Thanksgiving rainfall 0.93"

Before I left town on Wednesday the 26th, we'd had 0.85" of rain in my back yard. Upon my return, I measured 0.08" more. Ignoring evaporation, that makes 0.93" from the last storm.

We're running at the high end of the third quartile for rainfall in November which makes up for no significant rainfall in September. This puts the seasonal total to date, ~1.72 inches, above the median rainfall of 1.03" for this time of year.

Custom concrete pavers II

Here's something I did back on the 23rd.

In Forms for custom concrete pavers I showed how I make the forms for the pavers that I use in my yard. Here's a bit more detail on the moments before a pour.

I assembled the paver form the night before, and it took about 16 H for the silicone caulking to dry to a state where I thought it was OK to pour. I wasn't 100% right on that - it could have gone longer. I used white, because that's what I had on hand, but my preference is for black since it's easier to see against the white of the form. My goal was to make a water tight tub for the concrete to set up in and then add a few artistic touches that make this a truly custom job.

I've added plenty of leaves before, mostly from the Magnolia in my back yard. Normally I'll press a leaf down into carpenter's wood glue with a board and a brick. This time I used Western Redbud leaves which are more flexible than the Magnolia and also, because it's a native tree, more meaningful to me. I set them in a bed of the same silicone adhesive that I used on all corners, but didn't press them down other than with my fingers to bed them in. I don't know if this feature will turn out. We'll see.

I also added a hole in the paver to let me grow a small plant or maybe just to break it up visually. I could always just put polished rocks in it. The form for the hole was cut down from a large PVC coupling using a hacksaw, then slit up the side. The side slit is intended to let it compress and come out easily, but I filled the slit with caulking because I was out of packing tape. What I really needed was a wider side slit with tape over it. I anchored it into the pouring table with a piece of wood and two screws and gave it the same waterproofing treatment that the rest of the from received.

Here's the completed form with some tools of the trade. On the right side of the form, I've aligned the edge with the edge of the fluorescent light cover which will give me the surface texture. At left, the little triangular braces hang out over it a bit. The braces are Maple, a hardwood.

The Christmas box in the picture holds my drill bits. The bottom of the mold is fragile - I suggest drilling first before trying to insert screws.

The top of the form edges received a layer of clear packing tape, until I ran out. This prevents water intrusion which can really degrade the form. Cheng seems a bit anal about this, but that's why he makes beautiful pieces. My previous experience says that it's not critical, particularly for garden pavers. Still, the form will keep its life a bit longer if I use it.

I level out the form in both axes using some left over shims and spacers placed under the table.

I add color (this time I was a bit bolder than previous attempts and added about half of the colorant). I also add about a fist full of polypropylene fibers (at left below) to strengthen the concrete.

Below, the concrete, mixed and ready to shovel into the form. Those Atlas gloves are invaluable. I also use a NEMA-approved dust mask when pouring the concrete out of the sacks - the dust is mighty fine and quite alkaline. I use a special hoe with some holes in it made for mixing concrete, but I'm sure a plain old hoe would be fine.

The volume of concrete shown comes from two 60 pound sacks of Quickcrete 5000 and it fills the form nearly to the top. If I were pouring a countertop I might be a bit more anal about getting right up to the top of the form.

I have always found that the concrete takes nearly twice as much water as the bags say you need. I used about 1.8 gallons for this batch, and the bags say that 0.5 per bag is sufficient. They also say not to exceed twice the recommended amount, so I'm OK. Add some of that water to the empty mix container before you add the dry concrete so that the bottom gets wet. Mixing ~130 pounds of concrete with that hoe is a work out!

Browse inside

I'm back from my blog vacation a day early.

Did you know you can read many Harper Collins books online? For example, here's Neal Stepehenson's book, The Big U. I'm currently reading his latest, Anathem, and it's good, but I think that I liked Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle better.

Anathem widget


Burn, baby, burn

Another violation of my self-imposed blog vacation to link to an LA Times article on chaparral. The story profiles Rick Halsey, a former high school science teacher, who is the founder of the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit environmental group. (What a nice switch of jobs. According to the article his wife makes the bulk of the money.)

The story frames a debate between Halsey and governmental forces about the merits of proscribed burns in the California back country. There's a lot of fear among San Diegans about fire, and one proposed solution is to burn the back country. Many people believe that fire is an essential renewing event in the California chaparral. This widespread opinion dates to a 1983 article in Science which is now believed not to be correct in some essential ways. Most importantly, the true role of fire is as a once per century event, rather than a once per 30 years event.

How often fire burned through Southern California before humans arrived is the subject of much scientific and public policy debate.

The only nonhuman source of fire is lightning.

But does lightning spark many brush fires in Malibu? And does lightning occur during blue-sky Santa Ana wind conditions?

The answers are no.

Fire prevention policy has centered on a much-disputed study published in 1983 in Science magazine, which suggested that modern fire suppression had caused too much fuel build-up. In the article, UC Riverside professor Richard Minnich concluded that, historically, fires were small and burned frequently -- leaving a patchwork mosaic of fuels of varying ages that prevented fires from scorching vast acreage. He believed chaparral less than 20 years old didn't have enough dead material to burn.

This encouraged land managers to conduct prescribed burns in the backcountry to get rid of the old, most volatile fuel.

But many scientists have since rejected the findings.

Hugh Safford, ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest region, said wind-driven fires roar through young chaparral and old chaparral alike. While older vegetation has more dead wood to intensify the flames, it matters only when the vegetation is adjacent to homes.

"Under Santa Ana wind conditions, it doesn't matter how old it is," he said. "Re-burns in 3-year-old chaparral are common, and some of these fires even burned through 1-year-old chaparral."

Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, suspects the pre-human wildfires were huge -- but happened only once a century in any given area. The likely mechanism: Lightning during a monsoonal August storm started a fire in the high mountains that smoldered for months; the Santa Anas picked it up in October or November and drove it all the way to the coast.

Because native Americans didn't arrive in California until about 10,000 years ago, and evolution takes much more time than 10 millenniums to do anything worthwhile, this model is what the plants adapted to.

Strangely, the Times didn't provide a link to the Chaparral Institute.


How near is the end?

The end of lawns as we know them.

I'm violating a self-imposed blog vacation to bring you a link from MSNBC about fake lawns sent to me by Margaret. They give lip service to native plant lawns, but it's mostly about astroturf (one woman spent $10k on hers! Amazing.) and clashes with city ordinances requiring green lawns.

Some cities are weighing whether to lift bans on artificial turf that date back to the days when phony grass looked like fluorescent plastic. A few communities are also encouraging the use of native plants once derided as shaggy weeds.

Advocates of natural alternatives are not sold on fake grass, saying it's a petroleum product that can heat up too much in the region's searing summer weather and can harbor germs.

"This is just like putting a carpet outside," said Betsey Landis with the California Native Plant Society in Los Angeles.

Some water districts are offering customers $1 rebates for each square foot of lawn they remove and 30 cents per square foot of fake grass they install.

I absolutely hate the idea of fake grass for home use. Keep it on the playing fields, I say.

It ends with the following paragraph:

How near is the end?

John Rossi, general manager at Western Municipal Water District, which services cities including Riverside, Corona and Temecula, agrees that the end is near for the traditional lawn.His district recently adopted the slogan "redefining green" — meaning planting water-efficient gardens, not necessarily green ones. Rossi said he tried to sell the concept of "brown is beautiful" with little success.When it comes to the disappearance of real lawns, Rossi said, "the only question is the time frame. When we talk about 8 million more people coming into California in the next 20 years and there's no new water supply, it's not a matter of if, but when."

One can only hope.


Blog holiday

I'm going to take a blog holiday until December. Have a great Thanksgiving.


This weekend in California native plants

Aside from the flats of Claytonia perfoliata planted by my son, no actual native plants were started this weekend. Instead, I had a good visit with my buddy Warren (the co-author who never posts). He has a cool opportunity ahead of him, and it's good to see him off to a good start.

One interesting observation is that the potted Cercis occidentalis has tender new growth, but hasn't even lost all its old leaves yet. The C. occidentalis in the ground has yet to lose any leaves and has no new growth yet. The potted Cercis is about one year new to the garden, whereas the one in ground has two years.

It often seems like the first year or two in the garden the plants need to settle in to the local rhythms. I often find things blooming or growing out of their traditional season. By the second year the plants are established and they seem to be more normal in their growth schedule.

Here's a non-native, Crocus sativus, the Saffron Crocus. These shoots are about 1 - 2 inches tall. Yes, they are the same ones that you can harvest for saffron spice, provided they bloom. I've had the bulbs for several years and while they don't die they don't bloom either. Maybe it needs some chill. Not a native, but on my list because they are somewhat off the beaten plant list and a food as well. It's early for this to be growing too compared to previous years, However, this is a new location that I hope it will like better.

Writing about this plant has stimulated me to read a bit more about it. Apparently an autumn bloom is right on target for it rather than the spring growth that I've seen previously. So maybe I'll get a bloom this year. These shoots are bundled together because I didn't separate the bulbs, or corms, when I transplanted. It's a Mediterranean plant, so well suited for southern California. I think that the plants came with a recommendation from Robert Smaus, the respected former LA Times garden writer which must have been reason for me to purchase it originally.
Wikipedia has a wealth of information on saffron.

Planting depth and corm spacing—along with climate—are both critical factors impacting plant yields. Thus, mother corms planted more deeply yield higher-quality saffron, although they produce fewer flower buds and daughter corms. With such knowledge, Italian growers have found that planting corms 15 centimetres (5.9 in) deep and in rows spaced 2–3 cm apart optimizes threads yields, whereas planting depths of 8–10 cm optimizes flower and corm production....Harvesting of flowers is by necessity a speedy affair: after their flowering at dawn, flowers quickly wilt as the day passes.
Juli made a dessert this weekend from the barefoot Contessa.

The cake part is pumpkin spiced, low flour, with powdered ginger. The filling is mostly mascarpone cheese and calls for candied ginger, but we didn't have any. Just mascarpone cheese alone isn't complex enough for this recipe, so we tried more powdered ginger (best) and almond liquor (so-so). A dark rum would have been a good idea too, but I'm out of that as well.

I suggested that Juli start a blog and cook her way through a recipe book. Maybe you'll see her online someday.


Weekend winter garden

Finally! My son and I started our winter garden. We're not all the way done, but I feel good about our start. We had our choice of seeds. Here's some:

My son planted:
4' of shallots (I kept them a bit too long and had to thrown out a couple mushy ones)
12' of garlic (with more left - I wonder if I should plant it?)
4' of radishes (Easter Egg blend and French Breakfast)
4' or Arugula (or Rocket as Obama should have called it during his campaign. I'll stick with Arugula.)
8' of carrots (Nantes, Purple Haze, and Kuroda)
a trough full of mesclun

I helped and directed, but it was mostly him. He also planted two flats of Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), my obligate native plant effort this weekend. Last year's Claytonia never once showed a single sprout. This year is going to be different. Claytonia is edible, as the name suggests, and was used by the 49ers to supplement their diet.

Back in the vegetable garden: I'm using raised beds this year because of the rather emphatic insistence of Juli. She even gave me a gardening book, _The Vegetable Gardener's Bible_ by Edward C. Smith, which extols the merits of raised garden beds. The book is subtitled "Discover Ed's High-Yield W-O-R-D System for All North American Gardening Regions" I suppose it's always better to have an acronym that spells something than not. What if it had been W-O-R-K?

I'm using all four of Ed's letters, since my beds are wide (the W) this year and I practice mostly organic (yup, O) methods (I use light oil from time to time on certain plants). The R is for raised. The D is for deep soil, which Ed partially accomplishes with raised beds but also through "broad forking" a tool and technique for breaking up the sub soil (see Peaceful Valley's Biofork for a picture). Most gardeners just double dig and find that sufficient. Me too. I don't think that I can recommend the book 100%, since Ed writes with a northeast garden in mind - quite a bit different than a coastal California garden. He's from Vermont after all. Still, there's some good philosophy.

Actually, mounded rather than raised better describes my beds - I've piled soil and compost about 4" higher than the adjacent path, scraping the best soil off the path to build it higher. Each bed is about 2' wide and has a narrow path on either side. I've interplanted a clover cover crop this year - down the center of each bed and on the pathways. I haven't used a cover crop before, so this will be a learning experience for me. Until this year I sort of thought of them as cheating and/or unnecessary or maybe too much work, but I've decided that I was wrong. An interesting note which I've mentioned before is that California native Phaecelia tenacetifolia is sold by Peaceful Valley as a cover crop.

I took a little break from painting and door repair later in the day to make a redwood stand for my rain gauge. I broke the short plastic stake that held it upright in the ground earlier this year but I think that my redwood stand is much better looking, plus the stand keeps it conveniently at hand's reach and out of the way of errant hose water!

There's a lemon grass plant at left, chard at right, the rain gauge center, and the newly installed garden behind it all with plenty of room left to expand. I repositioned the two solar powered garden lights at the ends of the rows for better late evening harvesting.


Fire in Santa Barbara / Montecito

I was there on my bike in 1977 for the Sycamore Fire (named for Sycamore Canyon). A new fire is burning over some of the same area.

I spoke with my parents, who still live in the area, several times last night as they were packing essentials in order to prepare for evacuation. At one point the mandatory evacuation area reached about 150' from their home, but by this AM it seemed clear that the fire had moved west of their home and they were OK for the time being.

The Santa Barbara Independent has responded with timely fire updates.


Forms for custom concrete pavers

Because it was so windy Sunday, I stopped my exterior painting and prep and used my table saw to make parts of the paver forms that I'll soon need. I cast my own concrete pavers and I'll need more outside my new bedroom door - at least 4 and likely 6+. I've grown to really like the advantages of using stacked or ground-set pavers and bricks for garden hardscape - the ability to move and reset the pieces is a huge advantage over poured-in-place or mortared-in-place pieces is huge.

However, it's also fair amount of work to cast pavers using the methods that I'll tell you about. For one, the paver size I call for here is probably 120+ pounds when its done so you need to think about whether you can even heft that around your yard and the sweat you'll build up mixing that volume of concrete. Nonetheless, the payoff is something that's completely custom and potentially wildly different than your typical poured-in-place or purchased paver.

The sides of my paver forms are 2.5" x ~19" x ~32". I cut them from melamine-coated particle board. The 2' x 4' melamine sheet that I purchased from Home Depot gave me the pieces that you see here - enough to make three forms and have three long pieces left over for spares. An efficient use of material is to cut the six short pieces from the 2' side of the melamine board first, then the 9 longer ones from the long side of the remaining board. You'll eventually cut the boards to their final length, but the cut off portion is minimized using this method.

The exact size of the pavers I've already made was 19-3/4" x 32" which is very close to the Golden Ratio. The 32" dimension was set by the largest width I could accomodate in my side yard. I'll keep those dimensions with the new forms in order to emphasize continuity and repitition across the yard.

From past experience, I know that it's difficult enough to make two pavers at the same time, both from an available space standpoint and from a labor standpoint. All that concrete mixing and hauling is hard work! I have materials enough for three, so that third one will be an option if I can make it work.

When the forms are assembled, I place them on a textured piece of plastic like this. The plastic is on my "pouring table", a 5/8" piece of plywood with 1x4 stringers underneath to keep it flat under heavy load.

The textured plastic is from a fluorescent light and available at Home Depot for 5 or 6 bucks. I used a pebbled pattern, but grid patterns are also available. These form bottoms are actually pretty expensive since it's only reusable a couple times before it degrades too much.

The forms are then sealed along all the corners. I use a black silicone-modified latex (gotta check this) . Black has a nice contrast against the white melamine, so it's easy to see. Cheaper non-silicone caulking forms a much tighter bond to the paver and creates a problem when I disassemble the mold. Smooth the seal down with a wet fingertip and you have a nice chamfer on the edge of your paver.

Decorate the bottom of the form with things that you like. I've had good success with Magnolia leaves and garage ephemera. I weight the leaves down with bricks and glue them to the form bottom with carpenter's wood glue. They eventually come out of the concrete, leaving a pleasant impression behind. I've also used pieces from my old Alfa Romeo, bicycle parts, and coins. Flat, thin, pieces like coins that are to be embedded in the concrete are harder to work with- they can pop loose. One way to address this is to epoxy a wood screw on to the back of the object to give it some grip into the concrete.

Then it's all about mixing and pouring the concrete. More on that later....

The basis for my concrete knowledge comes from having done this before. But prior to that, I read Fu-Tung Cheng's marvelous book, Concrete Countertops. Eventually I will have a concrete countertop as well, but that's a story for another day.

If this information is useful, try the concrete paver tag link at the bottom.

Oak leaf moth

I've just moved this post up to the top of the list because I added the long-anticipated pictures of Oak Leak Moth poop.

One of the hazards that California Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) trees face is infestation by oak leaf moths. My father educated me about this around the end of September with the main example being some trees on my parent's property: An older tree seems to have come through with a greater fraction of leaves intact but some smaller trees have been almost completely denuded.

Below are pictures of moth larval poop and an eaten leaf. The poop was caught up on a spider web, which is why it clumped together.

Weekend update

I got started on the exterior house paint. I'm prepping the stucco with a wire brush and scraper. Where there's smaller cracks I'm using latex caulk which I decorate with sand to simulate the stucco texture. This hasn't provided a 100% camouflage, particularly if there was a previous attempt to patch the crack. This green (below) looks gray compared to actually standing there.

The doors and windows I'm scraping with a carbide edged tool, which is marvelously efficient at getting down to a well-adhered paint layer. It was $15 at Home Depot - a high price relative to the hardened steel scrapers, but it works so well that I think it was worth it. I try to contain the paint flakes on a tarp and throw them out with the trash. Those I miss, I get with the shop vac.

Saturday I've managed to prep and paint the stucco part of one wall, and prep the window that's in that wall. The windows will need some additional prep with sand paper, I think, to feather the edges of the paint. Sunday I tried to continue, but it was too windy and I couldn't paint or prep. The picture below with the cast faces has a green that seems closest to how the green actually appears in person - at least on my monitor. There's a splash of the Country Redwood paint on the wood in each photo because I was verifying that I still like the color. I think it's a bit on the red side both in person and in these photos so I'll try a second coat to improve it. The stucco has a second coat already and it made a big difference.


The return of the American chestnut

I find that gardeners often make good/adventurous/caring cooks and to me, a particularly interesting story is one that mixes plants and food. "The return of the American chestnut" is one such story by Russ Parsons in today's LA Times Food Section.

The American chestnut in the title refers to "Colossal" a French/Japanese cross developed by a California nurseryman named Felix Gillet in the late 1800s.

At one time, the chestnut tree was one of the most numerous on the North American continent. It is estimated that they accounted for between a quarter and a third of all the trees that grew in the huge forest that once blanketed the area from northern Georgia to New England.

Then, just after the turn of the last century, the trees began to die. The culprit was a fungal spore that probably had hitchhiked on a Chinese chestnut specimen tree imported by the New York Botanical Garden.

The chestnut blight spread like a wind-driven wildfire. The carnage almost defies imagination. Within five years, it had killed most of the chestnuts in the New York area. By the 1950s, only a few isolated trees remained on the entire continent.

Between 3 billion and 4 billion trees had died. That was, as Susan Freinkel points out in her splendid new book "American Chestnut," "enough trees to fill 9 million acres. Enough trees to cover Yellowstone National Park 1,800 times over. Enough trees to give two to every person on the planet at that time."

Imagine the wildlife loss when, over the course of 50 years, 99.999+% of the American Chestnut forest died. The larger mammals that sustained themselves on the natural chestnut harvest would have decreased dramatically in number as they lost a consistent fall food source. The carnivores that fed on the mammals would have decreased in turn.

Wikipedia notes, "It is thought that panic logging during the early years of the blight may have unwittingly destroyed trees which had resistance to this disease and thus aggravated the calamity."

Certainly, it's easy to think of them as strictly an East Coast nostalgia food, part and parcel with frosty city sidewalks and Jack Frost nipping at whatever exposed body parts he can find. ¶ But in fact, these nuts have a long history in the Golden State, one that a handful of growers are struggling to keep alive. And if all you've ever had are stale imported supermarket chestnuts -- many of which are even moldy -- these California nuts can be a revelation, delicately sweet and slightly chewy.

I've tried chestnuts several times, but never enjoyed them so much that I needed to have more than a couple. My best experience was with some marrons glacee, but even then they weren't so much good as inoffensive. However, I have to say that if I found some at my local farmer's market I'd give them another try based on this article.

The American Chestnut Foundation is one of several organizations that has a breeding program to return a mostly American chestnut to the forests.


Sweet potato Colcannon

Tonight's dinner was inspired by The Slow Cook's lunch.

I braised some chard and added it, Colcannon-like, to mashed sweet potatoes. The mashed potatoes had a small amount of cinnamon, allspice, brown sugar, and the juice of one orange. This was served as a side dish to some spicy Chipotle sausage. The combination of spicy and sweet was really good.


Also known as Ground Cherries or Cape Gooseberry. See the Physalis peruviana picture at Wikipedia. I ate some of these fruit when I was in Germany last summer and I liked it. Prior to that trip I hadn't even heard of it, let alone tasted one. The proprietor of the restaurant where I had them knew them only as Physalis - no common or species name. He was surprised to learn the English common names.

Last night I ran across mention of them in the May 2008 issue of Organic Gardening which I picked up at the YMCA book exchange. They are seed-propagated and, like tomatillos, they have a papery husk. Stored in the husk in a container that allows transpiration they are supposed to be good for up to 3 months at 50 F. They get their common name of Ground Cherries because they drop to the ground before they ripen. Thereafter, storage at room temperature for a week or less will ripen them.

Because they are in the tomato / tomatillo family they have the same disease susceptibilities so if I were to plant some next year I'd have to not use my normal garden area.

Rain 0.71"

Last night's rainfall dropped 0.71" of rain on my house bringing the seasonal total to 0.776 inches.

Photographer Saxon Holt also celebrates the first rain.



A quick read through of the Pasadena Water Conservation Plan recaps their recent experience with water conservation: dismal. Voluntary 10% cutbacks didn't work, their infrastructure repair and maintenance fund is short, and water supplies are more stressed than ever.

The Pasadena City Council, in what might well be a stroke of good governance, rejected proposed schedules of fees and penalties for water wasters last month and instead asked for a more comprehensive water plan. The link I've provided is the outline of that plan. There's some good stuff in there. And some bad stuff.

Rate adjustments are the top of the list.

The goal of a water conservation rate design is to reward efficient users and those who have invested in conservation fixtures and appliances and provide appropriate price signals and incentives for others to conserve water. In addition, the price impacts of procuring incremental water supplies are borne by those causing the demand rather than the entire community.

The point is made, however, that water revenues are insufficient to support ongoing operations, and the capital improvement fund will not fully support the infrastructure improvements contemplated under the Water System Master Plan, along with added debt service costs associated with additional long term borrowing.

There's a lot of evaluating and assessing that is planned around the rate hikes. I find it surprising that they don't seem to have a better feel for their anticipated costs and for the water demand curve.

There's proposed legislation:

"Staff is proposing that a Sustainable Water Use Ordinance be developed to replace the Water Shortage Procedures Ordinance that was adopted in 1988. ... The ordinance would be designed such that obvious water waste activities - allowing water to run off landscapes, irrigating when it rains, etc., would be restricted at all times."

Do any other native plant fanciers use impending rain or lighter than expected rain as a signal to water? In a California native landscape, I've found that a supplemental water during, after, or before light rain makes the plants grow better. I don't feel that I'm wasteful at all because my net use of water for landscape purposes is much, much lower than those people who are feeding and watering green lawns year round. Still, I'd be a criminal in Pasadena under the language of the proposed new ordinance.

They propose changes in how they handle building and construction:

Building design standards to ensure efficient use of water and facilitate reuse of water (e.g., reclaimed water) - a Water Conserving Fixtures and Fittings ordinance would include new regulations for new construction, remodels, tenant improvements, additions, and alterations;
Landscape ordinance;
Gray Water ordinance, modeled after standards to be adopted by the state of California in early 2009;
Certification Program for green plumbers and landscaping professionals;
Construction Standards to include the study of permeable paving; and
Standards to manage water usage for new development.

Here's an interesting idea:

Should new development be allocated any low-cost (e.g., Tier I) water?


Rain 0.075 inches

While I was away in Santa Barbara about 0.4" fell. Back at home, the rain gauge only said 0.075".

This makes a total of 0.076" for this wet season. I booked 0.001 inches for a heavy mist that fell earlier in the year.