How to Keep Skunks Out of the Yard

wireskunk Skunks love to dig up our vegetables in search of grubs. Our late Doberman used to enjoy late night backyard skunk hunting expeditions which never ended well for him. For years I’ve used bird netting to keep them out of my vegetable beds. The problem with bird netting is that it’s a pain to work with–it catches on things, tangles up, and occasionally traps a bird. I hate the stuff. It took me 16 years to realize that I could exclude skunks from the entire backyard.  All it takes is a simple strategy: know thy enemy.

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Dudley brittonii “Giant Chalk Dudleya”

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Image: Annie’s Annuals.

The Annie’s Annuals and Perennials catalog has, as the hip kids say, “dropped.” and I’m wishing we had more space for some of the amazing plants shown on all those glossy pages. One, in particular, caught my eye: Dudley brittonii “Giant Chalk Dudleya.” Just imagine spotting this plant under the light of a full moon.

Annie notes that Dudley brittonii requires excellent drainage, can be grown in pots and is suited to USDA zones 9 to 11. Given our Arrakis like conditions here in California, an excellent bonus is that this plant does well with only monthly water. It also thrives in a pot. Mature, it’s around 18 inches across.

Annie’s does mail order and we’ve had a lot of luck with their plants. I visited the nursery on a blogger junket last year and was very impressed with the variety and quality of the seedlings–no root bound plants!

Now I’ve got to remind myself that a garden needs to be viewed from an overall design perspective, not as collection of pretty plants. Maybe there’s a place for Dudley brittonii  in our garden but it will have to work with what is already there before we, as the hip kids also say, “swoop” one.

World’s Largest Kale

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The Franchi kale (collard?) “Galega De Folhas Lisas” I planted in the fall of 2012 has reached six feet. It’s a Portuguese variety used in a soup called Caldo Verde.

Given that we have such a small yard I’ve really got to stop planting gargantuan vegetables like this and those ridiculous Lunga di Napoli squash. Root Simple is at risk of devolving into a geek with large veggie Tumblr site.

Hügelkultur in dry climates?

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Image: Urbania Hoeve.

Hügelkultur, popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, is the practice of burying logs in a mound to create a raised bed that composts in place. As the logs break down they add organic matter and create, in theory, a rich soil full of air gaps, fungal and microbial life.

But the thought of mounding anything in our dry climate doesn’t make sense to me. As I said in my post about the pros and cons of raised beds, if I didn’t have contaminated soil I’d grow my veggies in the ground. A Root Simple reader from Cyprus, which has a very similar climate as ours, said that Hügelkultur experiments there had not worked out. I’ve also heard that Geoff Lawton is skeptical of the practice in dry climates. And I’ve found no peer reviewed research on the practice.

But I also want to keep an open mind. I get asked about this practice a lot and have to confess ignorance. If you know of a Hügelkultur experiment in a dry climate please leave a link. Perhaps there’s a dry climate variation?  Has anyone seen any research? Have you tried it yourself?

Phytoremediation of Heavy Metals

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Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Us city slickers have fouled the sandboxes we play in. Find an open field in a big city like Los Angeles or New York and the odds are that it’s a former toxic waste dump. Here in our neighborhood we’ve got a lot of lead and zinc–lead from paint and gasoline and zinc from brake linings.

These heavy metals don’t magically go away. They are elements, and short of an alchemical transformation you have to physically remove them, cover them up, or apply phosphate so that plants don’t take them up as readily.

One promising strategy is phytoremediation, the use of plants to uptake heavy metals. City Atlas youarethecity, in New York, is experimenting with Indian mustard, mugwort, basket willow and sunflowers to remediate a contaminated garden. The results are promising with some metals down 50% in a year. Mugwort (Artimesia vulgaris) did an especially good job with a wide range of contaminants.

I should note that Garm Wallace, who runs Wallace Labs, a soil testing service, says that phytoremediation can take many years to get heavy metals down to a safe level. That being said, breeding plants specifically for heavy metal hyperaccumulation is a technology that could make up for our past transgressions.

Thanks to Michael Tortorello for the tip.

How to Search for Science-Based Gardening Advice

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Agricola’s search page.

In the course of writing our books and this blog we’ve had to deal with a lot of thorny gardening questions such as the effectiveness of double digging, the toxicity of persimmons, compost tea, lasagna gardening and how to mulch to name just a few. While the internet is an amazing tool, the number of conflicting commercial interests, biases and crazy talk in the eGardening world can make it difficult to, as Mark Twain put it, “corral the truth.” And I have to confess to promulgating some of the questionable advice that’s out there.

In the interest of not spreading more bad information Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University, did a webinar (archived online here) with a lot of great advice on how you can evaluate gardening advice as well as do your own searches of peer reviewed literature.

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Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980′s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening

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The new hexagonal raised beds. More on the design in another post.

Due to contaminated Los Angeles soil, we’ve got to grow our veggies in raised beds. There’s just too much lead and zinc in the ground, according to our local soil lab. Putting together three new beds recently got me to thinking about the ups and downs of gardening in raised beds. I thought I’d list off the pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Keeps roots away from contaminated soil.
  • Good for disabled or elderly gardeners.
  • Neat.
  • If high enough, can keep out some critters–and keep veggies above the dog pee zone.
  • Plug and play–no need to build or improve soil.
  • Keeps roots from getting waterlogged in a wet climate.

Cons

  • Requires materials to construct.
  • Might need to buy soil–gardening in the ground is free.
  • Roots dry out quicker in a hot climate.
  • Lack of mineral content in bagged soils.
  • Use of peat moss in bagged products.
  • Unable to truly embrace the “no dig” philosophy: despite best efforts to the contrary, it seems the soil needs to be swapped out every few years. It’s container gardening, really.

Going through that list of pros and cons, if it weren’t for our contaminated soil it would be better for us to grow in the ground. From a water use perspective, in Mediterranean climates such as ours, it’s better to garden at ground level. Less evaporation.  In dry desert climates such as New Mexico it’s often better to garden slightly below grade to take advantage of summer rains. Conversely, in soggy climates raised beds have some advantages.

Another factor is cost.  A bulk soil order doesn’t start to make sense until you’ve got a lot of raised beds to fill or neighbors to split the order with. This leaves me stuck with bagged products. I’m testing out a variation on Mel’s mix: one part coconut coir, one part vermiculite, one part compost. It’s still expensive, but at least I’m weaning myself from peat moss, an unsustainable product. Unfortunately, all those bags have to be hauled up thirty steps.

As a whole, what we’ve done with our garden is a compromise. Most of the yard is permaculturish: lots of small fruit trees, some native plants, ornamental flowering plants for the wildlife and a whole lot of mulch. But I like to have a few Italian veggies so we’ve got five small raised beds.

Did I leave anything off this list of raised bed pros and cons? What are you growing your veggies in? Leave a comment!

A viewing suggestion from the media arm of Root Simple

I really enjoy learning about technologies that are basic enough that I feel like I can understand them–and maybe even replicate them. The technology of Tudor-era in England is by no means primitive, but it also is not as complex and machine-based as the tech which takes off in the 19th century and accelerates so quickly into the present era. I would be hard pressed to explain how anything around me works–from this machine I’m typing on to communicate with the outside world, to the electric light burning beside me.

Bless the BBC for making Tudor Monastery Farm (a title which I believe would not fly on American television). This is a quiet series showing three historians/archeologists at play in the Weald & Downland Open Air History Museum, trying out some of the skills they’d need to be tenant farmers to the local monastery. It has some of the structure of a reality show, but it seems that no one really wants to go that direction much, so with the exception of a bit of camera confession about the urgency of getting the peas planted before Easter, there is none of that annoying reality show faux drama. Instead, it’s just full of juicy nuggets for the appropriate tech geek.

The series is on YouTube. I pray the BBC doesn’t take it down before I get to finish it.

In the first episode alone, they cover goodies like:

  • Coppicing
  • How to make two type of fences: a hazel wattle fence and a dead hedge fence, both of which can be made with a machete and a club
  • Treadwheels: Giant human powered hamster wheels which, along with water wheels, were the engines of their time.
  • How to make rush lights out of sheep fat and rushes.
  • An almost forgotten food plant called Alexanders, which is a Mediterranean plant related to parsley, which I’ve never heard of but now want to plant in my garden.
  • Tips on calligraphy done with quills. Did you know the quill has to be almost horizontal in the hand?
  • And how to make a paintbrush out of a feather and a stick. Marvelously clever, and the secret to the fine lines in illuminated manuscripts.
  • How to make a magnifying glass out for working the detail in said illuminated manuscripts.
  • How a Tudor gentleman literally sewed himself into his clothes each day, & the mysteries and marvels of the codpiece. (I suppose that if I were transported to that era I’d eventually stop staring at the distracting cords dangling from gentlemen’s crotches. You’ll see what I mean.)
  • You get to meet one of the last working teams of oxen in England (sad!), and see what it takes to plow a field.
  • How to build and wattle and daub pig house
  • And finally, very exciting, there’s a cameo by Robin Wood, the last professional wooden dish carver in England. I’ve seen his videos (where he looks much less dorky than he does in Tudor gear) and actually have one of his bowls. He carves beautiful bowls and spoons, his only tools his hatchet, his carving knives, and a foot operated pole lathe. The foot operated lathe was in use for nearly 1000 years, but now is almost extinct. It’s a wonderful piece of technology. Robin makes it look simple, but I’m sure it takes mad skills to use.

And that’s just the first episode. Ale and cheese, blast furnaces and sheep shearing to follow!

One last take away: Because my undergraduate degree is in art history, one thing that really struck me was how much everyone in this show looked like characters out of a Bruegel painting. If you know Pieter Bruegel’s work, you might remember how all his people have this particular stocky, stuffed, oddly jointed, funny-footed sort of look. I thought this was an artistic affectation.  Turns out it’s just the way the clothes fit. Pieter, I did you wrong. You were just painting what you saw.

pieter bruegel's painting, The Peasant Wedding

Mystery Weed Identified: Geranium Molle

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A number of Root Simple readers identified a plant that springs up in our backyard every winter. It’s Geranium molle.

Readily pollinated by hymenoptera, Geranium molle has two popular names: Dovefoot Geranium and Awnless Geranium.

Native to the Mediterranean, it was introduced to North America. The Plants for a Future database has a reference to the use of Geranium molle on wounds (Glossary of Indian Medicinal Plants). Other than that, it’s not an exciting plant from a human perspective.