Why Your Garden Should Be Dark at Night

A confession: I was a teenage astronomy geek. This hobby that gave me an awareness of how depressing it is to live in a city so brightly lit that you can count the number of stars in the night sky.

A documentary, currently streaming on Netflix, called The City Dark details just how many other problems lights cause that you might not have thought of:

  • Lighting confuses migratory birds. Millions crash into buildings every year.
  • Sea turtle hatchlings walk towards city lights rather than the ocean.
  • For us humans? An increased likelihood of breast cancer among women who work at night.
  • Depression and sleep problems.

Worst may be the lack of perspective we humans get when we can’t contemplate the vastness of space. One of the astronomers in the documentary noted that when we lose touch with the scale of the universe we don’t appreciate the fact that we will never leave this earth. The distances are just too great. His point is that if we understood the impossibility of space travel, and gave up fantasizing about space colonies, we’d take better care of our home.

Photo: highline.org.

Highline Park at night. Photo: highline.org.

Keeping Gardens Dark
Thankfully light pollution is an easy fix and saves money and energy too. We can keep our outdoor spaces dark at night to benefit our well being and as well as the survival of nocturnal creatures. Night Sky concluded with a brief interview with Hervé Descottes, one of the lighting designers of the Highline Park in New York City. Descottes’s lighting design shows how you can balance the need for security with respect of the night sky by simply directing lighting downwards.

The International Dark-Sky Association has a guide to residential lighting that will help you keep our skies dark and nocturnal creatures safe. Some recommendations:

  • Choose dark sky friendly lighting fixtures that direct light down, not up.
  • Light only what needs to be lit, i.e. create a lighting plan rather than putting up a huge floodlight.
  • Switch lights off when not in use.
  • Reduce wattage–you don’t need as much as you think.

Here’s another idea: garden with moonlight. Rather than light up your garden with artificial light, include plants with silvery-grey leaves or white flowers. Our white sage glows spectacularly during a full moon. I’m also happy we put in a climbing white rose over our entrance arbor.

By embracing the darkness we can open our eyes to the stars above.

Bees will love your Coyote Brush Hedge

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Image: Wikipedia (our picture of the NHM’s coyote brush hedge came out blurry–which really is a shame because they were good looking hedges. You wouldn’t guess it from this pic).

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Baccharis pilularis, called coyote brush, or chaparral bloom, is an unassuming Western native plant with a secret super-power: native and non-native pollinators love, love, love! its tiny little flowers. If you want to lavish affection and care on the pollinators in your garden, plant one of these babies, if you can. It really is one of the best plants for the purpose. (For more info on coyote brush, here’s a nice post at the Curbstone Valley Farm blog with lots of pictures. And here’s its page at Theodore Payne Foundation.)

What I didn’t realize until our recent garden tour at the Natural History Museum, though, is that coyote brush makes a perfectly lovely hedge if it’s pruned up right. I’d never even thought about it. Most of the talk one hears about coyote brush is that it is sort of ho-hum in appearance but can be used to provide a background to the more showy native plants. I never even thought about how its small, sturdy, bright green, evergreen leaves make it a perfect hedge plant.

So, the lesson here is that you can have a more formal/tidy/traditional garden, and still serve the pollinators– as long as you lay off the clippers for a couple of months in the summer and let the hedge bloom. No excuses now!

For those of you in other parts of the country, can you name a good hedge bush that pollinators like for your area? And be sure to name your area, so folks around you can use the information.

On that theme, here’s a link to beneficial plant lists, organized by region, created by the Xerces Society.

The Theme of a Great Garden

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Today we toured one of the finest gardens in California, the new garden at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. The occasion was the opening of the new pollinator habitat. Head gardener Richard Hayden showed us around, taking us to the edible area as well as the new pollinator and Nature Gardens. This garden gave us so many ideas that we’re going to do several posts about it. One important design lesson I learned today is that great gardens have a theme.

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Designed by the landscape architecture firm of Mia Lehrer and Associates, the Natural History Museum’s garden subtly suggests the contents inside the museum: dinosaurs, prehistory and the passage of time. There are no animatronic dinosaurs to be found in the garden. Instead, the theme is suggested through dramatic, rough stonework and the use of California native plants. The garden feels as if exists in a time before humans.

It got me wondering how thematics would play out in a more modest home landscape. Perhaps, when it comes time to design a garden it would be useful to toss around a few abstract words and ideas to help unify the design vocabulary of the garden. Picking a theme or several related themes could make it easier when it comes to making plant and hardscpaping choices.

Of course, the current theme of our garden is “Skunk Encounters.” We’re going to have a bunch of stinky school groups this spring . . .

How to Get Skunks Out of Your Basement and Yard

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Basements and crawl spaces under houses make idea dens for urban critters. If we could charge rent for all the skunks, raccoons and feral cats that have taken up residence under the house we’d have paid off the mortgage by now. Our particular crawl space critter B&B was opened by virtue of a flimsy access door. Some animal, most likely a raccoon, pried it open. The problem with this situation is that you can’t just close up the door. Some poor creature would die a horrible death and then stink up the house for months. The answer is to create a one-way critter exit.

Continue reading…

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.