Why We Have No Vegetables: Raccoon Gangs

This week, our Crittercam revealed yet more nocturnal raccoon antics in our vegetable beds. Not only are the raccoons digging for grubs, but they are also using the vegetable beds and bird netting as a sort of trampoline/wrestling ring. Apologies for the haphazardly applied banjo music.

The Crittercam may have revealed an emergent phenomena: raccoons in urban locations discovering the benefits of social behavior.

My Apologies to the Skunk Community

For years I’ve blamed the nightly vegetable carnage that takes place in our raised beds on skunks. The other night, our CritterCam (a Wingscapes BirdCam Pro), revealed the culprit: raccoons. And they work in pairs trios!

No wonder it’s been so difficult to secure the beds! Given the strength and agility of Racoons, I’m surprised that bird netting has worked at all (though, I’ll note, only when that netting is firmly secured with many staples). Perhaps it’s time to consider escalating to metal wire.

The “citizen science” lesson this week: raccoon and skunk diets overlap considerably. Both are highly adaptable urban foragers. In the case of our raised beds, both the skunks and raccoons are digging for figeater beetle larvae (Cotinis mutabilis). These huge larvae must be a delectable treat, the equivalent of a raccoon and skunk sushi party. Maybe I should overcome my squeamishness and join in the nightly feast. A plate of Cotinis mutabilis larvae ceviche could just be the next hip LA food trend . . .

Make Your Own Irrigation Line Hold Downs That Actually Work

irrigation hold down wire

Hold downs are those little U-shaped pieces of metal you use to keep drip irrigation lines in place.  The trouble is that the big box hardware gods have decided that those hold downs should only measure a measly three inches in length. Which means that they don’t work. Good luck trying to get your 1/2 inch drip line to stay in place with short and thin hold downs. The more light and fluffy your soil, the less likely those short hold downs will do their job. Professional irrigation suppliers (a much better source for drip supplies than big box stores, by the way) carry longer hold downs. But they still aren’t long enough for good, loose soil.

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Thankfully, it’s easy to make your own hold downs. First, head over to the chain link fencing department and get yourself a roll of tension wire. It’s a heavy and flexible, galvanized wire that comes in a roll. It’s cheap. Get out your circular saw fitted with a metal blade or your bolt cutters and you’re now equipped to make as many hold downs in whatever custom size you want. I usually make a bunch in varying lengths to accommodate different soil types: everything from our raised beds to the hard packed clay soil we built an adobe oven out of.

Someone should turn this idea into a business. It would be the most boring, but useful, Kickstarter project yet.

Back to the Garden

medieval image of deer

Livre de chasse, ca 1407

[This is the first post in a new series.]

Lately I have been thinking about that old Joni Mitchell song, Woodstock, where she says:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

This idea haunts me. I find references to this song, to the Garden and gardening and Eden everywhere I turn, as if the universe is whacking me upside the head, saying, “Pay attention!”

Genesis tells the tale of humankind’s expulsion from Eden. It is a myth. The definition of a myth is a tale which is not factual, but which is true. In our age of empiricism this can seem like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. A myth is a truth which is always playing out beneath the surface of things. It isn’t a past-tense event, it’s the current state of affairs. Every day we are Falling. Every day we chose to leave Eden.

Once we did not consider ourselves separate from nature–we walked with it and in it. And then something went terribly wrong and we fell out of balance with the rest of the world. We fell out of right relationship with the world and all the other beings which we’d once loved. We imagined ourselves the masters of the world, and to make up for the pain and loneliness of our estrangement from which we once loved, we used our creative intelligence to pillage all of the resources of the world. Like greedy children we demanded more and more toys, and then broke them all. Now we sit in the debris of our own wastefulness, wanting still more. We want more because we are empty inside, and we think power and things can fill that lonely space in our hearts.

Some people think humans are an evolutionary mistake, a sort of rampaging virus which is destroying the world. I think we are doing a good job of destroying the world, but I don’t think that was ever the path we were meant to follow.

When we look at the natural world we see how every living thing, from lactobacillus to elephants, have a role to play in the dance of life. I’ve often wondered where humans were meant to fit in the dance. We are such odd creatures: naked, bipedal, abstract thinkers far too clever for anybody’s good. It’s easy to imagine that the world would be better off without our interference. But I don’t think that is the case. I think the world needs us, has always needed us.

Intelligence runs throughout creation, and I never underestimate the intelligence of other creatures and even plants, but human intelligence is unique. A falcon will distinguish between a lark and a rabbit, but only we can imitate both the lark and the rabbit. Only we can craft images of them, make up songs and stories about them, and weave those stories into the meaning of all things.

I’ve had only a few visions or epiphanies in my life, things I believe with all my heart, though I cannot prove them to be true. This is one of them. Our role is to celebrate Nature, to witness it, to love it. We are Nature’s mirror and Nature’s poets and Nature’s guardians.

cave painting of lion heads

Cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave, France

The cave paintings of our paleolithic ancestors show an astonishing familiarity with the animals they represent, a close eye for detail, for movement and physiognomy, for the subtle differences between males and females of the same species, for instance. No one knows exactly what the paintings were for, but for me it is enough to know that we were reverently engaged with the world around us. And while we didn’t paint mice or mushrooms, I’m sure we were as deeply engaged with all of the plants and animals within our range. I can’t even imagine the tales and songs we must have shared when we were in this deep relationship with the world–when we were in Eden.

Eden? You might be saying. Hardly. Life was brutal and short back then. Well, yes. We died under tooth and claw, and from raging infections and long winters. But I don’t know that anyone is qualified to say that our ancestors did not have lives full of meaning and joy. I don’t know that if we brought one of them forward to our time that they wouldn’t pity us in turn.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to go back to that world, even if it were possible–but do I want to get back to the Garden. And I think that is possible. We just have to change the stories we’ve been telling ourselves.

I’ll have more to say on our role as caretakers of nature, and how that fits into home gardening and much more,  in my next post.

Thanks to Father Mark R. Kowalewski for inspiring me bring some of these ideas together.

Will the Lawn Rebate Turn LA into a Gravel Moonscape?

gravel

That pesky law of unintended consequences! Drought conditions here in California prompted our water utilities to offer rebates for ripping out water hungry lawns. Unfortunately, as Ivette Soler has pointed out in a blog post, “The Road to Hell is Paved with Chunky Gravel and Indifferently Chosen Plants,” unscrupulous “landscapers” are taking those rebates and installing gravel and mulch moonscapes.

It’s an education problem. For most people plants are a sort of green background material. Our ancestors could distinguish between hundreds of plants, but that ancestral memory has been hijacked by commercial interests. Now, instead of plant identification skills, we name and distinguish things like cars and mobile devices. If there was a kind of car rebate program that inadvertently replaced BMWs with Pontiac Azteks I would guarantee you that there would be blood in the streets. We need a new cultural narrative and a crash course in plant appreciation.

Such a reeducation program is a long term project. In the short term, another local writer (who was a guest on episode 20 of our podcast), Emily Green, has a very useful series of posts, “After the Lawn,” that will walk you through a “safe and sane” lawn replacement.

Lawn replacement in our dry Mediterranean climate could serve as a positive step in bringing our culture, “back to the garden.” If we can shift away from lawns and gravel, we could create landscapes that support pollinators, birds and our own well being.

Landscaping Lightly 2015 Calendar

calendar

I think we can pretty much close down this blog now that the Council for Watershed Health has summarized all or our creeds in their 2015 downloadable calendar (pdf). The calendar offers “tips and techniques for sustainable landscaping” and sharp graphic design by artist Edward Lum. Each month you get a new exhortation: everything from installing a greywater system, to welcoming pollinators to, gasp, using a broom instead of a leaf blower. The last two pages are a handy list of California-centric resources.

If we all worked to implement the simple steps in this calendar we’d pretty much be living in Eden.

With bonus plantain!

weednfeed

I was cruising the nursery aisles when three of my favorite words caught my eye: dandelion, chickweed and plantain.

I read the print on this bag as saying “Contains dandelion, chickweed and plantain” and–apparently drifting in my own fantasy world where things make sense, instead of the world in which we actually live–I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic! All three in one bag for easy seeding.”

Then I looked again and realized that the text read “Controls” not “Contains.”  It was–of course– a bag of weed n’ feed lawn stimulator–chock full of poison for killing my favorite edibles and medicinals  (as well as, I admit, some pretty intractable grasses).

Not a large bag of wild seed to make your yard into a giant salad bowl.

I’d like to return to my fantasy world now, please.

038 The Ground Rules with Nance Klehm

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On this week’s episode of the Root Simple podcast we talk with Nance Klehm about The Ground Rules. Nance’s project gathers waste from restaurants and institutions in Chicago, composts that waste and then uses the resulting compost along with mushrooms and plants to bioremediate damaged urban soils. Nance describes The Ground Rules as “re-imagining waste and biological infrastructures.” You can find out more about the project on the Social Ecologies website and on Nance’s personal website. There’s also a video about The Ground Rules. If you’re in Chicago you can visit Nance and Emmanual Pratt’s exhibition, For the Common Good: Meet the Remediators.

Nance’s explanation of The Ground Rules is really inspiring. She’s developing a manual to help people develop similar programs and will be coming out with a book about soil in the fall.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Will 3D Printing Save Us From Bad Garden Sculpture?

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In the annals of bad taste there’s nothing quite like contemporary garden sculpture. We’ve ranted about this before. Leaf through the infamous and (mercifully) soon to be extinct Skymall catalog and you’ll find statuary, like the example above, that would make Saddam Hussein blush in his grave.

Even the professional landscape community seems to have a sculptural kitsch problem. Our public spaces are plagued with bronze, smiling, hyper-realistic statuary. For me these things evoke a visceral uncanny valley horror response.

dante
Perhaps 3D printing is the answer. In 2012 artist Oliver Laric approached a museum in the UK and proposed scanning objects from their collection and making the files available for free. You can see those scans, which include Dante, Roman and medieval objects and a few 19th century British mayors here. You can also see what some folks have been doing with those scans.

While the past is no refuge from kitsch, I’ll take the spinning Dante over bronze Children of the Damned any day.

De-Cluttering the Garden

Kelly pruning the Pomegranate

At the risk of becoming a de-cluttering blog, I’ve got to point out that there’s a place for de-cluttering in the garden. I know, because I’m the gardening equivalent of a hoarder.

I cling to plants that need to head to the compost pile. I interfere with Kelly’s much more advanced pruning skills. I resist the periodic and necessary need to swap plants out. Gardens are, by definition, a mediation on impermanence. As Hereclitus says, “Everything changes and nothing remains still . . . you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Heed Hereclitus’ enigmatic saying and you’ve got the essence of gardening and nature: periods of equilibrium punctuated by change, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. De-cluttering our tended gardens is to work in imitation of and in concert with nature.

So what would be some de-culuttering steps in the garden that welcome and work with change?

  • First would be getting rid of junk such as construction debris and those failed projects Kelly alluded to in her last post. We’re pretty good about this, but the backyard has accumulated a few items that need to go.
  • Replacing under-performing plants. Particularly in small spaces like ours there is no room for plants that are sickly or just don’t look attractive. Ditto for fruit trees that have never produced. I’m with Piet Ouldolf on this: if possible, plants in our tended spaces need to look good year round (even when dormant) and they need to provide wildlife habitat.
  • Rethinking the garden. Even the best gardener has to rethink and renew a garden periodically. Many perennials become gangly, trees shade out other plants and things just generally change. Sometimes you have to mimic nature’s floods and fires and make a radical shift.
  • Weeding and thinning. We got behind on this and we’re paying the price. This is a matter of poor scheduling, subject matter for an upcoming series of posts (if I can ever schedule time to write those scheduling posts). Let’s just say there was some cursing while pulling out a robust and thorny Opuntia yesterday that would have been much easier to remove two years ago.
  • Pruning. This is a source of considerable marital discord. Kelly is much better at it than I am, and yet I end up micromanaging and mansplaining. The fact is that many fruit trees, particularly peaches, need to be hacked back dramatically when dormant. With the exception of avocados, everything else needs to be kept small for ease of harvest and to fit more trees in a small space.

What gardening de-cluttering steps did I leave out? When do you more northerly gardeners do your garden de-cluttering?

And a note on the photo which shows Kelly pruning our pomegranate tree. To her right is a cardoon and, at the bottom of the slope is a huge prickly pear cactus. Something all these plants have in common? Wicked thorns. This makes deferred de-cluttering even more curse-worthy.

Addendum
Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:

Erik spoke of some topics of marital discord in the garden, and yet none of those hold a candle to our perpetual debate about installing some kind of garden shed or storage system in our back yard. It’s shocking, really, that we don’t have such a thing, but he is very resistant to the idea, for reasons of time, effort, money and aesthetics.

All good objections! But honestly, how can one post about clutter in the garden and point to the poor plants when the real problem with clutter in our garden comes in the form of empty pots, bags of soil and amendments with no home, gloves housing spiders, tools leaning here, there and everywhere, never where you need them. Our climate alone allows us to (mostly) get away with this behavior. Elsewhere it would all rust or rot if left out like this.

I know it’s not the KonMari way to add storage space or devices to deal with clutter, but this is more like having a car with no garage, and then wondering why the driveway is always crowded.

So…um…if any artisanal shack manufacturer would like to send us a small shed for review, we’re open to proposals!