Meadow rising redux

The California native plant front yard meadow was looking a bit bad. Its recent haircut by string trimmer left the brown stubs of the wildflowers behind. Despite my public assurances, the yarrow hadn't had enough light to grow in fully, and consequently the whole thing had an overall raw and bruised look to it that was a bit disagreeable. I saw the potential, I thought, but I was really being a bit optimistic when I said it was OK. It was only OK considering its recent shearing. That's all fading into history now.

The dead flower stalks, once punji stick-like eyesores, have now rotted and dried to the point that they are easy to pull up or break off at the base with a footstep. With watering, the yarrow has greened and grown considerably, covering the remaining flower stalks. There has been a resurgence of scattered flowers: poppies, white yarrow, blue (gilia capitata?) and a few others that has softened it up quite a bit. The festuca rubra (red fescue) native grass has seen some growth among the yarrow and the juncus mexicanus (Mexican rush) is recovering from being shaded out by wildflowers. At this point the only MIA plant from the original seed inventory is Nasella pulchra.

One unwanted plant I have in abundance is spurge, and I pull it up when I can. The St. Augustine grass is trying to make a come back as well. That too gets pulled. I'm having a much worse time controlling those weeds than in the adjacent large plant area, which had grass originally as well. There are several factors at work 1: The meadow area had more spurge to begin with. I know this because I used to pull it from the grass in that area. 2. The meadow area absorbs the brunt of the wind-blown seeds, since it's on the windward side of the yard. 3. The meadow area didn't get a wood chip mulch to shade out the bad actors. This was by choice - who's heard of a meadow with wood mulch?

Behind the meadow, the buckwheat is in full bloom and the mimulus seems to throw up another cascade of blossoms just when you think it's done for the year. Coyote mint has bloomed and faded, but (non-native) Mexican sage is settling in for a long blooming season.

Sand Shark recovery program

When we last heard from our team of model builders, the feckless father had just melted the Sand Shark model to the top of the toaster oven, destroying two children's and one father's work of decades in an instant. (For those that are keeping track, it's myself as a child, my son, and me as an adult working together on a the same damn project for over 30 years. No wonder I have so many open items on my to do list.)

My apology was accepted after some pleading and a flurry of excuses and we went to Toy-R-Us for another model. They were useless - all of two models. At Michaels we seemed to hit pay dirt with a '34 Ford model, but once we got home it turned out to be WAAAY too complicated.

Fortunately, my son remembered that I had yet another model or two that I'd schlepped down from my parents' place. We dug it out and found that I'd started that one too. We didn't see models like this one in either store we looked at - It's simpler. You don't have to paint if you don't want to since the parts come in a few basic colors and the parts count is maybe 100, rather than 200-300. To top it off, the "new" old model was also a '34 Ford. I actually remember starting and then stalling out the model because I put the front axle on backwards and gave up hope of ever making it right after much hand wringing. Well, we fixed that axle and a bunch of other stuff and got it ready for show time at the "county fair" in just a few days time.

Unfortunately, it was not given a prize ribbon when, according to my son, "all the other crafts got prize ribbons." Indeed, he came home with two blue ribbons for his other projects in categories like "Most Best Leaves" for the bean plant and "Best Hand Work" for the wooden toolbox. I told him to ask his teacher for another prize ribbon and tell her he had to work extra hard because his Dad melted the first model.

I wonder if anyone else has second thoughts about our penchant for rewarding all the kids equally? When everyone gets first place ribbons, then what's the point?


Temperament for risk

Consider this quote from the official USAF policy letter on risk:

Accept risk when benefits outweigh the costs. All potential benefits should be compared to all potential costs. The process of weighing risks against opportunities and benefits helps to maximize unit capability. Even high risk endeavors may be undertaken when there is a well founded basis to believe that the sum of the benefits exceeds the sum of the costs.

An excellent article at investment house leggmason.com discusses the temperament required for rational risk taking. Oftentimes, meta-investing or philosophy-of-investing articles tend to be meaningless fluff. This one is not, as it offers broadly applicable business and life lessons, if you can deconstruct the core of the article from its investment roots.

Like daily prayers to Mecca, there's the obligatory synecdochic references to Omaha, but they do have a context: Warren Buffet, the most successful investor of our current era, will retire and he's seeking his replacement. He's set forth his criteria and considers "independent thinking, emotional stability, and a keen understanding of both human and institutional behavior" highly important in the successful applicant. In a word, temperament. This launches an interesting discussion of how temperament affects risk taking strategies.

Read in the context of my background in the space business, it's insightful in the way it brings forward the human element of risk, or perceived risk, and its role in our decision making.


Mulch for California native plant success

I'm a believer in what Southern California landscapers (even the ones that like agapanthus) have known for many years - mulch applied over the top of the soil keeps all the plants happier. This may be even more important for California native plants than for exotics.

For many years I cleaned up my leaf litter like most of my neighbors and threw it away - all that potential, gone. Us urbanites had somehow got the notion that flower beds and the like had to be completely clear of leaves to be orderly. I got a bit smarter later on: I composted the leaf litter. That was better, but I mostly ended up digging it into my heavy soil - as a top dressing, fully composted greens (and browns) don't really stand up to the rigors of sun, wind, and rain. I use it mostly on my vegetable garden now. There's some that claim that partially rotted leaves are a great top dressing, but I have yet to generate enough partially rotted leaves to make a difference. They're either overflowing my compost bin and there's no signs of rot or more often I've turned a summer's worth of lawn trimmings from my neighbor, the leaves from his tree and mine, and my own lawn trimmings into about 10 gallons of compost - there's a lot of fluff in vegetable matter.

On top of the soil I now apply various different kinds of wood mulch, which is not dug in. This is important - digging in your mulch causes it to decompose, which consumes nitrogen from the soil. The nitrogen is ultimately released, of course - mass balance has to be true in the end. But while the mulch is decomposing that nitrogen isn't available to your plants. People that dig uncomposted leaves or sawdust into their garden must supplement with nitrogen. Of course, already mulched greens don't have this problem.

Wood mulches placed on top of the soil decompose slowly so nitrogen depletion isn't an issue. What the mulch does do is prevent weeds by shading them out, keep the soil moist and cool, and provide safe harbor for beneficial bugs. It also makes it easy to pull weeds, since they are usually not deeply rooted. In my vegetable garden I started with shredded cedar compost - it seemed to make a more tightly bound mat, but I'm now using redwood bark.

My native plants all get the bark too. And the leaves? I don't worry about them so much any more.

Today I found a local bulk supplier of bark mulch - B.D. White Top Soil, Inc at 192 S. Prairie Ave in Torrance (weekdays, 7:30 to 4:00). They scooped me up a cubic yard of top quality bark mulch for $56.29 with tax. A cubic yard is what fits in one scoop of the smaller of their two skip loaders and fills the back of my Ford Ranger. This price is a bit better than the home improvement centers charge, and the product seems superior.


Meadow design guidelines

It seems I violated some design guidelines when I seeded my California native wildflower meadow. Experienced meadow builders don't scatter seed willy nilly and let whatever wants to grow poke its head up. No, they actually plan areas in their meadow dedicated to specific flowers.

Of course I had seen and read the Yerba Buena and Rancho Santa Ana web sites before starting my own meadow, but there's nothing like actual experience to drive a point home. Yerba Buena has a nice photo essay about their spectacular 2005 wildflower season. In the essay, it's abundantly clear that they have not been random about their seeding. See, for example, the picture in week 2 of the corner of the meadow covered in baby blue eyes.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden has a shorter series of slides, but they reveal more about their process, including slides and text about periodic solarizing of the soil (to reduce weed populations), and their planning and seeding (looks like chalk outlines divide up different seed areas).

One of the things that I feel I did correctly, was to plant a perennial cover of yarrow that established itself in the shade of the taller flowers. I won't impose months of dead flower stalks on my neighbors, despite their wildlife value. When I cut the dead flowers back the yarrow was there to fill in and soften the ends of dead flower stalks. With a little water, it's done just fine at that job. It might get to be a pest next year, but for now it's ok.


The Great Sand Shark debacle

My son's class is having a "county fair" in conjunction with the class reading project, Charlotte's Web. He's supposed to make some crafts or projects to bring in for the county fair showcase. All the kids have bean plants. We've also made a rustic looking toolbox from scrap wood in the garage, and completed a plastic model of a hot rod car. The model is "Sand Shark" and I actually started it when I was his age, but didn't get very far along on it. My parents kept it tucked away all those years and tonight we put the final decal on. It looked good, and it was a valuable father-son bonding experience.

I put it safely out of the way in the kitchen (our project zone) for the decals to dry and we finished dinner, homework, bath, etc, and he's off to bed.

Later in the evening, I got a little hungry and made a toasted bagel with cream cheese. It was great - just what I needed. I'm polishing off the last bite and I realize that the Sand Shark is melting into the top of the toaster oven! Oh shit! I reach over to pull it off, hoping that it's just a little out of round on the wheels, but no such luck. It pulls like taffy and all of a sudden I have bits of the freshly made model in my hand - half an engine with floppy exhaust headers and a suspension that looks like a pretzel made from Silly Putty. The rest of it is stuck to the top of the toaster oven and slowly melting into oblivion.

Looks like the "safe place" wasn't.

I ended up scraping the remainder of the wheels off the oven with a razor blade and then polishing with a scouring pad to get the remnants off. There's no way to fix the Sand Shark or even to pass it off as a modern art interpretation. It's ruined and in multiple, warped, pieces.

The hard part will be apologizing in the morning. I think a trip to the store to purchase a replacement will help matters along. I suppose if I felt truly remorseful I could replace the model off E-bay for $29.99 plus $8.99 shipping and handling.