Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rooms without walls

When the weather is as good as it is here, you tend to use outside as another room or rooms. My grand plan for taking out the lawn involves creating a living room and a dining room outside. Eventually, I will also have an outdoor kitchen, whenever property prices increase and I can justify the investment, or I sell my book and become mega rich and famous, or I win the lottery!

The living room area will be where the lawn was, under a shade structure and bordered on one side by a dry creek bed. That will get started soon, but in the meantime I decided to get the dining room and the firepit area sorted out.

The dining room is the area right outside the back door, mirroring the dining area inside the house and close to the kitchen. Beyond that, the circular part of the patio provides the idea space for the fire pit.

Since so much of the back of the house is windows, I think it important that the furniture looks nice. The furniture we have right now is extremely practical. The table came from Ikea about four years ago. It can double in size, and I've comfortably seated 14 people for dinner around it. But the sun had weathered it to a dull grey/brown color.
It just looked ugly.

Same for the chairs, although they are comfortable, light and easy to move, yet still sturdy. The added bonus - all of them were free.
Four years ago, I fished two white ones (left in the photo) and four green ones out of the dumpster at our old apartment just as we were moving to the new house. The four tube metal white ones (right) had been set out for the taking on a nearby kerbside. So I had ten chairs all for free!

I need not feel guilty for throwing this all out and buying in some good stuff.

(In the photo above, take note of the rusty table in the background with the orange pot on it.)

I'd recently bought a bistro set for the front of the house to make the entrance more inviting.
My husband and I had both loved the mosaic tiled table and chairs, but they were too small for what we needed in the back yard.
So I priced up mosaic tables large enough for a dining table....$2000 minimum and I still needed to buy chairs to match - $300 per chair.

We admired a friends beautiful wrought iron set that seated six people. The store that sold it no longer had it and other stores stocked similar items, but of lower quality at nearly twice the price - circa $1500. For me, that's too much money for something I'm only half sold on.

My Husband suggested we should leave it and concentrate on the lawn area and hopefully the right table would come along at the right time.

I agreed - the furniture we had still did a great job - they just looked yucky.

And then I had a light-bulb-idea moment - Spray Paint - You can get paint these days to cover everything, wood, plastic, metal...anything.

I searched online and found some options. I decided to go to my local DIY store and see what they had. Lowes had the paint I was looking for but not in the selection of colors I wanted.

I had decided that I would really mirror the indoors outdoors. My kitchen, dining area and living room are all one room (referred to here as a "great room") and they are pained in bright colors, mostly sunny yellow, with a touch of lime green in the kitchen behind the cook top. An orange rug warms up the living area.

Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) had the colors I wanted - lime green, orange and sunny yellow in the  Rust-Oleum range.  I bought one can of each and they even had a special offer - two cans for $7.

This stuff is just pure magic in a can!
The color looks great and it is fairly easy to use. Covering up the white chairs was a cinch!

Then I tried to paint the first green chair orange and one can only covered half the chair! Still it was cheaper than buying a new chair, especially if I got a chair in the color I wanted for $7. I went straight back to OSH and bought seven more cans of orange (for the four green chairs) and a couple more cans of green for the table. The guys in the store were teasing me and warned they would be looking out for graffiti in these colors along the highways!
Then I decided I could tackle the fire pit chairs and settled on a nice purple for them after yet another trip to my buddies in OSH. The fire pit still hasn't arrived, so for the photo I used a terracotta pot which is about a third the size of the metal fire pit I chose from amazon. I'm looking forward to shopping for nice throws to go with these.
It was all so easy since I had a plastic tarp laid out already - the lawn solarization is technically done - the six weeks are up, and I don't mind if the plastic tears now. It became the painting studio. I was impressed at how sturdy the plastic was after six weeks of sun exposure.
Here are some long shots of the furniture in situ.

View from the back door...

View from the raised beds...

With the hills in the background...
Then I began to experiment and painted a couple of pots.
And even rocks... something about the color orange brings out the Armagh in me... (my hometown in Ireland for those who don't know - our county team plays in orange and white.)
As I was putting the paints away in the garage, I discovered that I had at some stage in the past purchased a can of the same paint in silver...whatever I'd experimented on back a few years ago did not lend itself to this treatment, and the paint was shelved along with the project, much to my Husbands relief...but now armed with a new talent...remember that rusty wee table in a previous photo...

And won't it be fun to buy a can in gold and scatter a few rocks along with these silver ones in my dry creek bed...well, it is California after all!

This post is dedicated to a good friend and  former colleague of mine who lost her battle with cancer last week. She was a very talented art teacher and I reckon she's been whispering encouragement in my ear all week...just as she has done so beautifully many times for me in the past, giving me advice and support not only on matters of art but on life, love and happiness. RIP Kate - the angels are so lucky to have you XOXO

Byddi Lee

Friday, July 19, 2013

California Natives in a hot dry year

I've decided that having a Californian native plant garden and gardening with Californian native plants is two totally different things.

For me, the latter means to use natives plants in your garden to show off their beauty and also enhance your habitat. If they use less water than your average horticultural plant then even better, but you do water them to keep them looking good, and you tend not to choose to let them go completely dormant as a lot of them do in the heat of the summer. If you have a drought year you will pamper these plants and help them show their best sides even in the hottest, driest of years.

And then there is having a Californian native plant garden. The idea was that I'd get these plants established - I babied them through the first couple of years and now they are on their own. I heard it quoted that this year has been the driest on record here. It's not good for the native plants that are now fending for themselves in my yard.

Remember that the hot dry Californian Summer equates to the "winter" of the plants annual cycle. This is the time many go dormant, shed leaves, and generally look dead. The reason for this is so that the plant can conserve water and energy for the growing season which is sparked in October (hopefully) when the rain returns. It's hard for many people living here - usually blow-ins from other parts of the planet - to appreciate that summer does not equal lush growth. The climate here is unusual in that it is one of the few areas on the planet where the warmest season is also the driest. The Mediterranean, South Africa and much of Australia share this phenomenon.

So this means that a native Californian landscape looks pretty dead in the summer. It's tough to sit back and let a part of your yard do this. I decided that the whole idea of the native garden was to conserve water. Watering the plants now may even harm some of them. I'm sitting back and letting them do their own thing - apart from pruning and a bit of a tidy up. It makes no sense to me to give the yard extra water in the very year that water is so scare for all of us. Sure, I may be well ahead of the water conservation curve compared to folk who water lawns every day. I can imagine that many native plant gardeners will say that I could spare a little water to help them along, but the bottom line is, it's all an experiment. I'm curious to see what will bounce back and won't.
Already, I can see that some trees are perfect for drought conditions. In the picture above, you can see that I have a dwarf buckeye on the right. It has dropped its leaves as they do for the summer. It is still a little on the young side but it has produced some fruit.  In years to come, I'm hoping that will be what makes it attractive - thin branches, ending in massive chestnut-like fruit. Right now it's doing exactly what it should be doing and I'm confident it will weather this storm - or lack of them!

To its left is the beautiful dessert willow. When this garden has matured, nether of these trees should be in full leaf at the same time, giving a sense of space to the area. In the summer the dessert willow will provide shade and color, and when fully grown should be about thirty feet tall. There are some great drought tolerant natives - its just a matter of finding the one that suits your needs.

While the majority of my plants look like they are burning to a crisp, the sages still smell wonderful and most growth will reignite with the arrival of the fall rains. I do plan to add a new batch of plants in the rainy season...if it comes. My choices may be partially governed by what survives the summer.

It is also worth noting that we really have only started the heat here... August and September promise high temperatures. With this extreme lack of water the plant phenology, in my yard and growing wild on the surrounding hills, seems to be at least a month ahead of itself. It will be interesting to see what happens next in my Californian native plant garden.

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Not so cute anymore!

Be prepared - this is going to be a rant! We have been invaded by ground squirrels and they are eating EVERYTHING!

As we moved out of April and into May the garden thrived. The application and armatic torture of applying copious amounts of manure, blood meal, worm poop and fish emulsion (phew -that really stunk!) had paid of  with large leafy happy vegetables. There was an abundance of lady bugs and I felt that my Integrated Pest Management had really kicked in. Sure, I'd suffered the loss of a crop of lettuce to a cheeky squirrel, but at that stage I considered it a small loss since the lettuce was done anyway. 

During May and into June the Collard greens grew huge leaves replacing the ones I harvested on a daily basis. The broccoli, usually a winter crop, grew waist-high promising a big harvest when it came time to bloom. Chard was prolific too, and we ate greens every day.

But by the end of June things began to disappear. From a distance the garden looks lovely.
For the first time ever our gogi berry have fruited - delicious tiny fruits, which were the super-fruit du jour back three years ago when I bought the tiny little seedlings...now I believe something has claimed the super-friut crown. (Acacia berry maybe?)
My mammoth sunflowers are living up to their name too. This one is at least twelve feet tall, the flower 10 inches in diameter!
 But the squirrels have gone to town on the chard...
and the collard greens...
 and the broccoli never did fulfill their promise of a glorious harvest...
They hit the zucchini (courgettes)  too..
I despaired of ever getting beans this summer...
But a few tendrils did make it high enough to escape the foraging of the ground squirrel - obviously they are not as good at climbing as their tree-squirrel cousins.
So I'm hoping to get some beans now.

The squirrels also ate some of my tomatoes...until I sprinkled them with cayenne pepper. Though I had sprinkled everything with cayenne pepper it seemed to only work on the tomatoes.

So what to do?

According to the IPM site at UC Davis, trapping  and killing them is the only way.  I find that hard to stomach... though that is changing.

Disrupting scents like cayenne pepper, and putting dog hair at the opening of the burrows (the neighbors are donating their vacuum bags!) may help. The squirrels are scared of the smell of the dog, one of their natural predators. I've also read about using ammonia rags at burrow openings, placing lights onto the burrow and playing music near them to deter them. 

Right now I feel like I have lost, not just the battle, but also the war on squirrels! Saying that, we are right in the middle of a heat wave and motivation to do anything in the yard is at an all time low. Perhaps my next blog will report the outcome of some of these methods...and the heat wave is most welcome while I'm still solarizing my lawn.

Byddi Lee