Friday, July 28, 2017

Tiny House Living? The Tiny Apartment Came First :)

The Tiny Apartment Patio

So, you've finally found an apartment that has it all: close to where you need to be, has a pool, lawns with 'gasp' actual grass under the trees (something hard to find today in the Desert Southwest), a private patio, all the features you need inside and you can actually afford the rent without having to get a second job.  There's only one catch: it isn't very big. I'm talking about the patio.  For a gardener who can't really afford to own their own house, that's a big deal.  We were glad to find one that even had a patio at our price range. Even found an apartment in the complex that had the coveted North facing patio (sun exposure and shade is critical here - especially in the furnace of the summertime).  But, it's not much bigger than a large shower.  What to do?

After shuffling the stuff around a bit, this is what we've come up with for now. 

Welcome to my new personal garden!

The chairs are the bungee cord suspended 'low-g' style which are much more comfortable than the old vinyl weave lawn chairs. The only problem is, the foot rests are so long that, while two chairs will fit, only one person can have the foot rest up at a time. The red one is Joani's as it's a little smaller and shorter than the brown one so it fits her short legs better.  One great thing about this patio is that the patio above forms a roof so we can fold up the chairs and leave them out there without them being fully exposed to the elements.

The cart is an all metal, power coated one from Ikea. The shelves are vented so water flows through. It was the sturdiest yet most portable cart I've seen in a while that I could actually afford. It's narrow enough that it doesn't take up too much width which is the biggest limiting factor on this patio. It holds this asparagus fern quite well with storage below. The other plant holder/storage units are actually milk crates - stacked two high with the tops facing outwards to the side to form shelves. I wired them together so that they can't fall over or come apart if they get jostled about.

Ikea cart and real milk crates get the job done.

Each plant has its accompanying 'hardscape' element. The asparagus fern has an all metal, candle holding lantern also from Ikea which I like because the plastic ones fall apart in this heat and dry air. The society garlic has a tall, narrow terra cotta pot that I found at a thrift store. It doesn't have any drainage, so I fill it with water to create an evaporation pool which is handy for raising the humidity around plants.  The aloe has a ceramic dragon with a secret compartment inside which I got from Z-Castle, a cool little store that has the stuff you find at Renaissance fairs - even real swords that you can use for practice dueling - only year round.

The plants were carefully chosen for their ability to tolerate shade as well as a few hours of intense sunlight; heat and occasionally dry soil.  I rescued the society garlic from the clearance shelf at a Lowes.  It is planted in a shallow yet very wide terra cotta pot so that there is room for broadcast seed planting other herbs around it.  It had cilantro in it this Spring. Currently, it has a few flowers from a wildflower mix.  There is another pot below the asparagus fern with more wildflowers. They didn't seem to be doing well with the amount of sun they were getting, so I'm using the shelf as even more shade for them. Eventually, the society garlic may overtake the pot unless I pull the new bulbs out and transplant them elsewhere.  The asparagus fern was on sale at a Home Depot.  The aloe is from a KMart also on sale.

Yes, I do prefer planting stuff by seed but sometimes, you want something perennial with some size to it and that's often best achieved (without having to wait for years for seedlings to grow) by getting a potted plant.  I usually don't do that unless I can get them at less than full price though.  By seed is always the way to go for getting annual plants as they grow much faster.  I'll be replacing the wildflowers with herbs seeded herbs this fall.  I'm using the wildflowers as  living mulch for now.

Ceramic Dragon lurks behind the aloe.
I've yet to see any of the wildflowers attempt to bloom. Perhaps they are getting enough light to grow but not enough to stimulate blooming.  For now, the society garlic adds a touch of pink to the green pallet.  But there is variety in texture with the spotted and toothed aloe and the cloud of tiny almost spike like leaves of the asparagus fern.  By the by, if you have ever wondered why they call it asparagus fern, its because the edible asparagus plant we have in the kitchen is just a young sprout that grows into a plant that looks a lot like this if you don't pick it. 

In this picture above, you can see the evaporation pool formed by the terra cotta pot better. There is another, short and shallow drainless pot below the metal cart full of water for another evaporation pool.  I got the idea for evaporation pools from the observation that there is a wider variety of plants in the desert near open water like wetlands and ephemeral streams - partly due to the somewhat higher humidity in those places.  These evaporation pool pots are deep enough that they don't need filled every day, I usually just add a bit to them when I water the other plants.

While a huge back yard would be nice, it would also be too expensive for us at this current time.  For that matter, it would also demand more of my time, cutting back on how much time I have to work on other's landscapes.  So, this little patio of potted plants makes a nice little private oasis for sitting outside reading and relaxing.  I like walking our dog, Tigger, on the grass lawn under the pine trees in the common area and feel lucky to have that rather than a pile of crushed rocks, but this little patio gets me away from the occasional chaotic play of the neighbor kids.  While those kids can be a bit annoying at times when I want quiet contemplation, I am glad to be living somewhere where the kids feel safe enough to play outside for hours at a time.

Do you have a tiny garden space? What are you doing with it?  If you have any questions or have neat ideas that you've come up with, feel free to contact me here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The sun: both an ally and an enemy, especially here in the Desert Southwest. 

We've been talking about the importance of afternoon shade and morning sun quite a bit on this blog. That's because here in the Desert Southwest (and everywhere that has very low humidity, high temperatures and salty soils and water), sunlight has a profound impact on plant health.  Not enough sunlight is a problem everywhere and only a short list of commonly grown plants tolerate low light levels on a daily basis.  But here, excessive sunlight is an even bigger problem.  Our humidity (usually below 20% unless it is trying to rain somewhere nearby) makes the negative effects of the sun, especially drying things out and damaging plant tissue (people aren't the only things that can sunburn) even more intense.

We've recently moved to a new place. this apartment was carefully chosen with the sun in mind.  We chose an apartment that doesn't have an outside wall that faces the West and that has its South facing wall shaded by large trees and other buildings.  Here, it is the long hot afternoons in the summer that make growing so many plants a real challenge.  We managed to find one that had its patio facing the North and with shade from overhead sun thanks to the patio above it.  The only direct sunlight it receives is in the morning from the East. 

Here it is at 7 AM in the middle of May. The sliding glass door opens into the master bedroom.  It's just big enough for a couple of folding lawn chairs and a few potted plants.

You can see in the photo that the sun shines very nicely into the patio in the morning from the East, but from the West, the design of the building makes it so we have full shade in the afternoon from the West and South.

This is the current layout for the left corner of the patio.  The great thing about using crates and carts is that we can move things around easily if we find this set up no longer works as the alignment between the sun and earth changes over time. In this position, each of these pots gets bathed in direct morning light for about 2 hours each morning and has diffuse light all day.  The metal cart has holes in the shelves so that excess water can drip out of the pots and eventually to the ground.  The plastic crates double as both plant stands and storage for gardening supplies. 

Currently in the garden, we have from left to right: garlic, a mix of annual shade loving wildflowers, a pot that is half radishes and half carrots, oregano (still sprouting). On the cart on the top shelf we have: aloe vera, cilantro and on the bottom: chives which are looking a bit poorly because they sort of survived being outside over the winter.  Most of the chives have already been harvested from the pot, but I am leaving some of them in there to see if they'll snap out of it and maybe bloom for me later on. 

Then, in the middle of the patio, we have this lovely young asparagus fern.  I didn't grow this one from seed, but I carefully chose it for its healthy vigor and signs that it is ready to start spreading.  It came in a tiny little pot that was too small for it, so I transplanted it to this larger terracotta pot.  Someday, I'll transplant it again to a pot about twice this size in diameter. The pot that the radishes are in might be the type I'll use. It's the first time I've used a pot of that type and I really like how wide, yet short it is, giving more room for the plants while being less top heavy than most pots I've used are.  I just love asparagus ferns! They look so delicate, yet they are quite hardy and can handle our weather very well. Most plants in my current potted garden are practical being either edible or useful in herbal remedies, but this one is purely ornamental. One might say that it is still beneficial though as having its bright cheery shade of light green year round has a pleasant effect on one's mood.  Mental health is just as important as physical health as one affects the other.

The wildflower mix has Siberian wallflower (Cherianthus allonii) a biennial that will be just leaves this year and will bloom next year; Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maxium) one of my favorites; Garland flower (Clarkia elegans) a native flower discovered by Lewis and Clark on their famous expidition across the then, mostly unsettled Louisiana Purchase; Lanceleaf ticksseed (Coreopsis lanceloata) one of the most beautiful and delicate looking yet toughest desert flowers I've seen, grows wild all over the Mojave Desert; Larkspur (Delphinum consolida); Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) a perennial that will attract bees and hummingbirds; Echinacea purpurea the plant famous for being a natural antibiotic; Baby's Breath (Gypsophila elegans) a must for floral bouquets; Candytuft (Iberis umbellata) a member of the mustard family that I've seen growing among tickseed plants in the desert; Perennial flax (Linum perenne) which will hopefully persist for me; Forget-me-not (Myosotis aplestris); Baby blueeyes (Nemophila maculata) which will work with the Forget-me-nots to add a splash of blue to the mix; and Common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) another deceptively delicate desert flower.   I look forward to seeing which of these grow well in my patio.  I may need to transplant them to a bigger pot or a group of small pots if all of these species sprout. ;)

I transplanted this aloe to a larger pot after the wide shot picture was taken as I noticed that it was already starting to get too big for that little pot. I love aloe but it can be tricky to avoid overwatering it without having it dry out with our low humidity.  Hopefully, the soil mix which is high in perlite will help it drain enough to prevent waterlogging.

I'll keep you posted on how this experiment in taking the concept of morning sun and afternoon shade to this extreme turns out.  It's going well so far, but as in all gardening, time will tell. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Strong Winds Need Not Uproot Your Trees!

Tomato cage protecting Catclaw Acacia from being broken by wind but letting it move.

Horrible Winds Ravage Las Vegas! Trees ripped from the ground! 

To watch the news the last couple of days, you'd think this has never happened before. It happens every year. Strong winds whipping through mountain valleys, especially in the Spring is quite common and normal phenomena.  It's what we do to prepare for them, or the lack thereof, that makes the difference between a Spring breeze and a disaster.

There are four things we can do (applies anywhere really) here in the Desert Southwest to keep our trees and the things around them, from becoming a statistic, and possible headline in the news - in a bad way.  Wouldn't it be great if they did a story about a tree that weathered the storm brilliantly and talked to someone who knew about why that was so?

1) Remove all stakes from recently planted trees. Let the tree grow strong by being blown about by the wind. Movement stimulates the plant (all plants) to grow thicker cell walls and to lay down more lignin cells in their trunks and stems. There are ways to make cages that let the trunk move quite a bit, but keep the root ball from rotating or pivoting in the hole. I've successfully used tomato cages that were anchored down on small trees and there are larger ones for larger trees.

If you remove the stakes from a tree and it falls over, it was planted wrong to start with. Dig the tree the rest of the way up, re-dig the hole right and plant the tree right. Before re-planting the tree in the same spot, check to see if it was a good spot to begin with - see #4 below.

2) Water the entire root zone! Do not just put a couple emitters at the base of the trunk. Roots will not grow in dry soil, so you have to apply water at least as far as from the trunk out to the drip line or furthest extent of the tree's branch canopy. If the tree has been butchered and many of the branches have been removed or shortened (probably because it was planted too close to a building, walkway, etc. in the first place), then you need to extend the irrigation out to where the drip line should be for that species of tree or shrub. You can look this up in many books and websites that give details about different plant species. Sunset magazine, your area's university extension service (ours in Las Vegas is University of Nevada), the USDA's NRCS, and some nurseries have excellent information about this.

3) Feed your plants. Leave dead leaves and the smallest branches (twigs) around the bases of the plants so they can decompose and return nutrients and organic matter to the soil in the root zone. Or, if you can't bring yourself to do that, get a leaf vacuum (many are blowers that can be converted with a kit that you buy separately or that comes with them) that sucks the leaves and twigs up, grinds them up and puts them in a bag. Then, spread this ground up mulch (free mulch!) around the tree. Purchased tree bark isn't as good as it doesn't decompose very well especially in the desert, but it's better than rocks. You can also use commercial fertilizer (but please use it with mulch, not instead of it)- read up from the above mentioned sources, especially the university extension services and the NRCS about what different needs different species have. For example, palms need very little nitrogen, but need a lot of potassium and micronutrients.

4) Plant trees smart. Avoid planting them where they will be in the way once they are full grown. The less you 'have' to prune them, the better off they'll be. The above sources talk about the expected height and width of the plant once mature. Sunset is good about adjusting these figures for the desert southwest as many species tend to grow less here, but maybe not as much less as one may think. Plant them also where they will have as much shelter from the prevailing winds as possible. In Las Vegas, the winds swirl a bit, but tend to come from the Southwest in Summer and North in Winter. If there isn't any or much shelter from wind yet, plant several trees - spaced far enough apart so they won't tangle with each other much once full grown - in a windbreak (NRCS has excellent info about this) so that they will create wind protection for other plants in future.

Good sources for further information:

Monday, September 19, 2016

In Praise of Papier De Toilette Alternatives

When we started this blog, we said we'd be talking about more than 'just' gardening and landscaping, and we have done a blog article or two on other topics.  We think it's time for another to continue to show how holistic, or all encompassing, our view of environs enhancement can be. 

Today, the topic is something near and maybe, or maybe not, dear to all of us: the bathroom.  Not decorating, in this case, but using it.  To be more specific, finding alternatives for that product we all buy and use, but few are comfortable talking about: toilette paper.  First of all, what is it?  We all use it, but what do we really know about it?
Your basic roll of 2-ply, quilted toilette paper or 'TP' (Brandon Blinkenberg, Wikimedia Commons)

Toilette paper in the United States, at any rate, is made (regardless of what brand is largely printed on the package) by five companies: Kimberly Clark, Georgia Pacific, Fort James, Marcal, and Proctor & Gamble.  It primarily comes from trees that are grown in orchards or man-planted plantations that are carefully managed just like any other crop.  I have personally been to such a plantation in Southeast Oklahoma and saw those pine trees growing in rows with trees of different ages growing in different sections of the place.  As soon as they cut down a portion of a section that has trees of the age they need, they plant new tree seedlings in the place of the cut trees.  Those trees were being used mostly for printing paper, cardboard and particle-board products, but they told us that this technique is how almost all of the wood for products made in America is grown these days. 
Pine Trees planted specifically for timber harvest. The sort of place TP ultimately comes from. (Wikimedia Commons)

The farmed trees are taken to a mill where the branches are removed and the needles are removed from the branches to make pine oil for soaps and scented products.  The branches and smallest trunks are ground into a fine sawdust that is almost as fine as chalk dust. That's why paper products such as typing paper and toilette paper are so smooth and you don't see chunks of wood or fibers in them.  They mix the dust with water, usually grey water (that isn't potable or drinkable and is reused from some other process) and bleach most of the resulting plup so that it all looks uniformly white.  Increasingly, people are buying 'natural' paper which isn't bleached, so they don't bleach all of it anymore. 

The paper that is made for toilette paper is very, very thin so that it feels 'soft' to the touch.  To keep it from just wadding up the instant it gets damp, they add stuff to the slurry, kind of like they do for paper money, like cotton fibers and chemical additives to make it tougher without making it rougher. 

When they are pressing out most of the water and forming the pulp into sheets, some companies put patterns on the presses so that the sheets will be 'quilted' which we are told will make them clean our bums better. Well, that's what the red bears say on TV, anyway.  Some brands also press two or more sheets together to give us the 'stronger' 2-ply or even 3-ply paper.

There's more to it, of course, but let's get on to the main topic at hand.  There are three reasons why we suggest using something other than the usual roll of dry toilette paper: cleanliness, economy of effort and environmental concerns. 

Cleanliness: The regular toilette paper brands advertising today tell us that their product will get our bums amazingly clean, but can they really? Have you ever gotten a little (or maybe a lot) of poo on your fingers while changing a baby's diaper? Or, perhaps when you yourself are having a 'loose stool'?  What luck did you have getting it off with dry toilette paper?  Not much. Did you leave it at that? No. If a sink wasn't right there, you grabbed a pre-moistened wipe to get it off.  So, we say, why not just use a pre-moistened flushable wipe to begin with each time you need TP?  If you can't get it off your fingers with dry paper, what makes you think you are getting it off your bum with that stuff, even if it is 3-ply with the latest quilt design?
TP Versus The Pre-Moistened Flushable Wipe

Another aspect of cleanliness with dry toilette paper that we think about even less is lint.  In the course of our work in cleaning and decorating homes, we spend a fair amount of time dusting, with lint and dust attracting cloths these days, but that's another blog.  One of the dustiest rooms in any home, we've found, is the bathroom.  Why?  Out of curiosity, I've used different colors of dusting cloths to see what I'm picking up better.  I've noticed in bathrooms, that much of it is white, fluffy stuff of which the thickest layers are always near the......toilette paper dispenser.  It's lint and dust that flies off that soft stuff each time we pull sheets off the roll.  Using an alternative to the usual toilette paper, we've found, really cuts down on the amount of dust in a bathroom, and thus the amount of time and effort needed to clean the room.  Not to mention the fact that the people spending time in those rooms are breathing that stuff in. Talk about indoor air quality issues.  If you use pre-moistened flushable wipes, there's no white fluffy dust at all.

Economy of Effort:  According to studies by Charmin, the average person uses 8.6 sheets per trip to the bathroom (that they need TP for). They also found that a roll of their TP lasts an average of 5 days.  No wonder we have to buy new rolls of TP so often.  Here at Enfield Enhanced Environs headquarters, we find that we only need one or two sheets, three at the most, of the pre-moistened flushable wipes per trip.  A 144 sheet-pack of them usually lasts us around two weeks. 

If you want to pay less than $1 or $2 per roll of dry TP, you have to go to the big box membership only stores and buy 'off-branded' massive 30 roll packs, which then use up storage space in your home or office. Even then, you'll only get the price down to $0.80 or so per roll.  And that's for a 400 sheets-roll that the studies say you'll use up in less than a week.  Or, you can go to any regular store, that doesn't require a membership, and get a 144 sheet pack of premoistened flushable wipes for around $4.00.  It's $0.03 per sheet.  500 sheets of it would be about $15.  But, it only takes one or two sheets of the flushable wipes to do what 8 (often quite a bit more, if things get messy) sheets of dry TP kind of does.

So, maybe the flushable wipes aren't cheaper according to the math, but they are a lot cheaper when you think about things that there aren't exactly hard figures for, but that nevertheless matter a lot to us in our daily lives.  I call this Economy of Effort and it is part of the Enfield Enhanced Environs philosophy: Make achieving the desired goal take as little time and effort as possible. Our time is the most precious commodity we have and is ultimately the only non-renewable one. Barring the unlikely, however alluring, invention of time travel, we'll never be able to get back the time we have already spent. How we spend that time matters too.  The less of a perceived ordeal or effort the activity we are spending our time on is, the more we tend to enjoy it (sports enthusiasts such as marathon runners and such are an exception to this, but you know what I mean).  It takes far less time  and effort (and gas and wear and tear on cars, etc) to go to the nearest grocery or department store and pick up two packs of the flushable wipes than it does to go through the above mentioned extreme to get enough dry TP to last as long as the flushable wipes do. 

Space is precious too.  Even if you haven't joined the minimalist or tiny house movements, I'm sure you can think of better uses for the space that those giant packs of dry TP take up.  Meanwhile, a couple packs of flushable wipes can sit comfortably on a little shelf mounted on the wall next to the toilette. 

And, yes, they are flushable if you follow the recommended use and keep your plumbing working properly.  We've had plenty of problems with plugged toilets in the past, but not since we switched to the flushable wipes. The plumbers I've talked to say the main causes of plumbing clogs are faulty toilets that don't flush with enough water pressure and people cramming too many things in the bowl per flush. The wipes, they say, only cause clogs when too many are used at a time and the toilet isn't set to use enough pressure per flush.

Environmental Concerns: Our primary concern with traditional toilet paper is that it just takes far too much of it per use per person for it to even come close to doing what the companies claim it does.  As we mentioned above, and as you've not doubt observed yourself, it does take a lot of sheets of TP, even the quilted multi-ply stuff, to do the job.  Simply switching to an alternative that uses less paper to make and that takes less of the product to get the job done, is one way to cut down on waste. There are other, even more environmentally friendly alternatives out there, of course. We'll discuss some of them below.

We've focused on the pre-moistened flushable wipes in this article, but there are other alternatives to consider too.  None of them appeal to me, necessarily, but they are worth considering if one is desiring to stop using the TP we've been talking about but also don't want to use the flushable wipes.

"Family Cloths": These are essentially squares of flannel cloth (usually cotton).  You spray your bum with a mister or moisten the cloth with a little water and alcohol before you sit down; wipe your bum with it; then put the used cloth in a bucket of water mixed with alcohol or some plant oil such as teatree; then later on, wash all the used cloths. You can wash them by hand if you are really into it, or put them in a pillow case and wash them in the washing machine.  My grandmother said that the best invention of the modern age was the disposable diaper. She remembered all too well, and none too fondly, the days of having to wash cloth baby diapers before there was an alternative.

Plant Leaves: This is what some call the 'original TP'. It's certainly the most natural of options, if green, soft leaves are available.  You have to be careful, though, to make sure the leaves you are picking are from plants that don't have irritating or even toxic sap, spines, irritating 'stiff hairs' (fine waxy scales on the leaves that stick to your skin and then make you itch), etc.  If you can find and identify them, some good choices are: Verbascum thapsus or Common mullein; Stachys byzantina or Lamb's Ear; Artemesia ludoviciana or Woolly sagewort; or Plantago patigonica or Woolly plantain. The last two are quite prevalent here in the Desert Southwest in the spring.  As you might imagine, you'll be quite tempted to 'cheat' on this method by also washing your hands, and possibly even your bum, with something else when you are done.  If you should find yourself in the urban jungle where most of such wild plants aren't readily available, you could try your luck in the produce department of your local grocery store.  Some of the species or varieties of lettuce and cabbage might do the trick, though they'll lack the 'soft fine hairs' that make the above wild plants a bit more comfy on the skin. Check out the pictures below to aid in identification of these plants. 

Smooth River Stone: Yes, apparently, according to my research, some cultures use, or have used, smooth stones that were large enough to hold comfortably in the hand. They would get them wet and then basically scrub their bum clean, often having to rinse the stone off a few times during the process.  A fine alternative, is suppose, if you find yourself near a fast moving stream that is relatively clean and you remember to do this process downstream from where you collect your drinking water. 

Sponge or Brush on a Stick: This method is, as you might guess from the name, attaching a sponge or brush to a stick or handle.  It's a technique we are already familiar with when it comes to cleaning our toilet bowls.  What they say, is that you can get or make something similar, only with a shorter handle and much softer end material to do the same thing to your bum.  My wife tried it when she had shoulder surgery and had trouble reaching down and behind her far enough to use the wipes.  Apparently, the flushable wipe method is better, because as soon as she was healed enough from surgery to be able to reach as far as before, she abandoned the brush on the stick and went back to the wipes.  The key challenge that I can see to this method, besides getting used to carefully getting this contraption in position and using it without hurting yourself, would be keeping the thing itself clean.  About as much trouble as the 'family cloths', except you might not get any poo on your hand with the stick method. 
Verbascum thapsus or Common mullein (Wikimedia Commons)

Soft, fine 'hairs' on leaves that make them feel soft. They are actually wax projections on the leaf surface that reduce water loss from wind and help the plant be drought tolerant.
Artemesia ludoviciana or Woolly sagewort (Wikimedia Commons)

Plantago patigonica or Woolly plantain
Stachys byzantina or Lamb's Ear

While the other alternatives are interesting, and would probably work okay if regular TP were not available, but our own family would rather stay with the flushable wipes when we can.

We would include  more pictures of the other methods, but all of the pictures we found were either copy-write protected or were of branded products. We never recommend and try to avoid appearing to recommend one brand over another on this blog. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Desert Heat

115 Degrees Fahrenheit. In the shade. On the East side of the house. At 5:00 PM CST

One could say that is is just a little warm today here in the Mojave Desert on June 21st.  This is day three of temperatures over 112 for us here in Sunset Zone 9a in Fabulous Las Vegas.  We are on the East side of town but low enough at the base of the foothills that it's not the coolest part of town. That would be up on the slopes of Mount Charleston, where it seldom exceeds 95.  But there are warmer spots such as down in Laughlin, NV where it got up to 120 yesterday. 

So, what does a gardener do when it's this hot? Try to keep perennials as comfortable as you can.  That means three things: mulch, shade and water.  Mulch we've already taken care of as mentioned in previous posts.  We've supplemented it a bit with the stems of 'bonus plants' which have either ended their annual life cycle already and/or succumbed to the heat. 

Dead 'bonus plants', dormant Bermuda grass (also bonus) and wood chips insulate the soil here.   


In the case of this West facing car port, all we can do really is try to insulate the creeping acacia with mulch and try to keep a few standing 'bonus plants'. 

Tree and shrub branches under cloths keep these shelves shady.

We've also amped up the shade with trimmed limbs and cloth on the shelves along the East wall. As well as moving more shelves over there to help get more of the plants into afternoon shade.  The big elm tree helps (and the tree itself is doing well thanks to the soaker hoses) shade the plants for part of the afternoon, but unfortunately, the setting sun gets under it in late afternoon. 

Our new catclaw acacia will someday be able to handle the heat fine on its own, but it's still a little sapling, so we are trying to help it out with extra afternoon shade......
This old lawn chair is just right for PM shade for our little catclaw acacia.

......courtesy of an old lawn chair that I keep around even though I probably should get rid of it.  I'm glad I kept it this year as it's fairly tightly woven mesh back is just right to give this little catclaw acacia some afternoon shade when the heat is the worst. 

Then, there is water.  It's tricky to deal with in this heat as you don't want to over-water anything and drown the roots. On the other hand, plants evapotranspirate (a combination of purely physics based evaporation along with plant energy requiring transport of water from roots to the rest of the plant)  and use water to cool themselves more than what they actually use to grow. This is especially the case when it is so hot outside. It's one thing for a plant to keep its cells cool while they grow, respire and (in some cases) carry out photosynthesis - all of which produce heat in the plant.  It's quite another when the air outside the plant is even warmer than the plant's normal temperature. 

When that happens, most plants will take up more water than usual as long as it isn't too hot.  When it gets above 80, most plant processes begin to slow down and growth usually stops.  Almost all plant processes stop when it gets well above 100.  Then the plant enters a sort of dormancy state but it is not as dormant as some plants get when it is too cold in the winter and still needs water and other nutrients.  Then, when it cools off at night (even as hot as its been here, it gets down to the high 70's - low 80's at night this time of year), the plant will resume growth and most other processes.  I've observed the most growth on closely monitored plants in the morning after a cool (or at least somewhat cooler) night.  

Even 'drought tolerant' and desert native plants behave this way to a greater or lesser degree. It's part of what makes them able to live in such hot places as they are better at shutting down and insulating their stems and leaves from outside heat than plants from wetter, cooler places are.  So, we increase our watering times from the once a day schedule in late Spring (the weather, never what the calendar says) to two times a day (early morning and early evening - never water in the middle of the night as that's a ticket to fungal problems) in June to ever six hours or so during the day when it is above 110. 

We can do this without over-watering the plants because we are using soaker hoses which put out about 1/4 a gallon of water a minute for every 10 feet of hose under the typical house's hose bib delivery capacity of 30 gallons per minute.  And we run the hoses for 30 minutes each time. That comes to a total of 3 gallons per foot of hose covered area each day.  This is enough, when you estimate losses from evaporation, to get about an inch of water in the top 2 inches of the soil (if the soil drains well) and hopefully, part of an inch soaked down deeper into the soil to encourage a deeper, better root system.  Evaporation is not a total loss though, because it helps cool the soil, plants and the air immediately around the plants. Yes, it is good to try to minimize evaporation, which is part of what mulch and shade do, but some evaporation is necessary, especially when it is this hot.

This clay pot without a drain makes a great evaporation basin.

That's why I encourage evaporation pans like these around plants in dry climates. It helps simulate an environment that you'd have near a stream or pool here in the desert where the more showy plants that we like to have live in nature.  This clay pot in the above picture doesn't have a drain hole. I found it at a thrift store and figured it was a perfect little mini-water storage basin.  Placed under the soaker hose, it catches some of the water and stores it, releasing it by evaporation slowly thanks to how small diameter it is relative to how deep it is.  Plants nearby enjoy a somewhat more humid, cooler microclimate like what they'd have at the edge of a pond. 

This volunteer sunflower wilts each afternoon.

   For some plants, all of this effort isn't quite enough, but some are hanging in there and kinda bouncing back by morning like this volunteer sunflower.  This sunflower is getting some water from a soaker hose, so it does well in the morning and early afternoon, but is rather wilty by evening.  If it survives to bloom, great. If not, I won't be terribly surprised. 

These wildflowers are doing just fine.

Other, more desert adapted or native plants are doing much better like these wildflowers from a mix that I broadcast last fall.  In fact, they didn't bloom until a couple of days ago. 

We'll see how everything turns out once things start cooling down again.  I wish you luck with keeping your plants happy (or at least alive) this summer!    

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Experimenting with Amaryllis Flowers

The bulb of an Amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp) flower.

Last winter, my sister was given a big bulb as a gift. Not a light bulb, but a flower bulb in a tiny decorative pot with a tag saying "Amaryllis" on it.  She gave it to me to see if I could grow it and the experiment began. 

I started, as I always try to do, with a little research first.  I looked up Amaryllis to see what it was as I wasn't familiar with it already.  I discovered that it is a native of the tropical and subtropical areas of South America, which doesn't usually bode well for trying to grow it in the Mojave Desert and I don't recommend it as a rule.  But it was only one bulb and it was a gift, so I figured it could be fun to give it a try.  I didn't expect it to do well, not even in the house, since even the house humidity doesn't get very high. 

But then I looked further and found that it's native plant community wasn't a rain forest jungle or anything like that, but rather the plateaus and savannas that are also in parts of South America in the higher elevations.  Those places have cool, somewhat rainy winters and rather warm, dry summers, so it looked slightly more hopeful for our new patient. 

So, we planted it, but kept it in the house in the sunniest room, which turned out to be the wash room with it's South facing door that has a window in it and occasional rises in humidity thanks to the washer and dryer.  It also didn't get too warm in that room since it doesn't have a heat register in it. So, it worked out that we were able to kinda mimic the winter conditions this plant developed under as we gave it occasional water.  I planted it in a terra cotta pot (the best choice for most plants really) with a cactus potting soil mix that has high drainage, low organic matter and no added fertilizer as I knew that such places in the wild are rather harsh environments.  Plants adapted to living in rocky or sandy soil with extended dry periods are actually harmed by babying them too much with really moist, rich soil. 

Amaryllis sends up flower stalk before any leaves elongate.
As you can see in the picture above, we did our best to prevent the roots from getting waterlogged by putting the pot on a plant stand but with the drip tray below the stand to keep water from being absorbed back into the soil.  This is also critical when watering with our local water supply that is high in salts. 

Amaryllis is interesting in that it is among those plants that seems to take forever to do anything with its bulb after it is planted (we planted it with the top half sticking up out of the soil as my sources - several websites by university horticulture departments recommended).  Then, just when you begin to think nothing will happen, the bulb splits open at the top and a green spear emerges!  This develops into the flower stalk and eventually, you see leaf tips emerging from the bulb below it.


Once it got started, it really took off! Now there are two flower stalks.

  The Best place to put our patient wound up being right in front of the air intake vent for the HVAC system, so the plant also got a nice light 'breeze' from the air being drawn in past it every day.  We also put it on this tv tray to keep it up away from the coldest parts of the drafts when someone would open the door that winter. It also kept it from getting knocked over accidentally by passersby.  It looked like this with its big, green spears for several weeks before it showed us why my sister's friend gave it to her....

Isn't it glorious! Soon, there were three spears, each with three of these huge flowers!

Suddenly, our curious green speared thing was a thing of amazing floral beauty!  It began growing these enormous (the size of my palm) flowers as you can see from this picture of the first bloom above.  They had a very pleasant aroma, smelling like really expensive perfume. Some of the scent even went in the HVAC system and scented the whole house. :)  I cut the anthers off the flowers shortly after they developed to keep pollen from spreading though. No one in our house has hay fever, but I figured it was still a good idea, especially if we had guests who did have allergies.  Cutting the anthers off didn't seem to hurt the plant any and the flowers lasted just as long as the websites said they would, about two weeks each.  They reminded me a bit of tiger lilies in form and texture.  Only these have shorter petals and a different structure to the anthers and pistil. 

By the time our winter was over in February, so was the blooming. When the last of the blooms broke down, I cut the flowering stalks off with a very sharp pair of shears cleaned with rubbing alcohol (always a good idea, especially with plants that you aren't sure how sensitive they are to infection yet).  It stayed in the house until my favorite weather service ( stopped forecasting frost for our area.  Then, I moved it outside to the shadiest part of our yard that was also not too cold. At the time, that was the South side of the house up against the North facing wall.  By May, it was getting warm enough that it needed to move to a cooler spot, so I put it along the wall on the East side of the house where it is now.

Shortly after I moved it outside, even though I put it in the shadiest spots, it still lost most of its leaves.  I would have been concerned had I not learned that this is common for plants that are moved from inside to outside, especially ones that have finished their reproductive period.  I'm happy to report, that I've been pleasantly surprised at how well it has recovered and even thrived outdoors.  I wasn't sure if it would grow anything all summer, but it has.

Re-sprouting outdoors. This time, leaves are leading the way.
In this current photo (6/16/16) we have two wonderful leaves!

Interestingly enough, now that it is outdoors where it is drier and warmer, it is growing leaves first.  This picture was taken shortly after it started emerging its first new leaf.  They said that it was a very persistent perennial that can do this for years, but I wasn't sure if that would be the case in our climate. So far, so good as you can see by the current photo that I took this morning.  The plant gets watered twice a day by a soaker hose dripping down on it on a timer, so it doesn't get a lot of water at once, but the soil is being kept from drying out completely. It also has partial shade in the morning and full shade in the afternoon thanks to being under a bid shade tree and the branches I've laid on top of the shelves on this West facing wall that is on the East side of the house so that it gets shade cast on it in the afternoon. 

Natural shade from cut branches works well for partial shade.

Will the Amaryllis bloom again this winter? I have no idea, it's an experiment. Stay tuned!


Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Case of Mistaken Identity

What is this tree?

 The following is a cautionary tale. Don't let this happen to you.  When I first started caring for this property, I was asked "What kind of tree is this big shade tree?"  Rather than taking the time to take some pictures and samples and study the tree in detail, comparing it to tree ID dichotomous keys in my books at home and online; I made the capital mistake of saying the first tree name that popped into my head that roughly fit the description of what I was looking at. 

Actual Ash Trees

I said it was an Ash tree, but wasn't sure which one yet.  I've never been quite able to make up my mind which ash it was as it seemed to fit the general idea of one, but not exactly of any specific species of ash.  While trying to key out another plant that has been popping up in the yard recently, I was diligently studying this new 'weed' (as I should have done with the big shade tree) and was comparing it to samples and pictures of the tree as well as those in other yards in the neighborhood.  It occurred to me suddenly that my 'Ash' tree couldn't be of the Fraxinus genus because it didn't consistently show certain key characteristics.  Yes, it has a lot of opposite branches and frequently produces new branches in nearly matched pairs, but the leaves are actually simple (not compound) and are always produced in an alternate fashion rather than opposite.  I should have known better, since ash trees have compound leaves (that look a lot like individual leaves until you look closely at the pedicels of each leaflet for the buds - which you won't find if they are actually leaflets). 

Each leaf has buds and is produces alternately along the stem. These aren't compound leaves. You can see the frequent matched pairing of branches though which had me fooled into thinking this tree had opposite branches.

I fell for the very Ash-like trunk covered with ash-grey bark and the serrated leaves that seem to be oppositely branched a first glance without studying it closely enough.  The big kicker out of the Fraxinus genera and into the Ulmus though was the leaf bases.  They are very frequently asymmetrical with one side wider and longer than the other.  Ash leaflets have symmetrical bases. 

Note how the leaves seem to be attached crookedly to the stem. They aren't symmetrical like most leaves are.

I felt like a first rate idiot, but in my defense, in the year and half since I've known this tree, I've never seen it bloom nor produce any sort of reproductive structure.  Flowers and seeds are the very best ways to identify plants and are dead give-aways when you finally see them.  Had I seen the distinctive small-winged single seed pods (called 'samara' by botanists) of the Ulmus genera on the tree or scattered below it, I would have known right away that it was an Elm of some sort. 

If only I had seen some seeds! Then it's relatively easy. The seed labeled (e) is Elm while the one labeled (i) is and Ash seed. Can you guess which ones the rest are? A hint is that there are seeds of Fir, Birch, Pine, Sycamore, Maple and Lime Hornbeam in there.

Then, I tried to narrow down which of the many elms it is. That proved difficult as it seemed to have characteristics of several elm species.  That led me to consider that it might be some sort of hybrid, so I looked up elm hybrids and crosses.  I can't be 100% sure, but I am currently leaning toward it being a Sapporo Autumn Gold Elm Ulmus pumilia x Ulmus davidiana var. japonica.  It's a hybrid that was developed at the University of Wisconsin by Eugene Smalley from Siberian and Japanese Elms and has been recommended and planted across the U.S. since the 1980's for its resistance to Dutch Elm Disease, Verticilium Wilt and its drought and high pH tolerance. The drought and high pH tolerance is probably why the first owners of this yard planted it. 
Example of an unpruned Sapporo Autumn Gold from Wikipedia

It is never easy to admit when you are wrong, particularly when you are wrong about something in your own field, but professional integrity and my sense of moral honesty finally won out over the instinct of personal pride and I told my client of my mistake.  We are all human and we all make mistakes. 

Intelligence is what you gain by studying, wisdom is what you gain when you attempt to apply what you have studied.

P.S., I'm still trying to figure out what the other 'mystery plant' is and am doing another wise thing, asking for help from my peers (and in some cases, betters).  Perhaps you know what it is. If so, please comment to this blog post.

The leaves feel dry and papery and are not resinous nor glossy. There must be a coating of very fine 'hairs' on the surface of the leaves as they feel slightly rough when you rub them in a direction towards the leaf base.  They are essentially odorless except for the 'cut grass' smell you get when you crush the leaves.  The stem on the oldest ones (about two months old now) is turning brown and woody suggesting that they might be perennials. I see no sign of flower buds on any of the oldest plants too.

It is growing all over the place where it can get water and shade
This is a roughly two month old plant.
If you see this plant and know its identity, contact us right away.

(This photo looks a bit like a mug shot of a suspect doesn't it?)