Build a vegetable prison to keep out raccoons and skunks

It’s come to this: Vegetable San Quentin. Last year’s Crittercam surveillance project demonstrated the futility of planting vegetables in our yard without serious fortifications. Bird netting? Useless. If we want to grow our own veggies we had to build something that can resist the strong arms and fingers of our local band of late night hipster raccoons.

Once again, I can’t say enough good things about the usefulness of the free 3d drawing program Sketchup, which I used to plan out my veggie prison. It was especially useful for figuring out the angles of the cuts I needed to make for the top. I was able to dial in those angles and dimensions on my compound miter saw.  All that was left to do was screw the whole thing together and staple the 14-Guage welded wire from Home Despot.

The access panels have two positions. Down to protect small seedlings:

veggiegitmo

And up to act as a trellis and allow tall plants to grow out the top:

veggitgitmoopen

I’ve noticed that once plants get established and past the 2-foot point I don’t usually have to worry about those midnight raccoon parties. Obviously, if I had to deal with deer I’d have to build a bigger cage. I can also cover the whole thing in floating row cover material if I want to keep out cabbage leaf caterpillars.

If you’re a Sketchup user I uploaded the plans to the 3D Warehouse. Search for “Raccoon Proof Vegetable Bed” and you’ll be able to download it. This bed was designed for the narrow top slope of our front yard and is 3 by 8-feet. I would recommend increasing the width to 4-feet if you build one yourself.

More boneheaded plant representations from Hollywood

not poison sumac

Writing about the Star Wars Romanesco cameo reminded me of a truly egregiously bad plant representation I saw on TV recently. I have to admit that these rants probably only serve to illustrate how trashy my taste in entertainment actually is–so I have to admit that I pretty much deserve to be disappointed. Yet I cannot remain silent in the face of such horror.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 1.24.05 PM

In the deeply unpromising pilot to the YA series The 100, a group of handsome teens are walking through a stand of ferns in a redwood forest-type biome. The ferns (and, indiscriminately, the adjacent moss tufts) have been studded with purple pansy heads by the set designers. Nevermind that ferns don’t flower. One kid picks a pansy head and tucks it behind his love interest’s ear. A smarty pants kid watching this interaction notes that they’ll be sorry, because, he says, the plant is poison sumac. He’s not joking or positioned to be wrong–his character is written as somebody who knows plants.

I ask you:

Would James Bond engage in a high speed chase in a 1995 Toyota Corolla?

Would the makers Friday Night Lights have the high school football players carry basketballs instead of footballs in the game scenes, because after all, a ball is a ball?

Would Carrie Bradshaw slip on a pair of Crocs and call them Jimmy Choos?

No, no and non.

We’d never make mistakes like that justify them as being unimportant because they were just small details in a silly movie or TV show. Details matter a lot when the objects have cultural significance, as designer shoes and footballs do. This is why it is fine to be  stupid about plants, because nobody cares about plants, and we have lost every last vestige of plant literacy.

I don’t think this is a case of me being picky. I’m not being a plant geek here, pointing out some minutiae of botany. I’m talking about the misuse of really common plants that people do know, or should know.

Ferns, for example, are a plant that even the most determinedly uninterested person will still be able to identify as a fern. If you can only identify five plants, a fern would be one of them, along with grass and roses. Pansies are not as easily nameable as ferns, though they are incredibly common. Even people who don’t know what a pansy is called will still probably recognize them as a flower they’ve seen in flower beds. So why mix ferns and pansies and call the resulting Frankenplant poison sumac? This combination of laziness and arrogance takes my breath away.

More, it’s sorta dangerous. Bear with me here. In this degenerate world, no one needs to know the name of any plant to get by day to day (food plants excepted), but if a person ever intends to go outside (optional, I know) they’d better know how to identify local plants which cause contact dermatitis. Like poison sumac.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a shrub or tree which grows in wet spots in the Eastern parts of the U.S. and Canada. It looks nothing whatsoever like a fern. Or a pansy. It is apparently even more toxic than its itchy relatives, poison oak and poison ivy. Any teen who thinks to romp in those woods should know the difference between a fern and a poison sumac bush, and The 100 is doing a real disservice to its young audience by misrepresenting that plant. May the producers be looking at their iPhones the next time they sit down at a picnic, and miss that patch of poison ivy. My curse be upon them.

Romanesco broccoli cameo lights up Star Wars film

Romanesco_Broccoli

So, who spotted the Romanesco broccoli and — bonus points here– the blurry kiwano in the latest Star Wars movie? We did, as did reader Wayde, who dropped us a note about it. It appears as a pub snack on that inexplicable Angkor Wat vacation planet, with light alien reggae stylings in the background.

I’ve discovered that the Romanesco, being a food geek favorite because of its fractal structure, did get some high level notice in the media–including Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Village Voice.

We make it a hobby around here to spot the use and misuse of plants in Hollywood. This one is interesting, because while the Romanesco is presented as a food, as it should be–as opposed to ivy vines being presented as a food crop in Maze Runner– it is an Earth food, so it’s interesting that the film makers decided to include it as part of the scenery. The only other edible in the movie is special effect-based alien food–I won’t be spoilery and say any more about that.

The Star Wars world isn’t posited as our future world, as the Star Trek world is–it’s a mythic world, somewhere long ago and far away. I doubt we’d ever see Han Solo noshing on a hot dog, for instance, whereas I can totally imagine Kirk doing so, standing by a future-utopian hot dog stand (and flirting with the sexy alien behind the stand). But a hot dog in Star Wars would be very wrong, because it’s a thing too much of our world. Its presence would collapse the fantasy. But apparently they decided Romanesco and kiwano would not. Why? Because they figured most people had never seen these foods.  I don’t know if they were right about that. And also, maybe they also realized that they could work for weeks in their art studios and never invent anything as cool looking as a Romanesco or a kiwano.

On the up side, maybe parents now have the leverage to foist healthy cruciferous veggies on a whole new generation of movie goers. The Romanesco growers must be ecstatic.

Our new front yard, part 6: it’s all potential at this point

IMG_4501

A bright spot is the new plantings: a hummingbird sage is blooming for Christmas

I’ve been putting off posting pictures of the plantings in our front yard because it just doesn’t look all that exciting at the moment. Everything is sleeping.

If this was a HGTV show, we’d make the big reveal at this point, and show you a stunning new landscape. Instead, what I have to show you are a bunch of tiny little plants swimming in a sea of dead leaves. The leaves are a light mulch that I’m using to protect my little plants from our still-harsh sun and occasional 80 degree days.

This is admittedly a terrible photo, but I’d dare a professional landscape photographer to make our front yard look good at this point. (Although I must say that’s a snazzy looking handrail!):

IMG_4506

But  it is truly all potential. There are wildflower seeds waiting to sprout and other surprises to come. I hope to be able to show you something wonderful this spring. So stay tuned. In the meantime, I will update this series if anything comes up– any new mistakes or discoveries or victories on the road to developing a meadow community.

Doing this project has made me aware of how often we expect instant results with our landscaping, and how this haste often comes at a price. I don’t mean money, though that is true as well. So often the homeowner or the designer installs way too many plants, and plants them too close to one another, so there is an instant sense of fullness in a newborn landscape.

It looks good for a while, but inevitably the plants start to choke one another out. This either results in a crazy looking landscape the year after the planting, or in lots of extra work for whomever is doing the maintenance, because they have to be pruning the plants back all the time to keep them in check. This isn’t only unnecessary labor, but it also wastes a good deal of fossil fuel what with the power tools and hauling, and if the clippings end up the landfill, the creation of methane gas. It may not be such a big deal in one yard, but it’s happening in thousands of yards, so the ill effects add up. The worst part is that it’s so very avoidable. We just have to learn to be a little bit patient.

So, I’m trying to be patient. I hope you will bear with us, too. (And here’s hoping the whole front slope doesn’t wash away in our El Niño rains!)

The Manzanita Miracle, or, why you should love native plants if you live in a dry climate

manzanita forest

A beautiful stand of big old manzanitas, photo taken last March after an alarmingly dry winter. They don’t need your water, thank you very much.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a class called Watershed Wise Landscape Training, taught by the fantastic Pamela Berstler of G3 (Green Gardens Group), hosted in the lovely TreePeople facility, and offered at a low price thanks to the LADWP. For two days I had my mind blown with water math and plant facts, and I wanted to share this story with you. I call it the Manzanita Miracle.

We learned how to calculate how much water plants need, and how often you need to water them. It’s not easy–but it is possible. This really is like the holy grail to a gardener who has been guessing about watering all her life.

For practice, we ran the calculations for a manzanita. Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) are handsome native California plants–native to the West in general– known especially for their glossy red bark and twisting limbs. They appear as both ground cover and shrubs, and some of the happier shrubs can get big enough to resemble small trees.

As a class we ran the calculations needed to figure out how much water a particular manzanita would need in a particular place. These calculations are never general–they are always very specific to plant, soil and place. I’m not going to go through the math here—for this post specifics of the calculations are not as important here as the results.

The manzanita in question was a three year old plant with a 36″ root depth. Root depth is not guessed, but measured by using a soil probe. Manzanitas are categorized a low water use plants. The location was in Los Angeles, and the soil type was a sandy clay.

Using this information, we were able to calculate how much water the soil held, and how much the plant used daily, leading us to figure out how long this particular plant can go between waterings–safely. Not pushing it to the edge of death, you understand, just calculating its normal water needs. This figure is called the “irrigation interval” and the answer was 225 days.

Let me repeat that. This particular plant expects to go 225 consecutive days without water every year, and can do so without stress.

And this number is just based on the evapotranspiration rate of the plant. It doesn’t account for healthy soil biology. A thriving population of fungi and bacteria around the plant’s root zone might make it even more resilient–that is, able to last longer without water.

But anyway, 225 days translates to about 7 months between waterings–which just so happens to be a reflection of our annual dry season in Southern California.

And when that watering deadline rolls around, how much water does this particular manzanita need to recharge its water reserves?

4 inches.

Even in our desperate drought, we’re getting that much rain annually.

The moral here is that nature has provided us with everything we need. We have beautiful native plants which can thrive with no supplemental water whatsoever, even in drought, provided we plant them correctly, and treat them well. (That last part is actually a huge caveat, since we don’t do either very often.)

Here in Los Angeles we seem to be trapped between two competing and unhealthy ideologies. One is “You’ll pry my lawn out of my cold dead hands” and the other is “Los Angeles is a desert, so I’m planting cactus.”

Neither is appropriate. In Los Angeles, a lawn needs about 50 inches of water a year to stay green–and it usually gets twice that much–up to 100 inches. Compare that to manzanita’s 4 inches.

Cactus doesn’t need much water, true, but we are not a desert–yet. We are in the process of desertification, yes, which is not a good thing. At the end of this road, we don’t end up in a dreamy Georgia O’Keefe style desert, we just end up in a hot, polluted city surrounded by a dead landscape. Gravel and cactus landscapes simply hurry this process along, because they don’t cool the city, and they don’t build soil which can capture and hold water.

We need to settle down in a comfortable in-between spot. This is not Ireland and this is not Sonora. This is Southern California and we have a whole palette of amazing, largely misunderstood plants which are ready willing and able to green this place up even in the heart of a drought.

All we have to do is treat these plants right. Native plants have a reputation for being tricky, and it’s true, in that they don’t act like typical imported landscape plants–the lawns and the boxwood hedges. They don’t need even a fraction of the water as exotics do, so they are almost always overwatered, and die as a result.

I think it is hard for us to even imagine that plants can be so profoundly unthirsty, because we are so accustomed to babying along lawns and other needy plants. We might water our hypothetical manzanitas every two to three weeks, thinking that is what “low water use plant” means. The math shows us how wrong that is–and why manzanitas often die in home landscapes.

Imagine a yard which doesn’t need water at all, even in a drought year. Imagine yourself, free from the chore of watering, free to just not worry about it, because the plants are taking care of themselves. Wouldn’t that make it worth the trouble to learn how to host native plants?

225 days.