Cradle to Grave for Burmuda Grass

Xeriscape demonstration garden at Glendale Public Library

Xeriscape demonstration garden at Glendale Public Library

A lawn in the Southwest is a guilty pleasure. Green turf is soft underfoot and comfortingly cool….especially on 110 degree days. Burmuda grass thrives in the heat, and many homeowners maintain a patch for the kids, for the dog, for the sanity a little green brings to the desert. Burmuda grass flourishes in school yards and parks across the Southwest, going dormant during the cooler months and greening up again come spring.

A lawn stays green and comforting only when watered copiously…and of course, water is a rare commodity around here. According to University of Arizona County Extension, 50-75% of the water used on a landscape can be saved by removing a lawn.

What many folks don’t consider when they opt for a patch of green, is that trusty, reliable Burmuda grass is very difficult to eliminate. If at some point in the future you decide you want a garden, or a low-water-use landscape instead of that thirsty lawn, you are facing a big chore.

According to the Maricopa County Extension, there are two methods for getting rid of this plant. Bermuda can be poisoned with one to several applications of the herbicide glyphosate (Round Up and other brand names), or it can be solarized.

Solarization involves covering the entirety of the lawn with black plastic for the summer months. The grass is suffocated and baked. Even still, what remains when the plastic is finally drawn back must be removed from the landscape, or it will re-root.

I spoke recently to Greg Peterson local expert at Urbanfarm.org. He claims Burmuda grass can be eliminated by cutting and removing the sod to a depth of two to three inches. The area is then watered to stimulate growth of the remaining rootlets so they can be raked out. All of these processes hint at the necessity of continued vigilance against re-emergence.

Gyphosate manufacturers state that the herbicide becomes inert when it contacts soil organisms. However, it does seem ironic that in order to plant gardens, fruit trees or native plants in areas where lawn grows, putting down poison is the “logical” first step.

According to Jack Kelly, Assistant Agent of Agriculture in Pima County office Cooperative Extension, glyphosate kills most plants when it is absorbed by green leaf tissue. The herbicide travels through the plant to new roots, shoots and developing fruits. The plant must be growing actively for the poison to work, so glyphosate should be applied to fresh growth in spring or in fall when the daytime temperatures are still in the 80’s.

Use a coarse spray to minimize drift and shield nearby plants. Do not water for 24 hours while the Burmuda grass takes in the herbicide. Then resume watering so the plants stay active while the effects take place, for 7-14 more days. Taper water over that time until the plot is brown.

A power rake should then be employed to remove dead grass. Kelly recommends also removing the top 2 inches of soil so mulch can be added to the new landscape without overflowing sidewalks and driveways.

Sound like a chore to you? That’s why I’m proposing that the sustainability concept of cradle to grave be applied to the planting of Burmuda grass. Cradle to grave planning means that manufacturers of products must provide for an end of life use, or sustainable recycling method for said product. Then all those disposables that litter our landscape and clog our seas would cost enough to give us pause before purchasing. And maybe a cradle to grave approach to Burmuda grass would make us think twice about putting that seed down in the first place.

Converting Turf to a Xeriscape Landscape by Jack Kelly is a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension publication AZ1371

Island Enchantment

Really big fern

Meg RainforestSunrise again

My body returned from Hawaii days ago, but my thoughts linger there, circling in meditation like a coconut rolling in the shallows. On arrival at Oahu I unfolded limbs from restrictive airline seats like a new butterfly drying its wings. Outside the airport I found transformation in the island’s nature.

The Southwest’s earth is parched, river beds lay bone dry and the plants on the landscape scrimp and pinch to get by on minimal moisture. In Honolulu rain pours down almost every day, moisture plumps every cell and the air is heavy with humidity.

Reunited in the airport baggage area with Mom and Megan, we found we were all in one piece and glad to see each other. Megan drove us across the mountains to her home on the windward side of the island.

On the pass dramatic pali rake moisture from the sky and gather it around their peaks like grey shawls, until the heavy mists swirl into low hanging clouds. As the rain falls it carves fissures in the shoulders of the pleated mountains, forming impossibly long waterfalls, one after another. Here the water cycle is a tangible expression of infinity.

Unbridled competition for sunlight spurs the tropical shrubs, vines and trees skyward where they unfurl extravagantly large leaves. When we reached the windward side prevailing breezes had driven the clouds back against the mountains, revealing sunny skies and providing relief from the humidity.

In the coastal town of Kailua the ocean immediately dominates the senses. Even in town where we stop for acai bowls the breezes are weighted with salt. On the beach near our VRBO, the mild surf rolls onto immaculate sand, only as gritty as whole wheat flour.
The surge of the waves is unceasing, regular as the breath of a sleeping beast. Two shades of blue meet at the horizon where the imagination conjures tossing ships, islands lost and mythical sea creatures from clouds and air.

Here in Hawaii the charismatic mammals are not tethered to the earth. Sea turtles frolic in the surf, humpback whales nurture their young in warm waters and schools of otherworldly fish browse among coral reefs. We thrilled to songs of birds new to us and tried for photos of frigate birds soaring overhead on crooked wings.

We too let go of earth and embraced the salty buoyancy of the sea. Floating on the surface in a protected cove we stared wide eyed through snorkeling masks at fish and sea urchins, the crusty sea bottom sliding away as currents pulled us.

Perhaps instead of transformation it was an enchantment, as the island not only inhabited my imagination, but on my return, cast a pall over the charms of the desert. But yesterday I heard a bird song new to me and wondered who was migrating through, hidden in the palo verde trees. And today I saw a flock of finches chase a raptor across the sky. The glorious cool temperatures of fall beckon.

The Coyote Call

Young spying coyote

Young spying coyote

There are multiple perspectives to consider in every decision, even that concerning whether or when to share your life with a dog. Go ahead and line up the pros and cons, but be sure and weight the entries.

A huge positive by-product of dog ownership is the mandatory trip outside first thing in the morning. This forces you into a magical realm, when dusk still holds the upper hand and daylight is just a promising glow in the east. Wildlife is out and about.

I sit sleepily in the patio chair and wait for the dog toilet duties to be done. Birds sing and rustle in the trees. Coyotes calling nearby wake me up and bring goose bumps chasing down my spine.

A coyote chorus is chaotic like a drawer-full of pots and pans rolling across the kitchen floor. Two or three coyotes yipping sound like twenty as each individual in the pack yips shriller and louder than the next. The cries ring from the desert hillside just at the end of our block.

Lexie tips her nose to the sky and draws out a series of woo woo woos in a deep baritone. It’s clearly her best howl and the moon shines from the dark sky with approval.

Then an answer rings from the flanks of South Mountain, just to the north of us. These coyotes are farther away, and their cries are less piercing. The territories marked out by this auditory posturing is clear, even to me.

On a recent predawn walk, with the dog of course, a coyote materialized. A dark form trotted on the sidewalk far ahead, dimly illuminated by streetlights. As we approached, the creature veered into the wash that runs between the neighborhood block wall and the sidewalk where we walked.

We continued on, and I watched for the coyote to pass us by in the shallow wash. Abruptly she re-emerged onto the sidewalk just ahead and crossed the street. Her tawny coat gleamed with good health and she flowed past at an easy lope, near enough to see the flash of her eye. Lexie whined and strained at the leash.

A car approaching from a side street cast headlights across the scene and the coyote flinched. She accelerated effortlessly like white water in a gorge, flying to the dark safety of the wash where she disappeared for good.

This seasoned resident was clearly familiar with the risks of urban life. She wouldn’t alter her route more than necessary to avoid a single dog and a human, but reacted much differently when a vehicle entered the picture.

Falling strongly in the camp for dog cohabitation, I have high regard for the intelligence of dogs and the positive impacts they bring to a household. It is intriguing and bewitching to hear the calls and see behaviors of similar, equally intelligent and social animals living in the urban wild just beyond our ken.

Big Rains Bring Bugs

See the bee in bottom left

See the bee in bottom left


Garden pipevine caterpillar

Garden pipevine caterpillar

Record amounts of rain create a big impact in an arid region, and not just in freeway underpasses and basements. The familiar trail where I walk was positively lush. Some plants I hardly recognized, so dressed were they in profusions of green. Seldom seen grasses grew in clumps on the desert floor, thrusting up and setting out seed heads in a water-fueled rush.

Insect eating birds – primarily black-tailed gnat catchers and verdins, worked busily among the foliage. Looking across the wash that dominates South Mountain’s Desert Classic Trail, I saw bugs massing above the green trees, backlit by the rising sun. Rain equals life, and near the bottom of the food chain, rain equals bugs.

A western spotted orb weaver spider hung her web from a block wall just above a hedge of Ruellia that buzzed with bees. The large moth trussed and motionless in her trap seemed to be looking out through the silken wrappings at me. A bee was also caught, with a leg tangled in the sticky web. It struggled vigorously, but in vain. The spider reached out and plucked at the web, which quivered along its length. Would she quickly wrap the bee as well? But she only strummed at her web until the bee broke free.

The sun was well up when I walked past again on my way home, and the spider and her meal cast a black shadow on the block wall. She crouched over the still form, feeding avidly.

In the garden I pushed aside a branch of Sonoran pipevine that snakes along the ground and discovered a large black caterpillar with red tubercles. This is the larval stage of the pipevine swallowtail. It feeds only on pipevine plants. The cautionary colors of black and red warn predators of powerful toxins that that the caterpillars ingest from the vine.

In early spring the adult swallowtail breaks out of the chrysalis as a large iridescent butterfly in shades of ebony and sapphire. Woe to birds that try to eat the butterfly; for all its changes in appearance, the swallowtail still harbors the toxins that the caterpillar recieved from its larval food plant. The butterfly is a dazzling visitor to gardens and roadsides where it pollinates many desert plants.

Read more about the pipevine swallowtail at Onelookout from March 2012. http://onelookout.com/2012/03/15/tale-of-the-swallowtail/

Microgreens

"Fields" of greens inside the greenhouse

“Fields” of greens inside the greenhouse


Sunflowers

Sunflowers

I’m in such a salad rut. I eat a salad every day, either for lunch or dinner, or sometimes both. Eating lots of vegetables makes me feel good, and oh so virtuous. Although I enjoy eating salads; buying and washing the ingredients and doing the chopping and slicing does get a little tiresome.

So I’ve been happy to discover a new ingredient that is super nutritious and offers exciting textures and flavors. I’m talking about microgreens, and I learned of them through Arizona Microgreens who are partners in and supporters of the Brooks Community School in South Phoenix.

Co-owner David Redwood visited with me about the benefits of his product. He pointed out that microgreens are grown in soil or coconut coir and take nutrients from those mediums. The little plants are allowed to go through photosynthesis and pick up phytonutrients from that process. Studies have shown that microgreens have more nutrients per bite than adult plants.

Other, dynamic aspects of this food make it a darling of chefs. Microgreens are beautiful! They contribute crunchy succulence and a variety of textures to a salad or a sandwich. In culinary creations they provide a visual presence, body and bursts of unique flavor.

Microgreens are different than sprouts. Sprouts have suffered some bad press due to bacteria outbreaks. Cultivated in water with no natural sunlight, sprouts miss out on some of the nutrient qualities of microgreens.

Arizona Microgreens features more than a dozen different plant varieties. Some customer favorites are sunflower, arugula, cilantro, broccoli, curled cress, radish, pea shoot and wheat grass. The company sells to restaurants and individuals at farmers markets. David says people buy a four ounce baggie of sprouts one week and come back the next raving about how their kids loved them, how they found them less perishable than other greens and how they enjoyed the flavors.

One of the benefits of my job at the greenhouse is taste testing. Every so often I get called on to sample a new crop. Radish microgreens are peppery and crunchy, sunflower microgreens fill your mouth with succulent, mild flavor and oriental mustard? Wow! It tastes like smooth, high-quality wasabi.

Arizona Microgreens are grown organically in flats of premium soil and allowed to get just a couple of inches tall before they are snipped off in harvest. They are tender and delectable and require no slicing, dicing or chopping. They will be coming soon to these farmers markets: Carefree Sundial, North Central Phoenix, Old Town Scottsdale and Ahwatukee’s Sunday Market. Check Arizona Microgreens website for dates and times.

Hornworms and the Web of Life

Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworm caterpillar

Sphinx moth

Every so often Nature pulls a stunt that gets everyone’s attention. Some examples come to mind: deluges in the desert, crimson and gold fall foliage, and sometimes big hatches of insects. Last Saturday Lexie and I went out for our walk and stepped into a sea of creeping caterpillars. Large green hornworms crawled everywhere across the desert floor.

Hornworms hatch as tiny non-descript caterpillars and continue to shed their skins and grow, trading up to ever larger sizes and brighter colors. They eat and expand until variances in light, moisture and temperature trigger a change. When this happens the caterpillars march in a mass dispersal like we witnessed last week. Reaching a suitable place with soft soil, the hornworms dig. Their grand miracle takes place as they lay underground.

A couple of weeks ago I found a hornworm inching along the floor of the greenhouse. This tomato hornworm was as big as my thumb and bright green, with stripes of white across his back like slashes of butter cream frosting. I put the caterpillar in an empty cottage cheese container and took it home.

At home I put leaves and sticks in a quart jar designed for seed sprouting, with a perforated plastic lid. I. added a trowel full of soil and then the hornworm. My caterpillar immediately started burrowing under the pile of soil in the jar. Within seconds he was invisible.

Flash forward twelve days. Marc and I are sitting outside after dinner watching bats swoop through the dusk. They’re snagging bugs that rise from the yard. The dog noses at the caterpillar jar on the table nearby. Something’s going on. I pick up the jar and see the large white-lined sphinx moth, clinging inside the lid. Metamorphosis!

It’s time for the changeling to fly free. Marc says take a picture, but it’s nearly dark and I want the moth to go, to be free. I unscrew the lid and the moth sails right out and up, into the darkening night.

Bam! She’s hit immediately, nabbed from the sky by a plummeting bat.

Sphinx moths are prime food for bats, an important source of nutrition for their fall migration. They have the ability to pick up on the echo location calls of hunting bats, and employ evasive moves. But this poor moth was tossed straight into the jaws of fate.

Made me feel like an ignoramus, unthinking of the life cycles and dramas going on around me. The doings of bugs seem a quaint reflection, nostalgic reminders of a time before we fell into the thrall of technology, before the world became quite so big and complicated. Yet, it is the cycles of insects and plants and that actually support our lives, not the latest and greatest devices.

Gardener Extraordinaire

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

I arrived at Desert Botanical Gardens about 6:15 pm. The evening air cast a cool grace over the gardens. I was there to soak up the wisdom offered by a genuine, true-blue gardener. Pam Perry put her hands in the soil with the intention to grow plants when she was just three years old. Years of observing the performance of different varieties of plants in different soils and microclimates grant life-long gardeners a feel for growing that’s hard to get from books.

Pam’s stayed closely tuned to her passion all these years. For her, varieties of plants have unique characteristics, even personalities. She describes the Rosa Bianca eggplant: “An elegant girl, nice to have in the garden, beautiful really, but be aware she might give you just four eggplants all season”.

Here is someone you would love to have at your elbow as you confront the big seed display at the nursery. Pam offered a perspective on the performance of crops depending on the type of seed purchased. Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been in cultivation from 50 years to more than 3,000 years. Hybrid seeds come from plants that have been carefully bred to be disease resistant and to produce in a short growing season. These plants are trialed all over the country to ensure reliability and vigor.

Seed producers market seed based on the moods of the time. In the twenties, carnations were a favorite flower for funerals, durable and uplifting with their spicy colors and scent. But carnations fell from favor when people began to associate the smell of the blooms with death. Even today carnations are bred to be odorless.

The class covered the secrets and tips to be found in the study of seed catalogs. Pam orders a number of favorite catalogs every year and lines them up to compare offerings for specific plants. Ordering in January allows her to get first dibs on what might be limited seed for popular or newly introduced novelty crops. We learned the ins and outs of saving seed from plants we grow in our own gardens, and how long they last with careful storage.

Seed libraries are sprouting up (sorry) all over the country, and in Phoenix the Permaculture Alliance offers heirloom seed for free, asking only that you save seed from a few of the plants you grow, to renew the library’s supply. Local seed exchanges can be found online.

Master Gardener Pam Perry manages the demonstration vegetable gardens and the native plantings around the Maricopa County Extension offices at 4341 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix. It’s worth the time to stop by and see what’s going on in the garden.

The Potential in a Single Seed

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

I’ve been working a lot with seeds lately. It’s my job at my new position with the Roosevelt School District. A seed is a miracle. Place a kernel under the soil, add moisture and warmth, and life bursts forth. The first sign of germination is an eruption from the soil, as the plant pushes toward that next requirement, sunlight.

In a similar birthing, a large greenhouse has appeared on the campus of the Brooks Community School in south Phoenix. When the Brooks School was closed due to low enrollment, the buildings and playgrounds sat empty and uncared for, an eyesore in this humble neighborhood.

Then a visionary from the district came along and planted a seed of hope on the campus. He proposed that the shuttered school be reopened as a community center populated with non-profits offering resources to the people. The seed packet for this harvest would read Community Revitalization and Sustainability.

Various organizations and community non-profits are already operating out of the Brooks School, providing benefits to the greater neighborhood, including parenting classes, a medical clinic, job training, motivational speakers, and community service and volunteer opportunities.

The large greenhouse crouching on land that once swarmed with kids on recess represents a window for students to peer through, an opportunity to learn about the production of food. Field trips to the greenhouse will highlight the sciences of hydroponics, aquaponics and vermiculture; showing vegetables growing in water, fish and prawns thriving in indoor tanks and worms digesting table scraps and paper to produce nitrogen rich fertilizer. These closed loop systems conserve resources while maximizing nutritional yields

Gathering these sustainability practices together under one roof will allow students to explore a range of urban food production. Plans are underway for more education opportunities on the land outside the greenhouse including butterfly and hummingbird gardens, raised beds and native plant landscaping.

Just a few generations ago, children commonly helped with chores in their family gardens. They were part of planting, harvesting and preserving food. Now most kids think food comes from grocery stores and restaurants. Bringing edible gardening into the school environment addresses this disconnect.

Right now the greenhouse is in disarray as everyone is working to get their growing operations up and running. By early October there will be more news to report. If this seed fulfills its potential, the plant is sure to bear fruit

Dragonflies Dazzle

Flame Skimmer is a dragonfly of the Southwest

Flame Skimmer is a dragonfly of the Southwest

Photo by Dave Biggs

Photo by Dave Biggs

In the summer months dragonflies hover about the watering holes of Arizona. They flit from rock to reed, all aglitter like jewel-encrusted brooches granted the gift of flight. Dragonflies are phenomenal fliers, among the fastest insects, and chase down their prey and grasp them with their long legs. The dragonfly is unique in that its front and hind wings beat in opposite directions. This allows him to move about with the agility of a tiny helicopter.

As children at Priest Lake in Idaho, we shared the shoreline with sparkling blue dragonflies. When we rested, sun-drowsy on floats in the water, dragonflies would light briefly on our wet skin. We didn’t scream and thrash, like we did when bees or spiders landed on us. We paused even our breathing and stared into the globelike eyes. The magical looking creatures seemed a manifestation of the sun, the water and the joys of summer.

The desert is home to some of the most spectacular dragonflies, from the six inch giant darner to the citrine forktail with a wing span of less than one inch. A dragonfly’s head is almost all eyes, and the insect can turn its head nearly 360 degrees as it scans its territory for prey or foes.

Dragonflies mate in mid-air, their arching thoraxes forming the shape of a heart as they link up. The female lays her eggs in the water – some attach to plants, others float beneath the surface.

The eggs hatch into non-descript nymphs. Flat and cryptic the creatures stay near the bottom of the lake or stream. Up to four years can pass while the nymphs live underwater, breathing through gills. They scoop up meals of fish, tadpoles and small invertebrates from the sandy bottom and from among the water plants.

Finally, in a dramatic transformation, the dragonfly pulls itself from the water and unfolds wings and crystalline colors. The air becomes its new medium. The adult life stage will last just two months and the dragonfly lives it up. Sun glints off his darting form as he engages in aerial battles for territories and chases down prey. He mates and provides for a new generation of his species. He epitomizes the glory of living for the moment.

Source: Carl Olson’s 50 Common Insects of the Southwest

Efficiency Unit

Copy of Downsized

Cozy Interior

Cozy Interior

A pioneer from the 1800’s built this cabin in Northern Idaho. What a testament to efficiency! I couldn’t stop smiling from the moment I laid eyes on it until the last picture was snapped.

I have to confess that I live in a home that’s over 3,000 square feet. Downsizing is definitely in order, but I never quite imagined paring things down to such an essential scale.

The early inhabitants of our land faced serious, even life threatening challenges, but how do those stack up against the cares and responsibilities that plague the lives of modern humans? Sure, the pioneers wore the same clothes every day, but don’t laundry chores become a drag? Think of the water we use to keep our extensive collections of clothing clean, not to mention dry cleaning solvents, bleaches, detergents and fabric softeners that taint the environment.

Actually, among the many tools and utensils of daily life placed economically about the cabin was an iron! Just because people were spartan does not mean they were unkempt. Another tool I noticed was a “travel sized” washing board resembling a cheese grater. Let’s not forget that modern life has saved us from some grisly chores.

The bed appeared harsh compared to my extra thick mattress with box spring and gel mattress pad (ahem), but how can we know how it felt to roll up in a luxurious bear skin and rest on a nice firm surface? After a day spent working hard in the fresh air it probably felt heavenly.

Maybe our elaborate indoor spaces became more important to us when we found ourselves walled off from the natural world, divorced from the soughing of wind in trees and water bubbling over smooth stones. Instead of tuning into seasons and the opportunities they bring to feed our families, we now watch the stock market, professional athletes and wars in countries we don’t understand. We pore over screens that light up our senses and connect us to a technological world, rich beyond measure in information and stimulation but poor in actual experience.

Just one hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors lived a hard life, but a real life, with challenges that required craft and intelligence and hard physical work. They were integrated with the environment around them. These are the genes we carry today, even as we inch our vehicles along crowded freeways and devote our energy to acquiring possessions and isolating ourselves from the elements. It’s hard to define where we’ve advanced and where we’ve lost ground.

Granite Creek Trib