Friday, October 18, 2013

OMG - GMO!

The easiest part of this blog was the title. Which is in fact somewhat misleading because GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, when actually I want to share with you may musings on genetically engineered organisms. So, whats the difference?

GMO is a broader term - it includes organisms that have been bred by traditional means - I used to own a GMO. She was a cute West Highland Terrier...and I still miss her. It's not just pedigree dogs that are GMOs, I'd go so far as to say that all modern domestic dogs are GMO. Their genes have been modified by selective breeding by humans. To that end, all of our farm produce is also GMO - all domesticated from a ancestral wild-type and bred for favorable traits.

It also covers organisms that have been exposed to radiation that causes mutations in their genes (yes, this is has also been a field of genetic research) and of course genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering, actually recombining the DNA of an organism to change the gene sequence, can be thought of as a sub-group of GMO. I believe that most people who claim to be anti-GMO really mean that they are against genetic engineered crops. I can't blame folk for being unable to articulate clearly what it is they are protesting about. The whole world of genetic engineering  is a minefield of facts, half truths, exaggerations and outright lies - on both sides of the debate.

I've been reluctant to jump into the debate because I feel that both sides have been trying to manipulate us, yet the theory behind genetic engineering is absolutely fascinating and its potential to provide nutritional food to a growing human population - 9.5 billion by 2050 - is hard to ignore.

I studied genetics during the first year of my Environmental Biology degree and feel that I have a fairly sound idea of the theory of how gene insertion takes place. I can describe how the blueprints of an organism are stored in  chromosomes, long strings of DNA coiled up in the the nuclei of our cells. I can explain how these long strings of DNA carry genes, a code for the cells to join amino acids together so that proteins can be formed. These proteins then make up our enzymes, hormones and cell structures. One change in the sequence of the gene code changes a protein. That has a knock on effect of changing the shape of the enzyme and thus affecting it's function.

I can draw you diagrams to explain how the gene for human insulin is inserted into bacteria which "tricks " the bacteria  into producing insulin which is harvested and used to treat diabetes. It's really not a complex theory once you understand how DNA works and codes for proteins...it's like playing with lego really and by far the simplest facet of this whole thing.

In the same way, I also understand the basic theory of the derivation of nuclear energy ... but do I want nuclear power in my world? Yes and no. Yes if we could be guaranteed no accidents and safe waste storage until its radioactivity has dissipated. It produces no carbon dioxide and could meet the increasing demand for energy without the same impact on climate as burning fossil fuels has caused.

I really do think that genetic engineering is to the biology world what nuclear power is to the physics world - highly contentious, highly emotive and, in reality, a great solution to some really huge problems, but also with the potential to cause even more problems.

In an ideal world, lies could not be posted online (nor even told at all), people would be working wholeheartedly for the benefit of all, and there would be no hidden agendas. But that's not our reality. So what to believe? It boils down to two things - does genetic engineering harm our health directly and does it adversely impact our environment. Genetic engineering to produce insulin for diabetics is an easy argument - It works,  it's safe for humans and it won't damage the environment because it can be contained inside a lab until the finished product is purified and ready for use.

As for the genetically engineered crops debate - some people claim that if we eat GMO food (I think they mean genetically engineered!) we could incorporate the transplanted gene into our own genes and then mutate into... what? Monsters? OMG!

However, this is an outrageous claim, since we take DNA into our bodies all the time from other organisms - it simply gets broken down in our gut. If this were not the case why aren't we incorporating apple DNA into our cells when we eat an apple, or pig DNA when we eat pork ... and what about if we eat oysters? OMG!

But, I do think we need to worry about other ways our health can be impacted. Allergens and poisons can be inadvertently introduced to the food by accidently adding genes that code for that protein.


Then there's the very real problem of producing a super-organism that is so robust that we cannot actually control it. Even those with less robust features escaping into the wild can cause harm. We have seen this in conventionally bred horticultural species...invasive plants like Pampas grass here in California and rhododendrons in Ireland.

Recently, I attended a Master Gardener talk on genetic engineering. The talk was given by Alan McHughen, Ph.D. He is a molecular geneticist at University of California, Riverside, with an interest in crop improvement and environmental sustainability, he helped develop US and Canadian regulations governing the safety of genetically engineered crops and foods. His credentials are pretty impressive - doctorate at Oxford University, worked at Yale University and the University of Saskatchewan.

I came away thinking that, yes, there is a place for genetically engineered plants in our future (actually they are already here).  According to Dr McHughen, genetically engineered food has not be found to be harmful to humans despite many (over 600) scientific studies that he referenced. 

He addressed the allergen issue and said that it is something they are always testing for. He showed us photographs of the amount of paperwork that needs to be done before a genetically engineered product can declared safe and introduced into the food chain. I was heartened that he at least could admit that there were dangers and limitations to this technology.

It was exciting to see how genetically modified food could be enriched - golden rice for example, enriched with vitamin A to help prevent blindness in the poor areas of the world. Oh what potential there! Can I really campaign against a technology that could benefit so many people who don't have access to good food as I go out to my organic garden to harvest this evenings dinner? Yet, can I promote the same technology knowing that I'm wealthy enough to avoid eating it by growing my own food, and at a push, shopping in Whole Foods (if you buy into the whole marketing farce that is "Organic produce")?

Dr McHughen also made a convincing case for the use of Roundup ready crops on the basis that Roundup is one of the less noxious herbicides available and pointed out that farming conventionally-bred crops also uses herbicides. (And he did state that he does not get any funding from Monsanto - a company easy for us to vilify because of the amount of noxious pesticide it produces, its sheer size and the fact it appears to be heading towards global domination in its field - in many fields- pun intended!) He said that using a genetically engineered crop with a built in pesticide - like Bt corn - may actually reduce the application of pesticides. I did discuss this with a friend and colleague of mine who brought up the case that the Monarch butterfly population is impacted by this type of genetic engineering.

So, as Dr McHughen suggested, I did my own research. He advised us to look at websites that did not end in .com or .org, and try to look at actual scientific studies. When I did, I found two studies that claimed "no significant" impact on the monarch butterfly and one that showed some impact. I haven't had a chance to examine the actual experiment methodology nor even the raw data, so I'm still officially "non the wiser".

Master Gardeners is a great organization for keeping us focused on "What does the science say?" Today, online, we were discussing counter-arguments to some of Dr McHughen's claims. It appears he may have "omitted" some truths. That's disheartening.

One of the Master Gardeners suggested this link... it's not an official Master Gardener standpoint, and it's a .org site. At the end of the day, I find myself going round in circles trying to get to the bottom of all the conflicting claims. 

I think that in the future, we will need a combination of conventionally bred and genetically engineered crops, but each individual gene insertion needs to be rigorously researched. We need to be able to trust that research too. It's hard to trust research made by big corporations who have lots to gain by passing the safety criteria. On the other hand, it's easy to get sucked into believing conspiracy theories too. It's almost as if it's trendy to be seen to hate big successful corporations like Montasanto, MacDonalds, and even Starbucks!

The most important thing is to keep an open mind, and to try to uncover as many of the facts as possible. Genetic engineering has the potential to be a great way to produce food for our ever-increasing population in the same way that nuclear energy has the potential to solve the problem of our ever escalating energy needs - also a problem caused by over population.

And there is it right there ... perhaps its not the breeding of crops that needs to be examined, but rather the breeding of Homo sapiens. Over population on  a global scale is our biggest problem. By treating the cause of the problem, then we wouldn't even need to worry about how harmful the solutions to the symptoms are. Somehow I can't see anti-GMO protesters going down that route!

Well, with that I've just about melted my own brain - and yours too, I'm sure! Better go now and relax with that new Dan Brown novel ;-)

Byddi Lee

 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How hardscaping got its name.

Hardscaping is hard! It's that part of gardening that doesn't really involve plants or even soil. It's hard on your hands, your back and especially your wallet.

But hardscaping is literally the back bone of the garden design - the rigid backdrop against which the plants will grow and drape themselves.

In June I began the lawn removal journey by solarizing the lawn. So far, so good - not a single weed/plant has grown back, even after that great day of rain we had last week.

I went berserk with spray paints and gave the garden furniture a makeover in July.

In August my friends helped me to build Wee Lee Canyon - a dry creek around the perimeter of the lawn.

September saw the grand hardscaping finale - the pergola and the patio.

I wanted a redwood pergola and the big box stores didn't seem to offer redwood. Plenty of cedar, precut and self assembly that cost way more than buying redwood lumber and getting a real carpenter to build it.  The redwood lumber for the pergola cost so much that I knew it would be foolhardy to attempt to build it myself. Besides,I knew an excellent carpenter who would give me a reasonable price on the labor. My friend, Jimmy Quenelle and his helper Steve did the entire job from start to finish in two days.

Jimmy helped me settle on the design for the pergola and pretty much made it to measure for my yard. He laid concrete foundations for the four posts and sunk steel braces into the concrete. These then held the upright posts so that none of the wood would be touching soil.
This structure is probably sturdier than our house. You can hang a swing from it. In fact, Jimmy and Steve swung hand-over-hand like moneys from it to prove how strong it was. They are both over 6'4! When the big earthquake comes it will be the only thing standing on our property. Jimmy did an amazing job, with great attention to detail, making sure that I got exactly what I had envisioned in my head. If anyone who lives in Santa Clara wants more details, send me a comment (not for publishing online) and I'll put you in touch with him.

With the pergola built, the next step was to get the sandstone pavers. My Husband and I went to Evergreen Supplies, a family run business near us in San Jose. Everyone who works there claims to be one of a squad of brothers...even the girls. Okay, I jest...

A recurring problem with small garden projects like ours is that the shop would not deliver anything smaller than a pallet of pavers and that was more than twice what we needed. So we borrowed a truck from our friends Cathy and Tom (who have just launched a great kickstarter project - click here for more details if you love Lord of the Rings.)

Neither My Husband nor I are very big, so it was with a great deal of effort that we hauled eighteen huge twelve-foot-square slabs of rock home. It took a couple of runs, but we got there in the end.

We'd researched online how to lay pavers. We wanted a more "crazy paving" style with ground cover growing in between the cracks. After much debate we settled on a layer of sand as a base rather than setting them on the bare dirt, or the base gravel, cement foundation rigmarole they talked a lot about. I hope the whole damn thing doesn't disappear when the rains come!
My Husband still marvels at how our giant jig-saw puzzle all seemed to just fit together. What he should really be marveling at is how his wife managed to maneuver them into place by herself when he was at work! It was another one of those days where I thought, "If I had a job I'd not have to do hard labor...if I was in jail I wouldn't have to  work this hard!"

But finally, it was done.
After not one, not two, but three trips to the local DIY store, I had all the bark mulch laid. I really should have measured and calculated rather that cast an eye and guestimated.

The mulch is really just to keep moisture in the soil when I plant it out. Although all the weed seeds were killed in the soil by the solarization, wind-born seeds will have been deposited in the short time the ground has been left bare. You never completely win the war against weeds.

I couldn't decide which of the photos of the finished job was the best so I posted them all.


When the rain comes I'll get to the soft furnishings...plants! I'll probably leave off putting up shade cloth, curtains and furniture until after the winter.

In the meantime I'm looking forward to using the green thumb again!

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The creation of Wee Lee Canyon

The lawn is dead - or perhaps not - we'll know for certain after the rains come, but it sure looks deader than a dead thing, and I'm fairly confident that we've blasted most of those weeds seeds. So now it's time to landscape the area.

I put out a call to some of my girl friends. We'd been discussing how we'd like to try a spot of "Barn Raising." None of us needed a barn but the principle was the same. We'd get a group of us together to work on a project. Then that project host would owe back the time in labor to the various projects of the participants. So I suppose it is more of a labor exchange than a barn raising, but whatever it was, it worked.

On the day before my buddies arrived to help dig the dry creek I'd wanted to build, I laid down an outline of where I wanted to dig and hosed the area down with water so the soil was saturated and easy to dig the next day.
My friend Christal wisely suggested that I should have the wide-end closest to where we did most of our sitting around, and thus cash in on the perspective, so that the far-away side would look thinner and farther from us.

I'd read online that a dry creek needs to be half as wide as it is deep. Mine would be 3 feet wide at it's widest point, and therefore 18 inches deep. In hindsight, since my creek is only for decoration, and I do not anticipate it filling up with water, I could have gotten away with it being less deep but specs were specs and that was how it had to be.
 
Within three hours of girl power, my friends Cathy, Eva and Christal (from left to right in photo) had it dug! I helped too, but as project host, it seemed that I ended up with all the fiddly wee jobs, like putting air in the wheels of the wheelbarrows, (Okay - wheeling the them over to Al's house and asking him to put the air in them) providing water and snacks, and managing where the soil would be dumped - soil seems to expand fourfold when dug up and I used the soil to make a new bed along the back fence...
 

and halfway along the side fence too.
And I was left with a trough in the ground to fill with river rock.
The solarization of the soil only goes down to six inches or so. The bed was three times as deep in its deepest part, so I decided to put down some cardboard to block weeds.
But then I discovered a huge bale of plastic in the shed. I hadn't bought it. It was not saving the planet by not being used and getting wasted sitting my shed. After a lot of soul searching, I decided to use it to prevent the rocks from sinking into the soil after the cardboard had broken down. It was a heavy grade plastic and would most likely still be there a century from now. But it was only a little wee patch of ground really and...See? I'm still trying to convince myself I did the right thing! Put it this way - I wouldn't have gone out and bought the black plastic...I probably don't need it...but...
My next-door-neighbor Al took me to the rock shop to buy the rocks that afternoon. They were delivered the next day...the day that I was sore from digging and the last thing I needed was to shovel rocks!
The pile seemed small and I panicked in case I would run out. This is what $250 of rocks looks like (delivery $65 and taxes included.)

Al (my hero) came over and helped me shovel them into the wheel barrows and dump them in the creek. After two hours the pile had gone.


My back yard neighbor had piles of larger rocks he didn't want and I texted him and asked if  I could use some of these as accent stones and he told me to help myself. My friend Lucy came over and helped me position these heavier ones.

With the help of my friends, I'd built an Dry Creek in 48 hours!
I was plum tuckered!
The following week I added the finishing touches. I ordered a couple of bridges online and painted one red - well if it's good enough for the Golden Gate Bridge...

 It's plainer, sturdier sister, I just varnished so as to appreciate the beauty of the wood grain.

I invited a few of my friends' children to come by and paint trolls, ladybugs, flowers and butterflies on rocks just to  involve the little people in my life. The trolls sit under the bridges and watch for billy goats! Billy goats can really do some damage in a garden you know.
And if you look closely you will even see some gold and silver nuggets in that thar crick bed! What wonderful things we can do with Rusto-leum metallic paints. I was really tempted to paint Al's wheelbarrow gold before I returned it to him and thus award him the coveted gardeners "Golden Wheelbarrow" award but thought better of it - I may need to ask him for it again - but knowing Al he'd have forgiven me for girly-fying his wheelbarrow by then!

The finished product was really something to be proud of.
And so I made a silver plaque to remember everyone who helped me make this happen.


 Thanks again you guys!

Byddi Lee





Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rooms without walls

When the weather is as good as it is here, you tend to use outside as another room or rooms. My grand plan for taking out the lawn involves creating a living room and a dining room outside. Eventually, I will also have an outdoor kitchen, whenever property prices increase and I can justify the investment, or I sell my book and become mega rich and famous, or I win the lottery!

The living room area will be where the lawn was, under a shade structure and bordered on one side by a dry creek bed. That will get started soon, but in the meantime I decided to get the dining room and the firepit area sorted out.

The dining room is the area right outside the back door, mirroring the dining area inside the house and close to the kitchen. Beyond that, the circular part of the patio provides the idea space for the fire pit.

Since so much of the back of the house is windows, I think it important that the furniture looks nice. The furniture we have right now is extremely practical. The table came from Ikea about four years ago. It can double in size, and I've comfortably seated 14 people for dinner around it. But the sun had weathered it to a dull grey/brown color.
It just looked ugly.

Same for the chairs, although they are comfortable, light and easy to move, yet still sturdy. The added bonus - all of them were free.
 
Four years ago, I fished two white ones (left in the photo) and four green ones out of the dumpster at our old apartment just as we were moving to the new house. The four tube metal white ones (right) had been set out for the taking on a nearby kerbside. So I had ten chairs all for free!

I need not feel guilty for throwing this all out and buying in some good stuff.

(In the photo above, take note of the rusty table in the background with the orange pot on it.)

I'd recently bought a bistro set for the front of the house to make the entrance more inviting.
My husband and I had both loved the mosaic tiled table and chairs, but they were too small for what we needed in the back yard.
So I priced up mosaic tables large enough for a dining table....$2000 minimum and I still needed to buy chairs to match - $300 per chair.

We admired a friends beautiful wrought iron set that seated six people. The store that sold it no longer had it and other stores stocked similar items, but of lower quality at nearly twice the price - circa $1500. For me, that's too much money for something I'm only half sold on.

My Husband suggested we should leave it and concentrate on the lawn area and hopefully the right table would come along at the right time.

I agreed - the furniture we had still did a great job - they just looked yucky.

And then I had a light-bulb-idea moment - Spray Paint - You can get paint these days to cover everything, wood, plastic, metal...anything.

I searched online and found some options. I decided to go to my local DIY store and see what they had. Lowes had the paint I was looking for but not in the selection of colors I wanted.

I had decided that I would really mirror the indoors outdoors. My kitchen, dining area and living room are all one room (referred to here as a "great room") and they are pained in bright colors, mostly sunny yellow, with a touch of lime green in the kitchen behind the cook top. An orange rug warms up the living area.

Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) had the colors I wanted - lime green, orange and sunny yellow in the  Rust-Oleum range.  I bought one can of each and they even had a special offer - two cans for $7.

This stuff is just pure magic in a can!
 
The color looks great and it is fairly easy to use. Covering up the white chairs was a cinch!

Then I tried to paint the first green chair orange and one can only covered half the chair! Still it was cheaper than buying a new chair, especially if I got a chair in the color I wanted for $7. I went straight back to OSH and bought seven more cans of orange (for the four green chairs) and a couple more cans of green for the table. The guys in the store were teasing me and warned they would be looking out for graffiti in these colors along the highways!
Then I decided I could tackle the fire pit chairs and settled on a nice purple for them after yet another trip to my buddies in OSH. The fire pit still hasn't arrived, so for the photo I used a terracotta pot which is about a third the size of the metal fire pit I chose from amazon. I'm looking forward to shopping for nice throws to go with these.
It was all so easy since I had a plastic tarp laid out already - the lawn solarization is technically done - the six weeks are up, and I don't mind if the plastic tears now. It became the painting studio. I was impressed at how sturdy the plastic was after six weeks of sun exposure.
 
Here are some long shots of the furniture in situ.

View from the back door...

View from the raised beds...

With the hills in the background...
Then I began to experiment and painted a couple of pots.
 
And even rocks... something about the color orange brings out the Armagh in me... (my hometown in Ireland for those who don't know - our county team plays in orange and white.)
As I was putting the paints away in the garage, I discovered that I had at some stage in the past purchased a can of the same paint in silver...whatever I'd experimented on back a few years ago did not lend itself to this treatment, and the paint was shelved along with the project, much to my Husbands relief...but now armed with a new talent...remember that rusty wee table in a previous photo...

And won't it be fun to buy a can in gold and scatter a few rocks along with these silver ones in my dry creek bed...well, it is California after all!
 


This post is dedicated to a good friend and  former colleague of mine who lost her battle with cancer last week. She was a very talented art teacher and I reckon she's been whispering encouragement in my ear all week...just as she has done so beautifully many times for me in the past, giving me advice and support not only on matters of art but on life, love and happiness. RIP Kate - the angels are so lucky to have you XOXO

Byddi Lee













Friday, July 19, 2013

California Natives in a hot dry year

I've decided that having a Californian native plant garden and gardening with Californian native plants is two totally different things.

For me, the latter means to use natives plants in your garden to show off their beauty and also enhance your habitat. If they use less water than your average horticultural plant then even better, but you do water them to keep them looking good, and you tend not to choose to let them go completely dormant as a lot of them do in the heat of the summer. If you have a drought year you will pamper these plants and help them show their best sides even in the hottest, driest of years.

And then there is having a Californian native plant garden. The idea was that I'd get these plants established - I babied them through the first couple of years and now they are on their own. I heard it quoted that this year has been the driest on record here. It's not good for the native plants that are now fending for themselves in my yard.

Remember that the hot dry Californian Summer equates to the "winter" of the plants annual cycle. This is the time many go dormant, shed leaves, and generally look dead. The reason for this is so that the plant can conserve water and energy for the growing season which is sparked in October (hopefully) when the rain returns. It's hard for many people living here - usually blow-ins from other parts of the planet - to appreciate that summer does not equal lush growth. The climate here is unusual in that it is one of the few areas on the planet where the warmest season is also the driest. The Mediterranean, South Africa and much of Australia share this phenomenon.


So this means that a native Californian landscape looks pretty dead in the summer. It's tough to sit back and let a part of your yard do this. I decided that the whole idea of the native garden was to conserve water. Watering the plants now may even harm some of them. I'm sitting back and letting them do their own thing - apart from pruning and a bit of a tidy up. It makes no sense to me to give the yard extra water in the very year that water is so scare for all of us. Sure, I may be well ahead of the water conservation curve compared to folk who water lawns every day. I can imagine that many native plant gardeners will say that I could spare a little water to help them along, but the bottom line is, it's all an experiment. I'm curious to see what will bounce back and won't.
Already, I can see that some trees are perfect for drought conditions. In the picture above, you can see that I have a dwarf buckeye on the right. It has dropped its leaves as they do for the summer. It is still a little on the young side but it has produced some fruit.  In years to come, I'm hoping that will be what makes it attractive - thin branches, ending in massive chestnut-like fruit. Right now it's doing exactly what it should be doing and I'm confident it will weather this storm - or lack of them!

To its left is the beautiful dessert willow. When this garden has matured, nether of these trees should be in full leaf at the same time, giving a sense of space to the area. In the summer the dessert willow will provide shade and color, and when fully grown should be about thirty feet tall. There are some great drought tolerant natives - its just a matter of finding the one that suits your needs.

While the majority of my plants look like they are burning to a crisp, the sages still smell wonderful and most growth will reignite with the arrival of the fall rains. I do plan to add a new batch of plants in the rainy season...if it comes. My choices may be partially governed by what survives the summer.

It is also worth noting that we really have only started the heat here... August and September promise high temperatures. With this extreme lack of water the plant phenology, in my yard and growing wild on the surrounding hills, seems to be at least a month ahead of itself. It will be interesting to see what happens next in my Californian native plant garden.

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Not so cute anymore!

Be prepared - this is going to be a rant! We have been invaded by ground squirrels and they are eating EVERYTHING!

As we moved out of April and into May the garden thrived. The application and armatic torture of applying copious amounts of manure, blood meal, worm poop and fish emulsion (phew -that really stunk!) had paid of  with large leafy happy vegetables. There was an abundance of lady bugs and I felt that my Integrated Pest Management had really kicked in. Sure, I'd suffered the loss of a crop of lettuce to a cheeky squirrel, but at that stage I considered it a small loss since the lettuce was done anyway. 

During May and into June the Collard greens grew huge leaves replacing the ones I harvested on a daily basis. The broccoli, usually a winter crop, grew waist-high promising a big harvest when it came time to bloom. Chard was prolific too, and we ate greens every day.

But by the end of June things began to disappear. From a distance the garden looks lovely.
For the first time ever our gogi berry have fruited - delicious tiny fruits, which were the super-fruit du jour back three years ago when I bought the tiny little seedlings...now I believe something has claimed the super-friut crown. (Acacia berry maybe?)
My mammoth sunflowers are living up to their name too. This one is at least twelve feet tall, the flower 10 inches in diameter!
 
 But the squirrels have gone to town on the chard...
and the collard greens...
 
 and the broccoli never did fulfill their promise of a glorious harvest...
 
They hit the zucchini (courgettes)  too..
I despaired of ever getting beans this summer...
But a few tendrils did make it high enough to escape the foraging of the ground squirrel - obviously they are not as good at climbing as their tree-squirrel cousins.
So I'm hoping to get some beans now.

The squirrels also ate some of my tomatoes...until I sprinkled them with cayenne pepper. Though I had sprinkled everything with cayenne pepper it seemed to only work on the tomatoes.

So what to do?

According to the IPM site at UC Davis, trapping  and killing them is the only way.  I find that hard to stomach... though that is changing.

Disrupting scents like cayenne pepper, and putting dog hair at the opening of the burrows (the neighbors are donating their vacuum bags!) may help. The squirrels are scared of the smell of the dog, one of their natural predators. I've also read about using ammonia rags at burrow openings, placing lights onto the burrow and playing music near them to deter them. 

Right now I feel like I have lost, not just the battle, but also the war on squirrels! Saying that, we are right in the middle of a heat wave and motivation to do anything in the yard is at an all time low. Perhaps my next blog will report the outcome of some of these methods...and the heat wave is most welcome while I'm still solarizing my lawn.
 

Byddi Lee



Saturday, June 15, 2013

Solarizing the lawn

For want of another name, I've been calling the 20'X25' patch of grass and weeds at the back of the house "the lawn." The weeds, burr clovers, dandelions, thistles and bermuda grass were mown and watered and from a distance provided a green patch where garden designers would say you could "rest' your eye. On closer inspection it did nothing but cause me embarrassment. Something had to be done.

The options were to get someone in a re-sod the entire thing. Though I was pretty sure they would use chemicals  to kill the weeds and I've never used herbicide in the garden (once in the driveway a couple of years ago and that didn't work!) And its expensive!

I'm a garden coach and a Master Gardener. Deep down I knew I had to tackle this myself.

So I can either kill all the weeds and resow the lawn seed, or design a beautiful sitting area with a gazebo/pergola covered in vines with a dry creek bed and some interesting yard art. The reseeding of the lawn would be cheaper but the latter so much more interesting.

Step one for either plan: Kill the Weeds

This can be accomplished by using cardboard and mulch. I've used this to good effect in the front yard but... well, I was feeling like a one trick pony since I always seem to be advocating that (probably because it is so effective.)

Recently I attended a Master Gardener talk on soil solarization. It's used in the Central Valley and Southern California where the heat of the sun is employed to sterilize soil from both weeds and pathogens. The speaker seemed dubious as to how well it would work in the Bay Area since you need really high temperatures, but I am willing to experiment.

Basically you use clear plastic sheeting to trap the heat of the sun to super heat the soil. It is best done in the summer months June - August, where the days are long and hot. Needless to say - Do not try this in Ireland!

It can only be done where you get full sun. Shade areas will not build up the necessary temperature.

For more details on the theory behind it check out the note on it on UC Davis site.

There are 4 easy steps. (Okay, I use the term "easy" very loosely.)

1) Roto-till the soil.
That wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. My wonderful neighbor, Al "lent" me his roto-tiller and then had to show me how to use it. I wasn't very good at it so he just did it for me. I recommend saturating the soil well a day or two before hand since we had a hard time getting the blades into the hard dry soil.
 I'd turned off the water last winter so the ground was really dry.

2) Flatten the soil with a lawn roller.
I hired one from A Rental Center for $12 for the day. I did however flood the lawn the night before (having learned my lesson the hard way - literally!) so that the soil would actually shift and move. It worked well, apart from the fact that the bung for the roller broke (the roller is basically a steel drum that you fill with water.) Thank goodness for pink duct tape!

3) Saturate the soil with water.
The water will conduct the heat from the sun down into the soil - that and the compaction from the roller helps to transmit the heat energy deeper down. I really soaked the area.

4) Cover the area with clear plastic for six weeks. 
I used the stuff you find in the paint section of the DIY store. The thinner it is the better. It needs to be tight to the ground - it helped to sprinkle a wee little tiny bit of water over it to weigh it down. Then you add a second layer. The gap between the two layers provides some insulation at night to stop too much heat being lost - though I am a little worried that the water between the sheets will lessen this effect. Di I mention that it wasn't much water? We'll see in six weeks. (Black plastic would radiate the heat out at night.)

 
Hopefully in six weeks time I'll take off the plastic and have weed free, disease free soil.

At that stage I can either resow a lawn or move forward with a nice shade area...but since we didn't come here for the grass what do you think we'll do?

Byddi Lee

Monday, May 13, 2013

Tresspassers - caught in the act!

The heat is too much for the lettuce, and I'm down to one pot near the back door. You'd think its proximity to the house would keep it safe but yesterday morning we caught the lettuce theif in the act!
 
Cute, but looking as guilty as sin. This is what happens when you plant a native garden in your front yard to attract the wildlife. 

The showy milkweed is indeed living up to its name.
  
The buckeye produced its first ever blossom.
And the Chaparral Clematis  is bursting out in delicate little blossoms, smaller that those I've seen in the wild around here but pretty nonetheless.
The birds have voted a show of confidence in the native garden by returning to nest here. You can just see the tail of a bird peeking out on the left-hand side of the nest.
 
Meanwhile, at the back doorstep the birds are loving the solar fountain. There are about 4 different kinds of birds using this on a daily basis. But they can all read our mind.As soon as we reach for the camera they scarper...except for this little guy.

And of course the ever present lizards - this fence lizard was out getting his early morning warm up!
 
Not only are animals appearing in our garden, so are plants that I don't remember planting. This three inch lavender seeded itself. I found it when it was only two leaves big and put it in this pot thinking it would never make it. I'm glad to be wrong about that.
These lobelia seeded themselves very conveniently in the pot. The little green spec is a watermelon I planted. Or is it a pumpkin...oops, should have kept up with the labeling. I'll know when they fruit...the suspense is half the fun!
Lobelia has a tendency to pop up everywhere. Even in places were it gets no water or TLC.
  
I love it when flowers seed themselves. Like these hollyhocks...
 And the foxgloves...
Even better when you can eat the plant - like this volunteer tomato plant which is now presenting the first tomato of the year.
I didn't think I'd have to wait such a short space of time between orange season and tomato season - this year they are actually overlapping. The tree still has some juicy oranges.
And when there's no oranges nor tomatoes, there's always lemons from the neighbors yard. You know what they say, "When life hands you lemons..."

"...Put them in your G&T!"

Byddi Lee