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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Late Sunday afternoon the pale, milky cirrostratus clouds that had been filtering the sun all day thickened up and drew themselves together into patchy sprays of white. Curving tails of drifting ice crystals dropped down into the dryer air below, producing the iconic cirrus mares’ tails.

These are some of my favorite clouds. In this case, waves of moist air came pouring off the top of a cold front skirting the coast to the west. That front will probably give us some rain on Tuesday.

It was sheer good luck that I happened to glance straight up at this precise moment. It faded into view as I watched, and for less than thirty amazing seconds it glowed brightly: the rare, elusive, often fleeting circumzenithal arc!

Wow! I had seen this colorful skybow before, but never captured a photo of it. Camera ready, I snapped away. I was able to get several good shots before the arc faded out.

Circumzenithal arcs are among the brightest, most colorful of skybows. They are caused when sunlight hits flat ice crystals at a low angle, refracting the rays down and passing them out through a vertical side face. To form a CZA, the crystals must be very well aligned, almost all floating with their widest faces horizontal. This can only happen if the air flow within the cloud is very smooth and free of turbulence.

Because the sun angle must be low, CZAs only happen when the sun itself is low in the sky. Because they always happen near the zenith, where the clouds move past most quickly, they are usually very fleeting. One is lucky indeed to see it, and even luckier to get a photo.

The CZA has an even more colorful cousin, the circumhorizon arc, which can only happen when the sun is quite high in the sky. With the summer months coming, CHAs are becoming possible. If I can catch one I’ll certainly share it here!

On the whole, it was a very satisfying cloudscaped evening.

 

The first nasturtium bloom of the season is open, blazing in crimson glory in the morning sun. The photo does not begin to do justice to the velvety richness of the actual flower.

It’s not visible in the pictures because it ran away down into the neck of the flower when I surprised it, but there is a yellow crab spider here too. The flower has only been open a few hours, and already the little spider has found it – a perfectly matched flower to hide in.

Nasturtium flowers are edible, with a sharp, peppery flavor. They are great in salads. But don’t chop up these gorgeous little beauties! They need to be strewn on top, or added as a colorful garnish alongside. Throw in some blue and purple pansies for a true work of edible salad art!

While this amazing flower was posing for the camera, another bright red being came along. A spotted lady-beetle stopped by to lay some eggs on the bean sprouts. They are welcome there, because her babies are incredibly voracious aphid gobblers.

The presence of small critters like lady-beetles, aphids, and crab spiders is a good sign that a garden has a healthy local ecosystem.

Bring on the aphids, this garden is ready!

You may recall from previous posts that last year the little blueberry bush provided a grand total of nine plump, sweet berries. As you can see from these pictures, there are plenty of beautiful flowers this year – I’d say around 120 at least, on the whole plant.

While it is likely that not all of these flowers will set fruit, it definitely seems like the estimate of 20 berries for this year was a bit on the low side. This is exciting news for sure!

UPDATE: The berries came in and it looks like a bumper crop!

Another happy ecogarden citizen is this brightly colored Swiss chard plant, growing more and more rapidly as the weather warms up. Look at those gorgeous red veins!

Since this is an ecogarden, no plant is alone. Surrounding the chard plant are scarlet pimpernel (see the tiny orange flowers?), white flowering sorrel (in the dark background) and an abundance of other fun stuff. The chard’s leaves won’t be quite as huge as they might be on a commercial farm (because of sharing nutrients with the neighbors), but the flavor of any harvested leaves will no doubt be excellent.

You may also recall that the shade-handicapped stand of bearded iris has recently been bloom-free for three years.

Now that the big magnolia tree is gone, the iris plants are already looking much healthier in the sun. In fact, there are now gigantic, fat flower buds poking up.

On the whole, things are looking very happy in the ecosystem garden. However, like any growing, human-managed garden, it needs some work now and then.

As you may be able to see in the last picture, it is about time to do another thinning.

The little winter cress (low, fuzzy looking brownish stuff just left of the path) is now in the last stages of seeding. It’s time to pull it out (gently!) before the property owner comes around and complains about the “weeds” in the garden.

There are also some mature dandelion plants ready to be harvested, just to the right of the irises, at the base of the blueberry bush (which is nearly impossible to see in this picture). You might see their reddish flower stems, now topped by seed heads that have lost most of the fluffy seeds. The dandelion roots are edible and full of great vitamins, well worth digging up. Naturally, when I pull them out I will use appropriate tools and try to disturb the soil ecosystem as little as possible.

There are also many patches of sorrel (four different kinds!) that need serious reduction before they take over the whole space. The sorrels are also edible and delicious, if a bit tangy.

In addition, there are radishes, chickweed, lambs quarter, plantain, lemon balm, mint, green peas, and several other edible herbs ready to be harvested. Looks like a nice salad is coming tonight.

One of the most prized and interesting ecogarden community plants is this stinging nettle. It lives in a container, which is especially important for this very vigorous and prolific beauty. It spreads via underground root-shoots and if allowed to it would fill vast areas.

Of course the most well-known property of stinging nettle is how just-plain-painful it can be to touch it the wrong way. It’s really that bad… those thousands of little needles are like tiny syringes, instantly injecting a whole cocktail of nasty chemicals designed to cause maximum annoyance under the skin of any mammal.

Nettles are actually edible and full of protein, vitamins, and other goodness. Dried or cooked, the needles lose their sting. It makes a good tea.

There are a bunch of alleged remedies for nettle stings, including the juices of various herbs. I find that if I can get to the hose within a few seconds, a very hard spray of water directly onto the stung area for at least 30 seconds does a great job of flushing the nasty chemicals from the injection point. It still stings, but the hurt goes away a lot faster.

When visitors come to the ecogarden, I try to remember to warn them about the dangerous “nettle zone” of the upstairs deck. Also present in this happy container: a dozen or more fat sunchoke tubers (unharvested as yet, partly because of the nettles in the way). In the above photo you can see their sprouts just coming up – there’s one down at the front, just to the right of the gray rock. There are also smaller herbs including chickweed, strawberry, fringed willow-herb, sorrel, Santa Barbara daisy, and more.

See what this container ecogarden looks like by the middle of May, when the nettles are blooming.

Read more about stinging nettle in this fascinating Wikipedia article

Oh God, the colors, the colors…

Five minutes after this was taken, the eastern sky was an even span of yellowish-pink. For dawn and sunset clouds, sun angle is absolutely critical.

For these handheld pictures with changing, difficult lighting I use a Nikon D-80 on shutter priority, and the camera self-adjusts the f-stop and ISO rating for 1/200 second. It’s amazing what good pictures it can take when it’s properly programmed. I love this happy, faithful camera!

It looks like our rainy spell is over. Storm track will likely trend north of Bay Area for a while.

The garden is calling. I hear you!

 

It stands out like a beacon, glowing in the low sunlight against the shadowy background. The first of many flowers on this faithful old cane has now opened, and the season is on!

UPDATE: See the gigantic berries coming in later in the season!

Also blooming in the warm late afternoon sun…

Santa Barbara daisy, or fleabane. Great plant for dryish borders or slopes. Never stops blooming.

White clover peeking out from behind a sapling of spiky english holly.

The prettiest girls of all, the little fumitory. Tiny pink and red fairies shining in the light. Classic!