Tag Archives: cats

good book, cool trivia

I love a good book that surprises you.

When I was talking to a botanist a couple months ago and she recommended Oscar F. Clarke’s Flora of the Santa Ana River and Environs : with references to world botany, I was expecting the book to be a nicely assembled writeup of a watershed a couple of hours to the north. book coverAs such it’d be a good writeup of species I’m using to seeing in my area seen through the filter of someone working in the Los Angeles/Orange/Riverside County region of Southern California.

The volume, which the back cover says “represents a culmination of a lifetime of natural history study,” lives up to my expectation of being a useful guide for studying the plants of the area. But in addition it ends up being full of all sorts of interesting little details that breath life into what might otherwise be an inert textbook. It’s a rich book, not a dense one.

(Edit, July 13, 2010: In addition to Clarke, the book has three co-authors who should be named: Danielle Svehla, Greg Ballmer and Arlee Montalvo. Thanks to all of you for such a great book.)

For example, take some of the details in the writeup on our state flower, the California poppy. Last year I decided that I’d replace my plantings of the typical garden-orange strain with the lower-growing yellow strain that you find locally. The first season’s plants germinated and grew well. This year I was fully expecting the plants to return in profusion, coming up both from last season’s roots and the seeds that the plants dropped. Instead, most of this year’s crop were the big orange garden strain. What went wrong?

Clarke’s description of the species concludes with a sentence that helped answer my question: “Local native populations produce seeds that remain dormant until exposed to winter/spring conditions in combination with smoke or other unknown factors, while populations from central California and commercial cultivars produce non-dormant seeds.” While it didn’t explain what I need to do to get these plants to naturalize, it at least explained that I was battling against some unknown biological forces. I felt better in my failure.

The illustrations in many manuals can be pretty poor, but that’s not the case here. All throughout the book brims with illustrations. Here are some of them from the poppy description. You’ll find closeups of diagnostic plant features, usually with the graphic of a penny for size comparison’s sake. And often you’ll see shots of entire plants. Each writeup also has a little rectangle with a graphic of a human standing next to the plant being described. The idea is that the box will tell you a lot of details at a glances–stuff like size, growth habit, structure of the flower, number of petals, the position of the ovary, and whether the plant is an annual or lives longer. After having stared at the graphics for a couple weeks I still find it a tad confusing, but if you’re good at decoding images instead of reading about the details, this might be just the thing for you. Another minor grouse is that typeface is almost too small for aging eyes like mine. Of course a bigger type would probably result in a larger, less field-friendly manual. But those are minor quibbles.

Back to some plant trivia: About California sea lavender, Limonium californicum, shown here getting ready to bloom, Clarke observes that “The only native California member of this genus, [it] occurs primarily along the immediate coast. It is salt-tolerant (halophytic) and excretes salt on its broad, leathery leaves.” This detail is important to me as I decide which plants to target with the leftover water I’ve gathered from showering. Instead of tossing the soapy, shampoo-spiked water, I’ve been trying to figure which plants wouldn’t mind standing in the second-hand liquids. This species seemed happy enough with the water last year, and the writeup gives me extra confidence that I’m probably not doing it any harm.

(Edit, November 20, 2014: It was pointed out to me that the plant I purchased and depicted here as L. californicum is in reality the INVASIVE L. ramosissimum ssp. provinciale. Apparently even the reputable native nurseries get things wrong every now and then. I will be replacing this plant with something more responsible.)

Life in the Santa Ana River Basin these days is as much about invasive plants as it is native species. Accordingly the book has a number of exotics mixed into the 900 species it describes.

Telling grasses apart can be one of the more difficult things to do in the field. The detailed descriptions and photos help ease that chore. Here are the illustrations for panic veldgrass, Ehrharta erecta, a really bothersome weed in many gardens, mine included.

The weed descriptions, like those for the other plants, have little trivia bits woven through them. About panic veldtgrass you learn that “Livestock find it highly palatable, especially chickens and rabbits.” That sentence might not mean a lot to you, but it explained something I’ve been noticing.

Scooter, the cat, always shows a lot of interest when I’m in the garden, and is most helpful when I’m in the middle of pulling up weeds. And of all the weeds, this is the one that the cat really goes crazy over, often nudging, clawing, fighting you to get to munch on a few blades of the stuff.

Ah, yes, it all suddenly makes sense now: “livestock,” “highly palatable.” Eureka! So to Clarke’s list of chickens and rabbits we can add another species: cats.

So yes, this is a book with lots of information about plants of the Santa Ana region. But it ended up telling me as much about what’s going on in my garden. Very cool.

no rain, no rainbows

I looked west this morning while I was having breakfast and saw the first rainbow I’ve seen in months, maybe years. Although it was cool outside I had to go up to the deck to check it out. The rainbow was just a short piece of an arc rising from the ocean, but in this land of little rain you take what you get.

The rainbow was just about the last official act of a set of four consecutive storms that delivered over six days almost as much moisture as we received all of last year. And by “storms” I do mean real storms with rain, hail, thunder, lightning and tree-toppling winds. But for most of us in town things went as well as could be expected.

At work eucalyptus trees cracked and fell, buildings leaked, flows of water and mud threatened to invade several buildings. Walking outside entailed wading through puddles or jumping from one high spot to another.

At home power flickered on and off a few times. The back yard laked up briefly, but nothing that looked like it was going to come in the house.

Hail came down a couple times, but nothing was hurt. These pellets were about the size of peas.

Rain was heavy. These little buckets to catch roof runoff were full within the first 24 hours.

A potted Kalanchoe prolifera on the roof deck–seen here on the right–blew over. While the base must weigh 75 pounds when soaking wet, the plant is tall and proved no match for the blasts of wind that came through. This photo was shot after the plant was righted, so you can see it wasn’t bothered by spending some time sideways.

A survey this morning showed the trays of bog plants full of water, flooding the pots. These swamp dwellers are adapted to a little flooding, and in some areas people overwinter the rhizomes underwater so they don’t rot.

In fact, the parrot pitcher plant from the Florida-Georgia area, Sarracenia psittacina, can be found completely submerged over the winter. Its traps are unique in that they’re adapted to catching swimming as well as crawling creatures, so it’ll find something to eat, whether underwater or above.

The culvert in city easement behind the house filled with water. It makes me want to establish a little vernal pool in the muck at the bottom. I wonder if it would work in this location. Some of the most endangered plants in my area can be found around vernal pools and nowhere else.

The cooling weather and moister weather greens up the plants that have been dormant through the dry season. In the back Coreopsis gigantea leaves begin to sprout on what had been little brown trunks. But in the foreground you see all the weeds that accompany the season. These are mostly seedlings of a few mizuna plants, a Japanese mustard green, that I let go to seed a decade ago.

…and when life gives you young, weedy, tender mizuna sprouts, why not pick mizuna greens? These will be in tonight’s salad.

So you can see we came through pretty well. The main casualty was Scooter, the cat, who’s used to occasional times outside to sun herself. I think the “Can I go outside, please?” expression is pretty clear on her face here.

She did get to go out this morning, at last, and so did I. While I appreciate the rain, a little respite between storms doesn’t hurt, both for cats and humans alike. It also gives the waterlogged ground to dry out a bit or to let the water seep down farther.

If the weather forecasts are right, we’ll be getting another storm on Tuesday, but it won’t be anything like the almost continuous rain we just had. After 3 years of bad drought, we’ll take whatever rain falls, even if we don’t get any more rainbows with it.

defensive boots

It’s a dangerous time out there for California garden bloggers. One of them just had a run-in of a thumb and a chipper-shredder, though fortunately with an outcome way short of what you’d see towards the end of Fargo. Fargo Snowglobe(If you don’t know Fargo, here’s the snowglobe that came with the deluxe collector’s letterboxed edition VHS tape which mirrors the tone of the film perfectly. It memorializes the infamous chipper-shredder scene where Trooper Marge Gunderson comes upon the criminal trying to dispose of his latest victim. When shaken, the snow in the globe is tainted with little red flakes. Magical…)

Another blogger broke her arm, taking her away from posting for a while.

Not to be left out, a little over a month ago, while working on my house repair project, I ended up stepping into a pile of scrap wood that happened to have a big spikey nail that was pointing straight up out of one of the boards. My work shoes–some battered old Skecher tennies that were hip in the late 1990s–were no match for the nail and…you know the rest. I’m perfectly fine now, but two days of painkillers and the week of crutches were no fun.

New boots 2

I really should have better shoes for working outside, I thought after the little accident. And this weekend I finally got around to replacing my unsafe and ugly tennies.

So here they are: some industrial Timberland workboots with steel toes and puncture-resistant soles. They weigh as much as a small sack of potatoes but are surprisingly comfortable.

So was this overkill for working outside and around the garden? They should be great for forcing a shovel into the patches of the garden where the earth is seriously hardpan clay. But they’re definitely nothing to wear when trying to weave gingerly through a bed of new seedlings. I haven’t had a chance to plant anything over the last couple of days, and I haven’t had a need to finesse my way around tiny little plants. But I think I’ll like them and that I’ll actually wear them gardening.

Scooter in shoebox

Whatever the verdict, one member of the household is already happy. Here’s Scooter, who doesn’t give a hoot about my new boots. But every new pair of shoes that enters the house means that there’ll be a shoebox accompanying them. The cat approves.

dressed to weed


Sunny and warm: a perfect morning for cats and gardeners. The cat had her chores, mainly to stare at interesting things in the garden, and I had mine.


Task #1 was to deadhead the arctotis (African daisy) that has been blooming for several months. This is the “before” on one plant…


…and the “after” on another. Arctotis goes on blooming regardless of whether it’s been deadheaded or not. But the plants looked like they were winding down for the year, and I was hoping to extend their season a bit.

The plants are attractive, but I thought the bucket of trimmings was pretty cool, too.



Chore #2 was to weed one of the patches of bromeliads that we’d let loose in the back of a raised bed. bromeliad-spines The plant has rigid spines like teeth on a sharp saw blade, which makes weeding tricky, and forces you to ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this?”

John started on the task and ended up with bloody forearms. Not happy. He went for the pitchfork, thinking we could lift the clumps, weed under them, and then set the clumps back. These are plants with almost no roots, and that would have worked fine.

But I proposed another idea. I have these long cordura motorcycle gauntlets that I use when I ride my scooter when it’s cold out. They protect your hands, but also your forearms. Would those work for the garden, too?


I suited up, first a thick long-sleeved sweatshirt, and then the gauntlets. Okay, it’s not particularly haute couture, and it’s not a look I’d want to inflict on the world. But it worked.

bromeliad-bloom-closeupWhy all this effort? Well, the flowers are pretty stunning right now in an unrestrained, tropical way. And the plants are surprisingly drought-tolerant.

Weeding around them seems to be the main challenge. But now we’ve got an easy solution…

(Addition, May 9, 2012: Thanks to Kathryn who commented with a probably ID. Tracking down her lead led be to the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies’ Bromeliad Species Database, where the best fit seems to be Aechmea distichantha v. glaziovii. You have no idea how much it bothers me to have a plant that I don’t know the name of, so it’s one more down, a few dozen in the garden to go…)

plush lush

I have a number of plants in the garden that reseed one year to the next, things like alyssum, violas, California poppies, some ornamental grasses, as well as the lettuces that I’ve written about. Another of these hardy reseeders is catnip.

A member of the mint family, it can get rambunctious in moister climates where it spreads easily by seed. Fortunately, unlike many other plants in the mint family, for me it doesn’t spread by underground runners. Each year I can count on two to a half-dozen new seedlings each year in seemingly random locations throughout the yard. Anything that comes up where it’s not welcome is an easy tug to remove.

catnippingThis year I’ve identified two catnip plants in the garden so far. Both were starting to gain stature until Scooter got into one of them last weekend. Fortunately they have that mint gene that helps them bounce back after a thorough chewing. Now I’m wondering whether catnip needs to be a federally controlled substance…




garden cat and abu ghraib in 3-d!


I’ve written about our cat Scooter. A while back I’d bought myself a Sputnik camera, and old Russian roll-film camera that takes two pictures simultaneously, each of them of the same thing, but with separate lenses spaced about the same distance as a pair of eyes. With a special stereo viewer or by making what’s called an anaglyph you can reconstruct the scene giving you a 3-d effect. When I took the camera outside on the first day I had it Scooter followed me out.

Above and below are a couple anaglyphs made from images shot during that session. If you have a pair of red/cyan 3-d glasses you can see the image in stereo. (A red/greed pair will work as well, though not as well. Clear glasses that use polarized light won’t work for teasing apart the separate images in the anaglyph.) I constructed the anaglyphs in a way that would still make sense to viewers without the 3-d glasses, in a way that features the star of each picture…


As much fun as I had outside with the cat I hadn’t bought the camera to take more wonderful cat pictures. George Bush’s Iraq War was chugging along full steam and the notorious pictures from Abu Ghraib had recently surfaced. The world was pissed after seeing them and so was I. Politics seeps into my art in various ways, most of them subtle, but I started a small serious of pieces addressing the Iraq war. Below is one of those works, a 3-d photomontage combining staged elements along with one of the most infamous war images of recent times. It’s a complex response, combining what might look like humor with a seething rage I still harbor towards a war launched by a man who’s now been responsible for more American deaths than the number of those who died in the September 11 attacks in New York. And that’s only a fraction of those who’ve been killed.

James SOE NYUN: Le Can-Can Abu Ghraib.

Technical Details: The original Abu Ghraib image was gently dissected and reassembled into two slightly different images that were then composited to give a subtle 3-d image. The foreground and stage were mockups that I staged and photographed twice with conventional cameras, moving the tripod to the side about four inches between exposures. The “dancing” figures were photographed using the stereo Sputnik camera. Two separate composite images were completed using Photoshop, one reflecting what the left eye might see, the other what the right eye would see. The left image was then pasted into the red channels of the final image and the right image pasted into the green and blue channels. The final work is printed fairly large, at a scale approaching narrative history paintings.

Google “photoshop” and “anaglyph” for a pile of resources on how to make your own anaglyphs.

cats, bulbs, corms and tubers

Here’s a picture of our cat Scooter, squinting:

Scooter, Squinting

Lovely, eh? She’s definitely great company in the house or when we’re outside gardening. But being a cat, she’ll be around one minute and off doing something else the next, only to reappear when you least expect it. Something like bulbs in the garden.

You plant the bulbs in the ground, add some water, and practically forget about them. Then when they’re ready, they emerge and bloom for a few days or a few weeks. Then they’re not there anymore, long before you get tired of them.

Last narcissus 2

Most of the paperwhite narcissus in the garden have already bloomed. In San Diego they mark the start of the long bulb season, with its long successions of narcissus, cyclamen, freesia, dichelostemma, blommeria, oxalis, ornithogalum, ixia, ranunculus, homeria, calla, amaryllis, gladiolus, plus whatever else that you’d forgotten that you’d put into the ground. I never get tired of seeing them when they come decide to come around around. Something like the favorite cat…