How to kill your palm tree

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Erik and I have been enjoying Dr. Jerry Turney’s Tree Identification classes at the Los Angeles Arborteum. Talk about high tree geekery! The last one was all about palms, and though I know that most of our readers probably don’t live in palm-friendly climates, I’m putting this out there for those of you who do, and for all you random Googlers.

My take away from the talk is that most of the horticulture problems involving palms rise from poor practice and bad information. If a palm gets enough water, doesn’t freeze, and doesn’t get hacked up by us in misguided attempts to prune them, they are stately, beautiful, easy care trees.

So these are 4 good ways to try to kill your tree:

  1. Never Water It.  Palm trees grow in the desert, yes, but they are oasis plants. They grow by open water, or above underground water. They are tough, but tough is not the same as invincible, and they don’t show stress as clearly as other trees do, so you may not know that it is thirsty until it is too late. If it gets no water, one day your palm may just droop over, like a spent flower, and that is that. As the drought in Southern California continues, I’m beginning to worry about our iconic street palms. We tend to give them no thought whatsoever, but it may be time to start watering them if we want to keep them.
  2. Over Prune. If you imagine a clock face overlaid on the crown of a palm, never cut above 9 and 3 o’clock. And never, ever, opt for the heinous and misguided extreme pruning called the pineapple or hurricane or candle style cut, which leaves just a few fronds poking out at the top. Pruning a palm this way will only stress the palm and stands a good chance of killing it. Here’s a quick photo reference.
  3. Prune your palm with dirty tools. Diseases are carried on chainsaws and the like. Poor pruning hygiene has infected the stately 100 year old Canary Island Date palms in our local Elysian Park with deadly Fusarium wilt. Simple carelessness destroyed this beloved local landmark.
  4. Climb the palm with spikes. Those spikes leave holes which do not heal. They become portals for various sorts of fungal infections. These infections can be as dangerous to you as the plant, because if the crown rots from the middle, you may not notice it is even sick until the entire crown just falls off and plummeting down, all two tons of it. Falling palm crowns smash cars and kill people.

All in all, most of the problems palms suffer come from us pruning them. The simple solution is to leave them alone. Don’t prune it if you don’t have to. Don’t be fetishistic about tidyiness. Let the palm be its natural self. It knows how to grow, it knows where it wants its fronds and boots– after all, palms are much, much, much older than us as a species. They know what they’re doing. You’ll save money and the palm will thank you if you leave it alone. If you do prune your palm, hire a company that knows what they’re doing, or research the topic well before doing it yourself.

One final fascinating fact: you can read the history of a palm in its trunk.  When it undergoes stress from extreme drought or bad pruning, the trunk contracts. If you see a trunk which has pinched areas, you know that something bad happened at that time.

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Bidens rebuttal

Bidens biternata. Image: Wikipedia.

Bidens biternata. Image: Wikipedia.

Judging by the cries of dismay in the comment section on yesterday’s post, I believe it is time for a small correction of official Root Simple opinion on the weed Bidens. I didn’t get to see yesterday’s post before it went up and if I had, I probably would have added a paragraph praising Bidens, despite its wicked little seeds. Erik was frustrated when he wrote that post because he had just spent an hour pricking the hitchhikers out of his clothes. I don’t blame him, because the same thing happened to me when I pulled some the week before, and cleanup wasn’t fun. They weren’t only in my clothes–they were buried in my skin! Getting them out of dog fur must be a real joy. This is a mighty persistent weed.

But it is also a popular one. This summer has been an education in Bidens for me–though I did not know its name for a long while.

It was a weed I’d never seen before, which is odd, because I feel like I know my local weeds. This one is exotic to me. It spontaneously erupted in our front and back yards around midsummer. (Was it in the mulch? Carried on a wandering cat or possum or goldfinch?) I was intrigued by its delicate leaves, which appear very genteel and vaguely floral. I was curious as to what kind of plant it was–so I let it be. Eventually it developed small unspectacular yellow flowers. In my mind it was a pretty-ish weed, unidentified, but fairly harmless. I kept meaning to look it up, and at the same time, I pondered pulling it because it was competing for water with my more officially invited garden plants. (Since then I’ve learned that it might give off competitive chemicals, so probably isn’t the best companion to plants I actually want to keep in my garden.)

I am always curious about volunteers in the garden because they’re saying something about the state of the garden. In permacultural terms, the soil calls the weeds it wants and needs. I’m not smart enough to know what the Bidens signifies yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open.

What I could see, though, easily, was the busy cloud of insects buzzing around this mystery plant: honeybees, little native bees and flies and these tiny orange-ish moths that I’ve never seen before. Good pollinator plants remind me of space stations (the kind in movies, that is): complex structures full of vehicles of different sizes approaching, docking, departing, filling the airspace with frantic activity all the day long.This was definitely a good pollinator plant, an important source of nectar in a dry season, so I left all the plants in place.

My only regret came when the blooms were mostly gone and it was time for fall clean-up in the yard. I pulled it. That’s when I discovered that Bidens bite! Those seed clusters, which are beautiful black starbursts on the plants are murder to the unsuspecting gardener. I did warn Erik! I may have failed to tell him about its pollinator feeding qualities–but I definitely told him to be very careful if he pulled any. He just didn’t get how careful!

Only after our encounter with the seed did we finally get serious about ID-ing the plant. As Erik mentions in his post, the Facebook group Plant Identification told us it was some type of Bidens, and after further poking around I’m going to tentatively identify it as Bidens biternata.

Finally, as our commenters noted, it is a medicinal plant (And, as another reader pointed out, Bidens aurea makes a natural red/pink/orange dye). I can’t comment much on it’s medicinal value, because I haven’t done much reading about it yet, but what very little I’ve read already has me wanting to tincture some of it for its antibacterial properties. Unfortunately we’ve just pulled all of it from our yard and sent the plants away in the green bin, but little baby Bidens are popping up already, so I think I’ll let a few of those grow out. I have the feeling that Bidens is going to be a new permanent resident in our yard.

Least Favorite Plant: Bidens

14856148_1192325424191374_6246555258212959974_oBeware the Bidens! Kelly and I were naive when it came to this common plant. It looked innocuous so we let a few grow. We’ve never seen it before in our yard and had to post a picture to Facebook’s only useful group, Plant Identification, in order to identify it.

Bidens is in the Asteraceae family which includes sunflowers, daisies and asters. There are many different varieties of Bidens and an equal number of popular names, according to Wikipedia: “beggarticks, black jack, burr marigolds, cobbler’s pegs, Spanish needles, stickseeds, tickseeds and tickseed sunflowers.”

Those popular names should give some clues as to the plant’s behavior. Brush up against it and this happens:

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It turns out that nature has brilliantly designed these seeds to hitch a ride on mammals. Just touch or lightly brush up against the seed pods, which resemble mid-century chandeliers, and you’ll be picking out seeds for the next hour. Plants can’t move on their own so they’ve got to enlist helpers. In the case of Bidens, we’re the Uber.

Do you have Bidens in your garden?

Paper Wasps: Your New BFFs

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We don’t spend nearly enough time admiring the works of nature, because we are too busy admiring ourselves. Sure, humans invented smartphones, but what is a smartphone compared to an acorn? The thing is, the more you learn about nature, the more you learn about it, the more it blows your mind.

All this summer I’ve been fascinated with Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp. In North America there is a native paper wasp, which is quite similar, but the non-native European variant is more the wasp you will  likely be dealing with in urban/suburban North America, because unlike their native counterparts, Euro wasps aren’t shy. They are the ones who will build a nest by your back door, or on the side of your mailbox. Paper wasps build those distinctive, easy to recognize papery nests made of many cells. There are other types of native wasps which build with different materials, such as mud. Honeybee colonies, of course, are made of wax, and in cold climates you’ll never see those just hanging out in the open air. Honeybees like to build inside cavities.

Polistes dominula really like our front porch, and every year we host a colony out there. The nest rarely exceeds the size of a tennis ball. This year, though, it is more than twice that size. This is our fault. We did not knock down the previous year’s empty nest, so they were able to reuse it and get a real jump start in terms of colony size. (Generally they don’t like to reuse nests, but can do so– in this case the queen started a new nest next to the old nest and annexed it as she built).

img_7454So the population of wasps is accordingly quite large, and perhaps a bit worrisome to visitors, who make it up our stairs only to be confronted with a large wasp nest by the door. Yet we have not had any bad encounters with our waspish neighbors. In fact, we’ve never had a single problem with our porch wasps ever, not one sting, despite the fact the like to nest a couple feet from our front door, despite the fact I hang laundry all around them, despite the fact that Erik’s favorite chair is just beneath them

They truly are peaceable creatures, which is why it saddens me when I hear that someone panicking about a wasp nest, calling the exterminator or heading off to the big box store for a can of poison. When I hear about this, I always want to bring up a few points:

  1. Paper wasps are, as I’ve said, peaceable unless their nest is disturbed. The process of trying to get rid of them is what makes them ornery.
  2. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, those reviled picnic crashers who are attracted to meat and like to hang out on the lips of your soda can. Those guys live in underground nests. Your resident paper wasps will not hassle you if you’re doing backyard grilling or enjoying lemonade on the porch. They don’t like our food.
  3. Wasps are seasonal creatures. They build their nests in the spring and the colony disperses in the fall. You can solve your wasp “problem” by simply waiting it out. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Wait til they die off in the fall, knock the old nest down, and next spring, keep your eye out for any single wasps trying to establish nests in your space. That would be a queen trying to start a new colony. It is a lot easier to discourage a single wasp than to wait and deal with a full populated nest. But I never discourage them, because…
  4. Wasps are a gardener’s best friend! Sure, ladybugs are cute and all, but wasps are stone cold killers working for your benefit, like your own army of mini Dexters. Their favorite prey is caterpillars, e.g. your arch enemies the cabbage lopers and hornworms, but they are also fond of aphids. They swoop down on garden pests like tiny eagles–or flying monkeys–or homicidal Amazon drones– and drag their ravaged bodies back to the nest to the nest to feed their babies. Only the larvae are carnivorous. The adults live on nectar, so wasps are both pest hunters AND valuable pollinators. You want a healthy garden? Host a paper wasp colony.

These are my arguments for adopting a tolerant attitude for paper wasps around your house. Here are some more cool things to know about them:

Only fertile queens survive the winter. The rest of the colony disperses and dies. The fertile queens mate one last time in the fall, and then find some little nook in which to hibernate over the winter (this is amazing to me and I haven’t found any details about it yet.)  In the early spring she emerges and builds a tiny nest, like maybe six cells, to generate a first generation of workers to help her out.

These workers are female, as with the bees, and as soon as they hatch they get to work on enlarging the nest and feeding and tending the next generation of workers. So when you look at a paper wasp nest, this is what they are doing. The wasp nest is a fairly mellow place compared to the extremely crowded, restless interior of the honeybee hive. If you watch a wasp nest, mostly they just seem to be hanging out there, while a few come and go. What they are actually doing, as far as I can figure, is slowly masticating wood pulp to make new cells, or stuffing caterpillars down larvae mouths.  They are daylight creatures, so during the day the nest will only have a few wasps on it, whereas in the evening they will all come home and every inch will be covered with huddled bodies.

I’d love to take a closer look at all this, but as mellow as our relationship might be, I’m not sticking my nose inches from their nest! Someday, though, maybe we can set up a spy camera.

Here is one of those jaw dropping natural science facts: wasps choose the destiny of the developing larvae in the nest– whether will they be workers or “founders” — that is, fertile wasps. They influence this by vibration, by drumming with their antennae. These vibrations alter the gene expression of the larvae, pushing them one way or the other.

If I’ve got my facts right, the males are produced only with the purpose of breeding–like honeybee drones, they do not work. The wasp queen is mobile, so she can choose to mate with males in her own nest, or to go out on the town looking for love– and more often she chooses non-nestmates. Which I understand, because more than likely their nestmates leave the toilet seat up all the time.  Freewheeling males attract fertile queens by staking out key landmarks, such as trees, and marking the leaves and stems with scent. I believe they prefer Drakkar Noir.

I’m feeling a little bittersweet, sitting on the couch, admiring our wasps and knowing that their days are numbered by winter–even a winter as insubstatial as the one we have here in LA. The other day something unusual happened at the nest: suddenly, most of them were airborne and swirling in circles around our porch. This is something I’ve never seen before. I only noticed because I heard the “tip-tap” of wasp bodies hitting the glass of our front door. At first I thought they might have been attacked by a bird or something, and were all riled up, but after watching for a while, I realized they didn’t seem angry, and in fact, it reminded me of something the honeybees do called orientation. Whenever a new batch of workers is hatched in a hive, they all flow out of the hive and circle around it in a big cloud for a few minutes. They are learning how to recognize the hive so they can locate it when they go out in the world. It looks crazy for a couple of minutes, and then ends as abruptly as it started. It was the same case with the wasps– the party (?) lasted for only 15 minutes or so, but was pretty impressive while it lasted. I imagined it might terrify some folks, who would assume the wasps were swarming and up to no good. I wondered if perhaps they’d just hatched their batch of males for their fall mating, the last party of the year. Maybe those males were orienting, or maybe they were all dancing their last, joyous dance before the quiet of winter sends them all to sleep.

For a complete run down of the wasp life-cycle, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web provides a really detailed read.

What Does California’s Prop 64 Say About Home Marijuana Cultivation?

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After our fist book, The Urban Homestead, came out we visited a big-box bookstore to see what category it ended up in. This was before bookstores created separate shelves for urban homesteading. Unsurprisingly, we found it in the gardening section. What did surprise me was the other books in the garden category. The overwhelming majority were about growing marijuana. There were lavish coffee table books of bud porn, detailed encyclopedias edited by huge teams of experts and countless tomes covering the technical details indoor lights, fertilizers and growing mediums.

Marijuana is the elephant in the gardening bedroom. I strongly suspect that the majority of money spent on fertilizers and gardening related products are for growing pot not petunias. This November, Californians will vote on Proposition 64 which will legalize marijuana for adults over 21. I thought I’d take a look at the text of the law to see what it says about home cultivation.

Currently, qualified patients can use and grow marijuana for medical purposes. In practice anyone can “qualify” by handing over some cash to a storefront doctor and claiming some vague symptoms. This is an exact repeat of what happened during prohibition when a shady doctor could write you a prescription for a shot of whiskey. Under the present law, according to NORML,

Qualified patients are exempt from the state permit program if cultivating less than 100 square feet for personal medical use.  Primary caregivers with five or fewer patients are allowed up to 500 square feet (AB 243, 11362.777(g) and SB 643, 19319). Exemption under this section does not prevent a local government from further restricting or banning the cultivation, provision, etc. of medical cannabis by individual patients or caregivers in accordance with its constitutional police powers under Section 7, Article XI of the CA Constitution (11362.777(g))

In other words, right now there’s a confusing patchwork of regulation when it comes to personal cultivation.

Here’s the text of Proposition 64 relating to home cultivation:

11362.2. (a) Personal cultivation of marijuana under paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) a/Section 11362.1 is subject to the following restrictions:
(1) A person shall plant, cultivate, harvest, dry, or process plants in accordance with local ordinances, if any, adopted in accordance with subdivision (b) of this section.
(2) The living plants and any marijuana produced by the plants in excess of 28.5 grams are kept within the person’s private residence, or upon the grounds of that private residence (e.g., in an outdoor garden area), are in a locked space, and are not visible by normal unaided vision from a public place.
(3) Not more than six living plants may be planted, cultivated, harvested, dried, or processed within a single private residence, or upon the grounds of that private residence, at one time. (b)(l) A city, county, or city and county may enact and enforce reasonable regulations to reasonably regulate the actions and conduct in paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 11362.1. (2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), no city, county, or city and county may completely prohibit persons engaging in the actions and conduct under paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 11362.1 inside a private residence, or inside an accessory structure to a private residence located upon the grounds of a private residence that is fully enclosed and secure. (3) Notwithstanding paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 113 62.1, a city, county, or city and county may completely prohibit persons from engaging in actions and conduct under paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 11362.1 outdoors upon the grounds of a private residence.
(4) Paragraph (3) of this subdivision shall become inoperable upon a determination by the California Attorney General that nonmedical use of marijuana is lawful in the State of California under federal law, and an act taken by a city, county, or city and county under paragraph (3) shall be deemed repealed upon the date of such determination by the California Attorney General.
(5) For purposes of this section, ”private residence” means a house, an apartment unit, a mobile home, or other similar dwelling.

In short, the proposition will prevent municipalities from forbidding indoor growing while allowing the regulation of outdoor growing. I’m not going to address what the proposition says about larger growing operations since this involves a complex maze of yet to evolve state and local laws that are hugely controversial.

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In my perfect world marijuana is just another plant, no more or less exciting that a grape vine. As a consequence of marijuana prohibition, illegal outdoor growing operations have been the cause of a lot of environmental damage and violence. Indoor growing is energy intensive and inefficient. It’s my hope that Proposition 64 will improve the current situation by legalizing personal growing (though I wish that municipalities did not have so much control over outdoor growing). Enacting laws against plants seems arrogant, and reminds me of King Canute’s demonstration of the futility of willing the tide not to come in. I have no interest in growing pot, but I think it should be legal to do so.

That said, I realize this proposition is hugely controversial and depends a lot on what will happen when the legislature and local municipalities start building up a regulatory structure surrounding the use, taxation and production of marijuana. I’m interested in hearing your opinions. To those of you who already live where pot is legal–Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington: what has legalization meant in terms of home growing operations? If you’re in California, will you be voting for or against Prop 64? If you’re not in California do you think is should be legal to grow pot? Why or why not?

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