Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Know Thine Enemies or Something Like That

Weeds!  Curses, curses, curses!
While I was at work today I kept thinking about how much of my limited time out in the yard has been spent pulling weeds recently. As a chemical-free gardener, weed control is a laborious process for me. I liken it to jogging. It’s no fun, but when you are finished you feel like you have accomplished something and you feel better.  Well, that is you feel better unless you pull a muscle, develop shin splints, sprain an ankle, pop a blister on your foot, ruin your knees, get bit by a poodle, step in a puddle, fall on your face, or suffer from heat stroke. And then, if you somehow manage to survive the ordeal, you know you will just have to do it again and again before you even start to see any long term benefits from your efforts.

Look, I’ve got a full-time job, a toddler to help raise, a couple softball teams to coach, book clubs to participate in, social obligations, neighborhood watch meetings to attend, and Boston Red Sox games that need to be watched. In other words, I really don’t want to spend my free time pulling stupid weeds.  [Heavy sigh] But I know I need to.  And yes, my waistline could probably benefit from some jogging as well. [Heavier sigh - pun intended.] 

While bitterly mulling over this topic, it occurred to me that I was feeling more than a little bit of animosity towards my weeds.  In fact, my thoughts on weeds were downright unkind!  After all, they compete with my plants, they monopolize my time, and they steal my garden tools when I’m not looking. Okay, I admit that last part isn’t entirely true. I probably just misplaced that trowel.  But still, it'll be a cold July day in Sacramento before I'll trust them with my stuff! (For the out-of-towners, there's no such thing as a cold July day in Sacramento.  Just look at for proof that I do not jest.)

Side note: I don’t know what I’d do without the internet. Aside from providing me with historical weather data and the gazillion other ways it enriches my life, I am so thankful for the knowledge the internet provides me in my gardening endeavors.  Seriously, what did people do when they had a question none of their friends could answer before there were search engines?  (I can practically hear my mom shouting "Encyclopedias, Dummy!" at me.) 

Still mulling over the role weeds play in my life I asked myself this morning, “What’s that quote about knowing your enemy's weaknesses?”  Sounds like a question for Google.  Go ahead, click on the link before reading on.  It's worth a giggle or two.  According to the always correct Internet, the quote is a lot less quotable than I had remembered. I was thinking something like “Know thine enemies” but turned up with the much longer-winded quote:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” -Sun Tzu,  "Art of War"

Bear with me. There is a point to all this. You see, I know I have weeds and I have established that they are my enemies, but unlike the Japanese maples cultivars, ornamental grasses, and bell peppers in my garden, I don’t know the names of my enemies.  I suppose I just never liked weeds enough to find out what they were called.  A gruff and generic "that's a weed" would suffice if someone asked me what I was cultivating in my driveway.  You see, unlike blooming poppies on the roadside or fragrant roses growing by a picket fence, you don't often hear people say stuff like "Oh my!  Check out that courageous little nutsedge growing in the crack on the sidewalk."  Call it a gap in my education as a gardener, but the study of weeds doesn't seem to lend itself to learning by osmosis.   

It was past time to change this deficiency of mine so, once again, I turned to Google even though I knew where it would take me this time. I’m lucky enough to live pretty close to the University of California at Davis which has a great horticultural department and they have an entire web site devoted to scientifically-supported advice on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for both agricultural purposes and home landscaping. Through their web site I was able to look at a key with the most common weeds in our area and then identify the three officers leading the forces against me.  Here they are:

Sergeant Spotted Spurge
This is where the sidewalk and my driveway meet.  "Welcome home" it screams at me every single day.

Colonel Creeping Woodsorrel
The horticultural version of tailgating: "Dude, get off my grass already!"

Growing amongst wooly thyme, this can be hard to spot until it flowers.

Commandant Common Purslane.
Today's Two-for-One special: Common Purslane with a splat of Spurge. 

The good news is that all three of these can be picked off - and I literally mean that literally.  As long as I stay vigilant and pull these out by hand before they set seed I will win the battle and, eventually, the war will be easier to fight.  In the meantime, I'm a better garden warrior for knowing their names. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

OMD! (Oh My Dog!)

Even after he was caught red-pawed, he rests with a clear conscience.
It's not unusual for me to wake up in the morning to find that the sliding glass door that leads from the bedroom to the patio is wide open. 

My family dog and garden companion/nemisis figured out long ago that he could unlock the door with his nose and then push open the door if he really needed to get outside to hunt a squirrel playing on the fence or to bark at the mail man (who, by the way, is a man so I'm not being sexist in this case). 

This "talent" my dog has means that we have awoken to many surprise discoveries.  One morning many years ago we awoke to the sound of our dog gnawing quite loudly on the (mostly) decomposed skull of a deer.  On the gross-out meter, that ranked pretty high.  Much higher than today's treasure which was simply a rolled up pair of my socks that had been buried in the yard somewhere.

Annoying yes, but it could have been worse.  It could have been Chip or Dale or even Alvin, Simon or Theodore.

I have been reading "Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens that Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit" by Scott and Lauren Ogden.  While some of the book's blunt opinions may rankle those of us that tend to collect certain types of plants, there was at least one section of the book that resonated with me.  That would be the part where they note how difficult it is to grow a garden with multiple dogs.  While I only have one dog, I think he does the damage of two so I quote this section knowing that the spirit of the quote applies to my experiences precisely: 

". . . [Dogs] often develop pack behavior, establishing regularly patrolled routes that become promptly evident in paths worn through beds and lawns, and torn and broken limbs marking trails through shrubbery.  Plant-rich gardens can't easily develop alongside such rambunctious animals; excluding them from areas with intensive, vulnerable plantings is usually the best course."  

I agree.  My garden would be much better off if I could exclude my dog from specific areas, but my yard is small already and given that I can't even keep him inside our own house, I don't even bother trying to restrict his boundaries within the backyard fence.  I have waived the white flag and surrendered to the fact that as long as I have a dog living here I will also have an imperfect garden. 

The good news is that today's damage wasn't permanent.  The picture below shows where the X on my dog's treasure map was.  It's annoying and it delays the inevitable filling in of this newly renovated patch of earth, but I will survive and my garden will live to see a better day.  My socks, on the other hand . . . 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wasting Water but Not Time

I almost feel guilty about this.  I know that water is a precious resource and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of our resources, but I just didn't have the heart to tell my little girl that she was wasting water.

It was hot yesterday and the water felt good on our feet.  Besides, at least a little bit of the water found it's way into the watering can and then into the pots on the patio.

I keep hoping that these early days of playing with water and mud will eventually lead to days of genuine affection for gardens and for the earth itself.  I suppose that in a way, I am hoping that because the water was poured out yesterday in celebration of summer and youth, that she will want to conserve it tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dialing it In

The other night I was showing my friend, Brian, my latest garden project. He said, “Wow, you’re really getting to dial in on things these days!”

Brian is in the beginning stages of getting his yard to match his vision. Although in many ways I feel that I’m right there with him, I have to concede that most of my yard is getting close to something that looks like a finished garden. Sadly, I don’t have a lot left to do in the way of breaking new ground. The upside of that is that it means I can focus on dialing in on the things that have been bothering me.

I miss the creation aspect of gardening though. I don’t think there’s anything as satisfying for a gardener as taking a stretch of grass and turning it into the reflection of an inspired idea. But I have to admit that there is also something immensely satisfying about taking care of the numerous items on my list of things that have bugged me.

Within the past couple weeks I have been able to redo this stepping stone area, for example. I had installed these stones three years ago and had hoped that by now the Baby Tears would have filled in around all of them.

This picture focused on the better looking gaps and is closer to what I had hoped the entire area would look like.

Although it grew beautifully around many of them, there were several gaps between the stones where only errant grass blades, dandelions and unidentified weeds took root. I finally grew tired of weeding and wishing and redid this area so that it is cleaner and won’t require any more weeding. It’s a compromise from my original vision but I think it’s one that will eventually make me happier. It’s almost like having a permanent weed-blocking mulch.

The new look: planted with dwarf mondo grass, these gaps were left for form and function since there is a downspout nearby.  I will let the lawn fill in around the outside of these stones. 

Also on my to-do list was the drip irrigation line that I have buried around the outside of my patio. I love having it buried because I don’t need to worry about people tripping over it, but the drawback is that when I want to add a pot to the patio or fix a leak, I have to get out the shovel and start digging (carefully). Well, a few weeks ago I started noticing a wet area near the end of the buried line. What would have been a quick and easy fix had the irrigation line been above ground turned into something that I kept putting off.  After weeks of procrastination, I finally took a few minutes and dug up the line and fixed it. It took all of 10 minutes. It took about as long to wash my hands and arms off as it did to fix the leak. But I got it done and my efforts are already paying dividends.

Last weekend was devoted to installing what I am calling a "leach field" drainage system that should start whisking away the water that accumulates in a low part of my lawn which just happens to be right next to the corner of the house’s foundation. 

This drainage system doesn't look pretty right now, but it's working.  I added a semi-permeable mortar-like product called Gator Dust to the pea pebbles to help funnel the water toward the drain. 

The French poet, Paul Valery, once said “no poem is ever finished, only abandoned.” I have long thought that a garden is a tangible form of poetry that we gardener poets work and work until it says just what we want it to say. And then what we want to say changes just a little so we try to say it differently. Maybe my garden is close to saying something I wanted it to say, but I know it is far from finished and I am looking forward to the rewording.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Google Your Garden

Gardeners who have spent any significant amount of time in one place become intimately familiar with their plot of earth. The truly aware gardener knows minute details like which 5-foot area gets waterlogged after a rain or which area only gets sun during the hottest part of the day or where the shade from a younger tree falls throughout the day.

Gardeners know these things because they spend time walking around their yard, experiencing the garden at different times of the day and different times of the year. It is this awareness that helps them bond with their garden and become aware of what it needs and what it could do without.

But sometimes it helps to get a new perspective on something you get so close to. To quote Toad the Wet Sprocket’s song “Butterflies”: “You know how when you get so close to something that big you can’t see anything at all.” I think that’s how it is with gardening. We tend to get a little myopic about black spot on the roses or the floppiness of the nicotiana.

The easy solution is to invite someone over to take a look around and listen to their reactions. I was reminded, however, that technology can also provide a unique perspective. Google Maps have been around for several years and although I’ve checked out my house before I had never thought of how I could use it to improve my garden. So I checked it out again today . . . although nothing new has come to mind yet, it did reinforce some of the things that I’ve been thinking about. Namely, I need some privacy from the prying eyes of the 2-story house to the left of mine. And I still hate seed-happy palm trees.
Home is where the heart is.  On either side are prying eyes and an evil seed-dropping palm tree.

Google can be used for some other cool things related to the garden though. Check out what Genevieve Schmidt of North Coast Gardening discovered you can do with Google’s new image search by image feature.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Things are Still Not Going My Way

Given the way things have been going lately I was not all that surprised to have my wife beckon me to the front window Saturday morning with the news that there was “water gushing everywhere.” I looked outside and, sure enough, water was gushing everywhere. I ran out the door and discovered that the main hose for my drip irrigation system had disconnected from the faucet. That was an easy fix but the cause for it perplexed me. Until it dawned on me that something else was wrong with this picture: 

The nice white pot with the Acer palmatum ‘Kamagata’ was missing.

Acer Palmatum 'Kamagata' in a White Pot

Apparently someone decided that they needed my potted tree more than I did and in their haste to make off with it they pulled the drip irrigation line out.

In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. But I was depressed. I was particularly fond of my small little tree. I liked the shape of it. I liked its sharp leaves (which give the ‘Kamagata’ its name – translated it means “Eagle’s Claws”). I liked that it was one of the two trees that JD Vertrees had decided to name.

And I really liked my white pot which gave the tree a little extra height and really brightened up a very shady spot in the yard.

What bugs me the most is that I'm sure that whoever stole it won't enjoy it as much as I had. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Things are not Going My Way!

The last 48 hours have been adventurous around my house.  Two days ago our washing machine stopped working mid-cycle.  It would fill up with water and agitate for a while but it wouldn’t drain.  I thought maybe it was our incredible heat causing the washer to overheat and stop functioning. 

I also have one malfunctioning sprinkler zone in my front yard that needs to be repaired.  Because of the aforementioned heat, I have been hand watering the affected flower beds. Okay, “hand” watering is a stretch.  I’ve turned the hose on and let it run for a while.  I did that at lunch time yesterday, for example.  Unfortunately, when I cam home from work I instantly realized that I had not stopped hand-watering.  There was water everywhere.  Oops. 

This morning, while showering (when all the world's best ideas originate), it occurred to me that maybe the washing machine was fine and perhaps it was the outlet it was plugged into that was to blame.  The timer for my sprinkler system is plugged into the same outlet so I knew that if it was the outlet that my sprinklers wouldn't go off this morning.  So I was perplexed when I looked out the window and saw that the sprinklers had worked but I could also tell that the spray from them had not extended as far as they normally do.  I'll admit something here that will expose my electrical ignorance: I admit that my first thought was that there was some kind of "brown out" caused by the heat that was keeping that outlet from allowing things to work at full capacity.  Can I blame the early hour for my lack of clarity?  Anyway, after getting dressed and ready for the day I went outside to investigate and I’m glad I did.  

It turns out, the lack of water pressure from my regular sprinklers can be blamed on the geyser shooting out of the faucet on the side yard where a drip irrigation system had been installed until sometime last night when it was blasted off.   

There had to have been four inches of standing water in some of the lower spots in the back yard.  Apparently that is what happens after 12 hours of having a mini version of Old Faithful in your very own yard. 

I should have taken pictures but I was too scattered to think of it at the time.  You’ll just have to take me for my word.  All this has taught me is that my love/hate relationship with irrigation is destined to continue for the rest of my gardening life.