Archive for the ‘The Garden’ Category


What we (finally!) did with our lawn

July 8, 2010

Yes, nearly two years after I first asked the interweb what we should do with the lawn, we finally did something!

Under pressure from a looming wedding brunch, I finally got my act together and chose the EarthTurf grass seed mix for our lawn. EarthTurf is apparently made by Hobbs & Hopkins in Portland—or at least it shares a physical address and is sold through the same site as their seed—and as far as I can tell is roughly the same as the Rough & Ready mix that H&H sells, so it may just be the same mix rebranded. It’s similar to the Fleur de Lawn mix that everyone overwhelmingly picked on my little poll a couple years back, but without the flowers. (I had read stories of Fleur de Lawn that noted that the flowering plants tended to attract slugs, which are a HUGE issue in our yard, so I decided we didn’t need any more of that, as nice as the flowers would have been!) Instead, EarthTurf mixes white microclover with creeping red fescue, hard fescue, sheep’s fescue, chewings fescue, dwarf perennial ryegrass and smooth stalked meadow grass, all drought-tolerant types of turfgrass. In theory, when the lawn is mature it will need little water and the clover will help fix nitrogen so that it self-fertilizes. The few reports I’d read of people who’ve grown it also noted that it was especially resilient to dogs. We’ll see!

Yard pre-grass

Yard pre-grass

The new garden path!

The new garden path!

We’ve gone back and forth on whether to put grass back into the center of the yard over the past two years, but in the end, we decided it was important to have some turf for the dog to run on. We did ring the grassy area with a three-foot path all the way around, though, and encircled the baby avocado tree with rocks to set it aside, so we have far less grass than we did to start with. Still, it’s been slow-going. Growing grass from seed turns out to be hard and somewhat unfulfilling work. I like the EarthTurf mix a lot where it’s come up, but seeding a lawn has turned out to be far more difficult than I imagined. In addition, while it’s easy to tell mature microclover and oxalis apart, it’s not so simple when they’re seedlings, and we might have had better luck exterminating the oxalis had we used sod instead. If I had it to do over, I think I’d just get the sod and deal with having a less-than-ideal mix of grass types. By the time we seed and re-seed to fill in the bald spots, we’ll probably have spent about the same amount, and sod would have been much faster!

Grass growing (a little!)

Grass growing (a little!)

Grasses and microclover

Grasses and microclover

For now, the plan is to keep watering the grass that did come up as it matures, and then when the rains start in the fall I’ll reseed in the areas where nothing happened. Hopefully we’ll have a lush lawn by next summer! In the meantime, I’m also pleased to report that the Labradane has taken to the new paths with flying colors, and is now pretty adept at jumping the fences that are supposed to keep him off the grass and running around the yard on them (except when a squirrel is in play!)


In theory, our grass will someday look like this. (Photo from

I’ll post an update after the next rainy season to see how this stuff weathers a California winter. (Since it’s designed for the Pacific Northwest, I have high hopes that it will thrive here too, since our weather isn’t so different, but I couldn’t find anyone in the area who’d tried it, so I guess we’re the guinea pigs!)

(Oh, and for those who don’t remember my little garden plan from last summer, we’re actually making nice progress on it! See?)

Update, 04/02/2013: Many months ago, someone asked what software I used to create the plan for our yard. It was a tool called Garden Planner by Artifact Interactive. I used an older version for Mac, but they now have an online version that looks pretty handy too. It’s free to try and relatively inexpensive to buy (it’s good to support small software developers–plus the guy who created it has a very cute baby!), and very easy to use.


Snow: It’s not just for WordPress blogs anymore! (Or: A winter primer for Californians)

December 9, 2009

Okay, so temps just below freezing aren’t exactly considered a “deep freeze” anywhere else in the country. But around here, where we just planted all our winter seedlings and the citrus harvest is about to start, the frozen soil was  a bit of a shocker, and the snow-covered hills caught just about everyone by surprise.

Once I dug all my warm wool clothes out of storage, I remembered that once upon a time I used to know all about winter. However, my New England know-how never covered topics like what to do if the oranges on your tree are frozen solid or your December lettuce starts are wilting, so I had to hit the interweb to figure out what on earth you’re supposed to do when California freezes over.

How can I keep my garden from being damaged by the frost?

  • Water your plants, especially veggie starts, before the frost. If there’s a frost in the forecast, water your plants well and make sure the soil is moist. Spray the leaves with water, too. Don’t water them after the frost, though—just let them “defrost” on their own.
  • Protect plants physically. In places where temperatures are regularly below freezing, people build frames and other devices to warm plants up. But around here, a simple covering is more than sufficient, since the freeze isn’t likely to last too long (I hope!) Blankets, newspaper, cardboard boxes, and milk cartons all work well. Try not to have the covering in direct contact with the plants—it should be more like a little tent of warm(er) air around the plant.
  • Help your trees out too. Small trees can be covered just like other plants. Larger trees can be warmed up with things as simple as Christmas tree lights (but not the schmancy new LED ones!) Trees should be kept moist just like plants (though it’s not really an issue given all the rain that came with this storm!)

How do I know if my plants were damaged by the frost?

  • First and foremost, wait it out till warmer weather returns. Then you’ll be able to assess the signs. On citrus, damaged fruit will get swollen and puffy and the rind will separate. Damaged leaves may get brown spots. Don’t start pruning off any damaged wood till the spring, though—the tree may surprise you!
  • On vegetables, frost damage isn’t subtle. The plants will wilt, look like they’re water logged, and then turn brown and die. There’s not too much you can do once the damage is done, though, so again—just wait and see. Generally, the hearty winter vegetables should hold their own in this (relatively!) mild cold, but if you have lots of lettuce starts in like we do, you may lose some of them.

Other wintry weather tips

Black ice = bad. And there’s been some in various parts of the Bay this week. First, know that you can’t always see black ice on the road. If you hit it, you’ll feel it. Don’t brake quickly. Definitely don’t accelerate! Just ease onto the brake slowly and try to use the steering wheel to control the car, rather than the brakes or the gas. If you start to skid, don’t panic—just turn the wheel into the skid to regain control of the car. And leave lots of space between the car in front of you, just in case you do hit a patch of ice.

Heat = good. This is the part where the East Coasters’ and Midwesterners’ eyes start to bug out, but there are still a decent number of houses in the Bay Area that don’t have heat, since it’s not needed most of the year. But it’s obviously a good idea to have some heat flowing right now, especially in areas where, say, pets are sleeping that may not be heated normally. Also, frozen pipes are not fun. I don’t think it will get cold enough for long enough in Oakland for this to be an issue, but Contra Costa County’s already under a frozen pipe alert. You can insulate outdoor pipes somewhat by wrapping them in rags or newspaper or the pipe insulation stuff they (hopefully?) sell at local hardware stores. On the off chance they do freeze, you can run water to try to get them moving again (assuming you’ve got at least a trickle coming through—but around here you probably do!), or use an iron or hair dryer on low to warm them up a bit.

Warm winter food = the best. Hot chocolate! Steel cut oats! Cream of wheat! Root vegetable pot pie! These are a few of my favorite things…and I eat them far too infrequently in sunny California. Perfect winter snow food—yay!

    Anyway. While we Californians have fun with our measly little snow piles, our storm is apparently headed east with a fury (or maybe a flurry?) As it gets past the Rockies, it should drop some real snow. Have fun!


    You say tomato, I say….fusarium wilt?

    November 17, 2009

    Okay, I know I have no business posting about tomatoes in late November….but this one’s been waiting for a few free minutes for a while now, and in a fit of confusion, the only tomato plant we have left in the ground burst into flower this week, so that reminded me that I should wrap this up. (Yes, that would be this week when there was actually frost in the forecast and temps dropped to the low 40s—this is one mixed up tomato! I’m leaving it there to see how that pans out, though….)

    But I wanted to get a post-season garden recap in nonetheless. This year, we planted:

    Kassenhoff sells an amazing selection of heirloom plants at both the Temescal and Grand Lake Farmers Markets—it was all I could do to stop buying them after we’d filled up our beds! Theoretically these six were chosen to bear early, mid, and late season crops that would keep us up to our ears in tomatoes all summer long. In practice they all produced a little bit all season long, but nobody was prolific. (More on that below…)

    Tomatoes! Clockwise from top: Glacier, Yellow Brandywine, Carmello, and a rather sad looking Taxi.

    The Paul Robeson died of unknown causes early in the season, and I never did figure out if it was due to disease or to the fact that the Labradane tried to dig it up the weekend after we planted it. The others put on a good show, though—we didn’t have a huge number of tomatoes, but definitely more than last summer (and with pretty mild temps to boot).

    By early August, though, it was clear that something was up with the plants. Huge swaths of leaves would turn yellow and wilt, and the stems I cut off were hollow with a soft white fuzz inside. From the outside, they looked waterlogged, although I’d been watering pretty conservatively. The potatoes that were sharing a planter with three of the tomatoes also fell victim. My online searches didn’t turn up a clear culprit, but either verticillium or fusarium wilt seemed like the prime contenders. Both are soil-borne, unfortunately, which means that we can’t plant tomatoes or other relatives in those two plots for the next several years. (We left this year’s plants in the ground on the advice of one book that pretty much summed it up as “ah, well—might as well enjoy the tomatoes you do get,” and we did indeed get some good ones, in spite of everything. So maybe there’s hope…)

    So it’s back to the pots for the tomatoes next year—and I need to think of another good sun-lovin’ vegetable to plant in the big new planter with prime southern exposure instead. (Eggplants are too closely related to tomatoes, sadly, as are peppers—but squash may be an option.) For right now, we have fava bean cover crop planted there to try to build the soil up a bit.

    In other garden news, most of our winter crops are planted now—although the carrots and parsnips hit an unfortunate glitch when a big hole appeared in that bed. I filled it in, and the next day it reappeared—and the Labradane showed up in the kitchen smelling like fresh soil. At first we thought he’d been digging in there trying to get to a critter. But then a few days later, D. came out to find him curled up in the garden, enjoying the warm little nest he’d made for himself. Time to get a garden fence, I guess!



    September 16, 2009

    No, that’s not a directive to Mayor Dellums (though if he’d like to take it as one, I have no issue with that!) It’s that other kind of lead.

    After a great tip from a reader (thanks, Len!) I recently called up the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (ACLPPP) to see what they could tell me about lead testing and lead safety, especially in soil. First, I have to say—these guys are rock stars! They called back promptly and had all sorts of information to share. A couple of days later, I received a complete lead test kit in the mail, with detailed instructions on how to test my soil, paint, and dust.

    I picked out nine areas—five sections of the backyard, two painted areas, and two dusty windowsills—and sent off the samples to be tested. (For FREE!) Just a few days later, along came the results in an emailed PDF.

    The results…
    First, the bad news: the paint on the woodwork and the dust in the window sills have a whole lotta lead. We pretty much assumed as much—in a hundred-year-old house, it would be unusual for glossy trim paint not to have lead in it—but now that we know for sure, I’m having to rethink my strip-the-woodwork project. Lead, like asbestos and other icky airborne things, is not especially dangerous if it’s adhering properly to the painted surface (and you’re not licking it), but if it starts to flake off or chip and create paint flakes or dust that can be inhaled or eaten by small children or pets, it’s a bad scene. And you’re not supposed to remove high lead paint with a silent paint stripper (which was my plan), and I really don’t want to mess with the toxic chemical agents that can remove it safely.

    But happily, there was good news too. Specifically, the paint and plaster in our kitchen do not have lead in them to speak of—and that’s very good news, since someday soon we’re hoping to tackle the kitchen renovation, and it will be infinitely easier to attack the woodwork and wall demolition if we aren’t simultaneously worrying about lead abatement and controlling lead dust.

    And, perhaps even more importantly, our soil—all of it!—passed with flying colors, with everything testing on the very low end of the “lead safe” category (150-500 ppm). (In fact, the lead levels were barely higher in the soil from the ground than in the potting soil from the nursery that I threw in as a control. That may say more about the nursery soil than about our soil, but there ya go….) This is especially good news because it means we can begin to plant veggies in other areas of the yard, and we also don’t have to worry about trying to make the yard lead-safe (which would be a frustratingly painful process, since you basically have to dig everything out and replace the soil). So that was very welcome news.

    …and what to do about it!
    Based on this news, I’ll be repainting the woodwork in the dining room with a safe high-gloss paint to seal all that badness inside—and, of course, leaving a note for future owners that stripping the woodwork is probably not the bestest project to take on! (This is probably not the end of the world, since I’ve recently discovered that past owners of our house were—how shall I put it—“creative” (and resourceful!) in cutting out the woodwork when heat was installed, and consequently there’s not much to restore near the heating vents. And when my woodworker uncle came to visit a few months back and checked out our front door—nicely stripped—he noted that it had clearly been intended to be natural wood on the outside, which is apparently a quarter-sawn oak veneer, but not on the inside, which is plain old Doug fir. Ah well.) Luckily, we also own a HEPA vacuum, which is the best way to clear a home of dust and paint chips.

    I’m still undecided on the living room, where the paint is stripping pretty cleanly, the wood is in better shape (and was nicer to begin with—beautiful elm and quarter-sawn oak) and there might be some merit to finishing the project. It’s just that it’s a very, very BIG project—and we already have a lot of other big projects to contend with right now. On the other hand, I don’t want to repaint if we might really strip it all at some point, because that just creates more unnecessary work. We’ll see.

    This has some implications for our window project, too. The dust from our window troughs also tested high (not as high as the paint itself—but still high enough above the “safe” level to be of concern). Again, not terribly surprising, but something to think about nonetheless. One big source of lead dust in old houses is windows and doors opening and closing—and one good way to get rid of this problem is to replace the windows. So as we work through our window rehabbing and replacement work, we may decide to replace all of the bedroom windows instead of just the two with dry rot to ensure that none of the bedrooms have lead problems. If I can find a good place that will strip the windows, I may go that route as well. We may also re-prioritize to do these in order of use rather than in order of condition. A few of the windows have also had strips of unpainted wood set into the side jambs, which I think was intended to facilitate movement (or replace rotting wood perhaps), but has the added benefit of eliminating one of the two pieces of lead-coated wood that meet each time the windows open.

    How much lead is too much?
    The most confusing part of the lead testing, at least for me, was figuring out how much lead was too much lead. The kit we got came with baselines for safety, but I found some of them a bit high. ACLPPP uses 1,000 ppm as the “safe” threshold for soil, for instance, and 250 ppm for child-safe soil; in contrast, the state of Minnesota uses 100 ppm as their threshold for bare soil (although they don’t require soil above that level to be removed unless there are visible paint chips). The EPA claims you can plant in soil under 1,500 ppm, except for root vegetables, which you should grow in soil under 1,000 ppm.  Other sources say you can garden under 500 ppm; others say no, only garden if the soil tests under 100 ppm. (Notably, even our nursery soil came in at 140 ppm!)

    So what’s really safe? With the information we have, I feel comfortable using our general soil (which tested in the low 200s) for everything except for leafy vegetables and herbs. (Fruiting plants and other plants where the edible components don’t grow directly in the ground don’t absorb as much of the lead and other soil contaminants as leafy vegetables and herbs; with root vegetables, the contamination is largely from surface contact, so you can mitigate this by simply peeling and cleaning these vegetables.) We’ll continue to grow those higher-risk plants in our raised beds with nursery soil (even though this will screw up the crop rotations—argh!)

    It’s a little more straightforward on the paint front: this summer the “lead-free” standard for new paint dropped to 90 ppm (down from 600 ppm up until this year), and the feds define anything above 5,000 ppm as being “high lead.” Since our kitchen and trim paints came in at 150 ppm and 7,500 ppm respectively, there wasn’t much fuzziness there! (What to do about the high lead paint is another question altogether—and there are just as many schools of thought on that as there are on the gardening!)

    Want to get your own lead test kit?
    If you live in Alameda County, you can check out the ACLPPP site for more information on ordering test kits or having someone come out to your home to do a free inspection. (These resources are geared towards homeowners, but there are programs for renters and landlords as well.) The cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and Emeryville also have a variety of programs to pay for lead remediation and other work; information on those is also on the ACLPPP site.


    Baby pictures

    August 19, 2009

    No, not that kind—this kind!

    These are all our new trees. I realized I haven’t been doing a good job documenting the garden progress this summer, so I snapped a bunch of these just so we’ll have a record of them as they (hopefully!) get bigger.

    Acacia tree

    Acacia tree---can't remember the variety anymore, but D. picked it out at the UC Botanical Garden's plant sale last year. It's supposed to get quite big and fill this space in a lovely evergreen-with-yellow-flowers way without (supposedly) being too aggressive. Acacia honey is also supposed to be especially tasty, if we ever get around to getting bees.

    Multi-grafted pluot

    Multi-grafted pluot yearling: Dapple Dandy, Flavor Queen, and Flavor Supreme. This guy has looked healthier, but he did grow an insane amount this year, almost doubling in size. Yikes! We do need to do some aggressive pruning to balance out the tiniest graft, though, which didn't bear fruit at all this year.

    Sour cherry

    Montmorency sour cherry---the fencing is supposed to discourage the Labradane from trampling this one when he chases critters at night.


    Oroblanco grapefruit. All the citrus are a bit yellow this time of year; hopefully a little more to drink and a splash of iron sulfate will fix this soon.

    Multi-grafted cherry

    Multi-grafted cherry: Van, Bing, Lapins, and Rainier on Mazzard rootstock, so this one should get pretty big too. This went in where we pulled out a decrepit fig earlier this summer.


    Hass avocado (note all the new leaves, which are a very big deal after the last two avocados didn't make it!)

    Tangerine tree

    Page mandarin

    Lime tree

    Bearss lime (with passionflowers behind)

    Lemon tree

    Meyer lemon

    Not pictured: The second Meyer lemon tree; the feijoa tree, which we’re pretty sure is now growing exclusively from below the graft, and will probably be replacing as a result; and our Charlie Brown Christmas tree, which is actually looking quite respectable these days and is growing happily in a shady corner of the yard, where it’s supposed to get to be 25 feet tall or so and provide some nice screening. We’ll see!

    We’re pretty close to being maxed out on space for trees in the yard at this point. I have a few spaces targeted for large evergreen screen trees—one for a weeping bottlebrush tree, I think, and the other possibly for a type B avocado, plus the “Jervis Bay After Dark” peppermint tree D. picked out that’s visible behind the multi-grafted cherry, which we’ll plant as soon as the ground is diggable again. But that’s about it for the rear yard. Since D. wants a pear and I still want a fall-bearing apple (our Gala tree ripens in early July, which throws me for a loop, since I grew up in New England, where October is apple season!), I’m thinking of pulling out some of the nandina in the side yard and planting one or both there. (Originally I wanted a Mutsu apple, but since they apparently don’t do too well in the mild Bay Area, I’m now leaning towards an heirloom Gravenstein, which ripens in late August or early September here. They’re unusual in that they need a cross-pollinator, but I think the Gala tree should do the trick.) We can also potentially put some espaliered trees along our rear fence, but then we’re pretty much done on the tree front. On to currants, more blueberries, elderberries, and other bushes this winter!


    If good fences make good neighbors…

    June 24, 2009

    ….what does that say about bad fences?

    Okay, so this isn’t exactly a bad fence. It actually looks fine in these photos. In real life, unfortunately, it’s not quite the construction quality I was hoping for…somewhat Home Depot-esque, with staples instead of nails, really rough wood, etc. Which would be fine if it had come with a Home Depot-esque price tag, but sadly it didn’t. (In fairness, a lot of the cost was probably for the demolition of the failing concrete retaining wall and construction of a new wooden wall to support the fence, and not for the fence itself. But still, I’m a little grouchy about it.) On the upside, the posts themselves seem pretty solid, so even if the boards do fall down ten years from now, it shouldn’t be as big a deal to replace it as it was this time around. (We learned that the vast majority of fence builders don’t do retaining walls, and the vast majority of retaining wall builders don’t do fences. After calling over two dozen people, we ended up with about six who were interested in bidding on this project, and one never even sent the estimate after checking it out. So much for the down economy…)

    However, the fence is DONE, which is a very, very exciting thing!

    New fence

    New fence (ignore the dog crate, which needs to be moved!)

    Another view

    Another view

    Also, it’s very, very pink. I know it will weather to something more normal looking, but I was caught a bit off guard by this. I can’t tell if it’s been treated with something or what. Lesson learned. If we do this again, the specs will specify the grade of wood to be used. (We just said “redwood” for this one, but it looks nothing like the grades of redwood that I’ve worked with on our other garden projects, so I presume it must be some cheaper variety.) Of course, if worse comes to worst and it weathers oddly, we can always just paint it to match the rest of the fencing, which is currently painted with a pale green milk paint of some sort. (The idea was that over time we’ll replace the other fences too and eventually the yard will be all natural redwood, but who knows!)

    We still have a few decisions to make. For starters, we share the fence on that side with two different parcels; the new fence was just for the section that borders the apartment building behind us, where the old retaining wall was collapsing. We still have two panels of fence that seem pretty stable, though they also drop down significantly into our other neighbors’ backyard. To complicate matters, they have a second fence and a shed behind ours, so replacing it is likely to be complex and costly. Initially I thought maybe we could have the guys who did this fence take off the boards of the other fence and match them, but now I’m iffy on that plan. Alternatively, we can just put a lattice top on it to make it look vaguely similar—but then there’s the weird redwood-green color conflict.

    Fence transition line

    Fence transition line

    You can see the height difference pretty clearly in this photo—the old fence was around four-and-a-half feet tall, while the new one is theoretically six plus the lattice (I haven’t actually measured it). It would be nice for them to look a bit more consistent, but maybe not $2K nice. My current thought is that maybe we should just mount a large redwood trellis to the green fence, grow some vines, and be done with it. The other factor is that the space in front of the green fence is slated for some bamboo, since that’s the view out of our bedroom window where we pretty much look right into the glaring security lights of the apartment building behind us. So maybe it doesn’t really matter what the fence looks like behind the bamboo, as long as it’s functional.

    Anyway. The good news is that this project is now officially off the list, which means we’re done with all of the big ticket items that were on the to-do list when we moved in (rewiring, earthquake retrofit, and retaining wall) and can finally start saving up for the kitchen—woohoo!


    June is bustin’ out all over!

    June 13, 2009

    So, I’ve been pretty lazy about posting anything about our garden over the past couple of months, but it’s going gangbusters at this point.

    Ripe loquats, strawberries, and cherries: Not enough cherries to do much but snack on them, but this year we made some loquat jam (since I’m still at a loss as to what one is supposed to do with loquats, beyond just eating them fresh….last year we made loquat-infused vodka). The rest of the spring fruit is also well on its way to ripeness, so we’re excited to have Santa Rosa plums, blueberries, and several varieties of pluots later this month.



    Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! We planted several different kinds this year since last year’s plants did so abysmally—the idea was to experiment with different types and locations in the yard. So far, though, all of them seem to be flowering and setting fruit like crazy, so we may be drowning in tomatoes soon!

    This year, we’re growing:

    • Taxi, an early determinate yellow tomato that is supposed to do well in containers;
    • Paul Robeson, a Russian determinate black heirloom that’s supposed to be especially good for both containers and the mild Bay Area;
    • Carmello, a French indeterminate red heirloom purported to be prolific;
    • Glacier, an early indeterminate [well, sold to us as a determinate, but has clearly shown itself to be otherwise!] red heirloom;
    • Yellow brandywine, an indeterminate heirloom that produces large yellow beekfsteak tomatoes; and
    • A mystery cherry tomato variety from a Forage Oakland gathering.

    All but the cherry tomato and the Taxi plant came from Kassenhoff Growers, an Oakland-based grower that sells at both of our local farmer’s markets. We had good luck with a couple of their plants last year, so this year pretty much the entire garden (or at least what I didn’t grow from seed) came from there.

    Tomato box

    New tomato box

    We’re growing tomatoes in both the beautiful new tomato box (for the indeterminate varieties, since it’s deep enough to accommodate their root systems) and in a small bed along the side of our patio that has a concrete bottom, and thus seemed most suitable for determinate types. (Interestingly, though, one of the tomatoes we planted was supposed to be determinate but has now outgrown just about every plant in the garden and is sprawling over itself—and is heavy with tomatoes, so clearly the depth of the bed wasn’t as a big an issue as we thought it would be!)

    Squash, cucumbers, and eggplant. We’ve also got both summer and winter squash going strong. The only issue they’ve had this year has been that they’re easily double the size of last year’s plants, and are taking over their 18″ x 18″ garden squares and overshadowing the eggplant, which just can’t seem to get enough sun to grow. Next year I need to come up with a better plan for that.

    Zucchini plants

    Zucchini plants

    We harvested our first funky-looking zucchini last week. The green ones are the creatively-named Dark Green zucchini, while the striped variety is Cocozelle. Both are having some blossom-end rot issues, so I’m trying to get that sorted out—but otherwise they’re tasty! (We made zucchini pancakes with these, complete with herbs from the herb garden and one of the last spring onions still growing from last winter.)



    Greens. The lettuce bed is also growing like crazy, though we’ve been doing a terrible job keeping up with it since we keep getting fresh greens in our CSA box. Once we do finally eat through this, though, my new plan is to try some decorative edible greens in that bed, since the last edition of Sunset had some interesting ideas on how to grow greens a little more aesthetically than these (which look like gangly plants about to bolt—but are still a huge improvement over the arugula that used to be in this bed, which had bolted and had progressed from “bitter” to “inedible”!)

    Lettuce bed

    Lettuce bed

    Asparagus! This little guy is one of two asparagus plants that a friend gave us last fall; I thought they’d died since they vanished for several months, but both have suddenly started sending up stalks and feathers. Asparagus takes a while, so we still have a few years before we can harvest it—but exciting nonetheless!

    Baby asparagus

    Baby asparagus

    Everything else is truckin’ along, looking pretty good so far this year. We harvested a few of last winter’s baby carrots today, and will eat the last of the peas for dinner since I had to pull the plants to put in some pickling cucumbers this morning. The basil seedlings finally got big enough to transplant, so they’re settling into the herb garden too. The first powdery mildew of the season showed up on one of the squash plants this week, though, and the whiteflies are multiplying in spite of our best efforts to keep them off the plants. So we’ll see how things go—but off to a good start.


    Building a bungalow garden

    May 21, 2009

    One of the big excitements of our out-of-the-blue May rain a few weeks back (for folks outside the Bay Area, rain in May is a rarity here!) was that it was a great opportunity to finish up the pulling-of-the-grass. Most of our grass died last summer when we stopped watering, and though we had a brief resurgence this winter, I’ve been slowly pulling what’s left out by hand. It’s an irritating mix of crabgrass, some sort of bluegrass that was probably intended to be the lawn originally, and a tall weedy grass that grows in clumps and gets to be two feet tall when D. doesn’t attack it with the mower. We also had an invasion of oxalis and some other low groundcovers once the initial batch of grass died last summer.

    But—at long last!—we finally finished earlier this month, which means our lawn is ready for renovation.

    Why take out the lawn in the first place?
    Since we moved into the house, we’ve slowly been letting the lawn die, mainly by not watering it. (Luckily the sprinkler lines for the lawn are separate from the other circuits, which made this very easy to do.) It took a couple of seasons, because in California a lot of plants are used to droughts and bounce back as soon as the winter rains start. But because water is a huge issue in California, we knew we wanted something that would be green year-round without all that summer watering, so we stuck it out.

    So just how much water does a lawn take? Well, we’re in the pretty interesting position of knowing exactly, at least for our house. Northern California is in a drought right now, and consequently our water has been rationed for the past year. To set the allotments for each house, East Bay MUD ran comparisons across the last three years and sent them out to us. So we got to contrast our summer water use directly with the previous owner’s.

    Last July and August, we used an average of 125 gallons a day. The previous owner? 450 gallons a day. Yes, you read that right! Now, we probably have a much more efficient washing machine than she did, but otherwise, there are two of us and just one of her, so you’d figure we’d be about even, right? And it’s not as if we don’t water anything at all—we did run the sprinklers and drips for the front yard and all of the side gardens and veggies last summer, just not for the lawn itself. So, yeah. So at our current rates, having a traditional lawn would cost us somewhere in the vicinity of $30 a month. Once the new rates kick in this July, that’s headed up-up-up. And really? I have better things to spend thirty bucks a month on.

    So we’re back to garden planning. As a refresher, our basic yard requirements are:

    • Drought-tolerant/low water
    • Doesn’t need regular mowing (defined here as four times a season or less, roughly)
    • Dog- and kid-friendly/tolerates foot traffic
    • Tolerates partial shade
    • Somewhat appropriate to the house style and period

    Arts and crafts gardens
    On the last point, I was a little unsure where to begin. As luck would have it, though, my favorite local bookstore, Builders Booksource, has a beautiful book on bungalow gardens right now, complete with scaled plans for a whole series of 1914 lot sizes and homes.

    Bungalow gardens

    Bungalow gardens

    A few interesting observations:

    • Without fail, every plan included kitchen and vegetable gardens. (I’m not entirely sure what the distinction was—perhaps kitchen gardens had more in the way of herbs and such?) Most of the time, these were along the back of the lot or occasionally along the side yard. In our case, that’s not where our best sun is now that we have adjacent apartment buildings—but it makes me wonder if that’s where the gardens were once upon a time, since it would have been perfect back then. Ours will stay where they are, though eventually I need to turn the 6′ x 6′ box into a 4′ x 6′ box, since it’s proven to be rather unwieldy.
    • Bungalow garden designers really liked paths. There were paths everywhere. This is actually pretty cool, because I’ve been wanting paths in our yard, too, so it’s a good excuse to move forward with that plan!
    • Lots of gardens included ponds—which was especially interesting to see because the great-great-niece of the original owners of our house had left a comment on my house history post a few days earlier reminiscing about the fish pond that the house next-door had once upon a time. Did ours have one too?
    • There was a strong Japanese influence, at least for the designers who put together the California gardens featured in the book. Again, this probably shouldn’t have been surprising given the huge Japanese community in California before World War II and the echoes of Japanese aesthetic in Arts and Crafts architecture, but it was still interesting to see.

    Our bungalow garden
    Anyway, here’s our current plan, in a rather messy conceptual stage. If I have time, I’ll hand draw it in plan form to clean it up a bit, but for planning purposes this works. It’s not 100 percent accurate (just realized I left off the feijoa tree, plus a few other smaller trees!) or exactly to scale, mostly because I’m lazy, but for now it’s enough. (I also left off the scale, which is bad bad bad, but the lot is 50 feet wide, and the backyard is around 60 feet deep.) Much of this exists already—particularly the beds that ring the yard—so we’re keeping them intact and swapping out the center lawn.

    Garden Plan

    Garden Plan

    For the dog, I’m building a series of paths for him to run (and for us to walk on). This is mostly because we don’t have space for a real dog run anyway, but also because I recently read that dogs love to run circuits (which jibes with my own observations of the Labradane, who adopted the little veggie bed path as his route of choice almost as soon as I built it). Originally these were going to be flagstone with plantings in between, but when I went to buy the flagstone yesterday, I discovered that our little path would run in the neighborhood of $700—aaah! So that plan was out. Instead, I’m just going to dig out the paths this weekend and put down weedblock so we don’t lose all the hard work on clearing the grass, and then we’ll keep an eye on Craigslist for some interesting salvage materials that might make an interesting pathway.

    In the center, we’ll add two more fruit trees—one, the avocado, is already in—and put in a small lawn below them. Originally we’d been considering several seed and sod options. At this point, I’ve abandoned carex pansa (the native grass plugs) because of the cost and difficulty of the installation; it’s also not exactly what we’re looking for as far as the look and feel. The tentative plan now is to use the Fleur de Lawn mix from Hobbs & Hopkins in Portland, in part because the lawn area has now shrunk below the 200 square foot minimum for sod delivery, and in part because the flower mix that they include helps attract bees and butterflies—an added bonus. It’s low mow but not no mow, so it will still need to be chopped back three or four times a year. I’m hoping that with the dry Bay Area summers, this may not be needed as often here as in the Pacific Northwest, though. I’m still a little nervous about the Achillea millefolium in the mix, since some variants of that can be invasives in the Bay Area and it doesn’t specify which this is. On the other hand, our garden is already crawling with sweet alyssum and nasturtiums, which are about as invasive as they come. (We planted both intentionally because they’re also rumored to attract beneficial insects and fend off whitefly, though it’s hard to say if that actually works. They are pretty as weeds go, though, and the bees love them!)

    Finally, last on the list is to get our soil tested, which I haven’t bothered doing since we don’t grow directly in it, except for the fruit trees, which don’t retain heavy metals in the same way that vegetables do. But with our garden going gangbusters, I’d like to use some of the side beds for winter squash, strawberries, and perennial veggies like asparagus, so we need to find out just how bad the soil is, and whether we can safely grow in it. (The New York Times had a good piece recently on the challenges of soil contamination in urban gardening, and OakBook had a piece that specifically addressed the fruit trees aspect of this a while back.) A plus is that our lot has always been residential and our yard has likely been a garden for its entire life, but we are pretty close to Broadway Auto Row and we do have heavy clay soil, so who knows. We’ll see.

    Sometime this weekend, I’ll take some photos of the site itself, which isn’t much more than a pile of dust at this point. The mulch arrives tomorrow morning, though, so there’s a long weekend of gardening ahead!


    More caterpillars….and butterflies

    May 16, 2009

    Quick update on our garden caterpillars and butterflies!

    The first news is that the original Anise Swallowtail caterpillar sadly died yesterday. Not sure exactly why, but he never made it to pupating and just keeled over, perhaps from the heat. Here’s the little dude, though, who promptly pupated last week after a solid ten days of eating. (It’s a bit hard to see through the Mason jar glass, but that’s a pile o’ skin sitting at the top of the pupa—for some reason this guy hung himself upside down, so the skin didn’t drop after his last metamorphosis. (Usually they hang themselves right-side up, suspended by silk.)



    We also discovered these beauties on our passionflower vines. Apparently they’re Gulf Fritillary caterpillars, and come up from South America as far north as the Bay Area. (One website notes that the cultivation of passionflowers in Northern California gardens has helped extend their range further north, which is a cool factoid.) Our passionflowers are growing happily and don’t seem unduly bothered by the several caterpillars eating them, so I’m just leaving them be to turn into butterflies.

    Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

    Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

    And finally, this little injured butterfly turned up in the garden the other day. I brought it in mostly because I wasn’t sure if it was a moth or a butterfly and didn’t want to let it roam the gardens if it was the former. Turns out to be an umber skipper butterfly, another common Bay Area species. I set him back out in the garden, though who knows how that played out….

    Umber skipper butterfly

    Umber skipper butterfly


    Anise Swallowtail Update

    May 5, 2009

    These guys are growing into beautiful caterpillars—the two who survived the birds are inside now in a Mason jar terrarium filled with fennel, though we’ll probably put them back outside once they pupate. Right now, they’re happily eating away. (I’m astounded by the speed with which they eat, too—the little one in particular gives the Labradane a run for his money, cramming fennel leaves into its mouth and stripping a stalk in a matter of minutes.)

    This is the original caterpillar---hard to believe!

    This is the original caterpillar---hard to believe!

    And lil' brudder's not looking so bad himself.

    And lil' brudder* doesn't look so bad himself.

    *Actually you apparently can’t tell their sexes until they turn into butterflies, when there are some visible differences. We’ll see!