Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wildlife Profiles: Western Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Awful bird
At least one Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos ("MIM-us polly-GLOTT-os") is a resident of Pennsylvania Street Garden, and each year a nest is build and a lot of song and dance goes into it. I actually quite like this bird, despite my tongue in cheek description below.

Official description:

  • Family: The Wrens, Thrashers, etc .
  • Length: 9.00" - 11.00"
  • Adults: Upper parts, plain gray; wings and tail, blackish; wings with white patch at base of primaries; wing bars, white tipped; wing quills and tertials with whitish edgings; under parts, white tinged with grayish  - more brownish in autumn.
  • Young:  Upper parts more brownish black,  indistinctly streaked, or spotted with darker breast, spotted with dusky.
  • Geographical Distribution: United States from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast and in Lower California.
  • Breeding Season: April, May, and June
  • Nest: Of small twigs and weeds lined with finer material, and sometimes horsehair and cotton; placed from 6 inches to 50 feet high in thick bushes, hedges, vines, and trees. We've had them nest in our Cordylines.
  • Eggs: 4 or 5 pale bluish or greenish, spotted with reddish brown.

Preparing to yell
This species was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturæ in 1758 as Turdus polyglottos. It's thought that the genus "Turdus" is a reference to how annoying mockingbirds can be, especially when they sing loudly at night... sometimes they get up at 3am and just yell in your window. Nobody knows why. Harper Lee wrote a great book about what to do when this happens, although actual references to deceased mockingbirds and how to get them that way were pretty thin on the ground in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let's just say the central themes of the book, involving racial injustice and the destruction of innocence, were metaphorical.

The northern mockingbird is known for its mimicking ability, as reflected by the meaning of its scientific name Mimus (mimic)  polyglottos (many-tongued.) It will copy the songs of other birds, even if they are not-great songs. It will copy dogs barking, car alarms, babies crying, ambulance sirens and the agonized wails of people trying to sleep.

The northern mockingbird is the only mockingbird commonly found in North America, thank goodness. This bird is mainly a permanent resident, but northern birds may move south during bad weather. It breeds in southeastern Canada, the United States, northern Mexico, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and the Greater Antilles. So, you can see that the range of people united by lack of sleep is huge. It's even the state bird of five states, appearing in book titles and songs.

Not flashy
The northern mockingbird is not a flashy bird: it has gray to brown upper feathers and a paler belly. Its tail and wings have white patches you can see when it flies. It eats both insects and fruits, and generally hangs around wooded areas and/or bedroom windows.

A 2009 study showed that mockingbirds are really smart - able to recognize individual humans, especially anyone who threatened them.  Which is just as well...

Monday, March 12, 2018

Get social with us

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    Sunday, March 4, 2018

    Plant profile: Scilla peruviana (Portuguese Squill)

    Latin name: Scilla peruviana ("SILL-ah peh-roo-vee-AH-na")
    Common name: Giant Scilla, Portuguese Squill, Cuban Lily, Hyacinth of Peru
    Originally from: The western Mediterranean region in Iberia, Italy, and northwest Africa.
    Blooms: Gorgeous purple and blue flowers, about 4-5" across, are held above strappy green foliage in late winter/early spring
    Light: Full sun to part shade
    Water: Rain is plenty. They say it needs moderate water... but we don't do that and it's been fine!
    Height x width: 18"x12"
    Zones: 7-10
    Where to find in P. Garden: We have one bulb in the brights bed. I'd like more.

    Carolus Clusius,
    not good with names
    Carolus Clusius named this plant Hyacinthus stellatus peruanus in the 16th century Apparently Clusius thought the bulbs came from Peru, but really they came via a ship called "Peru," so that was awkward... nobody called him on it, but Linnaeus went ahead and renamed the species in 1753 as Scilla peruviana, keeping the reference to Peru as an obvious dig. Botanists, as we know, are notorious for casting shade on each other. What a cutthroat science!

    The common names for this include Hyacinth of Peru, Peruvian Lily and Star of Peru, which really don't help, and names such as Caribbean Lily and Cuban Lily came about because this plant has naturalized in these areas. Again, not helpful.

    Then there's a whole lot of DNA evidence that this and other Scilla actually should have new or resurrected genera names. This bulb, for example, has the name Oncostema peruviana proposed.

    At this level of malarkey, it seems like anyone can jump in, so I think I can propose my own name. I hate inaccuracies, so let's go with Oncostema lusitanica. I'm going to inform, um, whoever is in charge of... all this... and I'll let you know what happens...

    Anyway, it's flowering NOW - early March - and you should see it. Gorgeous! Plant a few in your garden - it's unusual and makes a lovely bright spot in late winter.

    Saturday, March 3, 2018

    A new bed is started

    Before: team in action
    Today's volunteer workday was framed by ominously dark, Byronic clouds to the North and epic, John Constable-style dramatic and fluffy clouds to the West, with vibrant sunshine on the garden. Freshly drenched in rain, the weeds were ripe for pulling!

    Chris, Sarah and Hilary joined me and we did a solid 4 hours of work (!) transforming the garden.

    First up was removing some encampment debris and putting in a 311 app request to have the trash removed. Done.

    Next we set about weeding the area right at the top, preparing a clean surface for fresh woodchips. I think probably a dozen giant tubtrugs of weeds made it to the composter.

    After - the start of a fresh new bed
    We found a number of logs in the chip pile as well as other branches and bricks, and used them to frame a new bed.

    Portuguese Squill
    (Scilla peruviana)
    We also picked up over a dozen of dog poops, and dozens of bags left at the base of the light pole, full of poop. Whoever is leaving poops, or worse, passive-aggressively leaving bagged crap for us to pick up, you should be ashamed of yourself. What makes you so special that you think it's OK to leave crap for volunteers to clean up?

    We'll be watching for you, and will call 911 if you keep leaving dog crap everywhere. You've been warned.

    So, we're making a new bed at the top of the garden. It's NOT a place to let dogs crap. It's a garden. If you can't clean up, find a dog park to visit. If you can keep your dog out of the beds and pick up it's poop, we obviously love and welcome you and your lovely pooch(es) ;)

    Edges cleaned & weeded
    The new bed will showcase all the super-tough plants we need to remove from the cactus wall before the neighboring wall is torn down. Expect to see Yuccas, Agaves, Opuntias, and other cacti in the mix.

    We started with an Agave sisalana, moving it from the left to the right end of the new bed. We added an Agave tequiliana in the bed, and one to the front bed too. Matt had placed a Dasylirion wheeleri there a couple weeks ago, and Hilary transplanted a small Salvia canariensis into the bed too. Chris planted a Yucca branch at the back, and there's lots of room for more to come.

    We flattened a pathway through the woodchips for walkers and will be back to add more to this exciting new area soon.

    Wednesday, February 28, 2018

    Workday this weekend!

    Join in - from 10am to noon we will be creating a brand new bed in the top area of the garden, weeding and tidying and hopefully avoiding any inconvenient rain!

    Monday, February 26, 2018

    More movement, more weeding

    Hm, chips...
    Matt and I popped over to the garden on the weekend to see if we could move some more plants, and arrived to a mixed surprise. A huge pile of wood chips in the top area...

    Great news: we needed chips! Not so great news: we didn't know these were coming, and whoever dumped them completely covered a few plants in chips. meaning we had a lot of work to do uncovering the plants before they died, versus other important tasks...

    Agave rescue
    We got an Agave tequiliana out from under the pile, and it looks OK which is good news.

    I'll be contacting the wood chip company to straighten them out...

    I weeded one of the top terraces and spread some chips on it right away, and we put some chips in the brights bed too.

    Freshly weeded
    Then we finally moved to the cactus wall. Matt set about taking down some Yucca branches and setting them up in the back area to prevent encampments, while I weeded the bottom path some more. I did another 5 yards of path, and two more of the steps as well - each freshly weeded section is so nice and neat :)

    Matt also pulled some Opuntias out, and a small Aloe. All these plants will be set up in a new bed at the top of the garden, or put in pots for the short term.

    I pulled some trash out and left it on the curb for 311 to pick up, and was notified by the 311 app that it was gone a couple hours later. Great app - I recommend everyone download it!

    Thursday, February 22, 2018

    Time to start moving...

    Austrocylindropuntia subulata
    The owners of the building next to PG have let us know that they intend to demolish the building in June. I went to their offices and looked at the plans for the site - 59 units of residential, all rentals!

    Center Hardware has already relocated, and Gary's Brickley Production Services will move too - very sad for us as Gary and Annelle have been wonderful over the years.

    What does this mean for PG? Well, for starters, we need to move the plants along the cactus wall so they can build a retaining wall along it.

    These plants have done a superb job of protecting that wall from graffiti and have thrived in the hot, dry spot with no water at all. In other words, they're mostly very spiky cacti, which means moving them will be tricky. Matt and I have started the process but we will need to work on it for the next few months to get it done.

    Last weekend we cut out a few more Yucca branches to root elsewhere, and left a pile of cuttings on the sidewalk for people to help themselves to. If you want cactus cuttings to start yourself, let me know and I can cut some for you.

    We also reinforced some of the plantings at the back of the garden to help reduce the chance of homeless encampments somewhat - a lot of our cacti will end up back there.

    I worked on weeding a bit too. After the rains and sunshine, the weeds are very vigorous - I cleared one section of the bottom path completely. There is so much more to do that we're having our annual weedathon again this year - watch out for more on that!

    Monday, February 12, 2018

    Project Spiky

    Before: hole patched
    On Friday I got another fence repair quote, this time "only" $500, but I also got the phone number for a maintenance supervisor for Caltrans from a NextDoor neighbor, and have him a quick call.

    Chris the Caltrans guy went right down to the garden and fixed the hole. BAM! :)

    Then, on Sunday Matt and I went down and started Project Spiky.  This tried-and-true method for preventing nefarious behavior involves planting spiky plants in areas that seem to attract encampments and drug abuse.

    After: less inviting
    We cut several large pieces of Opuntia subulata aka Austrocylindropuntia subulata aka Eve's Pin, the mildly terrifying cactus native to the Peruvian Andes which grows so well here. We planted them right where the hole was, being careful not to be stabbed ourselves, and mostly succeeding by wearing two pairs of leather gloves and wrapping the cacti in tarps.

    Then we added some Opuntia ficus-indica - your basic prickly pear - several large branches of Yucca, and a few Agave americana. All of this will root into a morass of spines.

    More Yuccas. Better protection
    Now, I'm under no illusions that the plants will take off overnight, or be unmolested - two of the Yucca branches we planted last week had already been broken or uprooted by homeless people. So we'll likely have to add a lot more, and they'll likely get stomped on and look raty for a long time - just like the other Opuntias we planted there years ago, who have suffered a lot. But it's a start.

    Thursday, February 8, 2018

    Plant profile: Narcissus papyraceus (Paperwhite)

    Paperwhites! A glorious, almost jasmine-scented flower that pops up in late winter to cheer you up when the weather is dismal. Should you grow them? Yes! How? Read on.

    Latin name: Narcissus papyraceus ("nar-SISS-uss pap-eye-RAY-cee-us")
    Common name: Paperwhite
    Originally from: The Mediterranean - Greece to Portugal, plus Algeria and Morocco.
    Blooms: White or yellow and white flower clusters open from late winter, spring
    Light: Likes full sun
    Water: Rain is enough
    Height x width: 18"x12"
    Zones: 8-10
    Where to find in P. Garden: There's a clump up by the top of the steps.

    Although beautiful, delicate and scented in an expensive way, paperwhites are easy to grow. You can find bulbs at most garden stores or online, then just add water and away they go: they'll burst into bloom 4-6 weeks after you plant or pot the bulbs, and if you plant them at 2- to 4-week intervals you'll get a nicely a staggered display.

    You can plant them in the garden, or in a pot, or even in a vase with water. To do this, just put the bulbs upright on some gravel in a clear vase, and add water until the level reaches just below the base of the bulbs, but no higher (if the bases of the bulbs sit in water, they will rot). Makes a great holiday gift! Keep them in a sunny windowsill and enjoy the sight and scent.

    After they're done flowering, if your paperwhites are in the ground I personally leave the flower heads intact on these - unlike most daffodils to which they are related these guys will seed around. And more paperwhites is a good thing!

    If you'd rather the plants save energy for more flowers next year though, just deadhead them as the flowers shrivel up. Then leave the leaves along until they dry up completely. This lets the plant store energy for next year's display. Leave them in the ground, and forget about them until next year.

    If your paperwhites are in a pot or vase, let the foliage die down and dry off the bulbs, then store in a cool dark place, in a paper bag, till next fall. Unlike other Narcissus species (daffodils etc), paperwhites do not need to be chilled to promote blooms.

    Tuesday, February 6, 2018

    All clear!

    After a flurry of activity over the last 24 hours, the latest encampment has been cleaned up.

    I don't know if SF HOT or SFPD got the people to move, as we contacted both, but I do know the camp was vacant this morning. And I won't share the other photos of the mess that was left behind but it was pretty disgusting.

    At any rate, as soon as Chris told me the camp was empty, I used the 311 app to notify them it was ready to clean. At the same time, our contact at SFPA, the lovely May, contacted DPW too.

    And just a few hours later, Gary let me know that the camp was cleaned and gone.

    Now, we know it will be back, but we have to make the garden a very unappealing place to be for homeless people otherwise we're going to end up with another used needle and feces covered mess. Putting pressure on government groups to help clean up also transmits the message that a real solution for homeless people (vs shuffling them around) is desperately needed.

    Now let's get the fence at the bottom of the garden fixed! I've called some companies for a quote - around $900. But if enough people ask Caltrans they will fix it - submit a CSR here:

    Monday, February 5, 2018

    You've got to be kidding...

    Aaaaand, today both Chris and Gary told me the encampment is back. Already.

    SFPA got back to me on what to do for PG, which is an update to the previous information I posted:
    1. SF HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) are available to offer homeless persons services and connect them with resources. They can be contacted at (415) 355-7445 - SFPA has called them today.
    2. SFPD is the agency to contact for any enforcement requests such as asking persons to move or to prevent persons from returning. I called them today.
    3. DPW crews can only clean up debris, trash, etc. They cannot move people or prevent them from returning.When the people are gone, we can get DPW to clean the trash/needles etc.

    I have called  SFPA, SFPD and Caltrans, and submitted a new ticket to Caltrans at

    Sunday, February 4, 2018

    Workday follow up

    Paperwhites - worth a sniff!
    Today Matt and I went back to PG to do something to prevent the inevitable: a new encampment in the back area.

    Matt cut a number of large Yucca branches, and we planted five of them along the terraces. We have more waiting to be planted, and will add some Agave americanas as well so this area is as inhospitable as can be.

    I also planted out 8 smaller potted Agaves, various species - all that was left after the homeless people destroyed all the plants we were propagating down at the back of the garden.

    We will need to plant not only more Yuccas and Agaves, but also be very vigilant that another encampment doesn't spring up. If you see one, let me know right away by emailing annie at, AND by following the directions here for encampments at PG, which is Caltrans land:
    1. First post a CSR here . You will receive a CSR number by email, automatically
    2. Call Caltrans rep Dennis at (510) 286-6438 and tell him the CSR number 
    3. Within 7-10 days they remove the encampment.
    4. It will return! However, when you repeat the above process 3 times, the state posts the area meaning there's more protection.
    For encampments at PRG down the block, which is DPW land, here's what to do:
    1. Call 311 or use the 311 app ( to report the issue of an encampment at PG or PRG. I’ve already done this, but it’s not about me calling 10 times – a faster response comes from 10 people calling once each, according to the city.
    2. Call 911 if you feel threatened at all.
    3. Call Animal Care & Control at (415) 554-6364 if you see an animal in an encampment that is suffering, or behaving aggressively.

    After - Furcraea
    I also weeded heavily and moved a burned Furcraea to the front where it can recover, positioning the burned side out of sight. Matt rescued a Dasylirion and put it in what will be a new bed at the top of the garden, too.

    Right now the garden looks serene. Let's keep it that way.
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