From the Ground Up

Gardening, books, and other interests

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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.

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Not a pretty picture

The fact that we’re experiencing a record-breaking drought throughout California and the southwest may not be on everyone’s radar yet.  But now we can see the evidence from space. Images taken by NASA’s  space satellite on Feb. 16  show the effects of extended drought in the form of brown patches along the coast and throughout most of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In a normal rainfall year these brown areas would show up as white, since they would be covered with snow. In the photos below, if you look at the lefthand image, taken a year ago in January 2013, it shows the snow pack in the Sierras. In the image on the right, taken one month ago, there’s virtually no snow pack.

CA drought via NASA-NOAA

NASA pictures of California drought

That prominent strip of green along the western edge of the Sierras is also not a good sign.  In a normal year all that green would be white with snow cover; the green is an anomaly. The satellite also picks up scattered green patches in the central agricultural regions–the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Those are farms where they’re still irrigating the crops. Not that the farmers themselves don’t have plenty to worry about, as they plan to drastically scale back the planting of row crops this year.

A 3-year long pattern of subnormal precipitation has left us with a water deficit– meaning the lakes, rivers, reservoirs and snowpacks are all below normal levels. It would take greater-than-average rainfall to make up what we’ve lost. Last week the storm system amusingly named “Pineapple Express” brought us our first significant rainfall of the wet season, with 6-12 inches of rain recorded in the northern Sierras. There were even some flood warnings in the San Francisco/Bay area. But it wasn’t enough. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, we would need 3-4 more “copious” storms in the central Sierras in order to get us even close to average, and the likelihood of that is nil. And by the way, there was no rainfall recorded in Southern CA and the southwest.

At least both state and federal government are starting to take the situation seriously. Speaking at a rural water facility in Fresno County on Feb. 14, President Obama drew a clear connection between climate change and the water shortage. He urged Congress to pass legislation that would allocate $300 million to “emergency aid and drought-relief projects, upgrade city water systems and water conservation, and speed up environmental reviews of water projects”. And the White House also announced $100 million in aid to ranchers facing livestock losses and $60 million to help food banks.

But water in the state of California has always been mired in politics, and that is still the case. It all boils down to an argument over who gets the biggest share of the water pie–agriculture, the major cities, or environmentalists who want to restore the salmon runs. But arguing over what remains of the water reserves won’t help, and neither will praying for rain. What we need to do is bend our intelligence towards finding long range solutions to the problem.

I’m having my morning cup of tea, and reading the news about the freakish weather they’re having in the U.K. right now. Not only storms and flooding, but bog fires, too! Friends who live in Washington and New York are digging out yet again from another winter storm, and everyone is getting pretty tired of it. Record-breaking heat in Australia last month disrupted the Australian Open, causing athletes to faint on the tennis courts and some games to be suspended. We’ve got the polar vortex dumping snow on the Carolinas, while a high pressure system is responsible for intensifying the drought in California and causing unseasonably warm temperatures in Alaska for the third year in a row.  Sure, the weather is weird but it’s not any weirder than the winter of 2013 or 2012. Remember Hurricane Sandy? Rather it continues a pattern of unprecedented extreme weather that we’ve been experiencing across the globe as noted by the WMO-World Meteorological Association.

It’s amusing to watch the global warming skeptics make hay out of this, partly by making a simplistic and wrong assumption that “global warming” means an increase in hotter temperatures everywhere at once. By this logic, all the snow and ice makes the notion of overall climate change just plain silly. Witness Donald Trump railing against “global warming hoaxters”on Fox news. (I know the link to the Colbert Report isn’t officially “news” either, but it was too funny to pass up.)

In fact, it’s the extreme fluctuations that are indicative of climate change, as 97% of climate scientists agree. If you’re interested you can read more about the connection between the polar vortex and global warming. There are scholarly journals devoted to the topic, but I’m happy to have Time magazine break it all down for me in simpler terms.

Whatever your politics, there’s an economic cost to our failure to prepare for what has been and what’s yet to come. We need to set a higher priority on preparedness on the national level. This would include retrofitting of buildings, wetland restoration, and improvements in storm water infrastructure. It will cost some money, but so does doing nothing.

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What’s in bloom right now?


Armeria maritima

While out walking my dog I took some snapshots of whatever growing things were looking especially good right now. This photo on the left shows a nice clump of Armeria maritima growing in my neighbor’s yard. Its common name is Sea Pink or Thrift. It has rose pink, globe-shaped flowers nodding on top of bright green mounds of grassy foliage. It’s more commonly seen in the coastal regions, but as you can see, it’s doing great further inland, too.


Geranium incanum

Also doing nicely at the moment is Cranesbill (Geranium incanum), with its delicate ferny-looking foliage and small magenta flowers. It’s one of several species of woodland geraniums that are “true” geraniums, as opposed to the zonal geraniums, ivy geraniums, or Martha Washingtons that are commonly sold in garden centers. Those plants with the thick fleshy leaves that your grandma grew in pots and everybody calls geraniums are really members of the genus Pelargonium. Pelargoniums are related to geraniums, both genera being in the same family of Geraniaceae,  but they are not the same plant.


Strelitzia reginae

The Bird of Paradise , AKA Strelitzia reginae (on the left) is a high drama plant. It happens to be the official flower of Los Angeles, even though its origin is in South Africa. It typically blooms from January to March. In South Africa they call it the crane flower, which is easy to understand from looking at the flower form. Another species of the same plant is called Strelitzia nicolai or Giant White Bird of Paradise; it looks like a giant banana tree and grows up to 20 feet high.



Also in bloom (on the right) is Osteospermum, the cheerful Freeway Daisy– another South African native. The first year after I moved to Los Angeles, the sloping backyard in the house we were renting was thickly covered in freeway daisies all through the month of February. I was both amazed and entranced by this, and sent pictures home to my family on the east coast. Here, in 1989, is my daughter in a yard full of daisies.


Dora in the daisies


Pink Trumpet tree

Then there are the winter-flowering trees. In addition to the deciduous magnolias and white-flowered ornamental pear trees that typically put on a show at  this time of year, see if you can spot one of the more  unusual ones, like the Pink Trumpet Tree (Handroanthus impetiginosus–formerly known as Tabebuia impetiginosa). It looks kind of surreal, covered with hot pink flowers. To see the largest specimen of Trumpet Tree in California, you can visit the LA County Arboretum




February is camellia season at Descanso Gardens and also at the Huntington Library. The annual Camellia Show at the Huntington already occurred this past weekend (Feb 8-9), but so what? The camellias still look gorgeous, and if you go to see them now you can be secretly pleased that you avoided the crowds.


Manzanita St Helena

Finally, we come to California native plants. Right now is a good time to see manzanitas, flowering currant, bush mallow and California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)–they’re all in bloom in the hills, in nature, and also at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

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Just because you can get strawberries in February, should you?

Today is Sunday, and my husband and I are about to toddle off, hand-in-hand, to our local farmer’s market, which is our Sunday routine. But here is the question I want to pose to you: Rob & I have a fundamental difference in philosophy over whether or not to buy the out-of-season produce. He wants to buy the strawberries and tomatoes (He needs to have strawberries with his cereal and sliced tomatoes on his sandwich) — even if said tomatoes and strawberries taste like pale, drab ghosts of their real selves. Whereas I prefer to do without the summer fruits for a few months, in order to sharpen my taste buds for when they come back into full flavor.  I’m convinced it’s the deprivation of not having peaches for 9 months a year that focuses and intensifies the pleasure of biting into a perfectly ripe one…the kind that you can smell from four feet away…the kind that has a beautiful name…like Elegant Lady or August Pride. If it isn’t going to come close to that juice-dripping-down-your-chin kind of experience, why bother?

Then there’s the other dirty little secret, which is this: when else will you appreciate the subtle flavor of a good head of broccoli, a peppery arugula salad, or a sweet crunchy carrot except during the winter months, when there really is nothing else to enjoy?

Fruits and vegetables have their season. Take persimmons and pomegranates. They arrive in the fall, for a few brief weeks, I gorge myself on them, and then poof–they’re gone. It’s sad, really. I miss them when they’re not here, but that’s just the way it is. Fact of life.  But certain fruits and vegetables are ubiquitous year-round, piled up in shiny heaps in the grocery store. Like apples. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat one from December to August, but there you are.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every winter I get an intense craving for citrus fruit. Those fat Oro Blanco grapefruits, fragrant Meyer lemons, and sweet little Honey Mandarin tangerines–they speak to me. Not that you can’t find all kinds of citrus year-round, but winter is their time– it’s when they’re on. Oranges in July? To what purpose? Bananas in a dish of summer fruit? It feels wrong somehow. But how good does a banana taste in January? Real good.

A friend of mine has been posting photos of the broccoli she’s  been growing in her community vegetable garden. It looks so beautiful, mouth-watering even.  I know that sounds weird, but just look at it. Doesn’t it look scrumptious? makes me want to strip its leaves off and plunge it into a hot steaming pot of water right now.

broccoli (photo by Judi Gerber)

There’s probably a scientific reason behind this– some actual biochemical changes occurring in the taste buds. I don’t know.

So I’ll keep buying the cardboard strawberries for my husband. I suppose it helps the farmers to stay in business. But personally, I’ll hold off on eating them myself until May or even June, when they’ll taste like sweet, juicy sunshine.