Thirty Days in the Garden: Can You Spot the Imposter?

Weeds are imposters. They’re like a spy at a cocktail party, standing tall in their green suit, effortlessly blending in. To the untrained eye, they look like everyone else at the party.

They can’t fool this gardener. I’m a professional.

Not really, but as weeds go, I know things.

I’ve been uprooting the same half a dozen weed varieties in this garden for over twenty-five years. I know when they’ll appear in the garden, and I’ve learned ways to minimize them. Eradication, however, is futile. To garden is to weed.

Walkway to the right of the driveway, weeds running amok

I don’t mind weeding for the most part. I do it mainly by hand and at times find it therapeutic.

Walkway to the left of the driveway, more weeds

Oxalis, however, is a scourge. Oxalis grows along the walkway on both sides of the driveway. Dymondia grows between the paving stones. It’s described as “a dense mat that over time will choke out weeds.” Ha! The oxalis mocks me. It spreads its roots under the paving stones, then grows up through the dense planting. If flowers quickly, so if I don’t nip it in the bud, it quickly produces more weeds.

Weed-free Dymondia

Oxalis hides in other parts of the garden, but it’s easier to pluck when you can get at the roots. I have to be in a reasonable frame of mind to weed the walkway, knowing that the oxalis will live another day before I start.

Oxalis growing through the Dymondia.

Even the origin of this weed’s name sounds sinister:

Early 17th century via Latin from Greek, from Oxus ‘sour’ (because of its sharp-tasting leaves).

Lexico.com

Oxalis is native to North America. It grows in poor soil and needs very little water to survive. It flowers eight months of the year. It’s sounds like a garden darling if you’re fooled by this sort of thing.

Oxalis is easy to spot and remove when it grows elsewhere.

I know better. Yes, it’s a lovely green, but the oxalis has to go.

Thirty Days in the Garden: A Sweet Pea Update

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit obsessed with sweet peas. I look forward to them every year. These unassuming flowers have the ability to uplift. They’re sweetly scented and delicate, cast in soft colors and pale hues.

Here’s what the sweet peas looked like three weeks.

March 27, 2021

This is what they look like today. I’ve added stakes for climbing, just visible in this photo. In the past I’ve used a portable folding fence, but I prefer the look of these stakes. The stakes are designed for tomatoes, so they’re nice and sturdy.

April 19, 2021
April 19, 2021

I let the sweet peas go to seed every summer. They replant themselves in the fall, impervious to the cooler weather or the ocassional frost. They start flowering in March and fill the garden through May. Our summer heat is no match for these shade-loving sensations, so I enjoy them while I can.

Because they self-seed, I’m intrigued that the color variations don’t change. The flowers come back, year over year, in white, lavender, fuchsia, purple, and soft pink. As the last of the freesias fade, the scent of sweet peas takes over. I’ve cut a few of the flowers here and there, but I’ll soon have enough to start cutting small bouquets. It’s such an enjoyable task filling a small jar with wisps of green and scented sweet peas. I look forward to it every year.

2015: This watering can vase is 27 years old

I didn’t expect to see the sweet peas growing in the gravel this year as they’ve done in the past. Last summer we hired a handyman to rebuild the deteriorating planter box and at the same time replace the weed cloth under the gravel. The sweet peas are back, rooted in the small amount of soil deposited by the wind.

Sweet peas growing in shallow dirt and gravel

What an amazing plant!

Sweet!

Thirty Days in the Garden: Kalanchoe Thrysiflora

A couple of summers ago, I emptied one of the planting beds and filled it with succulents. I’m always looking for ways to save water. I’d never planted a Kalanchoe thrysiflora, so I didn’t know what to expect. I loved the saucer-sized leaves and the unusual growth pattern, so into the cart they went.

Succulents, July 2020

California just ended the second year of dry conditions. We’re not officially in a drought, but water rationing can’t be far off. I keep adapting. I used to buy annuals each summer and fill pots on the deck. I’ve now replanted all of my containers with succulents. They have the added benefit of growing slowly, so they don’t need translating for several years. That said, it’s time for several of my succulents to find a place to spread out. Pots can only take you so far.

Kalanchoe thrysiflora are informally called paddle plants or pancake plants. The leaves remind me of saucers, with slightly upturned edges and pretty trim.

I didn’t know that the plant would bolt after it flowered, so imagine my surprise when the Kalanchoe tripled in size. I had to stake the plant over the winter to keep it from toppling. The plants unique qualities are enchanting. I learned today that I can propagate more.

Gorgeous red and yellow leaves

Over the weekend I noticed tiny florets or offsets along the stem of the plants. These can be propagated as well according to gardening know-how, though I’ll need to read more on this technique. You can cut the leaves, allow them to scar, then plant. I’m not sure how to remove the offset, though I’m curious to try.

Flowers
Tiny offset on the mature plant

What do you think? Would you grow this unusual plant in your garden or a sunny window? I’m rather smitten.

Two-Faced Tessa in the Garden

Tessa came to live with us in the most round-about way. She stowed her wee self into the battery compartment of Mike’s Tessla. We’ll never know how she got there, and it was a production getting her out, but after that ordeal, she was here to stay. We were not in the market for a third cat and certainly not a kitten, but as John Lennon said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Tessa's portal

Tessa lounging in her kitty portal

Tessa turns three this May.  She’s affectionate when it suits her in the most endearing way. Our sweet tortie climbs on your chest and looks into your eyes, before tucking in her chin and producing a raspy, satisfied purr. We adore her!

Tessa near the rocks

Tessa near the rock wall

Tessa spends her time prowling the compost bin for rats, chasing squirrels and play-fighting with Mouse the Cat, aka, Bubba. He’s more than twice her age and close to double her weight, but they go at it like a pair of kittens.

Tessa in the garden

We call this “the look”

When Tessa first arrived, a steady stream of friends stopped by, intrigued by her unusual markings. Eventually, I created a Two-Faced Tessa The Cat Facebook Page and my son set up an account for her on Instagram as twofacedtessa.  My son attends university several hundred miles away so the updates naturally dwindled, but the pics he posted in the early years are delightful.

Tessa in the fruit tree

Tessa in the fruit tree

I hope her sweet face cheers you as you go about your day.

Tessa in the sun rear view

Tessa on her own terms

Here is a gallery of some of our favorite pics:

Pine Needles and Paper Wasps

Pine needles and paper wasps were not in the weekend plans.

We were just sitting down to dinner when one of our regular Little Free Library patrons knocked on the door. She’d mentioned once before that she thought she saw yellow jackets, a more aggressive type of wasp, on the top of our Little Free Library (LFL).

I inspected the library and the surrounding areas at the time and didn’t see any activity. Perhaps they were just passing through.

Little Free Library San Jose

Little Free Library, 2018

She spotted them again this weekend, hence the knock on the door. About a dozen wasps decided to hunker down on the roof of the LFL.

paper wasp cluster

Paper wasp cluster on roof of LFL

We had an unusually windy day, but the sun was warm. They gathered in a cluster, barely moving, perhaps enjoying the sun.  One or two flew out of the birdhouse portion of the library, but I had no way of seeing inside.

Our LFL is a work of art by artist Donna Pierre. I was reluctant to dismantle the birdhouse which is artfully attached to the larger library. That said, dozens of neighbors visit the library daily. I didn’t want anyone getting stung, least of all a small child.

After a brief debate on our plan of attack (ours, not the wasps) we trudged out to the garage in search of the auguring tool. Mike usually welcomes the chance to use his power tools, but it was the end of a busy weekend, after a week-long business trip to Mexico.

I said I would do it.

Mike shouted encouragement and Chris took pictures (because I’m a blogger after all) while I donned a heavy leather jacket and gloves, drill at the ready. I wore my son’s mosquito hood from his back-packing days in case they all flew out at once.  I drilled a large round hole in the back of the birdhouse, hoping they would fly out and be on their way. Once they exited, we could put a small screen over the front, return the removed piece from the back, and then call it a day.

As the augured piece fell into the birdhouse, imagine my surprise when a stream of ants came racing out of the birdhouse and down the back of the library. It was so unexpected.

ants

Ants swarm out of the back of the LFL

Mike produced a flashlight so we could look up into the birdhouse through the larger hole. There it was: a nest filled with grey, honeycomb-like cells, with a few ants dotting the nest. That birdhouse had to go, at least for now.

Paper wasp nest inside birdhouse of LFL

Mike pried a few supports loose and we gingerly inched what is now a nesting box, out of it’s home.

The gathered cluster of wasps sat undisturbed on the roof as I carried the nest to the back garden and hung it high in a tree.

So how do pine needles factor in the title? After all that activity I was a bundle of energy and nerves. As I mentioned, the winds were fierce, knocking pine needles from our roof and the neighbor’s tree. I raked and swept and gathered them into a pile, occasionally checking on the relocated nest. Eventually the adrenaline wore off and we called it a day.

I would like to say, “Problem solved” but the wasps are back. They’re sitting in the same spot on the library roof, even though the nest is no longer there. I’m relieved to know via my search that our wasps are the docile kind, but when I look out the window and see people flailing their arms, it’s a worry.

After researching here: The difference between a yellow jacket wasp and a paper wasp

I decided to post a couple of signs saying:

Our flying visitors are European Paper Wasps (non-aggressive) vs Yellow Jacket wasps (which are aggressive).  We relocated their nest, but a few of the adults are still hanging around.

These wasps are beneficial for the garden, which is probably why they are here.

If you’re concerned, please visit another Little Free Library in the neighborhood until they move along.

Thank you!  Alys, Little Free Library Steward

Yellow Jacket vs Paper Wasp

What, then, is the difference between a yellow jacket and a paper wasp?

When it comes to appearance, both look similar. Both are black with yellow bands. A paper wasp, however, has a longer body than a yellow jacket, which has a shorter and fatter body. If you look closely, a paper wasp also has an orange-tipped antennae while a yellow jacket does not.

A yellow jacket is more aggressive and can sting repeatedly, while a paper wasp only attacks when threatened. Both feed on garden insects, but a yellow jacket scavenges for food and even feeds on food found in the trash or on picnic tables. A paper wasp, on the other hand, feeds on pollen and nectar as well.

Moreover, a yellow jacket builds its covered nest underground or in hollows, while a paper wasp build its coverless nests in a tree, eaves or spouts.

Source: DifferenceGuru

The research I did for this post also solved a mystery. I’ve mentioned wasps in the past, and noted that they never bother me. They make paper nests in the eaves, come and go without a fuss, and of course they do wonders for the garden. Yellow jackets and paper wasps look nearly identical unless you view them up close.

What I thought was a “pass” from the yellow jackets for providing an appealing garden smorgasbord was mere smugness on my part. It turns out that our garden visitors are their more docile cousins. May it always be so.

My Garden at Dusk

garden at dusk as viewed from back door

View from my back door at dusk

Though our temperatures are unseasonably warm, the sun tells a different story.  The angle of the sun reminds me that it’s still winter. Dusk comes early in the garden.

It rained last night, a welcome bit of moisture in this otherwise dry month. It smells wonderful.

I’m spending half an hour a day in the garden, pulling tiny weeds and bits of leftover lawn. When we converted the lawn to native plants last fall, they offered to put a chemical in the soil to kill any remaining grass. I’m an organic gardener, so I declined. I’m only finding shoots of grass here and there so it’s been quite manageable. I sheet-mulched most of the back garden beforehand, eliminating most of the grass organically.

It feels great spending time in the garden. I’ve been sweeping up pine needles, dead-heading the Camellia and enjoying the clean air. I bring in half a dozen lemons each week for our morning lemon water, a wonderful new habit. The female Anna’s Hummingbirds are nesting nearby, which means long drinks at the feeder.  I love hearing them overhead as I work.

female anna's hummingbird at feeder

Female Anna’s Hummingbird at the Feeder

african iris

African Iris

fuschia plant

Loropetalum ‘Burgundy Fringe Flower’

new zealand flax with yellow flowers

These yellow flowers self-seeded under the New Zealand Flax.

plum blossums

Plum blossoms on the four-in-one fruit tree

pink William and Kate hyacinth

Pink Hyacinth ‘William and Kate’

Life is busy again now that I’m back to working with clients, so a lot of my garden time is catch as catch can. The time among the flowers and weeds feel like stolen moments but I don’t mind. Time in the garden is always a joy.

Two Flowers Standing

One by one, the sunflowers faded. There are now two flowers standing.

salvia and two sunflowers

Salvia flanked by two sunflowers

They look spent, but as long as the birds and squirrels keep coming, I don’t have the heart to pull them out. It’s been nice seeing the Salvia in all its glory after a summer spent in the sunflower’s shadow. The Salvia continues to bloom into late October. The bees and hummingbirds love the velvety purple flowers. Salvia thrives in dry conditions, making it the perfect drought tolerant plant.

salvia closeup

Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage)

I wasn’t sure if the tiny finches were still coming to eat sunflower leaves, but then I spotted one from the kitchen window.

finch eating leaf upside down

Goldfinch takes a bite

goldfinch eating sunflower leaf

I’ve got my eye on you

Squirrels are still climbing the trellis, looking for what remains of the seeds. They aren’t staying as long, so I’m guessing what’s left are empty seed shells. I’ll give it one more week.

squirrel stretching to reach sunflower

Checking out the seed supply

squirrel with aligned tail

I love his perfectly aligned tail

There is a lot to do this time of year, but it’s work I enjoy.

 

Our  Japanese Maple (Acer) is dropping a few leaves out back, but the Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) is still green. When it does turn, its glorious and one of the reasons we planted it nearly twenty years ago.

Over the weekend I pulled out the last of the tomatoes. I left several tomatoes behind to go to seed in place. I hope to repeat my luck next year: an all-volunteer crop of delicious heirloom Roma tomatoes.

tomato plant collage

The last of the tomatoes for the season, emptied box with basil in the corner, the drooping plant as it ends the season, a wheelbarrow full of plants, some kind of infestation just started at the base of the tomato plants

The basil is hanging in there and still making into a few meals each week. It looks lonely in the otherwise bare planting bed.

basil plant

Basil hanging in there, all alone in the box

Meanwhile, on the other side of the vegetable garden, the ‘pumpkin plant that ate New York’ is taking over. The leaves are as long as my arm now, with several small fruits at the soil line. Though the leaves, stems and flowers all looked like pumpkins, the fruit is a dark green. I’ve never seen anything like it.

late season pumpkin plant growth

Late-season, over-the-top, self-supporting pumpkin plant

Japanese anemones (hupehensis var. japonica) dominate the rock wall and frankly, grow like weeds. I’ve tried to thin them but they come back stronger than ever. They’re a lovely sea of white flowers and the last to bloom before winter.

Last week I picked up some flowering bulbs, a little wiser than I was in previous years. I’ll share more about that later in the week.

I hope your week is going well.

Japanese anemones (hupehensis var. japonica)

Japanese anemones (hupehensis var. japonica)

Japanese anemones up close

Japanese anemones up close