Posts Tagged ‘garden’


And the 2010 house resolutions!

January 4, 2010

Last week I gave the final rundown on the 2009 house resolutions, which means it’s time for (da-da-daaaa!) the 2010 list.

This year’s projects are mostly short and sweet, because we’re tackling one HUGE project and also getting married in June, so there will be more than enough things to occupy us. Still, there are some projects here I’m super excited about!

1. A DISHWASHER. Well, a whole new kitchen, actually. This a carryover from last year’s list. It’s our one huge gigantic project for this year after a year off from contractors—we did the electrical and seismic work back in 2008—and since we’re trying to do at least some of it ourselves, I’m expecting it to consume a lot of time.

2. HONEYBEES. Thanks to a little bit of a kick in the pants from my sister in the form of a gift certificate to Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper in San Francisco (thanks B!!), this jumped up our list a bit, and I can’t wait to get started on it! But first, I need to learn a little bit more about what I’m doing here—so look for more in the months to come.

3. MEDICINE CABINET. I’ve been procrastinating on getting a recessed medicine cabinet for the bathroom for a while, but I’m hoping to actually get moving on that this year, and also repaint the bathroom while I’m at it. This project is a bit daunting because it involves knocking holes in plaster, and I’m still not quite sure what we’ll find in there. (You can still see the shadows of the framing of the original cabinet, but I have no idea how or when it was filled in, or whether the framing is still intact.) We’ll see…

4. LAWN LANDSCAPING. We successfully killed all of our grass* this past year, but we haven’t done much with the space yet. Now it’s time to have some fun with the landscaping, and figure out what interesting natives we can put in. (*Note that by “grass” I do not mean oxalis, which is having a field day with our bare lawn…ack!)

5. HEAT REGISTERS. I started replacing these with functional reproductions this year, but got sidetracked when I discovered the moulding around the registers needed to be replaced. Hopefully I can check this one off the list pretty early this year…

6. GARAGE SHELVES AND BIKE RACKS. We’ve needed these forever, but it’s just never a very high priority project…maybe putting it on the resolutions list will make it one!

7. CHICKENS. Finally, though this may be a long shot, I’m hoping by the year’s end we’ll be involved in a chicken project either at our house or at our neighbor’s house (since they had the great idea of setting up a block chicken coop to share the responsibility and, more importantly, to house the hens somewhere where there is no big black dog!)


Out with the old: Final 2009 house resolutions check-in

December 30, 2009

To wrap up 2009, here’s the status of this year’s resolutions. Look for the 2010 list next week!

Here’s the original list: My New Year’s House Resolutions

…and here’s where we are in the waning days of 2009:

Mostly done. In the end, I ordered 1 3/8″ spring bronze weatherstripping  from Kilian’s Hardware, since the stuff I got from our local Ace was too narrow. They shipped promptly and have everything under the sun on the old weatherstripping front. With instructions from Working Windows, a phenomenal guide, I’ll hopefully finish up the last of the weatherstripping soon. Pictures coming once I remember to take some. (I’m doing a modified version of it without removing the sashes—not the recommended way, but so far it seems to be working decently, and significantly reduces the likelihood that I’ll screw it up and need to call in the pros. But it also means I would be much happier with a staple gun, which the Tool Library has—except that they’re closed till after the new year with all the budget cuts…augh.) And the bedroom window issues will be resolved by early 2010—yay!

Mostly done. We successfully killed the grass, but then went to war with the oxalis. This isn’t done yet, but it’s mostly because I’ve been lazy and preoccupied with other things. I think I can safely say it’s a weekend (and a few hundred dollars’ worth of DG, stones, mulch, and plants) away from being complete.

Done! The garden did quite respectably this year, though it’s definitely still a work in progress. I continue to be in awe of the huge yields from some friends’ gardens, so I’ll keep at it. I put cover crops in this winter, so hopefully that will help, too.

Lettuce bed

Done! Pictures are not exciting here, so you don’t get any…

Done! But no photos till we get the landscaping done, since right now the yard looks pretty icky.

Umm, done? We got stuck on this one, so I’m not even sure it counts as done. Technically, it doesn’t leak anymore. But in the process of trying to fix it, we broke it more, had to hire a plumber to fix that, and then discovered that it had been fixed incorrectly. Fixing the new problem turned out to be an even bigger project that will entail retiling the bathroom, so for now we’re living with a slightly imperfect faucet setup. Moral of the story: hire people who know what they’re doing, especially when you don’t!

Mostly done. After trekking all over town looking for the specific parts D. had in mind for this, we finally found them at Grainger in West Berkeley. He’s off this week, so with luck this might be finished before the new year. Pictures and maybe an instructable to follow once it’s all installed and caulked in, but Gene over at DIY Insanity has some great photos up of the barrels pre-holes on the new platform he helped us build last month (and by “helped” I mean walked us through pretty much step-by-step—thanks again!!)

Gene's photo of the barrels on their brand new platform!

Gene's photo of the barrels on their brand new platform!


Another view

Not done. But…WE ARE GETTING OUR FIRST BIDS ON THE STRUCTURAL WORK IN THE KITCHEN! This is my most exciting news. It won’t make the 2009 list, but it’s within reach at long last. (And it better make the 2010 list…)

In fact, it might be fortuitous that it took so long—if Obama’s Cash for Caulkers program really gets rolling, we’re all set to buy both our dishwasher and new refrigerator under it! And we may apply to be guinea pigs in Oakland’s version of CaliforniaFIRST, which spreads the cost of energy efficiency improvements over a number of years by rolling the cost into property taxes. When we take out our furnace chimney, we’ll have to re-vent our furnace and water heater, and it might be the ideal time to replace both. (They still have a few years left in them, but both are aging, neither is high-efficiency, and D. is itching for a solar water heater.)

So we’re 8 for 9 for 2009—not too bad, actually!


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!



    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.


    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!


    The bees and butterflies are back….

    April 22, 2009

    ….and the garden is loving it!

    After a shaky first year with our garden where I wondered if the lack of fruiting had to do with the dearth of bees and other beneficial insects, I’m cautiously optimistic about this year’s crops.

    First, our bees are back! Where they disappeared to last year I can’t say, but this year the garden is literally crawling with pollinating insects (including our resident hummingbirds). More importantly, fruit is setting like mad on the fruit trees. The orange trees didn’t have much to say for themselves last year, but this year there are literally dozens upon dozens of small green oranges on them. Same story with the plum tree. I did spend some time last year putting in plants rumored to attract bees and butterflies, but I’m not sure this is related to the visits—few of them are in bloom right now. So it may just be a fluke (though hopefully one that’s not going away anytime soon!)

    This guy is a honey bee (I think) but we've seen no fewer than four different types of bees---plus a bunch of parasitic wasps, which is exciting!

    This guy is a honey bee (I think) but we've seen no fewer than four different types of bees---plus a bunch of parasitic wasps, which is exciting!

    We also had a mini heatwave this week, and the squash and tomatoes are basking in it. The arugula is even trying to bolt—and it’s only April!

    Greens---yum! (I snapped this before the Oakland heat record was shattered on Monday when we hit a whopping 88 degrees....these plants are even larger now!)

    Greens---yum! (I snapped this last weekend, before the Oakland heat record was shattered on Monday when we hit a whopping 88 degrees....these plants are even larger now!)

    But my favorite find, nestled in my fennel plant, was this little bugger.

    Anise swallowtail caterpillar

    It's an anise swallowtail caterpillar!

    A bit of digging on the Internet revealed that he’s an anise swallowtail caterpillar, and pretty common in California. After reading that they typically infest a plant, I went back to look. Sure enough, there were several other very, VERY tiny caterpillars eating up my fennel! Unfortunately, the fennel hasn’t been doing so well, and while I’m happy to sacrifice it to the butterflies, I have a feeling they’ll run out of fennel long before they’re ready to pupate. For now I’m leaving them there, since apparently in this very early stage, they just eat and eat and don’t move around a whole lot, so it’s a safe bet that (barring a hungry bird) they’ll still be there when you come back. But if they make it to being beautiful big caterpillars, I’m contemplating bringing them inside for a butterfly-raising adventure. (Apparently their foods of choice are anise, fennel, dill, parsley, carrots, parsnips, Queen Anne’s lace, seaside angelica, and—augh!—citrus trees. I don’t really want them eating up my dill seedlings or my parsley, and definitely not the citrus, so once they start wandering, it could be hazardous to the rest of the yard.)

    Now that I know they’re out there, though, I’ll be putting in a lot more fennel plants this year—even if we don’t get super bulbs from them, it would be wonderful to have some nesting space for these guys.

    And in miscellaneous other garden news:

    Yes, those are teeny tiny grapes on there---our first crop!

    Yes, those are teeny tiny grapes on there---our first crop!

    We’re on track to start harvesting the loquats this week, with the cherries, plums, and pluots following late next month. (Sadly, this will be our last cherry crop for now—we took one tree out this winter, and the other tree is deathly ill with bacterial canker, which is contagious, so it will go sometime later this year too. Next winter, we’ll be in the market for a new cherry tree or two, though, so there should be some fun market taste testing in the offing this spring!) Strawberries, blueberries, and the breba fig crop should show up in June or July, and by mid-summer we’ll be rolling in apples. Hard to believe, but we’re already more than halfway to this year’s persimmon season, too!


    Rain barrels!

    April 17, 2009

    We finally have some! Or rather, we have three wine barrels sitting in the garage waiting to be made into rain barrels. This is a project I’ve been procrastinating on for a while, mostly because I couldn’t find any rain barrels I liked and D. wanted to try making them ourselves from recycled wine barrels. Took a while to find the right barrels at the right price, but suddenly, up popped a great deal on Craigslist—a guy from the North Bay who was selling wine barrels for $40 a pop and would deliver them to Oakland for free. (Yes, technically you can get them for free from the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, but it’s a pain to try to find and then move them, and well worth the $40 to not have to rent a truck….plus, everyone else selling them nearby wanted more like $75 or $100 each. The guy we bought ours from was terrific, though, so if you’re in the market for them, let me know and I can send along his contact info.)

    So anyway. Rain barrels. We already had some ideas on how to do the conversion, and as an added bonus, the guy we bought them from sent along some instructions and recommendations after I mentioned that we planned to use them for that. Here’s what we plan to do—I’m posting this beforehand partly to see if anyone has any good suggestions on things to change in our plan. Once we actually do it, I’ll follow up with pictures (and, I imagine, lots of lessons learned….)

    If we’re lucky, our barrels will turn out looking something like this one, created by some DIYers in Penticton, BC, or the one below, made by Used Wine Barrels up in Sacramento County.

    This is not as pretty as the Penticton version, but for some reason WordPress does not want to let you see it.

    This is not as pretty as the Penticton version, but for some reason WordPress doesn't want to let you see that one...

    You can either make a rain barrel a closed system (just the barrel and the gutter) or an open system (with an overflow tube that allows water to flow off). We’re mixing and matching a bit. The barrels connected directly to the gutters will be closed systems with special gutter attachments that automatically redirect the overflow back into the gutter. This is mostly because our drainage system is underground and paved over, so it’s non-trivial to direct an overflow tube into the drain. (D. thinks we could just let it flow down the garden path, but that doesn’t seem wise when there’s an easy solution.) I also want one rain barrel over near the veggie bed, though, so it won’t be connected to a gutter—instead, it will just be a plain old rain-from-the-sky collection device, and it will need an overflow tube. (There’s not really room for it against the house where the gutter comes down, sadly, though I might try to find a skinny one someday to squish in there.) I haven’t decided whether to put one in the front yard yet; the gutter there also comes down in an awkward spot, so I’ll see how the system in back goes first.

    Oh, and also unique about the backyard barrels: we will have two barrels connected to one another with a hose in order to allow water to flow between the two, and will eventually be connecting the second barrel to the drain from the washing machine, which is on the other side of the garage wall. Right now I think the wisest way to do this is to connect the barrels at the bottom and set them on a slight grade so that water flows down into the second barrel by default, but I may change my mind about that as the project progresses. There’s still some finagling to do with this (namely, removing the shingles and drilling through the garage wall, which is a little scary!) but eventually, we will have a wannabe-graywater system set up. We will also be switching to Oasis laundry detergent so that we can use the water on the plants without worry (not that our current Trader Joe’s natural detergent is all that brutal, but still playing it safe!) I’ll probably still stick to using this water for non-edibles for now, though.

    Tentative list of tools and supplies:

    • Concrete blocks for barrels to sit on
    • 3/4″ hose bib brass spigot (or another spigot of your choosing) that will clear the width of the barrel
    • 3/4″ overflow valve with appropriate ends to connect to a hose or other outward-bound device [this may need to be bigger if it’s your primary overflow device and you have a large roof surface!]
    • Rubber washers and locknuts if you plan to connect the spigot and valve from the inside
    • 15/16″ spade drill bit (or appropriate size for the spigot you plan to use)
    • Mesh to cover openings
    • Silicone caulking
    • Needle nose pliers
    • Drill

    Tentative instructions:

    1. Use the drill bit to drill a hole near the base of each barrel, and attach a spigot. The tentative plan is to screw this in with caulking to avoid having to take the top off the barrel; the backup (and more likely!) plan is to take the top off, place a rubber washer on the back, and screw a locknut on from the other side to hold the spigot.
    2. Caulk the spigot (and in this case, also the corks in the side holes that attached to the wine paraphernalia).
    3. For barrels with overflow hoses or attachments, drill a hole near the top of the barrel’s side and attach an overflow hose, directing it into a drainage system or rain garden. Repeat steps above to attach the overflow valve.
    4. Attach the gutter system, either by drilling a hole into the top of the barrel and inserting a diverter hose from the gutter, or by drilling a large hole and setting a gutter extension on top of it. In either case, the hole needs to be screened to prevent gunk from flowing into the barrel.

    Does this sound like it will work? Is hoping that I won’t have to take the top of the barrel off just a pipe dream? We’ll see….I’ll post some photos as we move forward with this project, as well as some tried-and-true instructions if (when!) the project succeeds.

    More Rain Barrel Links
    Not the DIY type? TerraCycle sells converted oak barrels that are apparently made in Stockton (or so says the Chron)
    Step-by-Step: Converting Wine Barrels to Rain Barrels
    (Life is Good in Penticton)
    Harvesting the Water with Rain Barrels
    (This Old House)
    Rain Barrel Capacity and Design
    (James City County, VA)


    Backyard archaeology

    April 1, 2009

    Last weekend, D. finally finished up a project that’s been hanging over us for months: hacking out the gigantic Bird of Paradise in our backyard.

    One of the raised beds, early in the season

    (The Bird of Paradise is in the back)

    It’s beautiful, and was one of the things we really loved about our house when we chose it….but that was back before we knew how much of a monster it was! Bird of paradise plants are supposed to be divided regularly over the years; from what we can tell, this one never was, and it had grown into a massive clump of roots that was slowly tearing up the concrete patio and just generally looking raggedy (all while blooming its heart out). Much as we loved the flowers, it had to go. (Don’t worry—we’re transplanting the sections into several other safer spots in the yard!)

    So D. has been slowly working away at this project for months now, and a few weeks ago, finally started to make real progress when he broke through to to the earth below in one corner. He spent César Chávez Day gouging out the rest of the huge root ball, and finally succeeded. (The baby tangerine tree behind him is what’s going into the BoP spot in the garden—it’s a dwarf tree, so it won’t have any plans for garden domination.)

    The proud digger, with the prize

    The proud digger, with the prize

    Looks rather small in this photo, but that’s after this:

    Green bin full of Bird of Paradise

    Green bin full of Bird of Paradise

    ….and this:

    More Bird of Paradise

    More Bird of Paradise

    In all, D. dug out pounds and pounds of Bird of Paradise root, about a six-foot-by-six-foot spread. He also found roots from the spider plants he spent last year digging out, the apple tree, and some mystery plant with bright pink succulent-looking roots.

    The old wall

    The old wall, falling apart

    More interestingly, though, he unearthed the old footprint of a stone garden edge, and discovered that our brick path actually runs underneath the concrete steps, so it was probably there before the concrete for the patio was laid. That concrete has the names of the children who lived here in the 1940s and early 1950s etched into it, so I’m guessing it’s pretty old, though someone may have built the garden walls up after that point to terrace the beds. We haven’t decided whether to leave the stones exposed or not; if we do, we’ll need to build a new edge for the patio, since right now the bottom of the concrete is exposed (since the little wall built on top of the stones created a little raised bed to make it level with the patio).

    The hidden edge

    The hidden stones

    And par for the course, there were lots of interesting finds in the piles of dirt that came up. We seem to find knick knacks every time we dig, which I guess isn’t surprising for a 94-year-old house in an urban area.

    Here’s this weekend’s stash:

    This weekend's findings

    This weekend's findings

    That would be one antique rusty light socket, several white ceramic hex tiles, one wooden alphabet block, one sailor (?) figurine, some glass that seems to be from a drinking glass of some sort (very thin and curved), and miscellaneous mysterious plastic pieces of something. The hex tile is particularly interesting—there was a lot of it, so it must have come from a project of some sort, but we don’t have any in the house now. Hmmm.

    And last but not least, I did indeed do something while D. was busy digging! Spring starts went into the two raised vegetable beds at long last, since the weather’s warming up here. We’re still waiting for the new tomato bed to arrive—I ended up having a large planter made after I realized it wouldn’t cost much more than the wood itself—so those won’t go in until the end of the month. But it’s a start, at least! Here’s hoping for a successful season this year.

    The hidden edge



    Winter gardens

    January 28, 2009

    Our winter garden is trudging along, although a lot more slowly than I’d like. (We got a late start on our summer garden this year, in part because I got a late start on building our raised beds; consequently, the winter garden is also running a bit behind, and our carrots and celery are still teeny-tiny.) Since the February Sunset just arrived with its detailed instructions on all the junk I’m supposed to be doing in the garden before spring arrives, I figured I should actually start doing some of it….even if it is feeling awfully wintry right now (for California, at least—we hit freezing and cracked out the mittens and scarves, which is a rarity around here!)

    Teeny tiny carrots---grow, won't you!!

    Teeny tiny carrots---grow, won't you!!

    Here’s what’s happening in our garden right now:

    • Our fruit trees are all getting professional haircuts. The persimmons in particular had a very rough year, and we lost three large boughs to either the abundance of fruit or (more likely) the abundance of raccoons eating the abundance of fruit. (Our current raccoon tenants are a family of five—yes, that’s five!—who are now just about full-grown.) Last year I pruned all the trees myself, but that clearly didn’t work out so well! I’ll still do the fig, plum, and pluot trees on my own, but I’m leaving the big boys to the pros. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the cherries have some drought damage.
    • We bid a final farewell to the tomato and pepper plants. I left the eggplant there, since it has a new blossom—it hasn’t produced a single eggplant all season, though, so that’s probably wishful thinking. In the spring, all of these plants (or rather, their successors) are moving to their new home against our south-facing breakfast room wall in the hopes that they’ll get better sun there, and maybe produce more than a handful of fruit.
    • We’re getting a new blueberry bush and two new raspberry bushes to replace the ones that didn’t make it, and an elderflower bush so I can make elderflower syrup next summer. Yum!
    • The big vegetable bed just got a new half-inch drip irrigation system that will hopefully work better than the old quarter-inch one. While I was at it, I tested the soil, which came up as fine on potassium but not so hot on nitrogen or phosphorus, so it’s been supplemented accordingly. I’m going to try transplanting the winter crops that are there and maybe they’ll enjoy the new dirt, but we may have to sacrifice them.
    Winter garden

    Winter garden with old drip system


    Broccoli, trying really hard

    Where’s the new drip system, you ask?? I wondered the same thing myself, since I swore I snapped a photo of it….but apparently I got sidetracked along the way. Here’s what it looked like pre-install, though:

    New watering system!

    New watering system!

    It came in a kit from Lee Valley Tools, a great gardening supply place. (They also have awesome cabinetry and other DIY supplies.) Will it work? Who knows…..but I’ll probably post occasional updates as we get into the growing season for real, since I’m determined to actually get the garden growing this year! (On the upside, the artichokes we planted right after we moved in are looking very, very happy right now….small victories!)