Sunday, December 20, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: It's Dead, Jim

The grass is now mostly khaki, not green. We had a 1-night cold spell and the temperature dropped to just below freezing. Apparently that's enough to trigger dormancy, because over the next week or so the green color vanished. This picture was taken December 12th.

The next question will be "How soon does it get green"? Read more!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: Almost Thanksgiving, Still Green

As the title says, I'm still waiting for the grass to go dormant. Daytime temperatures have been in the 70s and nights about 50 for the past couple weeks. The grass is still growing, but more slowly. I'll probably mow it one more time this year.

Wayne Thorsen, Mr. Buffalo Grass, was here in early November. He doesn't know if the UC Verde cultivar will go dormant at all in this climate. It seems that I'm the on the cutting (mowing?) edge, and have the oldest UC verde lawn in the Phoenix area. Finally I'm trendy!

It's hard to photograph, but there is a faint purple tinge on the tips of the blades, which may be a sign it's going dormant. There are a few annual weeds sprouting through the grass,but nothing like the army of them we had this spring. Read more!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Okra Seeds as a Coffee Substitute?

One of the burning garden controversies of the 1840s was using okra seeds for coffee. The proponents were proclaiming it as the best thing since ... well, coffee.
Okra Seeds A Substitute For Coffee.—We find in the papers* a letter signed J. F. Callen, addressed to H. L. Ellsworth, declaring that the seeds of Garden Okra, when roasted and used as coffee cannot be distinguished therefrom, and many who have tried it pronounce it equal to the best 'Java.' The beverage is perfectly healthy, and as the seed is easily raised, he thinks it "destined at no distant day, to expel from our markets one of the most extensive articles of import."
We know how expelling coffee from our markets worked.

The comment from the editor was: "This sounds rather windy — but the matter can soon be decided by experiments, and we should be glad if some of our readers who have raised a surplus of of the seeds this season would try them as coffee and let us know the result." Ohio Cultivator vol. 1 No. 1 Columbus, Ohio, January 1, 1845

In the interest of science I sacrificed a half-cup of seeds and an hour of my time to toast and brew up some okra seeds. The resulting concoction was drinkable. With a bit of practice, you could make a brown, mellow-tasting, tolerable substitute for decaffeinated coffee. It was definitely better than Postum or Sanka.


Ingredients: 1/2 cup ripe okra seeds
  1. Put a heavy skillet on medium heat for about 10 minutes to pre-heat.
  2. Dump the seeds into the skillet and stir them frequently or shake the skillet.
    The seeds will go from dark green-black to light gray, then start turning brown
  3. Keep stirring at least until the seeds start popping open - about 10 minutes. You can roast them longer, but cover the skillet or they will be all over the kitchen.
    (this would be a good place to use an old-fashioned popcorn pan)
  4. Remove the seeds from the skillet and let them cool.
  5. Grind the seeds in something (I used a coffee grinder) until they look like coffee. They are brittle and grind faster than real coffee. 
  6. Brew, using about half as much water as you would for real coffee. Or twice as much okra as you would coffee.
*Instead of the blogosphere posting and commenting, our ancestors used a primitive "store and forward" technology called small town newspapers. Editors subscribed to many papers and routinely reprinted anything they thought their own readers would find interesting.
Read more!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Oh Rats! It's a Real Rat!

The mystery rodent of late August has been identified. R.I.P. Rattus rattus, who was found floating in the swimming pool today, dead. This is annoying, because they are the attic-invading, wire-chewing sort of rats. It's time to alert the neighborhood.

Rattus rattus, the "black rat" has recently invaded Phoenix, where the abundant citrus drop in some suburbs provides it with food. You can discourage them by meticulous attention to cleaning up dropped fruit and clutter that provides them with habitat.

I have compost heaps, a woodpile, tomato jungles, and many seed-bearing plants. This is not going to be easy. At least I only have one citrus tree left. Read more!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: 6 Months Later

Six months into this experiment, I'm happy with the buffalo grass's performance. So are the quail.

There are still some questions about buffalo grass performance in Phoenix:
  • When will it turn brown this fall?
  • When will it green up next spring?
  • How easy or hard will getting rid of the remains of the Bermuda grass be?
  • How little water can it get and still stay reasonably green next summer?
  • What will it look like with no mowing?

The claims that have been verified, at least in my lawn, are that buffalo grass needs less mowing and less water than Bermuda grass. I have mowed the lawn 5 or 6 times since it was installed, compared to the 4 or more times a month that Bermuda grass requires. It needs less water to stay green than Bermuda grass - 40% less in my experience, perhaps even less than that next year.
Read more!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Tomatoes: The Second Season

I saw a 6-pack of locally grown Early Girl tomato seedlings at the big box nursery yesterday, which reminded me to remind you: We get another chance at killing growing tomatoes between now and the first frosts.

Here's the secret. Use varieties that can mature a crop in a very short time. Almost anything with "Early" in its name, or "short season" in its description will be able to grow, flower, and ripen fruit in the three or four months we have before a hard freeze. If it can produce fruit in a Montana summer (both months of it), then producing fruit during fall and early winter in Phoenix should be no problem.

The supposed "first frost" date is mid-November, but with a tiny bit of protection you can keep tender plants going until we get the big freeze that almost always happens in late December or early January.

Buy them as 6-12 inch transplants in six-packs and plant them in an area that gets a bit of afternoon shade now, or provide some shade with burlap, but pick an area that will be in full sun later in the year.
Read more!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Oh Rats! I have RATS!

See this woodland creature nomming on the mesquite beans by my barbecue? It's a rat! My dilemma is deciding whether it is a native rat or an alien species of rat. Should I feel flattered that I have created a welcoming micro-habitat or should I plan its demise?

The suspect imports are the wharf rat (Rattus norvegicus) or the black rat (Rattus rattus). Wharf rats have small eyes and ears, black rats have large eyes and ears. So it's not a wharf rat. Phoenix has an expanding infestation of black rats: wire-chewing, attic dwelling, flea-infested rats of the kind that was common during the Black Death.

The suspect native rodents are the cotton rat (Sigmodon arizonae) and the pack rat (Neotoma albigula). Both have big eyes and ears. Cotton rats have tails that are definitely shorter than their bodies, and Ratso here has a tail as long as his body. So it's not a cotton rat.

The hard step is deciding whether I have a black rat (very bad) or a pack rat (not so bad). The biggest difference between the two is that a black rat's tail is naked and a pack rat's tail is covered with short hair. From this picture, it's hard to tell.

More later, on the same Rat Channel.
Read more!

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Finally we're getting a summer rainstorm. (The summer rainy season usually starts in early July.) There were some out of season showers during the last week of May and then nothing for over two months but a few clouds, some virga, and just enough rain to make the windshield dirty. This storm looks serious.

If you see the arrows - that's the direction the storms are moving. When two (or more) storms collide, it can get violent. Read more!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: Week 20 Confessing the Mistakes

This is the post where I point out my errors, hoping you won't commit the same ones.

The weather, and some lack of foresight on my part, made the conversion go less smoothly than it might have. None of the errors were serious - in only 3 months I grew a nice lawn - but they have created more work than was necessary.

NOTE: My planting schedule was constrained by having plants shipped from Nebraska - I was caught between their earliest shipping date and my desire to get the plants here before the Arizona heat set in and made it risky to ship them and miserable to plant them. This will be less of an issue for anyone planning now because there will be resellers in Tucson and Phoenix soon.

Bermuda Grass Control: I should have started Bermuda control the previous fall, because it wasn't quite out of dormancy when we planted the buffalo grass. The heavy watering while the buffalo was being established encouraged the Bermuda. Despite spot spraying and pulling, there are still some thriving patches of Bermuda in the lawn. Unless the two grasses go into and out of dormancy at the same time (still unknown), I'll be able to spray the Bermuda with glyphosate while the buffalo is dormant.

Killing the existing Bermuda will be especially important for anyone who is planting plugs into an existing lawn without having it stripped of old sod. It requires several applications of glyphosate done while the Bermuda is well-watered and actively growing to get a good kill rate.

Annual Weed Control:
Applying broadleaf weed killers in Arizona is controlled by the temperature - despite being for "broad-leaved weeds", the herbicides will damage turf grasses if they are applied when it's too hot. Their definition of "too hot" means spraying weeds is not an option during most of the Phoenix weed-growing season.

I should have used a pre-emergent to control annual weeds. Hand-pulling got the worst of them, but it was extremely time-consuming. Applying pre-emergent this fall and next spring should get them under control.

Soil Preparation:
The buffalo grass arrived the day before the sprinkler system was installed. Again, this would have been better done sooner than it was, to give me time to let the tilled-in compost settle, refill low spots along the sprinkler tranches, and for the first crop of annual weeds to sprout and be killed.

A lawn roller would have been useful before planting to make the soil firmer, and after planting to make sure the plugs were in solid contact with the soil.

I filled in the worst of the low spots and will touch up the levelling while the lawn is dormant.

Sprinkler Installation: I forgot to tell the installers to use 6" pop-ups, which means I have to mow the buffalo grass or it starts blocking the the water distribution.

Fortunately, they used sprinkler bodies that allow me to retrofit 6" popups without having to dig up the lawn. As soon as the pop-ups are changed out, I should be able to let the buffalo grass go unmowed.

Read more!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Watching Grass Grow : Week 16 Water Saving?

The main claim that attracted me to the UC Verde strain of Buffalo grass was the claim that it would require less water than Bermuda Grass after it was established.

Here it is, 4 months after setting out the plugs. It's a lawn, it's green, and it's not stressed by the temps hovering near the 110°F mark. It was 112° when I took the picture and scurried back onto air-conditioned safety.

And how is the water consumption? Keep reading. I updated the calculations, and it's using less than I thought it was.

Every sprinkler system is a bit different, so the first thing to do is measure the water delivered in 15 minutes. It's the "tuna can" method explained here. Small pet food cans also work. Any container that is flat-bottomed, straight-sided, and a couple inches deep will do.

Lawn Water Calculator for Phoenix. The tuna can method will also reveal any over- and under-watered spots.

After measuring how much water was in each can, I entered the measurements into the calculator. The calculator is based on watering every third day - not optimal for Bermuda, but many people have a problem watering less often. At least it's better than watering every day.

According to the calculator, if the lawn were established Bermuda, It should be watered for 15 minutes every three days. I'm watering 15 12 minutes every four days, which is only 75% 60% of the water recommended for Bermuda. Already! YAY!

The lawn is not mature - the vendor of the Buffalo grass told me it will use less as the root system goes deeper. He also said that UC Verde is the only one of the buffalo grass cultivars that truly thrives in heat. That's good, because Phoenix has had temperatures mostly above 105°F for the past couple of weeks and there's no relief in sight.
Read more!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Watching Grass Grow Week 15: Turf, I haz it!

Wow, give buffalo grass a week or two of 105°F+ (over 40°C for you metric people) with Arizona monsoon humidity and it turns into turf! Real, fine-bladed grassy lawn kind of turf!

The annual weeds are quitting faster than an Alaskan governor, and the Bermuda grass is ducking for cover like a politician caught hiking the Argentine trail. Even the spurge is being displaced.

I am watering every 4 days, which is enough to keep an established Bermuda grass lawn alive, and the UC Verde buffalo grass is green and looks and feel like a LAWN!

Even the small area that is getting less than half the water as the rest of the lawn (because the sprinklers need adjusting) is still looking like lawn. It's clearly drought-stressed, but not dead, and I fixed the sprinkler problem. It's still turf, just not tall turf.

I am hard to impress, but ... I'm impressed. If this could be sold as sod, it would be perfect, but 3 to 4 months establishing the plugs is a minor investment of time compared to the saving water and mowing time I'm going to be enjoying next year.

I'll point out where I screwed up establishing the lawn in a later post.

Read more!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Watching Grass Grow and Be Eaten : Week 14

Buffalo grass passes the doggy taste test. The photo was taken a couple of months ago, and she still likes to eat the grass.

Like any grass, however, it does get brown spots if the dog urinates on it.
Read more!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Watching Grass and Weeds Grow : Week 13

Birds love my buffalo grass lawn, or maybe it's the weed seeds!

This are three species of Arizona doves. The tiny one is an Inca dove. They are often mistaken for the babies of other dove species, but they are just sparrow-sized doves. A mourning dove is at the upper right, and a whitewing is in the foreground. Whitewings are the biggest of the native doves.

Doves: Whitewing, Mourning and Inca

The annual weeds are slowly being eliminated as I hand-pull them. After a section has been cleared of weeds, the buffalo grass is so thick that new ones can't sprout.

I wish I had used a pre-emergent, but it's too late now.

Bermuda grass is still emerging in a few places. Itjavascript:void(0) will continue to be a pest for quite a while.
Read more!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Watching Grass Grow Week 12: Baby's Second Haircut

The buffalo grass responded to the first mowing by sending out a lot of side growth and getting thicker, so I mowed it again!

Weaning it off water starts real soon, when the relative humidity goes up. Right now it's getting watered every other day, so I'll go to three days, then four, increasing the length of the waterings as I decrease the number.

Read more!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Watching Grass Grow Week 11: Baby's First Haircut

I wasn't planning to mow the lawn until after the summer rainy season started, but I noticed that the grass nearest the sprinklers was tall enough to block the spray. That gives it more water, it grows even better and it's a self-feeding monster.

June 3, before the mowing, showing the obvious clumps where the plugs were planted.

June 6, after mowing. There's not much difference, except that the highest clumps were shortened a couple of inches. The grid pattern is still obvious.

It's making nice turf in spots. The grass has thinner blades than Bermuda, and makes a softer lawn. It's easy to mow, not nearly as "juicy" as rye or bluegrass.

Read more!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Watching Grass and Weeds Grow: Week 10

This week I have some comparison photos. I took these by standing at the edge of the patio, with the camera pointed straight down.

March 24, 2009 is really wimpy. It's a few days after planting.

April 27, 2009 is not much better, and the weeds are sprouting.

May 21, 2009 is starting to look like it might be a lawn. The runners are criss-crossing the bare patches and starting to root.

June 3, 2009 shows it's getting dense and almost needs mowing in this spot. Not all of the lawn is like this, but most of it looks at least like the previous picture. This is only 2 1/2 months after planting the plugs at the maximum recommended spacing. There are a few weeds, but it's choking most of them out.

Read more!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Misfenestration: Word of the day?

You've done it, it's embarrassing, but you didn't know what to call it when you typed in the wrong chat window.

Misfenestration! If one can defenestrate, one can certainly commit fenestration wrongly and misfenestrate. Read more!

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Rest of the Garden

When I'm not obsessing over the lawn, I'm growing heat-tolerant, extremely productive vegetables like tomatillos, tomatoes, squash, chili peppers, eggplant, and okra.

Along with the lawn's watering system, we installed several lines for drip irrigating. Two lines are for the few landscape plants that aren't able to survive in Phoenix without a bit of supplemental water, and the rest are for herb and vegetable garden plots. Read more!

Watching Grass and Weeds Grow: Week 9

It's Memorial Day. I'm sitting in the shade with a beer! We had several cool, cloudy days with light rain, which is unusual for May, and now it's back to the usual hot and dry.

The Buffalo grass continues to spread, and weeding by hand is making slow progress. The grass is spreading and rooting under the spurge where the dirt is cooler and moist all day.

Pics are coming, I promise. Read more!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Watching Grass and Weeds Grow: Week 8

Not using a pre-emergent to prevent weed growth in a new lawn area is a major mistake, especially in Phoenix. The abundant water has encouraged astounding numbers of weeds to sprout. Arizona's warm-weather weeds are mostly waxy-leaved like spurge, or fuzzy-leaved desert plants, and herbicides aren't absorbed well. Most of the weeds barely slowed down when I sprayed them with a broad-leaf weedkiller.

Most broad-leaf weed killers can't be applied to turf grass when the temperatures are above 85°F, which happens really early in the morning in Phoenix. Some herbicides specify that the daily maximum temperature can't exceed 85, which makes them useless here.

I'm hand-weeding, which in a way is good, because in the course of pulling the broad-leaved weeds I find a lot of small surviving Bermuda grass clumps that are coming from the deep roots. Left alone, these would be huge and well-rooted in a couple of months.

The buffalograss is thriving despite the weeds. The plugs have turned into dense clumps the size of dessert plates, and there are only a few patches of dirt the runners haven't reached.
Read more!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Watching Grass and Weeds Grow: Week 7

Good grief! I had forgotten how much of a pest spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata) can be in a well-watered area of exposed dirt. What I should have done was apply a pre-emergent, but the schedule didn't permit. Fortunately, spurge is an annual weed so I get another chance next year.

The buffalo grass is sending its runners right over the top of the ground-hugging spurge, so maybe it can choke it out.

The areas where we planted the extra plugs with 9-inch spacing has a dense mesh of runners covering the soil and spurge between the plugs, with some dense satellite clumps from the earliest runners. If your budget can handle the added cost (4 times as many plugs to plant for 9-inch spacing compared to 18-inch spacing) you could have decent coverage by mid-June with a late March or early April planting. Read more!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Watching Grass Grow and Weeds Die: Week 6

The weeds are finally starting to discolor and shrivel, and I spent half an hour tracking down and spot-spraying glyphosate on any Bermuda grass sprouts I could find. I even found a pine seedling, probably left from all the pine needles, cones, and other debris that I used to compost before the neighbors removed their overgrown trees.

I forgot to turn off the sprinkler system for the required 48 hours, which washed off the herbicide. So I had to spray again. I was so focused on getting the dosage I forgot that many herbicides are slow to penetrate the leaves.

The buffalo grass is mostly thriving. Most of the plugs are much denser, and runners are zooming out in all directions. They seem to have a built-in moisture detector, because the plugs along the edge of the sprinkled area are sending more runners towards the wet dirt than the dry dirt.

About 5% of the plugs are alive but not sending out new leaves or runners. It they don't start doing something soon the more vigorous ones will run over them. Read more!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Buffalo Grass v.s. Bermuda Grass (what to kill)

If you are replacing a Bermuda grass lawn with buffalo grass, you will have to kill any Bermuda that survived the pre-planting attempts to kill it. There will be sprouts for several months, maybe even years, depending on how long the Bermuda Grass had to become established. You can either dig out the sprouts, removing as much of the roots as possible, or carefully spray them with a grass-killing herbicide. I'm doing both, depending on how close the Bermuda grass sprout is to the buffalo grass.

They are both grasses, and both spread by runners across the soil. So how do you tell them apart? Look at the way the leaves grow.

This is Bermuda grass. The leaves come out almost opposite to each other. As the runner gets longer, a new pair of leaves will push out of the growing tip.

This is buffalo grass. Only the leaves at the tip are paired. The leaves on the runners are not paired. The growing tip will leave one of the blades behind on the stem as the runner gets longer.

More Bermuda grass. It typically has the blades parallel to the ground, flat side up to catch as much sun as possible. The leaves are mostly in pairs.

More buffalo grass. It tends to send the sprouts upward instead of flat to the ground.

Read more!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Watching Grass and Weeds Grow : Week 5

This week I was watching the weeds. The constant moisture that it takes to get the grass to spread is encouraging a huge crop of weeds. I identify spotted spurge, wild chamomile, tomatillos*, lots of junk grasses, annual bluegrass, cranesbill and others. I don't like to use herbicides, but there are too many weeds to control by hand pulling and using the scuffle hoe would rip out the spreading grass runners.

My recommendation for anyone trying to establish a buffalo grass lawn - or any kind of lawn - would be to start in the fall. Prepare the soil then. Water it well in early spring to get the annual weeds to sprout so you can kill them with glyphosate before the grass is planted, and use a pre-emergent to get the stragglers. I didn't, for compelling scheduling reasons, and am having to compensate by applying chemicals I don't normally use.

After a lot of researching what works for buffalo grass (there is not much information yet) ... it was time for some chemical warfare against the weeds with a broadleaf weed killer that has a mix of 2, 4 D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), Mecoprop (methylchlorophenoxypropionic acid), and Dichlorprop.

As usual, I read the label, used the lowest recommended dose and followed ALL the instructions carefully. Buffalo grass is reputed to be more sensitive to broadleaf weed killer than some turf grasses, especially if the herbicide is applied on a hot day. I sprayed early in the morning on a day when the highest temperature was predicted to be below 90° F. I'm now watching for the weeds to start dying.

Grass News: In a the small area we planted with 9-inch spacing to use the few extra plugs, the runners from the clumps are touching the other clumps. In the areas with 18-inch spacing, a few runners are a foot long. If your budget can handle the extra expense, I recommend buying enough plugs for 9-inch spacing.

*Perhaps tomatillos are not considered to be a weed, but a couple hundred tomatillos sprouting in the lawn takes them out of the garden vegetable category. The seeds may have been spread by birds, or were in the compost we spread. Read more!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: Week 4

The grower, Todd Valley Farms in Nebraska, assures me, "As soon as the heat hits the plugs will explode". But they didn't define "heat". Is it 70°F (warm in buffalo grass's native area), 80°, or what? This month has seen daytime high temperatures from the low 60s to the low 90s, with as much as a 30° jump or drop between days. Overnight lows are in the 40s and 50s.

That's typical for Arizona at this time of year.

The grower didn't define "explode" either. How fast can this stuff grow in a week of 90° days with a generous helping of water and nitrogen-rich mesquite bean compost? I wish I had time-lapse photography for this, because the forecast is for increasingly warmer weather and maybe 100° by Tuesday.

There are more runners than last week, but it's not obvious unless you look carefully. Read more!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why "Affiliate" Marketing Sucks!

Affiliate marketing must sound fabulous to a business - pay a small commission and you multiply your web presence by hundreds or thousands of pages, all pointing back to your site and your products. Instead of a tiny hook with bait, you have a bloody trawler net. There's no way customers can escape your reach.

To the affiliates, it must sound like a great deal too. Just put up a web page, using content provided by the merchant, sit back and watch the commissions roll in.

To the would-be buyer, however, it sucks! It just plain sucks! Here's my latest experience with on-line shopping and affiliate marketing. I needed a part for my truck - nothing big, just a new knob for the AC control switch.

Can I find a knob for the AC switch using Google? No! There were hordes of affiliate sites clogging the search engines, each claiming to have the part I need, but they seldom even had a link to a site that perhaps might have had what I needed. The affiliates prevented me from getting to the site they are affiliated with by their sheer numbers.

It's like wading through a mob of aggressive panhandlers near the Berkeley BART station ... all of them saying "ME! ME! CLICK ME DAMMIT!"

Let's not even talk about the "AdSense optimized" sites that had all the keywords I was looking for, but no products, just more ads. Many of them may be ex-AdSense sites by now, because I took URLs and hope Google will kick butt.

Frustrated by the clogs of affiliates, all selling the same knobs - I do not want a skull on my AC switch knob, really I don't, nor does a blue glow-in-the-dark Iron Cross appeal to me - I finally searched Froogle for: AC switch knob chevy

I found one! Just ONE parts dealer, no affiliates, no swarming click-begging affiliates, and the seller didn't pay a commission to anyone. I'll definitely be using Froogle instead of Google from now on.

Sod off, you annoying affiliates!

Read more!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Artichoke

Urban Quail-boy up to no good!

I have mixed feelings about the flocks of Gambel’s quail that roam the neighborhood. On the one hand, they are handsome native birds, eat weed seeds, and I know I should be honored to have the mob strolling through the landscaping. On the other hand, they devour the fresh tender leaves from my vegetables, make dust wallows in the cilantro patch, and dig holes in the mulch. Here’s one of them in the spring, deciding which part of the landscape he’s going to attack next.

It is definitely a male - notice the rust-colored head, black belly patch and large topknot feathers.

The tomato cages are partly for future support of the eggplant, but mostly to prevent the dogs from tag-team wrestling on top of them while the plants are small. By July the eggplant were 3 feet tall and bearing a dozen or more fruits a week.

The flowering plant in the background is called Desert Mallow or Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua). It’s a weed, but a pretty one. In addition to the salmon color seen here, which is the most common color, other plants bloom in white or shades of lavender, pink, orange or an almost-red.

Read more!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: Week 3

Rough week for plants - we had a late winter storm run through with pounding rain, some hail and strong winds. The grass is still alive! Although a few plugs are wispy and wan, I still have 100% survival of the 600+ planted plugs.

There are some visible results to report. Some of the plugs have sent out fresh runners 6 to 9 inches long. The runners are easy to overlook, because they are thin and wiry, but the runners are rooting and sprouting blades of grass from their nodes. Other plugs are sending up fresh blades and increasing the density of the clumps.

Grass Runner, bolting for freedom

The various tree seeds continue to sprout in the lawn area, as do the weeds. The quail are earning their keep: fresh baby cheeseweed is one of their favorite foods. They inspect the lawn area that is farthest from the house and eat many of the weeds. That leaves me to weed the more exposed areas where the quail don't want to feed.

The Bermuda grass is still sprouting, despite glyphosate treatment of every sprout I see. Read more!

Friday, April 10, 2009

John Evelyn's Kalendarium Hortense - February

February is the month for preparing the orchards, the fruit trees in the walled gardens, and planting the hardiest vegetables and flowers.

Hath xxviii days, — long 9h — 24m
Sun rises 7h — 13m — Sets 4h — 45m

To be done
In the Orchard and Olitory-Garden.

The rising and setting of the sun was computed for the first of the month, for London.
PRUNE Fruit-Trees and Vines as yet; for now is your Season to bind, plath, nail and dress, without danger of Frost : This is to be understood of the most tender and delicate Wall-Fruit, not finish'd before; do this before the buds and bearers grow turgid; and yet in the Nectarine and like delicate Mural-Fruit, the later your Pruning the better, whatever has been, and still is, the contrary Custom.Bind, plath, and nail = fastening the trees to their walls.

Dress = covering the pruning scars, usually with pitch or wax.

He is opposing the custom of pruning frost-tender trees early.

And let your Gard'ner endeavour to apply the Collateral Branches of his Wall-Fruits, as near as possible he can (without Violation and unnatural bending and reverting) to the Earth or Borders; so as the Fruit (when grown) may almost touch the Ground : The rest of the Branches following the same Order, will display the Tree like a Ladies Fan, and repress the common exuberance of the leading and middle Shoots, which usually make a too hasty an advance : a Gard'ner expert in this, and the right Art of Pruning, may call himself a Workman sans Reproch.
A well-shaped espalier fruit tree can be a very productive tree, and in the walled gardens of the time, would have been beautiful in bloom. Evelyn prefers the fan shape, but various arrangements of parallel and diagonal branches were created.
Remove Graffs of former years Graffing. Cut and lay Quick-sets; and trim up your Palisade Hedges and Espaliers. Plant Vines as yet, other Shrubs, Hops, &c.
Remove last year's grafts that didn't succeed.
Set all sorts of Kernels and stony Seeds, which Field-Mice will certainly ruine, before they sprout, unless prevented : Also sow Beans, Pease, Rouncevals, Corn-sallet, Marigold, Anniseeds, Radish, Parsenips, Carrots, Onions, Garlick, &c. And plant Potatoes in your worst Ground.Rouncevals = a variety of pea, known for its large size.
Corn-sallet = Valerianella olitoria, a plant used much like lettuce
Anniseeds = Pimpinella anisum, or anise. The leaves were used in salads, stews and soups.

Now is your Season for Circumposition by Tubs or Baskets of Earth, and for laying of Branches to take root. You may plant forth your Cabbage-Plants.Circumposition = planting heavily pruned trees in containers. It produces a dwarfed tree.

Laying of branches = propagating plants by burying the partly severed branch until it roots at the cut, then separating it from the parent.

Plant forth = transplanting seedlings or young plants that were started indoors.

Rub Moss off your Trees after a soaking Rain, and scrape, and cleanse them of Cankers, &c. Draining away the wet (if need require) from the too much moistned Roots, and earth up those Roots of your Fruit-Trees, if any were uncover'd. Continue to dig and manure, if weather permit. Cut off the Webs of Caterpillars, &c. from the Tops of Twigs and Trees to burn. Gather Worms in the Evening after Rain.Rub Moss = Moss was thought to damage the trees.
Cankers = fungal growths, or infected gouges in the bark.
Covering the roots is part of the practice of ablaqueation, first mentioned in January.
Manure = to fertilize
Webs of caterpillars = the protected egg masses of a tent-caterpillar.
Gather worms = at this time, and well into the 19th century, earthworms were considered a garden pest. Charles Darwin's book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, published in 1881, sold even better than On the Origin of Species during Darwin's lifetime.

Kitchin-Garden Herbs may now be planted, as Parsley, Spinage, Onions, Leeks, and other hardy Pot-Herbs. Toward the middle or latter end of this Month, till the Sap rises briskly, graff in the Cleft, and so continue till the last of March; they will hold Apples, Pears, Cherries, Plums, &c. the New Moon, and the Old Wood is best. Now also plant out your Caulyflowers to have early; and begin to make your Hot-Bed for the first Melons and Cucumbers to be sow'd in the Full; but trust not altogether to them. You may all this Month, and the former, have early Sallets on the Hot-Bed and under Glass Frames and Bells. Sow Asparagus. Lastly, Half open your Passages for the Bees, or a little before (if the Weather invite;) but continue to feed weak Stocks, &c.Herbs = in this context, vegetables that were used in soups and stews.

Graff in the cleft = Grafting small twigs into a split branch or trunk of the host tree.

There was competition among the upper class to have the earliest of anything edible or flowering. They used weather protection for tender plants, including hot-beds, cold-frames (a planting box with glass top to trap heat), and glass bells to cover individual plants.

Open your Passages = the bees were shut into the hives for the winter by blocking the exits.

Fruits in Prime, and yet lasting.


Kentish, Kirton, Russet, Holland Pippins; Deux-ans, Winter Queening, Marigold, Harvey sometimes, Pomewater, Pome-roy, Golden-Doucet, Reineting, Lones Pear-main, Winter Pear-main, &c.


Bon-Chrestien of Winter, Winter Poppering, Little Dagobert, &c.


Hath xxviii days, — long 9h — 24m
Sun rises 7h — 13m — Sets 4h — 45m

To be done
In the Parterre and Flower-Garden.

COntinue Baits, Vermine-Traps, &c.Sow Alaternus seeds in Cases, or open Beds; cover them with Thorns that the Poultry scratch them not out. Sow also Lark-Spurs, &c. Now and then air your hous'd Carnations, in warm Days especially, and mild Showers, but if like to prove cold, set them in again at Night.
Alaternus = Rhamnus alaternus, or buckthorn, an evergreen shrub used in making hedges.
air your hous'd Carnations = take the pots of carnations outside in warm weather.
Furnish (now towards the end) your Aviaries with Birds before they couple, &c. And hang up materials for them to build their Nests with.
Note, That such Birds as feed not on Seeds alone, should be separated by a Partition of wyre, from those who feed on bruised Seed, Pastes, fleshy or pulpy Mixtures; as the Sky-Lark, Wood-Lark, Throstle, R. Redbreast, &c.
Keeping song birds was common, and they were also caught for food. I'm not certain if these were to be for exhibition or for eating.

Flowers in Prime, or yet lasting.

Winter Aconite, single Anemonies, and some double, Tulips, Præcoce , Hyacinthus, Stellatus,Vernal Crocus, Black Hellebore, single Hepatica, Persian Iris, Leucoium Bulbosum, Dens Caninus three leav'd, Vernal Cyclamen white and red, Mezereon, Ornithogal. max. alb. Yellow Violets with large Leaves, early Daffodils, &c.

The punctuation gives two possible lists. Perhaps he meant three kinds of tulips (præcoce, hyacinth, and stellar). Or, taking out a different comma, he meant tulips, early hyacinths, and the species tulip called "stellar tulip".

Leucoium Bulbosum = Leucojum vernum, spring
Dens Caninus = Erythronium dens-canis, the "dog-toothed violet". It is a member of the lily family.
. max. alb. = Star of Bethelehem (Ornithogalum arabicum or O. Umbellatum)

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: Week 2

Still no change. None of the plugs have died, but none have obviously increased in size. I know the plugs are probably sending roots deep and wide, but I want to see grass. I want it now!

The doves, quail, curved bill thrashers and towhees are going nuts in the planted area, feeding on bugs and freshly sprouted weeds. The beak marks are so dense in some areas it looks like someone in golfing shoes did a tapdance.

The organic matter we used in the lawn prep was several cubic yards of home-made compost, much of it shredded mesquite and palo verde prunings, dropped leaves, and any bean pods the birds didn't eat. The result is dozens of baby trees popping up as the constant moisture encourages the seeds to sprout. Easy to spot, and easy to pull.

There are also some surviving Bermuda sprouts emerging. We couldn't wait until the Bermuda was completely out of dormancy and active enough to finish the grass killing that started last fall because it would have been too hot for good shipping and planting weather. The crew that installed the sprinklers stripped the sod, and I'm prowling the lawn area with a small spray bottle of glyphosate to kill the sprouts as they emerge.

I didn't use a pre-emergent, which probably wouldn't have worked well anyway. They tend to get washed out of the effective prevention zone after a few waterings, and this area is moist at least 12 inches deep and getting watered twice a day. A few of the ubuquitous Phoenix weeds are sprouting. The cheeseweed has to be spotted quickly because it can make two leaves, produce one flower and make a couple hundred seeds.
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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Growing and Cooking Tomatillos

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are also called "ground cherry", or "husk tomato". They are a distant relative of the tomato, with a similar flower and fruit, except that the fruit is protected by a papery husk. The most common variety is the green-fruited one, but occasionally you may see a variety that turns purple when ripe. These plants are critical for the "salsa verde" of Mexican cooking.

I have heard that you must have at least two plants before they will set fruit, but have not been able to confirm that rumor. I have three of them because I want lots of tomatillos to cook with. Growing these is easy - just pretend they are tomatoes and you can grow them anywhere. If nurseries in your region don't sell them as started plants, seeds are available on the Internet. They need full sun even in Arizona, moist soil, and some fertilization.The plant is a sprawler, so I used a tomato cage to try to keep the fruit off the ground. By mid-July they had outgrown the support and the sprawling branches were firmly rooted into the ground at some of the leaf nodes. Now (late September) the three plants are almost filling over an 8x6 foot raised bed and covering a couple of feet on either side of the bed. Keep this tendency in mind - it could engulf slower-growing plants. Next year I may try them in big pots near the pool.

It is not easy to tell when they are ready to harvest because you can't see them inside the husks, but they are edible at any stage. They start out tart, like a green apple, and get progressively sweeter as they grown and ripen. The best stage for most recipes is a light apple green, but don't worry if you find a pale yellow one. It's still good eating. I gently squeeze the husk to see how large the fruit is. If the fruit almost fills the husk, or is splitting the husk, it's ready to use. Mature size can be grape to golf-ball size.

I have not noticed many pests attacking the tomatillos, except for the @#$% quail and an occasional caterpillar (throw fruit with holes in it onto the compost heap ... crawly things lurk inside them).

Birds eat the fruits and seeds after they fall from the plant and dry up. In some areas, the plants will self-seed. Don't be surprised if your compost heap, corn patch, or flowerbed sprouts tomatillos.

Storing Tomatillos: The fruit lasts longer if you leave it in the husk and just refrigerate it. When you are ready to start cooking, remove the papery husk and wash the sticky gunk off the fruit with cold water.

Freezing Tomatillos: I peel off the husks, wash the sticky stuff off, put them in zip-close freezer bags and and freeze the tomatillos whole for later use in sauces. To freeze a pureed sauce base, simmer clean tomatillos in a small amount of water (with chilis, onions and garlic if you like) until they start to pop open. Puree and freeze this mix. Thaw it and add the cilantro and spices.

Tomatillo Recipes

Fresh Tomatillo SalsaThis is the easiest thing in the world ... throw fresh cilantro, garlic, green chilis, onion chunks, and tomatillos into a food processor. Run the processor until it's as smooth or chunky as you want.

Use whatever proportions you want: I usually use equal proportions of tomatillos and onions, with what most people would consider far too much garlic and cilantro, and enough serranos to add a bit of heat.

If you have leftover grilled chicken or fish, stir chunks of the leftovers into the salsa and it's instant salad, or a sandwich filling.

Grilled Tomatillo Salsa Again, this is not chemistry ... use the proportions you prefer.

  1. Husk and wash the tomatillos.
  2. Put tomatillos, seeded green chilis, a couple cloves of garlic, and big chunks of onion on a baking sheet or in a big shallow baking dish.
    You can also put the vegetables in a grilling basket and grill them over charcoal.
  3. Broil for about 5 minutes, turn the stuff over and broil some more. The ingredients should start to brown and get soft.
  4. Dump the broiled stuff into a food processor with some fresh cilantro, salt, and lime juice.
  5. Run the processor until it's as smooth or chunky as you want.
  6. Chill it if you want to.
  7. Add salt if you want to.

This is a good dip for chips, or you can serve it with grilled fish or chicken as a salsa on the side. I often pour the salsa over chicken or fish and bake it.

Slow-Roasted Tomatillos: Follow any of the recipes for slow-roasted tomatos, but substitute tomatillos. They freeze well. Toss a half cup or so of these into soup or a pilaf. They also make a great dip, chopped finely and stirred into yogurt or sour cream.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Getting Web Traffic: Take the Road Less Traveled

Another blogger commented: How many of you have or know someone who has looked up the recent world cup soccer scores or the latest American Idol gossip? Now think of how many people you know who have looked up the Latin name for the potato beetle? Right. So if your site is about rare insects, you have your work cut out for you to get a high ranking in the search engine.

Although it "sounds right", that blogs or web sites writing about the most popular topics would have the highest ranking, I think he's dead wrong.

Look at the numbers:
  • about 53,700,000 results for "World Cup" Soccer Scores
  • about 262,000 results for "potato beetle"
If you try to get high search engine rankings and traffic by writing about soccer scores, celebrities, and other "hot" topics, it's like trying to get attention in a crowded stadium. There are too many hands in the air, too many people yelling and screaming trying to attract traffic. Your soccer site, unless you are Ronaldo, is going to be down in the weeds in the search results. If you are trying to attract traffic, you'll have a tiny crumb of a very large pie.

On the other hand, a tightly focused site about how to keep Leptinotarsa decemlineata and its relatives from taking over your home garden has a chance of making it to the top three pages. If I wanted to invade that niche, I'd create something useful to the general public, with good pictures and maybe a bit of humor. It would follow good coding practices for the search algorithms, of course.

I'd have almost no competition at all for a page with the specific keywords "kill potato beetles" ... that's what most gardeners want to do to them. I hear the ads for insecticides pay pretty well too.

Potato Beetle courtesy USDA photo archives

Leptinotarsa decemlineata ... the Colorado potato beetle.
Photo from the USDA photo archive.
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Saturday, April 4, 2009

John Evelyn’s Kalendarium Hortense - January

The calendar for January starts with the soil preparation necessary for the planting to come, working with the dormant fruit trees, and keeping the bees alive.
Hath xxxi days, — long 8h — 0m
Sun rises 8h — 0m — Sets 4h — 0m
To be done
In the Orchard and Olitory-Garden.

The rising and setting of the sun was computed for the first of the month, for London.

Olitory = vegetable or kitchen-garden
Trench the Ground, and make it ready for the Spring; prepare also Soil, and use it where you have Occasion; for which Purpose make plentiful provision of Neats, Horse, and Sheeps Dung especially, that you may have some of two Years Preparation, by now and then stirring, and opening it to the Air, and lastly, screening it, reserve it for Use in some hard-bottom’d shady Place, a little excavated, that the Rain wash not away the Vertue of it : Suffer no Weeds to grow on it : Have some Heaps of sweet Under-Pasture natural Mould, and fine Loam, to mingle with your Dung, as occasion requires.Note, That the Dung of Pigeons and Poultry, mix’d with Mould, is excellent for the Fig-Tree, (to which I now advise you to lay it), Asparagus, Strawberries, &c. but then it must have pass’d its first Heat, lest apply’d before, it burn the Plant.
Soil, in this context, means a top-dressing to enrich the planting beds.
Neats = calves
Under-Pasture natural Mould = Rich earth from pasture lands.
Mould = soil of excellent quality, or a compost.

Horse-dung, if not exceedingly rotted, will infest the Ground with Knot-grass, the very worst of Garden-weeds; and is therefore only proper for moist and cold Grounds, and to be us’d for the Hot-Bed. Hot-Bed = a planting box, usually glass-covered, that uses the heat of rotting dung to keep plants warm.
Dress your Sweet-Herb Beds rather with a new Moulding, every Second Year, than with over-dunging or rank Soil. Abricots and Peaches require rather a natural, rich, and mellow Soil, than much Dung.Mould, made of the rotting of weeds, &c. is apt to produce the same weeds. Vide Discourse of Earth, p. 21.
Mould = soil of excellent quality, or a compost.
Vide = Latin for “see”.
Discourse of Earth = another book by Evelyn.
Dig borders, &c. Uncover, as yet, Roots of Trees, where Ablaqueation is requisite. Ablaqueation = Removing soil to expose the roots. This was thought to be essential to the health of the trees.
Plant Quick-sets, and transplant Fruit-Trees, if not finish’d : Set Vines, and begin to prune the Old : Prune the Branches of Orchard Fruit-Trees; especially that long planted, and that toward the decrease : But for such as are newly planted, they need not be disbranched till the Sap begns to stir, that is, not till March; that so the Wound may be healed, with the Scar, and Stub, which our Frosts do frequently leave : Besides, one then best discerns the Fruit-buds. In this Work, cut off all the Shoot of August, unless the nakedness of the Place incline you to spare it : Consult my French Gard’ner, Part I, Sect. 3. For this is a most material Address, towards which these short Directions may contribute.
Quick-sets = cuttings planted where you intend the mature plant to grow, especially for thorn hedges.

French Gard’ner = Evelyn’s translation of the French book about fruit tree culture, Pomona.
Learn first to know and distinguish the Bearing and Fruit-buds from the Leaf-buds : the Fruit-buds are always fuller and more turgid : These you are carefully to spare, and what you prune from the rest, cut off slanting above the bud, with a very sharp Knife, leaving no Rags. In taking off an whole Branch, or Limb, cut close to the Stem, that the Bark may cover it the sooner.Those Buds which either put forth just between the Stem and the Wall (in Mural-Trees only) or opposite to them, are to be rubbed off as soon as they appear, sparing only the collateral Branches.
Keep your Wall and Palisade-Trees from mounting too hastily, that they may form beautiful and spreading branches, shap’d like a Ladies Fann, and close to the Ground.
Take the Water-boughs quite away, which are those that on Standards being shaded, and drip’d upon, remain smooth and naked without Buds.
Where you desire Mural Fruit-Trees should spread, garnish, and bear, cut smoothly off the next unbearing Branch. Forbear pruning Wall-Fruit that is tender, till February. Where Branches are so thick and intangl’d, that they gall one another, or exclude the Sun and Air, thin the Place at discretion.
You may now begin to Nail and Trim your Wall-Fruit, and Espaliers.
Cleanse Trees of Moss, &c. The Weather moist.
Mural Tree, Palisade Tree, Wall Tree: a fruit tree, pruned heavily to grow parallel with a wall, usually a south-facing one. The protected location helped produce fruit earlier, or made growing a delicate species possible.

Evelyn prefers fan-shaped trees. They may also be trained into other shapes.
Water-boughs: water sprouts or suckers. These branches in the interior of a tree seldom bear fruit.

Gather Cyons for Graffs before the Buds sprout; and about the latter end, graff them in the Stock, Pears, Cherries, and Plums; and Remember this for a special Rule, that you always take the Cyon from some goodly and plentifully-bearing Tree : For if it be from a young Tree, or one which has not yet born Fruit (tho’ of never so excellent a kind) it will be a long time e’er your Graff produce any Fruits considerable.
Cyons = scions, or twigs from a desirable tree that will be grafted onto a host. This was the way to propagate varieties that had exceptional qualities.
Graffs = grafts
graff in the Stock = insert the scions into the tree that will be their host.
Now also remove your Kernel-stocks to more commodious distances in your Nursery, cutting off the Top-Root. Set Beans, Pease, &c. Kernel-stocks = fruit tree seedlings
Sow also (if you please) for early Cauly-flowers. Sow Chervil, Lettuce, Radish, and other (more delicate) Salletings; if you will raise in the Hot-Bed.
Salletings = anything used in salads. At this time of year, the hot-bed was the only place to grow salad greens.
In over-wet, or hard Weather, cleanse, mend,sharpen, and prepare Garden-Tools. Turn up your Bee-hives, and sprinkle them with a little warm and sweet Wort; do it dexterously.
Wort = honey, diluted with water, used to provide the bees with food during the cold months.

Fruits in Prime, and yet lasting.
Kentish Pippen, Russet Pippen, Golden Pippen, French Pippin, Kirton Pippin, Holland Pippin, John-Apple, Winter Queening, Marigold, Harvey-Apple, Pomewater, Pome-roy, Golden Doucet, Apis, Reineting, Lones Pear-main, Winter Pear-main, &c.
Winter Musk, (bakes well) Winter Norwich, (excellently baked) Winter Bergamot, Winter Bon-crestien, both Mural : Vergoules, the great Surrein, &c.

These were probably fruits in storage … and we feel lucky if the supermarket carries four varieties of apples and two of pears.

Hath xxxi days, — long 8h — 0m
Sun rises 8h — 0m — Sets 4h — 0m
To be done
In the Parterre and Flower-Garden.

Parterre = formal garden planted in geometric design.
Set up your Traps for Vermine; especially in your Nurseries of Kernels and Stones, and amongst your bulbous Roots; which will now be in danger. A Paste made of course Honey, wherein is mingled Green-glass beaten, with Copperas, may be laid near their Haunts.
Rodents will devour the bark of young trees, and the bulbs of many flowers. The paste is of pulverized glass and a poisonous salt of a metal (copper, iron or zinc), mixed into honey.
About the middle of this Month, plant now your Anemony Roots, and Ranunculus’s, which you will be secure of, without covering, or farther Trouble : Preserve from too great and continuing Rains (if they happen) Snow, and Frost your choicest Anemonies and Ranunculus’s sow’d in September or October for earlier Flowers : Also your Carnations and such Seeds as are in peril of being wash’d out, or over-chill’d and frozen: covering them under Shelter, and striking off the Snow where it lies too weighty; for it certainly rots, and bursts your early-set Anemonies and Ranunculus’s, &c. unless planted now in the Hot-Beds; for now is the Season, and they will flower even in London. This section begins Evelyn's battles with the English weather.
Towards the end, earth-up, with fresh and light mould, the Roots of those Auricula’s which the Frosts may have uncover’d; filling up the Chinks about the sides of the Pots where your choicest are set, but they need not be hous’d : It is a hardy Plant. Earth-up = cover with earth
Flowers in Prime, or yet lasting.
Winter Aconite, some Anemonies, Winter Cyclamen, Black Hellebor, Brumal Hyacinth, Oriental Jacinth, Levantine, Narcissus, Hepatica, Primroses, Laurus-tinus, Mezereon, Præcoce Tulips, &c. Especially if raised in the Hot-Bed.

Brumal = pertaining to winter
Oriental Jacinth = the species, or wild hyacinth
Levantine = perhaps should be “Levantine Narcissus”
Laurus-tinus = Viburnum tinus, a shrub
Mezereon = Daphne mezereon, a shrub
Præcoce = early
Note,That both these Fruits and Flowers, are more early or tardy, both as to their prime Seasons for eating, and Perfection of blowing, according as the Soil and Situation are qualify’d by Nature or Accident.
Note also,That in this Recension of Monthly Flowers, it is to be understood for the whole Period that any Flower continues, from its first appearing to its final withering.
Blowing = blooming
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Thursday, April 2, 2009

John Evelyn's Gardening Calendar

I have a copy of the English horticulturist John Evelyn's month by month gardening advice Kalendarium Hortense, published in 1706. It was wildly popular then, with twenty or more editions published. As time permits I will transcribe and post Evelyn's gardening advice, annotated to explain some of the obscure words.

The Evelyn family estate, Wotten House, was a wealthy gentleman's estate. When Evelyn wrote what needs to be done in the garden, he meant that the gardening staff should do it. The book was to advise the gentleman gardener on what should be done, not a do-it-yourself guide.

It's fascinating to read about the way gardeners worked in the 18th century and what has changed or stayed the same. We no longer gather and destroy worms after a rain, but poultry are still destroying new plantings with their scratching and dust baths. Evelyn's solution is to lay thorny branches across the area until the plants are larger - it still works today.

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The Lazy Cheapskate Gardener's Manifesto

Gardening is hard work and gardening costs money.

Lazy cheapskates should avoid gardening because of those factors. However, plants cast useful shade in the summer, screen unwanted views where you can't build a wall tall enough, are pleasant to look at, and increase the value of your property.

Gardening can be worthwhile, but any lazy cheapskate worth her lounge chair can find ways to minimize the work and expense. Creating a garden doesn't have to suck up all of your spare cash and time. If you want to spend most of your weekends sitting in your garden with a cold beverage in hand, not pruning, weeding and watering it ... pull up a lounge chair and let's chat.

I'll also post a bit on internet marketing, MLMs and other topics, but mostly this is a gardening blog. Read more!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Watching Grass Grow: Week 1

I didn't really understand the phrase "watching grass grow" until I started a new lawn. It's been a week and a half and it still looks the same as it did the day we planted it. I stare at it several times a day, looking for signs of new growth in the plugs, and see nothing.

This is an experimental lawn with the UC Verde clone of buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) instead of the Bermuda grass that is usually planted. The UC Verde buffalo grass supposedly requires less water than Bermuda and less mowing. If it works as promised, it will need watering once every two weeks and mowing once a month or less. Compared to Bermuda grass and its twice-weekly watering and thrice-weekly mowing schedules, the buffalo grass saves water and work.

Right now the lawn looks like this, a sea of dirt with tufts of green sticking out of it.

This variety of buffalo grass is only available as plugs, small chunks of grass which will (they tell me) spread to cover the entire lawn area. Here's a closer view of the plugs. The quail in the background is taking a dust bath in the loose dirt left over from the lawn preparation. Their bathing leaves soup bowl size craters in the dirt, so I hope they stay out of the planted area.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Planting the Buffalo Grass Plugs

After some final soil leveling, it took 2 people about 4 hours (with breaks) to plant 1200 square feet of lawn area.

  1. Mark the row with string. The string has been marked every 18 inches with a red marking pen.

  2. For evenly spaced plants on 18-inch centers, the rows need to be about 15 1/2 inches apart.

  3. Using nails tied on the string to mark off the spacing prevents errors. 2 nails and a 15-inch string are the spacers at each end of the row. The rows are offset 9 inches by using the first or second nail as the row starter.

    Spacing Strings
  4. Drill holes about 1 1/2 inches deep. We used a standard, CHEAP wood bit. If you do this for a living, a longer bit would be a back-saving investment.
  5. The planting person can reach 3 rows if they are on their knees, so have the drill person drill 3 rows and take a break. Kneepads are highly recommended.
  6. The plugs are soaked in a root dip called Zeba to minimize transplant shock.

  7. Then we thoroughly soaked the area and set the sprinkler timers to water the area 3 times a day for a few minutes each time. The objective is to keep the soil moist, but not drown the new grass.
And now it's just a matter of a few weeks until we have a lush, water-saving, heat tolerant lawn. Read more!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lawn Renovation for Resale Value

The plan is to stay in this house for 2 or three more years, or until the real estate values crawl out of the toilet, then sell and move where the cost of living is lower. We're not going nuts on remodeling because interior decor is fad-driven. We're just taking care of some things that would make a buyer think "ewwwww!" that would slow down a sale. The Bermuda grass lawn was a major ugly spot after 20 years, teenagers, large dogs, erratic watering and mowing, and neglect.

The lawn plan:
  1. Kill the existing Bermuda grass
  2. Add organic matter (home-made compost) to the dirt
  3. Install automatic sprinklers for the lawn area to minimize the neglect factor.
  4. Plant a new lawn to enjoy for a couple of years
  5. Sell the house with the established, upgraded lawn and convenient watering system
That left us with the question of what kind of grass to plant.

In the decades since the lawn was established, new varieties of Bermuda have come (and gone), with increased pest and drought resistance. However, it's still a water hog and requires frequent mowing to keep it looking good.

Native grass seeds are available and often used in landscaping, but they don't tolerate foot traffic and don't make a turf-type lawn.

That left us with one choice - buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides).

Buffalo, lying in what must be buffalo grass. Image courtesy of Patrice Dufour.

"Buffa-what?" is how most of the landscaping contractors I contacted replied, because they usually do a "roll and go" with Bermuda sod. It took some phone calls and web searches to locate a source of the UC Verde clone of buffalo grass. This will be an experiment. If it works, I'll have one of the few buffalo grass lawns in the Phoenix area. If the lawn dies, we roll out the traditional Bermuda sod.
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