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It was right out there, hanging in the sky at sunrise like a fantastic fractal tapestry. Another storm cell passing through as an early Pacific low comes ashore. Last night we had an amazing thunderstorm with some of the heaviest rain I’ve seen in years. The weather patterns have definitely shifted, at least for this week.

Ah! It was so beautiful to sip hot coffee and watch the display evolve.

You can see much more of this excellent natural show with nice big pictures over at clear display blog.

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.

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!

These intricate altocumulus clouds appeared around dawn on May 3 over Menlo Park.

Looking into the east, lower clouds reflected a blaze of orange while barely visible dark virga descended from the altocumulus deck:

Meanwhile in the southwest, early yellow sunlight illuminated soft, lenticular stratus, pouring over the coastal mountains:

Even though it looked like rain was imminent, the moisture just wasn’t enough to get to the ground.

Still, not long after the first pictures were taken, these dark, low scud clouds crossed the sky. On the whole, it was a satisfyingly dramatic morning:

 

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.

I arrived in the morning, when most of the yard was still in shade. As you can see, the owner of the property has spread a lot of hay on the ground, which has started to decompose in many areas. In some places it’s ankle deep.

Those white boxes are beehives, two of them with active colonies. In the distance at the rear of the yard is a chicken run with four very happy chickens.

The owner has requested a top-to-bottom ecosystem transformation for this space, with  just a few special requests. This will be fun, but also a LOT of work. It’s definitely a big project.

In this post we’ll do a general tour with some comments about possible directions to take. In future posts we’ll look at some more specific elements of the project.

As we enter the yard, on the left is an herb collection, the most maintained part of the garden at present. Owner kept stooping to pull “weeds” – I told her the first rule is “no more pulling of plants!” She acknowledged this might be a challenge for her.

The rectangular stepping stones will probably be replaced by something less linear, maybe wooden rounds or irregular flagstones.

This small bed features mint, salvia, and miscellaneous garbage. Minus the garbage and with some work, this will become a sweet little kitchen herb gardenette.

Looking back to the main yard, there is a bee bath and a huge mound of French lavender, behind which are several large catnip bushes and the beehives. Between the beehive in the front and the two in back are some raised beds, currently hosting a variety of volunteers – what some might call “weeds.”

At the right, against the fence, are piles of wood, rusty shelves of garden junk and some containers of toxic chemicals. Under the thick hay are wooden boards and more scattered junk. All of that stuff will be removed.

Looking to the left, there is a small patio area in the foreground. This will be cleaned up and surfaced with some kind of stones or bricks, made ready for happy garden parties.

On the small table are some veggie starts that the owner wants planted. She wants me to decide where to put them. There are tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, some herbs, and a struggling artichoke.

Behind the table are two more raised beds. These will be moved to the front of the yard, where they will get full sun for almost the whole day, rather than the morning shade they get here.

Down the path through the arched metal trellis, the chicken run is visible.

The other raised beds, to the right side of the path. Kind of a mess. Hay and catnip bushes will be removed, and new (purchased) growing mix added. Some of the veggies will be planted here. The two beehives will eventually be moved to a slightly better location near the front fence, where they will get morning wake-up sunlight and partial shade for those hot summer days.

Eventually these two raised beds will also be moved to the front for the full sun there.

Turning around to look toward the front of the yard, one can see the area where the veggie beds will be, already brightly sunlit even at this early hour. Beehives will be near the fence at the picture’s left side.

One of the challenges of this project is that the entire rear of the yard is shaded until midday by tall trees.

While the shade is great for the chicken run, it is a little too much. Some of the tree branches will be artfully removed, resulting in more dappled light for the rear of the property.

The trees include two figs, several majestic pines, and some other broadleaf trees. All of them need serious pruning and shaping.

There is also a struggling rose bush that might do better with more light.

I am imagining a lovely forest floor type ecosystem under the trees in the back. May apples, anyone?

So… off we go! I could not resist getting started right away.

First, I cleared away the junk and catnip from the area around the raised beds by the beehives. We let the chickens out, who happily scratched around finding grubs and beetles in the newly disturbed soil. You go, girls!

There was enough time to partly plant two of the raised beds. I would definitely call this an emergency planting. As you can see, the tomatoes are looking a bit wilted. But this is good soil and they should perk up with proper attention. In the interest of expediency, the veggie plantings here are being done in a  fairly traditional non-ecofarm style, just dropped into the raised beds.

In future posts we’ll take a look at some of the resident interesting plants and critters, and begin to see some more serious cleanup.

Here are updates on this new ecogarden project:

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway

in the company of chickens

Thanks for following this project! Your comments are welcome.

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.