Tag Archives: watering

out of the beer cooler, into the fire

Landing in Denver during the last week of February
Landing in Denver during the last week of February

It all seems a little surreal. Less than three weeks ago I was on a plane landing in a very snowy Denver. Waiting for transit to downtown required a 50-minute wait in 8 degree weather. Before that the coldest temperature I’d ever experienced was 11 degrees one September morning shivering on the slopes of Mount Whitney. So this trip broke a personal record.

The lovely view out the windows of one of the hotels I stayed in.
The lovely view out the windows of one of the hotels I stayed in.

That week also was a city record for Denver, the most snow ever to fall in a single February. This view out the hotel window was on the day the record fell (along with the snow). Among sightseeing opportunities, the Coors brewery would have been walking distance if it sounded like an interesting thing to do. On this cold, snowy afternoon the walk did not sound tempting.

Zigzag shadow on snow with dried plantsDenver often warms enough to melt some of the snow between storms, so what was on the ground was a nice light snow blanket, not the smothering white wooly layers much of the rest of the country has had to deal with.

Plant under snow To this subtropical California it was all pretty exotic. So, plants that get frozen like this come back to tell about it? Sounds like an episode of The Walking Dead to me.

More snow! More bare branches!
More snow! More bare branches!
But don’t let all this snowy whiteness fool you. Denver and the rest of the state have undergone a big transformation since they legalized pot, and things are quite green in the indoor grow facilities. Someone in town was commenting that large industrial buildings are suddenly hard to find with all the competition from the growers. It’ll be interesting to figure out the carbon footprint of this new industry. A 2012 piece on energy use in California found that the power used for the indoor cannabis crop in California was equivalent to 9% of all household use. Colorado’s carbon footprint is bound to grow…

Stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, already more seed than bloom early in the season.
Stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, already more seed than bloom early in the season.
The local perennial "coreopsis," Leptosyne maritima, with a few flowers, but mostly spent blooms
The local perennial “coreopsis,” Leptosyne maritima, with a few flowers, but mostly spent blooms, ready for deadheading

Now, a couple weeks later, back to San Diego, it’s totally “spring” in the gardens around here. Friday was a day spent outside with a bucket and a hose, hydrating new plants and annual wildflowers. And yesterday was the third freakish day with temperatures almost matching those of Palm Springs out in the desert. It is hot. The established plants will be fine if the heat breaks, but the new plants haven’t had a chance to put down mature root systems. The annuals set seed and disappear once the going gets tough, so a little deadheading and extra water will keep them going a few extra weeks. And a few of the perennials respond the same way, including the local sea dahlia, Leptosyne maritima. A few buckets of supplemental irrigation is pretty little investment, especially when you look across the street to the neighborhood lawns.

But the humans have had enough. Can we have our normal weather back for a while, please?


Summer heat finally arrived–in September. Two hours north, Los Angeles hit 113 degrees on Monday, a degree hotter than Death Valley. At least one San Diego County town hit 109 on Monday, though down here near the coast it didn’t get much more than the low 90s. Still, really hot by what we’re used to.

Now that it’s turned hot I feel like as punishment I need to write on the chalkboard two hundred times:

I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer.
I will not complain about it being a cold summer…

It was so hot that the contents of the snack bottle of vitamin Cs (aka chocolate chips) were turning into chocolate goo. John’s emergency response to stick them in the fridge averted disaster.

Over the weekend, knowing it was going to be a stretch of hot weather ahead, I tried to give a serious soak to the plants most susceptible to drying out. Anything in a pot got a good drink–a lesson I learned in August when we had two surprise days of hot summer summer weather. In August this Ceanothus lleucodermis that I’d carefully propagated from seed didn’t survive the hot spell to be planted this fall.

In addition to the potted plants, a small group that was new in August got an extra watering out of the weekly cycle. And the remaining zones of water-intensive plants and bogs got the extra soak.

Some plants didn’t seem to be bothered by the heat or dryness. This native bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) has been one of the most reliable garden plants, expanding and blooming like crazy in a spot where it has shaded roots. Another bladderpod in a more exposed location subsists on a similar amount of water, though it’s just one third the size of this plant.

The non-native Solanum pyracanthum is another plant that gets by with close to zero added water in a semi-sheltered spot near the first bladderpod. It has a much longer bloom season than my native nightshades, and it has the added bonus of a row of decorative orange spikes that decorate the center of each leaf.

A potted Stapelia gigantea also seemed to enjoy the hot weather. You can tell by the burned stems that this plant probably doesn’t get enough moisture. Still, it survives and blooms.

In my last post I mentioned a different stapelia species that stinks like carrion and is pollinated by flies. This S. gigantea has the same charming trait. The fifty pound potfull of stinky plant lives outside the window to my studio workstation. Like most people in the neighborhood we don’t bother with air conditioning, so working in my studio has been an…interesting olfactory experience. At least the stink is only really bad when you get close to the flower.

With heat often comes fire. Two recent evenings had extra-fiery sunsets. What looks like colorful sun-lit clouds in this photo is actually smoke from a 500-plus acre fire in Mexico that made it over the border. Fortunately the fire got extinguished and didn’t develop into another of the monster conflagrations we’ve experienced twice in the last seven years.

The rest of the West Coast seems to be sharing this same heatwave. The worst seems over, but there are probably more warm days ahead. So stay cool as possible–and remember to hydrate.

pining for the fjords

Pining deerweed 2

Pining deerweed

Dead plants? Or are these just resting, pining for the fjords?

I suffer from that mix of laziness, lack of time and unrealistic expectations that will let me leave a dead plant in the ground longer than it probably should stay in a home garden that is trying to look presentable to the neighbors. Sometimes I’ll even water a dead plant, knowing I’m wasting my water, but secretly hoping that there might just be the least chance the plant isn’t really gone.

A few new plants in the garden don’t survive the initial transplant. I still find myself underestimating the water needs of a new plant. Aloe rootsJust because it’s “drought-tolerant” doesn’t mean it will take to its new dry home in the garden without enough water to get a proper root system established outside the confines of the little nursery containers. The plants above, two of the five deerweeds I planted this year, probably didn’t make it for that reason. It probably didn’t help that the smaller of the two plants was set into a bed where nearby plants had established a root system already and would likely steal away any water I gave the new plant. This picture shows some of the competing roots.

Pining mimulus

Dead Salvia cacaliaefolia

Other plants just seem to…die. Here’s an ex-monkey flower to the left. Maybe it was lack of water in its second year. Maybe it didn’t like its spot. And the plant to the right is my Guatamalan blue, the ivy-leaved sage, Salvia cacaliaefolia. No mystery with this one. It was getting way too big, and I pruned it ridiculously hard in late July or August. Killed it. There was a bit of green left as recently as a month ago, and this plant being a sage probably would have rooted if I’d stuck one of the green bits in some cutting mix. But I dozed. Dead plant.

Isomeris arborea back from the dead

But every now and then something like this happens. I’d planted this bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) in the late winter and kept it watered. It seemed to be hanging on okay but wasn’t a fast grower. Then a colony of some insects I’d never seen before descended overnight and seemed to be reproducing a new generation. In the process they stripped most of its leaves. The plant quickly dropped what few leaves were left and I wrote it off as dead. In a weird way I thought of its demise as a success story: The native plant provided food and shelter for one of the less usual visitors to the garden. Only in the course of things I thought the plant had perished. Bummer.

But here it is three months later, leafed out, waiting for the rains to come. With success stories like this I’m reluctant to give up on the plants in the other photos, but I think their time has come.

rain, almost

We’re located far enough south that the monsoonal influence that brings August rains to the desert southwest can sometimes make itself felt. But we’re far enough north that the effect is mostly somewhat more humid days but very little or nothing at all in the way of actual precipitation.

Yesterday afternoon I was on the computer, playing a game of Tetris, that time-sink that raised itself in my consciousness again now that media outlets were celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. For a few seconds there was this noise outside. Rain?

Raindrops on step

By the time I paused the game and made it outside most of it had evaporated, but I did manage to see a few drops left on some steps. It was enough to make it into the weather report as “a trace” of rain, but nothing to add to the 0.0 inches rainfall total since the start of the July rain season or 3.1 inches since the start of the year.

Sunrise clouds

A trace isn’t enough moisture to mean much to the plants, but the weather pattern made for nice clouds for the sun to colorize this morning…

Moon rising

…and a nice moonrise last night. (Sunset a few minutes later was great, but I don’t take my camera everywhere I go.)

We’ve been thinking about getting ready for a few days away to see some family in the Sonoma Valley. A little rain would have helped with the preparations by reducing the areas I’d be hand-watering in preparation for being away. There’ll be someone taking care of the house, but it would be a little much to assemble detailed watering instructions or to ask them to climb a short but steep bank of loose dirt with a watering can to attend to some plants that are still getting established.

At a time like this I realize that this is a gardener’s garden that requires selective attention to different plants. Most of the plants are grouped by water needs, and two sprinkler heads and a small drip system take care of the thirstiest plants. But the occasional new plant mixed in with established plantings requires individualized attention–mostly in the form of extra water, usually delivered by hand. So I’ll be working through a short list of watering chores to finish before leaving:

  • soak the potted plants
  • soak the new plants scattered around the garden
  • give the veggies a good drink
  • visit the water store for 5 gallons of water for the bog plants
  • water seedlings and cuttings in the greenhouse

Scooter recumbent

And there’s one final important thing to remember: Put cat food out where the cat sitter–but not the ants–can find it…

in the greenhouse, or, the dictator's wife

greenhouse-euphorbia-outsideI was in the greenhouse Friday morning, watering some pots of seedlings. It seemed funny for a second, because outside the greenhouse it was raining. If I hadn’t gone in there with the hose that morning, the seedlings would have died in the desert for lack of water.

(Left, a Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii outside the greenhouse, blooming away in the rain.)

I used to grow and breed phalaenopsis orchids in the greenhouse. It was gonzo amounts of work to keep up with repotting hundreds of plants. And trying to concoct an environment that would fool the orchids into thinking that they were in the lowlands of the Philippines instead of the flats of Southern California wasn’t that easy either. In addition to all the work, the greenhouse was an energy pig, taking as much natural gas to heat as the entire house.

So, end of orchid obsession. End of heating the outdoors and wasting all that energy. (The New York Times has a recent piece on a couple who decided to build themselves a greenhouse. Their heater hasn’t arrived yet, but they’re already way over budget.)


Now that the tropical orchid episode of my life has ended the greenhouse is only heated by the sun via the greenhouse effect. At this time of year it’s handy to have a spot that will help give young plants a head start on spring. That’s pretty much how I use the greenhouse now.

greenhouseclutterAnd, um, yes, for a place to store garden clutter. Sort of a garden shed with windows…

greenhouselookinginFortunately the windows are an opaque fiberglass, so all the mess inside is obscured. Maybe even a little mysterious and poetic. Here are some potted plants as seen from the outside.

As I was watering the plants in my little artificial outdoor desert I thought back to the 1980s. One the stories from the news that has stuck in my brain all these years was a report on Michèle Bennett, the wife of Haiti’s dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier. The couple was bad news all around, and one of Michèle’s vices was that she’d refrigerate a part of the palace so that she and her friends could strut about in the fur coats that they collected. (Compared to her husband’s brutal ways, it all seems pretty minor, of course.)

Mink and fox and chinchilla coats in Haiti. About as rational as a greenhouse full of warm tropical orchids in San Diego, I thought.

I guess we all want a little of of what doesn’t come easily or naturally. But in an age of a growing awareness of the need to live greener it’s good to stand back and see what we really need.

expressive irrigation

Only a couple areas of the garden are on automatic watering with dedicated sprinklers. The rest of the garden has to depend on rainfull and the gardener dragging a hose over to whatever needs to be watered. I’m sure that reduces how much I water because I’m very conscious of how long I’m standing there with the hose and how moist the soil appears to be getting.

hoseartIt’s been warm for the last couple of weeks, and a month since the last rains, so I’ve been doing a certain amount of watering. But I’ve also been making little line drawings with the hose…

sprinklerartAnd how many of you have this same sprinkler head? I try no to anthromorphize things too much, bust this sprinkler always seems to be staring back at me quizzically.