Friday, April 29, 2011

Sweet surprises and possible massacres

What's not to love about sweetpea? They have beautiful flowers in a variety of colors. They can be free standing (bush-type), though many are climbers, but as annuals they never get invasive or heavy enough to overwhelm a structure, and their flowers smell devine.  This year, I have figured out that in California the seeds must be planted in the autumn and not, as many seed packets, suggest early spring.  The ones above were planted in October.  The ones below were planted in February! This year I'm planting all my sweetpea in September.
And peas (for eating) don't fair much better when planted in February - it simply gets too hot too quickly here.
Yet, the lettuce have been thriving this year. I have a forest of them in the raised beds, and I have some in pots at the backdoor as ornamentals! On Easter Sunday, I provided a mixed leaf salad for 14 dinner guests, had a pile left over and still there was not even a dent in the garden from where I'd harvested them.
There have been many garden related surprises this week.  I won a prize in the Sustainable Living competition over at the Thanks for Today blog. Thanks to Jan for running the competition. I am very excited because I never seem to win anything - much appreciated!

Another fabulous surprise this week was the appearance of the Milkweed shoot in the native garden. I'd almost given up hope that this root would grow but on Easter Morning (appropriately enough!) it poked its shoots out of the soil and is still going strong. As I was out in the garden taking that photo (in my pjs) the garden was full of joyous birdsong. It was as if all of creation knew it was Easter Sunday!
Then another plant that I had given up on poked its shoots through the soil too - asparagus!  It will be a couple of years before I can harvest this, but I really had thought that the crowns I'd planted had simply died. 
I have  beautiful show of the native plant chinese houses, and I was interested to see a color variation in the midst of the the purple and white flowers, one of the plants has completely white blossom!
I had read somewhere that bush anemone was great for brightening up a shady corner of the garden. Well, I have not been disappointed...
One of the best parts of the Master Gardeners program is the tremendous people you meet in the organization.  One day while re-potting tomatoes at their research ranch, Nine Palms, I got chatting to the wonderful Nella.  I happened to mentioned that I was in the process of putting in a succulent garden in the strip of land between my driveway and Karla and Al's yard.  She invited me to come see her succulent garden (read vast, fabulous collection) and that she would give me some "pups" to help me along.

She followed up the verbal invite with an email and detailed directions to her house - many people issue invites but never follow it up. I was mega-impressed.

Well, she lives way up in the hills with a spectacular view of Santa Clara Valley.  Nella's generosity, the over-cast day and green fields made me feel right at home - I could have been visiting any number of relatives in Ireland. Nella keeps bee's and chickens and had recently rescued three adorable kittens, which she kept in a pen with three equally adorable baby bunny rabbits. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!

She sent me home with three boxes of succulents which have filled out that patch of land (with the help of my red lava stones!) beautifully.
She even gave me some quite mature/large succulents.  And as if that wasn't enough, she arrived in to Initial Training with three variegated succulents that she had forgotten to give me on Monday.  Thank you so much Nella. Every time I look at my succulent garden I will be reminded of your generosity and of the generosity of spirit that exists within the gardening community, especially Master Gardeners.
Then another surprise - Al came out to admire my work and informed me that my property stretched over another 2-3 feet - I'd assumed the decorative rocks on the left to be Al's property.  I was another 14 square feet richer.  Al did point out that the weeds there were also belonged to me!

But alas, I have to leave you on a less uplifting note. I found the bush tit nest slashed open. Inside was empty, bar the soft downy feathers the parents had lined this cozy wee nest with.
I am so hoping that someone will leave me a comment that says something like "So that's okay - when the young are old enough they just burst right thought the walls of that little 'ole nest!"

It was on the ground yesterday, and I saw a cat in the garden.  I'm thinking cat, crow or even squirrels could be the culprits - unless the baby birds really did pull an Incredible Hulk style escape.

I suppose not all surprises can be good, and I've done well this week, but after we lost the baby bird last year I fear that I may never have the pleasure of watching little fledglings leave the nest healthy and happy.

Byddi Lee

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Bunny time!

Did you know that the Easter Bunny poops Jelly Beans? So I am reliably informed by my four-year-old chum, David. He has it on high authority that the colors of each jelly bean are attributed to the food the Easter Bunny eats beforehand. If he eats bananas you get yellow ones, strawberries give you red ones and grapes, purple ones.  His older sister, Allison (7), also confirms this and added that the green ones are a result from eating apples - but only green apples, of course!
As a religious holiday, I feel that Easter is a much more important holiday than Christmas even.  Personally, I prefer it to Christmas, ironically, because it has less fuss and pressure than Christmas time and also because the Easter message is reflected in nature - a time of renewal, rebirth, re-growth.  Of course, this is why the Church decided to place this festival at this particular time of year. It paralleled the pagan celebration of spring time and I suppose the early Christians reckoned, if you can beat 'em join 'em. 

It is the ethos of hope that circulates at this time of year that I find so uplifting. Hope that the winter is over, hope that there is a light at the end of dark tunnels, hope that the struggle through hard times leads to triumph. And what better way to display this than by a big show of blossom!

Speaking of hope, it never fails to amaze me how the Irish look forward to summer. More often than not it doesn't come, yet every year, at this time, the shops are filled with skimpy clothes that make me shiver just to look at them.  My friends and family repeat the mantra every year, "We're getting a heat wave this summer."  Alas, usually the only heat wave is waving goodbye!

A late Easter means a better chance for warm weather over the holiday. So this year I'm praying that the weather back home is positively glorious. May they be bathed in sunshine for the whole week, and get completely lobstered!  (Lobstered = the result of Irish people on a sunbathing binge!) In Ireland the measure of a good time on holiday is the depth of color your skin goes - be it brown or red. Here's how we sunbath in Ireland - its lovely until the sun goes behind a cloud - then it's Baltic! That's my sister and I trying to sunbathe in Donegal (of all places!) a couple of years ago.

Not that I'm wishing mm Irish friends and family skin damage. But no-where on this planet (not even California) is a beautiful as a sunny Irish day, with the gorse bush in full bloom, the coco-nutty scent wafting over the green fields amid a deafening birdsong soundtrack.
When I was a kid the Easter Bunny came on Sunday morning and left chocolate eggs. Biologically speaking that is a bit messed up...rabbits don't lay eggs, but in our chocolate dazed state we never argued the point. We'd also get eggs from our aunties and uncles, and we'd keep a tally of how many eggs we got. I loved coming down to the kitchen on Easter Sunday morning and see all the eggs laid out for us. It was like an Easter version of Santa.

We were told in school that the egg represented new life and also was told that it symbolised the tomb that Jesus arose from, but to be honest, I could never see the resemblane of a tomb with a chocolate egg, so that whole anology was lost on me. Life renewed is good enough for me, especially symbolized in chocolate!

Easter Sunday dinner will held at our house this year, and because we were having my young friends David and Allison over we decided we'd have an egg hunt in the garden.  After trying five different shops I discovered that Americans do not, in fact, do the whole chocolate egg thing. After years of taking them for granted I sorely missed the aisle of eggs at home churned out by every confectionery bar - Maltesers eggs, marathon eggs, buttons eggs, galaxy eggs (oh stop me now - I think I'm drooling on my keyboard!)  Each brand produces a hollow chocolate egg accompanied by cute miniatures of themselves, e.g. tiny wee mars bars inside the chocolate egg. But not here!

On the other hand the Americans are not short on confectionery (just short on good confectionary - sorry US guys but it hurts me more than it hurts you - at least you don't know what you're missing!) After some research - asking what do you do here - I discovered that you can buy plastic eggs to put candy in.  That way they don't melt when you hide them in the garden - never a problem in Ireland! There is also an abundance of chocolate rabbits.  Perhaps the Americans have it right - of course the Easter Bunny wouldn't lay eggs but rather have chocolate baby bunnies!  I plundered the local supermarket and reckon I have enough for an egg hunt now...

The cashier asked me now many children I was catering for. She was a little taken aback when I informed her there were only two. I hastily added that there would be 12 grownups who would help them out. Personally I can't wait!

I'll leave you with this re-enactment of my favorite Easter Email joke. I cracks me up every year. I can't explain why it tickles me so much and my husband always says, "Yes, it's funny but not that funny." I actually bought these bunnies last year and bit the pieces out of them and carried on an adult version of our childhood tradition by leaving these at my husbands place at the kitchen table so he'd see them when he came down for breakfast.
 Happy Easter everyone - I hope you feel your life renewed and at least your sweet tooth satisfied.

Byddi Lee

Friday, April 15, 2011

The only way is up, baby. (Think Yazz!)

Here's what I did wrong last year:
  1. I had no planting plan and shoved things in where ever I could find a space.
  2. I planted my warm season veggies too early.
  3. I forgot to label a lot of things after I put them into the raised beds.
  4. I neglected to mulch the plants.
  5. I gave my plants no support. (I mean the trellis kind not the cheer leading kind!)
This year is going to be oh-so different - I aim to have a tomato forest and a cucumber jungle! After making a couple of jars of pickles last year, I was determined to expand my pickling enterprise.  I planted about 24 pickling cucumber seeds, 13 Parisian Pickling cucumbers and  7 De Bourban cucumbers -all carefully labeled, sprouted.  I gave a couple away at a Master Gardener plant swap, but I intend to use most of the rest.  I find it hard to not call them pickle plants, as technically they are cucumbers.
I decided that I would be a good little Master Gardener Trainee, and one wet Sunday afternoon, (it's California - there was only one wet Sunday afternoon where it was so wet it kept me out of the garden!) I sat down and drew out plans for all my seven raised beds.  I worked out how many plants of each kind I could squeeze into the plots by using the guidelines given to me in the class on growing vegetables.  I'm surprised at how much I can squeeze in there.

Here's how I plan to plant the pickle cucumber plants. (Each bed is 8 feet by 5 feet - coincidentally the same size as the rug on the living room floor!)
Each dot is the precise position of where I shall plant my seed/seedling.  Here's another that I did for the pole beans, and you can see the scale is worked out on it.
I won't bore you with diagrams of the other five beds.  I have one that is all tomatos and another that is all winter squash. I am dreaming big for this years summer garden.

The hardest part is not planting the stuff too early. My sunroom is my "holding" area, and I sense that the plants are as impatient as I am.  Its hard too because to me the weather is gorgeous.  Hot, sunny, whats not to love? But if you are a pepper plant you'd find it a bit chilly! (Pardon the pun!) Also my winter garden is tardy, and I'm waiting to harvest my potatoes to make room for my wonderful plan...

As for labels - I gave up trying to make them from old yogurt cartons and actually bought some in the garden center.  Let's hope that helps keep me motivated.

I'm mulching like there's no tomorrow. I bought the compost, as I've still not mastered the alleged 4 weeks-if-you-turn-it-every-day technique in either of my compost bins. They're too slow for me to use all the time..

But my crowing glory this week is my trellis creations! Pickles cucumbers grow great on a trellis, so my husband and I went searching for something to support them and the pole beans. Ready made trellises in the garden center were too small for the job and cost $40 - $50 each.  We estimated we needed 4 of them. Plus, we couldn't fit them in our car to take home, so we'd have to pay for delivery on top of that.

At home, I went on line to price them and came across a host of websites that suggested making them yourself.  Some showed bamboo lashed together and then, wham - it hit me!  As those years as a Girl Guide had not indeed been wasted. I still know my knots and lashings inside and out and back to front and round the big tree. I'd turn my geeky past into a cool gardening feature.

We sourced a pack of 50 bamboo poles, 8 feet long (perfect for the beds) and 3/4 inch wide for $70. I spent another $15 on special string for lashing bamboo and $15 on shipping - Ta da!
A clove hitch.
As I knelt on the lawn tying my first clove hitch, inhaling the smell of the grass and hearing the birds tweeting in the trees, I was transported back 30  20 okay 30 years (who am I trying to kid!) to summer camp when we would set up our tents for a week and construct our "gadgets" in the area around them.  These ranged from simple tables to elaborate picnic table style affairs with built in benches.

Our leaders are amazing women who taught us mostly about how to be useful and good people in this world, how to laugh in the face of adversity and get on with things no matter how tedious the job. I'm thinking of all those times I've had to scrub with a Brillo pad those billy cans that had been blackened by the camp fire flames. Of course, after about five years of doing this, some bright spark came up with the great idea of smearing Fairy Liquid on the outside and the black stuff simply wiped off.  Subsequently, all our food tasted of the green soap suds but, hey, it was better than scrubbing them in cold water after dinner!
Diagonal lashings - as opposed to square lashings - are my preference.  I can still imagine one of the leaders popping up to inspect my lashing - making sure they are sturdy enough, neat enough and finished with a clove hitch. My husband did the QA instead, though he was only looking at the sturdiness.

The result - A Super Trellis. Okay, it's a weird shape, because I couldn't bear to cut my lovely bamboo poles in half, and if they reach higher than three feet even better - it's an extend-able trellis!
The pole beans trellis is two tripods(constructed with a tripod lashing) supporting a cross bar.  I attached the vertical bamboos using a modified snake lashing.

You could just use string too but I was showing off! I bought tomato cages and have some more support stuff from last year, so I'll get as much vertical gardening done this year as possible.

Byddi Lee

Thursday, April 7, 2011

This one's for you Daddy xo

Flowers always make me smile, especially when they remind me of loved ones.  The last present my Daddy gave me before he died was a bunch of pink tulips.  He apologized that his birthday present that year was so simple. He was battling cancer, and losing, and I cherished them as if they were made of gold. Sadly, he passed before they dropped their last petal.  His third anniversary is on Sunday, and I still think about him every day.  I wish he was here to talk to,  at least on the other end of the phone.  He never saw my new life in California.  He'd love the weather but hate the social life - Silicon Valley - bedtime by 11pm!

I think he'd be proud of the work I've done in the garden.  Well, I'm proud of the work I've done in this garden. No false modesty here.
Daddy's favorite flower was a daffodil. It's the only flower that I ever recall seeing him plant.  Shorty before he died, he told me that it lifted his heart to see them blossom.

"The summer's nearly here, things are always easier in the warmer days and bright evenings," he told me.  He never saw that summer.

Mummy is the gardener in our house.  While she grew vegetables and beautiful flower beds, Daddy built a cacophony of sheds on the property surrounding our new house, from building materials he had salvaged from the old house before they demolished it.  Each shed had a name that bore testimony to the family's sense of humor.

There was the "Tenko" house - built from green corrugated tin (and not to be confused with the greenhouse), one really hot summer that saw us all wearing bikinis and sunburn (except Daddy - he was in shorts and sunburn!) so that we looked like the cast from the TV drama about British women taken prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war.

There was the "IC3620" hut - just a shed with the number plate of Daddy's first ever car nailed to the door. 

We had the best tree house ever - built so high up an old elm tree that Mummy was afraid to go up the wobbly ladder to it. Kids these days would never be allowed in such a precarious structure - but we loved it.

But my favorite was the "Pavillion."  he actually bought new materials for this one. It was a wooden structure with a glass front and a porch.

There was the barn (it was there already - he didn't build it) and the storeroom and the boy's kitchen(don't ask!) and a couple of plain old sheds - from aerial pictures we must have looked like a small city!

When I bought my first house in Belfast, Daddy came and fashioned a lean-to shed onto the back door.  After several leaky years, we had to take it down again!

However, I did learn some valuable gardening tips from him. It wasn't that he actually said the words, "Never leave your rake lying with the prongs sticking up."  Instead, he told the story (he was an excellent story teller) about a guy who worked for him who stood on the prongs of the rake. Not only did the rake go through the poor guy's foot, but the shaft shot up and hit him in the face, busting his nose.  When the hapless fellow saw the blood, he fainted, landing in the wheel barrow that was sitting behind him.  His co-workers simply wheeled him to the office in the barrow, to tell Daddy what had happened. I'm very careful how about how and where I set my rake.

All very good advice when you consider all the raking of red lava rock I've been doing lately. Finally, it is all gone thanks to a few Master Gardeners taking it for potting up their succulents.
I think making little paths is to me what building sheds was to Daddy.  I couldn't help myself here.  Now, I'm ready for the compost and the wood chips. Oh great - another giant heap of woodchips in the driveway... my muscles ache at the thought.
Hopefully, once I have the wood chip mulch down, I won't need to buy in so much fertilizer for the orchard. Even if it is organic fertilizer, the compost and mulch make this project much more sustainable.  For more sustainable gardening ideas and a chance to win some gardening prizes have a look at Jan's Thanks for Today gardener's sustainable living project 2011.  Always lots of great ideas there.

The native shade garden at the other side of the house is coming into its own.
Coral Island Bells (Heuchera Maxima)
California wood straberry (Fragaria californica)

California Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

One last thing -  I noticed whilst raking the red lava rock that there was a lot of junk amid the stone.  It certainly reinforces what I always say - gardening ruins your nails!

Byddi Lee

Friday, April 1, 2011

Going nuts in the garden

Our two year old almond tree has reacted very well to the removal of the red lava rock and the underlying black plastic by pushing out a promising harvest. Of course, we will have to arm-wrestle the squirrels for these almonds, but it's good to know that there is a remote possibility of us getting to taste our own home grown almonds - if I can figure out how and when to harvest any that are left!

The week of wet weather followed by this weeks glorious summer like weather has stimulated a burst of growth, blossom and scent for the garden.  The orange tree, heavy now with blossom, grows outside our bathroom window, and we get free scented air by simply opening the window.  I've never before noticed how gorgeous the smell of orange blossom is. 
At the front door we are welcomed by the perfume of jasmine from a clipping I started just last summer.
I wish there was a way to let you smell them!

Out in the native garden there has been good news and bad!  Thankfully, more good than bad - of the twenty-seven native plants that we bought and planted, only three didn't make it! 

The showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) never grew from the dormant tuber/root that we purchased, but we hold on to hope that some day we will see green shoots above it's planted spot.

The desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi) blossomed during the winter but then seems to have died.  Again - you never know - it may still come back.

But the Silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons) will sadly never come back having been eaten by slugs.  All that is left is the plant tag!

I mourned the passing of the California sword fern (Polystichum munitum) until I discovered what may be a prothallus -a lifecycle stage, from which it may regenerate... or that may just be a weed! We'll see...

The desert willow (Chilopisis linearis) also worried me, but I think this little tree is going to make it.

And speaking of little trees, my dwarf California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is looking great, and so cute at only 18 inches high.
Last month, the Manzanita (Aectostaphylos bakeri) sported its beautiful bell shaped blossoms, and is still looking happy, though the blossoms have now finished.
I'm looking forward to my clarkia  blooming - I have a wall of it.
One or two have blossomed - if these are anything to go by it should be quite the show!

Right now the Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica) steals the show.
Closely followed by these gorgeous Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla).
The Bush Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) has started to blossom too, you can just make out the flowers in the bottom left of the picture.
And here is the blue-eye grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) which is not a grass, but an iris, and if you look closely you'll see it does not have blue eyes, rather it has yellow ones.

The following plants are making promising progress and I hope to see them bloom this year too. I feel like I have the canvas, the paint and the outline drawn - now all I have to do it let it all grow up and fill in.

Chapparal Clematis (Clematis lasiantha)

A tiny but healthy Redbud Cercis occidentalis

California evening primrose (Oenthra Californica)

Scarlet Penstemon (Penstemon centranthifolia)
And even if these never blossom their foliage smells great.  I have them near the path so you can smell them as you walk by. This one is known as "Cowboy cologne."

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)

Coyote Mint (Monardela villosa)

I have a ton more photos but I decided to post them when they are in bloom.  Hopefully, I'll be posting year round!

And if you are wondering why I'm posting this so late this week - blame Master Gardeners!  Tomorrow is the highly anticipated Spring Garden Market. I'm on the welcome table at the south gate - if you are in the neighborhood drop by and say hi!

Byddi Lee