. I adore this time of year so much. Yesterday I went running and it started pouring; as I was slogging up a hill with a stream of water running alongside the curb, my portable music thingy selected the "Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In Medley." (Yep, I have that in my music library and I'm not embarrassed, either!) As I was seeing that stream of rainwater while hearing the earnest strains of "let the sunshine in" it struck me as perfect rather than ironic. That rainwater was the sunniest, happiest thing I could think of.  I've long loved my old buddy Helios, but this is the time of year for cup of hot chocolate in hand, cat on lap, and raindrops on roof. My post-ivy reconstruction is now two years in, and the plants are pretty well established, so I'm not too worried about their survival, but boy did they love last year. Also, I have some gaps and areas in need of a redo, so I will be planting newcomers in the next few weeks, and it would be awwwwwesome for them to just get good and established. Then I'll quit worrying and shut up about the weather already!

Nov 5, 2010

Nature or Nurture?

Now that we've had some lovely early season rain, the next generation of annuals has sprouted, and I again have to ask myself whether to intervene with the hose if we hit a rainless stretch, or do I let nature take its course?  Colorful annuals make a big impact in my yard in the spring, accounting for probably like 80% of its showiness factor, but annuals are a little tricky in that once the tender shoots appear, they need the ground to stay wet long enough to get good long roots down, and our pesky weather often just isn't on that same page with them. Both of the last two years we've had nice, refreshing October rain, followed by a devilishly dry November and not much improvement in December. Both times I opted to set out sprinklers a few times, because it saddened me to see the boisterous (and admittedly massive) seedling swaths turned back into dust.

Nevin Smith, in his marvelous book, "Native Treasures," addresses this annual conundrum in the aptly-named chapter "The Trouble with Annuals". He writes that while annual seeds need moisture to germinate, some "have additional mechanisms for preventing disastrous false starts. Often a certain minimum period of continuous moisture is necessary to activate them. Seeds of many species also require a certain number of cool or even frosty nights." (p. 255.)  These are amazing adaptations, but I don't believe they are claimed by the particular annuals that inhabit my yard. It hasn't gotten terribly cool in my neighborhood, and the green carpets of seedlings appeared after the very first measurable rainfall.

Smith adds, "It is not uncommon for vast numbers of young seedlings to wither and die in an extended midwinter drought. Such is the nature of life in California."

Hence my dilemma. Nature can be merciless, but a garden affords the opportunity to inject a little nurture.  Yet, I'm not the type of gardener who thinks gardening has much to do with control. When I first set out to plant an all-native garden, I looked at it as sort of a botanical nation-building endeavor.  I did violently overthrow the ivy regime, and I installed quite a number of handpicked key players in the new native community, but the goal is for the plants to eventually have self-governance. I'll maintain a peacekeeping presence to deal with the threat of weed invasions and ivy insurgents, and I'll do some necessary housekeeping, but in terms of what thrives and what dies, what self-propagates and what fades away, I like for that to be out of my hands. I've wound the clock, now it's time to let it tick.

So all this argues for keeping the hose neatly coiled up by the faucet and letting the seedlings' fate run its course. I know I will find that hard, once I see them starting to keel. But actually, if they wither, it may be for the best; the last two years I've really had too many annuals--massive stands that choked out still-small perennials.  Also, this year, the cheeky annuals are trespassing in places where they're not supposed to be, such as in my gravel-and-stone path. I guess the lesson there is to buy high-quality landscape fabric, not the cheapo permeable plastic so-called weed barrier at the home-improvement superstore.  One might look at these seedlings and suspect them of being weeds, but I've seen these cotyledon rascals before, and I know them to be none other than G. capitatum, AKA globe gilia.

If this first flush of seedlings dies, perhaps later in the year a more manageably-sized crop with take its place. It could well be that nature is a better gardener than I.