Archives for category: Uncategorized

Irrigation valves etc

Theres a few lessons all wrapped up together here
Here are the main ideas:

Many things run in a circle or circuit round and round
(reap what you sow, the circle of life, all that blah blah blah)

In a system, things often break at the junction or the connection.
(only as strong as your weakest link)

The more moving parts, the more likely things will break, especially when under pressure or tension, or due to use and fatigue over time.
(Nothing lasts forever, ‘its not the years, honey. its the mileage’)

Circuits and analogies:

Water enters the house at pressure, water leaves through the sewer
pumps and gravity provide the push and drain

blood leaves the heart through the arteries, returns through the veins
the heart and muscles provide the pumps
when you are alive you feed on plants and animals and on bits of minerals and metal
when you die you feed little animals and plants and go back to the earth

in irrigation, theres a circuit between the timer controller and the valve
electricity goes round and round
turn on, turn off, turn on, turn off
timer controller to solenoid to valve and back again in a loop

Lotta different colored wires, but they all finish the circuit together. In this case along the green common wires:

At the junction analogies:

when you turn fifty sixty seventy years old
its knees and hips and shoulder replacements
at the joints
if you are a butcher without a bandsaw
where do you cut?
where the bones meet, cut right through the ligaments
a few tiny cuts, and bend it back
using the bones themselves as leverage
and the point as an anchor to work off of

Where do a lot of accidents happen?
at the intersection or along a straightaway?
where people meet, or where people are off by themselves?
wheres is a fight more likely to happen?
down at the bar or the nightclub, or in the cabin in the woods?
where will you hear the most interesting stories?
where people of all the same gender class height and weight gather
or where there is a mix of experiences and life challenges?

Where do we trouble shoot irrigation problems?
at the valves opening and closing
between fittings and connections
where two wires are twisted together
where the copper meets the brass, or where the brass meets the plastic
at the spot with the rubber washer, the plastic flange, the teflon tape
at the junction

Here, a waterproof silicon filled connector was not used. So over time water snuck up in there and algae and mosses started to grow:

Moving parts analogies:

I have a little fillet knife
a leather covered rapala blade from finland
it is the oldest tool I own, about 36 years old
its still in fine shape, a blade of stainless steel and a hardwood handle
been through the salt and sand and countless fish
still works great, no moving parts
metal is a bit thinner from filing it sharp, but other than that
never had a problem with it

from there we move on to the pruning shears with some nuts and bolts
and on up to chainsaws and mowers
small machines with moving parts
small machines that work well if you take care of them
keep em oiled, keep em sharp

In landscape irrigation:
that gate valve
maybe it crusted over from not being used for fifteen years
metal parts all rusted into one another
That ball valve
maybe it got used too much
kids playing with it, on off on off
maybe there was high pressure in the pipes
100, 120, 150 pounds per square inch of pressure
all that water hammering and stopping and going finally messed up the valve

water carrying lime and iron and bacterial speck sediments full of clogs
rats chewing on wires
wetness and algae seeping into the electrical wire connectors
rain filling up the irrigation box with poor drainage
there is a lot happening in the garden
where it is not dry and clean and pest free
where the sun’s UV lights are beaming during the day, tearing apart atom chains
and that cold wetness chill creeps in at night, making things weak and brittle and rotten

Theres some irrigation boxes that are sitting in soil with poor drainage. Often clay hardpans. This is the result:

its amazing with all that is happening
stuff works as well as it does
until some catastrophic event
that is why you build safeguards and repetition and redundancy into the system
that is why, if you can, keep it simple and elegant
Function is the design

Does it work? Is it working?

There is a thing
called natural contours of the land
it slopes and dips and curves this way and that
around here
with the uplift of tectonic plates
flowing rivers
and up down of the seas
there is not a whole lot of just plain flat land
it goes high low everywhere

in olden times
that bottom spot where the water gathered
would be mostly rushes and sedges, and a sprinkling of horsetails and ferns
on the sides of the hills would be coyote bushes and their friend sticky monkey flower
as you reached the drier well drained ridges
that might turn to grasslands of lupines, and outcrops of sedimentary red rocks

As people settle
they prefer flat usable space to walk on, to place a table on
they want to build a house that is not tilted
a house with a proper foundation
so they move the dirt and rock around
and change the grade from a slope to a level one
the places around town that were too steep or wet to build on, they left them
until the engineers could catch up with 15’ tall rebarred retaining walls
heavy equipment
and pile drivers going deep into the rock
to hold back the dirt that wanted to fall down
dirt that wanted to recline and rest into a relaxed repose

if you build a retaining wall
you cut the soil away, erect a wall, and fill in the pockets behind it
you want to make sure the wall is strong and does not tumble forward
due to the weight of the soil and water
in dry times that soil seems somewhat stable
but when wet it becomes a fairly dynamic weight load
and will collapse that wall in a second
if the wall is not well anchored and sunk deep
if the wall does not have some way to release the pressure building up behind it

another way around the same problem of flat usable space
is to go above ground, not below it
so you pour some concrete footings or piers
attach some wooden posts to em, and go high
this way you do not have to do much excavation
and the water falls in between the deck lumber to the earth below
and keeps going down the hill
while you can sip your morning brew and enjoy your piece of pastry
on the nice level redwood deck

Look around and you will see lots of slopes
and how we have transformed the landscape
to make it fit our lives
plumb and level, flat consistent and regular
horizontal and vertical, not diagonal

To navigate the levels, you still need to get from one to another
the usual method is make stairs or ramps
indoors, architects have a recipe for how big the steps are, and how high each step is
tread is where you place your foot, rise is the height between the steps
2R + T = 26, R is rise, T is tread
so if your tread is 12”, your rise is 7”, and so on, this is about middle ground average fit
if your feet are 14” long, then you want a bigger tread than that
obviously you would not want a tread that is 4”, and a rise that is 11”…
you do not want just the tip of your foot on that step

Also, you want the step rises to be consistent as you walked up or down the stairs
nothing trips up a person more than a step with a rise of 2”, then 4”, then 3”…
its not an obstacle course you are building, just a way to get from one elevation to the next

in the landscape, you do not always have to follow the architect’s indoor recipe
you can have a long sinewy gentle set of stairs, each with a two foot tread, and two inch rise
stairs that wind slowly down to the lakeside
you can have stairs that double as seats, serving as an amphitheater for the performance in the garden below
or you can have a set of stairs like in the japanese garden of golden gate park, with a rise of over 12”, in order that you pay penance and suffer before your reach the top that is a pagoda or a shrine
so the goals, and hence the rules, in the garden are a bit more flexible and variable also
we are not as constrained or rigid or boxy
as far as stairs are concerned

To measure the slope its pretty basic
the rise over the run gives you a number
so for example, sewer pipes in the house, plumbers lay that pipe with a pitch of 1/4” per foot
that way dish water and poop run out the house, and do not sit there
so 1/4” over 12” (one foot) is…
take out the calculator
.0208333333, that is around .o2, that is a 2% slope
you can express the slope as a number, or a fraction, or as a percentage
you can express in in degrees also
say, a forty five degree slope is a rise/run ratio of 1:1, or 100% slope
it dont matter, the numbers and names change but the slope is the same
if you are in town and looking for a steep street
go to 22nd Street between Church and Vicksburg in Noe Valley
that is a slope of .315, or 31.5% slope, looks like a roller coaster

When you are walking on a lawn, what are the grasses you are stepping on? Well if you pull up a piece on the edge it might look something like this. With a white bottom sheath and upper parts of leaf blades and leaf stems.

Being an observant plants person, you want to identify the grass. Take a look to see if the emerging leaves come out folded or in a round roll. You can roll it back and forth between your fingers to figure it out. Like this:

Or like this folded:

Then you want to look closer. Bend that leaf back. Check the veins on the leaf – are they prominent throughout, or is just the middle vein showing? Where the leaf bends back there might be more tiny structures to examine. A little thing called a ligule, or some little ears that hang off of it called auricles. Check out the clear membranous ligule and long clasping auricles on this annual rye grass:

Behind these plant parts is the collar on the back. Sorry dont have any pictures of those here. But they are worthwhile also in narrowing down the name of the grass you are looking at. Sometimes it is the flowers and seeds that will clue you in. The cute lil inflorescences of annual blue grass are hard to miss once you keep an eye out for them. They so short that they flower and fruit and drop seeds before the mower can get to them:

While you are staring at the lawn for sure you will see the green leaves and some dead leaves too. If that builds up you have some thatch to take care of.

Unless you are super manicured and on top of things, the lawn will likely have a bunch of other plants other than grasses growing in it. Heres a sample of them. How many of these do you know? Do you know their medicinal or ornamental uses? Or their scientific names? Or how to make a daisy chain?

And of course before you start mowing better take care of the droppings. If the spinning blades hit em you gonna have a mess:

There is one grass around here that is the super weed. It is called Erharta. As you go around exploring you will for sure see it. In some of the older golf courses they have given up trying to get rid of it. Just try to keep it out of the fairway and in the roughs, mowed:

Here it is again. Grasses, rodents and flies – three creatures that just dominate.

Better get on it. Spring is coming and the grass is growing. Here are a handful of mowers to get the job done:

Back in the day, working down at Civic Center, we would mow the lawns on the plaza, and also around City Hall and the main library. This middle section was once a lawn. And before that, a reflecting pool. Now, it is just decomposed granite:

This is the mower that would be used once a week. Irrigate five days. Let it dry a day. Then mow. Change it up if its been raining, or if big events are happening on the plaza.

Sometimes you would want to dethatch or groom the turf:

And after the demonstration or parade or protest or gathering, it would be wise to alleviate the compaction in the root zone of the grasses and give them some air with an aerator:

At the childrens playground on the plaza, there was kids playing on the artificial turf. It still requires maintenance, just not the mowing and watering variety:

Drifted on down to Golden Gate Park, so that I could show you bent grass. A real peculiar grass that tolerates being mowed real short. It is the grass they use on putting greens, and also on the lawn bowling greens. Mowing height, that is a good topic for discussion:

The pull chord broke on the Snapper mower, gotta fix it. More later…

Hedges & fences

Once you settled down, and had a cow or two and some sheep, then you would draw a line on the earth. This side is mine, that side is yours. This side is private, that side is common. And in the olden times, you’d have to figure a way out so that your cow would not go over to the other side. Cows can be obstinate and free ranging, but not as bad as bison with regards to just pushing things over and going wherever they wanted to go. When you weigh a ton, and number about 30 million, that is what you do…

This is how the idea of a hedge, a hedgerow of intertwined vegetation forming a barrier and boundary came to be. A nice tangle of hardwoods like ash and oak, mingling with the blackberry bramble. Rabbits and songbirds darting in and out all along it. Took a while to grow up into a mature row though. For a whiles in the 1800’s in America, nurseries sold a whole lot of osage orange for this purpose. Awful poky, difficult to work with plant; good for making archery bows though. Tough and flexible wood. Like all things in nature, a hedgerow requires maintenance. Parts may die and have to be replanted. Some sections need cutting back. You would retwine and braid branches back into the hedge to keep it tight and still serve its function.

If you had the time and labor, building a stonewall could serve the same purpose. As could a long line of a ditch and dike. Serve double duty as boundary and irrigation. Fences, thats another good concept. In the winter time, before all the spring chores would pile on thick – that was the time to ‘mend the fences’ with your neighbors. Make sure it was intact and doing its job. Fill in those holes dug by fox and coyote and badger. Take out the rotten parts, rebuild.

In another part of the world, you’d be wise to fence out the lions, and protect your herd of cattle. You might do this with a long row of aloes, perhaps the large robust Aloe arborescens, that lines much of the 19th Avenue median strip in San Francisco. Stick it in the ground, let it grow into a thicket. That way you are not startled at night by the bellows of a heifer. That way you do not wake up being dragged along the dirt, with your head clamped inside of a lion’s jaws.

More recently, the amazon natives have stopped moving around and taken to staying in one place. Now they hold titles and land rights to the territories they have inhabited for thousands of years. To demarcate the land, some have planted rows of spiny palms along the boundary line. Otherwise, how else would you show that some outsiders snuck in and logged your forest? Or poached all of your peccaries? Or eroded your river banks looking for gold? GPS is another useful tool they’ve been using to acknowledge where limits and boundaries lie.

While hedge rows have persisted in some places, in most areas it has been replaced with more and more simple styles of fencing. Fencing that went up easier and took less maintenance than a living thing. Fencing that clearly marked private and public land. A hundred fifty years ago, you could ride your horse from Texas to Wyoming, it being wide open country. Nowadays every inch of soil has been accounted for. Its all owned and taxed and belongs to somebody.

In towns, with people in tight quarters, hedges and fences still serve a function. As a screen for privacy, as a wind block, as an ornamental feature. And us, as gardeners, keep it in check so that the hedge does not totally cover the window, block the view, or look straggly and unkempt. Or, as a landscape contractor, we mix concrete for the posts, and line up all the boards for nailing or screwing. That’s the job.

Some common questions related to hedges are:

What are good hedge plants?
How closely do you plant to make a hedge?
What size plants do you buy? (one gallon, five gallon, fifteen gallon…)
What do you do if part of the hedge dies and the nursery does not have one big enough to replace it?
Can you cut it back to bare wood?
How often can I shear it?
My boxwood’s green leaves are turning red, is that normal?
Can the roots of the hedge invade my foundation?
Is bamboo a good hedge plant?

Some questions that pertain to fences are:

What is a good wood for outdoor fencing?
What kind of screws should I use for pressure treated lumber?
How tall can I make it? What is legal?
What is the spacing between fence posts?
How deep should the fence post holes be dug?
How do I keep deer and skunks and raccoons out of my yard?
and so on…

Knowledge of plants is essential for survival, that is what it comes down to. Plus it is a lot of fun to be outdoors doing walkabouts and working with the animals and plants, rocks and rivers. Here we will share with you a couple of cultures and how they approach plant propagation. It is the text that accompanies an earlier blog entry of photos from last year:

Subsistence slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon:
Back in the day, after marriage, we thought it would be neat to see the amazon jungle for our honeymoon; to visit the grandmother load of plant diversity so to speak. We had been inspired by botanists like Alwyn Gentry working out of Missouri, Richard Schultes from Harvard, and of course the native peoples who safeguard the plants. We made it down to Siecopi territory in Ecuador and met up with some gringoes doing their apprenticeships, folks named Luke Weiss, Jonathon Weisberger, and Luke Hass. Here is a painting I did of the trip later:

Plants grow really well int that steady tropical warmth and light. The Siecopi Secoya peoples practice slash and burn agriculture. That means you chop everything down in a plot, pile it then burn it and ash for fertilizer. Y’all have heard about how rainforest soils are notoriously poor and thin. Well this way you can at least get a year or two production in before you got to move on to another spot. Its not like you can buy in yards of manure or guano down in the jungle. When we were there the generation that is about our age were stoked to have chainsaws to make the work easier. Otherwise you just go at it with a machete, and if it took three days to take down a tree with that wedge cut motion that is what you did. Imagine before metal tools people did just the same but with a stone head and a lashed wooden handle. That is how you get pretty crazy strong working in the forest. In some burned plots folks just tucked seeds into that charred earth. Seeds of plants like the peach palm chonta duro or maybe ungurahui palm used to flavor the chicha drink. Figure if you move around and come back five, ten, fifteen years later there’d be a nice grove to harvest from. Or you could come back and hunt it at night when the pacas come around sniffing for ripe fallen fruits. In other cases the burned plot is planted with cassava, manioc. In the Mexican markets around here manioc is the waxy brown root crop that is called yuca in Spanish. You like – yuca? Like joshua trees? No, that is another plant, spelled with two c’s – yucca.

My wife and I had tragically failed to cross the swollen river in the canoe, one of them local style dugouts with less than one inch from the waterline to the gunwhale. Had a capsize and luckily further downriver swam to the edge of the Agua Rico and got some help. Wife went back in another canoe with the old wise man Cesareo while I traipsed through the trails and got a good glimpse at local agriculture. Came across a plot of manioc tended by the women, looking all uniform and orderly; no weeds. So that is the challenge always when growing food plants, keeping pests at bay and production up. Later on we will talk about disease resistant cultivars, selective breeding for particular traits, and so on. The amazonians solve this dilemma by growing a plant that is poisonous, then leaching and removing the poison as part of the food processing later. This is a good and practical strategy for a place with a multitude of hungry creatures. Come to think of it, California natives did the same with acorns from oak trees. And they burned plots too to cultivate tobacco up by the Klamath River in nor cal.

Another neat concept the Secoya have is regarding the origin of plants. There are many plants there that are intimately tied to the culture but which do not occur in nature. They are so called ancient cultivars that are exclusively grown and propagated by people. The plants do not set seed or grow wild. These plants are always propagated asexually, by cuttings, or division. Caapi vines, snake bite sedge tubers, all come to mind. Of course the Secoya explanation for this is mythical, that these plants come to them as gifts from spirit beings. That is why they only grow in relationship with humans. From a forest management angle, it would be easy, after you harvest some lianas, to stick a few pieces in the ground next to a tree that the vine could climb. This way you are continuously gardening for future generations and ensuring that useful plants are growing all around.

If you want to read or understand more about this culture you can follow up by reading or watching the work of a couple of those apprentices we met. Jonathon wrote a book about his experiences called Rainforest Medicine. And Luke Weiss has been cultivating the bitter morning beverage that is a caffeine rich vine called yoco, and working with the conservation group called Amazon Frontlines to pass on botanical knowledge. A whiles back he did a shaman conference tour in England with his grandfather in law Don Delfin, you can watch the action here:

Settled agriculture in southern Spain:
The forest folks in the amazon traditionally moved around, following game animals and staying mobile. These days of course they are living in more permanent towns, working jobs for the cash economy, and buying goods in a market. Well this sort of gradual settled pattern of life happened all around the world. Once you could secure and store food, then you have the time and leisure to work on any number of other pursuits, from the arts to politics to engineering and so on. In almost every case, it is a balance of carbs and proteins that provides this foundation – rice and soy, corn and beans, potatoes and quinoa, taro and pigs, wheat and chick peas. And always, there are ritual stimulants and depressants involved – tea, coffee, alcohol, yoco, kava, tobacco, khat, coca, cola nut. All plant products.

Propagation wise, to be able to produce plant products year after year, you have to have a consistent supply of water and irrigation. This usually means dams and aqueducts, pumps and wells. In some places this led to the development of water wheels and turbines, terraced paddies, and aquaponic systems like chinampas of the Aztecs.

In southern Spain, small farmers still use the irrigation system that was introduced by the Moors from northern Africa sometime after 711 AD. My nephew Miguel he works as a city water distributor in his small town. An aguador it is called. There are four distributors total. Their job is to go to all the different farms and sell them an allotted amount of water (timed) for a fee. The water comes from the town reservoir and source called El Nacimiento. So you are working all night long opening and closing small canal gates that lead to all the different farms. You get to know every farmer really well in your sector; many become friends, and some even offer hunting privileges and such. The water flood irrigates an orchard or field, or it is stored onsite in a tank to be pumped out as needed. It is pretty hectic because you are on the move every hour or two, and people get upset if they don’t get the water for their crops. Plus if there is a back up or a pump breaks or leak happens then you gotta reschedule everybody down the line and the heat makes everyones nerves start to fray.

The crops that are grown are appropriate for a mediterranean climate. My uncle he grows potatoes and tomatoes. He used to be a pig farmer, but that is another story. Potatoes are bought in as seed potatoes from the Dutch, in 50 kg bags. So the origin is asexual production, likely lab grown micropropagation. At the end of the season that 50 kg has been converted to 1500 kgs of starch, filling plastic crates high on the truck. About a 30 times return in weight. Tomatoes are bought as starts; last summer he was growing two varieties thats it. Nearby neighbors got orchards of oranges and olives, lemons and occasionally loquats cherimoyas pomegranates and figs too. The latest crop craze has been the planting of avocado trees with the hope of a big return on the fruits. Unfortunately they do require quite a bit more water, and are susceptible to the cold if the temperature drops. Agricultural inspectors and extension agents do come by; they offer tips or check on the status of a pestiferous moth. Labor and market prices are another concern. Uncle is tough and strong, but getting on up in age. At some point you just cannot climb up and down the truck, or bend down to haul another crate. Would you like to work all day in the heat for little money? Or would you rather work in an air conditioned restaurant or office? Maybe the Moroccan immigrants can be hired to help with the harvest if they are around? And what happens if after all that work, add in the cost of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and they pay you only fifteen cents a kilo? Or less… So it is not an easy gig, the work of a small farmer.

If you look at the crops grown in the area, few are truly indigenous to the place. Theres wild asparagus in the woods, and wild chamaerops palm fruits, but they are sparse, far and in between. The production plants originate from trade and travel. The citrus trace their roots to Marco Polo and Asia, the tomatoes and potatoes to the Andes, and olives to somewhere by Asia Minor which is present day Turkey. This is what people do – move plant parts around. And plants, if they are happy in their new surroundings, thrive with a little care and attention.

As a small farmer working in a market economy, you are not the seed collector and saver, the breeder, nor the germinator, you are the grower. You are one specialist in a stratified system. In another part of southern Spain, where Clint Eastwood filmed all his westerns, is the town of Almeria on the coast. There you will find big time producers of food crops like peppers and eggplants, all grown in huge massive greenhouses. Some say the biggest concentration of greenhouses in the world. Combine a nice long growing season, maritime influence, steady temperatures, and a convenient European market. Take a look, here is one link: The climatic and geographical characteristics of Almeria are similar to the ones that put cannabis and the golden triangle of northern California on the map as well. Not too hot, not too cold, nice little breeze.

Over time, the tendency for farmers has been to automate and get bigger. The work is hard, the profit margin is thin. This pattern is what you see here in the Midwest or in the Central Valley of California. Check out some farm machinery videos on youtube and you will be amazed or shocked at the power and efficiency of modern agriculture. This is why seeds and propagation are so important, and are such a huge business.

New developments in propagation
We have been propagating plants throughout the course of humanity. Some methods such as grafting are recorded from some six thousand years ago. Many of our basic techniques remain unchanged. These days, if you are growing a plant or buying a plant you want it to be healthy, clean of disease, and be successful, whether in producing underground tubers or blooming with a pretty flower. You want a plant product that performs consistently and without problems. So in the twentieth century, that has been the direction of plant propagation.

Steam sterilization of soil was used since the early 1900’s. At Park Nursery in Golden Gate Park and at City College we still have the remains of such systems. Soils can be overheated, and end up killing all the beneficial bacteria and microbes that are present in the soil, and ruining the physical structure too. Nowadays, modern steaming and disinfecting methods kill the insects and weeds and pathogens but do not kill the soil. Some people have taken this one step further and eliminated soil media altogether, growing plants in sterile type media with fertilizer water flowing over the roots. This is called hydroponics. One example is vertical farming in large warehouses filled with LED lights, all the work done by robots. Not sure if this is the future but it is certainly one direction society is taking with venture capital dollars.

Manipulation of plant growth using plant hormones is another modern invention. These substances were isolated around the 1930’s. Over the years, we have learned more about them and their applications. Whether to help initiate root growth on cuttings, produce vegetative somatic embryos, or keep a plant compact in stature, these are extremely useful substances. In class we will likely use a solution of gibberellic acid-3 to induce stubborn dormant seeds to germinate. This in addition to using smoke and fire treatments to germinate fire adapted species.

Micropropagation is a technique pioneered in the twentieth century. It is growing plants in a test tube on a medium that would induce the cells to divide and grow. Not only are you then able to grow identical uniform plants, but you are also able to eliminate viruses and pathogens in this process by excising or cutting from only clean pieces of material. The orchids you see at Trader Joes or Costco? Micropropagation.

Greenhouse growing has enabled many plants to grow in places that were previously out of their range. Important in the greenhouse are the mist and fog systems that improved root growth and cutting success, as well as supplementary bottom heat. Ventilation and heating, lighting, and beneficial insects have all helped open whole new worlds indoors with regards to plant propagation.

Genetic modification is another change in this last century with regards to plant breeding. Perhaps y’all have heard of GMO’s and the crops resistant to roundup, or crops that produce their own bacterial insecticide called Bt. This development follows millennia of plant selection and breeding, but it is done in a lab using DNA transferred from one organism to another, not using old fashioned pollination fertilization and seed sowing techniques. Heres the word from the FDA: . As human culture evolves, as do the plants and numerous microbes that interact with us. It is a continuous and dynamic process that does not stop. The ultimate gauge of our success will be the health of communities, and their relationship with the plant world. Stay tuned, the saga is ongoing!

Gardener conduct and ethics

A few years back, whiles teaching in person classes, we had a couple of fights break out between students. This happened while working outdoors in the garden. Gus and myself were a little bit surprised. Gus had the puzzled knit brow expression, almost confused face. I cannot say that I expected such things in a landscaping class, but tried my best to bring the tension down a notch and avoid folks getting injured. If you must know, the fights revolved around males who did not want to be told what to do by each other… And that sort of thing escalates real quick when you have metal tools in your hands, some blood and hormones running in the vessels, and any latent boredom or frustration that needs to be vented.

Gus, in his forty-five years plus teaching here at CCSF, had not encountered such things before. Hey! This is a college class! This is gardening! No fighting allowed! You would think that would be obvious, that working together and respecting each other was a given. But somewhere along the line, that was not part of the curriculum anymore, or perhaps students did not get that lesson growing up. Gus would say, “They don’t teach common sense anymore” and I would agree.

As as result of the incidents, we made a basic set of rules for our classes that we passed around. We also tacked in the rules some other trends we noticed that needed a bit of correction. It was a time when smart phones became popular. The document was a bare bones basic document that looked like this:

Well things changed a little bit after that, and at least we had no more fighting. In the end, I think Gus and myself tend towards the inspire-from-within school rather than the enforce externally school of training. Gardening best learned by example founded in good will, rather than lessons based on fear and punishment.

It did get me thinking about our conduct and ethics in the garden, as well as any guiding philosophy that may bear upon the topic. As Gus says, sometimes, as a gardener for residential clients, you almost become a member of the family. After all, you often have keys to the yard if not the house. You occupy a position of trust. You are a professional. As a gardener for the city, you are an essential worker for parks and public spaces where anybody can ‘be’. In these places lies the health of the community and society, and you are its guardian and caretaker. You can behave honorably because you have a GPS tracker on your truck, a supervisor watching you with binoculars from across the street, and hidden cameras strapped to the trees. Or you can behave honorably because there is something inside that keeps you motivated and happy to serve.

A professional gardeners group used to meet here at City College. It was made up of landscapers who wanted to network, and pass on knowledge. Many established contractors would all come to attend the once a month Thursday night meetings. We encourage you all to join and to pass on the tradition. This here is their mission and code of ethics to adhere to:

There are a few other professions that are closely linked to our jobs as gardeners and horticulturists. Ranchers, hunters, loggers and farmers all come to mind. Jobs that require us to extract something from the earth. Work that entails working outdoors, a certain amount of risk, and the honoring of a reciprocal relationship. They must all surely have a code or rules to live by…

Maybe it was the reading of Empire of the Summer Moon about the Comanche chief Quanah Parker, or reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, or perhaps watching Quigley down under starring Tom Selleck on Netflix. Anyhow, got on a cowboy journey. Ranchers and cowboys have got to know the plants too, plants that the livestock feed on; this is called range management. So I googled up the cowboy code. Its kinda sparse on the details with regards to cattle roping and braiding lariats, but sure does summarize well the basics and the lifestyle. Some of these codes are the same ones that gardeners live by:

Something that you will overcome as you engage in gardening, or maybe not overcome but at least tolerate and get used to, is death. Death in nature to be specific. Its happening all the time and you are a part of it. You kill weeds, kill bugs, kill gophers and mice, and accidentally cull or kill plants you meant to cultivate. It is all a part of the job. Perhaps you cultivated the soil and exposed all the worms and beetles, then in comes the robin and sparrow to feast. So you inadvertently caused the death of all those creatures as well, by opening the way for opportunistic little birds. You can feel really bad about it and try to find another line of work that does not have such an intimate connection to nature. Or you can reconcile yourself to being a part of the natural world and make up for it in some way. By sharing the harvest, by making a flower bouquet for a friend, or by making some kinda offering to the earth – say a fish head chunk of fertilizer or a bucket of manure. Thinking and meditating about death, that is something hunters do. What is a hunter’s code? I wondered… Found this one online, seems I cant get away from Texas:

Down by my friend’s cattle ranch south, he hosts hunters who come to hunt pigs and deer and squirrels and quails and turkeys and rabbits. This is his sign in the trailer with regards to hunting rules. I much like it because it is honest, emphasizes safety and personal responsibility, and lists real actions, not ambiguous philosophical type words:

As gardeners, farmers are similar to us. While we deal in smaller plots of land that may be strictly ornamental, or that require more intensive attention, farmers usually deal with land on a larger scale. And production is the main thing, not so much access and cleanliness, as it is in town. Farming is one of those activities that needs many people to work together; it forms the foundation of all cultures. The farmer’s code I found belonged to a club based out of Australia, in Molong New South Wales, attributed to Robert Stephens:

I was introduced to another farmer while going to dojo in San Diego. He was a rice farmer whose name was Morihei Ueshiba aka O’sensei. He was also a Japanese martial artist post World War II who modified jiu jitsu, merged it with the nature spirits of Shinto religion, and made it a path to arrive at peace. The dojo was filled with Navy folks from Coronado. I asked, “ Don’t y’all get this training in the military?” They said, “Nope, thats why we are here.” Heard that situation is changed now, but back in the day there was a whole lot of sweaty gi outfits and kiai kiai kiai sounding off of Ocean Beach. On the tatami mats mopping up afterwards is where you learn catchy phrases like ‘many hands make light work’ and ‘when we help each other, we all move up together’. For sure have to thank Sensei Tom and Senpai Ben. The code I found was for samurais, the warrior code. In Japanese it is bushido:

Do you know what DO in juDO, hapkiDO, aikiDO mean? Or TAO or DAO? It means the way, the road, the path. Judo is the gentle path, hapkido and aikido are the paths to become one with the energy and forces of our universe. We are talking about a relationship with nature, the nature outside as well as the nature and turmoil within.

How did this essay become about the way and martial arts?! Sigh. Must be from watching the sequels of Karate Kid called Cobra Kai with kids of this generation. Distracting tangents! Well let’s go back to gardening, and try to provide some worthwhile structure and discipline for this next cohort. Heres a basic set of rules for the semester. Keepin’ it short and sweet:

This all goes back a long ways. Hunters horticulturists gatherers farmers. These are the original old time professions that stretch back to the beginning of humanity and extend into the future infinity. You, as a gardener, is a living link and it is a great community to be a part of. For me, to be a gardener is the best thing in all the world! Welcome to landscape horticulture, maintenance & care, class OH 53. Now, enough chit chat and blah blah blah, to work!

Random notes

The best thing about studying plants is that they are everywhere

they make life interesting and worth noticing cause they come in infinite forms and variations

even when theres no blooms its fun to touch some stems, rub some leaves, and look at the ground at your feet

This here is a random collection of botanical notes thats been simmering

Guess we’ll start at the botanical garden

gardener mentioned that there was a tree in decline in South Africa section Cape Province

worth a look and be nice to propagate it, if it is the last one around

so maybe you walk by the same corner a thousand times

but pay no attention to the trees or creatures around you

then you’re like ‘wow I have never seen you before, what have I been doing?’

that was my reaction, so I said hi to the tree named Widdringtonia

it was labeled and everything, bed number clear and easy to see right there

that plunged me into an investigation of its cones, its seeds, and its nearest relatives

following this little branch of a family of trees

Turns out the cypress family is divided into seven subfamilies

Almost all of them I had shook hands with once or twice, or at least known a close cousin or two

even grown a bunch of little seedlings of swamp cypress from New Orleans and dawn redwoods from China

but this one subfamily, I had no clue, absolutely nothing on em

they from the southern hemisphere where they are looking up at the southern cross not the north star

lucky research is easy these days and I pulled up most of their weird names

folks that go by  Diselma and Libocedrus and Papauacedrus

well the botanical garden is organized by the curators into beds with numbers

that way you know what you got, where

I found just a few members of this subfamily called Callitroideae scattered here and there

then tried to organize it a little bit in my mind for that dream expedition to parts unknown

tropic of capricorn, cape of good hope, or the guinea highlands full of pigs and taro

but the journey starts here, in the botanical garden

I challenge you to go and look for em all, as many as you can find


Few weeks back was wandering in northern california, picking up burnt chunks of madrone, greeting the fresh oak leaf resprouting from the bases

and scouting for animals

does anybody else like to do ground botany?

like botanize just from following deer trails and eyes pegged on the fallen things of the world?

no need to look up, just scan back and forth at dirt and poo and footprints

no need for pretty flowers or colored leaves, just enjoying the dead brown stuff you step on

after processing, this was came out of the smoker

Along the lines of things insignificant and not noticed

or creatures so common you forget about or dismiss

or objects with parts so similar you like ‘blah they all the same’

is the family of plants called grasses Poaceae

alright I love this family more than almost any other

but I suck at identifying them just no good at it

not sure if its the patience that is lacking or the basic lazy nature inherent within

anyways did jot down some notes for a training I did while working for the government twenty years back, thought I’d share it with you and dedicate it to other novices like myself

the best place to start learning about anything is always right close to home

lets see if any of you know where this is, and can notice the little clumps of perennial native grasses nestled within the stands of annual rattlesnake grass

The bonus picture is something else that is emerging already out of its dormant summer slumber 

(its december and theres only been one rain, still there it goes…)

a plant that is useful as soap or as a fish poison in olden indian times

10 points extra credit if you can guess what it is…

In the end it always seems to come back to the earth and the land

that is what keeps us grounded

had these couple of illustrations for a video on magnolias

somehow they did not make it into the cut, so they are here 

one is the explanation for the the chinese characters that make up magnolia, mu and lan

just like the disney character

and the second is a geographical explanation of province (like states) names in china

so instead of awkward sounding words like bing fang lang nang fing fong ching chong

a little translation helps understanding

you can see the layout of the country and likely major geographical features

if anything it reminds me of indian tribe names here in california

where cool words like Yurok or Karuk just mean down river or up river

the river full of salmon that is, and grizzlies fishing on the banks

what is in a name anyways after all?

is it something someone else calls you, or something you call yourself

not sure…

Super patient gentleman Joey lent me a book by Greg Sarris called Weaving the dream. A book about a pomo indian weaver named Mabel McKay. After I read it got all itchy inside and couldn’t stomach it. The concepts were so so so so indian. How else to describe it? Luckily there was a blank canvas in the garage and I could vomit out a review in colors. I used these color markers by a company named posca. You can paint real fast with them but I am limited in any ability to blend or mix or brush like with tubes of goopy paint. Plus there was no orange in the box, just mostly all primary type colors. So if the picture is a little gaudy sorry about that. If it was too rushed sorry about that too, just seems scenes these days running by at clip neck pace and if I pause, ten years pass. Hence got to make the best of a few hours of clarity or inspiration.

If you want to understand how to weave a dream of your own, you actually have to read the book. No substitute for stories first hand second hand. This just a few of the elements I remember from it while digesting.

There was a part about a white snake in the river. Some kinda all powerful spirit creature that probably gives birth to life itself as it sleeps and breathes creation. In chinese mythology there is a white snake who can change into a human; she is like really scary and evil. Real pretty, real bad news. Then there is the band whitesnake from the 70’s. There was just too much baggage with the white snake, so I made it red white and blue. Red white and blue snake river. Mabel’s work floats in the river of dreamscape time that is why theres apples and a basket in there. If I biffed up the basket in terms of its authenticity and details I apologize to the old time indian tribes that could tell the difference between north and south and riverine and upland basketry. Us newcomers can hardly tell the difference between a rush and a sedge, much less the difference between the thickness of the roots seasonally, or be able to compare the ease of splitting from one patch to the next.

On the right side of the river is the wet side, the watershed side, the shady side, and also the side packed with rattle snakes in this painting. In the story the rattle snake comes as a helper to assist in medicine doctoring duties. Rattle snakes everywhere, that is awesome! But of course the white folks do not appreciate this and do not understand. Besides the Christian motif of snake as pure evil that got us all thrown out of the garden of eden, there is the very practical aspect that rattle snakes are poisonous and you do not want them around. That is why I killed most of them with garden implements of farmers and ranchers. But I did leave one of them to live, the really short stubby fat one in the front. Can’t help it, really do appreciate snakes. Same like with sharks or ling cods or coyotes and things, just great fascinating creatures. So in amongst all this blood and snakes I planted the angelica root medicine that old timers smoke, to balance the chi so to speak.

On the left is the open exposed lit dry side of the valley that turned to gated cattle ranches of annual grasslands after the oaks and indians and acorns were swept away. But down by the river and the flat muds theres still patches of basketry materials like sedge and willow and rush too. The hills become sidestepped with parallel line trails from cows and geology, the edges lined with barb wire. In the dreamscape, these are the round and round and round spirals of a coiled basket. If you could see the hills turned upside down you will realize that the landscape is baskets all baskets, spirit all spirit nothing more nothing less. As a reminder of this, hummingbird is there, full of motion, in a standstill as a flying cross. Of course no landscape is all pure and good and without danger. In the story theres plenty of weird crazy bent out of shape spirits that inhabit our realm. Seemingly for no reason – angry frustrated lost and disenchanted spy like beings out to destroy the world. So I painted them there crouched in the hills, a salamander fish thing and a spider antennae thing. Was tempted to put them in cages or stab them with picks but thought it best to just leave them be.

In back of the valley lies the flat mesa of a hill of a basket that is draining rivers and getting pounded drenched by a thunder storm of epic proportions. Lightning and flash and kaboom kaboom thundering action. Somehow in this story people and weather phenomenon are intimately connected by electricity and mana. So when good and significant people die, the sky actually sheds tears or undergoes an emotional train wreck of a transformation. Pretty wild stuff, I agree. At the base of the mesa is a lake, probably shallow Clear Lake where blue gill and bass roam chasing after little teeny bait fish. Very likely a good spot to gather materials for weaving, and chat with the neighboring tribes.

Atop the mesa is the silvery clouds of the storm and a red sky full of moon. Slow drift paste of thin clouds sheathing the bright white glare of her surface. And nestled within the clouds, there can be only one thing – a roundhouse full of indians dancing and singing and making jokes, dreaming everyday into existence.

Hahahhaha. C’est tout fini! Or perhaps just beginning…

Usually this chapter, I show this painting I made called our Lady of Black’s Beach and tell the story of how Maui was cracked in half by Hine-Nui-Te-Po when he tried to swim up her birth canal. Then go into detail about Dave the Tank marginalies or Bruce the Barbinskate, Jack the lego maniac and Bob the seal who lives with Corona the dog in a shack at Rosarito Mexico by the power plant and taco stands and ship wreck in the line up. That painting is about the landscape called the mother ocean. But I have already told a few surf stories and try not to be repetitious.

Then there is a painting about the mojave desert called zzyzx, a scene of a lump of a hill named san bruno mountain, a gathering in the forest that goes by mendocino woodlands, and the rainforest we visited for our honey moon by the river of secoya territory. All different kinds of landscape designs with distinct feels.

Well never did tell y’all about this painting called alcoina. Its kinda rough in a way, not sure I ever really finished it, but good enough to tell a story by so here goes:

Theres a little town in the south of spain. That is where my wife’s family is from. She got a mom, a dad, and five brothers and sisters. She the littlest one.

Theres town, and theres country. Town is the church called san juan where all the celebrations and memorials go down and loquat tree and roses out front. Streets are narrow of hand laid pebbles and cobbles that barely fit a fiat or a citroen or a seat with pelargoniums hanging on the walls. Past the hardware store is a yellow colored convent with brick columns and some young adults rolling a cigarette of hash and tobacco across the street. Theres a central gathering space called the alameda where after dinner when its cooled off you go for a walk and see everybody out and about. Go back and forth chatting gossiping while kids are running circles around the canes and walkers and horses with braided tails. Adolescents roaming in packs and courting or chillin’ at a sit down at the burger joint.

Country is woods of pines planted by general franco and understory of feral pig tracks and limestone. In the clearings theres rosemary and thyme and rock rose and wild carnations. Fields of esparto grass punctuated by asphodeles and teucrium or a clump of palmitos chamaerops. Reminds me of cali with the big oaks, but add some carob trees and figs, and an escaped pomegranate bush or two or three. And the bright orange of a persimmon come december.

Water comes down as rainfall in the winter, running through the mountains and popping up in fountains all the way through town. Some of it runs in creeks, creeks filled with giant reed grass. Giant reed grass farmers cut to make stakes and trellises for their tomato crop. Some of the water runs in irrigation canals, of concrete construction with movable gates and valves introduced by the moors way back. Flood irrigation for hard corn and orange groves. By the canals next to the roads, its annual displays of wild pink snapdragon conejitos and red poppies and blue purple trachelium.

Besides fig, orange, and lemon trees, a couple of other trees stand out. One is the canary island phoenix palm with its majestic stature and robust form. The other is of course the olive trees that dot the hills, pruned short and squat, with ancient trunks and hardy yet fine foliage. Introduced by roman armies way back, and happy to stay.

The architecture is a mix. Its got the thick white walls of lime and interiors of sierran rocks and clay mud from river bottoms. The arches are north african middle eastern, the tile motifs are muslim, the theme is geometrical and repetitious mathematical. African is only about 9 miles away, after all.

In late january february the first blooms of the year arrive. They belong to the white and pink flowers of the almonds. They burst like sprays of phosphorescent seas all over the landscape.

Every easter, a week before sunday, every neighborhood decorates a big ol cross eight nine feet tall full of flowers. Its placed in the middle of the street and people and petals are scattered all around it. Streets are strewn and decorated with the pinnate leaves of palms. Usually the cross is made of carnations in red, or in white. It is like a competition but not really, just each group of ladies showing pride and joy, bound by the theme of resurrection. There is the Jesus statue too, in the alameda, another cross blended with the symbols of death and rebirth and renewal that spring brings.

Later, in may, is the romeria. That is when the whole town dresses up fancy and walks the two three miles outside of town to greet and receive the tiny little virgin statue hidden in a cave, found by the farmer and shepherds. That is why you see the bull dressed up in his best gear and the two brothers too, Antonio and Pepe. They are there to prod the bull along and do their work as the mamporero. My wife has three older sisters, they are there too. One is a politician activist name Ana, another is a botanist poet named Aurora, and the last is a great mom and grandma and baby sitter and cook and all around busy body named Isabel. Mom Maria is in the upper left, doing her flamenco thing with the tamborine sun, and dad Sebastian is on the right with the arching moorish moon, he is guardia civil and marine. But I mounted him on a donkey since I really like donkeys and isnt that how jesus went into jerusalem?

The whole design is a play on opposites – town and country, male and female, brother and sister, mom and dad, cultivated and wild, christian and muslim, water and earth, sun and moon, light and dark.

Thats about it. Feeling thirsty, I’m gonna go pick some grapes hanging off the top of dome, or catch a drink at the fountain with Loli.

Happy thanksgiving!

Hedges and lawns

Around here, most hedges are made of boxwood, or privet

dodoneae or podocarpus fern pine

pittosporum is popular too

or on occasion – griselinia and escallonia.

Gas station hedges are made of raphiolepis.

Look under the hedges for the irrigation spray heads or drip lines or soaker hoses

Oftentimes, there isn’t any

in clay soils, these plants require no additional irrigation once established.  

That is the key – once established.

For most shrubby woody plants in the clay loam soils

it can take two or three years of winter rains and intermittent summer irrigation

for the roots to sink down wide and deep, and for it to be well grounded

after that happens, you can come by once every couple of months to shear it to shape

and it does not seem to mind

it resprouts a wall of greenery right away without any problems

cause it has reserves, cause its embedded in the landscape

it helps that these plants

often have small waxy leaves somewhat resistant to desiccation

it helps that these plants originate from places with much much hotter summers

compared to a foggy coastal place like san francisco

if these shrubs are growing in the west side, in the sand

perhaps in the lean of a shadow of a house

they can still get by with no additional supplementary irrigation

they might get a little stressed after four or five months of dry weather

drop some leaves, turn a wee bit red or yellow

but they usually pull through alright

If they are established

and the rains come

aside from the usual suspects

there are a number of other plants that fit the criteria of a useful hedge

plants that grow a thick and full bush of smallish leaves

plant that sprout out readily even when cut back, even to bare wood

Plants that do not go leggy and tree-like and lanky on you

plants that are uniform and green green green all year round

What you don’t want as a hedge plant 

is a plant that is finicky and temperamental after a hedging operation

some leafy parts go vigorously nutty

while a whole nuther section just dies, leaving a gaping hole

Those plants you want to avoid, they are no good as hedges, better in their own natural shape

Ceanothus is one of those:

A few other drought tolerant plant choices (once established) are:

True myrtle Myrtus communis.  Can you guess where this is?

Eleagnus umbellata is another great plant. The silvery leaves, plus the edible berries for jam. What is not to like about autumn berry?

Africa boxwood Myrsine africana shown here with Myrica California in the background and Quercus agrifolia in the foreground on the side.  In our cloud garden.

Way old stand by from forty fifty years ago Juniperus communis.  All along Teresita.

Heres an interesting specimen. Leptospermum scoparium as some kind of a sidewalk bonsai hybrid hedge thing.  We’ll just say that it may have potential.

Breath of heaven Coleonema pulchra. 

Like all hedges, gotta stay on top of em.  If you fall asleep with Rip Van Winkle,  the plant grows tall & wide.  Then when you prune it hard down to all bare wood, it may live, or it may go into shock and die.  Or it will die back in sections here and there, and there goes your full green hedge concept out the window.  So like mowing the lawn – be consistent and keep trimming trimming and trimming on a regular basis.  Dont take off too much in one hit.  Do not neglect it.

Hedges – a living wall, a breathing border, a wave of greenery

pretty neat garden sculpture

a sculpture that comes back to life as soon as you’re done with your role as a gardener

Around here, most lawns are like mutts

they are a mix of plant species

if you go to the golf course or the lawn bowling green

theres patches of pure good sod – all fescue, or all bent grass

but most other ‘lawns’, at least in open public places

All full of daisies clover dandelions plantain veronica cat’s ears

and the grasses are a mix of fescue and poa and bermuda and rye

if you are not a discerning turf expert, you probably don’t even notice its a mix

once it has been mowed to 1.5” tall

and its all trim and uniform

that is what you see, that is all you see – a carpet of green

It does take considerable water 

to keep the lawn green

like the hedge, we like the lawn to be green year round

if we did not water the lawn, it would  go dormant, dry, and brown

that is what happens to the grasses in nature, during the dry season

to keep it full of life, water that lawn

the green color  – its so soothing

Lets say you want a flat usable space, a patch of greenery

but not one made of water-hungry always needs to be mowed grass

What are the alternatives?  

What is another plant that you can 

Step on, lay on, walk on, roll around on?

And you say “No, I do not want round tiny gravel or artificial turf or decomposed granite or slabs of concrete or slate or flagstone with a weatherproof carpet on top.  I want something soft, something gentle”

A pretty tough ground cover is Dymondia margaritacaea

A friend in the east bay tore out the lawn, and knitted it back together with a native plant ground cover called Lippia repens.

Dichondra always shows up on these lists.  My experience is that with a little bit of walking on em, the leafy ears start to crumble and then its lights out. Left alone it is has solid coverage.  With interaction it gets patchy.

The following particular choice is controversial, both among the native plant activists and amongst some rank and file gardeners.  Arctotheca cape dandelion.  Some people say it is a ‘nonnative invasive weed’. It does have those ‘I’m gonna take over’ tendencies.  At the same time, it restricts itself to mostly wet soils and shady exposures.  That is to say, it does not rule in the south side, it does not do well in the uplands.  It is the boss, however, on the north side, and on the bottom of the slope where water gathers.  It completely replaced the CCSF entrance lawns on Phelan Avenue, and has persisted year after year after year.  Nope its not the lush paradise lawn manicured turf like at USF. But then again, it wins on a lot of other criteria, and our windy foggy commuter campus is not the kind of place where people are lounging around in designer gear. They are working! What do you think?  Reach for the round up?  Get out the rototiller?  Or leave it alone?  

There is some room for entrepreneurial spirit in the turf alternatives world.  I imagine a good second choice would be a meadow mixture comprised of say three to five different species of plants.  They would all be okay with mowing, and be more or less drought tolerant once established.  They’d be plants that are a little less needy with regards to fertilization and pest control.  Seeds could be sown in a flat, and grown up into a tight mudflat quilt ready to be transplanted or divided and grafted into the ground.  You would have to play with the water regime to figure out the evapotranspiration rate and the best watering schedule to keep it green, to let it establish.  Aside from the general mutt lawn mix of dicot broadleaves we already noted, there are many other possibilities to experiment with and dream up.

How do you irrigate something that needs water all throughout the dry season, and still be frugal and conserving?  You have to irrigate like the rain that comes down on everything everyone – drip drip drip drip drip in tiny little droplets.  Not gushin big spurts.  Nice and slow tick tick tick building to a crescendo storm of pelting drops.  Wet it all the way down down down.

Visualize the earth as a huge sponge with tiny tiny holes all over her.  To get in there, as water, you have to get tiny tiny too.  If you try to push your way in, but you are large and stuck to yourself, then you will not fit.  You will have to be fine and patient, that is the trick. Well plus it helps if the soil is not hydrophobic. Organic matter organic matter.