For my daughters and grandchildren

I’m here.

I’ve shown up.

This is my second time at a small writing group gathering to learn more about writing ones “Life Story” for their children and grandchildren.

What am I thinking?

What am I doing here?

I’m not a writer.

Who am I kidding?

What is driving me to try this? 

I don’t know!

Maybe I can start small, just a short essay, or another blog post.

If I practice, and practice, and practice, and put in my 10,000 hours, could I really become a writer?  I don’t even have a burning desire to write. But I enjoy recording the stories of my simple life observations.

There’s only one way to find out if I can write and that is to start, and then to stick with it.

My parents were actually told to not expect much from me by my high school English teacher, Mr. Bruce Robertson.  He even cautioned that they shouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t make it to college. More on that another time.

So, the next questions are what to write about? What do I love? 

Nature and solitude.

So I’ll start small and close to home.

My quarter acre retreat.

Morning often finds me taking 10 minutes, with my first cup of coffee, outside, observing my garden. 

You see, I’m a “dolphin”.

Oh, that’s my chronotype. Dolphins are rare. Let me transition here before I barely get started.

The dolphin chronotype describe me to a T. Dolphins have a hard time waking up. Stick with me here, we’ll get back out in the garden in a minute. 

The author of the book The Power of When, Dr. Michael Breus, writes about our chronotypes and recommends that dolphins get exposure to bright light to wake up. If you don’t know your chronotype, I recommend reading the book. You’ll learn more about how you are driven by your innate circadian rhythms. Anyway, this is why I’m in my garden observing nature at its finest.

It is an early fall morning. Not too early, but not mid-morning either.  The sun is rising but still low in the sky and the shadows are long as the morning rays strike my California fuchsia from a low eastern angle backlighting the reddish-orange tubular flowers making them appear iridescent. 

The critters that share my suburban community are already up and busy.

A single hummingbird visits the early sunlit red flowers. But only one hummer at a time. These tiny colorful birds are territorial and don’t like sharing.  Within a short period of time, another swoops in on the one feeding. A high-speed chase ensues. In a flash of color and wings, the two birds are gone. 

A few native bees and honey bees are already visiting the same bush. A honey bee lands on the throat of a flower with open anthers and a sticky stigma. It proceeds to climb, wiggle and pull itself into the flower. It disappears into the tube. If you look now, you’d never know there is a full-size honey bee down the tube. I wait for it. The flower begins to jiggle. I tiny bee butt starts to appear. First the black and white stripes, then two long bent golden legs. Finally, a fuzzy body, more legs, and a fuzzy head slide down the stamens. The bee takes flight to its next receptive flower, seeking its reward of a tiny bit of sweet nectar. Payment will be made in full as the bee leaves a bit of pollen behind to fertilize the flowers eggs deep within the bloom.

In the oak behind me, I hear the repetitive rhythmic call of a chick-a-dee. It is echoed by another off in the distance. The crescendo of birds near and far builds like a tuning orchestra. 

Simultaneously, I hear a rather loud and shrill scrapping sound. I had heard this exact same sound the other day.  When I investigated the source of the grinding and scraping, I found a squirrel sitting on the fence, with a 5-inch section of dry cow bone, like the kind one might buy for their dog. It appeared to be sharpening its teeth on the bone and with each gnawing, this odd bone rattling, tooth grinding sound emanated forth. I startled the squirrel that day and the bone fell into my yard.  How in the world did this small critter get this bone up onto the fence? The grinding commenced again this morning as I took another bite of my frittata.

A moment later, a familiar chase sound begins. I turn to look upward to see two common oak tree visitors. With their bushy tails flickering and tiny paws and toenails grabbing at the oak bark, another friendly backyard critter chase begins. The second critter chase of my morning.  The sound of the squirrels fast moving claws on the bark is almost like the tinkling of gently falling glass shards as the two playfully chase each other. The chase ends as fast as it started with a leap into the neighbor’s palm tree. A quick flutter of fronds, then nothing, just the gently barely perceptible cool morning breeze. 

The warmth of the new dawn on this fall morning begins to evaporate the minuscule amount of morning dew visible on solid surfaces. The dew is only slightly perceptible on the plants with tiny hairs. Native plants survive the long summer dryness in this Mediterranean climate of central California by having tiny leaf surface hairs which are capable of capturing the slightest amount of moisture from the air.

My chickens scratch the ground, rustling through recently fallen oak leaves. These first autumn leaves of the season drift downward to become food for the overwintering soil decomposers. 

There is a clanking sound as a tumbling acorn bounces off a solid surface on it’s way to the ground. The magic of that morning sun which heats up and expands a layer of cells in the stem of the acorn just enough for it to separate from its attachment point on the thin twig.

No signs yet of the blue belly or alligator lizards. Later in the day the butterflies and dragonflies will come to visit. The native chaparral sages will release their fresh scent as the day warms. 

I will remain blissfully ignorant of the billions of soil microbes, bacteria, fungi, and earthworms busy below my feet.

And then, my peaceful morning is interrupted by the squealing and grinding noise of a circular saw cutting a 2×4. My neighbor’s contractor has arrived. Pulled back to the reality of my day, it is time to start tackling the never-ending to-do list. The rising sun has done its job in so many ways. I’m feeling awake and ready to take on the day.

What a blessing to be able to start my day in nature. Eating my breakfast frittata and drinking my morning cup of coffee.

To my daughters and grandchildren: never stop pausing long enough to notice and love nature.

Comments and suggestions welcomed as I begin, continue and travel into and along this storytelling adventure

Allergies and oak pollen

If you have seasonal allergies to oak pollen, I would suggest you avoid central California, my yard or stay inside. I know this happens every spring but the coating of pollen seems extra thick this year.

Just a mere week or so ago we had rain and freezing temperatures. Then the temperature shot up to the 80’s the last few days and in the photos below you can see what coats my backyard bricks, tables and chairs. What’s even scarier is I cleaned the yard yesterday and wiped the tables down.

My pet hens are very happy to gobble up the pollen which is highly nutritious and will help color their yolks an even deeper orange.

How I replaced 3,000 square feet of lawn for FREE!

How did I removed 3,000 square feet of lawn, replace it with California native plants, expand my brick patio, add a fire pit area, convert a play structure to a grape arbor and add gravel paths and a creek bed all for FREE?

I had been thinking about removing my backyard lawn in 2013. California had now gone through a 3rd consecutive year of low rainfall. Water rationing was being discussed, again!  This was the third time since we’ve lived on this lot that California has had a “severe” drought and the water provider has either requested customers, “voluntarily”, drastically cut back on their water consumption (which translates as “let your lawn die”) or they’d implemented water rationing and increase rates. (Which would happen in 2015).

Pre-lawn removal and patio expansion.
Pre-lawn removal and patio expansion. Food forest garden anyone?

Before this most recent multi-year drought, I had been thinking of converting the yard into a food forest. Now that my children are adults and out of the home, why were we keeping a lawn and play structure? A  lawn that had become mostly Bermuda grass. I could make better use of my small plot of land by growing more food on it.

As I age I won’t want a garden that is as labor intensive as a lawn. Currently, I don’t have a gardener. I’m the gardener for this quarter acre lot. I hated the weekly work of mowing, edging, weeding and watering.  I disliked the need to be spending money on fertilizer and water. Essentially throwing money away to keep something looking nice because that’s what is expected. Having a big lawn that we didn’t have children playing on anymore just seemed stupid.

Narrow patio made it hard to entertain.

I still want a garden that I could enjoy when I would no longer be able to get up into the hills and hike to my favorite meadows, streams, chaparral and woodlands. Slowly the idea began to evolved that I should reduce my lawn, increase the hardscape for entertaining and put in plants that would still be of value yet require less maintenance. I could make my backyard my own campsite. My goal would be to provide a place for natives bees.

Some of the eclectic bricks found around are property.
Some of the eclectic bricks found around our property.

 

I wanted to use drought tolerant native California plants. I would include several sitting areas for enjoying the garden.  I wanted a slightly bigger patio and an area for a fire pit. I wanted to include some paths for garden access and interest.  I wanted to use up a collection of eclectic bricks that we’d collected over the years.  I wanted to reuse and recycle as much material as possible.

Preparing to solarize lawn area. Mowed, watered then covered with plastic.
Preparing to solarize lawn area. Mowed, watered then covered with plastic.

I had already started by mowing the lawn super short in the fall of 2013 (Ok, wrong time of year, but I didn’t want to wait until spring of 2014 to get started).

I used thick paint tarps to solarize lawn area.
I used thick paint tarps to solarize lawn area.

 

 

 

 

I watered it well, then covered it in plastic to solarize the soil. I was hoping we’d still have enough warm days to start the process. I wanted to do this step because I suspected there may be lots of weed seeds in the soil and this is a chemical free way of killing some of those seeds before germination without using pre-emergents which can be harmful to the natural soil biota.

Lush, water loving expanse of front lawn.
Lush, water loving expanse of front lawn.

By 2014 our water district offered a rebate based on square footage of lawn removed. We were now in the 4th year of this “great drought”.  The time was right.  Get rid of the entire lawn.  I was going to do this! Though I wasn’t sure I’d apply for the rebate.

Armed with a tape measure, some graph paper and a can of spray paint, I started planning out my lawn-less garden.

I would need to start on the hardscape first.  In the spring of 2014 I hired a friend of a  friend who did stone and mason work.  He was willing to work with my ideas and use the material that I had on hand.  We expanded the brick patio by just 3 feet and incorporated a 13 foot circular area for our old fire pit.

Installation of circular fire pit area
Installation of circular fire pit area

Incredibly, with a creative design, we could move and use existing patio bricks and my collection of old bricks and not have to buy any new bricks for the expanded patio.  I would buy bricks for the fir pit area.  That brickwork hardscape was completed late spring 2014.

Old brick accent, new fire pit area, expanded patio.
Old brick accent, new fire pit area, expanded patio.

By summer of 2014 I had researched sheet mulching and attended a seminar on the topic.  More and more people were starting to think along the same lines of how to reduce long term water needs.  It was mentioned at this seminar that the local water utility still had funding for lawn removal projects but would run out of funds by the end of the year.

I decided to apply for the rebate program early fall of 2014. My site would be evaluated before and after work was done.  Uh, oh! I had already started my work of removing the lawn and had completed the hardscape. My proposal and graph paper plans were accepted and approved. Now for my first inspection.  Turned out they were so overwhelmed with people applying for the rebates that they wouldn’t be able to get out for several weeks to verify that my lawn existed.  I was going to go forward with this project regardless.  I communicated to them that I was sheet mulching in September and had already completed the brick work. I had to get started so that I could get my native plants in by winter.  They didn’t have the staffing to get out to my site and ended up relying on satellite images and Google Street View from the previous spring to verify that I did indeed have 3,000 square feet of lawn at that time. I qualified for funding.

Front lawn area covered in purchased rolls of cardboard.

In September of 2014, I did sheet mulch the front and back lawns.  I had saved and collected as much free cardboard as I could. Clearly, it was going to take way more cardboard then I could acquire. In the seminar a supplier was mentioned for purchasing huge rolls of cardboard. I drove to Richmond with my van and filled it with these giant rolls of cardboard.

FREE mulch (I would get multiple deliveries of free mulch.)

 

 

 

I contacted local tree services and found several that would deliver shredded mulch for free.  It was fall and they were busy pruning customers trees in the area. It saves them time and gas to dump a load of fresh mulch locally in someones driveway.

Backyard sheet mulching
Backyard sheet mulching

By the first of October both the front and back lawns had been completely covered by sheet mulching.   I had already purchased my first set of plants from the UC Botanical Garden fall plant sale and I desperately wanted to get them in.

Bee (Bee'r) Garden Coming Soon
Bee (Bee’r) Garden Coming Soon

In the meantime, I put a sign in the front to explain to my neighbors that a “Bee Garden” would be coming soon. My husband had some different ideas.

By the end of the year, I had gotten my first foundation plants in. I started with tiny plants, most came in 1”-2” diameter tubes, some in 4” pots and a few in 1 gallon size pots.

California native plants purchased.
California native plants purchased.

 

Nothing larger then 1 gallon size was purchased. This kept the cost down. Small plants take to transplanting better then larger ones.

I did most of the labor myself. I had hired the mason for the brick work and had some helpers to work with me to lay the cardboard and move the mulch.

Front sheet mulched and ready for native plants.

I had done it. The lawn was gone! Now it was time to wait for spring. My rebate came in around early 2015. It more then covered all my receipts and labor for the project. Which could only mean one thing, come fall of 2015, I could buy more plants.

Spring 2016 is now around the corner. Most of the plants have had a year to establish their root systems. Most, though not all of the plants, survived another dry year. I hand watered the natives about twice a month to carry them through the hot, dry summer of 2015. We’ve had to date, an almost normal winter rainfall. A welcomed relief after 5 dry years. But, we’ve now had a VERY dry February. The drought is far from over. We’ll need several normal rainfall years or above normal rainfalls to recover from this drought if we do recover at all. This maybe the new normal for California. Regardless, I think I made the right decision to remove 3,000 square feet of lawn.

I’m excited to see how the garden does this spring. I was amazed and please by how much these itty bitty natives plants did grow in that first spring. I even began to see an unexpected diversity of critters of all kinds visiting the garden. But, this will be the year I think my garden will really bloom.

What 3 feet buys. 5 months - May 2015
What 3 feet buys. 5 months – May 2015
Backyard - 6 months after planting. June 2015
Backyard – 6 months after planting. June 2015

 

Backyard birding

Don’t see why you have to get up so early and drive so far to photograph birds. This landed on my backyard neighbors roof around 9 AM while we were enjoying coffee and pancakes in our warm dry house.

Roof top bird - we think it is a juvenile blue heron.
Roof top bird – we think it is a juvenile blue heron.