Prairie grasses return to Hawthorne?

My little city of Hawthorne indicated the other day that they were planning to use California bunch grasses and our native sycamore trees in a re-landscaping project along Prairie Avenue near Marine. Prairie Avenue is so-named because it runs through what used to be California coastal prairie habitat. While they have used sycamores extensively on some of the other main boulevards (surrounded by turf grasses), to my knowledge this is the first time they will use native grasses.

The project will rip up asphalt surrounding ~50 year old ficus trees, replace some ficus with sycamores, put in a meandering path, and plant ground cover in the remaining open areas. I'm particularly pleased with the choice of trees and grasses, though it remains to be seen how it's implemented. My neighbors also expressed pleasure with giving a little native green back, though of course there's always a contingent that believes a 50 year old ficus trumps any new plant.

I believe that I had some influence on this decision since the city solicited my opinion a few weeks prior to the announcement, expressing the idea that they wanted a drought tolerant grass as groundcover. I didn't have a whole lot of time to respond, but gave them what I thought was a good starting point. Interestingly and somewhat dishearteningly, a later search on the web finds one author (link above) stating that, "Distinguishable species and cover, based on three transects with a microscope across the photograph (1938 by W.D. Pierce) , include Lupinus bicolor (39%), Camissonia bistorta (18%), Phacelia stellaris (14%), Lotus strigosus (8%), Festuca megalura (4%), Cryptantha intermedia (1%) and open soil (16%)." Later, the same author writes about another photograph that it, "shows the later−growing components of the prairie community, of which Heterotheca grandiflora, Mucronea californica and Gnaphalium canescens ssp. microcephalum are distinguishable. Others included Eriogonum gracile, Ambrosia acanthicarpa, and Eremocarpus setigerus. Note that the community was not dominated by bunchgrasses." Still, grasses are a start. I tremble to think that we could have ended up with camphor trees and ice plant.

We'll see how this all plays out sooner rather than later: barring weather delays, re-landscaping should start tomorrow.


Evolution of a front yard meadow

Here's pictures of my front yard, with focus on the meadow / lawn. We've come a long way baby!

September, 2003. Those were Cadillac Days! When some old geezer in a walker shouted to me across the parking lot at Rite Aid that he mightily approved of that car, I knew its days were numbered. In any case, this is a good a starting point as any. Note the wall to wall grass, just like nearly every other house in the neighborhood. You can see evidence of my tendency to laziness (lawn not mown or watered well) and nascent interest in low water plants (lots of rosemary, a small ornamental pea plant from Mark and Martha, Mexican sage) . All in all it's pretty generic, water wasting (provided I want a green lawn, though accounting for that laziness factor I didn't use all that much water), and uninspired. That hibiscus by the entryway was a real downer too - it really loomed over the entry way. This is quite a large image, so be prepared if you click on it; at that time I was using a Nikon SLR and scanning the negatives.

January, 2004. Just a few months later and I was already making changes. That's the root ball of the hibiscus there on the lawn (Rotten plant, that. Full of whitefly, always blocking you with it's sickly leaves as you entered or left), and three new morea plants (donations from le jardin de mes parents) along the porch.

September, 2006. The end of the Cadillac Days (you can see the corner of my sleek blue 1985 Seville at the RHS of this photo). I had laborers scrape and pile the remnants of the lawn in one gigantic heap. I then sifted through it with a pitchfork and fingers to get the biggest and (still, after two applications of Roundup) greenest chunks of grass out. The neighbors contributed by letting me use their green waste garbage cans and I managed to reduce the pile tremendously in size. However, not enough to rake back out over the bare spots and have it go unnoticed. Thus, necessity gave birth to the idea that I'd make a swale in order to avoid hauling the dirt away, to improve visual interest, and to provide a diversity of growing conditions. There are some existing natives behind the dirt area that have been in the ground less than a full year at this point.

November - December 2006. The beginning of the Ford Truck Days (seen in the RHS of this shot). The dirt has been formed into a swale, sprinklers have been added, I've watered and weeded, and finally seeded. I think I was in a rush to take this picture because I anticipated that the native seeds would sprout almost the next day. Hah! Ironically, I'll probably not see the benefits of lower water use on the native meadow (the only part of the yard to which I added sprinklers) compared to my previous "let it brown in the summer" turf lawn. On the other hand, it'll look a whole lot better and be much lower maintenance.

13 Feb, 2007. Success! I've got green growing things! The porch rails have been demoed and the porch posts replaced due to rot, but their replacements have not yet been painted. (House painting is on the To Do list.) The jasmine has been removed to chez frere, leaving only the moreas as targets for my native plant replacement project. (Not that I'm saying those are the only non-natives, just the only ones that I have plans to replace.) I'm leaving the parking strip (seen in the foreground) in turf grass for now. For these more recent photos I'm using a basic pen camera and it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of image quality, particularly fine textures.

Here's a closeup of what's growing! I can't identify any of the plants with certainty, with the exception of the dread turf grass weeds. However, as the natives grow larger I've been able to feel more confident of my identifications. The list of what I planted is here. Based on my (obviously) simplistic assumptions about germination rates, I'm somewhat suprised to see such low diversity of plants. This picture is typical of the coverage: two types of native plants seem to dominate, with a sprinkling of one or two more in low abundance. The remaining 4 to 5 plants that I was expecting to see are present in very low abundance (at least at this stage). Perhaps they germinate later or succumbed to our poor winter. I speculate on what I've got in my previous blog entry.

In the process of writing this I decided that I've planted enough natives for one year, so I can forget about getting rid of the moreas for now. That's one more thing to mark off my list. I wish they were all that easy!


Rain, Meadow Update, etc.

There was 0.31" of rain this weekend in my backyard, a needed respite from the drought, though by no means are we out of the woods yet.

The rain also brought a new burst of life to the front yard meadow, about which I expressed doubt last month whether the seeds would sprout. It turns out that I saw signs of life a couple weeks after I wrote that and they've been growing well since. In fact, I've been overdue to update the blog about my success. This weekend's rain really made them pop up - seemingly an inch overnight: I now have a nice green carpet of baby natives.

One problem: I can't identify them (why aren't there baby pictures for plants?). It looks like wild heliotrope (Phacelia Tanacetifolia) is one of the dominant plants at this time along with a plant with spade-shaped leaves (Clarkia unguiculata?). I don't see much yarrow at all, and grass seeds seem to have been the hardest to catch: I needed Juli's sharp eyes to spot one festuca rubra plant and I think I saw one more today. I haven't seen ANY signs of purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra) seedlings. Perhaps they come out later in the season. I look at it as a nice surprise waiting to happen. On a definite down side, the turf grass weeds were not all eradicated and today I found myself pulling spotted spurge and some turf grass babies from the mix. However, the rains made that easier too, softening up the soil for easy pulling.

Additionally, I pulled off something of a design coup in the backyard. I had a somewhat unimaginative linear grouping of a ceanothus, a coffeeberry, and a western redbud along the fence where once a bottle brush lived. I managed to save myself five months of staring at the fence through the bare redbud branches by planting a golden currant (ribes aureum)behind the redbud and next to the fence. I'll espalier it up the fence and it'll be my winter screen; the redbud my summer screen. With some douglas iris in front, it also somehow manages to breaks up the linear feeling of the three larger plants. I think I need another golden current.


Morcilla de cebolla....

...or blood sausage with onion, served on a bed of spinach cooked with onions and toasted nuts. My son liked it, but I have to admit that despite my catholic tastes I struggled a bit with the whole concept. Fortunately taste buds triumphed over gray matter and ultimately it was a tasty meal. The sausage came from La Espanola, where I've been shopping for years, and whose other meat products and cheeses I fully endorse.


Burning up my 15 mintues

LAObserved noticed little ol' me talking about the weather with Grace.

Trees in the news

Abandon everything you thought you knew about the eucalyptus. Like most things in life, there are many layers to the onion and it takes a while to gain a holistic view. There's a good article on eucalyptus management in the San Luis Obispo New Times.

The Press-Enterprise talks about our native fan palm and inland tree management strategies.

some excerpts from the P-E article:

Cornett has devoted his life to the trees since he first saw them decades ago as a schoolteacher, but he believes the palms do not belong outside of their desert home. That goes double for imported exotic palms, which he says are pretty but are not the best choice for the environment.

Cornett agrees with the Los Angeles City Council, which voted in November to avoid planting new fan palms on city property on the grounds that certain plants, many of them native, would provide more shade, drainage and oxygen.
In San Bernardino, the city has banned new palm trees along windswept foothills in its fire-hazard area. The Los Angeles City Council voted to replace many of its palms with leafy native oaks and sycamores, which they say will provide more shade and oxygen.

Some extended excerpts from the New Times article:

If you believe everything you've read about eucalyptus recently, you might think you could spot a grove a mile away either by the flocks of healthy raptors circling above its canopy or the toxic groundwater flowing from its roots and the wafting stench of corpses crushed by fallen tree limbs.
Eucalyptus remained a mere garden oddity in the state until Ellwood Cooper a Santa Barbara educator noted its rapid growth in the 1870s and began stumping for proliferation as a solution to waning forests. Decades later, as industrialists eyed a hungry timber market, Cooper prote ge and State Forester George Lull predicted that the eucalyptus would soon eclipse the orange in agricultural value. So overreaching was Lull's statement that the industry never came remotely close to cashing in on the hype.
In recent years, fear of litigation has prompted several communities to prune, spot remove, and even clear eucalyptus. The paranoia climaxed with the Bay Area bedroom community of Los Altos drafting a citywide ban in 2006. The move came after falling branches killed a cyclist during a winter storm that downed power lines.

Some experts challenge one keynote argument used in the implementation of this [removal] mandate: that eucalyptus groves exhibit starkly inferior plant diversity than does surrounding habitat.

The point is irrefutable, countered Cal Poly ecologist Ritter, but the assertion is something like comparing apples to orange day lilies.

"Would you expect to find diversity in a cornfield?" Ritter asked, going on to explain that most of the euc planting in California occurred in a structured agricultural manner after the land was already purged of native vegetation.

...Concerns over potentially homeless raptors and dispossessed invertebrates also make a strong case for throttled-back restoration programs, especially considering the extremely incomplete picture of native life before European meddling.

"It would be hard to go to any euc-dominated monarch roosting area and safely do any wholesale species removal," butterfly specialist Frey said.

Ritter suggested thinning existing groves just enough to allow an understory of native scrub. This alternative model compromises State Parks' stated vision of recreating verbatim the native coastal ecosystem, but it also provides something revolutionary: options for an exit strategy.


Rainfall - better statistics, update

Our recent rains topped us out at a seasonal total of just over 1" in my backyard. This is well below normal by any measure of normal. Following some back and forth between Grace and I, I've recast my previous rainfall statistics in terms of median and quartile distributions (maintaining the mean for comparison purposes with previous graphs). As Grace noted, the median is less than the mean indicating that we "typically" have fewer heavy rainfall years, among a greater number of years of lesser rainfall. The first and third monthly quartiles (the number having 25% and 75% probabilities, respectively, that rainfall is greater than it) are graphed here, along with the median, mean, cumulative mean and cumulative median measures of total rainfall. The area covered by blue "pool" texture is the monthly 50% probability that we'll have rainfall between its upper and lower limits. So for January (which by this measure is the second heaviest rainfall month) there is historically a 50% chance of rainfall between about 0.71" and 3.84".

In my backyard, this January's contribution to the seasonal total of just over 1" was only 0.315".

Arugula and green tomatoes

Last night I made my first batch ever of fried green tomatoes. I think they weren't bad, if you like fried green tomatoes. I used Celebrity tomatoes from the vine that perished in the recent cold snap. They'd been out on the counter since I salvaged them from the melted mess of frozen tomato vine. I dredged them in peppered cornmeal (no egg batter) and fried in olive oil. Generous salt application wasn't enough to make them pop, but then I got inspired and sprinkled them with some French Thyme that I recently acquired from Penzeys. That was the ticket!

I've also been playing with another new-to-me food since my trip with Juli to Antica Pizzeria: arugula. Straight out of the gate I managed a heavenly argula with bacon dish, made with farmers market argula, but then I purchased some much stronger tasting argula (from the hippy organic herb growers) that nearly ruined a repeat effort with pancetta. Submerging that one in red sauce was the way to make it OK. The pendulum swung back the other way and the third try had arugula that wasn't strong enough (the hydroponic grower at the farmers market). Not so good. I've had it as a side dish and stirred into pasta - both plain and covered in sauce. If not too strong it adds a smokey and bitter flavor that I like, but at some point the arugula gets to be overpowering. I've now discovered that I can buy it by the pre-washed bag at Trader Joes, so that will be the next experiment.

Snow camp, etc

We're off to Scout snow camp this weekend. I'll watch the Superbowl (reluctantly) on Sunday - mostly so that my son will have something to talk about at school. I wonder if I can "watch" and wire some outlets at the same time?

Last weekend was the Pinewood Derby. My two Pinewood cars from the 70's are there in the foreground of the first picture in blue and red. I think there's been a general improvement in the state of the art for my son's, pictured in Key Lime Green. We hit a happy middle ground between the absolute jewels of cars that were clearly a lot of Dad time and the crayon-decorated blocks of wood that has no Dad input.


In the I Told You So Department: Back in October I mentioned a stock pick, Masco. I put my money where my mouth was and bought at $27.75. It's now up more than 20% and I've had the benefit of the quarterly dividend payment as well.