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These pretty little white flowers are field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, a Euro-Asian native that is one of the most hated crop pests in California. Like a tide of white-flecked green, bindweed is able to wash across agricultural fields in just one season, sending its twining stems out across the surface while sinking deep taproots far into the ground. Truly it is one of the nastiest invasives around here.

130501-0732At the extreme lower right of the above picture, the bindweed extends some shoots out across the sidewalk. As the ecodesigner of this garden, I frequently clip the “beard” of the bindweed as it reaches across the concrete walkways. I can certainly understand the farmers’ objections to this incredibly vigorous plant!

Almost all of the leaves in the first picture belong to the bindweed. There are some violet leaves near the top and  clover-like oxalis leaves near the bottom, between the two flowers. Directly below the lowest flower is another tiny shoot – can you see it? Can you identify it?

Bindweed is a nasty invasive indeed. But here in the deep nature garden, we do not recognize the word “weed.”

Properly managed, bindweed can be a beautiful component of a diverse, vibrant ecosystem, a healthy, contributing citizen along with many other kinds of plants. Bindweed adds beautiful morning-glory-like flowers, lush green leaves, and even attracts pollinators like the bee fly (not a bee – it’s a fly!) visiting the upper flower in the picture below.

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Do you have bindweed out of control in your garden? Here are three suggestions for management:

First, realize that no matter how fast a plant grows and no matter how deep its roots, you can move faster! If you feel like it is getting out of control, control it! Snip it down to the ground, repeatedly, every time you see it. You don’t even have to get the roots out, just keep snipping it. Seriously, eventually it will give up. If you want to get rid of it faster, dig out the roots. It’s up to you. If seedlings sprout up, pull them out too. But whatever you do, don’t spray nasty, refined chemicals!

Second, shade it. It likes full sun, so plant something above it that will provide shade. Then pull it out, repeatedly, as it tries to come back.

Third, limit it. I like bindweed, and I’m not afraid to let it grow in some places. But I do cut it back frequently. There are lots of plants I cut back, frequently. That’s part of being a deep nature gardener. But here’s an even better way to control and limit beautiful bindweed: contain it! Pull it out of the ground if you like, but why not plant a few shoots or seeds in a container, where it can flow out and over the edges, with its sweet flowers popping up all over the cascading stems. Lovely!

Bindweed in a container: perfect recipe for a beautiful but invasive alien vine that needs frequent management.

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The first “domestic” (human-bred-for-hugeness) strawberries of the year are now almost ripe. This is the first year that the volunteer strawberries in the container garden are receiving the brand-new seed-free ultra-compost, and it shows. Just look at these beauties!

The red-veined stems in the left rear belong to another volunteer, a strapping young seedling of Swiss Chard. It will be relocated into a new pot before it outgrows this one.

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130430-0814Yum. These are not the only nearly-ripe domestic berries. There are at least 30 more in various pots throughout the upstairs container garden. All of them sprouted as volunteers, right out of the seeded eco-compost (which contains many seeds of food plants, having been created partly from kitchen scraps).

The sturdy young plant pictured at right is also being fed the new seed-free ultra-compost. It has sent out six tendrils (one is not visible in this picture) three of which are being rooted in another pot, which is out of frame below.

Looks like a good year for big, fat strawberries!

Meanwhile, deep in the shadowy recesses of the deep nature garden downstairs, the smaller wild strawberries have been blooming and fruiting for several weeks already. Those wild berries are small, but wow, what flavor they have.

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Always, with commercial agriculture, it seems like we have to compromise between flavor and nutrients on one hand, and sheer production mass on the other. Which is better?

I like the results when commercial strains are carefully grown with lots of love, hand-pruned and hand-fed, to create huge berries that actually taste good, that can be left to ripen naturally until they are bright red and plump. Yum!

But those little wild type berries sure are tasty.

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

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front garden: piles of stones and bricks and a tree removal tag

Now our story tracks to October 11, 2012, when little yellow house has just received a major cleanup, front and back. In the above view from the front of the driveway, the foreground shows a stack of bricks removed from the ground directly beyond the stack, plus some of those nasty rebar spikes removed from bender boards all around the garden.

At the right side of the picture, the trunk of the silk tree bears a yellow note — yes, that is the notice required in California that this “heritage tree” (any one larger than a certain trunk diameter) is allowed to be removed. Soon, this tree will be no more.

On the walkway to the front door there is a large pile of flat slate shingles removed from the fake stream behind the daisy bushes. Let’s take a closer look…

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daisy bush corner: fake stream is gone!

From here we can see how big that pile of slate shingles has become. All of those stones were removed from the back wall of the fake stream that used to run behind the daisy bushes, just in front of the wall of deep green wisteria leaves. That whole space has been cleared, leveled and filled with a deep layer of leaves harvested from other parts of this garden, as well as street curbs in the neighborhood.

Doesn’t the daisy bush corner look pretty now?

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lantana streetside strip: another careful prune, space for slate stones in front

The lantana street strip is gradually being prepared for its long-term future, which will involve a lot less lantana and some new citizens like Califonia native bunch grasses. For now, before the lantanas are whacked back by the winter frosts, we are keeping them pruned and pretty. Along the street side of this strip, grasses and other plants have been removed so that irregular slate stones can be added to form an additional walkway for people getting out of cars. Guess where those stones will come from!

Let’s have a look in back…

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back yard: a blank slate

Wow! No more old patio area, no more potato vine stump. No more much of anything!

The entire back area is being redesigned. There will be a patio again, but it will not be rectangular. A winding walkway of irregular stones will lead out across this space to an artistically arranged sitting place. Raised earth berms will further define the space in this back garden.

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Looking to the right, some wooden trellises have been added to the fence. These will host vines, climbing up behind some raised beds where happy vegetables will grow. In the foreground, in front of the raised beds, a rain garden is planned, which will be dug down several inches to collect a nice temporary puddle whenever very much water falls out of the sky.

Against the fence, the tomato vines are still producing delicious fruit, even as the temperatures drop.

Next: goodbye to an honorable old tree and its annoying debris

This cute little critter posed for a few short seconds at the tip of a Salvia leaf. It’s one of the most hated crop pests in the US, where it causes huge damage to a wide variety of crops. It’s a tarnished plant bug, Lygus lineolaris.

Although it is thought of as a serious pest (so much so that it’s hard to find web pages that don’t go to great lengths describing its damage) I have only seen a few of them in this garden. Unlike farmers with crops to lose, I welcome them. If they reproduce too fast, I am quite certain somebody will come along to eat them. They seem to be native to North America.

Like all true bugs, these have “half-wings” with tough, leathery parts in front that cover the filmy flying wings folded underneath. They also have sucking mouthparts, in this case to drink the sap of plants.

Why are they such agro pests? Not only do they attack hundreds of valuable crops, they also produce several generations every year. A successful strategy for sure, but one that leads the humans to go to great lengths to try to eliminate them. Sadly, that usually means spreading huge amounts of deadly chemicals into the environment. No wonder the butterflies and bees are disappearing.

These small erect herbs sprout up everywhere, especially in the moist winter season. They are petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus), one of three kinds of spurge (so far) found in my garden. These European natives form picturesque little stands, bloom for a while, and then fade and dry into straw-like heaps.

Euphorbias are weird but pretty plants, typically with separate male and female flowers borne in curious clusters. The “petals” of these flowers are actually modified leaves.

Almost all spurges have poisonous sap. Sometimes they make cows and other pasture animals sick. In fact, the name “spurge” comes from the same root as “purge,” which is what happens when you eat some.

Euphorbias are part of a huge, diverse genus with more than  2000 species around the world. Poinsettias are spurges. Some spurges have developed extreme tolerance to drought and aridity. Some of them actually resemble cacti. There are disputes among botanists about the complex family tree of the Euphorbias.

130308-1100In my garden there are also small low-growing plants of spotted spurge (AKA ground spurge). Unlike petty spurge, spotted spurge lies flat and seldom rises higher than the thickness of a pencil. It can form wide, spreading mats where the ground is bare and there’s enough sun.

Like other spurges, spotted spurge is poisonous. It resembles purslane, which is edible, but has succulent leaves without the purple spots. Be careful if you harvest purslane for the salad!

Not all spurges are (what some people would call) “weeds.” Some have been bred for beauty or size, appearing as prized garden plants. In my garden when I first took it over, there was a large bush of decorative spurge.

That large bush had to be removed because it was so old, and the space was needed. But over the years it had dropped some seeds, and in the spring of 2012 some of them sprouted. Here is how they looked in mid-January 2013. They are tall, bluish plants with red stems and leaves in whorls:

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Now it is March, and they are blooming. The flowers are a lot more colorful than petty spurge:

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This time of year we see bittercress (Cardamine spp.) in gardens around the Bay Area. It is related to the Arabidopsis thaliana “research cress” that is used around the world in genetic plant research.

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There are several species that are difficult to distinguish. If it’s blooming now, in January-March, it’s probably hairy bittercress (C. hirsuta). If it blooms in early summer it could be little bittercress (C. oligosperma). There are a couple of other less common varieties. All of them are small, cute, and totally harmless.

Although hairy bittercress is native to Europe, in my experience it is not at all invasive. You might read other opinions though!

130303-1431From the earliest stages, bittercress is distinctive. The rosette of tiny, pinnate leaflets with one larger, terminal leaflet is unique.

No matter whether you find them invasive or not, please don’t spray herbicides, as some authors suggest.

Instead, may I suggest you eat them? They are small, brightly flavored, and excellent as a flavor enhancer in salads. All parts of the plant are edible.

These tiny gems are always welcome in my gardens. They need moist, nearly bare ground to grow, and are often seen in shady corners where the moist ground has recently been slightly disturbed. Their sweet little flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, but their exploding seed pods are extremely cool.

As you might expect, bittercress tastes fairly bitter. But chop a few of these miniature leaves into a micro-salad for a nice little extra bite of sharpness. They are high in vitamins and very good for you, as long as you don’t spray refined chemicals in your garden.

By the time they start looking like the mature plants surrounding the pretty rock in the picture below, they are past edible. I generally pull them out at this stage, enjoying the mini-explosions of their ripe seed pods, spreading more seeds of this delicious little salad enhancement all over my welcoming garden.

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

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By  the end of September 2012, the front of the house is still shaded by the big silk tree. Not too many big changes here, but let’s just have a quick look around.

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daisy bush corner: grass removed, strawberries and violets remain

Maybe the most obvious change in the front yard is the daisy bush corner, just to the left of the walkway to the front door. Here, most of the grasses have been delicately removed, leaving behind some bare ground and a mixture of violets and decorative strawberries. The daisy bushes have also been pruned using the undercut method, revealing nicely shaped lower stems.

The ground beneath the bushes is still loaded with grass seeds, but as time passes the inevitable sprouting grasses will be removed to give the violets and strawberries a chance to take over. The daisy bushes are scheduled for “lowering” – a series of prunes that reduce their height without making them look unnatural. Can it be done? We’ll find out after a few more episodes in this story.

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To the left of the daisy bushes, the front end of the fake stream is revealed. Here, a nasty artificial bender board barrier buts up against the sidewalk, held in place by more of those horrible vertical spikes of steel rebar. Behind the flowering purple daisy are some loose chunks of slate, remnants of a former “artistic” wall of such stones, forming the back side of the now-overgrown “stream.” You can’t see it, but the “streambed” is loaded with dozens of rounded river rocks. All of this — the bender board, rebar spikes, river rocks, and slate stones, will be removed in good time.

However, so far there’s not much change in the front. We’ve actually been much busier in back, so let’s go have a look!

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back yard: massive removal of vegetation, gravel, and bricks

Our first glance of the back area reveals that much has changed. The back wall of the house (at left above) is now completely exposed after the removal of the huge potato vine, whose single stump is just visible beyond the lid of the compost bin. Beyond that, a green tarp protects the camellia bush from paint drippings as the eaves are being re-coated.

Leaning against the neighbor’s garage wall are several white lattice trellises, no longer needed and temporarily stored here, as their vines have been removed. Also present are several orange buckets filled with gravel sifted from the ground all over the back yard. We’re not sure what to do with the gravel yet, but it represents a resource.

Over on the right side, the old patio stones are still in place, surrounded by a rectangular wooden barrier. All of this will be removed.

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Turning our gaze a little to the right, only the tall tomato vines, still producing lots of tasty late September fruit, remain against the back fence. Even the tomatoes will go once the first frost kills them.

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Looking even further to the right, the garage wall stands in full sun after the removal of the big old pluot tree, whose branches were literally splintering with fungus infection. Goodbye, old tree.

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Elsewhere in the back area, all of these bricks were removed from the ground all around the back yard. Like the buckets of gravel, these bricks no longer serve an immediate purpose, but they represent a potentially useful resource. Properly arranged, bricks can make great critter shelters.

At the left, a peaceful stone Buddha guards the pile of bricks.

Next: a big cleanup, front and back!

After another unexpectedly extended break from blogging, we are back with the conclusion of the Great Big Mushroom walk that happened after a very wet storm last December. Enjoy!

( You can also check out the previous installment of this story, or pop back to the first post in the series.)

At long last, the journey nearing its end, there appeared a grove of pine trees.

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Among the english ivy lurked one of the most curious mushrooms of all. Purple-black, brain-like knots of convoluted flesh, perched on industrial corrugated towers.

This is almost certainly the fluted black helvella (Helvella lacunosa) or one of its closely related cousins. All of these are edible and actually quite excellent, but here’s the catch: members of a closely related group called false morels (Gyromitra spp.) look very similar and can be quite poisonous. They even grow in almost exactly the same places, at the same times of year.

In this case, the corrugated stems and the almost purple-black caps are pretty good identifiers of the edible H. lacunosa. But beware! Gyromitra can be deadly. If you are not an accomplished mycologist, collecting wild fungi to eat can be a deadly diversion. Don’t!

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It’s quite clear that these black-capped mini-brain fungi are intimately associated with the trees. Their underground hyphae mingle with the trees’ roots, exchanging materials of mutual benefit, including but not limited to minerals and certain special molecules from the fungus, and sugars and vitamins from the plants.

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Also among the ivy, two slippery-slidey, ooey gooey yellow melters with identical circular pocks. Did some hungry critter make those holes?

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A composition of brown and green among yellow gingko leaves.

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If I hadn’t looked back I would not have noticed the massive humped cluster of brown-shouldered mega-shrooms (almost certainly not their real name!).

What a presentation! Pushing up the pine needles, pushing against each other. So full of life!

By now I was really ready to get home. Fortunately, home was just two blocks away. I didn’t expect to see many more fungi. But right there, mere meters from home, was this cute little scene of ivy and two kinds of fungi.

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Within a few hours, this tiny scene was gone forever. Days later, all the mushrooms shown in this series of posts had decayed into unrecognizeable blobs, or into nothing visible at all. Ephemeral beauties!

Did you miss the previous installment of this mushroom adventure?

121206-1838 Still I wandered, across the fantastic miniature wonderland, wishing I did not have to soil it with my footprints. Always, in the distance… is that another fairy ring?

121206-1847 For some reason I am especially charmed by the tiniest, most delicate shrooms. This cute purple jelly bean might be a very tiny blewitt.

121206-1842 A nicely posed pair with fractal brown scales and a tiny beetle. Probably more Lepiota rachodes.

121206-1853Master of refined fractal magnificence, this rich red-brown mushroom is either a Boletus or a Suillus. Its cap has weathered into some pretty fine natural art. Above, you can see the basic structure with the thick central stalk. Although it can’t be seen in the picture, the underside of the cap has pores rather than radial gills.

121206-1856 A close look at the cap reveals an amazing fractal landscape. It is a safe bet that in all the world there has never been another mushroom with this exact pattern.

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Oops, I almost stepped on it. Looks like messy yellow goo, but parts of it have lumped into dozens of tiny, shiny, yellow pods. It’s a slime mold. Not actually a mushroom, and not even related to them. This one may have been disturbed while it grew, resulting in the messy appearance. Normally they are quite neat and well groomed, as is the following one…

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Amazing shiny pods. Wow.

These red and yellow slime molds are very likely different species, but identifying them would be tough. There are hundreds of kinds with many different appearances. Without a microscopic investigation, these tiny wonders will remain unidentified.

Slime molds are actually pretty cool. Most of the year they exist as billions of individual, completely independent amoeba-like cells, which lose most of their moisture and become durable spore-like dust-motes during the dry summer. But when the rains come, they wake up and start oozing around in the wet leaves, eating bacteria and reproducing like crazy.

When the population and crowding reaches a certain level, they go through a change and start pulling together into a single mass. More and more, they cluster together until they form an actual body. At this stage they can show an amazing kind of collective intelligence.

All at once, they are no longer independent. The slimy, mold-like body forms dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of visible fruiting structures. The vast majority of the individual cells have given up their entire existence to support those few cells that end up turning into spores.

Pretty cool, but I’m glad that’s not how we do it.

Next: black brains