A Fennel Drinking Straw

I don’t get the straw thing. Why do all drinks served in restaurants have to come with a plastic straw? Don’t we have enough plastic trash swirling around our oceans?

While the drinking straw dates back to ancient times, the modern straw renaissance arises alongside the 19th century popularity of juleps and cobblers. Nineteenth century gentleman needed a straw to keep the mint out of their beards and they took to using humble stalks of rye grass. As rye breaks down quickly, some enterprising genius figured out how to make straws out of paper. In the 20th century straws evolved into the bendy plastic horror we’re all so familiar with. Ecological guilt led to a glass and stainless steel drinking straw trend during a brief period in the late aughts.

Our front and back yard have what I like to think of as fennel gyres that, just like those ocean plastic votices, just can’t be stopped. Having hollow stems, it occurred to me that fennel stalks might just be the ideal replacement to the ubiquitous plastic straw and could just spark the latest hipster trend. I vowed to give it a try.

As one might expect, a fennel stalk imparts a licorice taste to your beverage. Some might find this objectionable, like drinking toothpaste, but others might sense a cocktail opportunity. Dr. Google informs me that I’m not the first with this fennel stalk cocktail idea. Emily Han, a guest on episode 67 of the Root Simple Podcast, outscooped me back in 2013.

But perhaps, via crowd-sourced knowledge, we might make a vegetative drinking straw breakthrough. What other plant stalks could we replace all those plastic straws with?

Water your Trees with Greywater

Ludwig’s Laundry to Landscape plans.

Root Simple reader MJ pointed out that I neglected to mention greywater as a way to deal with our drought challenged trees here in California. So, on this greywater Monday, I thought I’d round up some previous posts and links on the subject.

Laundry to Landscape
International greywater guru Art Ludwig has a set of free plans on his website Oasis Designs for a laundry to landscape system. I’ve built this system at our house and at a neighbors’ and can attest to its ease of construction and functionality. Make sure you read through Ludwig’s directions in their entirety or else you’ll blow out your machine’s water pump. And note that some California cities such as Pasadena have classes and rebates for greyater parts.

The Confusing World of Detergents
The combination of a dry climate and alkaline soils means that we have to be very careful about the sorts of detergents we use with greywater. Regular soaps and detergents will raise the pH of your soil. Your trees will look great for a few years and then suddenly die. Unfortunately, finding a soil-friendly detergent or soap is more complex than it should be. You can’t trust manufacturer’s claims of greywater compatibility. Here’s what Kelly concluded in a 2015 post:

As of today, we are still only able back three products without reservation for use in greywater:

• Oasis Liquid Laundry Detergent
• Bio-Pac Laundry Detergent
• soap nuts

ETA 8/14: Also, it looks like Fit Organic Laundry Detergent is safe as well. Thanks, Judy!

Sorry folks, I know that’s not a lot in terms of choice.

The following eco-friendly detergents are often listed as greywater compatible, but we have reservations about them. We recommend you research these products more on your own, and consider your own greywater system as well as the specific plants and soil you are irrigating before deciding whether these should be used or not.

Ecos: Contains sodium coco sulfate

Vaska: Has a D+ rating on the Environmental Working Group’s product safety database.

Lifetree: Has a pH level of 7

Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap: Fine for greywater use in general, but it simply is not a laundry detergent–it’s castile soap. You can wash your clothes with it, but the results won’t be spectacular.

The bottom line is that we only trust the detergents and soaps that Ludwig himself designed: Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent and Dishwash soap.

Here are Brad Landcaster’s thoughts on soaps and detergents. Let me also note the utility of Landcaster’s books and website when it comes to all things water conservation related, especially how to grade and configure tree plantings to optimize rainwater irrigation.

One last and rarely mentioned issue, is if “greywater” should be one word or two or, in the neologistic spirit of “apisoir,” perhaps we need to invent a sexier word for reusing our water. Greenwater? Freewater? Leave a comment!

My Fellow Californians, Please Water Your Trees

The “new normal” here in the Golden State seems to be more along the plot lines of Dune than Baywatch. This winter it hasn’t rained or snowed much at all.

I predict that when summer heat and smog returns, our local potentates will call for water conservation. They won’t, of course, say anything about the use of water by big agricultural interests, but will, instead, focus on the tiny amount of water that goes to maintaining urban and suburban landscapes and parks. In 2015, Donald R. Hodel and Dennis R. Pittenger of UC Riverside published a white paper, “9% The California Drought and Water Use,” challenging this sort of knee jerk water conservation. They said,

Water the trees. Trees form the infrastructure of our landscapes and urban forest, and are their permanent or, at least, most long-lived and valuable components around which the other plants intermesh, if not depend. Mature trees are among the most valuable and difficult-to-replace plants in urban areas. Their loss would be devastating. Trees can be likened to the steel framework of a building; how could the building exist without it. So, keep the trees watered.

Not watering the trees results in an arid cityscape, trees that fall over and kill people and big bills from your arborist. Of course, as Pittenger and Hodeln note, we should plant trees that use less water and make our landscape watering practices more efficient. But we should also consider the ongoing value of trees and landscapes planted in the pre–Dune era.

Towards that end I’m going to take a close look at our own drip irrigation system this week, repair leaks and extend the lines to better water our growing trees. I also need to make a much overdue revue of the programs I’ve set on our “smart” timer. But I’m also going to buy a pair of earplugs to use specifically for when our mayor (future president?) begins talking about municipal water conservation.

We Grew a Cocktail Avocado!

This morning Kelly alerted me to the latest avocado news making its way around the internet tubes. Apparently a chain of grocery stores in Great Britain, worried about the lack of knife skills in our young folks (ugh), is marketing a seedless “cocktail” avocado.

What is a cocktail avocado? Some deep Googling revealed that they aren’t some new variety, just un- or under pollinated Fuerte avocado. Since we have a Fuerte tree in our backyard, I decided to do a deeper form of Googling, which involved prying myself away from the internet tubes and going outside for some first hand investigation. Ka-ching! I found a cocktail avocado that I plan on selling to a knife challenged Brit for a high and undisclosed price.

So how do cocktail avocados happen? Avocado pollination is one of the more complicated mysteries of nature for which I will turn to UC Davis for an explanation,

The first or female stage remains open for only 2 or 3 hours. The flower then closes and remains closed the rest of the day and that night. The following day it opens again. But now the stigma will no longer receive pollen. Instead, the flower is now shedding pollen. That is, each flower is female at its first opening, male at its second. After being open several hours the second day, the flower closes again, this time for good. If it had been successfully pollinated at the first opening, and if other conditions are right, it will develop into a delicious fruit.

People mistakenly think that avocados trees are either male or female. In fact, they are all both. The differences between trees are about when the timing of this alternate gendered flowering occurs. UC Davis goes on to explain,

Nature has provided for avocado cross-pollination by creating varieties of two kinds. The “A” type is female in the morning of the first day and male in the afternoon of the second day (when the weather is warm). The “B” type is just the reverse: its flowers are female in the afternoon and male the following morning.

The fact that we have two hives of honeybees in our backyard and lots of other avocado trees in the neighborhood means that we don’t get a lot of cocktail avocados. I could not find any information about the methods of cocktail avocado growers (located in Spain). I suspect they are either using nets to exclude bees or they are just selectively harvesting the cocktail avocados that naturally occur on every tree.

Spider Bite!

My sincerest apologies for beginning your week with a picture of two festering arachnid bites, but that’s what Mondays are for.

These particular arachnid bites belong to UCSD alumni pal Professor Nic, who is visiting us from Canada, the greatest of nations. The bites sent him to the very same Kaiser emergency room that saved Kelly’s life last year. Unfortunately, modern medicine lacks any kind of test that would reveal the scientific name of the perpetrator.

Kelly and I immediately pinned the blame on the infamous Brown Recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa). But, according to the LA County Natural History Museum’s extraordinarily useful book Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, the Los Angeles basin has no brown recluses in residence. According to that same book, the most likely perp is the Long-legged Sac spider (Cheiracanthium species).

When disturbed they draw the pair of forelegs back and in, forming a cage around the body . . . These spiders have relatively strong, long fangs and have been known to bite humans, causing a wound that is painful and slow to heal.

Professor Nic captured a photo, in his Corian® bejeweled Airbnb, of the likely perp when he got back from the ER and it looks exactly like the Long-legged Sac spider in the NHM book. Don’t worry, he later released it to the hipster wilds of Echo Park.

Unlike the Brown Recluse, Long-legged sac spiders employ reputation management consultants to keep their nefarious activities out of the news. They live in the corners of rooms and even, according to the NHM book, take up residence in household appliances. So dust out that Vitamix periodically!

Lest we fall into a spider hating hole, allow me to close with some of my own, unpaid spider reputation management. I believe that we should give our our children plush, stuffed spider toys for Christmas instead of teddy bears to instill in them a love of all things Araneae. Spiders are a vital part of the web of life (pun intended) . We should cast off our fear of them and respect the work they do in keeping down the population of other insects. In Southern California the only spider to treat with caution and respect is the Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus). While a spider bite from a Long-legged Sac spider is painful, it’s not going to cause serious consequences.