Horridculture – That’s Just Swale

P90424Building and environmental codes are so ridiculous. So much of what I would want in my home is now illegal. So much modern technology that I do not want is now required. Fireplaces and wood stoves are not allowed. Overly elaborate electrical systems to serve every room are necessary. I would prefer a technologically simple home comparable to those built more than a century ago, but am prohibited by law from ever constructing one.
The area outside of a home is no easier to work with. Dead trees inhabited by the wrong sorts of woodpeckers can not be cut down. Excavation can be prohibited if a particular beetle happens to be in the way. Even some of the increasingly combustible trees and overgrown vegetation have more rights on my land than I do. Now, I am a horticulturist; so I know more about vegetation management than the treehuggers formulating these laws.
Even some of the weather has more rights than people do. In some municipalities, rain that falls onto a property has the right to percolate into the soil. Rain water that drains from roofs and pavement must be provided with ‘swales’ or basins where it can do so. It can not be evicted into old drainage systems that drain into local creeks and rivers. However, such rain water must not be detained in tanks for use in the landscape through summer.
The picture above shows part of a new landscape in the middle of a new parking lot at a newly constructed building. It looks simple for a reason. It is a pair of swales. The meadow grasses conceal a pair of surprisingly deep ditches on either side of the central walkway. Rain water drains here to percolate into the ground. The soil below the walkway might have been replaced with coarse gravel to promote drainage into that area as well.
Do not park a car at the curb and try to step from the curb into a swale to get to the walkway! You could get hurt. As I mentioned, that grass is concealing ditches that are deeper than they look. It is safer to walk through the parking lot to a large paved patio like area that is out of view behind where the picture was taken from. The other option is to walk away from the building to the far end of the walkway, but really, who would do that?
Why is the walkway even there? I really don’t know. There are no curbs on it, so anyone in a wheelchair who feels so compelled to go to the far end to use it could get seriously hurt by tumbling off the edge while trying to get out of way of someone going the opposite direction! The swales are snares for walkers and baby buggies too. Perhaps the walkway is merely bait. What are the surveillance cameras really for? What sick entertainment!

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San Lorenzo River

P90210It may not look like much, but before all the rain started, the San Lorenzo river was shallow enough here to walk across. The water was clear and barely flowing. It is impossible to guess how deep it is now. It looks like cafe au lait, and is certainly flowing better than it had been. The watershed is less than a hundred and fifty square miles, so all this water is not coming from very far away.
The first picture above, of the San Lorenzo River flowing south to Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay, was taken from the western of the two windows on the south side of the Felton Covered Bridge. Experts believe this to be the best of the four windows. My Mother has an old black and white picture of my older sister, my younger brother and I looking out from this window when were just little tykes. There was a railroad bridge out there a long time ago. Only concrete foundations remain.
The second picture below, of the San Lorenzo River flowing from the Santa Cruz Mountains beyond, was taken from the western of the two windows on the north side of the Felton Covered Bridge. The San Lorenzo River flows south on this side too!
It has been raining rather well here. Boulder Creek, which is at the far north end of the San Lorenzo Valley, gets more rain than most places in California, and far more than the rain shadow region on the inland side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Local rain does nothing for the water supply of the rest of California, but is a good indication that snow is falling in the Sierra Nevada, where most of the water for much of the rest of California is stored in the snowpack.P90210+

Horridculture – Car Wash

p90116Much of California is chaparral. Much of what is not chaparral is full blown desert. Some coastal climates gets quite a bit of rain; and some climates up in the Sierra Nevada are among the snowiest places in America. Generally though, the most populous and most agriculturally productive parts of California do not get much water to spare.
I certainly do not mean to say that we do not get enough water from rain and snow. We get what the region has always gotten longer than anyone can remember. Those who do not want to live in chaparral or desert need not live in California.
If there seems to be insufficient water for all of us to share, it is merely because there are too many people wanting too much of it, and too many who profit from controlling and selling it to them. Some of us conserve water and landscape accordingly. Others have no problem with vast overly irrigated lawns.
As a horticulturist who grows horticultural commodities, I use what I must for my work. I would prefer others to conserve water in home gardening, but can not complain if they choose not to. If they do not mind paying for excessive consumption of water, that is their prerogative. If rationing becomes necessary, and they do not want to pay fines, their expensive landscapes will be damaged or ruined while mine will survive.
However, it is difficult to not be disgusted with some of the waste I observe in some landscapes. One of the landscape companies that I ‘tried’ to work for years ago regularly watered almost all of their landscapes so excessively that trees succumbed to soil saturation. We then charged significantly to remove the dead or dying trees that we were hired to take care of; hence my ‘Horridculture’ articles on Wednesdays.
We have been getting quite a bit of rain here recently, and are expecting more rain through the next several days. The cloudy blue sky in the background of these pictures was the most blue sky we had seen in quite a while, and it lasted for only a few hours. The lawn in the park here is too swampy to walk on. Just in case there is a slight possibility that there is a small scrap of it that is not sufficiently swampy, it is getting watered generously.
I know mistakes like this happen, and that those who maintain this particular park are seriously overworked and understaffed. I am annoyed about this anyway. With all the modern technology available, why does the irrigation system not know that it is raining so much? If the irrigation system lacks the sort of technology that allows it to monitor the weather, why has no one told it that it is raining so much? If it can not be contacted by telephone, why does no one who know what the irrigation schedule is stop by to disable the system, or just close valves?! Okay, so I know they are understaffed, so I can not complain about it too much.
Nor should I complain about the parking lot getting watered. I know how easy it is for a sprinkler to get knocked out of adjustment. Besides, the windows are rolled up.
However, I am now a bit more concerned about the weather. Too much rain can cause flooding and mudslides. I already know what the forecast is; and now that the car got washed, the rain could get disastrous!p90116+

FINALLY! We have RAIN!

P80103+For those who do not remember what ‘rain’ is, it is, it is those odd drops of water that fall so mysteriously from the sky in other regions. We get it here too, just very rarely, and almost exclusively within a limited season centered around winter. Rain tends to be affiliated with storms. The last storm moved through here last spring.
Rain may not be much to look at, and is nearly impossible to get a picture of, but it adds up to become a very important commodity known as ‘water’. Some believe that California does not have enough water. We natives know that there is actually plenty of water, but merely too many people in need of it, and a few of those many who capitalize on that need. Anyway, I did not even try to get a picture of the rain that is falling so nicely now, but recycled this old picture of a small volume of water in what is known as a puddle, which is merely an accumulation of water within a low spot on a flat surface.
As unpleasant as rain is to work in, we are very pleased to get it. The sky is rinsed of smoke, and despite the unpleasant news that rain will interfere with searching for remains of those killed by the Camp Fire, there is also the excellent news that the rain is falling over a large area, and making forests significantly less combustible. The formerly crispy forest is again lush and damp and sloppy. What had been a Dust Bowl down where we dump greenwaste is now an epic mud pit! Everyone here is delaying other work to clear drains on roads and roofs. The first storm of the season is always something to celebrate.

When It Rains It Pours

51118thumbFor those who do not remember ancient history, this wet stuff that fell from the sky recently is known as “rain”. It used to be more common, particularly through winter. It has an unfortunate way of getting everything exposed to it quite wet. It makes soil muddy. Yet, rain has many attributes. It is composed of water, so provides much of what irrigation systems have provided for so long in the absence of rain.

Most of us have already been using less water around the garden than in the past. Some plants have suffered, and a some may have died. Surviving lawns are probably not as green as we would like them to be. Just when we think that the garden can not get by with any less, the weather takes over. Even sporadic rain mixed in with mostly sunny weather provides significant moisture.

Not only is more moisture falling from the sky, but the plants and lawns that want it become less demanding through autumn and winter. Evergreen foliage loses less moisture to evapotranspiration (evaporation from foliar surfaces) because it is exposed to less sunlight during shorter days, and because the air is cooler and more humid. Deciduous plants drop their leaves, so do not lose moisture.

Even plants that are sheltered from rain by eaves will need less water because of the cool and humid weather, and shorter days. Some potted evergreen plants that are disproportionately large relative to their pots will likely want to be watered between the rain, only because their roots are so confined. Potted deciduous plants may need their soil moistened if the weather stays dry long enough for the soil to get dry.

Automated irrigation systems need to be adjusted for the changing weather. Some systems may need to be adjusted a few times. By the time the weather gets reliably rainy and cool later in winter, some irrigation systems can be temporarily disabled until the weather gets warmer and drier in spring. Not only does this conserve water; it also makes over-watering and soil saturation less likely.

Watering Starts Where Rain Finishes

70607thumbFor a while last winter, it seemed like the rain would never stop. Obviously, it did. The warm spring weather that followed helped plants to take advantage of the rare surplus of moisture. Desert wildflowers were more colorful than they had been in many years, and maybe since 1983 in some areas. Now the weather is back to normal for here, and we must water our gardens accordingly.

There is nothing natural about irrigation (watering); but then, there is nothing natural about gardening or landscaping. Most of the plants in common landscapes are not native. They were imported from vastly diverse regions with very different climates. Because this happens to be a semi-arid ‘chaparral’ climate, most plants want more moisture than they would get here naturally from rain.

Adapting unnatural irrigation to unnatural landscaping sounds easy enough. The problem is that the many different types of plants from so many different climates each want something different. Also, some plants need unnaturally frequent irrigation to sustain unnatural behavior. For example, lawn grass that would naturally go dormant after a dry summer needs water to stay green all year.

Lawn grasses have finely textured roots near the surface of the soil, so want frequent irrigation. Trees within lawns might want larger volumes of water to reach lower roots, but do not like frequent irrigation that keeps the surface of the soil moist. The sort of regular irrigation that is good for lawn promotes shallow tree roots that ruin lawns and pavement, and are not exactly ideal for stability.

Automated irrigation is usually set to operate very early in the morning, and finish before anyone in the home is likely to be outside, or using much water inside. (Other water use can compromise pressure.) Less water evaporates before the sun comes up. Watering before midnight might seem like a better idea, but keeps foliage wetter longer, so might promote fungal diseases such as mildew. Frequency and duration (volume) of irrigation require occasional adjustments to adapt to the weather.

Happy Easter!

P80401Happy Easter!

This is one of those holidays when no one should work, which is why I wrote this a few days ago, and scheduled it to post today. I hope you are not reading this today. You have more important things to do. Lent and the forty days of fasting that goes with it are over, so you can eat all the Easter eggs and anything else you want.

The only work that should be done today are chores that can not be delayed until tomorrow. With the weather warming (at least in our region), watering might be one of those chores. For most parts of the garden, this might be the first watering since autumn. Although the rain has been meager, cool weather had kept things damp until now. Resuming watering is typically an easy task. It sounds simple enough. Water is water – right?

I get all sorts of unexpected questions in my work. In autumn, I sometimes get asked about trees that were planted in spring or summer that are suddenly turning yellow and dropping leaves; and must explain that the seemingly sickly trees are merely deciduous and defoliating for winter, which can be a major disappointment if evergreen foliage was needed. Then there are the questions about the five pound kumquat that is actually a shaddock fruit on an overgrown sucker (understock from below the graft).

About this time, many years ago, I got a call about a sad #5 (5 gallon) pistache street tree that had been planted while bare during the previous autumn. The client who planted it wanted to do what was best, so planted it in autumn so that it could settle in slowly while dormant through winter, and get an early start dispersing roots in spring. Generous rain that year provided more water than the tree needed through winter. As the rain ran out, and the weather warmed, buds swelled and began to pop. The client who planted the tree was very careful to water it when she thought it was necessary, but the new foliage immediately started to get discolored and distorted. Her remedy was to give it more water, but the health of the tree continued to decline as quickly as it was trying to foliate.

I asked all the typical questions about the tree, but only determined that it was not lacking water, and probably was not getting too much water. The symptoms exhibited by the foliage suggested soil saturation and poor drainage, but the soil drained well, and the roots seemed to be firm. I was baffled, until the client mentioned something very unexpected. I had to ask her to clarify.

She loved the tree so much that she wanted to give it the best water she could obtain. Every day, on her way back from downtown San Jose, she stopped at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph to procure a gallon of Holy Water to water it with!

That was a new one. I then had the sad duty of explaining to her that her devotion to the tree was what was killing it. The Holy Water that she had so diligently been giving it was saline. After Holy Water is blessed, some gets stored for upcoming baptisms, and the rest gets blessed salt mixed into it, mainly for sanitation. It was this salinity that was so toxic to the tree.

After a lot of fresh water was rinsed through the root system, the tree started to recover almost immediately, and eventually resumed healthy growth. The client telephoned the following autumn as the tree was coloring to inform me that it had been restored to good health, and grown through summer as if nothing had ever happened.

Na2CO3•NaHCO3•2H2O

P80321Trona

That is what this seemingly disorganized jumble of letters and numbers represents; the chemical formula for the mineral known as trona. It is what a certain small town in the very northwestern corner of San Bernardino County is named for. Trona is one of a few minerals mined and refined there. Apparently, not much else happens there.

Trona the town is about as out of the way as one can get in the contiguous United States of American. Death Valley to the northeast at least gets tourists. Not much flora survives in the hellish summer heat and caustically saline soil. The athletic field at Trona High School is famous for being grassless dirt. Even the now defunct golf course was dirt. Roofs are more important for providing shade than for keeping the four inches of annual rainfall out. A leaky house is more likely to petrify before it rots. The inertly arid air, roasting heat and acrid drifting minerals seems to sterilize and embalm even abandoned houses. The Google Satellite image shows how boringly uniform the factory tract houses are. Many are now abandoned. Some are missing.

Why am I mentioning Trona here? Because horticulture is so limited in Trona. There might not be many better places in America for a horticulturist who lives amongst dense forests of the tallest trees in the world to go on vacation! There are so few distractions! The vast desert extends for miles in every direction, with only a few plants surviving in home gardens in town. The satellite image shows how empty the gardens are. A single lawn can not be found. Even artificial turf is notably absent, perhaps because no one wants to go outside in such horrid weather.

I suppose that I will never know until I go there.

RAIN!?

10914This is not sequel to ‘SNOW!?’ from yesterday.

Nor is it a sequel to any of the other brief article about rain in the past.

I just recycled the picture because I still find it to be amusing.

If you are a native of California like I am, and are wondering what ‘rain’ is; I have already explained it sufficiently in previous articles. Basically, it is those unfamiliar droplets of water that fall mysteriously from the sky and get everything wet. Look it up if you must.

The article that I posted earlier this morning was recycled from this time last year, long before I started posting articles here. Our rain has actually been very deficient. It has rained only a few times this season.

We tend to talk about rain often here because it is so important to us. So much of California gets such a limited supply. Although our annual rainfall is technically sufficient, and has been sufficient longer than anyone can remember, there are millions of people living here who need the water that it provides. Fluctuations of weather are normal, but are somewhat distressful for those of us who are aware of how weather affects the water supplies that rely on rainfall. Much of the population of California gets water from surprisingly remote sources that are much more reliable than local sources. However, some regions rely on local aquifers that are sustained by local rainfall.

The ‘mostly’ good news for now is that is it raining presently. Seriously! It is raining; and is expected to continue raining through Saturday.

I say that this is ‘mostly’ good news because so much rain within a short time is likely to be disastrous to areas burned by wildfires just a few months ago. Floods and mudslides could, and are actually expected to cause significant damage near Montecito and in other areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Highway 101 could be closed again.

We just can’t seem to get it right. If we get enough rain, vegetation in wildlands becomes more combustible. If the combustible vegetation burns, the burned area is more susceptible to mudslides and flooding if we get enough rain again in the subsequent season. So, major wildfires, as well as mudslides and floods, are less likely if we do not get enough rain. If we get enough rain, we are more likely to get a messy situation.

Rain Makes Watering Seem Obsolete

IMG_1921Watering has not been much of a concern lately. All the rain has kept our gardens too wet to work in. Some of us have been more concerned with erosion caused by runoff. Automated irrigation systems are probably disabled until the rain stops. Soil can drain somewhat between rain, but will not really dry out until the weather gets warm again. Dormant plants do not draw much moisture.

However, as strange as it may seem, there are a few plants that might want to be watered. Potted plants on roofed porches are sheltered from rain, just like houseplants. They will not dry out nearly as quickly as they would during warm summer weather, but they do eventually get dry if not occasionally watered. Hanging pots and small pots containing big plants typically dry out faster.

Plants that were moved onto porches for shelter from frost can be moved out into the rain if that would be easier than watering them. It is very unlikely that they will be damaged by frost this late. Besides, as long as it is raining, the weather can not get cold enough for frost. (In fact, any frost damage that was left through winter can be pruned away now that fresh new growth is developing.)

Small plants in the ground under big eaves might need to be watered as well, if they have not been in the ground long enough to disperse their roots beyond the eaves. Annuals do not last that long. Mature plants might have dispersed their roots well enough to get enough moisture from outside. They might not notice if the soil inside is too dry, as long as the weather is cool and humid.

Houseplants are of course in a league of their own, and as long as they are inside the home, get no water from rain. They might need less watering in winter if the home stays cooler; or they might need slightly more watering if the home heating system reduces humidity. Regardless, some might enjoy going outside to a spot sheltered from the wind, for a brief rinse from a mild rain shower.

Eventually, the weather will get warmer and drier, and automated irrigation systems will need to be reactivated. When that happens, the emitters and sprinklers should be checked for efficient function. While inactive over winter, they can get grungy or clogged with mineral deposits. Plants will not need much water early in the season. Irrigation increases as spring and summer progress.