Archives for category: nature

Our vegetables are giving us a visual reminder that the bright reds and greens of summer have transitioned—gradually, incrementally—into the oranges, yellows, and purples of fall.

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One sure way to know that the weather is getting cooler: the nights are quieter. No crickets, no cicadas, no frogs. Nothing that goes chirp in the night (except smoke detectors in need of new batteries).

Things that go bump in the night are another story…

Here’s a critter we have never seen in our garden before: a baby turtle.

We know turtles live around here and, earlier in the year, Rachel encountered a huge one crossing the road. True to legend, it moved slowly and she had to wait until it was safely on the other side.

I found this little one in a pool skimmer. He (or she, as the case may be) looked somewhat the worse for wear. The combination of chlorine (and other salts) and rapidly swirling water were probably not what it was expecting when it drifted in there.

I relocated the turtle to the ravine beyond the pool and hope that it reunites with its mother.

The days are getting shorter and the shadows are growing longer…

You need three things for effective weeding: the right conditions; the right tools; and the right attitude.

If any of these are missing, weeding can be miserable. Weather too dry? The weeds snap off at the stem. Too windy? Their seeds are scattered about the yard, making your efforts pointless. Too hot? You get worn out (and possibly sunburned) before getting much done. On the other hand, a day or two after a long, soaking rain, many weeds will practically jump out of the soil on their own.

The best tool for most weeding is your hands. But for certain types of weeds, specialized implements are essential. For example, dandelions have a long taproot that extends deep into the soil. It is exceedingly brittle and without a tool that can break up the earth around the taproot (see May 11, 2013), attempts to remove the dandelion will leave most of the root behind.

The hardest thing to calibrate is attitude. At its most fundamental, weeding is a chore and like most chores, it falls low on people’s lists of preferred activities. It’s bad enough when you have plenty of time to get the task done, but if you are feeling rushed or desperately desire to do something else instead, weeding can feel like torture.

Still, despite the considerable downside potential, when all three factors—weather, equipment and enthusiasm—are in place, weeding can be immensely satisfying. For me, it becomes almost meditative and when I get into a groove (or what Daniel Pink would call the flow), I can clear a large area before eventually tiring out.

And that’s a good thing, too: last year’s bumper crop of dandelions was followed this year by an exponential increase in their population. Even if I spend an hour a day in the groove, it will take me until fall to get them all (and that’s not counting the purslane, bitterroot and crabgrass).

We were under a Frost Advisory last night. That’s the warmest of the cold-weather cautionary notices issued by the National Weather Service. It indicates that temperatures may drop into the range of 36 to 33 degrees over the duration of the advisory.

Was there any real threat? No. The overnight low forecast for our area was in the upper 30s, at the upper end of the advisory scale. Frost was possible, especially at daybreak, but not very likely to occur.

Did I cover the garden anyway? Yes. Even as the likelihood of frost or freezing temperatures diminishes, the consequences of their occurrence increases. The farther along the vegetables are, the more exposed they are to damage. Also, the later in the growing season that damage occurs, the larger the investment (of time, energy, materials) that is lost.

It’s a good example of risk analysis. Moderate likelihood multiplied by high consequences produces moderate risk which can be mitigated with low cost (throwing plastic sheeting over the planters is easy, provided I get the warning in time). Overall, the risk to the garden is low.

You can tell that we’ve finally passed the point at which cold nights can be expected; there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight. I’m not too worried—the National Weather Service does not actually predict sub-freezing temperatures—but I will cover the east planter with black plastic sheeting just to be safe.

The radishes, always first off the starting block, made their appearance three days ago and the Sugar Snap peas, not to be left behind, started to peek out from the soil a day later. There are now seedlings to protect and the root vegetables are particularly susceptible.

With the trellis in place, I cannot fully cover the peas, but I don’t think it is necessary. The pea shoots are quite hardy and even without completely enclosing the planter, the sheeting will capture the heat that the garden acquired during the day.

I wonder what date the National Weather Service uses for last frost in our area? I conservatively use May 5, which has a 90 percent confidence level (i.e., there is only a 10 percent chance that the temperature will fall below freezing). Apparently, the NWS uses an earlier date.

I suspect that they use a lower confidence level, probably at a 50 percent chance of exceedance. Their date—whatever it might be—is less conservative from a freezing temperatures point of view but more conservative from a freeze warning point of view (i.e., its use will likely generate more warnings). Given that the NWS is in the business of forecasting the weather and not gardening, this makes perfect sense.

Mother Nature continues to be a bit confused about what season it is.

After a glorious weekend when temperatures reached through the 70s and into the 80s, we awoke this morning to a one-inch-thick layer of snow and ice which fell overnight.

Like the winter storms before it, the snowfall cloaked the still-leafless trees in a shroud of white. It has been long enough since the last one that I can again appreciate the beauty.

Sadly, however, I could not escape the need to sweep the walk and scrape the cars, tasks made more difficult by the persistent cold temperatures. That I do not appreciate. Nonetheless, it is forecast that the day will warm to above freezing and the snow should soon melt.

The planters are also blanketed by snow but I’m not worried about the seeds we planted on Sunday (see April 13, 2014). Probably nothing much has happened beneath the soil’s surface. The seeds will pause whatever they were doing and will resume when the soil heats up again. In effect, it will be as if the seeds were planted today.

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.