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.

Non-GMO Versions of Grape Nuts and Cheerios Less Nutritious Than GMO Versions

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Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health professor Marion Nestle noted on her blog this week that the non-GMO versions of Cheerios and Grape Nuts are less nutritious than the GMO versions. Why? Nestle says,

It’s hard to find non-GMO vitamins (who knew?).  Vitamins, it seems are often produced from genetically engineered microorganisms, or from microbes growing in fermentation tanks that are fed a nutrient mix that contains ingredients from GM sugar beets or corn.

Not that the presence or absence of GMOs matters all that much from a nutritional perspective. Nestle noted, “Cheerios are essentially a vitamin pill wrapped in rapidly absorbable starch.”

At the massive natural food expo, I attended earlier this month, I saw a lot of unhealthy foods with a “non-GMO” label. In the case of Cheerios and Grape Nuts, the “non-GMO” label is either a marketing gimmick or an attempt to start a voluntary labeling program to head off voter mandated efforts.

Here’s where you can help. I need to kick my Grape Nuts crack habit and find a healthier breakfast alternative. Any suggestions?

Note from Mrs. Homegrown:  This post took me by surprise. Erik has eaten Gravel Nuts–I mean, Grape Nuts–for breakfast since I’ve know him (and for who knows how long before that) and that, my friends, is a long, long time.  If we are what we eat, Erik must be half composed of Grape Nuts. I can hardly imagine this new era of breakfasts which lays before us! We are up to our elbows in eggs this time of year, so I’m going to back those of you who suggested egg breakfasts.

Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder

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Bird feeder in the LA Natural History Museum garden.

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

The Nature Gardens at the NHM are not large by the usual standards of botanical gardens, and they are only about a year old, but they are already rich with bird and insect life. (A poorwill even visited, which apparently caused quite a bit of excitement in the birding community.) This is because the designers chose plants to serve wildlife, and the wildlife responded. Build it and they will come.

Off in one shady corner of the garden, I watched two bird feeders being merrily ransacked by more types of birds than I’ve ever seen in one place. It reminded me that I had once wanted a bird feeder–partly for the birds, and partly to provide “TV” for our indoor cats, or Kitty Convicts, as I like to call them. They really love watching the birdbath out the window. I imagined a bird feeder would be doubly exciting. After doing some window shopping and reading, though, I convinced myself that any bird feeder I bought would just end up feeding our pernicious tribe of squirrels, so I gave up the idea, figuring that in our climate, the bird bath was more critical to the birds.

So, with this in the back of my mind, I asked head gardener, Richard Hayden, how the staff kept squirrels away from the bird feeders.  He said simply, “Thistle seed. There’s just thistle seed in there and squirrels don’t eat thistle seed.”

Ohhhhhhh.

Some things become so easy once you get the right information. We just have to buy a feeder built to hold thistle seed. Which we’re doing.

Kitty TV just got a new channel.

Saturday Linkages: Comfrey, a Parking Rock Star and Voracious Worms

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Russian comfrey in flower. Image: Wikipedia.

Does comfrey really improve soil? http://permaculturenews.org/2014/03/18/comfrey-really-improve-soil/ …

Soviet Russia’s answer to the Monsanto house of the future: http://gizmodo.com/that-time-soviet-russia-built-a-house-entirely-out-of-p-1544925507/1544979348/+mattnovak/+mattnovak …

No, your pot doesn’t come from enviromentally conscious hippies http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/marijuana-weed-pot-farming-environmental-impacts …

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It – Wired Science http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2014/03/rootworm-resistance-bt-corn/ …

Adapting to Climate by Being a Nomad within your own House http://feedly.com/e/M3JFioqL 

Rock Star or Comedian? Donald Shoup Takes His Parking Show to Berkeley http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/03/20/ucla-prof-shoup-talks-parking-in-berkeley/#.Uyyal0F4Lo4.twitter …

Residents Fume Over Lead Contamination of Soil in their Neighborhoods http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/03/20/im-a-teacher-im-pregnant-im-worried-residents-fume-over-lead-contamination-of-soil-in-their-neighborhoods/#.UyyaMvrmk2E.twitter …

How to Age Wood Tutorial – http://www.craftaholicsanonymous.net/how-to-age-wood-tutorial-guest-post-from-que-linda …

Dog Portrait from Corrugated Cardboard by Ali Golzad http://www.recyclart.org/2014/03/dog-portrait-corrugated-cardboard-ali-golzad/ …

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

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…

In Defense of the Paper Wasp

Paper wasp building a nest. Image: Wikimedia.

Paper wasp building a nest. Image: Wikimedia.

I really don’t like gardening advice that divides the natural world into lists of good and bad bugs. From nature’s perspective all creatures have a role, even the much despised paper wasp.

Paper Wasp Biology 101
Wasps perform important duties: some wasps eat other insects, other wasps are scavengers, acting as nature’s garbage disposers. That’s not to say that wasps don’t earn some of their bad reputation. I’ve found that, unlike honey bees, they can sting without much warning. And their sting is sharper, reminiscent of the unpleasant after-burn of cheap booze.

The wasps I see the most around our house are paper wasps (family Vespidae and probably of the genus Polistes, though there are many different kinds of paper wasps). Paper wasps like to build their small nests under the eaves of the house. Their diet consists of caterpillars, flies and beetles—anything that eats those kinds of bugs are a friend of mine. Nests consist of around 30 to 40 wasps–workers, queens and drones. They are much less aggressive than hornets and yellowjackets.

How I stopped worrying and learned to love the paper wasp
Of course, sometimes paper wasps build nests where we don’t want them. A neighbor was having her house painted a few years ago and called me over to remove a nest of paper wasps. I put on my beekeeping suit and pulled the nest off the eave of the house only to discover that you can’t move paper wasps. They just flew back immediately to where their nest had been.

Wasps don’t like scented products such as perfume, cologne, aftershave or hairspray. Come to think of it, if I were a wasp I’d sting people over this stinky stuff, particularly at the gym. But I digress.

Concluding rant
I suppose there are legitimate reasons to kill the occasional nest, but I wish more people knew the important role wasps play in our gardens.

And we really need teach everyone to tell the difference between wasps, honeybees, yellowjackets, hornets and bumblebees. You wouldn’t confuse an iPhone with and Android.

Fortunately, UC Davis has a video: