From the Ground Up

Gardening, books, and other interests

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Happy Earth Day!!

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”                      -Rachel Carson

I don't remember what kind of daff this is

Today is Earth Day, and I thought I’d celebrate by remembering Rachel Carson, the mother of modern environmentalism. Her book, “Silent Spring”, published in 1962 (over 50 years ago!), was groundbreaking in so many ways.  It forever changed our collective attitude about noxious chemicals in our food, air, and water. It woke up an entire generation to the need to protect, clean up, and conserve our natural resources. As a result of her writings there was a radical shift in public opinion. We no longer trusted big business and government to look out for our best interests and safety. The role of profit in decisions made by manufacturing and agribusiness (but affecting all of us) was unmasked. Over time, policies were changed. The Environmental Protection Agency was born, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were passed.

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and 45 years later, our present day environmental concerns are of greater urgency than ever, and we are just as divided on the issues as we have ever been.,

So whatever your current opinion about about genetically modified crops, global warming, greenhouse gasses, and the regulatory power of the EPA, you’ve got to admit that Miss Carson’s words got the dialogue started, and that’s a good thing.

To quote another wise man who is close to my heart, Henry David Thoreau:

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”


The Lawn Goodbye

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I want to tell you about a great little 5-minute video from KCET, the local SoCal public television station. It’s fun and well worth five minutes of your time. It features homeowners (several of them are friends of mine!) who have taken the step of replacing their thirsty, water-guzzling lawns with a variety of natives, succulents, edible gardens, or drought-resistant native turf grass. These are some great examples of forward-thinking people who are taking the initiative to install more efficient irrigation systems and convert their lawns to more sustainable alternatives. In one case that you’ll see here, someone filled in their swimming pool and replaced it with a gorgeous succulent garden. Not one of these people regrets the decision to give up their big expanse of lawn.

Take a look!

I really love this post. The author uses her sharp eye and great photographic skills (or maybe she just has a very good camera!) to observe small signs of spring in her garden. I love to walk through my yard first thing in the morning and make note of all the changes, growth, decay, whatever. But these photos really capture that experience very beautifully.

Real Life Garden Solutions

One of the things I love most about gardening is observing the smallest details, especially early in the growing season. So here’s what I’ve been observing in the last few days:

Asparagus that I grew from seed in Asparagus that I grew from seed in 2013–the only one that survived my tender ministrations. I’m trying again this year–only 7 (of 18) seeds germinated.

Perennial iberis just openi Perennial iberis (candytuft) just opening.

Peony Peony

Anemone Anemone coronaria

Heuchera 'Purple Palace' Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’

New growth on spirea. It rea New growth on spirea. It really is that colour!

Euphorbia Euphorbia martinii

I don't remember what kind of daff this is I don’t remember what kind of daffodil this is, but the “cup” is only about 1 cm. You can see by comparison with the aubretia flowers (also about 1 cm across and about 10 cm high).

Unfurling ferns Unfurling ferns. This might be a native sword fern.

DSCN2665 Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Cristata’. You can just see at the top of the picture the “crested” habit of the fronds.

No-name herbaceous fern. Pops up everywhere, but easy to pull out if they're a bit over-enthusiastic. No-name herbaceous fern. Pops up everywhere, but easy…

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Garden Tips for April

Now that April is here, your garden is growing in leaps and bounds. But so are the weeds! And the bugs! The warm breezes and sunny days that are helping your lovelies to flourish are doing the very same thing for your garden “enemies”. Nature makes no distinction between a wilderness and a garden. People are the only ones that do that.

This is one more excellent reason to make sure you take a few minutes everyday (or at least 3-4 times a week) to walk through the garden. Along the way you can enjoy fragrance, the colors, the growth and changes. You can make observations, notice what’s doing well, and what needs a helping hand. In this way you catch any problems while they’re small, before they get out of hand. As you are strolling around, take special note of the following:

Weeds. You’ll notice that weeds are cropping up everywhere right now– in the garden beds, in your lawn, in the cracks in your driveway. Get rid of them while they’re young, before they set seed. The best way to cope with annual leafy weeds (like purslane, spurge, knotweed, and clover), while causing the least amount of damage to the surrounding “good” plants, is to pull them out by hand, one at a time. It’s really not that hard, nor that time-consuming. In fact, I find weeding to be kind of mindlessly relaxing and therapeutic. If you do it frequently, you’ll never have to handle too much at one time. Try to devote about 5 minutes a day; that way you won’t strain your back or get a sunburn. Be careful to remove as much of the root system as possible, since anything you leave behind will quickly re-sprout and you will simply end up with stronger, thicker weeds as a result. Don’t leave the pulled-out weeds lying around on the damp ground, or they’ll take hold again. And don’t put them in your compost pile; throw them in the trash. Use a screwdriver or a dandelion weeder to dig out the deeper tap roots of perennial weeds like dandelion. Be especially diligent and careful with weeds that grow from rhizomes or bulbs, like quack grass, oxalis, and nutsedge. Try not to break the little bulbs, or leave bits of them behind; they’ll be sure to survive underground and come up again. Use a sharp-edged hoe or scuffle hoe to deal with a larger area, like between rows of vegetables, or a patch of annual bluegrass or bindweed growing in a sunny corner of the yard. Hoeing also helps with loosening the top couple of inches of soil and improving water retention. Just be gentle around the roots of large trees.

Keep an eye out for snails and slugs. This is the time of year when they can do significant damage to strap-leafed plants like fortnight lily and agapanthus. Look for them in the early morning or in the evening when they’re most active, and hand-pick them (use gardening gloves if you’re squeamish). Dispose of them by dropping in a pail of water, or tying them up inside of a plastic garbage bag.

Finally, watch for aphids. Aphids, like snails, are most prevalent in early spring; they will be less of an issue as soon as the temperatures warm up, but in the meantime they can do a lot of damage if they’re aren’t kept under control. You can strip them off the leaves and stems by hand. (Wear a pair of thin disposable latex gloves if you don’t want to touch them.) Or dislodge them with a strong spray of water from the hose, making sure to spray the undersides of the leaves. This is only a temporary solution, but your goal is simply to knock them back for a while. Aphids are always going to be there, but you can keep them in check.Image

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A Historic Occasion at Morelos Dam

I’ve been reading some firsthand accounts of something that happened earlier this week: On March 23, several hundred people gathered to watch as the gates of the Morelos Dam were opened for the first time in five decades, to allow a “pulse flow” of water to flow through the last 70 miles of the Colorado River, before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. As part of a landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, the Colorado River Delta will once again have water coursing through its dried-up channels, which will extend to the lower delta and go all the way to the sea. With the exception of a couple of isolated “El Niño” rainstorms during the 1980’s and 90’s, this will be the first time that water from the Colorado has reached the sea since 1960. This is all made possible by Minute 319, an amendment of a 1944 treaty between U.S. and Mexico, that concerns their shared responsibility for the Colorado River. Scientists and officials of the two cooperating governments hope that the water will help efforts to restore the Delta and revitalize an ecosystem that once included native willows and cottonwoods, and teemed with insects, birds, and fish. The pulse flow, which will continue through May 18, will mimic the natural yearly flood from snow melt in the Rocky Mountains that used to take place before the Colorado River was dammed up and diverted to support the growth of arid desert communities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and Denver.  

Jennifer Pitt of Environmental Defense Fund, posted on the Water Currents webpage about her experience as a witness to this historic first. She has been following the flow and marking how long it takes for the river to move downstream. The pictures on this webpage are glorious.

Minute 319 has been hailed by countries in Asia and Europe as a model for binational cooperation over shared rivers as well as policies that promote practical adaptation to climate change.

Encouraging news, isn’t it? Water is life, and life could now Imagereturn to the Colorado Delta as a result of this far-sighted policy.

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Big on Color, Low on Water– Plants for Drought Tolerant Gardens

I want to share an excellent article I came across, courtesy of Christine Tusher and There are some very good suggestions here regarding low water and drought tolerant plants for your garden, like lavender, kangaroo paws, sea lavender, succulents and sedum. Depending on how you group them, they can have a modern, highly symmetrical look, like a cool, arty Mondrian painting. Or they can be grouped together to form a lush, exuberant, cottage garden-type vista.  Thanks, Christine and Houzz!

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Wake up “Early Girl”–or– Spring is around the corner

Last weekend I started on my annual cleanup and prepping the garden for spring.  This consists of pruning back frost damaged plants and deadwood, allowing air and light to get to the new emerging growth; cleaning up any old leaves and debris from the ground; adding and tilling in fresh amendments to the raised vegetable beds; inspecting all the plants for snails and snail damage (handpick any live snails and toss into a bucket of water); replenishing mulch so there is at least 2-3 inches in all planter areas. I also make sure to inspect and repair any leaks in irrigation lines, and flush out the sediment and gunk from filters and at the end of each line. When I see new growth at the base of my established perennials, I know it’s time to cut back all the dead growth. But I don’t do any fertilizing until April!

I’ve been getting my raised veggie beds ready for tomato planting. Tomato seedlings are available at the garden centers now. You can buy them now if you like, but wait another week or two for planting, just to make sure the soil has warmed up enough. Also pay attention to nighttime temperatures–if temps are below 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, don’t plant yet! When you buy tomato seedlings, here are a few pointers to keep in mind: Don’t buy a plant because it has lots of flowers or even little tomatoes on it; this is a plant that has already spent too much of its short life in the pot. Start with a younger plant. The idea is to look for shorter plants with thicker stems and healthy green foliage. Avoid long and spindly plants that have weak, brittle stems and yellowing leaves. When you get the plants home, harden them off by keeping them outdoors in a spot that’s sheltered from direct sun and wind. After a week of hardening off, they are less likely to suffer shock when planted in the ground.

Attention Southern California residents: For the largest selection of heirloom tomato seedlings in the state, check out a Tomatomania event near you. If you’ve never been to a Tomatomania sale before, it’s a lot of fun, and  Scott Daigre and friends are there to offer the best expert tomato-growing advice.

tomato seedlings

tomato seedlings

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Harvesting rainwater

It was lovely to hear the sound of rain on the roof last night. Already the air feels cleaner. Now I’m hoping for a lot more–no flooding or landslides, please– just gentle, steady rain.

Harvesting rainwater is an easy thing to do, and you can use the rain you collect to water your houseplants. I find that my peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) get brown on the edges of their leaves if I water them from the tap.  One solution for this is to use distilled water–an expensive fix, even if I grab it on sale at 50 cents a bottle. Another option is to use tap water that has been allowed to sit out overnight, allowing the chemicals and salts to sink to the bottom of the container. The very best solution is collecting rainwater in a bucket, a plastic barrel, or whatever you have. Using a rain chain that directs rain from the gutter into a beautiful urn like this one is the most elegant option of all, I think. All your container plants and houseplants will thank you for it.


(Thanks to for the photo.)

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Rose fever

Despite their reputation as prima donnas, roses are among the toughest plants in the landscape, and will survive and flower even if you neglect them. After all, a rose is just a thorn bush with healthy self-esteem. But they look ever so much better with a little TLC, and theyImage reward you many times over with beautiful, healthy blooms. If you haven’t pruned your rose bushes back yet, there is still time to do so. In our warm climate roses never go dormant, but they benefit from a good pruning once a year before their spring growth. You don’t have to cut them back to bare sticks, it’s not necessary. Just remove any dead or diseased branches, and open up the interior a little. In the process it’s a good idea to remove almost all of the leaves to trick the roses into thinking they’ve gone through dormancy, and now it’s time to wake up and start growing. Clean up the ground around the bushes and discard any old leaves and debris. This helps avoids spreading blackspot or other fungal diseases.

If you did your winter pruning back in January, your roses are probably already showing lots of fresh new growth and the buds are starting to swell. Snap off any buds that are facing the interior of the plant; this will aid in air circulation and prevent disease.

Once you start to see new growth, you can apply fertilizer. You can use an organic fertilizer specially intended for roses, like Dr. Earth or Rose-Tone by Espoma, but these tend to be kind of expensive. Another option is to apply a handful of of alfalfa pellets (they sell it as rabbit food at the chain stores), and/or a handful of bone meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, or fish meal, at the base of each rose bush. Some people also like to add one tablespoon of epsom salts per bush. Water thoroughly before fertilizing; then spread the fertilizer around the outer perimeter of the bush, at the drip line, and water thoroughly again. Do this once a year in the spring as the bare minimum for roses. If you want to encourage repeat blooming throughout the year, do the fertilizer routine two more times, in mid-summer and in September.

Harbinger of spring

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Jasminum polyanthum

Pink Jasmine

Jasminum polyanthum, or Pink Jasmine, is always a sure sign of spring approaching. The buds are pink when closed, opening up into white star-shaped flowers. The fragrance is rich and unmistakeable, which is why jasmine has historically been used in making perfume. Some find the scent a bit cloying from close up, but when the breeze carries just a hint of it in the air, I find it hard to resist.