Self Watering Barrel Gardens, Aussie style

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Gardening Australia did a video, well worth watching, of David de Vries’ self watering containers that he builds for the Red Cross in Alice Springs. De Vries has devised a simple and efficient way to turn drums into gardens. They look good too.

We’ve featured self watering containers on our blog and in our books. They are a great way to deal with hot climates and bad soil. And, in many places, drums are as plentiful as people.

Thanks to Helen in Sunbury, Victoria for the tip!

Picture Sundays: Inside a Corpse Flower

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We went to the Huntington Gardens yesterday to see their corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanumand, yes, that is a NSFW scientific name) which was set to bloom soon. A few minutes after we arrived an excited docent ran thought the conservatory letting everyone know that the flower was starting to open.

We had lucked out. It takes years for the plant to bloom and the flower does not last long. We left to have lunch and when we came back horticultural pandemonium had broken out:

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There was no sign of the flower’s infamous rotting flesh smell (the odor attracts carrion eating insects who provide pollination). But a Huntington staffer kindly took our camera and pointed it into the flower. Here’s the inside view:

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Here’s a time lapse video from Michigan State of their corpse flower blooming:

Saturday Linkages: Water Shaming, Scotts and Robot Houses

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Smarter urban water: how Denver turned to ridiculing waste

Grid-It: Knoll your everyday carry

In Our Garden: Four Surprising Fruits

Sneak peak of a LIGHT-UP ROBOT-FACE Tree House

Who’s more controversial – Michelle Rhee or Scotts Miracle-Gro? | Garden Rant

See what the CEO of Scotts is like:

Can we can with real lemon juice instead of bottled juice?

The Archdruid Report: The Gray Light of Morning

Don’t eat dog poop, and don’t run around with sharp objects in your ear

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

The Mystery of the Zero-Irrigation Squash

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We can’t sit down until we eat our squash.

You guys might remember that last year our entire back yard was swamped with squash vines, as we were growing two types of large squash: Tromboncino and “Long of Naples”.  They were both tasty as juveniles, but our long wait for them to ripen was disappointing. Both were rather bland. Bland yet remarkably plenteous. We tried many things to make this stuff useful and/or tasting: pies, pickles, soups, but in the end we felt like we were always trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Though we had almost no rain this year, a couple of volunteer squash vines popped up out of the mulch near our raised beds, and we let them grow, because we wanted to eat the baby squash as we would zucchini–it’s good that way. We also didn’t think the vines would last very long without water. Well, they did. We couldn’t keep up with the baby squash (they’re so good at hiding) and ended up with a harvest of big, bland squash.

Again.

(The squash is a hybrid, by the way. They look like Tromboncino, but are bigger than the Tromboncinos we had last year. Squash cross-breed like crazy. Volunteers are rarely like their parents.)

I bring this up mostly because I am amazed how well this squash did without irrigation. And to be clear, that means they’ve had no water for months. The chairs in the picture above are holding over 100 lbs (45+ kilos) of food grown with zero water inputs! To top that, this was one of the healthiest squash plants we’ve ever “grown” or rather allowed to grow. How did that work? And more importantly, how can we make it happen again?

I have three thoughts:

1) Perfect timing. Volunteers know exactly when to come up. They’re rarely wrong. We humans schedule planting by when we finally buy our seeds and find time to trundle out into the garden. It’s not good enough. Masanobu Fukuoka had a good thought when he went out and just tossed seed all over the place and waited to see what grew. I really need to figure out how to work that man’s ideas into our garden. In times of stress and hard conditions, it seems best to turn to Nature as a teacher.

2) Mulch/compost basins may work well for some types of plants, and do a good job of retaining water. The area where the squash grew is the site of a huge hole which Erik dug out to harvest clay to make our oven. That pit has been filled with compost and the remains of last year’s straw bale beds, and topped with lots of mulch. The squash seems to really like this compost-y growing medium. We’ve not had many volunteers of other types, though, so I don’t think the appeal is universal. However, it may lead to hints of how to grow squash crops here successfully with little water.

3) Cheating. I do wonder if Mr. Squash stretched his roots under the nearest raised bed (about 2 feet/.5 meter away) and siphoned off some of the water. Certainly if I’d planted a seedling that far from the bed, and told it “Okay, you’re on your own. Just get what you need from that bed over yonder” that plant would never have made it. But volunteers are canny. And it may come down to timing. The squash might have used what little rain we had as a jump start, and got its roots over into the wet zone before the real heat set in.

Have you ever been amazed by a volunteer’s hardiness? Anyone from a dry place have any favorite squash/melon growing strategies?

Looking for Tough, Drought Tollerant Plants?

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For Californians, you need look no further than UC Davis Arboretum’s searchable list of All-Stars.

The horticultural staff of the UC Davis Arboretum have identified 100 tough, reliable plants that have been tested in the Arboretum, are easy to grow, don’t need a lot of water, have few problems with pests or diseases, and have outstanding qualities in the garden. Many of them are California native plants and support native birds and insects. Most All-Star plants can be successfully planted and grown throughout California.

The list consists of plants that the UC Davis Arboretum has proven to thrive in our Mediterranean climate. They also look good year round. Most are drought tolerant, low maintenance and attract beneficial wildlife. Not all are native, but that’s not an issue for us here at Root Simple (we like diversity). We’ve learned that if you’ve got a small garden, having plants that look good year round is particularly important.

There’s a number of our favorites on the list: Salvia apiana, Rosmarinus officinalis, Ceanothus ‘Concha’.

If you just cashed in your LA Department of Water and Power lawn rebate check and (hopefully) decided against the artificial turf grass option, the All-Star list is good place to start.

Kelly and I are working, this summer, on lowering our garden’s water needs. How has drought (assuming that’s a problem for you) changed your gardening plans?

013 Keeping Chickens with Terry Golson of Hencam.com

Image: Hencam.com.

Image: Hencam.com.

On the thirteenth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we talk to chicken expert and author Terry Golson. Terry fields chicken questions from all over the world through her blog hencam.com where, as the name implies, you can watch her hens live through the interwebs.

One of the main points Terry makes during the podcast is that chickens have not really been bred to live long and that they start to get health problems after two years of age. When I solicited questions for this podcast, sure enough, most of the questions were related to health. By the way, I think I managed to ask Terry all the questions–many thanks to the listeners and blog readers who sent them in.

During the interview Terry mentions:

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.

Pressure Canning Questions?

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Master Food Preserver and chef Ernest Miller will be our guest on a future episode of the Root Simple Podcast. I’m doing the interview this Friday and we’re going to talk about pressure canning. If you’ve got a pressure canning question please leave a comment on this post or call our podcast hotline at (213) 537-2591. Ernie is extremely knowledgeable and now is your chance to get those canning questions answered.

Is Diagonal the New Horizontal? The Evolution of the “Flipper” Fence

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We’re in the midst of what seems like a new real estate bubble here in Los Angeles. Houses get so many bids that buyers have to write letters to the owner to beg for the privilege of buying their dilapidated bungalow.

To take advantage of this market, house flippers have developed a new architectural vocabulary based, I think, on a kind of mash up of stuff from Home Depot and ideas from back issues of Dwell Magazine. One of the most persistent flipper memes is the horizontal fence:

Photo via The Eastsider.

Photo via The Eastsider.

I spotted a unique variation on the flipper fence a few weeks ago–the diagonal fence at the top of this post. I kind of like it but when I posted it in Facebook I got a mixed reaction. One thing I don’t like about it myself is the height. Personally, I think it’s unfriendly to the neighborhood to have a front yard fence higher than four feet (not to mention that it’s a code violation, as well). That said, I think this diagonal arrangement might look good in a backyard (though it does waste the bit of wood you have to saw off the top).

Some other Facebook comments noted the sad state of the parkway, a.k.a “hell strip.” To be fair to the owners I don’t think they are finished with the job (which, if they are actually house flippers, will involve gravel and agave).

What do you think? Should good fences be vertical, diagonal or horizontal?

Root Simple’s New CritterCam

Say hello to Root Simple’s new CritterCam and to some of Los Angeles’ many enterprising rats!

For my recent birthday Kelly got me a Moultrie M-990i game camera, a device used by hunters and wildlife researchers. It’s a digital still and video camera with a infrared flash and a motion detector. If something moves in front of the camera a picture or video is taken. It also stamps the time and records temperature and moon phase. [See update at the end of this post--this is probably the wrong camera for the application I intend. Thanks Max!]

My plan is to use it for some urban, backyard citizen science. Specifically I want to figure out a few things:

  • What mammals are visiting the backyard?
  • What paths do they take through the yard?
  • What kinds of birds are visiting the bird bath?
  • Have my skunk proofing efforts worked?
  • What’s the most active time in the night for mammalian activity?
  • How many cats are visiting and what time do they come through?
  • What’s the best way to critter proof fruit trees and vegetable gardens?
  • What mammal is chewing on our fruit?
  • How often do coyotes visit and at what time? (We’ve seen them two times in the backyard).
  • Are rats visiting our chicken feeder?
  • When does a broody hen get up to eat?
  • What critters are hanging around the chicken coop at night?
  • Use the camera’s time lapse function to look at shade patterns in the yard.

I’ll share the results on the blog over the next year.

The first night I used the camera I pointed it at the grape arbor where I know rats visit. The resulting images, that I strung together into the video above, show at least two rats who set off the camera around 30 times throughout the night between 8:30 PM and 5:30 AM.

This is the first year that we’ve got a significant crop off of either of our two grapevines. I think I could have prevented most of the rat problem by picking all the grapes just slightly before they were fully ripe.

What critters visit your backyard?

Update: I may have the wrong camera for, at least, capturing rats. The images I got may be just because I set the camera up close to where the rats were feeding. Root Simple reader Max sent in the following letter from Moultrie:

The PIR, of our game cameras, is set to pick up larger movement and eliminate false triggering of the smaller game that you have listed. This is because the people that rely on our cameras for game management do not want numerous pictures of squirrels, and such, when focused on larger game. Our sister company – Wingscapes – is better suited for the things that you are interested in. We suggest looking at the BirdCam Pro and the Wildlife Cam offered at http://www.wingscapes.com/products/cameras.

Picture Sundays: Homebrew Birthday Cards

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Caroline Clerc, the talented artist who drew the little figures that dance across the top of this blog, gave me a personalized birthday greeting (I’m getting near the half century mark). The card depicts the inside of my brain which has been contaminated by toxoplasmosis and is thus full of cats.

Lora Hall, a.k.a. Homegrown Neighbor took a craft class recently and made a bunch of cards including this Star Wars mashup that she gave me:

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It depictis what happens when you hit 50 with toxoplasmosis.