Category Archives: Gardening

April Showers Bring… Snow? In Southern California!

It was a strange weekend. It was supposed to be my kids’ first soccer game. That got snowed out.

We had some warning of the weird weather, but none of the parents believed me when I insisted that the games would be canceled. They said the league only cancels games for thunderstorms. Well, ice, snow, and temperatures below 40 degrees F at game time turned out to be quite sufficient to cancel as well. Good thing, since we wouldn’t have let the kids play in those temperatures anyhow. Soccer uniforms aren’t too good for that, and I can’t imagine parents sitting around watching a game in such cold weather.

I’ve come to regret thinking so much about how soccer was going to go, however. I completely forgot to consider my garden, so now we’re waiting to see what survived the cold.

So far the tomatoes look all right. The peppers looked bad with the snow on the, but might survive after all. Both are in containers, so we should have brought them in to be sure they’d be all right. We’ve done that before. It’s probably a good thing we don’t have any other vegetables planted quite yet.

We’ve been cracking a few climate change jokes. We know that climate change is a long term, global phenomenon, but when local weather gets so strange, jokes are easy to make. A bit over a week ago, we had temperatures up to 90. Makes the snow feel so much colder when you aren’t used to it anymore. And this week we may get into the 80s again, depending on how the weather really goes. The whole winter was on the unusual side, with days of pouring rain in December to where we got the usual for an entire year that week, then a dry January, and just a lot of ups and downs with the temperatures.

Now we’re just waiting for summer. Everyone I talk to is convinced it’s going to be a really hot summer. We’ll have to see how it goes.

Spring Means It’s Time to Get Your Garden Going

The cost of produce right now is pretty awful in most places. I saw tomatoes here for $2.49 a pound, cucumbers at $1.29 each. It’s pretty painful finding decent fresh produce to feed my family. On the plus side, it’s spring and time to get serious about gardening.

Just what you can do for your garden depends on the space you have available for it. You don’t have to have a back yard – a porch or patio will do for some container gardening, or even just a sunny window to grow some herbs.

The first thing you need to do is figure out what will grow well in your area. The easiest way to do that is to check with your local nurseries. This is important even if you’re going to order heirloom seeds so that you can save seed for next year to keep your garden going. You want to know what will grow well in your area, and it’s often easier to speak with someone in person than it is to find accurate information on a shopping website.

Soil is a big issue where I live. Ours is very poor, and drains quickly. If you have similar problems with your soil, I suggest you go to the nursery to find out how to improve it. A local professional will know what local conditions tend to be and what to do about it.

If you have a compost pile, you may already have some natural improvements to mix into your soil. Your compost must be well broken down or it won’t be sufficiently beneficial to the plants you’re planning on growing. This can be much better for your garden than chemical fertilizers.

What to Grow?

Deciding what to grow is an important part of any garden. I prefer a garden that is mostly vegetables, although the occasional fruit such as watermelon is always welcome. For us, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers are basics.

This is a time to get your children involved. Allow them to pick a few favorites to grow. Sugar snap peas are always a fun one, as are green beans.

If you have the space for a fruit tree, think about dedicating some space to one. It’s a long term plan and you may not get any fruit this year, but in future years you could have more than your family can handle. The plum tree my family had when I was growing up produced more than we could easily give away some years. I miss that tree.

Protect the Garden From Kids and Pets

While you should have your kids involved in planting the garden, I strongly suggest that you fence it off somehow to keep them out of it when they’re playing. It doesn’t matter if they can get in and out easily, so long as there’s something to protect the plants from accidental incursions when the kids are playing.

It can be even more important to limit the access any pets have to your garden. Dogs can dig up your garden or just walk all over the young plants. You usually can’t keep a determined cat from using nice, soft garden beds as a litter box, but you can make it a little less appealing by having a fence they have to get over .

You don’t have to get too fancy with a fence, especially if the garden is a very temporary feature for your yard or you intend to move it around. Get some posts and some lightweight fence material, pound the posts into the ground and attach the fence, and you have some basic protection for your garden.

Be Efficient With Water

Especially if you’re living in an area with watering restrictions, you need to be as efficient as possible when watering your garden. A good quality soaker hose will allow you to water your garden with minimal water use.

Watering early in the day is usually best, so the water can soak into the ground before the sun gets hot enough to evaporate most of it. You can set up a timer so that you don’t have to remember to water first thing in the morning.

In my area, I’ve found that two short watering sessions a half hour to an hour apart are more effective than a single watering session. This allows the soil to get wet enough to easily absorb the water, but also lets the first watering soak in deeper before more water is added. Our soil dries really quickly on a single watering, and this is a big difference for us.

The upfront costs of starting a garden can be a bit painful, especially if it’s your first year and you need all the supplies, with nothing left over or reusable from previous years. It does get better, and the quality produce you can grow on your own should be worth it.

Make Your Yard a Bee Friendly Space

Bees have been having trouble for a few years now, suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder, a disorder which has a name, but the cause is not yet understood. Possible causes include pesticides, varroa mites and poor nutrition due to a lack of variety in the plants they’re pollinating. You can do your part by making your yard a friendly place for bees.

This can be hard when you have kids and you worry about bee stings. So long as you teach your kids to leave the bees alone, and no one has a life threatening allergy to them, bee stings should not be a huge issue. Bee stings aren’t dangerous to most kids, just painful. If they’re dangerous to someone you love, then clearly you don’t need to encourage them to visit your yard.

Wild bees are a huge benefit to any backyard gardener. They pollinate most plants you’re likely to be growing. If you have other plants for them to enjoy, you should get them in greater numbers.

Plant Local Species

Local plants grow the best and are usually quite attractive to bees. You may want to consider species that produce a lot of flowers for the bees to enjoy. Having only a few blossoms isn’t going to bring out a lot of bees.

Bees love heather, thyme, clover, lavender, marigolds, sunflowers, roses, blackberries and many more. Ask at your local garden center if you need help finding bee friendly plants. They’ll know what’s available in your area.

Bees love to have a variety of flowers to pollinate, so don’t limit yourself to just a few.

Don’t Use Chemical Pesticides

Pesticides are one of the possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder. At the very least, spraying a pesticide when there are bees around is likely to kill those particular bees. It may also be a problem if the pesticide residue is on the flowers the bees are pollinating.

Provide Water

Just like other creatures, bees need water. It’s the perfect reason to put a small, decorative fountain in your yard. They don’t use much water, and they’re very friendly to bees and other creatures.

If you have standing water such as in a birdfeeder, make sure to change it out regularly. Standing water is an attractant to mosquitos, which lay their eggs in the water.

These things are all very simple to do, and can make a big difference in how many bees come to your yard. Treat them well and you’re helping them to grow strong colonies. Bees are a species that is vital to the cycle of food production, so helping the bees helps us all.

Suggested Reading

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

Would You Like an Owl in Your Back Yard?

My daughter recently celebrated her birthday. She wanted to see her old friends back where we used to live, and since that’s closer to family too, we went along with it. It was particularly nice because one friend’s parents offered to host.

The party went well, my daughter had hours to play with some old friends. But the biggest hit was the owl box in the back part of the yard. It had a mother barn owl, father barn owl and two almost grown baby barn owls. They were really neat to see.

Advantages of Owls

Owls are of course predators. They love to eat rodents. Our hosts reported that the gopher population in their yard appears to have significantly decreased since the barn owls took up residence in the box.

Seeing the owls was also really fascinating for the kids. An unusual bit of nature for them to see. At least two owls were visible any time anyone looked, and sometimes you could see all four crowding the door area.

Disadvantages of Owls

There was one big problem – the smell near the owl box was awful. They are predators, after all, and the remains of any food uneaten by the fledgelings plus the scents from their natural bodily functions was pretty bad. But I hear that it gets better after the babies leave, so hopefully that won’t be a problem for long.

Owls can also be noisy. I gather our friends were quite glad to have not had any complaints on this score from their neighbors.

Where to Put an Owl Box

If you want to buy an owl box, make sure you have a place to put one where the owls will feel safe, and any odor won’t bother you or the neighbors. The box we saw was at the back of a fair size yard, and you could not smell anything near the house, which I’m sure was a great relief to the owners.

It needs to be at least 15 feet above ground, and owls certainly won’t mind being higher yet. Don’t put it right where you’re going to be disturbing the owls all the time, and put it near a tree so the owls can enjoy the tree as well.

Don’t expect owls to move in right away. I know this particular box had been up for a year or so before a pair of owls moved in. It just takes time for a possible home to be found sometimes.

Could You Switch Your Lawn to Native Plants?

I’m kind of sighing here. Due to the homeowner’s association kicking up a fuss over an imperfect lawn – one spot simply refuses to grow grass, despite reseeding and trying to fix the sprinklers, my landlord is resodding the front lawn. If it were my home, I’d be looking at what else could go in there. I have the back lawn for the kids; I’d frankly rather not have a front lawn at all. Put something else in there!

A well watered lawn is attractive in its way. All nice and green. But it’s not green in the sense of being environmentally friendly, as a general rule. Most lawns get treated with harsh chemicals that then wash into sewers with every rain or runoff from the sprinklers. They take huge amounts of clean water, which is horrible for places where water resources are already strained. Most people trim their lawns with lawn mowers that have highly inefficient engines.

In short, they just aren’t that eco friendly, no matter how green the color.

A lawn is not the only path to an attractive front yard, however. If you want an attractive and eco friendly front yard, read up on xeriscaping and find some native plants.

Advantages of Native Plants

Choosing native plants for your landscaping has many advantages. They need little to no water, as they evolved to grow in the area you’re trying to grow them. That’s a nice savings on your water bill.

They’re also better adapted to the soil. This means you won’t need to spend so much time fertilizing them. If you’re using compost from your own kitchen, fertilizing isn’t so bad a deal, but when people use chemical fertilizers, as is far more common with lawns, it’s bad for the environment and frankly unhealthy for the people and pets who have to live with the chemicals there.

You can also find many beautiful native plants. It make take some searching, but most places have native plants available that you will be happy to have growing in your yard. Also plenty you’d be unhappy with, but of course you won’t be growing those.

You also won’t have to worry so much about spraying for bugs. Native plants are used to the local bugs.

You may also attract more local wildlife. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage, depending on your perspective. It’s great to encourage the local wildlife, but let’s face it – a skunk won’t be as welcome as a songbird most places.

What About the Disadvantages?

Native plants aren’t going to be perfect for everyone or every use. There’s a reason why I only want to have a front yard landscaped with native plants.

Most areas don’t have native plants that are good as a lawn, and that means it’s not so good a place for the children to play. That’s important to me as a way to encourage my kids to get outside regularly.

It can be much harder to find local plants that really suit your idea of an attractive yard, as you will have far fewer plants to choose from. This may not be a major issue in some places, but if you have a definite look you’d like to go for, it may be a real challenge.

What About Plants from Other Areas that Are Adapted to the Climate?

Nonnative plants that grow well in your area may also be tempting. They may well be a better choice than trying to grow a lawn in some ways. But they can also be problematic.

Nonnative species can become invasive, pushing out native plants in areas beyond your yard. Seeds don’t just stay put, after all. They get eaten and excreted by animals and bugs. They may get blown around by the wind. They grow where, if you knew about it, you’d really rather they didn’t.

The decision to use nonnative plants should be made carefully. They can allow you to really cut your water use and still have the yard of your dreams, but they aren’t perfect.

Especially in the Western part of the United States, it’s important to cut back on how much lawn area we grow around our homes. It uses too much water and is bad for the environment. Start taking a look at what you’re growing outside your home and start thinking about the best decisions you could make.

Ending on a Lighter Note

I have to note that the resodding is taking a really long time. We visited family over the Mother’s Day weekend, and on the way back home my oldest daughter commented in a rather disgusted tone, “I hope the sodding guys have finished the lawn.”

All parents know how hard it is to not laugh sometimes.