Category Archives: Garden

Mesquite

You need to fence new trees away from rats and rabbits here, and the antelope squirrels that will strip bark off all but the most unsavory plant. I was a little slow in getting one tree wrapped in chicken wire, and the wildlife girdled it. By the time I got the tree protected, wildlife had eaten bark all the way around it, consigning the foliage above to a slow death by thirst.

The victim: a mesquite, planted with a twin a few yards downhill from the house’s graywater outflow, fed by the washing machine.

It wasn’t a big financial loss: I got the tree and its twin from Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley in exchange for teaching a class there last year. Picture the Lorax on a streetcorner, holding a sign that reads “Will Speak For Trees.”

But it was an emotional loss, at least until I was pulling a weedy annual grass away from the enchickenwired trunk last night to find several sturdy shoots coming out of the trunk below the injury, and from the roots as well. In all likelihood they will be taller than the uninjured tree up the hill in five years. Between the mesquites and the palo verde a few yards to the east, and the smoketrees I asked Nicole to order for me at Cactus Mart, there will be a bosque here yet.

Side note: pulling weedy introduced grasses is twice as much fun when you know there’s a cholla hidden in there somewhere. An excellent exercise in mindfulness.

These three things happened

Thing one.

My colleague Matt and I were sitting in the shade of a black locust on a Southern California Indian reservation week before last, watching some dogs. The dogs were boisterous mutts who’d found a family to watch over them after white people had abandoned them on the Rez.

They were wary when we first arrived, but soon got over it and welcomed the new human company. We’d been there a couple hours when one, a brown brindle mix, trotted up to us all proud, wanting to show off the toy she’d found.

Matt noticed something odd a split second before I did. “Is that…” he said, just as my eyes registered the rabbit ears sticking out the right side of the dog’s mouth.

I gestured to the dog, a come-hither tone to my voice. “Good dog. Can I have it?” The dog looked at me as though I had lost my mind, a polite back-sidling side-eye, and found a shady spot beneath a shrub a few yards toward the house. There commenced a sound of crunching.

Thing two.

My ex-wife and her best friend visited me in the desert few days ago. It was the first time B. had seen where I live since a short visit in 2009 to my apartment in Los Angeles. I tidied a bit, made sure to tell my sweetheart my ex- was going to visit (“best relationship practices,” I said), and then they arrived and met the dog and we went to dinner and B. was pleased at my house and beamed at the desert plants and she said she was thrilled that I had made such an appropriate life for myself.

As the taillights of her friend’s Tesla headed toward Los Angeles, I called my sweetheart to report on the evening. She was thrilled that all had gone well. She told me of her gratitude to the universe for providing me with that little bit of validation, of something like closure, and as we hung up I felt buoyed by love in its many forms, and I went to bed.

A different, more recent ex- showed up in a dream to correct my course. We argued over things I forgot as soon as I awoke. All that remained when I awoke was the feeling of worthlessness she had inspired, and that I ended the dream by walking away from her.

That afternoon I had a shrink appointment, and I told my shrink about the dream. “I feel like my brain couldn’t give me just 24 hours of feeling uplifted by people who love me and who actually want to be part of my life, so it plunged me into an argument with someone who wants nothing to do with me,” I said.

“You should write about it,” she said.

Thing three.

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing attempt to revegetate my life, I brought home a Dasylirion quadrangularum from my favorite local nursery. I put it in a big terra cotta pot and placed it on my front porch.

About a week ago I looked at the plant, wondering if the neatly trimmed stubs of what were once long-strappy leaves were a new thing, or if I’d just missed seeing them at the nursery when I bought it. No worries either way, I thought. Dasylirions are tough.

For about six years I had one plant, and the person I lived with resented me having even that one. It’s a wonder that plant survived the enmity, the being relegated to dark corners and locked in car trunks in the summer in Palm Springs while I wasn’t looking. It’s now many times larger than it was a couple years ago, and it has company: several Dracaenas, orchids, ferns and Tillandsias, a Coffea arabica I rescued from the hardware store’s trash cart.

The plants help me feel like myself, again, a commodity in short supply over the last decade. But they survive well only indoors. I set a Calibanus on my table outdoors to get some air, and something ate it in about 12 hours. The desert is voracious. White sage, chiltepin peppers, potato leaves full of solanine, it doesn’t matter. The mammals around here will take any source of green they can get.

This morning I surprised a rabbit in the act of snipping the last long leaf from the Dasylirion on the porch. I sighed, sat down in the shade of the house, and watched the cottontail haul the leaf beneath my car.

There commenced a sound of crunching.

Day and night

Antelope Ground Squirrel 06

Photo by Aaron Fellmeth, some rights reserved

I’ve been seeing neatly dissected prickly pear fruits out here the last few weeks, and yesterday morning I learned who might be responsible for some of them. I watched as a pair of white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, Ammospermophilus leucurus, examined the fruit on the cactus outside my front window to see which ones might be ripe. They were engaging, showing what seemed like affection, coming together every few minutes to rub noses and groom each other. A few minutes later, one of the heaviest, reddest tunas on the plant had had its insides surgically removed.

It’s clear that if I want seeds from that cactus, I’ll have to collect them soon.

I was bleary. I’d been up late. A poet-neighbor-friend and I had met for dinner the night before and drank pints of iced tea. This is what passes for debauchery in my life these days. She and I sat on the restaurant’s patio, catching up on the last few weeks, and as the sky darkened bats came out of the nearby palm oasis and began to drink from the hotel pool next to us, skimming mouths full of water as they flew just above the surface. And then the nighhawks came, swooping and arcing twenty feet above us, in pursuit of moths and small dragonflies. They used to visit my yard in Nipton every night, but that was nearly a decade ago. It took me a long while, and several false guesses made aloud, to identify them.

Nighthawk

Photo by Steven Kersting, some rights reserved

Planting the saguaro

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I planted a saguaro cactus in the front yard today, with a little help, or at least companionship, from my dog Heart. I don’t remember how long I’ve had the cactus. It’s been at least 10 years since I bought it in a fancy cactus nursery in Berkeley, though it might’ve been 12 years.

That’s a long time to spend in a small terra-cotta pot, I’ve been thinking for the last couple weeks, especially for a plant that has the capability of growing 40 feet tall and weighing several tons.

So I planted it today, or we did, and now it can stretch its roots out into the soil 10 feet from the front door of my house. It’s far enough away from where people walk, with no overhanging eaves or overhead power lines to make it unhappy in 40 or 50 years.

I don’t own the place, so I can’t be sure I’ll see it grow for even one tenth that time. I’m not sure that really matters. All I can think of is those cramped roots now free to delve the Mojave soil.

I anthropomorphize. I shall continue. 10 years in a 10 inch terra-cotta pot seems like a Geneva Convention violation. When I bought the thing I had imagined planting it in my Bay Area yard, but it only took a moment for my better self to disabuse me of that idea. A cold winter full of rain and soggy clay soil, and that saguaro would’ve been dead nine years ago. Or maybe 11.

My yard is out of the saguaro’s native range, but they do just fine hereabouts. They’ll probably do better here in 50 years than they do now. If this little baby saguaro, 20 years old at most, makes it through the next couple of years and starts growing, and enjoys a century of life, maybe the last decade of confinement will seem worth it.

Of course, whatever story the saguaro tells in the course of its life will have nothing to do with me. It endured the confinement, and now it’s no longer confined, and my feelings about the whole thing matter not at all. The saguaro has more important things to do than reassure me that it looks back with fondness on its time in the too-small clay pot.

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Entrapment

Once a week I turn the hose on to the slightest drippy trickle, then put the end in the PVC pipes dug into the base of each of the half-dozen trees in the yard. I let the water trickle for 25 minutes or so per tree. This morning, when I went out to move the hose between trees number 3 and 4, I found this:

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They’re in the bottom of the PVC pipe, which seems too slick for them to climb. I put a stick into the pipe (seen at top margin) for them to climb out. Once they do I’ll have to get some metal mesh to cap the PVC, which will let water in but keep lizards and birds out.

I’m not expert enough to ID them from this shot, especially the little one. But I do have a herpetologist coming over for dinner.

Update, 11:00 a.m.:

iguana

Never let it be said that I’m not willing to reach into a dark desert hole and pull out a reptile barehanded. The big one, which was having trouble pulling itself up out of the hole, is a northern desert iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis dorsalis. He (?) is warming up now: it was cold down in that hole, especially after the shower I accidentally provided.

Updated again 12:30 p.m.: The tiny one was another desert iguana. I put it under a creosote, which is a favorite food.

iguanababy

Out front

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Rabbit and agave with low-light smartphone camera visual artifacts

It’s only half a mile from my new doorstep to Route 62, but it seems longer: the desert eats sound, the noise of traffic muffled through a half mile of creosote. I sit out there despite the cat’s complaints through the window, watch the moon rise over Queen Mountain.

Night traffic noise on a high-speed desert road should annoy me, but I find it a comfort. Truck tires on pavement slabs have sung me to sleep often enough. In July 1982 I spent a night in a cold sleeping bag at the interchange of Interstates 80 and 25 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was on my way here, though I wouldn’t arrive for another 32 years. Tonight sounded like that, a little.

At the grocery store, on an impulse, I grabbed a live rosemary plant and a mint to keep it company. When was the last time I bought terra cotta pots? It’s been years, I think. Two bog-standard eight-inch ones at the hardware store, plus enough potting soil to fill them eleven times over. I will clearly need to get more pots and more herbs, and this is how treadmills are built. repotted and watered on the front step, the new plants scent the night air.

Bad news comes in large doses

… but there is good news that comes in dribs and drabs , and this drib takes place a hundred feet from Pinole Creek.

I love the way this project sounds. I hope it happens.

Pinole park land slated to be community garden
By Tom Lochner
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
PINOLE — A wedge-shaped piece of land in Fernandez Park once seen as a skate park will become an intergenerational community garden, the Pinole City Council has decided.

Recreation Manager Amy Wooldridge said the garden will teach young people to grow food. Volunteers from the nearby Pinole Senior Center will help out to share their botanical savvy with the young people.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but very much fun,” said Senior Center board member Sam Shannon.

Coprinus

As obsessive readers of this blog may recall, I pollarded my neighbors’ mulberry tree in November. This involved pruning off several dozen long, less than two-inch thick vertical shoots. I had probably a hundred such branches when I was finished, some of them about ten feet long. Becky, being the best wife a guy like me could possibly hope for, bought me a big honking electric chipper shredder a year ago, and so I spent a couple hours that day turning those branches and most of their attendant leaves into about a cubic yard of chips. “That’s enough for the day,” I said to myself as the shredder jammed on the last bit of green wood. “I’ll wheelbarrow the chips out to the compost pile tomorrow.”

The chips, of course, are still in the driveway. First the wheelbarrow turned out to have a flat tire, and then there was something good on television, and then it rained for a week and then I was out of town and anyway they’re still in the driveway.

What with our living with a rabbit and a guinea pig, we have an abundance of shit around the place. Browsing through a mail-order catalog of mushroom spawn last year, I decided to buy some inky cap mycelia to toss into the compost pile. Inky caps do well in substrates of manure, and they like wood chips as well, and I planned to put the pollard chips atop the small animal poops to provide an ideal growing medium for the mushrooms.

Inky caps, often called shaggy manes and known to taxonomy nerds as various species of Coprinus, are interesting critters. They’re one of the more common and easily recognizable mushrooms around, what with their characteristic behavior of magically turning into black slime. The spawn I bought was of the species Coprinus comatus, but there are a bunch of them, at least until the taxonomists decide to split the genus up into a bunch of new ones.

A mushroom is just a reproductive organ, only a small part of the typical fungal organism, and many fungi don’t even use them. Many fungi are unicellular, like yeasts, and reproduce by division or budding. Multicellular fungi such as my inky caps are called filamentous fungi. The bulk of an individual fungus is in its mycelium, a massive network of filaments — hyphae — that penetrates and consumes the substrate on which the fungus grows.

The hyphae in some more primitive fungi are just plain hollow tubes, through which cytoplasm moves back and forth, carrying nutrients and water and hormones and the like throughout the mycelium at a dizzying four or five inches per hour, pushed by little “muscles” made of a contracting protein called actomyosin.

Here’s a little fact that blew my mind when I first thought about it for a while: the actomyosin transport system can push fluid through a hyphal tube in both directions at the same time, by setting up discrete streams in different sections of the tube. Imagine being able to ship your drinking water into the house in the same pipe that drained your wastewater!

The hyphae of “higher” fungi have little walls like checkpoints along their length (roughly similar to the phloem sieve elements in many vascular plants, for those of you who remember your high school biology.) These restrict the flow of cytoplasm only slightly, but keep nematodes and the like from biting off an end of a hypha and sucking the mycelium dry. The walls, or septa (higher fungi are also called septate fungi) are made out of chitin and a few other tough substances. Chitin is what insect exoskeletons are made of.

That’s another mindblowing fact in the “kinship of all life” category, by the way: plant cell walls are made of cellulose, and fungal cell walls are made of chitin, which indicates that fungi are related to both plants and insects, which means my pollarding that mulberry was basically performing cosmetic surgery on a distant cousin. Woodsman, spare that tree!

Anyway.

Mushrooms are what mycelia use to make baby mycelia. A mushroom is basically a spore factory, and most mushrooms, like the portobellos you ate last night, produce those spores from their gills, those little grooves on the underside of the cap. Inky caps’ caps are very narrow and long when they first emerge, which would tend to impede spore dispersal. Coprinuses get around this by liquefying their caps from the bottom up, thus dripping sticky black juice all over everything and more importantly getting the cap margins out of the way of the later-maturing spores closer to the apex of the cap. The spores blow around, land on another suitable surface, and grow new mycelia while we are distracted getting black ink stains out of our clothing.

This habit is probably the main reason people don’t eat more inky caps: they’re supposed to taste pretty good, but you kind of have to catch them just at the right moment before they decompose. That’s probably a good thing in the main, as the shrooms contain coprine, a substance very much like the old drug Antabuse. If you don’t consume any alcohol for about a week after eating inky caps, you should be fine. But crack a beer the next day by mistake, and bam: an emergency-room caliber hangover. Unfortunately, some people claim that smelling vanilla extract or using mouthwash are likely to provide enough blood alcohol to make the coprine do its stuff.

I might try to eat them someday, and I’ll let you know if I do so that you can avoid smelling my breath for the next week. Which is probably a good idea in any case. But I was mostly interested in the Coprinus as a garden tool: a way to turn lots of compostables into rich garden soil without doing any actual, you know, work. If I cultivated a nice big bunch of Coprinus hyphae in the compost pile, I’d actually have a reason not to go out and turn the compost every week: why chop up a critter that’s doing all that hard work for me?

Despite my leaving the mulberry chips out of the compost pile the inky caps prospered and eventually colonized the entire pile. Flushes of mushrooms have emerged, grown, deliquesced, and faded. The pile occupies one corner of the bin: I’ve started building a new pile and the Coprinus has already started to take hold there. In about a year, with any luck, I will have distributed the finished compost around the garden and thus sowed Coprinus in the vegetable beds, the orchard strip, and the herb garden near the shed. A garden is incomplete, I think, without mushrooms in it, and the presence of mycelia is often a boon to green plants: fungi can make nutrients available that the plants would otherwise have missed.

And I may not even have to move the compost to get there. A hundred feet away, on the other side of the house in the middle of the driveway, the mulberry chip pile has started growing its own crop of inky caps.  The mycelium started in mid-pile, and there’s now a patch of partially digested wood there, surrounded by a ring of icky drippy mushrooms slowly working its way to the edges of the pile.

I don’t know whether spores drifted from the compost on the wind, or hitchhiked from out back on a garden tool, or whether this might be a strain that was already in the neighborhood before I had some shipped from Oregon.

All I know is that I now have another reason not to move those chips for a while longer.

A legacy of sorts

One weekend when I was in my early teens my father asked me to climb onto our garage and clean out the gutters. After the requisite stalling and complaining I clambered up there with trowel and pail and got to what I then considered work: three minutes of toil followed by fifteen minutes of idle, sulking rumination, repeat ad libitum.

The gutters had about an inch of decomposing leaf mold in them, carpeted with the samaras — winged seeds — of a nearby silver maple. At the far corner of the garage a couple dozen of the seeds had sprouted, rooted out in the gutter, sent up leaves.

I pulled the baby trees roughly out of their nursery, considered the three largest ones. They were a good four or five inches tall. The gutters half-cleaned, I climbed down, found a shovel, planted the three largest seedlings between the sidewalk and the side of our house, along Forest Avenue.

This weekend Dad and my brother Craig were driving past the old house, and Craig took this photo.

Cathartes aura

Three of them in a plum tree this morning, turkey vultures, shivering after a rainstorm and spreading their wings to dry out.

Mallards again, and surfing the rapids again. Becky and Zeke and I watched from the bridge. Another vulture circled down in from the hills, broad white chevrons on her underside wheeling against blue sky. The mallards, about a dozen of them, dabbled upended in the slow eddy. The males waded onto the bank, stuck bills into the muddy grass.

The creek was café con leche, and it flowed steady. The air was moist with past rain.

Earlier we had let the rabbit and guinea pig run loose in the backyard. They were glad for the sunshine, which lasted only a few minutes. A rainbow formed to the west against a backdrop of dark gray. With the first few drops, Harley shrieked to be brought inside. Thistle waited until he was wet, then streaked for the shelter of the coffee table.

But the rain stopped again and we went down to the creek with the dog. The female mallards’ loud cries echoed off the far trees, off the walls of the senior center. The males’ call was a low quacky murmuring, a grumbling to themselves. One after another, turkey vultures spread their wings in the pale breeze.

My mother’s pacemaker installation went well. She was resting happily if irritably when I called in the afternoon. A routine surgery, and yet what a marked relief not to have to freight those morning vultures with heavy familial import.

Hens and chicks

The yellow striped agave has followed me from home to home for the past 17 years. It sits now in front of our house in Pinole, and in a few more years it will be too large for me to move. After a few years spent carrying it from house to house in pots, I planted it in the ground in front of our house in Oakland, fully expecting that it would stay there for the rest of its life. When our annoying upstairs neighbors decided to buy the house from our landlord, and we realized we had to move immediately, friends came over with shovels to help transplant my irises and manzanitas, and one of them took it upon himself to uproot the agave. I wasn’t displeased, and planted it in its next permanent home on the street side in Richmond. I fully intended to leave it there, as well. When our landlord sold the place out from under us, I dutifully removed any plants I wanted to keep before the house showed, potting them up and putting a police tape around them. On the day before closing, the buyers’ real estate agent took me aside and mentioned that her clients wouldn’t miss any other plants I cared to take, and that they would probably throw away the agave anyway. Into the truck it went.

I don’t remember the provenance of the hens and chicks. Gardeners tend to collect such things, grow them out, cut them up and repot or give away, tucking plants they’re not sure what to do with into little out-of-the-way corners to thrive or die. Ron gave me a couple German bearded iris corms for the Oakland garden: when she and Joe moved and lost their garden, I was able to resupply her. Those two corms have planted three of my houses, my mom’s amazing little tropical paradise on asphalt between two trailers, and a few other houses besides, and they’re spreading now under the Asian Pear and Self-Fertile Bing along our back wall. The hens and chicks were probably obtained in pretty much that fashion. I do remember deciding, planting them in the Richmond parking strip you see here, that the next time I would plant the hens and chicks first and the agave second, thus saving on bandages. That was the day I sold out all my fervently held beliefs about the rights of plants to their own way of being, and began my habit of snipping the excruciatingly sharp tips off the agave leaves with my Felco pruners. By the time we moved, the hens and chicks had spread throughout the little concrete rectangle.

The Mexican evening primrose was another matter altogether. I didn’t plant it here at all, just in the next parking strip up the street. They promised maintenance-free abundant pink bloom during the hottest, driest part of summer: all phrases seductive to beginning gardeners but at which the seasoned California hort person will raise an eyebrow nearly off her face. Abundant bloom and not stopped by heat or drought translates, quite often, to horticultural monster plant devouring anything in its path. It looks innocent enough here, with its demure little leaves there along the top margin of the photo, but we planted maybe twelve tiny little one-inch plants in total, six in the front yard and six in the back, and we spent the next four years chopping and mowing and yanking it out by the roots by the cubic yard. Between that, the Montbretia the landlord had planted, and the tiny little 2-inch pot of Persian mint I planted our first summer there, we got out just in time. Those plants will be battling one another for control of that yard a century hence, like Godzilla and Mothra over the ruins of Tokyo.

This is the fifth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.