Sunday, October 19, 2014

Watching Grass Grow: Week Eleventy To Mow or Not to Mow, That is the Question

 It's Fluffy!  It's Green!

I came back after a summer's absence to find that the lawn had not missed my care.  This is  what dethatching, fertilizing, and a few heavy rains can do for a lawn,  It was fluffy and green and dense.

Buffalo Grass, Sept 21, 2014,
Mowed 6+ Weeks Ago

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Gimme Shelter! Queen's Wreath (Antigonon leptopus)

We needed shade for the west wall of the house to keep the electric bills down, so we built an arbor. Then came the discussion of what to grow on it.
  • We wanted pretty flowers, if possible.
  • We wanted native plants if possible.
  • We needed a thornless vine
  • We needed heat loving vines that would cover the arbor for the summer.
  • We wanted a perennial vine to come back every year.
  • We needed a drought tolerant vine in case we slacked on the watering.
TAH DAH!!!!  The winner was Queen's Wreath Vine (Antigonon leptopus), an  incredibly hardy, fast-growing, flamboyantly blooming native from the lower parts of the Sonoran desert.

Unlike the "other native", Cat's Claw (Macfadyena unguis-cati), Queens wreath is frost-tender and dies back to the ground every winter.  It's a less aggressive grower and can be controlled with occasional pruning.

Except for the trees ... It goes from the arbor to the old orange tree and covers it like a hat. This doesn't appear to harm the tree, and the oranges ripen under the vine.  We pull the vine out when the oranges are ripe.

Queen's Wreath Covering Orange Tree
(the tree is the mound at the left)

Are Bees a Problem?

Queen's Wreath attracts bees, dozens of honey bees and wild alkali bees - it's a great way to attract pollinators to your garden all summer long. 

Because it's growing on an arbor, the flowers are all "up there" and so are the bees. You can sit under the arbor and listen to the bees, but they stay with the flowers.


This is a prolific seed-producer. The quail and other seed-eating birds forage under the arbor most of the year, gorging on seeds.  They don't find them all, and those that land in a moist spot will germinate.

They pop up all over the yard, but they are easy to recognize and pull up.

Volunteer Queen's Wreath Seedlings
(after a summer of unusually heavy rains)

Removing the Dead Vines

We need to remove the vines every year or they build up a heavy, ugly dead mess on the arbor. The stems tend to lie on top of an arbor instead of twining through the mesh. We left space between the top of the vertical mesh and the side of the top mesh to make vine removing easier, and there is a foot or so between the top mesh and the wall of the house.

Removing the old vines in early winter is easy. Don't let them get dry and brittle.
  1. Trim off all dangling vines at the top and edges of the trellis or arbor.
  2. Roll up any mat of vines that is on top of an arbor and toss it in the compost heap. A rake works well to get the mat going.
    You may need to clip a few stems, but Queen's Wreath is more of a sprawler than a clinging vine on a horizontal lattice or mesh.
  3. If you have room, get behind the trellis and cut the stems that you can find passing behind the trellis.
  4. If the trellis is large, cut the stems to divide the growth into vertical sections 3 or 4 feet wide.
  5. Start pulling the vines down from the sunny side.  I use a rake and pull from the top down, rolling the vines as I pull.  This removes most of the growth. 
  6. Cut the stems close to the roots.
  7. That's it until next year.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Yahoo Files: Coming Soon

When Yahoo!  (aka Associated Content)  shut down its article publishing, they returned rights to the authors.

I'll be reposting the relevant ones here over the next few weeks, as I have time to reformat and find good pictures.
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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Garden Fox on Candid Camera

We moved the camera and got a better head shot. The ears do not look large enough to be a Kit fox, so we'll call it a grey fox.  The desert foxen are less fluffy than the ones in colder climates, especially with summer coming.

It appears to spot the camera, bobs it head up and down - a common tactic to check something out - and strolls off.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Do Arizona Foxes Poop in the Woods?

I don't know, but they are pooping in my garden.  We were curious about the source of non-feline feces repeatedly appearing in the side yard and set up a trail cam.

One or two foxes stroll into the camera's field of view and take advantage of my facilities.  The clips were taken a few minutes apart, so it may be one fox making a loop around the side yard.

This also explains a chewed-up leather work glove and probably the disappearance of the tree rats.

It's probably a kit fox (Vulpes macrotis)  or maybe a small Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).  It's hard to tell with the infrared images.
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Friday, May 9, 2014

Watching Grass Grow: Blue Grama Grass

Another Experiment

This is a total experiment ... I over-seeded the buffalo grass with another low-care native grass from the short-grass prairies, Blue grama grass, (Bouteloua gracilis).

It's supposed to sprout in 5 or 6 days, so for a couple of weeks the lawn is getting a couple of minutes of water 3 times a day to encourage the seeds. Then we'll cut back as the Blue Grama gets established.
Blue grama. Bouteloua gracilis at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Photo by SEWilco from Wikimedia Commons

If it works, I'll know when we see seed heads pop up in the late summer.  The birds will love it, and maybe it will help choke out the Bermuda grass.

Blue Grama grown as an ornamental accent in Japan.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Birds that Live in Glass Houses

The Verdins Built It Where?

Verdins (Auriparus flaviceps) are tiny yellow-headed birds that flit around the desert eating bugs. They are almost always in motion, cheeping and flitting incessantly, bustling around in the branches and flowers. They are great for keeping aphids and whiteflies under control in my yard.

Verdin on Peruvian Cereus
They build big, messy nests that are disguised as a clump of dead twigs caught in a branch. The entrance is low on the side, or even under the nest.  They build nests that are rough shelters for adults and more elaborate nests lined with soft material for raising a brood.

This pair of verdins started out in a mesquite tree.  Even when we pruned off a broken branch next to the nest, they kept building.

Verdin nest in mesquite tree.

Unfortunately we had a serious wind storm a couple days after I took this photo. The branch with the nest broke off and was dangling. We checked the nest for eggs or hatchlings and found none, so we pruned off the branch and scattered the nesting materials out for them to reuse. If we had to destroy their house, we could at least help them rebuild.

Several days later one of the cats was chittering at the front window, intently watching a pair of verdins picking up tiny twigs. I watched them fly .... here.

Yup ... the solar light over the entry.
They were stuffing one of the solar entry lights full of twigs and fiber, beginning another nest.

We moved it into a shadier location under a nearby eave, fearing the afternoon sun would cook any eggs they laid. The verdins kept building until that afternoon, when they apparently realized the nest was too hot. They abandoned the glass house briefly and are building a nest in the ironwood in the back yard.

Work is continuing on the glass house as well as the other nest. Maybe they like the view.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Watching Grass Grow: Preventing Bald Spots

Where's the Grass-rogaine?

The buffalo grass is prone to develop bare spots, at least in this area with the watering schedule I keep. Unless you are keeping the bare soil moist, it's unlikely to fill them in with new springs.

I'm doing a week or two of short, frequent watering sessions to encourage the grass to spread. 
Dead spot where Bermuda grass died, before de-thatching.

Baldness Prevention tips:
  • Empty the mower bag before it overflows and starts dropping clumps of clippings on the lawn. Those clumps turn into bald spots.
  • Pick up fallen twigs and other debris frequently.
  • Kill weeds, especially the ones with a rosette of leaves. When they die they leave round bald spots.
  • Fill in any craters the birds dig.
  • Don't let your dogs pee on the grass. It kills the grass in that spot. 
  • If you have pop-up sprinklers, turn them on during the daytime and check the flow and alignment. Lack of water makes big bald spots.
  • Trim back bushes that overhang the sprinklers.
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Monday, May 5, 2014

Watching Grass Grow: Feeding the Buffalo

Adding Amendments

Buffalo grass does not need or tolerate much fertilizer. Mine was last fertilized when we planted the plugs in March of 2009. 

However, it does do better with some help dealing with the alkaline desert dirt.  I applied about 20 pounds of soil sulfur and 15 pounds of Ironite, sprinkled evenly over the 1200 square feet. The sulfur lowers the pH a bit, freeing minerals that are locked up in the alkaline dirt. The Ironite is because our dirt is low in iron.

I made a large shaker jar to use for applying the granular amendments. It's a recycled roasted nut jar with 3/8 inch holes drilled in half of the lid. I can weigh the jar and contents and know I'm not overdosing the grass on nitrogen. 

Upcycled, recycled, totally cheap fertilizer applicator.

TIP: Weigh out half the amendment and walk back and forth, shaking out the contents of the jar as you walk. Then sprinkle the other half, going at right angles to your first path. It gives a more even distribution. Then water the lawn thoroughly to dissolve the granules into the soil.

How much fertilizer? 

Several university websites recommend lightly fertilizing Buffalo grass with 1 lb "effective nitrogen" per 1000 square feet after the grass has greened up. A slow-release fertilizer would be best.

TIP: Apply fertilizer AFTER you see the lawn start to green up. If you apply it before then it encourages weeds, it does not speed up the process of "greening up". says 5 lb of Amminium Sulfate would do it. I applied about 3 pounds last week, and may apply the remaining two pounds later.

CAUTION: Do not use the "Weed and Feed" type fertilizers that combine herbicides or pre-emergents with fertilizer. They will damage your buffalo grass lawn. 
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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Watching Grass Grow: Grooming the Buffalo

De-thatching the lawn

It's time for a makeover and spa week for the lawn. Five years after planting, some bald patches had developed, the turf was thinning, and it was looking as patchy as a shedding bison. It had a rough couple of years in 2012 and 2013 because I wasn't here to monitor the watering and mowing. And some of the Bermuda died, leaving bald spots.

Shaggy buffalo eating grass

In the wild, buffalo grass would be closely grazed by bison or cows and occasionally be burned to the ground in a grass fire. I'm going to mimic that by mowing it short and de-thatching it. For comparison, annual de-thatching is recommended for Bermuda grass.
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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Apian Orgies! Bees Shamelessly Wallowing in Pollen

Wild Pollinators

In honor of May Day: One of the local bees wallowing in my cactus flowers. It's a leaf-cutter bee, the ones that leave your roses and bougainvillia in tatters.

Watch the bee's hind legs as she stands on her head to gather the pollen. They do not have pollen baskets like the European honey bees, so they pack pollen onto the hairs on their abdomens. The front legs hold onto the filament at the base of the stamen and the back legs scrape pollen off the anthers.

It's the same clip, run at normal speed, slow-motion and slow + zoom.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How to Remove Clogs from your Chipper-Shredder

Or Why Shredding Oleander is a Bad Idea

I've recommended using oleander as "shredder floss", feeding in a branch or two to clear out the small stuff that bounces around in the bottom of the brush hopper. It works great.

But when we started shredding a pile of trimmings from the neighbor's yard, the shredder stopped after a few minutes. So we turned off the shredder and did some exploratory surgery.

Shredder chute blocked by bark
Shredder chute blocked by bark

Oops! Totally blocked the exit with a mass of stringy green stuff.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cheap and Lazy No-Tools Needed Raised Beds for Vegetables and Herbs

I do more than just sit around and watch my lawn take care of itself.  I sit around and watch my compost bins take care of themselves.

But, when it is time to break down the bin and actually use the compost, I have to do something to keep the birds from scattering the compost all over the yard.  After much thought and effort, I came up with a design for a border that can keep the compost in place.

No tools required! Well, If you don't have a mallet or hammer, you can pound the stakes in  with a rock, but mallets are easier to use.

Cedar fence boards and stakes = raised bed

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