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You may know that we just had a rather large and exciting storm here in the Bay Area. We usually get one or two like this between Thanksgiving and New Year. This one included a vast amount of rain, some of it applied in huge downpours. Fun!

The deep nature gardens took it all in stride, mostly. There were a few small injuries and other changes.

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Above: This red clover in the upstairs container garden looks a bit beaten down, but it will recover quickly. This container is one of the “old style” boxes that dries out rather fast because it lacks a proper moisture barrier. The clover will do great over the winter now that its deep roots are finally getting enough water from the rains.

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Above: The main garden downstairs is looking very crisp and green. The bright orange flowers of the leonotis bush (at right center) have finally finished, and now they droop all brown and wilted from its branches. Still, they remain noble and beautiful. One of the leaves of a Swiss chard plant (front center) has been knocked down by the heavy rain. You can’t see it in the picture, but recent frosts have killed off the above-ground growth of a lush patch of purslane that was growing near the sidewalk at lower right.

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Above: A favorite wild strawberry plant soaks up some late afternoon sun after nearly a week of dark skies. It opens a cheerful white flower or two and offers its bright fruit. Sweet and delicious!

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Above: This bluish-white lichen on a rock has expanded and soaked up the rain. Right now it is soft and flexible, clearly alive. It grows in these times, when its tissues are moist and vibrant.

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Above: the most obvious damage in the garden is this cherished avocado sapling, which tilts at a windblown angle. Stepping into the center of the garden, keeping my feet on the stepping rocks, I was able to set it back mostly upright with a careful foot down onto its roots. I think it will be fine.

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Above: Another bit of wind damage is this fallen branch. It belonged to a medium size bush, which might be some kind of heath or heather (Calluna or Erica). The fallen branch will hardly be noticed by the vigorous bush from which it fell.

Maybe you can help me identify the shrub. Below, a close look at some of its flowers, along with a little visitor, a hover fly in the family Syrphidae:

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I wonder where the little fly took shelter during the storm?

You may recall this cape honeysuckle bush (Tecoma capensis) from a previous post. It used to be a 4-meter / 12-foot giant with scraggly, tangled stems shooting up and out every which way. Its messy, wiry state was largely due to years of neglect combined with low light levels because of a dense magnolia tree to the sunward side. You can see it in its original state in the first picture of this post from July, 2011 (look for a few magnolia leaves pushing into the very top of the frame).

With the magnolia tree removed, it found itself suddenly in full sun. It did not like the change! The leaves turned yellow and some dropped off. It was no longer adapted to its environment, so I chopped it right down to a set of stumps no higher than my knees. It has since grown back with much healthier, dark green glossy leaves and now it’s blooming again. I’ve been keeping it trimmed to no higher than … well, me. I won’t let it get any bigger, and if it doesn’t like that, too bad!

Some people say that cape honeysuckles are evil, invasive African aliens that do not belong in California gardens. If they are simply left to their own devices, I agree wholeheartedly. Left alone, one of these monsters can take over vast landscapes. But… these are gorgeous plants, which can be tamed if they receive regular, persistent attention. In this case, top growth is pruned back, as well as the ground-level shoots. Any additional shoots that sprout from subsurface runners are also removed very quickly. The “evil” giant has been tamed.

Please, folks, no outraged comments about how I am harboring evil aliens. I keep lots of native plants too – and all of the invasives in my gardens, if they are allowed at all, are heavily and persistently controlled. If you can’t take the time and effort to do that, DON’T KEEP INVASIVE ALIENS IN YOUR GARDEN!

Let’s have a closer look at its fluorescent orange-red flowers.

The humans do love these flowers, but there’s someone else in the garden who likes them even more, currently perching in the shadowed branches of the princess flower tree…

What, no picture in the sun, showing off his glorious red and green shiny colors? I’ve been trying to catch him in a good portrait for months, but he moves very, very fast! As soon as I have a good picture I’ll post it here.

A favorite plant is this sweet little blueberry bush, inherited from a neighbor. It was planted in this spot when it had only two tiny branchlets. The first year it bore nine berries, but what sweet, plump juicy treats they were.

This year, after a lush crop of more than 100 white-pink flowers, its six branches were laden heavily with plump, blue, edible gifts. While some of them were shared with the birds and slugs, most of them ended up inside of me. With the berries long gone the bush shows a different color as its leaves turn bright red.

Blueberries are in the family Ericaceae, a huge group that includes cranberries, heaths, manzanitas, madrones, strawberry trees, azaleas and rhododendrons. Most of these prefer low-fertility, acid conditions. My favorite close blueberry relative is Hawaii’s little red ohelo berry, which I have enjoyed while hiking in the lava fields near Kilauea volcano.

It’s hard to determine exactly what variety of blueberry this is. All of them are Vaccinium species, but there are several wild types and many cultivars. My best guess is that it is a hybrid of V. corymbosum (highbush blueberry) and V. angustifolium (lowbush blueberry). That would make it a half-high blueberry, very hardy and typically grown in California.

Follow back through time and read the previous blueberry post. From there you can follow further back to even earlier posts.

When I find a beetle I don’t recognize, usually the first book I open is Evans and Hogue’s beautiful beetle guide, which is part of the excellent series of California natural history guides from University of California Press.

Of the various beetle books in my library, this one seems to have the most comprehensive section of color photos, with more than 300 nicely composed images.

According to the blurb on the back cover, the book covers 569 of the 8,000 or so species of beetles in California, but almost all of the beetles I’ve found in the last few years can be identified by flipping through the color photos. Unfortunately (and this is my only criticism) the color plates do not include page numbers for the beetles illustrated, which means one must look up the species in the index to find the text description. Oh well, it only takes a moment to find the page.

If you love beetles as much as I do and you live in California (or even if you don’t!) this handy guide might become one of your most valued references.

If you choose to purchase Field Guide to Beetles of California (California Natural History Guides) through the Amazon link in this sentence you will be supporting my ecogarden work by adding a few shiny new pennies to my account balance.

It lurks among the flowers of the Swiss chard. This assassin bug waits quietly, alert and ready to pounce. It sees me, which makes it hard to photograph because it keeps moving around to the far side of the stalk. Like most predators, it has an intelligent, deliberate way of behaving.

This one is in the family Reduviidae (reh-doo-VEE-ih-day, Wikipedia), possibly related to the European species Coranus griseus (photo at Flikr by Joao Coelho), but most likely not the same species. Note the characteristic “hunchback” appearance and the spotted edge of the abdomen.

Assassin bugs are related to the non-predatory shield bugs (here’s a previous post about a shield bug).

Some can administer a painful, venomous bite with their piercing mouthparts. They violently attack their prey, which can be much larger than themselves, and subdue it with a poison bite. Then they suck out the prey’s inner fluids, leaving behind an empty shell.

These are vicious little hunters. Some assassin bugs even specialize on mammalian blood, including the notorious kissing bug of Mexico and the southwestern US, also in the Reduviidae (basic kissing bug facts from University of Arizona).

Several days after the first pictures were taken, this pair were discovered in a state of mutual … well, they were having a good time, no doubt. They were on this chard flower stalk all morning and all afternoon, and they were still together at dusk.

The next morning they had gone away.

Looking at insects like these, one might wonder at their form. From an evolutionary perspective, what is the advantage of the sharp-edged shoulder humps? Why are there prominent spots along the edges of the abdomen? Are these sexually selected traits like guppy colors or deer antlers? Do they serve some other function?

Assassin bugs like to hang out in flowers, waiting for… well, this little critter, for example, a flower fly in the Syrphidae who is happily eating pollen among the same chard flowers. I think this lucky one got away.

Look to this previous post for another flower fly.

Summer is here and my small patch of managed wilderness is bursting with life. Nestled between two apartment buildings, this little chunk of land has evolved a lot in recent months.

The biggest recent changes were the removals of two large sources of shade, exposing the garden to full sun during most of the day.

First, an old magnolia tree came out because the property owner did not like how its roots were rucking up the driveway. He had a good point, actually. Even though the tree was a noble and beautiful being, its sudden removal has changed the garden for the better, allowing many new plants to thrive in the greater light.

Above: The second removal was the large old cape honeysuckle that used to fully own a large section of the space. In this view from the balcony above the garden you can see the empty space it left behind, covered with a mixture of old magnolia leaves and seeded eco-compost. It was cut down to a stump because it was having a lot of trouble adapting to the new, sunny conditions. By cutting it down I pressed reset, and now the new growth will be properly shaped and adapted for the current conditions.

Above: In the center of the empty space, the stump of the cape honeysuckle sends up a mound of new green shoots. I’ll let it grow into a decent size bush, but it will not be allowed to take over the space the way it did before I chopped it down. I want to keep it, even though it is considered an invasive alien, because of how much the local hummingbirds love its orange-red flowers. Once it gets bigger, it will bloom again.

Meanwhile, the layer of magnolia leaves and seeded compost has begun to evolve into a new ecosystem. The leaves were there because of the old magnolia tree that was removed. Rather than scrape down to bare dirt, I decided to keep the leaves, letting them decompose naturally, mixed with the compost. Some people have told me “Magnolia leaves never decompose!” Watch and see, it’s already happening.

Although the summer sun on the thin layer of compost has prevented many sprouts from coming up, beneath the leaves are countless sheltered nooks and crannies where critters like sowbugs, snails, crickets, centipedes, and earwigs have taken up residence.

As the leaves decay, this open space will gradually fill in. Below: at the edges, various plants encroach by sending up shoots from underground runners.

Above: The main feature of the larger east section of the garden is this dense thicket, dominated by a purple flowering Salvia. It also contains trailing Nasturtium, several other species of smaller Salvia plants, and a large patch of rosemary (visible peeking out at the right). In the foreground, an avocado seedling pokes up.

At the base of the avocado seedling, a critter shelter has just been added. It’s just a few bricks and a paving stone, but it’s a dry place where snails, spiders, and others can find protection.

Critter shelters can also be made of wood, especially if the wood is old and rotting. In fact, an old rotting log is such a great critter house that one should be a part of every ecogarden. If it gets interesting mushrooms after the rain, so much the better!

Another great critter house can be made from a simple pile of rough, natural rocks.

Let’s look inside. There are a few snails in there and a couple of sowbugs, but not much else today. I have seen earwigs, centipedes, millipedes, and crickets. Last week there were four big female wolf spiders carrying egg sacs, but they ran away before I could photograph them.

If an ecogarden is located in contact with a natural area, the critter shelters could contain much more interesting creatures like frogs, toads, or newts. I doubt there will be any frogs in this one, but a newt might happen by.

Critter shelters are also located in several other places in this garden, some in the sun and some in the shade. They are important! Try to leave them undisturbed as much as possible.

All through the garden are many delightful little scenes, like this wild strawberry, mint and a rock in front of the bearded irises. Those sweet little berries were consumed by me immediately after this picture was taken. Yum!

Above: At the north end of the garden is the vine wall (a fence, actually) where many kinds of climbers compete for space. Right now the morning glory vines are blooming in this section. Because of the lush, dense foliage this vine wall is also a fantastic critter shelter.

Maybe this space is small, and maybe it looks like just another suburban garden that has been allowed to grow a bit wild, but for me this humble mini-landscape is nothing less than a small treasure, attracting butterflies, birds, and countless other wonderful visitors and inhabitants.

Watch these pages as my little ecogarden continues to grow and evolve!

Did you see the previous state of the ecogarden report? It happened after the magnolia was taken out, but while the big honeysuckle bush was still in place.

The old, classic post “what is an ecogarden?“has pictures of the garden before the magnolia tree was removed. At that time, there were still some large bushes owning much of the north half of the garden.

There’s also an upstairs container garden, whose state will be reported in a future blog post.

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There it is, resting on a leaf. Looks like an ordinary housefly, (Musca domestica), but it might not be. The family Muscidae (Wikipedia) includes about 450 species in California alone, and more than 4000 worldwide. Many of them share the familiar “housefly” appearance, with gray color scheme and dark longitudinal streaks on the top of the thorax.

There are also flies in the Calliphoridae (blow flies), Sarcophagidae (flesh flies) and Tachinidae (mostly parasitic flies) that have a similar appearance. It seems like the “house fly plan” is a fairly successful shape, size, and look for such insects.

Because there are so many species and they look so similar, identifying small, nondescript flies is one of the hardest things an entomologist might have to do. It might involve counting hairs, studying wing vein patterns, or examining their genitalia under a microscope.

No matter what kind of fly this is, it is welcome in my ecogarden.

Here’s another post about beautiful flies.

At the beach at San Gregorio, on the northern California coast, the driftwood zone extended far into the sandy upper beach. Here there was a huge old log, partly buried in the sand. At the big end there was a hole, and in the hole, there were spider webs.

No one will ever know the type of spider, the number of them, or their prey.

Morning light reveals a freshly rain-washed world. As the clouds begin to part, the eye is delighted by happy leaves and petals spangled with brilliant rain jewels. Words cannot describe how lovely it all is, so there are few words in this post.

Enjoy!

 

While I was over at the new ecogarden project this morning, something special happened back in the home garden. Remember those promising iris buds? Today they popped!

It’s been three years since these babies last blew, and I had forgotten what lovely pastels they show. Yow!

And the scent… I bring my nose close enough to tickle the petals, and inhale. Mmmm. Iris perfume is psychoactive, I swear.

Irises (Wikipedia article) come in two main groups, the rhizome irises, and the bulb irises. I like the rhizome irises because of their huge, showy, delightfully scented flowers.

Rhizome irises grow extremely well in this California climate, as long as they get enough sun. It seems like they actually prefer to be neglected.

There’s another interesting bloomer in the garden right now, one that many people might choose to pull right out. It’s this magnificent sowthistle:

Isn’t that a big old ugly weed? No! Not in this garden.

Look how lovely is the form of the plant, the strong stalk and the amazing wrap-around leaves. Look at the forms of the flower buds, flowers, and the puffy white seed head.

Sowthistle (Wikipedia article) belongs to the genus Sonchus, but identifying individual species can be difficult. This one is probably annual sowthistle (S. oleraceus). It has sturdy, hollow stems and milky sap.

The leaves frequently show the tunnels of leaf-miners, tiny caterpillars that live between the leaf layers. The tips of the stems often bear colonies of aphids.

The flower heads show buds, flowers, and seed heads in all stages of maturity:

For our parting shot, a close-up (below). A winged aphid has just landed – see her at the upper right? She’ll plunge her sucking beak into the plant and enjoy the milky sap, popping out a near-constant stream of tiny wingless daughters, each one already pregnant with more daughters. Within a few days, it is likely that this flower head will be crowded with hundreds of happy aphids:

Of course, it’s always possible that a lady beetle might find the mother aphid and her progeny, in which case all bets are off.