Front Yard Update: Welcome to Crazy Town

front sunflowers

I’ve been avoiding writing about the front yard project’s developments because, frankly, I’m not sure what is going on out there. It’s a little crazy.

The first flush of spring color, the wildflowers and other annuals which bloom with the winter rains, is almost gone now, while the summer bloomers haven’t kicked in. This is what I see if I go out and peer at my slope–a tangle of plants, some of which are doing better than others. What everyone else sees are the sunflowers.

The reign of the wild sunflowers

We have sunflowers. Lots of them. They’re wild sunflowers–not the kind that produce the big seeds, but the kind that grow along the freeway. I suspect these come from that big sunflower that I let grow up at the top of the hill last year which was, most likely, a hybridized descendant of an ornamental sunflower, “Lemon Queen” that Erik planted for the Great Sunflower Project several years ago. I pulled many, many seedlings but decided to let a few grow (four, I think?) on the slope, just to see what would happen.

Ha!

First, I believe in the power of volunteers. They want to be exactly where they’ve sprouted, so they tend to do very well. Why pull a happy volunteer and hope the transplant you’re trying to coerce to live in that spot will do just as well? Most likely it won’t.

Also, sunflowers are very popular with the birds and the bees, and this yard is supposed to be about feeding those guys. And finally, I had this notion that they might provide some shade from the harsh sun for young plants. That they do, but of course they’re also causing chaos.

This is a perpetual problem for me, balancing the exuberance of annual volunteers, such as Nasturtiums, California poppies and sunflowers with the needs of the the less showy perennial plants. I love the seasonal color brought by the spring annuals, but I also have to patrol to make sure they’re not smothering any of my perennials. Inevitably, I miss a few.

Out on the front slope right now, the perennials are holding on beneath the sunflowers. Some are doing fine, some may be a little stunted. The risk I’m running is that the whole center of the slope will look terrible when the sunflowers go. For this reason, I should take them out now. This is what I think every day, but I just can’t do it.  I like them, and as I said, they’re feeding lots of creatures.

These sunflowers are not native sunflowers. The native sunflower is shorter and better behaved. I might try to swap those out for these guys next year, though these guys may be hard to dissuade.

front wildflowers

Some of the wildflowers earlier this spring: The pink are clarkia, the white is yarrow, the orange are Nasturtium (not wildflowers), the purple are Phacelia tanacetifolia.

Other wildflowers

I threw down a good deal of native California wildflower seed last fall, hoping to fill my barren slope come spring with lots of amazing wildflower action. That did not pan out.

I figure birds might have nabbed the seed, although wildflowers are fussy things, so maybe just decided they didn’t like the conditions. In terms of the birds, I did mix about half of the seeds with clay before seeding to protect them from the birds. Maybe the clay coated seeds were the only ones that sprouted? Or maybe that didn’t work at all? Who can tell?

Surprises

I knew this planting would be full of surprises, because I’m unfamiliar with many of the plants I used. So I’m figuring out how they grow and what they like and how they get along. It’s all an ongoing experiment.

front sunflowers close

The golden yarrow is the small yellow flower in this picture.

Surprise number one is Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum) which is not a true yarrow at all. This was supposed to be a relatively small plant, maybe one foot high by two feet wide. I planted 3, and they’ve taken over the left side of the slope. Obviously, they like sunny hillsides! But you know, that side of the slope gets some shade, too, and the shade patches aren’t putting them off, either. Nor are the sunflowers. Really, between the Golden Yarrow and the sunflowers its a miracle that anything else has room to grow.

I give the Eriophyllum confertiflorum a big thumbs up for being an attractive, fast-growing plant. It’s also supposed to be good for butterflies, though I haven’t noticed any butterfly interest in the blooms yet. It’s been blooming since early spring, and it’s categorized as a spring/summer bloomer, so it will be interesting to see how long the bloom lasts.

I like this plant, but I didn’t really intend to cover the entire hillside with it, so I may need to take some action to make it play nice with others. Or, I could just let it take over the whole slope, pour myself a cocktail and call it quits on the landscaping. It wouldn’t be the worse solution in the world.

front grasses

Surprise #2 is how hard it is to get grass to grow.  Native grasses remain a mystery to me. I lost many of the grasses I planted this winter and others are growing slowly. I bought new grass to replace the lost ones, and it’s doing okay, but is a little lost in the crowd on the slope. I’m hoping that it will start reseeding itself, because I don’t want to buy any more of it. I’m figuring that getting a meadow situation started will take time –and the cooperation of the grass. If it likes the slope, I’ll get a grassy meadow in coming years, but not this year. If grass is not to be, I’ll have to punt.

And yes, it may have been more sensible (certainly more affordable) to scatter native grass seed instead of buying plants, but considering how well my wildflower seed did, I suspect it would have all gone into bird bellies as well.

blue eyed grass

A pleasant surprise: blue-eyed grass. What a pretty plant it is! Unfortunately it is summer deciduous, so it’s on its way out. On the upside, it reseeds itself.

Rampant sentimentality getting in the way of design principles

The sunflowers are the most obvious example, but I also have a patch of Mexican sage left over from the old days which I didn’t take out because the hummingbirds love it, and it feeds them during periods when bloom is low everywhere else, and because it is completely naturalized on the slope. It’s so happy and carefree, it seem a shame to take it out. I’m not sure if I could get rid of it, even if I tried! As it is, I keep digging it up as it tries to pop up everywhere, only allowing one stand to grow. But that stand is oppressing some of my other plantings.

I suspect Piet Oudolf does not think like this. This is why he is Piet Oudolf and I’m the Crazy Sunflower Lady.

On similar lines, I have a native sage on the slope as well, also leftover from the old days. It’s a great plant, but it wants to be large, and doesn’t really match my small scale meadow scheme, so I keep it, but I keep it trimmed back. Generally I don’t like “make work” schemes like that. Stuff should just be the right size for the space. Trimming is just a waste of energy for you and the plant. But I’ll leave it for now, and if I decide to give the slope over to the golden yarrow, I’ll let the Mexican sage and the purple sage go, too, and see who comes out on top. It would be like botanical cage fighting.

Speaking of cage fighting, at the very top of the slope we have a cardoon plant. You can see it in the top left of the top picture. Cardoons are technically invasive plants and one of the bêtes noires of the native plant folks. I doubt we’ll ever be on a native plant garden tour with this monster crowning our so-called native landscape, but Erik loves, loves, loves this plant for inexplicable reasons, so I can’t take it out.

The cardoon’s huge leaves are perpetually reaching out to overshade my natives, so I keep hacking them back (more make-work activity). However, I learned to like the cardoon much more this spring when I discovered it had become a ladybug nursery. I’ve never seen so many pupating lady bugs in one place. It was amazing. It probably housed more than 100 developing ladybugs at one point. And birds like that plant, too. They’re eating something off it–not the ladybugs, I think. So I guess it’s earning its keep.

The mystery of the front terrace

The first, front or bottom-most terrace on the slope turns out to have remarkably bad soil. The whole slope has variable soil, due to construction digging, but the front terrace is really distinct: distinctly crappy, that is. Its main problem is that it’s hydrophobic, and no other part of the slope is like that. Hydrophobic means that water doesn’t really sink into the soil very easily, and even after it seems to sink in, it sort of vanishes into the void, as if I never watered. It really is like a magic trick.

The plants down there are alive, but much smaller than their peers above. And no wonder–they’re underwatered.

The cure for bad soil is, as always, compost and mulch and worm poo. I need to add a lot of that stuff to this poor terrace, but I have a problem. The soil is already up to the top of the retaining wall–if I add more, it will spill all over the sidewalk. So I have a choice. I can add edging to give me a few more inches of depth for amendments, or I can dig up that terrace, pulling up the plants in the process, and hope they don’t mind being transplanted. Or I could leave it be, do small interventions like teas and hope the plants make it.

Plans

These days I’m pretty much battening down the hatches for the long dry summer. Erik and I have installed a “smart” irrigation system to make watering easier (we’ll blog about that after testing it). I’m going to do a heavy mulching soon as the wildflowers and other spring annuals finish up. At that time I might have to make some decisions about the sunflowers.

It will be interesting to see what the slope looks like without the sunflowers hogging all the attention. There are also summer and fall bloomers hidden in there, who will hopefully come to the foreground later this year.

Overall, I’m happy enough to wait and see how this system stabilizes over time. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. It’s a little crazy, but it’s feeding critters, which is what it’s supposed to do, so I’m not complaining. I have the feeling it will look much different next year. We’ll find out!

I’ll do a late summer/fall update to see how this thing looks in the dog days of the year.

Instant Soup Stock=Happy Flavor Bomb

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I sat down to write this post and discovered I’d pretty much written it before–this is what happens when your blog is almost 10 years old. But you know what? I’m going to repeat myself, just because I want to.

Back in 2013 I linked to this post by our friend Pascal on making instant soup stock with foraged greens: Wild Food Soup Stock. It’s great! But foraged greens have a short season here, and lately I’ve been using a more domestic recipe from the great blog Food in Jars: Homemade Vegetable Soup Concentrate.

Check them out. You’ll see the ways in which they are similar. Basically you’re just taking all the tasty, aromatic parts of soup stock (onions, parsley, carrots, etc.) and grinding them up with salt.

Don’t be put off if you don’t have all the ingredients called for in either recipe. I’ve never followed either of the recipes exactly. Use what you’ve got.

The salt preserves the ingredients and is, of course, flavor in itself.  Because of all the salt, this soup starter/stock stays fresh in the fridge for months and months. It seems like a lot of salt, but not all that much ends up in any one finished dish. You will want to hold back on added salt in your recipe, though. I usually end up adding just a touch of salt at the end, but not nearly as much as I would without the stock base.

I love this stuff. I use it all the time. It’s one of my favorite cooking staples. I want you to love it, too.

What do you do with it? Well, we all know that stock makes everything taste better, and I do make and freeze stock, but that is a bit of a chore, and I end up being stingy with my stock, considering a recipe and wondering whether it is “stock worthy.”

When you have instant stock in the fridge, you don’t have to hold back.  Just sling spoonfuls of it into anything you’re making. It goes in the rice water, in the couscous water–into any cooked grain situation. It gets stirred into beans to finish them. It starts off all soups and stews. It can be soup in itself–just add some to some hot water and toss in whatever you’ve got in the fridge to make a quick soup. Basically, if the recipe is savory and calls for water at some point, the water gets supercharged with flavor.

The best thing is that one batch of this will last you for months. So just a bit of effort up front yields long-lasting rewards.

Please give it a try!

Meet the Solavore Sport Solar Oven

IMG_7172 (1)As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the good folks at Solavore have loaned us a solar oven to play with this summer. We’re still working on how to cook in the thing–more on that later–but we thought we’d take a moment to show you the oven itself.

The basics:

This is a Solavore Sport, which sells from their website for $229.00 US, plus $39.50 for the optional reflector. (We’d recommend the reflector, unless you live near the equator, or only plan to use your oven at midday in high summer.)

Solavore is a woman-run company, based in Minnesota, and the ovens are made the U.S. Plus, Solavore partners with NGOs to bring sun ovens to sun-rich, fuel-poor developing countries.

Solavore keeps an extensive, and attractive recipe section on their site.

The oven itself:

The floor of the oven measures 9 1/4 inches x 17 1/2.

It weighs 9 pounds.

It is entirely made of plastic. The body is all black molded insulated plastic, while the lid is double-walled clear plastic, molded to fit the oven body.  There seems to be a trade off going on here between portability (and perhaps lower shipping costs) and structure. They opted for it not to have a heavy casing.

It doesn’t seem flimsy by any means, but at the same time you can imagine doing it some serious damage if you were to trip over it. I worry particularly about cracking the lid around the thin edges. Yet at the same time, I really appreciate the portability. I love how light and easy the Sport is to manipulate. It is simply no big thing to move it around, and until you get the hang of solar cooking, and learn the way the light moves in your yard, you’re going to be moving it a lot. It’s light weight makes it good for camping and picnicking, too.

IMG_7224The oven is made to hold two cooking pots at a time, which is handy, because you can do a main dish and a side at once, or a pot of something for dinner and a pot of something for lunch.The Solavore comes equipped with two shiny new black Speckleware casserole pots for this purpose, though you may choose to use any pot you like–though lightweight black pots like the Speckleware are best for solar cooking. It’s also big enough hold a casserole dish or a quarter sheet pan.

The Solavore also comes with a free standing thermometer which you can use to monitor the internal temperature of the oven.

We don’t have experience with any other commercial sun oven by which to compare the Solavore Sport, so all we can say so far is that it totally works. It’s been getting to cooking temperature easily (200-250F), even though the sun is still a little low in the sky at this time of year, as long as you follow the directions and use it correctly.

IMG_7174Quibble with the clips

So far we have no complaints at all, and only one quibble: the clips.

The lightweight lid must be clipped down to the oven body to maintain proper heat efficiency. Having failed to read the starting instructions properly (ahem), I missed that detail on our first trial, and had trouble getting the oven up to cooking temp–which lead to a lentil disaster.

I failed to notice the lid clips were there at all first time out because they are not immediately obvious. They are small metal hooks which are permanently affixed through holes in the oven’s body. They come up over the lip of the lid to hold it down tight.

The good thing about these clips is that they are very simple and would be easy to replace with a piece of wire if you break them. Also, since the clips are tied to the oven, they can’t be lost, which is another major advantage.

The downside is that they are finicky to use. I have a hard time getting them over the lip of the lid, and always feel like I’m in danger of abrading or even cracking the edge of the lid as I force them on and off. Each time I  wrestle with them, I dream of a quick release system, or wish I could just use binder clips to clamp the lid to the body–but regular clips don’t work because of the particular shape of the lid/body interface.

But all in all, that is, as I say, only a quibble.  We’re enjoying playing with the oven, although as I alluded to in my last post on the subject, there is a learning curve to solar cooking. We’ve had a few disasters, which we’ll talk about, but we’re beginning to get a good feel for what works well in this cooking system. More to come soon!

The Horror Beneath the Armoire

IMG_0527I lost my keys, and being in that state of advanced desperation where you search for your keys in the most unlikely of spots, I made the mistake of looking beneath our armoire.

This ungainly piece of furniture has a mere inch or two gap between its lower face and the floor. Better it should have a higher clearance, or no gap at all, but instead, there is this little gap that resists brooms and vacuum wands.

Of course, tidy people would approach this difficulty by moving the armoire so they could dust beneath it at decent intervals. Or maybe they’d wrap a coat hanger with a dust cloth and slither around on their bellies, stabbing into the darkness. Really, who knows what lengths tidy people might go to? Not us, that’s for certain. We choose to ignore that space entirely between the times we paint the bedroom.

So, anyway, looking for my keys, I turned on the flashlight on my phone and peered into the gap, but still couldn’t see very well, because the gap was so low. So I took some blind pictures with the flash, and they revealed a horrifying yet charming landscape of dereliction: a dollhouse version of the Blair Witch Project, in which three lost mice are hopelessly trapped in nightmare landscape of dust bunnies and cobwebs.

And, ironies of ironies, while I did not find my keys, I did find a lost vacuum cleaner attachment.

(Apologies for any trauma these images have caused our tidy friends.)

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Low-Tech Magazine

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Chinese wheelbarrow with sail assist. Image courtesy of Low Tech Magazine.

Yesterday, Erik and I had the privilege of interviewing Kris De Decker, the creator of one of our very favorite Internet resources, Low-Tech Magazine. Those of you who know Low-Tech will understand our vast excitement. To make it all even happier, he seems like a really good guy.

If you haven’t heard of this blog, believe me, Root Simple readers, if you like what we do here, you’ll love Low-Tech. This is the sort of site you fall into and stay for days.

Our interview with him will appear on our podcast next Wednesday, but in the meantime I suggest you whet your appetite by reading some of our favorite articles:

How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

How to Downsize a Transportation Network: The Chinese Wheelbarrow

If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots?

Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, Not Spaces

Recycling Animal and Human Dung is the Key to Sustainable Farming