Our Disastrous Summer Garden


I’m struggling this morning for metaphors to describe our summer vegetable and fruit garden: Napoleon at Waterloo, the Hindenburg disaster, being locked in a cell with a recording of “Achy Breaky Heart” in a continuous loop. In short, growing edibles this year was an unmitigated disaster. Here’s a few of the things that happened:

  • We planted a bed of basil seeds and got lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) instead. Yes, I know lambsquarters are edible, but I was looking forward to the basil.
  • Our Swiss Chard, usually a good performer, was stunted and anemic. It seemed incapable of growing past 8 inches.
  • Our tomatoes grew well, produced a fair amount of fruit and then abruptly dried up and croaked.
  • We planted zucchini too late and it got a bad case of powdery mildew.
  • The raccoons figured out how to bust through the bird netting that was supposed to keep them out of the vegetable beds. They completely obliterated two out of four vegetable beds.
  • With the exception of our pomegranate tree, every last peach, apple, persimmon and most of our figs were harvested by squirrels and raccoons.
  • The Nectaplum, Santa Rosa plum and nectarine trees did not produce a single fruit due, I think, to a lack of chill hours caused by climate change.
  • Drought, of course, made everything worse. We had to water our already alkaline soil with alkaline water. Only the native plants and what we call the Biblical plants seem happy (e.g. the fig and the pomegranate).
  • The drought and an extreme heat wave pushed everything in the garden to the edge–and a few over the edge: in the last month we abruptly lost some garden stalwarts, including a rosemary bush and a culinary sage.

Despite all these disasters, I came back from the Heirloom Expo with some ideas:

  • Spend a little less time on Facebook and a little more time in the garden.
  • Come up with better raccoon fortifications.
  • Take out stone fruit that isn’t performing (Kelly has wanted to do this for a long time but I’ve dragged my heels).
  • Take better notes.
  • Improve soil and restart a composting project.
  • Come up with small metal cages to enclose fruit (I have a notion that involves 3D printing–more on this later).

How did your garden do this summer?

How to Water Trees During a Drought

This is a practical follow-up to my scree last week on trees dying because no one is watering them. Thing is, we should be watering them, even if we’re really worried about the drought, even if we’re doing everything we can to save water. We need to invest in trees because they save more water than they use. They are our allies in this drought, and they are dying.

Now, I thought I was going to have to write up all this tree-watering stuff from scratch, but our friend Richard Hayden, the head gardener of the amazing Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, sent me a note with links to these videos produced by the Forest Service. I like these videos because they’re concise, and the info is solid.

Thank you, Richard!
Thank you, Forest Service!

The video at the top of the post is on watering mature trees, the one at the bottom about watering young trees–the two techniques are a bit different.

Also, you can find more learning resources at Tree People.

What are trees worth?


Trees and people, happy together. The Mall and Literary Walk, Central Park, NYC. Photo by Ahodges7.

Trees are dying all over Los Angeles, because of the drought. No one seems to think they need to be watered.

Trees which are not simply dying of thirst are being ripped out and replaced with “water saving landscapes” of succulents, cactus and gravel.

Both of these trends are disturbing, and are the result of ignorance more than bad intent. Our culture as a whole is green blind if not outright biophobic. I’ve come to understand that most people don’t even really see plants, except as a vague green background to their busy lives, and even fewer people understand plants and the value they bring to our lives and the world at large.

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer, taking refuge in green places which restore the soul. Returning to LA has been hard, because all of the plant life here is so very stressed. When I’m outside, it’s almost as if I can hear a constant, low-level cry of misery from the land, and that pain resonates in me, creating a deep sense of helplessness and sorrow. My strategy for dealing with this for the past couple of weeks has been to hide indoors and bury myself in books–to just shut down.

But I seem to have run into the limits of self-pity, and now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to help the situation. This post is a small gesture in that direction. I’m beginning with trees, because they are the lynchpin of the loving landscape.

In defense of trees

Shrubs and annuals come and go. Trees are long term residents of the landscape, surveyors of our lives. Above and below ground they knit together communities on many levels. They deserve special attention. They deserve to be valued and cherished for what they are, more than simply what they do for us. That said, they do a whole heck of a lot for us:

  • In mercenary, real estate terms, trees create street appeal and bump up property values by thousands of dollars. This, though, is the least part of their true value.
  • Trees cast shade, which cools the ground, which cools the environment at large, countering the urban heat island effect. They also cool the air by passing water through their leaves. A healthy urban forest makes for a much more liveable city for us all.  (The city of Melbourne understands this.) And trees clustered around your own house make your home cooler in the summer, reducing your energy bills. Low lying cactus and succulent plants do little or nothing nothing to cool the city, while gravel, concrete and artificial turf make your yard a blistering heat trap.
  • Trees help the land absorb rain, increasing ground water levels and preventing destructive run off and storm flooding. (See this and this.) A single tree can absorb thousands of gallons of rain water as it falls, like a giant sponge. What will happen to the dry slopes of California this winter, when the winter rains come, and our trees are gone, from stress and fire? Mudslides my friends, and lots of them. I’m already dreading it. But this isn’t just a California problem. Crazy weather is the norm the world over now, and trees are one of our best buffers against the worst of it.
  •  Trees don’t only hold water in the ground,  they share it with other plants. Having a big tree in your yard is like having a pump and well which you don’t have to maintain.
  • Trees make for clean water. By absorbing all that storm water, they pull the filth from our streets into the soil, and the soil cleans it, pro bono. (This is one of the many benefits of healthy soil, another important player in environmental health.) If that storm water runs unchecked, it just dumps all of the oil and fertilizer and insecticides and poo straight into the nearest waterway.
  • Trees absorb and store carbon, directly mitigating climate change–and they indirectly mitigate the change as well, by helping to temper the effects of storm water, high winds, high heat, etc.
  • Trees create food and habitat for birds, insects and mammals. We humans don’t like to share resources with the rest of creation, but trees support life of all sorts, with no trouble to us. Or maybe not, if squirrels are stripping your fruit trees clean! So we might have a vested interest in fruit trees–but all trees are beneficial to other life, above and below ground. Think of each tree as a city, teaming with life which is mostly invisible to us, but vitally important to the world.
  •  Trees heal the soul. They give us shelter from the sun and the rain. They give us a place to read and dream.  A place to hide and climb. An anchor in a shifting landscape of time and movement.  We’ve known since the 1980’s that they even speed our recovery when we’re sick.

These points just scratch the surface of what trees do for us. For more, see Tree People’s Top 22 Benefits of Trees.

Trees don’t ask much of us, but offer so much in return. I feel the least we can do is treat them well. They are valuable, long lived, complex entities. It is worth calling a professional arborist to give them a proper pruning, or to consult if they look stressed. Yes, this costs money, but removing a mature tree once it has died from neglect, disease or bad pruning is a much more expensive proposition.

If you live in a drought-stricken area, water your trees--even if you’ve never watered them before. They don’t have the resources they once had, and while they’ve been hanging on like champs for four years, they are beginning to give up. I see it everywhere.

Watering trees in a drought is a long-term investment. It is even reasonable to plant a new tree, as you would light a candle in the darkness. Don’t water anything else in your yard, if you must, but save your trees.

So Cal Alert: Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer


Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer, from UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab

Seems the greater LA area is ground zero for the introduction of yet another exotic beetle which is killing our our beautiful native oaks and sycamores, our landscape trees, even our beloved avocado trees.

The good news is that the fungal disease propagated by the beetle can be treated if detected early. You’ll need the services of a professional arborist, but the cost of treatment will likely be less than the cost of tearing out a mature tree.

Look at this link to UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab. Here they have several PDFs on identifying and treating the disease. They also have a map showing the spread of the disease. Of course, these are only reported infections–it could be much more widely spread.

(Note: a separate invasion was recently detected in the commercial avocado groves of San Diego county, so folks further south should be on alert too.)

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