The Miraculous Lavender

lavender growing out of concrete

When it first appeared, I almost pulled it as a weed. Then I thought, “Is that a lavender plant? Growing here?”

Curious to see what would happen, I let it go. I assumed it would not live long. It’s growing out of a crack. It may have sprouted on the back of our last pathetic winter rain, but we’ve had no precipitation for months now. I don’t water it. I don’t send water down the stairs. The soil off the stairs is dry, because that slope is planted with natives, which are getting no irrigation. There’s no plumbing beneath the staircase, either. Yet the lavender keeps getting bigger.

I’m going to have to pull it soon, before it ruins our stairs. But I don’t want to, because it’s so determined to live.

And this goes to show that when a plant wants to grow somewhere, when it establishes itself according to its own rules, it is unstoppable. Soil type, recommended water, sun exposure– all these things mean little in comparison wonderful alchemy which allows plants to grow exactly where they want to grow, even if they are breaking all of our rules.

Flowers from Vegetables

flower of an Italian dandelion

Whenever possible I let vegetables go to flower, sometimes to save the seed, but more often to share the bounty with insects and birds. The usefulness comes in two waves: the first being the pollinators attracted to the flowers, and once the flowers go to seed the birds will move in. Of course this means that I’m “wasting space” and making my garden “unproductive” but the rewards outweigh any inconvenience.

New gardeners are often surprised to see what amazing flowers different vegetables make. People with no connection to food plants whatsoever may not even know that vegetables make flowers, so it’s fun to show them a carrot flower, a squash blossom, a bean flower.

My new favorite garden flower comes off an old Italian chicory plant left to go riot. I’m not sure which chicory it is, but it’s one of those  long-leaved, bitter greens beloved in Italy and sold by Franchi seeds. It’s easy to grow, pest proof, and we like the strong, bitter flavor. The flowers, though, are amazing. The greens send up narrow stalks 8′ tall or more (approx. 2.5 meters) and the stalks are covered from top to bottom with beautiful periwinkle blue flowers which are about 2″ (5cm) across– classic chicory flowers.

The bees adore these flowers. What’s more, this plant has been blossoming continuously for months now–at least 3 months. Unfortunately I didn’t mark down when it started, but it’s been at least 3 months by now, maybe 4. It’s given me lots of joy.

In our yard the flower stalks have interwoven with grape and bean vines, adding a lot of color to a corner of our patio. The situation is impossible to to photograph, because the flowers are both high and low and tangled up with everything, but trust me, in person it’s charming in its wild way.

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Creating a Moon Garden

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Believe it or not the photo above, a Encelia farinosa  San Diego Sunflower (Viguiera laciniata) shrub in full bloom, was shot under low light conditions long after sunset last night. The occasion was a lecture and walk led by Carol Bornstein, garden director at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Bornstein’s talk used the Natural History Museum’s garden to demonstrate the many reasons why we should consider how our gardens look at night.

Why create a moon garden? For many people, nighttime is the only chance to see the garden during a busy work week. And sometimes it’s more pleasant to avoid the heat of the day and enjoy a garden after the blazing sun goes down. But perhaps most importantly, our gardens can provide habitat for night pollinators and other wildlife.

Bornstein had a number of great tips for making a garden interesting at night:

  • Consider color. White flowers, of course, will pop out under moonlight. But yellow flowers stand out even more.
  • We’re lucky in Southern California to have a lot of native plants with silvery grey leaves (an evolutionary adaption of dry climate plants). Masses of silvery grey leaves stand out well at night.
  • Include a contrasting background. Light colored flowers and plants stand out better at night if they are in front of a dark background–a dark green bush or the shade of a large tree.
  • It’s not all about plants. Including light colored rocks, gravel, decomposed granite, stepping stones, water features and white walls can also create interest in a moon garden.
  • Creating an interesting nocturnal landscape means less reliance on lighting. As I’ve blogged about before, artificial light is not good for us or for wildlife.

That Bornstein considers the sound of leaves in the wind at night, should give you an idea of her appreciation for detail in garden design. And it’s nice to know that after we go to sleep our gardens can provide food and shelter for the creatures of this earth that work the night shift.

Angelinos should check out the NHM’s Summer Nights in the Garden series of events, as well as their many classes and activities.

Artificial Turf: Is It Ever a Good Idea?

Monsanto Astroturf ad

Another winning product from the folks at Monsanto.

In the midst of a drought, our local Department of Water and Power is offering a $3 a square foot rebate for residents and businesses who remove their lawn in favor of less water hungry plantings. Those dollars add up if you’ve got even a modest sized backyard.

But the devil is always in the details. While the LADWP has some very good information on lawn alternatives as well as training classes on water wise landscaping, why did they have to include “non-vegetative groundcover” a.k.a. artificial turf in the rebate program? And why did they landscape one of their own facilities with the stuff?

In this interest of keeping an open mind, I tried to think of circumstances in which artificial turf might be a good option. Maybe if it were used ironically? But I don’t really think its use can be justified. Why?

  • It’s a petrochemical product.
  • It will eventually break down and end up in a landfill or the  ocean.
  • There’s no wildlife benefit.

Practically speaking, it also gets really hot on a summer day and you’ve got to hose it down with water just to step on it. And if you have pets, it’s not easy to clean up after them on artificial turf.

And while we don’t have kids, I don’t buy the argument that kids need grass. I think kids would enjoy a garden that’s lush and a bit of a maze with places to play hide and seek. Same goes for dogs, really. They’re hard on grass, and do better with mulch. Kids and dogs and grownups as well enjoy the wildlife and rich scents brought in by diverse plant life.

As far as athletics are concerned, while there’s considerable debate on the subject, some studies have shown that sports injury rates are higher on artificial turf.

In short, I don’t think there’s an application for this stuff. And we certainly don’t need our government to incentivize it.

And just FYI, Monsanto developed AstroTurf.

How To Diagnose a Tomato Disease

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Tomato mosaic. Photo: Texas A&M.

It’s that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. If you’re lucky you’ve got tomatoes. If you’re unlucky you’ve got tomato diseases.

When I’ve got a tomato problem I turn to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s Tomato Problem Solver. What makes it handy is all the pictures. They’ve pretty much covered every tomato disease in pornographic detail.

How are your tomatoes doing? Any problems?

How Can We Fix Our Public Landscaping?

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Yesterday Kelly blogged about the appalling landscaping in front of an Los Angeles Department of Water and Power facility. When Kelly first showed me the photo of that purple gravel and artificial turf I thought it might be some kind of conceptual art project.

Unfortunately, this poor attempt at a drought tolerant landscape is just another example of an attitude of indifference towards public space that’s all too prevalent in Los Angeles and many other cities. Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog has done a great job covering the many ways this indifference manifests in big piles of trash on LA’s sidewalks and horrible conditions for bus commuters.

This indifference is also apparent in the lackluster landscaping of most of our public spaces. This egregious LADWP “garden” is the last straw for me. It’s time we do something about it.

Two California based organizations come to mind: Daily Acts in Petaluma and the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Daily Acts has landscaped public spaces such as libraries and schools as well as private homes. These gardens provide an example that others can follow. The Ecology Center has a spectacular garden that shows do simple water harvesting to create a beautiful landscape with drought tolerant plants that attracts beneficial wildlife.

We need similar organizations in Los Angeles. We have an immense pool of talent here that could fix that terrible purple gravel and artificial turf atrocity and go on to do so much more. Who’s in?

And to those of you reading this elsewhere in the word, feel free to leave a comment about how you changed your public space for the better.

Can our landscapes model a vibrant future? Not according to the LA DWP.

dwp landscaping

California is suffering from drought. In Los Angeles, we’ve experienced back to back two of the driest winters on record (winter is our rainy season). Last year’s rainfall total was under 6 inches. The governor has asked California residents to cut their water use by 20%.  Apparently, we’ve only managed to cut it by 5%.

There’s a strange sense of unreality about the drought. I think that’s because we’re just not feeling it in the cities. Our water is cheap, the taps are running, food prices aren’t terribly affected– yet.  So we keep washing our cars and hosing off the sidewalks and topping off our swimming pools and, of course, we water our lawns.

Lawns are a big liability in this region. I think they may not be such a crime in milder, wetter places where they grow happily (though there’s no getting around the fact that they are a sterile monoculture, not helpful to wildlife). But turf has no business whatsoever in the American southwest. It just doesn’t want to grow in this climate–which is why it’s always doing its level best to die. Here, our lawns live on life support.

There has been some movement toward lawn-free yards in the past several years, but the movement seems stalled. I’d expect to see more lawns being ripped out recently due to the drought, but I haven’t seen much activity in that direction, despite the fact the Department of Water and Power will actually pay Angelinos to remove their turf.

We hold onto our lawns, I think, because it is so hard to think beyond the lawn.

The average property owner is not a landscaper, nor a plant expert, and they have lots of other things to think about. The default setting of a lawn plus a few shrubs up around the house foundation takes no thought, causes no problems with the neighbors and is easily maintained by inexpensive gardening services. What’s not to love, really? And why not hold on to our lawns, because the drought will pass and we’ll be back to normal.

Asking people to re-imagine their yards is asking a lot. Yet it may be vital.

This drought may not end. Los Angeles and all of the southwest are looking at a hotter, drier present and future due to climate change. And regardless of water availability it would be a great service to nature, to our embattled birds and bees and small critters, to make our yards beautiful, changeable, welcoming sanctuaries. It would also be a gift to our own souls. Yards can be healing spaces.

To re-imagine our yards, we need to see examples of yards which work on a different paradigm, and we need to see so many of them that they become part of our shared visual vocabulary.

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Sorry about the dim photo–the sun was setting–but I think it gives the general idea.

This brings me to the new landscaping at our local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) distributing station. I believe it used to have a typical sickly lawn in front of it, but last time I was in the neighborhood I saw it had been rejiggered to be a low water use landscape. And that’s good…really…a great idea, guys.  But…

The new landscape is mostly artificial turf, with a few swathes of D.G. and a strip of purple gravel mulch running along the foundation, and that gravel is studded with strangely trampled looking agave-ish plants, and a couple of random bougainvillea.

What goes on here? What is in your head, DWP? And how much did you pay for this redesign?

The artificial turf is particularly insidious because it seems to be a placeholder for better days when we can all go back to watering our lawns into emerald brilliance. We need to say goodbye to the lawn for good, write it off like a bad boyfriend.

And the purple gravel… I just don’t know what to say.

Note that the design consists of a lawn and foundation plantings. It’s the same old uninspired model, repeated on the institutional scale.

I suspect this landscaping will have some fans because it is “tidy” and “low maintenance.” True. It is also devoid of life and actively hostile to nature. Landscapes speak. This one denies our relationship with the natural world and declares any actual engagement with nature to be too much trouble. No doubt they’d replace those sickly plants with synthetics if they didn’t suspect they’d all get stolen in the night.

This is not the kind of model we need, DWP.

Next time you change up your landscaping, consider consulting one or more of the many brilliant plant people and designers in this city. Call us if you need numbers.

Consider using permeable surfaces and contoured landscaping to capture every drop of our rare rainfall and send it down to the thirsty soil. Show us how to use native and Mediterranean plants to make lush landscapes that call in the pollinators. Help us create landscapes we want to walk through and live in. Model this kind of smart landscaping for us, please.

Water-wise and ugly do not have to be synonymous.

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Some of the views remind me of something that might appear in an LA art installation. Which, all in all, is not praise.

Our Grape Arbor

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Several years ago I demolished a crumbling addition to the house (a room you had to go through the back bedroom to get to) and replaced it with an arbor. Our neighbor generously gave us the columns that used to be on her front porch and I added a plinth to make them taller. In the background are two apple trees that provide some privacy.

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It’s taken a couple of years for the grapes to cover the structure. One reason is that we lost two vines to Pierce’s disease. Now we have two resistant varieties: Vitus Californica “Rogers Red” and Vitis vinifera x V. lambrusca “Pearl River” from LA’s most quirky nursery, Papaya Tree. The Pearl River grapes are tasty and show no signs of Pierce’s.

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The adobe oven was the last addition. Pizza parties are a frequent occurrence underneath the arbor.

Do you have an arbor? What have you planted on it and how do you use the space underneath?

Hipster Compost

An updated, urban version of the soil food web.

An updated, urban version of the soil food web.

In the nearly sixteen years we’ve lived here we’ve seen our local stretch of Sunset Boulevard go from boarded up storefronts and auto body shops to restaurants, bars and cafes. Along with those new businesses and artisinal facial hair, comes a great new set of compost sources.

Some of my enterprising neighbors, one in particular, have been creating what could be called hipster compost or, at least, compost made from hipster sources. Interestingly these materials are often very high in nitrogen:

  • brew waste from a local brewery
  • coffee grounds
  • fruit pulp from a juice bar
  • coconut shells

My handy neighbor Ray has been shredding the coconut shells in his chipper to make a homebrew coir. Ray is also very consistent in picking up materials, something business owners appreciate.

Other than obvious sources such as yard waste and grass clippings, have you found a useful urban compost source? What did I leave out?

Is Purslane the New Kale?

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Salty, crunchy, nutritious and edible raw or cooked, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) could soon be ready for its fifteen minutes of vegetable fame. We planted some this year in our summer vegetable garden and I’ve used it in a lot of salads this week.

Purslane is a common weed in North America. We’d love to be able to forage it in the neighborhood but, for some reason, it only tends to appear in unappetizing locations: usually the gutter (I think it needs a bit more water than what falls naturally from the sky here). You can eat the whole plant: stems and leaves. It has a salty and slightly lemony flavor reminiscent of New Zealand spinach.

There’s always a huge bin of it at Super King, our local Armenian supermarket. In Armenia it’s gathered in the wild and used either raw in salads or lightly sauteed.

There’s even a World Cup tie-in. The color of the plant in South America is associated with green/white soccer uniforms.

Have you grown purslane? Foraged purslane? How do you like to eat it?