26 June, 2014

WTH (What The Horticulture) Wednesday: A Source of ??? At One Location

Not far from where I live, a perfectly good little house (3 bedrooms, 2 bath, garage and all the other rooms you would expect) was demolished and a huge two story behemoth built filling 90% of the lot with HOUSE. The architect should be subjected to a public whipping or perhaps put in stocks for a week or two for this monstrosity.  (OK... be it noted, I am not a fan of the REALLY big house for many reasons and I think ostentatiousness is unbecoming, so this castle starts in the negative numbers with me from the beginning and goes downhill.)  I have taken to calling this thing "The Houseboat" because of it's very rectangular shape and absence of any line of interest from the outside. 

But OK, put a paper bag over the house and the landscaping will probably still make three separate appearances in the WTH Wednesday series.  The landscaping of this place is truly one of the most dismal plantings anywhere in the city with a completely idiotic plant choices and placement.  There is not one single plant in this garden that ought not be yanked out and dumped. OK...  Leave the pansies, but everything else must go.  Today we concern ourselves with little 'over-reaching' of the sidewalk.

In the lower left corner you see an agave and a New Zealand Flax.  I'm not certain which agave it is, but most agaves with that kind of leaf are large plants, I'm talking three to four feet from center with spikes in the tips of the leaves.  Here these plants are in a planter bed about 18" wide abutted on the left hand side by the sidewalk and on the right by a cement wall of about twenty four inches.  The cement wall probably won't give and in about six months, the agave will be growing over the sidewalk preventing pedestrians from walking on the side walk - I mean it will easily do that - agaves have a wingspan of something like four to six feet!  And with the cement wall tilting it towards the sidewalk - even more - possibly to cover the entire walk way.  

And how about that rust colored sword bearing plant in this long bed?  That is a Phormium tenax often called New Zealand Flax.  Wikipedia describes the leaves of this plant as "The tough, sword-shaped leaves grow up to three metres long and up to 125 mm wide."  To help with the metric conversion, three meters is more or less nine feet and 125 mm works out to about five inches.  

Sidewalk?  What sidewalk? I guess they'll have to walk on the lawn that is watered without conscience or regard to expense and sprayed with enough chemicals to kill a few household pets.  Better yet:  I'll take a machete to it!  

This was not done by a clueless homeowner.  Some professional drafted a design and called for these plants to be planted here.  

It would be laughable if not so disgustingly  stupid.  And wasteful.  


NB.  Just last night I walked down that sidewalk in the picture.  In the distance, the green hedge is Ficus benjimina, AKA, in my world as F. peukus, my own "phauxtanical" Latin.  These trees have not been trimmed since they were installed over a month ago and are already impinging on the pathway.  One gets the sense of a garden designer and a homeowner with little regard for pedestrians or neighbors, or plants for that matter.  

23 June, 2014

A Paradise Without Water...

... would not be a paradise.  And this is the dilemma facing California today.

We are in our fifth year of drought.  Farmers have lost almond trees and other crops. Restrictions apply in most cities on the use (especially the waste) of water.  Some folks say "California is a dessert..." to which my colleague and co-instructor Orchid Black retorts, "Only because we made it one!" 

As reported in a recent LA Times article, this current drought has gotten worse.  And it's long time before our rainy season (ostensibly beginning in November) arrives.  

The purple circles show where the drought conditions have worsened.  If 33% of the state is experiencing 'exceptional' drought conditions (up from 25% last week alone), why do a majority of Californians state they have not felt impacted by the drought?   

There has been no major push by government or utilities to enforce any kind of real water conservation through out the state.  Only in towns like Willits, in Northern California have had any kind of water conservation effort and that came when the citizens of Willits learned they had only a 10 day supply of water from the state and then nothing.  Through massive and draconian conservation efforts and reopening local wells and other acute measures, Willits did not have to go thirsty, but it was touch and go for weeks.

California has a long history of critical water supply problems, some dendrologists believe California has suffered drought conditions for as long as 200 years at a whack!  Modern humans have moved  here en masse from the rest of the US - indeed, the rest of the world - to luxuriate in the magnificent Mediterranean climate.  But we spoil it.

We want the Mediterranean climate but we want to also pretend we are in Tropical wonderland and The British Isles at the same time.  We plant palm trees - only two species are local to southern California and neither of them are preferred species - and we roll out acres and acres of lawn.  I can live with or without the palm trees - they make me think that the people who put them in our landscape are just ignorant of the beauty we already have here.  But I have a special disdain for lawns.  

Lawns in southern California make about as much sense as a potato chip factory on the bottom of Santa Monica Bay.  It's so hard to get a crisp potato chip with all that water!  Lawns in England, Ireland and Scotland (yeah yeah, Wales too) don't need to be installed with a programmed irrigation system.  The rule, as I see it, if you need to install automatic irrigation for your lawn, you shouldn't install a lawn. Lawn turf with its very short root systems (they way we grow it invariably creates root systems that are shorter than they would have in a more natural setting) takes much more water than any other crop we grow!  And I'm including crops for food (with the possible exception of some tropical specialty plants which do not cover nearly as much acreage as lawns or food crops).

Mind you, farmers need to modify their ways too.  The almond trees bulldozed (mentioned above) because of the lack of water, probably shouldn't have been planted in the first place (mind you, the trees became untenable because a huge amount of water stored in Northern California was shipped to Southern California in the midst of the non-existent wet season of 2013/2014 and the trees could have survived this drought had that not happened, but if they had to be destroyed this year, I read it as a poor choice for an area prone to drought).  And why is it that California irrigates acres of land to grow alfalfa, mostly at tax payers expense (because if the Federal government charged as much it cost to get the water to the farmer there would be squeals and screaming in Congress) only to export all this alfalfa to China!  California is the largest shipper of alfalfa in the world to China!  With tax payer subsidized water.  

We all need to change what we are doing with or without government or utility urging. Check your home for leaks.  Limit your showers to five minutes.  Wash only full loads of dishes and clothes.  Cut down on landscape water.  To the degree you can, make water work twice before it leaves your domain.  I collect water as I'm waiting for hot water from the tap, I add in leftover water from the dog's bowl and left over coffee/tea into the bucket (any water without soap or other harmful substances) and this bucket helps water my container garden.  I can't control all my water to the extent that it all works twice, but that which I can control I do.  

Your changes will make very little difference in the water shortage in California.  But it will help you feel empowered and will reinforce your appreciation and respect for water. THAT is the biggest change.  And you will feel more at home in our drought prone climate. It will help you appreciate this world we live in.  You are here.  Not the Bahamas.  Not London. You are here in a Paradise like no other.


17 June, 2014

Some Salient Facts On GMO's; Part I, Genetics

GMO plants have been a part of our diet since the early 1990's and yet many consumers do not know much about them, despite efforts to pass California's label law and much hollering and shouting in the media.  One of the interesting points in the Proposition 37 (Labeling of GMOs) debate is that the NO side (in favor of NOT labeling GMOs) did not try to sell people on GMOs (like I thought they would), but only denigrated the proposition's wording, or claimed (fraudulently) that GMOs would increase grocery bills by some obnoxious, unfathomable amount and charged that it created a whole new bureaucracy (it didn't). They did not promote GMOs as being safe, healthy or necessary.  If a voter, wanting to vote intelligently asks you questions about GMOs, hopefully some of what follows will provide you with enough data to inform them.

As I write this now, I can see this will take up more than one post, so this is the first installment.  If you find you have questions, or just a comment (perhaps a correction?), please use the blog's comment form so I can present the answers to all who have your question.  I hope we can make this an ongoing discussion. Today, a bit on genetics.   

Half of a child's DNA is from the mother and the other half from the father.  The different genes combine based on what is dominant and what is recessive.  For example, the mother has blue eyes and father has brown eyes, the child most likely will have blue or brown eyes.  Whichever the child has, we might assume that is dominant and the one not expressed is recessive. We don't need to try to figure out the situation if the kid has green eyes... Just yet.

So, for a plant, it's the same:  half the genetic material comes from the male and half from the female.  Plants have sex in very different ways from mammals, so it becomes a little more convoluted.  We'll cover most of this very quickly so hang on.  If there are two parents of the same plant that are different varieties (like a mild pepper male pollinating a female Jalapeno), it is called 'crossing.' And crossing between a GMO and non-GMO is what we want to avoid.  Like the plague.  

I.  Selfing - this is not common in the animal world, but in some flowers, the flower has both male and female parts in the same flower.  In the case of tomatoes, lettuce, peas and beans, these flowers almost ALWAYS pollinate themselves before they open; this is called 'selfing.'  These plants can be grown next to a different variety of the same plant and will probably NOT cross.  We have very little concern about the genetics becoming mixed between two plants under almost any condition.

II. Selfing or Bee pollinated - These are plants that CAN self- pollinate, but usually don't, even though they do have both male and female, they primarily depend on bees to pollinate them.  Because we know a lot about bee behavior, we can control the pollination between plants we want to avoid and force the plant to self-pollinate. This is still very easy to do.

III.  Insect pollinated only - Harder to control because these flowers probably do NOT contain male and female parts - they are one or the other - and so they must be pollinated by an insect or a human playing an insect.  Still, we know how to keep these separate easily enough.  It involves some extra effort, but it can be done. Soybeans are the number one GMO'ed crop that is insect pollinated.  GMOs have been implicated in some of the problems our bee populations are experiencing today, but there is no definitive proof as yet. 

IV.  Wind pollinated only - These are the plants we are most concerned about - corn, beets and others.  The wind carries the very light pollen for long distances and that endangers crops that might cross with pollen from GMO plants. 

One of the insidious points of GMO plants is that EVERY SINGLE CELL IN THE GMO PLANT CARRIES THE GMOed GENE.  Without going through the entire explanation of chromosomes combining between mother and father that you got in 8th grade, agree with me when I say, one half of your chromosomes are from your mother and the other from your father.  They combine in a unique way to make you - and because you get half from one and half from the other, you have a complete set. You have one for eye color from your mom and one for eye color from your dad.  You have one for hair color from mom and one from dad.  It takes the two versions of each chromosomes to make a complete set - one of each is dominant and one of each is recessive (this is a simplification, but we don't need to know more to understand the point).  In a GMOed plant, pollen from a GMOed plant gives the next generation half of the genes with the GMO trait in it. The GMO trait then becomes a part of every single strand of DNA in the next generation.

Corn pollen can travel up to 25 miles and still be viable.  No one has done that same research on beets yet.  When GMO corn was introduced, Monsanto told the USDA that corn pollen was only viable for five miles.  We had to take them at their word because no one had studied the distance at that time.  Now we have some independent research on this and guess what?  Monsanto must have just guessed at five miles because it's really twenty-five miles.  How far beets?  Don't know.  We do know that beet pollen is much lighter than corn.  And just like corn pollen, it will mate with any female flower ready to receive pollen.  Worse than corn, though the pollen from GMO sugar beets will cross with your garden beets and your chard because all three are genetically so similar they are considered the same species!  

Wind pollinated plants present the biggest challenge and there is NO WAY GMO and non-GMO plants can survive and be independent from crossing when grown in the same vicinity.  Non-GMO corn, to remain non-GMO when grown in proximity to GMO corn must be hand-pollinated to assure freedom from GMOs, a time consuming project that requires many hard diligent and motivated workers to prevent the GMO pollen from reaching the flowers of the non-GMOed corn.  Beets and chard present a much more challenging situation because the flowers are not neatly separated like corn flowers are.

How'd I do so far?  More to come in a day or two; stay tuned.


06 June, 2014

It WILL Kill (Almost) Everything (And That's Bad!)

I am not a fan of 'diy' pesticides - especially ones circulating around the internet right now.  I'm all in favor of things being cheaper and I'm definitely in favor of no one ever buying Round Up again, but to replace it with this is not an improvement.

I am an organic gardener and have been from the days it was 'crazy' and 'stupid' to be an organic gardener.  Now that it's cool to be an organic gardener, I have moved on to being what we laughingly refer to as "post modern organic."  I don't use any chemical pesticides at all.  It really doesn't make sense to use any poison on the food you will eat.  If it must be doused with poison, it is not worth eating.  I am convinced that insects primarily attack weak and under performing plants and in that way are nature's clean-up crew, keeping genetic material of weaker plants out of the reproductive pool.  

Part of the reason we need insecticides, though, is because we buy bunches of chemicals to make our plants greener and taller and fatter and more better in all ways.  All that extra growth is succulent and green - easy picking for insects.  Stop putting on all that fertilizer and you won't have to spray insecticides!  How about that - you stop buying both products - think of the money you save.  Meanwhile you'll have uglier looking fruit that is better for you and the environment - plus, if you like killing things, you can now afford a couple of tickets to see the latest nonsense the movie industry has dreamed up in which people die left and right.  I'll pass on that too.

But to this chemical concoction directly - did you even look at the ingredient list?  Holy cow!  There is NO WATER to dilute the mixture.  It is ONE GALLON of vinegar.  Do you know what the pH of vinegar is?  2.2 - remember, your soil and plants perform at optimum somewhere much closer to 4.5 or 5. THIS STUFF WILL KILL YOUR SOIL'S EARTHWORMS, BACTERIA AND FUNGI!  You'll be creating dead soil.  I know, because you won't spray it over your entire garden, the dead zone will be relatively small and can be repopulated from adjacent areas, but do you really want to do this?   Why kill the things you are trying to attract to your garden, like soil bacteria, fungi and the millions of other little creatures in the soil that make your garden truly fertile?  

Besides which, this concoction will not really kill several of my perennial weeds, although it could give them a good knock.  False garlic, Bermuda grass, morning glories and nut grass.  All of these have defense mechanisms that would prevent this weedkiller from working. I used straight vinegar for a time, but then, one day pouring a quarter cup on a false garlic, next to the plant three earthworms came out of the soil and writhed to death in front of my eyes.  I realized in an instant that this 2.2 pH is not benign - it is deadly. It has an advantage that the deadliness does not last long.  The soap is to help make it deadly longer and soap itself will disrupt bodies and bacteria and fungi quite nicely too - soap is the active component in many insecticides.  Then there is the Epsom salts.

Two cups is quite a lot of anything – makes you think twice about the vinegar, doesn't it? Epsom salts (not really a salt, but a form of magnesium) will act in counter to the vinegar's pH, but what does happen is not clear. Without any tests to establish what this combination does do, I'm not inclined to want to unleash it on the environment. That is the kind of shoddy work we expect from companies hawking GMO's and prescription drugs.  (This paragraph was edited considerably from the initial post thanks to a reader's comment pointing out an error.)

Save your vinegar for cleaning windows or whatever the cool usage is today.  Do NOT put this concoction on your plants or in your garden.  It is simply not worth it.  And while you're at it, look at all diy pesticides a with a little more questioning attitude and do not take them at face value.  

Your garden thanks you .