P90324Birds do some odd things. They seem to know what they are doing. The odd things that they do make sense. Nonetheless, some of what they do out there is just plain odd.
I mean, who was the first woodpecker who thought it might be a good idea to bang his head against a tree? What prompted the first sapsucker woodpecker to bore through bark of a healthy tree to lap up the sap from the cambium within? Why do other woodpeckers bore into rotting dead trees for grubs, and to make nests? The different types of woodpeckers seem to be related, but they are after different things. Did one just accidentally bore into the wrong sort of tree, and discover something more than what was expected?
Various species of woodpeckers are surprisingly omnivorous. Those who eat termites also eat other insects, nuts, acorns, berries and fruit. Sapsuckers also eat insects, berries, small nuts and such.
Many woodpeckers are social, and live in significant communities. Those who bore into dead tree tops to nest prefer to live where there are several dead trees tops to bore into, probably because too many nests in the same tree would compromise the structural integrity of the already decaying trunk. Besides, if they all lived in the same dead tree, they would all become homeless at the same time if the tree fell down.
Colonies of some species of woodpecker store nuts or acorns in rotting dead trees. They can store quite a bit in each tree because the holes bored to hold the individual nuts and acorns are not as big as the holes that they nest in, so do not compromise the integrity of the trees as much. Besides, it is easier to defend many acorns and nuts in a few trees than it is to defend them in many trees. Squirrels who want the same acorns and nuts are very sneaky!
The problem with putting all their eggs in the same basket, or all their acorns in a few trees, is that when one of such trees falls, it takes a significant portion of their stored nuts and acorns with it. Once on the ground, it is impossible for them to defend it from squirrels and rats.
This particular rotting ponderosa pine fell and needed to be removed from the roadway that it fell onto before woodpeckers could recover the acorns that they so dutifully stored in it. The precision with which the holes were carved to custom fit each acorn that they hold is impressive. The woodpeckers who did this really know how to manage their pantry.


Nature For Sale

P90323KGardening is unnatural. Yes; quite unnatural. So is landscaping. It all involves planting exotic plants from all over the World that would not otherwise be here, including many that are too extensively and unnaturally bred and hybridized to survive for long even in the natural ecosystems from which their ancestors were derived.
Unless they grow on their own, even native plants are not natural. Those that are native to the region may not be native to the specific site. Many that are grown in nurseries are unnaturally selected varieties or cultivars. To complicate matters, much of what seems to be natural out in forests and wild lands are invasive naturalized exotics.
The weather above and most of the soil below are natural, but both are commonly enhanced for our gardens. We water our gardens and landscapes as if the weather is insufficient. Soil amendments and fertilizers compensate for what we perceive to be inadequacies of the natural soil. Insects, deer, raccoons and disease are all natural too, but we put quite a bit of effort into excluding them from our gardens.
Bees and other pollinators are all the rage now, even though many are not native or natural here. We provide them with weird and confusing new cultivars of flowers that likely produce nutritionally deficient pollen, and that distract them from naturally native plants that rely on them for pollination. It all gets so confusing!
These potted annuals and flowering perennials at the supermarket are pretty and might provide the illusion of bringing a little bit of nature closer to the home. Yet, there is nothing natural about them. They are all unnaturally bred and hybridized from unnaturally exotic plants, and were provided with synthetic fertilizers and artificial irrigation, while they were grown in synthetic medium, contained withing synthetic pots.

Six on Saturday: Presbyterian Horticulture


Subjects for more than just a few of my illustrations are found in the simple landscape of Felton Presbyterian Church. Until the last year or so, I had been able to participate in more of the seasonal work days, when we do most of the maintenance of the landscape, as well as a few other chores. No one seems to mind that I am Catholic.

The biggest and best trees, including the big coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, out front (which I should have gotten a picture of) are native, and were there before the site was developed. Smaller trees of the same species have appeared since then. Also, a nice big catalpa, Catalpa speciosa, appeared right out front, just to the south of the big coast live oak. Otherwise, most of the landscape is an odd mix of what various parishioners contribute to it.

1. Naked lady, Amaryllis belladonna, bloomed late last summer, just before the foliage started to develop in autumn. They are blooming again! Now I know where fake roses come from.P90323

2. Breath of Heaven, Coleonema pulchrum, has a name that is more appropriate to a Church than ‘naked lady’. The flowers are tiny, and not very impressive, but are pretty against the very finely textured foliage.P90323+

3. Pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, has been modestly naturalized here for years. There are just enough to be pretty, without being invasive. Goodness! Naked ladies and pot!P90323++

4. Flowering maple, Abutilon spp., was contributed by a parishioner who has many growing wild and blooming in a variety of colors at here home in the same neighborhood where I work. She gave us many of the same.P90323+++

5. Dock, Rumex crispus, has a cool name, but is really just a weed. I have been trying to kill this one for years! It will not die. The root is mixed with tree roots. Now, it looks so fat and happy that I sort of want to leave it.P90323++++

6. Lichen (which I can not identify with a Latin name) on the limbs of the crape myrtle featured last week got noticed enough for it to get a close up picture this week. I don’t understand the allure. I’m not lichen this one.P90323+++++

Since I did not use any of the pictures of camellias from Nuccios’ Nursery in Altadena that Brent sent to me (that I mentioned last week), I will try to share them next week, even though they finished blooming already.

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:


60323Some of the biggest and nastiest weeds are thistles. The most common is annual sowthistle, which can get taller than four feet in just a few months. It is relatively easy to handle, since the bristly foliage and stems are somewhat soft, almost like coarse lettuce. Blessed milkthistle is much nastier, with sharp foliar spines that can penetrate boots! It can get more than five feet tall and broad!

Most thistles are biennials or perennials, with spiny lobed foliage. They produce low foliar rosettes during their first year, and then bolt and bloom on tall floral stalks during their second year. Biennials usually die after bloom, but sometimes regenerate from the roots later. Perennials are more likely to regenerate and bloom annually for several years. Some thistles get rather shrubby.

The roots of many types of thistle would not be too difficult to pull from well watered soil if only the spiny foliage were not so difficult to handle. Larger plants might be easier to pry out with a shovel. If foliage is merely cut off at the the surface of the soil, it will regenerate from the large tap roots left below. However, cutting down flower stalks before bloom interferes with seed dispersion.

Pull Weeds Before They Seed

60323thumbSpring brings out the best and the worst in the garden. While warm season annuals and vegetables are getting established, so are a variety of weeds. Just like other annuals and perennials, they respond to the changing weather. Cool weather and moisture stratified their seed through winter. Warming moist soil prompts germination. Warm and sunny spring weather promts rapid growth.

There are all sorts of weeds. A few are big trees like bluegum eucalyptus and shamel ash. Some are substantial shrubbery, like privet and cotoneaster. Pampas grass and giant reed are big grassy perennials. The most familiar and prolific weeds are annuals or small perennials, like foxtail, burrclover, purslane, bindweed, sowthistle, pimpernel, spurge, crabgrass and Bermudagrass.

It is best to pull weeds as soon as they are big enough to grab onto. It will take more effort to pull them as they disperse their roots, and as the soil gets drier through spring. Unwanted shrubbery and tree weeds should be pulled like any other weed because they are likely to regenerate from roots if merely cut down. Once they recover and grow more, they will be much more difficult to pull.

Many small grassy weeds can be cut down low with a weed whacker, instead of pulled out completely. In some situations, low cut or mown weeds are better than bare soil. Some types of weeds will neither bloom nor disperse seed if mown. However, many types adapt to mowing by merely blooming and seeding lower. Dandelion and foxtail are notorious for their defiance to mowing.

Weeds are very efficient and creative with the dispersion of their seed. It is impossible to prevent seeds from coming into the garden from the outside. Yet, it is still best to inhibit the production and dispersion of seed from within the garden. Spurge and oxalis bloom and disperse seed in secret before they seem to be mature enough to bloom. Other weeds have taller or more prominent blooms that can be cut down before producing seed, even if the weeds are not actually removed completely.

Horridculture – B & B

P90320B & B, formally known as ‘balled and burlapped’ nursery stock, was expected to be the next big ‘thing’ in nursery commodities here in California back in the late 1980s. As those outside of California know, it is field grown plant material that gets dug and marketed with its roots wrapped in burlap. It was more common in other regions, so was expected to become more common here as more nursery stock was to be imported from Oregon.
However, growers in Oregon started growing more of their stock in cans like we do in California, and then did not send as much of their B & B stock to California as predicted. Only certain slow growing commodities and large items are still field grown, and then dug and ‘balled and burlapped’ for export. Of these, arborvitaes, rhododendrons and various deciduous shade trees are the more commonly available locally.
B & B stock from Oregon is typically of exceptional quality. Horticulture is taken more seriously there.
Because B & B is still a foreign concept in California, it is typically canned to be more familiar to local consumers. It does not take long for it to root into the little bit of extra potting medium and fill out the cans. There is no need for the roots to be unwrapped, since the burlap decays as fast as the root disperse and expand. The now canned but formerly B & B arborvitaes in the picture above are exemplary.
Yet, they are not perfect. The problem with B & B stock here is that there are not many horticultural professionals here who know how to work with it, or even care to do so properly.
The picture below shows how shallow the B & B root systems of the arborvitaes are relative to the squat #15 (15 gallon) cans that they were purchased in. They obviously did not get enough time to root into their potting medium after they were canned. This is not due to a lack of horticultural expertise. This is either (and hopefully) a mistake in scheduling, or merely a lack of concern. But hey, no bother. They are still excellent specimens.P90320+
At least they seemed to be. A potentially serious problem was revealed when they were installed and the loose potting medium fell away from the burlap.
Many years ago, the burlap containing the balled root systems of B & B stock was bound with biodegradable jute twine. It rotted away before it could do any damage. Since then, nylon twine became more commonly used. Those who are familiar with B & B know to simply cut and remove the nylon twine before planting.
Whomever processed and canned these arborvitaes are either (and hopefully) not familiar with B & B, or just do not care. The nylon twine was still tightly bound and tied. If these arborvitaes had rooted into their potting medium and held it intact, this twine would not have been visible. Because it is wrapped a few times around the main trunks as well as wadded up burlap, it could have girdled the main trunks as they grew and expanded!
In a way, it was fortuitous that the potting medium fell away to expose the nylon twine, which was cut to allow for expansion of the main trunks. These exemplary B & B arborvitaes from Oregon should live happily ever after.P90320++

Pole Beans

90327The main difference between pole beans and bush beans should be obvious. Pole beans climb poles. Bush beans are bushy. To complicate things, bush beans are more common in commercial agriculture because they are more adaptable to harvesting machinery, and they are most productive in a brief season, so are more efficiently harvested all at once rather than throughout summer.

Pole beans are generally more popular in home gardens for the opposite reason. They will not produce all at once, but will instead produce enough somewhat continually until the end of summer. Some varieties can climb past second story eaves, so should be confined to reachable trellises or other supports. They are annual, so the tangled thicket of vines that forms on top is no problem.

Most pole beans, which are also known as green beans, string beans, snap beans, French beans and haricot vert (French for ‘green beans’) are varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris. Some heirloom varieties of the original string beans produce beans with annoying ‘strings’ along one side of each bean. Dried beans are different varieties. Regular harvesting promotes continuous production.

Crop Rotation Improves Vegetable Production

90327thumbA south or west facing fence is a perfect place to grow pole beans. Twine can be strung in a zig-zag pattern between single rows of partly protruding nails along the top and bottom. The spacing of the nails should match that of the pole bean plants. Bean seed sown at the base of the fence germinate and grow quickly. Vines are happy to cling to the string and climb to the top of the fence.

Alas, it is temporary. Pole beans are annuals. They start to grow now, produce all summer, and then yellow and ultimately die by autumn, leaving the fence bare again. If the technique is repeated in the same spot with the same sort of pole beans the following spring and summer, the plants could be noticeably less vigorous. Repeating if for a third season could be downright disappointing.

It is best to grow beans in a different location every year if possible. After a few years, they can return to the same fence. Until then, tall plants, like caged tomatoes or corn, can be cycled through the area in front of the fence. Tomatoes and corn also perform better if not grown in the same spots for more than one season at a time. This process of cycling crops is known as ‘crop rotation’.

Soil borne pathogens proliferate along with the host plants that sustain them. Such pathogens may not be a noticeable problem in the first year while they get established. However, they are likely to be established and ready to infest the same sorts of host plants more aggressively in a subsequent season. Crop rotation of the host plants to cleaner locations annually interrupts this process.

In local soils, crop rotation is likely more important to compensate for nutrient depletion. Tomatoes are greedy with particular nutrients that other vegetable plants may not need in such quantities. The same applies to other vegetable plants. Tomatoes planted where other tomatoes grew last year may notice a lack of the nutrients that they crave the most of. However, zucchini may not miss what the tomatoes of last year took. Conversely, tomatoes may not notice what may be lacking where zucchini or other vegetables grew last year.

The Davey Tree

P90317This is no common Douglas fir. It is the ‘Davey Tree’, named after the tree service that so diligently prunes it for clearance from the utility cables above. Yes, I can see as easily as you can how disfigured it is. The plan is to cut it down before it falls apart. At least that is the excuse for cutting it down. It is relatively short an stout, so is likely quite able to support its own weight, regardless of this disfigurement. We really just want it gone because it is so unsightly.
Most who see the Davey Tree are quick to blame the disfigurement on those who prune it for clearance. They do not consider that without such pruning, the utility cables would eventually be ruined and unable to deliver the electricity that so many of us use. Those who prune the trees do what they must to keep the electricity and other utility cables operational. Unfortunately, such work sometimes ruins trees.
As an arborist who sometimes works with other arborists who must perform clearance pruning, I am more likely to blame other landscape professionals. Some landscape designers design landscapes with trees that get too tall or broad within utility easements. Heck, many designers do not even designate where such easements are on the drafts of their landscape plans. Some so-called ‘gardeners’ plant such trees in utility easements with no plan at all. For what they all charge for their services, landscape professionals should know better than to put inappropriate trees into situations where they will eventually need to be mutilated or removed. Not many think that far ahead, or even care.
Anyway, the inappropriate location and disfigurement of the Davey Tree really can not be blamed on anyone. It is a wild tree that grew there from seed.P90317+

Sugaring Season

P90316KThere is no sugaring season here. Spring comes on too suddenly. By the time sap starts to flow, buds are already swelling.

Bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, happens to be native here, although it is not common. It is the sugaring maple of the Pacific Northwest. A tree next to my driveway gave me enough sap to boil about four ounces of maple syrup a few years ago. That was all I needed to make the point to my colleagues who insisted that it could not be done that it really could be done.

Box elder, Acer negundo, is also native, and in riparian zones, is much more common than bigleaf maples is. I am told that is provides sap for sugaring just like any other maple does. Some say the sap is of inferior quality, or boils to cloudy syrup. Others say that it is comparable to that of any other maple.

Now that I made my point about getting a tiny bit of syrup from a bigleaf maple tree, I have no intention of sugaring again. However, sugaring season is still something that I need to be aware of. It is when I can not prune the maple trees. I can prune them earlier in winter or later in summer, but not while they are most vascularly active during sugaring season. Otherwise, they don’t stop bleeding. Even if the bleeding is harmless, it is unsightly if it stains the trunks and becomes infested with sooty mold as the weather warms.

The same rule applies to birch trees.

I pruned a few of the European white birch, Betula pendula, at work last week, believing that it was still too early for them to be too active. It was not much at all, and involved only a few small upper limbs and two significant lower limbs that had been disfigured by pruning for clearance from adjacent utility cables. I did not notice bleeding from the small stubbed limbs that I pruned from high in the canopy with a pole saw. Yet, the sap started to pour from the pruning wounds before I finished cutting away the two larger lower limbs that happened to be on the same tree. They are still bleeding now. In fact, they are bleeding so much that I feel badly that the tree is losing so much sap. If I had known how much sap would bleed, I could have put a bucket under each of the two wounds to catch the sap to make a small bit of syrup as is done in Alaska.