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One of our flagship deep nature gardens is called “birch corner.” It has been taking shape since late summer of 2013. With the help of some good tree work from our licensed friends and some power tools wielded by the client, we took out a dead old lawn under a big pistache tree, pruned the tree back to let in more light, and drastically limited a birch (the garden’s namesake tree) that was also stealing light from the garden area below.

The ground under the pistache was shaped into hills and valleys, and a lot of beautiful rocks were added to create a walking path and many step-able access points.

In the past year the garden has grown a wide variety of interesting plants. Some, like several varieties of blueberries, spreading patches of bidens, and yellow lantanas were deliberately planted. But many more, like the fluorescent orange zinnias, burgeoning arums, and drifts of small tree saplings emerged on their own from seeds already present in the soil.

Let’s have a look around!

 

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Above: Viewed from the street, the right (west) side of the garden includes the namesake birch tree at the far right. At the extreme right side of the picture is a wooden fence shading that side, with a climbing rose on it. In the spring and summer this fence is also covered by sweet pea vines, deliberately planted and just now sprouting back up from last year’s dropped seeds.

In the middle of the picture are two large clumps of yellow-flowering bidens, which will soon be limited back before they take over even more space. A clump of hair grass stands at the top of a low berm, and in the back against the fence is a young apricot tree. Also visible are a few rocks and some logs slowly decaying into the ground (trimmed from the pistache tree above).

Below: A closer look at a spreading patch of bidens, with an orange zinnia peeking in at the right.

 

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Below, a patch of cyclamen that was planted last winter near the shady base of the back fence is still thriving and blooming. The base of the apricot tree is at left. A closer look shows many little sprouts of new cyclamen. It looks like it is naturalizing nicely.

 

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In this first year at birch corner we are still encountering a variety of vigorous volunteers that will need to be either limited or removed completely. Among these are the many sprouts of variegated arum, almost all of which will have to go.

There are two (non-chemical) ways of removing arums. The first requires patience – simply pull out all the leaves as they appear, until the tubers below run out of steam. But that method takes some persistence. In coming weeks and months we’ll use the faster approach which is to dig down and actually remove the tubers.

Below, a sampling of the arums at birch corner. Each one has its own particular pattern of leaf variegation. We’ll save a few of the most interesting ones, but they will be kept under control. Some may be moved into containers, where their invasive nature will be tamed and we can enjoy their beautiful leaves, flowers, and the seed heads with their bright red seeds.

 

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Birch corner is a forest floor ecosystem, heavily influenced by a dense drop of leaves from the pistache tree every autumn. Those leaves contribute to a gently acidic soil type, which favors plants like the blueberry showing its fall colors in the picture below.

 

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Here in California, autumn marks the beginning of the winter growing season. At birch corner, one sign of the coming winter is thousands of tiny sprouts of petty spurge and a few other low growing annuals. These will fill in, forming a beautiful green carpet that competes with leaves falling from above.

 

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We leave you with a few more of the many interesting new kinds of plants coming in. How many of these can you identify?

 

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Did you miss the previous episode of this series? You can also jump back to the beginning.

 
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We rejoin our story of the transformation of our flagship site, little yellow house in Menlo Park, a short five days after the removal of the giant old silk tree.

It is November 14, 2012. The front garden, now fully exposed to sun, is about to begin a long-term shift toward something much more lush and interesting. But right now it still looks bare in many places. The front wall of the house bears a bright white scar where a huge old jasmine was removed.

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On the left side of the front walk the garden was less affected by the tree removal. From left to right above, a healthy mugo pine occupies the far corner near the neighbor’s driveway; in the near corner there are three daisy bushes; in front of those, a little patch of violets and decorative strawberries; filling the background, a big old wisteria “tree-vine” that has been neglected for years; and in front of the wisteria there are two silvery French lavender bushes. The ground has been prepared and covered with leaves scattered outward from beneath the wisteria.

The front edges of this zone have been slightly excavated, so that the soil at the edge is lower than the sidewalk. That way, any watering or rain overflow will not wash soil out across the walk.

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The right side of the walkway looks much more bare. A lot of invasive violets have been removed along with a large amount of other common plants such as grasses that were occupying most of the space. At the left is a dense pittosporum bush that we will try to preserve. In front of it are some butterfly irises running toward a large patch of bearded irises in the far background. Just behind the left-most two rocks is a single stand of agapanthus, which will also be kept. It is the only full-size agapanthus that will be allowed to remain. The low patches of green in the foreground are mostly violets and various other fairly invasive plants, including the dreaded buttercup oxalis, destined to be one of the most frequently-thinned plants in this garden.

What is not visible here are the tremendous number of tiny seeds already present in the soil. As we will see in future episodes of this story, this garden still bears many traces of its former history.

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In 2012 we actually had some early winter rain. Here in a bare patch in front of the pittosporum bush there are hundreds of small seedlings. These include many grasses (soon to be removed!) and a bunch of fast growing pioneers we will allow to stay just long enough to do their good work of opening the soil and attracting some beneficial insects. These small ecosystem-builders include petty spurge, groundsel, cut-leaf geranium, chickweed, and more of the still-ubiquitous English violets. Also present, tons of buttercup oxalis coming up from their deep bulbs.

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Also in the same area, some naked lady bulbs sprout vigorously. These will now do extremely well in the newly sunny space!

Meanwhile, over in the driveway are stacked some of the limbs taken from the big old silk tree that was removed in the previous episode. They are covered with a truly amazing ecosystem of lichens and some small mosses. Some of these made lovely holiday decorations inside of little yellow house:

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Next: A new tree goes in, and a closer look at more of the interesting plants already present in little yellow house front garden.

Did you miss the previous episode of this story? You can also jump back to the beginning.

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a big day begins early!

Morning sun slants low across the neighborhood early on November 9, 2012. It’s a big day because the old silk tree is finally coming down. But before the men arrive with their big noisy machines, let’s have a little look around.

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The space directly under the big tree has been cleaned up. Many of the large irises, pittosporums, and other plants have been removed. Yellow flags mark the gas line. A white area on the house shows where an old jasmine vine was removed. To the right of the white mark, a very smart doggie looks out through the window.

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Above: a close look at the front edge of the streetside lantana strip. As promised, irregular slate stones have been placed here, with new grass stems already shooting up between. This is a temporary placement, subject to further editing as the rocks settle in. The grasses and other sprouts between the stones will mostly be removed, making room for mosses and other tiny plants.

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men and machines arrive

Here they are! The big truck is being anchored at the edge of the lantana strip, where the tree guy stands on those slate stones we were just looking at. This is it!

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With very little further preparation, Tree Guy gets into his bucket and levitates into the branches. The chainsaw roars into life. One by one, branches fall.

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Tree Guy is careful not to drop branches on delicate areas of the garden. Still, they cover large areas with masses and masses of leafy, twiggy debris. The truck pulling the wood chipper arrives, and the first branches are fed in…

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All morning it continues, with the noise and the sawdust and the branches coming down. The chipper keeps eating bigger and bigger branches. The remaining tree becomes shorter, and the remaining trunks are the biggest ones of all.

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We set aside some of the nicest branches, which are covered with an astounding variety of lichens and mosses. This is the kind of gorgeous micro-ecosystem that can develop when no human touches a surface for years at a time. We’ll try to preserve some of these branches to decorate the back yard, but the lichens and mosses will probably suffer a lot from the changed environment.

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Several hours later, there’s not much left of the tree. What will happen to all those huge trunks? Wait and see…

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When they started shoving huge logs into the chipper, I almost didn’t believe what I was seeing. Everything, even the biggest, heaviest trunks, went right in. What a lot of noise!

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I could not help feeling quite sad as the last trunk sections were taken down.

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The final cuts went right into the main cambium of the trunk. Look how the tree is bleeding. Enough sap is coming from just this one cut to fill a drinking cup in twenty seconds. Feeling very sad…

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Just one last cut, and we are down to ground level. But the work is not yet finished. We will need a new tool!

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Before we bring in the stump remover, have a look at the stump. See the dark brown circle? That’s evidence of the fungus that has been attacking this tree for many, many years. Where the stain touches the outside of the stump is where the soft spot was that showed the fungus infection from the outside.

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Possibly the most evil-looking garden machine ever. The huge toothed wheel arrives, ready to literally eat right down into the ground. Yikes!

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At long last, it’s over. Peace and quiet returns to the neighborhood as little yellow house basks in sudden sunshine. Where there was a huge old silk tree, now there is only a soft spot in the ground … and a yard full of thousands of tiny twigs and leaves.

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Next: In the sudden sun, a grand transformation begins.

Are you tired of mushrooms yet?

You’re kidding, right?

We continue the amazing mushroom walk that happened after a Great Big Rain not so long ago …

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For a while, no new shrooms showed up. I looked in all the usual places, like this rich, red leaf litter beneath a north-facing wall. I wonder what cool critters live under there?

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No mushrooms here, but wow, what a cool composition of rock, moss, and organic debris!

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It was not until after I passed the school that the grove of trees in front of SRI became visible. On the left side of the street, an old, open forest of different kinds of trees, and under them, an unbroken stretch of mature, relatively undisturbed leaf litter.

Just barely visible in far left background of the photo above, a tiny row of white dots at the base of a tree. What do you suppose those are? Between here and there, there was much to see.

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Possibly my favorite fungus in this adventure. Dark, ear-like folds with prominent gills, and of course! The obligatory fungus fly, reddish brown, perched daintily on the edge of a cap.

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A pale yellow, wavy-edged wonder and gosh darn if there isn’t another fungus fly!

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A perfect dome, with a delicate translucent edge. No fly this time.

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Who could resist photographing these three little charmers?

Next: more forest floor charmers

We continue our mycological meanderings with the first Boletus encountered…

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It was in a moist, low place among live oak litter. Accompanying it, from the lower right: a seedling of petty spurge, a very tiny winter cress in the shadow of an excellent rotting branch, and an unknown plant at the top.

Boletes have pores underneath instead of gills. The spores float down vertical tubes and out into the air. The caps often have a felty, rough look and decay in wonderful, artistic ways. Many of them turn blue or green when they are bruised. That does not necessarily mean that they are (or aren’t) poisonous!

Something seemed to be glowing in the shadows…

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The photo above does not adequately convey the way the bright white rims of these three stood out. Naturally, there is the seemingly obligatory fungus fly.

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At the base of a tree with beautiful rain-enhanced bark, this neat row of big fleshy mushrooms with wavy caps.

Suddenly… mushroom pay dirt! In a front yard under a very sick, almost completely dead oak tree, an amazing outcrop of fungi.

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At first it seemed like there might be several different kinds, but then the forms merged together: this could all be Armillaria mellea, the honey mushroom, commonly seen emerging from dead or dying wood of many different kinds.

While this fungus might not have been the original reason why the old oak tree is dying, it is certainly making it happen a whole lot faster.

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This young clump emerged from the base of a multi-branched stump. Definitely lignicolous (taking its nutrients from wood). In the lower right of the photo, green leaves of delicate winter cress, closely related to Arabidopsis thaliana, the miniature rock-cress that is so popular among genetic researchers.

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Another sweet young clump, nestled among delightful micro-flora of the forest floor, also emerging from dead oak stems.

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An older clump, fully expanded and just beginning to decay, probably coming from an underground oak root. Note the tasteful white narcissus.

Next: Jackpot!

Part of the morning on May 15 was spent digging in the good dark earth, installing some nice redwood rounds to build a walkway over at Elizabeth’s place. In the picture, the ones in the foreground are fully installed, while the ones farther away are just sitting on the ground, still waiting to be sunk in.

All the vegetation is cleared from the area around the path, which will receive extra water this summer. As plants sprout up, the ones that get too big, too close to the path will be clipped out (or transplanted, if they are interesting). Eventually, all the vegetation near the path will be long-term, low-growing, and drought tolerant. That evolution will take a bit more than a year.

One of the basic principles of ecosystem gardening is Never Tread On The Ground! So walkways and stepping stones are quite important.

In this case, these big fat redwood rounds were available for next to nothing, and will last for surprisingly many years before they’ll need to be replaced. While they slowly decay they will shelter many kinds of wonderful critters underneath, and add their woody nutrients to the soil.

We’ll use additional redwood slabs for “access pads” scattered around the rest of the garden. The idea is to be able to reach almost every part of the landscape without ever standing on the soil. Big, round rocks are also good for access pads.

Meanwhile, the bright morning sun set ablaze this happy sunflower:

This post is part of the new ecogarden project at Elizabeth’s place

also part of this project:

taming the giant lavender

in the company of chickens

Your comments are welcome!