Monday, March 26, 2018

Smell this!

Pittosporum undulatum
Lots of flowers happening at PG today: get out and have a sniff at some of them!

We have a tree up by the arch at the top of the steps flowering - Pittosporum undulatum. The tiny white flowers are really sweet-smelling.

The Echiums around the garden are covered in blue flowers now too, and hundreds of honey bees and bumble bees are buzzing around them. They don't smell of much to a human being, but clearly they are absolutely amazing for bees and they do look lovely.

Philadelphus "Belle Etoile"
Then right next to the arch is our Philadelphus "Belle Etoile,"and that's covered in large white flowers too, so find out why it's called Mock Orange for yourself: what scent!

Matt and I spent 4 hours weeding and doing tasks on Saturday. Most notably, Matt concreted in two posts that will form the bases for the poop stations we just bought.

These solid metal containers will have poop bags available and a container for dog owners to place poop in, and they will be emptied monthly by volunteers and a poop pickup service we will pay for.

It was really disappointing to see that someone has been dumping bagged dog poop at the base of the light pole again, and also hanging bags of poop from the Agave at the front. How disgusting!

And it's also pretty galling to have to pay almost $800 of our money for two poop stations and a monthly fee to empty them because a few dog owners are so irresponsible, letting their dogs literally crap on all our hard work. It mystifies me how thoughtless this is - right next to a "Please pick up after your dog" sign too...

Well weeded

While pondering this, I weeded the end of the brights bed by the arch, and spread wood chips to suppress further weeds. I filled an entire bin of the composter with weeds, and turned another one over. Our composters need some work - the lids are damaged from homeless people climbing up on them, so we will need to buy new wood and redo the tops.

Someone kindly left an Agave in a pot at the entrance of the garden: thanks! Its worth noting that plants left in pots are usually stolen though, so please contact me if you have a donation :)

Before and after
On Sunday we returned to complete installation of the poop stations, only to find out that the company had sent the wrong top parts. We spent some time weeding around Agaves instead, as they often get a nasty case of rot at the base if you don't keep soggy weeds away from them. We pulled all the old chips away, which had composted down to dirt, removed all the weeds, then put fresh chips in so the Agaves are not buried in chips. Much better.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Weed Profile: Malva

Easy to recognize leaves
Welcome to the first in a series of articles about weeds at Pennsylvania Street Gardens and Pennsylvania Railroad Gardens, and how to get rid of them.

Our first subject is a rampant annual called Malva. It has pros and cos though - read on to find out what they are.

Latin name: Malva neglecta and M. parviflora ("MAL-vah neg-LECT-ah" and "MAL-vah par-vee-FLOR-ah")
Common name: Little Mallow, Cheeseweed
Originally from: M. neglecta: North Africa, central and southern Europe and south west Asia. M. parviflora: Southern Europe, North Africa and south west Asia, extending as far as Turkestan and Afghanistan.
Blooms: Flowers bloom nearly year-round. They are small, white to pale pink, and about 2/5 of an inch (1 cm) in diameter.  
Worst feature: Dreadful taproot 
Best feature: It's edible!
Height x width: Ranges from 6" x 12" for M. neglecta to 5' x 2' for M. parviflora
How best to weed: Get the taproot out
Don't mistake it for: Nasturtiums, which have a similar leaf shape, but smoother, less wave edges and big orange flowers.

Malva species look very similar. In fact, for most people, M. neglecta and M. parviflora can only be distinguished by comparing the flower petals and fruit shape. M. neglecta petals are longer than M. parviflora petals, and the fruit of M. neglecta are smooth while those of M. parviflora are wrinkled. But it doesn't really matter - they are both weeds, and we treat them both the same.

These annual plants seed prolifically, and develop a long taproot - like a thin white carrot - which is difficult to remove in dry ground, If you leave the taproot in the ground, or even part of it, the plant will regrow. And those taproots can be hard to get out!
Devilish root

With that in mind here are some of the ways we control them. First is pulling or digging out the whole taproot. This is always the best method to remove any weed, and in this case is also quite satisfying - gently pull and, if the ground is damp, the whole thing should come up. Or dig it up in drier soil. Some of these guys have massive roots though and if you don't have time or energy for removing them, cutting the plant off at the base of the leaves in one snip of the pruners will certainly slow the plant down and stop it seeding everywhere. You'll have to dig it out later, but it's an OK short term fix.

I'd consider the relative ease with which you can pull it out a "pro," but on the cons list for this plant is the fact that under certain conditions, little mallow accumulates nitrates to concentrations toxic to cattle. Poultry that eat mallow leaves or seeds can produce lower quality eggs.

There are some other pros to list though. This plant's fruit is sometimes described as looking like a tiny wheel of cheese, giving it the common name of cheeseweed.  Does it TASTE like cheese though? Let me know: all parts of this plant are edible. Rich in vitamins A and C as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and selenium, the mild-flavored leaves and flowers can be added to a salad, and the fruit can be a substitute for capers. When cooked, the leaves create a mucus very similar to okra and can be used as a thickener to soups and stews. Dried leaves can be used for tea. 

Mallow also roots release a thick mucus when boiled in water. This can be beaten to make a meringue-like substitute for egg whites. Yeah, this plant is related to the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis), whose sap was used to make marshmallows, leading to many happy times by the campfire.

So if you find a mallow in the garden, please do me a favor - pull it out and eat it.  :)

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

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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.
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