Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Water Conservation

It seems that everywhere I go lately, there are major concerns about water availability. In Southern California, dying grass covers some landscaped areas, and many fruit trees have not born any fruit due to the drought there. On the big island of Hawaii, a house we are staying in catches rainwater from the roof and that supplies the house's water. Near each faucet is a sign asking "Please Conserve Water".

The human population on this planet continues to grow, and resources continue to become increasingly limited. I wonder how long it can continue. But a resource such as water can make or break a population's ability to survive, or at least inhabit a place. Lack of it can lead to civil unrest and armed conflict.

I have continued to question the wisdom of lawns in the landscape, especially where water is limited in supply and grass is not native. I believe it is wiser to incorporate native plants that can accomplish some, if not all of the objectives that turf grass does: cover the ground, provide an aesthetically pleasing area, provide a contrast to surrounding plants. Whereas the objective of being able to tread upon it may not be met, there is an added benefit of other groundcovers that turf does not provide: habitat and food for wildlife - specifically pollinators.

There are many plants that can meet these objectives. Some of them can be invasive, such as English Ivy (Hedera helix) or wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei). So one must use care when selecting these plants.

Another benefit of native groundcovers is that many will provide seasonal color, whether in leaf or flower, as well as interesting foliage.

Some people in drought-stricken areas, may choose to remove plants altogether. But many will not find this option visually pleasing, and miss the many benefits that plants provide.

When I used to teach landscape design classes, I would talk about xeriscaping to my students. Xeric plants are those which can withstand arid conditions. But some students made a joke out of the term, and called it zero-scaping. In a recent walk around a Los angeles neighborhood, I saw two plantings very near each other that illustrate a xeriscape and a zero-scape:

Recently-planted drought-tolerant plants

Drought tolerant plants

Where I live, in Illinois, people aren't overly concerned about water usage, because we generally get enough rainfall to meet our needs for gardens and landscapes during the growing season.

But if you live in an area where water is an issue, consider some alternatives to the high-water-usage plants, plants that can provide valuable benefits to humans and the others who inhabit our natural world.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Surprising LA Arboretum & Botanical Garden

Today I had a chance to visit the beautiful LA Arboretum & Botanical Garden. I didn't plan this in advance, but made a spontaneous decision after finding out about it online last night. I was pleased to know that the LA Arboretum had a reciprocal agreement with the American Horticultural Society, so that I got a free admission. My husband qualified for a senior discount, which took $3 off his price. A great value for only $6! We spent three hours and could have used another hour or so to take in everything there was to see.

The first one to greet us after we paid admission was the fellow in the photo below.

The previous owner of this property, "Lucky" Baldwin, introduced peacocks and peahens (collectively known as peafowl) back in 1880 from India. They were good for the gardens because they ate snakes and kept snails in check.

The numerous gardens included areas of African, Australian, and native Californian plants; a rose garden, herb garden, and many other specialty areas. There were also some fountains, a large pond, and a waterfall.
Allen's hummingbird

Rufous hummingbird

Egret in the pond

The aloe walk was particularly interesting, and had numerous hummingbirds buzzing around the flowers.

There were other arid-land plants, too.

Barrel Cactus

...and animals!

Flower of the pink floss-silk tree
Glad we didn't overlook the orchid greenhouse...

And the historic coach barn was a surprise visual treat:

Looks vaguely familiar....!

It was a wonderful day. If you are interested, you can read more about the arboretum and it's history at this website:

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Other Bees

Ahhhh, Spring! This is the time of year that I always notice the busy activity of some ground-dwelling bees that live near our house. They never bother you as you walk by, even though they are quite numerous. A few years back when I was installing some steps in that area, I noticed their small holes in the ground. That’s when I was reminded of the solitary bees I had learned about in beekeeping class many years ago. Most people are aware of honey bees, and more are becoming aware of their economic importance in pollinating commercial crops. But most people have never heard about the native bees that just don’t have the rock-star status of the non-native honey bees.


It so happens that there are over 4,000 species of native bees in north America – and, bees are the most important pollinator in most ecosystems in the world. Seventy-five per cent of the flowering plant species in the world are pollinated by bees. Even commercial crops that rely on honeybees for pollination are also visited by wild native bees and other pollinators. Without pollination, flowers cannot develop into seeds and fruits, which feed many birds and mammals large and small. As a matter of fact, fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25 percent of all birds, and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears.


Most native bees live solitary lives rather than in colonies, such as honeybees do. And many live in the ground. So they go mostly un-noticed by people most of the time. Unfortunately, wild bees and other pollinators are experiencing declining populations, and possible extinction. According to the Xerces Society, “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown. Three bee species: the rusty-patched, the yellow-banded and western bumblebee, have dropped in number over the past decade. A fourth species, Franklins’ bumblebee has only been seen once in the past several years. Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, climate change, and introduced diseases all contribute to declines of bees.


To attract native bees and other pollinators to your yard, add some food plants that provide pollen and nectar. Grow a diversity of plant species to attract a diversity of pollinators. And try to have something in bloom over a long period of time to provide a continual supply of food. If you want to help the wild bees gain in social status, you can go online and vote for them. Yes! You can vote for the rusty-patched bumblebee to be featured on an Endangered Species Chocolate bar wrapper. But, hurry, you only have until Sunday, April 21. (Got to for details). After voting, go back to the Xerces Society website and take the “Pollinator Pledge”. There, you can also learn more about the wild native bees, some of whom may inhabit un-noticed areas in your own backyard.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Horticulture: There's an App for That

Using smart phone or tablet, you can surf the web, read a review about a restaurant in the town you’re visiting, send an email, find out how your friends halfway across the globe are doing, and post a blog. Some of that technology is old-school now (a lot of people are so busy texting they don’t have time to check their email). However, if you have already updated your status on Facebook and caught up with your Facebook friends today, and still have some time on your hands, you might want to check out some of these new horticultural apps.

According to a person who considers himself and “App Hunter” who specifically looks for free Ag and Hort apps, there are at least 120 that fit into that category. If you do a Google search for Horticulture Apps, you will pull up a list of sites that claim to list the “top ten” apps.

The New York Times posted an article earlier this year with their top ten picks. They include the app that helps you design a garden (Garden Tracker for IPad and IPhone), and a landscaper’s companion app that can be used by either apple or android products.  I haven’t used this one yet, but I expect I will be checking it out, since it includes images of and information about approximately 20,000 trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, vegetables, and herbs.

You can also go to your app store to see what they offer. A recent search in the Google Play Store for Apps turned up at least 50 gardening related apps. Form gardening secret tips, to horticulture news, to gardening games. Prices range from free to $24.99. There’s an app for warning you when there’s danger of frost, and another to tell you what’s in bloom at the world-class Kew Gardens in London.

Not so very long ago, organizations poured resources into website development. There are continuing costs for upkeep and maintenance. For apps, this includes a need to upgrade to ensure the apps work on new platforms that come along.

According to the lead developer of the apps “IPMLite” and “IPMPro”, costs for developing a basic, simple APP, (such as calculators to perform specific formulas, etc.) are around $1,000 to $4,000. A database-driven APP, such as the one she helped develop can run anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000. For reference, Angry Birds cost somewhere around $125,000 to $180,000. Is it a lucrative revenue stream? That remains to be seen for many agricultural and horticultural apps. Angry Birds has reportedly made $50 million in revenue.

I wonder if apps will replace books, and even websites for certain kinds of information in the future?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Mighty Oak

If a tree could BE a poem, as indicated by Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree”, then I submit that the swamp white oak makes a beautiful poem. With strong, almost muscular limbs reaching out at ninety-degree angles from the broad trunk, there is something quintessential in its architecture that lends it an air of majesty.
Native oaks in North America have long served useful purposes of many different sorts. For example, the acorns feed over one hundred animal species, and are even edible by humans when treated appropriately to remove the bitter tannins. Those bitter tannins, also found in the bark of oak trees, have their own application in tanning leather.
Oaks belong to the genus Quercus, and include the tree that gives us cork, Quercus suber. Most of the cork produced in the world comes from trees grown in the Mediterranean region in the countries of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, and Morocco. Yamaha uses oak wood in making drums, and drumsticks may also be made of oak, although they do not absorb vibration as well as those made from hickory or maple.
There are more than 50 species of oaks that are native to North America, but some are native to other places, including Europe.  William Cowper, English poet of the 1700s, wrote of the oak: “I might with rev’rence kneel and worship thee, It seems idolatry with some excuse  - When our forefather Druids in their oaks, Imagin’d sanctity…”, indicating a spiritual connection to the great and powerful-seeming tree.
According to Diana Wells, author of “Lives of the Trees”, Druids used oak leaves to make crowns for their sacrificial victims. She goes on to suggest that the name Druid may have originated from the Gaelic word for the oak tree, darach. Wells states that oaks were sacred to many gods. She lists among them, Thor, Jupiter, and El, the Hebrew god.
The white oak, state tree of Illinois, has proved very useful throughout history. Barrels for wine and whiskey are made from white oak, due to the closed cellular structure that makes it water- and rot-resistant. Maturing or fermenting wine in oak adds flavors to the wines such as caramel, vanilla, and toffee, and sometimes gives wine a silky texture.
Oaks are famously associated with their fruit, the acorn. A lot of oak species have lobed leaves, but there is a great deal of variability in leaf shape. Oaks are generally divided into the red oaks and the white oaks, with leaves of the white oak-types having rounded lobes and those of the red oak types having pointed lobes. I think the bur oak has the most interesting acorn, with a burly, fringed cap on a fairly large acorn.
The oak receives a lot of respect for both its usefulness and symbolically. In 2004, the United States Congress passed legislation naming the oak as the National Tree. Oak leaves are used in military insignia, including the awarded oak leaf cluster worn by members of the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Department of Defense for subsequent awards of a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and other awards of merit.
Oaks have a long, varied, and interesting history. But poems are often short and to the point. If a picture paints a thousand words, then may the image of one magnificent oak pay tribute to them all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A-maize-ing Corn's Astonishing History

Here in Illinois, surrounded by the vast acreage of agricultural corn and beans, we have a special vantage point from which to appreciate our ancient heritage of agriculture. Seeing the corn emerge from the ground, well past danger of frost, renews that annual feeling of optimism that this will be a good harvest year.
It is easy to forget that, with all our modern technology of machinery and global positioning systems to aid our efforts, we have the ancient Olmec people to thank for the basic technology on which all of this is founded. After all, they have not only been cultivating maize (an alternative term for corn, based on its botanical name Zea mays) for several thousand years, they purposely selected seeds year after year for traits such as larger kernels, increased number of rows of kernels, and the ability of an ear to hold onto its seeds long enough for it to be harvested.
 They developed agricultural systems, too. The milpas of Guatemala and Mexico are maize fields in which a dozen or so crops are grown together. Melons, tomatoes, amaranth, squash and beans are often included. According to archeologists and others, the crops grown are nutritionally complementary. They say that the amino acid composition –the building blocks of protein - of the different plants complement each other. In that way, complete proteins can be had, and nutritional deficiencies can be avoided.
Apparently, the milpa system of growing corn was imported and dispersed throughout what is now the United States along with the corn itself. In the northeastern U.S., for example, the Iroquois teach the growing of corn, beans and squash together in a system called “Three Sisters” gardening. The Legend of the Three Sisters indicates the strong cultural, and even spiritual, connection that existed between people and the food they cultivated.
Nutritionally, corn and beans combine to provide complete protein. Agriculturally, beans fix nitrogen in a symbiotic relationship with soil microbes. That is, the microbes take gaseous nitrogen from the air and transform it into a form plants can take up and use. The nutrients become available to the high-nitrogen-using corn the following year.  Modern farmers in Illinois use a system of rotation to accomplish a similar benefit from growing soybeans. Other beans, or legumes, as they are also known, can provide this benefit. Thus, clovers and vetches are often used as cover crops for that purpose.
The development of maize as a food source is an intriguing and astonishing story, the roots of which are as yet not entirely clear. It almost certainly began with a grass-like plant called Teosinte (from the Nahuatl “grain of the Gods”), and is thought to have been aggressively bred by people in or near southern Mexico over six thousand years ago. Maize researchers speak of landraces, or locally-adapted genetic types of maize. At least fifty genetically distinguishable types have been identified in Mexico alone. Estimates of as many as five thousand landraces may exist in the southern Mexico-Central American region.
American farmers of today still rely on the development of genetic types – or cultivars, as we now call them (for cultivated variety). Thousands of corn cultivars have been developed and hybridizing is an ongoing process, allowing farmers to select the ones best suited to their growing conditions.
So, the cycle continues, and most certainly will continue indefinitely. As we watch and wait for yet another harvest, it is good to take a step back and appreciate the heritage we have received from those who have gone before and made life as we know it possible. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hummingbirds: Feathered Jewels of Summer

I had one of those jewels of the bird world visit my geranium last week – yes, a hummingbird. As I do every summer, I started out early with a brightly colored feeder filled with the sweetest of sugar water. And, as they do almost every summer: they ignored it. But they do something else every summer, at least in my yard: they visit the nectar-bearing flowers. They are most noticeable when the hostas are blooming in August. But I have also seen them on my zinnias, which I knew attracted butterflies, but I had never noticed a hummingbird on them before.

One thing that struck me about the hummingbird’s attraction to the hosta flowers, is that those flowers are white, not red, like most of the hummingbird feeder and feed mixes available. It turns out that hummingbirds are more interested in the sweetness of the nectar than they are in the color of the flower.

I think everyone who attracts hummingbirds counts themselves lucky. If you want to attract them with flowers keep these guidelines in mind: the sweeter the flower the better; tubular shaped flowers are best for hummingbirds; and you should provide flowers that bloom over a long period of time. You can accomplish this by providing a succession of blooms from spring through fall. For a list of flowers that should do the trick, has some useful information including pictures of the flowers they recommend.

Besides nectar, hummingbirds also eat insects, favoring those that are minute enough to be swallowed whole. They have been observed hovering at the bark of a tree, hunting for those tiny spiders and insects. Researchers in Michigan counted ruby-throated hummingbirds as the primary visitors to the small pits that yellow-bellied sapsuckers had drilled into trees to capture sap. The hummers ate the sap as well as the insects they found that were also attracted to the sap.

It is generally accepted that hummingbirds originated in the equatorial belt region across South America. That is where the greatest number of species has been found. Of the 320 species of hummingbirds known, more than half live in that region, with diminishing numbers of species found as you move north and south of the equator. Costa Rica supports 54 species, Mexico has 51 species, western North America has 12, and eastern North America has only one: the ruby-throated.

The ruby-throated hummingbird breeds as far north as southern Canada, and may winter as far south as Panama. When they migrate across the Gulf of Mexico, it requires them to make a continuous flight of more than 500 miles. How long would that take, you wonder? Thanks to studies conducted by Crawford Greenewalt we know that the top speed of a female ruby-throat is 27 miles per hour. So, at top speeds, this leg of the journey would take over eighteen hours!

How lovely for us to have this one unique, feathered jewel of summer, to bring their special beauty to our gardens.