Jun 4, 2011

The Mighty Moleman

As I've often said, I'm not going to go to war with any critter in my yard. I've been super lucky, too, in never having an critter go to war against my plants. Have to admit the moles have been a little pesky in the last few weeks, though.

I blame the rain. According to the paper this morning, this weekend will shatter previous month-of-June rain records. (And boy do I wish I'd held off on putting the patio furniture and lights out at the end of May. But every Californian just knows it doesn't rain in June, so I thought I was safe.)

The reason I blame the rain for the reign of the Moleman is that I usually do have some springtime mole activity, but it tends to stop when the rains stop. March through mid-May or so, I find mounds of soil heaved up here and there. No biggy, I just tamp it back down. But I believe that once the soil gets dry and hard, the moles kind of give up on trying to dig through it. This year, we keep getting new little rainstorms and the soil continues to be soft and pliable. And ply it they do. It's like land mines went off out there. I hope no plants end up harmed, but I have had to unbury some. Some several times. Also, I keep finding my drip line buried, and it is not the kind that is supposed to be buried.

I use the drip system only a few times per summer but I sure hope it still works if (just kidding, when) the time finally comes that I feel I need to give the plants a little refreshment.

May 24, 2011

The Garden Has Its Own Schedule

I haven't been in the native gardening game--or even the plain old gardening game--for too many years yet, so I'm still getting accustomed to what blooms when. And the plants seem to mix it up and keep me guessing, too. This year I've noticed some substantial deviations from the blooming schedule of previous years.

Usually the Clarkias are just revving their flower engines at the beginning of May, even late April, but this year I didn't see any Clarkia blooms till the latter half of May. Usually by Bay to Breakers weekend, which is always the third Sunday in May, they are past their prime and I could start to collect seed from them, if I weren't too busy with guests and Breakers-related activities. But this year, with only a week left in May, there are many buds still to open.

Also, curiously, the Clarkia unguiculata, which in past years has towered in great, dense pink forests, up to 6 feet tall (!) is much shorter this year. And, sadly, the Clarkia amoena, a stunningly showy flower that nobody ever believes is native, seems to be absent in the yard this season.

I don't seem to have any Phacelia tanacetifolia, either. Usually that lovely wildflower would be gone to seed by now, in a big cluster where it used to pop up, but this year I had only two Phacelia volunteers, and they got eaten by deer.  (Probably not a smart move on the deer's part, as that species of Phacelia has irritating little hairs all over it.)

I kind of miss my no-shows in the wildflower department, and may get a couple new packs of seed next year to start a new population. I don't know why the annuals were suppressed this year; I think it may be because we had very early October rain, and then long dry spells in November and December, and some may have germinated then croaked.

There is still a lot of Clarkia unguiculata coming into bloom, though, and soon I'll be cutting it and bringing it inside. It looks lovely alongside my woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum), but usually it towers over the Trichostema--this year is opposite.

Normally by this year my sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) is turning dry and rust-colored by this time, as it's one of the earliest spring bloomers, but this year it was late as well, and therefore, delightfully, still going strong.  Here it is next to its relative Eriogonum crocatum, a later bloomer (the front plant with the blue-gray leaves).  Looks like this year I'll get simultaneous bloom on these two buckwheats, which is kind of a treat.

A super late bloomer this year is the lovely blue bulb, Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel's Spear). It normally makes an aquamarine-colored splash throughout the yard in April and early May, but as of this writing, there is barely enough blooming to eke out a photograph.

Another of the normally earliest precursors of spring is my cheery Grindelia hirsutula. Normally its sunny yellow flowers lighten up the dreary weeks of late February, early March, but this year they've just now gotten into full swing. What would cause such a drastic variation in schedule, I don't really know. I did fear that those plants were dead last summer, though, they went so utterly dormant and crusty. I was amazed and pleased when I saw green leaves returning at their bases, but it took quite some time. I don't know if they'd have made it if it hadn't been such a lovely, long, way-above-normal rain year.

 I quite like that the garden takes on a life of its own and calls its own shots. Sometimes the shots are a little sad, as when previous volunteers decline to return, but in general, sitting back and watching what happens is the greatest joy in gardening.

Apr 27, 2011

April Flowers

Lots of pretty things going on in the yard. I got sucked into the Weed Vortex for a while this morning--you pull one, then another and another and pretty soon a couple hours are gone. I also looked around and wished I'd planned some things differently. Also wish I'd photographed my irises while they were in their glory, as I see sadly now that they're well past prime. But overall, lots of miraculousness going on!  Here are some photos.

Apr 13, 2011

A Sense of Place Continued. Remembering Stegner.

In a Facebook-driven world where it is customary to list one’s favorite music/movies/books for everyone to see and not care about, I usually prefer to refrain. And yet I will say that my favorite author is Wallace Stegner. Today marks the anniversary of his passing in 1993, and I thought I would share some of the reasons I think he was and is so relevant to us, native plant advocates and gardeners.

Stegner is, or should be, as famous for his beautiful prose as for his unofficial status as the Voice of the American West, but it was that precision in dealing with the concept of Westernness that first drew me to his work when I was in college. I had a very boring job at the Spokane Public Library, pasting magnetic security ribbons into the bindings of books, so I turned to books-on-cassette (this was a long time ago) to entertain me through shifts.  I checked out an audio-book version of a collection of Stegner essays and was stopped dead in my magnetic-pasting tracks listening to his descriptions of a childhood on the windswept plains of Montana, the place where my childhood occurred as well.  “I seem to have been born with an overweening sense of place,” wrote Stegner, “an almost pathological sensitivity to the colors, smells, light, and land and life forms of the segments of earth on which I’ve lived.” I had never figured out how to express it myself, but I understood exactly what he was talking about. In his writing on Montana—not the mountain part, but the pancake part—Stegner remarks that while others have called it desolate, “I look for desolation and can find none.” That is the place I remember, too.  

Shortly after my discovery of the essays, a political science professor suggested I read the 1967 novel All the Little Live Things, for its themes reflecting the American political and emotional landscape: traditional versus progressive, development versus protection; even irrigation version non-irrigation. And, though I didn’t pick up on it when I read it 20 years ago, conventional gardening versus native gardening. In recent years I’ve had a vague memory that the novel’s focus was on a woman who believed in accepting nature rather than working to remake it; I didn’t remember the details, but suspected that if I picked up the novel again, I would see myself in it more than I did half my life ago. Indeed, the first time I read it I found it lovely and compelling, but I ignored the references to Bay Area plants, animals and scenery, and did not fully appreciate the gardening discussions between the characters, the nature-conquering Joe, and the nature-allowing Marion. Now I read it and positively thrill to find Marion saying things like “I should think you’d have a nice natural garden where things are in balance and you don’t have to kill anything. Is it fair to plant a lot of plants that were never intended to grow here and then blame the gophers for liking them?”

The gopher-killing Joe retorts, “Wait till one eats up your begonias.”

“I haven’t got any begonias.”

“You will have.”


To read Stegner and to observe the outdoors world are two intertwined experiences. The same things go on inside the book as outside the window: coyote brush seedlings volunteer in the yard, buckeyes sprout their delicate spring leaves, a mockingbird perches overhead and fills the air with announcements, then swoops away flashing its under-wing white feathers. A character looks out upon the hills and remarks, “Isn’t it lovely how violet the deciduous oaks look when everything is green around them?” Yes.

But Stegner was only partly optimistic about the West. One of the truest observations in All the Little Live Things comes when the narrator remarks, “We are a weed species.”  Stegner warned for decades in his nonfiction about the damage that overpopulation would inflict on a water-limited region. “The West, vast and magnificent, greatly various but with the abiding unity of too little water except in its extreme northwest corner, has proved …fragile and unforgiving,” he writes in the introduction to his collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. He continues, “In the dry West, using water means using it up. What we put to municipal and industrial use is not coming back into the streams to be available for irrigation. Or if it does come back, it comes back poisoned.”

Reading these too-true statements now, I can’t help thinking of the other night as I was running in my neighborhood and noticed, horrified, a yard completely covered in Algerian ivy and multiple sprinkler heads spewing geysers of fresh water on it. That sight evokes some very big whys: Why would you irrigate so soon after our monumental rain storms?  Why would you irrigate ivy, ever? The simple answer is in the same Stegner piece: “Aridity has been a difficult fact of life for Americans to accept.” 

But we will have to accept it. Ivy-irrigation does not inspire hope, but there is hope in the sense of place that Stegner believed in. Stegner has written that history’s normal mode of creating a “placed person,” is to have generations of family know and tend the same land, but this is seldom a reality in a civilization as young as the American West. We are all migrants, or recent descendents thereof. My own parents were not born in the same town as I was—my mother wasn’t even born on the same continent. But there is another path to a sense of place. It is through that “almost pathological sensitivity to the colors, smells, light, and land and life forms of the segments of earth” where we live. Sense of place means paying attention to the things that belong—the native plants and animals. 

When I moved to the Bay Area 16 years ago it was but one in a string of moves, from Great Falls to Spokane, with stops in Seattle and Portland. I didn’t put down roots in any of those places, and didn’t know if I would here either. I thought it was beautiful and enjoyable in many ways, but even after more than a decade I felt on some level still a visitor. And then I read an article about gardening with native plants, and was intrigued enough to start doing some research. Soon I was immersed in natives, and acutely aware of them around me on my hikes where previously I had scarcely distinguished poison oak from live oak. I knew their names, I knew their characteristics, and I knew they belonged. And by connecting with the plants that belonged, suddenly I belonged, too. I became a placed person. I am rooted.

This, above all, is why I advocate gardening with native plants. A placed and rooted people will not use up a place’s scarcest resource—in our case, water. And a placed and rooted people know the joy and comfort of being at home where they are.  Wallace Stegner put this more simply and perfectly than I can. “If you don’t know where you are,” he said, “you don’t know who you are.” 

Apr 2, 2011

Baby Blues Still Babies

We seem to have given spring a miss and gone straight into summer.  With today in the mid-70s and the last several days in the 80s, maybe now my few, fragile little Nemophila menziesii (Baby Blue Eyes) seedlings will put on a growth spurt.  I hope so--because it is very late for them to be as tiny as they are.

The guilty party looking for chow in potted plants
I haven't had great luck with these babies, except for one fantastic patio specimen two years ago.  I think they should change the common name of this plant from Baby Blue Eyes to Sparrow Chow.  Even my lovely specimen two years ago was initially eaten to a nub by white-crowned and gold-crowned sparrows--I know it was them, because I caught them in the act several times!  Once, for a split second I started to open the door to shoo away the sparrows, but then I thought "Whoa, the garden is for the birds. Birds are not pests."  But they do have a palate for Nemophila for some reason.  For human greens too--I haven't been able to grow salad greens such as lettuce and spinach for our own table, because the sparrows chow right through it. I'm not an energetic enough gardener to mess with netting and all that--I always just figure what grows grows, and what doesn't can get replaced by what does.

The great Nemophila of '09 miraculously rebounded and it must have gained the sparrows' respect, because they then allowed it mature. But it was in full, spectacular bloom in mid-March.  Last year I had just a couple pitiful little baby blues--just enough to luckily reseed a bit this year.  And this year's seedlings are still teeny tiny, with March now history.

Here's the plant in March '09:

And here are its grandchildren today:

The sparrows haven't zeroed in on these pitiful little things--probably because they are too small to bother.  I have been looking at these tiny seedlings for months now, with no change.  So, I hope they get going and become real plants--maybe by month's end I can have a decent blue-eyed show that will coincide with the Clarkia concinna (Pink Ribbons) that reseeded quite nicely from last year.  Will get plenty of photographic evidence if I do!

Mar 27, 2011

Hair-owing Garden Tales

I don't consider my yard a battlefield. I'm not one of these Chevy-Chase-in-Caddyshack types locked in an ever-escalating war with moles--or with gophers, or rabbits or snails or slugs, or even deer. (I was at war with ivy once, but peace has reigned now for several seasons.) Many local gardeners I know do seem to consider deer a mortal enemy, but I've always had a pretty peaceable--even affectionate--attitude toward our hooved brothers and sisters. And I confess I like to only half-jokingly say that it's my good deer karma that protects my plants from being devoured, despite the fact that the yard--nestled, as it is, in a valley surrounded by open hills--is basically a kind of on-ramp to a major Cervine Superhighway.

This spring, however, I'm afraid the deer have indeed been snipping off the flowering stalks of my Heucheras and Potentillas.  (Heuchera maxima and Potentilla glandulosa.)  Granted, it's not a huge deal--the deer so far seem to be just clipping off the flower stalks, and leaving the bulk of the plants pretty well untouched. But still...it's springtime, and I was looking forward to the annual spring flower display. Now I'm imagining some cheery deer kitchen with a vase full of flowers on the table and the man deer reading the paper while the lady deer makes a cup of tea...

Here's the picked-over Heuchera. Leaves good, flower stalks clipped.

And the Potentilla, below.  This is a highly local plant, grown from seed found in a park just a mile from the house, and it flourishes in the yard--but I'd still like it to get to have more than one teeny tiny flower!

The good news with the Heuchs is that they produce flower stalks for quite a long time, so if the deer decide they are tired of the tasty buds, then I could get a good show of flowers yet. I was thinking of maybe trying a little gentle dissuasion on the deer. I've heard that placing human hair on a plant can be a good, if slightly icky-looking, deer deterrent. I can collect a pretty good supply of said material every time I shower, plus, the hair might serve a dual purpose in the garden.

Philanthropic feline.
My mum, who has always been a good friend to birds, places the hair from her brush out on tree branches in the spring, because she read that birds like to use hair to make their nests. Many people, myself included, are surprised to learn that birds have next to no sense of smell, so they don't notice if potential nesting material originated on a creature they consider dangerous. To this end, I have enlisted my cat, Celeste, to make daily coat donations to the bird community. After brushing her, I take out the wad of fur and stick it on a branch.  It seems to disappear quickly enough, and I hope at least some of it finds its way into cozy bird nests and not into the neighbors' swimming pool filters. (I would solicit donations from both cats, but Neo won't allow brushing--apparently he has some sort of embargo on bird-related aid, though he is gentlemanly enough to help Celeste with her coat.)

Perfect starter home for young couple with clutch.
My best-case scenario is if a sweet little feathered couple accepts the hair and fur offerings and takes up residence in the little house pictured here, which is right outside my home office. I can think of no better distraction from taxes and bill-paying than watching a couple of wrens or chickadees build a deluxe, fur-lined home for their family.

Mar 19, 2011

All Hail Tough Natives

Some great, unusual (for the Bay Area) weather last night.  I don't know if hail is harmful to most people's plants, but the natives sure take it in stride.  It was fun to have some lightning and thunder and white stuff on the ground.  (The cats thought differently.)

(The photos make it look like I went to town with the perlite, but it's hail.)

I don't do much, or anything, in the way of babying any of my plants, including seedlings and cuttings, because I sort of figure if they require codling then I don't have the time and energy for them, so everything is quite exposed.  These Clarkia concinna seedlings seem to have forgotten all about the pelting.

I don't have any plants that minded being briefly put on ice, either. The actual air temp was well above freezing, but even when it does freeze around here--down to 22 degrees one time--none of plants have ever minded. I don't really understand why my natives are so tough, as many originate right along the coastline, where it doesn't freeze, and yet they take whatever my slightly inland weather throws at them.