Defeating Squirrels With Tech

After watching a squirrel chew up every single peach on our little tree, despite deploying yards of bird netting, I found myself pondering extreme and deadly measures. Then I found myself fantasizing about what I would do if I were Elon Musk. First, I’d give up on the mars idea. Mars is, after all, a lifeless, barren speck of dust lacking life’s essentials such as breathable air, plants, cats and Parmesan cheese. Why bother? How about, instead, turning that technical know-how towards the most important issue of our time: squirrel deterrence.

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As it turns out I’m not alone. At a Python programming conference, back in 2012, software engineer Kurt Grandis presented a research project he entitled, “Militarizing Your Backyard with Python: Computer Vision and the Squirrel Hordes.” Grandis’ motivation was a squirrel attack on his peach tree and, worse, his kid’s pumpkin patch. The full lecture details Grandis’ attempt to create a program that would differentiate between squirrels and birds and then deliver a carefully aimed blast of water at just the squirrels. It’s worth viewing in its entirety just to hear how Grandis resolves the image recognition question, “What is squirrelness?” If you’re impatient you can fast forward to the 16 minute mark for the video. Spoiler alert: it works, at first, and then the squirrels quickly learn to ignore the blasts of water.

It leaves me wondering if a scary clown strategy might work better such as it did with this bear:

Kidding aside, two Southern California biologists are using high powered lasers to dissuade ravens from attacking endangered desert tortoises. The biologists are also speculating about the possibility of “gamifying” this task by opening it up to anyone who wants to take a potshot via the internet. Which leads to my question of the day. Would you readers be interested in a gamified laser squirrel shoot in the Root Simple backyard? Time to learn Python!

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Reader Favorite California Native: Ceanothus

Image: Kousvet

Ceanothus thyrsyflorus ‘Repens.’ Image: Kousvet

When I asked readers for native plant favorites not included in our short list of six favorites, we had a few votes for Ceanothus a.k.a California lilac, wild lilac, and soap bush. In case you’re not familiar with this stunning plant, it’s a family of shrubs and ground covers that have dark green leaves and deep purple or sometimes white flowers.

The reason I didn’t include it is that it didn’t meet my “bombproof” criteria, at least in our garden. It’s one of the many plants we’ve managed to kill. It’s true that once you get it going, other than yearly pruning, you can retire to the nearest bar and rest on your gardening laurels. But getting it established can be tricky. The most common mistake is over-watering during the summer months and planting in overly fertile soil. We didn’t over-water, so how we manged to kill three of them is a Root Simple gardening mystery.

That said, many of our neighbors have had no problems with Ceanothus. If you have a well drained sunny spot, it’s a good bet. I’m particularly fond of the short sprawling varieties such as Ceanothus thyrsiflorus repens.

The UC Davis Arboretum keeps a list of “All Star” plants that includes Ceanothus ‘Concha’ and Ceanothus maritimus ‘Valley Violet’. You can find more Ceanothus varieties on the Las Pilitas Nursery website.

By United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge: Ceanothus americanus L., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=666534

Ceanothus americanus Image: United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Our East Coast readers can plant Ceanothus americanus, a plant used by early settlers as a substitute for British tea.

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Top Six California Native Plant Performers

whitesageBetween Kelly’s aortic episode and my mom’s passing, gardening took a back seat during the past six months. As a result, our yard doesn’t exactly look like Versailles. I’m thankful Kelly had the foresight, before our family emergencies, to reduce the amount of fussy annuals and increase the number of California native plants. While no garden is ever “zero maintenance,” some plants, such as these six California natives can survive with less care. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list but just a few of the plants that have been successful in our garden. Your results may vary.

1. White sage (Salvia apiana)
Kelly and I both love this plant. It’s aromatic, useful as a spice and incense and both honeybees and native bees love it. There’s a lot of unethical foraging going on in our local wilderness areas to supply the Silver Lake shamans with their white sage smudge sticks. Grow white sage in your yard and you can roll your own smudge sticks. You can also put a leaf in your water bottle for a refreshing drink. Each fall it should be pruned back to avoid legginess.

IMG_79742. Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii)
This one is becoming as popular with house flippers as Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) was back in the aughts. It’s easy to see why. Salvia clevelandii is pretty and grows like a weed.

blacksage3. Black Sage (Salvia mellifera)
Our black sage is doing so well that it might just swallow the entire backyard. This is good as we haven’t a clue what to do with the part of the yard it occupies. Sprawl on Salvia mellifera!

gigantium4. St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
Note the “giganteum” in the scientific name for this member of the buckwheat family. Give this baby some room. Ours is doing well in partial shade.

toyonsmall5. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutitolia)
This treeish native stared the drought in the face and laughed. We planted it in the neighbor’s yard where it got cut down accidentally. A year later it had grown back to its former glory. Birds love the little red berries, which can be dried for a not very exciting human snack.

coyotebush6. Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis)
A hellstrip favorite, this bright green ground cover can keep native plant phobic neighbors happy and withstand some late night trampling from Silver Lake shamans on their way back from Coachella.

A warning here: all of these plants are large. Watch your spacing when you plant them and don’t put them too close together.

While we’re talking about native plants, our friend David Newsom has launched an important new initiative called the Wild Yards Project to encourage people to “restore native plant and animal habitat, one yard at a time, using native plants and trees wherever you live.” Note that this project is for people all over the US, not just in California. We’re going to have him on the podcast to discuss the project in depth, but before we do that I’d like all of you to join the Wild Yards Facebook and Instagram. David would especially like people to post before and after photos of their gardens.

Do you have some favorite California natives that should be included on our “top performers” list?

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Weed Cloth Fail

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One of the few, in my opinion, indisputable truisms in gardening is covered this week on Emily Green’s blog Chance of Rain. Green’s warning to the novice gardener: weed cloth always fails.

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There’s considerable controversy about this subject but I reached the same conclusion as Green. I’m still picking bits of plastic weed cloth out of our backyard from a ill fated decomposed granite project dating from nearly fifteen years ago.

It’s time to declare a truce with the weeds. As Gerard Manly Hopkins says in his poem “Inversnaid,”

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

A programming note: my mom is still in the hospital. I’m putting the podcast on hold temporarily and posts will be light for the foreseeable future. I appreciate your thoughts and prayers.

#StopFakeBrickRed

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How long, fake red brick color will you continue to abuse our patience?

Go ahead and call me a color snob, but we just have to retire this ugly red tinted concrete color from our landscapes. I don’t think this color has a name so let’s just roll with the hip kids and give it a hashtag: #FakeBrickRed. While we’re at it let’s go ahead and start the movement to #StopFakeBrickRed.

#FakeBrickRed has its ancestry in the unholy family of fake masonry products, chunks of concrete that try to masquerade as something they are not. Real bricks are made by firing a combination of sand, clay, lime, iron oxide and magnesia. The iron oxide and lime give bricks their distinctive red hues. Fake bricks are simply molded concrete with a bit of tint added in to hide the gray. Fake bricks are related to their ugly cousins, the cinder block or concrete masonry unit, ironically the construction material of choice for the big box stores that peddle #FakeBrickRed. #FakeBrickRed was probably arrived at by some unholy combination of market research and raw materials accounting back during the lowest point in architectural history, the 1950s and 60s.

IMG_2259Unfortunately for us all, #FakeBrickRed has metastasized from the masonry department and spread throughout the Big Box Store. Why were these wood products #FakeBrickRed?

Image source: Wikipedia.

Image source: Wikipedia.

And why, for the love of Zeus, does mulch end up this color?

Yes, there may be more urgent hashtags to agitate about such as #envelopegate and #FewerFeatures. But things that try to look like other things always end up looking like, well, things that try to look like other things. #StopFakeBrickRed!

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