Friday, September 30, 2011

In a pinch

If I told you that I found an earwig at between 5 and 6 inches would you be horrified? Well, here's the proof...
Okay - not quite what you were thinking, but this boyo is still plenty big for me. It's the only photo I've got this week, so enjoy it!

The jury is still out on earwigs for me. Today I'm going to put them on trial and see if I can come to some kind of verdict.

Witness for the prosecution: Eighteen-year-old me.

When I first went to University, I came home every weekend, like the dutiful daughter that I am, to get fed, laundry done and a rest from the partying! My Mum looked forward to this weekly homecoming (far more that I realized at the time) and always had roses from the garden in a vase on my night stand, fresh bed linen on the bed, a fully stacked fridge and she brought me breakfast in bed every morning. Suffice it to say, she completely spoiled me.

One Friday evening I got home, and she was just making up the bed and I went to help. We lifted the pillow to put on the fresh pillow slip. Out from under the pillow scuttled about a dozen earwigs. Okay, maybe it was about six, but when they're under your pillow exaggeration is permitted. After a lot of squealing and a dash for the door, we returned with a vaccuum and I pulled the room apart looking for signs of a nest. We had no clue where this infestation had come from, but I sure had a spotless room after that. For a while...

A few weeks later the same thing happened. Again the room was gutted, and I washed, vacuumed and polished until I was satisfied that I wasn't going have have these things crawl into my ears and eat the alcohol-sodden remains of my student brain! We were flummoxed as to where these monsters were coming from.

Then one Friday my Mum picked me up at the bus stop looking quite sheepish. She had discovered the source of the "infestations." They were, as she put it "her fault." She'd lovingly picked roses, as she'd done every week for my return home, and as she set the vase on the night stand an earwig dropped out of the rose and scurried across the table top and dropped onto the bed, seeking the only dark haven it could find - under the pillow of course. As she stood there, another three joined its buddy. She'd been unwittingly seeding my bed with these guys every week! Although the pay out was that I'd never before keep my room so clean - so, a result for her. No more roses in the bedroom for me though.

Witness for the Defense:Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
"The name earwig, which literally means “ear creature,” originated from the widespread superstition that these insects crawl into the ears of sleeping people. Moreover, many individuals believed that once the earwig gained access into the human ear, it could bore into the brain. Actually these insects do not crawl into the human ear."

Witness for the Prosecution: Blonde me:
What about those huge pincers? That's gotta hurt.

Witness for the Defense: University of Rhode Island Landscape Horticulture Program
"They are harmless to humans and animals, although if handled carelessly, the earwig can give a slight pinch with the forceps."

Witness for the Prosecution: UC Davis Integrated Pest Management
"...earwigs can cause substantial damage to seedling plants and soft fruit as well as to sweet corn. Damaged seedlings may be missing all or parts of their leaves and stem. Leaves on older plants, including fruit trees, have numerous irregular holes or are chewed around the edges. ... Soft fruit such as apricots or strawberries may be attacked. ... On stone fruit, look for shallow gouges or holes that extend deeply into the fruit. ... On corn, earwigs feed on silks and prevent pollination, causing poor kernel development. Earwigs may also damage flowers including zinnias, marigolds, and dahlias."

 Witness for the Defense: UC Davis Integrated Pest Management
"They are voracious feeders on soft-bodied insects such as aphids and insect eggs and can exert significant biological control under some circumstances. In yards that are planted to turf and contain mature ornamental plants, damage by earwigs is unlikely to be of concern."

Objection your honor - the witness is testifying for both sides!
(I think I've been watching too much of "The Good Wife.")

Witness for the Prosecution: Me in 90 degree F heat
The compressor for our air conditioned stopped working this week. It just quit...dead. The temperature was in the nineties and my husband rang the air-con guys right away. We'd only gotten the air conditioning in about 16 months ago and I thought, "Typical! Just as the warranty is run out..." Fortunately, we were still under warranty.

Your honor - relevance?
Continue - but this better be good.

I'm getting there.

We spent the night sweating, with the all the windows open and listening to the hum of all the other compressors in the neighborhood. I was very happy to see Jim, the guy who had installed our system, arrive the next day. He checked the fuses, which my husband had already done. They were fine. Next he took off the panel on the compressor and took out what looked like the mirror that dentists use to look at your teeth - only bigger, and he looked into the workings of the motor.

"Aha," he said, reaching for the forceps. "An earwig got in there and prevented the switch from turning on the motors." And he pulled out an inch long flattened earwig.

He didn't charge us for the call out

Your Honor, I rest my case!

Byddi Lee

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nothing to be sniffed at

Sometimes cute things come in small packages, but in the case of our Master Gardener Advanced Training last week, the biggest cutie was working with the packages! Hawkeye is a rescue dog that has been trained to sniff out vegetable matter and errant insects in parcels arriving into California. The purpose of such activity is not to induce the, "Awe, look at that doggie," factor at the parcel depot but to halt the spread of diseases that can cost millions of dollars in damage to agriculture and the environment.

The demonstration involved presenting Hawkeye with an array of parcels, with an orange in one of them. Here's what happened...

Hawkeye will find anything in a FedEx parcel, or other post, that simply shouldn't be there. For example, pet shops that attempt to send animals without following the proper procedures. Smuggling animals across borders is wrong in lots of ways, some of which include cruelty to the animals being transported, never mind risking the health of animals and humans along the route and at the destination.

But its not just these underworld characters who put agriculture and delicate ecosystems at risk. We, the general public, do so all the time through ignorance or selfishness.

As gardeners, we love to exchange plants,but how far away are we making these exchanges? Plant cuttings and soil are ideal for viruses, pathogens, fungi and nematode to stowaway in until they reach California

How often have we been tempted to post food stuff across boarders? Missing the Irish pork products here as I do, it is so tempting ask my Mum to post me that delicious back bacon that I adore so much. Hawkeye would just love to find that in a FedEx parcel. People send the weirdest things to their loved ones - oranges from Florida are apparently a big no no. Sure we get lovely oranges here, why send them in? But folk do. A friend of mine took a live lobster home as carry on luggage on the plane from Boston to Ireland - not sure I remember how that story ended...

California is not the only place at risk. In New Zealand every planeload of passengers is met with a quivering wet nose - no, not a Kiwi with a head cold! The bearer of the quivering wet nose when I arrived there several years ago was a perky beagle whose job it was to search the luggage for botanical castaways and the bugs they may enfold. When these dogs are working it is not a good idea to try to pet them - the handlers really don't like it, and lets face it, you really don't want a pooch getting over interested in you at an airport no matter how innocent you are!

Such is global travel these days that we barely think about what may scrounge a lift with us. That innocent apple in our back pack may be carrying the next virus that will wipe out non resistant apple varieties at our destination. Remember what the common cold did when it hitched a ride to the New World?

Having been brought up on an island free from the ravages of rabies, this is a topic close to my heart. I'm happy to see dogs like Hawkeye strut their stuff - and strut they do. These guys are chosen because they are very food driven. Having owned a food driven Jack Russell alongside a non-food driven Westie, it is easy to see the difference. The Jack Russell just never gave up, making the Westie look like quite the dumb blonde!

The bottom line is - think about what you are sending. If is living or once was, find out should it be going where it is going. If Hawkeye and his buddies find an item that may pose a risk, the sender is contacted who may, at best, lose the item.

I wonder if Hawkeye is trained to find chocolate bars - that's one thing that does get sent to me from Ireland more often than I need and not as often as I might like!

If you have any questions about what can or cannot be brought into California, or if  you live in Santa Clara County and would like Hawkeye to demonstrate his waggy tailed talents for your organization please email for more information.

Byddi Lee

Monday, September 19, 2011

Potty mouthed gardeners

We gardeners just love, love, love manure. Man, we just can't get enough of it! Horse manure, steer manure, chicken manure, bat guano - we love it all.

It is quite apparent that the soil in my raised beds is tired. The cooler summer this year is no excuse for my poor show of tomatoes and peppers. So, I'm taking a two pronged approach to amending the soil in my raised beds to try to remedy the problem.

First of all, yes, you guessed it - Manure! I'm adding steer manure (or cattle manure as it is called in Ireland). If I had a truck and easy access to my raised beds, I'd go get horse manure from my horsey buddies.  But there is no truck. I know that my neighbors would lend me theirs - but to haul horse manure? - it's too much to ask. And I'd still have to cart it from the driveway to the back yard in wheel barrowfuls.

If there was a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Cars, my husband would have reported me to them along time ago - mostly for neglect (to the car not him). But even I draw the line at filling the trunk of the Mazda 3 with horse poop. Fortunately for disabled gardeners like us car owners, the big box stores sell steer manure in nicely packaged bags. Easy to load and unload, more practical for me to transport. From a sustainable point of view, I don't like using all that plastic, but if I owned a truck think of all the diesel/petrol/gas (delete as appropriate re car model and country you live in!) it would use. And it is cheap.
Home Depot sells theirs for 97cents a bag and Lowes is $1.27. So what's the difference?

Home Depot's is a blend (you'd think it was coffee for goodness sakes!) of steer manure and compost, whilst Lowes is pure steer manure, though one would wonder what's pure about cow crap? Both claim to be screened and weed free. We'll soo see about that! The compost/steer manure mix is darker and heavier compared to the lighter colored and textured pure manure which felt richer and had a less pungent aroma. (Stills sounds like we're talking about coffee.) The picture below shows where I have dumped the bags out in alternate piles. The one with the fork in it is the Home Depot mix. I decided to use a mixture of both, but tend to favor the texture of the pure manure from Lowes.
A very experienced Master Gardener friend of mine, Karen Schaffer, also gave me a great tip - double dig and then bury my kitchen scraps. This is the second prong of my approach.

After forking the manure through the soil, I dug a trench 2 spade depths down and threw in kitchen scraps as they became available. I made the next step a little more labor intensive than it has to be, but when I filled in the trench I used my hands to "crumble the soil" so that it would be soft and fluffy.

Hopefully, I won't need to do that step every time I double dig and bury kitchen scraps, but it did feel good to get all that soil loosened up. Up until now, I've been lazy about soil prep.

Once it's all soft, the last thing I want to do is compact the soil, so I developed a very hi-tech device for enabling me to work on the beds without standing on the newly worked soil. I'll be registering the patent once the beta testing is over.
When all the soil was hand filled back into the bed, it looked like a crumbed chocolate cake.
With all that manure in it though I wasn't about to taste it! I planted a bed of beet seeds that I hope will be ready in time for VIP visitors in February - my nephews. I do believe that they are future Master Gardeners as they too delight in talking about manure. Especially the effect of beets on said waste product!

With a good shake of Sluggo for slug protection and netting for bird defense, I kept the soil moist and watched for the first little seeds germinating. Below is the winner of the Cute Dicotyledon Competition for this week.
Anyone for coffee and some chocolate cake crumbs?

Byddi Lee

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's all about the cut-backs

Every time I look at my native plant garden, something about it thrills me. It's provided blossom all year long. At this time of year plants struggle to survive. Heat is at its all time high and water at its all time low, yet there are colorful blossoms bravely swaying in the blistering heat.

My tiny desert willow, Chilopsis linearis, suddenly sprung up overnight and has produced the most beautiful flowers.
This will get bigger and flower more prolifically as the years go on.

Thankfully the mystery "might be deer grass" plant did turn out to be deer grass, Muhlenbergia rigens. In the foreground sits my Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii, and off to the left, the showy milk weed, Asclepias speciosa.
The six three-inch slips of dwarf coyote bush, Baccharis pilularis, have grown into six healthy bushes, bring a green lushness to an otherwise golden backdrop.

Also from humble beginnings, blue flax, Linum lewisii, seeds I saved from the Native Garden at Lake Cunningham are getting established. No flowers as yet, but the foliage is pretty.

By extreme contrast rosey buckwheat, Eriogonium grande rubescens, has performed away beyond my expectations.

I've no objection to this running rampant in the garden. I planted each native with lots of room around it so that it would fill in. I anticipate plants starting to run into one another after at least three years. I know for sure that will happen with the lively and vibrant California fuchsia, Epilobium canum, only planted a month ago - the worst time for planting out, and it's as happy as can be! It even squeezed out a couple of flowers for me.
Chosen more for scent than scenery, the California sagebrush, Artemisia californica, often referred to as cowboy cologne, has become a favorite as much for its lovely smell as for the grey green foliage it sports. This one is a prostrate form and makes a great filler in the foreground.
The Rodgers red grape, Vitis californica, even produced fruit - mind you I wouldn't hold my breath waiting to get drunk on wine from this crop. Here is the yield in its entirety!
Some dastardly critter got there before us. And I think the picture makes the grapes look larger than they actually were!

The hardest part of native gardening to date has been cutting back the plants that need it. One reason for doing this is to cut off the old seed heads. The scarlet penstemon, Penstemon triflorus  has finished flowering and you can see what would be next years plant growing already at it's base. I left the cut seedheads and foliage were they fell to add to the seed bank and mulch - recycling at its best.
Another reason to cutback plants is to try to avoid bushes becoming straggly. My coyote mint, Monardella villosa,  had blossomed beautifully, full round purple flower heads that smelled devine. But the branches fell open and the bush simply looked wanton!
So I decided to prune it back. It's a cringe-worthy job. I felt like I was killing the poor shrub, but my biology head kept telling me it was for the best. It just seems so counter-intuitive to cut bits off the plant when you've been watching it grow all year. I cut back quite savagely to the first green leaves coming up from the roots. Why does this work?

If you don't want to read the science part (or rather "science as seen by Byddi" part) skip the next paragraph and go back to looking at the pretty pictures! 

Plants have growth hormones called auxins. They are secreted by the growing points. There are several growing points in a plant, but for this explanation we are only concerned with two - the growing point at the tip of the shoot (apical meristem) and the growing point along the stem (lateral meristem) where leaves or branches can grow. To remember the word "meristem" think of the words "merry- stem" - as in it's "merry" to reproduce! In high concentrations the auxins make the cells of the tip divide to make more cells, hence the plant grows. However, in lower concentrations the auxin inhibits cell division. The auxins from the tip "drip" down through the stem becoming increasingly dilute, so that the lateral growing points are inhibited. If the tip is removed, the auxin stops and the lateral meristems jump into auxin-producing-action. The concentrations of auxin increase in these localized areas and cell division is ignited, resulting in the growth of side shoots.

Hope that hasn't hurt your brain too much! And for you non-scientists, it's safe to read on...
The problem with cutting back the Hookers evening primrose, Oenothera hookeri, is that there were absolutely no growth buds apparent down low. The whole plant looked terrible and obviously had to be cut somehow.
All the research I did recommended it be cut back right to the ground. In a giant leap of faith I did just that.
As I was cutting I was heartened by the fact that I was being literally showered by seeds. If the mother plant doesn't make it, hopefully new seedlings will take its place. I've read that Hookers evening primrose is a "moderate" re-seeder - but that could mean anything!

Again, I left all the cuttings where they fell. I can't decide if that was my biology head or my lazy head talking!

Despite all that carnage - From a distance the-re is har-mony

 Byddi Lee

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gardening and the Apocalypse

We used to watch so many cops series like CSI and Criminal Minds that it seemed a waste of time to turn on the telly unless someone died in the first five minutes. Now we've upped the stakes and have started watching series where not one, or even ten people die at the beginning, but the entire planet is wiped out!

One such story is Jericho, a US TV series that depicts life in the small town of Jericho, Kansas after a nuclear attack wipes out the nation's major cities.

Another one, based in Britain, and somewhat more gritty and less "Hollywood" is Survivors. After a world wide epidemic of a deadly virus wipes out all but 5% of the population, those left behind struggle to survive in a world where all the rules have changed.