What is that black and orange bug in my garden?

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The suggestions on a recent “what’s this bug? post on this blog made me realize how hard it was to tell apart several common garden bugs: the harlequin bug, the bagrada bug, the milkweed bug and the boxelder bug. They are all flattish, orange/red and black, under an inch long, and seem to always be mating.

After doing the research, I really wanted to see all the bugs side by side, so I made this picture and this simple reference chart. It is now my gift to you. You are welcome.

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A Year after The Age of Limits: 5 Responses to the End Times

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photo by Sansculotte on de.wikipedia

Ever since Erik and I and our friend John attended the Age of Limits conference a year ago, I’ve been meaning to offer some kind of measured response to the conference.  (The Age of Limits conference is a sort of woodsy fiesta for doomers held annually in Pennsylvania. For more info, follow the link.).  I’ve hesitated to do so, though, for two reasons.

The first reason was that I wasn’t sure if I should engage with the topic. Erik will rant now and then, but overall neither of us likes to preach or “opinionate.” We’d rather just focus on the lifestyle, and let people find their own reasons for reading whatever it is we happen to be blogging about.

The second reason was ambition. In my head, a proper response to such complex topics required long, thoughtful essays with footnotes.  That was a surefire way to keep myself from writing anything at all.

Yet a year out, memories of the Age of Limits conference nag at me. I wish I were an excellent long form journalist so that I could describe the entire event in detail, because it was such a strange trip, full of interesting characters, unforgettable moments, and strong emotions. We met some really good people there.

I can’t describe the event,  not unless you come over to my house and let me ramble on for about two hours, with many asides and breaks for snacks. But I can distill my overall reaction into a handful of concepts which relate more to the overall “doomosphere” than to the conference in particular.

And since this is the Internet, the home of unfounded opinion, I’ve realized I can say whatever I want, with no footnotes. So, if you want to keep reading, I’ve whittled my responses down to five points, but it’s still long.

N.B. This is what I think, not what Erik thinks. He has his own post to write.

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Loquat season is here!

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photo courtesy of wikimedia

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) season is upon us here in our neighborhood of HaFoSaFo (that is, one special corner of Los Angeles).

This post will not have much relevance to those of you who do not live in a subtropical or mild climate, but for those of you who do, I highly encourage you to get to know the humble yet mysterious loquat.

Loquat trees abound in our neighborhood, and I don’t know if this is a purely local phenomenon or not. Loquats are hardy evergreen trees with thick, glossy leaves that remind me of citrus leaves and magnolia leaves and avocado leaves all at the same time, meaning it’s vaguely tropical looking.

They don’t seem to require much water or pruning–so they do well under benign neglect, though I’d suspect the fruit is best on trees which are not completely ignored.  This is the time of year when the fruit comes ripe, and it’s always kind of an exciting time because the loquats bridge the “fruit gap” between winter citrus and stone fruit.

The thing about loquats is that they are really suited only for fresh eating. And I mean fresh off the tree–they don’t keep long after they’ve been picked, which is why they never appear in stores. We’ve tried to figure out things to do with them, but they defy preservation because they are made mostly of water. They are also small, have skins which are impossible to peel (you just eat the skins), and large pits, all of which makes processing difficult. Yet they can be really tasty. The best ones taste a little like citrus honey and have a nice floral fragrance. Their light, watery flesh is refreshing on a hot day

(If anyone has figured out something to do with loquats other than eat them out of hand, please do let us know! The best we’ve been able to do is to infuse them in vodka, and that was not all that thrilling in the end.)

They are highly prolific, too. So right now all of the loquat trees in the ‘hood are studded with hundreds upon hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of little yellow-orange fruits. These fruits seem to be nuisances to most homeowners–I rarely see a tree which looks as if it’s being harvested, or if it is, the harvesting does not make a dent in the bounty. After all, how many fresh loquats can you gobble down in a day? All of which is to say I feel no guilt about snagging loquats off of accessible trees as I walk around.* On-the-hoof snacking is one of the pleasures of walking at this time of year!
Ripe loquats tend to be a little larger and fatter than the unripe ones, and the color is darker. They also have a tiny bit of give under the fingers. You’ll get a sense of how to tell which ones are best with experience. I usually rub the fuzz off the skin before eating, which, in my book, counts as washing. Beware the pits! Some trees have better fruit than others, so if you try a loquat and find it less than thrilling, try fruit from another tree. You may find a new favorite seasonal treat.
ETA:  Days after posting, I just got around to reading the Wikpedia entry on loquat. (ahem) Turns out there are over 800 cultivars of loquat, some of which are bred for smaller seeds and sweeter fruit, others which are bred for white or orange flesh, others which are bred for backyard production, meaning they fruit in waves, a bit at a time, while others are bred for commercial production, meaning their fruit appears and ripens all at once.  Some trees are meant to be ornamental. Methinks some of the trees in our neighborhood are commercial producers, and others downright feral. All of this is to say that there is going to be a huge variation in the loquat experience from place to place–which is reflected in the comments below.
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*Re: fruit foraging: I consider it fair/legal to snag fruit from street trees, those trees growing on the strip of public land between the street and the sidewalk, and fruit which overhangs the sidewalk. Now, of course, you don’t want to be a jerk about this–I pay attention to context, and won’t take fruit that people seem to be using, or which seems precious in any way. (Loquats I classify as a weed/borderline nuisance.) It’s never okay to step onto someone’s land to take fruit.

Also, I would never take vegetables from any part of a yard, public or not. That’s just different. To take a random example, I would never, say, help myself to someone’s giant squash.

And it’s important not to be greedy. I don’t take more than one fruit from a tree at a time (or maybe two or three, in the case of loquats). But if the tree is burdened with fruit and rotten fruit is splattering on the sidewalk, it seems more a favor than anything else to take one or two.

Of course, it is always best to ask the homeowner for permission. In the case of loquats, we’ve done this in order to harvest them in quantity for our preservation experiments. Homeowners are usually happy to share, even let you onto their land, to make use of their fruit. It turns out most folks just don’t know what to do with the bounty of fruit trees, or just don’t have the time/equipment/mobility to deal with harvest. In return, if you get permission to take lots of fruit, you can return some to them in the form of preserves or whatnot. This keeps the good will flowing.

Easter Lessons

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So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.

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Anagallis monellii : A New Favorite

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Last fall we planted Anagallis monellii “Blue Pimpernel” in a bed of mixed flowers and herbs. This plant is neither edible or medicinal, but we hoped the bees would like its many blue flowers. Anagallis monellii is a Mediterranean native, so it is well suited to the California climate, and it follows that it does not need much water. It is perennial in zones 9 to 11 (that’s us), but can be grown as an annual elsewhere.

If you see Anagallis monellii without blooms, it is not much to look at. It’s a rangy, low-slung plant with uninteresting foliage. What it excels at is blooming.  I believe it comes in a few colors, but “Blue Pimpernel” makes 1″ flowers in a rich gentian blue with magenta eyes, and it makes lots and lots and lots of them, so much so that you can’t even see the foliage through the flowers. It’s insanely tough and cheerful, and the blue contrasts well with our profusion of volunteer California poppies and Calendula.

Basic factoids:  Grows about 10″ tall and spreads up to 20″,  low water, likes rich soil, blooms most in full sun, can be propagated from seed, self-sows. It blooms for a long time–spring through fall, in frosty climates, that is. We’ll see what it does here in the winter. We bought ours as seedlings from Annie’s Annuals, which is pricey but worth it, because the plants are beautiful, impeccably shipped, and never root bound!

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Local Bite Challenge Starts Today

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Sorry for the last minute notice, but I thought some of you might be interested in a project that our internet neighbor, Melissa, at Ever Growing Farm is launching her Local Bite Challenge today, and is hoping some of you will join her. She and her partner will be eating locally for 100 days on a budget of 100 bucks a week.  There’s all sorts of activities and mini-challenges over the 100 day period to keep you inspired.

So if you’ve considered eating more locally, but haven’t quite found the gumption to embrace it yet, this would be a fun way to take the plunge, and see what you learn about your local foodscape.

This introduction page gives an overview of the project: Local Bite Challenge

How to Deal with Extremely Root Bound Plants

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First off, don’t buy root bound plants. It’s just a bad business, trouble and tears. In general, you should always try to buy the youngest plants you can find. They are healthier than plants which have spent more time in a pot, and will quickly grow to match the size of older, more expensive–and more likely than not–root bound plants.

How do you know if the plant is root bound? Look at the bottom of the pot and see if roots are poking out the bottom. This is a bad sign. Don’t be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check its condition. If you see more roots than soil, this is a bad thing. If you’re buying fruiting or flowering seedlings, look for the ones which have not yet flowered, even though the ones which have flowered are cuter and may look like they have more promise. They’d don’t. They’re flowering or fruiting out of desperation to spread their seed before they expire in their pot prisons.

But sometimes we end up with a root bound plant. This week, in a fit of madness which doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect, Erik and I broke our own rules, doing two things we never do: We 1) bought a couple of plants at The Home Despot and 2) we bought these plants in gallon-sized pots. The plants had already put up flowers. And yes, of course they were root bound. Extraordinarily so. They were living in dense pots made of their own roots.

As I tried to resuscitate and plant these babies, I realized that I should post this technique on the blog, in case it might be helpful to others.  Forgive the photos. Erik wasn’t around to help me take them, and the battery on the camera was flashing red, but I needed to get those plants in the ground as quickly as possible. I only had time for a couple of bad shots.

How to Save Root Bound Plants

First off, I’ve found that root bound plants are often dehydrated plants, because the pots are mostly full of roots, making the soil hard and water repellant. If this is so, it helps to give the plants a good soaking before you un-pot them by placing them in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Method A) Mildly root bound plants can be helped along by gently massaging the root ball with your hands just before planting to loosen the roots and open the ball if it has become hard-packed. If there are any big, long roots circling the root ball, trim those short.  You can do a similar thing with a hose to open up the soil and loosen the root ball.

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Method B) If your plant is extremely root bound, as mine were today, you’ll find you can’t simply work the roots apart with your fingers because they’ve formed a sort of impervious mat or pseudo-pot of themselves.  In this case, you have to be ruthless. Get yourself a sharp knife and make long vertical cuts down the sides of the root ball–how many depends on the size of plant, and what you think is best, but I find I usually make 3 to 5 cuts.  These cuts do violence to the roots, but will allow new root growth at the cut sites, giving the plant a chance to spread its roots out in your garden’s soil, instead of trying to live within its own, self-made prison.

In these extremes cases, there is also usually  a thick mat of tangled roots at the bottom of the root ball, pressed into the exact shape of the pot bottom. I tear this layer off.  Then I put my thumbs up the middle of the root ball and stretch it open just a little if necessary, gently,  to make sure the center is soft and not rock hard or densely tangled.

Get your plants in the ground as soon as you can after these operations. If possible, work in the shade, or in the early morning or evening, so the plants don’t spend much time with their tortured root balls exposed to the midday sun. Water well, and maybe top dress the new plantings with a handful of worm castings, or water with worm casting tea, or some other kind of plant pick-me up, to apologize to them for all of the rough handling.

It is very important to watch your plants closely after transplanting. They are like critical care patients until they begin to grow new roots. Until that time, you’ll likely have to water them more frequently than a normal plant, because their root structure is all messed up.  If the sun is strong, provide them with some shade. Also consider mulching to slow down water loss. Baby them as much as you can.

[ETA: One of our readers reminds me that another way to up your chances of success is to trim back the foliage of the plant. Fewer leaves means it will need less water, and can spend more energy growing new roots.]

No plant wants to be handled this way but with luck and care, the plant might do well afterward. The only alternative is planting it root bound, and no root bound plant can thrive. As in its pot, it will be hard to water, and it will live a short, sad life, always sickly and constrained, if it makes it at all.

As a caveat, I know of a few types of plant which can’t abide any fooling with their roots at all, like bougainvillea, for one, but if you buy a root bound plant, or allow one of your own seedlings to get that way, you really don’t have much of choice, or much to lose, so give it a try.

Quick Relief for Poison Oak

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I went camping in Poison Oak Central last week, and though I tried to be careful, I got a kiss on the back of the hand from our rakish woodland friend, Toxicodendron diversilobum (Pacific or Western Poison Oak).

It was, miraculously, the first time I’ve ever had poison oak. I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky so far.  I’ve heard that rubbing native mugwort on the skin can prevent/treat the rash, and I’ve done that a few times when I suspect I’ve brushed against some poison oak. (Mugwort almost always grows where the poison oak does.) Whether all these emergency poultices prevented anything or not is impossible to prove, because I’ve never contracted a rash until this time. I’ll keep doing it, though.

After avoiding the green bandit so long and so well, I was almost happy to get hit at last–in this mild way, mind you–because I was curious to see what the rash would look like and feel like. My exposure really was a kiss. It landed exactly where a gentleman would press his lips to a lady’s hand. Three watery blisters appeared on my knuckles after about 24 hours, accompanied by lots of general redness and itching.

First I poulticed with both mugwort and plantain, but that only worked so-so. Then I hied off to the internet and sifted through the many folk cures until I found one I liked from good ol’ Dr. Weil. He recommended running hot water over the rash, as hot as you can stand it. I don’t remember that he said how long you should do this, but I decided to do it as long as I could stand it, which in my case was probably a minute or so. He said the heat will cause the itching to flare temporarily, but then suppress the itching for hours, and speed healing as well.

Results? It worked like a charm for me. Of course, you want to be careful not to scald yourself and add insult to injury! But with that caveat aside, I definitely recommend giving it a try. I particularly liked that I could do the treatment before bed and fall asleep without itching, and be good until morning, when I’d do it again. All in all, once I discovered the hot water cure, I had bug bites which bothered me more, and lasted longer, than the poison oak rash.

What do you do for poison oak/poison ivy? And to anyone who has been lucky enough to run into both plants, is there a difference between the two in terms of the rash? Is one worse than the other? I’m only familiar with poison oak.

Bees will love your Coyote Brush Hedge

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Image: Wikipedia (our picture of the NHM’s coyote brush hedge came out blurry–which really is a shame because they were good looking hedges. You wouldn’t guess it from this pic).

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Baccharis pilularis, called coyote brush, or chaparral bloom, is an unassuming Western native plant with a secret super-power: native and non-native pollinators love, love, love! its tiny little flowers. If you want to lavish affection and care on the pollinators in your garden, plant one of these babies, if you can. It really is one of the best plants for the purpose. (For more info on coyote brush, here’s a nice post at the Curbstone Valley Farm blog with lots of pictures. And here’s its page at Theodore Payne Foundation.)

What I didn’t realize until our recent garden tour at the Natural History Museum, though, is that coyote brush makes a perfectly lovely hedge if it’s pruned up right. I’d never even thought about it. Most of the talk one hears about coyote brush is that it is sort of ho-hum in appearance but can be used to provide a background to the more showy native plants. I never even thought about how its small, sturdy, bright green, evergreen leaves make it a perfect hedge plant.

So, the lesson here is that you can have a more formal/tidy/traditional garden, and still serve the pollinators– as long as you lay off the clippers for a couple of months in the summer and let the hedge bloom. No excuses now!

For those of you in other parts of the country, can you name a good hedge bush that pollinators like for your area? And be sure to name your area, so folks around you can use the information.

On that theme, here’s a link to beneficial plant lists, organized by region, created by the Xerces Society.

Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder

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Bird feeder in the LA Natural History Museum garden.

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

The Nature Gardens at the NHM are not large by the usual standards of botanical gardens, and they are only about a year old, but they are already rich with bird and insect life. (A poorwill even visited, which apparently caused quite a bit of excitement in the birding community.) This is because the designers chose plants to serve wildlife, and the wildlife responded. Build it and they will come.

Off in one shady corner of the garden, I watched two bird feeders being merrily ransacked by more types of birds than I’ve ever seen in one place. It reminded me that I had once wanted a bird feeder–partly for the birds, and partly to provide “TV” for our indoor cats, or Kitty Convicts, as I like to call them. They really love watching the birdbath out the window. I imagined a bird feeder would be doubly exciting. After doing some window shopping and reading, though, I convinced myself that any bird feeder I bought would just end up feeding our pernicious tribe of squirrels, so I gave up the idea, figuring that in our climate, the bird bath was more critical to the birds.

So, with this in the back of my mind, I asked head gardener, Richard Hayden, how the staff kept squirrels away from the bird feeders.  He said simply, “Thistle seed. There’s just thistle seed in there and squirrels don’t eat thistle seed.”

Ohhhhhhh.

Some things become so easy once you get the right information. We just have to buy a feeder built to hold thistle seed. Which we’re doing.

Kitty TV just got a new channel.