From the Ground Up

Gardening, books, and other interests

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!


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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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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.

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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.



Welcome, raindrops


We got some rain yesterday. Yes, we did–not much, but a little. Precious little according to the precipitation map at LA’s  Dept Public Works.  Check it out to see how much fell in your neighborhood.

In my neck of the woods it was 0.20 inches. In the coastal areas there was a bit more, up to 0.35 inches. Inland, there was very little to none, as in  Z.E.R.O. inches in Palmdale, Lancaster, Castaic.

If it rained every day for the whole month of February, we might be okay. But extended weather forecasts call for a continuation of our dry and sunny pattern.

Now that the drought is official, I am waiting for the message to get out and everyone to start taking small steps to conserve water.

In the home, here are some suggestions:

Take shorter showers (this means ME! I am guilty.)

Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket or ashtray. Every flush uses 5-7 gallons of water, so only flush when necessary.

Don’t run the water the whole time you are shaving or brushing your teeth. Use what you need to wet your toothbrush or rinse the soap off your razor, and turn the tap off.

Don’t let the faucet run continuously while rinsing vegetables in the sink or doing dishes in the sink.

There is NO need to totally rinse off every single scrap of food before loading dishes into the dishwasher. (Guilty, again!)

Install aerators on all the faucets in the house. (It’s cheap to do!)

Switch out your shower heads for “low-flow” versions.
In the garden:
Make sure your sprinklers are adjusted so they are spraying your plants, not the sidewalk.

Put a a 3-inch layer of mulch around trees and shrubs. It will discourage weeds as well as conserving moisture.

Don’t over-water your lawn. If you step on the grass and it springs back, it doesn’t need watering yet.

Set the mower blades higher and mow less often. Letting grass grow up to 3″ tall will conserve moisture.

Tear out your lawn altogether and plant drought resistant plants and ground cover.

Install soaker hoses or a drip system in your flower beds and around your trees and shrubs, and reserve the use of spray heads for larger areas of grass or ground cover. Also, switch out your conventional spray heads for low-volume (i.e MP rotator) heads.

C’mon people, let’s do it!