it came from the florist


Not long ago one of John’s friends, a florist, stopped by the house for a visit. She brought with her a single long-stemmed red rose in a tall vase. When I came home there was the flower, huge, red, perfect and scentless, sitting on the counter.

As you might guess from my title, there’s a good chance I might have an uncomfortable relationship with flowers from a florist. If you go to someone’s house and want to give them something special, do you stop by the grocery and pick up a pound of tomatoes as a host or hostess gift? Of course not. You’d pick some from your garden and share something special, something seasonal, something that gives of yourself and your garden. For me a store tomato has always shared something with a florist’s rose. What you hold in your hands might be cosmetically stunning, but it leaves me with a question…what is this thing, anyway? Is it botanical? Or maybe some industrial product?

It just so happened that a couple nights before I’d finished reading Amy Stewart’s 2007 book, Flower Confidential. If you don’t know her as an author of books, you might know her as the woman behind the blog, Dirt. And if you don’t know the book, it’s basically a look inside the cut-flower industry and reveals it to be just that: an industry. The three big sections of the book, “Breeding,” “Growing” and “Selling” may well explode any warm and fuzzies you might have about the florist trade, and show it to be possibly worse for the environment, workers and public health than the part of big agribusiness dedicated to food crops.

Here are just a few snippets:

[U]nlike imported fruits and vegetables, flowers are not tested for illegal pesticide residue. After all, they’re not going to be eaten. That creates a situation in which growers have an incentive to use the maximum amount of pesticides to eliminate the possibility of a single gnat turning up in a box.

The complaints about labor and environmental problems have been part of the flower industry’s legacy for as long as it has been in Latin America. Although the situation has been thoroughly reported by investigative journalists, it doesn’t appear to have changed American’s buying habits. Every year, a greater share of flowers sold in the United States come from Latin America. Over the last decade, sales of domestically grown roses have dropped from almost 500 million to just under 100 million. Meanwhile, imports of cut roses have increased to over 1.3 billion stems a year.

At the grocery store, I can buy organic wine, fair-trade chocolate, and hormone-free milk from a local creamery. But the flowers in buckets by the cash register are unlabeled, unmarked, entirely undifferentiated. There’s no basis on which to compare and choose, except for price… The anonymity of cut flowers has made it impossible for customers to demand anything different.

There’s a lot more to the book than rants against the trade, and it’s a worthwhile read if you’d like to know more about what you find at the store.

Several days after the perfect florist’s rose finally passed on to the next plane in the way that florist’s roses do–without opening up, without showing the stamens and pistils that are a flower’s very reason for existing–Linda showed up at the house with a bouquet of roses from her garden. Even before I saw them I knew there were roses in her hands. There was a breeze coming in the front door, and there was scent of roses coloring the air.



Over the next days the roses proceeded to do what roses do. They opened. They continued to release their scents. And in a couple more days they’ll start to drop their petals and fade. They participate in a natural process in a way that their more primped runner-up in a beauty pageant relative does not, and I appreciate them for that.

parasitized hornworm

Summer…tomatoes…hornworms… It seems like you can’t have one without the others.


Jenny, friend of the blog, over on the other coast, sent me this photo from her garden, a tobacco hornworm that has been parasitized by a wasp.

Here’s an almost perky description of what’s happening, courtesy the Clemson University Department of Entomology, Soils & Plant Sciences page. You can practically hear the entomologists spinning their LPs with bubbly 1950s pizzicato string music in the background:

The adult wasp inserts its eggs beneath the skin of the hornworm larva. The eggs hatch and the young braconids feed on the viscera of the hornworm until they pupate… This parasite is an important factor in control of hornworms and is most beneficial (my italics).


I do get protective of my tomatoes, especially early in the season. But learning the details of biological controls sometimes gives me the creeps.

Any empathy for the evil hornworm out there? No? Oh well. I thought I’d try…

pleasures of hand-watering

It’s not a proper graywater system, but we’ve gotten used to showering with a bucket below us, both to catch the water before it gets warm enough to use and to catch whatever water splashes into the bucket. We still lose usable water down the drain, but we’re putting what we save to good use in the garden.


With only a small part of the yard on automatic watering, I’ve always done a lot of watering by hand. Now I’ve been doing it a lot more using reclaimed water.

Most of it’s been spot-watering. Not everything in the garden needs the same amount of water, so why not water only the things that need water? This is a tiny buckwheat seedling I’ve been encouraging to get established.

It’s a great way to get to know your plants better. At the same time you learn a lot about the soil they’re growing in, with some areas of the yard accepting a lot of water, while others just pool up and drain slowly.


Another water-conserving thing I’ve been doing is to let the facial fuzz go a few more days than I used to–Good thing facial hair is in these days. More fuzz = less water needed to take it off. (Don’t let the color of the hair get you off-subject. Remember that I’m talking about graywater, not gray hair…)

But back to graywater: One concern I have with using water from the shower is what happens when bath products get dumped in the garden. I’m working on finding out more, but in the meantime I’m only watering the ornamentals with the graywater. A local blog Linda turned me on to, Angel with Dirty Finger Nails, did an introduction to the subject. The post made some recommendations for laundry detergents and linked to a list of a few things to avoid.

Sure, watering by hand is more labor-intensive than turning on the sprinklers. But I think I’ve mentioned it before that I count myself among the gardeners who enjoy gardening, not just gardens. Watering by hand is one of those great pleasures that only gardeners like us will understand.

how the neighbors are coping

Water restrictions went into effect here in San Diego on June 1. So far there’s a short list of thou-shalt-nots, and the water district has primarily targeted landscape irrigation, the low-hanging fruit, with directives like: no watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., watering only on specified days based on your address, sprinkler-watering limited to no more than 10 minutes, three times a week.

Walking around my neighborhood I can see a lot of people who’ve responded to the call. Some are just beginning to make changes, while others made changes years ago.


I was down a couple streets from my house when I saw this front yard makeover. Simple. Just a few big plants chosen for their countours. This is a house where the modern lines of the house echo the style of the plantings. The sago palm requires some water, but the other plants would do well going dry.

Walking around I saw a number of houses where more drought-tolerant plantings were making their way into the landscape. Each house seemed to have their own take on what a drought-tolerant front yard could look like.


Some relied on hardscape to replace a lawn…


…some went in for lots of mulch instead of a lawn, but not many plants…


…some for mulch with some plants, drought-tolerant or not…


…many of the yards that were reimagined as dry landscapes many years ago seemed to rely on gravel and some plants…


…several used gravel with just a few plants to image a desert theme…


…this one mixed gravel, junipers, and edible landscaping–a fig–right out front…


…many used what I’d consider a contemporary look, employing widely-spaced drought tolerant combining natives or exotics set in mulch or DG…


…here’s another of the style where a few plants are set in the middle of space they’ll never grow into. It’s definitely a look, as well as landscaping that embraces the fact that things don’t need to be densely planted to look good…


…many yards feature some more water-intensive plants mixed in with ones that require a lot of water, a kind of planting that a drip irrigation system can make possible. These people used some roses along with plants that’ll look good with less water.


Looking around you sense that this is a neighborhood in transition. Some people are just letting their lawns go brown. Some may be planning on redoing their plantings. Others are probably just waiting out the water restrictions to go back to their old ways.


Some houses are still attached to their old ways that feature conspicuous water consumption. Maybe at some point its was a status thing, showing everyone that you could spend resources on something that can’t be used. But these days it’s hard not to feel a little hot under the collar when these are resources that are being taken from the rest of us.

Still, before I get overly tough on the neighbors, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt for a while. These are tough economic times. Redoing your landscaping can be an expensive proposition. And there are people for whom dealing with a sprinkler timer would be like asking them to pilot the Space Shuttle. (My father could never figure out his timer.) And there’s a chance that people haven’t heard about the new restrictions.


But there’s one water-user that I’ll call out on the carpet. This is our local shopping center, which presumably is maintained by people who know what they’re doing. But watering the sidewalk and the asphalt…


…and then letting all the water run off into the storm drains, well, that does get my goat. But it’s not like I’m only grousing on a blog they’ll probably never read. They’ve heard from me already, and I hope they’ll get in step with the neighborhood they serve.

But overall I’m pleased. People are getting the message and they’re doing something about it. I think they get a sense that we’re all in this together, and we’ll find ways to deal with this water crisis. Not living in a neighborhood ruled by a homeowner’s association, you can see that we’re all finding different solutions.

Some choices will be better than others from the standpoint of water use, habitat, urban runoff or reducing the heat island effect. Still, it’s encouraging to see people people waking up from this fantasy of a lush, green, subtropical California of endless water resources.

deformity or biological wonder?

There are some things I just don’t get. Waffles topped with fried chicken and syrup, for one thing. Crested succulents, another.

A trip to a cactus show or nursery site for succulents will likely turn up a section devoted to plants with crested (or “cristate”) and monstrose growths. Generally I find that the shapes of plants are interesting enough, and I usually don’t go gaga over some genetic oddball.


But the oddball cresting behavior found its way to the garden anyway. This is a young Euphorbia lambii in the back yard, one of four I have growing in pots.


Here’s a closeup…


And here’s a view from the top…


The typical habit for this plant is to produce branches that are distributed around its growing tip, something that you can see in this normal lambii nearby. With the crested mutation, the apical meristem, the point where new growth emerges, has changed from a point to a line. So instead of a cylindrical stem with branches all around, you get a stem that grows flat, like a cobra’s hood, with new growths distributed along that line.

From what research I’ve done it isn’t apparent what causes this particular mutation. The genus Euphorbia, however, is one of those where you could encounter it fairly commonly. (If there’s anything in the plant’s environment that caused it, I wonder if might be drought stress. Of the four plants, this one received the least amount of water. A couple times it came close to defoliating. All the others are growing normally.)

I’ll admit that the crested growth interesting. Maybe I’ll learn to love it. But I’m not there yet…

growing together

Community gardens are at least as much about community as they are about gardening.

From 120 miles away, I followed in the pages of the Los Angeles Times the final days of what was then the country’s largest community garden. In a controversial land deal, the city had sold the site just south of downtown Los Angeles where almost 350 families had been growing crops for their kitchens or for sale, and the community gardeners faced having their spaces bulldozed. The story of the gardeners trying to save their spaces in the face of a city government bent on finding more profitable uses made for compelling newspaper copy, and it’s now the subject of The Garden, the Academy Award nominated documentary that is making its way around the country in general release.

Check out its most current screening dates on Facebook. The film came to town two weeks ago, but it was gone within a week, like much of the produce grown in the garden it profiled.

Yard-sharing offers a smaller-scale alternative to the larger community gardens and some of the politics that go with it. Hyperlocavore is a social network that helps to match up people who want to garden with homeowners or renters who want to produce food on their land but lack the time or expertise to do it.

It’s a fairly new space online, and not all communities have people who want to participate. Here in San Diego, for instance, there’s currently only one person on the site. But with growing press, there should be more collaborators signed up. It’s a great concept, building community, one garden at a time.

You can also check some of the other garden-based social networks on Ning: Here. There might be just the perfect space for you and your interests. And if not, you can create one.

two saturdays

A couple hours of community service: Sounds a little like a sentence handed down by a judge, but it was actually how I spent some of last Saturday. I’ve posted earlier about the native plant garden at Old Town State Historic Park. That trip I was walking the paths and enjoying garden.


But this time I was a volunteer helping maintain this interesting young garden. Much of the time I was squatted down in the dirt pulling up little palm trees. If you live in another part of the world you might think that pulling up palm trees is a bizarre thing to do. But palm seedlings are a very real weed around here, especially when there are still actively fruiting palms nearby, and when there’s still an active seedbank left from one of the palms that was removed to make way for the garden.




In just one month since my last visit, the number of flowers had diminished as we head into our long brown season when many plants approach dormancy. There were some splashy clarkia flowers remaining, as well as this mallow from the Channel Islands.

There were other weeds to pull at, and the day ended with a quick pruning demonstration and a demonstration on one way to maintain deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). With this big, dramatic grass you can let the stems go brown–which is an easy-maintenance approach to this plant. Or you can reach down on each of the old flowering stems, feel for a joint a couple inches above the base of the plant, and pull. muhlenbergia-rigensIf you find the node, the stem yanks out without much resistance. It’s not a chore you can do easily while wearing thick gloves, and without gloves you’ve likely to shred your hands. Fortunately this a grass that looks stately and architectural whether or not you pull the dried stems. We left most of the plants as they were.

After just two hours of tidying the garden looked even better and ready for the dry months ahead.

Jump ahead one week…


Even though June is typically one of our dry months, today was cool and drizzly as John and I headed for the Master Gardener’s plant sale at Balboa Park.


We parked near the park’s jumbo Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla). It’s an amazing plant, but like many figs, it’s not a good choice if you’re concerned about keeping your home’s foundation intact. I was appreciative of having the park, a great publicly-funded shared space, where you can go to enjoy spectacular plants that don’t make sense to plant in most home spaces.


Rain or shine, the people make a trail to this plant sale. This is half an hour before the sale, with all these brave souls standing in the heavy mist waiting to get first crack at this year’s offerings.


…and this is during the first few minutes of the sale.

Some highlights this year were bromeliads from Balboa Park’s propagation program–big plants for the price of a Happy Meal–and an entire table of different salvias. As thrilled as I am with the genus salvia, I resisted the temptations. No space in the garden is no space in the garden.


But John didn’t show the same restraint. He likes his succulents. And the more unlabeled the succulent is the better. I swear he does this to drive me crazy, knowing how much I like my plant names. (The succulent expert on site looked at it and said that it’s some sort of crassula relative, which is what I’d have called it. Okay, we have a family name, and now only 1400 species to go through… Any help out there?)

Although we didn’t end up dropping a lot of change on this sale, many people with more space in the gardens found interesting plants to populate their spaces. And the proceeds from the sale go to a good cause.

So these two Saturdays showed a couple way you can help the botanical organizations around town. You can donate your labor. Or you can do what comes naturally for most Americans: Go shopping!

twittering tomato

It must be the season for oddball science studies to be published. The latest one is about the development of a method to let plants send text messages. The idea is that a sensor attached to the plant could let you know when the plant needs something. With technology like this, soon you’ll never need to step into your garden again to check on your plants. Somebody tell me why this is a good idea.

Will it be long before tomato plants have their own Twitter accounts? Actually, the future is already here. And in fact the future happened way back in June of 2008. That was when a tomato plant in Boston began to tweet. (If there are piles of poodles with MySpace and Facebook pages, why shouldn’t a tomato twitter? A tomato plant’s keyboarding skills are probably no worse than a poodle’s, so it shouldn’t require any more assistance from its owner.)

This particular plant’s tweets didn’t last two weeks. It was a stunt of course. But if you were to take the tweets seriously and do a forensic study back through the tweets, it’s pretty clear what killed the plant: overwatering.

our answer to prairie smoke

Prairie smokeA plant that was a big hit with many of the bloggers who made it to Chicago for the recent Garden Bloggers Spring Fling was prairie smoke, Geum trifolium. I didn’t make it to Chicago, and I’ve never seen prairie smoke in person. But it looked like I’d have been as struck with it as all the bloggers who witnessed its terrific puffball seedheads in real life.

Photo to the right: Gary A. Monroe, US Forest Service [ source ]


The seedhead to the left, however similar it might appear, is not prairie smoke. Instead, it’s Apache plume, Fallugia paradoxa, the Southwest’s alternative to the Midwest’s puffball.

Flowers and seedpods are great ways to tell which plants are related. Just looking at the seeds you could probably guess that the two plants are related, with both of them belonging to the rose family. You can see the rose resemblance even more in the flowers in the following photo.


I photographed these ten days ago in the parking lot of Las Pilitas Nursery, where they were near their peak. If I had more space I might have brought some of these home with me…

The shrubs grow about four feet tall and a little wider, with whitish stems and narrow rosemary-like leaves. The Jepson Horticultural database states that Fallugia paradoxa “grows especially well in zones 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, and 23 and also in zones 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, and 24.” No plant is perfect, unfortunately. The Native Plant Database of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center gives you a heads-up: “It is good for erosion control because of drought-tolerance and aggressive seeding. It can, however, become too aggressive in optimum conditions.”

All those cool seeds must go somewhere.