Allegedly Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder Not Rat Proof

I set up our CritterCam last night to see who or what was eating all the bird seed. Turns out it was LA’s enterprising city councilmen! Just kidding. It was rats.

This discovery caps off a busy week for urban wildlife in our backyard. A young coyote visited last week and, last night, our indoor cats got in a full on cat fight on either side of a glass door with a visiting outdoor cat.

Our new bird (rat?) feeder has a lever that closes when a heavy animal steps on it. This is supposed to deter squirrels. As you can see from the photos, rats easily hacked their way around this problem by shimmying between the lever and the food. Perhaps I can just weigh down the levers at night but I have confidence our rats will find a workaround. You have to admire their pole dancing abilities and the futility of most human efforts to stop our rodent companions.

I have taken steps elsewhere in the yard to reduce rats. The chicken feed gets locked up at night (the critter cam showed the rats are active between 11pm and 4am) and I try, not always successfully, to keep things neat.

Back in the 90s I worked at a mouse infested TV station. We had a scale model of a set that was being built for a talk show. One of my coworkers had the bright idea to put a camera on the little set and smear it with dabs of peanut butter. Hilarity ensued when we reviewed the tape the next day. Maybe, instead of feeding the birds, I should start an LA Rats Instagram.

California Gardening Guides

In tough times folks start thinking about planting vegetables. As I’m too angry to blog this morning I thought that instead of a rant I’d post a few useful links for Californians on how to start a vegetable garden.

All gardening advice is local. One of the tricky things about California is that we live in a Mediterranean climate and most of the information on what, how and when to plant vegetables is written for places where it snows. So here’s a few links courtesy of our Extension Service that should help you get started with your vegetable garden:

Burpee California Planting Guide

Vegetable Gardening Handbook for Beginners (by friend of the blog Yvonne Savio)

Sacramento Vegetable Planting Guide

UC Master Gardeners of San Mateo & San Francisco Monthy Garden Checklist

San Joaquin Valley Planting Guide

San Diego Vegetable Planting Guide

Happy growing!

The Perfect Crisis Vegetable: Prickly Pear Cactus

Unsurprisingly, during this crisis, the Root Simple inbox and phone line has come alive again with questions about growing vegetables. My response is always the same. Grow the stuff that’s easy to grow in your climate. To that I’d add that you should consider edible perennials.

In our climate the king of edible perennials is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica, but note that there are many other edible Opuntia varieties). The young pads (nopales in Spanish) are coming into season right now. The fruit, called tunas, are ready in the fall.

With prickly pear cactus you get a vegetable and a fruit in one easy to grow package. It’s so easy to grow that your problem will be keeping it from taking over your entire garden and your neighbor’s garden. Plant things like broccoli and carrots and, depending on your soil and experience level as a gardener, you’re in for a lot more work and, likely, disappointment. Trust me, I’ve killed a lot of vegetables in the past twenty years. I’ve never once killed a prickly pear cactus.

Luther Burbank’s allegedly spineless prickly pear.

We have one specimen that came with the house and another that I picked up a few years ago: Luther Burbank’s spineless variety that, well, isn’t actually spineless.

My favorite method for preparing and eating the pads is to scrape them with a knife to remove the spines (you don’t need to peel the skin off). I then chop and boil the pads for five minutes to reduce the sliminess. Then I fry the pads in a pan with onions. You can also just chop the pads and eat them raw in a salsa with tomatoes, onions and hot peppers.

Some other resources from our blog for what to do with prickly pear fruit:

A prickly pear fruit cocktail

Juicing prickly pear fruit

Prickly pear jam recipe

If you’re not in our warm and dry-ish region a good resource for other edible perennials is Eric Toensmeier’s book Edible Perennial Vegetable Gardening.

Can’t grow prickly pear? Tell us your favorite easy to grow edible perennial in the comments!

Olive Curing Update

Last October I started curing the olives from the Frantoio tree we planted in the parkway. The olives are finally ready to eat just in time for the pandemic. I used UC Davis’ handy publication, Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling as my guide and chose a Sicilian style brine method that yields a slightly bitter result. Basically, you make a brine solution with pickling salt (one pound salt per gallon of water) and vinegar (5% acetic acid–1 1/2 cups per gallon). To this I added some garlic and hot pepper flakes. I went light on the seasoning which, I think, was a good idea. Following the suggestion on the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog I changed out the brine when the water darkened—about once a month.

What the olives looked like at the beginning of the curing process.

The verdict: harvesting and curing olives is a lot of work but well worth the effort. It took six months of curing to leach out the bitter phenolic compounds in the fruit.

Some things I learned in the process:

  • Here in Southern California, where we have a plague of olive fruit flies, you need to set a McPhail trap baited with torula yeast lures and change out the bait once a month. I set a reminder on my calendar to do this.
  • When you harvest you need to separate the maggot infested fruit from the good fruit. This is easy to do if a bit of a chore. The signs of maggots are obvious–a scar on the surface of the fruit.
  • You can harvest both green and the more mature black olives from the same tree and cure them both together. Olives are ready to pick when the juice is cloudy in late September. I have to error on the side of picking early to stay ahead of the maggots.
  • I planted the tree in 2012 and I’d guess that 2018 was probably the first year that I would have had enough olives to make it worth curing. The tree really exploded, in terms of growth, after about three years in the ground and I’d guess it’s around fifteen feet tall and ten feet wide as of 2020. If I had to choose a tree again I might go with one that produces larger fruit. That said, I’m still happy with the results of this multi-year experiment.

I should also note that the tree itself is beautiful, especially when the silvery underside of the leaves shimmer in a light breeze. Olive trees have deep symbolic associations in ancient Mediterranean cultures and the tree has an average lifespan of 500 years. There are a few trees, over 2,000 years old, that still produce fruit.

If you live in the U.S. but not in a climate that supports olives, consider buying domestic olive oil and cured olives. Especially with olive oil, a lot of the imported stuff is adulterated garbage.

Home Orchards for Year Round Food Resiliency

One of the things I’m thankful for during this covid crisis is having a small yard with a variety of fruit trees. If you’re smart about the types and varieties of fruit trees you plant, you can maximize the amount of time during the year that you’re likely to have fruit. Here in California, if you have enough space, you can have fruit year round.

The handy chart above from Dave Wilson nursery (head here for a downloadable version) can be used as a guide to planting for year round food resiliency. Results may vary. Due to a high squirrel population stone fruit doesn’t work well in our yard. But at least I have avocados and the olives I started curing back in October are now ready to eat. In August we’ll have figs and in September more pomegranates than we could possible eat. If the squirrels don’t take them all we might have some apples too.

This chart from the Maddock Nursery in Fallbrook shows avocado and citrus harvest times. If you’re lucky enough to live in an avocado friendly climate and have space for four trees it’s possible to pick varieties that will be ready to harvest year round. That’s a lot of guacamole. Even with one avocado tree, as we have, you can leave the avocados on the tree and harvest as needed (they don’t ripen on the tree). Our Fuerte gives us several months of avocado toast.

Growing fruit takes knowledge and effort. Thankfully, we have a great resource in UC Davis’ guide to backyard orchards. My advice: talk to avid gardeners in your area to learn what grows best. Pay attention to irrigation and pruning. Take out under-performing trees. Buy bare root trees to save money.

If you don’t have a yard perhaps a school, business or faith institution in your community could be convinced to plant a small orchard. One of the many lessons of this crisis is that we need to work on local food resiliency and not depend so much on long supply chains.